nhaliday + gray-econ   35

Here Be Sermons | Melting Asphalt
The Costly Coordination Mechanism of Common Knowledge: https://www.lesserwrong.com/posts/9QxnfMYccz9QRgZ5z/the-costly-coordination-mechanism-of-common-knowledge
- Dictatorships all through history have attempted to suppress freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Why is this? Are they just very sensitive? On the other side, the leaders of the Enlightenment fought for freedom of speech, and would not budge an inch against this principle.
- When two people are on a date and want to sleep with each other, the conversation will often move towards but never explicitly discuss having sex. The two may discuss going back to the place of one of theirs, with a different explicit reason discussed (e.g. "to have a drink"), even if both want to have sex.
- Throughout history, communities have had religious rituals that look very similar. Everyone in the village has to join in. There are repetitive songs, repetitive lectures on the same holy books, chanting together. Why, of all the possible community events (e.g. dinner, parties, etc) is this the most common type?
What these three things have in common, is common knowledge - or at least, the attempt to create it.


Common knowledge is often much easier to build in small groups - in the example about getting off the bus, the two need only to look at each other, share a nod, and common knowledge is achieved. Building common knowledge between hundreds or thousands of people is significantly harder, and the fact that religion has such a significant ability to do so is why it has historically had so much connection to politics.
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september 2017 by nhaliday
On the effects of inequality on economic growth | Nintil
After the discussion above, what should one think about the relationship between inequality and growth?

For starters, that the consensus of the literature points to our lack of knowledge, and the need to be very careful when studying these phenomena. As of today there is no solid consensus on the effects of inequality on growth. Tentatively, on the grounds of Neves et al.’s meta-analysis, we can conclude that the impact of inequality on developed countries is economically insignificant. This means that one can claim that inequality is good, bad, or neutral for growth as long as the effects claimed are small and one talks about developed countries. For developing countries, the relationships are more negative.

I recently finished The Spirit Level, subtitled "Why More Equal Societies Almost Almost Do Better", although "Five Million Different Scatter Plot Graphs Plus Associated Commentary" would also have worked. It was a pretty thorough manifesto for the best kind of leftism: the type that foregoes ideology and a priori arguments in exchange for a truckload of statistics showing that their proposed social remedies really work.

Inequality: some people know what they want to find: https://www.adamsmith.org/blog/economics/inequality-some-people-know-what-they-want-to-find

Inequality doesn’t matter: a primer: https://www.adamsmith.org/blog/inequality-doesnt-matter-a-primer

Inequality and visibility of wealth in experimental social networks: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature15392
- Akihiro Nishi, Hirokazu Shirado, David G. Rand & Nicholas A. Christakis

We show that wealth visibility facilitates the downstream consequences of initial inequality—in initially more unequal situations, wealth visibility leads to greater inequality than when wealth is invisible. This result reflects a heterogeneous response to visibility in richer versus poorer subjects. We also find that making wealth visible has adverse welfare consequences, yielding lower levels of overall cooperation, inter-connectedness, and wealth. High initial levels of economic inequality alone, however, have relatively few deleterious welfare effects.

Our own work has shown that the *visibility* of inequality, more then the inequality per se, may be especially corrosive to the social fabric. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature15392 … I wonder if @WalterScheidel historical data sheds light on this idea? end 5/
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june 2017 by nhaliday
Overcoming Bias : A Tangled Task Future
So we may often retain systems that inherit the structure of the human brain, and the structures of the social teams and organizations by which humans have worked together. All of which is another way to say: descendants of humans may have a long future as workers. We may have another future besides being retirees or iron-fisted peons ruling over gods. Even in a competitive future with no friendly singleton to ensure preferential treatment, something recognizably like us may continue. And even win.
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june 2017 by nhaliday
Educational Romanticism & Economic Development | pseudoerasmus


Did Nations that Boosted Education Grow Faster?: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/10/did_nations_tha.html
On average, no relationship. The trendline points down slightly, but for the time being let's just call it a draw. It's a well-known fact that countries that started the 1960's with high education levels grew faster (example), but this graph is about something different. This graph shows that countries that increased their education levels did not grow faster.

