Should Congress Use The Income Tax To Discourage Consumer Drug Ads?

Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and a score of Democratic cosponsors want to use the tax code to discourage direct-to-consumer advertising by drug companies. Their bill, the End Taxpayer Subsidies for Drug Ads Act, would prohibit firms from taking tax deductions for any consumer advertising of prescription drugs.

Limiting tax deductions is a blunt and arbitrary way of approaching a legitimate concern. Consumer drug ads play an important role in debates about the costs of prescription drugs, the risks of misuse and overuse of some medications, the balance of authority between doctors and patients, the limits of commercial speech, and a host of other issues. For overviews, see here, here, and here.

But the bill is not well crafted to address those issues. The problem starts with the legislation’s name: Allowing drug companies to deduct advertising costs is not a subsidy. Many other deductions are: The charitable deduction in the personal income tax, for example, subsidizes charitable giving. And the mortgage interest deduction subsidizes borrowing to buy a home.

But the business deduction for advertising costs is not a subsidy. Continue reading “Should Congress Use The Income Tax To Discourage Consumer Drug Ads?”

Conservative Principles for Environmental Reform

Case Western Law Professor Jonathan Adler just released an interesting paper setting out a conservative case for environmental protection. Here’s his abstract:

The existing environmental regulatory architecture, largely erected in the 1970s, is outdated and ill-suited to address contemporary environmental concerns. Any debate on the future of environmental protection, if it is to be meaningful, must span the political spectrum. Yet there is little engagement in the substance of environmental policy from the political right. Conservatives have largely failed to consider how the nation’s environmental goals may be best achieved. Perhaps as a consequence, the general premises underlying existing environmental laws have gone unchallenged and few meaningful reforms have proposed, let alone adopted. This essay, prepared for the Duke Law School conference on “Conservative Visions of Our Environmental Future,” represents a small effort to fill this void. Specifically, this essay briefly outlines a conservative alternative to the conventional environmental paradigm. After surveying contemporary conservative approaches to environmental policies, it briefly sketches some problems with the conventional environmental paradigm, particularly its emphasis on prescriptive regulation and the centralization of regulatory authority in the hands of the federal government. The essay then concludes with a summary of several environmental principles that could provide the basis for a conservative alternative to conventional environmental policies.

One example of what he thinks ought to be a conservative approach to resource protection: property rights in fisheries (footnotes omitted):

The benefits of property rights at promoting both economic efficiency and environmental stewardship can be seen in the context of fisheries. For decades, fishery economists have argued that the creation of property rights in ocean fisheries, such as through the recognition of “catch-shares,” would eliminate the tragedy of the commons and avoid the pathologies of traditional fishery regulation. The imposition of limits on entry, gear, total catches, or fishing seasons has not proven particularly effective. Property-based management systems, on the other hand, have been shown to increase the efficiency and sustainability of the fisheries by aligning the interests of fishers with the underlying resource. A recent study in Science, for example, looked at over 11,000 fisheries over a fifty-year period and found clear evidence that the adoption of property-based management regimes prevents fishery collapse. Other research has confirmed both the economic and ecological benefits of property-based fishery management. The recognition of property rights in marine resources can also make it easier to adopt additional conservation measures. For instance, the adoption of catch-shares can reduce the incremental burden from the imposition of by-catch limits or the creation of marine reserves. A shift to catch-shares would have fiscal benefits as well. Yet in recent years, the greatest opposition to the adoption of such property-based management regimes has not come from progressive environmentalist groups, but from Republicans in Congress.

He also endorses a carbon tax, which combines responsibility (the polluter pays principle) with a move toward consumption taxation.

Regulatory Uncertainty and Our Weak Economy

Over at the Economist’s Free Exchange blog, Grep Ip offers an excellent, balanced analysis of regulatory uncertainty and our weak economy. Here’s a short excerpt:

How much of our economic malaise can be blamed on regulatory uncertainty? Conservatives argue that a wave of Obama administration regulations and the threat of more to come are the primary hindrance to business confidence and hiring. Liberals say that the weak economy is far more important and that any regulations being enacted more than pay for themselves in economic terms.

