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On January 30th of this year, one of the arms of the BBC reported a row at Sheffield University about an economics exam question. The offending exam question is reproduced below. Is the question, as one student suggested, indistinguishable from Chinese?

Consider a country with many cities and assume there are N > 0 people in each city. Output per person is \sigma N^{0.5} and there is a coordination cost per person of \gamma N^2. Assume that \sigma > 0 and \gamma > 0.

a) What sort of things does the coordination cost term \gamma N^2 represent? Why does it make sense that the exponent on N is greater than 1?

b) Draw a graph of per-capita consumption as a function of N and derive the optimal city size N. How does it depend on the parameters \sigma and \gamma? Provide intuition for your answers.

c) Describe which combination of \sigma and \gamma generate a peasant economy, meaning an economy with no cities (or 1-person cities). Why might the values of the parameters \sigma and \gamma have changed over time? What do these changes imply in terms of optimal city size.

Without knowing what was covered in classes and homework one cannot tell what kind of tacit knowledge/conventions the examiner was justified in assuming in posing the question. Its easy, with experience at these things, to guess what the examiner had in mind. Nevertheless, the question is badly worded and allows a `sea lawyer‘ of a student to get full marks.

First, the sentence does not assert a connection between output and coordination. Thus, the answer to (a) should be:

Without knowing the purpose of the coordination, it is impossible to answer this question.

A better first sentence would have been:

Consider a country with many cities and assume there are N > 0 people in each city. Output per person is \sigma N^{0.5} and to achieve it requires a coordination cost per person of \gamma N^2.

Second, readers are not told the units in which output is denominated. Thus, part (b) cannot be answered unless one assumes that output has a constant dollar value. One might reasonably suppose this is not the case. The sea lawyer would answer:

As output can be generated at no cost, and is monotone in city size, the optimal size of the city is infinity. Note this does not depend on the values of \sigma or \gamma.

The answer to part (c), consistent with the earlier answers:

From the answer to part (b) we see that no combination of parameters would generate a peasant economy.

Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek Finance minister writes in the Feb 16 NY Times:

Game theorists analyze negotiations as if they were split-a-pie games involving selfish players. Because I spent many years during my previous life as an academic researching game theory, some commentators rushed to presume that as Greece’s new finance minister I was busily devising bluffs, stratagems and outside options, struggling to improve upon a weak hand.

Is this a case of a theorist mugged by reality or someone who misunderstands theory? The second. The first sentence quoted proves it because its false. Patently so. Yes, there are split-a-pie models of negotiation but they are not the only models. What about models where the pie changes in size with investments made by the players (i.e. double marginalization)?  Wait, this is precisely the situation that Varoufakis sees himself in:

…….table our proposals for regrowing Greece, explain why these are in Europe’s interest…….

He continues:

`If anything, my game-theory background convinced me that it would be pure folly to think of the current deliberations between Greece and our partners as a bargaining game to be won or lost via bluffs and tactical subterfuge.’

Bluff and subterfuge are not the only arrow in the Game Theorist’s quiver. Commitment is another. Wait! Here is Varoufakis trying to signal commitment:

Faithful to the principle that I have no right to bluff, my answer is: The lines that we have presented as red will not be crossed. Otherwise, they would not be truly red, but merely a bluff.

Talk is cheap but credible commitments are not. A `weak’ type sometimes has a strong incentive to claim they are committed to this much and no more. Thus, Varoufakis’ claim that he does not bluff rings hollow, because a liar would say as much. Perhaps Varoufakis should dust off his Schelling and bone up on his signaling  as well as war of attrition games. Varoufakis may not bluff, but his negotiating partners think he does. Protestations to the contrary, appeals to justice, Kant and imperatives are simply insufficient.

He closes with this:

One may think that this retreat from game theory is motivated by some radical-left agenda. Not so. The major influence here is Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who taught us that the rational and the free escape the empire of expediency by doing what is right.

Nobel sentiments, but Kant also reminded us that
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

My advice to Varoufakis: more Game Theory, less metaphysics.

Thom Tillis, Senator from the great state of North Carolina, was the subject of some barbs when he suggested that the health-code mandated sign that reads

“Employees must wash hands before returning to work.”

was an example of government over-regulation.

Quoting himself:

“I said that I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says, ‘We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom.’ The market will take care of that.”

Many found the sentiment ridiculous, but for the wrong reason. Tillis was not advocating the abolition of the hand washing injunction but replacing it with another that would, in his view, have the same effect. More generally, he seems to suggest the following rule: you can opt out of a regulation as long as one discloses this. If the two forms of regulation (all must follow vs. opt out but disclose) are outcome equivalent why should we prefer one to the other?

Monitoring costs are not lower; one still has to monitor those who opt out to verify they have disclosed. What constitutes disclosure? For example:

`We do not require our employees to wash their hands because they do so anyway.’

Would the following be acceptable?

“We operate a hostile work environment, but pay above above average wages to compensate for that.”