Month: April 2006

The benefits, and costs, of anxiety

I don’t worry much, so it is good I survived my 20s:

Using the survey to follow the fortunes of 5,362 people born in 1946,
the researchers found that those individuals who had higher anxiety –
as determined by the opinion of their school teacher when they were 13
– were significantly less likely to die in accidental circumstances
before they were 25 (only 0.1 per cent of them did) than were
non-anxious people (0.72 per cent of them did). Similar trends were
observed when anxiety was measured using the teachers’ anxiety
judgments when the sample were 15-years-old, or using the sample’s own
completion of a neuroticism questionnaire when they were 16. By
contrast, anxiety had no association with the number of non-accidental
(e.g. illness-related) deaths before 25. “Our findings show, for the
first time in a representative sample of humans, a relatively strong
protective effect of trait anxiety”, the researchers said.

not all good news for anxious people though. After the age of 25 they
started to show higher mortality rates than calmer types thanks to
increased illness-related deaths.

Here is the link and also the paper.  Elsewhere on BPS Digest, the language you speak influences your personality.

Sex ratios matter

That is a more general way of putting my immigration point from two days ago.  Prevailing debates focus on the number of immigrants, or perhaps their legality, but there is a broader point.

Do we want more men or more women?  Having women around improves the behavior of the men.  On the other hand, if you fear Hispanic culture and its sheer numbers, lots of rootless men may be the best we can do.  They won’t have many children.  Then you should be a little happier with the status quo than many people are. 

If you are a cosmopolitan, you might be willing to accept lower numbers of immigrants in return for more women, or a higher percentage of women.  This could mean larger numbers of American-born Latinos in the long run and of course fewer suffering "old maids" (you can attain this status by your early twenties) back in Mexico.

Leisure time is growing, and becoming more unequal

Julie Schor and others have spread the myth that people have less leisure time than before.  Here is yet another smackdown of that claim:

In this paper, we use five decades of time-use surveys to document trends in the allocation of time. We find that a dramatic increase in leisure time lies behind the relatively stable number of market hours worked (per working-age adult) between 1965 and 2003. Specifically, we show that leisure for men increased by 6-8 hours per week (driven by a decline in market work hours) and for women by 4-8 hours per week (driven by a decline in home production work hours). This increase in leisure corresponds to roughly an additional 5 to 10 weeks of vacation per year, assuming a 40-hour work week. Alternatively, the "consumption equivalent" of the increase in leisure is valued at 8 to 9 percent of total 2003 U.S. consumption expenditures. We also find that leisure increased during the last 40 years for a number of sub-samples of the population, with less-educated adults experiencing the largest increases. Lastly, we document a growing "inequality" in leisure that is the mirror image of the growing inequality of wages and expenditures, making welfare calculation based solely on the latter series incomplete.

Here is the paper, and the link.

Trading up

How is this for a scheme?:

My name is Kyle MacDonald and I am trying to trade one red paperclip for a house. I started with one red paperclip on July 12th, 2005 and I am making a series of trades for bigger or better things.  My current item up for trade is one year in Phoenix.  Do you want one year of FREE rent in Phoenix?  Pop your offer over to me at (… You can see the current offers here.  I live in Montreal Canada but will go anywhere in the world for the right offer.

But has he melted down his pennies?  Here is the web site, which chronicles the trades so far.  No, I cannot prove this is real but the story seems to pan out.  Thanks to Robert Saunders for the pointer.

Should you melt down your pennies?

My much-beloved Financial Times gets one wrong:

It could soon be worth Americans melting down their pennies for scrap, if zinc and copper prices continue their current rate of increase.

Copper prices have risen 30 per cent so far this year, and zinc is up 55 per cent – a rise of about $550 a tonne in a little more than three weeks.

A rise by the same magnitude would make the metal content in the US one cent coin worth more than its face value.

The weight of 160 pennies – also known as a one cent coin – comes to a pound, worth a face value of $1.60. But – with each penny made of 97.5 per cent zinc and 2.5 per cent copper – based on current prices, the metal value is worth about $1.36. Therefore another 25 cents-a-pound rise in zinc, or about $551 a tonne, would see the metal value of the US penny worth more than the monetary value.

We all know, of course, that you should not exercise an option before its expiration.  The longer time runs, the greater the chance for price to bounce around.  Once you are "out of the money," further drops in price don’t hurt you any.  But "in the money," you gain from price movements in your favor.  So hold onto those pennies and wait.  Yes there are complications (what is the stochastic process governing these prices?) but most likely the standard result holds up.

MR Logo Contest!

Is there a market in everything?  We hope so because Marginal Revolution would like a logo!  The logo would jazz up our banner and be used on other websites.  You can find some examples of what we have in mind here.

