Category Archives: Political Economy

Alberto Alesina and Oliver Williamson: Taking Political and Economic Frictions Seriously

Very sad news this week for the economics community: both Oliver Williamson and Alberto Alesina have passed away. Williamson has been in poor health for some time, but Alesina’s death is a greater shock: he apparently had a heart attack while on a hike with his wife, at the young age of 63. While one is most famous for the microeconomics of the firm, and the other for political economy, there is in fact a tight link between their research agendas. They have attempted to open “black boxes” in economic modeling – about why firms organize the way they do, and the nature of political constraints on economic activity – to clarify otherwise strange differences in how firms and governments behave.

First, let us discuss Oliver Williamson, the 2009 Nobel winner (alongside Elinor Ostrom), and student of Ken Arrow and later the Carnegie School. He grew up in Superior, Wisconsin, next to Duluth at the frigid tip of Lake Superior, as the son of two schoolteachers. Trained as an engineer before returning to graduate school, he had a strong technical background. However, he also possessed, in the words of Arrow, the more important trait of “asking good questions”.

Industrial organization in the 1960s was a field that needed a skeptical mind. To a first approximation, any activity that was unusual was presumed to be anti-competitive. Vertical integration as anticompetitive was high on this list. While Williamson was first thinking about the behavior of firms, the famous case of U.S. vs. Arnold, Schwinn reached the Supreme Court. Schwinn, the bicycle company, neither owned distributors nor retailers. However, it did contractually limit distributors from selling bikes to retailers that were not themselves partnered with Schwinn. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled these contracts an antitrust violation.

Williamson was interested in why a firm might limit these distributors. Let’s start with the ideas of Mr. Coase. Coase argued that transactions in a market are not free: we need to find suppliers, evaluate quality, and so on. The organization of economic activity therefore attempts to economize on these “transaction costs”. In the Coasean world, transaction costs were nebulous, and attracted a great deal of critique. As Williamson, among many others, points out, both buying from a supplier and vertical integration require transaction costs: I need to haggle over the price of the component or else the price of the whole company! Therefore, in an unchanging world, it is not clear that integration does anything to reduce the transaction costs of evaluating what my partner – in procurement or in merger – is capable of. In the case of Schwinn, the transaction costs must be incurred whether we are debating how to split profits with a particular retailer for the upcoming year, or the price of a pallet of bicycles sold to that retailer.

Williamson’s model is richer. He takes change in the relationship as first order: the famous “unprogrammed adaptations”. The relationship between Schwinn and its retailers requires actions by both over time. Because we are not omniscient, no contract will cover every eventuality. When something unexpected happens, and we both want to renegotiate our contract, we are said to be facing an unprogrammed adaptation. For instance, if advertising is useful, and e-scooters unexpectedly become popular after Schwinn and their retailer sign their initial contract, then we will need to renegotiate who pays for those ads. Of course, we will only bother to negotiate at all if Schwinn and the retailer jointly profit from their relationship compared to their next best options, generating so-called “appropriable quasi-rents”.

We now have an explanation for Schwinn’s behavior. They expect frequent haggling with their retailer about which bicycles to advertise, service standards for repairs, employee training, and so on. If these negotiations fail, the next best option is pretty bad – many small towns might only have one full-service bicycle shop, the Schwinn bikes are more popular than alternatives, and Schwinn itself has neither the resources nor the knowledge to run its own full-service chain of retailers efficiently. Schwinn therefore uses exclusive retail contracts to limit the number of retailers it must negotiate with over service standards, advertising, and the like.

While we have focused on the application of transaction costs to antitrust, Williamson’s basic framework extends much further. He saw the problem as one of “choice” versus “contract”. The canonical topic of study in economics is choice: “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses,” as Lionel Robbins famously puts it. However, constraints also matter. Agents can act only within the bounds of the law, as a function of what other firms are capable of, and so on. Some of these constraints are public – e.g., what tariff rate do we face, are we allowed to put a price on kidneys for exchange, and so on. Williamson focused our attention on private constraints: the contracts, governance structures, and tools to align incentives which help us reach efficiency when information is asymmetric and contracts are incomplete. The timing was perfect: both Williamson and his professor Ken Arrow, along with Alchian, Demsetz, Klein and others, saw how important this “private ordering” was in their work in the 1960s, but that work was largely qualitative. The formal advancements in game theory in the 1970s gave us the tools that permitted formal analyses of contracting let us transform these ideas into a modern field of industrial organization.

Williamson was in no way an ideologue who ignored the possibility of anticompetitive behavior. Indeed, many canonical anticompetitive strategies, such as “raising rivals’ costs” whereby a firm encourages legal restrictions which raise its own cost but raise rival costs to an even greater degree, originate with Williamson. I also particularly like that Williamson both wrote serious economics, but also frequently translated those results for law journals in order to reach a wider audience. Erik Hovenkamp and I tried to follow this legacy recently in our work on the antitrust of startup acquisitions, where we wrote both a theoretical version and a law review article on the implications of this theory for existing legal practice.

Transaction cost economics is now huge and the both the benefits and critiques of this approach are serious (for more, see my course notes on the theory of the firm). Every economist, when looking at “unusual” contracts or mergers, now follows Williamson in simultaneously looking for the strategic anticompetitive explanation and the cost-saving explanation. The name of this balance? Literally, the Williamson tradeoff!

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If Williamson was interested in “private ordering”, Alesina was focused on the public constraints on behavior. He was without question at the head of the table when it came to winning a Nobel for political economy. Economists, by and large, are technocrats. We have models of growth, of R&D, of fiscal policy, of interstate coordination, and so on. These models imply useful policies. The “public choice” critique, that the politicians and bureaucrats implementing these policies, may muck things up, is well known. The “political business cycle” approach of Nordhaus has politicians taking advantage of myopic voters by, for instance, running expansionary, inflation-inducing policy right before an election, generating lower unemployment today but higher inflation tomorrow.

Alesina’s research goes further than either of these approaches. Entering the field after the rational expectations revolution arrived, Alesina saw how skeptical economists were of the idea that politicians could, each election cycle, take advantage of voters in the same way. I like to explain rational expectations to students as the Bob Marley rule: “You can fool some people sometimes, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” Rather than myopic voters, we have voters who do not perfectly observe the government’s actions or information. Politicians wish to push their preferences (“ideology”) and also to get re-elected (“career concerns”). Voters have differing preferences. We then want to ask: to what extent can politicians use their private information to push preferences that “society” does not necessarily want, and how does that affect the feasibility of political unions, monetary policy, fiscal policy, and so on?

One important uncertainty is that voters are uncertain about who will win an election. Consider a government which can spend on the military or on education (“guns” or “butter”), and can finance this through debt if they like. A benevolent social planner uses debt to finance investment such that the tax burden is distributed over time. In a political macro model, however, Alesina and Tabellini (RESTUD 1990) show that there will be too much debt, especially when elections are close. If I favor military spending more than education, I can jack up the debt when I am in power with military spending. This not only gets me more military today, but also constrains the other party from spending so much on education tomorrow since society’s debt load will be too high. In equilibrium, both parties try to constrain their rival’s action in the future by using debt spending today. The model makes clear predictions about how debt relates to fundamentals of society – political polarization, and so on – without requiring irrationality on the part of any actor, whether voter or politician.

