The cultural impact of rent control

The Economist has an article discussing the predictable failure of Berlin’s new rent control law:

And indeed a recent study by the German Institute for Economic Research found that rents in the newly regulated market of flats built before 2014 have declined by 11% compared with the still-unregulated market for newer buildings.

But the problem, entirely foreseeable and foreseen, is that the caps have made the city’s housing shortage much worse: the number of classified ads for rentals has fallen by more than half. Tenants, naturally enough, stick to their rent-capped apartments like glue. Landlords use flats for themselves, sell them or simply keep them empty in the hope that the court will nix the new regulation. Meanwhile, rents and sale prices in the still-unregulated part of the market, and in cities close to Berlin, such as Potsdam, have risen far faster than in other big German cities.

In addition, rent control also discourages landlords from properly maintaining their buildings.  In the long run, the quality of rent-controlled buildings will tend to approximate their price.  And this can cause discord between tenants and landlords:

The rent cap has managed to make Berlin’s housing shortage even worse—and poisoned relations between tenants and their landlords.

Socialism is sometimes defined as statism plus egalitarianism.  But these are actually quite different policies, and in my view statism is far worse.  Regulations such as rent controls, minimum wage laws and immigration restrictions tend to pit one person against another, reducing cooperation and making society more cruel in the process.  Egalitarian policies such as progressive taxes can also have negative effects in areas such as work incentives, but they don’t tend to undermine civic virtue in quite as pronounced fashion as statist policies.  I’d rather live in a free market country with progressive taxes than a statist economy with flat taxes.



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Did Price-Gouging Laws Increase Covid Deaths?

An interesting working paper was published this month by economists Rik Chakraborti (Christopher Newport University) and Gavin Roberts (Weber State University), “How Price-Gouging Regulation Undermined COVID-19 Mitigation: Evidence of Unintended Consequences.”

These price controls created shortages, which, according to economic theory, would have been more severe in the 42 states that already had price-gouging laws on the books or (inexplicably for an economist) rushed to legislate them after Covid hit. The federal Defense Production Act, invoked by Donald Trump, added more biting price controls on pandemic-related supplies (such as personal protection equipment) but is not considered in the Chakraborti-Roberts paper.

The authors used a database of cellphone-tracked mobility to calculate “average exposure of smartphones to each other within commercial venues.” Comparing states with and without price-gouging laws between January 22 and May 3, 2020, the econometric study confirmed that these laws were associated with more physical visits to commercial venues (especially from individuals in the lowest income quartile), as people were frantically looking for sanitizer and other goods in shortage. This increased shopping is likely to have increased contacts and infections. After controlling for state population density (which can have a compounding effect on infection), lockdown orders, and other factors, the econometric estimates suggest that price-gouging laws explain at least 25% of the early-April, first-wave Covid deaths in states with such laws.

We’ll have to see if these results are confirmed by other studies but they make economic sense. The regulatory welfare state may not be as nice as we thought, at least in its consequences. As for intentions, an old saying in many languages suggests that the road to hell is paved with them.


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The Pandemic in Europe and America

The pandemic evolution now appears to be more worrying in Europe than in America, as illustrated by the graph below reproduced from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (Marcus Walker, Bertrand Benoit, and Stacy Meichtry, “Europe Confronts a Covid-19 Rebound as Vaccine Hopes Recede,” March 12, 2021). In France, for example, after two very long and restrictive (even tyrannical) national lockdowns, ICUs are close to 80% capacity. The Wall Street Journal explains:

Europe’s efforts continue to suffer from the EU’s slowness in procuring and approving vaccines, production delays at vaccine makers, and bureaucratic holdups in injecting available doses.

The “production delays at vaccine makers” are most likely due to the fact that the EU government has not purchased them in time while, of course, there as in America, individuals and private organizations cannot purchase them.

