Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Diversification as insurance: bolthole edition

Idealog asked me last week whether it made sense for billionaires to see New Zealand as a bolt-hole against apocalypse. I had a lot of fun taking a punt at an answer.

New Zealand would do better than other places in some doomsday scenarios, but hardly in all of them.
But Dr Eric Crampton, an economist and the head of research at the New Zealand Initiative, says the billionaires prepping for doomsday may have it wrong.

“For many end-of-the-world scenarios, the best bolthole isn’t the most isolated place in the world, but the wealthiest place in the world,” Crampton says.

“Scenarios leading to collapse in international trade are worse for small countries that are trade dependent than for very large countries that have large internal free-trading areas.”

But he can understand why US citizens would prefer to seek refuge on the other side of the world, particularly in the current political climate.

Crampton is a Canadian that moved to New Zealand from the States in 2003 to take a job at Canterbury University, and he’s stuck around ever since.

“Arriving here, it felt like the outside of the asylum. America was growing increasingly mad. Airports were armed camps. The police seemed to have a very hostile relationship with the public and were heavily armed,” he says.
There's a lot more at the link, including zombies. Enjoy! Bottom line, best billionaire strategy likely has a portfolio of boltholes against a range of potential disasters, and New Zealand could be a nice part of that bundle.

The costs of golf

Auckland Council owned thirteen golf courses as of last year. The NBR talks with Julie Anne Genter and Jacinda Ardern, the two candidates for the Mount Albert by-election, about whether Council should turn the Mount Albert golf course into housing.

I don't know, but strongly suspect, that that land would be of much higher value in housing. Julie Genter is almost certainly correct that the place should be in housing.

But here's how you'd find out.

  1. Zone the land for the highest density of housing that's possible given the infrastructure around the place (or higher, if development could fund upgrading the infrastructure).
  2. Put in an SHA allowing fast development for any future owner. 
  3. Sell the land to the highest bidder, letting the owner keep it as a golf course or develop it.
  4. Tax the land on its market value, whether it's used as a golf course or as housing.
If the golf course can turn a bigger profit from greens fees from paying customers than a developer could earn by turning it into housing, then it should be a golf course. Otherwise, it shouldn't. 

The NBR quotes the golf club's treasurer on that the club currently turns a profit. I wonder what Council charges itself as rent on land that would be worth a fair bit in alternative uses. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Picking zones and picking winners

The push for more localist approaches to policy problems in New Zealand continues to gather steam.

Earlier this month, the McGuinness Institute argued for what they're calling Demarcation Zones for policy trials. Their formulation differs a bit from what we at the Initiative proposed in 2015, but the core idea is similar: let local communities take on additional devolved powers and see what policy variants seem to work better in which places.

I go through some of the differences in last week's print-edition NBR column. Here's a snippet of the piece:
Trialling policy at a local level can make a lot of sense. Not only does it let policy be more sensitive to local conditions, it also helps central government figure out what kinds of policies might work in a broader rollout. But it will always be tempting for central government to use local zones as a way of funnelling benefits to electorally sensitive areas instead. Just imagine what could have been in a Northland special economic zone proposal at the time of 2015’s by-election.

We worried about this problem in developing the Initiative’s Special Economic Zones proposal in 2015. The worst thing that can happen with a policy proposal is not that it is ignored but that it turns into a nightmarish hall-of-mirrors distortion of the original vision.

Dangerous temptations

Even leaving aside crass electorally driven measures, being able to regionally target policies could provide other dangerous temptations to a micromanaging central government. Imagine a tax concession zone for a three-block area in downtown Wellington to boost the IT industry. Or a zone with special depreciation rules to help ensure an irrigation project makes it over the line. Good policy provides a general framework that lets winners emerge, rather than picking them at the outset.

But there is a way of telling whether a proposed zone is a policy trial or something less laudable. Policy trials, if they are successful, should be able to be rolled more broadly. But projects that channel benefits to electorally sensitive areas or that try to pick winners cannot be.

And so we argued that policy measures shown to be successful in any area should be available to any other region wanting the same treatment. An inefficient tax concession zone to boost employment in one region would not put that big a dent in the government’s purse. Requiring that the same concession be available to all regions would make the policy too expensive to contemplate – unless it really were potentially to the broader good.

Localist approaches hold a lot of promise. Central government should welcome proposals that have the demonstrated support of local communities, which have taken programme evaluation seriously, and that could be taken up by other towns. Baking this kind of accountability into proposals helps give central government, and the rest of us, confidence that local government is ready to take up the challenge.
You should subscribe to the NBR. But we do have an ungated version here.

Friday, 17 February 2017


PredictIt runs a pile of markets on the American Presidency, among other things. Here are some good ones for America-watchers:
The full set of US Politics predictions is here. PredictIt is the US-facing prediction market built by the iPredict team at Victoria University, here in Wellington, to serve American traders. Kiwis cannot trade there. We would have been able to trade on it at iPredict, but we no longer have iPredict.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

More sweet silliness

A new paper suggests strong public health benefits from junk food taxes in Australia. Blogging has been light as I've too much on deck in the day-job currently, but since a few people have emailed me asking about this one, I might as well put here what I've told them.

The effects found in the paper depend on how consumers respond to price increases. Those elasticities are drawn from a 2013 paper estimating elasticities in New Zealand using an Almost Ideal Demand System setup across a couple dozen food categories in household expenditure survey data. But responsiveness of spending to changes in average prices doesn't tell us about consumption if people can shift to cheaper brands within the same category, as John Gibson's Marsden-funded work shows.

And I expect the problem will be worse due to the apparent coarseness of the categories where they’ve aggregated up to 24 total categories: unobserved shifts within broader categories have more potential for problems than within very fine categories. That isn't their fault as likely due to the level of aggregation at which they have average price data, but it would make a mess of things.

