Thursday, 31 July 2014

Why capitalism is better than socialism

In this short (8 mins) video from ReasonTV philosopher Jason Brennan discusses his book "Why Not Capitalism?".
"We're not the Borg from Star Trek. We want to engage in private projects we do by ourselves and not with others," says Jason Brennan, an associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University.

Brennan's new book, Why Not Capitalism?, casts a critical eye on a notion with wide appeal among academics, politicians, and the general public: That even though history has shown that socialism is unworkable in practice, it's still the best way to run society in theory.

Brennan says that such thinking neglects the fact that even in utopia people will have significantly different visions of a life well lived. "You want a system under which you can realize all these different conceptions of the good life and the good community," he argues. Even in a world free of petty rivalries, tribalism, and human failings, capitalism would still be superior because it uniquely affords citizens the rights and freedoms necessary to customize their lives and pursue their own, personally meaningful projects.

Tyler Cowen on inequality and what really ails America

Eduardo Porter writes-up an email interview he had with economics professor Tyler Cowen on the subject of inequality.

A few interesting questions:
Q: Inequality is running amok. The richest one percent of Americans pull more than a fifth of the nation’s income. The top 10 percent take half, more than during the Roaring Twenties. President Obama seems to believe this is “the defining issue of our time.” Is it?

A: “Income inequality” consists of at least three separate issues: 1) the top one percent is earning more; 2) the relative return to education is rising; and 3) economic growth is slow, and thus many lower- and middle-income groups are not seeing their incomes rise very much over time. The third of these is arguably the defining issue of our time. Grouping these issues all together under the broad heading of “income inequality” I view as a big intellectual mistake.

Q: So should we worry at all about the chasm opening up between the income of the rich and the rest?

A: I worry about stagnation in the middle and towards the bottom, not the income gap per se. A lot of the income growth at the top has come from globalization; for instance, Apple now sells a lot of iPhones to China. That’s not something we should be worried about. Rather, we should celebrate it.

Q: So, your conclusion is we should obsess less about rising inequality in America.

A: We should focus policy on increasing the quality and affordability of housing, health care and education, and on raising the rate of technological advancement. If we did that, we wouldn't have to worry about this red herring of “inequality” writ large any more.

By the way, the biggest inequalities are those across borders. So if we are talking policy, how about a more liberal immigration policy for the United States? That should be the No. 1 priority for anyone concerned about income inequality.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

"Neo-liberals" and "progressives": never the twain shall meet?

I was asked to give evidence on behalf of the Fabian Society to the Beveridge Committee on Broadcasting, and although I refused on the grounds that I was not a Socialist (this was countered by saying that there was not a specifically Socialist point of view on broadcasting), I did in fact prepare the first memorandum considered by the Fabian Society Committee on broadcasting and which was the basis from which their discussions proceeded.

Ronald Coase 1961

There is an interesting new working paper out on Ronald Coase and the Fabian Society: Competitive discussion in liberal ideology by David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart. Levy and Peart open the paper by saying:
Ronald Coase wrote the 1949 memo that guided the discussion of the Fabian Research Group on broadcasting. In the evidence presented to the Beveridge Committee on broadcasting, the Fabians endorsed his recommendations by and large. These two facts have previously escaped notice and, as a result, our understanding of post-war economic thought has been misinformed. The stereotype of post-war economic thought divides the profession into two groups, “neo-liberals” and “progressives”. In this stereotyping “neo-liberals” are said to advance a policy agenda in which markets, rather than governments, provide services; “Progressives”, by contrast, are said to favor a greater role for governments in the provision of services. In this admittedly broad characterization, there is little room for “neo-liberals” to collaborate with “progressives”.

Coase is said to typify the “neo-liberal”, while the Fabians do the same for “progressives.” As such, we would expect that they would have nothing in common in the dimension of policy recommendations. The evidence presented below, however, demonstrates that Coase and the Fabians proposed a third alternative, one that avoided the government-market dichotomy that has been so important in stereotyping post-war thought. Instead of proposing a market or a government solution, Coase and the Fabians recommended that broadcasting in Britain be fragmented to break up the BBC monopoly whose origins Coase had so carefully studied (Coase 1950). When the Beveridge Committee recommended a continuation of the monopoly, Coase was, not surprisingly, distressed. Moreover, he was not pleased with the minority report that recommended commercializing television because Coase thought that policy would be outside the British consensus.

