Teaching vampire squid economics

26/02/2014 § 6 Comments

I’ll be doing a little teaching this term. As those of you who teach know, there isn’t really anything that’s ‘a little’ teaching. With a new prep, there’s a lot of worrying and wondering and researching.

And then Matt Taibbi (old place, new place) comes along and makes it even harder.

I’m a little late coming to this, because I wanted to say more about it but the clock has run out, but Taibbi had some frightening reporting a couple of weeks back about the concentration of economic power:

Today, banks like Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs own oil tankers, run airports and control huge quantities of coal, natural gas, heating oil, electric power and precious metals. They likewise can now be found exerting direct control over the supply of a whole galaxy of raw materials crucial to world industry and to society in general, including everything from food products to metals like zinc, copper, tin, nickel and, most infamously thanks to a recent high-profile scandal, aluminum.

How should I teach this?

Because a) this is going on so students are hearing/reading about it and should have tools to understand it, and b) I believe that it is economically important.  I’m just a humble microeconomist mostly interested in decision making by individuals, so these sorts of corporate organisations aren’t really my bailiwick, especially when they start getting crossed with macroeconomics like fiscal policy. But the main theories of micro are mostly about not having control over markets. I’m just preparing a lecturing on supply and demand, and looking at using the Pit Game (pdf). These vampire squid schemes — and other major events like Enron, which cost California something like US$40 billion, around 80% of the entire New Zealand economy at the time — lead me to wonder about the balance of time spent on theoretical market efficiency versus actual commercial behaviour.

It also leads me back to Galbraith, who discussed the attitudes of the men running corporations in his day. They believed it was their function, not the market’s, to allocate returns to shareholders, management and labour. Other centres of power, such as labour unions, were therefore not anti-competitive, but a necessary countervailing power for an economy that was already far from a market solution.

I propose a new class: Vampire Squid Economics (Econ 20X). Each lecture centres on a case study: Enron, Goldman Sachs I and II, AIG 2008, etc. Prereqs are intro micro and macro. Heck, we could even develop a common syllabus and offer it across the country. Then I can park all this messy reality somewhere and get back to teaching theory.

TPP — can’t get something for nothing

12/02/2014 § Leave a comment

I have avoided discussing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations, because it’s complex and secret and yet to be decided. But a statement from Tariana Turia, Associate Minister of Health, leads me to comment. Turia’s plain packaging for cigarettes bill just passed its first vote. The bill is intended to reduce the sale of cigarettes by making the packaging less attractive. A challenge to a similar Australian law is before the WTO, and the bill raises questions about the TPP.

The question is whether New Zealand will have the latitude to pass such laws should it sign the TPP. Just to stress, until the language is finalised, it’s all speculation. This legal post on investor-state arbitration is an example. But, Turia’s statement suggests a certain naivete about the negotiations. She said:

While the tobacco industry may have laid down a threat that if this legislation is passed [it will be challenged] my message to them is that our country has a sovereign right and a legal right to protect its citizens.

The point of these sorts of negotiations, though, is the give-and-take. New Zealand gives up a bit of its sovereignty to make laws within its own borders in exchange for consistency across borders.

One lesson from the analysis of international trade — the one that gets trumpeted — is that free trade makes countries better off. It lowers prices, increases the amount of products, increases product variety, leads to greater uptake of technology, and promotes innovation. Another lesson from exactly the same analysis is that there are distributional impacts from free trade. Some people within a country can be made worse off. This result arises either from the supply or demand side — either individuals’ resources fall in value or their consumption bundles become more expensive. The now-richer country can moderate the distributional impacts, but it isn’t a requirement of the models.

So back to New Zealand. Let’s stipulate that TPP will lead to economic benefits for the country as a whole. The same analysis would also tell us that there are likely to be winners and losers. Given that much of the negotiation has happened out of sight of the public, and that the Government won’t even let the people’s representatives see the text, one does have to wonder who those winners and losers will be.

Also, the cigarette companies have a very good legal argument on their side. The products are legal and their brand image is valuable. Quoting ACT MP John Banks:

I don’t believe the State should seize property rights from legitimate companies selling legitimate products.

So we have two opposing legal rights — the country’s right to protect its citizens, and the property right of companies. In the future, TPP will end up being a thumb on the scales. Turia may find that the balance has shifted.

Adjunctivitis — a choice, not a condition

10/02/2014 § 13 Comments

Universities in the United States run on adjunct faculty. Adjuncts are part-time, temporary, untenured faculty paid per course to teach. They have little time for research or administrative duties, and they are finding it hard.

