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July 15, 2009

Economist's View - 5 new articles

"Tax the Wealthy to Keep US Healthy"

Robin-Hood Reich is happy:

The House: Tax the Wealthy to Keep Everyone Healthy, by Robert Reich: It's the most blatant form of Robin-Hood economics ever proposed. The universal health care bill reported by the House yesterday pays for the health insurance of the 20 percent of Americans who need help affording it with a surtax on the richest 1 percent.

I don't recall the last time Congress came up with such a direct redistribution. Occasionally Congress closes a few tax loopholes at the top and offers a refundable tax credit to workers at the bottom, or it creates a poor people's program like Medicaid, paid for out of general revenues from a progressive income tax. But to say out loud, as the House has just done, that those in our society who can most readily afford it should pay for the health insurance of those who cannot is, well, audacious.

There's another word for it: fair. According to the most recent data (for 2007), the best-off 1 percent of American households take home about 20 percent of total income -- the highest percentage since 1928. Yes, I know: Critics will charge that these are the very people who invest, innovate, and hire, and thereby keep the economy going. So raising their taxes will burden the economy and thereby hurt everyone, including those who are supposed to be helped.

But there's no reason to suppose that taking a tiny sliver of the incomes of the top 1 percent will reduce all that much of their ardor to invest, innovate, and hire in the future. Yet if this tiny sliver means affordable health care for a far larger number of Americans, who will be able to get regular checkups and thereby stay healthy and productive, the positive effect on the American economy is likely to be far greater.

Don't believe critics who say the surtax will harm small business. According to the Center for Tax Justice, it would hit only five percent of small business owners... Besides, only the profits of a small business would be taxed. ... So, for example, a couple whose income comes entirely from a small business would have to earn more than $350,000 in business profits -- after paying all their expenses, including salaries -- before the surcharge would affect them... And if they earned more, the surcharge wouldn't reduce their incentive to hire more employees because they pay employees with pre-tax income. And not even purchases of equipment ... would be affected because most small business owners can write off up to $250,000 of the costs of such equipment immediately.

A surtax is easy to administer. And the whole idea is easy to understand. Tax the wealthy to keep everyone healthy. Not even a bad bumper sticker.

I'll be very surprised if the Senate goes along with this.

Thomas Schelling on Climate Change

Conor Clarke interviews Thomas Schelling on the implementation of climate change policy (the excerpts run across several questions):

An Interview With Thomas Schelling, Part Two, by Conor Clarke: This is the second part of my interview with Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling. Part one is here. In this part we talk very generally about climate change...

...It's not obvious that averting global climate change is in the rational self-interest of anyone ... alive today. The serious consequences probably won't occur until 2080 or 2100 or thereafter..., [and] those consequences are going to be distributed in a radically uneven way. The northwest of the United States might actually benefit. So how does a negotiation process work? How does a generation today negotiate on behalf of future generations? And how do we negotiate when the costs are distributed so unevenly?

Well I do think that one of the difficulties is that most of the beneficiaries aren't yet born. More than that: Most of the beneficiaries will be born in ... the developing world. By 2080 or 2100 five-sixths of the population, at least, will be in places like China, India, Indonesia, Africa and so forth. And what I don't know is whether Americans are really willing to understand that and do anything for the benefit of the unborn Chinese.

It's a tough sell. And probably you have to find ways to exaggerate the threat. And you can in fact find ways to make the threat serious. I think there's a significant likelihood of a kind of a runaway release of carbon and methane ... that will create a huge multiplier effect, and it could become very serious. ...

If I were to come clean to the American public I would say that, except for a very low probability of a very bad result -- which is the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which would put Washington DC under water -- we are probably going to outgrow any vulnerability we have to climate change. ... You know, very little of the US economy is susceptible to climate. All of agriculture is less than 3% of our gross product. Forestry may be endangered. Fisheries may be endangered. But recreation might actually benefit!

So if we can double our GDP in the next 70 or 80 years,... -- even if we lose 10% of our GDP from climate change -- we're still ahead so much that the effect of climate change wouldn't be noticed. But it would be pretty disastrous in a lot of the less developed parts of the world. And that's why I think it's crucially important not to demand anything of China, India and so forth that will significantly impede their economic progress. ...

