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Your kid leaves her phone lying around. You find the scatterbrain never bothered to change her password as you guiltily break into her phone. You follow the trail of texts from last Saturday night. The slang is beyond you but Google translates. Shocked you find the supposed naïf and her friends were trying score some pot and booze from the cool crowd in school.

How should you respond?

You immediately want to go Putin-style hard on her ass. Confrontation, grounding, extra math classes. But any confrontation will likely reveal you accessed her phone. The stakes will only increase. Password changes, another phone purchased with the proceeds from the baby-sitting business..who knows where it will all end up?

You think through your strategy. Before this crisis, your threshold for the gateway drug was caffeine. So no Coca Cola has crossed the girl’s lips. But it seems she’s graduated from Izzes to Corona. Surely that worse than Coca Cola so you should come down like a ton of bricks? But one thing is certain – your access to her secret life is over because she’ll close off the information superhighway. How will you know if and when she’s “chasing the dragon” as people apparently said when you were young? You realize your threshold for intervention is coke (the drug) not Coca Cola. Just keep an eye on her messages till you see “yeyo” and then intervene.

You contemplate home schooling. You head over to the liquor cabinet and fix yourself a Scotch. Straight, no chaser.




Harold Pollack of UofC interviews Jon Gruber on the future of the healthcare act. Here is one exchange:

Jon:Right now, there is a successive subsidization of healthcare for many through Medicare – many rich people don’t need the excessive benefits of getting Medicare – and for many through the employer system. So I think we can get there in a different sharing route, but the bottom line is right. The constraint is going to be the financing.

Harold: By the way, you have now permanently prevented yourself from winning a high elective office in the United States despite your charisma, they be playing this tape back in an endless loop with a guy with a deep voice in the background.

Jon: I’ll guarantee it further by highlighting that guns are a public health issue.

From Bloomberg:

The latest fare study, by a Boston-area travel-tech startup called Hopper, found that Thursday is the cheapest day to purchase a ticket, with weekends the worst. The best fares were found for Wednesday departures, while returns were cheapest on Tuesday for domestic flights and on Wednesday for international trips. Friday was the most expensive day to fly home both domestically and abroad, likely because Friday and Sunday are two of the heaviest traffic days for airlines worldwide.

But don’t get too excited:

Still, as airlines become ever-more sophisticated at pricing—and keep tight checks on seat capacity—savings are relatively narrow. The difference between the “worst” and “best” purchase days was $10 for domestic flights and $25 internationally. Fare differences in departure and return days topped out at $60 for international flights, and even less domestically, according to Hopper. “I think the airlines have just become a lot better at the yield management piece so there’s no longer this predictable way you can outwit them,” says Patrick Surry, Hopper’s data scientist, calling the days of frequent consumer “big wins” largely over.

Wutherings Heights singer sells tickets for $80-$250 but they are on sale for $1000s on eBay.  She’s still running up that hill when it comes to ticket pricing


Farhad Manjoo has an interesting article on Netflix’s selection of oldish movies:

Like salmon, Hollywood movies are governed by rigid life cycles. First, a movie is released in theaters. A few months later, it heads to second-run outlets like airlines and hotel pay-per-view, and later it goes to Blu-ray, DVD and digital services that allow you to purchase or rent films à la carte.

Then, about a year after a film’s theatrical release, trouble kicks in. That’s when a movie is made available to pay-TV channels like HBO, Starz and Epix. These premium periods are exclusive; when a movie gets to a pay channel, it often can’t be shown on any other streaming service. This usually means it gets pulled from à la carte rental services, too. Right now, for instance, HBO is showing “This Is 40,” “The Hobbit” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” among other titles. Because of the network’s exclusive hold over those titles, you can’t rent those films from any other digital service….

Why are movies released in this staggered way? And why can’t the system change to accommodate an all-you-can-eat plan? Money, of course.

HBO and other premium networks have agreed to pay billions of dollars for the exclusive run of major studio films. HBO has said that, despite the cultural cachet of its original programs, movies are its most popular content; consequently, it has purchased rights to about half of all the movies released by major studios in the United States until beyond 2020. At least in this decade, then, a monthly movie plan that offers all of the movies isn’t going to happen.

