I’d like to share some things I’ve learned about arctic ice cover and then share an idea for an oil tax system I’ve thought up.
Some of you saw headlines like this one from the reboutable Daily Mail: Record return of Arctic ice cap as it grows by 60% in a year. The article could lead one to believe that ice cover is generally widening in the arctic. This fits my bias, as I am instinctively against the self righteous progressive types and true believers who fume about the warming earth.
Still, I’m not entitled to my own facts. Apparently the recent bounce in arctic sea ice cover is not clear evidence of a cooling arctic, at least not yet. I hesitantly shared the above Daily Mail link on a social medium and was freed from my ignorance by an old classmate. Here is a link you should look at: Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis and in particular this plot:
The graph shows that 2013 ice coverage is still low, just that 2012 was a particularly bad year. Total ice cover is still something like 25% less than it was in 1980. How bad is the overall situation? Is man really to blame for the warming? Robert Pindyck was on Russ Robert’s podcast some weeks back. He makes a good case that humans are driving climate change, and that it is a big enough risk that politicians should try harder come together on a world carbon tax framework. I don’t know what to make of that, but you should listen to the podcast on your next hour-long car or train trip.
I’m not too worried about global warming. Not because I don’t think it isn’t ‘real’ or caused by humans (not qualified to say), but because I’ve heard remarkable and convincing claims about what can be done with cattle. If man’s CO2 output really is to blame, we can undo that damage cheaply. Apparently we can suck huge amounts of carbon from the air and put into the earth by simply managing huge herds of hoofed, grass-eating animals. This is along Freeman Dyson’s line of thinking, but instead of growing trees, we improve the productivity of grassland. This is a topic in and of itself, but I’d point you to two lectures by a former Rhodesian named Alan Savory: link to the short one and a link of the longer one. The gist is that rather than having your hoofed animals wander about, eating the choice grasses, keep them bunched together, and moving often. I can’t recommend the Savory lectures enough. I do more than an average amount of reading on grass fed cattle, and I’ve seen several ranchers claim to have added measurable amounts of top soil to their lands in a few years time, that topsoil is sunken carbon.
Now to oil and my tax scheme.
American oil production is still rising briskly. At this point, going back to the old peak, and maybe a bit beyond, seems plausible.
If you dig into the EIA data, you’ll see that the rising output is driven by gains in many states. It’s not only North Dakota. This is great news in the near term and I hope U.S. oil production continues to rise. It also seems obvious to me that the Keystone pipeline should be built (though that wouldn’t be so great for Obama’s railroad-owning Plutocrat friends). However, the reasonable, conservative response to the rise in oil output (which is not isolated to the U.S.) is a well-thought-out, revenue-neutral tax. I would hold this view regardless of climate change, as it is a realistic way to get better monetary and tax policy.
First a bit on why it is wise to tax oil, regardless of domestic production trends.
It is generally a bad idea to tax something just because we can show on paper that it would dull the effects of a market failure. From a certain low-complexity perspective, we should probably tax wasteful, externality-ridden activities like formal education, the Olympics, take-home alcohol, and ‘news’ supplying media companies. However, that list would quickly become long and we’d soon be living in a Permit Raj. Not good. Also, new laws and taxes open the door to Baptist and Bootlegger dynamics, and risk sprouting groups which will fight future reforms. Still, we may wish to trade a bit of regulatory simplicity to iron out some of the bigger market wrinkles with special taxes.
Oil demand is fairly price inelastic in the medium run. This makes oil taxation a great way to suck resources out of the private sector, without damaging the economy much. You may object to said sucking of resources, but the sad fact is that the state is going to find a way to take 40% of GDP. It is best if said taxation is done so as to minimize the unproductive response by the taxed. If the state mandates the price of gasoline be $6 per gallon, people answer by using less gasoline, but there are only so many ways to do that in a one to five year time frame. As a result, this tax ends up looking a lot like a (possibly regressive) consumption tax. This means the tax won’t discourage saving or earning a higher income in the same way a progressive income tax would. Another bonus: because you can put the tax in a “green” box, the progressives can support a sensible flat consumption tax, but without having to call it that.
