Category: Economics

Fact Checking Increases Fake News

Florian Ederer and Weicheng Min have an interesting new paper called Bayesian Persuasion with Lie Detection which shows that under some conditions fact checking can increase fake news.

How does lie detection constrain the potential for one person to persuade another to change her action? We consider a model of Bayesian persuasion in which the Receiver can detect lies with positive probability. We show that the Sender lies more when the lie detection probability increases. As long as this probability is sufficiently small, the Sender’s and the Receiver’s equilibrium payoffs are unaffected by the presence of lie detection because the Sender simply compensates by lying more. However, when the lie detection probability is sufficiently high, the Sender’s equilibrium payoff decreases and the Receiver’s equilibrium payoff increases with the lie detection probability.

The paper is difficult so here’s my stab at the intuition.

Suppose that politicians always want war but war is not always good. If voters can always detect a lie, politicians would always report war-is-good only when war was good and not-war when war was bad. Now suppose that voters can never detect a lie and also that the true probability of war being good is low. In this case, if politicians always report war-is-good then the voters would always ignore the politicians and choose no-war. But suppose that politicians always report war-is-good when war is good but sometimes report war-is-bad when war is bad (and, of course, sometimes report war-is-good when war is bad). In this situation, voters could be better off listening to politicians than ignoring them completely and the politicians will also be better off because they will get war more often—always when it is good and sometimes when it is bad. So, even though they always want war, how often should politicians report war-is-bad when war is bad? Just enough so that the voters are indifferent between following the politician’s advice and ignoring it altogether. In other words, voters have a threat point—ignore the politician completely. Knowing this threat point, politicians should tell the truth just enough so that voters prefer following the politician’s advice to ignoring them completely. Thus, even though voters can never detect a lie, politicians should sometimes tell the truth.

Now assume that there is (imperfect) lie detection. It’s immediately obvious that holding all else equal voters will be better off because now they will detect some of the times politicians say war-is-good when in fact war-is-bad. But precisely for this reason, all else will not be held equal, politicians will now report war-is-good when it is bad more often, i.e. they will lie more often. Working “backwards”, the voters threat point—ignore the politicians altogether—hasn’t changed and so their expected utility won’t change but that means that lie detection can’t make them better off and the reason is that politicians will lie more often.

In fact, lie detection doesn’t help the voters unless it is very accurate–perhaps more accurate than in our world.

Note that in this model voters cannot punish politicians for lying nor is there any opportunity for politicians to signal, to take costly actions that could separate truth tellers from liars. The model is all about “senders” and “receivers” of information–it’s a model of Bayesian persuasion not Bayesian punishment. In a model with punishment the ability to detect lies–even the ability to detect lies ex post–could result in more optimistic scenarios. Similarly, signaling might help, at the expense of some cost.

Nevertheless, the lesson I take is that information revelation is rarely pure. Information revelation is strategic–what is revealed and when it is revealed are choices in a game that may have complex and counter-intuitive equilibria.

For more, see Peter Coy’s interesting article on Bayesian persuasion in the New York Times.

The paradox of auction happiness

If you win something at auction, even if you end up paying your full bid, you are typically quite happy, rather than just a smidgen happy.

Then why didn’t you bid more in the first place?

Is your mistake being too happy, or is your mistake having bid too low?

Do you become happy only by winning discrete, decent-sized lumps of happiness, rather than smidgens of happiness?  Does that even make sense?

Or is it just the value of winning per se, in which case there might be some other artificial way of manufacturing the same feeling?

Note this all runs a bit counter to winner’s curse arguments, which suggest you should be a smidgen unhappy when you win, not when you lose.

How should we best model this?

The Parent Trap–Review of Hilger

Nate Hilger has written a brave book. Almost everyone will find something to hate about The Parent Trap. Indeed, I hated parts of it. Yet Hilger is willing to say truths that are often not said and for that I would rather applaud than cancel.

Hilger argues that the problems of poverty, pathology and inequality that bedevil the United States are not primarily due to poor schools, discrimination, or low incomes per se. The primary cause is parents: parents who are unable to teach their children the skills that are necessary to succeed in the modern world. Since parents can’t teach the necessary skills, Hilger calls for the state to take their place with a dramatic expansion of not just child care but collective parenting.

