March 5, 2017

The political Trojan Horse of “Pigouvian taxes”

Filed under: Business, Economics, Government, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Warren Meyer used to be quite positive about the introduction of Pigouvian taxes, but recently his opinion has changed:

Here is the Wikipedia definition of a Pigovian tax:

    A Pigovian tax (also spelled Pigouvian tax) is a tax levied on any market activity that generates negative externalities (costs not internalized in the market price). The tax is intended to correct an inefficient market outcome, and does so by being set equal to the social cost of the negative externalities. In the presence of negative externalities, the social cost of a market activity is not covered by the private cost of the activity. In such a case, the market outcome is not efficient and may lead to over-consumption of the product. An often-cited example of such an externality is environmental pollution.

The Left often tries to justify new taxes based on their being Pigovian taxes. The classic example is a carbon tax — it is claimed there is a social cost to carbon-based fuel combustion (e.g. CO2 production and resulting global warming) that is not taken into account by market prices. By adding the tax, these other costs can be taken into account, likely raising the price of these fuels and thus both reducing their use and providing a higher price umbrella for alternatives.

For years, I accepted these arguments at face value. I might argue with them (for example, I think that the Left has tended to spot 10 of the last 2 true negative externalities), but I accepted that they really believed in the logic of the Pigovian tax. I am now becoming convinced that I was wrong, that the Left’s support of Pigovian taxes is frequently a front, a way of putting a more palatable face on what is really a naked grab for more taxpayer money by public officials.

Soon after discovering the concept of Pigouvian taxes, I suspected that — even if the economics were sound — no human government was going to implement such a tax in the pure form: there would always be “good reasons” to make the new tax non-revenue-neutral, because once a revenue stream has been established, it’s unlikely the government will actually shut it down afterwards. I have yet to be disappointed in this expectation.

October 7, 2015

A Deeper Look at Tradeable Allowances

Filed under: Economics, Environment — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

Since the passage of the Clean Air Act, SO2 emissions have decreased by 35%. Part of this is due to tradable allowances, which created a market solution to the external costs of SO2 emissions. In this video, we look at the lessons of tradable allowances for SO2 and see if a similar market-based solution could work to decrease other pollutants, such as CO2.

September 30, 2015

The Coase Theorem

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

In this video, we show how bees and pollination demonstrate the Coase Theorem in action: when transaction costs are low and property rights are clearly defined, private arrangements ensure that the market works even when there are externalities. Under these conditions, the market properly manages externalities.

September 16, 2015

External Benefits

Filed under: Economics, Health — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

What can the flu teach us about economics and externalities? In this video, we go over how vaccines produce positive externalities that help people stay healthy. When someone receive the vaccine, they pass along the positive benefits of the vaccine to others, generating positive externalities. However, when someone gets a vaccine, they bear all of the costs and only reap some of the benefits of the vaccine. The social value is larger than the private value, resulting in an an undersupply of flu shots. One solution to this problem is a Pigouvian subsidy — a subsidy on a good with external benefits.

September 14, 2015

An Introduction to Externalities

Filed under: Economics, Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

What are externalities and what are the different kinds of costs? And what does this have to do with the rise of “superbugs”? This video is an introduction to externalities, including the concepts of private cost, external cost, and social cost. Using the example of antibiotics and viruses, we take a look at how costs are passed along to different members of society beyond the producer and consumer. We’ll use a chart to illustrate how to calculate the effects of a Pigouvian tax, and we provide definitions for the other key terms that will be used throughout this video series.

August 5, 2015

A report on phasing out nuclear power in Sweden

It may make politicians and activists feel empowered and righteous, but it has negative aspects that don’t seem to get the same level of attention as the “feel good” rhetoric does:

Nuclear power faces an uncertain future in Sweden. Major political parties, including the Green party of the coalition-government have recently strongly advocated for a policy to decommission the Swedish nuclear fleet prematurely. Here we examine the environmental, health and (to a lesser extent) economic impacts of implementing such a plan. The process has already been started through the early shutdown of the Barsebäck plant. We estimate that the political decision to shut down Barsebäck has resulted in ~2400 avoidable energy-production-related deaths and an increase in global CO2 emissions of 95 million tonnes to date (October 2014). The Swedish reactor fleet as a whole has reached just past its halfway point of production, and has a remaining potential production of up to 2100 TWh. The reactors have the potential of preventing 1.9–2.1 gigatonnes of future CO2-emissions if allowed to operate their full lifespans. The potential for future prevention of energy-related-deaths is 50,000–60,000. We estimate an 800 billion SEK (120 billion USD) lower-bound estimate for the lost tax revenue from an early phase-out policy. In sum, the evidence shows that implementing a ‘nuclear-free’ policy for Sweden (or countries in a similar situation) would constitute a highly retrograde step for climate, health and economic protection.

