Thursday, April 26, 2018

Venting about the Helium Market

The US Department of the Interior has identified a list of 35 "critical minerals," which is "a mineral identified to be a non-fuel mineral or mineral material essential to the economic and national security of the United States, the supply chain of which is vulnerable to disruption, and that serves an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have significant consequences for the economy or national security." 

I'm constitutionally skeptical of such lists. It often seems that when supplies of a "critical" mineral decline and price rises, there is a short-term spike in articles talking about a "crisis." But then the  market responds to the higher price with a mixture of finding new sources, increased recycling, or finding ways to substitute for that mineral in a substantial number of uses. Life goes on. As one example, here's my write-up of "The Rare Earths Shortage: A Crisis with a Supply and Demand Answer" (March 10, 2015). Yes, rare earths remain on this "critical minerals" list. Another entry on the critical minerals list is aluminum, and I have previously discussed "The National Security Argument for Steel and Aluminum Tariffs" (March 7, 2018).  

I can't claim to have looked at all 35 items on the critical minerals list, but one that does perplex me is the quite peculiar market for helium. Stephen T. Anderson lays out the background in "Economics, Helium, and the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve:Summary and Outlook," which appears in Natural Resources Research (December 5, 2017). Here is his quick summary of the peculiarities of the helium market from the abstract:
"In 2017, disruptions in the global supply of helium reminded consumers, distributors, and policy makers that the global helium supply chain lacks flexibility, and that attempts to increase production from the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve (the FHR) may not be able to compensate for the loss of one of the few major producers in the world. Issues with U.S. and global markets for helium include inelastic demand, economic availability of helium only as a byproduct, only 4–5 major producers, helium's propensity to escape earth's crust, an ongoing absence of storage facilities comparable to the FHR, and a lack of consequences for the venting of helium. The complex combination of these economic, physical, and regulatory issues is unique to helium, and determining helium's practical availability goes far beyond estimating the technically accessible volume of underground resources."
These issues are not new. Back in 2008, for example, Science Daily was reporting "Helium Supplies Endangered, Threatening Science And Technology" (January 5, 2008). In 2010, Nobel prize-winner in physics Robert Richardson, who shared the prize "for their discovery of superfluidity in helium-3," was giving speeches which ran under headlines like "The world is running out of helium: Nobel prize winner," (, August 24, 2010)

In 2012, William J. Nuttall, Richard H. Clarke and Bartek A. Glowacki were discussing the problem in Nature magazine ("Resources: Stop squandering helium," (May 31, 2012, pp. 573-575). Helium is trapped in certain (not all) natural gas fields, but natural gas is a $1 trillion per year industry and helium is a $1 billion per year industry. As a result, natural gas producers often ignore helium and let it vent away as a waste product. Once the helium is in the atmosphere, it isn't recoverable at reasonable cost.

They point out that, for a time, the US government was a main producer and consumer of helium. In the 1920s, the government designated a natural underground dome near Amarillo, Texas, as the site for a helium reserve. Starting in the 1960s, the US government greatly expanded the reserve. It provided some additional certainty in the market: helium producers knew that they had a place to sell, and helium consumers knew they had a place to buy. Nuttall, Clarke, and Glowacki provide this chart showing how helium production ramped up in the 1960s to fill the reserve. They also show in recwent years that the reserve is being drawn down in the aftermath of a 1996 law, which is why shipments have exceeded production in the last couple of decades. They argue that it is time for an international helium reserve.

In July 2015, Wired magazine was pointing out that helium prices have been rising since 2000, and it was all the government's fault for trying to sell off and privatize the helium reserve (The Feds Created a Helium Problem That's Screwing Science," by Sarah Zhang, July 15, 2015). However, less than a year later in July 2016, Wired was reporting "That Dire Helium Shortage? Vastly Inflated" (by Brendan Cole, June 29, 2016). Partly, this was because of a discovery of huge helium deposits in an area of Tanzania. In addition, the point is made that when helium prices rise, places where natural gas production is relatively rich in helium--like Qatar--will have an incentive to extract it. 

