Category: Economics

Better Crowdfunding

In 1998, I designed the “dominant assurance contract” (DAC) mechanism for producing public goods privately. In my latest paper, just published in GEB written with the excellent Tim Cason and Robertas Zubrickas we test the theory in the lab and…it works! Kickstarter hadn’t yet been created when I first wrote but the DAC mechanism can now be easily explained as a Kickstarter contract with refund bonuses. On Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites you contribute to a project and if a contribution threshold isn’t reached you get your money back. The Kickstarter contract is useful but it’s still easy for a good project to fail because there are many equilibria with non-funding. For example, if I think that you won’t contribute then I may decide not to contribute and if I don’t contribute then you may decide not to contribute. Neither of us can do better by contributing, given the other person is not-contributing, and so non-contributing is a Nash equilibrium (see my talk at the Foresight Institute for more details). Now introduce refund bonuses which pay out only if the threshold is not reached. Now if I think that you won’t contribute then I want to contribute, to earn the refund bonus, and the same is true for you. Indeed, the only equilibria in the crowdfunding game with refund bonuses have the project being funded. Thus, a nice feature of the refund bonus game is that in equilibrium the refund bonuses are never paid!

To test the theory we (mostly Tim and Robertas!) created an environment very similar to that faced by people on Kickstarter. Namely, there are multiple projects to choose from, each with different private payouts and each project has a contribution threshold and some projects offer refund bonuses. We test a variety of different types of refund bonuses including fixed (e.g. $10) and proportional e.g. (20% of your contribution) and also early refund bonuses (a refund bonus if the contribution threshold is not reached and you agreed to contribute in the first half of the funding period) or for contributions at any point in the game. Our research leads to three important conclusions.

First, without refund bonuses only ~30% of socially valuable projects succeed (perhaps coincidentally almost the exact same as on Kickstarter). But with refund bonuses the success rate increases by about 50% to 50- 60% and it doesn’t much matter much what type of refund bonuses are used!

Second, early refund bonuses have some useful properties. A key to the mechanism is that it quickly makes many contributors pivotal. At the beginning of the game it’s in no single individual’s interest to fund the public good but as others contribute there comes a time when the contribution necessary to push the total funding over the threshold is less than the value of the public good to the individual–thus, for purely self-interested reasons, a potential contributor can benefit by pushing funding just over the threshold. We say such contributors are pivotal. Early refund bonuses make contributors pivotal sooner and we think this gives people time to recognize that pushing funding over the threshold is in their interest. In addition, when more people contribute early this sends a signal of social cooperativeness which also appears important to fund public goods.

Third, refund bonuses pay for themselves! In theory, refund bonuses are never paid but in practice, as we have seen, some socially valuable projects fail even with refund bonuses. Nevertheless, for reasonable markups it’s still in an entrepreneur’s interest to use refund bonuses because the greater success rate more than pays for having to pay modest refund bonuses when a project fails.

We think refund bonuses can substantially improve crowdfunding and we hope to partner with a crowdfunding site to run a field experiment. Contact me if interested!

Read the whole thing.

Some points about corporate tax

Written from the British context:

Should the system be changed to one where companies are taxed on all the profits they make from their sales in the country?

There are a few downsides to this.

First of all it would be very hard for one country to switch to such a system without getting the rest of the world to do it too. If we did it unilaterally it would open up more differences between national tax regimes and so create, rather than reduce tax avoidance loopholes.

It is also far from clear the UK would gain from such a change. We might gain from some of the big US-based multinationals paying more tax here, but we have plenty of multinationals of our own and they would generally end up paying less here. The biggest losers could well be poorer developing countries, especially those reliant on extractive industries such as mining. If they could only tax companies based on their sales to their residents in that country that would bring in a lot less than taxing them on the share of the economic value of the products generated in that country. The UK itself still generates between 8 and 9 percent of Government revenues from corporation tax, which is pretty respectable internationally, despite being a very open economy exposed to competition.

There is also an economic question as to who ultimately bears the burden of taxes ‎on a company – is it the shareholders, the customers, or the workers, and if the workers, is it the highly-paid top management or the people at the bottom? The answer is not certain, but it does seem likely that a shift to sales-based tax would be at the expense of the customers. In other words, by taxing internet-based suppliers more, we could be more heavily taxing ourselves.

