Good links

A short, but insightful graduation speech.

A longer and insightful discussion of wealth and how different views of where it comes from can affect the words we use.

From the first:

4. Everyone responds to incentives, including people you want to help. That is why social safety nets don’t always end up working as intended.

From the second:

Europeans and Americans “claimed” a higher portion of global output only because they produced a higher portion of global output!  What these Europeans and Americans “claimed” simply would not have existed had they not produced it.

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Taxpayer-subsidized grins

Tyler Cowen, of Marginal Revolution, links to a piece about the increase in spending on college athletics.

Anyone involved in youth sports in the last decade might have noticed the emergence of large, multi-level sports clubs, playing in multi-million dollar sports complexes all designed to host large quantities of organized competition for young players to become seasoned masters in their sport and attract the attention of college recruiters.

Having your kid get “signed’ to a college team — no matter how small the college, or how un-followed the sport — is the new crowning achievement of childhood that brings ear-to-ear grins to the faces of parents.

Take away taxpayer-provided college athletic subsidies and that crowning achievement of childhood and the industry that has sprouted to help parents achieve that ear-to-ear grin goes away.

Arnold Kling also comments on college athletic spending.

Parasites, yep

From Charles Krauthammer’s column, Obamacare’s War on Jobs:

In the traditional opportunity society, government provides the tools — education, training and various incentives — to achieve the dignity of work and its promise of self-improvement and social mobility. In the new opportunity society, you are given the opportunity for idleness while living parasitically off everyone else.

Reagan had a similar radio address once. A vampire once demonstrated his wisdom by recognizing he was a parasite and it didn’t make much sense killing his host. And Lady Thatcher once pinpointed the problem with parasites that don’t realize they are parasites. They eventually kill the host and die (though she didn’t quite say it like that).

Why the bottom 50% should look within

Economist Tyler Cowen wrote a column in the New York Times, entitled Why Emerging Markets Should Look Within. Here’s a couple of key sentences:

While they [emerging market nations] have all been affected by global economic tides, these nations are facing crises because of problems in their national governance. And if we look elsewhere around the world, we find that governance has been re-emerging as a major factor behind success or failure in many emerging nations.

With all the discussion about income inequality, it made me think that the same could be said about the bottom 50% on the income scale.

It’s assumed that the bottom 50% are victims of larger economic forces that are beyond their control. It’s assumed those forces are holding them back and more government intervention is needed to level the playing field (while the magnitude and failures of past interventions are swept under the rug).

But, there’s very little discussion on what the bottom 50% can do about the things over which they have control.

Sure, there may be larger forces that hold some people back. One of the shocking lessons of adulthood is how much bureaucracy there is, even in market-driven enterprises, and how little merit counts. Also, attempts to shunt the bureaucracy often have the opposite effect.

But, I’ve also been shocked at how little we expect from people who we feel may be victims of such forces. Personal choices matter. Education, savings, responsibility, politeness and learning from your mistakes matter. Being able to overcome obstacles, being resourceful and having good character matter.

The most potent way to help the bottom 50% improve their lot may be to encourage them to focus more on what they can control, instead of waiting for solutions from the government. But, it seems to be in bad form to ask the bottom 50% to look within.

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Pope II

Here I wrote about the Freakonomics podcast with Jeffrey Sachs which covered the Pope’s anti-capitalism remarks.

Shortly thereafter, in Taleb’s book, Antifragility, I was surprised to read what I think is a more thoughtful response to the Pope’s remarks and one that supports the Pope’s view.

What surprises me even more is that what Taleb writes about isn’t new to me. It’s a frequent topic of conversation, something that I know well. But, I hadn’t taken it to the logical conclusion.

First, Taleb points out that even the patriarch of capitalism, Adam Smith, was

…extremely chary of the idea of giving someone upside without downside and had doubts about the limited liability of joint-stock companies (the ancestor of the modern limited liability corporation). He did not get the idea of transfer of antifragility, but he came close enough.

And he detected–sort of–the problem that comes with managing other people’s business, the lack of pilot on the plane:

The directors of such companies, however, being the managers rather of other people’s money than of their own, it cannot well be expected, that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which the partners in a private copartnery frequently watch over their own.

Let me make the point clearer: the version of “capitalism” or whatever economic system you need to have is with the minimum number of people in the left of the Triad.

“The Triad” is Taleb’s classification of systems as (from left to right) fragile, robust and antifragile; and what he means by ‘left of the triad’ is people who get the downside, as well as the upside, or they have skin in the game.

