best book

Oscar odds

There is more betting on the Oscars than ever before. Variety magazine reports that on-line betting on the Oscars has grown 300% over the last three years. The U.K. site Betonsports.com has led the way and expects more than one million dollars worth of Oscar wagers this year. The most heavily wagered category, surprisingly, usually is “Best Director.” Presumably there is too much agreement about what movie will win Best Picture in a given year. Here is one set of odds, not surprisingly Lord of the Rings is a favorite for best picture and director. Sean Penn (Mystic River) and Charlize Theron (Monster) are favored to win leading actor and actress respectively.

Why Ed Sullivan is important

This coming Sunday marks the fortieth anniversary of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. We look back on Sullivan as an antiquated, somewhat quaint relic of a bygone era. In reality he was a daring market entrepreneur who promoted important music and broke down racial barriers.

Sullivan was especially important for his advocacy of African-American music and entertainment. He helped Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Ethel Waters, Nat “King” Cole, Leontine Price, Louis Armstrong, George Kirby, Duke Ellington, Richie Havens, Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Marvin Gaye, among others. At the time the major networks typically shied away from carrying such performers, primarily for racial reasons. Sullivan consistently fought with his conservative sponsors and insisted on booking these individuals.

Sullivan was a musical visionary more generally. In addition to the Beatles, he promoted The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, and Barbra Streisand. In comedy he showcased Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and Jerry Lewis, among many others. In each case the performers had not yet established their later significance.

Sullivan’s show, of course, was an institution. At its peak it regularly commanded an audience of over 50 million Americans and it ran for 23 years. Here’s a hat tip to Sullivan, who exemplified the best of entrepreneurship and cosmopolitan vision.

A famous economist paints

Here are some paintings by economist William Baumol. Baumol has done much notable work, my personal favorite is his recent The Free-Market Innovation Machine on how oligopolistic competition drove the innovation behind the Industrial Revolution. Unlike many others, Baumol has never called it quits. He is still going strong at 81 years of age and producing some of his best work.

Thanks to Greg Delemeester for the pointer.

A readable treatment of current macroeconomics

Is there a new consensus about macroeconomics? Read this recent essay by Perry Mehrling.

Mehrling makes the following points:

1. Macroeconomists are more optimistic than before, in part due to the 1990s extended, low-inflation boom.

2. Monetary policy has replaced fiscal policy as the preferred instrument of stabilization.

3. The current consensus would look remarkably familiar to many of the pre-Keynesian monetary theorists, such as Ralph Hawtrey.

4. The more concerned we are with price stabilization, the more our economies take on properties of commodity money standards. Money is moving again toward the notion of a “promise to pay.”

Read the whole article for a stimulating treatment of further critical issues. If you would like a more technical and theoretical treatment, for macro nerds only, try Michael Woodford’s recent Interest and Prices: Foundations of a Theory of Monetary Policy. Fans of Wicksell (notice the title) and the conundrums of Fischer Black will enjoy Woodford’s work, which reexamines the central assumptions of monetary theory. Think of the book as the 21st century version of Don Patinkin’s Money, Interest, and Prices. And what are we told in practical terms? The price level is best controlled through interest rate policy.

Thanks to Daniel Davies for the pointer to Mehrling’s home page.

Why 99 cents per song?

Apple’s iTunes charges 99 cents for every song downloaded. Why? Is Outkast’s “Hey Ya” really worth no more than a creaky Pat Boone ballad?

Some artists object to this “one price fits all” model. A star may feel it cheapens the value of her wares, or that she simply deserves a higher return.

An alternative business model asks users to donate to the artist, depending how much they like the song. For one service, you can pay as little as $5 but it is suggested that you pay more. The average payment is running at $8.93, though this is a small and self-selected group using the service. In any case not all songs go for the same final price. The service is called Magnatune: We Are Not Evil, check out their web site.

Yet another idea would use an auction system. Listeners could bid for song downloads, with the price determined periodically by supply and demand. We would then expect the songs in highest demand to bring the highest price. Note also that when bands sell their concert recordings on-line, they don’t generally all charge the same prices.

Alternatively, songs may be like books. You charge a low price at first, to stimulate a snowball of fan demand. Bestsellers sell for less, per page, than academic books. (Imagine a professor boasting “Stephen King’s books sell for a mere $6.99; my books sell for a royal $75 a piece.”) In this case the supplier would flood the downloads market with copies, so that the price of the more popular song would be less, not more, despite higher demand.

