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Understandable Economics w/ Howard Yaruss, NYU – EP168

In his new book, Understandable Economics, Howard Yaruss from NYU argues “Understanding Our Economy Is Easier Than You Think and More Important Than You Know.” Howard is an Adjunct Instructor in economics and business at NYU. Previously, he was Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Radian Group, a mortgage insurance company. Howard lives in Manhattan and serves on his local community board. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored

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Links relevant to the conversation

Where you can buy Understandable Economics:

https://amzn.to/3VCsxMV

Howard Yaruss’s website:

https://howardyaruss.com/

EP159 with Romina Boccia from the Cato Institute on the future U.S. fiscal crisis:

https://economicsexplored.com/2022/10/03/the-future-us-fiscal-crisis-and-how-to-avert-it-w-romina-boccia-cato-institute-ep159/

Transcript: Understandable Economics w/ Howard Yaruss, NYU – EP168

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:00

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Howard Yaruss  00:03

I saw reason survey that the majority of young people don’t trust capitalism. That’s a catastrophe as far as I’m concerned. And I think what we need to do is give them a reason to have more faith in the system that has created more wealth than any system in the history of humankind.

Gene Tunny  00:23

Welcome to the Economics Cxplored podcast a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny broadcasting from Brisbane, Australia. This is episode 168. It’s on a new book I’ve been reading called Understandable Economics, because understanding our economy is easier than you think and more important than you know, the author is Howard Yaruss, and he joins me to talk about his new book this episode. Howard is an adjunct instructor in economics in business at NYU. Previously, he was Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Radian Group, a mortgage insurance company. Howard lives in Manhattan, and he serves on his local community board. I’m grateful he came onto the show to share his thoughts on how a proper understanding of economics can help people argue for better public policies. Please check out the show notes, relevant links and information and the details of how you can get in touch with any questions or comments. Let me know what you think about what either Howard or I have to say in this episode. I’d love to hear from you. Right now from my conversation with Howard Yaruss on understandable economics. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Howard Yaruss, welcome to the programme.

Howard Yaruss  01:38

Thank you, Gene. It’s great to be here.

Gene Tunny  01:40

Excellent. Good to be chatting with you. Howard, I’m keen to chat with you about your new book, Understanding economics, because understanding our economy is easier than you think. And more important than you know. So how would I like to ask you? Why do you think that understanding our economy is easier than you think? Can we begin with that, please?

Howard Yaruss  02:10

Yes, I think a lot of people are intimidated by economics. Virtually anyone who’s taking a course, taking a course in economics, has been confronted with a bewildering array of formulas, graphs, jargon, those of the people who’ve taken a course the people who haven’t taken a course, understandably, don’t know much don’t know much about it at all. So I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about economics, but what is economics about? It’s about how society allocates scarce resources. And that’s not a science, like physics or biology, you could just plug some numbers into a formula and get an answer. There are value judgments involved in how we allocate our resources. Our resources involves value judgments. And so it’s, it’s a different type of discipline than a bit different from what most people think it is. And I think what it really is how human beings interact, is easier to understand than the typical economics course, leads people to believe.

Gene Tunny  03:18

Right? What do you think is wrong with a typical economics course, Howard.

Howard Yaruss  03:22

That they begin with a whole bunch of formulas and jargon and graphs. And what we’re talking about is human behaviour. It’s like if you went to a psychiatrist, and they said, Let me plug everything into my formula. The world just doesn’t work that way. There’s, as I as I say, in the book, there’s a reason why a downturn in the economy a severe downturn in the economy, is has the same word is called by the same word as a severe downturn, a psychological downturn for human being or depression. These are psychological phenomenon, they quickly have real world consequences. But again, you can test the industrial capacity of a country right before, lets say, something we’re more accustomed to a recession rather than depression. Fortunately, we’ve had very few depressions, you can test the industrial capacity of a country right before a recession starts. And right after it’s the same, you can test the skill level of the workers right before a recession begins. And right after it’s the same, what’s changed? Outlook. It’s an infectious gloom that takes over. So I think understanding economics requires thinking about human behaviour. And it’s somewhat different from what’s often taught in economics courses.

Gene Tunny  04:43

Rod, okay, we might delve into that a bit later. The other part of your the subtitle is it’s it’s more important than you think. Why do you think that is the case are more important than, you know? Understanding economics

Howard Yaruss  05:00

I was going to rewrite that part of the title, I’d say much more important than, you know, simply because people are told all sorts of things by politicians who have self-serving motives for making certain claims. And I think, because most people don’t take a course in economics, and those who do are, again, faced with a bewildering array of graphs and formulas, so they don’t really get a sense of it. I think people can easily be misled by claims of politicians and other people who have motives to support a particular policy that they want to see enacted. I think it’s essential for people to understand how the economy works a bit better, so that they cannot be as easily fooled, and so that they would support better policies that would make our economy better and more productive.

Gene Tunny  05:53

Okay. So what do you think they’re being fooled about Howard?

Howard Yaruss  05:57

Well I can give you a few examples, this one went off the top of my head. There are a lot of politicians in the US who claimed for years that giving tax cuts to wealthy individuals would increase employment and improve the economy. And if you think about it, why does a business expand not because there are more investors with money, it’s because they’re more consumers wanting to buy their product or service. So if you put more money into the pockets of middle and lower income people, they’re going to spend on goods and services, and businesses are going to be forced to expand and hire new workers to produce those goods and services. If you merely give it to wealthy people who tend not to spend as much of their money, they have a lower propensity to consume, the businesses are not going to expand because they don’t have the additional demand for their product. So that’s an example of something that’s that’s said, by politicians that often misleads people. And it’s not something you need complicated formulas, or very, very specific kind of knowledge to figure that out. You just have to not be intimidated and use your good common sense.

Gene Tunny  07:14

Yeah. Okay. Now, you’re saying that you think there are some issues with the way economics is typically presented? Is it just not presented in in an intuitive enough fashion? Because when I read your book, I saw a lot of good economics in there. I don’t, I just want to, I just want to understand where you’re coming from with this book. Is it that you’re you’re not saying that a lot of economics is bad, it’s just not well presented? What’s your actual position here? How could I ask you that, Please?

Howard Yaruss  07:49

I think you said it very well. It’s not taught very well. First of all, let’s start at the beginning. Most people, at least in the United States, don’t learn economics, it’s not required in secondary school here. What is required is trigonometry. Which to me seems to use a technical term crazy. And I have a lot of respect for math, I was a math major. So the fact that we require something like trigonometry, and don’t require economics is shocking, to say the least, when it is taken at the college level, it there are all these assumptions made perfect information, everyone’s rational 100% of the time, and the real world doesn’t work that way. I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which is a fairly affluent neighbourhood, about 40% of the retail spaces are empty. Many retail spaces have been empty for decades, that, according to economist shouldn’t, just shouldn’t be. Why why are people greedy? We always assume landlords are greedy. Why? Why are greedy landlords seeking zero income? There’s a disconnect there. And I think a lot of people are confused by this phenomenon. And the answer is that the real world doesn’t work perfectly. According to these models with all of these assumptions, I know economic the economics profession, is trying to there’s behavioural economics now. But the point is, people people, it’s people should be able to make some of these judgments on their own, they should be able to understand some of this on their own, because if they, if they don’t, they can easily be manipulated or misled by people who have ulterior motives.

Gene Tunny  09:33

Right. Okay. Now, I saw in your conclusion that originally this book was titled, economics for activists it was its focus was the people who were troubled by our economic system, yet optimistic enough to engage in activism in the belief that change was not only possible, but also that they could play a role in making it happen. Okay, what sort of activists are you talking about here? Howard, are we talking About the Occupy Wall Street? Are we talking about, I mean, who exactly is this pitch at, this book?

Howard Yaruss  10:08

oh, all activists and what and what I had in mind is people who are fed up with the current system and those include Occupy Wall Street, the Donald Trump voters, the Tea Party, and I know Australia has has their equivalent of these groups, there are a lot of people frustrated with the way our economy is going I call it the winner take all economy in the book, that the people who are doing well are doing better than ever, and the people who are not doing well are stagnating at best. And these kinds of actions is exactly what I’m talking about. What happened to Occupy Wall Street, Donald Trump, the Tea Party, they haven’t made life better for anyone. And my hope is that by understanding how the economy works, people would support more constructive policies that would make life better. What originally was he title of the book was understandable economics, because you can’t improve a system you don’t understand. If people don’t understand something, they can’t work to improve it, or if they try working to improve it, if they become an activist that their efforts may be for not. So the goal is to arm readers with the tools to understand what in fact, would improve the economy. And what on the other hand is a false medicine, is a false cure for the economic ills we are suffering.

Gene Tunny  11:30

Okay. Can I ask you about the fact that you grouped tea party with Occupy Wall Street? So is it your view that they’re both coming from the same frustration that and but they’re both got different, those two groups have different prescriptions or different recommendations. I mean, they’re both after different things, aren’t they? But are you saying they’re both motivated by the same? The same concerns?

Howard Yaruss  12:02

Why is it said there are some similarities between the two groups and some differences? What are the similarities, they’re frustrated with our current system, they both clearly have that in common. And at the risk of sounding cynical, they both didn’t achieve very much. I think what they were different is Occupy Wall Street had a specific flaw in that they did not recognise that it’s the political system, that effects change. That’s the system we live in. Unless there’s a revolution and there hasn’t been one. That’s the system we live in. So they were particularly ineffective in that they did not have a mechanism for getting people who had views similar to theirs into the legislature to effect change. They basically shot themselves in the foot by not doing that. On the other hand, the Tea Party was extremely successful, getting people into the legislature, the problem is just cutting the government without giving thought to what is the government what the government does is use, what useful things the government does. And what non useful things the government does is not really helpful to the average person either. The point I make in the book is how I use highways as an analogy. Cars are great for getting people from one place to another. But if there were no rules on the highway, people could drive on either whatever side they wanted, if eight year olds could drive, drunk drivers could drive, if there were no speed limits, and people could do whatever they wanted on the road, the road would not work. There have to be clear rules. Obviously, rules that are overly burdensome, shouldn’t be there. But the highway just cannot function without rules. It’s the same thing with a market economy. If there aren’t clear rules, it can function.

Gene Tunny  13:54

Yeah, yeah. Can I ask you about this, this point you made before that, to be able to affect change, and to be able to, to really participate? You need to understand how the economy works. What do you think of the key principles? Do you set this out in your book? Could you What do you think are the big things that we should understand in terms of how the economy works?

Howard Yaruss  14:23

I read a survey and it was an international survey so I’m sure it included Australia, of economic students, and they asked them where new money came from, and the majority couldn’t answer it. How could you talk about resources or equality and not know where money comes from? Again, if you want to improve a system, you have to have some understanding of it. So I think what I tried to do in the book is give some foundational knowledge about how the economy works, how trade works, how the central bank in the United States, the Federal Reserve System, affects the economy and how they create new money. So people have a basic understanding of the foundational components of the economy. And then I talk about different aspects of the economy. And I hope readers reach their own conclusion as to what makes sense, but at least they do it in an informed and intelligent way. As opposed to, we’re talking about the people who supported Donald Trump or Occupy Wall Street, they’re expressing their frustration, but they’re not pointing people in the direction of something that would improve the lives of the average life for the average person.

Gene Tunny  15:40

I think it’d be good how, if you give a just a rundown of how you explain that, or just take us through that, that where money comes from, I think that would be really useful. I’d recommend. If you’re listening in the audience, I would recommend this book, I think there’s a lot of really good stuff in there. And I really loved your chapter on trade. I loved your chapter on industry policy, your, your criticism of the bailouts, and maybe we can chat about that later. But to start with, if you can explain, Well, how do you how do you explain to people where money comes from, I think that would be really useful?

Howard Yaruss  16:20

Yes, well, I have the quote in the book, that all money, all new money is loaned into existence. And again, the average economics student didn’t know that. And in the book, I tried, I tried in the book to make it very user friendly. To write with a sort of basic style, it’s supposed to read like, readable narrative nonfiction, but how money is loaned into existence is, as you know, is not the easiest thing to explain. Basically, when a bank lends money to someone, they’re not grabbing the cash from someone’s account, this is not like, I have to make a very contemporary joke. FTX, they take people’s cryptocurrency and do with it what they want, the bank merely creates new money, it’s totally created brand new money. That’s what a licenced bank does, in virtually every country in the world. So that’s how new money is created, it’s created through bank lending. And the money can go away, when the when the loan is repaid, it disappears. So it’s how critical it is to understand that I’m not sure what people’s particular frustrations are or what their particular interests are. But to understand where money comes from and how it’s created, it’s basically important to anyone who wants to get more involved in these kinds of issues, to understand them better. And ideally, to have an impact on policy, you have to understand the basics before you can go ahead and get involved in, in assessing policy.

Gene Tunny  17:59

Right, okay. And it’s certainly important for macro economic policy we’ve had, because of how our monetary policy has pushed down borrowing costs, and then there’s been a huge explosion in credit for housing here in Australia. And that’s pushed up property prices and and that’s also help keep the boom going. We’ve had this incredible post COVID Boom, that I think will probably end.

Howard Yaruss  18:28

We’ve had this here too. I think the whole developed world is having inflation, eight, nine 10%. It’s an important issue for people understand, I also talked in the book about hyperinflation. Inflation is a problem, clearly a problem that needs to be dealt with. But it’s not a civilization ending kind of problem like hyperinflation, hyperinflation almost always results in nation collapse and death, which is fundamentally different from just eight or 9%. Inflation. It’s, it’s again, it’s not a good thing. But people have to separate the two and, and they make it very, very clear point in the book that I don’t think there’s any advanced nations, certainly not the United States or Australia, that’s risking hyperinflation, which is a whole level, a problem on a whole nother level. We do have inflation, which is a problem, but it’s you need to separate it from the kind of hyperinflation inflation that for instance, brought us nuts, Nazi Germany.

Gene Tunny  19:25

And what do you say about the Fed? How do you say anything about their quantitative easing policies that they’ve had over the last decade and a half?

