Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Report delves into Gingrich's work for Freddie Mac

A story today by Bloomberg News tries to flesh out the work Newt Gingrich did for Freddie Mac and his relationship with the mortgage company.

When Gingrich was asked at a GOP presidential debate about his Freddie Mac work, the former House speaker said he acted as a "historian," did no lobbying and warned of the company's "insane" business model.
The Bloomberg story says Gingrich was "asked to build bridges" with Republicans in Congress and "develop an argument on behalf of the company's public-private structure that would resonate with conservatives seeking to dismantle it."

The story cites unnamed sources.
If Gingrich concluded Freddie Mac's business was "risky," the story says, "he didn't share those concerns with Richard Syron," Freddie Mac's CEO at the time.

A statement posted on Gingrich's campaign website after the Nov. 9 debate says the Gingrich Group offered "strategic advice" on a number of issues, including "how to reach out to more conservatives."
Here's what the Gingrich statement said on that point:
The Gingrich Group stressed that Freddie Mac must be open to reform of their lending practices but that by stressing the historical success of public-private partnerships in achieving public goods at a minimum of taxpayer money and bureaucracy.

Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy for http://politicstodayusa.blogspot.com/

If you require any more information or have any questions about our privacy policy, please feel free to contact us by email at fikiandriansep@gmail.com.

At http://politicstodayusa.blogspot.com/, the privacy of our visitors is of extreme importance to us. This privacy policy document outlines the types of personal information is received and collected by http://politicstodayusa.blogspot.com/ and how it is used.

Log Files
Like many other Web sites, http://politicstodayusa.blogspot.com/ makes use of log files. The information inside the log files includes internet protocol ( IP ) addresses, type of browser, Internet Service Provider ( ISP ), date/time stamp, referring/exit pages, and number of clicks to analyze trends, administer the site, track user’s movement around the site, and gather demographic information. IP addresses, and other such information are not linked to any information that is personally identifiable.

Cookies and Web Beacons
http://politicstodayusa.blogspot.com/ does use cookies to store information about visitors preferences, record user-specific information on which pages the user access or visit, customize Web page content based on visitors browser type or other information that the visitor sends via their browser.

DoubleClick DART Cookie
.:: Google, as a third party vendor, uses cookies to serve ads on http://politicstodayusa.blogspot.com/.
.:: Google's use of the DART cookie enables it to serve ads to users based on their visit to http://politicstodayusa.blogspot.com/ and other sites on the Internet.
.:: Users may opt out of the use of the DART cookie by visiting the Google ad and content network privacy policy at the following URL - http://www.google.com/privacy_ads.html

Some of our advertising partners may use cookies and web beacons on our site. Our advertising partners include ....
Google Adsense

These third-party ad servers or ad networks use technology to the advertisements and links that appear on http://politicstodayusa.blogspot.com/ send directly to your browsers. They automatically receive your IP address when this occurs. Other technologies ( such as cookies, JavaScript, or Web Beacons ) may also be used by the third-party ad networks to measure the effectiveness of their advertisements and / or to personalize the advertising content that you see.

http://politicstodayusa.blogspot.com/ has no access to or control over these cookies that are used by third-party advertisers.

You should consult the respective privacy policies of these third-party ad servers for more detailed information on their practices as well as for instructions about how to opt-out of certain practices. http://politicstodayusa.blogspot.com/'s privacy policy does not apply to, and we cannot control the activities of, such other advertisers or web sites.

If you wish to disable cookies, you may do so through your individual browser options. More detailed information about cookie management with specific web browsers can be found at the browsers' respective websites.

Non-conformism in academia

In economics, there is the mainstream and various heterodox fractions that do not identify with the mainstream or each other. Too many, the heterodox seem like annoying and useless chatter. But they fulfill an important role, which is to keep those in the mainstream on their toes. This is part of the scientific process: challenge long and widely held views to check whether they are still valid. And even if the challenge is wrong, it makes those in the mainstream think about the axioms the build their theories on.

Vela Velupillai makes the case that dissenters are typically silenced by the mainstream, but may prevail in the long-run, citing many examples of mathematical economics, in particular the work of Pietro Sraffa. And this is really what tenure is good for: a dissenter will have much trouble publishing but may ultimately still contribute a lot to scientific advances.

We are in times were dissenters seems to have a more receptive audience. Indeed, the current crisis is seen by some as a failure of Economics, thus it is easy to criticize it. But it also highlights that dissenting can be very distracting if it is poorly focused, uniformed and populist. In this regard the recent dissenting by Colander, Krugman and Stiglitz has, I think been counterproductive, as I have occasionally discussed here. It is good to criticize the fundamental assumptions of the mainstream. It is better, but not necessary to offer alternatives. But it is counterproductive to dissent on the basis of a old read of the literature, and a literature that has in the meanwhile evolved to address these supposedly new criticisms.

Heterodox Economics has thus gained a fresh wind, simply because it is different from the mainstream. But what does it have to offer? Peter Skott, a heterodox economist himself, argues that it is still far from being an viable alternative. While heterodox approaches usually reject microeconomic foundations in macroeconomics, they should not throw out the baby with the bath water, i.e., ignore microeconomics altogether. And while the heterodox analysis for income distribution has focused on the labor income share, the large changes in income inequality happened within labor income. Finally, the heterodox literature is just as guilty of ignoring many of the suddenly relevant intricacies of the world of finance.

There is still a lot of work to do, and instead of pursuing an excess of mutual accusations and claiming Economics is useless, it seems much more appropriate to put more resources into making it better, heterodox or mainstream. After all, medical research was not defunded when the HIV/AIDS epidemic made ravages.

Monday, November 14, 2011

About beer

Beer has been an important part of human well-being, and this for thousands of years. While the economic literature has dealt rather little with it, many great papers have significantly evolved at the pub. Still, I have previously reported on a conference on the Economics of beer, and open source beer.

Now, let us talk about the economic history of beer, thanks to Eline Poelmans and Johan Swinnen. Brewing in the middle ages was he realm of monasteries, with rather small output and a lot of product diversity. With technological advances and reduction in transportation costs, commercial breweries took over and especially over the last hundred years they lead a remarkable trend towards consolidation. After all those mergers and acquisitions, product diversity was considerably reduced. This is all changing now, and tastes have become more sophisticated and local micro-breweries are on the upswing. In some ways, beer has become more like wine.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Why are school counselors so bad?

Recent news articles following up on the Occupy X movement have focused on youth unemployment and student debt. One aspect of this that strikes me are the absurdly bad choices students make. And from discussions with undergraduate students I ahad over the years, school counselors shares share part of the blame.

For one, they keep sending students into supposedly easy majors, even if job prospects are slim. If a student cannot handle the rigors of a serious university education, he should not be in university. He is less likely to get grants, more likely to take longer to graduate and then be in debt, less likely to get well-paying jobs there after and thus will face students debts for many years. Also, students with ambitions in better majors are told to switch to easier majors when they face difficulties, instead of helping them to overcome these difficulties. This is in particular the case for ethnic minorities and women, and one then wonders why they are underrepresented in science and technology. The problem is that counselors perpetuate or even amplify prejudices. An example is Neil deGrasse Tyson who was told that as a black he should go to basketball, not physics, and was not offered the help white students were getting when he struggled with classes, when blacks are not expected to excel in physics.

Also, counselors seem to obsessed with finding the "right college," which often an obscure little university where every major has only two or three faculty, and turn out to be expensive. The usual explanation is that the students needs small classes. This seems like another case of someone who is going to be highly in debt for a long time. And to come to Economics, the major is filled with undergraduates who did not get in or got kicked out of the business school, most often for failing on business mathematics and statistics. And what do counselors tell them? Get into a similar major, like Economics (or Psychology), ignoring that those quantitative skills are even more needed.

Why do counselors give such bad advice? I do not have an answer beyond wild guesses. But my casual observation tells me that the best psychologists or education professionals do not espouse this career, and for a good reason: on average the entry salary for a graduate of a Masters program in school counseling is an astounding US$33,000. In some sense, this is the bottom of the barrel that is trying to give advice to people on how to avoid falling to the bottom of the barrel. That is hardly inspiring. Schools should hire at least a few people who had successful careers to show how it is done, for example retirees.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Miss sharing with future generations? You are not missing much

Markets are not complete. Two major ways in whuch they are not complete is that we have borrowing constraints and that we cannot exchange with future generations. The latter can be a big deal when we think about the valuation of future amenities (like the environment) or long term risks. In particular, future generations could make us behave in certain ways if they could influence some of today's markets. This is precisely why the overlapping generation literature emerged, and a principal conclusion of it is that the government needs to intervene, in particular by providing an security that lives beyond generations: the government bond. While there is obviously a welfare cost to the lack of future generations on current markets, how large is it? The literature tells us the welfare benefit of the government bond is large.

