How to Make Money From Home in a Bad Economy - Try This Business

Millions of people are out of work.Thousands of businesses are failing.The economy is in the tank."OK", you say, "Thanks for that cheery news bulletin. Now tell me something I didn't know. Like, how can I earn money from home, even though the economy is bad?"Did you know there is a business that has done well in good times and bad during at least the last 50 years? Did you know that it will continue to do well for the next 50 years too?What is it?Selling information by direct marketing. Surprised? Don't be.I believe information products marketing is the perfect home based business for good economic times and bad. Dozens of internet marketing experts, like Terry Dean, Marlon Sanders, and Fred Gleeck, agree.People just like you continue to buy information that helps them solve a problem, meet a need, or satisfy a deep desire. We are in the information age, and the need for useful and valuable information is not going to go away anytime soon.Everyone knows more about at least one subject than almost everybody else. That makes the more knowledgeable person an "expert". Are you an expert? I bet you are and don't even realize it. If you know a lot about something, it is easy to assume everyone else knows that too. But, they often don't know much, and are very interested in knowing more.

Global Market Relationships - Don't Forget the News

As I have been saying, 2010 will be an interesting year in the markets, and this week only supports my contention. Many bearish voices are suggesting a correction is coming, but we have been hearing this since March of last year. Nonetheless, something bearish is afoot, as the world wrestles with the continuing ramifications related to recovering from the worst economic collapse since the 1930s. Here is where we are this week.The risk aversion following the 2-day slide in the markets has supported safe haven currencies such as the dollar and the yen, sending commodities lower. Amid this backdrop and in the absence of any key economic report, the major averages may fight to hold key support levels.  - World Daily Markets Bulletin The factors contributing to this bearish influence are global in scope, and they offer insight into just how interrelated all the global markets have become, and, as we will see at the end of this article, how one less-discussed factor just might be a prime mover in the market of today.China, the driver of today's economic recovery, is so "hot" it is tapping the brakes on its rapidly growing GDP, which hit 10.7% in Q4. China announced it would begin reducing liquidity in its markets. The announcement of this "normalization" process immediately and negatively impacted the global equity and commodity markets, but positively affected the U.S. dollar and Japanese yen. One might argue that this relationship is typical, and so it is, but now factor into that the possibility that China has a larger problem with its developing housing bubble. Housing prices have jumped some 70% in the last two years. Put that together with an over-stimulated economy, a government that is putting on the monetary brakes, and you now have one huge market (China as a whole) acting as a drag on the global economy.Fine, China is China, and we know that its debt-free and rapidly growing economy is influencing the global markets, but what about our markets right here in the U.S.? We have mixed economic data indicating our recovery is happening, but it is not quite solid in its footing. Q4 corporate earnings for the most part have been strong, but some would argue that is true only because of major cost-cutting and tighter inventories.

Two millenia of growth in a couple of equations

Many scientists dream of finding a unified theory of something, a theory that would encompass others and explain, with a few equations, a large number of observations. Physicists in particular have been looking for fundamental equations. In economics, there is currently a drive among growth theorists to find a unified growth theory, although here the focus is not on a single equation, but rather a model. Indeed, one has to realize that explaining several thousand years of economic growth involves some complexity.

And now the physicists get interested in the topic. Andrey Korotayev and Artemy Malkov actually go beyond a simple one equation model and use some theory, linking surplus output to population growth à la Malthus. Up to 1970, population is hyperbolic, while GDP is quadratic-hyperbolic (in both cases levels, and not growth as the authors assert). They conclude from this that technological progress is expanding because of the larger number of inventors as population grows. That seems a bit simplistic, as one should also bear in mind that there are decreasing returns to inventing, as documented by rather constant long-run growth rates for total factor productivity in modern history despite an increasing share of a growing population dedicated to research and development. But one can get misled when one looks only at few indicators.

On the negative correlation between effort and pay

It would seem natural that in a system where pay is linked to performance, better performers are rewarded more handsomely. Yet, there are plenty of examples where this does not work. If it is difficult to find a metric of performance, then the selected metric may give wrong incentives. The classic example is programmers paid by the number of code lines written, which leads to bloated and confusing code. Another one is with many civil servant jobs where the output is not related to a marketed good. The issue can be so bad that a negative correlation between performance and pay emergence.

Ola Kvaløy and Trond Olsen show that this could happen in another way that is not related to monetary and non-monetary rewards, yet has an impact on intrinsic motivation: weak enforcement probability. Suppose the latter is variable. Then high monetary rewards may be associated with a low probability that the scheme will actually be used. Workers may then just slack off. The above hypothesis is not completely insane, as one can imagine situations where there is moral hazard on the side of the worker, and the work contract tries provide the worker both with incentives and with some insurance. It works also without worker risk aversion if there is limited liability.

Spouses and unemployment duration

When unemployed, some people search more intensely for a new job than others. That will of course depend on their personal circumstances. The urgency of getting some income is obviously more pressing when there is little alternative income, and one such alternative is the spouse.

Stefania Marcassa studies French couples where one spouse works and the other is unemployed. It turns out unemployed men search longer for a job if their spouse earns less, while it is reversed for unemployed women. That turns out to be consistent, in a standard labor search model, with a breadwinner stigma for men. French men do not seems to be able to bear the thought of having a successful wife while being unemployed, while women see no hurry to work if their husband is doing well. Clearly, the sexist ones here are the men.

Is obesity an information problem?

As mentioned yesterday, childhood obesity is a problem that can be reduced by giving more opportunities to be outside and away from the television. But one may also try to combat the problem with information campaigns. One way is to publish dietary information in restaurants, something that even benefits the restaurants, as I reported earlier. But most food is not consumed in restaurants, especially for poor households who also are most likely to be obese. But do such information campaigns really work?

Andres Silva, Marian Garcia and Alastair Bailey show that when news about childhood obesity hit the media in the UK, households change their food habits for the better, and without having an impact of expenses. It is thus possible for the poor to do something about the obesity risk without financial consequences.

The fact that information matters is corroborated in a study by Linda Thunström, Jonas Nordström, Jason Shogren and Mariah Ehmke that shows that people use strategic self-ignorance to make choice they know has bad future implication. Specifically they did an experiment where people could choose meals and obtain without cost calorie information. Most subject chose to remain ignorant and then took in more calories than the enlightened ones.

The fight against obesity: more city parks, please

Obesity rates are increasing pretty much everywhere, but nowhere is the obesity problem as massive as in the United States. And nowhere else is television viewing such a cultural focus. With ever increasing viewing times, now about 4 hours a day, one has to wonder what drives Americans to spend so much time in front of the TV with a beer and greasy finger food. Maybe it is the lack of alternatives. Indeed, walk around almost any US city and you will find very few people outside, in a large part because there is nothing to do outside: few parks, no pedestrian areas, no river fronts, etc.

Maoyong Fan and Yanhong Jin show that this does indeed matter for obesity, in particular childhood obesity, which is the most difficult to reverse. One needs to differentiate by various characteristics, though. Parks work particularly well for girls in unsafe neighborhoods, but not as well for white adolescents with high incomes. Now switch that TV off and go outside.

Children in out-of-home care and adult criminality

It always saddens me when children are born into bad families. In extreme cases, society's responses is to put them into foster care or into institutions, in the hope that they will have a better shot at good adult outcomes. While there are some prominent counter-examples, the norm is that they still face significant hurdles. One measure of this is how frequently they end up being convicted of a crime.

Matthew Lindquist and Torsten Santavirta look at Sweden and children sent to foster or residential care. The latter seems seems to increase the likelihood of criminality in later years, as does placing boys in foster care after 13. Girls seems largely unaffected by this, except for residential care. Of course, this could all be selection bias, as the worst cases cannot be put in foster care. But in this study, much of the case record is known to the econometrician, in particular whether placement is due to child or parent behavior.

Are consulting and research substitues or complements?

