Month: July 2015

*Leadership*

The subtitle is Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers, and the editor is Elizabeth D. Samet.  Here’s the shocking truth: these really are writings by our greatest thinkers!  Usually I am allergic to the topic of leadership and all the more allergic to edited volumes.  But this book has well chosen excerpts from Thucydides, Cervantes, Borges, Marcus Aurelius, Tolstoy, Milton, Plutarch, and Shakespeare, among many others, and a variety of moderns, including Mandela, Gandhi, Frederick Douglass, and Osip Mandelstam’s poem on Stalin.

This is actually a remarkable book.

My favorite things Croatian

Mirko

1. Novelist: Help!  I do own a copy of Sarah Nović’s Girl at War, but haven’t yet read it.

2. Basketball player: Toni Kukoc, the “Croatian sensation.”

3. Painting: There was an active school of Naive painting in Croatia, from Hlebine near the Hungarian border.  Perhaps my favorite from the group was Ivan Generalic, but Mirko Virius was very good too.

4. Inventor: Nikola Tesla.  Before you go crazy in the comments section, however, here is a long Wikipedia page on to what extent we can justly claim that Tesla was Croatian.  Here are further debates, Croat or Serb?  Or both?

5. Pianist: How about Ivo Pogorelić?  Here is his Petrushka.

6. Economist: Branko Horvat, the market-oriented market socialist, is the only one I can think of, here is an overview of his contributions (pdf).  Am I forgetting someone?

7. City: Split, not Dubrovnik.  I am here for two days right now, then on to Belgrade for a conference/salon.

I cannot name a Croatian movie or composer or pop star.  I have the feeling they have many more famous athletes.  Don’t they have a lot of beautiful models?  Aren’t they the world’s most beautiful people?  Has anyone set a movie here?

The bottom line: It would be worse without Tesla.

Monitoring the Language Police

The University of New Hampshire’s Bias-Free Language Guide came in for widespread criticism earlier this week for possibly chilling speech by labeling words such as “American,” “illegal alien,” “foreigners,” “mothering,” and “fathering” as problematic and non-preferred.

Commendations are due, however, to university president Mark Huddleston. The UNH reports:

The associate vice president for community, equity and diversity removed the webpage this morning after a meeting with President Huddleston. The president fully supports efforts to encourage inclusivity and diversity on our campuses. He does not believe the guide was in any way helpful in achieving those goals. Speech guides or codes have no place at any American university.

The minimum wage, the great reset, and the research of Isaac Sorkin

From Free Exchange at The Economist:

In the first [paper] Isaac Sorkin of the University of Michigan argues that firms may well substitute machines for people in response to minimum wages, but slowly. Mr Sorkin offers the example of sock-makers in the 1930s, which took years to switch to less labour-intensive machines after the federal minimum wage was brought in. He also explains how this finding squares with other research. Most studies look at past minimum wage increases that were not inflation-proofed. Firms may decide not to go through the hassle of investing in labour-saving machines if the minimum wage will affect them less over time. But they could respond differently to a more permanent increase.

Mr Sorkin crunches the numbers, using a model of the American restaurant industry in which companies choose between employees and machines. He investigates the effect of a permanent (ie, inflation-linked) increase in the minimum wage and shows that the tiny short-run effects on employment normally seen are fully consistent with a long-run response over 100 times larger. The lack of evidence for a big impact on employment in the short term does not rule out a much larger long-term effect.

In a second paper, written with Daniel Aaronson of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Eric French of University College London, Mr Sorkin goes further, offering empirical evidence that higher minimum wages nudge firms away from people and towards machines. The authors look at the type of restaurants that close down and start up after a minimum-wage rise. An increase in the minimum wage seems to push some restaurants out of business. The eateries that replace them are more likely to be chains, which are more reliant on machines (and therefore offer fewer jobs) than the independent outlets they replace. This effect has not been picked up before because the restaurants which continue to operate do not change their employment levels, so the jobs total does not shift much in the short run.

The piece offers further points of interest.

Thursday assorted links

Inputs are imported too

Ted Diamantis, an importer of Greek wines who is based in Chicago, has been helping his suppliers stock up on bottles, labels and printing ink. The barrels, though, have him worried.

