Tim Harford The Undercover Economist
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Undercover Economist

Monopoly is a bureaucrat’s friend but a democrat’s foe

The challenges from smaller competitors spur the innovations that matter

“It takes a heap of Harberger triangles to fill an Okun gap,” wrote James Tobin in 1977, four years before winning the Nobel Prize in economics. He meant that the big issue in economics was not battling against monopolists but preventing recessions and promoting recovery.

After the misery of recent years, nobody can doubt that preventing recessions and promoting recovery would have been a very good idea. But economists should be able to think about more than one thing at once. What if monopoly matters, too?

The Harberger triangle is the loss to society as monopolists raise their prices, and it is named after Arnold Harberger, who 60 years ago discovered that the costs of monopoly were about 0.1 per cent of US gross domestic product – a few billion dollars these days, much less than expected and much less than a recession.

Professor Harberger’s discovery helped build a consensus that competition authorities could relax about the power of big business. But have we relaxed too much?

Large companies are all around us. We buy our mid-morning coffee from global brands such as Starbucks, use petrol from Exxon or Shell, listen to music purchased from a conglomerate such as Sony (via Apple’s iTunes), boot up a computer that runs Microsoft on an Intel processor. Crucial utilities – water, power, heating, internet and telephone – are supplied by a few dominant groups, with baffling contracts damping any competition.

Of course, not all large businesses have monopoly power. Tesco, the monarch of British food retailing, has found discount competitors chopping up its throne to use as kindling. Apple and Google are supplanting Microsoft. And even where market power is real, Prof Harberger’s point was that it may matter less than we think. But his influential analysis focused on monopoly pricing. We now know there are many other ways in which dominant businesses can harm us.

In 1989 the Beer Orders shook up a British pub industry controlled by six brewers. The hope was that more competition would lead to more and cheaper beer. It did not. The price of beer rose. Yet so did the quality of pubs. Where once every pub had offered rubbery sandwiches and stinking urinals, suddenly there were sports bars, candlelit gastropubs and other options. There is more to competition than lower prices.

Monopolists can sometimes use their scale and cash flow to produce real innovations – the glory years of Bell Labs come to mind. But the ferocious cut and thrust of smaller competitors seems a more reliable way to produce many of the everyday innovations that matter.

That cut and thrust is no longer so cutting or thrusting as once it was. “The business sector of the US economy is ageing,” says a Brookings research paper. It is a trend found across regions and industries, as incumbent players enjoy entrenched advantages. “The rate of business start-ups and the pace of employment dynamism in the US economy has fallen over recent decades . . . This downward trend accelerated after 2000,” adds a survey in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

That means higher prices and less innovation, but perhaps the game is broader still. The continuing debate in the US over “net neutrality” is really an argument about the least damaging way to regulate the conduct of cable companies that hold local monopolies. If customers had real choice over their internet service provider, net neutrality rules would be needed only as a backstop.

As the debate reminds us, large companies enjoy power as lobbyists. When they are monopolists, the incentive to lobby increases because the gains from convenient new rules and laws accrue solely to them. Monopolies are no friend of a healthy democracy.

They are, alas, often the friend of government bureaucracies. This is not just a case of corruption but also about what is convenient and comprehensible to a politician or civil servant. If they want something done about climate change, they have a chat with the oil companies. Obesity is a problem to be discussed with the likes of McDonald’s. If anything on the internet makes a politician feel sad, from alleged copyright infringement to “the right to be forgotten”, there is now a one-stop shop to sort it all out: Google.

Politicians feel this is a sensible, almost convivial, way to do business – but neither the problems in question nor the goal of vigorous competition are resolved as a result.

One has only to consider the way the financial crisis has played out. The emergency response involved propping up big institutions and ramming through mergers; hardly a long-term solution to the problem of “too big to fail”. Even if smaller banks do not guarantee a more stable financial system, entrepreneurs and consumers would profit from more pluralistic competition for their business.

No policy can guarantee innovation, financial stability, sharper focus on social problems, healthier democracies, higher quality and lower prices. But assertive competition policy would improve our odds, whether through helping consumers to make empowered choices, splitting up large corporations or blocking megamergers. Such structural approaches are more effective than looking over the shoulders of giant corporations and nagging them; they should be a trusted tool of government rather than a last resort.

As human freedoms go, the freedom to take your custom elsewhere is not a grand or noble one – but neither is it one that we should abandon without a fight.

Also published at ft.com.

Undercover Economist

Pity the robot drivers snarled in a human moral maze

Robotic cars do not get tired, drunk or angry but there are bound to be hiccups, says Tim Harford

Last Wednesday Vince Cable, the UK business secretary, invited British cities to express their interest in being used as testing grounds for driverless cars. The hope is that the UK will gain an edge in this promising new industry. (German autonomous cars were being tested on German, French and Danish public roads 20 years ago, so the time is surely ripe for the UK to leap into a position of technological leadership.)

On Tuesday, a very different motoring story was in the news. Mark Slater, a lorry driver, was convicted of murdering Trevor Allen. He had lost his temper and deliberately driven a 17 tonne lorry over Mr Allen’s head. It is a striking juxtaposition.

The idea of cars that drive themselves is unsettling, but with drivers like Slater at large, the age of the driverless car cannot come quickly enough.

But the question of how safe robotic cars are, or might become, is rather different from the question of the risks of a computer-guided car are perceived, and how they might be repackaged by regulators, insurers and the courts.