Those who have read Ayn Rand’s famous novel may wonder if Atlas is shrugging more visibly in Europe than in America. As for those Europeans who put all their faith in an omniscient and all-powerful welfare state, they seem deeply disappointed (although they may be asking for more). In Germany, 30% don’t trust the competence of Angela Merkel’s center-right government and trust even less her center-left parliamentary allies.

The progression of new covid variants in Europe may be an immediate culprit, but a major reason for that is that European governments, under the punctilious EU government, have been slower than the US government in making vaccines widely available to the public.

Yet, the vaccine rollout in America has not been a marvel of federal or state planning. Four months after Pfizer announced the completion of its clinical trial, three months and a half after it started delivering doses to the United States, and three months after the vaccine was approved by the FDA, only 10% of Americans are fully vaccinated and another 10% have received a first dose (according to data from the Wall Street Journal). As far as we can see, this was, although not exactly warp speed, fast enough to prevent the variants from outrunning the building of herd immunity. This relative American success was achieved with much fewer restrictions to individual liberties than in most European countries. Federalism and popular resistance have been a big advantage.

It is notable that Pfizer and its partner BioNTech were not full-fledged participants in Operation Warp Speed. Pfizer did not accept research funding to develop its vaccine. The New York Times explained (“Was the Pfizer Vaccine Part of the Government’s Operation Warp Speed?” November 10, 2020):

In July [2020], Pfizer got a $1.95 billion deal with the government’s Operation Warp Speed, the multiagency effort to rush a vaccine to market, to deliver 100 million doses of the vaccine. The arrangement is an advance-purchase agreement, meaning that the company won’t get paid until they deliver the vaccines. Pfizer did not accept federal funding to help develop or manufacture the vaccine, unlike front-runners Moderna and AstraZeneca.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla made that clear (see “Leading Covid-9 Vaccine Makers Pfizer and Moderna Decline Invitations to White Summit ‘Vaccine Summit’,” Stat, December 7, 2020):

Bourla later defended the decision to decline federal research and development funding, citing a desire to “liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy” and “keep Pfizer out of politics.”

Except perhaps for that, the pandemic does not provide a strong confirmation of the benefits of American free enterprise. There may be more free enterprise in America than in Europe, but it’s a matter of degree. In America too, the distribution of the vaccines has been basically a governmental affair. And think about the “price-gouging” laws that have prevented market price adjustments in 42 states, not counting the Defense Production Act at the federal level. (See Rik Chakraborti and Gavin Roberts, “Anti-Gouging Laws, Shortages, and Covid-19,” Journal of Private Enterprise 35:4 (2020), pp. 1-20.)

Perhaps the administrative-welfare state, in both Europe and America, is not as good as we thought?


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L’Etat, C’est Ro

Louis XIV, pictured above, the king of France from 1643 to 1715, famously said, “L’Etat, C’est Moi.” Thus the title of this post.

Ro Khanna, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives, was recently asked what his plan was for the small businesses that might be hurt by the Democrats’ (and some Republicans’) proposal to raise the minimum wage from its current $7.25 an hour to $15.00 an hour by 2025.

The interviewer asked:

I’m wondering what is your plan for smaller businesses? How does this, in your view, affect mom-and-pop businesses who are just struggling to keep their doors open, keep workers on the payroll right now?

Khanna answered:

Well they shouldn’t be doing it by paying people low wages. We don’t want low-wage businesses.

What does Mr. Khanna mean by “we?” Many small businesses want to pay what he would regard as low wages. Many workers would like to work at those low wages if the alternative is higher wage rates but fewer hours, being worked harder, getting fewer benefits, or, in the limit getting zero hours. Many customers would like to buy goods and services produced by businesses paying wages less than $15 an hour.

But none of these people count, in his view.

His “we” means “he” or, more inclusively, people like him who are willing to ignore the desires of those three groups.

Thus the title of this post.


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The Effect of the Minimum Wage on Employment and Unemployment

In a comment on my blog post about the proposed $15 federal minimum wage, frequent (and careful) commenter KevinDC quotes my statement:

Here’s what they found. The vast majority of studies, 79.3 percent, found that a higher minimum wage led to less employment.

