Month: December 2012

From the comments, on UID

This is concerning the forthcoming Indian attempt to register individuals through unique eye scans and implement more cash transfers:

The domestic debate in India has largely been around :

1) This is just a sop before elections, a kind of brazen legitimised bribery. 2) The welfare architecture will not simply be migrated, it will be expanded. 3) Is conditionality critical to success? There remains no clear method to establish conditionality. 4) Identification of deserving families remains the problem. Until that is solved, nothing changes. 5) This is basically a turf war between ministeries and the previous operational/financial failures of the UID program are being hidden through the hasty implementation being planned now. 6) Getting in-kind subsidised goods through regular intervals during a month is superior cash flow management for a poor family than a lump-sum cash transfer at the end of the month

All the criticisms could be partially true. But the operational costs of the welfare delivery infrastructure will surely go down. Food and fertilizer have not yet been shifted – too politically sensitive – but amazingly, fuel has been. The biggest no-distortion gain is likely to come from there – the consumption of kerosene will most likely take a massive beating. It reduced by about 90% in a pilot.

The other corollary benefit – of using an Aadhar card as a means of establishing identity and for KYC norms in banks – is also absolutely tremendous.

It is indeed a top 5 most important economic policy issue in the world. But India is generally a low-trust society and in particular this gov’t is distrusted in most policy circles. Hence the rabid skepticism all around. I tend to be a lot more optimistic than that.

The great public choice question is – will they ever manage to bring food under this? For one, the PDS system was showing signs of an organic improvement. Second, the popular imagination has always conceived of the ‘man of the house’ frittering away hard earned money on country liquor if the woman of the house is not given grains directly. Third, giving away PDS distributorships has been an effective method of giving favours to those who the dirty work for national politicans at local levels – it is perhaps the longest running and biggest scam in India.

If they actually conclude that the greater ease for a poor family will convert into more votes than the losses they might take on the previous three fronts, it would be absolutely amazing. My sense is, like most great policy decisions, this will go through simply because it’s an idea whose ‘time has come’, and we will invent post-facto justifications of how it was politically rational to go through with this.

That is from Ritwik, who started off his comment with this sentence:

Privacy is actually a non-issue for most Indians.

Here is a good survey of what we know about cash transfers.

Guest Blogger: Ed Lopez

Ed Lopez, co-author with Wayne Leighton of Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers and president of the Public Choice Society, will be guest blogging at Marginal Revolution this week. Madmen is about the process of political change, where we are, where we should go and how can we get there given the insights of public choice economics. If, to quote Jim Buchanan, public choice is “politics without romance,” then Madmen is about revolution without romance–how political change can occur in a democracy. One of my favorite stories in Madmen is about Coase’s idea to auction spectrum rights.

But to allow the market to determine even the question of assignment meant a significant change in the status quo. When he was called to testify before the agency shortly before his FCC paper was published [in 1959, AT], Coase’s reception was indicative of how political institutions—especially Congress but also the FCC—would view his idea for decades to come. Commissioner Philip Cross began with the question, “Is this all a big joke?”

A decade later one former FCC commissioner wrote:

The Commission has absolutely no intention of considering them now or in the foreseeable future. They are purely the mind-spinning of an academic bureaucrat.

Most interestingly, in 1969 the RAND Corporation commissioned Coase, along with William Meckling and Jora Minasian, to produce a report on “Problems of Radio Frequency Allocation.” The Coase/Meckling/Minasian report was written in 1969 but not released until 1995! The report had been deemed too politically sensitive to publish and had been suppressed.

Eventually, however, first academics then many politicians and then even the FCC became convinced that spectrum auctions were feasible and as it became clear that money was to made that they were also desirable. Even after the idea earned fairly widespread acceptance, however, it took many years to be implemented because the Congressional committees with oversight of the FCC and the industry did not want to give up power. The right to allocate spectrum gave the members of these committees power which they transformed into campaign contributions and political support.Spectrum auctions were not implemented until they were also crafted to give advantages to some groups that these committees wanted supported. The payoffs to the new technologies, however, were so large that even with transaction costs and rent seeking a bargain was possible, a truly Coasian bargain.

