The Deplorables Heuristic

Chris Dillow writes,
I was being tribal: I didn’t want to be part of a tribe that had a disproportionate number of people I despised. I was using a form of the social proof rule of thumb. I was allowing the numbers of others making their choices to guide mine. The fact that decent people tended to favour remain (with of course counter-examples on both sides) strengthened [m]y support for the cause.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

The heuristic that Dillow followed was this: he saw many Brexit supporters as racists, therefore he would not support Brexit.

On Facebook, one of my friends posted that although she wanted to attend the anti-Trump march, she was troubled by some of the positions espoused by leaders of the march. So, although I assume that she broadly sympathizes with the marchers, she was having doubts because of this particular heuristic.

For any cause, there are some supporters who are deplorable. I am sure that Chris Dillow could find some prominent Remainers for whom he has animosity, although they are not as numerable as those on the Leaver side.

I think that a heuristic that says “Do not associate with a political cause if you find a fair number of its supporters deplorable” would leave you unwilling to support any political cause.

And that might not be a bad thing.

Taking Macroeconomics Backward Through Regression

Olivier Blanchard recently wrote that there ought to be two classes of macroeconomic models.

Theory models, aimed at clarifying theoretical issues within a general equilibrium setting. Models in this class should build on a core analytical frame and have a tight theoretical structure. They should be used to think, for example, about the effects of higher required capital ratios for banks, or the effects of public debt management, or the effects of particular forms of unconventional monetary policy. The core frame should be one that is widely accepted as a starting point and that can accommodate additional distortions. In short, it should facilitate the debate among macro theorists.

Policy models, aimed at analyzing actual macroeconomic policy issues. Models in this class should fit the main characteristics of the data, including dynamics, and allow for policy analysis and counterfactuals. They should be used to think, for example, about the quantitative effects of a slowdown in China on the United States, or the effects of a US fiscal expansion on emerging markets.

In response, Simon Wren-Lewis rejoiced,

Ever since I started blogging I have written posts … to try and convince fellow macroeconomists that Structural Econometric Models (SEMs), with their ad hoc blend of theory and data fitting, were not some old fashioned dinosaur, but a perfectly viable way to do macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy.

Pointers from Mark Thoma.

For why Blanchard and Wren-Lewis are wrong, see my essay Macroeconometrics: the Science of Hubris. If the profession follows their advice, macroeconomics will be regressing in every sense of the word.

The Economist as Entrepreneur

Beatrice Cherrier comments on Esther Duflo’s AEA lecture, “The economist as plumber.”

She wanted economists to reconceive economic agents, policy-makers and bureaucrats as bounded “humans” embedded in wider power structures and cultures, and to realize that thinking goods ideas is not enough to improve the latter’s welfare. “Incentive architecture” is thus needed, and economics expertise is especially relevant because it deals with behavioral, incentive and market equilibrium issues. The recent success of (some) “nudge” has given some salience to benefits of crafting incentives carefully, for instance by fixing regulations to prevent firms from exploiting loopholes. Plumbing was also beneficial for economics as science, she continued, as it helped generate counterfactuals by randomizing on entire markets. Plumbing also shines the spotlight on issues theorists had previously ignored, like how important the default scenario is. Economics as plumbing requires a more pragmatic and experimental mindset, she concluded, as it requires them to make decision without having a full knowledge of the system to be tinkered (“tinkering” was one of the keywords of the speech).

I recommend the whole post. Pointer from Mark Thoma.

When I think of trial-and-error tinkering to try to solve a problem, I think of an entrepreneur.

In fact, we might be better off thinking of policy-oriented economists as state-backed entrepreneurs. That is, while ordinary entrepreneurs have to convince investors to back their ideas and convince customers to pay for their offerings, state-backed entrepreneurs have to convince politicians to back their ideas.

I am not very enthusiastic about state-backed entrepreneurship. I believe that the market does a more rigorous job of experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.

I am glad to see alternatives to the image of the economist as a white-coated scientist. However, I do not think it should be replaced by an image of droopy-pantsed plumber. I am afraid that a more accurate image is of an entrepreneur who is trying to short-cut the market by pitching business ideas to a political audience. And we should be cognizant that politics is an inferior arena for trying out entrepreneurial schemes.