It is not hard to see how the interests of economists are so heavily linked to their country of origin. Many of our best macroeconomists come from Argentina, home of a great deal of macroeconomic instability. Americans are overrepresented in applied micro, no surprise given the salience of health, education, and labor issues in U.S. political debates. The French, with their high level of technical training in schools and universities, have many great theorists. And no surprise, the Italians are often interested in how political incentives affect and limit economic behavior. Once you start applying Alesina’s ideas, the behavior of politicians and implications for society become clear. Why do politicians delegate some tasks to bureaucrats and not others? The hard ones the politicians might be blamed for if they fail get delegated, and the ones that allow control of distribution do not ((Alesina and Tabellini 2007 AER). Why doesn’t the US have a strong welfare state compared to Europe? The distortions from taxation, relative income mobility, or political power of the poor are relatively unimportant to the racial fractionalization which also explains changes in European preferences over time (Alesina, Glaeser and Sacerdote, Brookings 2001 and Alesina, Miano and Stantcheva 2018).

Perhaps the most salient of Alesina’s questions is one of his oldest (Alesina and Spoloare, QJE 1997): why are there so many countries? Are there “too many”, and what could this mean? In a crisis like Covid, would we be better off with a European fiscal union rather than a bunch of independent countries? Big countries can raise funds with less distortion, public goods often economies of scale, and transfers within countries can handle idiosyncratic regional shocks – these are both assumptions and empirical facts. On the other hand, the bigger the country, the less agreement on how to value public goods. Consider a region on the outskirts of an existing country – say, Sudtirol in Italy. If they secede, they pay higher taxes for their public goods, but the public goods provided are much closer to their preferences. In a democratic secession, these Sudtirol voters do not account for how their secession causes the cost of government in the remaining rump of Italy to rise. Hence they are too likely to secede, versus what a social planner prefers.

We can see this effect in the EU right now. An EU fiscal union would reduce the cost of providing some public goods, insurance to shocks among them. However, the Germans and Dutch have very different public goods preferences from the Italians and Greeks. A planner would balance the marginal cost of lower alignment for the average EU citizen against the marginal benefit of lower public goods costs. A German elected leader will weigh the marginal cost of lower alignment for the average German citizen (worse than that of the EU median citizen!) against the marginal benefit of lower public goods costs (less important, because it doesn’t account for cheaper public goods for Greeks and Italians when Germany joins them to borrow funds jointly). We therefore get too little coordinated fiscal action. This lack of action of public goods makes some Europeans skeptical of other aspects of the EU project: one of Alesina’s final op-eds was on was on the disastrously nationalistic EU response to Covid. Luis Garicano, the well-known Spanish economist and current MEP, has a very interesting discussion with Luigi Zingales on precisely this point.

It’s positive enough that Alesina’s work was well-respected in political science and not just economics. What I especially like about Alesina, though, is how ideologically confusing his policy advice is, especially for an American. He simultaneously supports a lower tax rate for women on the basis on intrafamily dynamics, and was the leading proponent of expansionary austerity, or spending cuts during recessions! The tax rate idea is based on the greater elasticity of labor supply of women, hence is a direct application of the Ramsey rule. Expansionary austerity is based on a serious review of austerity policies over many decades. He pushed these ideas and many others in at least 10 books and dozens of op-eds (including more than 30 for VoxEU). Agree with these ideas or not – and I object to both! – Alesina nonetheless argued for these positions from a base of serious theory and empirics, rather than from ideology. What worthier legacy could there be for an academic?

“The Development Effects of the Extractive Colonial Economy,” M. Dell & B. Olken (2017)

A good rule of thumb is that you will want to read any working paper Melissa Dell puts out. Her main interest is the long-run path-dependent effect of historical institutions, with rigorous quantitative investigation of the subtle conditionality of the past. For instance, in her earlier work on Peru (Econometrica, 2010), mine slavery in the colonial era led to fewer hacienda style plantations at the end of the era, which led to less political power without those large landholders in the early democratic era, which led to fewer public goods throughout the 20th century, which led to less education and income today in eras that used to have mine slavery. One way to read this is that local inequality is the past may, through political institutions, be a good thing today! History is not as simple as “inequality is the past causes bad outcomes today” or “extractive institutions in the past cause bad outcomes today” or “colonial economic distortions cause bad outcomes today”. But, contra the branch of historians that don’t like to assign causality to any single factor in any given situation, we don’t need to entirely punt on the effects of specific policies in specific places if we apply careful statistical and theoretical analysis.

Dell’s new paper looks at the cultuurstelsel, a policy the Dutch imposed on Java in the mid-19th century. Essentially, the Netherlands was broke and Java was suitable for sugar, so the Dutch required villages in certain regions to use huge portions of their arable land, and labor effort, to produce sugar for export. They built roads and some rail, as well as sugar factories (now generally long gone), as part of this effort, and the land used for sugar production generally became public village land controlled at the behest of local leaders. This was back in the mid-1800s, so surely it shouldn’t affect anything of substance today?

But it did! Take a look at villages near the old sugar plantations, or that were forced to plant sugar, and you’ll find higher incomes, higher education levels, high school attendance rates even back in the late colonial era, higher population densities, and more workers today in retail and manufacturing. Dell and Olken did some wild data matching using a great database of geographic names collected by the US government to match the historic villages where these sugar plants, and these labor requirements, were located with modern village and town locations. They then constructed “placebo” factories – locations along coastal rivers in sugar growing regions with appropriate topography where a plant could have been located but wasn’t. In particular, as in the famous Salop circle, you won’t locate a factory too close to an existing one, but there are many counterfactual equilibria where we just shift all the factories one way or the other. By comparing the predicted effect of distance from the real factory on outcomes today with the predicted effect of distance from the huge number of hypothetical factories, you can isolate the historic local influence of the real factory from other local features which can’t be controlled for.

Consumption right next to old, long-destroyed factories is 14% higher than even five kilometers away, education is 1.25 years longer on average, electrification, road, and rail density are all substantially higher, and industrial production upstream and downstream from sugar (e.g., farm machinery upstream, and processed foods downstream) are also much more likely to be located in villages with historic factories even if there is no sugar production anymore in that region!

It’s not just the factory and Dutch investments that matter, however. Consider the villages, up to 10 kilometers away, which were forced to grow the raw cane. Their elites took private land for this purpose, and land inequality remains higher in villages that were forced to grow cane compared to villages right next door that were outside the Dutch-imposed boundary. But this public land permitted surplus extraction in an agricultural society which could be used for public goods, like schooling, which would later become important! These villages were much more likely to have schools especially before the 1970s, when public schooling in Indonesia was limited, and today are higher density, richer, more educated, and less agricultural than villages nearby which weren’t forced to grow cane. This all has shades of the long debate on “forward linkages” in agricultural societies, where it is hypothesized that agricultural surplus benefits industrialization by providing the surplus necessary for education and capital to be purchased; see this nice paper by Sam Marden showing linkages of this sort in post-Mao China.