In two or three weeks, some of Greece’s winemaking regions will begin their annual grape harvest. The wineries Mr. Diamantis buys from age their wine in barrels from Italy and France, but Greece’s capital controls make it difficult for them to send money out of the country to pay for the barrels they need for this season. No barrels means no wine for Mr. Diamantis.

“Without the ability to access your capital, you can’t buy anything,” said Mr. Diamantis, who is in Greece meeting with his business partners. “The marketplace is frozen.”

That is from Stacy Cowley at the NYT.  Similar examples illustrate why Greece leaving the euro, even if a better idea for the longer term, would not have been such a picnic in the short run.  Exports would have collapsed, not boomed.

A long look at short-termism

That is the title of a working study from Credit Suisse (pdf), here is one excerpt:

The problem is that short-termism is very difficult to prove. As we will see, many of the common perceived symptoms of short-termism don’t hold up to scrutiny, and there are some legitimate reasons for the shortening of time horizons. While there remains plenty of room for improvement, especially when it comes to incentives, the issue of short-termism deserves more care than it has received in the popular discourse. With little exception, the debate appears to be very one-sided.

Here is another good bit of many:

Were compensation the simple root of the problem, then correction through regulation or other market forces would be relatively straightforward. But a link between pay and termism is difficult to establish. Academic research shows that CEO pay has closely followed the size of the firms in the economy independent of the form of remuneration. Further, executive compensation has moved toward long term incentives, boards of directors are more independent than in the past, and governance committees are “nearly universal.” Reviewing the challenges of conclusively demonstrating short-termism, one scholar wrote, “[I am] aware of no empirical evidence establishing that executive pay term is inadequately focused on long-term performance from either a shareholder or societal perspective, systematically.”

And:

To summarize, a proper test of short-termism should address the micro-macro problem by relying on the outcome of the market pricing process rather than the views of individuals. While many constituents feel the market is short-term oriented—a feeling that has been expressed through the decades—asset prices don’t support this sense.

In fact there is a good deal of evidence that the sectors which require the most long-term attention attract investors and boards who understand that need.  Here is my previous post on this issue.

For the pointer I thank Michael Mauboussin.

*Money and Soccer*

The subtitle for this one suffices for a review:

A Soccernomics Guide: Why Chievo Verona, Unterhaching, and Scunthorpe United Will Never Win the Champions League, Why Manchester City, Roma, and Paris Saint-Germain can, and why Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Manchester United Cannot Be Stopped

I haven’t even read the full subtitle yet (I used Control C), much less the book.  But the author is the highly regarded Stefan Szymanski, and John Foot gave it a very positive review in the 24 July 2015 TLS.

Wednesday assorted links

What Is “Price Theory”? (A Guest Post by Glen Weyl)

When I was last living in Chicago, in the spring 2014, a regular visitor to the department of the University of Chicago and the editor of the Journal of Economic Literature, Steven Durlauf, asked me if I would be interested in writing something for the journal. For many years I had promised Gary Becker that I would write something to help clarify the meaning and role of price theory to my generation of economists, especially those with limited exposure to the Chicago environment, which did so much to shape my approach to economics. With Gary’s passing later that spring, I decided to use this opportunity to follow through on that promise. More than a year later I have posted on SSRN the result.

I have an unusual relationship to “price theory”. As far as I know I am the only economist under 40, with the possible exception of my students, who openly identifies myself as focusing my research on price theory. As a result I am constantly asked what the phrase means. Usually colleagues will follow up with their own proposed definitions. My wife even remembers finding me at our wedding reception in a heated debate not about the meaning of marriage, but of price theory.

The most common definition, which emphasizes the connection to Chicago and to models of price-taking in partial equilibrium, doesn’t describe the work of the many prominent economists today who are closely identified with price theory but who are not at Chicago and study a range of different models. It also falls short of describing work by those like Paul Samuelson who were thought of as working on price theory in their time even by rivals like Milton Friedman. Worst of all it consigns price theory to a particular historical period in economic thought and place, making it less relevant to the future of economics.

