Tag Archives: Economics

Reading right now: “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.”

Lately, I’ve not had a lot of time to read. But when I have had time, I’ve enjoyed reading the wonkish and pointed “The Myth of the Rational Voter” by Bryan Caplan.

It’s an economist’s look at why, as the sub-title says, voters tend to support bad public policies. The reason, Caplan argues, is not special interests or rampant lobbying, but rather, it is “popular misconceptions, irrational beliefs, and personal biases head by ordinary voters” (from the fly-leaf).

What is interesting, as I have barely begun to read it, is the biases that he points out and, to deepen the plot, as it were, is that economists have long seen and known these biases.

For example:

  • Antimarket Bias: “the tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of the market mechanism.” (p. 30)
  • Antiforeign Bias: “a tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of interaction with foreigners.” (p. 36) Interestingly, Caplan tells in association with this bias of an business associate of his that believes everything wrong with the American economy could be solved with a naval blockade of Japan and a Berlin Wall at the Mexican border…hmmm, I can’t imagine where I’ve heard something like that latter one before.
  • Make-work Bias: “a tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of conserving labor.” (p. 40) In other words, “[w]here noneconomists see the destruction of jobs, economists see the essence of economic growth–the production of more with less.” Not sure how you’d explain that one to the 10% of America who is under or unemployed right now.
  • Pessimistic Bias: “a tendency to overestimate the severity of economic problems and underestimate the recent past, present, and future performance of the economy.” (p. 44) I know one man who must wish this one didn’t exist, and he’s the Cheerleader-in-Chief.
The results? People act irrationally while making ballot box decisions, resulting in public policy that is against their interests. 
Check it out. It’s an interesting read and well worth your time as we move into an election year where the economy really is the only issue.

Negative externalities add up.

No one faces the choice, “Drive a lot less, or get lung cancer,” or “Rethink your economic views, or spiral down to poverty.” In both driving and democracy, negative externalities irrelevant to individual behavior add up to a large collective misfortune.

From The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan, p. 18.

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Do you really need all that education?

And now for something completely different, let’s ask ourselves the question: DO YOU REALLY NEED ALL THAT EDUCATION?

Arnold Kling doesn’t necessarily think so. Rather, education just separates the “wheat from the chaff. ”

There’s a great debate going on between a some economists over at Econlog.com.  Their question? Does more education endows more benefit, or is it just “signaling” to employers to select the smarter, harder working workers. It’s called “signal theory” and Bryan Caplan explains it like this:

If you haven’t heard, the signaling theory says that to a significant extent, education does not increase workers’ productivity. Instead, the fact that you obtain an education shows that you were more productive all along, which makes employers want to hire you.

Here’s a simple thought experiment to illustrate the distinction. Which would do more for your career: A Princeton education, but no diploma, or a Princeton diploma, but no education?

Does that mean we all take standardized tests in seventh grade and call it good? Enter the workforce at our level of IQ or productivity?  Not necessarily (though there are those who would say that standardized tests already do that):

Even firm believers in the signaling model like myself grant that schools teach some useful skills. But more importantly, this objection only works against specific kinds of signaling. Yes, if all that school signals is IQ, then a test is a cheap substitute. But what if school signals conscientiousness and/orconformism? Think about it this way: Would you want to hire a high school drop-out with a 150 IQ? Probably not, because you’d immediately think “This guy had the brains to do anything. Why didn’t he finish high school? What’s wrong with him?!”

But what about college? That graduate degree?  Necessary. Because it’s part of what differentiates the dumb from the smart, the lazy from the industrious. Academia may be so many hoops to jump through, result in a lot of social waste, but still provide the utility of helping employers find the best workers. It’s a conundrum, but not a contradiction.

You can believe that IQ matters quite a lot for earnings, but still think that education teaches nothing but bona fide job market skills. If this is so, then comparing the earnings of college graduates to high school graduates overstates the private benefit of education. Why? College graduates were smarter to begin with, so they would have earned more money than the typical high school graduate even if they didn’t go to college. Labor economists call this “ability bias.”

Similarly, you can believe that a lot of education is mere signaling, without thinking that IQ by itself puts money in your pocket. Suppose that the world is rigidly credentialist, so that no one will even consider a person without a degree for anything beyond a low-skilled job. If this is so, then comparing the earnings of college graduates to high school graduates overstates the social benefit of education. Why? Because part of the effect of education is just to make yourself look better compared to other people without increasing production.

As a high school drop out with less than a full five years of k-12 public education under my belt, I tend to lean towards the theory that much of public education is time wasted. Even as a high school dropout, I managed to earn a bachelors and a law degree. Neither degree came from Ivy League institutions, but nor were they bottom feeders, either. Quite the contrary. All without the full thirteen years of public education.