Let’s unpack some details. Begin with schooling. It’s very common to bemoan the state of schools in the “inner city” or to complain about “local financing” which supposedly guarantees that poor counties will have underfunded schools. All of this, however, is decades out-of-date.

A hundred years ago there really were massive public-school resource gaps by class and race. These days, however, state and federal spending play a larger role than local property tax revenue and distribute educational resources more progressively….In fact, when we include federal aid, 42 states spent more on poor school districts than on rich school districts in 2012. The same pattern holds between schools within districts

….The highest spending districts are large urban centers such as New York City, Boston and Baltimore. These cities spend large sums to educate rich and poor children alike. p. 10-11

Hilger is correct. No matter what you saw on The Wire, Baltimore spends more than sixteen thousand dollars per student, among the highest in the nation in large school districts and above average for the nation as a whole. Public schools are quite egalitarian in funding with any bias running towards more funding for poorer districts.

Schools, Hilger writes are “actually the smallest and most equalizing part of a much larger skill-building system.” The real problem, says Hilger, are parents.

But what about discrimination? When it comes to wage discrimination, Hilger is brutally honest:

If we compare individuals with similar cognitive test scores, Black college graduates earn higher wages than white college graduates. Studies that don’t control for test score differences but examine earnings gaps within specific professions—lawyers, physicians, nurses, engineers, scientists—tend to find Black workers earn zero to 10 percent less than white workers. These gaps could reflect discrimination, unmeasured skill differences, or other factors such as geography. In any case, such gaps are small compared to the 50 percent overall Black-white earnings gap and reinforce the idea that closing skills gaps would go a long way toward closing income gaps.

Hilger argues that racism does play an important role in explaining Black-white wage differentials but it’s the historical racism that made black parents less skilled and less able to pass on skills to their children. In the twentieth century, Asians, Hilger argues, were discriminated against in the United States at least much as Black Americans. But the Asians that came to the United States had high skills while the legacy of slavery meant that Black Americans began with low skills. Asians, therefore, were better able to overcome discrimination. The success of Nigerians and Jamaican immigrants in the United States also speaks to this point.  (Long time readers may recall that in 2016 I dubbed Hilger’s paper on Asian Americans and Black Americans the Politically Incorrect Paper of the Year .)

Parental investment is surely important but Hilger overstates his case. He writes as if poorer parents have neither the abilities nor the time to teach their children while richer, better educated parents simply invest lots of hours and money imbuing their children with skills:

…the enormous variation in parents’ own academic skills has big implications for kids because we also demand that parents try to be tutors. During normal times, parents in America spend an average of six hours per week helping—or trying to help—their kids with school work. Six hours per week is more than K12 math and English teachers get with children…good tutoring by parents for six hours a week, every week, year after year of childhood could raise children’s future earnings by as much as $300,000.

The data on the effectiveness of SAT test-prep suggests that these efforts are not nearly so effective as Hilger argues. The parental investment story also doesn’t fit my experience. I didn’t spend six hours a week helping my kids with their homework. I doubt most parents do. I simply assumed my kids would do their work. I do recall that we signed my kids up for tutoring at Kumon, the Japanese math education center. My kids would complain bitterly when we took them for drill on the weekend. It was mostly filling out rote forms and my kids would hide or bury their drill sheets so we were always behind. Driving my kids to the Kumon center, monitoring them. and forcing them to do the work when they rebelled like longshoreman on work-to-rule was time consuming and it was ruining our weekends. I felt guilty, but after a while, my wife and I gave up. Today one of my sons is a civil engineer and the other is a math and economics major at UVA.

Hilger has an answer to this line of objection, or at least he says he does, but to my mind it’s a very odd answer. He argues, relying heavily on Sacerdote, that adoption studies show that more skilled parents result in more skilled kids. I find that answer odd because my reading of Sacerdote is that the effect of parents are small after you control for genetics—this is, as Hilger acknowledges, the conventional wisdom among psychologists. (See Caplan for an excellent review of the literature). It is true that Sacerdote plays up the effect of parents, but it looks small to me. Here is the effect of the adopted mother’s maternal education on the child’s education.

