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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.
A firm has a basic goal: maximize profits. And then it has day-to-day decisions. It is far too complicated to every day try to trace through the consequences of those basic decisions on the fundamental objective of maximizing profits. A manager who tried to do that would spend so much time thinking that by the time he figured it out the day would be over and he’d have to start thinking again about tomorrow’s decision.
So firms don’t hire managers like that. Managers cling to intermediate goals, like say maximize market share. The best intermediate goals are the ones that are easy to monitor and which do a pretty good job of proxying for the underlying goal. These intermediate goals eventually become part of the culture of the firm and knowledge of their connection to the underlying goal can get lost. The manager can’t distinguish between intermediate goals and fundamental goals.
Now a consultant comes in to advise the manager. A consultant’s job is to show the manager how best to pursue his goals. So the very first thing a consultant should do is find out what the manager’s goals are. And here’s where the dilemma arises. The consultant might actually be smart enough to figure out that the manager’s goals are just intermediate goals. Does he say “De Gustibus” and advise the manager on how to pursue his goals even if he can see that in this particular instance it works against what the manager should really be maximizing?
Or does he have enough ambition in his job as advisor to try to convince the manager that his goals are all wrong, that he should really be maximizing something else? I honestly wonder what the smart consultant does in these situations.
More generally, in everyday life we have arguments about what’s the right thing to do. A lot of the time these arguments are confounded by the inability to distinguish whether we are arguing about the right course of action given our common goals (an argument that can be settled) or whether we have really just chosen different intermediate goals (loggerheads.)
Presh Talwalker tells us about this study of parking strategies:
They observed two distinct strategies: “cycling” and “pick a row, closest space.” They compared the results. “What was interesting,” [Professor Andrew Velkey found], “was although the individual cycling were spending more time driving looking for a parking space, on average they were no closer to the door, time-wise or distance-wise, than people using ‘pick a row, closest space.’”
And commenters are inferring that hunting for the best spot is a sub-optimal strategy. But those that are searching for the best parking spot are not interested in reducing their expected parking time, rather they care about the second moment. When we have an appointment there is a deadline effect: our payoff drops precipitously if we arrive past the deadline. Faced with such a payoff function we are typically wiling to increase our expected parking time if in return we can at least increase the probability of getting lucky with a really good spot. ”Pick a row, closest space” guarantees we will be a bit late. ”Cycling” may increase the average searching time but at least gives us a chance of being on time.
Buy tickets starting at 10AM at NUSports.com for the games against Ohio State on Oct 5 and Michigan on Nov 16. We have added bidding this season: you may submit a bid below the current auction price and you will receive tickets if and when the price falls to your bid level. Here is an older post about Purple Pricing with some more information.
I just had one of my worst travel experiences. On United.
I was flying with my two kids and we got to O’Hare at 9 am in plenty of time for our 10.30 am flight to Seattle. The plane was delayed for one hour initially but then, after the airplane arrived, it turned out there was some malfunction so we had to wait for another plane. That one was due to leave at 2 pm.
My kids are pretty good but they were getting a bit restless so I decided to let them pick a treat for every delay. They opted to have lunch at Wolfgang Puck’s in the other of the two United terminals. They got to veto Frontera Fresca. So far so good.
The next bit of news – easy to forecast – further delay till 2.25. Peanut M&Ms. But then things got interesting. The pilots on the incoming flight had timed out given the additional 25 minute delay and we had to wait for new pilots to turn up. Ice cream for the kids. But no-one was insuring me so I was getting more and more pissed off. This pilot time out was news to me but surely eminently foreseeable for United? We left at 4.30 pm. Kids were on a sugar high and I was on a United low.
In my kids’ tennis class they are getting good enough to have actual rallies. The coach feeds them a ball and has them play out points. Each rally is worth 1 point and they play to 10. To stop them from trying to hit winners on the first shot and in attempt to get them to play longer rallies, the coaches tried out an interesting rule. ”The ball must cross the net four times before the point begins. If your shot goes out before that, its 2 points for the other side.”
Amnesty –forgiving all of the current and previous violators but renewing a threat to punish future violators– always seems like a reputation fail. If we are granting amnesty today then doesn’t that signal that we will eventually be granting amnesty again in the future?
But there is at least one environment in which a once-only amnesty is incentive compatible and effective: when crime has bandwagon effects. For example, suppose there’s a stash of candy in the pantry and my kids have taken to raiding it. I catch one red-handed but I can’t punish her because she rightly points out that since everybody’s doing it she assumed we were looking the other way. A culture of candy crime had taken hold.
An amnesty (bring me your private stash and you will be forgiven) moves us from the everyone’s a criminal because everyone’s a criminal equilibrium to the one in which nobody’s a criminal. The latter is potentially stable if its easier to single out and punish a lone offender than one of many.