Eric Posner makes a key point:

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine inherited a huge nuclear arsenal, which it subsequently gave up. In return it received assurances from Russia,  the United States, and the United Kingdom that its territorial integrity would be respected. These assurances were embodied in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. While the United States and the UK complied with that agreement by not invading Ukraine, Russia did not.

What if Ukraine had retained its nuclear arsenal? It seems more than likely that Russia would not have invaded Crimea. Putin might have calculated that Ukraine would not have used its nuclear weapons in defense because then Ukraine would itself have surely been obliterated by Russia. But the risk of nuclear war would have been too great; Putin would have stayed his hand. (However, it is possible that Ukraine would have been forced to give up its nuclear weapons one way or the other long before 2014.)

So between meaningless paper security assurances and nuclear weapons, the latter provides a  bit more security. One implication of the Crimea crisis may be the further unraveling of the nuclear nonproliferation efforts that President Obama has made the centerpiece of his foreign policy.

I would add that a similar implication follows from the lessons of Libya.

Zeke Emanuel, healthcare advisor to President Obama (and brother of Rahm and Ari) thinks:

Even though the health law’s “employer mandate” requires that companies with 50 or more workers pay a penalty of $2,000 per employee if they do not provide health care, many large companies now spend far more than that to offer coverage. As a result, Mr. Emanuel says they will be able to pay the penalty, give workers a raise and shed the burden of providing coverage by sending workers to the public exchanges.

The press is picking this up and focussing on the $2000 penalty and saying it is too small. But note the “give workers a raise” part. In a competitive labor market, just dumping workers on the exchanges without compensating them is not an option. They would exit and find jobs with companies that do offer them health insurance. To prevent this, you would have to raise their salaries. It would have been great if the NYT article could have added analysis of expense of this and hence whether the end of employer provided health insurance is really on the horizon.

Also, the big advantage Walmart etc have over the private exchanges is the ability to negotiate volume discounts. Is a decentralized private exchange ever going to be able to match those rates?

Economists of all stripes agree that there is no reason companies should also be in the business of providing health insurance to their employees. But there still seem to be many steps to there from here.

From NU:

Jean Tirole, chairman of the Foundation Jean-Jacques Laffont/Toulouse School of Economics and scientific director of the Institute for Industrial Economics, University of Toulouse Capitole in France, is the recipient of the 2014 Erwin Plein Nemmers Prize in Economics.

The prize carries a $200,000 stipend, among the largest monetary awards in the United States for outstanding achievements in economics. The 2014 prize marks the 11th time Northwestern has awarded the prize. The Frederic Esser Nemmers Prize in Mathematics and the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition will both be announced this spring.

The Nemmers prizes are given in recognition of major contributions to new knowledge or the development of significant new modes of analysis. Six out of the past 10 Nemmers economics prize winners have gone on to win a Nobel Prize. (Those who already have won a Nobel Prize are ineligible to receive a Nemmers prize.)

Looking forward to hanging out with Jean next year.


The standard story about Obamacare has two steps: (1) We need young people to join so that average costs are low. Prices will reflect average cost because of insurer competition and so healthy young people will cross subsidize less healthy older people. (2) This cross subsidy will only operate if the young get Obamacare. They may not because the price is greater than their payoff from going without insurance. Hence, the individual mandate is necessary to hold this together. If the tax is too small or the website failure too forbidding, young people will not join and the whole thing will collapse as adverse selection drives up prices and further reduces participation etc – the so-called “death spiral”.

But this story is persuasive if young and old people are in the same pool. Obamacare allows pricing based on age so young and old people are in different pools. The young do not subsidize the old. If the young do not get Obamacare the old still get their insurance and they can live happily ever after (or at least get statins and heart bypasses). At a second cut there is a bit of a cross subsidy because Obamacare imposes a 3-to-1 ratio on prices of older age groups versus new. If this constraint does not bind, no problem. Even if it binds, it is relaxed if the young do not participate in their pool so prices go up in that pool allowing higher prices in the older pools.

Still, within a fixed age based pool there can be adverse selection. How big is it?  There is a working paper by Handel, Hendel and Whinston that gives us an idea. There is an impact of adverse selection because at least when you allow just two plans, one covering 90% of costs and the other 60%, only the latter trades. But what happens if you also drop the individual mandate? The last column of Table 12 on page 41 gives their forecast based on their model and the data. Participation is 87%-90% for those 50 and older. But is only 63-70% for those 25-40.

