Michael Kremer, Nobel laureate

To Alex’s excellent treatment I will add a short discussion of Kremer’s work on deworming (with co-authors, most of all Edward Miguel), here is one summary treatment:

Intestinal helminths—including hookworm, roundworm, whipworm, and schistosomiasis—infect more than one-quarter of the world’s population. Studies in which medical treatment is randomized at the individual level potentially doubly underestimate the benefits of treatment, missing externality benefits to the comparison group from reduced disease transmission, and therefore also underestimating benefits for the treatment group. We evaluate a Kenyan project in which school-based mass treatment with deworming drugs was randomly phased into schools, rather than to individuals, allowing estimation of overall program effects. The program reduced school absenteeism in treatment schools by one-quarter, and was far cheaper than alternative ways of boosting school participation. Deworming substantially improved health and school participation among untreated children in both treatment schools and neighboring schools, and these externalities are large enough to justify fully subsidizing treatment. Yet we do not find evidence that deworming improved academic test scores.

If you do not today have a worm, there is some chance you have Michael Kremer to thank!

With Blanchard, Kremer also has an excellent and these days somewhat neglected piece on central planning and complexity:

Under central planning, many firms relied on a single supplier for critical inputs. Transition has led to decentralized bargaining between suppliers and buyers. Under incomplete contracts or asymmetric information, bargaining may inefficiently break down, and if chains of production link many specialized producers, output will decline sharply. Mechanisms that mitigate these problems in the West, such as reputation, can only play a limited role in transition. The empirical evidence suggests that output has fallen farthest for the goods with the most complex production process, and that disorganization has been more important in the former Soviet Union than in Central Europe.

Kremer with co-authors also did excellent work on the benefits of school vouchers in Colombia.  And here is Kremer’s work on teacher incentives — incentives matter!  His early piece on wage inequality with Maskin, from 1996, was way ahead of its time.  And don’t forget his piece on peer effects and alcohol use: many college students think the others are drinking more than in fact they are, and publicizing the lower actual level of drinking can diminish alcohol abuse problems.  The Hajj has an impact on the views of its participants, and “… these results suggest that students become more empathetic with the social groups to which their roommates belong,.” link here.

And don’t forget his famous paper titled “Elephants.”  Under some assumptions, the government should buy up a large stock of ivory tusks, and dump them on the market strategically, to ruin the returns of elephant speculators at just the right time.  No one has ever worked through the issue before of how to stop speculation in such forbidden and undesirable commodities.

Michael Kremer has produced a truly amazing set of papers.

The Nobel Prize in Economic Science Goes to Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer

The Nobel Prize goes to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer (links to home pages) for field experiments in development economics. Esther Duflo was a John Bates Clark Medal winner, a MacArthur “genius” award winner, and is now the second woman to win the economics Nobel and by far the youngest person to ever win the economics Nobel (Arrow was the previous youngest winner!). Duflo and Banerjee are married so these are also the first spouses to win the economics Nobel although not the first spouses to win Nobel prizes–there was even one member of a Nobel prize winning spouse-couple who won the Nobel prize in economics. Can you name the spouses?

Michael Kremer wrote two of my favorite papers ever. The first is Patent Buyouts which you can find in my book Entrepreneurial Economics: Bright Ideas from the Dismal Science. The idea of a patent buyout is for the government to buy a patent and rip it up, opening the idea to the public domain. How much should the government pay? To decide this they can hold an auction. Anyone can bid in the auction but the winner receives the patent only say 10% of the time–the other 90% of the time the patent is bought by the government at the market price. The value of this procedure is that 90% of the time we get all the incentive properties of the patent without any of the monopoly costs. Thus, we eliminate the innovation tradeoff. Indeed, the government can even top the market price up by say 15% in order to increase the incentive to innovate. You might think the patent buyout idea is unrealistic. But in fact, Kremer went on to pioneer an important version of the idea, the Advance Market Commitment for Vaccines which was used to guarantee a market for the pneumococcal vaccine which has now been given to some 143 million children. Bill Gates was involved with governments in supporting the project.

