Category: Education

My Conversation with Hal Varian

Hal of course was in top form, here is the audio and transcript.  Excerpt:

COWEN: Why doesn’t business use more prediction markets? They would seem to make sense, right? Bet on ideas. Aggregate information. We’ve all read Hayek.

VARIAN: Right. And we had a prediction market. I’ll tell you the problem with it. The problem is, the things that we really wanted to get a probability assessment on were things that were so sensitive that we thought we would violate the SEC rules on insider knowledge because, if a small group of people knows about some acquisition or something like that, there is a secret among this small group.

You might like to have a probability assessment of whether that would go through. But then, anybody who looks at the auction is now an insider. So there’s a problem in you have to find things that (a) are of interest to the company but (b) do not reveal financially critical information. That’s not so easy to do.

COWEN: But there are plenty of times when insider trading is either illegal or not enforced. Plenty of countries where it’s been legal, and there we don’t see many prediction markets in companies, if any. So it seems like it ought to have to be some more general explanation, or no?

VARIAN: Well, I’m just referring to our particular case. There was another example at the same time: Ford was running a market, and Ford would have futures markets on the price of gasoline, which was very relevant to them. It was an external price and so on. And it extended beyond the usual futures market.

That’s the other thing. You’re not going to get anywhere if you’re just duplicating a market that already exists. You have to add something to it to make it attractive to insiders.

So we ran a number of cases internally. We found some interesting behavior. There’s an article by Bo Cowgill on our experience with this auction. But ultimately, we ran into this problem that I described. The most valuable predictions would be the most sensitive predictions, and you didn’t want to do that in public.


COWEN: But then you must think we’re not doing enough theory today. Or do you think it’s simply exhausted for a while?

VARIAN: Well, one area of theory that I’ve found very exciting is algorithmic mechanism design. With algorithmic mechanism design, it’s a combination of computer science and economics.

The idea is, you take the economic model, and you bring in computational costs, or show me an algorithm that actually solves that maximization problem. Then on the other side, the computer side, you build incentives into the algorithms. So if multiple people are using, let’s say, some communications protocol, you want them all to have the right incentives to have the efficient use of that protocol.

So that’s a case where it really has very strong real-world applications to doing this — everything from telecommunications to AdWords auctions.


VARIAN: Yeah. I would like to separate the blockchain from just cryptographic protocols in general. There’s a huge demand for various kinds of cryptography.

Blockchain seems to be, by its nature, relatively inefficient. As an economist, I don’t like this proof of work that this is. I don’t like the fact that there’s one version of the blockchain that has to keep being updated. I don’t like the fact that it’s so slow. There are lots of things that you could fix, and I expect to see them fixed in the future, but I would say, crypto in general — big deal. Blockchain — not so much.

And finally:

COWEN: Now, users seem to like them both, but if I just look at the critics, why does it seem to me that Facebook is more hated than Google?

VARIAN: Well, you know, I actually don’t use Facebook. I don’t have any moral objection to it. I just don’t have the time to do it. [laughs] There are other things of this sort that can end up soaking up a substantial amount of time.

I think that one of the reasons — and this is, of course, quite speculative — I think that one of the reasons people are most worried about Facebook is they don’t really understand the limits of what can be done at Facebook. Whereas at Google, I think we’re pretty clear that we’re showing you ads. We’re showing you ads that are targeted to one thing or another, but that’s how the information’s used.

So, you’ve got this specific application in our case. In Facebook’s case, it’s more amorphous, I think.

There is much, much more at the link.

The new Ben Horowitz management book

What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Own Business Culture.  It is the best book on business culture in recent memory, here is one bit:

When Tom Coughlin coached the New York Giants, from 2004 to 2015, the media went crazy over a shocking rule he set: “If you are on time, you are late.”  He started every meeting five minutes early and fined players one thousand dollars if they were late.  I mean on time…”Players ought to be there on time, period,” he said.  “If they’re on time, they’re on time.  Meetings start five minutes early.”


