The Grinch Recast as Economic Parable

Over at Forbes.com, Art Carden has a brilliant retelling of Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (ht: Greg Mankiw). Carden recasts the story as a parable about externalities and property rights.

He starts with the Grinch’s view that Who singing is a nuisance:

He hated the shrieks of the Who girls and boys
For fifty-three years he’d put up with it now—
He had to stop Christmas from coming, somehow.
He asked and he questioned the whole thing’s legality
Then his eyes brightened: he screamed “externality!
He reached for his textbooks; he knew what to do
He’d fight them with ideas from A.C. Pigou.

As regular readers know, Pigou argued that externalities — pollution, singing Whos, etc. — could be addressed by levying taxes that reflect the harm imposed. So maybe, the Grinch might reason, he should help himself to some Who presents and roastbeast whenever they sing.

But wait, as Ronald Coase noted years ago, it takes two to tango … and to create an externality. So the Whos have a rebuttal:

“We know that we’re noisy all through Christmas Day,
But if you don’t like it, it’s you who should pay!
“For we were here first, and homesteaded the rights
To sing, to make noise, and to hang Christmas lights
“The costs of our Christmas joy helped you to save!
They were fully reflected in the price of your cave!”

I am so using this in my class in the spring.

A Second Thought on the Cost of TARP

Two commenters (Jack B. and John L.) raise an important point about the $25 billion price tag that the Congressional Budget Office recently placed on the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Their concern is that the $25 billion figure includes some impacts that should rightfully be attributed to other government actions, not to TARP itself.

To illustrate, suppose that Treasury used TARP to buy $10 of preferred stock in Bank X in 2008 and that a year later Treasury sold its position for $12, including accrued dividends. This investment would be recorded as achieving a $2 profit in TARP (subject to one technical caveat, see below).

That’s the normal way of calculating profit on an investment, and is what CBO was instructed to do for its part of TARP oversight. But as Jack and John point out, there’s an important complication here. During the year, the federal government undertook many other policy actions which may have boosted the value of Bank X (remember all the new acronyms?). From the perspective of policy evaluation, some or all of the $2 gain should be attributed to those other policies, not TARP.

It could be, for example, that absent further action, Bank X would have struggled, leaving Treasury with stock worth only $6. Other government actions, however, breathed enough life into the company (or, at least, boosted the value of its assets) that the stock ultimately became worth $12.

In that case, you could argue that TARP, by itself, resulted in a $4 loss, while the other government actions created a $6 gain. That puts the budgetary impacts of TARP in a different light: a 40% loss versus a 20% gain in this example.

Of course, you could also argue that the $6 gain was only possible because of the TARP ownership stake. There’s certainly an element of truth to that. But the basic concern still applies: the $2 gain in this example reflects both TARP and subsequent government actions, not just TARP alone. That’s an essential point when trying to evaluate these policies after the fact, and we commenters should keep that in mind when interpreting CBO’s findings.

And that’s not all. The other government actions may also have imposed additional direct or indirect costs on the federal budget. As a result, the $2 gain in this example may be offset (or more) by other costs that aren’t included in the calculation.

Bottom line: One reason that TARP appears much less expensive than originally predicted is that many of its investments benefitted from other government actions whose costs show up elsewhere in the budget.

Caveat: CBO’s methodology actually judges the profitability of investments relative to benchmark rates of return. The details are surprisingly complex, but just for purposes of illustration, suppose that the appropriate benchmark rate of return for investing in Bank X was 10%. If Treasury sold the stock for $11 after one year, CBO would deem that as breaking even. If it sold it for $12, that would be a $1 profit.