Is Alan Greenspan underpaid?

If you look at what different central bankers earn, Alan Greenspan is way down on the list with his $172,000 a year. Is the Finnish central banker really worth more money?

The deeper question is whether we need to pay American central bankers more. How many of you have heard of Matti Vanhala? Well, he is the Finnish central banker. Greenspan earns a greater fame (and power) return. The head of the Hong Kong central bank makes over a million dollars a year. High public sector salaries are useful for limiting corruption, but this is not an obvious danger in the case of the American Fed. The head of the New York Fed makes $315,000, almost twice what Greenspan does, but how many of you could produce the name of Bill McDonough at the drop of a hat?

Virtual economies

What does it mean to have property rights and prices in the virtual world of computer games? Did you know that you can buy a “virtual sword” on ebay? Did you know that the male avatars sell for more than the female avatars, despite having the same capabilities? What are virtual economies all about? Read this article, fascinating but sometimes incoherent as well, for a take on these new developments.

Even the Christians Can’t Agree

Lew Rockwell complains that the version of the Ten Commandments that Alabama Judge Moore chose for his 5,300 pound monument is “a sectarian one promoted by Calvinist and fundamentalist Protestants, but rejected by Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians. (The difference has to do with whether the first commandment should be split into two parts to seem to justify iconoclasm.)”

The Right argues that the first amendment is all about defending atheism when, as Rockwell’s comment illustrates, it’s really about defending the religionists from themselves.

China’s trade deficit

“While China is running a large ($100 bn in 2002) bilateral trade surplus with the US, its trade balance with the rest of the world is in deficit, at $75 bn.” From today’s Financial Times (registration required), Morris Goldstein and Nicholas Lardy argue that only a modest revaluation of the renminbi [yuan] is needed.

Japan is the biggest source of China’s trade deficit, so clearly a high-wage country can have a trade surplus with China, are you listening trade protectionists?

How high are transportation costs?

“Cities, Regions and the Decline of Transport Costs”, a 2003 working paper by Edward Glaeser and Janet Kohlhase, provides stimulating reading. They build a model, overturning standard location theory, under the assumption that transportation costs are zero.

Does that sound crazy? They estimate that for machinery, electrical equipment, and transportation equipment, transportation costs are no more than 1.2 percent of the value of the product. 36 percent of all shipments, measured by value, fall into this cost category. Transportation costs for goods have been falling for a long time, and will continue to fall.

It is moving human beings that is expensive, not moving goods. Traffic congestion is an increasing problem. It is now less important to live near natural resources, and more important to live in good weather and under good government. Plus people want to live near other people, leading to greater population concentration in SMSAs. But within metropolitan areas, people are dispersing themselves more, they want to be close but not too close. Don’t buy real estate in Duluth (once a vitally important port) is, I think, the final lesson.

A contradiction in my (previous) views

I used to (i.e., last week) believe the following two claims:

1) Taking the government policies of country A as constant, more trading opportunities with country B will make country A better off.

2) International competition will force countries to improve their economic policies, otherwise they will be “left behind.”

I know many classical liberals who believe both propositions, as did I. But it is not so easy to square the circle. If 2) is true, that must mean that if country A faces greater international competition, and does not improve its economic policies, it must be worse off (admittedly the phrase “left behind” is vague, but what else could it mean?). Which means that 1) cannot be true as stated.

You might argue for a different version of 2): “2a) International competition will force countries to improve their economic policies, competition benefits the citizens no matter what, but it will starve the government of revenue, presumably because of resource mobility.”

But 2a), while possible, is a funny claim. If the citizens are better off, you might think that gdp is higher, and thus you might think that tax revenue is higher as well. Rising standards of living tend to produce rising tax revenue. You could spin a scenario where capital flight, combined with goods reimportation, raises living standards while lowering tax revenue, but it will be hard to find this empirically.

Alternatively, you might argue for a better version of 1): “1a) More trading opportunities are good for country A, in part because they force country A to improve its economic policies.” This will work, but it is a weaker argument for free trade for country A than we are used to.

So what gives? I suggest two adjustments. First, free trade can sometimes make country A worse off, even if it benefits countries A and B in the aggregate. Second, international competition may motivate countries to make reforms by threatening a loss of relative international status, but it won’t make the citizens in country A worse off in most plausible cases. My views are thus revised.

Larry Summers in The New York Times

The New York Times Magazine from today (registration required) has a good article on Larry Summers as President of Harvard. His bracing manner, and willingness to engage in frank debate, is more popular with students than with faculty. He wants a world where an ignorance of scientific knowledge is as embarrassing as ignorance of a Shakespeare play. He thinks knowledge of literature is more important than a knowledge of the latest in literary theory. He is still thinking about whether affirmative action is a good idea, he would like to see more facts. Some parts of Harvard, including some of the sciences, appear to be moving to Allston and out of Cambridge. Most of all, he is willing to make enemies to be an effective leader.

The Harvard Crimson discusses whether Larry is a secret conservative. Slate gives a useful and analytical biography. And here is a piece on how Summers likes to ask tough questions of his faculty.

How different is Canada?

I’ve been enjoying Globalization and the Meaning of Canadian Life, by William Watson. His main point is that globalization does not prevent countries from increasing the size of their governments, if they choose to.

As late as 1958, the U.S. and Canada had similar percentages for government spending and taxes. Canada then increased its size of government, although the two countries moved economically much closer over the same period of time.

The book is full of interesting facts, although they do not always fit together into the same picture. What are the ten most generous states or provinces in terms of welfare benefits, in the U.S. or Canada (p.146, note that the book is from 1997)? Surprise, all ten are in the U.S. They include New York and California, hardly small parts of the country. If you are curious, Quebec comes in at number 38 on the entire list. The author argues that Canadians are not always as different from Americans as they like to think.

The Lunar Men

I highly recommend Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men. In the 1770s, Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestly and others met regularly under the light of the full moon to talk science. The Lunar Men is their biography. It’s the sort of biography where you learn much about other things. I found interesting discussions of private road and canal building (Wedgwood was a big supporter because some 30% of his pottery would break on the public roads), private coinage (Boulton ran a mint using the steam engines he and Watt had developed to press the coins), and the first industrial health and sickness insurance plans. Rousseau had an important influence on the group and makes an appearance as does Benjamin Franklin and many other figures of the day.

Erasmus Darwin was an especially colorful genius who wrote what were in essence biology textbooks set to verse! In this stanza (from The Temple of Nature) he discusses evolution long before his grandson was born:

Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves

Was born and nurs’d in Ocean’s pearly caves;

First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,

Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;

These, as successive generations bloom,

New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;

Whence countless groups of vegetation spring

And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.