Two lessons for leaders jump out from Senghor’s experience:

  1. Your own perspective on the culture is not that relevant.  Your view or your executive team’s view of your culture is rarely what your employees experience.

You can pre-order the book here, due out in October.

Why Chinese is so difficult

Worse than you think, I enjoyed the discussion of dictionaries most of all:

One of the most unreasonably difficult things about learning Chinese is that merely learning how to look up a word in the dictionary is about the equivalent of an entire semester of secretarial school. When I was in Taiwan, I heard that they sometimes held dictionary look-up contests in the junior high schools. Imagine a language where simply looking a word up in the dictionary is considered a skill like debate or volleyball! Chinese is not exactly what you would call a user-friendly language, but a Chinese dictionary is positively user-hostile.

Figuring out all the radicals and their variants, plus dealing with the ambiguous characters with no obvious radical at all is a stupid, time-consuming chore that slows the learning process down by a factor of ten as compared to other languages with a sensible alphabet or the equivalent. I’d say it took me a good year before I could reliably find in the dictionary any character I might encounter. And to this day, I will very occasionally stumble onto a character that I simply can’t find at all, even after ten minutes of searching. At such times I raise my hands to the sky, Job-like, and consider going into telemarketing.

Chinese must also be one of the most dictionary-intensive languages on earth. I currently have more than twenty Chinese dictionaries of various kinds on my desk, and they all have a specific and distinct use. There are dictionaries with simplified characters used on the mainland, dictionaries with the traditional characters used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and dictionaries with both. There are dictionaries that use the Wade-Giles romanization, dictionaries that use pinyin, and dictionaries that use other more surrealistic romanization methods. There are dictionaries of classical Chinese particles, dictionaries of Beijing dialect, dictionaries of chéngyǔ (four-character idioms), dictionaries of xiēhòuyǔ(special allegorical two-part sayings), dictionaries of yànyǔ (proverbs), dictionaries of Chinese communist terms, dictionaries of Buddhist terms, reverse dictionaries… on and on. An exhaustive hunt for some elusive or problematic lexical item can leave one’s desk “strewn with dictionaries as numerous as dead soldiers on a battlefield.”

There is however much more, by David Moser, via someone on Twitter, sorry I forgot.

Should we let graduate students in private universities form unions?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column and my answer is no, here is one excerpt:

One core reason to have unions is to boost the real wages of needy workers. But graduate students are not employees in the traditional sense. They are receiving training, often on very favorable terms. Typically a university is investing large sums of money to make those students employable and successful, usually on the academic market; the University of Chicago says it invests more than $500,000 per doctoral student. If those students demanded and received higher wages for their teaching, the university would not necessarily increase its investment in them at all; it could simply reallocate existing funds. Thus it is misleading to think there is a real bargaining situation here.

Think of a university as an investor in these students, and toward that end it must choose between boosting their academic quality through better training, or paying them higher stipends and teaching wages to ease their immediate financial concerns. The incentive for the university, which cares about its broader and longer-term reputation, is to invest in the quality of those students but pay them smaller amounts (though enough to live on). In contrast, the incentive for a graduate student union would be to push for higher wages, given that the other university investments are less visible and hard to monitor.

At the margin, society is better off if the focus is on the training, which enhances productivity in the long term, rather than on higher wages and stipends for students in the short term.


In general, when considering this issue, ask yourself a question: When it comes to bringing about change, do today’s universities have too many veto points or too few?

Some researchers have pointed out that graduate student unions don’t seem to have harmed the public universities that allow them (such unions, which are permissible in many states, would not be affected by the federal government’s decision). The evidence may be compelling in the short run, but the real costs are likely to come later — by slowing down or even preventing beneficial changes to the U.S. system of higher education. Furthermore, state labor laws dramatically limit what public employees can negotiate for. Unionized graduate students at private universities unions would not face similar restrictions.

