Saturday, October 14, 2017
Comments due by Oct 21, 2017
LOUD conversation in a train carriage that makes concentration impossible for fellow-passengers. A farmer spraying weedkiller that destroys his neighbour’s crop. Motorists whose idling cars spew fumes into the air, polluting the atmosphere for everyone. Such behaviour might be considered thoughtless, anti-social or even immoral. For economists these spillovers are a problem to be solved. Markets are supposed to organise activity in a way that leaves everyone better off. But the interests of those directly involved, and of wider society, do not always coincide. Left to their own devices, boors may ignore travellers’ desire for peace and quiet; farmers the impact of weedkiller on the crops of others; motorists the effect of their emissions. In all of these cases, the active parties are doing well, but bystanders are not. Market prices—of rail tickets, weedkiller or petrol—do not take these wider costs, or “externalities”, into account. The examples so far are the negative sort of externality. Others are positive. Melodious music could improve everyone’s commute, for example; a new road may benefit communities by more than a private investor would take into account. Still others are more properly known as “internalities”. These are the overlooked costs people inflict on their future selves, such as when they smoke, or scoff so many sugary snacks that their health suffers. The first to lay out the idea of externalities was Alfred Marshall, a British economist. But it was one of his students at Cambridge University who became famous for his work on the problem. Born in 1877 on the Isle of Wight, Arthur Pigou cut a scruffy figure on campus. He was uncomfortable with strangers, but intellectually brilliant. Marshall championed him and with the older man’s support, Pigou succeeded him to become head of the economics faculty when he was just 30 years old. In 1920 Pigou published “The Economics of Welfare”, a dense book that outlined his vision of economics as a toolkit for improving the lives of the poor. Externalities, where “self-interest will not…tend to make the national dividend a maximum”, were central to his theme. Although Pigou sprinkled his analysis with examples that would have appealed to posh students, such as his concern for those whose land might be overrun by rabbits from a neighbouring field, others reflected graver problems. He claimed that chimney smoke in London meant that there was only 12% as much sunlight as was astronomically possible. Such pollution imposed huge “uncharged” costs on communities, in the form of dirty clothes and vegetables, and the need for expensive artificial light. If markets worked properly, people would invest more in smoke-prevention devices, he thought. Pigou was open to different ways of tackling externalities. Some things should be regulated—he scoffed at the idea that the invisible hand could guide property speculators towards creating a well-planned town. Other activities ought simply to be banned. No amount of “deceptive activity”—adulterating food, for example— could generate economic benefits, he reckoned. But he saw the most obvious forms of intervention as “bounties and taxes”. These measures would use prices to restore market perfection and avoid strangling people with red tape. Seeing that producers and sellers of “intoxicants” did not have to pay for the prisons and policemen associated with the rowdiness they caused, for example, he recommended a tax on booze. Pricier kegs should deter some drinkers; the others will pay towards the social costs they inflict. This type of intervention is now known as a Pigouvian tax. The idea is not just ubiquitous in economics courses; it is also a favourite of policymakers. The world is littered with apparently externality-busting taxes. The French government imposes a noise tax on aircraft at its nine busiest airports. Levies on drivers to counterbalance the externalities of congestion and pollution are common in the Western world. Taxes to fix internalities, like those on tobacco, are pervasive, too. Britain will join other governments in imposing a levy on unhealthy sugary drinks starting next year. Pigouvian taxes are also a big part of the policy debate over global warming. Finland and Denmark have had a carbon tax since the early 1990s; British Columbia, a Canadian province, since 2008; and Chile and Mexico since 2014. By using prices as signals, a tax should encourage people and companies to lower their carbon emissions more efficiently than a regulator could by diktat. If everyone faces the same tax, those who find it easiest to lower their emissions ought to lower them the most. Such measures do change behaviour. A tax on plastic bags in Ireland, for example, cut their use by over 90% (with some unfortunate side-effects of its own, as thefts of baskets and trolleys rose). Three years after a charge was introduced on driving in central London, congestion inside the zone had fallen by a quarter. British Columbia’s carbon tax reduced fuel consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions by an estimated 5-15%. And experience with tobacco taxes suggests that they discourage smoking, as long as they are high and smuggled substitutes are hard to find. Champions of Pigouvian taxes say that they generate a “double dividend”. As well as creating social benefits by pricing in harm, they raise revenues that can be used to lower taxes elsewhere. The Finnish carbon tax was part of a move away from taxes on labour, for example; if taxes must discourage something, better that it be pollution than work. In Denmark the tax partly funds pension contributions. Pigou flies Even as policymakers have embraced Pigou’s idea, however, its flaws, both theoretical and practical, have been scrutinised. Economists have picked holes in the theory. One major objection is the incompleteness of the framework, since it holds everything else in the economy fixed. The impact of a Pigouvian tax will depend on the level of competition in the market it is affecting, for example. If a monopoly is already using its power to reduce supply of its products, a new tax