Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Economics - What is it Good For

I think of economics as the study of money and how it travels. I had a written conversation with one of my brothers and he explained that economists do not think of economics this way. They think of economics as the study of human choice and allocation of resources. For example, my brother wrote:

What are these non-economic spheres of which you speak?  Give me a couple of examples and I'll understand better.  To me, the economy IS society.  It's people using their resources to exchange with other people.  Taking the time to respond to you is a choice in the use of my resources.  I could have been riding my bike.  Economics studies how we make these choices.  It's as abstract as Galois theory and, IMHO, way more fun.

This is a very grand ambition, a unified theory of human choice. If this could be accomplished it would stand among the greatest human achievements.

When I speak of non-economic spheres, like religious or scholarly pursuits, there is an obvious mismatch with the economists view. If economics is about choice and resource allocation, there are no non-economic spheres. Cloistered nuns make the choice to spend their resources in meditation and prayer and scholars choose to spend their resources on acquiring and disseminating knowledge.

I took a negotiation class. The first exercise was to act out a scenario about buying/selling a car. Everyone in the class had exactly the same information about buyer, seller, and car. We paired off into buyers and sellers and negotiated. Perhaps because it was an exercise, no one walked away from the deal. At the end of the exercise each pair was satisfied with their transaction. The range of prices was huge. Some people bought a classic car that was likely to appreciate in value. Some people bought a source of spare parts, most of which would turn out to be useless. Each person brought their own sense of value to the table and negotiated the transaction based on that value.

This is the strength of the free market. Both buyers and sellers get to say what an item is worth and either complete a transaction or walk away. Each person assigns value and chooses how to allocate resources.

This is a basic notion of economics. To make it a science we have to be able to generalize, theorize, and test those theories. That "sense of value" is called a utility function. The utility function represents the value that a buyer or seller assigns to a resource at any given point in time. We can also speak about utility functions for large numbers of people. What is, for example, a fair price for an iPad where there are hundreds of millions of potential buyers. Can we establish that the collective utility function is such that 10 million buyers will pay $500 dollars but only 8 million will pay $600.

Here are a some facts about utility functions, both individual and collective.

  • They vary over time. A rotary telephone is worth much less today than it was 75 years ago.

  • They are discontinuous. When lcd televisions reached a certain price/quality point, CRT televisions suddenly lost almost all of their monetary value.

  • They are chaotic in the mathematical sense. That is, utility functions that are initially very close may, over time, diverge to be arbitrarily far apart. Two men may agree on the worth of a new Mercedes. One of them has a baby and suddenly the Mercedes is worth no more to that man than a Honda Civic.

These qualities are common in nature but are, so far, mathematically intractable. Economists generally work with simplified models assuming that utility functions are, at least locally, continuous and non-chaotic. That is, to make the mathematics simpler they ignore the basic complexity.

All scientists make simplifying assumptions in their models. The difference between economists and scientists becomes clear when the models fail. Scientists blame their models and re-examine their assumptions. Economists blame the world and try to persuade people that they should behave more like the model.

The brightest and most analytically rigorous economists have an impressive track record of failure in their predictions. Given this legacy, what does contemporary economics have to say that helps us with our lives? Is this a reasonable tool to use when looking at the world, or is it simply a case of "when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail".

Transactions are all about value, and value is mostly ontological. That is, what are we negotiating about? Is this a classic car or a bucket of bolts? To a philanthropist value might lie in the name of a building "The Jones Center for Advanced Learning". The question is not one of discovering the utility function, but of creating a story about the world. The utility function follows from the story. In creating the story, the tools of psychology are much more important than economics. This is marketing. I have almost never seen a marketer do an economic analysis. They create the story, the shape of the world, to make the object as desirable as possible to potential customers. It is the story that determines the utility function.

Unrealistic utility functions are not the only simplification made in economics. There are also the patently absurd notions that humans are rational actors (even in the limited economic sense) and that all parties have the same information about transactions.

While this discussion has mainly focused on microeconomics, macroeconomics has been equally unsuccessful in prediction and in guiding policy. Countries that defy conventional economic wisdom often end up better off than those that follow it. To see this, look at the history of the IMF and the results of following or disobeying its advice.

Given that the basic premises used in economics are faulty and that realistic mathematics are intractable, what is the use of current economic theory? Ben Bernanke explains:

Economic models are useful only in the context for which they are designed ... standard models were designed for these non-crisis periods, and they have proven quite useful in that context.

That is, economic theories and models are great except for the fact that they fail catastrophically from time to time.

Perhaps formal economics has failed us because the economists have not developed the analytical tools necessary for realistic models. Despite this, economic notions could provide us a particularly useful way of looking at the world or determining how we should behave.

I am not an economist and have not deeply studied the field. As a result my views are probably distorted. I see the field as an educated lay person.

