Alex Tabarrok

Some Good News on Patents

by on October 29, 2014 at 12:45 pm in Economics, Law | Permalink

Further evidence of a dramatic slowdown in patent litigation activity in the United States is provided today in data published by Unified Patents, the entity whose business is based on helping SMEs fight frivolous patent suits. According to the research, which covers the third quarter of this year (June to September),  there was a 23% drop in the number of suits filed compared to the second quarter, and a 27% year-on-year reduction.

The findings come just weeks after data released by Lex Machina showed that there had been a 40% fall in patent suits in September 2014 as compared to the same month in the previous year. Commenting to IAM on the reasons for the decline, Lex Machina founder Professor Mark Lemley claimed that much of it could be attributed to the Supreme Court’s Alice v CLS decision. The Alice judgment was handed down towards the end of June.

More here.

Alice has made a difference as well as the cheaper post-grant challenge procedure in the AIA. Once the first software patents make it through, however, there will be an uptick as people learn the new system. Still this is good news especially for software patents but we have a way to go on the larger issue of IP, including copyright.

Here is the updated “Tabarrok curve“.

Tabarrok Curve

Most secessionist movements want independence. But a small group in Sardinia, the beautiful island off Italy’s coast has another idea for secession.

sardinie2Angered by a system they say has squandered economic potential and disenfranchised the ordinary citizen, they have had enough. They want Rome to sell their island to the Swiss.

“People laugh when we say we should go to become part of Switzerland. That’s to be expected,” said Andrea Caruso, co-founder of the Canton Marittimo (Maritime Canton) movement.

While many have dismissed the proposal as a joke, its supporters insist they are serious. “The madness does not lie in putting forward this kind of suggestion,” said Caruso. “The madness lies in how things are now.”

The Sardinians are not mad. As with Charter Cities the idea is that if you can’t move to good rules then have the good rules move to you. Charter city proponents, however, are focused on relatively uninhabited areas to avoid political problems but the Sardinians are inviting new rules and rulers. In the United States, firms can choose which state to incorporate in and thus which of 50 packages of laws will govern the relations between their shareholders and managers. Why not let cities, states and regions adopt wholesale a package of laws that will govern them? Competitive federalism on a world scale.

 Sicily, for instance, employs 28,000 forestry police — more than Canada — and has 950 ambulance drivers who have no ambulances to drive.

More here on the general state of decline in Italy.

Digital Non-Cash

by on October 24, 2014 at 7:29 am in Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink

In the United States we are using advanced technology like fingerprint scans to pay for goods. In Venezuela they are using advanced technology like fingerprint scans to ration goods. Here is the WSJ:

Amid worsening shortages, Venezuela recently reached a milestone of dubious distinction: It has joined the ranks of North Korea and Cuba in rationing food for its citizens.

…Under the system in place here, basic price-controlled items—including milk, rice, coffee, toothpaste, chicken and detergent—are rationed, with the fingerprinting machine used to ensure that a shopper doesn’t return over and over to stock up.

The stark contrast between our advanced technology and our primitive ethics has often been noted. Our advanced technology also stands in stark contrast to our primitive economics. Sadly, the problem is not only in Venezuela. Here is the WSJ (!) “explaining” the shortages:

Venezuela is turning to rationing because of shortages caused by what economists call a toxic mix of unproductive local industry—hamstrung by nationalizations and government intervention—and a complex currency regime that is unable to provide the dollars importers need to pay for basics.

No, no, no, a thousand times no! (And I very much doubt that is what the economists told the reporter.) Nationalizations, the currency regime, unproductive industry, Venezuela has many problems but shortages are caused by price controls.

Check out this wonderful photograph and the face of the customer.

Venezuela

A Real Life Milgram Experiment

by on October 23, 2014 at 7:30 am in Education, Film, Science | Permalink

This amazing video, introduced by Philip Zimbardo, discusses a real world Milgram “experiment” in which people obeyed an authority figure to an astounding degree, even when the authority figure was just on the telephone.

