Results for “alex tabarrok”
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In praise of Alex Tabarrok

Here’s a question I’ve been mulling in recent months: Is Alex Tabarrok right? Are people dying because our coronavirus response is far too conservative?

I don’t mean conservative in the politicized, left-right sense. Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and a blogger at Marginal Revolution, is a libertarian, and I am very much not. But over the past year, he has emerged as a relentless critic of America’s coronavirus response, in ways that left me feeling like a Burkean in our conversations.

He called for vastly more spending to build vaccine manufacturing capacity, for giving half-doses of Moderna’s vaccine and delaying second doses of Pfizer’s, for using the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, for the Food and Drug Administration to authorize rapid at-home tests, for accelerating research through human challenge trials. The through line of Tabarrok’s critique is that regulators and politicians have been too cautious, too reluctant to upend old institutions and protocols, so fearful of the consequences of change that they’ve permitted calamities through inaction.

Tabarrok hasn’t been alone. Combinations of these policies have been endorsed by epidemiologists, like Harvard’s Michael Mina and Brown’s Ashish Jha; by other economists, like Tabarrok’s colleague Tyler Cowen and the Nobel laureates Paul Romer and Michael Kremer; and by sociologists, like Zeynep Tufekci (who’s also a Times Opinion contributor). But Tabarrok is unusual in backing all of them, and doing so early and confrontationally. He’s become a thorn in the side of public health experts who defend the ways regulators are balancing risk. More than one groaned when I mentioned his name.

But as best as I can tell, Tabarrok has repeatedly been proved right, and ideas that sounded radical when he first argued for them command broader support now. What I’ve come to think of as the Tabarrok agenda has come closest to being adopted in Britain, which delayed second doses, approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine despite its data issues, is pushing at-home testing and permitted human challenge trials, in which volunteers are exposed to the coronavirus to speed the testing of treatments. And for now it’s working: Britain has vaccinated a larger percentage of its population than the rest of Europe and the United States have and is seeing lower daily case rates and deaths.

Here is more from Ezra Klein at the New York Times.

The wisdom of Alex Tabarrok

Alex did not reproduce this passage from his essay on on-line education, so I will did (and Reihan Salaam did):

Productivity in education has lagged productivity in other sectors of the economy because teaching is so labor intensive. Where exactly in the typical classroom is there room for investment, let alone productivity improvement? More chalk? Prior to online education, the bottleneck though which productivity improvements had to pass was the teacher, and we know that improving teacher productivity is very difficult, which is why teaching methods haven’t changed in millennia. Online education vastly increases the potential for productivity increases because it greatly increases the size of the potential market. Bigger markets increase the incentive to research and develop new products (coincidentally the very topic of my TED talk.) A tool used to improve online education–an interface, an algorithm, a new teaching method–can be applied very widely, potentially world-wide, thus greatly increasing the incentive to invest in the education sector, perhaps the most important sector of the 21st century economy.

Here are some budges forward on the accreditation of MOOCs.

Addendum: Here are interesting comments from Joshua Gans.

April Speaking Events: Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok

Here is a list of events that Tyler and/or I will be speaking at in the near future.

  • Tyler and I will both be at the APEE conference in Las Vegas, April 11-13.
  • Tyler will be speaking on “The Economics of the Jobless Recovery” at Emory University on Thursday April 22, 4-5:15 pm.  More information here.
  • Tyler and I will both be speaking at the Fifteenth Annual University of Kentucky Teaching Workshop on Saturday April 24.  I will be talking about “Seeing the Invisible Hand” and Tyler will talk about the “Impact of the Financial Crisis on the Teaching of Macroeconomics.”  More information and registration here.

Robin Williams and Alex Tabarrok

I was asked to do a radio interview with KPCC while I was at TED.  The interview had just started and I’m talking about organ donation when into the studio walks Robin Williams!  Naturally all chaos ensues and Robin takes over… but not before I manage to squeeze in an economics joke with Robin playing the straight man!  Some kind of first there.  I’m not sure Robin got the joke but I think this made the host laugh all the more. No one can out talk Robin, however, so he riffs on organ donation and fiscal stimulus for some time.  Eventually Robin goes on his merry way and the host and I get back to organ donation, bounty hunters, voting and other cool stuff.  An amazing experience for me.  Real audio here (try here if that doesn’t work)

Emmott Interviews Tabarrok for the Browser

Bill Emmott, former editor-in-chief of The Economist and now co-director of the Global Commission for Post-Pandemic Policy, talks to Alex Tabarrok, Professor of Economics at George Mason University and co-author of the blog Marginal Revolution, on lessons learned from the pandemic so far, and what lies ahead.

Self-recommending. I’d say it’s a very good interview but there was no question that I was outclassed by Bill Emmott’s zoom background, live from Dublin. Many thanks to the ever-excellent The Browser for hosting.