On the first question, it is highly likely that a computer will one day do a better, safer, more courteous job of driving than you can. It is too early to be certain of that, because serious accidents are rare. An early benchmark for Google’s famous driverless car programme was to complete 100,000 miles driving on public roads – but American drivers in general only kill someone every 100m miles.

Still, the safety record so far seems good, and computers have some obvious advantages. They do not get tired, drunk or angry. They are absurdly patient in the face of wobbly cyclists, learner drivers and road hogs.

But there are bound to be hiccups. While researching this article my Google browser froze up while trying to read a Google blog post hosted on a Google blogging platform. Two seconds later the problem had been solved, but at 60 miles per hour two seconds is more than 50 metres. One hopes that Google-driven cars will be more reliable when it comes to the more literal type of crash.

Yet the exponential progress of cheaper, faster computers with deeper databases of experience will probably guarantee success eventually. In a simpler world, that would be the end of it.

Reality is knottier. When a car knocks over a pedestrian, who is to blame? Our answer depends not only on particular circumstances but on social norms. In the US in the 1920s, the booming car industry found itself under pressure as pedestrian deaths mounted. One response was to popularise the word “jaywalking” as a term of ridicule for bumpkins who had no idea how to cross a street. Social norms changed, laws followed, and soon enough the default assumption was that pedestrians had no business being in the road. If they were killed they had only themselves to blame.

We should prepare ourselves for a similar battle over robot drivers. Assume that driverless cars are provably safer. When a human driver collides with a robo-car, where will our knee-jerk sympathies lie? Will we blame the robot for not spotting the human idiosyncrasies? Or the person for being so arrogant as to think he could drive without an autopilot?

When such questions arrive in the courts, as they surely will, robotic cars have a serious handicap. When they err, the error can be tracked back to a deep-pocketed manufacturer. It is quite conceivable that Google, Mercedes or Volvo might produce a robo-car that could avoid 90 per cent of the accidents that would befall a human driver, and yet be bankrupted by the legal cases arising from the 10 per cent that remained. The sensible benchmark for robo-drivers would be “better than human”, but the courts may punish them for being less than perfect.

There are deep waters here. How much space is enough when overtaking a slow vehicle – and is it legitimate for the answer to change when running late? When a child chases a ball out into the road, is it better to swerve into the path of an oncoming car, or on to the pavement where the child’s parents are standing, or not to swerve at all?

These are hardly thought of as ethical questions because human drivers make them intuitively and in an instant. But a computer’s priorities must be guided by its programmers, who have plenty of time to weigh up the tough ethical choices.

In 1967 Philippa Foot, one of Oxford’s great moral philosophers, posed a thought experiment that she called the “trolley problem”. A runaway railway trolley is about to kill five people, but by flipping the points, you can redirect it down a line where it will instead kill one. Which is the right course of action? It is a rich seam for ethical discourse, with many interesting variants. But surely Foot did not imagine that the trolley problem would have to be answered one way or another and wired into the priorities of computer chauffeurs – or that lawyers would second-guess those priorities in court in the wake of an accident.

Then there is the question of who opts for a driverless car. Sir David Spiegelhalter, a risk expert at Cambridge university, points out that most drivers are extremely safe. Most accidents are caused by a few idiots, and it is precisely those idiots, Sir David speculates, who are least likely to cede control to a computer.

Perhaps driverless cars will be held back by a tangle of social, legal and regulatory stubbornness. Or perhaps human drivers will one day be banned, or prohibitively expensive to insure. It is anyone’s guess, because while driving is no longer the sole preserve of meatsacks such as you and me, the question of what we fear and why we fear it remains profoundly, quirkily human.

Also published at ft.com.

Undercover Economist

When crime stops paying

To an economist, tougher sentencing in the wake of the 2011 riots offers a fascinating natural experiment

The third anniversary of the 2011 London riots is this week. They erupted so suddenly and spread so quickly across the capital and to other English cities that at the time the disintegration of British society seemed, if unlikely, at least conceivable. In the rear-view mirror, though, the riots are eclipsed by the London Olympics and much diminished by the passage of time.

For parochial reasons, the riots remain vivid to me. My son was born in Hackney just a few days before they started. As violence flared a couple of streets away to the south and to the north of us, my wife and son slept while I stood on the doorstep of our home and watched as a pair of helicopters droned directly overhead.

A year after the riots I wrote a column pointing out that they were essentially random events. They had a cause, of course. The spark was the shooting of Mark Duggan by the Metropolitan Police, and one source of fuel was the perception that police stop-and-search powers were being used crassly and with a racial bias. Yet similar grievances have emerged at other times and in other places without provoking mass civil unrest. Chance plays a major element in such stories.

The criminal justice system responded sharply to the riots. More than 1,000 suspected rioters were charged by the Metropolitan Police during the first week of trouble, and over the same time period more than 800 of them made a first appearance in court. By September 2012, 4,600 people had been arrested, out of about 13,000-15,000 people who are believed to have participated in the trouble in some way. Given the initial sense of impunity, that is a high rate of unwelcome police attention.

More striking was the way in which judges handed out sentences as though they were on steroids. Two people were sentenced to four years in prison each for Facebook postings inviting others to run amok in Cheshire, an unlikely location for a revolutionary uprising. Nobody showed up to “smash dwn in Northwich town” or “riot in Latchford”, so the sentences raised eyebrows. So did the 10-month sentence handed out to a teenager who carried two left-footed trainers out of a shop in Wolverhampton. She thought better of it and immediately dropped them – surely one of the most short-lived thefts in history. Sentences were, in general, more severe than normal. The thinking behind all this was that the true crime that needed to be punished was not theft or incitement but participation in a moment of grave civil peril.