The video comes from the Heroic Imagination Project which hopes to use the results of social psychology to help people to take effective action in challenging situations. More videos on obedience to authority, including from Milgram’s experiment, can be found in the resource section along with other social psychology videos and other interesting materials.

Here is one more, this time a little lighter, an experiment in which people find themselves unexpectedly married:

Kevin Vallier, a philosopher, considers on Facebook the optimal journal submission strategy:

I was implicitly assuming the best strategy was to start with the best journals, receive rejections, and then work my way down, lest my piece get accepted by a sub-par journal first. But now I’m thinking it may make more sense to start from “the bottom” or at least mid-tier journals and work my way “up” if I can assume that my pieces will generally be rejected several times, even by the mid-tier journals. I think I was overestimating the risk of publishing my work in mid-tier journals and underestimating how much rejections can improve the quality of the paper. In light of this, I want to construct a “journal ladder” that political philosophers and political theorists can “climb” towards the best journals. 

Let’s put some numbers on this to see what makes sense. The expected utility from submitting to a high quality journal first is:

HighFirst = Ph* HV + (1 – Ph)*(Pl*mult)* 1

The first term, Ph*HV is the probability of acceptance at a high quality journal times the value of acceptance at a high quality journal. If the paper is rejected, which happens with probability (1-Ph), then you go to a low-quality journal where the paper is accepted with probability Pl times the multiplier which you get because of suggestions and comments from the referees at the high quality journal. The value of the low-quality journal is set to 1 so HV>=1.

Now what about low first:

LowFirst = Pl*1 + (1 – Pl) (Ph*mult)*HV

if you submit to the low quality journal and are accepted you get Pl*1, if the low quality journal rejects which will happen with probability (1-Pl) you submit to the high quality journal which accepts with probability Ph*mult and if accepted you get HV.

Now let’s put some numbers on this. The probability of acceptance at a high quality journal is 5-10%. The rate at the AER in recent years, for example, has been about 7.5%. Let’s say 10% and for a low-quality journal 20%. These rates are conditional on being the type of paper that is submitted to the AER not any random paper. (These rates are also reasonable for philosophy journals.). What’s the value of HV, the high quality journal relative to the low quality journal? Let’s say between 1 (equally valuable) and 10. And the multiplier? 1.5 would be very generous. 1.1 might be reasonable on average, 1.2 if you are lucky. Given these numbers let’s consider LowFirst-HighFirst so positive numbers mean that the LowFirst strategy is better, negative numbers that the HighFirst strategy is better. Here’s what we get:

OptimalStrat

The way to read this is that if the multiplier is a hefty 1.5 then LowFirst is superior to HighFirst if a high quality journal has a value of at least 3.5 (relative to the low quality journal at 1). If the multiplier is 1.3, however, then LowFirst is optimal only if the high quality journal is more than 8 times as valuable as the low-quality journal. And for a multiplier of 1.2 LowFirst is never optimal.

Thus the LowFirst strategy is better the higher the relative value of a high-quality journal, the bigger the multiplier and also the lower the acceptance rate at the low quality journal . The lower the acceptance rate at the low-quality journal the lower the cost of submitting it there in order to earn the multiplier.

I conclude that the high-value first strategy is usually optimal. All the more so since there are good substitutes for submitting to a low quality journal. Namely, submit the paper to a conference, circulate the paper to friends, enemies (especially) and others to get comments. The multiplier with this approach will be at least as large as with the submission approach and the opportunity cost will be lower.

Charles Murray on Ayn Rand

by on October 19, 2014 at 7:30 am in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

Charles Murray has a good piece on Ayn Rand, critical in parts but especially insightful about why Rand’s books continue to be so inspirational and influential:

Ayn RandRand expressed the glory of human achievement. She tapped into the delight a human being ought to feel at watching another member of our species doing things superbly well. The scenes in “The Fountainhead” in which the hero, Howard Roark, realizes his visions of architectural truth are brilliant evocations of human creativity at work. But I also loved scenes like the one in “Atlas Shrugged” when protagonist Dagny Taggart is in the cab of the locomotive on the first run on the John Galt line, going at record speed, and glances at the engineer:

He sat slumped forward a little, relaxed, one hand resting lightly on the throttle as if by chance; but his eyes were fixed on the track ahead. He had the ease of an expert, so confident that it seemed casual, but it was the ease of a tremendous concentration, the concentration on one’s task that has the ruthlessness of an absolute.

