Category: Economics

More Bickering

Two quick notes on Tyler’s comment on my recent post on vouchers.

First, whether the school or the parent is sent the check is irrelevant (this is a basic theorem in economics). My point, however, was that parents cannot add-on to the voucher amount – i.e. the Chilean system has extensive price controls. Another way of saying this is that in the Chilean system parents never spend any of their own money on the private (subsidized) schools. I think a good voucher system requires that on at least some margins parents spend their own hard-earned dollars on their children’s education.

Second, Tyler thinks that the most convincing evidence is that Chileans did not improve on an international scale. Actually this is the least convincing evidence and it illustrates my point about the power of HU’s tests. The private schools in Chile increased by about 20 percentage points over the relevant time frame. Suppose that private schools were better than public schools by 10 percent then the aggregate gain at the national level would only be 2 percent. Small exogenous decreases in the quality of the public schools could easily swamp this gain.

Business Regulation

Andrei Shleifer and colleagues have engaged in a massive collection of data on legal regimes around the world. The World Bank has now released a major report written by the same group called Doing Business 2004 (summary here). In addition, the data from their project is available on the World Bank website Doing Business. This is a major resource for economists.

Here’s a nice graph from the report (click to expand).


What is in a voter’s self-interest?

Alan Krueger reports on survey research that shows that people do not vote according to their self-interest. In particular, he bemoans the fact that a majority of the poor want to get rid of the estate tax. This and other odd results are due to “ignorance and uncertainty” says Larry Bartels, a Princeton political scientist. If only the poor were better informed they would vote against tax cuts for the rich. Moreover, a better informed electorate would be a good thing. I take issue with both of these positions.

Take the normative position first. Assuming that voters voted self-interestedly, would a more informed electorate be a good thing? Doubtful. If everyone voted their “interest,” as Krueger and Bartels conceive it, every bureaucrat, welfare recipient and old person living on social security would vote for more government. Naturally, I think this would be a disaster but even those who think this would be a good thing ought to give pause when they consider how much more polarized our society would become were it not for the fact that ideology cuts across class lines.

Moreover, isn’t it interesting that when the poor vote against their “self-interest” they are labeled “uninformed” – Bartels compares them to Homer Simpson. But when Hollywood liberals like Barbara Streisand or rich philanthropists like Bill Gates Sr. vote against their “self-interest” they are called enlightened. What Krueger and Bartels refer to as self-interest is actually masking an ideology.

Is it true that informed voters would vote differently? (Krueger cites some evidence suggesting that in fact this is not the case – at least not as much as one would expect – but he doesn’t offer an explanation.) To understand this one should first realize that voters are uninformed because it doesn’t pay to be informed. The probability that one vote sways the election is infinitesimal so voters are rationally ignorant. Does this imply that voting is random? Not at all. Voters who care about ideas even a little are free to vote their ideology at low cost. Thus, in my view, the fact that votes don’t matter gives us hope. It’s only because votes don’t matter that libertarianism has a chance of success. Of course, I recognize that the same facts gives socialism a chance at the polls but I hope good ideas will win out.

Addendum: I’ve been influenced on these issues by our colleague, Bryan Caplan – although I give the ideas a more positive spin than he does. I recommend his paper Libertarianism Against Economism: How Economists Misunderstand Voters, and Why Libertarians Should Care from The Independent Review and his other papers on rational irrationality which you can find on his web page.

Bickering with Alex over vouchers

Oh, yes, it is time for that again.

Alex thought that Brad DeLong and I should be cheerier over the prospects for vouchers. My previous post had cited a study of vouchers in Chile, showing no real educational improvement over twenty years.

Like Alex, I am willing to give vouchers a try, but I think he is overselling the idea. Why I am not convinced by Alex’s pep talk?

First, Alex cites a study of Colombian vouchers, which showed improvement from a voucher program. Point granted, but I think that correct conclusion is simply that sometimes vouchers improve schooling, sometimes they don’t. The most convincing Chilean evidence, not cited by Alex, is simply that overall educational performance, on the international scale, did not improve after twenty years of vouchers.

Second, Alex argues that Chile did not have a pure vouchers scheme. Again, point granted, but no implementable vouchers scheme will be pure, let us take this for granted. Have you read about the Washington D.C. voucher proposals, which would force private schools to admit a certain percentage of “voucher students” by lot? Not surprisingly, the good private schools don’t want to participate in the program, if it passes.

