Thanks econosphere for finally explaining why I shouldn’t pay attention the concept of ‘involuntary unemployment’
March 9, 2015, 7:31 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’d never really been able to parse what economists meant by ‘involuntary unemployment’. Luckily the econosphere, including Farmer and others, has been arguing about it for the last few days (here’s a summary post by Nick Rowe putting the best foot forward for the ‘involuntary unemployment’ side) and now I get it.

In particular, I now understand that the concept of ‘involuntary unemployment’ is stupid and probably counterproductive.

Noticing that participants in a market sometimes? often? face choice-tradeoff landscapes That They Wish Were More In Their Favor, Like Back Then At That Other Time just does not seem like an interesting observation to me. The fact that, when this happens, it’s ‘involuntary’ goes without saying and just isn’t somehow some noteworthy thing. Don’t we all wish all the choice-tradeoff landscapes we faced were all better, uniformly, at all times? (My gold-ETF share price going down was ‘involuntary’ too, so what?)

Economists of all should people know that this possibility is, to some extent or another, a feature of all markets at all times; highlighting only when it happens in the employment market, at certain times, doesn’t seem to add anything, and meanwhile abuses language because the ‘involuntary’ descriptor/distinction often misleads the casual observer into thinking it must mean that when employment is ‘involuntary’ rather than ‘voluntary’ there’s some Problem which the government should Do Something About.

Oh wait, I guess that’s the whole point of the misleading, stupid phrase. Well played. Carry on.

When the ‘facts change’, don’t make up your mind in the first place
March 8, 2015, 12:31 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This has become one of our most beloved internet rituals.

Person 1: I think I’ve changed my mind about that thing.
Person 2: [grumble grumble slight disapproval / slight teasing / mild I-told-you-so’s]
Person 1: Golly thanks yeah I guess I did change my mind when the facts changed now that I think about it humblebrag that didn’t even occur to me aw shucks humblebrag
Person 2: [leaves, shamed]

I am informed that this whole thing traces back to a thing where Lord & Savior Keynes (PBUH) said something like: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir.” (Not sure who ‘sir’ was.) Like “in the long run we are all dead” despite the apparent trite sentiment and shoddy reasoning, I am given to understand that we’re supposed to treat this as high wisdom. So, there we are.

Now look, on some level I’m right there with all y’all, yes yes sure people can/should change their minds when the situation calls for, that’s all great and well and good etc. I’m just saying that when it gets to the point where we gush lovingly over any Person 1 merely for ‘changing their mind’, the whole ritual’s been taken way too far.

Some points.

1. ‘Facts’ don’t actually change. That’s why we call them ‘facts’. Facts are facts.

2. If you’re finding yourself in a situation where you’re tempted to think some ‘facts changed’, I submit to you that one of three things is really going on: (a) the thing you earlier thought was a ‘fact’ wasn’t really a fact; (b) the thing you thought the fact ‘changed’ to? It actually didn’t, check your facts; (c) neither the thing you previously thought was a fact nor the thing you thought the fact changed to was a fact.

3. Since this whole aphorism is meant to cover the advisability of ‘changing your mind’, one way to avert the supposed dilemma is not to be so quick to make up your mind so readily in the first place. Note that in (2a) and (2c) above the real problem was that you were indeed wrong to think the thing was a ‘fact’. If you hadn’t made up your mind on the basis of that erroneous ‘fact’ you wouldn’t now be in a position to have to ‘change your mind’ in the first place. Essentially, a little humility and intellectual honesty here goes a long way: much of the time we don’t have solid reason to think the things we think are ‘facts’ really are facts. This seems like it should be especially true of people who are going around thinking ‘facts changed’ all the time.

4. You might think I’m off base because the aphorism is meant to cover inherently time-dependent facts, like (oh say) the unemployment rate. The unemployment rate was X at time 1 and now it’s Y at time 2. Sure, that’s a ‘fact’ that changed.

5. This point doesn’t really rescue the aphorism though. Possibly, the earlier ‘fact’ that has now changed had so much error-bars around it that you shouldn’t have been so secure in even thinking it a ‘fact’ in the first place. Unemplyment wasn’t X, it was somewhere in [X-E,X+E]. It’s also often problematic to work off of theories that are so non-robust and data-dependent: What exactly is the thing you had made up your mind about so concretely at time 1 on the basis of unemployment being X that now is undermined if unemployment is Y? How can that have been a good theory on which to make up your mind?

6. Better theories will contemplate the full spectrum of possibilities here: that the ‘fact’ in question could be either X or Y, at different times, depending on [stuff]. But when you’re working off such a theory you don’t have to ‘change your mind’ when the thing changes from X to Y, your theory covers that possibility, you just update the inputs to it.

