November 07, 2015

Economic growth via effective regulation

I somehow ended up reading this long essay by economist John Cochrane on growth-oriented policy. I really enjoyed it because it takes a hard-headed approach to topics where reason is too often crowded out by moral instinct. (Other examples of this approach include Effective Altruism, or the Eco-Modernist Manifesto.)

It’s an idealistic vision – it ignores the political economy that sustains the gigantic inefficiencies he decries – yet it’s an overwhelmingly sensible one. Perhaps I’m biased towards the views of pro-growth economists, but this essay was packed with an uncommon amount of common sense (which is a pretty low bar when it comes to the topic of policy).

The essay makes a two-part argument: that growth should be a very high policy priority, and that there’s a lot of inefficient regulation that hinders growth. I’ll quote a bunch of highlights below if you don’t want to read the whole thing.

In the long run, nothing but growth matters. Small differences in growth rates lead to dramatically different outcomes, because of compounding.

If the US economy had grown at 2% rather than 3.5% since 1950, income per person by 2000 would have been $23,000 not $50,000. That’s a huge difference. Nowhere in economic policy are we even talking about events that will double, or halve, the average American’s living standards in the next generation.

The primacy of economic growth should be a really obvious point, but it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. If you think about it, economic growth is the only thing that has lifted nations out of poverty.

Nothing other than productivity matters in the long run. A factor of three increase in income in 50 years, and the much larger rise in income and health since the dawn of the industrial age, dwarfs what unions bargaining for better wages, progressive taxes or redistribution, monetary, fiscal or other stimulus programs, minimum wage laws or other Federal regulation of labor markets, price caps and supports, subsidies, or much of anything else the government can do.

And the primacy of growth should be non-controversial:

38% more income — or 26% less income — drives just about any agenda one could wish for, from strong defense, to environmental protection, to the affordability of social programs, to the welfare of any segment of the population, to public investments, health, and fundamental research.

Dumb regulation hinders growth. To increase growth, there’s a lot of obviously wasteful regulation that could be made a lot smarter. Unfortunately, that regulation is there because of problems of political economy, and so it’s not as easy to fix as it looks.

When the average person (voter) expresses concern over inequality, what they really mean is that they are concerned that average people are not getting ahead economically. If the average person were getting ahead, whether some big shot CEOs fly on private jets or not would make little difference. Conversely, the average voter, if not the average left-wing pundit, does not support equality of misery. If the average person continues to do poorly, it would bring them little solace for the government to tax away the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

On the problems of health insurance regulation:

The central problem of preexisting conditions was an artifact of regulation. In the ideal form of health insurance, you buy cheap catastrophic insurance when young, but the insurance policy can follow you as you age, change jobs, and move from state to state, and does not radically increase premiums if you get sick. […] We need to allow simple, portable, largely catastrophic, lifelong, guaranteed-renewable health insurance to emerge. Right now it’s illegal.

On energy policy:

The poster child for inefficiency may well be the mandate for gasoline producers to use ethanol. Corn ethanol, it turns out, does nothing to help the environment: It takes nearly as much petroleum energy to produce it as it contains, in the form of fertilizer, transport fuel and so on; it uses up valuable land, which directly emits greenhouse gases, and contributes to erosion and runoff; it drives up the price of food.

If you are serious about carbon, let the words “nuclear power” pass your lips. We have sitting before us a technology that can easily supply our electricity and many transport needs, with zero carbon or methane emissions. New designs, if only they could pass the immense regulatory hurdle, would be much safer than the 1950s Soviet technology that failed at Chernobyl or the 1960s technology that failed at Fukushima. We are now operating antiques. And even with this rate of accident, nuclear power has caused orders of magnitude less human or environmental suffering than any other fuel.

Similarly, the most environmentally friendly way for people to live is in tightly packed cities, fed by genetically modified foods which yield more per acre of farmland and require fewer fertilizers and pesticides, from laser-leveled fields run efficiently by large corporations in the highest productivity locations. Federal policies to the contrary are not just anti-growth, they’re anti-environment too. When Federal policy can say these things in public, it will have a bit more standing to invoke the name of “science.”

