Economism—the simplistic, unreflecting application of Economics 101 models to complex, real-world issues—is particularly influential in the law, including both legal academia and actual court opinions that decide important questions.
Noah Smith, for example, points to a paper by a law professor arguing that forced prison labor deters crime because it effectively raises the price of crime in a supply-and-demand model. The problem with this model is that it doesn’t accurately describe criminal behavior. Smith quotes economist Alex Tabarrok on what happened when the United States dramatically increased the harshness of punishments:
In theory, this should have reduced crime, reduced the costs of crime control and led to fewer people in prison. In practice … the experiment with greater punishment led to more spending on crime control and many more people in prison.
A core feature of competitive markets, according to the basic model, is that they allocate goods to the people or companies that are willing to pay the most for them. In theory, and in many situations, this is a good thing: If I am willing to pay $1,000 for a custom portrait of my (daughter’s) dog, and you are only willing to pay $1 for it, then aggregate satisfaction is likely to be higher if I get the portrait. But not always: If I am willing to pay $10 for a turkey sandwich, but you are only willing to pay $1 becauseyou only have $1, and have no borrowing capacity, then society may very well be better off if you get the sandwich. Yet in an ordinary, healthy market, I get the sandwich.
This problem is acutely apparent when it comes to health care. People place a high value on not dying, but when it comes to the allocation of medical treatment, they can’t bid more than their income allows. The obvious result is that markets deliver unnecessary procedures to rich people while denying essential care to poor people—because that’s what markets do. Obamacare attempted (with mixed success) to mitigate this problem. The Trump administration is rhetorically committed to deregulating health insurance; the question is whether they are willing to accept the political consequences of pricing millions of people out of not dying.
To be clear, the idea that Donald Trump will be president while he or his children effectively own a company that does business all over the world is preposterous. (Quick primer on trust law: A trust is managed its trustees for the benefit of its beneficiaries. In this case, we know the trustees include two of Trump’s children, and the beneficiary is likely to be either Trump or his children.) If people, companies, and foreign governments want to pay bribes to the president of the United States, they need only give favorable deals to the Trump Organization. An in any of his official actions, the president will have the temptation to do what’s right for his company, not for the country.
The point I wanted to make in my Atlantic column today, however, is that this is just the most obvious and egregious example of the larger problem of corruption: government officials acting in the interests of themselves, their family and friends, or their business associates. The example I focus on is estate tax repeal, because that one thing alone would be worth more than $1 billion to the Trump family. It’s a classic example of a president doing what’s in his own personal interests and the interests of his core constituency of gazillionaires, while pretending it’s for the good of the country.
Betsy DeVos is another great example, perfectly illustrated by this graphic from the AFL-CIO:
The way American politics works is that people and organizations with money—today, largely billionaire families—invest in politicians and demand policies that favor their private interests. Donald Trump just eliminated the middlemen—not only winning the presidency, but also inviting fellow billionaires like DeVos into his cabinet. This is why, beyond the ongoing catastrophe that is the Trump presidency (which technically hasn’t even started yet), we still need to fix our democracy, so everyone has an equal say in our government.
I try to read each of my book manuscripts carefully before submitting them. I hire my own line editor to go through my writing for grammatical and stylistic errors. The publisher then does a copy edit. When I get the “galleys” back from the publisher, I hire my own proofreaders to scour them again for mistakes. But inevitably typos sneak into the published books. Here’s one from 13 Bankers:
(That should be “economic policy,” in case you’re wondering.)
Furthermore, I am almost incapable of reading anything that I’ve written before. It’s just too boring when you already know what the next sentence is going to say; at best I can skim. So it’s very hard for me to catch mistakes in anything that I’ve published. Out of sympathy to my fellow writers, I often circle typos when I find them in books that I am reading. Sometimes I even email the author out of the blue with a list of mistakes, if there is still time to fix them in the paperback version.
So, before you start reading, I’d like you to know about the Economism Typo Contest. If you are the first person to find and tell me about a mistake, I will send you a limited edition, spiral-bound, 5×8 notebook with the jacket cover of Economism on the front (signed on the inside if you like). Or, if you prefer, I will pay you ten dollars in cash money.
I haven’t written much about the election itself (except to point out that the same data can be interpreted in diametrically opposing ways). That’s because the election was so close that the fact that Clinton lost can be explained by any number of but-for causes, and much of the Democratic Internet has been a cacophony of people insisting that their preferred cause (Comey, Russian hacking, not enough attention to African-Americans, too much attention to minorities, not enough attention to the white working class, too much emphasis on Trump’s personality, etc.) was the One True Cause.