Many laws that restrict freedoms are effectively substitutes for private contracts. In a frictionless world we wouldn’t need those laws because every subset of individuals could sign private contracts to decide efficiently what the laws decide bluntly and uniformly. But given transaction costs and bargaining inefficiencies those blunt laws are the best we can do.
Some people might want to sign contracts that constrain themselves. For example I might know that I am tempted to drink too many Big Gulps and I might want to contract with every potential supplier of large sugary drinks, getting them to agree never to sell them to me even if I ask for it. But this kind of contract is plagued not only by the transaction costs and bargaining inefficiencies that justify many existing planks in the social contract, but in addition a new friction: these contracts are simply not enforceable.
Because even with such a contract in place, when I actually am tempted to buy a Slurpee, it will be in the interest of both me and my Slurpee supplier to nullify the contract. (It doesn’t solve the problem to structure the contract so that I have to pay 7-11 if I buy a Slurpee from them. If that contract works then I don’t buy the Slurpee and 7-11 would be willing to agree to sign a second contract that nullifies the first one in order to sell me a Slurpee.)
These considerations alone don’t imply that it would be socially efficient to substitute a blanket ban on large sugary drinks for the unenforceable contracts. But what they do imply is that it would be efficient for the courts to recognize such a ban if a large enough segment of the population wants it. (And this is no way intended to suggest that one Michael Bloomberg by himself constitutes a large enough segment of the population.)
Imagine a genie which randomly imposes across-the-board budget cuts unless Congress votes to stop them before they happen. This would be a good genie.
Its easy to blame the other side for not coming to an agreement. The genie’s cuts will happen because both sides will blame the other for not reaching an agreement to stop them. This is different than proposing and approving of cuts yourself because you would get the blame for that.
And of course a random genie is blameless.
It’s not a first-best genie. The cuts are random and across the board. But because of the asymmetry of blame they wouldn’t happen otherwise.
Sadly its not even a real genie so the cuts never happen. But Congress and President Obama have now learned how to replicate the genie: impose the cuts on a future congress. From the point of view of the future congress the previous congress is essentially a random genie.
The previous congress, not being an actual genie, nevertheless avoids blame because everyone expects the next Congress to do the sane thing and replace the sequester with something sensible.
All we can hope now is that the current Congress looks at this sequester “debacle” and concludes that in order to make it work as intended the next time the threatened cuts have to be even bigger.
Look at married female academics and whether or not they use their maiden name. See how this depends on
1. Which of the two names comes earlier in the alphabet.
2. Whether their field uses the lexicographic convention of ordering authors names.
It was the way he treated last-second, buzzer-beating three-pointers. Not close shots at the end of a game or shot clock, but half-courters at the end of each of the first three quarters. He seemed to be purposely letting the ball go just a half-second after the buzzer went off, presumably in order to shield his shooting percentage from the one-in-100 shot he was attempting. If the shot missed, no harm all around. If it went in? Then the crowd would go nuts and he’d get a few slaps on the back, even if he wouldn’t earn three points for the scoreboard.
In Baseball, a sacrifice is not scored as an at-bat and this alleviates somewhat the player/team conflict of interest. The coaches should lobby for a separate shooting category “buzzer-beater prayers.” As an aside, check out Kevin Durant’s analysis:
“It depends on what I’m shooting from the field. First quarter if I’m 4-for-4, I let it go. Third quarter if I’m like 10-for-16, or 10-for-17, I might let it go. But if I’m like 8-for-19, I’m going to go ahead and dribble one more second and let that buzzer go off and then throw it up there. So it depends on how the game’s going.”
This seems backward. 100% (4-4) is much bigger than 80% (4/5) whereas the difference between 8 for 19 and 8 for 20 is just 2 percentage points.
We, Jeff and Sandeep, are working with Northwestern Sports to launch what we think is going to be a revolutionary way to sell tickets to sporting events (and someday theatre, concerts, and restaurants…). Starting today it is in effect for two upcoming Mens’ Basketball games: The February 28 game against Ohio State and the March 7 game against Penn State.
We are using a system which could roughly be described as a uniform price multi-unit Dutch Auction. In simpler terms we are setting an initial price and allowing prices to gradually fall until either the game sells out or we hit our target price. Thus we are implementing a form of dynamic pricing but unlike most systems used by other venues our prices are determined by demand not by some mysterious algorithm.
But here is the key feature of our pricing system: as prices fall, you are guaranteed to pay the lowest price you could have got by delaying your purchase. That is, regardless of what price is listed at the time you reserve your seat, the price you will actually pay is the final price.
What that means is that fans have no reason to wait around and watch the price changes and try to time their purchases to get the best possible deal. We take care of that for you.
It also removes another common gripe with dynamic pricing, different people paying different prices for the same seats. Our system is fair: since everyone pays the lowest price, everyone will be paying the same price.
We explain all of the details in the video below. If you have any questions please ask them in the comments and we will try to answer them.