Where has all the education gone?: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=




The Case Against Education: What's Taking So Long, Bryan Caplan: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2015/03/the_case_agains_9.html

The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/01/whats-college-good-for/546590/
Students don't seem to be getting much out of higher education.
- Bryan Caplan

College: Capital or Signal?: http://www.economicmanblog.com/2017/02/25/college-capital-or-signal/
After his review of the literature, Caplan concludes that roughly 80% of the earnings effect from college comes from signalling, with only 20% the result of skill building. Put this together with his earlier observations about the private returns to college education, along with its exploding cost, and Caplan thinks that the social returns are negative. The policy implications of this will come as very bitter medicine for friends of Bernie Sanders.

Doubting the Null Hypothesis: http://www.arnoldkling.com/blog/doubting-the-null-hypothesis/

Is higher education/college in the US more about skill-building or about signaling?: https://www.quora.com/Is-higher-education-college-in-the-US-more-about-skill-building-or-about-signaling
ballpark: 50% signaling, 30% selection, 20% addition to human capital
more signaling in art history, more human capital in engineering, more selection in philosophy

Econ Duel! Is Education Signaling or Skill Building?: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2016/03/econ-duel-is-education-signaling-or-skill-building.html
Marginal Revolution University has a brand new feature, Econ Duel! Our first Econ Duel features Tyler and me debating the question, Is education more about signaling or skill building?

Against Tulip Subsidies: https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/06/06/against-tulip-subsidies/




Most American public school kids are low-income; about half are non-white; most are fairly low skilled academically. For most American kids, the majority of the waking hours they spend not engaged with electronic media are at school; the majority of their in-person relationships are at school; the most important relationships they have with an adult who is not their parent is with their teacher. For their parents, the most important in-person source of community is also their kids’ school. Young people need adult mirrors, models, mentors, and in an earlier era these might have been provided by extended families, but in our own era this all falls upon schools.

Caplan gestures towards work and earlier labor force participation as alternatives to school for many if not all kids. And I empathize: the years that I would point to as making me who I am were ones where I was working, not studying. But they were years spent working in schools, as a teacher or assistant. If schools did not exist, is there an alternative that we genuinely believe would arise to draw young people into the life of their community?


It is not an accident that the state that spends the least on education is Utah, where the LDS church can take up some of the slack for schools, while next door Wyoming spends almost the most of any state at $16,000 per student. Education is now the one surviving binding principle of the society as a whole, the one black box everyone will agree to, and so while you can press for less subsidization of education by government, and for privatization of costs, as Caplan does, there’s really nothing people can substitute for it. This is partially about signaling, sure, but it’s also because outside of schools and a few religious enclaves our society is but a darkling plain beset by winds.

This doesn’t mean that we should leave Caplan’s critique on the shelf. Much of education is focused on an insane, zero-sum race for finite rewards. Much of schooling does push kids, parents, schools, and school systems towards a solution ad absurdum, where anything less than 100 percent of kids headed to a doctorate and the big coding job in the sky is a sign of failure of everyone concerned.

But let’s approach this with an eye towards the limits of the possible and the reality of diminishing returns.

The real reason the left would support Moander: the usual reason. because he’s an enemy.

I have a problem in thinking about education, since my preferences and personal educational experience are atypical, so I can’t just gut it out. On the other hand, knowing that puts me ahead of a lot of people that seem convinced that all real people, including all Arab cabdrivers, think and feel just as they do.

One important fact, relevant to this review. I don’t like Caplan. I think he doesn’t understand – can’t understand – human nature, and although that sometimes confers a different and interesting perspective, it’s not a royal road to truth. Nor would I want to share a foxhole with him: I don’t trust him. So if I say that I agree with some parts of this book, you should believe me.


Caplan doesn’t talk about possible ways of improving knowledge acquisition and retention. Maybe he thinks that’s impossible, and he may be right, at least within a conventional universe of possibilities. That’s a bit outside of his thesis, anyhow. Me it interests.

