Thursday, January 27, 2011

Seen versus Unseen Taxation

While taxes may provide some goods which are commonly valued to cities, states, or nations they also provoke visceral reactions from swathes of the population. Public opinion polls reveal 48% of Americans believe taxes are too high. Surprisingly this is not linked to income (Here is a link to the Gallup Poll Data).

Negative attitudes towards taxation appear to stem from lack of consent and the confiscatory nature in which public funds are obtained. But, despite the existence of negative attitudes toward taxation there has been a drop in the disapproval of taxation. I cannot help but think, "What if people knew how much tax they were paying?" Since so many taxes are automatically withheld I wonder how people would behaviorally respond to writing an explicit check for money to the government?

I'm thinking of some different strategies to analyze how reactions change when taxation is seen as opposed to unseen.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Public Goods

In my last post "Why Justice?" I wrote, "Without getting into too much more depth at present a price tag is difficult to place on some goods that people find very meaningful." This post concerns that difficult explanation and explains the case of public goods. Below is a 2x2 diagram of the classes of goods economists talk about. The lower right hand corner provides examples of public goods.

These public goods are difficult to provide because of the non-rivalrous and non-excludable nature of them.

(Non)Excludable: The provider and/or consumer of the good has (does not have in the case of non-excludable) the ability to prevent some people from the consumption

(Non)Rivalrous: The consumption of a good by one person subtracts (does not subtract in the case of non-rivalrous) from another person's ability to consume.

Because each person benefits from a public good regardless of whether they contribute to the cost (and you cannot prevent them from benefiting) there is always an incentive for letting someone else provide the good. Most people have participated in group projects. Each person, regardless of the effort they put forth, will receive the same grade. Or, think of fireworks. People love fireworks but they can benefit from watching them without actually paying for them. Likewise with the examples such as social welfare, knowledge, defense, and public health. People would like to see them provided but do not wish to contribute to the cost. This discussion of the free-riding problem can be characterized by the "Prisoner's Dilemma"

Dilbert does not understand the Prisoner's Dilemma. If two prisoner's are placed in separate rooms and they committed a crime they would like to tell the same version of the story; but, they do not know the story their "partner in crime" will tell. They get a harsher penalty if they lie and the other prisoner does not. Therefore, there is a big incentive for each of them (in the absence of knowing what the other will do) to tell the truth so they can avoid the harsh penalty. Likewise with public goods: Everyone would be better off if the public good is provided but nobody wants to be the sucker that puts forth all the money, time, and effort to provide the public good while others do not contribute anything.

Another notable characterstic of public goods is that often times no individual can unilaterally provide the public good. This need for others to cooperate can be explained by the Prisoner's Dilemma but also by another diagram: Lindahl Taxation. 

The cost of providing the public good is represented by MC or marginal cost. Each of our three people has a demand curve but they do not have a willingness to pay greater than cost; therefore, they have no individual incentive to provide the public good. If we add up all of their demand curves though we come up with a Social Demand curve. Where that Social Demand intersects marginal cost gives us the optimal quantity of the public good. The idea then is to charge each person a tax equal to what they would be willing to pay at that quantity. 

But, can you get people to truthfully reveal their demand curve. This is a point that has been discussed at length in economics. To see this consider the following quote by economic luminary Paul Samuelson,

But, and, this is the point sensed by Wicksell but perhaps not fully appreciated by Lindahl, not it is in the selfish interest of each person to give false signals, to pretend to have less interest in a given collective consumption activity than he really has, etc.
The bottom line is this, society might want certain public goods but people may not truthfully tell their value of those goods because then they would have to pay that price. This means that we cannot charge prices. Thus, we have might have the need for a non-market provision of such goods and services.

It Seemed Like a Brilliant Idea at the Time

Here's a provocative comment from Robert Scheer writing at The Huffington Post:

"It wasn't the students struggling at community colleges who came up with the financial gimmicks that produced the Great Recession, but rather the super-whiz-kid graduates of the top business and law schools.

What nonsense to insist that low public school test scores hobbled our economy when it was the highest-achieving graduates of our elite colleges who designed and sold the financial gimmicks that created this crisis. Indeed, some of the folks who once designed the phony mathematical formulas underwriting subprime mortgage-based derivatives won Nobel prizes for their effort."

