Economics

Timothy Hicks has a new and recently published paper:

It is argued in this article that the marketisation of schools policy has a tendency to produce twin effects: an increase in educational inequality, and an increase in general satisfaction with the schooling system. However, the effect on educational inequality is very much stronger where prevailing societal inequality is higher. The result is that cross-party political agreement on the desirability of such reforms is much more likely where societal inequality is lower (as the inequality effects are also lower). Counterintuitively, then, countries that are more egalitarian – and so typically thought of as being more left-wing – will have a higher likelihood of adopting marketisation than more unequal countries. Evidence is drawn from a paired comparison of English and Swedish schools policies from the 1980s to the present. Both the policy history and elite interviews lend considerable support for the theory in terms of both outcomes and mechanisms.

There are less gated versions here, and for the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Headlines to ponder

by on March 30, 2015 at 2:36 pm in Current Affairs, Economics, Law, Religion | Permalink

Bank of Bird-in-Hand is the only new bank to open in the U.S. since 2010, when the Dodd-Frank law was passed

The WSJ story is here, via Binyamin Appelbaum.

What would you like him to cover?  Please don’t be rude, serious inquiries only.  On Twitter Ben claims he will cover “economics, finances, and sometimes baseball.”

Ben Bernanke’s blog

by on March 30, 2015 at 7:29 am in Economics, Weblogs | Permalink

Self-recommending!

For those of you who wonder what “self-recommending” means, now you ought to know…

Addendum: Modeled Behavior adds comment.  So does Paul Krugman.

Here is the abstract of his piece “Air Conditioning, Migration, and Climate-Related Rent Differentials“:

This paper explores whether the spread of air conditioning in the United States from 1960 to 1990 affected quality of life in warmer areas enough to influence decisions about where to live, or to change North-South wage and rent differentials. Using measures designed to identify climates in which air conditioning would have made the biggest difference, I found little evidence that the flow of elderly migrants to MSAs with such climates increased over the period. Following Roback (1982), I analyzed data on MSA wages, rents, and climates from 1960 to 1990, and find that the implicit price of these hot summer climates did not change significantly from 1960 to 1980, then became significantly negative in 1990. This contrary to what one would expect if air conditioning made hot summers more bearable. I presented evidence that hot summers are an inferior good, which would explain part of the negative movement in the implicit price of a hot summer, and evidence consistent with the hypothesis that the marginal person migrating from colder to hotter MSAs dislikes summer heat more than does the average resident of a hot MSA, which would also exert downward pressure on the implicit price of a hot summer.

The pointer is from Ross Emmett in the MR comments section, very useful comments overall.  Biddle has two other pieces on the history of air conditioning, and Biddle has other interesting pieces as well, he is apparently an underappreciated economist.

Here Scott Sumner details the import of state income taxes.  In my view not the “main” factor, but a significant factor nonetheless, excerpt: “On the west coast, all states grew faster than the national average. Yes, its climate is nicer that the south central region.  But look at the more detailed data and you’ll see that hot and sunny Washington state and Alaska grew the fastest of five bordering the Pacific.  And oh by the way, Washington and Alaska are the only two with no state income tax.”  I’ll add this point: to the extent income inequality is rising, a relatively small number of cross-state migrants can lead to a noticeable difference in cross-state growth and job creation rates.  And the high earners are precisely those who are most able and most likely to leave a high-tax state for a low-tax state.

Facts about MIT economics

by on March 29, 2015 at 3:41 pm in Economics, Education | Permalink

1. It is believed that MIT graduating Ph.d. students are more likely to stay in academia than those from any other school or field.

2. Across 1977-2011, MIT economists made up 34 percent of the members of the CEA, and Robert Solow supervised one-third of that group.

3. Even in the early days of MIT, Paul Samuelson was not a major thesis advisor, and his students were not so likely to return to MIT as faculty.

4. Out of 35 J.B. Clark medalists until 2012, 47% of them have some affiliation with MIT, either a degree from there or teaching there.

5. As of a few years ago (I am not sure of the exact date), there were 1316 holders of an MIT Ph.d. in economics.

6. In the 2000s, Daron Acemoglu was the most active thesis advisor at MIT.

That is all from “MIT’s Rise to Prominence: Outline of a Collective Biography,” by Andrej Svorenčík.  There are various versions of that article here, the jstor version here, and it is reprinted in MIT and the Transformation of American Economics, edited by E. Roy Weintraub.

The problem is that Mr. Tsipras has not convinced his creditors that he is serious about reform or that his team is remotely on top of the detail. He needs a game-changer. This should, indeed, be a rupture — but with his left faction, not his creditors.

That is from Hugo Dixon, file it under “Scream it From the Rooftops.”  You will note, by the way, that the far-left faction accounts for 30 to 40 of the 149 coalition seats in the Greek parliament, so such an action would not be easy.  It is still not too late, however, if only…

Paul Krugman has had a few posts on this question, most recently this one, the first one here.  Krugman is right in asserting a major role for air conditioning, but there is a subtle framing point which is sometimes neglected.  The most on-point study is this piece from Jordan Rappaport (pdf):

U.S. residents have been moving en masse to places with nice weather. Well known is the migration towards places with warm winters, which is often attributed to the introduction of air conditioning. But people have also been moving to places with cooler, less-humid summers, which is the opposite of what is expected from the introduction of air conditioning. Nor can the movement to nice weather be primarily explained by shifting industrial composition or by elderly migration. Instead, a large portion of weather-related moves appear to be the result of an increased valuation of nice weather as a consumption amenity, probably due to broad-based rising per capita income.

Overall Rappaport concludes that “nice [warm] weather is a normal good” is the more important driving force behind the movement to the Sun Belt than is air conditioning per se, though of course air conditioning makes nice warm weather all the nicer.  Evidence from compensating differentials also indicates that “…the decreased discomfort from heat and humidity afforded by air-conditioning has not been the primary driver of the move to nice weather.” (p.26)

From 1880 to 1910, Americans overall are moving to places with bad (cold) weather.  In the 1920s they start moving, on net, to places with nicer weather and that trend has not let up.  The arrival of affordable air conditioning in the postwar era bumps this up a bit, but the main trend already was in place.  Furthermore air conditioning has been in the south for quite a while now, but migration in that direction continues.  In his second post on the topic, Krugman refers to this as a “gradual adjustment” to AC, but it seems to better fit the nice weather as a normal good story.  We’ll know more if we see this migration continuing, but I expect it will.  At some point it won’t be plausible to call the ongoing movement a “lagged response” to the introduction of air conditioning, but again it will fit the normal good story pretty smoothly.

Note also that life expectancy is notably higher in warm weather than cold weather.  Deschenes and Moretti conclude (pdf): “…The longevity gains associated with mobility from the Northeast to the Southwest account for 4% to 7% of the total gains in life expectancy experienced by the U.S. population over the past thirty years.”

That again points toward a “normal good” explanation, with air conditioning playing a supporting role.

That all said, if you look at the larger political debate going on here, Krugman is correct in arguing that lower taxes are the not main reason for this migration, even though the median voter in these states probably approves of such relatively low tax rates.  In any case, there is a clearer and better version of the weather hypothesis which can be put forward.

Addendum: David Beckworth adds commentary and some fascinating maps.

Hat tip: Daniel Altman.

Edward Hugh writes:

So, what do you do about the problem of secular stagnation? Again here there is divergence of opinion. Some still seek to treat the phenomenon as if it were a variant of the liquidity trap issue. Most notable here is Paul Krugman, who continues to hope that massive quantitative easing backed by strong fiscal stimulus will push the economy back onto a healthy path. But if the issue is secular stagnation, and the root is population ageing and shrinking, it is hard to see how this can be. The fact that Japan is just about to fall back into deflation 2 years after applying a monumental Quantitative Easing problem seems to endorse the idea that the problem may have no “solution” in the classical sense of the term.

There is this:

Finland has transited from being a country with a significant goods trade surplus, to being one with a structural deficit.

Even the current account balance has now turned negative.

And the country’s Net International Investment Position is also turning negative.

With pictures at the link.

Hugh’s conclusion is this:

At the end of the day, only two things can be said with a fair degree of certainty: short term fiscal austerity won’t make any significant improvement and could help make things worse (this whole discourse is based on a misunderstanding about the problem) while short term stimulus won’t stimulate.

More sensible than most of what you will read on this topic.

I was pleased to have been invited to deliver one of the comments at Elizabeth Anderson’s Tanner lectures at Princeton a few weeks ago.  I have put the comment on my home page here.  I introduce the topic in this manner:

I won’t summarize her views, but I will pull out one sentence to indicate her stance: “Here most of us are, toiling under the authority of communist dictators, and we don’t see the reality for what it is.” These communist dictators are, in her account, private business firms. That description may be deliberately hyperbolic, but nonetheless it reflects her attitude that capitalist companies exercise a kind of unaccountable, non-democratic power over the lives of their workers, in a manner which she thinks is deserving of moral outrage.

Here is one bit from my response:

This may sound counterintuitive or even horrible to many people, but the economist will ask whether workers might not enjoy “too much” tolerance and freedom in the workplace, at least relative to feasible alternatives. For every benefit there is a trade-off, and the broader employment offer as a whole might involve too little cash and too much freedom and tolerance. To oversimplify a bit, at the margin an employer can pay workers more either with money or with freedom and tolerance, which we more generally can label as perks. Money is taxed, often at fairly high rates, whereas the workplace perks are not; that’s one reason why a lot of Swedish offices are pretty nice. It’s simple economics to see that, as a result, the job ends up with too many perks and not enough pay, relative to a social optimum. I doubt if our response to this distorting tax wedge, which can be significant, should be to increase the perks of the workers rather than focusing on their pay.

And:

In fact there are some reasons why labor-managed firms may give their workers less personal freedom. The old-style investment banking and legal partnerships expected their owner-members to adhere to some fairly strict social and professional codes, even outside the workplace. More generally, when workers are motivated to monitor each other, through the holding of equity shares, monitoring becomes easier and so corporations engage in more of it. Again, the main issue is not controlling bosses vs. freedom-seeking workers.

Do read the whole thing.

I may not follow any of your suggestions, but just thought I should ask for advice, for my dialogue with Peter next week.  I am the interviewer, he is the interviewee, more or less.  #CowenThiel

One of the most remarkable discoveries of economics is that under the right conditions competitive markets allocate production across firms in just that way that minimizes the total costs of production. (You can find a discussion of this remarkable property in Modern Principles. See also this MRU video.)

One of the necessary conditions for this result is that firms must face the same input and output prices. If one firm is subsidized and another taxed, for example, then resources will be misallocated and total costs will increase. In a pioneering paper, Klenow and Hsieh measure misallocation across firms in China, India and the United States and they find that micro misallocations can have large, macroeconomic effects. In particular, if capital and labor were allocated as well in China and India as they are in the United States then output in those countries would double.

We can get some intuition for the costs of resource misallocation by looking at water in California. As you may have noticed at the grocery store, almonds are in demand right now whether raw or in almond milk. Asian demand for almonds is also up. As a result, in the last 10 years almond production in California has doubled. That’s great, except for the fact that almond production uses a huge amount of water and water in CA is severely mispriced and thus misallocated.

In my previous post, I pointed out that agriculture uses 80% of the water in California but accounts for less than 2% of the economy. So how much water does almond production alone use? More water is used in almond production than is used by all the residents and businesses of San Francisco and Los Angeles combined. Here’s a chart from Mother Jones:

(Aside: Some of this water is naturally recycled so net use is likely somewhat lower but a lot of water in California is now being pumped from the aquifer and that water isn’t being replenished.)

