Economics, Politics, Quick Fix

Why Linking The Minimum Wage To Inflation Can Backfire

Last week I explained how poor decisions by central bankers (specifically failing to spur inflation) can make recessions much worse and lead to slower wage growth during recovery.

(Briefly: inflation during recessions reduces the real cost of payroll, cutting business expenses and making firing people unnecessary. During a recovery, it makes hiring new workers cheaper and so leads to more being hired. Because central bankers failed to create inflation during and after the great recession, many businesses are scared of raising salaries. They believe (correctly) that this will increase their payroll expenses to the point where they’ll have to lay many people off if another recession strikes. Until memories of the last recession fade or central bankers clean up their act, we shouldn’t expect wages to rise.)

Now I’d like to expand on an offhand comment I made about the minimum wage last week and explore how it can affect recovery, especially if it’s indexed to inflation.

The minimum wage represents a special case when it comes to pay cuts and layoffs in recessions. While it’s always theoretically possible to convince people to take a pay cut rather than a layoff (although in practice it’s mostly impossible), this option isn’t available for people who make the minimum wage. It’s illegal to pay them anything less. If bad times strike and business is imperiled, people making the minimum wage might have to be laid off.

I say “might”, because when central bankers aren’t proving useless, inflation can rescue people making the minimum wage from being let go. Inflation makes the minimum wage relatively less valuable, which reduces the cost of payroll relative to other inputs and helps to save jobs that pay minimum wage. This should sound familiar, because inflation helps people making the minimum wage in the exact same way it helps everyone else.

Because of increasingly expensive housing and persistently slow wage growth, some jurisdictions are experimenting with indexing the minimum wage to inflation. This means that the minimum wage rises at the same rate as the cost of living. Most notably (to me, at least), this group includes my home province of Ontario.

I think decreasing purchasing power is a serious problem (especially because of its complicated intergenerational dynamics), but I think this is one of the worst possible ways to deal with it.

When the minimum wage is tied to inflation, recessions can become especially dangerous and drawn out.

With the minimum wage rising in lockstep with inflation, any attempts to decrease payroll costs in real terms (that is to say: inflation adjusted terms) is futile to the extent that payroll expenses are for minimum wage workers. Worse, people who were previously making above the minimum wage and might have had their jobs saved by inflation can be swept up by an increasingly high minimum wage.

This puts central bankers in a bind. As soon as the minimum wage is indexed to inflation, inflation is no longer a boon to all workers. Suddenly, many workers can find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Without inflation, they may be too expensive to keep. With it, they may be saved… until the minimum wage comes for them too. If a recession goes on long enough, only high-income workers would be sparred.

In addition, minimum wage (or near-minimum wage) workers who are laid off during a period of higher inflation (an in this scenario, there will be many) will suffer comparatively more, as their savings get exhausted even more quickly.

Navigating these competing needs would be an especially tough challenge for certain central banks like the US Federal Reserve – those banks that have dual mandates to maintain stable prices and full employment. If a significant portion of the US ever indexes its minimum wage to inflation, the Fed will have no good options.

It is perhaps darkly humorous that central banks, which bear an unusually large parcel of the blame for our current slow wage growth, stand to face the greatest challenges from the policies we’re devising to make up for their past shortcomings. Unfortunately, I think a punishment of this sort is rather like cutting off our collective nose to spite our collective face.

There are simple policies we could enact to counter the risks here. Suspending any peg to inflation during years that contain recessions (in Ontario at least, the minimum wage increase due to inflation is calculated annually) would be a promising start. Wage growth after a recession could be ensured with a rebound clause, or better yet, the central bank actually doing its job properly.

I am worried about the political chances (and popularity once enacted) of any such pragmatic policy though. Many people respond to recessions with the belief that the government can make things better by passing the right legislation – forcing the economy back on track by sheer force of ink. This is rarely the case, especially because the legislation that people have historically clamoured for when unemployment is high is the sort that increases wages, not lowers them. This is a disaster when unemployment threatens because of too-high wages. FDR is remembered positively for his policy of increasing wages during the great depression, even though this disastrous decision strangled the recovery in its crib. I don’t expect any higher degree of economic literacy from people today.

To put my fears more plainly, I worry that politicians, faced with waning popularity and a nipping recession, would find allowing the minimum wage to be frozen too much of a political risk. I frankly don’t trust most politicians to follow through with a freeze, even if it’s direly needed.

Minimum wages are one example of a tradeoff we make between broad access and minimum standards. Do we try and make sure everyone who wants a job can have one, or do we make sure people who have jobs aren’t paid too little for their labour, even if that hurts the unemployed? As long as there’s scarcity, we’re going to have to struggle with how we ensure that as many people as possible have their material needs met and that involves tradeoffs like this one.

Minimum wages are just one way we can do this. Wage subsidies or a Universal Basic Income are both being discussed with increasing frequency these days.

But when we’re making these kind of compassionate decisions, we need to look at the risks of whatever systems we choose. Proponents of indexing the minimum wage to inflation haven’t done a good job of understanding the grave risk it poses to the health of our economy and perhaps most of all, to the very people they seek to help. In places like Ontario, where the minimum wage is already indexed to inflation, we’re going to pay for their lack of foresight next time an economic disaster strikes.

Economics, Falsifiable

You Might Want To Blame Central Banks For Poor Wage Growth

The Economist wonders why wage growth isn’t increasing, even as unemployment falls. A naïve reading of supply and demand suggests that it should, so this has become a relatively common talking point in the news, with people of all persuasions scratching their heads. The Economist does it better than most. They at least talk about slowing productivity growth and rising oil prices, instead of blaming everything on workers (for failing to negotiate) or employers (for not suddenly raising wages).

But after reading monetary policy blogs, the current lack of wage growth feels much less confusing to me. Based on this, I’d like to offer one explanation for why wages haven’t been growing. While I may not be an economist, I’ll be doing my best to pass along verbatim the views of serious economic thinkers.

Image courtesy of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. Units are 1982-1984 CPI-adjusted dollars. Isn’t it rad how the US government doesn’t copyright anything it produces?



When people talk about stagnant wage growth, this is what they mean. Average weekly wages have increased from $335 a week in 1979 to $350/week in 2018 (all values are 1982 CPI-adjusted US dollars). This is a 4.5% increase, representing $780/year more (1982 dollars) in wages over the whole period. This is not a big change.

More recent wage growth also isn’t impressive. At the depth of the recession, weekly wages were $331 [1]. Since then, they’ve increased by $19/week, or 5.7%. However, wages have only increased by $5/week (1.4%) since the previous high in 2009.

This doesn’t really match people’s long run expectations. Between 1948 and 1973, hourly compensation increased by 91.3%.

I don’t have an explanation for what happened to once-high wage growth between 1980 and 2008 (see The Captured Economy for what some economists think might explain it). But when it comes to the current stagnation, one factor I don’t hear enough people talking about is bad policy moves by central bankers.

To understand why the central bank affects wage growth, you have to understand something called “sticky wages“.

Wages are considered “sticky” because it is basically impossible to cut them. If companies face a choice between firing people and cutting wages, they’ll almost always choose to fire people. This is because long practice has taught them that the opposite is untenable.

If you cut everyone’s wages, you’ll face an office full of much less motivated people. Those whose skills are still in demand will quickly jump ship to companies that compensate them more in line with market rates. If you just cut the wages of some of your employees (to protect your best performers), you’ll quickly find an environment of toxic resentment sets in.

This is not even to mention that minimum wage laws make it illegal to cut the wages of many workers.

Normally the economy gets around sticky wages with inflation. This steadily erodes wages (including the minimum wage). During boom times, businesses increase wages above inflation to keep their employees happy (or lose them to other businesses that can pay more and need the labour). During busts, inflation can obviate the need to fire people by decreasing the cost of payroll relative to other inputs.

But what we saw during the last recession was persistently low inflation rates. Throughout the whole the thing, the Federal Reserve Bank kept saying, in effect, “wow, really hard to up inflation; we just can’t manage to do it”.

Look at how inflation hovers just above zero for the whole great recession and associated recovery. It would have been better had it been hovering around 2%.

It’s obviously false that the Fed couldn’t trigger inflation if it wanted to. As a thought experiment, imagine that they had printed enough money to give everyone in the country $1,000,000 and then mailed it out. That would obviously cause inflation. So it is (theoretically) just a manner of scaling that back to the point where we’d only see inflation, not hyper-inflation. Why then did the Fed fail to do something that should be so easy?

According to Scott Sumner, you can’t just look at the traditional instrument the central bank has for managing inflation (the interest rate) to determine if its policies are inflationary or not. If something happens to the monetary supply (e.g. say all banks get spooked and up their reserves dramatically [2]), this changes how effective those tools will be.

After the recession, the Fed held the interest rates low and printed money. But it actually didn’t print enough money given the tightened bank reserves to spur inflation. What looked like easy money (inflationary behaviour) was actually tight money (deflationary behaviour), because there was another event constricting the money supply. If the Fed wanted inflation, it would have had to do much more than is required in normal times. The Federal Reserve never realized this, so it was always confused by why inflation failed to materialize.

This set off the perfect storm that led to the long recovery after the recession. Inflation didn’t drive down wages, so it didn’t make economic sense to hire people (or even keep as many people on staff), so aggregate demand was low, so business was bad, so it didn’t make sense to hire people (or keep them on staff)…

If real wages had properly fallen, then fewer people would have been laid off, business wouldn’t have gotten as bad, and the economy could have started to recover much more quickly (with inflation then cooling down and wage growth occurring). Scott Sumner goes so far to say that the money shock caused by increased cash reserves may have been the cause of the great recession, not the banks failing or the housing bubble.

What does this history have to do with poor wage growth?

Well it turns out that companies have responded to the tight labour market with something other than higher wages: bonuses.

Bonuses are one-time payments that people only expect when times are good. There’s no problem cutting them in recessions.

Switching to bonuses was a calculated move for businesses, because they have lost all faith that the Federal Reserve will do what is necessary (or will know how to do what is necessary) to create the inflation needed to prevent deep recessions. When you know that wages are sticky and you know that inflation won’t save you from them, you have no choice but to pre-emptively limit wages, even when there isn’t a recession. Even when a recession feels fairly far away.

More inflation may feel like the exact opposite of what’s needed to increase wages. But we’re talking about targeted inflation here. If we could trust humans to do the rational thing and bargain for less pay now in exchange for more pay in the future whenever times are tight, then we wouldn’t have this problem and wages probably would have recovered better. But humans are humans, not automatons, so we need to make the best with what we have.

One of the purposes of institutions is to build a framework within which we can make good decisions. From this point of view, the Federal Reserve (and other central banks; the Bank of Japan is arguably far worse) have failed. Institutions failing when confronted with new circumstances isn’t as pithy as “it’s all the fault of those greedy capitalists” or “people need to grow backbones and negotiate for higher wages”, but I think it’s ultimately a more correct explanation for our current period of slow wage growth. This suggests that we’ll only see wage growth recover when the Fed commits to better monetary policy [3], or enough time passes that everyone forgets the great recession.

In either case, I’m not holding my breath.


[1] I’m ignoring the drop in Q2 2014, where wages fell to $330/week, because this was caused by the end of extended unemployment insurance in America. The end of that program made finding work somewhat more important for a variety of people, which led to an uptick in the supply of labour and a corresponding decrease in the market clearing wage. ^

[2] Under a fractional reserve banking system, banks can lend out most of their deposits, with only a fraction kept in reserve to cover any withdrawals customers may want to make. This effectively increases the money supply, because you can have dollars (or yen, or pesos) that are both left in a bank account and invested in the economy. When banks hold onto more of their reserves because of uncertainty, they are essentially shrinking the total money supply. ^

[3] Scott Sumner suggests that we should target nominal GDP instead of inflation. When economic growth slows, we’d automatically get higher inflation, as the central bank pumps out money to meet the growth target. When the market begins to give way to roaring growth and speculative bubbles, the high rate of real growth would cause the central bank to step back, tapping the brakes before the economy overheats. I wonder if limiting inflation on the upswing would also have the advantage of increasing real wages as the economy booms? ^

Economics, Politics

Book Review: The Captured Economy

There are many problems that face modern, developed economies. Unfortunately, no one agrees with what to do in response to them. Even economists are split, with libertarians championing deregulation, while liberals call for increased government spending to reduce inequality.

Or at least, that’s the conventional wisdom. The Captured Economy, by Dr. Brink Lindsey (libertarian) and Dr. Steven M. Teles (liberal) doesn’t have much time for conventional wisdom.

It’s a book about the perils of regulation, sure. But it’s a book that criticizes regulation that redistributes money upwards. This isn’t the sort of regulation that big pharma or big finance wants to cut. It’s the regulation they pay politicians to enact.

And if you believe Lindsey and Teles, upwardly redistributing regulation is strangling our economy and feeding inequality.

They’re talking, of course, about rent-seeking.

Now, if you don’t read economic literature, you probably have an idea of what “rent-seeking” might mean. This idea is probably wrong. We aren’t talking here about the sorts of rents that you pay to landlords. That rent probably includes some economic rents (quite a lot of economic rents if you live in Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, or New York), but does not itself represent an economic rent.

An economic rent is any excess payment due to scarcity. If you control especially good land and can grow wheat at half the price of everyone else, the rent of this land is the difference between how much it costs you to grow wheat and how much it costs everyone else to grow wheat.

Rent-seeking is when someone tries to acquire these rents without producing anything of value. It isn’t rent-seeking when you invent a new mechanical device that cuts your costs in half (although your additional profit will represent economic rents). It is rent-seeking when you use some of those profits as “campaign contributions” to get the government to pass a law that requires all future labour-saving devices need to be “tested” for five years before they can be introduced. Over that five-year period, you’ll reap rents because no one else can compete with you to bring the price of the goods you are producing down.