I've had a chance to talk to students many times about the danger of ascribing the Financial Crisis to any one factor. From my point of view, there was a perfect storm which included: 1) the pressure from the federal government on the banking industry to make sub-prime mortgages for political rather than economic reasons; 2) an overly long period of easy monetary policy; 3) unintended consequences of the post-Enron "reform legislation" especially a) changes in accounting rules, and b) some worst-of-all-possible-worlds changes in the regulation of securities rating agencies; and 4 ) natural tendencies for the formation of asset bubbles. But I agree with Scheer that the replacement of common sense economics of mortgage lending with mathematical whiz-kiddery was not benign. The unintended damage done by anyone who thinks of himself or herself as an expert in a field has important implications for understanding the idea of a "calling" from God and for how the sin of pride operates in out lives.

* Thanks to for the original tip to the Scheer post.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Twelve Angry People (Part 2)

I chose the title “12 Angry People” deliberately, because I remember the sadness and anger among the jurors of so much destruction in the lives of so many young people. Just a few days earlier, my pastor Bill Bess sent around a letter from a Presbyterian elder in Arizona, asking that, in the wake of the Tucson shootings, that we not let political bickering overcome the deeper issues of dealing with young men like Jared Loughner. I had some disagreement with that letter because I felt that it avoided the toughest issue in the Tucson case --- the identification and potentially involuntary hospitalization and treatment of individuals with severe mental illnesses such as, it is suspected, paranoid schizophrenia. However, in the cases of the young people connected with this trial, I (and I suspect others) kept thinking, was the Church of Jesus Christ in their lives? If not, why not? If so, is there more that could have been done?

This is a personal concern of mine, because it distresses me that the organized congregations of the PCUSA are responding to tough budget times by reducing giving to ministries such as the Presbyterian University Center at Florida State University. What more important mission of evangelism can there be than reaching out to the next generation?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Corn Meal Mush

There's a diagram I want to make sure that I discuss in the Sustainability class on Monday. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, as reported in this morning's Wall Street Journal, since 2006 the proportion of US corn acreage devoted to ethanol production has gone from about 20 % to about 39%. This is madness. This is a totally artificial, politically motivated demand shift driven by the now discredited idea that ethanol was some kind of "green fuel." And the unintended consequences are prices increases for a basic foodstuff. Economic inefficiency plus a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. What's not to dislike?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Why Justice?

Student evaluations arrive a couple months after courses are taught and inevitably I will receive some markdowns from students because there is a lack of continuity for the Economics of Compassion course. This is partly because there is no single textbook (which at present I am happily writing) but also because I sometimes do not make explicit some very important points. One student came to me yesterday during office hours and asked me to review the Adam Smith and Justice lectures. Some important points emerged.

The key insight from Adam Smith was that each person pursuing their own self-interest could promote the general welfare of society. To see that this is a true statement consider the supply-and-demand framework below.

Demand (willingness to pay) slopes downward because at lower prices there are more people "willing to pay". Supply (willingness to accept) slopes upward because at higher prices there will be more people "willing to accept" the higher price. The intersection of the two lines represents the market-price.

Willingness to Pay - Price = Consumer Profit,
If we add up all the consumer profits ==> Consumer Surplus

Price - Willingness to Accept = Producer Profit,
If we add up all the producer profits ==> Producer Surplus

"Surplus" is just a fancy way of saying "the value created". We know that trades only occur when both parties receive a positive profit. Therefore, each person, not necessarily looking out for the interest of others will create value when transactions happen. But, this is all based upon price. 

In a market economy priority (who buys and sells the goods and services) is based on willingness to pay being greater than price and price being greater than willingness to accept.

Without getting into too much more depth at present a price tag is difficult to place on some goods that people find very meaningful. Therefore, priority cannot be established through the price mechanism. Instead, we must determine how goods and services are allocated through non-price rationing. Because price is not establishing priority for the allocation of goods and services we must be guided by some other normative principles of justice. This is why I talk about justice in class even though I am no expert in philosophy.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

12 Angry People (Part I)

I served on jury duty this week. Not just waiting in the bull-pen, but actually on a serious criminal trial with major life consequences for the defendant. I chose the title for this blog because regardless of how many differences we worked out on the facts of the case, everyone was angry about the waste of so many young lives (this defendant, the witnesses and other involved in the crime). I'm not aware of any of them being older than 30 years of age, and several were in their early 20s.

