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John Quiggin

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.

Rubin gets it right

by John Quiggin on May 7, 2016

Crises upend all kinds of assumptions, and the crisis in the Republican Party is no exception. Who would have thought, for example, that the National Review crowd might end up voting for the Libertarian candidate while lots of self-described libertarians are backing Trump.

At least as surprising to me is that, among all the attempts from establishment Repubs to understand the disaster that has befallen them, the most insightful and accurate (that is, the closest to my own analysis) has come from Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post, someone I’ve never before taken seriously. Unlike nearly all the NeverTrumpers she accepts the obvious implication of the fact that around half the Republican electorate has gone for Trump’s tribalism

The GOP discovered (in part, through Sen. Ted Cruz’s collapse despite perfect mechanical execution) that there is no majority supporting the Reagan agenda. Certainly, Cruz was a politician of limited talent and imagination, but if he could not sell the “three-legged stool” to the masses, perhaps there are no masses receptive to that sort of stuff. Even in a GOP primary, there is no majority looking to roll back gay rights or give huge tax breaks to upper-income Americans.
Second, she nails the role of climate change denialism in the intellectual collapse of the political right
Along with all of this, conservatives have to end their intellectual isolation and self-delusions. They need to stop pretending that climate change is not occurring (the extent and the proposed solutions can be rationally discussed) or imagining that there is a market for pre-New-Deal-size government. Conservatives must end their infatuation with phony news, crank conspiracy theories, demonization of well-meaning leaders and mean rhetoric
Contrast that with, say, Will and Krauthammer, who denounce Trump in extreme terms, but peddle lunatic conspiracy theories themselves.

In this context, I was struck by this piece headlined The outlandish conspiracy theories many of Donald Trump’s supporters believe. Despite the headline and the spin in the text, the data reported in the article shows that Trump supporters are only marginally more likely than Cruz and Kasich voters to accept the standard set of Republican conspiracy theories. To give a fairly typical example,

Fifty-two percent of his supporters said [the claim that vaccines cause autism] was possibly or definitely true, compared to 49 percent of those who supported Cruz and 45 percent of those who supported Kasich
These differences are barely outside the likely margin of error in a poll of this kind. The differences between groups of Repub voters on any given issue are far smaller than the differences arising from more or less extreme conspiracy theories (for example, only about 20 per cent of each group think that the Sandy Hook shootings were faked).

If there is one prediction that can safely be made it is that the Republican party of 2017 will be very different from that of 2015, before the Trump eruption. Whether it moves in the direction of sanity remains to be seen.

Pirates! (Militarism whack-a-mole #73)

by John Quiggin on May 2, 2016

Making the case against militarism is very reminiscent of climate denial whack-a-mole. Demolish one spurious argument, and you’re immediately presented with another. For example, my post showing that the economic benefits of “keeping sea lanes open” could not justify more than a trivial proportion of current naval expenditure, got hardly any substantive responses (apart from tiger-repelling rocks), but a great many saying “what about the pirates?”.

I’ve done the numbers on this one, and they look pretty clear-cut. There are a bunch of estimates on the web of the annual cost of piracy ranging from $1 billion to $16 billion a year.

This seems implausibly high. The amount actually stolen by pirates or paid as ransoms is far smaller, less than a billion a year at its peak, AFAICT. Looking in detail, there’s a fair bit of double counting here (both actual losses and the insurance premiums which offset them are counted, for example), and the high-end numbers typically include some estimate of the cost of naval deployments on anti-piracy patrols. In particular. Still, in the spirit of fair play, I’ll go with $10 billion.

Turning to the US Navy* budget, it’s currently over $150 billion a year. That supports a fleet of 272 “deployable battle force” ships, implying an annual cost of over $0.5 billion per ship. So, the annual cost of piracy is the same as the cost of about 20 ships. To put it another way, reducing the fleet by one ship, and scaling down anti-piracy operations accordingly would have to increase global piracy by 5 per cent to yield a loss to the global shipping industry greater than the savings to the US (I leave aside the question of why the global shipping industry is such an important recipient of US foreign aid).

Having played military whack-a-mole many times before I can anticipate the responses in my sleep. So, I’ll open the comments threads, resist the temptation to take part, and whack the inevitable moles in a later post.

  • The US spends more than other developed countries, but I don’t think the others get any more ship for their shilling, capability-adjusted.

** I’ve corrected some errors in the data I used in the original version. But the discussion made it pretty clear that the objections aren’t to the numbers but to the whole idea of weighing benefits and costs in anything to do with military expenditure.

