Fri, 20 January 2017
What follows is an edited partial transcript of my conversation with George Bragues of the University of Guelph-Humber. We discussed his new book, Money, Markets, and Democracy: Politically Skewed Financial Markets and How to Fix Them. This is his second appearance on this show, you can hear the first one here.
Petersen: So your book looks at the interaction between Democratic politics and financial markets. In your introduction, you quote the Greek Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras, who claimed that "democracy cannot be blackmailed." And this was in the context of the 2015 bailout referendum that would have helped pay some of the massive Greek debt but at a cost of forcing them to adopt fiscal austerity. So, can you talk a little bit about that situation and how it played out and also what it tells us generally about the relationship between democracy and finance?
Bragues: Yes, sure. That situation has its origins about a year or two after the financial crisis of 2008. The financial crisis of 2008 initially arose out of the subprime mortgage sector in the United States. It affected banks worldwide that were holding or otherwise exposed to the subprime mortgage assets.
But then as one of the spillovers of this crisis we had pressure on countries in southern Europe including Portugal, Spain, and Greece. And so it all came to a head in 2010 and back then it was Nicolas Sarkozy and Merkel, Germany's chancellor---who's still around---was a player, and they came up with a framework to bail out these countries including Greece.
So, as part of those bailouts, Greece had to comply with various conditions including the fiscal austerity measures that you mentioned, there was a privatization that had to be done but it didn't go so well and so in early 2015---if I remember these dates correctly---Tsipras is leading what was then a sort of outsider party, one of the two major parties in Greece. And so they thought that they would take a different approach to the previous Greek government which was to play ball with mainly Germany and instead of playing ball with Germany and trying to use measures to get their budget under control they thought that they would try to essentially threaten the breakdown of the financial system. a breakdown of the euro unless Greece were forgiven their debt or otherwise given more lenient measures.
The European establishment wasn't buying into that. So this is when Tsipras went to a vote, a referendum on a bailout package. He won that vote, that is to say, the Greek people voted resoundingly against the European establishment of the time, but that ended up not really mattering. The European establishment said basically we want our debt paid, we're willing to renegotiate the debt and you have to comply with these conditions.
And so that was a situation where democracy and the markets came into play. The Greek government was hoping that by creating a crisis in the markets through a democratic act, one of the most democratic acts you can imagine, which is a referendum---because in a referendum the people vote directly on a policy---that they were hoping that democracy would have its way---through the markets---would have its way. It didn't work out.
So, I start my book off with that event because it nicely and dramatically---the Greek situation is still ongoing---but it nicely illustrates how politics and the markets interact. And politics today in most of the developed world means democracy and this interaction between politics and markets, while known, while recognized, I don't think its full implications have been recognized and that's why I decided to write a book.
Petersen: So, with the bailout referendum---this is a massive debt---I believe it was 177% of Greece's GDP?
Bragues: That's correct, yes. It's probably different now. It's probably higher now, I haven't looked at the latest numbers.
Petersen: Even if they paid their entire output and didn't eat or consume anything, it would still take them almost two years to pay it off, which of course is unfeasible. And then they were trying to refuse to pay it off and I suppose they were hoping that markets would have a big reaction and then when they didn't their leverage was gone. They didn't have the bargaining power they thought they had.
Bragues: That's correct. The markets the next day---the referendum took place on a Sunday---and the next day the markets were down---not down significantly, specifically those in Europe, which would be more closely impacted---and the euro which was the key financial instrument in this entire drama barely reacted at all to the referendum result.
Now, part of that was because by this point---I mentioned before that this is a drama that had started back in 2010---the reason why the markets' reactions were muted by this time, much of the debt that the Greeks held were no longer held in private hands. In other words, they were not held by private market players, whether that be pension funds, commercial banks, hedge funds, and other institutional investors but they had been effectively transferred to the government, whether to taxpayers or to central banks who had started---even though this goes against the Maastricht Treaty that brought the euro into being---the Central Bank started buying European bonds, and I'm talking here specifically about the European Central Bank.
So, that's how it's played out. It's still currently playing out because Greece is back in the news because part of the deal that was made in the aftermath of the 2015 referendum is that Greece would still have to comply with various fiscal policy requirements and in order to get additional disbursements from the so-called troika, and the same party is in power, Tsipras continues to be in power and they still as you'd expect they would rather pay less debt or at least pay the debt on less onerous terms.
Petersen: The odd thing is that people keep lending them money when they're so resistant to paying back their loans.
Bragues: Yes, and that brings up the larger question I talk about in the book which is the role of the bond markets. The bond market is it is one of the biggest of the financial markets.
In the book I go through the main ones. These would include the stock market, the derivatives market, which has grown dramatically since the early 1970s, I go through the currency market, which is the biggest one, at least on a per-day trading rate. But the bond market is huge.
The bond market is a lot bigger than the stock market, it doesn't get as much public attention as the stock market does. It is not the subject of a cocktail party conversation the way the stock market is, but the bond market is huge. It is a major lifeline for governments---most governments today. It's hard to think of an exception among the democracies now---most governments today do not finance their expenditures, their infrastructure, their social programs through taxes. They run deficits and those deficits have effectively become perpetual.
If you go back to the early 1970s---and we can come back to the issue why the early 1970s is such a critical date---but you go back the early 1970s, you do find countries from time to time running fiscal surpluses, or running balanced budgets, but for the most part they're running deficits, and so as a result since then we've seen a sustained increase in the level of public debt as a percentage of GDP. And so we're getting close to levels that we haven't seen since World War Two among the OECD nations.
So, the bond market is a key player. I argue in the book that the bond market is an enabler of the worst fiscal habits of democratic states, that democratic political systems have an inherent tendency to overspend, and that the bond market becomes a very enticing place that politicians look to in order to finance the spending that helps them get them elected.
And so then the question arises why do the bond markets keep on buying the bonds of these increasingly indebted states? I'm not sure I have the complete answer to that question. That was one of the questions that really got me thinking as I was writing the book. I think tentatively the factors are these: the key one is the desire for safety that seems to be very strong in the human psyche. So, I think we have to go into psychological explanations for this.
The thing about government bonds, unlike bonds that you would buy, say, from a corporation, which is the other major sector of the bond market, government bonds are backed by taxes and taxes have to be paid. They are coerced from people. You don't pay your taxes, you'll either get fined or in a worst case scenario you end up doing time. A corporation doesn't have the same ability to gather money. It has to rely on the voluntary decisions of the buyers of its products. So, if you buy a bond in General Motors, or you buy a bond in Bell Canada or something like that, your ability to get money from that bond---and a bond is effectively, by the way, a loan that an investor extends to an entity, a government or corporate entity---so you buy a bond from Bell Canada or from some other private company, you've got to rely on the fact that they're going to be able to get people to buy their goods and services voluntarily.
When you buy a government bond, you have the assurance that the entity who is supposed to pay you back the money has the power to force people to give it money and so that makes government bonds safer, in general, all else being equal than corporate bonds. And since people do crave safety, they do crave security---I don't want to get too much into the depths of human psychology here---but there's a deep-seated desire to avert risk and this is well known. Among financial academics we talk about it all the time, we talk about it in terms of risk aversion as being part of the model that we used to depict investor behavior.
So, this is such a powerful desire to have safety when you invest your money, to know that if you plunk 1,000 dollars now and you're promised 2% interest, you will get that money back and a 2% interest at some future point in time. So, I think that's the most powerful driver for the demand of government bonds and that demand is so strong that investors will overlook the fiscal health of the countries to which they are effectively lending to.
I think the other factor is legislation. There you look at the regulations specifically pension funds but also banks and so on have to operate under, if they're required to have a certain percentage what are deemed to be safe investments in their portfolios---by the way this also includes insurance companies---and safe investments invariably encompass and tend to get restricted to government bonds and so there's a built-in legislatively driven demand for government bonds and this plays out
significantly with the commercial banks because they have to show to regulators that they have a certain level of core equity in their balance sheets. You look at these regulations---these are the Basel regulations---they have traditionally incentivized banks to buy their country's bonds. So, you've got a situation where Greek commercial banks tend to own a disproportionate amount of Greek government bonds or Italian commercial banks own disproportion amount of Italian government bonds. So, you have the banking sector effectively forced through legislation to have to finance the country's debt.
Petersen: So just as a part of doing business, if you're a bank, you have to show that you're safe. There was this issue during the financial crisis of these AAA rated mortgage securities and if you think about it in terms of just supply and demand and all these things, it's not clear why the rating is so important. But then when you think about needing to prove to a third party that I am safe, then what others think that your assets are worth or how safe others think they are, becomes really important.
And at least there's sort of a perverse element here where if you're lending to Iceland or Greece you can maybe get a higher return while still maybe appearing safe because you say, "well I've got all these government bonds," but the fact that they're not safe is why they can give you that higher return. And if you're managing a bank you want to earn a high return but you still want to appear safe and if you lose money you want to lose money when everyone's losing money so that you can say "hey it's not my fault, not personally at least."
Bragues: That's another factor too that everyone---and John Maynard Keynes, I don't agree with everything he says, but he's pretty good on this point, on the behavior of investment managers. You have a huge incentive as an investment manager to go with the crowd because if you're right with the crowd you can bask in the general adulation that all investment managers are receiving at that point in time, you're generating nice returns for folks. But if things go awry, the crowd becomes more important as a kind of protection device against criticism because you can always say---as you point out---that this is a systemic issue, I couldn't do anything about it everybody else also was adversely affected.
And so that does tend to work in favor of government bonds and does tend to over inflate the level of demand for government bonds relative to what they should get if you had a truly free market, people were just free to buy whatever bonds they thought would fit their risk return preferences. I think that's a key factor as to why I believe that bond markets end up not being vigilantes.
There's this line Edward Danny, a well-known analyst on Wall Street, came up with this phrase 'bond market vigilantes'. I believe it was in the 1990s and it supposedly referred to this group of people in the bond market who were always on the lookout for countries that were running fiscal deficits, that were doing the wrong things economically, and that these bond market vigilantes would pick on these countries by selling their bonds, shorting their bonds, and then putting those countries in a bind supposedly by raising the interest rates that they would have to pay any time they issued bonds again.
But the reality is that the bond market vigilante---if it exists---it exists too late. You look at the history of the bond market---we're talking a couple centuries now the bond market is actually older than the stock market---you look at this market and the vigilantes only come up really late in the game when it's pretty obvious that the government in question cannot pay and so the bond market doesn't do---I would argue---the job that it advertises: namely, always keeping yields in line with risk. It does tend to underestimate the level of risk, specifically with when it comes to governments.
This is a partial transcript only. For our full conversation, listen to the episode.
Fri, 13 January 2017
What follows is an edited transcript of my discussion with Ray March about the economics of medicine and health insurance. We had a fascinating and far-reaching discussion about health care policy, both in the United States and Canada, as well as some cases of entrepreneurship in the medical sector.
This includes a slightly awkward discussion of the development of sexual pharmacology, the early experiments with nitrates and Viagra, and the, uhhh, "firmness" those drugs produce. Enjoy!
Petersen: My guest today is Ray March of Texas Tech University. Ray, welcome to Economics Detective Radio.
March: Thanks for having me.
Petersen: So our topic today is the economics of medicine. Ray's research concerns entrepreneurship and regulation in medicine. Let's start by talking about this idea of entrepreneurship in medicine.
The medical field isn't like Silicon Valley. You can't just launch a pharmaceutical company out of your parents' garage. In fact, the whole field is tightly regulated and controlled by the government both in the United States and Canada, other countries. So how do people in the medical field still manage to be entrepreneurial?
March: Entrepreneurship is fundamentally a question about how do I find resources I have now and put them towards their best use and that will help me turn a profit and therefore we have market signals. You're right to point out medicine is a much more regulated area compared to other service industries but what makes medicine entrepreneurial is that there's always a void to discover, there's always a need to find better uses and better cures or better ways to treat patients.
And because the government is usually behind the curve in terms of the advancement of science---and this is particularly true in health science and medicine---there's always opportunities for entrepreneurship. And a lot of my research explains or tries to explore what are these areas of medicine or of health just more broadly that the government is not involved in because they're not necessarily aware that this is an emerging field. And that leaves room for scientists and more broadly entrepreneurs to come and fill in gaps.
Petersen: Okay. So, when you say the government is behind the curve, a big part of that is the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, in the United States. And of course it has its equivalent in other countries as well. So, tell me a little bit about the FDA. So, if I discovered a new drug, what kind of process would it take for me to bring it to market in the United States?
March: If you want to go through the FDA procedure usually takes between 12 and 20 years and somewhere around a billion dollars of investment. You bring it to the FDA, you go through initial screening which is "Is the drug effective?" "Can it actually do what you purport it can do?" That's phase one. Phase two is a little bit larger clinical trial so instead of 30 people you go through 1,000 people. And you have to report that it's also effective.
Then you get into safety which is what the FDA was originally intended to do was to eliminate the worry that they were going to be unsafe drugs on the market. Then you have to go through a clinical trial about typically 3,000 people to show that it doesn't hurt them. Beyond that, you've got phase four which is approval, you get your drug approved and even the drug is approved, you are not quite off the hook.
Yet you still have to have post surveillance. And post surveillance is, it's approved but if we find any problem outside on the market or we find that we didn't pick up with something in our very detailed clinical study, we find there is some kind of problem, then we can remove the drug and that typically lasts 14 to 16 years.
Petersen: Okay, so it's an extremely long process. Long and costly and we hear sort of horror stories about before there was an FDA---before there was regulation of medicine---you'd have people sell snake oil or tonics, miracle cures that really just made people sick. Doesn't it help to have a process in place to prevent the kind of things that might damage people's health?
March: Absolutely. I wouldn't deny that it's not helpful to have processes in place to weed out effective treatments from ineffective treatments. The question that I'd like to mention is who does the planning? Do we need to have the federal government with the FDA come in and say if you want to prescribe a drug legally or use a medical device legally you go through our process or does it make more sense to open it up broader and have competition? And that is where the entrepreneurs would find ways to treat elements and diseases and in effect, those are weeded out through the market process.
Petersen: Yeah so what I like in your research is that you've actually found cases of course of both kinds: of the FDA sort, of the public government regulation of drugs and also private regulation or private discovery of new uses of drugs. So, let's talk about your paper on entrepreneurship in off-label drug prescription. So, you look specifically at the off-label uses for three specific drugs: Aspirin, Viagra and---I might pronounce this wrong---Minoxidil?
March: No, perfect Minoxidil.
Petersen: Yeah, Minoxidil. Okay. So, first what is an off-label drug use? And why does it matter?
March: The off-label use of a drug is using a drug for a purpose that's not approved for by the FDA.
So, in the case of Aspirin, Aspirin is approved for pain relief or in the paper I say it's not just used for pain relief doctors also prescribe it to prevent myocardial infarction and other heart-related conditions.
So, in general, when you use a drug off-label, you are saying I'm prescribing it for use that hasn't gone through the rigors of the FDA's regulation. It hasn't gone through the four phases and the post surveillance, which in the United States is perfectly legal. But the reason that off-label becomes very important---and full disclosure, in the United States one out of four drugs is prescribed off-label, that is, one out of four pills you're taking is not for the approved FDA use---is that it allows doctors and pharmaceutical companies to be entrepreneurs, to find the best alternative use of medication, which the FDA in theory, could do, but because the process of approving drugs is so long and costly and often lags behind what medical professionals typically find 15-20 years ahead of the pace.
Petersen: Okay, but it seems contradictory that that would be legal because as you said the FDA is not just checking for safety, but for effectiveness. And if you're using Aspirin as a blood thinner, it hasn't been tested for that purpose. So isn't that a contradiction and shouldn't the FDA have some kind of interest in making sure these off-label drugs are effective?
March: So there's been put forth regulations on, or just people trying to get off-label drugs regulated so that you can't prescribe it for any use. And in some cases, there are instances where it is illegal to use a drug for off-label use. For example, if I'm a doctor, I can't prescribe you 40 Oxycontin in a bottle of liquor and then you can do physician-assisted suicide. I can't do that.
But the FDA, it does have some sort of an interest, from a public choice perspective, that they want to regulate all use of pharmaceuticals which it hasn't deemed safe. But I think this is where my research sort of comes into play here. The FDA is so far behind the curve, I don't think it's really aware of how these drugs are being prescribed.
And if we look at the case of Aspirin, Aspirin, the initial hypothesis put forth by Lawrence Craven---he was an entrepreneurial cardiologist---said that aspirin could be used to prevent heart attacks. This was in the 1940s. And a good period of 30 years went by before this really took off in the mainstream where this became a very common procedure to avoid heart attacks, or heart disease, other cardiovascular things. And the FDA only really got around to approving Aspirin in 1996---I believe this was the first year to approve it for preventative care. So, I think there is an interest on behalf of the FDA but I think it's also just the FDA is very slow. I don't think it's able to stay ahead of medicine or to regulate some of these uses.
Petersen: It's shocking to me that people would advocate to extend regulation to these off-label uses because if it's one in four pills in the United States, if you then banned those uses, wouldn't one in four patients then become sicker? Who's doing this advocating?
March: One of the key distinctions to keep in mind is keeping you safe is not helping necessarily, it's not curing you. And those are two distinct things a lot of people won't necessarily think through the implications of when they want to advocate the FDA should have more power.
Petersen: Okay, so that's one argument I've heard is that if the FDA approves a drug that then goes and poisons people and it turns out it wasn't safe after all then, it would be a huge political fiasco maybe the head of the FDA could get fired or definitely the people who were directly responsible for approving that drug. But if the FDA simply delays approving a drug and the same number of people die on account of not getting it---people whose lives would have been saved by it---then, the incentives are kind of asymmetrical. The error of omission is punished less harshly or not at all compared to the error of commission.
March: Absolutely. I mean that's the seen and the unseen. What's seen is that the FDA is keeping all these drugs going constrained or not, keeping them off the market because they want consumers to be safe and they want to run through these clinical tests again. But what you don't see is that people who are in dire situations that need this to feel better or to function or even save their lives. You don't necessarily account for that when you account for the cost of the FDA. So, it's one thing to say it's 20 years of approval and a billion dollars or 1.2 billion dollars to have the drug approved, but you also don't account for the lives that are waiting to get ahold of this drug.
Petersen: So, even though there's this huge process to sort of block, or to slow down drugs from reaching the market so that they can be tested and checked and made sure they're safe and effective. Still most drugs, when companies do develop drugs they earn most of their money in the U.S. market because of the strong patent system there. So, there's something to be said for having at least these incentives for the drug companies to develop these things and to keep technology marching along. Can you speak to some of the differences between the U.S. and other countries with respect to pharmaceutical development?
March: Well, in terms of IP---and you're absolutely right that IP is a critical component of a lot of pharmaceutical companies' balance sheets---because they're going to invest large sums of money and large sums of time. Then if they go and put their drug on the market and then a generic comes out four or five months later, then there goes the profit margin. So that's an important component of U.S. pharmaceutical companies, where certainly European and in some cases, the Canadian pharmaceutical come and try to get their stuff approved by the FDA so they can get stronger patent rights.
