Economics made fun

Yes, really. Economics Made Fun: Philosophy of Pop Economics edited by N Emrah Aydinonat and Jack Vromen is a collection of essays (previously published in the Journal of Economic Methodology) exploring the phenomenon of popular economics books. I have a short chapter in it, and along with Robert Frank represent the defenders of popularising economics.

It’s fair to say most of the other contributors are critical, largely because they don’t like the version of economics that is being popularised. I’m not wild about all of it myself, particularly the Freakonomics version, which is often broader quantitative social science rather than economics, and does do Chicago-style economic imperialism/reductionism to the exclusion of all else.

In his essay Emrah Aydinonat also argues that the genre over-simplifies the research on which it’s based to a misleading extent, using the example of Peltzman’s research on the effect of compulsory seatbelts. The ‘fun’ version is that seatbelts encourage more reckless driving so might not save lives. Aydinonat suggests that a reading of the Peltzman paper indicates that this conclusion requires strong assumptions and rests on flawed data – it is a controversial paper.

This is interesting, but popularising necessarily requires simplification. I think the Peltzman example is a useful way to flag up the fact that regulations can and often do change behaviour, although of course it should be used carefully. And I don’t think many Freakonimists actually argue for abolishing seat belt laws, so they implicitly recognise this.

Anyway, as a populariser, I found these essays a bracing read; they won’t stop me trying to communicate economic research to the wider public. (And of course lots of thoroughly mainstream academic economists look down on popularising too!)

As social scientists, and particularly influential in public policy, it’s our responsibility to do so.


Designing markets

One of the (many) things I like about market design is the name. It’s a reminder that markets are social institutions too, and that there is a wide spectrum of ways of organising the allocation of resources. So often only the two extremes are discussed: ‘free’ markets (dependent only on property law and contract enforcement – oh, and social norms and culture, and infrastructure, and standards and…. but I digress); and ‘the state’ (with its benign and omniscient ability to analyse market failures and tell people what to do so they are fixed…. oh, wait).

Al Roth’s new book describing his career’s worth of market design, culminating in his Nobel prize with Lloyd Shapley, is a truly excellent overview of the subject. Who Gets What and Why: the hidden world of matchmaking and market design is a very clear and non-technical description of what can cause markets to malfunction, and how to make them do a better job of matching up supply and demand. It includes the work for which he is most famous, on designing an exchange  to enable the matching of kidney donors and recipients, where no money changes hands in the market-like process.

The first section is a warm-up describing the pervasiveness and importance of markets, and some of the problems market design addresses. The second and third sections are the meat in the sandwich. Roth first of all explains why some markets will collapse, with many examples. The fundamental need is for a ‘thick’ market with plenty of buyers and sellers, in which people have enough time to make their decision, but neither the need nor the opportunity to act strategically. The problems are therefore: incentives to jump the gun ahead of most people in the market – which causes everyone to try & do so once somebody does; trades that occur too fast so people on the slower side of the market cannot make good decisions; rules that cause people to have to devise strategies other than expressing their true preferences; and ‘goldilocks’ communications between participants, not too fast/frequent and not too slow. The following section sets out market design solutions to each kind of problem.

For example, the ‘too soon’ problem featured in the market for first jobs for junior doctors in the US, as 2nd tier hospitals would make earlier and earlier binding and exploding offers to medical students – exploding meaning the candidate had as little as half an hour to say yes before the offer expired. They wanted to make sure they had the best students, but the good students faced the dilemma of a sure job versus the chance of a job at a competitive but better hospital. Attempts to reform the system always foundered on a lack of trust between hospitals. The solution was the famous ‘deferred acceptance’ algorithm run by a central clearing house: it ensures offers can be held until it is clear each student will not get a better one. Every hospital and every student gets their best possible match given everyone’s preferences.

The ‘too fast’ example is high frequency trading, where the millisecond speed means the market is actually thin at each moment. The proposed solution – not yet adopted by regulators – is to insist that all trades occur together once every second.