Which sounded OK until July 2017, when as Steven Anderson note: "On June 5, 2017, neighboring countries initiated a trade embargo of Qatar, which had accounted for approximately 32% of the global helium supply prior to the blockade ..." Overall, as Anderson notes: 
"Helium is an exhaustible natural resource for which there are limited or no substitutes including for its use as a coolant in military aircraft, certain types of nuclear reactors; the manufacture of optical fiber and semiconductors; providing low enough temperatures for superconducting magnets; enabling modern magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technologies to operate; other cryogenic applications; and in other applications (Cai et al. 2012). Because of its unique properties, helium is expected to continue to be essential in
enabling the development of such critical technologies in the future ...
"The American Physical Society and Materials Research Society (2011) recommended that the United States should maintain a nondefense stockpile of helium, but not of any of the 13 other energy critical elements (ECEs) that they identified. They suggested that helium is unique even in comparison with other ECEs, because it is unlikely that any economic source of helium besides natural gas will be found, helium is often vented into the atmosphere during the production and consumption of natural gas, and natural gas production (without separation of helium) and consumption is likely to continue to increase. Since then, natural gas production and consumption in the country has increased, but that has been mostly owing to increases in the production of shale gas, which may not have any significant helium content."
 At present, US policy under the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 is to sell the reserves, but as Anderson reviews the limited academic research, it's clear that helium policy is on shaky ground. For example, it might make sense to allow the helium reserve to be privatized as a profit-making facility. It might make sense for the US government to hold a larger reserve. If it's really difficult to find substitutes for helium, which seems possible, and if there cold be important and as-yet-discovered uses for helium in the future, we might wish to encourage natural gas producers to produce and save helium now, rather than being so quick to vent it into the air. The very limited number of US producers, and the fact that some of the main international producers are in not-always-reliable places like Russia and Qatar, complicates the issue. Orr perhaps we need to push research on finding cost-effective ways to extracting helium from the atmosphere, as a backstop if helium prices rise dramatically.

As Anderson notes, helium is a peculiar market where concentrated economic analysis might bring real insights. As the King says repeatedly in the old Rogers and Hammerstein musical, "The King and I": "It's a puzzlement."

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Inequality in US Life Expectancy

Here's a topic for lunch-table, hallway, and water-cooler conversation: How much would you be willing to pay, in actual money, for an additional 30 years of life expectancy?

The question is hypothetical, but linked in reality. During the 20th century, life expectancy for an American increased by about 30 years. What are those extra 30 years of life worth? Some years back, Kevin Murphy and Robert H. Topel took a swing at t this subject in "The Value of Health and Longevity" (Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 114, pp. 871-904, October 2006). Obviously, you need to make some estimates about how people value of years of life, but their conclusion that the extra 30 yeas are worth $1 million or more per person seems plausible.

But if gains in life expectancy have considerable value, it also follows that inequality of life expectancy matters, too. Victor R. Fuchs and Karen Eggleston offer a primer on "Life Expectancy and Inequality in Life Expectancy in the United States" in a "Policy Brief" from the Stanford Institute of Economic Research (April 2018). As background, here's a figure showing the what share of people died at what age in 1950 and in 2015.  The increase in life expectancy means that the average age of death has risen.

Fuchs and Eggleston are especially focused on the inequality of life expectancy. So they look at where the age of death falls for the 20th and the 80 percentile of this distribution. Then they calculate how the age of death at these percentiles has evolved over time. It's a little tricky to eyeball this result from the graph (and the authors provide more specific statistical meaures), but the inequality from 80th to 20th percentile diminished somewhat between about 1950 and 2000, but since then the degree of inequality hasn't changed much.

They argue that one way to focus public health policy would be to look at causes of death for the 20th percentile group, and especially for children in that group. They point out that current public health research is heavily focused on heart disease and cancer--which tend to be diseases of the middle-aged and elderly. They suggest some reallocation of resources to "reducing the incidence of low birth weight (e.g., promoting immunization for influenza among women of child-bearing age, especially poor and vulnerable women); assuring access to preventive and curative health services for all children (e.g., through CHIP and Medicaid); and addressing the multiple socioeconomic disadvantages that accumulate over time for poor and minority children, such as poor nutrition, exposure to pollution, and substandard housing." They also note: "Comparison with other high- income democracies indicates great potential in the United States for such an increase. For example, A20 in the United States is 69 years; in Sweden it is 74 years. The U.S. has the lowest A20 of any OECD country except for a few former Soviet republics."