Were these sentences an essential crisis response or a draconian overreaction? To an economist, they are something else: a fascinating natural experiment. With the news full of crushing punishments, it must have seemed plausible that the risks of committing a crime had soared. So did the threat of harsh punishments deter crime?

The usual statistical problem is that sentencing policy might influence crime rates but crime rates might equally influence sentencing policy. Cause and effect are hard to disentangle. In the case of the riots, however, the surge in crime that provoked the crackdown was sudden, unexpected, highly localised and brief. The sentencing response was drawn-out and stories of harsh sentences appeared in the national and London press for months.

. . .

As a result, a mugger or burglar in an area of London entirely unaffected by the riots might still feel conscious that the mood of the judiciary had changed. Three economists, Brian Bell, Laura Jaitman and Stephen Machin, used this sudden change in the judicial wind to measure the impact of tough sentences on crime. Across London, they found a significant drop in “riot crimes” – burglary, criminal damage and violence against the person – over the six months following the riots. Meanwhile, other crimes showed a tendency to increase, as though criminals were substituting away from the “expensive” crimes and towards the “cheaper” ones.

This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. (I wrote an entire book, The Logic of Life, arguing that the most unlikely people in the most unlikely circumstances turn out to be greatly influenced by simple incentives.) But it’s a useful result because rigorous evidence on such matters is hard to find.

One of my favourite exceptions is an article by two economists, Jonathan Klick and Alex Tabarrok, who examined the impact of periodic terrorism alerts in Washington DC in the couple of years following the attacks of September 11 2001. Whenever alert levels were raised, police officers flooded sensitive locations, most of which (such as the White House and the Capitol) are on or near the National Mall.

Over the 16 months studied, the Mall and surrounding district experienced about 8,500 crimes, often theft from or of cars, not really al-Qaeda territory. Klick and Tabarrok argued that the occasional surges in police numbers were not caused by car thefts but did successfully deter them.

There may well be cheaper, more effective and more humane ways to reduce the crime rate.

But such studies have helped to build confidence that the world isn’t an entirely irrational place. Raise the costs of crime and criminals will respond.

Also published at ft.com.

Undercover Economist

Why tax systems are trickier than Martian algebra

Only radical restructuring has a chance of creating fair taxation, writes Tim Harford

Tax is a divisive subject but everyone seems to agree on one point: taxes are too complicated and should be simpler. Unfortunately, tax systems did not receive the memo.

In the UK only a few years ago, almost everyone in work used to be taxed at a marginal rate of either 31 per cent or 41 per cent, depending on how much they earned. (If Brits do not recognise those numbers, it is because the UK has two cumulative systems of income tax, one of which goes by the code name of “national insurance”.)

The system is trickier today than Martian algebra. Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal studies points out that, over different levels of income, a non-working spouse with two children will be taxed at marginal rates of 12 per cent, 32 per cent, infinity, 42 per cent, 60 per cent, 42 per cent, 60 per cent, 42 per cent and 47 per cent. You might ask what kind of muppet designed a tax schedule like that, and one answer would be George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, and Alistair Darling, his predecessor – the last two men to be in charge of the UK tax system.

Another answer would be that this is just the sort of thing that happens without diligent maintenance. Window frames rot. Iron structures rust. Tax systems become complex.

Having nine different marginal tax rates is an ugly sign that things are not well. There are others. Cereal bars attract value added tax at 20 per cent but flapjacks enjoy a zero rate; vegetable chips are tax-free if the vegetable in question is not a potato; dried fruit is subject to VAT unless destined for a cake. On a gingerbread man, chocolate icing attracts a substantial VAT liability unless the icing constitutes the eyes. There are more things in tax accounting, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

If a tax break for unfrosted gingerbread seems uniquely British in its eccentricity, it is not. Officials in New York state have been obliged to rule on the tax status of burritos. (Legally they are sandwiches and attract sales tax of 8 per cent.) Or consider Pillow Pets, a stuffed toy/ pillow whose slogan – “It’s a pillow, it’s a pet, it’s a Pillow Pet” – poses a dilemma for US Customs. For the purposes of levying a tariff, is it a pillow? Or is it a tariff-free toy pet?

Then there are tax subsidies for agricultural land in places such as Florida. Agricultural land is no easier to define than a flapjack or a sandwich. Rent a cow, let it graze on your garden or vacant lot; if that is not agriculture, what is?

All this matters not just because the rules are hard to understand and expensive to obey but also because taxes shape our behaviour. The “camelback” houses of late 19th century New Orleans, with a hump of two storeys at the rear and a long single-storey snout stretching to the street, were tax-efficient because property taxes were levied based on the number of storeys at the front of the house. Abba’s outlandish outfits are reported to have been inspired by tax rules: they were tax-deductible only if they were too outré to be worn anywhere other than on stage.

These are trivial examples of tax-efficient charm but the same principle can be harnessed for a far greater good: a carbon tax to shift our energy system towards low-carbon fuels. Well-designed taxes can raise revenue while rewarding green behaviour.

Meanwhile complex, illogical taxes raise less revenue while rewarding clever accountants. There has been outrage over celebrity tax-dodging in the UK but the tax avoidance schemes usually involve a government attempt to provide a tax incentive for the British film industry or some other hobbyhorse.

