Tag Archives: economics

Would a protest influence you?

Help, a politician I don’t like is in power! I should do something about it. But what? I know! I will join a protest – this is something. Now I can feel good about myself for having done something. And post on social media how I opposed evil so effectively. I am a socially conscious, altrustic person.

On a more serious note, one way to evaluate whether a given protest could change the situation is to put yourself in the position of the target audience. If your favourite politician was in power, would this protest change your support for said politician? If you were the politician in power, would you change your policy when many opponents use this protest against it?

Even if the answer is no, a protest may still have some effect, because it may change the preferences of the swing voters. The „no” may come from deeply ideological people, whereas more open-minded folks may conform to the herd. If they see many people opposed to something, they may start to oppose it too.

On the other hand, a protest may have the opposite effect to the one intended. It may harden ideological positions and increase polarisation. If the majority is weakly in favour of a policy, then protests against it may strengthen the support of the majority for it, leading to greater turnout and more yes-votes.

From an economic viewpoint, marching on the street with signs, chanting slogans or commenting on social media has no direct impact on politicians or most voters. The exception is those who are stuck in a traffic jam when a protest closes a street. Rational agents should not pay attention to protests which do not affect them (such activism is „cheap talk” in economic jargon, or at best „money burning”).

Real people may be swayed by the opinion of a large crowd. However, a form of protest that has an objective impact on people’s lives is likely to influence people more, because it affects them via both the opinion of the crowd and the direct impact. Both the belief shift and the hardening of the opposition are probably greater.

There are many illegal means of directly affecting the population, but also some legal forms of protest with objective impact. Economic protest is boycotting certain countries, firms or goods, refusing to work for the regime, and moving elsewhere („voting with one’s feet”), and is usually legal. The objective impact is that if enough intelligent and hardworking people shift their spending and taxpaying elsewhere, then the regime will be in fiscal trouble. If this does not change the policy of the leadership, then at least the lack of money will make the program harder to carry out.

There is a larger personal cost for economic protest than for cheap talk. One has to give up certain goods, or pay more, or experience the hassle of moving residence. This is why most people who threaten to boycott a firm or leave a country do not end up doing so. The threats are just another form of cheap talk, which can be posted on social media to impress other cheap talkers.

On backpackers and low-spending tourists

Countries encourage tourism to make money. The same goes for local governments, tourism industry associations and tour firms. Some places provide options for low-spending tourists like backpackers, despite not making much money from them. These options may be cheap campsites, backpacker hostels, allowing hitchhiking and work-travel visas. At first sight, any positive revenue from poorer tourists would justify welcoming them. This simple revenue calculation, however, neglects the substitution effect and dynamic demand.

Substitution means that if cheaper travel options are available, then some tourists who would have spent more in the absence of these options now spend less. For example, a person who would stay in a hotel if there was no other accommodation, stays in a backpacker hostel instead. On the other hand, if all options are expensive, then the poorest tourists do not come at all. There is a tradeoff between the number of tourists and the average tourist’s spending. If introducing cheaper options leads to many tourists switching to these, but does not attract many additional low-spending people, then creating these cheaper options reduces total profit.

Dynamic demand means that a person who has toured a particular location once changes his or her likelihood of going there in the future. For example, having seen a tourist site, a person does not visit it again. Or someone going on vacation and liking the location starts going there year after year. If a region encourages young, low-income people to visit as backpackers, then it may increase or decrease future visits by these people when they are older and wealthier. In particular, if people do not tour the same location again (and spend more when older), then encouraging them to visit when young reduces the total profit from them over their lifetime.

The fact that some regions welcome backpackers has several possible explanations. There may not be much substitution, or a visit may increase future visits. The tourism industry may not have thought this through and may be reducing their own profit inadvertently. Or the government may have other objectives than taxes from the tourism industry. For example, allowing people from other countries to visit cheaply may make these people friendly to the host country, which may yield some nonmonetary benefit in international relations.


Measuring a person’s contribution to society

Sometimes it is debated whether one profession or person contributes more to society than another, for example whether a scientist is more valuable than a doctor. There are many dimensions to any job. One could compare the small and probabilistic contribution to many people’s lives that a scientist makes to the large and visible influence of a doctor to a few patients’ wellbeing. These debates can to some extent be avoided, because a simple measure of a person’s contribution to society is their income. It is an imperfect measure, as are all measures, but it is an easily obtained baseline from which to start. If the people compared are numerous, un-cartelized and employed by numerous competitive employers, then their pay equals their marginal productivity, as explained in introductory economics.