Different movies sell for the same prices. Either Return of the King or the latest bomb both go for $8.50 at the same theater. This practice has long puzzled me. Perhaps the low price satisfies a fairness constraint, and also helps generate a snowball of fan demand, as with books. It might make more sense to expand the number of screens for the movie rather than raise the price. And hit movies pull people into movie theaters more generally, which spills over into demand for other movies.

The big change may come when downloads are used as advertising. Pepsi is expected to give away up to one million downloaded songs, through iTunes, in connection with the Super Bowl. Coca-Cola may be entering the market as well. Keep in mind that the recorded music industry is small in size relative to corporate advertising budgets. Perhaps corporations will become patrons of music, giving away songs wrapped in an advertisement.

The bottom line: iTunes is just one business model, and it has yet to prove itself. Apple is making money off the hardware, not the songs. Returns will plummet once the hardware business becomes more competitive. It remains to be seen how the downloads market will evolve, but do not expect a mere extrapolation of current trends.

The New Financial Order

Like John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman before him, Robert Shiller is that rare economist who uses economic theory to design new and better ways of doing things. I highly recommend his book, The New Financial Order. (Indeed, I hope that Shiller will one day receive a Nobel prize for his work in economic design.) For some time, I’ve also been wanting to recommend The Atlantic magazine. This month’s issue is superb and includes the best piece on the state of the American economy that I have read (the link will take you to the online version but the magazine itself contains a number of useful charts and much else – buy it!). From that piece comes this quote on Shiller’s work:

A more radical variation on this concept comes from Robert Shiller, an economist at Yale, who believes that continuing financial-market innovations may soon enable private insurers to offer “livelihood insurance” that could protect workers from potential declines in their occupations (though not against an individual worker’s underperformance within a flourishing field). Similar products might insure against the eventual devaluation of specific academic degrees in the United States (such as those in software engineering or Russian language), or even against declines in the performance of the U.S. economy as a whole, relative to the rest of the world. (As Shiller notes, the fact that the past century was a good one for America does not necessarily mean that the next one will be.) Collectively, these products might lessen the large and arguably increasing risks inherent in the U.S. capitalist system.

These are bold ideas; it may be hard at first to wrap one’s mind around them. And it is perhaps ironic that financial markets–which are regarded by many people as amoral if not immoral–might ultimately solve some of the problems that socialist and utopian thinkers have been trying for centuries to address. But as improbable as livelihood insurance may sound, advances in data collection, data analysis, and financial-risk theory are lowering the technical barriers to such a system. Government action could help the creation of livelihood insurance on a large scale. Part of the government’s role would be technical–for instance setting the standards for the collection and sharing of personal income data that are necessary if livelihood insurance is to work. But two equally important tasks would be the articulation of a new vision of society–one where people are protected against the unexpected shocks that accompany rapid economic change–and the promotion of financial-services products that can sustain that vision. Without large markets covering a wide range of occupations, carriers offering livelihood insurance might have difficulty hedging their risk sufficiently.

Addendum: Robert Shiller’s homepage has lots of useful information.

Hayek and the Reconstruction of Germany

At first, the U.S. POW camps for captured Germans were dominated by Nazi’s who threatened and even killed anti-Nazi “traitors.” But as American thoughts turned to the post World-War II era the camps were cleaned up and a reeducation plan was begun. In other countries, this might have been a euphemism for torture and forced labor but in the U.S. camps it meant libraries filled with books that the Nazi’s had banned and open discussion sessions led by professors from Harvard, Brown, Cornell and elsewhere. The story is told in The Washington Post Magazine article, Learning Freedom in Captivity.

Here is one interesting quote:

By mid-1944, new leadership had been installed at Concordia and many of the worst Nazis had been removed. Concordia’s canteens and library were filled with books that had been banned by the Nazis. Treichl read and reread the American bestseller The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, which detailed the flaws in socialism and contrasted it with democracy.

Treichl went on to become head of Austria’s largest bank and honorary president of the Austrian Red Cross. To this day he has kept his beloved copy of The Road To Serfdom.