Taleb contiues:

There is a difference between a manager running a company that is not his own and an owner-operated business in which the manager does not need to report numbers to anyone but himself, and for which he has a downside. Corporate managers have incentives without disincentives — something the general public doesn’t quite get, as they have the illusion that managers are properly “incentivized.” Somehow these managers have been given free options by innocent savers and investors.

He provides an example:

…banks have lost more than they ever made in their history, with their managers being paid billions in compensation — taxpayers take the downside, bankers get the upside [Russ Roberts has been saying this for years]. And the policies aiming at correcting the problem are hurting innocent people while bankers are sipping the Rose de Provence brand of summer wine on their yachts in St. Tropez.

To bring this all together:

We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of I.A.N.D. (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power and no real downside and/or accountability. They game the system while citizens pay the price.

At no point in history have so many non-risk-takers, that is, those with no personal exposure, exerted so much control.

Now, let’s re-read what the Pope wrote (quoted from the Freakonomics post):

“[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. … One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! … While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

To me, this reads like leftist dribble, where their intuition leads them, perhaps, in the right direction for outcome, but the wrong direction for cause.

Maybe the Pope is right that there are some fundamental problems in the mixed markets that have emerged.

But, they’re wrong about the cause of those problems. They blame things like “trickle down theories” (Thomas Sowell challenges us to name one economist who used “trickle down“).

But, the part of the Pope’s passage that reminds me of Taleb’s point is:

…expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power…

Perhaps that is true. And Taleb tells us why:

At no point in history have so many non-risk-takers, that is, those with no personal exposure, exerted so much control.

They don’t have downside.

This includes politicians, apparatchiks in government agencies, economists and — the one that I am really disappointed that I missed because of my biases — managers of businesses who only have upside and no downside. I’ve even noticed that senior managers often have the same characteristics as politicians, but darn if I haven’t carried that through.

So, as I like to say, all problems can be traced to problems with feedback — I think Taleb exposes a couple of real feedback problems in — not free markets — but our mixed market economy. That feedback problem is that too many people “wielding economic power” don’t have downside. Rather they have incentives to game the system for their upside.

How can this be changed? Taleb gives one example that surprised me:

…in some countries such as Brazil, even today, top bankers are made unconditionally liable to the extent of their own assets.

Think about that. Would bankers act differently if they may have to repay the bonuses they received in what are now apparent as the fraudulently fueled good-times?

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Kling’s 3-axis model and income inequality

I’d like to extend a warm welcome to a new commenter at Our Dinner Table, Adam, who pointed me to this article: Rising Riches: 1 in 5 in US reach affluence.

Arnold Kling’s 3-axis model can help us predict what various folks might believe about income inequality and why they will continue to talk past each other.

Liberals operate on the oppressed-oppressor axis. The rich are the oppressors and the poor are the oppressed. They believe something must be done (government action) to ‘fix’ this situation. This view seems to be expressed in the article.

Conservatives operate on the barbarism-civilization axis. Rich people earn their money based on traditional values of strong work ethic and responsible choices. The poor may be more responsible for their position that liberals believe. So, using government to ‘fix’ income inequality erodes the values of work ethic and responsible choices.

This view is also expressed in the article, but by a successful pharmacist who “grew up on food stamps, but now splurges on…Hugo Boss shoes,” which I took as a subtle attempt to discredit his view.

Libertarians (as if anyone really cares what libertarian think) operate on the freedom-coercion axis. As long as the rich didn’t violate anybody’s freedoms to become rich, then all the power to them. Using force to try to ‘fix’ income inequality violates freedom, so is bad.

I fall into a mix conservative/libertarian camp here. Though, I am sure there are some poor people who are ‘disadvantaged’ and not merely victims of their own bad choices and unwillingness to take advantage of the tremendous opportunity this country has to offer (like a free $100,000 education).

I have a question for people who believe the ‘disadvantaged’ explanation.

Have you considered that encouraging responsible behaviors may be a better way to help the disadvantaged than redistribution?

Don Boudreaux, of Cafe Hayek, has some good thoughts on the article in his post, A Barrier to Reducing Income Inequality??? 


A million dollar question

Thanks to Mike M for posting the following Youtube clip (audio) in the comments of this post. It features a discussion between a caller, Lucy, and hosts on a radio talk show.