All of these considerations point in the direction of having some humility before interpreting and relying on ‘facts’ so readily to ‘make up your mind’. If you do that, you don’t have a made-up mind to ‘change’ later when facts ‘change’. Someone who does ostentatiously ‘change his mind when the facts change’ is therefore telegraphing that he showed no such humility earlier. I don’t see this as praiseworthy. Person 2 above is right to tease/I-told-you-so in response, and the gushing overflowing praise from Smart Person 3 is almost certainly unwarranted.

Financial and economic illiteracy at BV
March 6, 2015, 1:50 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized


Republicans are really saying that people should be free to avoid carrying insurance for problems they don’t expect to have (a bout of depression, maybe, or a stroke that requires rehabilitation) or don’t want to help pay for (pediatric and maternity care for men with no children, say). The former view shifts costs onto the unlucky; the latter shifts costs onto women and parents. Both undercut the purpose of insurance, which is pooling risk.

A man can’t get pregnant. Say the man knows he never will have children. His ‘risk’ of needing maternity care is therefore zero. You can’t ‘pool’ that (nonexistent) risk with anything, that doesn’t make sense.

When you take money from this man to give to someone else who does have a risk exposure to the event in question, you are not ‘pooling risk’. (Again, his risk is zero.) You are just removing property from one person to give to another person who is (with 100% certainty) not him, based on a collective decision to do so. There’s a perfectly serviceable word for this action and that word is socialism, not ‘insurance’. Why are we so reluctant to apply this word to situations where it clearly applies?

Now, in the event, maybe the socialism being applied is good policy on whatever-grounds and maybe not, but stop pretending that it is just the ‘pooling risk’ part of insurance. We’ve seen this confusion before, it’s apparently very common, even at Bloomberg.

So employers are citing an Obamacare tax that probably won’t affect them for years to justify benefit cuts now.

“Employers are looking at the future when making business and cost decisions.” How dumb! Business should not be allowed to do that. Another solid point over at Bloomberg View.

Feldman on King v. Burwell
March 4, 2015, 8:34 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Hey, an Obamacare column! I wonder if we’ll be seeing any more of these

The Heart of the Obamacare Case

That question can actually be put rather simply: What should happen when Congress writes a law with some internal incoherence?

No. I do not cede this territory. There is nothing – nothing – ‘internally incoherent’ about reading the law the way King v. Burwell plaintiffs say (i.e., the way it is actually written). The law as written, among other things, (a) imposes a tax^H^H^H penalty^H^H^H^H^H^H^H tax for those who do not have such-and-such level of health ‘insurance’ [sic]; (b) describes how ‘exchanges’ [sic] may be set up by the states; and (c) provides for means-tested tax credits for those who purchase insurance through the ‘exchanges’ [sic] set up per (b). That’s fully coherent. Yes, under that law as written, people who lived in states that did not set up such ‘exchanges’ [sic] would not be eligible for that tax credit in (c). So? How does that make it ‘internally incoherent’? There’s a whole bunch of stuff that varies from state to state. This would be one more.

Yes, it would be a fairly large difference, representing a tax hardship on folks in the non-‘exchange’ states. The plaintiffs’ theory, of course, is that that was the idea of writing the text that way in the first place. The government-side of the argument, meanwhile, has no counter-explanation for why the text is written that way. None whatsoever. Absent that, it’s pretty weak sauce to call the result ‘incoherent’. Rather, on the face of it, it’s asymmetric but coherent – the asymmetry, of course, being by design in the original drafts. Again, I’m happy to hear an alternative theory, but there clearly is none.

Should the courts assign a sensible meaning to the statute that makes everything come out right?

But it has a sensible meaning. The meaning is, We want to incentivize states to create their own ‘exchanges’, by making the burden on their citizens politically unpalatable otherwise. They just didn’t foresee that this incentive wouldn’t carry as much force as they thought.

So there is no further sensible meaning that needs ‘assigning’. The clear unambiguous meaning of the text as written is already perfectly sensible. It’s not that it’s not sensible, it’s that the left doesn’t like the ramifications of letting that meaning stand in today’s context, because it risks reopening the issue of Obamacare-subsidy funding for more political haggling, and they – being ‘liberals’ (i.e. fascists) don’t like that (i.e., letting Obamacare be the subject of any further democratic input).

Which fear is a bit silly given that there’s basically 0% chance the (R)s wouldn’t just pass a ‘fix’ the moment a Supreme Court decision for the plaintiffs came down. (Which, to be sure, I don’t expect to happen for one moment. Remember, whatever dirt/leverage Roberts’s blackmailers have on him is presumably still in play.)

All of them are clinging to the fiction that the text of the statute produces the conclusion they want.

At least he acknowledges that this is a fiction. Thanks for that. It’s a low bar to be praising someone for acknowledging, like, reality, but this admission is rare to see in the media.

