Sat, 12 November 2016
My guest today is Ed Conard, here to discuss his recent book, The Upside of Inequality: How Good Intentions Undermine the Middle Class. He is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former managing director at Bain Capital.
His 2012 book, Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You've Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong was a New York Times bestseller. Because his business partner Mitt Romney was running for President at the time, many people expected the book to be a defense of the one percent. It wasn't, but this new book is!
We had a wide-ranging discussion that touched on inequality, immigration, entrepreneurship, finance, and housing.
Fri, 4 November 2016
What follows is an edited transcript of my interview with Alex Salter about the economics of space. The first half deals primarily with the issue of space debris, while the second half deals with the possibility of private governance in space. There's something in this episode for everyone to enjoy, so I hope you'll listen, read, and share it with your friends.
Petersen: My guest today is Alex Salter of Texas Tech University. Alex, welcome to Economics Detective Radio.
Salter: Thanks very much for having me.
Petersen: Our topic today is the economics of space. Alex has written two papers on the subject. The first is entitled, "Space Debris: A Law and Economics Analysis of the Orbital Commons." The second is, "Ordering the Cosmos: Private Law and Celestial Property Rights."
So Alex, let's start by talking about space debris. What is it and why does it matter?
Salter: So space debris is basically junk in space that no longer serves any useful purpose. So as you can imagine, since the first piece of space debris launched up in 1957---which was the rocket body from Sputnik I---a lot of orbits around the Earth, especially low Earth orbit, have become kind of cluttered with space junk. And the reason it gets cluttered is because no one has an incentive to clean it up.
It's a problem because a lot of this stuff is big enough and moving fast enough that if it strikes something like a communications satellite, it can take it out. So the probability of a collision right now that will cause serious damage is currently low, but there are a lot of worries among scientists who study the problem that as debris occasionally collides with more debris, you get a sort of snowballing effect of the clutter. So if we're going to get a handle on it, it needs to be earlier rather than later.
Petersen: I think intuitively it seems like the sky is so big and satellites are so small that we'd never have to worry about collisions. So why is that not the case?
Salter: So there's obviously quite a bit of room up there, but the problem is that some orbits are more valuable than others. In particular, geosynchronous orbit, which is I think 36 thousand kilometers above the Earth, is a really valuable place for specific satellites. And also low Earth orbit is a valuable place for specific satellites. Now, there's still a lot of room there, but it's significantly restricted. If my communications satellite is taking up a particular orbit, your satellite can't be in the same place. So there's only so much of it to go around, and again, what we're really worried about is debris colliding with something, which creates more debris, which can collide with more stuff. We're really worried that snowball effect, which is sometimes called the Kessler syndrome after the scientist who first wrote about it.
Petersen: So the odds of a single collision might be low, but given one collision, it becomes much more likely that we'll have two and three and four---a chain reaction of collisions.
Salter: Exactly. So right now the probability of collision is pretty low over the life of a satellite, for example in low Earth orbit, it's no more than one in a thousand. But conditional on getting hit, that can cause a pretty serious business disruption and economic losses, and as you said, given that one increases the likelihood of all future collisions, it's kind of like a positive feedback loop. So that can get pretty nasty pretty quick.
Petersen: Have there been any collisions in the past?
Salter: There have been many collisions in the past. I think the most notable one was actually intentional. In 2007, China performed an anti-satellite test, where it purposefully took out one of its old satellites that was no longer useful. And it created, I think, about a hundred and fifty thousand new pieces of space debris with that one anti-satellite test. So I'm not aware of any instances of grave, private sector disruptions caused by space debris collisions, but honestly unless there's some means of cleaning this stuff up or it de-orbits on its own, it really is only a matter of time.
Petersen: So, you make a distinction in the paper between access to orbit and particular orbits. Can you explain what those are?
Salter: Right. So access to orbit is basically getting your payload up into space. If you have a communications satellite, it's getting it to the orbit you want. And economically that has the characteristics of a public good. The standard definition of a public good in economics is anything that we like which is not rivalrous in consumption and non-excludable. So if I consume one more unit of it, that doesn't stop you from consuming more. And also non-excludable, the second part, means it's costly or very difficult for me to stop other people from enjoying that. So both of those characteristics fit getting a satellite into your desired orbit---going through space to get to where you want to go.
Once your satellite is in position though, a particular orbit has the properties of what we call a common-pool resource. It's rivalrous---if I have it you can't also have it---but it's also non-excludable. I can't really stop you from using it. As orthodox public finance theory will tell you, sometimes the provision of those goods, public goods and common-pool resources, are difficult because if they're non-excludable you can't stop people from enjoying the benefits and so that limits the incentive for producers to make the stuff in the first place.
Petersen: Right, so in order to prevent someone from launching a satellite into your orbit, you'd have to somehow police every potential launch site on the globe, which of course we can't do. And that's what makes it [non-excludable].
Salter: It's incredibly expensive and therefore not really feasible.
Petersen: Right, so from reading your paper I know other researchers have looked at this problem and they suggested taxing people who create space debris. So do you want to comment on that suggestion, and maybe what are the pros and cons of taking that approach?
Salter: Sure. Let me first start by saying that the case for a corrective tax here stems from the fact that we have a common-pool resources problem, or a public goods problem. Nobody owns orbit, and so nobody really has an incentive to worry about how clean it is. If I'm launching a communications satellite, I don't really worry that I'm also imposing a cost on other potential launchers with my useless rocket body. So if everyone thinks that way, then the debris problem becomes unmanageable. So there is a textbook rationale for some correction to what we call this external cost in economics. Because nobody owns orbit or access to orbit, nobody has an incentive to care for it or clean it up. At least not as much as we would like.
So the argument for a corrective tax is basically, we want to bring the private costs of polluting space more in line with the social costs of polluting space. So if you tax a polluter, someone who's contributing to space debris, you raise the expensiveness of creating debris. And as economic theory will tell you, when something gets more expensive, all else being equal, people will do less of it. That's the theoretical argument for what's called a Pigouvian or corrective tax.
The problem here---and this is not specific to space debris, this is specific to all taxes correcting external cost problems---is that you don't really know how big to make the tax in order to get to the efficient amount of pollution mitigation. And even if you did, you have to take political economy considerations into concern. Corrective taxes are not run and operated by benevolent social planners. They're typically run and operated by bureaucracies, and bureaucrats have their own incentives to which they respond. And the incentives facing politicians and bureaucrats may not be the same as incentives for contributing to social efficiency or maximal wellbeing.
Petersen: Right, so we might worry that the body that determines the tax on potentially space-junk-producing private actors might be less concerned with the externality and more concerned with their own revenue and so set the tax not at the social-welfare-maximizing point but at the revenue-maximizing point.
Salter: Right, that's one potential worry with that sort of a solution. Again I want to emphasize, though, that's in the abstract. It's still very very difficult---in fact I would even say impossible---to know what the right size of the tax should be. I think that there is an inherent knowledge problem that sometimes gets overlooked at the expense of the incentive problem that you just talked about. Both are very important, and they're related, and they complement each other in terms of the critique, but they are distinct problems. And public policy has to be able to present credible solutions to both of those problems if we're going to argue that a corrective tax would improve social welfare.
Petersen: Right, so you launch a satellite, maybe you leave a piece of large debris like a rocket body, but you also create a risk that the satellite will explode or be hit by something and create a snowball effect of more debris. It's really hard to compute the net cost because you not only need to know how likely is it to create more debris and how likely is that debris to impact something. You also need to know the value of the future satellites the debris might impact, which means forecasting the future of space and the future of the economy and all these things into the deep future. Have other researchers at least tried to tackle this problem? Are there some attempts?
Salter: There have been some attempts, and as you noted, any estimate is going to be very imprecise because there's a lot of variables moving in the background. But you could look at scientific studies that estimate the damage to useful communications satellite or other valuable space equipment from a collision can range anywhere from 20 to 200 million. That's a reasonable interval for estimating the damages if you count not just the initial collision but also the potential snowballing which can destroy other things.
And you can also look at what private companies are doing right now to get an appreciation of the magnitude of the problem. For example, if you're a communications satellite launcher you can buy insurance for your communications satellite. In 2011, market premiums for these kinds of space risks totalled about 800 million dollars. And also in 2011 there were about 600 million in claimed damages. So private actors are spending a lot to insure themselves against risks such as these and that in combination with some of the scientific studies can help build your intuition for understanding that we're talking about a lot of money here: a stream of valuable services into the future which can be risked by space debris.
Petersen: So we do have a ballpark estimate, but nothing so precise that we could set an optimal Pigouvian tax even if we had a government that was benevolent enough to try to reach that optimum. So in your paper you suggest alternatives to the Pigouvian route. In particular you suggest potential private solutions. So what private solutions are there to reduce the creation of space debris?
Salter: That's a really interesting question because the standard response that economists would give to externality problems seems impractical here. Usually when you have an externality problem, a public goods problem, the solution is to create property rights. Property rights align incentives so if we create property rights to a common pool resource, that will cause people to take better account of the effects of their behaviour on others. But how do you really create a property right to something like an orbit? Is it a specific volume of space? How big is it? Under what conditions can somebody else move through it when your satellite is not in that orbit?
I think in this case we have to take seriously the idea that creating property rights to orbit and to access to orbit is simply too costly. It's not feasible given the costs and benefits of the situation. I think the most promising way forward in this particular issue is using market mechanisms to mitigate the problem.
So in order to talk about market mechanisms I need to do a little background on international law. There's this treaty, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which basically says among other things that nations retain jurisdiction over the stuff they put in space. Now that's important because if debris is big enough to be tracked, we can tell more or less who made it. So if you have, for example, a piece of Chinese space debris, it's technically contrary to international law for a US organization to go up there and do anything without the Chinese' permission. So if the US wants to do something it has to take care of its own space debris. If the Chinese want to do something, they have to take care of their space debris.
Given that constraint, I think one potential is for the US government to auction off contracts to go and mitigate this stuff. Another potential is instead of auctioning off contracts to go remove it, auctioning off a contract to debris itself. One thing that's not often realized about space debris is that a lot of that stuff is valuable metal, material, that's already in orbit. The most costly part of space commerce is actually getting stuff out of Earth's gravity. So if you have debris that's currently up there that can be re-used, perhaps at a later date for in-situ manufacturing and repairs, then that's a valuable asset. Firms should be willing to pay for that. So I think we need to look at market mechanisms within particular nations to address this problem until and unless we can get a more favourable framework in international law.
Petersen: So something big like a rocket body has a lot of scrap metal that you don't have to burn fuel to get it there because it's already there. That's really interesting. So it could be a resource in itself.
But then there's the issue of much smaller debris, something that isn't a resource in itself. A paint chip or a little fragment of debris that is not useful and is more of just a pure hazard. How would you deal with that?
Salter: That's extremely difficult. I'm not sure that there is a good solution to that right now. My guess is there has to be a technological solution in the sense of just developing thicker plating for spacecraft. Because a lot of that stuff is so small that it can't be tracked, but it's still big enough that if it hits you, you're going to be in trouble. I think that the only way to really be safe against something like that is just to wait for material to get more robust. And that's obviously not going to solve the problem but it's going to mitigate it.
Petersen: It's too bad. In science fiction they would just say "raise shields" and it would be dealt with, but I guess we can't do that.
Salter: That's another imaginative technological innovation and maybe something like that will be feasible some day. There's an actual technological literature on this, of people thinking up contraptions and devices for going out and removing specifically that kind of debris, but none of them are economically feasible and I think most of them aren't even technologically feasible at this point. We just can't even make the stuff apart from economic considerations.
Petersen: So there's a future in building technology to deflect or remove tiny bits of debris from Earth orbit. I don't know if you saw the move Wall-E? It was a Pixar film.
Petersen: Yeah, humanity had to leave Earth because it was too full of garbage, and there's the scene where not only is Earth covered in garbage but its orbit is full of old satellites.
Petersen: The ship is just sort of pushing its way through comically. But in real life, it could really happen, but it wouldn't be so easy to just push through it. It would be flying so fast and hit you with such force that it would likely cause serious damage unless you could defend against it somehow.
Salter: Right, this stuff is moving fast. In low Earth orbit it's going about seven to eight kilometers per second. And there's about 300 thousand pieces of debris that we know about that can destroy a satellite upon impact. So obviously, even if it's small, the fact that it's moving so fast can cause you some serious problems. If we get to the point where we develop strong enough technological---not like energy shielding---but the strength of metal and the strength of materials to push through that, we're a ways off from that. I don't even think that's on the horizon.
Petersen: And of course there's the issue that if it makes the satellite heavier, then it becomes much more costly to launch it. So there's the issue of being able to make something strong enough to withstand an impact while light enough to be able to actually launch it in the first place.
Salter: Right. As always there are tradeoffs, which is precisely why economics has a valuable perspective to offer on this problem.
Petersen: So let's move on to your other paper which deals with property rights in space. It starts with a discussion of the 2015 SPACE Act, signed into law by President Obama. What can you tell me about that act?
Salter: So the SPACE Act is largely intended to guarantee that the US government will do something to protect commercial entities' property rights to celestial resources. Celestial property rights, basically. There's no specific commitment to what that protection will look like, it's more a statement of intent to encourage private sector development and exploration of space by the US government saying, "Look, we know this lack of property rights thing is a problem. We just wanted to let you know that in the event of a dispute, we are going to protect your property rights as governments are supposed to do.
The problem with that is that we get into some pretty thorny issues with international law. Again, talking about the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which was signed by all of the current spacefaring nations, Article II of that treaty states that nation states cannot extend their territorial jurisdiction into outer space. And a lot of legal scholars think if a government is protecting private property rights, it's de facto extended its territorial jurisdiction over those rights. So if deep space industries or planetary resources, asteroid mining companies, eventually go out and claim an asteroid, and Uncle Sam says, "Yep, we'll recognize and defend your claim to that asteroid," many legal scholars say that's a de facto extension of territorial sovereignty to that asteroid, which Article II of the space treaty explicitly forbids.
So we're in a bit of a sticky situation international-law wise. At best the legal framework is unclear and at worst the 2015 SPACE Act contains provisions that are not compatible with existing international law.
Petersen: It seems like the 1967 treaty was a little bit short sighted in blocking people from owning parts of space. I guess it was during the Cold War and you can see why the Americans would not want to Soviets claiming the moon or vice versa.
So recently, Elon Musk unveiled a plan to send colonists to Mars some time during this century. And if you literally have a colony there on Mars you're going to need property rights. And to have a treaty that might be a hundred or more years old at that point blocking that, it seems like a hurdle that we'll need to clear. People could potentially just ignore the treaty once they're on Mars.
So, what kind of solutions do you see for this problem in the future?
Salter: Well I think that international law on this should be expanded and clarified on this just for clarity's sake. I don't think we need to rely on publically protected and enforced property rights to get things like space commerce or Mars colonies or all that cool science fiction stuff that actually now doesn't seem so infeasible.
If you look throughout history, there are many, many examples of legal systems that are purely private and voluntary. And they are purely voluntary because the property claims underlying that legal system are self enforcing. We don't need to rely on the state, a monopoly enforcer of social rules. We don't need to rely on the state to enforce our property rights. Given the situation we find ourselves in, I will respect your property rights because it's in my self-interest to do so and you will respect my property rights because it's in your self-interest to do so. And it seems like that's incredible. If there's no monopoly enforcer protecting things, how can we have a viable legal order? But again if we look throughout history we see lots and lots of examples of these private legal regimes.