Are you surprised by these results? They fascinate me, honestly. Think through the logic: forced labor (in the surrounding villages) and extractive capital (rail and factories built solely to export a crop in little use domestically) both have positive long-run local effects! They do so by affecting institutions – whether villages have the ability to produce public goods like education – and by affecting incentives – the production of capital used up- and downstream. One can easily imagine cases where forced labor and extractive capital have negative long-run effects, and we have great papers by Daron Acemoglu, Nathan Nunn, Sara Lowes and others on precisely this point. But it is also very easy for societies to get trapped in bad path dependent equilibria, for which outside intervention, even ethically shameful ones, can (perhaps inadvertently) cause useful shifts in incentives and institutions! I recall a visit to Babeldaob, the main island in Palau. During the Japanese colonial period, the island was heavily industrialized as part of Japan’s war machine. These factories were destroyed by the Allies in World War 2. Yet despite their extractive history, a local told me many on the island believe that the industrial development of the region was permanently harmed when those factories were damaged. It seems a bit crazy to mourn the loss of polluting, extractive plants whose whole purpose was to serve a colonial master, but the Palauan may have had some wisdom after all!

2017 Working Paper is here (no RePEc IDEAS version). For more on sugar and institutions, I highly recommend Christian Dippel, Avner Greif and Dan Trefler’s recent paper on Caribbean sugar. The price of sugar fell enormously in the late 19th century, yet wages on islands which lost the ability to productively export sugar rose. Why? Planters in places like Barbados had so much money from their sugar exports that they could manipulate local governance and the police, while planters in places like the Virgin Islands became too poor to do the same. This decreased labor coercion, permitting workers on sugar plantations to work small plots or move to other industries, raising wages in the end. I continue to await Suresh Naidu’s book on labor coercion – it is astounding the extent to which labor markets were distorted historically (see, e.g., Eric Foner on Reconstruction), and in some cases still today, by legal and extralegal restrictions on how workers could move on up.

“Estimating Equilibrium in Health Insurance Exchanges,” P. Tebaldi (2016)

After a great visit to San Francisco for AEA and a couple weeks reading hundreds of papers while hiding out in the middle of the Pacific, it’s time to take a look at some of the more interesting job market papers this year. Though my home department isn’t directly hiring, I’m going to avoid commenting on work by candidates being flown out to Toronto in general, though a number of those are fantastic as well. I also now have a fourth year of data on job market “stars” which I’ll present in the next week or so.

Let’s start with a great structural IO paper by Pietro Tebaldi from Stanford. The Affordable Care Act in the United States essentially set up a version of universal health care that relies on subsidizing low income buyers, limiting prices via price caps and age rating limits (the elderly can only be charged a certain multiple of what the young are charged), and providing a centralized comparison system (“Bronze” or “Silver” or whatever plans essentially cover the same medical care, with only the provider and hospital bundle differing). The fundamental fact about American health care is less that it is a non-universal, privately-provided system than that it is enormously expensive: the US government, and this is almost impossible to believe until you look at the numbers, spends roughly the same percentage of GDP on health care as Canada, even though coverage is universal up north. Further, there is quite a bit of market power both on the insurer side, with a handful of insurers in any given market, and on the hospital side. Generally, there are only a handful of hospitals in any region, with the legacy of HMOs making many insurers very reluctant to drop hospitals from their network since customers will complain about losing “their” doctor. Because of these facts, a first-order concern for designing a government health care expansion must be controlling costs.

Tebaldi points out theoretically that the current ACA design inadvertently leads to high insurer markups. In nearly all oligopoly models, markup over costs depends on the price elasticity of demand: if buyers have inelastic demand in general, markups are high. In health care, intuitively young buyers are more price sensitive and have lower expected costs than older buyers; many young folks just won’t go to the doctor if it is too pricey to do so, and young folks are less likely to have a long-time doctor they require in their insurance network. Age rating which limits the maximum price difference between young and old buyers means that anything that leads to lower prices for the young will also lead to lower prices for the old. Hence, the more young people you get in the insurance pool, the lower the markups are, and hence the lower the cost becomes for everyone. The usual explanation for why you need young buyers is that they subsidize the old, high-cost buyers; the rationale here is that young buyers help even other young buyers by making aggregate demand more elastic and hence dragging down oligopoly insurer prices.

How can you get more young buyers in the pool while retaining their elastic demand? Give young buyers a fixed amount subsidy voucher that is bigger than what you give older buyers. Because buyers have low expected costs, they will only buy insurance if it cheap, hence will enter the insurance market if you subsidize them a lot. Once they enter, however, they remain very price sensitive. With lots of young folks as potential buyers, insurers will lower their prices for young buyers in order to attract them, which due to age rating also lowers prices for older buyers. It turns out that the government could lower the subsidy given to older buyers, so that total government subsidies fall, and yet out of pocket spending for the old would still be lower due to the price drop induced by the highly elastic young buyers entering the market.

Now that’s simply a theoretical result. Tebaldi also estimates what would happen in practice, using California data. Different regions of California have different age distributions. you can immediately see that prices are higher for young folks in regions where there are a lot of potential old buyers, and lower in regions with a fewer potential old buyers, for exactly the elasticity difference plus age rating reason given above. These regional differences permit identification of the demand curve, using age-income composition to instrument for price. The marginal costs of insurance companies are tougher to identify, but the essential idea just uses optimal pricing conditions as in Berry, Levinsohn and Pakes. The exact identification conditions are not at all straightforward in selection markets like insurance, since insurer marginal costs depend on who exactly their buyers are in addition to characteristics of the bundle of services they offer. The essential trick is that since insurers are pricing to set marginal revenue equal to marginal cost, the demand curve already estimated tells us whether most marginal customers are old or young in a given region, and hence we can back out what costs may be on the basis of pricing decisions across regions.

After estimating marginal costs and demand curves for insurance, Tebaldi can run a bunch of counterfactuals motivated by the theory discussed above. Replacing price-linked subsidies, where buyers get a subsidy linked to the second-lowest priced plan in their area, with vouchers, where buyers get a fixed voucher regardless of the prices set, essentially makes insurers act as if buyers are more price-elastic: raising insurance prices under price-linked subsidies will also raise the amount of the subsidy, and hence the price increase is not passed 1-for-1 to buyers. Tebaldi estimates insurance prices would fall $200 on average if the current price-linked subsidies were replaced with vouchers of an equivalent size. Since young buyers have elastic demand, coverage of young buyers increases as a result. The $200 fall in prices, then, results first from insurers realizing that all buyers are more sensitive to price changes when they hold vouchers rather than pay a semi-fixed amount determined by a subsidy, and second from the composition of buyers therefore including more elastic young buyers, lowering the optimal insurer markup. The harm, of course, is that vouchers do not guarantee year-to-year that subsidized buyers pay no more than a capped amount, since in general the government does not know every insurer’s cost curve and every buyer’s preferences.