My second Kremer paper is Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1990. An economist examining one million years of the economy! I like to say that there are two views of humanity, people are stomachs or people are brains. In the people are stomachs view, more people means more eaters, more takers, less for everyone else. In the people are brains view, more people means more brains, more ideas, more for everyone else. The people are brains view is my view and Paul Romer’s view (ideas are nonrivalrous). Kremer tests the two views. He shows that over the long run economic growth increased with population growth. People are brains.

Oh, and can I add a third Kremer paper? The O-Ring Model of Development is a great and deep paper. (MRU video on the O-ring model).

The work for which the Nobel was given is for field experiments in development economics. Kremer began this area of research with randomized trials of educational policies in Kenya. Duflo and Banerjee then deepened and broadened the use of field experiments and in 2003 established the Poverty Action Lab which has been the nexus for field experiments in development economics carried on by hundreds of researchers around the world.

Much has been learned in field experiments about what does and also doesn’t work. In Incentives Work, Dufflo, Hanna and Ryan created a successful program to monitor and reduce teacher absenteeism in India, a problem that Michael Kremer had shown in Missing in Action was very serious with some 30% of teachers not showing up on a typical day. But when they tried to institute a similar program for nurses in Putting a Band-Aid on A Corpse the program was soon undermined by local politicians and “Eighteen months after its inception, the program had become completely ineffective.” Similarly, Banerjee, Duflo, Glennerster and Kinnan find that Microfinance is ok but no miracle (sorry fellow laureate Muhammad Yunus). A frustrating lesson has been the context dependent nature of results and the difficult of finding external validity. (Lant Pritchett in a critique of the “randomistas” argues that real development is based on macro-policy rather than micro-experiment. See also Bill Easterly on the success of the Washington Consensus.)

Duflo, Kremer and Robinson study How High Are Rates of Return to Fertilizer? Evidence from Field Experiments in Kenya. This is an especially interest piece of research because they find that rates of return are very high but that farmers don’t use much fertilizer. Why not? The reasons seem to have much more to do with behavioral biases than rationality. Some interventions help:

Our findings suggest that simple interventions that affect neither the cost of, nor the payoff to, fertilizer can substantially increase fertilizer use. In particular, offering farmers the option to buy fertilizer (at the full market price, but with free delivery) immediately after the harvest leads to an increase of at least 33 percent in the proportion of farmers using fertilizer, an effect comparable to that of a 50 percent reduction in the price of fertilizer (in contrast, there is no impact on fertilizer adoption of offering free delivery at the time fertilizer is actually needed for top dressing). This finding seems inconsistent with the idea that low adoption is due to low returns or credit constraints, and suggests there may be a role for non–fully rational behavior in explaining production decisions.

This is reminiscent of people in developed countries who don’t adjust their retirement savings rates to take advantage of employer matches. (A connection to Thaler’s work).

Duflo and Banerjee have conducted many of their field experiments in India and have looked at not just conventional questions of development economics but also at politics. In 1993, India introduced a constitutional rule that said that each state had to reserve a third of all positions as chair of village councils for women. In a series of papers, Duflo studies this natural experiment which involved randomization of villages with women chairs. In Women as Policy Makers (with Chattopadhyay) she finds that female politicians change the allocation of resources towards infrastructure of relevance to women. In Powerful Women (Beaman et al.) she finds that having once had a female village leader increases the prospects of future female leaders, i.e. exposure reduces bias.

Before Banerjee became a randomistas he was a theorist. His A Simple Model of Herd Behavior is also a favorite. The essence of the model can be explained in a simple example (from the paper). Suppose there are two restaurants A and B. The prior probability is that A is slightly more likely to be a better restaurant than B but in fact B is the better restaurant. People arrive at the restaurants in sequence and as they do they get a signal of which restaurant is better and they also see what choice the person in front of them made. Suppose the first person in line gets a signal that the better restaurant is A (contrary to fact). They choose A. The second person then gets a signal that the better restaurant is B. The second person in line also sees that the first person chose A, so they now know one signal is for A and one is for B and the prior is A so the weight of the evidence is for A—the second person also chooses restaurant A. The next person in line also gets the B signal but for the same reasons they also choose A. In fact, everyone chooses A even if 99 out of 100 signals are B. We get a herd. The sequential information structure means that the information is wasted. Thus, how information is distributed can make a huge difference to what happens. A lot of lessons here for tweeting and Facebook!

