Perversity of preferences

10/04/2014 § 2 Comments

I’ve been watching the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in the US. I understand why the Rube Goldberg apparatus was set up the way it was. Doesn’t make me happy about it, but it does mean that more people are better insured.

The Supreme Court ruling that cleared the final roadblock was exactly the sort of split-the-baby decision we should have expected. As sometimes happens with rulings, the implications weren’t immediately clear. In particular, the provision that states could opt out of the Medicare expansion turned out to be more important than was first thought. The implications were recently discussed in an interview with Prof Jonathan Gruber, MIT, Director of the health care program at NBER:

[T]he single thing we probably need to keep the most focus on is the tragedy of the lack of Medicaid expansions. I know you’ve written about this. … I think we cannot talk enough about the absolute tragedy that’s taken place. Really, a life-costing tragedy has taken place in America as a result of that Supreme Court decision. You know, half the states in America are denying their poorest citizens health insurance paid for by the federal government.

(N.B.: ‘half the states’ does not mean half the people — the states in question are less populous than the ones that expanded Medicare.)

Why do I point this out? Because the economist Gruber was surprised by the politics:

if you’d told me, when the Supreme Court decision came down, I said, “It’s not a big deal. What state would turn down free money from the federal government to cover their poorest citizens?” The fact that half the states are is such a massive rejection of any sensible model of political economy, it’s sort of offensive to me as an academic. And I think it’s nothing short of political malpractice that we are seeing in these states and we’ve got to emphasize that.

‘What state’ is an incorrect way to think about the issue. It wasn’t ‘states’ that decided. It was people, specifically politicians and the voters who support them. What politicians-and-the-voters-who-support-them would turn down free money? People who believe — who prefer, let us say — that poor people should not be helped. That poverty is just desserts. That poverty is just the flip side of positive incentives for hard work and sober decisions. These people prefer a certain set of incentives aligned with a specific view of how the world works (Weltanschauung, if you don’t mind me saying).

This ACA situation is the Ultimatum Game writ large. We just played the game in class. When the offer was 50:50 or 60:40, it was accepted. When it was 90:10, it was rejected. Person A turned down free money because Person B else wasn’t ‘playing fair’, wasn’t acting according to Person A’s preferences.

Politics is a way for people to express their preferences and try to foist them on other people. It is also a bloodsport, as Dr Thompson would remind his readers. That’s my way of saying, of course these people rejected Medicare for the poor, even at a cost to themselves. They are using the issue to Make A Statement about how the world should be, and if people get hurt, well, omelettes and eggs.

It’s an important lesson for economists working in policy. People’s preferences are wild and woolly, and when expressed through political process can lead to seemingly perverse results.

Magic asterisks

27/03/2014 § 3 Comments

I’ve been fighting magic asterisks lately.

Unfortunately, I’ve been doing it secretly — anonymous reviewer, confidential client work — so I can’t share the details. I can’t even show you the costume. But I can rant a bit.

The original Magic Asterisk (TM) was a Reagan-era budget device from David Stockman. To make the net budget come out right, he resorted to adding asterisks that indicated unspecified spending cuts. The cuts didn’t happen, of course, but the budgets balanced. The books might not have, but the budgets did.

I am starting a collection of terms that people use in economics as magic asterisks. These are devices — rhetorical, mainly — to get them from what they can prove to what they wish to be true. They are little bridges from reality to ideology.

Here is the start of my collection, and why [note heavy use of sarcasm]:

  • Lock-in, path dependence — sure, the decision you face looks straightforward, but the unspecified opportunities that you are destroying in the fractal future are amazingly valuable! If you make the wrong choice, you will be forever condemned to a life of regret and penury.
  • Non-linear — oh, man, it’s gonna go boom! Don’t you see, it’s non-linear. Just a little push, and you’ll be smiling it’s all over! Like, y’know, compounding interest and discount rates and the parabolic effect of gravity on a tossed ball.
  • Uncertainty — you don’t really know, do you? The future is uncertain. Anything could happen. Oh, and maybe some evil demon is just dreaming all this.
  • Chaos theory — classical mechanics doesn’t really understand cause and effect. Butterfly wings and hurricanes, that’s all I’m saying. It may look unimportant, but it could have really big consequences.
  • Bounded rationality — you can’t know everything! and people make mistakes! That means you don’t really know anything and you’re probably even wrong about that.