Daniel Little on the Evolution of Disciplines

He writes,

academic disciplines are in fact highly contingent in their development, and that there is no reason to expect convergence around a single “best” version of the discipline. The history of disciplines should better be understood in analogy to the brachiation and differentiation associated with the evolution of species and sub-species over time — lots of contingency, with a consequent specialization of the intermediate results to the demands of a particular point in time. This implies that a discipline like sociology or political science could have developed very differently, with substantially different ideas about research questions and methods.

I take the view that economics evolved in the wrong direction in the United States, particularly following the second World War, as it followed down the path laid out by Paul Samuelson. Some of my thoughts on this are expressed in Specialization and Trade. More thoughts are on the way in a long essay.

Economists and Mr. Trump

Justin Wolfers writes (not Justin Fox, as I mis-typed earlier) that at the recent American Economics Association meetings,

Over three days of intense discussions, I didn’t encounter a single economist who expressed optimism that Mr. Trump’s administration would be good for the economy. The optimists were those who thought Mr. Trump would not have the energy to actually implement his agenda; the pessimists’ thoughts veered toward disaster.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

It is possible that they are correct. However, I doubt it. While I disagree with Mr. Trump on immigration and trade, and I condemn his interventions with individual business decisions, I think that these will cause relatively little harm. This harm could be more than offset by reining in regulations, replacing Obamacare, and/or tax reform.

What is true is that Mr. Trump and the professoriate have an adversarial relationship. Mr. Obama takes his world view from the faculty lounge of the sociology department, and he very much respected academic credentials. Mr. Trump is the opposite.

I think that credentialed economists deserve a bit more respect than what we receive from Mr. Trump, but much less than what many American Economics Association members seem to think we are entitled to. I think that Justin Wolfers’ colleagues are fantasizing about a scenario in which Mr. Trump causes an economic disaster so that the status of academic economists shoots up. But I do not think see this as a very likely scenario.

On the generic topic of academic expertise in government, Tyler Cowen writes,

when it comes to the nuts and bolts of governance, typically I would prefer to be ruled by the Harvard faculty, even recognizing the biases of experts. They understand the importance of applying expertise to complex problems, and they realize many issues do not respond well to common-sense fixes. The citizenry usually cannot make good decisions, or for that matter expert appointments, when technocracy is required.

I tend to focus on what I call the knowledge-power discrepancy. Joe Citizen may have less knowledge than Professor Jones, but Professor Jones could be more dangerous. That is because Professor Jones may over-estimate his suitability for telling other people what to do.

Compared with academics, business executives and military leaders have more experience with the challenge of implementing ideas. A good business executive would not take it for granted that a web site is going to work. A good general would emphasize all of the difficulties and risks of trying to shape the Middle East.

Noah Smith on Higher Education Policy

He writes,

As long as the number of available college spots remains roughly fixed, reducing the price of college will have only a very modest effect in creating broad-based economic opportunity.

My recommended solution is to focus on increasing the number of college spots available. Those could be four-year university slots, or vocational education — a mix of both would probably be best. But the key is that supply should go up.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

Of course, from an economic point of view, Smith’s point is spot on. However, the Kling Theory of Public Choice is that public policy will always choose to subsidize demand and restrict supply. That is what is most in the interest of incumbent suppliers, who are the drivers of public policy.

Another System for Doctors to Game

Thomas D. Campbell writes,

Vermont is now taking steps to address problems that can arise from this opaque system, including rising health care costs. The state will soon implement an “all-payer” health care plan that requires Medicare, Medicaid, and private payers to reimburse health providers at the same rate, based on performance and patients’ recovery.

My prediction is that if this is implemented, health care costs will be higher than they would have been otherwise. Regulatory systems are made for gaming, and the more formulaic the system, the more effective the gaming.

Protectionism Equals Charity

Russ Roberts writes,

the only way to get him his job back was to keep people from buying cars they preferred to buy elsewhere and force up the prices of those cars and have him share in that. It’s a form of charity, you just don’t see it. That’s the problem with protectionism as a way of helping those out of work workers. It’s a form of charity. And it destroys the expansion of opportunities that trade and innovation create.

Pointer from Mark Thoma. Read the entire piece.

