An MYEFO mystery: what’s with the resource tax?

It’s the time of the mid-year Economic Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) and we’re told that we’re about 11 billion deeper in the red this financial year than we thought, with the treasurer blaming the dropping iron price and the reduced wage growth. I have gone over the MYEFO documents (which are an exercise in obfuscation if ever I saw one), found that wage growth and the dropped iron ore price would ‘only’ cost us 2.3 billion each in this financial year (2014-2015), noted that this was far short of the 11 billion headline, and thus went looking for the ‘real story’.

This threw up the mystery of the resource tax. Here is what it says on table 3.2:

Table 3.2: Impact of Senate on the Budget (underlying cash balance)
Estimates Projections
2014‑15 2015‑16 2016‑17 2017‑18 Total
$m $m $m $m $m
Impact of decision taken as part of Senate negotiations(a)
Repeal of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax and related measures -1,684 -2,334 -1,670 -947 -6,634

which seems to means that the repeal of the minerals resource rent tax (and related measures) is costing us around 2 billion per year. Yet, in the ‘Overview Part’, the MYEFO says “The repeal of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax and other related measures will save the budget over $10 billion over the forward estimates and around $50 billion over the next decade.”.

What is going on?

Update (thanks Chris Lloyd): it seems to be a language issue. Part of the story seems to be that the MYEFO is counting the repeal of the mining tax, which was an election promise, as something the Senate inflicted on the budget, so the 2 billion a year is ‘revenue foregone’. So the MYEFO is blaming the Senate for the outcome of an election promise, using an odd formulation to say that the repeal will save us 50 billion when it seems to imply it would cost us 50 billion. Weird.

Tips and tricks, or ‘tips and tricks of the iceberg’: Going meta on behavioural economics

Standard economics’ traditional penchant for focusing on problems that are chosen for their formal tractability rather than their resemblance to real world problems squeezed non-monetary incentives and ‘irrational’ motives from economists’ purview. At the same time bureaucracies are very good at doing the same thing – of ignoring the specific nature of the life world of those they serve. (Of course ‘cultural incentives’ and if you like ‘irrational’ motives are at the heart of what makes bureaucracies work at all, but that’s internally. Those very conditions create fertile ground in which the organisation will make presumptions on the rationality of those whom they serve. But I digress.)

There are two potential ‘narratives’ as we say these days about behavioural economics as an antidote to this state of affairs. The first – exemplified, for instance in this blog post from behavioural economics consultancy 42 ideas - is that behavioural economics and the policies that emerge from it provide an example of economics’ taking upon itself the injunction “Physician health thyself”. Thus in the place of homo economicus - a simplified but unrealistic view of human nature – behavioural economics investigates the way this model is wrong and policy inspired by it takes those things into account in proposing new policy.

Thus the nudge unit in the UK (we have a small clone of it in NSW) does AB testing on government correspondence – discovering and exploiting the fact that taxpayers show stronger compliance to an arrears letter from the tax authorities if it contains a sentence like “over 90% of taxpayers pay their taxes on time” and the response is a bit higher still if the sentence makes the comparison more personal still “Over 90.5% of your neighbours in Notting Hill pay their tax on time”. These are ‘nudges’ in the vernacular of this field and so too is attention to trying to set the most benign possible defaults to take into account the power of inertia. The classic example – used around the world in both government and business these days is setting people’s savings plans to save higher proportions of their income (often by diverting any pay rise they have received into savings) unless they make a conscious decision not to go along, in which case it’s as easy as ticking a box on a form and they can (consciously) choose some alternative. This is behavioural economics as a box of tips and tricks to be added on to neoclassical economics. The physician, if he hasn’t healed himself, has introduced some routines that are better suited to the world.

But there’s another way to look at these tips and tricks – to look at them as ‘tips and tricks of the iceberg’. Ultimately people must be encountered as such. The tips and tricks of behavioural economics are no more or less than a summary of rules that have been gleaned that have the generality necessary to find their way relatively straightforwardly into the learned journal literature. But there’s a whole life world out there. That’s what needs to be encountered and that’s what is always in danger of being given insufficient weight. As Hayek put it

Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is . . . a body of very important but unorganized knowledge: . . . the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. [In this] respect . . . practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation.

