Defense of the 1%?

Digitopoly has an interesting take on Greg Mankiw’s Defending the 1%.

You should go read the sources, but Mankiw’s basic scenario is,

Imagine a society with perfect economic equality. … Then, one day, this egalitarian utopia is disturbed by an entrepreneur with an idea for a new product. Think of the entrepreneur as Steve Jobs as he develops the iPod, …. When the entrepreneur’s product is introduced, everyone in society wants to buy it. They each part with, say, $100. The transaction is a voluntary exchange, so it must make both the buyer and the seller better off. But because there are many buyers and only one seller, the distribution of economic well-being is now vastly unequal.

Mankiw goes on to mention but dismiss other drivers, like rent seeking and monopoly. Krugman rejoins with a strong critique, and Digitopoly raises some interesting complications to the innovation policy arguments.

I think the thought experiment, framing the problem as a matter of innovation policy, oversimplifies and misses major drivers of what’s happening. As I wrote in Fortress USA,

The drivers of rising inequity in the US seem fairly simple. With globalization, capital has become mobile while labor remains tied to geography. So, capital investment flees high wage countries (US) and jobs follow. Asset income goes up, because capital is leveraged by cheaper labor and has good bargaining power among hungry host countries. There’s downward pressure on rich world wages, because with less capital per capita employed, the marginal productivity of labor is lower.

It’s not all bad for the rich world working class, because cheaper goods (WalMart) offset wage losses to some degree. If asset and wage income were uniformly distributed, there might even be a net benefit.

However, asset income and wages aren’t uniformly distributed, so income disparity goes up. Pre-globalization, this wasn’t so noticeable, because there was an implicit deal, in which wage earners knew that, even if they didn’t own all the capital in their country, at least they’d be the beneficiaries of it in some sense through employment and trickle down. Free trade and mobile capital turns the deal into a divorce, which puts a sharp point on questions of property rights allocations that were never quite fair, and sows the seeds of future discontent among the losers.

In addition to disparities in the fate of labor vs. capital, it’s hard not to see abundant rent seeking in the consolidation of firms and the pervasive role of money in government.

The simple, pure economic thought experiment often brings great insight. But I think this illustrates why models often have to get big before they can get small. Total analytic knowledge of a small model is fairly useless, unless that model encompasses the right structure. It’s hard, a priori, to decide what’s the right structure to include, without distilling that insight from a more complex model.

Fortress USA

The Fortress World scenario came up in Bert de Vries’ presentation at the Balaton meeting today. It’s a dystopian global future in which the rich retreat into safe havens (a macro version of gated communities) while the rest of the world degenerates into some combination of feudal subsistence, resource extraction and chaos.

On dark days, looks increasingly to me like this is already playing out in the US with the disappearance of the middle class.

The drivers of rising inequity in the US seem fairly simple. With globalization, capital has become mobile while labor remains tied to geography. So, capital investment flees high wage countries (US) and jobs follow. Asset income goes up, because capital is leveraged by cheaper labor and has good bargaining power among hungry host countries. There’s downward pressure on rich world wages, because with less capital per capita employed, the marginal productivity of labor is lower.

It’s not all bad for the rich world working class, because cheaper goods (WalMart) offset wage losses to some degree. If asset and wage income were uniformly distributed, there might even be a net benefit.

However, asset income and wages aren’t uniformly distributed, so income disparity goes up. Pre-globalization, this wasn’t so noticeable, because there was an implicit deal, in which wage earners knew that, even if they didn’t own all the capital in their country, at least they’d be the beneficiaries of it in some sense through employment and trickle down. Free trade and mobile capital turns the deal into a divorce, which puts a sharp point on questions of property rights allocations that were never quite fair, and sows the seeds of future discontent among the losers.

So far, everyone appears to be committed to pursuing this thread to its logical conclusion. Probably most are unwitting participants; workers are as enthusiastic about offshoring of capital in their pension funds as are the captains of industry.

