The recent turmoil in Baltimore and the news of Ray Fisman’s impending move to Boston University reminded me that he (along with Tim Sullivan) had penned a column for Slate on Jan 7, 2013 entitled:

Excellent Police: What the Baltimore P.D. can teach your office about multitasking and incentives.

In hindsight, the title seems ironic. The article itself is an excerpt from the author’s book on Organizations (in the genre pioneered by Freakanomics) and can be interpreted as illustration of Goodhart’s law. The article itself does not align perfectly with the title. Apparently, what the Baltimore PD has to teach us is what not to do as the following quote suggests:

To illustrate the double-edged sword of arrest incentives, Moskos recounts the example of a fellow officer who decided to set a record for monthly arrests. His plan: lock people up for violating bicycle regulations. At night, all bikes need a light. The officer would stop cyclists in breach of the bike light rule (which was most of them), ask for ID, and pull out his pad to write a citation. Most riders, though, were biking without ID, and since all offenses become arrestable without identification, the officer’s little scheme netted 26 arrests in a single month. A record. His sergeant was thrilled, telling Moskos, “Look, I don’t know what his motivations are. But I think it’s good. He’s locking people up, which is more than half the people in this squad.”

Finally got around to reading the PCES report on economics education at Manchester. The Francis Urquhart  half of my dual selves was duty bound to dislike it. My Urquhart self, would urge the authors to switch subjects and find  fulfilling careers in one of the caring professions, like, personal incontinence counselor. My milquetoast self prevailed and I buckled down to read it.

The report raises two issues and its writers have made the mistake of conflating them or at least not separating them clearly enough. The first is the effectiveness with which economics is taught. The second is what is to be taught.

On the first, the report makes for depressing reading. It summarizes an economics education as dull as ice fishing. For those unfamiliar with ice fishing, it is a sport (and thats being charitable) practiced by the inhabitants of Minnesota and the remoter parts of Wisconsin. In dead of winter, one drives a large vehicle over a frozen lake. If that were insufficient to tempt fate, one then cuts a hole in the ice for the ostensible purpose of catching fish. In practice one sits around the hole drinking prodigously while trying not to fall in. Beans, flatulance and an absence of sanitation figure prominently.

On the second, the report’s authors write

Our economics education has raised one paradigm, often referred to as neoclassical economics, to the sole object of study. Alternative perspectives have been marginalised. This stifles innovation, damages creativity and suppresses constructive criticisms that are so vital for economic understanding. Furthermore, the study of ethics, politics and history are almost completely absent from the syllabus. We propose that economics cannot be understood with all these aspects excluded; the discipline must be redefined.

Exposure to history, psychology and politics? Of course, yes. Within the US system this happens naturally as a function of breadth requirements. Students are not shy about trying to reconcile what they have learnt in Psychology and what they are mastering in Economics. It makes for a lively classroom.

What about these alternative perspectives? In for a penny in for a pound, so I decided to read a paper  by Steven Keen. Keen, as far as I can gather is one of the leading lights of these alternative perspectives. The paper I read (co-authored with Russell Standish) appeared in Physica A and can be found here. If you’ve not heard of it, there is a good reason for that. Continue to ignore it. Pauli might have described it thus:

Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!

Reading it lowered my IQ, something I can scarce afford to do. If this is representative of what passes for alternative perspectives, the writers of the PCES should leave economics and find fulfilling careers as incontinence counselors. Finally, for those who think my description of Keen and Standish uncharitable, I refer them to the following by Chris Auld.  Stamping out ignorance is a thankless task and one is cheered to see there are some who take it on.

The urge to promote these alternative perspectives is to be found  across the Channel as well. There, a sub group of scholars and  nescafe society currently wished to form a separate group so that they may be evaluated by different norms.  Jean Tirole, in a letter to  the State secretary in charge of Higher education and Research in France, argued against this. A response can be found here.

This is not a post about academia, economics, or game theory. It is a post about life.

Today I am going to meet my French teacher for our weekly session, and I wanted to prepare an interesting topic for discussion. I pondered what can be an appropriate subject, and the words “the most gifted woman in the world” popped into my mind. Who is that woman and what did she do?
I typed “The most” in Google search bar. Auto-complete had few suggestions:
The most violent year
The most expensive car
The most expensive watch
The most dangerous game
The most beautiful woman

I went on. “The most gifted”. Auto-complete tried to read my mind:

The most gifted psychics
The most gifted child in the world
The most gifted man who ever lived

The tenth option was

The most gifted rapper in Nigeria

yet no mention of women.

Let’s continue. “The most gifted wo”. In how many ways can you complete this search? Two.