Howard Yaruss  19:35

Well, we see inflation. So I think that speaks a lot more loudly than anything I can say. If, if their policies were more effective, we wouldn’t be having inflation. So the suggestion is or the inference is that they were hit the accelerator a little too heavily. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, for sure. And now they’re slamming on the brakes. A lot of people claim they may be slamming the brake too heavily, because there’s, as you know, there’s this very significant lag between them hitting the brakes and the car coming to a stop. And it’s very hard to know how hard to tap the brakes as the car slowing down, but it may not be slowing down enough. My own personal opinion is that we’re going to see a assuming, again, there’s so many assumptions here, that the war in Ukraine doesn’t doesn’t escalate, that the supply chains get sorted out that there isn’t another problem that arises on the horizon, we’ll probably see the effects of all the central banks, their attempt to rein in inflation to start having some success.

Gene Tunny  20:44

Yeah, yeah. Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  20:53

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Gene Tunny  21:22

Now back to the show. Okay, can I ask you about what you see as the false solutions? I think you suggested before that economics helps us understand how the economy works, what sound policy responses would be. And then also, what are some of the dead ends to go down or false solutions? What would some of those be?

Howard Yaruss  21:49

Well, I already mentioned one in the tax cuts for the wealthy to spur the economy. We see in England that in a period of inflation, the government proposed tax cuts for the wealthy, which is just throwing more money out there, creating more inflation. So that’s definitely a false solution. I’m not sure what the problem was. But it’s definitely a bad policy idea. That seems to be in response to I don’t know what. So that’s one example of something in the United States, we’ve had a debate about Social Security, pensions for older people. And there’s always this talk of the government running out of money, Social Security going bankrupt. And as Alan Greenspan, the former chair of the Federal Reserve System, once said, It can’t run out of money. The United States government can always create money. What it is, it’s a question of will and will not, it’s a question of politics and not economics. It’s a decision as to whether we, as a society wants to devote our resources to these things. And that takes us back to what we just discussing at the very beginning. It’s not like physics, where you plug certain variables into a formula and outcomes an answer. It’s a value judgement about how we, as a society want to use our resources. Do we want to help people in their old age and obviously tax workers to do that or not? And again, there’s no formula that will give you an objectively right answer on that. What, what we need to do is have people understand the trade off, and then make an informed decision as to what they want. And I want to give one example, I serve on my local community board here in New York City. And we talk about different projects, like a bathroom in a park, or an elevator in a subway station. And these all sound great, but then I look at the price of these things. And a bathroom in a park is $4 million to put in. To make one subway station handicap accessible, which involves in all fairness, putting in multiple elevators. Yeah, it’s $70 million. That seven, zero million. And so again, people need to be cognizant of these economic issues because it all comes down in that case to a cost benefit analysis. And all of these things are good, Social Security is good. But there is no formula that’s going to give you the right answer to that. Although I think even if there were a formula it would tell you the $4 million bathroom doesn’t make sense. But the point is, this is a value judgement. It’s something that people shouldn’t rely on economic experts because there’s no objectively right answer for that. It’s something that people have to get an understanding of how it works, and then apply their own values to that issue and make the decision for themselves.

Gene Tunny  24:55

Yeah, I think that’s, that’s right. This is one of the points I’ve been trying to make on this. show over the years as I’ve been, as I’ve been doing it is that, you know, we economists need to be honest or need to be. Yeah, we need to realise that there are in decision making value judgments come into play. And often the best thing economists can do is outline what are the trade offs and, and what we expect will happen. And then it’s up to any decision typically involves a value judgement. Yeah, I’m just saying, Yeah, essentially, I agree with you. I agree with you there with Social Security. I’ve had a guest on the show, Romina Boccia, she was at Cato I forget, I’ll put it in the show notes. I think it was Cato or Heritage. But she’s very concerned about Social Security. And look, if you project it out, and you don’t, it is going to add to the deficit. And, like, you can think about that two ways. And I guess that’s what you’re saying, it depends on your values, you could, if you, you could try and limit that spending, you could reduce the entitlement or constrain it. Or you could just raise taxes to address the deficit. And making that choice, to an extent, depends on values. But I think what economists should be saying is that if you do make the choice to fund the higher social security, then you need higher taxes, and there are efficiency costs associated with that. And I mean, that’s the way how I’d be trying to frame it. What what do you think about that, Howard?

Howard Yaruss  26:41

Well, it’s again, it’s a trade off, I think we, in a democracy, should decide how society uses resources. And we shouldn’t make the decision in that context. It’s running out of money, you need to cut it with your personal finances, you have a job, that’s an issue, it’s finite, with a nation, there are all sorts of trade offs that can be made. And people need to understand this is not a crisis situation. There’s in the United States, the $22 trillion of goods and services created every year. And if we are committed to certain programmes we have, we have the ability to support them. It’s it’s not something that there’s a finite amount of money there that can only be used, I will go back to the first President George Bush, when he was talking about education, which I think is the most important investment of society could make it to keep itself wealthy, and not only wealthy but happy and secure. Again, I’d make the point in the book, you could look at places like Congo, and Venezuela and to a large extent Russia, which have enormous resources, natural resources, and yet they’re relatively poor countries. And you could look at Germany or Switzerland or Israel, which really don’t have any or Japan or any resources, and they become quite wealthy. What’s the difference? Human capital. And so the original, the first President Bush said, with regard to education, we have the will to fund it, but not the wallet. Well, I think he had it totally backwards, we’re a very rich country. And it’s there’s the question of just allocation of resources, which is, again, something that I think people who haven’t studied economics don’t understand the concept of opportunity cost that, that you can have, if you if some, if you prioritise something enough, you can have it, but you just have to realise that you’re not going to you’re going to have less of something else.

Gene Tunny  28:38

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s an important concept. And you talk about how what we’ve got in this in advanced economies, we have a mixed economy, and, and in different countries, they make different judgments about the scale of government versus the private sector. And, and, you know, us is one where it’s, I mean, there’s still obviously, government plays a very substantial, significant role in the economy, but not as much as say, in Scandinavian countries or in France or, or Germany. So I think that’s a good point.

Howard Yaruss  29:14

All along a spectrum. Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s easy to fall into that trap of, are you capitalist or are you socialist? We’re all basically the same. It’s just that some countries are a little further on the spectrum of government spending, and some countries are a little less on the spectrum of government spending. We all basically have free markets that are regulated by the government. It’s not a question of socialism that they throw around the word socialism in the United States all the time. The textbook definition is where the government controls the means of production. I don’t think that’s what anyone’s talking about. And I make the point in the book pretty emphatically that all these isms can sometimes warp understanding of what’s going on in the economy, the way to understand what’s going on in the economy is to actually look at what’s going on. And that get involved in all this esoteric theoretical discussion of different types of economic systems.

Gene Tunny  30:11

Yeah. A lot of people are interested in crypto currencies. What does your book say about cryptocurrencies, Howard?

Howard Yaruss  30:19

Well, I make the analogy that it actually is, in a certain way, very similar to the US dollar or the Australian currency. It’s something that’s created totally out of thin air. The big difference is who creates, I don’t know, who creates Bitcoin, or Dogecoin, for that matter, but I know exactly who creates the US dollar. It’s the Federal Reserve System. I know exactly who the people are. I know exactly what the rules they operate under. I know exactly who to turn to if there’s a problem. When it comes to cryptocurrencies, we don’t know any of that. If you have a problem, we’ve all had problems with our checking account. And we know how frustrating it is to call customer service. But could you imagine if your quote unquote bank didn’t even exist, there doesn’t have any employees and doesn’t even have a customer service number to begin with? And I think we’re going to see more problems with cryptocurrencies because it’s just something created out of thin air by people. We don’t know operating under rules they claim they have but how do we know we have them in Bitcoin suddenly doubled the number of tokens out there? Who would we sue? What recourse would anyone have?

Gene Tunny  31:30

Yeah, exactly. And I mean, you mentioned what’s happening with the news around FTX. Is it and Sam Bankman-friedand here what we’ve seen in the news recently, yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Howard Yaruss  31:45

As I’m concerned, he was supposedly FTX was supposedly a place people could use to store their cryptocurrency. Well, if it’s not there, it was stolen. It was misappropriated. So I think it’s this is something that the prosecutors need take a look at.

Gene Tunny  32:04

Yeah, it’s all very confusing. I mean, I thought the great benefit of crypto was this decentralisation. And then suddenly, people are losing all this money, because they’re involved with this exchange.

Howard Yaruss  32:19

It’s decentralised. But the question is, what we were discussing before, there need to be rules, there are literally no rules with regard to this. So it’s like going to a highway driving on a highway where there are literally no rules. People could drive at any speed on any side, and do anything they want. If eventually there’s going to be a crash. If enough people come to that highway, you guaranteed a crash.

Gene Tunny  32:44

Yeah, yeah, for sure. What I liked about your chapter on money, was that you talked about how a lot of the value or the value of the US dollar is that you can pay bills in it right? Or you can, you can, people will accept it. It’s widely accepted. And it’s a fiction that everyone believes in. So I think that was a little something along those lines, I’m trying to remember the exact words used, but that’s essentially what Milton Friedman, how he described it. I mean, all money is fiction. So I thought that was, that was good. Okay. Now, what about modern monetary theory, which is another popular topic? What are your few things to say about modern monetary theory in your book? Could you take us through that Howard?

Howard Yaruss  33:39

Well, the most amusing thing I say about it is that it’s not particularly modern. It’s not a theory. And yes, it has to do with money. So I’ll give it that. Basically, they’re saying that the government can create as much money as it wants, as long as it doesn’t create inflation. That’s, I don’t understand why that’s anything new. Everyone knows that the government has printing presses and they could create as much money as they want. What I think is interesting about what they say is that the government should not be constrained by a balanced budget, that we all know it can produce as much money as they want. The modern monetary theorists say they should be able to create as much money as they want, as long as they don’t cause inflation. And arguably, that’s right. They if they’re printing money, and it’s not causing inflation, that really is a free lunch, if if you create an extra $10 and magically, an extra sandwich appears. That’s that’s literally a free lunch. The problem is, you need some constraint. And that’s why we have the central banking system we have today. Because if politicians could just rev up the printing presses, and print money for whatever They want tax cuts for their donors, giant spending programmes, you have the catastrophic problem we discussed before hyperinflation. And yes, if politicians could show adequate constraint, restraint rather. Yeah, I guess it makes sense. I think there are lost opportunities when the Fed is a little parsimonious with the money, and the economy could be more robust. But I think the downside risk of the politicians running amok and printing too much money and having the lose, lose control over that risk is too great, because that’s, again, a nation ending kind of risk. So I agree with what they say. I just don’t agree with their conclusion that we should turn trust, trust our politicians to show proper restraint. If we gave them the right to rev up the printing presses and print whatever they needed or wanted.

Gene Tunny  35:59

Yeah. Exactly. Okay. Do you say anything about climate change in the book, Howard, the solutions to climate change, or if that’s really to worry about?

Howard Yaruss  36:13

Not really, included in the book is the fact that if we want change, if people want change, then they have to assert themselves, it doesn’t happen on its own. If, if company if there’s a company that is doing something that people don’t like they need to, to promote policies that would rein in that behaviour. And it’s the same with climate change, that people need to be clear that this is something that is important to them, and that they want, because that’s how our political system works. Again, economics is not like physics, you don’t put things into a formula and outcomes and answer, it’s, it’s, it’s what you can get people to agree to do. And the more people understand, and this is a perfect example, the more people understand the harm we’re doing to our climate, the more they’re likely to support regulations that would rein in climate change. Ignorance is a threat to good policy. And that’s the whole point of the book. It’s to get people to think about it more, to understand it more. And I make it very clear in the epilogue, I passionately believe we would have better public policy if people had a better understanding of what’s going on, not only in the economy, but in with regard to climate change as well.

Gene Tunny  37:34

Okay. In terms of better public policy, one thing I liked in your book was your analysis of bailout. So you were highly critical of the bailouts that occurred, or the all of the assistance that went to was it to airlines in the States and other companies? Airlines as an example? Yeah, yeah. You were highly critical of that during the, during the pandemic. Could you explain your logic there, please, Howard?

Howard Yaruss  38:03

Oh, certainly, we gave billions of dollars to the airlines. But what did we get for it? Were the planes going to disappear? The planes are there, they were grounded, because there was a pandemic going on. But they don’t, they wouldn’t fall into the earth. So by giving money to the airlines, we were just saving the management of the airlines and the shareholders of the airlines. What what a lot of European countries did is they actually funded the wages of workers, which would have made a lot more sense and would have been a lot cheaper. Instead, we threw enormous amounts of cash at the airlines. And I think I don’t remember the exact figure in the book, I think it came out to about $750,000 per employee, we could have saved a lot of money by just paying the wages of the employees saving the employees. And the airplanes would save themselves, they’re not disappearing. So they’d sit there on the tarmac, the shareholders would get hit very hard, which is unfortunate. But given that there are finite resources, I don’t think they’re at the front of the queue in terms of warranting a handout. And when the economy came back there, the airplanes can be put back into service. So the point I’m making in the book is bailouts help management and shareholders as opposed to what Europe did, helping individual employees or or not offering assistance at all, and the assets would stay there and be acquired presumably by another company.

Gene Tunny  39:36

Yeah, yeah. I think that’s, that’s a good point. And remember, during the pandemic, there was a Silicon Valley, one of the billionaires in Silicon Valley who was making that point on or a similar point on CNBC and I thought, you know, that’s a that’s a that’s a good way of looking at it. And yeah, I think, you know, the way you go through it in your book is great. So I’d recommend your book for that. on that issue. It’s a key issue in industry policy. So I think that’s great.

Howard Yaruss  40:09

Okay, I’m just gonna add that that’s, that’s another great example of how people are misled that the hotels are going to go away, the airplanes and the airlines are going to go away if we don’t offer them a bailout, the hotels are there. There’s bricks and mortar, if they don’t get the bail, if they don’t collapse, the planes are there. The executives, if they lose their jobs, don’t get to fly them off and take them wherever they want to take them, then there, it’s just the management and the shareholders that are the risks. Now, not the actual wealth of the country, the actual infrastructure, the hotels, the air, the aeroplanes, they’re, they’re not going to go anywhere, whether or not there’s a bailout.

Gene Tunny  40:49

Yeah, yeah. Good point. Okay. I just want to go back over, go back to this winner takes all economy, you mentioned that early on, is that what you see is one of the big challenges in advanced economies at the moment? And what exactly brought this about? I think, if you could take us through that I think your book does a good job of explaining how we’ve ended up with what you call a winner takes all economy, or at least an economy where, at least in the US in, in Australia, it’s we haven’t had the same increase. And it’s a bit of an argument about whether we’ve had an increase in income inequality, certainly in wealth inequality. But could you explain what you know, what’s led to this winner takes all economy, please. And what in your view, economics suggests is a way we could get out of it. Or your logic suggests there’s a way we could get out of it.