This is the death spiral, but only among the young. It does not affect the older population. First, age-based discrimination innoculates the old from the non-participation of the young. Second, the 50+ crowd (which I am fast approaching!) need health insurance so they all get it.

(Also, this analysis ignores subsidies which would increase participation further even in 25-40 age group…)

Melissa Harris at the Chicago Tribune has written a nice story about Purple Pricing at NU.    (The photographer asked us to look serious and we complied!) Melissa also interviewed Nick Kokonas whom we talked to originally. He decided not to use auctions for Next restaurant tickets. Here is his current rationale:

“Even if we could charge more, I don’t want to,” he said. “The economists say I’m being inefficient; that it’s a rational thing to take more money, if people are willing to pay it. But I’m convinced people would be willing to pay it only once. If we allowed people to pay $2,000 to eat at Next, but it feels like it’s worth $500, they’re not coming back. And I’m not in this for a one-time sale of some gizmo. We want to be around for 20 years.”

But here is the point: Since the tickets can be resold, they end up on Craiglist etc and people pay $2000. People do not end up with the great deal Kokonas wants to give them to persuade them to be repeat customers. They still end up paying $2000 for a $500 meal but the extra $1500 goes to a scalper and not to Kokonas. The scalpers are exploiting Kokonas’s “irrationality” to make money. So, if Kokonas really wants to achieve his objective he must be more old school and sell tickets at the door. This subverts his business model as Next becomes more like Frontera Grill with a set menu and random revenue stream. A compromise might be to auction off some fraction of seats and sell some at the door. This at least captures scalper surplus. If you do not want the extra money, use it to set up a Achatz- Kokonos Institute for the Culinary Arts (AKICA).

In the Tribune article, Jeff talks about interesting ideas to leverage the secondary market if resale can be fully controlled by the originator. When this happens, it would be possible to implement the Kokonas social welfare function: Set a price P for a ticket. All resale has to go through your system and the resale price must be P. You can set P as low or as high as you want depending on your desire to give consumers a good deal.

A couple of days ago, someone who currently has individual insurance could either sign up for insurance on an Obamacare exchange or pay a penalty. Now, these people can keep their current insurance and they will not have to pay a tax penalty. In other words, their outside option to the exchanges just got better.

But what about the inside option? First, the policies traded on exchanges are regulated. They have a cap on the maximum amount consumers can be charged per year. They cover pre-existing conditions etc. They are higher quality than the contracts traded outside the exchange. Second, the plans on the exchange are subsidized based on income. These two factors can imply the inside option is better than even the new outside option.

There are two countervailing effects. First, given the disfunctionality of, it is impossible to calculate the inside option! Second, there could be a selection effect that makes the prices increase on the exchanges and leads to a “death spiral”. Specifically, if the people who currently have individual insurance are healthy and stay out of the exchanges, and there are a large number of them, prices could skyrocket in the exchanges. Then, paying the tax penalty makes more sense and the exchanges collapse.

Surely resolving the first countervailing effect is only a matter of time. This debacle should have been avoided but it is possible to fix. The second effect is potentially more problematic. It should be possible to estimate the size of the death spiral with enough data. Jon Gruber should be able to do it. I don’t have the data and can only offer an anecdote. On my way to the airport, my cab driver and I started discussing Obamacare. He and his two kids are on his wife’s individual insurance which costs them $1600/month and has huge deductibles. He was looking forward to getting Obamacare. He did not know about the subsidies. When I told him he got very excited. I used by smartphone to access the Kaiser Family Foundation subsidy calculator to guess what his family would have to pay for a silver plan. It was well below their current payments because they got a big subsidy. But how many people like him are there? How many people are buying plans in the individual marketplace in the first place? Someone should work this out.

Amazon wants to use small bricks-and-mortar retailers to sell more Kindles and eBooks. They are trying to incentivize them to execute their business strategy:

Retailers can choose between two programs:
1) Bookseller Program: Earn 10% of the price of every Kindle book purchased by their customers from their Kindle devices for two years from device purchase. This is in addition to the discount the bookseller receives when purchasing the devices and accessories from Amazon.
2) General Retail Program: Receive a larger discount when purchasing the devices from Amazon, but do not receive revenue from their customers’ Kindle book purchases.