The most gifted child in the world
The most gifted person in the world

Fine, let’s add another letter. “The most gifted wom”.

Nothing. Not a single auto-completion. I beat Google. Probably everyone else know the answer and therefore nobody looked for it before me.

I am a stubborn guy. “The most gifted woman in the world”. Google is even more stubborn than me. They figured out that I mistyped my search phrase, and made few suggestions, in which the word “woman” was replaced by another boldfaced word: “child” and “person”. In fact, they thought that it is more probable that I search for “The most gifted psychics review” than for a gifted woman. Does this say something about me, about Google, or about the phrases that we search on the internet?

I did not give up and pressed “Enter”. The list that I got involved only (female) singers. Only? Almost. The tenth link was to “Support for Gifted Mothers: America Is Not a World Leader”.

I suspected that my misunderstanding with Google is due to language issues, and that the word “gifted” might refer to people’s vocal abilities, so I searched for “The most gifted man in the world”. Unfortunately I did not get any male singer. The first three pages referred me to the TV series “A Gifted Man”, number 30 pointed to King Solomon on a christian site, yet the title of number 32 was more promising: “Ten People with Unbelievable Talents”. Yes, I told myself, I finally got a proof that our world is full of chauvinism. I clicked on the link and found out that the most talented person in the list succeeded in pulling a truck with his XXXX. I did not bother to check the achievements of the other nine.

If this is the most significant accomplishment of men, no wonder auto-completion failed.

 

Stanford University, based in California, has once again anticipated the future. In addition to providing subsidized housing to attract and retain faculty, faculty can now choose to be paid in water. The University has quietly been buying up farms to acquire ownership of water rights and has even signed futures contracts with the Great Lakes Regional Water authority for the delivery of water 15 years from now. In addition they have a joint venture with Elon Musk, to harvest water from comets. Google meanwhile, is behind the curve. They’ve only gone as far as allowing their employees to take long showers on site.

Having caught your eye, I direct you to an article in the April 9, 2015 edition of the Grey Lady. It discusses attempts by various countries to boost domestic birthrates. The same issue had been considered earlier by Noah Smith. There are two questions lurking here. First, what is the optimal population size for a country? If the goal was to shrink the population then a declining birth rate is not a bad thing. Suppose the goal is keep the population fixed, because, say of pension obligations. Then, one wants a replacement birth rate of roughly 2 per couple.

If the birth rate is below the target, what should one do? Interestingly, I cannot recall anyone I have asked or read who does not turn to Government interventions of various kinds. Noah Smith, for example, only discusses Government interventions before concluding one should imitate the French. If the birth rate is below what is optimal for society, why doesn’t the market take care of it?  Do we have a missing market? Is this a public goods problem? (If so, then, Mankiw who is often castigated for being a selfish beast, is, in this case, an unstinting provider of public goods, see here.)

Analogies are sometimes helpful (if biology is the study of bios, life; geology is the study of geos, earth, what does that make analogy?). Farmers plant crops and after a period, the fruits of their labor are harvested and sent to market.  The Farmer must anticipate what will be demanded in the future to decide what to plant now. What if she plants turnips when what is desired are parsnips? This problem is solved with a futures market for parsnips (or turnips or pork etc). Why not a futures market for babies? Those who want warm bodies in the future to support them in their dotage pay for babies now. Swiftian, I know, but interesting to consider. Once one thinks about how to implement the idea, difficulties emerge. One might, for example, be concerned with moral hazard on the part of parents. However, these same difficulties are present even with various Government subsidies.

According to the NY Times,  some Californians

would have to cut their water consumption by 35 percent under the terms of a preliminary plan issued by state officials on Tuesday to meet a 25 percent mandatory statewide reduction in urban water use.

There is an obvious way to achieve this, raise the price of water. If its obvious why isn’t it the first thing California did some years back when it was clear that water was scarce? In some cases the hands of the state are tied by water rights allocated for commercial purposes, so lets focus on household consumption.

We know that the first tool the state reaches for is regulation. See, for example, the following memo from the California State water board. Interestingly, it begins by noting that the state is in the 4th year of a drought! Eventually, it is clear that regulation is insufficient and then, price increases are considered. In fact, the water reduction targets quoted from the NY Times above come from a report by the Governor of the state that also urges the use of

rate structures and other pricing mechanisms

to achieve reductions. Again, why is price last rather first? Is this because the state must maintain a credible reputation for not exploiting its monopoly power with water?

If one is going reduce consumption by raising prices, should it be an across the board price increase? Note that consumption is metered so the exact amount that is purchased by a household is known to the provider. The state also has access to other information: location, home size, family size and income. In principle, the state could price discriminate. Here is an example from the Irvine Ranch Water district. Each household is given an initial `allotment’ that depends on household size and area that is landscaped. Exceed the allotment and the price of water rises. For more details and the impact on consumption see the following paper. Is it obvious that this is the `correct’ mechanism?