Recommended, do read the whole thing.

SlateStarCodex and Caplan on ‘Why Are the Prices So D*mn High?’

SlateStarCodex, whose 2017 post on the cost disease was one of the motivations for our investigation, says Why Are the Prices so D*mn High (now available in print, ePub, and PDF) is “the best thing I’ve heard all year. It restores my faith in humanity.” I wouldn’t go that far.

SSC does have some lingering doubts and points to certain areas where the data isn’t clear and where we could have been clearer. I think this is inevitable. A lot has happened in the post World War II era. In dealing with very long run trends so much else is going on that answers will never be conclusive. It’s hard to see the signal in the noise. I think of the Baumol effect as something analogous to global warming. The tides come and go but the sea level is slowly rising.

In contrast, my friend Bryan Caplan is not happy. Bryan’s basic point is to argue, ‘look around at all the stupid ways in which the government prevents health care and education prices from falling. Of course, government is the explanation for higher prices.’ In point of fact, I agree with many of Bryan’s points. Bryan says, for example, that immigration would lower health care prices. Indeed it would. (Aside: it does seem odd for Bryan to argue that if K-12 education were privately funded schools would not continue their insane practice of requiring primary school teachers to have B.A.s when in fact, as Bryan knows, credentialism has occurred throughout the economy)

The problem with Bryan’s critiques is that they miss what we are trying to explain which is why some prices have risen while others have fallen. Immigration would indeed lower health care prices but it would also lower the price of automobiles leaving the net difference unexplained. Bryan, the armchair economist, has a simple syllogism, regulation increases prices, education is regulated, therefore regulation explains higher education prices. The problem is that most industries are regulated. Think about the regulations that govern the manufacture of automobiles. Why do all modern automobiles look the same? As Car and Driver puts it:

In our hyperregulated modern world, the government dictates nearly every aspect of car design, from the size and color of the exterior lighting elements to how sharp the creases stamped into sheet metal can be.

(See Jeffrey Tucker for more). And that’s just design regulation. There are also environmental regulations (e.g. ethanol, catalytic converters, CAFE etc.), engine regulations, made in America regulations, not to mention all the regulations on the inputs like steel and coal. The government even regulates how cars can be sold, preventing Tesla from selling direct to the public! When you put all these regulations together it’s not at all obvious that there is more regulation in education than in auto manufacturing. Indeed, since the major increase in regulation since the 1970s has been in environmental regulation, which impacts manufacturing more than services, it seems plausible that regulation has increased more for auto manufacturing.

As an empirical economist, I am interested in testable hypotheses. A testable hypothesis is that the industries with the biggest increases in regulation have seen the biggest increases in prices over time. Yet, when we test that hypothesis as best we can it appears to be false. Remember, this does not mean that regulation doesn’t increase prices! It can and probably does it’s just that regulation is not the explanation for the differences in prices we see across industries. (Note also that Bryan argues that you don’t need increasing regulation to explain increasing prices, which is true, but I still need a testable hypotheses not an unfalsifiable claim.)

So by all means let’s deregulate, but don’t expect 70+ year price trends to reverse until robots and AI start improving productivity in services faster than in manufacturing.

Let me close with this. What I found most convincing about the Baumol effect is consilience. Here, for example, are two figures which did not make the book. The first shows car prices versus car repair prices. The second shows shoe and clothing prices versus shoe repair, tailors, dry cleaners and hair styling. In both cases, the goods price is way down and the service price is up. The Baumol effect offers a unifying account of trends such as this across many different industries. Other theories tend to be ad hoc, false, or unfalsifiable.

RIP, Martin Feldstein

In addition to being a great economist, Marty was an institution builder.  He was the early driving force behind the rise of the NBER, he led the development of empirical public finance as a respected field, and also very early on he pushed health care economics, both through his leadership at the NBER and through his own work and mentorship.  He always was reaching out to help others, and Larry Summers, Jim Poterba, David Cutler, Raj Chetty, and Jason Furman were some of those he mentored.  The economics of art museums was yet another topic he had a real interest in, and stimulated research in.