As you can see there is an effect but it is almost all from the mother going from having less than a high school education to graduating high school (11 to 12 years). In contrast, the mother can move from graduating high school to having a PhD and there is very little change in the education level of an adoptee. Note, however, that the effect on non-adoptees, i.e. biological children, is much larger throughout the entire range which suggests the influence of nature not nurture.

I am not surprised that there is some effect of parental education on child’s education because going to college is in part a cultural issue. Parents can influence cultural aspects of their children’s identity such as whether a child grows up up nominally Catholic, Mormon, or Hindu but they have relatively little effect on child religiosity, let alone personality or IQ. I think that a large fraction of the college wage premium is signaling (50% is a moderate estimate, Caplan thinks 90% is closer to the truth), so I am also not overly excited about college attendance as a marker of success.

The effect of parental income on the income of child adoptees is even more dramatic than on education—which is to say negligible. The income of the adopted parents has zero effect (!) on child’s income even as parent’s income varies by a factor of 20! The only correlation is with non-adoptee income—which again suggests the influence of nature not nurture.

At this point in the book, it was almost inevitable that we were going to get yet another paean to the Perry Preschool Project and indeed Hilger waxes enthusiastically about Perry. Seriously? The Perry Preschool project started in the 1960s and had just 123 participants (58 in treatment and 65 in control!). There are more papers about the Perry Preschool project than there were participants. I am jaded.

Aside from the small sample size, the project had imperfect randomization and missing data and most importantly limited external validity. The Perry Preschool project treated a small group of disadvantaged African American children with low-IQs (IQs of 70-85 were part of the selection criteria). The treatment is usually described as “active learning pre-school” but it was more intrusive than that. Every week counselors would go to the homes of the kids to teach the parents (mostly mothers) how to raise their children. The training was important to the program. Indeed, Hilger notes, without sense of irony, that “facilitating greater skill growth in low-income children was so complicated that it required home visitors with advanced postsecondary degrees.” (p. 89). And what were the results?

The results were good! (Heckman et al. 2010, Belfield et al. 2006). But in the popular literature the impression one gets is that the program took a bunch of disadvantaged kids and helped them read and write, making them more middle-class and successful. Some of that happened but the big gains actually happened because the participants, especially the boys, were so socially dangerous and destructive that even a bit of normalization made life substantially better for everyone else. In particular 82% of the treated group of 33 males had been arrested by age 40, including for one murder, 4 rapes, 8 robberies, 11 assaults and 14 burglaries. The control group were worse. In the control group of 39 males there were 2 murders. Indeed the reduction of one murder in the treatment group accounts for a significant benefit of the entire Perry PreSchool project.

Hilger, to his credit, is reasonably clear that what is really needed is an intensive program for disadvantaged African Americans, especially males. In a stunning sentence he writes:

The more we rely on families rather than professionals to build skills in children, the tighter we link people’s current prospects to the prospects of their ancestors. p. 134

But he soon forgets or papers over the context of the Perry Preschool project and like everyone else in the literature uses this to support a national program for which there is no external validity. It’s hard to believe, given the lack of external validity, but Heckman et al. (2010) only exagerate mildly when they write:

The economic case for expanding preschool education for disadvantaged children is largely based on evidence from the HighScope Perry Preschool Program…

Hilger’s case for the difficulty of parenting is well taken—the FAFSA was a nightmare that taxed two PhDs in my family. But the bottom line is that most parents do just fine. Moreover, it’s shocking that in recounting the difficulties of parenting Hilger says hardly one word about an obvious factor which makes parenting more than twice as hard. Namely, single parenting. I was a single parent. Once for a whole week. Don’t do it. Get married, stay married. Perhaps Hilger didn’t want to appear to be too conservative.

Instead of recommending marriage and small targeted programs and more experiments, Hilger goes full Plato.

What would it look like if we [asked]…less not more of parents? It would look like professional experts managing more than the meagre 10 percent of children’s time currently managed by our public K12 system—much more. p. 184

And why should we do this? Because we are all part slaves and part slave-owners on a giant collective farm:

As fellow citizens who benefit from tax revenue, we all—even those of us without children—collectively own about 30 percent of any additional income other people’s children wind up earning. p. 197

Ugh. We own ourselves, not one another. Society isn’t about maximizing the collective it’s about free individuals coming together to produce rules so that we can enjoy the benefits of collective action while still living in a diverse society that respects individual rights, beliefs, and ways of living.