I don’t say this to toot my horn, but rather to note that it may not be necessary to attend the full gamut of public education to succeed. On the contrary, it is innate ability (aka IQ) and work ethic that is a greater indicator of success.

That said, I love learning, and I would never have turned down my years of study at Brigham Young or at the University of Utah’s College of Law for anything. Both were very enriching experiences, albeit a bit expensive, and I found them to be personally valuable.

High school, though, I could have done without. Even the year and a half I did attend. Waste. Of. Time.

Check out Bryan Caplan’s posts on the topic here and here.

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Federal budget outraces CPI by four times

Did you know that federal spending has increased  faster than consumer prices?

Four times faster?

From 2000 to 2010, federal spending has increased 106% while prices (according to the Consumer Price Index) have only increased 26%. In other words, while the cost of stuff has risen only 26%, the government is spending roughly four times more than if it had increased spending to match increased costs.

To be sure, a few things have happened in the last ten years that have affected the increase in federal spending faster than consumer prices. There was 9/11 and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was a recession, and there still is a recession.  But even so, shouldn’t federal spending increases match consumer price increases, at least somewhat?

Mandatory Spending or Discretionary Spending?

Right now, a lot of the debate over the size of the federal budget  centers around “discretionary” versus “mandatory” spending. As one economist (Arnold Kling) points out, budget items in the later group aren’t so mandatory as they may seem.

The data indicate that it is not very difficult to increase Federal government spending, in spite of the large portion that is mandatory. Why not? Some hypotheses:

1. We tend to see discretionary increases in “mandatory” spending. As in the prescription drug benefit. Note that at the time the prescription drug benefit was enacted, nobody said, “You know, on the whole, the elderly are doing fine. We want to provide prescription drugs as an in-kind benefit, but maybe we should cut back on other transfers to the elderly in order to maintain generational balance.”

2. The government’s “cost of living” goes up much faster than the CPI. For example, with Medicare and Medicaid, outlays are tied to health care costs, and we all know that health care costs are rising faster than inflation.

Check out the rest of his analysis here. Noting that, with the exception of “net interest,” every major category in the federal budget has seen an increase in spending greater than the consumer price index, Kling argues that if we cut spending back to 2000 levels–without touching defense, Medicare, or Social Securitywe could slash $500 billion from the federal budget.

That’s a healthy chunk of change, and a simple idea. Roll spending back to 2000 levels, and then start looking at entitlement reform for other budget constraints and deficit reduction.

Here’s his data:

Spending, in billions, vs. Consumer Price Index

Spending Category 2000 level 2010 level Percentage increase
Consumer Price Index 174 219 26 %
Total Federal Outlays 1789 3721 108 %
Defense 294 719 144 %
International 17 51 197 %
Health 154 372 141 %
Medicare 197 457 132 %
Income Security 254 686 170 %
Social Security 409 721 76 %
Net Interest 223 188 -16 %
Other 240 526 119 %

Get it? Prices have risen only 26%, and federal spending should have risen about the same, even accounting for defense, Social Security, and Medicare. But it hasn’t. Federal spending has increased far faster.

Kling puts in a last word:

Or maybe the answer to the paradox is that when it comes to the Federal Budget, spending is discretionary when somebody proposes an increase in its rate of growth but mandatory when somebody proposes a decrease in its rate of growth.

Are politicians really just “the slaves of some defunct economist“?

The Federal budget is a curious thing. It alone in the world of finance and spending–from individual home budgets, corporate coffers, Wall Street, and state budgets–is controlled by persons whose primary interest is not responsibility, but reelection, and who spend based on good ideas for benefits, not the realities of economics.

Few things secure reelection like bringing home the bacon or signing a revolutionary new program. Yet the law of unintended consequences is stronger than all the political clout or well-meaning programs in the world.

So it is: well-meaning Congressmen (and Congresswomen), Senators, and Presidents head off to the marbled halls of Washington, D.C. to make plans and pass laws that their constituents will love back home, solve society’s problems, and make world a better place.

Then, the plans hit the real world, and little do  politicians know what results will really happen.

As I’ve quoted before, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

The road to hell, or rather, bottomless debt, is paved with good intentions. So, perhaps, is the road to Washington, no matter how little men “really know about what they imagine they can design.”

Recommended reading for more: The Road To Serfdom, by F.A. Hayak.

Cover of "The Road to Serfdom: Fiftieth A...

Cover via Amazon

(h/t Library of Economics and Liberty)

Fear the Boom and the Bust

Really, a little too short a summary, but if you’re not willing to work your way through a few good books, it’s better than nothing…and way more entertaining.

A few instructional tidbits from the clip:

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

John Maynard Keynes


“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

Friedrich von Hayek

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