Alex Tabarrok

Top Ten MR Posts of 2014

by on December 31, 2014 at 7:20 am in Economics | Permalink

Here is my annual rundown of the top MR posts of 2014 as measured by page views, tweets and shares.

1. Ferguson and the Debtor’s Prison–I’d been tracking the issue of predatory fining since my post on debtor’s prisons in 2012 so when the larger background of Ferguson came to light I was able to provide a new take on a timely topic, the blogging sweet spot.

2. Tyler’s post on Tirole’s win of the Nobel prize offered an authoritative overview of Tirole’s work just when people wanted it. Tyler’s summary, “many of his papers show “it’s complicated,” became the consensus.

3. Why I am not Persuaded by Thomas Piketty’s Argument, Tyler’s post which links to his longer review of the most talked about economics book of the year. Other Piketty posts were also highly linked including Tyler’s discussion of Rognlie and Piketty and my two posts, Piketty v. Solow and The Piketty Bubble?. Less linked but one of my personal favorites was Two Surefire Solutions to Inequality.

4. Tesla versus the Rent Seekers–a review of franchise theory applied to the timely issue of regulatory restrictions on Tesla, plus good guys and bad guys!

5. How much have whites benefited from slavery and its legacy–an excellent post from Tyler full of meaty economics and its consequences. Much to think about in this post. Read it (again).

6. Tyler’s post Keynes is slowly losing (winning?) drew attention as did my post The Austerity Flip Flop, Krugman critiques often do.

7. The SAT, Test Prep, Income and Race–some facts about SAT Test Prep that run contrary to conventional wisdom.

8. Average Stock Returns Aren’t Average–“Lady luck is a bitch, she takes from the many and gives to the few. Here is the histogram of payoffs.”

9. Tyler’s picks for Best non fiction books of 2014.

10. A simple rule for making every restaurant meal better. Tyler’s post. Disputed but clearly correct.

Some other 2014 posts worth revisiting; Tyler on Modeling Vladimir PutinWhat should a Bayesian infer from the Antikythera Mechanism?, and network neutrality and me on Inequality and Masters of Money.

Many posts from previous years continue to attract attention including my post from 2012, Firefighters don’t fight fires, which some newspapers covered again this year and Tyler’s 2013 post How and why Bitcoin will plummet in price which certainly hasn’t been falsified!

Merry Christmas to All Our Readers

by on December 25, 2014 at 7:05 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

Saint Nicholas

Ayn Rand on Christmas

by on December 24, 2014 at 7:25 am in Books, Food and Drink, The Arts | Permalink

The charming aspect of Christmas is the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way. One says: “Merry Christmas”—not “Weep and Repent.” And the good will is expressed in a material, earthly form—by giving presents to one’s friends, or by sending them cards in token of remembrance . . . .

The best aspect of Christmas is the aspect usually decried by the mystics: the fact that Christmas has been commercialized. The gift-buying . . . stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure. And the street decorations put up by department stores and other institutions—the Christmas trees, the winking lights, the glittering colors—provide the city with a spectacular display, which only “commercial greed” could afford to give us. One would have to be terribly depressed to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle.

From the Ayn Rand Lexicon.

Television: This or That

by on December 22, 2014 at 12:27 pm in Television | Permalink

Angels/demons versus humans: Dominion > Constantine.

Powerful female politician(s) battling corruption and dystopia: Madam Secretary (Tea Leoni) > State of Affairs (Katherine Heigl)

Reality TV entrepreneurs: The Profit > Shark Tank.

Food competition cornucopias Top Chef > MasterChef > Hell’s Kitchen.

Predatory Fining and Mass Surveillance

by on December 19, 2014 at 11:40 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

In Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison I noted that Ferguson raises an unusually high rate of revenues from fines.

You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

It doesn’t inspire confidence, therefore, when we learn that Ferguson plans to increase its reliance on police fines as a source of revenue.

Ferguson, Missouri, which is recovering from riots following the August shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman, plans to close a budget gap by boosting revenue from public-safety fines and tapping reserves.

Missouri’s attorney general, however, wants to enforce limits on predatory fining:

Missouri’s attorney general announced lawsuits against 13 of this city’s suburbs on Thursday, accusing them of ignoring a law that sets limits on revenue derived from traffic fines. The move comes after widespread allegations of harassment and profiteering by small municipal governments against the poor and minorities.

…demonstrators have frequently complained about a perceived hypervigilance to minor traffic violations in St. Louis County’s patchwork of 90 municipalities. Many of those cities have their own courts and police departments, but some are only a few square blocks in size and have populations smaller than some high schools.

“When traffic ticketing is used to promote public safety, that’s appropriate,” Mr. Koster said. “When traffic tickets are used to promote revenue, that’s inappropriate.” Such practices, he said, are “predatory.”

(Technically Ferguson isn’t one of the smaller governments being sued but the battle lines are being drawn.)

The current focus on predatory fining and minorities is well justified but these issues are also the spearhead for important changes being brought about by the intersection of policing and mass surveillance. We all commit multiple felonies regularly, no one is innocent. Today most of our violations are simply ignored, never discovered nor prosecuted, but when the eye turns to us we won’t have a defense. As a result, as Stephen Carter wrote in a superb editorial, technological change and the law puts us all in the same danger as Eric Garner.

Hat tip: Michael Cohen.

Printing Cancer Killing Viruses

by on December 19, 2014 at 4:50 am in Economics, Science | Permalink

Cell biologist Andrew Hessel of Autodesk is designing viruses in software to attack a specific individual’s cancer and then using DNA Printers to create the viruses as a drug. Here from an interview with New Scientist (gated).

It’s really about making a specific medicine tailored to one person–“N-of-1″ medicine–rather than try to make it a best fit for a whole population. My vision is to create a personalized treatment that can be made in a day by printing bespoke cancer-fighting viruses.

I’m not fully convinced by his economic model but it may be useful as a vision-goal:

I see the business model shifting away from the blockbuster-drug model of the pharma industry–getting the best product for the most people and charging the most for it–to more of a Netflix model, in which you might purchase a subscription for all-that-you-need medicine to manage your cancer.

…I’m pretty sure I can get the virus printing costs down to a dollar a dose. The virus itself is designed by algorithms using diagnostic data from the patient. That info is put into a program that will design the cancer-fighting virus, so the cost of design is cheap. Then there’s testing, and there is no simpler test than on the patient’s own cancer cells in a dish. So that whole process should cost less than $100 end-to-end. If you are on a cancer subscription model paying $100 a month, I see that as ultimately profitable.

Hessel is also far too sanguine about the FDA who he thinks will allow this under “compassionate use.” No way – not today when the FDA prohibits 23andMe from even providing information about DNA and its probable consequences, see my post Our DNA, Our Selves. To make this a reality we will need scientific breakthroughs and also A New FDA for the Age of Personalized Medicine.

Smuggling Cubans

by on December 18, 2014 at 7:30 am in Economics, Law, Sports | Permalink

This post isn’t about smuggling Cuban cigars it’s an incredible story about smuggling Cuban baseball players.

The average wage in Cuba is about $20 per month so a typical Cuban might earn 50 times more in the United States but a star Cuban baseball player (who also earns about $20 per month in Cuba) might earn 10,000 times more in the United States. Markets abhor a price differential so there is an active market in smuggled Cubans.

Yasiel Puig, now a star player for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was smuggled out of Cuba in 2012. The smuggling operation was paid for by a group of Miami businessmen:

Investigators and court documents say Suarez was one of the Miami-based financiers of the 2012 smuggling venture in which Puig was taken by boat from Cuba to a fishing village near Cancun, Mexico, eventually crossing into the U.S. at Brownsville, Texas, on July 3 of that year. In return, the financiers were getting a percentage of the seven-year, $42 million contract Puig signed with the Dodgers.

The story is not unique

The plea is the second in Miami federal court this year involving the smuggling of a Cuban baseball player into the U.S. Last month, 41-year-old Eliezer Lazo was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for conspiring to smuggle 1,000 Cubans, including baseball players such as Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin.

Puig did in fact pay Suarez $2.5 million. A high price for a relatively simple operation–the going rate to smuggle an ordinary Cuban is about $10,000–but, as we will see, more than smuggling was involved. It took five attempts before Puig reached the shores of Mexico. On one of the earlier attempts Puig was captured by the US Coast guard who sent him back–after some of the crew asked for his autograph!

On the fifth attempt, Puig, along with “a boxer, a pinup girl, and a Santeria priest, the latter of whom blessed their expedition with a splash of rum and a sprinkle of chicken blood” managed to escape Cuba guided by the smugglers and their accomplices—“The Chinaman” and “The Hungarian”. Once in Mexico, however, the operation got messy because Mexico’s Zetas gang were acting as intermediaries and with Puig in hand they demanded a greater share of the proceeds.

“If they didn’t receive the money, they were saying that at any moment they might give him a machetazo”—a whack with a machete—“chop off an arm, a finger, whatever, and he would never play baseball again, not for anyone.” 

The case has lots of interesting asides: Why flee to Mexico first and only then to the United States? It’s all about the money and the weird rules of MLB:

A foreign-born player who immigrates without a contract is treated as an amateur by MLB; he can negotiate only with the team that drafts him. By declaring himself a free agent before arriving, that player can entertain all comers; the difference is worth millions. Federal law, of course, bars Americans from paying money to Cubans—or “trading with the enemy”—so a ballplayer like Puig needs not only to defect but also to establish legal residency in a country that he does not actually intend to live in.

Now back to the Zetas and the hostage negotiations.

As the standoff entered its third week, the smugglers began looking elsewhere to recoup their costs. The idea occurred to them that they could auction Puig off.

Eventually a rescue operation was staged by the Miami businessmen (details are unclear) and Puig escapes to Mexico City where in essence an auction is held in which the Dodgers win with a bid of $42 million over seven years. 

Puig, however, continued to be threatened by the Zetas, hence, it seems, the aforementioned $2.5 million dollar payment to the Miami businessman who in turn paid off the Zetas (a murder also appears to be related).

As if all of this isn’t astounding enough these details have come to light only because of a US civil case against Puig. Puig had been approached a few years earlier when he was just 19 by another would be smuggler. Fearing the state police who monitored him constantly, Puig alerted the sports ministry to the offer and they notified state security. The alleged smuggler was arrested by the Cuban police, jailed, and perhaps tortured. Now here is where it gets really strange. The alleged smuggler, still in jail in Cuba, and his mother are suing Puig in American court for $12 million dollars for turning the smuggler over to the Cuban authorities and thus potentially violating the Torture Victim Protection Act.

There are many lessons here about open(ing) borders, rent seeking, the law, and how making some trades illegal creates black markets often ruled by violence. Thankfully an opening of relations with Cuba may cause this market to wither away. Next up, college athletes.

David Cay Johnston takes a trip to Disneyland some 60 years after his first visit. It looks better than ever, even as America has declined.

broken fountain detroitEvery night Disneyland gets freshened up. When the park closes at midnight, the lights go up, and crews steam gum off the sidewalks, daub fresh paint where needed, water the flowers, polish the streetlights and examine the walkways. I had to look hard just to find unrepaired cracks on Main Street and the paved walkways. By chance, I got to walk backstage, where the asphalt and concrete surfaces were in near perfect shape, the walls painted, the handrails free of rust.

…Yet outside the gates, America fails to invest in its infrastructure, costing us lives from accidents, floods, sinkholes from water-main failures and explosions from faulty natural gas lines. Sidewalks buckle or heave after winter freezes, making many hazardous to walk on. America’s roads deteriorate, costing the economy in efficiency, though the front-end-alignment shops and tire dealers do well.

…The water fountains at Disneyland all worked, while in city halls and airports, many barely dribble because there is no budget to replace their filters before sediment clogs them.

Johnston’s piece is titled America should be more like Disneyland but instead of thinking seriously about what this means he fumbles on the 20 yard line and concludes that what makes Disneyland different is….happy thoughts. If only we were more like W.D., he says, “we could make America into a happy place.”

No, what makes Disney invest in infrastructure is not happy thoughts. Johnston is in fact clear about this:

The Walt Disney Co. invests in infrastructure because it makes the company money.

The problem with America is that our public infrastructure has been turned over to a fickle political process that is not governed by a rational calculation of cost and benefit, market test and experimentation but by a pursuit of power, glory and advantage that only rarely coincides with the public interest.

America should be more like Disneyland and to do that we need to develop institutions that allow more infrastructure to built by the private sector. Most ambitiously we need more cities as hotels, more proprietary cities. As Rajagopolan and I wrote in our study of India (in Cities and Private Planning):

The lesson of Gurgaon, Walt Disney World, and Jamshedpur is that a system of proprietary, competitive cities can combine the initiative and drive of private development with the planning and foresight characteristic of the best urban planning. A proprietary city will build infrastructure to attract residents and revenues. A handful of proprietary cities built within a single region will create a competitive system of proprietary cities that build, compete, innovate, and experiment.

Modern Principles, 3rd ed!

by on December 16, 2014 at 7:31 am in Books, Economics, Education | Permalink

Modern Principles 3rd
The third edition of the best written, most interesting principles of economics textbook, Modern Principles (economics, microeconomics and macroeconomics), hits the shelves any day now. The 3rd edition features a brand new chapter on asymmetric information, more material on economic growth including geography and growth, a new section on nominal GDP targeting and updated data and graphs throughout. Plus we have a very exciting and brand new feature used throughout the book…but I am going to hold off discussing that for a few more weeks. More to come soon!

Investing Aphorisms

by on December 13, 2014 at 7:24 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

Morgan Housel of the Motley Fool has a list of 122 Things Everyone Should Know About Investing And The Economy. Many are variations on a theme but here are a few I liked:

  • Investors want to believe in someone. Forecasters want to earn a living. One of those groups is going to be disappointed. I think you know which.
  • There were 272 automobile companies in 1909. Through consolidation and failure, three emerged on top, two of which went bankrupt. Spotting a promising trend and a winning investment are two different things.
  • I once asked Daniel Kahneman about a key to making better decisions. “You should talk to people who disagree with you and you should talk to people who are not in the same emotional situation you are,” he said. Try this before making your next investment decision.
  • For many, a house is a large liability masquerading as a safe asset.
  • “Success is a lousy teacher,” Bill Gates once said. “It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Geoengineering

by on December 12, 2014 at 12:20 am in Data Source, Science | Permalink

David Keith, a climate scientist at Harvard University, and author of  A Case for Climate Engineering, is interviewed at re/code.

