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John Quiggin

Against Locke: Part 3

by John Quiggin on August 15, 2016

The third and final instalment of my critique of Locke’s theory of appropriation/expropriation is up at Jacobin. I turn my attention from Locke to Jefferson, Locke’s most important follower, in practice as well as theory. By opening the Louisiana purchase for agricultural settlement, Jefferson put to the test Locke’s theory of appropriation to a practical test. In particular, the vastness of the land, compared with the modest requirements of the ideal Jeffersonian farm family seemed to support Jefferson’s prediction that the new land would be enough to last a thousand generations. But of course the opposite was true: in less than one generation, the United States had overspilled the boundaries of Jefferson’s purchase and was embroiled in a civil war that started with battles over the newly opened land. To restate the conclusion of the previous instalments, Locke’s theory was designed to justify expropriation and enslavement. Neither Locke nor epigones such as Nozick and Rothbard can provide a coherent theory of just appropriation of property.

Book report

by John Quiggin on August 7, 2016

I’ve been getting lots of free books lately, and the implied contract is that I should write about at least some of them. So, here are my quick reactions to some books CT readers might find interesting. They are

The Great Leveler: Capitalism and Competition in the Court of Law by Brett Christophers

The Rise and Fall of American Growth:
The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War
by Robert J. Gordon

The Sharing Economy:The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism by Arun Sundararajan

Econobabble: How to Decode Political Spin and Economic Nonsense by Richard Denniss

Generation Less: How Australia is Cheating the Young by Jennifer Rayner

I’ll be on a panel discussing the last two of these at the Brisbane Writers Festival, Sep 11-16.

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Second thoughts

by John Quiggin on August 5, 2016

In a recent post, I remarked on the fact that hardly any self-described climate sceptics had revised their views in response to the recent years of record-breaking global temperatures. Defending his fellow “sceptics”, commenter Cassander wrote

When’s the last time you changed your mind as a result of the evidence? It’s not something people do very often.

I’m tempted by the one-word response “Derp“. But the dangers of holding to a position regardless of the evidence are particularly severe for academics approaching emeritus age[1]. So, I gave the question a bit of thought.

Here are three issues on which I’ve changed my mind over different periods

Demography and irreligion, one year on

by John Quiggin on August 1, 2016

Almost exactly a year ago, I posted about a Pew study predicting that the proportion of the world population without a religious affiliation would decline sharply by 2050. The basic argument sounds plausible: an increase in the unaffiliated proportion of the population within countries will be more than offset by faster population growth in countries with higher rates of affiliation. But a closer look revealed a surprising prediction for the US, the projection that Christians would decline from 78.3 per cent of the US population in 2010 to 66.4 per cent in 2050 (emphasis added), while the unaffiliated would rise from 16 to 26 per cent. Given that more than 30 per cent of Millennials are already unaffiliated, that seemed like a surprisingly slow rate of change. However, judging by the comments threads, a lot of readers seemed to find the Pew projections fairly plausible.

A year on, Pew has undertaken a new survey focused on the US election. The headline results are for registered voters, but the results turn out to be the same as for the full sample. The big news: “The non-religious are now the country’s largest religious voting bloc, at 21 per cent of registered voters. The Christian groups reported by Pew add up to 66.7 per cent of the population (my calculation, and emphasis added). Other religions account for 11 per cent (according to the WP) leaving a small residual (maybe “declined to say”).

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Do climate sceptics exist?

by John Quiggin on July 25, 2016

June 2016 was the hottest month globally since records began in 1880, and marks the fourteenth record month in a row. For the great majority of people who’ve been following scientific findings on climate, there’s no great surprise there. There is very strong evidence both for the existence of a warming trend due mainly to emissions of carbon dioxide, and for the occurrence of a peak in the El Nino/Southern Oscillation index. Combine the two, and a record high temperature is very likely.

But suppose you were a strongly sceptical person, who required more evidence than others to accept a scientific hypothesis, such as that of of anthropogenic climate change. Presumably, you would treat the evidence of the last couple of years as supporting the hypothesis. Perhaps this supporting evidence would be sufficient that you would regard the hypothesis as confirmed beyond reasonable doubt, perhaps not, but either way, you would be more favorably inclined than before. And, if you were a public commentator, willing to state your views honestly, you would say so.

Does such a sceptic exist? I haven’t seen one, although I follow the debate fairly closely. In fact, in the 25 years or so in which I’ve been following the issue, I can only recall one instance of someone described as a “sceptic” changing their view in the light of the evidence. And of course, his fellow sceptics, who’d been promising that his research would reveal massive errors in the temperature record, immediately decided that he’d never really been one of them. In any case, while Muller was and remains a scientific sceptic, he’s no longer a climate sceptic.

