Saturday, February 4, 2017

Does Henry George have the answer to funding basic income?

The idea of a government-funded basic income or social dividend has been around for at least a couple of centuries. It has been supported by some prominent advocates of individual liberty as well as by collectivists. For example, it was proposed as an alternative to existing welfare systems by Milton Friedman in the 1960s (as a negative income tax) and by Charles Murray (as an unconditional basic income for all adults) in In Our Hands, published in 2006. More recently Elon Musk among others, has suggested a government-provided unconditional and universal basic income (UBI) as a solution to the hypothetical problem of ensuring that people have adequate incomes when their jobs are displaced by automation.

That problem is hypothetical because it seems reasonable to expect - at a national level and over the longer term - that jobs displaced by automation will be replaced by more highly paid jobs. That is what happened with jobs displaced by mechanisation during the 19th and 20th centuries. No persuasive evidence has emerged to support the view that the effects of automation will differ in that respect. Nevertheless, UBIs might appear to be an attractive social/political insurance policy, just in case automation does result in widespread loss of income-earning opportunities.

The idea that one day most of the population will depend on UBIs as their main source of income strikes me as inherently unappealing. Historically, individual human flourishing has been closely related to the self-respect that comes from earning a living, which is absent when people are able to live on “sit-down money” – an appropirate term used by some Australian aborigines to describe welfare benefits.  Robert Colvile has provided references to research relating to disincentive impacts of UBIs in a recent FEE article.

I want to focus here on a question of practicability: Is there some easy way for a government raise sufficient additional revenue to fund a UBI to reinforce expectations that the benefits of future economic growth will be widely shared? How could substantial additional revenue be raised without stifling the economic growth process? As I contemplated those questions the thought crossed my mind that if I was back working in the Australian public service (heaven forbid!) and was asked to recommend a way to raise more tax revenue, I might suggest more reliance on taxes on the unimproved value of land, as proposed in Australia's Henry report, and as suggested much earlier by Henry George in Progress and Poverty (first published in 1879). Land taxes get a fair amount of support among economists, including some who write for The Economist.

At some point it occurred to me that I should actually read Progress and Poverty – or at least, the 2006 version, edited and abridged by Bob Drake – rather than rely on second hand reports. As I read about Henry George’s theory of wages and interest it became clearer to me why he was viewed as a crack-pot by some of the people who taught me economics. For example, by rearranging the identity, Production = Rent + Wages + Interest, he concludes: “wages and interest do not depend on what labour and capital produce – they depend on what is left after rent is taken out”. Of course, if you rearrange the terms another way, rent would appear as the residual after payment of wages and interest. Modern economists should not be overly critical, however, because George wrote Progress and Poverty before John Bates Clark had made his contribution to the marginal productivity theory of distribution - and Clark apparently attributed his conception of the marginal productivity of labour to George’s theory of rent.

Henry George provides an interesting discussion of the way site rent rises with economic development. He asks readers to imagine a vast unbounded savanna. Every acre seems as good as any other for the first family to arrive, so they make a home somewhere, anywhere. When other families arrive, one location is clearly better than the others, that is close to the family that has already settled. Having a neighbour provides opportunities for the families to help each other. As more people arrive, a village is established to enable people to obtain advantages from local specialization and trade. As the village grows into a town and then into a city, the productivity of the original land increases. As a consequence: “Rent – which measures the difference between this increased productivity and that of the least productive land in use – has increased accordingly”. The original owners of the land become rich “not from anything they have done, but from the increase in population”.

George recognised that advances in technology, improvements in manners and morals and government policy reforms (e.g. free trade) also increase the productivity of land, and increase rents.
Following David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill, George argued that a tax on rent would fall wholly on land owners. He went further, however, in suggesting that all rent could be taxed away for the benefit of society without ill-effect. He suggested that returns to labour would thereby be enhanced:
When all rent is taken by taxation for the needs of the community, equality will be attained. No citizen will have an advantage over any other, except through personal industry, skill, and intelligence. People will gain what they fairly earn. Only then, and not until then, will labor get its full reward, and capital its natural return”.

Henry George was correct to argue that, from an economic efficiency perspective, rent taxes are superior to most other taxes because they have a smaller impact on productive effort and investment. However, it is hard to see how a large increase in land taxes could be viewed as providing an equitable sharing of tax burden. Consider two people who have equal wealth, the wealth of A is in entirely in land and the wealth of the B is entirely in shares in companies that do not own land. Would you view it to be equitable for a government to introduce a tax that would take away a large slice of the wealth of A, while leaving the wealth of B unaffected?