He then comments:

I like the precise wording here by using the term “less employment.” One thing I’ve tried explaining to people is that is possible for increases in the minimum wage to decrease employment without increasing unemployment, because economists are bad at naming things in a way that make intuitive sense to people outside the field. (“Public goods? Obviously that means goods provided by the public sector, right?” “Market failure? That’s whenever I personally don’t like a market outcome, isn’t it?”) So, even in the case where  particular study doesn’t find increased unemployment after a minimum wage hike, that doesn’t actually mean that the increase in the minimum wage didn’t decrease employment.

Well said, Kevin.

I want to add that the CBO study I cited makes this distinction also. Here’s a key paragraph:

Taking those factors into account, CBO projects that, on net, the Raise the Wage Act of 2021 would reduce employment by increasing amounts over the 2021–2025 period. In 2025, when the minimum wage reached $15 per hour, employment would be reduced by 1.4 million workers (or 0.9 percent), according to CBO’s average estimate. In 2021, most workers who would not have a job because of the higher minimum wage would still be looking for work and hence be categorized as unemployed; by 2025, however, half of the 1.4 million people who would be jobless because of the bill would have dropped out of the labor force, CBO estimates. Young, less educated people would account for a disproportionate share of those reductions in employment.




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The Opportunity-Killing Minimum Wage

Among non-economists and politicians, the minimum wage is one of the most misunderstood issues in economic policy. President Biden and almost all Democrats and some Republicans in the US Congress advocate increasing the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour over four years. They argue that many of the workers earning between $7.25 and $15 will get a raise in hourly wage. That’s true. But what they don’t tell you, and what many of them probably don’t know, is that many workers in that wage range will suffer a huge drop in wages—from whatever they’re earning down to zero. Other low-wage workers will stay employed but will work fewer hours a week. Many low-wage workers will find that their non-wage benefits will fall and that employers will work them harder. Why all those effects? Because an increase in the minimum wage doesn’t magically make workers more productive. A minimum wage of $15 an hour will exceed the productivity of many low-wage workers.

This is from David R. Henderson, “The Opportunity-Killing Minimum Wage,” Defining Ideas, February 18, 2021.

Another excerpt:

Employers don’t hire workers as a favor. Instead, employers hire workers to make money. They hire people only if the wage and other components of compensation they pay are less than or equal to the value of the worker’s productivity. If an employer pays $10 an hour to someone whose productivity is $15 an hour, that situation won’t last long. A competing employer will offer, say $12 an hour to lure the worker away from his current job. And then another employer will compete by offering $13 an hour. Competition among employers, not government wage-setting, is what protects workers from exploitation.

We all understand that fact when we see discussions on ESPN about why one football player makes $20 million a year and another makes “only” $10 million a year. Everyone recognizes the twin facts of player productivity and competition among NFL teams. The same principles, but with much lower wages, apply to competition among employers for relatively low-skilled employees.

Also, see how I discuss the last 28 years of literature on the minimum wage.

And finally:

The University of Chicago’s Booth School has an Initiative on Global Markets (IGM) that occasionally surveys US economists on policy issues. Possibly because of the surveyors’ understanding that the $15 minimum wage would hurt some states more than others, the IGM recently made the following statement and asked forty-three economists to agree or disagree: “A federal minimum wage of $15 per hour would lower employment for low-wage workers in many states.” Unfortunately, the question did not specify what is meant by “many.” Is it ten, twenty, thirty? Some economists surveyed pointed out that ambiguity. That ambiguity could explain why a number of the economists answered that they were uncertain. But of those who agreed or disagreed, nineteen agreed that it would cause job loss in many states and only six disagreed.

One economist who disagreed, Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, gave as his explanation this sentence: “The literature suggests minimal effects on employment.” No, it doesn’t. As noted earlier, the federal government has never tried to raise the minimum wage by such a large amount and so there is no scholarly literature on such an increase. Would Thaler say that if putting a cat in the oven at a temperature of 72.5 degrees Fahrenheit doesn’t hurt the cat, then putting a cat in the oven at 150 degrees wouldn’t hurt the cat either?

