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January 24, 2005

Stephen Roach Says the "Ownership Society" Is a Fraud

He writes:

Morgan Stanley: Under the general rubric of the so-called “ownership society” -- privatization of social security, healthcare saving accounts, lifetime retirement accounts, private pension revamping, and tax reform -- a major reworking of economic policy is being proposed. My concerns are not about the philosophical and political merits of this debate. It’s hard to quibble with the noble objectives of ownership -- asking individuals to take on greater responsibility for their own economic destiny. Instead, my concerns are those of the steely-eyed national income accountant. What worries me as I put on my green eyeshade are the impacts of shifting ownership on national saving. In my view, these proposals do basically nothing to address America’s biggest problem -- an unprecedented shortfall of national saving.

At its best, the ownership society is saving-neutral -- it merely rearranges the deckchairs by shifting the mix of national saving from one segment of the economy to the other. The risk, however, is that the ownership-society policy agenda entails transitional costs that could exert a significant near-term drain on aggregate saving for an already saving short US economy. For example, the privatization of social security requires transitional funding by the federal government in the range of $50 to $100 billion per year, according to our estimates based on the findings of the President's 2001 Commission to Strengthen Social Security. A similar point can be made with respect to so-called supply-side tax reforms -- one-off reductions in marginal rates that are presumed to have “self-financing” revenue paybacks in those ever-elusive out-years. To the extent the ownership policy agenda enlarges the budget deficit, there could actually be a worsening of America’s current-account and external-funding conundrum. Such an intensification of global imbalances could lead to further downward pressure on the dollar, raising the possibility of reduced foreign appetite for dollar-denominated assets.

I would feel much better about the direction of economic policy -- as well as the outlook for the US economy -- if Washington’s primary focus was on boosting national saving through a credible program of government deficit reduction and increased personal saving. Yet in their politically-inspired zeal for reform, politicians are leaning the other way and overlooking what the US economy needs most -- a new approach to saving policy. Up until now, the focus has been on creating new saving vehicles -- such as IRAs and 401Ks -- that simply shift saving from one type of account structure to another without raising the overall level of personal or national saving. I worry that social security privatization, healthcare saving accounts, or lifetime retirement accounts would do precisely the same thing -- siphon off saving from other assets. Instead, incentives need to be directed at lifting the level of aggregate saving rather than rearranging the micro pieces of the puzzle...

Posted by DeLong at January 24, 2005 11:28 AM

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Comments

[This is, fundamentally, my "clippings and notes" file...]

Posted by: at January 24, 2005 11:47 AM


What if the President's advisers came in one morning with a report that said, "The American people have experienced a conversion to old-fashioned conservative values.

"They have decided to stop buying on credit and to pay down their debt. They have reduced their energy use by 30%. They have cut back on driving and traded down to higher mileage cars. They have reorganized their lives to eat at home instead of eating out. They are buying durable goods and cutting down on trinkets. They are staying home and entertaining their families with games and family activities. They are living within their means and saving for the future. They are buying smaller houses, etc.."

What would be the reaction? Rejoicing?

It would be an economic DISASTER! A crisis threatening worldwide depression.

This is why I find these sober reports about the need to increase saving so funny. The life of this economy DEPENDS on people spending every penny they get their hands on to soak up the vast supply of consumer goods. Fortunes are made on interest and bank fees. The interest rate on a savings account is 2%.

Its a simple observation to note, going back to the grey fathers of Conservatism, that our kind of capitalist market economy cannot exist in a conservative society.

Posted by: pragmatic_realist at January 24, 2005 11:49 AM


"At its best, the ownership society is saving-neutral -- it merely rearranges the deckchairs by shifting the mix of national saving from one segment of the economy to the other."

This seems the key to the argument, but I'm not sure it is true. When someone has ownership in something they tend to invest more time and money in it. Homeowners fix up their dwellings more than renters right? I know the analogy is imperfect, but I don't know for certain that the ownership society merely shifts national savings around. (I'm also not sure I would consider Social Security to be 'national savings' unless the phrase has a really weird term of art meaning.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw at January 24, 2005 11:52 AM


Steven Roach worries about $100 billion in annual transition costs for the switch to a Bushynomic form of Social Security. If that's all it is, what's the big worry? We alreay know from the Bush version of prescription drugs for seniors that $100 billion a year is a mere rounding error to the Republicans.