People are usually employed by one firm at a time, and full-time non-overtime work is the most common, so the employers can be thought of as buying one “full-time unit” of labour from each worker. The marginal productivity equals the total productivity in the case where only one or zero units can be supplied. So the salary equals the total productivity at work.

Income from savings in a competitive capital market equals the value provided to the borrower of those savings. If the savings are to some extent inherited or obtained from gifts, then the interest income is to that extent due to someone else’s past productivity. Then income is greater than the contribution to society.

Other reasons why income may be a biased measure are negative externalities (criminal income measures harm to others), positive externalities (scientists help future generations, but don’t get paid for it), market power (teachers, police, social workers employed by monopsonist government get paid less than their value), transaction costs (changing a job is a hassle for the employer and the employee alike) and incomplete information (hard to measure job performance, so good workers underpaid and bad overpaid on average). In short, all the market failures covered in introductory economics.

If the income difference is large and the quantitative effect of the market failures is similar (neither person is a criminal, both work for employers whose competitive situations are alike, little inheritance), then the productivity difference is likely to be in the same direction as the salary difference. If the salary difference is small and the jobs are otherwise similar, the contribution to society is likely similar, so ranking their productivity is not that important. Comparison of people whose labour markets have different failures to a different extent is difficult.

Local and organic food is wasteful

The easiest measure of any good’s environmental impact is its price. It is not a perfect measure. Subsidies for the inputs of a product can lower its price below more environmentally friendly alternatives that are not favoured by the government. Taxes, market power, externalities and incomplete information can similarly distort relative prices, as introductory economics courses explain. However, absent additional data, a more expensive good likely requires more resources and causes more environmental damage. Remembering this saves time on debating whether local non-organic is better than non-local organic fair trade, etc.

Local and organic are marketing terms, one suggesting helping local farmers and a lower environmental impact from transport, the other claiming health benefits and a lower environmental impact from fertilizers. Organic food may use less of some category of chemicals, but this must have a tradeoff in lower yield (more land used per unit produced) or greater use of some other input, because its higher price shows more resource use overall. From the (limited) research I have read, there is no difference in the health effects of organic and non-organic food. To measure this difference, a selection bias must be taken into account – the people using organic are more health-conscious, so may be healthier to start with. On the other hand, those buying organic and local may be more manipulable, which has unknown health effects. Local food may use less resources for transport, but its higher price shows it uses more resources in total. One resource is the more expensive labour of rich countries (the people providing this labour consume more, thus have a greater environmental impact).

If one wants to help “local farmers” (usually large agribusinesses, not the family farms their lobbying suggests), one can give them money directly. No need to buy their goods, just make them a bank transfer and then buy whichever product is the least wasteful.

There are economies of scale in farming, so the more efficient large agricultural companies tend to outcompete family farms. The greater efficiency is also more environmentally friendly: more production for the same resources, or the same production with less. Helping the small farms avoid takeover is bad for the environment.

Fair trade and sustainable sourcing may be good things, if the rules for obtaining this classification are reasonable and enforced. But who buying fair trade or sustainable has actually checked what the meaning behind the labels is (the “fine print”), or verified with independent auditors whether the nice-sounding principles are put into practice? When a term is used in marketing, I suspect business as usual behind it.

Economics to guide materials science

There are too many possible materials to test them all, or even simulate by computer. Materials scientists theorize what combinations of elements are likely to yield the desired properties, but still there are too many possibilities. One way to narrow the choice is to use economics.

If the goal of developing a material is to change the world or make money, the benefit of the invention must exceed the cost. The benefit comes from the improved characteristics of the material relative to existing alternatives. What the market is willing to pay for an improvement depends on its size. There may be a theoretical maximum for a property, or its historical rate of increase may be used to forecast the likely improvement. Once an approximate willingness to pay for a unit of the candidate invented material is known, this can be compared with its estimated cost.

Financial firms dealing in commodity futures forecast the prices of chemical elements over the likely commercialization time horizon. Only materials using a combination of elements that is cheap enough are commercially promising. Cheap enough means that the improved material must cost less per unit than the market is willing to pay for it. An expensive element can be used, but only in appropriately tiny quantity. The requirement that the bundle of elements cost less than some bound cuts down on the number of combinations that are worth testing. Similarly, the manufacturing method must be cheap enough, so some methods may be ignored.

