Opportunity cost, MMT and public spending (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

I’ve been busy for the last week doing events for Economics in Two Lessons, so I didn’t have time to take part in the discussion arising from Harry’s post on alternatives to Sanders’ proposal to wipe out college debt.

In one way, that’s a pity because the key point of the book is the idea of opportunity cost – the true cost of anything, for us as individuals, and for society as a whole, is what you must give up to get it. More precisely, it’s the best alternative available to us.

Harry’s post was all about opportunity cost – what would be the best use of $1.6 trillion in public funds. However, the discussion was inevitably enmeshed in the complexities and inequities of US education, while comments making broader arguments about opportunity cost reasoning weren’t discussed in detail.

One of those broader arguments is the idea that, thanks to Modern Monetary Theory, there’s no need to worry about such questions. In the “chartalist” reasoning underlyng MMT, the fact that governments can issue their own sovereign currency means that there is no need to “finance” public spending by taxation; rather taxation is a tool used to manage aggregate demand so as to keep the economy fully employed but not at a point where excess demand creates inflation. That (essentially correct) position can easily slide into the (only subtly different, but radically mistaken) view that governments can spend money on anything they like with no need for any increases in taxes or cuts in other spending.

As I will argue over the fold, a correct version of MMT makes no such claim. Unfortunately, while avoiding the error themselves, a lot of MMT theorists have not shown much willingness to set their more naive followers straight.

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Coming events

I’ve got quite a few events coming up in the next couple of weeks.

* On 13 and 14 May, I’m running a workshop at the University of Queensland on Epistemic & Personal Transformation:
Dealing with the Unknowable and Unimaginable
. Details here.

* On Thursday 16 May, I’ll be at ANU for the official Australian launch of Economics in Two Lessons.  Details are here. If campaigning permits, Andrew Leigh will say a few words about the book. There will be a launch at Avid Reader in Brisbane in late June (date tbd), and in Sydney and Melbourne a bit later

* On Wednesday 22 May, I’ll be delivering the Keith Hancock lecture for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, at the University of Queensland. Topic is The Future of Work. Details here.

* I’m doing a number of radio interviews related to Economics in Two Lessons. I talked to Radio SER in Sydney yesterday. On Saturday 18 May, at 7:45 am, I’ll talk to Geraldine Doogue on Saturday extra, then on Wednesday 15 May to Steve Austin on ABC Radio Brisbane Drive.

How much will it cost to deal with climate change? Not much at all

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Inside Story, along with the short version of my answer. The long answer is that, even with dubious modelling choices and extreme parameter assumptions, Brian Fisher of BAEcon* comes up with estimates of about 2 per cent of GDP, trivial compared to the potential cost.

So, he uses the same presentational trick he’s been using since the first ABARE modelling exercise back in 1996, turning an annual flow into a present value over ten years to make it look bigger.

The truth is that the economic impact of reducing emissions by 45 per cent relative to 2005 levels by 2030 will be so small as to be lost in the noise of statistical revisions and exchange rate effects. By contrast, the costs of doing nothing about climate change are already visible and are only going to get bigger.

Considered in terms of opportunity cost, action to mitigate climate change is a no-brainer, which is why so much intellectual and rhetorical energy has to be used to mount any kind of case against such action.

  • BAEcon is a play on the title of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, precursor of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics (ABARE) where Brian was Director and I was Chief Research Economist in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s now ABARES having absorbed the Bureau of Rural Sciences.

The average (median) worker does not earn the (arithmetic) average wage

Eryk Bagshaw, recently[1] appointed economics correspondent for Fairfax, is certainly aware of that. In fact, mentions it right near the end of this scare story about the effects of Labor’s rejection of the second-stage of the Morrison government’s legislated tax cuts. But that didn’t stop the Fairfax subeditor running his article under the headline “Average full-time workers to be $1000 a year worse off under Labor”

To spell it out, the trick here is that Bagshaw is looking at workers who earn between $90,000 [the arithmetic mean of wages for full time workers} and $120,000. He estimates that there are about 1.6 million such workers. That’s a bit over 10 per cent of the workforce (about 13 million people). As he admits, the median full time wage is well below this, and the median wage for all workers lower again. Once pensioners and welfare recipients are taken into account, it’s evident that Bagshaw’s “average workers” are well towards the top end of the income distribution.

This is amusing since I had a previous run-in with Bagshaw over this very issue of headlines. On that occasion, Bagshaw was scathing about a sloppily written ACTU press release, which ended up with a totally inaccurate headline. I don’t think a defence of innocent error is available here. Bagshaw’s story is written in a way that would lead any casual reader to make the same inference as the subeditor. Moreover, there’s no obvious reason why workers receiving between $90K and $120K should be of more interest than any decile of the workforce. Certainly they aren’t average in any meaningful sense. So, without the misleading phrasing, the story would probably have been spiked.


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Shorten gets opportunity cost right

The concept of opportunity cost “The opportunity cost of anything of value is what you must give up so that you can have it.” is the central theme of my book Economics in Two Lessons, due out in the US on 19 April and hopefully in Australia soon after that. My central claim is that two lessons based on opportunity cost and their relationship to market prices provide a framework within which almost any problem in economic policy can usefully be considered.

That’s not the way economics is usually taught (opportunity cost gets a brief nod before the focus moves on to supply and demand). So, I was impressed to see Bill Shorten use the term in relation to climate change inaction. Not only that but he used it correctly! Here’s Bill, quoted in the SMH

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten defended the new policy by urging voters to consider the cost of inaction on climate change, saying “There is a huge opportunity cost when we don’t take action,”

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Labor’s Shadow Assistant Treasurer is Andrew Leigh, a fine economist who has had nice things to say about my book. And Labor has been listening to Richard Holden, who is, I think, the brightest young economist we have right now.

Surprising or not, it’s great to see a return of economic literacy to public debate, after years dominated by vapid slogans.

The case for higher wages

I’m a signatory of a public letter on the benefits of stronger wage growth this morning, organized by the Centre for Future Work. In support of the letter, I said

For decades, government policy has been designed to weaken unions and push wages down. It’s time to put that process into reverse.

A list of all the signers is at this web site: https://www.futurework.org.au/wages_open_letter. That site also contains a media release that was distributed to reporters this morning, and additional quotations in support

Media coverage of the letter includes:

An article by Stephen Long at ABC: and

An article by Amy Remeikis in the Guardian:

The editors of the AFR mentioned the letter in the course of an editorial reaffirming the virtues of trickledown economics:

And AFR columnist Richard Denniss also mentioned the letter in his column.

You can also look at the Twitter feed for @CntrFutureWork (eg.https://twitter.com/CntrFutureWork/status/1107776026367520769),