Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

Undercover EconomistUndercover Economist

My weekly column in the Financial Times on Saturdays, explaining the economic ideas around us every day. This column was inspired by my book and began in 2005.

Undercover Economist

Why the robot boost is yet to arrive

To adapt a 30-year-old quip from the great economist Robert Solow: you can see the robots everywhere except in the productivity statistics. This fact has been puzzling me for a few years now. Productivity growth is disappointing — especially but not only in the UK — and it has been for years. Unemployment is near record lows, and employment is high. All this is the opposite of what one would expect if the robot job apocalypse was upon us.

Yet there is no denying the remarkable advances in various branches of artificial intelligence. The most talked-about example is the self-driving car. This technology has come a long way in a short time, which is more than one can say for the original participants in the 2004 Darpa Grand Challenge, a race sponsored by the US military. With large cash prizes for the first autonomous vehicle to complete a 150-mile course in the Mojave desert, the best effort foundered after just seven miles. The contest became a punchline. Just 13 years later, nobody is laughing about autonomous vehicles.

Then there are deep-learning technologies such as AlphaGo Zero, which took just 72 hours to teach itself to become seemingly invincible at the formidable board game, Go. Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant and Siri have made voice recognition an everyday miracle. Strides are being made in image recognition, medical diagnosis and translation. There are behind-the-scenes triumphs: deep learning is optimising power-hungry cooling in server farms.

All of this makes the puzzle of high employment and low productivity even more puzzling. Yet there are several ways to resolve it. A simple explanation is that the robot talk is all hype. Computer scientists have been over-optimistic before. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon predicted in 1957 that a computer would beat the world chess champion within 10 years; it took 40. In 1970 Marvin Minsky predicted that computers would have human-like general intelligence “within three to eight years”, a prediction even more inaccurate than Mr Simon’s.

A more encouraging story is that we are understating productivity, for example, by undervaluing the output of services in general and the digital economy in particular, much of which is free and therefore invisible to normal measures of economic output.

A third possibility is that — to borrow an idea from the writer William Gibson — the future has already arrived, but it is unevenly distributed. Perhaps the zero-sum scramble to dominate winner-takes-all markets is simply squandering most of the potential gains.

To tease apart these accounts, a research paper by a team including both sides: Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist well known for his writings on “the new machine age”, and Chad Syverson, one of the leading experts on economic productivity.

The researchers argue that the productivity slowdown is real. It may feel plausible to suggest our data simply are not good enough to recognise that productivity is growing strongly, but the story seems off in a number of ways — most obviously that the productivity shortfall is just too large to be a statistical illusion. Something similar can be said for the zero-sum fight for corporate dominance: it may well be happening, but is it really so wasteful that huge productivity gains simply evaporate?

How, then, to resolve the puzzle? In the simplest way possible: to say, “just wait”. There is no contradiction between disappointing productivity growth now and spectacular productivity growth in the near future.

This is true in the narrow statistical sense that productivity growth tends to bounce around: a bad decade may be followed by another bad decade, or by a good one, and today’s productivity growth tells us little about tomorrow’s.

But it is also true that there tends to be a delay between a technical breakthrough and a productivity surge. The most famous case in point is the electric motor, which seemed poised to transform American manufacturing in the 1890s, but did not realise that potential until the 1920s. To take advantage of the new technology, factory owners had to turn their organisations upside down, with new architecture, processes and training. Prof Brynjolfsson’s early research in the 1990s found companies saw little benefit from investing in computers unless they also reorganised.

If the benefits of today’s new ideas are real but delayed, that may also explain the productivity slowdown itself. Consider the self-driving car: right now it is a research expense, all cost and no benefit. Later, it will start to displace traditional cars, the traditional car industry, and many related businesses from parking garages to automotive repair. Finally, perhaps decades after a self-driving car becomes feasible, the full benefits are likely to be apparent. One does not simply invent a new machine: economic progress requires much more than that.

Perhaps, then, this is a brief lull before an explosion of new technology that will radically reshape the world around us. Or perhaps we are due for another decade or two of disappointment. Either scenario seems possible — and both of them promise an uncomfortable ride.

