Friday, March 9, 2018

Study of Urban vs. Suburban Emissions Strengthens Case for a Carbon Tax

Environmentalists have long been critical of “suburban sprawl.” A study of carbon emissions in Salt Lake City and surrounding areas, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides new reasons to question excessive suburban growth. Although the study itself does not make policy recommendations, its findings bolster the case for a carbon tax.

The study was authored by Logan Mitchell of the University of Utah, together with twelve colleagues from various institutions. The authors note that although urban areas account for some 70 percent of global carbon emissions, gaps remain in the understanding of the spatial distribution of those emissions, in part because many monitoring stations are located far from cities. In this case, however, long-term observations were available from five urban and suburban sites in the Salt Lake Valley, plus a reference site in the nearby Wasatch Mountains.

The study found that population growth in rural areas that experienced suburban development was associated with increasing emissions while population growth in the developed urban core was associated with stable emissions. The study, which controlled for natural emissions, atmospheric mixing, and seasonal effects, identified fossil fuel use as the main driver of increased emissions.

These findings have clear implications for the choice between a market-based approach to carbon abatement vs. a command-and-control approach.

A carbon tax could incentivize greater urban population growth and less suburban expansion in two ways. First, it would increase the cost per mile of driving, thereby raising the cost of living farther from the urban core. Second, since urban residential buildings are more energy efficient than those in the suburbs, a carbon tax would increase the relative cost of heating and air conditioning in less densely populated areas.

In contrast, command-and-control environmental regulations would have less effect, or even perverse effects, on locational choices. For example, performance standards for furnaces and air conditioners raise the cost of building suburban homes but lower the cost of occupying in them. Their purpose is to nudge people to choose heating and cooling equipment that have lower long-run costs, but to the extent that they do so, they can reduce the long-run cost of suburban living not just in relative terms, but in absolute terms. Similarly, CAFE standards for automobiles increase the cost of new cars, but lower the marginal cost of driving an extra mile. Once a fuel-efficient car is in the driveway, they decrease the opportunity cost of a longer commute.

A shorter version of this post appeared on

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Latest Richmond Fed Non-Employment Index Shows US GDP at or Close to Potential

The Richmond Fed has released the latest reading of its Hornstein-Kudlyak-Lange Non-Employment Index (NEI). At 7.93 percent, the NEI has now fallen below its pre-recession minimum of 7.99 percent, reached in March, 2007, and it is fast approaching the value of 7.70 percent reached in October 2000, just before the 2001 recession. Data for the NEI are not available before 1994.

The NEI gives important insight into the question of whether or not the U.S. economy is now approaching, or has passed, its potential level of GDP. The standard unemployment rate (U-3) is often criticized as misleading because it does not count people who are out of the labor force. Experience suggests that such people represent a “hidden” labor reserve, since some of them can be drawn back to the labor force when the job market tightens.
The NEI deals with this problem in two ways:
  1. It counts not only the unemployed, but also those out of the labor force. The latter is a diverse group that includes individuals who want a job (such as the marginally attached who are willing and able to work and sought employment in the past, but have stopped searching) and those who do not want a job (such as retirees, the disabled, students, and those who are neither retired, nor disabled, nor in school).
  2. It weights the different groups of non-employed (that is, both the unemployed and people out of the labor force) according to their labor market attachment, or the likelihood that a non-employed person will transition back into the job market. Specifically, each group is weighted by its historical transition rate to employment relative to the highest transition rate among all groups (the transition rate of the short-term unemployed).
The latest reading, shown in this chart, suggests that the hidden labor reserve is fast disappearing.

Reposted from

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

From the Nixon Era, a Pioneering Proposal for Universal Catastrophic Health Insurance

 People today remember the Nixon era mainly for the fiasco of Watergate, but there were positive moments, as well. Those included the first moon landing, passage of the Clean Air Act, and a dramatic diplomatic opening to China. There were also some bold policy initiatives that did not immediately bear fruit. This post takes a look at one of them, a proposal for universal catastrophic health insurance from Elliot Richardson’s Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It went nowhere then, but its time may now have come.

Elliot Richardson and the Mega Proposal

The child of a wealthy Boston family, Richardson was seemingly destined for public service. By the time he came to Washington, he had graduated from Harvard, landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, returned to Harvard for a law degree, and served as both Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General of Massachusetts.