Operationally, it’s clear that the term “climate sceptic” means someone whose criteria for convincing evidence are those set out by the Onion.

I’d be happy to be proved wrong (by counterexample), but as far as I can see, if the ordinary usage of the term “sceptic” is applied, the world population of genuine climate sceptics is zero.

Nuclear math doesn’t add up

by John Quiggin on July 20, 2016

Writing in the National Review, Robert Bryce< of the Manhattan Institute criticises the Democratic Party platform for omitting any mention of nuclear power, and accuses the Democrats of failing to “do the math”. Unfortunately, although he throws some numbers about, he doesn’t do any math to support his key conclusion

But even if we doubled the rate of growth for wind and solar — and came up with a perfect method of electricity storage (which of course, doesn’t exist) — those renewables aren’t going to replace nuclear energy any time soon
So, I’ll do the math for him.
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by John Quiggin on July 4, 2016

100 years after the Battle of the Somme, it’s hard to see that much has been learned from the catastrophe of the Great War and the decades of slaughter that followed it. Rather than get bogged down (yet again) in specifics that invariably decline into arguments about who know more of the historical detail, I’m going to try a different approach, looking at the militarist ideology that gave us the War, and trying to articulate an anti-militarist alternative. Wikipedia offers a definition of militarism which, with the deletion of a single weasel word, seems to be entirely satisfactory and also seems to describe the dominant view of the political class, and much of the population in nearly every country in the world.

Militarism is the belief or desire of a government or people that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively[^1] to defend or promote national interests

Wikipedia isn’t as satisfactory (to me) on anti-militarism, so I’ll essentially reverse the definition above, and offer the following provisional definition

Anti-militarism is the belief or desire that a military expenditure should held to the minimum required to protect a country against armed attack and that, with the exception of self-defense, military power should not be used to promote national interests

I’d want to qualify this a bit, but it seems like a good starting point.

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The Schengen option ?

by John Quiggin on June 28, 2016

Like most people outside Britain (and, it seems, like most British people, politicans and pundits as well as voters) I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the detailed implications of a Leave vote until it actually happened. Now that it has happened, the details matter. In particular, it seems that Boris Johnson and other leaders of the Leave campaign (though presumably not UKIP) are hoping to promote either the “Switzerland” or “Norway” options. I thought I’d check on the implications of these options for migration policy and AFAICT, both Norway and Switzerland are Schengen visa countries. So, on the face of it, those Leavers who supported continued market access on the Norway/Switerland model have voted for removal of existing controls on migration rather than the imposition of new ones.

I assume that Johnson and others have in mind a negotiation in which Britain (or England) gets the market access bits of the Norway/Switzerland options, while maintaining the existing opt-outs negotiated as an EU member. But why should the EU offer this? In particular, if Scotland becomes independent and joins the EU, the Scots will presumably want to maintain free access to England, while the rest of the EU would be unlikely to allow Scotland to remain under English border controls. In any case, the whole logic of the EU position is that Britain should not be able to pick and choose.

On the basis of an admittedly perfunctory search, I haven’t been able to find more than passing discussion of this question. Can anyone point me to more comprehensive analysis?

Reaping the Whirlwind

by John Quiggin on June 26, 2016

I’ve been trying to make sense of the Brexit (or rather E-exit) vote in terms of the “three-party system” analysis I put forward a while back. The result, over the fold, is a piece in Inside Story, an Australian magazine.

The key point is, that, in the absence of a coherent left alternative, neoliberalism (hard and soft) is being overwhelmed by a tribalist backlash. Writing this, I realise it might be construed as criticism of Corbyn for failing to develop and propose such an alternative in the referendum campaign. That would be a bad misreading. The context of the referendum meant that it was always going to be a choice of evils: between the racism and bigotry that animated so much of the Leave campaign, and the neoliberalism of both the Cameron government and the EU. The option of a social democratic, or even soft neoliberal, EU was not on the ballot.

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Look what they’ve done to my song, Ma

by John Quiggin on May 31, 2016

My discussion of intellectual property inevitably raised questions about my argument that property rights are not natural rights, but are socially constructed and, in the modern world, exist only as part of the legal structures created and enforced by states. The “moral rights” of artists over their creative works has been raised as a suggested counterexample. In fact, this example reinforces my original argument. Two cases arise, both of interest:

In the United States, the moral rights of artists were effectively unrecognised by law until accession to the Berne Convention 1989, and remain extremely limited. The result is that, once an artist has sold the rights to her work, she has no control over its subsequent use, unless she can make a case separate from moral rights, for example that use in an advertisement misrepresents the artist as endorsing the product. So, for example, it’s perfectly legal to use London Calling to advertise Jaguars, or to clip Fortunate Son to fit a jingoistic ad for jeans. Moral rights are widely recognised, and may generate social opprobrium for those who violate them (as with other misuses of property rights) but they have no legal standing.