In fact, one of them exists today. International trade law is almost entirely privately produced. International trade is almost entirely privately governed. And it's not hard to see why: there's no international super sovereign that can enforce property rights over disputes if Al is from one country and Bob is from another country. And so given that problem, traders going all the way back to the middle ages had to come up with a body of voluntary and self-enforcing law if they wanted to exchange across political boundaries. And it turns out that this law has worked out very, very well. The basics haven't changed in pretty much a thousand years and while it's being applied in newer and more interesting ways, the foundation is solid. And I think that the situation in which international traders find themselves in today---"international anarchy" because again there is no international super sovereign---closely matches the situation that commercial entities would find themselves in in doing space commerce. So I think that there's a lot of potential for existing international and commercial trade law to provide a governance framework for outer-space commerce going forward.
Petersen: Yeah, there's a quote from your paper I wanted to read, that deals with these international frameworks going back to the middle ages. It says:
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, the volume of international trade shrank considerably. The legal infrastructure provided by the Empire no longer stood, and the transition away from this order caused significant commercial disruption. By the ninth and tenth centuries, trade was recovering. Across Europe, a professional merchant class emerged and developed mechanisms to resolve disputes over property rights and contract enforcement, even when subjects were from different polities and thus no national court had jurisdiction.
So can you explain more about how that system developed, and how something that we developed here on Earth a millennium ago, how can that apply to space? They would seem to be very different settings.
Salter: So they're different settings geographically, but I think the economic and legal problem is the same: facilitating coordination and cooperation among disparate entities when there is no possibility of turning to something like a state to serve as an overarching referee and arbiter. And so the medieval law merchant, called the Lex Mercatoria, was basically a self-enforcing system of property law and the legal rules that went along with it.
And what's interesting about that is that when we think of law we normally think of a body of rules and then we talk about applying those rules in specific circumstances. This most closely works the other way. Law is created whenever international traders enter a contract. And provided that commercial instrument became widespread and actually helped traders achieve their goals---and was mutually beneficial of course---then arbitration courts overseeing merchant disputes would come to see that sort of contractual arrangement as valid. And so the arbitrator is less making law than recognizing law---a body of rules for coordinating behaviour---that actually exists.
So if I'm a trader form some country in medieval Europe and I'm trading with another guy in another country, obviously I can't turn to my king to enforce my property rights because he doesn't have jurisdiction over your country. You can't turn to your king to enforce jurisdiction. In some situations maybe Church court can act as a venue for arbitration and dispute resolution, but most of the time what they did was---if they had a dispute---they would find some neutral third-party merchant who was an expert in the area and say, "Look, we have this dispute. Here is this contract. I think I was supposed to do X, my trading partner disagrees. He thought I was supposed to do Y. Can you help us sort this out?" The arbitrator, using his expertise, would look at it and come to a decision, and for the most part they were complied with voluntarily. Because if you went to commercial arbitration in the Lex Mercatoria system and then you ignored a ruling, you would become known as a defector, as a cheater, as someone who didn't act or uphold his or her word. And international trade was a relatively small and close-knit community and so that information would get around. You'd be branded as someone as not worthy of doing business with.
And so you could cheat and get a payoff now, but you would risk that no one would trade with you in the future. So you'd be losing all future business, which is why most agreements, both for the medieval law merchant and the current law merchant---the current system of international commercial law---are actually complied with and adhered to voluntarily.
Petersen: OK, so what kind of legal disputes do you see potentially arising in space? What sort of resources might people come to have conflicts over?
Salter: Good question. I think the most obvious one, at least to me, is probably with asteroid mining companies. So if I go land on an asteroid and I want to mine it for valuable minerals, do I own the entire asteroid? Do I own just a portion of its surface? What happens if there's water underneath the asteroid and someone wants to go in and get the water while you're getting the minerals? How deep, literally geographically, down into the center of the asteroid do my property claims go? And water, once you're actually in space, is pretty valuable because it's used for making rocket fuel, essentially. And also, water is very heavy. As we discussed earlier, it's really expensive to get water into orbit. So if there's water already in space, in an asteroid, that's a valuable resource. People are going to want that. What happens if you want the minerals and I want the water? But me going to get the water creates a situation where you can't go and get the minerals. Maybe my mining operation is in the way of yours. Those are very real disputes that there are actually very real analogues of here on Earth that we're going to have to go and settle in space.
Petersen: I'm reminded of, during the California gold rush they developed an elaborate set of rules for how large a claim an individual gold miner could mine. And how you would draw the lines between different people's claims, and they established de facto courts to deal with claim jumpers. So we're thinking that California during the gold rush might as well have been outer space, it was so far from the rest of civilization. And so we're more or less thinking that something like that would occur.
Salter: Exactly. Economically, I think this situation is very closely analogous. Gold miners in California are outside of the reach of the formal US Government. They're in the metaphorical Hobbesian jungle, a state of nature with respect to each other. Orthodox theories of social cooperation says they shouldn't be able to cooperate and yet they clearly did, historically. The gold rush is a really interesting period of American history to study for that.
There's also a book by scholars Anderson and Hill called The Not So Wild, Wild West. We have this impression from Hollywood that the American frontier was a violent and lawless place, when in fact most likely the opposite was true, because people knew that they didn't have access to formal dispute resolution mechanisms offered by the US Government they had to come up with their own. And they worked relatively well.
And I think that's the situation we find ourselves in in space. There are governments "nearby" but given current international law they can't actually extend their jurisdiction into space and therefore mediate space-related disputes. Or at lease some disputes. And so we have to have space tourism companies coming to agreements with asteroid mining companies coming into agreements with communication satellite providers. There needs to be a body of voluntary and self-enforcing rules, and again I think that there are numerous historical examples you can point to that should lead us to be actually pretty optimistic about this. Private law is not just feasible but it is also desirable because it has some pretty nice consequences in terms of creating incentives for making and stewarding wealth.
Petersen: So, the nice thing about private law, you sort of alluded to it earlier but Hayek makes this distinction between law and legislation, and the nice thing is it's adaptive. When you encounter new issues and new problems you set new precedents that can change and adapt with the circumstances. That's one major advantage of private law, right?
Salter: It's important to recognize that that's not unique to private law. That also exists in the common law legal system that exists in the Anglo-American tradition. So the benefits of specifically private law---I think we're talking about private law here as opposed to some sort of common-law extension into space which again, Article II of the space treaty seems to say that's not OK. So given that, are these adaptive features of a purely private legal system good enough to facilitate social cooperation and basically get people to not fight with each other? And I think they are. It's sort of a bottom-up process for discovering rather than creating law.
There are many rules that are probably equally feasible. It's a question of finding the rules that best give individuals incentives to act in a socially responsible way. And we also want those rules to provide for orderly, quick, and low-cost dispute resolution. People are going to disagree; it's inevitable. What we want is for a legal system that is sufficiently adaptable so it can tend to specific circumstances, but also sufficiently general that individuals can form reliable expectations of their trading partners' behaviour. And as Hayek pointed out, private law is one kind of law that has that dual feature that we like so much: adaptability yet at the same time predictability.
So it's not the case that only private law can have that. That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that private law can have that, and given current international law, that's the only ball game in town.
Petersen: So, when you said about clarifying the rules, do you feel that if the governments of the world were to say right now that, "disputes in outer space are not our jurisdiction, you're on your own," and codify that and maybe have another treaty, do you think that would hasten the development of these private mechanisms?
strong>Salter: I think it would. The private mechanisms are only going to arise as needed in a private law system. When there's no actual dispute and no actual thing being tested, there doesn't need to be a rule for overcoming one party's disputes or claims against the other.
So I personally actually not only think that private law is desirable in space just because of current international law. I would actually like to see space kept "safe" for private law. Because it has all these nice, socially beneficial properties in terms of aligning people's incentives and giving them the information they need to do good things.
And if you look at the most likely counterpart---imagine international law were amended---what's likely to happen is there would be some international governance body, a regulatory body that's given authority over space activities. And once we embrace that sort of bureaucratic regulatory solution, that comes with all sorts of political economy and public choice problems. How do the regulators get the information necessary to make good rules? What are the incentives to make good rules?
I think that several schools of economics and legal thought have shown that in this case embracing a top-down regulatory solution would actually be pretty dangerous. So I would like to see international law clarified, but I would also like to see private law prevail in space.
Petersen: Right, and if we're talking about particularly humans in space, as in the case of a Mars colony, it would seem to be undesirable to bring our baggage and our governance here to a place as distant as Mars. The people there are likely to face all sorts of their own problems. And if there was part of Mars that was governed by, say, the US Government you would almost face the same problems the Thirteen Colonies had being governed by the British. You have this vast gulf between the people who are doing the governing and the people who are being governed. So could a Mars colony function on private law?
Salter: Wow, that's a fascinating question and one that I didn't tackle in the paper. That's actually a little beyond my expertise in this area. I don't see any reason why it couldn't, simply because I don't see the economic and legal problems that potential Martian colonists would face are any different than people on the international law merchant scenario would face. Or individuals in medieval Iceland---who had their own body of voluntary and private law---face.
I think the best analogy for these sorts of situations is the economic literature for what is sometimes called "analytic anarchy." And people are sometimes scared of it because the word "anarchy" is in there. But all anarchy means in this context is we don't have recourse to a nation state to solve our disputes for us. So if we're going to get governance, we're going to have to find a way to do it ourselves. It has to be voluntary, it has to be agreeable to all parties, and it has to do a good job at facilitating social cooperation.
So how do people actually do that when they don't have access to the nation state? Which is again pretty new in human history. So if you're looking at any time prior to 1648, there's got to be some way of generating order. And if you look at history I think you have a lot of examples of proprietary communities and voluntary communities which can be models for a Martian colony. So to make a long point short, I don't see any evidence that a Martian colony cannot be purely privately governed. And I don't think we have any reasons to think so because the problems they're going to face have been faced historically and overcome by people in various times and places.
Petersen: Do you have any closing thoughts about the future of space and the role of economics in helping us achieve our goals there?
Salter: I think that economics is going to be particularly useful in helping us highlight exactly which potential problems are worth caring about and, of those problems, which ones deserve or merit public policy responses. So, for example, I don't think there's any reason to be afraid of creating a private law governing space. I'm actually encouraged by that prospect.
But that doesn't mean that domestic agencies, especially national agencies, don't have a role in making space a formidable and habitable environment. We just spent the first half an hour talking about space debris, right? And there's lots of things that US agencies can do to mitigate space debris for example. Various agencies can have a rule, and there are such rules in place now, saying if you're going to orbit a space craft you’ve got to provide for de-orbiting the debris and also de-orbiting the space craft when it's no longer useful.
So economics, and particularly the economic way of thinking, can help us identify, OK this anarchy in space problem is not actually a problem. Private law is viable, so we don't have to worry about that. Oh, space debris is a problem because we have this common pool resources problem, externality problems, and the usual solutions---taxes and or property rights---aren't feasible. So we need to find some other way, maybe harnessing market mechanisms at the margin to address these. And I think the economic perspective is going to do a good job at cautioning us at taking a top-down approach at space governance.
The temptation is huge to say, "OK, we're on the verge of major space breakthroughs. Let's sit down and write down a body of rules that's going to govern space." That's really dangerous because there's no way that you and I sitting in our armchairs can see all the eventualities or problems that people will confront in space. And so the rules that we write are almost certainly going to have little to no relationship to those problems, and therefore won't help commercial and or government actors solve those problems. So figuring out what's important and avoiding the temptation to engage in what Hayek called "The Pretense of Knowledge." Thinking that we can learn and know and plan more than we can actually do.
Petersen: My guest today has been Alex Salter. Alex, thanks for being part of Economics Detective Radio.
Salter: It's been a pleasure. Thanks again for having me.
Tue, 1 November 2016
What follows is an edited transcript of my conversation with Vincent Geloso.
Petersen: My guest today is Vincent Geloso of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University. Vincent, welcome to Economics Detective Radio.
Geloso: It's a pleasure to be here.
Petersen: So the paper we'll be discussing today is titled "A U-curve of Inequality? Measuring Inequality in the Interwar Period" which Vincent has co-authored with John Moore and Phillips Schlosser. The paper casts doubt on the claim from, most notably, Thomas Piketty and others that inequality fell from the 1920s to the 1960s and rose thereafter. So, Vincent let's start by discussing the inequality literature prior to this paper. What is this U-curve and where did it come from?
Geloso: The U-curve is probably the most important stylized fact we have now in the debate over inequality and the idea is that, if you look at the twentieth century, there's a high point of inequality in the 1910s, 1920s and then from the 1930s onwards up to 1970s, it falls dramatically to very low levels and re-increases thereafter, returning to 1920s-like levels of inequality. So the U-curve is the story of inequality in the twentieth century. It's mostly a U.S. story because for other countries it looks less like the U-curve than an inverted J. So it's higher in the 1920s, it still falls like in the U.S. but really increases much more modestly than the United States in places like Sweden, or France, or Canada. But the general story is that there was a high level of inequality at the beginning of the century well up to the mid-second-half of the twentieth century and it re-increased in the latter years and then we have been on a surge since then.
Petersen: So, a lot of this is coming from Thomas Piketty, who of course wrote the surprising bestseller "Capital in the Twenty-First Century." Could you talk a little bit about where his data came from?
Geloso: Okay, by the way, this is where there's a failing on my part which I think I always find funny; an anecdote to tell about Piketty. I'm originally from Quebec, so I am a French-Canadian, I speak fluent French. His work started coming out in French first and I initially started to write elements of the paper we're discussing today back when it was only in French. And then I told myself, "There's no point, it's only a French book, nobody reads French. What's the point of writing a paper about a book that no one will read?" Biggest mistake of my career, I guess, not writing that paper before.
But anyways, besides that, his entire argument is based largely on his most influential paper---which I think was published in 2003 in the Quarterly Journal of Economics---which was using tax data. So, the records, the fiscal statistics to create measurements of income inequality in the United States and the advantage of that is that since the income tax started in 1910s you've got a long, long period of measurement of income inequality with the same source.
So it's a great advantage because a lot of the people before like Kuznets, like others had to use residual estimates, different sources, they were amalgamating different sources together and it was always a problem because you couldn't create one homogeneous time-series of inequality. You could get a rough idea and there's a few papers---for those who read economic history stuff---there was a paper by Lindert and Williamson in the 70s in research in economic history and you can see their first graph in that paper was a series of different measures of inequality. They were all pointing to the general similar shaped curve but they were all from massively different statistics, different sources. So one was the 50:10 ratio of earnings, another one was a measure of income, the other was wages and they are all different measures, they are not perfect.
You can get a good idea, a rough idea but you cannot have a continuous time estimate which is what Piketty innovated by using the tax-wealth with Emmanuel Saez, recreating this long continuous trend in data from 1917 to the modern day. And they keep updating it regularly to include the new data on a yearly basis.
Petersen: So tell me about tax avoidance. How does that affect things?
Geloso: Okay, this is where the existing data that all the different sources had---Piketty made advancement. Rather than having variance across different sources, he was eliminating that variance. But there's still an issue of variance within a source. So it's not because you have used a homogenous source that the quality of the data contained within the source is consistent. There's actually quite a lot of variance in data quality because of the way the tax system was done.