Think tanks have a horrible reputation everywhere by in the media. The reputation is because they are often very biased and sell out to their finders. The media is because think tank staff are willing to provide the expected sound bites to journalists, no matter what the topic. All this would be OK if think tanks were good at conducting independent research. It turns out the most prominent ones, do not do much of it on the hot topics they talk about, according to Dan Farber, who finds that they do not publish much of relevance (and this is not even considering peer reviewed research).

Interestingly, the picture is very different with respect to consulting. Looking at academics across all fields from five Spanish universities, Pablo D'Este, Francesco Rentocchini, Liney Manjarrés-Henrìquez and Rosa Grimaldi find that getting grant money is positively associated with getting consulting contracts. In other words, good researchers also get consulting gigs. And in some fields, consulting is where the financial rewards of research really lie, especially in social sciences where grants are usually relatively small.

Game theory with pipelines

It seems every winter brings a new situation where Russia is holding up one of its neighbors, or one of them another one, over the delivery of natural gas. The pipeline transfer of natural gas through various countries seems to be the perfect example of a problem that has been haunting human history since trade began: local fiefdoms extracting tolls on transiting merchandise. The case of natural gas is a very pure example, because it is rather difficult to find an alternate route, given the gigantic fix cost of laying the pipeline.

Yet, there is talk of constructing some new pipelines to circumvent the hold-up problem. The question is what the new route should be. Technical considerations are here secondary, capacity and supply as well, all that matters is how bargaining power is impacted. Franz Hubert and Onur Cobanli use cooperative game theory and Shapley values of coalitions to analyze three proposed pipelines. The best seems to be North Stream, which runs thorugh the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, bypassing all the troublemakers. South Stream, which goes through Bulgaria and then the Balkans or Greece and Italy, is of little strategic value, as too many players are involved. And Nabucco, which taps fields in the Middle East and runs through Turkey and Bulgaria is of substantial value, but the rents accrues mostly to Turkey.

On the secularization of America

How committed to religion are people? This is rather difficult to establish as surveys can be biased by social pressure. For example, it is nowadays perfectly acceptable to be an atheist in Europe, but an atheist would be a social outcast in many parts of the United States. Hence, many stay in the closet in the US and are not visible, for example by still attending church because of social pressure or because it is the only social activity in their area.

As so often, actions are more revealing than opinions. Fernando Lozano uses an indirect indicators of religiosity that is based of economic choices: working hours on religious holidays over the last 30 years in the US. A few interesting trends emerge: Jewish holidays have become more observed, while Christian ones have become more observed if they have been secularized (like St. Patrick) and less if not (Good Friday). This is consistent with the renewal of Judaism and the commercialization of Christian holidays.

Optimism and debt overload

Throughout the last crisis, there has been much talk about excessive borrowing by individuals (and countries), and how this seems to follow some irrational behavior. We have to understand here that irrationality is a very strong concept, in the sense that people would knowingly take decisions that are against their best interest. I am not saying this does not happen, but ignorance and wrong beliefs can lead to behavior that looks irrational but is in fact perfectly rational.

Ari Hyytinen and Hanna Putkuri explore some data from Finland and find that those who borrow excessively do so because they are much more optimistic about future outcomes. Believing that future incomes will be high seems a perfectly rational justification for borrowing, especially when the lender seems to share this assessment. What is more worrisome though is that those overly optimistic households have more difficulties revising their expectations when faced with evidence. Maybe they hate it to be proven wrong (who does not?). Maybe it is Finnish bankruptcy law that encourages them to go for broke once a point of no return is reached. The latter would be perfectly rational again.

About agricultural policies in developing economies

Policy advice and intervention in the poorest developing economies are all about agricultural policy. How to increase crop yields, how to select crops, how to empower various players, how to get them onto markets. The results, overall, have been dismal: the poorest countries have grown less than the world average, thus they are getting even poorer in relative terms. The reaction to this? Thinking even harder about agricultural policy and intervention.

A recent example is a paper by Erik Jonasson, Mateusz Filipski, Jonathan Brooks and Edward Taylor that builds an elaborate model that tries to understand why some farmers do not participate in markets, which should help in specialization and reaping gains from it. They then evaluate the impact of various policies, and find some could lead to improvements in welfare, but nothing dramatic.

Yet, the most important change that should be contemplated is completely absent from this paper: getting subsistence farmers away from agriculture altogether. Obviously, they are not living in areas that are good for farming, so why to reinforce their dependence on the wrong trade. Countries with excess of labor supply should rather industrialize and import if necessary food. This is where the gains from specialization (and trade) are.

Using unemployment insurance to compensate for losses from opening trade

It is quite obvious that the gains from trade are positive, but implementing a free trade agreement obviously also implies some losses, in particular for workers whose skills were locked into the industry that just opened up. The implementation of some free trade agreements includes some compensation for such workers, but it is not much used if available. Why? And why would we need such compensation schemes at all?

Indeed, Marco de Pinto points out that unemployment insurance fulfills this role remarkably well. Those who benefit the most from the free trade agreement, and work, contribute to it, while those who lost, and are unemployed, receive insurance benefits. And if the unemployment insurance is not actuarially fair, that is OK, as it corresponds to a side-payment to the losers (no pun intended). But of course, the necessary taxation is distorting to the point of destroying the gains from trade. In such a context, it appears to be better to finance the unemployment insurance with a wage tax, as it neutral on all markets, in particular because under unionized labor markets, after tax wages are unchanged in aggregate. A profit tax is worse, but better than a payroll tax because it does not reduce labor demand for low-skilled workers as much.

Why LIFO beats FIFO

When I write a blog post, it is usually about the last paper I read. I draw from a pile that goes by the LIFO principle, "last in, first out." That guarantees that my "stories" are super-fresh, but when there is nothing I go down the pile. I could use the FIFO principle, "first in, first out," which would give each paper a fair chance to be featured, but then I may end up with papers that are always older, instead of just occasionally (there are several dozen papers on the pile). Well, it turns out my principle is in fact better than FIFO (well not exactly, my case is different, but anyway).

Trine Tornøe Platz and Lars Peter Østerdal model a situation where people queue for service (say, boarding an airplane), where there is a bottleneck but it is open at all times. Agents then decide to queue depending on the way they are served. Suppose the cost of waiting is linear in time, people like to be served early, and everyone can be served. Then it is better to implement LIFO than FIFO. Indeed under FIFO, there is no reason for people to wait, they all come at the earliest possible time and have to wait the longest possible period. Under LIFO, there is less of an incentive to come early, indeed the first ones are not served first if anybody arrives right after. Waiting time is then reduced and everybody is better off, in expected terms.

Can electoral districting be optimal?

Drawing electoral district borders is difficult to think of as an optimal outcome in the mechanism design of elections. It has all the ingredients that lead to manipulation by the incumbent majority, leading to suboptimal persistence of power. On the surface of it, it would much simpler and less strategic to just have everyone elect as many people as there are openings within a jurisdiction (say, a US state for federal elections), which has the advantage of giving smaller parties a fighting chance, and forget about districts and especially that ludicrous gerrymandering.

Yet, Emanuele Bracco think one can optimize the districting process. The key aspect here is that the parties platform is endogenous, that is, they are responsive to the electorate's wishes, as all the parties care about is getting elected. Parties tries to match the preferences of the median district- While this seems to be a rather romanticized view of elections in some countries, an interesting result is that if the electorate is risk averse, the majority party actually suffers from redistricting, while it would have benefited under exogenous platforms. So there is some hope that the US electoral system is not beyond repair. I still wish there would be a few viable small parties, though.

Cobwebs on the law professor market

Law professors were among the first in universities, and Economics emerged in many places from Law Schools. This make the study of laws an old and established profession, but this is not why I am mentioning cobwebs here. I am rather referring to the cobweb model, where price and quantity bounce around along the path of a spiral to reach an equilibrium.