Alex overestimates how far the Chilean system deviates from a pure voucher model. True, the Chilean system makes the payment to the private school, rather than to the family. But according to most theories of tax incidence, this should not matter. The private school will lower tuition accordingly, hoping to capture more students, and thus a greater payment from the government.

Overall, what is going on? Education is not just another commodity. Some of it is signaling, in which case subsidizing it doesn’t bring great gains. Another big part of education is selecting peers for our child. A school filled with bad kids is a bad school, whether it is private or public. It is not obvious how much a private school can make bad kids good. As experience in Eastern Europe and around the world shows, certain kinds of education may be a prerequisite for well-functioning markets, the right values don’t follow from markets automatically.

Most generally, educational performance varies with many factors, not all of them depending on the scope of the market. There are, in fact, very many good public schools, whether in the U.S. or abroad. Now Chile is a relatively homogeneous and urbanized country, with 13 million plus inhabitants. The country also has a reputation for discipline, order, and strong family structure. Is it plausible to think that such a region can have reasonably good public schools, so good that vouchers won’t elevate their youth to another level? Yes.

Vouchers would give U.S. urban youths another educational chance, but let us not expect too much from this reform.

More on sales

I sell bonsai by the roadside. The best sign I have discovered so far is “One day only”

Some good signs I display before the motorist gets to my truck include:”50% off”, “$15-500”, “bonsai for Mom”, “bonsai” (written in chinese). “See the 300 year old bonsai”
What other signs would your [Industrial Organizaton] class suggest?

How quickly can IO students come up with the three main reasons why “for Mom” works better than “for Dad”, even though any bonsai club is predominantly male?

From BonsaiDave, an avid reader, responding to my earlier post on Persian carpet sales.

Vouchers in Chile and Colombia

Tyler mentioned, following a depressed Brad DeLong, a new paper on education vouchers in Chile that does not find large achievement gains. I have some criticisms of the paper (see below) but I was surprised that neither mentioned the most important recent paper on vouchers, Vouchers for Private Schooling in Colombia by Angrist, Bettinger, Bloom, King and Kremer in the Dec. 2002 AER.

Using data from a randomized experiment, Angrist et al. estimate that attending private school increased the probability of finishing eighth grade by 13-15 percentage points or 25 percent. Test scores increased by .29 standard deviations which is equivalent to about an extra year’s worth of schooling which has been estimated to increase yearly wages by 10 percent. Other markers such as teen cohabitation also improved.

Is this just a case of dueling papers? No, first, unlike Hsieh and Urquiola (HU), the Angrist et al. results are consistent with results found elsewhere. See in particular those found for Catholic schooling in the United States . Second, Hsieh and Urquiola (HU) are good researchers, judging by their paper, but Angrist et al. have a much more convincing research design – results from a randomized trial beat econometric identification any day. Cheer up Brad!

I shouldn’t give the impression that the results are directly comparable, however, as HU are trying to get at the general equilibrium effect of a voucher experiment and Angrist et al. are after the partial equilibrium effect of private schooling. Given the large gains found in the partial equilibrium literature, however, the GE results from HU are not plausible in my view.

Now regarding the HU paper some information is in order. First, there were no vouchers in Chile. Instead, there was public funding of some private schools on a per-student basis. Parents could not apply their voucher to the tuition at a private school of their choice.

Second, HU do not test whether students who transferred to private schools did better than other students – they tested whether aggregate scores (public and private) increased over time as more students attended private schools. Their evidence seems consistent with a nationwide decline in public school quality over time. More generally, I would have liked to have seen some information in their paper on the power of their tests. Given the size of the private sector what sort of gains could would we have expected to see in the aggregate scores and is their technique powerful enough to pick up such gains?

Third, HU claim that “cream skimming” was extensive but I find this difficult to believe because there is no price difference between public and private (voucher-accepting) schools since each was paid the same per-student amount. There are some non-pecuniary barriers but no limits on entry that HU mention.

Fourth, why did private enrollment increase if parents did not perceive a quality improvement? HU mention “freshly painted walls” which I thought was a bit flip – we ought to take revealed preference more seriously.

