Friday, March 28, 2014

Do it for Denmark

Denmark is worried about its fertility rate, though at 1.73 it is huge compared to Poland (1.33) the Ukraine (1.30), South Korea (1.25), or Singapore (0.80). It never ceases to amaze me how little people know about fertility rates and what the implications of those rates are, but it is a narrative that the mainstream press suppresses.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Trickle down biology

Though few in number, they have an effect that affects the whole system for the better.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

People still respond to incentives

Casey Mulligan is surprised that some economists seem to have forgotten that people respond to incentives, that if you penalize work, you get less of it.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Socialism to our south

The results of socialism in Venezuela are what anyone who understands economics expects, but some citizens still prefer to believe that bad results must come for bad people:

Each day the arrival of a new item at Excelsior Gama brought Venezuelans flooding into the store: for flour, beef, sugar. Store employees and security guards helped themselves to the goods first, clogging the checkout lines, and then had to barricade the doors to hold back the surge at the entrance.
“The store owners are doing this on purpose, to increase sales,” said Marjorie Urdaneta, a government supporter who said she believes Maduro when he accuses businesses of colluding with foreign powers to wage “economic war” against him.
“He should tell the stores: Make these items available — or else,” she said.
Socialism is always in trouble because of sabotage--a favorite theme in the USSR and China under Mao. It is unfortunate that some people cannot understand that people respond to incentives.
Most Venezuelans are too busy just trying to secure the basics. Residents from the country’s interior say the shortages are even worse outside the capital.
“There’s nothing to buy where we live,” said Maria Valencia, a preschool teacher from the oil-producing hub of Maracaibo, near Venezuela’s western border, while shopping at a government-run Bicentenario supermarket where products sold by recently nationalized companies carried little heart symbols and the phrase “Made in Socialism.”
Valencia and three family members had filled their cart with corn oil, four bottles each, the maximum. “This stuff is gold,” she said.
Shoppers here were more inclined to blame the scarcities on badly behaved countrymen whom they said were trying to profit from the situation.
And while the government is trying to run the economy, it is not doing a very good job with a basic function of government:

But if the president’s fiscal policies are anything like his response to rising crime, the country looks to be in trouble.
The Jan. 6 roadside killing of former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear in a botched robbery attempt jolted a country long-numbed by one of the world’s highest homicide rates and near-total criminal impunity. 

In democracy people get the kind of government that they deserve, which may be very different from the kind of government that they want. 

Read the whole thing in the Washington Posts here.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


I have always liked the word "penultimate" because it seems so pretentious. Why not simply say "next-to-last"? But today I found an even more pretentious word: "antepenultimate". It means "next to next to last" or "two before the last." Now I just have to figure out where I can use it.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Shakeup at the Minneapolis Fed

The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis may be the smallest of the 12 Reserve Banks, but in recent years it has earned the reputation of having one of the best research departments. That may be changing.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Reflections on What to Expect When No One's Expecting

Published in 1968, Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb reignited Malthusian fears about the imminent collapse of civilization due to overpopulation. Selling over two million copies, it shaped perceptions for the past half century. Despite the fact that its alarmist predictions have been falsified by history, in the popular mind the threat of overpopulation still looms.

Jonathan Last has a very different message in What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster. He dismisses The Population Bomb as "one of the most spectacularly foolish books ever written." His concern is how nations will cope with shrinking populations. Throughout the developed world and even in some of the developing world, fertility rates have fallen below replacement. Women are averaging less than two babies in Europe, the Far East, and even parts of South American. Only in Africa and in some parts of the middle east are fertility rates still high, and even many of these have fallen.

Last faces several barriers to his message. First, many people do not understand what the fertility rate measures. The media focuses on crude birth rate or population growth, not fertility rates, and even when they discuss fertility rates, they often do not use that term. The fertility rate is an estimate of the average number of children a cohort of women will bear during their reproductive years. Because some children die before they reach adulthood, the replacement level of the fertility rate is usually given as 2.1, though it will be higher in poor countries with high child mortality. If a country maintains its fertility rate at the replacement level, it will eventually, with a long lag, stabilize population and have zero population growth. That lag is the second barrier to his message.

The relationship between fertility rates and population growth is not straightforward. Many people do not understand how population can continue to grow if the fertility rate is below replacement. To answer that question requires a bit of mathematical reasoning and math is hard for most people. Ignoring immigration and emigration, population increases when the number of births exceed the number of deaths. The people dying are mostly old people. The fertility rate tells us nothing about what old people are doing; it tells us what young women are doing. In a population that has had a high fertility rate, the number of old people will be much smaller than the number of young people. If the young people start having few babies with a fertility rate below replacement, the number of births may easily exceed the number of deaths because the old generation is small relative to the population.

However, if the fertility rate stays below replacement long enough, the age structure of the population changes and the old generation becomes large relative to the young generation. When that happens, deaths may exceed births even if the young people start having lots of babies. A change in fertility rates does not have its full effects on population growth or decline immediately, but only after a long lag. There are several countries that have had low fertility rates for so long that their populations are now declining. Japan, Germany, and Russia are examples. In the not too distant future much of Europe will join their ranks.

