Category: Law

The Zoning Straight-Jacket

In a new paper, Robert Ellickson makes a simple but important point: local land-use zoning freezes land use into place preventing land from moving from low-value to high-value uses even over many decades.

Recall the neighborhood where you spent your childhood. For most Americans, it would have been a neighborhood of detached single-family houses.My thesis in this Article is simple: if you were to visit that same neighborhood decades from now, it would remain virtually unchanged. One reason is economic: structures typically are built to last. But a second reason, and my focus here, is the impact of law. The politics of local zoning, a form of public land use regulation that has become ubiquitous in the United States during the past century, almost invariably works to freeze land uses in a neighborhood of houses.

…The zoning strait-jacket binds a large majority of urban land in the United States. Los Angeles and Chicago, two of the nation’s densest central cities, permit the building of only a detached house on, respectively, 75% and 79% of the areas they zone for residential use. In suburban areas, the percentage typically is far higher. In a companion study of zoning practices of thirty-seven suburbs in Silicon Valley, Greater New Haven, and Greater Austin, I found that, in the aggregate, these municipalities had set aside 91% of their residentially zoned land (71% of their total land area) exclusively for detached houses.

…Absent overly strict regulation, suppliers of goods in a market economy are able to adapt to changes in supply and demand conditions. The freezing of land uses in a broad swath of urban America prevents housing developers from responding to changes in consumer tastes about where and how to live.

I’m in India and they have similar problem, except in India it’s agricultural land that is frozen in place and made difficult to transform to new uses (in the process depriving farmers of the true value of one of their only assets and creating opportunities for regulatory arbitrage that politically-connected special interests exploit by buying at the farm price, obtaining approvals to convert that other cannot obtain and then selling at the much higher post-conversion price.)

Freezing agricultural land in place seems backward because ubanization is clearly India’s future but it’s no less backward than what has happened in the United States. In both cases, an important right in the land bundle was expropriated and collectivized and the market process of creative destruction impeded.

What is the best way to tax food?

We analyze how a sales tax levied on all food products impacts the consumption of healthy food, unhealthy food, and obesity. The sales tax can stimulate the consumption of healthy meals by lowering the time costs of food preparation. Moreover, the sales tax lowers obesity under more general conditions than a tax on unhealthy food (fat tax) and a subsidy on healthy food (thin subsidy). We calibrate the model using recent consumption and time use data from the US. The thin subsidy is counterproductive and increases weight. While both the sales tax and the fat tax mitigate obesity, the former imposes a lower excess burden on consumers.

It seems that if you try to tax fat directly, individuals can readily substitutes into other foodstuffs that are bad for them, or bad for their weight.  If you place a sales tax on food in general, individuals substitute into eating more at home, and there the food is healthier in the first place and furthermore the time-intensiveness of production will limit the number of dishes prepared and thus quantity and in turn obesity.

Here is the article by Zarko Kalamov, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Pigouvian in-kind time horn tax in Mumbai

For the Mumbai’s perpetual honkers, who love to blare the horns of their vehicles even when the traffic signal is red, the Mumbai Traffic Police has quietly come up with an unique initiative to discipline them in order to curb the alarming rise in the noise pollution levels in the country’s commercial capital.

From Friday (January 31, 2020), it has installed decibel meters at certain select but heavy traffic signals to deter the habitual honkers through a campaign named ‘The Punishing Signal’.

Joint Police Commissioner (Traffic) Madhukar Pandey said that the decibel monitors are connected to traffic signals around the island city, and when the cacophony exceeds the dangerous 85-decibel mark due to needless honking, the signal timer resets, entailing a double waiting time for all vehicles.

Here is the full story, and for the pointers I thank Sheel Mohnot and CL.  Here is a relevant ad for the policy.  Here is Alex on honking as signaling.

The economist as scapegoat

Russ Roberts defends Milton Friedman (and many others, implicitly), excerpt:

What about spending for public schools? Has that been reduced in this allegedly draconian neoliberal era?

In 1960, per pupil expenditure for elementary and high school students was just under $4000. In 1980, when the neoliberal ideology allegedly began its ascendance, it was a little less than $8000. The latest numbers from 2015–2016 are just under $15,000. All numbers are corrected for inflation (in 2017–2018 dollars). So under this time of alleged cutbacks and resource starvation, per pupil expenditures rose dramatically.

What about transportation infrastructure? Total spending is up in real terms. What about as a percentage of GDP? There has been a decline since 1962 as a percentage of GDP but the numbers are basically flat since 1980…

What about investment in non-defense research and development, and health? Up dramatically since 1980 in real terms.

There is much more at the link, including excellent visuals.

Toward a more general theory of task complexity

That is a theme running throughout my latest Bloomberg column, here are some excerpts:

Why so many of America’s best and brightest college graduates go into management consulting, finance or law school is a perennial question. There are some compelling theories, which I will get to, but first I would like to turn the question around: Why are so many people in top positions, whether in the public or private sector, so old?