The greatest exertions on all sides haven’t found a convincing explanation for why one random provision of an enormously long and complex statute refers to an exchange “established by the state” instead of referring to the possibility of a federal establishment discussed elsewhere in the statute.

Incorrect. The plaintiff side has a perfectly coherent story explaining how this came about, and plenty of evidence to point to (e.g. Gruber’s statements) to back it up. It is only the government side that has no such explanation, convincing or otherwise.

The best explanation is that the language is just a mistake

No, that is (at best) an incomplete ‘explanation’. To say that it is a ‘mistake’ is at most to say merely that some early draft #N was never reconciled and updated to match the intent of later draft #M, and probably would have been. This ‘explanation’ still leaves unexplained why the language and logic present in draft #N was created in the first place – i.e., why Amy typed it into the computer.

The difficulty of getting Congress to do anything is vast. And Congress changes: The Congress that passed the ACA is long gone, and the new Congress wouldn’t fix the law if it could.

This isn’t relevant. A law says a thing; will the government obey the thing that the law says or not? ‘Oh but it’d be hard to make the law say what we now want it to say’ – even assuming your conception of what ‘fix’ is needed is correct (but who’s to say? and that’s the point!) just isn’t a real reason to ignore what laws actually say.

In the event, he’s wrong anyway. Of course Congress would ‘fix’ the law if it came to that. I’d bet on it.

When the law doesn’t work, Aristotle advised, you should ask what a reasonable legislator would’ve done — and do it.

‘Doesn’t work’? Still not ceded. What pray tell ‘doesn’t work’ about how the law is written? All it would mean would be higher taxes for people in non-exchange-making states. So? The law raises taxes on lots of people in lots of ways, what’s some more? Why do those particular people convert the law from ‘working’ to ‘not working’? Are they special people?

Besides, there are legislators at the time of the drafting who put forth the incentivize-the-states logic explicitly. So, taking this tack implies second-guessing and calling what those legislators were saying at the time ‘unreasonable’. Again this is why you go with what was actually written and voted upon, not what you (later) think is ‘sensible’ or ‘works’ or whatever. If you care about the rule of law, that is.

If Congress doesn’t like the judicial fix, it can overcome its inertia and overrule it.

Wait I thought Congress couldn’t be relied on to do anything. Which is it. (Or is that the point?)

But the cost must go somewhere, and it’s a lot better to place the cost on reversing a fix rather than on making a fix in the first place.

This is gobbledygook

To the extent I can parse it he’s saying something like: 1. We should basically just let the courts make/amend/change laws later however they feel like if Smart People think said changes are what’s needed. 2. It should be costly to reverse changes to laws that Smart People insist be made later.

Um no

And with a little luck, five justices will agree on an answer by the end of June.

Oh, don’t worry Smart People (it’s so cute how worried they are!), five justices will agree with this sophistry by the end of June one way or another.

What part of ‘blackmail’ don’t people understand?

Answering the wrong question on climate policy
March 4, 2015, 5:43 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Dave Henderson responds nicely to this thing about cap-and-trade:

But cap and trade is a policy instrument, not something for which you conduct a benefit-cost analysis. The economics says that if the government decided to undertake climate policy, cap and trade would be one of the most cost-effective ways of doing it.

Read Henderson’s response. Just a bit to add.

It might in fact be true that cap and trade is the answer to this hypothetical question that I wasn’t aware anyone was asking: ‘If the government decides to undertake climate policy**, what’s one of the most cost-effective ways of doing it?’ It’s also true that this question, as such, would (unlike broader questions about climate itself) be one that an economist might be well-placed to opine upon.

The real problem is that it’s not the right question.

It’s somewhat akin to this question: ‘If we’re going to burn all the dining-room tables in the world, what’s the most cost-effective way to do it?’ Yes, sure, I mean, an economist might be able to cook up an answer to that. There’s a not too huge menu of options after all. Make a giant pile, soak it in gasoline & light it up? Load them all up into a rocket & shoot it into the sun? Set up a Cash-For-Ashes government program paying people to mail in their dining-room-table ashes? Mail everyone a book of matches, conduct house-to-house searches, & pass a law mandating the death penalty for everyone found with unburned dining-room tables after one week? Economists could cost out all these options and more and come up with the ‘most cost-effective’ (i.e., least-wasteful/costly) one. Sure. Good for you guys.

But that’s a dumb question and no one should ask it. Why on earth, from first principles, would we want to burn all the dining-room tables?

Similarly, why would the government ‘decide to undertake climate policy’? What would be the justification in the first place? That’s the actual question on the table here. If you want to be relevant to the actual debate you need to answer that question first before you get into this secondary issue. You know, using cost-benefit analysis.