A data point on minimum wages

by John Quiggin on April 28, 2016

I’m currently working on a section of my Economics in Two Lessons book dealing with minimum wages in the context of predistribution policies, so I thought I would compare Australia with the US, where the idea of a $15/hour minimum wage is currently a hot topic. In Australia there are two kinds of minimum wage. The PPP exchange rate is estimated at $A$1.30 = $US, which is fairly close to the market exchange rate at present, so I’ll give both $A and estimated $US equivalents

The standard minimum wage for workers aged 21 or over is $A17.29 hour ($US13.30) applying to employees under standard award conditions. These include four weeks annual leave, sick leave, employer contributions to pension plans and so on.

More comparable to the situation of US minimum wage workers are “casual” workers, employed on an hourly basis. Casual workers get a loading of at least 25 per cent, bringing the wage up to at least $A21.60 an hour ($US16.60), to compensate for the absence of leave entitlements. In addition, they have entitlements including:

  • “Penalty” rates for weekend and night work (usually a 50 per cent loading, 100 per cent on Sundays)
  • For workers employed on a regular basis, protection against unfair dismissal.

The policy question is: what impact have these high minimum wages had on employment and unemployment. That’s too big a question to answer comprehensively, but we can look at the obvious data points: the official unemployment rates (5.7 for Oz, 5.5 per cent US) and the 15-64 employment population ratios (72 per cent for Oz, 67 per cent US). So, it certainly doesn’t look as if the Australian labor market has been crippled by minimum wages.

Note: I’ll respond in advance to the widespread misconception that Australia is a special case due to mineral resources. Mining accounts for about 2 per cent of employment in Australia, and (because most mines are owned by multinationals) its contribution to Australian national income is also so, probably around 5 per cent.

  • Workers aged 18 get about 70 per cent of the adult minimum, equivalent to around $US11.50 for casuals. But the great majority of US minimum wage workers (about 80 per cent) are 20+.

Over the fold, an extract from my book-in-very slow-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. I’m getting closer to a complete draft, and I plan, Real Soon Now, to post the material so far in a more accessible form. But for the moment, I’ll toss up an extract which is, I hope, largely self-sufficient. Encouragement is welcome, constructive criticism even more so.

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I, for one …

by John Quiggin on April 19, 2016

This para, presented matter-of-factly in the middle of a New York Times piece about the Repub convention bringing older strategists out of retirement, surprised more than, perhaps, it should

Paul Manafort, 67, all but disappeared from American politics in recent decades to advise international leaders, including strongmen like Ferdinand E. Marcos, the former dictator of the Philippines, and Viktor F. Yanukovych, the deposed former president of Ukraine. Now, though, Mr. Manafort, who worked for the Ford campaign 40 years ago, is the lead convention strategist for Donald J. Trump

Combined with the link back to Joe McCarthy, I feel a bit as if we have moved on to some alternative reality timeline (I remember a great one, where Nixon won in 1960, and an author is trying to pitch the actual history of the 60s as an alternate reality story – can anyone point to this).

Keeping sea lanes open: a benefit cost analysis

by John Quiggin on April 8, 2016

Whenever I raise the observation that navies are essentially obsolete, someone is bound to raise the cry “What about the sea lanes”. The claim that navies play a vital role in protecting trade routes is taken so much for granted that it might seem untestable. But it turns out that most of the information needed for a benefit cost analysis is available. Unsurprisingly (to me at least), the claimed benefit of keeping sea lanes open doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I’ve spelt this out in an article in Inside Story, reprinted over the fold.

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Gaps and holes

by John Quiggin on April 6, 2016

Press coverage massive leak of papers from hitherto unheard of (by me, at any rate) Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca has, unsurprisingly, focused on the world leaders, celebrities and fixers whose financial affairs have been revealed in an unflattering light. As regards the financial system as a whole, the New York Times draws a fairly typical conclusion

Above all, the Panama Papers reveal an industry that flourishes in the gaps and holes of international finance.
Really? This description suggests that those involved are obscure minor players in the system, of the sort who might be expected to deal with dodgy law firms in tax havens. The real business of global finance is undertaking by upstanding financial institutions with transparent practices.

But writing this down is enough to see that it is silly. As usual in such cases, we find familiar names: HSBC, UBS, Credit Suisse,and RBS and so on. And of course this is just one firm in one tax haven. The absence of major American banks reflects, in large measure, the fact that they prefer tax havens other than Panama, where there is a high degree of US state countrol.

Again as usual, the line is that this is all in the past, and that the banks have cleaned up their act. But the criminal charges keep on coming. This is scarcely surprising when no major bank has been shut down, even for the most egregious wrongdoing, and where only a handful of bank employees have faced jail time over frauds that total well into the hundreds of billions.

As I’ve argued in the past, 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. The burden of supporting this financial sector is a major factor in the secular stagnation now evident in most developed economies.[^1]

The financial globalization that began in the 1970s has not produced an efficient global financial market with a few gaps and holes. The gaps and holes are the market.