Posted by: David Lloyd-Jones at January 24, 2005 11:57 AM


It seems like Roach is hoping that we close the deficit gap and eventually start paying down the debt. I'm not sure if this will happen in the near future. Even if a Democrats wins in 2008, at least one house of Congress will remain in the hands of the Republicans. The Democrats might be able to narrow the gap there and siphon off some votes of moderate Republicans, if there are any left, to raise taxes, but I am not sure.

What chance is there of the revenue collected increasing enough to make the deficit/debt situation a lot less awful? It seems like the only hope we have, outside of some miracle of actually making significant (but politically difficult) spending cuts and/or tax increases.

Posted by: Brian at January 24, 2005 12:03 PM


"They have decided to stop buying on credit and to pay down their debt. They have reduced their energy use by 30%. They have cut back on driving and traded down to higher mileage cars. They have reorganized their lives to eat at home instead of eating out. They are buying durable goods and cutting down on trinkets. They are staying home and entertaining their families with games and family activities. They are living within their means and saving for the future. They are buying smaller houses, etc.."

Wow, I do all those things. You mean, I'm the REAL conservative? Huh. And here I thought I was a liberal. Silly me.

Posted by: donna at January 24, 2005 12:12 PM


Actually, as Brad pointed out, the only good reason for reform is the forced increased savings. The point is that the government has to save for the average retirement duration, while a private investor has to save for, say, the 90% procentile of retirees. Therefore, if people live on average 30 years after retirement, government has to provide 30 years of benefits, while individual provisions will cover 40-45 years.

So privatization will increase national savings. However, oversaving nations abroad then must increase consumption over savings in order to avoid a global demand slump (which, I know, doesn't exist, according to PK).

Posted by: Dinsky at January 24, 2005 12:30 PM


With all the Rethug hoo-ha about reducing tax rates on capital gains and dividends, why don't they ever include savings interest?
What about a simple tax deduction for individuals for the first $500 of bank account interest? This would do a lot to boost the attractiveness of saving at pathetic interest rates that don't keep up with inflation.

But there's no massive benefit in it for the corporations that buy politicans, so there's no chance in hell of the cronyist Bush administration putting any effort behind it.

Posted by: California at January 24, 2005 12:42 PM


"It’s hard to quibble with the noble objectives of ownership -- asking individuals to take on greater responsibility for their own economic destiny" Perhaps this is so but prey tell how did Mr Bush take any responsibility for his economic destiny? By insider trading? By various bailouts from Saudi friends? The rest of us owners do not have that option.

Posted by: slothrop at January 24, 2005 12:59 PM


There is one thing in pragmatic realist's list that is of particular interest and that is the transition back to high gas mileage vehicles. This is an area that would not only put money in people's bank accounts immediately it would pay relevant dividends in other areas like energy independence, global warming and air pollution. What is the real cost of air pollution in terms of healthcare costs, for instance, and how much of that money would be kept in our pockets for retirement? What is the real cost of our dependence on foreign oil in taxpayer dollars? What will the real cost of global warming be in the future?

Posted by: Dubblblind at January 24, 2005 01:11 PM


"However, oversaving nations abroad then must increase consumption over savings in order to avoid a global demand slump (which, I know, doesn't exist, according to PK)."

Paul Krugman has long thought there was a need for more demand internationally. I strongly agree, and would point to Japan and Europe in this regard but also what was a need for a fiscal stimulus in America that was designed expressly to generate demand.

Posted by: anne at January 24, 2005 01:18 PM


Does anyone but me remember we tried this once when President Carter told people to put away their credit cards and they did. Everyone panicked in a couple of months when they realized the economic impact and Carter and everyone else started backtracking like crazy.

Posted by: spencer at January 24, 2005 01:25 PM


So, this may be kinda off-topic, but I have an econ question for Dr DeLong (and any other professional economists in the house) which I'm hoping he'll post a public answer for -- he's the best blogging economist I know of -- and I couldn't find an email address...

Some of the more hard-core conservative types I know think that the gov't might be forced into defaulting on the "special bonds" that SS holds, and that while this would suck for retirees (or at least, retirees who had not been magically saved by investing in stocks, but we can leave that aside as everyone sane already knows about the historical stock P:E issue) it would be good for US debt load overall, because through that default we'd improve our fiscal situation relative to all other buyers of gov't debt. Thus, the claim is that this sort of default would not trigger a devaluation and sell-off of regular T-bonds.