On taxation:

Often, however, tax reform proposals sacrifice too quickly the principles of what a good tax system should be with perceived political accommodations to powerful interest groups. Economists should not play politician. We should always start with “in a perfect world, here is what the tax code should look like,” and accommodate political constraints only when asked to. Political constraints change quickly. Economic fundamentals do not.

The right corporate tax rate is zero. Corporations never pay taxes. Every dollar of taxes that a corporation pays comes from higher prices of their products, lower wages to their workers, or lower returns to their owners. […] For all these reasons, eliminating the corporate tax is as likely to be more rather than less progressive. The higher prices a corporation charges hurt everyone. The lower wages corporations pay hurt workers. The income it passes along to its owners is subject to our highly progressive tax system.

When we say broaden the base by removing deductions and credits, we should be serious about that. Thus, even the holy trinity of mortgage interest deduction, charitable donation deduction, and employer provided health insurance deduction should be scrapped. The extra revenue could finance a large reduction in marginal rates. Why? Consider the mortgage interest deduction. Imagine that in the absence of the deduction, Congress proposes to send a check to each homeowner, in proportion to the interest he or she pays on money borrowed against the value of the house. Furthermore, rich people, people who buy more expensive houses, people who borrow lots of money, and people who refinance often to take cash out get bigger checks than poor people, people who buy smaller houses, people who save up and pay cash, or people who pay down their mortgages. A rich person buying a huge house in Palo Alto, who pays 40% marginal income tax rate, gets a check for 40% of his huge mortgage. A poor person buying a small house in Fresno, who pays a 10% income tax, gets a check for 10% of his much smaller mortgage. There would be riots in the streets before this bill would pass. Yet this is exactly what the mortgage interest deduction accomplishes.

On labor markets:

Start, of course, with taxes: income taxes and payroll taxes are primarily taxes on employment. But the regulatory burdens of employment are larger still, as anyone who has tried to get a nanny legal will attest. Minimum wages, occupational licensing, anti-discrimination laws, laws regulating hours people can work, benefits they must receive, leave they must be given, fear of lawsuits if you fire someone, and so forth all impede the labor market.

The usual argument is that workers need protection of all these laws. Well, the supposed protections do cost economic growth, and they do reduce employment. How much do they actually protect workers? The strongest force for worker protection is a vibrant labor market — if you don’t like this job, go take another. The tightly regulated labor market makes it much harder to get a new job, and thus, paradoxically, lowers your bargaining power in the old one.

An exceptional section on immigration. Had a hard time not quoting the whole thing:

Immigrants contribute to economic growth. Even if income per capita is unchanged, imagine how much better off our social security system, our medicare system, our unfunded pension promises, and our looming deficits and debt would be, if America could attract a steady flow of young, hard-working people who want to come and pay taxes. Aha, we can attract them! They’re beating the doors down to come. But then we keep them out.

Allowing free migration is, by many estimates the single policy change that would raise world GDP the most. If you believe in free trade in goods, and free investment, then you have to believe that free movement of people has the same benefits.

On education:

The culprit is easy to find: awful public schools run by and for the benefit of politically powerful teachers’ and administrators’ unions. (Don’t forget the latter! Teachers account for only half of typical public school expenses.) Education poses a particularly large tradeoff between profits to incumbents and economic growth, since education lies at the foundation of higher productivity. In addition, the costs of awful schools fall primarily on lower-income people who cannot afford to get out of the system. It is one of the major contributors to inequality. The solution is simple as well: widespread financing by vouchers and charter schools. As with health care, a vibrant market demands that people control their spending, and can move it to where they get better results. As with health care, the government does not have to directly provide a service in order to help people to pay for that service. But as with health care, a healthy market also demands supply competition, that new schools be allowed to start and compete for students.

As exciting as this vision is, I’m not very optimistic about any of these prescriptions being implemented, at least not in the near term. But it’s good to know that we have a lot of simple solutions if we ever get desperate. And I hope that some of these proposals (like immigration) can gain enough momentum to be implemented in the medium term.