Thursday, March 27, 2008

Listen To a Ph.D Economist Confuse The Discount and Fed Funds Rate

Somewhat shocking, but typical of an academic: listen to Russ Roberts interview Tyler Cowen.

Some other interesting comments: How much of the current credit crunch is due to lack of transparency? And why have mortgage-backed securities stopped trading, rather than trading at a value with the expected number of defaults worked in? These two seemed to assume that mortgage-backed securities aren't trading at that expected value!

Roberts: "I'm not so sure how much of this trouble is due to a lack of transparency. It seems unlikely..."


Friday, March 21, 2008

Quantifying justice

While I've often said that morality is a function of individual preferences and cultural influences (which it is), there are certainly some things associated with ethics which are fairly objective. One of these is justice. Justice is just about universally considered to be "right". Justice can be quantifying: when a being receives a reward (penalty) proportional to the benefits (harms) they've created, the result is just. In our society, many people are not handled justly, and that's something to be concerned about.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Economics Might Be Changing

My previous post reflects a perspective based on a set of information. My information set is rather limited. While economists would like to gloss over the information limitations because they are mathematically annoying, these information problems are the greatest problems which people face when making economic decisions.

Economics is changing. Some of the George Mason economics, at least, are skeptical of the claims that your average mainstream economist will try to make. This probably reflects a growing awareness among the all economists that, say, applying the Coase theorem willy-nilly doesn't really make any sense. While I don't respect the politics of the GMU economists or the way that these political biases manifest themselves in their work, I will admit that they're probably on a better track than many of the prestigious mainstream economists, and some of their offhand blog posts are probably much more insightful and informative than many of the journal articles written today.

Check out "Evolutionary and Institutional Economics as the New Mainstream" by Hodgson, which I found on the Pluralist Economics Review. So far it's an excellent journal. The article is well-worth reading.

Mainstream economics:
  • Assumes a can-opener. This is not just a cliched joke.
  • Looks at the individuals as homogenous rational agents rather instutionally-influenced.
  • Has "a preoccupation with technique over substance" (p.18, Blaug).
  • Basically ignores the other social sciences.
  • Must change in order to make progress.
The article quotes Kenneth Arrow as saying that the "biological is a more appropriate paradigm for economics than equilibrium models analogous to mechanics" (Arrow 1995:9). It's clear that the top people in the field (Hodgson is one of them) see the flaws in economics. So why is it a controversial thing for me to note the same thing?

As I continually try to point out, the real world is a world of "reasonably bright individuals [maybe that's a little far] in information-poor environments" [with a surplus of distracting noise] rather than "infinitely bright agents in information rich environments" (Hodgson 2007:11).

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Do corporations oppose free trade?

Apparently Dr. Don Bourdreaux of Cafe Hayek noticed my comment that he, along with his colleagues, seems like a "shill for industry". His reply is that, if he was a shill for industry, he would fit a large number of conditions. The fallacy here seems to be that all shills for industry must fit all, or least some of these conditions -- it's a form of straw man argument, or perhaps a red herring. If all shills had to fit all those conditions, the word would be useless.

What does shill actually mean? Merriam-Webster defines shill as "a: one who acts as a decoy (as for a pitchman or gambler) b: one who makes a sales pitch or serves as a promoter". Wiktionary defines shill as "a person paid to endorse a product favourably, while pretending to be impartial".

Does Bourdreaux "serve as a promoter" of industry? Certainly. Do I think he's been paid egregiously to do it, as some other scholars of the Cato Institute have? Not really. Can he still be a shill? As I elaborated in my comments, shill may not be the exact word. Rather, they are apologists for the status quo. They don't think there's something wrong with the way we are treating our environment, and believe that the free market (composed of industry) will fix all problems if only it was completely unshackled.

The GMU economists seem to ignore the significant incentives that corporations have to look for short-term profit rather than the long-term, ,and the worrying concentration of power in a few firms, who exert that power both in the market and in politics. Similarly, they don't seem to mind the increasing concentration of wealth. They've expressed doubts on global warming, an area which they are not experts in. Scientists are as certain on global warming as economists are on free trade (which means that it depends on who you talk to) (do any believe in global warming? I'd like to know). They seem bothered that people ignore economists when it comes to free trade, but don't recognize the irony in their global warming skepticism. Further, and most damning in my mind, they never seem to say a peep about the information asymmetries which dominate economic decisions.