Paid a few thousand dollars per course, they apparently now make up around half of US university faculty. There is concern about what it means for the quality of education and the future of universities. If teaching staff don’t have time to research, how do they stay current? If they can’t contribute to administration, how will all the curriculum and ethics committees get their work done?

The neologism ‘adjunctivitis’ is revealing. The suffix ‘-itis’ suggests a medical condition that has befallen the faculty — think appendicitis, bronchitis, etc. But what we have here is a choice. These faculty haven’t suddenly come down with adjunctivitis. They have been building towards it for years, making a series of choices, continuing on this particular path despite the difficulties.

It is a hard choice, yes, but a choice nonetheless. Maybe they feel driven to teach. Maybe they really like their specific area of research. Maybe they like where they live, or their partners are settled into their own jobs. But let’s not forget that these are people with options. They are clever people with good work ethics who know how to communicate. They are choosing to continue being adjunct faculty because they feel it is better than the alternatives.

Hey, sorry, it’s not my problem if you can’t land your dream job. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be Prof Reg Chronotis – a little office, a little sinecure, no teaching load? But such positions are works of fiction.

What if a bunch of them said no? What if they just decided, y’know what, selling real estate or writing computer code or being in middle management is less stress and more money? I don’t know what would happen, but it would be interesting to find out. A new cohort of adjuncts might appear, ready to do the same work at the same pay. Or, universities might have to do something about pay and conditions.

Universities are under pressure to offer students luxury facilities at reasonable prices (air conditioning?! private bathrooms?! hah!). Universities are also affected by governments cutting spending:

In 1980, states provided 46 percent of the operating support for public colleges and universities, according to the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. By 2005, average support had fallen to 27 percent.

Something’s got to give. In this case, it’s the cost of producing the lectures and assessments. A big variable cost with them is the teaching staff. If there’s no countervailing pressure from people, oh I don’t know, refusing to work for peanuts, then that’s where the universities will cut the costs.

Finally, there’s a revealed preference here about the attributes in the bundled good ‘university education’. This adjunct trend has been going on for years, and the complaints about impacts on teaching quality are nothing new. And yet, people keep shelling out more money for poorer teaching. Why? It does suggest that going to university is about getting that certification, or building networks, or being socialised, or buying the name brand if you can. People — students, parents, employers — seem less worried about the quality of the education.

Until they do — can I interest you in a little fixer-upper bungalow with nice harbour views?

Why inequality? A reply

07/02/2014 § 4 Comments

Paul Walker asked a question recently — why are some of us focusing on inequality? That started a discussion on the Dismal Science feed at Sciblogs. Since I’ve been implicated by link, I figured I should say something.

Why inequality?

Well, first, other people are talking about inequality, but they are getting it wrong. One thing I’m trying to do is establish a sort of factual basis for the discussion. For example, people like to point to The Spirit Level as somehow the final word in the evils of inequality. So I’ve read the  book and pointed out its faults, which I think are serious enough that the book doesn’t prove its thesis. Or, alternatively, I’ve calculated that mobility of income quantile doesn’t tell you as much as you think it might. I’m doing this work 500 words at a time, so it takes a while.

Secondly, I’m interested in the economy as a human construction. We’ve designed it, and we can re-design it. Note that I’m not suggesting something like a New Socialist Man. I’m not advocating that we re-make people. But if as economists we believe that (a) incentives matter and (b) institutions matter, then changing incentives and institutions produces different results. So, I’m interested in exploring how we make changes to meet different goals.

Finally, I’m acting according to my preferences. I like fairness. I like symmetry and order. There’s something about equity that appeals to my sense of order. Now, perhaps you think the economy is fair, in the sense that people get what they deserve and actions lead to appropriate consequences.  Or, perhaps you think that life is not fair and that’s enough of an explanation. Me? I look around and see more than just the background cussedness of it all. I see people using power and privilege to maintain their own positions, and then saying that it’s just The Way Things Are. Or, more academically, that we shouldn’t turn away from the fraud that accompanied the global financial crisis, for example.

That’s why I’ve been writing about inequality. It’s just my tiny little effort to make the world a better place.

Summary theories of the firm

05/02/2014 § 4 Comments

Paul Walker over at antidismal mentioned that he has a new article in the Journal of Economic Surveys on theories of the firm. There’s a pre-publication version on his University of Canterbury website. It’s highly recommended reading if you have any interest in why firms exist and what they do.

