Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Trailblazing to the Outside of the Asylum

Last year's documentary on New Zealand, hosted by Johan Norberg, is now available online. It's a great story, featuring the likes of Roger Beattie. We don't know how lucky we are in New Zealand.



Here's Dan Mitchell on New Zealand, and the documentary.

Full disclosure: the Initiative helped out a bit in putting the documentary makers in touch with some of their interviewees and providing a bit of background detail. I show up briefly towards the end.

As America gets ever-crazier, remember to check back on that list I told you to make back in 2013.
A couple of months ago, when Alex Tabarrok complained of his son's school being turned into a police camp, I noted some of the differences between American schools and the ones here, concluding:
You can choose to live like this too. Sure, New Zealand is getting worse, and it's definitely worse than some parts of the US if marijuana freedom is an important part of your bundle of liberties. But NZ is starting from a much better spot than the US, and it seems to be getting worse slowerthan other places.

Things aren't bad enough to leave yet? Fine. Freedom's a value, but so too are other things like distance from family and wealth differentials and access to Ethiopean restaurants. But write down today some bright-line rules that you think should trigger your future exit; it's easy to acclimatize to gradual changes for the worse.
If you really want to live free, write down your list of things that would actually be sufficient to trigger your emigration, then think about the places you might go that offer the best deal on the bundle of freedoms that matters most to you.

If you're instead happy getting consumption benefits from ranting about the deterioration of freedom in America, or from imagining that you'll be able to change things there, carry on.
Have any of the "Yeah, I'd emigrate if any of these bad things happened" things on your list happened yet?

Friday, 4 August 2017

There are no answers only tradeoffs

Fundamentally all welfare systems have to answer one basic question: is it better to target a lot of funding to those in most need, or to provide universal benefits at a far lower level of support?

Both options suck, they just suck differently.

Targeting systems are intrusive. They invade privacy. They create distortions in people's choices. But it is the only way of making sure that those in the most need have access to the most resources. If you want to make sure that kids with a single destitute parent receive a lot of support, you have to make sure that the parent is destitute. If there are other sources of financial support for that kid, and you want the next dollar of government money to go to the kid in the worst circumstances, then you need to know whether about it. Otherwise that next dollar goes to the wrong kid.

The system has perverse outcomes. It breaks families apart by financially penalising parents for living together. It encourages lying to the extent that lying is a successful strategy and isn't caught and punished. Where lying is a successful strategy and isn't punished, the targeting system morphs into the universal system, except with everybody lying about their circumstances and substantial financial penalties for truth-telling.

The universal system sucks too. It is impossible to provide every family with the support the government would like to provide to the worst off family: if it gave that much to everybody, the budget would blow out. Here's a quick ball-parking for you. The government takes in about $80 billion a year in revenue. There are about 4.7 million people in New Zealand. Suppose you decided to put every person in NZ on the equivalent of NZ Super, with no monitoring of living arrangements, so $900 per fortnight or $780 per fortnight net of tax for those with no other income. That's $95 billion. The net costs would be less than that because people on higher income would face a higher tax rate on that payment, but come on. There will also be plenty of people with complex needs receiving benefits in excess of NZ Super who would be hurt even by this arrangement.

It is strictly impossible to make a universal payment that is generous enough to help those in the worst circumstances without bankrupting the country. And the second you start layering a targeted welfare scheme on top of a universal scheme, you bring back all of the incentives to lie. Maybe the incentives aren't quite as strong, but they're still there, and there'll still be special pleading for those caught lying that is every bit as compelling as that which we currently hear.

So, which system sucks least? They're both awful. The current system ties a lot of cost around the receipt of benefit, and especially around receipt of more generous levels of benefit. All the monitoring I talked about. And high effective marginal tax rates because of earnings clawbacks. But it is able to deliver focused and targeted assistance to those in most need.