 
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 17 November 2017.

My new book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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The dangers of dark nudging

“If you want people to do the right thing, make it easy.”

That is the simplest possible summary of Nudge (UK) (US) by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. We are all fallible creatures, and so benevolent policymakers need to make sure that the path of least resistance goes to a happy destination. It is a simple but important idea, and deservedly influential: Mr Sunstein became a senior adviser to President Obama, while Mr Thaler is this year’s winner of the Nobel memorial prize in economics.

Policy wonks have nudged people to sign up for organ donation, to increase their pension contributions — and even insulate their homes by coupling home insulation with an attic-decluttering service. All we have to do is make it easy for people to do the right thing.

But what if you want people to do the wrong thing? The answer: make that easy; or make the right thing difficult. Messrs Thaler and Sunstein are well aware of the risk of malign nudges, and have been searching for the right word to describe them. Mr Thaler likes “sludge” — obfuscatory language or procedures that accidentally or deliberately encourage inertia. Voter ID laws, he says, are a good example of sludge, calculated to softly disenfranchise. Meanwhile Mr Sunstein has written an entire book about the “ethics of influence” (UK) (US).

And as we are starting to realise, Vladimir Putin is well aware of the opportunity that behavioural science presents, too. Rumours circulate that the Russian authorities are keen recruiters of young psychologists and behavioural economists; I have no proof of that, but it seems like a reasonable thing for the Russian government to do. I am willing to bet that not all of them are working on attic-decluttering.

According to Richard Burr, chair of the US Senate intelligence committee, Russian troll accounts on Facebook managed to organise both a protest and a counter-protest in Houston, in May 2016. Americans are perfectly willing to face off against each other on the streets, but if you want it to happen more often, make it easy.

A number of other memes, political advertisements and provocateur accounts — both left- and rightwing — have since been identified as of Russian origin. Social media networks have unwittingly sold them air time; news sites have cited them; people have shared them, or spent effort refuting them. Nudge isn’t the word for this, but neither is sludge. What about “grudge”?

The Russians are not alone in using grudge theory to manipulate public opinion. Three social scientists — Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts — recently managed to infiltrate networks of shills in China, who are paid to post helpful messages on Chinese social media. (Their nickname is the “50 cent army”.) Unlike the Russian trolls, their aim has been to avoid engaging “in debate or argument of any kind . . . they seem to avoid controversial issues entirely”. The tactic is, rather, to keep changing the subject, especially at politically sensitive moments, by talking about the weather, sports — anything. If you want potential protesters to make cheery small talk instead, make it easy.

Just as noble tools can be turned to wicked ends, so shady techniques can be used to do the work of the angels. For example, why not disrupt online markets for illegal drugs by leaving bad reviews for vendors? Research by social scientists Scott Duxbury and Dana Haynie suggests that because people rely on user reviews on illicit markets, law enforcement officers could attack those markets by faking negative reviews, thus undermining trust.

The parallel with Mr Putin is alarmingly clear: it is possible to attack democracy and rational discourse by creating an information ecosystem where everyone yells at everyone else and nobody believes anything.

But we should not give too much credit to Mr Putin. He did not create the information ecosystem of the western world; we did. The Russians just gave us a push, and probably not a very big push at that. Perhaps I should say they gave us a nudge.

Social media do seem vulnerable to dark nudges from foreign powers. But more worrying is our vulnerability to smears, skews and superficiality without any outside intervention at all. Messrs Sunstein and Thaler ask policymakers to make it easy to do the right thing; what have we made it easy to do?

It is easy to find a like-minded tribe. It is easy to share, retweet or “like” something we have not even read. It is easy to repeat false claims. It is easy to get angry or personal.

It’s less easy to distinguish truth from lies, to clear time and attention to read something deep, and to reward an important article with something more than a digital thumbs up. But then, none of this is fundamental to the business model of many media companies — or of the social media networks that spread the news.