Marty also was one of my oral examiners at Harvard, and he asked only excellent questions.  I thank him for judging my answers to be good enough.

Has the division of labor hindered knowledge integration and productivity growth?

…we suggest that this division of innovative labor has not, perhaps, lived up to its promise.  The translation of scientific knowledge generated in universities to productivity enhancing technical progress has proved to be more difficult to accomplish in practice than expected.  Spinoffs, startups, and university licensing offices have not fully filled the gap left by the decline of the corporate lab.  Corporate research has a number of characteristics that make it very valuable for science-based innovation and growth.  Large corporations have access to significant resources, can more easily integrate multiple knowledge streams, and direct their research toward solving specific practical problems, which makes it more likely for them to produce commercial applications.  University research has tended to be curiosity-driven rather than mission-focused.  It has favored insight rather than solutions to specific problems, and partly as a consequence, university research has required additional integration and transformation to become economically useful.  This is not to deny the important contributions that universities and small firms make to American innovation.  Rather, our point is that large corporate labs may have distinct capabilities which have proved to be difficult to replace.

That is from Ashish Arora, Sharon Belenzon, Andrea Patacconi, and Jungkyu Suh, “The Changing Structure of American Innovation: Some Cautionary Remarks for Economic Growth,” recommended, an excellent paper spanning several disciplines.  I would myself note this is further reason not to split up the major tech companies.

What should I ask Hollis Robbins?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, no associated public event.  Here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Robbins is a noted expert in the field of nineteenth-century African American literature and recently co-edited with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. an anthology of African American women’s writing. Robbins’ work focuses primarily on nineteenth and early twentieth century black print culture; she is affiliated with the Black Press Research Collective and serves as an advisor to the Black Periodical Literature Project at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University

…Previously, Robbins edited several other books with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., including The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2006) and In Search of Hannah Crafts: Essays on The Bondwoman’s Narrative (2003). She also co-edited The Works of William Wells Brown (2006) with Paula Garrett and an edition of Frances E.W. Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy.

In addition to now being Dean at Sonoma State University, she also has written on film music, the history of post offices, the gold rush, higher education, African-American sonnets, and numerous other topics.  So what should I ask her?

My Conversation with Russ Roberts

The podcast master himself, here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:

What are the virtues of forgiveness? Are we subject to being manipulated by data? Why do people struggle with prayer? What really motivates us? How has the volunteer army system changed the incentives for war? These are just some of the questions that keep Russ Roberts going as he constantly analyzes the world and revisits his own biases through thirteen years of conversations on EconTalk.

Russ made his way to the Mercatus studio to talk with Tyler about these ideas and more. The pair examines where classical liberalism has gone wrong, if dropping out of college is overrated, and what people are missing from the Bible. Tyler questions Russ on Hayek, behavioral economics, and his favorite EconTalk conversation. Ever the host, Russ also throws in a couple questions to Tyler.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s a reader question. “In which areas are you more pro-regulation than the average American?” They mean government regulation.

ROBERTS: Than the average American?


ROBERTS: I can’t think of any. Can you help me out there, Tyler?

COWEN: Well, I’m not sure I know all of your views.

ROBERTS: What would you guess? Give me some things to think about there. In general, I think government should be smaller and regulations should be smaller.

COWEN: I’ll give you–

ROBERTS: Let me give you a trick answer. Then I’ll let you feed me some.

COWEN: Sure.

ROBERTS: Many people believe that the financial crisis was caused by deregulation. I think that’s a misreading of the evidence. It’s true that some pieces of the financial sector were deregulated, but government intervention in the financial sector was quite significant in advance of the crisis. In particular, the bailouts that we did of past failed financial institutions, I think, encouraged lenders to be more careless with how they lent their money, mainly to other institutions, not so much to people out in the world like you and me.