He dismisses objections from educational psychologists who claim that studying a subject improves you in subtle ways even after you forget all of it. I too find that hard to believe. On the other hand, it looks to me as if poorly-digested fragments of information picked up in college have some effect on public policy later in life: it is no coincidence that most prominent people in public life (at a given moment) share a lot of the same ideas. People are vaguely remembering the same crap from the same sources, or related sources. It’s correlated crap, which has a much stronger effect than random crap.

These widespread new ideas are usually wrong. They come from somewhere – in part, from higher education. Along this line, Caplan thinks that college has only a weak ideological effect on students. I don’t believe he is correct. In part, this is because most people use a shifting standard: what’s liberal or conservative gets redefined over time. At any given time a population is roughly half left and half right – but the content of those labels changes a lot. There’s a shift.

I put it this way, a while ago: “When you think about it, falsehoods, stupid crap, make the best group identifiers, because anyone might agree with you when you’re obviously right. Signing up to clear nonsense is a better test of group loyalty. A true friend is with you when you’re wrong. Ideally, not just wrong, but barking mad, rolling around in your own vomit wrong.”
You just explained the Credo quia absurdum doctrine. I always wondered if it was nonsense. It is not.
Someone on twitter caught it first – got all the way to “sliding down the razor blade of life”. Which I explained is now called “transitioning”

What Catholics believe: https://theweek.com/articles/781925/what-catholics-believe
We believe all of these things, fantastical as they may sound, and we believe them for what we consider good reasons, well attested by history, consistent with the most exacting standards of logic. We will profess them in this place of wrath and tears until the extraordinary event referenced above, for which men and women have hoped and prayed for nearly 2,000 years, comes to pass.

According to Caplan, employers are looking for conformity, conscientiousness, and intelligence. They use completion of high school, or completion of college as a sign of conformity and conscientiousness. College certainly looks as if it’s mostly signaling, and it’s hugely expensive signaling, in terms of college costs and foregone earnings.

But inserting conformity into the merit function is tricky: things become important signals… because they’re important signals. Otherwise useful actions are contraindicated because they’re “not done”. For example, test scores convey useful information. They could help show that an applicant is smart even though he attended a mediocre school – the same role they play in college admissions. But employers seldom request test scores, and although applicants may provide them, few do. Caplan says ” The word on the street… [more]
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april 2017 by nhaliday
Book Review: How Asia Works by Joe Studwell | Don't Worry About the Vase
1. Thou shalt enact real land reform.
2. Thou shalt protect infant industries and enforce upon them export discipline.
3. Thou shalt repress and direct thine financial system.

export discipline = see what price foreigners will buy product for

Garett Jones agrees: https://twitter.com/GarettJones/status/902579701968928771
Park Chung Hee's brutal combination in SK of hardening the budget constraint while dangling incentives in front of top exporters was key IMO
By dangling the incentives before *exporters*, Park gave them an incentive to please customers who couldn't be bribed or shamed into buying.
and keeping the militant unions in check :-)
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february 2017 by nhaliday
Considerations On Cost Disease | Slate Star Codex
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february 2017 by nhaliday
Moral Trade
If people have different resources, tastes, or needs, they may be able to exchange
goods or services such that they each feel they have been made better off. This is
trade. If people have different moral views, then there is another type of trade
that is possible: they can exchange goods or services such that both parties feel
that the world is a better place or that their moral obligations are better satisfied.
We can call this moral trade. I introduce the idea of moral trade and explore several
important theoretical and practical implications.
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november 2016 by nhaliday
The best kind of discrimination – The sideways view
I think it would be nice if the world had more price discrimination; we would produce more goods, and those goods would be available to more people. As a society we could enable price discrimination by providing more high-quality signals to be used by price discriminators. The IRS is in a particularly attractive position to offer such signals since income is a particularly useful signal. But realistically I think that such a proposal would require coordination in order to get consumers’ consent to make the data available (and to ensure that only upper bounds were available); the total gains are probably not large enough to justify the amount of coordination and complexity that is required.