Richardson was seen by those who worked under him as a rare combination of policy analyst and practical-minded politician. He had big ideas that went far beyond the clutter of overlapping programs he found when he arrived at HEW in June of 1970. Over the next two years, he put his staff to work on a sweeping plan for reform, known as the Mega Proposal, which covered all of the major areas for which HEW was responsible. The plan for healthcare reform was part of it.
The rationale of the Mega Proposal was explained in its preface:

Thursday, February 22, 2018

How Universal Catastrophic Care Could Ease Class Tensions

I have written frequently about universal catastrophic coverage (UCC) as a possible healthcare reform compromise. Under such a program, the government would provide health insurance with a deductible scaled to household income. [1] [2] [3]  The UCC policy would protect people against financial ruin caused by healthcare costs. At the same time, they would be responsible for financing their own routine care through by cash, health savings accounts, or private supplemental insurance. 

My early posts provide hypothetical examples, but how would real people fare? An article by Abby Goodnough in this week’s New York Times provides two real world examples. We can see how they would fare under UCC compared to their present situation.

One is the middle-class Hurd family, who struggle to afford coverage on the ACA exchange. Both Gwen and Matt Hurd workwork but neither gets healthcare benefits. They earn about $82,000, more than four times the poverty level for their family of three, too much for ACA subsidies. Their healthcare premium is $928 a month with a $6,000 deductible per person, plus copays. The NYT article does not give full details, but based on averages, their maximum out-of-pocket healthcare costs would be about $25,800, or 32 percent of their total income.

Compare this with two possible UCC formulas. Under Formula 1, which might set the deductible at 10 percent of the amount by which income exceeds the Medicare threshold (138 percent of the federal poverty level), with a family maximum of 20 percent, the Hurds would pay at most $10,000 even if two or more of them were seriously ill in one year, or about 12 percent of their total income. Formula 2, less generous, might set the maximum at 15 percent of the amount by which income exceeds the federal poverty level. The Hurds would pay a maximum of about $17,500, ir about 21 percent of their total income. In either case, they would pay less under UCC than on the ACA exchange.

The other NYT example is Emilia DiCola, a single woman working part-time while trying to establish a career in opera. She now earns $15,000 from occasional singing gigs plus part-time driving for Uber. Her earnings are just low enough to qualify for Medicaid. Even if her state introduces work requirements for Medicaid, she will qualify because of her part-time jobs.

Under UCC she would still get for full coverage, given her $15,000 income, but she would face substantially different incentives to increase her earnings. At present,  she must carefully limit her hours of work to stay under the Medicare threshold. If, say, she worked enough hours to double her income, she would need to purchase insurance on the ACA exchanges. Even with subsidies, her premiums and out of pocket costs would rise substantially compared with Medicare. 

Under UCC, her out-of-pocket costs would remain lower than under the ACA even if she doubled her earnings. She would have a far greater incentive to seek additional work.

In her NYT article, Goodnough notes that the current system is a source of social tension between the working middle class and the poor. Middle class families like the Hurds are sometimes resentful of those like DiCola, who from their perspective, do not enough effort to support themselves but get everything paid for by the government. UCC could ease the tension, both by leveling the playing field in terms of heathcare costs and by providing the poor with greater work incentives.

Based on a shorter version posted earlier on

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Smart Reforms of the Social Safety Net Could Make the Economy More Growth-Friendly

 A rising tide lifts all boats, does it not? That cliché of economic policy is meant to highlight the ways in which economic growth, as a substitute for targeted social policies, can make life better not just for the privileged, but for the disadvantaged, as well. However, the cliché is misleading in that the causation is not all one way. A better social safety net can contribute to a stronger economy and faster growth of both actual and potential GDP.

A new report from the Congressional Budget Office provides some insights into one of the mechanisms linking social policy to growth, namely, labor force participation (LFP). Recent LFP trends in the United States have not been favorable to growth, but a close examination of the data suggests that better social policy, especially in the areas of income support, healthcare, and disability, could significantly improve participation. Increased LFP, in turn, would boost both actual and potential GDP, making room for additional monetary and fiscal stimulus.

Recent trends in Labor Force Participation

Let’s look at some of the key findings of the CBO report. First, we find that labor force participation as a whole has declined since its peak in the early 1990s. As the following chart shows, LFP rates are expected to stabilize for men and increase slightly for women over the next decade, but not to return to their former peak values. (Gray bars denote recessions.)