Deregulation’s a little bit tricky, so I wanted to get that in. I’m not sure how that pertains to the question. It does, probably, in some way. So give me something I should be more regulatory about.

COWEN: Well, one answer —

ROBERTS: Baseball? Baseball, of course. [laughs]

COWEN: I would say animal welfare — government should have a larger role. But also what counts as a tax-exempt institution, I would prefer our government be stricter.

ROBERTS: Well, I’m with you there. Yeah, okay, kind of.

COWEN: Well, that’s more regulation, okay?

ROBERTS: I guess.

COWEN: Kind of.

ROBERTS: Yeah, kind of. It’s different standards.

COWEN: Higher capital requirements for banks.

ROBERTS: I’m okay with that. Yeah, that’s a good one. I’d prefer a laissez-faire world for banks, more or less. If we can’t credibly promise not to bail out banks — if that’s the case, we live in a world where banks get to keep their profits and put their losses on taxpayers — bad world. A more regulated world would be better than the world we live in; not as good as my ideal world, though. But there’s a case where I would be in favor — like you just said — more capital requirements.

You’re on a roll. See what else you can come up with for me.

COWEN: Spending more money for tax enforcement, especially on the wealthy.

ROBERTS: Not the worst thing in the world.

COWEN: You can spend a dollar and bring in several times that, it seems.

ROBERTS: I don’t think rich people cheat on their taxes. Do you? [laughs]

COWEN: “Cheat” is a tricky word, but I think we could spend more money.

ROBERTS: We could probably collect more effectively.

COWEN: And it would more than pay for itself.

ROBERTS: Yeah. That’s probably true.

COWEN: We’re actually big fans of government regulation today.

ROBERTS: Yeah, we’ve really expanded the tent here. [laughs]

Do read or listen to the whole thing.

Special Features of the Baumol Effect

I explained the Baumol effect in an earlier post based on Why Are the Prices So D*mn High?. In this post, I want to point out some special features of the Baumol effect that help to explain the data. Namely:

  • The Baumol effect predicts that more spending will be accompanied by no increase in quality.
  • The Baumol effect predicts that the increase in the relative price of the low productivity sector will be fastest when the economy is booming. i.e. the cost “disease” will be at its worst when the economy is most healthy!
  • The Baumol effect cleanly resolves the mystery of higher prices accompanied by higher quantity demanded.

First, in the literature on rising prices it’s common to contrast massive increases in spending with little to no increases in quality, as for example, in contrasting education expenditures with mostly flat test scores (see at right). We have spent so much and gotten so little! Cui Bono? It must be teacher unions, administrators or the government!

All of that could be true but the Baumol effect predicts that more spending will be accompanied by no increase in quality. Go back to the classic example of the string quartet which becomes more expensive because labor in other industries increases in productivity over time. The price of the string quartet rises but does anyone expect that the the quality rises? Of course not. In the classic example the inputs to string quartet playing don’t change. The wages of the players rise because of productivity increases in other industries but we don’t invest any more real resources in string quartet playing and so we should not expect any increases in quality.

In just the same way, to the extent that greater spending on education, health care, or car repair is due to the rising opportunity costs of inputs we should not expect any increase in quality. (Note that increases in real resource use such as more teachers per student should result in increases in quality (and perhaps they do) but by eliminating the price increase portion of the higher spending we have eliminated a large portion of the mystery of higher spending with no increase in quality.)

Second, explanations of rising prices that focus on bad things such as monopoly power or rent seeking tend to imply that price increases should be largest when the economy is doing poorly. In contrast, the Baumol effect predicts that increases in relative prices will be largest when the economy is booming. Consider health care. From news reports you might think that health care costs have gotten more “out of control” over time. In fact, the fastest increases in health care costs were in the 1960s. The graph at left is on a ratio scale so slopes indicate rates of growth and what one sees is that the growth rate of health expenditures per person is slowing. That might seem good but remember, from the Baumol point of view, the decline in relative price growth reflects slowing growth elsewhere in the economy.

