Category: Economics

The economics of Covid-19 liability

The more you are interested in test, track, and trace, the more you should favor at least partial liability waivers for business, at least that is how I see it.  Here is an excerpt from a new paper by Daniel Jacob Hemel and Daniel B. Rodriguez:

Ex ante (before an exposure), the specter of liability generates incentives for businesses to take precautions that reduce the risk of virus transmission. Ex post (after an exposure), fear of liability may deter businesses from proactively informing customers and workers that they have been exposed to the virus through the business’s operations. The desire on the part of businesses to spare themselves from litigation may interfere with comprehensive contact-tracing efforts. To minimize the potentially perverse ex-post consequences of liability without sacrificing significant ex-ante benefits, the article proposes a limited safe harbor from liability for businesses that promptly contact customers and workers after learning about a possible exposure.

Again, here is my short liability study with Trace Mitchell of Mercatus.

How will Fairfax County evolve?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The immediate future of my region thus appears to be a major demand shock to the stores, acceptable continuing employment for the upper middle class, and economic devastation for lower-income individuals. The traditional mix of government-connected employment and retail will swing heavily in the direction of government. In essence, the federal government will pay its employees to click on Amazon while working from home.


The ethnic dimension of Covid-19 in Fairfax County is especially noteworthy. Latinos make up 16.8% of the county’s population, but account for 62.7% of the diagnosed Covid-19 cases. And if you assume that perhaps lower-income Latinos are less willing or able to go to a doctor, the true percentage of the Latino cases may be higher yet.

I thus foresee a future where people are more reluctant to hire Latino immigrants for housework or for child care, and thus additional home responsibilities will fall on parents, probably disproportionately on women. In turn, I expect many Latinos to leave the area, at least temporarily, unable to afford the higher rents when there is little work. There may also be greater employer discrimination against Latino applicants, as unfair or unjust as that would be.

Those developments will lead to Fairfax County becoming whiter. (If you are wondering, blacks are a slightly lower Covid-19 case share in the county than population share).

Recommended, for all those who care.

My (second) Conversation with Paul Romer

Interesting throughout, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary:

Paul Romer makes his second appearance to discuss the failings of economics, how his mass testing plan for COVID-19 would work, what aspect of epidemiology concern him, how the FDA is slowing a better response, his ideas for reopening schools and Major League Baseball, where he agrees with Weyl’s test plan, why charter cities need a new name, what went wrong with Honduras, the development trajectory for sub-Saharan Africa, how he’d reform the World Bank, the underrated benefits of a culture of science, his heartening takeaway about human nature from his experience at Burning Man, and more.

I liked the parts about charter cities and the World Bank the best, here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How optimistic are you more generally about the developmental trajectory for sub-Saharan Africa?

ROMER: There’s a saying I picked up from Gordon Brown, that in establishing the rule of law, the first five centuries are always the hardest. I think some parts of this development process are just very slow. If you look around the world, all the efforts since World War II that’s gone into trying to build strong, effective states, to establish the rule of law in a functioning state, I think the external investments in building states have yielded very little.

So we need to think about ways to transfer the functioning of existing states rather than just build them from scratch in existing places. That’s a lot of the impetus behind this charter cities idea. It’s both — you select people coming in who have a particular set of norms that then become the dominant norms in this new place, but you also protect those norms by certain kinds of administrative structures, state functions that reinforce them.

And this:

COWEN: If you could reform the World Bank, what would you do?

ROMER: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I think the Bank is trying to serve two missions, and it can’t do both. One is a diplomatic function, which I think is very important. The World Bank is a place where somebody who represents the government of China and somebody who represents the government of the United States sit in a conference room and argue, “Should we do A or B?” Not just argue, but discuss, negotiate. On a regular basis, they make decisions.

And it isn’t just China and the US. It’s a bunch of countries. I think it’s very good for personal relationships, for the careers of people who will go on to have other positions in these governments, to have that kind of experience of, basically, diplomatic negotiation over a bunch of relatively small items because it’s a confidence-building measure that makes it possible for countries to make bigger diplomatic decisions when they have to.