Better still is to make vouchers depend on age. If young buyers get big vouchers, even more of them will buy insurance. This will drag down the price set by insurers since aggregate elasticity increases, and hence old buyers may be better off as well even if they see a reduction in their government subsidy. Tebaldi estimates that a $400 increase in subsidies for those under 45, and a $200 decrease for those over 45, will lead to 50% more young folks buying insurance, a 20% decrease in insurer markup, a post-subsidy price for those over 45 that is unchanged since their lower subsidy is made up for by lower insurer prices, and a 15% decrease in government spending since decreased subsidies for the old more than make up for increased subsidies for the young. There is such a thing as a free lunch!

Now, in practice, governments do not make changes around the margins like this. Certain aspects of the subsidy program are, crazily, set by law and not by bureaucrats. Note how political appearance and equilibrium effect differ in Tebaldi’s estimates: we decrease subsidies for the old and yet everyone including the old is better off due to indirect effects. Politicians, it goes without saying, do not win elections on the basis of indirect effects. A shame!

January 2016 working paper. The paper is quite concisely written, which I appreciate in our era of 80-page behemoths. If you are still reluctant to believe in the importance of insurer market power, Tebaldi and coauthors also have a paper in last year’s AER P&P showing in a really clean way the huge price differences in locations that have limited insurer competition. On the macro side, Tebaldi and network-extraordinaire Matt Jackson about deep recessions making a simple point. In labor search models, the better the boom times, the lower productivity workers you will settle for hiring. Thus, when negative economic shocks follow long expansions, they will lead to more unemployment, simply because there will be more relatively low productivity workers at every firm. Believable history-dependence in macro models is always a challenge, but this theory makes perfect sense.

“Entrepreneurship: Productive, Unproductive and Destructive,” W. Baumol (1990)

William Baumol, who strikes me as one of the leading contenders for a Nobel in the near future, has written a surprising amount of interesting economic history. Many economic historians see innovation – the expansion of ideas and the diffusion of products containing those ideas, generally driven by entrepreneurs – as critical for growth. But we find it very difficult to see any reason why the “spirit of innovation” or the net amount of cleverness in society is varying over time. Indeed, great inventions, as undeveloped ideas, occur almost everywhere at almost all times. The steam engine of Heron of Alexandria, which was used for parlor tricks like opening temple doors and little else, is surely the most famous example of a great idea, undeveloped.

Why, then, do entrepreneurs develop ideas and cause products to diffuse widely at some times in history and not at others? Schumpeter gave five roles for an entrepreneur: introducing new products, new production methods, new markets, new supply sources or new firm and industry organizations. All of these are productive forms of entrepreneurship. Baumol points out that clever folks can also spend their time innovating new war implements, or new methods of rent seeking, or new methods of advancing in government. If incentives are such that those activities are where the very clever are able to prosper, both financially and socially, then it should be no surprise that “entrepreneurship” in this broad sense is unproductive or, worse, destructive.

History offers a great deal of support here. Despite quite a bit of productive entrepreneurship in the Middle East before the rise of Athens and Rome, the Greeks and Romans, especially the latter, are well-known for their lack of widespread diffusion of new productive innovations. Beyond the steam engine, the Romans also knew of the water wheel yet used it very little. There are countless other examples. Why? Let’s turn to Cicero: “Of all the sources of wealth, farming is the best, the most able, the most profitable, the most noble.” Earning a governorship and stripping assets was also seen as noble. What we now call productive work? Not so much. Even the freed slaves who worked as merchants had the goal of, after acquiring enough money, retiring to “domum pulchram, multum serit, multum fenerat”: a fine house, land under cultivation and short-term loans for voyages.

Baumol goes on to discuss China, where passing the imperial exam and moving into government was the easiest way to wealth, and the early middle ages of Europe, where seizing assets from neighboring towns was more profitable than expanding trade. The historical content of Baumol’s essay was greatly expanded in a book he edited alongside Joel Mokyr and David Landes called The Invention of Enterprise, which discusses the relative return to productive entrepreneurship versus other forms of entrepreneurship from Babylon up to post-war Japan.

The relative incentives for different types of “clever work” are relevant today as well. Consider Luigi Zingales’ new lecture, Does Finance Benefit Society? I can’t imagine anyone would consider Zingales hostile to the financial sector, but he nonetheless discusses in exhaustive detail the ways in which incentives push some workers in that sector toward rent-seeking and fraud rather than innovation which helps the consumer.

Final JPE copy (RePEc IDEAS). Murphy, Schleifer and Vishny have a paper, also from the JPE in 1990, on the topic of how clever people in many countries are incentivized toward rent-seeking; their work is more theoretical and empirical than historical. If you are interested in innovation and entrepreneurship, I uploaded the reading list for my PhD course on the topic here.

“International Trade and Institutional Change: Medieval Venice’s Response to Globalization,” D. Puga & D. Trefler

(Before discussing the paper today, I should forward a couple great remembrances of Stanley Reiter, who passed away this summer, by Michael Chwe (whose interests at the intersection of theory and history are close to my heart) and Rakesh Vohra. After leaving Stanford – Chwe mentions this was partly due to a nasty letter written by Reiter’s advisor Milton Friedman! – Reiter established an incredible theory group at Purdue which included Afriat, Vernon Smith and PhD students like Sonnenschein and Ledyard. He then moved to Northwestern where he helped build up the great group in MEDS which is too long to list, but which includes one Nobel winner already in Myerson and, by my reckoning, two more which are favorites to win the prize next Monday.

I wonder if we may be at the end of an era for topic-diverse theory departments. Business schools are all a bit worried about “Peak MBA”, and theorists are surely the first ones out the door when enrollment falls. Economic departments, journals and funders seem to have shifted, in the large, toward more empirical work, for better or worse. Our knowledge both of how economic and social interactions operate in their most platonic form, and our ability to interpret empirical results when considering novel or counterfactual policies, have greatly benefited by the theoretical developments following Samuelson and Hicks’ mathematization of primitives in the 1930s and 40s, and the development of modern game theory and mechanism design in the 1970s and 80s. Would that a new Cowles and a 21st century Reiter appear to help create a critical mass of theorists again!)

On to today’s paper, a really interesting theory-driven piece of economic history. Venice was one of the most important centers of Europe’s “commercial revolution” between the 10th and 15th century; anyone who read Marco Polo as a schoolkid knows of Venice’s prowess in long-distance trade. Among historians, Venice is also well-known for the inclusive political institutions that developed in the 12th century, and the rise of oligarchy following the “Serrata” at the end of the 13th century. The Serrata was followed by a gradual decrease in Venice’s power in long-distance trade and a shift toward manufacturing, including the Murano glass it is still famous for today. This is a fairly worrying history from our vantage point today: as the middle class grew wealthier, democratic forms of government and free markets did not follow. Indeed, quite the opposite: the oligarchs seized political power, and within a few decades of the serrata restricted access to the types of trade that previously drove wealth mobility. Explaining what happened here is both a challenge due to limited data, and of great importance given the public prominence of worries about the intersection of growing inequality and corruption of the levers of democracy.

