Tag Archives: political economy

Mugs, pens and USB sticks as advertisements

Several universities I have visited give free mugs to seminar speakers as advertisements for themselves. Similar branded objects (pens, USB sticks, T-shirts, baseball caps) are handed out by firms and political campaigns as part of their marketing.

The idea of giving people practical objects instead of flyers, junk mail or banners is to make the recipients use these objects (as opposed to throwing these away or storing them at the back of a closet), preferably in a public setting, and thus increase the visibility of the advertiser. For this, the more usable the handout, the better.

Unfortunately, the people ordering these objects in bulk and paying for the brand logo to be printed on these are busy administrators who do not connect the overall purpose the marketing campaign to the properties of the objects. Specifically, the mugs should have a large handle that lets more than two fingers hold it, the mug should be short with a wide mouth for easy filling and washing, and should not be too fragile.

Pens should write well and be ergonomical, not angular or too narrow. I have seen branded pens violating all these suggestions. For example, the Australian National University pens are of flimsy plastic, create ink splotches and the ink runs out quickly.

The USB sticks handed out by the University of Queensland had a metal cover which increased the USB drive’s bulk and scratchiness. Also, the USB was wide and thick, making it impossible to plug in side by side with another USB. The small capacity of the USB was also behind the times.

To advertise with an object, it would make sense to print the advertiser’s name and other relevant information in large readable font on the object. The logo is not useful unless it is already widely known by the target audience and associated with the advertiser. The readability suggestion is violated by the Singapore Management University’s mug, which has SMU written on it in complicated calligraphic script that is difficult to decipher even for someone who knows what the abbreviation SMU means.

For people to develop a positive view of the advertiser, the object should not seem too cheap or bad quality. By contrast, most free T-shirts are the cheapest ones that could be bought wholesale, made of the most threadbare and transparent cotton, which discourages their use.

Poaching reduction using lab-grown ivory

Poachers kill elephants for tusks and rhinos for horns because these can be sold for a high price on the black market. The killing has occurred both in the wild and in zoos, and thieves have broken into nature museums to steal rhino horns from exhibits. Sometimes news reports describe how police crush or burn seized illegal ivory, which seems counterproductive, because it reduces supply and thus drives up the price. A higher price increases future poaching. Perhaps the police are in the pay of some illegal ivory dealers and are deliberately helping drive up the price by destroying competing dealers’ products.
Instead, the price of ivory and rhino horn should be reduced so that poaching becomes unprofitable. Many organs have been grown in the lab using a collagen scaffold seeded with stem cells from the appropriate tissue (bladder, skin, heart). Growing elephant tusks or rhino horns in the lab should be feasible using similar techniques. Flooding the market with cheap lab-grown horns and tusks would eliminate the incentive to poach.
The demand for ivory and rhino horn is mostly due to silly beliefs about their medicinal properties, so the buyers may not want lab-grown substitutes, believing these to be ineffectual (which these are, just like wild-type horns and tusks). In this case, the lab-grown horns and tusks should be made indistinguishable from animal-derived ones and inserted into the illegal supply chain covertly. The dealers on the black market are not too honest people and would probably be happy to lie to their customers that lab-grown products are from wild animals.