The basic cost-benefit analysis is a simple idea, though the benefit estimation may be complicated in practice. Probably the companies producing various materials are already taking the potential cost and benefit of an innovation into account in their R&D, but academic materials scientists perhaps not. If the goal is to advance fundamental science and satisfy one’s curiosity, then the cost of the material may not be an issue. But for the world to use the material, it must be cheap enough.

A practical recommendation is for an application-oriented lab to put up a periodic table with the prices of the elements added. A spreadsheet with the prices of commodities can be used to calculate the cost of a candidate combination for a new material. Testing the candidates should proceed in the order of decreasing “profit” (benefit minus cost of the material). This profit is not necessarily the same as commercial profit, because the benefit may include its whole contribution to society, not just the revenue to the producer.

Empirical project ideas with econjobmarket and AEAweb JOE

The websites econjobmarket.org and AEAweb JOE are centralized job finding sites for economics PhDs. These have databases of application materials of thousands of job candidates, and the interviews many of them got. The subsequent jobs and publications of the job candidates are listed on the web. There are many empirical projects that can be done with this data, for example how certain keywords in recommendation letters predict the job that a candidate gets, or how the CV at the time of job application predicts future performance. One comparison that has been done in the sciences (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2572075/) is how recommendations of male and female candidates differ, i.e. what words are frequently used for one gender that are not used for the other. It is likely that economics recommendation letters contain similar biases.
The professors of top universities who have access to the databases of the job market websites have an advantage in hiring. They can predict which candidates perform well in the future and offer jobs to those. The employers without access to the databases are left with less promising candidates.

Smarter people have a comparative advantage in theory

Theory research requires figuring out the result and how to prove it, and then writing these down. Empirical research requires the same, plus running the experiment or analyzing the data in order to prove the result. This requires relatively more time and less insight. If the production function of empirics requires in its input mix more time per unit of insight than the production function of theory, then smarter people have a comparative advantage in theory. They are endowed with more insight, but everyone has the same amount of time.
The amounts of theory and empirical research produced per unit of insight need not be related in any way for the above comparative advantage result.
Based on comparative advantage, I should switch to empirical research 🙂
Some empirical research methods are quite simple, but modern theory requires complicated math. Due to this, empirical research requires more time per unit of methods knowledge in its input mix. People with a stronger methodological background (better education) thus have a comparative advantage in theory. This suggests graduates of universities with more (advanced) coursework should be more likely to do theory.

Lobbying for free insurance

In many countries, farmers have managed to obtain free insurance from the government – if there is a bad harvest (due to drought, flood or anything else), the government compensates the farmers using tax revenue. On the other hand, if the harvest is unusually bountiful, the farmers do not pay a windfall tax to the government (which would reduce the tax bill of other people or provide more public services). There is thus no premium for the insurance that the rest of society provides to agribusiness.
A thought experiment: the insurance for the agricultural industry is bought from some insurance company who has to pay the farmers if the harvest is bad.  The premiums paid to the insurer are taken from the general tax revenues each year. If the insurance company just breaks even (perhaps due to enough competition between insurers, profits are driven to zero), then the movement of money is the same as in the case of “free” insurance by the government.
Agribusiness has managed to pump some money out of other taxpayers with the free insurance. Their success is explained by the classic lobbying theory: if the benefits of lobbying go to a small group, each member of which gets a large sum, then each member of that group has an incentive to put in the effort and money for influencing politicians. If the cost of lobbying is borne by a large group (say the taxpayers), each member of which only pays a small amount, then members of the paying group do not find it worthwhile to make the effort to counterlobby. The savings are too small to be worth the time and money.
If some politician tries to reduce the subsidy to farmers, they are targeted with intense negative publicity. The agricultural industry claims itself to be necessary for “food security” or “feeding the people”. Nevermind that large amounts of food are currently shipped worldwide. Only the import barriers to foreign-produced food are keeping it out of the domestic market. And food security – who takes a country by blockading it into submission these days? A force large enough to surround the country and cut off food import is large enough to take it by storm, which is considerably quicker. Food security really means preventing the rise of food prices. But this is a financial problem and has a financial solution – insurance against a price rise.
If reducing the farming subsidy does not work, a similar effect can be achieved by providing the same subsidy to everyone and raising taxes. Only the administrative costs are higher than in the case of reducing the subsidy. Other industries could argue that they are affected by the weather or other “national emergencies” and deserve compensation from the government. For example, rainy weather reduces ice cream sales and tourism revenues, so the ice cream sellers and the tourism industry could lobby for the same free insurance as the farmers get. If the world price of some natural resource falls, the miners of that could claim an event beyond their control is threatening them with bankruptcy and ask the government for help. If the tastes of the public change so that some form of entertainment is no longer profitable (theatre, opera, classical music), the providers of that can claim to be important for preserving the national culture and the very civilization itself and ask for taxpayer support… wait, that already happens. It is described in the Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister books.
Of course in reality, the subsidies differ across industries, depending on their lobbying prowess. But if the subsidies were proportional to the tax payments of their receivers, they would neatly cancel with the extra taxes levied to finance them. So the government could abolish subsidies by enlarging the set of receivers to include everyone.
By providing free or subsidized insurance, the government is crowding out private insurance – why insure and pay premiums if the government compensates the loss without premiums? This is especially a problem for risks that are common to many voters. For example, a flood is likely to affect the whole neighbourhood, not just one house. In case of flood damage, the people in the neighbourhood can jointly lobby for the declaration of a disaster zone and a public subsidy for rebuilding. So no need to buy flood insurance. With very few buyers, insurance companies stop offering the product.