The one element that I think that Roberts could have added is what I might call “Protectionism for me but not for thee.” Many white-collar professionals have protection in the form of occupational licensing. That’s a lot of charity for people who think of themselves as elite.

Oliver Hart on Vertical Integration

He says,

if I’m Firm A, I’m acquiring control over all the non-human assets that Firm B had, which might be machines, land, buildings, but also less physical things like patents, copyrights, existing contracts that Firm B had with other firms. The name of Firm B, all sorts of things like that.

To the extent that the initial contract was incomplete, and will always be incomplete, whatever contract we write will be incomplete. Having, owning those things now means that I can get to decide how they are used to the extent that the contract was silent about that. Whereas previously, it was the owner, Firm B, that wasn’t me, who had those rights. That’s a real change. That, we would argue, is one of the key reasons that Firm A is acquiring Firm B, to get those residual control rights.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

The whole interview is interesting. Hart shared the 2016 Nobel Prize. Of the last 10 years of Nobel Prizes, I could make a case that 6 have been awarded for the study of institutional arrangements.

2007 Hurwicz, Maskin, and Meyerson: mechanism design
2008 Krugman: agglomeration
2009 Ostrom, Williamson: governance
2012 Roth, Shapley: mechanism design
2014 Tirole: industrial organization and regulation
2016 Hart and Holmstrom

That is a notable trend, and I think it is a good one. When you focus on institutional arrangements, there is more of a tendency to say that the economist’s first challenge is to understand how things operate in the real world. A lot of other areas of focus tend to find the economist creating a hammer (a particular mathematical technique, or a model that is fun to work with) and looking around for nails in the real world that may or may not exist.

Noah Smith on Labor Supply and Demand

He writes,

What is a better theory of the labor market? Maybe general equilibrium (which might say that immigration creates its own demand). Maybe a model with imperfect competition (which might say that minimum wage reduces monopsony power). Maybe search and matching theory (which might say that frictions make all short-term effects pretty small). Maybe a theory with very heterogeneous types of labor. Maybe something else.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

This is the middle of the movie, so to speak. At the start of the movie, Smith looks at two stylized facts about the short run. One is that an immigration surge has little effect on wages. This suggests that labor demand is highly elastic. The other is that a minimum wage increase has little effect on employment. This suggests that labor demand is highly inelastic. It cannot be both.

Of course, you do have the option of denying the veracity of one or both stylized facts. But I do not want to go there. I vote for “very heterogeneous types of labor.” There is no such thing as “aggregate labor demand” in the labor market. There are patterns of specialization and trade. And these tend to be sticky, both in terms of wages and the quantity of each type of worker employed.

The “labor market diagram” makes it appear that you can have either a sticky wage or a sticky quantity of labor, but not both. Behind this (false) theorem lies the presumption that it is very easy to substitute among workers. This is an instance in which mathematical modeling serves to confound rather than help the modeler.

In fact, workers are specialized. Even relatively unskilled workers have been trained to perform their particular tasks. The substitutability that is implicit in the labor market diagram does not exist in the real world.

Labor market adjustment comes primarily from changes in the patterns of sustainable specialization and trade. Because it takes time for old patterns of trade to become unsustainable and for new sustainable patterns to form, neither wages nor quantities change as much in the short run as they do in the long run.

The effect of the minimum wage in the short run on existing firms can be small. They mostly just suck it up and pay the higher wage. However, over time, there will be a tendency for processes that use low-skilled workers to be less profitable and processes that instead use capital and high-skilled workers to be relatively more profitable. So the patterns of specialization and trade that break up will tend to be those that have been employing low-skilled workers, and the new ones that form will tend to employ fewer low-skilled workers than would have been the case otherwise.

As for immigration, what Noah calls general equilibrium I call creating new patterns of specialization and trade. There is no “lump of labor demand” that immigrants and natives are competing to fill. Firms do not say, “Oh, goody. Now I can now fire my native workers and hire immigrants for $1 an hour less.” Instead, entrepreneurs who are thinking of starting firms ask, “Where can I get the best workers for the least cost?” And in many cases immigrants are the answer. As this process plays out, my guess is that the main wage-depressing effect is on native workers just entering the labor force. But of course a lot of them have specialized skills that insulate them from competition from immigrants. So the effect on natives’ wages is limited in scope and stretched out in time.