Monday, January 15, 2018

Trump - One Year In

About a year ago, I posted on Trump looking at what I saw as the reasons to be optimistic and pessimistic. Let's revisit that now that we have a year under our belt.

Overall, I think my predictions were good with some notable variance in a couple areas. Of course, I was vague enough to prevent too much inaccuracy (or accuracy) by design. Here are the areas that standout to me with a look back at my prior comments.

The Good

  • Taxes - this one was somewhat surprisingly good, blemishes and all. [remember with all of these we are grading on a curve] Much like Chance, Trump only gets credit for being there to sign the bill. 
  • Regulation - 1.25 steps forward with 1 step back is still progress. Congress and Trump completely failed to reform much less repeal the ACA (Obamacare). I have low and ebbing faith Dodd-Frank, et al. will be meaningfully changed. Still, there are success stories, and slowing the rate of growth is itself improvement
  • Judicial Appointments - I somehow missed mentioning this previously, and it would have been in the optimism bucket. This one has lived up to realistic (not full libertarian) hope. 
  • Lost Respect for the Sanctity of the Office - yes this is a feature--let the scales fall from your eyes, the emperors have never been well dressed. But . . .
The Bad
  • Presidential Power & Authority - we may be chipping away at the Cult of the Presidency, but I don't yet see the groundswell from the left or the center that I might hope for. They are much to tied up in the emotion of this particular president's actions and words.
  • Immigration - unlike in trade (below), Trump's actions have matched his rhetoric in this area. Here it looks to be an on-going real fight and will perhaps be the most lasting and impactful negative consequence of Trump.
  • Trade - as I mentioned, his administration is a lot of (bad) talk on this, but so far little action. Still, he has many opportunities to make good on his very bad desires.
  • War - I was not pessimistic enough on this. Drone attacks have increased under Trump as the list of places we are at war have grown. The U.S. government with the help of a complicit even if blissfully ignorant populace continues to be wrongfully aggressive. Include in this the surveillance state, but I am fairly certain this one is sadly nonpartisan. 
  • Drug Policy - yep, unfortunately I nailed this one.
The Ugly
  • Hatred, Nationalism, Bullying, etc. - I was not as pessimistic as I should have been in this general area. The downside of losing the always undue respect for the U.S. presidency is that it took this buffoon to get us there. He is at best sloppy and inconsiderate, at worst hateful and demagogic. If you need links on this topic to prove the point, you have been in a coma for 12+ months.
On balance there are reasons to claim "silver linings" and reasons to claim "not so fast".

PS. For a better analysis of the economic policy results of Trump's first year, read Scott Sumner's take

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The 2017 Tax Reform

There may not be another area of public policy where the distinction is greater between how non-economists (the general public, politicians, journalists, and practitioners in the area (in this case tax lawyers and accountants)) and economists evaluate policy than exists in tax policy. Who should you pay attention to? I will let the rest of this post hint at my answer.

Here is a sampling for how economists look at taxes centering on the most recently enacted changes to the U.S. Federal Tax Code. I've indicated the major takeaways for each and tried to keep this as low wonk as possible. Trust me; it could have been a lot deeper in the weeds.

Scott Sumner notes that there is more good reform in the recent changes than what probably was expected, by no means is it all progress, and that three natural experiments come out of the package. He also has a post discussing misconceptions in tax policy where most people don't understand that to tax someone you must reduce that person's consumption. If you don't reduce it, you haven't taxed that person--period. He also points out that distortions are always an important part of evaluating tax policy.

Steve Landsburg echos Scott's take and adds his own points including how the recent reform is genuine improvement and still far, far from the ideal.

John Cochrane is always worth quoting on tax policy. I'll limit myself to a few. First, here is how he sees the public role for economists discussing tax policy. Here is a long, but very rewarding, analysis of how to craft a good tax regime and what makes it "good". He calls out a fellow economist, former colleague and friend Austan Goolsbee, for not thinking like an economist. And he reminds us that the distributional effects of tax changes are never what the public and media expect.