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Pending Budget Deal Would Make Fiscal Policy the Most Procyclical in Forty-Five Years

In December, I wrote that the GOP tax bill could end up backfiring, not because of its effects on the structure of taxes, many of which were constructive, but because of bad timing. The fact that the bill cut total tax revenue just as the economy was approaching full employment made it highly procyclical. Standard principles of countercyclical fiscal policy call for tax cuts or spending increases as the economy moves into recession and tax increases or spending cuts as it moves toward full employment—a pattern that largely prevailed from the 1990s through 2014.

Fiscal policy since 2014 has been procyclical, and the spending deal now before Congress will make it even more so. The following chart updates one I posted in December. Its projections for 2018 are modified in two ways.

First, the CBO has revised its projection of the output gap for 2018 from -0.2 percent to +0.1 percent. The output gap measures the amount by which GDP exceeds or falls short of the level that the economy is able to sustain in the long run without excessive inflation.

Second, to reflect the impact of the new budget deal, I have changed the 2018 estimate for the structural deficit of the federal budget from -2.5 percent to -3.7 percent. The structural balance is the surplus or deficit that would prevail if the output gap were zero. When the economy slips into recession, the actual balance moves toward deficit because tax revenues automatically tend to fall and spending on unemployment benefits and other items tends to increase. The structural balance removes the effects of these “automatic stabilizers.”

If the budget deal becomes law, the degree of fiscal stimulus, as measured by the difference between the output gap and the structural balance, will be the greatest since 1973, when the rate of inflation was 6.25 percent, rising to 11 percent in 1974 and followed by a recession. Optimists say there is less risk in “running the economy hot” now than in the 1970s because of hidden labor reserves that don’t show up in the official unemployment numbers and a productivity boom they expect because of cuts to taxes and regulations. Let’s hope they are right.

Reposted from

Thursday, February 1, 2018

It's Time for Republicans to Rethink Healthcare Policy

Writing in the New York Times, Peter Suderman, features editor at Reason magazine, urges Republicans to start over on healthcare:
If the halting, messy debate over legislation to overhaul health care has taught us anything so far, it’s that when it comes to health care, Republicans don’t know what they want, much less how to get it.
He suggests three principles to guide the rethinking process.

First, give up on universal coverage. I think what he means is give up on having everyone’s healthcare paid in full by the government. I don’t think he means giving up on universal access—the idea that no one should find themselves entirely locked out of the healthcare system.

Second, any plan should include unification of our healthcare system, now a bewildering kludge that is fragmented among employer-based coverage, Medicare, Medicaid and the individual market.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Why Work Requirements for Medicaid Would Be Not Only Unfair, but Ineffective

The Trump administration has begun allowing states to impose work requirements for able-bodied, working-age adults as a condition for Medicaid. Work requirements are an old idea. They have been around since the days of the poorhouse. True, poorhouses were an improvement over the still older system of auctioning off poor people as slaves, but we can do better than that.

Modern supporters of work requirements, like the leaders of the poorhouse movement, see themselves as having the best of intentions. Some hope that work requirements will help lift people out of poverty by giving them the nudge they need to become self-supporting. Others believe that they will strengthen the economy by increasing labor force participation. Others think they will fix government budgets by cutting entitlement spending. But good intentions are not enough. They must be channeled through programs that actually work.

Work requirements don’t work. They have not worked in the past, and they won’t work for Medicaid. Here are some of the reasons why, and some better ideas for moving people from welfare into the labor force.

Monday, January 22, 2018

A Modest Proposal for Curbing Bitcoin's Voracious Energy Appetite

Bitcoin mining, as the New York Times’s Nathanial Popper points out, is a voracious consumer of energy, perhaps as much as Denmark. For good reasons, that has environmentalists worried. What is to be done?

First, why is Bitcoin mining so energy-intensive? It’s pretty simple, as Popper explains. Nothing has value unless it is scarce. To keep Bitcoin scarce, you limit the number created. That part is easy—but who gets the new Bitcoins that trickle out of the master spigot at a rate of a dozen or so per hour? The answer is to give them to whoever can demonstrate “proof of work” by solving complex computational problems with ginormous, energy-sucking computers. According Peter Van Valkenburgh of Coin Center, that’s a good thing:
Because of the costs, we know the only people participating are serious, that they are economically invested. That creates the incentives for cooperation.
OK, I get it. But why not find some less environmentally harmful way for people to demonstrate they’re serious? For example, what if we could find something that is scarce and is, at the same time, both an economic input and an economic output? Call it “Factor X.” Using lots of Factor X would show you are serious, but at the same time, it would be a social good—not a social bad like burning energy. Bitcoin would stay scarce, but it would now be a harmless by-product of Factor X.

