Category: Economics

The impact of the Affordable Care Act

The Impact of the Affordable Care Act: Evidence from California’s Hospital Sector
(with Mark Duggan and Atul Gupta) R&R, AEJ: Economic Policy

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) authorized the largest expansion of public health insurance in the U.S. since the mid-1960s. We exploit ACA-induced changes in the discontinuity in coverage at age 65 using a regression discontinuity based design to examine effects of the expansion on health insurance coverage, hospital use, and patient health. We then link these changes to effects on hospital finances. We show that a substantial share of the federally-funded Medicaid expansion substituted for existing locally-funded safety net programs. Despite this offset, the expansion produced a substantial increase in hospital revenue and profitability, with larger gains for government hospitals. On the benefits side, we do not detect significant improvements in patient health, although the expansion led to substantially greater hospital and emergency room use, and a reallocation of care from public to private and better-quality hospitals.

That is the job market paper by Emilie Jackson of Stanford.

Declining marriage incentives and male withdrawal from the labor force

Why have so many young men withdrawn from the U.S. labor force since 1965? This paper presents a model in which men invest time in employment to enhance their value as marriage partners. When the marriage market return on this investment declines, young men’s employment declines as well, in preparation for a less favorable marriage market. Taking this prediction to data, I show that fewer young men sought employment after 2 interventions that reduced the value of gender-role-specialization within marriage: i) the adoption of unilateral divorce legislation, and ii) demand-driven improvements in women’s employment opportunities. I then show, using a structural estimation, that half of the employment effect of a labor market shock to men’s wages is determined by endogenous adjustment of the marriage market to the shock. These findings establish the changing marriage market as an important driver of decline in young men’s labor market involvement.

That is from the job market paper of Ariel J. Binder, job market candidate from the University of Michigan.

Loren Fryxell of Northwestern is a creative thinker

Here is his home page, here is one abstract:

A Theory of Criminal Justice

Abstract: I propose a general framework with which to analyze the optimal response to crime. Each criminal act, detected with some probability, generates a random piece of evidence and a consequent probability of guilt for each citizen. I consider a utilitarian planner with no artificial moral constraints. In particular, I assume no upper bound on punishment—such a bound can only rise endogenously from the utilitarian objective. I consider three types of “pure” responses—deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation—along with general sentences combining any of the three. If citizens are expected utility maximizers, a repugnant conclusion is reached—it is optimal to punish only with the realization of the most incriminating evidence. Allowing for more general behavior yields a weaker but more satisfactory result—optimal punishment is always decreasing in the quality of evidence. (Rehabilitation, incapacitation, and general sentence results coming soon.)

Here is his job market paper:

A Theory of Experienced Utility and Utilitarianism

Abstract: I present a theory of measurement of preference intensity and use this measure as a foundation for utilitarianism. To do this, I suppose each alternative is experienced over time. An individual has preferences over such experiences. I present axioms under which preferences are represented by an experienced utility function equal to the integral of instantaneous preference intensity over time and unique up to a positive scalar. I propose an ethical postulate under which social preferences are utilitarian in experienced utilities.

Job candidates with ideas can be difficult to come by, so I wanted to highlight his work…

Who benefits from Uber surge pricing?

In the last decade, new technologies have led to a boom in dynamic pricing. I analyze the most salient example, surge pricing in ride hailing. Using data from Uber in Houston, I build an empirical model of spatial equilibrium to measure the welfare effects of surge pricing. My model is composed of demand, supply, and a matching technology, and it allows for temporal and spatial heterogeneity, as well as randomness in supply and demand. I find that, relative to a counterfactual with uniform pricing, surge pricing increases total welfare by 3.66% of gross revenue. Only riders benefit: rider surplus increases by 6.52% of gross revenue, whereas driver surplus and Uber’s short-run profits decrease by 1.63% and 1.18% of gross revenue, respectively.