But the strongest argument against is fairness. If a product is invented / developed / mined / refined / built and potentially even marketed and sold all round the world entirely from country X, making use of staff educated in country X, who use country X’s health care system and transport network, often with tax breaks from country X to encourage its growth, and maybe even wage subsidies from country X for its employees, who deserves to be able to tax the company’s profits? Is it country X, or every country that has someone in it who buys a product from the company? Of course if a country wants to tax sales it can, and sales taxes such as VAT are a perfectly reasonable and sensible part of a country’s tax mix; though in the EU, this is governed to a considerable extent by EU rules.

There are many further detailed points at the link.  And do note this:

There is a perceived issue with the internet making it easier than ever for companies to ‘sell into’ a country with little or no presence in that country, and therefore offering little or no taxable base for the government of that country to tax the profits of. Sales taxes can be part of the answer to this.

But of course a sales tax does not appear to consumers to be a free lunch, and so it is not as politically popular as a sales-based hike in corporate rates.  And so we arrive at the current mess of a situation: “We want tax equity, but you can’t possibly expect us to do that in a way that is transparent!”

Tax incidence on competing two-sided platforms

That is a paper by Paul Belleflamme and Eric Toulemonde, from a few years ago:

We analyze the effects of various taxes on competing two-sided platforms. First, we consider nondiscriminating taxes. We show that specific taxes are entirely passed to the agents on the side on which they are levied; other agents and platforms are left unaffected. Transaction taxes hurt agents on both sides and benefit platforms. Ad valorem taxes are the only tax instrument that allows the tax authority to capture part of the platforms’ profits. Second, regarding asymmetric taxes, we show that agents on the untaxed side benefit from the tax. At least one platform, possibly the taxed one, benefits from the tax.

This may all turn out to matter more if the new multinational corporate tax regime comes into existence.  Of course you can vary the assumptions further yet, and get additional and differing results, but please keep in mind: the tax you impose is not the incidence you get.

Trade Wars Are Hard to Win, Part LXXIV

Bloomberg: The surge of cheap panels from China dealt a crushing blow to U.S. manufacturers — and Solyndra wasn’t the only casualty. After three other U.S. solar manufacturers sought bankruptcy protection, Obama in 2012 slapped duties as high as 249% on the imports. Manufacturers responded by moving operations out of China, but they didn’t head to the U.S. Instead, large manufacturers skirted the U.S. tariffs by building facilities to assemble solar cells and modules across Southeast Asia.

Making matters worse, China retaliated by imposing its own duties of up to 57% on imports of U.S.-made polysilicon — tariffs that crippled U.S. producers of the conductive material used in solar panels.

…Before the Chinese tariffs, U.S.-made polysilicon had been shipped to the country and used to produce ingots, the next stage of solar cell manufacturing. But the tariffs made American polysilicon too expensive, Wang said, and the U.S. went from making 50% of the world’s polysilicon in 2007 to less than 5% today.

Tariffs on imports of solar panels were imposed by both the Obama and Trump presidencies and neither succeeded. We would have done better by letting the Chinese subsidize their solar industry and thus our solar energy system and more likely keeping our input suppliers.

Hat tip: Scott Lincicome.

Structural adjustment for thee but not allowed for me

The economy has not bounced back to prepandemic employment levels, even as G.D.P. effectively has.

Some blame unemployment benefits for keeping workers at home, while others claim that it is the virus still holding back customers and therefore employers from adding jobs. Yet there is a third factor that is likely the labor market’s primary challenge: We are undergoing an enormous reallocation of people and jobs. People need time to find their new position in the labor market.

The early hope among policymakers and economists was that the pandemic aid offered to businesses and families would mean that once we recovered from the pandemic, workers would simply return to their old jobs, sending millions back to work each month and closing the employment gap quickly.

The problem is that old jobs are long gone for the vast majority of those who remain unemployed.

