Monthly Archives: May 2014

What the State Produces

 

In anarchist literature, one often finds the contention that the State produces nothing, and is entirely parasitic on the rest of society.
This claim is false. Of course, it is true for some things that modern states do, such as the provision of welfare. But it is false applied to the state as a whole, because there is one service that is highly productive, and that only the state can provide: the service of being the final arbiter for all disputes between its members. This service must, logically, come from a monopoly provider: if there are multiple providers of arbitration at the same level, then none of them are final. (And that is why, if a network of ancap defense agencies can provide this service, they will, in fact, compose a state. And if they can’t provide it, then we will have “anarchy” in the bad sense of social chaos.)
Once one focuses on this service, one can easily understand why German barbarians would fight to get inside the Roman Empire: both productivity and security go up in the presence of such a final arbiter. And that is why we have never seen any wealthy, stateless societies.

What the State Produces
Gene Callahan
Wed, 14 May 2014 23:10:00 GMT

Maybe we’re not headed for demographic armageddon after all

 

The Census Bureau is out with a report on the changing composition of America’s old people, and in one way, the story is the same as it’s ever been: The Baby Boomers are retiring, and they’re going to be expensive to take care of. The number of working-age people who’ll be around to support their parents and grandparents is declining, in relative terms; the cost of pensions and social security payments and Medicare could take a toll. That’s caused no small amount of fretting about the “silver tsunami” that will come crashing down on the economy over the next couple decades.

But the report also contains a useful reminder: Even as the elderly population increases, the younger population decreases in relative terms, which leaves the overall dependency ratio relatively stable. In 2050, it’ll even be substantially lower than it was in the roaring 1960s:

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 11.24.43 AMOf course, youth dependency and old age dependency carry different kinds of burdens — older people require more medical care, while young people carry more educational costs. So the economy will still have to adapt to take care of the shifting load of non-working people. But overall, the picture is a lot less alarming when you know America has borne something similar in the past.

And besides, most developed countries are a lot worse off than we are:

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 2.17.08 PM





Maybe we’re not headed for demographic armageddon after all
Lydia DePillis
Tue, 06 May 2014 19:19:51 GMT

On Gary Becker

 

Gary Becker, as you must surely know by now, has passed away. This is an incredible string of bad luck for the University of Chicago. With Coase and Fogel having passed recently, and Director, Stigler and Friedman dying a number of years ago, perhaps Lucas and Heckman are the only remaining giants from Chicago’s Golden Age.

Becker is of course known for using economic methods – by which I mean constrained rational choice – to expand economics beyond questions of pure wealth and prices to question of interest to social science at large. But this contribution is too broad, and he was certainly not the only one pushing such an expansion; the Chicago Law School clearly was doing the same. For an economist, Becker’s principal contribution can be summarized very simply: individuals and households are producers as well as consumers, and rational decisions in production are as interesting to analyze as rational decisions in consumption. As firms must purchase capital to realize their productive potential, humans much purchase human capital to improve their own possible utilities. As firms take actions today which alter constraints tomorrow, so do humans. These may seem to be trite statements, but that are absolutely not: human capital, and dynamic optimization of fixed preferences, offer a radical framework for understanding everything from topics close to Becker’s heart, like educational differences across cultures or the nature of addiction, to the great questions of economics like how the world was able to break free from the dreadful Malthusian constraint.

Today, the fact that labor can augment itself with education is taken for granted, which is a huge shift in how economists think about production. Becker, in his Nobel Prize speech: “Human capital is so uncontroversial nowadays that it may be difficult to appreciate the hostility in the 1950s and 1960s toward the approach that went with the term. The very concept of human capital was alleged to be demeaning because it treated people as machines. To approach schooling as an investment rather than a cultural experience was considered unfeeling and extremely narrow. As a result, I hesitated a long time before deciding to call my book Human Capital, and hedged the risk by using a long subtitle. Only gradually did economists, let alone others, accept the concept of human capital as a valuable tool in the analysis of various economic and social issues.”

What do we gain by considering the problem of human capital investment within the household? A huge amount! By using human capital along with economic concepts like “equilibrium” and “private information about types”, we can answer questions like the following. Does racial discrimination wholly reflect differences in tastes? (No – because of statistical discrimination, underinvestment in human capital by groups that suffer discrimination can be self-fulfilling, and, as in Becker’s original discrimination work, different types of industrial organization magnify or ameliorate tastes for discrimination in different ways.) Is the difference between men and women in traditional labor roles a biological matter? (Not necessarily – with gains to specialization, even very small biological differences can generate very large behavioral differences.) What explains many of the strange features of labor markets, such as jobs with long tenure, firm boundaries, etc.? (Firm-specific human capital requires investment, and following that investment there can be scope for hold-up in a world without complete contracts.) The parenthetical explanations in this paragraph require completely different policy responses from previous, more naive explanations of the phenomena at play.

Personally, I find human capital most interesting in understanding the Malthusian world. Malthus conjectured the following: as productivity improved for some reason, excess food will appear. With excess food, people will have more children and population will grow, necessitating even more food. To generate more food, people will begin farming marginal land, until we wind up with precisely the living standards per capita that prevailed before the productivity improvement. We know, by looking out our windows, that the world in 2014 has broken free from Malthus’ dire calculus. But how? The critical factors must be that as productivity improves, population does not grow, or else grows slower than the continued endogenous increases in productivity. Why might that be? The quantity-quality tradeoff. A productivity improvement generates surplus, leading to demand for non-agricultural goods. Increased human capital generates more productivity on those goods. Parents have fewer kids but invest more heavily in their human capital so that they can work in the new sector. Such substitution is only partial, so in order to get wealthy, we need a big initial productivity improvement to generate demand for the goods in the new sector. And thus Malthus is defeated by knowledge.

Finally, a brief word on the origin of human capital. The idea that people take deliberate and costly actions to improve their productivity, and that formal study of this object may be useful, is modern: Mincer and Schultz in the 1950s, and then Becker with his 1962 article and famous 1964 book. That said, economists (to the chagrin of some other social scientists!) have treated humans as a type of capital for much longer. A fascinating 1966 JPE [gated] traces this early history. Petty, Smith, Senior, Mill, von Thunen: they all thought an accounting of national wealth required accounting for the productive value of the people within the nation, and 19th century economists frequently mention that parents invest in their children. These early economists made such claims knowing they were controversial; Walras clarifies that in pure theory “it is proper to abstract completely from considerations of justice and practical expediency” and to regard human beings “exclusively from the point of view of value in exchange.” That is, don’t think we are imagining humans as being nothing other than machines for production; rather, human capital is just a useful concept when discussing topics like national wealth. Becker, unlike the caricature where he is the arch-neoliberal, was absolutely not the first to “dehumanize” people by rationalizing decisions like marriage or education in a cost-benefit framework; rather, he is great because he was the first to show how powerful an analytical concept such dehumanization could be!

On Gary Becker
afinetheorem
Mon, 05 May 2014 02:17:29 GMT

Unique Date

 

If our current civilization lasts another 8,000 years, it's probably fair to assume the Long Now Foundation got things right, and at some point we started listening to them and switched to five-digit years.

Unique Date
Mon, 10 Mar 2014 00:00:00 GMT