And Go ‘Cats!
Update: Price alerts are now available. You may send email to email@example.com to be notified when prices fall. (And if you just want to know when prices reach some target p, put that in your message.)
The paper doesn’t seem to exist yet but here are slides from talk by Raj Chetty, Emmanual Saez and Lazlo Sander. They randomly altered the incentives for referees at the Journal of Public Economics to see what it takes to get referees to give timely reports. Some referees were offered cash. Some were simply given shorter deadlines with no carrots. Still others were threatened with public shame if they did not submit reports on time. Not surprisingly the threat of humiliation caused many referees to refuse the contract altogether. Perhaps less surprisingly, cash didn’t do much better than simply shortening the deadline. The latter did help a bit.
Kofia krumple: Tobias Schmidt
Here’s a thought I had over a lunch of Mee Goreng and Rojak. As the cost of transportation declines there is a non-monotonic effect on migration. Decreasing transportation costs make it cheaper to visit and discover new places. But for small cost reductions it is still too costly to visit frequently. So if you find a place you like you must migrate there.
For large declines in transportation costs, it becomes cheap to frequently visit the places that you like and you would otherwise want to migrate to. So migration declines.
The same non-monotonic effect can be seen as a function of distance. For any given decline in transportation costs migration to far away destinations increases but migration to nearer destinations declines.
For the vapor mill it means that over time between any two locations you should first see migration increase then decrease. And the switching point from increase to decrease should come later for locations farther apart.
By the way if you would like to see more pictures of delicious food in Singapore you can follow my photo stream. But beware it might make you want to migrate.
In June of 1988 in Sweden it was announced that survivorship benefits, a sort of government provided life insurance paid to a wife whose husband dies, would be discontinued. There was one interesting exception: an unmarried couple with a child together born before the change could take up survivorship insurance if they married before Jan 1 1990. The spike in new marriages in the graph shows the response to this incentive.
That’s the basis for Petra Persson‘s job market paper. Petra points out that the spike is somewhat mysterious because for all of these couples the promise of survivorship insurance wasn’t enough to induce them to marry previously and only when the option was going to disappear did they exercise it.
Of course some of these new marriages were couples that planned eventually to marry (and take up benefits) and who moved their marriage date earlier. But Petra credibly demonstrates that a large proportion of these marriages were marriages that never would have happened had the reform not been announced. What explains those “extra” marriages?
Petra’s theory is that these couples were still uncertain about whether they were a good match and were planning to live together longer before deciding later whether to marry. After the reform was announced this option to wait and see was no longer costless and therefore many of these couples rushed into a marriage that, given enough time, they might have eventually decided against.
There’s an alternative story that fits equally well. Consider a couple where there is no uncertainty at all about whether the match is good: its a bad match and that’s why they are not married. (Or it could be that they are perfectly happy together but just see no value in being legally wed.) This couple optimally plans to wait until the husband is close to death and then (if he hasn’t married somebody else) get married in order to take up survivorship insurance. Now once the reform is announced that option is removed and they re-optimize and marry December 31, 1989. Many of these are extra marriages because if they waited he might die unexpectedly or marry somebody else.
This theory (like Petra’s) also explains some other facts. For example, conditional on the husband not dying shortly after the reform the divorce rate for these marriages was unusually high. And even after controlling for everything a private insurance company would use to assess risk, takeup of the survivorship insurance via marriage is a good predictor of earlier-than-expected death.
I wonder what we could look for in the data to distinguish the two theories.
It’s a great paper and there’s lots more in there, you should definitely take a look. If I were making a list this year (I am not) Petra would definitely be on it. (Check out her paper on information overload.)
“JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) asked more than 2,000 current and former employees to contribute to a settlement with the U.K.’s tax authority over their use of an offshore trust for bonus payments, according to a person briefed on the situation…..
People who used JPMorgan’s trust told the FT they were asked to participate in a so-called blind auction, in which they would volunteer to pay a tax rate of their choosing.
If the auction fails to generate enough money to fund the settlement, people who submitted less than the average bid would be excluded from the deal and face a 52 percent tax rate when the trust’s assets are liquidated, the newspaper said.
People who don’t wish to participate can try to fight the government’s demand, the person briefed on the situation said.”
The rules of the auction are not 100% clear from the article. Taken at face value, there is the possibility of multiple coordination equilibria. If I expect everyone else to contribute a lot but not enough to pay off the tax debt, then I will contribute a lot too to avoid the 52% tax. If I expect everyone to contribute a little, so will I hoping people who decided not to participate or contributed less than the average bid will bear the punishment. Finally, if I expect total contributions to exceed the tax debt, I will contribute zero. Uncertainty about everyone’s willingness to pay, deep pockets etc will generate randomness and perhaps refine equilibria but leave open the possibility of multiplicity. Also, there will be positive probability that the auction does not fully recompense the tax authorities. This is also true in mixed strategy equilibria of the complete information game.
