Thursday, January 28, 2021

Is the world happiness report informative?

The eighth World Happiness Report (2020) ranked Finland number 1. 

The happiness score is described as a ladder, where zero is not happy at all and as you climb up, 10 is maximum happiness, hence the ladder score. Finland is no. 1 with a score of 7.8087. 

The happiness index is a subjective measure of well-being, the report says. When Professor Sachs talks about it he says it is supposed to measure satisfaction. Say, utility in economics jargon. In neoclassical economics, utility is a function of consumption of goods and services and leisure. Leisure is time spent not working in market activity and it is assumed to be a normal good. 

To measure happiness, they conduct a survey. Then they take a national average response to a question, e.g., they ask 1000 people a question, record the answers and take the average.There are a number of variables that make this happiness ladder score. They include, not surprisingly, real GDP per capita. Additionally, it includes health life expectancy at birth; social support - i.e.,having someone to rely on in times of need or trouble; freedom to make choices, where people are asked whether he or she is satisfied or dissatisfied; generosity - i.e., they ask, "have you donated money to charity in the last month?" take the average response, then run a regression of this average measure on GDP per capita. Generosity is the residuals of this regression; corruption perception, is the national average of the response to this question "is corruption widespread in government and businesses, or not?"

They use regression analysis to measure how much each of these variables explains of the happiness score! The reported data suggest that only three variables could actually explain most of the happiness ladder score. The most significant explanatory variable is not surprisingly, real GDP per capita, followed by social support, and health life expectancy at birth. The rest do not seem to have enough variations to explain the variation of the ladder score. In addition, they have something called dystopia residual, dystopia happiness, which I could not find its definition so I Googled it. Google says, "it is the score of a hypothetical country that has a lower rank than the lowest ranking country in the report, plus the residual of each country. This happened to have a lot of explanatory power! 

Having briefly explained this subjective well-being index, which is supposed to inform policymakers, and us, about the well-being of every country, now I want to show you the statistics for Finland, the No.1 ranking country and New Zealand, the No.8 ranking country.The differences are small in magnitude, but statistically significant (I tested that). Finland's score is 7.8087 and NZ score is 7.2996. The first two columns in the graph below are the country ladder scores, the rest of the columns are the amounts of the ladder score that are explained by the factors mentioned above. 

So what makes the Fins happier than the Kiwis.The populations are almost the same size. COVID-19 killed more than 600 Fins, but only 25 died in NZ. NZ government and businesses are the least corrupted in the world according to the corruption perception index 2020; it ranked no.1 and Finland No.3. Both countries are democratic and freedom is relatively similar. Are the Fins more generous than Kiwis? 

So if log real GDP per capita explains more of the happiness index than any other variable, why calculate this index? 

That's not all. Going through the list show more strange results. 

Would anyone believe that Iraq is a happier and a better place to live than Jordan? 

Historically, Iraqis, unlike the Syrians and Lebanese, are not known for migration. However, they have been migrating all over the world and to Jordan in particular since the American invasion in 2003. The wars devastated Iraq (see Wikipedia). Millions were displaced. Millions of women lost their husbands and have no jobs, income, and social benefits. There are  millions of homeless children, and millions are disabled persons. Millions lost family members, properties, income, and more. The society has been torn apart by violence. Furthermore, Iraq is more corrupt today according to the corruption perception index than ever. It is environmentally unsafe. Its health and education systems are dysfunctional, and the list goes on. I believe that the Iraqis abroad are also unhappy because the majority believe that they lost their country to terrorists and foreign powers. So what do we make of this ranking?    

Finally, who would believe that Libya, another war torn country, is a happier and a better place to live than Malaysia,Turkey, China, and Morocco? None of these countries has been in war let alone a continuous devastating war for decades.

I could go through the list and examine it country by country, but there is no point. I have some serious doubts about this statistic.I do not think that it is more informative than simply looking at real GDP per capita. Yet, many governments have adopted similar methodology as a guide for policy rather than focusing on productivity. I think tat there is more politics in this than economics behind it. 

Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Iraqi Predicament


What would people do in a country, where the private economy is stagnant, millions are unemployed, millions work in a bloated public sector, currency devalued, twin deficits (fiscal and current account), and a mounting external debt? The unemployed are credit-constrained, and have no assets. The government is unable to solve any of these problems. They are not easy problems, however. I am talking about Iraq in particular. A similar story is in Lebanon. Syria, Yemen, and Libya, which have been in a state of war since 2011, face a more uncertain future.

Iraq is a big oil producer. It has about 145 billion barrels of proved oil reserves (twenty percent of the Middle East total proved reserves), and 3.5 trillion cubic meters proved natural gas (4.75 percent of the Middle East total proved gas reserves). Iraq has a vast agricultural land in between the Tigers and the Euphrates from the north to the south and from the far West to its east border with Iran. The total area of agricultural land is 93,000 square kilometers, which is 21 percent of the total land area. The population of Iraq is just short of 40 million; where people aged 15-64 (working age population) are a little more than 22 millions.[1] The oil price crash in 2014, followed by civil unrest, and COVID have paralyzed the country, more so the government. Lebanon, which is not a state of war, now, has similar economic problems, without the oil and smaller population and land, however. Nonetheless, Lebanon has a relatively highly educated population.

The average Iraqi and Lebanese person is in despair. There is no other way to describe it. Those who have saved something will spend it soon. Those who have an asset they sell it for cheap. The few rich people – mainly the politicians and their clients – will buy assets at cheaper prices, get richer, or leave the country when all comes to a grind. Most of the politicians have foreign citizenships and foreign bank accounts.

What could be done? 

An immediate transfer of ownership of land and resources from the government to the people will solve most of the problems. The politicians will not like this idea because it reduces their power. Their clients will not like it either because it will reduce their rent. What is needed now is a law along the lines of the Homestead Act(s) of the 19th century, whereby people in many countries (including the United States) were given free land (with a title). People could use the land for agriculture, sell it in an organized market, or rent it. Such arrangements will generate income and ensure survival of families. In Iraq, oil and gas wealth must also be transferred to citizens in an equal share just like Russia and other Eastern European countries did after the fall of the Soviet Union; a share per citizen. Each share is tradable (sold and purchased) in an organized regulated market. This arrangement will create a market and an immediate income.

For Iraq, such private wealth transfer reduces the dependence of the budget on oil. It would also reduce the people’s dependence on public sector unproductive jobs. Private consumption and aggregate demand will increase over time. A modernization of the existing tax system will be helpful. The wage bill will be reduced significantly. Total government expenditures could be rationalized, and the budget could be balanced.   

[1] See the World Development Indicators, World Bank and the BP Annual Statistical Review.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Reinventing the Bazaar a book by John McMillan

John was a Kiwi economist (22 Jan 1951 - 13 Mar 2007)

I recommend McMillan's book. I read this book a very long time ago. Today, the book is even more relevant than it was in 2002. It is a lucid, full of meaningful stories, and an overall enjoyable read. It could help many young people, especially economists, think about the role of the government? Should the government intervene in the economy? How much? How? When? 

McMillan had an interesting view about the market and the role of the government. He did not advocate more government intervention, socialism, or liberalism. He was neither for a free market nor for social policies. He wrote, "the market system is not an end in itself but an imperfect means to raise living standards. Markets are not magic, nor are they immoral. They have impressive achievements; they can also work badly." He thought that the "design of the market" matters the most. He believed that the evidence is that economic growth is good  for everyone, including the poor, but he also believed that equity matters too. He cited evidence that countries with more equal income distributions grow faster.  

I am not totally sure about that kind of thinking because McMillan must have had an implicit assumption that there is "a government" out there, a "designer" that can actually make a better market via rules and regulations. Where do we find such a government, I wonder? 

In my view, the government may, and can, intervene in the market, but that intervention depends on the size and the scope of market failure. There must be robust, careful, and verifiable evidence of free market failure before the government is allowed to step in.

Here are some excerpts that I found interesting.

