Category: Economics

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 www.2blowhards.com.

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 ProfessorBainbridge.com 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 ProfessorBainbridge.com.

Why Botswana?

From 1965 to 1995, Botswana was the fastest growing country in the world. During this 30 year stretch, Botswana’s average rate of growth was 7.7% per year. Relative to other nations, Botswana rose from the third poorest nation in 1965 to an “Upper Middle Income” nation.

Of course the rest of Africa has not nearly done so well. The account of Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson, later published in Dana Rodrik’s In Search of Prosperity: Analytic Narratives on Economic Growth, suggests the following (summary taken from Beaulier):

1. Botswana possessed relatively inclusive pre-colonial institutions, placing constraints on political elites.

2. The effect of British colonialism on Botswana was minimal, and did not destroy inclusive pre-colonial institutions.

3. Following independence, maintaining and strengthening the institution of private property was in the economic interests of the elite.

4. Botswana is rich in diamonds. This resource wealth created enough rents that no group wanted to challenge the status quo at the expense of “rocking the boat.”

5. Botswana’s success was reinforced by a number of critical decisions made by
the post-independence leaders, particularly Presidents Khama and Masire.

Scott Beaulier, a graduate student at GMU, attempts to amend this view. He argues that British colonial policy was not so beneficient toward market institutions and rule of law. Most of all, “Botswana’s success was the result of good post-colonial policy choices.”

In other words, countries are not trapped by their past. I don’t know enough history to judge this research, but I do know that topics such as Botswana, or Mauritius (another success story), are underexplored by economists.

Addendum: Abiola Lapite refers me to his interesting blog post, he suggests that the relative ethnic homogeneity of Botswana is a critical factor.

An insight on the Kyoto treaty

Sidelight: Why does Germany favor the Kyoto Treaty? Not so much for greenhouse reasons but so that Berlin can shut down the country’s subsidized, politically powerful coal-mining industry. German leaders have wanted for decades to cut subsidies for coal production–even the presumably pro-labor current government wants this–because coal mined in Germany costs more than twice the world price, mainly owing to featherbedded work rules. Every move to reign in the German coal industry has been greeted by public howls. But if Berlin could blame a coal shut-down on an international obligation, and polls show the Kyoto accord is very popular among Germans, the equation would change.

From Gregg Easterbrook, thanks to Michael Green for the pointer.

Look Out for the Big, Messy Countries

Over the next 50 years, Brazil, Russia, India and China – the BRICs economies – could become a much larger force in the world economy. We map out GDP growth, income per capita and currency movements in the BRICs economies until 2050.

The results are startling. If things go right, in less than 40 years, the BRICs economies together could be larger than the G6 in US dollar terms. By 2025 they could account for over half the size of the G6. Of the current G6, only the US and Japan may be among the six largest economies in US dollar terms in 2050.

The list of the world’s ten largest economies may look quite different in 2050. The largest economies in the world (by GDP) may no longer be the richest (by income per capita), making strategic choices for firms more complex.

We are also told that India has the greatest long-term potential for growth over the next thirty to fifty years.

From Goldman-Sachs, click here to get the whole study.

My take: These numbers are very speculative. Don’t assign them any predictive weight, but the article does outline one possible scenario. Don’t forget, circa 1960 or so, many economists were picking Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the Philippines as the next big winners.

Thanks to Bart Oosterveld for the pointer to the piece.

Dollars for Donors

The shortage of human organs for transplant grows worse every year. Better immuno-suppressive drugs and surgical techniques have raised the demand at the same time that better emergency medicine, reduced crime and safer roads have reduced organ supply. As a result, the waiting list for organ transplants is now 82,000 and rising and more than 6000 people will die this year while waiting for a transplant.

The economics of the shortage are so obvious that one popular textbook, Pindyck and Rubinfeld’s Microeconomics, uses the organ shortage to explain the effect of price controls more generally!

Perhaps because the shortage is growing, opposition to financial compensation for cadaveric donation (compensation for live donors is a distinct issue) appears to be lessening. The AMA, the American Society of Transplant Surgeons and the United Network for Organ Sharing have agreed that tests of the idea would be desirable. (A group of clerics, doctors, economists (I am a member) and others has formed to lobby for the idea – see our letter to Congress.) Currently, even tests are illegal but Representative James Greenwood (R, Pa.) has introduced a bill (H.R. 2856) that would create an exception.

Aside from the obvious benefits of saving lives, financial compensation for organ donation would likely save money. Here is a back-of-the-envelope calculation. There are some 285,000 people on dialysis in the US. Transplants are cheaper than dialysis by something like $10-$25,000 per year. About a quarter of those on dialysis are on the waiting list but perhaps as many as half could benefit from a transplant (fewer people are put on the list because of the shortage.) Let’s take the lower numbers. Assume that a quarter of the patients on dialysis could benefit from a transplant and that cost savings are $10,000 a year for five years. Then ending the shortage would save 3.5 billion dollars. Note again that this is a lower estimate. How much would it cost to end the shortage? No one knows for certain but I think a $5000 gift to the estates of organ donors would increase supply enough to greatly alleviate the shortage – that would involve doubling the supply to 12,000 for a paltry cost of $60 million. If this is not enough – raise the gift – anyway you cut it, the savings from dialysis exceed the costs of compensating donors by a large margin.

We should in fact count the value of the lives saved. If we can save 6000 lives and value each life at 3 million dollars (a lower value than what the US government typically uses in its calculations) then that is a further gain of 18 billion dollars.

A Tragedy of the Commons?
Economics provides another way of looking at the crisis. Currently we have organ socialism – anyone who needs an organ is allowed access to the organ pool regardless of whether or not they contributed to the upkeep. As with other resources owned in common we get over-exploitation and under-investment. Consider, instead a “no-give, no-take policy” – only those who have previously signed their organ donor cards are allowed access to the pool. Not only is this more moral than the current policy it creates an incentive to sign your organ donor card. Signing your card becomes the ticket to joining a club – the club of people who have agreed to share their organs should they no longer need them. Equivalently signing your organ donor card becomes analogous to buying insurance. I discuss the idea further in Entrepreneurial Economics.

An organ club has in fact been started – I am not just an adviser, I’m also a member! You can join too at www.lifesharers.com.

New Nobel Prize

I hear it is Robert Engle and Clive Granger, not yet on the major news outlets, more to follow later today.

Addendum: Here is the press release from Stockholm. Here is a short article on cointegration, Granger’s most important contribution. Here is an introduction to ARCH models, a technique pioneered by Engle. Here is Engle’s home page, and Clive Granger’s home page.

My take: Very good picks, economists use their contributions all the time, note that their work is of less interest to the general public than is usually the case.