Month: September 2014

The economics of stolen celebrity photos

Here is one passage of interest, illustrating collective action dilemmas of various kinds:

The first post from this set that I could track down was nearly 5 days to the story becoming public, on the 26th of August. Each of those posts was a censored image with a request for an amount of money for an uncensored version. After numerous such posts and nobody paying attention to it (thinking it was a scam) the person behind the posts began publishing uncensored versions, which quickly propagated on anon-ib, 4chan and reddit. My theory is that other members of the ring, seeing the leaks and requests for money also decided to attempt to cash in thinking the value of the images would soon approach zero, which lead to a race to the bottom between those who had access to them.

There is more here, with some interesting exposition as well, via Lawrence Krubner.

Are economists biased to be pro-management?

Luigi Zingales has a relatively new paper on that and related questions:

The very same forces that induce economists to conclude that regulators are captured should lead us to conclude that the economic profession is captured as well. As evidence of this capture, I show that papers whose conclusions are pro-management are more likely to be published in economic journals and more likely to be cited. I also show that business schools’ faculty write papers that are more pro management. I highlight possible remedies to reduce the extent of this capture: from a reform of the publication process, to an enhanced data disclosure, from a stronger theoretical foundation to a mechanism of peer pressure. Ultimately, the most important remedy, however, is awareness, an awareness most economists still do not have.

The paper is here, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.  And here is another new Zingales paper (pdf, with Guiso and Sapienza) on time-varying risk-aversion, here is the tail end of the abstract:

Consistent with a fear-based explanation, we find that subjects who watched a horror movie exhibit a higher risk aversion than subjects who did not. The size of the increase in risk aversion caused by the horror movie is similar to the one experienced by our bank’s clients during the crisis.

If Scotland goes independent

Goldman Sachs has warned that the UK could fall into a eurozone-style crisis if Scotland votes for independence later this month.

In some of the most bleak predictions economists have made about independence, the Wall Street bank said a “Yes” vote on September 18, while looking unlikely, “could have severe consequences” for both the Scottish economy and the UK overall.

Goldman warned that public services would have to be cut if Scotland goes it alone, and that the country would face much higher borrowing costs.

But the most worrying consequence, the bank predicted, would be that uncertainty over a currency union would cause a run on sterling and a capital flight with echoes of the eurozone crisis.

“The most important specific risk, in our view, is that the uncertainty over whether an independent Scotland would be able to retain sterling as its currency could result in an EMU-style currency crisis occurring within the UK,” wrote Kevin Daly, senior economist at Goldman.

Here is more, from James Titcomb.  You should consider that speculative, but it is worth putting on the table.

What does a tattoo signal?

WE RECENTLY wrote about how a tattoo affects your job prospects. A paper from Kaitlyn Harger, a PhD student at West Virginia University, takes it a step further. Ms Harger found data from Florida and looked at what happened to people when they left prison. But her dataset was different: she knew which prisoners were tattooed.

Lots of employers are loth to employ people with tattoos. The US Army, for example, recently tightened its rules on body art. Ms Harger suggests that tattooed ex-cons, shunned by the legal labour market, slip back into criminality as a means to earn a crust: hence higher recidivism.

Her results are striking. On average, someone lasts 5,000 days (about 14 years) before finding themselves back in the cooler. A tattooed ex-con lasts half that (see chart).

That is from Free Exchange, there is more here.

Assorted links

Per capita Medicare spending is falling

I did not expect to be reading this within my lifetime, and yet here it is:

Medicare spending isn’t just lower than experts predicted a few years ago. On a per-person basis, Medicare spending is actually falling.

That is from Margot Sanger-Katz, there is more here.  Do please note that the program still faces fiscal pressures, in part due to the ongoing rise in “n,” namely future program beneficiaries.

Russian feline bundled loan markets in everything

Russia’s largest bank wants to lend you a cat. Isn’t that nice?