apparently about 1/3 of income goes to capital-holders, and 2/3 to workers (wonder what the source for that is, and how consistent it is across industries)
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november 2016 by nhaliday
Overcoming Bias : Lognormal Jobs
could be the case that exponential tech improvement -> linear job replacement, as long as distribution of jobs across automatability is log-normal (I don't entirely follow the argument)

Paul Christiano has objection (to premise not argument) in the comments
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november 2016 by nhaliday
Too much of a good thing | The Economist
None of these accounts, though, explain the most troubling aspect of America’s profit problem: its persistence. Business theory holds that firms can at best enjoy only temporary periods of “competitive advantage” during which they can rake in cash. After that new companies, inspired by these rich pickings, will pile in to compete away those fat margins, bringing prices down and increasing both employment and investment. It’s the mechanism behind Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

In America that hand seems oddly idle. An American firm that was very profitable in 2003 (one with post-tax returns on capital of 15-25%, excluding goodwill) had an 83% chance of still being very profitable in 2013; the same was true for firms with returns of over 25%, according to McKinsey, a consulting firm. In the previous decade the odds were about 50%. The obvious conclusion is that the American economy is too cosy for incumbents.

Corporations Are Raking In Record Profits, But Workers Aren’t Seeing Much of It: http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2017/07/corporations-are-raking-in-record-profits-but-workers-arent-seeing-much-of-it/
Even Goldman Sachs thinks monopolies are pillaging American consumers: http://theweek.com/articles/633101/even-goldman-sachs-thinks-monopolies-are-pillaging-american-consumers
Schumpeter: The University of Chicago worries about a lack of competition: http://www.economist.com/news/business/21720657-its-economists-used-champion-big-firms-mood-has-shifted-university-chicago
Some radicals argue that the government is now so rotten that America is condemned to perpetual oligarchy and inequality. Political support for more competition is worryingly hard to find. Donald Trump has a cabinet of tycoons and likes to be chummy with bosses. The Republicans have become the party of incumbent firms, not of free markets or consumers. Too many Democrats, meanwhile, don’t trust markets and want the state to smother them in red tape, which hurts new entrants.

The Rise of Market Power and the Decline of Labor’s Share: https://promarket.org/rise-market-power-decline-labors-share/
A new paper by Jan De Loecker (of KU Leuven and Princeton University) and Jan Eeckhout (of the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics UPF and University College London) echoes these results, arguing that the decline of both the labor and capital shares, as well as the decline in low-skilled wages and other economic trends, have been aided by a significant increase in markups and market power.


Measuring markups, De Loecker explained in a conversation with ProMarket, is notoriously difficult due to the scarcity of data. In attempting to track markups across a wide set of firms and industries, De Loecker and Eeckhout diverged from the standard way in which Industrial Organization economists look at markups, the so-called “demand approach,” which requires a lot of data on consumer demand (prices, quantities, characteristics of products) and models of how firms compete. The standard approach, explains De Loecker, works when it is tailor-made for particular markets, but is “not feasible” when studying markups across many markets and over a long period of time.

To do that, De Loecker and Eeckhout use another approach, the “production approach,” which relies on standard, publicly-available balance sheet data and an assumption that firms will try to minimize costs, and does not require other assumptions regarding demand and market competition.


Markups, De Loecker and Eeckhout note, do not necessarily imply market power—but profits do. The enormous increase in profits over the past 35 years, they argue, is consistent with an increase in market power. “In perfect competition, your costs and total sales are identical, because there’s no difference between price and marginal costs. The extent to which these two numbers—the sales-to-wage bill and total-costs-to-wage bill—start differing is going to be immediately indicative of the market power,” says De Loecker.

Markup increases, De Loecker and Eeckhout find, became more pronounced following the 2000 and 2008 recessions. Curiously, they find that economy-wide it is mainly smaller firms that have the higher markups, which according to De Loecker is indicative of widely different characteristics between various industries. Within narrowly defined industries, however, the standard prediction holds: firms with larger market shares have higher markups as well. “Most of the action happens within industries, where we see the big guys getting bigger and their markups increase,” De Loecker explains.


