April 9, 2014

Amity Shlaes on “progressive” tax rates

Filed under: Government, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:36

The US tax system, like those in many Western countries, incorporates the concept of “progressivity” — the higher the income you earn, the higher the tax you pay on the last dollar. Your income is divided into blocks where each block of dollars is taxed at a different (rising) rate. In other words, the lower your personal income the less tax you pay per dollar of income. Amity Shlaes explains why this mechanism makes reforming or cutting taxes such a challenge:

Over the hundred years intervening, studies have shown that generally people do think that the greater the wealth, the more dollars wealthy people should pay in tax, proportionally. But that is not a progressive rate structure. That is a flat tax. A progressive tax increases rates as you earn more, disproportionally.

Nor are many people aware that under a progressive structure the last dollar is taxed at a different rate from the first dollar. The top marginal rate is not necessarily the average rate. In the early 1980s, scholar Karlyn Keene found that many Americans, when interviewed, thought flat taxes fair. Before Keene, Walter Blum and Harry Kalven at the University of Chicago studied attitudes toward progressivity and its functions and came away, despite their liberal predilections, concluding that the case for progressivity is “uneasy.”


Vanity of two sorts provides answers. Most Americans are unwilling to concede that they may not understand or be comfortable with long formulas and complex economic ideas. So, like the Enron audit committee, they simply nod and go along.

The second vanity involves not intelligence but a kind of Puritan pretension. No American wants to be caught appearing unfair, even if in the most fleeting snapshot. “Progressivity” sounds like “progress.” Nobody wants to be seen opposing progress, even if that progress is regress and unfair to boot.

In any case: That willed American ignorance is the single greatest reason our progressive income-tax rates have moved, at times, into the 90 percent range, up from that original 7 percent.

Worse, the attitude makes progressivity hard to undo. When you cut taxes for all in a progressive rate structure, the rich necessarily get a larger tax break because they pay a greater share of the taxes. But “larger tax breaks for the rich” are impossible to sell. A redistributive corollary: benefits for the poor. This week Paul Ryan is getting scourged because his budget cuts affect the poor more than the rich. That is because the poor get more of the benefits in the first place.

Update, 10 April: Here’s a great example of how much tax rates can increase at higher levels (although this particular example is not an income tax). In New York state, a recent change to estate tax rates can result in a marginal tax of 164%:

On its face, the new law seems like tax relief. Under the previous law, New Yorkers paid estate taxes of 3.06 percent to 16 percent on the value of estates over $1 million. The new law raises that exclusion to $2.062 million this year and gradually increases it to more than $5 million by 2017.

But because the law also phases out certain credits related to federal taxes, people who have estates valued just above the $2 million threshold could get massive estate tax bills. An analysis by U.S. Trust found that a New York resident who dies today with a taxable estate of $2,165,625 could have to pay an estate tax of over $112,050. That represents a tax of over 100 percent on the value of the estate over $2,062,000.

It gets worse in a few years. Matz said that assuming that the exclusion rises to $5,250,000, a New Yorker with a taxable estate of $5,512,500 would have to pay an estate tax of $430,050. That’s a marginal tax rate of 164 percent on the value of the estate above the exclusion.

March 28, 2014

Putting the WHO global pollution death figures into perspective

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Health — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:56

James Delingpole agrees that the most recent WHO report on deaths due to pollution is shocking, but points out where the press release does a sleight-of-hand move:

Even if you take the WHO’s estimates with a huge pinch of salt — and you probably should — that doesn’t mean the pollution problem in some parts of the world isn’t deadly serious. During the 20th century, around 260 million are reckoned to have died from indoor pollution in the developing world: that’s roughly twice as many as were killed in all the century’s wars.

Here, though, is the point where the WHO loses all credibility on the issue.

    “Excessive air pollution is often a by-product of unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, energy, waste management and industry. In most cases, healthier strategies will also be more economical in the long term due to health-care cost savings as well as climate gains,” Carlos Dora, WHO Coordinator for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health said.