According to Christoph Engel and Hanjo Hamann, this is what is happening on the market for Law professors in Germany. Say there are a lot of open positions in the German university system. This pikes the interest of law students, who after their doctorates require to go through a "habilitation" process that takes 6-9 years before they can apply for a professor position. And lo and behold, about eight years later, there is a surplus of candidates, which discourages younger students to choose this career, and we enter the other part of the cycle. Engel and Hamann show that this is not just theory, but applies remarkably well to the data, as it has before to cattle, whose biology leads to a similar market (ROsen, Murphy and Scheinkman 1994).

Recycling tourism

In areas where waste collection is paid by the one creating the waste, it is obvious that people are going to try to shop for the best option. In some cases, that option is illegal waste dumping, which leads to the unfortunate creation of trash police forces. But except for this the latter unfortunate turn of events, there is nothing wrong with price competition for trash.

Except when these prices are subsidized by municipalities, and they then complain that people from other municipalities use their services. Simon De Jaeger and Johan Eyckmans look at such trash and recycling tourism in Flanders, where this is believed to be a major issue facilitated by the fact that pricing methods vary widely from facility to facility. They build a choice model of where households would bring their trash given prices and estimate it with spatial econometric techniques. The average price in neighboring municipalities is used to capture waste tourism, but I think the lowest price, not the average one, should be used. Maybe this is why De Jaeger and Eyckmans find no evidence for tourism except for bulky household trash.

What is up with Elsevier?

Whether you like it or not, Elsevier matters in the dissemination of research in Economics. By far the largest player in the field, it enjoys considerable market power (and a profit margin around 30% that comes with it). And even though journals are not at the frontier of research in Economics, it still matters what happens at Elsevier because it controls so many of the top field journals.

According to its web page on the global dissemination of research, Elsevier states:
We recognise that access to quality research is vital to the scientific community and beyond. For us this means providing support and the latest tools to maintain the quality and integrity of published scientific literature, achieving the widest dissemination of content, and embracing the opportunities of open access. We will continue to identify access gaps, and work towards ensuring that everyone has access to quality scientific content anytime, anywhere.

These are all nice words, but this is not all what Elsevier practices. First of all, all of the Economics content of Elsevier is gated, and academic libraries have to pay through the nose to let faculty access the content, including their own works. Even errata and retraction notices are gated. There is no open access journal in Economics, and even in other fields where it is available, the cost is prohibitive (usually US$3000, even more with color charges!), which cannot be justified in any reasonable way by hosting costs. Indeed, Elsevier spends considerable resources trying to keep potential readers away, by gating the material for the general public and making it difficult for individuals to buy subscriptions, especially for hard copies. All this management of subscriptions and filtering of web traffic would disappear with open access, making it much cheaper, not more expensive.

But this is not an issue only with Elsevier (Springer is much worse in this respect). Elsevier, with its market power is trying to kill any competition and any initiative that tries to open up the dissemination of research. For example, it was a huge backer of the Research Works Act in the US, which would have prohibited mandates that publicly funded research should be available in open-access repositories. Of course this generated a huge outcry from the scientific community (you know, the one that Elsevier claims to serve) and lead to a call for a boycott. This seems to have been successful, as Elsevier reversed its stance, thereby killing the bill.

Unfortunately, few economists seem to have participated in the boycott, which is probably why Elsevier continues to flaunt the research community with no remorse. For example, it has not updated the listings of its journals for over a year in RePEc, and still vigorously refuses to let RePEc perform citation analysis on its contents. Repeated attempts to get a reaction from Elsevier have unsuccessful from my part. My suspicion is that RePEc is threatening some of the products that Elsevier is pushing (Sciverse, Scopus), and the interest of the research community becomes second fiddle. From what hear, people are deserting the Economics desk at Elsevier, starting with its head, which makes you wonder who is in charge of "the widest dissemination of content."

To understand further what a fine business Elsevier is, here are some of my previous posts:
The evil empire strikes again
The evil empire strikes again (II)
Copyright and the lack of competition in academic publishing
Why I am boycotting Elsevier

When do employers support minimum wages?

Germany does not have minimum wages, but there is currently a renewed debate about their introduction. As collective bargaining is largely handled at the sectoral level, one idea is to adopt sectoral minimum wages, for example by negotiating them within collective bargaining. In some sectors, there is already an informal wage this way, but this could be formalized. Given this idea of sectoral minimum wages, it is of interest to see which sectors would support them.

Ronald Bachmann, Thomas Bauer and Hanna Kröger use a survey of 800 firms in 8 sectors and uncover some interesting patterns. It looks like minimum wages are most supported where they would raise barriers of entry for competitors. This means that agreeing on a minimum wage is getting very close to cartelization. This is a feature of the fact that negotiations are done at the sectoral level. It would lead to a reduction in the number of firms, and likely to a reduction in employment as well, but for a different reason than usual with minimum wages: the cartelization reduces output and thus the labor force required for production. I suspect that if the minimum wage were set nationwide, though, this kind of support would largely vanish.

What is wrong with European central banking: the view from Cyprus

These are times where policy coordination between central banks and fiscal authorities seems to be particularly welcome. For one, monetary policy, which seems to be the only sustained and coherent policy, cannot right the ship beyond the short term, and the short term is shorter than the current crisis. For two, fiscal authorities are completely stuck in political wars exactly at the wrong moment. Upcoming elections in Europe and the United States certainly do not help in that. Central bankers have been rather frustrated with the political climate, yet they are still willing scape goats to deflect the furor of the public about unpopular policies.

But sometimes, enough is enough. One such case has been the open criticism of the central banker of Cyprus, who railed against the ineptitude of its government which has completely ignored his advice. Cyprus may not seem a big deal, yet it is a major banking center that may go down with Greece depending on how things unravel there. And this central banker, whose mandate was not renewed, is also not a nobody, as he was previously a senior official at the Board of Governors of the US Fed.

In probably his last paper while in Cyprus, Athanasios Orphanides summarizes all what is wrong with central banking in Europe (Cyprus is part of the monetary union). He recognizes that banking supervision must be taken much more seriously by central bankers, as the stability mandate that was typically meant for prices and sometimes employment or output is now interpreted to include the financial sector as well. Of course, this implies that central banks need to take more responsibilities in supervising the financial all the way to regulating individual institutions, an authority they do not always have at this point. But foremost, Orphanides argues that the biggest liability is economic governance. This is especially important within a monetary union where several governments need to agree. A more uniform fiscal policy would help tremendously, especially when monetary policy, in its more rudimentary form, is applied uniformly across the union. Worse, problems from fiscal policies that are not sustainable in the long term are magnified in a monetary union. You need rules and you need to adhere to them. Politicians are rather bad at this. Central bankers much better.

Cashless banking in informal economies

We are used now to playing with plastic, yet we still hold cash. The fact is that there are still plenty of occasion where only cash can be used for transactions, either because the amount is very small, or because for some reason the merchant does not want to accept plastic. Not infrequently, it is because of the fear of a paper trail, or rather an electronic trail, or because of some tax avoidance. The fact that plastic money discourages the latter should be seen as beneficial, right?

Victor Olajide thinks that is not necessarily the case when the informal sector is substantial. Taking the example of Nigeria, he points out that if the informal sector cannot use cash anymore, then this could have strong implications for banking, as reserve requirements rely on deposits, and those could go missing. That does not seem to be a major problem to me, as reserve requirements can be changed or redefined. I find more problematic that the Central Bank of Nigeria is pushing for a cashless economy while many of the market participants simply do not have the means to tool up for it. I think there are more important issues to tackle in Nigeria than going cashless.

How did online journals change the economics literature?

Scientific publication is not the same as it was, now that we can easily access the literature over the Internet. No more trips to the library, much fewer waits for interlibrary loans, and no more chasing who took or misplaced the volume in the racks. But did all this change anything in the way we publish our results?

This is what Timo Boppart and Kevin E. Staub study by looking at the diversity of topics covered in journals and how the availability of on-line publication would have changed that. The idea is that on-line publication allows to discover and read more material, and one may in particular stray away from the usual topics. No doubt about that. But I wonder why Boppart and Straub have this focus on journals. After all, working papers is where its at in Economics, and journal readership has not really increased, I believe. The treatment variable is the share of cited articles available on-line the year before publication. This seems so wrong. There is no way it takes only one year from the literature search to the print issue. Not in Economics, where I would say it is a minimum three years, with really rare cases below that. In fact, a good share of mine took more than a year from final acceptance to actual publication. Then, what about working papers? This is what people read, not articles.