But a lot of that is somewhat misleading. So, for instance there's no real reason medically that you should have one drug or that one drug is necessarily going to treat a huge variety of patients. When drugs go generic, you don't see just a drug go generic and it becomes the same drug, you see generics vary in their chemical structure. This way it's not just the drug becomes cheaper because there's no patent preventing other people from making this pharmaceutical or engaging in this chemical composition, but they vary the composition so they can better suit other consumers. So, it's not necessarily the case that when drugs go generic they all become the same and just immediately the price drops. There's a better service towards the consumer market.
Petersen: Yes. So, having these patents, on the one hand, they create the incentive to develop new things but on the other hand, they take away all the benefits of market competition which includes not only lower prices but also some of these sort of marginal improvements and developments in serving more niche markets and things like that.
So, where do we see competition in the drug market? You have a paper called "The Substance of Entrepreneurship and the Entrepreneurship of Substances" which is a wonderful title by the way, do you want to talk a little bit about the entrepreneurship of substances?
March: Sure what I tried to develop, or what me and my co-authors tried to develop in that paper is you have entrepreneurial theory which takes various forms whether you look at the Kirznerian theory or Baumol's theory and we try to adapt that for what I do is the market for pharmaceuticals.
In that paper I examine off-label drug prescription too, but I try to explain how does the entire process work. So, given we have severe, very stringent regulatory structure set forth by the FDA and we have these conflicting patent rights, how is it that we actually see entrepreneurship in treating people? And off-label, one, it creates alternative uses of resources which is what entrepreneurship is in a nutshell, is find the best use for scarce means and then when they find better uses for existing drugs---so Aspirin, Minoxidil, Viagra like I talked about in my other paper---these findings get distributed through medical journals which is the system of how do we figure out which drugs are safe to treat various illnesses that we previously weren't aware of.
Pharmaceutical sales representatives are going to also play a role in doing that, but they're not supposed to disclose too much information about off-label drug prescriptions, that's another regulation. But fundamentally what you have there is a system of feedback. So, without the FDA's involvement physicians and pharmaceutical companies are able to find alternative uses for their drugs.
So, instead of Viagra being used to reduce cholesterol essentially or to reduce congestion in the heart, it's better used for sexual performance in males. And a lot of this was found in clinical trials which then got introduced in the U.S. market through voluntary tests which then became part of medical journals, which then were introduced into specialized medical journals to make sure that this information was distributed to urologists, or doctors of various disciplines and then that's how the market emerged for sexual pharmacology, which was largely an entrepreneurial act by urologists saying "We think sexual performance is not, for lack of a better word, all in your head. We actually think there's a physiological problem here and we think we can use pharmaceuticals to solve this."
Petersen: So, you're saying that the main purpose of Viagra, the one that we've all heard of, that was not its original use?
March: Oh no. Viagra was developed for heart congestion.
Petersen: Wow, I did not know that.
March: When you think of a little blue pill you think of erectile dysfunction for sexual performance, but no originally it was for---I'll tell the entire story, hope this goes to a family friendly audience---the story was this is developed in Britain, they started sending out these pills in an early clinical trial, they send them out to 30 or 100 middle-aged men, people you would think would be suspect for heart congestion and they send out the pills and they phone and they say "Okay, how is it? You feel like you have less heart palpitations? We will run your blood and we'll see what your actual congestion is."
And it didn't seem to be very effective in that, this is about halfway through a 30 day trial, and they say "Okay, well send the pills back" and then nobody sent them back.
So they were questioning "Why has nobody sent the pills back?" and they started getting reports, "Well it was actually helping with this other thing."
And then they said "Well we need to develop this drug for sexual performance. This is going to be a blockbuster."
Petersen: And before that there wasn't an interest in, or doctors were interested maybe more in saving lives. So it's almost like the market for sexual performance enhancing drugs sort of came from the consumers themselves. Before this nobody said "Hey you know what would we be great? A pill that enhances things in the bedroom." So, it's interesting. So they learned from the customers what their customers wanted.
March: Yes, in this case directly. The field of what's called sexual pharmacology---so treating sexual problems with drugs---it largely emerges in the United States originally not Britain, and it's in the 1950s. And it's a group of, I believe, is about half a dozen to twenty urologists treating urological problems.
They come to the conclusion that sexual problems are not all in your head, so it's not a psychological problem why sexual performance is not up to par, you're having these issues in the bedroom. It can actually be a physiological problem, so there's a problem with your sexual organs. And so they start experimenting with what were essentially nitrates, so things that affect blood flow and they start injecting them originally in themselves. So in the urologists' actual selves they would test that then test firmness, for lack of a better word, then they would say "Okay, we think this can help our patients we're going to prescribe these off-label."
Patients would go, they would increase their sexual performance, this starts getting out in medical journals. And then over across the ocean, you have Britain which sort of serendipitously comes across Viagra and finds out this little blue pill can actually do this too. They enter the U.S. market. So it's an international competition but it all originally starts with an entrepreneurial idea saying, "No, we think we have a better way to treat sexual dysfunction."
Petersen: Right. And yet they had to get over the idea that it was all---I don't know, this with would have been before the days when people also maybe believed strongly in mental illness because---the idea of something being "all in your head" in the age where we're all very aware that mental illness is an illness and it is related to physical things in your brain; the fact that something's all in your head doesn't mean necessarily that it's not real but this was the 50's, when maybe people philosophically didn't see things that way.
March: Right the 1950s---there was some awareness of mental illness in the 1950s---the 1950s is when you start to have anti-psychotics, it's when they start to see we can help people that have previously been institutionalized by giving them these drugs which uptake into the brain, which can help you alleviate manias and depression, or anxiety.
But the predominant theory for sexual dysfunction---it wasn't even called that back then, but what we can call for this podcast sexual dysfunction---was that this is a psychological problem so, the male couldn't perform---this is also true for females but what we were focusing on here is males---if the male couldn't perform it was some form of anxiety, so he needed to undergo psychotherapy or some kind of sexual therapy. And then he would go through that again and again until the point where he was comfortable enough performing sexually and that would somehow dissipate the problem.
But entrepreneur urologists come in and say "No." There's alternative explanations. It's not just that he has anxiety. It could be there's something actually physiologically wrong. And this is sort of a new idea because that, one, it's a whole new idea to say no the sexual performance is not always linked to your mental state or your perceived anxiety, but that we can actually treat this with injections, or with nitrates or with drugs and drugs that already exist on the market because we believe this is a blood flow problem.
They had it tested on themselves so they were pretty confident in their theory. But then to go ahead and give it to patients and then give patients the ability to self-medicate. All of this progress was a period of 20 or 25 years for them to progress to that stage to where ED can be treated---be self-treated really---without the use of psychotherapy which was inconsistently effective. And then we get to the point where you can just inject an oral tablet, that's where Viagra comes in. All of this comes about because of an entrepreneurial awareness to say "No, we don't think that the medical professional is treating this condition correctly."
Petersen: So, one thing you talk about in your paper is the idea of superfluous entrepreneurship. What is that and how has it occurred in drug markets?
March: Superfluous entrepreneurship as we go about it in this paper is the idea, given you're an entrepreneur in a regulatory state which prohibits you from discovering more effective ways to distribute goods, what happens to the goods you distribute? Are you distributing as effectively as you could without said regulation?
And one of the ones we analyze in the paper is the development of insulin. I'm sure you and your viewers are aware of what insulin is, a diabetic who can't produce his insulin or doesn't produce enough, the Type-one and Type-two, needs to inject that when he eats carbs so he can manage his blood sugar and avoid diabetic complications. So, when insulin originally hits the market we've got to go back to, I want to say the 1920s, when they first started doing animal insulin. We have pig insulin and we have bovine insulin which saved thousands of diabetics' lives at the time, but they have side effects. As you can imagine, insulin is a hormone, if you inject animal hormones in you, there's going to be some side effects.
And so by the time you get around to the 1940s we start finding ways, medical science advances enough to where we can synthetically produce human hormones, which is what modern insulin is, a human insulin. But the fear of the regulators is now that we can synthetically make hormones we don't necessarily know what are the side effects of synthetic hormones. And so in 1941 Congress passes what's literally called "The Insulin Act" which is if you're going to prescribe, or you're going to try to create a life-saving medication, which is what insulin is to diabetics, to Type-one diabetics especially, it has to go through additional rigorous testing.
So what that means is the release of human insulin on the U.S. market is delayed, so diabetics who need to receive their insulin are still taking bovine and pig insulin, which is okay but when there was a clearly better alternative being human insulin available, you end up with superfluous discovery so instead of investing time---and this is what happens in the insulin market---you invest time and effort into finding ways to reduce complications from injecting bovine insulin, or find ways to change the what's called the duration event, so how long insulin last in your bloodstream trying to find ways to manipulate that or make that better. You have a better alternative which is to immediately bring in human insulin and treat diabetics using that and that doesn't become possible in the U.S. market because of these delayed regulations. Eventually insulin does get on the market but you have a prolonged period where people are noticeably getting worse treatment than what's available.
Petersen: Right, and that's a very long period. I read in your paper they didn't approve human insulin until 1983 and did you say 1940s was when they discovered it?
March: I believe 1941 was when it was first available for clinical testing and this was all done in Germany.
Petersen: So 42 years.
March: Right, of taking animal hormones.
Petersen: Yes. So, the superfluous element of entrepreneurship is we have some kind of problem, people are willing to pay to have that problem solved. We have a cheap way of providing this subjective benefit to people, but the cheapest, best way that people would do in a free market is somehow blocked or illegal and so people entrepreneurship around regulation. Is that correct?
March: You certainly see that in illicit drug markets, but yes that's also true in some pharmaceutical markets. I want to get this drug approved in the United States. I have human insulin which is better than cow and so I want to get approved in the United States. There's a big market for diabetics in the United States but the additional regulation makes it tough. So, I can find a way to circumvent that, either bring it on the black market, the illicit drug component, or I have to say no I can't compete in the United States because it is going to take too long, I'm just going to prescribe it over here in Germany or in Asia.
And what that does, that just limits the entrepreneurial aspect of bringing better cures to market. So it's a superfluous effort you could say, marketing this drug in Asia or different countries in Europe instead of the United States. Those are all resources that could have been diverted towards something, or towards marketing the drug in the United States where you could argue it would be the highest value of use.
Petersen: Right. And in your paper you also talk about delta nine THC found in marijuana, which is a treatment for nausea. Can you talk about that? That's illegal of course because it's from marijuana.
March: That's an example where there's tons of medications out there for nausea, but the one you find in the medical marijuana derivative has been shown as particularly effective in difficult cases. So take cases where the typical forms of treatment which would normally help people---now we have more difficult cases---we're no longer allowed to prescribe these drugs we have to find synthetic uses of these drugs. So any time you take a synthetic use you're necessarily making the complications which you would face when the drug interacts with your body, they become a little bit more widespread. So you open yourself up to the treatment being less effective, but you also get more of a probability of these tail effects, where things you wouldn't necessarily see happen occur in your body.
So, you make the drug. In some cases it's less effective, but you also can potentially make it more dangerous, which is the superfluous act. I am trying to use synthetic drugs to treat cases or treat illnesses when there's a better alternative in the background. So, I'm just trying to find a new and better way to make a potentially dangerous drug safer when there are already safer drugs available.
Petersen: So a previous guest of this show, Mark Thornton, who you cite in your paper has argued that in the case of illicit drug markets, what the entrepreneurs do is to make them easier to smuggle by making them more concentrated, have a stronger effect for a smaller mass so they can be hidden in places where they're smuggled across borders or from the place they're produced to the place where they're sold. One example would of course be moonshine, so during the depression they obviously weren't selling low-alcohol-content wine because it would be so costly to smuggle that to people. They instead got the super strong moonshine and it was actually very dangerous. So, I suppose that's kind of an example of superfluous entrepreneurship, getting around the burdens placed on you, when in legal markets, of course, you don't have to always make things more concentrated and easier to smuggle because you don't have to smuggle them.
March: Right exactly. Entrepreneurship is finding---I have my product, I eventually face competition because I'm making a profit, how do I make my product better? And so when you have to change the institutional setting to where now I have a product that I'm selling but it's technically illegal to sell this product, where can I put my efforts best for us to continue making a profit?
In illicit markets it can just be the concentration, right? You mentioned the moonshine and the nine THC is another great example which is the main content of marijuana which people used to get high, you see the potency of these get much higher because that's primarily what you're trying to do is to sell the THC content to potential marijuana users. So instead of trying to find appropriate levels of THC or finding what you call niche, just accessories towards consuming marijuana which would differentiate the markets and serve consumers better, that is no longer profitable revenue and that's no longer a profitable or viable way to compete with people that are selling marijuana. Now it's how do I smuggle? How do I become a better or more active smuggler? And that's to raise the content of THC.
Petersen: Or to get people onto drugs like cocaine that are significantly more potent per weight. I guess the great point made by Thornton is that by criminalizing these things, by criminalizing milder drugs in particular, you create a market for stronger ones.
March: Right. Because that's how you compete on the margin for things like that. Yes.
Petersen: So what other kinds of entrepreneurship do you see in the United States in medicine? I've heard about people sort of getting around the medical system, joining collectives where they pay directly to their doctor, trying to get away from the sort of hybrid insurance system that you have down there.
March: That has become an alternative. And I don't know if I want to say an alternative market. But there has emerged a need for people to get outside of the larger insurance---that's the word I'm looking for---to get outside of the mainstream insurance market and to niche themselves into more specialized markets.
So, with the passage of the Affordable Care Act right now, everybody has to have health insurance or you pay a massive penalty. You've standardized insurance, which in some cases maybe there's nothing wrong in having a standardized package of insurance. When you try to blanket that over the population of the United States you leave out specialized cases.
So to give you a specific example what you see now in the market for diabetic treatment is now that insurance has become standardized to treat diabetics, you see less prescriptions written for specialized forms of insulin or insulin that acts faster or insulin that has a longer duration period. Now you see just generic insulin is being prescribed. Which is fine because the majority of diabetics are type-two diabetics and that's what they typically use, but then that leaves out cases of people with pancreatic cancer or type-one diabetics who need specialized insulin in order to better suit their individual illnesses, and you don't see that specialized treatment. So that leaves the market open for specialized insurance, or people that are going to co-ops, private alternatives where you pay into essentially a fund and 50 or so people will contribute 100 dollars a month. If one of them gets sick, they'll use the money in that fund to help this person overcome an illness they've come down with or any injury that's kept them outside of work.
I think a lot of those entrepreneurial aspects are trying to get out of standardized medicine, standardized insurance but again because all of this is more or less dictated by the government you don't have the wiggle room to compete on the margins, what you have to do is go completely outside of a highly regulated market. That's what you're seeing marginally with insurance. You don't see as much of that in medicine.
Medicine is a little more tightly controlled than insurance, even in the insurance market even today, but it's interesting. So, I think in the future there's going to emerge especially a larger market for these different forms of health insurance. It will help to treat people who have religious affiliations when they don't want to have insurance that helps to cover birth control or abortions for people that are in their group or they are pooled in the same insurance group. But also just people that aren't getting the kind of treatment they want. And this allows them to actually have health insurance for lack of a better word. I need a specialized form of treatment or I actually come down with a rare illness that the standard treatment is not going to help me with, I need to have insurance as a means to cover it and I think that's what you're seeing in the market with what you describe.
Petersen: Right. So, I live in Canada and we have single payer, which ultimately is like post-Obamacare having private insurance companies but then having everyone legally required to get the insurance and then having those insurance companies having the government dictate what they provide and require them to take on people with preexisting conditions. It's almost like just some sort of weird way of replicating single payer just while maintaining the veneer of a private system but in Canada we have single payer officially.
And there are some myths about it. So, we don't have socialized medicine per se. Doctors are not public servants but they can only accept payment from the government on your behalf, so sort of like maybe a private prison in the United States where they're kind of private but the only customer they can legally take on is the government.
March: Which you wouldn't typically describe as a market. The market is to serve the consumers.
Petersen: When the consumer is like a private contractor, serving the government. But of course we also restrict---you're not allowed to buy healthcare or medical care outside of the single payer system. There have been some court cases recently with people trying to argue for a right to do this but the typical thing to do is to cross the border to the States or fly to Southeast Asia to get your unapproved---or in order to pay for your own medicine.
And the sort of justification for this is they don't want people competing up the prices of medical services, medical goods. I guess they like their monopsony status as the only buyer of medical services. But whenever I find myself arguing against the system or saying something to the effect of "Hey this is a pure private good, why don't we let the free market provide it the way we do with our food and shelter and other things that are very important for living?" I get really smart people arguing against me and some of the things they say are "Can you point to a country with free market healthcare that works?" and I have to say "Well there isn't a country with pure free market healthcare" Singapore is 50/50 and maybe that's as close as you get.
But I guess to get to my question, why does every country intervene so strongly in medicine? What is it about medicine that that makes people really want to control it and have it centrally planned or regulated?
March: Sure. I think that's the fundamental question of health economics. Analyzed from the perspective of an economist, how much is the market able to take care of the sick or those less able to take care of themselves and how much do you need state interference or government involvement to make a successful health company or healthcare system work? The way I'd like to think about health economics if we get outside of just focusing on insurance or treatment of rare illnesses or pre-existing conditions or asymmetric information and all these complex issues that people like to point and say, "See that's where the market fails in healthcare, that's why you have to have a government."
Fundamentally what we're looking at is how do you deal with uncertainty? We have more or less ways of assessing risk, where we know your risk increases of lung disease if you smoke a cigarette as a simplified example. But how do we purely deal with uncertainty? So, I'm an insurance company and I take you on as a client, I don't know your health status. Various regulations make it impossible for me to find that out. But I don't know your health status. I don't know if in five years you're going to develop cancer, if you're going to be healthy for the next 30 or 40 years. How is it ideal with that as an insurance provider or if I'm a doctor how do I know you're going to use this pharmaceutical responsibly or how do I know that these other clinical trials I've seen where this has helped the patient with your condition is going to help you because there's heterogeneity in how people respond to things.
But fundamentally this uncertainty both in the provision of healthcare and in medical science itself, these permeate medicine. We're never fully going to be able to reduce the uncertainty. There's always going to be that element of the simple fact that we don't know. And I think that provokes the idea in a lot of people's heads that with no centralized plan we're not able to address this uncertainty. So we need to have the government come in and say health premiums need to be this or guarantee a system where even if you don't have health insurance you'll be taken care of if you need to go to the emergency room. Or if you come down with a very rare illness there will be pharmaceutical stock up in the hospital.
I just think that in general, the uncertainty drives a lot of people to look toward centralization or to develop a centralized plan to try to mitigate that. But a lot of those efforts are somewhat short sighted because when you centralize things you don't take advantage of the uncertainty aspect of anything you just put all of the decision-making power within a federal bureau, the FDA or the federal government or even the USDA to some degree. At least in the United States, I know Canada has similar governmental bodies up there.