Perhaps that inequity could be overcome by announcing that the new land tax will only apply to future increases in land values. However, the deadweight costs of a tax on future increases in land values would not be negligible. For example, consider a firm that is planning to build a very fast train and considering whether a stopping point along the route should be at City X or City Y. The firm is buying land along the route because it needs to capture some of the expected appreciation in land values to make its investment worthwhile. The firm’s investment appraisal suggests that City X would be the best location. However, it subsequently learns that City X is contemplating a substantial tax on future increases in land values, while City Y has no such plans. That information obviously has potential to tip the balance in favour of City Y, resulting in a less efficient allocation of investment.

The potential deadweight costs of land taxes have been explored in more depth by others, including Bryan Caplan and Zachary Gochenour.


My bottom line: Land taxes are better than many existing taxes (much better than taxes on land transfers) but they don’t offer a costless way to fund the substantial additional revenue that would be required to fund an unconditional basic income sufficient to meet reasonable expectations of a widely-shared dividend from future economic growth. If land taxes can’t do it, I doubt whether any tax-transfer proposal can achieve that objective. One way or another, even when robots do most of the work currently done by humans, humans will still need to earn the bulk of the incomes they live on - including by inventing and improving robots, servicing and managing them, and owning them.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Does your constitution mandate free trade?

The Constitution of Australia, like that of the United States, mandates free trade – up to a point! Both constitutions mandate free trade between the states, and leave federal governments free to impose barriers to international trade to the extent that they wish.

It is debatable whether a constitutional requirement for free international trade would have made a huge difference to trade policy in either country. The requirements for free trade between the states have not guaranteed free trade between the states - judges have not always ruled against trade barriers imposed by states to protect local interests. Many judges seem to capable of being highly imaginative in their interpretation of concepts such as free trade.  

The relevant constitutional question is whether free trade is mandated by the real constitution - the set of dispositions that influence what most citizens will accept as legitimate actions by politicians and bureaucrats who make up the government. That depends ultimately on the views of individual citizens.

Why should your constitution mandate free trade?  I hope you share with me the belief that individuals have a natural right to engage freely in mutually beneficial transactions with one another, even though third parties may be disadvantaged. If so, you would probably consider it to be objectionable for a government to levy a discriminatory tax on the sales of the producer from whom you wish to purchase, in order to encourage you to purchase from a rival producer. You may well assert that you have a right to choose to buy from whatever source you wish, for whatever reasons you might have, free from any such third-party interference.

The logic of this argument does not cease to apply merely because buyers and sellers may be separated by national borders. National borders are artificial constructs that do not alter the natural right of individuals and firms to engage in mutually beneficial transactions. Donald Boudreaux has written persuasively on this topic: “International Trade Is Simply One Manifestation of Competition”.

Should an exception be made in situations where foreign governments subsidize their exports? No, if foreigners are sufficiently misguided to subsidize their exports there is no reason why domestic consumers should not benefit from any price reduction that this causes. In a market economy, if foreign subsidies result in an expansion of total imports, this can reasonably be expected to result in exchange rate and relative price adjustments to make exporting more profitable and bring about an expansion of exports. Production for the domestic market that is displaced by increased imports will be offset by increased export production.

Some economists still, no doubt, maintain that unilateral free trade is not optimal on grounds such as the optimal tariff argument, and the potential for the use of existing trade barriers as bargaining chips to obtain better access to foreign markets. Policy advisors who recommend departure from free trade to obtain such gains risk opening the way for much larger economic losses because they are dealing with fallible real-world governments, rather than the omniscient and benevolent governments assumed to exist in their economic models. In the real world of politics every departure from a simple rule opens up opportunities for interest groups to advance their interests at the expense of the broader community. 

However, there is one argument that makes it difficult for the real constitution to mandate free trade. With great reluctance, I am now willing to concede that it may be becoming more difficult for politicians to endorse free trade because many people are choosing to cast their votes for candidates who oppose it. Even though the gains from free trade vastly outweigh the losses, the uneven distribution of losses makes the outcomes of free trade seem unfair to many people. A substantial proportion of voters in many countries now seem to be saying that their disposition is to favour protection of existing jobs rather than the opportunities that free trade offers.

