Congestion pricing is not just slanted toward the elite

From Luz Lazo at The Washington Post:

The average user [of the optional toll lanes] is younger than 45 and has a household income of less than $100,000 a year, according to a new survey.

About 60 percent of the frequent users said they have household incomes of less than $100,000, and a similar share have a bachelor’s degree or higher. About one-third of those users said they don’t mind the tolls because their employers pick up the bill, according to the survey.

And this:

They are loyal Amazon customers who get a package from the online retailer at least once a month.

“They don’t mind paying a fee for convenience services and similarly don’t mind paying for tolls,” Bell said.

Congestion pricing in the D.C. area has been a major success.  And many of its benefits are overlooked.  Consider me, a relatively well-educated and high-income user of the roads.  After a few years, I still can’t figure out how to use the new Beltway lanes, and when they let me get off where I want to, or not.  So I have never used them once.  Still, they clear the rest of the road for me.

Sunday assorted links

1. Do earthquakes make people more religious?

2. Interview with Yan Lianke.

3. Why are books so long right now? (contra common claims about the shortening of attention spans, I would sooner say the variance of attention spans has gone up).

4. Alone with Elizabeth Bishop.

5. “John McDonnell said Labour would set up Public Ownership Unit in the finance ministry “immediately” on entering government, and that in some cases investors might not be compensated.”  Link here.

6. Which tech tools do you need for travel? (NYT)  I would add to the list an eye mask and a reliable, very portable umbrella.

How to have a good conversation

Here is an excerpt from Tim Herrra in the NYT, under the title “Three [sic] Tips to Have Better Conversations“:

To be a true conversation superstar, try these tips:

  • Be attentive and give eye contact.

  • Make active and engaged expressions.

  • Repeat back what you’ve heard, and follow up with questions.

  • If you notice something you want to say, don’t say it. Challenge it and go back to listening.

  • For bonus points, wait an hour to bring up that thing you didn’t say earlier.

And keep in mind that when you say something declarative, seek out the other person’s opinion as well.

Those seem mostly wrong to me, and perhaps better targeted at the median USA Today reader who has to make small talk at a company picnic.  I would suggest some slightly different tips, admittedly not for everyone in all situations:

1. Set up the conversational premise so you, and the other person, have easy outs, if it is not a good match.

2. Don’t assume the conversation will last an hour.  Rapidly signal what kind of conversation you are good at, if anything going overboard in the preferred direction, again to establish whether the proper conversational match is in place.

3. If you notice something you want to say, say it.

4. Be worthy of a good conversation.

Rinse and repeat.  I would stress the basic point that most conversations are bad, so your proper goal is to make them worse (so they can end) rather than better.

What is conversation for anyway?  I don’t even recommend being charming, or trying to be charming, unless a work situation is forcing you to do so.  Let yourself be sullen when the mood beckons.  Feel free to let eye contact lapse.  Don’t repeat back what you’ve heard.  Say something surprising.  Be willing to go meta.  Most of all, try to establish a “we actually can have a more genuine conversation than we thought was going to be possible” level of understanding, taking whatever chances are needed to get to that higher level of discourse.

By the way, do not use alcohol, not if you wish to learn something or maximize your powers of discrimination.

Ethiopia fact of the day

Here is another reason to be optimistic about the country:

In Ethiopia, once among Africa’s top five countries for child marriage, the practice has dropped by a third in the past decade, the world’s sharpest decline, says the World Bank. The government wants to eradicate child marriage entirely by 2025.

In contrast:

Three out of four girls in Niger are married before they are 18, giving this poor west African country the world’s highest rate of child marriage. The World Bank says it is one of only a very small number to have seen no reduction in recent years; the rate has even risen slightly. The country’s minimum legal age of marriage for girls is 15, but some brides are as young as nine.

That is all from The Economist.

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“?

Saturday assorted links

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.

Has private philanthropy become underrated?

My latest Bloomberg column focuses on Jeff Bezos in particular, and his recently announced $2 billion gift to preschool education and to help the homeless.  Here is one excerpt:

…the gift is unlikely to take the form of Jeff Bezos dictating terms, even if he is the world’s richest man. Bezos and his team will have to work through many institutions — not just preschools and homeless shelters but other organizations that help them do their work. Even brand new preschools and homeless shelters, funded entirely by Bezos, will have their own charters, missions, staffs and fiduciary responsibilities.

Any wealthy person who wants to give away money will find that incentives and the nature of decentralization and bureaucracy impose their own set of checks and balances. Real philanthropic influence goes to those who can persuade others to work with them and share their vision.