Of rankings

Many universities advertise themselves as being among the top n in the world (or region, country etc). Many more than n in fact, for any n small enough (1000, 500, 100 etc). How can this be? There are many different rankings of universities, each university picks the ranking in which it is the highest and advertises that. So if there are 10 rankings, each with a different university as number one, then there are at least 10 universities claiming to be number one.
There are many reasonable ways to rank a scientist, a journal, a university or a department. For a scientist, one can count all research articles published, or only those in the last 10 or 5 years, or only those in the top 100 journals in the field, or any of the previous weighted by some measure of quality, etc. Quality can be the number of citations, or citations in the last 5 years or from papers in the top 50 journals or quality-weighted citations (for some measure of quality)…
What are the characteristics of a good ranking? Partly depends on what one cares about. If a fresh PhD student is looking for an advisor, it is good to have an influential person who can pull strings to get the student a job. Influence is positively related to total citations or quality-weighted publications, and older publications may be better known than newer. If a department is looking to hire a professor, they would like someone who is active in research, not resting on past glory. So the department looks at recent publications, not total lifetime ones. Or at least divides the number of publications by the number of years the author has been a researcher.
Partly the characteristics of a good ranking are objective. It is the quality-weighted publications that matter, not just total publications. Similarly for citations. Coauthored publications should matter less than solo-authored. The ranking should not be manipulable by splitting one’s paper into two or more, or merging several papers into one. It should not increase if two authors with solo papers agree to add each other as the author, or if two coauthors having two papers together agree to make both papers single-authored, one under each of their names. Therefore credit for coauthored papers should be split between authors so that the shares sum to one.
How to measure the quality of a publication? One never knows the true impact that a discovery will have over the infinite future. Only noisy signals about this can be observed. There currently is no better measure than the opinion of other scientists, but how to transform vague opinions into numerical rankings?  The process seems to start with peer review.
Peer review is not a zero-one thing that a journal either has or not. There are a continuum of quality levels of it, from the top journals with very stringent requirements to middle ones where the referees only partly read or understand the paper, to fake journals that claim to have peer review but really don’t. There have been plenty of experiments where someone has submitted a clearly wrong or joke article to (ostensibly peer-reviewed) journals and got it accepted. Even top journals are not perfect, as evidenced by corrigenda published by authors and critical comments on published articles by other researchers. Even fake journals are unlikely to accept a paper where every word is “blah” – it would make their lack of review obvious and reduce revenue from other authors.
The rankings (of journals, researchers, universities) I have seen distinguish peer-reviewed journals from other publications in a zero-one way, not acknowledging the shades of grey between lack of review and competent review.
How to measure the quality of peer-review in a journal? One could look at the ranking of the researchers who are the reviewers and editors, but then how to rank the researchers? One could look at the quality-weighted citations per year to papers in the journal, but then what is the q    uality of a citation?
Explicit measurement of the quality of peer-review is possible: each author submitting a paper is asked to introduce a hard-to-notice mistake into the paper deliberately, report that mistake to an independent database and the referees are asked to report all mistakes they find to the same database. The author can dispute claimed mistakes and some editor has to have final judgement. It is then easy to compare the quality of review across journals and reviewers by the fraction of introduced mistakes they find. This is the who-watches-the-watchmen situation studied in Rahman (2010) “But who will monitor the monitor?” (http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/aer.102.6.2767).
One could disregard the journal altogether and focus on quality-weighted citations of the papers, but there is useful information contained in the reputation of a journal. The question is measuring that reputation explicitly.
If there is no objective measure of paper quality (does the chemical process described in it work, the algorithm give a correct solution, the material have the claimed properties etc), then a ranking of papers must be based on people’s opinions. This is like voting. Each alternative to be voted on is a ranking of papers, or there may simply be voting for the best paper. Arrow’s impossibility theorem applies – it is not possible to establish an overall ranking of papers (that is Pareto efficient, independent of irrelevant alternatives, non-dictatorial) using people’s individual rankings.
Theorists have weakened independence of irrelevant alternatives (ranking of A and B does not depend on preferences about other options). If preferences are cardinal (utility values have meaning beyond their ordering), then some reformulations of Arrow’s criteria can be simultaneously satisfied and a cardinal ordering of papers may be derivable from individual orderings.
If the weight of a person’s vote on the ranking of papers or researchers depends on the rank this person or their papers get, then the preference aggregation becomes a fixed point problem even with truthful (nonstrategic) voting. (This is the website relevance ranking problem, addressed by Google’s PageRank and similar algorithms.) There may be multiple fixed points, i.e. multiple different rankings that weight the votes of individuals by their rank and derive their rank from everyone’s votes.
For example, A, B and C are voting on their ranking. Whoever is top-ranked by voting gets to be the dictator and determines everyone’s ranking. A, B, C would most prefer the ranking of themselves to be ABC, BCA and CAB respectively. Each of these rankings is a fixed point, because each person votes themselves as the dictator if they should become the dictator, and the dictator’s vote determines who becomes the dictator.
A fixed point may not exist: with voters A and B, if A thinks B should be the dictator and B thinks A should, and the dictator’s vote determines who becomes the dictator, then a contradiction results no matter whether A or B is the dictator.
If voting is strategic and more votes for you gives a greater weight to your vote, then the situation is the one studied in Acemoglu, Egorov, Sonin (2012) “Dynamics and stability of constitutions, coalitions, and clubs.” (http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?f=s&doi=10.1257/aer.102.4.1446). Again, multiple fixed points are possible, depending on the starting state.
Suppose now that the weights of votes are fixed in advance (they are not a fixed point of the voting process). An objective signal that ranks some alternatives, but not all, does not change the problem coming from Arrow’s impossibility theorem. An objective signal that gives some noisy information about the rank or quality of each alternative can be used to prevent strategic manipulation in voting, but does not change the outcome under truthful voting much (outcome is probably continuous in the amount of noise).