So a lot of the debate today for the data for today has been---has there been such a large increase in inequality as Piketty and Saez and Atkinson and others have been pointing out? And the reason for that was largely because, as Alan Reynolds, as Joel Slemrod, and a few others have pointed out, the tax changes of the 1980s were so large that people shifted the way they reported income. They changed the way they reported tax liability. What used to be classified as corporate income became classified as individual income, and so you get an artificial increase because of a way the tax system has changed. And this is why a lot of people say, as soon as you correct for the effect of changes in tax reporting behavior, you actually get a much more modest increase of inequality.
But that's from 1980 to today with a massive tax change in the 1980s. If you go back further in time, to the interwar period the tax changes are much more dramatic. In 1913, the tax rate was 7%, went up to 15% in 1916 to 73% until 1921, went back down to 24% by 1929, went back up to 79% by 1939. Imagine, that's a lot of movements in the way taxes will affect behavior and it will affect reporting behavior. So, will you report, will you be as honest as you would be when you're filing taxes at 79%, as you are when you're filing taxes at 24%? So you're getting---because of these massive changes in tax regimes that are happening over very short periods of time---these massive changes affect the quality of the data set that Piketty is using for the left side of his U-curve.
The left side of the U-curve is probably inaccurate to a very high level because of tax avoidance, and this is where the economists in general failed to talk to historians because there's a few papers out there that did measure---especially in the Journal of Economic History---that did measure changes in reporting. So changes in tax avoidance occur basically to a large level by the top incomes, as Gene Smiley argues in the Journal of Economic History, for example, which Piketty has never cited neither Saez, neither anyone in the debate. And he did corrections, so he checked: Okay, when a tax rate went down from 73% to 24%, did people change their reporting behavior? Did more rich people start to report incomes? And the answer is 'yes.'
And as soon as he started doing corrections for that to control the "artificialness"---if that's a word---of the tax changes on affecting the level of inequality, he actually finds that the 1920s have a much lower level of inequality because of the reduction in tax rates and there was very little upward trend, especially when we're comparing with the Piketty, with the Mark Frank data, with the Kuznets data and it shows that as soon as you adjust for tax avoidance the left side of the U-curve flattens dramatically and it looks more like an L---an inverted L---or a J, but it doesn't look at all like a U-curve and that's just tax avoidance for the 1920s. The increases in the 1930s in tax rates would have had the opposite effect where people would have reported less income.
So, the level of inequality in the 1920s is overestimated in Piketty and it's underestimated for the 1930s. So you're kind of flattening the entire interwar period as soon as you consider the one issue of tax avoidance. And there are estimates out there in the Essays in Economic and Business History by Gene Smiley and Richard Keehn. Smiley's article in the JEH, which has been ignored in the literature, but which did check that people at the top of the income distribution are generally very sensitive to changes in tax regime in the way they report their tax liability.
Petersen: So, today they would do that by maybe registering---having their money in the Cayman Islands or Ireland or the Isle of Man, their tax shelters abroad. Was the avoidance different in the 1920s? I expect it would be harder to enforce taxes given that the income tax was so new and there were all these changes and they didn't have electronic records, or how did it work?
Geloso: You're thinking of avoidance in a very negative term which is the illegal part, which is what has somewhat permeated the public debate and I have this reflex myself. I think of avoidance always in that way. But avoidance is sometimes just planning your taxes, your sources of income, differently. One example would be---and it's not really applicable to our case---parents can put their kids on company payroll because it's cheaper dollar for dollar relative to giving them an allowance from after-tax personal income.
So, people can change their behavior in their way to get money, in the way they report their income. So you can pass corporate income as a personal income or personal income as corporate income. You can deduct expenses one way or another. And one way or another it comes to affecting the quality of the data set. And it does matter, because if you look at the 1980s when there was a rapid change in the income tax rate, which was much more important a change than the change in the corporate tax rate, it led people to change the type of incorporation they were in, so they became S corporations, so corporations that were not subjected necessarily to the corporate income tax. So, it affected the way people reported, classified their income and it appears artificially the income inequality statistics.
The 1920s' equivalent was municipal bonds. Municipal bonds were assets that delivered incomes but they were not subjected to taxes so this was like a tax shelter that was completely legal and that rich people used in dramatic amount to reduce their tax liability. So, when people think of tax avoidance it's generally this idea that people just reorganized their classification of income to make sure they have the smallest liability possible and in a situation like that, what you get is a much different level and trend of inequality because of the changes in tax regimes that induce changes in tax reporting behavior.
Petersen: So is Piketty not adjusting for this at all? He's just taking the tax data at face value?
Geloso: He's trying some stuff but he gets a lot of the tax history quite wrong and what alerted us to this is that Gene Smiley's paper, which is not in an obscure journal, it's in the Journal of Economic History which is considered a top tier journal in the profession of economics---it's not AER, it's not QJE, but it is a very respectable journal. And Smiley's article is also very cited. There's a large number of citations of that paper and Piketty just ignores it. And you skim through his book and the discussion is always brushed aside and these effects of changes in tax regimes is always minimized as if it was not important.
But tax avoidance is only like a fraction of the problem, because if you look, there's another issue that's much more dramatic than tax avoidance. Alone the issue of tax avoidance, if you take Smiley's stuff, changes the narrative dramatically but that's just our first shot in this debate with me, John, and Philip. It's our first shot, the second shot is that filing requirements were nowhere close to what they are like today. And actually this is something funny, the idea of Piketty is that you can create a series assuming tax compliance for a country that was founded on a tax revolt which is---for a historian---kind of a weird assumption built in the way he does his history part. And if you look at it, one of the example is that you look at the changes in wages of people---wages for unskilled workers, wages for mining workers, for agricultural workers---they do not evolve at all like his bottom 90% of income behaves, it behaves actually very differently.
So, in our paper we show that the quality of what's at the bottom of the income distribution is dramatically different, so wages go up much faster than the income of the bottom 90%. And this is wages.
So, you think what, maybe hours are going down? No they're not in the 1920s and 30s---well in the 30's they're going down---but in 1920s hours are actually staying stable and in some industries are actually slightly increasing. So you should not see what Piketty's data suggest, which is that there was stagnation in the income of the bottom 90%. There was declining unemployment, there was rising wages and hours remaining relatively stable.
It's impossible to reconcile these facts with those of Piketty without considering that there might be problems in the way people filed their taxes. And this is where the entire thing breaks down and you look at, for example, the number of tax filers that were actually there. And you look at that as a percentage of the American population, up to the 1930s---so until the Second World War---there's never more than 6 or seven 7 percent of population that files in tax reports.
Petersen: And you'd expect it to be the wealthier people too, who are filing right? Because you have people below a certain income, they don't file income tax, right?
Geloso: Exactly. This wouldn't be a problem if your distribution of people behaved equal to the distribution of the general population and the movements were the same. It wouldn't be a problem. The thing is when you look at the number of adjusted tax returns which is what Piketty and other people like Estelle Sommeiller or Mark Frank do. They try to re-correct this issue of a very small number of tax reports that were actually filed in and they get an idea---and this is figured too, I think, in our paper. There's a steady upward trend in the number of adjusted tax units but when you look at the actual number of tax units it moves so much. It goes up and down and it doubles in the span of two years, then it reduces by half in the span of another two years and these are such large movements in the number of tax units that it's hard to see that this might be a representative sample of the American population.
Differences in reports and such changes in our reporting---and the number of reports I should say---suggest that there is actually a problem in the quality of the data. And this is where we're saying that if you combine this with the observation that wages were increasing, unemployment was falling, and that hours were more or less stable, and that you add this fact of the massive changes in tax returns, you can easily question the quality of the data from the 1920s and the 1930s.
This is where we're coming in and we're saying, no, the people who reported taxes were very volatile. They were rich people who reacted to changes in income taxes. Lower income individuals also were very much tax resisters. There's an entire story told by David Beito. I think it's with University North Carolina Press. He has a book on tax resistance in the United States during the 1920s and 30s and there's actually a large documentation of anti-tax leagues that have massive memberships of common individuals who are resisting filing taxes at that time.
So it's quite plausible to say that, if there's such a difference in wages, in hours, in unemployment what they and these massive changes in the number of tax returns filed, it suggests that probably the poor people just didn't file in their taxes. So, any movement at the bottom of the distribution does not exist according to Piketty's data. But there were movements at the bottom. There were people who moved from poor Kansas to Illinois. They were still in the bottom 90% but by moving from farming Kansas to Chicago to work in a garment industry, they get a gain in income but that is not captured in Piketty's data because it's highly likely that poor individuals tended to file fewer tax returns and were probably more hostile to filing them, and the rich were just reacting to changes in tax regimes. So, the tax filing requirements would actually lower the level of inequality overall from the 1920s and 1930s.
So, the tax avoidance issue would change the trend and the issue of tax filing requirements would drop the level because we're not capturing bottom incomes properly. So you're changing the U-curve progressively as each of our critiques is embedded in the argument you actually progressively bring down the left side of the U-curve and it looks more and more like a J, or an L, or a hockey stick.
Petersen: I remember in 2012 Mitt Romney got in trouble for pointing out that 47% of the population doesn't pay income tax. So if Mitt Romney were running for president in the 1920s, I guess he would have said something like 94% of people are not filing and paying income taxes. Is that right?
Geloso: Exactly. That would be a very accurate. Well it's 94% of people. The taxes were based on households, but still 6% and then later on after the Second World War it jumped above 40%. So there's a massive change not only in tax regimes in terms of rates, but filing requirement regimes, which will also change the tax behavior of individuals. And not only that, this is something that actually, it was buried in a footnote of Smiley's article which is---still I will point out not cited by Saez and Piketty---but it's so rigorous and it contains so many pieces of information that are crucial.
Until 1938 public sector employees were not mandated to file in taxes. This is an unknown fact. Until 1938 they did not have to file in taxes. So this is actually a very very big factor. So in terms of wage earners, so not everyone, it excludes farmers, but all wage earners, 12% of them were government workers. This is a substantial share of the workforce and not only that, their earnings are slightly above the rest of the workforce and the increase in their earnings is above those of the other workers in the United States in that period. But they're just not considered in the tax distribution. So until the public salary Act of 1939---which was debated in the Senate in 1938-1939, the 1.2 million federal employees---this is a large number---were drawing large wages and they're just not included in the statistics based on tax data.
This has a massive impact on the level of inequality. Public workers were not in the top 1%, they were not the richest, they were not poor and they were earning much more over time. I'm not trying to debate whether it was efficient government spending or if they were paid at actually providing public goods that people actually did want. But set that issue aside, they had higher wages than the average representative of a sizeable share of the workforce and their wages increased much more importantly than other ones.
So you're affecting the trend. You're affecting the level and you add this other issue and then look again, imagine the U-curve in your head. Tax avoidance, it changed the trend. It made it less, it made it much lower in the 1920s than it was. It increased it relative to the Piketty data in the 1930s. The entire level then is reduced by adjusting for tax filing problems and then if you tried to adjust the issue of public sector employees who didn't have to file in their taxes you drop the level again, so it's looking less and less like a U-curve than what Piketty claims.
So, we haven't made all these adjustments, we're just stating facts that should be known in the inequality debate. Our goal is later on to test each of our points. We're sending such a large number of criticisms that there's bound to be one that sticks in terms of the data quality. Because these are such huge data quality that it effects a major stylized fact about inequality: the U-curve. If today we believe that the U-curve---there's a debate over whether or not there's been such a large increase---everybody agrees that there's been an increase, but there's a massive debate over how big this increase is today.
Imagine how crucial it would be to correctly debate the level of inequality and the trend of the left side of the U-curve. And if we're having all these debates with all the survey data, all the census data, all the private big data stuff that we have out there for the modern era and we still have high level of uncertainty, imagine anything with all the points I've mentioned for the interwar period, the left side of the U-curve. Everything seems to indicate that's probably much lower. I'm not saying there's not a U-curve, maybe it looks like a ball, a very modest ball, or there's a slight decrease, there's a slight increase, but it's not Piketty's U-curve, it's not the same stylized fact. And it changes the narrative we should have about inequality.
Petersen: Yeah, I'll never forget one experience I had. It was the original Occupy movement and I went down to see the protests going on in Victoria B.C. where I was at the time and one guy just had a big sign where he had printed off a graph. You know, an inequality graph of the 1% versus the 99% from Piketty and Saez. I'm not sure if it went all the way back to the 1920s but really, that's sort of a very clear sign that these debates are expanding beyond academia and having a big effect on the public and their perception of the world we live in, the ideal policies that we should be pursuing. A big part of the U-curve narrative is to say look at how successful the policies in the 40s and 50s were at reducing inequality and of course if we do away with this U-curve then maybe those policies, all they did was bring more people into the data set.
Geloso: Yes, and it changes who reports in the data set. I know Phil Magness, who is joining our team with me and John Moore and Bill Schlosser. Phil Magness has been working on showing that a lot of the changes in our tax regime actually just mimic the entire movement of the income share of the top 1%. It follows what share of taxes they're asked to pay and it leads to changes in reporting and basically it's a story of tax regimes and it changes the entire narrative.
But what I find much more depressing---and this is a depressing fact---if just one of our criticisms lands and sticks, the U-curve doesn't look like a U. Let's say it looks like a J. So there's a mid-point in the 1920s and we've been increasing since then at a relatively high rate since the 1970s. So it fell from 1920 to 1970 and then it re-increased.
If you look at what caused the leveling from 1920 to 1970, a lot of it has nothing to do with state intervention, with the efforts at redistribution. There's probably a sizable share of it that has to do with that. But there's also a sizable, and probably the larger share, that comes from poor regions catching up with rich regions. If you look at for example the history of inequality in the United States you would see that if you decompose the variance---so what caused the inequality---for most of American history a large share of inequality was caused by differences between states rather than differences between individuals.
One way to see it, and I'm making a caricature here to get the point across, but you could have the same shape of distribution in income in Kansas and New York. But since the average in New York is much higher than in Kansas, you average the two in, you get a much higher level of inequality, so you can get like a Gini coefficient for the two of them of .4 but in each of them individually taken the level inequality is like .2. And this is what happens for most of US history. There are massive gaps between regions rather than gaps between skills, between levels, so Mississippi is poorer than New York for a long period of time. But in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s this gap basically volatilized, it began to disappear.
One of the massive story of the twentieth century---some economists are aware---is this massiveness of convergence between regions. So the South gets richer. Poor black people move from poor states in the South where they're sharecroppers, they move to the North where they become wage earners in garment factories, in manufacturing and their earnings grow dramatically. So there's a massive convergence during that period. But, if you think about it for a second, it means that the gap between regions and the gap between races is actually a big driver in the leveling part of the U-curve, but that has nothing to do with tax redistribution. It has nothing to do with this.
So, as soon as we integrate our criticism into the tax data, and we show that the U-curve looks less and less like a U, the left side of it makes it look less and less like a U. And you consider these two economic history facts that I've just mentioned, it's incredibly depressing to consider in the inequality narrative, to say well a lot of it is just stuff that would have happened anyways. There would have been a decline in inequality regardless of how much the state intervened to redistribute income because there was this convergence. And not only that, the leveling of inequality was not as great as we say it was. So it changes the entire story.