Chapter one, "On November 9, 1989, the people of Berlin joyously tore down the wall that for thirty years had divided their city. As the wall fell, so did communism and planned economy. On April 30, 1995, the U.S. government ceased controlling the internet. As entrepreneurs devised procedures for online buying and selling, electronic commerce burgeoned. These two dates denote the beginning of what has become, for good or for ill, the age of the market."  

I think that the internet market could have been an amazing free market experiment. Unfortunately, we are getting more and more government interventions by the day. Be careful please when you blame the free market. We do not have a  free market anywhere in this world. In fact we had more free markets in the past centuries than today. Is it funny (or not) that a Republican like Trump is against free market and a Chinese communist like Xi Jinping is for free trade?

Chapter Twelve, How did so many countries come to be centrally planned? [after WWII] . You might find this paragraph interesting. He writes,"Albert Einstein wrote an article in 1949 called "Why Socialism?" His answer: "the market economy brings crisis, instability, and impoverishment. The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of evil." The only way to eliminate this evil, he concluded, was by establishing socialism, with the means of production "owned by society itself." He advocated a planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child." 

There are more stories like those in the book. 

Einstein's view was shaped by the horrors of the Great Depression, no doubt. I cannot blame him. I hope that he lived to see the whole socialist tragedy. Socialism collapsed spectacularly in 1990 for good reasons. Does the free market make people poor? How do we answer this question?  McMillan says, no it does not. We do not even have a free market experiment anywhere to examine. Instead, we have crony capitalism, nepotism, racial and social discrimination, subsidies, bailouts, tariffs and trade restrictive laws and regulations, etc.

PP. 25, John writes, "Rembrandt was an innovator not only in painting but also in commerce. He helped establish a full-fledged art market in the seventeenth-century Amsterdam." "Composers in Germany or so later switched from being long-term employees of aristocrats to producing for the open market. Handel and Telemann were vocal in their dislike of being subject to their employer's whims, and they paved the way for Mozart and subsequent composers to work freelance. In a 1781 letter to his father, Mozart said, doubtless exaggerating somewhat, believe me, my sole purpose is to make as much money as possible; for after good health it is the best thing to have."...Mozart saw the market as offering him creative freedom." 

There will always be business cycles and depressions in the future just like in the past. Although many economists believe that government intervention gets us out of prolonged recessions. I highly doubt that we have evidence to support such an assertion. To the contrary, we have examples of policy error. These errors are persistent. They are costly to undo. There are many examples, but most known is that the Great Depression was a monetary policy error, Friedman and Schwartz wrote extensively on this. 

McMillan tells some interesting stories about New Zealand's reforms in chapter 15. Imagine that the NZ government made rules and regulations for every bit in the economy including the color of Margarine, which had to be white not yellow so it couldn't compete with Butter!

Here is another story, he says, "The bizarre nature of the old New Zealand economy is illustrated by an anecdote from the industrialist Alan Gibbs. For the sake of employment, the government required television sets be assembled locally. When Gibbs went to Japan to negotiate a price for the components, he was greeted with disbelief. Because of the way the production lines were set up, the Japanese television makers could supply the separate components by placing workers at the end of the assembly line to take apart the completed televisions. Gibbs firm has to pay 5 percent more for the pieces..."     

 Many young Kiwis do not even know what New Zealand looked like before 1984.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Income inequality, politics, and economics

Many people, including a number of economists, are concerned with income inequality. They are concerned that a small number of people have more money, wealth... than the vast majority of citizens have. The precise measurement of such inequality is tricky.

To reduce or eliminate income inequality, many politicians and economists advocate taxing the wealthy people hard, e.g., a 70 percent tax was suggested by the American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The famous French economist Thomas Piketty suggested something like 90 percent tax on wealth. Tax the rich is a 2020 election policy for the Greens in New Zealand. 

There is an ideological aspect to this issue, but I am not concerned with it. 

However, I want to show you some data, which reveal that some countries have relatively low-income inequality and at the same time they are richer in terms of income per person, have low public spending, and low taxes. The data suggest that income inequality could be reduced without spending more, taxing more, or reducing anyone income. Instead of reducing somebody's income simply try to increase everybody's income.   

