Brad DeLong on the Public Sector vs. the Private Sector

He writes,

Now we know that as bad as market failures can be, government failures can be worse. We badly need new effective institutional forms. But the decreasing salience of “Smithian” commodities in the twenty-first century means that rational governance would expect the private-market sphere to shrink relative to the public.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

I think of Brad DeLong as a Jekyll-Hyde character. The bad Brad DeLong snarks and snarls. The good Brad DeLong is insightful. This post is the good Brad DeLong. Read the whole thing. I am only commenting on part of it now. I would like to comment more on his discussion of the risk premium, but I think I need to see a longer, less hurried version of it.

In the quoted passage, his point is that as the share of the economy that produces stuff decreases and the share that provides health care, education, and information increases, we will see more informational asymmetries and externalities. This might mean that we need an expansion of existing government. However, when I think of “new institutional forms,” I think of the organizations of civil society and entrepreneurs.

Recall that Tyler and Alex see informational asymmetry being conquered by the Internet and entrepreneurs who make use of it. Recall also my comments on reputation systems as regulators.

Recall also my catch-phrase: Markets fail. Use markets.

Kling’s Three Laws

First, Tyler Cowen writes.

Cowen’s First Law: There is something wrong with everything (by which I mean there are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it).

His other two laws are at the link.

Below are Kling’s three laws, but note that they come from Merle Kling, my late father, who taught political science at Washington University in the 1950s and 1960s. He called them the three iron laws of social science.

1. Sometimes it’s this way, and sometimes it’s that way.

2. The data are insufficient.

3. The methodology is flawed.

I do not claim to have three laws, although I think I could endorse both Tyler Cowen’s and Merle Kling’s. I am willing to stick up for the Null Hypothesis, although it is a hypothesis and not a law.

Relate this to Tobin’s q

Justin Fox reported,

>Ocean Tomo calculates intangible assets simply “by subtracting the tangible book value from the market capitalization of a given company or index,” so the rise in intangibles since the 1970s is in part just a reflection of rising stock market valuations. But that’s not all it is: the cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratio on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has risen about 2 1/2 times since 1975, while the intangibles increase has been almost fivefold.

Tobin’s q is the ratio of the stock price to the replacement cost of capital. I am tempted to write:

q = P/K = (P/E)(E/K), where P is the stock price, E is earnings, and K is capital.

As Fox points out, a fair amount of the rise in q since the late 1970s comes from a higher P/E ratio. But I gather that if you think of K as tangible capital, then E/K also has soared.

Fox’s piece was mentioned in Scott Sumner’s discussion of what I called the fifth force. But Robin Hanson got me to take a look.

I would note that intangibles in the economy include not just firm-specific intangibles but also general intangibles that lead to better patterns of specialization and trade. Institutional improvements in India and China, as well as lower transportation and communication costs, come to mind.

Tyler Cowen has much more, including a hypothesis that accounting issues are involved.

Another Thiel Theme: Short Globalization

In his conversation with Tyler Cowen, this theme was not as pervasive as contrarianism, but I found it more interesting and more provocative. Thiel’s view is that globalization has peaked. Therefore, companies and cities that are tied closely to globalization will decline relative to companies and cities that are less outward looking. So Texas will do better than Virginia, because Texas is focused on its own domestic production, while Virginia’s strength (I would say this only about Northern Virginia, by the way) is its military and diplomatic connections overseas.

Think about the notion “globalization has peaked” from a PSST perspective. Economic activity consists of patterns of sustainable specialization and trade. Globalization means that new patterns are being created across countries more rapidly than within countries. What would drive that differential, and what would slow it down?

Think of the benefit of a new pattern coming from comparative advantage and specialization. The cost is the fixed cost of setting up the pattern. Compared with setting up a local pattern, setting up an international pattern will tend to have higher fixed cost but with a larger subsequent benefit.

One possibility is that the cost of setting international patterns fell as China and India allowed their economic institutions to conform more readily to U.S. standards. However, over time, as China and India climb their way into the middle class, international comparative advantage is being reduced. There was an infamous paper by Samuelson that envisioned such a scenario. (It was perhaps his last academic publication, and it was not well received, because he seemed to disparage free trade.)

Another possibility is that the “low-hanging fruit” of reasonably low fixed cost international setups has been picked. Manufacturing and call centers can be moved offshore at moderate cost. With the New Commanding Heights industries of education and health care, it is much more difficult.

Another possibility is that globalization has not peaked.

One Peter Thiel Theme: Nonconformity

Tyler Cowen links to his conversation with Peter Thiel. I listened to the YouTube version.