I do think, however, that if Democrats (a group in which include myself) want to return to power and change the overall political dynamics of this country, one thing we need to recognize is that Republicans have been crushing us on the economic messaging front for decades. We have adapted by becoming Republicans Lite—no longer the party of jobs and the working person, but now the party of minimally intrusive market regulation, technocratic expertise, and free trade agreements.
This is the subject of my article in Literary Hub today, “The Failure of Democratic Storytelling.” Now that Democrats are out of power virtually across the board, we have the opportunity to develop a new vision, without having to compromise with Joe Manchin, Arlen Spector, and Susan Collins to squeak legislation through Congress. The question is what we make of that opportunity.
There was one moment, when I was finishing up the manuscript of Economism, that I thought someone had already said what I was trying to say in the book. This is what I read:
“The beauty and the simplicity of such a theory are so great that it is easy to forget that it follows not from the actual facts, but from an incomplete hypothesis introduced for the sake of simplicity. … The conclusion that individuals acting independently for their own advantage will produce the greatest aggregate of wealth, depends on a variety of unreal assumptions …
“Individualism and laissez-faire could not, in spite of their deep roots in the political and moral philosophies of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, have secured their lasting hold over the conduct of public affairs, if it had not been for their conformity with the needs and wishes of the business world of the day. …
“These many elements have contributed to the current intellectual bias, the mental make-up, the orthodoxy of the day.”
I just finished reading J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. I don’t feel like adding to the torrent of instanalysis of the “white working class,” however, so I’ll just comment on the description of Yale Law School—which, in the book, serves the dramatic function of introducing the author to the Elite.
There are a few details that seem unfamiliar to me—I can’t recall attending a single one of the “cocktail receptions and banquets” that Vance describes as the school’s social rituals—but then again I was thirty-nine and married with a child when I started law school. But there is one thing that Vance nails: the culture of credentialism.
Noah Smith (along with a fair section of the Internet) has some concerns about Larry Kudlow as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers: he’s overconfident, too much of a partisan, and fixated on nonexistent problems (e.g., inflation). I’m not so worried that he’s on Team Republican; after all, Donald Trump gets to pick the advisers he wants, and they shouldn’t be rejected solely because they take political sides. But I am worried about what Kudlow’s appointment means for the relationship between economics and policy.
The world is a complicated place. Anyone who studies society in depth should learn to have respect for that fact. At any given moment, we have only a hazy understanding of what combinations of transitory phenomena and underlying structural factors produce what outcomes. (For Exhibit A, see the election that took place on November 8.) This tweet at the beginning of Game 7 of the Cubs-Indians World Series, channeling the great French historian Fernand Braudel, is one of my all-time favorites:
Buck: Will we see history tonight? Smoltz: Yes! Braudel: No man can see history. This is the foam. The current of history is beyond our ken.
— Chas. Radbourn, here’s my white check mark motherf (@OldHossRadbourn) November 3, 2016
Forty years after John Bogle launched the Vanguard 500 Index Fund, passive investment funds now account for about one-third of the mutual fund and ETF market. You would think this would pose a threat to traditional asset managers that charge hefty fees for actively managed mutual funds, and this is true in part. On average, index funds charge 73 basis points less than active funds, and the average expense ratios for actively managed funds have fallen from 106 bp to 84 bp over the past fifteen years (Investment Company Institute, 2016 Investment Company Fact Book, Figure 5.6).
The Wall Street Journal has a profile up on Mike Crapo and Jeb Hensarling, the key committee chairs (likely in Crapo’s case) who will repeal or rewrite the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. It’s clear that both are planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks (which, together, make up most of the act).
Hensarling is about as clear a proponent of economism—the belief that the world operates exactly as described in Economics 101 models—as you’re likely to find. He majored in economics at Texas A&M, where one of his professors was none other than Phil Gramm. Hensarling described his college exposure to economics this way:
“Even though I had grown up as a Republican, I didn’t know why I was a Republican until I studied economics. I suddenly saw how free-market economics provided the maximum good to the maximum number, and I became convinced that if I had an opportunity, I’d like to serve in public office and further the cause of the free market.”
As you may have noticed by now, I have a new book coming out. It could be a perfect holiday gift for, well, maybe a handful of people out there—the father-in-law who wonders why our country’s economic policies are so screwed up, or the annoying libertarian niece who insists that we should get rid of public schools and privatize the police force, or the progressive friend who studied anthropology and is unnecessarily intimidated by economics. But even if you pre-order it, you won’t get it until around January 10.