Snitching markets in everything

The prisoners in Atlanta’s hulking downtown jail had a problem. They wanted to snitch for federal agents, but they didn’t know anything worth telling.  Fellow prisoner Marcus Watkins, an armed robber, had the answer.

For a fee, Watkins and his associates on the outside sold them information about other criminals that they could turn around and offer up to federal agents in hopes of shaving years off their prison sentences.  They were paying for information, but what they were really trying to buy was freedom.  “I didn’t feel as though any laws were being broken,” Watkins wrote in a 2008 letter to prosecutors.  “I really thought I was helping out law enforcement.”

That pay-to-snitch enterprise — documented in thousands of pages of court records, interviews and a stack of Watkins’ own letters — remains almost entirely unknown outside Atlanta’s towering federal courthouse, where investigators are still trying to determine whether any criminal cases were compromised.  It offers a rare glimpse inside a vast and almost always secret part of the federal criminal justice system in which prosecutors routinely use the promise of reduced prison time to reward prisoners who help federal agents build cases against other criminals.

Snitching has become so commonplace that in the past five years at least 48,895 federal convicts — one of every eight — had their prison sentences reduced in exchange for helping government investigators, a USA TODAY examination of hundreds of thousands of court cases found.  The deals can chop a decade or more off of their sentences.

That is from USA Today, from this source.  Hat tip goes to @matt_levine.

The most important economic policy in the world is only weeks away

At the very least this is in the top five most important economic policies and yes it is from India:

D-day is 18 days away. On January 1, the Congress-led UPA government will start migrating the delivery of welfare services to a new architecture: straight into an individual’s bank account, verified by a unique identification (UID) number called Aadhaar.

It’s a soft launch. The first of the three stages will unravel in 43 districts where a large percentage of people have bank accounts and Aadhaars. Also, in the programmes earmarked for stage I, worth about Rs 20,000 crore, transfers to bank accounts is already happening; what will change is that they will now be linked to the Aadhaar number to reduce, if not eliminate, duplication.

The complexity of the exercise will increase manifold as more of India is covered in the other two stages, in April 2013 and April 2014. This will also increase as more programmes are added, especially food, oil, fertiliser and employment. In full flow, the money flowing through those pipes could go up to Rs 300,000 crore. So, is the government ready?

This will likely prove part of a much larger move to a reliance on cash transfers and conditional cash transfers.  Eyescans will be used to create unique identification numbers for individuals and in theory 800 million people will be enrolled in this program over the next fifteen months.  (Don’t count on that pace.)  The government is easing the procedural barriers to creating bank accounts.  I am mostly hopeful although I do worry about privacy issues, this kind of identification becoming a more generally used network, and government misuse of the information.

You can read much more at the link.  The virtuous Tim Harford covered some of it here, but most of you have been pretty silent.

The Tom Coburn samizdat Medicare reform proposal

As reported by Ezra Klein:

“If I had the magic wand,” he told me, “I’d change how we pay for Medicare.” That’s a common enough sentiment, but the policy Coburn has in mind is a bit more radical than what’s typically offered in Washington.

“I’d change all physicians to time instead of fee-for- service,” he says. “What we’re doing with fee-for-service, and most people don’t realize this, is when you go to the doctor, they have this pressure to see X number of patients a day to meet their numbers.”

If we cut payments to doctors, Coburn says, “they’re going to cut the time they spend per patient. When a patient is in a room and you haven’t used your skills as a physician to really listen, you walk out and cover that absence of time by ordering tests. So if you say here’s all the hours we’ll pay for if you’re a Medicare doctor, and we can actually audit that time, doctors would have to demonstrate proof that they’re spending this time with patients.”

That wasn’t, I noted to Coburn, a policy that appeared in any of the bills he had sponsored, a fact he acknowledged with a laugh. “I didn’t put that in there,” he said, admitting the idea has little political support. “It’s just something I’ve thought about a long time. Nobody should be seen for less than 20 or 30 minutes if you’re doing this properly. And if I knew I was going to get paid for my time I wouldn’t be in a hurry to see the next patient.”