I’ve been struggling with this question for months and have found the debate frustrating: the terminology is wrong and the subject poorly framed, the evidence fragmentary and unhelpful, and generalisations are rampant. So what follows are a few thoughts that I think clarify the debate, though without necessarily resolving it.

First, it is not “uncertainty” per se that bothers business. Whether uncertainty is unwelcome depends entirely on what’s at stake. What would you prefer: 100% probability of dying next year, or 50%? Most of us would choose the latter. Similarly, business would prefer zero probability of a burdensome new rule, but if that’s not possible, would certainly take 50% probability over 100%. The administration’s decision to delay implementation of a new ozone standard perpetuates uncertainty. Business welcomed it nonetheless because now they do not have to spend money to meet it for at least two years, and perhaps forever if in the interim a new president chooses never to implement it. Does the Federal Reserve create some uncertainty when it undertakes quantitative easing? Probably, but in the process it makes the stability of inflation around 2% much more certain, and that, most businesses would say, is a reasonable trade-off.

Second, “regulation” doesn’t capture the breadth of government activity that affects business confidence, investment and hiring. The threat that America might default must surely have been one of the most toxic sources of uncertainty America’s political classes have yet inflicted on the economy, something you’ll see mentioned in the Federal Reserve’s latest beige book. This speaks to a more deep-rooted alienation between business and Washington.

Read the whole thing, it’s the best treatment I’ve seen.

Taxi Medallions in DC: Who Would Win and Lose?

Today’s lesson in political economy: the looming battle over Washington’s cab market.

Three members of DC’s City Council (Marion Barry, Harry Thomas, Jr., and Michael Brown) want to require every taxi to have a medallion. The number of medallions would be much smaller than the number of cabs on the streets today.

As I noted a few months ago, this proposal would harm consumers more than it would help drivers. With fewer cabs on the road, it would be harder for passengers to find a ride and easier for drivers to turn down what they perceive as undesirable fares. If medallion prices rise, it may also make it easier for taxi drivers to lobby for higher fares in the future. All of that adds up to fewer cab trips.

The sponsors reportedly have close ties to some taxi drivers, so it isn’t surprising they favor drivers over consumers. What is interesting, however, is how they would favor some drivers over others.

The favored? Drivers with two or three decades on the road who are DC residents. In short, long-time incumbents who can vote.

The disfavored? Drivers with less experience or who live outside the district. In short, entrants and those who can’t vote.

This favoritism shows up in several ways in the proposed legislation:

  • Medallion prices. Under the proposal, initial medallion prices would vary by a factor of ten. A DC resident with 30+ years experience could buy a Class 1 unrestricted medallion for $500. A DC resident with 20+ years experience would pay $1,000. A non-resident with 20+ years would pay $4,000. Other qualifying drivers – if I am reading the proposal right, these would be DC residents who have filed DC income taxes for at least five years – would pay $5,000.
  • Right to purchase medallions. DC residents have priority over non-residents for most medallions, and priority further depends on seniority.
  • Property rights. Under the proposal, most medallions would become the buyer’s property and could be assigned or sold in the future. That means the driver would get the benefit of any price appreciation in the future. But that isn’t true for one category: Class 5 medallions that would be created for non-resident drivers who don’t get Class 1 through 4 medallions. Those medallions are not property and cannot be transferred; once the driver stops using them, they would be gone, and the number of taxis would decline further. (By the way, the price of Class 5 medallions is not specified in the legislation; instead it is left up to the Taxicab Commission.)

Bottom line: The proposal is a classic illustration of how the regulatory system might be used to favor (a) an organized group (taxi drivers) over a non-organized one (consumers), (b) incumbents over entrants, and (c) residents over non-residents.

The Rising Risk of Antibiotic Resistance

Scary theme of the week? Rising antibiotic resistance.

Megan McArdle highlighted this challenge in her presentation at the Kauffman bloggers event on Friday; if you have a moment, check out her chart at the 2:00 mark, showing that resistance to new antibiotics has been developing faster and faster.

You’ll hear more about resistance later in the week, as the World Health Organization will make make it the focus of Thursday’s World Health Day. It’s also the subject of a helpful overview in this week’s Economist.

