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This is the dumbest post I have ever written. You have been warned.

 

I found that last bit…intriguing. Backing our currency with cat videos would, of course, be very difficult to work (backing a currency with something whose marginal cost of replication of zero is probably not a recipe for stability)…but what if we backed our currency with actual cats?

i can haz currency stability

The biggest question to answer is ‘how many cats would the government need to hold in reserve to make the standard work?’ So I went back to look at how much gold the government had when it had a gold standard, and then, in need of a denominator, indexed it as a ratio to national income (using Piketty & Zucman’s data).

look this all made sense at the time

 

 

Rather than over-analyze the data, I just took the average value of all the individual year values, came up with 1.98%, and multiplied that by national income today (just over $14.5 trillion) to estimate that the government would need to hold in reserve $288.7 billion in cats to maintain a cat standard.

This means we have a problem. The Humane Society estimates that there are 95.6 million owned cats in America, and that there are another 30-40 million stray or feral cats. That means an outside estimate of ~135 million cats in the United States. Which means even if the government eminently domained every living cat in America, that would still imply a valuation of over $2,000 per cat, which is an order of magnitude more than the current market price. This would, among other things, be highly disruptive to the cat market. It would also be hard to sustain, since rescue cats are largely sold by non-profits at the marginal cost of vaccinations, microchipping, etc.

So what the government needs to do is breed cats. Lots of cats.

MOAR MOAR MOAR

Assuming we’re not talking about a purebred standard, the kind of cats the government might be keeping in reserve would probably have a market value of around $100/each, which means we would need the government to hold, in reserve, twenty times as many cats as exists in the United States today – 2.7 billion cats. Firstly, that could take a little time – depending on how large a cat base the government started with (presumably they wouldn’t catnap every cat in America), as long as a decade. This is not the insurmountable obstacle, though.

Land is.

Cats, by nature, are kind of territorial.

all mine

One study, in fact, shows a leading cause of death for outdoor cats is…other cats. Meouch.

That same study showed that outdoor cats have quite a substantial home range – as large as 1351 acres, though the average is just 4.9 acres. Even applying that average across the board, to 2.7 billion cats that gets you to 20.7 billion square miles – over a third of all the land area on Earth.

So let’s assume substantial overlap – even if you assume 100 cats per home range, that still gets you to 200 million square miles, 5-6 times the size of the United States. To get all those cats into, say, Wyoming, you’d have a density of 27,602 cats/square mile – which is shockingly close to the human density, 27,779 people/square mile, of New York City.

Wyoming, in other words, would look like this:

everybody! everybody! everybody wants to be a cat!

And it turns out Wyoming land isn’t cheap –  if you apply  the $450/acre for ranch land quoted in this article, over $28 billion.

Of course, total land value in the United States is probably over $15 trillion at this point so we could just have a land standard. That would be a lot easier. A whole lot easier…

 

 

 

Than herding cats.

damn right i went there

 

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I’ve been working on collecting some longer thoughts on Piketty’s book now that I’ve finished it (so yes, keep your eyes open for that) and in the meantime I’ve been having fun/getting distracted by playing around with his data, and especially the data from his paper with Gabriel Zucman, which, you know, read, then play too.

One thing I realized as I was going through is that Piketty and Zucman may have incidentally provided a new route to answer an old question – were America to at last make reparations for the vast and terrible evil of slavery, how much would or should the total be?

What is that route? Well, they provide certain annual estimates of the aggregate market value of all slaves in the United States from 1770 through abolition:

slavespikettyzucman

As you can see, the amount was persistently and stunningly high right through abolition.

Now, without wading too much into heck who am I kidding diving headfirst into the endlessly-resurrected Cambridge Capital Controversy, the price of capital is determined in large part by the income it generates; so the market value of an enslaved person was an implicit statement about the expected income that slaveholders receive from the forced labor of their prisoners. So we can (by imputing the intervening annual values in their time-series, which I did linearly, which may not be a great assumption but it’s what I did so there it is) compute the real aggregate dollar market value of slaves from 1776-1860, then impute the annual income produced by, and stolen from, America’s slaves. For that, I used 4%, being conservative with Piketty’s 4-5% range.

Then you have two more steps: firstly, you have to select a discount rate in order to compute the present value of the total of that income on the eve of the Civil War in 1860; then you have to select a discount rate to compound that through 2014.

Well, that’s where things get interesting. For now, let’s pick 1% for both of those discount rates (which I am doing for a reason, as you will see). That makes the value in 1860 of all the income stolen by the Slave Power since the Declaration of Independence said liberty was inalienable roughly $378 billion*. That $378 billion, compounded at 1% annually for 154 years, is worth just about $1.75 trillion.

But those discount rates are both low – really, really low, in fact. Lower than the rate of economic growth, the rate of return on capital, and lower than the discount rate used by the government. When you increase those discount rates, though, you start to get some very, very, very large numbers. If you increase just the pre-1860 discount rate to 4%, for example, the 1860 figure leaps to over a trillion dollars, which even at a discount rate of 1% thereafter still comes to well over four-and-a-half trillion dollars today. Even vaster is the increase that comes from increasing the post-1860 rate, even if you leave the pre-1860 rate at 1%. At 2%, today’s bill comes due at just under $8 trillion; at 3%, $35 trillion; at the government’s rate of 7%, it comes to over $12.5 quadrillion. That’s over six times the entire income of the planet since 1950, a number that even if we concluded it was just – and given the incalculable and incomparable horror of slavery as practiced in the antebellum United States, it’s difficult to say any amount of material reparation is adequately just – is in practice impossible to pay.