I'm going to split my comments between the economic and the faith-centered, although the distinction may not be absolute. I've always been somewhat torn between different economic models of the economics of drug policy. I accept that the "war on drugs" has horrible unintended consequences both here and in other countries (Mexico, Columbia, Afghanistan). I am convinced that organized crime thrived in the U.S. during prohibition, and that something similar, or worse, is going on now. But, I've also had discussions with equally good economists who point out that our national memory has focused on the unintended consequences, but we've missed the fact that by driving up the effective price of alcohol, less alcohol was consumed, and that did show in national health patterns. I've spoken with other economists who are completely sympathetic to the libertarian drug legalization arguments, but argue that ONLY legalizing drugs would have its own unintended consequences. Reacting to the same data I discussed above, these economists believe that legalization would lead to more drug abuse (how could an economist think that it wouldn't if the argument is that the effective price would go down) in a system in which we have in so many ways chosen the government as the financial backstop for many of the problems that increased drug abuse would almost certainly entail.

As my assignment as a juror was on a drug trial, I had hoped it would clarify these economic arguments for me. It didn't. Here's the primary reason. Many supporters of drug legalization will argue that "the government can legalize these dangerous drugs but still regulate them for safety reasons." Well, I can assure you that that, by itself, won't work, because all of the squalor and violence that I heard about was brought about by exactly that model: "legal but controlled drugs." So, where do we go? Complete legalization and free access? Certainly the motives for robbery would drop if anyone could buy an oxycodone pill for $2 rather than $70. But, if I told you the occupations that these drug abusers were tending while high, sick, or falling asleep, much less where they were driving around town, you might not want to go out your front door. And those problems would be worse, not better, if demand expanded as the price of the drugs dropped. We would be trading fewer armed robberies for more people in daily life being, for lack of a better term, whacked out. On the other hand, a system (strict government regulation) that drives the cost for one person's habit to $4,000 per month [not to mention costs of such things as this trial, incarceration, etc.] shouldn't exactly win first prize in a high-school mock legislature contest, either. One thought I'm left with is why, if we seem destined to spend public/government funds out of our ears in either of these models, shouldn't we consider trying an alternative in which we try to cure some of these people?

Redistributive Justice

Each Economics of Compassion course contains a beautiful, but, also disastrous lecture called: What is Justice? The question is beautiful because humans have a deep-seated desire to set to rights all the wrongs they see in the world. To explore the nature of right and wrong seems like an essential adventure. On the other hand, whenever I'm giving such a philosophical lecture I feel like a man caught in raging white water rapids with no rock to cling to. So, the question must be, why? Why give the lecture? The answer: The question of "What is Justice?" matters that much.

Unlike other flights of philosophical fancy justice has real practical application. That is, what we think about justice shapes the kinds of policies that appeal to us. Below is a quote about Charter School Policy in Harlem,

"When officials of the city’s Department of Education announced last year that they planned to place a charter school inside the Public School 123 building in Harlem, Mr. Perkins was infuriated. With help from his chief of staff, several parents and teachers’ union representatives staged a protest there on the first day of school, holding signs that labeled charter schools as “separate and unequal." (New York Times, March 8, 2010)

Additionally, in the discussion about Universal Health care there were a number of statements made about how nobody should be able to receive better medical care than anyone else. Both the quote and such statements are responding very strongly to justice as equality. If any single person received different healthcare or a different education that would be unjust. Certainly, however, equality is not the only dimension people care about. The late Robert Solomon noted in his book "What is Justice?":

"What are the definitive ingredients of justice? Is it need (as the Marxists say, "to each according to his needs")? Is it merit (as in Aristotle, for example, who one is and what one has done)? Is it equality (and in what sense is it true that all men ---or, rather, all people --- are created equal)? . . . How do we measure these ingredients, need against merit against rights, in an adequate conception of justice? This is no abstract question, a mere plaything for philosophers. Our public policy depends on an answer, and every citizen has a stake in it."

Here is an example culled from history and included in Peyton Young's book Equity: In Theory and in Practice. The first story is set in 1943 and revolves around demobilization during World War II. The War Department did not know who ought to return home first and therefore took a survey of the soldiers about what criteria they considered important for selection.  Serving overseas and having dependents mattered. Also, not included in the questionnaire but included in many write-in portions of the survey soldiers thought that exposure to combat was an important criteria for determining demobilization. So, here we have an example of a mixture of merit and need based criteria for demobilization.

