Published on Nov 5, 2016
Even as the use of paper money grew, ties to the gold standard remained… and remained challenging. From the First Opium War to the Great Depression, events around the world stretched the capacity of bullion based economics. So what – and who – finally abandoned it?
December 8, 2016
December 7, 2016
… we know that ubiquitous RFID tags are coming to consumer products. They’ve been coming for years, now, and the applications are endless. More to the point they can be integrated with plastic products and packaging, and printed cheaply enough that they’re on course to replace bar codes.
Embedded microcontrollers are also getting dirt cheap; you can buy them in bulk for under US $0.49 each. Cheap enough to embed in recycling bins, perhaps? Along with a photovoltaic cell for power and a short-range radio transceiver for data. I’ve trampled all over this ground already; the point is, if it’s cheap enough to embed in paving stones, it’s certainly cheap enough to embed in bins, along with a short-range RFID reader and maybe a biosensor that can tell what sort of DNA is contaminating the items dumped in the bins.
The evil business plan of evil (and misery) posits the existence of smart municipality-provided household recycling bins. There’s an inductance device around it (probably a coil) to sense ferrous metals, a DNA sniffer to identify plant or animal biomass and SmartWater tagged items, and an RFID reader to scan any packaging. The bin has a PV powered microcontroller that can talk to a base station in the nearest wifi-enabled street lamp, and thence to the city government’s waste department. The householder sorts their waste into the various recycling bins, and when the bins are full they’re added to a pickup list for the waste truck on the nearest routing — so that rather than being collected at a set interval, they’re only collected when they’re full.
But that’s not all.
Householders are lazy or otherwise noncompliant and sometimes dump stuff in the wrong bin, just as drivers sometimes disobey the speed limit.
The overt value proposition for the municipality (who we are selling these bins and their support infrastructure to) is that the bins can sense the presence of the wrong kind of waste. This increases management costs by requiring hand-sorting, so the individual homeowner can be surcharged (or fined). More reasonably, households can be charged a high annual waste recycling and sorting fee, and given a discount for pre-sorting everything properly, before collection — which they forefeit if they screw up too often.
The covert value proposition … local town governments are under increasing pressure to cut their operating budgets. But by implementing increasingly elaborate waste-sorting requirements and imposing direct fines on households for non-compliance, they can turn the smart recycling bins into a new revenue enhancement channel, much like the speed cameras in Waldo. Churn the recycling criteria just a little bit and rely on tired and over-engaged citizens to accidentally toss a piece of plastic in the metal bin, or some food waste in the packaging bin: it’ll make a fine contribution to your city’s revenue!
Charles Stross, “The Evil Business Plan of Evil (and misery for all)”, Charlie’s Diary, 2015-05-21.
December 6, 2016
Published on 5 Dec 2016
This week: Let’s get in the holiday spirit! What would an economist do about Christmas gifts?
What do you really want for the holidays? And how can you be sure you’re giving the perfect gift to someone else?
Of course, you want to get your loved ones something they will appreciate, but you face a knowledge problem: you don’t know everything about their wants and needs. You also have an incentive problem: oftentimes people aren’t quite as careful choosing a gift for others as they would be if buying something for themselves.
We’ve all received a present that we didn’t really want. When that happens, the value that we place on the gift can be less than its cost. According to research by economist Joel Waldfogel, gift givers spend an average of $50 on gifts that recipients only value at $40. Given that Americans spend around $100 billion on Christmas gifts, we’re wasting $18-20 billion every holiday season!
Is there a solution to this costly problem? Well, you can always give cold, hard cash! Many gift recipients would prefer it. But if you know the recipient’s tastes very well, you do have the opportunity to give them a non-cash present that they’ll love and that creates value by lowering their search costs.
There are, of course, occasions where the gift of money doesn’t make sense. Perhaps you want to signal that you care in a different way, or maybe there’s a custom you want to follow. You’ll just have to risk it in these situations.
Around the holidays, there’s also a spike in charitable giving. If you face knowledge and incentive problems in giving gifts to loved ones, you can imagine that these issues increase when you’re giving to someone you’ve never met. To combat this problem, some charities, such as GiveDirectly, give cash to people in need so that they spend charitable donations however meets their needs.
The efficiency of an economist’s Christmas may feel less warm and fuzzy, but the value creation is no less generous!
December 5, 2016
Published on Oct 29, 2016
The first question of paper money is not how much you can print, nor even what its value is – but who prints the money? When every bank started to print their own bank notes, it caused confusion and frustration. Enter the Central Bank.
