Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Wait: Maybe Europeans are as Rich as Americans

November 6th, 2015 6 comments

I’ve pointed out multiple times that despite Europe’s big, supposedly growth-strangling governments, Europe and the U.S. have grown at the same rate over the last 45 years. Here’s the latest data from the OECD, through 2014 (click for larger):

Screen shot 2015-11-06 at 5.19.42 PM

And here’s the spreadsheet. Have your way with it. More discussion and explanation in a previous post.

You can cherry-pick brief periods along the bottom diagonal to support any argument you like. But between 1970 and 2014, U.S. real GDP per capita grew 117%. The EU15 grew 115%. (Rounding explains the 1% difference shown above.) Statistically, we call that “the same.”

Which brought me back to a question that’s been nagging me for years: why hasn’t Europe caught up? Basic growth theory tells us it should (convergence, Solow, all that). And it did, very impressively, in the thirty years after World War II (interestingly, this during a period when the world lay in tatters, and the U.S. utterly dominated global manufacturing, trade, and commerce).

But then in the mid 70s Europe stopped catching up. U.S. GDP per capita today (2014) is $50,620. For Europe it’s $38,870 — only 77% of the U.S. figure, roughly what it’s been since the 70s. What’s with that?

Small-government advocates will suggest that the big European governments built after World War II are the culprit; they finally started to bite in the 70s. But then, again: why has Europe grown just as fast as the U.S. since the 70s? It’s a conundrum.

I’m thinking the small-government types might be right: it’s about government. But they’ve got the wrong explanation.

Think about how GDP is measured. Private-sector output is estimated by spending on final goods and services in the market. But that doesn’t work for government goods, because they aren’t sold in the market. So they’re estimated based on the cost of producing and delivering them.

Small-government advocates frequently make this point about the measurement of government production. But they then jump immediately to a foregone conclusion: that the value of government goods are services are being overestimated by this method. (You can see Tyler Cowen doing it here.)

That makes no sense to me. What would private output look like if it was measured at the cost of production? Way lower. Is government really so inefficient that its production costs are higher than its output? It’s hard to say, but that seems wildly improbable, strikes me as a pure leap of faith, completely contrary to reasonable Bayesian priors about input versus output in production.

Imagine, rather, that the cost-of-production estimation method is underestimating the value of government goods — just as it would (wildly) underestimate private goods if they were measured that way. Now do the math: EU built out governments encompassing about 40% of GDP. The U.S. is about 25%. Think: America’s insanely expensive health care and higher education, much or most of it measured at market prices for GDP purposes, not cost of production as in Europe. Add in our extraordinary spending on financial services — spending which is far lower in Europe, with its more-comprehensive government pension and retirement programs. Feel free to add to the list.

All those European government services are measured at cost of production, while equivalent U.S. services are measured at (much higher) market cost. Is it any wonder that U.S. GDP looks higher?

I’d be delighted to hear from readers about any measures or studies that have managed to quantify this difficult conundrum. What’s the value or “utility” of government services, designated in dollars (or whatever)?

Update: I can’t believe I failed to mention what’s probably the primary cause of the US/EU differential: Europeans work less. A lot less. Like four or six weeks a year less. They’ve chosen free time with their families, time to do things they love with people they love, over square footage and cubic inches.

Got family values?

I can’t believe I forgot to mention it, because I’ve written about it at least half a dozen times.

If Europeans worked as many hours as Americans, their GDP figures would still be roughly 14% below the U.S. But mis-measurement of government output, plus several other GDP-measurement discrepancies across countries, could easily explain that.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.


Why Prosperity Requires a Welfare State

November 5th, 2015 No comments

I’ve got a new post up at a new site, Evonomics Magazine (“The next evolution of economics”). It’s an impressive offshoot with some great articles, assembled by folks involved with The Evolution Institute, which I’m a big booster for.

Screen shot 2015-11-05 at 11.17.04 AM

My readers here will find much familiar in the post, but I’m happy with how it pulls various threads together. I’ll be following comments over there, so have your way with it.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Which Countries Work Hardest? You Might (Not) Be Surprised

June 30th, 2015 Comments off

Imagine you had to choose, and could choose: you can spend your whole life and raise your family in either of two equally prosperous countries. In one country people work lots of hours to attain that prosperity. In the other country people work far less. You don’t know anything else about these countries.

