Neighbourhood externalities Eric Crampton Nov 14

Adam Gurri provides a moral challenge to Paretean welfare economics.

All this only works if you think one preference is just as good as another, and maximizing preferences is a wonderful goal for a moral philosophy. I, for one, think that this is a terrible goal for morality, especially taken in isolation.
My favorite example of this model’s utter failure to provide a sufficient moral compass comes from the play A Raisin in the Sun. In it, an African-American family seeks to move to a predominantly white, affluent suburban neighborhood. You can probably guess where this is going: the people who already lived there did not want this family as their neighbors. From an economics point of view, the family was imposing an externality on their racist neighbors. What’s more, the real historical phenomenon of “white flight” in such cases actually reduced demand for housing in the neighborhoods that were being fled. As a result, the housing prices fell in the neighborhoods that African-Americans moved into, making the existence of a formally-defined externality undeniable.
I challenge the committed Pigovian to explain to me how this is anything other than a clear-cut externality, and how they can avoid the conclusion that their model would have them impose a tax on the African-American family. Moreover, libertarians aren’t in a much better position, morally. In A Raisin in the Sun, we get to see an actual Coasian bargain in action—-the white neighbors pool their resources to offer to buy out the African-American family from the house. Without spoiling the plot, I can’t say that the fact that this is a voluntary bargain inclines me to believe that the preference of the bargainers are on equal moral footing.
The philosophy of maximizing preferences does not distinguish between the family seeking the opportunity to rise above their circumstances and the racists who hate them.

While I’m more than happy to condemn the racist neighbours, I don’t think the example provides that strong a case against standard economics.

The baseline is liberal: the African-American family is able to buy the house. The neighbours haven’t been able to appeal to some notion of “neighbourhood character” to ban them from moving next door. Despite potentially high transactions costs, the neighbours were able to buy them out, indicating that their actual willingness to pay to be horrible racists was pretty high.

Gurri suggests that the main policy conclusion would be “tax the African-American” family; Coase reminds us that Pigovean externality-taxation solutions are not the only way of enabling Paretean welfare economics, and that the direction of the externality is always a bit up for debate. We could equally note the substantial negative externality the racists place on the incoming family and tax them for it. And in this case the Coasean solution obtained without any policy imposition: the neighbours bought out the incoming family.

I haven’t read the play, but based only on the snippet above, I’d have written a Sylvester McMonkey McBean style conclusion: the outgoing family would tell their friends about these crazy racists who are willing to buy you out, at a premium, if you buy a house in their neighbourhood. Eventually, the entrepreneurs would drain the racists of any continued ability to pay for racism.

And while I’ll agree with Gurri that any of us coming from particular philosophical perspectives will have sets of preferences that they view as better than others’ preferences, having something other than a Paretean set-up for policy requires picking winners among competing values. Even leaving aside the substantial problems Cowen points to in his chapter on non-Paretean welfare standards, we have another simpler, but important, issue. In the play, the neighbours had to demonstrate a real willingness to pay for racism.

In the alternative, in which we move away from Paretean welfare economics, we need some voting apparatus to overturn willingness-to-pay and choice as basis for assessing whether a move has improved welfare. And racism is cheaper at the ballot-box than it is in the real world. It is far easier to imagine neighbourhoods being willing to vote for measures that would ban particular types of people from being able to buy houses, or lodging objections on notified consents, than it is to imagine their actually being willing to buy those people out. If actual willingness to pay is less than the amount necessary to change the outcome, then the externality is not Pareto-relevant.

I’d written on psychic externalities a few years ago:

I’m reminded of Jennifer Roback’s work showing how southern racists were able to achieve at the ballot box segregation outcomes they were unable to achieve in the market. To recap: racist southern whites wanted segregated streetcars. But it was too expensive for the streetcar companies to run segregated cars: the increased ticket revenues from white racists didn’t compensate sufficiently for lost black custom and, especially, increased running costs. White racists effectively weren’t willing to pay enough for tickets to segregated streetcars, so the market didn’t provide them. But casting a racist ballot is individually costless. And so streetcar segregation was mandated through regulation.

When I see folks going to the ballot box to enforce their preferences over other peoples’ activities, my general presumption is that transactions costs isn’t what’s keeping meddlers from seeking less coercive options. The ballot box is just cheaper when a majority has weakly meddlesome preferences, regardless of efficiency.

Where illiberal preferences are weakly but broadly held, overturning the results of voluntary choice through use of a non-Paretean framework risks intervening to address externalities that are not Pareto-relevant, with greater illiberalism as result. If, on the other hand, illiberal preferences were very strongly held among a very well-heeled minority, results could flip.