What is behind such insanities? Partly, absurd loopholes exist because special interest groups demand them; hence the subsidies for land with cows on it. Partly, voters are given the tax systems they deserve because we sympathise with highly vocal losers whenever a loophole is closed and we fall for simple tricks that hide taxes behind a veil of complication.

The UK’s two-tier income tax system is a good example. Basic income tax rates have tended to fall over time, while national insurance rates have tended to rise. True income tax rates for the typical worker are similar to those of 35 years ago but they seem much lower. The sleight of hand is politically convenient but increases complexity, creates unfairness and opens opportunities for tax avoidance.

It is tempting, then, to call for a radical simplification, for taxes simple enough to write on the back of a postcard. But this ignores the third reason that taxes are complex, which is that fair taxation is a genuinely complex business. This year’s piecemeal reform efforts become next year’s loopholes.

Only radical, systemic reform has much chance of success – and it may be less elegant than some reformers hope. A per-person “poll tax” was introduced in the UK 25 years ago, and promptly ended the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. It was undoubtedly simple – but in taxation, as in life, simplicity is not the only virtue.

Also published at ft.com.

Undercover Economist

What tech jerks can teach us

Added to the familiar gallery of corporate monsters are those making money from parasitic smartphone apps

Fat cat bankers swimming in taxpayer subsidies. Oil barons battening on indigenous peoples. Corrupt media moguls poisoning politics. To the familiar gallery of corporate monsters, a new horror has been added: tech jerks making money through parasitic smartphone apps.

The term #JerkTech was minted recently, complete with hashtag, by Josh Constine, a San Francisco-based writer for the technology website TechCrunch. Constine pointed at ReservationHop, which aimed to make reservations at popular restaurants, then sell the reservations on to eager diners; and at MonkeyParking, which allowed people parked in a public parking space to auction it off when they left. (San Francisco’s city attorney had already sent MonkeyParking a cease-and-desist letter threatening substantial fines to users.)

There are several other examples, and it seems that the world was waiting for the word JerkTech, which spread as fast as the latest internet meme – and nothing spreads faster. Before long, both MonkeyParking and ReservationHop announced a pause for reflection.

The outrage was as much a reflection of Silicon Valley’s tarnished image as about these particular business models. Stories have circulated about a misogynistic “brogrammer” culture in some tech firms, while protesters in San Francisco have objected to Google sending free buses to the city to pick up employees, thus driving up rents. Constine himself made the link between JerkTech apps and contemptible behaviour elsewhere. As with bankers, oilmen and newspaper proprietors, the debate is emotionally charged by the broader sense that technology companies may not have our best interests at heart.

At the risk of injecting a dose of logic into the debate, it seems worth asking what exactly is objectionable about JerkTech apps themselves.

What are the common features? First, commodification: they sell or take commission on the sale of something that previously wasn’t a commodity at all: a reservation to eat at a popular restaurant; the opportunity to park in a public space. These things have always been valuable but they’ve been hard to buy and sell.

This is an odd complaint. Trading something such as sex, or a kidney for transplant, might be said to change the nature of what is being traded. But a restaurant meal is already a commercial transaction. Although one restaurateur has complained that such apps are wrong because “hospitality has no price”, all the restaurants I know do expect me to pay for the food at some stage. It’s odd to insist that the reservation itself occupies a separate, almost spiritual domain.

A second complaint is that such apps rob the poor (the government, a small business, the everyday consumer) and give to the rich (people who are willing to pay a premium). This objection is also odd. Genuinely poor people rarely own cars, and being willing to pay $5 to find an otherwise-free parking space hardly requires you to be a billionaire. None of the people hoping to secure a reservation at a Michelin-starred restaurant is poverty-stricken.

The critics are on stronger ground when they point out that JerkTech firms are appropriating someone else’s property. A driver has the right to park on the street but she does not own the space that will be vacated when she moves on. A restaurant reservation service might make a reservation under a false name (“Dick Jerkson”, suggests Constine) then sell the details to a customer who will actually show up and buy a meal. If the reservation is unsold the restaurant will lose out but the JerkTech start-up faces no loss. Most reservations are made on a trust-based system, and restaurants always run the risk that this trust will be abused. But JerkTech can exploit that trust on an unprecedented scale.

This is more than an argument about propriety: JerkTech might also have consequences. Restaurants might have to demand a credit card from customers, or proof of ID. Parking JerkTech encourages people to park in the street, simply waiting for a bid to move their car. San Francisco’s city attorney alleged that one JerkTech company was planning to pay people by the hour to occupy parking spaces for resale at the right price. This is close to extortion.

. . .

And yet: when a market is being “disrupted”, that is sometimes a sign that the status quo is rotten. Scarce restaurant reservations could sensibly be sold. That is exactly what a few restaurants do – for example, Alinea in Chicago. It would be no surprise to see tech start-ups emerge to help restaurants do exactly that.

As for parking, many cities waste this scarce resource by underpricing it. Instead of paying money into the public purse, drivers pay in wasted time. Their quest for parking spaces burns fuel and causes congestion.

Two lessons emerge from JerkTech: scarce public resources shouldn’t be given away for free to all comers; and simple technology can make it easier to match scarce resources with people who need those resources. Westminster Council, in London, is rolling out a smartphone app that will help drivers find vacant parking spaces and pay for them. If JerkTech can make a market work, there’s probably a JerkTech-free way to make that market work too.

