Category: Economics

Incentives matter, installment #1437

A US jury has found that a former Uber driver living in Virginia committed acts of torture during Somalia’s civil war in the late 1980s.

Somali citizen Farhan Tani Warfaa testified last week in the Washington DC suburbs that ex-Somali colonel Yusuf Abdi Ali shot and tortured him.

Ali was a commander in the national army and supporter of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, say court documents.

Until this month, Ali drove for Uber, with a high 4.89 rating.

Here is the full story by Holly Honderich, via Ian Bremmer.

Raj Chetty’s empirical restructuring of Harvard’s undergraduate economics

Here is good coverage from Dylan Matthews, here is one excerpt:

[Chetty’s] Ec 1152 is an introduction to that kind of economics. There’s little discussion of supply and demand curves, of producer or consumer surplus, or other elementary concepts introduced in classes like Ec 10. There is no textbook, only a set of empirical papers. The material is relatively cutting-edge. Of the 12 papers students are required to read, 11 were released in 2010 or after. Half of the assigned papers were released in 2017 or 2018. Chetty co-authored a third of them.

Why not excerpt the cameo of me?:

…fellow traditionalist Tyler Cowen…told me he’s excited about the class. “I am for experimentation, and more of it in academia, and for that reason I approve,” he writes. “Of course it was not what I do, which is more traditional micro, more theory, less overlap with sociology. If the instructor is great, that is really what matters.”

There is much more at the link.  And here is Daniel Simonsen, Norwegian comic.

My Conversation with Ezekiel Emanuel

Very much a fun one, here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the opening summary:

Do we overrate the importance of doctors? What’s the importance of IQ versus EQ in the practice of medicine? What are the prospect for venture capital in biotech? How should medical training be changed? Why does he think the conventional wisdom about a problem tends to be wrong? Would immortality be boring? What would happen if we let parents genetically engineer their kids?

Tyler questions Emanuel on these topics and more, including the smartest thing his parents did while raising him, whether we have right to medical self-defense, healthcare in low- versus high-trust institutions, and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How can we improve medical education?

EMANUEL: Cut it down. Make it shorter.

COWEN: Cut it down? Why does that make it better? Or does it just make it cheaper?

EMANUEL: No, I think it will make it better. So, we have a lot of memorization, a lot of . . . So, let’s go back to the start. The four years of medical school: two years of preclinical in the classroom learning about biochemistry, genetics, anatomy, microbiology; and the two years of clinical time in the hospital, on the wards.

That dates from 1910. We haven’t really updated it much, except in this one way: we’ve cut down the preclinical time because — less of it — and it changes so fast, by the time you learn it in medical school, get out as a doctor, it’s out of date, A; and B, it’s more or less irrelevant to managing most patients…

And then, by the way, in med school, spending your time in a hospital is not the future. The future of American medicine is out of the hospital. So we need more rotations, more experiences for students out of the hospital.

No med school has made that big shift, and those are the shifts that are going to have to happen over the next 15 or so years.

And:

COWEN: Is there a right to medical self-defense that should override FDA bans on drugs and medical devices? I want to try something that’s not approved —

EMANUEL: No. I don’t like that.

COWEN: I’m saying it’s my body. But why don’t you like it?

EMANUEL: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, Tyler.

Finally:

COWEN: Now, you’ve written a much-misunderstood article about how hard you would try yourself to live past the age of 75. Would not the suspense of world and national history always keep you wanting a bit more extra time?

So, say I’m 75. I’ve decided I agree with you, but the NBA Finals aren’t over yet. I want to see game seven. I want the Mueller report to come out. Isn’t there always something?

And then, it’s kind of intransitivity of indifference. Every day there’s something, and you just keep on hanging on, even if one accepts your arguments in the abstract. Can you talk me out of that?

EMANUEL: No, no, Tyler, I think you’re exactly right. That’s why people do hang on. It’s because . . . you know, so I talked to my father, who — he says, “Zeke, you’re absolutely right. I’ve become slower, physically slower, mentally slower. My life” . . . what ends up happening is your life cones down, and you begin to overvalue certain small things. Like the NBA Finals. Like what’s in the Mueller report.

We all know, from any cosmic standpoint — even not a cosmic standpoint, just a 2,000-foot standpoint — most of those things are not irrelevant. It’s really cool to know.