I told you I hated parts of The Parent Trap but Hilger has written an interesting and challenging book and he is mostly right that neither schooling nor labor market discrimination play a major role in the black-white wage gap. Hilger is probably also right that we spend too much on the elderly relative to the young. The idea of greater state involvement in the raising of children is on the table today in a way it hasn’t been for some time. See also Dana Susskind’s recent book Parent Nation. Changes on the margin may be warranted. Nevertheless, I stand with Aristotle and not Plato in thinking that raising children is better done by parents than by the state.

Why We Can’t House the Homeless

During the pandemic, New York State allocated $100 million to turn struggling New York City hotels into low-cost housing. What could be simpler? Hotels are already used to house people so converting a hotel to more longer-term housing ought to be much simpler and cheaper than building from scratch or converting a parking structure into housing. Nope.

Politico: “There are very few hotels that physically could be converted and comply with the requirements of today’s zoning and building code without substantial, expansive reconstruction, partial removal or demolition,” said James Colgate, a land use partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP who has advised clients on zoning issues including the conversions of hotels. “That would increase the costs greatly.”

For example, a building’s elevators, doorways, or rooms may be slightly short of the size required for a residential structure. Residential buildings are also required to have a certain amount of rear-yard space that a hotel may not have.

“You would literally have to be chopping off part of the building,” Rosen said.

…The legislation dictates that each unit include a kitchen or kitchenette with a full-sized refrigerator, cooktop and sink — something Rosen said made utilizing the program “simply too expensive.”

“This is the classic case of the perfect being the enemy of the possible,” said Mark Ginsberg, a partner at the firm Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, which has worked on hotel conversions.

Some advocates who pushed the creation of the program say those provisions were necessary to ensure it didn’t generate substandard housing.

Substandard housing compared to what? Living on the street?  And get this person.

“We didn’t want a program that cut corners to make it more palatable to developers,” said Joseph Loonam, housing campaign coordinator for the progressive advocacy group VOCAL-NY. “We wanted a program that centered the needs of homeless New Yorkers, which is true high quality affordable housing where they can have full autonomy and dignity.”

Well, they got what they wanted, the program wasn’t palatable to developers as only one application has been received and none of the money spent. Thanks progressive advocacy group for centering the needs of homeless New Yorkers.

Thinking at the margin

So why don’t poor Arkansas people currently living in homes move there [California]? Because they’d be homeless. But homeless people in Arkansas are already homeless, so they benefit from all of the positive factors that make LA a desirable place to live, without the drawback of paying high prices for an apartment.

That is from Scott Sumner, with much more at the link.  Now can Scott explain why do so many LA apartments come without a fridge? 

*21st Century Monetary Policy*

I am pleased to have received an autographed copy of this very carefully done work.  I think it is (by far) the best treatment of what the Fed has been up to since the 1970s, at least on the monetary policy front.  There really isn’t anyone who would know better than Ben, keeping in mind he was not only Fed chair but also a top, possibly Nobel-quality monetary economist and also economic historian.  The clarity and writing quality are high.

In one way, however, this is an unusual book — there is remarkably little “of Ben” in the book.  To be clear, Ben already has published his personal memoir.  Still, if most of this book had been written by someone else, I would not have known.  Or maybe that is what it means to “put Ben in this book.”  Imagine Elon Musk writing a book on rocketry and focusing on the rockets.

In any case recommended.  Here is a good David Leonhardt NYT review.  It is striking to me how few reviews there are so far — why?  Therein lies a lesson too, though I have yet to figure out what it is.

Job security is not getting worse

There is a widespread belief that work is less secure than in the past, that an increasing share of workers are part of the “pprecariat”. It is hard to find much evidence for this in objective measures of job security, but perhaps subjective measures show different trends. This paper shows that in the US, UK, and Germany workers feel as secure as they ever have in the last thirty years. This is partly because job insecurity is very cyclical and (pre-COVID) unemployment rates very low, but there is also no clear underlying trend towards increased subjective measures of job insecurity. This conclusion seems robust to controlling for the changing mix of the labor force, and is true for specific sub-sets of workers.