I do think that the HU study of Chile provides useful information about designing a good voucher program and my priors would have been that the program instituted in Chile, even though not a true voucher program, would have produced a larger effect – thus I learned something from the paper.

Carpets for sale

Have you ever wondered why Persian carpets always seem to be for sale? Why the stores are always having “liquidations”? Why the stores are always “going out of business”?

I presented this conundrum to my Industrial Organization class, they came up with two possible explanations.

First, most consumers have little or no idea what the pieces are worth. So you can tell them you are having a sale when you really are not. A few people might be fooled, and you don’t lose anything with the more knowledgeable customers, or with the more skeptical customers. One student called a relative who was a carpet dealer, he appeared to confirm this hypothesis. Note, by the way, that some localities limit how often stores can claim to have sales.

Second, most customers demand only a small number of such carpets. Repeat business may not be so common. Plus the stores buy large quantities of carpets at a time, receiving discounts in the process. The stores end up holding almost all of their capital in the form of inventory, and very little in the form of reputation. The stores then seek to play the Ronald Coase “durable goods monopoly” game, whereby you start with high prices, hope to sell some, and then keep lowering the price repeatedly, until the stock is gone (then you can buy more and start the process over again). Almost all of the time prices will be falling, which is precisely what we observe.

The highest quality textile dealers, as you might find on Madison Avenue, do not pursue this strategy, and they do not have perpetual sales. They sell to better informed buyers, and they have a greater need to maintain their reputational capital. They are certifying higher valued pieces, and pieces which are bought as investments, not just mere decorations. They will keep price steadier, and build a reputation for reliability, rather than always preparing for the next liquidation.

As always, your thoughts on this matter are welcome.

Bounty Hunters

The “bounty hunter” conference was fascinating. To be precise, I was invited to speak before the California Bail Agents Association which includes bail bond agents who write the bonds, surety/insurance companies who back the bonds as well as bail enforcement agents (aka bounty hunters) who recapture fugitives.

The bounty hunters were generally big guys but not so that you would notice on the street – these were not your Gold’s Gym type. A bounty hunter can always buy muscle but what they really need is smarts. A successful bounty hunter avoids excessive confrontation because every pickup is a lawsuit waiting to happen. One bounty hunter told me a big part of his success has been unfailing politeness.

Another key element is getting family members to cosign the bond – even hardened criminals don’t want to see Momma’s house taken should they fail to appear at trial.

It’s no coincidence that bail agents typically have their annual convention in Reno or Las Vegas but these are poker players not mindless feeders of the slot machine. (The distinction between these forms of gambling strikes me as important but to my knowledge has not been taken up by economists.)

Many of the “bondsmen”, perhaps even a majority, are women. Bondsmen must develop intuition and judgment about who is a flight risk and women may be particularly good at this. Also, although the defendant’s are usually men, its often their wives, girlfriends and mothers who bail them out and dealing empathetically with these women is a big part of the art – alas, repeat business is not uncommon.

As with other insurance industries, you can make a lot of money quickly by writing bail but trouble comes when your charges skip and their bail becomes forfeit. At least that is what is supposed to happen but – and I am surprised to be saying this – lax regulators and high-price lawyers can open a window of opportunity that makes bad bail writing potentially profitable. The problems this creates for the honest players in the industry was a big topic at the conference. I was impressed, however, that there was also a frank discussion about how to distinguish rules meant to weed out the fraudulent from anti-competitive rules. This is a topic I need to think more about.

I was asked to speak at the CBAA because of my paper on bounty hunters with Eric Helland (forthcoming in the Journal of Law and Economics). Here are some key facts and findings:

A whopping one-quarter of all felony defendants fail to appear at trial. Of these some thirty percent can’t be found after a year.

The police are overrun with unserved arrest warrants for failure to appear and typically devote little time to the task.

As a result, FTA appear rates are some 28% lower for those released on commercial bail compared to those released on their own recognizance.

When a defendant does FTA he is about 50% more likely to be caught and is caught much sooner if a bounty hunter is on his trail compared to if only the police are involved. (Both of these effects are after controlling for other relevant factors, of course).

Education and economic dynamism

Does a good educational system make for economic dynamism?

Check out the raw data on the American states for yourself. A more detailed look at the question would have to adjust for other relevant factors, but the sheer “eyeball effect” suggests a very weak link between education and economic dynamism, at least at the state level.