Banerjee is also the author of some original and key pieces on Indian economic history, most notably History, Institutions, and Economic Performance: The Legacy of Colonial Land Tenure Systems in India (with Iyer).

Duflo’s TED Talk. Previous Duflo posts; Kremer posts; Banerjee posts on MR.

Before last year’s Nobel announcement Tyler wrote:

I’ve never once gotten it right, at least not for exact timing, so my apologies to anyone I pick (sorry Bill Baumol!). Nonetheless this year I am in for Esther Duflo and Abihijit Banerjee, possibly with Michael Kremer, for randomized control trials in development economics.

As Tyler predicted he was wrong and also right. Thus, this years win is well-timed and well-deserved. Congratulations to all.

Kremer’s Prize

The Advance Market Commitment for vaccines launched on friday.  Under the commitment a group of developed nations (Canada, Italy, Norway, Russia, the United Kingdom) and Bill Gates! (The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) promises to pay for a pneumococcal vaccine suitable in price and effectiveness for the developing world.  The idea, the brain child of economist Michael Kremer, could save millions of lives over the next several decades.  Kremer deserves a Prize for his Prize – in Peace or Economics.

Owen, who played a part in the project, has more background and musings.

Implementing Michael Kremer’s vaccines idea

…finance ministers from at least three Western countries are scheduled to meet in Rome next week to announce a pilot program for delivering next-generation vaccines more rapidly to poor nations.  An official for the GAVI Alliance, an international vaccines group, confirmed that the project would be the first step of a controversial plan to pay qualifying vaccine makers a higher price than they would ordinarily receive for their products in impoverished areas hard hit by infectious diseases.

Here is the full story.  Here is Alex on Kremer’s idea.

More Sex is Safer Sex

I had forgotten that Steven Landsburg’s More Sex is Safer Sex (link to the 1997 NYTimes version, book here) was inspired by a paper by new Nobelist Michael Kremer. Here’s the recap:

You’ve read elsewhere about the sin of promiscuity. Let me tell you about the sin of self-restraint.

Consider Martin, a charming and generally prudent young man with a limited sexual history, who has been gently flirting with his coworker Joan. As last week’s office party approached, both Joan and Martin silently and separately entertained the prospect that they just might be going home together. Unfortunately, Fate, through its agents at the Centers for Disease Control, intervened. The morning of the party, Martin happened to notice one of those CDC-sponsored subway ads touting the virtues of abstinence. Chastened, he decided to stay home. In Martin’s absence, Joan hooked up with the equally charming but considerably less prudent Maxwell – and Joan got AIDS.

When the cautious Martin withdraws from the mating game, he makes it easier for the reckless Maxwell to prey on the hapless Joan. If those subway ads are more effective against Martin than against Maxwell, they are a threat to Joan’s safety. This is especially so when they displace Calvin Klein ads, which might have put Martin in a more socially beneficent mood.

If the Martins of the world would loosen up a little, we could slow the spread of AIDS. Of course, we wouldn’t want to push this too far: if Martin loosens up too much, he becomes as dangerous as Maxwell. But when sexual conservatives increase their activity by moderate amounts, they do the rest of us a lot of good. Harvard professor Michael Kremer estimates that the spread of AIDS in England could plausibly be retarded if everyone with fewer than about 2.25 partners per year were to take additional partners more frequently.

And here is Kremer’s original paper (with Charles Morcom). Landsburg suggests that a subsidy for condoms would be optimal in this situation. Read the whole thing.

Addendum: I later pointed out that the Kremer model appears to fit what happened in Thailand quite well.

The O-Ring Model of Development

Michael Kremer’s Nobel prize (with Duflo and Banerjee) reminded me of his important paper The O-Ring Theory of Development. I also rewatched my video on this paper from Tyler’s and my online class, Development Economics. This was from our powerpoint and iPad days so there are no fancy graphics but the video holds up! Mostly because it’s a great model with lots of interesting implications not just for development but also for the structure of the US economy. See also Jason Collins on Garett Jones’s extension of the model.

Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1990

That is an older paper by the excellent Michael Kremer, worth keeping in mind, here is the abstract:

The nonrivalry of technology, as modeled in the endogenous growth literature, implies that high population spurs technological change. This paper constructs and empirically tests a model of long-run world population growth combining this implication with the Malthusian assumption that technology limits population. The model predicts that over most of history, the growth rate of population will be proportional to its level. Empirical tests support this prediction and show that historically, among societies with no possibility for technological contact, those with larger initial populations have had faster technological change and population growth.