Also published at ft.com.

Undercover Economist

Crime prevention: where’s the evidence?

It may seem mind-bendingly obvious but we need to test and evaluate ideas

How do we keep young people away from a life of gangs and violent crime? You can see one answer if you fire up YouTube and type “Scared Straight” into it. You’ll have the pleasure of seeing muscular prisoners bully terrified teenagers while police officers stand by and watch. It’s an American reality TV show called Beyond Scared Straight and it’s into its seventh season.

Before Beyond Scared Straight there was Scared Straight. It was a 1978 documentary about a crime prevention programme of the same name, in which teenagers spent a day inside a prison being frightened by the inmates. The film was presented by Peter Falk at the height of his fame as Columbo, and it won an Oscar for best documentary. Its producer-director, Arnold Shapiro, went on to make the US version of Big Brother and Beyond Scared Straight.

The Scared Straight approach is popular as TV, and seems popular as public policy. But while Scared Straight was a success as a documentary, Scared Straight is a failure as a policy. We know this because, on seven occasions, administrators have allowed the programme to be evaluated rigorously using a controlled trial. Some troubled teens experienced the joys of Scared Straight while others did not, allowing a fair test of the programme’s results.

These seven rigorous evaluations form the foundation of a review of Scared Straight (and similar interventions) by the Cochrane Collaboration. The review concludes that “programmes such as Scared Straight increase delinquency relative to doing nothing at all to similar youths. Given these results, we cannot recommend this programme as a crime prevention strategy.”

If there is a question mark over a programme’s effectiveness then we need to make sure we’re not wasting effort, or even causing harm without meaning to. We should routinely test ideas, and adapt them if they’re not working. If that might seem a mind-bendingly obvious idea, let’s compare it with how programmes are evaluated in reality.

Consider Your Life You Choose (YLYC), a programme involving magistrates, police and prison officers which began in Ealing, west London, and which aims to reach 11- to 12-year-olds and steer them away from a life of crime. It hasn’t yet been rigorously evaluated.

Oddly, media reports seem to wish that YLYC was like Scared Straight, even though Scared Straight does not work. A recent headline in the London Evening Standard described YLYC as “Schoolchildren in north London taught lessons on life behind bars: Children put in handcuffs and prison van in anti-gang drive.” The article was accompanied by cheesy photographs of 11-year-olds in … well, handcuffs and a prison van.

Despite the Evening Standard’s enthusiasm for such photos, YLYC bears a blessedly superficial resemblance to Scared Straight – it’s delivered in schools, not prisons. Pam Ullstein, the YLYC project leader, says the handcuffs and van may “provide some entertainment” but are not the point of the programme. Good.

So YLYC might indeed work, and it might not. It would be wonderful to find out. Time for an evaluation?

Alas, the government’s leading authority on the matter, Damian Green – who this week lost his post as the Minister for Police and Criminal Justice – seemed to think no evaluation was needed. “Official figures demonstrate that it really is having an impact,” he said of YLYC in a speech in March.

I asked the Ministry of Justice what Green had in mind when he said this. I was directed to a page on the YLYC website itself, in which a police sergeant observes that in Ealing, youth convictions have fallen sharply in recent years. (Oddly, the web page also features Ealing’s Conservative MP, Angie Bray, praising YLYC with exactly the same words as Green: “Official figures demonstrate that it really is having an impact.”)

. . .

The fall in crime is good news, and perhaps that’s what Green and Bray mean by “official figures”. Yet youth convictions have also been falling sharply in England as a whole, so perhaps it’s a coincidence. If we are to have serious evidence on YLYC – or any other programme – we need rigorous evaluations, not a nod towards “official figures” of passing relevance.

The sociology of this is fascinating: we have an unproven programme that politicians are happy to praise and that a newspaper admires for its faint resemblance to a proven failure.

None of this is a criticism of YLYC, which may indeed be effective. We’re fortunate that people want to set up programmes such as YLYC and volunteer to support them. But we don’t want them to waste their time, so we should provide help in figuring out whether what they do actually works.

The good news is that help is available. There’s Project Oracle, for example, a new London-focused outfit that aims to support programme providers in gathering useful evidence about what’s working, while also educating the people who commission such programmes that it’s important to ask for evidence. Professor Georgie Parry-Crooke, co-director of the project, tells me that an evaluation of the effectiveness of Project Oracle itself is on the cards. That’s all to the good: reality TV is no basis for figuring out what works and what doesn’t. The evidence revolution will not be televised.

Also published at ft.com.

Undercover Economist

Underperforming on performance

State education in Britain consists not of families choosing the best schools but of good schools choosing the best families

What is the collective noun for indicators of public service performance? A thicket? A fudge? Whatever it may be, the British government has announced yet another league table, this time packed with indicators of public safety in English National Health Service hospitals.

Logging on to the NHS Choices website, I discover my local hospital is “among the worst” as far as “infection control and cleanliness” are concerned. The website adds that all “Care Quality Commission national standards” have been met. This is baffling. The hospital is filthy yet meets all care quality standards? Maybe the collective noun should be “a contradiction of indicators”.

“I think we’re getting a bit overwhelmed now with these packages of indicators,” says John Appleby, chief economist of the King’s Fund, a healthcare think-tank. “As a patient, I wouldn’t know what to make of these at all.”

If they are merely useless and confusing, that’s one thing. But some indicators in the past have caused serious collateral damage. Consider two examples from either side of the Atlantic.