We have inequality and how to address the issue and, not only that, I will point out that across the same period the one thing that goes up relatively steadily is government spending to GDP. If you were to account for all our criticism and then consider which part of inequality was reduced by government redistribution, it becomes more and more depressing because it seems like the effect is much smaller than people believe.
This is where we're trying to disentangle all these elements to tell the correct story of inequality in the United States and it starts with getting the shape of inequality right. But look at the story I have just told you. As soon as we make this small change of properly assessing things, the entire narrative we have then changes. And this is why it's a dramatic fact to get right and which is why we're somewhat disappointed with Piketty's stuff because he's not making the right level of methodological discussion.
Petersen: Right. Piketty uses his narrative to push for large-scale taxes and redistribution.
Geloso: Yes. I'm not saying that what he does is bad. It was a massive improvement relative to what was there before. But his story has flaws, and these flaws tend to support his narrative. We point out the flaws that would support a different narrative, that point out that probably inequality is not as high as we say. It probably would have fallen up in the 1970s because of very natural forces and if you think about the fact that since the 1970s there's been a slight divergence---so, imagine the leveling of inequality between regions in the United States. The divergence fell until the 1970s, but it has increased modestly since then because of regulation on housing, things that limit mobility across states that the depress income growth in some areas.
So you end up with a slight divergence since then and it is caused by states. It's not caused by anything that the government is doing. It's really an issue of very regionalized factors and each time you consider each of these nuances in, the narrative changes. And it changes dramatically against the story Piketty's telling and it shows that the flaws are biased in favor of the conclusion he supported.
Petersen: Right. And I know Phil Magness has really criticized him on this, that he makes a lot of decisions where you could go one way or the other and they always seem to turn out his way. Which is maybe a coincidence, or maybe it's not really the best way to do social science.
You point out that there were big price differentials between regions so how does that play into the regional inequality story?
Geloso: So, we're basing our discussion on this part of a longer series of papers where each of the points we've discussed will basically be one paper in itself. Here we're just stating this entire case for skepticism, then we'll see how big the impact is. Regardless, even if they're all minor, they will all change the narrative. And prices, regional price differences are an issue in that.
So, when you compare nominal income across a country you are getting an idea of inequality but---you will agree with me. So, you're in Vancouver. I'm originally from Montreal. If I give you a dollar income in Vancouver and I give myself a one-dollar income in Montreal you think that dollar will go as far in Vancouver as it does in Montreal?
Petersen: I think it probably won't.
Geloso: Exactly. So you would expect that regional price differences will affect the level of inequality. And there's actually a lot of people that do that. Each time you make controls for the level of price differences, you actually find that the level of inequality falls modestly. But it falls.
But the thing is, the price differences that we have today between Vancouver to Montreal or between New York and the region of Mississippi are not at all what these gaps used to be in 1920 or in 1925. In 1925 the gaps would have been much, much, much larger and from 1925 to the 1940s there's been a convergence of prices across regions. So for the first 50 years, roughly, of the twentieth century you get a convergence of prices across regions. So if you just took nominal income without correcting for regional price differences, you would get a massive drop in inequality.
However, if you were to correct for an increasingly smaller mistake because, if you think about it, if the wage gaps used to be on average 25% in 1890, let's say, and they used to be 5% in 1950, the error is decreasing over time. So you're getting the level off by a smaller and smaller quantity over time. So it means that the trend changes. The smaller your measurement error caused by regional price differences falls, the less pronounced the fall in inequality becomes. So you get a massive drop in inequality as measured by nominal income, which is not what it is when you correct the regional price differences, so you put this in real dollars adjusted for purchasing power parity.
And not only that, the errors caused by regional prices actually also follow a U-curve. So the errors that would be caused by price level differences across regions declined up to 1950 but since then they've re-increased. So if before you're getting a lower and lower trend---a lower trend by a diminishing amount of error---that means the right side of the curve, that means the increasing disparity in prices across regions since 1950. It means that you're actually increasing nominal prices using nominal income across the country. You will underestimate the increase in inequality since then.
So there are actually massive measurement errors caused by this issue of regional prices. When I say massive, I shouldn't say massive because it's dishonest but it affects both the level and the trends. So it affects the shape of the curve and remember we're making all these criticisms to the U-curve story piece by piece. Each one of them has a small prickly effect on the shape of the curve. As soon as one or more starts sticking---and they're all documented otherwise for other periods---not prior interwar period, not a sufficiently as we'd wish to, which is why we're doing this project of massive data collection.
It changes the narrative, changes the story, changes the way the curve looks and it's not much of a U-curve anymore and the proper measurements get you a very different story of the evolution of inequality. And that different story forces you to change interpretations and solutions and the entire structure of the debate must change to reflect the higher level of precision that is required for that debate.
Petersen: So. I'm trying to think of why these prices between regions might fall in the first half of the twentieth century and rise thereafter. I suppose a lot of it would be real estate, housing?
Geloso: Exactly. So housing markets in the U.S. are more or less freer in the first half of the twentieth century than they are today. So most prices, if you can trade a good across borders it will arbitrage out price differences minus transport, right? So if goods are movable more or less as well, and you find it for food, for TVs, for durable goods, you tend to find that there's actually still convergence.
But housing, you can't really move a house. There's actually movable houses but they're not a massive share of the market. So you'd expect less ability---and I'm saying this as a euphemism---but you'd expect less ability for arbitrage with housing. The only way you can do arbitrage for housing is by moving around.
So I am in Mississippi and I see super high wages in New York. I move from Mississippi to New York. So in Mississippi there's one more housing unit available and in New York there's one less housing unit available. I've driven up housing prices in New York and I've got higher wages but housing is a little more expensive in New York and then it falls in the region where I left in terms of housing, so that real wages in that region converged. So there's a convergence in real wages by people moving around.
The problem now is that, there is very, very, very little ability to move around in the United States because zoning restrictions actually make it harder for people to come and exploit the productivity of large cities like New York. So it prevents this convergence in real terms across regions.
So a large part of the increase in inequality needs to be corrected for regional price differences, which is the argument about housing. And this is where it's probably that the soundest part of our argument is that the Rognlie papers that attack Piketty state that a large part of inequality was driven by rents towards housing, so the fact that income derives from housing is increasing importantly as a share of total income and has nothing to do with capital itself. It's really the artificial restrictions on housing.
And this is largely the problem the inability of people to move to where wages are the most important. This changes the narrative. So that's why the story of regionally correcting price differences is crucial and it's rarely done over a long time series data set. But given the evolution of prices in the United States since 1900, it will affect the trend dramatically.
It will affect the level, the shape, and this is not integrated in the argument. And this is why we're saying in this paper, each time you make a correction to get a higher level of precision, it's getting more and more plausible that the curve of inequality doesn't look like a U, it looks probably like an L, probably like a J, but not a U. So the early period of the twentieth century is not as high as people have claimed and there's probably been an increase since the 1970s. Not as much as some would claim, but the increase seems to have happened. The U-curve is probably just fictional. It is the result of poor controls or variations in equality of the taxes.
Petersen: We've discussed the housing issue on other episodes of this podcast but it's sort of a one-two punch to inequality, where the people who, you know, maybe have bought a house in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1980s, have seen the value of that house skyrocket. And so of course that would contribute to the upper end of that wealth distribution. And the people who live in Mississippi and might like to move to the San Francisco Bay area and work for Google, can't afford to do it because of the extremely high price of rent there. So, that's reducing mobility and exacerbating these regional differences and also directly increasing the wealth of people who own homes who are, of course, already on the wealthier side.
Geloso: Yes, in a static term, correcting for price differences across region. So if you were to take a picture of the economy right now and you make a picture of inequality based only on nominal incomes across the country---just using U.S. dollars---you'll get a higher level than if you correct for regional price differences.
However, it's quite likely that if you were to make a movie of how inequality evolved, the housing restrictions---and this is a comment that's outside our paper and it's just something I think it's worth commenting on---if you make it so that it's impossible to move from low-income Mississippi to high-income California, you're going to make sure that inequality stays high and probably increases.
If, let's say, there's a shock to international trade and Mississippi area tended to be manufacturing and people can't move from manufacturing to higher productivity jobs in San Francisco. So in dynamic terms, housing restrictions by preventing mobility prevent a strong equalizing source of income. So in static terms you get the level wrong, but in a dynamic term you're preventing the powerful force of mobility across the country---and this is something I like to point out---if you look for example, you bring someone from Italy to Canada in 1890, his income increased 300% as soon as he got to Canada. He was much richer the minute he set foot in Canada. You probably increased inequality in Canada---I don't know about if you decrease it or increase it in Italy---but when you move that guy away, you probably reduce global inequality. So by moving people to where the incomes are higher you level off inequality.
In the United States it's the same narrative, you prevent this equalizing force from working through housing restrictions and making adjustments for---this is beyond the scope of our own research---but making adjustments for the increasing restrictiveness of housing that prevents mobility, you will probably get a large part of increasing inequality in the United States or even in England, which is also a situation like that, and in France, is not the result of terrible market forces responding to terrible government policies.
Petersen: My guest today has been Vincent Geloso. Vincent thanks for being part of Economics Detective Radio.
Geloso: It was a pleasure.
Fri, 21 October 2016
What follows is an edited transcript of my conversation with Emily Hamilton about land use regulations' effects on affordable housing.
Hamilton: Thanks a lot for having me.
Petersen: So, Emily recently wrote a paper titled "How Land Use Regulation Undermines Affordable Housing" along with her co-author Sanford Ikeda. The paper is a review of many studies looking at land use restrictions and it identifies four of the most common types of land use restrictions. Those are: minimum lots sizes, minimum parking requirements, inclusionary zoning, and urban growth boundaries. So Emily, could you tell us what each of those restrictions entail?
Hamilton: Sure. So, starting off with the first, minimum lots sizes. This is probably what people most commonly associate with zoning. It's the type of Euclidian zoning that separates residential areas from businesses and then within residential areas limits the number of units that can be on any certain size of land. And this is the most common tool that makes up what is sometimes referred to as Snob Zoning, where residents lobby for larger minimum lots sizes and larger house sizes to ensure that their neighbors are people who can afford only that minimum size of housing.
Petersen: So it keeps the poor away, effectively.
Hamilton: Exactly. And then parking requirements are often used as a tool to ensure that street parking doesn't get too congested. So when cars first became common, parking was really crazy where people would just leave their car on the street, maybe double parked, or in an inconvenient situation near their destination. And obviously as driving became more and more common and that was just an untenable situation and there had to be some sort of order to where people were allowed to park. But street parking remained typically free or underpriced relative to demand. So, people began lobbying for a parking requirement that would require business owners and residential developers to provide parking that was off streets so that this underpriced street parking remained available. But that brought us to today where we often have just mass seas of parking in retail areas and residential areas, which are paper focuses on. Parking substantially contributes to the cost of housing, making it inaccessible in some neighborhoods for low income people and driving up the cost of housing for everyone who has been using the amount of parking that their developer was required to provide.
Petersen: So that's one where you can really see the original justification. And it makes sense, if you have a business and a lot of people are parking and it spills over onto the street then maybe that's an externality. And it seems reasonable for you to have to provide parking for the people who come to your business, especially if a lot of them are driving there. But we push that too far, is what I'm hearing.
Hamilton: Exactly. Yeah, it does seem reasonable but the argument in favor of parking requirements tends to ignore that business owners have every incentive to make it easy to get to their business. So, in many cases there's not necessarily an externality because the business owner providing the parking has the right incentive to provide enough to make it easy for their customers to get there. The externality really comes up when we think about street parking and Donald Shoup---probably the world's foremost expert on parking---has made the argument that pricing street parking according to demand is a real key in getting parking rules right.
Petersen: So, on to the next one. What is inclusionary zoning?
Hamilton: Inclusionary zoning is a rule that requires developers to make a certain number of units in a new development accessible to people at various income levels. Often inclusionary zoning is tied with density bonuses. So, a developer will have the choice to make a non-inclusionary project that is only allowed to have the regular amount of density that that lot is zoned for. Or, he can choose to take the inclusionary zoning density bonus which will allow him to build more units overall including the inclusionary unit and additional market-rate units. Typically, units are affordable to people who are making a certain percentage of the area median income, so people who might not have low income but who are making not enough to afford a market rate unit in their current neighborhood.
Petersen: Okay, so that's sort of forcing developers to build affordable units that they then will probably lose money on, so that they can build the market rate units that they can make money on.
Hamilton: Exactly. That's how cities make inclusionary zoning attractive to developers is by giving them that bonus that can allow them to build more market rate housing. In other cities, however, inclusionary zoning is required for all new developments so it really varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction how it's implemented.
Petersen: So the fourth land use restriction you mention is urban growth boundaries. What are those?
Hamilton: So Oregon is the most famous example in the US of implementing an urban growth boundary. And what it is, is basically a state law that requires each city to set up a boundary around its edges, where for a certain amount of time no housing can be built outside of that boundary. And the idea is to gradually expand the city's footprint over time to allow the suburbs to expand a little further, but to restrict that suburban development using the boundary for some time period. Other examples like London's urban growth boundary I believe are permanent, so there are certain areas that can never be developed.
Petersen: So I believe we have something like this in Vancouver. We have farmland in the metro Vancouver area which---for context this area is one of the most overheated high-priced housing markets in the world---and we have this land that's just zoned for farms. And a lot of the time people don't even bother to plant crops, they're just holding the land for the day when eventually it can be rezoned into housing. So I looked it up before we went on and some of these plots are $350,000 an acre, which of course is not reflective of just how productive they are as farmland but of how productive they would be when they are eventually rezoned.
Hamilton: Exactly. Yes, very similar to Oregon's program. And a lot of empirical studies have been done on Portland's growth boundary because researchers can easily look at the block that are selling on either side of the boundary to see whether or not it's affecting land prices and several studies have found a very clear effect of the boundary in driving up the price of the land.
Petersen: And in Vancouver, the city is very reluctant to rezone. So, people are constantly applying and being denied but you know it's like winning the lottery having your bit of useless farmland rezoned to super high value housing. And people are just holding on to those dead lands in the hopes of winning that lottery which is kind of---it's a bizarre outcome.
Hamilton: It is. And urban growth boundary supporters often frame it as environmental regulation that's going to protect this open space. While encouraging people to live in more dense and transit and walkable friendly neighborhoods, but it's not as if Portland is free of other types of zoning rules. So at the same time it has this urban growth boundary it also has a lot of traditional zoning rules that limit the potential to build up while the growth boundary is limiting the potential to grow out. So it's coming from both directions.
Petersen: So, just how costly do economists think these regulations are? What kind of estimates do they have?
Hamilton: So, I think some of the most compelling estimates look at the macroeconomic effect of these rules. Because typically the most binding zoning rules are also in the most productive cities, where there's the highest level of demand for people to live. Because these are where the best jobs are as well as the best urban amenities, a lot of people want to live here. One study looking at this macroeconomic effect found that the three most productive cities which are New York, San Francisco, and San Jose---I should clarify; this is just looking at the effective growth within US---if those three cities lowered the burden of their land use regulation to that of the median American city it could result in a 9% increase in the level of US GDP. So, these rules are having just an enormous effect on economic growth. Not to mention the very substantial effect they have for individuals and making it difficult or impossible for people to afford to live in their desired location.