That is from Alan Manning and Graham Mazeine, forthcoming in the Review of Economics and Statistics.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Testing Freedom

I did a podcast with Brink Lindsey of the Niskanen Center. Here’s one bit on the FDA’s long-history of banning home tests:

Brink Lindsey: …it’s on the rapid testing that we had inexplicable delays. Rapid tests, home tests were ubiquitous in Europe and Asia months before they were in the United States. What was going on?

Alex Tabarrok: So I think it’s not actually inexplicable because the FDA has a long, long history of just hating people testing themselves. So the FDA was against pregnancy tests, they didn’t like that, they said women they need to consult with a doctor, only the physician can do the test because literally women could become hysterical if they were pregnant or if they weren’t pregnant, this was a safety issue. There was no question that the test itself was safe or worked. Instead what the FDA said, “We can regulate this because the user using it, this could create safety issues because they could commit suicide or they could do something crazy.” So they totally expanded the meaning of safety from is the test safe to can somebody be trusted to use a pregnancy test?

Then we had exactly the same thing with AIDS testing. So we delayed personal at-home tests for AIDS for literally 25 years. 25 years these tests were unavailable because the FDA again said, “Well, they’re dangerous.” And why are they dangerous? “Well, we don’t know what people will do with this knowledge about their own bodies.” Now, of course, you can get an HIV test from Amazon and the world hasn’t collapsed. They did the same thing with genetic tests from companies like 23andMe. So I said, “Our bodies ourselves, our DNA ourselves.” That people have a right to know about the functioning of their own bodies. This to me is a very clear violation of the Constitutions on multiple respects. It just stuns me, it just stuns me that anybody could think that you don’t have a right to know, we’re going to prevent you from learning something about the operation of your own body.

Again, the issue here was never does the test work. In fact, the labs which produce these tests, those labs are regulated outside of the FDA. So whether the test actually works, whether yes, it identifies this gene, all issues of that nature, what is the sensitivity and the specificity, are the tests produced in a proper laboratory, I don’t have a lot of problem with that because that’s all something which the consumers themselves would want. What I do have a problem with is then the FDA saying, “No, you can’t have access to this test because we don’t know what you’re going to do about it, what you’re going to think about it.” And that to me is outrageous.

Here’s the full transcript and video.

The Demand and Supply of Misinformation

Bryan Caplan reminds us that misinformation wouldn’t work well if people weren’t so irrational.

The [standard misinformation] story focuses exclusively on the flaws of speakers, without acknowledging the flaws of the listeners. Misinformation won’t work unless the listeners are themselves naive, dogmatic, emotional, or otherwise intellectually defective. In economic jargon, the problem is that the story mistakes an information problem for a rationality problem.

The motivation for this crucial omission is fairly obvious. Blaming listeners for their epistemic vices sounds bad. It makes the accuser sound elitist, if not arrogant. Blaming a few high-status liars for the world’s problems is a lot more compatible with Social Desirability Bias than blaming billions of low-status fools who fail to choose to exercise their common sense.

I agree but it’s an equilibrium process. The demand and supply of misinformation both matter. Moreover, it’s not implausible that social media has increased the supply of misinformation, essentially because it has greatly accelerated the evolution of memes. As Dawkins taught us, memes evolve like genes but in the past memes evolved like rabbits, more rapidly than human beings but not so rapid that we couldn’t keep up. Now memes evolve like viruses, mind viruses. Even worse we have made improving memes profitable so we have capitalist energy added to faster random mutation.

I am somewhat hopeful that social media hit us hard because it was novel. A generation raised on social media may have more natural immunity–assuming we survive the infection. I also encourage (as does Bryan) institutions like betting markets to raise the price of misinformation (a bet is a tax on bullshit). Betting markets and expert aggregation markets like Metacuulus can help. We should invest more in the support and prestige of tools for developing rational consensus. More generally, if we can’t raise the cost of misinformation, better tools to aid our limited rationality could reduce the demand.

