Opinion

Edward Hadas

AOL, solidarity and health insurance

Edward Hadas
Feb 19, 2014 15:59 UTC

The head of the American internet company AOL managed to say something really stupid a few weeks ago, and to sound callous at the same time. It’s a shame Tim Armstrong came off so badly, because he was trying to deal with a serious topic.

Armstrong was trying to justify the company’s decision, since reversed, to trim its employees’ retirement benefits. He started out at a disadvantage, because the chosen cutback was sneaky. A change that sounds innocuous, moving from monthly to annual employer payments into employee pension savings accounts, is actually a way to eliminate payments to employees who leave before the end of the year. It’s hard to look honest and upfront when explaining that.

But the former Google bigwig turned a disadvantage into a public relations disaster by bringing up the high costs of caring for two employees’ premature babies. The implied complaint about these million-dollar infants sounded heartless and invasive. In more humane hands, though, the Armstrong discussion could have been a fruitful one. The challenges that AOL faces are built into the way Americans arrange their employee welfare programs.

For most workers, their total remuneration combines payments that are supposed to be determined by what their labor produces and payments that are determined by some measure of their personal needs.

The pre-tax salary is totally in the first category, while healthcare benefits are almost entirely in the second. Pensions are usually somewhere in between. Defined contribution plans are more like salaries while defined benefits are calibrated by the presumed needs of a former employee who used to earn a certain amount.

Mega sovereign writeoff could work

Edward Hadas
Feb 12, 2014 15:48 UTC

A massive sovereign debt reduction is the right way to reduce the ridiculously high indebtedness of governments. The idea might sound crazy, but it makes economic sense, and could be done, albeit after some serious preparatory work.

Many rich country governments have been borrowing excessively in recent years. In 1991, when the calculations from the International Monetary Fund started, gross government debt of advanced economies was 60 percent of GDP. This year it is expected to be 108 percent of GDP, or about $51 trillion.

The current level is much too high for the overall economic good. Heavily indebted governments spend too much of their tax revenue on interest payments and spend too much time trying to placate bond buyers, who rarely support useful long-term investments. Rumours of possible default can spark a financial crisis. And the excessive supply of sovereign obligations encourages parasitic speculation. The economically pointless trades of supposedly risk-free government debt pay much of the high salaries at investment banks.

Apple, banking and taxpayer subsidy

Edward Hadas
Feb 5, 2014 16:20 UTC

Why does Apple have such high profit? Why do banking systems have a tendency to fail? These seemingly unrelated questions have the same answer – taxpayers take a lot of the risk out of business activity.

The ideas of two unconventional economists, Mariana Mazzucato and Elinor Ostrom, can help improve policy. Mazzucato is a professor of the Economics of Innovation. Her 2013 book, “The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Private vs. Public Sector Myths” does just what it says. It provides persuasive evidence that governments deserve more credit than private companies for the development of most important modern technologies.

Apple’s iPhone is her star example. She demonstrates that government programmes developed all the key technologies, from the internet to voice recognition. Her argument is that Apple’s profit margins are unjustly high – over 20 percent after tax – because the company’s financial flows are not accurate reflections of its genuine contribution. Taxpayers have done the heavy technological lifting; the company only adds a little engineering pizzazz and a lot of business acumen, but shareholders get rewarded for the whole piece.

Don’t be afraid of deflation

Edward Hadas
Jan 29, 2014 15:43 UTC

Christine Lagarde says deflation is an “ogre which must be fought decisively.” The managing director of the International Monetary Fund is merely dramatising the current conventional wisdom, but she is wrong.

Lagarde did not explain why she thought deflation was so dangerous. Most likely, she had three commonly-made arguments in mind.

First, deflation might make a tragic debt cycle more likely. The fear is not totally irrational; a generalised price decrease can lead to economic disaster. The American economist Irving Fisher described the toxic cycle: prices fall, debts go bad, banks collapse, businesses fail, desperate workers take pay cuts and then companies cut prices even more. The downward spiral lasts until something happens – war, anarchy or a new monetary order.

Bitcoin repeats gold-standard errors

Edward Hadas
Jan 22, 2014 15:07 UTC

I cannot judge whether bitcoin represents a technological breakthrough, but I am confident that the pseudo-currency’s popularity shows widespread economic amnesia. If bitcoin ever became a real currency, it would suffer from the crippling problems of the gold standard.

The underlying problem is the belief that the electronic token’s independence from the government is a good thing. This libertarian notion could hardly be more wrong. Money is a common good for the whole society, and in the contemporary world governments are the pre-eminent social guardians.