In the UK in the late 1990s, Tony Blair’s government set a range of targets for how quickly ambulances should respond to emergency calls. In an “immediately life-threatening” case in an urban area, first responders should arrive within eight minutes, three-quarters of the time. The target swiftly backfired. By 2003 the data were showing odd patterns – for one ambulance service, more than 900 calls were recorded as having been met in seven minutes and 59 seconds, with just a handful met in eight minutes. The definition of “immediately life-threatening” mysteriously varied by a factor of five from one ambulance service to the next. Crews were split and given bikes or small cars, allowing a lone paramedic on a bike to hit a target, even if he couldn’t take you to hospital.

In the US, “report cards” provide data on the performance of cardiac surgeons and cardiac wards. David Dranove, Daniel Kessler, Mark McClellan and Mark Satterthwaite, four economists who studied the report cards, found a most unwelcome consequence: doctors resisted operating on the severely ill and favoured surgery for patients who might not even need it. A healthy patient is a strong candidate to thrive after heart surgery, no?

None of this should surprise. There are three ways to improve your score on any performance metric: first, actually improve performance; second, focus on ways to look good on the metric in question; third, cheat.

That said, surely performance metrics can sometimes identify and encourage what’s best in public service. What might help is a sense of who is supposed to use these metrics, and how they might react.

Gwyn Bevan of the London School of Economics suggests four models of public service. In “trust and altruism”, noble doctors and teachers always do their best, and indicators help them do their jobs. In “targets and terror”, public servants are assumed to be selfish, whipped into shape by a central government with a dashboard of performance data. In the “quasi-market” system, the indicators are provided to the public, who act as consumers and choose their preferred school or hospital. Finally, “name and shame” uses league tables to humiliate losers and lionise winners.

None of these four systems is obviously absurd, so what does the evidence suggest? Devolution in the UK provides an interesting natural experiment. The Welsh government abolished school league tables and the Scottish government eschewed targets for hospital waiting times. In both cases, researchers from Bristol University and elsewhere showed that the English system worked better. This supports “name and shame” (for schools) and “targets and terror” (for hospitals). It is bad news for the “trust and altruism” model.

We know that true markets often work well but there are question marks over the effectiveness of “quasi-markets” for education and healthcare. The British state education system consists not of families choosing the best schools but of good schools choosing the best families, while bad schools chug along without going out of business. Americans may be savvy consumers of cars or phones but appear to pay little attention to publicly available evidence on the quality of hospital care.

“Name and shame” is the idea that indicators work not because they inform bureaucratic overseers, nor because they help consumers pick the best services, but simply because nobody wants the embarrassment of propping up the bottom of a league table. It seems a crude approach but an influential research paper by Judith Hibbard, Jean Stockard and Martin Tusler found evidence that “name and shame” might work.

Hibbard and her colleagues studied how Wisconsin hospitals reacted to a report on quality of care. Some of the hospitals were included in a widely disseminated quality evaluation. Others, chosen at random, received a confidential report on their own performance – the ideal approach for a world of “trust and altruism”. A third group of hospitals received no report at all.

Hibbard’s research suggested that Wisconsin healthcare did not function as a regular market. Poorly performing hospitals were not afraid of losing market share, and rightly so. But they did make substantial efforts to improve, nonetheless – citing a concern for their reputation.

Perhaps we have that collective noun after all: it’s an “embarrassment of indicators”.

Also published at ft.com.

Undercover Economist

All aboard the volatility express

Should we treat low volatility as a portent of disaster, or as a sign that the world economy is finally on the right track?

For years this newspaper has been reporting financial markets as a rollercoaster. It was refreshing, then, to find the summer ushered in with a series of stories about how low volatility had become by early June. Yet the general tone in the financial press has been far from soothing. “It’s quiet . . . too quiet”, goes the refrain, followed by the pointed observation that the last time volatility was so low, it was just before the financial crisis began.

There is a commonsense alternative to the idea that this must be the calm before the storm: it’s that no news is good news. So which view is right? Should we treat low volatility as an eerie portent of disaster in the making, or as a sign that the world economy is finally on the right track?

The answer to the question depends on whether we look at financial markets, or at the real economy of goods and services, production and investment.

From a financial perspective, low volatility should indeed make us nervous. That’s the lesson of the late Hyman Minsky. Minsky was once neglected but, since the financial crisis, we are all Minskyites now. Your bluffer’s guide to Minsky is that when things are going well, people become complacent and take too many risks – in particular, the classic leverage risk of borrowing to invest. Calm breeds complacency. Stability is destabilising.

If this all seems a little hysterical right now, perhaps it is – but there are plenty of reasons to worry. US first-quarter growth was disappointing. China’s property market is in trouble. Geopolitics from Iraq to Crimea look shocking. The soothingly low financial volatility of early June looks surreal.

But what happens to the rest of the economy when all is calm? Nick Bloom, a British economist working at Stanford University, has a useful recent research paper on “Fluctuations in Uncertainty” in which he tries to unpick the relationship between economic turbulence and economic trouble.

In 1921, the economist Frank Knight influentially defined risk as the unknown outcome of a known probability distribution such as the toss of a coin or the spin of a roulette wheel; uncertainty, by contrast, was where the probabilities weren’t known at all. Risk is a convenient, tractable concept but uncertainty is a more realistic benchmark for dealing with most economic problems.