For those interested in more on growth of life expectancy and inequality in life expectancy, here are a couple of useful starting points from the Journal of Economic Perspectives, where I labor in the fields as Managing Editor:

In the Spring 2016 issue, Janet Currie and Hannes Schwandt wrote "Mortality Inequality: The Good News from a County-Level Approach." They argue that to understand shifts in inequality of life expectancy in the last 30 years or so, one needs to draw distinctions by age group. From their abstract:
"Focusing on groups of counties ranked by their poverty rates, we show that gains in life expectancy at birth have actually been relatively equally distributed between rich and poor areas.... Turning to an analysis of age-specific mortality rates, we show that among adults age 50 and over, mortality has declined more quickly in richer areas than in poorer ones, resulting in increased inequality in mortality. This finding is consistent with previous research on the subject. However, among children, mortality has been falling more quickly in poorer areas with the result that inequality in mortality has fallen substantially over time. We also show that there have been stunning declines in mortality rates for African Americans between 1990 and 2010, especially for black men. Finally we offer some hypotheses about causes for the results we see, including a discussion of differential smoking patterns by age and socioeconomic status."
In the Summer 2012 issue, the team of Karen N. Eggleston and Victor R. Fuchs contributed "The New Demographic Transition: Most Gains in Life Expectancy Now Realized Late in Life."  The title tells the theme, but for a bit of detail: "The share of increases in life expectancy realized after age 65 was only about 20 percent at the beginning of the 20th century for the United States and 16 other countries at comparable stages of development; but that share was close to 80 percent by the dawn of the 21st century ..."

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Challenges of Measuring Discrimination Against LGBTI Individuals

It seems quite clear (at least to me) that there is often discriminatory feeling against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people. One can also observe a range of survey evidence and outcomes for people in these categories in terms of family life (including marriage and parenthood), education, health, and economic outcomes. But for economists, at least, drawing a firm connection from discrimination to outcomes can be tough. Marie-Anne Valfort has written "LGBTI in OECD Countries: A Review," which appears in the OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers No. 198  (June 22, 2017).

The lengthy report pulls together a considerable body of evidence that exists on the topic, and is also clear-eyed and thoughtful about the analytical difficulties that arise in this area. Here, I'll sidestep her discussion of family life, education, and health issues, and focus on economic outcomes.

One problem in this area limitations on data.  In survey data, for example, people give dramatically different answers to whether they identify as LGB, whether they have participated in same-sex sexual behavior, or whether they have sometimes felt a same-sex attraction. If it is hard to define a group, then coming up with summary statistics to characterize outcomes for that group will be difficult. And carrying out studies that seek to isolate the effects of discrimination will be difficult, too.

After reviewing the evidence for the US, where the data is better than in many places, Valfort offers this summary (references to later sections of the paper are omitted from the quotation:
"Tentative but conservative measures suggest that LGBTI stand for a sizeable minority. They represent approximately 4.5% of the total population in the US, a proportion that can be broken down as follows among LGBTI subgroups (bearing in mind that these subgroups partly overlap): 3.5% for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals if one relies on sexual self-identification known to yield lower estimates than sexual behaviour or attraction, 0.6% for transgender people and 1.1% for intersex people."
As Valfont summarizes, there have been three broad ways to look at the extent to which differences across groups are due to discrimination. One approach looks at "observational" data, and tries to adjust for factors that seem likely to matter. For example, one could look at income for people, making a statistical adjustment for levels of education, job experience, age, occupation type, and so on. If there is a wage gap remaining after taking these other factors into account, then there is at least some reason to suspect that discrimination might be an issue. However, drawing firm conclusions from such studies is difficult, for a number of reasons that Valfont describes:

-- It seems likely that LGBTI people are likely to move to places where social acceptance of their group is greater and discrimination is less. "Failing to control for this geographic sorting could therefore lead to conclude that LGBT people do not face discrimination while they actually do, an error better known as the “omitted variables bias”.  The underlying problem is that factors not observed in the data can make a difference.