I find this story heart-warming and a fascinating tidbit of history but it also troubles me. What are we to make of a reeducation camp with The Road to Serfdom as text? Clearly, we cannot dismiss such a thing as a contradiction in terms because apparently it did some good. More broadly, Hayek warns against the hubris of social engineering – yet what was the post WWII reconstruction of Germany and Japan but social engineering on a grand scale? How do these lessons apply to Iraq? Could we fail in Iraq precisely because we do not have the power to reeducate?

Marriage Mathematics and Political Change

John Gottman has spent decades studying how married couples interact. His most striking finding is the tendency of couples at risk of divorce to have markedly different interaction styles. His recent book, The Mathematics of Marriage, summarizes his observations of married couples and presents a parsimonious model of marriage (see here for Slate’s review). The highlight of the research is that couples where the dominant mode of interaction includes criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling are very, very likely to divorce. Successful marriages involve a great deal of mending and reworking of the relationship. The mathematics links some theories about emotions and interaction to this observed pattern.

What I find interesting is the implication for thinking about politics. Let’s assume that political order is a sort of “marriage” between state and citizen. At least from the perspective of the citizen, it’s a relationship that can be broken, if warranted. This is a premise of many normative theories of revolution – the citizens have a right to a new government if they feel the written and unwritten rules have been violated. Unfortunately, what we know about exactly how this happens – moving to abandon the social contract – is sketchy at best, although political scientists and sociologists have a hunch that it involves some combination of repression of the population and a de-legitimizing of the government, which itself might have multiple causes.

Gottman’s approach to studying relationships offers a useful way to think about these issues. Gottman’s point is that there may be varying sources of the emotions that destroy marriages, but the road to divorce usually starts in the same place – once spouses have learned certain interaction strategies, they create hard to change feedback loops. Similarly, governments and populations that learn certain strategies for interacting with each other probably set up hard to break cycles leading to long term stability or perpetual crisis. The nice thing about Gottman’s analysis of marriage is that the math predicts stability or decline, and not much in between – a non-trivial prediction. The same prediction for states is that states tend to be on a tough to change road to constant crisis (like in Africa and the Middle East) or stability (like in the US). Switches from one path to the other should be infrequent and difficult, which seems to describe the world pretty well.

Is it better to be a small nation?

Of the ten richest countries in the world in terms of GDP per head, only two have more than 5m people: the United States…and Switzerland, with 7m. A further two have populations over 1m: Norway, with 4m and Singapore, with 3m. The remaining half-dozen have fewer than 1m people.

The Size of Nations, a new book by Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore, addresses why some small countries have done so well. Here is a related working paper by Alesina, here are some related working papers by Spolaore. As some of the larger empires of the past break up, questions of national size increase in importance. More than half the world’s countries have fewer than six million people, roughly the population of the state of Massachusetts.

The Economist offers the following summary:

The book argues that the best size for countries is the result of a trade-off between the benefits of scale and the costs of heterogeneity; and that openness to trade alters this trade-off. The gains from being big are considerable. Large countries can afford proportionately smaller government (although they often don’t). Essential running costs can be spread over many taxpayers. Embassies, armies and road networks are all likely to cost less per head in populous countries. Defence in particular is cheaper for giants. “It is only safe to be small in a peaceful world,” say the authors (who, unusually for economists, offer two stimulating chapters on conflict, war and the size of nations).

Large countries are able not only to spend more efficiently; they can also raise taxes in more cost-effective ways. Income taxes are more efficient than customs duties, but require a bigger initial bureaucracy. Large countries have bigger internal markets, allowing more specialisation and returns to scale. And they can redistribute resources geographically, providing insurance when one part of the country is hit by disaster or recession and shifting income from rich regions to poor ones.

So why don’t all countries merge into one large superstate? Well, smallness has its benefits too:

…large countries are also likely to have a diverse population whose varying preferences and demands a government may find hard to meet: America, Brazil and India are cases in point. A study of local government in the United States suggests that Americans are willing to put up with the higher running costs of small municipalities and school districts in exchange for living in communities with little variation in income, race or ethnicity. This could imply that people also prefer to live in more homogeneous countries. With the main exception of America, successful big countries (such as Japan) have relatively homogeneous populations.

The authors argue that a worldwide regime of free trade will make the optimal size of nations smaller. If you can trade with other nations, there is no need to be large to ensure an open internal marketplace. So rising globalization should make secession easier to endure, which indeed seems to be the case.