To think in terms of economic theory, we should think about Pareto improvement, which is an efficiency condition whereby at least one person can be made better off without making anyone worse off.  

Measurement is tricky as I said, however, for comparison, I use the UN measure of income inequality, which is the ratio of average income of the richest 10% of the population / the average income of the poorest 10%...Here is the table. I list the English-Speaking nations first, followed by the Europeans, the Scandinavians, and finally the Asians countries.

Australia, NZ, and the U.K. have the same level of income inequality. The U.S. has the highest level of income inequality in OECD. Canada is more comparable to the Europeans with medium level inequality. The Scandinavians have the lowest income inequality in the West, but the Asian countries have low-income inequality too. Japan's is the lowest in the world perhaps, followed by South Korea. Singapore and Hong Kong have lower income inequality than the U.S.  

Given these figures, one might think that the Asian countries, Japan and South Korea in particular, must have high public spending on social welfare programs, high taxes to finance such programs, and an income per capita growth similar to the Scandinavians!  

No, they don't.

In the Asians countries, particularly in Korea, however, public spending and taxes are significantly lower than the rest of OECD, and income per person growth is significantly higher than all other OECD countries. 

This figure plots real income per person growth rate (data source:IMF-WEO) and government spending to GDP ratio. The Asian countries spend less as a percent of GDP and have higher income per person growth than the rest of the OECD. The English-speaking countries spend less and have higher income per person than the Europeans' have, and the Scandinavians have more spending the least income per person growth. Japan is somewhere in the middle. Still, Japan public spending is much lower than the Europeans' are.

This figure plots the real income per person and the tax-GDP ratio (OECD data). The Asian countries tax their people less because they spend less on social welfare programs, and have higher income per person than the rest. 


The correlation between government spending - GDP, tax-GDP ratio and income per person growth is strongly negative across the OECD. 

These significant differences in objectives and policies across OECD countries reflect the voters' demands for social welfare programs and the politicians' competition for votes.

Korea achieved a better income inequality outcome than the European countries and comparable to the Scandinavian countries, and much lower than Australia and New Zealand with less public spending, and a higher income per person growth rate. Similarly, Singapore and Hong Kong have much better outcomes than the U.S. Even Japan, which has the lowest income inequality in the world, has less public spending and lower taxes than all European and Scandinavian countries. So why can't we do that? 

Nevertheless, I think that as long as the voters continue to demand forceful government actions against wealth accumulation, politicians will compete for votes and promise more. This pattern will not change soon.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Financing the Budget Deficit and the Wealth Effect

People are already thinking about the bill of COVID-19, and how would it be paid. Just look up the Google mail and see the flood of articles. The New Zealand Minister said that the government will borrow to finance the deficit, but it is not as simple as this. At some point in time, a government, which may not be this government would have to raise taxes. The borrowing matters whether the public holds an interest-bearing government bonds or non-interest bearing bonds. The latter type is like the US Treasury Bills. They are non-interest bearing bonds or zero-coupons, which are bought at a discount price of their face value i.e., they pay no interest, but eventually sell at the par value, therefore, they bring about a positive yield to holders.  

What's the difference between these bonds and what is the effect on the economy?

On this issue, I remember a paper that I read when I was a graduate student preparing for my PhD exams, Robert Barro (1974) wrote in the Journal of Political Economy "Are Government Bonds Net Wealth?" This issue is pertinent to the situation we and others are facing.

Barro argued that government debt, which is held by the public could increase or decrease in real terms when the price level changes. So if the price level falls for whatever reason (the situation now with a near zero interest rate means that people are indifferent between holding money or bonds), the real value of government debt increases, and economy's level of wealth increases too. However, if the government finances the budget deficit with interest-bearing bonds, and people anticipate an increase in future taxes to finance the deficit, an increase in the real value of government debt outstanding will also imply an increase in the present value of future tax liabilities. Therefore, government debt cannot be considered a net wealth increase for New Zealanders.This bond buying business may not stimulate the economy as much as the government thinks. 