That is from Betsey Stevenson (NYT), and I am not taking issue with her arguments.  Note that if you look about the debate over 2021 more broadly, pretty much everyone agrees there might be too much AD rather than too little.  And yet these matching problems are still around?  Hmm….once you are in a mess, supply-side labor adjustment problems just cannot be fixed so easily by nominal demand and nominal demand only.  See my earlier recent post on this point, namely that business cycle recoveries tend to look the same on the labor side for supply-side reasons.  During recoveries a lot of people just don’t want to go back to work or even look for a job!  That was true in the last recession as well, read this paper, or this research.  People hate the idea if you call them ZMP, but it’s right there in the numbers…how can someone be MP > 0 if they won’t even show up for an interview?

You might notice, by the way, I am not a huge fan of the NAIRU concept and you won’t see me cite it very often (occasionally it is useful shorthand for a less controversial concept.)  The following notion, however, is well-defined: “What the rate of unemployment would be if there were no major negative shocks for a decade and people had seven, eight, or even more years to search for the right job match.”  Yes that is indeed a well-defined number, and that number is pretty low.  I’m just not sure that is very “natural.”  What would John Gray say?  The Marquis de Sade?

The new proposal on corporate tax synchronization

The G-7 nations have coordinated (NYT, FT here) to announce a minimum corporate tax rate of 15%.  Even if seen through, that doesn’t mean all rates must be at 15% or higher, rather if a rate is at 5% another country (the home base country?  the countries where the customers are?) gets to tack on another 10% to make the total take 15%.  That limits the incentive to post very low rates in the first place, by checking the gains from tax haven strategies.

One perennial question is whether the 15% rate is defined over gross or net income.  You don’t want to tax gross income, especially if the business under consideration actually is making a loss.  In any case, you basically end up taxing business income acquisition per se.

If it is net income you are taxing at minimum 15%, you haven’t done as much to limit tax arbitrage as you thought at first.  Especially if the multinational and its subsidiaries engage at arm’s length transactions with shadow pricing, etc.  Net income is a major object of the actual manipulations, and would become all the more so under this new plan, assuming it is applied to net income.  Won’t countries wanting to play the tax haven game end up with very lax definitions of “net income”?  (Or for that matter gross income?)  Or does that get regulated as well?

I don’t think this whole plan should make “the Left” happy.  David Fickling wrote for Bloomberg:

The more likely outcome of the current round of reform will be a continuation of the decline in corporate rates that we’ve seen for four decades. Even amid the push to prevent tax-base erosion in recent years, 24 of the 37 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have cut their corporate tax rates since 2008, while just seven have raised them. Statutory corporate tax rates have trended downward by about 5% a decade since 1980 to the current situation, where the average sits at around 24%. Nations that want to compete with lower-taxed jurisdictions may find the pull of 15% irresistible.

And then:

The risk now is that 15% becomes not just a minimum, but an anchor for maximum tax rates as well.

In other words, the tax haven tax competition game is redone with a 15% floor, but the agreement also pinpoints a corporate tax rate that is “good enough” and would come to be seen as “best possible treatment.”  Neither of those are forcing moves which would require countries to drop their rates to 15% in the resulting equilibrium, but yes I agree with Fickling that there might be a good deal of clustering right at or near 15%, accelerated by this plan of course.

Note also that, under the plan, the 100 largest corporations would have to pay tax in proportion to where they sell their goods and services, even if they are not formally located in those countries (will there be a literal notch right at “company #100”?).  Ireland loses big on that provision, as in essence more corporate tax revenue would be routed to larger countries such as France and Germany.  In how serious a manner would companies have to keep track of their customers?  (What happened to privacy law here?  Or did they never really care much about privacy to begin with!?  What are crypto companies supposed to do about this?)

Biden wants to raise the U.S. corporate tax rate to 28 percent, and Ireland, one of the major supposed villains in this game, has a rate of 12.5%.  So fifteen percent just isn’t that outrageously high, even if companies do end up having the pay that actual rate (though see above about gross vs. net income, and what other “outs” will there be?).

The European digital taxes may be scrapped as well (with the details under negotiation and no one wanting to “move first”), which would ease a wee bit of the burden on the major tech companies from the broader change.

Here are various observations from Soumaya Keynes.

Is the underlying view that the U.S. Congress is supposed to approve this without further renegotiations?  How about the other countries?