To increase contributions and guarantee success, the auction should specify that everyone who contributes more than the average bid will escape the 52% tax if total contributions are lacking. Then, people will submit more than the average just to be safe. Then, the average expected bid will go up. Then, they’ll submit even more etc.
A monopolist considers whether to disclose some information about its product. The information will affect how the consumer values the product but its impossible to predict in advance how the consumer will react. With probability q the consumer will view it as good news and he would be willing to pay a high price V for the product. But with probability 1-q it will be viewed as bad news and the consumer would only be willing to pay a low price v where 0 < v < V.
The consumer’s reaction to the information is subjective and cannot be observed by the monopolist. That is, after disclosing the information, the monopolist can’t tell whether the consumer’s willingness to pay has risen to V or fallen to v.
In the absence of disclosure, the consumer is uncertain whether his the value is V or v and so his willingness to pay is equal to the expected value of the product, i.e. qV + (1-q)v. This is therefore the price the monopolist can earn.
Supposing that the monopolist can costlessly disclose the information, what would its profits be then? It won’t continue to charge the same price. Because with probability (1-q) the consumer’s willingness to pay has dropped to v and he would refuse to buy at a price of qV +(1-q)v. At that price he will buy only with probability q and since that would be true at any price up to V, the monopolist would do better setting a price of V and earning expected profit qV.
Alternatively he could set a price of v. For sure the consumer would agree to that price (whether his willingness to pay is V or v) and so profits will be v. And since this is the highest price that would be agreed to for sure, v and V are the only prices the monopoly would consider. The choice will depend on which is larger qV or v.
But note that both qV and v are smaller than qV +(1-q)v. Disclosing information lowers monopoly profits and so the information will be kept hidden.
This little model can play a role in the debate about mandatory calorie labeling.
The remaining videos for my Intermediate Microeconomics course have been uploaded for your viewing pleasure. Here’s a sample, and the rest are all at the link.
I’ve decided to lump speed together with all of these other (hypothesized) factors under the general heading of “Floor Stretch”. We’ll use it for an exercise in theoretical sports economics…Whatever it is that truly makes up “Floor Stretch”, it has to be sufficiently valuable that it offsets the lower raw productivity of the smaller players….
Floor Stretch, however, is really a relative function. Having 5 point guards on the floor only stretches the other team if they don’t also have 5 point guards playing. In this sense, what we really care about is the ratio of Floor Stretch between the two teams competing. Theoretically, the Floor Stretch ratio is what the raw productivity must be balanced against in order to determine the best mix of players. This, then, gets us into some classical Game Theory….
I’m too focussed on the election to digest fully. But I got this from Goolsbee’s Twitter feed today – he must be confident?
In 1797 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had completed a new poem Hermann and Dorothea, and he was interested in knowing and publicizing its “true worth.” So he concocted a scheme with his lawyer Mr. Bottiger and wrote this in a letter to his publisher:
I am inclined to offer Mr. Vieweg from Berlin an epic poem, Hermann and Dorothea, which will have approximately 2000 hexameters…. Concerning the royalty we will proceed as follows: I will hand over to Mr. Counsel B6ttiger a sealed note which contains my demand, and I wait for what Mr. Vieweg will suggest to offer for my work. If his offer is lower than my demand, then I take my note back, unopened, and the negotiation is broken. If, however, his offer is higher, then I will not ask for more than what is written in the note to be opened by Mr. Bottiger.
To understand this scheme first consider the alternative scenario where the publisher is told the amount demanded. Then the publisher will say yes or no depending on whether his willingness to pay (the poem’s “true worth”) exceeds or falls short of the demand. But then Goethe would never know exactly the poem’s true worth, just an upper or lower bound for it.
With the demand kept secret, the publisher’s incentives remain the same: he wants to agree to a demand that is below his willingness to pay and refuse a demand that exceeds it. Without knowing what that demand is, there is one and only one way to ensure this. The publisher should offer exactly the poem’s true worth.
Goethe had devised what is apparently the first dominant-strategy incentive compatible truthful revelation mechanism. The Vickrey auction is based on exactly this principle and so Goethe’s mechanism makes for a great starting point for teaching efficient auctions.
The Romney campaign is expanding ad buys beyond the battleground states. Is there a huge swell of enthusiasm so Romney is trying for a blowout or is it a bluff?
The traditional model of political advertizing is the Blotto game. Each candidate can divide up a budget across n states. Each candidate’s probability of winning at a location is increasing in his expenditure and decreasing in the other’s. These models are hard to solve for explicitly. What makes this election unusual is that the usual binding constraint – money – is slack in the battleground states. Instead, full employment of TV ad time and voter exhaustion with ads makes further expenditure unnecessary. But, you can still spend the money on improving your get-out-the-vote operation or to expand your ad buy to other states. Finally, you can send your candidate to a state. Your strategy varies as function of how close the race is.