In many discussions on welfare I’ve run into the argument from supporters that nobody would choose the paltry sums and stigma of welfare over working. I didn’t realize it before, but they were arguing from their personal preference bias. What they really meant was that they would not make that choice.

They failed to account that not everyone is like them and everyone doesn’t face the same opportunity costs.

Lucy says she and her family live off welfare. According to her, she receives various forms of welfare totaling about $1,300 per month. Her parents were on welfare. She doesn’t begrudge those who work, that’s their choice, and she doesn’t see herself as a bad person for depending on the system that is there to help her.

She mentions that if she takes a job, she’d have to pay for daycare for her three kids and lose some of her welfare benefits. She’d be worse off. Incentives matter.

Lucy also does us a favor by asking an insightful question.

What if someone offered you a million dollars, no strings attached?

Lucy’s question gets us over the hump of the personal preference bias. Suddenly the unimaginable situation where somebody chooses welfare over work is replaced with something that my discussion partners can more readily identify with.

A million dollars would be hard to turn down, even if it was coming from other taxpayers. It probably wouldn’t be too hard to convince yourself of the good you could do with it. And, maybe you could. Who knows?

But, that’s not the point. The point is that incentives do matter. We should NEVER forget that.

Saying that you believe nobody would ever choose something that you don’t think you would choose (though you might if you faced similar incentives) isn’t a good argument. It just shows that you haven’t thought about it beyond your current situation.

Near the end of the audio, one of the hosts also makes an insightful comment about incentives. Lucy’s million dollar question sinks in for him. He asks, If your money was cut off, would you go to work? Lucy replies, Yes, I’d have to.

He then says:

…the government puts a gun to my head with the promise of imprisonment if I don’t pay taxes. Does anybody put a gun to your head to take that money?

Lucy answers, Nope. With this he brings the distorted incentives of punishing producers and rewarding non-producers to life.

I would have asked a follow-up questions. Are there any expectations attached to receiving this money? Likely answer: Other than having low or no income, nope.

Which gets to a subtle and unhealthy incentive distortion in society.

There seems to be a condoned attitude where the producers can be roughed up. Pay your taxes. Don’t complain. Complainers are greedy and soul-less.

But, as Lucy, confirms, such treatment of the recipients on the other side of the transfer payment is not condoned — even when they happen to be in situations like Lucy’s where they appear to be smart and capable, but unwilling to carry their own weight.

It’s as if expecting them to be grateful and to say thank you is too much to ask. As if saying ‘thank you’ would be demeaning.

What is a job?

With the minimum wage discussion, people on one side of the discussion view jobs as if they are an entitlement. Everyone deserves a job and a certain minimum wage, no matter what.

That vision works well to get votes in the world of politics.

People on the other side of the minimum wage discussion view jobs more closely to what they actually are: value creators for employers.

I contend that even people on the first side mentioned above, when acting in the non-political world (like when they are buying things), share the view of jobs with the people on the other side of the discussion, whether they realize it or not.

In the political world, it’s easy to say that everyone deserves a minimum wage. It’s even easier to say that everyone deserves a living wage. There’s a lot of upside to saying those things and no cost.

But, in the real world, there is a cost. When given a choice, people rarely choose to spend more to put-their-money-where-their-mouths-are with their political sayings.

Why? Because in the real world, they to see jobs as value creators for employers, themselves. They hire the neighbor kid to shovel snow off their driveway to avoid the work.

They hire a building contractor to finish their basement or remodel their bathroom to have it done right and allow them to continue to do whatever it is they do best.

They hire plumbers to fix their pipes, mechanics to fix their cars, restaurant workers to fix their meals, HVAC guys to fix their air conditioner and so on. At of all of these transactions they conduct to make their lives better, how often to they inquire to see if everyone employed by the company is making a living wage and how much extra they would need to pay to ensure they did for their job?

Employers should be thanked, not punished II

In this post, Steve Landsburg agrees with my sentiment that employers should be thanked, rather than punished. He writes:

Some people voluntarily go out on Sundays and pick up trash in the park. If we collectively decide that we need more trash pickup, do we turn to the people who have been doing this by choice and demand that they do more? Or do we decide that maybe the rest of us should pitch in as well (either by getting out there ourselves or paying others to)?

Exactly. We should be thanking the people who do it by choice, rather than demanding they do more.

Unfortunately, I think some do believe demanding that people doing it by choice is the best route to go, especially if it means that they appear to want a good thing, like clean parks, without actually having to do anything, except talk about it.