Rob Reich, a professor of political science at Stanford, argues in his forthcoming book that the philanthropy of the wealthy is not very democratic. But philanthropy operates a lot more like democracy than it might — and in fact, it may be too democratic. Voters, like philanthropists, can wish for a particular set of outcomes, but what they get will be filtered through broadly similar constraints of bureaucracy and decentralized incentives.

And this:

How about replacing philanthropy with higher taxes and more spending from the government, which is at least democratically controlled? Well, obviously there is room for both democracy and philanthropy in American society. But the elderly vote the most, and democratic expenditures — Social Security, Medicare, pensions and the like — are skewed toward the elderly. Philanthropy, including the Bezos initiative with its stated focus on homeless families, is usually more oriented toward the young or future generations.

The points I make about taxation of capital income should already be familiar to attentive MR readers.

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.

Delaware markets in everything

A 2003 Mercedes station wagon fetched nearly $420,000 at a Delaware auction last month—$6,800 for the car, $410,000 for the license plate.

“I wanted it,” says the tag’s winning bidder, William Lord. “I’m happy I did it.”

And who wouldn’t be? The plate reads “20,” a highly coveted low Delaware license-plate number.

The bidding was fierce. “I got caught up in the moment,” says Dr. Lord, 83, a retired dentist in Rehoboth Beach, Del. “My father and I used to go to auctions to buy cattle, machinery. There was nothing I liked better than looking at an opponent across the way and outbidding him.”

For a fringe of American drivers, having a fine car isn’t enough. They must have low license-plate numbers, too, and they’re fueling competition for the tags that can be relentless. In Delaware, a decadeslong obsession over tags with few digits has given rise to a vibrant private market.

This isn’t China, however, where lucky numbers are part of a longstanding cultural or even religious tradition.  May I be allowed to wonder whether the residents of Delaware have nothing better to spend their money on?  This point has at least been addressed:

“It’s a real part of who we are,” says state Transportation Secretary Jennifer Cohan. “We’ve got some loyalty to some strange things, and license plates is one of them.” A low number signifies one of two things, she says: deep roots or deep pockets.

“They are something people fight over a lot. A lot,” says Delaware divorce lawyer Marie Crossley. “It’s almost a badge of how Delaware you are.”

Here is the WSJ article, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.  And note: “The state has never used letters, thanks to a population under a million.”

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.

Does Amazon monopsony lead to higher prices?

A number of you have questioned that point I made yesterday, arguing that a standard monopolist that becomes a monopsonist will restrict output by hiring less labor, for fear of driving up the price of that labor.

I don’t think Amazon has significant monopsony power in many if any labor markets, but it does have some monopsony power over say book publishers.  Amazon uses this power to force down book prices and that in turn forces down author advances to some degree.  Amazon sells more books and that does mean higher output and lower prices, contrary to what the critics are charging.

Keep in mind also that Amazon is (mostly) a platform company.  It’s not their goal to someday put all their competitors out of business and jack up the price of paperbacks to $35.  Rather, they seek to flood the market with output, investing in brand name, better data, talent hiring, acquired logistics skills, and so on.  To the extent Amazon has monopsony power (again, fairly limited outside of books), they can bargain down costs and flood the market even more, playing into this core strategy, again involving lower rather than higher prices.

America does pretty well at public health

Michael S. Sparer and Anne-Laure Beaussier has a new and interesting piece on this topic, here is part of the abstract:

First, the United States outperforms its European peers on several public health metrics. Second, the United States spends a comparable proportion of its health dollar on prevention. Third, these results are due partly to a federalism twist (while all three nations delegate significant responsibility for public health to local governments, federal officials are more engaged in the United States) and partly to the American version of public health moralism. We also consider the renewed interest in population health, noting why, against expectations, this trend might grow more quickly in the United States than in its European counterparts.

I also learned (or relearned) from this paper the following:

1. For per capita prevention, the U.S. is a clear first in the world.  (I wonder, by the way, to what extent this contributes to higher health care costs in the United States, since preventive care also can drive doctor and hospital visits.)

2. The UK and France made a deliberate decision to switch away from public health to curative medicine, after the end of World War II, when they were building out their universal coverage systems.

3. The American history with public health programs is a pretty good one, with advances coming from the anti-smoking campaign, lower speed limits, anti-drunk driving initiatives, fluoridated water, and mandatory vaccination programs.

4. The British fare poorly on various public health metrics.

5. “The US system of public health fares rather well compared to other Western nations.”  On net, our population is not as anti-science as it may seem, at least not if we look at final policy results, as compared to some of our peer countries.

All in all, an interesting read.