Problems with indirect convertibility

Tether a few times has been bouncing well below a dollar in value, even though it is supposed to be backed by plenty of high-quality assets.

I am reminded of some of my monetary theory writings with Kroszner in the late 1980s.  He and I wrote one essay, later published in our book, on how indirect convertibility may not be entirely stabilizing.  Let’s say you peg an asset at the value of one dollar, but redeem that asset in terms of gold bars rather than dollars.  You offer the redeemer enough gold bars to be equal in value to a dollar.

But what if the price of gold falls below its equilibrium value, if only temporarily?  To honor your peg strictly, you now have to make your dollar worth all the more gold bars.  But that in effect is “pegging” the value of gold at its new, temporarily wrong and distorted market price.  Your pegged price and the medium-term market value of gold will conflict.  If the pegged price wins out and itself drives the market price, you have to offer excess gold to meet the peg (that equilibrium seems unlikely to me, though you might also add redemption charges and fees).  In essence you are offering too much gold to a redeemer.  If the true medium-term value of gold is going to win out over the temporary distortion, for some modest while your peg is not complete and fully valid.  You are offering the same amount of gold you used to, but at least temporarily it is not enough for you to be promising full and complete convertibility.  The market may or may not mind this, to varying degrees.

It is not transparent to me what is going on with Tether at this moment, but I wonder if some version of this logic might apply.  That is, Tether could be, by all reasonable standards “adequately backed,” yet in a time of volatile and sometimes disequilibrium market prices for the backing assets, Tether won’t always be equal in value to a dollar either.

Of course gold is just an example, the backing assets could be different altogether.  To the extent they are heterogeneous, perhaps this problem is amplified somewhat?

Is there a place where the crypto community discusses these issues?  They gave Kroszner and me big headaches many years ago.

Cryptoeconomics!

The crypto market is up! The crypto market is down! The roller coaster can be fearfully thrilling but as thoughtful academics and people interested in ideas let’s look away from the daily ups and downs and focus on the big picture. What is crypto? What is cryptoeconomics?

Tyler and I have written a new chapter for our textbook, Modern Principles. In Cryptoeconomics we explain just enough cryptography–namely cryptographic hash functions and public-private keys–to understand what new forms of communication and organization have been made possible by these breakthroughs. We then use these fundamentals to explain NFTs, blockchains, Bitcoin, smart contracts and decentralized finance–all in a crisp, compact format accessible to everyone.

Not everyone wants to teach crypteconomics, of course, or has the time (scarcity!) so this chapter will be available as an option to anyone using our book and the Achieve online course management system (in fact, it’s available now). Tyler and I have found, however, that our students, colleagues, even people at dinner parties ask us about crypto. Probably your students and friends will ask you as well. Plus our textbook is called Modern Principles so we thought we were obligated to teach these new ideas!

Cryptoeconomics is a good guide to some fundamentally new ways of trading, communicating, and cooperating.

Addendum: If you want to learn more about DeFi, my talk goes into greater depth.

Remote work and home prices

What explains record U.S. house price growth since late 2019? We show that the shift to remote work explains over one half of the 23.8 percent national house price increase over this period. Using variation in remote work exposure across U.S. metropolitan areas we estimate that an additional percentage point of remote work causes a 0.93 percent increase in house prices after controlling for negative spillovers from migration. This cross-sectional estimate combined with the aggregate shift to remote work implies that remote work raised aggregate U.S. house prices by 15.1 percent.

Here is more from John A. Mondragon and Johannes Wieland.

The State of Public Transit in the Nation’s Capital

The mismanagement of the metro system in the nation’s capitol is astounding.

WashPost: Metro’s train delays are projected to worsen as the agency abruptly yanks from service more than 70 operators who have been working without undergoing a mandatory retraining process for at least a year, officials announced Sunday.

The agency pledged corrective action in a release acknowledging that nearly half of the agency’s 500 train operators lack required recertification testing and training, while warning that staffing issues would lengthen wait times on the Green and Yellow lines from 15 to 20 minutes until the end of the month.

…Metro’s latest predicament coincides with a train shortage that has forced the agency to operate at reduced service with longer-than-normal wait times since mid-October. The safety commission ordered about 60 percent of its fleet out of service after a federal investigation into a Blue Line derailment found a defect affecting the wheels of the 7000 series, Metro’s latest and most advanced model of trains and rail cars.