    “WHO and health sectors have a unique role in translating scientific evidence on air pollution into policies that can deliver impact and improvements that will save lives,” Dr. Dora added.

See what Dora just did there? He used the shock value of the WHO’s pollution death figures to slip three Big Lies under the impressionable reader’s radar.

First, he’s trying to make out that outdoor pollution is as big a problem as indoor pollution. It isn’t: nowhere near. Many of the deaths the WHO links to the former are very likely the result of the latter (cooking and heating in poorly ventilated rooms using dung, wood, and coal) which, by nature, is much more intense.

Secondly, he’s implying that economic development is to blame. In fact, it’s economic development we have to thank for the fact that there are so many fewer pollution deaths than there used to be. As Bjorn Lomborg has noted, over the 20th century as poverty receded and clean fuels got cheaper, the risk of dying of pollution decreased eight-fold. In 1900, air pollution cost 23 per cent of global GDP; today it is 6 per cent, and by 2050 it will be 4 per cent.

But the third and by far the biggest of the lies is the implication that the UN’s policies on climate change are helping to alleviate the problem.

March 20, 2014

Today in misunderstood income inequality stats…

Filed under: Britain, Economics, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:20

Tim Worstall pokes fun at a recent Oxfam report that claims that Britain’s five richest families own more than the bottom 20% of the population:

I read this and thought, “well, yes, this is obvious and what the hell’s it got to do with increasing inequality?” Of course Gerald Grosvenor (aka Duke of Westminster) has more wealth than the bottom 10 per cent of the country put together. It’s obvious that the top five families will have more than 20 per cent of all Britons. Do they think we all just got off the turnip truck or something?

They’ve also managed to entirely screw up the statistic they devised themselves by missing the point that if you’ve no debts and a £10 note then you’ve got more wealth than the bottom 10 or 20 per cent of the population has in aggregate. The bottom levels of our society have negative wealth.


Given what we classify as wealth, the poor have no assets at all. Property, financial assets (stocks, bonds etc), private sector pension plans, these are all pretty obviously wealth.

But then the state pension is also wealth: it’s a promise of a future stream of income. That is indeed wealth just as much as a share certificate or private pension is. But we don’t count that state pension as wealth in these sorts of calculations.

The right to live in a council house at a subsidised rent of the rest of your life is wealth, but that’s not counted either. Hell, the fact that we live in a country with a welfare system is a form of wealth — but we still don’t count that.

Doing this has been called (not by me, originally anyway) committing Worstall’s Fallacy. Failing to take account of the things we already do to correct a problem in arguing that more must be done to correct said problem. We already redistribute wealth by taxing the rich to provide pensions, housing, free education (only until 18 these days) and so on to people who could not otherwise afford them. But when bemoaning the amount of inequality that clearly cries out for more redistribution, we fail to note how much we’re already doing.

So Oxfam are improperly accounting for wealth and they’ve also missed the point that, given the existence of possible negative wealth, then of course one person or another in the UK will have more wealth than the entire lowest swathe.

March 17, 2014

Current US government programs actually increase income inequality

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:32

In the Washington Post, George Will says that we’ve learned nothing about helping the poor since Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s day:

Between 2000, when 17 million received food stamps, and 2006, food stamp spending doubled, even though unemployment averaged just 5.1 percent. A few states have food stamp recruiters. An award was given to a state agency for a plan to cure “mountain pride” that afflicts “those who wished not to rely on others.”

Nearly two-thirds of households receiving food stamps qualify under “categorical eligibility” because they receive transportation assistance or certain other welfare services. We spend $1 trillion annually on federal welfare programs, decades after Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that if one-third of the money for poverty programs was given directly to the poor, there would be no poor. But there also would be no unionized poverty bureaucrats prospering and paying dues that fund the campaigns of Democratic politicians theatrically heartsick about inequality.

The welfare state, primarily devoted to pensions and medical care for the elderly, aggravates inequality. Young people just starting up the earnings ladder and families in the child-rearing, tuition-paying years subsidize the elderly, who have had lifetimes of accumulation. Households headed by people age 75 and older have the highest median net worth of any age group.

