Quotulatiousness

October 22, 2014

What would Milton Friedman do?

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Politics, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:20

David Friedman, who we can safely assume has a better sense of the late Milton Friedman’s thoughts and beliefs than most people, disagrees with a recent Forbes article asking WWMFD:

A recent Forbes article is headlined “What Would Milton Friedman Do About Climate Change? Tax Carbon.” It reports on a forum at the University of Chicago at which several economists, including Michael Greenstone, described as the “Milton Friedman Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago,” argued that Friedman would have supported a carbon tax. The evidence for that claim was a 1979 clip from the Phil Donahue show where Milton Friedman argued that if the government is going to do something about emissions, they should use an effluent tax rather than direct regulation. He does not actually say that government should do something about emissions, only that there is a case for doing so and, if it is done, the best way to do it is by a tax on emissions.

To get from there to the conclusion that he would have favored a carbon tax requires at least one further step, a reason to think that he would have believed that global warming due to CO2 emissions produced net negative externalities large enough to justify doing something about them. The problem with that claim is that warming can be expected to produce both negative externalities such as sea level rise and hotter summers and positive ones such as longer growing seasons and milder winters. The effects will be spread out over a long and uncertain future, making their size difficult to estimate. My own conclusion, defended in past posts here (one example), is that the uncertainties are large enough so that one cannot sign the sum, cannot say whether the net effect will be positive or negative.

I do not know if my father would have agreed but I have at least a little evidence on the subject, more than offered in the Forbes article. The same issue arose in the earlier controversy over population. Just as it is now routinely assumed that warming is bad, it was then routinely assumed that population increase was bad. Forty years ago I wrote a piece on the subject for the Population Council in which I attempted to estimate the externalities associated with population. I concluded that they were too uncertain for me to tell whether the net effect was good or bad. My father read the piece and commented on it. If he had disagreed he would have said so, and he did not. It is possible that he would have felt differently in the case of climate change, but I can see no reason to expect it.

December 18, 2013

Should the government subsidize silly walks?

Filed under: Economics, Government, Humour — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:03

Prof. Art Carden has developed some silly walks and is seeking payment for his work. Since he cannot find anyone to pay him voluntarily, perhaps he should apply for a government subsidy for producing silly walks. But while silly walks may benefit society, the fact that people will not pay for their development voluntarily indicates that people do not value silly walks as much as other things people would pay Prof. Carden to do. Are some subsidies valid, though? What about for food? Or for education? How about subsidies for clean energy? Is government assistance definitely better for society? What do you think?

December 5, 2013

The much-touted economic benefits of government subsidized professional sports facilities

Filed under: Business, Economics, Government, Sports — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:32

In short, if there are any positive externalities to governments spending vast sums to erect baseball, basketball, football, or hockey facilities for professional teams … most of the profit is captured by the well-connected and doesn’t benefit the communities who put up the money. I’ve linked to several articles that debunk the usual claims about how building this team a new stadium will provide so many millions of dollars in new spending, and the story always seems to be the same, regardless of the location of the latest corporate welfare pitch.

Earlier this year, Neil deMause linked to this Tampa Bay Times analysis of the local economic impact of the Tampa Bay Rays:

In 2008, Matheson studied sports projects from across the country to see if taxable sales rose after stadiums were built. The study also examined whether tax collections dipped when sports leagues shut down for strikes or lockouts.

“There was simply not any bump at all,” Matheson said.

Tax collections were as likely to drop as rise when a team started play in a new city. And collections dropped during some strikes, but rose during others.

The main reason relates to how spending ripples through an economy, said Dennis Coates, an economist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

When a couple spends $100 for dinner and a movie, much of that money goes to waiters, ticket takers and other local workers and suppliers. Those people, in turn, spend their paychecks on rent, food and other sectors of the local economy.

Each dollar of original spending can contribute $3 to $4 to economic activity and job creation.

Professional sports mute this ripple effect.

“Spending that goes on inside a stadium tends to flow into the pockets of a relatively few, high-income individuals who live a large portion of the year outside the city,” Coates said. “Much of that money flows out.”

[...]

Sports franchises also drain an economy by soaking up taxpayer money that could go to other city services or tax relief — both of which stimulate economic activity.

In her 2005 study, the “Full Count,” Harvard University professor Judith Grant Long pegged Tropicana Field’s public subsidy at 130 percent of its construction cost, one of the highest public shares in the country.

“The real cost of public subsidies for sports facilities is significantly higher than commonly reported,” Long wrote. “Public costs associated with the operation of the facility and foregone property taxes are routinely ignored.”

The best face on Rays economic impact came from two 2008 studies that indicated that baseball bolsters tourism revenues to the tune of $100 million to $200 million a year.

Tourism analysis is an optimistic approach because it focuses only on dollars flowing into the area without examining how baseball might sap local spending levels.

