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Halstead comments on Economics, prioritisation, and pro-rich bias   - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Halstead 06 January 2018 01:38:28PM *  0 points [-]

Thanks, I agree that opposition to all redistribution is an extreme outlier position among economists. I think the explanation is that the rationale that many of them accept for ticket touting is not carried over into other domains.

Some evidence that economists do make this argument. See this paper - http://www.jstor.org/stable/3216858?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents in the Jnl of Econ Persp. In the first paragraph, Courty says "...economists usually argue that resale increases efficiency, because it channels tickets to those consumers who value them the most"

And the box in chapter 7 of Mankiw's principles of microeconomics textbook here - https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=xoztFMavGCcC&pg=PA148&lpg=PA148&dq=mankiw+ticket+scalping&source=bl&ots=5U_xzxQZvl&sig=T9PP88ufUkIFDPpR4j8kSG37kig&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiPopLst8PYAhXJtxQKHZcpCrsQ6AEISTAF#v=onepage&q&f=false. I will quote in full: "If an economy is to allocate its scarce resources efficiently, goods must get to those consumers who value them most highly. Ticket scalping is one example of how markets reach efficient outcomes. By charging the highest price the market will bear, scalpers help ensure that consumers with the greatest willingness to pay for the tickets actually do get them."

I think one should interpret that as saying that those who are willing to pay more (in the actual world, not the hypothetical world after redistribution) value the good more. And that is the main argument appealed to in favour of scalping in one of the most famous textbooks on microeconomics. The main premise used in that argument is obviously false.

If they endorsed the view you say they do with respect to scalping, wouldn't they say "provided there was perfectly equitable distribution of incomes, scalping ensures that goods go to those who value them most". Missing out the first bit gives an extremely misleading impression of their view, doesn't it?

Comment author: Paul_Christiano 06 January 2018 08:21:44PM *  1 point [-]

If they endorsed the view you say they do with respect to scalping, wouldn't they say "provided there was perfectly equitable distribution of incomes, scalping ensures that goods go to those who value them most". Missing out the first bit gives an extremely misleading impression of their view, doesn't it?

When economists say "how much do you value X" they are usually using the dictionary definition of value as "estimate the monetary worth." Economists understand that valuing something involves an implicit denominator and "who values most" will depend on the choice of denominator. You get approximately the same ordering for any denominator which can be easily transferred between people, and when they say "A values X more than B" they mean in that common ordering. Economists understand that that sense of value isn't synonymous with moral value (which can't be easily transferred between people).

The reason that easily transferrable goods serve as a good denominator is because at the optimal outcome they should exactly track whatever the planner cares about (otherwise we could transfer them).

Expressing economists' actual view would take several additional sentences. The quote seems like a reasonable concise simplification.

Your version isn't true: an equitable distribution of incomes doesn't imply that everyone has roughly the same utility per marginal dollar. A closer formulation would be "Supposing that the policy-maker is roughly indifferent between giving a dollar to each person [e.g. as would be the case if the policy-maker has adopted roughly optimal policies in other domains, since dollars can be easily transferred between people] then scalping will ensure that the ticket goes to the person who the policy-maker would most prefer have it."

Immediately before your quote from Mankiw's book, he says "Equity involves normative judgments that go beyond the realm of economics and enter into the realm of political philosophy. We concentrate on efficiency as the social planner's goal. Keep in mind, however, that real policy-makers often care about equity as well." I agree the discussion is offensively simplified because it's a 101 textbook, but don't think this is evidence of fundamental confusion. If we read "equity" as "has the same marginal utility from a dollar" then this seems pretty in line with the utilitarian position.