Month: March 2008

Todd Kendall wishes to know

…why is it that in every Mexican (or at least, every Tex-Mex) restaurant, there are always 10-20 "combination plates" that each match three seemingly random food items?  Trying to buy the items a la carte involves a substantially higher total price than buying the combo plate.

We all know that bundling can be an effective form of price discrimination but I wonder if that is the case here.  Most of these dishes are just different forms of slop.  Can it really be that someone loves the quesadillas but not the burritos, or vice versa, and that restaurants can capture more consumer surplus by forcing the two to be consumed together?  I am skeptical.  More likely behavioral economics is at work.  Most buyers don’t even know the differences between all these fine Mexican culinary art forms, especially as practiced in the United States.  But if they’re getting three different kinds of dishes, well, surely they can assume they will be getting something they want.  Slop or no slop.  There is diversification and a feeling that the restaurant’s best dish will not be left unsampled.

One implicit prediction is that the very best Mexican restaurants in America will not resort to this kind of subterfuge and indeed they don’t.

Do you have any alternative hypotheses?

My favorite things Arizona

There is Barbara Eden and Linda Ronstadt but what other directions can I find?  I’ll try not to resort to retirees, such as Joe Garagiola.  Here goes:

1. Jazz: Charles Mingus’s Ah Um is one of the ten jazz albums that everyone should own.

2. Country and Western: Marty Robbins is good but otherwise I draw a blank.

3. Movie director: Steven Spielberg.  In case you don’t already know them, Duel and Sugarland Express are two of his best movies.  I’m also an advocate of Artificial Intelligence, a brilliant movie about the moral superficiality of human beings.  E.T. was his nadir.

4. Real business cycle theorist: Ed Prescott teaches at Arizona State (which by the way  was just rated as having the hottest students of any school).  If you think through his oeuvre, Prescott has at least three major contributions: time consistency (1977 with Kydland), real business cycle theory, and his work on the equity premium with Mehra.  That’s impressive.

5. Painter and European emigre: Max Ernst lived for twelve years in Sedona.

6. Textiles: Navajo blankets from the 1880-1910 period rank among America’s greatest artistic contributions.  You can buy a first-rate piece for no more than $60,000.

7. Author: Zane Grey fits the category but he doesn’t count as a favorite.  Am I missing anyone important or is this simply not a literary state?

8. Movie, set in:  You have some real winners, including Psycho, Raising Arizona, and the still underrated Tombstone3:10 to Yuma I haven’t seen yet.

The bottom line: The list is spotty in parts but the peaks are very high.  I’m also of the opinion that the Northern Rim of the Grand Canyon is the single best sight I’ve seen, ever.  I also love The Biltmore Hotel but alas I am not at that particular lodging right now…

Interpreting Tylerian Science Fiction

Earlier this week Tyler wrote:

I was thinking of writing a science fiction story.  In this world human
capital is incredibly valuable.  Even if you lose all your wealth you
can earn back lots very quickly, at least if you are talented and
well-educated….The level of risk-taking is very high and capitalist enterprise starts to collapse…Production resumes only when a) managers precommit to costly drug addictions, so that they again fear pecuniary losses and b) shareholders find altruistic managers and also initiate
charitable contributions to India.  They threaten to cut off those
contributions if managers perform poorly.

Some of you were perhaps wondering what on earth this means.  (Recall my post on Tyler v. Alex.)  Perhaps I can help.  Here is a recent item from the NYTimes.

BlackRock, the publicly traded asset manager, and a hedge fund firm, Highfields Capital Management, are backing a new company seeking to raise $2 billion to buy delinquent residential mortgages.

Private National Mortgage Acceptance will be run by Stanford L. Kurland, former president of Countrywide Financial Corporation, the largest American home-loan provider, the companies said Monday in a statement.

The Cone of Silence

Jason Kottke quotes from Arsenals
of Folly
, the new Richard Rhodes book about the nuclear arms race.  The scene is the
1986 meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan in Reykjavik, Iceland

Back at the American Embassy, Shultz assembled Donald Regan, John Poindexter,
Paul Nitze, Richard Perle, Max Kampelman, Kenneth Adelman, and Poindexter’s
military assistant, Robert Linhard, iTheconeofsilencenside what Adelman calls "the smallest
bubble ever built" — the Plexiglas security chamber, specially coated to repel
electromagnetic radiation and mounted on blocks to limit acoustic transmissions,
that is a feature of every U.S. Embassy in the world. Since the State Department
had seen no need for extensive security arrangements for negotiating U.S.
relations with little Iceland, the Reykjavik Embassy bubble was designed to hold
only eight people. When Reagan arrived, the air-lock-like door swooshed and
everyone stood up, bumping into each other and knocking over chairs in the
confusion. Reagan put people at ease with a joke. "We could fill this thing up
with water," he said, gesturing, "and use it as a fish tank." Adelman gave up
his chair to the president and sat on the floor leaning against the tailored
presidential legs, a compass rose of shoes touching his at the center of the

Jeff Sachs on water policy

Chapter five of Common Wealth is called "Securing Our Water Needs," an important topic but one neglected by most economists.  One lesson is that climate change will put a big stress on water supplies.  So far, so good, but the recommendations start with greater international cooperation:

A first step, at least, would be to focus on the hardest-hit lands, specifically the world’s drylands.  Fortunately, these are covered by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, which has 191 member governments as signatories.  Unfortunately, the treaty as it now stands is little known and has little clout and financial backing.  Rather than reinvent the treaty, however, it would be better to reinvigorate it.

