Archive for June, 2008

Jun 04 2008

The “teenager tax” – why expansionary fiscal policy just ain’t fair! / Weekend columnists / Tim Harford – Why a tax cut just isn’t fair on teenagers

Tim Harford, aka The Undercover Economist, loves to expose the overlooked effects of governments’ economic policies. For example, both the United States and the UK have recently announced tax cut and rebate plans aimed at putting hundreds of dollars back into the hands of taxpayers, with the hope that households will spend their “free money” from the government, giving the national economies a much needed boost in a time of economic slowdown.

Expansionary fiscal policy, as such a tax cut is known, is a popular tool in times of macroeconomic slowdowns. The hope, of course, is that taxpayers who experience sudden fiscal relief will rejoice upon their newfound disposable income, spending it on goods and services, creating new income for various sectors of the economy, which in turn will be spent on more goods and services. In economics, we call this the “multiplier effect”, the idea being that a certain tax cut (say $150 billion), will ultimately create some multiple of that amount in new spending and income throughout the economy as a whole.

In reality, however, house holds do not spend 100% of a tax rebate or tax cut like those recently passed in the US and the UK. When disposable income increases, household will spend a certain proportion and save or pay off past debts with the rest. The proportion of new income spent is determined by an individual’s marginal propensity to consume, and the proportion saved is based on his or her marginal propensity to save. The greater proportion of additional income that is spent, the larger the multiplier effect in the economy as a whole, and the greater impact expansionary fiscal policy will have towards achieving growth in the economy.

Policy makers, therefore, prefer households spend, rather than save, new income from a tax cut or rebate. According to the Undercover Economist, however, saving a tax rebate is precisely what smart households will do. Why? Because of the basic economic truth learned in the first week of most principles of economics courses: There’s no such thing as a free lunch! Tim Harford explains:

…since neither the UK nor US governments plans to alter its spending plans, these tax holidays will be funded by government borrowing – borrowing that must eventually be repaid. That will require taxes to go up in the future, or not to fall when they otherwise might.

Who should celebrate? Not the typical taxpayer, that is for sure. The tax cut makes no difference to her. If she – assume she is British – had wanted an extra £120 right now, she could already have it in her pocket, either by withdrawing it from savings or by borrowing the money. If she did that, of course, she would later have to repay £120 plus interest. But that is exactly what Darling’s successor as chancellor will require of her. To look at it another way, the rational taxpayer should save the £120 windfall now, keeping it to pay the higher taxes that are surely on the horizon.

A tax rebate financed through government borrowing does not make American or British households any better off. Imagine a scenario where your buddy is experiencing some financial difficulties (maybe he’s lost his job, maybe he’s experienced an expensive injury and has no health insurance…), so you decide you’ll help him out by throwing some cash his way. The catch is, you’re already in debt and have spent more in the last couple of years than your actual income should have allowed. So, in order to help your buddy out, you actually need to borrow money from him. So you give him an IOU, he scrounges up the little cash he can find, gives it to you for the IOU, and you turn around and give it back to him to “help him out.” You can imagine, your buddy is not very thankful and certainly doesn’t feel any richer.

On the macro level, the cash mailed out to American households as part of the recent stimulus package came from new borrowing by the government from American households. All those IOUs issued to finance the stimulus must be paid back, and must be done so through future tax increases. The government has chosen to forgo future spending in order to stimulate current spending. Not everyone should dismay, however, as a certain lucky group will clearly benefit from today’s debt-financed fiscal stimulus packages:

…some people should count themselves wealthier after the tax cut. Anyone expecting to die without making a bequest should be pleased: if the Grim Reaper knocks on the door before the taxman does, he can spend the tax rebate now and leave the bill for some other sucker.

Who will be the fall guy? We don’t know for sure, because we can’t say who a future government will tax. But an obvious candidate would be today’s teenagers, very few of whom are paying income tax right now, but most of whom will pay it in the next few years. Their best hope is that their grandparents add the tax windfall to their bequests rather than blowing the money on a weekend in the sun.

A tax cut today almost certainly implies a tax increase tomorrow. Since teenagers enjoy almost none of the tax cuts today, but will bear the future increases required to pay back new debt, it is you, my students, who should be most opposed to the shortsighted policies being undertaken by US and UK policy-makers.