If you’re looking at salt intake and the like, and there’s huge variability within the broad categories, that’s going to be a mess. I remember once when Jennie Connor claimed there’d be huge health benefits from alcohol minimum pricing based on some within-alcohol-category elasticity estimates out of BC (own-price elasticity of wine, beer, and spirits, ignoring cross-price elasticities), but increases in wine prices have people shift to beer or spirits; you need to look at aggregate alcohol consumption in response to things like excise changes to get a handle on it (where excise is a de facto minimum price barring implausible loss-leader stuff). So while the paper accounts for cross price elasticities across broad categories, we don't know what's going on to composition mixes within categories.

So they start from overestimated effects of price on quantity consumed. They then go from quantities to dietary intake, although across the broad categories in some cases I’m not sure how they do that (milk, yogurt and eggs is a single category in the 2013 paper; sauces, sugar and condiments is a category; “restaurant food” is a category; “ready to eat” food is a category, though fruit is a single category). Not sure how they estimate change in salt consumption across the categories where the categories are broad and there’s potential for compositional shift within categories.

I also wonder whether the better approach to this stuff might be to look to direct effects rather than chains of dubious link quality? Look at Gelbach, Klick & Stratmann for example. They went directly from prices to obesity and ignored the consumption chains. Andrew Leigh (Top Australian economist, now also Labor MP) blogged on it when he was at ANU.

Finally, I'm not sure that the paper's cost-of-implementation estimate is anywhere close to right. It comes out of estimates on the costs of changes to alcohol excise. But there's an established regime for alcohol excise and the incremental administrative costs of changes within that won't be large. Plus that’s just administrative cost – zero consideration I can see of forgone consumer surplus. Like, even if you’re balancing it out with healthy food subsidies, there’s a reason people are choosing to eat the tastier things currently.

Caveat: this is just a quick take on the paper. If others have caught problems that I've missed, or if I've misread them, please let me know in comments.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Dumb corporate welfare

Citizenship for Peter Thiel made a lot of sense. I laid out the case over at the Spinoff. 

Corporate welfare is different.

Matt Nippert asked me last week for comment on the government's venture capital fund, which wound up partnering with Thiel in some of his New Zealand investment. The government's fund effectively lets government share in downside risk but not upside.

Eric Crampton, economist and head of research for pro-market think-tank NZI, had previously defended the government's granting of citizenship to Thiel who gained approval after appealing to then-Internal Affairs Minister Nathan Guy to waive requirements he live or intend to live here due to "exceptional circumstances".
Crampton said that decision was a "bet worth making at the time, and one that should not be regretted in retrospect".

However, following revelations Thiel exercised a buyout option in his partnership with the publicly-funded New Zealand Venture Investment Fund - a move that netted the Paypal founder $24m in profits while leaving NZVIF barely breaking even despite both parties bearing equal risk of loss - Crampton said going into business with Thiel was a gamble the Government should not have taken.

"The Government should not be involved in investment pump-priming activities," he said.

"Government economic diversification schemes, in which the government shares in the downside risk if the investment turns sour but only benefits on the upside through increased tax revenues from a successful business, are adventures best avoided," Crampton said.
The government just shouldn't be in this kind of business.
Finance Minister Steven Joyce, whose previous tenure as Minister of Economic development covered the NZVIF during the entire period of the funds' operation and buyout, yesterday continued to blame Labour for Thiel's multi-million dollar payday.
The partnership between NZVIF and Valar was announced by Joyce in 2012 and bought out by Thiel last October. But Joyce said the buyout option had been a feature of the NZVIF's formation in 2002 by the fifth Labour Government until he had requested it cease being used in 2015.
"We've subsequently changed it, but it was done by the government at the time and it worked exactly as they intended it to," Joyce said.
Labour Party's immigration spokesman Iain Lees Galloway has previously labelled the arrangement a "sweetheart deal" for Thiel overseen by Joyce.
Crampton called on the political finger-pointing to end.
"It would be nice if National and Labour stopped trying to blame each other for this particular deal and instead came to common agreement on ending corporate welfare," he said.
It's also been written up at the Straits Times. I talked with Radio NZ's Panel about it.

Meanwhile, Canada throws money at airplanes....

We can detain them for you, wholesale.

Recent adventures in America remind me of Neil Gaiman's excellent "We can get them for you, wholesale."

I'm going to give a big spoiler here. Go away and read the whole thing, then come back. Or read the spoiler and then go away and read the whole thing anyway. Or watch this film version.

Spoiler ahead.

Here it comes...

Ok, you've been warned.

The protagonist in that story is in search of a contract killer. He finds one under Pest Control in the Yellow Pages. And he finds that they're more than happy to do the job, in bulk, at a discount. The bigger the numbers the lower the total price. A bargain is a bargain. And then he starts wondering about even bigger bulk deals:
"How much would it cost to kill everybody? Everybody in the world?"

"Everybody? All the people?

"Yes. How much? I mean, for an order like that, you'd have to have some kind of a big discount. How much would it be? For everyone?"

"Nothing at all, Mr Pinter."

"You mean you wouldn't do it?"

"I mean we'd do it for nothing Mr Pinter. We only have to be asked you see. We always have to be asked."

Peter was puzzled. "But - when would you start?"

"Start? Right away. Now. We've been ready for a long time. But we had to be asked, Mr Pinter. Good night. It has been a pleasure doing business with you."
I feel kind the same way about how US customs agents have been treating people under the cover of the President's executive order. They've always wanted to do that. They've been ready for a long time. They only had to be asked.
I've been saying it for rather a while here, but emigration to New Zealand can be an option.

And thanks to Lyndon Hood for reminding me that the story was Gaiman's.