Some Uncharitable Thoughts

Regarding Mark Thoma’s links from the other day.

1. Will Americans ever vote for a far-reaching wealth tax?–Roger Farmer.

No, but we will have one, anyway.

2. Enhance Stability by Improving Culture–William Dudley.

Look who’s talking.

3. Is mortgage credit too tight?–Calculated Risk.

Not by the standards currently set by politicians. If you tell banks you have zero tolerance policy for making type I errors (making loans that eventually default), you have to expect many type II errors (passing up good loans). Of course, 10 years ago, the political pressure was the opposite.

Surveying the War on Poverty

Michael Tanner looks at a lot of literature. His conclusion:

Looked at objectively, continuing the War on Poverty is unlikely to further reduce poverty, increase self-sufficiency, or expand economic mobility. More anti-poverty programs and more welfare spending are not the answer to continued poverty. Fifty years of failure is enough.

Of the many papers he refers to, I looked at one by Bruce D. Meyer and James X. Sullivan.

We find that consumption poverty, after adjusting for biases in price indexes, declined by 26.4 percentage points between 1960 and 2010

What they argue is that consumer prices rose less rapidly over the past 50 years than the official figures show. That means that real incomes were lower 50 years ago than the data would indicate. That in turn raises their measure of poverty fifty years ago.

I am not sure whether or not I agree. I

In any case, the poverty rate is one of the most messed-up statistics out there. You would think that poverty would be defined in absolute terms, as the ability to afford X amount of food, Y amount of medical services, Z amount of housing, etc. Instead, it is defined in relative terms, so that if you were to double everyone’s income, poverty would remain the same.

Quarantine the FDA

Robert Goldberg writes,

These companies could start producing Ebola vaccine/treatments tomorrow — except that the Food and Drug Administration’s insistence on randomized studies and endless demands for more data means firms have to spend millions on paperwork instead of producing medicines.

Try to imagine a randomized study for an ebola vaccine conducted on human beings. “We’re going to expose hundreds of people to ebola, half of whom will have been given the vaccine and half of whom will have been given a placebo.”

One idea I have is a separate agency that uses principles-based regulation instead of rules-based regulation. Companies could elect to abide by this alternative regulator and bypass he FDA.

Having said that, I am generally not in favor of taking the latest media-inflated crisis and saying that it confirms one’s political outlook. And I am not suggesting that the ebola story should be used to confirm mine.

A Thought From Marc Andreessen

He says,

what if we had Math 101 online, and what if it was well regarded and you got fully accredited and certified? What if we knew that we were going to have a million students per semester? And what if we knew that they were going to be paying $100 per student, right? What if we knew that we’d have $100 million of revenue from that course per semester? What production budget would we be willing to field in order to have that course?

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

I might push back and say that the same course is unlikely to work well for all one million students. As I have said before, the key is not so much in presenting content. It’s giving students feedback in a way that maximizes their rate of progress.

Political Order and Political Decay

That is the title of Francis Fukuyama’s latest book. I have started reading it. So far, I would summarize it as saying that government must overcome both market failure and government failure. That is, it needs to be effective at providing public goods while serving everyone equally (not succumbing to the problems of public choice). I might summarize this as follows:

Public Goods Provided Public Goods Not Provided
Treats People Equally good government weak government
Privileges Elites crony government predatory government

Think of Denmark as good government, China as crony government, Zaire under Mobutu as predatory government, and Afghanistan as weak government. I assume that “political decay” will mean the movement from good government toward either weak government or crony government.

For a review by someone who has finished the book, see Michael Barone.

Better than HBR on Two-sided Markets

Jean Tirole and Jean-Charles Rochet wrote,

The starting point for the theory of two-sided markets by contrast is that an end-user does not
internalize the welfare impact of his use of the platform on other end-users.

If Anita’s attendance at the singles bar would attract more men, then Bonnie, Christine, and Debbie should subsidize Anita’s attendance. (Similarly, Anita should want to subsidize the others.) But the transaction costs of doing this are high compared to having the singles bar do the subsidizing. On the other hand, at a brothel, the same externalities do not apply.

