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A division in a company, division A,  is trying to find talented people. They have a number of positions to fill and they can fill them now or wait to find better candidates. Once a position is filled, it is hard to terminate employment for a few periods at least. The profits of the division depend both on the quantity and quality of the people employed.

This system creates an option value to waiting. Given its payoff function, the division has a quality bar for hiring. The quality bar depends on the number of unfilled slots. It leaves some slots empty deliberately to capitalize on option value. There is another threshold for firing, also with an important option value component in its determination.

A CEO is hired to build value. He is focussed on the short term. For him, unused resources mean lower output – the quality is less important. So he starts allocating resources across divisions. If a division has unused resources or positions, the CEO gives them to another division if they can come up with a candidate that passes their bar.

Let’s assume the divisions have private values – they put zero value on the other division’s success. (Microsoft recently reorganized itself because different parts of the company were at war with each other.)

For each division, the option value of an empty slot declines – it can now be filled by someone from the other division. The incentives are obvious – both divisions lower their standards for hiring and firing. There is a race to the bottom.

Counterintuitive effects arise if there are common values – each division takes the other’s success into account. Suppose division A’s standards for hiring are originally higher than division B’s. Division A faces much the same incentives as in the case of private values – it will lower standards to pre-empt slot reallocation to division B. But division B, since it now wants to prevent the decline of division A, will raise standards so the principal will not give it division A slots. The fact that this seems so implausible argues in favor of private values.

In any case, even in the case of common values, the divisions’ equilibrium response to principal short termism will not achieve the first best. A better strategy is to reallocate slots between divisions ex ante. The reallocation should reflect the principal’s payoff function as well as those of the divisions. Then, let the divisions make their own decisions on hiring and firing.


Just went to a talk by Jesse Shapiro where he gave an overview his work on the media, much of it joint with Matt Gentzkow. One theme is that competing newspapers with different party affiliations generate more information for the electorate. How fitting to return to my office and find this Guardian discussion (by Howard Reed) on FT takedown  of Piketty (by Chris Giles).  Main issue is that FT did not account for differences in way wealth is measured across separate series which are then merged into one time series:

To summarise, Chris Giles’s investigation of Piketty’s data has uncovered some errors and inconsistencies which Piketty will hopefully address in future work. This shows the importance of quality assurance and third party checking of all results from statistical analysis – particularly when they involve spreadsheets, where it is very easy to make errors.

However, Giles then goes on to make a very serious error of his own in handling the UK data: he treats changes in the way wealth inequality is measured over the decades as if they were real changes in the underlying distribution of wealth. This error leads him to the misleading conclusion that wealth inequality fell in the UK between 1980 and 2010, whereas in fact it has increased (although not by quite as much as Piketty’s published results would suggest).

In some ways, the Guardian discussion is even clearer than Piketty’s own response today. This reflects the universal truth that (good) referees and discussants can often explain your paper better than you can yourself.

But this all leaves one question unanswered: When is Piketty going to respond to Debraj? He disputed Piketty’s theory not his data.

Finally, a review I can understand. Here’s one simple but good bit:

The rate of return on capital tracks the level of capital income, and not its growth. If you have a million dollars in wealth, and the rate of return on capital is 5%, then your capital income is $50,000. Level, not growth. On the other hand, g tracks the growth of average income, not its level. For instance, if average income is $100,000 and the growth rate is 3%, then the increase in your income is $3000. Saying that r > g implies that capital income will grow faster than labor income is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. 

To make the point clear, I’m going to expand upon this argument in two ways. First, let us look at a situation in which the argument apparently holds. Suppose that capital holders save all their income. Then r not only tracks the level of capital income, it truly tracks the rate of growth of that income as well, and then it is indeed the case that capital income will come to dominate overall income, whenever r > g. But the source of that domination isn’t r > g. It is the assumption that capital income owners save a higher fraction of their income! 

Debraj adds his own sobering thoughts on technological progress and inequality at the end of his review.

From the AEA citation:

Matthew Gentzkow has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the economic forces driving the creation of media products, the changing nature and role of media in the digital environment, and the effect of media on education and civic engagement. He has thus emerged as a leader in a new generation of microeconomists applying economic methods to analyze questions that were historically analyzed by non-economists. His empirical work combines novel data, innovative identification strategies and careful empirical methods to answer questions at the interface of economics, political science, and sociology.  This work is complemented by significant theoretical work on information, communication, and persuasion.  Gentzkow, both on his own and in collaboration with his frequent co-author, Jesse Shapiro, has played a primary role in establishing a new and extremely promising empirical literature on the economics of the news media.

I think of Matt’s work as straddling political economy and industrial organization. The latter area is extremely mature and yet Matt, often with Jesse Shapiro, has made extremely original contributions with a focus on the media. (I note that he has produced interesting papers on brand preferences more recently, closer to traditional IO concerns.)

I am most familiar with his work on media bias and reputation (JPE, 2006). Consumers want to take an action that fits the state of the world. They have some prior distribution over the states. The media can produce a signal that potentially informs this decision. The consumers are also trying to assess the quality of the media as well as take optimal actions. That is, there is a second dimension of uncertainty over the “type” of the media. If the media’s signal has low probability given the consumers’ prior, they will infer the media is bad quality. Hence, there is an incentive for the media to lie or “spin” to fit the prior of the consumers. There are many other results but this key logic underlies all of them. The model uses differing priors which is a non-standard assumption. It is non-standard as it may not yield a tractable model or crisp, falsifiable results (among other more philosophical reasons). But Gentzkow and Shapiro show that it is possible to handle such a setting.

I am less qualified to judge empirical work but I did see Matt and Jesse’s paper on ideological separation on the internet. Cass Sunnstein has claimed that the internet has created polarization of opinions as people just go to websites that fit their ideological preferences. Using data on internet use, reporting of ideological preferences, and measures of media bias of a site based on fraction of conservatives and liberals visiting the site, Gentzkow and Shapiro calculate conservative exposure of conservatives and liberal. The difference is a measure of isolation. This number is surprisingly low.

Finally, Kamenica and Gentzkow have introduced a new kind of principal-agent/receiver-sender into economic theory. The receiver’s (e.g. a judge or jury) action depends on the state of the world. The sender (e.g. a prosecutor) has his own preferences and chooses an information structure, i.e. a distribution of signals as a function of the state, to influence the receiver. They show that the sender will deliberately choose a noisy signal structure to persuade the receiver. For example, the prosecutor may choose an investigation that deliberately delivers guilty signals for innocent defendants. If this probability is low compared to the probability of guilty signals for guilty defendants, the judge will convict any defendant for whom there is a guilty signal, even though the defendant might be innocent. If the prosecutor wants to maximize the rate of conviction, by using noisy signals, we can achieve a higher conviction rate than with perfect signals. This paper has stimulated research on “Bayesian persuasion”.

All this work is quite original and quite sophisticated. The AEA is right in concluding:

His work is creative without sacrificing quality.   He has established himself as a role model in both substance and execution.

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.

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