Over the longer term, the pursuit of policies to preserve existing jobs will, of course, be inimical to the specialization and technological progress which provide the basis for everyone’s future prosperity. Nevertheless, many voters and their representatives seem to be more concerned to preserve existing jobs than to promote future prosperity. Our democratic systems seem to be mutating from systems of social cooperation to promote the interests of everyone, to arenas for the “war of each against all” that Thomas Hobbes imagined as the only alternative to an all-powerful dictator “to keep them all in awe”. Are we powerless to prevent this war of each against all?

This poses the kind of constitutional dilemma discussed by one of the 20th Century’s best economists, James M Buchanan, in The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan, 1975. Buchanan wrote:
If there exist potential structural changes in legal order which might command acceptance by all members of the society, the status quo represents a social dilemma in the strict game-theoretic terminology. Even if we consider ourselves far removed from the genuine Hobbesian jungle, where life is brutish and short, the status quo contains within it elements or features that are in principle equivalent. Life in the here and now may be more brutish than need be, and certainly more nasty. If after examination and analysis, no such potential for change exists, the legal-constitutional order that we observe must be judged to be Pareto optimal, despite the possible presence of discontent among specific members in the body politic”.

Buchanan was particularly concerned about ways to reform the rules of the political game to promote fiscal responsibility. That problem has worsened since the 1970s. The type of reforms he hinted at involved agreement by those who sense that they are vulnerable to having wealth expropriated via the political process to a mechanism for limited wealth transfer on condition that others agree to rules that overtly limit governmentally directed fiscal transfers.


I doubt whether rules to promote fiscal responsibility are feasible in the absence of a broad consensus concerning the role of government in distribution of the benefits from economic progress. Perhaps that is also a context in which the real constitution can mandate free trade. Current proposals being advanced in various quarters for guaranteed minimum incomes are relevant to this discussion. It seems to me, however, that proposals to ensure widespread opportunities for those displaced by import competition and technological change to improve their skills, and earn higher incomes, are probably more deserving of support. I might try to spell out reasons for that view in a later post. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What is the most important thing you have learned in your life?

As I begin to answer this question I am wondering whether it was such a good idea after all. I still have many things to learn and, hopefully, I have a few more years left to learn them. I can claim to have been only moderately successful, so the wisdom I can offer may not be worth a great deal. Readers can make up their own minds about that. Some might think I am on an ego trip, but I am better placed than anyone else to make judgements about my own motives.

The most important thing I have learned in life so far is that when you are thinking about your future performance - in any aspect of your life – you are more likely to achieve to your potential if you think like a player rather than a spectator. That means paying attention to your intentions rather than your expectations. This chart might help me explain.



 If you ask spectators how well they think any player will perform in some forthcoming event they are likely to start talking about her or his past performance and trends in past performance. From the spectators’ viewpoint past performance is the best predictor of future performance. It can even make sense for spectators to attach labels to players based on past performance. One player might be showing great promise, while another is past his prime, or prone to choke, and so forth.

It is counterproductive for a player to go into a game with the mind-set of a spectator - focusing on expectations about the outcome based on past performance. If recent performance has been weak, dwelling on expectations based on past performance will tend to make them become self-fulfilling prophesies.  If recent performance has been strong, over-confidence is likely to get in the way of the focus required for further improvement. It is also distracting for players to be speculating about the judgements that spectators – including coaches and selectors – might be making as they observe the game.

To play well it is obviously necessary for players to focus on their intentions – what they need to do to realize the potential they have displayed in their best past performances. That doesn’t mean trying to exclude the possibility of poor performance from your mind.  It is inevitable for speculations about outcomes to arise in the minds of players. An appropriate response is to acknowledge that you are prepared to accept any outcome, but your focus is on what you intend to do and what that will feel like as you do it. Why not include the intention to enjoy using your skills?

It is obvious that the distinctions between player and spectator mind-sets is important in playing sports, but how widely does this apply to other aspects of life? It seems to me to be important in many aspects of life. An example that came to my attention recently helps to make the point. Here is an extract from an article by Jeff Wise, entitled “To Change YourLife, Learn How to Trust Your Future Self”, published in Science of Us:
In the mid-1970s, psychologist Stephen Maisto conducted an experiment that would be forbidden today. He gave recovering alcoholics either a spiked punch or a similar-tasting virgin one. He then told half of each group that they’d just consumed alcohol, and the other half that they had not. As you might expect, half the test subjects experienced a sudden surge in craving. But it wasn’t strictly the ones who’d consumed alcohol. Whether they actually had or not, it was the ones who believed they had. The alcoholics who thought they’d had a drink believed that once they fell off the wagon they’d be hopeless, and therefore couldn’t bundle. So they couldn’t.