You often ask — and this happens to me all the time. I teach undergraduates. Pretty smart undergraduates. Very smart undergraduates. MBA students, nurses, doctors, right? They have no understanding of history. So, whoever finishes in the NBA Finals, in five years, people have forgotten.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

One of the Greatest Environmental Crimes of the 20th Century

It was one of the fastest decimations of an animal population in world history—and it had happened almost entirely in secret. The Soviet Union was a party to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, a 1946 treaty that limited countries to a set quota of whales each year. By the time a ban on commercial whaling went into effect, in 1986, the Soviets had reported killing a total of 2,710 humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere. In fact, the country’s fleets had killed nearly 18 times that many, along with thousands of unreported whales of other species. It had been an elaborate and audacious deception: Soviet captains had disguised ships, tampered with scientific data, and misled international authorities for decades. In the estimation of the marine biologists Yulia Ivashchenko, Phillip Clapham, and Robert Brownell, it was “arguably one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.”

That’s from an excellent piece by Charles Homans in the Pacific Standard. The Soviets killed some 180,000 whales illegally, driving several species to the brink of extinction. But why? The obvious answer Is wrong:

…the Soviet Union had little real demand for whale products. Once the blubber was cut away for conversion into oil, the rest of the animal, as often as not, was left in the sea to rot or was thrown into a furnace and reduced to bone meal—a low-value material used for agricultural fertilizer, made from the few animal byproducts that slaughterhouses and fish canneries can’t put to more profitable use….Why did a country with so little use for whales kill so many of them?

The actual answer has a lot to say about the impossibility of rational economic calculation under socialism (and also the lesser but still important problem under capitalism of mispricing in the presence of externalities and the difficulty of aligning private and social incentives.) The answer did not appear until 2008 when, long after his death, the memoir of Alfred Berzin, a Soviet-era fisheries scientist, was translated and published. Homans summarizes:

The Soviet whalers, Berzin wrote, had been sent forth to kill whales for little reason other than to say they had killed them. They were motivated by an obligation to satisfy obscure line items in the five-year plans that drove the Soviet economy, which had been set with little regard for the Soviet Union’s actual demand for whale products. “Whalers knew that no matter what, the plan must be met!” Berzin wrote. The Sovetskaya Rossiya seemed to contain in microcosm everything Berzin believed to be wrong about the Soviet system: its irrationality, its brutality, its inclination toward crime.

You can find Bezin’s memoir here. It’s bitter, sardonic, sad and funny.

Whalers knew that no matter what, the plan must be met! Looking for whales they would go farther and farther from the islands and bring rotten baleen whales to the stations, those which could not be used for food. This was not regarded as a problem by anybody. The plan—at any price! And whalers were killing everything.

Why bring in rotten whales? Without prices the Soviets had to calculate in very crude terms, most notably gross output. In the famous cartoon, the nail factory is supposed to produce X tons of nails and finds the easiest way to do this is to produce a single large nail. The cartoon illustrated a real problem in the Soviet economy which many have documented including Bezin.

Another concept—no less frightening, ugly, and absurd—was that of “gross output.” This was a typical creation of socialism and would be impossible in any other system. Gross output: this is when nobody is interested in a living object itself, and the only thing they care about is the size of the catch. It is reports giving figures in tsentner [100 kilos, AT] and metric tons, even if it is fish that were thrown out, or rotten whales.

The whalers were paid well but it wasn’t just positive incentives. The history of the industry was never far from mind. Quoting Homans again:

Whaling fleets that met or exceeded targets were rewarded handsomely, their triumphs celebrated in the Soviet press and the crews given large bonuses. But failure to meet targets came with harsh consequences. Captains would be demoted and crew members fired; reports to the fisheries ministry would sometimes identify responsible parties by name.

Soviet ships’ officers would have been familiar with the story of Aleksandr Dudnik, the captain of the Aleut, the only factory ship the Soviets owned before World War II. Dudnik was a celebrated pioneer in the Soviet whaling industry, and had received the Order of Lenin—the Communist Party’s highest honor—in 1936. The following year, however, his fleet failed to meet its production targets. When the Aleut fleet docked in Vladivostok in 1938, Dudnik was arrested by the secret police and thrown in jail, where he was interrogated on charges of being a Japanese agent. If his downfall was of a piece with the unique paranoia of the Stalin years, it was also an indelible reminder to captains in the decades that followed.