Shifting to a more universal scheme means everybody faces higher effective marginal tax rates, and only partially mitigates the incentives to lie about your circumstances - unless you go to a fully universal system and bankrupt the place (or have the universal payment at a very low level and get turfed from office on the first John Campbell special on kids in households with complex needs seeing a massive cut in benefits).

I prefer the current system, combined with the emphasis under the investment approach in trying to find ways of getting people out of dire circumstances. And that requires actual policing and punishment of those who lie about their circumstances to draw money intended for kids in greater need.

Those defending lying for higher benefits should work out the fiscal implications of moving to the system they implicitly prefer. You can agree with every critique of the current system's perverse incentives and unintended consequences - I do! But you've gotta think through the alternatives, because they just suck differently - and arguably suck more.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Overseas Companies

A little known feature of New Zealand's overseas investment regime: New Zealand companies are covered by it if enough of their shares are bought by foreigners.

Here's Calida Smylie at the National Business Review:
Several major listed companies are counted as overseas persons, even though they have no single dominant overseas owner, including Fletcher Building and Air New Zealand.

Agri-business operations are particularly affected by the OIO’s restrictions on land use by foreign people or companies, because once they reach the 25% threshold they must apply to the OIO when renewing or taking on any new leases or buying land.
Other countries chase foreign investment; New Zealand is so enthusiastic about driving it away that it even counts New Zealand companies that wind up with a broad-enough set of owners. I wonder whether this discourages companies from listing publicly.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Don't be a player hater

A column from me in the Local Government Business Forum's newsletter:

Rapper Ice-T isn’t a conventional source of policy advice. But he was right about one big thing: don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Local government too often makes it hard for business to get things done. And as far as much of central government is concerned, local government can barely be trusted to get the mayor’s shoes tied, never mind run anything else.

Relations between central and local government have been strained for a while. Local government often makes decisions that are hardly in the national interest. Auckland’s housing crisis stems from decades of planning and consenting decisions made by local councils that stymied growth. The consequences matter for the whole country, from macroeconomic monetary policy to dismal productivity statistics.

And, from central government’s perspective, local government too often comes cap-in-hand for funding that should be covered by rates.

But look to the incentives facing local councils: the game.

Don’t hate da playa

A council that facilitates growth, runs superb consenting processes, and lays out infrastructure for new development may see little reward for its efforts. Rates from new ratepayers will largely be eaten up by the costs of new infrastructure. And the council budget process makes the remaining contributions of those new ratepayers a bit harder to see: councils decide what to spend, then divvy it up across their ratings base.

Outcomes are then not particularly surprising. If councils bear most of the costs of growth, and central government sees most of the revenue boost when councils facilitate growth, the game will automatically lead to conflict.

But it gets worse. Central government mandates often require local councils to bear costs, without an accompanying revenue stream. This blurs lines of accountability for councils: poorly performing councils can blame central government for its cost impositions – and be at least partially right. And strong performers can be punished when voters see rates increases for which their council really is not to blame. 

You can find the whole thing here (pdf). Note that it was written about a month ago, so doesn't capture the effects of this weekend's announced infrastructure funding changes. I covered similar housing themes on Nights last night with Bryan Crump.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Get on with it: housing edition

Superu says that land use restrictions contribute to 56% of the cost of a house in Auckland.

They don't provide their background workings, so I can't verify the numbers. But if they're close to right, this is a pretty strong indictment of the last decade of government. National has had almost a decade to fix this mess. Sure, they'll blame their coalition partners for not letting them change the RMA, but they had chances to do it before National lost Northland.

And there are plenty of non-RMA things they could have done too. Councils use the flexibility within the RMA to set restrictive district plans because it's generally in their financial interest to do so. Central government could change that without touching the RMA. Councils hitting their debt limits can't finance the infrastructure needed for long-term growth, even if that infrastructure easily passes normal cost-benefit assessment.