Nudge, sludge or grudge, we can change this. And we should start by asking ourselves whether when it comes to news, information and debate, we have made it difficult to do the right thing — and all too easy to stray.

 

 
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 10 November 2017.

My new book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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A way to poke Facebook off its uncontested perch

We need to talk about Facebook. Google (or Alphabet, if you prefer) is more ubiquitous; Apple makes more money; Amazon is a more obvious threat to the bricks-and-mortar economy; yet there is something uniquely troubling about the social media leviathan.

One concern is Facebook’s unwholesome contribution to our diet of information. Because what we see in Facebook is a function of what our friends share, the site echoes our prejudices. This effect is accentuated — at least modestly — by Facebook’s own algorithms, which have learnt to show us more of what we like to keep our eyeballs on the site.

Then there is accuracy. Whether what we are shown is true or false does not much matter for Facebook’s business model, unless we start to show more interest in not being lied to. For now, fake news entrepreneurs have realised that it is far more profitable to invent eye-catching fables than to research and confirm the everyday truth.

We are also beginning to realise that Facebook is the perfect vector for carefully-targeted advertisements containing dark political smears. A false claim in a TV spot or the side of a campaign bus can be challenged; a false claim carefully targeted to a few thousand voters in a swing state may go unchallenged and, for that matter, unnoticed except by the intended few.

These problems are sometimes exaggerated, and are not Facebook’s alone: Twitter is politically polarised; Google also shows targeted ads; and few Facebook news feeds are as relentlessly blinkered as the pages of a British tabloid newspaper. But Facebook bundles them into a uniquely powerful package.

And the inconvenient fact is that Facebook seems to make us miserable. We log on like joyless addicts, two billion of us each month. I doubt that we truly value Facebook. But we use it anyway. Writing in the London Review of Books, John Lanchester cites numerous studies that suggest Facebook use goes hand in hand with envy and sadness, and quite plausibly causes them. It is also a notorious time-sink and source of distraction.

None of this is good, unless you are Facebook. But behind all these injuries is a final insult: there is no serious alternative. Buyers of Microsoft’s Office and Apple’s iPhone could choose something else. Even dominant services such as Google’s search or Amazon’s store could in principle be challenged. It would be no easy thing to build a better rival, but anyone who did would be just a click away.

In contrast, making a superior social network app is not enough to unseat Facebook: the main appeal of the site is that everyone already uses it. A rival social network would need to somehow attract groups of users en masse, an extremely difficult prospect. Two of the companies that were managing it — WhatsApp and Instagram — were bought by Facebook. It is hard to understand why regulators thought these mergers were benign.

The lack of competition may explain why Facebook retains its grip on our attention despite being clunky and pernicious; a company that faces no serious competition can afford to stop worrying about keeping its users happy. It is easy to imagine a better social network than Facebook: more privacy, a slicker interface, and less fake news. It is not so easy to see how such a rival could tempt entire social groups to migrate together.

Could regulators change this? Perhaps. They could certainly have been more aggressive in scrutinising mergers. But traditional measures such as price regulation seem less relevant to what is, after all, a free service.  Instead, we should ask ourselves if we can find a way to re-introduce serious competition in social networking.

Luigi Zingales and Guy Rolnik of the University of Chicago have proposed an intriguing idea. They build on the concept of “number portability”, the principle that you own your own phone number, and you can take your number with you to a different phone provider. The idea has promise in retail banking.

Zingales and Rolnik suggest an analogy: social graph portability. The idea is that I could take my Facebook contacts with me to another service — call it “ZingBook”. I could read their Facebook posts on ZingBook and they could see my ZingBook posts over on Facebook.  I can send emails from any program or service provider to any other, so why not guarantee interconnection between social networks? I would get whatever it was I liked about ZingBook while maintaining contact with my own social network back on Facebook.

In practice, the Zingales/Rolnik idea faces serious stumbling blocks — making the technology work, preventing cheating, and navigating permissions. If a friend decides to move over to, say, NaziBook, will he still receive my Facebook content? Will I even know where my words are now being viewed?  But the idea of social graph portability squarely addresses one of the big issues of 21st-century economic policy. The new tech titans need serious competition. For a social network, serious competition needs new rules to enable it.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 3 November 2017.