EBooks are an existential threat to retailers. But no one small bookstore can have a significant effect on the probability of the success of the eBook market through its own choice of whether to join Amazon’s program or not. Hence, it can ignore this existential issue in making its own choice. Suppose it is beneficial for a small bookstore owner to join the program ceteris paribus. After all, people are coming in, browsing and then heading to Amazon to buy eBooks – why not capture some of that revenue? Many owners independently make the decision to join the program. Kindle and eBook penetration increases even further and small bookstores disappear.

Quite disturbing even though you know no volts are coursing through the subject’s body.

From Bloomberg:

UnitedHealth will “watch and see” how the exchanges evolve and expects the first enrollees will have “a pent-up appetite” for medical care, Hemsley said. “We are approaching them with some degree of caution because of that.”

An interpretation from Think Progress:

Get that? The company packed its bags and dumped its beneficiaries because it wants its competitors to swallow the first wave of sicker enrollees only to re-enter the market later and profit from the healthy people who still haven’t signed up for coverage.

A rational player concedes to a known crazy type in a negotiation. If the crazy type is committed to a tough strategy, meeting that strategy with toughness leads to disaster. Hence, a rational opponent will concede. But this means a rational type has the incentive to pretend to be crazy. Then, a rational opponent will still concede as crazy and rational types pool.

This strategy might be effective in a two player game with one-sided incomplete information. But if one side is the Republicans in the Senate, it is not going to work because the McCain, Ayotte, Collins… part is too rational to send the country over the debt limit. So what to do?

One strategy is to compromise and try to win the Presidency. This is the establishment strategy with all its prescriptions of outreach to women and immigrants. But only a centrist appeals to the wishy-washy median voter. So if you are Ted Cruz, you cannot get the policies you want via a centrist Republican winning the Presidency.

The other strategy is to make commitment credible. This involves primarying those who do not vote crazy. Partisans turn out in droves in primaries and even a rational politician who wants re-election is forced to act/vote crazy to get into office. Then you have enough crazies or acting crazies to filibuster if your demands are not met. In essence, you give up on winning the Presidency and focus on ruling in opposition as a minority.



He has a blog (!):

Carl Reiner on Twitter last week, worried about the current Government shutdown, said this was cause for great concern in the world’s leading democracy.  And I thought, leading?  Who’s following?    The answer would appear to be no one.

After one of the recent school shootings a young mother said to me, “What must you think of us?   You must think we’re all mad.”     Mad certainly, but not all of you.

Half of America seems to be entirely enviable, movies, books, TV, arts, liberal democratic institutions, great centers of learning and research, gay marriage, social freedoms, etc. etc.

The other half does seem to be, well, nuts.

From the always interesting Erik Erickson at Red State:

So the question is do we want to stop Obamacare or do we want to stop the debt ceiling increase? My view is that we cannot do both at the same time. We might dare to dream, but the debt ceiling will be increased one way or the other.

Right now the GOP is holding up very well in the press and public opinion because it is clear they want negotiations. The GOP keeps passing legislation to fund departments of government. It has put the Democrats in an awkward position.

But the moment the GOP refuses to raise the debt ceiling, we are going to have problems. Remember, the last time you and I wanted the GOP to fight on the debt ceiling, the attacks from our own side were particularly vicious.

They’ve been vicious over the shutdown too, but now that we are here, the water ain’t so bad and only a few ankle biting yappers continue to take shots at conservatives from the GOP side.

It will not be so with the debt ceiling. And the GOP will no longer seem very reasonable. The debt ceiling fight will become an impediment to undermining Obamacare.

The main target is defunding Obamacare. Since the House will cave on the debt limit, not good to link defunding Obamacare to the debt ceiling. Link it to CR. Logic seems good if you like the objective. Also, it reveals that right believes debt limit will be raised. Hence, bondholders can relax.

From National Memo:

A day in the life of the emptiest suit in Washington:

7 a.m. You wake up, light a Camel. Read a pink Post-it left on the refrigerator by your wife: “John, don’t ever forget, YOU REALLY ARE THE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE!!! Also, we’re out of bagels.”