Tabarrok on Macro Musings

Here’s my podcast on Macro Musings with David Beckworth. One bit on China.

Tabarrok: The perspective which we’re getting today is that we’re in competition with China, but actually, when it comes to ideas, we’re in cooperation with China, because the more scientists and engineers that there are in China, then the better that is for us, actually. As you pointed out, if a Chinese researcher comes up with a cure for cancer, great! That’s fantastic! I mean, ideally I would come up with a cure for cancer, but the second best is my neighbor comes up with a cure for cancer, right?

Beckworth: Right.

Tabarrok: So, increasing the size of the Chinese market, with wealthier Chinese consumers, wealthier Indian consumers, that is going to increase the demand to do research and development, and that is going to have tremendous impacts not only in health, but in any field of endeavor which relies on these big, fixed costs. So, any time you have an idea-centered industry, which is a lot of industries today. All of high tech is idea centered. More R&D means more ideas. That comes from having bigger, richer markets.

Can Tabarrok Bridge the Wonks and Burning Man?

It’s a TED-style talk, and Alex Tabarrok is just getting going, dressed in D.C.-friendly attire (dark gray suit) in front of the usual casual-hip crowd at the Voice & Exit conference in Austin, Texas. Pacing behind the podium, he flashes images of workers, of wastrel, skeleton-thin immigrants seeking labor. Your heart bleeds as he sings his songs of morality and justice and the need for immigrants in any good society and etc., etc., etc.

His pitch to solve this messy hot topic of the day? Two words: open borders.

That’s from an amusing profile of me in OZY, Can Philosopher Alex Tabarrok Bridge the Wonks and Burning Man?

Addendum 1: Tyler’s office is even messier than mine.

Addendum 2: Tyler, of course, blogged this 3 minutes earlier from somewhere in Serbia. How does he bend the laws of space and time?

Tabarrok on Econ Talk on Private Cities

Based on my paper, Lessons from Gurgaon, India’s Private City (with Shruti Rajagopalan) I discuss private cities with Russ Roberts over at EconTalk this week.

I think the conversation went well but I haven’t heard it yet so let me also take the time to point you to my favorite recent EconTalk, Russ interviewing Greg Page, the former CEO of Cargill, the largest privately-held company in America. Their discussion covers the global food supply, false definitions of national food security, the role of prices, comparative advantage and more. It’s a great discussion.

A Critique of Tabarrok on Bundling

In my MRUniversity video on the economics of bundling I argue that bundling raises total surplus and that requiring the Cable TV companies to price by the channel is unlikely to reduce most people’s cable bill (see also Does Cable TV Ripoff People Who Don’t Like Sports?). Pragmatarianism offers an excellent critique. Here is one bit from a longer post worth reading in full:

The flaw in Tabarrok’s logic is that it completely ignores the necessity of determining what the actual demand is for the individual components in the bundle.  For example, when I subscribed to cable…Charter had no idea how much I valued the Discovery Channel.  Neither did the Discovery Channel.  But is my valuation relevant?  According to Tabarrok…it really isn’t.  Uh, what? 

How could the Discovery Channel and Charter and Tabarrok not care what the actual demand is for the Discovery Channel?  In the absence of consumer valuation…how could society’s limited resources be put to their most valuable uses? 

Tabarrok is basically arguing that we don’t need accurate information in order to efficiently allocate resources.  Except, does he really believe that?  Let me consult my magic database…

The most valuable public goods are constantly changing, just as the most valuable private goods are constantly changing.  The signal provided by prices and mobility is therefore of great importance. – Alexander Tabarrok, in The Voluntary City

Huh.  Hmmm.  Is the Discovery Channel a private good?  Yes.  Is its value constantly changing?  Yes.  So…according to Tabarrok…it’s of great importance that the Discovery Channel should have its own price.  But this sure wasn’t what he said in his video. 

An excellent point that was made most forcefully by Ronald Coase in The Marginal Cost Controversy. Coase argued that pricing goods with high fixed cost at marginal cost would generate static efficiency but at the price of dynamic efficiency because we would not be able to say with assurance that the total value of the product exceeded total cost. Similarly we lose some information with bundling, perhaps especially so because marginal cost in this case is zero. With bundling, we know that the total value of the bundle exceeds the total cost but we are less certain that the total value of each bundle component (channel) exceeds the total cost of each component.

But this cannot be the whole story because in another paper, The Nature of the Firm, Coase pointed out that sometimes we choose not to use prices. Firms, for example, are islands of central planning in a market ocean (see Yglesias for a good discussion).