Rawls' Veil of Ignorance is a useful philosophical approach in many cases and a good tool for guiding tax policy. How tax changes happen to affect you should not guide what changes you support. Humility is another quality tax reform should respect. The risks of unintended consequences are orders of magnitude higher in tax policy than in other aspects of political economy.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Saving Enough for Retirement? - New Year's Resolution fulfillment post

It is time again to report on my perpetual New Year's Resolution - to change my mind about a belief I hold strongly. Happy to report that I was again successful achieving it some time last spring. As I read and reflected upon this argument against increasing Social Security expansion and this counter-conventional wisdom post (HT: Don Boudreaux), I realized I needed to challenge myself against assuming I know what "you" or "we" need to save for retirement.

Formally presented: I have overturned my long-held and thoughtlessly repeated mantra that "typical Americans are not saving 'enough' for retirement". I should have had strong reservations about this mantra as it is a bold affront to my principles to presume that I know the correct amount people should be saving (or consuming).

The heart-breaking stories of the poor not having adequate if any savings for retirement is as misleading as looking at the Forbes 400 as a barometer of retirement preparedness. We do not and should not expect a household that finds itself in the rare but tragic condition of always being in the lowest income deciles to have retirement savings. Those are the households for which Social Security, private charity, et al. are supposed to be the safety net. To analyze the potential problem, one must look at much deeper data and analysis concerning aggregates and focusing on where households actually stand. Andrew Biggs at AEI does that exceedingly well as indicated by this post (HT: again Don Boudreaux).

Make no mistake: there is government-induced crowding out and misleading, many examples of individuals with unrealistic expectations, and bad financial decisions aided largely by government-protected culprits. But the basic belief I formerly held is not substantiated.

Epilogue: The State of Sooner Football

Seven months ago to the day a new era in the storied history of Sooner football began. I posted about it here. This first season has ended. Here are my impressions.

By all measure and accounts it was truly magical. But it came up just short of being Sooner Magic; although, this was as close an example as there can be.
Obviously, the ultimate outcome is unfortunate. But time will heal the still fresh wounds (wounds that we receive a bit of salt tomorrow evening as I watch Georgia in OU's stead battle Alabama for the national title).

I would rate the season as a short-term failure (we had every right to believe we would win it all but we did not) but a long-term strong success (we won a conference championship, competed very well for a national championship, won a Heisman trophy among others, and made numerous, forever-memorable moments to add to the Sooner legacy).

My prior post made mention of a needed ingredient to achieve the level of success Sooner football demands: luck. The Sooners this year did not have much luck. Balls did not bounce their way either proverbially or literally. I wouldn't say they were unlucky, but they didn't get the breaks going their way either. Yet, they still achieved all that they did. Quite impressive.

Maybe it was Sooner Magic, but it a more subtle way. Baker Mayfield is the embodiment of Sooner Magic. He overcame repeated doubt; he had the style, swagger, and toughness of The Boz; and in the end he has the resume few will ever dream of. No one will ever again label him a pretender.

A fabulous season, it was all done too soon.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The State of Sooner Football

About nine months ago I began writing this post in rough form following a pair of painful and disappointing losses to begin the 2016 Sooner football season. I refined it a bit about midway through the season, but as prospects were improving, I put it back on the shelf not wanting to post something that seemed too critical during a season-comeback effort. The post is more about the long run trend than the short run noise (good or bad). With today's news it seems appropriate to consider the thought experiment...

Bob Stoops has chosen to retire. His contributions to OU have been tremendous. I am and always have been a very strong fan and supporter of Stoops--at times perhaps an apologist. I will miss him being on my team's sideline. He reawakened The Monster. He was an innovator. On the field and off the field he pursued and achieved excellence. Looking back at his tenure it is easy to pine for what could have been. But the fair reflection would be to consider that it is only because of what did happen are we as fans in a position to regret what could have been--his leadership brought OU to such heights that we could see mountain tops yet to climb. [sappy but true]

Here is the post I originally started last football season; the strong finish to the 2016 season, sadly Bob Stoops last, caused me to revise my priors somewhat...

