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.

A theory prize!  A rigor prize!  I would say it is about principal-agent theory and the increasing mathematization of formal propositions as a way of understanding economics.  He has been a leading figure in formalizing propositions in many distinct areas of microeconomics, most of all industrial organization but also finance and financial regulation and behavioral economics and even some public choice too.  He is a broader economist than many of his fans realize.

Tirole is a Frenchman, he teaches at Toulouse, and his key papers start in the 1980s.  In industrial organization, you can think of him as extending the earlier work of Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson with regard to opportunism and recontracting, but applying more sophisticated and more mathematical forms of game theory.  Tirole also has been a central figure in procurement theory and optimal contracts when there is asymmetric information about costs.  The idea of mechanism design runs throughout his papers in many different guises.  Many of his papers show “it’s complicated,” rather than presenting easily summarizable, intuitive solutions which make for good blog posts.  That is one reason why his ideas do not show up so often in blogs and the popular press, but they nonetheless have been extremely influential in the economics profession.  He has shown a remarkable breadth and depth over the course of the last thirty or so years.

His possible pick had been heralded for some numbers of years now, this award should not be considered a surprise at all.  You will note that the Swedes mention Jean-Jacques Laffont, who died a decade ago, and who co-authored many of the key papers in this area with Tirole.  Such a mention is considered a nod in the direction of implying that Laffont, had he lived, would have shared in the prize.

Here is Tirole’s home page.  Here is Tirole on Wikipedia.  Here is a short biography.  Here is Tirole on scholar.google.com.  Here is the press release.  Here is background from the Swedes.  Here is the 54-page document on why he won, one of the best places to start.  Here is the Twitter commentary.

One idea of Tirole’s I use frequently has to do with renegotiability.  Let’s say a regulator and a monopolist agree to a scheme of regulation and provision, creating some surplus for both parties.  As time passes, will each side of that bargain stick with the original agreement?  A simple example here is the defense contractor.  After a procurement contract is written, sometimes the supplier has the incentive to conduct a hold-up, to report that costs are higher than expected, and to ask for more money in return for timely fulfillment of the contract.  Of course this is a contract breach, but if no other supplier can step in and do the job, it may be optimal for the government to give in to these demands to some degree.  The question then is: how should the contract best be designed in advance, so as to prevent this problem from popping up later on?  Or should the renegotiation simply be allowed?  Anyone wishing to tackle these questions likely would start with the papers of Tirole on this topic.  For one thing, these papers help explain why a second-best optimal contract may offer some rents to agents and appear to give the agent “too good a deal.”

Some of his key papers focus on asymmetric information about costs.  Say a firm knows its costs and the regulator can only guess.  Ideally the regulator would likely to make the firm price at marginal cost, but the firm will pretend marginal cost is higher than it really is.  The regulator and the firm thus play a game.  Tirole figured out with rigor which principles govern how this game works and what a second-best regulatory solution might look like.  With Laffont, here is his key paper in that area.  David Baron made contributions to this area as well.  Again, there is a potential argument for an “agent rent,” to limit the incentive of the agent to lie too much about costs, for fear of losing that rent if the cooperative relationship breaks down.

Tirole, writing sometimes with Rey, wrote some important papers on vertical agreements and how they can be used to extend market power, for instance when can buying up parts of a supply chain help extend monopoly power?  His paper with Oliver Hart figures out some of the conditions under which vertical acquisitions can help foreclose a market.  With Rey, Tirole surveys the literature on vertical relations and foreclosure.

This early 1984 paper, with Drew Fudenberg, laid out the conditions when firms should overinvest in capacity to deter competitive entry, or when firms should instead look “lean and mean” for entry deterrence.  The underlying analysis has shaped many a business school discussion.

I am a fan of this 1996 paper on how we can think of firms as credible ways of carrying reputations in a collective sense.  For instance the existence of a firm called “Google” transmits real information about the qualities of the people you deal with when you are transacting with members of the Google firm.  This was an important addition to the usual Coasean vision of thinking of a firm in terms of economizing transaction costs.

He has written some key papers on financial intermediation, collateral, and the agency problems associated with lending, here is one well-cited paper by him and Holmstrom. Here is a non-gated version (pdf).  A key argument is that a decline in the value of the collateral in a lending relationship can lower efficiency and also output, and this can help explain some features of business cycles.  This 1997 paper was well ahead of its time and it remains one of Tirole’s most widely cited works.  Arguably it is relevant for recent financial crises.

He has a 1994 book with Mathias Dewatripont on the prudential regulation of banks and how to apply the proper incentives to make sure banks do not take too much risk at public expense.  Obviously this also has since become a much more important topic.  How many of you know his 1996 paper with Rochet on “Interbank Lending and Systemic Risk“?  They show the contradictions which can plague a “too big to fail” policy and the attempts of central banks to maintain a “creative ambiguity” about what kinds of bailouts will occur, using rigorous game theory of course.