December 3, 2016
Published on Oct 22, 2016
What happens when you really try to put paper money doctrine into practice? And why would you put a gambler, womanizer, and fugitive criminal like the ironically named John Law in charge of running it?
December 2, 2016
Shikha Dalmia explains why Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly decided to kneecap his country’s money supply and cause massive economic disruption:
Modi was elected in a landslide on the slogan of “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance.” He promised to end babu raj — the rule of corrupt, petty bureaucrats who torment ordinary citizens for bribes — and radically transform India’s economy. But rather than tackling government corruption, he has declared war on private citizens holding black money in the name of making all Indians pay their fair share.
Tax scofflaw behavior is indeed a problem in India. But it is almost always a result of tax rates that are way higher than what people think their government is worth. The enlightened response would be to lower these rates and improve governance. Instead, Modi is taking his country down what Nobel-winning political economist F.A. Hayek called the road to serfdom, where every failed round of coercive government intervention simply becomes an excuse for even more draconian rounds — exactly what was happening in pre-liberalized India.
About 600 million poor and uneducated Indians don’t have bank accounts. Roughly 300 million don’t have official identification. It’s not easy to swap their soon-to-be worthless cash, which is a catastrophe given that they live hand to mouth. It is heartbreaking to see these people lined up in long queues outside post offices and banks, missing days and days of work, pleading for funds from the very bureaucrats from whose clutches Modi had promised to release them.
Modi hatched his scheme in complete secrecy, without consulting his own economic advisers or the Parliament, lest rich hoarders catch wind and ditch their cash holdings for gold and other assets. Hence, he could not order enough new money printed in advance. This is a massive problem given that about 90 percent of India’s economic transactions are in cash. People need to be able to get money from their banks to meet basic needs. But the government has imposed strict limits on how much of their own money people can withdraw from their own accounts.
This is not boldness, but sheer conceit based on the misguided notion that people have to be accountable to the government, rather than vice versa. Over time, it will undermine the already low confidence of Indians in their institutions. If Modi could unilaterally and so suddenly re-engineer the currency used by 1.1 billion people, what will he do next? This is a recipe for capital flight and economic retrenchment.
The fear and uncertainty that Modi’s move will breed will turn India’s economic clock back to the dark times of pre-liberalized India — not usher in the good times (aache din) that Modi had promised.
November 24, 2016
Published on 23 Sep 2015
What are some solutions to moral hazard? We could try to make information less asymmetric — meaning both parties have similar information, making it harder for one party to exploit the other. We could also try to reduce the incentive of the agent to exploit their information advantage. Online ratings and reviews on Yelp, Angie’s List, or Amazon, for instance, incorporate both of these solutions. The reviews give you more information about a product or service and close the information gap between buyers and sellers. In addition, sellers’ incentives change, as they now have to think about their reputation. They likely won’t want to exploit you if they know it will result in a negative online review.
What are some other approaches to modifying the incentives of those with an information advantage? One approach is to split the diagnosis of a problem from the actual work that needs to be done — for instance, home inspectors don’t fix the problems they identify during their inspection. Another approach is to alter the payment structure to change incentives. For instance, a lawyer is less likely to run up their hours when payment is contingent on winning your case as opposed to the number of hours they work on the case. Ethics also plays a role. Doctors swear to the Hippocratic Oath, which provides them an incentive to not exploit their information advantage. As you can see, there are many solutions to addressing moral hazard.
When considering the major failures of recent American governance – the 2008-09 financial crisis, the catastrophe that is U.S. policy in the Mideast – the one thing that any honest-minded person must conclude is: Nobody meant for things to turn out this way. It is impossible to make precise predictions about the effects of government policy; that is the nature of systems characterized by high levels of complexity. It’s one thing to predict that it’ll be colder during the winter, but another thing to predict down to the millimeter how much snow will fall on a particular acre in rural Maine on the third Wednesday in February, which is really what we expect from our public policy.
Classic cowboy movies, in contrast, are not complex at all: The good guys wear white hats, the bad guys wear black hats, all hats remain firmly affixed to all heads at all times, and that’s that. You can pretty much always predict how an old Western is going to turn out.
But that isn’t how the real world works.
On Tuesday, I had a conversation about Elizabeth Warren and Wall Street, pointing out that the popular version of that story – Senator Warren vs. Wall Street – is so oversimplified as to be not merely useless but misleading. The reality is that there are people working on Wall Street who dislike Senator Warren – investors and bankers, mainly – and people who adore her – notably Wall Street lawyers, who are reliable donors to her campaign and to those of other Democrats. My naïve interlocutor said: “Hopefully, it’s the lawyers that fight against Wall Street,” as though there were such a thing, as though there weren’t nice progressive lawyers in Manhattan who jokingly refer to their yachts as the SS Dodd-Frank.