Roel Mehlkopf just defended a dissertation on this topic, focusing on risk. In a nutshell, the cost is not that large, and it all has to do with distortions on the labor market. For one, those you ex-post need to transfer to another generation face a commitment problem in the sense that they want to reduce their labor supply, for example by retiring early. Once you take this into account, there is little to redistribute, and it can even be welfare-decreasing to transfer. This rationalizes why pension funds needs to be solvent at all times, even if they are solvent in the long run. One important implication is that when cuts are necessary in pensions, they should be larger for the young workers, as this reduces the labor market distortions.

Also, the dissertation points out that comparing to a situation with fictitious markets between non-overlapping generations can be misleading. Indeed, this implies that they all have the same weight in a social welfare sense. But there can be good reason for a social planner to deviate from this, and the analysis above, fr example, implies that future generations benefit more from risk sharing than current ones (who are at least partially locked in by past decisions). This should entice the social planner to give more weight to current generations, even beyond normal discounting of the future. And as only current generations for for the current government, we are not far from that optimum.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Physiology and Malthus

The Malthus model of economic growth (or the lack thereof) is now standard fare in undergraduate education. Basically, it shows that there is a limit to the size of an economy that hinges on decreasing returns to labor in production and on mortality increasing as standards of living, as measured by GDP per capita, decrease. Those two critical assumptions are based on observations that were certainly valid at Matlhus' times, and are likely to still be true today.

Carl-Johan Dalgaard and Holger Strulik go a little bit further in this theory. As more food is available, people grow taller. But being tall requires more food to sustain the body, which provides an additional reason for stagnation. This makes it more difficult to break loose from this "development trap" and may explain why economies stagnated for so long. But as Malthusian theory, this dies not explain why the economy suddenly exploded in the 19th century.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Acquiring a firm for its workforce

Why do firms get merged or acquired? In the end, the hope is that it increases firm value, although the stock market response is often negative. It may also be for (anti-)competitive reasons, as firm try to buy the challengers. Or it may be to acquire a patent portfolio, technology, or access to a client list or new markets. I may forget some other good reasons.

Paige Ouimet and Rebecca Zarutskie show that mergers and acquisitions can also be the result of a drive to get access to the other firm's pool of workers. This is particularly true when the labor market is tight and the workers carry high human capital. Interestingly, wage tend to increase and turnover tends to decrease after such mergers. Thus not all employees should be afraid of M&As.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why is funeral insurance so popular in Africa?

Probably the oldest form of insurance is existence is funeral insurance, which takes cares of burial (and now cremation) costs at death. In developed economies, its popularity has vanished, while it is still very common in Africa. One reason could be that when life insurance is available, people believe it is sufficient to cover funeral costs, and the beneficiaries are committed to take care of this. When life insurance is not available or when not commitment can be elicited from descendants, then funeral insurance ensure your body is properly disposed of.

Erlend Berg writes a model along those lines and finds that only middle income should favor funeral insurance. The rich do not face a tight budget constraint and the poor cannot afford it. Then using a marketing survey conducted in South Africa finds results that are consistent with the model. This lack of commitment in Africa for financial matters is pervasive. It is, for example, at the heart of the strange institution that ROSCAs are.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Why top MBA programs do not disclose grades

I have always been puzzled by the policy of many top MBA programs not to disclose the grades of their students. Even more puzzling is that they by and large manage to enforce this policy even from their top students, who should obviously want to signal that they are at the top of their class.

Daniel Gottlieb and Kent Smetters wondered about this as well. Such policies are voted by the students (who in the US own the grades) on the argument that it allows them to take more difficult classes without adverse consequences. Yet the evidence is that they learn less when such a policy is in place, which explains the general opposition to it from faculty. So, one can conclude that students are lazy (nothing new here), but is such a policy limited to top MBA programs? Why not in lesser programs, or other professional schools?

Gottlieb and Smetters point out that students have two signals for potential employers: their grades and the selectivity of the program. They are also risk averse, and at the start of their studies do not know how well they will do. In top schools, the selectivity signal is very strong and the students rely on it, while the "average" grade is superior in expected terms. In lesser schools, the selectivity signal is much weaker, and hence students try to distinguish themselves on the labor market in other ways, for example with grades.

To some extend, the same is happening on the Economics PhD market. When you look at the recommendation letters form the top schools, all candidates are the best in a generation in their field (I am exaggerating on a little). Thus the letter looses a lot of its value, and all that remains is the entrance selectivity of the PhD program. Lower ranked programs are much keener to differentiate their students and push the particularly good ones.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Adaptive versus rational expectations

There was a time where macroeconomics was ruled by adaptive (or backward-looking) expectations, like the much-ridiculed chartists. Then there was a revolution and rational (typically forward-looking) expectations were widely adopted, realizing that people are not stupid and will try to use the available information, including what other agents may do, to figure out what the future holds. Rationality, and in particular rational expectations, has recently come under attack because models failed to predict recent bubbles and crashes. I think this is mistaken, as detailed on several occasions on this blog.

Gregory Chow, however, longs for a return to adaptive expectations for three other reasons. The first is that it is empirically more plausible. Exhibit A is a regression of the stock prices of 50 blue chips in Taiwan on current dividends and past dividend growth. Despite a lowly R2 of 0.111, the fact that the coefficient on dividend growth is positive and significant is taken as evidence of adaptive expectations. I do not find this convincing, as a similar result could emerge with rational expectations if the dividend growth process is persistent.

The second reason is that "there is no reason to believe that the expected values [computed from an econometric model of the rational expectations] will have a sum, after discounting, which equals the actual current price." I think the underlying reasoning is that a statistician can only use a linear combination of past observations, thus economic agents will, too, and this all looks like adaptive expectations. But economic agents, and nowadays statisticians, are more sophisticated than that, and a gigantic literature in finance has shown that, for example, non-linearities and endogenous volatility, too name a few, are important. Even though statisticians have become much more sophisticated, they are still running behind economic agents and are far removed from being linearly backward-looking.

The third reason is that macroeconomists started using rational expectations simply because it was required to deal with the Lucas Critique, empirical evidence be damned. While I can be sympathetic to the argument that rational expectations was adopted without much direct empirical evidence, I also believe that economic agents do try and avoid systematic mistakes and that their expectations contain at least some rationality. And as much literature has shown, a modicum of rationality can bring markets darn close to prices that look like perfectly rational ones.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Is index-based weather insurance useful?

Whenever you are facing a risk, you want to be able to hedge against it (at least if you are risk averse). For this, there are all sorts of insurance policies. There are also markets in all sorts of instruments that allow you to find the right contingent claim for your situation. This includes farmers (and others) who want to hedge against meteorological risks. If you crop yields depend on weather patterns, you are looking for securities that pay out depending on some weather statistic. And they are available and have been heavily pushed by aid agencies in developing countries.

Chiratan Banerjee and Ernst Berg say they may not be such a great idea. They take the examples of rice farmers in the Philippines who bought wind-speed based indexes on the hypothesis that rice yields are lower when there are typhoons. But rice is remarkably resistant to typhoons and wind in general, the reason why it is so popular in the region in the first place. This means that rice farmers are heavily over-insured. That is especially bad and farmers are now confused about the concept of insurance as it looks like they face more risk than before.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Unemployment insurance in developing economies?

There is no doubt that absent moral hazard, insuring against unemployment shocks is welfare improving. But moral hazard, either through the unemployed not searching hard enough or rejecting job offers, can have a vicious effect on welfare if it is sufficiently widespread and successful. In addition, as unemployment insurance contributions typically do not depend on unemployment risk, only bad risks want to participate, and the insurance collapses without mandatory participation. With all this in mind, does it make sense to implement unemployment insurance in developing economies, where there is a large informal sector that makes mandatory contributions difficult to enforce and where moral hazard is, of course, rampant?

David Bardley and Fernando Jaramillo show that introducing unemployment insurance actually makes the formal sector more attractive and that we should thus not worry that much about the current level of informality. The presented model, however, does not allow for someone to collect UI benefits while working in the informal sector, a very real possibility that could easily overturn the results.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Religion as an insurance mechanism against aggregate shocks

I have never been fond of the claims that the world is better with religion. The principal claim is that religion gives hope for people in dire circumstances, and thus in Economic terms increases their utility despite having hit the budget constraint. But one could also argue that these people are being mislead, as religion provides them with subjective probabilities that are far off the objective ones, all the while making the budget constraint even tighter because of the tithe and other material donations.

Olga Popova studies whether this effect of religion on happiness not only applies to individual circumstances, but also for aggregate shocks. Looking at the transition countries, which each suffered through substantial falls in GDP after the collapse of the Soviet rule, more religious people suffered, in terms of happiness, less than others from the large economic reforms. Of course, it is easy to understand that for most, they were happier than circumstances would indicate because it was rather obvious that things would eventually improve, likely a lot. The question is why religious would believe this more? Because they are easily indoctrinated, and it is certainly true that there was a lot of excessive pro-market rhetoric at the time. Non-religious people were probably more among the skeptics. And they were also more likely to be among those who benefited from the previous regime, which definitely oppressed religion. Unfortunately, this study does not take (previous) party affiliation into account, which is likely very (negatively) correlated with religiosity. Too bad.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Individual characteristics are more important for academic success in university

What makes a good college students? Looking at the admission criteria of universities can be insightful. Public universities in the United States basically just look for high school grades and standardized test results, with some adjustment background characteristics (race, high school characteristics), if any. European universities in the end just care about grades, in most cases that a student was above some level. And US private universities look at a large array of characteristics, with extracurricular activities and personal essays being of particular importance, grades in some cases being even ignored. While these different types of universities have obviously different motivations, ultimately they are looking for potential in students. So what determines academic success?