In this sixth year of near-zero interest rates, the government’s monetary policy breeds inequality. Low rates are intended to drive liquidity into the stock market in search of higher yields. The resulting boom in equity markets — up 30 percent last year alone — has primarily benefited the 10 percent who own 80 percent of all directly owned stocks.

February 3, 2014

The welfare trap

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:27

An older post by A Very British Dude discusses the real problem with most of the public welfare/income support/unemployment benefits in Britain, but the same argument applies to most Western countries:

So your taxes, about a third of which go to paying working-age benefits, about a third in pensions, and the rest, everything else are part of a decent society in which everyone’s helping everyone else. Or they would be if the system wasn’t comprehensively broken, failing at all the significant tasks the welfare state is supposed to achieve. The welfare state is supposed to prevent poverty. It is, in fact, its major cause.

The problem is one of incentives, and not just those faced by the poor themselves. It’s obvious to anyone who isn’t paid handsomely to farm the poor, that for many people, it’s simply irrational to work. Once they’ve paid for taxes, clothes, transport and lunch, they’re considerably worse off than they would have been had they stayed in their pyjamas and watched Jeremy Kyle. Why would you take a miserable, boring, unpleasant minimum wage job instead of existing on benefits? The job insecurity at the bottom of the pyramid and the bureaucratic complexity of informing the authorities of a ‘change in circumstance’ is a further barrier. So when when the low-waged is “let go” after a couple of weeks, he’s got to re-apply for Housing benefits, Job-seekers’ allowance, Council Tax Benefit, income support and so on, from scratch. He may be genuinely destitute as a result of payments stopped, then restarted again too late, thanks to an abortive effort to “do the right thing”. Is it really any wonder so many feel trapped?

So, who benefits from this system? Certainly not those getting the benefits many of whom are comprehensively trapped in a life they wouldn’t have chosen. Not the Children of those getting benefits, who learn no other life thanks to the distorted incentives faced by their parents, but in whose name the benefits are paid. Certainly not the people paying the bill, John Q. Taxpayer, who thanks to the system face a sullen and resentful underclass, some of whom spend their non-working lives looking for ways to relieve you of your easily saleable property in order to buy sufficient narcotics to break the tedium for a few hours.

The main benefit of the benefits system accrues to those employed on secure graduate salaries to administer the system. These people are the farmers of the poor. This is not just the civil servants and local government employees who administer the system, but also the charity employees who don’t see the homeless and destitute (they outsource this to unpaid volunteers). It’s the police who are part of the state-crushing of the spirit of the young who find themselves trapped in this hell. The that the poor exist at all causes fear in the hearts of the affluent, and justifies the need for a police force. The Bureaucracy is an excellent provider of jobs. Which is why none of the solutions suggested by the Left of the political spectrum would ever reduce bureaucacy or police numbers, or the benefits bill. For that would involve firing sub-paying members of Unite or the PCS, and Unite is by far the biggest funder of the Labour party.

H/T to Amy Alkon for the link.

Update: A useful reminder from Rob Fisher at Samizdata — inflation hits the poor much harder than anyone else.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies is pointing out that while poorer people are paying more for food and fuel, richer people are enjoying low interest rates. So government spending and borrowing and the artificially low interest rates that go along with that are harmful to poor people, as are taxes on fuel, and income tax on minimum wage earners, and countless other instances of state meddling.

February 1, 2014

Economics can’t explain everything – the “Great Fact”

Filed under: Economics, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:02

David Boaz rounds up a few human moments to illustrate the “Great Fact”:

In Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, economic historian Deirdre McCloskey writes about the “Great Fact” — the enormous and unprecedented growth in living standards that began in the western world around 1700. She calls it “a factor of sixteen”: we moderns consume at least 16 times the food, clothing, housing, and education that our ancestors did in London in the 18th century.


