Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Podcast: Russ Roberts Talks with Ed Dolan on Employer Sponsored Health Insurance


In early December, Russ Roberts of EconTalk was kind enough to invite me to talk with him for an hour or so for his podcast series. The podcast was posted on January 7. You can listen to it in full here.

Our discussion centers on employer-sponsored health insurance, but toward the end we also get into universal catastrophic coverage as a possible path to reform.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Why Do We Work So Much and Take So Little Leisure?


America’s obsession with work has produced a record-low unemployment rate and the developed world’s shortest vacations. It has also produced a backlash.

A loosely organized movement has emerged that urges its members to live modestly and work less. One version, known as FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early), is popular among high-earning young professionals. Adherents aim to save much of what they earn and retire at 40. However, as financial independence guru Mr. Money Mustache points out, the basic idea of living within your means and rejecting slavery to work is just as good an idea, or even a better one, for people with modest incomes.

None of this is new. In a 1928 lecture, John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would live in a world where people worked fare less than they did in his own time:

We may be on the eve of improvements in the efficiency of food production as great as those which have already taken place in mining, manufacture, and transport. In quite a few years — in in our own lifetimes I mean — we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed. . . .
Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well. . . .
Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week . . . is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

Paradoxically, it turns out that we are actually ahead of Keynes’ schedule in terms of productivity, yet we still work only about 20 percent fewer hours per week than they did in the 1920s. Why?

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Ed Dolan and Chris Pope Debate the Future of Health Care Reform


Exit polls from the recent midterm election suggest over 40 percent of voters consider health care as the top issue facing the country. Yet after a unified Republican government tried and failed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the conservative vision for health care reform remains something of an open question.

Here at the Niskanen Center, senior fellow Ed Dolan has been beating the drum for the reform path known as Universal Catastrophic Coverage (UCC) for more than two years. But not everyone agrees. That’s why we invited Chris Pope, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute and formidable conservative health care policy thinker, to join Ed Dolan in a debate.

Be it resolved:
Universal catastrophic coverage is a reasonable path to universal and affordable health care.

PRO — Ed Dolan

People have many basic needs, including food, shelter, education, and access to health care, which, if unsatisfied, can make our treasured rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness meaningless. Of these, health care poses unique problems for public policy.

To understand why, imagine a society in which no one’s resources fall below the poverty level. Regardless of whether those resources come from a state-sponsored universal basic income or from some combination of work, family support, and private charity, I argue that such a society could adequately meet needs for food, shelter, and so on but not health care.

There are two reasons for that. One is the highly skewed distribution of the demand for health care services. In the United States, the healthiest half of the population account for just 3 percent of services consumed, while the sickest 5 percent account for 50 percent. For comparison, if the need for food were distributed similarly, half the population would need just 120 calories in their daily diet (one small potato), while the hungriest 5 percent would starve on anything less than 20,000 calories (35 Big Macs). For the top 5 percent, health care consumption exceeds the national median income.

The second reason health care is unique is its uninsurability. To be commercially insurable, a risk must be unpredictable and an actuarially fair premium must be affordable to the insured. Because of pre-existing conditions and advances in genetic testing, health risks are highly predictable. As a result, for many risk-prone individuals, actuarially fair premiums can exceed income.

The combination of skewed need for services and uninsurability means there is no simple market mechanism that would give everyone access to health care. That leaves us either with a nation of medical haves and have-nots, or a major role for government.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

What's Wrong with Employer-Sponsored Health Insurance and How to Fix It

The high proportion of people who get their health insurance through their jobs is one of the most distinctive features of the U.S. health care system. According to the Census Bureau, 56 percent of the population had employer-sponsored health insurance (ESHI) as of 2017. ESHI accounts for 83 percent of all of those with private insurance of any kind. People whose health insurance is tied to their jobs far outnumber the 38 percent of the population served by government insurance of all kinds.

What is more, most people on ESHI appear to be satisfied with the coverage they get. A survey by America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), an insurance industry group, found that 71 percent of respondents were satisfied with their ESHI plans, compared with just 19 percent who were not satisfied. An independent survey by Gallup came up with similar results, finding 69 percent of people on employer-sponsored plans to be satisfied. A study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 50 percent of workers were extremely or very satisfied with their own ESHI plans, with another 39 percent somewhat satisfied.

How should would-be reformers interpret these numbers? Clearly, one possible reaction is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Affordable Care Act took that approach. Rather than trying to replace ESHI, it made it mandatory for employers with 50 or more workers.

Despite its popularity, though, serious health economists tell us that ESHI is “broke,” after all. No comprehensive reform can succeed unless it is phased out. This commentary examines three of ESHI’s biggest problems: job lock, which reduces labor mobility for ESHI beneficiaries; the fundamental inequity of the way the benefits of EHSI largely accrue to the highest -paid workers; and the increased fragmentation of health care finance inherent in a system administered by thousands of separate employers. We conclude with a plan for phasing out EHSI in a way that can fix these problems while minimizing the disruption for workers who are satisfied with their current coverage.

A Coasean Rationale for a Carbon Tax

Executive summary:

This policy analysis develops a rationale for a carbon tax based on two key insights from the work of Ronald Coase.

