News

New Working Paper: Statogenic Climate Change? Julian Simon and Institutions

I have a new working paper which has been submitted to the Review of Austrian Economics for a special issue on the late Julian Simon. The paper is available here on SSRN and the abstract is below:

Outside of economics (and even within), Julian Simon is mostly remembered for his famous bet on resource prices against biologist Paul Ehrlich. The bet is frequently used to illustrate how some environmental scares are exaggerated. In the rare instances when more details are added, the emphasis is always on how the role of innovation in promoting socio-economic progress which, directly or indirectly, solves environmental problems. However, Simon had a rich and complex view of the role of institutions in modulating the pace of socio-economic progress (broadly defined) and the extent of environmental problems. In this paper, I highlight the unappreciated institutional conditions that Simon placed in his work. Institutions that foiled or distorted the market process had, in Simon’s view, the dual effect of reducing living standards and amplifying environmental problems. I show, using the case of climate change, that Simon’s forgotten nuances can help explain modern environmental problems such as climate change. Most notably, it allows a subtle shift from claiming that climate change is anthropogenic (i.e. man-made) to claiming that climate change is “statogenic” (i.e. government-made).

Rent seeking for madness: the political economy of mental asylums in the United States, 1870 to 1910

My paper with Raymond March on the expansion of mental asylums in America between 1870 and 1910 is now publicly available at Public Choice. The paper is substantially revised from the SSRN version available online but the main results still hold: there was a rent-seeking force behind the expansion. The abstract is below and the article can be found here:

From the end of the Civil War to the onset of the Great War, the United States experienced an unprecedented increase in commitment rates for mental asylums. Historians and sociologists often explain this increase by noting that public sentiment called for widespread involuntary institutionalization to avoid the supposed threat of insanity to social well-being. However, that explanation neglects expanding rent seeking within psychiatry and the broader medical field over the same period. In this paper, we argue that stronger political influence from mental healthcare providers contributed significantly to the rise in institutionalization. We test our claim empirically with reference to the catalog of medical regulations from 1870 to 1910, as well as primary sources documenting rates of insanity at the state level. Our findings provide an alternative explanation for the historical rise in US institutionalizations.

Regulatory Capture and the Dynamics of Interventionism:The Case of Power Utilities in Quebec and Ontario to 1944

I have a new working paper available on SSRN. This time its with my putative father Germain Belzile (HEC Montreal) and my eternal partner in crime Rosolino Candela (George Mason University). In the paper, we argue that the nationalization of electrical utilities in Quebec in the 1940s was an outcome of nationalization and consumption subsidization of electricity in Ontario in the 1900s and 1910s. To do so, we connect George Stigler’s theory of economic regulation to Ludwig von Mises’ theory of the dynamics of interventionism. The paper is somewhat of a myth-buster for Quebec/Canadian economic history as it builds on earlier work of Germain and I arguing that the industry in Quebec was very innovative, charged very low rates in North American perspective and was quite competitive on many margins. We point out that, however, nationalization in Ontario caused demand to be met by Quebec’s private firms which caused prices in Quebec to increase. This fueled pro-nationalization movements in the province. The link is above and the abstract is below:

To what extent are the outcomes of economic regulation intended and desired by its proponents?  To address this question, we combine Stigler’s theory of regulatory capture with the Austrian theory of the dynamics of interventionism.  We reframe Stigler’s theory of regulatory capture as an analytical starting point for a dynamic theory of interventionism, one which accounts for the unintended consequences that emerge from regulation, even if the origins of such regulation were designed to benefit a particular industry or special interest group. Therefore, we argue that regulatory capture is not necessarily inconsistent with a dynamic theory of intervention. We illustrate this theoretical point by applying it to an econometric case study of electric utility regulation and its nationalization in both Ontario and Quebec in the early 20th century, resulting in unintended and undesirable consequences that deviated from the interests of the regulation’s intended beneficiaries.