7:30 a.m. You lie in your tanning bed meditating about the government shutdown, wondering if it was such a brilliant idea to let it happen. You put on some Pink Floyd, “Dark Side of the Moon,” but that doesn’t help.

8:00 a.m. On the ride to Capitol Hill, your driver remarks that there’s not much traffic in the city, no tourists lined up to see money being inked at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. You smoke another Camel.

Hiaasen has a new book out.



From political scientist Gary Cox at the Monkey Blog:

The idea goes back to England’s Glorious Revolution, where MPs fought hard to put the Crown on a short financial leash, so that they could control Crown officials’ actions. Although they did not use the term, English arguments about what would give Parliament bargaining leverage vis-à-vis the Crown hinged on the budgetary reversion.  Because expenditure authority would lapse every year, forcing portions of the government to “shut down” in contemporary American parlance, parliamentarians were assured the Crown would seek a new budget every year — whereupon they could bargain for attainment of their various goals.

Eventually the power of the purse meant the monarch became a figurehead, the House of Lords a rubber stamp and power truly resides in the House of Commons. So, the analogy would be that the President becomes an (elected) figurehead, the House of Lords becomes an (elected) rubber stamp and the House of Representatives becomes the center of power. And the Tea Party Republicans want to turn us into Britain!

President Obama may or may not have the constitutional authority to raise the debt limit without Confressional approval. But he has not because:

[S]ome observers outside government in Washington and on Wall Street, citing a game theorylike approach, suggest that the president’s position is more tactical than fundamental, since raising the possibility of a way out for the White House like the constitutional gambit would take the heat off Republicans in Congress to act on its own before the Oct. 17 deadline.

This is Schelling 101 and of course is based on Sun Tzu:

When your army has crossed the border [into enemy territory], you should burn your boats and bridges, in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home.

He is as smart as people say:

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) announced Monday his intention to donate his congressional salary to charity for each day government remains closed, pinning blame for any potential shutdown in operations past Sept. 30 on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

“Harry Reid should not force a government shutdown,” the conservative firebrand said in a statement. “I hope that Reid stops refusing to negotiate and works with the House to avoid a government shutdown, and, at the same time, prevent the enormous harms that Obamacare is inflicting on the American people.

“If, however, Harry Reid forces a government shutdown, I intend to donate my salary to charity for each day the government is shut down,” he added.

But it turns out his offer came after Democratic Rep Gary Peters:

@SenTedCruz joining me to donate pay to charity, but not to stop shutdown. I urge you to drop politics. Irresponsible to do anything less.

I got this off Tim Hartford’s Twitter feed and he describes it as Prisoners’ Dilemma. I’m not so sure:

First of all, you are not allowed to give any online hints that you are playing. If you do, you cause unending shame to be heaped upon yourself. This defeats the entire purpose.

On each turn, you give your phone (which must have a Twitter client, signed in to your main Twitter account) to another player. For the first turn, you pass your phone to the person at your left, and in exchange you receive a phone from the person to your right. On the second turn, your phone is given the the person two people to your left, etc. When you’ve passed your phone to everyone around the table, the round is over.

When you receive a phone from someone else, it should have the phone’s Twitter client active, with whatever UI there is to make a new tweet. Then you enter in anything you want. Anything. There are no rules to this part. However, and this is very important: DO NOT POST yet. You may get to do that later. Instead, hand the phone back to the owner.

When you receive your phone back, look at the proposed tweet. Then hand it back to the same person who composed it.

If you don’t want them to post it, conceal a $20 bill in your hand. If you want to allow them to post it, put nothing in your hand. Making sure to hide anything that may be in your hand, put it forward onto the table. Wait until everyone has put their hand in, and then all of you must open your hands simultaneously.

If everyone has $20 in their hands, the money goes into the pot for the next round and nothing is posted.

If nobody has $20 in their hands, nothing gets posted.

If some people have $20 and some people are empty-handed, posts happen for those people who didn’t pay up, and the money (including anything already in the pot) is distributed evenly to those people who didn’t pay.

Finally, any tweets made during this game may not be erased at least until the NEXT occasion that the person plays the game.