If there is one constant theme, it is Thiel’s support for nonconformity or contrarianism. If you start a business, try to make it so original that it is a monopoly. If you want to start a non-profit, make it for an unpopular cause. Try to value substance over status, meaning you worry about being true to yourself, not about obtaining broad approval and support. The independent truth-seeking scientist is the opposite of the popular truth-bending politician.

Still, he wants contrarians, not misanthropes. Contrarians who can work in teams. I would add, and I imagine he would agree, that contrarians need to be particularly selective about who they team up with.

Online Self-Education: The Bigger, Closer Library

When I was in college, I sometimes went to the library just to browse and learn. I might pick a book or journal off the shelf, read something, see a reference to something else, go read that, and so on.

From that sort of self-education perspective, the Internet is like that college library, only bigger and closer. I don’t have to go to the library–I just turn on my laptop or tablet. The contents are not confined by shelf space or budget. As an aside, there is multimedia (YouTube). Also, much more frequent updating.

One downside of the bigger, closer library is that it has many distractions. In college, the only competition for my attention was the sports section of the newspaper and the occasional girl I wanted to chat up. To play a game or get entertainment I had to go somewhere else. Now, the distractions are right in the library.

The bigger, closer library has to be an enormous boon to what Tyler Cowen calls infovores, particularly those for whom a traditional library was out of reach.

The question I have is how school as we know it relates to the bigger, closer library. Possibilities:

1. They are complements. You use the bigger, closer library more efficiently because of what takes place in school.

2. They are substitutes. Time you spend in school courses is wasted–you would be better off spending time in the bigger, closer library. But when you are distracted in the bigger, closer library, you would have been better off in school.

3. Schooling is not about learning. It is about socialization. Schools are in the process of shifting their focus to socialization, with the responsibility for learning shifting to the student and to the bigger, closer library.

On point (1), think of learning as requiring motivation, feedback, and content. The library has the content, but you have to be motivated to use it and you need feedback to know whether you are using it well. Perhaps right now the classroom provides better motivation and feedback.

However, I expect within a few years to see feedback systems on phones and tablets that are at least competitive with the feedback process that occurs in a classroom. At that point, the only contribution that classroom time can make is to help with motivation–teachers motivating students and students motivating one another.

My Talk on the Four Forces and Inspiration to Quality Comments

First, the inspiration part.

Organizers say it will almost certainly be the first paper at the prestigious Brookings Papers on Economic Activity that was commissioned based on a blog comment. It is also a rare honor for a graduate student to present a sole-authored paper there; a quick scan of Brookings records shows a similar appearance by the now-renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs when he was a doctoral student in 1979.

“It’s made Matt famous,” said Tyler Cowen, the George Mason University economist who runs the Marginal Revolution blog, and who elevated Rognlie’s comment into a standalone post on his site. “It was brilliantly reasoned and right on target. And very elegant.”

More links here. Even more from Timothy Taylor.

Note that it should inspire high-quality comments, not quantity or snark.

The topic is inequality, which leads to a summary of my talk.

In 1965, the St. Louis Cardinals played their home games in Sportsman’s Park (aka Busch Stadium I). The most expensive seat in the ballpark, a box seat, cost $3.50. A blue-collar worker, who earned about $2 an hour at the time, could treat a family of four to a game in these most expensive seats for less than one day’s pay.

These days, the Cards play at the new stadium, Busch Stadium III. A typical blue-collar worker makes something like $20 an hour The cheapest seat in the stadium still costs less than an hour’s pay. But the most expensive seats cost somewhere north of $800. It would take a month for a blue collar worker to earn enough to treat a family of four to the best seats in the ballpark.

In fact, most seats at the new ballpark are out of reach of blue-collar workers. Why is this? Are the new owners more greedy than Augie Busch, who gave tickets away cheap because he was a nice guy? I think not.

The new owners charge high prices for most seats because nowadays they can. In 1965, the top third and the bottom third of the earnings distribution were not that far apart, so that if you charged prices way above what a blue-collar worker could afford, you would have had mostly empty seats. Today, the top third provide a cadre of highly affluent customers.

In 1965, if you were in the top third and went to a baseball game, chances are that there were people sitting nearby from the bottom third Today, the top third and the bottom third are not sitting in the same part of the ballpark.

I think that the explanation for this comes from the four forces.

1. The New Commanding Heights, which means that over the past 100 years more of the increase in total wealth has been spent on education and health care than on manufactured goods. This trend has become most noticeable in the last thirty years. It means that earnings are no longer split between corporate shareholders and a nearly-homogeneous work force. They are split between high-skilled professionals and low-skilled support staff.

2. Bifurcated marriage patterns. Fifty years ago, one often found a marriage between someone who originated in the top third of the distribution and someone who originated in the bottom third. Since the 1960s, that has become rare. That creates the Coming Apart phenomenon documented by Charles Murray and re-documented by Robert Putnam.