If our only goal were to raise government revenue while minimizing harm to the economy, a higher oil tax would tend to work less well over time. Americans can lower their petroleum consumption, as the last half-decade has shown.
Efficient tax revenue is only one reason for taxing oil. Another is to make people pay something approaching the full costs of their oil consumption. You’ve heard it before. U.S. oil demand boosts the global oil price, sending money to hostile foreign governments like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Norway. The tireless work of the U.S. Navy, and overall U.S. middle east policy also keep oil prices “artificially” low by protecting foreign owned oil firms in that hopeless region. In 1991 the U.S. shielded Saudi Arabia from Iraq and got Kuwait back online, for arguably little net benefit to U.S. citizens. In 2003 the U.S. got Iraq back into the oil markets at enormous cost, with most of the benefits accruing to whichever Iraqi clans best rob the Iraqi state oil company. Policing the seas is desirable and maybe even the 1991 war was marginally wise (at least they left the running of Iraq to the professionals). But these policies keep the oil price cheaper than it otherwise would be, a de facto subsidy. Higher oil taxes would make actual oil consumption closer to the social optimum which would prevail if these outside costs were built into the price by the market.
Now to the big reason.
An underappreciated downside of America’s high ‘dependence’ on oil is the effect which oil price swings have on the quality of monetary policy decisions. My worry is that oil prices will fall in the medium term, undoing a lot of the ‘recalibration’ that American households have done in the wake of the 2006-onward oil price rise. We just won’t know the full scope of the fracking bonanza until production peaks. This could be in five years or 30. If oil become cheap for a generation, then no big deal, let’s see if massive herds of grass-eating cows can poop out and trample down the extra carbon. If that model can be scaled up enough, then go ahead with the wasteful cars. However, if fracking manages to send the oil price down to $50 for a few years, before shooting back up, then you can bet the Fed will screw up the monetary policy response and be lauded for doing so.
I think of U.S. monetary policy as following a loose oil price peg. If oil prices go up, the sophists howl that the Fed is debasing the dollar, supplyside “rationation” (that’s rationing inflation) is confused for true demandside inflation and policy is tightened. The Fed has shown again and again that it will run the economy through a downturn if that’s the price it has to pay to slip blame for “pain at the pump”. Reasonable government policy would aim to gradually lower the ratio of nominal oil consumption to NGDP. For this reason, I would support higher oil taxes, regardless of the pretexts the tax is peddled under.
Here is how we might tax finished oil products: The IRS could level target the price of retail gasoline and diesel. Adjust the Federal per gallon tax once a year so that prices rise about 3% over the long term (that is, just under twice the rate of overall inflation under 4% NGDP growth). The once a year adjustment keeps things simple for retailers while also ensuring that consumers know price dips will be only temporary. This also gives consumers a bit of a cushion against price increases, as the tax could fall to $0 per gallon when the average retail price moves above the level target for that year. This is a meddlesome scheme, ideally it would be sold to the Democrats in exchange for a supplyside, simplifying reform.
This tax could be made politically palatable by pairing it with a phaseout of electric car subsidies and making it roughly revenue neutral by making offsetting cuts to the capital gains and corporate income taxes. These are destructive taxes which punish virtuous behavior like investment and bias the tax code in favor of big firms who can filter their profits through Ireland. We have to tax something, why tax work and savings when we could tax a particularly wasteful and destructive form of consumption? We’d get better monetary policy and maybe even better tax policy.
It makes sense to me, on first pass. Not perfect, but then in a near-monolithic state of 315 million people, perfect isn’t an option. The post below is not really about Obama’s proposal, but rather why I think action like this is needed.
American higher education costs are out of control. The number I see quoted a lot is an average of $20,000 in debt for new graduates, but this is a case of the mean truly not being the message. Students from outside the Northeast (especially Texas and California) apparently pay a good deal less, putting some skew on the average. Also, some students get full ride scholarships, pulling down the mean but still leaving many with a boatload of nondischarable loans. If you run the numbers on plausible debt at Penn State’s flagship campus, for tuition, room and board, a student who got trivial aid (which is common) could easily walk out of a four year program with $60-80k in debt. That’s an awful lot of money. Seems absurd.