Howard Yaruss  41:48

I teach this subject and I love one word answers. And I can give you a one word answer to that. And they’ll give you a more expensive answer the one word answer the internet, basically, the cost free platform that enables Jeff Bezos, or any of these big companies to do their business, internationally with no costs, has enabled the best providers to have economies of scale that have been able have enabled them to grow much larger than any company was able to grow before, before the internet era. For instance, in 1950, if you were selling clothing in New York, and wanted to sell clothing in somewhere in Australia, that was incredibly difficult. Just the phone calls alone wouldn’t cost a fortune. And now, it’s cost free. It’s frictionless. They’re the ultimate economies of scale. So Jeff Bezos can do his business, internationally, and basically take all so technology actually, it’s not just the internet, it’s technology in general, has facilitated this winner take all in the book, I use the example of musicals before 100 years ago, every city of any size, have a musical where people want to hear live music, and now he’s just flicking it on your computer. There are a few major international stars who provide the music. And I’ll add that not only do they provide the music, but they provide their performance in infinite number of times whenever you’re interested in hearing it, based upon one performance. That wasn’t the case 100 years ago. So yes, the best performers in New York City 100 years ago, probably or definitely earned more than the mediocre performers somewhere in Indiana. But the point is that many people earn livings in connection with that business. And now there are just a much smaller number of people. And the earnings are much more concentrated among the most popular performers.

Gene Tunny  43:52

Raw. Yeah, yeah. And what about the role of there’s obviously the role of monopolies or market power in this?

Howard Yaruss  44:01

Absolutely. Because with this, these economies of scale, we’re natural monopolies what economists would call natural monopolies develop. And you see this in ride sharing with Uber. I mentioned Amazon, information Google, social, social networking with Facebook, there are many more natural monopolies because of these economies of scale. And it’s a problem. Why is it a problem? Your Facebook’s free. Why is that a problem? Because you lose, you lose innovation when there’s a monopoly there’s no incentive to innovate. And as they really consolidate the monopoly, it’s, it’s it reduces opportunity for workers. And this is again fueling the winner take all phenomenon that the average worker has fewer options for potential places to work. Certainly entrepreneurship is foreclosed, you can’t go up against these behemoths. And so there’s a shift of resources from labour to capital, when you have these kinds, when business gains more power in this way.

Gene Tunny  45:16

Yeah, yeah. And so what in your view is the is a way to address this winner takes all economy? If you? I mean, I’m assuming you think it’s, it needs to be addressed. It’s not something that we need to spur innovation. I mean, it’s not actually I think probably most people agree that there’s a problem with big tech so far across the political spectrum. So, or across the economics profession to.

Howard Yaruss  45:45

This is a perfect example of what we were talking before about regulation. Here’s a question. I’m a lawyer that Facebook has had hate speech or a speech that motivated people to commit all sorts of crimes on its site throughout the world. Why isn’t there a potential liability there, and in the United States, they’re exempted from liability. But because they claim to be like a town square, but they’re not a town square, they prioritise certain speech over others. For instance, on Twitter, I tweet something it’s going to get, it’s going to be replicated many fewer times. And if someone else tweets something, so they are curating, they are involved in amplifying certain speech. So I don’t know why they’re exempt from free speech, from the laws governing libel and slander. So that’s one thing we were not we’re sort of asleep at the wheel in a way, we are not regulating these companies the way we need to regulate them. Every monopoly is different, or companies get monopolies for all sorts of reasons. And the government needs to look at them, it has the tools, it just needs to employ them to make sure they’re not abusing their market power. Because ultimately, if they do that, it’s not good for the economy. And it’s not good for workers.

Gene Tunny  47:09

Right? So would you break up any of these big tech companies?

Howard Yaruss  47:15

Well, there are such incredible economies of scale with a social networking site, you don’t want to go to a social networking site that only has a few people. So I think the government is going to have to look at, for instance, I talked before a moment ago about legal liability, to the extent they promote certain speech, and it causes harm, maybe they should be on the hook for that. And maybe they would be more equitable, and more fair, in running their business, if that were the case. So I think that, again, every monopoly is different. I think the government needs to look at them, and make sure we’re getting the best social benefit from them. Because again, they are natural monopolies in my opinion, if I wanted to set up a social networking site, I could set it up. But Facebook has 3 billion users, I’d have one, none’s going to it. I think, I think given that the government needs to, to impose some fair rules so that society gets the maximum benefit out of it.

Gene Tunny  48:15

Right? And what about inequality? How do you propose dealing with that? How would you see that as a substantial problem? Do you and how would you deal with it?

Howard Yaruss  48:26

 Yeah, as we have more of a winner take all economy, there’s more of a gap between the people who are doing well, and the people who are not doing well. And that’s a great failing of a society as as our economy grows, on average, most people should do better. And that’s what was so great about America and Australia for so many years, people bought into the system. And to the extent that people are alienated by the system, I saw a recent survey that the majority of young people don’t trust capitalism. That’s a catastrophe as far as I’m concerned. And I think what we need to do is give them a reason to have more faith in the system that has created more wealth than any system in the history of humankind. I make the point in the book that since roughly 1800, we evolved from a society where the vast majority of people were food insecure to a society where the average person does quite well. And so we have to keep that, that we have to continue that to make sure that people buy into the system and we continue to grow.

Gene Tunny  49:31

Right, and what measures in your view would be required to do that? Are we talking but yeah, exactly what measures would be needed?

Howard Yaruss  49:41

Well, in the United States, there was a lot of talk a few years ago about a universal basic income that we may get so efficient. John Maynard Keynes talked about this. There was a writer I think his name was Edward Bellamy in the in the late 1800s, who talked about this how’s this It got so wealthy, that people, many people just didn’t have to work. And we could just have an income and benefit from automation. And the fact that society would be so efficient, we haven’t reached that point yet, in my opinion, I don’t think we’ve reached that point in anyone’s opinion. So that’s not going to work. But what can work is, is to have a more progressive tax system. And let me be clear what I’m talking about. In the United States, hedge fund managers pay a lower tax rate than teachers and firemen. That’s ridiculous. Again, to use a technical term, that we people need a better understanding of exactly what the 10s of 1000s of pages in the tax code are doing, and try to have a more reasonable, a more equitable approach to the way we allocate society’s resources. So off the top of my head, I would say that better funding for education to give people opportunity, certainly increase the tax rate on hedge fund managers. So it’s at least as great as teachers and fire man. Warren Buffett always says that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary, that makes no sense. So that’s one easy place I would start to have a to provide more opportunity to the average person, I would I would have higher taxes for the people who who’ve enormously benefited from this winner take all economy and provide more resources to, for instance, for education, so as to maximise the chances that children growing up today can participate in contribute to this kind of economy.

Gene Tunny  51:40

Right. Yeah, I think certainly there’s some issues with the tax code in the States, I did an episode with Steve Rosenthal, from Urban Institute, do must have been toward the end of last year, just on the rules that you’re talking about, so I think is it carried interest?

Howard Yaruss  52:03

There’s a rule of carried interest exactly the provision that allows hedge fund and venture capital executives to basically have their income taxed at capital gains rates, which rates are lower than personal income rates. But I’ll raise a bigger issue, why should investment income be taxed at a lower rate than working income? I think that’s something that should be changed. And not only is it equitable, but by having the two types of taxation, you make the whole tax code so much more complicated, you introduce all sorts of distortions that people go through, so as to re-characterise their earned income, as investment income, it throws friction into the economy. And so that’s something that I think needs to be corrected. Again, to make it more equitable and more efficient. There are companies that have meetings in Bermuda, to leave the United States, because of tax reasons, that literally makes no sense. That’s a lost opportunity for the American hospitality industry, and just a colossal waste of resources. That’s something that needs to be looked at. And, frankly, when the tax code is 10s of 1000s of pages, I think the Internal Revenue Service is going to be out manned, by the whole army of lawyers and accountants that businesses and wealthy individuals have, it has to be simplified.

Gene Tunny  53:30

Yeah, I have a lot of issues with tax. I’ll have to come back to them in a future. Just interested in your thoughts on how to deal with that. Okay. Now, how would we better start wrapping up. I’ve been really grateful for your time. I mean, this has been this has been terrific talking about your new book, which I think yeah, I certainly recommend reading it. There’s a lot of good stuff in there. I’m probably more concerned about debt, you’re suggesting in your book that, you know, the federal debts. It’s not a huge concern, I guess it depends on how you characterise it. And your point is that it’s something that you can manage over time. But I should ask you about that. I mean, what is your view on the US federal debt and the fact that the US is running, you’re running a structural budget deficit, aren’t you, which is quite substantial, you’re not? You’re not raising enough revenue to pay for the spending. Do you see that, do you see that as something that has to be fixed up? I mean, you do have to be ultimately concerned to some extent about the debt and will you want to try and stabilise the percent of GDP, what’s your exact view on the debt, please in the States?

Howard Yaruss  54:51

This is such an important issue. It’s like the allocation of society’s resources that I tried to give people the foundational knowledge so that they in turn can reach an informed conclusion on their own. What I do in the book 20 trillion – 30 trillion. I don’t know about you, I can’t get my head around it. So what I do in the book is divide the national debt by the 330 million Americans and I come up with a national debt of roughly six to $8,000 per person with an annual interest payment of roughly $1,045 a person. And so there’s the question, Is that sustainable? Is that an existential threat to the United States? And I make the point that virtually everyone who went to medical school or started a business has bought a home for that matter has a debt hanging over their heads greater than that. The question is to just step back and offer some insight, try to offer some insight is that if the debt is growing faster than the economy, there could be a problem. Yeah, I mean, yet grow at the rate of the economy. It’s like, you owe a certain amount of money. If your income doubled, and your debt coverage doubled. It’s not a problem. It’s only when the debt is growing faster than the economy are issues raised. And yes, our debt has been growing faster than the economy, not significantly faster. The past fiscal year in the United States, the deficit was half of what it was in the preceding year. And so well, we have to watch it. But the question is, do people feel comfortable with this level of debt, I also make the point that when you say it’s a crisis, this debt is being paid, we have to pay it. But to whom is it being paid, two thirds of the payment goes to other Americans. So this is merely a transfer of money, from taxpayers to bondholders, which quite frankly, overlap enormously. Wealthy people tend to pay higher taxes, and wealthy people tend to own more bonds, poor people tend to pay lower taxes, poor people tend to own fewer bonds. So it’s really just moving most, two thirds of it is literally moving money from one pocket of the left pocket of a American to the right pocket of American, it doesn’t necessarily do any harm. A third of the interest payment, roughly 300, and some odd dollars here does go abroad. And you know, there are questions about that. But the question is, is $300 a year, per American in a $22 trillion economy? An existential nation bankrupting kind of issue? And personally, I don’t think it is, but you might reach the conclusion as that it is, and and vote and promote policies accordingly.

Gene Tunny  57:43

Right oh well, look out I think your book does, yeah, it makes a contribution. I think it’s got a place. It’s in this emerging genre of economics for everybody. I chatted with some people from the UK early this year, they had a book, what is the economy? I think it fits nicely in that, in that genre. To finish with, what do you think is different? Or what’s special about your book? Or what are the main? What do you think should be the major takeaway, or if there’s anything else, any other thoughts you’d like to make? Before we wrap up, please, that’d be great.

Howard Yaruss  58:21

I appreciate your asking that. And I think my book is, is is special, or I’ll go as far as saying it’s unique, in that it does, it tries not to have a political perspective, it tries to be fair, it tries to give the foundational knowledge to people so that they can reach their own conclusions as to what makes sense for the economy. Or there are points at which I do say something, but I make it very clear that it’s my opinion. And I make it clear why I’m saying so I think the book is accessible. It’s one of the only books on economics that has no formulas, their jargon, no graphs, it’s supposed to read like narrative nonfiction. And I hope it can reach an audience that ordinarily would would not learn about economics, but would pick up the book, read it, become more informed, more able to understand what’s going on in the economy, and hopefully, support better policies that would benefit not only their lives, but yours in mind, frankly,

Gene Tunny  59:20

That’s terrific. I just thought when you said about no equations. There’s a joke that John Kenneth Galbraith used to make in some of his books where he said that his publisher told him that every time there’s an equation in the book, it cuts sales in half. That’s what he heard you didn’t want to have any equations because it’s bad for sales. Okay. Howard Yaruss from NYU that’s been terrific. I really enjoyed the conversation. Thanks so much.

Howard Yaruss  59:51

Yeah, I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

Gene Tunny  59:55

Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

Please consider signing up to receive our email updates and to access our e-book Top Ten Insights from Economics at www.economicsexplored.com. Also, please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

EV taxes, congestion charges & taking high-polluting trucks off the roads w/ Marion Terrill  – EP155

An electrified vehicle fleet will mean lower fuel tax revenues for governments and possibly greater traffic congestion as EVs are cheaper to run. Governments around the world are having to reassess how they charge for road use and one Australian state, Victoria, has introduced an EV tax based on distance traveled. In Economics Explored EP155, Marion Terrill from the Grattan Institute discusses what a rational road user charging system would look like. She also talks about Grattan’s truck plan, which is designed to get high polluting old trucks out of major Australian cities.  

This episode’s guest Marion Terrill is Transport and Cities Program Director at the Grattan Institute. Marion is a leading transport and cities expert with a long history in public policy. She has worked on tax policy for the federal Treasury, and led the design and development of the MyGov account. She has provided expert analysis and advice on labour market policy for the Federal Government, the Business Council of Australia, and at the Australian National University.

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Links relevant to the conversation

Marion’s bio: https://grattan.edu.au/expert/marion-terrill/ 

Grattan Institute on Twitter: @GrattanInst

Marion’s Australian Financial Review article “Electric vehicles: Feds should pave way for gold standard road user charges” (pay-walled)

Grattan’s 2019 report Right time, right place, right price: a practical plan for congestion charging in Sydney and Melbourne

The Grattan truck plan: practical policies for cleaner freight

Previous episodes featuring Marion:

Megaprojects with Marion Terrill from Grattan Institute | Episode 62

Unfreezing Discount Rates with Marion Terrill of the Grattan Institute | Episode 42

Transcript: EV taxes, congestion charges & taking high-polluting trucks off the roads w/ Marion Terrill  – EP155

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:00

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Marion Terrill  00:01

As we get more and more electric vehicles, great in many ways, and they’re much cheaper to run than internal combustion engine vehicles. But if they’re cheaper to run, it means people will be inclined to drive more. So I think unless governments take some kind of action on congestion, this is a recipe for gridlock.