At Field of Schemes, Neil deMause also notes:

The economists note other reasons why sports spending is overblown (some studies could be double-counting fans for each game that they attend even if they’re in town for an entire series, among other things); the whole article is worth reading. And when you’re done with that, check out Shadow of the Stadium’s rundown of other reports on how economists nearly unanimously agree that stadium subsidies are a really, really bad idea. Not that economists are always right, but it should if nothing else put the burden of proof on team owners to show why the heck they should be getting hundreds of millions of dollars in public cash, when nobody can spot any significant public benefits.

September 21, 2013

Why wind and solar power can’t meet our needs

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:32

Robert Bryce explains why — no matter how much we might want it to be so — alternate forms of energy like wind and solar power cannot cover our demands:

That 32 percent increase in global carbon dioxide emissions reflects the central tension in any discussion about cutting the use of coal, oil and natural gas: Developing countries — in particular, fast-growing economies such as Vietnam, China and India — simply cannot continue to grow if they limit the use of hydrocarbons. Those countries’ refusal to enact carbon taxes or other restrictions illustrates what Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, calls the “iron law of climate policy”: Whenever policies “focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emissions reduction, it is economic growth that will win out every time.”

Over the past 10 years, despite great public concern, carbon dioxide emissions have soared because some 2.6 billion people still live in dire energy poverty. More than 1.3 billion have no access to electricity at all.

Now to the second number: 1. That’s the power density of wind in watts per square meter. Power density is a measure of the energy flow that can be harnessed from a given area, volume or mass. Six different analyses of wind (one of them is my own) have all arrived at that same measurement.

Wind energy’s paltry power density means that enormous tracts of land must be set aside to make it viable. And that has spawned a backlash from rural and suburban landowners who don’t want 500-foot wind turbines near their homes. To cite just one recent example, in late July, some 2,000 protesters marched against the installation of more than 1,000 wind turbines in Ireland’s Midlands Region.

Consider how much land it would take for wind energy to replace the power the U.S. now gets from coal. In 2011, the U.S. had more than 300 billion watts of coal-fired capacity. Replacing that with wind would require placing turbines over about 116,000 square miles, an area about the size of Italy. And because of the noise wind turbines make — a problem that has been experienced from Australia to Ontario — no one could live there.

[...]

In 2012, the contribution from all of those sources amounted to about 4.8 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, or roughly one-half of a Saudi Arabia. Put another way, we get about 50 times as much energy from all other sources — coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear and hydropower — as we do from wind, solar, geothermal and biomass.

December 21, 2012

Externalities explained

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

H/T to Popehat for the link.

October 21, 2012

QotD: Environmental externalities

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:12

That other people place different values upon the environment than I do worries me not in the slightest. It is precisely such differences of opinions about value that make a market. What does annoy me intensely is that almost all of the environmental problems that are currently being complained about have indeed been studied by economists. And they’ve found solutions to them as well. Just about any and every environmental problem is either about externalities or common access to a resource. In many ways these are just the flip side of exactly the same problem. But we do indeed know how to solve each of them and both of them. Hardin on ownership or regulation, Pigou on tax or regulation, both mediated through Coase on transactions costs (with a decent assit from Ostrom on communal ownership). There, that’s it: far from economics ignoring matters environmental economics has solved the damn problems.

So why won’t the environmentalists listen?

Tim Worstall, “Why won’t the environmentalists learn any economics?”, Adam Smith Institute blog, 2012-10-21.

October 11, 2012

David Suzuki “owes economists an apology”

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Environment, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:09

In the Globe and Mail, Mike Moffatt examines Suzuki’s latest attack on the economics profession and finds it extremely unpersuasive:

Popular environmentalist David Suzuki has described conventional economics as a form of brain damage. In a documentary called Surviving Progress, he quotes a fictional economist by saying, “who cares whether you keep the forest — cut it down. Put the money somewhere else. When those forests are gone, put it in fish. When those fish are gone, put it in computers.”

Beyond tarring the economics profession, he displays a perplexing lack of understanding of basic economic concepts. First of all, none of the rules taught in undergraduate economics course advise the owner of a resource to deplete it as quickly as possible. Perhaps he was confused with the Tragedy of the Commons problem, where lack of private ownership causes a resource to be overused.

[. . .]

The idea that economists do not care about externalities is a strange one, given how prominently they are featured in economics textbooks. An externality is, simply put, a spillover effect. It is the unintended costs or benefits from a transaction or decision experienced by third parties (that is, they were external to the decision). It does not mean phenomena that are external to economic modelling or things outside the interest of economists. Since, as Dr. Suzuki points out, the world is full of externalities, the concept is crucial in economic research.