Without the series’ 748 cars, Metro has been forced to rely on older models, some 40 years old and nearing retirement. The smaller, older cars, coupled with lower frequencies, have driven many passengers away because of crowding and social distancing concerns as coronavirus case numbers continue to fluctuate. Those concerns will only grow with longer wait times and fewer trains in service.

You may recall that in 2015 there was a deadly fire on the Metro which I wrote about in 2016.  (post repeated below).

WTOP: A Metro worker blamed for falsifying records about the tunnel fans that failed during last year’s deadly smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza has been granted his job back by an arbitration panel — and Metro’s largest union has just filed a lawsuit against Metro because the worker hasn’t been reinstated yet.

The union’s defense is that everyone was doing it so no one is to blame. The Union is probably right that the WMTA suffers from a culture of poor safety and responsibility but you can’t fix that culture without clear signals that the incentives have changed.

I had to take the Metro to DC earlier this week and due to track closings for safety improvements it was miserable, at least 45 minutes of delays for the roundtrip. Some 700,000 people ride the metro every day and if each is delayed by just 15 minutes total (7.5 minutes each way) then at $15 an hour that’s 2.6 million dollars worth of delay every day.

Before traveling on the DC Metro I recommend checking the twitter account @IsMetroOnFire.

Addendum: At least this time heads are rolling.

Infant Formula, Price Controls, and the Misallocation of Resources

For the week of April 3, at least 12 states faced out of stock rates higher than 40 percent, including Connecticut, Delaware, Montana, New Jersey, Rhode IslandI’ve been reluctant to write about the shortage of infant formula simply because it’s so tiring to say the same thing over and over again. Obviously, this is a classic case where the FDA should allow imports of any food or baby formula approved by a stringent authority. (Here’s the US Customs and Border Patrol bragging about how they nabbed 588 cases of infant formula from Germany and the Netherlands as if it were cocaine.) Scott Lincicome has an excellent run down which covers not just the FDA but the problems caused by trade regulation and the WIC program as well.

What I want to do is focus on something less discussed: Why does the shortage vary across the country and even city by city?

I believe one reason is implicit price controls, either due to fear of regulatory backlash, regulatory constraints through other programs, or a misplaced desire not to upset consumers.

Price controls create shortages–that much is well known–but they also create a misallocation of goods. No doubt you have seen pictures from the 1970s of long lines of cars waiting to get gasoline. But there weren’t lineups everywhere at all times–rather we had the strange situation where there were shortage of gasoline in some places while, just a hundred miles away, there was plenty. Or shortages one day and surpluses the next.

Prices rationally allocate goods across space and time in response to shifts in demand and supply. If demand increases in one place, for example, prices rise, creating an incentive to bring in supplies from elsewhere. A rising price signals where supplies are needed and creates an incentive to deliver. Or, as Tyler and I put it, A price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive. A price controlled below the market price creates a shortage and it also kills the signaling and incentive function of prices. The result is allocational chaos: Shortages in some places and times and excess supply in other places and times.

In fact, price controls in a capitalist economy give you a window onto a planned economy. If you think of communism as a system of universal price controls this allocation chaos is the essence of why a communist state cannot rationally allocate resources.

Tyler and I discuss allocational chaos in our chapter on price controls in Modern Principles of Economics. See also this excellent video.

Russia fact of the day

Russia has stopped publishing detailed monthly trade statistics. But figures from its trading partners can be used to work out what is going on. They suggest that, as imports slide and exports hold up, Russia is running a record trade surplus.

On May 9th China reported that its goods exports to Russia fell by over a quarter in April, compared with a year earlier, while its imports from Russia rose by more than 56%. Germany reported a 62% monthly drop in exports to Russia in March, and its imports fell by 3%. Adding up such flows across eight of Russia’s biggest trading partners, we estimate that Russian imports have fallen by about 44% since the invasion of Ukraine, while its exports have risen by roughly 8%.

Here is more from The Economist, and that is why the ruble has maintained its value:

As a result, analysts expect Russia’s trade surplus to hit record highs in the coming months.