Matching students to schools is the example of a system that forced strategic behaviour under the old rules in New York and Boston, where Roth’s solutions have been implemented. Parents had to decide disguise their real preferences to reflect the fact that certain schools would only take pupils who had put them as first choice, and that some were so popular that the 2nd or 3rd choice had to reflect a realistic ‘insurance’ option. The deferred acceptance algorithm, with adjustments to reflect policies such as a sibling rule, was again the solution, making it safe to express true preferences.

The later chapters of the book cover other issues, among them signalling, and repugnant markets. Roth also emphasises two important factors: the role of culture in shaping how markets work (gastroenterologists vs orthopedic surgeons have sufficiently different professional cultures that their matching markets needed to be set up differently); and the need to work alongside politicians who might not take every bit of the economists’ advice. The context changes too, calling for redesigns – for example, the medical student matching market needed to be updated when more couples started looking for jobs in the same city.

Who Gets What and Why has jumped to near the top of my list of books to recommend to students and non-economists to help explain (a) what a lot of economists actually do when they get involved in public policy and (b) why the standard political debate about ‘free markets versus government intervention’ is so utterly inadequate and misleading. Highly recommended.

Public goods and private profit

As I prepare my lecture notes for the coming semester, covering the typology of types of goods and market failures, it has become ever clearer that a lot of new digital goods and services have all the features of public goods and then some. This article in The Awl (courtesy of Azeem Azhar’s The Exponential View) about Uber/Lyft as a privatized public transport system  – for the affluent –  seems to fit into the theme, albeit not as pure an example as a search engine, say. Anyway, it seem to me that the traditional 4-way classification of goods along the rivalry/excludability axes needs to be expanded – it would have a super-rivalrous line for positional goods, and a super-non-rivalrous line for network goods.

The article cites an excellent book, Martin Gilens’ Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, which is an empirical study of the way political decisions have come to be shaped in the interests of the rich. However, Azeem tweeted me:

@diane1859 Uber might be the only way America gets anything resembling broad based ‘public transport’, with Uber collecting the tax…
30/08/2015 13:42

Of course there is also government failure, and America has plenty of it. And certainly the private sector can provide some public goods; but of course under-provides them and rarely cares about universality, the characteristic that ties together different people in a single political and cultural community. Universality is too often under-valued, especially by those for whom economic efficiency is everything.

It’s the culture, stupid

Bill Clinton of course said, It’s the economy, stupid. But this week I heard a fantastic reminder that culture trumps everything. My nephew, who works in Nairobi, came to dinner this week & told a story about when he was developing an app to teach personal finance. His script said: There are two things you can do with your money. You can spend it or you can save it.

The boss took him aside and said, Actually, you know there are three things you can do with your money. You can spend it, you can save it, or you can share it.

Our chastened nephew re-wrote his script.

Which is a good opportunity to big up a terrific book about poor people and their money, Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day. I love this book because it is based on asking poor people about how they use money, and what services they would like. Above all, the answer is secure savings.

Other people’s money

Catching up with post-holiday stuff has slowed me down, but I finished John Kay’s new book, Other People’s Money: Masters of the Universe or Servants of the People? on a flight back from his native Edinburgh yesterday. It is characteristically excellent, drawing the main threads out of the complexities of modern financial history and the post-crisis consequences, and writing with beautiful clarity and style. It’s up there  with John Lanchester’s Whoops! as a guide to understanding what has happened in finance. I agreed with every word. I don’t suppose he’d want the job, but it would be marvellous if we could put John in as Chancellor to sort things out.

The book tells the story of the financialisation of the British and global economies in its first section, and the transition from relationship-based financial services focused on customers and the real economy to transactional and trading-based financial entities.This progressive shift in behaviour, values and institutions affected the whole of the corporate sector. The book offers a telling contrast between the 1987 and 1994 annual reports of ICI:

“ICI aims to be the world’s leading chemical company, servicing customers internationally through the innovative and responsible application of chemistry and related science. Through achievement of our aim we will enhance the wealth and well-being of our shareholders, our employees, our customers and the communities which we serve and in which we operate.”