The origin of de-unionization in the United States

For better or worse, union are particularly weak in the United States. This was not always so. Why unions declined is not limited to Reaganism which merely accelerated a trend already present in the data. The difficulty is to explain this trend which is for example only present in some other countries and nowhere as pronounced.

Emin Dinlersoz and Jeremy Greenwood explore whether this has to do with the distribution of income, at least in the US. Indeed, over the past century and a half, union membership rates followed an inverted U-shape, while the income share of the top 10% did the opposite. Greenwood and Dinlersoz think that both can be explained by the evolution of skill-biased technical change: basically, while the assembly-line was the main means of production, unskilled labor garnered a higher higher income share and unions were strong, but both decline since as information technology became important. Nice story, but I wonder whether it can apply to more observations (i.e., countries). Also, I wonder whether the timing of events works out. Indeed, the ratio of of unskilled to skilled workers went into a tailspin starting in 1945, while union membership started decreasing only in 1955 and the income distribution started getting more skewed in the 1980's.

The value of human capital

How much is human capital worth? This is an important question when one this about the amount of resources that goes into education, both from public and private funds, as well as the substantial opportunity cost of attending school instead of working. The traditional approach is to compare the labor income of people with different levels of education and then come up with a return on investment or more often a return of one additional year of schooling.

Mark Huggett and Greg Kaplan take a different approach. They consider human capital to be an asset and decompose it into a bond (with fixed return), a stock (with variable return) and a residual. This becomes then a standard asset pricing problem. Then taking the labor income flow as a representation of the dividends from this portfolio, they can infer its composition, and how it changes over time. Using data for US males, it turns out the value of human capital is much lower than previously estimated. This is because the stochastic discount factor covaries negatively with earnings (they take into account capital income as well). Also, the bond component dominates the portfolio, especially for the college educated, which is not surprising given the large variance of income and employment among the less educated. What is more surprising, I think, is that stock market and human capital returns are not correlated. I would have thought that the business cycle would have had a strong impact there.

Do remittances create credit?

Remittances from foreign workers to their families at home are an important source of income in some countries. Whether this is a good solution for the long term is debatable, though, as it may create a dependency. Thus it is important to understand whether these remittances end up not just fueling consumption but build the basis for investment in various forms of capital and future domestic income.

Christian Ambrosius looks at Mexico and finds that receiving remittances is strongly associated with the ownership of a savings account, especially in rural areas. So at least all of the remittances are going into consumption. More interesting is that there is also evidence that it also builds up some borrowing capacity, especially in microfinance banks. Once more, it is not the big financial institutions that seem to be the key to the development of the poorest, but the small institutions that rely on the local social network. And remittances are perfect to finance that.

Why does Angola invest in Portugal?

Standard theory tells us that a country with a low capital endowment, relative to its labor endowment, should have high capital returns and thus should be attracting foreign capital until capital returns are equal at home and abroad. While there is foreign direct investment from the North to the South, it is by far as high as it should be, and capital returns are far from being equalized. There are proposed answers to this puzzle, from mismeasurement to country-specific risk, but that does not explain why there would be foreign direct investment from the South to the North.

Carlos Pestana Barros, Bruno Damásio and João Ricardo Faria look at the case of Angola investing substantially in its former colonial master, Portugal. They build a model of a open economy subject to corruption practices. It is not quite clear to me how this model maps into the linear equation that is estimated (partly because not all equations display in the paper). But at this points, the interesting results is that this FDI is driven by exports and mostly by corruption. One has to understand that corruption in Angola is among the world's highest. For example, there is an unexplained residual in the country's fiscal account that corresponds to about a quarter of its GDP, which is absolutely mind boggling. This corruption is so big that not only does it dry out the FDI flow from Portugal, it reverses it.

Foreclosure crisis: it is not about irrationality and sneaky bankers

Why has there been a foreclosure crisis in the United States? Two popular explanations are that 1) evil mortgage brokers forced people to take mortgages they could not possibly honor, and 2) those taking the mortgages did not understand what they were doing. As an economist who insists on logic and rationality, it is difficult to adopt these points of view, except that a point could be made about perverse incentives in the mortgage industry where the risk is masked and pushed unto unsuspecting people. But were mortgage holders really that stupid to think they would be able to make it? After all, I know several PhD economists who are still underwater, and they do not look stupid to me.

Christopher Foote, Kristopher Gerardi and Paul Willen come to the rescue. They argue that market participants made perfectly rational decisions given the information they had a the time, and in particular given the beliefs they had. The latter turned out to be too optimistic in retrospect though. Foote, Gerardi and Willen come to this conclusion with an interesting data analysis. They draw 12 "facts" that together contradict the popular explanations. Foremost, it does not appear that there is any correlation between exploding mortgage rates and mounting foreclosures. Also, even borrowers with spotty credit have had a remarkably good repayment history. One should thus not conclude that mortgages were designed to fail. Furthermore, all the instruments and innovations in the mortgage industry were introduced well before the past decade, and there was no significant regulatory change. Market participants knew what they were doing, had plenty of information and understood the risks. They were too optimistic though. Finally, no top-rated mortgage-backed security turned out to be toxic. The same cannot be said about similar bond-based securities.

All in all, there was nothing really wrong with the mortgage market apart from being too optimistic. In other words, there was a bubble, which can be a perfectly rational outcome. So there. But we still need to better cope with the eventuality of a bubble.

Put some economics back into spatial econometrics

One of the hot areas for econometric research in recent years has been spatial econometrics. Think of it, at least initially as time series econometrics in a different dimension. One interesting aspect of it is that instead of being single-dimensional like time series, it can be two-dimensional, or even more I guess. This field brings interesting new challenges, and it must be exciting working in this field. However, as too often in econometric theory, research becomes quickly detached from reality, and more specifically from the needs of empiricists. N never goes to infinity, for example.

Luisa Corrado and Bernard Fingleton bring forward another important point. These techniques are used to test economic theories, so one should be able to embed some restrictions from economic theory. It is all nice and sweet when one can find an optimal weighting matrix with the right properties, but it is useless if the found weights cannot be matched with anything one wants to test. The causality goes the wrong way: first determine restrictions from the theory, then use the constraints to find the optimal weighting matrix.

This is not just a theoretical consideration. Spatial lags are crucial in spatial econometrics and are suppose to capture some network effects. But they can also soak up the impact of latent or unobserved variables, as in "regular" econometrics. This can lead to severe miss-specification and biased inference, somethings one is all to familiar with using lags in time series. In fact, one should be downright suspicious of any time-series results that only holds when lagged dependent variables are used. The same must apply to spatial econometrics.

How integrated are Eastern and Western Europe now?

25 years ago, it was very rare to see a car with Eastern European plates in Western Europe. Now, they are all over the place, including trucks (why are there so many from Romania?). This is a clear indication, even if you ignore history, that the East-West integration is stronger than it has been for a long time. But there are more aspects to integration than the movement of cars.

Catherine and Klaus Prettner basically look whether the two regions are cointegrated. They build two national aggregates, one with 12 European Community countries (unfortunately no UK) and 5 Central European countries. Using a vector error-correction model with restrictions from a standard open-economy business-cycle model with cash-in-advance. Output shocks to one area spill over to the other, surprisingly in similar magnitudes in both directions. Interest rate shocks are expectedly asymmetric though: West impacts East, but East does not impact West. But given that all this has been in transition mode over the 1995-2009 sample, I really wonder how these impacts have changed over time. A framework with time varying coefficients would have been helpful here.