Starting with the premise that OU's expectations of championship-level football have not been met during the last 8 years (2009-2016); what is the explanation? 

Make no mistake about it, the past 8 years have been at a VERY high level of success--what 95% of teams would consider completely satisfying and what >50% of teams could never dream of: 
  • 81-24 overall record--77%.
  • 5-3 bowl record (bowl game every year including 4 major bowls).
  • 1 national championship competed for (lost to Clemson in semifinals).
  • 4 conference titles; competitive (my view) 5 of 8 years (50%!!! but against a debilitated league).
  • Record breaking performances by both the team and individuals including several players competing for top national awards--the Heisman among them. (My views on the Heisman reflect why this is an after thought in this list.)
Yet the prior 10 years were stronger: 
  • 109-24 overall record--82%.
  • 4-6 bowl record (bowl game every year including 7 major bowls).
  • 4 national championships competed for (won against Florida St.; lost to LSU, USC, and Florida).
  • 6 conference titles; competitive 9 of 10 years (60%!!! against a very tough league)
  • Even more record breaking performances and quite a few more awards won including two Heismans, FWIW.
The records are both great and quite close except for the nuance that OU's contention for titles (national and conference) was much stronger. 

So, given the premise, I can think of three possibilities and two alternatives:

1. The Sooners have simply been unlucky the past 8 years.

2. They were lucky in the beginning of the Stoops era (the first 10 years before the last 8 years) and the ability to reach OU's lofty expectations simply was never there.
3. They were up to fulfilling expectations at the beginning of the Stoops era but now they have faded in capabilities (the game as passed them by).

Alternatively we could say:

4. The premise is bad because they actually have been competing at a championship level--just less completely as might be possible/desired (i.e., too few championships achieved).

5. The expectation was faulty (i.e., they shouldn't expect to compete at a championship level).

I hope for 1, fear 2, and slightly suspect 3, but I highly suspect 4 and strongly reject 5. That puts me in possibility 1 assuming the premise and alternative 4 if I can question it.

Assuming the premise, my guess is about 70% of all Sooner fans fall into possibility 1, about 10% fall into 2, and about 20% fall into 3. But these answers would have been significantly different if looked at right after the loss to Ohio State and a 1-2 start to the 2016 season.
Allowing for the alternatives, I would then guess that the assignment of Sooner fans would be about like this:

% of Fans

The fans that don't jump from possibility 1 to possibility 4 once we allow the questioning of the premise probably have unrealistic expectations--they think their team should ALWAYS win. I am tempted to dismiss these folks as fans who think the winning team "just wanted it more". I am tempted to dismiss fans who jump to possibility 5 (presumably from possibilities 2 or 3) as fans who would be happier rooting for a much lesser team so as to increase the emotional gain from a win and decrease the emotional pain of a loss (i.e., no true Sooners).

All fans will make their own evaluations over the course of the Lincoln Riley era, though, probably not with the formality I bring to the matter. And the measure will be how does that era match up to all 18 amazing years under Stoops. I wish Bob the best and thank him for the happiness he brought me as a fan.

I wish Lincoln luck. I fully expect that he has what it takes to keep the Sooners' status as a contender, but satisfying The Monster takes more than ability. It takes luck.

Boomer Sooner!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

I'll Have What She's Having

This email from Marco Bresba to Tyler Cowen on food versus music as social status signature really resonated with me.

I have always been out of step with music culture. Growing up I was 1-2 decades behind my peers enjoying music from my parent's generation and the 1/2 generation between us. Because I never liked kid's music, though, I was an outsider in kindergarten (listening to adult music) and then an outsider in junior high and high school for the same reason. My horizons have very much broadened in the past two decades and I have friends, lovers, and (mostly) the Internet to thank for that.

