A “chicken paper” example

The Nobel prize winner Ed Prescott introduced the term “chicken paper” to describe a certain kind of economics research article to the audience at ANU in a public lecture. For background, a macroeconomics paper commonly models the economy as a game (in the game theory sense) between households, sometimes adding the government, firms or banks as additional players. A chicken paper relies on three assumptions: 1) households like chicken, 2) households cannot produce chicken, 3) the government can provide chicken. Prescott’s point was to criticize papers that prove that the intervention of the government in the economy improves welfare. For some papers, such criticism on the grounds of “assuming the result” is justified, for some, not. This applies more broadly than just in macroeconomics.

One example that I think fits Prescott’s description is Woodford (2021, forthcoming in the American Economic Review), pages 10-11:We suppose that units are unable to credibly promise to repay, except to the extent that the government allows them to issue debt up to a certain limit, the repayment of which is guaranteed by the government. (We assume also that the government is able to force borrowers to repay these guaranteed debts, rather than bearing any losses itself.)” The “units” that Woodford refers to are households, which are also the only producers of goods in the model. Such combined producer-consumers are called yeoman farmers and are a reasonable simplification for modelling purposes.

The inefficiency that the government solves in Woodford (2021) is the one discussed in Hirshleifer (1971) section V (page 568) that public information destroys mutually beneficial trading and insurance opportunities. In Woodford (2021), a negative shock to exactly one industry out of N in the economy occurs and becomes public at time 0 before trade opens. Thus the industries cannot trade contingent claims to insure against this shock. They are informed of the shock before trade. However, the government can make a transfer at time 0 to the shock-affected industry and tax it back later from all industries.

If the government also has to start its subsidizing and taxing after trade opens, it can still provide “retrospective insurance” as Woodford calls it by taxes and subsidies. Market-based “insurance” would also work: the affected industry borrows against the collateral of the government subsidy that is anticipated to arrive in the same period.

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