may not do any extra good. And if a dominant drinks firm absorbs the cost of an alcohol tax rather than passes it on, then it may not influence the rowdy. (A similar criticism applies to the idea of the double dividend: taxes on labour could cause people to work less than they otherwise might, but if an environmental tax raises the cost of things people spend their income on it might also have the effect of deterring work.) Another assault on Pigou’s idea came from Ronald Coase, an economist at the University of Chicago (whose theory of the firm was the subject of the first brief in this series). Coase considered externalities as a problem of ill-defined property rights. If it were feasible to assign such rights properly, people could be left to bargain their way to a good solution without the need for a heavy-handed tax. Coase used the example of a confectioner, disturbing a quiet doctor working next door with his noisy machinery. Solving the conflict with a tax would make less sense than the two neighbours bargaining their way to a solution. The law could assign the right to be noisy to the sweet-maker, and if worthwhile, the doctor could pay him to be quiet. In most cases, the sheer hassle of haggling would render this unrealistic, a problem that Coase was the first to admit. But his deeper point stands. Before charging in with a corrective tax, first think about which institutions and laws currently in place could fix things. Coase pointed out that laws against nuisance could help fix the problem of rabbits ravaging the land; quiet carriages today assign passengers to places according to their noise preferences. Others reject Pigou’s approach on moral grounds. Michael Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard University, has worried that relying on prices and markets to fix the world’s problems can end up legitimising bad behaviour. When in 1998 one school in Haifa tried to encourage parents to pick their children up on time by fining them, tardy pickups increased. It turned out that parental guilt was a more effective deterrent than cash; making payments seems to have assuaged the guilt. Besides these more theoretical qualms about Pigouvian taxes, policymakers encounter all manner of practical ones. Pigou himself admitted that his prescriptions were vague; in “The Economics of Welfare”, though he believed taxes on damaging industries could benefit society, he did not say which ones. Nor did he spell out in much detail how to set the level of the tax. Prices in the real world are no help; their failure to incorporate social costs is the problem that needs to be solved. Getting people to reveal the precise cost to them of something like clogged roads is asking a lot. In areas like these, policymakers have had to settle on a mixture of pragmatism and public acceptability. London’s initial £5 ($8) fee for driving into its city centre was suspiciously round for a sum meant to reflect the social cost of a trip. Inevitably, a desire to raise revenue also plays a role. It would be nice to believe that politicians set Pigouvian taxes merely in order to price in an externality, but the evidence, and common sense, suggests otherwise. Research may have guided the initial level of a British landfill tax, at £7 a tonne in 1996. But other considerations may have boosted it to £40 a tonne in 2009, and thence to £80 a tonne in 2014. Things become even harder when it comes to divining the social cost of carbon emissions. Economists have diligently poked gigantic models of the global economy to calculate the relationship between temperature and GDP. But such exercises inevitably rely on heroic assumptions. And putting a dollar number on environmental Armageddon is an ethical question, as well as a technical one, relying as it does on such judgments as how to value unborn generations. The span of estimates of the economic loss to humanity from carbon emissions is unhelpfully wide as a result, ranging from around $30 to $400 a tonne. It’s the politics, stupid The question of where Pigouvian taxes fall is also tricky. A common gripe is that they are regressive, punishing poorer people, who, for example, smoke more and are less able to cope with rises in heating costs. An economist might shrug: the whole point is to raise the price for whoever is generating the externality. A politician cannot afford to be so hard-hearted. When Australia introduced a version of a carbon tax in 2012, more than half of the money ended up being given back to pensioners and poorer households to help with energy costs. The tax still sharpened incentives, the handouts softened the pain. A tax is also hard to direct very precisely at the worst offenders. Binge-drinking accounts for 77% of the costs of excessive alcohol use, as measured by lost workplace productivity and extra health-care costs, for example, but less than a fifth of Americans report drinking to excess in any one month. Economists might like to charge someone’s 12th pint of beer at a higher rate than their first, but implementing that would be a nightmare. Globalisation piles on complications. A domestic carbon tax could encourage people to switch towards imports, or hurt the competitiveness of companies’ exports, possibly even encouraging them to relocate. One solution would be to apply a tax on the carbon content of imports and refund the tax to companies on their exports, as the European Union is doing for cement. But this would be fiendishly complicated to implement across the economy. A global harmonised tax on carbon is the stuff of economists’ dreams, and set to remain so. So, Pigou handed economists a problem and a solution, elegant in theory but tricky in practice. Politics and policymaking are both harder than the blackboard scribblings of theoreticians. He was sure, however, that the effort was worthwhile. Economics, he said, was an instrument “for the bettering of human life”. (Economist)
Saturday, April 15, 2017
Sunday, March 26, 2017
Comments due by April 7, 2017