Bezin, a scientist, writes about who got to the top in the Soviet system:

..As a rule, the people who became commissars were the ones who couldn’t find another job. They were not very smart but were very conceited, self important individuals, especially after they had been given a taste of power, and especially over other people. Those who were thinking about a career in the party system, who could speak loudly and authoritatively from a podium, and who curried favor with the boss, these people could climb the party ladder quickly, and high up.

…Russian people have a good sense of humor, and even when they should be crying they laugh…Here is [a Russian joke]: On the counter of a store there are different types of brains. Among them are commissar brains, which are being sold for a price many times higher than those of farm animals. “Why are the commissar brains so expensive?” asks a customer. The assistant replies, “Do you know how many commissars we have to slaughter to get one kilo of brains?”

The whole system was built on lies and had to be built on lies:

For seventy Soviet years the industry of lies was created, shaped, and perfected in the country. Lies were encouraged and cultivated, and people were forced to lie. Lies in art, lies in movies, on TV, on the radio, and in newspapers. One of my colleagues was saying: “Why do I need Crocodile? When I go to work I buy the newspaper Pravda and all the way to the institute I am dying from laughter.” Lies in the numbers of the Central Statistics Department. And facts about Chernobyl were lies, dreadful and inhumane, deserving of damnation. Lies about the history of our country, which the leaders of the country changed to suit their needs. To the latter, people reacted with a wicked grin: “An institute of experimental history has been created!”

…People were lying whether they needed to or not, and I would say that the lying was pathological and at all levels. From the most blatant lie at the international level…to naïve but proud lies like: “Soviet means the best.” Sometimes they were self-assured but silly, as for example in this poetic sentence: “As it’s known, the earth begins with the Kremlin”; or they were absolutely idiotic: “The whole Soviet country is song and dance all day long.” Just think of the meaning of these words! You could hear on radio and at concerts singing like: “Like an owner, a person walks through the boundless native land,” or “How wonderful it is to live in the Soviet country. . .” And all of these were promulgated in the 1930’s when the country was surrounded by the barbed wire of fearful GULAG’s . . .

Hat tip: The Browser.

Addendum: See the HBO series Chernobyl, brilliant cinematography and compelling storytelling, for a closely related story.

Good news, but long overdue — the rise of personal finance economics

In April, Harvard University’s economics department for the first time led a Personal Finance workshop series for undergraduates. In May, Princeton students attended the university’s inaugural Financial Literacy Day, complete with T-shirts and consultations.

“I do think this is an environment that is very stressful for many students,” said John Y. Campbell, an economics professor at Harvard who taught the workshop. “There are long-term trends like the increase in inequality, rising student debt—they make students very mindful of the challenges they’re going to face.”

Kian Mintz-Woo, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton who participated in the Financial Literacy Day, said he craves this kind of formalized instruction.

“We’re a generation that’s really shaped by some really poor macroeconomic decisions and it’s harder for us to think that there’s sort of exogenous progress in our lives and our livelihoods,” he said.

The Ivys are part of a growing trend to teach students about money. In the last decade, community colleges, public schools and state universities have started offering personal-finance programs to meet student demand, according to the Financial Security Project at Boston College.

More states are recognizing the importance of financial literacy at the high-school level. Nineteen states now mandate high schools to educate students on basic financial knowledge before they graduate, up from 17 states in 2018 and 13 in 2011, according to the Council for Economic Education.

That is from Julia Carpenter in the WSJ.

Women’s liberation as a financial innovation

In one of the greatest extensions of property rights in human history, common law countries began giving rights to married women in the 1850s. Before this “women’s liberation,” the doctrine of coverture strongly incentivized parents of daughters to hold real estate, rather than financial assets such as money, stocks, or bonds. We exploit the staggered nature of coverture’s demise across US states to show that women’s rights led to shifts in household portfolios; a positive shock to the supply of credit; and a reallocation of labor towards non-agriculture and capital intensive industries. Investor protection deepened financial markets aiding industrialization.

That is from a recent paper by Moshe Hazan, David Weiss, and Hosny Zoabi, via Jennifer Doleac, who again has a new podcast series on law and economics.

The Great Reset, applied to Millennials

“Their economic fundamentals are fundamentally different,” said Christopher Kurz, an economist at the Federal Reserve.

Mr. Kurz and his colleagues last year analyzed income, debt, asset and consumption data to figure out how millennials compared at similar ages with Generation X, people born between 1965 and 1980, as well as baby boomers, those born from 1946 to 1964.

They found that millennial households had an average net worth of about $92,000 in 2016, nearly 40% less than Gen X households in 2001, adjusted for inflation, and about 20% less than baby boomer households in 1989.