But when you do that you divorce decision-making from the knowledge and you also divorce it from the incentive, like when we talked about what if the FDA doesn't have an incentive to release potentially dangerous drugs? Or as a pharmaceutical company if they see profits, they absolutely would, even if it is somewhat risky. So, I think the motivation primarily in why we don't see free healthcare or a free market in health insurance or competing systems of determining whether drugs are safe or effective is that there's a primary fear with people how do we address this uncertainty.
Petersen: So there are various elements of the uncertainty. If I'm an insurance company I might worry that the people who come buying insurance, there's an adverse selection problem so the people who come to me for insurance are going to be the people who are the least healthy or the people who expect, for some reason that maybe I can't observe, to get sick. And that means based on the fact that only people likely to get sick are coming to me, I need to charge very high premiums for my insurance. And so it's the classic market for lemons problem: The very fact that someone's selling you their used car maybe tells you that the car is a lemon. And the fact that you think it's a lemon means you won't pay very much for it, meaning that anyone who doesn't have a lemon wouldn't be willing to sell.
So, at least with that, it seems that pooling everyone into the same pool helps. But on the other hand you do lose competitiveness. So, one example I've heard is the cost of rhinoplasty---the plastic surgery to make your nose look better---since that's not paid, since governments perhaps rightly see that as it's not life-threatening, it's not important and we're not going to pay for it, you pay for it yourself. And we see that the cost of a rhinoplasty has fallen dramatically over the years. And whereas life-saving surgery, you look at healthcare and housing and I guess university tuition, those are the three big things that consistently go up in cost over the years.
Do you know a lot about the market for plastic surgery?
March: Not a whole lot. I do know that because it's not regular you have means of competing and you have essentially competition to provide you with care to make your nose look better or for facial reconstructive surgery and similar things.
I do know that a lot of cases like when you get breast augmentation you have to replace the inserts or whatever they're called. You have to replace those every set amount of years and you get routine inspections to make sure there's nothing going on with the surgical procedure, nothing wrong with the implant and all of that is done privately. So, it's interesting because getting plastic surgery is not necessarily a simple procedure. Just because the FDA is not involved in the procedure because there's not federal guidelines about when or when not you can do this procedure, how the procedure should be performed, it doesn't mean that the procedure is simple.
As you pointed out, it's not life-saving but it's still surgery and there are still risks and complications. What we typically don't hear, with the exception of maybe a few TV shows, that sort of shock people, we don't hear about these horrible things going wrong on the surgical table when people get nose jobs. And I think a lot of that has to do with because they have to compete to make sure people are happy with the outcome but they also have to make sure, again if the procedure is safe and its efficacy. You look better when you're done and nothing happens to you or receive complications, you get infections from surgeries. So you do see that a lot in the United States.
I want to go just briefly back into the adverse selection problem which I think is broadly the main argument for why you need to have government involvement in health insurance. Because you have that selection problem where only sick people want insurance and then insurance companies only want to provide really minimal standard care so you have that sort of mismatch and that would be a bad scenario for all. But to the extent that's true, it's based upon how is the insurance company is able to segment the market.
So, if you're comparatively healthier than me and you just want to have catastrophic care, so something that if you were involved in a horrible accident and nobody could have planned for it, you need to have emergency care. You pay pretty low premiums and then the deductible is higher whereas someone like me I'm a type-one diabetic who needs to have consistent care throughout their life in order to maintain their health, their premiums should be a little bit higher but then the deductible should be a little bit lower since I have to keep taking insulin.
But the problem is if they're not able to segment the market, and I think the reason they can't segment the market is because it's illegal to segment the market. What you don't have, they are two different forms of insurance. You don't have the insurance for sickly Ray me, or healthy you.
You don't have means to compete on those margins, all you have is various plans. You buy into them, you have health insurance costs go up because there's less competition and the reasons we have explained before. So a lot of what you see with the adverse selection problem is a lack of marketing and the lack of marketing stems from the fact that it's illegal to do a lot of the research that health insurance companies want to do.
Petersen: So, because deep down it seems so unfair that you could have a huge cost throughout your life just because you got sick through no fault of your own, we want people to pay the same. But then in doing so we create the adverse selection problem and it's sort of the old lady who swallowed the fly. We have to swallow the spider to eat the fly and eventually we're swallowing a single-payer healthcare system to put everyone in the same risk pool to deal with the problems that our initial minor intervention to try to make insurance more fair caused.
March: Right. So what we would end up doing in that situation is that you would have to pay premiums, I would have to pay premiums we want to equal them out because it's unfair that you should have to be subsidized me for lack of a better word. Well, that means that you end up paying more in premiums than you actually wanted health insurance, I would end up paying less because we have to even out.
More fundamentally if you want to address the fairness question---I think a lot of people do approach this from the aspect of fairness---is, one, why is it somewhat unfair for me as someone with a chronic illness to not have access to healthcare on a competitive market where I can decide which program I want, where I can assess my own risk, and where I can decide based upon my medical needs how at best to treat my illness; whereas someone like you who doesn't have a chronic illness places a completely different set of incentives? So when they pool us all they end up doing is limiting both of our choices. I think a fundamental question to ask there is which one of those is more or less fair?
Petersen: Right. So, what sort of institutional changes, big or small---obviously some things are more politically feasible than others---but what institutional changes would you like to see to improve on our system?
March: By "our" you mean the US system?
Petersen: Yes, or in the systems worldwide that have similarly been adopted for similar reasons by many different countries.
March: Sure. If we segment along the lines of there's health insurance and there's actual health products or health services.
I would primarily start with the approval of pharmaceuticals. And I say that because a significant portion of the illnesses and conditions in the United States are treated with pharmaceuticals. So, if we're able to allow competing access to approval processes, that would drastically lower the cost of drugs. If you lower the cost of drugs, health insurance becomes less vital, certainly in my situation but in a lot of people's situations who need access to pharmaceuticals. The access to insurance becomes less important because there's less of a risk that you won't be able to afford the treatment if you need it.
And I think that would push back insurance into---for lack of a better word---a more appropriate role. Insurance is supposed to be, there's a potential down the road that something bad will happen or I will develop an illness, I'll get sick, I'll break something, whatever you want to call it. I don't know if that's going to happen but if it does I want to make sure my livelihood or my standard of living continues as best it can. That's what actual insurance is. There's a chance that you could crash your car someday. And if your car is totaled you want to have repairs, you want a new car, that's why you buy car insurance. But now when we have health insurance we say "oh no health insurance covers your routine doctor, it's going to cover some aspect of your drugs if you get a prescription, it's going to cover procedures from other people in this case because everything is pooled."
But you don't see your progressive car insurance company pay for your oil change. That's a different thing. That's routine care. And I think if you reduce the cost of entry into medical devices and pharmaceuticals, so you reduce back the power of the FDA, you would naturally see health insurance go back into the proper insurance role. You could make an argument on the other way too as if you let insurance companies compete, premiums would go down. People would self-select into consuming health care products or not consuming health care products more effectively. That would drive down the cost.
But I think the primary problem here is there's a restriction of access to medical devices and to pharmaceuticals and once you allow for a market and that health insurance no longer competes on those margins it would compete on margins of trying to ascertain risk of whether that would happen or not down the road.
Petersen: So when you talk about pooling or when you talk about making approval cheaper, is that the system where two or more countries agree that a drug only needs to be approved in one of the countries to be allowed in all of them?
March: That's one method. I was thinking more along the lines of within the United States could have private companies that would give you gold and silver standards of approval for pharmaceutical X and drug Y. And then people based on that would decide, okay I want to take this drug or I want to take that one, or physicians would have more access to information based on that than waiting for the FDA to approve. That's more what I was thinking about.
On an international level that gets interesting because developing a drug in Europe and in Canada is completely different than developing that in the United States. The difference in the rigors of the approval process is what drives a lot of those conflicts but in terms of how you agree that everyone is going to come up with the same approval process method, I'm less optimistic about that because I think there's a public choice story behind it. Pharmaceutical companies want the approval process to be tough. So, like you said you can't develop pharmaceuticals in your basement despite your chemical knowledge.
I do think there's more of a hope in the future though for less emphasis on FDA approval and more for private raters or private ratings to come in and say these drugs have been shown safe or for pharmaceutical companies to interact with private laboratories or clinical testing facilities to say, okay we passed these tests, and we communicate that our product is safe without the FDA
Petersen: Right. And at the very least you could remove the effectiveness criteria from the FDA. Just say that the president or Congress could just tell the FDA, your job is just to check safety. Now if people want to take an ineffective drug, as long as it's safe they can do that.
There's the idea of right to try. Have you heard of that?
March: I have a segment of that in one of my pieces. I think that's very interesting because that's completely illegal action but you have certain states that will say okay if a drug is within phase three---that's when we start to do the safety testing with the FDA---and you say someone has an illness, they're in an insufferable pain, we know they're going to die, let's give them a shot to take this drug. And whether or not that helps or not is kind of secondary but it's a circumvention like we talked about earlier of the going around the FDA, which is a federal governing body, you are not supposed to be able circumvent that at the state level.
But you go around and you give people access to potentially life-saving medication. But me being more of a market-oriented economist, I wonder what if you did that not just for life-saving drugs but for other drugs? And granted there are risks with every single drug, basically including water has certain risks to it. But given that there are risks associated with every drug, what would emerge in a freer market where you could better ascertain the safety of these drugs or the efficacy of these drugs?
Petersen: So do you have any closing thoughts, anything we didn't mention?
March: I guess one last concluding thought with regards to health economics I just want to reiterate that health economics is fundamentally a question about which set of institutions is best able to deal with uncertainty. And uncertainty in the sense where we just don't have clearly defined answers. Who would be better able to protect the population of a country from an epidemic or who would be better able to take care of the mentally ill, which is a set of illnesses we don't know very much about, or who is better able to find alternative uses of pharmaceuticals given their potential potency to be able to help people, and the potential side effects?
And the debate is still very lively. It's to what level do we need centralization in order to answer these questions and to what level do the discovery processes of the market---for lack of a better word---how are we able to address these questions better? My research asks a question of if you don't have centralization what is the alternative? What are examples---not necessarily of entirely free health care systems---what are examples of private mechanisms working in the medical field and thus far I've found pretty convincing results that the private market is able to handle some pretty difficult situations, some pretty uncertain situations and when compared to the centralized alternative they fair fairly well.
Petersen: My guest today has been Ray March. Ray, thanks for being part of Economics Detective Radio.
March: Thanks for having me.
Fri, 23 December 2016
What follows is an edited transcript of my conversation with Judy Stephenson.
Petersen: You're listening to Economics Detective Radio. My guest today is Judy Stephenson of Oxford University's Wadham college. Judy, welcome to Economics Detective Radio.
Stephenson: Thank you very much. It's nice to be here.
Petersen: So, our topic for today is economic history. Specifically we’ll be looking at some interesting research Judy has done on wage rates in the early modern period in London. This period is particularly interesting because it's the start of the Industrial Revolution which leads to a dramatic increase in the growth living standards and of technology and that trend of course is what has shaped our modern world and made it different from the world of the past. So, it's very important of course to understand this period if we want to understand the world as it is now. So Judy, start by giving us historical background. What was the world like in the period you study?
Stephenson: Well, I work mostly on researching London, so urban environments. And London is very developed in this period between about 1600 and 1800. And London becomes the biggest city in the world during this period and as the biggest city in the world it's hugely vibrant, some of the largest merchant houses in the world are there, banking is advanced and developing. Most of the occupations of London are tertiary or service sector, even at this early date.
The river is a huge source of both transportation and work, the port is where much of the capital, both physical and financial, from around the world comes through the city, and the professions and bureaucracy are well established in London in this period. It's growing at all levels of society, from the very poorest to the very richest exponentially. So, if you look at the population growth overall in the U.K. in the late 17th century from 1500-1600 to 1700, that actually is pretty much stable or slightly declining. But the population of London grows by a third or something in that period.
London is this hugely vibrant commercial social and cultural center and it's pretty much overtaken Amsterdam, which has come to the end of its golden age in the mid 17th century, right at this period. So, although the world more generally and in a wider sense can be typified by pre-industrial or agrarian values, London is very commercial in this period.
Petersen: Okay, so, if I were to get in a time machine and go back in time, maybe London would be more familiar to me, would seem, feel more modern than almost any other place.
Stephenson: I think it would be very familiar to you the way of getting around would be a sedan chair or a carriage. You can hire them on the street, in fact you send your boy out to get one. It looks very like Uber, it's a gig economy.
And most people working in unskilled, or who didn't have a trade or didn't have a profession or skill probably didn't have steady jobs. They thought of themselves as having work that they could rely on, but it wasn't wholly reliable and they definitely didn't have a contract that would keep them going, they probably didn't have many rights either. And they probably worked at two or three things and everything---the traditional literature about London in this period is one of inequality. So the very very poor literally scavenging on the streets among the smut because the streets were the sewers in those days, and the very very rich living in these incredibly grand environments with retinues and servants.
It's a golden age for the aristocracy after they had a pretty rubbish time in the 16th century. It's a golden age for the aristocracy, it's a golden age for art, for architecture, for all these things but it is also a period of desperate poverty and mortality. The plague doesn't die out in London until the end of the 17th century, but still very very high infant mortality and living standards are nothing like they become in the later 19th century, after they sorted out all those things. But from a commercial point of view, you might well recognise it.
Petersen: It's very interesting---and of course the whole period is interesting---but it's particularly interesting for what it becomes, really. The rest of the world starts becoming more like London, starting in this period.
Petersen: And so you study wage rate of some of the day labourers and the workers in that period. How have economic historians gone about measuring things and getting data that far back in the past?
Stephenson: Well, data on wages and prices for this period was originally gathered by a guy---Thorold Rogers---who was a 19th century historian who started collecting wages and prices in the mid 19th century and finished 40 years later, literally a broken man. These are seven volumes from around England and he basically went into any long run institution where there was an archive or records, as they were called in those days, and just noted the quantities and prices found in the books.
But it was a huge project way before the days of even print noting, before the days of an efficient typewriter, let alone a computer. It was pretty haphazard as to what he was actually recording but it's very accurate. But he tended to take down labour costs or wages as day rates, and what he mostly found were builders because he was in big Oxford colleges and places like Westminster Abbey which had buildings from the 13th century and had required a lot of building maintenance and surprisingly he didn't find many other wages.
So this way of recording had a sort of half dependence. These day rates because they were the only ones that people could find it was assumed that wages---wage rates are very hard to find but there's always good ones for builders---and it was assumed that builders were the same everywhere in terms of skill levels so these could be comparative.
And Arthur Bowley---who is known as the father of modern statistics, an economist and statistician again working in the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century---used builders in his first attempts to think statistically about an average wage, an average worker, and to establish a real wage. And Bowley’s work is absolutely seminal in the history of statistics, econometrics, and economic history. And he used Rogers' and others' wage rates of builders. And this tradition carried on as other historians gathered more rates, like Elizabeth Gilboy in the 1930s, and then Phelps Brown and Hopkins used all these people's data when they came up with the seminal Seven Centuries of Building Wages in 1955.
And what Phelps Brown and Hopkins had done was they took all those day rates from the builders, and then they took a series of wages and prices and they created a basket of goods and they offset the wages against the prices and they came up with an index of the real wage or living standards across the ages. And this has been the standard for measuring welfare since 1955. And because it's very difficult to find wage rates for the 18th century for some of the reasons I spoke about a minute ago---not many people have jobs, etc etc etc---the dependence on builders' wages continued until, with the most amazing econometric and advanced econometrics techniques that Greg Clarke and Robert Allen were using, they still use that data from the 1930s.
I think the latest good index Jeremy Boulton made in the early ‘90's, where he collected about 2,700 observations of wage rates. The key thing to remember here is all of these wage rates came from bills in the archives of the institutions. So they’re not really wages. In fact they are not wages at all. So, I don't know if you've ever worked for somebody and been charged out by the day, have you?
Petersen: I have not, but my wife is charged out, she works in data science and yes, she gets one wage and she's charged out to other firms at a different rate.
Stephenson: And what she's charged out is higher, right? So, when I worked in advertising, I cost my clients about 1,800 pounds a day, I saw about 350 of that. What a bloody enormous margin, actually. You got to look at how IPG were not making a really stonking profit on that but you know there's overhead and those kinds of things.
Well, in the 18th century everything, but particularly in the building trades, that's exactly how you dealt with masons or bricklayers or carpenters or labourers. And any economy that has to organize production---and the building they were organizing was pretty big, the Great Fire of London destroyed the old city and was completely rebuilt in about a decade---there's some serious organizational coordination mechanism problems of making all that stuff happen. And the 18th century way of doing it is contract it out. Firms are a series of sub-contracts and so the way wage rates have been collected were the sums that were paid to contractors and what those contractors pay their men were substantially lower than those wages that Phelps Brown and Hopkins had used, or Robert Allen had used and Rogers and people have recorded.
Petersen: Okay. In your paper you mention Robert Allen and he had a hypothesis that based on these faulty rage weights that high wages in London were a contributing factor in kicking off mechanization in the Industrial Revolution. So, can you talk a little bit about that hypothesis and how your new look at the data has, I suppose, called it into question?
Stephenson: Yeah. So, Allen has made the most seminal contribution to the study of the Industrial Revolution. So, the Industrial Revolution is the savored big debate in economic history really and it's a favorite big debate for lots of parts or disciplines within economic history. The history of technology people like it because of the gadgets, the history of macroeconomics and supply and demand people like it because of the factor prices, the history of the organizational people and sociological people like it because of the institutions in the factories.
So it has this broad appeal for everybody who's interested in the economics of the long run. Essentially, the core issue around the Industrial Revolution is it's unexplained. Why did it occur in England before anywhere else? It's this naughty problem that had never really been adequately explained until the early 2000s. Then there were two competing---well not two competing but two complementary---explanations by sort of giants of economic history in the same period.
So, Bob Allen explained it through England being a high-wage economy and Joel Mokyr explained it through a series of innovations and enlightenment and how that brings about sort of an intellectual enlightment in scientific innovation. Allen’s theory was the economists’ theory and still is. And essentially what he proposed is that the high wages of England incentivized the owners of production to substitute capital for labour.
Essentially because of the way series are constructed when you take all those comparative wage series of Amsterdam, London, Milan, Florence, Madrid, Antwerp, Strasbourg, when you sort of put them all together as a real wage series in the long run, the English wages looked substantially higher by comparison, particularly after 1650. It looked like the cost of labour for capital in England was much higher than it was in the rest of North Western Europe or Italy, where you had the traditional textile industries and banking, where there was some quite advanced commerce in places. Allen argued that the high wage economy first of all created those incentives but that also it had created higher human capital and skills, attracted capital to it, to prepare England for industrialization in the long run. But that the trigger was induced innovation through relative factor prices.