[I]f the developed countries ... are really serious, they'll tell India and China and Brazil, "we're going to provide enormous assistance to help reduce your dependence on fossil fuels. And we don't expect you to pay for it yourselves. We will pay for it because we're rich and you're not." ...

But while people talk about this..., nobody that I know of is thinking about how in the world you organize so that the rich countries can agree what you do with the poor. You need to know who divides the money, and who the monitors is. We're going to need a whole new set of institutions...

It's very hard to get Americans to engage in what they think will be suffering not just for the polar bears but for the poor around the world who will indeed suffer if they can't outgrow their vulnerability to climate change. ...

I think you have to realize that most people have very strong moral feelings. I think in a lot of cases they're misdirected. I wish moral feelings about a two-month old fetus were attached to hungry children in Africa. But I think people have very strong moral feelings. In fact, I'm always amazed by the number of people who at least pretend they're worried about the polar bears.

And one thing that I think ought to help but doesn't is that -- and my impression is that maybe this is slightly changing -- the organized churches in America don't take seriously preserving the heritage that God gave us. ... I get no impression that Protestants and Catholics are sermonizing on the importance of preserving the bounty of the earth, the richness of the species, or preserving the planet as we would like to know it. ... I think the churches don't realize that they could have a potent effect in not letting so much of gods legacy -- in terms of flora and fauna -- be destroyed by climate change.

But I tend to be rather pessimistic. I sometimes wish that we could have, over the next five or ten years, a lot of horrid things happening -- you know, like tornadoes in the Midwest and so forth -- that would get people very concerned about climate change. But I don't think that's going to happen.

Exaggerating the threat won't help. When people find out that you are doing that -- and they will at some point -- you lose credibility and end up further behind than when you started. Also, though this is a bit picky -- this qualification is often omitted to simplify the discussion -- the costs are not fully captured by the loss of GDP. If, for example, some species become extinct due to climate change, that is only included in the costs to the extent that it lowers the output of goods and services. But our concerns are broader than that. Finally, I don't think we should, even just sometimes, wish that horrid things would happen to people no matter how much good might come of it. There are better ways to get there.

Loonie Network Effects

Nick Rowe use California's IOUs and Canadian Tire money to illustrate possible outcomes when two currencies circulate side by side:

The State(s) Theory of Money: California and Canadian Tire, by Nick Rowe: I learn via [this] that there is a distinct chance that California will allow taxes to be paid in the new scrip it issued when it ran out of funds. I have no idea whether this will happen, or whether the Federal government will stop it. Let me just assume that it does happen, and that the Federal government does not stop it. I'm (almost) hoping that it does happen, and that the Fed doesn't stop it, because it would be such a fascinating experiment in monetary theory.

Assuming this experiment does go ahead, what are the chances that California scrip will circulate as a medium of exchange, and be generally acceptable, not just at banks, but in exchange for all or most goods and services?

Another way to ask this question: what's the difference between California and Canadian Tire?

For non-Canadian readers let me explain that Canadian Tire corporation is a large chain of stores selling a wide range of automotive supplies, hardware, sports and camping equipment, gasoline, etc., that has many outlets across Canada. And it issues Canadian Tire "Money". CT money consists of small paper notes, about the same size as US dollar bills, in denominations ranging from a few cents up to a couple of dollars. When you buy something at Canadian Tire, you get CT money with a face value of a couple of percent of the purchase price. Canadian Tire money is redeemable for merchandise, at par with Canadian dollars, at all Canadian Tire stores.

That last sentence is crucial. If the State of California accepts California scrip for payment of taxes, at par with US dollars, it is just like Canadian Tire. Sure, you have to pay taxes, and you don't have to shop at Canadian Tire, but most Canadians do shop at Canadian Tire, and do so more times a year than most Californians pay taxes (if we are talking about annual income taxes, at least). So the frequency with which Canadian Tire money can be redeemed at its issuer will exceed that of California scrip.

But Canadian Tire "Money" does not normally circulate as a generally accepted medium of exchange. In special circumstances, someone (other than Canadian Tire) might accept Canadian Tire money in payment for goods, but only as a favour if you have run out of "real" money, or at a discount. It is not generally used outside of Canadian Tire stores. People generally redeem it as soon as they next visit a Canadian Tire store (or just leave it stashed away until they remember to do so).