I wish I had data, but I don’t. For what it’s worth, my sense is that the histogram of my college educated peers’ undergraduate debt looks something like this:
If you object to my making up data, well then you take yourself too seriously. My story works with many different distributions.
There are broadly three types of college-educated, Northeast Americans in their 20s:
Group 1: People who have no, or little debt. These are military academy grads (they pay in other ways), uber smart and diligent students who forsook first tier schools, talented athletes and the children of upper middle income (class ≠ income) households. The children of the truly rich are such a small fraction as to be irrelevant for our purposes.
Group 2: People who borrowed to finance most of their school expenses. This is the second modal group around $40k-$60k in total debt.
Group 3: People who effed up. I know of a few people who ran up over $90k to go to unremarkable state schools. There are also stories in newspapers about these cases. Yes, the Federal government guarantees the debt of IQ 105 Psychology majors. I’d really like to see numbers here.
My nonAmerican readers have to understand that in the U.S., higher education is a sort of religion. The university serves much the same role as temples did in premodern societies. For some reason it has become accepted that to be a real person, you must spend the ages of 18 to 22 living in a place with overpriced housing and food, and you must sit through generally useless lectures. Think of this as a recklessly drawn out heathen initiation rite. The imagery of college is idealized in media, and the wealthy line up to fund new buildings and professorships. When future humans examine our society, they’ll compare our lecture halls and dormitories with the Roman temples and Persian ziggurats.
The problem is that college education is pretty useless, and certainly overprescribed. Certainly far too many students are admitted nowadays, watering down the curriculum. Bryan Caplan’s blogging convinced me that education is mostly about signaling. The evidence is damning and it lines up with my experience. Most of what I know, I learned on my own. I’ve learned vastly more economic theory and history from blogs (econlog, Econtalk, and money Money Illusion) and a few short Milton Friedman books than I ever did from lectures. The only area where I think schooling is generally necessary is in mathematics and programming. Though even here, there are plenty of self taught masters (Ed Snowden). If you really think school makes you smarter, rather than simply displaying your underlying properties and at best honing them in a useful way, that’s your problem. Read Caplan’s posts. This link should get you started. It’s a big internet and it’s not my job to save the benighted.
Education is really about confidence and the need for ritual. People need to believe that everything is going to be ok. As Howard Bloom taught in the ill-named The Lucifer Principle, (has nothing to do with the Christian pantheon, it is about memes) people function better when they they can reasonably hope things will work out. There is an example in the book (which you should read) where he tells of a primitive tribe which asks a witch doctor to save a sick man. If the witch doctor ‘succeeds’ he is hailed as a powerful shaman. If he ‘fails’, well then those must have been some mighty evil spirits in the sick man, if such a skilled witch doctor couldn’t save him! The point is that bringing in the witch doctor met an important psychological need for the tribe. I think education does the same thing for us today (as well as the modern witch doctors: physicians, macroeconomists and most other experts).
People want to think their children are going to be ok. This is reasonable and governments are happy to facilitate. This is a tricky chicken and egg problem. I saw a video once in an anthropology class that I still think of often. Down in Peru or Ecuador the natives in a small town have this tradition where they have to pay a white priest or town elder (I forget which, but he must be 100% Spanish blood) to say a blessing so that a statue of the Virgin Mary can be brought through the streets. It is a hefty sum and is negotiated. I’m sure a few of the Indians think “This guy is scamming us! We can bring this wooden broad through the streets on our own.”, but as long as the society buys into the idea that the priest is doing a needful service, anyone who protests is going to pay a social cost. This bad equilibrium could be broken if the Vatican would step in and say that anyone could perform the ceremony (or maybe not, but let’s say it could). Likewise, our own silly religious burden can be lightened by a leviathan.