[^1]:Since it’s bound to be raised, the costs of financial globalisation to the developed world can’t be offset by considering rapid growth in China and India. These countries have, until recently, maintained tightly regulated financial systems, and have had plenty of criticism for it. Of course, that has resulted in plenty of corruption and misallocation of capital, but the sector simply hasn’t been enough to produce a large drag on growth. That’s clearly changed, in China at least, so it will be interesting to watch the consequences.

Parallel universes

by John Quiggin on March 11, 2016

Of the 20 years or so that I’ve been observing climate change policy, global developments over the past year have been the most hopeful I can remember, particularly as regards electricity generation

  • The Paris Conference was a big success, at least relative to expectations
  • Coal-fired power stations are shutting down around the world
  • China has reduced its coal use for two years in a row
  • India has increased its coal tax, and greatly expanded use of renewables

Whether emissions reductions will be big enough and fast enough remains to be seen, but at least we are going in the right direction.

As far as climate science is concerned, the string of temperature records broken recently has killed any idea that we are in a ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’. Even the favorite source of deniers, the satellite data from UAH, is now showing a new record. The only remaining issue is the second-order debate over whether there was a pause or perhaps slowdown at some point in the first decade of the 2000s.

At the same time, following the US election, I’ve been paying more attention than usual to rightwing blogs, most of which run climate denialist pieces fairly regularly. Given that nearly all the major US coal companies are now bankrupt, and that coal-fired electricity is declining rapidly, I’d have expected a lot of “wrecking ball” pieces on the supposed damage to the economy (in reality, the effects are small and mostly offset by the expansion of renewables) now that mitigation policies of various kinds are taking effect.

But I don’t see anything like that. Rather, most of the articles I’m reading are claims of victory in the debate over both science and policy. Here’s a fairly typical example, with the title “Is the Climate Crusade Stalling?

We really do live in parallel universes.

Repeal Taft-Hartley

by John Quiggin on March 9, 2016

Assuming that the US Presidential election is between Trump and Clinton (or, for that matter, Sanders) the voting bloc that’s most obviously up for grabs is that of working-class whites[^1]. Relative to expectations, working class whites have done worse under neoliberalism/market liberalism than almost any other group in the population. So, they ought to be more solid than ever against the right. But it’s easy for tribalists like Trump to blame migrants and minorities for the losses that working class whites have suffered.

What’s needed to turn this around, I think, is something, in Trump’s words “yuge”. My suggestion is repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act. Way back in 1948, Taft-Hartley prefigured anti-union laws that were passed throughout the English-speaking world[^2] from the 1970s and have spread even further since then. Its repeal would, at a minimum, be a huge symbolic step. [click to continue…]

The three party system

by John Quiggin on February 29, 2016

Warning: Amateur political analysis ahead

Looking at the way politics has evolved over the past 25 years or so, in the English-speaking world and beyond, I have developed an analysis which is certainly not original, but which I haven’t seen set down in exactly the way I would like. Here’s the shorter version:

There are three major political forces in contemporary politics in developed countries: tribalism, neoliberalism and leftism (defined in more detail below). Until recently, the party system involved competition between different versions of neoliberalism. Since the Global Financial Crisis, neoliberals have remained in power almost everywhere, but can no longer command the electoral support needed to marginalise both tribalists and leftists at the same time. So, we are seeing the emergence of a three-party system, which is inherently unstable because of the Condorcet problem and for other reasons.

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Peak paper

by John Quiggin on February 22, 2016

I’ve recently published a piece in Aeon, looking at the peak in global paper use, which occurred a couple of years ago, and arguing that this is an indication of a less resource-intensive future. Over the fold, a longer draft, with some links.
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A question about group selection

by John Quiggin on January 29, 2016

I’m doing some work on evolutionary models of game theory and need to understand the debate about group selection. It seems pretty clear that the great majority of evolutionary biologists reject the idea of group selection, but I haven’t found an adequate (to me) explanation of why they do so. A crucial problem for me is that the literature seems, without exception as far as I can see, to conflate group selection with co-operation and altruism. But the problem of group selection arises in non-cooperative settings, provided they are not zero-sum.

To illustrate the problem I’m struggling with, suppose that two previously isolated species meet as a result of some change. In one species (peacocks), competition between males for mates takes the form of elaborate, and energetically costly, displays. In the other species (penguins) males compete by providing food to their mates. In all other respects (diet, predators and so on) the two are similar. In particular, they are competing for the same food resources. It seems obvious to me that the penguins, with their more efficient social arrangements, are going to outbreed the peacocks and eventually drive them to extinction.

It seems to me there are only two possibilities here
(a) My reasoning is wrong, and we can’t judge which species, if either, will dominate; or
(b) Even though it involves one group being selected over another, this isn’t what is meant by group selection

I’d really appreciate some help on this. I’m happy to have thoughts from anyone, but I’d most like to hear from actual experts with contact details (mine are on the sidebar, or obtainable through Google).