If the battleground states are increasingly unlikely to be in your column, then a get out the vote strategy will not be enough to tip them back in your favor. Better to try to make some other state close by advertizing and mobilizing there. You must maintain your ad buy though in the battleground states to keep your competitor engaged so that they cannot divert resources themselves.
If the battleground states are close, then a get out the vote operation is quite useful even if ad spending is at its maximum. Better to do that than spend money in other locations where you are way behind.
If you are far ahead in the battleground states, you have to keep on spending there as your competitor is spending there either because he might win or to keep you spending there. But, cash you have sloshing around should be spent “expanding the map”. This gives you more paths to victory and also exerts a negative externality on your opponent, forcing him to divert resources including perhaps the most valuable resource of all, the candidate’s time.
So, you might spend heavily in a state even when you have little chance there. This always has the benefit of diverting your opponent’s attention. This means there is an incentive for a player to invest even if he is far ahead in the battleground states. But there is also an incentive to invest when you are behind as you need more paths to victory and expenditure on getting out the vote is less useful. So, we can’t infer Romentum from the fact that Romney is advertizing in MN and PA.
I think we can make stronger inferences by making a leap of faith and extrapolating this intuition to a state by state analysis. By comparing strategies with public polls, we can try to classify them into the three categories.
NC seems to fall into the first category for President Obama. Romney is ahead according to the polls but it gives the Obama campaign more ways to win and keeps the Romney resources stretched. Romney is roughly as far behind in MI, MN and PA as Obama is in NC. So, they play the same role for Romney as NC does for Obama. Bill Clinton and Joe Biden are campaigning in PA and MN so the Romney strategy has succeeded in diverting resources.
The most scarce resource is candidate time so we can infer a lot from the candidate recent travel and their travel plans. If the race is close in any states it would be crazy to try a diversion strategy as a candidate visit acts like a get out the vote strategy and hence has great benefits when the race is close. The President is campaigning in WI, FL, NV, VA and CO. In fact, both candidates are frequently in FL and VA. NC is a strong state for Romney because, as far as I can tell, he has no plans to visit there and nor does the President. Similarly, I don’t see any Romney pans to visit MI, MN or PA. Also, NV also seems to be out of Romney’s grasp as he has no plans to travel there. It is hard to make inferences about NH as Romney lives there so it is easy to campaign. OH has so many electoral votes that no candidate can afford not to campaign there – again no inferences can be made. Both candidates are in IA.
So, I think the state by state evidence is against Romentum. NC and NV do not seem to be in play. The rest of the battleground states are going to enjoy many candidate visits so they must be close. That’s about all I have!
The bottom line is that Boston fears scared Republicans won’t vote and Chicago fears confident Democrats won’t vote. And so, in this final stretch, Boston wants Republicans confident and Chicago wants Democrats scared. Keep that in mind as you read the spin.
In an patent race, the firm that is just about to pass the point where it wins the race and gets a patent has an incentive to slack off a bit and coast to victory. The competitor who is almost toast has an incentive to slack off as he has little chance of winning. But if the race is close, all firms work hard.
Elections are similar except the campaigns have the information about whether the campaign is close or not and the voters exert the costly effort of voting. Campaigns have an incentive to lie to maximize turnout so the team that’s ahead pretends not to be far ahead and the team that’s behind pretends the race is very close. As Klein says, no-one can believe their spin and no information can be credibly transmitted.
If they really want to influence the election, the campaigns have to take a costly action to attain credibility. For example, they can release internal polling. This gives their statements credibility at the cost of giving their opponent their internal polling data.
What we need to do in this country is make it a softer cushion for failure. Because what they say is the job creators need more tax cuts and they need a bigger payoff on the risk that they take. … But what about the risk of, you’re afraid to leave your job and be an entrepreneur because that’s where your health insurance is? … Why aren’t we able to sell this idea that you don’t have to amplify the payoff of risk to gain success in this country, you need to soften the damage of risk?
I guess there are two effects. First, as Stewart says, insurance against failure, including in the form of health insurance disconnected from a salaried job, encourages more people to become entrepreneurs. This is the occupational choice component. Second, insurance against failure reduces the incentive to work hard. This is the usual trade-off between risk-sharing and incentives in the classical principal-agent moral hazard model. The two effects move in opposite directions so the net effect on welfare is ambiguous (assuming we want more people to be entrepreneurs which is not clear!). As far as I know, the empirical work on the trade off between risk sharing and incentives finds weak support for any tradeoff. It would be nice to have a model to think things through. I assume someone must have written such a model but not sure of the reference.
I remember a commercial for some kind of diet program where that was the tagline. A disembodied hand kept enticing this poor guy with delicious looking food and then taking it away because it was unhealthy and then the voiceover came in with that line and I thought that was so tragic that everything that tastes good had to be bad for you. Like what kind of cruel joke is that?