Do you buy that? Or, in general, what's your take on the possibility of starve-the-beasters forcing a default on some portion of US debt?

Thanks in advance, if you do answer...

Posted by: Auros at January 24, 2005 01:35 PM


@ Dinsky, on PK and demand problems: I refute your swipe at Krugman with this article from '99. Money quote: Japan is unmistakably constrained by demand rather than supply.

Posted by: Auros at January 24, 2005 01:40 PM


Oh, hum. It somehow removed the link I wanted to post.

Well, here it is in text: http://www.pkarchive.org/japan/scurve.html

Posted by: Auros at January 24, 2005 01:42 PM


First I doubt that privatizing accounts will increase the savings rate- I feel that it will most likely lower it. In my experience as a financial planner people tend to significantly underestimate the money required to retire. When people see that they have $40K-$50K in SS, they are less likely to continue a traditional savings plan.

Second: If I remember correctly the SS bonds are protected by the 14th ammendment...

Posted by: jd at January 24, 2005 01:53 PM


There is a significant distortion of investing returns in a 15% tax and capital gains and stock dividends, while interest income is taxed at our income tax rate. Lowering the tax rate on interest income to 15% could be an important saving incentive. Of course, I know, we have an awful government budget deficit and I am mentioning a tax cut. But, the are problem with our tax system. There will have to be an end to the Alternative Minimum Tax as well, for otherwise it will do ample harm to middle income households in years to come. We need a sensible tax structure to increase revenue but to do so with fairness and a lack of distortion in asset allocation. Oh well :)

Posted by: anne at January 24, 2005 01:56 PM


"If I remember correctly the SS bonds are protected by the 14th ammendment..."

Agreed. Imagine watching a lifetime promise to our grandparents and parents simply set aside; impossible.

Posted by: anne at January 24, 2005 02:02 PM


@Auros: What I was pointing at was a discussion of Say's theorem by PK (I can't find it right now) to the point that supply and demand will always balance in national accounting, although planned or expected supply/demand will have an impact on future GDP. It would be incongruous to say Say's law is void, while demand matters...

Posted by: Dinsky at January 24, 2005 02:37 PM


Dinsky, the deal is that with Social Security, resources available only have to provide for the average length of retirement, say 15 years.

But, if you're trying to finance retirement with personal savings, you have to plan just in case you live longer than average. You can cover part of that by buying an annuity with a portion of your savings; the current annuity market charges you something like 10 to 20% of expected value to convert a lump sum into a fixed annuity.

Even that doesn't generate income that grows along with inflation. So you either need to buy a larger annuity than what's needed to cover an average lifetime, or have some other form of savings, or you have to plan to reduce your living expenses each year.

If you want to be 90% sure you won't outlive your savings, you might need about twice as large a pool of savings, since the 90th percentile will live to around 93, while the average lives to around 80. And even then, you're still only 90% sure you won't run out.

The government guaranteed, inflation adjusted, lifelong income stream is perhaps the biggest benefit of having universal SS benefits. This makes the benefit quite attractive for the middle class. By having a pool that covers almost the entire population, and no qualifying exam to determine what level of annuity payment you qualify to receive, everyone gets to benefit from the insurance pooling aspect of old age benefits.

Many people who hypothetically agree with the notion of partial privatization still feel it would be important to convert whatever savings you have into a government guaranteed, inflation adjusted annuity form. Without that, lots of people would still outlive their assets, and we'd need to re-invent Social Security. But if we're going to go there in the first place, why mess with a system we know that works to experiment with privatization. Why not simply try to capture the equity premium by putting part of the Social Security surplus into an index fund for equities or corporate bonds.

Posted by: Charlie at January 24, 2005 03:19 PM


Reagan's fiscal stimulus - like Bush43's fiscal stimulus - lowered savings and investment and hence would reduce long-term growth. Yet, we still heard Steve Forbes trying to claim their fiscal trainwreck was good for growth. The "free lunch supply-side" rhetoric is little more than a front for a massive redistribution of wealth. We all know this - let's just say so. But then that's what Mr. Roach's article is doing!