Bloom turns to a variety of proxy indicators of both risk and uncertainty: the VIX index, which is a market-based indicator derived from traders’ bets on volatility over the following 30 days; disagreements between economic forecasters; forecasters’ own expressions of uncertainty; newspaper mentions of the word “uncertain” or “uncertainty” and “economy” or “economics”. In all cases, these measures are higher during recessions, although the measured spike in uncertainty is usually when the recession itself is well under way, so this is not much help as a forecasting tool.

What about more fine-grained measures of uncertainty? Bloom looks at the spread between the fastest-growing and fastest-shrinking firms in each industry, and the dispersion between fast-expanding and fast-contracting manufacturing plants in the US.

No matter what the indicator, the story is similar: low volatility, low uncertainty and low dispersion are what happens in good economic times. Recessions are high-volatility, high-uncertainty and high-dispersion events. Low levels of uncertainty may breed complacency but they are also what the economy seems to need. Bloom speculates that, in a vicious circle, uncertainty is both a cause and a consequence of recessions.

. . .

There are some good theoretical reasons why growth goes hand in hand with low levels of uncertainty. Consider a company making a hard-to-reverse decision such as hiring a new permanent member of staff or buying a new factory. If the company was confident of modest growth, it should take the plunge, invest and expand. But if the forecast of modest growth is very uncertain, and growth might be exhilarating or disastrous, then why not wait and find out? If conditions turn out to be right, the factory can always be built later; the worker can always be hired tomorrow.

That makes investment sound like an emotional business but the reasoning above is a matter of pure logic. A computer or a Vulcan would recommend the “wait and see” approach as profit-maximising. Of course, when everybody is waiting, all they will see is further economic depression.

Emotion also matters, of course. Andrew Eggers and Alexander Fouirnaies, two political scientists at the London School of Economics, recently published a working paper titled “Red Zero, Black Zero”, which looked at what happened when growth figures were either fractionally above or fractionally below zero. The difference is of no direct economic consequence in its own right but triggers very different media stories. Eggers and Fouirnaies find that companies don’t worry over the distinction, but consumers do.

All this suggests that low volatility really is good news. It may be seductively dangerous for financial markets. Yet it is what both consumers and producers need to get things back on track. I hope it is no longer necessary to point out that what is worrying for market-watchers is not necessarily bad news for the rest of us.

Also published at ft.com.

Undercover Economist

Let’s play economics-by-metaphor

The patient was seriously ill. Dr Balls advised antibiotics but Dr Osborne argued it was a virus

“A riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma.” That was Winston Churchill’s view of Russia one month after the outbreak of the second world war in Europe. It was also Andy Haldane’s view of the British economy in a speech given in Scarborough on June 18. Coming from the Bank of England’s new chief economist, this seems an alarming parallel, although all Haldane meant to say was that the situation was hard to read.

Haldane, who has long given the Bank’s most thought-provoking speeches, is fond of a literary flourish – indeed, his Scarborough speech was an extended metaphor on cricket, with the uncertain prospects of the economy compared to a well-bowled cricket ball. Should the Bank respond like England’s veteran batsman Ian Bell (take the initiative, front foot forward) or like newcomer Joe Root (wait for things to become clearer, acting at the last possible moment) or, for that matter, like the long-retired Geoff Boycott (commit to a relentlessly defensive strategy regardless of circumstances)?

The context for this – although Haldane did not say it – is that his boss, Mark Carney, has abruptly shifted his stance. Carney spent the first few months of his tenure committing to low interest rates, and is suddenly warning that rates will rise sooner than anyone expects. Geoff Boycott, after fending off ball after ball, has suddenly started trying to slog everything over the members’ pavilion.

Some international readers will be none the wiser after all these cricketing similes but I’ve decided that the game of economics-by-metaphor is lots of fun, and have been pondering what the best metaphor might be for the puzzling state of the UK economy.

Haldane’s evocation of Churchill prompts me to compare the UK in 1939 with the UK in 2008. The man in charge when it all began fumbled some things badly but got no credit for good decisions in an impossible bind. The bank bailouts were like Dunkirk – a heroic, improvised, last-gasp tactic that laid some foundations for future success, while conceding that everything up to that point had basically been a catastrophe. Then came grinding dogmatism, often incompetently managed, which postponed the long slog. Eventually a victory of sorts was won thanks to the industrial power of the US; the bloodied UK was never quite the same again. (This analogy gives David Cameron the role of Winston Churchill but no parallel is ever exact.)

But what of the UK today? The image that comes to mind is of an overconfident City wide boy on gardening leave, waiting for his next well-paid job. He’s feeling flush because his flat in gentrifying Hackney has doubled in value. He’s spending liberally on home improvements, on restaurant meals, on cocaine and Polish lap-dancers. (The Office for National Statistics will now be recording this activity as part of GDP.) Above all, he’s buying nice stuff from abroad. There is lots of activity for the low-paid service sector and for importers but whether our City boy will actually get another real job soon is an open question.

Perhaps instead we should view the British economy as a fractious marriage. Hubby is English; swaggering and self-obsessed, he keeps telling his Scottish wife she’s beautiful and that they’re great together. Yet he never takes her seriously or listens to a word she says. She yearns to get away from him but she’s afraid to leave. Her single friends in Iceland and Ireland have had some tough times but at least they have their identity and self-respect. He’s cocky and has convinced himself that she’s never going to leave him, yet she may well walk out a few months before Christmas. Any divorce is going to be hellish because their financial affairs are all tangled up together. He’s probably going to get angry, resentful and drunk, and, before you know it, he’ll say something he regrets to his neighbours Angela and François. Give him five years and he’ll quit the neighbourhood entirely to spend the following decade in his vest and underpants, obsessed with whatever’s on Sky.