Petersen: So, you know, San Francisco that's where Silicon Valley is. And so we think of it as a place with super high productivity---tech workers working at Google---and yet with their housing market being one of the most restricted. So not only is there the loss from the housing market itself, that you could sell a lot of housing there and that would increase GDP by itself, but also there are people living in less productive areas doing less productive jobs, who could come and work for Google. But they can't because they've been priced out of the market. Is that where most of the effect comes from?
Hamilton: That's right. Yeah, I think the effect is also certainly at that top-end of the market where we're seeing all kinds of blog posts and articles about a person making six figures at Facebook who can't afford the Bay area. So those people might choose to go live in say Denver, or Austin, or a city that still has plenty of great jobs but isn't as productive as San Francisco or San Jose. But then we also see this down the income spectrum, where people who are in the service industry, say waiting tables, could make much more in San Francisco then they can in Houston, or wherever they happen to live. But their quality of life is much better in some of less productive cities because of the cost of housing and other areas of consumption that higher real estate costs drive up.
Petersen: One thing I've heard about a lot of these Californian coastal cities---I think it was Palo Alto---where not a single member of the Palo Alto Police Department lives in Palo Alto because you just can't live there on a policeman's salary, so they all have to commute in every day and then commute out every night.
Hamilton: Yeah, and for some of these hugely important needed services it just makes the quality of life of the people in those industries so much worse than it would be if they could afford to live closer to their job.
Petersen: Right. So, to summarize the labor market mobility of the United States in general has been greatly restricted by these land use restrictions. Even though the land use restrictions are local, this has an effect on the national economy.
Hamilton: Exactly right. And we can see this in the data where income convergence across areas of the country has greatly slowed down since the 1970's when these rules really started taking off.
Petersen: You argue that the costs of these restrictions fall primarily on low-income households so can you talk through how that happens?
Hamilton: Sure. It happens in two ways. First off, you have the low income people who are living in very expensive cities and these people might have to endure very long commutes---you talked about the police officer in Palo Alto who can't live anywhere near his job. Not that police officers are low income, but just as an example that illustrates the point. Or they have to live in very substandard housing, perhaps a group house that's just crammed with people maybe even illegally, in order to afford to live anywhere near where they're working.
Petersen: Yeah, I was going to say I thought those group houses were illegal from these very same land use regulations, but I guess people get around it.
Hamilton: Yeah, a lot of US cities have rules about the number of unrelated people who can live in a house. And certainly those rules are sometimes broken. That, I think, is clear to anyone who's spent time in an expensive city. You know, people have to live in these less than ideal conditions and waste too much of their time commuting in order to make that work. But the unseen version of it is the person who lives in a low-income part of the country and would like to improve their job opportunity and quality of life by moving to somewhere more productive, but they simply can't make it work so they stay in that low-income area without meeting their working potential.
Petersen: There was a study by David Autor---I think I cited it in a previous episode and got the author name wrong but it's definitely David Autor---and it was looking at the shock, the trade shock that hit United States when it opened up trade with China in the early 2000's. And it basically showed that a lot of parts of the country just never recovered. So, if you worked in particular industries---I think the furniture industry was one that was basically wiped out---and if you worked in a town next to a furniture factory and that was your job, not only did you lose your job, you lost all the value in your home because the one industry in the town is gone. And you can't afford to move to one of the booming industries like Silicon Valley or in another part of the country because they've so greatly restricted the elasticity of their housing supply. And that's not all, Autor's paper basically just shows that it took a very long time to recover from the shock and a lot of places didn't recover at all. But I really think that housing is part of that picture if you're trying to figure out why the US economy can't respond to shocks like it used to in the 20th century. That has to be a big part of the picture.
Hamilton: Definitely. And that trend, as far as people being able to leave these depressed or economically stagnant areas, this also comes out in the income's convergence as we talked about earlier.
Petersen: So, the other part of that, I saw in your paper, was not only are poor people hurt but rich people who already own homes have seen those home prices rise. So it's affecting inequality at both ends of the spectrum, correct?
Hamilton: Right, Bill Fischel at Dartmouth has done a lot of work on why it is that people lobby so hard in favor of rules that restrict development. And he terms it as the Homevoter Hypothesis, where people who own homes have a huge amount of their wealth tied up in their home and so they are in favor of rules that protect that asset and prevent any shocks such as a huge amount of new development that could result in a decline in their homes value. I think you talked about that in your episode with Nolan Gray on trailer parks.
Petersen: Yeah, we talked about William Fischel's Homevoter Hypothesis. So the essence of that is that people vote in local elections, and they lobby to restrict the supply of housing in their neighborhood, and that increases their wealth by, you know, increasing the land values in that area. How do you deal with that when there's such an entrenched special interest everywhere to push up land prices?
Hamilton: I think that's the hugely difficult problem. And at the same time as we have the challenges with the Homevoter system that Fischel plays out, we have a lot of federal policies that encourage homeownership as not just a good community-building tool but also as an investment. So people are programmed by the federal government to see their house as an investment in spite of economic challenges that it presents. David [Schleicher]---a law professor at Yale---has done some really interesting work on ways that institutional changes could limit the activity of homeowners and lobbying against new development. One of his proposals is called a Zoning Budget. And under a zoning budget, municipalities would have to allow a certain amount of population growth each year. So, they could designate areas of a city that are going to only be home to single family homes, but within some parts of the city, they would have to allow building growth to accommodate a growing population.
Petersen: How would that be enforced, though?
Hamilton: It would have to be a state law, or perhaps a federal law, but I think much more likely a state law that would mandate that localities do that. Massachusetts recently passed a law that requires all jurisdictions within the state to allow at least some multifamily housing. So it's kind of a similar idea. The state government can set a floor on how much local government can restrict development.
Petersen: So, what I'm hearing is that different levels of government have different incentives with respect to restrictions. So, at the lowest level if I'm just in a small district or municipal area and I can restrict what my neighbors build on their property, that really affects my home price and that's the main thing that I'm going to lobby for at that level of government. But if I had to go all the way to the state government to try to push up house prices in my neighborhood, it wouldn't go so well. The state government has incentives to allow more people to live within their boundaries. Is that the gist of it?
Hamilton: Yeah, that's right. It's easy to imagine a mayor of a fancy suburban community who simply represents his constituents' views that the community already has enough people, you know, life there is good and so nothing needs to change. But, I don't think that you'd find a Governor that would say "Our state doesn't need any more people or economic growth." So the incentives are less in favor of homeowners, local homeowners, the further up you go from the local to state jurisdiction.
Petersen: Right. I guess a big issue is that the people who would like to move somewhere but live somewhere else don't get to vote in that place's elections or in their ballot measures. And so there's this group that has an interest in lower housing costs because they might move to your city or your town, if they could afford it, but they're not represented politically in that city or town and so they can't vote for more housing and lower prices. But then when you go to the whole state level and people are mobile within a state, those people do have a say or they are represented and pricing them out of the places they'd like to live really is bad for politics, bad for getting their votes.
Hamilton: Right. So the Palo Alto police officer can't vote to change Palo Alto's policies but he can vote to change California policy.
Petersen: Right, because he still lives within California. So one of the other policy recommendations I saw in your paper is tax increment local transfers or TILTs. What are they and how can they impact land use restrictions?
Hamilton: That's another idea that comes from David Schleicher and I think it's another really interesting concept. The idea behind TILT is that a new development increases the property tax base within a jurisdiction. So, if you have a neighborhood, say a block full of single family homes that is allowed to be sold to a developer in order to build a couple of large apartment buildings, each apartment is going to be less expensive than the previous single family homes, but overall the apartment buildings will contribute more to property tax. And the idea behind a TILT is that part of this tax increment---which is the difference between the new tax base and the previous smaller tax base---could be shared with neighbors to the new development to kind of buy off their support for the development. So, those people who are in some sense harmed by the new buildings, whether in terms of more traffic or a change in their neighborhood's character, also benefit from the new building financially. So they're more likely to support it.
Petersen: So economists talk about Potential Pareto Improvements, where you have a situation where some people are made better off while other people are worse off, but you could have a transfer to make everyone better off. And what I'm hearing with TILTs is you actually do that transfer, you actually pay off the losers with some of the surplus you get from the winners. So everyone can be better off when you make this overall beneficial change.
Hamilton: Exactly. And sometimes communities do use community benefit as a tool to try to get developers to share their windfall and build a new project with the neighborhood. So they might say, "you can build an apartment building here, but you also have to build a swimming pool that the whole neighborhood can use at this other location," and in a way that achieves the end goal of buying off community support for new development. But it also drives up the cost of the new housing that the developer can provide. So TILTs have the advantage of keeping the cost of building the same for the developer, but still sharing that financial windfall of the new development with a broader group of people.
Petersen: Yeah, I really like these policy recommendations. It would be so easy to just say "land use restrictions are bad, let's not have those anymore." But these really have an eye to the political structures that we currently have and towards making progress within the structure we have. So I like that approach to policy or to policy recommendations. I think economists should maybe do that more often.
Hamilton: Yeah, looking for a win-win outcome.
Petersen: The one other one that I don't think we've talked about is home equity insurance, which sounds like a business plan more than a policy proposal. But how can home equity insurance help to reduce the costs of land use restrictions?
Hamilton: That proposal also came from Bill Fischel a couple of decades ago following on his work of the Homevoters theory. He proposed the idea that the reason home owners are so opposed to new development is often because they have so much of their financial wealth tied up in this house that they're not just opposed to a loss in their investment, but even more so, opposed to risk. So they want the policies that they see will limit the variance in their home equity and he proposed home equity insurance as a financial goal that could lower this threat and provide homeowners with a minimum amount of equity that they would have regardless to the new development. I think it's a really interesting concept but it's unclear, would this be a private financial product? Obviously the market isn't currently providing it, or would it be some kind of government policy? And while I do think it's very interesting, I think that we should be somewhat leery of new government policies that promote homeownership as a financial wealth building tool.
Petersen: Well, the funny thing is that usually with insurance, if you have fire insurance you want to minimize the moral hazard of that, you don't want people to say: "Well I've got fire insurance so I don't have to worry about fires anymore." But with this, you sort of want that, you have insurance on the value of your home and then actually your goal is to make people less worried about the value of their home so that they will be okay with policies that reduce it. It's almost the opposite of what you want with insurance most of the time. In this case you want to maximize moral hazard.
Hamilton: Yeah that's a great point and I think that's why it could only be a government product.
Petersen: Right. Because if the private sector was providing home price insurance to homeowners then the company that provided the insurance would now have an incentive to lobby against upzoning the neighborhood.
Hamilton: Exactly. Yeah it would create a new a new group of NIMBYs.
Petersen: Yeah, at first I thought 'Oh great!', well this is something that we can just do, without the government. You can just get a bunch of people together, who have an interest in making cities more livable and they can provide this financial asset. But that seems like there are problems with it that are hard to overcome within the private sector. So overall do you think the tide might be turning on the NIMBYs? Are people becoming more aware of this issue and of land use restrictions and their effects on housing prices?
Hamilton: I do think awareness is growing. There's a group popping up called YIMBY which stands for "Yes In My Backyard" as opposed to the suburban NIMBY to say "Not In My Backyard" to any sort of new development. And these YIMBY groups are gaining some traction in cities like San Francisco and lobbying in favor of new development to counter the voices that oppose new development. I am somewhat pessimistic, I have to say, just because from a public choice standpoint the forces in favor of land use regulations that limit housing are so powerful. But in spite of my pessimism, I'm seeing since the time that I started working on this issue several years ago, much more coverage of the issue from all kinds of media outlets, as well as much more interest in on-the-ground politics from people who aren't in the typical homeowner category.
Petersen: Yeah, and I am hopeful too. But I often see people blame other factors for high home prices. They blame the speculators. The speculators are always the ones that are pushing up home prices. And rarely, I think, do people blame restrictions, although the YIMBY movement is a happy exception to that.
Hamilton: Yeah, I think way too often real estate developers are framed as the enemy in these debates because they're the ones who make money off building new housing. But it's really the regulations that are to blame both for the inordinate profits that developers can make in expensive cities, and for the high costs of housing.
Petersen: Do you have any closing thoughts about land use restrictions?
Hamilton: I think that it's just really important to try to spread the message about the costs that these regulations have. Not just for low-income people but for the whole country and world economic growth. That's obviously a cause that I would think everyone would be behind: creating opportunity for people to live in the most productive cities where they can contribute the most to society and to the economy.
Petersen: My guest today has been Emily Hamilton. Emily, thanks for being part of Economics Detective Radio.
Hamilton: Thanks a lot for having me.
Fri, 14 October 2016
In this episode, I discuss the process of writing and being successful with Mike Munger. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Petersen: My guest today is Mike Munger of Duke University. Mike, welcome to Economics Detective Radio!
Munger: It's a pleasure to be on your show!
Petersen: So first I stole EconTalk's format and now I have stolen Mike Munger as well, so if Russ Roberts sends me a cease and desist letter, I'll completely understand why.
Munger: Russ and I have an open relationship. We both date other people.
Petersen: Oh good, good. I have many jokes I could make about that, but I won't!
Munger: Thank you for not.
Petersen: So, our topic today is going to be writing and thinking. Let's say that because, as we'll go through, the two are intimately related. So Mike wrote a piece titled "Ten Tips on How to Write Less Badly." Now you may be thinking to yourself, "Hey I thought this was an economics podcast! What does writing have to do with economics?"
Well, writing is what economists do and if you write either for your career, or your hobbies, I'm sure you'll find something in this discussion that will be helpful to you. So Mike, you start your piece by saying that you've seen many talented people fail because they couldn't or didn't write. I think the impression a lot of people get while growing up is that writing is the easy subject and that math and science are hard, so how is it that these talented people get tripped up by writing of all things?
Munger: Well, writing at all is not that difficult, I suppose like running at all is not that difficult. Most of us can at least run 10 meters. The point is that, if you want to be a professional economist, you are one of those people who actually found math pretty easy and you may not have practiced writing very much. So, I said, I've seen a lot of talented people fail because I was Department Chair here at Duke for 10 years and it's hard to get tenure at Duke, it's not a reward for past behavior, it's a hire. We are trying to guess if you're going to continue to produce interesting and important research after all material incentive to do that has been removed. Because once you have tenure you basically can't be fired. It's not quite true, but it's pretty close to true.
So you get six years, I've watched 8 people doing this while I was Chair. You get six years to develop your research agenda and to show that you are going to continue to publish after you no longer have any incentive to do that. Now, what a lot of people do is, for four years they'll work on a few things but not very assiduously and the last two years they will work furiously and they'll have two or three things forthcoming and say, well, like it's a video game, I've done enough to get tenure. What they're saying is, if you ever give me tenure I will never publish anything ever again, which not surprisingly doesn't work out well. So six of the eight people who came up were fired. And when I, as Chair, had to tell them this, they cried, they were surprised, which probably means that I am a bad Chair, but I had tried to communicate over and over again that they needed to develop a research agenda and the way to do that is to write about it, and to write about it every day. That doesn't mean that everything that you'll write will eventually be used, but again, I would go back to the running analogy. Or let's say a soccer game.
