Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

Articles published in July, 2015

It’s tough turning ideas into gold

‘If innovators make no money at all, they will end up creating for the love of creation rather than for any financial reward’

Alchemy, the ancient art of turning base metals into precious ones, was built on more than one misapprehension. The obvious error is that it is impossible to turn lead into gold. (Not quite impossible, actually. Chemistry will not do the job but a particle accelerator will, although not cheaply. In 1980, researchers bombarded the faintly lead-like metal bismuth and created a few atoms of gold. The cost was a less-than-economical rate of one quadrillion dollars an ounce.)

But there is a subtler mistake — not a scientific one but a matter of economics. “The alchemist fallacy” is the belief that once a simple method is found for turning lead into gold, gold will continue to be precious. We don’t have to rely on economic theory to refute this conclusion, because we have a fascinating case study of a close parallel.

Twenty-six million years ago, some cataclysmic event in the Eastern Sahara raised the temperature of silica sand to well over 1,000 degrees. The result was a large deposit of a lustrous material the colour of a lemon’s flesh. A fragment of this precious stuff was used to make jewellery for Tutankhamun’s tomb. (The story is well told in Steven Johnson’s book How We Got to Now (UK) (US).) The substance could be quarried but not manufactured.

While alchemists never figured out how to turn lead into gold, other craftsmen did develop a process with much the same economic implications. They worked out how to transform silica sand, one of the most common materials on earth, into the beautiful, versatile material we know as glass. It has an astonishing variety of uses from fibre optics to microscopes to aeroplane fuselages. But while gold remains highly prized, glass is now so cheap that we use it as disposable packaging for water.

When it was possible to restrict access to the secret of glassmaking, the guardians of that knowledge profited. Venetian glassmakers were clustered together on the island of Murano, where sparks from the furnaces would not endanger Venice itself. Venice had less success in preventing the secrets of glassmaking from spreading. Despite being forbidden on pain of death to leave the state of Venice, some of Murano’s glassmakers sought fortunes elsewhere. The wealth that could be earned as a glassmaking monopolist in some distant city must have been worth the risk.

That is the way of new ideas: they have a tendency to spread. Business partners will fall out and set up as rivals. Employees will leave to establish their own businesses. Time-honoured techniques such as industrial espionage or reverse engineering will be deployed. Sometimes innovators are happy to give their ideas away for nothing, whether for noble reasons or commercial ones. But it is very hard to stop ideas spreading entirely.

A few years ago, the economist William Nordhaus tried to estimate just how fallacious the alchemist fallacy is — how much of the social gains from innovation does the innovator manage to keep hold of? If the answer is anywhere near 100 per cent — even 50 per cent — then there is no fallacy at all. But if the answer is near zero, then innovations are swiftly copied, benefiting competitors and above all consumers.

Nordhaus was writing in the wake of the dotcom bubble, and pointed out that the valuations of “new economy” companies could be justified only if they were able to retain about 90 per cent of their value to society. This is a slice of the pie to make the most powerful and sophisticated monopolist dream. Nordhaus, pointing to the rapid demise of many dotcom firms and the tight margins of others, reckoned that the proportion was rather lower than that.

Looking at data from the United States between 1948 and 2001, Nordhaus estimated that corporations were able to keep about 3.7 per cent of the social value of their innovations. The remaining 96.3 per cent went to everyone else, mostly to consumers.

Nordhaus’s estimate is uncertain but has the ring of truth about it. Even a company such as Apple, which has a gift for holding on to a good proportion of the returns from innovation, has seen its iPad, iPhone and MacBook Air relentlessly chased down by competitors.

All this raises a question: should we wish that the innovator’s profit share was higher or lower? There is a balance to be struck. When innovators keep too much money, the benefit of using or recombining new ideas spreads too slowly. But if innovators make no money at all, then they will end up creating for the love of creation rather than for any financial reward. That may be fine for pop songs and poetry but less so for nuclear fusion or an HIV vaccine. Costly research programmes will not be funded.