Spend any time writing about this sort of thing and you’ll hear angry and panicked denunciations of derivatives-trading from people who pretty clearly do not know what a derivative is, just as you’ll hear paeans to Glass-Steagall sung by people who don’t understand the difference between a commercial bank and an investment bank, who don’t know how Goldman-Sachs makes its money or what it is that Standard & Poor’s does.
But they’re quite sure they know who is wearing the black hats.
Kevin Williamson, “Black Hats and White Hats”, National Review, 2015-04-15.
November 23, 2016
Published on Oct 15, 2016
Poor England. First Charles I and civil war, then losing to the French, then the Great Fire of London in 1666. Luckily, Nicholas Barbon comes along to help. And make obscene amounts of money. Who says you can’t do both?
November 17, 2016
I rarely say nice things about Jimmy Carter’s term as president, but he should get more credit for the deregulation that happened under his administration — the lifting of restrictive and obsolete rules over things like railroads, long-distance trucking, and (most important to drinkers) enabling the rebirth of craft brewing — many of the economic benefits were later attributed to Reagan, but Carter did the heavy lifting on several important issues. It’s a hopeful sign that S.A. Miller says Congress and the Senate may be in a deregulatory mode after Trump’s inauguration:
Sen. Rand Paul said Wednesday that he expects a flurry of repeals of Present Obama’s regulations by the next Congress and President-elect Donald Trump.
“You’re gong to find that we are going to repeal a half dozen or more regulations in the first week of Congress, and I’m excited about it because I think the regulations have been killing our jobs and making us less competitive with the world,” the Kentucky Republican said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program.
Mr. Trump, whose surprise win over Democrat Hillary Clinton sent shock waves across the Washington political establishment, pledged on the campaign trail to tackle over-regulation by the Obama administration.
The federal government has imposed more than 600 major regulations costing Americans roughly $740 billion since Mr. Obama took office in 2009.
Mr. Paul said he viewed many of the regulations under Mr. Obama to be unconstitutional because they were issued without Congress’ approval.
November 16, 2016
Published on 23 Sep 2015
Imagine you take your car in to the shop for routine service and the mechanic says you need a number of repairs. Do you really need them? The mechanic certainly knows more about car repair than you do, but it’s hard to tell whether he’s correct or even telling the truth. You certainly don’t want to pay for repairs you don’t need. Sometimes, when one party has an information advantage, they may have an incentive to exploit the other party. This type of exploitation is called moral hazard, and can happen in many situations — a taxi driver who takes the “long route” to get a higher fare from a tourist, for example. In this video, we cover moral hazard and what is known as the principal-agent problem.
November 14, 2016
Ted Campbell rounds up much of the recent media wisdom on the state of relations between Canada and the US in the wake of Il Donalduce‘s victory in the presidential election, and summarizes what Justin Trudeau may be forced to do:
It would appear that there is an emerging consensus in the mainstream Canadian media, from left, centre and right, that the election of Donal Trump means that Justin Trudeau, and, indeed, Canada, is backed into an unhappy, uncomfortable, even dangerous corner; dangerous, that is, to our national interests.
In short, in so far as Prime Minister Trudeau’s agenda is concerned, most media commentators seem to agree that it, and by extension Canada, in so far as Canada shares the prime minister’s vision, is:
shouldmust Prime Minister Trudeau do?
First: secure the CAN~USA free trade agreement. Everything on his agenda depends upon revenue and revenue depends upon Canadians having jobs and many, many of those Canadian jobs depend upon access to the gigantic US market. If he wants to do anything except bow out, three years from now, as a miserable failure of a prime minister, then he must secure our free trade deal with the USA. And it’s a deal, which means that in order for us to get what we want and need the Americans have to get what they want and need, too.
Second, and likely consequential to the first priority: increase defence spending ~ double it if that’s what it takes, buy the F-35, strengthen the Canadian contribution to NORAD and NATO, and then make UN peacekeeping support US and Western strategic objectives.
Third: cancel the carbon tax; it will only make Canadians companies less competitive.
Fourth: force pipelines through to tidewater on both coasts. Keystone XL is OK for getting Alberta’s oil to Texas, but we really need to get it, readily, to the whole world. That means pipelines to Canadian ports … no matter what the greenies and first nations might say or do.
Fifth: negotiate free(er) trade deals with others. Start by ratifying the TPP, no matter what. Negotiate deals with the UK, with China, with India and with the Philippines, all as matters of urgency.