Third, some people who understand that population expansion is not inevitable and that many parts of the world will in coming years will face a population decline maintain that the decline will be a good thing because there are too many people today. This position focuses on the level of population and is concerned with what level of population is ideal. It ignores that the rate of change in population, regardless of what the level is, has effects that may be good or bad. Last is not concerned with the issues surrounding the level of population. He is concerned only with the issues surrounding the change. He notes that a declining population creates some serious problems for a society and that we have limited experience in anticipating or dealing with those problems.

Chief among those problems is providing support for the elderly. All societies must deal with this problem in some way. In traditional societies children take care of their parents, so in these societies to be childless is a curse. In industrial societies a combination of financial markets and government transfer programs have relieved children from the task of caring for their parents but do not relieve the young from the task of supporting the old. Resources must be transferred from the young to the old, either voluntarily via financial markets or by coercion through government transfers. What we do not know is how societies will cope as the ratio of young to old decreases to levels as low as two to one. The change will affect savings and investment, innovation, and the military power a nation can project.

Last is not an expert in demography. He is a writer who is summarizing the work of others and presenting it in an easy-to-digest form for a popular audience. Demography is a story of numbers, and to enliven the book Last mixes in observations of American culture and stories. For example, Margaret Sanger was an eugenist whose goal was to stop the poor from breeding. She teamed up with a woman who had control of the fortune made by the founder of International Harvester to fund research to develop the birth control pill. The research was successful but had consequences quite different from what Sanger envisioned. The pill seems to have depressed births among the prosperous and educated more than it has depressed births among the poor and uneducated. (The extent to which the pill contributed to other changes such as increased premarital sex and cohabitation, increased age at first marriage, and a higher divorce rate remains uncertain.)

Fertility rates have fallen to levels that no one expected back when Ehrlich was renewing Malthusian fears. In Singapore, for example, the average number of babies being born is only a little more than one per young woman. The government has tried a variety of policies to raise that level, but without success. Last points out throughout his book that in the contemporary world there are no economic benefits to having children but there are substantial costs. It is therefore not surprising that so many people opt for few or no children. Last sees no reason for low fertility rates to rise, though most estimates of what the population will be in 50 or 100 years from now assume that they bounce back to replacement levels. Eventually fertility rates will rise, but only time will reveal when and why.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Cut the meat, save the fat

Thomas Sowell describes the perverse incentives of government bureaucrats facing budget cuts much better than I can:

Back in my teaching days, many years ago, one of the things I liked to ask the class to consider was this: Imagine a government agency with only two tasks: (1) building statues of Benedict Arnold and (2) providing life-saving medications to children. If this agency's budget were cut, what would it do?
The answer, of course, is that it would cut back on the medications for children. Why? Because that would be what was most likely to get the budget cuts restored. If they cut back on building statues of Benedict Arnold, people might ask why they were building statues of Benedict Arnold in the first place.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine

When I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1968 to 1970, I frequently encountered radical leftists who regarded Mao Zedong (or Mao Tse-tung as he was known in those days) as a hero, a great leader with a great intellect. They did not know and would not have believed that a decade earlier Mao's Great Leap Forward had caused the starvation of millions of Chinese peasants. The exact number will never be known, but estimates range from 17 million to more than 50 million.

Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng is a comprehensive examination of this disaster. The author was in high school when he received word that his father was dying of starvation back in his village. He rushed home but found that his father was too far gone to be helped. It would be years before the author came to understand that his father was one of millions of people who died in an unnecessary man-made disaster. His doubts about the infallibility of the Communist leadership began to form during the Cultural Revolution when many high-ranking officials were accused of corruption. Those doubts matured into skepticism when Yang became a reporter and learned how news was manipulated to indoctrinate the masses. Eventually he decided he needed to uncover the truth. His quest for truth led to this book.

The English version of Tombstone is about half as long as the original Chinese version, published in Hong Kong in 2008 and not available in Mainland China, and it also rearranges the material. Most of the detailed, province-by-province accounts of the famine have been eliminated. Remaining are accounts from a few provinces that were especially hard hit and the chapters that analyze the reasons for this disaster. The book would not have been possible if there were not high-level party officials who also believed that the truth needed to be recorded and preserved.

Unlike Chinese famines in the past, this famine was not caused by flooding, drought, or any other natural calamity. It was caused by policies that Mao Zedong set and kept in place. Mao did not intend to starve millions of people. His goal was to stay in power as the new emperor of China and to use his power to establish the utopia that is the goal of faithful Marxists. His utopian beliefs would not have had disastrous consequences if the triumph of the Chinese Communists in 1949 had not ushered in a totalitarian government.

China has a long tradition of authoritarian government and the communists adopted that authoritarianism despite their promises that they would be democratic. Society was organized as a pyramid, with each level a dictator to those below and a slave to those above. The addition of the secular religion of Marxism allowed the Chinese Communists to take the authoritarian system of the emperors to an extreme. Marxism, despite its rhetoric of egalitarianism, is an elitist belief system that confers absolute power on a privileged few. The faithful believe themselves justified in depriving everyone else of freedom and forcing them to blindly follow orders from above because these measures enable the arrival of heaven on earth.