“Relative to opportunity” evaluation and anti-discrimination laws

Most countries have some anti-discrimination laws, requiring employers to pay people with different productivities equally, or to give someone who took parental leave their job back after they return. One reason why unequally productive people are paid equally is evaluation “relative to opportunity”, i.e. the bar for a promotion or a raise is lower for someone from a historically disadvantaged group or who has family responsibilities. Suppose that there is a consensus in society for supporting certain groups. Why might the cost of this support be placed only on specific employers, namely those who employ the target group? Why doesn’t the support take the form of direct subsidies from the government to the target group, financed by taxing all employers equally?
An explanation from political economy is as follows. Clever people in society or government want to pay a larger subsidy to high-income members of the target group, perhaps because the clever people are themselves high-income and belong to the target group. However, the majority of voters would not like high-income people getting a bigger subsidy. So the clever people disguise the subsidy as something that looks equal, namely every member of the target group gets the same duration of parental leave, the same guarantee of their job back at the end of leave, the same privileges and special treatment for promotions and raises. The value of these guarantees and privileges is greater for higher-paying jobs. For example, a promotion from a high-paying job usually gives a bigger salary increase than from a low-paying job. A guarantee of getting a high-paying job back after parental leave is worth more than a guaranteed low-paid job. Thus the support provided to the high-income members of the target group is more valuable.
Further, productivity at a high-income job is typically more responsive to the employee’s human capital, and the skills deteriorate faster. A truck driver who has not driven for some years retains a greater fraction of driving ability than a surgeon retains from surgical technique after not operating for the same number of years. The productivity difference between an employee returning from parental leave and someone continuously employed is on average greater for higher-paying jobs. So the cost to an employer of keeping a job for a returning employee instead of hiring a new person is greater if the job is higher-paid. The subsidy to the high-income members of the target group thus costs more per person.
Income is positively correlated with intelligence, so the smart members of the target group are likely the wealthy members who benefit from this kind of unequal subsidy. They are likely to vote and campaign in favour of the unequal support, instead of an equal cash subsidy for everyone. The less smart members of the target group who lose from an unequal subsidy (compared to an equal one) are less likely to understand that they lose. This makes them abstain from opposing the unequal subsidy.
In effect, the smart members of the target group redistribute a baseline-equal subsidy from the less smart (and less wealthy) to themselves, at the social cost of losing some efficiency in the economy. Keeping a job for someone when a more productive potential hire is available means losing the difference in the productivities of the two people. Such efficiency losses are typical of re-distributive policies that are not cash transfers.
In principle, the cost of the current policies could still be equally distributed between employers by taxing them all and subsidising those who employ the target group. Or equivalently, taxing only those who don’t employ the target group. However, to equalise the cost to employers, the firms employing highly-paid members of the target group must be compensated more than the ones employing low-paid members. The differential compensation to firms would call attention to the unequal support that people with different incomes are receiving, thus weakening the disguise of the subsidy. The clever people want to avoid that, so do not campaign for equalising the costs of anti-discrimination laws across employers.

Teaching and research and division of labour

Universities usually prefer that the same person both teaches and does research. There are some purely teaching or purely research-focussed positions, but these are a minority. Both teaching and research achievements (and service as well) are required for tenure. This runs counter to Adam Smith’s argument that division of labour raises overall productivity. One possible cause is an economy of scope (synergy), meaning that teaching helps with research, or research helps to teach. In my experience, there is no such synergy, except maybe in high-level doctoral courses that focus exclusively on recent research. Revising old and basic knowledge by teaching it does not help generate novel insights about recent discoveries. Complex research does not help explain introductory ideas simply and clearly to beginners.

Another explanation is that universities try to hide their cross-subsidy going from teaching to research. The government gives money mainly for teaching, and if teachers and researchers were different people, then it would be easy for the government to check how much money was spent on each group. If, however, the same person is engaged in both activities, then the university can claim that most of the person’s time is spent teaching, or that their research is really designed to improve their teaching. In reality, teaching may be a minor side job and most of the salary may be paid for the research. This is suggested by the weight of research in hiring and tenuring.

The income of universities mostly comes from teaching, so they try to reduce competition from non-university teachers and institutions. One way is to differentiate their product by claiming that university teaching is special, complicated and research-based, so must be done by PhD holders or at least graduate students. Then schoolteachers for example would be excluded from providing this service. Actually the material up to and including first year doctorate courses is textbook-based and thus cannot consist of very recent discoveries. With the help of a textbook, many people could teach it – research is not required, only knowing the material thoroughly. For example, an undergraduate with good teaching skills who was top of the class in a course could teach that course next semester. Teaching skill is not highly correlated with research skill. The advantage someone who recently learned the material has in teaching it is that they remember which parts were difficult. A person who has known something for a long time probably does not recall how they would have preferred it taught when they first learned it.

Researchers forget the basics over time, because they rarely use these – there are more advanced methods. The foundations are learned to facilitate later learning of intermediate knowledge, which in turn helps with more complicated things and so on up to research level. Similarly in sports, musical performance, sewing, the initial exercises for learners can be quite different from the activity that is the end goal. A sports coach is rarely an Olympic athlete at the same time, so why should a teacher be a researcher simultaneously?

On journalistic privilege

Journalists have certain privileges over the average citizen – they get access to inside information, public figures and press conferences. An attack against a journalist creates more outrage, because it is seen as damaging the free press. These advantages are not given so that journalists could make money or satisfy their curiosity. The privileges are provided to help journalists serve the public interest, similarly to the delegation of decision power to politicians. People being people, some journalists abuse the privileges. They do not inform the public, only entertain to make money. This takes the form of sensationalism: covering frivolous topics that sell well, but do not provide useful knowledge. For example celebrity gossip, funny animals, manufactured controversy.

It would be fair to remove journalistic privileges from tabloid reporters and stop calling them journalists. They are just nosy people. The problem is that whoever decides on giving or taking privileges, gets power over the media. Therefore this authority should not be the government, but an independent organization. However, some rights and protections of the media are legislated, so a non-governmental body cannot change them. The legislature would have to delegate its authority in this sphere to the hypothetical independent regulator first. Given how much politicians wish to influence journalists, this decision seems unlikely.