Hayek only ever paid any attention to one particularisation of this general proposition – he’s thinking of the value the trader adds in a market to the knowhow of the scientist, the accountant, the engineer, the boss. But the observation is a much wider one. Yet the very tyranny of central planning against which he set himself is alive and well inside organisations, not least government organisations and those that deliver their services.

 

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What was unexpected about Syria and Egypt?

Middle-East watchers have been surprised by the events in Syria and Egypt the last 2 years. The betting markets in 2011 and 2012 expected the collapse of the Syrian regime, but it didn’t happen. The West and most Al-Jazeera commentators thought the coup that deposed the Morsi-government was unsustainable and that some accommodation with the Brotherhood would have to be found. Even Israeli analysts, who by and large were against the Morsi-government, predicted that the new military regime could not survive. Both judgements seem incorrect so far: the Syrian regime looks safe and the Egyptian military junta is now as firmly in charge as ever. What did the watchers miss, ie what should we pay more attention to in the future that we didn’t see before?

And let me honest and say that I too was wrong on both counts: I have been making a point of giving predictions on many aspects of European and Middle Eastern politics for about 4 years now. I called lots of things right, from the chaos in Lybia, to the continued Greek bailouts in the EU, to the rise of the Egyptian brotherhood. Nearly everything, except for the developments in Syria and Egypt. As I said in December 2013, I thought in 2012 that the Americans would arm some part of the Syrian opposition and thus bring down the Assad regime. The betting markets scored it around 85% likely that Assad would be gone by the end of 2013. Similarly, in August of 2013 I thought there was no way the Egyptian army could so clearly assume total economic and political control (I thought this alongside 15 Al-Jazeera commentators at the time and, apparently, the Israeli intelligence community thought the military junta very fragile too). What did I/we fail to see?

In the case of Syria, it now appears that the missing ingredient was the psychology of the US president. As expected, the US state department did indeed want to pick a winner in the Syrian civil war. At least, Hillary Clinton claims to have argued for it strongly. But Obama vetoed it according to her, apparently not able to see the tremendous disruption that would ensue in the whole region of a failure to interfere. Obama might have been following his father’s belief that to interfere was neo-colonial and would only lead to more future trouble. Obama might have thought that others in the region, such as the Turks, would not tolerate any mayor disruption and take control. Obama might have simply miscalculated the brutality that the Syrian regime was willing to inflict on its own population, or the brutality of the many groups who were being sponsored by other countries. Whatever the reason, it seems Obama won the internal fight and kept the US out of it.

The muddled strategy of the US was pretty hard to foresee in 2011/2012 and it seems to have involved the particular psychology of the president, so on that one the main lesson is that some presidents mean what they say and can deliver when they say they don’t want to involve the US in foreign adventures. To see that coming would require an intimate level of knowledge of the actual psychology of lots of world-leaders, something that is not reasonable to expect from any individual observer because politicians and their entourage make a point of creating an appealing image of themselves which makes it nigh impossible to know what they are really like, so as a mis-predictions go there is little structural to be learned there: a particularly unusual draw of the statistical error term!

In the case of Egypt, what was missed seems more fundamental: no ‘random error’ in sight to explain what has happened. No single individual has behaved unusually, rather the Egyptian population has reacted differently from expected. At least, no one I have read called all the developments before they happened. Continue reading

Hypocrisy and the outbreak of crypto-socialism amongst our corporate overlords: Shock!

Mark zuckerberg tim cookIn an outbreak of cross-pontification Tim Cook thinks that Facebook and Google customers should be pretty suspicious of them because they collect a lot of data. Not to be outdone, Mark Zuckerberg thinks that Apple should cut its prices so it doesn’t make as much money. He doesn’t think that Facebook should cut it’s prices to its users – perhaps by paying them a cut of the revenue they bring in – to bring Facebook’s profit down to the kinds of reasonable levels he feels Apple’s profitability should be.

Still, it’s nice to see St Thomas Aquinas’s theory of the just price if not making a comeback, then at least poking its head over the parapet.

The interregnum at the Australian Public Service Commission

Many years ago now, Steve Sedgwick the Australian Public Service Commission explained to me that it wouldn’t be right to publish the hoard of information the APSC has on APS employees’ attitudes to their workplaces agency by agency because that would undermine the relationship of discretion and cooperation the APSC has with agencies.