-- Data is weak, and "disclosure of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status of LGBTI to their social environment is not a given." It is possible, as Valfont writes: In other words, only the most successful gay men and lesbians (those suffering the least from discrimination) may disclose their sexual orientation to the interviewer."

-- Valfont points out that a number of studies measure the  LGBTI population indirectly, based on surveys where people say they are living with a same-sex partner. " Put differently, most population-based surveys only allow for identifying partnered homosexuals and comparing how they fare relative to their heterosexual counterparts ...  that is surely not representative of the LGBTI population as a whole."

-- Adjusting for other factors isn't as simple as it seems, either. For example, say for the sake of argument that there is discrimination against LGBTI indiviuals in school and when growing up and thinking about occupational possibilities. Then if a researcher comes along later, and does a statistical adjustment for level of education and occupation, that researcher is (in a statistical sense) wiping out any discrimination which occurred at that earlier stage.

-- There is an issue of "household specialization bias." In heterosexual household, it is still fairly common to find a situation in which the man has a longer-term and heavier-hour commitment to the (paid) labor force than does the woman. "In heterosexual households, men are indeed typically more engaged in market activities than are women. Therefore, the average partnered heterosexual man should be more involved in the labour market than the average partnered gay man, while the average partnered heterosexual woman should be less involved in this market than the average partnered lesbian.:" Thus, findings of a wage penalty for gay men and wage premium for lesbians are common:  "However, multivariate analyses of individual labour earnings with couples-based survey data do not provide results consistent with lower job satisfaction among both gay men and lesbians. These analyses, which amount to 18 studies (26 estimates for gay men and 30 estimates for lesbians) ... reveal an earnings penalty for partnered gay men but an earnings premium (or no effect) for partnered lesbians. ...[T]his pattern is observed irrespective of the country where, or the time when the data used in these studies were collected. More precisely, partnered gay men suffer an average penalty of 8% while partnered lesbians enjoy an average premium of 7%." Sorting out how to think about this household specialization bias and to adjust for it isn't an easy task.

Another broad approach to looking at discrimination is "experimental" studies. Broadly speaking, these fall into two categories. In "correspondence" studies, researchers send out a bunch of job applications that are meant to be essentially the same, except that some of them have a fairly clear identifier that the applicant is likely to be LGBTI (or in other studies, there will be information to reveal race/ethnicity or male/female). Valfort reports:
"[T]he 13 correspondence studies that have tested for hiring discrimination based on sexual orientation typically point to an unfair treatment of the gay male and lesbian applicants: on average, they are 1.8 times less likely to be called back by the recruiter than are their heterosexual counterparts. For gay men, the heterosexual-to-homosexual callback rates ratio varies from 1.1 (Sweden – Ahmed, Andersson and Hammarstedt (2013b) and the UK - Drydakis (2016)) to 3.7 (Cyprus – Drydakis (2014b)) with an average at 1.9. For lesbians, it varies from 0.9 (Belgium – Baert (2014)) to 4.6 (Cyprus – Drydakis (2014b)) with an average at 1.7. Consistent with attitudes toward gay men being more negative than attitudes toward lesbians, homosexual men face slightly stronger hiring discrimination than do homosexual women."
Such studies offer compelling evidence that discrimination exists, but by the nature of such studies, they can only look at the non-face-to-face part of the job market. As Valfort writes:
"Moreover, this weakness implies that discrimination in the labour market is measured at only one point of an individual’s career, i.e. his/her access to a job interview. It says nothing however about his/her likelihood of being hired, or paid equally and promoted once hired. Nevertheless, audit studies indicate that, conditional on being interviewed, individuals from the minority (i.e. the group that typically receives the lowest rate of invitation to a job interview) are also less likely to be hired (e.g. C├ędiey and Foroni (2008)). These findings suggest that correspondence studies underestimate hiring discrimination."
The other experimental approach are "audit" studies, which involve people who have been trained to play a role of a person with a certain background who is applying for job, or for a mortgage, or trying to rent an apartment, and so on. Audit studies have been a powerful way of revealing racial discrimination in a US context, but they have difficulties. Because they involve real people doing real-life applications and waiting for answers, such studies are often time-consuming and expensive. But they are workable in certain contexts. Valfont gives many examples, but here are two of them:
Various field experiments have shown that sexual minorities face discrimination in their everyday life. For instance, Jones (1996) sends letters from either a same-sex or opposite-sex couple, requesting weekend reservations for a one-bed room in hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments in the US. His results show that opposite-sex couples are granted 20% more reservations than both male and female same-sex couples. Similarly, Walters and Curran (1996) conduct an audit study where same-sex and opposite-sex couples enter retail stores in the US while an observer measures the time it takes for the staff to welcome them. They find this time to be significantly less for heterosexual than for homosexual couples who often were not assisted and who were more likely to be repudiated.
Discrimination can manifest itself in many ways: in social settings, education, health, family life, occupational pressures, job interviews, promotions and wage raises, and more. Understanding where its manifestations are more powerful can be an important step in thinking about how best to address it. 

