Month: May 2015

Tony Atkinson and François Bourguignon on inequality

His new book Inequality: What Can Be Done?, is out mid-May but already available in some bookstores.  Here is an interview with Atkinson.  I thought this book did not take sufficient care with some very basic distinctions, such as the difference between a problem of poverty and a problem of inequality.   Nor does it put enough emphasis on wealth creation, or explain why Korean-Americans have done pretty well over the last thirty years, among other possible examples.

The book is dedicated to the NHS workers of Britain.  That’s fine, many of them are very good, but Atkinson doesn’t mention a few key points, namely that a) the British system ranks relatively poorly by European standards, b) the British system probably has too much governmental ownership and provision, and c) bureaucracies usually underpay their best workers and thus do not generate enough initial income inequality.

François Bourguignon has a very good and readable new book on the international dimension of inequality, The Globalization of Inequality.

Martin Wolf has an FT review of both books.

For the pointer to the Atkinson interview I thank Enrico Schaar.

Assorted links

Square Dancing Bees and Quadratic Voting

It’s well known that bees dance to convey where useful resources are located but how do bees convey the quality of the resource and what makes this information credible? Rory Sutherland and Glen Weyl argue that the bees have hit upon a key idea, quadratic dancing or as I like to put it, square dancing.

Seeley’s research shows that the time they spend on dances grows not linearly but quadratically in proportion to the attractiveness of the site they encountered. Twice as good a site leads to four times as much wiggling, three times as good a site leads to nine times as lengthy a dance, and so forth.

Quadratic dancing has some useful properties which can be duplicated in humans with quadratic voting.

Under Quadratic Voting (QV), by contrast, individuals have a vote budget that they can spread around different issues that matter to them in proportion to the value those issues hold for them. And just as with Seeley’s bees, it becomes increasingly costly proportionately to acquire the next unit of influence on one issue. This approach highlights not only frequency of preferences but also intensity of preferences, by forcing individuals to decide how they will divide their influence across issues, while penalising the single-issue fanatic’s fussiness of putting all one’s weight on a single issue. It encourages individuals to distribute their points in precise proportion to how much each issue matters to them.

They offer a useful application

Consider a firm that wants to learn whether customers care about particular product attributes: colour, quality, price, and so on. Rather than simply ask people what they care about — which leads to notoriously inaccurate results, often where people affect strong views just to maximise their individual influence — a business, or a public service, could supply customers with budgets of credits which they then used to vote, in quadratic fashion, for the attributes they want. This forces the group of respondents, like the swarm of bees, to allocate more resources to the options they care most about.

Weyl’s paper with Eric Posner is a good introduction to quadratic voting and here are previous MR posts on quadratic voting.

Fast Tracking the FDA

Bart Madden and James Pinkerton suggest a new “free to choose” track for pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceuticals which showed initial effectiveness would be available for early sale but all treatment information under the early-sale program would have to be reported to an open-access database.

After a drug successfully passes safety trials and shows initial effectiveness in clinical trials—that is, the early steps—a drug developer could request that their drug be available for sale on a “free to choose” track (the developer could elect also to continue on the FDA clinical trial track). As a result, patients such as Matt Bellina would be able to access innovative new drugs up to seven years earlier than waiting for a final FDA decision. For patients given only a few years—or months—to live, seven years sooner could spell life, not death.

Under our proposal, a patient’s doctor would be required to submit treatment results and medical information such as a patient’s genetic data to the open-access database. Doctors and patients would get real-time updates about the benefits and side effects of any “free to choose” drug and be able to make informed decisions about an early use of these new drugs versus approved drugs.

We might bear in mind that clinical trials involve patients who are mostly similar. On the other hand, because the “free to choose” option would be available to everyone, new insights would be obtained about how a drug performs for a far broader range of patients. These insights would better inform the biopharmaceutical industry, leading, in turn, to better allocation of research funds and faster innovation.

Bart’s excellent book Free to Choose Medicine has more on the proposal, which I think would speed drugs to patients and increase pharmaceutical research and development. Do note that I hold the Bartley J. Madden chair in economics at Mercatus at GMU and I have my biases.

How will Canada be a part of the knowledge economy?

Me:

Some economic sectors are distributed everywhere, like every city has its dentist[s], and other sectors are quite clustered. Banking is pretty clustered — New York, London, Hong Kong. Tech has been evolving in a pretty clustered way; I don’t mean simple software support, which is more like dentistry, but big, grand projects — the next Google, the next Facebook, Uber. We see those come out of quite a small number of places, so Skype coming from Estonia is quite the exception. Even then, it was improved by people in the clusters.

I think any location, not just Canada, has to ask itself, ‘are we going to be one of those clusters or not’? And the correct answer may be ‘no’. It may also be the sector evolves so it’s less clustered and more like dentistry, and then everywhere including Canada would partake. But maybe the future is Canada will have a knowledge sector doing small-scale things like software design for local projects but not anything like its own Silicon Valley. I guess at this point that seems likely — that Canada will not be a huge innovative part of the knowledge economy.

That is from my interview with the excellent Eva Salinas, mostly about other topics, such as what a great egalitarian age we live in and also where the World Bank and IMF stand, among other issues.  A few of the comments make more sense if you know that the interviewer is Chilean and we were discussing Chile before the formal interview started.

