Category: Law

They solved for the equilibrium, China equilibrium of the day

China will be less severe with its smog curbs this winter as it grapples with slower economic growth and a trade war with the United States, according to a government plan released on Thursday.

Instead of imposing blanket bans on industrial production in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area as it did last winter, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment said it would let steel plants continue production as long as their emissions met standards.

Targets for overall emissions cuts have also been revised down. In the next six months, 28 cities in northern China are required to cut levels of PM2.5 – the tiny airborne particles that are most harmful to human health – by about 3 per cent from a year ago.

That is less than the 5 per cent cut proposed in an initial plan seen by the South China Morning Post last month.

Meanwhile, the new plan stipulates that the number of days of severe air pollution should be reduced by about 3 per cent, also revised down from 5 per cent in last month’s draft.

Here is more from Orange Wang at SCMP.  As I am sure you all know, air pollution (and I don’t just mean carbon emissions) is one of the great underrated problems in the world today.  The trade war with China is making it worse.

Is it better to have more corporations?

A reduction in the corporate income tax burden encourages adoption of the C corporation legal form, which reduces capital constraints on firms. Improved capital reallocation increases overall productive efficiency in the economy and therefore expands the labor market. Relative to the benchmark economy, a corporate income tax cut can reduce the non-employment rate by up to 7 percent.

That is from the new AEJ: Macroeconomics, by Daphne Chen, Shi Qi, and Don Schlagenhauf.

The Kavanaugh saga from afar

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

There is an asymmetry between male and female perceptions.

Most men are not abusers, yet very large numbers of women have been abused. So if a man is an abuser, there is a good chance he has abused a fair number of women.

That means many well-meaning men experience sexual abuse as a relatively rare phenomenon. They haven’t done it, and most of their male friends haven’t either. At the same time, most women have abuse, rape or #MeToo stories, and they experience these phenomena as relatively common and often life-altering. Probably they also have heard multiple such stories from their female friends. This structural asymmetry of perspectives is crucial to understanding the discourse and the often fundamental differences in opinion.

Our criminal justice system isn’t very good.

Whether you think Kavanaugh is innocent or guilty, we can all agree there are large numbers of intelligent people on both sides of the debate, and even after a week of intense national scrutiny there is no resolution. The reality is that ordinary accused people, who are basically presumed guilty by the criminal justice system, don’t receive very fair judgments. And if Kavanaugh is innocent, might we hope that this experience will make him more sympathetic to the plight of the unjustly imprisoned and accused?

But perhaps now we can move on to talking about the renegotiation of the trade agreement formerly known as NAFTA

That was then, this is now

Negotiations for the preliminary agreement would be conducted under a new process, which the State Department, employing classic bureaucratic jargon, called “the selective nuclear-multilateral approach.”  In preliminary discussions held in July 1945, the Canadians had proposed this method of negotiations led by a small group of influential nations — which effectively became the model for multilateral trade negotiations for the remainder of the twentieth century — as a compromise between the strictly bilateral approach, which had been favored politically by FDR and Cordell Hull, and the broader multilateral approach the British insisted upon.  The Americans believed they were constricted by the requirements of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act specifically, and by political realities in Congress more generally, to negotiating bilaterally on select tariffs on an item-by-item basis.

That is from the new and highly useful and still under-discussed book The Wealth of a Nation: A History of Trade Politics in America, by C. Donald Johnson, Oxford University Press.  I am happy to second Doug Irwin’s blurb: “This splendid book covers the politics of American trade policy from the country’s beginnings through Trump.  Johnson provides a great overview of a fascinating subject.”

The Liberal Radicalism Mechanism for Producing Public Goods

The mechanism for producing public goods in Buterin, Hitzig, and Weyl’s, Liberal Radicalism is quite amazing and a quantum leap in public-goods mechanism-design not seen since the Vickrey-Clarke-Groves mechanism of the 1970s. In this post, I want to illustrate the mechanism using a very simple example. Let’s imagine that there are two individuals and a public good available in quantity, g. The two individuals value the public good according to U1(g)=70 g – (g^2)/2 and U2(g)=40 g – g^2. Those utility functions mean that the public good has diminishing utility for each individual as shown by the figure at right. The public good can be produced at MC=80.