My take: I am less convinced of the benefits of smallness. Think of small countries as having greater scope for experimentation, and thus a higher variance of outcomes. They also pop in and out of existence at a higher rate. Brazil will always be Brazil, but the fortunes of Croatia have varied over the years. If we look at the small countries that continue to exist, there is positive selection bias. We should expect them to do better than average, as the failures disappear, unlike with the less politically fluid larger countries. The observed superior performance of small countries does not mean that ex ante you should prefer to live in San Marino. In a small country, you face some very real chance that your system will fail, and that you will cease to exist, possibly under unfavorable terms. Especially if you are risk-averse, there is much to be said for the security of living in a larger nation.

Who buys fiction?

“More than 60 percent of fiction is bought by women and most of that by women aged between 35 and 55”, according to John Baker of Publishers Weekly, here is the link. Men don’t read fiction that much. Please write me if you have a good explanation for this fact in terms of evolutionary biology.

If you are curious, here are bestseller lists for the century, here is a New York Times bestseller list for right now, The Da Vinci Code remains number one, number five is Shepherds Abiding, described by Amazon in the following manner:

Karon [the author] works more homespun magic with this latest uplifting story set in sleepy Mitford, N.C. Father Timothy Kavanagh, stalwart of the Mitford series, is approaching 70 when he comes across pieces of an old English nativity scene at his friend Andrew Gregory’s antique shop. The set has definitely seen better days, and Andrew is hoping that someone will volunteer to restore it. Who better than Father Tim, who seems to have reached a turning point in his life and needs a project to distract him? Inspired by memories of a manger from his childhood that was destroyed in a rainstorm, Father Tim, after much deliberation, takes up the cause, planning to surprise his artist wife, Cynthia…The author’s warm spirituality and vibrant holiday spirit make this heartwarming eighth series entry a welcome one.

No, men are not buying this book in large numbers.

I am always amazed how strongly demographics predict our patterns of cultural consumption. People typically think that their cultural choices reflect their free will and their determination to construct their own identity. But when push comes to shove, it is young people who buy (or download) most of the music, see most of the movies, and middle-aged women who read most of the fiction. If you have a smart 19-year-old girl, who goes to Brown, I bet she doesn’t like heavy metal, but will have sympathies for Tori Amos and REM. And education and “social class” predict cultural taste better than does income.

The first linked piece also details just how hard it is to make a living writing fiction. You can have a few hit books, with reasonably large advances, but unless they are huge you might net no more than $20,000 a year. Yet overall incomes are rising. I predict that having an upper-middle class spouse, or richer, will prove the key to making it as a writer in the future.

Thanks to the ever-excellent www.2blowhards.com for the pointer to the first link.

Glenn Hubbard’s consistency test

Glenn Hubbard (registration required), in a Financial Times review of Robert Rubin’s new book, throws down the gauntlet. You might recall that Hubbard was one of the architects of Bush’s dividend tax cut plan.

Hubbard argues that deficit-cutting is motivated by the view that lower real interest rates will stimulate private investment. But then private investment must be sensitive to price incentives, and a tax cut on investment returns should stimulate investment as well. He describes Rubin (and others) as believing in an asymmetric response, whereby investment is interest-sensitive but not tax-sensitive. Either investment is price-sensitive or it is not, and we should hold a consistent attitude for either lower interest rates and lower tax rates.

My take: Hubbard is right. We should not hastily conclude, however, that a tax cut on dividends was the best way to go. Dividends transfer money from one pot to another, and this is distinct from constituting a real net rate of return. I would sooner have cut and reformed the corporate income tax. In the meantime, however, let us all apply this consistency test to ourselves, are you listening deficit hawks?

Christmas gifts

OK, the end of the year is approaching, here are my “best of” lists:

1. Classical music CD: Bach, St. Matthew’s Passion, conducted by Paul McCreesh. As good a recording as you will find, and this is arguably the best piece of music ever. One voice to a part, as they did it in Bach’s day, but never stale or musty.

2. Popular music CD: Outkast, Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Starts at hip-hop but spans the entire musical map, from an immensely talented duo.

3. Book, fiction: J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello. The finest novel yet by this year’s Nobel Laureate in literature, deep and philosophical, but also a great read.

4. Book, non-fiction: Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Games. Baseball puts me to sleep, this book is actually about human irrationality and performance. Everyone should read it.