IT HAS BEEN a bad couple of years for those hoping for the death of driving. In America, where cars are an important part of the national psyche, a decade ago people had suddenly started to drive less, which had not happened since the oil shocks of the 1970s. Academics started to talk excitedly about “peak driving”boomers, car-shy millennials, ride-sharing apps such as Uber and even the distraction of Facebook. Yet the causes may have been more prosaic: a combination of higher petrol prices and lower incomes in the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis. Since the drop in oil prices in 2014, and a recovery in employment, the number of vehicle-miles travelled has rebounded, and sales of trucks and SUVs, which are less fuel-efficient than cars, have hit record highs. This sensitivity to prices and incomes is important for global oil demand. More than half the world’s oil is used for transport, and of that, 46% goes into passenger cars. But the response to lower prices has been partially offset by dramatic improvements in fuel efficiency in America and elsewhere, thanks to standards like America’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), the EU’s rules on CO2 emissions and those in place in China since 2012. The IEA says that such measures cut oil consumption in 2015 by a whopping 2.3m b/d. This is particularly impressive because interest in fuel efficiency usually wanes when prices are low. If best practice were applied to all the world’s vehicles, the savings would be 4.3m b/d, roughly equivalent to the crude output of Canada. This helps explain why some forecasters think demand for petrol may peak within the next 10-15 years even if the world’s vehicle fleet keeps growing. Occo Roelofsen of McKinsey, a consultancy, goes further. He reckons that thanks to the decline in the use of oil in light vehicles, total consumption of liquid fuels will begin to fall within a decade, and that in the next few decades driving will be shaken up by electric vehicles (EVs), self-driving cars and car-sharing. America’s Department of Energy (DoE) officials underline the importance of such a shift, given the need for “deep decarbonisation” enshrined in the Paris climate agreement. “We can’t decarbonise by mid-century if we don’t electrify the transportation sector,” says a senior official in Washington, DC. It is still unclear what effect Donald Trump’s election will have on this transition. In a recent paper entitled “Will We Ever Stop Using Fossil Fuels?”, Thomas Covert and Michael Greenstone of the University of Chicago, and Christopher Knittel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argue that several technological advances are needed to displace oil in the car industry. Even with oil at $100 a barrel, the price of batteries to power EVs would need to fall by a factor of three, and they would need to charge much faster. Moreover, the electricity used to power the cars would need to become far less carbon-intensive; for now, emissions from EVs powered by America’s electricity grid are higher than those from highly efficient petrol engines, say the authors. My kingdom for a cheap battery They calculate that at a battery’s current price of around $325 per kilowatt hour (kWh), oil prices would need to be above $350 a barrel for EVs to be cost-competitive in 2020. Even if they were to fall to the DoE’s target of $125 per kWh, they would still need an oil price of $115 a barrel to break even. But if battery prices fell that much, oil would probably become much cheaper, too, making petrol engines more attractive. Even with a carbon tax, the break-even oil price falls only to $90 a barrel. Those estimates may be too conservative, but the high cost of batteries and their short range help explain why EVs still make up only 0.1% of the global car fleet (though getting to 1m of them last year was a milestone). They are still mostly too expensive for all but wealthy cleanenergy pioneers. Many experts dismiss the idea that EVs will soon be able seriously to disrupt oil demand. Yet they may be missing something. Battery costs have fallen by 80% since 2008, and though the rate of improvement may be slowing, EV sales last year rose by 70%, to 550,000. They actually fell in America, probably because of low petrol prices, but tripled in China, which became the world’s biggest EV market. Next year Tesla aims to bring out its more affordable Model 3. It hopes that the cost of the batteries mass-produced at its new Gigafactory in Nevada will come down to below $100 per kWh by 2020 (see chart), and that they will offer a range of 215 miles (350km) on a single charge. Countries that have offered strong incentives to switch to EVs have seen rapid growth in their use. Norway, for instance, offers lower taxes, free use of toll roads and access to bus lanes. Almost a quarter of the new cars sold there are now electric (ample hydroelectricity makes the grid unusually clean, too). This bodes well for future growth, especially if governments strengthen their commitment to electrification in the wake of the Paris accord. The Electric Vehicles Initiative (EVI), an umbrella group of 16 EV-using nations, has pledged to get to 20m by 2020. The IEA says that to stand a chance of hitting the 2ºC globalwarming target, there would need to be 700m EVs on the road by 2040. That seems hugely ambitious. It would put annual growth in EV sales on a par with Ford’s Model T—at a time when the car industry is also in a potentially epoch-making transition to self-driving vehicles. But imagine that the EVI’s forecast were achievable. By 2020 new EV sales would be running at around 7m a year, displacing the growth in sales of new petrol engines, says Kingsmill Bond of Trusted Sources, a research firm. Investors, focusing not just on total demand for oil but on the change in demand, might see that as something of a tipping point. As Mr Bond puts it: “Investors should not rely on the phlegmatic approach of historians who tell them not to worry about change"
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Comments due by March 31, 2017
The post for this week is slightly different than usual. Actually there is nothing to read, it is a 21 minute video that is 10 years old but that is still one of the best efforts to explain in plain language The Story of Stuff. Give it a look. Enjoy.