Martin Dooley, Abigail Payne and Leslie Robb use administrative data about a dozen entering cohorts in four Ontario universities to explain what makes students stay longer in tertiary education and have better college grades. It turns out that the high school grades are pretty much sufficient. At least for Canada, it is reassuring to see that individual performance matters more than where you are coming from. Of course, one could wonder whether all the other characteristics that private US schools consider would matter here. But this kind of data was presumably not available, as Ontario universities, all public, do not ask for such information during the application process. Also, there is no record in the study about individual standardized test results. Including those would only reinforce the results, but may have important policy implications: imagine they do not matter. Then it opens the door to grade inflation in high schools, and the grade signal gets diluted. And then admissions officers need to find something else to rely on, such as some of the characteristics that matter less.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Contracts with empty promises

I always feel small talk has no specific purpose and is a waste of time. In fact, every time somebody asks me how I do, I launch into a well reasoned explanation of my current state of affairs, while my intelocutor is just expecting a "well-thanks-and you?" Yet, some people have found value in such chitchat, see a previous report. But what about contracts that have clause that have no chance of being met? Why would one allow empty promises in a legally binding contract?

David Miller and Kareen Rozen look at contracts that involve team work in a complex production environment, where opportunities for moral hazard abound. Performance clauses are hard to specify and you want to use peer monitoring and pressure rather than checking for the result of each individual task. Obviously, monitoring is costly, and along with statistical complementarities in the success rate, this implies that it could be optimal to delegate all the production to one person and the monitoring to another (the least productive one, according to the "Dilbert Principle"), and the latter may resort to wasteful punishment: naming and shaming, and even firing. It is wasteful, because it does not provide any direct benefit to the supervisor and it may not even be subgame perfect. Where are the empty promises? The one performing tasks can promise to fulfill them, but it obvious to all that they cannot be all successful because of some outside probability of failure. But the supervisor is willing to forgive failures, without knowing whether chance or moral hazard are at play.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Seemingly unrelated regressions and lamb carcasses

The great thing about the Internet is that one can discover unexpected uses of familiar techniques. Or one can search for new applications with one's tool set. So what about SUR and lamb carcasses?

Vasco Cadavez and Arne Henningsen are responsible for this paper. I have nothing to add to the abstract: The aim of this study was to develop and evaluate models for predicting the carcass composition of lambs. Forty male lambs of two different breeds were included in our analysis. The lambs were slaughtered and their hot carcass weight was obtained. After cooling for 24 hours, the subcutaneous fat thickness was measured between the 12th and 13th rib and the total breast bone tissue thickness was taken in the middle of the second sternebrae. The left side of all carcasses was dissected into five components and the proportions of lean meat, subcutaneous fat, intermuscular fat, kidney and knob channel fat, and bone plus remainder were obtained. Our models for carcass composition were fitted using the SUR estimator which is novel in this area. The results were compared to OLS estimates and evaluated by several statistical measures. As the models are intended to predict carcass composition, we particularly focused on the PRESS statistic, because it assesses the precision of the model in predicting carcass composition. Our results showed that the SUR estimator performed better in predicting LMP and IFP than the OLS estimator. Although objective carcass classification systems could be improved by using the SUR estimator, it has never been used before for predicting carcass composition.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A market for IP addresses

IP addresses face exhaustion, at the least those under the standard IPv4 format, and by some reports they should have been all used up already. What has helped delay the inevitable is probably the fact that there is now a market for IP addresses, yet it is not clear that the market is working efficiently. The reason is that IP addresses are allocated in blocks, and fragmenting the big IP allocation table makes it more difficult to manage it. For technical reasons, each allocation needs to be a square in the table. Thus, if a square is partially unused, it can only be split in multiple squares, increasing their number. Routers need to keep each possible square in memory, and their multiplication slows routing. And as IP addresses are privately owned and managed, there is no way to control this negative externality.

Benjamin Edelman and Michael Schwarz propose a market mechanism that should make the allocation of IP addresses more efficient. They suggest a "spartan rule:" in each bilateral trade, one of the two traders is designated as "extinguished," i.e., as prohibited from trading with other extinguished ones. As one can be extinguished only once, this implies that the number of cuts N in the IP table is limited to the number of initial holders of IP blocks. The analysis is static and under certainty, implying that the implicit rental price of an IP is zero as long as there is still a free one. But with the proposed rule, I do not see how one could necessarily reach exhaustion after the N cuts. It all depends on the initial allocation: one can end up with free IP addresses and no possible moves. In addition, once we add uncertainty and dynamics, there is going to be strategic behavior as being extinguished is a potentially costly absorbing state. I am thus not convinced of the arguments in this paper.

Of course, the easiest would be for everyone to switch to IPv6, which would give a sufficient number of IP addresses to last for a long time. But IPv6 devices cannot communicate with IPv4 devices (large scale IPv4 to IPv6 translation is cumbersome), which gives little incentive to switch until there is substantial critical mass. In other words, another situation like Y2K is approaching, and nobody has an incentive to do something about it. The more efficient market allocation will delay this, but also will make it even more urgent when it happens, because more addresses will need to switch, and they will have less time for it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Women prefer cooperative work environments

Girls (and women) tend to hang out in cliques, while boys (and men) tend to be more individualistic. This may have evolutionary origins. as women try to have have very good friends to insure that their offspring is taken care off should they die. Men do not directly have such a need, and may have several wives who continue to take care of their offspring should the man die. Does this attitude translate into the workplace?

Peter Kuhn and Marie Claire Villeval conduct a experiment where people need to exert effort, but can do it by choice individually or in a team. Women are then more likely to choose the team. Once there is an extra reward in efficiency for working in a team, both genders choose the latter in equal proportions. Still, the most able players tend to work alone. This can be interpreted as men being more responsive to incentives and women having more confidence in team work. Unfortunately, the study does not differentiate between same-gender and cross-gender pairings (gender was visible in the experiment).

Friday, October 21, 2011

On job loss estimates from regulation

The current talk in Republican circles is that one can achieve significant job growth by deregulating. One may want to question this idea on two fronts. First, regulation has been initially imposed not for the fun of killing jobs, but because it improves the well-being of people. There is a trade-off, and sometimes it is worth having a little fewer jobs if it means improving the life of a lot of people. Second, the job loss numbers from regulation are often more fantasy than reality.

This is not a new question. Take the case of Australia, as discussed by Bruce Chapman. He looks at estimate of job loss in Australian mining from the implementation of an emission trading scheme. These 23,510 lost jobs are not as large as they appear. First, there would be job gains elsewhere, in particular in alternative energies. Second, when compared to normal job flows in the mining sectors, this number is quite negligible. Third, once you look at a somewhat longer horizon, say, ten years, a job loss is virtually undetectable. I would add finally, measurement of jobs losses has high uncertainty, and any result commissioned by one party in the debate needs to be taken as an extreme value.

So, do not have too high hopes that a sudden deregulation will create a job boom, especially in a country that has remarkably little regulation to start with.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Family firms are like public employers

Family-owned businesses have good reputation with the public, for reasons that have never been clear to me. Indeed, it is even good marketing to mention that a firm is family-owned. Why? The products are not likely to be better. I suppose such firms are possibly smaller and younger, thus the likelihood of a product to be discontinued is higher. I guess such firms have stronger ties with the community, in case this matters.

Andrea Bassanini, Eve Caroli, Antoine Rebérioux and Thomas Breda find that there is an important distinction between family-owned business and other privately-owned ones. Looking at France, they observe that they pay there workers less, which does not seem like a big advantage in the public eye. However, families tend to offer more job security. This mirrors the public sector that in the end offers the same value as private enterprises, trading off job security and pay. So after all, family-owned are more involved in the community by providing more insurance to workers through job security, like so often the French government does by pursing rather Keynesian policies. I wonder whether this would apply to other countries where the public sector is not necessarily leading with such policies.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Using energy taxes to dampen energy price fluctuations

Oil price fluctuations seem to preoccupy people less these days, maybe because they got used to higher prices or because other issues are hotter now. But remember how popular it was to call for the government, whatever the county, to reduce fuel taxes to ease the burden. Which bears the question whether this would be a good idea if you think harder about it.

