Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Millionaires’ Amendment and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Even more than the law of supply, the law of demand, or the law of diminishing marginal utility, economists love the law of unintended consequences. A brief editorial in the New York Times provides a nice illustration of that law.

One of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform laws was an exception to campaign finance limits for the case in which a rich candidate contributes a large amount to his or her own campaign. The idea is simple: campaign finance laws generally govern how candidates for office can raise money from others, but don’t restrict how much money they themselves can spend on their own candidacy. Therefore, if one candidate is of modest means while another is rich, campaign finance laws that make it harder for the poorer candidate to raise money implicitly help the richer candidate.

To solve this problem, McCain-Feingold lifted campaign contribution limits for candidates facing a challenger who spent more than $350,000 of his or her own money on the campaign. This provision of the law is now being challenged as unconstitutional by Jack Davis, a millionaire who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006. Davis claims that the effect of the law is to deter rich people from public service.

The Times editorial makes the following rebuttal:

There is also no sign that the amendment is discouraging the wealthy from running or spending. The very rich are represented in Congress in large numbers. Contrary to Mr. Davis’s claims of “chilling,” the number of candidates who spent more than $1 million of their own money actually increased after the amendment took effect. It is now common for party recruiters to seek out “self-financing”—or wealthy—candidates.
Consider the structure of the two arguments here. Davis argues a theoretical point: that allowing opponents of rich candidates to raise more money will have a “chilling” effect on millionaires running for office. The Times seeks to refute that point with empirical evidence: that the number of wealthy candidates has increased since the amendment was passed.

Now, a fun part of thinking like an economist is being able to parse arguments like this. Here are some questions that get you started.

1. Is Davis’s argument internally consistent? That is, holding all else constant, would you expect this amendment to have a “chilling” effect on millionaire candidates?

2. The amendment cited in the article was part of broader legislation limiting campaign fundraising. What effect would this have on the incentives political party recruiters face when choosing to seek out “self-financing” candidates?

3. Does the Times make the most convincing possible case against Davis? How might you argue the point differently? What is the strongest argument you could use to refute the Times’ point?

4. Think about the goals of John McCain and Russ Feingold, the authors of the campaign finance legislation. How do you think they feel about the fact that one effect of their legislation has been an increase in the recruiting of wealthy candidates? Based on that increase, do you think they would want more or fewer provisions like the Millionaires’ Amendment?

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Per Capita Recession

GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is a statistic that economists use to gauge the output of a nation. Movements in GDP provide clues about the health of an economy.

Look at GDP growth over the last five years, and the United States comes out smelling like roses, relative to other high-income countries, at nearly 3% growth per year. But statistics can be deceiving.

An article from the Economist titled “Grossly Distorted Picture,” questions whether GDP is an accurate measure of a nation’s economic health. The article suggests that, though GDP growth for the United States is higher than other countries, other factors, like population, also play an important role. As the article points out, growth of GDP per person is perhaps a more meaningful measure of economic progress than simply growth of GDP.

For example, over the same four-year period (2003-2007) Japan’s GDP growth was just over 2%, far below the nearly 3% growth the United States experienced. But during that time, Japan’s population was shrinking while the population of the United States was growing at nearly 1% per year.

If you calculate GDP per person Japan’s economy actually grew faster (2.1%) than that of the United States (1.9%).

Discussion Questions

1. Which countries have the biggest discrepancies between GDP growth and GDP per person over the last five years? Does that change your perceptions of the health of these nations?

2. As the article points out, annual U.S. population growth is roughly 1%. The annualized growth of U.S. real GDP (real GDP is an inflation-adjusted measure of output) was 0.6% during the last three months of 2007. Assuming U.S. real GDP growth in the first three months of 2008 was about the same—what does this imply for U.S. GDP per person?

3. Economists typically define a recession as six months or more of declining real GDP How would the use of real GDP per person rather than real GDP change our perspective on recent U.S. economic performance? According to this method, is the U.S. economy in recession?

4. As gauges of economic output, both GDP and GDP per person have their flaws. For starters, each measure misses the value of things that are not traded in a legitimate marketplace but may nonetheless impact our economic well-being. Underground activity, whether illicit drug dealing or benign babysitting, does not register in national income accounts. Environmental damage associated with our production and consumption is also not a factor. Can you think of other statistics we should consider when measuring a nation's economic health? What are some of the benefits and drawbacks to those methods?

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