That is from a new job market paper by Juan Camilo Castillo of Stanford University.  At the link his other papers are interesting too.

How can California be left in the dark?

That is the title of my latest Bloomberg column, the inspiration for which came from an Alex T. tweet.  Here is one passage:

Economists themselves have been of no great help. My Twitter feed includes plenty of the world’s greatest (or at least best-known) economists. They love to debate Elizabeth Warren’s plan for a wealth tax, an idea that probably isn’t going to happen (just ask Mitch McConnell or, for that matter, any moderate Democratic senator). When it comes to designing a better incentive model for California power utilities — a concrete problem for which economics is remarkably well-suited — there has been close to complete silence.

Economists are just reflecting a more general failing in American political debate. The old saying that all politics is local has been turned on its head: All issues are now national in scope and partisan in nature. People are less interested in the day-to-day mechanics of actual governance, including at the state and local level. The comeuppance for those ideological obsessions is now upon us.

I wonder how much worse things will have to get before they become better.

My favorite job market paper so far this year

It is from MIT, by Jonathon Hazell and Bledi Taska of Burning Glass, here is the paper, here is Hazell’s home page, here is the abstract:

If wages are more rigid downward than upward, then unemployment is volatile during recessions. In benchmark models, the wage for new hires is particularly important for unemployment fluctuations, but there is limited evidence of downward rigidity on this margin. We introduce a dataset that tracks the wage for new hires at the job level—that is, across successive vacancies posted by the same job title and establishment. We show that the wage for new hires is more rigid downward than upward, in two steps. First, the nominal wage rarely changes at the job level. When wages do change, they fall infrequently, suggesting a constraint from beneath. Second, when unemployment rises, wages do not fall for new hires—though wages rise strongly as unemployment falls. We show that prior work, which studies the average wage for new hires, cannot detect downward rigidity due to changing job composition. Finally, we match a standard labor search model to our estimates, and uncover state dependent asymmetry in unemployment dynamics. After contractions, unemployment responds symmetrically to labor demand shocks; after persistent expansions, unemployment is as much as twice as sensitive to negative than positive shocks.

It is a true puzzle why the wage should be sticky for employment relations which do not yet exist!  (It is easier to see you might not cut wages for workers who had prior expectations and who will stick around and might wreck things due to being disgruntled.)

Do note this:

However the average wage for new hires, the object of previous studies, is not more rigid downward than upward—in contrast to our job- and establishment-level results on downward rigidity…

But note that in section 6.2 the paper shows that firms do not lower the average quality of job during a recession so as to lower the average wage offer — yet a further puzzle.  Section 6.3 considers whether quality of job reallocation across establishments might offset wage rigidity.

This paper raises many important questions, and it is the most significant progress on understanding wage rigidity I have seen since the questionnaire work of Alan Blinder and also Truman Bewley.

Recommended, both the paper and the job candidate!

Addendum: Note this earlier post of Alex’s, on workers moving to new jobs since the end of the recession.

The Long-Term Effects of California’s 2004 Paid Family Leave Act on Women’s Careers

It is not obviously a winner policy, at least not from the point of view of boosting women’s labor market opportunities.  In fact it seems to harm them:

This paper uses IRS tax data to evaluate the short- and long-term effects of California’s 2004 Paid Family Leave Act (PFLA) on women’s careers. Our research design exploits the increased availability of paid leave for women giving birth in the third quarter of 2004 (just after PFLA was implemented). These mothers were 18 percentage points more likely to use paid leave but otherwise identical to multiple comparison groups in pre-birth demographic, marital, and work characteristics. We find little evidence that PFLA increased women’s employment, wage earnings, or attachment to employers. For new mothers, taking up PFLA reduced employment by 7 percent and lowered annual wages by 8 percent six to ten years after giving birth. Overall, PFLA tended to reduce the number of children born and, by decreasing mothers’ time at work, increase time spent with children.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Martha J. Bailey, Tanya S. Byker, Elena Patel, and Shanthi Ramnath.  And are you wondering why the number of children falls as a response?  Because the mother ends up staying home with them?  Or do mothers invest more in child quality, thereby lower quantity, as in a Becker model?  In any case a good question.