And it makes no sense from a biological point of view. I should want to eat what’s good for me so that I do eat what’s good for me and avoid what’s bad for me. That’s Mother Nature’s optimal incentive scheme. And once we have evolved to the point that we can think and understand that principle we should be able to infer that whatever tastes good must in fact be good for us. But it’s not!
At the margin it’s not. Indeed the right statement is “If it tastes good then you surely have already had too much of it to the point that any more of it is bad for you.” Because the basic elements in food that we love, namely sugar, salt, and fat, are all not just good for us but pretty much essential for survival. And so of course we are programmed to like those things enough that we are incentivized to consume enough of them to survive.
But the decision whether to eat something is based on costs as well as benefits. Nature programmed our tastes so that we internalize the benefits but it’s up to us to figure out the costs: how abundant is it, how hard is it to acquire, and when it’s sitting there before us how likely is it that we will have a chance to eat it again in the near future. Then we need to weigh the costs and benefits and eat up to the quantity where marginal costs equal marginal benefits.
It’s interesting that Nature put a little price theory to use when she worked all this out. A price is a linear incentive scheme. Every additional unit you buy costs you the same price as the last one. Your taste for food is like a linear subsidy, every unit tastes about as good as the last, at least up to a point. When you face linear incentives like that you consume up to the point where your personal, idiosyncratic marginal cost equals the given marginal benefit. If a planner (like your Mother Nature) wants to get you to equate marginal cost and marginal benefit, a (negative) price is a crude incentive scheme because the true marginal benefits might be varying with quantity but the subsidy makes you act as if its constant.
But that’s ok when the price is set right. The planner just sets the subsidy equal to the marginal benefit at the optimal quantity. Then when you choose that quantity you will in fact be equating marginal cost to the true marginal benefit. That’s a basic pillar of price theory.
So Nature assumed she knew pretty well what the optimal quantity of sugar, salt, and fat are and gave us a taste for those elements that was commensurate with the true marginal benefit at that optimal point. And its pretty much a linear incentive scheme at least in a large neighborhood of the target quantity. Sugar, salt and fat don’t seem to diminish in appeal until we have had quite a lot of it.
The problem is that the optimal quantity depends on both the value function and the cost function. Now the value function, i.e. the health benefits of various consumption levels is probably the same as it has always been. But the cost function has changed a lot. Nature was never expecting Mountain Dew, Potato Chips and Ice Cream. The reduction in marginal cost means that the optimal quantity is higher, but how much higher? That depends on how the shape of the value function at higher quantities. The old linear incentive scheme contains no information at all about that.
But one thing is for sure. If the true marginal benefit is declining, then at higher quantities the linear incentive scheme built into our taste buds overstates the marginal benefit. So when we equate the new marginal cost to the linear price we are doing what is privately optimal for us but what is certainly too high compared to Nature’s optimum. If it tastes good its bad for us we because we have already had too much.
I had just eaten a little plastic carton of yogurt and I tossed it into the recycling bin. She said “That yogurt carton needs to be rinsed before you can recycle it.” And I thought to myself “That can’t be true. First of all, the recyclers are going to clean whatever they get before they start processing it so it would be a waste for me to do it here. Plus, the minuscule welfare gains from recycling this small piece of plastic would be swamped by water, labor, and time costs of rinsing it.” I concluded that, as a matter of policy, I will not rinse my recyclable yogurt containers.
So I replied “Oh yeah you’re right.”
You see, I didn’t want to dig through the recycling bin and rinse that yogurt cup. By telling her that I agree with her general policy, I stood a chance of escaping its mandate in this particular instance. Because knowing that I share her overall objective, she would infer that was that my high private costs of digging through the recycling that dictated against it under these special circumstances. And she would agree with me that letting this exceptional case go was the right decision.
If instead I told her I disagreed with her policy, then she would know that my unwillingness was some mix of private costs and too little weight on the social costs. Even if she internalizes my private costs she would have reason to doubt they were large enough to justify a pass on the digging and rinsing and she might just insist on it.
Lee Crawfurd emails me about events in Sudan. North and South Sudan have agreed to a price at which the North will supply oil to the South. On his blog, Roving Bandit, Lee writes:
So – whilst this seems like a good deal for North Sudan in the short run and a good deal for South Sudan in the long run, my main concern is the hold-up problem. What is stopping North Sudan ripping up the agreement in 3 years, demanding a higher cut, and just confiscating oil (again).
In his email he adds:
As it turns out, the South’s strategy is to resume piping oil through the North, but also to simultaneously build a pipeline through Kenya, giving them an extra option.
The fact that the North can hold up later makes it less likely that the North and South will invest and trade in their relationship now. This makes both the North and South worse off. For this difficulty to be resolved, the North has to be able to commit not to exploit the South in the future. But the Kenyan pipeline gives them this commitment power to some extent: If the North threatens to raise prices, the South can go the Kenya route. This means the North will not raise prices in the future and that is good for trade and the welfare of both parties. Paraphrasing the wrods of the great philosopher Sting, “If Someone Does Not Trust You, Set Them Free“.