And finally, I note an older book on my own Scottish ancestors, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History by James G. Leyburn:

    The squalor and meanness of [lowland Scottish] life around 1600 [or 1700] can hardly be conceived by a person of the twentieth century. A cluster of hovels housed the tenants and their helpers….A home was likely to be little more than a shanty, constructed of stones, banked with turf, without mortar, and with straw, heather, or moss stuffed in the holes to keep out the blasts….The fire, usually in the middle of the house floor, often filled the whole hut with malodorous clouds, since the smoke-clotted roof gradually stopped the vent-hole. Cattle were tethered at night at one end of the room, while the family lay at the other end on heather piled upon the floor….Vermin abounded…skin diseases…Infectious diseases were propagated readily.

According to scholars such as Angus Maddison and Brad DeLong, GDP per capita hardly rose for thousands, or tens of thousands, of years before the emergence of capitalism. And then after 100,000 years of stagnation (by DeLong’s estimates), around 1750 capitalism and growth began, first in Northern Europe and the American seaboard, and spreading ever since to more parts of the world. That is, the existence of relatively free markets is the reason we don’t live like my Scottish ancestors. This is indeed the Great Fact of the modern world. We should celebrate it, even as we work to extend the benefits of markets to people and nations who don’t yet enjoy as much capitalism as they should.

January 26, 2014

Monty on “real” poor people

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:27

At Ace of Spades HQ, Monty returns from a mundane-world-induced hiatus:

Articles like this make me wonder if the bien pensant journalist-and-pundit class knows any actual poor people. I was born poor, grew up poor, and spent a good chunk of my 20′s poor. Not genteel poor, either — I mean hard, stony-bottom, empty-pocket poor. I come from poor people.

Poor people don’t think about money in the same way that more well-off people do. When you’re poor, money — and the lack thereof — informs your every moment, waking and sleeping. You know exactly, at any given moment, how much money you have, down to the penny. How much in the bank, how much in your jeans, how much in the coffee can on the counter at home. Every purchase is a choice — if I buy this six-pack now, that means hot dogs instead of hamburger for dinner tomorrow; if I pay my cable bill, that means that instead of dinner and a movie my best girl and I get to spend a night at home watching the TV. You triage your bills — rent comes first, then heat. Then … you decide: cable or cellphone? Who can you put off the longest? How long can you float things?

You start with the credit cards because you figure you have the right to treat yourself once in a while. If you have to sit at home instead of going out, what’s wrong with having a nice flat-screen TV to watch? And then the car went south, and that blew a $500 dollar hole in your budget, so you had put your groceries and gas on the credit card that week just to make ends meet. The kids needed new clothes and shoes and supplies for school. You’ve got to pay the minimums on the card just to keep things going, and the balance just creeps higher and higher until you’re butting up against the limit. Then you get another card, and maybe the old lady gets one too. And pretty soon … well. You wake up at night in a cold sweat because you know that bankruptcy and ruin are only a breath away. It’s not just a question of if you lose your job or get sick and can’t work; it’s a question of losing the overtime hours you’ve become accustomed to, or if the wife goes back to part-time instead of full time. You realize you’re barely treading water as it is; it would only take a small wave to drown you.

Not being able to afford the small luxuries isn’t poverty. Poverty is being constantly worried that you can’t afford the necessities of life. Waking up in a cold sweat because you’re not sure you can make the rent payment … again. It’s a constant nagging worry that saps your energy and keeps your stomach churning.

December 14, 2013

QotD: Defining “fairness”

Filed under: Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:50

Is there a way that we can explain supporting Medicare while cutting Medicaid, Social Security but not welfare checks, farm subsidies but not food stamps? For readers of Jonathan Haidt’s amazing book, The Righteous Mind, the answer should be “yes.” It lies in reciprocity. You’ll find an extensive discussion of this in my forthcoming book (she mentioned casually), but for now let’s concentrate on Haidt.