Wages didn’t look much better. At the same ages, Gen X men working full time and who were heads of households earned 18% more than their millennial counterparts, and baby boomer men earned 27% more, when adjusting for inflation, age and other socioeconomic variables.

Among women, incomes were 12% higher for Gen Xers and 24% higher for baby boomers than for millennials, using the same measures.

That is from Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg at the WSJ.  Note this too:

Millennials, as a group, are better educated than any generation before them. About four in 10 ages 25 to 37 hold at least a bachelor’s degree compared with about a quarter of baby boomers, and three in 10 Gen Xers when they were the same age.

You can see the problem, yes?  Here is the original paper by Christopher Kurz, Geng Li, and Daniel J. Vine.

Anarchy is Worse than Socialism

Socialism is bad. I need no convincing. But the collapse of Venezuela is much worse than anyone would have predicted from socialism alone:

NYTimes: ….the drop in Venezuela’s economic output under Mr. Maduro has undergone the steepest decline by any country not at war since at least 1975.

By year’s end, Venezuela’s gross domestic product will have shrunk by 62 percent since the beginning of the recession in 2013.

Venezuela has lost a tenth of its population in the past two years as people fled, even trekking across mountains, setting off Latin America’s biggest ever refugee crisis.

Venezuela’s hyperinflation, expected to reach 10 million percent this year according to the I.M.F., is on track to become the longest period of runaway price rises since that in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s.

“This is essentially a total collapse in consumption,” said Sergi Lanau, deputy chief economist at the Institute of International Finance…

So what is causing the tremendous drop in economic activity? Ironically, it’s not too much government but too little. Outside of the capital, the government has practically abandoned its most basic responsibility of providing law and order. The result has been widespread looting. Ordinary theft is about stealing money or valuable “final” goods like diamonds or art works. In theory, the thief receives more or less what the owner loses. Looting, however, is a special kind of theft. Looting is theft plus destruction. The person who steals a candy bar is a thief. The person who breaks a store front window and steals a candy bar is a looter. Looters destroy intermediate goods and infrastructure and gain far less than owners lose. Looting is the worst kind of theft.

He said he lost his job at a hotel when looters ransacked it in March, ripping out even window frames and cable wiring. He now collects wild plums to sell for a few cents in the city’s parks. Most of his community’s diet now consists of wild fruits, fried corn pastries and bone broth, residents said.

Farther from the state capital, conditions are worse.

…The four stone quarries that are the island’s only industry have been idle since robbers stole all power cables connecting them to the grid last year. Local opposition activists estimate up to a third of the residents have emigrated from the island in the past two years.

“It used to be a paradise,” said Arturo Flores, the local municipality’s security coordinator, who sells a fermented corn drink from a bucket to local fishermen to round up his salary, which is equivalent to $4 a month. “Now, everyone is fleeing.”

On the other side of Zulia state, in the ranching town of Machiques, the economic collapse has decimated the meat and dairy industries that had supplied the country.

Power cuts have idled the local slaughterhouse, once one of the largest in Latin America. Armed gangs extort and rustle cattle from the surviving ranchers.

“You can’t produce if there’s no law,” said Rómulo Romero, a local rancher.

…“There’s no local, regional or national government here,” said José Espina, a motorbike taxi driver there. “We’re on our own.”

To say that socialism is better than anarchy is not to defend the rotten Chavez-Maduro regime. Instead I am pointing to the relevance of Mancur’s Olson’s model of the roving and stationary bandit. Olson explained why roving bandits evolve into stationary bandits:

Under anarchy, uncoordinated competitive theft by “roving bandits” destroys the incentive to invest and produce, leaving little for either the population or the bandits. Both can be better off if a bandit sets himself up as a dictator-a “stationary bandit” who monopolizes and rationalizes theft in the form of taxes. A secure autocrat has an encompassing interest in his domain that leads him to provide a peaceful order and other public goods that increase productivity.

The process is working in reverse in Venezuela. In Venezuela, the stationary bandit regime is collapsing and it is being replaced by a regime of roving bandits.

The incentives Olson identifies will eventually result in a new stationary bandit or, if Venezuela is lucky, maybe even less banditry and better institutions. The process is already underway. Consider this:

Local shopkeepers have pulled together to repair power lines and keep telecom towers running, to feed public workers, and to procure diesel for backup generators.