The right balance depends on the innovation in question, and how expensive it is to develop. We probably need better incentives to create some new medicines. Yet our intellectual property system gives too much protection to ideas that would have been created anyway, such as simple software, business methods and Mickey Mouse. It is no surprise that the Venetian doges tried to keep the glassmakers in Murano. We should be grateful that they failed.

Written for and first published at ft.com.

Why wishful thinking doesn’t work

‘Careless nudges are no more welcome in public policy than at a domino-toppling event’

Three years ago, the University of Vermont in Burlington began to experiment with a few nudges towards a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. First, in 2012, campus outlets and the company operating the vending machines were required to make sure that at least 30 per cent of the drinks on offer were wholesome stuff such as vegetable juice, low-fat milk and water. A few months later, selling bottled water on campus was banned outright. The aim, pushed hard by student campaigners, was to encourage students to fill reusable bottles with tap water instead.

So, how did the Vermont experiment go? A study by Elizabeth Berman and Rachel Johnson (of the University’s own Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences) was recently published in the American Journal of Public Health. The researchers found that “per capita shipments of bottles, calories, sugars and added sugars increased significantly when bottled water was removed . . . As bottled water sales dropped to zero, sales of sugar-free beverages and sugar-sweetened beverages increased.”

In other words, the policy backfired with both barrels. Students didn’t switch to tap water, they switched to the likes of Coke and Diet Coke instead. All this would be just an amusing curiosity — one more example of student campaigners who are all heart and no brains — if it weren’t for the fact that more mature policy makers often commit similar blunders on much broader canvases. We would do well to learn some lessons from the University of Vermont’s experience.

The first lesson is that when it comes to saving the planet, people focus on what they can see. Type “environmental impact of concrete” into a search engine and you are likely to see a page filled with scholarly analysis pointing out that the impact is very large indeed, because cement production releases vast volumes of carbon dioxide. Type “environmental impact of bottled water” instead and your search results will be packed with campaigning groups seeking to persuade you to change your ways.

This is understandable: I can’t do much about concrete but I can stop drinking bottled water. But being a logical target for campaigners is not the same as being a logical target for policy action.

The second lesson is that we often struggle to deal with multiple goals. The University of Vermont wanted to reduce the flow of plastic water bottles to landfill but also wanted to encourage students to be healthy. There’s a clear conflict between these goals. Water is as healthy a drink as you can find, yet that was exactly what the University of Vermont was banning from vending machines. Wishful thinking provides a resolution — if everyone just drank tap water then there would be no problem. But wishful thinking is not an excuse for setting no priorities.

We see this sharply in the debate over nuclear power. We want to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that result from burning fossil fuels. We also want to avoid radioactive waste and the risk of radiation leaks. In response to a genuine policy dilemma, politicians have tended to plump for wishful thinking every time, typically involving wind turbines.

The third lesson is that the much-vaunted notion of “nudging” doesn’t always help navigate a complicated policy maze. Nudging means using default options, information design and similar techniques to achieve policy goals. It can be very successful. But careless nudges are no more welcome in public policy than at a domino-toppling event. If you pick a questionable target (bottled water) and fudge a key policy dilemma (the environment vs health) then nudging isn’t going to solve your problems.

So what can be done? One approach is to try to reach policy goals with the help of market signals. The classic example of this is a carbon tax, levied on fossil fuels to reflect their carbon-dioxide emissions. The advantage of this approach is that it encourages everybody at any stage of production or consumption to take actions that reduce emissions, because those actions will save them money. A truck manufacturer might develop a cleaner engine, a logistics company might find a more efficient delivery algorithm, and the final consumer might decide to consume a little less.