Titled ‘Contracts, entrepreneurs, market creation and judgement: the contemporary mainstream theory of the firm in perspective’, it reviews the standard theories and provides a bit of history and context for how they fit (or don’t) into mainstream economics theory. Essentially, if you assume perfect information and foresight, why do we need firms when we could all be individuals contracting amongst ourselves? The two reasons usually offered are principal-agent problems as a result of asymmetric information, and the incompleteness of contracts, which leads to the need for post-contract flexibility.

Walker also goes on to look at a few recent developments. One is the idea that firms are institutions whose objectives differ from those of the owners — a type of owner/management split that will be familiar to financial types. The other is a focus on the entrepreneur, familiar to Austrians (and Schumpeterians, if IIRC).

This is material I have to deal with reasonably often, but I know only bits and pieces of it. We are often thinking about why specific institutional arrangements have arisen, or what kind of information asymmetry or transaction cost we are facing and how to resolve it. Having a well-structured framework of the literature with commentary is really helpful.

I will gin up my Opinion-Inator for one point. I’m less convinced about entrepreneur-led theories of the firm. First, they fit with the same world-view (Weltanschauung) that focuses on great-man explanations of history, which I find insufficient. Secondly, entrepreneurs in the flesh are not as heroic as they are in theory. It is possible to rescue the Entrepreneur from this observation, but only by making a distinction between Entrepreneurs and ordinary business owners. That just seems like a ‘no true Scotsman‘ fallacy. And finally, even if the above criticisms didn’t hold, lots of firms in the current economy aren’t entrepreneur-led. They are massive bureaucracies. That needs explaining, which other theories do.

It is important to remember the legal fiction/arrangement that produces modern firms, the Limited Liability Company/Corporation. It is a device to limit the liability of individuals; it separates individuals from the full consequences of their actions. In a micro sense, it allows entrepreneurs and investors to take advantage of the upside of economic activity while protecting them from the downside. In a macro sense, the arrangement has fostered a good deal of investment and risk-taking and economic activity with widespread benefits. That protection is an important reason for people choosing to organise into legally distinct organisations.

Walker’s article includes this ‘nexus of contracts/legal fiction’ view of firms, as well as lots of others. It is a concise and readable survey that I’ll be using myself and recommending to others.

Poverty: plus ca change…

03/02/2014 § Leave a comment

While it is in vogue to talk about inequality, it would be better to focus on poverty. The inequality strategy is intended to reduce the ‘othering’ effect of poverty: the poor are those other people over there, who are different from us. However, it lets all of us non-poor, non-elite assume the stance of victim. We get to say that we, too, are suffering. In our heated houses and comfortable clothes, wondering what to eat from our full pantries.

The biggest mistake with the inequality strategy is that it activates our demands for fairness, which prompts people to make judgements about whether the poor are ‘deserving’. On the one hand are people arguing that it is inequitable for lots of children not to have enough to eat and two pairs of shoes, while on the other hand are people arguing that it is inequitable to take money from people who work hard and scrimp and save and give it to people who don’t. Two sets of judgements, two set of preferences, and no clear solution.

Barbara Ehrenreich had a column in The Atlantic last month, ‘It is expensive to be poor‘:

I was also dismayed to find that in some ways, it is actually more expensive to be poor than not poor. If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced.

She also traced the development of attitudes towards poor people. The US War on Poverty started by President Johnson arose from the idea that government should do something to help the disadvantaged. The conservative backlash argued, instead, that people were not ‘disadvantaged’ — which is a social condition, and speaks of what is done to someone – but that ‘poverty arises from the twisted psychology of the poor themselves’. She continued,

pundits and politicians have bemoaned the character failings and bad habits of the poor for at least the past 50 years.

Of course, it has been going on much longer than that. I’m currently reading Emile Zola’s Germinal, a story about miners in a company town in the 1860s. The life of the miners is juxtaposed with that of the bourgeois investors, the Gregoires. Zola captures the attitude of the comfortable bourgeois towards the miners (source):

One must be charitable. They said themselves that their house was the house of God. Besides, they flattered themselves that they performed their charity with intelligence, and they were exercised by a constant fear lest they should be deceived, and so encourage vice. So they never gave money, never! Not ten sous, not two sous, for it is a well-known fact that as soon as a poor man gets two sous he drinks them. Their alms were, therefore, always in kind, especially in warm clothing, distributed during the winter to needy children.