How bad are the investor arbitration clauses in TPP?

Mood affiliation aside, these clauses do not constitute a significant reason to oppose the treaty, in my view.  Gary Hufbauer has a good discussion:

ISDS provisions enable a foreign investor to seek compensation in an amount determined by an impartial panel of arbitrators, if a host government expropriates its property, or regulates its business in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner. Such protections have been deemed necessary in agreements going back at least to a Germany-Pakistan accord in 1959, and they have successfully protected US investments overseas in many countries.

Often these ISDS provisions are part of bilateral investment treaties (BITs), of which more than 2,200 are now in force worldwide. The United States has 41 BITs with countries near and far, and is actively negotiating a BIT with China, aimed at strengthening the rights of investors in a country that has not always been fair. Starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, the United States has also included ISDS in the investment chapters in nearly all its free trade agreements (FTAs), now numbering 20. Given this rich history, Senator Warren should be able to cite actual examples of the multiple abuses that she claims have occurred. She has not done so, because she cannot. Senator Warren makes a big deal about the hypothetical outcome of the old Methanex case against California’s regulations on gasoline additives, but the case was decided against the Canadian corporation.

The record shows that, far from a record of multinational corporations trampling sovereign states, investors have won fewer than a third of the cases resolved by the ISDS process.1 Arbitration procedures were formalized in 1996, when the World Bank created the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) as a neutral forum to handle ISDS claims. Similar fora are based in London, Paris, and Stockholm, but ICSID oversees the vast majority of claims. To date, ICSID has handled almost 500 cases.2 Of these, 36 percent were settled between the parties before going to arbitration. The arbitrators declined to hear 16 percent of claims for want of jurisdiction. They dismissed 19 percent of claims for lack of merit. Only in 29 percent of cases did the arbitrators uphold some or all of the business claims.

The full post is here.

Not everyone in this country is nice

People search frequently for it, roughly as often as searches for “migraine(s),” “economist,” “sweater,” “Daily Show,” and “Lakers.”

That is from an interesting Wonkblog article, using Google searches, trying to estimate the most racist regions of America.  The rural Northeast and Midwest don’t do so well.

The pointers are from SV and AM.

Patent Trolls are Only the Symptom

I was going to write a post on how trolls aren’t the fundamental problem with the patent system but Timothy Lee has it covered:

…trolls aren’t the primary problem with the patent system. They’re just the problem Congress is willing to fix. The primary problem with the patent system is, well, the patent system. The system makes it too easy to get broad, vague patents, and the litigation process is tilted too far toward plaintiffs. But because so many big companies make so much money off of this system, few in Congress are willing to consider broader reforms.

A modern example is Microsoft, which has more than 40,000 patents and reportedly earns billions of dollars per year in patent licensing revenues from companies selling Android phones. That’s not because Google was caught copying Microsoft’s Windows Phone software (which has never been very popular with consumers). Rather, it’s because low standards for patents — especially in software — have allowed Microsoft to amass a huge number of patents on routine characteristics of mobile operating systems. Microsoft’s patent arsenal has become so huge that it’s effectively impossible to create a mobile operating system without infringing some of them. And so Microsoft can demand that smaller, more innovative companies pay them off.

… In effect, the patent system is acting as an innovation tax, transferring wealth from companies that are creating successful technologies today to companies that acquired a lot of patents a decade ago.

A more fundamental change would be to offer patents of varying length, say 3, 7, and 20 years with the understanding that 3 year patents will be approved quickly but 20 year patents will be required to leap a high hurdle on non-obviousness, prior art and so forth. See my paper Patent Theory versus Patent Law.

My video on patents is a quick and fun introduction.

Prosperity Notes

ABC: The Treasury Department recently sold 44,000 one-dollar bills to one person — at a price of $5.95 apiece.

The bills weren’t even all that special — they weren’t very old, and they didn’t have any major flaws that made them valuable to collectors.

What they did have though, was four number eights in a row in their serial numbers — a sign of luck to many people of Asian descent.

And that’s made the bills popular. The Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing says it has sold over 70,000 such “prosperity notes” to thousands of people around the world — not including the huge sale to one individual.

Now that is a high rate of seigniorage. You can buy your own lucky bills from the Treasury. Westerners may prefer the 777 series. There is a discount for bulk orders, but you will still be paying more than a dollar for a dollar. That doesn’t feel lucky to me.

Hat tip: The Blacklist.

Can cheap wine taste great?

And not just if you are drunk:

When consumers taste cheap wine and rate it highly because they believe it is expensive, is it because prejudice has blinded them to the actual taste, or has prejudice actually changed their brain function, causing them to experience the cheap wine in the same physical way as the expensive wine? Research in the Journal of Marketing Research has shown that preconceived beliefs may create a placebo effect so strong that the actual chemistry of the brain changes.

Related experiments were run with milkshakes, by Hilke Plassmann and Bernd Weber.  There is more here, of considerable interest, hat tip goes to Samir Varma.  Do any of you know of an ungated copy?

This new article asks how much placebos are affected by your DNA.