Gene Tunny  00:26

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is episode 155. On road user charges, what’s the right way to charge for road use, particularly as we switch to electric vehicles and governments lose revenue from fuel taxes. My guest this episode has been thinking a lot about this. It’s Marion Terrill, who was transported cities programme director at the Grattan Institute, a leading Australian Think Tank. You may recall I previously spoke with Marion and on the podcast, we spoke about mega projects in Episode 62. And about discount rates in Episode 42. I’ll put links to those episodes in the show notes along with other relevant links. In the show notes, you can also find out how you can get in touch with me. Please let me know what you think about either Marion and I have to say in this episode, I’d love to hear from you. Right now from my conversation with Marion Terrill on road user charges. And we also chat about Grattan’s new truck plan for Australia. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. 

Gene Tunny  01:47

Marian Terrell from the Grattan Institute Good to have you back on the show. 

Marion Terrill

Hello, Gene. 

Gene Tunny 

Yes, good to see you, Marian. I’m keen to chat with you about the piece you had published in the financial review last week on road user charges. And also I know that Grattan released a new truck plan. So I’m keen to, to chat a bit about that as well. Now in the financial review, last week, you had a piece that was titled, Feds should pave way for gold standard road user charges by and by feds, you mean federal government. And there’s a sub heading here, which may have been written by their sub editor. I’m not sure. But we can. I’d like to sort of launch off from this. It says that regardless of what the High Court decides, fuel excise duty, should be killed off quickly and give way to a smarter way to pay for roads. By mentioning the high court you’re referring to this. There’s a challenge isn’t there that some people are challenging? This new Victorian electric vehicle tax and the Commonwealth has got involved? Can you tell us about that, please?

Marion Terrill  02:58

That’s right. So Victoria introduced new charges on electric vehicles in July of last year. So, the rate that they pay is 2.6 kilometres, or sorry, 2.6 cents per kilometre for an electric vehicle and 2.1 cents per kilometre for a plug in hybrid. And New South Wales is also planning to impose similar charges from 2027, or whenever electric vehicles make up 30% of new car sales, whichever comes sooner. And there was a plan to do this in South Australia. But when the government changed, I understand it’s been canned. So but I think there is, there has been, some coordination across the states to do this. That’s what the charge is. And then what’s happening here in Victoria, is that electric vehicle drivers have been up in arms about it. And two of them are challenging it on constitutional grounds. And so they’re saying, as I understand that this the argument is that it is a tax on kilometres is actually an excise or ad valorem tax, if you like for your business. And so this all hinges on how broadly or narrowly you define an excise because only the Commonwealth can charge an excise. So that’s the basic argument. I don’t know how that will play out. There would have been other ways to implement this tax or this charge this charge on electric drivers but this particular method of charging it does permit space for this constitutional challenge.

Gene Tunny  04:54

Right and what was the justification that these EVs aren’t paying, well, there’s no fuel excise paid by the owners of the EVS because, well, they, they’re powered by electricity. And presumably, this is the reason why the hybrid charge is lower because the they would be saying, well, they are at least contributing somewhat in terms of the fuel excise the 44 cents a litre. Yeah, so that must be the justification. But it is a bit cheeky, isn’t it? Because it’s the federal government that collects the excise, isn’t it? Is that right?

Marion Terrill  05:31

That’s right. That’s right. It’s a little bit of a rat’s nest here. So the, the rationale is, as you say that these drivers are not paying fuel excise, therefore, they’re not contributing, some people say contributing to the upkeep. But it all goes into one big pot really. But the other the other way of making that argument is a fairness argument to say, Well, how is it fair for this driver over here to be paying like this, and this driver over here not to be paying? So those are the arguments, but I think there is a further argument that doesn’t get so much of a public hearing. But that, and I guess this is what I’m pointing to in my, in my article that really, you would imagine that fuel excise is a even though it’s kind of not declining. Today, it is in structural decline as the fleet electrifies. And so it will become increasingly unfair because the because electric vehicles are more expensive to buy, the people who most quickly get out of paying it, those who can afford a more expensive vehicle and, and that I think that will become acute as a political pressure. And so the federal government has got the option to let it just wither on the vine, and become kind of increasingly unpopular. Or another option is just to say, Okay, we’re gonna kill it off now. And we’ll hand over the responsibility for taxing the taxes on driving to the States, but we’ll also hand over a funding responsibility to go with it.

Gene Tunny  07:17

Yeah, yeah, I think that could be there could be some attraction there or there could be an attractive option. I mean, it’s good to have that funding, the ability to fund it and the spending responsibility in the same place. Okay, so yeah, I guess it is a big issue, isn’t it? Because the is it 11 billion a year or something is is raised in fuel excise by the Commonwealth? Yeah.

Marion Terrill  07:41

That team in net fuel excise. It’s the actual amount is somewhat higher. It’s about 19 billion, I think. 18 or 19. But then seven, and a half of it is, is rebated throw the fuel tax credit. So the net amount that 10 million, so it’s, it’s about five? Well, yeah, it’s sorry, it’s about two and a half percent of Commonwealth taxman news, the net amount?

Gene Tunny  08:10

Yeah, and you mentioned all goes into the same or a bit the big pot of money that is consolidated revenue, so it’s not earmarked or hypothecated. Is that correct? That’s right.

Marion Terrill  08:21

Not in any meaningful way. It was last hypothecated in 1959. Right. 59, it was hypothecated. There is a little bit of it, that’s hypothecated. So this is getting a bit in the weeds, but basically, it wasn’t indexed for a period from 2001 to 2014. And when the indexation restart, and the index amount is hypothecated, but it’s gonna not meaningful, because it’s such a tiny amount and far less than what the current spends on roads.

Gene Tunny  08:58

Okay. Yeah. I’ll have to just look at that that small bit, just to make sure I’m across all the detail. Yes, because there is that common understanding. People seem to think that well, this pays for roads. And I mean, I guess it does go into the pot. And so it does help pay for roads, but then you can’t say that any that particular dollar raise from fuel excise is what actually pays for roads, because money is fungible, as they say,

Marion Terrill  09:22

Because the amount that is raised through fuel excise and about 10 billion is more than the Commonwealth spends on transport infrastructure, which is usually it’s lumpy, but it’s usually seven to eight. So, I mean, kind of where you draw those lines, I think, is an open question. But yeah, the amounts Don’t bear any relationship to one another.

Gene Tunny  09:44

Yeah. Have you looked at whether the fuel excise and motor vehicle registration fees at the state and territory level combined? Do they add up roughly to what is spent on roads by federal and state governments? I heard that some One quarter that I’ve heard or quoted in the last few months, but I’ve never been able to verify whether that’s the case or not I’ve ever seen that

Marion Terrill  10:08

We have been looking at that sort of thing. And the short answer is no. Okay. What we have noticed those and as a trend is that the the share of road related tax revenue raised by state seems to be rising. But it’s harder to discern a trend on spending, because it is so lumpy, from, as you know, from one year to the other, to the next, it does jump around a bit. So, which would be a problem if you did try to hypothecated? Actually, because they’d be it’d be quite difficult to predict how much you’d have to spend, but you do need to predict because the roads take time to plan. So yes. They there’s, there is a lot of, or there’s a lot of reasons why Hypothecation isn’t a great idea, but people do really believe that. It’s hypothecated. And even if not formally, that it’s somehow it is informally hypothecated.

Gene Tunny  11:12

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I’m not a big fan of earmarking, because it reduces your, your flexibility with your budget. Okay. Do you know what’s happening in other parts of the world? Marion? I mean, you look, you mentioned Victoria’s, it’s tried to impose this. EV tax. Sa was going to but then there was a change of government, New South Wales is considering it. Are we leading the world on this? So do we know if other countries are looking at this sort of thing as well?

Marion Terrill  11:43

I’m not too sure. Who is I think, at the time when the Victorians announced this tax, there was a lot of media. And it’s sort of painting in quite extreme terms, even calling it the worst EV tax in the world. That I think a lot. I mean, we’ve been looking at the different fuel excise type regimes around the world. And, and sort of, I think, by global standards, a couple of things I’d say on this and one is we don’t charge much in fuel excise or similar types of taxes compared to other countries, particularly similar countries to us. And we see genuine the like, and we also don’t have any congestion charging or that kind of thing. So on the whole driving, is, appears to be relatively lightly taxed here, compared to in many other countries.

Gene Tunny  12:42

Yeah, I’ll have a look for whether there’s any OECD table. I seem to remember one years ago. Is it the case that, UK has high excise or taxes on fuel? I’m guessing the Germans probably do.

Marion Terrill  13:00

Yeah. Continental Europe does. Yeah. Sorry. I don’t know off the hoof.

Gene Tunny  13:06

level. I’ll have a look. Yeah, I agree with that general point you made? I think that yeah, I have seen some data on that. So that’s good. might be good to go on to what you’re arguing in that piece? Because you said that? Well. Yeah, this EV tax? Well, it’s probably not the way you resolve this problem we’ve got with this The problem we’ve got with fuel excise duty disappearing. This EV tax probably isn’t the right way to go about addressing what you might see as a an issue there. Could you explain what your argument is, Marion? I mean, what do you think would an optimal policy would look like and first, am I right that you don’t agree with this EV tax just for just to be clear on that.

Marion Terrill  13:56

I don’t think it’s the worst tax in the world. I think it’s fair enough for the states to raise this revenue. And I would also say, given that you’re running an economics podcast, perhaps I can make the point that the people’s, like if you think about fuel price, elasticities, they’re pretty low, are not likely to change their behaviour much in the presence of a modest tax. And this is very modest. I think the estimates are that the typical driver might pay $300 a year. So I would have thought it was a reasonably efficient base. And I think it is arguably laying the groundwork for it to become to spread to other types of vehicles and to be paid at a higher rate over time. So I think all of that is fine. I guess I think well, if you just think about it as a revenue base, that you know, this low elasticity is a good thing. But I think a lot of the debate does sort of invoke the fact that EVs are better or better for the community because they aren’t producing the carbon emissions. And so they should be advantaged not disadvantaged. And I think that that’s in the absence of an economy one carbon price. That’s absolutely right. But I think in the the point of taxing driving, that I think makes the most sense is to try to bring about an efficient use of the road network. And by that, I mean that you should be charged, little or nothing, if you’re driving at a time of day in in a place where there’s no congestion. But if you want to contribute to congestion in peak hour, then you should be paying for it. So here, it’s an externality argument. So what you really want to do is set it at a low rate, so that you just deter that driver who can be most flexible, who cares the least about being there, they’ll put their trip off or take it another way. And that’s an efficient outcome. But if you do that, you won’t raise much revenue. So I think that governments are confronted with a choice. But I suppose I think in the road network is so important to the economy and society that what you really want is the latter. So I would like to see road user charges that vary by time of day and location, and vehicle size. So the Commonwealth can’t impose that kind of charge, because it cannot charge different Taxs, to different parts of the country, under the Constitution. So this has got to be in state based charge. And so that’s why I think, well, perhaps it is time for the governor for the federal government to step out of its role in taxing driving and hand that job over to the States because the technology has now improved. And it’s it is now much more realistic for states to do sort of fair and precise charging in a way that probably wasn’t feasible, even 10 years ago.

Gene Tunny  17:23

Right. So by the technology has improved. You mean that there are ways of tracking people. I know that if you’re going on toll roads here, in Queensland, you’ve got a tag or something that pings or that that tells the toll road company when you go on the toll road? So imagine there’d be some device, is that what you’re thinking?

Marion Terrill  17:47

Or you can do that, I think, look at the I think the most foolproof way is to use number plate recognition cameras, which are more up to date technology really than those tollgate. But I think people are foreshadowing when we’ll be able to use GPS to do this. Now, my, my feeling that that is it will happen. But we’re not really there yet. That no country has used GPS to introduce a road pricing scheme across the board. But they’re so let’s sort of see what Singapore does, really, but I think that that is becoming increasingly likely, but number plate recognition cameras, much less kind of unsightly and obtrusive than Tollgate entries. And so that that’s definitely a way that you can do it. In the shorter term.

Gene Tunny  18:45

I should have thought of that because I’m a big fan of British crime shows and often they will catch people with that, that number plate recognition, technology or they’ll know where they’re going. So I should have thought about that.

Marion Terrill  19:00

It has improved a lot and become that technology. So yeah.

Gene Tunny  19:03

Okay. And one point that one of my guests will Tim who was on the show, last week I was chatting with about EVs. One thing he was concerned about is this issue of well, it’s surveillance where our privacy is being compromised. Have you thought about that at all? Is that often raised as an objection to this sort of thing?

Marion Terrill  19:25

Yeah, I think it’s, I agree with him. I think people are very quick to dismiss it. It is actually another reason why I’m dubious about GPS technology, because there’s sort of a few different ways in which Surveillance can be a problem. One is that the government can surveil you. The other one is the company can surveil. Yeah. And maybe market at you or, you know, interact with you in a unwelcome way. So both of those are concerns I think. So really what you want is the, you need to set up a structure I think where you have the information, that’s the image of you, or image of your vehicle is sent to a place in the encryption key that links that image to you is in a different place to protect people’s privacy, but I do think in this country, we do have, we have had a long history of the, of the, of privacy. The Privacy lobby, I think, is quite effective at unraveling government ideas, too, to act in ways like to make use of technology in ways that could be prejudicial to people’s sort of freedom to go about their lives anonymously.

Gene Tunny  20:52

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  20:57

If you need to crunch the numbers, then get in touch with Adept Economics. We offer you Frank and fearless economic analysis and advice. We can help you with funding submissions, cost benefit analysis, studies, and economic modeling of all sorts. Our head office is in Brisbane, Australia, but we work all over the world. You can get in touch via our website, http://www.adepteconomics.com.au. We’d love to hear from you.

Gene Tunny  21:26

Now back to the show. So Marion, have you looked at how this is working? Or how road user charges have worked in other countries? I mean, you mentioned? Well, I mean, there’s the UK. I mean, there’s the the infamous congestion charge in central London. That’s probably the only one I’ve experienced. But I understand. Well, I’ve heard that there’s this sort of thing is there this sort of thing in Singapore and is it germany you mentioned?