Jonathan Haidt’s original research led him to divide our moral intuitions into five groups, one of which was “fairness.” But when he wrote that liberals cared more about fairness than conservatives, he received an outpouring of vitriol from conservatives. They cared a lot about fairness, they protested — and they thought it was very unfair for people to be able to live without working. Haidt realized he was dealing with two very different conceptions of fairness: one of which had to do with equality, and the other of which had to do with reciprocity. “Fair” is a complicated word that appears unique to English (for more on its dizzying strangeness, I suggest you read economist Bart Wilson’s piece, edited by me, from several years back). Different groups have invested it with very different meanings, which can make it hard to see how your political opponents can possibly believe what they do.

Megan McArdle, “How Republicans Justify Cutting Food Stamps While Boosting Farm Subsidies”, Bloomberg.com, 2013-09-23

December 7, 2013

QotD: Minimum wage and Social Darwinism

Filed under: History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:53

Consider the debate over the minimum wage. The controversy centered on what to do about what Sidney Webb called the “unemployable class.” It was Webb’s belief, shared by many of the progressive economists affiliated with the American Economic Association, that establishing a minimum wage above the value of the unemployables’ worth would lock them out of the market, accelerating their elimination as a class. This is essentially the modern conservative argument against the minimum wage, and even today, when conservatives make it, they are accused of — you guessed it — social Darwinism. But for the progressives at the dawn of the fascist moment, this was an argument for it. “Of all ways of dealing with these unfortunate parasites,” Webb observed, “the most ruinous to the community is to allow them unrestrainedly to compete as wage earners.”

Ross put it succinctly: “The Coolie cannot outdo the American, but he can underlive him.” Since the inferior races were content to live closer to a filthy state of nature than the Nordic man, the savages did not require a civilized wage. Hence if you raised minimum wages to a civilized level, employers wouldn’t hire such miscreants in preference to “fitter” specimens, making them less likely to reproduce and, if necessary, easier targets for forced sterilization. Royal Meeker, a Princeton economist and adviser to Woodrow Wilson, explained: “Better that the state should support the inefficient wholly and prevent the multiplication of the breed than subsidize incompetence and unthrift, enabling them to bring forth more of their kind.” Arguments like these turn modern liberal rationales for welfare state wage supports completely on their head.

Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change, 2008.

December 5, 2013

The unhappy math that undermines the Guaranteed Income notion

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:30

Megan McArdle is convinced that despite the appeal, any form of guaranteed income is doomed to fail. She provides four strong reasons for this, but I think the strongest reason is sheer mathematical impossibility:

Not a few libertarians have embraced the idea as an alternative to the welfare state. Get rid of all the unemployment insurance and just cut everyone a check once a month. There’s a lot to like about this: It has minimal overhead, because you don’t need to verify eligibility beyond citizenship, and it may reduce some of the terrible incentives that poor people face under the current system.

There are a couple of problems with this, however. The first is that zeroing out our current income security system wouldn’t provide much of a basic income. Total federal spending on income security (welfare, unemployment, etc.) is under $600 billion a year. There are 235 million adults in the U.S. Millions of those are undocumented immigrants, but that still leaves you with a lot of people. Getting rid of all of our spending on welfare and so forth would be enough to give each of those people less than $3,000 a year. For a lot of poor people, that’s considerably less than what they’re getting from the government right now.

The problem is that if you try to bring it up to something a bit more generous, the cost quickly escalates. Cutting everyone a check for $1,000 a month, which most people in that room would consider too little to live on, would cost almost $3 trillion. But if you means-test it to control the cost, or try to tax most of the benefits back for people who aren’t low-income, you rapidly lose the efficiency gains and start creating some pretty powerful disincentives to work.

$12,000 a year isn’t enough to live on in a major city — which is where a lot of the people you’re hoping to help are living — and providing higher guaranteed income to those living in more expensive areas will create an incentive that will draw more people into the qualifying areas. Excluding immigrants from the benefits will exacerbate the already serious problems some areas have with their illegal immigrants (and create yet another barrier for legal immigrants over and above what is already in their way, as documented here).