And part of his theory also was that coal was cheap and available in England, which is very hard to argue that it wasn't, the coal in China is in Mongolia, the Dutch don't have any they've got coal in the Ruhr, of course. But you know coal has been at the center of English energy requirements for a very long time as Tony Wrigley has written about in a very distinct way actually in a lovely book called Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, which is the kind of thing your children could read.
So the relative factor prices between energy and capital and labour were unique in England is Allen’s argument. So, obviously if you find out that the wages are 20% to 30% to even 40% lower than Allen thought, that presents a problem for that theory.
Petersen: I believe I heard once that Germany had coal but it had to be transported over land and so was as good as useless to them before the age of the steam engine and trucking. Coal is really important. And so Robert Allen felt that high wages in London and in England were important but it seems like this issue of measuring the contract rate instead of the wage rate casts doubt on that, or even---does it close the whole gap between London and the rest of Europe?
Stephenson: Good question. And that really depends on what sort of organizational form or coordination mechanism was in place in other countries.
So,I've looked into this with Amsterdam and Antwerp quite a bit already. I've done some work with Heidi Deneweth who works on the Low Countries on economy and building particularly. She's at Ghent. And we're finding in the way that building is organized in Amsterdam, in London, is that in London very much the state has completely outsourced everything. So, the city doesn't employ people directly, that's too much hassle. It seems like the cost of management to something is very high in England because they outsource everything: the navy, the supply, the whole thing. Bits of the navy are integrated into it, but a lot of it, particularly the supply to it, is outsourced and all building is outsourced. Whereas in Amsterdam the city still employs people who are digging dikes, and looking after canals, and doing maintenance work on public buildings. Whereas in London the comparable projects which would be stopping London Bridge from falling down, or wharfing the fleet ditch and making these canals and things. Those are given to large contractors and the contractors are solely responsible for labour.
Whereas there is some relationship between labour and the city, people are directly employed in Amsterdam, this is indicative only and we need to do a lot more work on comparing contracts in the same types of organizations. And then there's a guy called Luca Maccarelli, who is an established Italian historian of the building industry and industry in Milan generally and he has looked at some of the data for the wages for Florence and Milan particularly and he has shown that the day rate was only part of the wage there. In fact the contractors were throwing food, bonuses, cash savings, access to places to stay, and all sorts of perks at workers to try and induce them to work. So the wage in Italy was probably a little bit higher. In fact, Mark Reilly has said that we've understated Italy’s by 15-20% and then the person who's done the most work on France so far is Vincent Geloso, who's shown that the Strasbourg wages are probably problematic.
But all this comparative stuff is at a really early stage. And we need people to get out into the field, the way I've been in the field in London, and look at more the form of employment and the form of the wage in those places. And really understand, the figures that we've got are they real or have they got other sort of recording factors like I've shown in London? So it's too soon to say although we started work on that.
Petersen: So, for the modern era we have people collecting data and they're making a big effort to collect the same data across time and across place. Surveys asking the same survey question to everyone, or government data and making sure it's collected in the same way every year but when we're going back to the past, of course there was no one in the year 1700 collecting data on Italy, and London, and Amsterdam, and all these different places. And so we have to stitch it together from what is available and often that's very different datasets.
Stephenson: Exactly, and different types of records. So, it may be the case that all the records are a bit skewed and you know there'll be a new schema once we have all the new data together that does reproduce the Allen’s story. And remember that we need to take the prices of goods into account. It's a real wage calculation he's done not just a nominal wage calculation. But until we've done that, what we do know is the living standards in England were not what Allen thought at the moment but you've got to do the whole comparative thing to know.
Petersen: So, how do you distinguish the skilled from the unskilled? How do you make sure you're comparing the same kind of labour?
Stephenson: That's a good question. Traditionally pretty much everywhere in Europe we've gathered two types of wage: a skilled wage for what we call craftsmen and craftsman are people who have completed an apprenticeship, who are qualified, that's the idea. So, a mason who has studied seven years in England---doesn't seem to be as long anywhere else---or a carpenter who has studied in the long run. So, who has invested time in the development of the human capital and acquired skills and then we think about the unskilled person as a counterpoint as being the labourer.
And this is another important distinction because you know building labourers are actually of two kinds: there's the completely unskilled guy. Actually there are three kinds: there's the completely unskilled guy who's basically just handing them nails or wheeling a barrel around. But then there's the more skilled or semi-skilled assistant who actually is doing a lot more than that, who is preparing the work for the craftsman, who knows which tools go with which materials and who is fully assisting a craftsman and they couldn't really do the work without them. And you call that semi-skilled. And then there's a labourer who is hired really for their brawn. They've got a premium for being extremely strong and what you tend to see in building accounts is people who are actually hired by the load. They get 2 shillings and 8 to move a ton over a day or something---and probably need more than one man to do that---but so there's a brawn premium in these labourers or unskilled.
And actually from Phelps Brown and Hopkins onwards we've taken this semi-skilled or brawn wage to be the unskilled wage, but these people aren't unskilled. Whereas the unskilled, the guy wheeling the barrel, or just picking out nails was paid a lot less than those. So, if the rate for the semi-skilled guy was 18 pence a day in 1700, the rate for the unskilled guy was 12 to 14. So you can see there's a considerable premium in here. That's another thing that colours our understanding of welfare because usually it's the unskilled or subsistence wage that the macroeconomist is interested in. They relate unskilled and subsistence even though they maybe should not. It's that unskilled wage that is an indication of supply and demand in the labour market, and the draw of that. So taking building labour to a semi-skilled to be unskilled leads to some problems because it implies that unskilled people in London could afford four times the subsistence basket of welfare goods in 1700, when actually they could barely afford two.
So, if you're going to use a welfare basket these rates have a real issue and the distinction between skilled is…
Petersen: So, the reason maybe we care more about unskilled wages is because that's the wage that you'd expect to see in other places in the economy. For instance unskilled work in agriculture or working in a shop or things that we don't have data for we can sort of guess because presumably there's a labour market and people have mobility and if there was too big a gap between wages for different unskilled jobs then people would move, they’d arbitrage away that difference. So your paper, it has some sort of case studies. You have data from particular construction projects. I thought those might be interesting to go through. So, one of them is the reconstruction of St Paul's Cathedral after the Great Fire of London, which is a massive project, could you talk a little bit about that?
Stephenson: Well, yes it's a famous project because the old St. Paul’s had stood since I think the 14th century. It was this you know cultural and emotional symbol for Londoners apparently, and it had been redesigned---the front had been redesigned---by Indigo Jones, the kind of father of classical architecture in England. And it was completely destroyed by the fire and this was a sort of symbolic task to rebuild and so Christopher Wren hailed the King, came up with the design and you know Wren is pretty much the father of modern architecture and he's this enormous intellectual as well as architectural figure, he's very much part of the enlightenment.
So the project lasted about 35-40 years, so they declared it finished in 1711 and the Great Fire was 1666 and it's still there today, absolutely intact, it survived the Second World War. So it's this incredible and very emotive building. The interesting thing from a work point of view is it's very much a craftsman's building, it's not an artist's building. So there is sculpture there, there is painting but nothing like a European cathedral like St. Peter's, St. Paul’s is very much a display of English craftsmanship and baroque style and most of it is stone faced.
So, I have these wonderful papers, which are the day books of one of the Master Masons, one of the contracting masons who built the south west tower on the west front. His name was William Camster, his father was also a contracting mason on a separate contract and in the network of masons who served, ran and worked. We’d ran over 30 or 40 years and he was on site for about 10 years of the project from 1700 to 1709 or so and some after and I have his day books right, years of this, where he records every single man that was working for him and what they paid him. So, it's got an appeal because you can go and see what they did---which is very rare---working on the 18th century that you get some wage records and you can actually see the product as well. So, it's quite nice from that point of view.
So, from an economist's point of view the interesting thing is the way that they contracted the construction because they just started out one contract at a time and then if it worked, they’d go "Yes. We'll do that again." So, they had these repeated idiosyncratic contingent claims contracting going on and on and on and obviously disputes arise and they resolve them, or people drop out and they get new contractors. But the whole thing is basically on a rolling contingent claims contract what Oliver Hart and Holmström said could never happen. Oliver Williamson would have had his head in his hands.
But the other notable thing is that the contractors financed this really because the Crown didn't pay them. It did pay them but the Crown and the city, they leveraged the coal tax but mostly people waited two or three years on contracts to be paid. So, the cost of financing that was just swallowed up by the contractors, it was in the price. And that's one of the reasons why you see a margin on labour and materials. But the interest costs for St. Paul's were as a total of the entire bill over 35 years about 20%, and very little of that had been lent by citizens and the city, a lot of that had come from the contractors themselves through just rolling over bills.
Petersen: That's interesting. So, we know not only what they were paying their day labours, but also implicitly we know the interest rate for that time.
Stephenson: We do. Yes, 6% for to and from the cathedral. Six percent on an annualized basis. Stephen Quinn and Temin and Voth have found higher rates, above 8% for some private lending around the same time. And it is likely that these contractors will have had to have done some private borrowing or lending within their networks to keep rolling this finance over. Because they will have bought the stone, they will have paid the carter, they will have paid the labours who are working for the carter, they will have paid the craftsman, so they may have well have to borrow to do all those things but 6% is what they got from the cathedral.
But the real question is then, so these networks of supply chains are surviving on that kind of finance. So really big contracts essentially on a very high level of trust or a very high level of interest. We need to do more work to find out which, but it does seem like these networks---because they repeatedly contract---they have good information and it's more effective than you would imagine those types of contracts to be.
Petersen: And of course they're contracting---it's the government paying for it ultimately right?
Stephenson: Yes, and it's financed through the coal tax which is also interesting. Bearing in mind the price of coal is relevant to development at this time. The coal tax was levied at a shilling a cauldron after the Great Fire to rebuild the churches for the city and then it was maintained through and into the Georgian period by parliament who kept sort of either adding to it or continuing it and apparently it was detested and greatly avoided.
But we definitely need some more research on how this work, and how people avoided it, and and what it did to coal consumption. Because you find in the accounts that the coal tax, they're expecting this much per year from it and consistently about 10 to 15% less comes in. So they have to turn to the city or to commissioners and people who might have money to borrow from them and tide it over. So financing the thing was unconventional.
Petersen: So, we usually think of government debt as being highly safe at least in the modern period but back then it may not have been.
Stephenson: Yes, and I don't know what the connection to other Treasury things are and Bank of England and everything. At the time it looks like it's just private between St. Paul's and the commissioners for St. Paul’s and either citizens or contractors and that it wasn't actually securitized as a state promise, but there may have been connections. It's something I haven't delved into enough.
Petersen: So, another construction project, in this case it's a maintenance project, is the famous London Bridge which of course in the nursery rhyme "London Bridge is falling down" which apparently was true. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Stephenson: So, well London Bridge was it was built the end of 13th century and it's 19 stone piers across the Thames. It must have been the most fascinating and amazing structure, it stood for pretty much 500 years, but by the end of the 16th century in the early 17th century it is falling down.
And the Thames because this sort of development further up river as well, the Thames is actually a very strongly flowing tidal river at this stage and the force of the water force through those 19 piers is wearing away. So they built wooden starlings, so they built a wooden constructions they look like boats around the piers, trying to guide the water through and these of course made the problem worse and they made the waters faster. So to pass under the bridge in a boat at high tide apparently you could drop 10 feet through the rushing rapids beneath. So you pay the shootsman who was contracted by the bridge to guide you through the piers. And it was really quite dangerous.
So, the bridge has a number of maintenance problems: the first is the starlings the mason repairs. The second is until the mid 18th century the bridge was covered in housing just like Ponte Vecchio in Florence as a proper living bridge the housing was also in a state of disrepair and some of it owned by the bridge and some of it owned privately. So the bridge tried to take over the property that isn't theirs and then get rid of the housing that isn't working, it's falling into disrepair over this period.
And there's a guy called Mark Leighton who's written a brilliant thesis at the University of Leicester all about how the bridge masters and the City of London get rid of the housing in the mid 18th century.
But essentially the bridge is the only crossing from side to side, from north to south or vice versa until 1750. There isn't another way to cross the Thames. There was a little wooden bridge up in Putney in 1729. London Bridge it's got all of the infrastructure of London basically. And so it's hugely congested and falling apart. So, the maintenance bills are are huge.
Oh yeah as well. So as well as the starlings you then have water wheels which are basically bringing the water from the New River Company and the Thames to give water to the city. So those are also in operation, these whole teams of little engineers looking after the water wheels. So it's a really busy bridge it's got people scrambling over it all the time looking after it, not before the shootsman or anybody else doing any work on it and those people were paid not very much.
The master craftsmen were paid for their contract and got a really good rate for looking after the contract, and then they hired others piecemeal so they'd hire well-known carpenters or masons. But they'd never have regular days or regular work and then the labourers were paid by the tide.
So at high tide you could work on the bridge or you could work on the upper bits of the bridge if you were in a boat; at low tide you could access all those damaged starlings and piers. So at low tide they worked in boats and that meant that in the winter you might only get four tides in the week depending on when the tide and the light coincided, in the summer you could maybe get 11 and then when they didn't need any work done you wouldn't get any tides at all.
So, there were quite a number of people. It varied from teams of 12 to teams of 80 or so who were employed in this fashion in a piecemeal just waiting for a little sort of bit of peace work on London Bridge. So, it's an interesting bit of contact with the sort of materiality of the world as well, everything was literally ruled by when the water came in.
Petersen: Right. And since it's such a long period of time, I suppose you can get a decent time series of that change in the wages over that period.
Stephenson: Yes, from a labour economist point of view, one of the fascinating things about the 18th century is this persistence of rates, particularly for labourers, it's a very monopsonistic market it's a classic monopsonistic market. It's a wage posting. One where employers basically will see who will come at this set wage and what happens is they don't change the wage.
The fluctuation happens around the number of days worked. So people don't turn up, or don't get work when there is less to do. The number of days fall away and when there is high demand, an upward-sloping curve, the number of days go up for everybody.
But a transaction cost analysis would suggest that the 18th century employer understood the costs of such information very well indeed because they weren't going to have any asymmetry of information. They were going to post ‘this is what you get,’ particularly the unskilled hand and the time or the amount of work that you got was how the fluctuations and the dispersion occurred.
So there's a lot more work to be done on that because nobody's really ever looked at this kind of market in those modern terms, understanding it as monopsonistic or having search or information costs.
And it's only with these levels of micro data that we can begin to understand that it might have worked like the labour market we know. Until about 20 years ago people thought---until much more recently actually, the last paper I can see about this is in 2007 by Leonard Schwartz---that essentially before 1840 it's a market dominated by custom not by market forces. But on a micro analysis it looks very much like there are just the kind of market forces at play that we understand today. So, wage posting at the lower level, a little bit of wage bargaining at the skills level, and supply and demand do actually equilibrate but not through the rate, through the number of days worked, which of course brings about the income.
Petersen: So, the third construction project you discuss is the Westminster Bridge, which I suppose is that that second bridge you mentioned earlier.
Stephenson: Yes, the second bridge, the cross rail of the 18th century.
Petersen: Is that interesting from an economic history point of view, we have a lot of data from that?
Stephenson: You get less data because I don't have anybody's nice little book saying who came in and on which day, so I don't have the number of days' work for Westminster Bridge.
The interesting thing about Westminster Bridge is the different kinds of contract. Everybody, they were making contracts for hundreds of thousands of pounds with the masons and engineers and they also had a contract with a guy who had a horse and three piles for 27 pounds for the year. So, you've got this variation in value or risk from a financial point of view which is quite dramatic.
But the key thing is that at Westminster Bridge you find the tide and the day model as well. So a much smaller number of days than you would expect that are actually billed to the institution, but this means of paying by the tide, which protects productivity from an employer's point of view. So that also occurs at Westminster Bridge.
And what you find is that people are doing quite advanced and quite dangerous work, but without the danger money. They were given gin instead. So they sank caissons, this is one of the earliest uses of caissons designed to create the piers. So these things are experimental to say the least, and they put people in diving gear into the caissons and it must have been terrifying, you know, what if the stuff gave way and they went under the Thames. In February, because that's the time you want to be in the Thames! You know, in 18th century diving gear. And got them to work on the masonry or on the carpentry on the bed of the river for the same rate as you could be having quite a nice comfy time carving out something simple, or doing some basic maintenance work on a couple of windows on some bridge houses. So, yes very dangerous work. There seemed to be a lot of skill available, ready to do that work at those kinds of rates.
Petersen: So, where do you see this research program going in the future?
Stephenson: There's obviously an issue about the rate of welfare, the real wage and welfare in the 18th century and to be honest if we're going to make a serious contribution to that, we need to start looking at people who aren't builders.
I've started a project with the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, where I spent a year before I went to Oxford, on London occupations. Because that Cambridge group, they are the masters of working on occupational structure in the long run in England and we are sampling institutions that bought goods and services widely. And the kind of bills and the kind of businesses that they deal with to understand what sort of people were employed where. So, to try and get some welfare and some wage data beyond builders that we can normalize and use properly.
I think the second direction for this research is to understand how labour markets worked. Was there such a thing as custom? Because one of the old things we believe about the Industrial Revolution, and this idea doesn't really stand up anymore, but it's something that's still emotionally alluring for a lot of people, we see the Industrial Revolution as that sort of capitalism thing and our version of capitalism got going.
But if people already understood transaction cost economics, and Christopher Wren writes like Oliver Williamson sometimes, then maybe the market didn't start then, maybe they already had a view of the market. And there are some organizational things that we need to be looking at from that point of view.
Essentially the 18th century will always be interesting because it is a free market. It is unregulated, there's no corporation tax and the finance is not state controlled at all. This is before the gold standard, this is before states get interested in managing money in a big way. There is monetary policy but it's not in the same way we conceive it now. And so labour and capital have a relationship that is unencumbered by the state, by government, by regulation.
So what is the outcome of that? Was it a race to the bottom, was there any equilibrium, what happened? So, there's a contribution to be made to studying that as a sort of a history of ideas thing as well. It's hugely rich but those are broadly the three things that are on my agenda right now.
Petersen: My guest today has been Judy Stephenson. Judy thanks for being a part of Economics Detective Radio.
Stephenson: Thank you very much. I very much enjoyed talking to you.
Fri, 16 December 2016
What follows is an edited transcript of my conversation with Samuel Gross.
Petersen: You're listening to Economics Detective Radio. My guest today is Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan Law School. Sam, welcome to Economics Detective Radio.
Gross: Great to be here.
Petersen: So our topic for today is criminal justice, in particular, we're going to be looking at the issue of wrongful conviction. Dr. Gross was part of the establishment of the National Registry of Exonerations which has provided valuable data in this area. So let's start by talking about the registry. What is it? How was it developed? And what was your part in it?
Gross: I'm the founder of the registry. It was created because after doing work on false convictions and exonerations for half a dozen years it became clear that the only way to get any sort of systematic information on exonerations that have occurred in the United States would be to put together the wherewithal to collect that information directly because nobody else was doing it. There's no official system for gathering information on exonerations or for that matter a single legal definition of what is an exoneration. And from there this project just took off on its own and became what's now a lasting institution that's in the process of handing over to other people to run.
Petersen: Okay, so let's talk about the how an exoneration is defined in the registry. It's a case where someone has been convicted and then later that conviction has been overturned and presumably not just on a technicality but because the person was actually innocent---somehow managed to prove their innocence. Is that correct?
Gross: Something like that. The thing that we're interested in studying is false convictions. Convictions of people who are actually innocent. The problem is there's no way to know when that's happened directly because in cases where by assumption people have made errors, the juries and prosecutors and judges who considered the cases have made errors in deciding who is guilty and who is innocent. It would be foolhardy and presumptuous and not particularly accurate for us to believe that we're going to be better at deciding after the facts which cases involve those sorts of errors and which don't.
So, what we've done instead---instead of trying to make any judgment of our own about guilt or innocence based on whatever information we can collect from second or third or fourth hand sources---what we do instead is to consider cases, to classify cases of exonerations if they meet the following criteria: First, the defendant has to have been convicted of a crime, not just charged, the conviction has to be completely removed. That is, at the end of the process the defendant has to have no legal consequences from the original conviction which means the conviction was entirely overturned by dismissal, or by a pardon, or in a small number of cases---or by the acquittal over retrial---or in a small number of cases by one of the few procedures that are available for people who are exonerated posthumously, after they're dead. And then in addition, the process that led to that result has to include substantial evidence of innocence that was not available at the time of the original conviction.
If the case meets those criteria we include, if it doesn't we don't. Our belief is---and it's a hypothesis---is that this produces a conservative classification for actual innocence, for errors in determining guilt at trial. We know of quite a few cases of people who are very likely to be innocent who are not included by these criteria in particular. Quite a few cases of people who reach that result having the conviction entirely removed from the record without the production of new evidence of innocence. For example, cases in which the conviction was reversed and then they are dismissed want to appeal because there was insufficient evidence to convict at trial unless some other evidence comes up before the conviction is reversed don't generally count.
And our hypothesis is that we include a very small number of cases of guilty people who did meet these criteria. Although there are no doubt some, it's possible, but the process that it takes to get convictions reversed and dismissed in this manner in the United States is very difficult and as a result as far as we can tell there are not very many misclassifications of people who did prison based on the underlying crimes but meet the criteria for exoneration. That is the best we can do.
Petersen: One thing I learned from your research is that the average time it takes a wrongfully convicted person to be exonerated is 10.1 years. So it seems like the system is stacked against it.
Gross: It changes depending on the mix of exonerations we have. In the moment it's probably gone down a little bit, but that's about right. Ten years is close to the average
Petersen: Looking through the registry I noticed some interesting patterns that I wonder if you'd like to comment on. So for instance, I was surprised by how few of these exonerations were about DNA evidence. It seems like it's actually more common for a witness to recant their testimony or for other non-DNA things, but I guess looking at media or just my own intuition I would have thought that DNA would be the big factor in a lot of these.
Gross: And that's a very common misconception. I think most Americans think that exoneration is the second word of a two-word phrase that begins with the letters DNA. And that's of course, as you know, not true. DNA exonerations have always been a minority and in the past 10-15 years, they are an increasingly small minority.
The number of DNA exonerations has been relatively steady over the past 10 years, about 20 a year, and the number of not DNA exonerations has been going up rapidly. The basic reason behind this is the DNA, which can be very telling and provide extraordinary strong evidence of guilt or of innocence, is only valuable in a small range of cases. It depends on having biological trace evidence that identifies a particular person as the person who committed a crime.
That's relatively straightforward in the case of sexual assaults---rapes in particular---where the trace evidence that's left is very hard to explain except as a consequence of the crime. So if you recover semen from the body of a rape victim and it's identified by DNA as coming from a particular person and that person is not a consensual sexual partner of the victim, then you have the rapist. Assuming that rape really did occur. But if it's a question of identity, which is the case in most of the rape exonerations we know about, that tells you both who the person is if you can identify the profile---and in the case of exonerations who it is not---because DNA comes asymptotically close to being a unique identifier in that type of DNA evidence.
But that's rape cases. Some other violent crimes produce DNA evidence that is as valuable or nearly as valuable. Usually murder cases in which there's blood evidence sometimes, other types of biological trace evidence, perspiration, epithelial cells from the skin and other bodily fluids and that can identify people under circumstances where you can determine from other evidence that the biological sample that was retrieved could only have come from the person who committed the crime.
But most crimes don't have that. One of the things that's clear in the registry, for example, is that there are almost certainly many many cases of false convictions in robberies that are not exonerated because they don't have the type of evidence that's available in rape cases. And in many rape cases there aren't either, but both robberies and rape cases that resolved in exonerations overwhelmingly are cases in which the suspect was misidentified by the victim or by sometimes more than one victim. There are three to five times as many robbery cases of this sort as rape cases---maybe more than that---and they are typically cases in which errors are more likely because the victims may only get a sidelong glance at the robber whereas rape cases almost by definition require much more close contact with the perpetrator.
Nonetheless, despite the fact of the numbers suggest we have many more exonerations in robbery cases. Rape exonerations outnumber robbery exonerations by about 3-5:1. And the reason of that is because the rape cases can be exonerated by DNA but the robbery cases can't because you don't have DNA for the type of conduct that's involved in robberies. You don't have DNA that you can retrieve from threats that are made or guns that are waved or even guns that are used. And as result, those cases are not exonerated at all. Now given the huge disproportion between the cases in which DNA is valuable, and cases in which DNA is never going to play any role, it's not surprising that the great majority of exonerations don't involve DNA. But the availability of DNA in the small number of cases---comparatively small number of cases---in which it is valuable does make those cases ones in which the possibility of correcting a terrible mistake is considerably harder.
Petersen: So, you mentioned the increase in recent years in non-DNA exonerations. I was looking at the data and in 2011 there were only 73 exonerations in the Registry, but in 2015 it had more than doubled to 157. So, I wonder what's changed in recent years to make that number increase so much?
Gross: It is a general change and then there are particular---couple particular strands that stand out. The general change is that the resources that are devoted to reinvestigating cases where defendants were convicted and there are now doubts about the accuracy of the convictions are increasing year by year. And the willingness of everybody involved, the criminal defense attorneys but also more importantly prosecutors, police officers, and judges to consider the possibility that someone who was convicted is innocent has grown greatly.
They have come to recognize that mistakes happen and the more exonerations occur the more people realize that this isn't just a once-in-a-lifetime event. And that's I think the force that is behind all of the specific changes that occur.
The two strands that have made the most difference in these numbers are---in the last 10 years, I think---are, in the past four or five a proliferation of Conviction Integrity Units across the country. These are specialized units within prosecutors' offices that focus on issues having to do with erroneous convictions. And for the most part, the ones that are most effective, look at cases within the jurisdiction in which there is a possibility that the wrong person is convicted and they work to re-investigate and sometimes exonerate the people involved. They have contributed an increasing proportion of the cases that we see. And to the extent of this becomes more widespread they might someday be a majority of all exonerations.
There are something like 25,000 local prosecutorial offices in the United States. I don't have the exact count now, I will in several weeks but my guess is that by now we have something like 30 Conviction Integrity Units around the country which represents a larger proportion of the population than that would suggest because those are some of the most populous counties, but it's still a minority of all cases where the local prosecutor has any organized interest in the issue. And then there is a particular pattern that came up in one county---Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located---that contributed, I think it was 40 some exonerations last year and 40 some so far this year and 30 several years before that. And that's a back-log of cases of defendants in Harris County who pled guilty to possession of drugs and then after they pled guilty the Houston police criminal lab tested the substances they received from them to determine whether they, in fact, contained drugs and found that the material that was the basis for the conviction included no controlled substances whatever.
We ran into a number of cases as that over the years but starting in 2014 the attorney who runs the Conviction Integrity Unit in the Harris County district attorney's office noticed there was a whole bunch of these cases and they were being handled very haphazardly and put together a program to identify them all, to clear the backlog and to set up procedures for getting the defendants exonerated and they're still working through that. The thing that's interesting about those cases is that, that procedure testing drugs that were seized from people, the supposed drugs that were seized from suspects after the defendants have already pled guilty to something that as far as we know doesn't happen any place else in the country or didn't---now I think a couple of other jurisdictions have begun to do it at least occasionally---but it's just that there may out there be thousands of cases a year of defendants who pled guilty to possession of drugs when in fact they were not in possession of any illegal drugs. Although they could be exonerated by quite a simple process, it doesn't take an elaborate investigation just running the drugs through the police lab, which could be done. Except in Harris County, until the last year or two nobody's ever done that.
Petersen: That's so strange. Were they caught with a little baggie of oregano or powdered sugar and just everyone assumed it was drugs?
Gross: It's a whole lot of different things but it's a good question. In some cases, they were arrested for possession of pills that were identified by the police officer as likely or actually being a controlled substance---often Xanax---and then tested by the lab and found not to be Xanax. Sometimes ibuprofen, sometimes some other over-the-counter medications.
In some cases, they had the smallest amount of white powder. One woman who ended up in the paper had white powder on her face because she had the habit of eating flour, which some people do, eating flour mixed with water and was left with some white powder around her mouth. In cases like that, where small amounts of white powder or something else were tested, they were subjected to field tests for drugs which have become notorious in the past year or two because they are so unreliable.
Field tests for drugs are not admissible evidence in court to show that the substance involved was a controlled substance but they're considered good enough to perform the arrest. Then what happens is the defendants who were arrested on these charges show up in court three days later and if they can't make bail, which seems to be true in basically all the cases that we know about---perhaps with a few exceptions---then they're given a choice that amounts to this: Plead guilty today and you'll get some perhaps suspended sentence and go home immediately, or another week and you'll be home in three days, or something like that, or a short-end by Harris County standards where drugs sentences are three weeks or two months or something like that. Or plead not guilty and then you'll be held in jail because you can't make bail for months, after which you'll go to trial and if you are convicted, and obviously you might be because some cop and some test said you were in possession of drugs, then you'll get perhaps years in state prison.
No doubt many people refuse to plead guilty in that situation because they're innocent. But some who are innocent do plead guilty and those are the ones we find out about.
Petersen: Right. So that process of being prosecuted, even when you're innocent, can sometimes be more costly than simply pleading guilty. Especially in the small cases.
Gross: If it's a low-level charge and you are held in pretrial detention, the process can be much more costly than a conviction after trial. In Harris County you could spend six months in jail or longer. So, I've heard stories of people who spend a year or more in jail waiting for trial. If you can make bail, then that's still a heavy cost. Having a trial hanging over your head and having to come back to court repeatedly is not a walk in the park. But if you're held in jail for that period it's an extraordinary cost. It obviously disrupts your life and it may tear your family apart, you would lose your job, you may not be able to get other employment, and so on.
Petersen: So one of the things we've learned in recent years is just how easy it is for police to get people to falsely confess, or to falsely accuse someone else of a crime. In fact, I think the number was 12% of the cases in the registry were false confessions and I believe it was a majority involved witness making false accusation or committing some kind of perjury. Why do people confess to things they didn't do, first?
Gross: Well, those are two different issues false confessions and perjury or other false accusations. Although there is sometimes an overlap. I don't think I agree with the statement that it's easy to get false confessions. In some cases, no doubt it is, but the false confessions that we know about are overwhelmingly in murder cases. And as far as we can know---but the information we have is not that good---they appear to be the result of long interrogations. Long would be the ones that really stand out, sometimes they take place over days, two, three days or longer with the defendant sometimes being questioned in relays by different officers.
But even interrogations of three, four hours or five hours---which is eternity if you're being questioned unrelentingly by police officers---are fairly uncommon. This costs the police quite a bit. It involves usually more than one officer over that period of time. Certainly one officer taking off that whole period of time and a fair amount of preparation. So it's not done very much, except in homicides, and it does happen in other cases but I think two-thirds or so of the false confessions that we know about are homicides cases, maybe more than that.
What's surprising to many people---and those working in the area have gotten used to it, but still somehow surprising---is not that it's easy to get people to falsely confess, but that people will falsely confess to murders that they didn't commit, that they had nothing to do with. It seems like such an unbelievably strange and self-destructive thing to do but it happens and it happens time and time again.
And what we see in these cases and what other researchers have shown, is that it's much more likely if the suspect is in one of two general very vulnerable categories: if the suspect is a teenager, or the suspect has some type of mental disability, is intellectually disabled and mentally ill. Those two groups are, as far as we can tell, much more likely to falsely confess than other people who are subject to these interrogations. They are very far less likely to be able to resist the pressures, they're more likely to respond to authorities or more likely to believe the promises and threats that are implied if not directly made in the process of interrogation. They're more likely to become hopeless, and they're more likely to---much more likely---to not grasp the seriousness of what's going on.
One of the most common things that people hear when they talk to a suspect who falsely confessed later on and ask why did you do it is "I confessed because I wanted to go home. I just told them what they wanted to hear so they'd let me go." Which of course does not happen or "I confessed because I just couldn't stand it anymore so I told them what they wanted to hear but I didn't think anybody would believe it. How can anybody take this seriously?" And they think that because they're there and they've been experiencing this onslaught going on for a while and they imagine that anybody knows what happened would say "why would anybody take seriously what somebody says after hours of being badgered and humiliated and lied to?" But of course, the jurors and the judges hear the confession at the end typically don't know what happened but they have a confession that has the defendant's name at the bottom.
Petersen: Right. So the other thing I was asking about is the false accusation. A lot of this comes in child sex abuse cases. There's a pattern in the data.
Gross: Yes, that's correct. Child sex abuse cases are overwhelmingly the cases in which there is no DNA or other physical evidence of the sex abuse. They are typically made on the accusations. The crimes are typically made anywhere from weeks to years after they occurred, way too late to have any kind of physical evidence.
And that as far as we can tell is accurate as well as inaccurate child sex abuse accusations. The children who were victimized by adults many, perhaps the majority, probably never report the abuse at all. And those who do, everybody understands, will not necessarily do it right away. Sometimes they have to be encouraged, but that means that false accusations are very hard to detect because what do you have? You have the nine-year-old girl who says that her stepfather molested her in some way, repeatedly over the period of a year. So ending a year or more before she ever tells about this. Nobody can figure out exactly what happened or what date this occurred, where people were, whether anybody else could have observed it, etc. The details of a crime that occurred in that context are essentially impossible to recover. To defend against it using evidence of timing, or the presence of other people, is generally impossible.
It becomes a contest of credibility and that means that if somebody is motivated to lie in the situation---and we see that in the cases that result in exoneration---the defendant may well be convicted and that will be the only evidence. And there are many of these cases in the registry. And they seem to often include cases which we don't find out about until years after the exoneration took place.
Often cases got little attention in the time for exoneration. I don't think we can come up with anything like an estimate of how come, but we do know that they're not rare.
Petersen: Moving to a different topic, you co-authored a paper published in 2014 on the rate of false convictions among death row inmates. I should say, I first heard of this study when someone quoted a statistic from it, the statistic that at least 4.1% of death row inmates are innocent, and my first thought when I heard that was that it couldn't possibly be right because nobody should have the tools to measure such a thing. So I read the paper and I was impressed with the method. So could you talk a little bit about the methods you used to get to that statistic?
Gross: Well, I have to agree with your initial intuition because having worked in this area for decades, 20 years ago I would have said this is not something that can be estimated. The proportion of false convictions can't be estimated because false convictions, are by their very nature, unobserved and for the most part unobservable.
You can't just have to find whether somebody is innocent or we wouldn't have false convictions. A lot of things are unobserved. We don't know the rate, the proportion of prisoners in the prison who have been exposed to tuberculosis, but we can test that if we want to. We can test a sample. But this isn't anything you can test. So the question is "Is there any way to come up with an estimate?" And in general, it's impossible because you don't have anything like the post-conviction information that will be necessary to come up with a clue as to how frequently innocent people are convicted and for what it's worth in the United States our background criminal justice statistics on convictions in general, are so bad that a comparison of people who are convicted is nearly impossible to define.
Death sentences in the United States are just different. They're different in two ways: First, we have through the Bureau of Justice Statistics a database that tracks everybody sentenced to death in the United States with reasonable precision from the time they're sentenced until the time they're removed from death-row by execution, or by death from natural causes, or by exoneration or by the most common means which is being re-sentenced to life in prison. And second we have an extraordinarily high rate of exonerations in death-sentence cases. Hundreds of times higher than for other crimes. And the reason for that is---depending on what you're comparing it to---perhaps only 10 or 20 times higher than other murders but much higher than other felonies in general and vastly higher than misdemeanors.
And the reason for that is that someone who is under sentence of death almost always will have access to resources to reconsider the possibility that he or she is innocent that are simply unavailable to almost everybody else who has been convicted of a serious crime in the United States. They're going to be represented by attorneys with few exceptions from the time they're convicted until the time they leave death-row, their cases are all subject to review in private courts which is not generally true for other people sentenced in the United States and in almost all cases there are multiple levels of review.
The resources that are available for attorneys are much greater and probably as important as any of that, the legal system itself---and judges in particular are much more interested in considering the possibility that people who might be executed could be innocent than they are in considering the innocence of anybody else including defendants who are sent to prison without the possibility of parole---and are much more open to reconsidering cases where new evidence of innocence comes up.
So the net result is a rate of exoneration that is vastly higher than any other type of case. Which means that if you just look at the rate of exoneration and compare it to the overall number of death sentences that occurred in the time period where the convictions which produces exoneration occurred you already get quite a high number, about 2.3% if you limit yourself to cases that are old enough so that by then anybody who will be exonerated probably was exonerated. That's a paper that one of my co-authors---Barbara O'Brien---and I published several years before the one you are referring to.
So that already gets you to a number that is surprisingly high but it's still going to be an underestimate. An underestimate because that also takes into account the many cases of defendants who are sentenced to death who are innocent, who have not been exonerated. The paper you mentioned tends to deal with that by focusing on one of the features of the process of exoneration and review of the cases of defendants who were sentenced to death and that is something I already mentioned.
If you're sentenced to death in the United States chances are you will never be executed. What will probably happen is that eventually, by one means or another, your sentence will be reduced from death to life in prison and you will be taken off death row and reassign to the general prison population and then you will die in prison as too many defendants who were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison and not sentenced to death. When that happens, the pressure to make sure that no innocent person is executed, which is the backbone motivation for the extraordinary high level of exonerations in death cases, is removed. The defendant is no longer under threat of death and the extraordinary resources and attention that that defendant gets go away. And as a result, what you see is the death penalty exonerations that occurred are overwhelmingly in cases of people who still remain under sentence of death and are on death row. And then once the threat of execution is removed, the rate of death sentencing drops back, as far as we can tell, basically to the same rate as other murder cases.
So the question for us was is there a way to estimate from the pattern of the cases that we know about---in particular, their histories as they wend their way through this process---what the rate of exoneration would be if defendants who are sentenced to death remain under threat of death indefinitely? That is, subject to the type of searching investigation and reconsideration that's available to defendants who might still be executed.
