Economics

Well, at which margin?  At current margins, not for all donors and it seems not for “warm glow” donors.  Here is a new paper by Dean Karlan and Daniel H. Wood.  Every sentence in the abstract is interesting:

We test how donors respond to new information about a charity’s effectiveness. Freedom from Hunger implemented a test of its direct marketing solicitations, varying letters by whether they include a discussion of their program’s impact as measured by scientific research. The base script, used for both treatment and control, included a standard qualitative story about an individual beneficiary. Adding scientific impact information has no effect on whether someone donates, or how much, in the full sample. However, we find that amongst recent prior donors (those we posit more likely to open the mail and thus notice the treatment), large prior donors increase the likelihood of giving in response to information on aid effectiveness, whereas small prior donors decrease their giving. We motivate the analysis and experiment with a theoretical model that highlights two predictions. First, larger gift amounts, holding education and income constant, is a proxy for altruism giving (as it is associated with giving more to fewer charities) versus warm glow giving (giving less to more charities). Second, those motivated by altruism will respond positively to appeals based on evidence, whereas those motivated by warm glow may respond negatively to appeals based on evidence as it turns off the emotional trigger for giving, or highlights uncertainty in aid effectiveness.

How is that for a chilling final sentence?: “…those motivated by altruism will respond positively to appeals based on evidence, whereas those motivated by warm glow may respond negatively to appeals based on evidence as it turns off the emotional trigger for giving, or highlights uncertainty in aid effectiveness.”

The BirdReturns program, financed by the Nature Conservancy, then pays rice farmers in the birds’ flight path to keep their fields flooded with irrigation water from the Sacramento River as migrating flocks arrive. The prices are determined by reverse auction, in which farmers bid for leases and the lowest bidder wins.

Because the program pays for only several weeks of water instead of buying the habitat, the sums are modest; the conservancy does not disclose bids because that might affect future auctions, but it says the figures were both above and below the $45 per acre that the federal government pays for bird-friendly practices.

The project’s first season ended last month, as birds headed north from newly flooded fields. Researchers said all of the birds whose numbers they hoped to improve were seen on “pop up” wetlands — a temporary steppingstone for the birds’ journey north. This happened when the field would have ordinarily been drained, an indication that the approach was working. More analysis will be done this month. The fields will be flooded again in the fall for the birds’ return journey. Eventually, using this and other approaches, the conservationists at BirdReturns hope to increase the number of shorebirds that stop in the Central Valley to 400,000, from current levels of 170,000.

There is more here, not like what you see in those movies!

Yes doing things now can have good side effects, but unless something changes in the side-effect processes, doing things later should have exactly the same sort of side effects. And because of positive interest rates, you can do more later, and thus induce more of those good side effects. (Also, almost everyone can trade time for money, and so convert money or time now into more money or time later.)

For example, if you can earn 7% interest you can convert $1 now into $2 a decade from now. Yes, that $1 now might lend respectability now, induce others to copy your act soon, and induce learning by the charity and its observers. But that $2 in a decade should be able to induce twice as much of all those benefits, just delayed by a decade.

In math terms, good side effects are multipliers, which multiply the gains from your good act. But multipliers are just not good reasons to prefer $1 over $2, if both of them will get the same multiplier. If the multiplier is M, you’d just be preferring $1M to $2M.

…I think one should in general be rather suspicious of investing or donating to groups on the basis that they, or you, or now, is special. Better to just do what would be good even if you aren’t special. Because usually, you aren’t.

There is more here.

There is a new paper by Kelly Shue and Richard Townsend (pdf), it is quite intriguing though note it is preliminary work. I am not linking to it but the authors appear to have distributed the abstract on the internet:

We explore a rigidity-based explanation of the dramatic and off-trend growth in US executive compensation during the late 1990s and early 2000s. We show that executive option and stock grants are rigid in the number of shares granted. In addition, salary and bonus exhibit downward nominal rigidity. Rigidity implies that the value of executive pay will grow with firm equity returns, which averaged 30% annually during the Tech Boom. Rigidity also explains the increased dispersion in pay across firms, the difference in growth rates between the US and other countries, and the increased correlation between pay and firm-specific equity returns. Regulatory changes requiring the disclosure of the value of option grants help explain the moderation in executive pay in the late 2000s. Finally, we find suggestive evidence that number-rigidity in executive pay is generated by money illusion and reference-dependent motivation, the same behavioral biases that may underlie downward nominal wage rigidity among rank and file workers.

For the pointer I thank Robert J. Shiller.

Addendum: The authors recommend this link to a new version of the paper.

From an excellent column by Wolfgang Münchau:

The reason Greece was able to attract so much interest in last week’s bond issue was a combination of the promise of a high yield and the maturity profile of existing Greek debt. Official loans – from eurozone member states and the International Monetary Fund – make up 80 per cent of the total debt. Greece will not start to repay this until 2023. In other words the country is solvent in the short run. But long-run solvency is far from certain.

The rest of the FT piece is here.  He suggests (without advocating it) that this could be the moment for Greece to default.

Henry Aaron and the Lucas Critique

by on April 12, 2014 at 6:57 am in Economics, Sports | Permalink

No, not the Henry Aaron at the Brookings Institution.  I mean what the ten year old Tyler Cowen would have called “the real Henry Aaron.”  Nate Silver writes:

What if Aaron had never hit a home run? What if those 755 round-trippers had fallen for base hits instead? (If we’re trying to isolate the effect of his power, that seems like the fairer way to do it, instead of turning them into popups or something.) Would he still be a Hall of Famer?

If all of his homers had been singles, Aaron would still have his 3,771 hits. Instead of being the second-best home-run hitter of all time, he’d be the third-best singles hitter of all time, after Ty Cobb and Pete Rose. His RBI total would have gone way down; based on the number of runs that Aaron knocked in on home runs and singles throughout his career, I estimate that he’d have 1,232 of them rather than 2,297. But 1,232 isn’t a shabby total; it would rank Aaron 141st all time, in the general vicinity of Derek Jeter, Edgar Martinez and George Sisler. He’d still be a lifetime .305 hitter and have a .374 on-base average.

OK, here is where Lucas comes in.  If Hank Aaron did not carry significant home run potential to the plate, he would have seen a lot more blazing fastballs, pitchers’ “best stuff,” and so on.  Why not challenge the hitter and try to blow it by him if all you are risking is a single up the middle?  As it was, pitchers often threw Aaron a variety of slower curves and off-speed junk, stuff he might grab a piece of with the bat but would have a harder time drilling straight over the fence.

And thus a homer-less version of Aaron probably would have had a harder time making contact at all.  And he certainly would have had many fewer walks.  But yet, with the amazing wrists he had…pitchers were afraid of him.

It is funny how the Lucas critique went from one of the most underrated ideas in economics (pre-Lucas), to one of the most overrated ideas (1980s-early 1990s), and now it is back as one of the most underrated ideas again.  If we vary one policy or one element of a calculation or algorithm, other individuals will respond strategically.

Addendum: Scott Sumner adds comment.

Here is the new paper (pdf):

This article shows that official statistics substantially underestimate the net foreign asset positions of rich countries because they fail to capture most of the assets held by households in offshore tax havens. Drawing on a unique Swiss data set and exploiting systematic anomalies in countries’ portfolio investment positions, I find that around 8% of the global financial wealth of households is held in tax havens, three-quarters of which goes unrecorded. On the basis of plausible assumptions, accounting for unrecorded assets turns the eurozone, officially the world’s second largest net debtor, into a net creditor. It also reduces the U.S. net debt significantly. The results shed new light on global imbalances and challenge the widespread view that after a decade of poor-to-rich capital flows, external assets are now in poor countries and debts in rich countries. I provide concrete proposals to improve international statistics.
The original pointer was from Paul Krugman.  Yesterday I was at an IMF forum with Jeff Sachs and he too was placing great stress on this issue.

Breaking Bones

by on April 11, 2014 at 10:43 am in Economics | Permalink

It’s sometimes said that conservative economists are heartless bastards who don’t understand the evil of unemployment or what it’s like to live on a low income. Edward Lambert from the left-of-center Angry Bear proves that to get what they want some on the left can be equally heartless.

I would love to support continued aggressive policy to bring the economy back to full employment, but the social cost of inequality is sickening. And if stopping this disease means putting the economy back into a recession, then so be it…It is like re-breaking a bone to set it straight. If the re-breaking of a bone is not done, the bone won’t work correctly in the future. It is proper medicine.

…Current day economists seem squeamish…
Hat tip: Scott Sumner.

Should we regulate Bitcoin?

by on April 11, 2014 at 9:16 am in Economics, Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

There is a new paper by Jerry Brito, Houman Shadab, and Andrea Castillo, the abstract is here:

The next major wave of Bitcoin regulation will likely be aimed at financial instruments, including securities and derivatives, as well as prediction markets and even gambling. While there are many easily regulated intermediaries when it comes to traditional securities and derivatives, emerging bitcoin-denominated instruments rely much less on traditional intermediaries. Additionally, the block chain technology that Bitcoin introduced for the first time makes completely decentralized markets and exchanges possible, thus eliminating the need for intermediaries in complex financial transactions.

In this article we survey the type of financial instruments and transactions that will most likely be of interest to regulators, including traditional securities and derivatives, new bitcoin-denominated instruments, and completely decentralized markets and exchanges. We find that bitcoin derivatives would likely not be subject to the full scope of regulation under the Commodities and Exchange Act because such derivatives would likely involve physical delivery (as opposed to cash settlement) and would not be capable of being centrally cleared. We also find that some laws, including those aimed at online gambling, do not contemplate a payment method like Bitcoin, thus placing many transactions in a legal gray area.

Following the approach to Bitcoin taken by FinCEN, we conclude that other financial regulators should consider exempting or excluding certain financial transactions denominated in Bitcoin from the full scope of the regulations, much like private securities offerings and forward contracts are treated. We also suggest that to the extent that regulation and enforcement becomes more costly than its benefits, policymakers should consider and pursue strategies consistent with that new reality, such as efforts to encourage resilience and adaptation.

Along related lines, you might consider Adam Thierer’s excellent new book Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.

There is yet another paper on this topic, I know you are weary of it, but I remain glued to the screen, so here goes:

Stock theft is an endemic crime particularly affecting deep rural areas of Pakistan. Analysis of a series of cases was conducted to describe features of herds and farmers who have been the victims of cattle and/buffalo theft in various villages of Punjab in Pakistan during the year 2012. A structured interview was administered to a sample of fifty three affected farmers. The following were the important findings: i) incidents of theft were more amongst small scale farmers, ii) the rate of repeat victimization was high, iii) stealing was the most common modus operandi, iv) the majority of animals were adult, having high sale values, v) more cases occurred during nights with crescent moon, vi) only a proportion of victims stated to have the incident reported to the police, vii) many farmers had a history of making compensation agreements with thieves, viii) foot tracking failed in the majority of the cases, ix) all the respondents were willing to invest in radio frequency identification devices and advocated revision of existing laws. The study has implications for policy makers and proposes a relationship between crime science and veterinary medicine.

The link is here, and for the pointer I thank Ben Southwood.  This is in fact a significant and understudied topic in development economics, namely small-scale predation in rural settings.

Not surprisingly, that piece appeared in the Berliner und Münchener tierärztliche Wochenschrift.

From a Gideon Rachman FT blog post, this is still my view as well:

1. As Kerin Hope, our Athens correspondent, makes clear in a fine post – the political situation in Greece is arguably deteriorating, rather than improving. What is true for Greece is true for Europe as a whole. The European parliamentary elections in May are likely to yield quite shocking results – with the rise of far-right and far-left parties in core countries, such as France. This could be destabilising, to put it mildly.

2. As I argued in a recent column, the real economy in important countries such as Italy is still in very bad shape.

3. The euro has been saved – for now. But the underlying structural problems of a common currency that is not backed by a political union are still unresolved. And not much closer to resolution, either.

None of that means that it is necessarily irrational to make a short-term bet on Europe. But anybody who thinks the euro-story is over, is likely to get a nasty shock at some stage.

I would again stress the point that the economics of the eurozone crisis are entirely solvable (though unpleasant).  It is managing the politics of so many disparate nations that makes it tricky, and it is not obvious whether this dimension of the problem truly has been solved.  And on the economics side, the eurozone is encountering deflation risk, and arguably the main problems are moving from the periphery to France and Italy.  If you don’t think Italy can resume normal economic growth anytime soon, it is not clear how any of the plans are supposed to end up working.

Here is a good analysis of the new Greek bond deal.

More Matt Rognlie on Piketty

by on April 10, 2014 at 12:57 pm in Books, Economics | Permalink

From the comments:

Krugman correctly highlights the importance of the elasticity of substitution between capital and labor, but like everyone else (including, apparently, Piketty himself) he misses a subtle but absolutely crucial point.

When economists discuss this elasticity, they generally do so in the context of a gross production function (*not* net of depreciation). In this setting, the elasticity of substitution gives the relationship between the capital-output ratio K/Y and the user cost of capital, which is r+delta, the sum of the relevant real rate of return and the depreciation rate. For instance, if this elasticity is 1.5 and r+delta decreases by a factor of 2, then (moving along the demand curve) K/Y will increase by a factor of 2^(1.5) = 2.8.

Piketty, on the other hand, uses only net concepts, as they are relevant for understanding net income. When he talks about the critical importance of an elasticity of substitution greater than one, he means an elasticity of substitution in the *net* production function. This is a very different concept. In particular, this elasticity gives us the relationship between the capital-output ratio K/Y and the real rate of return r, rather than the full user cost r+delta. This elasticity is lower, by a fraction of r/(r+delta), than the relevant elasticity in the gross production function.

This is no mere quibble. For the US capital stock, the average depreciation rate is a little above delta=5%. Suppose that we take Piketty’s starting point of r=5%. Then r/(r+delta) = 1/2, and the net production function elasticities that matter to Piketty’s argument are only 1/2 of the corresponding elasticities for the gross production function!

Piketty notes in his book that Cobb-Douglas, with an elasticity of one, is the usual benchmark – and then he tries to argue that the actual elasticity is somewhat higher than this benchmark. But the benchmark elasticity of one, as generally understood, is a benchmark for the elasticity in the gross production function – translating into Piketty’s units instead, that’s only 0.5, making Piketty’s proposed >1 elasticity a much more dramatic departure from the benchmark. (Keep in mind that a Cobb-Douglas *net* production function would be a very strange choice of functional form – implying, for instance, that no matter how much capital is used, its gross marginal product is always higher than the depreciation rate. I’ve never seen anyone use it, for good reason.)

Indeed, with this point in mind, the sources cited in support of high elasticities do not necessarily support Piketty’s argument. For instance, in their closely related forthcoming QJE paper, Piketty and Zucman cite Karabarbounis and Neiman (2014) as an example of a paper with an elasticity above 1. But K&N estimate an elasticity in standard units, and their baseline estimate is 1.25! In Piketty’s units, this is just 0.625.

And this:

What does this all mean for the Piketty’s central points – that total capital income rK/Y will increase, and that r-g will grow? His model imposes a constant, exogenous net savings rate ‘s’, which brings him to the “second fundamental law of capitalism”, which is that asymptotically K/Y = s/g. The worry is that as g decreases due to demographics and (possibly) slower per capita growth, this will lead to a very large increase in K/Y. But, of course, this only means an increase in net capital income rK/Y if Piketty’s elasticity of substitution is above 1, or if equivalently the usual elasticity of substitution is above 2. This is already a very high value, and frankly one to be treated with skepticism.

Meanwhile, it is even harder to get growth in r-g, which most readers take to be Piketty’s central point. Suppose that in recent decades, r has been roughly 5% while g has been 2.5%, and suppose that g will ultimately fall to around 1%. In Piketty’s framework, this implies an increase in steady-state K/Y of 2.5. If there is an elasticity of 1 (in Piketty’s units), this implies a decrease in r from 5% to 2%, and thus a *decrease* in the gap r-g from 2.5% to 1%. The point is that with this unit demand elasticity and the exogenous net savings assumption, it is the ratio r/g rather than the difference r-g that is constant, which means that a decline in g leads to a proportionate decline in r-g. (Note that Krugman’s review is ambiguous about this distinction.)

What would we need to obtain even a tiny increase in r-g in this setting – say, of half a percentage point? We would need r to fall from 5% to only 4% while g fell from 2.5% to 1%, increasing r-g from 2.5% to 3%. But given the 2.5-fold increase in K/Y, a decline in r by a factor of only 1/5th implies an elasticity of substitution (in Piketty’s sense) of nearly 4. This implies an elasticity of substitution in the *usual* gross production function sense of nearly 8, not plausible by any stretch of the imagination.

Unless I’m missing something, the formal apparatus in Piketty’s book simply is not capable of generating the results he touts. There are two very simple issues that break it quantitatively – first, the distinction between elasticities of substitution in the gross and net production functions; and second, the fact that as g falls, an extraordinarily high elasticity of substitution is necessary to prevent r from falling along with it and actually compressing the arithmetic gap between r and g. Perhaps there are modifications to the framework that can redeem it, but as it currently stands I’m baffled.