Antibiotic resistance isn’t new. Indeed, as the Economist notes, Alexander Fleming identified this threat in the 1940s. But it appears to be getting worse. Evolutionary pressure combines with market failure to speed the creation of resistant bacteria:

Convenience and laziness top the list of causes of antibiotic resistance. That is because those who misuse these drugs mostly do not pay the cost. Antibiotics work against bacteria, not viruses, yet patients who press their doctors to prescribe them for viral infections such as colds or influenza are seldom harmed by their self-indulgence. Nor are the doctors who write useless prescriptions in order to rid their surgeries of such hypochondriacs. The hypochondriacs can, though, act as breeding grounds for resistant bacteria that may infect others. Even when the drug has been correctly prescribed, those who fail to finish the course are similarly guilty of promoting resistance. In some parts of the world, even prescription is unnecessary. Many antibiotics are bought over the counter, with neither diagnosis nor proper recommendations for use, multiplying still further the number of human reaction vessels from which resistance can emerge.

In economics lingo, there is an externality. If I take an antibiotic, I get the health or psychological benefits. But I also increase the odds of a new resistant strain of bacteria developing, particularly if I don’t take the drug appropriately. But patients and doctors often don’t take that risk into account when deciding whether and how to use an antibiotic.

That’s a tough problem to crack. The standard economist playbook says we ought to disseminate better information and strengthen incentives so that patients and doctors take these risks into account. Better guidelines for prescribing doctors, perhaps, along with better ways of monitoring and rewarding patients for taking the drugs appropriately. One might even consider a Pigouvian tax to discourage antibiotic use, although that raises a host of concerns of its own.

In addition, we could try to expand the supply of new antibiotics.

That raises the usual questions of how best to encourage innovation through patents, prizes, government-subsidized R&D, changes to the drug approval process, etc. But even intelligent policy can’t overcome nature itself. As the graph from the Economist suggests, the potential pool of antibiotics may be drying up.

CBO Weighs in on Fannie and Freddie

Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office released its long-awaited report on the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Role in the Secondary Mortgage Market (written by Deborah Lucas and David Torregrosa, with input from a cast of dozens — including, full disclosure, me as an outside reviewer) provides an outstanding overview of Fannie and Freddie’s history, the arguments for and against a government role in the secondary mortgage market, the flaws of the precrisis structure of Fannie and Freddie, and the pros and cons of possible reform models.

Readers may recall that last spring Phill Swagel and I proposed a reform in which Fannie and Freddie would be privatized, the government would sell guarantees on mortgage-backed securities composed of conforming loans, and that this guarantee would be available not only to Fannie and Freddie but also to qualified new entrants. (Here’s the blog version; here’s the full paper.)

CBO provides a thoughtful overview of such hybrid models:

A Hybrid Public/Private Model

Many proposals for the secondary mortgage market involve a hybrid approach with a combination of private for-profit or nonprofit entities and federal guarantees on qualifying MBSs. At its core, the hybrid public/private approach would preserve many features of the way in which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have operated, with federal guarantees (combined with private capital and private mortgage insurance) protecting investors against credit risk on qualifying mortgages. However, most hybrid proposals would differ from the precrisis operations of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in several important ways: A possibly different set of private intermediaries would participate in securitizing mortgages backed by federal credit guarantees, the guarantees would be explicit rather than implicit, and their subsidy cost would be recorded in the federal budget.14 As the public-utility and competitive market-maker models illustrate, a hybrid approach could be implemented in a way that involved more or less federal regulation of participants in the secondary market and a smaller or larger number of competitors in that market.

Advantages of a Hybrid Approach

Regardless of its exact design, a hybrid model with explicit federal backing for qualifying privately issued MBSs would have several advantages over the precrisis model, as well as over either a fully federal agency or complete privatization (approaches that are discussed below). An explicit federal guarantee would help maintain liquidity in the secondary mortgage market, in normal times and particularly in times of stress, and could retain the standardization of products offered to investors that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bring to that market. Compared with the precrisis model, imposing guarantee fees would ensure that taxpayers received some compensation for the risks they were assuming.