Finally, Prime Minister, please do not get into this position …
If Trudeau did all or most of this, he might well be able to appease Trump and retain Canada’s advantageous relationship with the US otherwise intact. The problem is that, as Campbell notes, it will offend and outrage so many parts of the Liberal coalition that it would take such a “Nixon goes to China” level of political audaciousness combined with a Jean Chrétien degree of fiscal austerity that I doubt Trudeau could even get his caucus unified enough to pass the legislation, never mind withstand the inevitable protests in Liberal ridings across the country (and in the domestic media).
… this is also known as “licensure”. And the rate in the 50s, at that peak of union power, was around 5% of workers needed such a licence to go to work. And union membership was, at that peak, 35% and is now around 10% or a little above, and licensure has gone from 5% to 30%.
For my point to work we have to consider unionisation and licensure as being the same thing. And they’re obviously not exactly the same thing. But they are sorta, kinda, the same thing. For all the claims that the requirement for a licence is in order to protect consumers (a theory for which the technical economic term is “codswallop”) it’s really a way to protect the wages of the ingroup against competition. As, of course, is being in a union a method of protecting those economic interests of the ingroup.
Actually, licensure is most akin to the medieval and early modern guilds system, out of which the union movement itself grew. So it’s really not surprising at all that they share certain attributes. That aim and desire of protecting the incomes of members of the group against the economic interests of everyone else.
So, my argument is that we’ve not in fact had a fall in the power of organised labour over these recent decades. We’ve just seen a change in the form of it, from unionisation to licensure. The point being that this is absolutely and definitely true in part and may or may not be true entirely. I tend towards the entirely end of that spectrum and I’d be absolutely fascinated to see if there’s been any academic comparisons made of the strengths of the two systems in protecting workers’ wages and conditions. I’d even be willing to believe that licensure works better than unionisation, given that the first is a conspiracy against the consumer, something easier to carry off than the unions’ conspiracy against the employer.
Tim Worstall, “More Union Power Won’t Raise Wages Or Reduce Inequality”, Forbes, 2015-03-07.
November 5, 2016
Virtually no one has a good word for gentrification. It is lamented in tones from angry to mournful, by political commentators across the spectrum, possibly including me. Yet many of those same people are … renting or buying homes in “up and coming” neighborhood, which they prize for their proximity to other young(ish), progressive, creative-class people much like themselves. Which is to say that they are gentrifiers. In a neat inversion of the old activist slogan, they are “being the change they don’t want to see in the world”.
Their location puts them in the paradoxical situation of wishing gentrification wouldn’t happen, while avidly rooting for all the stuff that gentrification brings, from farmer’s markets to dog parks. If they are homeowners, too, they are not unhappy about the local price appreciation (their financial plan may indeed require it), however much they may regret its effects in the abstract. As a practical matter, this is something like declaring that you hate the Yankees, but have $5,000 on them to win the World Series. Your loyalties are bound to be divided.
Megan McArdle, “My Love-Hate Relationship With Gentrification”, Bloomberg View, 2015-03-26.
November 1, 2016
Frances Woolley says the various government attempts to cajole us into being more economically minded are mostly a waste of time and effort:
November is financial literacy month. Canadians are being advised: Start with a budget. It is about as effective as declaring National Fat Shaming month, and advising Canadians: Start with a diet. Saving money, like losing weight, requires fundamental lifestyle changes. But it is hard for anyone to change the way that they live.
Take, for example, one of the standard pieces of financial advice: Give up that morning latte, and other frivolous habits, and soon you’ll have saved enough for a down payment on a new home. As someone who works at a university, I have some sympathy for those who rail against millennials with their lattes. Here am I, bringing my coffee from home in a Thermos, and I see students who are less affluent than me sipping fancy drinks from Starbucks. What would it take for them to do what I do?
To begin with, it would take time: an extra 10 or 15 minutes in the morning. Second, it would take capital: a kitchen with a coffee machine and space to store stuff. Third, it would take know-how: coffee brewing skills. Finally, it would take self-discipline: to go to bed early, and get up in time to make coffee at home.
Financial literacy education tries to remove that last obstacle, self-discipline, by lecturing people about the virtues of managing money and debt wisely. But, for the most part, it does not work. As Carleton University economist Saul Schwartz, puts it: “Financial education might have some positive effects on financial outcomes, but they are modest at best.” People are simply not very good at exercising self-restraint. When consumers have tap-enabled credit cards that make purchases painless, it is hard to resist the temptation to spend.