Now let’s solve for the private and socially optimal public good provision in the ordinary way. For the private optimum each  individual will want to set the MB of contributing to g equal to the marginal cost. Taking the derivative of the utility functions we get MB1=70-g and MB2= 40 – 2g (users of Syverson, Levitt & Goolsbee may recognize this public good problem). Notice that for both individuals, MB<MC, so without coordination, private provision doesn’t even get off the ground.

What’s the socially optimal level of provision? Since g is a public good we sum the two marginal benefit curves and set the sum equal to the MC, namely 110 – 3 g = 80 which solves to g=10. The situation is illustrated in the figure at left.

We were able to compute the optimum level of the public good because we knew each individual’s utility function. In the real world each individual’s utility function is private information. Thus, to reach the social optimum we must solve two problems. The information problem and the free rider problem. The information problem is that no one knows the optimal quantity of the public good. The free rider problem is that no one is willing to pay for the public good. These two problems are related but they are not the same. My Dominant Assurance Contract, for example, works on solving the free rider problem assuming we know the optimal quantity of the public good (e.g. we can usually calculate how big a bridge or dam we need.) The LR mechanism in contrast solves the information problem but it requires that a third party such as the government or a private benefactor “tops up” private contributions in a special way.

The topping up function is the key to the LR mechanism. In this two person, one public good example the topping up function is:

Where c1 is the amount that individual one chooses to contribute to the public good and c2 is the amount that individual two chooses to contribute to the public good. In other words, the public benefactor says “you decide how much to contribute and I will top up to amount g” (it can be shown that (g>c1+c2)).

Now let’s solve for the private optimum using the mechanism. To do so return to the utility functions U1(g)=70 g – (g^2)/2 and U2(g)=40 g – g^2 but substitute for g with the topping up function and then take the derivative of U1 with respect to c1 and set equal to the marginal cost of the public good and similarly for U2. Notice that we are implicitly assuming that the government can use lump sum taxation to fund any difference between g and c1+c2 or that projects are fairly small with respect to total government funding so that it makes sense for individuals to ignore any effect of their choices on the benefactor’s purse–these assumptions seem fairly innocuous–Buterin, Hitzig, and Weyl discuss at greater length.

Notice that we are solving for the optimal contributions to the public good exactly as before–each individual is maximizing their own selfish utility–only now taking into account the top-up function. Taking the derivatives and setting equal to the MC produces two equations with two unknowns which we need to solve simultaneously:

These equations are solved at c1== 45/8 and c2== 5/8. Recall that the privately optimal contributions without the top-up function were 0 and 0 so we have certainly improved over that. But wait, there’s more! How much g is produced when the contribution levels are c1== 45/8 and c2== 5/8? Substituting these values for c1 and c2 into the top-up function we find that g=10, the socially optimal amount!

In equilibrium, individual 1 contributes 45/8 to the public good, individual 2 contributes 5/8 and the remainder,15/4, is contributed by the government. But recall that the government had no idea going in what the optimal amount of the public good was. The government used the contribution levels under the top-up mechanism as a signal to decide how much of the public good to produce and almost magically the top-up function is such that citizens will voluntarily contribute exactly the amount that correctly signals how much society as a whole values the public good. Amazing!

Naturally there are a few issues. The optimal solution is a Nash equilibrium which may not be easy to find as everyone must take into account everyone else’s actions to reach equilibrium (an iterative process may help). The mechanism is also potentially vulnerable to collusion. We need to test this mechanism in the lab and in the field. Nevertheless, this is a notable contribution to the theory of public goods and to applied mechanism design.

Hat tip: Discussion with Tyler, Robin, Andrew, Ank and Garett Jones who also has notes on the mechanism.