*The Economist* on digital money

This multi-article section from a few weeks ago was very good.  Here is one excerpt:

“It feels very significant that the countries which, apart from China, are most advanced, most active and most interested in cbdcs are the medium-sized emerging economies,” says Mr Landau. “They are too big to accept the loss of monetary autonomy, and sufficiently small to be exposed to the risk of foreign-currency competition.” They may feel they have no choice.

Here is another:

The rise of intangible capital may explain several capital-market trends, including the fact that private firms are tending to stay private for longer and the popularity of mergers. Software companies find it easier to protect intellectual property in private markets. Rigid accounting rules do not cope well with intangible capital, for instance by mostly booking spending on research as an expense, discouraging it.

The shift has other broad implications. Lenders like collateral: whenever financiers make loans they worry about being repaid, but they can take valuable property in case of default. Most consumer lending is secured against houses or cars.But businesses that create intangible assets do not have such collateral. This can make it harder to secure debt-financing, which is often not available unsecured for new businesses at a reasonable rate. Stephen Cecchetti, an economist at Brandeis University, calls this the “tyranny of collateral”.

In those settings, data can matter more than the ability to pin down collateral…

Workers aren’t coming back

Data released by the Labor Department this morning show that last month, 61.6 percent of the working-age population were active in the labor force, either working in jobs or looking for them. That is essentially unchanged from the summer of 2020.

The second most significant statistic is that wages are soaring. In May, average wages grew at a 6.1 percent annual rate. In April, they grew at an 8.7 percent annual rate.

Combined, these two statistics tell much of the story of the economy this spring: Employers are boosting wage offers in order to attract and retain workers, who are increasingly difficult to attract and retain. This is a situation you’d expect with employers’ demand for workers growing much faster than workers are returning to the labor market. Labor demand is booming, and labor supply is not keeping up.

Here is more from Michael Strain.

Whose big business? (Europe fact of the day)

In 2000 nearly a third of the combined value of the world’s 1,000 biggest listed firms was in Europe, and a quarter of their profits. In just 20 years those figures have fallen by almost half. Europe is a place for companies such as Amazon and TikTok to find customers, not a base for local firms to conquer the world…

Of the world’s 142 listed firms worth over $100bn, 43 were set up from scratch in the past half-century, 27 in America and ten in China. Only one was in Europe: sap, a German software group founded in 1972. Half of Europe’s richest ten billionaires inherited fortunes spawned long ago; in America nine of the top ten are wealthy solely because of companies they founded.

Here is more from The Economist.  This is all the more reason for the United States to boost allowed emigration from the European Union.  It is also an object lesson in which are the true barriers to trade, often including language, culture, and national borders, even in the presence of (nearly) free trade.

Chris Anderson of TED interviews me

Here is the full podcast series and also other ways to listen.

Update on Rapid Tests for COVID

Nearly a year ago, I wrote Frequent, Fast, and Cheap is Better than Sensitive, arguing for rapid antigen tests:

A number of firms have developed cheap, paper-strip tests for coronavirus that report results at-home in about 15 minutes but they have yet to be approved for use by the FDA because the FDA appears to be demanding that all tests reach accuracy levels similar to the PCR test. This is another deadly FDA mistake.

See also my posts Infected versus Infectious and Rapid Tests. The EMA and then the FDA finally did start approving these tests. So how well are they working? Pretty damn well. Canada has two innovative programs. First, in Nova Scotia pop-up clinics have been using rapid tests for asymptomatic people:

During the third wave that hit Nova Scotia over the past month, the province’s community rapid testing centres have correctly sniffed out at least 285 COVID-19 cases in asymptomatic people, or about 10 per cent of all confirmed cases in this time period, according to the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

While most provinces reserve testing only for symptomatic people or close contacts of a case, Nova Scotia’s pop-up centres allow asymptomatic people to simply show up and get a rapid test for free, with results sent to them within an hour. The whole process relies largely on volunteers without a health-care background.

Furthermore, the true number of cases credited to rapid testing is probably much higher. When a rapid test correctly identifies a positive case, the person’s close contacts such as their family get PCR lab tests that don’t show up in the rapid test statistics.

Lisa Barrett, an infectious diseases specialist and the driving force behind the rapid testing program, said it’s hard to say for certain, but taken altogether it’s possible rapid antigen testing has helped Nova Scotia find up to 18 per cent of all cases during the third wave.