I would say it needs invigoration, not reinvigoration.  It is no accident that the Convention has little clout and little financial backing.  Many such Conventions are toothless objects, designed to appeal to a least common denominator within the process of the Convention itself (recall, it has 191 signatories).  No one is opposed to "international cooperation" but it is no accident that truly international bodies have to either find a way to make profit (e.g., the World Bank lends to China) or they are usually very strapped for funds.  That’s just not where the political rents are and that isn’t going to change.

Since Sachs calls this a "first step," his position is in some sense invulnerable.  Whatever you really think should be done can be called the next step.  Sachs writes, however, that the next step is more finance if I understand him correctly he wants to increase funding by more than a factor of 100).  I would prefer finance from national governments, or even from the states or provinces, than finance at the level of international organizations.  Most of the 191 signatories just aren’t that good at R&D, funds accountability, or even technology adoption.

I might add that national governments are the ones that subsidize the price of water to ridiculously low levels, most of all for agriculture.  My first step is to remove all these water subsidies, allow water prices to rise, institute more water trading, and then see which innovations the private sector decides to finance (hmm…those are my first four steps).  One role for government would be to ensure that patent law does not hinder international transfer of worthwhile innovations, a point which Sachs makes in other contexts.  That sounds less glamorous than a big international plan, but I think it has a better chance of succeeding.

Education isn’t mainly about signalling

We find that employer learning about productivity occurs fairly quickly after labor market entry, implying that the signaling effects of schooling are small.

Here is much more.  And here is more yet; this second paper estimates the speed of employer learning and uses that estimate to bound the value of the signal at no more than 28 percent of the value of education.  I consider this devastating to the signaling hypothesis.  How can ?? years of schooling be needed to signal your quality, if your employer often knows your quality within months? 

In my view education is mainly about indoctrination to give you more productive habits.  So yes it is learning, but not in the way they might have told you, and that is why it so often does not feel like learning.

“It’s not the economy, stupid”

America’s inequality problem — and I mean the stagnation at the lower end, not the hedge funds guys at the top — does indeed seem to stem from dysfunctional families and bad education:

We examine changes in the characteristics of American youth between the
late 1970s and the late 1990s, with a focus on characteristics that
matter for labor market success. We reweight the NLSY79 to look like
the NLSY97 along a number of dimensions that are related to labor
market success, including race, gender, parental background, education,
test scores, and variables that capture whether individuals transition
smoothly from school to work. We then use the re-weighted sample to
examine how changes in the distribution of observable skills affect
employment and wages. We also use more standard regression methods to
assess the labor market consequences of differences between the two
cohorts. Overall, we find that the current generation is more skilled
than the previous one. Blacks and Hispanics have gained relative to
whites and women have gained relative to men. However, skill
differences within groups have increased considerably and in aggregate
the skill distribution has widened. Changes in parental education seem
to generate many of the observed changes.

Here is the paper., ungated version here.  The authors use a different method but their results suggest that the earlier Goldin and Katz paper, which focuses on the connection between inequality and the inability to spring into higher levels of education, is essentially correct.  The problems with lower income stagnation do not stem fundamentally from trade, weak labor unions, or for that matter technical change.  I won’t call this question settled, but the Goldin and Katz result is looking increasingly strong.  I would also say that we, for better or worse, have more separating equilibria in today’s world.

Here’s an intuitive way to grasp the hypothesis  Let’s say that today you are a young Korean-American, perhaps even a Korean-American from a non-wealthy family.  Are your future income prospects good or bad?  Is upward mobility still there for you, if you want it?  Most people don’t even have to go to the numbers to answer these questions.

Here is a not unrelated article about the prospects for affirmative action.  And, if you’re more worried about the growth in income inequality that comes from gains at the top, well, the last few months have remedied that just a bit.

Why Anti-Cassandras Get the Media Attention

Paul Krugman today bemoans the fact that on the housing crisis and especially on Iraq the people who get the most media attention are those who got it wrong.

It’s even worse, of course, on the matter of Iraq: just about every one of the panels convened to discuss the lessons of five disastrous years consisted solely of men and women who cheered the idiocy on.

(Brad DeLong, Dean Baker and others have made similar complaints.)  I think the fact is correct so what is going on?

The answer is media incentives.  It wasn’t just the experts who were wrong, the majority of the American people got Iraq and housing wrong.  The war was popular in the beginning and people continued to buy houses even as prices rose ever higher.  So what does the American public want to hear now?