My Conversation with Bruno Maçães

Here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:

Political scientist Bruno Maçães has built a career out of crossing the globe teaching, advising, writing, and talking to people. His recent book, born out of a six-month journey across Eurasia, is one of Tyler’s favorites.

So how does it feel to face Tyler’s rat-a-tat curiosity about your life’s work? For Bruno, the experience was “like you are a politician under attack and your portfolio is the whole of physical and metaphysical reality.”

Read on to discover how well Bruno defended that expansive portfolio, including what’s missing from liberalism, Obama’s conceptual foreign policy mistake, what economists are most wrong about, how to fall in love with Djibouti, stagnation in Europe, the diversity of Central Asia, Hitchcock’s perfect movie, China as an ever-growing global force, the book everyone under 25 should read, the creativity of Washington, D.C versus Silicon Valley, and more.

Here is one bit:

MAÇÃES: This raises deep philosophical questions and political questions. If you want Turkey to become like Europe, then you have to project European power across Turkey. If Europe no longer has that ability, then you shouldn’t be surprised that Turkey looks elsewhere.

It’s very simple. I think I say in the book that in order to be loved, you also have to be feared. This idea that you find in Europe now, that without projecting any kind of power, other countries will be attracted to the European model, that’s a form of utopianism. I just cannot see that happen.

COWEN: So Europe lacks the spirit of adventure.

MAÇÃES: That is certainly the case. I think you see that. One of the areas where the spirit of adventure today is more relevant and important is technology. You see in Europe the idea that technology’s against us, and we should resist this rather than embrace it. A very negative spirit, which I think is a good example of how adventure has disappeared from the European psyche.

And:

COWEN: Russia. Why is Russia as a world power currently underrated?

MAÇÃES: The most impressive thing about Russia is, in fact, something that you might not think at first: the power of organization. We have this image of Russia as a failed state in many respects.

But in order to keep that empire, in order to keep it together throughout the centuries, in order to develop it to some extent, in order to bring together so many ethnicities, so many religions . . . it’s fair to say that Russia has done a better job of integrating its Muslim population, which is close to 15 percent, than any other country, I would argue — certainly any other major country.

The power of the Russian state, the ability to organize, to dispose, to connect, is one of the great political stories of mankind — to see how the Russian state was able to grow and to extend itself. And that’s still there.

Original and highly recommended.  Again, here is Bruno’s book The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order.

Do moving and making big decisions tend to happen together?

We use exogenously determined, long-distance relocations of U.S. Army soldiers to investigate the impact of moving on marriage. We find that marriage rates increase sharply around the time of a move in an event study analysis. Reduced form exposure analysis reveals that an additional move over a five year period increases the likelihood of marriage by 14 percent. Moves increase childbearing by a similar magnitude, suggesting that marriages induced by a move are formed with long-term intentions. These findings are consistent with a model where the marriage decision is costly and relocation lowers the costs to making this decision. Our results have implications for understanding how people make major life decisions such as marriage, as well as the cost of migration.

That is from a new paper by Susan Payne Carter and Abigail Wozniak.  It’s as if the move jolts you out of complacency and activates your long-term planning modules.  Here are some bits from the paper, as assembled by an MR reader:

– …marriage rates rise sharply shortly before and in the first two months after a move.
– Additional moves encourage marriage, raising the likelihood of marriage and of having children present as dependents.
– The likelihood of marrying prior to five years of Army service rises by 8 percentage points with an additional domestic move, representing an increase of 14 percent from the mean marriage rate.
– We first considered a model in which relocation likely requires investment in thinking about long-term plans that may simultaneously lower the cost of considering other types of long-term commitments, like marriage.
– This suggests that the decision to marry may be affected by other events requiring long-term planning. This in turn implies that a disruptive event, like a relocation, may actually strengthen family ties rather than strain them.

For the pointers I thank two MR readers.

Reihan Salam on the immigration crisis

Here is Reihan in the WSJ (good photos!):

…we need to recognize that the immigration debate isn’t really about immigrants. In truth, it’s about the children of immigrants.