The idea of using the price system to solve environmental problems is widely accepted by economists but, alas, it finds itself stranded in the policy doldrums. Ponder this: the Pope recently argued that climate change was a grave problem but he opposed market-based responses. Meanwhile the US Republican party likes market-based responses but isn’t so convinced about climate change.

One other advantage of using environmental taxes is that people can decide on their own priorities. A lot of what we do has consequences for the planet — including breathing — and so part of the problem we face is deciding what is worth doing anyway.

Perhaps it is time for a confession. I am writing this column on the hottest July day recorded in British history. At my left hand is a glass of chilled sparkling water, and next to the glass is a plastic bottle to top it up. If there had been a tax on that bottle, it is a tax I would willingly have paid.

Written for and first published at ft.com.

George Osborne’s Magic Has Us Fooled, For Now

The chancellor can alter the law but cannot make costly workers worth hiring, says Tim Harford

He has mastered the art of misdirection as well as any stage magician. Everyone knew George Osborne was going to butcher the tax credit system on Wednesday, more or less halving the income at which they begin to fall away. But few expected him to announce a much higher minimum wage, and he did it with such an extravagant flourish that no one clearly remembers seeing him wield the cleaver.
For most of the poorer working households who qualify for tax credits, the combined effect of Mr Osborne’s Budget will be to make them worse off financially, and to push them away from the labour force by raising the effective rate of tax they pay.
Monique Ebell of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research reckons that a single mother working 30 hours a week at the minimum wage will be more than a £1,000 a year worse off in two years’ time than she is today, despite the increase in the wage she must legally be paid.
That assumes, of course, that she keeps her job at all. This is the big question about the minimum wage: will it increase the earnings of low-paid workers, or price them out of the job market entirely? Should we expect to see these workers laid off and replaced with one-touch espresso machines, automatic checkouts and call-centre workers from India? The minimum wage is a delicate balance, and Mr Osborne has put his thumb on the scale.
The chancellor’s aim is to raise the minimum wage for those over 25 beyond £9 by 2020, from £6.50 today. That is dramatic, although not quite as dramatic as it first seems. Mr Osborne is setting the minimum wage where it might be if the economic crisis of 2008, and the long stagnation that followed, had never happened. He is hoping that employment will not suffer. He has a few other countries to look to as a precedent. France is one example, and it is not encouraging. Australia is a more hopeful case.
Mr Osborne’s move would once have been unthinkable from a Conservative chancellor. A quarter of a century ago, the conventional wisdom was that the idea of a minimum wage was absurd at any level. The logic of that position was simple enough. If the minimum wage was below the market-clearing wage — at which employees want to work the same number of hours that businesses want to hire them for — it would be irrelevant; if it was above, it would be worse than useless. Productive workers do not need a minimum wage because they will anyway be well paid. Less productive workers will be harmed by a minimum wage because employers would rather sack them than pay more than they are worth. One does not simply repeal the laws of supply and demand.
The world has moved on since then, and we know that while supply and demand matter, there is more to the labour market than the simple story above.
Some employers have market power and could pay higher wages if they were forced to; the higher minimum wage may simply redistribute from employers to low-paid employees. Another possibility is that if forced to pay higher wages, employers will invest in training and equipment to justify the labour expense. On this view, wages do not need to follow productivity; productivity can be led by wages.
A third explanation is that since many low wage jobs are in non-traded sectors such as retail, employers will simply put up prices, spreading the burden of the higher minimum wage across all consumers, and possibly reducing inequality.
There is also the argument that higher wages can encourage workers to show up more often and smile at the customers. This is true, but in most cases managers will have reached that conclusion by themselves without the need for a legal minimum.
A large body of empirical evidence suggests either that reasonable minimum wages do not destroy jobs at all, or that they do not destroy very many. The evidence is, of course, mixed and contested.
Much of it comes from the US and concerns the experience of teenagers, who — in the words of Alan Manning of the London School of Economics, “represent about 2 per cent of hours worked and 98 per cent of the studies of the minimum wage”. But it is clear enough that if modest increases in the minimum wage were disastrous for jobs, we would know that by now.
Whether the chancellor’s wage rise counts as “modest” is far more questionable. Professor Manning is guardedly optimistic: he thinks that the bold increase in the minimum wage is worth a try. But he is nervous, and so am I. We are at the edge of what the data can tell us. Mr Osborne is about to provide a fascinating new case study.
The best scenario is that the minimum wage helps to drive up British productivity, which has long languished. Employers invest in training, and rather than replacing workers with machines they give them the latest tools to do their jobs.
To the extent that productivity does not rise, employers absorb the costs or pass them on to consumers, equitably bearing the burden of giving hard-working people a decent wage.
A gloomier scenario seems more probable for some sectors, especially social care. The law of supply and demand turns out to matter after all. Faced with a sharp increase in the minimum wage that runs well ahead of what the Low Pay Commission has felt able to endorse, employers lay off many workers and reduce the hours of others. The welfare bill rises and — as so often in the past — it proves much harder to create jobs than to destroy them.
My own bet is somewhere in the middle. We will discover that Mr Osborne has pushed too hard, and that the minimum wage must be allowed to slip back again relative to median earnings. Some jobs will be lost, a lesson will be learned, and Mr Osborne’s political purposes will have been served. He will be hoping to have upgraded his own job to that of prime minister by then, which may be appropriate: he is a masterful politician but has never shown much grasp of economics.