Just thinking about that argument it falls apart it seems to me. If the rules are the results are published the APSC publishing the data isn’t a hostile act, it’s just process. Anyway, no progress has been made while this kind of data has been published in other countries routinely and the whole world gets the bug on open data.

Meanwhile I suspect the reports the APSC sends each agency outlining its performance are FOIable. If that’s true it’s all a bit of a house of cards waiting to fall. And all of a sudden five capability reviews appeared on the APSC website one Friday afternoon. The Mandarin covered the contents of the reviews which are quite candid about departmental shortcomings. Only two of the five capability reviews were recent. One was from earlier this year and two were from last year.

No press release, no date on the website. Why? Who knows, but here’s hoping the house of cards continues to collapse.

Speaking of bullshit . . .

A brief note – with a long appendix – about my recent re-reading of Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” in the writing of a recent post. I remembered the article fondly, but on re-reading it I found it was mostly bullshit – Srsly! It wasn’t the most odious of bullshit – which comes with all sorts of swagger. But it was bullshit nevertheless – not bullshit as swagger but bullshit as vapidity.  The article has a single – very good – idea in it which accounts for its well deserved fame or notoriety which could have received just as good explication by the author in a 700 word op ed – 500 if you were pressed for space. The idea can be summarised very briefly. Firstly we have a great sentence. “Even the most basic and preliminary questions about bullshit remain . . . not only unanswered but unasked.” And then the thesis. Bullshit is deception but the deception is not that of the deliberate untruth of the liar – which requires an interest in truth so as to deceive. Rather the deception is that though the words are delivered with apparent seriousness, they are rather delivered with  complete disregard for the truth. And an environment in which people speak without knowing their subject is the bed in which bullshit grows.

That’s more or less it. Other interesting and important ideas have been set out by others. For instance I had originally remembered that Frankfurter had also drawn attention to the way in which both the bullshitter and bullshitee are complicit in the performance, but that insight appears to have been supplied by a later contributor. Anyway Frankfurter takes 16 pages to set out the simple ideas I’ve summarised above. Now of course it’s often the case that an article expounds a single idea – the assertion of which could be done in a paragraph or two, but in a good article the supporting pages - 15 in this case – help amplify and illustrate the point. I don’t think that’s the case here. Here are two sentences which appear towards end of the essay in sequence:

Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

What does the second sentence add to the first? They seem to say not just the same thing, but precisely the same thing – two sentences which could be alternatives, but not complements. I think the whole article is like this. And in this it’s very like so many other academic material. Full of academic filler, or to use Frankfurter’s term, bullshit. (I recently bought a Kindle book called “Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources” by Brett M. Frischmann. I was anxious to read it because it was right up my alley – conceptualising infrastructure as a commons and drawing parallels between traditional economic infrastructure and non-traditional infrastructure – such as intellectual resources and social capital. It’s got some good stuff in it, but it had the same problem. Endless handling of possible objections often trivial only occasionally somewhat less so.)

If one took objections of that kind seriously one would never get anywhere. As exhibit A I extract below the fold a couple of pages of Frankfurter’s discussion which helps to establish what he thinks bullshit is. The example he provides is probably not a very good example. So he spends two pages going through possible objections to the example – only to conclude that if you ignore those objections it is a good example. Why not pick a better example – or make one up?  I don’t know the answer but I presume it’s because his example has a famous philosopher in it and – after all – he’s writing a philosophy essay isn’t he?

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Does increasing the legal age for buying alcohol reduce traffic accidents?

Does increasing the legal drinking age reduce traffic accidents caused by young drivers? The idea is that if you increase the legal age at which people can drink, young people are going to quietly abide by the law, not do anything stupid, read the bible, contemplate their sinful natures, and stay out of trouble.

Hang on though, one thinks: drink-driving is already illegal at any age, so what exactly does one expect to change when one restricts the sale of alcohol to 21 years and over, instead of having the current age limit of 18? If you were worried about them breaking the law before, why would you think changing the drinking laws would help? Breaking 2 laws is harder than 1?

In a recent letter to the Medical Journal of Australia, Jason Lindo and Peter Siminski, two economists from Texas and Wollongong respectively, point out that the more recent and more authoritative economics studies find that raising the age limit on buying alcohol does not help reduce serious traffic accidents at all. They do this in reaction to a completely one-sided account by medics who call for the drinking age increase, citing mainly cross-sectional studies (find attached the letter by the two economists and the reply of the authors of the offending article, which basically admits the cherry-picking that they originally engaged in:Lindo and Siminski 2014 with Toumbourou et al reply).