Which would you choose? The answer seems kind of obvious, right? Equally prosperous, and less work for me and my family? Sign me up!

But that straightforward question is almost never asked, explicitly, in discussions of prosperity, growth, and national well-being. The most obvious measure of that difference — hours worked per capita — is buried, invisible, and unavailable in the various national data sets scattered around the web. (The typical national measure you see out there is hours worked per worker.)

For the curious, here’s how more-prosperous countries (OECD and a handful of others) sort on the “hard-working” scale:

Screen shot 2015-06-28 at 5.35.57 PM

This average includes the whole population — workers, children, students, retirees, etc. — so it’s an index of how much the average person has to work over the course of their life. (More hours during working years, less or none during non-working years; it’s an average.) 

There’s one main generalized takeaway from this that I see: The less-work end of the spectrum is dominated by western European countries. People there work far less hours in the course of their lives. People in “Anglo”-model countries work far more.

Going back to choosing a country: you also want to know how prosperous it is in pure money terms, using something like GDP per capita. Here’s that (I’ve excluded tiny, crazy-high-GDP Luxembourg here — think: banking — to show other countries more clearly):

Screen shot 2015-06-30 at 12.08.53 PM

If you’re a rational shopper, you’ll choose Norway (yeah, they’ve got the advantage of all that oil…), Ireland, the Netherlands, or another country in the upper left. If an extra $5,000 or $10,000 a year is worth sacrificing four or five extra weeks of work, choose the U.S. (Think: “buying” an extra month of time with your family, doing things you like and love, every year. You decide. But do I need to remind you that 1. Life is short, and 2. “Family values” really do have value?)

One perhaps-surprising takeaway from this graph: hard-working countries aren’t richer. QTC. Causation? It seems improbable that working less would cause higher prosperity. Higher prosperity could quite reasonably cause people to work less. (The good old substitution effect, income versus leisure.) But the most likely conclusion is that high productivity (GDP per hour worked) is the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to prosperity. Long hours worked have zero or negative apparent effect on prosperity.

(Interesting parallel: hours worked per household member in the U.S. only “explain” seven percent of the variance between household incomes. Whodathunkit?)

Rather than eyeballing that scatter plot, you might want a handy index of which country to choose. Here’s one approach to what I’ll call Work-Weighted Prosperity: GDP/Capita divided by Hours Worked/Capita. If people in one country have to work lots of hours to get that prosperity, it gets ranked lower.

Screen shot 2015-06-29 at 6.06.17 AM

The takeaway here? Move to Luxembourg and get into banking.

The curious among you are probably wondering about different countries’ working-age populations (doesn’t actually vary that much), and the percentage of working age that are working (varies somewhat more). Here’s the spreadsheet.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Scalia’s Craven Self-Contradiction and Pettifogging Pedantry

June 26th, 2015 Comments off

In his dissent to Edwards v. Aguillard, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia made a neat distinction, sidestepping the issue of “legislative intent” that he finds so troubling:

it is possible to discern the objective “purpose” of a statute (i. e., the public good at which its provisions appear to be directed),

(The dissent is obsessed with “purpose”; the word appears 76 times therein.)

But in his dissent on yesterday’s King v. Burwell (Obamacare) decision, he chooses to ignore that statute’s obvious, objective purpose: to provide subsidies for buyers of exchange plans.

Rather than doing as he proposes, trying to “discern the objective ‘purpose’ of a statute'”, he seeks to deny the statute’s obvious purpose by determining the “purpose” of a few words therein — with a statement that can only be perceived as intentionally obtuse:

it is hard to come up with a reason to include the words “by the State” other than the purpose of limiting credits to state Exchanges

This very smart man could easily “come up with a reason.” Since those words contradict the obvious, objective purpose displayed by everything else in the statute, the words were accidentally misphrased. You might even go so far as to say that this is the obvious, “objective” conclusion.