3. Factor-price equalization exacerbates the competitive pressure on low-skilled workers.

4. Moore’s Law means that when computers are able to do a task as well as humans, they soon surpass humans.

Policy interventions to try to stop these four forces or reverse their effects are likely to be futile. The future will be some combination of the Diamond Age scenario (everyone’s basic needs satisfied, with an upper class of Vickys enjoying handmade luxury goods) and a Beyond Therapy scenario, with everyone enhanced by genetic engineering, implants, and drugs.

Megan McArdle on Bifurcated Family Patterns

She writes,

Could this be genetic? you ask. People who have impulse-control problems might be more likely to divorce and pass those traits on to their kids. Partially, sure. But two evidence points argue against genetic determinism. First, similar, although less severe, patterns show up in the case of kids who lose one parent, which is mostly not going to be due to homicide. And second, if this is genetic, how come it has changed over time? Have we all gotten genetically less able to stay out of jail or sustain a long-term marriage?

We know that children of single-parent households have worse outcomes than children of two-parent households. To simplify, let us say that there are favorable family patterns and unfavorable family patterns.

First question: how much of this is causal?

It could be that an inability to do well on the marshmallow test causes you to be less likely to raise children in a favorable family pattern and also more likely to pass on to your children genes that cause them to be unable to do well on the marshmallow test. That is how genetics could account for the relationship between family patterns and child outcomes.

Megan asks, what has changed over time? It could be two things. First, nowadays it may be that you have to be much better at the marshmallow test to sustain a favorable family pattern. Second, it may that we have gone through two or three generations of increasingly assortive mating.

Until 1965, a man who was in the top third on the marshmallow test might very well have been married to a woman in the bottom third, and conversely. For one thing, the top third and the bottom third were not that far apart. For another, the signals of being able to do well on the marshmallow test were not as clear (college education was too rare to be a reliable signal, particularly among women). Finally, men and women cared more about separate respective roles (breadwinner and homemaker) than about common abilities in the marshmallow test.

But in the 1960s that began to change. So you get one generation of assortive mating, and for the children of these marriages the difference between the top third and the bottom third on the marshmallow test starts to widen. Then they grow up, engage in assortive mating, have children, and difference widens once more. And so on.

But suppose we assume that there is a strong causal relationship between bad family patterns and bad outcomes. That leads to our

Second question: what can policy makers do to improve family patterns?

If anti-poverty programs are the solution, then why has the problem been getting worse? The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (pointer from Mark Thoma) will tell you that anti-poverty programs are working to keep people out of poverty. So why are we not seeing more family stability? (Ross Douthat makes related points. Pointer from Tyler Cowen.)

Of course, there is a hypothesis, going back to Moynihan’s analysis, that anti-poverty programs are the problem, rather than the solution, because on the margin they reduce incentives to marry. I am skeptical about that, but as you know I am all for replacing current means-tested programs with a universal benefit that has a low implicit marginal tax rate. The idea is to reduce the adverse incentives that presently exist.

Megan, like Charles Murray, would like to see elites proclaim the benefits of good family patterns. I am skeptical of that, also.

My guess is that family patterns are not amenable to public policy interventions.

What I’m Reading

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I think I mentioned this the other day. Harari argues that in prehistorical times humans were responsible for the extinction of many large species. I was reminded of this today when Tyler Cowen pointed to a piece on the relatively recent extinction of woolly mammoths on a large island. The story says,

Archaeological evidence suggests that humans reached Wrangel Island at roughly the same time the last mammoths vanished, but there’s no evidence yet to indicate that they ever hunted the mammoths. The more likely answer is climate change, which as a side effect might well have made it easier for humans to reach the island to serve as witnesses to the mammoths’ final days.

Harari points out that humans do not have to hunt creatures in order to cause their extinction. For example, humans could disrupt food sources.

I am only part way through the book. My ultimate evaluation may not be favorable.

The Age of Creative Ambiguity

Tyler Cowen writes,

File under “The End of Creative Ambiguity.” That file is growing larger all the time.

What is Creative Ambiguity? I would define it as the attempt by policy makers to ignore trade-offs and to deny the need to make hard choices. Consider the Fed’s balance sheet. One hard choice might be to sell its gigantic portfolio of bonds and mortgage-backed securities. That would depress the prices of those assets and make it harder for the government to borrow and to provide mortgage loans. The other hard choice might be to provide whatever support is necessary to enable the government to borrow and to provide mortgage loans, even if it means printing enough money to risk hyperinflation. Creative ambiguity means convincing investors that neither hard choice will be necessary. Perhaps that is even true.

However, if the Fed’s hard choices are to be avoided, then at some point the government must get its fiscal house in order. That is where the real creative ambiguity comes in. See Lenders and Spenders.