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Market Failure and Income Distribution: Notes for Economics in Two Lessons

January 5th, 2017 10 comments

For quite a while now, I’ve been working through my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons (partial draft here), focusing on applications of Lesson 2

Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

Thinking about the standard market failures (monopoly, externality and so on), I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to say more about the interaction between market failure and income distribution. I’ve already looked at the opportunity costs involved in income redistribution and predistribution, but different kinds of questions are coming up in relation to issues like monopoly, privatisation and for-profit provision of public services.

The discussion here and at Crooked Timber has been very helpful in stimulating my thoughts, but I need to do a lot more clarification. Some preliminary thoughts are over the fold: comments and criticism much appreciated.

Read more…

Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

Open thread

January 5th, 2017 12 comments

An open thread until I get around to posting again.

Categories: Metablogging Tags:

Sandpit

January 5th, 2017 1 comment

A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Education: Excerpt from Economics in Two Lessons

December 29th, 2016 21 comments

Here’s another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. As usual, praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

In the section over the fold, I’m looking at education.

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Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

Public Services: Excerpt from Economics in Two Lessons

December 28th, 2016 10 comments

As we saw in Section …, Lesson 1 does not apply to public goods, which can be used all, without any diminution of their usefulness, and for which no price can be charged. Many of the core activities of government may be regarded as providing public goods. These include public health measures, the control of air pollution, urban planning, police services and national defense.

More abstract services such as the legal system, the definition and enforcement of property rights, systems of weights and measures and so on are also public goods. Less obviously, macroeconomic management is a kind of public good (or sometimes a public bad). The level of economic activity, the rate of inflation, exchange rates and interest rates affect everyone, though in different ways.

Most advocates of Lesson 1 recognise at least some of these forms of public good provision as essential. The big disputes arise over services such as health, education and welfare services, which have long been provided, or at least funded, by governments. These services are commonly referred to as ‘human services’, and typically involve a personal relationship (doctor-patient, teacher-student, caseworker client and so on) between the service provider and the recipient.

Although these services are sometimes referred to as public goods, they don’t, in general, meet the criteria economists use to define public goods. A hospital bed or school place provided to one person isn’t available to others, and prices can be charged for access to these services.

On the other hand, neither do these services the standard conditions of Lesson 1. There are two central problems that arise. First, these services are expensive and recipients are rarely in a position to pay for them directly. As a result, all of the problems of risk and insurance, discussed in Chapter 10 …, apply to the financing of these services.

The second problem is that the relationship between providers and recipients typically involves an imbalance of information, power or both. A student is not in a good position to judge whether the education she is receiving is good or bad. Similarly, a patient must rely on their doctor’s expertise and professional ethics to get the appropriate treatment. In other cases, such as that of police services, there is also an imbalance of power, which may be misused.

Advocates of Lesson 1, such as Milton Friedman in Free to Choose have generally accepted the need for public funding to overcome the problems of financing education and, at least in some instances, health care. However, Friedman and others have assumed that any other problems can be overcome by market competition and consumer choice. Indeed, they have argued that market competition will help to prevent corruption and abuses of power that arise when governments provide services directly.

As a result, market advocates have favoured policies based on concepts such as ‘contestability’ and ‘contracting out’, in which for-profit firms compete to provide publicly funded services. The archetypal example is the perennial proposal for school ‘vouchers’, that is, funds allocated to students or their parents which can be paid to whichever school they choose to attend.

This idea was elaborated into a complete ‘reinvention of government’ by writers like Osborne and Gaebler in the late 20th century and implemented, to a large extent, in the wave of market liberal reform led by the Thatcher government in the UK. As a result, we have accumulated plenty of experience of market contestability and for-profit provision.

Theoretical analysis doesn’t give any clear answer as to which model of provision is likely to be best for services like health and education. However, after several decades of experience with market-oriented contestability, the empirical evidence is stark. For-profit provision of such services is at best problematic, and at worst disastrous.

The only other model with success comparable to that of public service provision is not-for-profit provision by organisations with a charitable or activist mission. Church-run schools and hospitals, and activist-run services like women’s shelters and services for the unemployed and homeless, have complemented the public sector, meeting needs that have been unrecognised or underserved.

The issue is not, in the end, one of public versus private. Rather it is the fact that market competition and the profit motive inevitably associated with it is antithetical to the professional and service orientation that is central to human services of all kinds.

Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

Monopoly and Regulation: Excerpt from Two Lessons book

December 24th, 2016 24 comments

Here’s another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. As usual, praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

In the section over the fold, I’m looking at public ownership.

Read more…

Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

Fuel efficiency standards could help curb Australia’s persistently growing emissions

December 24th, 2016 13 comments
Categories: Environment Tags:

That was quick

December 22nd, 2016 47 comments

Not long after the election, I perceived the signs of an emerging semi-formal coalition between the LNP and One Nation. Less than three months later, here’s Jeff Kennett, generally seen as a relative moderate in the Victorian Liberal Party, endorsing the idea.