Does your typical corporation oppose free trade? Doubtful. If industry didn't benefit from free trade, it's unlikely that it would happen. Economists don't have that much power. Efficient multinational corporations benefit enormously from free trade -- it's the inefficient corporations which oppose free trade, such as the old steel industry (which is quickly being supplanted by mini-mills). Especially in today's globalized world, businesses benefit from free trade -- they can hire cheap labor and export to new emerging markets. It's likely that most businesses realize that it's the 21st century, and there's no going back from globalization (or at least, that's how it appears). Tariffs mean paying more for inputs and closed foreign markets. A glance at The Economist's CEO Briefing 2007 shows that CEOs are (or at least were) extremely bullshit about the global economy and trade, and, while worried about international competition, your average business is not really exerting a lot of political pressure to stop it. This Fortune 500 survey of 1987 found that a third of CEOs declared, without prompting, that they were free traders, and that CEOs want government to promote free trade -- and by that, they mean bipartisan free trade. I wonder what the number would be now.

Ironically, I like quite a few of the posts at Cafe Hayek -- for example, this one (though I think we can get some idea on the effect of NAFTA). But attributing most of our problems to regulation is just ridiculous. Yes, there is far too much government going on, but most of that government is spurred by industry -- the military-industrial complex which elected George W. Bush will continue to funnel most of our tax dollars to corporations. The recent financial crisis is not caused by government. Can we blame the government for our environmental crisis?

What has government done right in the past hundred years? Hmm: Internet, national road network, Clean Air Act, and the SEC., to name a few I'd agree that the government has done quite a few things wrong, but these were more a function of bad leaders than some intrinsic nature of government. It's not so simple as "industry good, government bad".

National Databases to Increase Government Efficiency

  1. The Consumer Product Safety Commission database of products. The Senate just passed a bill requiring this, but the House doesn't like the idea. Similarly, other relevant information on each product should be added to this database.
  2. A database on corporations. Contractor Misconduct is sort of a good start to this, but not quite. These databases should have all relevant information on a corporation, and should, of course, be linked to the CPSC's database, along with the contractor database. To reduce overhaul, companies should be required to input this information themselves, after registering on the website. If the corporation is lax on updating its page, it should be fined.
  3. A national database of all local police stations, recording all complaints on officer behavior and their official resolution. If you read Reddit or Digg, you've likely heard about The trouble is that none of these comments are official; they have to be taken with a major grain of salt. And, if you browse through it, you'll find that there's a lot of stupid shit on there already.
  4. All complaints to federal agencies, including complaints on the federal agency's effectiveness, should be made public. All complaints which an agency collects as part of its duty need to be made public along with their resolution. There needs to be an appeal process. Note this story on on a study the GAO on the FCC's handling of complaints on business practices.
  5. Obama recently revealed his earmarks. All Congress members need a profile connected to a database, and all earmarks need to be made public. This shouldn't be a choice.
  6. A federal database on hospitals: misconduct of doctors, any possible performance ratings, a place to register to complaints. All prices for all procedures should be made public. Again, these profiles would be updated by the individual hospital rather than government bureaucrats.
  7. Every government website should make all the complaints regarding its website functionality public as well. Thus, problems on the website (which I frequently find, but are rarely addressed) will be resolved quickly and efficiently if the agency wants to retain face. Comments should be votable by registered users.
  8. A government account for all US citizens, detailing all information the government has collected on you. Access to this data would require a search warrant, and if any agency requested your information, you should be immediately notified. Libertarians will hate me for this, but I believe that the government should allow citizens to verify their identities cleanly and easily. Ultimately this will allow people to surf their web with their identities, comments, and so on verified if they so chooose.
  9. All complaints/comments on government policy should be "votable" by those with verified identities a la Reddit/Digg. Thus, the complaints which gather the most interest will go to the top. Of course, all these things could also be sorted differently (by date, by most votes, by most viewed, by resolved, ect.) Plus, all complaints could be also be rated 1-5 stars by any web surfer. You could see what people with verified identities thought was the most important vrs. your average web surfer.

In fact, there's many more databases that could and should be compiled and made public, esp. in reference to government projects and their costs. These could be linked to each other to expose fishy connections and trends. Citizens could then see for themselves what business and government is doing.

While things like Wikipedia have made a good stride in linking together relevant information and greatly decreasing information asymmetries, Wikipedia can't link to information which is not publicly available. Plenty of the most juicy, important information for citizens is still hidden by the government.