In this context “bundle” means to identify with your future self (or your potential). As I see it, the subjects who had a sudden surge of craving, despite having not had any alcohol, had adopted the stance of spectators rather than players. Spectators have sound reasons to expect that when recovering alcoholics fall off the wagon they are likely to become hopeless. The results of the experiment suggest that there is no physical reason why an alcoholic who has had a drink cannot choose to focus on his or her intention to behave more like the person he or she wishes to become.

I learned about the importance of distinguishing between player and spectator mind-sets about 14 years ago when trying to help myself to become more fluent when speaking in public. As a child I developed a severe stutter and was unable to say more than a few words without blocking. My fluency improved greatly in my teen years, but I still had a tendency to block when it seemed most important to speak fluently e.g. in public speaking situations.
Looking back now, it seems obvious that I was tripping myself up by adopting a spectator mind-set. I was overly concerned about how the audience would judge me if I blocked. On the basis of past performance there was a high probability that I would experience disfluency, so that was what happened.

I experienced fewer problems after I began to focus on how I intended to speak, and learned how to trust my ability to speak fluently. It is certainly desirable for public speakers to have regard to audience reaction, but they do this most effectively when they focus on their own intentions – whether they are attempting to entertain, inform, persuade or inspire the audience. Spectators still see still see plenty of room for improvement in my public speaking performance – but I get a great deal of satisfaction from knowing how far I have come!

I am not sure where I picked up the distinction between player and spectator mind-sets. The related distinction between acting according to intentions rather than expectations came from an article by John Harrison, a public speaking coach who was once a stutterer, entitled “How expectationscan sink your ship”. I can remember reading about perceptual positions in NLP and Neuro-Semantics literature, but the idea of the player/spectator distinction, as discussed above, might have come from Tim Gallwey’s inner game books. Gallwey’s equation: performance equals potential minus interferences, is certainly highly relevant. The interference Gallwey was writing about comes from the inner coach (Self One) who is constantly distracting the player by telling her or him to be careful not to make a mistake. I found sporting metaphors from Tim Gallwey’s books – particularly The Inner Game of Golf - a great source of inspiration. (The Inner Game of Golf might even help me to improve my performance on the golf course if I played more frequently.)


Perhaps the second most important thing I have learned in life so far is that if you are having difficulty in understanding or explaining a problem it often helps to think of a relevant sporting metaphor. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

What policies will be pursued by the author of "The Art of the Deal"?

After reading Trump:The Art of the Deal it seems to me that the best way to start thinking about how to answer this question is to ask yourself what Mr Trump could do to further promote his own reputation as a political leader. His policy choices are likely to be determined largely by the potential they offer for the further self-promotion required to enable him to win a second term in office.

Some may wonder why I see a book written about 30 years ago as providing guidance about Mr Trump’s current priorities. Although his co-author, Tony Schwartz, claims that he actually wrote the book, it is clear that Donald Trump strongly endorses the ideology of The Art of the Deal and sees his experience in negotiating business deals as highly relevant to the presidency. In announcing his candidature, he said: “We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’.”

The Art of the Deal conveys the impression that the prime motivating force in Mr Trump’s life is self-promotion. The book is itself a promotional exercise designed to enhance his reputation as a person with the capability of doing deals under difficult circumstances. Trump is the hero, using publicity as a weapon to defeat incompetent and evil opponents. He emphasizes the importance of giving the media a good story. He even views critical stories as providing valuable publicity. Most tellingly, he acknowledges:
The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not think big themselves, but they can still get excited by those who do. That is why a little hyperbole never hurts”.

If you think that makes Mr Trump sound more like a politician than a business leader, consider the way in which he emphasizes that it is important “to deliver the goods”:
You can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on”.
The quoted passage is followed immediately by reference to two former presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as examples of leaders who were good at promotion, but not so good at delivering the goods. This guy obviously thinks like a political leader, but it remains to be seen whether he will be as good as Ronald Reagan at delivering policy outcomes that are worth having.