In France and other European countries, artists have inalienable moral rights over their work, to prevent misuse of the work by the initial or later purchasers. This is not a property right, but a constraint on property rights. To the extent that moral rights are recognised after the fact, they constitute a taking from the purchaser of the property right. To the extent that they are recognised when artists sell rights to their work, they (like any restriction on alienation of property) represent a constraint on the property rights of the artist. Melanie Safka recognised this, in an ironic fashion, in her classic Look what they’ve done to my song, Mawhen she wrote

It’ll be all right ma, maybe it’ll be okay
Well, if the people are buying tears
I’ll be rich someday, ma

Coming back to the general issue, property rights and (perceived/socially accepted) natural rights have features that mean they tend to coincide in some ways and conflict in others. Most obviously, they are both associated with the general feeling of rightful possession, so that a system of property rights is more stable when it coincides with natural rights. On the other hand, natural rights are mostly perceived as inalienable and indivisible, while property in its ideal form is infinitely transferable and divisible. Moral rights for artists are a classical example of the clash between inalienability and unfettered property rights but the same clash arises at every point in the production process.

Another draft extract from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. It’s the last part of the section on “predistribution”, dealing with Intellectual Property. Next up, “redistribution” through taxation and public expenditure.

As always, encouragement is welcome, constructive criticism even more so.

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Trump and tribalism

by John Quiggin on May 23, 2016

Watching the rapid consolidation of the Republican Party around the candidacy of Donald Trump, I’ve tried to make sense of this in terms of the “three party system” analysis I presented a few months ago. I saw the Republicans as the “hard neoliberal” party relying on the votes of (white Christian) tribalists and making symbolic gestures in their direction, but largely ignoring them, particularly if their interests came into conflict with those of big business.

What’s become clear since then, I think, is that the Republican Party apparatus (politicians and party officials) is more tribalist than this analysis suggested. Faced with the prospect of electing their hated tribal enemy, Hillary Clinton, as President, the vast majority look like backing Trump (some, but not all of them, holding their nose as they do so).

From a hard neoliberal viewpoint, this makes no sense. Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council background is that of the stereotypical soft neoliberal. Her candidacy is the best chance of maintaining the long-running alternation in office between the hard and soft variants of neoliberalism. Admittedly, she will be pulled to the left by the general shift exemplified by the Sanders insurgency, but she is unlikely to do anything that would fundamentally undermine capitalism. By contrast, a Trump takeover of the Republican Party would be a disaster for neoliberalism (which does not mean it would be good for the left). That would be the inevitable result of a Trump victory. Even a creditable defeat, which would be blamed on the old establishment, could leave the tribalists in control of the organization.

The only groups where the #NeverTrump analysis seems to hold sway are the business donor class and the remnants of the rightwing intelligentsia (hard to believe they were carrying all before them only 20 years ago). The donors obviously have no interest in throwing money at someone like Trump. As for the intelligentsia, even if they were willing to embrace Trump, it’s obvious he has no use for any but the most total hacks, and not even many of those.

A bit out of order, this is another draft extract from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. It’s part of the chapter on income distribution, meant to follow the section on unions, and precede the Australia-US data point and the discussion of corporate profits. After this, I plan to conclude the “predistribution” part of the chapter with a discussion of intellectual “property”, then move on to “redistribution” through taxation and public expenditure.

As always, encouragement is welcome, constructive criticism even more so.

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Over the fold, another extract from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. Encouraging comments appreciated, constructive criticism even more so.

Predistribution and profits

As we’ve seen in previous sections, the social constructions of property rights and institutions surrounding employment makes a big difference to the determination of wages and working conditions. These social constructions affect ‘predistribution’, the distribution of income and wealth that arises before the effects of taxes and public expenditure are taken into account.

Predistribution is equally relevant to the other big source of personal income: profit derived from private businesses and corporations. Without legal structures designed specifically to protect businesses from the risks of failure, profits would be far less secure, and the difficulty of establishing and running a business much greater. Corporate profits are not a natural outcome of a market society, but the product of specific structures of property rights introduced to promote corporate enterprise.