Lindo and Siminski point out that in New South Wales, changes to drinking laws did not change the accident rate of young people. Neither did a recent reduction in the drinking age in New Zealand, where the drinking age reduced from 20 to 18, increase accident rates amongst the 18-19 year olds (their behaviour was changing already, but not after the law change). Moreover, they point to studies that show that people indeed do substitute alcohol for other drugs that also affect their driving, which helps explain why there is on balance neither a positive nor a negative effect on traffic accidents from changing the age drinking laws. The studies they quote, which include the only studies on Australia on this topic, used the latest techniques based on analysing changes in behaviour of young people just before and after the introduction of the laws, which is what one wants to do. Prior studies are less convincing because they compare behaviour between regions within a country or over long time periods, which comes with the problem that regions and periods differ for many other reasons than merely the drinking age.

More generally, one can doubt the wisdom of a puritanical attitude to alcohol simply by looking at differences across countries. Central Europe, and in particular France, Italy, Spain, and the other Southern European countries, have much more relaxed attitudes to alcohol, with kids learning much younger to be responsible with alcohol. The more repressive attitude in the UK and here in Australia, on the other hand, is associated with binge drinking, very high rates of teenage pregnancies, and extreme risk behaviour. Once the kids do get access to alcohol, often by illicit means as the forbidden fruit is made so enticing, they dont hold back, which should make one wonder about the wisdom of declaring the fruit so forbidden.

Lando and Siminski thus try to inject a bit of common sense and self-reflection into our debates on alcohol laws, apparently having to fight a rather puritanical bunch of medics that insists we cannot trust young people and should ban them from buying alcohol till they are 21. Yet, we allow those between 18 and 21 to drive, to vote, and to die for us as soldiers in foreign battles, but we are supposed to declare them incompetent when it comes to drinking?

Lando and Siminski are hence right, both on the latest science that says there is no real relation between the drinking age and traffic accidents, and on the larger issue of consumer choice: if we abandon the idea that all voters are equal and that we should proscribe the behaviour of some of them, where do we stop? Should we lock up all young people from the age of 15 to 25 to prevent them from doing anything we did ourselves but do not want them to do? I have heard medics argue this at conferences….

So it is a very paternalistic and holier-than-though brigade that wishes to control the lives of others, without any regard to the joy they are destroying, using selective studies to argue their case. Why did the MJA publish the original one-sided piece by medics, one wonders? Economists are right to resist such reckless and blinkered destruction of consumer surplus.

PhD Scholarships on “The Behavioural Economics of Undesirable Cooperation”

Some people engage in socially disruptive behaviour on their own, such as when they free-ride on paying taxes. Others cooperate with others though when they are socially disruptive: cronyism, corruption, nepotism, gangsterism, and favouritism are all examples of cooperative behaviour that benefits a clique but comes at the expense of larger organisations and societies. How does such socially detrimental cooperation arise and is it done by the same people who would be disruptive on their own? What adverse consequences does it have for other members of society? What can be done to counter such behaviour?

An international team of top scholars at the University of New South Wales, the University of Queensland, and Duke University has obtained an Australian Research Council Discovery grant to find out. Fully funded PhD scholarships are available for students interested in these questions.

Students would be involved in devising and running laboratory experiments, as well as possibly running field experiments in developing countries. There will also be opportunities to help construct theoretical models of clique formation in diverse contexts, and to conduct micro-econometric modelling of the incidence and consequences of undesirable cooperation.  Outcomes of interest might include output, income, mental health, happiness, social cohesion, job mobility, and entrepreneurship.

Successful applicants will need to have at a minimum an undergraduate degree with Honours in economics, good written English, and excellent analytical skills. Proven interests in experiments, panel data econometrics, micro-models, and/or behavioural economics are desirable. Willingness to travel internationally and conduct research in developing countries would also be beneficial.

Students would be based in Sydney, though supervision would be shared with the University of Queensland. PhD scholarships of up to AUD$30,000 per year for 3 years are available.

Applications should be sent to Dr. Gigi Foster at [email protected].   Want more information?  Contact Ben Greiner ([email protected]) or Paul Frijters ([email protected]).