Month: September 2003

Should we be surprised that the Cancun WTO talks failed? and other major news sources use the word “collapse.” The rich countries won’t give up their agricultural subsidies, some of the poor countries won’t open up their investment and procurement rules.

A recent IMF Working Paper, “The WTO Promotes Trade: Strongly but Unevenly,” by Arvind Subramaniam and Shang-Jin Wei (not on-line) provides an account of the longer history. In the early days of WTO (GATT), developed nations used the institution to reduce their average tariff barriers from 27 to 4.5 percent. Since that time the institution grew and deteriorated in quality: “our result is a more damning indictment of the WTO than even that in Rose [the link is from me, of course, not the authors of the paper]…He found that membership in the WTO had no significant effect on trade. We find that membership has a significantly negative effect on trade…”

It is the developing countries that drive the negative result. The authors emphasize that the result is not statistically robust, but in any case this is hardly a ringing endorsement of WTO.

Addendum: The paper is now on-line.

More on student evaluations of professors

“…the correlation between Quality and Easiness is 0.61, and the correlation between Quality and Sexiness is 0.30. Using simple linear regression, we find that about half of the variation in Quality is a function of Easiness and Sexiness.” The result is from three professors at Central Michigan University, reported by the SCSU Scholars blog. An earlier post of mine cited a paper by Michael Huemer, arguing that students reward easy professors with good evaluations.

The Demise of Crypto Anarchy

Crypto anarchists and cyber-libertarians promised a new world of privacy and liberty built on the foundations of the internet and public key cryptography. As David Friedman memorably put it public key cryptograpy allows “anonymity with reputation” thus it becomes possible in theory to evade the taxman while still maintaining a public presence.

All of this now looks somewhat naive. Consider, for example, how internet gambling has been quashed. First, the credit card companies caved into government pressure and refused to process gambling related transactions. Initially, gamblers shrugged this off and routed their transactions through PayPal but a U.S District Attorney accused PayPal of violating the USA Patriot Act and to avoid charges PayPal was forced to pony up 10 million dollars. (Why am I not surprised that a law intended to go after terrorists has been used to most affect against peaceful gamblers?). Entrepreneurs have taken their online gambling sites to places where it is legal like Antigua and Costa Rica but don’t try coming home again. When Jay Cohen, founder of the World Sport Exchange, did that he was tried, convicted and jailed in a Federal prison.

The cyber-anarchists and libertarians were correct about the technology – public key cryptography can do what they say it can do – so where did the argument go wrong? In part, the cyber anarchists forgot that most of the value of cyberspace comes from its overlap with real space. I don’t blog anonymously because I want to be rewarded for my blogging with something that I can use to buy a car (ok, maybe a toaster is more realistic). Even if privacy is perfect in cyberspace the many margins of overlap with real space leave plenty of room for authority to insert its hooks especially when authority itself is technologically adept. Moreover, as Richard Posner has noted, the demand for privacy is more often than not a demand for control over the public presentation of self and cryptography does nothing to help and may even impede that demand.

The cyber-anarchist world works in a thought-experiment when everyone demands privacy and as a result the technology for getting privacy is built into all of our communications structures and used as a matter of routine. But that’s a description of an equilibrium and not a description of how to get there from here. At present, most people are not that bothered with privacy and so do not, for example, encrypt their email. As a result, privacy is not convenient even for those who want it. Indeed, someone who encrypts their email or phone conversations is probably calling more attention to themselves than they otherwise would.

The cyber anarchists may yet be proven right but today David Brin’s forecast of a Transparent Society in which no one has privacy, including authority, is looking far more realistic. Need I mention this as proof of Brin’s thesis?

Islamic Banking

Thanks for the kind words, Alex. It’s a pleasure to be here.

First entry: During my undergraduate economic sociology class week, we engaged in a discussion of Islamic banking after a Malaysian student said that banks in her country were engaging in interest free banking. A web search revealed that Maylasia has a well developed dual banking system, with some banks engaging in interest-free lending. There are now money markets and other economic institutions based on observance of Islam (a summary).

Another student pointed out that it was difficult for international organizations to loan money to Islamic nations because its hard to tell how much debt has been incured. Apparently, a lot of accounting in Islamic nations deals with making interest payments invisible. For example, a bank is allowed to purchase something and sell it to a “borrower,” with fees for late payments. Once you have the idea that you can trade such contracts, you can have securities markets.