Decile funding – pros and cons Donal Curtin Nov 14

There’s been quite a bit of reaction in the social media to the news that ‘Poorly targeted’ school decile funding may be dropped. It’s not easy to make much of a case for anything in 140 character bursts, so I thought I’d take a bit more space to wonde…

Drinking Derp Eric Crampton Nov 11

Anna Pearson reports on teenagers’ drinking, with lots of anecdotes from kids who like getting drunk.Unfortunately, the story’s a bit weak on data. The Ministry of Health showed reduced youth drinking participation, slight reductions in overall hazardo…

Quotes of the Day: Capital Gains Taxes Edition Seamus Hogan Nov 11

The Fraser Institute has just released a paper, looking at lessons from around the world for capital gains taxation in Canada. The section on New Zealand’s non-adoption of a CGT, was written by Australia’s Stephen Kirchner. The following are some excel…

The picture of health Donal Curtin Nov 10

This chart, from the OECD’s latest Health At a Glance publication, is going the rounds of the social media, and it’s a bit of a reality check, in a good way. If you’d thought that we were all going to hell in a handbasket because of binge drinking, bad…

Too many rules, not enough houses Donal Curtin Nov 10

Last month I wrote about some residual absurdities in Australia, where there were still bizarre examples of nutbar regulation of the retail trade, and this despite decades of economic reform that one might have expected would have swept away the last of the most egregious nonsense.
It left me feeling that “there are still thickets of regulation that are absolutely bonkers”. At the end of the post I said that “the good news is that both Australia and New Zealand now have Productivity Commissions that are able to turn over the flat stones and tell us what they’re finding underneath”, and wondered “what we’d find if, for example, we turned over some flat stones of our own”.
I didn’t have long to wonder.
Along came the Issues Paper (pdf) for the Productivity Commission’s latest project, on the availability of land for housing. And even at this early stage it has found multiple examples of over-prescriptive, inconsistent, complex, inefficient, expensive and (I would say) largely rationale-free regulation.
Here are some examples, direct quotes from the paper.

(1) A Ministry for the Environment review of Christchurch City Council planning and resource consent processes described the two Christchurch District Plans as:

…large, cumbersome and difficult to navigate. The City plan is effects-based, while the
Banks Peninsula plan is activities-based. There are a total of 109 different planning zones,each with varying provisions (p28)

(2) Auckland Council is currently in the process of developing its first Plan as a unitary council. The Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan (PAUP) will replace the existing Regional Policy Statement and 13 district and regional plans. Given the breadth of the material covered in the PAUP it is not surprising that the document is lengthy, but at 6 961 pages (at the time of writing) the PAUP is very unwieldy. Supplementary documentation acknowledges that the Plan is complex, but also suggests that users must read the full document:

       The Unitary Plan is a complex document that consists of many interlinked parts. One        must not look at any provision in isolation, but read it as a whole (p29)

 (3) the Ministry for the Environment notes that plans prepared by “the eight largest
territorial authorities showed 123 different terms were defined, with more than 450 variations of those definitions”…

A comparison of two Plans’ rules around car parking demonstrates the variation. The Käpiti Coast District Council’s Rules and Standards states that “All buildings shall be designed so that wherever practicable sufficient manoeuvring space on site will ensure no reversing onto the road is necessary.” In contrast, Nelson City Council’s Residential Zone Rules state that “Reverse manoeuvring is encouraged on unclassified roads and is part of ensuring a low speed environment and people orientated streetscape.” (p37)

(4) One way of enabling new types of land use is to change a Regional or District Plan. Changes to Plans can be sought by a local authority or a private party…

The average timeframe taken to complete a Plan change in 2012/13 was 24 months. This was an increase from 2010/11, where council-initiated Plan changes took 17 months to complete and privately initiated Plan changes took 16 months (p47)

No doubt some processes are working well, but in spots we’ve got regulations of a complexity that would tax a Talmudic scholar, a glacial pace of administration, and an absence of compelling logic, with things forbidden in one jurisdiction being encouraged in the next. And all this against a background of a bloated local administration superstructure. We’re a small country, but even after a programme of local authority consolidation, we’re still left with this (p16):

No wonder we get this outcome (p7).