That’s a heroic vision of a blue-collar worker doing his job. There are many others. Critics often accuse Rand of portraying a few geniuses as the only people worth valuing. That’s not what I took away from her. I saw her celebrating people who did their work well and condemning people who settled for less, in great endeavors or small; celebrating those who took responsibility for their lives, and condemning those who did not. That sounded right to me in 1960 and still sounds right in 2010.

Second, Ayn Rand portrayed a world I wanted to live in, not because I would be rich or powerful in it, but because it consisted of people I wanted to be around. As conditions deteriorate in “Atlas Shrugged,” the first person to quit in disgust at Hank Rearden’s steel mill is Tom Colby, head of the company union:

For ten years, he had heard himself denounced throughout the country, because his was a ‘company union’ and because he had never engaged in a violent conflict with the management. This was true; no conflict had ever been necessary; Rearden paid a higher wage scale than any union scale in the country, for which he demanded—and got—the best labor force to be found anywhere.

That’s not a world of selfishness or greed. It’s a world of cooperation and mutual benefit through the pursuit of self-interest, enabling satisfying lives not only for the Hank Reardens of the world but for factory workers. I still want to live there.

…In scene after scene, Rand shows what such a community would be like, and it does not consist of isolated individualists holding one another at arm’s length. Individualists, yes, but ones who have fun in one another’s company, care about one another, and care for one another—not out of obligation, but out of mutual respect and spontaneous affection.

Ayn Rand never dwelt on her Russian childhood, preferring to think of herself as wholly American. Rightly so. The huge truths she apprehended and expressed were as American as apple pie. I suppose hardcore Objectivists will consider what I’m about to say heresy, but hardcore Objectivists are not competent to judge. The novels are what make Ayn Rand important. Better than any other American novelist, she captured the magic of what life in America is supposed to be. The utopia of her novels is not a utopia of greed. It is not a utopia of Nietzschean supermen. It is a utopia of human beings living together in Jeffersonian freedom.

Also worth reading is this superb piece by Robert Tracinsiki, All an Ayn Rand Hero Really Wants is Love.

California’s Water Shortage

by on October 16, 2014 at 7:30 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

In the 1970s the US faced a serious shock to the supply of oil but the shortage of oil was caused by price controls. Today, California is facing a serious water drought but the shortage of water is caused by price controls, subsidies and the lack of water markets. In an excellent column, The Risks of Cheap Water, Eduardo Porter writes:

Water is far too cheap across most American cities and towns. But what’s worse is the way the United States quenches the thirst of farmers, who account for 80 percent of the nation’s water consumption and for whom water costs virtually nothing….

Farmers in California’s Imperial Irrigation District pay $20 per acre-foot, less than a tenth of what it can cost in San Diego….This kind of arrangement helps explain why about half the 60 million acres of irrigated land in the United States use flood irrigation, just flooding the fields with water, which is about as wasteful a method as there is.

Tyler and I discuss water subsidies in Modern Principles:

Farmers use the subsidized water to transform desert into prime agricultural
land. But turning a California desert into cropland makes about as much sense
as building greenhouses in Alaska! America already has plenty of land on which
cotton can be grown cheaply. Spending billions of dollars to dam rivers and
transport water hundreds of miles to grow a crop that can be grown more cheaply
in Georgia is a waste of resources, a deadweight loss. The water used to grow California cotton, for example, has much higher value producing silicon chips in
San Jose or as drinking water in Los Angeles than it does as irrigation water.

The waste of subsidized water is compounded by over 100 years of rent-seeking and a resulting legal morass that makes trading water extremely difficult (see Aquanomics for a good analysis). A water trading system is slowly taking form in the American West but the political transaction costs are immense. Australia, however, faced similar difficulties but has managed to develop a good water trading system and Chile has long had a robust market in water. Subsidies to farmers are politically sustainable when everyone has as much water as they want but when faced with continued shortages and an ever-intrusive water Stasi consumers and industry may eventually demand a more rational, less wasteful system based on incentives, markets and prices.

Tivo and Netflix ought to have been made other entertainment more popular and football less popular as a form of entertainment but instead more people are watching football than ever before. Gabriel Rossman asks why?

We can start with a few basic technological shifts, specifically the DVR and broadband internet. Both technologies have the effect that people are watching fewer commercials. From this we can infer that advertisers will have a pronounced preference for “DVR-proof” advertising.

….In practice getting people to watch spot advertising means programming that has to be watched live and in practice that in turn means sports. Thus it is entirely predictable that advertisers will pay a premium for sports. It is also predictable that the cable industry will pay a premium for sports because must-watch ephemera is a good insurance policy against cord-cutting. Moreover, as a straight-forward Ricardian rent type issue, we would predict that this increased demand would accrue to the owners of factor inputs: athletes, team owners, and (in the short-run) the owners of cable channels with contracts to carry sports content. Indeed this has basically all happened….

Here’s something else that is entirely predictable from these premises: we should have declining viewership for sports….If you’re the marginal viewer who ex ante finds sports and scripted equally compelling, it seems like as sports get more expensive and you keep having to watch ads, whereas scripted gets dirt cheap, ad-free, and generally more convenient, the marginal viewer would give up sports, watch last season’s episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix, be blissfully unaware of major advertising campaigns, and pocket the $50 difference between a basic cable package and a $10 Netflix subscription.

…The weird thing is that this latter prediction didn’t happen. During exactly the same period over which sports got more expensive in absolute terms and there was declining direct cost and hassle for close substitutes, viewership for sports increased. From 2003 to 2013, sports viewership was up 27%. Or rather, baseball isn’t doing so great and basketball is holding its own, but holy moly, people love football. If you look at both the top events and top series on tv, it’s basically football, football, some other crap, and more football…. I just can’t understand how when one thing gets more expensive and something else that’s similar gets a lot cheaper and lower hassle, that you see people flocking to the thing that is absolutely more hassle and relatively more money.

It’s a good question. Demographics don’t appear to explain the change. Football skews young, male and black but none of these are undergoing rapid increase. (It’s the aged that are undergoing high growth rates but it’s baseball that appeals more to the old and that isn’t doing great). Fantasy football is big but is it cause or effect?

One possibility is that precisely because there are so few common events to coordinate on, the ones that do coordinate become more important. Why football and not baseball or basketball? Why not? It’s not hard to spin stories but it may also be that random advantages snowballed.

Other theories?

Discover Cosmic Rays with your SmartPhone

by on October 14, 2014 at 9:44 am in Science | Permalink

This is one of the stories that I had to double check to make sure it wasn’t a hoax but it does check out. Here’s the background:

[R]esearchers from the University of California have drafted a paper in which they describe testing whether a smartphone camera can detect high energy photons and particles of the sort produced by cosmic rays. Testing with radioactive isotopes of radium, cobalt, and cesium showed that the detector easily picked up gamma rays (and you didn’t even have to point the phones at the source!). They also put a phone inside a lead box and showed that they could detect high energy particles. Finally, they took a phone up on a commercial flight and were able to obtain a particle track across the detector.

With everything looking good, they made some software, called CRAYFIS, for cosmic rays found in smartphones (why they didn’t add “and handhelds,” I’m not sure). When your phone is inactive and plugged in for charging, CRAYFIS monitors the camera, looking for signs of high-energy items striking the detector. The authors calculate that if they can get 1,000 active cell phones within a square kilometer, they’ll be able to detect nearly all of the high energy cosmic rays that strike the atmosphere above it despite the low efficiency of each individual detector.

You can find out more about the science and sign up your smartphone here.

There are now some 1.75 billion smartphone users in the world and soon there will be many more. That’s an astounding amount of computing power distributed over most of the world’s surface and it’s computing power that is capable of reaching out to the world around it to measure, monitor, test and connect.