I therefore have spent many years searching for a definition that I believe works and in the process have drawn on many sources, especially many conversations with Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy on the topic as well as the philosophy of physics and the methodological ideas of Raj Chetty, Peter Diamond and Jim Heckman among others. This process eventually brought me to my own definition of price theory as analysis that reduces rich (e.g. high-dimensional heterogeneity, many individuals) and often incompletely specified models into ‘prices’ sufficient to characterize approximate solutions to simple (e.g. one-dimensional policy) allocative problems. This approach contrasts both with work that tries to completely solve simple models (e.g. game theory) and empirical work that takes measurement of facts as prior to theory. Unlike other definitions, I argue that mine does a good job connecting the use of price theory across a range of fields of microeconomics from international trade to market design, being consistent across history and suggesting productive directions for future research on the topic.

To illustrate my definition I highlight four distinctive characteristics of price theory that follow from this basic philosophy. First, diagrams in price theory are usually used to illustrate simple solutions to rich models, such as the supply and demand diagram, rather than primitives such as indifference curves or statistical relationships. Second, problem sets in price theory tend to ask students to address some allocative or policy question in a loosely-defined model (does the minimum wage always raise employment under monopsony?), rather than solving out completely a simple model or investigating data. Third, measurement in price theory focuses on simple statistics sufficient to answer allocative questions of interest rather than estimating a complete structural model or building inductively from data. Raj Chetty has described these metrics, often prices or elasticities of some sort, as “sufficient statistics”. Finally, price theory tends to have close connections to thermodynamics and sociology, fields that seek simple summaries of complex systems, rather than more deductive (mathematics), individual-focused (psychology) or inductive (clinical epidemiology and history) fields.

I trace the history of price theory from the early nineteenth to the late twentieth when price theory became segregated at Chicago and against the dominant currents in the rest of the profession. For a quarter century following 1980, most of the profession either focused on more complete and fully-solved models (game theory, general equilibrium theory, mechanism design, etc.) or on causal identification. Price theory therefore survived almost exclusively at Chicago, which prided itself on its distinctive approach, even as the rest of the profession migrated away from it.

This situation could not last, however, because price theory is powerfully complementary with the other traditions. One example is work on optimal redistributive taxation. During the 1980’s and 1990’s large empirical literatures developed on the efficiency losses created by income taxation (the elasticity of labor supply) and on wage inequality. At the same time a rich theory literature developed on very simple models of optimal redistributive income taxation. Yet these two literatures were largely disconnected until the work of Emmanuel Saez and other price theorists showed how measurements by empiricists were closely related to the sufficient statistics that characterize some basic properties of optimal income taxation, such as the best linear income tax or the optimal tax rate on top earners.

Yet this was not the end of the story; these price theoretic stimulated empiricists to measure quantities (such as top income inequality and the elasticity of taxable income) more closely connected to the theory and theorists to propose new mechanisms through which taxes impact efficiency which are not summarized correctly by these formulas. This has created a rich and highly productive dialog between price theoretic summaries, empirical measurement of these summaries and more simplistic models that suggest new mechanisms left out of these summaries.

A similar process has occurred in many other fields of microeconomics in the last decade, through the work of, among others, five of the last seven winners of the John Bates Clark medal. Liran Einav and Amy Finkelstein have led this process for the economics of asymmetric information and insurance markets; Raj Chetty for behavioral economics and optimal social insurance; Matt Gentzkow for strategic communication; Costas Arkolakis, Arnaud Costinot and Andrés Rodriguez-Clare in international trade; and Jeremy Bulow and Jon Levin for auction and market design. This important work has shown what a central and complementary tool price theory is in tying together work throughout microeconomics.

Yet the formal tools underlying these price theoretic approximations and summaries have been much less fully developed than have been analytic tools in other areas of economics. When does adding up “consumer surplus” across individuals lead to accurate measurements of social welfare? How much error is created by assumptions of price-taking in the new contexts, like college admissions or voting, to which they are being applied? I highlight some exciting areas for further development of such approximation tools complementary to the burgeoning price theory literature.

Given the broad sweep of this piece, it will likely touch on the interests of many readers of this blog, especially those with a Chicago connection. Your comments are therefore very welcome. If you have any, please email me at glenweyl@microsoft.com.