Click on the above link and watch the 21 minute video. (If the link is dead then copy and paste)
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Sunday, March 05, 2017
Comments due by March 11, 2017
Philadelphia supermarkets and distributors say beverage sales have dropped 30 percent to 50 percent after the city instituted a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary and diet drinks. On one hand, these are the same people who want to get the tax repealed, and we don’t have hard numbers yet, so take this with a grain of salt. On the other hand, the whole point of the tax is to reduce consumption of stuff that will kill you anyway, so … good job?
To measure the responsiveness of consumers to price changes, economist use what is called the 'price elasticity of demand.' In simple terms, the price elasticity of demand tells us whether consumers react a little or a lot when the price of a good changes.
In technical terms, the price elasticity of demand is equal to the percentage change in the quantity demanded divided by the percentage change in the price. Because of the law of demand we know that the quantity demanded and the price will move in opposite directions, so the elasticity demand is a negative number. To confuse everyone, we report the price elasticity of demand as a positive number (the absolute value).
If the price elasticity of demand is greater than 1, then we say that demand is elastic and that means that consumers are pretty sensitive to price changes.
If the price elasticity of demand in greater than one, then we say that demand in unit elastic (the percentage change in the quantity demanded is exactly equal to the percentage change in the price).
If the price elasticity of demand is less than one, then demand is price inelastic and that means that consumers are not very sensitive to price changes.
One reason we care about the price elasticity of demand is because there is a relationship between price elasticities and revenues collected. If demand is inelastic, an increase in the price will increase revenues. If demand is elastic, a similar percentage increase in the price will decrease revenues. The reverse is also true.
This is why we see goods with elastic demand (furniture, groceries, clothing) going on sale more than goods with inelastic demand (gas, liquor).
So what does this mean for the sugary drink example above?
Let's look at the numbers (and make some assumptions). The tax imposed on sugary drinks is $0.015 per ounce. For a 12 ounce soda (pop?) that's an increase in the price of $0.18. To make the math easy let's say a 12 ounce soda costs $0.50 ($3.00 a six pack?) before the tax. An $0.18 increase in the price is a 36% increase in the price. That's pretty big.
How much does the quantity demanded react. If grocery stores are to be believed, the quantity demanded fell between 30% and 50% in reaction to the tax increase. That means the elasticity of demand is between 0.83 (30/36) and 1.39 (50/36).
So it looks like demand is slightly inelastic to elastic.
Now we can ask question like:
- If the goal is to raise tax revenues, will an increase in the tax increase, or decrease tax revenues?
- Tax revenues will increase if demand is inelastic and decrease if demand is elastic.
- If the goal is to decrease sugar consumption, how effective will an increase in the sugar tax be?
- It looks like consumers might be price sensitive, so an increase in the tax might be pretty effective at reducing sugary drink consumption
(Keep in mind that elasticity is a numerical measure of responsiveness i.e one, usually is interested in finding how responsive is A to a change in B. Ex. What is the change in the grade if one is to increase study hours?)
Saturday, February 25, 2017
Comments due by March 5, 2017
Carbon-tax haters can relax. The proposal for a national carbon tax released on February 8 by high-level Republicans, including über-GOP consigliere James Baker, isn’t going anywhere. Financially and ideologically, the American right is wedded to carbon fuels. Trumpism runs on and reeks of them. Predictably, not a single Republican in Congress, and no one in the White House, has uttered a single positive word about the new carbon-tax plan.