To repeat what I said then, I remain convinced that this will prove a path to disaster for the LNP in the long run. One Nation is already repeating the history of meltdowns we saw in its first big run, and making clear that it stands for nothing beyond incoherent gesture politics. That’s true of rightwing identity politics in general, which is why I think it can’t last. It can, however, do plenty of damage in the meantime.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Privatisation and education re-re-re-post

December 21st, 2016 10 comments

I’m working on my long running book project Economics in Two Lessons, and I dug out this old post, originally written in 2008, which remains strikingly relevant today.
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Categories: Economic policy Tags:

The economics of open borders

December 21st, 2016 76 comments

A colleague recently sent me a paper on the economics of open borders, by John Kennan, which I hadn’t known of before, though it came out in 2013.
Kennan’s conclusion is striking

Liberal immigration policies are politically unpopular. To a large extent, this is because the beneficiaries of these policies are not allowed to vote. It is also true, however, that the enormous benefits associated with open borders have not received much attention in the economics literature.20 Economists are generally enthusiastic about free trade. But if free movement of goods is important, then surely free movement of people is even more important.
One conclusion of this paper is that open borders could yield huge welfare gains: more than $10,000 a year for a randomly selected worker from a less-developed country (including non-migrants). Another is that these gains are associated with a relatively small reduction in the real wage in developed countries, and even this effect disappears as the capital–labor ratio adjusts over time; indeed if immigration restrictions are relaxed gradually, allowing time for investment in physical capital to keep pace, there is no implied reduction in real wages.

So, is Kennan right about the benefits of open borders? And if so, is there a way of transferring some of those benefits to already-resident wage earners who would otherwise lose, or at least not gain, from expanded migration?
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Categories: World Events Tags:

If the Productivity Commission puts ideology ahead of evidence, do we still need it?

December 21st, 2016 23 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece in The Guardian. It’s a response to the Productivity Commission’s report on competition in human services. I wrote a submission in response to the draft report a while back, but it had no impact, and neither did any other evidence.. If anything, the final report is slightly worse than the draft.

My final para

Rather than close on a negative tone, I’ll make one suggestion for contestability. Private sector consulting firms have demonstrated a long-standing expertise in producing impressive looking reports to support the (predetermined) conclusion required by the client.

Given the predictability of the Productivity Commission’s conclusions on topics like this, private firms would have no difficulty in replicating them. Surely this is a service that could do with being opened up to the chill winds of competition.

Categories: Economic policy Tags:

Monday Message Board

December 19th, 2016 31 comments

Another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monopoly and Regulation: Excerpt from Two Lessons book

December 17th, 2016 12 comments

Here’s another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. Rather than work sequentially, I’m jumping between:

Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.
and
Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

In the section over the fold, I’m looking at monopoly and regulation. Next up, public ownership.

As usual, praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

Read more…

Categories: Economics in Two Lessons Tags:

Are young Australians (mostly) Christians ?

December 16th, 2016 24 comments

Regular readers will know that I’m not a great fan of analysis based on generations (Boomers, X, Millennials and so on). Most of what passes for insight on this topic consists of the repetition of unchanged cliches about the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, the laziness and irresponsibility of the young, and so on, applied to whichever cohort happens to be old or young at the time.

But there are some genuine differences between cohorts, typically determine by the time they have entered adulthood. One of these is religion.
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Dutton, cringeworthy and (literally) un-Australian

December 15th, 2016 40 comments

Peter Dutton’s attempts to promote an “uprising” in support of Christmas, and against “political correctness gone mad” are un-Australian in all sorts of ways, but most obviously in the stunning cultural cringe they reflect. He’s borrowed the catchphrase of a British tabloid in an attempt to import a US culture war campaign that has been going on so long it’s a Christmas tradition in itself (I observed that it was old stuff, back in 2004). This guy is the best the Trumpist faction of the LNP/ON can come up with?

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Oz Politics Tags:

Solving Newcomb’s problem with (possibly non) expected utility theory

December 12th, 2016 19 comments

The Grauniad has just resurrected Newcomb’s problem. I have a slightly special interest since the problem was popularized by one of my betes noires, Robert Nozick. So, in asserting that there’s a trivial solution, I have something of a bias.
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Categories: Philosophy Tags:

Sandpit

December 12th, 2016 11 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Monday Message Board

December 12th, 2016 2 comments

Another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Austrian economists and environmental policy

December 8th, 2016 40 comments

While working on my long-forthcoming book, Economics in Two Lessons, I came across an interesting article by Edwin Dolan published (with commendably openness to criticism) in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. The conclusion

On a theoretical level, Austrian writers delight in claiming the moral high ground, condemning polluters as aggressors against property rights. On a practical level, however, they leave pollution victims in the lurch. They invite them to sue, but propose a set of legal standards that would guarantee that polluters would always win. They oppose all government measures to reduce pollution, whether through regulation or through measures to make polluters pay. As a result, at least in cases of environmental mass torts, the Austrian paradigm is a polluter’s dream and a victim’s nightmare. It offers far too little of any practical value toward securing property rights, too little toward facilitating environmental coordination, and too little toward promoting libertarian justice. Much work remains to be done.