Which leads to a question: if you can reproduce most Western banking practices in Islamic banking, does it make a difference in the banks performance? How are the non-Islamic banks in Malaysia doing?

Sweden rejects the Euro

The margin is decisive, so far it looks like 56 percent against, 42 percent for, read here for one early account of the voting.

It is a tough call, but I think the Swedes did the right thing. Mostly the Swedes feared that the fiscal discipline of the EU will curtail their welfare state, but I don’t think this should have been the main issue. The Netherlands, another small country, has created a generous welfare state (albeit with some spending cuts), prosperity, and relative fiscal responsibility, all under the rubric of the EU. In the long run it is hard to see the EU curtailing Swedish spending more than international capital markets and other competitive pressures would. And it remains to be seen how binding the EU fiscal requirements will prove, after France is violating them.

What is really the advantage if Sweden had adopted the EU? Price competition would have become more intense, as buyers would have an easier time comparing prices across countries with only a single currency unit (admittedly this violates various economic theories, which suggest people “see through” the monetary unit, but it nonetheless seems to be true, noting that in the short run prices get bumped up before later falling). That counts as a real gain, but on the other side the Swedes would have given up the ability to control their own monetary policy.

The Swedes have a history of pursuing a monetary policy independently of Western Europe. The Swedish depression of the 1930s was milder than for the rest of Europe, in part because Sweden broke with gold, devalued, and avoided a disastrous deflation, for one treatment read here.

Supposedly the Swedes don’t now have the “proverbial seat at the table,” but as more countries adopt the Euro, how much is this worth anyway? They decided to keep a whole table of their own, albeit a much smaller one. Does anyone really know how the European Central Bank will operate over time, as more members join, or if a crisis hits? Some critics charge that foreign investors will now stay away from Sweden, due to exchange rate volatility, that would be one factor on the side of Euro adoption.

Perhaps it will prove most important that the Swedish government supported the change, and voters didn’t cooperate. Swedes usually have great trust in their government, more than we are accustomed to seeing in the United States. This may signal a break between Swedish elites, who often have closer ties to Europe, and many Swedish voters. The consequences of today’s vote will likely include more than just macroeconomic policy.

Darwinian politics

Have you ever wondered if political failures might somehow be rooted in man’s nature as a biological being? Paul Rubin has just published a book, Darwinian Politics, Arts and Letters Daily offers this review and summary.

Rubin argues that humans have a long biological experience with constructing political alliances, and our inherited propensities continue to shape our politics. What else does he argue? We often view society as a zero-sum game because early competition for mates was in fact a zero-sum game. We carry this worldview with us. The desire for liberty springs from our early days in hunter-gathered societies, where we were relatively free in political terms. Sports are a reenactment of hunting and bonding rituals. Women are more risk averse than men. We have too much envy for the effective working of modern society, this springs from a tendency to wish to cut down the dominant males in groups. You will note that this is not a politically correct book.

Critics will make two charges. First, Rubin is not a professional biologist and the arguments are not based on his primary research. Second, the major arguments are “just-so” stories rather than the results of testable experiments. Both may be true, but I still would rather read a book that explores interesting and important topics.

Rubin admits his libertarian orientation, but he recognizes that the overall argument does not support libertarianism in every way. For instance he realizes that the desire for paternalism may be rooted very deeply. (Note that Peter Singer tries to ground left-wing ideas in Darwinian argument.) My view is that biological approaches, if you buy into them, strengthen the case for a conservative worldview, and I mean the word conservative in its literal rather than political sense. If politics is rooted in biology, political failures may be very hard to cure. This will support a mix of right-wing and left-wing policies, apologizing for institutional failures on both sides of the partisan spectrum, without necessarily making us feel better about them.

Thanks to Bryce Wilkinson for the pointer, note that readers are encouraged to write to us about bloggable material.

Liberalization of capital markets

How much does liberalizing capital markets spur economic growth in developing countries? It depends on what kind of country you look at, according to a recent paper by Kenneth Rogoff, formerly chief economist at the IMF, also Professor at Princeton.

He suggests that financial integration should be “approached cautiously.” Many of the benefits kick in only after countries have achieved a particular level of financial integration. Improvements in integration, starting from low levels of integration and development, often have increased the volatility of consumption. Trade integration is associated with faster increases in health and infant mortality, but financial openness is not.