What did you do for the good folks of Sberbank, the Moscow-based lender, that would make them want to drive a van to your home and drop off one of their 10 cats — which they keep just for occasions like this — so you can hang out with it for not more than two hours? Well, they just lent you the money for the house and, as Russian superstition has it, it’s good luck for the first creature to cross the threshold of a new home to be a feline. And, yes, the cat has to be returned to the bank.

This neighborly campaign from the friendliest of all Russian banking behemoths is a ploy to cash in on Russia’s mortgage market boom.

The cat is brought to you, and then taken away, by “two unshaven men in green overalls.”  There is more here.

What will be humanity’s most enduring monuments?

Trevor Paglen speculates:

Humanity’s longest lasting remnants are found among the stars. Over the last fifty years, hundreds of satellites have been launched into geosynchronous orbits, forming a ring of machines 36,000 kilometers from earth. Thousands of times further away than most other satellites, geostationary spacecraft remain locked as man-made moons in perpetual orbit long after their operational lifetimes. Geosynchronous spacecraft will be among civilization’s most enduring remnants, quietly circling earth until the earth is no more.

That is via Kottke.

How to stay on the right career path

Also known as labor market precommitment:

St. Louis Rams rookie defense lineman Ethan Westbrooks made the final 53-man roster on Saturday, beating out Michael Sam for one of the team’s final spots.

Westbrooks has a remarkable story of his own. In 2011 he was working at a Toys “R” Us and playing for Sacramento City College. Three years later, he’s in the NFL. According to Westbrooks, an unlikely motivational tool — a face tattoo — is part of the reason for his success.

Westbrooks told ESPN’s Nick Wagoner that he got a tattoo below his eye in 2011 because he never wanted to get a normal job again. Making it in the NFL would be the only way to prevent him from becoming “a guy that has a tattoo on his face looking for another job.”

The full story is here, with a good photo.

The pointer is from G. Patrick Lynch.

Soft landing vs. hard landing

Michael Pettis writes:

The choice, in other words, is not between hard landing and soft landing. China will either choose a “long landing”, in which growth rates drop sharply but in a controlled way such that unemployment remains reasonable even as GDP growth drops to 3% or less, or it will choose what analysts will at first hail as a soft landing – a few years of continued growth of 6-7% – followed by a collapse in growth and soaring unemployment.

A “soft landing” would, in this case, simply be a prelude to a very serious and destabilizing contraction in growth. Rather than hail the soft landing as a signal that Beijing is succeeding in managing the economic adjustment, it should be seen as an indication that Beijing has not been able to implement the reforms that it knows it must implement. A “soft landing” should increase our fear of a subsequent “hard landing”. It is not an alternative.

There is more here.

MRU class on international finance

Our new class on international finance is up here.  The class description reads as follows:

International finance covers some of the most complex but also important topics in economics. How are exchange rates determined? When if ever are ongoing trade deficits harmful? Are fixed or floating exchange rates better? What are the roots of the euro crisis and what resolution can we expect? Does China manipulate its exchange rate and if so how does that matter? We cover all of these topics and more, with an eye toward what a person really might want to know. There is no use of mathematics in this course beyond the very basic.

The interesting thing about international finance is that even a lot of professional economists don’t understand it very well, unless they have specialized in the area. If you complete this course, you’ll probably know a lot which they don’t!

You will find particular videos on capital controls, the classical gold standard, “dark matter,” “the Dutch disease,” the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and are devaluations contractionary?, among many other topics.

Again, here is Guinevere Liberty Nell’s recent class on the Soviet Union (still relevant alas!) and our Principios de Microeconomía, by Andres Marroquin, is growing as well.  There is more on the way!