If you think you’ve identified the most-cost-effective ‘climate policy’ among all the ‘climate policies’, maybe that’s a good first step – in fact I guess it allows us to reject all the others a priori – but then you still need to perform the actual cost-benefit analysis part on at least that policy. If you just assume we’re going to ‘undertake climate policy’ because you assume it’s a good idea and then calculate the Least-Dumb-Way-To-Do-It on that basis, that’s neat but just don’t mistake that for an argument for actually doing it at all – and don’t pretend that you have rebutted Paul Ryan’s claim that it’s not cost-effective to do so.

**The definition of ‘undertaking climate policy’ being used here seems fuzzy; I think one can fairly parse it to mean Doing A Costly/Freedom-Restricting Thing That Leftists Wish To Happen For Whatever Reason, Because Climate.

Hey wonks, please ask yourself ‘Compared to what?’ before hitting publish
March 1, 2015, 3:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This is one of the more irritating types socio-economic analysis: How Student Debt Stunts Financial Growth. The key seems to be combining some true observations with myopic diagnoses:

This is why IBR [income-based repayment] misses the mark: because it currently doesn’t do enough to address one of the key ways student debt may negatively affect young adults, by limiting their ability to accumulate assets. Students with outstanding student debt, even very small amounts, are more likely to postpone accumulating assets as young adults, as recent research shows. IBR plans may even exacerbate this problem by extending the period of students’ indebtedness.

Asset accumulation is important, because it positions young adults for significantly improved economic outcomes over their lifetimes—something higher education is supposed to do. The consequences of diverting income to debt repayment instead of asset accumulation may worsen the wealth divide between those who must take on debt to go to college and those who can avoid it.

I mean, on the one hand, duh! Of course ‘student debt’ – versus the alternative of ‘not student debt but everything else the same’? – ‘stunts financial growth’. But why, and how, is that the alternative?

So, I read this and think: well sure, there’s a lot of student debt out there, and sure, it makes sense that someone in IBR would delay asset accumulation. And sure, asset accumulation is a great thing if you can do it. So, yes, ‘diverting income to debt repayment instead of asset accumulation’ – taken as a standalone choice (as if anyone faces the choice ‘gee should I repay my debt or accumulate assets’!) – is not great, all else equal.

But the thing is, what’s the alternative? Compared to what exactly?

I think this is how you can identify Annoying Socio-Economic Analysis quickly and easily: it never asks “compared to what?”. There is no counterfactual. There is just the pointing-out of a bad thing, and bad things are bad all else equal, so let’s get rid of the bad thing, because it’s bad, and all else would be equal.

In this case, a proper counterfactual to the fact that so many people have lots of student-loan balances outstanding, and/or are put into (logical enough taken on their own terms) IBR programs, (and therefore don’t accumulate assets), would have to involve serious consideration of an alternate-universe which we might loosely term The “They Didn’t Go To College In The Fucking First Place See? So Now They Don’t Have Degrees At All” Universe. I’d be game for comparing our universe to that one and soberly weighing the tradeoffs, but I don’t think most others are quite willing to go there.

So instead we just get the Annoying Socio-Economic Analysis which imagines there is a perfect square-the-circle solution where all these people got degrees, publicly-funded loans were thrown at them to get those degrees, and yet (because we don’t want to inhibit ‘asset accumulation’ or some similar local/current consideration – there’s always a local/current consideration not to repay debt) we are supposed to just write off all that debt. And, what, later rinse repeat?

(Oh, the article does make a policy suggestion of child savings accounts or something, but I’m not taking that seriously enough to talk about it.)

Do I have to come right flat out and tell you everything, gimme some money
February 26, 2015, 8:54 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

You probably saw this earlier today. Treasury won’t explain decision to make $3 billion in Obamacare payments

The U.S. Treasury Department has rebuffed a request by House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R- Wis., to explain $3 billion in payments that were made to health insurers even though Congress never authorized the spending through annual appropriations.
What’s tricky is that Congress never authorized any money to make such payments to insurers in its annual appropriations, but the Department of Health and Human Services, with the cooperation of the U.S. Treasury, made them anyway.

Sure is tricky! Neat trick, that.

It seems like we’re seeing more and more of this, government agencies kinda basically just deciding to hand out money to whoever they feel like, on the basis of their Views and Theories and whatnot (yes yes they have Reasons), regardless of whether Congress told or authorized them to.

Personally, I’m all for it. Some agency should give me money too. I like money. They should authorize spending, oh, to pick a number, $17 billion dollars on me. Credit my account with $17 billion dollars from the government account. Come on. Just do it. Get your lawyers together and sign the papers to authorize it and do it. Dooo ittttttt

What’s the counterargument? None that’s what. There’s no law authorizing it? LOL come on are you Smart or not. You can do it if you wanna. Gimme some money.


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