Month: January 2008

John Edwards and the virtues and limits of democracy

Mark Thoma writes: "I’m getting pretty tired of Democrats caving in on important issues rather than standing up and fighting for their core principles…"  The lesson is that politicians’ core principle is reelection and pandering, not promoting the ideas of Mark Thoma or Paul Krugman or for that matter Milton Friedman or Tyler Cowen. 

I find the (former) support for John Edwards to be one of the most striking features of the primary season.  Although Edwards ran an explicitly progressive campaign, a great deal of his (meager) support came from Democrats in lower socioeconomic strata.  They were voting their demographic, or perhaps their feelings of victimization, rather than their ideology.  (Here is Chris Hayes on John Edwards, worth reading.)  There is no large-scale progressive movement coalescing around stagnant median wages and the inequities of skill-based technical change.  Instead we have Hillary Clinton insulting Barack Obama, and maybe it is working. 

The lesson is this: democracy is a very blunt instrument.  Especially as it is found in the United States, democracy just isn’t that smart or that finely honed or that closely geared toward truth or "progressive" values.  (NB: Democracy in smaller, better educated, ethnically homogeneous nations is, sometimes, another story.)

But unlike one of my esteemed colleagues, I believe that we should revere democracy as one of the modern world’s greatest achievements.  We should step off a British Airways flight with a tear in our eye, in appreciation for all that country has done to promote democratic government (sorry, former colonies, but perhaps you are democratic today).  This is no exaggeration or blog tease: I want to see you crying at Heathrow.  The future is far more likely to have "too little democracy" than "too much democracy."  I do believe in checks and balances, but within a broadly democratic framework, such as we have in the United States.

That all said, we should not demand from democracy what democracy cannot provide.  Democracy is pretty good at pushing scoundrels out of office, or checking them once they are in office.  Democracy is also good at making sure enough interest groups are bought off so that social order may continue and that a broad if sometimes inane social consensus can be manufactured and maintained.  We should expect all those things of democracy and indeed democracy can, for the most part, deliver them.

But democracy is very bad at fine-tuning the details of economic policy.  Democracy is very bad at bringing about political solutions which are not congruent with the other sources of economic and social influence in a country.  The solution is not to be less democratic, but rather to appreciate democracy for what it is good for.  And the excesses of democracy should be fought with ideas, albeit with the realization that not everyone will be convinced.  Those are the breaks, as democracy needs all the friends it can get.

Just as I love democracy, so do I love Chiles in Nogada.  But I do not ask that Chiles in Nogada can solve most of the world’s problems or for that matter get me to work in the morning.  Social democrats and progressives often view democracy as a potential instrument of control, and as a way of giving us "the best policies."  I do not, and that includes for my own economic views as well.

Here is Matt Yglesias on libertarianism and democracy.  Here is a Hilton Root review of the new Michael Mandelbaum book praising democracy.

Didn’t Bob Tollison write a paper on this once?

What words of wisdom.  Via email, Ed Lopez fills me in:

Laband and Tollison’s 2000 JPE paper speaks to your MR post yesterday on co-authorship [TC: I’ve added the links]:  

"In this paper, we compare the incidence and extent of formal coauthorship observed in economics against that observed in biology and discuss the causes and consequences of formal coauthorship in both disciplines. We then investigate the economic value (to authors) of informal comments offered by colleagues. This investigation leads us naturally into a discussion of the degree to which formal collaboration through coauthorship serves as a substitute for informal collaboration through collegial commentary. Data on manuscript submissions to the Journal of PolzticalEconomy permit us to shed additional empirical light on this subject. Finally, we demonstrate that while the incidence and extent of formal intellectual collaboration through coauthorship are greater in biology than in economics, the incidence and extent of informal intellectual collaboration are greater in economics than in biology. This leads us to search for evidence (which we find) of quids pro quo offered by authors to suppliers of informal commentary on manuscripts and to speculate that the greater importance of intellectual collaboration in economics (relative to biology) might imply greater pay compression in economics than
in biology (Lazear 1989). We find compelling evidence of such pay
compression in terms of the distribution of formal intellectual property rights to scientific contributions."

find the more quantitative work increases likelihood of co-authorship.
It’s also been increasing over time with decreasing information costs.
They also cleverly get citation and salary effects from the number and
stature of scholars listed in the acknowledgments.

The Mercatus Masters Fellowship

George Mason University has a new program for people who want a Masters in economics — not a Ph.d. — and wish to apply their knowledge to the so-called real world.  The value of the scholarship award is up to $80,000 (over two years); more information, including contact information, is here.  The application deadline is March 15.  Good bloggers, by the way, tend to be good teachers.  Just think, if reading us for free is worthwhile, if the non-convexities are not too severe being paid to hang out with us is maybe not so terrible either.

Should we abolish trays?

Behavioral economics in action, or call it voluntary paternalism:

Students ran a test last semester showing that on two days when trays
weren’t offered, food and beverage waste dropped between 30 and 50
percent, according to Kathy Woughter, vice president for student
affairs at Alfred. That amounts to about 1,000 pounds of solid waste
and 112 gallons of liquid waste saved on a weekly basis, according to
the college.

And why?:

Think back to your undergraduate days eating in the dorm dining hall.
When you moved through the buffet line, did you ever get a little too
ambitious with portions just because you had extra room on that plastic

If I ran a cafeteria I would consider abolishing utensils, thereby encouraging South Indian and Ethiopian food, but I don’t expect that would be popular with all patrons.