Coase’s willingness to allow public consensus to trump the theoretical rationale for market provision of broadcasting suggests a deep problem with the stereotype of post-war market liberalism. In both the memo for the Fabian Society and his book, Coase used a recently coined word—totalitarian—to describe the theoretical rationale for a broadcasting monopoly presented by the spokesperson of the BBC, Lord Reith. By the word “totalitarian” Coase meant something more general than the policies advocated by Hitler, Mussolini, or somewhat nearer at hand, Mosley, but rather the view that state policy can ignore the legitimate wishes of the citizens of the state. The idea that there are “democratic goals” that can be separated from “democratic means”—a view that Lord Reith articulated frequently as we document in note 8—is the heart of the danger which Coase always and everywhere opposed.
Interesting stuff. The idea that a socialist group like the Fabians were willing to go along with Coase on breaking up the BBC monopoly is not something we would expect to see given the standard division of post-war thought into two, non-intersecting, groups of socialists and (classical) liberals. Coase's opposition to totalitarian thought is somewhat less surprising.

Levy and Peart continue,
The first two paragraphs of the Coase memo reproduced in the documents section below (p. 20) speak to the heart of the issue. What is needed, Coase urged, is sufficient public information to allow an informed discussion to take place. In Coase’s view public discussion had been stymied. Perhaps for strategic reasons, those in authority have not revealed the requisite information about possible alternative arrangements. The issue Coase stresses is not the efficient satisfaction of wants by market processes but public knowledge with which people can work out what institutions seem best to them. In his 1950 British Broadcasting, Coase closes the chapter “Public Discussion of the Monopoly” with the consequences of systematic suppression of information:
Though the programme policy of the Corporation gave the lower social classes what they ought to have, it gave the educated classes what they wanted; or, at any rate, more of what they wanted than they thought they would obtain with what was believed to be the only alternative—commercial broadcasting (1950, p. 177)
The paternalism of the BBC is obvious in that the "lower social classes" got what the BBC considered they should have, rather than what they actually wanted and the "educated classes" got an amount of what they wanted decided by the BBC.

The first two paragraphs of Coase's memo referred to above read:
Memorandum by Mr. R. H. Coase

1. The task of the Beveridge Committee

What is wanted is an entirely new approach to the problems of broadcasting policy in Great Britain. The present attitude is one of uncritical acceptance of the existing organisation. This can largely be attributed to the way in which previous Committees worked. The Crawford Committee, which led to the establishment of the BBC, made (so far as I have been able to discover) no detailed examination of alternative schemes. And we know from Lord Elton that the Ullswater Committee (of which he was a member) came to their conclusions without questioning the basic assumptions on which the case for the existing organisation (and in particular the monopoly) rested.

The present Committee should take a different view of its responsibilities. Alternative arrangements should be examined. And most (if not all) of the evidence presented to the Committee should be published. The lack of information on what is possible has greatly handicapped public discussion. Publication of the evidence would permit an independent assessment of the conclusions reached by the Committee and would assist in the development of an informed public opinion on broadcasting policy.
Here we can see the typical Coaseian call for comparative institutional analysis. And a call to make sure that people have the information to basis such analysis on. We should always think about the role that alternative institutions play in ameliorating or exacerbating conflicts in a world of positive transaction costs - including broadcasting.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

EconTalk this week

Sam Altman, president of startup accelerating firm Y Combinator, talks to EconTalk host Russ Roberts about Y Combinator's innovative strategy for discovering, funding, and coaching groundbreaking startups, what the company looks for in a potential startup, and Silicon Valley's attitude toward entrenched firms. The two also discuss Altman's thoughts on sectors of the economy that are ripe for innovation and how new firms are revolutionizing operations in these industries.