Dan Trefler, an economic historian here at U. Toronto, and Diego Puga, an economist at CEMFI who has done some great work in economic geography, provide a great explanation of this history. Here’s the model. Venice begins with lots of low-wealth individuals, a small middle and upper class, and political power granted to anyone in the upper class. Parents in each dynasty can choose to follow a risky project – becoming a merchant in a long-distance trading mission a la Niccolo and Maffeo Polo – or work locally in a job with lower expected pay. Some of these low and middle class families will succeed on their trade mission and become middle and upper class in the next generation. Those with wealth can sponsor ships via the colleganza, a type of early joint-stock company with limited liability, and potentially join the upper class. Since long-distance trade is high variance, there is a lot of churn across classes. Those with political power also gather rents from their political office. As the number of wealthy rise in the 11th and 12th century, the returns to sponsoring ships falls due to competition across sponsors in the labor and export markets. At any point, the upper class can vote to restrict future entry into the political class by making political power hereditary. They need to include sufficiently many powerful people in this hereditary class or there will be a revolt. As the number of wealthy increase, eventually the wealthy find it worthwhile to restrict political power so they can keep political rents within their dynasty forever. Though political power is restricted, the economy is still free, and the number of wealthy without power continue to grow, lowering the return to wealth for those with political power due to competition in factor and product markets. At some point, the return is so low that it is worth risking revolt from the lower classes by restricting entry of non-nobles into lucrative industries. To prevent revolt, a portion of the middle classes are brought in to the hereditary political regime, such that the regime is powerful enough to halt a revolt. Under these new restrictions, lower classes stop engaging in long-distance trade and instead work in local industry. These outcomes can all be generated with a reasonable looking model of dynastic occupation choice.

What historical data would be consistent with this theoretical mechanism? We should expect lots of turnover in political power and wealth in the 10th through 13th centuries. We should find examples in the literature of families beginning as long-distance traders and rising to voyage sponsors and political agents. We should see a period of political autocracy develop, followed later by the expansion of hereditary political power and restrictions on lucrative industry entry to those with such power. Economic success based on being able to activate large amounts of capital from within the nobility class will make the importance of inter-family connections more important in the 14th and 15th centuries than before. Political power and participation in lucrative economic ventures will be limited to a smaller number of families after this political and economic closure than before. Those left out of the hereditary regime will shift to local agriculture and small-scale manufacturing.

Indeed, we see all of these outcomes in Venetian history. Trefler and Puga use some nice techniques to get around limited data availability. Since we don’t have data on family incomes, they use the correlation in eigenvector centrality within family marriage networks as a measure of the stability of the upper classes. They code colleganza records – a non-trivial task involving searching thousands of scanned documents for particular Latin phrases – to investigate how often new families appear in these records, and how concentration in the funding of long-distance trade changes over time. They show that all of the families with high eigenvector centrality in the noble marriage market after political closure – a measure of economic importance, remember – were families that were in the top quartile of seat-share in the pre-closure Venetian legislature, and that those families which had lots of political power pre-closure but little commercial success thereafter tended to be unsuccessful in marrying into lucrative alliances.

There is a lot more historical detail in the paper, but as a matter of theory useful to the present day, the Venetian experience ought throw cold water on the idea that political inclusiveness and economic development always form a virtuous circle. Institutions are endogenous, and changes in the nature of inequality within a society following economic development alter the potential for political and economic crackdowns to survive popular revolt.

Final published version in QJE 2014 (RePEc IDEAS). A big thumbs up to Diego for having the single best research website I have come across in five years of discussing papers in this blog. Every paper has an abstract, well-organized replication data, and a link to a locally-hosted version of the final published paper. You may know his paper with Nathan Nunn on how rugged terrain in Africa is associated with good economic outcomes today because slave traders like the infamous Tippu Tip couldn’t easily exploit mountainous areas, but it’s also worth checking out his really clever theoretical disambiguation of why firms in cities are more productive, as well as his crazy yet canonical satellite-based investigation of the causes of sprawl. There is a really cool graphic on the growth of U.S. sprawl at that last link!

“The Tragedy of the Commons in a Violent World,” P. Sekeris (2014)

The prisoner’s dilemma is one of the great insights in the history of the social sciences. Why would people ever take actions that make everyone worse off? Because we all realize that if everyone took the socially optimal action, we would each be better off individually by cheating and doing something else. Even if we interact many times, that incentive to cheat will remain in our final interaction, hence cooperation will unravel all the way back to the present. In the absence of some ability to commit or contract, then, it is no surprise we see things like oligopolies who sell more than the quantity which maximizes industry profit, or countries who exhaust common fisheries faster than they would if the fishery were wholly within national waters, and so on.

But there is a wrinkle: the dreaded folk theorem. As is well known, if we play frequently enough, and the probability that any given game is the last is low enough, then any feasible outcome which is better than what players can guarantee themselves regardless of other player’s action can be sustained as an equilibrium; this, of course, includes the socially optimal outcome. And the punishment strategies necessary to get to that social optimum are often fairly straightforward. Consider oligopoly: if your firm produces more than half the monopoly output, then I produce the Cournot duopoly quantity in the next period. If you think I will produce Cournot, your best response is also to produce Cournot, and we will do so forever. Therefore, if we are setting prices frequently enough, the benefit to you of cheating today is not enough to overcome the lower profits you will earn in every future period, and hence we are able to collude at the monopoly level of output.

Folk theorems are really robust. What if we only observe some random public signal of what each of us did in the last period? The folk theorem holds. What if we only privately observe some random signal of what the other people did last period? No problem, the folk theorem holds. There are many more generalizations. Any applied theorist has surely run into the folk theorem problem – how do I let players use “reasonable” strategies in a repeated game but disallow crazy strategies which might permit tacit collusion?

This is Sekeris’ problem in the present paper. Consider two nations sharing a common pool of resources like fish. We know from Hotelling how to solve the optimal resource extraction problem if there is only one nation. With more than one nation, each party has an incentive to overfish today because they don’t take sufficient account of the fact that their fishing today lowers the amount of fish left for the opponent tomorrow, but the folk theorem tells us that we can still sustain cooperation if we interact frequently enough. Indeed, Ostrom won the Nobel a few years ago for showing how such punishments operate in many real world situations. But, but! – why then do we see fisheries and other common pool resources overdepleted so often?

There are a few ways to get around the folk theorem. First, it may just be that players do not interact forever, at least probabalistically; some firms may last longer than others, for instance. Second, it may be that firms cannot change their strategies frequently enough, so that you will not be punished so harshly if you deviate from the cooperative optimum. Third, Mallesh Pai and coauthors show in a recent paper that with a large number of players and sufficient differential obfuscation of signals, it becomes too difficult to “catch cheaters” and hence the stage game equilibrium is retained. Sekeris proposes an alternative to all of these: allow players to take actions which change the form of the stage game in the future. In particular, he allows players to fight for control of a bigger share of the common pool if they wish. Fighting requires expending resources from the pool building arms, and the fight itself also diminishes the size of the pool by destroying resources.