I am well aware of the macroeconomic growth literature that finds education to be a key driver of growth, see this article by Robert Barro.

How can we reconcile these two results? First, maybe education is critically important at lower levels of economic development, but not at higher levels. Second, the data on the states may not have enough ceteris paribus to be trustworthy. Third, the macro growth literature is weak on showing causal connections. I wonder: if we took out “education” and put “hours spent watching TV” into the cross-country regressions, what would the results look like?

Happy Birthday

Did you know that AOL/Time Warner owns the rights to the Happy Birthday song? First published in 1893 the song still earns revenues of some $2 million a year. You don’t have to pay AOL for singing the song, however, unless you do it for profit – movies that feature a birthday scene can pay up to $50,000 for the rights. Interestingly, the Happy Birthday song is usually not dubbed which may account for the fact that it is sung in English in many countries around the world even by non-English speakers. Saddam Hussein was once caught on videotape singing it to his daughter.

A report on the bounty hunter conference tomorrow!

Blogs and the private production of public goods

Blogs are a remarkable example of the private supply of public goods. The writers are highly motivated, and often highly intelligent. They produce opinion and commentary on just about everything, with remarkable speed and timeliness. Yet few of these authors are paid directly. They write either for love, or in the hope of converting their fame into profit. Well over four million blogs have been created.

Yet as we might expect, not all bloggers contribute much to the public good. To put it bluntly, many of you out there are slackers. Here are some results from a recent study:

Some highlights: about a quarter of all blogs created are abandoned after only one day. Men tend to abandon their blogs slightly faster than women do, while women are slightly more likely to create a blog in the first place. More than 90% of all blogs were created by people under 30 years old. The average active blog is updated only once every 14 days.

The summary remarks are from

The new Nobel Prize

Read David Warsh on the new Nobel Prize selections. There has been a paucity of interesting press on these picks, in part because the contributions are so technical. But this commentary, like everything else by David, is worth reading.

Here is one good point:

It was the third time in four years that the award was given for contributions to the tool-kit of empirical economists…The committee seems to be buttressing the case for the Nobel award itself…coming so quickly on the heels of the earlier award, this year’s prize may be directed less at the lay public, which is always hoping to understand what is going on in economics, than at the award’s real constituency – the scientists of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, mainly physical scientists, who actually vote the award.

At the end of the link you will find a separate bit, comparing Arnie to Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Here is a result I do not believe

Consider this hypothesis: In the past, such as the nineteenth century, resources were far less mobile. So corrupt officials had to keep their ill-gotten gains at home. This (supposedly) helped the growth prospects of those economies:

In the relatively closed economies of the 19th century, the gains from corruption remained inside the country and became part of the economy’s productive capital. In contrast, in today’s open economies, corrupt agents smuggle stolen money abroad depleting their country’s stock of capital.

Here is a link to the paper. Here is a recent and slightly misleading summary from The New Scientist.

My take: This can’t be right. Most corrupt agents hold and want money, they do not keep capital goods under their pillow. Let’s say that those agents simply burned the money. This would not destroy any real capital for the economy; co-blogger Alex and I used to call this the “Junker fallacy” (recall the mistaken old view that early Germany did not grow because the Junkers bought land instead of investing in capital). So sending money abroad should not be the fundamental problem. Furthermore the distorting effects of corruption are more important than any so-called loss of capital.

The authors do have an interesting empirical result, namely that corruption damages wealth more when the economy is open. But even if this relationship is causal, we have to look for another mechanism. My best intuitive shot is the following: if the economy is open, international investors will, sooner or later, punish it for the corruption, a’ la Indonesia or Argentina.

Movies and capitalism

I continue to be amazed at the high-quality specialized blogs out there. The latest: a new blog about how capitalism is portrayed in the movies, courtesy of Larry Ribstein, legal scholar.

From the blog, here is a list of movies that portray business and private enterprise in a favorable or semi-favorable fashion:

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Executive Suite
Charley Varrick (1973)
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
Do the Right Thing (1989)
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
Cast Away (2000)

Thanks to for the pointer.

Addendum: David Hecht points out that “Sabrina” and “Working Girl” are missing from this list. And I haven’t seen “You’ve Got Mail,” but I recall that the previews villainized book superstores.

Second addendum: Here is a very useful discussion of “You’ve Got Mail,” from