The public wants to hear why they weren’t idiots.  And who better to explain to the public why they weren’t idiots than experts who also got it wrong?

What to do

Megan McArdle ponders.  I’ll again mention one suggestion: make sure that financial institutions cannot use off-balance sheet activity to escape standard capital requirements.  Many people asked about this in the comments but my view is simple:

1. As long as the Fed and Treasury are providing a safety net, insisting on capital requirements is entirely reasonable and it lowers moral hazard.  If you’re going to bail out your friend in a poker game, you can ask him not to bet too much beyond his chips.

2. When the "shadow banking system" does not have capital requirements, normal financial activities, as regulated by the Fed, are inefficiently taxed and too much of an economy’s leverage ends up in the unregulated shadow banking sector. 

3. If you are anti-regulation on this issue, make the capital requirement relatively low but still impose it symmetrically across financial sectors.

4. Ideally capital requirements should be adjusted for risk.  That probably implies higher capital requirements for shadow banking activity, not lower requirements.

5. Regulatory issues aside, market participants are less sure of themselves in the shadow banking sector.  Derivatives are non-transparent, for a start.  That’s another reason not to push too much financial activity into the shadow banking sector.

6. A final solution to excess risk-taking and leverage has to come from shareholders; regulation can only do so much and of course capital requirements are only a small part of regulation.  But in the meantime I think the case for more symmetric capital requirements is a strong one, recognizing all the usual comments about horses and barn doors, etc.

I can’t imagine doing this

I find it really useful to write and draw while talking with someone, composing conversation summaries on
pieces of paper or pages of notepads. I often use plenty of color
annotation to highlight salient points. At the end of the conversation,
I digitally photograph the piece of paper so that I capture the entire
flow of the conversation and the thoughts that emerged. The person I’ve
conversed with usually gets to keep the original piece of paper, and
the digital photograph is uploaded to my computer for keyword tagging
and archiving. This way I can call up all the images, sketches, ideas,
references, and action items from a brief note that I took during a
five-minute meeting at a coffee shop years ago–at a touch, on my
laptop. With 10-megapixel cameras costing just over $100, you can
easily capture a dozen full pages in a single shot, in just a second.

I prefer to simply remember what was said.  Here is much more, on "How to Think," via Kottke.

Are incentives more asymmetrical than they used to be?

I was thinking of writing a science fiction story.  In this world human capital is incredibly valuable.  Even if you lose all your wealth you can earn back lots very quickly, at least if you are talented and well-educated.  In fact, even if you stay poor, wealthy friends or a spouse will take care of you and you can have fun watching cable TV or playing Second Life.  The only way to get above this baseline level of happiness is to succeed at "winning" and gaining relative status among your peers by superior earnings.

The level of risk-taking is very high and capitalist enterprise starts to collapse.  (Credit markets disappeared in 2081.)  Every manager plays metaphorical or perhaps even literal roulette with the money of the shareholders.  The move toward unlimited liability for corporations only postpones the dissolution of cooperation. 

Production resumes only when a) managers precommit to costly drug addictions, so that they again fear pecuniary losses, and b) shareholders find altruistic managers and also initiate charitable contributions to India.  They threaten to cut off those contributions if managers perform poorly.

Managers are addicts and blackmailable altruists.  The Indian poor flourish.  Most Americans remain unemployed.  At some point the world becomes poor enough to sustain cooperation once again.

Black markets in everything

With candy sales banned on school campuses, sugar pushers are the
latest trend at local schools. Backpacks are filled with Snickers and
Twinkees for all sweet tooths willing to pay the price.  "It’s created a little underground economy, with businessmen
selling everything from a pack of skittles to an energy drink,” said
Jim Nason, principal at Hook Junior High School in Victorville.

Here is more, with a thanks to Eric Nielsen for the link.  I would put it this way: school kids are more economically advanced than astronauts.

The citation death tax

Dying is not always good for your citations:

The information content of academic citations is subject to debate. This paper views premature death as a tragic "natural experiment," outlining a methodology identifying the "citation death tax" — the impact of death of productive economists on the patterns of their citations. We rely on a sample of 428 papers written by 16 well known economists who died well before retirement, during the period of 1975-97. The news is mixed: for half of the sample, we identify a large and significant "citation death tax" for the average paper written by these scholars. For these authors, the estimated average missing citations per paper attributed to premature death ranges from 40% to 140% (the overall average is about 90%), and the annual costs of lost citations per paper are in the range 3% and 14%. Hence, a paper written ten years before the author’s death avoids a citation cost that varies between 30% and 140%. For the other half of the sample, there is no citation death tax; and for two Nobel Prize-caliber scholars in this second group, Black and Tversky, citations took off overtime, reflecting the growing recognitions of their seminal works.

Here is the paper.  As I interpret it, some people are trading (usually barter) for many of their citations and death hinders those trades.  These people are overrated to begin with.  Black and Tversky, on the other hand, are still underrated.  Bet on those scholars whose citations rise with their deaths.