Rogoff sees four problems with financial integration for poorer countries: investors engage in herd behavior, investors engage in speculative attacks on unsound currencies, the risk of contagion, and governments may use financial globalization to overborrow. Financial integration can, in principle, bring great benefits but it is not always used responsibly.

We should take these results seriously. Rogoff is a highly respected economist and he has no starting bias against market globalization. Read his open letter to Joseph Stiglitz, which offers a good statement of his overall perspective on global markets.

Did you know that Rogoff had an earlier career as a chess grandmaster? Read the story he once wrote for Seventeen magazine on this time in his life.

Thoughts on blogging

Daniel Drezner is an excellent political scientist and a first-rate blogger. Here is his recent take on why he has found blogging worthwhile (400,000 unique visits to his page, in the first year).

Here is his advice to new bloggers. He says yes do it, think quality over quantity, and draw attention to your blog by writing about religion and Harry Potter.

For his earlier posts on how blogging has evolved, click here and here. He predicts the ascendancy of academic bloggers, who are used to giving away ideas for free. He also argues that blogging promotes excess certainty of opinion. He cites a Rand Corporation document on how easily electronic communications are misunderstood and lead to unnecessary hard feelings.

An argument why micropayments for Internet content will never work

Will advanced technology allow suppliers to charge people very small amounts for reading web sites, blogs, and other kinds of material? No, says Clay Shirky, mental transactions costs will remain. Here is his bottom line:

The people pushing micropayments believe that the dollar cost of goods is the thing most responsible for deflecting readers from buying content, and that a reduction in price to micropayment levels will allow creators to begin charging for their work without deflecting readers.

This strategy doesn’t work, because the act of buying anything, even if the price is very small, creates what Nick Szabo calls mental transaction costs, the energy required to decide whether something is worth buying or not, regardless of price.

Read more:

Weblogs, in particular, represent a huge victory for voluntarily subsidized content. The weblog world is driven by a million creative people, driven to get the word out, willing to donate their work, and unhampered by the costs of xeroxing, ink, or postage. Given the choice of fame vs fortune, many people will prefer a large audience and no user fees to a small audience and tiny user fees. This is not to say that creators cannot be paid for their work, merely that mandatory user fees are far less effective than voluntary donations, sponsorship, or advertising.

Because information is hard to value in advance, for-fee content will almost invariably be sold on a subscription basis, rather than per piece, to smooth out the variability in value. Individual bits of content that are even moderately close in quality to what is available free, but wrapped in the mental transaction costs of micropayments, are doomed to be both obscure and unprofitable.

Little-known literary gatekeepers

Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Booklist are among the first reviewers of most new books. They are not widely read but often they are treated as gospel by the publishing trade. Their evaluations determine how seriously a book is taken by other reviewers, by media, by bookstores, and by filmmakers looking for new script sources. Read this Slate piece on how these outlets work, and why the Internet is decreasing their influence.

Did Mussolini make the trains run on time?

Not according to Urban Legends at Consider this:

The Italian railway system had fallen into a rather sad state during World War I, and it did improve a good deal during the 1920s, but Mussolini was disingenuous in taking credit for the changes: much of the repair work had been performed before Mussolini and the fascists came to power in 1922. More importantly (to the claim at hand), those who actually lived in Italy during the Mussolini era have borne testimony that the Italian railway’s legendary adherence to timetables was far more myth than reality.

Why do ticket sellers allow scalping?

It is a common economic puzzle why the prices for various events, such as Super Bowls and rock concerts, do not always clear the market. Why sell tickets cheaply, thereby allowing scalpers to buy them up and later resell them at higher prices, reaping the surplus for themselves?

Canadian Ticketmaster wondered the same, and now they are doing something about it. For many concerts they will auction off some tickets at market-clearing prices. Most groups, however, will auction off only a few of the best tickets, rather than all tickets.

One concert promoter had reservations about the scheme: “From a fan’s point of view, I don’t think this would be fair,” he said. “Obviously, everyone should have equal access to tickets, especially if you’re a fan that lines up overnight. It should be fair and equitable.” Comments of this kind show that either he or I, or perhaps both of us, do not understand this market very well.

Thanks for Eric Crampton for pointing the link out to me. And speaking of musical concerts, it is sad to report that Johnny Cash has died.