As I've said often before, the first and most important function of government is to act as a bridge for information.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Obama, Transparency, Earmarks

I have mixed feelings about Obama. While I loved him when I heard that he passed the Transparency Act of 2006, I was disappointed to find later that they'd basically taken and tossed a .gov at the end of it. They spruced it up a bit and made it more user-friendly, but I'm not sure that there was as much value-added as there could be. There was plenty of glory, however.

Yesterday Obama revealed his earmarks. I'm not real government-savvy (I've been exploring the government websites for about a year now, but they're still a maze to me), and I wonder why he even had to reveal them. Aren't they publicly-available? Apparently not -- or apparently it would be a major hassle to compile the data, as it's probably in text files. So it's $740 million, including a fishy $1 million for his wife's hospital. I'll give him credit for revealing it. Clinton has not revealed hers. I don't think he's completely pure, but he certainly has a better record for integrity than McCain (who was involved in the Keating case) or Clinton, who is just plain slimy.

I'd trust Obama and McCain more than Clinton when it comes to making smart economic policy, as well. While Obama has made a fuss about NAFTA, his book comes down more in favor of free trade:
A tariff on imported steel may give temporary relief to U.S. steel producers, but it will make every U.S. manufacturer who uses steel in its products less competitive on the world market.... U.S. Border Patrol agents can't interdict the services of a call center in India, or stop an electrical engineer in Prague from sending his work via email to a company in Dubuque. When it comes to trade, there are few borders left.

EDIT: Where is the press release of these revealed earmarks from Obama? The fact that it was revealed last Thursday (March 13), but there is no press release from Obama's website is disturbing, to say the least. It suggests that he's trying to downplay his earmark requests. However, the earmarks question is fairly prominently displayed (#2) in his AnswerCenter.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Complaints on Kant's Categorical Imperative

When I was a freshman, someone once tried to explain the difference between a consequentialist and deontological morality by claiming that the former was concerned only with the results of actions (an action with good consequences is moral) while the latter was concerned with the action itself -- the instructor may have even said the intention, although that is so clearly false that I'm probably purposefully remembering wrong. Yet consequences have everything to do with both of them. Consequentialist is an artificial, modern term which has been imposed on broad groups of historical philosophies. (According to Wikipedia, Elizabeth Anscombe introduced the word -- no citation.) It is misleading.

Both Kant's categorical imperactive and utilitarianism, to use the two most common (or only?) examples of "deontological" and "consequentialist" philosophies, are concerned with one's intentions. Without good intentions, one cannot be moral. The difference lies in the action, and, in particular, the consequences of the action. However, for Kant the abstract, universal consequences are the most important, while for someone like Mill the real (human) consequences take priority. Kant's argument is similar to the slippery slope: if you let one person do it, then everyone is allowed to do it, and then society descends into madness. What he ignores, however, is the laws that prevent everyone from doing it, and that, at least ideally, impose substantial risk upon those who do act immorally.

Kant tries to dress up his moral philosophy in flowery metaphysics: acting in a way that cannot be universalized to all men is logically contradictory, he says. Even if he's right, his categorical imperative is not as strong as he thinks, because an action should be universalized with all relevant factors included. That includes one's position and the circumstances surrounding one's position. Abstraction sheds all irrelevant information, yet in this case nearly all information is relevant. He cites an example of the suicidal man, and then claims that if we let him kill himself, then we would be saying its OK for all of us to kill ourselves, as we all have all suffered misfortune. Yet some of us have suffered far more misfortune than others, and not all of us have suffered enough misfortune to consider killing ourselves. If we allowed the terminally ill to kill themselves, for example (euthanasia), that doesn't lead to no people -- because not all humans will become terminally ill at the same time. Similarly, if all starving men who are able to snatch a bit of bread do snatch that bread, it's not as if there will be no bread left (unless there's a very, very serious famine -- in which case the rich will live and the poor will die). Instead, poor people will generally be barred from grocery stores and arrested fairly often. These examples can be applied in many cases -- even to murder, robbery, drug-dealing, ect. Further, one's position is especially relevant: a ruler of a nation is obviously allowed to do things that the average peasant cannot -- even, arguably, declare war.