Scalia would agree. In his dissent on the previous Obamacare challenge, he says:

“Without the federal subsidies . . . the exchanges would not operate as Congress intended.”

You may feel free to quibble over “purpose” versus “intention,” but the obvious, objective, intentional purpose of the statue was to give subsidies to purchasers of exchange plans.

Any attempt to deny or obscure that reality is pettifogging pedantry. Nothing more.

Update: Bruce Webb in comments shows just how objectively obvious the “purpose” is. The title of the statute’s opening section (emphasis mine):

Title I. Quality, Affordable Health Care for All Americans

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

No: Rich People Don’t Work More

May 11th, 2015 Comments off

The meme is ubiquitous, and widely documented: Rich people work longer hours. Obvious implication: they deserve what they get, right? Ditto the poor.


Why? All the research supporting that meme looks at workers, not families. It completely ignores students, the retired, and anyone else who isn’t working. Alert the media: workers work and earn more than non-workers.

And, news flash: rich families are full of non-workers. If you look at families and their hours worked per person, you see a very different picture:

image (2)

Here’s the same 3+ household data for working-age families only: those with a head of household under age 65.

Screen shot 2015-05-11 at 9.48.05 AM

Pretty much the same story.

This is all based on a fast-and-dirty random census pull of about 5,000 U. S. households, from IPUMS. It uses 3+ households as a proxy for families — probably not a bad proxy. A professional economist doing proper due diligence would fine-tune that, or even better turn to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), which has better microdata to track families. Careful work would even allow them to track extended, multi-generation families, not just nuclear families living together. (Think: dynasties.) I’d expect the pattern we see here to be more pronounced in that view (though that’s just a surmise).

Here’s some more evidence, from across the pond:

Figure 1: Average hours of work across the distribution of earnings: UK, 2013


Figure 2: Changes in post-tax real hourly earnings and average hours for the median and top 1 per cent


Even as rich people’s incentives to work have skyrocketed, their hours worked have plummeted. This even though they’re far more likely to be doing interesting, engaging work in pleasant environments. Curious.

But still: low-income people work less. More of them are unemployed. Is that a surprise to anyone? (I’ll leave the “voluntary” argument to my gentle readers.)

There’s a stylized fact out there, universally repeated by economists and pundits, that seems to misrepresent the state of the world. There are some nice tractable research projects here for those who are paid to do such things.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

American Exceptionalism Re-Revisited: OECD Taxes/GDP Since 1965

April 26th, 2015 Comments off

Darwin Wept: Pyramid Schemes, Collusion, and Price-Fixing, the Modern American Way

April 21st, 2015 1 comment

The story hardly bears repeating:

Pricing is the ultimate miracle of Darwinian markets. Competitors who produce goods at lower prices thrive, expand their operations, and produce more. Those who charge higher prices (for equivalent goods) are driven to extinction when sensible purchasers abandon them for their more-efficient competitors. This inexorable mechanism drives innovation, investment, and productivity, and the eternal grinding evolutionary churn of “creative destruction.” Survival of the fittest makes us collectively fitter, and fills our wants and needs at ever-lower prices.

All of that, or course, requires price competition among producers. The ultimate bogeyman, choking that mechanism, is competitors colluding to fix their prices. If they agree not to compete with lower prices — collectively stealing higher profits from their customers — the pricing mechanism doesn’t exist, and its manifest benefits are denied us.

It’s a compelling and convincing story. But: The key word in that second paragraph is “agree.” It’s illegal, of course, for competing firms to explicitly collude to set higher prices. But price collusion occurs constantly at higher, institutional levels, where it is unstated, implicit…and profoundly pernicious.

The Economist highlights this reality in its recent package on family companies. We’re not talking mom-and-pop shops: this is about vast networks of corporations controlled and owned by small groups of families — especially common in Asia (South Korea!), but also in Europe. The small control groups at the top of these pyramids have every incentive to back off on price competition among their subsidiaries, reaping higher profits at the expense of their customers. And they have the wherewithal to do it:

Randall Morck, the academic, finds that in large parts of the world pyramidal business groups allow “mere handfuls of wealthy families” to control entire economies.

