This is why paternalism exists

The gulf between theoretical, efficient markets and real markets never ceases to surprise me. This paper from 2005 evaluates the saving consumers were able to make on their power bill by switching plans:

…we find that the subsets of consumers who claimed to be switching exclusively for price reasons appropriated only between 26-39% of the maximum gains available through their choice of new supplier. While such behaviour can be explained by the existence of high search costs, the observation that 27-38% of the consumers actually reduced their surplus as a result of switching cannot.

Yes, among people who switched to save money they only saved a third of what was available to them. A third of the people who switched actually increased their bill.  The authors rule out a number of explanations to conclude that these people just got it wrong because figuring out optimal tariffs is quite tricky. And these are the people who are actively switching and evaluating tariffs, so this is what market success looks like! Read more

In support of dynamic scoring

Estimating the impact of tax cuts is a tricky business. You can fairly easily calculate how the revenue from current income and spending will change, but that’s just the beginning. The problem is that people don’t stand still: they change their earning and spending habits in response to your tax changes, which changes the revenues from the taxes. The UK government is pretty good at estimating that but economists have long known that there are a couple more stages before you have a full picture of what’s going on. That’s why HM Treasury has begun to use a dynamic, computable, general-equilibrium (CGE) model to estimate the effect of tax changes.

CGE models bring us closer to reality…

The CGE model accounts for the long-term effect on the economy of changing behaviour. In the case of cuts in the fuel duty it accounts for the growth in production caused by a reduction in transport costs. Increasing production generates more road traffic, which yields more fuel duty revenues and partially offsets the cost of the cut. Using the CGE model to ‘dynamically score’ (as the jargon goes) the cost of the tax cut incorporates effects these effects that are not a part of the traditional approach. Read more

First home buyer help – lets repeat others’ mistakes

National has announced policy to support first home buyers to take on more debt. It will have an entirely predictable outcome: higher house prices and higher debt.

The only good thing about this policy is that it is relatively small: $64m over four years. That’s $16m per year and assuming 90% gearing, $160m of house sales. That’s just under 0.5% of $36b of housing turnover in the year to July 2013.

To National’s credit they couch it in terms of a short term response and in the backdrop of other work to look at housing and land supply. But it is still a bad policy that inflames demand for housing even further, before they have tangible impact on increasing supply.

First home ownership subsidy/support policies have been tried in USA, Australia and UK. This led to a high amount of borrowing by those who could not afford it. It was also at the heart of the sub-prime crisis in the USA and the subsequent GFC. Read more

Raising Rivals Costs: Bar Edition

Just read a great post By Dom over at the liquor ladder. Sounds like the Hospitality Association wants to restrict liquor licensing to certain parts of Wellington (Courtney Place and Cuba St).

But the Council, who seem to think the scenes in Courtenay Place late on Fridays and Saturdays represent “vibrancy”, and the Hospitality Association, led by individuals who, I believe, own businesses in Courtenay Place, are planning a regime that will penalise anyone trying to establish a business anywhere else – businesses that might give discerning consumers an alternative to the chaos on Courtenay Place. It may not be what the Council intended, but it’s what’s called an unintended consequence. It’s what happens when you draw lines on a map and create differences between the two sides.
Of course not all the results will penalise businesses outside the strip. If you’re a Courtenay Place property owner learning that your tenants have privileges with respect to liquor licensing, you’re going to put their rent up. I look forward to hearing the Hospitality Association complaining about sky-rocketing rents in the street in about a year’s time.

Now they may be doing this for good reasons. But to put an economics slant on what Dom says, this sounds a lot like what economists call “Raising Rivals Costs” (RRC). i.e., people who already have bars in Courtney/Cuba want to limit the ability of people to operate bars in other ares, thus hindering competition from other ares of the city.

While it may raise the rent of existing tenants, from memory (I live in Auckland now….) the bars on Courtney place at least are all quite big so may be able absorb the higher fixed costs. So in a way this could be seen as shutting out competition by smaller fringe operators (i.e. most craft beer bars) who won’t have the scale to pay high rents. I for one will not be happy to see a reduction in pub innovation!

A technocrat and an economist

Many economists are becoming increasingly technocratic in their desire to shape the economy to fit their favourite theory. However, behind their desire to improve the lot of their compatriots looms the shadow of public choice theory, scorning their efforts to shape public debate. Indeed, many libertarians are so persuaded by public choice ideas that they advocate limited government largely because they have no faith in elected officials. So can one both appreciate the consistency of treating public servants as our theory would treat anyone else, and at the same time believe in engineering a better state?

Dani Rodrik says ‘yes’:

There are three ways in which ideas shape interests. First, ideas determine how political elites define themselves and the objectives they pursue – money, honor, status, longevity in power, or simply a place in history. These questions of identity are central to how they choose to act.

Second, ideas determine political actors’ views about how the world works. Powerful business interests will lobby for different policies when they believe that fiscal stimulus yields only inflation than when they believe that it generates higher aggregate demand. Revenue hungry governments will impose a lower tax when they think that it can be evaded than when they think that it cannot.

Most important from the perspective of policy analysis, ideas determine the strategies that political actors believe they can pursue. … Expand the range of feasible strategies (which is what good policy design and leadership do), and you radically change behavior and outcomes.