Friday, December 29, 2017


Thank you and happy new year to all my readers and commenters.

JCT distribution tables

Courtesy Greg Mankiw, the Joint Committee on Taxation distributional analysis of the new tax law.

Bottom line: No change. Income categories are paying almost exactly the same share of federal taxes as before. Millionaires actually pay a tiny bit larger share in the new bill.

Given the distributional hue and cry, frankly, it is a surprise to me just how tiny -- far below measurement errors -- the changes are.

One can argue whether this is the "right" measure of progressivity or redistribution, whether a tax cut should include a change in which income categories pay what share. But it summarizes the facts, which are stubborn things. Shares of federal taxes paid by income groups do not change. Millionaires get bigger dollar tax cuts exactly to the extent that they pay higher taxes. Period.

Note to those outside the beltway: The Joint Committee on Taxation is the committee set up by Congress to evaluate tax policy. Most criticism I've seen of its calculations lately come from the right.

MR wisdom

Best sentence award:
"It will not escape notice that New York buys subway construction the way all of America buys health care."
-Alex Tabarrok, Marginal Revolution, covering an excellent New York Times article on why subway construction in New York is so insanely expensive.

France -- supposedly bureaucratic, dirigiste, labor-protected France -- builds subways and high speed trains for far less than we pay. Something about the US government makes us singularly inefficient in public expenditures. Don't expect the French health care model to cost the same here either.

A prime candidate, in my view, is the US habit of federal financing plus state and local decision making. Local politicians who are spending national taxpayer money have very little incentive to reduce costs.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Economists as Public Intellectuals

I ran across a video by my former Chicago Booth colleague Austan Goolsbee that prompts some reflection on the role of economists as public intellectuals. (In addition to my gentle scolding of Greg Mankiw in the last post.)

"Hi, I'm an actual economist (MIT PhD degree shown) 
and I promise you 
Donald Trump's tax plan is a scam. ... 
This tax cut was designed to help Johnny Marshmallow (Billionaire, with monopoly man image) ... 
President Trump believes that if you give more money to big corporations and billionaires that money will trickle down to you..."
Let us analyze the rhetoric of these amazing sentences carefully. 
"I'm an actual economist (MIT PhD degree shown)" 
This is an argument by authority, by credentialism. He, Austan, has a PhD from a Big Name institution. What follows is therefore a result of that special knowledge, that special insight, that special training, that actual economists have. He doesn't have to offer logic or fact, which you won't understand, and you aren't allowed to argue back with logic or fact, unless perhaps you too have a Big Name PhD.  What follows isn't just going to be Austan's personal opinions, it inherits the aura of the whole discipline. By implication, anyone who disagrees isn't an "actual economist."
"Donald Trump's tax plan is a scam"
This are the most interesting 7 words.

Mankiw on endowment taxes

Greg Mankiw wrote a New York Times column December 24 criticizing the university endowment tax. I disagree, not so much with the wisdom of the tax, but with the wisdom of writing such an article.

The tax is small -- 1.4% of endowment income. So if $100 of endowment earns 10%, or $10 of income, the university pays 14 cents. Still, with $38 billion of endowment like Harvard's, or $22 billion like Stanford's that adds up to some real money.

Greg writes that it is "hard to justify this policy." Universities invest in "human capital, which means educating our labor force" and "the knowledge that flows from basic research." Mainly, though, Greg's against the tax because the few elite universities with more than $500,000 endowment per student, (unlike the community colleges and state schools that actually do train the labor force)
"use their resources [to offer] need-blind, full-need admissions...."
"At Princeton [$24 billion] about 60 percent of undergraduates get financial aid. This aid covers the entire cost of tuition, room and board for students from families with income below $65,000 a year."
In sum, Greg feels that universities provide a public good, of refraining from charging tuition for low-income students, so should retain this subsidy. And subsidy it is. While I think all capital taxes should be zero for everyone, given that everyone else pays capital taxes, the fact that universities can borrow at tax-free rates, accept tax-exempt gifts, put the money into endowments which are run like funds-of-funds, hiring high-priced managers to send money to high-priced managers of hedge funds, private equity, venture capital, and real estate, and pay no tax on dividends, interest, capital gains, ever, amounts to quite a subsidy relative to everyone else. And it comes out of taxes that universities do not pay, which means everyone else pays more.

Lower rates, broaden base?