Third, holding all else equal, the only rational response to an ordinary cost increase is to substitute away from the good. But in many rising price sectors we see not only greater expenditures (driven by increased prices and inelastic demand) but also greater quantity demanded. As I showed earlier, for example, we have increased the number of doctors, nurses and teachers per capita even as prices have risen. John Cochrane correctly noted that this is puzzling but it’s a bigger puzzle for non-Baumol theories than for Baumol. For non-Baumol theories to explain increases in the quantity purchased, we need two theories. One theory to explain the increase in price (bloat/regulation etc.) and another theory to explain why, despite the increase in price, people are still purchasing more (e.g. income effect). The world is a messy place and maybe that is what is happening. But the Baumol effect offers a cleaner answer.

A Baumol increase in relative price is always accompanied by higher income so it’s much easier to explain how price increases can accompany increases in quantity as well as increases in expenditure. The Baumol story for increased purchase of medical care even as prices increase, for example, is no more mysterious than why people can take more leisure when wages increase–namely the higher wage means a higher income for any given hours and people choose to take some of this higher income in leisure. Similarly, higher productivity in say goods production increases income at any given production level and people choose to take some of this higher income in services.

Summing up, if we examine each sector–education, health care, the arts, etc.–on its own then there are always many possible explanations for why prices might be increasing. Many of these explanations have true premises–there are a lot of administrators in higher education, health care is highly regulated, lower education is government run. But, on closer inspection the arguments often don’t fit the data very well. Prices were increasing before administrators were important, health care is highly regulated but so is manufacturing, private education is also increasing in price, the arts are not highly regulated. It’s impossible to knock down each of these arguments in every industry, so there is always room for doubt. Indeed, the great difficult is that these factors often do result in higher costs and greater inefficiency but I believe those are predominantly level effects not effects that accumulate over time. Moreover, when one considers the rising price industries as a whole these explanations begin to look ad hoc. In contrast, the Baumol effect appears capable of explaining the pricing behavior of a wide variety of industries over a long period of time using a simple but powerful and unified theory.

Addendum: Other posts in this series.

The Road Ahead for America’s Colleges & Universities

We briefly cover higher education in Why Are the Prices So D*mn High? If you are interested in a longer treatment that covers many more issues I highly recommend Archibald and Feldman’s The Road Ahead for America’s Colleges & Universities. Archibald and Feldman reach the same conclusion we do with regard to dysfunction versus the cost disease:

We have offered two contending viewpoints about the drivers of college cost, and we have made a judgement between them. The dysfunction stories form the dominant narrative in public discussion, but we think it’s a story with weak foundations. Yet we agree that the status quo likely costs more than it could or perhaps should. You might notice that we mounted no defense of lazy rivers. Still, the cost consequences of true excesses probably are small. The major drivers of college costs are as follows (1) higher education is a service, and productivity growth in services lags productivity growth in goods; (2) higher education relies on highly educated service providers, and the income gap in favor of highly-educated workers has grown; and (3) higher education institutions adopt technology to meet a standard of care, even if meeting that standard pushes up cost.

In addition to discussing costs, Archibald and Feldman look at the demand for college, the role of the federal and state governments, online education, policy proposals such as free college and much more. Throughout their book they are data driven, analytic, and judicious.

Heritability of lifetime earnings

Using twenty years of earnings data on Finnish twins, we find that about 40% of the variance of women’s and little more than half of men’s lifetime labour earnings are linked to genetic factors. The contribution of the shared environment is negligible. We show that the result is robust to using alternative definitions of earnings, to adjusting for the role of education, and to measurement errors in the measure of genetic relatedness.

That is from a newly published paper by Ari Hyytinen, Pekka Ilmakunnas, Edvard Johansson, and Otto Toivanen.