Things this government has failed to do to encourage housing affordability, and it has been almost a decade now:

  • RMA reform;
  • Enabling municipal utility districts to impose special levies in new developments to finance infrastructure: it's how tons of new development in Texas gets financed, and how they maintain housing affordability. You can do it through that kind of MUD structure; you can do it with other structures that finance infrastructure through targeted levies that are kept separate from Council's balance sheets;
  • Punting the GST from new construction back to Councils to help them defray infrastructure costs;
  • Abolish rural-urban boundaries;
  • Tie Council ability to set restrictive urban plans to existing measures of housing affordability. Stuff like "You can set whatever district plans you like, but if the median house price is more than five times the median household income, we will automatically ratchet up the allowed density across the whole city, abolish heritage preservation districts that mostly work as ways for old rich people to keep away the kinds of people they don't like, and abolish urban growth boundaries. Have fun."
Lots of stuff government could have done, and should have done earlier. Lots of stuff government still can do. Get on with it already. 

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A young adult UBI?

Gareth Morgan's party proposes $3.4b to go to everyone aged 18-23 as $10k after tax transfer – a limited UBI.

I had a short chat with The Project about it yesterday; the logistics didn't work out for a longer chat as I was out to Christchurch to help launch an excellent new book on smart water markets - more on that another time. I'd put together a few notes in case I was to have had a longer chat; I'll share those here.

The bulk of Morgan's proposal would be funded by cancelling National's tax package, with minor bits coming from forecast future surpluses ($400m), canning student allowances and student loan living costs for folks in that age cohort (maybe $267m they think), and job-seeker support for those in that age cohort.

I don't know how this interacts with WFF and consequent fiscal effect. Some of the benefit could be clawed back - with potentially lower fiscal cost.

The bulk of the cost comes from cancelling National’s tax package. That package pushed out the income tax thresholds for the two lower tax boundaries. So providing funds to those 18-23 is at the expense of reduced taxes for every other cohort.

National’s tax package bumped up the accommodation benefit for students and hiked the accommodation supplement. In current rental markets, that programme would mostly subsidise landlords rather than help tenants; just giving that money as cash transfer to 18-23 year olds may not be all that bad.

More generally, there are two basic ways of trying to provide income support. Targeted programmes, like those that the government currently runs, and like those it will be further developing as part of the investment approach, seek to direct funds to particular sorts of need. They get messy and complicated very quickly as necessary part of targeting, and the rules can often feel perverse. If you want to make sure that kids in households with the least support get the most help, you need checks around what kinds of support are available in the household – and that’s where all of the monitoring stuff around live-in partners and the like comes in.

These programmes are able to deliver targeted benefits at tolerable cost, focused most closely on areas of greatest identified need. And the Investment Approach will ramp all of that up to direct funds to programmes that do the most good in improving lives, as measured by reduced reliance on benefits. Note that the object there isn’t the reduced reliance on benefits but that it’s a signal of other things having gone wrong.

A UBI is at the opposite end of the scale. It provides blanket payments to everybody regardless of need. The UBI forgoes targeting in favour of simplicity, but at the expense of high cost. So while a UBI would reduce the high EMTRs facing a lot of people on multiple benefits who are working 20-30 hours per week, where combined clawback rates can mean that workers only keep 10 cents or less from each dollar earned (in some cases), it is at the expense of higher EMTRs for all other earners. And then the net effect depends on whether you do more good by reducing large perverse incentives for a small group of people, or by avoiding (relatively) smaller perverse incentives for a much larger group of people.

TOP is right to point to the unfairness of some of the support provided to students that is not provided to others starting out in the workforce. They propose taking away some of the extra support provided to tertiary students (though fall short of re-introducing interest on student loans, which they should have), but apply the savings to a blanket payment to everyone aged 18-23 regardless of need.

And where they've maintained benefit payments above $10k for those currently in receipt of benefit packages over $10k, they've also maintained some of the costly hoop-jumping (and high EMTRs) that are part of the costs of the current system.