Helmuth Cremer, Firouz Gahvari, and Norbert Ladoux did so and come to the conclusion that the fuel taxes should not move as much as the energy price. The reason is that the Pigovian motivation for imposing them, internalizing the externalities, has not changed, which would call for perfect smoothing. But this is to an important extend compensated by redistribution considerations as goods using energy are used by people of different incomes. In the end, a doubling of pre-tax energy prices lead to a post-tax increase of 64%. But that is only assuming that the tax was optimal to start with. In many countries it is currently much too low, thus the argument about reducing the tax in high price times is largely invalid, In fact, one should take advantage of reduction in world energy prices to increase the taxes, which would raise much needed money.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The imperfect market for re-insurance

The insurance market is thought to be rather competitive, at least for the most common risks. That is in part because insurance companies are willing to take risks thanks to re-insurance, where they can insure large event risks and to some degree over-exposure. But there are rather few actors on the re-insurance market. Is this bad, and does it have an impact on the insurance market?

Sabine Lemoyne de Forges, Ruben Bibas and Stéphane Hallegatte play with a model of re-insurance and find that there is a trade-off. The lack of competition leads to sub-optimal re-insurance provision, obviously. But is also allows the few players to take on larger risks, some of which may not have been insured otherwise. And, the larger the re-insurers, the more resilient the market can be. As a regulator, this means that means that you may to let the re-insurance companies grow larger than want is optimal in terms of competition.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Spain: an eventful history of economic crises

There is talk that Spain could get dragged into a financial crisis. While it is debatable whether this will happen or not, and whether it is inevitable, it is instructive to study Spain's economic history in this regard.

Concha Betrán, Pablo Martín-­‐Aceña and María Pons look at a century and a half of data and basically do in more details for Spain what Carmen Reinhardt and Kenneth Rogoff did for many countries in their best seller. And as the latter book, the picture is depressing. Crises of all sorts were a rather regular occurrence, we have been just blessed with rather few of them over the last half century. For example, in the second half of the 2oth century, Spain experiences half a dozen currency crises, a couple of banking crises, three periods with negative stock returns over several years, and the IMF had to intervene three times for a debt crisis. It takes from this that while crises are becoming less frequent, they still occur, and the current one was long overdue.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Is this what Republicans are really about?

Europeans have struggled for some time to understand the philosophy of the US Republican party, and especially how it manages to get such popular support in the electorate. On the surface, indeed, it all appears to be a platform that favors the rich at the expense of the more numerous poor, the latter having been indoctrinated for many years that governments are bad and, at the extreme, robber barons are better than a benevolent government. The consequence is a drive to increase inequalities in income and wealth.

John Roemer offers a glimpse into the American ideology for inequality. He says that "American philosophy" sees inequality as ethical, as it gives everyone what nature endows him with. That seems like a very fatalist argument (as in some religions) that ignores that redistribution is about the ex-post insurance of where someone is born. having the luck to be born in a good family and in a good country ought to be taxed to some degree to benefit the unlucky. A second argument is the old trickle-down one: if the most talented can keep all the fruits of their labor, they will work more (never mind decreasing marginal utility of consumption and how redistribution can improve global well-being). The third argument is that the government is good at nothing, and should thus be largely absent.

All these arguments are largely shared in the United States, and especially among Republicans. In fact, the latter are now going much farther in reversing redistribution than ever before. Just see how they they are vehemently opposed to any risk sharing through public health insurance, how they limit school funding and public goods in general. In fact, I am starting to wonder whether the hidden goal is to create a new underclass that would be in some ways reminiscent of the old slavery days. That would be consistent with the opposition to minimum wages, with the large prison population, and with keeping the poor uneducated. That would also be coherent with the Republicans willingness to increase the payroll tax (a flat tax applicable to everyone) while calling for a reduction in the income tax (a progressive tax). I hope I am wrong, though.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

No convergence in the Caribbean

I have always found the Caribbean fascinating because it is a microcosm of the world, with tiny countries trying to get a workable government without the economies of scale the rest of the world enjoys. But as a readers of Economics research, the presence of this myriad of too-small countries lead to many frustrations, as they bias results in cross-country regressions. But sometimes, these micro-countries can be useful for research.

Roland Craigwell and Alain Maurin use them to study whether there is convergence in the Caribbean. It is well established that there is no convergence on world-wide country data, but it is very visible on subsets, such as US states. In the later case, all US states are under the same currency and roughly the same laws and government systems, there is some cross-state redistribution and no trade barriers. As you drop these features, which one gets you lack of convergence. In the case of the Caribbean, there is a partial monetary and trade union, laws and governments are more dissimilar than in the US and there is no redistribution. And as Craigwell and Maurin show, that is sufficient to make convergence disappear. Once more, it looks like once more institutions and to a lesser extent globalization are the keys to development for the poorest economies.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Better GDP estimates

GDP equals C+I+G+X-M. It also equals national income, at least in theory. But estimates differs widely, even for the United States, which is rather disturbing. How do you conduct proper economic policy when estimates of GDP, even after revisions can differ by more than 2% points and their growth rates have a correlation coefficients of only 0.63 (see the work of Jeremy Nalewaik)?

Boragan Aruoba, Francis Diebold, Jeremy Nalewaik, Frank Schorfheide and Dongho Song make the old diversification of risk argument: why not combine both estimates? After all, this is often done with forecasts, and the two estimates can be treated like forecasts of the true GDP. And consistently with this literature, the weights on each should depend on the variance of the errors. Of course, they are not observed, but the authors have some guesstimates, based on correlations with variables not used to construct either GDP measure that are supposed to be correlated with the true GDP. They then show that measurement matters, for example in dating business cycles. We'll see whether the US will adopt such averaging, as some other countries already do.

Addendum: I wonder how the recent major revisions to US GDP would have fared with this scheme.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Has the Internet reduced job market frictions?

When we teach about how the Internet has improved the efficiency of the economy, one typical example we give is about job search: the Internet makes vacancy postings instantly available and searchable. And job applicants can send CVs with little cost and time, or even have them available in CV banks. The problem is that Peter Kuhn and Mikal Skuderud have proven that this is not true. But that was with data from 1998-2000. What about today?

Peter Kuhn and Hani Mansour replicate the exercise, but with data from 2008-2009. They concentrate on young job seekers and find that those who use the Internet for job search reduce their unemployment duration by 25%, which is considerable (and makes us teachers prescient). And this is not just because of a particular group or specification. Running the same regressions in the earlier sample provides no noticeable effect. This means that somehow people have learned to use the Internet effectively, which is consistent with the success of the Monster Board or Craiglist and the proportion of those using the Internet for job search.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Economists' political bias and model choice

One can count on Gilles Saint-Paul for innovative research topics. During his career, he has addressed and impressive array of topics that range far beyond Economics strictu sensu. For this reason, I have reported several times about his latest research.

His latest opus is an introspection in our profession and how our political biases influence our modelling choices. He claims that an economist with conservative inclinations will favor a model with smaller fiscal multipliers. While the ethical thing to do would be to be driven by empirical evidence, this may just be a subconscious choice. But at least economists strive to be logically consistent, and if one choose a large multiplier, then then must also claim that demand shocks are substantial, as models with large multipliers rely on this. Looking at evidence from the Survey of Professional Forecasters, Saint-Paul finds that forecasters who believe that expansions are more inflationary also adhere to the belief that public expenses are less expansionary.

Saint-Paul goes further, though. His claim is that we live in a self-confirming equilibrium. We devise theories to understand our surrounding and take decisions, and those decisions then shape the economic environment. Theories can thus survive even if they deviate from the true structure as long as the decisions make it conform. This is a statement about a lack of uniqueness of the path to the rational expectations equilibrium. In a sense, this is not too disturbing, as long as decisions are still optimal and outcomes do not differ too much from the rational expectations first best. And if this true, we will never know what the rational expectations first best is. Of broader implications would be if the political agenda of an economist would lead an economy on an different path, on a different self-confirming equilibrium. Is this why Europe and the United States are different? Were Keynes and von Hayek that influential?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The next Nobel Prize

Monday, the next "Nobel Prize" in Economics will be announced and everybody is playing a game of predictions, so why not me? I have a wish that happens to coincide with my prediction: William Nordhaus.

Why? Because environmental economics has been long rumored to get it and it deserves to be recognized. Within that field, Nordhaus has made major contributions that brought this field to the mainstream. And he is a genuinely good guy, always helpful and willing to listen to you or help you out. Also, the signals I have been receiving from members of the Prize committee is that they really like his work.

I am afraid, though, that he may have to share his work with Martin Weitzman. Who has made the more seminal contributions to the field can be discussed, but Weitzman is all the opposite in terms of attitude. In addition, I do not like his way of trying to make a name of himself, like I showed previously. He has also been caught and punished for stealing horse manure, so his ethical standards are definitively not up to par.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Marx and Solow

For all the justified criticism one can have about the work of Karl Marx and the economic system that resulted from it, old Karl was onto something. The Industrial Revolution saw the rise of a new class, the capitalist, that generates a smaller share of its income from manual work and instead uses its brain and capital. That is in terms of welfare a positive evolution, were it for the fact that workers hardly had it better compared to their previous agricultural life and thus did not get a share of the new riches. What especially irked Karl Marx was the lot of the workers could not improve, either because they were not getting a larger share of income, or because there was no path to become capitalists themselves in large numbers, something later termed as a lack of social capilarity.