Does not every claimant on the public purse, anxious to preserve a tax deduction, claim that they provide a public good? The home builders, the mortgage bankers, and the real estate agents went apoplectic over limiting the deductibility of home mortgage interest. Because it was going to destroy the American Dream of Homeownership. Because building home equity is the tried and true, well, "engine of economic growth for the middle class!" Farmers demand agricultural subsidies to defend their storied way of life. Why, without the Family Farm, the fabric of American society is lost! The bankers demand immense leverage, deductibility of corporate interest, and a range of anti-competitive regulation because otherwise, who will lend to the middle class!  The solar cell and electric car manufacturers want tax credits and subsidies because they're saving the planet. And on we go.

Conservative, "Republican," free-market principles used to be to advocate for lower marginal tax rates, and a broader base, in which everyone gives up their little deduction or subsidy. (I use "Republican" as Greg uses it, so don't go all nuts in the comments about Republican failings to live up to these ideals.)

How can we credibly proclaim that we, universities, provide the true public good and deserve subsidies, but the rest of you get lost? Do we not look just a little hypocritical if when a tax reform is announced, we jump in line with the rest of them to demand our pork back?

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Response to Williamson on taxes

Steve Williamson has an interesting new post on corporate taxes and investment, in which he claims that taxing corporate profits has no effect on investment.
What happens if the corporate tax rate goes up permanently, with the tax rate constant forever...? This has no effect on investment or on the firm's hiring decisions in any period. That is, if VB is before tax profits, then (1-t)VB = V, so maximizing VB is the same as maximizing V, and the tax rate is irrelevant, not only for investment decisions, but for the firm's hiring decision. In the aggregate, there is no effect on labor demand, and therefore no effect on wages. 
Basically, investment is an intertemporal decision for the firm. But the corporate tax rate affects per-period after-tax profits in exactly the same way in every period, so there is no effect on the after tax rate of return on investment the firm is facing. Therefore, the firm won't invest more with a lower corporate tax rate ...
Steve concludes
But, the tax bill is not about investment. The primary effect is redistribution. In the short run, the tax bill makes the rich richer and the poor poorer...
You can see there is a problem. If Steve is right, then why not a 99.999% capital tax rate? Per Steve, it won't distort any decisions, neither investment nor hiring nor starting companies, it will give a revenue bonanza for the government and it will transfer income efficiently. Surely if 99.999% corporate taxes had no disincentive effects, governments would have noticed? Surely not every single Republican is, as Steve implicitly charges, either lying through his teeth or an economic ignoramus when they state the goal of the tax cut is to spur investment, and thereby productivity and wages?

The Fiscal Theory of Monetary Policy

"Stepping on a Rake: the Fiscal Theory of Monetary Policy" is new paper, just published in the European Economic Review. This link gets you free access, but just for the next few days. After that, I can only post the last manuscript. (I held off sending this hoping the EER would fix the figure placement in the html version, but that didn't happen.)

The paper is about how the fiscal theory of the price level can describe monetary policy. Even without monetary, pricing, or financial frictions, the central bank can fix interest rates. In the presence of long-term debt higher interest rates lead to lower inflation for a while. Interest rate targets, forward guidance, and quantitative easing all work by the same mechanism. The paper also derives Chris Sims' "stepping on a rake" paper which makes that point, and integrates fiscal theory with a detailed new Keynesian model in continuous time.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Buyback Fallacy

Many commenters on the tax bill repeat the worry that companies will just use tax savings to pay dividends or buy back shares rather than make new investments.

Savannah Guthrie, interviewing Paul Ryan on the Today Show, thought she had a real gotcha with
"What they [CEOS] are planning to do is stock buybacks, to line the pockets of shareholders."
(She then moved on to a question most guaranteed to produce retweets of partisan admirers, and least likely to produce an interesting answer,
"I'll ask you plainly, are you living in a fantasy world?"
NBC then wonders that it is charged with partisan bias.)

Peggy Noonan, in an otherwise thoughtful column, echoed the same worry:
"Big corporations can take the gift of the tax cut ... and do superficial, pleasing public relations sort of things, while really focusing on buying back stock and upping shareholder profits."
(Just how taking less of your money is a "gift" is a question for another day.)

So, having established that this is a bipartisan worry, let's put the fallacy to bed. It is the fallacy of composition, that actions of one company mirror actions of the economy as a whole. It is the fallacy of "paper investments" vs. "real investments." That distinction can apply to a company, but not to the whole economy.