A stylized diagram depicts the rather obvious mechanism for this control and collusion:

With all competitors controlled, ultimately, by a handful of actors, price collusion seems inevitable.

Interestingly, The Economist continues:

This problem is particularly marked in developing countries, but is also common in much of the rich world, except in the Anglo-Saxon sphere.

In America, we do things differently. In a recent Slate article,  and  explain our innovative, fiendishly clever, and truly “exceptional” mechanism for pyramid control:

Mutual Funds’ Dark Side: Why airlines and other industries keep prices too high

They cite a paper by José Azar showing that:

United’s top five shareholders—all institutional investors—own 49.5 percent of the firm. Most of United’s largest shareholders also are the largest shareholders of Southwest, Delta, and other airlines. The authors show that airline prices are 3 percent to 11 percent higher than they would be if common ownership did not exist. That is money that goes from the pockets of consumers to the pockets of investors.

We’ve all watched this airline-pricing scenario play out over recent months, with fuel costs plummeting while airfares remain unchanged.


The investment management company BlackRock is the top shareholder of the three largest banks in the United States; BlackRock is also the largest shareholder of Apple and Microsoft. The companies that are the top five shareholders of CVS are also the top five shareholders of Walgreens. (And yes, one of them is BlackRock.) Institutional investors dominate the economy.

If you’re like me, you’re immediately wondering: Really, how does the price-fixing actually happen? The answer isn’t terribly surprising, or far to find (emphasis mine):

How exactly might this work? It may be that managers of institutional investors put pressure on the managers of the companies that they own, demanding that they don’t try to undercut the prices of their competitors. If a mutual fund owns shares of United and Delta, and United and Delta are the only competitors on certain routes, then the mutual fund benefits if United and Delta refrain from price competition. The managers of United and Delta have no reason to resist such demands, as they, too, as shareholders of their own companies, benefit from the higher profits from price-squeezed passengers. Indeed, it is possible that managers of corporations don’t need to be told explicitly to overcharge passengers because they already know that it’s in their bosses’ interest, and hence their own. Institutional investors can also get the outcomes they want by structuring the compensation of managers in subtle ways. For example, they can reward managers based on the stock price of their own firms—rather than benchmarking pay against how well they perform compared with industry rivals—which discourages managers from competing with the rivals.

(This is right out of Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: media corporations control news content by hiring people who they know will deliver the content, and message, they want. Those who do so are promoted and rewarded. They don’t need to tell them explicitly what to write.)

In America, you don’t find the explicit, extreme, and obvious family-pyramid control that’s so apparent in some other parts of the world. Control and ownership is more widely distributed across perhaps a hundred or a thousand families at the top. (Before you object: it depends on how you define “family” and “the top.”) How could price collusion happen among this larger group, with the inevitable incentives for some to defect with lower prices and take market share from the others?

Simple: America’s richest families have farmed out their collusion to institutional entities who control markets (and market pricing), with small groups of institutions controlling all the players in each industry.

The Darwinian view that underpins the “free market” belief system reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of a key evolutionary mechanism: groups can thrive and propagate at the expense of other groups, if members of one group are better cooperators. That cooperation can take myriad forms (both beneficial and pernicious to the common weal), and there are myriad evolutionary mechanisms by which that cooperation can arise. However it arises, in the case of price-setting within groups, we call that cooperation “collusion.”

In Posner and Weyl’s telling locution, “Competition among mutual funds cannot substitute for competition among corporations.” Ditto if you replace “mutual funds” with “private equity firms.” And likewise: competition among limited-liability corporations (Can’t pay off that loan? The people walk away scot-free) is based on incentive structures that are utterly orthogonal to those of independent butchers and bakers.

The agents operating those institutions know quite clearly which side their personal bread is buttered on. The families who ultimately own everything, meanwhile, are many stages removed from, largely unconscious of, any particular pricing decisions. But they can be confident that those decisions are being made in their families’ best interests.