Switzerland is reported to be considering a guaranteed income plan. As Megan says, it’ll be an interesting experiment if they do:

In general, I am wary of exciting results from small pilot programs. Most of those programs fail when they’re rolled out statewide, either because the result was spurious or because the exciting work of a small, dedicated group just can’t be replicated in a gargantuan state bureaucracy.

I will be very happy if Switzerland decides to mail a check for a couple of thousand dollars to every citizen every month; it will be fascinating to see what results this has. But I am skeptical that those results will, on net, be good ones.

November 19, 2013

Making Granny pay … full fare

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Economics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 17:43

In Maclean’s, a look at the feel-good but economically silly reasons for senior discounts:

The seniors discount has long been justified as a way to recognize the constraints faced by pensioners stuck on fixed incomes, and as a modest token of appreciation for a lifetime spent paying taxes and contributing to society. And for those truly in need, who would quibble? But with half a million Baby Boomers — a group not known for frugality or lack of financial resources — turning 65 every year for the next few decades, the seniors discount is in for much greater scrutiny.


There was a time when the seniors discount made a lot more sense. In the mid-1970s, nearly 30 per cent of all seniors were considered poor, as defined by Statistics Canada’s low-income cut-off. But today, this has fallen to a mere 5.2 per cent. The impact of this turnaround is hard to overstate. Seniors once faced the highest rates of poverty in Canada; now they enjoy the lowest level of any age group: The poverty rate among seniors is almost half that of working-age Canadians.

Thanks to a solid system of government support programs, the very poorest seniors receive more income in retirement than they did when they were of working age. The near-elimination of seniors’ poverty is widely considered to be Canada’s greatest social policy triumph of the past half-century.

This tremendous improvement in seniors’ financial security has dramatically changed the distribution of income across age categories, as well. In 1976, median income for senior households was 41 per cent of the national average. Today, it’s 67 per cent. Over the same period, median income for families where the oldest member is aged 25-34 has fallen in both absolute and relative terms.

Then there’s the vast wealth generated for the Boomer generation by the housing and stock markets (only some of which was lost during the great recession). The stock of wealth in housing, pensions and financial assets held by the average senior family is nearly double that of working-age households. Accounting for the financial benefits of home ownership and rising house values, Statistics Canada calculates the true net annual income of retired households rises to 87 per cent of a working-age household’s income. In other words, non-working seniors are making almost as much as folks in their prime earning years, but without all the expenses and stressors that go with a job, children at home, or middle age. Not only that, the current crop of seniors enjoys historically high rates of pension coverage. The much-publicized erosion of private-sector pensions will hit younger generations who are currently far from retirement.

November 7, 2013

Children and the early industrial revolution

Filed under: Britain, Business, History, Law — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:35

Wendy McElroy talks about the plight of poor children in the early days of the industrial revolution in Britain:

Parish workhouses existed in Britain long before the Industrial Revolution. In 1601, the Poor Relief Act paved the way for parish officials to collect property taxes to provide for the “deserving poor.” In 1723, the Workhouse Test Act was passed to prevent false claims of poverty. Any able-bodied person who wished to receive poor relief was expected to enter a workhouse; its harsh conditions would presumably act as a deterrent. About the same time as the Industrial Revolution (circa 1760-1840), attitudes toward the poor underwent their own revolution. The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) not only bled Britain of money; they also created a flood of injured and unemployable men who returned from battle. Those men had families who were plunged into poverty. Between 1795 and 1815 the tab for Britain’s poor relief quadrupled. Meanwhile, the cost of mere subsistence soared because of political machinations such as the Corn Laws, a series of trade laws that artificially preserved the high price of grains produced by British agriculture. Many people could not afford a slice of bread.

But sympathy for the poor was in short supply. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb’s definitive book The Idea of Poverty chronicles the shift in attitude toward the poor during that period; it turned from compassion to condemnation. An 1832 government report basically divided the poor into two categories: the lazy who sucked up other people’s money and the industrious working poor who were self-supporting. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 instructed parishes to establish “Poor Law Unions” with each union administering a workhouse that continued to act as a deterrent by ‘virtue’ of its miserable conditions. Correctly or not, statesman Benjamin Disraeli called the act an announcement that “poverty is a crime.”