There’s no question it reduces the global average temperatures; even the people who hate it agree you could reduce average global temperatures. The question is: How does it do on a regional basis?

By far the single most important thing to look at on a region-by-region basis is the impact on rainfall and temperature.

And the answer is, it works a lot better than I expected. It’s really stunning.

A lot of us thought that, in fact, geoengineering would do a lousy job on a regional basis — and there’s lots of talk on the inequalities — but in fact, when you actually look at the climate models, the results show they’re strikingly even.

Now, it’s not perfect and there are some things it won’t do. Turning down the sun does nothing for ocean acidification.

But it looks like it can cut, like, 80 percent of the total variation in climate, which is really stunning.

In some ways we should be singing it from the rooftops. But the scientific community is so painfully scared of talking about it. These papers come out, and people find the best ways to say, well, it sort of works, but it’s really awful.

The fact is, people really appear to have found a way to significantly reduce the climate risk — by more than half, which is a big deal.

Hat tip: Mark Frazier.

Here is the video of my panel at the Cato Conference on Growth (other videos at the link). John Haltiwanger leads off with a very good talk summarizing some of his work on declining business dynamism (see also his important paper with Decker, Jarmin and Miranda.) Amar Bhide follows with some skepticism about productivity statistics. My talk begins at 50:26. I discuss regulation and dynamism, why less-developed economies are more entrepreneurial than the United States, Japan’s Ise Grand Shrine and its lessons for entrepreneurship, how Zara is internalizing creative destruction and more.

Zuckerberg on Facebook v. Apple

by on December 8, 2014 at 7:31 am in Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

Tim Cook, echoing others, recently said “When an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took umbrage in an interview with Time:

“A frustration I have is that a lot of people increasingly seem to equate an advertising business model with somehow being out of alignment with your customers,” Zuckerberg says. “I think it’s the most ridiculous concept. What, you think because you’re paying Apple that you’re somehow in alignment with them? If you were in alignment with them, then they’d make their products a lot cheaper!”

Zuckerberg is only partially correct. Apple and Facebook both want to maximize profits but for Apple a key element in profit is increasing price above cost. Zuckerberg’s point is that one way of doing that is to take advantage of market power and raise price against the interests of customers. But Apple’s market power isn’t a given, it’s a function of the quality of Apple’s products relative to its competitors. Thus, Apple has a significant incentive to increase quality and because it can’t charge each of its customers a different price a large fraction of the quality surplus ends up going to customers and Apple customers love Apple products.

Facebook doesn’t charge its customers so relative to Apple it has a greater interest in increasing the number of customers even if that means degrading the quality. As a result, Facebook has more users than Apple but no one loves Facebook. Facebook is broadcast television and Apple is HBO. See my post Why Has TV Replaced Movies as Elite Entertainment for the diagram.

Our Guild-Ridden Labor Market

by on December 2, 2014 at 7:24 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

Could right and left unite in opposing occupational licensing? In an excellent primer Morris Kleiner makes the argument:

One unifying theme about the growth of occupational regulation has been the opposition from both the left and right of the political spectrum. Many on the left are concerned about the reduction in job opportunities, the increase in prices, and the diminished availability of services for those in or near poverty. On the right there is concern for economic liberty and access to the labor market and jobs. Many licensed professions are relatively low-skilled jobs, such as barbers, manicurists, nurse’s aides, and cosmetologists. The social costs of a bad haircut may be negligible, but the social costs of creating additional employment barriers for disadvantaged populations are not. Licensure laws often exclude ex-felons—defensible in many professions, but not in all, and such prohibitions make it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to find post-prison employment, thereby contributing to America’s high recidivism rate.

…If both the left and right oppose more occupational regulation, why is it growing? From the time of medieval guilds, service providers have had strong incentives to create barriers to entry for their professions in order to raise wages. In contrast, consumers who will be affected by the higher costs due to licensure are unorganized and arguably underrepresented in the political process.

Read the full post and Kleiner’s excellent book for many useful references. Here are previous MR posts on occupational licensing.

Cato is holding a conference this Thursday (Dec. 4) on The Future of US Economic Growth. Speakers include Nobelist Edmund Phelps, Ed Glaeser, Dale Jorgenson, John Haltiwanger and Erik Brynjolfsson. I will speak in the afternoon on the topic of entrepreneurship and whether economic dynamism is in decline. I will have some surprising things to say about dynamism and regulation. More information at the link.