Claims that the economics job market is tough this year

It seems that every year since I started grad school, I hear someone say that the economics job market is tough (for candidates) that year. Usually it is in connection with some graduate student on the market getting a less good job than one anticipated. But the toughness of the market is a relative measure, so relative to what year is this year tough? Relative to 1950? After the Second World War, the US expanded its university sector with the GI Bill, which created a large demand for new faculty members. This made the market easy for candidates and as the effect gradually faded, the market got tougher. This is probably not what people have in mind when they claim a tough market.
As computing power becomes cheaper, the demand for people who are substitutes of computers (theorists) falls and the demand for complements of computers (empirical and computational researchers) rises. So the theory market may get tougher for candidates over time, but the empirical market should get easier.
There are other long term trends, like the fraction of the population getting a university degree increasing, but at a decreasing rate. If the university sector expands to cater to the increased demand, the market should get easier for candidates. But this also depends on the expectations of the universities. Hiring responds to anticipated future enrollment, not just the current number of students.  So if demand for university education rises less than expected (it does not have to fall), the demand for new faculty members falls.
Lengthening lifespans mean older faculty members free up fewer spots in universities, which reduces demand for new faculty members, but this effect is tiny, because lifespans lengthen very slowly.
A short term effect on hiring was the financial crisis, which reduced university hiring budgets. This made 2009 a tough year for candidates relative to the surrounding years.
A study on how tough the market really is would be interesting, but hard to do, because it requires a measure of the quality of candidates that is independent of the jobs they get or papers they publish. Both jobs and papers are subject to a congestion effect, so the toughness of the job market or publication market affects these measures. The definition of toughness is that the tougher the market, the worse the results for a graduating student of a given quality.
The market for economists is worldwide, so it would be easier to study academics in some field that is country-specific and thus has barriers to trade, say law.