Thursday, March 26, 2020

How can governments mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on human flourishing?



This is an appropriate question for economists with an interest in public policy to be considering. It recognizes a possible role for governments and recognizes that an approach focused on human flourishing is likely to be more appropriate than one focused entirely on reducing the death rate or reducing adverse impacts on GDP.

The possible role for government stems from the perception that people who are most vulnerable would not able be to protect themselves adequately without some government intervention. People who know they are vulnerable have a strong incentive to practice social distancing, but personal circumstances often make that difficult. Without the threat of coercion, it is unlikely that we will see the degree of social distancing necessary to reduce the rate of spread of the virus. In that event, hospital services are likely to be over-whelmed by the number of people requiring treatment. 

As always, with government intervention, there is a risk that the cure will end up worse that the disease, but the risk is probably worth taking in this instance.

What is the appropriate indicator of human flourishing to be used as a policy objective? There isn’t just one! The prime candidates, per capita GDP and average life satisfaction both suffer from the same flaw – they don’t account for the impact of early death on the well-being of the dear departed. We should continue to consider the impacts of policies on death rates as well as their impacts on the well-being of the living.

Per capita GDP was never intended to be a measure of well-being, but it is relevant. Many factors that impinge on well-being – such as the ability of people to afford food, housing and health care – are influenced by per capita GDP levels. However, per capita GDP cannot account for impacts of coercive policy interventions, such as enforced home confinement, on psychological well-being.

Average life satisfaction seems to be a reasonable indicator of the average psychological well-being of groups of people. It is a poor indicator of economic and social progress because it doesn’t account for the extent that members of one generation perceive themselves to be better off, or worse off, than members of preceding generations. Fortunately, that deficiency is not pertinent for present purposes.
There is some evidence that lock-down and GDP decline have potential to have substantial negative impacts on average life satisfaction.

An article entitled ‘Health, distress and life satisfaction of people in China one month into the COVID-19 outbreak’, has recently been published by Stephen X Zhang, Yifei Wang, Andreas Rauch, and Feng Wei. The article is a pre-print and has not been subjected to peer review, but no major flaws are obvious to me. As might be expected, the study suggests that the life satisfaction of people with chronic medical conditions was adversely affected in locations with severe outbreaks of COVID-19.

However, the life satisfaction of people who exercised a lot was also adversely affected in locations with more severe outbreaks, suggesting frustration at restrictions imposed. Those who were able to continue to work had higher life satisfaction than those who had stopped work, with people who were able to work “at the office” having higher life satisfaction than those who worked at home.

The relationship between per capita GDP and average life satisfaction is complicated. Average life satisfaction is relatively high in countries with high per capita GDP, but tends to grow very slowly, if at all, as per capita GDP rises further in such countries.  However, there is some evidence suggesting that when per capita GDP falls in high-income countries, this is likely to be accompanied by substantial declines in average life satisfaction. Austerity in Greece reduced per capita GDP by about 26% over the decade to 2017 and was accompanied by a decline in average life satisfaction of about 20% (GDP data from OECD and life satisfaction data from World Happiness Report, 2020).

Hopefully, COVID-19 will result in much smaller declines in per capita GDP than in Greece. and economic recovery will be much more rapid.

What are the trade-offs involved in shut-down? The human welfare implications of shutting down large parts of an economy for an extended period are enormous. However, a short close-down of all those activities in which social distancing is difficult might be preferable to a less severe and more prolonged lock-down. Tomas Pueyo’s discussion of the hammer and dance (see graphic above) makes sense to me, even if the Hammer needs to last more than 3-7 weeks.

Social distancing and lock-down is an investment in buying time. Buying time for what? It can’t be for development of a vaccine. That will take too long!

It makes sense to buy time to build up the stock of respirators, ICU beds etc. to help cope with an influx of hospital patients needing treatment.

It also makes sense to buy time to obtain testing equipment that can give accurate results within a short time frame. Speedy and accurate testing has potential to enable infectious people to be detected and temporarily taken out of circulation, so that the rest of the population can return to something like normal life.