“This is the early detection system,” Barrett said. Rapid testing tends to catch people early on in their infection when they’re full of virus, meaning positive cases are found and put into isolation fast — likely days before they would have been found with a PCR test, if they were found at all.

Michael Mina argues that since the rapid antigen detected cases are among the most infectious cases, detecting these cases is probably worth half of all the PCR testing.

Second, Canada’s CDL Rapid Screening Consortium is now in 200 sites with 50 large companies and rapidly expanding. A very interesting, just published paper in The Lancet runs an experiment that suggests that these testing regimes can work. The experiment rapidly tested 1000 people and the negatives were then randomly assigned either to be sent-home to conduct their regular life or to attend a multi-hour concert with masks but also singing, dancing, alcohol and no-social distancing. After 8 days there were two infections in the at-home group and no infections in the Concert group which suggests that this type of rapid testing can be used to open and keep-open concerts, schools, universities, airplanes and workplaces.

What’s the point of testing now that we have vaccines? Two reasons. First, most of the world still hasn’t been vaccinated so testing will be a very useful stop-gap measure until vaccination is more widely distributed. Indeed, the success of these programs shows what we lost by not acting more quickly a year ago. Second, although the pandemic is (essentially) over in the United States (as predicted) there will likely be an uptick in the fall among the unvaccinated and you want rapid tests to be available rapidly in hot-spots. In other words, rapid deployment of rapid tests will help us to avoid outbreaks in the future.

My Conversation with the very very smart David Deutsch

I think this episode came off as “weird and testy,” as I described it to one friend, but I like weird and testy!  Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How do you think the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics relates to the view that, just in terms of space, the size of our current universe is infinite, and therefore everything possible is happening in it?

DEUTSCH: It complicates the discussion of probability, but there’s no overlap between that notion of infinity and the Everettian notion of infinity, if we are infinite there, because the differentiation (as I prefer to call what used to be called splitting) — when I perform an experiment which can go one of two ways, the influence of that spreads out. First, I see it. I may write it down; I may write a scientific paper. When I write a paper about it and report the results, that will cause the journal to split or to differentiate into two journals, and so on. This influence cannot spread out faster than the speed of light.

So an Everett universe is really a misnomer because what we see in real life is an Everett bubble within the universe. Everything outside the bubble is as it was; it’s undifferentiated, or, to be exact, it’s exactly as differentiated as it was before. Then, as the bubble spreads out, the universe becomes or the multiverse becomes more differentiated, but the bubble is always finite.

COWEN: How do your views relate to the philosophical modal realism of David Lewis?

DEUTSCH: There are interesting parallels. As a physicist, I’m interested in what the laws of physics tell us is so, rather than in philosophical reasoning about things, unless they impinge on a problem that I have. So yes, I’m interested in, for example, the continuity of the self — whether, if there’s another version of me a very large number of light-years away in an infinite universe, and it’s identical, is that really me? Are there two of me, one of me? I don’t entirely know the answer to that. It’s why I don’t entirely know the answer to whether I would go in a Star Trek transporter.

The modal realism certainly involves a lot of things that I don’t think exist — at least, not physically. I’m open to the idea that nonphysical things do exist: like the natural numbers, I think, exist. There’s a difference between the second even prime, which doesn’t exist, and the infinite number of prime numbers, which I think do exist. I think that there is more than one mode of existence, but the theory that all modes of existence are equally real — I see no point in that. The overlap between Everett and David Lewis is, I think, more coincidental than illuminating.

COWEN: If the universe is infinite and if David Lewis is correct, should I feel closer to the David Lewis copies of me? The copies or near copies of me in this universe? Or the near copies of me in the multiverse? It seems very crowded all of a sudden. Something whose purpose was to be economical doesn’t feel that way to me by the end of the metaphysics.

DEUTSCH: It doesn’t feel like that to you. . . . Well, as Wittgenstein is supposed to have said (I don’t know whether he really did), if it were true, what would it feel like? It would feel just like this.

Much more at the link.  And:

COWEN: Are we living in a simulation?