It is true that under dire circumstances people might have to resort to an inferior monetary substitute. If a government collapsed or totally trashed the monetary system, then some privately issued money could be the least bad alternative. In such apocalyptic times, though, a software protocol which relies on secure electronic communications would not be first choice. Gold, which is tangible and not subject to hacking, is more plausible. So are old baseball cards.

Madoff/subprime – spot the difference

Edward Hadas
Jan 15, 2014 15:36 UTC

Bernard Madoff still has some magic. The public finds anything connected to the fraudster’s case fascinating, from a prison interview to JPMorgan’s agreement last week to pay $2.3 billion for Madoff-related sins. And why not? Madoff was a grandmaster of the confidence trick. But there is more to it than that. His way of doing business was alarmingly close to the perfectly legal practices which brought down the financial system in 2008.

To see that, compare Madoff to a hypothetical pre-crisis hedge fund manager – one with a special interest in U.S. subprime residential mortgage securities. The common tale starts with a commitment to provide higher returns than the economy can safely offer to financial investors. Both Madoff and the hedgie took in funds without making any specific promises, but their investors’ expectations were lofty.

Madoff, of course, knew that he could not live up to those expectations. That makes him smarter than the hedgie, who was either foolish, if he thought American house prices would keep rising for many years; or arrogant, if he was confident that he could sell out before the losses hit.

An early obituary for bitcoin

Edward Hadas
Jan 8, 2014 15:09 UTC

Bitcoin is not over yet. But the pseudo-currency is close enough to collapse to merit an early retrospective.

My prediction is controversial. Many fervent fans are persuaded that this government-free currency is for real. Their ardour may keep it going for a while, but equally bitcoin could disappear very quickly – that’s the way with speculative bubbles. So now is the moment to learn some economic lessons before the whole phenomenon is forgotten. Here are five.

Money without government appeals to people without law.

Legal tender has the backing of the issuing state. The government has a proprietary interest in maintaining a reliable currency. It also has the necessary powers to do so. It can regulate lending institutions, pursue fraud and create new money to keep the system afloat.

A Christmas message for lenders

Edward Hadas
Dec 18, 2013 15:30 UTC

For many shoppers, Christmas is a time to rack up debts in the expression of seasonal goodwill. For policymakers, it should be the holiday of debt forgiveness.

The inspiration for that religious-sounding thought comes from the atheist philosopher Hannah Arendt. She argued that forgiveness has a central role in human affairs, and the secular world should be grateful to Christianity for the discovery. Arendt was of course talking about forgiveness in the common understanding of the term – a pardon for a wrong, the cancellation of “you owe me one”. But her understanding of this as enabling people to “begin something new” works just as well when thinking about the financial equivalent: a willing erasure of material obligations.

Consider a loan from parents to a son or daughter who wants to start a business. If the new venture fails, a tough demand for repayment is likely to spawn resentment. Debt forgiveness will breed gratitude and closer ties.

How not to do healthcare

Edward Hadas
Dec 11, 2013 16:26 UTC

Almost every healthcare system in the world is a lesson in how not to do it. The pricing-based model fails miserably in the United States. The rationing model works almost as badly in the UK. Both fail in the core task of ensuring that the right healthcare goes to the right people.

Price systems should provide clear information to consumers and producers, helping both make sounder decisions. They can help make hard decision about what care is worth giving, but only if the prices accurately reflect the costs. But that doesn’t happen in American healthcare.

Every service and each drug has many prices, depending on who is providing and who is paying. Almost none of the prices bear any clear relation to costs. The New York Times reported earlier this month that the price of a dose of codeine ranges from $1 to $20 in San Francisco. Hospitals routinely send much higher bills to uninsured patients than to people with insurance. The uninsured have less ability to pay, but they have no clout pre-treatment and less clout than insurance companies in the inevitable post-bill negotiations.

The pope takes on economics’ pro-rich bias

Edward Hadas
Dec 4, 2013 16:29 UTC

The leading theories of economics and finance are usually produced for the rich. Pope Francis deserves praise for suggesting an economics for the poor.

The typical criteria of economic success – such as efficient pricing, fully competitive markets and rapid GDP growth – sound uncaring. And they often are. One problem is that most of the leading theories have an implicit pro-rich bias. For example, the Capital Asset Pricing Model, a basic tool in finance, assumes that the rich investors who can afford to take big bets deserve extra-large rewards when things go well. Or consider how most governments’ economic policy aims first and foremost at GDP growth, basically ignoring the uncomfortable truth that the already rich typically take a disproportionate share of additional production.

By contrast, pro-poor concepts receive almost no attention. Mainstream thinkers rarely say that the rich people who have gained from the economy have an obligation of solidarity with the poor who have lost out. Most of them have never heard of the idea (common in Catholic circles) that private property comes with a “social mortgage”, a debt to the society which makes that property valuable.

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