Today’s Quote of the Day…

…comes from page 80 of Roger Koppl’s excellent 2018 book Expert Failure (link added, original emphasis):

Earlier we saw Lee Ellis argue for chemical castration of young men with “crime-prone genes.” Writers who, like Ellis (2008), view experts as reliable and nonexperts as powerless do not usually subject their theories to the reflexivity requirement.  Ellis’ essay illistrates, however, the importance of the reflexivity that all agents of the system be modeled.  He models persons with “crime-prone genes,” but not the experts who would administer sterilization policies.  He consequently wishes to place discretionary power in the hands of persons unlikely to exercise such power with the Solomonic disinterest and wisdom his policies would require even under the assumption that his eugenic ideas are correct.  In the theory of experts, as in all of social science, all agents must be modeled if we are to minimize the risk of proposing policies that would require some actors to behave in ways that are inconsistent with their incentives or beyond human capabilities.

JMM:  Economics, and the social sciences in general, try to emulate the natural sciences by means and methods.  But the social sciences differ from the natural sciences in the key way that Koppl mentions here: we are part of the very thing we are modeling.  To borrow a metaphor from elsewhere in Koppl, we are also the ants in the anthill.  So is government.

The big assumption made by many people, both on the left and on the right, is that government is somehow made out of finer clay than the rest of us mere mortals.  This may be because they were elected, or appointed by God, or appointed by some panel of experts, or whatever.  That, for some reason never really explained, those imposing rules and regulations upon us are free of the “crime-prone genes” or self-interest or moral failings of the rest of us.  Were this true, were men really ruled by angels, then we would be near Heaven.  But alas, human history indicates that this is not so.  We all make mistakes, even under the best of intentions.  The question is how to limit the danger of those mistakes.

Are US Property Rights Contributing to the Trade Deficit?

The United States has relatively strong property rights protections compared to other nations.  According to the Economic Freedom of the World Index, the US remains in the top quartile when it comes to property rights protection (although the absolute score has fallen in recent years).  Could this ranking be contributing to the US’ global trade deficit, and especially that with China?

When looking at international trade accounts, what is typically reported on is the trade balance or current account.  This is, generally, the amount of goods/services imported and exported between two countries.*  However, there is an opposite side to the coin here that is less discussed: the capital account or the importation/exportation of asset ownership between countries.  Asset ownership includes things like real estate, ownership of firms, etc.  By definition, the current account and the capital account must sum to zero.  In other words, foreigners sell to us in order to buy either US made goods/services or US assets.  If the US has a trade deficit (more imports being sold to US buyers coming in then exports being sold to foreign buyers going out), then the US must necessarily have a capital account surplus (more assets being bought in the US by foreigners then US citizens buying foreign assets).

So, where do property rights play in?  Property has long been a good vehicle for saving as it literally provides shelter and typically has some value.  As with any nation that gets wealthier, the wealthy people in China are looking for safe yet productive ways to invest and save.  Property does not play that role in China.  Much of Chinese property is, at best, leased from the government; it cannot be outright owned.  What can be owned, however, is always at risk from nationalization or appropriation from the Chinese government, especially if one becomes a political target.

In the US, property rights are much more secure.  Except under few conditions, and with compensation, the US government cannot just appropriate property to itself.  Property is easily transferable, either by sale or by inheritance or gift, in the US.  The US has a strong rental market, meaning they can earn rents, and the police generally enforce property rights from burglary and fraud.  In short, property is generally safe in the US.**

If a Chinese person wanted to put money in property as a means of saving, putting money in his own country would not necessarily make sense given their instability when it comes to property rights.  S/he may be more interested in investing in the US.  In order to do this, however, they would need US dollars.  US dollars are acquired by selling goods in the US.  The Chinese person then, instead of using those dollars to buy American-made goods/services, invest in the American economy by buying real estate and turning them into investment properties, an option not easily available to them in China.

Trade deficits are not, prima facie, a reason for worry.  they do not mean that the economy is weak or weakening.  Indeed, just the opposite: in the above discussion, the trade deficits exist precisely because the US economy is strong!

*It’s slightly more complicated than this, but for our purposes here that does not matter.

**Of course, a glaring exception to this is the abomination known as civil asset forfeiture, but even that is restricted in the US and, God willing, on its way out

Where’s Mine?

In my Econ 385 class on Tuesday (International Economic Policy), an excellent discussion on student loan debt came up.  One of my students asked the probing question: “Student debt is approaching $1.8 trillion.  Everyone seems to recognize this is a bubble.  Why is there so much resistance to student debt forgiveness?” 