Yang notes that the communist party relied on "'two barrels:' the gun barrel and the pen barrel; seizing and ruling its domaine relied on both." (p 492) The party controlled thought because it controlled all sources of information and also because it punished any deviation from approved thought with severe consequences. When the Communist Party gained control of China, it executed over 700,000 people (p 476) and executions continued after its power was consolidated as a means of control. Although this system of control, reaching down to shape the thoughts of peasants, was impressive, it had two related shortcomings.

Each level of the hierarchy needed to appease the level above it. Failure to meet goals could bring charges of sabotage or right-wing deviation, so there was an incentive to exaggerate what was possible and what had been accomplished. Because telling the truth about production was dangerous, the entire system ended up being based on lies and deceit. Those at the top did not have a clear idea of what was happening at the bottom.

The lack of honesty contributed to a second problem, the lack of corrective mechanisms. One of the advantages of free markets is that they provide powerful correction to those who make products that people do not want. A democracy also has corrective forces, though they are weaker. The citizens can and often do vote incompetent and corrupt officials from office. However, "[i]n trying to control the ears and eyes of ordinary people, the supreme ruler ends up blocking his own ears and eyes" (p 496) and "[i]n a monarchal political system, the supreme ruler hears only voices that conform to his own will." (p 497)

In the Great Leap Forward Mao intended to squeeze peasants to support industrialization. The government based extraction on reported harvests, but because the reports were exaggerated to curry favor with those above, the level of extraction was so high that deaths from starvation began in 1958. The author argues that there was a chance to correct the mistake at the Lushan Conference in July and August of 1959. It was missed when Mao used the conference to attack those who voiced concern over the way that the Great Leap Forward was proceeding, effectively prohibiting true reporting of the conditions in the countryside. As a result, millions more starved from 1959 to 1962.

Mao was blinded not only by bad information but also by ideology. In socialist and Marxist thought private property establishes and perpetuates inequality. Unacknowledged is the role property rights have in overcoming the problem of common ownership of scarce resources. Private property is a mechanism that makes people recognize costs of their actions. Mao enthusiastically supported the suppression of household food preparation in favor of communal kitchens because he thought there would be economies of scale and that large-scale food production would release people to do other things. He never anticipated that people given free food would overconsume, causing many kitchens to run out of food and to shut down in the winter, leaving people hungry. When households prepare their own food they consider that a consequence of eating now may mean less later. With a communal food supply, what one person consumes now has minimal effect on what that person will have later.

Similarly, when cultivating their own land, peasants have a strong incentive to make smart decisions because mistakes often have dire consequences. When decisions about what and how to produce were made high in the hierarchy, the consequences of mistakes were not borne by decision makers but by the peasants. The problem of common ownership is that people are not accountable for the consequences of their actions and as a result there is no barrier to actions that are socially destructive. Mao's Marxist ideology never let him understand why trying to abolish private property in favor of communal ownership led to repeated failures. Fortunately, reality overcame ideology for some in the leadership so that reform was possible after Mao's death.

Yang estimates that at least 36 million people starved to death from 1958 to 1962. In addition, he estimates that the shortfall in births was about 40 million; lack of food reduced births because a large number of women stopped ovulating. However, when the policies of the Great Leap Forward were relaxed after 1962 and food availability rose, births soared and made up for that shortfall.

Eventually knowledge of the scale of this disaster did reach the top. Several high officials were "charged in 1961 with directing each province to compile data on food supply and demographics. The data indicated a population loss of tens of millions. This information was reported to only two people: Premier Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. After reading the report, the premier contacted Zhou Boping and told him to destroy it immediately and make sure that no one else saw it." (p 406)

The author named the book Tombstone for four reasons. He wanted it to be a memorial for his father who died in the famine, for the 36 million others who died, and for himself. He also wanted it to mark the grave of the system that brought about this great tragedy.

is an important documentation of one of the great calamities of 20th century socialism. It gives details and names names. However, there are so many names in the book that the reader can not make sense of them all. The book describes an event so horrific and large that it is beyond human comprehension. Books that put the event into story form, focusing on how it affected a small group of people, will have a larger audience and a greater impact. There is truth to the quote, often attributed to Stalin, that "the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic."

Here is the review of the book in the Wall Street Journal and here is one from the New York Review of Books.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Your help is hurting

From an interview in Forbes, "Your Help Is Hurting: How Church Foreign Aid Programs Make Things Worse:"
There’s an author Bob Lupton, who really nails it when he says that when he gave something the first time, there was gratitude; and when he gave something a second time to that same community, there was anticipation; the third time, there was expectation; the fourth time, there was entitlement; and the fifth time, there was dependency. That is what we’ve all experienced when we’ve wanted to do good. Something changes the more we just give hand-out after hand-out. Something that is designed to be a help actually causes harm.
Read the whole thing.