As the remaining resource pool gets smaller and smaller, then each player is willing to waste fewer resources arming themselves in a fight over that smaller pool. This means that if conflict does break out, fewer resources will be destroyed in the “low intensity” fight. Because fighting is less costly when the pool is small, as the pool is depleted through cooperative extraction, eventually the players will fight over what remains. Since players will have asymmetric access to the pool following the outcome of the fight, there are fewer ways for the “smaller” player to harm the bigger one after the fight, and hence less ability to use threats of such harm to maintain folk-theorem cooperation before the fight. Therefore, the cooperative equilibrium partially unravels and players do not fully cooperate even at the start of the game when the common pool is big.

That’s a nice methodological trick, but also somewhat reasonable in the context of common resource pool management. If you don’t overfish today, it must be because you fear I will punish you by overfishing myself tomorrow. If you know I will enact such punishment, then you will just invade me tomorrow (perhaps metaphorically via trade agreements or similar) before I can enact such punishment. This possibility limits the type of credible threats that can be made off the equilibrium path.

Final working paper (RePEc IDEAS. Paper published in Fall 2014 RAND.

“On the Origin of States: Stationary Bandits and Taxation in Eastern Congo,” R. S. de la Sierra (2013)

The job market is yet again in full swing. I won’t be able to catch as many talks this year as I would like to, but I still want to point out a handful of papers that I consider particularly elucidating. This article, by Columbia’s de la Sierra, absolutely fits that category.

The essential question is, why do states form? Would that all young economists interested in development put their effort toward such grand questions! The old Rousseauian idea you learned your first year of college, where individuals come together voluntarily for mutual benefit, seems contrary to lots of historical evidence. Instead, war appears to be a prime mover for state formation; armed groups establish a so-called “monopoly on violence” in an area for a variety of reasons, and proto-state institutions evolve. This basic idea is widespread in the literature, but it is still not clear which conditions within an area lead armed groups to settle rather than to pillage. Further, examining these ideas empirically seems quite problematic for two reasons, first because states themselves are the ones who collect data hence we rarely observe anything before states have formed, and second, because most of the planet has long since been under the rule of a state (with apologies to James Scott!)

De la Sierra brings some economics to this problem. What is the difference between pillaging and sustained state-like forms? The pillager can only extract assets on its way through, while the proto-state can establish “taxes”. What taxes will it establish? If the goal is long-run revenue maximization, Ramsey long ago told us that it is optimal to tax elements that are inelastic. If labor can flee, but the output of the mine can not, then you ought tax the output of the mine highly and set a low poll tax. If labor supply is inelastic but output can be hidden from the taxman, then use a high poll tax. Thus, when will bandits form a state instead of just pillaging? When there is a factor which can be dynamically taxed at such a rate that the discounted tax revenue exceeds what can be pillaged today. Note that the ability to, say, restrict movement along roads, or to expand output through state-owned capital, changes relevant tax elasticities, so at a more fundamental level, capacity by rebels along these margins are also important (and I imagine that extending de la Sierra’s paper will involve the evolutionary development of these types of capacities).

This is really an important idea. It is not that there is a tradeoff between producing and pillaging. Instead, there is a three way tradeoff between producing in your home village, joining an armed group to pillage, and joining an armed group that taxes like a state! The armed group that taxes will, as a result of its desire to increase tax revenue, perhaps introduce institutions that increase production in the area under its control. And to the extent that institutions persist, short-run changes that cause potential bandits to form taxing relationships may actually lead to long-run increases in productivity in a region.

De la Sierra goes a step beyond theory, investigating these ideas empirically in the Congo. Eastern Congo during and after the Second Congo War was characterized by a number of rebel groups that occasionally just pillaged, but occasionally formed stable tax relationships with villages that could last for years. That is, the rebels occasionally implemented something looking like states. The theory above suggests that exogenous changes in the ability to extract tax revenue (over a discounted horizon) will shift the rebels from pillagers to proto-states. And, incredibly, there were a number of interesting exogenous changes that had exactly that effect.

The prices of coltan and gold both suffered price shocks during the war. Coltan is heavy, hard to hide, and must be shipped by plane in the absence of roads. Gold is light, easy to hide, and can simply be carried from the mine on jungle footpaths. When the price of coltan rises, the maximal tax revenue of a state increases since taxable coltan production is relatively inelastic. This is particularly true near airstrips, where the coltan can actually be sold. When the price of gold increases, the maximal tax revenue does not change much, since gold is easy to hide, and hence the optimal tax is on labor rather than on output. An exogenous rise in coltan prices should encourage proto-state formation in areas with coltan, then, while an exogenous rise is gold prices should have little impact on the pillage vs. state tradeoff. Likewise, a government initiative to root out rebels (be they stationary or pillaging) decreases the expected number of years a proto-state can extract rents, hence makes pillaging relatively more lucrative.

How to confirm these ideas, though, when there was no data collected on income, taxes, labor supply, or proto-state existence? Here is the crazy bit – 11 locals were hired in Eastern Congo to travel to a large number of villages, spend a week there querying families and village elders about their experiences during the war, the existence of mines, etc. The “state formation” in these parts of Congo is only a few years in the past, so it is at least conceivable that memories, suitably combined, might actually be reliable. And indeed, the data do seem to match aggregate trends known to monitors of the war. What of the model predictions? They all seem to hold, and quite strongly: the ability to extract more tax revenue is important for proto-state formation, and areas where proto-states existed do appear to have retained higher productive capacity years later perhaps as a result of the proto-institutions those states developed. Fascinating. Even better, because there is a proposed mechanism rather than an identified treatment effect, we can have some confidence that this course is, to some extent, externally valid!

December 2013 working paper (No IDEAS page). You may wonder what a study like this costs (particularly if you are, like me, a theorist using little more than chalk and a chalkboard); I have no idea, but de la Sierra’s CV lists something like a half million dollars of grants, an incredible total for a graduate student. On a personal level, I spent a bit of time in Burundi a number of years ago, including visiting a jungle camp where rebels from the Second Congo War were still hiding. It was pretty amazing how organized even these small groups were in the areas they controlled; there was nothing anarchic about it.

“The Institutional Causes of China’s Great Famine, 1959-1961,” X. Meng, N. Qian & P. Yared (2011)

Nancy Qian, along with a big group of coauthors, has done a great amount of interesting empirical work in recent years on the economics of modern China; among other things, she has shown that local elections actually do cause policy changes in line with local preferences and that the state remains surprisingly powerful in the Chinese economy. In this paper with Xin Meng and Pierre Yared, she considers what is likely the worst famine in the history of mankind, China’s famous famine following the Great Leap Forward. After a agricultural production shock in 1959, a series of misguided policy experiments in the mid-1950s (like “backyard steel” production, which produced worthless metal), and an anti-Rightist purge which ended a brief period of less rigid bureaucracy, 30 million or so people would die from hunger over the next two years, with most deaths among the young and the very old. To put this in relative context, in the worst-hit counties, the birth-cohorts that should have been born or very young in 1960 and 1961 are today missing more than 80% of their projected members.