And we can understand why Canadian Tire money does not circulate as a medium of exchange. This is a case where, contrary to Gresham's Law, good money drives out bad. (Gresham's Law does not apply because there is no legal tender law saying that merchants have to accept Canadian Tire money at par, and only Canadian Tire does so).

We have known since Carl Menger that money, like language, has network effects. If the people with whom you interact are already speaking a particular language, or using a particular medium of exchange, that increases your incentive to adopt that same language or medium of exchange. Conventions can arise spontaneously, and have the force of custom. Canadian Tire money would have to be, not just as good as, but significantly better than the Loonie, in order to compete with the Loonie as a medium of exchange. It isn't. You can redeem Canadian Tire money at par in Canadian Tire stores, and below par elsewhere, so everybody just redeems it at Canadian Tire stores. It doesn't circulate.

So California scrip would end up like Canadian Tire money - being kept in the glove box until your next visit to the issuing store - except for one thing: California scrip pays 3.5% interest; Canadian Tire money pays none. In that one respect at least, California scrip is better than US dollars.

Suppose California scrip does end up circulating as a medium of exchange, being generally acceptable at par to US dollars. Is that possible? I don't think it is, because then Gresham's Law would kick in. If I hold both in my pocket, and merchants will accept both, at par, I would pay with US dollars, and hoard the California scrip, to collect the interest.

It's hard to model a stable equilibrium in which two different monies could circulate side-by-side. If one money gains any slight advantage over the other, and becomes more widely accepted, that makes people even more willing to use it, and less willing to use the other, until one money dominates. And that's what we normally see, except in "bilingual" border zones.

And I just find it hard to imagine that California scrip could ever displace the US dollar as the preferred medium of exchange, even in California. The 3.5% interest might offset any risk of default or depreciation, but the sheer force of custom should outweigh both.

How Should We Interpret Goldman Sach's Unexpectedly Large Earnings?

The NY Times Room for Debate is discussing how we should interpret Goldman Sach's compensation pool, which will be an $11.36 billion set aside for the first half of 2009. Here's the unedited version of my entry (you may like the shorter, edited version better):

What does the size of Goldman's compensation pool tell us? It signals several things. First, it gives some indication that the financial sector is improving, and that is good news. There's no guarantee, however, that the overall economy will follow anytime soon. Even with improvements in the financial sector, the recovery of the broader economy is likely to be a slow process.

One of the reasons I expect the recovery to be slow despite improvements in the financial sector is that the economy cannot go back to where it was before the crisis hit. The financial and housing sectors need to shrink, too many economic resources were used unproductively in support of these activities, and the automobile sector is also in transition.

And it's not just that the financial sector needs to get smaller so that resources can be used productively elsewhere, the financial sector also needs to change its ways so that risk accumulations do not threaten the financial system and the broader economy. As Robert Reich notes today, Goldman's chief financial officer tells Bloomberg News that "Our model really never changed, we've said very consistently that our business model remained the same." Thus, a second signal from Goldman's unexpectedly large earnings is that firms such as Goldman Sachs are returning to the same high-risk strategies backed by too big to fail government guarantees that got us into trouble in the first place, and that aspect of Goldman's success is worrisome. It's a signal that the excesses that led to the high incomes of financial executives have not ended.

Why aren't the profits and the bonuses paid to executives justifiable? Don't they signal the superior talents of Goldman employees, and don't those talents deserve to be rewarded by the marketplace? I think we can legitimately question whether this is a reward for superior talent. Goldman was helped by bailout funds -- there's some debate about whether it actually needed a direct infusion of funds -- but it's certainly true that Goldman benefitted when its counterparties such as AIG were bailed out. Goldman is also benefitting from its early escape from government constraints that still inhibit the ability of other firms to compete on equal - though perhaps overly slippery and risky - footing.

So Goldman's earnings are not simply the product of the superior talent of Goldman's executives, there is more to the story. In addition, the bad incentives that executive compensation structures provide was one of the factors that caused the crisis, and the size of the compensation pool tells us there is work yet to be done to fix this problem.

Other entries from William K. Black, Yves Smith, Charles Geisst, David Merkel, and Jeffrey Miron.

links for 2009-07-15

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