Marion Terrill  21:55

Well, it’s interesting this, there’s established congestion charging in quite a few cities around the world. So Singapore was the first London, Stockholm and other countries, other cities are thinking about it. But what’s happening these days is now low emission zones are coming in. And so in London, for example, the low emission zone is layered on top of the congestion zone. And really these many, many, many cities are doing low emission zones. And they kind of like a coordinate around the central part of the city, that now the motivation, we’re recommending that for the major capitals here in Australia, because the the effect of exhaust pipe pollution from trucks is so terrible for health. But it’s interesting, because in some cities like Milan, for example, there is a low emission zone, but the reason for it is to preserve the beautiful buildings rather than to preserve people’s health. So there’s, I think there’s certainly a significant, a significant global movement towards this sort of thing. And it can usefully be combined with congestion charging, because what you’re really doing is you’re trying to deal with two externalities at once. And you can calibrate your instrument to do both of those things. Because where there’s a concentration of vehicles, that’s where you get obviously, congestion, but also concentration of exhaust pipe pollution.

Gene Tunny  23:28

Right. Okay. Okay. Yep. So with the congestion charging, that’s almost like a syntax is it or it’s a form of corrective taxation, or you’re making the driver face the marginal social cost of them going on the road network at that particular time in that particular place?

Marion Terrill  23:50

Yeah, that’s right. And people have different sort of strength of desire to use the roads at peak periods. And so it would be a poor result, to put off too many people. So don’t want to set your charge too high. And you certainly want someone who’s going to a job interview or an important appointment, you don’t want to put them off. But if you are thinking about someone who’s perhaps a retired person going to a medical appointment, for that person, it may be very low cost to do it at 11am, not 9am. And so to send a signal to such a person, to that gets them to take into account their contribution to slow it not only being slowed down by everyone else, but also to slowing everyone else down. And I think this is going to become more acute Gene because as the as we get more and more electric vehicles, great in many ways, and they’re much cheaper to run than internal combustion engine vehicles. But if they’re cheaper to run, it means people will be inclined to drive more. So I think unless governments take some kind of action on congestion. We really are. This is a recipe for gridlock. I think is very strong for governments to act on congestion charging, and preferably to do so early. And so that to go back to the we were talking before about our electric vehicle chargers. Yeah, I think, you know, this is the side of it that the current charges in Victoria and on the table elsewhere, don’t really take account of at this point 

Gene Tunny  25:31

Right Yeah, I look, I think what you’ve, what you’ve said, and what you wrote in that piece is great. I mean, as an economist, it definitely appeals to me. I’d like to see the model, though, of course, as you would do, you know, if anyone’s developing this, what this could look like, what the parameters would be, what those charges would be. When, I mean, how would the prices be set? Would it be? How regularly they would they be reviewed? Is there some algorithm involved? Have you thought about how this would work? In practice? Is anyone developing a model for this, Marion?

Marion Terrill  26:08

Yeah, we’ve developed a detailed model for it, actually. So yeah, we published it in 2019. So we designed in detail, a congestion charging scheme for Sydney, and Melbourne and one for Melbourne. And what we did was we in terms of phasing, just start with a cordon around the CBD. And we worked out exactly where the cordon would go, and how many detection points you would need. Look through all the different technologies that’s really rare came to the view that number plate recognition was the way to go. And then we looked at the, we looked at traffic data and worked out when peak hour and when the shoulder period should be. And finally, we worked out the what we thought were the appropriate charges to levy taking into account the cost of public transport into the CBD. And then we worked with Veitch Lister Consulting who did the demand modeling for us to see what the impact on congestion would be? So all of that detail is in a report called ‘Right Time, Right Place, Right Price’ up on the grattan website. So we did do that. And so that was on congestion charging. I guess. This week, we put out a report on trucks, Grattan truck plan, and one of the recommendations was to introduce a low emission zone. And we didn’t scope that up in detail, because I think it is the subject for reporting its own right. It’s quite a complex area. But we are, we’re planning to do that report and publish in 2023. With detailed design for how to, and this takes into account, things like how much proximity matters to a main road. How much sort of how much difference it makes when when you’ve got a more vulnerable population in one way or another. So and what kind of mitigations you can take in terms of sort of greening and that sort of stuff, so that we can come up with a detailed design, but at this point, our recommendation is that trucks manufactured before 2003 should be banned from the densely populated areas of the major cities.

Gene Tunny  28:30

Yeah, I wondered about that. And I was stunned. Looking at the figures you had in that report regarding how much worse they were or trucks that were, you know, over 20 years old, how much worse they are in terms of the the toxic particles that come out and the in the exhaust? Or how much worse than more modern trucks? Is there some reason you chose 2003? Was there some change in technology?

Marion Terrill  28:58

There was. Yeah, so the pollution levels for trucks are the international standards and known as Euro standards. And before 1996, there were no standards at all, so anything goes and those trucks are the worst. So a pre 1996 truck emits 16 times as much particulate matter, and eight times as much of the poisonous nitrogen oxides as a truck sold today. And then in the when the Euro standards were first adopted in Australia, Euro one the first level, operated until 2003. And that is better than nothing but still, by today’s standards, very lenient standards. And so, the reason all this matters is that more than a quarter of the trucks on the road today 2003 or earlier, and 14% of them are these pre 1996 ones which are particularly toxic. And that’s if they’ve been properly maintained, some of them will be worse. So, over time the standards have increased have become more stringent. At the moment, we’re on Euro five standards, we have been since 2011. We’re a decade behind kind of most major markets, which have been on Euro six for a long time. And so we’ve been agitating to get on to Euro six. But even this year, Euro seven is coming out. So we’re, we’re so far behind. And so of course, the track operators don’t really have an incentive to adopt these standards, because it costs money. So it really is a matter of for government regulation to prevent the interaction of really dirty old trucks with densely populated areas.

Gene Tunny  30:51

Yeah. So have you thought about how this would impact the industry? I’m sure you have. I’m just interested in your thoughts on it. Because I mean, there could be significant short run costs, you could have a lot of probably smaller operators, leave the market if they can’t use their truck anymore. I mean, imagine that the bigger operators have more a more modern truck fleet, but then there’s a lot of smaller operators that have the older trucks. Could this impact our supply chains? I mean, we’ve had all the logistics problems this year and associated with people being off work or in isolation due to COVID. Things haven’t been turning up at the supermarket. Have you thought about how this would? What impact would have on the industry and how that could be mitigated Marion?

Marion Terrill  31:36

Yeah, we have some I’m very alive to this. I think you’re absolutely right, that the big fleets of trucks are generally pretty new. And they’re the ones that kind of get sold on and feed through the chain. So at the at the oldest end of the spectrum, it is a lot of operators who might struggle to get them to upgrade the truck. So a couple of things, I’d say. One is that we don’t really the compromise that we thought was reasonable was that these trucks would be able to operate but not in the densely populated area. So, for example, a lot of trucks that do farm runs can be quite old. And it’s if they’re in an area where there aren’t many people will, the harm is much less. Now that’s not any good if you’re the actual driver, but it’s some some mitigation, that you’re not going past childcare centers and spewing out poisons at the kids. So there is one comment I’d make. The we did. We did recommend, though, that the government should assist by sort of with a track replacement fund or scrappage fund. Basically, we thought it should have a tender based programme where truck owners can make a binding bid for how much they’d be prepared to accept to scrap their truck. And because government’s got to be bit careful not to overpay for this stuff. In the end these traps have been allowed perfectly legally, to create quite a public health hazard. And we think that should stop, but we, you know, recognising that there are implications and that the government might want to assist with the scrappage fund.

Gene Tunny  33:39

Yeah. And so are you confident that this would pass the cost benefit analysis tests, if there was a regulation impact statement arrears on this, you’d be able to demonstrate that the avoided costs of the community through the fact that these particulates were causing an elevated level or incidence of disease in the community? And if we tried to put some, you know, put a figure on that, what you’d be willing to pay to avoid that? What it’s costing the economy in terms of the well, having to replace that truck fleet, any disruptions associated with that. Are you confident that that equation would be in favour of this measure? Have you done any numbers yourself?

Marion Terrill  34:26

Yeah, look, the government’s done a raise. And, and there are clear social benefits to doing it. So we’ve updated that and I think the, the basic figure is like the health benefits or health costs avoided, if you like, like by 2014, would be of the order of 1.7 billion in a year. Yeah. So yeah, very considerable health benefits. And just just to clarify for your listeners by health benefits, or health costs, avoid I don’t mean In the costs of treatment in hospitals, it’s the pain and suffering of, of getting the disease. Like, they’re the diseases that you get from these poisons, or you get, obviously, respiratory illnesses. But because the particles are so fine, they get into your bloodstream. And so you can get cancer type two diabetes, stroke, can affect it affects children in particular and vulnerable people, even in children in the womb. And it also even when it’s not causing diagnosable disease can impair cognitive function. Then every time the World Health Organisation or researchers do research on this, they find Oh, it’s worse than we thought

Gene Tunny  35:41 

Right? Yeah, yeah. So this really is I’ll have to have a look into this. So this has already been done. Do you know how recent it is? I mean, is this on the agenda of governments to do something about?

Marion Terrill  35:54

Yeah, it’s been on the agenda of governments for quite a while. The I think the reason is about five years old, yeah. So we, we’ve updated that. But it’s, if anything more compelling now than it was then.

Gene Tunny  36:13

Yeah. Yeah. But they’ve obviously that there, someone in government has been concerned about what it mean for the industry. Maybe they’ve been lobbied on it. I’m just wondering why they haven’t done anything. But it looks like you’re, you know, have been I mean, I guess, assuming that these numbers are right, I mean, hopefully, your report does motivate some action in this on this issue.

Marion Terrill  36:39

Yeah we are really hoping so. And I think by doing some follow up work in 2023. We’re working with some students at Monash to get more sort of air quality data, and to just enrich our understanding so that we can do detailed design, that that should be pragmatic and practical and effective. So it’s it. I think it’s a big issue. And it’s, I think it’s an under researched issue, actually.

Gene Tunny  37:10

Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Just final question. When I read the press release, and I had a quick look at the report, it looks like you’re focused on Sydney and Melbourne. Why not Brisbane, one at the third largest city in Australia.

Marion Terrill  37:26

Oh, we had a lot of debate about this actually, Gene. And I absolutely think that Brisbane should be in this, Adelaide in particular has got almost it’s got 45% of its trucks, pre 2003. So, so. And people have said to me, Well, what about Wollongong? And what about Newcastle? Absolutely. So in Europe alone, there are 250. More than 250 Low Emission zones. This is not a big deal. But we, yeah, we’re so we do plan to unfold more on this, but I think you’re absolutely right that Brisbane has got I forget the exact figure but approximately 20% of trucks. Pre 2003. It’s too many.

Gene Tunny  38:13

Yeah, yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, there are still a lot of old trucks out there for sure. Okay, Marion, this has been fantastic. I’ll put links to all of these reports that have been mentioned in the show notes. I’ll put links to your social media. Anything else before we wrap up?

Marion Terrill  38:32

Oh, no, I reckon that’s about it for now.

Gene Tunny  38:35

Great. Yeah. Well, thanks, Marion. And that’s been terrific. Good. A good summary of all of these issues, and I’ve learned a lot. I mean, I always think I’m keeping up to date with what different think tanks are putting out and including Grattan’s. But maybe I sort of in the back of my mind, remember that that congestion charging one but I’m gonna have to revisit it this ‘Right time, Right Price, Right Place’. Yeah. And, and have a close look at that. So that’s terrific. So yeah, again, thanks so much for your time. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Marion Terrill  39:13

Me too. It’s always a pleasure. Thank you, Gene.

Gene Tunny  39:17

Okay, that’s the end of this Episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye

Credits

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.auPlease consider signing up to receive our email updates and to access our e-book Top Ten Insights from Economics at www.economicsexplored.com. Also, please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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US Inflation, Woke Capitalism & China w/ Darren Brady Nelson – EP127

With US inflation at a 40-year high, who wins and who loses? Are greedy corporations to blame as some pundits are suggesting? Episode 127 of Economics Explored features a wide-ranging conversation with Darren Brady Nelson, Chief Economist of LibertyWorks, an Australian libertarian think tank, which also considers so-called Woke Capitalism and what’s going on with China. Here’s a video clip from the episode featuring Darren chatting with show host Gene Tunny about the 40-year high US inflation rate.

In the second part of the show, the Grattan Institute’s Economic Policy Program Director Brendan Coates explains the franking credits controversy, related to some peculiar Australian tax rules, to show host Gene Tunny.   

You can listen to the episode using the podcast player below or on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher, among other podcasting apps.

About this episode’s guests

Darren Brady Nelson is an Austrian School economist and liberty evangelion as well as a C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton style Christian. He is currently the Chief Economist at LibertyWorks of Brisbane Australia and a long-time policy advisor to The Heartland Institute of Chicago USA. He is also a regular commentator in traditional and online Australian and American media. Check out his full profile at Regular guests – Economics Explored.

Brendan Coates is the Economic Policy Program Director at Grattan Institute, where he leads Grattan’s work on tax and transfer system reform, retirement incomes and superannuation, housing, macroeconomics, and migration. He is a former macro-financial economist with the World Bank in Indonesia and consulted to the Bank in Latin America. Prior to that, he worked in the Australian Treasury in areas such as tax-transfer system reform and macro-economic forecasting, with a strong focus on the Chinese economy.

Americans Return to Work as Biden Administration Work Disincentives Expire, but Jobs Remain Over 7 million Below Trend | Latest | America First Policy Institute (article referring to inflation tax of $855/year for an American family associated with a 7% yearly inflation rate)

Summers stumbles – John Quiggin

Woke Capitalism Is a Monopoly Game | Mises Wire

Joe Biden appears to insult Fox News reporter over inflation question

The implications of removing refundable franking credits – Grattan Institute

Here’s another video clip from the episode in which Gene and Darren compare the contributions to economics of Friedman, Keynes, and Mises:

Charts

US CPI inflation rate, through-the-year

US Producer Prices inflation rate, through-the-year

US inflation expectations – University of Michigan estimates

Clarifications

“Average hourly earnings for all employees on US private nonfarm payrolls increased by 5.7% year-on-year in January of 2022” (see United States Average Hourly Earnings YoY – January 2022 Data – 2007-2021 Historical) This compares with inflation running at 7.5% through-the-year. 