This bears on my earlier Bloomberg column, today cited by Mike Lee, suggesting that having more children is likely to help out on the climate change issue.

Who will win the Nobel Prize in economics this year?

I’ve never once gotten it right, at least not for exact timing, so my apologies to anyone I pick (sorry Bill Baumol!).  Nonetheless this year I am in for Esther Duflo and Abihijit Banerjee, possibly with Michael Kremer, for randomized control trials in development economics.

Maybe they are too young, as Tim Harford points out, so my back-up pick remains an environmental prize for Bill Nordhaus, Partha Dasgupta, and Marty Weitzman.

What do you all predict?

Who will win the Nobel Prize in Economics this coming Monday?

I’ve never once nailed the timing, but I have two predictions.

The first is William Baumol, who is I believe ninety-four years old.  His cost-disease hypothesis is very important for understanding the productivity slowdown, see this recent empirical update.  Oddly, the hypothesis is most likely false for the sector where Baumol pushed it hardest — music and the arts.

Baumol has many other contributions, but the next most significant is probably his theory of contestable markets, plus his writings on entrepreneurship.

The other option is a joint prize for environmental economics, perhaps to William Nordhaus, Partha Dasgupta, and Martin Weitzman.  A prize in that direction is long overdue.

The “Web of Science” predicts Lazear, Blanchard, or Marc Melitz, based on citation counts.  Other reasonable possibilities include Robert Barro, Paul Romer, Banerjee and Duflo and Kremer (joint?), David Hendry, Diamond and Dybvig, and Bernanke, Woodford, and Svensson, arguably joint.  I still am of the opinion that Martin Feldstein is deserving, don’t forget he did empirical public finance, was a pioneer in health care economics, and built the NBER.  For a dark horse pick, how about Joseph Newhouse (RCTs and the Rand health care study)?

There are other options — what is your prediction?

Who will win the economics Nobel Prize this year?

Diane Coyle mentions some possible picks:

Environmental economics: Partha Dasgupta, William Nordhaus

Update: Twitter folks strongly recommend adding Martin Weitzman in this category.

Growth: Paul Romer, Robert Barro

Inequality: Anthony Atkinson, Angus Deaton

Innovation (and much else): Will Baumol (now 93!)

Econometrics: David Hendry

All good guesses.  I’ll add Diamond and Dybvig for banking, and possibly an early grant to Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer for development and RCTs.  That would make economics look scientific, for a year at least.  I expect Bernanke, Woodford, and Svensson to get a prize as well for monetary economics, although probably not right now.  It is too close to Bernanke’s memoir and Svensson’s tenure at the Swedish central bank.

Here is a WSJ list.  What do you think?  Since I’ve never once been right about a particular year, trying to pick someone would only curse them.  The award will come this Monday of course.

Saturday assorted links

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).

A simple theory of some current basketball surprises

Apply a dose of science and big data to a team sport such as basketball.  The big gains will come in cooperation.  Who should take the next shot?, when is a “corner three” worthwhile?, who should play with the second unit, how good is the pick and roll against this opponent?, and so on.  Big data also will bring some gains at the individual level, such as from better training regimens, but those moves were easier to spot in the first place.  The issues involving cooperation are those where simple intuitive observation, of the old school style, will miss a lot of potential improvements.

Cooperative gains are more fragile, however, because everyone has to get the strategy right to reap the benefits (think of Michael Kremer’s O-Ring model).  So the previous champion, San Antonio, has fallen off dramatically because Leonard is injured and Tony Parker is playing like his age (32).  Atlanta suddenly had all the pieces gel, and they now, to the surprise of almost everyone, have the best record in the East.  (They have learned the ball movement and shooting style which San Antonio perfected last year during their championship run, but Atlanta has no big stars.)  Golden State is a positive surprise too, with the best record in the league.  Cleveland has attempted to do “cooperation” (ha) on the terms of its stars, not on the terms of the data, and that experiment has fallen flat.

In Panama I watched an old Lakers game from the 1980s (vs. Portland) and was struck by how tall everyone was, compared to today.  There were fewer surprises that year, and I believe those facts are related.  The three-point shot has made players shorter and more cooperative and arguably increased the value of the coach and his assistants.