The economics of California power blackouts

Once again there is a risk of fire so they are turning off the power in many parts of dry and windy northern California, for 2.7 million people.  From The New York Times:

“When you turn the lights out on 3 million people because you have to keep the power lines safe then there’s no reason you should be allowed to continue,” Mr. Court said.

Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operations, said the issue was safety.

“We would only take this decision for one reason — to help reduce catastrophic wildfire risk to our customers and communities,” Mr. Lewis said in a statement.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January after amassing tens of billions of dollars in liability related to two dozen wildfires in recent years. As speculation grew that its equipment might be the cause of the Kincade Fire, its stock price plummeted about 30 percent on Friday to $5.08, a small fraction of its 52-week high of $49.42.

I would think the market expectation is that if PG&E is allowed to continue, as is likely to be the case, that it slowly will claw its way back to profitability, given that this is a highly regulated sector with barriers to entry.  So the company is afraid of losing its expected remaining profit from further liability, and thus it plays it safe with power, too safe because they don’t suffer so much from the power blackouts.  Sadly, the retail customers do not have many other options.

One solution would be to remove the liability the company faces from the fires, or alternatively you could add a liability option of set of fines from power cuts (call them “breach of contract”).  Both changes would introduce greater symmetry into the liability equation, but of course the former would eliminate the incentives for fire safety and fire reduction and the latter might bankrupt the company or create unenforceable or undefinable legal obligations.  Still, it hardly seems the current arrangement can be first best.

How about raising rates?  And then spending more on capital improvements?  (do read the tweets behind that link):

And in those proceedings, there is an independent division of the CPUC (the ‘Office of Ratepayer Advocates’) that has typically argued against maintenance and safety expenditures, so that rates can be kept low

How about raising rates a lot?  But maybe it is too late for that.

Another option, which I do not feel I have enough information to assess, is to have the state government buy out the power company.  That is not usually a good idea but in this case there is at least a chance it could lead to superior incentives.  The resulting company would then be geared toward pleasing voters, hardly an ideal arrangement but possibly better than the current incentives toward excess safety and massive power cuts with no real chance of consumer backlash.  With government ownership, how would the state internalize the liability risk?  How much would state borrowing rates rise?

Have you seen good proposals for improving the incentives in this rather disastrous matter?

A theory of narrow thinking

I develop an approach, which I term narrow thinking, to break the decision-maker’s ability to perfectly coordinate her multiple decisions. For a narrow thinker, different decisions are based on different, non-nested, information. The narrow thinker then makes each decision with an imperfect understanding of the others. Formally, it is as if the decision-maker is a collection of multiple selves playing an incomplete-information game. The friction effectively attenuates the degree of interaction across decisions and can translate into either over- or under-reaction depending on the environment. Narrow thinking leads to a violation of the fungibility principle and a smooth model of mental accounting. Narrow thinking also reconciles other seemingly disparate phenomena in a unified framework, such as excess smoothness to taste shocks, the small wage elasticity of daily labor supply, and the label effect. Finally, I study an endogenous narrow thinking problem: the decision maker chooses optimally what information each decision is based upon, subject to a cognitive constraint.

That is the abstract of a new paper from Chen Lian, who is on the job market this year from MIT.  (That is not his job market paper but it does have a revise and resubmit from Review of Economic Studies.)

More Sex is Safer Sex

I had forgotten that Steven Landsburg’s More Sex is Safer Sex (link to the 1997 NYTimes version, book here) was inspired by a paper by new Nobelist Michael Kremer. Here’s the recap:

You’ve read elsewhere about the sin of promiscuity. Let me tell you about the sin of self-restraint.