In the meanwhile, M. Grégoire repeated aloud the reflections inspired by the sight of these starving ones.

“There is evil in this world, it is quite true; but, my good woman, it must also be said that workpeople are never prudent. Thus, instead of putting aside a few sous like our peasants, miners drink, get into debt, and end by not having enough to support their families.”

We are still having the same argument.

Another entry in the inequality discussion

31/01/2014 § 3 Comments

Pattrick Smellie’s column yesterday highlighted that Brian Easton has a new publication on inequality. Easton’s work is based in part on the thorough MSD report by Bryan Perry, which was highlighted in comments early this week (h/t Mary). Apparently, Easton is less complimentary about the Rashbrooke book, which I’ve covered before (here, here, and here).

That was a link-o-licious paragraph.

Easton and Smellie picked up on something that also struck me about Perry’s analysis (this from Smellie):

Between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, Rogernomics cut a swath through traditional, subsidised industries; income tax cuts and GST were instituted, which hit the poor rather than the rich; and then the Ruth Richardson welfare cuts of the early 1990s completed a sharp decline in equality.

“The trend after the mid-1990s is more ambiguous,” Easton said.

“The best interpretation is that the income distribution has remained at roughly the same level of inequality over the last two decades.”

The trend shows up in this graph of the Gini coefficient in New Zealand over time (Perry, Figure D.17):

Gini_trend

The graph struck me for two reasons:

  • Commentators often wring their hands about New Zealand falling behind the rest of the world on incomes, productivity, etc. A lot of that falling behind happened in the 1980s and 1990s, with less of it in this century. That is, we have fallen behind, rather than we are falling behind. Apparently, there’s a similar trend with inequality: it did increase, rather than it is increasing.
  • The Occupy movement and commentary by Krugman, DeLong, Saez, etc. focus on the increase in inequality in the last 10 to 15 years, things like:

Yet the bulk of the rise in top income shares is in fact at the very top.

The experience in New Zealand appears to be different. It’s a reminder that we have our own economy with its own issues, and should be careful importing slogans and solutions from overseas.

Some babies are more equal than others

28/01/2014 § 8 Comments

So…Labour made its big policy announcement. I guess I should comment on it.

Let’s focus on the $60 per week for babies. Here’s the case for such a payment:

Our society recognises that the first few years of life are crucial to later development — stuff happens or should happen in that period that can’t be undone or redone. This is, for example, your DOHaD (developmental origins of health and disease) hypothesis. We collectively decide that we want new individuals — babies — to have the best start they can. Maybe we want each one to reach his or her full potential, maybe we just calculate that an ounce of prevention costs less. Either way, the 2 million plus of us with work each put a little money into the pot for the 59,000 families with babies. We use government to organise the whole thing. Given that families are a key institution in society, we route the payment through families. Giving credence to what economists say, we provide families with money rather than things (food, clothing) because each family is best placed to decide what it needs.

But then there’s this detail about excluding families making more than $150,000. If the payment is essentially for the new individual, then why make it contingent on the family’s income? And furthermore, the exclusion would affect only 5% of families, so it has only a marginal impact on the total cost. The exclusion tells us that the payment isn’t just about society supporting new babies, it’s about supporting specific babies.

So then we get into a debate about which babies deserve support. It turns the policy from baby-focused to family-focused. Labour has determined that some families need support, well, actually, that 95% of families need support. And that’s where they lose me.

I definitely see the need-based case for providing extra money to the one-quarter of children in poverty. We could increase the scope even more to include the near-poor. But when we increase it half or three-quarters or 95% of families, we aren’t talking about needs any more. In no plausible way can we argue that 95% of New Zealand families are needy. They may be ‘struggling’, in the sense that we can all find ways to spend our entire incomes and then a bit more. But needy?

And so the policy looks like a giveaway to the middle class, dressed up in concerns about kids and poverty. It’s a great ploy — voters (who are mostly middle class) can feel like they are doing something for barefoot urchins while getting paid themselves. The pay-off is psychological AND financial. That makes it good politics.

Education policy: solving the wrong problem

24/01/2014 § Leave a comment

The big political news yesterday was the announcement by National of a new education policy. It will put in place a few experts — super-principals and super-teachers — to oversee and guide schools and regular principals and teachers. And, it will pay them a premium.