What corporate cash is not. 
No, companies do not sit on vast swimming pools of gold coins, like Scrooge McDuck. One company's "cash" is a short term loan to another company, which the latter uses it to make real investments. Every asset (paper) is also a liability, backed by an investment. The charge fails to track the money.  One of the few things economists know how to do is always to ask, "OK, and then what do they do with the money?" Money is a veil, and real decisions are (to first order) independent of financial decisions. (I use italics to suggest some ways to remember these basic economic ideas.)

Friday, December 22, 2017

The High Cost of Good Intentions

The High Cost of Good Intentions is a superb new book by my Hoover colleague John Cogan. It is a political and budgetary history of U.S. Federal entitlement programs. It is full of lessons for just why the programs have expanded inexorably over time, and just how hard it will be for our political system to reform them.

If indeed the Congress will now turn to entitlement reform, as house speaker Paul Ryan has promised, this will be the book to have on your desk. (Ryan already blurbed it (back cover) as did Bill Bradley, Sam Nunn, George Shultz and Alan Greenspan.)

If you think entitlement programs, and the political hash that enacts them, are recent problems, or the fault of one political party, think again. John's main lesson is that the emergence of bloated entitlements is a hardy feature of our (and many other countries') democracies.  He does this by just reading the history.

The habit of expanding entitlements started early. Chapter 2:
Revolutionary War pensions were the nation's first entitlement program. ... between 1789 and 1793, the federal government agreed to pay annual pensions to Continental Army soldiers and seamen who became disabled as a result of wartime injuries or illness. [later, as an inducement to service]... 
For forty years, Congress enlarged and expnaded these benefits until, by the 1830s, they covered virtually all Revolutionary War seamen and soldiers, including volunteers and members of the state militia and their widows, regardless of disability or income. 
That costs might balloon beyond forecasts was not a total surprise

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Boot Camp

Hoover has just announced the 2018 Summer Boot Camp August 19-25 2018

The Hoover Institution’s Summer Policy Boot Camp (HISPBC) is an intensive, one week residential immersion program in the essentials of today’s national and international United States policy. The program is intended to instruct college students and recent graduates on the economic, political, and social aspects of United States public policy. The goal is to teach students how to think critically about public policy formulation and its results.
Using a highly interactive, tutorial-style model designed to foster fact-based critical thinking on the most important policy issues, students will have a unique chance to interact directly with the faculty of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, comprised of world-renowned scholars in economics, government, political science, and related fields.  Each half-day will be dedicated to one topic, chosen because of its immediate relevance to today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. Participants will collaborate through class discussions, study groups, and team projects that encourage diverse perspectives. Enrollment is limited, in order to facilitate maximum interaction with the faculty and other participants.
This was a big success last year. I taught one section of the bootcamp, and I thought the students were a great cross section of really interesting smart people.

Oh, and it's free.

How to cut taxes and raise tax rates

How can you cut taxes but raise (distorting, marginal) rates at the same time? Add a deduction, but phase it out with income. Then people below the income limits pay less taxes. But as the income limit  phases in, the marginal tax rate is higher than the previous rate. The new (and old) tax code is full of this perverse result.

For example, suppose you start with a tax code where everyone pays 50% of income. Then, add a deduction, credit, or exemption so people who earn, say, less than $100,000 of income pay no taxes. But phase it out over the next $100,000. Thus, people who earn $200,000 pay the original 50%, or they pay $100,000 of taxes. People who earn $100,000 pay no taxes. So, we have engineered a 100% marginal tax rate for people between $100,000 and $200,000 of income -- each dollar is completely taxed away!

In my example, we gain a 0% (down from 50%) marginal tax rate for people below $100,000 of income. But if the $100,000 is a fixed deduction or credit that does not scale with income, even that benefit is lost.

"Tax cuts" are not necessarily good for growth! It is possible to cut taxes and raise marginal rates, reducing growth.

This came to mind while reading the interesting "Games They Will Play"
Individuals who provide “specified services” (such as lawyers and doctors) must have taxable income of less than $315,000 for a married couple (or half that for a single individual) to be fully eligible—with the benefit phasing down over the next $100,000. 
"Games they will play" makes no mention of this or any other marginal rate. As is common in tax analysts they are great on disincentive margins to game tax payments by reclassifying income, but not so good on these marginal incentives.

I would love to see a true marginal analysis of the tax proposal. What are its actual incentives and disincentives, when you put it all together,  not the constant who-gets-what commentary.

"Games They Will Play" is good reading if you have half a mind to pick up your pitchfork and join the other peasants in rebellion. It's phrased as problems with the new tax code, but it gives you a great condensed sense of just how rotten the old tax code is.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Universities and taxes

The recent tax bill discussion revealed many ways that universities benefit from lots of obscure tax subsidies like everyone else in contemporary America, and that they're pretty good at lobbying to keep them. Two issues stood out to me as worth comment.

1) Taxing graduate school tuition waivers. This caused an uproar, even among economists and economics graduate students who should know better.

PhD students largely do not pay tuition, and most of them get modest stipends. The reason is pretty simple -- the supply curve of graduate students to research-oriented PhDs is pretty flat.  People won't come to graduate school if they have to pay tuition, or taxes on fictitious tuition. There is an annual bidding war in stipends to get the promising students, supply and demand in action. So the idea that graduate students would end up paying a lot either in tuition or taxes violates simple economics.

Moreover, nobody stopped to ask, why do universities pretend to charge tuition, and then waive it?Just how hard would it be for universities to adapt to the tax by not charging tuition in the first place? Why is tuition like medical bills, with a phoney-baloney list price and then everyone gets a huge discount of one sort or another?

Carlos Carvalho and Richard Lowery figured out the answer to this question: Many graduate students, especially in the sciences, get funding from the federal government, and to a lesser extent from private sources. The university charges "tuition" to the grant. So "tuition" is just a way for universities to tax federal grants, and to transfer money that would otherwise flow to students, departments, and research instead to central budgets and general university operations.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Hazlett on Spectrum

The public and media discussion of "net neutrality" seems to have degenerated to "we want stuff for free." In the end, it does cost something to deliver internet, and the bandwith is limited.

The (artfully named) "net neutrality" regulation was really a return to utility rate regulation, in which the regulators say who gets what, and how much they can charge. Just what a rosy success that was not, seems to have been forgotten.

In this context, it seems especially worth reporting on an event from last week. Tom Hazlett, former Chief Economist of the FCC, came to Hoover  to discuss his new book "Political Spectrum,"  which covers the history of the US government regulation of radio (TV, and cell phone) waves, largely through the same FCC that was in charge of "net neutrality." (I haven't read the book, this is a summary of the seminar discussion.)

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the market for spectrum worked well until 1927, in just the way economists might expect. Property rights to spectrum emerged, evolved, and worked well.

Radio was, at first, considered only for point to point communication. It stayed that way until 1920, when the first broadcast occurred.  Within 2 years there were 500 broadcasters.

Contrary to the common allegation of “etheric bedlam” the market was actually orderly through 1926.  Under the 1912 radio statute, the Department of Commerce enforced first-come first-serve rules, basically homesteader rights to spectrum in a geographic area and time. Those emergent property rights were registered with Department of Commerce, and easily bought and sold. If a new station encroached on your frequency/geography, you could quickly sue and stop it.

Regulation emerged in much the way a public choice economist might predict. The regulators wanted much more discretion — they wanted to control who got to broadcast and what was said. The  large commercial stations wanted to limit entry and competition. The National Association of Broadcasters quickly became a lobbying group and advocated “public interest, convenience, and necessity” to regulate. [Yes, in only 5 years an industry that nobody had ever heard of or thought of became an incumbent lobbying force for regulation to stop entry and competition.]  Herbert Hoover, (sadly) the commerce secretary at the time stopped enforcing enforcing first-come first-serve rights in 1926. Now there was indeed chaos, the “breakdown in the law.” According to Hazlett, this was a strategic breakdown to get regulation going. That regulation was formalized in the 1927 radio act. The first sentence of the act preempted private rights to spectrum.

Now, rather than property rights, spectrum was allocated by a “mother may I” system.  In 1932 FCC,  took over authority of wires to.

Regulation was quickly captured to stop competition and innovation.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


Law and the Regulatory State is a little essay, my contribution to American Exceptionalism in a new Era, a volume of such essays by Hoover Fellows. It takes up where Rule of Law in the Regulatory State left off.

A few snippets:
To be a conservative—or, as in my case, an empirical, Pax-Americana, rule-of-law, constitutionalist, conservative libertarian—is pretty much by definition to believe that America is “exceptional”—and that it is perpetually in danger of losing that precious characteristic.  
So why is America exceptional, in the good sense? Here, I think, economics provides a crucial answer. The ideas that American exceptionalism propounds have led to the most dramatic improvement in widely shared well-being in human history.... Without this economic success, I doubt that anyone would call America exceptional. 
Despite the promises of monarchs, autocrats, dictators, commissars, central planners, socialists, industrial policy makers, progressive nudgers, and assorted dirigistes, it is liberty and rule of law that has led to this enormous progress. 
I locate the core source of America’s exceptional nature in our legal system—the nexus of constitutional government, artfully created with checks and balances, and of the rule of law that guides our affairs. And this is also where I locate the greatest danger at the moment. 
The erosion of rule of law is all around us. I see it most clearly in the explosion of the administrative, regulatory state.
This is the main theme:
the rules are so vague and complex that nobody knows what they really mean..  the “rules” really just mean discretion for the regulators to do what they want—often to coerce the behavior they want out of companies by the threat of an arbitrary adverse decision.
The basic rights that citizens are supposed to have in the face of the law are also vanishing in the regulatory state.
Retroactive decisions are common,..
I fear even more the political impact. ... The drive toward criminalizing regulatory witch hunts and going after the executives means one thing: those executives had better make sure their organizations stay in line.
The key attribute that makes America exceptional—and prosperous—is that candidates and their supporters can afford to lose elections. Grumble, sit back, regroup, and try again next time. They won’t lose their jobs or their businesses. They won’t suddenly encounter trouble getting permits and approvals. They won’t have alphabet soup agencies at their doors with investigations and fines... We are losing that attribute.
In many countries, people can’t afford to lose elections. Those in power do not give it up easily. Those out of power are reduced to violence. American exceptionalism does not mean that all the bad things that happen elsewhere in the world cannot happen here.
Always be optimistic though:
The third article in exceptionalist faith, however, is optimism: that despite the ever-gathering clouds, America will once again face the challenge and reform. There is a reason that lovers of liberty tend to be Chicago Cubs fans.
The other essays are great. Niall Ferguson basically thinks exceptionalism is over.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Asset Pricing Competition

John Campbell's text, "Financial Decisions and Markets" is out from Princeton University Press. With some mild chagrin, I must say it's a splendid book. (Chagrin, of course, because it's an obvious major competitor to my own effort in Asset Pricing.)

It is spare, concise, and clearly written. How can I say that of a 450 page book, with wide text and tiny margins? Well, it's the concise version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, breathtakingly comprehensive and up to date in its coverage of important research topics.

The first part is a whirlwind tour of asset pricing theory. Here, John adopts the traditional organization -- expected utility, static portfolio choice, static CAPM and APT as equilibrium relations where supply meets demand, and finally we meet the discount factor and consumption-based pricing. I chose to go the other way around, and start with the basic asset pricing equation \(p_t u'(c_t) = E_t [\beta u'(c_{t+1}) x_{t+1} ]\), following Bob Lucas' insight that asset pricing is the same as in an endowment economy, and filling out the CAPM and APT and so forth as special cases. I never even got to portfolio theory -- it's in a draft chapter for the long-delayed next version. I still think that's the right organization, but most people don't want to teach it that way. John's more conventional organization, combined with clarity and concision, may be more what you want.

Even here, John's empirical taste and contributions rings through Any textbook is in many ways a summary of its authors' research journey, and John's journey has gone far and wide. You see a preview of the style on the 6th page of chapter 2 (p. 28) where you meet approximations for log returns, and the growth-optimal portfolio on the next page. On calculating minimum-variance portfolios, on p. 37, you get  graph of time-varying return correlations from Campbell Lettau Milkier and Xu (2001), a provocative fact usually ignored. After efficiently presenting the classic CAPM, we get (p. 51) an insightful application to Harvard's endowment, highlighting the difficulties of using these oft-repeated portfolio and pricing theories in practice.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The hard road of free markets

The fundamental reason so many markets are not free, and so dysfunctional, is that the voters of our democracy don't really want freedom. Freedom will come when we want it, when we insist on it, when the average voter sees a free market solution rather than endless controls as the answer to real world problems. The sad paradox of free markets is that free markets do not need people to understand them to work. But democracy does require voters to understand how things work.

In that vein today's internet browsing (both HT marginal revolution) brings good news and bad news.

Good news - one more piece of evidence that people from left and right are finally beginning to see the huge damage of zoning and construction restrictions, including inequality, income segregation, and perpetuation of economic status. That "progressives" now see this too is a most heartening development.