Don’t misunderstand me. All these terms have meanings. Actual, y’know, defined meanings that can help us understand economics better. Take bounded rationality. As Simon developed the idea, it focused on using rules of thumb in structured environments to achieve a ‘good enough’ outcome without optimising. Some people think it just means not optimising. Some people think it means optimising subject to cognitive constraints. It was something different — it was about the method that people used. Powerfully, it shows how using rules of thumb is useful in predictable circumstances but possibly catastrophic in others.

Feel free to add your own.

Millennials’ problems so much more problematic

25/03/2014 § 7 Comments

You wanna set me off? I’ll tell you how. Bring up the problems of the Baby Boomers/Millennials.

Ted Rall is right on this. He’s brought it up before, and he’s nailed it again. We Gen Xers don’t matter:

I’ve been disappeared.

Erased from history.

Dropped down the memory hole.

(bye)

If you were born between 1961 and 1976, you no longer exist.

Is it just me, or is this a spoken word piece?

I’m hearing how hard-done-by these poor Millennials are. And y’know, I have some sympathy. Except that nobody cared when I had tens of thousands of dollars of college debt and home ownership seemed like a pipe dream and full-time work was scarce and we were all doing jobs that didn’t require a college degree. Now I’m supposed to care about the Millennials?

Oh that’s right, there are more of them.

And so, when they can’t afford cars, it’s a movement (or not). Not like when Xers were in their mid-20s and couldn’t afford cars — we were just slackers.

When their Boomer parents try to sell their houses and can’t cash out, it’ll become a public crisis to be solved with public money. When those same Boomers can’t sell their accounting practices and plumbing businesses because they didn’t train their successors and didn’t share the wealth, it’ll be another crisis to be solved with tax breaks and succession subsidies.

But sorry, Ted, there is nothing we can do about it. Remember that the US presidency skipped a generation, going from a WWII veteran (Bush I) to a Baby Boomer (Clinton) and skipping the generation in between. It’ll happen to us, too.

We’ve already been disappeared.

Details of economic perceptions in US

24/03/2014 § Leave a comment

The Pew Research Centre reviewed some interesting results. They start off saying that there’s a puzzle:

One of the biggest political puzzles of 2014 is why the public remains so bearish about the economy, and in turn critical of Barack Obama’s stewardship of it, given clear signs that economic indicators are improving.

First, they have been finding for the last few presidential administrations that perceptions of the economy are linked to party affiliation. That trend still holds. What is curious is that Pew thinks it is curious. It makes perfect sense, really. If your guy is in power, you are probably going to be pleased with how he’s running the place. If the economy is strong, it’s because of him. If it’s weak, he’s doing the right thing to make it better. So, the partisan gap isn’t surprising.

Secondly, they report a gap in perceptions of personal finances that correlates with education:

For example, college grads now size up their finances roughly as well as they did before the Great Recession took a toll on their outlook. In contrast, personal financial assessments of the less well-educated Americans have not improved as the economy has recovered after the Great Recession.

But again, this roughly reflects what’s happened. People with college degrees have tended to do better, both before the recession and after. The assessment of the non-college graduates is probably realistic: more unemployment, longer unemployment, lower wages, etc.

I’d be really interested in similar surveying for New Zealand and Australia. UMR Research, for example, has the Mood of the Nation survey. The reports on their site don’t break down results by demographics, though.

Consultant as analyst

20/03/2014 § 1 Comment

I attended a talk on economic modelling today. It was a straightforward presentation of a certain technique, explaining how it works and providing some examples.