I opened the discussion up to the class.  Lots of excellent, well-reasoned opinions were expressed.  Some argued that the schools have no incentives to keep their expenditures in check since the government is subsidizing the loans.  Some argued that the politicians do not bear the full costs of these loans, nor a default, so they have little incentive to address the issue.  Others noted that the banks would keep giving loans so long as they are backed by the government.  All of these are excellent points, which I’ll not rehash here (I wish I could take credit for teaching these students, but they were already smart before they came to my class).  

There is a larger issue I wanted to discuss, one which was not discussed in class (we were acting under the assumption, for the sake of the discussion, that forgiveness was the best option).  This issue is: who gets forgiven?

What is it about student loan debt that makes it worthy of being forgiven, but other forms of debt are not?  There’s credit card debt, housing debt, business debt, auto debt, etc.  All this debt can have the same effect as student loan debt.  True, student loan debt is larger than these other sources, but if that’s the case, that’s just an argument either for partial forgiveness, or for people to mount up other forms of debt.

If student loan debt is forgiven, the holders of the other forms of debt will wonder “why not me?  Where is mine?”  Indeed, recently a friend used exactly this line of reasoning when justifying tariffs for his own industry: “My competitors and suppliers get protection.  Why not me?”

This is the problem with most government handout programs.  Those that are designed to help a certain and arbitrary group can compel members of the out-group to seek their own rents.  If student loan debt is forgiven, business owners might lobby to have their debt forgiven (“I’m creating jobs!  if my debt is forgiven, then I can create more jobs!”).  Or automobile owners (“My car lets me get to my job!”).  Anyone could come up with various excuses.  

This rent seeking, of course, then results in wasted resources.  Resources that could have gone to productive uses are now trying to capture rents.  And there are other issues as well that I’ll not touch on here: the sanctity of contracts (will it become harder for people to get loans since the value of a loan contract will be reduced?), moral hazard problems (will former debtors seek even more debt since their previous amount was forgiven?).  These are all important issues to consider.

Expert Failure to Communicate

On Friday, Roger Koppl of Syracuse University presented his book Expert Failure at the Invisible Hand Seminar co-sponsored by George Mason University and the Institute for Humane Studies.  

The thrust of Dr. Koppl’s book is that, similar to market and government failure, experts can fail in their task as well.  Experts can give poor advice, he influenced by known or unknown biases, and react to incentives just like the rest of us.  An expert, for the purposes of this discussion, is anyone paid for their opinion (this is how Koppl defines expert in his book).

There is another aspect of expert failure which plays into the problem and that is a failure to communicate.*  Even if an expert does everything perfectly, if s/he cannot adequately communicate their message to the decision-maker, then expert failure can still result.  

This expert failure to communicate is a major issue in law & economics.  Economists are trained in statistics and empirical methods.  Lawyers and judges may not and juries almost certainly are not. In his 2009 textbook, Basic Concepts of Probability and Statistics in the Law, Columbia law professor Michael Finkelstein gives two examples were ambiguous wording by experts and misinterpretation of probabilities by juries led to false convictions (see pages 3-5).  These failures can lead to pro-prosecution bias in juries (or, alternatively, pro-defendant bias if other statistical fallacies are made).  In the two legal cases above, the convictions were overturned on appeal, but one has to worry about the error rate given the already confusing nature of statistical wording and hypothesis testing. 

In Expert Failure, Koppl discusses increased competition among experts as a means for solving expert failure.  A good expert can explain his argument in common-language and not necessarily hide behind jargon.  Competition between experts may indeed reduce this expert failure to communicate, but it ultimately rests on the head of the decision maker.  And indeed the more complicated a topic is, the more the reliance on expert opinion is needed, which increases the likelihood of expert failure to communicate.  

Ultimately, I think this all adds up to a rather strong presumption of liberty.  The more control experts have over our lives, the more likely it is for expert failure to occur.  Indeed, some of these highly complex functions, like contract issues or tort issues, may be best left to arbitrators rather than judges.  The more complex an issue is, the less one would want to centralize it.  

*Full disclosure: this point may come up in the book.  I have not read it, having ordered it shortly after the seminar

Tariffs Harm Suppliers, Too

Michael Hicks of Ball State points us to an important bit of news regarding the current Administration’s strategy of using tariffs as a billy club:

The landed cost of U.S. beans in China is currently similar to Brazilian soybeans even with the 25-percent tariff, but Chinese crushers are reluctant to take U.S. supply as they fear authorities may not approve cargoes and that tariffs could climb further.