How could we know if rent-seeking is happening in the US economy (note: this book is written specifically about the US, so assume all statements here are about the US unless otherwise noted) and how can we tell what it’s costing?

Well, one of the best signs of rent-seeking is increased profits. If profits are increasing and this can’t be explained by innovation or productivity growth or any other natural factor, then we have circumstantial evidence that profits are increasing from rent-seeking. Is this the case?

Lindsey and Teles say yes.

First, it seems like profits for US firms are increasing, from a low of 3% in the 1980s to a high of 11% currently. These are average profits, so they can’t be swayed by one company suddenly becoming much more efficient – as something like that should be cancelled out by a decline in profits at somewhere less efficient.

At the same time, however, the majority of these new profits have been going to companies that were already very profitable. If being very profitable makes corrupting the political process easier, this is exactly what we’d expect to see.

In addition, formation of new companies has slowed, concentration has increased, the ratio of intangible assets to tangible assets has increased, and yet spending on intangible assets (like R&D) has dropped. The only intangibles you get without investing in R&D are better human capital (but then why should profits increase if this is happening everywhere?) and tailor-made regulation.

Lindsey and Teles go on to cite research by Dr. James Bessen that show that most of the increases in profits since the start of the 21st century is heavily correlated with increasing regulation, a result that remained robust even when accounting for reverse causation (e.g. a counter-factual where profits causing regulation).

This circumstantial evidence is about all we can get for something as messy as real-world economics, but it’s both highly suggestive and fits in well with what keen observers have noted in individual industries, like the pharmaceutical industry.

An increase in rent-seeking would explain a whole bunch of the malaise of the current economy.

Economists have been surprised by the slow productivity growth since the last recession. If there was significantly more rent-seeking now than in the past, then we would expect productivity growth to slow.

Image courtesy of the St. Louis Fed. I continue to appreciate that all US Government media has no copyright.

In a properly functioning economy, productivity growth is largely buoyed up by new entrants to a field. The most productive new entrants thrive, while less productive new entrants (and some of the least productive existing players) fail. Over time, this gradually improves the overall productivity of an industry. This is the creative destruction you might hear economists talking glowingly about.

Productivity can also be raised by the slow diffusion of innovations across an industry. When best practices are copied, everyone ends up producing more with fewer inputs.

Rent-seeking changes the nature of this competition. Instead of competing on productivity and innovation, companies compete to see who can most effectively buy the government. Everyone who fails to buy off the government will eventually fail, leaving an increasingly moribund economy behind.

Lindsey and Teles believe that we’re more likely to see the negative effects of rent-seeking today than in the past because the underlying economy has less favourable conditions. In the 1950s, women started to enter the workforce. In the 60s, Boomers began to enter it. In addition, many returning soldiers got university educations after World War II, making college graduates much more common.

All of these trends have now stagnated or reversed. It’s hard for developed countries to get any more educated. Most of the women who want to or have to work are already in the labour force. And the Boomers are starting to retire. Therefore, we can no longer rely on strong underlying growth. We either need a lot of investment or a lot of productivity growth if we’re going to see strong overall growth. And it’s politically hard to get people to delay their consumption to invest.

Therefore, rent-seeking, as a force holding down productivity growth, would be a serious problem in political economy even if it didn’t lead to increased inequality and all of the problems that can cause.

But that’s where the other half of this book comes in; the authors suggest that our current spate of rent-seeking policies are fueling income inequality as well as economic malaise [1]. Rent-seeking inflates stock prices (which only helps people who are well-off enough that they own stocks) or wages at the top of corporations. Rents from rent-seeking also tend to accrue to skilled workers, to people who own homes, and people in regulated professions. All of these people are wealthier than average and increasing their wealth increases inequality.

That’s the theory. To show it in practice, Lindsey and Teles introduce four case studies: finance, intellectual property, zoning, and occupational licensing.


Whenever I think about finance, I am presented with a curious double image. There are the old-timey banks of yore, that I see in movies, the ones that provided smiling service to their local customers. And then there are the large financial entities that exist today, with their predatory sales tactics and “too big to fail” designations. Long gone are the days when banks mostly made money by collecting interest on loans, loans made possible by paying interest on deposits.

Today’s banks also have an excellent racket going on. They decry taxes and regulation on one hand, while extracting huge rents from governments on the other.

To understand why, we first need to talk about leverage. Bank profits can be increased many times over via the magic of leverage – basically borrowing money to buy assets. If you believe, for example, that the price of silver is going to skyrocket tomorrow, you could buy $100 of silver. If silver goes up by 20%, you’ll pocket a cool $20 for 20% profit. If you borrow an extra $900 from friends and family at 1% interest and buy silver with that too, you’ll pocket a cool $191 once it goes up (20% of $1000 less 1% of $900), for 191% profit.

Leverage becomes a problem when prices fall. If the price goes down by 10% instead of going up, you’ll be left with $90 if you didn’t leverage yourself – and $1 if you did. Because it leads to the potential of outsized losses, leverage presents problems with downside risks, the things that happen when your bet is wrong.

One of the major ways banks extract rents is by forcing the government to hold onto their downside risks. In America, this is accomplished several ways. First, deposits are insured by the government. This is good, in that it prevents bank runs [2], which were a significant problem in the 19th and 20th century, but bad because it removes most incentive for consumers to care about the lending practices of their bank. Insurance removes the risk associated with picking a bank with risky lending practices, so largely people don’t bother to see if their bank is responsible or not. Banks know this, so feel no pressure to be responsible, especially because shareholders love the profits irresponsibility brings in good times.

Second, the government (especially in America, but also recently in Ireland) seems unable to resist insulating bondholders from the consequences of backing a bank with bad standards. The bailouts after the financial crisis mean that few bondholders were punished for their failure to do due diligence when providing the credit banks used to make leveraged bets. As long as no one is punished for lending to the banks that make risky bets, things won’t get better.

(Interestingly, there is theoretical work that shows banks can accomplish everything they currently do with debt using equity at the same cost. This isn’t what we see in real life. Lindsey and Teles suggest this is because debt is kept artificially cheap for banks by repeated bailouts. Creditors don’t demand extra to lend to an indebted bank, because they know they won’t have to pay if things go south.)

Third, there’s mortgage debt, which is often insured or bought by the Federal Government in America. This makes risky lending much more palatable for many banks (and much more profitable as well). This whole process is really opaque and largely hidden from the US population. When times are good, it’s a relatively cheap way to make housing more affordable (although somewhat regressive; it favours the already wealthy). When times are bad it can cost the government almost $200 billion.

The authors suggest that this sort of “public program by kluge” is the perfect vehicle for rent-seeking. The need to do the program in a klugey way so that taxpayers don’t complain is anathema to accountability and often requires the support of businesses – which are happy to help as long as they get to skim off the top. Lindsey and Teles suggest that it would be much better for the US just to provide straight up housing subsidies in a means-tested way.

Being able to extract all these rents has probably increased the size of the US financial sector. Linsey and Teles argue that this is a very bad thing. They cite data that show decreased economic growth once the financial sector grows beyond a certain size, possibly because an outsized financial sector leads to misallocation of resources.

Beyond a certain point, the financial sector is just moving money around to no productive aim (this is different than e.g. loans to businesses; I’m talking about highly speculative bets on foreign currencies or credit default swaps here). The financial sector also aggressively recruits very bright people using very high salaries. If the financial sector were smaller and couldn’t compensate as highly, then these people would be out doing something productive, like building self-driving cars or curing malaria. Lindsey and Teles suggest that we should happily make a trade-off whereby these people can’t get quite as high salaries but do actually produce things of value.

(Remember: one of the pair here is a libertarian! Like “worked for Cato Institute for years” libertarian. If your caricature of libertarians is that “they hate poor people”, I suggest you consider the alternative: “they think the free market is the best way to help disadvantaged people find better circumstances”. Here, Lindsey is trying to correct market failures and misallocations caused by big banks getting too cozy with the government.)

Intellectual Property Law

If you don’t follow the Open Source or Creative Commons movements, you probably had mostly positive things to say about copyright until a few years ago when the protests against SOPA and PIPA – two bills designed to strengthen copyright enforcement – painted the internet black in opposition.

SOPA and PIPA weren’t some new overreach. They are a natural outgrowth of a US copyright regime that has changed radically from its inception. In the early days of the American Republic, copyrights required registering. Doing so would give you a fourteen-year term of exclusivity, with the option to extend it once for another fourteen years. Today all works, even unpublished ones, are automatically granted copyright for the life of the author… plus 70 years.

Penalties have increased as well; previously, copyright infringement was only a civil matter. Now it carries criminal penalties of up to $250,000 in fines and 1-5 years of jail time per infringement.

Patent protections have also become onerous, although here the fault is judicial action, not statute. Appeals for patent cases are solely handled by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. This court is made up of judges who are normally former patent lawyers and who attend all the same conferences as patent lawyers – and eat the food paid for by the sponsors. I don’t want to claim judicial corruption, but it is perhaps unsurprising that these judges have come to see the goals of patent holders as right and noble.

Certainly, they’ve broken with past tradition and greatly expanded the scope of patentability while reducing the requirements for new patents. Genes, business methods, and most odiously, software, have been made patentable. Consequently, patents filed have increased from approximately 60,000 yearly in 1983 to 300,000 per year by 2013. If this represented a genuine increase in invention, then it would be a cause for celebration. But we already know that R&D spending isn’t increasing. It would be very surprising – and the exact opposite of what diminishing returns would normally suggest – if companies managed to come up with an additional 240,000 patents per year with no additional real spending.

What if these patents just came from increased incentives for rent-seeking via the intellectual property system?

“Intellectual property” conjures a happy image. Who doesn’t like property [3]? Many (most?) people support paying authors, artists, and inventors for their creations, at least in the abstract [4]. Lindsey and Teles argue that we should instead take a dim view of intellectual property; to them, it’s almost entirely rent-seeking.

They point out that many of supposed benefits of intellectual property never manifest. It’s unclear if it spurs invention (evidence from World Fairs suggest that it just moves invention towards whatever types of inventions are patentable, where payoff is more certain). It’s unclear if it incentivizes artists and writers (although we’ve seen music revenue fall, more people than ever are producing music). My personal opinion is that copyright doesn’t encourage writers; most of us couldn’t stop if we wanted to.

When it comes to software patents, the benefits are even less clear and the harms even greater. OECD finds that software patents are associated with a decrease in R&D spending, while Vox reports that costs associated with software patent lawsuits have now reached almost $70 billion annually. The majority of software patent litigation isn’t even launched by the inventors. Instead, it’s done by so called “patent trolls”, who buy portfolios of patents and then threaten to sue any company who doesn’t settle with them over “infringement”.

When even a successfully-defended lawsuit can cost millions of dollars (not to mention several ulcers), software patents (often for obvious ideas and assuredly improper) held by trolls represent a grave threat to innovation.

All of this adds up to a serious drag on the economy, not to mention our culture. While “protecting property” is seen as a noble goal by many, Lindsey and Teles argue that IP protections go well beyond that. They acknowledge that it makes sense to protect a published work in its entirety. But protecting the setting? The characters? The right to make sequels? That’s surely too much. How is George Lucas hurt if someone can sell their Star Wars fanfiction? How is that “infringing” on what he has created?

They have less sympathy for patents, which grant a somewhat ridiculous monopoly. If you patent something three days before I independently invent it, then any use or sale by me is still considered infringement even though I am assuredly not ripping you off.

Lindsey and Teles suggest that IP laws need to be rolled back to a more reasonable state, when copyright was for 14 years and abstract ideas, software implementation, and business methods couldn’t be patented. About the only patents they really approve of are pharmaceutical patents, which they view as necessary to protect the large upfront costs of drug development (see also Scott Alexander’s argument for why this is the case [5]); I’d like to add that these upfront costs would be lower if the rent-seeking by pharmaceutical companies hadn’t supported rent-seeking regulation that has made the FDA an almost impenetrable tar-pit.

Occupational Licensing

Occupational licensing has definitely become more common. It’s gone from affecting 10% of the workforce (1970) to 30% of the workforce today. It no longer just affects doctors, teachers, lawyers, and engineers. Now it covers make-up artists, auctioneers, athletic trainers, and barbers.

Now, there are sometimes good reasons to license professionals. No one wants to drive across a bridge built by someone who hasn’t learned anything about physics. But there’s good reason to suspect that much of the growth of occupational licensing isn’t about consumer protection, despite what proponents say.

First of all, there’s often a quite a bit of variability in how many days of study these newly licensed professions require. Engineering requirements tend to be similar from country to country because it’s governed by international treaty. On the other hand, manicurist requirements vary wildly by state; Alaska requires three days of education, while Alabama requires 163. There’s no national standards at all. If this was for consumer protection, then presumably some states are well below what’s required and others are well above it.

Second, there’s no allowance for equivalencies. Engineers can take their engineering degrees anywhere and can transfer professional status with limited hassles. Lawyers can take the bar exam wherever they want. But if you get licensed as a manicurist in Alabama, Alaska won’t respect the license. And vice versa.

(Non-transferability is a serious economic threat in its own right, because it makes people less likely to move in search of better conditions. The section on zoning further explains why this is bad.)

Several studies have shown that occupational licenses do nothing to improve services to customers. Randomly sampled floral arrangements from licensed and unlicensed states (yes, some states won’t let you arrange flowers without a license) are judged the same when viewed by unsuspecting judges. Roofing quality hasn’t fallen after hurricanes, when licensing restrictions are lifted (and if there’s ever a time you’d expect quality to fall, it’s then!).