Compared with a fully federal agency, a hybrid approach would lessen the problem of putting a large portion of the capital market under government control, encourage the inflow of private capital to the secondary market, and limit the costs and risks to taxpayers by having private capital absorb some or most losses. Putting private capital at risk would also provide incentives for prudent management and pricing of risk.

Compared with a fully private market, hybrid proposals would give the government more ongoing influence over the secondary market and an explicit liability in the case of large mortgage losses that would be reflected in the budget. That arrangement might have the advantage of leading to a more orderly handling of crisis situations.

Disadvantages of a Hybrid Approach

Relative to other approaches, a public/private model has a number of potential drawbacks, the importance of which differs depending in part on the specific design chosen. Experience with other federal insurance and credit programs suggests that the government would have trouble setting risk-sensitive prices for guarantees and probably would shift some risks to taxpayers. A hybrid approach also might not eliminate the tensions that exist—with regard to risk management and pursuit of affordable housing goals—between serving private shareholders and carrying out public missions.

Another concern is that over time, the secondary-market entities might push for broader guarantees of their product lines and attempt to reestablish themselves as too-big-to-fail institutions backed by implicit federal guarantees. Consequently, regulators would need to be vigilant to control risks to the financial system and avoid regulatory capture, while also being open to market innovations.

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.

DC’s New Mayor Should Say No to Taxi Medallions

I love taxi medallions.

As an example for my microeconomics students, not as policy.

Just last week, I used New York City’s medallion system to show how an entry barrier — the requirement that each yellow taxi have one of a limited number of medallions — could create profits in an otherwise viciously competitive industry.

How much profit? Well, according to the most recent data from the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission medallions for independent cab drivers traded at between $610,000 and $620,000 in October. If you figure 8% as a reasonable rate of return of this asset, that translates into almost $50,000 in pure profit each year from driving a cab, thanks to the entry barrier.

Good exam question: Who gets that profit? Hint: It isn’t the cab driver, who either has to lay out $600,000+ for a medallion or lease one at perhaps $50,000 per year.

Of course that profit comes at the expense of taxi riders, who face a double whammy: they pay more for the cab rides they can get, and they end up taking fewer cab rides (the latter effect is known as a deadweight loss – society loses the benefit of the cab rides that would have happened without the medallion system).

Given that background, I was horrified to learn from Matt Yglesias that taxi drivers in Washington DC are lobbying Vincent Gray, the city’s new mayor, to introduce a medallion system. Yglesias quotes Alan Suderman of the Washington City Paper thusly:

Derje Mamo, a taxi driver who helped run transportation for the mayor-elect’s campaign, said cabdrivers already are pushing Gray to reshape the Taxicab Commission and allow for the creation of a medallion system. A medallion or certification system would limit the number of cabs operating in the city. Proponents of such a system argue that too many taxis are flooding D.C. streets. ‘He’s got one year, that’s it,’ Mamo said.”

As Yglesias notes, this is a really bad idea. There’s no reason to believe that there are too many cabs on DC streets (except, of course, from the view of cab drivers who hate the competition), and in some neighborhoods there may well be too few. A more plausible concern, as some commenters on his blog note (but I can’t link to because of some glitch), is that current taxi fares might be a bit too low. Taxi fares are still a new thing in DC–until 2008 the city had a zone system that many passengers, myself included, found bewildering–and it may be that the initial levels weren’t set exactly right. If Mayor Gray wants to do something for the cabdrivers, he should ask the Taxicab Commission to ponder whether some upward tweaks to fares might induce some extra supply that passengers would value.

Update: For further discussion, please see this later post.

Positive Feedback and the Flash Crash

The CFTC and SEC staffs are out with their analysis of the May 6 “flash crash.”

Short version: A large trader (identified by the media as Waddell & Reed) initiated a large sell order to be executed based on volume, not time or price. The initial selling boosted trading volumes which prompted the algorithm to sell even faster. That positive feedback then spawned the short-lived crash.

The whole report is worth a skim for the details about market functioning, but if you are pressed for time here’s the key part of the Executive Summary (with my emphasis added and footnotes deleted):

At 2:32 p.m., against this backdrop of unusually high volatility and thinning liquidity, a large fundamental trader (a mutual fund complex]) initiated a sell program to sell a total of 75,000 E-Mini contracts (valued at approximately $4.1 billion) as a hedge to an existing equity position.