Read the whole thing.


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Free trade and free labor markets

This caught my eye:

[Arindrajit] Dube responds that “one has to be honest about not knowing what would be the impact in every place.” But he points to 2019 research by Anna Godoey and Michael Reich of the University of California at Berkeley, who found that increases in state minimums didn’t hurt employment even in low-wage counties where the new floor equaled 82% of the prevailing median wage. And even if a high minimum wage does kill some jobs—as many studies, though not Dube’s, show it would—it can still be worthwhile if it raises incomes of low-wage families overall, he says. Some experts say that as with free trade, which helps more people than it hurts, any losers could be made whole with government assistance.

Yes, free trade is an excellent analogy for labor market policy, but not for the reasons cited by Peter Coy in this Bloomberg article.

Economists typically evaluate issues from both an equity and efficiency perspective.  Many economists favor policies that maximize efficiency (making the pie as large as possible), combined with some redistribution to compensate the losers.  Thus they favor free trade, combined with a program to help workers that lose their jobs due to import competition.

Oddly, Peter Coy seems to think this analogy points in the direction of boosting the minimum wage.  Exactly the opposite is true.  If we wanted to match the standard economic approach to international trade, we’d abolish the minimum wage and replace it with some sort of subsidy for low wage workers.  Even if that were politically impossible, you would definitely not want a $15 minimum wage.  A much superior policy would be a $10 minimum wage combined with a $5/hour wage subsidy, where the subsidy phases out at the rate of 50 cents/hour for each $1/hour pay raise, ending entirely when pay reaches $20/hour. (Teenagers could be excluded from the subsidy, if they are not living independently.)

I’m not saying this would be ideal (I’d prefer no legal minimum), but it would be much more in the spirit of the “free trade plus compensating the losers” analogy that Coy uses to justify a higher minimum wage. It would be aimed at making the pie as large as possible, while compensating the less fortunate.


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Vaccine Adventures

Following up on information that Covid-19 vaccines were available there, I walked into the small Maine pharmacy. I saw nobody inside, not even at the cash register. I continued to the back of the store: nobody manned the two counters of the pharmacist’s hideout. I stood in front of one. After just a few minutes, an employee appeared on the other side.

“Could I see the pharmacist?” I asked.

The pharmacist came.

“I have been told that you have Covid vaccines,” I said.

“We have a waiting list,” she replied.

I asked to be put on it but she would not, or could not, tell me when they were likely to phone me for an appointment. I recognized something like the Canadian health system, under which I lived for decades.

“Is it a matter of days, weeks, months, or years,” I asked.

“Days. At least.”

That looked good, except for the “at least.” In some of the on-line and mortar-and-brick places, there is not even a queue you can get at the back of.

At this stage, the actual vaccines don’t seem to be the problem. In the United States, the manufacturers have delivered twice as many vaccines as have been administered. According to the Wall Street Journal (Jared S. Hopkins and Arian Camp-Flores, “Demand for Covid-19 Vaccines Overwhelms State Health Providers,” February 8, 2021),

[a]lthough state officials often cite limited vaccine supply, manufacturers are producing largely on schedule. Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. since December have supplied about 60 million doses, nearly one-third of the 200 million the companies together must deliver by the end of March.

State governments are supposed to distribute the vaccines that the federal government, after literally monopolizing the market, makes available to them. The length of the queues varies from place to place, perhaps depending partly on the success of whatever entrepreneurship can creep into what is basically a socialized distribution system. One Missouri hospital has a waiting list of 100,000 names and no vaccine left. Queues are not an efficient way to ration demand.

In the former Soviet Union, the government always had an excuse for shortages. The real problem was different: no private property, no market prices to signal scarcities, and no free entrepreneurship to respond to the signals.