Amazon hikes average US starting pay to $18, hires for 125,000 jobs | Reuters

Abbreviations

CPI Consumer Price Index

PPI Producer Price Index

Credits

Thanks to Darren and Brendan for great insights and conversation, and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Clips from EP126 on UBI: impact on inequality & can a wealth tax fund it?

I’ve published some new video clips of highlights from EP126 on Universal Basic Income (UBI) with ANU Associate Professor Ben Phillips. The first one considers the potential reduction in inequality that a UBI could deliver. Ben thinks a UBI could reduce inequality in Australia to the level experienced in Nordic countries.

The second clip asks whether a billionaire tax or a wealth tax more broadly can fund a UBI? According to Ben, it could make a contribution to funding a UBI, but alone it couldn’t fund a UBI at a level most people would expect a UBI to be set at.

You can listen to the full audio episode via podcasting apps, including Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher, among others.

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

UBI: Universal Basic Income w/ Ben Phillips, ANU – EP126

Episode 126 of Economics Explored features a conversation about the pros and cons of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) with my old University of Queensland economics classmate Ben Phillips, now an Associate Professor at the Australian National University (ANU). Ben is one of Australia’s leading modellers of the impacts of tax and welfare policies on households, so he’s the perfect person to chat with about UBI. Here’s a video clip from the episode to give you a sense of the issues Ben and I discuss.

You can listen to the full audio episode using the podcast player in this post or via podcasting apps, including Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher, among others.

A transcript of EP126 is provided below.

About this episode’s guest – Ben Phillips

Associate Professor Ben Phillips is a Principal Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Research and Methods. He has nearly 20 years of experience as an economic and social researcher in Australia. Prior to joining the ANU Ben was responsible for a range of modelling projects at NATSEM including the STINMOD microsimulation model of Australia’s tax and transfer system. Ben managed several key projects including the distributional analysis of the Australian Government’s 2014-15 and 2015-16 Budgets.

Prior to joining the ANU Ben twice worked at NATSEM and has also had roles at the Australian Bureau of Statistics as a methodologist and economist, The Housing Industry Association as a senior economist and the Bureau of Tourism Research as an economic forecaster. Ben has a first class honours degree in economics and is undertaking a PhD through the Crawford School of Public Policy focusing on the tax and transfer system.

EP112 – Taxing the rich: Billionaire and inheritance taxes with Miranda Stewart

Ben’s co-authored 2019 paper: A basic income for Australia? Exploring rationale, design, distribution and cost

Economist article Gene quotes from: Might the pandemic pave the way for a universal basic income?

Thanks to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

Transcript – EP126 on UBI w/ Ben Phillips, ANU

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Ben Phillips  00:04

Well, I think there’s some ideas of UBI that we can borrow. I think a lot of the issues we’ve identified could be used to improve what we’ve currently got. I think a more realistic and practical approach is probably just to fix up some of the issues in the current system that have fairly minimal costs.

Gene Tunny  00:19

Welcome to the Economics Explored Podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is episode 126 on UBI, universal basic income. The pandemic has amped up enthusiasm for a UBI, because people have seen government’s boosting various welfare benefits and paying new benefits. Would a UBI have been a better option? Does the huge spending on emergency support during the pandemic prove that governments could afford a UBI? These are intriguing questions.

My guest this episode is Australian National University Associate Professor Ben Phillips, from ANU’s Centre for Social Research and Methods. Ben is one of the world’s leading experts on micro simulation modelling. As background, here’s how the Urban Institute describes micro simulation. In the social sciences a micro simulation model is a computer programme that mimics the operation of government programmes and demographic processes on individual micro members of a population, people, households, or businesses for example. For each observation in the large scale survey, a computer programme simulates outcomes of interest, such as income tax liabilities or Social Security benefits, by applying actual or hypothetical programme rules to the survey data about that observation. This is what you need to do if you want to analyse the costs and benefits of a UBI.

And hence, I thought, Ben would be the perfect person to talk to about UBI. And indeed, he has done some great research work on a UBI here in Australia. I’ve known Ben for over 25 years. We’re both in the same honours year in economics at the University of Queensland. Ben’s worked at the world leading National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, NATSEM, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and the Housing Industry Association. His micro simulation work has been widely quoted in the media, and he’s the go-to expert in Australia on the impact of the federal budget on households.

Please check out the show notes for links to materials mentioned in this episode. And please check out our website economicsexplored.com. If you sign up as an email subscriber, you’ll be able to download my new ebook, Top 10 Insights from Economics. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, then please either record them in a message via SpeakPipe, see the link in the show notes, or email them to me via contact@economicsexplored.com. I’d be really interested in whether you have any suggestions of good people to talk to about UBI in the US, the UK or other parts of the world. While I think that the points I make in my conversation with Ben this episode generalise to other economies, I’m conscious that there are specific circumstances in each economy, which may modify the economics of a UBI somewhat.

Okay, before we get into it, I’d like to ask you to please stick around until the end of the conversation, after which I will follow up some of the points in the discussion with Ben. Righto. Now for my conversation with Ben Phillips on UBI. Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Associate Professor Ben Phillips from the Australian National University, good to have you on the programme.

Ben Phillips 04:16

Hello there, Gene, how are you doing there?

Gene Tunny 04:18

Excellent. Thanks, Ben. Ben, I’m keen to chat with you today about this concept of universal basic income. So this has been requested by a listener of mine who’s just fascinated with this concept and suspects that given where the sort of views that are often expressed on this programme, he suspects I’m probably sceptical of it, and he’s generally right, but I’m sceptical of a lot of proposals. But I do remain open-minded and I want to understand what it would involve and just whether it could be feasible, what it would look like. And given that you’ve done some great work on this in the Australian context, so you’re one of Australia’s top micro simulation modellers. So you understand all the data about what people are earning, what they’re paying in tax, what welfare benefits they’re getting. And so I thought you’d be great to chat about this issue. So to kick off, Ben, I’d really like to sort of just establish, what is this idea of a universal basic income. So are we talking about a payment that goes to, everyone, so every adult in the economy, of a particular amount, so I don’t know, 10,000 a year or 20,000 a year? And that’s the idea to give a basic type of income? That’s essentially what we’re talking about?

Ben Phillips  05:47

Look, I think at its most simple level, there’s lots of different models of what it can be or what it might not be. But typically, what you’re talking about is, at the moment we’ve got a very means-tested system of welfare payments. So you say you have to be unemployed, or you have to be a single parent with young children or you have to have a disability to receive a certain payment. Those payments vary by your age, or what type of payment that you’re on. They’re relatively meagre, I suppose. Universal basic income, obviously, as I said, it varies. You’re typically looking at, as you say, of a payment of say at least the amount of say the JobSeeker Payment that we have in Australia at the moment, which is around about sort of $14-15,000 per year, and potentially higher than that. So I say maybe the age pension or even higher. I think the Greens at the moment, the Greens Party, are actually suggesting I think it’s about 1,150, 1,160 per fortnight, which is a fair way above even the age pension. So the age pension is about sort of nearly $1,000 a fortnight, and I think the Greens are after a payment of over 1,100 per fortnight, I think for all adults in Australia. So at the moment, current welfare payments might go to around about say, oh, with maybe around about 4 million people in Australia at varying levels, so JobSeeker, that 600 a fortnight, up to say, 1,000 a fortnight for the age pension, whereas if you had a full blown universal basic income, say as say the Greens are suggesting, you’d be looking at about, you know, a payment of 1,150 a fortnight or getting up towards $30,000 a year for around about 20 million Australians. So it’s a huge difference. And obviously, that requires some rather astronomical numbers in terms of financing. But of course, there are different models of basic income. That’s just, I guess, what we most commonly perceive as being universal basic income, everybody gets enough to get by. And obviously, someone has to pay for it, either through more personal income tax or wealth tax or some other form of tax.

Gene Tunny  07:41

Right. Okay. What are the different models, Ben? What sort of things are you thinking of?

Ben Phillips  07:48

Well, there’s various models in terms of, I guess, generosity. So the most generous one that I’ve seen is really what the Greens are currently suggesting. And that is where you’ve got about $30,000 per year for every single adult in Australia. Going down from that, there’s others who have proposed, I think Ross Garnaut, not that long ago, proposed a similar system where every adult gets a certain amount of money. I think it was more like the JobSeeker or the old Newstart payment, which is more like about sort of $13-14,000 per year, so a lot less expensive. And then going down from there, you have what I guess we’ve looked at a few different models that are much cheaper than that. And that’s where you’ve got more of a means-tested approach, or what in one of the papers we’ve called affluence testing. So that is, the higher your income or the more wealth you’ve got, the less you would receive. So it’s a little bit like means testing. There’s other versions that are similar. So things like a negative income tax, that’s where everybody gets like a tax refund, a full tax refund of say maybe $10,000 per person, that as your income increases, you lose some of that, and at some point, it goes to zero. So that’s another way of looking at it. Another one is sort of a guaranteed minimum income. So everyone has a sort of a guaranteed minimum amount that might be say you’ve got at least $10,000 per year. And again, that’s means tested. So the more you earn, the less of that you get, and obviously at some point, it peters out to nothing. So that’s sort of the basic models. Obviously, the full-blown basic income’s easily the most expensive, and I dare say the most unlikely to ever, evidenced to be so boring to legislation in Australia, or to the past legislation in Australia, whereas the guaranteed minimum income, that might be something that’s a little more realistic. Obviously, they’re all quite different to our current, very tightly means-tested system. We also have a lot of conditionality on our current payment system or current welfare system, particularly if you’re working age, obviously for an aged pensioner. If you’re under a certain income limit, certain wealth limit, you get that payment. But if you’re of working age, unless you’re disabled, there’s usually some sort of fairly strict sort of workplace sort of, I guess, work requirements that one must get through.

Gene Tunny  10:02

Yeah. And that’s allowed Australia to have a, well, a very cost effective welfare system, you could argue, or one that … I mean, arguably, the benefit of means testing is you can assist the people who really need it at a low fiscal cost, or that that’s the theory, isn’t it? So that you could argue that, well, you know, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that a great idea? I mean, UBI is sort of moving away, a long way from that. It’s the opposite of means testing, isn’t it? Is that right?

Ben Phillips  10:34

Yeah, so the current system, Gene, just to put it in perspective, so we currently pay out about a little over $100 billion per year in welfare payments to adults. There’s another sort of 20 or so million in family payments, which is effectively for the cost of children. So you put that to one side, if you will. So about $100 billion dollars. So the most expensive welfare system under a UBI, say under the grand scheme, would be somewhere around about $500 billion per year. So you’re looking at an additional $400 billion per year. Keep in mind, Gene, the current federal tax receipt is about 500 billion. So you go from 500 billion to 900 billion. That’s an unbelievable amount of money. And as you probably remember well, Gene, we had a big argument, big fight about carbon pricing in say 2012. That was over about a $5 billion tax. Now, regardless of what we thought of the carbon price, we’re having a big argument over 5 billion, how would we go with an additional 400 billion? Having said that, of course, you don’t have to have the full-blown measure, the full-blown universal basic income. But even the more sort of the cheaper versions, say like the affluence-tested model that we’ve modelled was more like a bare minimum of $100 billion per year. So you’re still looking at having to sort of double the welfare system in Australia, and knock-on from that is to increase taxes by, you know, 20, 30% across the country. So I think in a current environment that’s very unlikely to ever happen. But still it’s an interesting idea to think about, I guess.

Gene Tunny  12:04

Oh, absolutely. Certainly interesting to think about. So a couple of things I want to pick up on there. Ben, you mentioned negative income tax. So that, I think that was associated with Milton Friedman, who I’ve got a poster on the wall there. So he was advocating that back in the 70s I think. There’s a great paper that you co-authored along with Miranda Stewart, who’s been on the programme before. We chatted about wealth taxation, and in a way this discussion sort of goes on, or it’s related to that discussion. So we’ll go into that a bit later. And with David Ingles, or Ingles, is it? Sorry.

Ben Phillips 12:44

Ingles, yeah.

Gene Tunny 12:45

Ingles, great. Yep. And it’s got an excellent intro where you go through just the history of this proposal, and you talk about how it was suggested by Bertrand Russell, this basic income concept. And then the idea was resuscitated during the 60s, when Milton Friedman, among others, they proposed this negative income tax you talked about, and there was an experiment. There were negative income tax experiments in Canada and the US in the 70s. I’m going to have to look up those, because that sounds fascinating. And George McGovern, who was a US presidential candidate, he was proposing a $1,000 demo grant to all citizens. And then what the paper does, which I like, is it says, well, okay, this idea is coming back, because there’s this growing concern about wealth inequality, and there’s this growing concern about AI and automation, and we won’t have any jobs in the future, there’ll be fewer jobs, even for accountants and lawyers possibly, and just given how good the AI is getting. And so you’ve got a lot of people in Silicon Valley even, they’re proposing this idea of a UBI. I think Andrew Yang, who is a US presidential candidate, has this idea. So from what I’m sensing, it’s come out of this concern about wealth inequality. You’ve looked at the possibility of a wealth tax paying for this UBI. Is that the sort of thing that you’d have to do?  Because  you mentioned, look, people would probably, you know, they’d push back on a big increase in taxation. Is there a way of sort of taxing the richest or the wealthiest, the billionaires? Is it possible to get more tax out of that group to be able to pay for this UBI? Have you looked at that, Ben?

Ben Phillips  14:42

I think no doubt there’s probably some there’s … I think most of the modelling I’ve seen around taxing billionaires is a little disappointing in that the amount of money you typically get out of billionaires isn’t usually as much as what people might want to think. I think the Parliamentary Budget Office has done some recent work around, it was a Greens proposal again for taxing billionaires. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to do that, but the amount of money is probably not really enough to be funding these sorts of schemes. You have to have a revenue base that I think is a lot broader than just say billionaires, which we may only have, you know, a couple of dozen or so in Australia. And it’s a pretty precarious base anyway. During good times, it might be healthy money, and during bad times, well, who knows, you might not have too much at all. So you need to have a fairly broad-based wealth tax, if that’s the path you’re going to go down. And that certainly could be done. I think we probably don’t tax wealth as much as we probably could in Australia. We’re very income-heavy. And that’s something that we could look into changing. But if you’re going to find additional money, you’d have to have a fairly broad-based wealth tax. And it’s certainly true to say that saying superannuation at the moment, there’s a lot of concessionality there in superannuation taxation, which perhaps goes further than where it needs to do. And I guess beyond that there’s the family home. There’s no tax on the family home. And there’s other concessions around wealth in Australia, things like trusts and so forth. So there’s certainly money that can be found there. I think for the sort of scheme that David Ingles and Miranda Stewart were proposing, that was probably quite a sensible place to go. They’re also trying to minimise the effective marginal tax rates. So if you fund it through personal income tax increases, you go straight to increasing what are called effective marginal tax rates. And that’s sort of lowering your incentive to work, whereas wealth tax, you tend to get at those people who perhaps are not actually even working, and it returns a little bit of money to the state through that avenue.