The risks of running a business in the 18th century, and well into the 19th, were substantial and personal. There was no such thing as bankruptcy: a business failure meant debtors prison, where debtors could be held until they had worked off their debt via labor or secured outside funds to pay the balance.

After a brief and disastrous experiment in the early years of the 18th century (the South Sea Bubble), joint stock companies were also viewed with grave suspicion.

The prevailing view was Quoted in John Poynder, Literary Extracts (1844), vol. 1, p. 268. [1]

Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned; they therefore do as they like.

This is often misquoted as

“Did you ever expect a corporation to have a conscience, when it has no soul to be damned, and no body to be kicked?

Adam Smith was similarly scathing, though with more of a focus on the principal-agent problem

The directors of such [joint-stock] companies, however, being the managers rather of other people’s money than of their own, it cannot well be expected, that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which the partners in a private copartnery frequently watch over their own…. Negligence and profusion, therefore, must always prevail, more or less, in the management of the affairs of such a company.

Exceptions were made only for specially authorised quasi-governmental ventures like the East India Company, focused on foreign trade. In general, limited liability companies were not permitted in Britain or most other countries. The partners in a business were jointly liable for all its debts.

These same rules applied in Britain’s American colonies and continued to prevail in the United States until the middle of the 19th century. The introduction of personal bankruptcy laws put an end to debtors prison, greatly reducing the risks of running a business. The creation of the limited liability company was an even more radical change.

These changes faced vigorous resistance from advocates of the free market. David Moss, in When All Else Fails, his brilliant history of government as the ultimate risk manager, describes how the advocates of unlimited personal responsibility for debt were overwhelmed by the needs of business in an industrial economy. The introduction of bankruptcy and limited liability laws took much of the risk out of starting and operating a business.

By contrast, in Economics in One Lesson, Hazlitt doesn’t mention limited liability or personal bankruptcy and seems to assume (like most defenders of the market) that these are a natural feature of market societies. More theoretically inclined propertarians have continued to debate the legitimacy of bankruptcy and limited liability laws, without reaching a conclusion.

This debate over whether bankruptcy and corporation laws are consistent with freedom of contract is really beside the point. The distribution of income and wealth is radically changed both by the existence of these institutions and by the details of their design. In particular, the massive accumulations of personal wealth made possible by capital gains from share ownership would simply not exist. Perhaps there would be comparable accumulations of wealth derived in some other way, but the owners of that wealth would be different people.

A crucial policy question, therefore, is whether current laws and policies relating to corporate bankruptcy and limited liability have promoted the growth of inequality and contributed to the weak and crisis-ridden economy that has characterised the 20th 21st century. The combination of these factors has produced absolute stagnation or decline in living standards for much of the US population and relative decline for all but the top few per cent.

There can be little doubt that this is the case. As recently as the 1970s, a corporate bankruptcy was the last resort for insolvent companies, typically leading to the liquidation of the company in question. As well as being a financial disaster, and a source of shame for all those involved. For this reason, nearly all major companies sought to maintain an investment-grade credit rating, indicating a judgement by ratings agencies that bankruptcy was, at most, a fairly remote possibility.

Since that time, bankruptcy has become a routine financial operation, used to avoid inconvenient liabilities like pension obligations to workers and the costs of cleaning up mine sites, among many others. The crucial innovation was “Chapter 11”, introduced in the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978.

The intended effect of Chapter 11 was that companies could reorganise themselves while going through bankruptcy, and re-emerge as going concerns. The (presumably) unintended effect was that corporate managers ceased to be scared of bankruptcy. This was reflected in the spectacular growth of the market for ‘junk bonds’, that is, securities with a high rate of interest reflecting a substantial probability of default. Once the preserve of fly-by-night operations, junk bonds (more politely called ‘high-yield’) became a standard source of finance even for companies in the S&P 500.

At the same time, legislative changes and the growth of global capital markets greatly enhanced the benefits of corporate structures, while eliminating many of the associated costs and limitations. At the bottom end of the scale, the ‘close corporation’ with only a handful of shareholders, became the standard method of organising a small business. This process was aided by a long-series of pro-corporate legislative changes and court decisions (notably in Delaware, which has long led the way in this process, and where vast numbers of US companies are incorporated). At the top end, the rise of global financial markets from the 1970s onwards allowed the creation of corporate structures of vast complexity, headquartered in tax havens and organised to resist scrutiny of any kind.

At the behest of these corporations, governments have negotiated agreements supposedly designed to ensure that corporate profits are not taxed twice in different jurisdictions. In reality, using a combination of complex corporate structures and governments (notably including those of Ireland and Luxembourg) eager to facilitate tax avoidance in return for a small slice of the proceeds, the effect has been to ensure that most global corporate profits are not taxed even once in the countries where they are earned.