What is interesting, and what we have known since Sen, is that famines generally result from problems of food distribution rather than food production. And, indeed, the authors show that total grain production in caloric terms across rural parts of China is a multiple of what is necessary to hold off starvation during the height of the productivity shock. What is interesting and novel, though, is that provinces with higher historic per-capita grain production had the highest mortality, and likewise counties with the highest per-capita production as measured by a proxy based on climate also have the largest number of “missing” members in their birth year cohort in the 1990 census. This is strange – you might think that places that are living on the edge in normal times are most susceptible to famine.

This is where politics comes into play. The Chinese government “sent down” many competent bureaucrats during the anti-Rightist purges in the late 1950s, limiting the ability of the government to use flexible mechanisms for food procurement. The food system at the time involved the central government collecting a set amount of grain from each region, then returning stocks to communal kitchens. Now, local leaders had a strong incentive to understate how much was produced in a given year so that they could use the remainder for local power purposes. Because of limited communication technology and ineffective bureaucracy, the optimal mechanism (not specified formally, but apparently done so in an earlier version) for the central government involved pre-setting fixed production goals for every region. Here is the problem: imagine you wish the city, rural area 1 and rural area 2 to have the same expected consumption, with the city producing no food, and rural area 1 producing 1 ton per capita per year and rural area 2 producing 1.4 tons per capita. This gives total consumption of .8 tons per capita if the government sets in advance a fixed “tax” of .2 tons per capita from 1 and .6 tons per capita from region 2. Now a productivity shock lowers production everywhere by 10 percent. The city still gets its .8 tons per capita (since the “tax” is fixed), but area 1 now gets .9*1-.2=.7 tons per capita, and area 2 gets 1.4*.9-.6=.66 tons per capita. That is, the lack of flexibility in the system is more likely to push the productive regions into famine than other regions.

Now, this is not the whole story. Alternative explanations, already suggested in the literature, also are quantitatively important. Places with more anti-Rightist purges before the famine saw higher mortality (see this 2011 APSR by Kung and Chen), as did places with earlier adoption of communal dining halls or larger increases in backyard steel production, both proxies for “zealous” adherence to the Great Leap Forward. I would really like to see some attempt at a decomposition here: if you buy that local political leadership, the central government quota system, and political punishment of counterrevolutionary areas were all important, and that weather shocks alone were not, how many of the deaths should we ascribe to each of those factors? This seems an important question for preventing future famines. It seems that a further fleshing out of how these results relate to the old theory of the firm debates about flexibility of local managers under imperfect and partially unverifiable reporting can help us understand what was going on with the CCP policy choices; I’m thinking, for instance, of explicitly showing whether it is true that loss of members of the bureacracy (i.e., an increase in the cost of monitoring) necessarily incentivizes more rigid allocation rules. Theory here could help to quantify how important this mechanism might be.

2011 working paper (IDEAS version). This paper is R&R at ReStud currently. Qian has a couple other working papers that caught my eye. First, a paper with Duflo and Banerjee on Chinese transportation infrastructure finds very little impact on relative incomes of (quasi-random) access to a good transportation network, and suggests in a short model (which is less convincing…) that relative immobility of capital might be causing this. The techniques in the paper are similar to those used by Ben Faber in his very nice paper showing Krugman’s home market effect: if you are small and poor, being connected with a big productive place may not be good for you due to increasing returns to scale. Qian also has a 2013 paper with Nathan Nunn on food aid which suggests, pretty convincingly, that food aid in civil war zones prolongs conflicts; the mechanism, roughly, is that local armies can easily steal the aid and hence have less reason to sue for peace. The identification strategy here is quite nice: the US government buys wheat for price stabilization reasons, then gives much of this away to impoverished countries. The higher the price of wheat, the less the government surplus is, hence the less is given away.

Paul Samuelson’s Contributions to Welfare Economics, K. Arrow (1983)

I happened to come across a copy of a book entitled “Paul Samuelson and Modern Economic Theory” when browsing the library stacks recently. Clear evidence of his incredible breadth are in the section titles: Arrow writes about his work on social welfare, Houthhaker on consumption theory, Patinkin on money, Tobin on fiscal policy, Merton on financial economics, and so on. Arrow’s chapter on welfare economics was particularly interesting. This book comes from the early 80s, which is roughly the end of social welfare as a major field of study in economics. I was never totally clear on the reason for this – is it simply that Arrow’s Possibility Theorem, Sen’s Liberal Paradox, and the Gibbard-Satterthwaite Theorem were so devastating to any hope of “general” social choice rules?

In any case, social welfare is today little studied, but Arrow mentions a number of interesting results which really ought be better known. Bergson-Samuelson, conceived when the two were in graduate school together, is rightfully famous. After a long interlude of confused utilitarianism, Pareto had us all convinced that we should dismiss cardinal utility and interpersonal utility comparisons. This seems to suggest that all we can say about social welfare is that we should select a Pareto-optimal state. Bergson and Samuelson were unhappy with this – we suggest individuals should have preferences which represent an order (complete and transitive) over states, and the old utilitarians had a rule which imposed a real number for society’s value of any state (hence an order). Being able to order states from a social point of view seems necessary if we are to make decisions. Some attempts to extend Pareto did not give us an order. (Why is an order important? Arrow does not discuss this, but consider earlier attempts at extending Pareto like Kaldor-Hicks efficiency: going from state s to state s’ is KH-efficient if there exist ex-post transfers under which the change is Paretian. Let person a value the bundle (1,1)>(2,0)>(1,0)>all else, and person b value the bundle (1,1)>(0,2)>(0,1)>all else. In state s, person a is allocated (2,0) and person b (0,1). In state s’, person a is allocated (1,0) and person b is allocated (0,2). Note that going from s to s’ is a Kaldor-Hicks improvement, but going from s’ to s is also a Kaldor-Hicks improvement!)

Bergson and Samuelson wanted to respect individual preferences – society can’t prefer s to s’ if s’ is a Pareto improvement on s in the individual preference relations. Take the relation RU. We will say that sRUs’ if all individuals weakly prefer s to s’. Not that though RU is not complete, it is transitive. Here’s the great, and non-obvious, trick. The Polish mathematician Szpilrajn has a great 1930 theorem which says that if R is a transitive relation, then there exists a complete relation R2 which extends R; that is, if sRs’ then sR2s’, plus we complete the relation by adding some more elements. This is not a terribly easy proof, it turns out. That is, there exists social welfare orders which are entirely ordinal and which respect Pareto dominance. Of course, there may be lots of them, and which you pick is a problem of philosophy more than economics, but they exist nonetheless. Note why Arrow’s theorem doesn’t apply: we are starting with given sets of preferences and constructing a social preference, rather than attempting to find a rule that maps any individual preferences into a social rule. There have been many papers arguing that this difference doesn’t matter, so all I can say is that Arrow himself, in this very essay, accepts that difference completely. (One more sidenote here: if you wish to start with individual utility functions, we can still do everything in an ordinal way. It is not obvious that every indifference map can be mapped to a utility function, and not even true without some type of continuity assumption, especially if we want the utility functions to themselves be continuous. A nice proof of how we can do so using a trick from probability theory is in Neuefeind’s 1972 paper, which was followed up in more generality by Mount and Reiter here at MEDS then by Chichilnisky in a series of papers. Now just sum up these mapped individual utilities, and I have a Paretian social utility function which was constructed entirely in an ordinal fashion.)