Here are further ideas on Medicare reform.

Police, Crime and the Usefulness of Economics

In 1994 the noted criminologist David Bayley wrote:

The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it.

Economists were skeptical based on intuition but in truth the empirical work from economists at that time was mixed with some papers showing little or no effect of police on crime, just as Bayley argued. Since Levitt’s pioneering paper, however, there have been many papers applying a wide variety of more credible research designs like natural experiments, regression discontinuity, matching and other techniques. Any one of these papers is subject to criticism but as group the results have been remarkably consistent: police reduce crime with a 10% increase in police reducing property crime by about 3-4% and violent crime a little bit more perhaps by 4-5% (average elasticities of .35 and .48 from my review paper).

Two interesting new papers add to this literature. The University of Pennsylvania has a large private police force, some 100 officers who patrol the Penn campus and a substantial fraction of the surrounding neighborhood. The city police also police the Penn neighborhood but the UP police stay within a known (but not demarcated) region. Thus, there are more police on the Penn side of the border than on the other side. MacDonald, Kick and Grunwald apply regression discontinuity to look at what happens to crime around the border region and they find that it drops as one crosses the border. Their measures of the elasticity of crime with respect to police are similar to those found elsewhere in the literature.

Chalfin and McCrary take another approach. I always assumed that the reason standard (OLS) techniques do not pick up an effect of police on crime was reverse causality, places with a lot of crime also have a lot of police. Chalfin and McCrary argue that an even more serious problem may have been measurement error. The usual measure of police is produced by the FBI and the Uniform Crime Reports. CM find another measure produced by the Annual Survey of Governments. The two measures are close enough in levels but the relationship is surprisingly weak when looking at growth rates. Although we can’t say which measure is correct (or if either are correct) just knowing that they are different tells us that measurement error is important and measurement error will bias results downward (i.e. away from showing a significant effect of police on crime.) Moreover, if you know that measurement error exists it’s also possible to correct for it (surprisingly one can do this even without knowing the truth!) and when CM do this they find large and significant effects of police on crime, very much in line with earlier results. CM also show that there is lots of variability in police numbers that is not accounted for by crime so reverse causality is not as big a problem as one might imagine.

Using a range of reasonable elasticity estimates from the new literature and a back of the envelope calculation, Klick and I argue that it would not be unreasonable to double the number of police officers in the United States. At current levels, it’s also my belief that police are much more effective than prisons at reducing crime and with far fewer of the blowback effects. Chalfin and McCrary do a more detailed cost-benefit calculation for individual cities and they also find that many cities are severely underpoliced (and some are overpoliced–the police force of Richland County, South Carolina probably does not need a tank).

Estimates of the elasticity of crime with respect to police are largely consistent across many papers which suggests that the new techniques are more credible.  The elasticity estimates are also important because their size implies that major changes in policy could improve social welfare. I see the empirical economics of crime as one of the more useful areas in economics in which substantial progress has been made in recent years.

Swedish migrant workers to Norway

She offered to find me a cleaning job, telling me if I worked in Norway, I’d become “rich like a troll.” I’d always thought it was the dwarfs and goblins that were rich, but I wasn’t about to quibble. Facing the reality of undergraduate student loans and the nigh-on uselessness of an M.A. in the humanities, I ate my pride, packed my bags, and endured the 30-hour train ride up to Lofoten.

Here is much more, interesting throughout.  I also liked this part:

“And I would say that many Norwegians enjoy the fact that so many Swedes are here doing menial jobs.”

When the Norwegian cross-country skier Petter Northug beat his Swedish rival across the line at the 2011 World Championships, he used opportunity to taunt Sweden about the low value of the Swedish currency. The Swedish media, on the other hand, laments the fact that Swedes are reduced to literally peeling bananas in Norway—albeit for about $23 an hour.

And this:

The stereotype of Swedes in Norway is that they live in dirty “collectives,” packing as many people into a house as possible. We did little to mitigate this stereotype.

For the pointer I thank Mike Dang.