College Admission Secrets

Most colleges are non-profits with unclear ownership status so their incentives do not lead to simple profit-maximization. Don’t be fooled, however, neither do colleges maximize student welfare or the public good. Instead colleges pursue some index of free cash flow, prestige, and administrative and faculty independence. The result is some peculiar outcomes. Most businesses, for example, don’t want to reject customers but colleges often encourage students to apply so that they can reject them. The Washington Monthly’s college issue has an excellent primer, Ten Ways Colleges Work You Over, that explains:

education moneyThe aim of the game for colleges is to boost the number of students who apply and can be rejected. By doing this, the schools see their acceptance rates fall, making them appear to be more selective—which helps them rise up the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Take Northeastern University in Boston… [which] sends nearly 200,000 personalized letters to high school students each year. The institution then follows up these letters with emails, making it seem that the school is wooing these individuals.

… Nearly 50,000 students applied to Northeastern this year for 2,800 spots in the fall 2014 class…

Lowering its acceptance rates is at least one factor in why Northeastern has catapulted up the U.S. News rankings, rising more than 100 spots since 2002.

Profit-maximization (or maximization of free cash flow) is also not absent from the process. Many schools, for example, say they are need blind but that just means that admission officers don’t know the student’s income. Admissions officers, however, do know lots of information that is highly correlated with income including where applicants live, what high school they attended and the occupations of the applicants parents–not exactly what I would call blind.

Schools even use seemingly arbitrary bits of information to increase their revenues. The  Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, for example, has students list the colleges that they are interested in applying to. Although the order is irrelevant, students often list in preferential order and the colleges see this information. As a result, colleges have an incentive to offer students who list their college first less financial aid simply because that is an indication that the student has a high demand for that college.

Why I endorsed Evo Morales

Well, “endorsed” isn’t exactly the right word, but I did say “simpatizante.”  Here are my views:

1. I disagree with most of his economic policy, for reasons you can find stated in Adam Smith and the other classical economists.

2. Governments work very hard to stay in power.

3. In a weighted average of public opinion sense, I think of Bolivia as about 60-70% “indigenous,” one way or another.

4. If a Bolivian government is not strongly connected to the country’s indigenous population, that government cannot have a strong base.  Yet it will still work hard to stay in power (#2), which will mean it will resort to oppressions and distortions, with high long-run costs.  Bolivian history has seen an especially large number of coups and attempted coups, illustrating this weakness of the power base, which you can think of as the major problem in historical Bolivian public choice.  Think of Mancur Olson on permanent vs. temporary bandits, where most of the past bandits have been temporary, and thus Bolivian governance has been of extremely low quality, even relative to its region.

5. The government of Evo Morales is quite popular and pretty stable.  It has a strong and enduring power base, partly because of its specific policies and partly for symbolic reasons, such as its strong and explicit attachment to indigenous culture and “cosmovisions,” a notion newly embedded in the nation’s constitution.

6. The stability gains from #5 — the permanency of the bandit so to speak — exceed the costs from #1.

7. A democratic Bolivia will have “an indigenous government” sooner or later, better sooner.  Let’s hope they learn some better economic policy.  Something like the Morales government was in any case a necessary step, again without denying #1.

8. Bolivia is too decentralized for the Morales government to collapse into true dictatorship and Chavismo of Venezuela.  That said, I would feel better if it were assured that the Morales government were to be limited in term.

9. See also my reasons why I am optimistic about Bolivia, including their fiscal prudence, supported by Morales I might add.

I made this argument to an audience of elite Bolivians and elite Bolivian students.  Some of them hated it, some of them really liked it.  A speaker should usually try to shake up his or her listeners in some manner.

China mixed marriage markets in everything

Chinese authorities in the restive western region of Xinjiang have begun offering large cash incentives for interracial marriages in the latest attempt to quell growing unrest among the mainly Muslim Uighur ethnic group that inhabit the region.

The policy, celebrated by local Communist party officials as advancing the “great cause of assimilation” and “ethnic unity”, offers couples entering into mixed marriages an annual bonus of Rmb10,000 ($1,600), equivalent to 135 per cent of average annual rural incomes.

Uighurs, Mongolians and other ethnic minorities who marry people from the dominant Han race, which makes up more than 90 per cent of China’s 1.36bn population, will also be eligible for a broad range of medical, schooling and housing benefits.

There is more here, via Fabrizo Goria.