I submit that these two trends — and a third, declining productivity growth — are related: Many tasks have become increasingly complex in America, often more complex than people can learn in just a few years. By the time you have experience enough to perform them, you are less interested in taking risks. In your young adventurous years, by contrast, the only jobs you can get are those that don’t reward (or allow) adventure. The result of all this is a less audacious America.


…the smart graduates of America’s top universities will seek relatively thick, liquid job markets, with high upside but also protection on the downside. Management consulting is perfect. If you are intelligent and hard-working, you can signal that quickly, and the entry-level tasks are sufficiently anodyne that few very specific skills are required. These jobs are designed to attract talent, so the consulting companies have an eventual option on promoting the best candidates. The same is true of law and the less quantitative parts of finance.

In the short term, this system seems to work for everyone. If you don’t like those vocations after a few years of trying, you still have elite connections and credentials that you can take somewhere else.

On net, America is selling its talented young people insurance value — but at the expense of long-term innovation. It might be better for the country if more of these individuals started businesses, tried their hand at chemistry or materials science, or worked in obscure corners of manufacturing in the Midwest. Of course, rates of failure or stagnation are higher in those areas, while glamour is often lower. Who wants to work on mastering a complex task for 10 or 15 years, with no real guarantee of commercial success?


The slower rates of growth in scientific progress are part of this picture. Older scientists are more likely to be in charge, but they also make fewer conceptual breakthroughs. Younger scientists are more temperamentally inclined to be revolutionaries, but that is hard when it may take you until your late 20s just to learn the basics of your field. Most areas are too complex for a 23-year-old to make new scientific advances, no matter how brilliant he or she may be.

Tech of course is an exception.  And please do note that de-bureaucratization could do a great deal to lower this task complexity, while other parts of it are inescapable — I didn’t have the space for that point in the column but will return to it and what might be done.  Finally, I thank a number of people who contributed ideas and examples to my argument.

The vaccine makers have solved for the equilibrium

GSK has made a corporate decision that while it wants to help in public health emergencies, it cannot continue to do so in the way it has in the past. Sanofi Pasteur has said its attempt to respond to Zika has served only to mar the company’s reputation. Merck has said while it is committed to getting its Ebola vaccine across the finish line it will not try to develop a vaccine that protects against other strains of Ebola and the related Marburg virus.

Drug makers “have very clearly articulated that … the current way of approaching this — to call them during an emergency and demand that they do this and that they reallocate resources, disrupt their daily operations in order to respond to these events — is completely unsustainable,” said Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI, an organization set up after the Ebola crisis to fund early-stage development of vaccines to protect against emerging disease threats.

Hatchett and others who plan for disease emergencies worry that, without the involvement of these types of companies, there will be no emergency response vaccines.

Here is more from Helen Branswell, you can follow her on Twitter here on the evolving coronavirus situation, she is maybe the single best follow on that topic?

My chat with Brendan Fitzgerald Wallace

He interviewed me, here is his description: “My conversation with economist, author & podcaster Tyler Cowen covering everything from: 1) Buying Land on Mars (for real) 2) Privatizing National Parks 3) Setting up aerial highways in the sky for drone delivery 4) Buying Greenland 5) London post Brexit 6) Universal Basic Income 7) Why Los Angeles is “probably the best city in North America” 8) How real estate can combat social isolation & loneliness 9) Cyber attacks on real estate assets and national security implications. 10) The impacts, positive and negative of Climate Change, on real estate in different geographies. 11) Other esoteric stuff…..”.

Here is the conversation, held in Marina del Rey at a Fifth Wall event.

Model this East German crime

Following the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, the number of births halved in East Germany. These cohorts became markedly more likely to be arrested as they grew up in reunified Germany. This is observed for both genders and all offence types.

Here is the full article by Arnauld Chevalier and Olivier Marie, the authors seem to think the reunification event selects for risky parents, are there other possible explanations?

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Woke terrorists what about plastic straws?

Terrorist group al Shabaab has banned single-use plastic bags.

The Somali militant Islamist group, which has links to al Qaeda, has long had an interest in environmental issues.

It made the official announcement on Radio Andalus, which is operated by al Shabaab.

Jubaland regional leader Mohammad Abu Abdullah said the group had come to the decision due to the “serious” threat posed by plastic bags to both humans and livestock.

He added that pollution caused by plastic was damaging to the environment.

In the same announcement, the group said it has banned the logging of rare trees.

Details of how the eco-friendly bans would be enforced were not shared with listeners.

Here is the link.

The economics of pandemic preparation

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one short excerpt:

…most of the vaccine-making capacity against a new virus would be concentrated in a few multinationals, and much of that activity occurs outside the U.S. If a pandemic were to become truly serious, politics might intervene and prevent the export of doses of the vaccine, no matter what the price.

The economic case for free trade is entirely sound. But here is one case where the U.S. government should take the initiative to support a domestic vaccine industry — because that trade is unlikely ever to be free.

And if you think the market will provide the solution, consider that potential suppliers may fear being hit with price caps, IP confiscations, or other after-the-fact “takings” by the U.S. government. So it is important to think now about how to create the right structures for the eventual creation of treatments and cures.