Now, this Bergson-Samuelson seems pretty unusable. What do we learn that we don’t know from a naive Pareto property? Here are two great insights. First, choose any social welfare function from the set we have constructed above. Let individuals have non-identical utility functions. In general, there is no social welfare function which is maximized by always keeping every individual’s income identical in all states of the world! The proof of this is very easy if we use Harsanyi’s extension of Bergson-Samuelson: if agents are Expected Utility maximizers, than any B-S social welfare function can be written as the weighted linear combination of individual utility functions. As relative prices or the social production possibilities frontier changes, the weights are constant, but the individual marginal utilities are (generically) not. Hence if it was socially optimal to endow everybody with equal income before the relative price change, it (generically) is not later, no matter which Pareto-respecting measure of social welfare your society chooses to use! That is, I think, an astounding result for naive egalitarianism.

Here’s a second one. Surely any good economist knows policies should be evaluated according to cost-benefit analysis. If, for instance, the summed willingness-to-pay for a public good exceeds the cost of the public good, then society should buy it. When, however, does a B-S social welfare function allow us to make such an inference? Generically, such an inference is only possible if the distribution of income is itself socially optimal, since willingness-to-pay depends on the individual budget constraints. Indeed, even if demand estimation or survey evidence suggests that there is very little willingness-to-pay for a public good, society may wish to purchase the good. This is true even if the underlying basis for choosing the particular social welfare function we use has nothing at all to do with equity, and further since the B-S social welfare function respects individual preferences via the Paretian criterion, the reason we build the public good also has nothing to do with paternalism. Results of this type are just absolutely fundamental to policy analysis, and are not at all made irrelevant by the impossibility results which followed Arrow’s theorem.

This is a book chapter, so I’m afraid I don’t have an online version. The book is here. Arrow is amazingly still publishing at the age of 91; he had an interesting article with the underrated Partha Dasgupta in the EJ a couple years back. People claim that relative consumption a la Veblen matters in surveys. Yet it is hard to find such effects in the data. Why is this? Assume I wish to keep up with the Joneses when I move to a richer place. If I increase consumption today, I am decreasing savings, which decreases consumption even more tomorrow. How my desire to change consumption today if I have richer peers then depends on that dynamic tradeoff, which Arrow and Dasgupta completely characterize.

“Pollution for Promotion,” R. Jia (2012)

Ruixue Jia is on the job market from IIES in Stockholm, and she has the good fortune to have a job market topic which is very much au courant. In China, government promotions often depend both on the inherent quality of the politician and on how connected you are to current leaders; indeed, a separate paper by Jia finds that promotion probability in China depends only on the interaction of economic growth and personal connections rather than either factor by itself. Assume that a mayor can choose how much costly effort to exert. The mayor chooses how much dirty and clean technology – complements in production – to use, with the total amount of technology available an increasing function of the mayor’s effort. The mayor may personally dislike dirty technology. For any given bundle of technology, the observed economic output is higher the higher the mayor’s inherent quality (which he does not know). The central government, when deciding on promotions, only observes economic output.

Since mayors with good connections have a higher probability of being promoted for any level of output in their city, the marginal return to effort and the marginal return to dirty technology are increasing in the connectedness of the mayor. For any given distaste for pollution among the mayor, a more connected mayor will mechanically want to substitute clean for dirty technology since higher output is more valuable to him for career concerns while the marginal cost of distaste for pollution has not changed. Further, by a Le Chatelier argument, higher marginal returns to output increase the optimal effort choice, which allows a higher budget to purchase technology, dirty tech included. To the extent that the government cares about limiting the (unobserved) use of dirty tech, this is “almost” the standard multitasking concern: the folly of rewarding A and hoping for B. Although in this case, empirically there is no evidence that the central government cares about promoting local politicians who are good for the environment!

How much do local leaders increase pollution (and simultaneously speed up economic growth!) in exchange for a shot at a better job? The theory above gives us some help. We see that the same politician will substitute in dirty technology if, in some year, his old friends get on the committee that assigns promotions (the Politburo Standing Committee, or PSC, in China’s case). This allows us to see the effect of the Chinese incentive system on pollution even if we know nothing about the quality of each individual politician or whether highly-connected politicians get plum jobs in low pollution regions, since every effect we find is at the within-politician level. Using a diff-in-diff, Jia finds that in the year after a politician’s old friend makes the PSC, sulfur dioxide goes up 25%, a measure of river pollution goes up by a similar amount, industrial GDP rises by 15%, and non-industrial GDP does not change. So it appears that China’s governance institution does incentivize governors, although whether those incentives are good or bad for welfare depends on how you trade off pollution and growth in your utility function.

Good stuff. A quick aside, since what I like about Jia’s work is that she makes an attempt to more than simply find a clever strategy for getting internal validity. Many other recent job market stars – Dave Donaldson and Melissa Dell, for instance – have been equally good when it comes to caring about more than just nice identification. But such care is rare indeed! It has been three decades since we, supposedly, “took the ‘con’ out of Econometrics”. And yet an unbearable number of papers are still floating around which quite nicely identify a relationship of interest in a particular dataset, then go on to give only the vaguest and most unsatisfying remarks concerning external validity. That’s a much worse con than bad identification! Identification, by definition, can only hold ceteris paribus. Even perfect identification of some marginal effect tells me absolutely nothing about the magnitude of that effect when I go to a different time, or a different country, or a more general scenario. The only way – the only way! – to generalize an internally valid result, and the only way to explain why that result is the way it is, is to use theory. A good paper puts the theoretical explanation and the specific empirical case examined in context with other empirical papers on the same general topic, rather than stopping after the identification is cleanly done. And a good empirical paper needs to explain, and needs to generalize, because we care about unemployment (not unemployment in border counties of New Jersey in the 1990s) and we care about the effect of military training on labor supply (not the effect of the Vietnam War on labor supply in the few years following), etc. If we really want the credibility revolution in empirical economics to continue, let’s spend less seminar and referee time worrying only about internal validity, and more time shutting down the BS that is often passed off as “explanation”.

November 2012 working paper. Jia also has an interesting paper about the legacy of China’s treaty ports, as well as a nice paper (a la Nunn and Qian) on the importance of the potato in world history (really! I may be a biased Dorchester-born Mick, but still, the potato has been fabulously important).

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