Thursday Message Board

December 8th, 2016 41 comments

The site outage that has kept the blog off air for several days has now been resolved, so here’s a once-off Thursday Message Board, for comments on any topic. Civil discussion and no coarse language, please.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Build it, and they probably won’t come

December 1st, 2016 12 comments

When the SA Royal Commission on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle brought down its report, I welcomed the conclusion that there was no serious prospect that nuclear power generation would be feasible in Australia. That was unsurprising, since my own submission to the Commission had shown this pretty clearly. As regards the Commission’s recommendation for a waste dump, I argued that there could be no objection in principle, given that SA was an exporter of uranium and the waste had already been generated.

That left open the question of whether the waste dump proposal made economic sense. I’ve now looked at the case in more detail and concluded that it doesn’t. Countries with existing nuclear power industries have made arrangements that may not be satisfactory, but are unlikely to change. There is little prospect of any significant growth in the future. So, building a nuclear waste dump in the hope of attracting demand makes about as much sense as the actions of the protagonist in the movie Field of Dreams, who ploughed up his cornfield to make a baseball diamond for the ghosts of disgraced players.

I make the argument in more detail in this piece in New Matilda. Right on cue, Vietnam, which was one of the hypothetical users of the dump, decided that it would be better to dump nuclear power as uneconomic. Expect more announcements along these lines as the economics of renewable energy improve.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Sandpit

November 25th, 2016 103 comments

A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

The good news on climate

November 25th, 2016 64 comments

There’s plenty of bad news around these days, and that’s true of climate policy as of many other things. Turnbull (or Abbott, pulling Turnbull’s strings) has already imposed massive cuts in climate science research in Australia and it seems certain that Trump will do the same in the US.

Happily, it looks as if they have come too late to do real damage. The fact of climate change is now well established. Cutting research will impose all kinds of costs, but it’s not going to change the conclusions of science. Of course, the right will reject inconvenient science as they have done for decades, but more of less research won’t change that.

The big news is that the problem has turned out to be much easier to solve than anyone thought. We’ve long known that, to have a 50-50 chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, emissions should peak in 2015, and decline at an annual rate of at least 2.2 per cent thereafter. Hardly anyone thought a peak could happen before 2020 at the earliest, and this would imply a decline so steep (4.6 per cent per year) as to be just about impossible.

It now seems pretty clear, however, that fossil fuel emissions did in fact peak, or at least flatten out in 2015, and have remained stable through 2016.

Of course, stabilization is not enough. Is it possible for emissions to decline at the required rate. We can look at an identity

e = g – t – r

where e is the rate of growth of emissions, g is the rate of growth of output, t is the annual technological improvement in energy efficiency (the ratio of energy use to output, and r is the reduction in emissions per unit of energy, due to renewables).

Currently, these are just about in balance. But installations of renewables (and therefore r) are growing rapidly, while g is declining in the developed world, and probably also in China. It follows that we can expect e to become negative in the near future.

Policy matters, and it is important that the Paris Agreement should go ahead, with or without Trump and Turnbull. But the goals to which governments are willing to commit depend on what they think they can credibly promise. So, the fact that stabilizing the global climate looks to be feasible within the current economic framework is really good news.

UPDATE: A couple of commenters have questioned the math above. So, let’s spell it out. Let
E = Emissions (tonnes CO2)
G = Gross World Product (constant $)
J = Energy used (joules)
T (for technology) = G/J ($/joules)
R (for reduction) = J/E (joules/tonne CO2)

Then
E = G / (T*R)
Taking logs

log (E) = log (G) – log (T) – log (R)

Differentiating with respect to time

e = g – t – r

as stated.

Anyone wishing to debate this further should do so in the Sandpit

Categories: Environment Tags:

Trade after Trump (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

November 20th, 2016 68 comments

The one policy issue that was an unambiguous loser for Clinton was trade[^1]. Her grudging move to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, choice of Tim Kaine as running mate and some unhelpful remarks from Bill Clinton meant that Trump had all the running. How should we think about trade policy after Trump? My starting point will be the assumption that, in a world where Trump can be President of the US, there’s no point in being overly constrained by calculations of political realism.