A direct link to the audio is available here.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Trade and the poor

A interesting new NBER working paper on Measuring the Unequal Gains from Trade by Pablo D. Fajgelbaum and Amit K. Khandelwal. The abstract reads:
Individuals that consume different baskets of goods are differentially affected by relative price changes caused by international trade. We develop a methodology to measure the unequal gains from trade across consumers within countries that is applicable across countries and time. The approach uses data on aggregate expenditures across goods with different income elasticities and parameters estimated from a non-homothetic gravity equation. We find considerable variation in the pro-poor bias of trade depending on the income elasticity of each country's exports and imports. Non-homotheticities across sectors imply that trade typically favors the poor, who concentrate spending in more traded sectors. (Emphasis added.)
So trade helps the poor given the fact that the poor concentrate their spending in the traded sectors of the economy. Fajgelbaum and Khandelwal writes,
We also find important effects from sectoral heterogeneity. As in the single-sector setting, the pro-poor bias increases with a country’s income elasticity of exports. But, in contrast with the single-sector estimation, the multi-sector model implies a strong pro-poor bias of trade in every country. On average over the countries in our sample, the real income loss from closing off trade are 57 percent for the 10th percentile of the income distribution and 25 percent for the 90th percentile.5 This bias in the gains from trade toward poor consumers hinges on the fact that these consumers spend relatively more on sectors that are more traded, while high-income individuals consume relatively more services, which are the least traded sector. Additionally, low-income consumers happen to concentrate spending on sectors with a lower elasticity of substitution across source countries. As a result, the multi-sector setting implies larger expenditures in more tradeable sectors and a lower rate of substitution between imports and domestic goods for poor consumers; these two features lead to larger gains from trade for the poor than the rich.

Deirdre McCloskey on the great enrichment

From the IEA comes this short video of Professor Deirdre McCloskey. Deirdre McCloskey, Author of The Bourgeois Era series, speaks to ieaTV about inequality, the amazing growth in the wealth of the working class over the past three hundred years and how wealth and commerce has been viewed over the centuries.

Deirdre is the Distinguished Professor in English, Economics, History and Communication at the University of Illinois. As a self-described "postmodern free-market quantitative Episcopalian feminist Aristotelian", she has worked on numerous areas of economic history, including British economic 'failures' during the 19th Century. She has written fourteen books and edited another seven.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Interesting blog bits

  1. Andrew Cohen on Libertarianism and Parental Licensing
    Back in December of 2011, I posted “Licensing Parents,” defending a view Hugh LaFollette had introduced into philosophical literature in 1980: that the state should license parents (LaFollette further defended this stance in 2010; see Note 1). LaFollette is not a libertarian and as I indicated then, I disagree with him about a lot–including the need to license medical doctors and lawyers. I nonetheless think he is right that we ought to license parents. In this post, I explain why libertarians—or at least minarchist BH-libertarians—ought to endorse parental licensing.
  2. Bryan Caplan on The Economist on Overparenting
    Though I'm no fan of The Economist's editorials, their science coverage remains outstanding. Check out their latest piece on overparenting.
  3. Ryan Bourne on ‘Does good broadcasting require compulsion?’ The question the BBC won’t address
    I got to thinking about how helpful this interview style would be when I read the BBC’s own Director of Policy James Heath’s response to my response to his original blog post on why the licence fee is the right method of funding for the BBC. Rather than focusing on the arguments that I had made as to why a licence fee – a compulsory charge applied to everyone who wants to watch any live television – was indefensible and unnecessary, Heath instead used his article to outline why the BBC itself was of value to us.
  4. Thorsten Beck, Hans Degryse, Ralph De Haas and Neeltje van Horen on When arm’s length is too far
    The small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) were among the most severely affected in the Global Crisis. This column discusses new evidence on how different lending techniques affect lending in bad and good times. Data from 21 countries in central and eastern Europe show that ‘relationship lending’ alleviates credit constraints during a cyclical downturn but not during a boom period. The positive impact of relationship lending in an economic downturn is strongest for smaller and more opaque firms and in regions where the downturn is more severe.
  5. Linda Goldberg, Signe Krogstrup, John Lipsky and Hélène Rey ask Why is financial stability essential for key currencies in the international monetary system?
    The dollar’s dominant role in international trade and finance has proved remarkably resilient. This column argues that financial stability – and the policy and institutional frameworks that underpin it – are important new determinants of currencies’ international roles. While old drivers still matter, progress achieved on financial-stability reforms in major currency areas will greatly influence the future roles of their currencies.
  6. David Saha on The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: Review of the debate on economic blogs
    An early draft of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) sparked an intensive public debate over possible advantages and disadvantages. This column reviews some arguments in favour of the Partnership and against it. While there is some debate over how large the economic benefit could be in the face of already relatively low trade barriers, critics claim that the deal will lower standards of consumer protection, provision of public services, and environmental protection in the EU.
  7. Tim Woratall on Don't Believe What You Read; Google Doesn't Avoid Tax
    It’s the results reporting season over in my native UK again and once again, as regular as the seasons themselves roll around, we’ve spluttering pieces in the press about how Google avoids all of this tax that it should justly and righteously pay. Which means it must be the time of year for me to point out that Google doesn’t in fact avoid paying UK corporation tax, whatever you might be being told in the newspapers.
  8. John Cochrane on Lucas and Sargent Revisited
    The economics blogosphere has a big discussion going on over Bob Lucas and Tom Sargent's classic "After Keynesian Macroeconomics."

