Do markets make us worse people?

One of the most common objections to market-based societies is that they erode non-market motivations to doing good. Critics, with this objection, say that although markets can in some areas latch onto greed and turn it to society’s benefit in some areas (“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”) they can also pervert and corrupt existing motivations in domains where markets are inappropriate.

Consider blood donations: many argue that if you start paying for blood donations then people will stop seeing them as a good deed but as a market activity, and lose their ‘intrinsic motivation’ to give blood. Overall you might get less blood, or less good blood than before, even though you’re now spending money to get it.Back in 2012, Harvard communitarian political philosopher Michael Sandel (famous for his online lectures), wrote a hugely popular book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets making roughly these arguments (read a wonderful review here).

These questions are discussed widely, but what’s weird is they tend to be tackled mainly with a priori thought experiment arguments like mine about blood, above, and anecdotes, even though they are empirical questions. We can actually test whether you get less or worse blood when you pay for it! (You don’t) We can test whether people are less pro-social when you add extra market institutions!

A new paper by Björn Bartling, Roberto Weber and Lan Yao, “Do Markets Erode Social Responsibility?”, in the Quarterly Journal of Economics tries to do as much:

This paper studies whether concerns for social responsibility persist in repeated market interaction. We develop a laboratory product market, in which socially responsible behavior by firms and consumers involves incurring additional production costs to mitigate potential negative externalities imposed on individuals otherwise uninvolved with the market.

The data from Study 1, conducted in Switzerland, show, first, that there is a non-trivial share of socially responsible products supplied and demanded in all our market conditions, and that—importantly—the market share of the fair product is stable over time in all conditions.

Second, the socially responsible product, which costs more to produce, sells at a price premium that persists with market experience. In most cases, this price premium increases over time, suggesting that consumers’ willingness to pay for socially responsible products is not eliminated with repeated market interaction. Third, we show that individual-level market behavior is consistent with a preference for positive social impact, though such concerns are heterogeneous.

In other words: markets do not erode existing pro-social motivation; they complement it.

Pay is determined by your best alternative job

Economic theory tells us that we really ought to be paid our marginal productivity. And no one at all believes that that actually happens in detail. However, we can take a step back to a point which even Karl Marx got, which is that your pay will reflect the demand for labour. More specifically, the better the alternatives you have the more your pay is going to go up. And here’s a nice little story from the Frozen North to illustrate that:

There’s been a lot of attention paid to how Canada’s oil boom has helped make gasoline cheaper. What many people may not realize is that the boom is also driving up the prices they pay for burgers and steaks.

Surging energy investment in Prairie Provinces, home to most of the nation’s farms and cattle ranches, has boosted domestic crude output to a record and sent pump prices to a three-year low. That’s led to jobs on drilling rigs or pipe crews paying two-thirds more than those in livestock, luring cowboys and beef-plant workers to the oil patch.

By cowboy there they really mean more what we English might call a cowman, rather than some Bill Cody type. But it’s obvious what is happening. There’s no more to do out on the prairie than just oversee the creation of cowpats and that’s driving up the wages of those who are there. It’s the very same process that leads to a hairdresser making very much more money in the UK than one in China does: the pay of hairdressers is not determined directly by the productivity with comb and scissors, rather by the pay on offer in the next alternative job.

This doesn’t mean that the economic theory is wrong though: only that it operates in a rather clunky manner and so is something that gets tended towards rather than an equilibrium state at which we all always exist. As higher productivity jobs appear then they will tempt away some of the labour force. And so all wages tend towards the productivity of the work being done.

At which point we might have a little snark about the UK. There’s a lot of complaining going on that the jobs being created these days aren’t very well paid, something which is true. But it’s also true that the highest productivity jobs in the UK have for some decades been those in wholesale finance in The City. Which is exactly the sector that those same complainants are determined should shrink.

Just like oil wells push up wages for cowboys, so does shutting down highly paid jobs in banking reduce other wages in the same economy.

The plain truth about plain packaging

I suppose you have to try policies out before you conclude whether they’ve worked or not. But now we’ve tried out plain packaging and it didn’t work according to its own aims, can we maybe give up on it? A new paper from scholars at the Australian National University, aptly entitled “The Plain Truth about Plain Packaging: An Econometric Analysis of the Australian 2011 Tobacco Plain Packaging Act”, and the first proper study of the scheme, brings the news.

Ronald Coase famously argued that if you tortured the data long enough they would confess. In this paper we have tortured the data, but there has been no confession. At best, we can determine the plain packaging policy introduced in December 2012 has not reduced household expenditure of tobacco once we control for price effects, or the long-term decline of tobacco expenditure, or even the latent attributes of the data.

To the contrary, we are able to find a suggestion that household expenditure of tobacco has, ceteris paribus, increased. In our forecasting exercise the actual data come close to breaking through the 80 per cent confidence interval. While we do not want to over-emphasise these results, we do conclude that any evidence to suggest that the plain packaging policy has reduced household expenditure on tobacco is simply lacking.

Of course, the ASI had already been suggesting this is the result we would find based on simpler analyses; and don’t forget that it is not a costless policy. If smokers derive extra pleasure when they smoke from getting their cigarettes from attractive branded packets then this is a benefit of branded packets, not a cost. And note that underage or young smokers, typically short of cash, tend to smoke cheaper cigarettes—Richmonds and Mayfair were my friends’ choices when they were 14.