“Our objective is to maximise value for our shareholders by focusing on businesses where we have market leadership, a technological edge and a world competitive cost base.”

This has happened across the whole of the business sector throughout the west. It’s tragic. Risk taking at the expense of others, bonus culture, income inequality, short termism, declining business investment, overly-detailed regulation having utterly adverse consequences, and the taxpayer still in line to prop up the whole edifice if – or rather when – the financial sector gets hit by another tail risk it can’t cope with. As Kay underlines, and as Admati and Hellwig pointed out so clearly, and even Alan Greenspan now admits, the banks have far, far too little equity capital and too much leverage. The summary here of Deutsche Bank’s balance sheet is terrifying.

The book is particularly clear about the inadequacy of banks’ current levels of shareholder capital vs debt on their balance sheets, and the nonsense of the Basel risk weightings, and banks’ claiming they can achieve 15% return on equity – always done by reducing the amount of equity in the denominator. Kay writes: “Return on equity is an inappropriate performance metric for any company, but especially for a bank; and it is bizarre that its use should have been championed by people who profess particular expertise in financial and risk management.” Bizarre, or perhaps just cynical.

So what to do about it? Especially as financial markets start displaying the kind of declines that could, potentially, wipe out a frail bank’s mimimal equity? The book has good answers. Kay starts with a set of principles for reform, including shorter chains of intermediation before the final customers, more focused and specialist financial institutions, a prioritisation and demonstration that the financial institution has its clients’ interests at heart (hello, Goldman Sachs), criminal and civil penalities applied to individuals (not fines on institutions), simpler regulation. Above all, politicians should abandon the illusion that the finance sector is special compared to other sectors of business. After all, the numbers don’t make sense; it has certainly not contributed as much to the economy as is claimed, and is not financing industry or serving the needs of investors.

In detail, the book favours structural remedies, not more and more regulation of behaviour – that is an arms race between banks and regulators that the former, with their ability to extract vast rents and hire lawyers/lobbyists will always win. Kay sees ring fencing of retail activities from investment banking as a ‘first step’. I agree: the too-big-to-fail-subsidy will always be too big for as long as there are any links. There needs to be a structural separation, and deposit guarantees only for utility retail/small business banking. He also puts great weight on individual civil and criminal responsibility.

Towards the end of the book comes one of many eye-popping quotations from Goldmans executives:

Sen C Levin (D, Michigan): When you heard that your employees in these emails and looking at these deals said, “God, what a shitty deal!)… do you feel anything?

Mr D.A.Viniar (CFO, Goldman Sachs): I think that is very unfortunate to have on email.

No wonder Kay concludes: “The finance sector of modern western economies is too large.” Spot on. It takes too many of the best graduates, distorts pay across the corporate sector, fails to innovate on behalf of its customers, and exposes taxpayers to unsupportable risks. Financial conglomerates need to be broken up, banks need to hold much higher levels of equity capital.

Financialisation has even damaged unfairly the standing of the role of markets (and economics): “The intellectual misconception behind the thought that prosperity might be enhanced by trade in baseball cards has been associated with an economic model that misunderstands the (important) role that markets play in enabling complex modern economies to manage information,” Kay writes. Prices are important signals – just not the prices on the trading room screens.

Shrinking the finance sector takes the book in its final pages to the influence of money and lobbying on politics. Which politicians are going to serve the people instead of the masters of the universe? Unfortunately I haven’t heard even the Labour leadership candidate my Tory best friend has renamed “The Gift that Keeps on Giving” addressing this. As for the American system, utterly bought by big money, beyond hope.

Meanwhile, I hope lots of people will read Other People’s Money and then send it on to their elected representative with suitable passages highlighted, saying – if you want my vote next time, act on this.