I do wonder if changes in the legal status of LGBTI individuals may offer a handle on looking at different types of discrimination. For example, the number of gay marriages reveals something about the number of such marriages that would have been blocked earlier. Similarly, changes in occupations and pay patterns that happen after legal changes will reveal something about earlier patterns of discrimination, too.

Those interested in this subject might also want to check the post on "Some Patterns for Same-Sex Households" (February 19, 2018).

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Most Global Violent Deaths are Murder, Not War

I did not know that by far most violent deaths in the world are a result of murder, not war. The pattern is reported in Global Violent Deaths 2017: Time to Decide, by Claire Mc Evoy and Gergely Hideg. It's a report from Small Arms Survey, which is a research center at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. The report notes:
'"In 2016, interpersonal and collective violence claimed the lives of 560,000 people around the world. About 385,000 of them were the victims of intentional homicides, 99,000 were casualties of war, and the rest died in unintentional homicides or due to legal interventions. ...

"In 2016, firearms were used to kill about 210,000 people—38 per cent of all victims of lethal violence. About 15 per cent of these individuals died in direct conflict, while the majority fell victim to intentional homicide (81 per cent). ...

"In terms of homicides alone, states could save up to 825,000 lives between 2017 and 2030 if they gradually stepped up their approach to crime control and prevention to reach the violence reduction levels of the top performers in their respective world regions. In so doing, states in the subregion of Latin America and the Caribbean would benefit most, saving as many as 489,000 lives in total by 2030, followed by states in South-eastern Asia (86,000 lives) and Eastern Africa (56,000 lives) ..."
This report doesn't present country-by-country data on homicide rates. But the World Bank DataBank website tabulates country-by-country-rates on Intentional Homicide using data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's International Homicide Statistics database. In 2015, for example, the global intentional  homicide rate in this dataset was 5.3 per 100,000, while the US intentional homicide rate was 4.9 per 100,000.

For the situation of deaths in armed conflict, the SAS report shows that in recent years by far the largest share are represented by events in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Homage: I ran into the SAS report because it was a lead story in the April 5 issue of the Economist magazine.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Clean Cooking Problem: 2.3 Million Deaths Annually

"Today around 2.8 billion people – 38% of the global population and almost 50% of the population in developing countries – lack access to clean cooking. Most of them cook their daily meals using solid biomass in traditional stoves. In 25 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 90% of households rely on wood, charcoal and waste for cooking. Collecting this fuel requires hundreds of billions of hours each year, disproportionately affecting women and children. Burning it creates
noxious fumes linked to 2.8 million premature deaths annually."

Thus reports "Chapter 3: Access to Clean Cooking,:" from Energy Access Outlook 2017: From Poverty to Prosperity, published in October 2017 by the International Energy Agency and the OECD.  The report continues:
"Progress on access to clean cooking has been gathering momentum in parts of Asia, backed by targeted policies focussed mainly on the use of LPG [liquified petroleum gas]. In China, the share of he population relying on solid fuels for cooking declined from over one-half in 2000 to one-third in 2015. In Indonesia, the share of the population using solid biomass and kerosene fell from 88% in 2000 to 32% in 2015. Despite these efforts, the number of people without clean cooking access has stayed flat since 2000, with population growth outstripping progress in many countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, there were 240 million more people relying on biomass for cooking in 2015 compared to 2000."