Suppose you knew those six months from now, you'll have a very important soccer game. You wouldn't wait until the night before the soccer game and practice all night. You would practice for an hour or two every day, recover, think about it, try to get better, but that's not how we do writing. All of us, who are at the level of thinking about graduate school and economics, are clever monkeys. We have always been good enough, that we can wait until the night before and write some bunch of crap and have it be good enough, because we're smarter than the other people. Well, now you're in with a group of people all of whom have always been able to do that and some of them are going to figure out that if you actually starts six months in advance, and work on the thing every day, and throw away most of it, time after time, and start over, your paper is going to be a lot better. And if you look at the books and articles that you think are important, the very things that got you excited about being in economics in the first place, none of those, not one, did the author stay up the night before it was due and write it.
Adam Smith worked for years on 'The Wealth of Nations.' He showed it to people, he talked to people, he went for walks and muttered to himself. At one point he was so obsessed with what he was thinking about, he walked right into a noisome sump, that is the chemicals leftover after you have tanned leather. He didn't even notice where he was going! It smelled terrible, he didn't even notice by sight or smell because he was so busy thinking about this stuff, that he had been working on for years and would continue to work on for years. So part of this is my own cri de coeur, my own cry from the heart saying, it's so hard to watch talented people fail when they could have succeeded, because they didn't get this simple message---you have to teach other people. Sometimes you do it in the classroom, most of the time you do it through your writing. If you don't get good at that, you're going to fail. So don't start. If you don't think you want to write, don't become an academic in the first place.
Petersen: Yeah, I guess another analogy is, you can be very naturally adept at swimming and that can make you an above average swimmer, but not one of those people swimming at the Olympics isn't both an above average swimmer naturally, and someone who has trained day after day, after day to be there.
Munger: Not just at the Olympics. This is if you want to enter a swimming contest at the local YMCA, those other people are on the top one half of one percent. They're not near the Olympics, but they're going to kick your butt unless you've been practicing and practicing and practicing.
Petersen: Yeah, and I guess undergraduate education is less like the YMCA; it's sort of the kiddie pool. You really can get by without practice, but you won't necessarily get much out of it.
Munger: You won't learn much about writing, and what you write won't be very good, it will just be good enough, that because you're clever and good at this you can produce something that the professor is going to read and say "Ok, I sort of see what the argument is, that's better than the others: A." So that's not a 'good enough' it's just a 'better that the other losers' who aren't going to get to graduate school in the first place. And by losers I mean, people who are going to have successful lives.
Petersen: Yeah, we have a funny definition of winning in academia.
Munger: It's not clear you're really want to win. Although, to be fair getting tenure someplace and having the ability to write every day about the stuff you are interested in, there really is no better life. The problem is with the six or eight and in my case ten years, because I had a hard time finding a job, that went before that.
Petersen: Yeah, so that's covered your first tip in that essay, which was, "writing is an exercise." The second tip was to set goals based on an output, not input. Can you explain that?
Munger: One of the things that junior people do and that graduate students also do is to define how hard they're working by how long they spend outside of their apartment and in their office and they might even be at their desk, they might be in a coffee shop. What they're not doing, is facing the terrors of that blinking cursor. So the difficulty with any metric based on inputs is that you're not thinking, "am I actually doing something?" A metric that's based on output focuses more on writing. Now, that can be misleading because you can write badly but the same thing would be true of running or swimming. Sometimes when you have a workout it doesn't go that well but at least you're doing it so you wouldn't define how hard you work out by how much time you spent in the gym. You would say what exercises you actually did. It makes no more sense than that to define how hard you work by how much time you spent in the office, going to other offices, drinking coffee, talking to people, checking Facebook. None of that actually counts. So you have to set very high goal, five hundred, seven hundred fifty words per day, every day, five days a week and you will be a famous and successful academic. That again is the sort of dirty secret since no one does this. A lot of economics articles are only ten or twelve thousand words. So if you write five hundred words a day and you end up throwing away three hundred of those words you're still every ten days going to have two thousand usable words. So twice or three times a year you're going to have enough to have a journal article even if you're throwing away 60% of what you write. And here's the other thing: you learn by writing. What I find frustrating is a lot of people will count reading as work and it's not.
Reading is an important input to work just like sleep and having a good breakfast. But in order to be an academic you have to write and the nice thing about writing is, you're writing along and you think, "oh right I understand this." You're trying to summarize the argument of some thinker and you realize "I don't understand it!" Now you go back and you read it, but you read it in a way that allows you to engage in a conversation with that writer. The nice thing about writing is that it allows you to communicate over time and space. I can look at something that was written 300 years ago and try to divine what was in the mind of that writer, what is he or she trying to communicate. And good writing creates in my mind an image or a logic similar to what was in that person's mind even though they're distant in time and space. So when I'm writing I read things differently. I've seen people count as reading, they go through a book, they go through an article they have three different colors of highlighting and they always think they're going to come back. None of that actually went through their brain. But if you're writing then you go to read something, you're looking for a specific question. You read better. So I actually ask my graduate students when they're working on their dissertation, on their third or fourth year, to put up a three by five card in their workspace that says: "Don't read, write! If you're writing you'll become a better reader."
Petersen: Yeah, there's an irony in someone who has gone through years of economics education, who could explain to you exactly why the labor theory of value is not correct, applying it to their own work implicitly.
Munger: Absolutely, it's "My day was valuable, I spent 11 hours at the office. Holy cow!"
Petersen: Yeah, my own version of that was at the end of my first year of my PhD, I spent a lot of time in the office and I realized that I spent so little time at home that I actually only went through I think one full roll of toilet paper. So it's sort of the metric being what I didn't do which was spend time at home and therefore in my own bathroom.
Munger: We get it. We get it Garrett. But it is interesting, that's necessary but not sufficient for success. Jim Buchanan always said, "The key to success is apply the behind." He didn't say "behind," he used a different word, but apply your behind to the chair. So you're actually in the chair at your desk and you are writing. Now for him that meant moving a pen across a piece of paper, for us it means typing on a keyboard. Either way, if you apply your behind to the chair---the actual chair at your desk, not the one in front of the desk of one of your friends so you can drink coffee and talk---you'll get a lot done. You'll learn a lot and you'll notice after just a couple of years that there's a divergence, not only in your ability to write but in your understanding of a lot of key issues because you've thought of these things pretty deeply. And the thing that's interesting about that is other people who haven't been writing may at one point have been ahead of you. Maybe they were better at classes but you have to learn to make the transition between being good at taking classes---which is why many of us want to go to graduate school---to being good at expressing our thoughts on paper in a way that other people find interesting. So the emphasis on classes is misleading, your first year in class, second year in class---you get A's but you haven't really developed your own research agenda. That's not as good as the person that actually practices, works on writing and after a year or two has developed a talent.
Adam Smith has an interesting story about this with the Street Porter and the Philosopher. So the Street Porter and the Philosopher are not as different as the Philosopher wants to think. The difference was the Street Porter spent a lot of time carrying bags and the Philosopher spent a lot of time reading and writing. Well after just a few years they seem like different people but it's because, hour by hour, the philosopher spent time writing. You can be the Philosopher. If you don't write, you're going to stay the Street Porter.
Petersen: Another tip you give is to find a voice. Don't just get published. But isn't getting published the point? What's wrong with making that your end goal?
Munger: Let's think about entrepreneurs. Suppose you have two people who fancy themselves to be entrepreneurs. One of them says, "I want to make profits, I don't care how." The other one says "I have a vision of this great product that's going to transform this industry." Who's more likely to make profit? The second, paradoxically the second. Well if I say "I don't care about what I write I just want to get published," my work is going to suck. It's going to lack any kind of imagination or motivation or the reader is going to look at it and say "I don't even understand why this guy is writing." But the person that's found something that he or she is passionate about is actually more likely to get stuff published. So paradoxically the way to be published is to be passionate about what you're writing. If all you're trying to do is get published, that's going to come through. It will just seem instrumental and not very interesting.
Petersen: Yes. So Scott Alexander writing at Slate Star Codex had an article recently where he made the distinction between what he called pushing and pulling goals, where a pull goal is when you want to achieve something so you come up with a plan and a structure. Whereas a push goal is where you have a plan and a structure so you'd scramble to try to find something to achieve. This strikes me as another version of the same thing where to just "get published," you know you want thirty pages double spaced with some graphs in there and you don't really care what your message is. That's just not a good way to write is what I'm hearing.
Munger: Right. It's not a good way to write good things and again Jim Buchanan, who is one of my heroes, when he would interview perspective job candidates, particularly people who were young, he would pose them a question. I'm not quoting him exactly but it was something close to this: Supposed you have three choices. A) You could be for or five years the most famous economist writing for The New York Times and be on talk shows. B) You can win a Nobel Prize. C) You can write something that people are still going to read one hundred years from now. Which one would you pick? And Jim was---he actually achieved B obviously, he won the Nobel Prize---but he was interested in people who at least had some aspiration to write something that someone's going to want to read a hundred years from now. Now you may fail in that, but if there's not something that you're working on that at least has that aspiration, then it's going to come across that your work is just shallow, superficial, not very important and honestly not really worth doing.
Petersen: That has got to be the hardest interview question I've ever heard.
Munger: Well he was pretty scary, I actually interviewed at George Mason and talked to him and I was desperate for this job. I really wanted the position at George Mason and it turns out Jim Buchanan found me wanting, so I went through this and ended up on the wrong side of that line and it has stuck with me. So, now I do try to have some answers to that question at least to myself. So I try to work on things that are of some importance, but it was terrifying to be interviewed by him anyway. And when he asked that question, you're really just trying to get a job, you haven't published anything, you're trying to finish your thesis, that sort of seems far away. But he was absolutely right to want people who have that kind of mindset.
Petersen: One of your tips is that everyone's unwritten work is brilliant. How is it brilliant?
Munger: Well in my mind I have an argument and the premises make sense. The logic by which those premises are developed and integrated makes good sense and the conclusion is important. Now the problem is when I write it down. It turns out there's some holes in it, and when I examine those holes and sort of work at them---it's like you're thinking about moving into an apartment and you touch the wall, the wall gives way and a bunch of cockroaches come out. Ahhh it's pretty scary! Most of us, these are the arguments that we have in mind, particularly if you haven't really been writing, and by writing I would count a model. So I have an intuition about how something's going to work. I work out the steps in the model and it turns out step four is "a miracle occurs here." Well you can't actually use a miracle as a step in an argument and that means the argument is not very good but you don't know that until you write it out. But that's why many people don't write it out. And one of the things that I talk about in the article is "don't be that guy," and the guy that I have in mind, I actually knew a person like this.
Most graduate students when I talk to them say, "oh yeah, I know that guy." The guy is a third or fourth or eighth year graduate student and you meet him in a bar or somebody's house and he's got a cigarette and in the other hand he has a drink. He takes a long hole in the cigarette and then for two or three minutes he tells you what his dissertation is about. And you say, "Holy smokes that's amazing! What you're going to do is so important!" And you tell somebody else that the next day at the office and they just laugh and say, "Yeah he's been working on that two-hundred-word speech for five years. He's never written anything." So you know, the young people are all terrified of this guy. The older people realize he's a loser because the older people all realize they have trouble summarizing their argument because they're in the middle of writing it and there are several places, where it says "a miracle occurs here." He hasn't thought about it enough to know where the impossible miracles will be required in his argument, he's just smoothed this over and he's practiced this pat little pathetic speech.
So if you're working as hard as you need to be you're going to be confused and miserable and not sure that it's right because only unwritten work is brilliant. If you're actually working on it you know better than anyone else where all the holes are and where all the places where if you touch the wall the cockroaches come pouring out. So don't be that guy. It's easy to be the hero. And notice that this 8th year grade student only hangs out with the first and second year grad student because these are the only people that still believe his crap.
Petersen: Yeah one of the most frustrating things about being human is how little connection there is between the way our brains seem to work, from when we're sort of observing ourselves from the inside, and the way they actually work. So when psychology really came into its own as a field, the psychologists quickly discovered that introspection really wouldn't get them very far because it's so misleading trying to study a brain from the inside and part of this is your brain can come up with some really half-baked ideas that seem so brilliant.
Munger: There's a lot of plausible things. It just turns out that a lot of those possible things seem to be false. And if what you do is practice making them sound more plausible, you can fool people but that's why we have con artists. So you're exactly right. Human beings are basically set up to accept confidence for authority but they're not the same thing. Authority is someone who's really thought about it has developed an argument. Confidence is someone who has refused to develop the argument and just believes out of faith that they're correct and they practice their little thought. So another way to put it, and you're right to bring up psychology because we can be fooled by confidence into thinking that it's authority.
Petersen: Yeah. If you've ever had a dream where you had a great idea in the dream and then you wake up and think, "Oh my God, that idea is so brilliant I've got to write it down!" And it's always just total nonsense because your sleepy monkey brain just made you think it was great.
Munger: That actually happened to me. I went to college in the 70's and there were substances involved and so under the influence of some substance I would have an idea which I was convinced was brilliant and would write it down and of course the next morning I thought, "Wow, that's really stupid."
Petersen: Oh no. At least you wrote it down. You didn't spend years pursuing it.
Munger: Even then I wrote it, yes.
Petersen: So one of the tips you have is to pick a puzzle. What do you mean by that?
Munger: Well it's often hard to get started. So there are two reasons to pick a puzzle, one is that it's actually interesting, and the other is that it's rhetorically useful to be able to engage the attention of the reader. So I give examples of different puzzles in economics. One of the most common is "Theory says this, empirical results say this, they are contradictory. What's missing from the theory or how has the empirical test been conducted badly?" Another would be "Person A and Person B have the same set of assumptions but they come to a different conclusion. What is it about their models that causes this divergence?"
So if you have a puzzle like that, and the most important one. The third one, the most important one is "Suppose that there's this phenomenon and we don't really understand it and then there's this other apparently unrelated phenomenon, we don't really understand that. What turns out when you think of it correctly, both of them are the result of this economic principle and no one has recognized the fact that we can tie all this together." So as theories become stronger, they generally become simpler and more general. So an increase in simplicity and generality means that you can bring more apparently different phenomenon under a single explanatory umbrella and that's interesting to say, you think this is different but it's the same. So it's both a good research technique if you can do it, and it's engaging to the reader. So if you're not sure how to start thinking in those terms then the easiest one here is "Theory says this thing, empirical results say this. Do we need a better theory or better testing?" Anybody can do that because the journals are just full of those kinds of contradictions. I'm not saying that's perfect but it's a good way to get started.
Petersen: Yeah, and economics has a lot of theories and a lot of empirical work and a lot of them point in different directions. So you don't have to look far to find those kind of contradictions. So another tip you give is to write and then to squeeze other things in. This is a scheduling thing. What would be the wrong way to schedule your writing?
Munger: Well there's the sort of macro or general approach and the micro part of it. The macro approach is to think, "I need big blocks of time to write. And since I have to teach a class and go to a class, I have to teach a section of a class, or I have a meeting that I have to go to, or there's a talk this afternoon, I can't write because I don't have time." Actually you can only write for about 20 minutes at a time. The problem is it takes you ten minutes of thinking to get to the point where you're thinking clearly enough to write so it takes you 30 minutes to write for 20 minutes and if you get interrupted you can't start again. It usually takes another 10 minutes to get started.