…Like it or not, we are a country with an implicit social contract. If we welcome you in as part of the flock, we also welcome your offspring. In past eras, high immigration levels were matched by high native birthrates. The end result was that, even if immigrants had large families, these second-generation youth were greatly outnumbered by the descendants of the native-born. Investing in the next generation meant investing in the children of immigrants, yes, but also in the children of natives, who, by virtue of their numbers, would set the cultural tone.

Collapsing native birthrates have changed the picture, setting off a cultural panic among the likes of Rep. Steve King, the Iowa congressman who infamously tweeted, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

Here is Reihan’s new book Melting Pot or Civil War?: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders.  Here is Katie’s sketch of my blurb:

Out today, and definitely recommended!

The forthcoming Chinese charter city?

From Bloomberg BusinessWeek:

The government intends to ring-fence Port City from Sri Lanka’s legal system to facilitate currency movement and create favorable tax and investment incentives. Harsha de Silva, a state minister who once campaigned against the project but is now one of its most vocal supporters, is involved in drafting the separate legal structure. “This must be a top-10 city for doing business in the world,” he says. “Otherwise, what’s the point?” Sri Lanka is currently ranked 111 out of 190 nations on the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business index.

And here is the take on one of the nearby port projects:

Today, Hambantota handles about one ship a day, not enough to make it commercially viable, and wild elephants regularly breach the perimeter fencing. At a nearby airport, which CCCC also helped build during Rajapaksa’s administration, the only commercial flight was canceled in June because of frequent peacock strikes and low demand.

Is it fair to call all this a “hegemon charter city“?

The three kinds of charter cities

First, there is the minimal charter city.  During a cruise ship vacation, everyone lives under cruise ship law.  This works fine, and is easy to start up, but it also has limited applicability.  No one has to make a big cultural shift, as long as they don’t get too drunk while playing shuffleboard out on the deck.

Second, there is hegemon-backed charter city.  The British empire ran Hong Kong, and the mainland United States (partially) has run Puerto Rico and earlier managed the Panama Canal Zone.  By definition, a hegemon is required to enforce the law in the external jurisdiction, and of course such hegemons may be scarce, unwilling, or their rule may be oppressive or counterproductive.  Portuguese rule over Goa was not a major success, nor was British rule over India more generally.  European extraterritoriality in China proper was an imperialist disaster.  One problem is that exporting legal systems without exporting their cultural preconditions can lead to failure.

Third, some charter cities are based on the idea of a complementary exported culture.  Singapore did in fact absorb many parts of British culture and law, and some parts of Western mores; it now feels like the most Western part of Asia.  The partial export of Western law and culture has been extremely successful, and the role of culture here means there is strong indigenous support, within Singapore, for Singapore being the Singapore we all know and love.  These are the charter cities that work best, but they are also the hardest to pull off.

You can think of the original charter city idea as postulating law as a non-rival public good.  Why not just spread the best laws to more jurisdictions?  But does spreading the law without the underlying culture suffice?  You can think of the three kinds of charter cities, as mentioned above, as varying responses to this problem.

And spreading culture does not seem to be a public good at all, rather it involves a lot of hard work and it often fails or backfires.

This blog post is drawn from a talk I gave in San Francisco at an inaugural conference for Mark Lutter’s new Center for Innovative Governance.

Revolving Door Patent Examiners

The revolving door between government and private industry creates opportunities for regulatory capture. Dick Cheney’s moves between Secretary of Defense, CEO of Halliburton and Vice-President certainly raised eyebrows. Secretaries of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, Hank Paulson and Steve Mnuchin were all former bankers at Goldman Sachs. Former members of Congress who become lobbyists are common as are bureaucrats and congressional staffers who turn to lobbying on behalf of the industries they previously regulated. At the same time, it seems desirable that government should be able to draw from top notch people in the private sector and it’s not surprising that private sector firms would want to hire people with government experience. It’s unfortunate (in my view) that government is so entwined with the private sector but that is inevitable in a mixed economy. Nevertheless, it would be useful if we had more data and less anecdote when it comes to the revolving door.