With Rochet, he has a well-known paper on platform competition, laying out the basics of how these “two-sided” markets work.  Think of internet or payment portals which must get both sides of the market on board.  What are the efficiency properties of such markets and what are the game-theoretic issues?  In this setting, how do for-profits compare to non-profits?  Competition to monopoly?  Rochet and Tirole laid out some of the basics here, here is their survey piece on the field as a whole.  Alex’s post above has much more on these points, and Joshua Gans covers this area too, here is Vox.

In public choice economics, he and Laffont have an important paper on when regulatory capture is actually likely to occur.  I have yet to see the insights of this paper incorporated into the rest of the literature adequately.  His paper on the internal organization of government considers the relative appropriateness of high- vs. low-powered incentives as applied to government employees, among other matters.  His 1999 paper with Mathias Dewatripont, “Advocates,” shows in game-theoretic terms why something like the Anglo-American system of competing lawyers might make sense as the best way of discovering information and adjudicating the truth.  This paper shows how career concerns affect bureaucratic incentives and what is the optimal degree of specialization within a government bureaucracy.

He has thought very deeply about the nature of liquidity and what is the optimal degree of liquidity in a securities market.  There can be some side benefits to illiquidity, namely that it forces parties to stay committed to an economic relationship.  This must be weighed against the more obvious benefits of liquidity, which include having better benchmarks for measuring managerial performance, namely stock price (see this paper with Holmstrom).  This kind of analysis can be applied to the question of whether the shares of a firm should stay privately traded or be put on a public exchange.  This 1998 paper, with Holmstrom, is a key forerunner of the current view that the global economy does not have enough in the way of safe assets.

Here is his paper on vertical structure and collusion in bureaucracies (pdf).  Here is his very useful survey article, with Holmstrom, on the theory of the firm.

His textbook on Industrial Organization is a model of clarity and remains a landmark in the field, even though it came out almost thirty years ago.

He has written a book on telecommunications regulation (with Laffont) although I have never read that material.

In finance he wrote this key 1985 paper, deriving the conditions under which you can have an asset bubble in a market with rational expectations.  The problem of course is that the price of the asset tends to keep rising, relative to the size of the economy as a whole, and eventually it becomes impossible to keep on buying the asset.  This has to mean an eventual crash, unless the growth rate of the economy exceeds the general rate of return on assets.  This paper helped us think through some issues which recently have resurfaced with the work of Thomas Piketty.  His earlier 1982 paper on speculation is also relevant to this topic.  Most economists think of Tirole as game theory, finance, and industrial organization, but his contributions to finance are significant as well.

Just to show his breadth, here is his paper with Roland Benabou on incentives and when they undermine the intrinsic desire to do a good job.  For instance if you pay kids to get good grades, will that backfire and kill off their own reasons for wanting to do well?  Alex covers that paper in more detail.  This other paper with Benabou, “Self-Confidence and Personal Motivation,” is a great deal of fun.  It analyzes the benefits of overconfidence, namely greater motivation, and shows how to weigh those benefits against the possible costs, namely making more mistakes.  It shows Tirole dipping a foot into the waters of behavioral economics and again reflects his versatility in terms of fields.  I like this sentence from the abstract: “On the supply side, we develop a model of self-deception through endogenous memory that reconciles the motivated and rational features of human cognition.”  Again with Benabou, here is his paper on willpower and personal rules, very much in the vein of Thomas Schelling.

Here is Tirole on intellectual property and health in developing countries, with plenty on policy.

It’s an excellent and well-deserved pick.  One point is that some other economists, such as Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom, may be disappointed they were not joint picks, this would have been the time to give them the prize too, so it seems their chances have gone down.

Overall I think of Tirole as in the tradition of French theorists starting with Cournot in 1838 (!) and Jules Dupuit in the 1840s, economics coming from a perspective with lots of math and maybe even some engineering.  I don’t know anything specific about his politics, but to my eye he reads very much like a French technocrat in terms of approach and orientation.

Jean Tirole is renowned as an excellent teacher and a very nice person.

Assorted links

by on October 12, 2014 at 4:58 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Pearlstein reviews Kleinbard and Madrick.  And is Piketty actually a case for more capitalism?

2. GMU job market candidates.  And talks from the “40 years after Hayek’s Nobel Prize” event.

3. Interviewing people named Hitler.

4. A tiger against tiger nationalism.

6. What the British wrote about the Germans in 1944, and why do the Germans still care?

Neil Cummins has a new paper of interest, the abstract is this:

I analyze the age at death of 121,524 European nobles from 800 to 1800. Longevity began increasing long before 1800 and the Industrial Revolution, with marked increases around 1400 and again around 1650. Declines in violence contributed to some of this increase, but the majority must reflect other changes in individual behavior. The areas of North-West Europe which later witnessed the Industrial Revolution achieved greater longevity than the rest of Europe even by 1000 AD. The data suggest that the ‘Rise of the West’ originates before the Black Death.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

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.

There is a new product to help you with getting things done, writeordie.com:

Write or Die is an application for Windows, Mac and Linux which aims to eliminate writer’s block by providing consequences for procrastination and, new to this version, rewards for accomplishment. Historically Write or Die has specialized in being the stick in the carrot/stick motivation continuum, but it’s time to experiment with encouragement.