Tyler and I are consumers of art but not very good suppliers.  We are much more confident in our readers and their friends and contacts so we are holding a contest.  Send us your logo ideas.

The best idea will win $250 and potential fame and glory!

The contest will be open for two weeks.

The Tyranny of the Alphabet

In economics there is a norm that authors are listed alphabetically.  The norm is surprisingly strong and deviations are punished.  On my first paper with Eric Helland we tossed for first authorship, I won, and we noted the names were listed in random order.  Believe it or not, Helland’s tenure committee grilled him on this point and as a result we switched to alphabetical ordering on all our subsequent papers.  Citation counts, however, are historically assigned only to the first listed author and later listed authors are often buried under the et al. monster. 

Do you think these effects are too tiny to matter?  Take a look at the Yellow Pages and see how many firms choose A-names, AA-names, and AAA-names.  Even more surprisingly, a new paper (free, working version, Winter 06, JEP) demonstrates that these effects have important consequences for careers in economics.  Faculty members in top departments with surnames beginning with letters earlier in the alphabet are substantially more likely to be tenured, be fellows of the Econometrics Society, and even win Nobel prizes (let’s see, Arrow, Buchanan Coase…hmmm).  No such effects are found in psychology where the alphabetical norm is not followed.

I’m delighted that my young co-author, Amanda Agan, has a great career ahead of her but if Helland wins the Nobel I am going to be very annoyed.

It’s time to end the tyranny of the alphabet!  The AER should announce a name randomization policy unless authors otherwise instruct.  Barring that, I wish henceforth be known as Alex Abarrok.

Rating the Millennium Challenge Corporation

Lord Kelvin said "If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it."  He’s right which is one reason the explosion in measurement in development economics and foreign aid is so important.  Reagrding the latter the Millennium Challenge Corporation awards aid to countries that perform well on a set of variables such as  political rights, civil liberties, the costs of starting a business, trade policy and other variables.  It’s important that most of these variables are measured by outside organizations and not the countries getting the aid.

How well has the MCC worked?  In a new paper Doug Johnson and Tristan Zajonc find that candidates for MCC aid improve their performance to a greater degree on more indicators than similar control countries.  Johnson and Zajonc have a great graph which illustrates one of their research designs.  The first panel is candidate and control countries before the MCC when we would not expect many differences, the second panel is the same countries after the MCC was put in place when we would expect the MCC to have an incentive effect on candidate but not control countries, the last panel subtracts the differences in the second panel from the differences in the first to arrive at the difference-in-difference estimate  – most of the gains are positive and fairly large.

We do not yet have any evidence that improvement on the indicators will improve growth or reduce poverty but at least we are measuring, the first to step to improving.


Caught my eye

1. What is frustrating about non-economists.  "Guess."  "I don’t know."  "Just guess!"  "I don’t know."  "That is why they call it a probability!"  "How much do I have to pay you to guess?"

2. Travel notes from Haiti, and there is more behind the links.

3. Profile of economist David Colander, courtesy of

4.  David Luenberger’s Information Science is a comprehensive look at…information science.  The best introduction I know.

Mexico fact of the day

Or is it China fact of the day?

…each doubling of distance reduces trade by 90%.  For example, the distance between Los Angeles and Tijuana is about 150 miles.  If Tijuana were on the other side of the Pacific instead of across the border in Mexico and if this distance were increased to 10,000 miles, the amount of trade would drop by a factor of 44.  Other things held constant, expect the amount of commerce between a Shanghai resident and an LA residence to be only about 2% of the commerce between Tijuana and LA.

That is from Ed Leamer’s review of Tom Friedman, cited by Alex.

Should we just build a big fence?

To keep out Mexicans, that is.

For purposes of argument, let us say you are anti-immigration.  And let us say the fence would cost nothing to build and maintain.  You still might not want one.

Mexicans illegals enter the U.S. through two major channels.  They run (or swim) across the border, or they buy illegal papers.  Usually the papers cost more than the hiring the crossing guide.  The papers make for an easier and safer journey, for obvious reasons.  Mexican women, I might add, are more likely to use false papers, given their (their father’s?) greater aversion to the physical strain of four days in the desert.

If you shut off the desert walks (assume the fence is impregnable, ha!), more Mexicans will use illegal papers. 

Did I add I would expect the cost of the papers to fall, not rise?  Many Mexicans don’t trust the purchase of papers, as opposed to the desert walk.  If the walk were impossible, networks for manufacture and sale of the papers would become much better developed.  The illegal papers would become much cheaper and much more widely used. 