One issue is that the South may overinvest in the pipeline to get more bargaining power. That could lead to inefficiency as the North then has bad incentives.
Another classic Williamsonian solution is to use hostages to support exchange. I don’t know enough about North and South Sudan to know what they might transfer that is of little value to the recipient and high value to the donor. This sort of solution has been attempted recently in the US in the debt reduction negotiations. Automatic cuts in defense (bad for Republicans) and entitlement expenditures (bad for Democrats) go into force in January if Republicans and Democrats do not agree in debt negotiations. This has not worked so far. First, this is because there are crazy types who are willing to send the country over the “fiscal cliff”. Second, this is because there is no commitment and the automatic cuts can be delayed by Congress and so they are not real hostages.
My memory is terrible but I vaguely recall papers relating to investment in changing outside options in hold up models. These would be the most relevant to the Sudan scenario.
When you grade exams in a large class you inevitably face the misunderstood question dilemma. A student has given a correct answer to a question but not the question you asked. As an answer to the question you asked it is flat out wrong. How much credit should you give?
It should not be zero. You can make this argument at two levels. First, ex post, the student’s answer reveals some understanding. To award zero points would be to equate this with writing nothing at all. That’s unfair.
You might respond by saying, tough luck, it is my policy not to reward misunderstanding the question. But even ex ante it is optimal to commit to a policy which gives at least partial credit to fortuitous misunderstanding. The only additional constraint at the ex ante stage is incentive compatibility. You don’t want to reward a student who interprets the question in a way that makes it easier and then supplies a correct answer to the easier question.
But you should reward a student who invents a harder question and answers that. And you should make it known in advance that you will do so. Indeed, taken to its limit, the optimal exam policy is to instruct the students to make up their own question and answer it, with harder questions (correctly answered) worth more than easier ones.
Incidentally I was once in a class where a certain professor asked exactly such a question.
Read Gary Shteyngart’s painfully comic post-mortem following a surreal transatlantic flight on American Airlines:
At Heathrow, fire trucks met us because we landed “heavy,” i.e., still full of fuel we never got to spend over the Atlantic. At the terminal, a woman in a spiffy red American Airlines blazer was sent to greet us. But the language she spoke — Martian — was not easily understood, versed as we were in Spanish, English, Russian and Urdu.
Using her Martian language skills, the American Airlines woman proposed to take us “through the border” at Heathrow, for a night of rest before we resumed our journey the next morning. An apocalyptic scenario: an employee of the world’s worst airline assigned to the world’s worst border crossing at the world’s worst airport.
The Martian took us to one immigration lane, which promptly closed. Then another, with the same result. A third, ditto. Despite her blazer, the Martian was obviously not the ally we had made her out to be. So, ducking under security ropes, knocking some down entirely, we rushed the border with our passports held aloft, proclaiming ourselves the citizens of a fading superpower.
There seems to be something going on at American Airlines. As a part of bankruptcy proceedings they are trying to get concessions from the pilot’s union. The pilots appear to have found a clever way to fight back: obey the letter of the contract and in so doing violate its spirit with extreme prejudice:
Long story short, American is totally screwed. What management is discovering right now is that formal contracts can’t fully specify what it is that “doing your job properly” constitutes for an airline pilot. The smooth operation of an airline requires the active cooperation of skilled pilots who are capable of judging when it does and doesn’t make sense to request new parts and who conduct themselves in the spirit of wanting the airline to succeed. By having the judge throw out the pilots’ contract, the airline has totally lost faith with its pilots and has no ability to run the airline properly. It’s still perfectly safe, but if your goal is to get to your destination on time, you simply can’t fly American. The airline is writing checks it can’t cash when it tells you when your flights will be taking off and landing.
Taqiyah tap: Mallesh Pai
The eternal Kevin Bryan writes to me:
Consider an NFL team down 15 who scores very late in the game, as happened twice this weekend. Everybody kicks the extra point in that situation instead of going for two, and is then down 8. But there is no conceivable “value of information” model that can account for this – you are just delaying the resolution of uncertainty (since you will go for two after the next touchdown). Strange indeed.
Let me restate his puzzle. If you are in a contest and success requires costly effort, you want to know the return on effort in order to make the most informed decision. In the situation he describes if you go for the 2-pointer after the first touchdown you will learn something about the return on future effort. If you make the 2 points you will know that another touchdown could win the game. If you fail you will know that you are better off saving your effort (avoiding the risk of injury, getting backups some playing time, etc.)
If instead you kick the extra point and wait until a second touchdown before going for two there is a chance that all that effort is wasted. Avoiding that wasted effort is the value of information.