Despite the lack of benefits, there are very real costs to occupational licensing. Occupational licensing is associated with consumers paying prices between 5% and 33% above unlicensed areas, which translates to an average 18% increase in wages for licensed professionals. The total yearly cost to consumers for this price gouging? North of $200 billion. Unfortunately, employment growth is also affected. Licensed professions see 20% slower employment growth compared to neighbouring unlicensed jurisdictions. Licensing helps some people make more money, but they make this money by, in essence, pulling up the ladder to prosperity behind them.

Occupational licensing especially hurts minorities in the United States. Many occupational licenses require a college degree (black and Latino Americans are less likely to have college degrees) and they often exclude anyone with a criminal record of any sort (disproportionately likely to be black or Latino). It may make sense to exclude people with criminal records from certain jobs. But from manicuring? I don’t see how someone could do worse damage manicuring then they could preparing fast food, and that isn’t regulated at all.

Licensing boards often protect their members against complaints from the public. Since the board is composed only of members of the profession, it’s common for them to close ranks around anyone accused of bad conduct. The only profession I’ve seen that doesn’t do this is engineers. Compare the responses of professional boards to medical and engineering malpractice in Canada.

Probably the most interesting case of rent-seeking Lindsey and Teles identify are lawyers in the United States. While they accuse lawyers of engaging in the traditional rent-seeking behaviour of limiting entry to their field (and point out that bar exam difficulty is proportional to the number of people seeking admittance, which suggests that its main purpose it to keep supply from rising), they also claim that lawyers in the United States artificially raise demands for their services.

Did you know that lawyers made up 41% of the 113th Congress, despite representing only 0.6% of the US population? I knew the US had a lot of lawyers in politics, but I hadn’t realized it was that high. Lindsey and Teles charge these lawyers with writing the kind of laws that make sense to lawyers: abstruse, full of minutia, and fond of adversarial proceedings. Even if this isn’t a sinister plot, it certainly is a nice perk [6].

I do wish this chapter better separated what I think is dual messages on occupational licensing. One strand of arguments goes: “occupational licensing for jobs like barbers, manicurists, etc. is keeping disadvantaged people, especially minorities out of these fields with slightly better than average wages and making everyone pay a tiny bit more”. The other is: “professionals are robbing everyone else blind because of occupational licensing; lawyers and doctors make a huge premium in the United States and are disproportionately wealthy compared to other countries and make up a large chunk of the 1%”.

I’d like them separated because they seem to call for separate solutions. We might decide that if we could fix the equality issues (for example, by scrapping criminal records checks and college degree requirements where they aren’t needed), it might make sense to keep occupational licensing to prevent a race for the bottom among occupations that have never represented a significant fraction of individual spending. One thing I noticed is that the decline among union membership is exactly mirrored by the increase in occupational licensing. In a very real way, occupational licensing, with some tweaks, could be the new unions.

On the other hand, we have doctors and lawyers (and maybe even engineers, although my understanding is that they do far less to restrict supply, especially foreign supply) who are making huge salaries that (in the case of lawyers) might be up to 50% rents from artificially low supply. If we undid some of the artificial barriers to entry they’ve thrown up, we could lower their wages and improve income equality while at the same time improving competition and opening up these fields (which should still pay reasonably well) to more people. Many of us probably know people who’d make perfectly fine doctors that have been kept out of medical school by the overly restrictive quotas. Where’s the harm in having two doctors making $90,000/year instead of one doctor making $180,000/year? It’s not like we couldn’t find a use for twice as many doctors!


The weirdest thing about the recent rise in housing prices is that building houses hasn’t really gotten any more expensive. Between 1950 and 1970, housing prices increased 35% above inflation (when normalized to size) and construction costs increased 28% above inflation. Between 1970 and 2000, construction prices rose 6% slower than inflation – becoming cheaper in real terms – and overall housing costs increased 72% above inflation.

Maybe house prices have gone up because house quality has improved? Not so say data from repeat house sales. When analyzing these data, economists have determined that increased house quality can account for at most 25% of the increase in prices.

Maybe land is just genuinely running out in major cities? Well, if that were the case, we’d see a strong relationship between density and price. After all, density would surely emerge if land were running out, right? When analyzing these data, economists have found no relationship between city density and average home price.

The final clue comes from comparing the value of land houses can be built on with the value of land houses cannot be built on. When you look at how much the size of a lot affects the sale price of very similar homes and compare that with the cost of the land that goes under a house (by subtracting construction costs from the sale prices of new homes), you’ll find that the land under a house is worth ten times the land that simply extends a yard.

This suggests that a major component of rising house prices is the cost of getting permission to build a house on land – basically, finding some of the limited supply of land zoned for actually building anything. This is not land value per se, but instead a rent imposed by onerous zoning requirements. In San Francisco, San Jose, and Manhattan, this zoning cost is responsible for approximately half of house worth.

The purpose of zoning has always been to protect the value of existing homes, by keeping “undesirable” land usage out of a neighbourhood. Traditionally, “undesirable” has been both racist and classist. No one in a well-off neighbourhood wanted any of “those people” to move there, lest prospective future buyers (who shared their racial and social prejudices) not want to move to the neighbourhood. Today, zoning is less explicitly racist (even if it still prices minorities out of many neighbourhoods) and more nakedly about preserving house value by preventing any increase in density. After all, if you live in a desirable neighbourhood, the last thing you want is a large tower bringing in hundreds of new residents at affordable prices. How will you be able to get a premium on your house then? The market will be saturated!

Now if there were no real benefits to living in a city, Lindsey and Teles probably wouldn’t care about zoning. But there definitely are very good reasons why we want more people to be able to live in cities. First: transportation. Transportation is easier when people are densely packed, which makes supplies cheaper and reduces negative externalities from carbon intensive travel. Second: choice. Cities have enough people to allow people to make profits off of weird things, to allow people to carefully choose their jobs, and to allow employers choice in employees. All of these are helpful to the economy. Third: ineffable increases in human capital. There’s just something about cities (theorized to be “information spillover” between people in unrelated jobs) that make them much more productive per capita than anywhere else.

This productivity is rewarded in the form of higher wages. Lindsey and Teles claim that the average income of a high school graduate in Boston is 40% higher than the average income of a college graduate in Flint, Michigan. I’ll buy these data, but I’m a bit skeptical that this results in any more take-home pay for the Bostonian, because wages in Boston have to be higher if people are to live there. Would this hold true if you looked at real wages accounting for differences in cost of living [7]?

If wages are genuinely higher in places like Boston in real terms, then this spatial inequality should be theoretically self-correcting. People from places like Flint should all move to places like Boston, and we’ll see a sudden drop in income inequality and a sudden jump in standard of living for people who only have high school degrees. Lindsey and Teles believe this isn’t happening because the scarcity of housing drives up the initial price of moving far beyond what people without substantial savings can pay – the same people who most need to be able to move [8].

Remember, many apartments require first and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit. I looked up San Francisco on PadMapper and the median rent looks to be something like $3300, a number that agrees with a cursory Google. Paying first and last on that, plus a damage deposit would cost you over $7,000. Add to that moving expenses, and you can see how it could be impossible for someone without savings to move to San Francisco, even if they could expect a relatively well-paid job.

(Lack of movement hurts people who stay behind as well. When people move away in search of higher wages, businesses must eventually raise wages in places seeing a net drain of people, lest the whole workforce disappear. This effect probably led to some of the convergence in average income between states that occurred from 1880 to 1980, an effect that has now markedly slowed.)

Zoning isn’t great anywhere, but it’s worst in the Bay Area and in New York. 75% of the economic costs of misallocated labour and lost productivity growth come from New York, San Francisco, and San Jose. Furthermore, housing might be entirely responsible for Thomas Piketty’s conclusion that we’re doomed to a spiraling cycle of inequality.

Out of all of these examples of rent-seeking, the one I feel least optimistic about is zoning. The problem with zoning is that people have bought houses at the prices that zoning guaranteed. If we were to significantly loosen it, we’d be ruining many people’s principle investment. Even if increasing home wealth represents one of the single greatest sources of inequality in our society and even if it is exacting a terrifying toll on our economy, it will be extremely hard to build the sort of coalition necessary to break the backs of municipalities and local landowners.

Until we figure out how to do that, I’m going to continue to fight back tears every time I see a sign like this one:

Why should I get a say in whether a local commercial landlord provides the businesses in their building slightly smaller parking spots? Shouldn’t we be aiming for a walkable, decarbonized downtown where parking is irrelevant? That’s what all the plans call for. Of course, the whole thing makes sense if it isn’t about what size parking spots should be and is about making it impossible for anyone to build anything in my downtown neighbourhood.

How do we fight rent-seeking?

Surprisingly, most of the suggestions Lindsey and Teles put forth are minor, pro-democratic, and pro-government. There isn’t a single call in here to restrict democracy, shrink the size of the government, or completely overhaul anything major. They’re incrementalist, pragmatic, and give me a tiny bit of hope we might one day even be able to conquer zoning.

Rent-seeking is easiest when democracy is opaque, when it is speedy, when it is polarized, and when it is difficult for independent organizations to supply high-quality information to politicians.

One of the right-wing policies that Lindsey and Teles are harshest on are efforts to slash and burn the civil service. They claim that this has left the civil service unable to come up with policies or data of its own. They’re stuck trusting the very people they seek to regulate for any data about the effects of their regulations.

Obviously, there are problems with this, even though it doesn’t seem to extend to outright horse-trading or data-manipulation. It’s relatively easy to nudge peoples’ decision making by choosing how data is presented. Just slightly overstate the risks and play down the benefits. Or anchor someone with a plan you know they’re primed to like and don’t present them any alternatives that would hurt your bottom line. No briefcases of money change hands, but government is corrupted nonetheless [9].

To combat this, Lindsey and Teles suggest that all committees in the US House and Senate should have a staffing budget sufficient to hire numerous staffers, some of whom would work for the committee as a whole and others who would work for individual members. Everything would get reshuffled every two years, with a rank-match system used to assign preferences. Employee quality would be ensured by paying market-competitive salaries and letting go anyone who was too-consistently ranked low.

(Better salaries would also end the practice of staffers going to work for lobbyists after several years, which isn’t great for rent-seeking.)

Having staff assigned to committees, rather than representatives on a permanent basis prevents representatives from diverting these resources to their re-election campaigns. It also might build bridges across partisan divides, because staff would be free from an us vs. them mentality.

The current partisan grip on politics can actually help rent-seeking. Lindsey and Teles claim that when partisanship is high, party discipline follows. Leaders focus on what the party agrees on. Unfortunately, neither party is in any sort of agreement with itself about combatting rent-seekers, even though fighting rent-seeking offers a compelling way to spur economic growth (ostensibly a core Republican priority) and decrease economic inequality (ostensibly a core Democratic priority).

If partisanship was less severe and the coalitions less uniform, leaders would have less power over their caucuses and representatives would search for ways to cooperate across the aisle whenever doing so could create wins for their constituents. This would mark a return to the “strange-bedfellows” temporary coalitions of bygone times. Perhaps one of these coalitions could be against rent-seeking [10]?

Lindsey and Teles also call for more issues to be decided in general jurisdictions where public interest and opportunity for engagement are high. They point to studies that show teachers can extract rents when budgets are controlled by school boards (which are obscure and easily dominated by unions). When schools are controlled by mayors, it becomes much harder for rents to be extracted, because the venue is much broader. More people care about and vote for municipal representatives and mayors than attend school board meetings.

Similarly, they suggest that we should very rarely allow occupation licensing to be handled by the profession itself. When a professional licensing body stacked with members of the profession decides standards, they almost always do it for their own interest, not for the interest of the broader public. State governments, one the other hand, are better at considering what everyone wants.

Finally, politics cannot be too quick. If it’s possible to go from drafting a bill to passing it in less time than it takes to read it, then it’s obviously impossible to build up a public pressure campaign to stop any nastiness in it. If bills required one day of debate for every hundred pages in them and this requirement (or a similar one) was inviolable, then if someone buried something nasty in it (say, a repeal of a nation’s prevailing currency standards), people would know, would be able to organize, and would be able to make the electoral consequences of voting for it clear to their representatives.

To get to a point where any of this is possible, Lindsey and Teles suggest building up a set of policies on the local, state, and national levels and working to build public support for them. With these policies existing in the sidelines, it will be possible to grab any political opportunity – the right scandal or outrage, perhaps – and pressure representatives to stand up against entrenched interests. Only in these moments when everyone is paying attention can we make it clear to politicians that their careers depend most on satisfying our desires than they do on satisfying the desires of the people who fund their campaign. Since these moments are rare, preparation for them is key. It isn’t enough to start looking for a solution when an opportunity presents itself. If we don’t move quickly, the rent-seekers will.

This book is, I think, the opening salvo in this war. Its slim and its purpose is to introduce people from across the political spectrum to the problem of rent-seeking and galvanize them to prepare for when the time is right. Its’ authors are high profile economists with major backing. Perhaps this is also a signal that similar backing might be available for anyone willing to innovate around anti-rent-seeking policy?

For my part, I had opposed rent-seeking because I knew it hurt economic growth. I hadn’t understood just how much it contributed to income inequality. Rent-seeking increases corporate profits, making capitalists far wealthier than labourers can ever hope to be. It inflates the salaries of already wealthy professionals at the cost of everyone else and locks people without college degrees out of all but the most moribund or dangerous parts of the job market. It leads bankers to speculate wildly, in a way that occasionally brings down the economy. And it makes the humble home-owners of last generation the millionaires of this one, while pricing millions out of what was once a rite of passage.

Lindsey and Teles convinced me that fighting rent-seeking is entirely consistent with my political commitments. Municipal elections are coming up and I’m committed to finding and volunteering for any candidate who is consistently anti-zoning. If none exists, then I’ll register myself. Winning almost isn’t the point. I want to be one of those people getting the word out, showing that alternatives to the current broken system is possible.

And when the time is right, I want to be there when those alternatives supplant the rent-seekers.