However, it seems to me that there are several corrosive effects. The asset-owning rich appear convinced that their windfall has arrived because they’re smart, that the misfortunes of the masses are due to laziness. Their incentive to invest in services like education for labor they don’t need is no longer palpable. Uneducated masses are easier to manipulate anyway. Meanwhile the masses are desperate (if misguided) to lower tax burdens in order to compete with offshore labor.

The ultimate effect seems likely to hollow out the human capital of the rich world, leaving only tycoons and serfs, with perhaps a few protected sectors of the economy (pilots for tycoons’ jets). But is that a plausible end-state for this game?

If I were an American tycoon endowed with a little enlightened self interest, I’d be worried about several ways things could go wrong:

  • Increasing income disparity and loss of human capital cause a loss of civility at home, requiring wealthy enclaves to become desperate armed camps.
  • Political turbulence abroad leads to loss of control of all that capital that went overseas.
  • The global economy reaches such a vast physical scale that no amount of personal wealth provides adequate insulation against its side effects.

These outcomes could be triggered or amplified by financial or ecological stress. Even if you don’t care about equity or social justice per se, these possibilities seem like a great reason to invest in human and social capital at home and abroad.

Tim Jackson on the horns of the growth dilemma

I just ran across a nice talk by Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth, on BigIdeas. It’s hard to summarize such a wide-ranging talk, but I’d call it a synthesis of the physical (planetary boundaries and exponential growth) and the behavioral (what is the economy for, how does it influence our choices, and how can we change it?). The horns of the dilemma are that growth can’t go on forever, yet we don’t know how to run an economy that doesn’t grow. (This of course begs the question, “growth of what?” – where the what is a mix of material and non-material things – a distinction that lies at the heart of many communication failures around the Limits to Growth debate.)

There’s an article covering the talk at ABC.au, but it’s really worth a listen at http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2010/07/bia_20100704_1705.mp3

The rabble in the streets, calling for more power to the monarchy

When I see policies that formally allocate political power in proportion to wealth, I think back to a game I played in college, called Starpower.

It’s a simple trading game, using plastic chips. It starts with a trading round, where everyone has a chance to improve their lot by swapping to get better combinations of size and color. After trading, scores are tallied, and the players are divided into three groups: Triangles, Circles, and Squares. Then there’s a vote, in which players get to change the rules of the game. There’s a catch though: the Squares, who reaped the most points in the first round, get more votes. Subsequent rounds follow the same steps (lather, rinse, repeat).

When I played, I was lucky enough in the first round to wind up in the top group, the Squares. In the subsequent vote, no one proposed any significant rule changes, so we went back to trading. One of our fellow Squares was unlucky or incautious enough to make a few bad trades, and wound up demoted to the Circles when scores were tallied. That was a wake-up call – a challenge to the camaraderie of Squares. We promptly changed the rules, to slightly favor the accumulation of chips by those who already had many; we bribed the middle Circles to go along with it. We breathed a collective sigh of relief when, after the next trading round, we found that we were all still Squares. Then, we Squares abandoned all egalitarian thoughts. With our increased wealth, we voted to allocate future chip distributions so that the Circle and Triangle classes would perpetually trade places, never accumulating enough wealth to reach elite Square status. It worked, at least until the end of class (we were probably “saved by the bell” from having a revolution).

The interesting thing about the game is that it’s a perfect market economy. Property rights in chips are fully allocated, everyone walks in with a similar initial endowment of brains and chips, and there are mutual benefits to trade, even when wealth is distributed unequally. Yet the libertarian ideals are completely undone when the unequal allocation of wealth spills over to become an unequal allocation of power, where votes are weighted by money. That creates a reinforcing feedback:

starpower

Allocating votes in a zoning protest in proportion to acreage, or any other policy that matches power to wealth, has the same properties as the Starpower game, and will lead to the same ugly outcome if left unchecked. As Donella Meadows put it,

The wise Squares whom we call Founding Fathers, who set up the rules of our national game, knew that. They invented ingenious devices for giving everyone a chance to win — democratic elections, universal education, and a Bill of Rights. Out of their structure have come further methods for interrupting accumulations of power — anti-trust regulations, progressive taxation, inheritance restrictions, affirmative action programs.