What can be done to redress the balance that has been tipped so blatantly in favor of corporations. The obvious starting point is transparency. Havens of corporate secrecy, from Caribbean islands to US states like Delaware must be made to reveal he true ownership of corporations, in the same way that tax havens like Switzerland, used mostly by wealthy individuals, have been forced to disclose the ownership of previously secret accounts.

The use of complex corporate structures to avoid tax is a much more difficult problem to tackle. Some measures are being taken to attack what is called “Base Erosion and Profit Shifting’, but past experience suggests that slow-moving processes of this kind will at best keep pace with the development of new forms of avoidance and evasion. It’s necessary to re-examine the whole structure of global taxation agreements. Instead of focusing on the need to avoid taxing corporate profits twice, the central objective should be to ensure that they are taxed at least once, in the place where they are actually generated.

More generally, though, the idea that corporations are a natural part of the economic order, with all the human rights of individuals, and none of the obligations needs to be challenged. Limited liability corporations are creations of public policy, useful to the extent that they promote the efficient use of capital but dangerous to the extent that they facilitate gross inequalities of income and opportunity.

Why is global finance so profitable ?

by John Quiggin on May 9, 2016

In a recent post, I asserted that

activities like tax avoidance/evasion and regulatory arbitrage aren’t peripheral flaws in a financial system primarily concerned with the efficient global allocation of capital. They are the core business, without which the profits of the global financial sector would be a tiny fraction of the $1 trillion or so now reaped annually
As I’m working on income distribution issues my long-running book project, this seems like a good time to see if this claim can be backed up by hard numbers.

First up, here’s my source for the $1 trillion number (actually $920 billion). As a plausibility check, I’ve tried to estimate the total size of the global financial sector. Various sources, including Wikipedia estimate that the banking and insurance sector accounts for 7-8 per cent of US gross product. Extrapolating to world gross product of about $80 trillion that would give around $6 trillion for the total size of the sector. The US is almost certainly more financialised than the world as a whole. Still, the profit number looks about right. A trickier question is whether the rents accruing to managers and top professional in the sector should be counted as part of profits. I’d guess that these rents account for at least another $1 trillion, but I have no real idea how to test this – suggestions welcome.

Is tax avoidance/evasion and regulatory arbitrage a big enough activity to account for a substantial share of a trillion dollars a year? Gabriel Zucman estimates that there’s $7.5 trillion stashed in tax havens, of which around $6 trillion is untaxed. He estimates the tax avoided at $200 billion . I’ll estimate that half of that ($100 billion) is creamed off in financial sector, mostly as profits or rents. That implies a profit margin of a bit under 2 per cent, which seems reasonable.

Tax evasion by wealthy individuals is only a small part of the story. Legal tax avoidance is almost certainly more important. Most of that involves companies, but it’s important to distinguish between “close” corporations, which hide the activities of an individual or family and large global corporations. I don’t have any idea how to measure the cost of avoidance through close corporations. As regards global corporations, Zucman estimates that “a third of U.S. corporate profits, or $650 billion, are purportedly earned outside the country, with a cost to the US of $130 billion a year . Extrapolating to the world as a whole, that would be at least $500 billion. Again, assuming the financial sector creams off half of the sum, we get $250 billion (the fact that the finance sector itself accounts for around 40 per cent of all corporate profits means there’s a problem of recursion that I haven’t worked through)

Then there’s manipulation of exchange rate and bond markets. I have no idea how to measure this, but given that the notional volume of trade in some of the markets concerned is measured in the hundreds of trillions, it seems plausible that the profits and rents from market-rigging must be at least in the tens of billions.

These are probably the biggest scams, but there’s also regulatory arbitrage, privatization (a huge source of rent over recent decades), domestic tax avoidance and more.

Adding them up, I’d suggest that $500 billion a year is a low-end estimate for the profits and rents associated with various forms of anti-social financial sector activity.

There’s lots of potential error around these numbers, but the order of magnitude seems reasonable to me. As against the claim that the explosion in financial sector activity and profits over the past 40 years has been driven by the benefits of a more efficient allocation of capital by rational markets, the claim that it’s all about tax-dodging and socially unproductive arbitrage seems pretty plausible.

Obviously, the social cost of a financial system devoted to undermining tax and regulatory systems far exceeds the profits earned from the activity. That’s true of any kind of socially destructive, but privately profitable, activity. But the problem is greater in the case of financial sector activity because of the disastrous effects of financial crises.