In a new and impressive paper (summary here), Haris Tabakovic and Thomas Wollmann take a detailed look at this issue using patent examiners. Using data on over 1 million patent decisions they find that examiners grant significant more patents to firms that later hire them.

It’s possible that examiners want to work for firms that have high quality patents but several considerations suggest that this is not the explanation for the correlation between grant probability and firm hiring. First, the firms doing the hiring are law firms that handle patent applications. We are not talking about USPTO examiners all wanting to work for Google.

Second, in a very clever analysis the authors show that USPTO examiners who leave for the private sector tend to go to a city near their college alma mater. Moreover, examiners who leave are more likely to approve patents to firms located their alma mater (even when these firms subsequently do not hire them). In other words, it looks as if (on the margin) patent examiners are more generous to firms that they might want to subsequently work for because they are located in places desirable to them. Patent examiners who do not leave do not show a similar bias which removes a home-city boosterism effect. All of these effects are after taking into account examiner fixed effects–so it’s not that examiners who leave are different on average it’s that examiners who leave act differently when firms are located in regions that are potentially desirable to those examiners.

Finally, the authors show that patent quality, as measured by future citations, is lower for patents granted to firms that later hire the examiner or to firms in the same city who are granted patents by the examiner (i.e. to firm-patents the examiner might have given a pass to in order to curry favor). The authors also find some evidence in the patents themselves. Namely, patents that are grant to subsequent employers tend to have claims that are shorter (i.e. stronger) because fewer words were added during the claims process.

The policy implications are less clear. Waiting periods are crude–in other contexts we call these non-compete clauses and most people don’t like them. Note also that these relationships appear to be driven by norms rather than explicit bargaining. USPTO examiners are paid substantially less than their private sector substitutes and that nearly always seems like a bad idea. Paying examiners more would reduce the incentive to rotate.

What is land for Georgist purposes?

Matthew Prewitt wrote this interesting piece “Reimagining Property: A Philosophical Look at Harberger Taxation.”  As he defines a Harberger tax, you report the value of your property, pay a tax on that amount, but if you under-report the value someone can buy the property from you at that price.  The goal is to encourage turnover of assets, rather than hoarding of assets.  Prewitt writes:

Recall that in a world where the natural and artificial components of capital were magically unmixed, we might impose a Harberger tax near the turnover rate on natural capital, and a Harberger tax near zero on artificial capital. But, recognizing that we do not live in such an ideal world, Posner and Weyl propose to set HT rates at varying percentages of the turnover rate for different assets, depending on those assets’ investment elasticities. That is, assets whose value increases more readily with investment should generally enjoy lower HT relative to their turnover rate, to facilitate investment.

…artificial capital is value that emerges in response to incentives

As time passes, artificial capital starts to resemble natural capital.

Think of a new boat, built yesterday. Now think of the Parthenon. The labor that made the boat can and should be rewarded. It makes sense for the spoils of boat ownership to accrue to its builder. But the labor that made the Parthenon has dissolved into the mists of time. There is no sense rewarding it. We simply find the building in our environment, like an ocean, a mountain, or a nickel deposit. Whoever possess it deserves an incentive for its upkeep, but not a reward for its existence. Any profits from Parthenon ownership ought to be distributed broadly, and not end up in any particular pocket. Thus, unlike the new boat, the Parthenon ought to be treated like natural capital. Yet it is the product of human labor; when erected, it was the very epitome of artificial capital.

Of course there is a decay function in how we treat rights in intellectual property, and this argument suggests there should be a decay function for rights in physical capital as well.  After some point in time, that physical capital becomes Georgist land, and thus subject to the efficiencies of the land tax, not to mention possible Harberger taxation.

Prewitt’s conclusion is:

  • artificial capital should have a Harberger tax rate near zero
  • natural capital should have a Harberger tax near the turnover rate
  • artificial capital becomes more like natural capital as more time passes and/or it changes hands more times

More generally, as I suggested about five years ago, the forthcoming fights will be about the taxation of wealth not income.