[1] Rent-seeking doesn’t necessarily have to lead to increased inequality. Strict immigration controls, monopolies, strong unions, and strict tariffs all extract rents. These rents, however, tend to distribute down or sideways, so don’t really increase inequality. ^

[2] Banks don’t keep enough money on hand to cover deposits entirely, because they need to lend out money to make money. If banks didn’t lend money, you’d have to pay them for the privilege of parking your money there. This means that banks run into a problem when everyone tries to withdraw their money at once. Eventually, there will be no more money and the bank will fail. This used to happen all the time.

Before deposits were insured, it was only rational to withdraw your money if you thought there was even a small chance of a bank run. If you didn’t withdraw your money from a bank without deposit insurance and a bank run happened, you would lose your whole deposit.

Bank architecture reflects this risk. Everything about the imposing facades of old banks is supposed to make you think they’re as stable as possible and so feel comfortable keeping your money there. ^

[3] Socialists. ^

[4] The rise of streaming and torrenting suggests that this is more often held as an abstract principle than it is followed “in the breach”. ^

[5] See also his argument for why we shouldn’t retroactively grant new exclusivity on generics. ^

[6] I wonder if this generalizes? Would a parliament full of engineers be obsessed with optimization and fond of very clear laws? Would a parliament full of doctors spend a lot of time running a differential diagnosis on the nation? Certainly military dictators excel at seeing everyone as an enemy on whom force can be justifiably used. ^

[7] College graduates in the wealthiest cities make 61% more money than college graduates in the least wealthy cities, while people with only high school degrees make 137% more in the richest cities compared to the poorest cities. This suggests that it’s possible high school graduates are much better off in wealthy cities, but it could also be true that college graduates fall prey to money illusions or are willing to pay a premium to live in a place that provides them with many more opportunities for new experiences. ^

[8] I think there will also always be social factors preventing people from moving, but perhaps these factors would weigh less heavily if real wage differences between thriving cities and declining areas weren’t driven down by inflated real estate prices in cities. ^

[9] This is perhaps the most invidious – and unintended – consequence of Stephen Harper’s agenda for Canada. Cutting the long form census made it harder for the Canadian government to enact social policies (Harper’s goal), but if these sorts of actions aren’t checked, reversed, and guarded against, they also make rent-seeking much more likely. ^

[10] In Canadian politics, I have hope that some sort of housing affordability coalition could form between some members from left-leaning parties and some principled free-marketers. Michael Chong already has a plan to lower housing prices by getting the government out of the loan securitization business. No doubt banks wouldn’t enjoy this, but I for one would appreciate it if my taxes couldn’t be used to bail out failing banks. ^

Economics, History, Politics

A Cross of Gold: The Best Speech You’ve Never Heard

Friends, lend me your ears.

I write today about a speech that was once considered the greatest political speech in American history. Even today, after Reagan, Obama, Eisenhower, and King, it is counted among the very best. And yet this speech has passed from the history we have learned. Its speaker failed in his ambitions and the cause he championed is so archaic that most people wouldn’t even understand it.

I speak of Congressman Will J Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech.

William Jennings Bryan was a congressman from Nebraska, a lawyer, a three-time Democratic candidate for president (1896, 1900, 1908), the 41st Secretary of State, and oddly enough, the lawyer for the prosecution at the Scopes Monkey Trial. He was also a “silver Democrat”, one of the insurgents who rose to challenge Democratic President Grover Cleveland and the Democratic party establishment over their support for gold over a bimetallic (gold plus silver) currency system.

The dispute over bimetallic currency is now more than a hundred years old and has been made entirely moot by the floating US dollar and the post-Bretton Woods international monetary order. Still, it’s worth understanding the debate about bimetallism, because the concerns Bryan’s speech raised are still concerns today. Once you understand why Bryan argued for what he did, this speech transforms from dusty history into still-relevant insights into live issues that our political process still struggles to address.

When Alexander Hamilton was setting up a currency system for the United States, he decided that there would be a bimetallic standard. Both gold and silver currency would be issued by the mint, with the US Dollar specified in terms of both metals. Any citizen could bring gold or silver to the mint and have it struck into coins (for a small fee, which covered operating costs).

Despite congressional attempts to tweak the ratio between the metals, problems often emerged. Whenever gold was worth more by weight than it was as currency, it would be bought using silver and melted down for profit. Whenever the silver dollar was undervalued, the same thing happened to it. By 1847, the silver in coins was so overvalued that silver coinage had virtually disappeared from circulation and many people found themselves unable to complete low-value transactions.

Congress responded by debasing silver coins, which led to an increase in the supply of coins and for a brief time, there was a stable equilibrium where people actually could find and use silver coins. Unfortunately, the equilibrium didn’t last and the discovery of new silver deposits swung things in the opposite direction, leading to fears that people would use silver to buy gold dollars and melt them down outside the country. Since international trade was conducted in gold, it would have been very bad for America had all the gold coins disappeared.

Congress again responded, this time by burying the demonetization of several silver coins (including the silver dollar) in a bill that was meant to modernize the mint. The logic here was that no one would be able to buy up any significant amount of gold if they had to do it in nickels. Unfortunately for congress, a depression happened right after they passed the bill.

Some people blamed the depression on the change in coinage and popular sentiment in some corners became committed to the re-introduction of the silver dollar.

The silver supplies that caused this whole fracas hadn’t gone anywhere. People knew that re-introducing silver would have been an inflationary measure, as the statutory amount of silver in a dollar would have been worth about $0.75 in gold backed currency, but they largely didn’t care – or viewed that as a positive. The people clamouring for silver also didn’t conduct much international trade, so they didn’t mind if silver currency drove out gold and made trade difficult.

There were attempts to remonetize the silver dollar over the next twenty years, but they were largely unsuccessful. A few mine owners found markets for their silver at the mint when law demanded a series of one-off runs of silver coins, but congress never restored bimetallism to the point that there was any significant silver in circulation – or significant inflation. Even these limited silver-minting measures were repealed in 1893, which left the United States on a de facto gold standard.

For many, the need for silver became more urgent after the Panic of 1893, which featured everything a good Gilded Age panic normally did – bank runs, failing railways, declines in trade, credit crunches, a crash in commodity prices, and the inevitable run on the US gold reserves.

The commodity price crash hit farmers especially hard. They were heavily indebted and had no real way to pay it off – unless their debts were reduced by inflation. Since no one had found any large gold deposits anywhere (the Klondike gold rush didn’t actually produce anything until 1898 and the Fairbanks gold rush didn’t occur until 1902), that wasn’t going to happen on the gold standard. The Democrat grassroots quickly embraced bimetallism, while the party apparatus remained supporters of the post-1893 de facto gold standard.

This was the backdrop for Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech, which took place during summer 1896 at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was already a famed orator and had been petitioning members of the party in secret for the presidential nomination, but his plans weren’t well known. He managed to go almost the entire convention without giving a speech. Then, once the grassroots had voted out the old establishment and began hammering out the platform, he arranged to be the closing speaker representing the delegates (about 66% of the total) who supported official bimetallism.

The convention had been marked by a lack of any effective oratory. In a stunning ten-minute speech (that stretched much longer because of repeated minutes-long interruptions for thunderous applause) Bryan singlehandedly changed that and won the nomination.

And this whole thing, the lobbying before the convention and the carefully crafted surprise moment, all of it makes me think of how effective Aaron Swartz’s Theory of Change idea can be when executed correctly.

Theory of Change says that if there’s something you want to accomplish, you shouldn’t start with what you’re good at and work towards it. You should start with the outcome you want and keep asking yourself how you’ll accomplish it.

Bryan decided that he wanted America to have a bimetallic currency. Unfortunately, there was a political class united in its opposition to this policy. That meant he needed a president that favoured it. Without the president, you need to get 66% of Congress and the Senate onboard and that clearly wasn’t happening with the country’s elites so hostile to silver.

Okay, well how do you get a president who’s in favour of restoring silver as currency? You make sure one of the two major parties nominates a candidate in favour of it, first of all. Since the Republicans (even then the party of big business) weren’t going to do it, it had to be the Democrats.

That means the question facing Bryan became: “how do you get the Democrats to pick a presidential candidate that supports silver?”

And this question certainly wasn’t easy. Bryan on his own couldn’t guarantee it, because it required delegates at least sympathetic to the idea. But there was a national backdrop such that that seemed likely, as long as there was a good candidate all of the “silver men” could unite around.

So, Bryan needed to ensure there was a good candidate and that that candidate got elected. Well, that was a problem, because neither of the two leading silver candidates were very popular. Luckily, Bryan was a Democrat, a former congressman, and kind of popular.

I think this is when the plan must have crystalized. Bryan just needed to deliver a really good speech to an already receptive audience. With the cachet from an excellent speech, he would clearly become the choice of silver supporting Democrats, become the Democratic party presidential candidate, and win the presidency. Once all that was accomplished, silver coins would become money again.

The fantastic thing is that it almost worked. Bryan was nominated on the Democratic ticket, absorbed the Populist party into the Democratic party to prevent a vote split, and came within 600,000 votes of winning the presidency. All because of a plan. All because of a speech.

So, what did he say?

Well, the full speech is available here. I do really recommend it. But I want to highlight three specific parts.

A Too Narrow Definition of “Business”

We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day—who begins in the spring and toils all summer—and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the board of trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.

In some ways, this passage is as much the source of the mythology of the American Dream as the inscription on the statue of liberty. Bryan rejects any definition of businessman that focuses on the richest in the coastal cities and instead substitutes a definition that opens it up to any common man who earns a living. You can see echoes of this paragraph in almost every presidential speech by almost every presidential candidate.

Think of anyone you’ve heard running for president in recent years. Now read the following sentence in their voice: “Small business owners – like Monica in Texas – who are struggling to keep their business running in these tough economic times need all the help we can give them”. It works because “small business owners” has become one of the sacred cows of American rhetoric.

Bryan added this line just days before he delivered the speech. It was the only part of the whole thing that was at all new. And because this speech inspired a generation of future speeches, it passed into the mythology of America.

Trickle Down or Trickle Up

Mr. Carlisle said in 1878 that this was a struggle between “the idle holders of idle capital” and “the struggling masses, who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country”; and, my friends, the question we are to decide is: Upon which side will the Democratic party fight; upon the side of “the idle holders of idle capital” or upon the side of “the struggling masses”? That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic party. There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.

Almost a full century before Reagan’s trickle-down economics, Democrats were taking a stand against that entire world-view. Through all its changes – from the party of slavery to the party of civil rights, from the party of the Southern farmers to the party of “coastal elites” – the Democratic party has always viewed itself as hewing to this one simple principle. Indeed, the core difference between the Republican party and the Democratic party may be that the Republican party views the role of government to “get out of the way” of the people, while the Democratic party believes that the job of government is to “make the masses prosperous”.

A Cross of Gold

Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

This is perhaps the best ending to a speech I have ever seen. Apparently at the conclusion of the address, dead silence endured for several seconds and Bryan worried he had failed. Two police officers in the audience were ahead of the curve and rushed Bryan – so that they could protect him from the inevitable crush.

Bryan turned what could have been a dry, dusty, nitty-gritty issue into the overriding moral question of his day. In fact, by co-opting the imagery of the crown of thorns and the cross, he tapped into the most powerful vein of moral imagery that existed in his society. Invoking the cross, the central mystery and miracle of Christianity cannot but help to put (in a thoroughly Christian society) an issue on a moral footing, as opposed to an intellectual one.

This sort of moral rather than intellectual posture is a hallmark of any insurgency against a technocratic order. Technocrats (myself among them!) like to pretend that we can optimize public policy. It is, to us, often a matter of just finding the solution that empirically provides the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Who could be against that?

But by presupposing that the only moral principle is the greatest good for the greatest number, we obviate moral contemplation in favour of tinkering with numbers and variables.

(The most cutting critique of utilitarianism I’ve ever seen delivered was: “[These problems are] seen in the light of a technical or practical difficulty and utilitarianism appeals to a frame of mind in which technical difficulty, even insuperable technical difficulty, is preferable to moral unclarity, no doubt because it is less alarming.”, a snide remark by the great British ethicist Sir Bernard Williams from his half of Utilitarianism for and against.)

This avoiding-the-question-so-we-can-tinker is a policy that can provoke a backlash like Bryan. Leaving aside entirely the difficulty of truly knowing which policies will have “good” results, there’s the uncomfortable truth that not every policy is positive sum. Even positive sum policies can hurt people. Bryan ran for president because questions of monetary policy aren’t politically neutral.

The gold standard, for all the intellectual arguments behind it, was hurting people. Maybe not a majority of people, but people nonetheless. There’s a whole section of the speech where Bryan points out that the established order cannot just say “changes will hurt my business”, because the current situation was hurting other people’s businesses too.

It is very tempting to write that questions of monetary policy “weren’t” politically neutral. After all, there’s a pretty solid consensus on monetary policy these days (well, except for the neo-Fisherians, but there’s a reason no one listens to them). But even (especially) a consensus among experts can be challenged by legitimate political disagreements. When the Fed chose to pull interest rates low as stimulus for the economy after 2008, it put the needs of people trying to find jobs over those of retired people who held their savings in safe bonds.

If you lower speed limits, you make roads safer for law abiding citizens and less safe for people who habitually speed. If you decriminalize drugs, you protect rich techies who microdose on LSD and hurt people who view decriminalization as license to dabble in opiates.

Even the best intentioned or best researched public policy can hurt people. Even if you (like me) believe in the greatest good for the greatest number of people, you have to remember that. You can’t ever let hurting people be easy or unthinking.