I guess if you want people to suffer embarassment then no-one giving $20 is not an equilibrium.

If the federal government shuts down on Oct 1, only essential staff get salaries. Congress is considered essential.

After the government shutdown, there will be a blame game to determine who gets held responsible for the closing of national parks etc. Either or both sides could in principle suffer the negative hit from the shutdown. Each party has to do something to get the upper hand in the argument. The first to renounce their salaries during the shutdown will get the upper hand.  They can say ” We share the pain of the shutdown with the American people and stand in solidarity with them. The other side is not suffering and is inflicting pain on all of us – they have nothing to lose and are advancing an extreme political agenda which is not in the interests of the American people.” The other side will soon capitulate and give up their salaries too. But the second-mover does not reap the rhetorical benefit. There is huge incentive to move first. So, there is a pre-emption game and everyone renounces their salaries.

There are two rationales for a limited strike on Syria: (1) Deter Assad from using chemical weapons again and (2) Send a signal to Iran that the US will enforce a red line against nuclearization.

The implicit threat of a tough response from the principal if an agent takes a Bad action must be coupled with the promise that there will a soft action if he takes the Good action. If the principal always takes the tough action as he is a hawkish type or always takes the soft action as he is a dovish type, the agent’s incentives are not responsive to the principal’s strategy. In the absence of incentives, the Bad action is optimal for the agent. The principal’s welfare is low because the agent takes the Bad action. The principal has to signal he is a coordination type to truly change the agent’s incentives.

Voters don’t like war just for the sake of it – they pay the costs and see little benefit (Kantian peace). But they can be convinced to go to war if there is a serious national security threat. There are coordination types. By going to Congress, the President imports the preferences of the median voter. The agent knows that the Good action is more likely to be met with a soft response and a Bad action with a tough response. The agent responds is more likely respond with a Good action. So the President’s payoff goes up whatever his true type. Hence, going to Congress is a great idea for the President whether he is hawkish, dovish or coordination type.

Our garbage cans sit on a back alley that is shared with a large apartment building. Last week, I found that our bins were full of trash left by a couple of people from the building. Their names and apartment number were on several Amazon boxes so I left them a note saying “Please do not dump your trash in our garbage cans. If you carry on doing it, I’ll call the City and complain.” Next morning, when I went out to the alley, I discovered several mattresses, a bed frame and other furniture.

I was attempting deterrence – “If you do x, then I will punish you with y” – but instead I caused escalation. I carried out my threat but it seems my erstwhile neighbors had moved out so my threat had no bite. This is an example of a generic problem in international relations – you take an action that is meant to deter but it backfires and causes escalation. We face a similar problem in Syria.

First, there is an international “norm” against the use of chemical weapons. Implicitly, it contains the threat that anyone who uses chemical weapons will face punishment of some form. The international community wants to make sure Assad does not use chemical weapons again, so someone has to step up and punish him. Or so the argument goes.

Second, there is the issue of “reputation”. The President threatened Assad with repercussions if he crossed  a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. We also threatened Iran with repercussions if they cross their own red line with nuclear development. So, to maintain our credibility with Iran, we have to carry out our threat to punish Assad.

This akin to the reputation model of the chain store paradox as studied by Kreps and Wilson. A chain store faces entrants in many towns. If accommodation is cheaper than fighting in any one town and these payoffs are common knowledge, there is no predation via a backward induction argument. But if the chain store might be run by a “crazy” entrepreneur who loves to fight entry, a “rational” type will pretend to be crazy. Since both crazy and rational types fight entry, entrants should stay out.

Something like this argument lies beneath the “red line” argument for a limited strike against Assad.

First and foremost, we can attack Syria even if they do/did not use chemical weapons. In the chain store paradox this cannot happen – the chain store fights entry if it occurs but it can’t just fight for the hell of it if entry does not occur. In Syria, we can try for regime change and employ the use of chemical weapons as an excuse to intervene militarily. We can do this even if Assad backs down. This may seem farfetched to us but after the experience in Iraq and Libya as a pose to the survival of the regime in North Korea, this does not seem implausible to outsiders. So, if Assad thinks American will attack whatever he does, this does not increase his incentive to back down. Expecting attack, he might fight harder.