Funnily enough, this paper’s release coincides with new evidence from the Office for National Statistics that e-cigs do not bring non-smokers into the tobacco fold.

E-cigarettes are almost exclusively used by smokers and ex-smokers. Almost none of those who had never smoked cigarettes were e-cigarette users.

Not really a surprise. But then even if e-cig users did include some who had never smoked before, this doesn’t imply that they moved from (safe) e-cigs to (dangerous) cigarettes. What’s more e-cigs have a number of benefits, that I tried to sum up when the EU tobacco directive came up in April, as part of a case that the anti-smoking crackdown has gone too far.

1.  Nicotine has many substantial positive effects

2. Smokers overestimate the dangers of smoking

3. Passive smoking may not be dangerous (at least to women)

4. Smoking is social, enjoyable, creates identity and meaning, and relieves boredom

5. Lifetime health expenditure is lowest for smokers

(If I was writing today I might add 6. Smoking substantially reduces Parkinson’s Disease risk, especially if you do it lots and don’t stop and this is true for other diseases as well).

The point is not that we should all start smoking, although there is actually a good case that nicotine is a nootropic—see the first link above—it is more that smoking has substantial benefits to the individual (as well as the noted health costs), and relatively low net costs to society, especially when you factor in the huge amount smokers pay through tobacco taxes. When we turn ‘smoking’ into ‘smoking e-cigs’ the costs evaporate, probably entirely, and the benefits remain.

Cracking down on traditional tobacco may have gone too far—but cracking down on ecigs is crazy.

The problem with Pigou Taxes

As regular readers will know (often to their great annoyance) I am a great supporter of Pigou Taxes to deal with externalities: most especially a carbon tax to deal with climate change. More generally around here at the ASI we’re all agreed that they’re a very useful tool if not quite the perfect one stop solution economists sometimes portray them as. the problem being, well, it’s the problem with so many things actually: politics.

As an example, here’s the latest little populist campaign being floated:

More than 30 MPs of all parties are backing a motion to stop charging Air Passenger Duty on flights for children who are between the ages of two and 11.

They say that families with school-age children already pay a premium for having to travel in the school holidays, and should not have to pay extra punitive taxes.

It’s true that APD is set at too high a level which is one problem. The existence of an externality (in this case, emissions from flying) does not mean that that activity should be taxed at some punitive rate. It means that there is a correct level of taxation to apply to it. And it was several rises in APD ago that it was at that correct (Stern Review derived, $80 per tonne CO2-e) level.

So that’s the first problem with a Pigou Tax. Give a politician an excuse to tax and he’ll over-tax.

But the second problem is illustrated neatly by this current campaign. Assuming that emissions are a problem are those made by children flying any less damaging than those made by adults doing so? Not for any reason that we can see, no. Therefore there shouldn’t be an exemption. But it’s all too easy for a politician in the run up to an election to miss the point and purpose of such taxation and promise sweeties to the electors.

Politics really is a problem with Pigou Taxes.

However, this doesn’t mean that they’re contra-indicated, only that we’ve got to be both careful and precise with them. After all, all other taxes are subject to exactly the same political interference. But providing that we’ve identified an externality accurately we’re at least doing some good with a Pigou Tax: which is more than can be said about taxes upon capital, corporations, incomes or general consumption. And yes, we do need to get the revenue from somewhere.

Do we really want Theresa May to decide who speaks at universities?

We already have a burgeoning anti-free speech movement coming organically from politically active students so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Theresa May wants to chip in as well, seeking the power to pick and choose who gets to speak at UK universities.

New powers for the home secretary to order universities to ban extremist speakers from their campuses are to be included in the counter-terrorism bill to be published on Wednesday, Theresa May has announced.

The bill will also place a statutory duty on schools, colleges, prisons and local councils to help prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, the home secretary said.

She said universities would have to show that they have put in place policies to deal with extremist speakers.

“The organisations subject to the duty will have to take into account guidance issued by the home secretary. Where organisations consistently fail, ministers will be able to issue directions to them “which will be enforceable by court orders”, May announced.

Since we already have laws against inciting violence, presumably these laws will not really help crack down on terrorism advocacy which says ‘go and blow people up’; to be useful at all to courts and the government it must have a wider remit. Thus, it seems like more marginal ‘extremist’ figures will be targeted; not just Muslim clerics the government doesn’t like, but perhaps pick up artists deemed to advocate violence against women, or perhaps anti-abortion campaigners (note what the UCSB professor called the poster-holding campaigner).

Practically every political viewpoint of today would have been judged inconceivably radical and/or extremist to almost anyone from 17th Century England. The benefits of free speech come from the free exchange of ideas, a process which often weeds out bad ideas and leaves good ones alive. To guarantee we enjoy their continued benefits we have to stand against even the smallest, least objectionable infringements made—wherever they come from. Even ugly speech must be protected if we are to enjoy these prudential benefits.

Even if free speech ought sometimes to be curtailed in general, to make some areas ‘safe spaces’ for unprivileged groups who would otherwise be made very uncomfortable, it seems like universities are one place where we are best placed to let it run wild—you would think that they are bastions of smart, open-minded free inquiry.

Theresa May surely realises from her struggles with the European Court of Human Rights that laws can have unintended consequences. It is surprising that she seems so unworried about handing future Home Secretaries the right to decide what speech goes on in our universities.