FEE video: John Blundell - Lessons from Margaret Thatcher

John Blundell speaks about his experience with Margaret Thatcher at "An Evening at FEE" on May 21st, 2011.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Complexity and the art of public policy

Complexity science is changing the way we think about social systems and social theory. Unfortunately, economists’ policy models have not kept up and are stuck in either a market fundamentalist or government control narrative. In this audio from VoxEU.org Roland Kupers argues for a new, more flexible policy narrative, which envisions society as a complex evolving system that is uncontrollable but can be influenced.

A direct link to the audio is available here.

Employee satisfaction, labour market flexibility, and stock returns around the world

In a new NBER working paper Alex Edmans, Lucius Li, and Chendi Zhang study the relationship between employee satisfaction and abnormal stock returns around the world, using lists of the “Best Companies to Work For” in 14 countries. They show that employee satisfaction is associated with positive abnormal returns in countries with high labour market flexibility, such as the U.S. and U.K., but not in countries with low labour market flexibility, such as Germany. I wonder New Zealand would come in this ranking.

These results are consistent with high employee satisfaction being a valuable tool for recruitment, retention, and motivation in flexible labour markets, where firms face fewer constraints on hiring and firing. In contrast, in regulated labour markets, legislation already provides minimum standards for worker welfare and so additional expenditure may exhibit diminishing returns. The results have implications for the differential profitability of socially responsible investing (“SRI”) strategies around the world. In particular, they emphasise the importance of taking institutional features into account when forming such strategies.

The conclusions of the paper:
This paper studies how the relationship between employee satisfaction and stock returns depends critically on the level of a country’s labor market flexibility. The alphas documented by Edmans (2011, 2012) for the U.S. are not anomalous in a global context, in terms of economic significance, and do extend to several other countries. However, they do not automatically generalize to every country – being listed as a Best Company to Work For is associated with superior returns only in countries with high labor market flexibility. These results are consistent with the idea that the recruitment, retention, and motivational benefits of employee satisfaction are most valuable in countries in which firms face fewer constraints on hiring and firing. These benefits are lower in countries with inflexible labor markets, leading to a downward shift in the marginal benefit of expenditure on employee welfare. Moreover, in such countries, regulations already provide a floor for worker welfare, leading to a movement down the marginal benefit curve. Both forces reduce the marginal benefit of investing in worker satisfaction, and thus being listed as a Best Company may reflect an agency problem.

The results emphasize the importance of the institutional context for both managers and investors. Edmans (2011, 2012) uses long-run stock returns as the dependent variable to mitigate concerns about reverse causality from firm performance to employee satisfaction – any publicly- available performance measure should be incorporated into the stock price at the start of the return compounding window. However, these papers do not make strong claims about causality, as it may be that a third, unobservable variable (e.g. management quality) drives both employee satisfaction and stock returns. Even if their results are interpreted as causal, it is not the case that managers can hope to increase stock returns by investing in employee satisfaction, as a positive link only exists in countries with high labor market flexibility. Turning to investors, a strategy of investing in firms with high employee satisfaction will only generate superior returns in countries with high labor market flexibility. Given that the vast majority of empirical asset pricing studies that uncover alpha are based on U.S. data, the results emphasize caution in applying these strategies overseas. This caution is especially warranted for strategies that are likely to be dependent on the institutional or cultural environment, such as socially responsible investing strategies. Just as the value of employee satisfaction depends on the flexibility of labor markets and existing regulations on worker welfare, the value of other SRI screens such as gender diversity, animal rights, environmental protection, and operating in an ethical industry also likely depend on the context.
The role of labour market flexibility for the results of the paper is interesting. New Zealand is not in their data set and I wonder how flexible our labour markets would look internationally.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Urbanisation makes the world more unequal