Even though it failed in its original aim and even though the cause it promotes is dead, I want people to remember Bryan’s speech. I especially want people who hold power to remember Bryan’s speech. Bryan chose oratory as his vehicle, his way of standing up for people who were hurt by well-intentioned public policy. In 1896, I might have stood against Bryan. But that doesn’t mean I want his speech and the lessons it teaches to be forgotten. Instead, I view it as a call to action, a call to never turn away from the people you hurt, even when you know you are doing right. A call to not forget them. A call to try and help them too.

Data Science, Economics, Falsifiable

The Scale of Inequality

When dealing with questions of inequality, I often get boggled by the sheer size of the numbers. People aren’t very good at intuitively parsing the difference between a million and a billion. Our brains round both to “very large”. I’m actually in a position where I get reminded of this fairly often, as the difference can become stark when programming. Running a program on a million points of data takes scant seconds. Running the same set of operations on a billion data points can take more than an hour. A million seconds is eleven and a half days. A billion seconds 31 years.

Here I would like to try to give a sense of the relative scale of various concepts in inequality. Just how much wealth do the wealthiest people in the world possess compared to the rest? How much of the world’s middle class is concentrated in just a few wealthy nations? How long might it take developing nations to catch up with developed nations? How long before there exists enough wealth in the world that everyone could be rich if we just distributed it more fairly?

According to the Forbes billionaire list, there are (as of the time of writing) 2,208 billionaires in the world, who collectively control $9.1 trillion in wealth (1 trillion seconds ago was the year 29691 BCE, contemporaneous with the oldest cave paintings in Europe). This is 3.25% of the total global wealth of $280 trillion.

The US Federal Budget for 2019 is $4.4 trillion. State governments and local governments each spend another $1.9 trillion. Some $700 billion dollars is given to those governments by the Federal government. With that subtracted, total US government spending is projected to be $7.5 trillion next year.

Therefore, the whole world population of billionaires holds assets equivalent to 1.2 years of US government outlays. Note that US government outlays aren’t equivalent to that money being destroyed. It goes to pay salaries or buy equipment. The comparison here is simply to illustrate how private wealth stacks up against the budgets that governments control.

If we go down by a factor of 1000, there are about 15 million millionaires in the world (according to Wikipedia). Millionaires collectively hold $37.1 trillion (13.25% of all global wealth). All of the wealth that millionaires hold would be enough to fund US government spending for five years.

When we see sensational headlines, like “Richest 1% now owns half the world’s wealth“, we tend to think that we’re talking about millionaires and billionaires. In fact, millionaires and billionaires only own about 16.5% of the world’s wealth (which is still a lot for 0.2% of the world’s population to hold). The rest is owned by less wealthy individuals. The global 1% makes $32,400 a year or more. This is virtually identical to the median American yearly salary. This means that almost fully half of Americans are in the global 1%. Canadians now have a similar median wage, which means a similar number are in the global 1%.

To give a sense of how this distorts the global middle class, I used, the World Bank’s online tool for poverty measurement. I looked for the percentage of a country’s population making between 75% and 125% of the median US income (at purchasing power parity, which takes into account cheaper goods and services in developing countries), equivalent to $64-$107US per day (which is what you get when you divide 75% and 125% of the median US wage by 365 – as far as I can tell, this is the procedure that gives us numbers like $1.25 per day income as the threshold for absolute poverty).

I grabbed what I thought would be an interesting set of countries: The G8, BRICS, The Next 11, Australia, Botswana, Chile, Spain, and Ukraine. These 28 countries had – in the years surveyed – a combined population of 5.3 billion people and had among them the 17 largest economies in the world (in nominal terms). You can see my spreadsheet collecting this data here.

The United States had by far the largest estimated middle class (73 million people), followed by Germany (17 million), Japan (12 million), France (12 million), and the United Kingdom (10 million). Canada came next with 8 million, beating most larger countries, including Brazil, Italy, Korea, Spain, Russia, China, and India. Iran and Mexico have largely similar middle-class sizes, despite Mexico being substantially larger. Botswana ended up having a larger middle class than the Ukraine.

This speaks to a couple of problems when looking at inequality. First, living standards (and therefore class distinctions) are incredibly variable from country to country. A standard of living that is considered middle class in North America might not be the same in Europe or Japan. In fact, I’ve frequently heard it said that the North American middle class (particularly Americans and Canadians) consume more than their equivalents in Europe. Therefore, this should be looked at as a comparison of North American equivalent middle class – who, as I’ve already said, are about 50% encompassed in the global 1%.

Second, we tend to think of countries in Europe as generally wealthier than countries in Africa. This isn’t necessarily true. Botswana’s GDP per capita is actually three times larger than Ukraine’s when unadjusted and more than twice as large at purchasing power parity (which takes into account price differences between countries). It also has a higher GDP per capita than Serbia, Albania, and Moldova (even at purchasing power parity). Botswana, Seychelles, and Gabon have per capita GDPs at purchasing power parity that aren’t dissimilar from those possessed by some less developed European countries.

Botswana, Gabon, and Seychelles have all been distinguished by relatively high rates of growth since decolonization, which has by now made them “middle income” countries. Botswana’s growth has been so powerful and sustained that in my spreadsheet, it has a marginally larger North American equivalent middle class than Nigeria, a country approximately 80 times larger than it.

Of all the listed countries, Canada had the largest middle class as a percent of its population. This no doubt comes partially from using North American middle-class standards (and perhaps also because of the omission of the small, homogenous Nordic countries), although it is also notable that Canada has the highest median income of major countries (although this might be tied with the United States) and the highest 40th percentile income. America dominates income for people in the 60th percentile and above, while Norway comes out ahead for people in the 30th percentile or below.

The total population of the (North American equivalent) middle class in these 28 countries was 170 million, which represents about 3% of their combined population.

There is a staggering difference in consumption between wealthy countries and poor countries, in part driven by the staggering difference in the size of middle (and higher classes) – people with income to spend on things beyond immediate survival. According to Trading Economics, the total disposable income of China is $7.84 trillion (dollars are US). India has $2.53 trillion. Canada, with a population almost 40 times smaller than either, has a total disposable income of $0.96 trillion, while America, with a population about four times smaller than either China or India has a disposable income of $14.79 trillion, larger than China and India put together. If China was as wealthy as Canada, its yearly disposable income would be almost $300 trillion, approximately equivalent to the total amount of wealth in the world.

According to Wikipedia, The Central African Republic has the world’s lowest GDP per capita at purchasing power parity, making it a good candidate for the title of “world’s poorest country”. Using Povcal, I was able to estimate the median wage at $1.33 per day (or $485 US per year). If the Central African Republic grew at the same rate as Botswana did post-independence (approximately 8% year on year) starting in 2008 (the last year for which I had data) and these gains were seen in the median wage, it would take until 2139 for it to attain the same median wage as the US currently enjoys. This of course ignores development aid, which could speed up the process.

All of the wealth currently in the world is equivalent to $36,000 per person (although this is misleading, because much of the world’s wealth is illiquid – it’s in houses and factories and cars). All of the wealth currently on the TSX is equivalent to about $60,000 per Canadian. All of the wealth currently on the NYSE is equivalent to about $65,000 per American. In just corporate shares alone, Canada and the US are almost twice as wealthy as the global average. This doesn’t even get into the cars, houses, and other resources that people own in those countries.

If total global wealth were to grow at the same rate as the market, we might expect to have approximately $1,000,000 per person (not inflation adjusted) sometime between 2066 and 2072, depending on population growth. If we factor in inflation and want there to be approximately $1,000,000 per person in present dollars, it will instead take until sometime between 2102 and 2111.

This assumes too much, of course. But it gives you a sense of how much we have right now and how long it will take to have – as some people incorrectly believe we already do – enough that everyone could (in a fair world) have so much they might never need to work.

This is not of course, to say, that things are fair today. It remains true that the median Canadian or American makes more money every year than 99% of the world, and that the wealth possessed by those median Canadians or Americans and those above them is equivalent to that held by the bottom 50% of the world. Many of us, very many of those reading this perhaps, are the 1%.

That’s the reality of inequality.

Data Science, Economics, Falsifiable

Is Google Putting Money In Your Pocket?

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has put tech companies front and centre. If the thinkpieces along the lines of “are the big tech companies good or bad for society” were coming out any faster, I might have to doubt even Google’s ability to make sense of them all.

This isn’t another one of those thinkpieces. Instead it’s an attempt at an analysis. I want to understand in monetary terms how much one tech company – Google – puts into or takes out of everyone’s pockets. This analysis is going to act as a template for some of the more detailed analyses of inequality I’d like to do later, so if you have a comment about methodology, I’m eager to hear it.

Here’s the basics: Google is a large technology company that primarily makes money off of ad revenues. Since Google is a publicly traded company, statistics are easy to come by. In 2016, Google brought in $89.5 billion in revenue and about 89% of that was from advertising. Advertising is further broken down between advertising on Google sites (e.g. Google Search, Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, etc.) which account for 80% of advertising revenue and advertising on partner sites, which covers the remainder. The remaining 11% is made up of a variety of smaller projects – selling corporate licenses of its GSuite office software, the Google Play Store, the Google Cloud Computing Platform, and several smaller projects.

There are two ways that we can track how Google’s existence helps or hurts you financially. First, there’s the value of the software it provides. Google’s search has become so important to our daily life that we don’t even notice it anymore – it’s like breathing. Then there’s YouTube, which has more high-quality content than anyone could watch in a lifetime. There’s Google Docs, which are almost a full (free!) replacement for Microsoft Office. There’s Gmail, which is how basically everyone I know does their email. And there’s Android, currently the only viable alternative to iOS. If you had to pay for all of this stuff, how much would you be out?

Second, we can look at how its advertising arm has changed the prices of everything we buy. If Google’s advertising system has driven an increase in spending on advertising (perhaps by starting an arms race in advertising, or by arming marketing managers with graphs, charts and metrics that they can use to trigger increased spending), then we’re all ultimately paying for Google’s software with higher prices elsewhere (we could also be paying with worse products at the same prices, as advertising takes budget that would otherwise be used on quality). On the other hand, if more targeted advertising has led to less advertising overall, then everything will be slightly less expensive (or higher quality) than the counterfactual world in which more was spent on advertising.

Once we add this all up, we’ll have some sort of answer. We’ll know if Google has made us better off, made us poorer, or if it’s been neutral. This doesn’t speak to any social benefits that Google may provide (if they exist – and one should hope they do exist if Google isn’t helping us out financially).

To estimate the value of the software Google provides, we should compare it to the most popular paid alternatives – and look into the existence of any other good free alternatives. Because of this, we can’t really evaluate Search, but because of its existence, let’s agree to break any tie in favour of Google helping us.

On the other hand, Google docs is very easy to compare with other consumer alternatives. Microsoft Office Home Edition costs $109 yearly. Word Perfect (not that anyone uses it anymore) is $259.99 (all prices should be assumed to be in Canadian dollars unless otherwise noted).

Free alternatives exist in the form of OpenOffice and LibreOffice, but both tend to suffer from bugs. Last time I tried to make a presentation in OpenOffice I found it crashed approximately once per slide. I had a similar experience with LibreOffice. I once installed it for a friend who was looking to save money and promptly found myself fixing problems with it whenever I visited his house.

My crude estimate is that I’d expect to spend four hours troubleshooting either free alternative per year. Weighing this time at Ontario’s minimum wage of $14/hour and accepting that the only office suite that anyone under 70 ever actually buys is Microsoft’s offering and we see that Google saves you $109 per year compared to Microsoft and $56 each year compared to using free software.

With respect to email, there are numerous free alternatives to Gmail (like Microsoft’s Hotmail). In addition, many internet service providers bundle free email addresses in with their service. Taking all this into account, Gmail probably doesn’t provide much in the way of direct monetary value to consumers, compared to its competitors.

Google Maps is in a similar position. There are several alternatives that are also free, like Apple Maps, Waze (also owned by Google), Bing Maps, and even the Open Street Map project. Even if you believe that Google Maps provides more value than these alternatives, it’s hard to quantify it. What’s clear is that Google Maps isn’t so far ahead of the pack that there’s no point to using anything else. The prevalence of Google Maps might even be because of user laziness (or anticompetitive behaviour by Google). I’m not confident it’s better than everything else, because I’ve rarely used anything else.

Android is the last Google project worth analyzing and it’s an interesting one. On one hand, it looks like Apple phones tend to cost more than comparable Android phones. On the other hand, Apple is a luxury brand and it’s hard to tell how much of the added price you pay for an iPhone is attributable to that, to differing software, or to differing hardware. Comparing a few recent phones, there’s something like a $50-$200 gap between flagship Android phones and iPhones of the same generation. I’m going to assign a plausible sounding $20 cost saved per phone from using Android, then multiply this by the US Android market share (53%), to get $11 for the average consumer. The error bars are obviously rather large on this calculation.

(There may also be second order effects from increased competition here; the presence of Android could force Apple to develop more features or lower its prices slightly. This is very hard to calculate, so I’m not going to try to.)

When we add this up, we see that Google Docs save anyone who does word processing $50-$100 per year and Android saves the average phone buyer $11 approximately every two years. This means the average person probably sees some slight yearly financial benefit from Google, although I’m not sure the median person does. The median person and the average person do both get some benefit from Google Search, so there’s something in the plus column here, even if it’s hard to quantify.

Now, on to advertising.

I’ve managed to find an assortment of sources that give a view of total advertising spending in the United States over time, as well as changes in the GDP and inflation. I’ve compiled it all in a spreadsheet with the sources listed at the bottom. Don’t just take my word for it – you can see the data yourself. Overlapping this, I’ve found data for Google’s revenue during its meteoric rise – from $19 million in 2001 to $110 billion in 2017.

Google ad revenue represented 0.03% of US advertising spending in 2002. By 2012, a mere 10 years later, it was equivalent to 14.7% of the total. Over that same time, overall advertising spending increased from $237 billion in 2002 to $297 billion in 2012 (2012 is the last date I have data for total advertising spending). Note however that this isn’t a true comparison, because some Google revenue comes from outside of America. I wasn’t able to find revenue broken down in greater depth that this, so I’m using these numbers in an illustrative manner, not an exact manner.