That, I think, is the value of the World Bank right now. The problem is that that diplomatic function is inconsistent with the function of being a provider of scientific insight. The scientific endeavor has to be committed to truth, no matter whose feathers get ruffled. There’s certain convenient fictions that are required for diplomacy to work. You start accepting convenient fictions in science, and science is just dead.

So the Bank’s got to decide: is it engaged in diplomacy or science? I think the diplomacy is its unique comparative advantage. Therefore, I think it’s got to get out of the scientific business. It should just outsource its research. It shouldn’t try and be a research organization, and it should just be transparent about what it can be good at and is good at.

And toward the end:

COWEN: Last question thread, what did you learn at Burning Man?

ROMER: Sometimes physical presence is necessary to appreciate something like scale. The scale of everything at Burning Man was just totally unexpected, a total surprise for me, even having looked at all of these pictures and so forth. That was one.

Another thing that really stood out, which is not exactly a surprise, but maybe it was the surprise in that group — if you ask, what do people do if you put them in a setting where there’s supposed to be no compensation, no quid pro quo, and you just give them a chance to be there for a week. What do they do?

They work.

For purposes of contrast, here is my first Conversation with Paul Romer.

The new economics of chess

I just finished watching one of’s Magnus Carlsen-affiliated rapid on-line chess tournaments, when today (a day later?) I see that another tournament has started.  And with Magnus himself playing, as well as other world-class players.  Note that Magnus both plays in these tournaments as the #1 attraction, and he owns an equity share in them, albeit with other investors.

So I’ve been trying to model the production of chess services in my mind.

I start with the point that viewers care much more about live, fresh games than games from a week ago.  Many sports of course operate on this same basis.

The second point is that most chess players have a relatively low opportunity cost of time, Rogoff and Kasparov excepted, plus some chess players can substitute into poker for profit (and may have quit chess already).  In fact what they do in their spare time is to…play chess!  Often with each other, and often on-line.  So if you offer to pay them some amount for doing basically the same, they will sign up.  Especially during a pandemic when many of them are trapped under relatively severe quarantines.

It is also the case that a chess player can play many days in the year, perhaps not every day, but you really can play a lot without tearing your rotator cuff.

It then seems the equilibrium is a much higher supply of chess tournaments, especially since on-line play removes some of the previous barriers to entry, such as needing a venue and some physical infrastructure.

You might even end up with a kind of Malthusian equilibrium, where the supply keeps on expanding to meet a fairly low marginal cost.

But this is a “superstars” kind of competition, and so the returns will go to the scarce factor.  That scarce factor is Carlsen himself, who garners far more attention than any other player.  And as noted he is an equity holder in this venture and as a player he has been winning the #1 prize money.  Over time, you might expect the returns of some of the other players — maybe in the top ten but not so famous or glamorous — to approach the Malthusian level.  Perhaps much of the public doesn’t care if Magnus plays #9 or #16, who in any case are only a small number of rating points apart.

Notice how well Magnus Carlsen understands reputation and internet production.  He keeps on posting “Banter Blitz” videos on YouTube, which show him playing speed chess on-line and commenting on the games as they proceed.  He dramatically expanded the supply of chess tournaments, which he earns income from.  He already was “the scarce factor,” and he has dramatically expanded the supply of attention aimed his way.  He understands that successful internet production is frequent production.

On-line chess viewing is way up (NYT) with the pandemic, and also because of these efforts.

Do not underestimate Magnus Carlsen.  He has been #1 in classical chess, rapid, and blitz, all at the same time.  He is a huge YouTube star in chess.  He has won a tournament about chess trivia, and he has been #1 in fantasy football for the whole world (not an easy feat).

And now he is bringing an economic revolution to chess, with himself as the #1 labor and equity earner at the same time.