Gene Tunny  16:35

Right. Could you tell me a bit about that proposal that you modelled for Miranda and David? So what did the wealth tax look like? Can you recall the threshold and what the impacts were, Ben?

Ben Phillips  16:49

So from memory, Gene, the amount of money that was being given out through this scheme wasn’t actually particularly large. I think it was roughly in line with the sort of amount of money that we give out to family payments, which is around sort of five or $6,000 per year. So in that sense, it wasn’t there to replace the current welfare system. It was really just as a very low base addition to what we currently have. So it wasn’t a large amount of money. We didn’t need to find nearly as much money say as a full-blown universal basic income scheme. And I think in terms of wealth, we just made a very simple assumption around I think it was non-housing-related wealth, and taxing that. So you’ve still got a fair amount of money. You’ve got about $4 trillion in Super. That compares to say that $10 trillion in housing, which much of which we weren’t touching, because it’s in the family home. I think it was just a flat rate of tax per year. I can’t remember the exact rate. It was at probably a small amount per year, which is enough to sort of fill out probably the several trillion, the several billion dollars worth of money you need to fund these sorts of schemes.

Gene Tunny  17:54

Right, okay. Yeah. Okay, so I guess it’s probably the politics of it that’s going to defeat it, from just based on this conversation. It sounds like, I mean, sure, if you’re going to implement it, and if you’re going to implement what people would generally perceive as a universal basic income when they think of a universal basic income. So I think Andrew Yang was talking about in the States, was it 1,000 US advance then? And that’s why I was thinking, well, if we had it in Australia, it’d probably be around maybe 15 to 20,000 a year. And if we’re going to have that, then that does imply a large increase in taxation. And there will be a lot of pushback, but in some segments of the community, particularly where they’re going to be paying more. And we saw what happened in the last election, the last federal election when there was a proposed change. I mean, you mentioned the carbon tax and then look at what happened when the opposition proposed doing something about the franking credits issue with the with the shareholders. So yeah, it seems like people, if you look at what it actually implies, it’s probably politically infeasible to bring it in. Do you have any thoughts on that, just how the likelihood or feasibility of bringing something like this in?

Ben Phillips  19:30

Look, to be honest, Gene, and I don’t really think it’s something that’s on the radar of say the major political parties at this point, not to say it won’t be at some point in the future if the world changes, but at the moment, I think as you pointed out, the potential of the requirement for such substantial tax increases would virtually rule that out. Ignoring whether or not it’s sensible or that it’s economically sensible, I think it’s the tax increases will just be too substantial. I think there are some problems with our current welfare system at the moment. But they really are only, they’re relatively small changes that are required to fix that. So for example, the JobSeeker Payment many would argue is a little bit too light, needs to be increased by probably a modest amount per year. So at the moment it’s about 630 per fortnight. It probably needs to be at least another couple of $100 a fortnight higher than that. The cost of that is only a few billion dollars per year. There’s a few other issues with the welfare system, particularly around say some of the conditionality, that’s probably a little bit too punitive on those on the payment. You could loosen some of those up, I think you can potentially improve the current system that we’ve got. That is very well targeted, I think. And you can improve it with only relatively modest amounts of money. So maybe, you know, as little as say $10 billion per year could really make a very large difference to that system. So $10 billion for what I think could give you a reasonable system compared to say having to spend potentially at least $100 billion on one of these more grandiose schemes of universal basic income. I think that shows the relative costs and minimal additional benefit, I think, where you end up a very big sort of a churn, additional churn in the system, for no particular great benefit. So I think there’s some relatively easy fixes that are relatively cheap. More people might disagree with to say $10 billion is relatively cheap or not. But compared to these other big schemes, I think it’s relatively cheap. So get a relatively simple fix for not a lot compared to these very expensive schemes. That’s probably where I would see it potentially going, if we are going to go down that path.

Gene Tunny  21:33

Yep. So it’s probably not. I mean, the big issue at the moment is that, well, arguably, some of the welfare payments are too low, and that therefore if you’re going to do anything with the welfare system in Australia, then you should look at increasing some of those payments. I was just thinking, I mean, in other countries, maybe that there are different issues. I mean, with the US, for example, I guess what’s attractive about the UBI in the US is that their welfare system is not as generous as ours, or it’s not as much of a safety net. So perhaps that’s why it’s more attractive in the States. Although I guess it does have a lot of support here in Australia. There was something reported on ABC, a majority of Australians would welcome a universal basic income, a survey found. But then I think that’s because people aren’t aware of just what it means for tax rates. And if anyone actually proposed that as a real thing, and they had to talk about how they funded it, how they would fund it, it will quickly become apparent it was … It’s not something necessarily I’d support, but it would involve some redistribution. I guess where some people, why they support it is that they, you know, there are a lot of people who think housing’s becoming increasingly unaffordable. And this could be seen as a way of supplementing their income. So could it be seen as a way of … Is it basically about more redistribution? So redistributing more from the top end to the lower deciles? How have you done analysis of what it means in a distributional sense, this universal basic income? I suppose it depends on the model that you apply. But what could it look like? I mean, could it actually improve the wellbeing of households in the sort of lower deciles? Not just the most disadvantaged, where we’re assisting them currently with welfare benefits, but households where they’ve got people in the house are working? Is it going to be a way of supplementing their incomes and, you know, making it easier for them to say buy a house? Could that be a benefit of it?

Ben Phillips  24:00

It’s certainly one benefit of it, Gene. Again, as you say, it depends exactly what sort of model you’re using here. It could vary wildly. But the models that I’ve looked at in the more sensible versions, they are funded usually through an increase in a wealth tax or increase in say, an income tax. And they usually tend to be quite progressive taxes. So as a result, you do tend to find that with most of the basic income schemes, at least I’ve seen, you do get a redistribution from the rich to the poor, effectively, and we end up having income inequality that looks a little bit more like Nordic countries, rather than our current system, which is fairly sort of middle of the road, I suppose, similar to the UK and a little bit better than the US, but more closer to the Nordic countries. So you do get that impact. A lot of people are concerned about why would you give say $10,000 to someone on $150,000 a year. Well, that’s understandable, but they’re probably paying even more than $10,000 in tax to fund it because we’ve got such a progressive system. So that’s true, it does redistribute the income from the rich to the poor. That’s probably one of the positives of it.

Gene Tunny  25:02

Right. Okay. Now, what does it mean for those effective marginal tax rates?  Does it actually reduce them? Is this a way of reducing the impact or am I on the wrong track here, Ben? Sorry, I think I’m off.

Ben Phillips  25:21

Again, Gene, I think it really depends on the model. You could have one model where it would reduce them, one where it would increase them. I think, as a general rule, the more money that the higher the programme costs, the higher the overall EMTRs are for the country. The more churn you have, the more you more you give, the more you’re going to take as well. There having said that, I think what it can do is it probably does lower the effective marginal tax rates for certain groups, particularly low-income groups and say, single parents, where they do typically have quite high EMTRs, but it would increase the EMTRs from say the middle of the income distribution to the higher end of the income distribution, because they’re the people who are funding it. So for example, I did some modelling with some guys from Macquarie Uni in Sydney. And we had a relatively cheap form of basic income, which is costing about 100 to 120 billion a year. And I think what we found there is you have to increase the marginal tax rates across the board by about 15 cents on the dollar. So that means that say that the 19 cents becomes 34 cents in the dollar. And so the 45 cents becomes sort of, you know, around 60 cents on the dollar. So obviously, for those who are not in the welfare system, at the moment, they would have a much higher marginal tax rate. Those who are in the welfare system, probably what we call the withdrawal rates of that basic income are quite small. So you probably have a lower effective marginal tax rate down the bottom end of the income distribution. So it really varies where you are in the income distribution. But I think as a general statement, overall, if you’re giving more money out, you’re probably going to have a higher EMTR across the board. But for certain groups that do face very high EMTRs at say, 70, 80, 90 cents on the dollar, they probably would come down.

Gene Tunny 27:04

Right, okay.

Ben Phillips 27:05

When you’ve slanted out across the income distribution is one way of thinking better, but a little bit higher overall.

Gene Tunny  27:10

Okay, I’m just trying to understand how this would work. So it sounds like with some of these, that well, the age pension, it sounds like that’s probably at the moment higher than any, or what I was thinking would be a universal basic income, which is sort of in the 15 to 20k range. So does that mean, could there actually be some welfare recipients who would be worse off under some models of UBI?

Ben Phillips  27:42

Yeah. Look, I think mostly what they do, Gene, is they, they only apply it to the working age population. So they say, look, if you’re an aged pensioner, we’re not so concerned about you. Many of the issues that relate to universal basic income, as to why you might introduce the UBI, don’t apply to the age pensioners, so we leave them as they are on the age pension. It’s more about the working age first. So if you’re on JobSeeker or say you’re missing out on JobSeeker at the moment because of you know, the wealth, the liquid assets test or some other income test you’ve got, you would be better off under the UBI scheme. And also, you would be losing that money more gradually as your income increases, whereas at the moment, you might be losing say 50 cents, or 60 cents on the dollar, for every dollar that you earn. It’s people who are on the JobSeeker payment, who are working part time, they might be better off and face lower effective marginal tax rates as they increase their income. Where it would impact people is say those around say 80 or 90,000 a year, you might go from say being on 30 cents on the dollar to say 45 cents on the dollar. That’s a big problem, I think, as I see it, for these more expensive versions of the universal basic income,

Gene Tunny  28:50

Right, okay, what about single parents? Do you know how they would be affected by a UBI if it was brought in and it replaced the current suite of benefits?

Ben Phillips  29:03

Yeah, so some of the models that I’ve looked at, what we’ve tended to do on this, really, it’s where you start to make … One of the main reasons you have a UBI is to have it as it’s sort of simple. One of the big arguments is that the current system is too complicated. And it is complicated, no doubt at all. I would argue it’s complicated because it is complicated. The world’s complicated. You’ve got single parents, you’ve got disability, pension recipients, you’ve got all sorts of different people in different situations. This is one of the things I like about the current system, where it targets to those sorts of issues. But in terms of single parents, yeah, if they are on 15,000 a year, they will be worse off. And that’s where you might have some special clause where if you’re a single parent, you remain on the current payment, but then you’re going back to another complicated system. This is why I sometimes wonder about what the point of a UBI is, unless it’s I’d say at the age pension level.

Gene Tunny 29:58

Right, which is …

Ben Phillips 30:00

Which is about say about $25,000 a year.

Gene Tunny  30:05

Okay. And is that similar to what the Greens is proposing that’d be …

Ben Phillips 30:10

Thereabout 30,000 a year.

Gene Tunny 30:11

30,000 a year, right, okay.

Ben Phillips 30:13

So where that comes from, Gene, is when the JobSeeker was increased when we had COVID, it was increased to about 1,115 per fortnight. And I think the Greens have gone along with that number, which is closer to about sort of 28, 29,000 a year or 30,000 a year. I forget the exact figure. Which relates to the Henderson Poverty Line, which is, in my view, a fairly outdated version of … As you probably recall, Gene, it was constructed by the Henderson review into I think, probably in Australia back in the 60s and 70s. Yeah, so it’s very outdated.

Gene Tunny  30:50

Yeah. So UBI, I mean, it certainly would be a nice thing to have, just thinking about it. I mean, and one of the advantages that’s put all the pros or the arguments in favour of it is it would allow us to be able to choose our lifestyle. And I mean, we could take a few months off and devote it to yoga or to improving our wellness, that sort of thing or writing a book. So look, I can see the attraction of it. It’s just the fiscal cost of it and implementation. We’ve already got this welfare system in Australia, at least that seems to do a reasonable job at not too high a cost. But I can see the attraction. What about this, there’s this vision of the future where with AI on automation, we have massive job losses, even among white collar professionals? Now, I mean, you know, we’re economists, so we’re probably great believers in the market adjusting, and eventually people finding new jobs in this in the services sector. But do you have any thoughts on that, Ben? I mean, how big a risk is AI and automation? And to what extent does that improve the argument for a UBI, if that’s the case that we could see these massive job losses in the future?

Ben Phillips  32:26

Yeah, look, I would, probably a bit like yourself, Gene, be clouded by my economics background. I guess looking at history over the past 50 or 60 years, we’ve had some pretty incredible technological changes that arguably are larger than what we’re currently seeing. And you know, you have periods of course, where you have some higher unemployment. But generally speaking, the economies have transitioned and people have transitioned. Perhaps there are strong arguments for, I guess, helping people restructure their lives, structural assistance packages for those in industries that disappear, and that there is the argument of, as you said, of basic income advocates that you have a UBI for that potential outcome in the future. But I’m sceptical of it, Gene. That said, I’m not a futurist, so I don’t really know what the future holds in that area. I could be wrong, but I’m a little sceptical, just given that we’ve had very large technological change in over the last century and people still remain in jobs. Yes, there are issues, you know, for certain people in certain industries. But that’s sort of part of the ebb and flow of the economy.

Gene Tunny  33:34

Absolutely. Okay. Well, just finally, this affluence-tested model, is that the one you recommend? Would you be able to go over that again, please, Ben? I’m just interested in what exactly that is.

