Nick Rowe, exemplary professor of economics

December 25th, 2018

Carleton University professor Nick Rowe received a well-deserved tribute, on his retirement from teaching, in The Economist magazine. I was fortunate to have known him as a colleague, but regret that I never had the opportunity to enroll in one of his macroeconomics courses. Sadly for me, he completed his PhD in 1985, long after I did. Current and future generations of economists will also miss the opportunity of learning from him. But all of us can continue to benefit from reading his many posts online at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative (WCI).

Professors may find themselves ill-prepared for the macro classroom. To become academics they had to answer erudite questions posed by more senior members of the discipline. To become good teachers of introductory macro, they have to give clear answers to muddled students. That requires an intuitive feel for the subject. It is not enough to crank through the equations.

Indeed, Mr Rowe attributes part of his success as a teacher to his shortcomings as a mathematician. He quotes Joan Robinson, another clear expositor of macroeconomics: “I never learned maths, so I had to think.” Because the answers did not leap out at him from the equations, he had to dwell on the economic behaviour underneath the algebra.

Anonymous, “Mangonomics“, The Economist, 9 August 2018.

universal pensions and retirement savings in New Zealand

November 25th, 2018

New Zealand has a simple, very successful pension system that could serve as a model for other countries. Unfortunately, despite its simplicity, few understand how the system works. The Government of Ireland, which is reforming its system, is an example of this misunderstanding, Susan St John points out.

New Zealand recently added an auto-enrolment, voluntary savings scheme, known as KiwiSaver, to its pension system. KiwiSaver has many shortcomings, is fiscally costly, and and is considered by many to be unnecessary since nearly all residents of New Zealand are guaranteed a basic old-age pension for life. Read the rest of this entry »

universal vs targeted transfers

November 11th, 2018

Two Boston economists, Rema Hanna from Harvard and Benjamin A. Olken from MIT, have drafted a paper on basic incomes for the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a publication of the American Economic Association. They argue that, though a universal basic income (UBI) might be appropriate for wealthy countries, it is not appropriate for developing countries.

The paper is well-written, but fails to support their thesis. In fact, drawing on a phrase from William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, they “hoist themselves with their own petard”.  A “petard” is a small bomb. Shakespeare, writing in the singular, referred to a case in which a bomb-maker is blown up (“hoisted”) with his own bomb. The phrase came to be used more generally, to indicate ironic reversal or poetic justice.

My point is simple: the text of the paper provides abundant evidence that universal incomes should be preferred to transfers that are limited to the poor. Read the rest of this entry »

universal pensions in Georgia

November 4th, 2018

The Social Security Administration (SSA) of the USA informs us that Georgia, a former member of the Soviet Union, will require workers to contribute up to 6% of their wages to private pension funds beginning January 2019. Georgia is adding a second tier to its first tier: a universal, government-financed pension of 180 tlari [US$69] a month for men from age 65 and women from age 60. The SSA describes this as a “subsistence-level benefit”, but Georgia is a poor country, so the pension amounts to about 20% of per capita GDP. In the US, a benefit equal to this portion of per capita GDP would be nearly one thousand US dollars a month. Read the rest of this entry »

Priests, Mounties and poverty in indigenous Canada

October 31st, 2018

Maria Campbell’s memoir, Halfbreed, is short (157 pages) and free-flowing. It is a shocking, true account of what it is like to grow up poor and mixed-race in Canada. The book today is read almost universally by school children in Canada. Read the rest of this entry »

targeting old age benefits in the Philippines

October 17th, 2018

The older persons of Bangued, a city with a population of nearly 50,000 and capital of the Philippine province of Abra, celebrated this year’s National Elderly Week by questioning government officials on distribution of benefits intended for the poor, in accord with the Expanded Senior Citizens Act of 2010. The targeting is by household, regardless of whether individual members of the household receive adequate care and nutrition. Even with perfect targeting, many senior citizens would be left in poverty. And the targeting is far from perfect. Read the rest of this entry »

universal age pensions for India

October 8th, 2018

This is one of the best, concise essays I have seen in defence of universal age pensions. The author, Prabhat Patnaik, is an Indian economist known to be a Marxist, but I see nothing Marxist in this essay. Since the newspaper link may not last long, I have taken the liberty of sharing with TdJ readers an edited version that is about half as long as the original. To download and read the full essay, click on the link below. Read the rest of this entry »

universal pensions in India?

September 28th, 2018

Assam, a state in Northeast India with a population of more than 31 million, on October 2nd will launch universal pensions for residents 60 years of age or older. Read the rest of this entry »

Frank Field on universal pensions

September 24th, 2018

The British politician Frank Field, on the 70th anniversary of the famous Beveridge report that established a welfare state in his country, expressed very clearly my own views regarding the important but limited role of government in provision of old age pensions: there should be a universal pension for everyone of pensionable age, financed from general government revenue, regardless of the income or wealth of a beneficiary. Everyone is free to supplement this basic pension with his or her own savings, or wages from working beyond the official state retirement age.

This system, though simple, is rarely put into practice. Read the rest of this entry »

towards universal pensions in the Philippines

September 10th, 2018

A Philippine Senator has introduced a bill in Congress to double the social pension for his elderly countrymen and remove the means test, leaving only a pension test. If his bill passes, every resident aged 60 years and older without access to a contributory pension will receive a monthly benefit of one thousand Philippine pesos (approximately 18.50 US dollars). Pension coverage, currently 72% of the country’s senior citizens, would increase to 100%.

The proposed social pension is far below the poverty line (8,378 pesos a month in 2014), but would mark a beginning towards guaranteed basic pensions for all in the Philippines. Read the rest of this entry »