Plus Iran get the same signal – America wants regime change. So, they will redouble their efforts to go nuclear.

This is as plausible a forecast of future events as any other.

Here’s my accurate but unsubtle description of Coase’s methodology (listen to audio for my brief moment of fame). Reporter does a good job though.

Ronald Coase has passed away.

Coase was the last “classical” economist. His style is closer to Marshall than to Samuelson. He asked deep questions and proposed simple but deep answers without using maths. So, a certain style of doing economics passes away with him.

The work of his I am most familiar with concerns the theory of the firm: Why are some transactions mediated through markets while others take place within firms? Suppose Microsoft and Nokia have to work together to supply phones. MS can own human capital that generates software, Nokia can generate the hardware and they can exist as separate firms and trade. Or MS can produce the end software/hardware product and employ Nokia workers in an integrated firm.  Coase’s point is that if there are no transactions costs, there is property-right neutrality. Both institutions should generate the same joint surplus and it does not matter whether they are integrated or not. People often stop there and that is all they know about the “Coase Theorem”. But in fact, Coase’s second point is that property right neutrality is crazy hence there must be transactions costs and we must study these as well as the usual costs of production we normally invoke. Once we have a good understanding of transactions costs, we will understand why some transactions take place through firms and other through markets.

The downside of having a classical style is that no-one really understands what you mean. First, there was controversy about the Coase Theorem itself – was it in fact a  theorem? Coase never called it that (I think it was Stigler who coined the phrase) and Samuelson though it was wrong. But, I think by now we do believe it is a theorem and the property right neutrality obtains for transferable utility (MasColell, Whinston and Green has a simple argument).  But what are these pesky transactions costs that determine the boundary of the firm? There we have no consensus. One leading theory invokes costs of haggling ex post if two firms are not integrated (Wiliamson got the Nobel Prize for this theory). The other says there are no costs of haggling ex post and bargaining in efficient but there is a hold up problem in bargaining as surplus is split. Knowing this firms underinvest ex ante. The allocation of property rights affects the ex post division of surplus and hence this leads to a theory of optimal property rights (this theory has been developed by Oliver Hart with his co-authors Sandy Grossman and John Moore (GHM)).

The counterargument to Williamson’s theory is typically that if haggling generates transactions costs, we should see vertical integration and no outsourcing. No interior solutions! The counterargument to GHM is more esoteric. It turns out that there are contracting solutions that are consistent with typical GHM solutions and resolve the hold-up problem. In some sense, the Coase Theorem goes through in GHM models.

So what can we learn from the Nokia and MS merger? It seems they are looking for a Ballmer replacement who is working at Nokia. And there are intellectual property issues:

Mr. Ballmer said Microsoft and Nokia had not been as agile separately as they would be jointly, citing how development could be slowed down when intellectual property rights were held by two different companies.

But also from the same NYT article:

Large acquisitions are fraught with peril, especially in the technology business, where there are challenges to integrating employees from different backgrounds into a coherent whole.

First, Coase is right – there are transactions costs that destroy property right neutrality. Second, both Williamson and GHM theories are consistent with the facts. Maybe ex post efficient trades are not occurring because of haggling over MS’s and Nokia’s intellectual property. Or knowing that surplus will be extracted by the other party ex post given its monopoly power over its patents, neither firms is fully invested in the joint venture.

So, the bottom line is that Coase had some simple but deep insights and we are still working out the implications.

I talked to my father a couple of days ago. He’s excited ahead of his trip to India because the British pound is trading at 100 Rupees!

Why is that and what does it have to do with the Food Security Bill that gives some minimal level of food support to the Indian population?

Debraj Ray answers these two questions:

1. Rupee fluctuations:

The basic economics of this is pretty simple. Imagine a huge stock of hard-currency-denominated investible funds, forever sloshing around in search of the best returns. For a developing country, the urge to tap into these funds is immense……. And so it was that India started on the Great Upward Path: money pouring into its coffers from abroad, accompanying tariff and quota liberalization then permitting easy purchase of foreign goods without a huge depreciation in the rupee, the outward drain being more than easily matched by the inward flow.

QE, by keeping interest rates very low in the United States and the rest of the “developed world,” certainly helped here, as hot money scrambled to take advantage of relatively attractive portfolios in emerging markets.

