Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What Do Inequality Data Mean?

Steven Horwitz has an interesting post on inequality data. Here is the way he understands what the data means:
Carroll uses a nice analogy from Schumpeter that I'd never heard before: the distribution of income is like a hotel with some really fancy rooms on the top floors and some very basic ones on the bottom. All the rooms are always full, but who occupies which rooms changes from year to year.

If one wants to stretch the analogy a bit more, it's also the case that each year brings a new upgrade to every room. What constitutes a "basic" room gets slightly more luxurious each year as standards of living rise, and the same is true on other floors. It might be the case that the upgrades to the top floor rooms are proportionally greater than those to the basic and middle floor rooms, but given that the occupants of the rooms switch around from year to year, those greater improvements at the top are still consistent with improvements in the absolute standard of living for many.

And to take the analogy even further: if we account for immigration and other new entrants to the labor force, it's as if the hotel keeps adding rooms/floors on each year at the lower/basic level, enabling everyone else to potentially keep moving up (assuming that some occupants die or leave the country!).
I've often noted in my courses that aggregate data hide a large amount of important information. In the case of the static aggregate income distribution data, we cannot see what happens over time and within each income quintile.

It seems that many people assume a person who is in the lowest income quintile in any year will also be in the lowest income quintile 5 years and 10 years later. It also seems many assume that a person in the top income quintile in one year will still be in that top income quintile 5 years and 10 years later. If you check out Mr. Horwitz's post you can learn that such conclusions are not well-founded. For example:
Of those taxpayer households in the lowest quintile of income in 1999, 57.5% had moved up at least one quintile by 2007 and over 30% jumped two quintiles or more.

Of those in the top 1% in 1999, only 44.6% were still there in 2007.

Oil Spills & Executive Powers

I recently commented on the following taken from a speech by President Obama:
"Tomorrow, I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company's recklessness. In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent third party.
I asked if such actions as these promised by the President fall within existing statutes and also the responsibilities of the courts? The point of the earlier comment was different than this. So, I want to explain my concerns about what the President said in his speech.

In order to determine who has a legitimate claim for damages against BP, and in order to determine the amount of such damages, I think it is the case that the President, or an independent third party picked by the President, will have to make decisions and take actions that are supposed to, constitutionally, be within the Judicial power of government.

Shouldn't it be a significant concern to ask, and answer, whether or not the President has exceeded his constitutionally granted Executive power to inform the CEO of BP that he must set aside $20 billion? If a President can decide what a legitimate claim is against BP, and if a President can decide how much compensation must be paid by BP, then what is the difference between the Judicial branch and the Executive branch of government?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Oil Spills, Oil Producers & Governments, Part 2

We might find another illustration of how earlier, and not easily seen, federal government actions could be involved in the BP Gulf Oil spill by wondering about something the President said in his recent OVAL OFFICE SPEECH:
Tomorrow, I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company's recklessness. In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent third party.
I don't understand this idea that the President will tell BP it has a liability for this accident, and further that the President is going to require BP to create an escrow account to be administered by an "independent third party." Don't such actions fall within existing statutes and responsibilities of the courts?

My first thought is to wonder about why the President would think actions such as these are appropriate and necessary. I have assumed all along that BP is liable for the damages caused by the oil spilled because of an accident involved with it's production of oil. I certainly expect that if I caused oil to be spilled on my neighbor's property, that I would be fully liable for the damages my actions caused to my neighbor. So, I assume BP understands already that it is liable for the damages.

This also leads me to wonder about why the President has been spending so much time and effort in his public speeches insisting that BP is going to be made to pay for the environmental harm it has caused. Once again, I assume that in the same way that I know I would be made to pay for harm I cause to others, BP knows it will have to pay for the harm it's actions have caused others.

But, now I think that perhaps I should start to by a bit more of my normal, cynical and dismal economist self. Do I smell a rat?

Perhaps I do. THE OIL POLLUTION ACT OF 1990 "imposes liability for removal costs and damages resulting from an incident in which oil is discharged into navigable waters or adjoining shorelines or the exclusive economic zone." Yep, just what I assumed to be true. But, the Act also limits liability:
Liability is limited by specific dollar amounts, which vary depending on the type of vessel or facility involved. These limits do not apply in the case of gross negligence or willful misconduct or the violation of an applicable federal safety, construction, or operating regulation or for failure to cooperate in certain specified ways.
Oh my, perhaps BP believed it would not be fully liable for the damages caused by an accident that resulted a spill such as is occurring in the Gulf. Can you imagine, Congress created a statute in 1990 (and some President must have signed it) that both made it clear that BP was liable for damage caused by this accident, and at the same time the statute told BP (and all other oil producers in the Gulf) that it's liability was limited, that it would not be fully liable.