A few points and some suggestions

* So-called “trade” deals like the TPP were actually devices to enhance corporate power (and, in the case of the TPP, to isolate China), and deserved to be defeated regardless of views on trade

* No matter what policy is adopted, manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back, any more than farm policy can restore an agrarian society. The manufacturing share of total employment has peaked nearly everywhere in the world, notably including Mexico. As is often the case, Chinese data is too opaque to get a clear picture, but there’s plenty of evidence of contraction about

* The idea of manufacturing jobs as “good” jobs is historically specific particularly to the US, and reflects the fact that the dominance of manufacturing coincided with the New Deal and the unionisation of the labour force. It’s unions, not manufacturing that we need to bring back.

* The big problem facing workers, in the US and elsewhere, isn’t competition from immigrants, or from imported goods. It’s the fact that capital is freely mobile and unfettered by any social obligation. So, a profitable plant can be closed down if its owners get a better off elsewhere. Alternatively, the threat of a move can be used to bargain down wages.

So, instead of thinking about tariffs and trade agreements, the big question is: what can be done to change trade and capital flows in ways that yield more good jobs?

Some suggestions over the page

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy, World Events Tags:

The dog that didn’t bark

November 15th, 2016 91 comments

My election commentary in Inside Story is about

The dog that didn’t bark … the (assumed) majority of “decent Republicans” to whom Clinton sought to appeal. Although most observers (including me) assumed that many of them would turn against Trump, hardly any did so

Categories: World Events Tags:

Armistice Day

November 11th, 2016 1 comment

Peace now, more than ever.

Categories: World Events Tags:

There’s a lot of ruin in a country

November 11th, 2016 160 comments

So said Adam Smith a couple of centuries ago, and he will, I hope, be proved right, in the US, and elsewhere in the world. Trump and the Republican majority in Congress and (imminently) in the Supreme Court will, in all probability, repeal Obamacare, restore and expand the Bush tax cuts for the rich, stop action on climate change, overturn Roe v Wade, expand deportation and more.

Read more…

Categories: World Events Tags:

Trump voters are Romney voters

November 6th, 2016 89 comments

At CT and just about everywhere else, there’s been lots of discussion about who is voting for Trump and why. This began during the Republican primaries, when it made sense to ask “what kind of Republican would prefer Trump to Bush, Cruz etc?”.

This kind of discussion continued through the general election, even though the answer is now staring us in the face. Trump is getting overwhelming support from self-described Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, and almost none from Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents. The same was true for Romney four years ago, and for McCain and Bush before him.

This is well known, but few people seem to have drawn the obvious conclusion*. With marginal changes (I’ll discuss these below), the people who are voting for Trump now voted for Romney four years ago, and for Bush before that.
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Categories: World Events Tags:

Electric cars: coming soon to a country near you?

November 6th, 2016 65 comments

In thinking about how the global economy can be decarbonized, I’ve focused on the electricity sector, and particularly the elimination of coal-fired electricity generation. In the transport sector, I’ve pushed for fuel efficiency standards, but have generally assumed that internal combustion cars are going to be around for a long time to come. That’s consistent with Australian experience where annual sales of electric vehicles are counted in the hundreds, and with the US, where cheap petrol has held electrics to a market share of a couple of percentage points.

So, I was quite surprised to find out that lots of European countries, including Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, are talking about ending sales of petrol driven vehicles in the near future (2025 or 2030), with diesel possibly being banned even earlier.

Obviously, achieving these goals will require some pretty strong policy encouragement, including subsidies and planned provision of infrastructure, and targets are easier to announce than to hit. Still, it looks as if eliminating internal combustion engine cars is not a distant dream but a feasible policy goal.
Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

The National Electricity Market: A View from 2001

November 4th, 2016 12 comments

While doing a bit of work on electricity policy, I dug out this piece from 2001, which was published as ‘Market-Oriented Reform in the Australian Electricity Industry’ in The Economic and Labour Relations Review, June 2001; vol. 12, 1: pp. 126-150. The conclusion, written at a time when supporters of electricity reform were trumpeting it as a huge success, stands up pretty well 15 years later, I think.

Some problems, however, are likely to become more rather than less acute. The Australian National Electricity Market commenced operation in a period of oversupply so that problems of market power and excessive prices have not emerged until recently. It remains unclear whether an electricity auction market can produce adequate incentives for investment while generating appropriate prices for consumers.

Similar problems are emerging in relation to the regulated monopoly component of the industry, the transmission and distribution sector. Regulators must set prices that do not reward inefficiency or allow monopoly profits, but nevertheless provide appropriate incentives for new investment. This is a delicate balance.

In the longer term, the problem of the environmental impact of an industry relying predominantly on carbon-based fuels remains to be addressed. A market solution would involve the creation of emissions credits that could be traded along with electricity in national markets. Although limited steps have been taken in this direction, much remains to be done.

Categories: Economic policy Tags: