Friday, February 22, 2008

Tax That Guy Behind the Tree

Megan McArdle is right (here and here), and Henry Farrell and Mark Kleiman are -- perhaps not exactly wrong, but as far as I can tell, they are either misunderstanding what she says or quibbling on minor points of semantics while apparently believing themselves to have a substantive point. The question is, "Do people want their own taxes raised?" My answer comes more from introspection than from logic or economics. Perhaps Henry Farrell and Mark Kleiman want their taxes raised, but I certainly don't want mine raised. However, I am willing to have my taxes raised in exchange for certain things that I do prefer -- in particular, I'm willing to have my taxes raised in exchange for an increase in everyone else's taxes.

I want to make it quite clear that I will oppose any law that tries to raise my taxes by $300 -- unless that law also contains provisions that I support and that are worth $300 to me. Would a provision requiring my compatriots to kick in a total of $6,000,000,000 to the National Science Foundation be sufficient to gain my support for the package? Hell, yes! I would support the package because the provision that I like (a $6,000,000,000 increase in taxes from everyone else, to finance the NSF) far outweighs the provision that I don't like (a $300 increase in my own taxes). That doesn't mean I like paying $300 more in taxes. When I refuse to make an autonomous contribution to support NSF-like research, I am indeed revealing my preference for not paying more taxes. (And by the way, if someone proposes to exempt, say, people who were, as of February 2008, blogging using a vowelless pseudonym, from a new tax, I will support the amendment, because I really would prefer not to pay more taxes.)

It seems to me that much of the popularity of the anti-tax movement that began with Reagan-Kemp-Roth (or did it begin with Kennedy-Johnson?) was based on an appeal to people's genuine preference for lowering their own taxes, combined with a sort of mental cover-up of the implications of taxing other people. Basically, get people to think about the $300 question and ignore the $6,000,000,000 question. On the pro-tax side, it is precisely the failure to acknowledge that people don't want to pay higher taxes that made it difficult to counter the appeal of the anti-taxers. The pro-taxers insistence on philosophical mumbo-jumbo about collective action and such covered up the fact that they had a very strong common-sense case that they were somehow unwilling to press.

There is a valid concern that revenue doesn't quite rise linearly with tax rates and that high taxes can produce certain economic inefficiencies, but to me the basic math has always looked very good for taxes (in a large country like the US): even if the money is spent very inefficiently and not on my own priorities, $6,000,000,000 is a hell of a lot. The government would really have to make an incredibly huge mess of its spending in order for that not to be worth $300 to a reasonable person. (But again, if you could get it for free, that would be even better.)

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Monday, February 18, 2008

St. Augustine

I guess I was a little early with the Augustine reference back in August 2006, and maybe I should have translated it into English, but it looks like it's finally catching on.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Not a Bubble

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution has gotten a lot of (mostly dissenting) attention for his argument that there was no housing bubble (hat tip: hmm, I don't even remember, but I'll cite Paul Krugman, Jane Galt Megan McArdle, and Battlepanda, among the many who have pointed to the post). Alex Tabarrok reproduces Shiller's now-famous chart of housing prices over the past 100 years and comments:
The clear implication of the chart is that normal prices are around an index value of 110, the value that reigned for nearly fifty years (circa 1950-1997). So if the massive run-up in house prices since 1997 [culminating at an index value around 200] was a bubble and if the bubble has now been popped we should see a massive drop in prices.

But what has actually happened? House prices have certainly stopped increasing and they have dropped but they have not dropped to anywhere near the historic average. Since the peak in the second quarter of 2006 prices have dropped by about 5% at the national level (third quarter 2007). Prices have fallen more in the hottest markets but the run-up was much larger in those markets as well.

Prices will probably drop some more but personally I don't expect to ever again see index values around 110. Do you?
As Battlepanda points out, "Do you?" is not a very convincing argument unless you already agree with him. But I think I can make it a little bit more convincing:
Prices will probably drop some more, but personally, given the likely effect that an additional 40% drop in home prices would have on the already weak economy, I don't expect that the Fed will allow index values to fall to anywhere near 110 in the foreseeable future. Do you?
Some people will respond with something like, "OK, I don't either, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a bubble; that just means there's a Bernanke put on home prices: there was a bubble, and the Fed is now going to ratify the results of the bubble." But that's not right. The Fed is not actively causing inflation in order to bail out homeowners and their creditors. The vast majority of professional forecasts call for the inflation rate to fall over the next few years. The Fed is just doing its job -- trying to keep inflation at a low but positive rate while maximizing employment subject to that constraint. The ultimate concern of the Fed is to avoid deflation, which becomes a serious risk if the US housing market has a total meltdown. It's very much as if the Fed were passively defending a commodity standard, with the core CPI basket as the commodity.

The ultimate source of the housing boom is the global surplus of savings over investment. That surplus is what pushed global interest rates down and thereby made buying a house more attractive than renting. And that surplus is still with us. If anything, it appears to be getting worse, as US households begin to reject the role of "borrower of last resort." And it is that now aggravated surplus that threatens us with weak aggregate demand and the risk of economic depression in the immediate future -- a risk to which the Fed and other central banks will respond appropriately. Until the world finds something else in which to invest besides American houses, the fundamentals for house prices are strong -- not strong enough, probably, to keep house prices from falling further, but strong enough to keep them well above historically typical levels.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Marginal Taxes on the Rich

In response to the opening sentence of my last post, Greg Mankiw asks:
Have you ever turned down a money-making opportunity that you would have accepted if it paid twice as much?
I'll outsource the first part of the answer to "a student of economics," who comments on Greg's post via the comments section of my last post:
Greg asks the wrong question in an effort to get the answer he seeks.

The correct question should be, "would you turn down that opportunity if ALL your other money making opportunities also pay twice as much?"

It's not clear that I would do anything different if all my options improved by the same amount. There are only so many hours in day. In fact, perhaps I would actually work less and play more if I were twice as rich (assuming, of course, all gov't services magically continued without cost).
I do recall once having two job offers at comparable pay, and I'm sure that, if the one I rejected had paid twice as much, I would have taken that one instead. But it's pretty obvious that has nothing to do with taxation; it has to with what other opportunities are available. If both jobs had paid twice as much, I would have made the same choice that I did.

Part-time opportunities are a separate issue. I don't have a clear memory on this point, but it's quite possible that I've turned down consulting work that I would have accepted if it paid twice as much (though again, if all opportunities paid twice as much, I'm not sure how the income and substitution effects would sort out). In my case, though, the example (if there is one) would make my second point: that the incentive effects of higher marginal tax rates are not all bad. If I did turn down an assignment, it would be a job in support of one side or the other in a legal case or an interest arbitration. Given the near zero-sum nature of such proceedings, the negative externalities associated with my activities would have been quite high. In this case, the tax is Pigovian, and I'm confident that it's nowhere near high enough to equate the private rewards with the social value of such work. I've made a similar point before.

[UPDATE: Boy, my two sentences introducing a different topic are generating quite a large tangent. PGL at Angry Bear has this to say.]

UPDATE2: In a Update, Greg gets into the whole income and substitution effects business and argues that he is asking the right question because he is isolating the substitution effect, which is what matters for deadweight loss. But for most real-life examples, he's still wrong. It's fairly obvious in my example of having two job offers, but it's true in a lot of more subtle cases too, that one is not really making a substitution between labor and leisure; rather, one is substituting one labor opportunity for another. Usually, one doesn't have a firm offer for the alternative opportunity, but one has some reasonable idea of what opportunity may become available. If a job offer gets doubled, it becomes unrefusable simply because one will never get another offer so big.

It's true that, to the extent that one has marginal opportunities, as in my consulting example, there may be labor-leisure tradeoff, but even there to a large extent it may actually be an intertemporal tradeoff between different labor opportunities given a more-or-less fixed amount of total leisure over time. And I would reiterate my point that the taxes in these marginal cases are often Pigovian.

[UPDATE3: While we're on the topic, let me point back to this post in which I argue that progressive taxation (though not high overall taxation) can actually encourage entrepreneurial activity.]

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Marginal Taxes on the Poor

I've always been skeptical of the importance of the purported bad incentive effects of high marginal tax rates on high income earners. (I won't go into the details now, but I don't think the incentive effects are very strong -- at least at tax rates close to current tax rates -- and I don't think they're all bad.) For some time, though, I have been concerned about the effects of effective marginal taxes on low income earners. The problem is not the taxes they pay to the IRS (which they mostly don't, anyhow) but the effective taxes they pay to various subsidizers, price discriminators, and assistance providers in both the public and private sectors.

It has worried me that there might even be some point on the lower part of the income spectrum where the effective tax rate is greater than 100%. That is, you get more income; you no longer qualify for various assistance and subsidies; you slide up the "sliding scale" of various vendors and service providers who (officially or unofficially) give discounts for the financially challenged; you pay more in FICA and state and local taxes (even if you still don't pay Federal income taxes, which you might); and you end up worse off (even leaving aside any reduction in leisure) than when you had less income.

It turns out this was more than a theoretical possibility. Jeff Frankel (hat tip: Greg Mankiw) quotes Jeff Liebman with a story about a woman who "moved from a $25,000 a year job to a $35,000 a year job, and suddenly she couldn’t make ends meet any more." In her case it wasn't until after the (apparently irrevocable) decision that she discovered what a bad deal it was to make more money, so maybe the incentive effect per se wasn't a problem, but even someone like me, dubious as I am about "justice" as a moral concept, has a sense that this woman has been cheated and that what happened is "wrong." And eventually we have to assume that the incentive effects will matter: presumably Abraham Lincoln was right that you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Moreover, the incentive effects will matter even when the effective tax rate is "only" 80% or 90%. And it can only get worse when we begin to attempt universal health care on a national level.

In theory the solution is to consolidate all forms of public (and ideally, private) assistance into a single, fairly large grant, which can then be taxed away via the income tax at a reasonably slow rate for people who don't need it. That obviously isn't going to happen, and I don't have any other solutions to offer, but Jeff Frankel notes in passing that Jeff Liebman is an economic advisor to Barrack Obama. Given that Senator Obama is now the (not quite odds-on, as of this morning) favorite for the next presidency, I'm heartened that at least one of his economic advisors is thinking about the problem.

[UPDATE: My next post deals specifically with the issue raised in the first two sentences about high income earners. I guess it's hopeless, though, for me to get people to break that thread here and post comments on that more relevant entry.]

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Has expected inflation really risen?

Several economics and finance bloggers, such as Greg Mankiw and Felix Salmon, have been pointing to an apparent increase in long-term inflation expectations in the TIPS market that Greg Ip wrote about Thursday in the Wall Street Journal’s economics blog. It would all be very worrisome to me, except that when I look at the actual data, they don’t seem consistent with a reasonable story about rising inflation expectations.

Greg Ip gives a clear description of the indicator being used and why it is used:
The Fed has long looked at the difference between yields on nominal Treasurys and inflation-protected Treasurys (TIPS) for a sense of what investors expect inflation to be. The difference is the so-called “breakeven” rate — the inflation rate that equates returns on the two. The Fed also tries to strip out near-term inflation disturbances related to fluctuating energy and food prices by looking at what the market expects inflation to be starting five years from now and running for the next five years (i.e. from 2013 to 2108). This is the “five-year, five-year forward” breakeven rate.
I’m not sure exactly how the Fed, or Barclays Capital (the source for Greg Ip’s numbers), does the calculation, but I’m going to use what I think is a reasonable approximation. (I emphaize that it is an approximation, most likely not the calculation that the Fed does, but it should give a reasonable idea of what the general picture looks like, and it has the advantage that I can do it in my head just by looking at four easily available yields.) Here are the four relevant pieces of data for my approximation, taken from the Fed’s constant maturity data for two points in time (the day before Ben Bernanke’s Jan. 10 speech, and the day before Greg Ip’s Jan. 31 blog post):

Jan 9 Jan 30
5-year TIPS yield 0.94% 0.84%
5-year nominal treasury yield 3.10% 2.96%
10-year TIPS yield 1.56% 1.45%
10-year nominal treasury yield 3.82% 3.78%
Using brute force subtraction, these data imply the following approximate current breakeven inflation (BEI) rates:

Jan 9 Jan 30
Current 5-year BEI 2.16% 2.12%
Current 10-year BEI 2.26% 2.33%
The approximate “five-year, five-year forward” breakeven inflation rate is two times the 10-year BEI minus the 5-year BEI, as follows:

Jan 9 Jan 30
5-year, 5-year forward BEI 2.36% 2.54%
This change is similar to what Barclays found, so I trust that my approximation isn’t too far off. But it’s important to think about the current BEI rates and what they mean. The first thing you should notice is that the current 5-year BEI rates are below the 5-year forward BEI rates. That should make you a little suspicious already. Think about those “near-term inflation disturbances related to fluctuating energy and food prices” that the Fed is trying to filter out. There has been a huge run-up in commodity prices over the past 6 months, and over the past 5 years. Presumably this should have more effect on the inflation rate over the next 5 years than it will on the inflation rate over the subsequent 5 years. If these BEI rates were unbiased indicators of expected inflation, you would probably expect the current BEI to be higher than the 5-year forward BEI. Not that anyone really thinks they are unbiased indicators, but this observation underscores the point that risk premiums and liquidity premiums are more important than inflation expectations when comparing the behavior of different 5-year and 10-year securities.

Take a look specifically at the change between Jan. 9 and Jan. 30. The current 5-year BEI rate actually went down by 4 basis points. That observation, it seems to me, is rather hard to reconcile with a story that says investors were reacting to a dovish shift in Fed policy. Is there any way that a dovish shift could reduce the inflation rate over the next 5 years? Of course, the (inflationary) dovish shift might have been outweighed by (disinflationary) weak economic news. But in that case should we really be worrying about inflation expectations? In particular Greg Mankiw might need to reconsider his conclusion:
A rise in expected inflation is not consistent with the conventional wisdom that the economy is on the verge of a serious slump driven by inadequate aggregate demand. It is, however, consistent with the hypothesis that policymakers are overreacting to some bad economic news with excessive monetary and fiscal stimulus.
These data suggest to me that the chance of a serious slump has risen and that the monetary and fiscal stimulus has not caught up with that rising probability.

It’s still possible that the market’s perception of the Fed’s preferences has shifted in a dovish direction, and that would be one way to explain the behavior of the 10-year BEI. But in that case the market must also think the Fed will be less able to implement those dovish preferences in the immediate future.

An alternative explanation, which doesn’t require such a subtle analysis of the Fed’s preferences and abilities, is that inflation expectations in the near future have fallen (as the weak economic news would suggest) but that the liquidity premium on TIPS has also fallen (as have other liquidity preference indicators, such as the TED spread). If the same liquidity premium applies to 5-year and 10-year TIPS, then a drop in that liquidity premium, without any change in expected inflation rate, would result in higher current BEI rates at both the 5-year and 10-year horizon. That shift by itself would increase the 5-year, 5-year forward BEI rate. If, in addition to the drop in the liquidity premium, the current 5-year expected inflation rate fell but the 5-year forward expected inflation rate remained the same, that would result in exactly the pattern that we observe.