The report estimates that an investment of an additional $42 billion, above and beyond what is already happening, would be needed by 2030 to provide access to clean cooking for the 2.3 billion people who otherwise will not have access to clean cooking by that time. At one level, $42 billion is a lot of money: at another level, it's almost an absurdly cheap price to pay for the potential benefits.

Other chapters of the report have a useful overview of the progress toward all people having access to electricity. The big success story in the last 20 years or so is India. The lagging region is sub-Saharan Africa.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Classic Question: Does Government Can Empower or Stifle?

If you look at the high-income countries of the world--the US and Canada, much of Europe, Japan, Australia--all of them have government which spend amounts equal to one-third or more of GDP (combining both central and regional or local government). Apparently, high-income countries have relatively large government. Conversely, when you look at some of the world's most discouraging and dismal economic situations--say, Zimbabwe, North Korea, or Venezuela--it seems clear that the decisions of the government have played a large role in their travails. So arises a classic question: In what situations and with what rules does government empower its people and economy, and under what situations and with what rules does the government stifle them?

Like all classic questions, only those who haven't thought about it much will offer you an easy answer. Peter Boettke instead offers a  thoughtful exploration of many of the complexities and tradeoffs in his Presidential Address to the Southern Economic Association, "Economics and Public Administration," available in the April 2018 issue of the Southern Economic Journal (84:4, pp. 938-959).

Boettke offers a reminder that a number of prominent economists have pondered the issue of how states can empower or become predatory. For example, here are reminders from a couple of Nobel laureates:
Douglass North [Nobel '93] in Structure and Change in Economic History (1981) ... said that the state, with its ability to define and enforce property rights, can provide the greatest impetus for economic development and human betterment, but can also be the biggest threat to development and betterment through its predatory capacity. James Buchanan [Nobel '86] in Limits of Liberty (1975) stated the dilemma that must be confronted as follows—the constitutional contract must be designed in such a way that empowers the protective state (law and order) and the productive state (public goods) while constraining the predatory state (redistribution and rent-seeking). If the constitutional contract cannot be so constructed, then economic development and human betterment will not follow.
Although Boettke doesn't make the point here, the authors of the US Constitution struggled as well with the idea that government was an absolute necessity, but finding a way for government to be controlled was also a necessity. As James Madison wrote in Federalist #51:
"If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."
This challenge of building a government that is strong, but not too strong, and strong only in certain ways while remaining weak in others, is not just a matter of writing up a constitution or design of a government. Plenty of governments act oppressively at times, or even a majority of the time, while having the form of elections and constitutional rights. The heart of the issue, Boettke argues, runs deeper than the formal structures of government, and down to the bedrock of the social institutions on which these forms of government are based. He writes:
"The observational genius of the 20th century Yogi Berra once captured the essence of this argument while watching a rookie ball player attempting to imitate the batting stance of Frank Robinson, the recent triple crown winner, when he advised, “if you can t imitate him, don t copy him.” ... The countries plagued by poverty cannot simply copy the governmental institutions of those that are not so plagued by poverty. They are constrained at any point in time by the existing institutional possibilities frontier, and thus must shift the institutional possibilities frontier as technology and human capital adjust to find the constitutional contract that can effectively empower the protective and productive state, while effectively constraining the predatory state."
Economists have often ducked or assumed this question of institution building. For example, most of the arguments that economists make about how markets function, or about how self-interested sellers and buyers may act as if ruled by an "invisible hand" to promote social welfare, are based on the assumption that a decently functioning government is hovering in the background. Boettke refers to an essay by Lionel Robbins and writes:
"Adam Smith and his contemporaries never argued that the individual pursuit of self-interest will always and everywhere result in the public interest, but  rather that the individual pursuit of self-interest within a specific set of institutional arrangements— namely well-defined and enforced private property rights—would produce such a result. Though as Robbins (ibid, p. 12) writes, “You cannot understand their attitude to any important concrete measure of policy unless you understand their belief with regard to the nature and effects of the system of spontaneous-cooperation.” The system of spontaneous-cooperation, or economic freedom, does not come about absent a “firm framework of law and order.” The “invisible  hand,” according to the classical economists, “is not the hand of some god or some natural agency independent of human effort; it is the hand of the lawgiver, the hand which withdraws from the sphere of the pursuit of self-interest those possibilities which do not harmonize with the public good” (Robbins 1965, p. 56).
"In other words, the market mechanism works as described in the theory of the “invisible hand” because an institutional configuration was provided for by a prior Non-Market Decision Making process. The correct institutions of governance must be in place for economic life to take place (within those institutions)."
When we move outside the realm of market transactions set against a backdrop of decently functioning government, social scientists find it harder to draw conclusions. "But what happens when we move outside the realm of the market economy? Public administration begins where the realm of rational economic calculation ends."