Pauper children were virtually imprisoned in workhouses. And nearly every parish in Britain had a “stockpile” of abandoned workhouse children who were virtually sold to factories. Unlike parents, bureaucrats did not view poor children as loved or otherwise valuable human beings. They were interchangeable units whose presence was a glut on the market because there would always be another poor child born tomorrow. Private businessmen who shook hands with government did not have clean fingers, either. Factory owners could not force free-labor children to take dangerous, wretched jobs but workhouse children had no choice and so they experienced the deepest horrors of child labor. The horror was not because of the free market or capitalism; those forces, along with the family, were among the protectors of children. Child laborers were victims of government, bureaucracy and businessmen who used the law unscrupulously.

November 3, 2013

Statue envy

Filed under: China, India, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:15

Tunku Varadarajan on India’s big statue and what it means:

Narendra Modi is the chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, and he believes that his beloved India is a land of political pygmies. India’s current prime minister, whose job Modi covets to distraction, is an effete old technocrat who takes his orders from the bossy Italian widow of a former prime minister (who was himself the son of a prime minister, and the grandson of another). The old technocrat’s days in office are numbered, and his replacement as prime ministerial candidate for the ruling Congress party is Rahul Gandhi, the son of the Italian widow (she who must be obeyed), a clumsy “crown prince” of threadbare intellect who would inspire little confidence as the manager of a New Delhi pasta joint, let alone as prime minister of India.

India is a land of political midgets, damn it, and Narendra Modi is going to do something about it. To compensate for the meager stature of those with whom he must rub shoulders, he is going to give his country a giant statue — the tallest the world has ever seen. At 597 feet, this “Statue of Unity” will dwarf a 502-feet tall Buddha built in China in 2002, giving India — which suffers from a desperate form of penis-envy of China — something bigger at last than its massive northern neighbor. The statue, to be situated in Gujarat and made of bronze, iron and cement, will cost a scarcely trivial $340 million, much of which will come, in spite of Modi’s free-market protestations, directly from taxpayers who earn no more than $1,400 per annum. Do the moral math. (The official boast is that it will take only 42 months to build, although you’ve got to believe that the Chinese could complete the task in half the time.) When fully erect, it will be twice the height of the Statue of Liberty and four times that of Christ the Redeemer in Rio. “The world will be forced to look at India when this statue stands tall,” Modi has said. Indeed: But with what kind of gaze?

October 30, 2013

Human Progress

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Health, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:57

At Reason, Marian Tupy introduces a new website celebrating Human Progress:

In a world where we are constantly bombarded with bad news, it can sometimes be difficult to think of “progress” and “humanity” in the same sentence. Are there not wars taking place, people going hungry, children at work, women being abused, and mass poverty around the world?

In fact, for most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. People lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were commonplace. Transportation was primitive and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind.

Average global life expectancy at birth hovered around 30 years from the Upper Paleolithic to 1900. Even in the richest countries, like those of Western Europe, life expectancy at the start of the 20th century rarely exceeded 50 years. Incomes were quite stagnant, too. At the beginning of the Christian era, annual incomes per person around the world ranged from $1,073 to $1,431. As late as 1820, average global income was only $1,274 per person. (Angus Maddison, whose income estimates I use here, gives his data in 1990 dollars. I have adjusted Maddison’s figures for inflation.)

Humanity has made enormous progress — especially over the course of the last two centuries. For example, average life expectancy in the world today is 67.9 years. In 2010, global per capita income stood at $13,037 — over 10 times what it was two centuries ago.

The new website is called Human Progress:

It is perhaps best to start by explaining what the Human Progress website is not trying to accomplish. It will not try to convince you that the world is a perfect place. As long as there are people who go hungry or die from preventable diseases, there will always be room for improvement. To that end, we all have a role to play in helping the destitute in our communities and beyond.