At the same time as farmers are watering their almonds, San Diego is investing in an energy-intensive billion-dollar desalination plant which will produce water at a much higher cost than the price the farmer are paying.  That is a massive and costly misallocation of water.

In short, we are spending thousands of dollars worth of water to grow hundreds of dollars worth of almonds and that is truly nuts.

Hat tip: Walter Olson.

The problem of liens on Bitcoin

by on March 25, 2015 at 9:16 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

Izabella Kaminska writes:

George K Fogg at law firm Perkins Coie has been thinking about the problem of past claims (or liens) on bitcoins for nearly 14 months now.

His conclusion: under the United States’ UCC code (uniform commercial code) as long as bitcoins are treated as general intangibles, no high value investor can be sure that an angry Tony Soprano won’t show up one day to claim the bitcoins they thought they received in a completely unencumbered manner are in fact his. In fact, it’s only if and when Tony Soprano publicly renounces his claim to the underlying bitcoin collateral he is owed that the bitcoins stand a chance of being treated as unencumbered. Until then, a hot potato claim risk exists for every future acquirer of Soprano’s bitcoin.

Indeed, given the high volume of fraud and default in the bitcoin network, chances are most bitcoins have competing claims over them by now. Put another way, there are probably more people with legitimate claims over bitcoins than there are bitcoins [emphasis added]. And if they can prove the trail, they can make a legal case for reclamation.

This contrasts considerably with government cash. In the eyes of the UCC code, cash doesn’t take its claim history with it upon transfer. To the contrary, anyone who acquires cash starts off with a clean slate as far as previous claims are concerned. It is assumed, basically, that previous claims on cash are untraceable throughout the system. Though, liens it must be stressed can still be exercised over bank accounts or people.

There is more at the FT link here.  And I have a simple question for all you Bitcoin partisans out there: how large is the largest private sector transaction on Bitcoin to date?  I’m not “anti-Bitcoin,” and I am glad the regulators have allowed the experiment to proceed, still I’m not persuaded by the arguments that it is going to be a big deal.

From The New Left Review, Moretti and Pestre report:

Three new semantic clusters characterize the language of the Bank from the early 1990s on. The first—and most important—has to do with finance: here, alongside a few predictable adjectives (financial, fiscal, economic) and nouns (loans, investment, growth, interest, lending, debt), we find a landslide of fair value, portfolio, derivative, accrual, guarantees, losses, accounting, assets; a little further down the list, equity, hedging, liquidity, liabilities, creditworthiness, default, swaps, clients, deficit, replenishment, repurchase, cash. In terms of frequency and semantic density, this cluster can only be compared to the material infrastructures of the 1950s–60s; now, however, work in agriculture and industry has been replaced by an overwhelming predominance of financial activities.

…The second cluster has to do with management—a noun that, in absolute terms, is the second most frequent of the last decade (lower than loans, but higher than risk and investment!). In the world of ‘management’, people have goals and agendas; faced with opportunities, challenges and critical situations, they elaborate strategies. To appreciate the novelty, let’s recall that, in the 1950s–60s, issues were studied by experts who surveyed and conducted missions, published reports, assisted, advised and suggested programmes. With the advent of management, the centre of gravity shifts towards focusing, strengthening and implementing; one must monitor, control, audit, rate (Figure 2); ensure that everything is done properly while also helping people to learn from mistakes. The many tools at the manager’s disposal (indicators, instruments, knowledge, expertise, research) enhance effectiveness, efficiency, performance, competitiveness and—it goes without saying—promote innovation.

The concept of governance is another clear winner in more recent times, and furthermore the reports seem to overuse the word “and” relative to the word “the.”  That I can believe.  The article is interesting throughout, hat tip goes to Avinash Celstine.