The upshot is that a decision-maker always wants information to be revealed as soon as possible. But in football there is a separation between management and labor. The coach calls the plays but the players spend the effort. The coach internalizes some but not all of the players’ cost of effort. This can make the value of information negative.
Suppose that both the coach and the players want maximum effort whenever the probability of winning is above some threshold, and no effort when its below. Because the coach internalizes less of the cost of effort, his threshold is lower. That is, if the probability of winning falls into the intermediate range below the players’ threshold and above the coach’s threshold, the coach still wants effort from them but the players give up. Finally, suppose that after the first touchdown the probability of winning is above both thresholds.
Then the coach will optimally choose to delay the resolution of uncertainty. Because going for two is either going to move the probability up or down. Moving it up has no effect since the players are already giving maximum effort. Moving it down runs the risk of it landing in that intermediate area where the players and coach have conflicting incentives. Instead by taking the extra point the coach gets maximum effort for sure.
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have proposed a plan to allow private firms to compete with Medicare to provide healthcare to retirees. Beginning in 2023, all retirees would get a payment from the federal government to choose either Medicare or a private plan. The contribution would be set at the second lowest bid made by any approved plan.
Competition has brought us cheap high definition TVs, personal computers and other electronic goods but it won’t give us cheap healthcare. The healthcare market is complex because some individuals are more likely to require healthcare than others. The first point is that as firms target their plans to the healthy, competition is more likely to increase costs than lower them. David Cutler and Peter Orzag have made this argument. But there is a second point: the same factors that lead to higher healthcare costs also work against competition between Medicare and private plans. Unlike producers of HDTVs, private plans will not cut prices to attract more consumers so competition will not reduce the price of Medicare. A simple example exposes the logic of these two arguments.
Suppose there are two couples, Harry and Louise and Larry and Harriet. Harry and Louise have a healthy lifestyle and won’t need much healthcare but Larry and Harriet are unhealthy and are likely to require costly treatments in the future. Let’s say the Medicare price is $25,000/head as this gives Medicare “zero profits”. Harry and Louise incur much lower costs than this and Larry and Harriet much higher. Therefore, at the federal contribution, private plans make a profit if they insure Harry and Louise and a loss if they insure Larry and Harriet. So, private providers will insure the former and reject the latter. Or their plans deliberately exclude medical treatments that Larry and Harriet might need to discourage them from joining. The overall effect will be to increase healthcare costs. This is because Harry and Louise get premium support of $50,00 total that is greater than the healthcare costs they incur now so they impose higher costs on the federal government than they do currently. Larry and Harriet will be excluded by the private plans and will get coverage from Medicare. This will cost more than $50,000 total so there will be no cost savings from them either. Total costs will be higher than $100,00 as surplus is being handed over to Harry and Louise and their insurance companies.
To deal with this cream-skimming, we might regulate the marketplace. It might seem to make sense to require open enrollment to all private plans and stipulate that all plans at a minimum have the same benefits as the traditional Medicare plan. Indeed, the Romney/Ryan plan includes these two regulations. But this just creates a new problem.
Suppose the Medicare plan and all the private plans are being sold at the same price. The private plans target marketing at healthy individuals like Harry and Louise and include benefits such as “free” gym membership that are more likely to appeal to them. Hence, they still cream-skim to some extent and achieve a better selection of participants than the traditional public option. (This is actually the kind of thing that happens in the current Medicare Advantage system. Sarah Kliff has an article about it and Mark Duggan et al have an academic working paper studying Medicare Advantage in some detail.) So total healthcare costs will again be higher than in the traditional Medicare system.
But there is an additional effect. Traditional competitive analysis would predict that one private plan or another will undercut the other plans to get more sales and make more profits. This is the process that gives us cheap HDTVs. The hope is that similar price competition should reduce the costs of healthcare. Unfortunately, competition will not work in this way in the healthcare market because of adverse selection.
Going back to our story, if one plan is cheaper than the others priced at say $20,000, it will attract huge interest, both from healthy Harry and Louise but also from unhealthy Larry and Harriet. After all, by law, it must offer the same minimum basket of benefits as all the other plans. So everyone will want to choose the cheaper plan because they get same minimum benefits anyway. Also by law, the plan must accept everyone who applies including Larry and Harriet. So, while the cheapest plan will get lots of demand, it will attract unhealthy individuals whom the insurer would prefer to exclude – this is adverse selection. Insurers get a better shot at excluding Larry and Harriet if they keep their price high and dump them on Medicare. This means profits of private plans might actually be higher if the price is kept high and equal to the other plans and the business strategy focused on ensuring good selection rather than low prices. An HDTV producer doesn’t face any strange incentives like this– for them a sale is a sale and there is no threat of future costs from bad selection.
So, adverse selection prevents the kind of competition that lowers prices. The invisible hand of the market cannot reduce costs of provision by replacing the visible hand of the government.