 

 

There is a brief period in a professor’s life when they are the lion of the dinner table and toast of the town. Its when the children of their friends and contemporaries are about to enter college. To my colleagues near and far I say enjoy the attention while you can.

What advice did I offer when called upon to do so?

Don’t worry. Your child has already made the most important decision of their lives and done so correctly. They chose you as a parent.

`No, seriously, how can my child make it to a top school?’, was the invariable reply. Followed by a reminder of the ostensibly low acceptance rates at `top’ colleges. `Don’t worry,’ I would repeat, `arithmetic is on your side.’

Each year about 30,000 students apply to Harvard. About 10,000 of these will be summarily rejected on academic grounds. That leaves about 20,000. Not all of them will get into Harvard. However, most of them are applying to the same subset of schools. There are 7 Ivy League schools, plus MIT, Stanford & Caltech. Throw in the University of Chicago and Berkeley. Collectively, these institutions enroll about 20,000 students in their freshman classes. This is not counting Duke, Northwestern, Michigan and UCLA.

`But, but, isn’t all that hard work, focus and diligence wasted if they don’t get into Stanford, MIT or Harvard?’

No, those habits will serve them throughout their lives not just at admission. Admissions is a lottery among those who make the `grade’. If the `losing ticket’ is Cornell or Chicago, its a lottery with no downside! How often does life present you with with such an opportunity.

The world may be interested in the whereabouts of Vladimir Putin and whether Elton John’s boycott of Dolce and Gabbana turns out successful. Here, in the holy land, we wait for the elections to the parliament that will take place this Tuesday. The elections, which should have been an easy stroll for acting prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, turned out to be a difficult trek.

There are 120 parliament members and two main candidates for the position of prime minister: Benyamin Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing parties, and Isaac Herzog, who heads the center-left parties. The way a government is formed is that after votes are counted and the 120 seats are divided among the parties, largely in proportion to the number of votes they got, the leader of each party recommends to the President of the state a person, which that party backs for the post of prime minister. The President then asks the person who he believes has the highest chance of creating a coalition to try and make a coalition. If that person fails, then the President asks another person to form a coalition, and so on.

Latest polls say that the parties that support Netanyahu will get about 55 seats, and the parties that support Herzog will get roughly the same number of seats. The remaining 10 seats will go to a newly formed party, headed by Moshe Kahlon, who said that he would recommend nobody to the President. Why did he say it? On the one hand, Kahlon was a parliament member of Netanyahu’s party (and a minister in Netanyahu’s government), and his voters come from the right wing. Saying that he will recommend Herzog is a death strike to his party. On the other hand, he was very critical about Netanyahu’s conduct and poses himself as “the true representative of the right wing”, and so he cannot say that he will recommend that person whom he thinks is not a good prime minister.

Who will then be the prime minister? PredictIT.com estimates at 56% the probability that Netanyahu is reelected. And if not? Then Herzog, as there is no one else.

Almost. Think of the situation from the eyes of game theory. Suppose that neither Netanyahu nor Herzog are recommended by more than half the votes. Herzog is in a bad shape: the Arab party is supposed to recommend Herzog, and polls predict that it will get about 13 seats. Traditionally the Arab parties are not invited to be part of the government: Herzog will have to make a coalition of more than 60 members excluding the Arab party; this is tough. Netanyahu is in a bad shape as well; polls predict that his party will lose quite a few seats, and if he will not be recommended by more than half the members of the parliament, he might be kicked out by his own party. So who can be the new prime minister?

I ask you to consider the swing voter, Kahlon. Since he comes from the right wing, all parties in the right wing will prefer him to Herzog. All the parties in the left wing will prefer him to Netanyahu or to any other candidate from the right wing. This is a hell of a reason not to recommend any of the two to the President.

Is my theory right? Will the swing voter use his power to become the real winner of the elections? We will have to wait a few weeks and see for ourselves.

Two articles in the March 3rd, 2015 issue of the NY Times. One by the columnist Nocera marvels at Buffet’s success and concludes that it must be due to Buffet’s genius. The second, in the business section of the same, summarizes Buffet’s annual letter that attempts to explain his success. As usual, neither considers the possibility that luck may have a role in Buffet’s success. Buffet may indeed be a Vulcan, but based on the data alone one cannot reject the possibility that luck may explain Buffet’s record. I won’t repeat the argument but will point to this paper by my colleagues (Foster & Stine) that does so.

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.

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