One of the biggest improvements is the inclusion of visual stimulus. Instead of just writing to avoid annoying sounds and alarm warning colors you can now customize your stimulus. If you like to see a cute puppy after you’ve reached a certain number of words, you can. If you’d like to write in fear of a jiggling spider, you can do that too.

Under some modes, if you spend too much time without typing, it starts erasing the words you already have created.

For the pointer I thank Jonathan Falk.

Where to eat in Hong Kong

by on October 12, 2014 at 2:06 am in Food and Drink, Travels | Permalink

Anywhere near downtown virtually all of the good places are quite expensive.  The good news is that there are many of them and they are quite fine indeed.  Two I can recommend are Mott 32 and Ye Shanghai, near Central and Admiralty respectively.

My favorite meal of the trip was out at Sha Tin 18, in the New Territories Hyatt.

Tung Po Seafood, above one of the wet markets, is one of the remaining good and relatively cheap places on Hong Kong Island.

On the even cheaper side, I can recommend the general row of eateries on Hau Fook Street, Kowloon, especially the larger Sichuan place on the corner, no English sign but they advertise being a WiFi HotSpot, I believe you will find it if you try.

Cheaper yet, the protestors served some pretty good fried rice, which I believe was donated by a local restaurant.

In general, the way to go these days is to either ante up on Hong Kong Island or make your way out to New Territories, or maybe try Kowloon City.

Assorted links

by on October 11, 2014 at 4:20 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Is luxury consumption a female mating competition strategy?

2. Brad DeLong on whether QE is destabilizing.

3. The man who discovered Ebola.  And how one district in Sierra Leone contained Ebola.

4. Amazon is not a monopoly.

5. How bad are the remaining losses in Spanish banks?

6. Might the changes in Yemen endanger some of world trade?

When I last visited Bombay, I explained to my then four-year-old about that we couldn’t buy too many things because of weight restrictions in the flight, etc. My relatives were genuinely wondering why I didn’t just stop at “no.”

That is quoted by Kottke, from a series by Joanna Goddard, the whole post is interesting on issues of child-rearing across the nations.

Comedy club average is over

by on October 11, 2014 at 3:17 am in Economics, Uncategorized | Permalink

 One Barcelona comedy club is experimenting with using facial recognition technology to charge patrons by the laugh.

The comedy club, Teatreneu, partnered with the advertising firm The Cyranos McCann to implement the new technology after the government hiked taxes on theater tickets, according to a BBC report. In 2012, the Spanish government raised taxes on theatrical shows from 8 to 21 percent.

Cyranos McCann installed tablets on the back of each seat that used facial recognition tech to measure how much a person enjoyed the show by tracking when each patron laughed or smiled.

Each giggle costs approximately 30 Euro cents ($0.38). However, if a patron hits the 24 Euros mark, which is about 80 laughs, the rest of their laughs are free of charge.

The full story is here, via Mark Steckbeck.

What I’ve been reading

by on October 11, 2014 at 1:40 am in Books, Food and Drink | Permalink

1. David Sterling, Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition.  This cookbook is “too good” to actually cook from, but as account of food from Yucatán, along with history, photos, and recipes, it has to count as one of the year’s most notable publications.

2. Sebastian Edwards, Toxic Aid: Economic Collapse and Recovery in Tanzania.  He gives foreign aid to Tanzania an “F” for the 1961-1981 period, a “B minus” for 1981-1994, and a B+ for the latter part of that period.  Edwards is a top international economist and this is one of the best thought out books on foreign aid.

3. Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, The Upside of Your Dark Side.  Only some people should read this book.

4. Virginia Woolf, Flush: A Biography.  This one doesn’t get huge amounts of play, but it’s actually an awesome book about…a dawg.  Recommended, beautifully written and easy to read, Straussian too though you can read it straight up for fun as well.

5. Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman.  A charming tale for bibliophiles, centering around a Lebanese woman who translates one classic novel a year, but for herself only.

I Quant NY reports:

…there on the map lies the farthest residential building from a subway entrance in Manhattan according to my analysis: 10 Gracie Square, located at the end of 84th street at the FDR Drive.  It is 0.7 miles from the subway station as the crow flies, or 0.8 miles using the grid.  My favorite part about the finding is that the Penthouse, which I guess is literally the farthest place you can live from the subway due to the longer ride down in the elevator, is currently on the market for $18.9 million, down from $23 million last year. That’s right, you can pay $18.9 million dollars to have the longest walk to the subway in all of Manhattan!  But fear not power walkers, there is also a two bedroom with a the same walk but a slightly shorter elevator ride… for $3.75 million.

For the pointer I thank Craig Richardson.

Assorted links

by on October 10, 2014 at 11:16 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. The last one-sentence book review.

2. Lead role in Kafka’s Metamorphosis given to a robot.

3. Lev Grossman reviews Kerry Howley.

4. Jesse Rothstein revisits the value of a great teacher (pdf).  Maybe it’s not so high.

5. 5700 video games for $164k.

6. Claims about carbon capture (speculative).

7. America fights Chinese plan for a rival to the World Bank.

8. Economic policy in Hong Kong isn’t as good as many people think.