Monday, July 29, 2013

The Dubious Economics of Crop Insurance

Insurance is an essential part of the financial infrastructure of a market economy. By spreading losses among members of a group with similar exposure, insurance encourages people to take prudent risks while protecting individuals from ruin in case they are the unlucky ones. Not all risks are insurable, however. Attempts to insure the uninsurable create incentives to take excessive risks and burden the economy with costs to the many that exceed the gains to a few. So-called “crop insurance,” which has become a central feature of U.S. farm policy, is a case in point.

Why crop losses are not insurable

Over time, insurers have developed rules that identify which risks are insurable and which are not. Crop insurance violates at least three of them.

Not a pure loss.  Insurance is normally limited to situations in which people face a pure loss. For example, if I insure my house against fire, I either experience a fire, in which case I suffer a loss, or I do not, in which case I have neither a loss nor a gain. In contrast, if I build a house for resale, I may suffer a loss if no one likes it or if the market declines, or make a profit if someone falls in love with it and pays me a premium price. The risk of fire is a pure loss, and is insurable; the risk of a business venture that carries the possibility of gain as well as of loss is not.

Insurance against crop risks, especially in the popular form of crop revenue insurance, departs from the pure loss principle. Crop revenue insurance does not just protect farmers against bad harvests due to natural causes like drought or floods. It also protects their profits against the economic risk of low prices, even when a good harvest is the cause of the low price. In fact, if the premium is low enough and the benchmark price is high enough, crop revenue insurance provides a guaranteed profit no matter what happens. >>>Read more

Monday, July 22, 2013

Will Peak Phosphate Doom Humanity, or will Supply and Demand Save Us?

Although climate change catches the headlines, it is not the only doomsday scenario out there. A smaller but no less fervent band of worriers think that peak phosphate—a catastrophic decline in output of an essential fertilizer—will get us first.

One of the worriers is Jeremy Grantham of the global investment management firm GMO. Grantham foresees a coming crash of the earth’s population from a projected 10 billion to no more than 1.5 billion. He thinks the rest of humanity will starve to death because we are running out of phosphate fertilizer.  This post on Business Insider from late last year provides an array of alarming charts to back up his warning.

Foreign Policy agrees that phosphate shortages are a potential threat. “If we fail to meet this challenge,” write contributors James Elser and Stuart White, “humanity faces a Malthusian trap of widespread famine on a scale that we have not yet experienced. The geopolitical impacts of such disruptions will be severe, as an increasing number of states fail to provide their citizens with a sufficient food supply.”

What is going on here? Is this really “the biggest problem we’ve never heard of,” as Elser puts it? Or are phosphate shortages something that global markets can cope with? Let’s take a closer look. >>>Read more

Follow this link to view or download a classroom-ready slideshow that features peak phosphate as a case study in supply and demand.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

US CPI Inflation Rose Sharply in June. How Concerned Should We Be?

U.S. consumer price inflation jumped to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of over 5.9 percent in June, according data released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was up from an inflation rate of just 1.8 percent in May. In March and April, the CPI actually decreased. How much do we need to worry about the sharp increase in inflation, or the increasing volatility of inflation over the past year, both of which are evident in the following chart? Here are some points to consider.



First, the jump in the monthly inflation rate and the volatility of recent months are almost completely due to ups and downs in the seasonally adjusted price of gasoline. It rose 6.1 percent in the month of June alone after no change in May and decreases of 8.1 percent in April and 4.4 percent in March (all monthly changes, not annualized). The price of gasoline is notoriously volatile. It depends not only on world oil prices, but also on the dynamics of domestic refining and on driving habits.>>>Read more

Follow this link to view or download a classroom-ready slideshow with complete charts of the latest consumer inflation data

Monday, July 15, 2013

Why Libertarians Should Support a Carbon Tax—Even if They Can’t Love It

In the first two parts of this series, I discussed the reasons why both conservatives and progressives should love a carbon tax, and why many of each political persuasion do. In this third installment, I take up the more difficult case of libertarians.

There is no way that a good libertarian could love a carbon tax, or any tax, for that matter. Classical liberal principles hold that the state should play a role in economic affairs only when there are problems that cannot feasibly be handled in the private sector. Even those who support a role for the state in, say, criminal justice or national defense, do so only reluctantly. They secretly pine for a libertarian utopia like that in Robert Henlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where even those functions were the responsibility of the marketplace.