Although not central to his work, one of my favorite papers of today’s Nobel prize winner, Jean Tirole, is Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation (written with Roland Benabou). In this paper, Tirole and Benabou try to resolve the economist’s intuition that incentives motivate with the idea from psychology that incentive schemes can sometimes demotivate. The psychologists argue that extrinsic motivation can reduce intrinsic motivation (but they are not at all clear on why this should be the case). Tirole and Benabou try to produce a similar finding by arguing that in addition to providing motivation an incentive scheme gives the agent, the one being incentivized, some information and the information may undermine the motivation.

For example, if I tell my son.  “If you get an A in math, I will give you $1000.”  What does my son conclude?

  • My father must think math is very important for my future to offer me $1000.  My father is smart.  I will work hard.

This is the message that I hope to send. But my son knows that I know something about math and also that I know something about him and he may use this knowledge to make a very different inference.

  • If my father thinks I need $1000 to get an A, math must be very hard or I must lack talent.  I will work for an A this year but next year I should probably not sign up for advanced math classes.

Or perhaps he infers

  • If my father is offering me $1000 to do the right thing , he must not trust my judgment.

Or perhaps

  • My father is trying to use his money to control me.  I rebel!

Thus reward has two effects a pure incentive effect (holding information constant) and an inference effect. Notice that the inference effect depends on the context. Thus, without knowing the context–how the father gets along with the son and their history of interaction–we can’t know what the effect of the “incentive” will be. Thus I have argued that “an incentive is not an objective fact but a subjective interpretation.”

I’m not convinced that Tirole and Benabou have the right answer on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation but thus and other papers indicate Tirole’s broadness of thought and his characteristic approach to issues.

By the way, working out the equilibrium in these games is not at all easy because the principal knows the agent will infer information about the characteristic from the reward structure and the agent knows the principal knows that the agent will infer information about the characteristic from the reward structure and so on – thus we have a Moriarty problem and must look for conditions such that there can be an equilibrium in which everything is common knowledge. But heh, if these problem were easy you wouldn’t get a Nobel prize for solving them!

See Tyler’s post and my other posts below for much more on Tirole.

Jean Tirole and Platform Markets

by on October 13, 2014 at 7:54 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

Today’s Nobel prize winner in economics, Jean Tirole (working with Rochet) is a pioneer in one of the most important new areas in the economy and economics, the study of platform markets. Platform markets, also called two-sided markets, are markets where a firm brings together two or more sides both of whom benefit by the existence of the platform and both of whom may (or may not) be charged. A trivial but telling example is the singles bar that brings together men and (usually) women. Other examples are the Xbox, a platform for game players and game developers, credit cards a platform for buyers and firms that accept that card, newspapers a platform for readers and advertisers, and malls a platform for customers and stores to meet. An important example for the internet age is that Google is a platform of search users and advertisers.

An key difficulty in these markets is that the price charged to one side of the market influences the demand on the other side of the market. The price a newspaper charges to readers, for example, influences the number of readers but that in turn influences the price that the advertisers, the other side of the market, are willing to pay to advertise in the newspaper. It further often happens that one side of the market is harder to “get” than the other and so the profit-maximizing prices on the two sides of the market are very different. One side of the market may even be “subsidized.” The price that newspapers charge readers, for example, is often much less than the cost of the newspaper. Or, to give another example, Microsoft makes money by selling its Xbox at close to cost or even below cost and charging game developers a fee for the right to write games for the Xbox and a royalty rate on their sales. Google finds it optimal to give its services away for free and just charge one side, the advertisers, for being on the platform.

Antitrust and regulation of two-sided markets is challenging because the two sets of prices may look discriminatory or unfair even when they are welfare enhancing. In a mall, for example, it’s often the largest firm (the anchor) that gets the lowest price (sometimes even zero!). Does this represent an unfair advantage that a large firm has over smaller rivals or is it a rational consequence of the fact that the anchor store may bring the most customers to the other, smaller stores in the mall so that the total package is welfare maximizing? Is Microsoft engaging in predatory pricing if it prices the Xbox at or below cost? A singles bar may have “ladies are free night”. Sexist? or good economics? Platform markets mean that pricing at marginal cost can no longer be considered optimal in every market and pricing above marginal cost can no longer be considered as an indication of monopoly power. The analysis also impacts such issues as network neutrality. People worry, for example, that firms like Netflix may be the anchor stores of the internet and get better prices as a result. But the analysis of platform markets suggests that this isn’t necessarily welfare reducing. As these examples indicate is easy to go wrong regulation these markets and in fact Rochet and Tirole urge caution in regulating platform markets.