The authors are correct that this can easily account for the apparent US productivity slowdown. Holding real productivity constant, if firms move up their demand curves to sell less at a higher prices, then total output, and measured GDP, get smaller. Their numerical estimates suggest that, correcting for this effect, there has been no decline in US productivity growth since 1965. That’s a pretty big deal.

Accepting the main result that markups have been marching upward, the obvious question to ask is: why? But first, let’s review some clues from the paper. First, while industries with smaller firms tend to have higher markups, within each small industry, bigger firms have larger markups, and firms with higher markups pay higher dividends.

There has been little change in output elasticity, i.e., the rate at which variable costs change with the quantity of units produced. (So this isn’t about new scale economies.) There has also been little change in the bottom half of the distribution of markups; the big change has been a big stretching in the upper half. Markups have increased more in larger industries, and the main change has been within industries, rather than a changing mix of industries in the economy. The fractions of income going to labor and to tangible capital have fallen, and firms respond less than they once did to wage changes. Firm accounting profits as a fraction of total income have risen four fold since 1980.


If, like me, you buy the standard “free entry” argument for zero expected economic profits of early entrants, then the only remaining possible explanation is an increase in fixed costs relative to variable costs. Now as the paper notes, the fall in tangible capital spending and the rise in accounting profits suggests that this isn’t so much about short-term tangible fixed costs, like the cost to buy machines. But that still leaves a lot of other possible fixed costs, including real estate, innovation, advertising, firm culture, brand loyalty and prestige, regulatory compliance, and context specific training. These all require long term investments, and most of them aren’t tracked well by standard accounting systems.

I can’t tell well which of these fixed costs have risen more, though hopefully folks will collect enough data on these to see which ones correlate strongest with the industries and firms where markups have most risen. But I will invoke a simple hypothesis that I’ve discussed many times, which predicts a general rise of fixed costs: increasing wealth leading to stronger tastes for product variety. Simple models of product differentiation say that as customers care more about getting products nearer to their ideal point, more products are created and fixed costs become a larger fraction of total costs.

Note that increasing product variety is consistent with increasing concentration in a smaller number of firms, if each firm offers many more products and services than before.



Variable costs approach zero: http://www.arnoldkling.com/blog/variable-costs-approach-zero/
4. My guess is that, if anything, the two-Jan’s paper understates the trend toward high markups. That is because my guess is that most corporate data allocates more labor to variable cost than really belongs there. Garett Jones pointed out that these days most workers do not produce widgets. Instead, they produce organizational capital. Garett Jones workers are part of overhead, not variable cost.

Intangible investment and monopoly profits: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2017/09/intangible-investment-monopoly-profits.html
I’ve been reading the forthcoming Capitalism Without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy, by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake, which is one of this year’s most important and stimulating economic reads (I can’t say it is Freakonomics-style fun, but it is well-written relative to the nature of its subject matter.)

The book offers many valuable theoretical points and also observations about data. And note that intangible capital used to be below 30 percent of the S&P 500 in the 70s, now it is about 84 percent. That’s a big increase, and yet the topic just isn’t discussed that much (I cover it a bit in The Complacent Class, as a possible source of increase in business risk-aversion).


Now, I’ve put that all into my language and framing, rather than theirs. In any case, I suspect that many of the recent puzzles about mark-ups and monopoly power are in some way tied to the nature of intangible capital, and the rising value of intangible capital.

The one-sentence summary of my takeaway might be: Cross-business technology externalities help explain the mark-up, market power, and profitability puzzles.

Why has investment been weak?: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2017/12/why-has-investment-been-weak.html
We analyze private fixed investment in the U.S. over the past 30 years. We show that investment is weak relative to measures of profitability and valuation — particularly Tobin’s Q, and that this weakness starts in the early 2000’s. There are two … [more]
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march 2016 by nhaliday

bundles : econframevague

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