A channel such as HBO is itself a bundle of dramas, comedies and documentaries. Should Girls and Game of Thrones always be priced and sold separately and not through the HBO bundle? HBO certainly learns something from individually priced downloads on iTunes and that information helps HBO to improve its service. But how much is this information worth?

In 2002 should HBO have individually priced episodes of the Sopranos and sold them through AOL?  Individual pricing generates value but it also has costs. Tradeoffs are everywhere. And, to the crux of the issue, if a law had been passed in 2002 requiring HBO to sell The Sopranos on an episode by episode basis would that have resulted in better and more programming at lower prices? I think not. Similarly, I see few reasons to think that welfare would be improved by a law requiring cable TV companies to price by channel.

More generally, the price system is embedded in the larger field of the market economy which includes non-price institutions such as firms; and the market economy is embedded in the larger field of civil society which includes non-profits and non-market institutions such as the family. Economists often focus on the virtues of the price system but that should not blind us to the many virtues and many margins on which a free society operates.

Summers, Lomborg, Tabarrok, and Cowen on climate change

There was a brief symposium, here are the results:

Larry Summers

President Emeritus of Harvard University, Former Chief Economist of the World Bank

My sense is that cap and trade is not the route to the future. It did not make it politically in the US at a moment of great opportunity in 2009. And European carbon markets have been plagued by constant problems. And globally it’s even harder. My sense is that the right strategy has three major elements. First, as the G20 vowed in 2009, there needs to be a concerted phase out of fossil fuel subsidies. This would help government budgets, drive increases in economic efficiency and substantially reduce global emissions. Second, there needs to be assurance of adequate funding for all areas of basic energy research. As a practical matter my guess is the world will produce non fossil fuel power in the next 25 years at today s fossil fuel prices or it will fail with respect to global climate change. Third, there is a strong case for concerted carbon taxes to further discourage greenhouse gas emissions. But this is a follow-on step for after the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies.

Bjorn Lomborg

Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School

The only way to move towards a long-term reduction in emissions is if green energy becomes much cheaper. If it cost less than fossil fuels, everyone would switch, including the Chinese. This, of course, requires breakthroughs in green technologies and much more innovation.

At the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate (, a panel of economists, including three Nobel laureates, found that the best long-term strategy to tackle global warming was to increase dramatically investment in green research and development. They suggested doing so 10-fold to $100bn a year globally. This would equal 0.2% of global GDP. Compare this to the EU’s climate policies, which cost $280 billion a year but reduce temperatures by a trivial 0.1 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

Alex Tabarrok

Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University

Neither the developed nor the developing world will accept large reductions in their standard of living. As a result, the only solution to global climate change is innovations in green technology. A carbon tax will induce innovation as people demand a way to avoid the tax. A carbon tax, however, will be more politically acceptable if technologies to avoid the tax are in existence before the tax is put into place. Prizes for green innovations can blaze a path down a road that must be traveled, making the trip easier. The L-prize successfully induced innovation in LED technologies, the X-Prize put a spacecraft into near space twice within two weeks and Google’s Lunar X prize for putting a robot on the moon is close to being awarded. Prizes have proven their worth. To speed both the creation and diffusion of green technology, green prizes should be awarded at the rate of $100-$200 million annually.

Tyler Cowen

Professor of Economics, George Mason University

This is a problem we are failing to solve. Keep in mind it is not just about getting the wealthy countries to switch to greener technologies, but we also desire that emerging economies will find green technology more profitable than dirty coal. A carbon tax is one way forward but the odds are that will not be enough and besides many countries are unlikely to adopt one anytime soon. Subsidies for technology could occur at a very basic level and we could make a gamble that nuclear fusion will finally pay off. We also need a version of green technology that will fit into existing energy infrastructures and into countries which do not have the most reliable institutions. The most likely scenario is that we will find out just how bad the climate change problem is slated to be.

There are further responses at the link.

Addendum: Ashok Rao adds comments.

The Tabarrok Curve in the WSJ

Matt Ridley covers patents and the Tabarrok Curve in the WSJ:

The economist Arthur Laffer is reputed to have drawn his famous curve—showing that beyond a certain point higher taxes generate lower revenue—on a paper napkin at a dinner with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in the Washington Hotel in 1974.

Another economist, Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University, last year drew a similar curve on a virtual napkin to argue that, beyond a certain point, greater protection for intellectual property causes less innovation. He thinks that U.S. patent law is well beyond that optimal point.

Last week the Supreme Court came out against the patenting of genes, on the grounds that they are discoveries, not inventions, though it did allow that edited copies of the DNA of a breast cancer gene should be seen as invented diagnostic tools. Dr. Tabarrok thinks that decision and other recent rulings are nudging patent law back in the right direction after a protectionist drift in the 1980s and ’90s.

Jude Wanniski and the Wall Street Journal made the Laffer curve famous so I have high hopes!