And there is a technique for doing that, which you're very likely familiar with, and that's survival analysis. Figuring out how to do it is a somewhat complicated process but we went eventually through and that produced the estimate that you see, which is 4.1%. Obviously there's a great level of uncertainty attached to that. But it is a legitimate estimate of the rate of false convictions in that context, given the assumption the underlying rate of exonerations is a decent measure of innocence. And that requires a sensitivity analysis, which we also go through in the paper.
And that leads to, I think, a solid conclusion that this is a conservative estimate of the rate of innocence among defendants who were sentenced to death. It's the lower bound of the point estimate, but it really means something between 3.2 to 5 point something percent. It's hard to know what it means, but it's somewhere in that range of 1 in 20 to 1 in 30. Which, I have to say, I was surprised how high it was.
Petersen: So where do you see this research program going in the future?
Gross: Well, unfortunately I cannot see duplicating that type of estimate for any other categories cases because we do not have that information. We don't have the background information on the cases themselves, which is necessary to do the survival analysis. You actually have to know how many cases survived, what the trajectory of each case was through the legal system and you don't have a glimmer of that except for capital cases. And second, the exoneration rate is much lower. So you can't make the leap from the exoneration rate to the false conviction rate. It would be much more tenuous.
Our estimate at the end amounts to saying that we detected something like 40% of the innocent people who were sentenced to death in this period in the United States. The rest, the great majority of them ended up in prison---under sentence of life in prison---without the possibility of parole and will probably remain in prison until they die.
Some number of them were no doubt executed. Although it follows from the same logic that leads to this estimate, that that will not be anything like 4%. That of the 12,000 of people who've been executed, if they were being executed in proportion to the number of people who were convicted who were innocent, it would be like 50 or something like that. But since so much of the process is geared to avoiding executing innocent people and that produces such a high exoneration rate, my guess would be much lower than that. It would probably translated into execution of probably 10-20-25 of innocent people over the past 30 some years. But that's it.
Again we don't know, we can't say which cases they are. But can we do the same thing for robberies, or kidnappings, or for that matters non-capital murders? I can't imagine that.
Petersen: My guest today has been Sam Gross. Sam thanks for being part of Economics Detective Radio.
Gross: My pleasure. Take care.
Fri, 9 December 2016
What follows is an edited transcript of my conversation with Otto Lehto.
Petersen: You're listening to Economics Detective Radio. My guest today is Otto Lehto of King's College London. He is formerly the chair of Finland's Basic Income Network. Otto, welcome to Economics Detective Radio.
Lehto: Oh it's my pleasure to be here.
Petersen: So our topic for today is the basic income guarantee. Otto, you approach this idea from the perspective of political philosophy, so let's start by discussing that. How about we start by talking about two of the major figures in political philosophy: John Rawls and Robert Nozick. What do each of them have to say about the welfare state and where do your views diverge from theirs?
Lehto: That is a good point to start indeed, although it is I think a bit lamentable that we have to start from those two figures because they have dominated the discussion so much during the last 50 years. In fact, it's very hard to have a conversation outside the boundaries set by those two figures, but they're both geniuses. They set the stage for the discussion, certainly in philosophy but also in public policy in many respects.
So, let's start with John Rawls. John Rawls really was a towering figure in Harvard, really starting from the 60's and throughout the 70's. He wrote this book, A Theory of Justice, which is considered one of the really truly great books in political philosophy that revolutionized the way we think about these subjects. But the short version of his theory, which is very influential even up to this day, is that people in societies should look at the framework of living with each other as a cooperative game where we all try to sort of not only maximize our own position but also to make the whole game fair for everybody. And so he called his theory Justice as Fairness, where people are entitled to a certain respect and autonomy, certain liberties as members of the democratic community where they can pursue their own ends. But they're also entitled to a redistributive scheme if they happen to be among the worst-off people in the society. They are entitled to redistributive transfers.
This framework sounds very familiar and indeed it should because it reflects the social democratic reality in which most Western societies operate. And even in later years he said that actually his philosophy, even though it starts from first principles and proceeds from there, is actually meant to be a philosophical justification of the intuitions that people in Western democracies---liberal democracies---have.
So, you combine liberal ideas of individual freedom with these notions of the welfare state and so on. So that was the foundation of Rawls' system.
So that's Rawls' system but Nozick came along and he found a place for himself in the same institution, that is Harvard, and he wrote a critique---a respectful critique---but a very thorough and deep critique of Rawls' theory. And he ended up justifying a minimal state that libertarians are very fond of. And he effectively said that no, people should just be seen as individuals who have some fundamental rights---he calls them side constrains---that people have a certain respect that they are owed by other people and it is very wrong for people to violate their personal boundaries and this includes the State.
The state has actually no right to violate the sort of inviolable right to property rights that individuals have. So every form of taxation, that features very prominently even in Rawls' system, is theft. So, that is of course a very prominent theme in libertarianism. So his book---which by the way is really brilliant philosophically, it's not only just a standard justification of libertarianism but it's actually one of the great books in philosophy because it's so rich and powerful and full of interesting ideas and strange examples and brilliant footnotes and all that---but that lay down the other side. And so the debate in intellectual philosophy and history in the last 50 years or so has been largely dominated by these two figures: Rawls' Theory of Justice on the one hand, a justification of social democracy with a liberal bent, and then on the other hand Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia, which is a justification of libertarian taxation-is-theft ideology. So that is the framework in which we find ourselves.
Petersen: So there are these two competing extremes. You quote John Tomasi's critique of both of them. Would you like to summarize that for me?
Lehto: Yes. John Tomasi wrote a wonderful book in 2012 called Free Market Fairness where he actually tries to combine these two perspectives. And he says that actually there's a whole tradition that we're forgetting here when we focus only on these two---as you put it, they are both at extremes---although at least for Rawls himself, he's often considered a centrist. But in many ways, he represents this kind of---from a perspective that Tomasi points out---the perspective of classical liberalism even though the Rawlsian center-left position, he's actually seen going fundamentally wrong in many ways, even though that is the unquestionable framework in which people today operate.
And I should say, when I say that Rawls and Nozick laid a framework, it's not as if there is 50% on one side and 50% on the other side. Perhaps in politics, like the left-wing and right-wing ideologies have maybe about 50% on each side depending on the circumstances. But in philosophy certainly, Rawls has been the one that dominated the discussion and there are actually very few Nozickians around.
But Tomasi points out that even with this seemingly very credible and too wonderful system that Rawls lays out, there is very little attention paid to issues like individual freedom especially in the domain of economy. And the lack of respect for people's freedom of choices in economic matters is actually a major shortcoming in Rawls' system. And this is exactly what Tomasi points out and from the perspective of classical liberalism which he raises to the standard of something that we should actually take more seriously than we have today. He points out that actually economic liberty is something we should insert back into the conversation in a serious way without however on the other side falling down the assumption that Nozick makes---and a lot of libertarians make---that the only justification for all economic liberty necessarily leads to a justification for the night watchman state or the minimal state of libertarianism where there is no role for government to provide public services and all that.
And so this false dichotomy that Rawls and Nozick have put out has sort of made it difficult for people like myself and Tomasi and Matt Zwolinsky and people who consider themselves followers of the legacy of classical liberalism to lay out the more complicated, but I think more interesting, case for a system where robust economic liberties are combined with certain welfare state elements. Certain elements of taking seriously the power of the state to actually increase the real opportunities of people rather than just being a system of theft as Nozick calls it.
Petersen: So that's where something like the basic income guarantee comes in. Can you summarize what that is and how is that different from the welfare states most countries currently have?
Lehto: Right. Basic income guarantee, first of all, is defined as a regular payment to all citizens or residents of a political community that is given uniformly to all citizens. All people get the same amount and people get it without bureaucratic discretion. So it is given automatically or almost automatically to all people either in the form of a direct cash transfer to their bank account or in the form of a tax break system as in the form of negative income tax which is actually a form of basic income.
So this system is supposed to, and it is a way, to replace the bureaucratic complexity and the nightmarish disrespect for human autonomy and human freedom that lies in the center of the current welfare state system in my opinion and certainly in the opinion of Tomasi and other people who I'm referring to. So the basic income guarantee is superior to the current system and it differs from the current system in the sense that it actually operates under the principle that we shouldn't use the state to guarantee specific favors to specific people, we shouldn't use the state as a one-upmanship mechanism whereby one group of recipients carries for the favor of bureaucracies, tries to---and in a way infiltrate---the mechanisms of the state to redistribute money and resources to themselves or to groups that they favor against the interests and desires of other groups because this leads to a spiral of negative-sum game in the political economy. And I think welfare states today in this sense have become victim to this overzealous one-upmanship of special interest group politics and basic income is a way to overcome this problem.
Petersen: So the basic income guarantee, is it really a break from business as usual? It seems like it's a marginal improvement on the system we have now, but I guess you're suggesting that the system we have now encourages a lot of rent seeking, it has a lot of payments to different groups, it's needlessly complex. I could list some other problems with it. There are the so-called welfare cliffs where poor people face implicit marginal tax rates sometimes of a thousand percent, or some absurdly high amount because their benefits are clawed back when they earn a little more income. So there seems like there's a good economic justification for basic income. Is your work focused on the classical liberal philosophical justification for having a hands-off welfare state?
Lehto: Yes, in a way. The fundamental debate is truly between these two perspectives of whether it's a pragmatic justification for reform towards a slightly saner and slightly more useful and purposeful and beneficial system, or on the other hand, is it a requirement of justice that we have something like a basic income guarantee. And I think that really the truth is somewhere in between.
First of all, I think it certainly is a pragmatic improvement over the current system but I should point out already at this point that when I'm advocating for basic income I'm not advocating for basic income without demanding widespread reforms in other areas of life in the welfare state. I am indeed calling for massive restructuring of many of the mechanisms of the welfare state partially just to accommodate for the fact that we are taking basic income as the policy paradigm that we're trying to implement. Because if we take that as the policy paradigm, then we necessarily must reform the existing bureaucracies, tax system just to accommodate for the fact that we are taking this new system into effect.
In addition to this, I think that the whole framework of regulations, the whole framework of massive interventions into the economy, into the private life of citizens have to be addressed as serious violations of the capacity of the welfare state to truly increase the welfare of its people. Because my opinion is that the welfare state has failed because it has failed to address the proper means to achieve its own ends that it claims to have. Use of improper means to achieve its ends is the reason why the welfare state is failing so miserably everywhere in the world today. That it's claiming to be for the welfare of its citizens, but if you look at it in terms of its overall effect in many ways it fails.
Petersen: So, when I think of the policies that I'd like to see replaced by a basic income guarantee they're not just strictly welfare transfers. There's a theorem in economics called the Atkinson-Stiglitz theorem. It says that when you have an optimally designed progressive income tax scheme, basic income with a progressive income tax would be something like that, then it doesn't make sense to have additional programs designed to redistribute. And some of the programs that I think are basically focused on redistribution are things like protecting taxi drivers from competition from companies like Uber and Lyft, or a lot of the interventions into medicine are designed to make sure that people who get sick don't also become poor. And of course, if you had something like a basic income, every taxi driver could lose his job, he wouldn't fall below that minimum level. And so could at least in principle---if we were going to make sort of an ideal political bargain---a basic income guarantee would come with a lot of free market reforms ideally. Is that basically a big part of the reason why so many libertarians---such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek---have supported versions of a basic income?
Lehto: Well yes indeed, it has the feature of being compatible with a total abolition of the rest of the welfare state, or major portions of the welfare state. And in fact people like Charles Murray have recently proposed exactly that, a replacement of the welfare state by the means of a basic income given to all citizens as the second-best option to a complete free-market society. And people like Hayek and Friedman were also of the opinion that the majority of those transfers could be replaced.
So the thing with money is that money is a universal means of exchange and the uses of money and the need for money are as varied as people and situations. And when we think of basic income we don't think of it in terms of being for a particular purpose or for particular people or for particular circumstances unlike the current measures. And so it has the virtue---and perhaps the vice depending on your point of view---of being this universal situation, a neutral ground. And so indeed we can come up with hundreds of scenarios where a basic income could be useful for people. Obviously, some of those are covered by the current redistributive schemes within which by the way I would include things like farm subsidies, many forms of corporate welfare and so on.
So basic income has the virtue and vice of being neutral as regards purposes and situations. The only thing really is that if you don't have any other sources of income then you will get a basic income without having to beg for it from anybody either in the government or in the world of charity for example. So, yes indeed, people who are forced out of work to circumstances---whatever those circumstances happen to be---are able to survive, the people who are forced out of the labor market entirely for a reason---one reason or another---people who have temporary or permanent conditions that affect their capacity to find work will be covered up to this level, and people who perhaps want to take some time off to take care of their family, people who want to take some time off to study, to plan ahead, to perhaps think about starting a new company, they have some ideas but they don't have the means of funding yet, that allows people to focus on doing what they think is best for them at the moment. So it has almost an infinity of purposes precisely because there is an infinity of human beings and human desires that in a pure realistic society will have to be taken into account. And a welfare state that tries to measure what people truly need, or what circumstances need to be taken care of, fails precisely because it can never count the infinity of the variety of ways in which people end up in need of money in society.
Petersen: So before this welfare state that we currently have---the welfare state as it currently exists largely is a creation of the 20th century. But in the 19th century and early 20th century a lot of what you had was mutual aid societies and things like that. And I think a hard core maybe a Rothbardian libertarian who maybe still cares a lot about the poorest among us might say, why have a basic income? If we just had nothing there would still be the civil society and we could create something like a mutual aid society. Are there advantages of---is there reason to do this through the state, I guess is my question.
Lehto: As a very wide-going and deep-reaching utilitarian, for me it's all about checking what robustness criteria institutions might have, and what institutional arrangements we could come up with and seeing how they perform in the real world rather than in the realm of ideal theory. And we have some evidence of places where mutual aid societies worked and we have some evidence of places where forms of welfare state that are highly bureaucratic and oppressive and paternalistic have operated and both of those have several features that I think we can wish to want to get rid of.
So I think that if we look at societies where mutual aid societies were the sole means for people to survive I think they actually did a relatively good job in many cases but I think they failed to provide the sort of guarantee of security that I think a good society would wish to provide for people. That is, if we rely on the means of mutual aid societies you will get perhaps even a superior alternative to many forms of welfare state in the long run and I'm completely open to the idea that free markets can provide a very robust system of welfare. And actually that to me is one of the reasons why I consider myself a libertarian defender of a welfare state because I think that the libertarian part comes from actually understanding that markets are a good way of producing welfare and the opportunities available for markets and other forms of voluntary transfer, including mutual aid societies, are a way of providing a wide framework of security and services and other forms of protection.
But I think that they provide a patchwork which leaves a lot of people outside in a number of circumstances. And I think this fact that they have a lot of holes in the way into the system, they have a lot of uncertainty about guaranteed income and lot of uncertainty about who gets covered, who is seen as being worthy of being helped, who is seen as being worthy of being protected by a benevolent charity and so on, means that we need to have a system of making sure that people don't---perhaps out of no fault of their own---fall through the cracks of the free market system and the same goes for the welfare state. I think they actually are surprisingly similar the welfare state and the free market utopia, they both provide this patchwork framework where some people are protected, some people are not, there's a lot of uncertainty about who gets what, who gets protected, and who doesn't. And so actually in both systems, people fall through the cracks and this is exactly the reason why I think basic income guarantee can be a superior alternative to either of those.
But again we have to see what happens when we actually implement basic income, there could be a lot of unintended consequences. So we need to take those into account as well but at least on the side of theory, I think the idea of guaranteeing basic income, I think it's both desirable and practicable because we know how to do it technocratically and theoretically. I mean there's nothing so difficult with guaranteeing basic income via bank transfer to all citizens for example.
Petersen: So one virtue of the basic income guarantee is that it seems to be actually politically feasible within our current system and it has got some interest in recent years. We mentioned at the start of the episode that you were part of the effort to bring a basic income to Finland so could you tell me about the political situation there? I've heard that they're looking at bringing in a basic income guarantee.
Lehto: Yes, indeed. And here I'm being brutally pragmatic. Finland is not going to turn into any sort of libertarian utopia that I would wish for and certainly there are elements of paternalism there that are not going to go away. We still regulate the sale of alcohol in a very, I think, outrageous fashion for example and there are a lot of elements in the system that probably will keep us on the level of adult children for a long time. But as far as the welfare system is concerned, there is considerable consensus now that something like basic income would be a desirable reform. And this is seen by the majority of the population and by more than 50% of the M.P.'s in the parliament, basically from all parties with of course different proportions in different parties.
But yes indeed the center-right government is actually going with the basic income pilot experiment starting next year. It's I think a well-planned pilot. They have a lot of experts because we believe in experts in this country and in Finland the sort of reliance on experts is both good and bad in many ways. It always seems to suggest that there is a group of people who can define the perfect system but in this case I think they've done a pretty good job with planning this two-year pilot. We shall see what happens. It's certainly not ideal and the government is already bungling with some of its promises and how it is going to be organized.
But the basic premise for people who may not have an understanding or an idea in their mind of what this actually means, it means that basic income in the Finnish context would be the guarantee of something on the order of 500 to 600 to perhaps 800 Euros per month per person. And this would replace the various forms of unemployment benefits, sick leave benefits, student benefits and various other forms of benefits and Finland obviously has a lot of those already in place. And the complexity of the bureaucracy is such that even the experts who run it are surprisingly candid about their ignorance, about the complexities and mutual dependencies of the various benefit structures so that it's a maze that not even the experts can navigate, let alone regular ordinary people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the system. So a lot of people don't know how to apply for help, a lot of people don't know what benefits they're entitled to, and there's a long delay in getting the results of one's application for particular benefits---months, sometimes even the years. And a lot of people fall through the cracks in that fashion that I mentioned earlier.
And so I think we've come to the point almost by necessity, where this system is seen almost universally by all as in need of reform and basic income happens to be the form of this reform that is most universally seen as the one we should pursue even though of course there are still people who are very skeptical of it in many ways. But yes, indeed they're planning this experiment where they're giving something like 500 Euros to a few thousand people across Finland. It's a very small experiment, but there are people who will call for its expansion I'm sure in the years to come. That will be definitely a very interesting experiment to see how that goes.
Petersen: It seems like with the current system being so complex, it's almost like a part-time job just to collect benefits. You need to build expertise and you need to fill out the right forms and it takes a lot of your time and in many ways that makes it something that competes with the labor market for your time and your efforts and your human capital development. Seems like a basic income would be a good way to get people back into the labor market simply by virtue of freeing up their time to pursue something else. Do you see the political movement towards basic income making progress in other countries as well?