People think of me as a foodie, a title I cringe at a bit when assigned to me. I am definitely 1+ standard deviations to the right on food knowledge, experience, and willingness. But at the same time, I know what I don't know and don't do.

My relationship with food and my fellow man is a perfect microcosm for how I see most issues. I agree with no one. On the one hand I try to hold back a knee-jerk, mocking disdain for those to the left of me on the distribution (to abuse that analogy a bit more). The complacency (and that is the perfect methaphor) aggravates my less-charitable self. Eventually I come around to my higher principles--de gustibus non est disputandum--and I seek to accept their mockery of my choices leaving an open door to help guide them along the journey should they choose enlightenment. And yes, I am being sarcastic about my arrived status because . . .

On the other hand I have a hard time hiding my inner-eye roll at those reaching mightily for ultimate food nirvana. My knee-jerk reaction to those demonstrating their fringe and elite status is to assume it is not genuine. I keep waiting for them to rediscover the hot dog, but only concede that it is a desired food once deconstructed from a food truck or simply for the sake of irony. This extreme is its own version of complacency. Rather than make choices for themselves, we have a group looking to peers for the next best (and approved) thing.

This is me at any dinner party. I am either the most avant-garde among a group of conventional wisdom followers (whose motto might be "Choose Sliced Bread, the best thing from here on out!) or I am the most conventional (small-c conservative) among a group of would-be trend setters. Like I say, my food tastes are a microcosm. For once conversation starts I will find myself uneasily choosing how much to politely disagree and hoping the others will appreciate that true respect comes not from acquiescence but from honest/divergent/challenging discussion.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

To UBI, or not to UBI

Alternatively titled, "I Wish I Were BIG".

An idea that has been percolating for a couple years now is a replacement of the current welfare/income transfer system with a Universal Basic Income (UBI) or Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). This idea has origins back to Milton Friedman's Negative Income Tax idea first introduced in Capitalism and Freedom back in 1962.

Watch this space. I predict this idea grows to dominate the debate especially as the unarguably unsustainable social welfare systems reach critical breaking points.

I find the idea fascinating for a number of reasons. My biases creep in all along this debate starting with its origins with Friedman. Some central considerations:

  1. Is the proposal(s) simplification a feature or a bug? My bias is to always simplify all else equal.
  2. Does it replace the entire welfare system (including Medicare and Social Security)? My bias is to replace it all.
  3. Can we reliably replace rather than have this be a politically-captured add on to the current mess? My bias is to avoid opportunities for add on--i.e., I worry about this risk.
  4. Can we trust people to make their own decisions (i.e., cash versus in-kind support)? My bias is to allow adults to be adults and not dictate their choices at least not through the government. On-the-ground private charity will undoubtedly find their mileage varies along this dimension. 
  5. Should it be a very basic subsistence level of aid or a substantial amount (i.e., allow you to pursue that well-fed artist career you've always dreamed of)? My bias is to the low end.
The tension between directional versus destination libertarians is thick here. The interesting and constructive debate is fully within the directional camp (i.e., is this a long-term improvement towards the ideal?). By no means is this a first-best solution (i.e., not a destination).

Bryan Caplan is against the idea. My bias is to first assume Caplan is correct in all things he has a strong opinion on. David Henderson agrees with Caplan. The discussion between Caplan and Ed Dolan is a very thorough treatment of the topic (DEFINITELY read the whole thing). Now cue Mike Munger to start making the strong case for it. Arnold Kling was not impressed. And he makes a strong point about means-tested aid versus behavior-tested aid including where (government or private charity) the competitive advantage in each resides. 

The devil is in the details SO MUCH in this quagmire. Perhaps the most critical (and damning) question is who would be politically capable of achieving this type of a change. While I am very sympathetic to the idea, I cannot conceive of any name attached to the Congressional act that would give me any trust I could support the measure.

P.S., Sorry for all the "i.e." use.