Category: Economics

Endowment effects and trader experience

The Economist has a good write-up on the work of experimental economist John List. As you may know, an endowment effect arises when you value something more, simply because you own it. In the context of laboratory experiments, often people will value a coffee mug more, much more (say five times more), once someone gives them the mug as theirs. In contrast, economic theory suggests that your willingness to pay for the mug should only be slightly less than your willingness to give up the mug for money (willingness to be paid). Here is a piece by recent Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman on the same topic.

List had the ingenious idea to see which traders were most subject to this ownership bias. So he took people who traded sporting cards and gave them other sporting memorabilia. The key result is this: the more real world trading experience a person had, the weaker the ownership or endowment effect. Professional dealers hardly seemed to be biased at all. The lesson is simple: asset markets work well when traders have the necessary experience. List also showed that sellers learn how to trade properly, without much of a bias, more rapidly than buyers do, which may explain why neophyte buyers get taken advantage of in stock markets, and why upward-moving bubbles may start. (Researchers have found that other distinctions may matter as well, you may value the mug more if you won it in a tough competition, as opposed to receiving it as a gift.)

Al Roth has a good general site on experimental economics, as does Vernon Smith’s ICES group, who are colleagues of ours at George Mason.

Road pricing, taken to an extreme

Iain Murray reports on the new London five pound fee (about eight dollars, and enforced by a penalty), charged to each car entering central London. It turns out the fee has been set too high, and traffic has fallen by more than the projected fifteen percent. Nor does the fee appear to be maximizing revenue. Mayor Livingstone wants to continue the high fee, however, because he likes the environmental effects of much lower traffic, despite a serious hit to London retail sales.

By the way, over 100,000 people are refusing to pay their penalty notices.

Addendum: Transportblog.com, an excellent source, offers some follow-up and commentary.

Is Alan Greenspan underpaid?

If you look at what different central bankers earn, Alan Greenspan is way down on the list with his $172,000 a year. Is the Finnish central banker really worth more money?

The deeper question is whether we need to pay American central bankers more. How many of you have heard of Matti Vanhala? Well, he is the Finnish central banker. Greenspan earns a greater fame (and power) return. The head of the Hong Kong central bank makes over a million dollars a year. High public sector salaries are useful for limiting corruption, but this is not an obvious danger in the case of the American Fed. The head of the New York Fed makes $315,000, almost twice what Greenspan does, but how many of you could produce the name of Bill McDonough at the drop of a hat?

Virtual economies

What does it mean to have property rights and prices in the virtual world of computer games? Did you know that you can buy a “virtual sword” on ebay? Did you know that the male avatars sell for more than the female avatars, despite having the same capabilities? What are virtual economies all about? Read this article, fascinating but sometimes incoherent as well, for a take on these new developments.

How high are transportation costs?

“Cities, Regions and the Decline of Transport Costs”, a 2003 working paper by Edward Glaeser and Janet Kohlhase, provides stimulating reading. They build a model, overturning standard location theory, under the assumption that transportation costs are zero.

Does that sound crazy? They estimate that for machinery, electrical equipment, and transportation equipment, transportation costs are no more than 1.2 percent of the value of the product. 36 percent of all shipments, measured by value, fall into this cost category. Transportation costs for goods have been falling for a long time, and will continue to fall.

It is moving human beings that is expensive, not moving goods. Traffic congestion is an increasing problem. It is now less important to live near natural resources, and more important to live in good weather and under good government. Plus people want to live near other people, leading to greater population concentration in SMSAs. But within metropolitan areas, people are dispersing themselves more, they want to be close but not too close. Don’t buy real estate in Duluth (once a vitally important port) is, I think, the final lesson.

A contradiction in my (previous) views

I used to (i.e., last week) believe the following two claims:

1) Taking the government policies of country A as constant, more trading opportunities with country B will make country A better off.

2) International competition will force countries to improve their economic policies, otherwise they will be “left behind.”

I know many classical liberals who believe both propositions, as did I. But it is not so easy to square the circle. If 2) is true, that must mean that if country A faces greater international competition, and does not improve its economic policies, it must be worse off (admittedly the phrase “left behind” is vague, but what else could it mean?). Which means that 1) cannot be true as stated.

You might argue for a different version of 2): “2a) International competition will force countries to improve their economic policies, competition benefits the citizens no matter what, but it will starve the government of revenue, presumably because of resource mobility.”

But 2a), while possible, is a funny claim. If the citizens are better off, you might think that gdp is higher, and thus you might think that tax revenue is higher as well. Rising standards of living tend to produce rising tax revenue. You could spin a scenario where capital flight, combined with goods reimportation, raises living standards while lowering tax revenue, but it will be hard to find this empirically.

Alternatively, you might argue for a better version of 1): “1a) More trading opportunities are good for country A, in part because they force country A to improve its economic policies.” This will work, but it is a weaker argument for free trade for country A than we are used to.

So what gives? I suggest two adjustments. First, free trade can sometimes make country A worse off, even if it benefits countries A and B in the aggregate. Second, international competition may motivate countries to make reforms by threatening a loss of relative international status, but it won’t make the citizens in country A worse off in most plausible cases. My views are thus revised.

How different is Canada?

I’ve been enjoying Globalization and the Meaning of Canadian Life, by William Watson. His main point is that globalization does not prevent countries from increasing the size of their governments, if they choose to.

As late as 1958, the U.S. and Canada had similar percentages for government spending and taxes. Canada then increased its size of government, although the two countries moved economically much closer over the same period of time.

The book is full of interesting facts, although they do not always fit together into the same picture. What are the ten most generous states or provinces in terms of welfare benefits, in the U.S. or Canada (p.146, note that the book is from 1997)? Surprise, all ten are in the U.S. They include New York and California, hardly small parts of the country. If you are curious, Quebec comes in at number 38 on the entire list. The author argues that Canadians are not always as different from Americans as they like to think.