Repeal regulation requiring ratings

The credit rating agencies (Moody’s, Fitch etc) have been accused of inflating the ratings of companies after their ratings underestimated the default risk during the 2008 financial crisis. First, it is strange to accept ratings expressed as letters (AAA, AAB etc) when the market participants care about the default risk and the letter codes are based (or so the rating agencies say) on the default risk. Remove the coarse letter codes and require the rating to equal the estimated probability of default over the next n years. The probability should have enough significant digits and should report standard errors. It should not vaguely claim that the default probability is somewhere between x and y. The potential for rating inflation and later justification of wrong ratings is reduced by transparency.
A good punishment for the rating agencies that also increases transparency is to repeal any regulation requiring the use of their ratings. Currently, banks are only allowed to invest in “investment grade” bonds, where the grade is determined by the credit rating (agencies). The purpose of the regulation should be to prevent banks from taking too much risk, so the variable of interest is the default probability, not the rating. Replace the requirement of “investment grade” rating with a requirement that the predicted default probability over the next n years must be below x. The obvious question is who predicts this probability.
The restriction to investing only in bonds predicted to be unlikely to default is similar to the vague requirement of due diligence. The investing bank must be able to justify its decision later if the investment turns out badly. The bank must use all available sources of info (maybe even rating agencies) and state of the art methods to predict default probabilities for bonds it intends to invest in. To prevent the bank from manufacturing a justification ex post to excuse its bad decision, the methodology it uses to predict must be provably unchanged from the time of investing. This can be achieved by sharing the methodology with the regulator.
There is a concern that business secrets leak from the regulator to competitors. This can be eliminated by encrypting the info that the bank gives the regulator, with the bank keeping the key. The encrypted info can even be publicly posted on the web. If concerns arise, the bank can later be ordered to give the key to the regulator (or even to the public), who can then verify the info received in the past. If the bank claims to have lost the key, the punishment should be the same as for the lawbreaking that the key is intended to verify.

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.

Why politics is as it is and how to change it

Politics in all democratic countries is dishonest, propagandistic, riven by special interests etc. From time to time politicians who promise to change this arise. Mostly these politicians fall into the old ways and create no change but sometimes they turn their countries into dictatorships.

It is very difficult to change the way politics is done because there is a reason why politics is the way it is. Not many people set out to lie and cheat their way to the top. Mostly they start with good intentions but gradually adopt the tactics generally used.

The reason for dishonesty is that politics is an evolutionary process (mutation, selection, reproduction). People invent new ways to manipulate others all the time (mutation). Those who use the kind of tactics generally used in modern politics are likely to get elected (selection). Their tactics are then copied by the next generation of politicians (reproduction). The end result is a thoroughly dishonest political class because lying and cheating work as ways to get to the top. There is no lack of idealists trying to do honest politics but mostly they won’t get elected because their restriction to honest methods severely limits the crowd-manipulation tools available to them. If they do get elected, they will be outnumbered by the dishonest ones.


Proposed method of change

Trying to get enough honest politicians elected to change the system just won’t work because honesty limits their tools of making people elect them. Politicians use dishonesty because it works and gets them power.

In a democracy the power ultimately rests with the people. If all people or even just a bare majority were rational and perfectly informed, there would be no room for manipulation and dishonesty. The present political situation is only possible because people are stupid enough to be manipulated into electing the people who create such a political situation. Every nation deserves its leaders.

The way to lessen dishonesty in politics is to make people recognize and dislike it. Most people are not clever enough to see through the manipulation themselves, so the media and perhaps scientists should help them.

When televising speeches of politicians the news agencies could place a running commentary on the speech in the subtitles, pointing out logically or factually wrong statements, demagogy and meaningless phrases, giving examples of the politician’s possible motives for saying certain things, pointing out the interest group to whom a promise is aimed.

The news agencies could keep a file on every politician of sufficient influence. The file should contain their earlier promises, statements, voting record and press releases. Every time the news agency runs a story containing that politician the online version of the story should have a link to that politician’s file. If the politician contradicts his or her earlier talk, it should be pointed out by the news agency and a link to the appropriate place in that politician’s file placed next to the reference.

People could be educated in basic mathematical logic so they could notice some logically false statements (one can never teach most people enough to make them recognize factually wrong claims, that is what the politician’s file would be for).

In countries where a certain number of citizens can initiate laws, those interested in honest politics could campaign for a law recalling a politician who has lied. Then a referendum can be organized to pass that law because politicians themselves certainly would not do it. Lying would need to be clearly defined in the law so that uncertain statements and slips of the tongue would not empty all government institutions. In some cases, however, it can certainly be proved that what the politician said contradicts the facts or is logically false.