Nevertheless, the proposal’s intended audience may not be Beltway Republicans but rather those ordinary Americans, majorities in both parties, who say they want action on climate, and who therefore might yet figure in the political equation over climate policy. That group includes progressives. We should pay attention: Carbon taxes matter. ...But progressives can’t just walk away from carbon taxes. Carbon taxes are the only policy tool that, by slashing demand in a rapid, predictable way, divests our economy from fossil fuels and enables governments, business, and consumers to make investments in the transition to clean energy. Carbon taxes also have the best chance of catching fire globally.The carbon tax James Baker brought to the Trump White House on February 8 on behalf of the new Climate Leadership Council has a lot in common with I-732: The Council’s proposal is also avowedly revenue neutral. But rather than lowering an existing tax, it relies on a so-called tax-and-dividend model: As the state of Alaska does with oil revenues, revenues from the Council’s national carbon tax would be returned equally to all American households in quarterly “dividends” digitally deposited in Social Security accounts. The tax would start at $40 per ton of carbon dioxide.Earmarking all of the revenue to these dividends creates the political will to raise the tax every year, since the dividends rise in tandem with the tax rate. Ramping up the tax by $5 a year would shrink the use of carbon fuels so drastically that, by my calculations, US carbon emissions in 2030 would be 40 percent less than they were in 2005 (a standard baseline year).
I agree that "progressives" need to get on board the carbon tax train. One hang up might be labeling this as a "conservative" approach. I'm not sure why this is being labeled a "conservative" carbon tax. If there is anything conservatives don't like these days, it is higher taxes. The "conservative" proposal for a carbon tax used to include revenue-neutral tax recycling -- lowering income taxes with an equal amount of carbon taxes raised. Now "conservatives" want to give the money back to the public as dividends. I guess both of these options differ from the "progressive" approach to the government keeping the revenue. Whatever, I don't think the ideological labels are helpful.
One big quibble (er, a big quibble is probably not a quibble, it is more like a beef): "Carbon taxes are [not] the only policy tool that, by slashing demand in a rapid, predictable way, divests our economy from fossil fuels and enables governments, business, and consumers to make investments in the transition to clean energy." I added the bracketed term because cap-and-trade could do the exact same thing.
The Carbon Tax Center has six objections to cap-and-trade. The style is to compared an idealized textbook carbon tax with the sort of cap-and-trade that might actually be put in place by Congress (e.g., Waxman-Markey):
- Whereas carbon taxes lend predictability to energy prices, cap-and-trade systems aggravate the price volatility that historically has discouraged investments in less carbon-intensive electricity generation, carbon-reducing energy efficiency and carbon-replacing renewable energy.
- Carbon taxes can be implemented much sooner than complex cap-and-trade systems. Because of the urgency of the climate crisis, we don’t have the luxury of waiting while the myriad details of a cap-and-trade system are resolved through lengthy negotiations.
- Carbon taxes are transparent and easily understandable, making them more likely to elicit the necessary public support than an opaque and difficult to understand cap-and-trade system.
- Carbon taxes aren’t easily subject to manipulation by special interests, while a cap-and-trade system’s complexity opens it to exploitation by special interests and perverse incentives that can undermine public confidence and undercut its effectiveness.
- Carbon taxes address emissions of carbon from every sector, whereas some cap-and-trade systems discussed to date have only targeted the electricity industry, which accounts for less than 40% of emissions.
- Carbon tax revenues would most likely be returned to the public through dividends or progressive tax-shifting, while the costs of cap-and-trade systems are likely to become a hidden tax as dollars flow to market participants, lawyers and consultants.
I think the first five of these are easily debunked:
- A price collar can limit the carbon permit price volatility.
- This is an assertion that assumes a carbon tax would not have lengthy negotiations.
- Markets are not all that difficult to understand and I need to see some empirical evidence that transparent and easily understandable leads to increased public support.
- I would predict that special interests would make try to make sure that there are loopholes so that they don't pay the flat tax rate. It is a bit naive to think otherwise.
- Why can't cap-and-trade cover every sector too? Answer: it can.
Number 6 takes a little more discussion. Carbon permits in a cap-and-trade system can be auctioned off to collect just as much revenue as a carbon tax. I'm not sure why you would choose cap-and-trade over a carbon tax with full permit auctions since there would be no trading as firms would bid up to their marginal abatement cost. Cap-and-trade with freely distributed permits would provide polluters with an asset. Relatively clean firms will make money as they sell their permits. I'm not sure why the always-evil "lawyers and consultants" will make more money off a real-world cap-and-trade plan than a real world carbon tax.
To summarize, two points:
- The carbon tax with dividends is a great proposal.
- The cap-and-trade option should not be dismissed as easily as some would like to dismiss it.