Lehto: So yes experiments are undergoing in a number of countries. In addition to these, Netherlands, Canada and U.S. experiments and the Finnish case of obviously which I'm most familiar with, there is a very interesting experiment going to start in a few years in East Africa organized by the charity Give Directly who are already advocates of this idea of giving cash transfers to people. They have been doing that for a number of years now with quite good results according to many independent researchers. They've been giving cash transfers directly to people and they've shown great results. So they are actually expanding this idea and organizing again a privately funded experiment that they planned around for ten years, I think, or at least a number of years in East Africa.
And this should be quite interesting to see how the basic income experiments in rich countries and poor countries compare and perhaps they can help both in different ways, because obviously countries where welfare states exist are quite different from places where they don't. So any help or any form of monetary transfer will help people in African countries proportionally more than they do in rich countries, but I think both situations and both contexts can certainly benefit from direct cash transfers and basic income.
Petersen: Give Directly is a charity that I support and I really like what they're doing. I especially like how they take such a quantitative approach. There are so many charities that just start with "wouldn't it be nice if people in this village had this thing?" And then they bring it to them and they don't really stop to say can we measure, were we cost effective in improving their lives? Did we do a good job? Could something else of equivalent cost have made them better off? Give Directly is doing a great thing by bringing a lot of this sort of quantitative approach to charitable giving and I'll have a link at the show notes page to Give Directly if you want to contribute, if any of the listeners want to contribute, I highly recommend it.
Lehto: Absolutely. For a little bit, just to say about the reasons why cash transfers are so great. By the way, I should say that there are perhaps a few charities that are even more helpful in certain contexts. For example, direct malaria helping efforts, efforts to eradicate diseases perhaps, have an even higher rate of efficiency but those are pretty much the only ones that are more effective than giving people cash. And the reason why giving people cash is very good is that first of all, they stimulate markets where they don't exist and where markets do exist they operate in a way that maximizes the preferences and satisfaction of the people concerned. They operate as a way of giving people welfare in the most efficient way possible.
And the theoretical foundations of these can be found for example in neoclassical economics, of course, where the superiority of cash transfers have been posited for example in the Chicago School since George Stigler and Milton Friedman and others. There's a wonderful paper by Brennan and Walsh on the desirability of cash transfers over in-kind transfers from a game theoretical Pareto perspective. So that's also quite interesting how the theory also matches the empirical research here.
And just again to go back to the very foundation of the welfare state. I think that's been the biggest mistake of the welfare states today that they fail to take into account how welfare truly fundamentally is the satisfaction of the desired ends and needs of the people themselves as they themselves see them. It shouldn't be the satisfaction of some criteria of goodness that the state bureaucrats measure and determine. It really should be ultimately up to the people themselves what they value, what they pursue, and what needs they see themselves as having and thus giving money to them is the best way to make sure that they actually get to satisfy those preferences which they have rather than those preferences which some bureaucrats think that they should have.
Petersen: If I may ask one final question. Some supporters of the basic income guarantee have suggested that we could do it as a swap. We get rid of our current costly welfare system and bring in the basic income guarantee and often you'll hear the suggestion that this could be revenue neutral. Is that a realistic possibility?
Lehto: It is a realistic possibility in cases where quite extensive welfare states already exist. And obviously it depends on the level of basic income and I'm actually in favor of starting low where that is the most politically feasible option. But I'm also quite a quite supportive of the idea of starting high where that is politically feasible. So in countries like the welfare state in Canada and many other places. Starting from the level of where the current welfare state benefits are it is compatible with the goal of making it neutral as far as the effect on state budget is concerned. Although I think that it will be very hard to make it completely neutral in that regard. I think it will by necessity always cost something.
But what it will cost is heavily overblown in many estimations because many people simply do not understand how to calculate the costs and they simply add up some figures of everybody gets this amount of money and multiply that by the number of people and voila you get the proposed cost of this program. But that's obviously nonsense that they don't understand what they're talking about. And they really should have a look at the actual models because in all models what happens is you reform the tax system at the same time which means that for most people, middle-class and upper-class people---or middle income and upper-income people, to be more politically correct---the income that they get from basic income actually is a zero sum addition because actually, they ended up paying their basic income back in the form of taxes that I've been raised to match accordingly the need for basic income funding. So, even if there is no criteria that you don't give basic income to people above a certain range of income, nonetheless those people in the upper brackets will end up paying back their basic income due to the taxes that have been raised. But the taxes that are raised do not have to impose unbearable burdens on those people either, because again for most people it is just a nominal transfer of funds and it's withdrawn from their bank accounts at the same time.
Petersen: So are there websites, books? What can you recommend to people interested in this topic? What should they read?
Lehto: Well I think for those who are philosophically minded, I certainly recommend reading the classics of the libertarian welfare state stuff. Things like Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom where the negative income tax fee is featured. Friedrich Hayek's Constitution of Liberty is a great book and it also features a defense of guaranteed minimum income. And more recently John Tomasi's Free Market Fairness, and I would recommend people to read the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians they have been advocating for basic income but also debating it. And also proposing this similar thing that I'm doing which is trying to combine Rawls' and Nozick's intuitions into something like a new coherent whole.
And just follow the news, read up on the models, follow up on what the governments and many of these countries---Finland, Netherlands, Canada---are doing. And go to basic income networks website. Just Google basic income earth network. B.I.E.N it's called---Basic Income Earth Network---and you will find more about basic income.
Petersen: My guest today has been Otto Lehto. Otto thanks for being part of Economics Detective Radio.
Lehto: My pleasure. It's been fun.
Fri, 25 November 2016
What follows is an edited transcript of my conversation with Sam Hammond.
Petersen: Our topic today is supersonic air travel.
Sam has written an article titled "Make America Boom Again" along with co-author Eli Dourado which revisits the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's ban on supersonic flight over the United States. So Sam let's start at the very start. Let's start by talking about the history of flight. How do we get from the Wright brothers to supersonic flight?
Hammond: Well I think the most notable thing about the early history of aviation is how quickly and how rapidly we innovated. So the Wright brothers flew their initial voyage, their milestone flight in 1903 at seven miles per hour and within forty years we were already breaking the speed of sound. And actually very shortly after that not only were we breaking the speed of sound within military jets but we were on the cusp of commercializing it through the Concorde.
So, what characterizes the early history of aviation is really rapid innovation. Part of that was driven by obviously two world wars but also that trickled out and percolated into the commercial space. That brings us to today. So in the progress that we made in air speeds in the first say 40 to 50 years of manned flight, we've actually regressed since then.
Petersen: Okay, so the Concorde starts flying in I believe it's 1969 and the subject of your paper---the ban brought in by the F.A.A. on supersonic travel over the United States---comes in just four years later in 1973. So what happened in that four-year period? How did we go from rapidly advancing to banning what was at the time the latest technology?
Hammond: It really began in the 60's. Everyone was seeing the progress that was being made in supersonic aircraft. And it was widely appreciated that it was only a matter of time before it would be commercialized. And there was actually a bit of a race going on between European countries and America of who would develop the first and the best supersonic jet. Because at the time, you know, this is way before Reagan deregulated the airlines. So these were the national projects almost akin to the space race.
So in the 60's the F.A.A. and NASA began investigating whether supersonic airplanes could fly overland, because obviously they had them already in the form of military jets. And so they conducted a number of tests. One of the most important and famous tests was the test over Oklahoma City. So in 1964 the F.A.A. began a test over Oklahoma City where supersonic jets---military jets---would fly over the city eight times per day for six months continuously. And these were just regular old military jets, nothing about them was designed to mitigate the sonic boom. So eight times a day people in Oklahoma were hearing the sonic boom. It was rattling their windows. And at the end of it---at the end of the six-month period---even though about 75% of the people they asked said that they could tolerate the booms indefinitely, there were tens of thousands of complaints. And that's when the F.A.A. examined the complaints and rejected the vast majority of them as spurious. And that led to this huge public backlash.
And so that was picked up by a guy named Richard Wiggs who founded the Anti-Concorde project. So the Concorde was being developed in the 60's by a partnership between France and Britain and it sort of represented the frontier of technology---not just aviation technology but technology in total---and Richard Wiggs had this view of the environment and technology as being in conflict. So he believed that as technology advances, we lose touch with our natural environment. And he was actually one of the most innovative, maverick early environmental activists. They're commonplace today but he was actually a pioneer.
And so he took the complaints that occurred in Oklahoma City and his philosophy of environment and technology in conflict and began one of the most successful environmental NIMBY campaigns in history. He organized academics, he organized the residential associations near airports. He took out full-page ads in The New York Times. He got people to call their congress people. And so even though this was all becoming organized even before the Concorde was in use in 1973, it persuaded the F.A.A. and Congress to institute a ban on supersonic flying overland. So there is no jurisdiction over the ocean of course, so when the Concorde eventually came out it was able to fly over the ocean. This was their attempt to handicap the Concorde's success.
Petersen: It's so strange to me that the government would fly supersonic jets over one city eight times a day for six months as an experiment. I mean when you experiment, usually you have to get the consent of the people you're experimenting on and that's what I'm familiar with but it's so---
Hammond: This was a different time.
Petersen: Yes, so 1960s! To just experiment on an entire city against their will and just see what happens.
Hammond: Yeah, I mean, any student of US history knows that our toleration for human experimentation has gone down quite a bit from the 60's and 70's. And if anything, flying a supersonic plane over a city was probably one of the least egregious things that was going on at the time.
Petersen: Yeah well, tell me about sonic booms. I'm not a physicist so use small words.
Hammond: Okay. So, if you've ever seen a speedboat drive through the water, it creates a wake in its path. And the same thing happens with planes only it's air. And air is in three dimensions so there's a cone, a wave that goes past an airplane as it flies through the air displacing the air in front of it, pushing it aside. But of course the speed of sound---and we get the concept of the speed of sound because sound is moving through air and so sound can only move as fast as air can move---and so when you approach the speed of sound you're pushing the air in front of the plane. You're pushing it, basically compressing against the air that's already there and so you reach this thing called the sound barrier where upon crossing the sound barrier you produce a shock wave where the air is becoming compacted and compacted and compacted and basically it's like the waves are on top of each other. And that creates a shockwave which radiates around the airplane and will reach the ground as this loud booming noise.
Petersen: So it's not only loud---I've noticed in your paper---some people said it could break windows or damage buildings.
Hammond: Right. So a lot of this goes back to---again---the Oklahoma City experiments where the fighter jets were flown over the city eight times a day. Sonic booms are shockwaves. There is no limit to how powerful a shockwave can be. So in principle sonic booms can break windows. In practice, they are about two pounds per square foot.
This is this what the Concorde was approximately. And two pounds per square foot of air pressure is pretty weak. There were studies done in the 70's when the Concorde became active. And they found that it could do damage to old Civil War architecture and stuff like that and if you already had a window that had damage it could crack that window. But for practical purposes, buildings can withstand up to 11 pounds per square foot pressure before experiencing damage---Nasa's tested that extensively.
So nonetheless the myth propagated in part because there were people in Oklahoma who claimed that their plaster cracked or that their windows broke. And so when the F.A.A. investigated it and basically threw out most of the claims as not being credible, that caused a big backlash and also caused a huge public relations disaster for the F.A.A. and for supersonic overland more generally and created this myth that it's very easy for a sonic boom to break their window. It's just not.
Petersen: So the ban applies just over the United States. How do we know that that is what has stopped the progress of supersonic flight? After all, you'd think that there's the whole rest of the world and maybe transatlantic or transpacific flights could sustain a supersonic aviation industry?
Hammond: So, there's a lot of variables going on. First of all---as I mentioned earlier---all the supersonic projects up to this point---except the Concorde---were abject failures. The US had one called the Boeing 2707. It just never got off the ground, in fact, in the industry aerospace engineers have a term for this. It's called a "boomdoggle"---a play on boondoggle---because countries that tried to produce a supersonic jet just ended up pouring literally billions of dollars down the drain.
And you can't blame that on supersonic per se. That's a failure of central planning. I would say the same thing with the Concorde. The Concorde flew for 27 years. And at times it made money but you have to remember it was never designed with any commercial intent. It was designed to be a commercial airplane but it had no market testing. It was mostly a piece of a diplomatic or political gambit that Britain was using to try to get into the European Common Market.
And so when Kennedy proposed the 2707 as a competitor, he also didn't do market tests or see what the demand was, he looked at the Concorde which sat about 100 passengers and said we need to do better than France so let's make it 300 passengers. And instead of flying at Mach two---twice the speed of sound---let's fly at Mach three---three times the speed of sound---so it was just the one-upmanship of nations, had nothing to do with whether it was market viable.
And so the case I make is that, if you had a private sector in airplanes---which at the time we didn't really, at least in supersonic, it was all government driven---the first entry point, the natural entry point would be some kind of smaller business-jet. Because frankly if you don't know which routes are going to demand the most passengers you want to start small. You don't want to jump right to a 300-seat passenger jet. The Concorde was only 100 seats, as I said, and it routinely had trouble filling its cabin.
But the thing with business jets---and there have been about half a dozen rigorous market analyses done in the last ten years that have found there is a demand for supersonic business jets---the thing about business jets though is they fly overland about 75% of the time. You're going from regional airports to regional airports.
And so if the natural entry point to sort of begin on the supersonic learning curve, learning which routes have the most to manned is a smaller business jet, you're going to have to begin by flying overland. And then once you discover which routes will bear more people you can expand the capacity of the airplane and ultimately I think a private sector would work its way up to having a 100- to 300-seat passenger jet once it had established that the demand existed. And also big part of that is driving down costs, of course. The Concorde was the Concorde it never iterated it. The first model was the last model.
In commercial aviation more generally in subsonic aviation we've learned over time how to reduce costs. Even though we fly a slower today than we did 50 years ago, subsonic commercial airplanes are vastly more efficient and we've achieved that efficiency because we've learned over time.
Petersen: Okay, so the natural entry point is maybe carrying businessmen between New York and L.A. say, but that's illegal. And so the industry isn't able to sort of clear that hurdle. Is that basically what you're saying?
Hammond: Yeah, I mean if you have a 12-person business jet. First of all, it's difficult to get a jet that small to have the range to even go across the ocean. You know you wouldn't necessarily being going from coast to coast in a small business jet right away. You might be going from New York to Houston, or something like that. The point is that you don't know. You don't know which routes are going to bear fruit, a priori.
The Concorde flew between France and Britain and the U.S., but It also had roots into the Caribbean and lot of those routes have ended up being canceled in the 80's in part because they just kept losing money, but it was because they had tried to plan it all out a priori, as if they could just deduce which routes would make money.
I don't trust that model. I think you have to begin by building something small that you know will meet demand and then expanding from that. And the most important part about this is there's open a confluence of technology in just the last 20 years. I have no illusions that supersonic business jets would have been a thing, say, in 1990. I think a lot of this is a recent phenomenon that's why supersonic overland is an idea whose time has come. There's just been such a breakthrough in technology, in reducing the intensity of sonic booms. And that has been really the biggest hurdle is getting the intensity of sonic booms to a level where people will tolerate it.
Petersen: Right. So it seems like the F.A.A., when they banned supersonic flight, the concern was noise but they banned speed as sort of a proxy for noise. But what you're saying is that's a bad proxy you can have the speed without the noise.
Hammond: Exactly. So it was an overreaction. What we advocate in our paper and at supersonicmyths.com is to replace the ban with a reasonable noise standard. Subsonic airplanes already adhere to a variety of noise standards, noise rules. If the issue is really noise---and we believe the issue is basically noise---the F.A.A. should just set a noise standard, say, 80 decibels, something like that, that would be like a lawnmower going by your house. And then let the market try to get below that line. The F.A.A. stance right now is that it will set a noise rule once it sees a supersonic airplane demonstrate that it can go below the noise that it finds acceptable. But it has never stated what it will find acceptable. So it's a sort of reverse order of operations where the F.A.A. wants to hear something that is quiet enough before telling us what is quiet enough.
Petersen: And if you're Boeing and you're going to invest millions of dollars building an aircraft that does 80 decibels and the F.A.A. says 'not quiet enough' you're out millions of dollars.
Hammond: That's right. And so today the biggest and really only large quiet supersonic project is still within NASA. NASA has been working on quiet supersonic technology pretty much continuously since the mid 80's under a variety of different project titles. And they're the only ones who are able to do it because it's federal money. They have no skin in the game. They do use contracts with, say, Lockheed. But those are still federal contracts. We would like to see more competition in this space.
NASA is firm in its belief that a quiet supersonic jet is possible as early as 2020. How much sooner would we have gotten to that if we had the private sector involved?
Petersen: Almost certainly much sooner. If we look at private space companies like Space X, they're an order of magnitude cheaper than NASA. They're much more efficient and able to launch rockets into space for a fraction of the cost that NASA has. So, maybe if we use that as our model, then however much NASA has spent on developing supersonic, divide that by ten and maybe that's what the private sector might cost.
Hammond: Could very well be. The other thing is that, even today, NASA's effort is directed at the big passenger jets. And part of that is out of this democratic aspiration. They're the government, so they're trying to build something that the everyman could ride. But it's pretty common in new technologies for the early additions or for the early adopters to be of a sort of luxury class.
You can think about Tesla's business model where they begin with a roadster and a luxury car---which is really only affordable to millionaires and the very wealthy---with the game plan that they're going to have a low volume high profit or high revenue car and reinvest those profits back into developing cheaper and cheaper versions until they get to a mass market version.
We argue that that's exactly how the supersonic learning curve probably works as well. You want to begin with business jets which will of course be a luxury flying supersonic getting from New York to L.A. in two hours instead of five or six. It is worth it to some people. But those early models will of course be expensive. It will be expensive to ride not just because it's new technology and we haven't figured out how to drive down costs, but because a lower capacity means you're dividing the cost by fewer people. But over time those companies can reinvest, build bigger designs and drive down costs until you get to the point where virtually anyone can afford it.
The company Boom, which is developing a supersonic jet for over the ocean, is projecting to drive their costs down to about $5,000 a ticket to go across the Atlantic, which is on par with business-class and first-class tickets. So they're projecting that for their own costs. It could very well be the case that that technology and that those cost estimates are probably similar for first models in the over-land market as well. And that's a far cry from the Concorde which cost about $20,000 per flight. So going from $20,000 a ticket to $5,000, that's what this one company is projecting and it's only their first model.
Petersen: Right. So if something like Tesla cars or cell phones had to get permission through the political process when they were being developed, then maybe someone in the 90's would have said "Why should we allow cell phones if only rich people are going to use them?" And in the 90's they might have been right. But of course now we all have cell phones, and I guess what you're saying is in the 2020s or the 2030s we might all be flying at supersonic speeds when we go on our vacation.
Hammond: I believe that. Elon Musk, in his Hyperloop paper, discusses the most efficient way of getting from point A to point B. And he argues in that paper---it's sort of an offhand comment he makes---but he suspects that for any city pair that's over 900 miles apart the most efficient way of getting from that city to the other city is supersonic.
Petersen: So that's most pairs of big cities.
Hammond: Not just most pairs of big cities but the average flight distance, not from where the passenger is starting to where he's going, but the average takeoff to landing for a passenger plane is about 900 miles. So that suggests that if that is an efficient distance for supersonic, the average flight could be flown efficiently at supersonic.