Some of these arguments should apply to areas other than basketball, so perhaps a higher value for data-driven cooperation will mean more surprises in the world in general.

Should the U.S. destroy its stockpile of ivory?

Here is one of the latest developments in economic policy:

The US government hopes to send a crushing message to anyone involved in the illegal ivory trade — by decimating a 6-ton stockpile of seized elephant ivory.

In an announcement posted online, the US Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) describes plans to “pulverize” a cache of ivory on November 14th. All of the ivory was obtained, the agency notes, from law enforcement efforts to crack down on trafficking over the last two decades. “Destroying this ivory tells criminals who engage in poaching and trafficking that the United States will take all available measures to disrupt and prosecute those who prey on, and profit from, the deaths of these magnificent animals,” reads a statement on the FWS website.

There is more here, via Viktor Brech and Bruce Ryan and Kaushal Desai.

Bruce suggests the government announce it has created an artificial form of ivory, to lower expected prices and discourage future poaching.  If they can get away with that lie, great.  Otherwise, we all know the 2000 Kremer and Morcom piece entitled simply “Elephants”:

Many open-access resources, such as elephants, are used to produce storable goods. Anticipated future scarcity of these resources will increase current prices and poaching. This implies that, for given initial conditions, there may be rational expectations equilibria leading to both extinction and survival. The cheapest way for governments to eliminate extinction equilibria may be to commit to tough antipoaching measures if the population falls below a threshold. For governments without credibility, the cheapest way to eliminate extinction equilibria may be to accumulate a sufficient stockpile of the storable good and threaten to sell it should the population fall.

That emphasis is added.  Sell it, not destroy.

The (gated) AER version of the paper is here.  The Montclair State version is here.  A few comments and responses are here.

In other words, our government is pursuing symbolic value but at the same time implementing the wrong incentives.

Here is a piece on elephant music-making.

Thomson Reuters predicts the 2013 Nobel Laureate in economics

Their leading candidates are:

Joshua D. Angrist, David E. Card, Alan B. Krueger, Sir David F. Hendry, M. Hashem Pesaran, Peter C.B. Phillips, Sam Peltzman, and Richard A. Posner, all very good possible picks in my view.

My personal prediction (which never once has been correct, at least not in the proper year) is for an early “shock” prize to Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer, in part to show (try to show?) that economics really is an actual science.

In any case the above link offers Reuters picks for the science prizes as well.  Here are some other speculations for the science prizes as well.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Pandemics and public goods, and why we are failing at both

Here is my latest New York Times column, which has a specific part on how to address pandemics and a more general section on the evolving role of government in American society.  In neither area are matters running especially well.

Here is one initial point, namely that it is difficult to commit to allow high prices upfront:

Research and development grants are a way to pay potential innovators up front — an important move, as an innovator can’t always charge high-enough prices for the value of its remedies when they’re actually needed.

That will lead to institutional failure, rooted in a mix of government and market failure.  Therefore other rewards are needed, since the prospect of high prices does not adequately motivate.  I thus call for some key drugs to be rewarded with prizes and for government to buy out the patent rights, if need be:

If anyone doubted a government pledge to pay big money for the rights to remedies, the patent’s value could be established by a competitive auction. Michael Kremer, a Harvard economics professor, outlined the procedure for such an auction in his research paper “Patent Buyouts.”

The larger problem is this:

OVER all, the American government seems to be turning its back on its traditional role of producing and investing in national public goods. If there is any consistent tendency in recent government spending, it is that spending on entitlements like Social Security and Medicare — which provide mostly private benefits — is rising and that investment and spending on national public goods is falling.

Do read the whole thing.  I also suggest that (non-paternalistic) public health could be a suitable health care issue for Republicans, who presumably should be looking for alternatives to the status quo.

There are by the way two points which did not make the final cut for reasons of space.  First, the current coronavirus in Saudi Arabia has not gone away as a source of potential problems.  Second, the Bush Administration (43) did take some notable steps to return vaccine capacity to the United States, through both regulatory forbearance and HHS procurement.  These are likely good policies since in a pandemic one cannot expect to rely on free international trade in a remedy but rather export controls are to be expected.