Adam Smith, poster-boy for free-market enthusiasts, understood this reality better than most:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

He could not perhaps have conceived, however, how cleverly colluders would construct institutions that would achieve that price collusion, while masking and obscuring it even from their own eyes. He perceived the familiar “principal-agent” problem of joint-stock companies quite clearly:

The directors of such companies, however, being the managers rather of other people’s money than of their own, it cannot well be expected, that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which the partners in a private copartnery frequently watch over their own…. Negligence and profusion, therefore, must always prevail, more or less, in the management of the affairs of such a company.

But he didn’t perceive these institutions’ potential for price collusion.

America’s founders, on the other hand, displayed and expressed a far deeper distrust of limited-liability, joint-stock companies. Charters for such companies were uncommon and extremely restricted in their scope (building a particular public work, for instance) well into the 19th century. “Any legitimate business purpose” is a very recent innovation.

But there’s another crucial innovation: corporations owning shares in other corporations (the very crux of modern pyramid-control schemes, familial and institutional). This was not even legal under state corporate charters until late in the 1800s. The ill effects of that rule change were not long in coming, and had to be addressed vigorously via the trust-busting and rule changes of the early 1900s. (See: interlocking directorships and The Pujo Committee.)

Proponents of free markets seem unaware that that “peculiar institution” — corporations owning corporations — is in fact very peculiar indeed. It is arguably the most destructive innovation ever to strike at the miraculous wonder of the free market’s pricing mechanism.

Further Reading

Anti-Competitive Effects of Common Ownership. April 15, 2015. José Azar, Martin C. Schmalz, and Isabel Tecu.

Concentrated Corporate Ownership. 2000. Randall K. Morck, ed.

Competitive Effects of Partial Ownership: Financial Interest and Corporate Control. 2000. Daniel P. O’Brien and Steven C. Salop.

Do Publicly Traded Corporations Act in the Public Interest? March 1990. Roger H. Gordon.

Financial transaction costs and industrial performance. April, 1984. Julio J. Rotemberg.


Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

National Debt: Since When is the Fed “The Public”?

April 14th, 2015 12 comments

This issue has been driving me crazy for a while, and I never see it written about.

When responsible people talk about the national debt, they point to Debt Held by the Public: what the federal government owes to non-government entities — households, firms, and foreign entities. (Irresponsible people talk about Gross Public Debt — an utterly arbitrary and much larger measure that includes debt the government owes to itself.)

Debt Held by the Public is the almost-universally-accepted measure of “the national debt.” That would be perfectly reasonable, except that…

Federal Reserve banks are counted as part of “the public.” So government bonds held by this government entity — money that the government owes to itself — are counted as part of the debt government owes to others.

The Fed has bought up trillions of dollars in government bonds since 2008, to the point that Debt Held by the Public has become an almost meaningless measure (click for source):

fredgraph (15)

Here it is as a percent of GDP:

fredgraph (16)

Debt actually held by “the public” equals 57% of GDP — and declining — not 73% of GDP.

I don’t know how economists or pundits think they can have any conversation at all about this subject, analyze it in any useful way, if they ignore this basic reality. Reinhart and Rogoff, are you listening?

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Why Liberals Keep Losing

March 4th, 2015 2 comments

James Carville was certainly right: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

And under Democrats (compared to Republicans), the economy kicks ass:

Screen shot 2015-02-23 at 8.41.56 AM

This is GDP growth, but that kick-assness is blatant in any economic measure you look at, from job growth to stock-market returns to household income to government deficits. And it’s true over any lengthy period (say, 30+ years) over the last century. I could post fifty graphics here that tell exactly the same story. (Here’s a favorite: even the rich get richer under Democrats.)

But now ask yourself: how many Americans know that Democrats make them richer? (Lots richer.) One in ten? Maybe? Now ask yourself why liberals keep losing.

The Republicans have successfully branded themselves as “the party of growth,” and Democrats have just let them do it, for decades — even though it’s completely contrary to reality.

Democrats have the strongest possible political argument sitting in their rhetorical holsters, but for whatever reasons, they just won’t draw.

There is one and only one story that Democrats need to be telling, and they need to follow the Republican political playbook: repeat it endlessly, for years on end:

We will make you richer. We’ve been doing it for decades, and we’ll keep doing it.