Jørgen Heibø Modasli finds some of these features in a model inspired by the Solow growth model, augmented by incomplete markets that require that one cannot borrow to become a capitalist entrepreneur and that the entrepreneur can only work for himself. This introduces a non-convexity and quickly a two-class system emerges, with workers not having any reason to save much as they have no chance to become capitalists. Also, the class division persists over time, even when credit and capital markets improve.

Yet, this is not entirely convincing. Indeed, economies with less incomplete markets, say, the United States, should see less inequalities, and inequalities should have declined over time as markets developed. This is hardly what we can see in the United States, where access to credit is widespread, yet income inequalities are high and growing, and social capilarity is largely absent.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Politicians and leisure

When you think about leisure in the utility function, for most applications you need to take a stand on some properties: is the income effect larger than the substitution effect? Is leisure a normal good in the first place? Convincing empirical evidence is surprisingly difficult to find: read the endless debate between microeconomists and macroeconomists about the size of the wage elasticity. This may be an aggregation issue, but maybe we are lacking a clear natural experiment.

Naci Mocan and Duha Altindag report on an interesting change in the way members are paid in the European parliament. Whereas previously they were compensated at wildly different levels by there home countries, since July 2009 they get money according to a uniform rule: 38.5% of a European judge's salary as a base, plus a per diem when present. Mocan and Altindag then use the difference between and with the previous schemes to highlight that an increase in the base reduces attendance (yes, the income effect! Leisure is normal!) and an increase in the per diem increases attendance (the substitution effect is larger than the income effect). Politicians are rational after all.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Mandatory health insurance and informality

Insurance suffers chronically from the problem that only bad risks want to get insured, which makes the cost of insurance prohibitive and the insurance market often collapses while its presence would be a clear welfare improvement. A workaround is to force everyone to participate, thereby avoiding that good risks could weasle out. This is the principle behind health insurance mandates in most of the Western world, and it is part of the so-called Obamacare. But such mandates are difficult when there is a large informal economy, as it makes difficult tracking people, especially if access to government services, paying taxes, etc. are the way the mandate is enforced. Could in fact a mandate increase informality?

Reyes Aterido, Mary Hallward-Driemeier and Carmen Pagés look at Mexico and ask a somewhat different question, but it is still informative: Does the provision of health insurance to those without social security (mostly informals) increase informality? They find the formal sector decreased by 0.4 to 0.7% points because fewer people join it. It is not surprising that fewer people see the need to be cover by social security and thus declared their jobs, yet I find it interesting that the effect on formality is so low in a country where it is so easy to disappears from the books. Transpose that to, say, the US, where having a job is currently pretty much a requirement for health insurance coverage. Would then a health insurance mandate lower the incentive to have job? Most likely yes, but seeing how small the impact was in Mexico and considering that the lower elasticity of the formal/informal margin in the States, that effect is very likely to be very small.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

About a (partial) return to the gold standard

In difficult times, it is easy to blame central banks for everything. Part of their role, after all, is to play the scape goat for policies the politician do not dare implementing. But then, there is only so much the central banks can do, as Europe and the United States no "nicely" show now. A substantial ingredient in the blame game is a call for a return to the gold standard, a nostalgia for supposedly better and easier times.

Olivier Ledoit and Sébastien Lotz echo this call and study what our current understanding is about the coexistence of fiat and commodity money. In principle, we can start from the idea that currency competition is good: this would force the central bank to be more careful with its fiat money. Indeed, we have learned from money search theory that bad money does not necessarily chase good money (the old Gresham's Law). Also, if the commodity has a positive return, its monetization is beneficial as long as its storage and transaction cost is sufficiently low. The question is then on how to find a commodity that has a real return from just sitting there. There is a larger problem, though, with small denominations. How do you mint coins measured in cents when the commodity is, for example, gold? Either the coins need to be very small or they have very small commodity content, to the point that they become ... fiat money. Monetary policy also becomes tricky, as quite obviously temporary easing becomes difficult if it risks driving fiat money out.

But in the end, isn't a commodity like gold only valuable because people believe it is valuable? Gold, to take an extreme and popular case, has little intrinsic value, as I argued before, and is thus just another fiat currency. It is all a question of perception.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Monetary and fiscal policy cooperation in a liquidity trap

We are living interesting times in terms of macroeconomic policy: the world faces big shocks and substantial challenges, and many current circumstances have no historical precedents. This means that policy makers cannot draw from experience and need to invent new policies from somewhere better than their guts. And after a few hesitations, theory is now in much better shape to answer questions from policy makers. For example, what should one do when there is a liquidity trap in a globalized economy, especially if the trap itself is globalized?

David Cook and Michael Devereux show how, and it borders on a political miracle. Not only does one need to get the cooperation of fiscal and monetary authorities (something the US is not close to achieving) but one needs the cooperation across countries even if it entails some costs to the "winners" (something the Chinese have so far refused and the Swiss recently abandoned).

Specifically, Cook and Devereux show that with so many countries currently with negative real interest rates, we have a worldwide liquidity trap. In an open economy, the policy prescription differs from a closed economy. If there is a negative demand shock, fiscal policy needs of course to raise aggregate demand, but with a global economy, this can come from anywhere in the world and thus a coordinated fiscal policy is due. But to channel the impulse to the relevant countries, monetary policy coordination is necessary to raise interest rates in the foreign countries, even if they are in a liquidity trap. And this takes some serious courage. One can always dream.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Should small businesses be encouraged?

Small businesses are thought to be rather inefficient because of fix and because of other issues that hamper the exploitation of increasing returns to scale in their size range. Yet, policies keep popping up that try to protect them. Why? Is it nostalgia, throwing us back to times were "better?" Or do we want to protect (inefficient) employment? Even this may be moot according to a previous post.

Ben Craig, William Jackson, and James Thomson claim that small businesses should be encourage because they have an inherent disadvantage on credit markets: there are information problems, more acute in downturns, that make access to credit more difficult for small businesses. Thus, it is good for a government agency to provide loan guarantees. Still, this does not address why we would want to have small businesses in the first place. If inefficient firms are getting rationed on credit markets, I am fine with that.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On the size of cities

There is an active literature that tries to explain the size distribution of cities. It is based on a strong regularity, that the distribution follows a Zipf law (population rank times population is constant). Models try to explain this fact with rather simple structures and then back out what assumptions are needed to obtain the Zipf law, with little regard whether these assumptions make much sense. This is not how someone usually proceeds. While you indeed want to explain a fact, you use believable assumptions and then draw a theory and check whether it can replicate the fact. Also, you not want to have a model with many degrees of freedom to explain a single fact, you want to check on many aspects from the data.

Marcus Berliant and Hiroki Watanabe share this concern. They point out that the current theories assume that households cannot insure against city-level shocks, which are at the heart of the models. This is important, because insurance and moving can be considered substitutes. If some insurance is available for example through self-insurance, then there is little reason to move, especially given the empirically large costs of doing so, and all that matters are the initial conditions. In order to obtain more sensible results, Berliant and Watanabe assume that city-specific shocks leads to a winner-takes-all outcome: the best city gets to produce everything within a sector. Then insuring is inferior to moving, as the first yields only a partial wage while the latter a full wage. The availability of partial insurance does not change this. In some sense, the presence of insurance does not matter in this model, while it matters in others. But this relies on the extreme risk that is assumed. Have we progressed? I am not sure.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bruno Frey's academic utopia

Bruno Frey has fallen into disgrace these days as he has been shown to play dangerous games of self-plagiarism, submissions to multiple journals and hypocrisy in describing the perverse incentives facing researchers. I have argued recently that he is living in a bubble that has now popped.

Apparently not. With this wife Margit Osterloh, he just authored a paper about the impact of rankings on academic publishing. Their argument is that the current emphasis on rankings pushes academicians to privilege publication to science. They want to decouple funding, tenure and promotion from any evaluation metric. Rather, scientist should be carefully selected at their initial appointment and then be given guaranteed funding and only be asked to evaluate themselves. This strikes as a very utopian view of academia, and in particular a view that surprisingly ignores the impact of incentives on motivation. While the Frey and Osterloh utopia may yield in a few cases the expected very innovative researchers willing to take substantial risks along new paths, most would free-ride to a large degree. The best example of this is the French system of "research associates" on the national research foundation, who are appointed right after their doctorate for a lifetime position of researcher with no other significant duties. While this system has yielded some success stories, the research impact of these associates is rather dismal compared to researchers elsewhere who are subject to regular evaluations using publication metrics.

Reading through the paper, I could not resist to see the irony in many of the arguments, where Frey could be really writing about himself. A few quotes:
In academia, examples can be found (e.g. the ‘slicing strategy’) whereby scholars divide their research results into a ‘least publishable unit’ by breaking the results into as many papers as possible in order to enlarge their publication list.