5. DVD: Jean-Luc Godard, Band of Outsiders. OK, so he was (is?) a commie. Still, he understands the power of cinema in a way that few other directors do. The screen sparkles in every frame, the release is of course by Criterion.

And if you really want to go on a shopping spree, here is an article about notable art masterpieces still in private hands. I would recommend the Pollock at $50 million, except that the owner is not selling at that price.

Roosevelt and the Great Depression

I was amused to see Conrad Black writing with shock:

Jim Powell of the Cato Institute (cited approvingly in a recent column by Robert L. Bartley) argues in a new book that FDR actually prolonged the Depression!

Of course, Powell is correct. Imagine, increasing the power of unions to strike and raise wages during a time of mass strikes and mass unemployment. Imagine thinking that cartelizing whole industries thereby raising prices and reducing output could improve the economy. Not everything Roosevelt did was counterproductive – he did end prohibition (although in order to raise taxes) – but plenty was and worst of all was the uncertainty created by Roosevelt’s vicious attacks on business. (See, for example, the work of Bob Higgs especially this important paper and historian Gary Dean Best’s overlooked classic Pride, Prejudice and Politics.) Business investment failed to recover because business people legitimately feared a regime change like that which had occured in Germany and Italy. Sound extreme? Roosevelt himself threatened/promised this in his first inaugural:

…if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good… I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems….in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for… the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.

Has Google peaked?

The economic theory of adverse selection suggests that we should be suspicious when companies go public. Here is a summary of some research on the topic. If your big idea has such a stunning future, why let other people in on the action?

Google.com will be going public, and John Gapper at The Financial Times has his doubts. Are they trying to cash out at their peak? Here is part of his critique:

The more pertinent question is whether its business model will retain the lead. To start with, it can no longer rely on others failing to grasp the importance of search. Algorithmic search engines are tough to design and maintain but others such as Teoma, owned by Ask Jeeves, and Yahoo’s Inktomi are catching up.

So is Microsoft, which is developing an algorithmic search engine that may be launched by spring next year – the likely time of Google’s IPO. By 2006, it will be bundled into the next generation of Windows – Microsoft’s usual tactic when faced with superior technology owned by others.

The biggest uncertainty is whether its focus on internet searches to the exclusion of anything else will remain the best strategy. Although it has clearly been popular so far – Google performs 200m searches a day and is responsible for an estimated 75 per cent of all referrals to websites – it could become an Achilles’ heel. It means that Google has no unique content, and no long-term customer relationship with the individuals who use its technology; it is only as good as its last search. That contrasts with sites that have their own databases and customer networks, such as Yahoo, with its 100m registered users, or Amazon, which holds a mass of data about the products that it sells.

The difficulty for Google will come as rivals combine search with other resources in ways that it will find hard to match. The launch of Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book”, which allows customers to search pages on its database for references and information, is one example of how search technology can be applied to data within internet sites.

Yahoo is augmenting internet search with its own information. Its Yahoo Shopping service not only allows users to search for the cheapest outlet for different models of digital cameras but also combines the results with its own guide to buying cameras, and with user reviews. Google’s own shopping service, known as Froogle, also displays the cheapest prices but looks flat by comparison.

My take: I’m not buying any shares. My understanding of the technical issues is weak. But I understand the theory of adverse selection pretty well.

More on placebos

Alex, in his blog post from earlier today, makes a good point about placebos. Sometimes the patient is getting better anyway, and we should not attribute this effect to a placebo.

Note, however, that the best-known “anti-placebo” study is not as strong as is commonly believed. It relies heavily on a meta-analysis of other studies. Placebos appear to be effective in relieving the sufferer of pain, if nothing else. And placebos appear more effective when the ailment is continuous rather than discrete. Furthermore it is unclear how many people in the so-called no-treatment groups in fact received no treatment at all.

Here is a defense of the placebo effect. Placebos also have measurable effects in the brain, comparable to those of drugs, though weaker or less persistent.

Robert Ehrlich’s Eight Preposterous Propositions offers a very good survey of the placebo debates. His conclusion:

In summary, the [critical] study may have shown that the placebo is not as powerful as some observers would believe, but it certainly is far from powerless.

By the way, did you know that people can become addicted to placebos, or suffer from harmful “side effects”? I’ll try to write more on “nocebos,” or negative placebos, soon, at least provided that my mental attitude holds up.