Universal healthcare and superannuation, and the cost of thinking ahead

If doing actions that reward a future self is perceived as costly could we justify these actions.  If thinking about our wealth, human capital, or ability to live in 10 years time is inconceivable, will me over consume now?

In essence this sort of discussion is saying that we discount our future selves TOO steeply (compared to whatever the underlying presumption of a “fair discount factor” is).  Is this a fair value judgment to make in policy?  It is not one I would make, but it appears to be the basis of some overaching policies such as universal healthcare and superannuation.

In this case, we don’t need to worry about a “moral hazard problem” even though (empirically) the actions of moral hazard will appear.  Why?  Because the actors aren’t thinking about the future selves and so these “inefficient” outcomes would have occurred in the first place!  Policy helps to correct this by transfering resources to our future selves to improve outcomes relative to the REAL counterfactual (rather than the idealized one where agents choose on the basis of our subjectively fair discount rate).

I think it is important to keep this issue in mind, because it is a closet behavioural assumption behind most policy.  If we buy this value judgment, then we will believe in a larger role for government then if we didn’t.

GST and food. Why I’m against exempting the tax

Via Dim Post, No Right Turn mentions an article from Werewolf.co.nz by Gordon Campbell.  The article supports the idea of exempting GST on food. There were a number of interesting facts, I definitely enjoyed the articles.

However, even if all the premises are correct and even given significant social justice goals, I think we have to be clear regarding why we think an exemption is the way to go – and in the end I still disagree regarding any exemption.

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Fat is normal, but it still involves choice.

I was impressed by the title of a NZ Herald article today “Fat is normal“.  I was like, yes it is perfectly rational for an individual to put on weight, contrary to what we are often told.  I began to think that if policy wonks would treat the idea of putting on weight sensibly we could avoid weird “anti-fat” policies.

However, then inside the article I saw it was written by a nutritionist – the worst of the prescriptive disciplines in my opinion.  Furthermore, they decided to take an entirely holistic approach to weight gain, removing any individual responsibility and blame the environment.  Namely:

Professor James said that in countries such as Britain and New Zealand, the reason for many people’s obesity was a genetic predisposition in an environment which allowed it to happen with an “out-of-control” food industry and the constant use of cars

What is this.

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Health Legislation: a carbon emitter?

As speculated by some over the weekend, and confirmed today by the Economist, Copenhagen currently appears to be nothing more than a venue for which policy makers will agree to consider a future agreement on Carbon Emissions.

Undoubtedly there exist links between the U.S.’ relaxed approach to the summit and the Obama administrations efforts to pass universal healthcare; for the latter to pass the support of those contributing to the former is required. This is nothing new. What is interesting to note, however, is that such an attitude to favor health over emissions has been indirectly present within the U.S. for some time.

Earlier this year Boston became the second city (following San Francisco) to pass legislation banning the sale of cigarettes in ‘drug’ stores.  Within this legislation there exists a further directive restricting the sale of cigarettes on college campuses. This is where things become interesting. Consider a representative smoker. The impact upon this agent from said legislation results in further effort (i.e.; distance traveled) to obtain cigarettes. As such, the ‘carbon footprint’ of each cigarette has increased within the city of Boston; not too mention the shadow price of the cigarettes themselves.

The question is now posed; are carbon emissions an indirect consequence of health legislation?

Optimal health spending

Greg Mankiw isn’t impressed by Obama’s comments on health spending. Obama thinks that increasing health spending without limit is a bad thing. Mankiw points to a QJE article that suggests increasing health spending is optimal:

As people get richer and consumption rises, the marginal utility of consumption falls rapidly. Spending on health to extend life allows individuals to purchase additional periods of utility. The marginal utility of life extension does not decline. As a result, the optimal composition of total spending shifts toward health, and the health share grows along with income. In projections based on the quantitative analysis of our model, the optimal health share of spending seems likely to exceed 30 percent by the middle of the century.

What I find interesting is the choice of assumptions in this article. Read more

Do smokers think of those around them?

We’ve written a lot on this blog about taxing cigarettes. The usual arguments focus on health costs and potential ‘internalities’. When you look at the calculated costs of these things you usually get a number much smaller than the tax rate on a pack of cigarettes. Today it was suggested to me that cigarettes are nonetheless undertaxed in NZ. That’s because those calculations don’t include the statistical value of lives lost from smoking. If the value that people place on a life were taken into account at around $4m/life the cost of smoking would be far higher than the tax imposed. It would then take into account the harm to all those around the smoker who would be devastated at the loss of their life.

I’ve been fascinated with the new starbucks dabuccino and I really hope that vaping it will produce less health issues. I haven’t had a chance to think it over in detail so I’m interested to know what you think about the argument. While I don’t have any numbers to back anything up, my initial thoughts are:

  • Smokers’ lives aren’t usually all that much shorter than anyone else’s. It’s not like car accidents which claim people of all ages. That makes it difficult to apply the same number, unless we have an age adjusted figure available.
  • Smokers do care about those around them so they’ll take into account the feelings of others when they make the decision to smoke. Some of the cost to those around them is thus internalised.
  • People close to the smoker have an opportunity to directly bargain with them over their cigarette consumption. Perhaps government intervention isn’t needed to solve this problem.
  • VSL calculations are usually done using willingness to pay to avoid harm. That approach puts a number on how much someone values their own life. Does that $4m figure represent the valuation of one’s own or someone else’s life? I imagine willingness-to-pay to avert the death of others is significantly lower. In fact, given people’s willingness to pay to save the lives of blameless and starving African children, I imagine they aren’t going to pay a whole lot to save someone with a pack-a-day habit.

I don’t know how big this number is, but it does sound kinda significant even given my reservations. So why isn’t it included in the calculations of people like Viscusi, Gruber and Koszegi? I’m sure there’s an obvious answer, but I don’t have it so I’m hoping your collective wisdom can help me out here 🙂

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