June 1, 2015

It’s time to end the US federal porn subsidy!

Filed under: Economics, Humour, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Real Clear Science, Alex B. Berezow issues a clarion call to stop the US government’s (hidden) subsidy to pornography producers:

You might be asking, What federal porn subsidy? Fair question. Technically, there isn’t a federal porn subsidy. However, if we borrow some of the logic commonly used by politically driven economists, we can redefine the word subsidy to mean whatever we want.

Pornography is enjoyed by many people, but it comes with a very real social cost: it can break up families and perhaps even become an addiction, which are profound losses of productivity. Economists refer to these as negative externalities — i.e., bad side effects that affect people other than the person making the decision. One way to deal with such decisions is to tax them. This should, in theory, reduce the negative side effects, while simultaneously forcing the decisionmaker to bear the “true cost” of his actions. Clearly, if anyone should have to pay for this societal cost, it should be porn watchers, in the form of a porn tax. If they don’t pay such a tax, they are getting an indirect subsidy.

As it turns out, we don’t have a federal porn tax. Thus, we could say that the American government has issued a federal porn subsidy.

Obviously, that reasoning is absurd. Not only does it dubiously redefine the word subsidy, but it unconvincingly claims to be able to accurately place a price tag on every conceivable externality created by watching porn. Accepting that argument would require a nearly complete suspension of disbelief.

Yet, that is essentially the argument that a group of economists at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) just made about fossil fuel subsidies. (See PDF.)


The Guardian, which penned the most influential coverage, began its article with an eye-popping statistic:

    “Fossil fuel companies are benefitting from global subsidies of $5.3tn (£3.4tn) a year, equivalent to $10m a minute every day…”

Wow. $5.3 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies? That sounds insane. But, how do they arrive at that number? The Guardian goes on to explain:

    “The vast sum is largely due to polluters not paying the costs imposed on governments by the burning of coal, oil and gas. These include the harm caused to local populations by air pollution as well as to people across the globe affected by the floods, droughts and storms being driven by climate change.”

Ah, okay. The subsidy isn’t a direct financial calculation, but is instead based on a bunch of externalities whose costs are nearly impossible to derive with any sense of believability. To give you an idea of just how much fudging exists in these kinds of calculations, a similar report issued in 2013 (PDF) concluded that the fossil fuel subsidy was $1.9 trillion. A discrepancy of $3.4 trillion should raise red flags in regard to methodology.

February 22, 2015

Obamacare’s externalities

Filed under: Economics, Health, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Megan McArdle on just what externalities are and why we pay attention to them:

For those who might not know the term, “externality” is economist-speak, and it means about what it sounds like: an effect that your action has on others. An externality can be positive or negative, and obviously, we as a society would like to have as many as possible of the former and as few as possible of the latter. In other words, “Your right to swing your fist stops at the end of my nose.”

I’m a libertarian, and libertarians love talking about externalities. They give us a (relatively) clear way to define what are and are not legitimate scopes of public action. Whatever you’re doing in the privacy of your own bedroom with another consenting adult is really none of my business, even if I think you oughtn’t to be doing it. On the other hand, if you’re breeding rats and cockroaches in there, and they’re coming through the shared wall of our respective row houses, then I have the right to get the law involved.

Framing things as “externalities” is therefore a good way to get a libertarian, or someone who leans that way, on your side. And such frames have come up over and over in the debate over Obamacare, which has been variously justified by the cost to the state of emergency room care; the cost to society of free-riding young folks who don’t buy insurance until they get sick; the public health cost of people who don’t go to the doctor and get really, expensively sick; an unhealthy workforce that is less productive; and the cost to friends and relatives who have to chip in to cover uninsured medical expenses.

I didn’t find any of those arguments particularly convincing. The third can just be dispensed with on the grounds of accuracy: In general, preventive medicine does not save money. Oh, it may save money in the particular case of someone whose diabetes or cancer went long undiagnosed. The problem is, you can’t just look at the cost of sick folks who would have been a lot cheaper to treat if their conditions had been caught earlier. You also have to include the cost of all the healthy people you had to screen in order to catch that one case of disease. And with limited exceptions, the cost of screening the healthy generally outweighs the cost of treating the chronically ill. Now, you can certainly argue for preventive care on other grounds — for example, that it makes people healthier (though even then you have to add the cost of unnecessary medical procedures, such as biopsies following a false positive on a blood test, which is why we do not, say, give annual mammograms to every American woman). But it’s not generally a money saver, so this particular externality doesn’t exist.

The rest of the arguments have some weight, but in the end, I don’t think they’re weighty enough. Let me explain.

October 22, 2014

What would Milton Friedman do?

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Politics, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 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 @ 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 @ 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 @ 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 @ 00:01

H/T to Popehat for the link.

October 21, 2012

QotD: Environmental externalities

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 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 @ 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.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress