The rise of Stanford economics

by on July 28, 2015 at 7:33 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

From the report of the President of the university, Raj Chetty and Matt Gentzkow will be starting at the school this fall.

And John Cochrane is moving to Hoover full-time.

In the late 1970s and 80s, MIT was undoubtedly number one as a place to study economics, even if Chicago ideas were more important and more fundamental (Becker, Fama, Posner, etc.).  Harvard passed MIT a bit later for a good twenty year run at the top.

Stanford is next.

Everyone wants to find a version of history under which all the problems of the Eurozone are Germany’s fault, because everyone knows that all the solutions involve Germany paying. But it’s not really true; Germany spent the early years of ERM/EMU paying far more than anyone else was prepared to in order to smooth the adjustment path for the former Communist states. And after fifty years of structuring everything in Europe to prevent German hegemony, is it really a big surprise that Germany isn’t well set up to act as a hegemon? Imagine if the USA had lost the war in the Pacific and was today being blamed for its failure to ensure the economic development of the Phillippines.

That is from Daniel Davies, there are other good points at the link.

The taxation of superstars

by on July 28, 2015 at 12:46 am in Economics | Permalink

Here is yet another NBER Working Paper to shout from the rooftops:

How are optimal taxes affected by the presence of superstar phenomena at the top of the earnings distribution? To answer this question, we extend the Mirrlees model to incorporate an assignment problem in the labor market that generates superstar effects. Perhaps surprisingly, rather than providing a rationale for higher taxes, we show that superstar effects provides a force for lower marginal taxes, conditional on the observed distribution of earnings. Superstar effects make the earnings schedule convex, which increases the responsiveness of individual earnings to tax changes. We show that various common elasticity measures are not sufficient statistics and must be adjusted upwards in optimal tax formulas. Finally, we study a comparative static that does not keep the observed earnings distribution fixed: when superstar technologies are introduced, inequality increases but we obtain a neutrality result, finding tax rates at the top unaltered.

That is from Florian Scheuer and Iván Werning.

It depends on the Communist Party.

Of course you are free to leave alternative nominations in the comments.

Monday assorted links

by on July 27, 2015 at 1:10 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. How bad were the Black Panthers?

2. Spending a night in the robot-staffed hotel.

3. The Chinese stock market crash is worse than you think.

4. New Yorker profile of Varoufakis.  Interesting throughout, covers Obama too, not just the usual even if this seems like familiar territory by now.  “Adding up is the essence of democracy.”  What an excellent line.  The piece is by Ian Parker, and it deserves one of those David Brooks awards.

5. Brains striving for coherence.

6. Daniel Klein on who is a liberal.

7. “…even in relatively egalitarian Sweden, wealth begets wealth.”

Doing Good Better

by on July 27, 2015 at 7:25 am in Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

William MacAskill is that rare beast, a hard-headed, soft-hearted proponent of saving the world. His excellent new book, Doing Good Better, is a primer on the effective altruism movement.

Doing Good Better opens, just as you would expect, with an uplifting story of a wonderful person with a brilliant idea to save the world. The PlayPump uses a merry-go-round to pump water. Fun transformed into labor and life saving clean water! The energetic driver of the idea quits his job and invests his life in the project. Africa! Children on merry-go-rounds! Innovation! What could be better? It’s the perfect charitable meme and the idea attracts millions of dollars of funding from celebrities like Steve Case, Jay-Z, Laura Bush and Bill Clinton.

Then MacAskill subverts the narrative and drops the bomb:

…despite the hype and the awards and the millions of dollars spent, no one had really considered the practicalities of the PlayPump. Most playground merry-go-rounds spin freely once they’ve gained sufficient momentum–that’s what makes them fun. But in order to pump water, PlayPumps need constant force, and children playing on them would quickly get exhausted.

The women whose labor was supposed to be saved end up pushing the merry-go-round themselves, which they find demeaning and more exhausting than using a hand-pump. Moreover, the device is complicated and requires extensive maintenance that cannot be done in the village. The PlayPump is a disaster.

MacAskill, however, isn’t interested in castigating donors for their first-world hubris. MacAskill, a frugal Scottish philosopher, doesn’t like waste. Money, time and genuine goodwill are wasted in poorly-conceived charitable efforts and when lives are at stake that kind of waste is offensive. MacAskill, however, is convinced that a hard-headed approach–randomized trials, open-data, careful investigation of effectiveness–can do better. As MacAskill puts it:

When it comes to helping others, being unreflective often means being ineffective.

Of course, there are systematic problems with charitable giving. Most importantly, the feedback mechanism is never going to work as well when people are buying something to be consumed by others (as Milton Friedman explains). That problem, however, doesn’t explain why people do invest large amounts of money and their own time on wasteful projects. A large part of the problem is cultural. MacAskill asks us to consider the following thought experiment:

Imagine, for example, that you’re walking down a commercial street in your hometown. An attractive and frightening enthusiastic young woman nearly assaults you in order to get you stop and speak with her. She clasps a tablet and wears a T-shirt displaying the words, Dazzling Cosmetics…she explains that she’s representing a beauty products company that is looking for investment. She tells you about how big the market for beauty products is, and how great the products they sell are, and how because the company spends more than 90 percent of its money on making the products and less than 10 percent on staff, distribution, and marketing, the company is extremely efficient and therefore able to generate an impressive return on investment. Would you invest?

MacAskill says “Of course, you wouldn’t…you would consult experts…which is why the imaginary situation, I described here never occurs” Actually it’s even worse than that because what he describes does occur. It’s what the boiler rooms do to sell stocks (ala the Wolf of Wall Street). Thus, charities raise money using precisely the techniques that in other contexts are widely regarded as deceitful, disreputable and preying on the weak. Once you have seen how peculiar our charitable institutions are, it’s difficult to unsee.

Fortunately, effective altruism doesn’t require Mother Theresa-like levels of altruism or Spock-like level of hard-headedness. What is needed is a cultural change so that people become proud of how they give and not just how much they give. Imagine, for example, that it becomes routine to ask “How does Givewell rate your charity?” Or, “GiveDirectly gives poor people cash–can you demonstrate that your charity is more effective than cash?” The goal is not the questioning. The goal is to give people the warm glow when they can answer.

Around 97% of existing yuan-denominated bonds hold ratings of double-A to triple-A—the best a company can get.

That is from Fiona Law, cited by Christopher Balding, and ultimately Alex Frangos, those are ratings from Chinese sources.  Law reports:

With nine Chinese ratings firms to choose among, “bond issuers are encouraged to pick the highest ratings among agencies,” said Guan Jianzhong, chairman of Dagong Global, the country’s third-biggest ratings company in terms of market share. The fact that the bonds are rated double-A-minus or above, they “are not without risks,” he said.

By the way, the Shanghai Composite Index closes down 8.5%.

We’re going to be hearing more about this topic I suspect, so let’s start by looking at some of the evidence.  For now I’ll turn the microphone over to Xuemin (Sterling) Yan and Zhe Zhang (pdf):

We show that the positive relation between institutional ownership and future stock returns documented in Gompers and Metrick (2001) is driven by short-term institutions. Furthermore, short-term institutions’ trading forecasts future stock returns. This predictability does not reverse in the long run and is stronger for small and growth stocks. Short-term institutions’ trading is also positively related to future earnings surprises. By contrast, long-term institutions’ trading does not forecast future returns, nor is it related to future earnings news. Our results are consistent with the view that short-term institutions are better informed and they trade actively to exploit their informational advantage.

And here is from the Geoff Warren 2014 survey (pdf):

The link between investor short-termism and corporate myopia is not clear cut – While there is some evidence in support of such a link, it is by no mean compelling. Laverty (1996) examines arguments on the existence of short-termism, and points out there is: (1) no clear evidence of flawed short-term oriented management practices; (2) only mixed evidence that stock market myopia encourages corporate short-termism, noting for instance findings of positive stock market reactions to long-term investment by some papers; and, (3) an absence of empirical support for the supposed influence of ‘fluid capital’ on corporate behaviour.

Results of a survey of company management by Marston and Craven (1998) also question the extent to which institutional investors are short-term in focus. While their survey uncovers a perception that sell-side (broking) analysts are focused on the short-term, company management did not consider this the case for buy-side analysts and fund managers. When asked if the buy-side was too concerned with short-term profit opportunities, only 21% agreed while 53% disagreed.

There is more evidence to consider, but I will start by introducing the idea that the standard anti-publicly traded company tropes are not self-evidently true, or at the very least we do not know them to be true.

They are not good, as evidenced by a new paper by Buggle and Nafziger (pdf):

This paper examines the long-run consequences of serfdom in the countries of the former Russian Empire. We combine novel data measuring the intensity of labor coercion on the district level in 1861 with several intermediate and present-day outcomes. Our results show that past serfdom goes along with lower economic well-being today. We apply an instrumental variable strategy that exploits the transfer of serfs on monastic lands in 1764 to establish a causal link between past serfdom and current economic development. Tracking the evolution of city populations throughout Soviet times corroborates the finding of persistent economic differences. Furthermore, our results suggest a political economy mechanisms linking higher historical economic inequality with worse public goods provision (roads and education), as well as lower urbanization and structural change towards factory production, as explanation for this persistence. We do not find differences in contemporaneous cultural attitudes and preferences.

