“Left Youtube” is overusing the labour theory of value

While I have been MIA over the last four years a lot has changed on the internet and in terms of economic and social discourse.  The weird infatuation of the alt-right with “globalists” and nonsensical economic arguments is particularly upsetting – and I’ll be discussing how the decline in persuasiveness of economists has helped these types of people fill the void in the future.

My concern four years ago was that the non-rationalist identity politics of the left would open this type of negative nationalistic politics on the right – or would at least be used as a foil for it.  The refusal to actually state our assumptions and values is a failure irrespective of the intentions we hold.  In that way, when exploring Youtube I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the leftist video blogs – and their willingness to fully articulate their views.  Key examples of this are Shaun, Contrapoints, and Philosophy Tube.

However, these channels are distinctly “anti-capitalist” in terms of wanting sizable change in the status quo.  I am a mainstream economist that believes in incremental change.  A full discussion of this would be interesting – but give me time.  But to do so we need to get something clear about the labour theory of value that I am hearing them describe – it doesn’t make sense as a justification for anything let alone as a “theory of value”.

Note: The actual labour theory of value has been defined many ways – and the most profitable Marxian interpretation I’ve seen is trying to understand LTV as part of a subsistance wage argument on factor income shares.  That isn’t the focus here.

Read more

Vertical and horizontal equity: What are they?

This post is dry.  But if we want to talk about policy and fairness we gotta do some of the hard work making sure we understand how our ethical principles can be measured.  See it as part of trying to build more measures to help us understand arguments around policy given what Sen raises here.  So with that in mind lets define equity:

Equity.  Is the word economists unjustifiably confuse with fairness in order to pay lip service to distributional concerns

Ok I’m being a bit of a dork – in all fairness equity is a good start in asking these questions, but we have to see these measures as only a start!

At the most basic level, when we think about output/income and its distribution in society we consider the average of the income distribution (the mean) and its dispersion (the variance).  If incomes are rising over time as they have been for 200 years, then the variance also rises so we normalise such measures.  This is where inequality measures like the Gini coefficient come from.

The idea of (income) equity goes a step further than just describing the general distribution of income – it considers what happens when we impose an external policy that changes that distribution.  It measures a couple of principles that we may – or may not – value when applying a policy that changes the distribution of income:

  1. Vertical equity:  Captures the proportionality of the system applied – if we introduce taxes are people with higher initial incomes paying proportionally more, if we introduce transfer payments are people with lower initial incomes receiving proportionally more?
  2. Horizontal equity:  When we have two individuals we see as “equals” does this policy system treat them the same way?

With taxes and transfers these measures involve comparing the way people are treated by the tax-transfer system based on a view on what constitutes “equals”.  Specifically, these two concept can only fit together without conflict when looking at income if equals are defined as people with the same income.

Now in this post I will concentrate only on Vertical Equity – we can do Horizontal Equity another time!  And in line with my desire to be a bit more useful I want to focus on how we might measure these concepts, and what we are assuming when we do.

Read more

Pre-distribution and Post-distribution

Note: This is an outline of thoughts rather than some type of persuasive argument – in time I should make an effort to flesh out all the little bits in this, but it is just a run down of my current general thoughts.  Take it as such and feel free to provide constructive feedback 😉

Anyone who reads this who also read my writing pre-2014 will remember that I was a strong post-distributionalist when it comes to social insurance policy.  To the point where the term pre-distribution (or predistribution) did not appear on TVHE when I did a search.

Since then the economic environment has changed and I have spent more time considering these issues.  So have my views changed?  Let’s consider the issue.

Tl;dr No, but I think the terminology can be used more clearly. With regards to redistribution – if our concern is the distribution of income alone pre-distributionalist policies are indirect and inefficient.  But pre-distribution policy prescriptions have relevance when discussing issues of transition – which is essentially insurance from shocks, and the provision of job/income security (as apart from a security net).  Such insurance can be costly, but is still worth discussing in this frame. Furthermore, if we stretch the term pre-distribution far enough it becomes ridiculous – sure the whole study of economics concerns the distribution of income, but the name is used for a subfield for a reason.

Read more

Christmas reading: McCloskey on Piketty

It’s taken me a month to read it but Deirdre McCloskey’s essay on Piketty’s Capital is just as persuasive as you’d expect. Print it and read it with your family over Christmas!

The review doesn’t break any new ground but it is eloquent and engaging. Her central themes are: Read more

Piketty Panel

Hello New Zealand readers.  Just giving you a heads up that tomorrow (Thursday, 23 October) there is a panel discussion on the Piketty book (Capital in the Twenty-First Century) and its relevance to New Zealand.

As I contributed to the related book of book reviews, and as this particular event is in Wellington (where I live), I’m on the panel.  Here are the details which I stole from an email:

The event is at the Royal Society (11 Turnbull Street, Thordon) and begins at 5.30pm.
 
Bernard Hickey is chairing the panel, with the other panellists being Geoff Bertram, Brian Easton, Prue Hyman, Max Rashbrooke and Cathy Wylie. 
 
The aim of the event is simply to have some broad and engaging discussion on the relevance of Piketty for New Zealand, with reference to the book being launched on the night. 

And if it swings your boat, you can even join the Facebook event.

If you want to prepare beforehand, here is my long-form review (filled with typos – like honestly filled, it is a first draft that never went any further), here are some common misconceptions, and here is a list of other reviews.

What is a Gini?

Everywhere we turn nowadays people are talking about Ginis.  And sadly, they are not misspelling Genie, they are talking about Gini coefficients.

The reason for this interest in Gini coefficient stems from the fact they are used to measure “inequality” in an income distribution – with books such as the Spirit Level made hay discussing the relationship between Gini coefficients and other social outcomes.

Now I’ve spent a bunch of time talking about the claims (eg for the Spirit Level directly I wrote this and this), but I’ve never written anything directly about the Gini coefficient.  There is a good reason for this, while I understand it is a measure of dispersion in a distribution I still had to (and still need to) learn things about the measure and other measures.

However, let me discuss what the Gini coefficient is – or at least one of a multitude of different ways we can view a Gini coefficient.

Read more