Category: Economics

One man’s vice…

Here is a new blog devoted to the economics of public policy for the vices, namely the regulation of drugs, gambling, and prostitution, see vicesquad.blogspot.com. I am reading a bit in here, but overall the perspective rings sympathetic toward various methods of legalization or decriminalization. Click here if you wish to read about the attempt of Los Angeles to ban lap dancing.

Here is the blogmeister’s self-description: “My name is Jim Leitzel and I am an economist and co-chair of the public policy concentration in the undergraduate college at the University of Chicago. For the past five years I have taught a course on vice policy, and I have recently started to write a secondary text for the class.”

Thanks for Peter Boettke for the pointer.

Why executives should be paid more than they deserve

If workers are paid their marginal product its difficult to understand why some CEOs are paid such high wages. But think of the CEO’s wage as a prize. Valuable prizes make everyone else work hard in order to become the CEO. With this model, the tournament model (JSTOR) of Lazear and Rosen, it may even make sense that CEO wages go up as profits go down. After all, shouldn’t prizes be set highest when motivation is most required? No doubt, some will see this argument as more proof that economists are just shills for the capitalist class.

What have we learned about income distribution?

I’ve been reading the new book The New Geography of Global Income Inequality, by sociologist Glenn Firebaugh. The data work is intensive, here are a few things I have learned:

1. Knowing what country an individual lives in explains about 70 percent of the observed variation in income across individuals (p.11).

2. If we could magically eliminate all income inequality within nations, the world’s total income inequality would shrink by at most one-third. Most of the relevant inequality is across different nations (p.11).

3. Global income inequality is falling, contrary to what many critics charge (pp.17-18). So the world’s poor are catching up to the world’s rich (p.18), on average.

4. Most poor countries are not catching up, most of all Africa. The world’s poor are catching up, on average, once we weight countries by population. The growth of China, and to a lesser extent, India, has driven the improved prospects of the poor and the decline in cross-nation inequality (passim).

5. If we compare the United States to Western Europe, there is considerably less inequality within the United States.

As you might surmise, I found this book to be excellent and highly instructive. It reads more like an extended article than a book, but nonetheless it delivers on the substance.

Addendum: Daniel Drezner offers some interesting remarks, with links, on Paul Krugman’s recent writings on inequality.

Subsequent addendum/clarification: Firebaugh (p.193) writes: “average income is much more unequal across nations in Western Europe than across states in the United States.” He does not (and could not) argue that “within a single nation equality” is less in Europe. Here are Gini coefficients for the various European nations and the United States.

The Eric Rasmusen controversy

Eric Rasmusen of Indiana University has long been well-known as an excellent microeconomist. I taught from his Games and Information for many years, I still have his article “Stock Banks and Mutual Banks” on my Industrial Organization reading list.

Lately Rasmusen has been the center of much controversy. Usually I like to summarize the links I use, however briefly. But in this case I am not sure how to explain events without offending anybody, I know Rasmusen a bit plus I have numerous gay friends. So just read here on the episode. Here is Rasmusen’s frequently interesting blog. Here are Rasmusen’s views on religion. Thanks to Eugene Volokh for the Chicago Tribune link.

Will Bush back away from steel tariffs?

President Bush has received two mid-term reports, critical of his decision to implement steel tariffs, here is a relevant International Trade Commission link. The tariffs are not only bad economics, but it seems, bad politics as well. Steel price increases appear to have cut out some jobs in the potential swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. And most of Bush’s economic advisors opposed the tariffs from the beginning. The Washington Post account (see the above link) suggests that the Bush Administration is likely to nix the tariffs:

“The only reason they won’t do it is if they’re unwilling to admit they made a mistake,” said a Republican strategist who works closely with the White House.

An alternative account from The New York Times (registration required) implies that the matter is less settled. Even the Post notes that giving up on the tariffs would be a significant loss of face for Karl Rove, their initial backer. Either way, this issue is likely to prove an embarrassment to the Bush reelection campaign.

NY Times Wrong on Iraqi Gun Ownership

In March, Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times asserted that guns were easy and legal to obtain in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The NRA has long argued that guns are a bulwark against the police state so Slate’s Timothy Noah challenged the NRA to explain “how Iraq got to be, and remains, one of the world’s most repressive police states when just about everyone is packing heat.” Noah later rejected reader explanations of this apparent paradox, including the possibility that MacFarquhar was wrong, and “reluctantly” concluded that private gun ownership is not a bulwark against a police state.

Today, however, John Tierney of the New York Times reports that “Mr. Hussein, never one to tolerate competition, forbade private citizens to carry weapons, effectively outlawing the security industry.”

Clearly, the New York Times is wrong. But where does the truth lie?

The trade deficit and the dollar

America has had persisting trade deficits, so some economists think the dollar is due for a big plunge. The magazine The Economist cites some commentators as suggesting a 40 percent decline against the Euro. Read the commentary of Brad DeLong, who resists making such a prediction himself. See Brad’s longer and more detailed discussion, where he raises the possibility that capital inflow into the U.S. will slow down and the dollar will plummet. He tells us that the whole process has gone on far longer than he would have expected, but again he stops short of offering his own prediction. He wonders when foreign investors will start worrying about the risk of a huge dollar depreciation.

I am more optimistic than the doomsayers (N.B.: I do not read Brad as belonging to this group, though perhaps he is flirting with the idea of joining), in part because I think that strong growth and productivity, which currently appear to be in the cards, can avoid or postpone a “day of reckoning” of this kind. America is simply a good place to invest, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The dollar did decline by over 50 percent in the 1980s, against major currencies, but at that time high dollar values were more obviously a speculative bubble in the first place.