The usual economic models I use don’t seem to apply here. This is more about management, for which I have no ready models. If I fall back on thinking about incentives, I don’t see anything in here that changes the incentives for teachers. In fact, it creates incentives for the incoming managers to (a) overstate the deficiencies of the existing situation, and (b) institute new policies and procedures so as to be seen to be doing something. But I don’t have a great economic insight for you, sorry.

I do know a little about the education system, though, and it seems like this policy is solving the wrong problem, or a problem that does not exist. Education in New Zealand is generally good. Overall, students fare well on standardised exams and international rankings. They are able to go to overseas universities and do well. On average and in the main, education is on par with the rest of the developed world.

Whether warehousing kids for 13 years is actually good for their development as creative human beings, that’s another argument, but we’ll skip it here.

Despite the good average performance, the country has two problems:

  • the long, fat tail of low performance, which correlates with race and poverty
  • lack of public resources for top students, to help them achieve their potentials.

The first problem is that some kids in some communities are disadvantaged in all kinds of ways, and that shows up in school results. Improving their performance is partly about the schools themselves, and partly about helping the communities and families overcome the disadvantages. It also involves some reflection on why the disadvantage is there and continues, which is a massive social conversation that the inequality campaigners are attempting to have (but, in my opinion, going about the wrong way).

The second problem comes out of the drive for standards. If teachers are given incentives to lift kids to some arbitrary level, they will work towards it. Any kids who naturally get there will be ignored, because teachers aren’t paid to help them excel. This imposes costs on the families and communities, who have to pay for all the extracurricular stuff that helps the kids excel, or move them to the expensive schools that offer more options. It also creates losses for individuals and societies, who aren’t as creative and inventive as they could have been.

The new policy addresses neither problem. Creating a national system of administrators and consultants (which is what the policy seems to do) isn’t necessary. We need targeted intervention to help the poorest performing kids, and we need a shift in focus and policy to create incentives for teachers to nurture the best and brightest.

It’s never enough

23/01/2014 § Leave a comment

And so a new year begins. Okay, we’re almost a month in, but this is the week that New Zealand really comes back from summer holidays (and even now there are a few empty chairs in the office). That means it is time for looking ahead to what we can accomplish this year.

Rod Oram, one of the country’s leading economics commentators, has given his views in the Sunday Star Times (19 January — behind paywall so no link). He starts by reflecting the current consensus — New Zealand is poised for growth, ready for a ripper of a year in 2014. Both IMF and NZIER are forecasting growth over 3%, versus an average of 2.2% in developed countries. Also, the growth is expected to be broad-based, which is generally good for the economy.

But that’s not enough. No, no. Oram warns us, frets about it, looks for the sow’s ear in the silk purse (what? moving on…).

He wants us to do more. We can’t waste this opportunity. Growth, schmoth — what we need is innovation! and new thinking! and initiatives! and transformational change! That extra economic activity is just the platform for even more better growth.

I’m being a bit mean, but I’m on my way to making a point. Well, four:

  • I’ve been here since 2000. A succession of commentators, governments, bureaucrats and others have been exhorting us to transform and innovate. My colleagues tell me it’s been going on longer than that (we really need to put together a list of the initiatives that have come and gone while the country has quietly gone about its business). This isn’t a galley, where you beat the drum faster and the slaves pull harder. Innovation is just a slogan — it needs to be backed up by concrete ideas about who and how and when and what.
  • We are, apparently, starting to hit up against constraints: ‘There is abundant evidence of our constraints…. Capacity utilisation is already at 90.2 per cent….’ Innovation and transformation require resources. There has to be mental capacity for thinking and planning, and people and money to work on changes until they bear fruit. Resource constraints are good for pushing people into innovation — how do we work around our limits? — but that kind of innovation tends to be incremental.
  • Oram points to the Treasury estimate that ‘our current account deficit would expand to 6.5 per cent of GDP, adding to our indebtedness to our international creditors.’ The thing about these debts is that they are largely private. They are the result of individuals making decisions about how to spend or invest their incomes, and about overseas creditors deciding that we are worth the risk. What should we do about it? Why should we do anything? Do I really think I’m a better judge of all those individual transactions than the people actually making them?
  • Oram is worrying about 2016 (‘Our growth rate will drift back to about 2.5 per cent in the year ending March 2016′). The business owners I talked with over the summer are worried about now, and this quarter, and getting through this financial year. It’s been a hard few years for a lot of people. Yes, yes, planning for the future is important, but enjoying the good times is key to keeping sane.

So this year, I’m not going to fret. Innovate if you want, relax if you don’t. And laissez les bons temps rouler.

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