All of which, you might note, have been weakened over the past decade or so. We have moved a long way toward a Starpower structure. One one the worst steps in that direction was the evolution of expensive, television-mediated election campaigns, which permit only Squares to run for office. That puts Squares increasingly in control of the rules, and they make rules to benefit Squares.

Is that the game we want to be playing?

The simple dynamics of violence

There’s simple, as in Occam’s Razor, and there’s simple, as in village idiot.

There’s a noble tradition in economics of using simple thought experiments to illuminate important dynamics. Sometimes things go wrong, though, like this (from a blog I usually like):

… suppose that you have the choice of providing gruesome rhetoric that will increase the probability of a killing spree but will also increase the probability of the passage of Universal Health Insurance. Suppose using the Arizona case as a baseline we say that the average killing spree causes the death of 6 people. Then if your rhetoric is at least 6/22,000 = 1/3667 times as likely to produce a the passage of universal health insurance as it is to induce a killing spree then you saved lives by engaging in fiery rhetoric.

http://modeledbehavior.com/2011/01/11/the-optimal-quantity-of-violent-rhetoric/

Here’s the apparent mental model behind this reasoning:

Linear ViolenceIt’s linear: use violent rhetoric, get the job done. There are two problems with this simple model. First, the sign of the relationships is ambiguous. I tend to suspect that anyone who needs to use violent rhetoric is probably a fanatic, who shouldn’t be making policy in the first place. Setting that aside, the bigger problem is that violence isn’t linear. Like potato chips, you can never have just one excessive outburst. Violent rhetoric escalates, and sometimes crosses into real violence. This is the classic escalation archetype:

Violence EscalationIn the escalation archetype, two sides struggle to maintain an advantage over each other. This creates two inner negative feedback loops, which together create a positive feedback loop (a figure-8 around the two negative loops). It’s interesting to note that, so far, the use of violent rhetoric is fairly one-sided – the escalation is happening within the political right (candidates vying for attention?) more than between left and right.

There are many other positive feedbacks involved in the process, which exacerbate the direct escalation of language. Here are some speculative examples:

Violence Other LoopsThe positive feedbacks around violent rhetoric create a societal trap, from which it may be difficult to extricate ourselves. If there’s a general systems insight about vicious cycles, it’s that the best policy is prevention – just don’t start down that road (if you doubt this, play the dollar auction or smoke some crack). Politicians who engage in violent rhetoric, or other races to the bottom of the intellectual barrel, risk starting a very destructive spiral:

violence Social

The bad news is that there’s no easy remedy for this behavior. Purveyors of violent rhetoric and their supporters need to self-reflect on the harm they do to society. The good news is that if public support for violent words and images reverses, the positive loops will help to repair the damage, and take us closer to a model of rational discourse for problem solving.

About that, there is at least a bit of wisdom in the article:

… if you genuinely care about the shooting death of six people then you ought to really, really care about endorsing wrong public policies which will result in the premature death of vastly more people. Hence you should devote yourself to actually discovering the right answers to these questions, rather than than coming up with ad hoc rhetoric – violent or polite – in support of the policy you happend to have been attracted to first.

Storytelling and playing with systems

This journalist gets it:

Maybe journalists shouldn’t tell stories so much. Stories can be a great way of transmitting understanding about things that have happened. The trouble is that they are actually a very bad way of transmitting understanding about how things work. Many of the most important things people need to know about aren’t stories at all.

Our work as journalists involves crafting rewarding media experiences that people want to engage with. That’s what we do. For a story, that means settings, characters, a beginning, a muddle and an end. That’s what makes a good story.