DEUTSCH: No, because living in a simulation is precisely a case of there being a barrier beyond which we cannot understand. If we’re living in a simulation that’s running on some computer, we can’t tell whether that computer is made of silicon or iron, or whether it obeys the same laws of computation, like Turing computability and quantum computability and so on, as ours. We can’t know anything about the physics there.

Well, we can know that it is at least a superset of our physics, but that’s not saying very much; it’s not telling us very much. It’s a typical example of a theory that can be rejected out of hand for the same reason that the supernatural ones — if somebody says, “Zeus did it,” then I’m going to say, “How should I respond? If I take that on board, how should I respond to the next person that comes along and tells me that Odin did it?”

COWEN: But it seems you’re rejecting an empirical claim on methodological grounds, and I get very suspicious. Philosophers typically reject transcendental arguments like, “Oh, we must be able to perceive reality, because if we couldn’t, how could we know that we couldn’t perceive reality?” It doesn’t prove you can perceive reality, right?

And this:

COWEN: A few very practical questions to close. Given the way British elections seem to have been running, that the Tories win every time, does that mean the error-correction mechanism of the British system of government now is weaker?

DEUTSCH: No. Unfortunately, the — so, as you probably know, I favor the first-past-the-post system in the purest possible form, as it is implemented in Britain. I think that is the most error-correcting possible electoral system, although I must add that the electoral system is only a tiny facet of the institutions of criticism and consent. In general, it’s just a tiny thing, but it is the best one.

It’s not perfect. It has some of the defects of, for example, proportional representation. Proportional representation has the defect that it causes coalitions all the time. Coalitions are bad.

COWEN: You have a delegated monitor with the coalition, right? With a coalition, say in the Netherlands (which is richer than the United Kingdom), you typically have coalition governments. Some parties in the coalition are delegated monitors of the other parties. Parties are better informed than voters. Isn’t that a better Popperian mechanism for error correction?

I also tried to sum up what I think he is all about, and he reacted with scorn.  That was an excellent part of the conversation.  And here is a good Twitter thread from Michael Nielsen about the Conversation.

Do individuals make more rational decisions when the stakes are higher?

Often yes, but this is a shibboleth of economics that doesn’t always fit the facts, as has been illustrated starkly by our behaviors during the pandemic.  Many people have taken too much risk, or been too risk-averse, even with high stakes on the line.  Here is one excerpt from my recent Bloomberg column:

You might wonder why we are getting these big, important decisions so wrong. I have at least two hypotheses. One is that anxiety causes people to make worse decisions. Facing the danger of a deadly pandemic, for example, the higher stakes might induce me to shift into denial, if only to protect my sanity and peace of mind. I might make worse decisions than if I were simply trying to avoid the common cold, for which the stakes are far lower.

My other hypothesis involves identity and the desire for belonging. It is no accident that red states in the U.S. are under-vaccinated relative to blue states; vaccine skepticism is in part an identity marker for Trump supporters. People tend to see big decisions as more important in shaping their identity than small ones. In essence, the significance of a decision induces all kinds of surrounding social forces to “infect” that decision with partisan influences, and that decision in turn becomes a truly credible signal of what we believe.

For most economic decisions, people do still make better choices when the stakes are higher — but this isn’t a universal principle. Are you so sure, for example, that decisions about who to marry are made more rationally than those about which TV show to watch? Maybe they are, but it’s not entirely obvious.

Note that it is now much easier to make good small stakes decisions, largely because of the internet:

An accompanying change is that low-stakes decisions are easier than ever, due largely to the internet, with one crucial caveat: The decision-maker must be relatively rational. Several decades ago, if you wanted to figure out the best paper towels to buy, you might have asked around and then collated a lot of information yourself. These days it is easy enough to search the internet for the answer. Or consider the example of credit-card rewards, which are far easier to collect, manipulate and use because of the internet.

The danger of course is that the sum of all these smaller triumphs convinces people that they are rational about big dilemmas too — despite the fact that they choose rather poorly on some of them. We are not used to a world where we are worse at big decisions than the small ones. But it has been hurtling our way for some while now.

Recommended.  I also cite this: “Bryan Caplan, a colleague who studies human rationality, has put the individual Covid response in only the second percentile of “my initially mediocre expectations.””