Lastly, treating everyone as a end is impossible, but even worse (for Kant), insisting on the categorical imperative as you deal with other people leads to you treating others as a means to an end -- in this case, the end is the categorical imperative, and your friend who you cannot lie to save is simply a means to that end. This contradiction lies on top of the empirical impossibility of the entire idea. All individuals must treat all others as means to ends. Friends are a means to laughter and enjoyment, businessmen are a means to certain business ends, ect. This is no minor problem.

Like most historical philosophy, Kant's imperative is full of holes. But ultimately neither Kant or Mill's conception of the good is truly satisfactory, because the good is a subjective, personal decision. Everyone's conception of what is good will differ to some degree. For a philosopher knowledge may be the highest good; for your average American, pleasure; for an environmentalist, environmental beauty.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Has Economics Changed?

During a class not too long ago I was asked to state my favorite academic. Because I'd read his work not long before, and CEO pay is so out of control, I mentioned Lucian Bebchuck.

I'm also a major fan of David Colander. Pick any one of his diverse set of articles and you'll likely find something thought-provoking. In some ways, however, he seems to be almost like a sociologist or philosopher studying economics. Right now I'm reading The Changing Face of Mainstream Economics, in which he argues that mainstream economics has changed, and that today it is held together by its "modeling approach to economic problems" (p. 2). He believes that it is undergoing a paradigm shift.

Perhaps that's true. He should certainly know better than myself. But most of the papers that I read reflect the same old economics, and most economists do not seem so interested in difficult-to-quantify concepts such as information asymmetries and externalities. It seems as if most economists would rather run simple regressions or input-output analyses. However, Colander believes that minute "stealth changes" (p. 4) are happening, unbeknownst to the agents of change themselves.

If we were to judge by the internet, then the most influential economists in the world are the George Mason economists of Marginal Revolution, Cafe Hayek, and Econlog. These guys seem to be everywhere. I don't like them much -- they seem to be shills for industry, and just plain lazy. (Consider Kling's offhand comment that dogs impose more of a burden on the environment than SUVs, without any research.) They aren't exactly mainstream, either, but their views are fairly stereotypical.

What am I trying to say? I'm not happy with mainstream economists, but I'm fairly happy with economics theory. Information asymmetries, externalities, marginal analysis -- these are helpful for looking at the world. I'm just disappointed that so few economists seem to use these in the way they should: advocating greater transparency, taxes on pollution, subsidies for external benefits, and things like a national, federally-funded Health Savings Account plan. Further, the defense of things like CEO pay by way of pointing out its correlation with market capitalization strikes me as incredibly naive -- as if there was a dearth of "good chief executives".

But perhaps the blame should not be placed on economists in particular, but rather on humans in general. After all, how could people be so stupid as to think that only people who have previously worked as a CEO are good candidates, and worth hundreds of millions of dollars? And have they learned their lessons now, as these high-flying executives run corporate America into the ground?

Is it so hard to understand why executives who have no long-term stake in their companies might do a poor job? Corporate executives should be paid their bonuses in restricted stock grants -- and restricted for the long-term. By long-term I do not mean a year. I mean five years. In the meantime, let them live on a reasonable salary.

EDIT: Here is my response to Professor Bourdreaux.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Assorted Interesting News

Does alcohol actually work? Quote:
In a series of studies in the 1970s and ’80s, psychologists at the University of Washington put more than 300 students into a study room outfitted like a bar with mirrors, music and a stretch of polished pine. The researchers served alcoholic drinks, most often icy vodka tonics, to some of the students and nonalcoholic ones, usually icy tonic water, to others. The drinks looked and tasted the same, and the students typically drank five in an hour or two.

The studies found that people who thought they were drinking alcohol behaved exactly as aggressively, or as affectionately, or as merrily as they expected to when drunk. “No significant difference between those who got alcohol and those who didn’t,” Alan Marlatt, the senior author, said. “Their behavior was totally determined by their expectations of how they would behave.”

I get
Dr. Mercola
's monthly newsletter. This
was particularly interesting. From the article:
Three have died and another four have battled the disease since two masts were erected on the roof of the five-storey block which has become known locally as the Tower of Doom.

The cancer rate on the top floor - where residents of five of the eight flats have been affected and the three who died all lived - is 20 per cent, ten times the national average.

World Health Organisation guidelines have dismissed the risks of masts despite other evidence which has found they are harmful.

The NYT on China: Choking on Growth. Quote from the wildlife article:
Nearly 40 percent of all mammal species in China are now endangered, scientists say. For plants, the situation is worse; 70 percent of all nonflowering plant species and 86 percent of flowering species are considered threatened.