Our goal, then, is not to paint a rosy picture of the state of humanity, but a realistic one. A realistic account of the world should focus on long-term trends, comparing living standards between two or more generations. Crucially, it should compare the imperfect present with a much more imperfect past, rather than with an imagined utopia in the future.

As such, this website has two main aims. First is to inform you about the many ways in which the world has become a better place. Second is to allow you to search for reasons that brought that improvement about. While we think that policies and institutions compatible with freedom and openness are important factors in promoting human progress, we let the evidence speak for itself and hope the website stimulates an intelligent debate on the drivers of human progress.

October 29, 2013

Poverty in America

Filed under: Economics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:40

Zero Hedge recently went on a tear about “soaring poverty in America”, compiling a list of 29 items which “proved” the case. Tim Worstall indulges in a bit of fisking over the mythical claims:

    2. New numbers have just been released, and they show that the number of public school students in this country that are homeless is at an all-time record high. It is hard to believe, but right now 1.2 million students that attend public schools in America are homeless.

No, I’m afraid not. In fact, this isn’t possible in the slightest. The numbers for homelessness are here.

    In January 2012, 633,782 people were homeless on a single night in the United States. Most (62 percent) were homeless as individuals and 38 percent were homeless as persons in families.

At any one time we have 630,000 homeless people. We cannot therefore have twice that number of children alone being homeless at any one time. This is not one of the mathematical possibilities that this universe offers us.

What is actually being said in the original number is that over the course of a a year 1.2 million children will suffer one or more incidents of homelessness. We can still think that this is appalling, that it shouldn’t happen and that we ought to be doing more about it. But it is not true that “right now 1.2 million students that attend public schools are homeless”.

    3. When I was growing up, it seemed like almost everyone was from a middle class home. But now that has all changed. One recent study discovered that nearly half of all public students in the United States come from low income homes.

Well, if you grow up in a middle class area then of course those you grow up with are likely to be middle class. But that nearly half of students coming from low income homes is indeed true. But it’s extremely uninteresting that it is. Here’s the definition of low income they are using:

    To be crystal clear, the researchers were not analyzing poverty rates per se. Rather, they tracked at the percentage of children in each state who received free or reduced school lunches, which are only available to students whose families earn below 185 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four, that amounted to about $41,000 in 2011.

As it happens, median household income is around two times that federal poverty line. So, 185% of the federal poverty line is going to be pretty close to the median household income. Median household income being the amount that 50% of households get more than and 50% get less than. So, yes, we would pretty much expect that 50% of children are coming from low income families. Because it’s only in Lake Woebegon that all the children are above average. This is a statistical artifact of the measure they are using as low income, nothing else.

And, of course, the traditional mis-measurement of poverty in the US compared to pretty much every other western country:

    6. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately one out of every six Americans is now living in poverty. The number of Americans living in poverty is now at a level not seen since the 1960s.

No, this is not true, as I’ve pointed out in these pages many a time. Many, many, many, many times in fact.

The 15% in poverty measure is the number of people who would be in poverty if we didn’t help them by giving them money, food, housing and health care. It is not the number living in poverty. It is the number in poverty before we help them out of poverty. And as to the comparison with the 1960s, in the 1960s it really was the number in poverty after we helped, now it’s the number before we help.

As to why this is when we calculate the number below the poverty line we look only at cash incomes. This includes any actual money that people might be given to alleviate their poverty. In 1960s America pretty much the only poverty alleviation that was done was to give money to poor people (“welfare”). Today we give very little money directly. But we spend a vastly greater amount in giving people things. Medicaid, Section 8 housing vouchers, SNAP (or food stamps). We also give aid to the low paid through the tax system, with the EITC. However, we do not count all of those things, nor the EITC through the tax system, in our calculation of the number below the poverty line. So, since the 1960s the US measure of poverty has changed. From being one of people who are indeed living in poverty after whatever help they get to one of the number of people who would be in poverty before any help that they get.

When we correct for this the US poverty rate is significantly lower now than it was in the 60s. One estimate is that it is about half the 60s number.

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