“Equality” is important (especially because it does make people richer). But really: Americans just change the channel.

“Opportunity” is important. But it’s just a proxy for, a chance of, getting richer.

“Getting the rich” (truly progressive taxes, a more-level playing field, reining in finance) is necessary and important. But Americans get only visceral satisfaction from that message — it doesn’t speak to personal, direct, material benefit that they’re going to experience.

Americans want to hear how Democrats are going to make them more prosperous. Full stop.

And Democrats have a loud-and-clear story on that subject. They just need to 1) tell that story constantly, repetitively, ad nauseum, like the Republicans do, and 2) put aside other stories (like, identity politics) that dilute, confuse, and distract from that story.

Start with that lede — “we make America prosperous” — and a whole litany of talking points emerges. And they’re the very talking points that have driven Republicans’ (otherwise inexplicable) political success over the last thirty years.

But there’s one key advantage for Democrats: In their mouths…the story is true.

Democrats could be stealing Republicans’ best Frank Luntz/Grover Norquist talking points and riding them all the way to the ballot box. Here’s a sampling to start with:

Wisdom of the Crowds. Democrats’ widespread government spending — education, health care, infrastructure, social support — puts money (hence power) in the hands of individuals, instead of delivering concentrated streams to big entities like defense and business. Those individuals’ free choices on where to spend the money allocate resources where they’re needed — to truly productive industries that deliver goods people actually want.

Preventing Government “Capture.” Money that goes to millions of individuals is much less subject to “capture” by powerful players, so it is much less likely to be used to then “capture” government via political donations, sweetheart deals, and crony capitalism.

Labor Market Flexibility. When people feel confident that they and their families won’t end up on the streets — they know that their children will have health care, a good education, and a decent safety net if the worst happens — they feel free to move to a different job that better fits their talents — better allocating labor resources. “Labor market flexibility” often suggests the freedom (of employers) to hire and fire, but the freedom of hundreds of millions of employees is far more profound, economically.

Freedom to Innovate. Individuals who are standing on that social springboard that Democratic policies provide — who have that platform beneath them — can do more than just shift jobs. They have the freedom to strike out on their own and develop innovative, entrepreneurial ventures that drive long-term growth and prosperity (and personal freedom and satisfaction) — without worrying that their children will suffer if the risk goes wrong.

Give ten, twenty, or thirty million more Americans a place to stand, and they’ll move the world.

Profitable Investments in Long-Term Growth. From education to infrastructure to scientific research, Democratic priorities deliver money to projects that the free market doesn’t support on its own, and that have been demonstrated to pay off many times over in widespread public prosperity.

Power to the Producers. The dispersal of income and wealth under Democratic policies provides the widespread demand (read: sales) that producers need to succeed, to expand, and to take risks on innovative new endeavors. Rather than assuming that government knows best and giving money directly to businesses, Democratic policies trust the markets to direct that money to the most productive producers.

Fiscal Prudence. True conservatives pay their bills. From the 35 years of declining debt after World War II (until…Reagan) to the years of budget surpluses and declining debt under Bill Clinton, Democratic policies demonstrate which party deserves the name “fiscal conservatives.”

Labor and Trade Efficiencies. The social support programs that Democrats champion — if they truly provide an adequate level of support — give policy makers much more freedom to put in place what are otherwise draconian, but efficient, trade and labor policies. If everyone is guaranteed a decent wage by an excellent program like the Earned Income Tax Credit, we have less need for the admittedly mixed blessings of unions and protectionism.

Take the graph from the top of this post and put it on billboards all over America. It’s time for Americans to understand who makes them richer.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

How Much Was Your Ballot Worth in 2014?

November 8th, 2014 1 comment

Amateur Socialist at Angry Bear asked me about how much was being spent per vote in 2014, and did the due diligence of finding me a spreadsheet showing how many ballots were cast per state. Ask and ye shall receive.

Based on that data, here’s a rough-and-ready calc of how much was spent on each ballot. Have your way with it…

dollars per ballot

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.