On one side, decisions made by public administration areunlikely to involve competitive producers, choices made by consumers between these producers, and a price mechanism. Nonetheless, public decisions still have tradeoffs, and still face questions of whether the marginal benefits of a certain action (or a change in spending) will outweigh the marginal costs. 

Moreover, we know from sad experience that public administration is subject to special interest pressures and being captured by those who are supposedly the subjects of the regulation. We know that a number of politicians and government workers (no need to quibble over the exact proportion) put a high priority on pursuing their own personal career self-interest. We know that when a private sector firm fails to provide what customers want, it goes broke and is replaced by other firms, but that when a part of government fails badly in providing what citizens want, the part of government does not disappear and instead typically claims that failure is a reason for giving it more resources to do the job. 

One approach to all these issues is to take what Boettke calls "the God s-eye-view assumption," in which the all-seeing, all-wise, and all-beneficent economist can see the path that must be taken. But if you instead are skeptical of economists (and others involved in politics), then Boettke points out that some questions about public administration must be faced.
"Those who favor public administration over the market mechanism must at least acknowledge the question raised earlier—how is government going to accomplish the task of economic management?What alternative mechanisms in public administration will serve the role that property, prices and profit and loss serve within the market setting?
"Let us consider the following example—a vacant piece of land in a down-town area of a growing city. The plot of land could be used as a garage, which would complement efforts to develop commercial life downtown. Or, it could be used to build a park, encouraging city residents to enjoy green space and outdoor activities. Alternatively, it could be used to locate a school which would help stimulate investment in human capital. All three potential uses are worthy endeavors. If this was to be determined by the market, then the problem would be solved via the price mechanism and the willingness and the ability to pay. But if led by government, the use of this land will need to be determined by public deliberation and voting. We cannot just assume that the “right”
decision on the use of this public space will bemade in the public arena. In fact, due to a variety of problems associated with preference aggregation mechanisms, we might have serious doubts as to any claim of “efficiency” in such deliberations. ...

"More recently, Richard Wagner, in Politics as a Peculiar Business (2016, p. 146ff), uses the example of a marina surrounded by shops, hotels, and restaurants—think of Tampa, Florida. The marina, shops, hotels, and restaurants operate on market principles, but the maintenance of the roads and waterways are objects of collective decision making. Road maintenance and waterway dredging, for example, will be provided by government bureaus, but how well those decisions are made will have an impact on the operation of the commercial enterprises, and the viability of the commercial enterprises will no doubt have influence on the urgency and care of these bureaucratic efforts."
Boettke argues that "the idea of a unitary state populated by omniscient and benevolent expert bureaucrats" should be rejected. He also argues that economists (and other social scientists) can be prone to casting themselves in the role of these omniscient and benevolent experts. He quotes from near the beginning of James Buchanan's  1986 Nobel lecture:  “Economists should cease proffering policy advice as if they were employed by a benevolent despot, and they should look to the structure within which political decisions are made.” 