Will Covid-19 expose the ghost firms?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Demand for in-restaurant dining is likely to fall as well, though estimates vary. Since the average small business carries less than a month’s worth of liquid reserves, and the wait for a vaccine is likely to be at least a year, many restaurants will simply be unable to survive the shrinking of the market.

I call these places ghost restaurants because they are still walking around, so to speak, visible to us and listed on Yelp, but not really alive and without much of a future.

In a few months’ time, a significant number of these ghost enterprises will be gone. My drive around Northern Virginia, rather than being rich with culinary choice, will soon become fairly desolate — and the overall economic landscape will indeed be much emptier.

What else in our current capital structure might qualify as “ghost”?

And this:

And while an all-but-certain death awaits some businesses, others can look forward to mere stagnation. If you are a 23-year-old entrepreneur, how easy will it be to build up the network of “soft ties” that will help you launch the next phase of your career?

As many marginal businesses are going under, it is quite possible that the public-health situation will improve. Civic spaces will repopulate as commercial ones depopulate, giving urban landscapes a confusing feel. And because there will be fewer businesses to choose from, it will be all the harder for those remaining to enforce social distancing.

Many Americans have been clamoring lately for more freedom, and those desires are understandable. But as they emerge from lockdown, they might well be disappointed to discover that, above all else, what people will be exercising is the freedom to go out of business.

If you start by using the word “ghost” (better than zombie, in this setting), don’t be surprised if the column turns out a bit gloomy!

Marginal tax rates

One in four low-wage workers face marginal net tax rates above 70 percent, effectively locking them into poverty. Over half face remaining lifetime marginal net tax rates above 45 percent. The richest 1 percent also face a high median lifetime marginal tax rate – roughly 50 percent.

That is from a new NBER paper by David Altig, Alan J. Auerbach, Laurence J. Kotlikoff, Elias Ilin, and Victor Ye.

Is the coronavirus making UBI look better?

My last Bloomberg column was co-authored with Garry Kasparov, here is one excerpt:

Another positive sign for UBI is that most Americans seem keen to return to their workplaces. One fear has been that UBI would lead to a couch-potato culture, with people choosing to stay at home even when they’re finally able to leave. But blue-collar service workers are continuing to brave the front lines even when faced with reasonably high risks of infection. They are not trying to get fired so they can collect unemployment. White-collar workers, meanwhile, are feeling restless and unproductive. Working from home may become more common, but most people seem eager to get back to the office — especially if the alternative is a combination workplace/schoolhouse.


…the crisis is serving up a very different and inferior bargain than the one many original UBI supporters advocated. Institutionalizing emergency measures designed to respond to Covid-19 would be irresponsible. It would entrench UBI without the prerequisite productivity boom from artificial intelligence and automation. (For some time it appeared the opposite might happen — namely, an AI boom but no UBI.)

I can report that Garry was a real pleasure to work and co-author with.  Here is my earlier Conversation with him.

How to think about uni-disciplinary advice

Let’s say its 1990, and you are proposing an ambitious privatization plan to an Eastern bloc county, and your plan assumes that the enacting government is able to stay on a non-corrupt path the entire time.

While your plan probably is better than communism, it probably is not a very good plan.  A better plan would take sustainability and political realities into account, and indeed many societies did come up with better plans, for instance the Poland plan was better than the Russia plan.

It would not do to announce “I am just an economist, I do not do politics.”  In fact that attitude is fine, but if you hold it you should not be presenting plans to the central government or discussing your plan on TV.  There are plenty of other useful things for you to do.  Or the uni-disciplinary approach still might be a useful academic contribution, but still displaced and to be kept away from the hands of decision-makers.

Nor would it do to claim “I am just an economist.  The politicians have to figure the rest out.”  They cannot figure the rest out in most cases.  Either stand by your proposed plan or don’t do it.  It is indeed a proposal of some sort, even if you package it with some phony distancing language.