Posted by: pgl at January 24, 2005 03:36 PM


Charlie: I think you just "better" explained (or expanded) what I meant. To repeat some of it:
-An extra provision is needed for life span after the mean.
-The current SS system already solves the problem by stopping to pay for those deceased before the mean
-Could future privatized systems engineer securities mimmicking the current ones, and would citizens buy/trust them?

The original idea was that if _no_ such securites would be widely accepted, people would just have to save more. That's how I understood it off Brad anyway.

Posted by: Dinsky at January 24, 2005 03:39 PM


I love Roach but wonder how he keeps his job on Wall Street. Morgan Stanley's investment management division is going to be pretty mad at him.

Posted by: weco at January 24, 2005 03:43 PM


Bush's ownership society aims, it is said, to foster greater self-reliance in individuals. But is accepting a $1200 Social Security check or a bare-bones Medicare policy really a sign of excessive dependence on government? Isn't the real problem of dependency on big government the province of Bush's consitutents-Halliburton, the Beltway parasites, the corporatate welfare dependents who antied up $40 million for the inauguration?

Posted by: Bob H at January 24, 2005 05:19 PM


MMM? Mr Roach's comments on IRAs, 401ks and how they had no impact on savings made me wonder what is wrong with me. When they became available we started putting as much in them as possible and also paying down (off) our mortgage. Maybe that was the residual effect of being a baby of the great depression? My personal financial depression did not end utill 1954 when my divorced dad started paying for my college education. It is hard to get my mind around the low savings rate of todays workers. All my working life I was haunted by the idea of eating dogfood in retirement. What put that idea in my mind and not in the minds of the generations following me?

Posted by: dilbert dogbert at January 24, 2005 07:37 PM


dilbert, from a social historical view, several things changed, but the biggest was the ease of access to credit for people of all economic strata. Once you didn't have to save to buy that highly coveted consumer good, the idea of saving started to erode.

Lots of other things have happened since, including the current belief that real estate prices must rise forever and therefore home ownership alone is sufficient savings....

Posted by: howard at January 24, 2005 07:54 PM


Auros
Social Security and Medicare are only the largest government obligations. There is also the pensions for the civil services and the military services, the judges and the generals. This is unlikely to be subject to default for obvious reasons.
But if we default on the middle class social security and medicare obligations, they can't afford to pay as much taxes because they would have to take care of themselves, or their parents. We would have to have a capital tax on the rich to pay for the civil service and military service pension obligations.
It's simpler to pay all the pensions than to do a selective default and a selective tax increase.

Posted by: walter willis at January 24, 2005 10:37 PM


Sebastian,

In order for "ownership society" to have the same virtuous effects as "ownership" it must mean something other than the government doing less of what it does well by shifting risk to individuals, families, states and municipalities. When I own my home, one way I take care of it is by purchasing insurance against disaster and liability. Government is a very low-cost provider of some kinds of insurance. Whatever other impact it may have, transferring responsibility for retirement insurance to individuals raises costs. That is not an "ownership" issue. Ownership in this case is to a large extent pure marketing. Ownership of the assets in private accounts linked to Social Security is a very limited kind of ownership. You are not free to spend the assets. There are likely to be restrictions on the asset classes allowed in the accounts.

Dubblblind,

House Ways and Means Chairman Thomas suggested taxing imports as a way to fund Social Security and to redress certain other imbalances. That, I suspect, would breach tons of bilateral and regional trade treaties, and be illegal under WTO rules. On the other hand, a tax on petroleum use, because it would fall on imports and domestic production alike, would not mess up the very complex web of trade agreements we have constructed. One has to wonder why he favored an unworkable solution over one which could ameliorate a number of problems with one whack.

Auros,

There is no such thing as being "forced" to default on any form of US debt. That is a conscious decision on the part of individual members of Congress to favor lower taxes for the rich and the porkish spending binge they have been one over the past several years over meeting obligations to payers of FICA taxes. When a member of Congress suggests that, as they like to put it, "we may not be able to pay that borrowing back" to the SS Trust, they need to be put on the spot - "you voted for lower taxes and higher spending. Are you unwilling to take responsibility for what you did and face up to the obligation of paying back the money you borrowed?"