But many things, like global climate change, aren’t stories. They’re issues that can manifest as stories in specific cases.

… the way that stories transmit understanding is only one way of doing so. When it comes to something else – a really big, national or world-spanning issue, often it’s not what happened that matters, so much as how things work.

…When it comes to understanding a system, though, the best way is to interact with it.

Play is a powerful way of learning. Of course the systems I’ve listed above are so big that people can’t play with them in reality. But as journalists we can create models that are accurate and instructive as ways of interactively transmitting understanding.

I use the word ‘play’ in its loosest sense here; one can ‘play’ with a model of a system the same way a mechanic ‘plays’ around with an engine when she’s not quite sure what might be wrong with it.

The act of interacting with a system – poking and prodding, and finding out how the system reacts to your changes – exposes system dynamics in a way nothing else can.

If this grabs you at all, take a look at the original – it includes some nice graphics and an interesting application to class in the UK. The endpoint of the forthcoming class experiment is something like a data visualization tool. It would be cool if they didn’t stop there, but actually created a way for people to explore the implications of different models accounting for the dynamics of class, as Climate Colab and Climate Interactive do with climate models.

The BC carbon tax – good idea, bad implementation

Via PEF:

BC’s carbon tax was supposed to be “revenue neutral”, meaning all carbon tax revenue would be “recycled” to British Columbians through personal income tax cuts, corporate income tax cuts and a low-income credit. When the 2008 budget launched the carbon tax, we were provided with a forecast that had revenues precisely match recycling through tax cuts and credits, with about one-third of revenues going to each of PIT cuts, CIT cuts and the low-income credit.

But recent budgets have shown a carbon tax deficit: tax cuts have completely swamped carbon tax revenues. While some were concerned that the carbon tax would be a “tax grab”, instead we are a carbon tax is that is revenue negative not revenue neutral.

Corporate tax cuts are now absorbing the lion’s share of carbon tax revenues. In 2010/11, they will be equivalent to 57% of carbon tax revenues, compared to one-third in 2008/09. Cutting corporate taxes is the worst possible way of using carbon tax revenues. This is because of the intense concentration of ownership of capital at the top of the income distribution (when you hear corporate tax cuts think upper-income tax cuts), and also because shareholders outside BC, who pay no carbon tax, benefit from corporate tax cuts.

You can't fix emissions inequity with more emissions

A lot of the draft agreements floating around reference a principle of equity in cumulative emissions budgets. For example, the latest AWG-LCA draft,

A long-term aspirational and ambitious global goal for emission reductions, as part of the shared vision for long-term cooperative action, should be based on the best available scientific knowledge and supported by medium-term goals for emission reductions, taking into account historical responsibilities and an equitable share in the atmospheric space;

That’s a nice sentiment, but the goals expressed here are not compatible. If you take “aspirational and ambitious” to mean 55oppm – much less stringent then a 1.5 or 2C target – we’re already halfway or more through civilization’s cumulative emissions budget. Most of the historic emissions occurred in the 20th century. The rest will happen this century. The problem is, there are a lot more people around this century than last. Therefore, this century’s remaining emissions budget just isn’t big enough to make up for historic inequity in emissions, even if you allocate it all to the developing world.

For example, here’s a scenario in which the developed world stops emitting almost immediately – essentially abandoning its GHG-intensive capital stock – while the developing world pursues a trajectory consistent with a global 50% cut by 2050. Per capita emissions convergence and reversal happens right away:

per capita emissions

Continue reading “You can't fix emissions inequity with more emissions”

Bolivia Barking

I recently wondered whether developing countries were asking for the wrong thing in Bonn. Now Bolivia is barking up the right tree with a proposed “climate debt” concept. The idea’s actually quite old; it’s already well developed in the Greenhouse Development Rights framework.