Hicks adds:

Game Theory 101 (prerequisite is Trade 101): Reduce volatility over the long run by trading with more stable and predictable partners. Signaling through ‘crazy’ behavior, with uncertain payoffs is higher risk.

And while the Chinese may be the ones primarily reducing their imports, this can affect other US trading partners as well.  Once solid allies like Canada, Mexico, South Korea, and the EU suddenly find themselves targets of tariff aggression.  If the behavior of your trading partner’s government is erratic, you face increased costs in dealing with them.  Higher costs, ceteris paribus, mean less quantity demanded.  All firms, then, likely face costs of the tariff, not just the immediate industry facing the tariff.

An erratic tariff regime can be seen as akin to political instability.  Economic actors (buyers and sellers) like certainty.  Countries with greater political uncertainty, where things are more governed by arbitrary legislation rather than principled actions, tend to see weaker economic performance and less economic dynamism as these actors have to take into account these increased costs.

Trump’s supporters may hail his behavior as “4-d chess” and “superior negotiating,” but it comes at a real cost.

Be Skeptical of Regulations Because Knowing the Market is Difficult (Even for Experts)

Given how much money business consultants make, one would think they have pretty good insight into a given industry or market.  And sure, they may have lots of information unavailable to most people, but does that necessarily imply they are better?

All data received, we must remember, is context-dependent.  Data never, ever, speak for themselves.  Interpreting and developing models for given market structures is extremely difficult in this regard because it requires certain assumptions.

Consider the following real-world example: when the guys from Xerox (the copy machine company) wanted to start selling their machines to businesses, they met stiff resistance from consultants and financial backers.  “Why would anyone spend thousands of dollars on a copy machine when we have a perfectly good, cheap substitute: carbon paper?  Copy machines will never sell.”  Prima facie, this criticism seemed legitimate.  Firms and experts observed secretaries and typists using carbon paper to make copies for distribution.  There didn’t seem to be any demand for copy machines.

Undeterred, the Xerox guys pressed on.  They decided to give companies the hardware, toner, and paper for free up until the first 2500 copies per month.  Firms jumped at the idea.  After all, how were they ever going to use 2500 copies a month?

Well, the rest is history.  Xerox is still around.  Carbon paper is not.

Why?  What did the experts get wrong?

They got wrong the scope of the market.  Copy machines weren’t for people writing letters.  They were for people receiving and distributing letters!  The market for copy machines was for the owner who got a letter from his lawyer who wanted to distribute it to the rest of the team.  It was for the product manager who needed to itemize his costs for different departments.  Etc etc.

There is an implicit conceit in economics that we know the market, the shapes of demand and supply curves.  But the reality is, we never do.  We have only data points in a certain context which may or may not provide useful information about other contexts.  This implicit conceit becomes vitally important when we start talking about regulation or “optimal taxes,” which require knowledge of the scope and shape of the market.  Knowledge we simply do not have.

Should Economic Growth be Traded for National Defense?

One of the stronger arguments against free trade is the national defense argument: some industry may be so vital to national security to warrant its protection from foreign competition.  This justification may be easily abused, but let’s ignore that possibility for the moment.  Is it still worth restricting trade and reducing opulence for the sake of national security?

The trade-off between security and opulence doesn’t appear too clear cut to me.  Protected industries tend to become listless, stagnant, and non-dynamic.  Protected from the forces of competition, they can become complacent.  As AEI economist Mark Perry likes to say: competition breeds competence.  These protected industries may become so undynamic, so technologically backward or stagnant, that in the event of a national emergency, they are unable to handle the military needs.

Furthermore, protected industries (especially if they are subsequently subsidized) may discourage development of newer technologies that may be better suited for national defense.  Let’s say, for example, that the steel industry is vital for national defense.  Since steel is protected from competition, it can make it a more attractive investment for people given its security.  This would divert resources away from other developments that could rival the industry, say some sort of lighter metal or steel substitute.

If an industry is protected from competition and it becomes listless and non-dynamic, not only is it coming at a sacrifice for national wealth but may also be a hindrance to national defense as well if it cannot adapt to changing war needs.  This becomes deadly true if a climate of rent-seeking rather than innovation takes hold in the national economy.

In short, while theoretically, tariffs could be helpful for national defense, they could very well end up being detrimental.