Category: Economics

Elite Capture of Foreign Aid

Not surprising but not good and not good for support for foreign aid. Still we report it all at MR.

Do elites capture foreign aid? This paper documents that aid disbursements to highly aid-dependent countries coincide with sharp increases in bank deposits in offshore financial centers known for bank secrecy and private wealth management but not in other financial centers. The estimates are not confounded by contemporaneous shocks—such as civil conflicts, natural disasters, and financial crises—and are robust to instrumenting using predetermined aid commitments. The implied leakage rate is around 7.5% at the sample mean and tends to increase with the ratio of aid to GDP. The findings are consistent with aid capture in the most aid-dependent countries.

Jørgen Juel Andersen, Niels Johannesen and Bob Rijkers, forthcoming in the JPE.

On the Responsibility of Universities to their Students

Emily Oster in The Atlantic:

Many universities have announced a pivot to remote learning for at least part of January, among them UCLA, Columbia, Duke, Yale, Stanford, and Michigan State. The list goes on.

This move—in response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant—feels like a return to March 2020, when virtually all U.S. universities closed for in-person learning, sending students home for spring break and telling them not to come back. At that point, keeping students away from campus was reasonable. Now, however, this decision is a mistake. It reflects an outmoded level of caution. And it represents a failure of universities to protect their students’ interests.

I agree. Despite being a big fan of online education there is a big difference between online classes developed over many years with substantial funding, like MRU’s classes, and throwing professors into teaching over zoom. College is supposed to be fun. Meeting people is part of the education. Online is great but not for everything.

I would add three points to the those that Oster makes. First, this is where the students are anyway. I gave a talk at UVA recently and everyone was masked according to policy. After the the talk we went to the Corner where the bars and restaurants were packed with unmasked revelers. Mask mandates are pandemic theatre and inconsistent with how much of the country let alone most students are already living. Similarly, going remote is also pandemic theatre and not likely to appreciably reduce interactions in the community at-large.

Second, the elasticity of substitution. It made sense to change behavior substantially when the vaccines were coming. But the vaccines have been here for some time, they are great, they work. So get vaccinated, be thankful, and get back to life.

Finally these arguments apply with at least as much strength if not more to the public schools. Furthermore, we have spent billions of dollars on pandemic preparations for the public schools. Why did we spend that money if not to open the schools?

Basta!

Is the Beijing Consensus collapsing?

From my latest Bloomberg column:

The more dramatic developments have come from China itself. China did effectively wield state power to build infrastructure, manage its cities and boost economic growth. And most advocates of the Washington Consensus underestimated how well that process would go.

But along the way, China became addicted to state power. Whenever there was a problem in Chinese society, the government ran to the rescue. The most dramatic example was the extreme use of fiscal policy to forestall the 2008 financial crisis from spreading to China.

Yet this general application of state power, even if successful in a particular instance, brought a great danger: The Chinese were left with overdeveloped state-capacity muscles and underdeveloped civil-society capabilities. Over the last several years the Chinese government has done much to restrict civil society, free speech and religion within China. Now much of the world, including but not limited to China’s neighbors, is afraid of Chinese state power.

Now, because state power has its limits, it is difficult for China to solve many of its most fundamental problems. Chinese leaders are worried about the country’s low birth rate, for instance, but lifting restrictions on the number of children has not yet helped increase the birth rate. In many societies, it is religious families that have more children, but promoting religion is not a remedy that comes easily to China today.

And how will China deal with the pending spread of the omicron variant of Covid-19? The Communist Party staked its legitimacy on the claim that it could control Covid while the U.S. could not. Soon Chinese citizens may be in for a rude awakening, especially if the Chinese vaccines are not so effective.

Recommended.

Does Pot Contribute to GDP?

As Tyler and I explain in our textbook, GDP is the market value of all finished goods and services produced within a country in a year. Sounds simple but there are always edge cases including whether or not illegal goods should count towards GDP. According to the definition, illegal goods should count towards GDP. But in practice they often don’t. In part because some people think that counting illegal goods would signal approval (or that not counting them signals disapproval) but also because it’s hard to count the market value of illegal goods. Do we really expect the BEA to survey drug dealers and prostitutes about the price of their goods and services?

But what happens when an illegal good is legalized? The market value of any finished legal good should definitely count towards GDP but just adding it to GDP on the day of legalization causes problems. Did the economy boom the day pot was legalized? Did the recession end that day? Did we all become wealthier? Some countries shrug and just add footnotes.