So, does this mean that Google’s growth drove a growth in advertising spending? Probably not. As the economy is normally growing and changing, the absolute amount of advertising spending is less important than advertising spending compared to the rest of the economy. Here we actually see the opposite of what a naïve reading of the numbers would suggest. Advertising spending grew more slowly than economic growth from 2002 to 2012. In 2002, it was 2.3% of the US economy. By 2012, it was 1.9%.

This also isn’t evidence that Google (and other targeted advertising platforms have decreased spending on advertising). Historically, advertising has represented between 1.2% of US GDP (in 1944, with the Second World War dominating the economy) and 3.0% (in 1922, during the “roaring 20s”). Since 1972, the total has been more stable, varying between 1.7% and 2.5%. A Student’s T-test confirms (P-values around 0.35 for 1919-2002 vs. 2003-2012 and 1972-2002 vs. 2003-2012) that there’s no significant difference between post-Google levels of spending and historical levels.

Even if this was lower than historical bounds, it wouldn’t necessarily prove Google (and its ilk) are causing reduced ad spending. It could be that trends would have driven advertising spending even lower, absent Google’s rise. All we can for sure is that Google hasn’t caused an ahistorically large change in advertising rates. In fact, the only thing that is clear in the advertising trends is the peak in the early 1920s that has never been recaptured and a uniquely low dip in the 1940s that seems to have obviously been caused by World War II. For all that people talk about tech disrupting advertising and ad-supported businesses, these current changes are still less drastic than changes we’ve seen in the past.

The change in advertising spending during the years Google is growing could be driven by Google and similar advertising services. But it also could be normal year to year variation, driven by trends similar to what have driven it in the past. If I had a Ph. D. in advertising history, I might be able to tell you what those trends are, but from my present position, all I can say is that the current movement doesn’t seem that weird, from a historical perspective.

In summary, it looks like the expected value for the average person from Google products is close to $0, but leaning towards positive. It’s likely to be positive for you personally if you need a word processor or use Android phones, but the error bounds on advertising mean that it’s hard to tell. Furthermore, we can confidently say that the current disruption in the advertising space is probably less severe than the historical disruption to the field during World War II. There’s also a chance that more targeted advertising has led to less advertising spending (and this does feel more likely than it leading to more spending), but the historical variations in data are large enough that we can’t say for sure.

Economics, Politics

When To Worry About Public Debt

I watch a lot of political debates with my friends. A couple of them have turned to me after watching heated arguments about public debt and (because I have a well-known habit of reading monetary policy blogs) asked me who is right. I hear questions like:

Is it true that public debt represents an unfair burden on our hypothetical grandchildren? Is all this talk about fiscal discipline and balanced budgets pointless? Is it really bad when public debt gets over 100% of a country’s GDP? How can the threat of defaulting on loans lead to inflation and ruin?

And what does all this mean for Ontario? Is Doug Ford right about the deficit?

This is my attempt to sort this all out in a public and durable form. Now when I’ve taken a political debate drinking game too far, I’ll still be able to point people towards the answers to their questions.

(Disclaimer: I’m not an economist. Despite the research I did for it and the care with which I edited, this post may contain errors, oversimplifications, or misunderstandings.)

Is Public Debt A Burden On Future Generations?

Among politicians of a certain stripe, it’s common to compare the budget of a country to the budget of a family. When a family is budgeting, any shortfall must be paid for via loans. Left unspoken is the fact that many families find themselves in a rather large amount of debt early on – because they need a mortgage to buy their dwelling. The only way a family can ever get out of debt is by maintaining a monthly surplus until their mortgage is paid off, then being careful to avoid taking on too much new debt.

Becoming debt free is desirable to individuals for two reasons. First, it makes their retirement (feel) much more secure. Given that retirement generally means switching to a fixed income or living off savings, it can be impossible to pay off the principle of a debt after someone makes the decision to retire.

Second, parents often desire to leave something behind for their children. This is only possible if their assets outweigh their debts.

Countries have to grapple with neither of these responsibilities. While it is true that the average age in many countries is steadily increasing, countries that have relatively open immigration policies and are attractive to immigrants largely avoid this problem. Look at how Canada and the United States compare to Italy and Japan in working age population percentage, for example.

Graph showing % of working age population in 4 OECD countries: Japan, Canada, USA, Italy.
After seeing this graph, I realized how hyperbolic it was to talk about Japan’s aging population. Source: OECD.


Even in Japan, where this is “dire”, the percentage of the population that is working age is equivalent to the percentage of the population that was working age in Canada or America in 1970. As lifespans increase, we may have to expand our definition of working age. But some combination of immigration, better support for parents, and better support for older citizens who wish to keep working will prevent us from ever getting to a point where it’s sensible to talk about a country “retiring”.

Since countries don’t “retire”, they don’t have to cope with the worry of “needing to work later to pay off that debt”. Since countries don’t have children, they don’t have to worry about having something to pass on. Countries don’t ever actually have to pay back all of their debt. They can continue to roll it over indefinitely, as long as someone is willing to continue to loan them money at a rate they’re willing to pay.

What I mean by “rolling over”, is that countries can just get a new loan for the same amount as their last one, as soon as the previous loan comes due. If interest rates have risen (either in general, or because the country is a greater risk) since their last loan, the new loan will be more expensive. If they’ve fallen, it will be cheaper. Rolling over loans changes the interest rate a country is paying, but doesn’t change the amount it owes.

Is Talk Of Discipline Pointless?


Even if countries don’t really ever have to pay back the principle on their loans, they do have to make interest payments (borrowing to pay these is possible, but it isn’t a good look and can pretty quickly lead to dangerous levels of debt). The effect of these payments ranges from “it’s mildly annoying that we can’t spend that money on something better” to “we’re destroying our ecosystem growing bananas so that we have something to sell for cash to make our interest payments”. Lack of discipline and excessive debt levels can move a country closer to the second case.

In a well-integrated and otherwise successful economy with ample room in its governmental budget, interest payments are well worth the advantage of getting money early. When this money is used to create economic benefits that accrue faster than the interest payments, countries are net beneficiaries. If you take out a loan that charges 1-2% interest a year and use it to build a bridge that drives 4% economic growth for the next forty years, you’re ahead by 2-3% year on year. This is a good deal.

Unlike most talk about interest rates, where they’re entirely hypothetical, I really do mean that 1-2% figure. That’s actually higher than the average rate the US government has been paying to borrow over the last decade (Germany had it even better; they briefly paid negative interest rates). Governments – at least those with a relatively good track record around money – really have a superpower with how cheaply they can get money, so if nothing else, it’s worth keeping debt relatively low so that they don’t lose their reputation for responsibility and continue to have access to cheap money for when they really need it.

That’s the case in a moderately disciplined developed nation with adequate foreign reserves, at least. In a cash-poor or underdeveloped economy where a decent portion of any loan is lost to cronyism and waste, the case for loans being positive is much more… mixed. For these countries, discipline means “taking no loans at all”.

When discipline falls apart and debt levels rise too high, very bad things start to happen.

Is 100% of GDP The Line Beyond Which Debt Shouldn’t Rise?

There is nothing special about 100% of GDP, except that people think it is special.

Sometimes, people talk about markets like they’re these big impersonal systems that have no human input. This feels true because the scale of the global financial system is such that from the perspective of pretty much any individual person, they’re impersonal and impossible to really influence. But ultimately, other than a few high frequency trading platforms, all decisions in a market have to be made by humans.

Humans have decided that in certain cases, it’s bad when a country has more than 100% of its GDP in debt. This means that it becomes much more expensive to get new loans (and because of the constant rollover, even old loans eventually become new loans) when a country crosses this Rubicon, which in turn makes them much more likely to default. There’s some element of self-fulfilling prophecy here!

(Obviously there does have to be some point where a country really is at risk from its debt load and obviously this needs to be scaled to country size and wealth to not be useless. I think people have chosen 100% of GDP more because it’s a nice round number and it’s simple to calculate, not because it has particularly great inherent predictive power, absent the power it has as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe the “objectively correct” number is in fact 132.7% of the value of all exports, or 198% of 5-year average government revenues… In either case, we’ve kind of lost our chance; any number calculated now would be heavily biased by the crisis of confidence that can happen when debt reaches 100% of GDP.)

That said, comparing a country’s debt load to its GDP without making adjustments is a recipe for confusion. While Everyone was fretting about Greece having ~125% of its GDP in debt, Japan was carrying 238% of its GDP in debt.

There are two reasons that Japan’s debt is much less worrying than Greece’s.

First, there’s the issue of who’s holding that debt. A very large portion of Japanese debt is held by its own central bank. By my calculations (based off the most recent BOJ numbers), the Bank of Japan is holding approximately 44% of the Japanese government’s debt. Given that the Bank of Japan is an organ of the Japanese Government (albeit an arm’s length one), this debt is kind of owed by the government of Japan, to the government of Japan. When 44% of every loan payment might ultimately find its way back to you, your loan payments become less scary.

Second, there’s the issue of denomination. Greek public debts are denominated in Euros, a currency that Greece doesn’t control. If Greece wants €100, it must collect €100 in taxes from its citizens. Greece cannot just create Euros.

Japanese debt is denominated in Yen. Because Japan controls the yen, it has two options for repaying ¥100 of debt. It can collect ¥100 in taxes – representing ¥100 worth of valuable work. Or it can print ¥100. There are obvious consequences to printing money, namely inflation. But given that Japan has struggled with chronic deflation and has consistently underperformed the inflation targets economists think it needs to meet, it’s clear that a bit of inflation isn’t the worst thing that could happen to it.

When evaluating whether a debt burden is a problem, you should always consider the denomination of the debt, who the debtholders are, and how much inflation a country can tolerate. It is always worse to hold debt in a denomination that you don’t control. It’s always worse to owe money to people who aren’t you (especially people more powerful than you), and it’s always easier to answer debt with inflation when your economy needs more inflation anyways.

This also suggests that government debt is much more troubling when it’s held by a sub-national institution than by a national institution (with the exception of Europe, where even nations don’t individually control the currency). In this case, monetary policy options are normally off the table and there’s normally someone who’s able to force you to pay your debt, no matter what that does to your region.

Developing countries very rarely issue debt in their own currency, mainly because no one is interested in buying it. This, combined with low foreign cash reserves puts them at a much higher risk of failing to make scheduled debt payments – i.e. experiencing an actual default.

What Happens If A Country Defaults?

No two defaults are exactly alike, so the consequences vary. That said, there do tend to be two common features: austerity and inflation.

Austerity happens for a variety of reasons. Perhaps spending levels were predicated on access to credit. Without that access, they can’t be maintained. Or perhaps a higher body mandated it; see for example Germany (well, officially, the EU) mandating austerity in Greece, or Michigan mandating austerity in Detroit.

Inflation also occurs for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the government tries to fill a budgetary shortfall and avoid austerity by printing bills. This flood of money bids up prices, ruins savings and causes real wages to decline. Perhaps it becomes hard to convince foreigners to accept the local currency in exchange for goods, so anything imported becomes very expensive. When many goods are imported, this can lead to very rapid inflation. Perhaps people in general lose faith in money (and so it becomes nearly worthless), maybe in conjunction with the debt crisis expanding to the financial sector and banks subsequently failing. Most likely, it will be some combination of these three, as well as others I haven’t thought to mention.

During a default, it’s common to see standards of living plummet, life savings disappear, currency flight into foreign denominations, promptly followed by currency controls, which prohibit sending cash outside of the country. Currency controls make leaving the country virtually impossible and make any necessary imports a bureaucratic headache. This is fine when the imports in question are water slides, but very bad when they’re chemotherapy drugs or rice.

On the kind of bright side, defaults also tend to lead to mass unemployment, which gives countries experiencing them comparative advantage in any person intensive industry. Commonly people would say “wages are low, so manufacturing moves there”, but that isn’t quite how international trade works. It’s not so much low wages that basic manufacturing jobs go in search of, but a workforce that can’t do anything more productive and less labour intensive. This looks the same, but has the correlation flipped. In either case, this influx of manufacturing jobs can contain within it the seed of later recovery.

If a country has sound economic management (like Argentina did in 2001), a default isn’t the end of the world. It can negotiate a “haircut” of its loans, giving its creditors something less than the full amount, but more than nothing. It might even be able to borrow again in a few years, although the rates that it will have to offer will start out in credit card territory and only slowly recover towards auto-loan territory.

When these trends aren’t managed by competent leadership, or when the same leaders (or leadership culture) that got a country into a mess are allowed to continue, the recovery tends to be moribund and the crises continual. See, for example, how Greece has limped along, never really recovering over the past decade.

Where Does Ontario Fit In?

My own home province of Ontario is currently in the midst of an election and one candidate, Doug Ford, has made the ballooning public debt the centrepiece of his campaign. Evaluating his claims gives us a practical example of how to evaluate claims of this sort in general.

First, Ontario doesn’t control the currency that its debt is issued in, which is an immediate risk factor for serious debt problems. Ontario also isn’t dominant enough within Canada to dictate monetary policy to the Federal Government. Inflation for the sake of saving Ontario would doom any sitting Federal government in every other province, so we can’t expect any help from the central bank.

Debt relief from the Federal government is possible, but it couldn’t come without hooks attached. We’d definitely lose some of our budgetary authority, certainly face austerity, and even then, it might be too politically unpalatable to the rest of the country.

However, the sky is not currently falling. While debt rating services have lost some confidence in our willingness, if not our ability to get spending under control and our borrowing costs have consequently risen, we’re not yet into a vicious downwards spiral. Our debt is at a not actively unhealthy 39% of the GDP and the interest rate is a non-usurious 4%.