I wonder, however, if this one shouldn’t be argued in the opposite direction.  Let’s say excellence is under-rewarded.  If a structure or capital expenditure lasts for a long period of time, maybe that is strongly positive selection and it deserves a subsidy?  For one thing, such structures are likely to be iconic brands of a kind, with strong option value and the costs of irreversibility if we let them perish or fall into disrepair.  The example of the Parthenon is a useful one, because in fact the monument is endangered by air pollution, and arguably it should receive a larger subsidy for protection, whether for intrinsic reasons or for its economic contribution to Greek tourism.

For the pointer I thank David S.

The EU “link tax” has been resurrected

And here is commentary from Ben Thompson:

This is why the so-called “link tax” is doomed to failure — indeed, it has already failed every time it has been attempted. Google, which makes no direct revenue from Google News, will simply stop serving Google News to the EU, or dramatically curtail what it displays, and the only entities that will be harmed — other than EU consumers — are the publications that get traffic from Google News. Again, that is exactly what happened previously.

There is another way to understand the extent to which this proposal is a naked attempt to work against natural market forces: Google’s search engine respects a site’s robot.txt file, wherein a publisher can exclude their site from the company’s index. Were it truly the case that Google was profiting unfairly from the hard word of publishers, then publishers have a readily-accessible tool to make them stop. And yet they don’t, because the reality is that while publishers need Google (and Facebook), that need is not reciprocated. To that end, the only way to characterize money that might flow from Google and Facebook (or a €10-million-in-revenue-generating Stratechery) to publishers is as a redistribution tax, enforced by those that hold the guns.

Here is the full post, excellent as always.

A Win for Justice

Congratulations to the Institute for Justice for an important victory against the abuse of civil asset forfeiture:

Today, the Institute for Justice dismantled one of the nation’s largest and most egregious civil forfeiture programs.  For decades, Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine terrorized its citizens:  throwing them out of their homes without notice, seizing their cars and other property, and forcing victims to navigate a rigged kangaroo court system to have any chance of getting their property back.  And the property and money forfeited was then given to the very officials who were supposed to be fairly enforcing the law.
After four long years of litigation, IJ cemented a victory for all Philadelphians this morning with two binding consent decrees in which city officials agreed to reforms that:
    1.  Sharply limit when Philadelphia law enforcement can forfeit property;
    2.  Prevent law enforcement from keeping what they seize;
    3.  Establish robust protections for the due process rights of citizens; and
    4.  Create a $3 million fund to compensate innocent people who were ensnared by the city’s abusive system.
My paper, To Serve and Collect (with Makowsky and Stratmann) suggests that this victory will not only reduce civil asset forfeiture it will also change police behavior and decision-making, altering the number, type, and racial composition of arrests.

Tax salience and the new Trump tariffs

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one excerpt:

…tariffs distort consumer decisions more than sales taxes do. It may well be true that consumers don’t notice tariffs as such. But they respond by buying less, lowering their well-being and also possibly lowering GDP and employment.

It gets worse yet. President Donald Trump’s tariffs typically are applied to intermediate goods coming from China, such as circuit boards and LCD screens. The end result is more expensive computers at the retail level. But most consumers see only the higher price for computers. They probably don’t know which intermediate goods Trump put the tariffs on, and for that matter many U.S. consumers probably don’t even know what circuit boards are, much less where they come from.

The end result is that the tariffs are somewhat invisible, or at least they are invisible as tariffs. It’s highly unlikely there will be mass protests against a 10 percent tariff on circuit boards. No one will get “circuit board tariff charge” bill in the mail, as they might with their property taxes, and unlike gasoline, people don’t buy computers very often.

Most generally, it can be said that the new Trump policy makes the high prices salient, but the underlying tariffs not very salient at all. This is the worst possible scenario. The higher prices will reduce consumption and output, yet the invisibility of the tariffs will limit voter pushback.

Do read the whole thing.