Consider Martin, a charming and generally prudent young man with a limited sexual history, who has been gently flirting with his coworker Joan. As last week’s office party approached, both Joan and Martin silently and separately entertained the prospect that they just might be going home together. Unfortunately, Fate, through its agents at the Centers for Disease Control, intervened. The morning of the party, Martin happened to notice one of those CDC-sponsored subway ads touting the virtues of abstinence. Chastened, he decided to stay home. In Martin’s absence, Joan hooked up with the equally charming but considerably less prudent Maxwell – and Joan got AIDS.

When the cautious Martin withdraws from the mating game, he makes it easier for the reckless Maxwell to prey on the hapless Joan. If those subway ads are more effective against Martin than against Maxwell, they are a threat to Joan’s safety. This is especially so when they displace Calvin Klein ads, which might have put Martin in a more socially beneficent mood.

If the Martins of the world would loosen up a little, we could slow the spread of AIDS. Of course, we wouldn’t want to push this too far: if Martin loosens up too much, he becomes as dangerous as Maxwell. But when sexual conservatives increase their activity by moderate amounts, they do the rest of us a lot of good. Harvard professor Michael Kremer estimates that the spread of AIDS in England could plausibly be retarded if everyone with fewer than about 2.25 partners per year were to take additional partners more frequently.

And here is Kremer’s original paper (with Charles Morcom). Landsburg suggests that a subsidy for condoms would be optimal in this situation. Read the whole thing.

Addendum: I later pointed out that the Kremer model appears to fit what happened in Thailand quite well.

Who’s a Russian Asset?

Mark Zuckerberg was once again pilloried in Congress. How many companies in the Libra association are headed by LGBTQ people? Isn’t it true that Libra is a project of white men? What are you doing for African Americans whose lives you have ruined? Do you discuss white supremacy at your far right dinner parties? And, of course, overlaying all of this was the idea of Russian interference.

Ironically, one of the goals of the Russians was to enhance US grievances and elevate identity politics. Most notably, some of the most successful Black Lives Matter memes and tweets were created by the Russians. As the NYTimes wrote:

“The most prolific I.R.A. efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted black American communities and appear to have been focused on developing black audiences and recruiting black Americans as assets,” the report says.…The report says that while “other distinct ethnic and religious groups were the focus of one or two Facebook Pages or Instagram accounts, the black community was targeted extensively with dozens.” In some cases, Facebook ads were targeted at users who had shown interest in particular topics, including black history, the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X. The most popular of the Russian Instagram accounts was @blackstagram, with 303,663 followers.

The Internet Research Agency also created a dozen websites disguised as African-American in origin, with names like blackmattersus.com, blacktivist.info, blacktolive.org and blacksoul.us. On YouTube, the largest share of Russian material covered the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality, with channels called “Don’t Shoot” and “BlackToLive.”

…Of 81 Facebook pages created by the Internet Research Agency in the Senate’s data, 30 targeted African-American audiences, amassing 1.2 million followers.

The fact that Black Lives Matter was promoted by the Russians doesn’t detract from their legitimate goals. Nevertheless, one can imagine the Russians chortling at how successful their attacks have been. Mark Zuckerberg is one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs, the creator of Facebook, a world-dominant firm, a firm that the Russians and Chinese fear and instead of rejoicing in America’s success, America’s political class are seeking to take Facebook and its CEO down through the petty politics of identity.

Who’s a Russian asset?