Care to Wager Again? An Appraisal of Paul Ehrlich’s Counterbet Offer to Julian Simon

Alongside Joanna Szurmak and Pierre Desrochers, I have a new paper available. This time its at Social Science Quarterly and its a very long article. So long that the journal asked us to split it into two parts (part 1 and part 2). The paper deals with the aftermath of the bet between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich (which was started in the pages of Social Science Quarterly) on the price of natural resources as indicator of environmental decay. Ehrlich, who had been predicting environmental decay at a rapid pace, lost that bet and it has since then been used to whack his ideas around. Less known is that, after losing, Ehrlich proposed a counter-bet to Simon — which the latter refused. In the paper, we evaluate the outcome of this counter-wager.

The minimum wage paper that needs to be written

I have been following the debates on the minimum wage in view of the forthcoming increase of the federal minimum wage in the United States. And there is something that is bugging me to no end: the explanation provided by labor economist for why there’d be a limited employment effect.

Notice that I say employment effect and that I thus limit myself to the number of bodies hired. I am also not going to consider the distribution of elasticities found since the seminal work of Card and Krueger that tends to point to negative effects on employment and even clearer effects on hours of work. I am also not going to account for other adjustment channels like those that Brian Albrecht discusses here. I am especially going to discount issues of minimum wage enforcement.

I am just going to focus on the channel for why I’d be wrong to give weight to the evidence that suggest no employment/positive employment effects (and I could very well be wrong — my wife says it happens all the time). The argument is that labor markets arent competitive. Take this quote from Noah Smith that illustrates the argument best:

Suppose some employers are big and powerful, or they somehow cooperate to keep wages down, or simply that it’s really hard to switch employers (emphasis mine). Then the theory changes a lot. In the extreme case — a “company town” with only one employer — the market outcome is whatever The Company wants it to be (technically, where The Company’s marginal cost equals its marginal revenue). It has nothing to do with supply and demand! And of course, The Company is going to hold wages artificially low, which kills jobs because some people just can’t afford to work for wages that low.

In that case, minimum wage can actually create jobs (emphasis in original). It forces The Company to raise wages, which allows more people to work. It looks like this.

Notice the first bit that is emphasized above. This speaks essentially to costs for employees to switch between employers. It is entirely relevant to mention those but notice that there is a sleight of hand being performed here. What are these costs a function of? That question is just starring us in the face!

There are costs of changing employers that are “natural” (e.g. function of technological setting, mobility, information etc.). But a large share of these costs (I believe) are “institutional”. For example, zoning laws raise rents and make cities less accessible. Cities are more productive and increases in productivity in those cities are harder to access for people in less productive areas. As way of another example, hiring costs are a form of costs to employees as new employers are less interested in seeking them!

All these are a function of X or Y policy elsewhere that governments apply. And this is why there is a paper that needs to be written that estimates labor demand elasticities with and without accounting the effects of already existing policies.

Imagine the following paper: you take low-wage industry employment in all the MSAs of the United States and check the effect of changes of the minimum wage in those MSAs. You get a first batch of elasticities. Then, you introduce the economic freedom index of MSAs produced by Dean Stansel out of Southern Methodist University to that series of estimate. The economic freedom measure (if stripped from its minimum wage component) would proxy institutionally-imposed cost on employees leaving their jobs. You then go a step further and segment the sample between high and low economic freedom (which is something I have done for a paper on Olympics here).

By breaking the sample in two parts, here is I am willing to bet 100$ on: the adverse effect of the minimum wage on employment is greater in high economic freedom states. There, the lower-level of institutionally-imposed costs means that the market was more competitive and thus the minimum wage kills jobs. However, in the low economic freedom states, you may find no effect or a small positive effect. Why? Because these costs to switching jobs for employees are higher there! (Again, I am not even considering other adjustment mechanisms, I am just thinking about bodies with jobs). In those states, the minimum wage may actually generate the outcome described by some.

But notice something here: if I am right, there is nothing to be cheerful about! Indeed, this would suggest that the problems that the minimum wage is supposed to solve have roots in other government policies. If anyone takes up that study, I am willing to pay that person to do it (not kidding, say 500$) on top of the 100$ that I am betting on the results.