This post has not yet referred to stimulus packages. I support giving money to people to help them survive a crisis that is likely to depress aggregate demand. Please note, however, that what people can buy depends ultimately on what is produced. When an economy closes down the necessities of life tend to become scarce.

My conclusions:
  • Policies to mitigate COVID-19 should be considered from a human flourishing perspective rather than solely in terms of either minimizing deaths or minimizing damage to an economy.

  • The best policy seems to be to buy time by enforcing strict social distancing for a relatively short period rather than less strict distancing for a longer period. The policy aim should be to buy enough time to enable hospitals to cope better with an influx of patients and to put in place a testing regime that can enable life to return to something like normal as soon as possible.


Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Does dialogue imply recognition of natural rights?



Two philosophers, John and Robert, were travelling in a lawless country when they were attacked by two bandits. In the initial exchange of gunfire, Robert and one of the bandits were killed. The other bandit had John in his sights, and John thought he was about to be shot.

John shouted: “Please don’t kill me. That would be a violation of my natural rights”. The bandit laughed. “I don’t believe in natural rights”, he said. “Around here, I decide who has rights, and you don’t have any.” 

The bandit moved closer, so John didn’t need to shout his response: “The government of the country I come from also takes the view that there are no natural rights. It claims that it has the authority to decide who has rights and what rights they have. It is wrong and so are you”.

The bandit asked John to explain what was wrong with claiming that rights are determined by the people with power. John replied: “By engaging in dialogue with me about rights, you are implicitly recognizing my natural right to self-direction. If I didn’t have that right, I would not have been able to consider your argument and to reject it”. 

The bandit laughed again, before asking: “Where did you get that idea from?”. John explained that the idea had come from Hans-Hermann Hoppe.[i]

While John was explaining Hoppe’s idea, the bandit became distracted by a wasp hovering around his face. John took advantage of the situation to pull out a small handgun that he had concealed in his clothing and to point it at the bandit.

With the tables now turned, John said: “Give me good reasons why I shouldn’t shoot you”. The bandit pleaded that he didn’t deserve to be killed because that would be disproportionate punishment. He explained that he was not responsible for killing Robert and said that he didn’t intend to kill John.

John responded: “In the defence that you have just presented, you have claimed the right not to be subjected to disproportionate punishment. That means you have contradicted your earlier statement that you do not believe in natural rights. Have you changed your mind? Do you now believe in natural rights?” 

The bandit claimed that he did now believe in natural rights. John was not sure that he was being truthful, but had already decided to spare his life. John decided that, under the circumstances, it would be enough punishment to lecture the bandit at length about the principle of estoppel, that Stephan Kinsella has applied to natural rights dialogue.[ii]

A couple of days later, John was discussing the incident with Peter, another philosopher friend, whom he knew had often claimed to be a natural rights skeptic. After John had related his story, he added the thought: “I am now having regrets that I didn’t shoot that bandit when I had the chance”. Peter responded: “No, you did the right thing! Killing him would have been disproportionate punishment”.

John saw an opportunity to make an important point: “Peter, do you realize that by acknowledging that there is such a thing as disproportionate punishment you have implicitly recognised the existence of natural rights?” John then gave Peter a reference to Stephan Kinsella’s discussion of rights scepticism.[iii] 

I leave it for you, dear reader, to decide how this story might end. I would like to think that the bandit and Peter have both now stopped claiming that they don’t believe in natural rights.


[i] Hoppe, Hans-Hermann, 1989, A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism: Economics, Politics, and Ethics.
[iii] Kinsella, op.cit. loc 1886-1921/8713.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Is cultural change responsible for a long term decline in productivity growth?



The story of cultural change that Edmund Phelps tells in Mass Flourishing has a happy beginning and a sad ending.

Phelps’ cultural story of the advent of rapid economic growth in Britain and America in the 19th century is much like that of Joel Mokyr and Deidre McCloskey (discussed here and here). The main difference is Phelps’ greater emphasis on grassroots innovation within firms.