This large fundamental trader chose to execute this sell program via an automated execution algorithm (“Sell Algorithm”) that was programmed to feed orders into the June 2010 E-Mini market to target an execution rate set to 9% of the trading volume calculated over the previous minute, but without regard to price or time.

The execution of this sell program resulted in the largest net change in daily position of any trader in the E-Mini since the beginning of the year (from January 1, 2010 through May 6, 2010). Only two single-day sell programs of equal or larger size – one of which was by the same large fundamental trader – were executed in the E-Mini in the 12 months prior to May 6. When executing the previous sell program, this large fundamental trader utilized a combination of manual trading entered over the course of a day and several automated execution algorithms which took into account price, time, and volume. On that occasion it took more than 5 hours for this large trader to execute the first 75,000 contracts of a large sell program.

However, on May 6, when markets were already under stress, the Sell Algorithm chosen by the large trader to only target trading volume, and neither price nor time, executed the sell program extremely rapidly in just 20 minutes.

This sell pressure was initially absorbed by:

• high frequency traders (“HFTs”) and other intermediaries in the futures market;

• fundamental buyers in the futures market; and

• cross-market arbitrageurs who transferred this sell pressure to the equities markets by opportunistically buying E-Mini contracts and simultaneously selling products like SPY, or selling individual equities in the S&P 500 Index.

HFTs and intermediaries were the likely buyers of the initial batch of orders submitted by the Sell Algorithm, and, as a result, these buyers built up temporary long positions. Specifically, HFTs accumulated a net long position of about 3,300 contracts. However, between 2:41 p.m. and 2:44 p.m., HFTs aggressively sold about 2,000 E-Mini contracts in order to reduce their temporary long positions. At the same time, HFTs traded nearly 140,000 E-Mini contracts or over 33% of the total trading volume. This is consistent with the HFTs’ typical practice of trading a very large number of contracts, but not accumulating an aggregate inventory beyond three to four thousand contracts in either direction.

The Sell Algorithm used by the large trader responded to the increased volume by increasing the rate at which it was feeding the orders into the market, even though orders that it already sent to the market were arguably not yet fully absorbed by fundamental buyers or cross-market arbitrageurs. In fact, especially in times of significant volatility, high trading volume is not necessarily a reliable indicator of market liquidity.

What happened next is best described in terms of two liquidity crises – one at the broad index level in the E-Mini, the other with respect to individual stocks.

For more, click on over to the report.

What To Do With Fannie and Freddie?

The Economist asked several experts to recommend options for resolving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two failed mortgage giants.

In addition to comments, the magazine’s web site allows users to recommend responses they like. It’s hardly scientific, but since the rankings (as of 9:15pm eastern time) work to my favor, let me rank them in declining order of recommendations:

My co-author Phill Swagel (a whopping 13 recommendations) describes our joint proposal for fully private GSEs that purchase an explicit backstop from the government for their mortgage-backed securities. Pros: The relationship is explicit and transparent, taxpayers are compensated for bearing risk, the portfolios are eliminated, the government backstop will soften severe mortgage meltdowns, and competition can discipline the Fannie and Freddie duopoly. Cons: There are still risks from the remaining government role.

Larry Kotlikoff (11 recs) outlines another proposal to restructure the companies into more sensible private entities. His model: mortgage mutual fund companies.

John Makin (7 recs) wins the award for brevity, arguing that they should be liquidated over 5 years.

Mark Thoma (4 recs) suggests a continued role for the firms, as long as they face much tighter regulation.

Tom Gallagher (4 recs) proposes putting them back on the federal budget as real agencies. This avoids some potential pitfalls of having them run as private companies.

P.S. As an anonymous commenter helpfully points out, the entries over at the Economist have these newfangled things called “dates” associated with them. Not sure how I missed that. The two highest scorers are also the oldest. Also, I must confess that I clicked the recommend button on Phill’s piece, lifting it to 14 votes. Because of some weird interaction between Safari and the Economist site, however, that resulted in it believing that I recommended all five pieces. Ah the perils of technology.