So it is true that you do need some blocks of time. But if you can just find an hour somewhere, that's enough for two of those 30 minute blocks, you can get quite a bit done. After you've been writing for 20 minutes you have probably have to stop get up and get a cup of tea, walk around because you can't concentrate for that long. So all you need is an hour or so to be able to write.
So the macro consideration is---don't think, "Well since I have two meetings this day I can't write anything." The micro consideration is when to find the particular hour or two that you're going to write. And what many people do is they schedule their meetings or classes they have to teach at times when they're the sharpest mentally and that's a mistake. What you need to do is find the time that you're sharpest mentally, for me it's first thing in the morning, for many people it might be late at night. I'm a little skeptical of the late night because they waste all the time between 9 PM and 1 AM and then they write for one hour and say, "Man I really worked 'till 2 o'clock. That was great!" Yeah but what about the four hours between 9 PM and 1 AM? So I'm not so sure about the late night people, but OK fair enough. Let's suppose they actually are using their time wisely.
Pick the time that you're the most mentally sharp and schedule your time to the extent that you can control it to make sure that is reserved for writing and schedule everything else around it and what I found is that I can take the time when I am least mentally sharp which is between about 3 and 7 PM and I try to schedule my teaching then. Now that seems cynical, but I like teaching so much. And there's the energy that you get back from students that are interested and interesting, it's like super caffeine. So you can actually get up for teaching or leading discussion sections or maybe even go in for a talk---at times that you otherwise would have wasted or would be down time because those are social. Those are things where you're getting feedback. Writing there is no feedback. There's no one saying, "yes that's interesting." It's just you thinking, "Lord, I can't finish this paragraph. I'm an idiot." So you need to be at your mental best to be able to get through that.
Petersen: I think for me it probably would be the morning. I've got to jot down all these tips. Of course, I'm a graduate student so this is especially relevant to me. When should I be writing, how should I be writing.
Munger: You're still forming habits and learning about yourself, but thinking in these terms means that you'll get a head start.
Petersen: You mentioned that taking 10 minutes to get into writing and then doing 20 minutes of good writing. I think that lines up with the research people have done on flow. The idea that people self-hypnotize into a very productive, very focused state. And then if you break your flow then it actually takes a while to get back into it. You're self-aware for a while you're not as focused, as productive.
Munger: So a two-minute interruption doesn't cost you two minutes it costs you 12.
Petersen: Yeah, you need to find a place and a time where those two minute interruptions don't happen.
Munger: Yes and it doesn't take long. If you can get an hour and a half or two hours 4-5 days a week, you will be a famous and successful academic.
Petersen: Yay! That's what we want to hear.
Munger: The good news is anybody can do this. I find it so frustrating that they don't. By that I mean anyone smart enough to get into graduate school has plenty of good ideas, they just don't write them.
Petersen: That is sad, because there's such a high payoff to getting the writing done. But I guess it's sort of a delayed reward where you need a lot of self-control to be able to seize that payoff.
Munger: Garrett, you're going to graduate school! Clearly you are interested in delayed reward because you could have a job at a Donut Shop and have your own apartment and have money be able to go to bars not worry at weekends. Graduate school by its nature is one of the most, the strongest ways of putting off any sort of satisfaction into the distant future. So yes, it's a later payoff. But why would you go to graduate school and then not do the thing that actually will result in the payoff that you've apparently planned for. Here's the thing, a journal article---when you're in graduate, when you're starting your career---a refereed journal article will inflect upward your career trajectory and earnings by at least ten thousand dollars, one article. If it's in a pretty top journal, it's twenty-five thousand dollars. So, if you write an article and publish it, that's twenty-five thousand dollars. There's nothing else you're doing that has a higher payoff. Yes, it's delayed but it's not delayed that much and you're already in graduate school; you're already living a miserable existence.
Petersen: I'm lucky because my wife actually works in the real world. So I'm covered but (chuckles).
Munger: All right. Yes, you can remind her that you married better than she did.
Petersen: Yeah, I mean I'm sure she doesn't need much reminding.
Munger: As long as she doesn't remind you of that.
Petersen: Oh yeah. Try to avoid that.
Munger: Well I see graduate students who will teach during the summer and get paid $4000. You can write an article in the summer. That's at least $10,000. It makes no sense, your discount rate would be have to be awful high. If your discount rate is that high, why are you spending six years in graduate school in the first place?
Petersen: Yeah, that is the question. But yeah, I suppose you could be credit constrained, but that's a whole other issue.
Munger: You'd have to be really constrained for that to make sense because you can probably eat just beans and oatmeal for a couple of months. And the payoffs to writing an article really are huge because the way that it works out is, the first job that you get is a 2-2 teaching load at a research school and smart colleagues and the ability to go to conferences because they'll pay for it, or a 4-4 teaching load with colleagues that hate you and their own existence and give no support, no outside talk. So even if the same person, a clone of the same person, starts in those two jobs, the difference in their career trajectory is going to be enormous! Plus you already have a journal article published, so you'll start with a higher salary. So that first job makes a big difference to where you'll be in ten years. So you have to be pretty credit constrained not to take that into consideration
Petersen: The way it works with the ten thousand, it's not that you get a ten thousand dollars payment it's that you get a bigger raise or a bigger starting salary.
Munger: With better colleagues, more articles, you have the ten thousand as the present value. Well, but again, an economist should understand present value and they're in graduate school so they must have a low discount rate. So those are the ones I would expect to say I'm not going to teach. I'm going to borrow against my own future earnings. I'm going to loan myself this money and live really cheaply and write an article instead of teaching.
Petersen: Oh man, I'm just jotting all this down. OK, "don't teach in the summer." Of course some teaching is important, you do need to become a good teacher.
Munger: Yes, the kind of teaching that we tend to do, in the summer is pretty different, but you should. There's no question, you should be able to point to one class that you have yourself designed the syllabus for and have primary responsibility for teaching and grading when you go on the market. So I'll give you one---over five years, yes you should have taught one class yourself.
Petersen: But TA'ing is not good. It pays but it doesn't pay as well as writing.
Munger: Right, and when you go on the market and they say what teaching experience do you have and you say well I TA'd four times, they're going to stare at you like you're an idiot because you are.
Petersen: OK so one tip you give in the article is to edit your work over and over. So what is the editing process like for you?
Munger: Well it's terrible. I've written a number of books, I just was yesterday working on an analytical book review that's about 15 pages long and I looked at it this morning and said, "half of this is unusable." So I crossed it out and started over, I was thinking it was almost done and then I thought, oh no this is stupid. So even just one day later, I looked at it with much more critical eyes. So I would say it takes me at least ten complete rewrites to get to the point where I think my article is worth showing to someone else and then they usually have comments that require me to rewrite it at least two more times.
So the difficulty is everybody's first drafts are bad. Now I do have a talent. I write extremely fast but badly. If you had to pick that would be a pretty good way to be an academic because I also edit fast so I can go through, I can do a rewrite pretty quickly and every time I rewrite it becomes dramatically better. So there are people who write very slowly but well, they are going to have more trouble because a lot of times you don't know enough about your subject. It's well written but the subject is not very good because you need to learn more about it. So I have to admit I learned this in some ways from a master. Douglas North was one of my dissertation advisors and Douglas North won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1993. And Doug was famous for going and giving a talk, and it would be twelve pages long and have four citations, two to Douglas North, one to Adam Smith and one to more a recent economics paper. And the people in the audience would say, "Doug, this is terrible. If you were going to do this, here's what you have to do. You need to go read these five papers, all of them have written on your subject and they're better than yours." And he would write it down. He would write down their names he would make sure he got the citations. And next time he presented the paper, now it would have nine citations, before he started out with a five that had been suggested to him and he had added all of the suggestions and the paper actually wasn't terrible now but still people would see it and say, "Oh no, no, no, here's what you need to do." So he would go around---and it was almost as if he was outsourcing the references because he didn't read anything unless somebody said it was relevant---and he was outsourcing a lot of the ideas. And he would thank everyone, I'm not saying he was plagiarizing. He would gratefully acknowledge the suggestions of so and so in a footnote he might say this was suggested by so and so. But you write it, you go present it, you get comments, you think about it, you write it again, that is the way to be successful. And when it comes to editing, one of the things that you can avail yourself of---and this actually has become kind of a meme---people argue about whether they're "Munger compliant."
Munger compliant means that you have three articles in journals, and if you don't have three articles in journals all the time, you're not Munger compliant. Well the reason that that's important is, think in comparison to computer programming. So if I'm going to write a program or a job and send it to a computer, I don't stare at the code and try to make sure that the logic and syntax are correct. I submit the job and then it will come back with error message: here at this step you've left out a semi colon. So it won't run. You can't compile the code that you've written and it won't run. Nobody stares at the code to figure it out. They submit it to the computer and get back the error message. That's how journals work; you get this off your desk. You don't stare at the paper over and over again to make sure the code works, you send it to a journal. Now yes it takes a few months, that's why you have to have three papers out at all times, you have to diversify your portfolio of risk because there's a random element to this. Some good papers get turned down but some not very good papers get accepted because you get a lucky draw on the referee. So you send it out, it comes back, the referee says, "no no here's what you should do, add these five references." It's sort of like what Doug North did. And you do it, it becomes a much better paper. I've had some of my better papers turned down at five journals before they were finally published. And when they were published, they were pretty good, but that was because I had outsourced a lot of the research to smart referees. So you should think of that as machine-intensive debugging. Machine-intensive debugging means I don't debug my own program. I submit it to the computer and it comes back with an error message. Well I submit my articles to journals, they come back with three really smart people working unpaid as my research assistants. Now yes, they do say that "you're an idiot and your mother should never have been born," they make comments you want to ignore but by and large their suggestions improve your paper dramatically. So you should always try to be Munger compliant.
I told some of my graduate students, there will come a day when you will be upset when one of your papers is accepted because you will no longer be compliant. And a good friend of mine who is now a tenured full professor in England just wrote me and said, "Darn it, that finally happened. I got a paper accepted and I woke up in the middle of the night and I said, 'I only have two papers at journals! I have to go write something!'" That's a sign you're a success.
Petersen: Yeah, when you think about, I like what you said about the research assistants. If you wanted to hire twenty tenured faculty as research assistants you'd have to pay them thousands upon thousands of dollars. But you walk into a seminar room and give a bad talk and suddenly they're all throwing out suggestions and comments and they're being your research assistants for free.
Munger: And very helpful and they're grateful if you take their comment seriously. So that's actually---there's nothing wrong with doing that. The research enterprise is more collaborative than most people are willing to admit even to themselves, and the reason is because those useful comments come wrapped in, "you're an idiot." But if you can unwrap that and just take the kernel, the content of the message---because a lot of times when you give a seminar one of the problems with giving a seminar is you learn all the problems with the paper. And economists are pretty harsh and aggressive about making their criticism. Think of them as research assistants and it makes you much more receptive. I was surprised, Doug North---this was after he won the Nobel Prize---people would just viciously say, "This is completely worthless. I would be embarrassed to write this and I don't have a Nobel Prize. I don't see how you can do this." And Doug would just nod and then they would say, "Here's what you should do." He'd write it down and thank them it didn't make him mad at all, he didn't care.
Petersen: OK, so developing a thick skin seems to be an asset here.
Munger: No what you said is right. Think of them as research assistants. What do you care what your research assistant thinks of you as long as they help.
Petersen: Yeah, they do a good job they give you your suggestions, you sift through them and make your work better.
Munger: Often when I get back referee reports and they're harsh, it'll take me a day to get over them. Oh man, I thought this was a good paper and they didn't like it. But then I will literally take a printout and take a black magic marker and redact the parts that are just ad hominem attacks. I don't care about those. And then if you look at what's left, it's usually a pretty good structure for revising your paper.
Petersen: OK, yeah I'll have to do that.
Munger: It sounds simple and hokey, but you don't care about the things that are just saying this is terrible. I had one referee report that said I would rather hack my way through the jungle with a penknife than have to read this paper again and I thought "Ow!" And then I took a black magic marker and marked it out and the rest of the report was pretty useful. The question is why you would put someone else in charge of how you feel? So don't do that, you're going to be in charge of how you feel and you're going to use, to your own benefit, the fact that smart people made good comments on your paper.
Petersen: We have this sort of mythology of the solitary genius. Are you saying that that is not a way to live your life?
Munger: Oh no that's exactly how you should live your life, if you're a genius.
Petersen: But most of us aren't.
Munger: For the rest of us who are not, no, that's not the way to live your life. So absolutely, I know I have friends, in fact one of my colleagues, Melvin Hinich, with whom I had three books, was unbelievably smart. He was able to do things with very little effort and he would often just throw out ideas and let someone else write them up because he was bored with writing them. So if you're smart enough, yes you can totally do that. My message is, all you have to be is basically average intelligence for a graduate student and if you spend a lot of time learning how to write you will also be a success. Maybe more successful than that solitary genius. It's not fair but it's true.
Petersen: A part of it is humility. To realize when you are not a solitary genius and when you need help. But couldn't the genius also do better if he used other people as his research assistants and did all the things that a non-genius would do?
Munger: Sure. Yes, but they're not willing to spend the effort for the most part because they've never had to. There are people that are just so good at sprinting or so good at swimming, that as long as they practice pretty hard, they don't need to worry about learning other techniques. So, one of the reasons that I am a coach about writing is that I was such a terrible writer. Most people who are really, really good at something are terrible coaches because they have a knack for it. It's the people who had to scrap at the margin, and who weren't really all that good but managed to be at least somewhat of a success because they thought about technique and they focused on getting better. Those are the best coaches. In almost every sport that I know of, the best coaches were the marginal players and I was a marginal player. So the reason that I talk about writing is that I was terrible at it
Petersen: But you are now a success and we can all learn from your example.
Munger: I am now a Philosopher and not a Street Porter.
Petersen: Yes. So do you have any closing thoughts about writing? What's the core message you want people to take away from this.
Munger: Well, William Riker, who was one of the founders of the rational choice school of public choice in political science, said that most of the people who get into academics do it because they're interested in teaching. And a lot of times they're confused and they think that teaching involves work in a classroom with students. And that's important, but the real teaching is the one that takes place through writing because once you've learned something, if you actually understand it, you can explain it to someone else and the advantage of writing it is that you can communicate this teaching to someone distant in time or someone distant in space. So the most important teaching is writing and if you think of yourself as a teacher, it's really important that you work on your writing because that's how you're going to be able to communicate this understanding that you have. Understanding is ephemeral. A lot of times when you work on something for a long time, you think "Oh now I see it! That's actually simple." Well if you don't write that down it's going to be hard for someone else to replicate that moment of understanding. But if you do write it down and you explain it clearly, you've added something to the human capital of the world: what we're able to hand down, the things that we no longer have to think about because we understand them. The more you understand, the simpler things become.
Petersen: My guest today has been Mike Munger. Mike, thanks for being on Economics Detective Radio.
Munger: It was a pleasure Garrett, thank you.
Fri, 7 October 2016
Today's guest is Stephen Smith, he is an analyst for a New York real estate firm.
Stephen did some research showing that at least 40 percent of the buildings in Manhattan could not be built under today's zoning regulations. In fact, the number is probably significantly higher. Classic landmarks like the Empire State Building, with its floor-area ratio of 30, wouldn't fly today.