Nathan Nunn’s recent talk on economic development

Here is one excerpt of many substantive points:

Numerous studies have formally tested for relationships between foreign aid and conflict,using a range of identification strategies to obtain credible causal estimates. Many studies find that foreign aid can increase conflict. Nunn and Qian (2014) find this to be the case for U.S. food aid. Their analysis uses an IV strategy where U.S. wheat production shocks, combined with a country’s tendency to receive wheat aid from the U.S. to obtain exogenous variation in U.S. food aid supply. Crost, Felter and Johnson (2014) use an RD strategy that exploits an eligibility cut-off for a World-Bank-funded development program in the Philippines to estimate the effects of the program on conflict. They find that eligibility to participate in the program is associated with more conflict, which appears to be due to an increase in insurgent attacks against government forces in an attempt to disrupt the program. Dube and Naidu (2015) estimate the effects of military aid in Colombia using a differences-in-differences identification strategy. They find that U.S. military aid leads to an increase in conflict and violence arising due to an increase in attacks by paramilitaries…

While there is evidence that foreign aid can increase conflict, it is not the case that it always leads to conflict. For example, Nunn and Qian (2014) show that among the countries in their sample without a recent history of past conflict, food aid does not increase conflict. In a follow-up study that studies a conditional cash transfer program also in the Philippines, Crost, Felter and Johnson(2016) find that this aid package actually decreased conflict. Trisko Darden (2020) finds that the effect of U.S. aid on state killings and repression of its citizens is weaker following the end of the Cold War.

Given the evidence that foreign aid can sometimes cause conflicts, but at other times have no effects or even reduce conflict, the natural next question is how we implement foreign aid projects in a manner that minimizes its harm, thus maximizing overall benefit.

That is from a recent and really quite excellent talk on development by Nathan Nunn.  He also has an especially interesting discussion of the geographic centralization of RCTs in economics among numerous other points of note.  Recommended.

Can you impose pecuniary externalities upon Korean squirrels?

Look out, squirrels of the world. It turns out acorns are good for humans, too.

Here in South Korea, the popularity of acorn noodles, jelly and powder has exploded in recent years, after researchers declared the nuts a healthy “superfood” that can help fight obesity and diabetes.

In the U.S., where some Native Americans once made acorns a staple of their diet, restaurants and health-conscious blogs are starting to explore recipes for acorn crackersacorn bread and acorn coffee.

That is bad news for squirrels and other animals that rely on oak trees for sustenance. In South Korea, where human foraging has multiplied, there are now fewer acorns on the ground, and the squirrel population has dwindled.

Is this a reductio ad absurdum of the idea that pecuniary externalities are irrelevant?  Ask your friendly neighborhood squirrel!  If you can find him, that is.  Then there is this:

Safeguarding acorns for squirrels is proving to be a tough nut to crack. That’s where the Acorn Rangers come in.

Formed at Seoul’s Yonsei University, the nascent Acorn Rangers group polices the bucolic campus, scaring off other humans from swiping squirrel food. Taking up the cause are students like Park Ji-eun, who skipped lunch on a recent day so a squirrel could eat this winter.

Strolling across campus, Ms. Park, a junior, sprung into action after spotting an acorn assailant: a woman in her early 60s, clutching a plastic bag stuffed with the tree nuts.

“The squirrels will starve!” barked Ms. Park, her voice booming so loudly that other acorn hunters—human ones—scurried away. The two argued for nearly an hour until Ms. Park emerged with the plastic bag in hand.

Here is the full WSJ story, by Dasl Yoon and Na-Young Kim, via the excellent Samir Varma.

Middlemen, China story of the day

Five hitmen have been jailed for attempted murder, after each one avoided carrying out the contract themselves so they could make a profit.

Chinese businessman Tan Youhui was looking for a hitman to take out a competitor, Wei Mou, and was willing to pay 2 million yuan (£218,000) to get the job done.

The hitman that Mr Youhui hired, decided to offer the job to another hitman, for half the original price.

The second hitman then subcontracted to another hitman, who then subcontracted to a fourth, who gave the job to a fifth.

However, hitman number five was so incensed at how much the value of the contract had fallen, that he told the target to fake his own death, which eventually led to the police finding out about the plot, Beijing News reported.

Here is the full story, via Yana.