Air conditioners on the rebound

The various cash for clunkers programs during the last recession had two objectives in mind: create aggregate demand (or shift it from good to bad times) and improve the stock of capital. In the case of cars, it was expected that this would lower pollution. Other programs outside of recessions have had the same goal, for example subsidies to replace light bulbs or appliances for more energy efficient ones. But it does not always work out as expected.

Lucas Davis, Alan Fuchs and Paul Gertler look at a recent and large appliance renewal initiative in Mexico. A staggering 1.5 million households changed their refrigerator or air condition units for better ones, with again the goal of reducing electricity consumption. But it seems to have backfired for the AC units. Indeed, they seem to have been so much more efficient that people feel less guilty of running them, increasing the total energy consumption in the process. This is called the rebound effect, which has already been discussed here. And once again, nothing beats taxing energy use instead of subsidizing alternative energy, or alternative energy uses.

The impact of recessions on economist productivity

In recessions, those who have the hardest time finding jobs are those who try for the first time. Facing these difficulties, many decide to pursue their studies in graduate school. From this, one should expect future productivity to be higher in the future, because of the higher level of human capital. But for a given level of human capital, labor productivity should be lower post-recession, because the marginal new graduate is of lower quality.

Michael Boehm and Martin Watzinger look at the performance of PhD economists and find that those who studied or graduated during a recession over-perform the others as measured by publication records. That would not surprise me for those who graduated during tough times, as only the best get jobs. Indeed, the study matches those who graduated with those who are still members of the American Economic Association. Thus, there is some selection bias. But for those who start in a recession, and thus would graduate in "normal" times, given the average length of a recession, this is more surprising. Boehm and Watzinger can justify this with the good old Roy model of reallocation of talent: in a recession, people switch to recession proof sectors, and those who can do this the most easily are those who are about to choose in which sector to work: students. As the number of graduate students slots does not change much, at least in Economics, the quality of those admitted is higher, if the admission officers do their work well. As the publication record many years later shows, they do.

Predation, labor share and empirical evidence

When you look at national accounts, one striking fact is that the labor income share is remarkably stable in each country. And the average level of this labor income share varies quite dramatically across countries. These differences vanish to a large extend once you allocate proprietor's income (these are business owners) to labor income and capital income, but some differences remain.

Carlos Bethencourt and Fernando Perera-Tallo try to explain these differences. They build a model where workers can choose to produce or predate. If the labor income share is high, they rather produce, if it is low, predating is more interesting. With an increase in productivity, the labor income share increases, and this amplifies the impact on output as fewer people predate. This mechanism can thus make it easier to explain GDP/capita differences across countries from total factor productivity differences.

But for all this to happen, you need an elasticity of substitution between capital and labor in the production function below one, or the labor income share would not change. Empirical evidence for that is not that compelling though (hence the attractiveness of the Cobb-Douglas production function). And if the elasticity is above one, all results are reversed. But assume it is lower than one for a moment. Then it means that any attempt to improve institutions to make predation less rewarding should improve output. That would be anti-corruption campaigns, for example. Yet, I am not convinced that corruption actually lowers output. As I posted before, the empirical literature is not conclusive on this. And that empirical result would be consistent with the elasticity of substitution being close to one, if this model were not to be rejected.

On democracy and tuition hikes

Some students in Quebec have now been on strike for over three months over a law that would increase the tuition in all universities (they are all public) by a total of about US$1500 over five years. This seems a rather trivial amount for a US student, but in countries where tuition is free or almost free, this is not trivial. The apparent violence of the protests, which have gone all the way to sabotaging the subway system, and the daily protest marches show there is some deep issue at play. Let me add my grain of salt on two points.

The first is about democracy. I am all for popular uprisings, demonstrations and marches when there is a failure in the democratic process that leads the government to take decisions that are against the public good. Frankly, I do not see where the failure of democracy is in this case. The law was adopted by a democratically elected government. While Quebec is a province with severe corruption issues (for Western standards), the electoral process seems clean. Polls appear to show wide support for the government's policies. Even the striking students are a minority in the student population. The street should not hold the democratic process and sound policy making hostages.

Which brings me to the second point. Apparent popular support in the polls may be a reaction to the violence and radicalization of the student movement. It may not be about sound policy. But it should. Indeed, the main argument for low tuition is that it makes university access affordable to everyone. That is right, but it is also a gigantic gift to the rich, who send their children much more frequently and much longer to university. If you add the costs and the taxes, giving free tuition is equivalent to a very regressive taxation. I do not think that this is the goal. The goal is to get everyone to pay their fair share in education, for which the future personal benefits in present value are very large. Tuition should be subsidized because of the positive externalities of education, but those that benefit the most from it should also pay the most for it. If students cannot afford studies right now, then grants and loans can overcome that. But the fact that some students cannot afford to study should not lead to a policy where higher education is free, or almost free, for everyone.

The Quebec government is right on this one, and the street is wrong.

Why are seasonal immigrant worker programs so unpopular?

Immigration policy is difficult to optimize, first because some economic rents are at stake, second because people do not want to share the luck of being born in the right place and at the right moment with foreigners who do not have that luck. But even within that context, a policy of seasonal immigration should be easy to adopt, as everybody wins: immigrants are let in only when labor demand is very high and cannot be met by locals, and the immigrants leave when the labor demand is back to normal. And the immigrants are willing to go for it, as it provides good income that is valued as they return home. This is a winning proposition for everyone, yet such policies are rare, and when they exist, they are little used. Why?

Danielle Hay and Stephen Howes take the example of Australia, where such a policy has been adopted for the horticulture industry but little used. It appears growers are reluctant to hire seasonals even when they have trouble finding workers. Either they are unaware, or they are afraid of red tape, or they prefer to hire back-packers (illegals) who show up on their doorstep. So it appears that once more, the fact that illegals can be exploited runs counter to good policy. Again, I appeal that we should give give each worker, legal or not, the same rights. Another win-win proposition.

Why we need small countries: they experiment with policies

Small countries are often considered a nuisance. They are sometimes tax havens that annoy larger countries because it increases tax competition. They have more weight than their size in international organizations (UN, European Commission, ECB) or sports organizations (FIFA), which at least in the latter case encourages corruption. And they increase sample sizes in cross-country regressions without truly adding information, sometimes leading to erroneous results. But small countries are also great because it allows to experiment with policies.

That is the argument of Jeffrey Frankel. He gives plenty of examples of innovative policies adopted in small countries that turned out to be good choices. In many cases, it looks like larger countries would also benefit from adopting them, that is, smallness is not a necessary condition for success. A good read with a boatload of interesting anecdotes to bring up in conversation.

What to do when people expect the government to default on its debt

The situation in Greece is rapidly getting worse, with clear signs that a bank run is in the works, mainly because there is no party majority that would avoid a default on the public debt. In such a situation, what should the fiscal policy be? Clearly, the budgets have to be reduced dramatically as no one would be willing to lend to the government and the government can only pay with cash (which is not the new drachma, as no one will trust that either and we would have immediate hyperinflation and the complete collapse of public services). This is why the government has no choice but to honor its debts if it wants to continue offering public goods, and this is what the Greeks want, I think.

So then, what should happen if the government is committed to pay the debt, but the public does not believe it? For advice, we can turn to the recent paper by Francesco Caprioli, Pietro Rizza and Pietro Tommasino. Suppose economic agents eventually and gradually learn about the good dispositions of the government. They also believe there is a positive correlation between the level of debt and the probability of default. The consequence of these very reasonable assumptions is that government expenses need absolutely to be reduced after a negative tax revenue shock. The first reason is that the interest rate goes up and worsens the situation, the second is that the government needs to keep the debt low to avoid fueling more default expectations, not just today but also in the future due to inertia of beliefs. This is in stark contrast from a situation where the government can credibly commit to repaying the debt: then, debt can effectively be used to smooth out fluctuations in tax revenue.

Greece is so screwed.

Wealth exemptions do not matter in bankruptcy

The major aspect in bankruptcy law variation across states in the US is the wealth exemption. Some states protect substantial wealth from the creditors, the prime example being Texas where housing is exempted without limits, plus $30,000 per spouse. Maryland, however, exempts only $11,000 total personal property plus about $20,000 in owner-occupied housing. This considerable source of variation ought to lead to cross-state variation in bankruptcy rates, as several models would predict, yet the data does not show it.