Written for and first published at FT.com

13th of July, 2015Other WritingComments off

George Osborne’s gamble with jobs

My response to the Summer Budget went up on the FT website yesterday:

The sharp hike in the minimum wage in the Budget was a shock, but it was true to form for the UK chancellor of the exchequer: clever politics and dubious economics. It is telling that, where the Low Pay Commission used to consider the evidence and carefully balance the risks and rewards of a higher minimum wage, it must now recommend whatever George Osborne tells it to recommend.

The risk is clear: forced to pay up to £9 an hour, many businesses will find that they would rather find other ways to conduct their affairs — buying robots, offshoring key functions or moving overseas entirely. Bankruptcy is, of course, another option.

 

Mr Osborne’s gamble is that some businesses will simply eat the cost of higher wages (unlikely), or train their workers better and give them better tools so that the higher wages can be justified with higher productivity. It is possible this may work. It is enormously risky, and if the move is the wrong one it will be hard to reverse. The lesson of the 1980s is that, once lost, jobs are not easy to find again.

One might ask why the chancellor is willing to take such risks and to order the Low Pay Commission to do his bidding rather than be guided by evidence. The answer is not hard to find: Mr Osborne needs political cover. He is hacking away at the welfare state, notably the system of tax credits that was designed to encourage people to work rather than stay at home.

One can only guess what Milton Friedman, one of the inspirations behind the Thatcherite revolution, would have made of all this. In place of a carefully designed system of incentives for people to go to work, we are to be offered a wage increase set by a politician’s whim. Friedman knew that, even in the complex market for jobs, one does not simply abolish the laws of supply and demand.

Mr Osborne promised a Budget for working people but reality does not match that sound bite. The biggest tax break was for people inheriting expensive homes from their parents; and, while benefits for the working poor were being squeezed, those for pensioners were — as always — protected. Those who hoped for radical and logical tax reform have been bitterly disappointed.

As for working people, many will thank the chancellor as their wages rise. Others will become unaffordable and will lose their jobs. No doubt they will be scapegoated as scroungers in some future Budget speech. It is possible that Mr Osborne’s gamble will pay off. It is even possible, although unlikely, that it will pay off spectacularly. But it is reckless, and it is not his job that is on the line.