In the meantime, wash your hands!  Nonetheless, so far the smart money still ought to bet that this one will evolve into less virulent forms, and it already seems that a disproportionate number of the people dying are quite old.

What to make of the new U.S.-China trade deal?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The U.S. has established its seriousness as a counterweight to China, something lacking since it largely overlooked China’s various territorial encroachments in the 2010s. Whether in economics or foreign policy, China now can expect the U.S. to push back — a very different calculus. At a time when there is tension in North Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea, that is potentially a significant gain.

…Currently the U.S. is working hard to keep Huawei equipment out of the forthcoming 5G networks in many countries. (Imagine letting the KGB run the American phone network in say 1980, and you can see what is at stake here.) For that campaign to succeed, even partially, the U.S. needs some credible threats of punishment, such as withholding intelligence or even defense protection from allies. The course of the trade war has made those threats more plausible. If you are Germany, and you see that the U.S. has been willing to confront the economic and military power of China directly, you will think twice about letting Huawei into your network.

A third set of possible benefits relates to the internal power dynamics in the Chinese Communist Party. For all the talk of his growing power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has not been having a good year. The situation in Hong Kong remains volatile, the election in Taiwan did not go the way the Chinese leadership had hoped, and now the trade war with America has ended, or perhaps more accurately paused, in ways that could limit China’s future expansion and international leverage. This trade deal takes Xi down a notch, not only because it imposes a lot of requirements on China, such as buying American goods, but because it shows China is susceptible to foreign threats.

The U.S. still is keeping $360 billion of tariffs on Chinese goods, hardly a propitious sign that China made a great bargain. There is even speculation that China will not report the full deal to its citizens…

It is a common argument that being tough with other countries strengthens the hard-liners in those countries. But in China the hard-liners had been growing in power and influence anyway. This trade war, and the resulting first phase of a trade deal, shows there is a cost to China for being so hard-line.

Do read the whole thing, and note that we still should be agnostic.  Nonetheless extreme TDS is preventing people from thinking rationally about this one, and thus I view my column as a correction to most of what you are seeing in MSM.

Damir Marusic and Aaron Sibarium interview me for *The American Interest*

It was far-ranging, here is the opening bit:

Damir Marusic for TAI: Tyler, thanks so much for joining us today. One of the themes we’re trying to grapple with here at the magazine is the perception that liberal democratic capitalism is in some kind of crisis. Is there a crisis?

TC: Crisis, what does that word mean? There’s been a crisis my whole lifetime.


TC: I think addiction is an underrated issue. It’s stressed in Homer’s Odyssey and in Plato, it’s one of the classic problems of public order—yet we’ve been treating it like some little tiny annoyance, when in fact it’s a central problem for the liberal order.


AS: What about co-determination?

TC: There are too many people with the right to say no in America as it is. We need to get things done speedier, with fewer obstacles that create veto points. So no, I don’t favor that.


AS: John Maynard Keynes.

TC: I suppose underrated. He was a polymath. Polymaths tend to be underrated, and Keynes was a phenomenal writer. I’m not a Keynesian on macroeconomics, but when you read him, it’s so fresh and startling and just fantastic. So I’d say underrated.


AS: Slavoj Zizek, the quirky communist philosopher you debated recently.

TC: Way underrated. I had breakfast with Zizek before my dialogue with him, and he’s one of the 10 people I’ve met who knows the most and can command it. Now that said, he speaks in code and he’s kind of “crazy,” and his style irritates many people because he never answers any question directly. You get his Hegelian whatever. He has his partisans who are awful, but ordinary intellectuals don’t notice him and he’s pretty phenomenal actually. So I’d say very underrated.

Here is the full interview, a podcast version is coming too.

Are the ex-royals good enough for Canada?

For example, many of the ways to get permanent residency in Canada require applicants to have specialized skills or high levels of education. Prince Harry trained as a military officer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, but he does not have a university degree, which lawyers said would be a major stumbling block for him.

“I doubt very much they would apply for permanent residency,” said Sergio R. Karas, an immigration lawyer in Toronto. “That would not be a good option for them.”

From the sound of the NYT article by Ian Austen, they will likely enter as “visitors,” a status for which they do not need additional authoritzation.

The best available fix for real wage stagnation

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

In other words, the frontier areas for overcoming wage stagnation are several-fold. First is a greater freedom to build, so that housing supply can rise and prices can fall. That also would enable more upward mobility by easing moves to America’s more productive (but also more expensive) regions. Second are steps to lower the cost of medical care through greater competition and price transparency. Third, American higher education is hardly at its optimum point of efficiency, innovation and affordability.

If those sectors displayed some of the dynamism and innovativeness of that marks America’s tech sector, the combination of declining prices and rising quality could give living standards a boost. And since rent, health care and tuition tend to be higher shares of the incomes of poorer people, those changes would help poorer people the most.

Think of it as a rooftops piece, combined with a discussion of why wages actually have seen slow growth as of late.