. . .

Then there’s the question of who takes the credit for what is, undoubtedly, a far stronger recovery than anyone expected a couple of years ago. Here a medical metaphor may suffice.

For a long time the patient was seriously ill. Dr Ed Balls advised a short course of mild antibiotics, on the grounds that a long course of strong antibiotics would be too expensive. Dr George Osborne argued that the patient was suffering from a virus and antibiotics would simply be wasteful and ineffective. No reliable diagnosis being available, the two men yelled at each other across the hospital bed, with Dr Osborne’s assistants periodically walking in, slapping the patient and yelling at him not to be such a malingerer. Now that the patient has staggered out of the hospital and is self-medicating on espresso, Dr Osborne argues that Dr Balls has been exposed as a fraudulent quack.

Each man will be hoping to run the economy after next year’s election, so British voters may decide to give them both the metaphor they deserve, good and hard.

Also published at ft.com.

Undercover Economist

A good economic bet

Pundits who make wagers may look grubby but at least they are accepting a cost for failure

Two economists disagree about the state of the economy. That’s not terribly surprising; you can insert your own joke here. Refreshingly, they’ve decided to put money on the table: instead of spouting hot air, they have made a bet. Bravo. More public intellectuals should follow suit.

Jonathan Portes is director of a UK think-tank, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research. Andrew Lilico runs Europe Economics, a consulting firm. Portes thinks that there’s plenty of spare capacity in the British economy, and that even as economic growth picks up, inflation will remain modest. Lilico disagrees. The men have staked £1,000 – inflation-adjusted, naturally.

The bet says (roughly) that once economic growth tops 2 per cent in the UK, inflation will exceed 5 per cent within 18 months. Economic growth has indeed picked up, so the bet is on and the clock is ticking. By October 2015 we should have a winner.

There is a long-running debate about whether this sort of wager is to be welcomed. Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University, is all in favour. “A bet is a tax on bull****,” he wrote after statistical journalist Nate Silver offered a wager on the results of the 2012 presidential election, with profits to go to charity. The New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, disagreed. Silver was writing for the newspaper back then, and Sullivan declared it was “inappropriate” for journalists to be publicly wagering that their opinions were well founded.

Who’s right? Sullivan’s main argument against Silver’s wager was that it created the “appearance” of a conflict of interest. Albeit indirectly, Silver stood to profit from a victory for the Democratic Party, if only by avoiding having to make a charitable donation. Suddenly he was no longer disinterested. This is a shallow foundation for the case against public wagers.

And there are strong counter-arguments. Pundits who make wagers may look grubby but at least they are accepting a cost for failure. A more subtle advantage is that betting encourages forecasts that are specific and quantifiable.

This matters, because too many forecasts are both vague and consequence-free. A pundit can shoot his mouth off about what will happen in the future and nobody much cares. If the forecast should happen to come true, the pundit can revisit his words and claim to have predicted the financial crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall or whatever. What’s more, many forecasts are hazy enough, especially on timing, to make them impossible to falsify.

Making a wager helps correct both these problems. A forecast that is specific enough to bet on is also specific enough to come true, or to fail. And for any wager, there is at least one person with an incentive to keep track of what happened.

The most famous bet about economics is that between Paul Ehrlich, ecologist, doomsayer and author of the massive 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, and Julian Simon, an economist most famous because he persuaded Ehrlich to bet with him. Ehrlich believed that overpopulation would cause disaster and widespread scarcity. Billions would die, developed countries would disintegrate, India was beyond saving. Simon thought that people would find substitutes for scarce resources and that things would be fine.

The bet, however, needed to revolve around something specific. It was that the price of five metals would rise between 1980 and 1990 as scarcity continued to bite. Instead prices fell, dramatically. Ehrlich lost the bet. In some ways, this story shows the value of the wager. Because the bet was specific, we now know that Ehrlich was wrong and Simon, who died in 1998, was right.

Yet the tale of the Ehrlich-Simon bet is not entirely reassuring. The very fact that the bet was so specific means that long after Simon won, the argument continues to rage about whose worldview was truly correct. I have never met an environmentalist who was convinced by Simon’s victory that technology will save the world. And I have encountered many conservatives who seem to believe that because Paul Ehrlich was wrong about the price of metals in the 1980s, all environmentalists are wrong about everything.

Paul Sabin, a historian who wrote a book about the bet, argues that the affair brought more heat than light. He reports that Ehrlich took his loss with poor grace, sending Simon a cheque with no cover note. And Ehrlich seems unrepentant. In a recent interview with NPR’s Planet Money show, he said of the late Simon, “It’s hard to be more wrong… he knew absolutely nothing about anything important.”

This pigheadedness is disheartening but unsurprising. Perhaps the wager pushed each side into stubborn tribalism and encouraged a reductive view of complex affairs.

Yet on balance, the world needs more wagers between pundits. The alternative is intolerable: a world full of confident forecasts that nobody ever bothers to verify. The betting man must be thoughtful and specific or his wallet will suffer the consequences. We should all be quicker to ask ourselves before we open our mouths: would I be willing to bet on this?

Also published at ft.com.

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Tim Harford is an author, columnist for the Financial Times and presenter of Radio 4's "More or Less".
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