I find viewing human relations in terms of self interested agents, resource allocation, and transactions to be largely bankrupt. It is true that we often work for our own gain, have limited resources and engage in many transactions. For most of us, these issues are not central to how we live our lives. Moreover, the notion that we are individualistic self interested agents has infected US society leading to a "greed is good" mentality. This flies in the face of what we know about our success as a species, which is dependent on cooperation and sacrificing self interest for family, friends, neighbors and nations.

Here is the bottom line. Economics as it is currently formulated has failed us in prediction, guidance and in world view. Economic models are only useful in the simplest situations. In world view, contemporary economics leads to greater inequality, poorer health and welfare for society as a whole, divisiveness between individuals and groups, and the mistaken belief that government cannot solve problems. All in all, an impressive record of complete failure.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fairness and US Federal Tax

I keep seeing articles about "fairness" of the federal tax system. In particular, that the wealthiest americans fund most of the government. For example, the Wall Street Journal "As it happens, the top fifth of earners currently pay 67% of all federal taxes". On the face of it, it doesn't seem fair that twenty percent of the population should pay two thirds of federal taxes. To make this even worse, depending on how you work the accounting, somewhere between ten and forty seven percent of households pay no Federal taxes at all.

This blog entry was triggered by an opinion piece written by Glenn Hubbard, a chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush. "Left, Right and Wrong on Taxes". In that piece Mr. Hubbard says

When I left my job as the deputy assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy in 1993, I left a message on my office blackboard for my successor. I wrote, “Broaden the base, lower the rates” repeatedly until I filled the entire space. I then had it covered with wax so it could not be erased. (Yes, the government charged me for my bit of vandalism. But it was worth it.)

I think all of this is nonsense. It seems to be based on the simplest possible notion of "fair" and a deep misunderstanding of wealth, taxes, and spending.

Anything to do with taxes and finance is complicated, but this note is not. I am using a very broad brush, but in data I use the numbers that argue against my point of view. For example, I use federal spending numbers from 2000 when the government spent much less than it does now. The income figures come from 2005, which gives households a higher income than in 2000. I did this because it is hard to get a consistent data set but I wanted to make sure I could not be accused of cherry picking data.

The gist of my argument is that the wealthiest must pay most of the burden because, frankly, they are the only ones that have any money. The federal government goes after them because they cannot get the money anywhere else without having people starving in the streets.

In 2000 the federal government spent about 1,789 billion (about 1.8 trillion) dollars. See: Government Spending Details, Federal Spending by the Numbers 2010, Table 1.1 — Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits: 1789–2009 . In 2005 there were about 110 million households . Dividing federal spending by households gives an "average" federal tax burden matching taxes to spending. In billions, this is: 1,789/.11 or $17,890/household

In 2005, twenty percent of all households had an income less than $18,500. That means for one out of five people to pay their "fair share" we would have to confiscate all their money leaving them nothing for food, shelter, heat, water... Looking at income breakdowns, the poor are disproportionately young and have less education. This group has more households headed by single women. My own experience and the fact that they tend to by younger indicates there are often children in the households. Children have no say in when or to whom they are born.

My earlier post discusses how, in virtually all societies, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. If you compare the wealth curve to the tax curve. you will find general agreement. Compare "But by 2005, the top 10 percent accounted for nearly 55 percent of all federal tax revenues, while the rest of the population paid about 45 percent." with the fact that the top ten percent has about 71% of the wealth.

The federal government taxes the rich for the same reasons Willie Sutton robbed banks. That is where the money is. If you look at capability to pay taxes (percent of wealth vs. percent of tax burden), the top ten percent are getting off easy. In terms of power politics, that makes sense. The wealthiest have the greatest ability to influence government policy and public opinion. As Warren Buffet famously said, "There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning."

We have income redistribution in the United States, as does every industrialized country in the world. We do this because the alternative is having malnourished children and a huge homeless population.

It would be impossible to argue in favor of the current federal tax system with its arcane rules and special deductions. Eliminating many of the current deductions would allow stated tax rates to go down and would make the stated rates closer to the actual rates. But calls to “Broaden the base, lower the rates” are another salvo in the class warfare already going on. If we look at Mr. Hubbard's specific proposals we can see where he stands.

Broaden the base lower the rates.
Reduce taxes for the wealthiest americans (softened by removing deductions).

Cut corporate taxes.
Increase income mostly for the wealthiest americans. The evidence that this spurs economic growth is sketchy at best.

Shift from income tax to a consumption tax.
This disproportionately affects those who must spend all their income.

The United States is the wealthiest nation that has ever existed. Even with our debt crisis we can afford to support those among us who are the poorest and most vulnerable, but it will require taking some wealth from those who have the most.