The new president will recognize that to have any chance at re-election he will have to deliver some of the “goods” expected by the people who voted him into office. There will no doubt be a flurry of activity to take specific actions he has proposed for his first 100 days. Over the next few years there will probably be some real policy change e.g. cuts in corporate tax cuts, increased infrastructure spending and more restrictive immigration policies. In the foreign policy arena, application of the Trump doctrine of doing deals with the big players might end up favouring closer relations with China, as well as Russia, despite recent anti-Chinese rhetoric. That might make life more difficult for China’s neighbours, but is probably preferable to the alternative of deepening tensions between the U.S. and China. In many other policy areas, including trade policy, we are likely to see major re-branding exercises, with little actual policy change. Every policy deal will have Trump’s name written all over it – just like his real estate developments!

When I decided to read The Art of the Deal one of my objectives was to see to what extent he sees deals as involving winners and losers rather than mutually beneficial outcomes. There is some of both.  A substantial component of the “art” endorsed by Trump is actually an entrepreneurial function that will be recognizable to fans of Austrian economics. The entrepreneur sees an opportunity to make a profit that others have not seen, and then proceeds to use his negotiation and management skills in pursuit of that profit. If the entrepreneur succeeds, many others also benefit, including original owners of sites and the air space above them, financiers, contractors, building workers, and the people who own or rent space in the building. Everyone involved can be a winner.

The added complication in the entrepreneurial art practiced by Donald Trump is the prevalence of  government regulation impacting on the property development that he has been involved in. As I was reading The Art of the Deal I began to realize that Donald Trump and Tony Schwartz were writing about the entrepreneurial function in rent-seeking environments – the highly regulated property development market in New York and gambling industry in Atlantic City. For the benefit of readers not familiar with the concept, the idea of a rent-seeking society was developed by Gordon Tullock and Anne Krueger to describe societies where government regulations play a large role in determining the distribution of incomes, and substantial resources are expended by individuals and groups – rent-seekers - lobbying to have the coercive powers of government used to their advantage at the expense of others. The U.S. is not one of the first countries that comes to mind when I think of rent-seeking societies, but rent-seeking is rife in the industries where Donald Trump learned the art of the deal.

I am not the first to recognize that The Art of the Deal is about entrepreneurship in rent-seeking environments:  Adam Davidson made similar observations in an article in the New York Times Magazine in March 2016. However, I don’t think Davidson’s view of Donald Trump was entirely accurate. He suggested that Donald Trump “is not just a rent-seeker himself; his whole worldview is based on a rent-seeking vision of the economy, in which there’s a fixed amount of wealth that can only be redistributed, never grow”. The Art of the Deal portrays Trump’s real estate development activities as being about adding value to sites rather than just obtaining benefit at the expense of others. Even allowing for his hyperbole, Trump seems to see his role as that of a capitalist hero, like a character out of an Ayn Rand novel, who is using his skills in self-promotion and his legal team to fight the rent-seekers who are trying to obstruct economic development.

When he talks about public policy issues Mr Trump sometimes seems to allow his desire to present himself as a person with a kind heart to get in the way of clear thinking:
Unlike most developers, I don’t advocate eliminating rent control. I just think there ought to be a means test for anyone living in a rent-controlled apartment”.
I wonder whether Trump really sees rent-control as a good way to provide economic assistance to poor people. A cynic might suggest that his support for means tested rent control was a rent-seeking ploy to further his own interests in evicting wealthy tenants from the rent-controlled premises that he wanted to re-develop.

Adam Davidson might be close to the mark in suggesting that at an international level Donald Trump’s world view is governed by the idea that what one country gains another loses. Some passages in The Art of the Deal reflect that view. Trump claims that the Japanese “have become wealthier in large measure by screwing the United States with a self-serving trade policy that our political leaders have never been able to fully understand or counteract”. These days he expresses similar views about China.

 From an economic perspective, Donald Trump’s desire to put America’s interests first in trade policy would be desirable for Americans (as well as people elsewhere in the world) if only he knew where America’s interests lie. It is hard to believe that this builder of innovative modern buildings in New York thinks he can make America greater by transforming its manufacturing industry into a museum of mid 20th century technology that can only survive sheltered behind high import barriers. If he sees America’s interests as providing widespread opportunities for Americans to enjoy greater prosperity, he should hire some competent economists to suggest what policies are most likely to contribute to that objective.


If Donald Trump believes his own rhetoric about asking lots of questions, keeping options open and thinking big, perhaps he could even end up as an advocate of unilateral free trade, rather than re-branded bilateral trade deals. In my view the odds are strongly against that, but it could happen!