Jochen Mankart explains why. He uses a life-cycle model where households borrow and save, and they are subject to a variety of shocks, the most relevant being health expense shocks, the most common trigger of bankruptcy in the United States. Varying bankruptcy exemptions, he finds no significant change in bankruptcy rates. The reason is quite simple: those who file for bankruptcy are so poor they have nothing left anyway, thus exemptions do not matter to them. Where it matters though is in the savings rate. Higher exemptions encourages especially the poor to save more. To boot, the model solves the credit card puzzle (see posts 1 and 2).

How group utility differs from individual utility

Expected utility lies at the core of almost all analyses in Economics that feature uncertainty. While one can always come up with exceptions to the rule, expected utility is by and large accepted as a good characterization of the behavior under uncertainty of individuals. The emphasis is here on individuals, and one can wonder whether the behavior could be different when they act as a group. Group dynamics are complex, and there are plenty of examples where individuals behave differently in a group than alone.

Andrea and Piergiuseppe Morone performed an experiment with students where they tried to elicit responses to risky choices, first individually, then in random groups of two. They confirm that in the first case, expected utility seems to be the best representation of the preferences, but in the second case disappointment aversion (commonly also called loss aversion) seems to be dominating. But this is far from being a proof yet, as only 38 students were part of the experiment. The authors also claim that this shows that preference aggregation drives out expected utility, a statement that can be misinterpreted. Indeed, this does not mean that aggregating individual decisions leads to a rejection of expected utility (say, in a representative agent framework). It only says that in situations where people take joint decisions, expected utility may be dominated.

Women and children first? No

The infamous quadruplicate papers of Frey, Savage and Torgler have caused a lot of grief for their multiplicity, yet they yielded a somewhat interesting, yet old result: women and children get priority on maritime disasters, crew are last, and there are some subtle differences among passengers from different nationalities. This result, however, was obtained using a sample of two: the Titanic and the Lusitania. And one also argue that there was some selection bias for the Titanic, as this was a much celebrated inaugural voyage with, let's say, an unusual set of passengers. It could therefore not hurt to increase the sample size.

Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson jack up the sample from 2 to 18. And the results are completely reversed. Women are at a distinct disadvantage, crew fare much better than the rest. This is the outcome you would expect from a free-for-all situation where weaker women get pushed aside on the run for the lifeboats. The lesson from this: do not trust a sample of two, even if amplified by four publications.

Looking at the transition from Malthus to industrialization in Germany using real wages

A standard model with a production function concave in labor will tell you that the marginal productivity of labor, and hence the real wage, decreases as labor increases. This the core relationship in the Malthusian model and has been the reason brought forward why some have observed that England enjoyed relative prosperity after the many deaths due to the Great Plague (and why some think the same will happen to Africa due to the AIDS epidemic). Of course, empirical evidence is somewhat thin for such old times.

Ulrich Pfister, Jana Riedel and Martin Uebele add an new data point to this by construction measured of real wages in Germany for the years 1500 to 1850, which they compare to population size. And they confirm the above. The Thirty Year War, which lead to significant population loss, was a period of significantly higher welfare for the survivors than before. This kind of relationship weakened over time though, probably reflecting that new factors became important in production. And it appears this change happened before the typical date we set for the Industrial Revolution in Germany.

Seasonality in house prices

There is a marked seasonal cycle in many housing markets. Sale volumes and house prices are significantly higher in the Summer and lower in the Winter. Evidently there should be some arbitrage, by selling high and buying low and renting in between for those who are genuinely moving or simply holding on to real estate for speculators. Possibly, the transaction costs are too high for this to happen. Or maybe the market for houses is not fluid enough for price not to cycle in a predictable way.

Cemil Selcuk picks up on this second idea and builds a search model where the supply is smaller in the Winter in the sense that the probability of finding an appropriate house is lower. As a result, there are fewer successful matches in the Winter, and they happen with a lower price because of the discount cost of waiting for better opportunities in the Summer and because the matches in the Winter are of lower quality. This is a rather trivial theoretical result, and it would be nice to know whether it approaches quantitatively the seasonal differences that are observed.

Are multipliers larger than we thought?

In the last years, much of the debate on fiscal stimulus vs. austerity was centered on the measurement of government spending multipliers. And to a large extend this was a debate between those how used dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models, finding small multipliers, and those using reduced form models, finding large multipliers. Both strategies have pitfalls, the structural one in that the model may be miss-specified as it is always an abstraction of a complex reality, the reduced-form one because of the Lucas Critique.

Patrick Fève, Julien Matheron and Jean-Guillaume Sahuc make the point that there could be a source of downward bias in the estimation of the elasticity in structural models. It arises from ignoring the endogeneity of government expenses combined with complementarity between public and private consumption. With exogenous expenses, the elasticity is 0.97 for the United States, with endogenous ones, it is 1.31. No small potatoes.

Tax capital *and* inheritances

I probably do not surprise anyone if I claim that how much to tax capital income and bequests is controversial. In the United States, it is due a divergent beliefs about the motivation of entrepreneurs and luck of being born in the right environment. In Europe, arguments center on fairness. The literature does not help much, with results being very sensitive to income processes, market features and preferences. Capital income is generally taxed less than labor income, often not at all, and results on bequests vary wildly, again often with zero tax results.

Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez add to this bewildering literature with a tour-de-force, a very rich, yet tractable model that allows to disentangle quite a few effects and illustrate what influences these taxes, in particular parameters that can be estimated. The richness is necessary to relate the model to real world better than the extant literature which yields this unrealistic and unobserved zero tax result. It is impossible for me to summarize over 100 pages in a few paragraphs, so here is a short overview.

The model features a large degree of heterogeneity, in taste for bequests and wealth accumulation, and in labor ability. Hence labor income and inheritance are not highly correlated, allowing for a trade-off between capital and labor income taxes because, as Piketty and Saez put it, two-dimensional inequality requires two tax tools. The tax on bequests is higher if bequests represent a large fraction of output, if the aggregate elasticity of bequests with respect to their tax is high, and if the taste for bequests is low. Tax rates on bequests can go all the way to 80%, and are for most parametrizations much higher than for labor income. This is because in general labor income should be favored, as it is derived from ability, unless people really like leaving bequests a lot.

If markets are imperfect and there is risk in capital return, then tax rates of capital income and bequests start differing. The lifetime equivalent of the capital income tax is then much higher than the bequest tax rate. because return fluctuations have stronger impact on periodic capital income than bequests, which are mostly accumulated capital and labor income. Important in this is also that in all economies, most people receive very little if any at all in terms of inheritance. This makes results remarkably robust with respect to welfare criteria.

Being tall and risk aversion

Are tall people less risk-averse than others? That seems like an odd question to ask. In particular, what would one want to do with the answer? Well, if the answer is no, this can help in establishing better insurance policies. Also, if some policies influence height, it is good to know what taller people entails (besides the known higher income and confidence).

Olaf Hübler finds that, yes, tall people are less risk averse. What is more interesting is that this result disappears once you factor in other variables, like personality, skills, and information about parental behavior. That is particularly interesting because such information is often not readily available, whereas height can be easier to find and used as a proxy. So, not such an odd question after all. Another question is then why would there be such a relationship.

On the difficulty of targeting financial aid to students

With the cost of education continuing to rise, financial aid to student becomes more important to help those with merit but little means (or borrowing constraints). Identifying whether financial aid actually helps bright students go to university is of course the most important question.

Loris Vergolini and Nadir Zanini study this in the case of Italy, where they surveyed students before and after university entrance, in the context of a generous financial aid initiative targeted towards bright low-income students. The results are sobering. it does not appear to have motivated more students to go to university. Those who were going anyway now are willing to move farther, presumably to potentially better programs. But this program was only recently introduced and could not have an impact on the school effort of those about to graduate. One can hope that its existence will motivate younger cohorts to excel in school to be eligible and make it to university.