In America, once the federal government has purchased them, the Covid vaccines are priced at zero, which implies that government allocation is required. At a zero price, demand is much larger than the quantity that bureaucrats can supply. The fee governments pay providers (hospitals, pharmacies, and such) for administering the vaccines may not be higher than the latter’s cost. For example, Medicare pays about $40 for administering the two doses of the currently available vaccines. In a flash of economic realism, Joe Biden has expressed some concern that this fee may not be sufficient.

It is no consolation that all governments in the “free” world have adopted similar policies. No “American exceptionalism” here.

For Soviet agricultural production, the weather was often the excuse. For Covid vaccines, we are told that “the supply chain” and logistics are the problem. The Wall Street Journal‘s Jennifer Smith reported (“Mass Vaccination Sites Will Mean Scaling Up Logistics Coordination,” January 30, 2021):

Other local health departments might need information technology help to cope with overwhelmed appointment systems, or assistance with planning and sourcing the labor, supplies and procedures needed to administer hundreds of shots a day. “People underestimate that this is a massive logistics operation,” Dr. Wen said. “That type of expertise is often missing in state and local public health.”

But except for governments—that is, political and bureaucratic processes—that should not be an unsurmountable logistics problem. Private businesses without central coordination produce and deliver the food, in innumerable configurations, for the daily meals of 320 million Americans. Recall the Russian official who, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, asked British economist Paul Seabright, “Who is in charge of the supply of bread to the population of London?”

In 2020, Amazon shipped 4.5 billion packages to American consumers—more than 12 million per day. The UPS hub in Louisville, Kentucky has a five-million-square-foot facility for sorting and treating more than 400,000 packages or documents per day. The hub sees 387 inbound or outbound flights daily from the company’s fleet of nearly 600 aircraft. What is more impressive is to think of the millions of individuals around the country and around the world who work in long and diverse supply chains to provide the equipment and inputs necessary for UPS’s operations. We are reminded of Leonard Read 1958 essay I, Pencil, which explains how the manufacture of a simple pencil requires the voluntary cooperation of a multitude of individuals producing, without a mastermind, the zinc, the copper, the graphite, and the equipment to make pencils out of that, and all the equipment for producing that equipment, and so on.

Although working under no central direction, these innumerable people who contribute to the production of pencils or UPS’s equipment and supplies are coordinated by markets (supply and demand) and the prices that signal what is needed where.

Compare this to the federal government’s “centralized system to order, distribute, and track COVID-19 vaccines” in which “all vaccines will be ordered through the CDC” (see the description by Anthony Fauci’s shop: COVID-19 Vaccine Questions and Answers, accessed February 10, 2021), the price for the final consumer is zero, and providers are paid fees determined by bureaucrats. No wonder the distribution runs into problems. The contrary would be surprising.

Note that the vaccine could still be free for the final customer if the federal government had simply subsidized consumers for their vaccine purchases (with vouchers, for example) and had let markets, entrepreneurship, competition, and prices distribute the stuff. And it wouldn’t take ages, luck, and some humility to put one’s hands on the thing—or one’s arm under the syringe.

The consumer who wants a vaccine gets a small taste of what French philosopher Raymond Ruyer, in his 1969 book Éloge de la société de consommation (In Praise of the Consumer Society), described as the difference between a market economy, where the consumer is sovereign, and a planned economy, where the producer runs the show (under government’s control):

In a market economy, demand gives orders and supply is supplicant . . . In a planned economy, supply give orders and demand is supplicant.

« Dans l’économie de marché, la demande est impérieuse, et l’offre suppliante (the supply is supplying). Dans l’économie planifiée, l’offre est impérieuse, et la demande suppliante. »


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Markets are good at allocating resources

By now, this idea is pretty widely accepted. But there’s somewhat more skepticism when dealing with shortages of important goods during an emergency. Consider these tweets:

I’m not qualified to opine on the specifics of this issue.  But after all the missed opportunities of 2020, I’m skeptical of claims that society could not possibly be missing out on “no-brainers”.