So, is there such a thing as Factor X? Of course! Labor! Economists tend to take a silly, one-sided view that sees labor as an input only. They talk worshipfully of “productivity,” as if the use of labor were something we should try to minimize. Yet, everyone else knows that labor—in the form of “jobs”— is really an output, something that we should try to maximize. Certainly, all of our recent Presidents seem to have known this:
  • “I think if we continue to create jobs like I’ve done — over 1 million since I’ve been in office, way over 1 million.—Donald Trump
  • “Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999.” Barack Obama
  • “America has added jobs for a record 52 straight months.” George W. Bush
  • “We begin the new century with over 20 million new jobs, the fastest economic growth in more than 30 years.” Bill Clinton
  • “As we have worked together to bring down spending, tax rates and inflation, employment has climbed to record heights; America has created more jobs and better, higher-paying jobs.” Ronald Reagan
Bitcoin analyst Marc Bevand knows this, too. Popper quotes him as saying,
Labeling Bitcoin mining as a “waste” is a failure to look at the big picture. The jobs alone are a direct, measurable and positive impact that Bitcoin has already made on the economy.
Here’s my modest proposal, then. Keep Bitcoin as it is, continue to require miners to perform arduous calculations—but require that the calculations be performed only using an abacus. Keeps Bitcoins scarce. Keeps the environment clean. Creates lots of jobs. A win-win-win solution.

Reposted from, with a hat-tip to Jonathan Swift.

The Paradox of Property Rights in Paradise

Teton County, Wyoming, is about as close to paradise as you can get. Of its 4,000-odd square miles, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks account for 45 percent, the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee National Forests for another 51 percent, and the National Elk Refuge for another 1 percent. That leaves 3 percent for private property, the $15 billion assessed value of which averages out to $200,000 an acre.

Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb recently sent me a link to a talk he gave on the “epic struggle” of managing that paradise. Zoning and property rights are a key battleground. Recent skirmishes have been fought over such issues as whether sixty-eight homes or only seven should be allowed on twenty-one rural acres, whether six houses authorized on another parcel must be clustered, and whether additions should be permitted on houses located near streams.

It’s hard to know whether the existing 97/3 split strikes the right balance between public and private property, when, as Newcomb points out, no one can put a dollar value on the area’s environmental amenities. The only sure thing is that those amenities account for the high value of the remaining private property. But the question of the overall public/private balance is an issue for Congress, not the county commission.

Instead, the commission’s job is to oversee the existing 3 percent of private property. Newcomb’s talk reflects some doubts over whether current regulations are doing that job well.
First, he raises the issue of administrative fairness:
The system is arbitrary in that it is not rooted in any real analysis, let alone valuation, of the ecosystem services in question. It is arbitrary in that it can result in reasonable development being thwarted because the process is too onerous, or conversely for unreasonable development to be entitled because the cost to challenge it is too high, the pockets of the special interest behind it too deep. It is messy.
Second, he notes that the country’s 80-odd pages of land use regulations are not really about protecting private property rights, in the sense of “entitlements of individuals against the majority.” Rather, they are mainly motivated by the majority’s desire to dictate to individual owners.
I guarantee that these 80 pages of regs governing what you can and can’t do with your property were not requested by the property owners trying to exercise their property rights. They were requested by neighbors, neighbors expressing a diminishment of their rights to natural amenities such as viable and healthy wildlife populations, natural soundscapes, and scenic vistas.
Third, he notes the paradox that the more restrictive regulations become, the more their benefits become concentrated on the few. What would happen, he asks, if someone with deep pockets started buying up most or all of the country’s $15 billion-worth of private land?
Ironically, the more that buyer bought up, the more valuable anything left over becomes…right? Because whatever is left behind is surrounded by that much more space, that much more wildlife, offering that much more opportunity to . . . you guessed it, “Stay Wild.” In other words, everyone wants to live here, especially if no one else lives here.
That, in a nutshell, is the ultimate paradox of property rights in paradise. What’s a poor county commissioner to do?

Reposted from

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

How the Administration Gets the “Three R’s of Deregulation” Exactly Backwards

In a recent short post for the Harvard Business Review,  I proposed that regulatory reformers should be guided by “Three R’s”:
  • Retain regulations that support the basic rules of a market economy. Those include regulations that protect property rights, ensure that contracts are honored, and protect against common law harms like fraud, negligence, and nuisance.
  • Replace regulations that have legitimate aims but also have harmful unintended consequences.
  • Repeal regulations that are motivated primarily by the manipulation of public policy for private gain (rent seeking).
An article by Lisa Friedman in today’s New York Times illustrates how the Trump administration has gotten the three R’s exactly backwards. It details efforts by coal baron Robert E. Murray, a Trump mega-donor, to overturn a broad array of regulations on the coal industry. Be sure to read the full text of Murray’s wish list, which the EPA and the Department of Energy are systematically implementing.