A recent article, by Kristian Behrens and Frédéric Robert-Nicoud, at VoxEU.org deals with the above issue and argues that large cities are more unequal than the nations that host them. The article contends that this is because large cities disproportionately reward talented superstars and disproportionately 'fail' the least talented. Cities should thus be the primary focus of policies to reduce inequality and its adverse consequences for society. Now the obvious question is Why should there be policies to reduce inequality? Are the authors attacking inequality when their real concern is with poverty?

The basic argument of the article is,
Large cities are more unequal than the nations that host them. For example, income inequality in the New York Metro Area (MSA) is considerably higher than the US average and similar to that of Rwanda or Costa Rica. Large cities are also more unequal than smaller towns. Figure 1 plots the relationship between population size and the Gini index of income inequality for a 2007 cross-section of US MSAs (solid line). The relationship is clearly positive. This holds true even when considering that large cities host more educated people on average (dashed line); income inequality cannot be entirely explained by higher educational attainment in large cities.


How can we then explain the size-inequality nexus? Researchers have proposed two main explanations so far, both of which have to do with city composition.

First, large cities may differ systematically in their industrial structure and the functions they perform. Large cities host, for example, more business services and the higher-order functions of finance and R&D, whereas small and medium-sized cities host larger shares of lower-order services and manufacturing. Consequently, larger cities are more skilled. However, industry composition explains only about one fifth of the observed skill variation across cities (Hendricks 2011). Furthermore, that variation cannot fully account for observed income inequality.

Second, large cities attract a disproportionate fraction of households at the bottom and at the top of the income distribution [ ... ]. Central cities of US MSAs attract, for example, poor households because they offer better access to public transportation [ ... ]. Large cities also attract rich households because they reward their skills more highly than smaller cities – a ‘superstar effect’ in ‘superstar cities’ [ ... ].

This is the second potential source to the positive relationship in Figure 1: returns to skill are increasing in city size [ ... ].
The argument for the second issue is that while larger cities increase the income of everyone, the top 5% benefit substantially more than the bottom quintile. The article continues,
In a recent study we propose a simple theory to explain why this happens [ ... ]. In our theory, large cities are places that disproportionately reward the most talented people (the ‘superstars’) and that disproportionately fail the least talented (‘selection’). In a nutshell, larger cities provide incentives for the most able to self-select into activities that offer high payoffs to the successful. However, the risk of failure associated with those activities also increases because workers in larger cities compete against more numerous and better rivals.

Disproportionate rewards for the most skilled – and failure for the less skilled – then drives income inequality. Both channels are stronger in larger cities, thus establishing the positive link between city size and inequality, even when abstracting from differences in industry composition and educational attainment.

The theory also predicts that increasing globalisation among global cities will translate into larger urban income inequality. Just as large cities provide large local markets to reward skills, larger global markets serve the same function. One novel aspect of our analysis is to emphasise the existence of both a direct effect of increasing globalisation on inequality (the ‘superstar effect’) and an indirect effect that goes through increasing urbanisation and the growth of cities. Cities are more ‘valuable places’ in a globalised world, which may serve to explain increasing urbanisation. The latter is positively linked to inequality, an aspect that has not been much analysed until now.
But perhaps the most interesting bit of the article are the caveats they put at the end.
We conclude with two words of caution. First, nominal income inequality (which is measured) is not equivalent to real income inequality (which is not directly measurable). Insofar as large cities offer a wider range of cheaper goods and services than small cities do, and if this pattern is especially pronounced for the least well off, then actual real urban inequality may be less severe than nominal inequality [ ... ]. Actually, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser claims that the large poverty rates of central cities are a testimony of their success, not their failure: they attract poor households by catering better to their needs [ ... ].

Second, fighting (urban) inequality does not require aggressive local redistributive policies, for such policies attract the poor and repulse the rich, leading to the bankruptcy of local governments, such as the fiscal crisis that hit New York City in the 1970s.
If inequality really is the issue then you may ask, Inequality of what? Is nominal/real income inequality what we should be worried about or is consumption inequality the real issue?