Second sad thought for the day

Arnold Kling has sad news about his father and also a very important point:

…[in the hospital] what you deal with are people who are doing their job. For example,
the cardiologist’s job is to make sure his heart does not give out,
even if it means he lies on his back for so long that the prospects for
restoring diginity recede. Everyone wants to shunt him around, giving
him more Hansonian medicine, which detracts from his ability to remain

For the larger goal of trying to do the best with his remaining life, nobody is in charge and nobody is empowered.

Haiti food fact of the day

At the market in the La Saline slum, two cups of rice now sell for 60 cents, up 10 cents from December and 50 percent from a year ago. Beans, condensed milk and fruit have gone up at a similar rate, and even the price of the edible clay has risen over the past year by almost $1.50. Dirt to make 100 cookies now costs $5, the cookie makers say.

Here is more information.  Here is one review:

A reporter sampling a [mud] cookie found that it had a smooth consistency and
sucked all the moisture out of the mouth as soon as it touched the
tongue. For hours, an unpleasant taste of dirt lingered.

Thanks to William Griffiths for the pointer.

What if you always get the same outcome?

Imagine a matching game.  Imagine also that you always get the same outcome.  It might be a happy relationship, a sad relationship, a repeating pattern of dysfunctionality, lots of affairs with librarians, or whatever.

In many models, an unusual similarity of outcomes means that we let partners choose us, rather than choosing partners ourselves more actively.  The other side of the matching process is doing the work.

How can this be?  The intuition is that "you searching for hidden matches in the rough" is a process that will have higher variance in outcomes than "lots of hidden matches in the rough searching for you." 

If you don’t observe that much variance in your outcomes (e.g., lots of librarians), it means one of two things.  Maybe you are choosing the non-varying quality very directly and very intentionally, such as having a fetish.  That possibility aside, maybe it is a sign that you’re not really choosing but rather being chosen and thus you live in a world of thick search processes and low variance outcomes.  Imagine a man who will take whatever comes his way, and spends lots of time in libraries.

If there are recurring outcomes of this kind in your life or relationships, perhaps you are being chosen, whether you know it or not.

What influences your social interactions?

Work doesn’t seem to limit socializing.  My favorite result was that the better-educated people seem to fear visiting relatives:

Over time, increases in hours of work per capita have created the
intuitively plausible notion that there is less time available to
pursue social interactions. The specific question addressed in this
paper is the effect of hours of work on social interaction. This is a
difficult empirical question since omitted factors could increase both
hours of work and social interaction. The approach taken in this paper
utilizes an exogenous decline in hours of work in France due to a new
employment law. The results clearly show that the employment law
reduced hours of work but there is no evidence that the extra hours
went to increased social interactions. Although hours of work are not
an important determinant of social interaction, human capital is found
to be important. The effect of human capital, as measured by education
and age, is positive for membership groups but negative for visiting
relatives and friends. Also, contrary to expectations, there are no
important differences in the determinants of social interaction by
gender, marital status or parent status. Finally, a comparison between
France and the US show that the response to human capital and other
variables are much the same in both nations.

Here is the paper, I don’t yet see a non-gated version on-line.

The Copenhagen Consensus and its critics

Abhijit Banerjee, Angus Deaton, and Esther Duflo are all upset.  You might recall the most famous recommendation of the Copenhagen Consensus was to invest in anti-HIV/AIDS programs as a higher priority than global warming.  Banerjee writes:

Similarly, the proposal on HIV/AIDS seems to have entirely missed the mounting evidence…that we do not really know how to get people to behave in ways that would reduce the transmission of HIV.

Angus Deaton writes:

Lomborg’s Consensus does not even identify the "we" who are to spend the $50 billion, although it certainly shares Sachs’ confidence in the usefulness of social engineering by well-meaning outside experts.

Maybe that criticism is unfair; Lomborg might say he is playing by the rules of other people’s games.  Esther Duflo writes:

…to my knowledge there is very little rigorous evidence on effective [HIV-AIDS] prevention strategies in Africa.

The three reviews are all in the Journal of Economic Literature, December 2007.  The bottom line is that $50 billion doesn’t go as far as you might think. 

Columbia Business School has a blog

Here, and you’ll find economists Glenn Hubbard, Frank Lichtenberg, and "CBS Blogger."  Here is one post "Blogging Means Business."  Columbia Business School has many great economists, let’s see if they are good enough to solve the free-rider problem with most (not all) group blogs.

Elsewhere from the world of business, here are search engine futures, thanks to Michael Foroobar for the pointer.

Why are there so many co-authored papers?

A loyal MR reader asks:

I’m reading (grr) a lot of academic papers lately and, to keep myself awake, have wondered: why do they almost always have more than one author? Is it like cops in New York City–they’ve got everyone persuaded it’s too dangerous to go alone? Is there some networking benefit, professional or psychological? Does it just enable everyone to claim more publications? Has anyone studied which fields have the highest and lowest average number of authors per paper?

I thought you could blog something interesting on this. I might add that the papers couldn’t be any duller, and I wonder if committee authorship plays a role in this as well.

I believe that co-authored papers are correlated with:

1. The existence of a laboratory

2. Senior scholars who generate funding and thus gains from trade

3. Empirical work, which tends to be more divisible than theory; co-authored papers are relatively rare in pure economic theory and in philosophy

Co-authored papers are becoming increasingly common in economics, also because the effort requirements for top publications have been rising.  In most cases a co-authored piece is worth at least 2/3 of a singly-authored piece, so the incentives for co-authorship are strong.  Here is an earlier post on co-authorship.