So, here’s the offer: If you pre-order a copy of Economism as a gift for someone, I will mail you a signed card with the image of the book jacket on the front and, on the inside, an explanation of what the recipient is getting (i.e., a book that will arrive in January). That way you can give the person the card instead of the book. If you want a card, send me an email at email@example.com with your name and address and the name of the person I should inscribe it to. I am planning to mail the cards out by first class mail on Saturday, December 17 (from Massachusetts), which will give them a full week to get to you before Christmas. If you need one sooner for a different holiday, let me know and I’ll do what I can.
If you send me an email by Sunday (December 11), I expect to be able to send you a card. After that point I can probably do it, but I can’t guarantee it because it depends on how many extras I order in advance.
[Updated with Mnuchin’s position on charitable contribution deduction.]
I wrote two days ago about the fairy tale that you can lower tax rates for the very rich yet avoid lowering their actual taxes by eliminating those mythical beasts, loopholes and deductions. The basic problem with this story is that, at the very high end of the distribution, deductions and exclusions (with the possible exception of the deduction for charitable contributions) just don’t amount to very much as a percentage of income. Therefore, eliminating those deductions may increase rich people’s taxes by tens of thousands of dollars, but that is only a tiny proportion of their overall tax burden, and not enough to offset any significant rate decrease.
Unlike me, Daniel Hemel and Kyle Rozema are actual tax scholars (Hemel has a blog on Medium), and their detailed research largely tells the same story. They have a forthcoming paper that analyzes the mortgage interest deduction (MID) and shows that, while it is worth more dollars to rich people than poor people (for all the well-known reasons—bigger houses, higher marginal rates, itemizing), the MID causes people in the top 1% to pay a largershare of the overall tax burden. Therefore, eliminating the MID and using the increased tax revenue to reduce tax rates for everyone (what Mnuchin proposed in concept) would be a large windfall for the top 0.1% and a small windfall for the rest of the 1%.
My new book—Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality—is coming out on January 10 (although, of course, you can pre-order it from your local monopoly now). If you’d like more information about the book, the book website is now up at economism.net. (I used Medium instead of WordPress.com this time.) The post below, which is also the top story on the book website, summarizes the main themes of the book.
Income inequality is at levels not seen for a century. Many working families are struggling to get by, only kept afloat by Medicaid and food stamps. The federal minimum wage is just $7.25 per hour—below the poverty line even for a family of two. The bright outlook for corporate profits has driven the S&P 500 to record levels. Surely it makes sense to raise the minimum wage, forcing companies to dip into those profits to pay their workers a bit more.
But that’s not what you learn in Economics 101. The impact of a minimum wage is blissfully easy to model using the supply-and-demand diagram that dominates first-year economics courses.
Incoming Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin promised a big tax cut for corporations and the “middle class,” but not for the rich. “Any tax cuts for the upper class will be offset by less deductions that pay for it,” he said on CNBC.
This is impossible.
The tax cutting mantra comes in two forms. The more extreme one claims that reducing the overall tax burden on the rich will turbocharge the economy because they will save more, increasing investment, and will also work more, starting companies and doing all those other wonderful things that rich people do. The less extreme version is that we should lower tax rates to reduce distortions in the tax code, but we can maintain the current level of taxes paid by the rich by eliminating those famous “loopholes and deductions.” Donald Trump the candidate stuck with the former: his tax proposal, as scored by the Tax Policy Center, gave 47% of its total tax cuts to the top 1%, who also enjoyed by far the largest reduction in their average tax rate.
Mnuchin’s comment implies that he favors the latter version: lowering rates but making it up by “broadening the base.” This math might work for the merely rich—say, families making $200,000–400,000 per year. Take away the mortgage interest tax deduction, the deduction for retirement plan contributions, and the exclusion for employer-provided health care—which together can easily shield $50–75,000 in income—and you could probably fund several percentage points of rate decreases. (Of course, it would be politically impossible to completely eliminate those tax breaks, but that’s another story.)
Several of my friends, some of whom I haven’t spoken with in a long time, have reached out to me over the past week to discuss what to make of last week’s election. I imagine this is happening with a lot of people.
Although I don’t have any simple answers, I do have some thoughts on what we can do in response to the prospect of Donald Trump and the Republicans controlling the entire federal government, as well as a large majority of states. But first, we need a short detour—for a bit of perspective.
Maurice Walker is a fifty-five-year-old man with schizophrenia whose only income is $530 per month in Social Security disability payments. On September 3, 2015, he was arrested by police in Calhoun, Georgia for being a “pedestrian under the influence”—something many of us have been guilty of at one time or another. If Walker had been able to come up with $160 (something most people reading this blog could do in seconds), he would have walked free. Instead, he was locked up in jail, without his medication.