That said, it’s increased more quickly than the economy has grown over the past decade. Another decade going on like we currently are certainly would put us at risk of a vicious cycle of increased interest rates and crippling debt.

Doug Ford’s emotional appeals about mortgaging our grandchildren’s future are exaggerated and false. I’ve already explained how countries don’t work like families. But there is a more pragmatic concern here. If we don’t control our spending now, on our terms, someone else – be it lenders in a default or the federal government in a bailout – will do it for us.

Imagine the courts forcing Ontario to service its debt before paying for social services and schools. Imagine the debt eating up a full quarter of the budget, with costs rising every time a loan is rolled over. Imagine our public services cut to the bone and our government paralyzed without workers. Things would get bad and the people who most need a helping hand from the government would be hit the hardest.

I plan to take this threat seriously and vote for a party with a credible plan to balance our budget in the short term.

If one even exists. Contrary to his protestations, Doug Ford isn’t leading a party committed to reducing the deficit. He’s publically pledged himself to scrapping the carbon tax. Absent it, but present the rest of his platform, the deficit spending is going to continue (during a period of sustained growth, no less!). Doug Ford is either lying about what he’s going to cut, or he’s lying about ending the debt. That’s not a gamble I particularly want to play.

I do hope that someone campaigns on a fully costed plan to restore fiscal order to Ontario. Because we are currently on the path to looking a lot like Greece.

Economics, Model, Quick Fix

Not Just Zoning: Housing Prices Driven By Beauty Contests

No, this isn’t a post about very pretty houses or positional goods. It’s about the type of beauty contest described by John Maynard Keynes.

Imagine a newspaper that publishes one hundred pictures of strapping young men. It asks everyone to send in the names of the five that they think are most attractive. They offer a prize: if your selection matches the five men most often appearing in everyone else’s selections, you’ll win $500.

You could just do what the newspaper asked and send in the names of those men that you think are especially good looking. But that’s not very likely to give you the win. Everyone’s tastes are different and the people you find attractive might not be very attractive to anyone else. If you’re playing the game a bit smarter, you’ll instead pick the five people that you think have the broadest appeal.

You could go even deeper and realize that many other people will be trying to win and so will also be trying to pick the most broadly appealing people. Therefore, you should pick people that you think most people will view as broadly appealing (which differs from picking broadly appealing people if you know something about what most people find attractive that isn’t widely known). This can go on indefinitely (although Yudkowsky’s Law of Ultrafinite Recursion states that “In practice, infinite recursions are at most three levels deep“, which gives me a convenient excuse to stop before this devolves into “I know you know I know that you know that…” ad infinitum).

This thought experiment was relevant to an economist because many assets work like this. Take gold: its value cannot to be fully explained by its prettiness or industrial usefulness; some of its value comes from the belief that someone else will want it in the future and be willing to pay more for it than they would a similarly useful or pretty metal. For whatever reason, we have a collective delusion that gold is especially valuable. Because this delusion is collective enough, it almost stops being a delusion. The delusion gives gold some of its value.

When it comes to houses, beauty contests are especially relevant in Toronto and Vancouver. Faced with many years of steadily rising house prices, people are willing to pay a lot for a house because they believe that they can unload it on someone else in a few years or decades for even more.

When talking about highly speculative assets (like Bitcoin), it’s easy to point out the limited intrinsic value they hold. Bitcoin is an almost pure Keynesian Beauty Contest asset, with most of its price coming from an expectation that someone else will want it at a comparable or better price in the future. Houses are obviously fairly intrinsically valuable, especially in very desirable cities. But the fact that they hold some intrinsic value cannot by itself prove that none of their value comes from beliefs about how much they can be unloaded for in the future – see again gold, which has value both as an article of commerce and as a beauty contest asset.

There’s obviously an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here, with steadily increasing house prices needed to sustain this myth. Unfortunately, the housing market seems especially vulnerable to this sort of collective mania, because the sunk cost fallacy makes many people unwilling to sell their houses at a price below what they paid for it. Any softening of the market removes sellers, which immediately drives up prices again. Only a massive liquidation event, like we saw in 2007-2009 can push enough supply into the market to make prices truly fall.

But this isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s deliberateness here as well. To some extent, public policy is used to guarantee that house prices continue to rise. NIMBY residents and their allies in city councils deliberately stall projects that might affect property values. Governments provide tax credits or access to tax-advantaged savings accounts for homes. In America, mortgage payments provide a tax credit!

All of these programs ultimately make housing more expensive wherever supply cannot expand to meet the artificially increased demand – which basically describes any dense urban centre. Therefore, these home buying programs fail to accomplish their goal of making house more affordable, but do serve to guarantee that housing prices will continue to go up. Ultimately, they really just represent a transfer of wealth from taxpayers generally to those specific people who own homes.

Unfortunately, programs like this are very sticky. Once people buy into the collective delusion that home prices must always go up, they’re willing to heavily leverage themselves to buy a home. Any dip in the price of homes can wipe out the value of this asset, making it worth less than the money owed on it. Since this tends to make voters very angry (and also lead to many people with no money) governments of all stripes are very motivated to avoid it.

This might imply that the smart thing is to buy into the collective notion that home prices always go up. There are so many people invested in this belief at all levels of society (banks, governments, and citizens) that it can feel like home prices are too important to fall.

Which would be entirely convincing, except, I’m pretty sure people believed that in 2007 and we all know how that ended. Unfortunately, it looks like there’s no safe answer here. Maybe the collective mania will abate and home prices will stop being buoyed ever upwards. Or maybe they won’t and the prices we currently see in Toronto and Vancouver will be reckoned cheap in twenty years.

Better zoning laws can help make houses cheaper. But it really isn’t just zoning. The beauty contest is an important aspect of the current unaffordability.

Economics, Politics, Quick Fix

Cities Are Weird And Minimum Wages Can Help

[6-minute read]

I don’t understand why people choose to go bankrupt living the most expensive cities, but I’m increasingly viewing this as a market failure and collective action problem to be fixed with intervention, not a failure of individual judgement.

There are many cities, like Brantford, Waterloo, or even Ottawa, where everything works properly. Rent isn’t really more expensive than suburban or rural areas. There’s public transit, which means you don’t necessarily need a car, if you choose where you live with enough care. There are plenty of jobs. Stuff happens.

But cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and San Francisco confuse the hell out of me. The cost of living is through the roof, but wages don’t even come close to following (the difference in salary between Toronto and Waterloo for someone with my qualifications is $5,000, which in no way would cover the yearly difference in living expenses). This is odd when talking about well-off tech workers, but becomes heartbreaking when talking about low-wage workers.

Toronto Skyline
Not pictured: Selling your organs to afford a one-bedroom condo. Image Credit: Abi K on Flickr

If people were perfectly rational and only cared about money (the mythical homo economicus), fewer people would move to cities, which would bid up wages (to increase the supply of workers) or drive down prices (because fewer people would be competing for the same apartments), which would make cities more affordable. But people do care about things other than money and the network effects of cities are hard to beat (put simply: the bigger the city, the more options for a not-boring life you have). So, people move – in droves – to the most expensive and dynamic cities and wages don’t go up (because the supply of workers never falls) and the cost of living does (because the number of people competing for housing does) and low wage workers get ground up.

It’s not that I don’t understand the network effects. It’s that I don’t understand why people get ground up instead of moving.

But the purpose of good economics is to deal with people as they are, not as they can be most conveniently modeled. And given this, I’ve begun to think about high minimum wages in cities as an intervention that fixes a market failure and collective action problem.

That is to say: people are bad at reading the market signal that they shouldn’t move to cities that they can’t afford. It’s the signal that’s supposed to say here be scarce goods, you might get screwed, but the siren song of cities seems to overpower it. This is a market failure in the technical sense because there exists a distribution of goods that could make people (economically) better off (fewer people living in big cities) without making anyone worse off (e.g. they could move to communities that are experiencing chronic shortages of labour and be basically guaranteed jobs that would pay the bills) that the market cannot seem to fix.

(That’s not to say that this is all the fault of the market. Restrictive zoning makes housing expensive and rent control makes it scarce.)

It’s a collective action problem because if everyone could credibly threaten to move, then they wouldn’t have to; the threat would be enough to increase wages. Unfortunately, everyone knows that anyone who leaves the city will be quickly replaced. Everyone would be better off if they could coordinate and make all potential movers promise not to move in until wages increase, but there’s no benefit to being the first person to leave or the first person to avoid moving [1] and there currently seems to be no good way for everyone to coordinate in making a threat.

When faced with the steady grinding down of young people, low wage workers, and everyone “just waiting for their big break“, we have two choices. We can do tut-tut at their inability to be “rational” (aka leave their friends, family, jobs, and aspirations to move somewhere else [2]), or we can try to better their situation.

If everyone was acting “rationally”, wages would be bid up. But we can accomplish the same thing by simple fiat. Governments can set a minimum wage or offer wage subsidies, after all.

I do genuinely worry that in some places, large increases in the minimum wage will lead to unemployment (we’ll figure out whether this is true over the next decade or so). I’m certainly worried that a minimum wage pegged to inflation will lead to massive problems the next time we have a recession [3].

So, I think we should fix zoning, certainly. And I think we need to fix how Ontario’s minimum wage functions in a recession so that it doesn’t destroy our whole economy during the next one. But at the same time, I think we need to explore differential minimum wages for our largest cities and the rest of the province/country. I mean this even in a world where the current minimum $14/hour wage isn’t rolled back. Would even $15/hour cut it in Toronto and Vancouver [4]?

If we can’t make a minimum wage work without increased unemployment, then maybe we’ll have to turn to wage subsidies. This is actually the method that “conservative” economist Scott Sumner favours [5].

What’s clear to me is that what we’re currently doing isn’t working.

I do believe in a right to shelter. Like anyone who shares this belief, I understand that “shelter” is a broad word, encompassing everything from a tarp to a mansion. Where a certain housing situation falls on this spectrum is the source of many a debate. Writing this is a repudiation of my earlier view, that living in an especially desirable city was a luxury not dissimilar from a mansion.

A couple of things changed my mind. First, I paid more attention to the experiences of my friends who might be priced out of the cities they grew up in and have grown to love. Second, I read the Ecomodernist Manifesto, with its calls for densification as the solution to environmental degradation and climate change. Densification cannot happen if many people are priced out of cities, which means figuring this out is actually existentially important.

The final piece of the puzzle was the mental shift whereby I started to view wages in cities – especially for low-wage earners – as a collective action problem and a market failure. As anyone on the centre-left can tell you, it’s the government’s job to fix those – ideally in a redistributive way.


[1] This is inductive up to the point where you have a critical mass; there’s no benefit until you’re the nth + 1 person, where n is the number of people necessary to create a scarcity of workers sufficient to begin bidding up wages. And all of the people who moved will see little benefit for their hassle, unless they’re willing to move back. ^

[2] For us nomadic North Americans, this can be confusing: “The gospel of ‘just pick up and leave’ is extremely foreign to your typical European — be they Serbian, French or Irish. Ditto with a Sudanese, Afghan or Japanese national. In Israel, it’s the kind of suggestion that ruins dinner parties… We non-indigenous love to move. We don’t just see it as just good economic policy, but as a virtue. We glorify the immigrant, we hug them at the airport when they arrive and we inherently mistrust anyone who dares to pine for what they left behind”. ^

[3] Basically, wages should fall in a recession, but they largely don’t, which means inflation is necessary to get wages back to a level where employment can recover; pegging the minimum wage to inflation means this can’t happen. Worse, if the rest of the country were to adopt sane monetary policy during the next bad recession, Ontario’s minimum wage could rise to the point where it would swallow large swathes of the economy. This would really confuse price signals and make some work economically unviable (to do in Ontario; it would surely still be done elsewhere). ^

[4] I think we may have to subsidize some new construction or portion of monthly rent so that all increased wages don’t get ploughed into to increased rents. If you have more money chasing the same number of rental units and everything else remains constant, you’ll see all gains in wages erased by increases in rents. Rent control is a very imperfect solution, because it changes new construction into units that can be bought outright, at market rates. This helps people who have saved up a lot of money outside of the city and what to move there, but is very bad for the people living there, grappling with rent so high that they can’t afford to save up a down payment. ^

[5] No seriously, this is what passes for conservative among economists these days; while we all stopped looking, they all became utilitarians who want to help impoverished people as much as possible. ^

Economics, Model

Against Job Lotteries

In simple economic theory, wages are supposed to act as signals. When wages increase in a sector, it should signal people that there’s lots of work to do there, incentivizing training that will be useful for that field, or causing people to change careers. On the flip side, when wages decrease, we should see a movement out of that sector.

This is all well and good. It explains why the United States has seen (over the past 45 years) little movement in the number of linguistics degrees, a precipitous falloff in library sciences degrees, some decrease in English degrees, and a large increase in engineering and business degrees [1].

This might be the engineer in me, but I find things that are working properly boring. What I’m really interested in is when wage signals break down and are replaced by a job lottery.

Job lotteries exist whenever there are two tiers to a career. On one hand, you’ll have people making poverty wages and enduring horrendous conditions. On the other, you’ll see people with cushy wages, good job security, and (comparatively) reasonable hours. Job lotteries exist in the “junior doctor” system of the United Kingdom, in the academic system of most western countries, and teaching in Ontario (up until very recently). There’s probably a much less extreme version of this going on even in STEM jobs (in that many people go in thinking they’ll work for Google or the next big unicorn and end up building websites for the local chamber of commerce or writing internal tools for the company billing department [2]). A slightly different type of job lottery exists in industries where fame plays a big role: writing, acting, music, video games, and other creative endeavours.