In 1987, Italy, whose citizens are famous scofflaws when it comes to reporting income and paying taxes, announced that it was adjusting GDP upward by about a fifth to reflect the underground—but not necessarily illegal—economy. Overnight, Italy became the fifth-largest economy in the world, surpassing the United Kingdom. National euphoria ensued. Italians dubbed it “il sorpasso,” the overtaking.

But when Canada legalized pot in 2018, Statistics Canada decided not just to add pot to GDP but to backdate all their previous GDP statistics to create a consistent series. The Walrus has the interesting story.

The teams had to invent codes to capture classifications for new line items. Among them: 71.0105, in the classification of instructional programs for cannabis culinary arts and cannabis-chef training, and 71.0110, for cannabis-selling skills and sales operations.

…Apart from hammering out semantic protocols, StatCan faced two central hurdles in determining how to count cannabis: How much do Canadians use? And what does it cost? But the economists at StatCan wanted to calculate those numbers not just for the final quarter of 2018, when cannabis became legal, but for every year back to 1961, which is as far back as the national accounts go, at least in their current form.

…So the cannabis team dug back through decades of surveys on drug use, addiction rates, law enforcement, and health data to figure out how much cannabis Canadians were consuming back in the day. It started small, with as little as twenty-four tonnes a year in the early 1960s. By 2015, it was close to 700 tonnes. Until the 1990s, when the US war on drugs ramped up, a lot of that came from abroad. Now, we’re a major exporter.

Still, StatCan craved more detail. So, in 2018, analysts hooked up with researchers at McGill University’s department of chemical engineering for a year-long scrutiny of wastewater in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, and Vancouver. (Halifax clocked in with the highest cannabis load per capita and roughly triple the usage of Vancouverites. Go figure.) That pilot project has now been suspended for lack of money, says Barber-Dueck.

The latest figures show that more than 2 million Canadians use cannabis at least once a week, and more than a third of those use it every day. But what have they been paying? Barber-Dueck says that the team ploughed into historical databases of weed prices, talked to law enforcement officers, and canvassed longtime illegal growers, mining their memories. British Columbians were especially forthcoming. “People are pretty open about it and have been for years,” Barber-Dueck says.

As the legalization date approached, the team created the crowd-sourcing app StatsCannabis, complete with a cannabis logo. “Statistics Canada needs your help collecting cannabis prices,” the app pleads, adding, “Your data is protected!”

The technique had its drawbacks, Peluso notes. Heavy users of cannabis are the most frequent participants in the surveys by default. But they’re also filling out the survey right after they’ve made a purchase. “When you survey heavy users of a psychotropic substance, the error band is always a little bit bigger. You’re picking up people whose—How shall I put it?—whose awareness might be slightly compromised.”

So does pot contribute to GDP? It does in Canada but not in the United States!

Neither Canada nor the United States include prostitution in GDP although the Netherlands does. The United States has higher GDP per capita than either the Netherlands or Canada but if we included pot and prostitution our GDP per capita would be even higher and would better reflect our true standard of living relative to these other countries!

Hat tip: Ryan Briggs on twitter who notes that as another consequence Canada’s CPI now includes pot prices, at a weight of .55%.

Why are meetings so bad?

Andrew Alexander asks:

Why are meetings so bad? There’s a standard set of criticisms of meetings (e.g., ambiguous purposes, wasted time, poor presentation and moderation skills by the leader), most of which are basically accurate. If we’re all so familiar with why meetings are bad, and if the reasons they’re bad are accurate, why are they still bad?

First, I don’t think all meetings are bad!  In part you remember the bad ones more.  Many meetings for me are fun, especially if a) I get to decide something, or b) the other people in the meeting are some mix of smarter/more experienced/more knowledgeable than I am.  In sum those cases hold pretty often, though I will leave it to you to judge the relative mix.

But about bad meetings, I will say this:

1. Often the purpose of a meeting is to instruct everyone in the nature of an idea.  That is boring for many of the people in the room, especially if they are prone to leaving comments on MR.  “We need to get everyone on board.”  Ho hum.

2. Often the purpose of a meeting is to flex muscles and show a demonstration of power/support for a person or idea.  That may or may not be necessary, but it is boring too.

3. Often the purpose of a meeting is so that everyone can feel involved in a decision.  That can be really boring.

4. Some meetings turn into debates, whether intentionally or not.  Most debates are in fact quite boring, and that makes these meetings boring too.