And what money goes in comes out after the Fed hints that their easy money policy may be coming to an end and interest rates are on the rise. Hence fluctuations

2. Food Security Bill:

It is interesting that the very same business interests which have completely disregarded the dangers I’ve discussed are now floundering around for a scapegoat. Let’s see now: it must be the damn Government which is to blame. And we’re off to the usual races: cut back government spending, and yes, social spending for those lazy masses must be the first to go….

What we have is a bill that purports to bring food security to the majority of India’s population, and possibly the overwhelming majority of India’s poor, plus the additional benefits to mothers and children, for about 6% of the Indian government budget. Not for 12%, as in defense, or 9%, as in the fuel subsidy. And certainly not for the same impact, rupee for rupee, on India’s international deficit.

It’s crazy to link 2. with 1. Must the poor and innocent always pay for the vagaries of financial  markets? I hope not.

Israel uses it, Saddam used it, the US uses it w.r.t. Taiwan vs China policy and now Larry Summers is using it – strategic ambiguity.

[W]ith a high-profile appointment like for Fed chair or the Supreme Court, vagueness becomes a virtue. When Senate confirmation is the goal, a candidate wants to maintain wiggle room and let people project upon you whatever their preference is.

What Summers is trying to do is to create a situation in which conservative senators view him as a tough, no-nonsense central banker who will maintain the integrity of the dollar against those dirty hippies who want to debase the currency. Simultaneously, he wants liberals to view him as someone who will do whatever he can to try to strengthen job creation and find creative ways to improve growth.

Now we pretty much know Israel is nuclear but at its strategy’s inception things were not so clear. The US has not had to openly side with Taiwan or China in a significant conflict etc. This is important because it is hard to maintain ambiguity about your true preferences or nuclear status if you have been forced to reveal them in the past. Larry Summers has revealed lots about himself in the past either through policies he has embraced or comments he has made. Even if these opinions were not necessarily about monetary policy, they reveal the intellectual framework and biases that inform his economic worldview. So it is impossible to maintain strategic ambiguity as a stance.


Foreign Policy reports:

India’s two most prominent economists have never really seen eye-to-eye. Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize-winner and Harvard professor, believes in public interventions to alleviate extreme poverty and reduce inequality while Jagdish Bhagwati, a professor at Columbia and author of the bestselling book In Defense of Globalization, favors a more free-market, growth-first approach.

In recent weeks, the two have caused something of an uproar — “Academic Brawl,” proclaims the Economic Times – with a terse back-and-forth in the letters page of the Economist.

What is it all about? For the answer, I turned to the blog of a third prominent Indian economist (and apparently excellent cook) Debraj Ray:

1. Economic growth is fundamentally uneven.

2. Looking at rates of growth per person will fail to reveal this basic fact. High growth and extreme inequalities can co-exist. Indeed, they often do.

3. There are a number of ways to deal with uneven growth. The most important of these is occupational choice: education and training to enter new sectors. But occupational choice is slow (it will often take a generation), and it is imprecise (by the time we’re done retraining, the economy may have hared off somewhere else).

4. So other ways need to be found to even out that unevenness.

5. But wait — why won’t the good old market take care of it? It might: if growth in one sector trickles to another via expanding demand. If software engineers like potatoes, the potato farmer stands to gain. Or the tourist industry. Or hairdressers. Just how strong these intersectoral bonds are is a profoundly empirical question. Is there enough work on assessing these strengths? The simple answer is no: not nearly enough. To simply hope that the bonds will work is no good.

We have now arrived at the heart of the matter: is (5) enough? That is what the debate needs to be about. Not about Bhagwati, and not about Sen.

6. And if (5) isn’t enough, what then? Then we are left with two alternatives:

7. Active and sustained government intervention to even things out. Social spending on education. On health. [On] nutrition. On transportation and communication networks. On minimal safety nets. The market can take care of the cool stuff. The public sector gets a less sexy role: getting the basics right. That is what Drèze and Sen (and frankly, many others) are about.

Failing (7) and provided that (5) fails as well, we have just one option:

8. Sustained, crippling social conflict, not just cutting across class lines but along any marker which can be arrogated for the purpose: religion, caste, geography, language.

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