Of course, Bruno Frey and his students are big specialists in slicing.
there is evidence showing that academics with the highest score in publication rankings score only modestly in a ranking based on their contributions in editorial boards (Rost and Frey, 2011).

Note that Frey was kicked off an editorial board for resubmitting a published paper elsewhere.
For example, a broad and international selection of reviewing peers is necessary in order to avoid cronyism.

Frey's colleague Ernst Fehr recently anointed one of his students with the most prestigious prize for an European economists. Frey and Osterloh argue that awards cannot be manipulated, while citations metrics can. I do not think this is true, in fact awards are easier to manipulate because they are determined by small committees. Citations come from the whole research community.
Another example is editors who encourage authors to cite their respective journals in order to raise their impact rankings

Frey requires this for acceptance in the journal he co-edits, Kyklos. At least, the paper does not mention self-plagiarism this time.

Is this paper a mea culpa? It certainly does not read that way. As in his previous writings on the publishing game, he comes across as someone about it all, who tell everyone how things should be while claiming the moral high ground. The paper was completed on August 24, 2011, thus well after all the conflagration about the hypocrisy of Bruno Frey, yet it does not show anything about it. Bruno Frey has not learned a thing. And, do you want to bet that he is submitting this to journal, taking away space that young researchers need to get publications for tenure, as he has argued before? In fact this particular paper would fit much as a blog post than into a journal.

Addendum: And they are doubling up with another paper, entitled "Input Control and Random Choice - Improving the Selection Process for Journal Articles" with the following abstract:
The process by which scholarly papers are selected for publication in a journal is faced with serious problems. The referees rarely agree and often are biased. This paper discusses two alternative measures to evaluate scholars. The first alternative suggests input control. The second one proposes that the referees should decide only whether a paper reaches a minimal level of quality. Within the resulting set, each paper should be chosen randomly. This procedure has advantages but also disadvantages. The more weight that is given to input control and random mechanism, the more likely it is that unconventional and innovative articles are published.

You read it right: instead of peer review, they advocate complete tyranny by editors who randomize over a select set or, alternatively, to decide early who is worthy publishing and then let the chosen few do as they wish. Which is how Bruno Frey and his lackeys have been operating. But at least Frey and Osterloh have had the decency to withdraw that last paper (which is why I print the abstract above).

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ethnic heterogeneity and natural disasters

Some countries seems to be very poorly located, as they are in the path of all sorts of natural disasters. But some do better than others in coping with their perilous situation. In particular, death tolls from cataclysms seems to be, in general, of an order of magnitude larger in developing countries. What else could influence such numbers?

Eiji Yamamura, from a rich and homogeneous country that does quite well with earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons, studies ethnic heterogeneity in two different ways in this regard. The first is ethnic polarization, which describes how close the distribution of ethnic group is from a fifty-fifty one, and ethnic fractionalization, which can be interpreted as the probability that two random people are from the same ethnic group. Once one adds the miracle instrument of cross-country regressions, legal origins, the first indicator has shows that heterogeneity has a positive impact on natural disaster deaths (meaning more of them), while the second has none.

Now Yamamamura takes this as a sign that ethnic polarization is a better indicator of ethnic heterogeneity than ethnic fractionalization. This looks like some seriously flawed reasoning here, which is repeated several times in the papers: the fact that some indicator tests favorably some hypothesis does not necessarily mean that it measures what the hypothesis says. What if in really the hypothesis is false? And in any case, on what theory would this hypothesis be based? I can easily imagine good reasons why homogeneity would lead to fewer deaths, a better social cohesion that leads to better institutions coping with disasters, like in Japan.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

How to publish prolifically

I dedicated several posts to Bruno Frey and his chronic self-plagiarism. In retrospect, one should have seen that something was fishy from the mere fact that he was simply publishing too much for it to be normal, 600 articles by his own count. It is not possible for an academic, at least in Economics to be that productive. Yet, there are some who seem to be on a similar path.

Take, for example, Michael McAleer. He is an Australian econometrician who had a very respectable career in the 1980's, publishing in the AER with Adrian Pagan (and a homophone of Paul A. Volcker), four Review of Economic Statistics, a Review of Economic Studies, an Economic Journal and plenty of other decent publications. McAleer get elected into the Academy of Social Science in Australia in 1996. Then the quality of the publications dips, as he must be facing the same loss in productivity so many in the profession suffer in their forties. Still a good stream of publications.

Then suddenly, a burst of historic proportions.

Let us first look at working papers. According to his RePEc page (that is all I could find, a 2004 CV has 32 pages despite having no publications listed): 12 in 2008, 45 in 2010, 39 in 2010, and so far 15 in 2011. And these are according to their titles, at least, distinct papers. How can one do this? First McAleer has many co-authors, but he is no Paul Erdős, as his has a small set of regular collaborators. Second, many of the papers are about the same theme, with small variations: journal impact, with applications to neuroscience, tourism studies, econometrics, and economics in general, including one that I discussed. There is nothing wrong with this, except that entire sections are copy-and-pasted from one paper to the next. His other papers, for example on tourism demand in the Far East, are incredibly thin slices of research.

But these are all working papers, and he is free to write all this as long as he does not pretend this is all original and substantially new work when submitting to journals that have such requirements. McAleer is, however, also publishing avidly, although luckily few of the papers mentioned above get placed, and then only poorly. In terms of publishing, he has found another niche, the Journal of Economic Surveys:
  • 2011, issue 2: 1 article
  • 2011, issue 1: 2 articles
  • 2010, issue 1: 2 articles
  • 2009, issue 5: 2 articles
  • 2007, issue 5: 1 article
  • 2006, issue 4: 3 articles
  • 2005, issue 5: 1 article

The journal has 5 issues a year, averaging 7 articles in each issue. That is a remarkable publishing success in a generalist journal. It turns out frequent co-author Les Oxley is the editor, who himself does not hesitate to frequently publish in his own journal. I counted 17 articles of non-editorial nature, several over 60 pages long, as well as 7 reports on conferences he attended.

A good number of those articles are titled "The Ten Commandments of ...", which I find rather pretentious. I was curious about The Ten Commandments for Academics, which could reveal some of the motivations of McAleer. They are:
  1. choose intellectual reward over money;
  2. seek wisdom over tenure;
  3. protect freedom of speech and thought vigorously;
  4. defend and respect intellectual quests passionately;
  5. embrace the challenge of teaching undergraduate students;
  6. acknowledge the enjoyment in supervising graduate students;
  7. be generous with office hours;
  8. use vacation time wisely;
  9. attend excellent conferences at great locations;
  10. age gracefully like great wine.

What I find interesting here is what was not considered. I think a better alternative, and one that would condemn much of what McAleer is doing, are due to Wesley Shrum:
  1. Thou shalt not work for deadlines;
  2. Thou shalt not accept prizes or awards;
  3. Honor thy forebears and colleagues regardless of status;
  4. Thou shalt not compete for recognition;
  5. Thou shalt not concern thyself with money;
  6. Thou shalt not seek to influence students but to convey your understandings and be honest about your ignorance;
  7. Thou shalt not require class attendance or emphasize testing;
  8. Thou shalt not worry about thy own intelligence or aspire to display it;
  9. Thou shalt not condemn those with different perspectives;

These are principles about integrity, about changing the world and putting the scientific interest ahead of oneself. McAleer, rather, seems keen on clogging journals and working paper series with useless drivel, showing off and self-plagiarizing. At least for the latter part of his career, I do not see a positive externality from his efforts.

To come back to my initial question, to be prolific: find willing co-authors and editors, slice thinly, copy-and-paste, and do not think too hard what academia is about.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Internet makes you happy

We have previous established that the Internet, contrarily to conventional wisdom, makes people more social. Does this also mean that people with Internet access are happier? Of course, one should take into account that those without Internet, at least nowadays, are likely to face hardships like low income and education.

Thierry Pénard, Raphaël Suire and Nicolas Poussing do such an analysis for Luxembourg and find indeed that Internet users are happier, especially among those with lower incomes. This is also true when taking into account the intensity of Internet use. This implies that making the Internet accessible to lower socio-economic classes can improve welfare, possibly significantly. Of course, one has to take with a grain of salt studies of happiness based on surveys that ask for subjective self-evaluations. That grain of salt may be bigger when one considers who small Luxembourg is. The approach then becomes similar to the randomized experiments in the development literature where results for a small set of villages are difficult to apply to other contexts. Yet, Luxembourg is surprisingly diverse, so maybe these results are generalizable. Readers, you can now safely that you are now happier from being on the Internet and reading this.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

One more perversion of employer-based health insurance

Whenever you see risk, you think insurance. And there are different ways to insure yourself. This may be by buying some contingent claims, often bundled into an insurance policy. Or this may be through self-insurance, whereby you build some assets for eventualities beyond savings needs. Formal insurance and self-insurance sure look like substitutes. For the case of health risk, this means that people with formal insurance should have less assets, other personal characteristics being controlled for. This statement is, however, factually wrong: insured people, ceteribus paribus, have more assets. That is difficult to square with standard theory.