Watch this time-lapse of the New York City skyline, and pay close attention to the kind of changes that happen in the earlier part of the video compared to the later part:
Before the twentieth century, the pace of change is very gradual. Two storey buildings are replaced with three storey buildings. Waves of development sweep through the city, replacing wood buildings with brick and stone and concrete.
In the twentieth century, we see a different kind of development. Pay attention to any particular small building and you'll notice one of two things happening: Either the building stays exactly as it is, or it is replaced by a massive skyscraper. There's no more gradual change.
This is caused by the city's adoption of land-use regulations. The first zoning code was adopted in 1916, but the really strict zoning came in 1961. Once this happened, tearing down and replacing a building meant pulling political strings to get it rezoned. Because of the significant fixed cost of getting a lot rezoned, developers opted to build a few extremely tall buildings rather than many moderately tall ones. Heavy restrictions in most of Manhattan led developers to concentrate development in the few places that would allow it. That's why Midtown built up while other neighbourhoods didn't.
New York's mayors tend to be pro-development, but its city councillors block development at every turn. The city council's behaviour is consistent with William Fischel's home voter hypothesis. The city council tends to defer to individual councillors on their own local issues, giving each councillor de-facto control over development in his neighbourhood. When authority is devolved to the hyper-local level, there's a strong incentive to block development to raise real estate prices.
Fri, 30 September 2016
My guest today is Jason Brennan of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of Against Democracy, which is our topic for this episode. The first chapter is available on the publisher's website.
John Stuart Mill believed that getting more people involved in politics would make them smarter, more concerned for the common good, better educated, and nobler. In the intervening century and a half, we've gathered much more data on Mill's hypothesis, and the results don't look good:
The test results are now in. They are, I will hold, largely negative. I think Mill would agree. Most common forms of political engagement not only fail to educate or ennoble us but also tend to stultify and corrupt us." (p. 2)
Diana Mutz performed a study that found that people's belief that their political adversaries were evil and stupid predicted high political engagement. Many studies show similar results, where politics seems to exacerbate our biases along with our meanness and contempt for the other side.
Jason splits democratic citizens into three broad categories: Hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans.
Hobbits are your average non-voter. They don't care or know much about politics, and they're happy to just live their normal lives without thinking about politics.
Hooligans are your typical political partisans. They are the die-hard sports fans of their preferred party. They are typically well-informed, but the information they consume is extremely biased towards their own side. They cannot pass an ideological Turing test.
Vulcans are people who see clearly through the morass of politics, understanding the arguments from both sides and possessing the social scientific knowledge necessary to select the best options. And just like the Vulcans from Star Trek, they're completely fictional! Or at least they're very rare.
While most of us like to think of ourselves as Vulcans, we're probably more like hooligans.
What if the Knowledgeable Chose our Policies?
Jason's preferred alternative to democracy is epistocracy, a system where more knowledgeable people have more control over politics. There are many forms this could take.
One way of instituting epistocracy is to impose a basic knowledge test on voters. While an econ 101 test would be desirable, it might raise objections from people who view economics as an ideological discipline. But there are many ideologically neutral facts that a voter really ought to know. For instance, someone who doesn't know which party currently holds power probably doesn't have enough information to decide which party is most fit to govern.
You could then restrict votes to only the people who pass the test, or you could weight votes from knowledgeable people more heavily.
Another option is the "enfranchisement lottery" where a random subset of the population (perhaps a few thousand) are selected to vote, but only if they undergo exercises to build their competence as voters. This is somewhat similar to how a jury trial works, where a legal decision is left to a random group of citizens, but only once they have received extensive instruction from a judge, lawyers, expert witnesses, etc.
Finally, you can set up a hybrid system with democratic and epistocratic elements. For instance, you could have a democratic body decide policy while an epistocratic body retains a veto. The Supreme Court functions in this way, since it grants a group of highly educated judges the power to overturn democratically supported laws.
Democracy is Not an End in Itself
Jason encourages his fellow philosophers to think more like social scientists. While philosophers tend to view democracy as an end in itself, social scientists are more interested in whether it has good outcomes. Does democracy promote economic growth more than other systems? Are fewer people persecuted under democracy than under other systems? Are people happier in a democratic system than they would be in an alternative system?
These are the sorts of questions we should be asking about our system of government.
Fri, 23 September 2016
Today's guest on Economics Detective Radio is Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns.
Strong Towns is a non-profit that seeks to reform America from the ground up, starting with its towns and cities. It aims to promote healthy local economies by improving local governance.
The Growth Ponzi Scheme
Chuck began recognizing the problems in America's towns and cities when he was working as a civil engineer. He recounts a story of working in a little city in central Minnesota in the late 1990s. The city had a 300-foot pipe that had cracked, allowing ground water to leak in and overflow their treatment facility. Chuck proposed a $300,000 solution to fix the pipe. However, this was a tiny town with an annual budget of $85,000. So Chuck went to higher levels of government (the federal government, the USDA, etc.) to find someone to fund the project. They all said, "This feels like maintenance. We don't have money for maintenance, so you need to pay for this yourself." Since the feds would only fund expansion projects, Chuck devised a plan: He would propose the largest expansion project he could, then repair the pipe as part of the expansion. This wasn't so much deviousness on his part as it was standard practice in his profession. He designed a couple miles of new pipe, doubled their treatment facility, and as part of that he included repairs for the old pipe. This new project cost $2.6 million.
Everyone was happy about this project. The grant agencies were happy. The legislators issued glowing press releases and held a big ribbon cutting. Chuck got a big bonus from his company. The city was ecstatic. The only lingering problem was that this tiny city that couldn't afford to maintain 300 feet of pipe would now be left with a few miles more pipe and a larger treatment facility.
This is an example of one part of what Chuck calls the Growth Ponzi Scheme. This is when cities and towns expand in ways they can't maintain without further expansion.
There's a political reason why things like this happen. Building new infrastructure is very politically appealing. You can build a new highway and name it after a prominent politician, you can have a big ribbon-cutting ceremony, and you can get all sorts of good press for the project. Maintenance is less sexy; you close down a lane of some existing highway, delay everyone's commute, and then you don't have a ribbon-cutting or positive press for all the potholes you filled in. That's why higher levels of government have been paying for big projects and passing off the responsibility for maintaining them to local governments. These local governments become insolvent when the revenue from the initial big project runs out and the maintenance expenses come due.
This process leads to a form of development where the local tax base is not sufficient to pay for the infrastructure that supports it. When the expansion can't go on any longer, the infrastructure crumbles, the affluent people leave, and the community ends up locked in poverty.
What's Wrong with Big Box Stores?
Embracing this form of unsustainable growth has made our cities less dense and walkable. Instead we have heavily subsidized driving as a means of getting everywhere. One consequence of this has been the rise of big box stores.
The public debate on big box stores tends to miss the mark. The left says big box stores crowd out local businesses, which is true. The right says they pass the market test, offering lower prices and thus improving poor people's standard of living, which is also true.
What both miss is that these big box stores only pass the market test because they don't bear the costs of the infrastructure needed to support them. By subsidizing infrastructure, and by building our cities to be spread out and unwalkable, we make bringing groceries to the people unviable. Instead, the people drive to where groceries are.
In addition to the rise of big box stores, we've seen the demise of small town living. While small towns still exist, they used to have enough small businesses, shops, and grocers to allow a full and comfortable life without leaving the town. Today, small town life consists of driving to the regional hub, perhaps multiple times every week, to get many of your necessities.
What's Wrong with Hastings Street?
Chuck coined the term "STROAD" to push back against the interchangeable use of the terms "street" and "road."
A street is where value lives. Homes and businesses locate themselves along streets so that they can be connected to rest of the transportation network, but the street itself features narrow lanes, low speed limits, and good sidewalks because it's designed more for pedestrians and less for vehicles.
Roads, by contrast, are not meant to be valuable locations in themselves; they are optimized for transporting large volumes of traffic over long distances. They feature wider lanes and faster speed limits.
STROADs are an unhappy blend of both elements. Wide lanes and low speeds make them bad for both pedestrians and drivers. One example of a STROAD is Hastings Street in Vancouver, which tries to be a major thoroughfare for thousands of commuters during rush hour, while still catering to the many businesses along its ten-kilometer span.
Because of its high volume of traffic and many stop lights, motorists can expect to average just twenty kilometers an hour on their commutes to downtown Vancouver.
Gentrification as Part of an Organic System
Chuck wrote an article titled "The Gentrification Paradox," in which he argues that gentrification was actually a healthy part of urban development in the pre-automobile age:
The pre-automobile development pattern was an organic process. It was both incremental and complex... Gentrification – investment followed by displacement – was part of the natural order of things and, as with any organic system, it had a positive role in making things work for everyone.
Before the twentieth century, cities would gradually grow and change over time. But we've used zoning laws to turn our neighbourhoods into unchanging time capsules. Cities used to be antifragile, to borrow a term from Nassim Taleb.
In the past, poorer people would buy property on the outskirts of town, on which they would live and run small businesses. Over time, as the city grew, these outskirts would gradually come to be incorporated into the urban ecosystem. These properties would become more valuable and they would grow with the community, perhaps adding a second storey and expanding the business.
You couldn't do this today. Building codes and zoning laws make any new development into a million-dollar endeavor. People with very little capital can't start with a small property and gradually increase its value over time. This makes the modern form of urban development much less equitable than it was in the past.
Fri, 16 September 2016
Today's guest is Steve Horwitz, he is the Charles A. Dana Professor and Chair of the economics department at St. Lawrence University.
Steve recently wrote an article titled, "Make Babies, and Don't Let the Greens Guilt Trip You about It." This was a response to an argument made by the bioethicist Travis Rieder, who was recently profiled by NPR. Rieder argues that it is immoral to have children because of the burden additional humans place on the Earth, in particular because of the risk of catastrophic climate change. Here's how that NPR piece put his argument:
"Back at James Madison University, Travis Rieder explains a PowerPoint graph that seems to offer hope. Bringing down global fertility by just half a child per woman 'could be the thing that saves us,' he says. He cites a study from 2010 that looked at the impact of demographic change on global carbon emissions. It found that slowing population growth could eliminate one-fifth to one-quarter of all the carbon emissions that need to be cut by midcentury to avoid that potentially catastrophic tipping point."
The problem with this sort of reasoning is that it views human beings as consumers and not as producers and innovators. Humans are able to contribute to the division of labour and to come up with ideas. That division of labour allows everyone to become more productive.
Rieder's ideas echo those of Thomas Robert Malthus, and he is wrong for much the same reasons. Malthus anticipated a world where the diminishing returns in agriculture and exponential population growth would lead humanity to subsistence in a few generations. As Malthus predicted, populations did skyrocket, but contra Malthus, people got significantly richer too. What happened?
Innovation happened. Along with that innovation, and contributing to it, was a finer division of labour created by population growth. As Adam Smith wrote, "the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market."
Humans create resources, not by violating thermodynamics, but by discovering better ways to satisfy our needs with the physical matter that exists. Resources are subjective. To a farmer 500 years ago, striking oil was a nuisance. It would ruin his crops and destroy the value of his land. Yet today, the very same oil is a valuable resource because we've discovered how to make it useful. Julian Simon challenged the idea that we're running out of resources, declaring human innovation to be "the ultimate resource."
Rieder and other environmentalists are different from Malthus in that they worry not about more people eating too much food but about them releasing too much carbon. A lot of this comes down to our estimate of the social cost of carbon. Rieder sees this cost as being so high, it outstrips all other concerns. He expects apocalyptic changes in the Earth's climate within twenty years.
Economists are not climate scientists, we aren't trained to be able to perform our own studies on the relationship between carbon emissions and global climate. But what we can do is look at the bulk of the published research. The two things we could say about this to someone like Rieder are, first, that he seems to have based his arguments on the absolute highest estimates of the climate impact of carbon, where a reasonable person might have looked at the median estimates. And second, people who have performed meta-analyses of this literature have found evidence of publication bias towards finding a larger impact, meaning the best estimate would be somewhat below the median estimate once we correct for publication bias. If the kind of climate change Rieder sees coming in twenty years is really more like two hundred years away, it changes the argument a lot.
With the costs of climate change so far out in the future, and the costs of abatement concentrated on the present, our cost-benefit analysis needs to account for the discount factors in such long time spans. The projects that have to be sacrificed today to abate climate change over the next couple centuries have their own benefits that need to be weighed against the costs of releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. It all comes down to opportunity cost.
Fri, 9 September 2016
This week's episode of Economics Detective Radio deals with the economic thought and continuing popularity of Marx. No, not Groucho! The other Marx!
My guest on the podcast is Phil Magness, a historian who teaches at George Mason University. Phil recently wrote a piece entitled, "Commie Chic and Quantifying Marx on the Syllabus." Recently, the Open Syllabus Project released a data set including thousands of college syllabi. To many people's surprise, Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto enjoys massive popularity!
Phil took a closer look at the numbers and reached some startling conclusions:
What could account for the popularity of The Communist Manifesto? Phil identifies two hypotheses: First, it could be the case that Marx simply is the most important thinker who has ever lived, beating out all but Plato by a wide margin. Second, Marx could be enjoying outsized popularity because university faculty outside of economics are overly enamoured with his thought.
The latter seems like the truth.
While Marxian thought does dominate some corners of philosophy, history, literary criticism, and many other subfields, we would expect classes in those areas not to focus on The Communist Manifesto but on Marx's other works. Das Kapital is in 1447 syllabi, right around Rousseau's Social Contract.
The Communist Manifesto is a political leaflet, not a work of deep scholarship. The fact that it dominates not only the works of other thinkers but also Marx's other works indicates that it is assigned primarily for its political conclusions.
How has Marx Avoided the Dustbin of History?
Marx' economic thought was rejected by economists even within his own lifetime. All of his economic analysis shared a fatal flaw: the labour theory of value.
Marx observed that capitalists earn profits above the wages paid to workers. In his framework, this would only be possible if the capitalists exploited the workers. This was met with an empirical challenge: If profits are the result of exploitation, how come profit rates aren't highest in capital-intensive industries? Instead they are relatively consistent across the entire economy.
Engels claimed that Marx would resolve this issue in the later volumes of Kapital. He even held a Prize Essay Competition to see if anyone could anticipate Marx' solution to this seemingly intractable problem. But the later volumes didn't offer a satisfactory solution.
Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk wrote the definitive critique of Marx, Karl Marx and the Close of His System. The marginal revolution of the 1870s, which laid the groundwork for all of modern economics, offered a simple solution to the problem that has stood the test of time: interest.
As Böhm-Bawerk points out, workers are paid when the work is performed. But capitalists only earn revenue once the final product is sold. So if production takes time, we must account for interest. A unit of currency today (gold, silver, dollars, pounds, etc.) is not worth the same as that same unit tomorrow or next year. Leaving aside inflation, people subjectively value money today over money in the future. When you adjust future revenues accordingly, profits are actually very close to zero throughout the economy.
This is the explanation that any modern economist will give you. So when a modern economist assigns Marx, it's to teach about his role in the history of economic thought, not to teach his ideas on their own merits. That's why so few economists are assigning Marx at all!
Marx the scientist may have fallen out of favour, but Marx the political theorist survived and thrived. Marx inspired the political left, and through a twist of fate his adherents came to power in Russia and spread his influence around the world.