June 19, 2012

QotD: The mottos of “High Liberalism”

Filed under: Economics, Government, Liberty, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:45

The story is, in a few brief mottos to stand for a rich intellectual tradition since the 1880s: Modern life is complicated, and so we need government to regulate. Government can do so well, and will not be regularly corrupted. Since markets fail very frequently the government should step in to fix them. Without a big government we cannot do certain noble things (Hoover Dam, the Interstates, NASA). Antitrust works. Businesses will exploit workers if government regulation and union contracts do not intervene. Unions got us the 40-hour week. Poor people are better off chiefly because of big government and unions. The USA was never laissez faire. Internal improvements were a good idea, and governmental from the start. Profit is not a good guide. Consumers are usually misled. Advertising is bad.

Thus Anderson: “Externalities, asymmetrical information, and other collective action problems are … pervasive in economic life. Countless ways of conducting business reap gains for some while imposing unjust costs on others. Create a cartel. Stuff rat feces in sausages.” Thus Freeman: “It is a truism to say that in order to achieve the benefits of an efficient market economy (increasing productivity, greater economic output, increasing productive capital, etc.), the basic rules of property, contract, and exchange must be structured [by government] to realize efficient market relations.”

No. The master narrative of High Liberalism is mistaken factually. Externalities do not imply that a government can do better. Publicity does better than inspectors in restraining the alleged desire of businesspeople to poison their customers. Efficiency is not the chief merit of a market economy: innovation is. Rules arose in merchant courts and Quaker fixed prices long before governments started enforcing them.

I know such replies will be met with indignation. But think it possible you may be mistaken, and that merely because an historical or economic premise is embedded in front page stories in the New York Times does not make them sound as social science. It seems to me that a political philosophy based on fairy tales about what happened in history or what humans are like is going to be less than useless. It is going to be mischievous.

Dierdre McCloskey, “Factual Free-Market Fairness”, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, 2012-06-16

January 26, 2012

What is really meant by the term “market failure”

Filed under: Economics, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:10

Posting on the Institute of Economic Affairs blog, Tom Papworth tries to clarify what the term “market failure” actually means, in comparison to how it’s commonly used by politicians and journalists:

Firstly, it seems to blur the distinction between ‘the market’ and ‘the markets’ — a very common error in current discourse. The market is an economic concept that describes the myriad of choices and exchanges that take place between people every day; the markets are the very real institutions created for handling major financial transactions. It is not clear to me that this article acknowledges that distinction. This manifests itself primarily in the title and main theme: indeed, as Jan (and at least one commentator) does tacitly acknowledge, the financial markets are so shaped by government intervention that it would be a surprise if they did correspond to a model market.

And that brings me to the second problem: the suggestion that markets don’t fail when they ‘respond rationally, quickly and often brutally to conditions as they find them’. While that description is true, it has little bearing on the concept of market failure. Market failure typically refers to situations where the effects one would expect to see in a theoretical market economy do not in fact manifest themselves in real life. As the great man himself would be — and perhaps was — the first to point out (though without using these terms) markets fail because of factors such as monopoly and externality — monopolies undermine competition and so markets do not clear; externalities enable costs to be passed onto third parties and prevent all beneficiaries contributing to the production of goods. Information asymmetry is often presented as another source of market failure.

Now, to be fair to Jan, that precision of language is hardly prevalent among the politicians he is criticising. When they speak of market failure, it seems almost as though market success is defined by a number of uneconomic measures such as social justice, or even (that ultimate weasel-word) fairness.

March 11, 2011

Examining externalities

Filed under: Economics, Government, Liberty — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:54

Predrag Rajsic looks at the economic case for governments to address externalities:

Some theorists claim that externalities are probably the most legitimate reason for state intervention in human interactions. The ethical case for intervention is that it can presumably increase overall economic efficiency. This article demonstrates that, even if one accepts this ethical principle, the usual choice of externality-generating actions that are believed to justify state intervention is purely arbitrary.

In fact, according to the definition of actions with external effects, any human action in a multi-individual society would qualify for regulation under the banner of improving economic efficiency (i.e., internalizing externalities). However, the nature of human existence renders this internalization impossible. Thus, we end up with a paradoxical situation where every action inevitably fails the ethical criterion we have put in front of ourselves.

[. . .]

Government intervention is commonly believed to be the correcting mechanism. In the cases where too much of an action is being performed, the government should coercively limit the externality-creating action (regulations, taxes, penalties, quotas, etc.) Alternatively, actions that result in positive externalities should be encouraged using the means available to the government (i.e., subsidies).

These government interventions are supposed to move the economy to the output mix as close as possible to the mix supposedly predicated by the model of perfect competition. In this sense, the model of perfect competition is adopted as a measuring stick for determining the ethical validity of individual action. According to this principle, one ought not act without taking into account the effect of his or her actions on all other individuals within the economy.

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