The trick is, how to achieve an equitable outcome that’s consistent with the physics of climate? Consider this reaction to ideas like climate debt:

Obama’s Global Tax

By INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY | Posted Tuesday, July 29, 2008 4:20 PM PT

Election ’08: A plan by Barack Obama to redistribute American wealth on a global level is moving forward in the Senate. It follows Marxist theology – from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

Obama would give them all a fish without teaching them how to fish. Pledging to cut global poverty in half on the backs of U.S. taxpayers is a ridiculous and impossible goal.

We already transfer too much national wealth to the United Nations and its busybody agencies. …

If you’re worried abut gasoline and heating oil prices now, think what they’ll be like when the U.S. is subjected in an Obama administration to global energy consumption and production taxes. Obama’s Global Poverty Act is the “international community’s” foot in the door.

Obama has called on the U.S. to “lead by example” on global warming and probably would submit to a Kyoto-like agreement that would sock Americans with literally trillions of dollars in costs over the next half century for little or no benefit.

“We can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times . . . and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK,” Obama has said. “That’s not leadership. That’s not going to happen.”

Oh, really? Who’s to say we can’t load up our SUV and head out in search of bacon double cheeseburgers at the mall? China? India? Bangladesh? The U.N.?

I suspect that these sentiments are quite prevalent, at least in the US. I’m even sympathetic in at least one respect: transfers from the global rich to poor are beneficial in principle, but difficult to execute. Transfers from country to country are susceptible to capture by elites. Direct transfers among individuals could be facilitated by a global carbon market with allowances allocated to individuals (one of the few good arguments for emissions trading in my mind), but would undemocratic regimes permit their citizens to participate?

I don’t see agreement on this front any time soon. I could see things going a different way: the US, EU and a few other developed nations move to reduce, then goad developing nations along with a mixture of carrot (offset projects and other transfers) and stick (border carbon adjustments).

Bonn – Are Developing Countries Asking For the Wrong Thing?

Yesterday’s news:

BONN, Germany (Reuters) – China, India and other developing nations joined forces on Wednesday to urge rich countries to make far deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions than planned by 2020 to slow global warming.

I’m sure that the mental model behind this runs something like, “the developed world created most of the problem up to this point, and they’re rich, so they should get busy making deep cuts, while we grow a little more to catch up.” Regardless of fairness considerations, that approach ignores the physics of the situation. If developing countries continue to increase emissions, it hardly matters how deep cuts are in the rich world. Either everyone plays along, or mitigation doesn’t work.

I fired up C-ROADS and ran a few scenarios to illustrate:

C-ROADS reduction scenarios

The top blue line is the AIFI business-as-usual, with rapid emissions growth. If rich nations stabilize emissions as of today, you get the red line – still much more than 2x CO2 at the end of the century. Whether the rich start cutting emissions a little (1%/yr, green) or a lot (5%/yr, green) after that makes relatively little difference, because emissions from the rich world quickly become a small share of the total. Getting everyone to merely stabilize emissions (at 2009 levels for the rich, 2020 for developing countries, black) makes a substantially bigger difference than deep cuts by the rich alone. Stabilizing CO2 in the atmosphere at a low level requires deep cuts by everyone (here 4%/year, brown).

If we’re serious about stabilization, it doesn’t make sense for the rich to decarbonize faster, so that the developing world can construct more carbon-dependent capital that will ultimately have to be deconstructed. It may sound “fair” in carbon-per-capita terms, but I don’t think that’s a very good measure of human welfare, and it’s unlikely to end up with a fair distribution of damages.

If the developing countries are really concerned about climate impacts (as they should be), they should be looking to the rich world for help getting onto a low-carbon path today, not in 20 years. They should also be willing to impose a carbon price on themselves. It won’t collapse their economies any more than it will ours. Without a price on carbon, rebound effects and leakage will eat up most gains, as the private sector responds to the real signal: “go green (but the price of carbon is zero, wink wink nudge nudge).” Their request to the rich should be about the transfers, property rights, and other changes it takes to get the job done with some measure of distributional fairness (a topic that won’t be popular in some circles).