The NZ government bonds are low interest bearing bonds as shown in the this statement, but not a zero-coupon. Therefore, holding these bonds cannot be net wealth.

Financing the budget deficit with a non-interest bearing bonds (zero coupon bonds), on the other hand, could be a net wealth to New Zealanders. The reason is that the increase in the real value of the debt outstanding is not associated with an expected increase in tax liabilities. 

I seems like a great idea to buy government bonds while working and cash them to finance retirement, if they were zero-coupon type of bonds. In this case government debt is net wealth to Kiwis, and the government can finance its deficit and lower income tax on people's labor income. One can see how such fiscal policy can increase labor productivity. 



Friday, May 22, 2020

What Have I Learned from COVID-19 Data So Far...

Everyone knows that there is an argument about the data of the number of confirmed cases. Many papers were written about understating the number of infections. The typical story is that, with the absence of reliable and timely tests, we may have understated the infections by a factor of 10. Because the US government pays hospitals for treating infected patients, and also pay them more if the patients need to be on ventilators, some hospitals were overstating the number of COVID-19 deaths related cases. Minnesota was one state circulating in the news. So, if the numbers of confirmed cases, which we are using from Oxford University, the Johns Hopkins, or else in our research, are understated, researchers must deal with these measurement errors. Ordinary Least Squared regressions estimates are biased and inconsistent. IV estimators should be used. Testing for COVID 19 matters for reducing the number of deaths even though millions remained untested. See my paper

The second thing I learned from COVID-19 data is that the modelling of the infection using the Gompertz (1825) function overestimates the peak infection. Usually, we try to model the data as they arrive. The data have a steep upward slope. The Gompertz function is a very suitable model for this kind of events. However, it is a statistical function, which has a couple of fixed parameters. It does not account for policy. So if we have data from time t to t+k and we fit the function up to time t+k+1 without having accounted for policy, we will overestimate the peak infection. Policy (stringent) reduces the number of infections, but the Gompertz function does not take this into account.

Figure (1) plots my estimates of the New Zealand curve, see my paper ...The data that I used in this paper were from Feb 28 to Mar 27. Figure (2) use the same graph but add the actual data up to Apr 23. As you can see in figure (1), I predicted the peak infection to be 2630 cases on April 3. Then we learned when the actual data arrived that the number of infections on April 3 was 772, see figure (2). The peak, probably did not occur until April 22...and much lower than my estimate.

Figure (1)
Figure (2)

I also learned that policy responds to the number of infections positively, and the latter responds to the former negatively. Policy response, however, is endogenous and country-specific. New Zealand and Australia responded quite differently to the infection, but the outcomes of the two countries are pretty much similar. I also learned that if country A adopts country B policy response, country A cannot achieve the same outcomes of country B. I tested whether, or not, the New Zealand policy response, which achieved zero infections, could reduce infection to zero if it is adopted by Denmark, Sweden, and the USA.I found that it is effective in reducing the infections significantly, but not to zero as it did in New Zealand. There are omitted factors that need to be taken into account in such analysis. Culture might be an important missing variable. Although the Swedes and the Danes are seemingly Scandinavians, they followed different polices and the people have been reacting differently. The outcomes are very different. See my paper.     

I am sure that we will learn more from doing more research.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Future Prices and inflation

What happens to the future prices and inflation as a result of the expansionary polices in response to the pandemic? 

As a result of the increases in the money supply and government spending in response to the pandemic, future prices of goods, services, and assets will increase for sure...not necessarily the inflation rate. 

Under a system of inflation targeting, bygones are treated as bygones. It means that the increase in prices is not a concern, but the rate of growth of prices, i.e., inflation, is kept constant. 

The plot shows that currency per unit of real output and the CPI are positively correlated, thus in the short run the increase in the money supply increases prices under inflation targeting (it increases real output sooner, in the short run).

The second plot shows that there is no correlation between the growth rate of money per unit of real output and the expected inflation rate in the long run (6 quarter moving average) under inflation targeting. 

These are New Zealand data, but it is true in all inflation targeting countries.

That said, the pandemic might be an adverse supply shock. It knocks output production and increases the price.