Job lotteries are bad for two reasons. Compassionately, it’s really hard to see idealistic, bright, talented people endure terribly conditions all in the hope of something better, something that might never materialize. Economically, it’s bad when people spend a lot of time unemployed or underemployed because they’re hopeful they might someday get their dream job. Both of these reasons argue for us to do everything we can to dismantle job lotteries.

I do want to make a distinction between the first type of job lottery (doctors in the UK, professor, teachers), which is a property of how institutions have happened to evolve, and the second, which seems much more inherent to human nature. “I’ll just go with what I enjoy” is a very common media strategy that will tend to split artists (of all sorts) into a handful of mega-stars, a small group of people making a modest living, and a vast mass of hopefuls searching for their break. To fix this would require careful consideration and the building of many new institutions – projects I think we lack the political will and the know-how for.

The problems in the job market for professors, doctors, or teachers feel different. These professions don’t rely on tastemakers and network effects. There’s also no stark difference in skills that would imply discontinuous compensation. This doesn’t imply that skills are flat – just that they exist on a steady spectrum, which should imply that pay could reasonably follow a similar smooth distribution. In short, in all of these fields, we see problems that could be solved by tweaks to existing institutions.

I think institutional change is probably necessary because these job lotteries present a perfect storm of misdirection to our primate brains. That is to say (1) People are really bad at probability and (2) the price level for the highest earners suggests that lots of people should be entering the industry. Combined, this means that people will be fixated on the highest earners, without really understanding how unlikely that is to be them.

Two heuristics drive our inability to reason about probabilities: the representativeness heuristic (ignoring base rates and information about reliability in favour of what feels “representative”) and the availability heuristic (events that are easier to imagine or recall feel more likely). The combination of these heuristics means that people are uniquely sensitive to accounts of the luckiest members of a profession (especially if this is the social image the profession projects) and unable to correctly predict their own chances of reaching that desired outcome (because they can imagine how they will successfully persevere and make everything come out well).

Right now, you’re probably laughing to yourself, convinced that you would never make a mistake like this. Well let’s try an example.

Imagine a scenario is which only ten percent of current Ph. D students will get tenure (basically true). Now Ph. D students are quite bright and are incredibly aware of their long odds. Let’s say that if a student three years into a program makes a guess as to whether or not they’ll get a tenure track job offer, they’re correct 80% of the time. If a student tells you they think they’ll get a tenure track job offer, how likely do you think it is that they will? Stop reading right now and make a guess.

Seriously, make a guess.

This won’t work if you don’t try.

Okay, you can keep reading.

It is not 80%. It’s not even 50%. It’s 31%. This is probably best illustrated visually.

Craft Design Online has inadvertently created a great probability visualization tool.


There are four things that can happen here (I’m going to conflate tenure track job offers with tenure out of a desire to stop typing “tenure track job offers”).

Ten students will get tenure. Of these ten, eight (0.8 x 10) will correctly believe they will get it (1/green) and two (10 – 0.8 x 10) will incorrectly believe they won’t (2/yellow). Ninety students won’t get tenure. Of these 90, 18 (90 – 0.8 x 90) will incorrectly believe they will get tenure (3/orange) and 72 (0.8 x 90) will correctly believe they won’t get tenure (4/red). Twenty-six students, those coloured green (1) and orange (3) believe they’ll get tenure. But we know that only eight of them really will – which works out to just below the 31% I gave above.

Almost no one can do this kind of reasoning, especially if they aren’t primed for a trick. The stories we build in our head about the future feel so solid that we ignore the base rate. We think that we’ll know if we’re going to make it. And even worse, we think that a feeling of “knowing” if we’ll make it provides good information. We think that relatively accurate predictors provide useful information against a small chance. They clearly don’t. When the base rate is small (here 10%), the base rate is the single greatest predictor of your chances.

But this situation doesn’t even require small chances for us to make mistakes. Imagine you had two choices: a career that leaves you feeling fulfilled 100% of the time, but is so competitive that you only have an 80% chance of getting into it (assume in the other 20%, you either starve or work a soul-crushing fast food job with negative fulfillment) or a career where you are 100% likely to get a job, but will only find it fulfilling 80% of the time.

Unless that last 20% of fulfillment is strongly super-linear [3][4], or you don’t have any value at all on eating/avoiding McDrugery, it is better to take the guaranteed career. But many people looking at this probably rounded 80% to 100% – another known flaw in human reasoning. You can very easily have a job lottery even when the majority of people in a career are in the “better” tier of the job, because many entrants to the field will view “majority” as all and stick with it when they end up shafted.

Now, you might believe that these problems aren’t very serious, or that surely people making a decision as big as a college major or career would correct for them. But these fallacies date to the 70s! Many people still haven’t heard of them. And the studies that first identified them found them to be pretty much universal. Look, the CIA couldn’t even get people to do probability right. You think the average job seeker can? You think you can? Make a bunch of predictions for the next year and then talk with me when you know how calibrated (or uncalibrated) you are.

If we could believe that people would become better at probabilities, we could assume that job lotteries would take care of automatically. But I think it is clear that we cannot rely on that, so we must try and dismantle them directly. Unfortunately, there’s a reason many are this way; many of them have come about because current workers have stacked the deck in their own favour. This is really great for them, but really bad for the next group of people entering the workforce. I can’t help but believe that some of the instability faced by millennials is a consequence of past generations entrenching their benefits at our expense [5]. Others have come about because of poorly planned policies, bad enrolment caps, etc.

These cover the two ways we can deal with a job lottery, we can limit the supply indirectly (by making the job, or the perception of the job once you’ve “made it” worse), or limit the supply directly (by changing the credentials necessary of the job, or implementing other training caps)   . In many of the examples of job lotteries I’ve found, limiting the supply directly might be a very effective way to deal with the problem.

I can make this claim because limiting supply directly has worked in the real world. Faced with a chronic 33% oversupply of teachers and soaring unemployment rates among teaching graduates, Ontario chose to cut in half the number of slots in teacher’s college and double the length of teacher’s college programs. No doubt this was annoying for the colleges, which made good money off of those largely doomed extraneous pupils, but it did lead to the end of the oversupply of teachers and a tighter job market for teachers and this was probably better for the economy compared to the counterfactual.

Why? Because having people who’ve completed four years of university do an extra year or two of schooling only to wait around and hope for a job is a real drag. They could be doing something productive with that time! The advantage of increasing gatekeeping around a job lottery and increasing it as early as possible is that you force people to go find something productive to do. It is much better for an economy to have hopeful proto-teachers who would in fact be professional resume submitters go into insurance, or real estate, or tutoring, or anything at all productive and commensurate with their education and skills.

There’s a cost here, of course. When you’re gatekeeping (for e.g. teacher’s college or medical school), you’re going to be working with lossy proxies for the thing you actually care about, which is performance in the eventual job. The lossier the proxy, the more you are needlessly depressing the quality of people who are allowed to do the job – which is a serious concern when you’re dealing with heart surgery ­– or the people providing foundational education to your next generation.

You can also find some cases where increasing selectiveness in an early stage doesn’t successfully force failed applicants to stop wasting their time and get on with their life. I was very briefly enrolled in a Ph. D program for biomedical engineering a few years back. Several professors I interviewed with while considering graduate school wanted to make sure I had no aspirations on medical school – because they were tired of their graduate students abandoning research as soon as their Ph. D was complete. For these students who didn’t make it into medical school after undergrad, a Ph. D was a ticket to another shot at getting in [6]. Anecdotally, I’ve seen people who fail to get into medical school or optometry get a master’s degree, then try again.

Banning extra education before medical school cuts against the idea that people should be able to better themselves, or persevere to get to their dreams. It would be institutionally difficult. But I think that it would, in this case, probably be a net good.

There are other fields where limiting supply is rather harmful. Graduate students are very necessary for science. If we punitively limited their number, we might find a lot of valuable scientific progress falling to a stand-still. We could try and replace graduate students with a class of professional scientific assistants, but as long as the lottery for professorship is so appealing (for those who are successful), I bet we’d see a strong preference for Ph. D programs over professional assistantships.

These costs sometimes make it worth it to go right to the source of the job lottery, the salaries and benefits of people already employed [7]. Of course, this has its own downsides. In the case of doctors, high salaries and benefits are useful for making really clever applicants choose to go into medicine rather than engineering and law. For other jobs, there’s the problems of practicality and fairness.

First, it is very hard to get people to agree to wage or benefit cuts and it almost always results in lower morale – even if you have “sound macro-economic reasons” for it. In addition, many jobs with lotteries have them because of union action, not government action. There is no czar here to change everything. Second, people who got into those careers made those decisions based on the information they had at the time. It feels weird to say “we want people to behave more rationally in the job market, so by fiat we will change the salaries and benefits of people already there.” The economy sometimes accomplishes that on its own, but I do think that one of the roles of political economics is to decrease the capriciousness of the world, not increase it.

We can of course change the salaries and benefits only for new employees. But this somewhat confuses the signalling (for a long time, people will still have principle examples of the profession come from the earlier cohort). It also rarely alleviates a job lottery, because in practice people set this up for new employees to have reduced salaries and benefits for a time. Once they get seniority, they’ll expect to enjoy all the perks of seniority.

Adjunct professorships feel like a failed attempt to remove the job lottery for full professorships. Unfortunately, they’ve only worsened it, by giving people a toe-hold that makes them feel like they might someday claw their way up to full professorship. I feel that when it comes to professors, the only tenable thing to do is greatly reduce salaries (making them closer to the salary progression of mechanical engineers, rather than doctors), hire far more professors, cap graduate students wherever there is high under- and un- employment, and have more professional assistants who do short 2-year college courses. Of course, this is easy to say and much harder to do.

If these problems feel intractable and all the solutions feel like they have significant downsides, welcome to the pernicious world of job lotteries. When I thought of writing about them, coming up with solutions felt like by far the hardest part. There’s a complicated trade-off between proportionality, fairness, and freedom here.

Old fashioned economic theory held that the freer people were, the better off they would be. I think modern economists increasingly believe this is false. Is a world in which people are free to get very expensive training ­– despite very long odds for a job and cognitive biases that make understanding just how punishing the odds are – expensive training, in short, that they’d in expectation be better off without, a better one than a world where they can’t?

I increasingly believe that it isn’t. And I increasingly believe that having rough encounters with reality early on and having smooth salary gradients is important to prevent this world. Of course, this is easy for me to say. I’ve been very deliberate taking my skin out of job lotteries. I dropped out of graduate school. I write often and would like to someday make money off of writing, but I viscerally understand the odds of that happening, so I’ve been very careful to have a day job that I’m happy with [8].

If you’re someone who has made the opposite trade, I’m very interested in hearing from you. What experiences do you have that I’m missing that allowed you to make that leap of faith?


[1] I should mention that there’s a difference between economic value, normative/moral value, and social value and I am only talking about economic value here. I wouldn’t be writing a blog post if I didn’t think writing was important. I wouldn’t be learning French if I didn’t think learning other languages is a worthwhile endeavour. And I love libraries.

And yes, I know there are many career opportunities for people holding those degrees and no I don’t think they’re useless. I simply think a long-term shift in labour market trends have made them relatively less attractive to people who view a degree as a path to prosperity. ^

[2] That’s not to knock these jobs. I found my time building internal tools for an insurance company to be actually quite enjoyable. But it isn’t the fame and fortune that some bright-eyed kids go into computer science seeking. ^

[3] That is to say, that you enjoy each additional percentage of fulfillment at a multiple (greater than one) of the previous one. ^

[4] This almost certainly isn’t true, given that the marginal happiness curve for basically everything is logarithmic (it’s certainly true for money and I would be very surprised if it wasn’t true for everything else); people may enjoy a 20% fulfilling career twice as much as a 10% fulfilling career, but they’ll probably enjoy a 90% fulfilling career very slightly more than an 80% fulfilling career. ^

[5] It’s obvious that all of this applies especially to unions, which typically fight for seniority to matter quite a bit when it comes to job security and pay and do whatever they can to bid up wages, even if that hurts hiring. This is why young Canadians end up supporting unions in theory but avoiding them in practice. ^

[6] I really hope that this doesn’t catch on. If an increasing number of applicants to medical school already have graduate degrees, it will be increasingly hard for those with “merely” an undergraduate degree to get in to medical school. Suddenly we’ll be requiring students to do 11 years of potentially useless training, just so that they can start the multi-year training to be a doctor. This sort of arms race is the epitome of wasted time.

In many European countries, you can enter medical school right out of high school and this seems like the obviously correct thing to do vis a vis minimizing wasted time. ^

[7] The behaviour of Uber drivers shows job lotteries on a small scale. As Uber driver salaries rise, more people join and all drivers spend more time waiting around, doing nothing. In the long run (here meaning eight weeks), an increase in per-trip costs leads to no change whatsoever in take home pay.

The taxi medallion system that Uber has largely supplanted prevented this. It moved the job lottery one step further back, with getting the medallion becoming the primary hurdle, forcing those who couldn’t get one to go work elsewhere, but allowing taxi drivers to largely avoid dead times.

Uber could restrict supply, but it doesn’t want to and its customers certainly don’t want it to. Uber’s chronic driver oversupply (relative to a counterfactual where drivers waited around very little) is what allows it to react quickly during peak hours and ensure there’s always an Uber relatively close to where anyone would want to be picked up. ^

[8] I do think that I would currently be a much better writer if I’d instead tried to transition immediately to writing, rather than finding a career and writing on the side. Having a substantial safety net removes almost all of the urgency that I’d imagine I’d have if I was trying to live on (my non-existent) writing income.

There’s a flip side here too. I’ve spent all of zero minutes trying to monetize this blog or worrying about SEO, because I’m not interested in that and I have no need to. I also spend zero time fretting over popularizing anything I write (again, I don’t enjoy this). Having a security net makes this something I do largely for myself, which makes it entirely fun. ^