As for incentive effects and work, here's a recent evaluation of what happened in Manitoba's Mincome experiment.
Thus, Figure 5 graphs overall trajectories in order to get a general picture of subgroup trends. Subgroups are displayed as baseline and study period averages for ease of presentation, and treatment effects are shown in parentheses in Figure 5. Among the most consequential, Mincome’s average treatment effect (the difference between changes in Dauphin and changes in the Manitoba control) for singles is a 16.2 percentage point fall in household participation in the labor market. Among young people there is a similarly large treatment effect, at 18.6 percentage points. Dual-headed households appear less sensitive to Mincome. For this group, the equivalent treatment effect is 7.4 percentage points. Thus, the overall experimental effect on labor market participation is disproportionately driven by changes in young and single-headed households.
So the biggest drop in labour market participation was among youths. 

Dauphin's guaranteed family income started at $19,500: about half of annual household income at the time. Morgan's proposed $10,000 is much lower than that relative to median household income in New Zealand, so corresponding effects on labour market participation would be expected to be lower than those found in Manitoba.

While the authors note that drops in participation would not be large enough to cause problems in overall scheme financing, note that Mincome wasn't self-financing. Lots of people in Dauphin weren't in the experiment, and the money for the experiment came from overall government revenues. 

That makes it harder to tell what the real effect on participation would be. On the one hand, you might expect people who wanted to be able to drop out of the labour force would be disproportionately willing to participate in the experiment, which would mean the found effect is larger than you might expect for the population overall. On the other hand, you might expect that if everyone faced the kinds of tax rates necessary to fund a UBI scheme, dropping out of work for current workers would look more attractive. In that case, you'd expect real-world effects to be larger than those found in Mincome for payments comparable to those used in Mincome. 

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Water Markets - back to the Staff Club

I'll be back in Christchurch late this afternoon to help launch an excellent book by John Raffensperger and Mark Milne on smart markets for water. I'm a big fan of their work, and the book is excellent. It even has a foreword by one of the godfathers of smart market design, Vernon Smith.

Here's the invitation blurb; please do RSVP if you'll be attending so they don't wind up over capacity. I think they had room for about 8 more as of yesterday.
Increasing pressure on water resources means that society needs to be smarter.  New technologies can combine with market approaches to get more value from water while better protecting the environment.  Join the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management in the release of a book on one new technology, Smart Markets for Water Resources: A Manual for Implementation. The book is co-authored by John Raffensperger (now at Rand Corp.) and Waterways member Mark Milke.

The event provides an opportunity to look forward to better incorporating new technologies and market approaches in water resource management. Dr Eric Crampton, Chief Economist at the New Zealand Initiative, will open with a short presentation regarding the role of markets in freshwater management.

Tuesday, July 18, 20175:30 – 7:00 pm
Upstairs, Ilam Homestead
University of Canterbury
Nibbles provided and drinks are available at the Staff Club Bar downstairs.

About Dr Eric Crampton: Dr Eric Crampton is the Chief Economist at The New Zealand Initiative. He served as Lecturer and Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Department of Economics & Finance at the University of Canterbury from November 2003 until July 2014. He is also the creator and author of the well-known blog "Offsetting Behaviour". He has written on water pricing in popular media outlets including the National Business Review and the Christchurch Press.

About Smart Markets for Water Resources: Water markets have not realised their potential because of high transaction costs and the problem of the interaction of users’ environmental effects. The book examines an elegant solution -- the smart market. It covers the prerequisites that must be in place before the market can begin. It describes how the market would be structured and how it would operate, for different types of hydrology. It discusses matters ranging from common objections to water markets to the layout of the market operator's databases.  More than an academic analysis, the book is manual to be used as a starting point for implementation.

All are welcome – please email suellen.knopick@canterbury.ac.nz to RSVP.

Hope to see a few old Staff Club friends there. It's the place the kids have missed most since moving to Wellington.