Minchung Hsu makes a good attempts at solving this puzzle. The major assumption here is that health insurance is provided through employment (there is also private health insurance, but it is of minor importance, as in the data because it is crowded out by social programs). This means that the loss of employment bears a larger risk for someone who formally insures: one may loose income and insurance. Then, ironically, more self-insurance is needed than for someone who self-insures, but one has also to keep in mind that a self-insurer typically has lower income and is partially covered by social programs. Thus Hsu performs the same regressions as done in the literature and still finds the fact mentioned above. Interestingly, his regression also rejects the existence of precautionary savings, while it is the central element of the model. So much for the power of this test.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The fall of internal migration

It is costly to move, and those costs vary by culture and economic circumstances. International migration is of course hampered by immigrations laws and cultural barriers. But in most countries, internal migration is free and only restrained by costs and some degree of local attachment. In this respect, Americans are considered to be the most mobile, as they are very willing to drop everything to pursue better opportunities while the housing market is, usually, very fluid. In fact, the perception is that this mobility has even increased in the US and that it has been hampered only in the last few years, due to the current difficulties in selling homes.

Raven Molloy, Christopher Smith and Abigail Wozniak take a close look at the data and dispel some of those perceptions as myths. In fact, US internal migration has been in a steady decline for thirty years, a decline that in apparent whichever way you look at the data: by socioeconomic household characteristics and distance moved. And this has change little with the current crisis, probably because the additional incentive to move (as there is substantial evidence that some structural mismatch, including a geographic mismatch, has increased the unemployment rate recently) has been roughly compensated by the poor saleability of homes. Still, internal migration rates are still higher than almost everywhere else.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Pricing Asian options

Options are securities that are difficult to price. In particular American options, which can be exercised at any time posed a serious challenge that could only be solved in approximation with some Nobel Prize winning work. European options are simpler because they can only be exercised at maturity. Today, I learned there are also Asian options. Asia seem really to catch up in all aspects of economic life. Asian options are American options with the difference that the exercise price is some form of average of the underlying price.

Paolo Foschi, Stefano Pagliarini and Andrea Pascucci provide a way to price Asian options in a first approximation under local volatility, that is the price volatility depend on the current price level, and provide an algorithm for higher order approximations. As you may guess, it is not straightforward. Along the way, I also learned about the Greeks in option pricing. They measure various aspects of the sensitivity of option prices to underlying parameters, and they are usually represented by Greek letters. Now that I have learned that, I'll leave the actual pricing of Asian options to others.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Greening production through information

People in general prefer green products, although they are not always ready to pay a significant markup for a greener product. If they know that a product has been manufactured using green procedures, there will attach more value to it if the claim is credible. Several green labels, supposed to certify such claims, have emerged, but none have much recognition, in fact one sometimes wonders whether some of them are really weak.

Another approach is voluntary disclose of pollution emissions and other environmental disclosures by the industry. This is reviewed by, take a deep breath, Venkatachalam Anbumozhi, Qwanruedee Chotichanathawewong and Thirumalainambi Murugesh with a focus on Asia. They highlight that the final consumer is not necessarily the one targeted by this information. For example, some investment funds, in particular sovereign wealth funds, are under pressure to invest in ethical firms. Or potential employees may avoid polluters, and local planning may benefit form the available information, thus encouraging local investment.

The authors argue that there is little environmental regulation in most of Asian, with makes the price of environmental benefits close to zero. If you want firms to start abating, you need regulation, and then they also be willing to should how well they abate, leading to more abatement. In some larger Asian countries, a few modest disclosure programs have started, and they have shown excellent prospect in increasing environmental compliance.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Economic freedom and prisons

Americans are proud of their freedoms, political or economic ones. Yet, they are very trigger happy when it comes to takes one's freedoms, say by taking voting rights from felons, throwing people into prison or even executing them. How could such an apparent disconnect be explained? Why is the US different from Europe, where there is less economic freedom, but also much less punishment?

Rafael di Tella and Juan Dubra note that this apparent paradox does not only appear across countries, but also over time within the United States. For example, over the 30 years including the "Reagan Revolution" that considerably deregulated the economy, incarceration rates were multiplied by seven. They explain this with a theory that states the following. People view that when there are ample opportunities for legal activities in a system where there are many economic freedoms, people who still commit illegal acts must be "meaner" than the average criminal in a world with fewer economic freedoms. This can be supported with some limited empirics, but this is quite an appealing explanation. Indeed, Americans strongly believe that effort, not luck, is the root of success, and thus offer few excuses to those who become criminals out of necessity, an opinion that interestingly more and more African-Americans share.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

More on institutions and growth

There a large belief in the development community that institutions matter. This has emerging from a large number of cross-country regressions, regressions that one should always take with a grain of salt because of methodological issues and data quality. However, this result has emerged so frequently that it must indeed matter. But the precise mechanism through which institutions matter of the course of development is still rather unexplored.

Ines Lindner and Holger Strulik come up with an interesting theory. When the economy is fragmented into small regions, entrepreneurial behavior is governed by local and informal enforcement. But as economies become more integrated, through specialization and/or the reduction in transportation costs, "connectivities" go from local to global, and informal enforcement is not sufficient. Formal institutions need to arise, and if they are weak, entrepreneurship will be weak. I wonder, though, how such a theory of networks could be tested in the data.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Who spent the 2001 Bush tax rebate?

Do tax rebate such as those implemented at various times by the Bush II administration work? Measuring this is not obvious. Previous studies have typically exploited the timing of the receipt of the rebate checks to see how expenses have changed. But most people have anticipated these payments, thus the marginal propensity to consume is mismeasured: it measures the propensity to consume due to short-term liquidity considerations beyond the consumption response from the announcement of the program.

Greg Kaplan and Giovanni Violante go a step further in this analysis and build a model that replicates the measurements found in the literature and the large share of hand-to-mouth households using an economy of liquid and illiquid assets with transaction costs. They define hand-to-mouth households as those who hold less that half their periodic pay in liquid assets. That seems very shaky to measure, as the timing of the relevant survey matters a lot here. But assuming there is no systematic error, they then extrapolate through the model what the response from the announcement of the rebate should have been. This adds 7-8% to the marginal propensity to consume. Interestingly, this come in large part form rich household who have only little liquid wealth because their assets are mostly in real estate and retirements funds. An important consequence of this is that larger tax rebates would have little impact, as they would make it more interesting to bear the costs of putting them into illiquid wealth. In fact, the marginal propensity to consume could even turn negative.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why is blackmail costly?

Blackmail is a strange concept. Threatening to reveal information is legal. Asking money for a service is legal. But doing both at the same time is illegal. Even stranger, when the transaction is initiated by the one who could be harmed by the revelation, this is technically a bribery, it is legal. So why this difference? The conventional answer is that blackmail is about rent-seeking. But if the damaging information is freely available, there is no welfare loss justifying the criminalization of blackmail.

Oleg Yerokhin claims the justification can lie within the bargaining power structure between the two parties. Indeed, when the information holder is a monopolist, he will have more power than socially optimal, and should thus be punished to internalize this cost. But when the target is a monopolist, then the outcome reverses, and the blackmailer should be subsidized rather than punished. Yet, I hardly find this argument convincing on the grounds that blackmailers are certainly less likely to be monopolists than victims. Indeed, information is duplication at zero or close to zero cost, making it difficult for a monopoly to arise in such a situation. But this information can easily be about one particular person only.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Near rational agents and house price booms

House price run-ups, especially when they appear excessive, are difficult to explain. It is it even more difficult to explain how they are not coordinated across countries in a globalized world. Indeed, right now house prices are severely depressed in the United States, while you can have strong suspicions of bubbles in China, Norway and Switzerland. Bubbles are substantial deviations from fundamentals that could be due to some deviations from rationality or herd behavior, or both. But "rationalizing" this is a major challenge because of the apparent randomness of the occurrence of such house price booms.

Klaus Adam, Pei Kuang and Albert Marcet think they have a way to explain this using the concept of internally rationally agent. Such a agent, like the economist, does not know the true process of prices but tries to infer it from past observation using Bayes' rule. The belief about prices then becomes part of the state space and leads to some sort of path dependence. With shocks that are not perfectly correlated, it is then possible for different countries to experience different paths for house prices.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Why September 11 is remarkable

Amid the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I cannot help thinking how successful theses attacks have been. For an organization that wanted the United States to pay for sending troops to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf war, a relatively little investment paid huge dividends. Indeed the cost of the operation, including training, must have cost only something to be measured in millions of dollars and the lives of 19 volunteers. The return was getting the United States involved in two wars that have costs amounting to trillions, brought the federal government in major financial difficulties, have lead authorities to neglect essential infrastructure investment for a decade, has kept the population in a nevrotic state for a decade, has given us higher oil prices (with revenue going you-know-where) and has lead to major setbacks in civil liberties. And that is just for the United States, as Europe has also been affected. And the costs will continue to mount, as the US is none the wiser and will have to face in addition the costs of care for veterans.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The impact of fiscal uncertainty

Current US fiscal policy is absolutely frustrating. There does seem to be a clear direction, in particular because policy making is rather irrational due to a set of unduly influential and crazy lawmakers. In the end, this means considerable uncertainty about future fiscal policy, in particular because it may not react to economic events in ways that make economic or historic sense. What is the impact of such uncertainty?

Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, Pablo Guerrón-Quintana, Keith Kuester and Juan Rubio-Ramirez address this with a New Keynesian business cycle model that feature variable volatility in fiscal policy. Their conclusion is that the current uncertainty lowers activity and has the policy equivalent of a 25 basis point increase in the federal funds rate, which I find rather minor. The model rightfully yields that the main mechanism is through investment and the uncertainty on capital return taxation. I find it interesting that it leads to stagflation, as firm opt for higher prices to reduce miss-pricing costs. In the end, the authors show that if one removes the usual automatic stabilizers and assume very persistent fiscal shocks, which may be a good characterization of the current situation, the prediction is a 0.5% reduction in output, which I am ready to believe.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The polygyny-slave trade connection

Polygyny, a male marrying several females, is now rare except for Africa and especially Western Africa. Why would it be so prevalent in West Africa? To sustain polygyny, one needs an unbalanced sex-ratio, which is not the case there.

John Dalton and Tin Cheuk Leung claim that this is just a matter of very persistent institutions. Indeed, the sex-ratio used to be unbalanced for extensive periods in West Africa, and in a more pronounced and persistent way than anywhere else, due to the slave trade. Indeed, it took away many males from the region through the actual forced emigration, but also because of the many tribal wars associated with slave capture raids (which Dalton and Leung do not take into account).

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Econophysics: an introduction

I have criticized a number of times Econophysics as a rather naive venture of physicists into Economics, where there is too much focus on "automatic" data exploration and too little use of theory and understanding of what the data measure. But may it is just my prejudice against and my ignorance of Econophysics.

B. G. Sharma, Sadhana Agrawal, Malti Sharma, D. P. Bisen and Ravi Sharma offer in six pages an account of what Econophysics is, what its goals are, what it can contribute and where it is headed. The basic idea is that economic agents are like particles in that they are in large numbers and interact in complex ways. The dynamics of such complex processes are studied with powerful statistical tools in Physics, and physicists think that this should also apply to Economics. The focus is very much on the stock market, probably because physicists have realized where money can be made. There is no sense that there would be an attempt to improve welfare. They are also much more likely to completely discard a model in one set of observations does not corroborate it. Physicists are especially critical of how economists stick to rejected dogmas and of their inability to explain how small shocks can pan out into large crises.

The focus is really on the description of data process and documenting there statistical properties. In particular, econophysicists want to find ways to exploit even the smallest opportunities for arbitrage by finding, often through obscure and complex black box processes, the right price of an asset at any moment in time. However, there is no attempt at understanding why these arbitrage opportunities arise, say because of some form of irrationality, asymmetric information or perverse interactions in the price mechanism. From this I conclude that Econophysics can be interesting to make money on the stock market, but at least at this point, does not help us in any way in understanding why the world is like it is. Which I find rather ironic for Physics.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Progesa: a success story thanks to academics

I have written a few times about the frustration when policy makers ignore the advice of economists. Yet, there are a few cases where economists were given free reign over the design of policy interventions, which not only allowed to obtain positive outcomes but also useful information for further study.

Nora Lustig reports about Progresa, the Mexican cash transfers program designed to elicit parents to send their kids to school and make sure necessary health check-ups were attended. From the start, the program was designed and administrated by people with an academic background. Progresa has worked remarkably well, to the point that it was not only not scrapped, as is usual, with presidential changes, its coverage also kept increasing. The only setback was a name change to Oportunidades. The critical ingredient to this success was the scholarly involvement, that not only designed it for success, but also provided the tools to measure this. And along with that a wealth of data that has allowed to understand even better what makes good intervention in practice.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Emotions in economic interactions

How do you get people to cooperate. By increasing utility, of course, but that is difficult to measure, obviously, and there may some components beyond rationality in emotional contexts. However, we have some interesting ways to get some neurological hints about positive and negative emotions by measuring the conductance of skin. This may help to explain why people are sometimes willing to hurt themselves in order to punish others.

Mateus Joffily, David Masclet, Charles Noussair and Marie-Claire Villeval conduct an experiment where cooperation, free-riding and punishment can happen. They measure skin conductance to reveal the intensity of emotions and let players reveal whether their emotions are positive or negative. Cooperation and punishment of free-riding elicit positive emotions, the latter indicating that emotions can override self-interest. That is also because punishment relieves some of the negative emotions from observing free-riding. And one does not like being punished, which lends one to cooperate more in the future. Finally, people like being in a set-up where sanctions are possible, in particular because it allows a virtuous circle of emotions that reinforce each other and lead to more cooperation.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Bruno Frey Bubble

About four months ago, I reported about the apparent self-plagiarism by Bruno Frey, David Savage and Benno Torgler. I found the case particularly ironic, as Bruno Frey repeatedly wrote about the fact that the pressure to publish to get tenure can lead to scholar to unethical behavior, and about the lack of space in journals for young scholars to publish the articles needed for tenure.

The case has taken a much larger dimension now, as many more cases of self-plagiarism by Bruno Frey and his students have appeared (see many links in the comments on the post mentioned above). This raises two very important questions: 1) how could such a culture of self-plagiarism arise? 2) How could they get away with it for so long?

To answer the first question, I think we need to put Bruno Frey is the context of the German(-speaking) academic environment. At least in Economics and Business, the typical German professor publishes a lot of rather insignificant articles, in particular book chapters and "Festschrifts." These works are rarely original, and are not expected to be so. There is also a tradition of writing "educational" pieces that explain economic concepts, say the Edgeworth box or voluntary export restraints, for journals targeted towards professionals in industry and government (as well as students). Again, there is nothing original in there, except maybe the way something is explained.

Bruno Frey works within this paradigm. His work lacks creativity in the sense that he recycles a lot of his ideas for multiple publications, often copying extensively his own words. The differences is that he does that at a higher level than his German colleagues, in international journals that are actually read. And many of his original papers are in fact not that original it appears. If we take the Titanic paper as an example, the empirical exercise he performs is routinely done in undergraduate statistics classes with the same dataset. His contribution is pedagogical, he found a good and interesting way to explain something already present in the body of knowledge.

Like a bubble that keeps getting fed by self-fulfilling expectations, Bruno Frey built on his initial success and continued with this strategy and encouraged his students to do the same. And several of them have assembled remarkable portfolios that way. I mentioned that of Benno Torgler in my original post, but there are several others who got into positions that seem beyond the usual reach of a Swiss doctoral program.

There is another way in which this resembles a bubble. The Economics department at the University of Zurich has made considerable efforts over the past decade or so to become a program that can compete with the better departments in the world. It is certainly among the best in Europe. It did so by americanizing itself: dropping to a large extend the rigid chair structure so prevalent in German speaking universities, hiring internationally respect scholars and creating a proper PhD program with courses and exams. Bruno Frey has not followed this trend at all. In fact, he insisted on exempting his students from the course and exam requirements. The Frey group lives in a cocoon apart from the rest of the department, and lives entirely following the role model of Bruno Frey. Call this living in a bubble.

Or a cult. The interaction of Bruno Frey and his students is reminiscent of a prophet and his disciples who follow him everywhere and write down every word he utters. Well, I exaggerate somewhat, but this does definitely not look like a standard interaction between a mentor and his students. It looks like they follow him blindly, and with his everlasting confidence, he makes them follow his example in publishing.

But this bubble is now popping under the assault of widespread scrutiny from editors, the Economics community and an internal investigation at the University of Zurich. The second question of course is how it was possible for Bruno Frey to act so unethically for so long (he is 70). It appears that he has been caught in the past, but it never became public, or at least explicitly. For example, he has been booted out of an editorial board, but there was no mention of why, his name just disappeared from the list. Also, the journals he has been publishing in are often not prominent and thus not that well read. In fact, it looks like he targeted them so that the audience would not overlap, including editors and referees (the added bonus of this strategy that it satisfies the goal of increasing the pedagogical reach by reaching very different audiences).

Hiding this unethical may have been helped by the fact that Bruno Frey actually tried to present himself as an expert on publishing ethics in Economics. He has written about the perils of publication pressure and how this can lead to slicing papers into insignificant bits, to self-plagiarizing and other unethical behavior. He has complained loudly about the ranking craze which he has been so adept to exploit, both with his self-plagiarism and by requiring authors to cite other works in Kyklos to increase its impact factor. While he is certainly not the only editor to do so, it is ironic that he openly campaigned against such practices. Bruno Frey abused the moral high ground in which he pictured himself.

But as every lie that grows too big over time, this is unsustainable. And it will be less likely to happen in the future with initiatives like this one. Making this unethical behavior more visible will prevent it.

That said, self-plagiarism is not limited to the Bruno Frey group or German speaking economists. I will discuss soon another case that I find particularly enraging.