This long article discusses logistical problems in rapidly scaling up vaccine supplies:

Take large original equipment manufacturers like 3M, for instance – they have as many as 5,000 direct suppliers, and each of those suppliers have their own suppliers. This results in quite large supply chain networks that extend all over the world – and it only takes one incident to disrupt these operations. Plus, many organizations don’t even know who is in their supply chain. This is what we saw earlier on with N95 masks, gowns and gloves.

So what we have is a much more delicate or fragile supply chain for healthcare supplies, which really sets the stage for where we are now. Because the supply chain has become a much bigger factor, many of the components of the vaccine are subject to these same potential risks.

These are genuine problems, but these are also exactly the sorts of problems that markets are good at addressing.

Though Pfizer has already manufactured 20 million or so doses, Pfizer, Moderna and other vaccines are experiencing severe bottlenecks due to a lack of critical materials – including vials and rubber stoppers for the vials.

How might China’s vast and highly flexible manufacturing sector respond to price signals for producing more of these supplies, say a 50-fold increases in vial and stopper prices?  Hint, here’s how they responded last spring to the mask shortage:

Between March and May, China exported more than 50 billion face masks — a tenfold increase for total production last year, according to analysts

Read that again.  In three months, China exported enough masks to give everyone in the world 6 masks, ten times their normal annual production.

One mistake frequently made by non-economists, even non-economists that know far more about their own industry than economists do, is to underestimate all the margins by which supply can respond to market signals.  Almost nothing is “fixed” in quantity.  I won’t say it’s necessarily true that “where there’s a will there’s a way”, but when there’s obscene profits to be made then there’s almost always a way.


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Supply and aggregate supply are unrelated concepts

The AS/AD model that we teach our students is misnamed, as it has nothing to do with the supply and demand model used in microeconomics. To take one simple example, the vast majority of industry supply curves are almost perfectly elastic (horizontal) in the long run. The long run aggregate supply curve is almost perfectly inelastic (i.e. vertical.) These are just completely unrelated concepts.

This can help us to evaluate some issues raised by Tyler Cowen:

If you think “stimulus” is effective right now, presumably you think supply curves are pretty elastic and thus fairly horizontal. That is, some increase in price/offer will induce a lot more output.

If you think we should hike the minimum wage right now, presumably you think supply curves are pretty inelastic and thus fairly vertical.  That is, some increase in price for the inputs will lead not to much of a drop in output and employment, maybe none at all.  The supply curve is fairly vertical.

What matters for stimulus is the short run aggregate supply curve.  What matters for the minimum wage is the long run industry supply curve.  These two curves are especially unrelated.

[There also the question of whether industry supply curves even exist. Minimum wage proponents usually deny it–claiming that industries are monopolistically competitive.  The evidence suggests that industry supply curves do exist.]

I oppose both fiscal stimulus and minimum wage laws, but for reasons mostly unrelated to supply elasticities.

If you favor a minimum wage hike because you think the demand for labor is inelastic, does that mean you don’t see “downward sticky wages” as a big problem?  After all, the demand for labor is inelastic, right?

Minimum wage laws should be evaluated on the basis of their long run effects.  Proponents probably believe that a good chunk of the higher minimum wage will come out of the pockets of other workers (via higher prices.)  I’ll have to pay more for fast food.  And the empirical evidence supports that claim.  So minimum wage proponents would claim no inconsistency in their views on minimum wages and sticky wages.  But this is one problem with the argument for higher minimum wages.  If they raise prices then they probably also cost jobs.  (My own view is that the bigger problem with minimum wage laws is that they reduce non-wage compensation.)

This is a good point:

If you favor a minimum wage hike, do you criticize wage subsidies because inelastic demand for labor means most of the value of the wage subsidy will be captured by the employer? Or do you somehow want both policies at the same time, because they both involve “government helping people”?

I support wage subsidies to low wage workers because I believe that minimum wage industries tend to be highly competitive, with zero long run economic profits.  And for exactly the same reason I oppose minimum wage laws.




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