5. Many meetings lack a natural close, due to insufficiently strong leadership.  Participants keep on adding comments, and no single person bites the bullet and shuts them down.  Ending the meeting may suffer from a public goods problem, especially when this factor interacts with #3.  Meetings do not price the scarce resource of time.

6. Many meetings appeal to either the “median voter” or to the “least common denominator” in the meeting.  That also makes meetings worse, noting this factor can interact with all those listed above.

7. On average, meetings attract more low opportunity cost types.  Which in turn further lowers the quality of the median voter or least common denominator in the meeting, thereby producing more interaction effects.

Those are some reasons why meetings are boring, but I have not listed all of them.

Dan Wang’s 2021 letter

Here it is, one of the better written pieces of this (or last) year.  It is mostly about China, manufacturing, and economic policy, but here is the part I will quote:

But Hong Kong was also the most bureaucratic city I’ve ever lived in. Its business landscape has remained static for decades: the preserve of property developers that has created no noteworthy companies in the last three decades. That is a heritage of British colonial rule, in which administrators controlled economic elites by allocating land—the city’s most scarce resource—to the more docile. Hong Kong bureaucrats enforce the pettiest rules, I felt, out of a sense of pride. On the mainland, enforcers deal often enough with senseless rules that they are sometimes able to look the other way. Thus a stagnant spirit hangs over the city. I’ve written before that Philip K. Dick is useful not for thinking about Hong Kong’s skyline, but its tycoon-dominated polity: “governed by a competent but fundamentally pessimistic elite, which administers a population bent on consumption. Instead of being hooked on drugs and television like in PKD’s novels, people in Hong Kong are addicted to the extraordinary flow of liquidity from the mainland, which raises their asset values and dulls their senses.”

And then on Mozart:

Among these three works, Figaro is the most perfect and Don Giovanni the greatest. But I believe that Cosi is the best. Cosi is Mozart’s most strange and subtle opera, as well as his most dreamlike. If the Magic Flute might be considered a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest—given their themes of darkness, enchantment, and salvation—then Cosi ought to be Mozart’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Donald Tovey called Cosi “a miracle of irresponsible beauty.” It needs to be qualified with “irresponsible” because its plot is, by consensus, idiotic. The premise is that two men try—on a dare—to seduce the other’s lover. A few fake poisonings and Albanian disguises later, each succeeds, to mutual distress. Every critic that professes to love the music of Cosi also discusses the story in anguished terms. Bernard Williams, for example, noted how puzzling it has been that Mozart chose to vest such great emotional power with his music into such a weak narrative structure. Joseph Kerman is more scathing, calling it “outrageous, immoral, and unworthy of Mozart.”

I readily concede that the music of Cosi so far exceeds its dramatic register.

Recommended!  There is much more at the link, substantive throughout.  Though I should note I am less bullish on both manufacturing and China than Dan is.  I fully agree about Bleak House, however, and at times I think it is the greatest novel written…

The new consensus of economists is further to the left

Based on an extensive survey of the members of the American Economic Association this paper compares consensus among economists on a number of economic propositions over four decades. The main result is an increased consensus on many economic propositions, specifically the appropriate role of fiscal policy in macroeconomics and issues surrounding income distribution. Economists now embrace the role of fiscal policy in a way not obvious in previous surveys and are largely supportive of government policies that mitigate income inequality. Another area of consensus is concern with climate change and the use of appropriate policy tools to address climate change.

That is from a new paper by Doris Geide-Stevenson and Alvaro La Parra Perez.  While I believe left-wing economists are more likely to answer such surveys (and maybe this gap is growing over time?), still I do not doubt the essential correctness of this result.  Note also that immigration and floating exchange rates remain popular, tariffs remain unpopular.

Via Jeremy Horpedahl.

Watching economics on TikTok

For my latest Bloomberg column, I ran the experiment of typing “economics” into the TikTok search function, and here is what came up:

The first video I saw was about the high pay of economics majors in the job market, relative to softer majors. The speaker has a strange British accent, and it is possible that he was deliberately trying to look and sound stupid. It has been liked more than 32,000 times. The next was a rant about the outrageous price of beer at sporting events. There is no obvious intelligence or analysis in the video. It has been liked almost 32,000 times.

I also saw a video called “Why I left economics,” in which a student who took an economics class at Brown explains how his professor taught about inequality but lived in a mansion with servants. He argues that economics as a subject distracts our attention from “what the **** we’re supposed to do.” The number of likes exceeds 258,000.