The Economics of Child Labor

No, not paper routes or roadside car washes, this is about the tough stuff, like Moroccan children in carpet factories. 186 million children, between the ages of 5 and 14, perform illegal child labor. 111 million of these jobs involve hazardous work. Kaushik Basu offers his analysis and observations in the latest issue of Scientific American.

Obviously wealth is the best cure for hazardous and oppressive child labor. By the latter part of the 19th century, child labor was declining in the richer nations.

Basu notes that many anti-child labor campaigns backfire. A 1990s boycott of Nepalese carpets, made with child labor, led many of those children to become reemployed as prostitutes. Boycotts are ineffective when the available alternatives are worse. Anti-child labor regulations can backfire for another reason as well. Many children work simply to help their families achieve a threshold level of income, such as subsistence. The lower the wage that the children earn (think of the regulations as lowering the net returns from child labor), the more they will need to work to reach that threshold.

We learn also that history matters. Adults who worked as children are more likely to send their children out to work, even after adjusting for income.

Basu is skeptical of many interventions but he does not recommend laissez-faire. He argues that there are “multiple equilibria,” and that government can move an economy, in the right stage of development, from one equilibrium to another. The more children that work, the lower the overall level of wages, and the lower the stigma from sending one’s child out to work. Basu argues you can “tip” an economy into considerably less child labor. If you can cut out a big chunk of child labor, wages rise, making child labor for many other families less necessary. The stigma attached to child labor rises as well, and fewer people will send their children out to work. Once an economy is moving away from child labor, the process can happen quite rapidly.

The stigma of bankruptcy

According to one estimate, between 15 and 17 percent of all households in the United States could benefit financially from filing bankruptcy. Only about one-tenth of them do so. I learned this from The Two-Income Trap (reviewed by me immediately below). The book draws on the research of Michelle J. White, here is her on-line summary of her work. This also suggests that current bankruptcy law is unsustainable in the long run, here is one of many calls for reform.

Why does the middle class feel so poor?

I’ve just read The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers & Fathers are Going Broke, by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi. This book has received a good deal of popular press.

Having children is a big part of the financial burden, Americans have been spending less on appliances, food, and clothing. Housing prices are the real killer, especially if the family has children. Good schools and safety are becoming increasingly hard to buy. In real terms, families with children paid 79 percent more for housing, comparing 1983 to 1998.

Having just overpaid for a house, to put my stepdaughter into a good school district, I can sympathize with this argument. But I don’t understand the core logic as a more general claim. The authors claim that this financial predicament is affecting very large numbers of middle class Americans. At the same time we are told that good schools are increasingly hard to come by. Which is it? If there are a small number of homes with good schools, not too many people can be overpaying. If there are a large number of such homes, good schools cannot be that scarce, and the bidding war should not be so fierce.

I nonetheless recommend the book to stimulate your thoughts. It also argues for anti-usury laws, claiming that debt-ridden families will make rash decisions and overborrow at excess rates. You might recall Adam Smith made a similar claim over two centuries ago.

Iraq and the Marshall Plan

According to some estimates, we will spend $20 billion on Iraqi infrastructure over the next year, half of Iraqi gdp (don’t take Iraqi gdp statistics too seriously!). Andrew Sullivan has been asking how our assistance to Iraq compares to the Marshall Plan of postwar Europe. Here are some answers, drawn from a 1985 piece I wrote “The Marshall Plan: Myths and Realities,” click here for an on-line summary, the piece appeared in Doug Bandow’s U.S. Aid to the Developing World.

The Marshall Plan did not ever exceed 5 percent of the gross national product of the recipient nations. In the case of Germany, note that we were taking more out of Germany, in the forms of reparations and occupation cost reimbursements (11 to 15 percent of West German gnp), than we were ever putting in. Then throughout the mid-1950s, Bonn repaid half of the aid it had received. Note that German economic recovery followed from liberalization and reforms, which predated Marshall Plan aid.

In 1949-50, our Marshall Plan aid to France was roughly equivalent to French military expenditures abroad in Indochina and North Africa.

Of the European nations, arguably Belgium recovered from World War II most rapidly, and this happened before Marshall Plan aid kicked in.

At the end of World War II, the Austrian economy was one of the most desperate in Europe. Austria received high per capita aid sums, but the economy stagnated. Austria later recovered, when it improved its monetary and fiscal policies. Marshall Plan supporter Franz Nemschak wrote: “The radical cuts in foreign aid in the last year of the Marshall Plan and the stabilization tendencies in the world economy forced Austria to make a basic change in economic policy.” Greece received high per capita aid as well, but had a poor recovery.

The lesson for Iraq?: Simply spending money won’t get us there. See these Rand Corporation figures, showing that per capita aid does not correlate obviously with the eventual success of a reconstruction. The key question is whether the Iraqis can build healthy institutions. Walking away is not the answer, but don’t feel good just because you see more money being spent.

Addendum: I have scanned the whole essay and put it on-line.

The power of quality certification

Consumer Reports has become so influential among car shoppers that some automakers now send preproduction cars to the magazine’s test engineers for suggested changes before the vehicles hit showrooms.”

At least forty percent of car buyers consult Consumer Reports for information about their forthcoming purchase, at least sixty percent of minivan buyers. The company refuses to accept advertising from automakers. Suzuki and Isuzu have sued the magazine for making false statements and “product disparagement.” For the full story, click here.