Rather than retaining regulations that support common law property protections against harmful pollution, Murray wants to repeal them outright. His recommendations do not stop at carbon emissions but also include harmful local pollutants like ozone. To compete the picture, he wants to get rid of mine safety regulations.

Some of the regulations that Murray objects to are open to legitimate criticism. For example, he does not like Obama-era support for clean coal technology, about which many environmentalists also express skepticism. He also does not like subsidies for wind and solar energy. My own recommendation, in line with my second “R,” would be to replace the clean coal requirements and renewable energy subsidies with a simpler, more effective carbon tax.

Finally, rather than seeking repeal regulations that are motivated primarily by rent seeking, Murray indulges in open rent seeking of his own. Can it be viewed as anything other than rent seeking when an energy producer seeks to lower his own operating costs by insisting that downwind property owners absorb his output of noxious wastes without compensation?

Reposted from

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Why We Spend So Much on Healthcare and Get So Little for Our Money?

We often hear that we, in United States, spend more on healthcare than other high-income countries, but get less for our money. A report from the Commonweath Fund, “Mirror, Mirror 2017”, is among many pieces of research to reach that conclusion.  Just why is U.S. healthcare spending so high and performance so low? What are the realistic options for reformers? One of the report’s key charts provides an excellent framework for discussing what it calls “flaws and opportunities for better U.S. healthcare.” 

Why is U.S. healthcare spending so high?

To understand why U.S. healthcare spending is so high, we can begin by asking, , “High relative to what?” After all, as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, we spend more than others on a lot of things. The question is whether U.S. healthcare spending is higher than we would expect it to be even when we take our generally high standard of living into account.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Three R's of Effective Regulatory Reform

With tax cuts now a done deal, Republicans are turning to regulatory reform to give economic growth a further boost. There, they may find more bipartisan support. Past reforms of airlines, rail, and trucking regulation were, after all, set in motion by Democrats. 

Today, there is significant Democratic support for reform of financial regulation, especially as applied to smaller community banks. Overregulated small businesses can be found in every Congressional district, red or blue.
But while regulatory reform could be a big boost if it is done right, indiscriminate deregulation could do more harm than good.

Blanket deregulation won’t help

Many conservatives and libertarians seem to think the only good regulation is a dead regulation. If that were true, it should be possible to quantify regulation and measure the harm it does. However, attempts to do so have not been particularly successful.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Some in Congress are Still Trying to Open Banking Service to Canabis Businesses

 As California joins the list of states that have legalized recreational marijuana, limited access to banking services continues to be a problem for producers, retailers, and other businesses in this rapidly growing sector. Because marijuana businesses cannot, in most cases, open bank accounts, accept credit cards, or make electronic payments, the sector remains largely cash based, with all the drawbacks that entails. The problem is felt by businesses that deal in medical as well as recreational cannabis.

Charlie Wilson, whose company Green Bits provides management and compliance services to marijuana-related business, puts it this way in a recent post for The Hill:
There is overwhelming evidence that electronic transactions are more secure, faster and more transparent than dealing only in cash. Yet this highly regulated industry is more difficult to monitor precisely because it is all cash. And oversight will only become more difficult with continued rapid growth and as more states legalize cannabis.
Several attempts have been made to remedy the situation. In April, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), along with several co-sponsors, introduced the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (SAFE Banking Act), a reintroduction of legislation that had been introduced but languished in earlier Congresses. There was some hope that provisions of the act would be folded into the recently passed tax bill, but that did not happen. Not to be discouraged, just before Christmas, Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) introduced a similar bill, the Industrial Hemp Banking Act, as stand-alone legislation.

All of these bills seek to remove federal barriers to provision of banking services. Among other provisions, they would prevent the FDIC from denying deposit insurance to banks that service cannabis-related businesses, prevent federal banking agencies from penalizing banks that conduct such businesses, and make it easier for banks to accept cannabis-related assets as collateral for loans.
Safe banking for marijuana businesses is a bipartisan cause, as the sponsorship of the above-cited bills makes clear. Now what is required is to translate popular support for legalization into Congressional action. As Marijuana Majority points out, “Bad laws change when good people speak up.”

Reposted from Niskanen Center