Ben Phillips  33:50

The affluence-tested model, Gene, this is the model that some co-authors of mine, Ben Spies-Butcher from Macquarie University and Troy Henderson from University of Sydney, I guess it’s their model, their version of universal basic income. Obviously they’re well aware that a full-blown UBI is very expensive and politically difficult to implement. So it was an attempt to come up with a model that might be a little bit more politically possible within Australia. And that model really was, let’s look at the current JobSeeker amount. We’re a little bit higher than the JobSeeker amount, so that 15,000 or 18,000, two different models, 15,000 year and a more generous 18,000 a year and apply that to all adults. But it was in effect means-tested or affluence-tested, as they called it. So that was as your income increased, you’d lost some of that payment. So basically, up to about 10. You can earn up to 10,000 a year in income, and you’d receive the full 15 or 18,000 for the year, by that median income that have gone to  about half and by about 180,000 you have none at all. So it still costs about 100 or $120 billion per year. So that’s still roughly a doubling of the current sort of welfare system. So it’s very, very substantial. But obviously, it’s a lot cheaper than a full-blown system. And it does have the benefits of, some of the benefits of the basic income. It sort of becomes a bit more like a guaranteed minimum income, I guess, rather than a universal basic income. So that was their model. I think it’s quite interesting. But again, it’s got that concern of being wildly expensive, and we didn’t need to increase personal income tax rates, I think it was by 15 percentage points to the more expensive version. And I think adding that on to the current personal income tax rate regime would scare a lot of people off and would be politically extremely challenging.

Gene Tunny  35:43

Yeah, yeah. Okay. So just for clarity, this was a proposal that the other authors, it was their proposal, and you were doing the modelling for that.

Ben Phillips 35:53

That’s correct. Yep.

Gene Tunny 35:54

Gotcha. Okay. Ben Phillips, any final thoughts on UBI before we wrap up?

Ben Phillips  35:59

Oh, look, I think we’ve covered pretty well, Gene. I think it’s a really, in one sense, it’s interesting. I think that people are talking more and more about these sorts of schemes. I do feel that there are some problems with the current welfare system and I think there’s some ideas of UBI that we can borrow. I think the a lot of the issues we’ve identified could be used to improve what we’ve currently got. I think a more realistic and practical approach is probably just to fix up some of the issues in the current system at a fairly minimal cost, as opposed to the full-blown versions of UBI that I think are interesting, but perhaps not really realistic in the current environment. Too much of a change for Australia, whether we like it or not.

Gene Tunny  36:41

Yep, yep. Absolutely. I agree with you. So yeah. Thanks, Ben. That was great, a really good overview of the issues in Australia. I’ll have to have a look at what it might mean in other countries, but I’m guessing that it would involve a similar high level of expenditure, additional expenditure, and therefore a higher tax burden. I will have to look into that. And, yeah, I thought that that point you made about how well it could be seen as a way of addressing some of these inequality issues. And then we’d look more like the Scandinavian countries. And perhaps we do. I mean, our inequality isn’t as high as in the US, but you’re saying it’s similar to UK. It’s lower in some of those Scandinavian countries. So that’s something I’ll cover in a future episode. Just, you know, what’s going on in those countries. Always fascinated with that sort of Nordic model they talk about. So I thought that was a really good point. So Ben, but just want to thank you so much. I think what’s great about your work is that you’ve really modelled all this out, you’ve thought about what this looks like, in a practical sense, how it could be implemented, what that means for all the different groups in the community. And so yeah, I can highly recommend your work. So there’s Basic Income for Australia: Exploring Rationale, Design, Distribution and Cost, that you co-authored with David and Miranda. I’ll link to that in the show notes. So Ben Phillips, really enjoyed that. Thanks so much.

Ben Phillips  38:26

Thank you, Gene. My pleasure talking to you.

Gene Tunny  38:29

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  38:35

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Gene Tunny  39:04

Now back to the show. Okay, I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Ben on UBI and got a lot out of it. I certainly did. In this segment of the episode, I want to cover some issues that I didn’t get to chat about with Ben, particularly whether UBI will have a big negative impact on people’s labour supply. So their willingness to work. Will we see people dropping out of the workforce, drastically reducing their hours of work, and therefore reducing the capacity of our economy and the government’s capacity to raise money to pay for a UBI?

Now around the world, we’ve had several experiments of different types of UBI over the years. I intend to devote a future episode delving into the details of these experiments, and even into the negative income tax experiments in the 70s. I probably don’t have enough time at the moment to do full justice to those experiments, but I will try to summarise what I’ve found so far. One UBI experiment which received a lot of media attention happened in Finland, in 2017 and 2018. 2,000 randomly selected unemployed people received a 560 euro a month payment, which was similar to the unemployment benefit payment. But they received it for the trial period, and they didn’t lose it, they didn’t lose the UBI if they started working.

Now, I’m going to rely on a great article from The Economist. So one of my favourite magazines. This article was in March 2021, Might the Pandemic Pave the Way for a Universal Basic Income. I’ll put a link to that Economist article in the show notes, but it may be paywalled, and you may need an Economist subscription to access it. In the article The Economist reported evidence from the experiment was muddied by a change to a law in 2018, which tightened conditionality for receiving unemployment benefits. Even so, the results are intriguing. Among the biggest worries relating to UBI is the possibility that it might discourage recipients from seeking paid work. Yet, participants who received unconditional payments actually work more than those on the dole. Reported wellbeing was substantially higher. Recipients also registered less depression and stress, a higher degree of confidence in their abilities, and more social trust than did those in the control group.

The Finnish results are broadly consistent with findings from other experiments. Rebecca Hasdell of the Basic Income Lab at Stanford University conducted a review of 16 basic income studies published between 2009 and 2019, that covered rich and poor countries. The research provides consistent evidence of a positive effect on educational attainment and on measures of physical and mental health and reduce poverty. Effects on labour market participation are generally small. Half of the studies that assess its impact do not find a statistically significant effect. Most of the rest find a positive effect, she writes. Okay, so that’s really interesting.

Based on the experimental evidence that we have, and assuming the Economist is reporting it correctly, we may not have to worry about lots of people dropping out of the workforce if a UBI is implemented. However, as the Economist notes later in that article, these experiments don’t necessarily tell us what would happen if a UBI were available on a wide scale. They talk about the possibility of a social multiplier effect. Okay, so the Economist notes, some activities become more enjoyable as more people engage in them. So what they’re getting at there is that being out of the workforce is going to be much more enjoyable when more of your friends or family are also out of the workforce, they’re not working, so you can more easily spend time with them.

Possibly, you could even foresee a risk that you have sizable groups of people that maybe they can drop, they might drop out of the workforce at the same time and set themselves up in, well, for lack of a better word, communes. Perhaps that’s something that could happen. Are these legitimate concerns? I really don’t know.

But I do know a UBI would cost a lot of money. As Ben and I chatted about in our conversation. So the major criticism of UBI that it’s incredibly costly, and it would require much higher taxes, I think that is an important criticism and it still holds. On the work incentives issue, Ben Phillips’s view is that the net impact of a UBI is unclear. This is because of what Ben and some of his co-authors describe as a complex interaction of income and substitution effects. Okay, what do they mean by this? Here’s how I understand it.

The income effect that they’re talking about is the change in labour supply expected to be negative due to the change in income brought about by a UBI. So, a UBI, all other things equal, will boost income. And people might choose to spend that income on more leisure by working less in paid employment, okay. The substitution effect that they’re talking about relates to the substitution between work and leisure, as the relative price of leisure changes as the opportunity cost of leisure. So the loss of income, the money that you get in the bank, if you take an hour off work, or you, you take an hour in leisure, there’s a substitution effect. Because a UBI affects what is called the effective marginal tax rate, the EMTR. So Ben and I were chatting a bit about that, in our conversation.

Let’s remind ourselves that the effective marginal tax rate is the percentage of additional income that we earn, that we don’t get to keep. So it’s the percentage we don’t get to keep. And we don’t get to keep it because either A, the government takes it off us in tax, or B, the government reduces a welfare benefit that we’re currently receiving. And it does that because we’re earning money from working. If there’s a change in the EMTR, then the relative price of leisure changes, okay, so if the EMTR increases, so the government’s taking more off you in tax for an additional hour that you work, then that makes work less attractive to leisure, it means that the relative price of leisure has fallen, so the opportunity cost of leisure has fallen, because you’re getting less money for that additional hour of work. That makes leisure more attractive. And so you might work less, you’ll take more leisure.

Okay, I hope that makes sense and I explained that properly and I didn’t get lost midway. As you can appreciate, this is extremely complex. There’s quite a lot going on. As Ben and I discussed in our conversation, a UBI is expected to reduce the EMTR for current welfare recipients. So if you’re currently receiving a payment from the government, then your effective marginal tax rate is expected to fall, because the UBI wouldn’t be as aggressively taken away or clawed back as current welfare benefits are when people start earning money. Okay. So for welfare recipients, a UBI could actually result in additional hours worked, depending on their circumstances.

This gets really complicated, as Ben tried to explain in the in our conversation and as they go into in their papers. Okay, so Ben and his colleagues, David Ingles, and another colleague of his, previous show guest Professor Miranda Stewart, they wrote in a 2019 paper, which I’ll link to in the show notes, that the aggregate impact on work incentives is unclear. This is because the high linear tax rate required to finance the BI, so BI is what the authors are calling UBI in whatever model that … They go through a few models in their paper, but when they say BI they basically mean UBI. That high linear tax rate may increase work disincentives across the population.

Okay. So to finance the UBI, we’ve had to put up tax rates. And that’s going to increase the effective marginal tax rate for many people who are working and aren’t receiving welfare benefits. And so therefore, if they work an additional hour, they don’t get to keep as much. And so what does that mean? Well, that means that the relative price of leisure or the opportunity cost of leisure, if I take an hour off, then I don’t lose as much because the government, it wants to take more of that money I make, an additional hour. So it affects the work incentives for that group of people.

Now look, there’s a big literature on labour supply and how it’s affected by after tax earnings that we don’t really have time to go into today. I should cover it in a future podcast. I think it’s enough for now to say that look, this is very complex. This is the point Ben’s trying to make. The key takeaway is that the UBI will mean different people will respond to it in different ways. And it’s hard to know what will happen to overall labour supply unless, well, unless we actually introduce a UBI and find out.

Okay, I should note that Ben has used a static micro simulation model. So his modelling has been conducted using ANU PolicyMod. So he hasn’t explicitly modelled those work incentive effects or the impacts on labour supply. Now, my feeling is this, this is something that would be extremely difficult to model. Policy experiments are possibly our best hope of figuring out whether a UBI is simply a utopian fantasy that is unaffordable, or whether it is something that really is feasible, and that could improve our lives immensely.

As always, I’m trying to keep an open mind on these important policy issues. So that’s all I have to say on UBI for now, but I’m sure I’ll come back to it in future episodes. I know a lot of people are interested in it. So please consider this as a first instalment. I hope you enjoyed it and found it informative. Please get in touch with any comments or suggestions. I would love to hear from you. You can email me, contact@economicsexplored.com. And again, there’s a SpeakPipe service that can let you record a voice message if you’d like to do that. Okay. Thanks for listening.

Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Dan Mitchell on the global tax cartel and California’s economic suicide – EP122

136 countries have agreed to implement a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15%. Renowned US public policy economist Dr Dan Mitchell explains why he thinks this “global tax cartel” is bad news. In episode 122 of Economics Explored, Dan also explains to show host Gene Tunny how California is committing “economic suicide”, and why entrepreneurs are moving to Texas, Nevada, and Florida, among other low tax states. 

Here’s a clip from the conversation that Dan has shared on YouTube:

About this episode’s guest – Dr Dan Mitchell

Dan Mitchell is Chairman of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a pro-market public policy organization he founded in 2000. His major research interests include tax reform, international tax competition, and the economic burden of government spending. Having also worked at the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute, he has decades of experience writing editorials, working with the public policy community, and presenting the free-market viewpoint to media sources. He holds a PhD in economics from George Mason University.

Relevant posts on Dan’s International Liberty blog:

Other relevant material:

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/11/global-minimum-tax-rate-deal-signed-countries/

https://ministers.treasury.gov.au/ministers/josh-frydenberg-2018/media-releases/g20-endorses-global-minimum-tax-rate

https://www.reuters.com/business/ireland-backs-global-tax-deal-gives-up-prized-125-rate-2021-10-07/

Information on incidence of corporate taxation 

In his textbook Public Finance and Public Policy (6th edition, p. 748), MIT’s Jonathan Gruber wrote:

Suarez Serrato and Zidar (2016) estimate that 35% of corporate taxes are shifted to wages, 25% is shifted to land owners (through general equilibrium effects), and 40% is borne by corporate owners. 

The study Gruber cites was published in vol 106, no. 9 of the American Economic Review:

Who Benefits from State Corporate Tax Cuts? A Local Labor Markets Approach with Heterogeneous Firms

Thanks to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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EP114 – Tax rules benefiting tech titans and hedge fund managers

Controversial US tax rules mean that tech titans and hedge fund managers can pay arguably a relatively low amount of tax, as Steve Rosenthal, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute, explains to show host Gene Tunny in Economics Explored episode 114. Steve also talks with Gene about former President Trump’s tax affairs in this episode.

About this episode’s guest – Steven M. Rosenthal

Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute, researches, speaks, and writes on a range of federal income tax issues, with a particular focus on business taxes. In 2013, he was the staff director of the DC Tax Revision Commission.

Before joining Urban, Rosenthal practiced tax law in Washington, DC, for over 25 years, most recently as a partner at Ropes and Gray. He was a legislation counsel with the Joint Committee on Taxation, where he helped draft tax rules for financial institutions, financial products, capital gains, and related areas. He is the former chair of the Taxation Section of the District of Columbia Bar Association.

Rosenthal holds an AB and JD from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MPP from Harvard University.

Tax Fairness: President Donald Trump, a Case Study (Steve’s testimony before the U.S. House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee)

Buy, borrow, die: How rich Americans live off their paper wealth (WSJ article)

Thanks to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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EP112 – Taxing the rich: Billionaire and inheritance taxes

There are growing calls to increase taxes on the wealthy in advanced economies such as the United States and Australia. For instance, US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez controversially wore a white evening dress with the words “Tax the Rich” written in red across it to the 2021 Met Gala. In Economics Explored episode 112, Australian tax expert Professor Miranda Stewart speaks with show host Gene Tunny about taxes on wealth, including inheritance taxes and the proposed billionaire tax in the United States. What is driving calls to “Tax the Rich” from politicians such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and various commentators? Would it be sensible to do so? 

About this episode’s guest – Professor Miranda Stewart

Miranda Stewart is Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne Law School where she is Director of the Tax Group and is a Fellow at the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University. Miranda was the inaugural Director of the Institute from 2014 to 2017. Miranda has more than 25 years research, practical and leadership experience in tax law and policy in academia, government and the private sector.

Death duties: Why experts think this tax should be re-introduced (Australian media article quoting Prof. Stewart on inheritance tax)

The coming boom in inherited wealth by John Quiggin

Thanks to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode.

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com. Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.