Instead, you should try to blend together the needed disciplines as best you can, consulting others when necessary, an offer the best plan you can, namely the best plan all things considered.

That might fill you with horror, but please recall from Tetlock that usually the generalists are the best predictors.

Ignoring other disciplines may be fine when there is no interaction. When estimating the effects of monetary policy, you probably can do that without calculating how many people that year will die of air pollution.  But you probably should not ignore the effects of a major trade war, a budgetary crisis (“but I do monetary policy, not fiscal policy!”), or an asteroid hurtling toward the earth.

If that is too hard, it is fine to announce your final opinion as agnostic (and explain how you got there).  You will note that when it comes to blending economics and epidemiology, my most fundamental opinion is an agnostic one.

This is all well-known, and it has been largely accepted for some time now.

If a public health person presents what is “only an estimate of public health and public health alone” to policymakers, I view it as like the economist in 1990 who won’t consider politics.  Someone else should have the job.  Right now public health, politics, and economics all interact to a significant extent.

And if you present only one of those disciplines to a policymaker, you will likely confuse and mislead that policymaker, because he/she cannot do the required backward unthreading of the advice into its uni-dimensional component.  You have simply served up a biased model, and rather than trying to identify and explain the bias you are simply saying “ask someone else about the bias.”

If an economist claims he is only doing macroeconomics, and not epidemiology (as Paul Krugman has said a few times on Twitter), that is flat out wrong.  All current macro models have epidemiology embedded in them, if only because the size of the negative productivity and negative demand shock depends all too critically on the course of the disease.

It is fine to be agnostic, preferably with structure to the opinion.  It is wrong to hide behind the arbitrary division of a discipline or a field.

We need the best estimates possible, and presented to policymakers as such, and embodying the best of synthetic human knowledge.  Of course that is hard.  That is why we need the very best people to do it.

Addendum: You might try to defend a uni-disciplinary approach by arguing a decision-maker will mainly be fed other, biased uni-disciplinary approaches, and you have to get your discipline into the mix to avoid obliteration of its viewpoint.  But let’s be clear what is going on here: you are deliberately manipulating with a deliberately non-truthy approach (I intend those words as a description, not a condemnation).  If that’s what it is, I wish to describe it that way!  I’ll also note I’ve never done that deliberately myself, and that is along many years of advising at a variety of levels.  I’d rather give the best truthful account as I see it.

*The WEIRDest People in the World*

That is the new 655 pp. book by Joseph Henrich, due out September 8, and yes it is “an event.”  The subtitle is “How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous,” and that is indeed one of the very most important questions in all of social science.

“WEIRD” of course refers to “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.”  And is it not weird that we (some of us, at least) are WEIRD?

Here is an excerpt from the opening segment:

Let’s close by returning to the core questions of this book:

1. How can we explain the global psychological variation highlighted above?

2. Why are WEIRD societies particularly unusual, so often occupying the extreme ends of global distributions of psychology and behavior?

3. What role did these psychological differences play in the Industrial Revolution and the global expansion of Europe during the last few centuries?

If you are wondering how this material might differ from Henrich’s previous output, there is above all much more on marriage customs and monogamy, for instance:

…I’ll make the case that monogamous marriage norms — which push upstream against our polygynous biases and the strong preferences of elite men — create a range of social and psychological effects that give the societies that possess them a big edge in competition against other groups.

Obviously recommended, and you will be hearing more about this both from me and from others.  You can pre-order here.

Some reflections on GRE scores

The evidence indicates that GRE scores predict graduate school success, general intelligence, and also that SAT scores predict later success in science.  Here is further evidence, and here is yet further evidence.

You don’t have to think that “high GRE score fields” are better than “low GRE score fields.”  Many of my friends, for instance, think string theory is intellectually bankrupt, despite many of its proponents being very, very smart.  I don’t have an opinion on string theory per se, but my friends might be right, and in any case I would rather read books from cultural studies, a lower GRE score field.