Universities as catalysts of the commercial revolution in the Middle Ages

Universities can have a profound impact on the economy of a region, Silicon Valley being a prime recent example. But this is usually difficult to see as they are spread pretty much everywhere now. Hence the interest in looking at older data, where universities were less common and economic activity differed a lot more across regions.

Davide Cantoni and Noam Yuchtman go way back, up to the 14th century in Germany. They compare the establishment of new market places to the founding of universities and find a surprisingly strong correlation when looking at the distance from the nearest university. Of course, you may think this is all endogenous. If a city or region develops, new market places emerge and there is critical mass or wealth for an institution of higher learning. But the authors argue there is causation from universities to markets. Indeed, the Papal Schism of 1386 was an exogenous shock that allowed the creation of universities, and they exploit the trend shift in the granting of markets around this date. The intuition of the causation is that universities provided training in law, which facilitated the creation of legal institutions and ultimately the enforcement of contracts. So, once more, institutions matters, but this is also an interesting counterexample to the intuition that lawyers create demand for there services with no economic or social benefit.

The cost of hiring in Germany

How much does it cost to hire someone? This question is surprisingly difficult to answer. It is not sufficient to keep a log of all the recruitment expenses, the time spent and the training costs. Indeed, there are a lot of implicit costs that may, or may not, appear in the future. Indeed, when you commit to employ someone, you also commit to insuring this person in many ways. In the US, health care insurance is a factor. In many jurisdictions, rules regarding firing may also entail substantial costs, for example if they force you to retain an underperforming employee. And you often also commit to provide some insurance against productivity changes by paying a relatively stable wage. Summing up, figuring out the cost of a hire is damn hard.

Samuel Muehlemann and Harald Pfeifer try to figure out some of these costs for skilled workers in Germany. They find a cost worth on average eight weeks of pay, and that is only taking into account time and expenses during the recruitment process as well as the monetary and time costs of training. Strangely, there are no economies of scale, as the elasticity with respect to the number of hires is 1.3. Even worse, the cost doubles from small to large firms. Labor market institutions do not seem to be blamed for this convexity. I am not sure how to rationalize all this. Large firms can hire several workers simultaneously, and this must save some costs. Same for training programs.

Are the Chinese capital controls optimal?

China is currently amassing large foreign reserves while imposing internally capital controls. Does this make sense? Wouldn't an economy that has the ability to create such surpluses want to participate more fully in world markets? One should not forget that these foreign reserves are accumulated thanks to a positive trade balance and a fixed exchange rate, not thanks to a particularly well functioning capital market in China. In fact, the financial sector in quite under-developed in China, and most households have access to nothing more than simple bank accounts.

Philippe Bacchetta, Kenza Benhima and Yannick Kalantzis build a model where the central bank has access to world market, but domestic households not. This enables the central bank to impose a different interest rate than the world interest rate, but it steady-state it is best to replicate an open economy: accumulate reserves and issue domestic debt at the world interest rate. If the economy grows rapidly, though, you want to have a higher interest rate domestically while imposing capital controls, that is, one needs to prevent arbitrage. But then, intertemporal substitution needs to happen through international reserves, as households cannot do it.

What is intriguing here is that we have a situation where open markets are welfare inferior to restricted ones with a reserve accumulation policy. Usually, we think that free markets would work best, especially as here there is no moral hazard, systemic risk, or other distortion. The reason is that borrowing constraints are binding as the economy converges towards steady state, and it cannot provide adequate intertemporal allocation in open markets. The central bank needs to help, and needs to differentiate interest rates to do so. That can only happen with capital controls.

Amy Finkelstein wins MIT Award

This was certainly a busy week for anyone following some of the ethics sagas in our profession. First, there was the non-renewal and temper tantrum of Bruno Frey, then there is the American Economic Association awarding the John Bates Clark Medal to Amy Finkelstein. Following my previous post on this award, this is hardly a surprise. For those keeping score, the last awards were given to:

2012: Amy Finkelstein, PhD MIT, Faculty at MIT
2011: Jonathan Levin, PhD MIT, Faculty at Stanford
2010: Esther Duflo, PhD MIT, Faculty at MIT
2009: Emmanuel Saez, PhD MIT, Faculty Harvard then Berkeley
2007: Susan Athey, PhD Stanford, Faculty at MIT then Stanford and Harvard
2005: Daron Acemoglu, PhD LSE, Faculty at MIT
2003: Steven Levitt, PhD MIT, Fellow at Harvard then faculty at Chicago
2001: Matthew Rabin, PhD MIT, Faculty at Berkeley
1999: Andrei Shleifer, PhD MIT, Faculty at Princeton, Chicago and Harvard

It is somewhat hard to swallow that MIT students and faculty are so much better than the rest, but one cannot discard the possibility that this could happen. What is more suspect is the composition of the committee: of the seven, three have an MIT PhD (Abel, Crawford and Hoxby), and one is faculty at MIT (Banerjee). What is the American Economic Association thinking? If you want to lend any credibility to this award, and you know who the prime candidates are, you put together a committee that does not look like it was constituted at the MIT ASSA cocktail party. It is true that in the past years, MIT PhDs were a majority on the committee, so there is progress, but the longer the streak goes, the more it looks dubious. It is especially annoying that Banerjee was put back in the committee two years after he gave the award to his colleague and lover (not a secret any more now that they have a baby).

The American Economic Association needs a serious overhaul of its committees. They are stacked with people from the same places, losing the representativity of the association. The proposed candidates for office are always coming from the same institutions, and a write-in campaigns cannot be successful. The AEA has already lost its credibility with its main award, and it needs to be very careful that its new journals do not go the same way, as they are again stacked with the usual suspects as editors. No surprise then that they have a really hard time taking off, despite all what people at the suspect institutions will tell you.

I hate quotas, but I think that in the current situation, the AEA needs to institute quotas in all its committees and editorial boards, if only to get out of a potential situation of self-fulfilling group thinking. No more than two PhDs or faculty from the same institution on the same committee or board. Have at least a "professional" economist and an economist from government or Fed on every committee. Same for non-PhD-granting colleges. Have true elections for president and vice-president with multiple candidates. And, why not, let the John Bates Clark medal be awarded by complete outsiders: academic economists not based in the US and not educated in the US (but not Ernst Fehr).

Bruno Frey: the story that keeps giving

A few weeks ago, I had a post entitled Bruno Frey, the epilogue, thinking that now that the University of Zurich made him a gigantic gift by manipulating the investigation into his behavior and keeping mum, Bruno Frey would have learned to finally shut up. But no, he has still not understood a thing a keeps going on, to the point that was getting daily updates in my email about the latest on him. Let me run a few highlights by you.

As was rumored for some time, the University of Zurich decided not to renew the two-year contract he was entitled to as an eminent retiree. There no official announcement, but it was reported by Olaf Storbeck, then by the Tages Anzeiger, a local newspaper. In the latter, Frey's wife, Margit Osterloh, defends his behavior and confirms that "he will continue working in Warwick", so he has indeed been told to leave the University of Zurich.

This firing then explains the bizarre behavior of Bruno Frey in the preceding days. Indeed, he appeared unusually incoherent in a television show, then wrote an outrageous piece in the same Tages Anzeiger newspaper calling for the defunding of his department (which actually got a major gift that was probably waiting for his departure). His reasoning is that the professors try too hard to publish their research, neglecting working with the media. He also mentions his research is essentially the only relevant one. Never mind that his employer tried very hard to protect him, gave a special status to his students who were exempt from exams, and now that was simply to possible to go on, the university did its best to let the situation quietly disappear to avoid embarrassing him. He answers with a slash-and-burn tactic.

That said, I also got a copy of the report commissioned by the University and looking into his self-plagiarism on the Titanic studies. As mentioned earlier, there is nothing about the many previous cases. View a pdf copy here.