There was some close questioning of the presenter. The questions weren’t always, um, helpful. They weren’t in the spirit of the presentation and raised questions with no real answers.

As I was listening, I suddenly heard Lacan’s discourse of the hysteric. And then I thought about the whole structure of the talk.

The presenter was trying to say something like this: economics has some theories –> we can turn those theories into a model –> we can solve the model –> we can then model things that didn’t happen or haven’t happen.

It was all presented in the discourse of the university: knowledge (S2) trying to reduce the excess (a), bounding the uncertainties and keep them from spilling over the edges of the research. The group contained many who were aspiring to know ($) more about the technique: holding the workshop produced a group of people who wanted to know.

The questions did not stick to the discourse. They did not, for example, ask what the equation structure was or where the elasticities were sourced. Such questions would validate the modelling. They would confirm that having an elasticity is important, and having a model in which to put it is important.

These questions were:

  • why do you believe your theory? I have another one
  • have you included my special knowledge of the subject?
  • your method is incomplete, isn’t it?

These are questions  that come from the perspective of the hysteric. The perspective was: I have lived, I am specific ($) — what does your unifying model (S1) have to say about my own experience?

Then, a consultant in the room answered from the analyst’s discourse. The comment was, we would like to talk to you more about it. It would be good to discuss your specific knowledge and incorporate it into our analysis. The idea of the un-modelled excess (a) would make the specific subject ($) speak, in order to re-produce signification (S1).

Odd to think of consulting as analysis, but I think it might work.

Incest and politics

04/03/2014 § Leave a comment

The leader of the ACT party, Jamie Whyte, stirred up controversy last week with comments on incest. For context, it must be recalled that Dr Whyte is a former philosophy lecturer at Cambridge University. Incest is thus to him a philosophical puzzle he must solve with logic. His logic led him to suggest that adults should be allowed to do what they want, regardless.

Two angles on this. First, the incest taboo, according to anthropologists, is common in human societies. See, for example, Freud’s Totem and Taboo, or Claude Levi-Strauss’s work. What’s fascinating, though, is that the specific taboo differs across societies/cultures. Thus, as Anne Laurie at Balloon Juice put it so memorably:

As my Intro to Anthropology professor told us, it is a fact universally acknowledged that The Tribe Over There is full of lowlife degenerates who eat taboo foods, have sex with their relatives, worship false idols & use entirely too much of the common resources. All else is commentary…

Whyte goes further, and suggests that the group does not have an interest in regulating the sex behaviours of its members. This is entirely consistent with an individualistic formulation of philosophy, rights, etc.

The second angle is that any appeal to society, culture, history, or group harmony ends up sounding like any racist justification for ‘the way things are’. Anti-miscegenation laws are based on a taboo that Those People should not be mixing with These People. It isn’t right, it will create mongrels, it degrades our purity of essence, and the rest.

Now, I worry about incest taboos because of a Freudian/Lacanian concern with the return of the primal father. One of the bulwarks against an Id-driven regime, one element of the Super-ego, is an incest taboo, however constructed. In a blunt sense, I don’t stand a chance in an Id-driven world. I’d rather avoid it. I appreciate the Super-ego.

So…is there a justification for an incest taboo that doesn’t wind up sounding exactly like a racist rant? And if there isn’t, what is human society without an incest taboo?

I’m an idiot

03/03/2014 § 3 Comments

I was looking at per-capita GDP today. Turns out I hadn’t realised how bad it’s been. I mean, I knew things had been moving a bit sideways and that the recovery, such as it has been, hasn’t been flash. But I hadn’t realised the full extent. So, from Stats NZ:

Real gross national disposable income per capita ($ 1995/1996 prices) SG09RAC00B06NZ

2008 — 32,247

2013 — 32,869

That’s growth of 1.9% in five years.

No wonder we’re grumpy.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 105 other followers