If you wish to understand the relative strengths and pathologies of theoretical physics and cultural studies, you cannot do that without knowing that the former is a relatively high GRE score field (or the equivalent) and that the latter is a relatively low GRE score field (or the equivalent).

There are many top economists on Twitter, most of them Democrats, who would never ever utter a word about GRE scores in a blog post or on Twitter.  Yet when on an admissions committee, they will ruthlessly enforce the strictest standards for math GRE scores without hesitation.  Not only in top ten programs, but in top thirty programs and even further down the line in many cases.  It is very, very hard to get into a top or even second-tier economics program without an absolutely stellar math GRE score, and yes that is enforced by the same humans who won’t talk about the issue.

Just in case you didn’t know that.

Personally, I feel it has gone too far in that direction, and economics has overinvested in one very particular kind of intelligence (I would myself put greater stress on the old GRE subject test scores for economics, thus selecting for those with an initial interest in the economy rather than in mathematics).

When I did graduate admissions for George Mason University, I very consciously moved away from an emphasis on GRE scores, and for the better.  My first goal was simply to take in more students, and a more diverse group of students, and in fact many of the later top performers were originally “marginal” students by GRE standards.  Looking back, many of our top GRE-scoring students have not done better than the peers, though they have done fine.  For GMU these admission criteria are (in my view) more like the Rosen-Roback model than anything else, though I would readily grant Harvard and MIT are not in the same position.

If you are afraid to talk about GRE scores, you are afraid to talk about reality.

The Risk of Immunity Passes

I argued earlier that if we have Immunity Passes they Must Be Combined With Variolation because “the demand to go back to work may be so strong that some people will want to become deliberately infected. If not done carefully, however, these people will be a threat to others, especially in their asymptomatic phase.” Thus, if we have immunity passes we must also have controlled infection.

In a new paper, Daniel Hemel and Anup Malani run the numbers and verify the intuition:

…Our topline result is that strategic self-infection would be privately rational for younger adults under a wide range of plausible parameters. This result raises two significant concerns. First, in the process of infecting themselves, younger adults may expose others—including older and/or immunocompromised individuals—to SARS-CoV-2, generating significant negative externalities. Second, even if younger adults can self-infect without exposing others to risk, large numbers of self-infections over a short timeframe after introduction of the immunity passport regime may impose significant congestion externalities on health care infrastructure. We then evaluate several interventions that could mitigate moral hazard under an immunity passport regime, including the extension of unemployment benefits, staggered implementation of passports, and controlled exposure of individuals who seek to self-infect. Our results underscore the importance of careful planning around moral hazard as part of any widescale immunity passport regime.

The Miracle of the Internet

The internet has performed incredibly well in the crisis. Charles Fishman, at the Atlantic, gets an inside picture from AT&T:

The surge in traffic, on the internet as a whole and on AT&T’s part of the network, is extraordinary in a way that the phrase 20 percent increase doesn’t quite capture. AT&T’s network is carrying an extra 71 petabytes of data every day. How much is 71 petabytes? One comparison: Back at the end of 2014, AT&T’s total network traffic was 56 petabytes a day; in just a few weeks, AT&T has accommodated more new traffic every day than its total daily traffic six years ago. (During the pandemic, the AT&T network has been carrying about 426 petabytes a day—one petabyte is 1 million gigabytes.)

It’s not an accident. Like HEB in Texas

…AT&T rehearses for disaster. Last May, the company ran an internal war game on how a pandemic would affect its ability to keep phone and internet service running. The company does these exercises routinely to try to get ready—to build teams of people and their reflexes, and also to understand what they will need on the ground.

Tom Hazlett at City Journal points out that the strength of the American internet in particular has been due to greater investment and non network-neutrality.

The payoff is that Netflix (or Hulu, Amazon, or YouTube) have forged bargains with ISPs: if you subscribe to Comcast, you might notice that Netflix is so integrated into its network that a button on your cable TV remote clicks you right from CNBC (owned by Comcast) to Netflix—away from the cable operator’s shows and onto a streaming “over-the-top” media platform. These non-neutral arrangements, along with side payments between the companies, fundamentally support Internet growth.