9th of July, 2015Other WritingComments off

In search of the perfect match

‘One algorithm had to cope with pairs of romantically attached doctors who wanted two job offers in the same city’

When it comes to finding the perfect match, nobody wants to be left on the shelf but the Arunta — a polygamous aboriginal tribe from the area around Alice Springs — used to take things to extremes. As described by anthropologists in the 1920s, the father of a newborn Arunta boy would get together with the father of a newborn girl to arrange a future marriage. The betrothal was not between the two babies, of course — that would be leaving things far too late. Instead, the engagement was between the baby boy and the first daughter that the baby girl had when she became a mother herself.

This astonishing process is called “market unravelling”, and it is not limited to the Arunta. As described in Alvin Roth’s new book, Who Gets What — and Why, hospitals make early offers to untried junior doctors. Law firms make early offers to law student freshers. Oxford and Cambridge make offers many months before the students in question sit their exams.

This is not a sensible situation because if everybody could agree to wait, then more information would emerge, allowing more compatible matches. Yet there is an incentive to break ranks and make early “exploding” offers. If those time-limited offers are any good, then students will often accept them rather than take the risk of waiting. The logic of the situation pulls these early offers ever earlier, sometimes absurdly so. Everybody loses but no individual can change things.

One response is to agree a rule banning early offers. That is what the US National Association for Law Placement did in the 1980s: it ruled that any job offer made to a first-semester law student had to remain open until the end of that semester. It wasn’t long before the lawyers had found the loophole: mediocre offers paired with massive time-limited signing bonuses.

Another possibility is to use a central clearing house. That is what the Boston school system did. Parents listed at least three schools in order of preference, and the clearing house put every child into their first choice school where possible. Any schools with spare places would then admit students who’d listed the school as second choice, then third choice, and so on. Four out of five students got their first choice, yet parents hated the system. Why?

The problem was that parents had just one shot at a good school. Popular schools filled instantly, making second choices almost irrelevant. Parents who didn’t understand the game might apply for several popular schools and get nothing. Those who understood the problem found themselves second-guessing the clearing house, using their precious first choice on a compromise school rather than the high-risk approach of saying what they truly wanted. The system produced cynical, alienated parents.

The problem is easier to describe than to solve. But there is a way to fix unravelling markets: call Alvin Roth. An engineer by training — albeit one with a Nobel Memorial Prize in economics — Roth designs markets with an engineer’s practical mentality. With his colleagues, Roth has designed stable clearing houses for doctors, fixed the school application systems in Boston and in New York City, and even created kidney donation networks.

At the heart of many well-functioning clearing houses is something called the deferred acceptance algorithm. The algorithm begins with the following input: each student submits a list of their preferred schools, from first choice to last, and each school submits a ranked list of their preferred students. Armed with these rankings, a computer can swiftly handle the rest. First, each school provisionally fills its places with the top students on its list; then each student provisionally accepts the best offer she has received and rejects the others; each school then extends further offers to fill the spaces that these rejections opened up. The process continues (inside the computer) with each student keeping only the best offer received so far, and with each school working down the list of students and making fresh offers as the rejections come in.

There are two important features of the deferred acceptance algorithm. The first is that people can safely tell the truth about their favourite schools — there is no disadvantage to aiming high. The second is that the algorithm’s allocation is stable. There will never be a pair of school and student who wish they were matched to each other but whom the algorithm sent elsewhere. This matters because if such pairs exist, they have an incentive to strike side deals, undermining the whole system.

The deferred acceptance algorithm is just the start of a successful market design, because details matter. In New York City, there are different application procedures for certain specialised schools. When assigning hospital residencies, the US National Resident Matching Program needed to cope with pairs of romantically attached doctors who wanted two job offers in the same city. These complexities sometimes mean there is no perfect matching algorithm, and the challenge is to find a system that is good enough to work.

Economists such as Alvin Roth are like engineers or doctors. They cannot settle for understanding a system in theory; they must solve practical problems too. It’s a hopeful direction for economics — and an essential one, if economists aren’t to be left on the shelf themselves.

Also published at ft.com.

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