The pointer is from Pseudoerasmus.

Baan Thai at 1326 14th St. serves regional Thai cuisine, from four different parts of the country, the attached sushi restaurant serves as a talisman against the uninformed.  Get the tapioca chicken, the Isan sausage, and the Thai vermicelli in chili peanut sauce.  This is one of three or four local places with real Thai food, and thus one of the best dining spots in DC.  The Yelp reviews are nearly worthless, but here is useful WaPo coverage.

Sunday assorted links

by on July 26, 2015 at 4:28 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. The importance of upper-tail knowledgeMike Tyson Bitcoin.

2. Long-term interest rates, a survey (pdf).

3. “The median price for someone’s identity was $21.35.

4. Malcolm Gladwell is skeptical about Big Data.

5. The only partially successful history of people mailing themselves in boxes.

6. A hundred cities within Seoul.

7. Another look at the nail salon story.

8. Ed Glaeser reviews Ilya Somin on Kelo and eminent domain.

Interesting but worrying too:

The SmartGPA study uses passive sensing data and self-reports from students’ smartphones to understand individual behavioral differences between high and low performers during a single 10-week term. We propose new methods for better understanding study (e.g., study duration) and social (e.g., partying) behavior of a group of undergraduates. We show that there are a number of important behavioral factors automatically inferred from smartphones that significantly correlate with term and cumulative GPA, including time series analysis of activity, conversational interaction, mobility, class attendance, studying, and partying. We propose a simple model based on linear regression with lasso regularization that can accurately predict cumulative GPA. The predicted GPA strongly correlates with the ground truth from students’ transcripts…Our results open the way for novel interventions to improve academic performance.

That is from a new paper by Rui Wang, Gabriella Harariy, Peilin Hao, Xia Zhou, and Andrew T. Campbell (pdf).  Class attendance, by the way, does not predict grades very well.

For the pointers I thank Eric Barker and Dan Gould.

Arresting the central bank’s governor. Emptying its vaults. Appealing to Moscow for help.

These were the elements of a covert plan to return Greece to the drachma hatched by members of the Left Platform faction of Greece’s governing Syriza party.

That is from the FT, and there is more:

The plan demonstrates the apparently ruthless determination of Syriza’s far leftists to pursue their political aims — but also their lack of awareness of the workings of the eurozone financial system.

For one thing, the vaults at the Nomismatokopeion currently hold only about €10bn of cash — enough to keep the country afloat for only a few weeks but not the estimated six to eight months required to prepare, test and launch a new currency.

The Syriza government would have quickly found the country’s stash of banknotes unusable. Nor would they be able to print more €10 and €20 banknotes: From the moment the government took over the mint, the European Central Bank would declare Greek euros as counterfeit, “putting anyone who tried to buy something with them at risk of being arrested for forgery,” said a senior central bank official.

“The consequences would be disastrous. Greece would be isolated from the international financial system with its banks unable to function and its euros worthless,” the official added.

For all the flaws of the euro, the case for it has never been made more effectively.

Saturday assorted links

by on July 25, 2015 at 1:14 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Profile of Terry Tao.

2. Did Medicare D affect outcomes?

3. Is drinking a countercyclical asset in Greece?

4. Drug testing is coming to e-Gaming.

5. Interview with William Vollmann.  I still think the “By the Book” series in the NYT is the single best thing on the web these days.

6. One billion earths in our galaxy alone?  Uh-oh.  I don’t regard all that frozen water on Pluto as good news either.

7. Kremer and Miguel respond on the worm wars (pdf).

Overall, the dogmatic argument that a financial transactions tax is unworkable is clearly false. It operates in a lot of countries. The wide-eyed hope that such a tax can be a truly major revenue source also seems to be false. In part because of concerns over the risk of creating counterproductive incentives–either just to structure transactions in a way that minimizes such a tax or even to react in a way that reduces liquidity and increases volatility in financial markets–the rate at which such taxes are set is typically pretty low. As the authors write, “the idea that an FTT can raise vast amounts
of revenue—1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) or more—has proved inconsistent with actual experience with such taxes.”

The question with any tax is not whether it is perfect, because every real-world tax has some undesirable incentive effects. The question is whether a certain tax might have a useful role to play as part of the overall portfolio of real-world taxes. For what it’s worth, this particular review of the evidence leaves me skeptical that expanding the currently existing US financial transactions tax from its very low present level would be a useful step.

That is from Timothy Taylor.