Sunday, January 13, 2013

Guns in the short-run, and the long-run

Economists like to focus on the short run because, like Yogi Berra said, "prediction is hard, especially about the future."

Economics is a very imperfect science so its easier to focus on the near future. At best you can run an experiment and, say, offer to pay people's taxes for a year and see how it impacts their income. If not you might be able to find a natural experiment that answers your question of interest--maybe a country temporarily lowered taxes for a while--but the laws will probably change again shortly after, so you'll probably only figure out how people respond to the tax cut over a short time period. And in any event it will be hard to figure out how the economy as a whole might respond since all these kinds of studies will have some people affected by the change and some people not.

But the thing is, for a lot of policy questions, the most important thing is the long run. A lot of debate about the optimal tax level focuses on whether people work harder than taxes are temporarily lower: will people work more hours because of the Bush tax cuts? A lot more? Will they not really care? The answer is mostly that they will work a little bit more.

The catch is that, as Greg Mankiw likes to note, how people respond in the long run might be very different. In the long run people can adjust what professions they choose, where they live, what kind of house to buy, and even social norms long how many days of the week are work days and how many hours a week is "full-time" can change. In all likelihood, the amount of work people do will probably respond more to taxes in the long run than the short run since more variables are free to vary.

That is one explanation often cited for why cross-country evidence suggests taxes matter so much for work. Americans have lower taxes than Europeans and work more hours and within Europe countries with lower taxes work more as well. Those comparisons are between countries that have reached an equilibrium in adjusting their social norms, conventions, and aspirations to their tax laws.

The title of this post says this is about guns, not taxes, so what is the link?

Well, as with taxes, gun research tends to focus on the short run and isolated areas. We can look at what happens when a city changes a law and another city does not. Maybe we could even measure gun violence in FL before they passed a gun control law and after and compare that to what happened in Georgia which didn't pass a law. Most of the public debate about gun control focuses on the short run too. Criminals will still have guns, at least for a while, with so many guns available and accessible, so people need to be able to arm as well.

In the long run, though, everything is different. In the long run total elimination of gun rights is almost surely going to make everyone safer. Criminals won't have guns. No one will have guns perhaps the police. As with taxes, I'm told, the cross-country evidence which compares countries in their new post-gun equilibria show exactly what you would expect: gun control lowers crime.

The public debate fixates on the short run but it should be considering the long run. The short run impact of gun control is probably to make us all safer, but if criminals take advantage of the decline in gun ownership maybe it won't. That is a big if, but a convincing if to a country that is by and large pretty paranoid (hi, Mom!). But in the long run gun control will almost surely make the U.S. safer and the more of it we have, the safer we will be.

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