Well, you can see the incentives partial liability creates for BP and every other oil producer in the Gulf. At the margin, this limited liability statute should result in BP being at least a little less cautious in it's operations than it would otherwise be. Same incentive and response by all the Gulf oil producers as well. In other words, by limiting liability with this statute Congress and the President did two things: (1) Incentives to produce oil in the Gulf were increased, and (2) the probability of an accident occurring in the Gulf was increased.

Now we come to the second sentence in the limited liability quotation above. I suspect members of Congress also understood the incentives they would create by limiting liability. So, of course, Congress also writes laws that allow for the Executive Branch to regulate how BP, and the other oil producers in the Gulf, go about the business of producing oil from Gulf waters. Do you remember hearing reports after the accident, and before the Oval Office speech, that BP had requested that the government agency overseeing its operations modify several permits in the last day or two before the accident? I'm guessing this indicates that the government regulatory agency was at least supposed to be closely involved in making sure BP's actions met with all the things government thought BP was supposed to be doing.

I think this is another illustration of government's involvement in the actions of people and businesses in the economy that we cannot easily see. It is my view that government should not limit liability, and that especially in the case of deep water oil production government's role should be to strictly enforce full liability.

And, because government regulatory actions are involved in oil production in the Gulf, my default position has to be that government has some part to share in this accident, unless it can be shown that BP violated permits and regulations that if followed would have prevented this specific accident from happening.

Finally, returning to the President's statement quoted above, I think there are some additional serious issues to bring up. I will do that with another post in the future.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Enough Money?

TOM SOWELL on politicians and enough money:
"One of the many shallow statements that sound good-- if you don't stop and think about it-- is that 'at some point, you have made enough money.'

The key word in this statement, made by President Barack Obama recently, is "you." There is nothing wrong with my deciding how much money is enough for me or your deciding how much money is enough for you, but when politicians think that they should be deciding how much money is enough for other people, that is starting down a very slippery slope.

Politicians with the power to determine each citizen's income are no longer public servants. They are public masters."
You should read the whole piece.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Oil Spills, Oil Producers & Governments

The accident in the gulf is a pretty ugly sight. I'm sure there is no person alive who actually likes the accident and the aftermath, which of course continues.

Today you can read news reports of our political leaders holding hearings to point fingers and hold the culprit's feet to the fire. And, of course, you may have read or heard the President castigating the oil producers and promising to kick the appropriate butts.

You can also read reports that assert British Petroleum made numerous bad decisions that led to the accident, and which were made in an effort to save some costs and improve profits. Even if there is some truth to such allegations, there may be more involved in terms of the incentives and the tradeoffs than meets the eye.

I make this last assertion myself because I'm come to believe government policy is almost always involved, and it is almost always well hidden from us, unless we are able to spend much time reading statutes, regulations, and executive orders.

STEVEN HORWITZ has written about just one example related to this accident:
"The Jones Act is actually section 27 of the MMA and requires 'that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried in U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents.' This, of course, includes the Gulf of Mexico. Thus any attempt to move equipment from one U.S. port to another for the purpose of either stopping or cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon leak must involve U.S. ships, fully constructed in the U.S., etc..

Of course in a world of globalized trade few such ships exist. In fact, a number of foreign-constructed or crewed ships are in U.S ports at the moment and could easily transport oil sucking equipment or more booms to the Gulf, but the Jones Act prevents them from doing so. Like the school buses that sat in a parking lot while folks were stranded during Hurricane Katrina, those non-U.S. ships and their equipment are sitting idle while an environmental disaster unfolds."
Professor Horwitz mentions the buses and Katrina because he wants to point out that the Jones Act was apparently waived two days after the hurricane. I haven't read the Jones Act, so I am not aware of whether the Act itself includes conditions by which it might be waived. Perhaps it does. Or, perhaps Congress must act to repeal the Act, something suggested by Professor Horwitz, and something I agree would be a good idea. In any case, Professor Horwitz does point out that apparently the President does not agree that Act should be waived or repealed since he writes: "Meanwhile, President Obama and others continue to insist that such a blanket waiver is 'not needed at this time.'"

So, who might benefit from not waiving or repealing the Jones Act? My guess would be some union or unions, and that is the view of Professor Horwitz as well. If this seems plausible, then it should also seem plausible to you that the President is making political calculations when he decides to trade off this against that. Not too surprising to me, and not really unlike the tradeoffs some assert BP made and should not have made.

It seems to me there are other aspects of this accident and the aftermath that involve government policies, regulations, and actions that are hidden from our easy view. I'm always suspicious this might be the case when our elected leaders in Washington rush to microphones and hearings to point fingers. I will try to add at least one or two additional illustrations in the next day or two.