Phelps makes a strong case that Joseph Schumpeter, famous for his theory of entrepreneurship, over-emphasized the importance of exogenous scientific discoveries (external to innovating firms) as a source of innovation. Phelps probably goes too far in downplaying scientific advances, but his story about the importance of grassroots innovation to the emerging modern economies seems highly plausible. He suggests:
“a modern economy turns people who are close to the economy, where they are apt to be struck by new commercial ideas, into the investigators and experimenters who manage the innovation process from development and, in many cases, adoption as well” (p 26).

Phelps describes a modern economy as “a vast imaginarium – a space for imagining new products and methods, imagining how they might be made, imagining how they might be used” (p 27).

A substantial part of the book is devoted to a discussion of socialism, as practiced in the Soviet Union, and corporatism, as practiced in Italy and Germany in the 1930s. The contemporary relevance of that discussion become relevant later in the book in his discussion of reasons for the decline in productivity growth that seems to have occurred in the U.S. since the 1960s.

Phelps’ focus on the U.S. economy as the main driver of technological progress seems appropriate. He notes that European countries experienced high productivity growth while playing the technological catch-up game, but their productivity growth has generally been lower than in the U.S. in recent decades. He attributes their lack of dynamism to ongoing corporatism over the decades since World War II. The classical corporatist model - involving state direction of industry and promotion of solidarity and social responsibility – has been augmented with codetermination of labour and capital (instead of owner-control) and stakeholderism (instead of a focus on income generation).

The author suggests that corporatism has also grown in the United States. Industries that have been subject to government policy interventions have been affected by a new populist type of corporatism as businesses have sought to use their political influence to mould government regulation to their advantage. The result is a “densely interconnected system of mutually beneficial relationships between private and public’, which tends “to redirect the economy’s innovation toward politicians”. He notes that supporters refer to that system as industry policy and detractors refer to it as corporate welfare. It should be referred to as rent-seeking.

The cultural change that Phelps sees as leading to a decline in economic dynamism is not fully reflected in changes in economic freedom indexes. He sees a deterioration in the “core functioning” of modern economies. This involves, among other things:
  • Managerialism, short-termism and the rise of a “money culture” in business, with wealth-seeking turning people away from innovation.
  • A rise in the litigiousness of American society - people who devote their time and energy to suing one another have less time and energy for innovation.
  • Excessive patent protection resulting in an economy clogged with patents – “a creator of a new method might require as many lawyers as engineers to proceed”.
  • More people aspiring to attain social station rather than to achieve something.
  • Adolescent culture – less willingness to accept temporary austerity in the quest for achievement; less ability to concentrate intensely (unable to resist distractions of social media).
  • A resurgence of traditional values putting more pressure on business to allow people to work from home etc.


Has this cultural change in U.S. business caused a decline in the long-term productivity growth rate? If so, what can be done about it?

In a series of posts written in 2015, I was sceptical that there had been a decline in long term productivity growth. I suggested that the slow-down in measured productivity growth in the U.S. and some other countries may be attributable, in part, to difficulty in measuring the outputs of the information and communications technologies (ICT) industries. I also noted research findings suggesting a technological diffusion problem, rather than a slow-down in technological advances, with productivity growth of global frontier firms remaining relatively robust.

The addition of a few more years of data seems to lend support to the view of the historical pessimists that there has been a long-term decline in U.S. productivity growth. And Phelps’s cultural change explanation does seem plausible.

Unfortunately, the remedies that Phelps offers are less plausible. He suggests that governments can act to restore dynamism if they become aware of its importance and gain some practical knowledge of how innovation is generated. He suggests:
Nations will have to push back against the resurgence of traditional values that have been suffocating in recent decades and revive the modern values that stirred people to go boldly forth toward lives of richness”.

Edmund Phelps seems to be hoping that a reinvented corporatism, perhaps inspired by the starship Enterprise, will foster grassroots innovation and be less prone to rent-seeking than the industry policies it replaces. Good luck with that!

I prefer to put my faith in the potential for new technologies to disrupt and subvert populist corporatism.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Does democracy cause growth?



This question has contemporary relevance, but it came to mind as I was reading Mass Flourishing, by Edmund Phelps, who won the Nobel in economics in 2006. Mass Flourishing, published in 2013, is subtitled How grass roots innovation created jobs, challenge and change.