“We have practically taken on the functions of the state,” said Juan Carlos Perrota, a butcher who runs Machiques’ chamber of commerce.

Local shopkeepers are repairing power lines, feeding public workers and taking over the power of the state. Awesome! ¡Viva la maquinaria de la libertad!

The process of rebuilding governance, however, is slow and the destruction of wealth and human life costly. Indeed, it’s a surprise that Venezuela has gone so far down this path. Stationary bandits are usually replaced by other stationary bandits. Juan Guaidó seems far superior to Maduro on every score but the real puzzle is how Maduro has held off the generals even as anarchy looms. Don’t the generals see that that the goose is dying?

Dominick Armentano emails me about Standard Oil

Tyler,

Just watched your recent interesting  exchange with Professor Wu on whether the Standard Oil divestiture made public policy sense.

Wu asserted that the decision was good public policy. You said you were not so sure since  the evidence (on competition and consumer welfare) prior to divestiture may have been ambiguous. Wu had a near heart attack at that suggestion which showed me, of course, that he has never read the case, has never read the trial record (it’s 11,000 pages long and the State of Connecticut library in Hartford actually had a copy when I was researching this case back in 1970) and has never read any economist (such as myself) that has done  some of that work so that professors such as Wu can be marginally smarter in policy debates.

This is one of the most misunderstood cases in antitrust history. (Even Bork, who gets much of the revisionist case history correct, totally flinches on this case; he does nearly nothing with it.)

The first misunderstanding in almost all of the law texts is that this is the first “rule of reason”  antitrust case. That implies that the SC must have sifted through all of the conflicting facts and arguments presented at court and determined that Standard had acted “unreasonably.”  Totally False.  A modified rule of reason approach was articulated in the case by Justice White in 1911 but, of course, was never applied to the specifics in Standard.

As any antitrust lawyer can tell you this is a job for a lower court anyway, not for the SC; but this case was never remanded. The SC simply decided that the many mergers by Standard prior to 1890 constituted an attempt to monopolize in violation of the Sherman Act and, notice, divestiture follows logically from that reasoning. But whether Standard ever “restrained trade” (as we now understand the meaning of that phrase, i.e. able to reduce industry output  and raise industry price) was NEVER determined. Thus whether Standard missallocated resources, charged monopoly prices, repressed innovation, etc…was never decided by the SC or any other court.

Which leaves totally open the question of what was actually going on in the oil industry between say 1880 and 1907 (aside from the many mergers). I determined that this industry (crude oil, transportation, refining, marketing was all very small ( this is pre-gasoline after all); that there were few if any legal barriers to entry and that business organizations entered and left with some frequency, typical of a young and innovative industry; that Standard, despite mergers, always had many rivals in refining (Texaco, Pure Oil,  Associated Oil and Gas, Sun Oil, Gulf and many many others) and, of course, there were hundreds of firms in crude oil production and marketing which were never “monopolized”; that  costs and prices decreased throughout the period of alleged monopolization (even Ida Tarbell admits this. Indeed I got much of my cost and price information from her “History of the Standard Oil Company”; that Standard’s market share decreased in the 10 year period prior to the antitrust suit (1907); and that, as John McGee argued long ago, that Standard probably did not engage in predatory pricing.  There is much much more to this story and I tell a good share of that in “Antitrust & Monopoly.”

Perhaps Wu can make the case that the divestiture in 1911 produced a better result (in terms of all of the things that economists measure) than what would have happened if nothing dramatic had been done. That’s counter-factual so good luck with that!! All I know is that his knowledge of the actual history of the oil industry is quite stunning and I fear for the life of his more curious students.

Dom.

As I said in the Wu debate itself, I do not know enough about this case and I am agnostic on the question.  Still, there is a perspective you don’t usually hear, and so I am passing it along.

It is the slacker writers who need agglomeration most of all

Do note the latter part of the last sentence, but the entire thesis is interesting:

This paper utilises a unique, purpose-built panel dataset on prominent authors in the UK and Ireland born 1700–1925 to estimate the productivity gains associated with agglomeration of an industry with few capital requirements and no apparent need to cluster geographically. I find the average author experiences productivity gains of 11.94% per annum when residing in London, the only major literary cluster – a gain not associated with living in any of the minor literary clusters. I find evidence of negative selection with respect to productivity, indicating the results are not driven by the self-selection of highly productive authors to London. I find heterogeneity of returns to living in London by birth cohort and Impact Index quartile (a measure of author quality) and that the cohorts who receive the greatest gains from locating in London are those for which there is the strongest evidence of negative selection with respect to productivity.