I watched a video of a woman loudly sighing in relief as a caption explains she has just dropped her economics class. Likes: more than 22,000. Then there was one mocking the idea of being an economics major, calling it another religion and suggesting the demand for economist friends is quite low. It had more than 34,000 likes.

But I am not upset at TikTok:

I think of TikTok as a useful wake-up call for economists.

First, TikTok is one of the dominant modes of presenting and debating issues and ideas, including economics, yet it is hardly used or even discussed by professional economists. (University of Houston Professor Chris Clarke is a notable exception.) Economists are ignoring the market signals — to our own detriment.

Second, TikTok’s preoccupation with the status and morality of economics exists beyond TikTok. TikTok offers economists a view of ourselves as much of the world sees us. We are judged not for our analytics, but rather by how we fit into various moral codes. Like it or not, that is something we economists have to come to terms with. Maybe we should thank TikTok for making this so clear.

Recommended.  And whether or not you like TikTok, you all should be spending a non-zero amount of time with it.

Most Popular MR Posts of the Year!

As measured by page views here are the most popular MR posts of 2021. Coming in at number 10 was Tyler’s post:

10. Best non-fiction books of 2021

Lots of good material there and well worth revisiting. Number 9 was by myself:

9. Revisionism on Deborah Birx, Trump, and the CDC

TDS infected many people but as the Biden administration quickly discovered the problems were much deeper than the president, leading to revisionism especially on the failures of the CDC and the FDA. Much more could be written here but this was a good start.

Number 8 was Tyler’s post:

8. The tax on unrealized capital gains

which asked some good questions about a bad plan.

7. We Will Get to Herd Immunity in 2021…One Way or Another

Sadly this post, written by me in January of 2021, had everything exactly right–we bottomed out at the end of June/early July as predicted. But then Delta hit and things went to hell. Sooner or later the virus makes fools of us all.

6. Half Doses of Moderna Produce Neutralizing Antibodies

One of my earlier pieces (written in Feb. 21) on fractional dosing. See also my later post A Half Dose of Moderna is More Effective Than a Full Dose of AstraZeneca. We have been slow, slow, slow. I hope for new results in 2022.

5. A few observations on my latest podcast with Amia Srinivasan

Listener’s took umbrage, perhaps even on Tyler’s behalf, at Srinivasan but Tyler comes away from every conversation having learned something and that makes him happy.

4. The Most Impressive AI Demo I Have Ever Seen

Still true. Still jaw-dropping.

3. Patents are Not the Problem!

I let loose on the Biden administration’s silly attacks on vaccine patents. Also still true. Note also that as my view predicts, Pfizer has made many licensing deals on Paxalovid which has a much simpler and easier to duplicate production process (albeit raw materials are still a problem.)

2. A Nobel Prize for the Credibility Revolution

A very good post, if I don’t say so myself, on this year’s Nobel prize recipients, Card, Angrist and Imbens.

1. How do you ask good questions?

Who else but Tyler?

To round out the top ten I’d point to Tyler’s post John O. Brennan on UFOs which still seems underrated in importance even if p is very low.

Erza Klein’s profile of me still makes me laugh, “He’s become a thorn in the side of public health experts…more than one groaned when I mentioned his name.” Yet, even though published in April many of these same experts are now openly criticizing the FDA and the CDC in unprecedented ways.

UFOs going mainstream or Tabarrok’s view of the FDA going mainstream. I’m not sure which of these scenarios was more unlikely ex ante. Strange world.

Let us know your favorite MR posts in the comments.

What should I ask Sam Bankman-Fried?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is an excerpt from Wikipedia, shorn of footnotes:

Samuel Bankman-Fried (born March 6, 1992), also known by his initials SBF, is an American businessman and effective altruist. He is the founder and CEO of FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange. He also manages assets through Alameda Research, a quantitative cryptocurrency trading firm he founded in October 2017. He is ranked 32nd on the 2021 Forbes 400 list with a net worth of US$22.5 billion. In addition, Bankman-Fried a supporter of effective altruism and pursues earning to give as an altruistic career.

SBF is also well-known for his interests in veganism and utilitarianism and philanthropy.  So what should I ask him?

Don’t F*ck with Big Sugar

In Modern Principles, Tyler and I analyze the economics and politics of the sugar quota which raises the US price of sugar to about twice the world level. Doug Irwin points us to a revealing passage in John Boehner’s memoir, On the House:

Sugar was never really my fight, but I always thought it was a little silly that the sugar industry has all this power in Washington. But I liked to spend my time on issues I might actually be able to change, and I knew the chances of winning a fight with Big Sugar was basically zero.