My Conversation with Henry Farrell

An excellent episode, here is the audio and transcript.  We ranged far and wide, starting with Huawei and weaponized interdependence, moving later to the Facebook supreme court, Karl Polanyi, Ireland, and Gene Wolfe and Philip K. Dick.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Arguably, dominant firms are easier to regulate. And since you seem to favor some kinds of additional regulation on the major tech companies, does this mean we’re too worried about monopoly, that we actually want to keep around a few dominant firms, and that if we split them up into many small parts, there would be more chaos or more fake news or more privacy violations?

If some parts of what they do are bad, and you get more competition in the bad, don’t we just want to put in GDPR barriers to entry, not quite public utilities, but keep them big and fat and happy and somewhat not so dynamic, yes or no?

FARRELL: It depends on what you value.

COWEN: But what you value.

FARRELL: Yeah. Let me put the tradeoff to you this way. If you value security, if the highlight is on security, then the answer is, you probably want to keep big companies around because you’re going to want to impose broad standards. You’re going to want to create collective security goods, and the only actors that can really do that in a substantial way are big businesses of one sort or another.

If, alternatively, you value things like privacy and other kinds of rights, then you probably want to move towards an equilibrium in which there are far, far fewer big firms. So that’s where I see the fight being played out. I see the fight being played out between people who value security and people who value privacy. I think they point in somewhat different directions.

COWEN: And where are you on that spectrum?

FARRELL: Well, it depends on the time of the day, and I find myself —

COWEN: It is 2:22 p.m.

And:

FARRELL: Well, I guess the question for me is — and again, this is a wide open question because we simply don’t have enough good empirical research — but what is the relationship and the broader ecology between companies like 8chan and companies like Facebook? I suspect that companies like 8chan will be far, far less successful if there weren’t much bigger platforms like Facebook that they could effectively grow upon.

So here are the arguments, something as follows. If you think about 8chan, and if you think about 4chan before it, they were basically meme factories. They were basically these places where these bored individuals hung out. You also created these memes in a kind of process of frenzied Darwinian evolution, where you desperately want to make sure that whatever you had said was on the front page because otherwise it would disappear forever. So you’ve got this survival-of-the-fittest thing, where incredibly valuable or incredibly effective memes go out and begin to populate the entire space.

But you need two things for that to work. First of all, you need a process of generation, and secondly, you need some kind of process of dissemination. You need other platforms which have far greater reach, which can then allow for these memes to propagate through the atmosphere.

I suspect that if we were in a world in which everything was at the scale of 8chan, rather than having a mixture of companies at the scale of 8chan and companies at the scale of Facebook, that the likelihood of this stuff spreading and becoming epidemic across the entire community of internet users would be far, far less. Obviously, we would have other problems then. But I think that the problems that we would face would be a very, very different set of problems from the problems that we face in the current environment.

Finally:

FARRELL: Yes. [Gene] Wolfe misleads us systematically, and clearly Severian is not a reliable narrator, but then neither is Proust’s narrator either. I think that if you really want to understand where Wolfe comes from, it really is Proust. His writing style is Proustian. His concern with time, with how it is that time works, is quintessentially Proustian.

And you don’t look to Wolfe any more than you look to other science fiction for characterization. I don’t think that’s the particular strength. What you do look for is a kind of a sense of the world. And in Wolfe, in particular, he provides this real understanding of how it is that the workings of society, and interestingly, conservative understanding of the workings of society.

I think of him almost as being Proust in reverse. Proust is describing a world in which the modern world is overtaking aristocracy. And that clearly is one of the great problems of Proust, what is happening on the social level. You have all of these aristocratic understandings: the Merovingian, all of these histories, all of these castles, all of this wonderful art, and they are being replaced by the modern world with its telephones, with its electric lighting, and so on.

And how do you think about this? How would you try to preserve what was happening in the past? What Wolfe does, which I think is an extraordinarily interesting thing, which would be impossible for anybody who is not a science fiction writer, is to take that and to reverse this and to imagine a world in which modernity has disappeared.

Recommended!