So Bruno Frey will now continue his activities at the University of Warwick, which has a long tradition of hiring prominent retirees to boost its academic ranking. He joined in early 2011, that is right before the Titanic case came up, and early enough to qualify for the next research assessment exercise of the UK universities. But for the University of Warwick to keep any credibility, it ought now to take position on the Bruno Frey case, now that it is his sole employer.

Finally, as the story keep going on, I created a tag just for Bruno Frey.

Volunteers are happy

Why do people volunteer? Obviously it must be because they find some satisfaction in it. But they may be forced to do it (say, by peer pressure or because it improves one's CV), yet one can still argue they appreciate the volunteering because they find a benefit in it: without it, there would be adverse consequences. It thus seems unavoidable to find a positive relation between volunteering and happiness, unless one is able to tease out the circumstances of volunteering. Add to this the endogeneity issue that people may be volunteering because they want to spread their happiness, or because they enjoy good circumstances that allow them to work without pay.

Martin Binder and Andreas Freytag use the British Household Panel Survey to study whether volunteering makes happy. I am not sure their reduced-form estimates are able to capture the subtleties I mentioned in my first paragraph with propensity score matching. I find more promising their inclusion of personality traits to take care of selection bias in volunteering, although personality cannot completely be ruled as exogenous. Also, their quantiles regressions can potentially highlight some heterogeneity that can be useful for our understanding of the relationship. In the end, they find that volunteering makes people happy, no surprise here, and more so the longer they volunteer. The quantile regression, however, reveals that the happiest individuals do not derive happiness from volunteering, presumably they are happy for other reasons. The least happy ones do enjoy volunteering much more. I wonder whether this comes from some decreasing marginal utility of volunteering, and whether this ties in with the fact that the poor are more generous, as discussed before.


I have highlighted in the past some exceptionally bad examples of forays of physicists into Economics (search for "Econophysics"). Not all are that bad, but they generally have in common that they portray the economy just as exogenous stochastic processes where no economic agents take decisions. That can make sense in some contexts, but these are rare cases. Now it seems chemists are venturing into Economics, what good could that bring?

Yochanan Shachmurove and Reuel Shinnar are an economist and a chemist who managed to get a paper into the working paper series of the department of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. So it must be a serious piece. Their point is that is Chemistry, they have to deal with chemical reactors that depend on many variables and are very difficult to predict. This is not unlike an economy, where a multitude of factors may matter in ways so complex with some randomness thrown in that forecasting is very difficult as well. The authors suggest to use partial control, which involves identifying a few crucial variables and monitor those for forecasting. That does not look like much of an innovation to economists, as we are used to abstract modeling, factor analysis, econometrics and simple rules like the Phillips Curve or the Taylor Rule.

The methodology of partial control they are trying to push, though, hits a few roadblocks when applied to Economics. The first is that it needs an objective, which is easy to set in a chemical plant (it is the choice of the plant manager) but not so easy for an economy as a whole. The second is that it needs to separate the problem into independent units. They suggest, for example, to treat the United States as independent from the rest of the world. That may work for some questions, but many it does not, especially when the point is to summarize complex interactions. Third, the procedure requires a hierarchy of reactions. Much of our understanding of general equilibrium would not be captured by such constraints. Fourth, the method relies a lot on the ability to manipulate controls. That is easy in a chemical plant, but an entirely different problem in an economy. The authors take the example of the Fed and interest rates. Well, the Fed has a target on one very special interest rate, all others are market driven.

While Shachmurove and Shinnar offer scattered examples of how to apply partial control, there is no sense of how a complete model would look like. I would wait to see a model in operation before calling this an interesting modeling strategy for Economics.

Rational expectations as an optimal approximation

The rational expectations hypothesis has somehow fallen into disrepute because it is viewed as somehow failing to predict or account for the recent crisis. This is of course because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the hypothesis, as it does not imply that markets are efficient, or in equilibrium, or that the equilibrium is unique, or that bubbles cannot happen. But it is a hypothesis, and as any hypothesis it could be rejected by the evidence, for example by experiments showing people are afraid of Knightian uncertainty and yet are optimistic. But the fact that there was a crisis is not empirical evidence in this regard.

Kenneth Kasa actually shows that the rational expectations hypothesis is also a result, up to a close approximation. Indeed, if one is uncertain about the economic environment ("does not know the model"), one adheres to robust rules in the sense that among all possible models, one picks the one with the worst possible outcome. Call this the 'evil' agent. Add to this the assumption that one likes being optimistic. Call this the 'angelic' agent. Now assume that the evil and the angelic agents negotiate what to do in a Nash sense. They will then choose to behave in a way that is very close to rational expectations. This means that optimal expectations are rational, even though the model is not known and one has the documented psychological biases. In other words, rational expectations can be a useful approximation even outside the usual core of assumptions.

Named matching donor are best to elicit more donations

US universities care a lot about donations, as much of their operations are financed by endowment revenue. Foundations also spend considerable resources trying to build this endowment. Hence, it is no surprise that there is a steady stream of research on how to best elicit donations, especially from private universities. One of the big issues they face is to generate the first dollar in donation (which costs several dollars), after that it is usually much easier to get more donations.

Dean Karlan and John List find through experimentation that matching donors are particularly effective in enticing other donations, especially where they are named and recognizable. The latter effect is even stronger for new donors. The challenge now is to find the matching donor. The experiment was performed with the Gates Foundation, I doubt many other potential matching donors can be found to have such high appeal. The experiment may have been too extreme to draw reliable conclusions.

How to best tax by gender and marital status

It is well known that income taxes are distorting in a way that is not welfare improving, as it discourages labor supply. But as we need government revenue to finance public goods and there is support for some redistribution, we have to live with income tax. Of course, one can discuss whether it would be better to crank up sin taxes to provide revenue and provide lump-sum subsidies (or taxes) to provide for redistribution, but let us suppose we have only labor income tax available. Then it is obvious that tax rates need to be differentiated by labor supply elasticity. That is difficult to elicit from individuals, but there are some individual characteristics that can help here.

Let us focus on gender and marital status. Women have a higher labor supply elasticity, especially when married. One has therefore to be careful not to tax them too much, or they drop out of the labor force. The same applies to a much lesser degree to married men. Gender is mostly unalterable, thus it should be easy to tax by gender, but politics get in the way. It is easier to differentiate taxes by marital status, but the latter is unfortunately endogenous. All this is probably why many countries tax differently by marital status, but not by gender.

Spencer Bastani studies the question using a model where, unfortunately, marriage is exogenous and characterized by perfect assortative matching: the most productive men marry the most productive women. When married, spouse bargain over each one's consumption and labor hours. Critical here is the exogenous bargaining power of the husband. Note that it is assumed that marriage always remains viable, there is no divorce, even though divorce is a threat point. In the end, men should be taxed more than women, unless the bargaining power of the husband is high (where lump-sum payments to women are likely to be higher, so they do not lose completely. And remember, this bargaining power is exogenous, and can be changed by law). If household production has a significant public good component, there should be redistribution from couples to singles. Welfare gains from such taxation are important, especially if wage gaps between genders are large. And this is the situation where it is the most feasible: women are then secondary earners, and one can tax secondary incomes differently without causing too much of a commotion.

Is pardoning prisoners the best way to keep jail costs low?

I mentioned yesterday that we do not know whether capital punishment is a deterrent or not. What about imprisonment sentences? That is much harder to establish without very precise coding of convictions in multiple jurisdictions with different sentences for the same crime. Finding or establishing such a dataset should be very difficult. But maybe we can find some partial answers in indirect ways.

Nadia Campaniello, Theodoros Diasakos and Giovanni Mastrobuoni use an interesting natural experiment in Italy. There, the parliament occasionally decides on mass pardons to reduce jail crowding. When such proposals are being discussed, suicide rates in Italian prisons drop. That means clearly that prisoners do not like ex-post being in prison, and sufficiently to make life depend on it. If this matters also ex-ante (before they head to jail and in particular before the decide to commit a crime), we should see a deterrence effect. But this may be a big if.