The federal government should absolutely put some limits on what types of loans it will back. There are two issues. Firstly, the government should try to break the bad equilibrium by indexing the total amount of university tuition subsidies to the CPI, or some other index so that the government’s distorting effects are limited. Next, the Feds should not invite students to take on unreasonable debts. If you’re going to Harvard to study…anything…you’ll probably have a job at Goldman waiting for you. The Feds can safely back a sizable amount of debt for you (if you somehow got into Harvard and don’t already have a well off, high ability family, hooray emerging American caste system dystopia!). If however, you got into StateU, the government should take a closer look at your profile before backing your funding. The Federal government should absolutely not be in the business of making it easy for people to sabotage themselves. Note that the bad equilibrium breaks down when all subsidies (mostly debt guarantees) are pulled. If you’re inclined toward a state-planned approach, the German system seems to work well and could probably be adapted to America. The key to the German system is that fewer people to go university, student’s are given realistic assessment of their potential career paths and there is no societal shame in apprenticeship or technical school.
To close, I’ll say that I don’t blame people for their sacrifices at the alter of education. If it wasn’t college it would be something else. We aren’t purely logical beings. We’re fancy apes and that’s just the way it is. But we need to find a cheaper, more socially productive way of meeting our need for symbolic, hope-stoking action. Obama’s new proposal seems like a step in that direction. Maybe we could build temples to the god of solar technology. At least then we’d get some useful infrastructure instead of a closet full of gender studies books.
How long until the Fed starts an NGDP futures market?
Do you think Bernanke reads blogs?
Do you think Yellen even knows what the internet is?
How about the glorified sociology majors and clueless quasi Keynesians who’ll more or less run the American state through 2020? To say nothing of the knuckle-dragging Republicans and their drift toward tinfoil-hat Austrianism. Think it’s high on their lists?
We’ll be lucky if the Treasury rolls out NGDP-linked bonds in 5 years. That’s a long time to have our thumbs up our butts.
Millions of people trade in the markets. The NGDP forecast is hidden within the information they aggregate. Our inability to distill that forecast, with some quantitative precision, springs only from a lack of imagination. If you have a better method, tell me, I’ll build it and give you all the credit.
The best way for us to convince people that the market’s are smarter than experts, is to show them.
Never argue. In society nothing must be discussed; give only results. -Disraeli
I think it was Taleb who said that you can basically ignore daily stockmarket movements under +/-1%, paying exponentially more attention outside those bounds. This suggests that yesterday’s FOMC statement had little impact on market expectations. This is precisely what our system implied, if you only looked at the pre 14:15 EDT forecast and the closing forecast.
However, the forecast became somewhat volatile during the Bernank’s speech. More volatile than the markets seemed.
At first, I blamed this on my foolish inclusion of an unreliable indicator like 5-year Treasury yields (up is good, unless down is good), though this only explains the general downward trend of the forecast through the late afternoon. Then, when I looked at my data mining records I realized the problem was from the TIPS market.
And then I found the problem. Because Yahoo! Finance doesn’t publish TIPS yields (that I can find), I’m instead scraping those from the source code of a certain financial website (owned by a certain person I desperately wish would run for President in 2016). However, this website doesn’t give away the goods for nothing, so our TIPS yield quotes are lagged about 30 minutes, whereas everything else is nearly real time, thanks to Yahoo!.
This means that the TIPS spread variation was driven by the 5 year bond yield. This means that the 5 year yield’s variation was basically counted twice, which caused our principal components to be distorted. This is a fixable flaw in the system.
Also, some of you may have noticed that the forecast fell off this morning. Don’t be alarmed, this is just because the GDP revisions.
Here is a comparison of the latest forecast, with yesterday’s close. The discontinuities form GDP revision should be damped as I roll out the model averaging system. I also think that the y/y % change graph is probably not the best way to show the data, as it is so dependent on small changes in the level of GDP. We’ll have to keep experimenting.
Lastly, I just had a power outage, so the system will have a ‘dead spot’ of about 45 minutes, still working on moving the thing into the cloud.
The market-driven, intraday NGDP indicator is now available at efficientforecast.com.
All credit goes to Kenneth D’Amica, the Staten Island native, recovering economist and Silicon Valley expert in all things computer who is splitting this daunting task with me.
Japan, you are next.
Update: I would be grateful if one of my Japanese readers would leave a translation of “Expected NGDP Growth in next year” in the comment section.
The test version of the NGDP expectations system is running. A graph of the forecast in y/y % change format can been seen at this link.
Let me know in the comments if you’d like the data shown differently and I’ll see what I can do.
Big thanks to Lars “The Market Monetarist” Christensen for the shout out.