So while Netflix and Amazon have been throttling their video services in Europe, reducing their customers’ data consumption by one-fourth in response to surging demand, high-definition streaming, following a long trend, remains the U.S. norm. In a 2012 paper in the Journal of Law & Economics, Michal Grajek and Lars-Hendrik Röller found that higher levels of regulatory control (with rules designed to force network sharing) undermined investment incentives, reducing information infrastructure across Europe by 23 percent….U.S. network investments are higher than in Europe, accounting for population and relative economic output.

Despite arguments that the U.S. is falling behind, these network investments pay off. American Internet users consume considerably more data than do Europeans on a per-capita basis. According to Cisco, ISP end-users in the U.S. and Canada stream 115.6 gigabytes of data per month, compared with 43.8 gigabytes in Western Europe and 10.6 gigabytes in Asia Pacific.

World’s Largest Producer of Rubbing Alcohol Can’t Manufacturer Hand Sanitizer

How many stupid, outrageous, maddening government failures can you document in just 500 words? Jim Doti and my former colleague Laurence Iannaccone should win a prize for this piece in the WSJ:

…the U.S. is, by far, the world’s largest producer of alcohol. That distinction is a result of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which required fuel producers to blend four billion gallons of corn ethanol into their gasoline by 2006 and 7.5 billion by 2012. The immediate result was a spike in the price of corn and an increase in food prices world-wide. U.S. farmers soon solved this problem by diverting millions of acres of land to growing corn. Ironically, this increased overall CO2 emissions, much to the chagrin of the environmentalists who had championed the mandate as a way of fighting global warming.

Long before policy makers had seen their error, however, farm states had so fallen in love with ethanol that they successfully lobbied the federal government to raise the mandate to 32 billion gallons a year by 2022. Keep in mind that the oil industry would gladly pay billions of dollars in extra taxes each year not to use it.

The negative effects of this forced usage of corn-based ethanol in refined petroleum include higher gas prices (alcohol costs more than oil per British thermal unit) and more than 30 million acres lost to subsidized corn production — an area that vastly exceeds all the land lost to urban, suburban and exurban “sprawl” over the past century. And while the U.S. now has inordinate supplies of excess alcohol, fuel producers can’t use it, since adding any more to gasoline will damage car engines.

Surely now, with people clamoring for germ-sanitizing alcohol, this excess supply can be put to good use. Not so fast. The Food and Drug Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have prohibited the use of ethanol in place of isopropyl alcohol even though both are equally effective as germ-killers.

On April 3 the FDA announced that “ethanol made at plants producing fuel ethanol can be used as rubbing alcohol if it contains no additional additive or chemicals from the plants and they can ensure water purity and proper sanitation of equipment.” But it’s unclear how much supply will increase, since the FDA also stated that it would “consider each plant on an individual basis and grant approval only if a plant meets quality control specifications.”

Worse yet, the FDA reversed course on April 16, announcing additional restrictions that effectively prevent any sales, even though ethanol companies had already produced and shipped millions of gallons of high-grade alcohol for hand sanitizer. With U.S. ethanol inventories at all-time high of about 900 million gallons, you’d think the FDA would let us have a little for our hands.

Facts about labor markets ouch, when are rising wages bad edition

Workers in the bottom quintile of the wage distribution experienced a 35 percent employment decline while those in the top quintile experienced only a 9 percent decline. Large differences across the wage distribution persist even after conditioning on worker age, business industry, business size, and worker location. As a result, average base wages increased by over 5 percent, though this increase arose entirely through a composition effect. Overall, we document that the speed and magnitude of labor market deterioration during the early parts of the pandemic were unprecedented in the postwar period, particularly for the bottom of the earnings distribution.

That is from a new paper by many authors, including Cajner, Decker, and Hurst.  Via Adam Ozimek.