There are three conclusions I think are worth considering from the above analysis:

1) First and foremost, slavery was a crime beyond comparison or comprehension, since compounded by our collective failure to not only to make right the crime as best we are able but to not even make the attempt (not to mention Jim Crow and all the related evils it encompasses).

2) Compound interest is a powerful force. Mathematically, obviously; but also morally. These large numbers my spreadsheet is producing are not neutral exercises – they are telling us something not only about the magnitude of the grave injustice of slavery but also the injustice of failing, year after year, to begin to pay down our massive debt to those whose exploitation and suffering was our economic backbone. And that only refers to our material debt; our moral debt, although never fully repayable, grows in the absence of substantive recognition (or the presence of regressive anti-recognition).

3) Discount rates tell us a lot about how we we see our relation to our past and our future. The Stern Review, the widely-discussed report that recommended relatively large and rapid reductions in carbon emissions, became notable in good part because it triggered a debate about the proper discount rate we should use in assessing the costs and benefits of climate change policy. Bill Nordhaus, hardly a squish on the issue, notably took the report for task for using a very low discount rate – effectively, just over 1% on average.

It is hard to crystallize precisely the panoply of philosophical implications of how discount rates interact differently with different kinds of problems. In the case of climate change, a low discount rate implies that we today should place a relatively higher value on the costs future generations will suffer as a consequence of our activity, sufficiently high that we should be willing to bear large costs to forestall them. Commensurately, however, a low discount rate also implies a lower sensitivity to the costs borne by past generations, relative to the benefits received today. High discount rates, of course, imply the inverse in both situations – a greater sensitivity to the burden of present costs on future generations and the burden of past costs on present generations.

There is no consensus – and that is putting it lightly – over what discount rates are appropriate for what situations and analysis, and whether discount rates are even appropriate at all. And when we decide on how to approach policies whose hands stretch deeply into our past or future, it is worth considering what these choices, superficially dry and mathematical, say not just about inputs and outputs, but also the nature of our relationship to the generations that preceded us and those that will follow.

Data attached:

piketty slave reparations

*2010 dollars throughout.

So late last year Matt Yglesias found a simple and concise way to create a good-enough estimate of the value of all privately-held American land, using the Fed’s Z1. He did not, however, go on to take the most-obvious next step, which was to use FRED to compile all the relevant series to calculate the entire time-series.

I have taken that bold step. Behold – the real value in present dollars of all privately held American land since FY 1951:

it's good to have land

Oh, look – a housing bubble!

But because this is the Age of Piketty, why stop there? Thanks to the magic of the internet and spreadsheets, all of the data Piketty relied on in his book is freely available – and perhaps even more importantly, so is all the data Piketty and Zucman compiled in writing “Capital is Back,” which may be even more comprehensive and interesting. So using that data, I was able to calculate land as a share of national income from 1950-2012. Check it out*:

 this land is my land; it isn't your land

 

Oh look – a housing bubble!

And why stop there? We know from reading our Piketty that the capital-to-income ratio increased substantially during that time, so let’s calculate the land share of national capital:

 

image (5)

Oh look – a…two housing bubbles?

It’s hard to know what to make of this at first glance, but after two decades steadily comprising a quarter of national capital, land grew over another two decades to nearly a third of it; and after a steep drop to under a fifth of national capital in less than a decade, just about as quickly rebounded, then plummeted even faster to under a fifth again.

So the question must be asked – why didn’t we notice the first real estate bubble, just as large (though not as rapidly inflated) as the first? There are two answers.

The first answer is – we did! Read this piece from 1990 – 1990! – about the “emotional toll” of the collapse in housing prices. Or all these other amazing pieces from the amazing New York Times archive documenting the ’80s housing bubble and the collapse in prices at the turn of the ’90s.

The second answer is – to the extent we didn’t, or didn’t really remember it, it’s because it didn’t torch the global financial system. Which clarifies a very important fact about what happened to the American economy in the late aughties – what happened involved a housing bubble, but wasn’t fundamentally about or caused by a housing bubble.

For context, here’s the homeownership rate for the United States:

get off my property

 

The 00’s housing bubble clearly involved bringing a lot of people into homeownership in a way the 80’s bubble did not; that bubble, in fact, peaked even as homeownership rates had declined.

There are a lot of lessons to learn about the 00s bubble, about debt and leverage and fraud and inequality, but the lesson not to learn – or, perhaps, to unlearn – is that a bubble and its eventual popping, regardless of the asset under consideration, is a sufficient condition of a broader economic calamity. Now, it does seem clear that the 80s housing bubble was in key ways simply smaller in magnitude than the previous one; it represented a 50% increase as a ratio to national income rather than the doubling experienced in the aughties even though both saw land increase similarly relative to capital. But there have been – and, no matter the stance of regulatory or, shudder, monetary policy, will continue to be – bubbles in capitalist economies. The policy goal we should be interested in is not preventing bubbles but building economic structures and institutions that are resilient to that fact of life in financialized post-industrial capitalism.

*Piketty and Zucman only provide national income up through 2010, so I had to impute 2011-2012 from other data with a few relatively banal assumptions.

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