By the way, today's WP reports that Bush is considering a plan to make high income earners take a bigger benefit cut than low and middle income earners. Once again, the fundamental nature of the SS benefit – insurance against destitution in old age – is ignored in favor of limiting taxes. Lifting the cap on FICA earnings would also hit high end earners hardest, but would maintain the benefit structure.

Posted by: kharris at January 25, 2005 06:01 AM


So the USA needs more saving. Let me make a Gedankenexperiment: assume that the Good Lord hits me over the head with $ 10 million. How would I invest it? Real return bonds yield less thean 2% and the yield is taxable. The S&P 500 P/E ratio is at 20 and I remember the old chestnut to buy at 10 and sell at 20. There is a real estate bubble. Of course from the National Accounts point of view repaying debt is equivalent to saving, but, believe it or not, I have no debts. Can I do anything more rational than increase my consumption?

Posted by: Thomas T. Schweitzer at January 25, 2005 06:13 AM


Buy fruit trees for a start. Olive groves are nice. Vineyards. Sawmills. Bicycle factories.
Give me a break. This feckless reliance on the big business stock market is what's ruining the world right now.

Posted by: Bil at January 25, 2005 06:26 AM


It is odd that the same people who suggest that future US governments will inevitably default on the bonds are the same folk who self-proclaim their belief that they will become the "permanent majority". Which really adds up to "Vote for me, I plan to steal your money, and for once I am telling you the truth".

Thanks but no thanks, I think I will stick with some combination of the Democratic party and "The Full Faith and Credit of the United States".

We are only four years removed from General Fund surplus, four years removed from a day when some economist were openly worried about life after the 30 years bond, when the combination of a balanced General Fund and burgeoning SS Trust Fund would over a short span simply remove all need for the Long Bond going forward.

Thanks to tax cuts those days are over. Or are they? It all comes down to economic outcome. According to the Trustees hitting the relatively low growth numbers of the Low Cost alternative starts throwing off huge surpluses after 2015, which after all is when we would expect to be rolling over the 10 year bond. Under Low Cost we start piling up $400 billion annual Trust Fund surpluses in that year and year end assets in 2035 are $10.7 trillion and climbing.
http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/TR/TR04/VI_OASDHI_dollars.html#wp94756
It could not possibly be that the privatizers and tax cutters have a perfectly rational plan to finance their crazyness out of that $10 trillion in worker money?

But whatever their motives that $10.7 trillion represents a lot of national savings looking forward. In the end America's "savings plan" may be just as simple as "12.4% of payroll".

Posted by: Bruce Webb at January 25, 2005 06:59 AM


"the privatization of social security requires transitional funding by the federal government in the range of $50 to $100 billion per year"

No it doesn't.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan at January 25, 2005 07:31 AM


Brad, it seems to me the correct permanent link to Steven Roach's dispatch is:
http://www.morganstanley.com/GEFdata/digests/20050121-fri.html

Posted by: Bernd Wuebben at January 25, 2005 07:31 AM


Fine post Bruce Webb.

We are only 4 years away from a government budget surplus that caused alarmed talk of retiring government debt in less than a decade. The structural deficit we now have can be reversed. Growth is secure enough now to provide for a continuing Social Security surplus, while the idea of a default on government debt would be the end of the defaulting party.

As KHarris points to, there is not reason to cut Social Security benefits, no reason for means tested cuts, and simply raising the payroll tax cap would make the Social Security system far more equitable though that does not seem to be of any interest to the Administration or Congressional leadership.

There, is by the way, every incentive to save now, despite relatively high asset prices. There might be more incentive, but there is incentive and squandering an inheritance because of supposedly high assets prices would be absurd.

Posted by: anne at January 25, 2005 07:53 AM


Patrick, the President's own report to congress said that Plan II, which partially privatizes Social Security, would increase the federal debt by about 23.6% of GDP between now and 2036.

The first year when Plan II hypothetically costs less than doing nothing at all is about 45 years from now. Every single year between now and then would require transitional funding.

Read the report yourself:

http://www.gpoaccess.gov/usbudget/fy05/pdf/2004_erp.pdf

Go to page 144, look at chart 6-4.

The deficit would be bigger every single during the working life of someone entering the workforce this year. But, not to worry, because when she retires 50 years from now, her traditional Social Security benefits will be cut sufficiently so that payroll taxes will greatly exceed benefits paid, and we can pay all that "transitional" debt off.