I believe Matt is correct.  I would simply note that diminishing returns to capital — relative to other factors of production — are likely to hold in the long run.  See also these earlier MR comments by Rognlie and Harless.  And here are Piketty’s lecture notes.

Yes, it seems that may be so.  There is a new paper (pdf) by John M. Nunley, Adam Pugh, Nicholas Romero, and R. Alan Seals, the abstract is this:

We use experimental data from a resume-audit study to estimate the impact of particular college majors and internship experience on employment prospects. Our experimental design relies on the randomization of resume characteristics to identify the causal e ffects of these attributes on job opportunities. Despite applying exclusively to business-related job openings, we nd no evidence that business degrees improve employment prospects. Furthermore, we find no evidence linking particular degrees to interview-request rates. By contrast, internship experience increases the interview-request rate by about 14 percent. In addition, the “returns” to internship experience are larger for non-business majors than for business majors.

Their underemployment paper (pdf) is also interesting:

We conduct a resume audit to estimate the impact of unemployment and underemployment on the employment prospects facing recent college graduates. We find no evidence that employers use current or past unemployment spells, regardless of their length, to inform hiring decisions. By contrast, college graduates who became underemployed after graduation receive about 15-30 percent fewer interview requests than job seekers who became “adequately” employed after graduation. Internship experience obtained while completing one’s degree reduces the negative e ffects of underemployment substantially.

No wonder the market-clearing rate for internship is so…low.

Minimum wage hikes and real net wages

by on April 10, 2014 at 3:51 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

Richard McKenzie reports:

…past experience has confirmed the nonmonetary impact of a minimum-wage hike on workers, not only in reduced fringe benefits but in increased work demands and decreased job training. For example:

  • When the minimum wage was increased in 1967, economist Masanori Hashimoto found that workers gained 32 cents in money income but lost 41 cents per hour in training — a net loss of 9 cents an hour in full-income compensation.
  • Similarly, Linda Leighton and Jacob Mincer in one study, and Belton Fleisher in another, concluded that increases in the minimum wage reduce on-the-job training and, as a result, dampen long-run growth in the real incomes of covered workers.
  • Additionally, North Carolina State University economist Walter Wessels determined that a wage increase caused New York retailers to increase work demands. In most stores, fewer workers were given fewer hours to do the same work as before.
  • More recently, Mindy Marks found that the $0.90 per hour increase in the federal minimum-wage rate in 1990 reduced the probability of workers receiving employer-provided health insurance from 66.2 percent to 63.1 percent, and increased the likelihood that covered workers would be reduced to part-time work by 26 percent.

Wessels also found that for every 10 percent increase in the minimum wage, workers lose 2 percent of nonmonetary compensation per hour. Extrapolating from Wessels’ estimates, an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to only $9.00 an hour would make covered workers worse off by 35 cents an hour.

And if the minimum wage were raised to $10.10 an hour, for example, the estimated 16.5 million workers earning between $7.25 and $10.10 could lose nonmonetary compensation more valuable than the $31 billion in additional wages they are expected to receive.

I would be skeptical or agnostic about some of those particular estimates, but surely the general point holds, and is hardly ever mentioned by advocates of hiking the minimum wage.

Krugman’s review of Piketty

by on April 9, 2014 at 9:20 pm in Books, Economics | Permalink

You will find it here.  Excerpt:

Just about all economic models tell us that if g falls—which it has since 1970, a decline that is likely to continue due to slower growth in the working-age population and slower technological progress—r will fall too. But Piketty asserts that r will fall less than g. This doesn’t have to be true. However, if it’s sufficiently easy to replace workers with machines—if, to use the technical jargon, the elasticity of substitution between capital and labor is greater than one—slow growth, and the resulting rise in the ratio of capital to income, will indeed widen the gap between r and g. And Piketty argues that this is what the historical record shows will happen.

Krugman calls the book “awesome,” but here are his critical remarks:

I don’t think Capital in the Twenty-First Century adequately answers the most telling criticism of the executive power hypothesis: the concentration of very high incomes in finance, where performance actually can, after a fashion, be evaluated. I didn’t mention hedge fund managers idly: such people are paid based on their ability to attract clients and achieve investment returns. You can question the social value of modern finance, but the Gordon Gekkos out there are clearly good at something, and their rise can’t be attributed solely to power relations, although I guess you could argue that willingness to engage in morally dubious wheeling and dealing, like willingness to flout pay norms, is encouraged by low marginal tax rates.

My own review is still due out in about a week’s time.