The Issues Paper isn’t all about the dead hand of local authority micromanagement – I’ve focussed on those aspects as I’ve got an interest in good regulation – and it canvasses a wide range of other factors affecting the availability of housing land. The Productivity Commission is looking for people to tell it whether it’s on the right track with its initial ideas, and whether it’s missed anything: in particular it has a list of 74 specific questions where it is looking to get feedback and information, though people are also welcome to submit their views outside the 74-question format (contact details are in the paper and here).
The state of the housing market is one of the bigger economic issues right now: take the opportunity to have your say on what’s going on and what should be done about it.

For more Cramptony goodness…. Eric Crampton Nov 08

I’ve not been good about copying over to the blog the bits I contribute to the NZ Initiative’s weekly Insights newsletter. Here’s my piece from last week’s newsletter. You can subscribe here. Enjoy!

We moved to New Zealand over a decade ago because I reckoned it the world’s least mad country: the Outside of the Asylum. It tops my informal ranking on this important metric.

It’s been a week of many alternative rankings and a couple of judicial decisions that threaten our coveted “Outside of the Asylum” status.

Expats rank New Zealand as the best place to raise a family, albeit with more constrained economic opportunities than elsewhere. The HSBC’s “Expat Explorer” is well worth checking out.

In another international ranking this week, the World Economic Forum ranked New Zealand 13th in the world on a Gender Gap Index. Checking the index sub-components, it is a bit odd that New Zealand ranks below Belize, Ecuador, Guyana and Mongolia on women’s “health and survival” and below Rwanda and Bangladesh on women’s “political empowerment”. Further, New Zealand ranked second in Asia-Pacific to the Philippines. Statistics New Zealand reports that 233 people left here for the Philippines in the year ended September 2014 and 3646 moved in the opposite direction; perhaps migration choices provide us a somewhat more informative ranking.

Finally, UNICEF notes that New Zealand is roughly middle-of-the-pack when it comes to changes in child poverty rates. Child poverty rose in 23 of 41 countries and fell in 18. New Zealand’s 0.4 percentage point drop in child poverty rates places it 16th out of 41, despite national headlines here suggesting the country has done terribly. If the government is successful in encouraging increased housing supply, our ranking on this measure should rise: poor families will have more to spend on food when the rent goes down.

Most important for me remains our world-leading “Outside of the Asylum” ranking. As the rest of the world goes mad, we generally don’t follow along. Two court rulings this week might jeopardise that status.

First, as Rodney Hide noted in last week’s National Business Review, the courts decided that if you choose a religion that precludes you from doing your job, your employer just has to deal with it. I’m still pondering what new religion I might develop to best take advantage of the new legal situation while Oliver considers the modifications to his beliefs that might counter such opportunism. 

Second, the courts have decided that normal supply, demand, and marginal productivity should not determine wage rates but rather some judicial assessment of which jobs, across wildly different industries, require comparable skills. We will have gone utterly mad if this ruling stands on appeal.

Ultimately, the metric that matters most is whether you’d be happier living anywhere else. In a world with freer immigration, it would be easier for everyone to say, as I do, that they couldn’t be happier anywhere else.


Trouble in Paradise Eric Crampton Nov 08

In The Matrix, the robots stuck humans in a synthetic 1990s. They could have given us paradise, but they found we rejected it: we couldn’t deal with things being too good. And so the 90s it was: Pretty good, but not quite paradise.

Nathan Smith’s excellent NBR editorial today reminded me of that [$]. He writes:

New Zealand is as close to the concept of paradise as any human culture in history has ever dreamed of living.

…Like the proverbial dog chasing a car, humans want paradise but don’t know how to live when they find it, so we invent or adopt problems to keep us happy. When this mind-set is scaled up to the level of the nation state, some funny things start happening.

…This is where the prime minister’s incoherent debate about fighting in Iraq converges with the inability of New Zealanders to enjoy the fortune of living in a paradise. We go out of our way to embrace other dilemmas to fill the void of having nothing to fight against because there’s clearly something so existentially frightening about living in a society that’s as close to paradise as humans have ever come.

Go and subscribe that such editorials continue to have a platform.


Report from the GEN conference Donal Curtin Nov 07

Wednesday was the Government Economics Network’s annual conference at Te Papa in Wellington. This year the theme was “The relevance of economics in a changing world”.The keynote presentation was from Stanford’s Paul Oyer, “The more things change, the m…

The economy’s still in good shape Donal Curtin Nov 07

Treasury’s latest Monthly Economic Indicators came out today. Here’s a selection of some of the bits I found interesting.First, the current growth cycle is still in good shape. The NZIER’s survey measure of firms’ trading activity in September suggests…

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