That's about as likely to happen as an alien space ship landing on the White House lawn and planting a free lunch tree.

Posted by: Charlie at January 25, 2005 08:40 AM


The way to increase national savings is to eliminate the payroll tax as a means of financing social security. Social Security should be financed from general revenue with an increasde in the income tax. The 6.2% FICA tax should be redirecte dinto private accounts of 5% from the employee and 5% from the employer. The Federal Thrift Plan would be the model. In addition, for the assumption of the payment of social security benefits from general revenue, the social security trust fund would be terminated. This would reduce the interest burden on the general fund.

The real danger would be as political influence is used to permit individuals to spend the money in their private accounts for purposes other than retirement. If these influences can be kept under control, national savings would increase substantially.

Posted by: arthur Arfa at January 25, 2005 08:59 AM


Note that with the "ownership society" we are provided the opportunity to own our personal liabilities - mortgages, insurance (health care), retirement.

The Bush and neocons have performed an elegant shell game, in which just as liability and equity can be confused on the balance sheet - voila, our personal liabilities become equity that generates income in the market. This still does not make them assets.

Posted by: peBird at January 25, 2005 09:10 AM


kharris, I try to make my comments broad in order to stimulate as much thought as possible from those who read them. In the case of the real cost in taxpayer dollars for dependence on foreign oil I must confess I was hinting at the cost of protecting our interests in the middle east. That you interpreted my comments in an entirely different way is, in its own way, very much to the point. That unpredictability as to what direction a discussion will go is what makes open discourse so enjoyable.

Posted by: Dubblblind at January 25, 2005 09:53 AM


Charlie, based on what he's said before, my guess is that Patrick is of the camp that says there is no "transition cost" at all, there is merely a recognition of costs that are already there.

Why we would listen to Patrick on this matter is beyond me, though.

Sebastian, the reason that you don't think of the social security trust fund surplus as "national savings" is because you are hung up on the "where are the assets" question. The assets, of course, have been loaned to the general fund, but for "national savings" purposes, that's neither here nor there.

Social security takes in more than it spends: that's national savings, and it doesn't require an arcane definition. The general fund, of course, borrowed and spent the money, but without the social security surplus, the deficit would be considerably higher....

Posted by: howard at January 25, 2005 10:53 AM


Dubblblind,

Yup. That is also, in a way, what Thomas claimed to be doing in his interview with Meet the Press. Which is why I find it very, very telling that he ignored oil.

Posted by: kharris at January 25, 2005 10:57 AM


KHarris
Dubblbind

Bill Thomas represents one of the leading oil producing districts in the country.

Posted by: lise at January 25, 2005 11:38 AM


Anyone who thinks the U. S. has a shortage of savings because the National Accounts show a low level of Personal Savings is looking at the wrong data.

It is true that the Federal Government is doing its best to eliminate savings from the country.

The rest of us, collectively, are doing just fine.
The Federal Reserve Board, reports. in Flow of Funds data, that the Net Worth of Household and Non-Profit Organizations was 44.5 trillion at the end of 2003, up 93% from the level of 22.8 in 1992. During that same period, GNP increased by 71% and Real GNP increased by 41%.

The wealth in the nation is growing faster than the goods and services produced by the economy.

Conclusion: Tax income from all sources the same. There is no reason to tax wage and salary income separately or higher than dividends, capital gains or interest. It all money. It all spends the same.

If you want to stimulate new entrepreneurs, tax financial gains higher than wage and salary. Financial gains represents old money. Wage and salary provide the opportunity to create new money.

ReformerRay

Posted by: W. R. Mills at January 25, 2005 01:09 PM


"Why we would listen to Patrick on this matter is beyond me, though."

Listening to others not exactly being a strength of the average commenter. However, I'm hardly the only person writing of economics who believes sunk costs should be ignored when making a decision about the future.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan at January 25, 2005 03:39 PM


actually, patrick, ignoring sunk costs is generally splendid advice. What does it have to do with the question of what happens when you divert payroll tax revenue to another use, which is what you were writing of in the first place.

Posted by: howard at January 25, 2005 03:45 PM


Patrick, generally we ignore sunk cost after the cost is actually sunk, not before.

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