This story contains the insight that merit and need are the most appropriate principles to apply to this situation. What about other situations? Because I'm lagging behind in my lectures for The Social Justice Living Learning Community I'll be delving deeper into this philosophy more and more. And, blog posts will bear the fruit of this investigation. To close I want to leave you with a quote from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which puts the importance of justice succinctly: "Economics, at its best, can tell us the effects of pursuing different policies; it cannot, without the guidance of normative principles, recommend which policy to pursue."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


This weekend the FSU Wesley Foundation ventured to Mentone, Alabama for their annual Winter Retreat. The theme of the retreat was "Grounded" and have a deeply rooted faith. The thematic verse came from Jeremiah Chapter 17 and verses 7 and 8:

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him.  They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

The promise of the Christian faith is not that we will be cloistered from pain and sorrow; rather, that God never leaves us alone. But, in order to persevere through pain (and never fail to bear fruit, no matter what the circumstances), there must be a depth to our faith and relationship with Christ. There were many talks which I'm certain to draw on in future blog posts; but, the greatest impression was on the need for wisdom and prayer.

We are not grounded for individualistic reasons: to help ourselves flee from the devil and to maintain peace in the midst of anxiety. Those are good things. But, the world is desperately in need of men and women who have wisdom and peace and bear the fruit of the spirit. We cannot give something to somebody that we do not have ourselves. There must be a humility and understanding that we need God. More on this soon.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Who Will Care for the Poor?

Some version of this question:

But if we don't have the government do so, who will care for the poor?

is common in venues like the Economics of Compassion class. The Christian Science Monitor has published an op ed by P.J. Byrne that addresses this question head-on. I'm not convinced that the question can be answered with no theological context, but the article is a great discussion starter.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Faith and Economics, Indeed!

Here's a great item from an op-ed piece by Veronique de Rugy at Bloomerg:

"For almost two decades, the monks of St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, Louisiana, supported themselves by making and selling unadorned handmade pine and cypress caskets.

But if embalmers and funeral directors in the state of Louisiana have their way, the monks will be barred from earning a living by making coffins without a license issued by a state government board, eight of whose nine members work in the funeral industry.

Business people love to say how much they cherish free markets, all the while decrying government that limits entrepreneurialism and personal freedom.

But the truth is there is nothing most business people like less than free markets."

You can read the entire article here.

Also, notice that this is an example of what Doug calls a Retained Earning-Maximizing Non-profit Enterprise being so successful that it attracted the (hostile) attention of its for-profit competitors. To see more about the monks and their business, click here.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

I'm Quitting Starbucks . . . sort of . . . Commitment Strategies

My type-writer is thumping under the glow of the Starbucks Siren (featured below). This new year will usher many changes for Mary and I, with her finishing the grueling second year of medical school and myself beginning the flummoxing first year of an economics PhD. One large change will be in our budget since students earn significantly less money than employees, and we both agreed ---Starbucks is out.

In the morning when I walk by Strozier Library, there is a pull or draw to Starbucks, much like the tractor beam for the Death Star or the Siren's call from Greek Mythology. Pastries, Lattes, and Syrups, I love it all. But, they cost money, not to mention there inability to aid me in losing weight. How can I walk by everyday while the smell of espresso wafts to Landis Green? Self-Control or Commitment Strategies.

My desire to stiff-arm Starbucks brought to mind an important economic problem: commitment strategies. In the Odyssey the main character Odysseus ties himself to the mast to prevent the the seduction of the siren's call. What mast do I have? None. I will use self-control which is a topic for another day.

Commitment strategies or what are sometimes called "commitment devices" are those in which we make  decisions today which prevent ourselves from taking some future action when the desire will be overwhelming. When co-signing is required on checks that is a form of commitment. When academic journals become transparent in their reviewing process they allow scrutiny which commits them to faster turnaround times. Transparency in nonprofit organizations is like a commitment device to be a good steward. People develop accountability partners to keep them committed to a certain course of action.

Commitment strategies can also take on nuclear proportions. Probably the best expositor of commitment strategies was Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling. In his Nobel Prize speech "An Astonishing Sixty Years: The Legacy of Hiroshima" he said,

What nuclear weapons have been used for, effectively, successfully, for sixty years has not been on the battlefield nor on population targets: they have been used for influence.

That is, a nuclear weapon commits one country to respect the sovereignty of another country. This is not my area of expertise; however, I do know that Schelling, an economist, made quite an impression on people in foreign affairs with his ideas.

There you have it, commitment strategies can be small things like not buying potato chips at the store to prevent later consumption -or- they can have nuclear implications.

I'm sort of quitting Starbucks because I've decided not to buy frequently, rather only on special occasions, or while travelling. This may seem somewhat flaky. But, if I get into real trouble with self-control, I might get innovative with a commitment strategy.