We live in a complex world, and there absolutely is a need for expert advice in many areas. But there is also crying need for experts to go beyond arguing with each other, or insulting the opposition, or attempting to get a grip on the levers of political power. There is a need for economists and other experts to participate in and to respect a broader process of institution-building and participating in the social consensus. (In a small way, this "Conversable Economist" blog is an attempt to broaden the social conversation in a way that includes expert insight without overly deferring to it. )

Boettke cites some comments from yet another Nobel laureate along these lines: 
"Elinor Ostrom concludes her 2009 Nobel lecture by summarizing the main lessons learned in her intellectual journey, and they are that we must “move away from the presumption that the government must” solve our problems, that “humans have a more complex motivational structure and more capability to solve social dilemmas” than traditional theory suggests, and that “a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans ... ”  .  Self-governing democratic societies are fragile entities that require continual reaffirmation by fallible but capable human beings. “We need to ask,” Elinor Ostrom continued, “how diverse polycentric institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievement of a more effective, equitable and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales." 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Global Debt Hits All-Time High

"At $164 trillion—equivalent to 225 percent of global GDP—global debt continues to hit new record highs almost a decade after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Compared with the previous peak in 2009, the world is now 12 percent of GDP deeper in debt, reflecting a pickup in both public and nonfinancial private sector debt after a short hiatus (Figure 1.1.1). All income groups have experienced increases in total debt but, by far, emerging market economies are in the lead. Only three countries (China, Japan, United States) account for more than half of global debt (Table 1.1.1)—significantly greater than their share of global output."

Thus notes the IMF in the April 2018 issue of Fiscal Monitor (Chapter 1: "Saving for a Rainy Day," Box 1.1, as usual, citations omitted from the quotation above for readability). Here's the figure and the table mentioned in the quotation.
The figure shows public debt in blue and private debt in red. In some ways, the recent increase doesn't stand out dramatically on the figure. But remember that the vertical axis is being measured as a percentage of the world GDP of about $87 trillion, so the rising percentage represents a considerable sum. 

Here's an edited version of the table, where I cut a column for 2015. The underlying source is the same as the figure above. As noted above, the US, Japan, and China together account for half of  total global debt. 

The rise in debt in China is clearly playing a substantial role here. Explicit central government debt in China is not especially high. But corporate debt in China has risen quickly: as the IMF notes of the period since 2009, "China alone explains almost three-quarters of the increase in global private debt."

In addition, China faces a surge of off-budget borrowing from financing vehicles used by local governments, which often feel themselves under pressure to boost their local economic growth. The IMF explains: 
 "The official debt concept [in China] points to a stable debt profile over the medium term at about 40 percent of GDP. However, a broader concept that includes borrowing by local governments and their financing vehicles (LGFVs) shows debt rising to more than 90 percent of GDP by 2023 primarily driven by rising off-budget borrowing. Rating agencies lowered China’s sovereign credit ratings in 2017, citing concerns with a prolonged period of rapid credit growth and large off-budget spending by LGFVs.
"The Chinese authorities are aware of the fiscal risks implied by rapidly rising off-budget borrowing and undertook reforms to constrain these risks. In 2014, the government recognized as government obligations two-thirds of legacy debt incurred by LGFVs (22 percent of GDP). In 2015, the budget law was revised to officially allow provincial governments to borrow only in the bond market, subject to an annual threshold. Since then, the government has reiterated the ban on off-budget borrowing by local governments, while more strictly regulating the role of the government in public-private partnerships and holding local officials accountable for improper borrowing. Given these measures, the authorities do not consider the LGFV off-budget borrowing as a government obligation under applicable laws.
"There is some uncertainty regarding the degree to which these measures will effectively curb off-budget borrowing. "
An underlying theme of the IMF report is that when an economy is in relatively good times, like the US economy today, it should be figuring out ways to put its borrowing on a downward trend for the next few years. A similar lesson applies to China, where there appears to be some danger that the high levels of borrowing from firms and from local governments are creating future risks.

One old lesson re-learned in the global financial crisis is that high levels of debt can be dangerous. If stock prices rise and then fall, investors will be unhappy that they lost their gains--but for many of them, the gains were only on paper, anyway. But debt is different. If circumstances arises where debts are less likely to be repaid, then financial institutions may well find it hard to raise capital, and will be pressured to cut back on lending. If borrowing was helping to hold asset prices high (including housing, land, or stocks), then a decline in borrowing can cause those asset prices to drop. Lower asset prices make it harder to repay borrowed money, tightening the financial crunch, and slowing an economy further. 

When global debt as a share of GDP is hitting an all-time high, it's worth paying attention to the risks involved.