Phelps’ hypothesis:
Political institutions arguably played a significant role in the creation of the modern economy. One of these was representative democracy, which arose rather close to the emergence of economic modernity” (p 92).


That challenged my prior view that political change favouring economic freedom, innovation and productivity growth came first, and that voting rights came later to redistribute the fruits of economic progress.

Phelps recognizes that democracy involves downside risks (e.g. tyranny of the majority, interest group politics) but gives plausible reasons why democracy may have helped promote economic growth:
  • A democracy would push the public sector to support the interests of lower and middle classes, thus encouraging business activity (including grassroots innovation) and public education. By contrast an autocracy would tend to be more interested in serving landed interests, national prestige etc.
  • Rule of the people tends to lend credibility to rule of law, thus reducing sovereign risk.
  • Elected politicians have an incentive to heed voters, whereas autocrats may not even be aware of their interests or concerns.

However, in my view Phelps' line of argument runs into problems when he considers whether the mechanics of democracy occurred at the right time and place to trigger an explosion of economic dynamism. He looks at the experience of five countries: Britain, America, France, Belgium and Germany.

In respect of Britain, he refers to the revolution of 1688 as having given representation to new wealth and new cities, and the Reform Act of 1832 as extending the franchise to men without property. The Glorious Revolution didn’t establish democracy and the Reform Act was too late to be a trigger.

Phelps refers to the U.S. Constitution of 1788 as having created a government that was radically more representative than Britain’s parliament at that time. However, my American friends keep telling me that their Founding Fathers established a republic rather than a democracy.

The experience of France seems to support the hypothesis. Both democracy and dynamism were slow to arrive in France. The experience of Belgium was ambiguous.

German experience didn’t support the hypothesis. There was strong innovation in Germany in the latter half of the 19th century, but little democracy except at local levels.

Phelps’ conclusion suggests a smaller role for democracy than his original hypothesis:
“In any case, the reasonable inference is not that modern democracy caused the modern economy or vice-versa, but that both sprang from the same matrix of values and beliefs—the same culture” (p 96).

Joel Mokyr has emphasized the role of institutional adaptability, rather than democracy, in facilitating growth. He responds as follows to the observation that commercial energy was combined with stable rule by an exclusive elite in 18th century Britain:
Yet British institutions also had to possess a built-in capability to adapt to radically changing circumstances, and every such adaptation led to further changes in the economic structure of Britain. It is this kind of dynamic that created the success that allowed the growth of useful knowledge and technological ingenuity to become the foundation of sustained economic development” (The Enlightened Economy, 2009, p 427).

The adaptations that Mokyr refers to include the reform of many institutions that had supported rent-seeking and redistribution. He suggests that by 1850, “the elite that ran British government no longer saw political power as a means to acquire more privileges”, but instead “made sure that no other political group would be able to do the same so it could keep what it already had” (p 395).

As noted at the beginning of this post, the question of whether democracy supports economic growth has contemporary relevance. Bill Easterly’s examination of economic growth experience in his book, The Tyranny of Experts, (discussed here) suggests that political leaders matter very little for either good or ill in driving economic growth. He argues that freedom promotes individualistic values that favour economic development. By contrast, autocrats tend to promote the interests of the kingdom (or state) above those of the individual and foster collectivist values that are inimical to economic development. 

China’s experience of autocrats promoting limited economic freedom, which has resulted in a major growth dividend in recent decades, is interesting in that context. As in Germany in the latter part of the 19th century, the leaders of China may see a degree of economic freedom as a way to promote the interests of the state.

 Finally, as a matter of empirics, there is evidence that if you classify countries as either democratic or non-democratic and control for other factors, the democratic countries have better growth performance. In a recent study covering 175 countries, Daron Acemoglu et al have found that democratizations increase GDP per capita by about 20 percent in the long run [JPE, 2019, 127 (1)].

Unfortunately, those findings do little to allay my concerns about the impact of interest group politics on future productivity growth in the western democracies. I will write more about that, and about Edmund Phelps views of possible causes of declining dynamism, in a later post.