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Jun 04 2008

Welker’s daily links 06/03/2008

Published by under Daily Links

  • “The international rating agency, Fitch, believes that neither this year’s heavy snow nor strong earthquake will have much of a negative impact on China’s economy…”

    tags: economics, China, earthquake, economy

  • “[H]ouseholds continue to face significant headwinds, including falling house prices, a softer job market, tighter credit, and higher energy prices, and consumer sentiment has declined sharply since the fall,” said Bernanke, addressing the International Monetary Conference in Barcelona via satellite.

    At the same time, Bernanke said that some of the more troubled aspects of the economy are starting to show signs of stability. He said the battered financial markets had “improved of late but conditions remained strained.” He also said the pressures on the U.S. economy are being softened somewhat by foreign demand for U.S. goods and services.

    “We may see somewhat better economic conditions during the second half of 2008, reflecting the effects of monetary and fiscal stimulus,” he said.

    tags: economics, recession, monetary policy

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Jun 02 2008

Welker’s daily links 06/01/2008

Published by under Daily Links

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Jun 01 2008

Purchasing Power Parity – “for the inebriated masses” – the price of beer anywhere in the world

The theory of purchasing power parity (or PPP) holds that in the long run, the price of a particular basket of goods should adjust across countries and currencies to “cost” the same amount regardless of the currency the goods are denominated in. In other words, one dollar should buy the same amount of “stuff” in the US as it does in Mexico, China, the Netherlands or anywhere else in the world. If a dollar buys MORE in one of these countries once it’s been converted to the local currency, it implies that the local currency is undervalued and should adjust in the long run to achieve parity in the amount it can purchase in dollar terms.

One popular measure of purchasing power parity, devised by the folks at the Economist magazine’s intelligence unit, is the Big Mac Index, which measures the price of McDonald’s Big Macs in over 100 countries where they can be purchased. You can read more about this index here.

The Economist magazine recently reported on an new alternative to its own PPP index, “the Price of a Pint”:

Barflies around the world provide a useful service for their beer-drinking comrades at The prices of pints of lager are compared on the basis of anecdotal evidence from beer-drinkers around the world, so figures are regularly updated. There are some surprising results. Beer in Zambia and Burundi seems eye-wateringly expensive considering that they are among the world’s poorest countries. The French overseas départments of Guadeloupe and Martinique charge just about as much as in mainland France. Beer-loving America and Britain fall somewhere in the middle. Happily for sports fans at the Beijing Olympics, a pint in China is just $2.46.

I thought it might be useful to some of our graduating seniors planning their summer vacations or gap years. Pay close attention to the data in this table.


So, if cheap beer is a priority in your vacation decision, it looks like North Korea and Myanmar are ideal destinations. I must say, I am relieved to see that Switzerland, my own new home, is not in the top ten… but it is far from cheap.

The website will tell you the average price of a pint of beer in any country in the world, and then break it down to cities within each country. In Zurich, my soon to be home, a pint costs the equivalent of $6.57 US. Compared to my hometown of Seattle, Washington, where a pint goes for $3.25, that’s exactly double the price! Surprisingly, however, a pint of beer here in Shanghai goes for a shocking $5.15, more than double the Chinese average of $2.35.

Apparently, the price of beer has more to do with the local supply and demand than with relative exchange rates. Where the Big Mac Index offers a rather genuine approach to determining purchasing power parity (since the Big Mac is an identical product sold by the same restaurant facing similar costs in over 100 countries), a pint of beer is a bit more subjective a measure of PPP. Quality of beers clearly differ in locales as diverse as North Korea and Luxembourg, not to mention the incomes of beer drinkers, the number of domestic brewers, excise and value added taxes, consumers’ price elasticities of demand, and so on.

As summer vacation approaches, however, vacation planners may care to take into account the “Price of a Pint” index of purchasing power parity. Clearly, one’s dollars will go much further at bars in some places than others.

I know what you 18 year old American high school grads are thinking, “Mexico or Canada?” You’ll just have to follow the link to find out!

(Disclaimer: Mr. Welker is in no way encouraging his former students to travel to certain places based solely on the cheap price of beer there, merely to avoid places where beer is clearly out of their price range!)

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