Rochet and Tirole provide one of earliest and most important analyses of pricing in these types of markets (see also here for an overview).

See Tyler’s post below for much more on Tirole.

Graduate students in economics will instantly know Jean Tirole from his textbook, The Theory of Industrial Organization. In this textbook, Tirole brought game theory to the study of industrial organization–the study of firm behavior in different market structures (competition, duopoly, oligopoly, monopoly). First published in 1988 this textbook has been the dominant one in the field since that time. (Tirole has also written excellent advanced textbooks in game theory and finance which together have made him one of the most influential teachers of graduate students everywhere). The new game theory provided new answers and new questions. We can see in this prize the continued working out of the game theory revolution in different areas in economics. First the prizes went to the founders (Nash, Selten, Aumann, Schelling) and then to applications of the new theory in different areas (Hurwicz, Maskin and Myerson for mechanism design, Vickrey for auctions). This is probably the last one in this line as behavioral approaches take over and game theory runs out of steam.

How to Discount Pension Funds

by on October 12, 2014 at 12:17 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

The NYTimes has a good piece on the Dutch pension system which is characterized by sober calculation.

The Dutch central bank also imposed a rigorous method for measuring the current value of all pensions due in the future. Pensions are not supposed to be risky, Governors_of_the_Wine_Merchant's_Guildso the Dutch measure them the same way the market prices very safe bonds, like Treasuries — that is, by discounting the future payments to today’s dollars with a very low interest rate. This method shows that a stable lifelong benefit is very valuable, and therefore very expensive to fund.

Notably, the Dutch central bank prohibited the measurement method that virtually all American states and cities use, which is based on the hope that strong market gains on pension investments will make the benefits cheaper. A significant downside to this method is that it lets pension systems take advantage of market gains today, but pushes the risk of losses into the future, for others to cope with. “We had lengthy discussions about this in the Netherlands,” said Theo Kocken, an economist who teaches at the Free University in Amsterdam and is the founder of Cardano, a risk analysis firm. “But all economists now agree. The expected-return approach is a huge economic offense, hurting younger generations.”

Economists agree, the Dutch are correct. We know with high certainty the payments that pension funds will have to make in the future so they should be discounted at a relatively low, risk-free rate. Discounting at a risky rate implies that we can fund these pensions with risky assets but as I pointed out in Average Returns Aren’t Average most investors won’t achieve the average return (see also John Cochrane on this point) so the American system practically guarantees that lots of pension funds will run into severe problems.

Online education continues to expand rapidly:

WASHINGTON—Saying the option is revolutionizing the way the nation’s 3- and 4-year-olds prepare for the grade school years ahead, a Department of Education report released Thursday confirmed that an increasing number of U.S. toddlers are now attending online preschool. “We found that a growing number of American toddlers are eschewing the traditional brick-and-mortar preschools in favor of sitting down in front of a computer screen for four hours a day and furthering their early psychosocial development in a virtual environment,” said the report’s author, Dr. Stephen Forrest, who said that the affordability and flexibility characteristic of online pre-primary education are what make the option most appealing, allowing young children to learn their shapes and colors on a schedule that works best for them. “With access to their Show-And-Tell message boards, recess timers, and live webcams of class turtle tanks, most toddlers are finding that they can receive the same experience of traditional preschooling from the comfort of their parents’ living room or home office. In addition, most cited the ability to listen to their teacher’s recordings of story time at their own pace as a significant benefit of choosing an online nursery school.” Forrest added that, despite their increasing popularity, many parents remain unconvinced that online preschools provide the same academic benefits as actually hearing an instructor name farm animals and imitate their noises in person.

From America’s Finest News Source but do consider this.