At one point in the mid-1990s, I got fed up and decided to yank their chains anyway. I was on the Agricultural Committee and were getting ready to put together the 1996 farm bill. I walked into my office while this was going on and found a sugar lobbyist hanging around, trying to stay close to the action. I felt like being a smart-ass so I made some wise-crack about the sugar industry raping the taxpayers. Without another word, I walked into my private office and shut the door. I had no real plan to go after the sugar people. I was just screwing with the guy.

My phone did not stop ringing for the next five weeks….I had no idea how many people in my district were connected to the sugar industry. People were calling all day, telling me they made pumps or plugs or boxes or some other such part used in sugar production and I was threatening their job. Mayors called to tell me about employers their towns depended on who would be hurt by a sugar downturn. It was the most organize effort I had ever seen.

And that’s why don’t fuck with sugar.

ProPublica on the FDA and Rapid Tests

Lydia DePillis has written the best piece on the FDA that I have ever read in a mainstream news publication. It gets everything right and yes it frankly verifies everything that I have been saying about the FDA and rapid tests for the last year and a half. I wish it had been written earlier but I suppose that illustrates how difficult it is to radically change people’s mindset from the FDA as protector to the FDA as threat. The sub head is:

Irene Bosch developed a quick, inexpensive COVID-19 test in early 2020. The Harvard-trained scientist already had a factory set up. But she was stymied by an FDA process experts say made no sense.

The piece recounts how cheap, rapid tests could have been approved in March of 2020! Here’s the opening bit:

When COVID-19 started sweeping across America in the spring of 2020, Irene Bosch knew she was in a unique position to help.

The Harvard-trained scientist had just developed quick, inexpensive tests for several tropical diseases, and her method could be adapted for the novel coronavirus. So Bosch and the company she had co-founded two years earlier seemed well-suited to address an enormous testing shortage.

E25Bio — named after the massive red brick building at MIT that houses the lab where Bosch worked — already had support from the National Institutes of Health, along with a consortium of investors led by MIT.

Within a few weeks, Bosch and her colleagues had a test that would detect coronavirus in 15 minutes and produce a red line on a little chemical strip. The factory where they were planning to make tests for dengue fever could quickly retool to produce at least 100,000 COVID-19 tests per week, she said, priced at less than $10 apiece, or cheaper at a higher scale.

“We are excited about what E25Bio is capable of shipping in a short amount of time: a test that is significantly cheaper, more affordable, and available at-home,” said firm founder Vinod Khosla. (Disclosure: Khosla’s daughter Anu Khosla is on ProPublica’s board.)

On March 21 — when the U.S. had recorded only a few hundred COVID-19 deaths  Bosch submitted the test for emergency authorization, a process the Food and Drug Administration uses to expedite tests and treatments.

You know how the story ends but really READ the WHOLE THING.

Cognitive uncertainty in intertemporal choice

This paper studies the relevance of cognitive uncertainty – subjective uncertainty over one’s utility-maximizing action – for understanding and predicting intertemporal choice. The main idea is that when people are cognitively noisy, such as when a decision is complex, they implicitly treat different time delays to some degree alike. By experimentally measuring and manipulating cognitive uncertainty, we document three economic implications of this idea. First, cognitive uncertainty explains various core empirical regularities, such as why people often appear very impatient, why per-period impatience is smaller over long than over short horizons, why discounting is often hyperbolic even when the present is not involved, and why choices frequently violate transitivity. Second, impatience is context-dependent: discounting is substantially more hyperbolic when the decision environment is more complex. Third, cognitive uncertainty matters for choice architecture: people who are nervous about making mistakes are twice as likely to follow expert advice to be more patient.

Here is the full paper by Benjamin Enke and Thomas Graeber, this one seems to me a significant breakthrough on some longstanding puzzles of choice.

What should I ask Sebastian Mallaby?

From Wikipedia:

Sebastian Christopher Peter Mallaby (born May 1964) is an English journalist and author, Paul A. Volcker senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and contributing columnist at The Washington Post. Formerly, he was a contributing editor for the Financial Times and a columnist and editorial board member at The Washington Post.

His recent writing has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic Monthly. In 2012, he published a Foreign Affairs essay on the future of China’s currency. His books include The Man Who Knew (2016), More Money Than God (2010), and The World’s Banker (2004).

I am also a big fan of his new and forthcoming book on venture capital, namely The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of a New Future.

So what should I ask him?