Nonetheless, I think it is possible to make as good a case that libertarians should support a carbon tax as that they should endorse a government role in courts or the military. Here are some reasons why. >>> Read more

Why Progressives Should Love a Carbon Tax—Although Not All of Them Do

Progressives should love a carbon tax. Most progressives love the environment and believe that carbon emissions cause environmental harm. Unlike conservatives, whose attitudes toward carbon taxes were the subject of my last post, progressives have no generalized aversion to taxes. Carbon taxes should be a natural for progressives, then, if they can accept the power of economic incentives to slow the destruction of the planet.

To be sure, many progressives do express strong support for carbon taxes. Here are just three of many examples:
  • The Center for American Progress has put out a position paper titled “A Progressive Carbon Tax Will Fight Climate Change and Stimulate the Economy.” It argues that climate change, economic growth, and fiscal responsibility are intimately linked, and that a price on carbon should be part of a policy to deal with each of these issues.
  • Gernot Wagner, an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, argues that it makes eminent sense to tax what you want less of in his excellent book, But Will the Planet Notice: How Smart Economics Can Save the World.
  • In Green Illusions: The Limits of Alternative Energy Ozzie Zehner argues against the wishful thinking that solar, wind, or other technological fixes will bring a future of cheap, clean, and abundant energy. Insisting that a strong push for energy conservation has to be part of the mix, he advocates carbon taxes to counteract what he calls “the boomerang effect”—the tendency for subsidies for clean energy to make energy in general cheaper, therefore discouraging conservation.
Yet, not all progressives are convinced. Many are skeptical on principle of our capitalist economic system and instinctively distrust market-based environmental policy. Others fear that a carbon tax would disproportionately harm the poor. Still others have ethical objections to the whole idea of bribing people to do things they ought to choose voluntarily, out of love and respect for the planet. Let’s look at each of these objections in turn. >>>Read more

Saturday, July 6, 2013

US Economy Adds 195,000 Payroll Jobs in June; Voluntary Part-Time Work Increases

The U.S. labor market continued to strengthen in June, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Strong June data and upward revisions for April and May put payroll job gains for the second quarter of 2013 ahead of those for the first three months of the year. The unemployment rate remained unchanged as both the labor force and the number of employed workers grew. Involuntary part-time work fell to its lowest level since early 2009, and long-term unemployment also fell to a low for the recovery.

The economy gained 202,000 private-sector payroll jobs in June. Most of those came in the service sector, although goods-producing industries also gained slightly. The government sector as a whole lost 7,000 jobs, but trends differed strongly by level of government. The federal government lost 5,000 jobs, continuing a long decline. State governments reduced payroll employment by 15,000 jobs, but that was almost fully offset by a gain of 13,000 jobs in local government.

As the following chart shows, payroll job gains were revised upward from data first reported for April and May. The revisions raise the total number of payroll jobs added in Q2 2013 to 535,000, significantly more than the 481,000 added in the first quarter. The good quarterly job data provide a reason for optimism regarding Q2 GDP, for which the first estimate is due at the end of the month.

 
The unemployment rate for June remained steady at 7.6 percent, near its low for the recovery. The unemployment rate is the ratio of unemployed persons to the civilian labor force. The labor force grew by 177,000 in the month, the number of employed by 160,000 and the number of unemployed by 17,000. These data are based on a separate household survey that does not always agree with the survey of employers on which the payroll jobs data are based. The two differ partly because of sampling error and partly because the payroll jobs data exclude farm workers and the self-employed. >>>Read more

Follow this link to view or download a classroom-ready slideshow with charts of the latest employment data

Monday, July 1, 2013

Why Conservatives Should Love a Carbon Tax—and Why Some of Them Do

Last Week the White House released a long-anticipated Climate Action Plan. Conservatives have been swift to attack it as a “backdoor energy tax.” The critics could not be more wrong. A carbon tax, or energy tax of any kind, is the one big piece that is missing from the President’s plan.

Despite the criticism, though, some prominent conservatives see a better way of turning the issue of energy taxes to their advantage. Among those who support a carbon tax are Gregory Mankiw, Harvard professor and former Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers under George W. Bush; George P. Schultz, Treasury Secretary under Richard Nixon and Secretary of State under Ronald Regan; and  David Frum, former special assistant to George W. Bush.

Here are some of the reasons why conservatives, even the climate skeptics among them, should love a carbon tax.

A carbon tax would improve tax efficiency

Although conservatives don’t like taxes, they reluctantly agree that the government does need revenue. In recent years, their budget plans have called for a reduction in federal spending to a range of 18 to 20 percent of GDP. To fund even that level of spending without large deficits—which they also dislike—would require a lot of tax revenue. Where should it come from? >>>Read more