In other words, more young women will come.  Many of the Mexican men will have wives here, not back home.  Many more young Mexicans will be born on U.S. soil. 

Get the picture?  Hispanamerica is coming, like it or not.  Let’s deal with it constructively.

Opposite day: Tyrone on resource pessimism

Tyler, you are always so optimistic.  But your own "dismal science" offers neither empirics nor analysis to back this attitude up.

The standard economic arguments about resources focus on the margin, while the real problem is infra-marginal.  Don’t be misled by all that talk of prices and substitution.  We are running out of resources and soon. 

Think about eating your beloved dark chocolate, Tyler.  Let’s say you have only four squares left of Lindt in the cupboard.  Yes, as you eat more the shadow price of each remaining square goes up.  Big deal.  You are still going to eat all the chocolate before dinner.  Economics tells us only that you will end up on the Pareto frontier, but that frontier still has some pretty miserable points.  We are about to approach them.  Who cares if prices mean that we meet our doom while equating private first-order conditions?  We are simply too voracious for the resources at our disposal.

Market signals and property rights do not work for the globe as a whole, unless you have monopoly ownership of the entire world (hmm…).   Property rights work best for local problems, such as fishing in a single lake or who should wash the dishes.  Private property won’t cure the problems of bad air, poisoned oceans, global warming, or the overall carrying capacity of the planet.  We will get doom, doom, and more doom.

The real question is empirical: are global demands for resources big enough so that the problem resembles you with your four squares of chocolate?  Yes.  The environment is toast, sooner or later and probably sooner.  And it is doomed precisely because capitalism is such a wonderful productive machine.  Do you really think you can fill the planet with so much rapacious human biomass without significant and indeed overpowering external effects?  Our only hope is that we all become plugged-in machines who don’t need much of an environment any longer.

It is true that resources prices have been falling, on average, for some time now.  But the Industrial Revolution is a remarkably recent development and we are just getting started.  Mankind’s current productive powers truly are unprecedented, a fact which you libertarians love to stress in other contexts, just not this one.

It would be mere luck if energy-saving technologies outraced nature-destroying ones.  And even if this were the case for a while, energy-saving technologies, in the long run, simply encourage us to raise our rapaciousness up another notch.  The infra-marginal becomes even more infra- than we ever dreamed.

Now let us get speculative.  Did I mention that in the economics of the future — once we are in exponential growth modes — the concept of price will hardly matter?  It will be more like an engineering problems where 10x of today’s gdp is produced every week, and we have to see whether this wrecks the globe in ten or rather twenty years’ time.  Don’t even bother recycling.  Furthermore all you futuristic nerds out there should downgrade the relevance of price theory, given the size of the changes you have in mind.

My parting shot: Maybe you think I am a pessimist.  But it probably is better if resource pessimism is true.  Life as a hunter-gatherer is still life.  And those Pygmies produced some pretty good vocal music.  If the price of energy were to keep falling, that would mean everyone could, within a few generations time, own the destructive power of a nuclear weapon in his or her iPod.  Now that’s scary.

As I have said in the past, Tyrone really is a pessimistic fellow.  If that dark chocolate is gone, it is usually because I ate it in advance, knowing he would otherwise steal my supply.  There are only so many cupboards in the kitchen, and Tyrone has learned all my hiding places.  And why didn’t I buy more at the store in the first place?  It is simple: I had to take Tyrone to his Zen Buddhism class; this sad sack doesn’t own a car.

Contingent Fees for Julia Roberts (and Erin Brockovich)

Here is more from my debate with Jim Copland on contingent fees.

Movie stars also work on contingent fee (they get paid a share of
the gross). Using your argument this causes them to go for films with a
low probability of a high payoff – the potential blockbuster that alas
is usually a dud. If we regulated fees so that movie stars could be
paid only a straight salary that would certainly change how movies are
financed. The studios (big law firms), for example, would become more
important. A few actors (lawyers) would make less money but the average
actor would make more (if you don’t give people a lottery ticket you
have to increase their average salary). But would changing how actors
are paid really improve the quality of the movies? I doubt it.

If you want better movies there’s only one solid method, attack the
source of the problem, and raise the taste level of the public. If the
public demands Armageddon
that is what they will get. The same is true of improving the tort
system – fiddling around with fees won’t do it – we need to address the
substantive issues that give judges and juries a taste for bad law.

Musical profiling

I am in trouble:

Security staff at a British airport stopped a businessman from catching a flight because the songs he had asked a taxi driver to play on the car stereo made the driver suspicious, police said.

The songs: "London Calling" by The Clash, and "Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin, here are the offending lyrics and the story.

Addendum: Daniel Strauss Vasques points my attention to a slightly different version of the story, where the guy was just singing along.