The first insight is that problems of pollution should not be viewed simply as situations in which A harms B, so that A should be restrained with a tax, a suit for damages, an injunction, or a regulatory prohibition. Instead, they should be seen as coordination problems in which the plans of two parties conflict. Reaching optimal coordination typically requires action by both parties. Those will usually include both action by polluters to cut emissions (abatement) and action by pollution victims to reduce harm (adaptation). Putting too much of the burden of coordination on either party is inefficient.

The second insight is that a complete analysis must take into account the direct costs of abatement and adaptation, but also the transactions costs of achieving coordination. Transactions costs include the costs of identifying victims and sources of pollution, assessing damages, reaching agreements on actions to be taken, and enforcing those agreements once they are in place. In some cases, superficially attractive policy solutions turn out to be unsuitable because of their high transaction costs.

The analysis uses the example of coastal flooding caused by climate change as a case study in coordination. The polluters are fossil fuel burning power plants and the victims are coastal property owners. The former have a number of abatement options, including fuel switching and carbon capture, while the latter have abatement strategies that include building sea walls, improving construction, and retreating to higher ground. Following Coase, a full range of policy options are examined for their impact on the behavior of both polluters and pollution victims. When all aspects of the coordination problem are considered, including transaction costs, carbon taxes emerge as an attractive mechanism for dealing with climate change.

Read the full brief here.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Take a Closer Look at Labor Force Participation. Is It Really As Good As It Looks?


The headline take-away from the October employment report was the robust gain of 250,000 payroll jobs. The unemployment rate edged up fractionally from 3.68 in September to 3.74 in October, but commentators dismissed that as insignificant. Instead, they pointed out that the unemployment rate failed to fall because of a flood of new workers into the labor market. That influx produced a welcome rise in the labor force participation rate, from 62.7 percent to 62.9 percent.

Still, that monthly uptick was not enough to break labor force participation out of the stagnation that has prevailed since late 2015. As the following chart shows, the participation rate has wobbled up and down over that period without showing any trend at all.


What is going on here? Isn’t the stagnation of labor force participation just a sign of the aging of the U.S. population? Yes, at least in part. The next chart shows labor force participation for prime-age workers only, aged 25 to 54. that rate has turned up sharply since hitting a low of 80.6 percent in September 2015. The flat trend of the overall participation rate simply means that an increase in the average age of the civilian labor force, which includes retirees, has offset higher participation by people in the working age population.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Discordant Data on Investment and Net Exports Spoil an Otherwise Bright Q3 GDP Report


US GDP continued its long expansion in the third quarter of 2018 at a pace that was only slightly slower than earlier in the year. According to the advance estimate from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, GDP grew at a 3.5 percent annual rate in Q3, compared to 4.2 percent in Q2. The advance estimate, which is based on incomplete data, is subject to revision. Based on past experience, the second estimate, which will be released one month from now, may be about half a percentage point higher or lower than the advance figure.

But the real news from Friday’s data release concerns the structure of growth, which has changed dramatically for the worse, rather than its still-respectable overall pace. The following chart shows the contrast between the structure of growth in Q2 and Q3. The bars show how much of the total growth in each quarter can be traced to changes in each sector of the economy.

In both quarters, consumption and government spending contributed positively to GDP growth, although not quite so strongly in Q3 as in Q2. Changes in other sectors of the economy were more dramatic.

In Q2, fixed investment in factories, business equipment, and housing was a bright spot, contributing 1.1 percentage points, or more than a quarter of GDP growth. In Q3, contributions from fixed investment disappeared, even turning slightly negative. This change can be traced to weakness in investments in business structures, housing, and transportation equipment.

Inventory investment changed in exactly the opposite direction. In Q2, inventories made a negative contribution to growth, but in Q3, swelling stocks of unsold products accounted for 2.09 percentage points of the quarter’s GDP growth — two thirds of all net growth. Rising inventories can be a sign of economic health if they represent the actions of companies that are building inventories to meet expected growth of sales in the future. However, in this case, they more likely represent unplanned accumulation of goods that turned out to be harder to sell than companies thought they would be. If so, producers are likely to cut back output in the fourth quarter to bring inventories back into line.

Net exports were the third area where there was a huge change from Q2 to Q3. In the second quarter, exports surged ahead of expected tariff increases, adding 1.12 percentage points to the quarter’s growth. In contrast, in Q3, exports collapsed, subtracting 0.45 percentage points to growth. What is more, imports surged in Q3, after having had little impact on growth in Q2. Because imports enter the GDP accounts with a negative sign, they subtracted another 1.34 percentage points from growth. In all, the contribution to growth of net exports experienced a massive 3.0 percentage point swing from a positive contribution of 1.22 percentage points in Q2 to a negative contribution of 1.72 percentage points Q3.

The bottom line: Growth does not look too bad at the moment, but in the long run, you can’t build a strong economy on consumer and government spending alone. You need investment and you need exports. If those sectors don’t contribute more in the rest of the year, expect overall GDP growth to turn sharply lower.

Previously posted at Medium.com