Petersen: One issue that your paper goes into is that some people have alleged that supersonic aircraft---because they fly very high---might damage the ozone layer. Is there anything to that?
Hammond: I won't say there's nothing to it, but it's been vastly overstated. I'll put it that way. This goes back again to the Concorde and the early environmental movement's objections to it. At the time the understanding of atmospheric science was very very poor compared to today and there were concerns that because the emissions from an aircraft include nitrogen oxides---which are a class of molecules that will bind with oxygen in the atmosphere to destroy ozone---that because the Concorde flew so close to the stratosphere---which is where the ozone layer begins---that these emissions could lead to the depletion of ozone.
That's been rejected. The most alarmist versions of it were rejected. In the 70's people were claiming that if the Concorde or a fleet of Concordes were permitted to fly that we'd see catastrophic ozone collapse. That did not come to fruition obviously, the Concorde flew for 27 years. More recent studies now that we have large models of the atmosphere, simulated models of the atmosphere, have determined that a supersonic aircraft flying within 50 to 60,000 feet should in theory be ozone neutral. The reason is because there's actually this countervailing effect where a little bit lower in the atmosphere the nitrogen oxides actually produce ozone, and a little bit above in the stratosphere it depletes ozone. And if you're flying right on that line they roughly cancel out.
Petersen: Okay. There were some fears in the 80's and 90's of other things we're doing seriously damaging the ozone layer. But was that a much larger threat than supersonic flight?
Hammond: Well it was just a different sort of threat. There are different emissions in aerosols and so forth, CFCs. But out of the concern for the ozone in the 90's we got the Montreal Protocol and the Montreal Protocol is an international agreement to control the emissions of things that will deplete ozone and as supersonic makes its comeback, they will have to be fully compliant with those protocols.
I still recommend that going forward there should be more research into this. Even since the Concorde retired, we have better models of the atmosphere and I'm sure there's actually teams that NASA and MIT that are studying this right now.
Petersen: It can't hurt to look into it. But it seems like once something is banned or, you know, once the government sort of gets its hands on it and says "we're not so sure about this" we become incredibly risk-averse, we look at every possible downside and ignore the huge upside of just having a whole other industry and all that consumer surplus that you get from having an entire market that wasn't there before.
Hammond: What I would say is the state of knowledge right now with respect to supersonic and ozone is well established enough to not worry. The catastrophic versions of the concerns have been utterly rejected. Even the more modest versions of it are called into question by the fact that, there seems to be this band around the around 60,000 to 50,000 feet where supersonic emissions are ozone neutral. There, of course, should be more study but we don't have to wait for those studies. The studies we already have are sufficient to suggest that we shouldn't be waiting for more data. We already have enough data to begin today.
Petersen: It seems like there are two models of innovation. At one extreme end is the development of new drugs, where we have years upon years of vetting and studies and you have to comply with many requirements before you can get your new drug on the market and it costs billions of dollars. Adds a lot to the price of developing new medicine. And then there's the other model where somebody just makes something and we start using it. And maybe we worry about the implications, but by the time anyone thinks that "hey maybe this is a bad idea" it's already been universally adopted.
So something like Facebook, where we were all already on Facebook before people started complaining "Hey what if this is ruining our social interactions or something?"
Hammond: Or maybe all the fake news sites. Destroying democracy.
Petersen: Yeah that's topical right? Facebook is now worried about its role as one of the main places young people get their news, or a lot of people get their news, and some things go viral that are not true or and might be misleading and might affect, say, the outcome of elections.
Hammond: Apropos of Facebook and that topic, myths and misconceptions and viral falsehoods and urban legends, those are not new phenomena. That's why I had to create supersonicmyths.com. Because around supersonic, there's just a lot of misconception because there are a lot of people who think they're experts on the Concorde and think that the Concorde proves that supersonic is not economically viable. But they don't really understand that well.
Petersen: Right and you could use the same sort of logic to say, "Look how costly the moon landing was. It's clearly impossible at that cost for any kind of space tourism or space commerce to be economically viable." But the issue is that the moon landing was very very expensive, but it was run by the U.S. government which tends to make all its activities very expensive. A future space tourism company might be much much cheaper and we just don't know until we see it, how much cheaper.
Hammond: So I guess I should just comment a little bit on what the new technologies are that have made supersonic overland viable. And they really break down to three: first engines---jet engines---have become a way more powerful, way more efficient. They're way more capable in every way. So, the Concorde used an afterburner on its engine, which means upon takeoff it basically dumped kerosene and lit it on fire and that's why if you watch old videos of the Concorde taking off you see this trail of black smoke coming up behind it. That's the afterburner. Incredibly fuel inefficient, you're just burning fuel. This is what it needed at the time to get the extra boost, to get into the air, because it had to climb to 60,000 feet---which takes quite a bit of energy.
Today we have vastly superior engines. In fact, most subsonic aircraft, most passenger planes that you would fly in any consumer flight are capable of going supersonic. They have a top speed which is subsonic but if you put them in overdrive you can go supersonic and in fact, the company I mentioned earlier---Boom---is using off-the-shelf engines to reach its max speed.
Second is carbon fiber. So, the shape and the aerodynamics of shape matter a whole lot to supersonic and supersonic overland. The way we reduce booms is by affecting or altering the airfoil around the airplane. So, essentially you can use the shape of the airplane to modify the waves and smooth the waves out. So you don't have this like sudden shock and sudden dip. Instead, you have sort of this gradual rise and fall. And mostly when the human ear detects loudness what it's detecting is suddenness. So you can dramatically reduce the perception of loudness by modifying that airwave and you do that by modifying shape. Most planes are constructed of aluminum, which you can shape reasonably, but not nearly as much as carbon fiber and carbon fiber has become basically a commodity in recent years. It means basically any shape you want is incredibly cheap and incredibly strong.
The third and final, probably most important thing is the power of computers and computer simulation. So prior to the early 2000s, I would say, when what's called computational fluid dynamics was really coming up. These are computational simulations of how fluids waters and airs move around shapes. That requires a lot of computing power which we've only recently achieved. Prior to that,
if you want to design and test a prototype for a supersonic aircraft you would have to literally build a model and rent a wind tunnel, and then you'd have to have instruments try to imperfectly measure how the wind is moving around the aircraft. That is incredibly costly. So, computer simulation has really democratized. Some of the researchers who've done work on this are just grad students. They have software engineering expertise and they construct algorithms that will search through the space of all possible aircraft designs and try to find the one shape that reduces the sonic boom the best. And then because we have carbon fiber we can go and pour that shape and have the exact shape we want.
Petersen: So it used to be, not only did you need the air tunnel but you had to---if you wanted to test 100 wing shapes---you had to physically build 100 wings. Now you tell a computer "here's 100 wing shapes," hit compile, come back the next morning and you have your simulated sound profiles?
Hammond: It's actually even cooler than that. Instead you tell the program what you're looking for, and what you're looking for is a shape that will reduce the sonic boom to whatever level you're aiming for. Basically you give it an objective and then instead of trying to design 100 designs and let it test 100 designs, you give it an objective and then it searches through literally hundreds of thousands of designs that it evolves on its own. Some of these algorithms are genetic in nature, so they evolve like biology evolves and they try to go down paths and try to find exactly what shape reduces or hits the objective. And you can have multiple objectives. You can even include the objective of low sonic boom, but you can also have that tempered by the objective of efficiency---fuel efficiency.
Shape and size obviously you'd want to put into the objective function. We don't want this airplane to be ten miles long. It happened to be the case that the longer, more slender aircraft cut through the air better but a computer doesn't know on its own that a ten-mile long airplane is not feasible. So you basically give it multiple objectives and you hit play and you let the algorithm do its work. And it can literally iterate through hundreds and hundreds of thousands of designs.
Petersen: And this is achievable by grad students just with software that is available, or you can get on a grad student budget?
Hammond: Well, I imagine these are big research projects. They have university backing and industry does that too. But it's a single fixed cost instead of a repeated variable cost of having to rent a wind tunnel every single time you want to test.
Petersen: So it sounds like despite the fact that there's been a supersonic ban and despite the fact that there is no supersonic industry, or no supersonic commercial flights going on in the world today, we still had advancement, but it's been mostly on the technology side, on the theoretical side. What we haven't seen is actual supersonic flights and testing the water, testing the market. I saw in your paper that you go through some estimates of the potential size of the supersonic market. Do you want to talk through some of those?
Hammond: Sure. There has been by my count seven market analyses. Most of them from the mid-2000s till today. The estimates range from 180 supersonic business jets to over 600. So, these are companies like Gulfstream Aerospace, which is a leading business-jet manufacturer. They've done actually two or three of these market analyses. And they foresee up to 350 units for just themselves. So 350 business jets that they could produce over ten years. That is quite a demand.
Petersen: And they're looking at things like whose opportunity cost of their time is high enough that they would pay maybe a few thousand extra dollars, maybe several thousand in order to save a few hours. And right now there are C.E.O.s, there are wealthy people who maybe live in the United Arab Emirates but want to commute to New York and right now that means sitting on a plane for---gosh I don't even know---it would be like 15 hours or something. If it could be six hours, for most of us, we might prefer to sit on a plane longer and pay significantly less. But if your time's really valuable, if you run a multi-million-dollar company, it really can be worth it to save some of your time, even at a high cost.
Hammond: Of course it's possible if you had supersonic overland to leave New York and go to London and then come back to New York on the same day. There are people who would love to do that. I think what gets missed in this it's not just about going faster for its own sake. This makes the world smaller, it makes you rethink travel. So in addition to these American analyses, there have also been some surveys. One survey did a survey of business jet operators and importantly they asked them to basically state an estimate from zero to 100 what the likelihood is that they would buy a supersonic business jet if they could. When they asked that under the condition that there is still an overland ban the number was zero, so zero percent of people. The average person said that there was zero chance they'd buy a supersonic business jet if they can't fly overland but in the case that the ban is lifted, that number jumps to 50%. So half of the businesses that were surveyed would see a chance.
Petersen: That's further evidence that it's not just that supersonic is unviable, it's that this legal restriction is in a very important market which is flying over the United States. That's what's killing the supersonic industry.
One other the thing I saw on your website was, you talk about the tradeoff between noise and fuel efficiency in the context of airport noise restrictions. Could you tell me, how does that tradeoff work?
Hammond: I think that one of the biggest barriers to the F.A.A. is the issue of airport noise. The F.A.A. has worked with I.K.O. and I.K.O is the UN's body who deals with aviation standards. They've worked for literally decades to try to ramp up the stringency of noise around airports and they're pretty proud of what they've accomplished. If you live near an airport today it's a much quieter experience than it would have been 20, 30, even 40 years ago.
But this comes with a tradeoff. The way aircraft reduce noise is they have a bypass ratio. So at the extreme, you have a turbo-jet, which means all the air passes through the jet and then you have jets which bypass air around the jet. So, you have the jet in the center and that's what's pushing, propelling the plane forward. But then you also bypass air around the jet to basically insulate the noise. But that comes with a tradeoff. So the more air you bypass, the quieter it will be, but also the more fuel and the less thrust you get. And it happens with supersonic because you're going from sea level to 60,000 feet potentially, you actually have to really take off at a steep angle and you have to push up. You have to really get up high, basically, and so you could make the argument that we should tolerate slightly lower airport noise standards for supersonic at first, so they can use lower bypass ratio engines and therefore less fuel when they're making their incline.
Petersen: So there's another paper from Mercatus, also written by your co-author Eli Dourado, and that one talks about the number of airport noise complaints that come from a really small concentrated number of households. I found that very funny.
Just how concentrated are the airline airport noise complaints?
Hammond: Let me say first that what we recommend for airport noise standards is stage three noise standards, which are what we currently use. So, currently if you live near an airport and you see a plane taking off and you can hear it slightly, that's the stage three noise standard. We're advocating that supersonic abide by that noise standard. That noise standard is being phased out for stage four and later stage five, which will be even stricter. So we're not saying anything like "Oh we should let planes be super noisy," we're saying "let supersonic planes be as noisy as the ones that we currently have taking off, and just give them a bit of a window before they're phased into these newer, more stringent noise standards that are coming down the pipeline."
Eli's work with Raymond Russell, they found an amazing data set that includes records of who is making noise complaints, airport noise complaints. And they have them by airport and the astonishing thing they find is that these airports are getting sometimes tens of thousands of noise complaints every year but when they drill down into the data, it is just a handful of people making all the complaints.
So a few examples. I live near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and in 2015 they had 8,760 noise complaints. Two individuals at one D.C. residents accounted for 6,852 of those complaints. So, two people in one building accounted for 78% of the complaints. They have a report called "Airport Noise NIMBYism: An Empirical Investigation" where they go through all the airports that have this data and they find evidence of the sort of concentration of complainers at every single airport. So, it's a pretty surprising thing and I think it's important to get this information out there because as we know from when the Concorde was banned overland, residents’ associations are a pretty powerful group to mobilize in opposition to something like this, and Congress people have the perception that---like San Francisco in 2015 had almost 900,000 those complaints to San Francisco International Airport. These are constituents, we want to reduce noise this is obviously something they care about. But in fact, in San Francisco's case, only 53 individuals accounted for 25,000 of the complaints. And those 25,000 were all during a single month---the month of October---which meant that the average person was making 477 calls per person. So, 30 days in a month, that's a lot of calls every single day. And this is San Francisco so wouldn't surprise me if there were some enterprising software developers who figured out a way to make complaints automatically.
Petersen: So robot calls. It might be crazy people calling in a complaint every single time they hear an airplane, or it might be clever people robotically calling in a complaint every time there's an airplane. Except that I guess they didn't anticipate that someone would notice that all these calls were coming from the same location which kind of undermines their objective which would be to reduce noise in those areas.
Of course, if you bought your house after the airport was already there making noise then economics says that that noise should already be priced into the value of the house. The person who loses is the person whose house is next to an empty lot and then the government announces "Hey we're going to build an airport here." You'd expect the change in home prices to happen immediately when that's announced and then every following owner has already accepted that cost and they've had cheaper real estate prices as a result. So, if you buy a house next to the airport and then try to pressure the airport to make less noise you're sort of trying to boost your property value when you already paid a discounted rate. You are already compensated for accepting that noise.
Hammond: And not only that. But when people have done rigorous cost-benefit analyses of U.S. aviation noise standards and they consistently find that the costs of making airplanes less efficient on takeoff is greater than alternatives which include creative land use policies, like building in barriers that block sound near communities and stuff like that. So, if you have a community living very close to an airport, one alternative is to set global standards which say airplanes are to fly less efficiently and make less noise, or you build a wall. You build up a barrier or some insulation to protect the community from the noise. But the main point of this study that Eli and Raymond did---which by the way, if I remember this correct, is Mercatus's most downloaded paper in history---the main point is that we shouldn't be basing innovation policy, particularly something that can have very high impact, on a few crazy people and enterprising robot callers.
Petersen: People who are affected by having less efficient aircraft, having slower aircraft, more expensive air travel just so outnumber the small number of people who live near airports. And you could get them all double-ply windows and help make their houses more soundproof. Probably much cheaper than hamstringing the entire airline industry.
Hammond: Absolutely. I just want to recapitulate some things. Supersonic overland is today feasible. It can be economical, there are companies chomping at the bit to try to develop something that will be quiet and affordable. The only thing standing in their way is the F.A.A. and a public perception that the Concorde proved that supersonic is not viable. The F.A.A. could act today, it could issue a noise standard and allow developers to shoot for that standard. Even if a bill is passed today, what the F.A.A. wants to do is coordinate internationally with I.K.O. and I.K.O. is the UN body that---it's not a regulator---sets standards.
The F.A.A. has a prominent role in guiding us towards standards, but it's an incredibly slow process. I.K.O meets every three years. If the F.A.A. were told to remove the ban tomorrow and they wanted to coordinate internationally, would mean we have to wait about three years. I.K.O. is meeting this year, obviously they're not going to talk about it this year---the agenda is all set. So they're going to be talking about it three years from now and then they'll be finalizing those rules three years from then. And then the F.A.A. will take those rules, propagate them globally and then we will have another two or three year regulating period where there's a notice and comment and everything else.
So we're talking about ten years just to change this stupid ban that is obsolete and I think that speaks to a more fundamental problem in U.S. policy and regulation, which is, we create these massive bottlenecks. And it's no surprise that it happens to an idea that is such a no-brainer, like creating a noise rule for supersonic instead of a ban. You can find other examples in every other industry of every other emerging technology, where there are these obsolete rules that are getting in the way of better, more efficient, more affordable, faster technology. And even if they can be rolled out tomorrow, have to go through at times a decadal process of approval. So, I think it's no wonder that productivity innovation seems to be at a historical low.
Petersen: My guest today has been Sam Hammond. Sam, thanks for being part of Economics Detective Radio.
Hammond: Thank you.
Sat, 19 November 2016
Today's interview features Joanna Szurmak of the University of Toronto. Our topic for today is the second proposed bet between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon. Joanna has written a paper titled "Care to Wager Again? An Appraisal of Paul Ehrlich's Counter-Bet Offer to Julian Simon" along with coauthors Vincent Geloso and Pierre Desrochers, both former guests of this show. We mentioned the original Simon-Ehrlich bet briefly in my conversation with Steve Horwitz, but in this episode we talk about it in more detail.
Julian Simon had a cornucopian vision of development and humanity. In his view, things are getting better as we develop new ideas for improving our lives and our world. Paul Ehrlich has precisely the opposite vision. He has been predicting environmental catastrophe since the 1960s.
Julian Simon famously challenged Ehrlich to a wager. Simon challenged Ehrlich to choose any five commodities whose prices were not controlled by governments, betting that their inflation-adjusted prices would fall rather than rise. While Ehrlich was very publicly predicting the depletion of many commodities, Simon challenged him to put up or shut up. The five commodities Ehrlich chose---copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten---all fell in price between 1980 and 1990.
The subject of Joanna's research is the counter-bet Ehrlich offered Simon in 1994. Ehrlich, along with climatologist Stephen Schneider, bet that 15 trends would worsen between 1994 and 2004:
Simon declined the second bet because the measures were both too difficult to quantify and too disconnected from the thing Simon was actually interested in: human welfare. Simon explained it as follows:
Let me characterize their offer as follows. I predict, and this is for real, that the average performances in the next Olympics will be better than those in the last Olympics. On average, the performances have gotten better, Olympics to Olympics, for a variety of reasons. What Ehrlich and others says is that they don't want to bet on athletic performances, they want to bet on the conditions of the track, or the weather, or the officials, or any other such indirect measure.
Joanna, Vincent, and Pierre have gone to great lengths to figure out who would have one on each of the 15 points had Simon accepted the bet. Listen to the episode to find out!
[Note: The sound quality drops about an hour into the episode. Skype failed and we had to switch to a telephone line.]
Pierre Desrochers and Vincent Geloso wrote a detailed article on the first bet.
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.