That is by Sara Mitchell in the Journal of Urban Economics, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The company that is Amazon

Let’s pause to reflect that the company that has made one-day shipping of tens of millions of items the industry standard is also the global leader in cloud computing services, owns the Whole Foods grocery stores (and is building a second chain), helps police departments identify criminals, is building its own air cargo fleet, has an $11 billion-a-year advertising business, is working on a plan to give everyone on Earth internet from space, has put always-on microphones in at least 1 in 10 U.S. homes, built an Oscar-winning film and TV studio from scratch, and is competing directly with UPS, FedExGoogle, FacebookAppleMicrosoftIBMthe entire book-publishing industryNetflix, HBO, DisneyWalmartTarget, CostcoKrogerCVS, Walgreens and countless startups.

I don’t like Alexa, and wouldn’t take one for free!  Still, this is overall a remarkable record of both innovation and competition across many markets.  That said, I wonder for how long Amazon can keep this up without becoming a bloated, inefficient conglomerate.

Here is more from Christopher Mims at the WSJ.  You will note also that Walmart is several times larger in U.S. retail than is Amazon.

Identity Economics is Bad Economics

Identity economics is bad economics. The excellent Nick Rowe puts it well:

Animals can be divided into Carnivores and Non-Carnivores: A = C + NC. Therefore, if we add some wolves to an island of sheep, the number of animals on that island will increase.

It’s easy to see why that argument might not be right. Wolves kill sheep. But if you didn’t know that fact about wolves and sheep, the argument looks very appealing. But the equation A = C + NC tells us absolutely nothing about the world; it’s an accounting identity that is true by definition. The only thing it tells you is how I have chosen to divide up the world into parts. And I can choose an infinite number of different ways to divide the world up into parts.

Here are two more examples:

1. Y = C + I + G + X – M. Therefore an increase in Government spending will increase GDP.

2. Y = C + S + T. Therefore an increase in Taxes will increase GDP.

My guess is that you are much more uncomfortable with the second of those two examples than the first. You have probably seen the first argument before, but have probably not seen the second. But they are both equally correct accounting identities and are both equally rubbish arguments.

As Nick notes, the identities we write down frame our thinking. Write an identity in a different way to check whether the frame really fits.

Inegalitarian restaurants

Or maybe you’re a senior staffer for Steve Scalise, the second-ranking Republican in the House. The aide usually pings his usual server for one of his usual perches: table 10 in the main dining room. It’s the corner booth with a privacy curtain—the “rock-star table,” ever since Bono sat there. Only tonight he’d prefer a booth in the bar area. Trouble is it’s packed.

Not to worry. “A maître d’ always has a table in his back pocket,” Arnaud says. He adds the Hill staffer to the reservation system, and a bar booth with a reserved placard is his.

For these diners and the other VIPs on the books this evening—a congressman from Kentucky, a former media exec, a concierge from the W Hotel, a smattering of cherished regulars—the restaurant is extra-accommodating. Its maître d’s spot their special customers instantly, greet them by name, and immediately whisk them to their tables. Good cop, good cop…

First, the hierarchy. Because this is Washington, many restaurants naturally have a pecking order for their top clientele. All VIPs of Le Diplomate, the French brasserie in Logan Circle, are dubbed “PPX”—personnes particulièrement extraordinaires—and tracked in real time on a kitchen whiteboard as they dine. But some, such as a neighborhood regular, are classified as “TTA,” for Try to Accommodate. Others are “MA,” for Must Accommodate, including Jill Biden; Gérard Araud, the outgoing French ambassador; and Jim Abdo, the developer who basically rebuilt 14th Street. An MA commands a table, stat.

At Rare Steakhouse in downtown DC, former managing director Justin Abad categorized semiregular VIPs as “soigné,” French for “handled with care,” and those who came in three to five times a week or held multiple functions at the restaurant throughout the year as “super soigné.” The lower tier would often be treated to a complimentary Prosecco, while those handled with extra care—select media figures and lawyers, for instance—might be given a free shellfish platter on occasion.

Here is much more by Jessica Sidman.  Have you ever wondered why at some places, and no I do not mean the old El Bulli, it is so hard to get a table at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night no matter when you try asking?  Those tables are being rationed by status, or if you are a very regular (and lucrative) customer of some kind.

And yet almost everyone still seems to think that restaurants are super-cool, correctly or not.