“Scott Alexander” on Political Tribalism

He writes,

How did both major political tribes decide, within a month of the virus becoming widely known in the States, not only exactly what their position should be but what insults they should call the other tribe for not agreeing with their position?

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

Of course, my answer to his question is in The Three Languages of Politics. What Alexander calls the “red tribe” narrative does indeed have a civilization-barbarism feel, and what he calls the h”blue tribe” narrative has an “oppressor-oppressed” feel.

Anyway, read the whole piece. Another excerpt:

Daily Kos or someone has a little label saying “supports liberal ideas”, but actually their incentive is to make liberals want to click on their pages and ads. If the quickest way to do that is by writing story after satisfying story of how dumb Republicans are, and what wonderful taste they have for being members of the Blue Tribe instead of evil mutants, then they’ll do that even if the effect on the entire system is to make Republicans hate them and by extension everything they stand for.

Note that on the issue of a quarantine of countries where Ebola has broken out, the three-axes model might predict that if Ebola had broken out among Jews in Israel instead of in West Africa, there might well have been a reversal in which tribe favored quarantine. The “conservative germophobia” theory would predict otherwise.

PSST–it’s Bananagrams

The game Bananagrams may be a good metaphor for patterns of sustainable specialization and trade. In the game, each player is dealt a bunch of tiles with letters on them, like Scrabble tiles. You play as in Scrabble, but without a board and with each player playing his or her tiles alone. You form words free-form, but they must all connect, as in Scrabble. The object is to use all of your tiles. The rules are such that as the game proceeds, you are often forced to draw a new tile before you have used all of your tiles.

Sometimes, you have most of your tiles connected, with very few “unemployed” tiles, and when you get a new tile you can quickly “employ” it, meaning that you can add it to your existing set of words. That situation would represent a high-employment economy with patterns of sustainable specialization and trade.

However, sometimes you get a new tile, or a few of them, and you realize that you cannot make use of these tiles without breaking up several of your current words and starting over. You might be down to just one or two “unemployed” tiles, but breaking up some of your words gives you many “unemployed” tiles. That situation represents an economy where patterns of specialization and trade have become unsustainable. Getting back to a high-employment situation takes time and trial-and-error, just as in Bananagrams it takes time to recover when you find that your current word pattern won’t let you use all your tiles and you need to break up some of your words and create new words.

Clarify the Connection

1. Melinda Pitts, John Robertson, and Ellyn Terry have a chart that seems to me to show that much of the decline in labor force participation in recent years can be accounted for by population aging, disability, and young people attending school.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

2. James Pethokoukis has a chart showing that the number of people on food stamps has remained really, really high.

I would interpret (1) as saying that we are in a “nothing to see here, move along” sort of labor market. Given that the unemployment rate is normal, if labor force participation is just following natural demographic trends, then the economy is pretty much ok.

I would interpret (2) as saying that there is something to see here. With unemployment down, we should be seeing people fall off the food stamp rolls.

Are senior citizens, people on disability, and young students going on food stamps in droves? Are people who are still in the labor force and working staying on food stamps in droves?

I am not trying to make a point. I genuinely do not know how to connect these dots in the data. For those of you who follow algebra, we have

FS = food stamp recipients
POP = total population
UNEMP = employedunemployed
LF = Labor force

Then FS/POP = (LF/POP)(UNEMP/LF)(FS/UNEMP). We know that FS/POP is unexpectedly high, but LF/POP is low, and UNEMP/LF has come down. So FS/UNEMP must be quite high, right?

Clarify the Counterfactual

Neil Shah of the WSJ writes,

If Census were to exclude Social Security benefits from income, the poverty rate for American seniors would jump from 14.6% to a whopping 52.6%—roughly 23.4 million people.

Consider three counterfactuals.

1. The government makes a sudden, surprising decision to renege on promised SS benefits.
2. The government tells all young people that SS is abolished for them, and they are on their own in terms of planning for their retirement.

The analysis of the Census data tells you what is probable under (1), but that is not a terribly interesting scenario for policy purposes. The interesting policy scenario is (2). In that case, when the hypothetical young people retire, their poverty rate could be either higher or lower than under SS, depending on how much they save and how well they invest that money.