My new book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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What AlphaGo Zero teaches us about what’s going wrong with innovation

It is hard not to be impressed — and perhaps a little alarmed — by the progression. In 1997, IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue beat the world’s greatest chess player, Garry Kasparov. It was a hugely expensive piece of hardware, closely tended and coached by humans.

Go is a far harder game for computers to master than chess. Yet when the AlphaGo programme emerged with muted fanfare in 2016, it comfortably outclassed the world’s best Go players after a few months of training.

Then last week, the AI research firm DeepMind unveiled AlphaGo Zero. It is faster, uses less hardware, beat its predecessor AlphaGo by 100 games to none, and is entirely self-taught. What is more, it achieved this performance after just 72 hours of practice.

The bewildering progress of AlphaGo Zero has fed an already-febrile anxiety about a robot takeover causing mass unemployment. Yet that anxiety sits uneasily with the high employment rates and disappointing productivity growth we see in the US and particularly the UK. There are plenty of jobs, but apparently not a lot of innovation.

There are various possible explanations for this paradox, but the simplest one is this: AlphaGo Zero is an outlier. Productivity and technological progress are lacklustre because the research behind AlphaGo Zero is not typical of the way we try to produce new ideas.

Mr Kasparov’s own perspective on this is fascinating. In his recent book, Deep Thinking (UK) (US), he quotes the late computer scientist Alan Perlis: “Optimization hinders evolution”. In the case of computer chess, Perlis’s maxim describes researchers who chose pragmatic short-cuts for quick results. Deeper, riskier research was neglected. IBM’s priority with Deep Blue was not knowledge, but victory — and victory was a scientific dead end.

That is a shame. Computing pioneers such as Alan Turing and Claude Shannon (UK) (US) believed that chess might be a fertile field of research to develop artificial intelligence in more meaningful areas. This hope was quickly sidelined by brute-force approaches that taught us little but played strong chess.

It is easy to see why a commercial company would have had little interest in the early pattern-recognition techniques now refined by AlphaGo. Mr Kasparov describes an attempt to use them in chess; observing that grandmasters promptly won games in which they had sacrificed their queens, the machine concluded that it should sacrifice its own queen at every opportunity. Yet in the end, these pattern-recognition techniques have proved far more powerful and generally applicable than the methods used by the best chess-playing computers; the question is whether we wish to change our world, or merely win a chess game.

This is not just a cautionary tale about chess. Corporations have reined in their ambitions elsewhere. Corporate research laboratories once bankrolled fundamental research of the highest importance. Leo Esaki of Sony and IBM won a Nobel Prize in physics, as did Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments. Irving Langmuir of General Electric won a Nobel in chemistry. Bell Labs boasted too many Nobel laureates to list — along with Shannon himself. It was a time when companies weren’t afraid to invest in basic science.

That has changed, as a research paper from three economists — Ashish Arora, Sharon Belenzon, and Andrea Patacconi — shows. Companies still invest heavily in innovation, but the focus is on practical applications rather than basic science, and research is often outsourced to smaller outfits whose intellectual property can easily be bought and sold.

Corporate researchers produce more patents but they are less visible in the pages of learned journals. As Prof Arora puts it, research and development has become “less R, more D”. The AlphaGo research, he says, is an exception. And this matters because most basic research ends up being commercially useful eventually. We like the golden eggs, but we may be starving the golden goose.

All this need not be disastrous if other research bodies such as universities fill in the gap. Yet this is not something to take for granted. As the economist Benjamin F. Jones has documented, new ideas are harder to find. One sign of this is the complexity of research teams, which are larger, full of increasingly specialised researchers and ever costlier.

Perhaps it is naive to simply exhort companies to spend more on fundamental research — but somebody has to. One interesting approach is for governments to fund “innovation prizes” for breakthroughs. Such prizes mobilise public funds and public goals while deploying the agility and diversity of private sector approaches. But such prizes only work in certain situations.

Professional sport has made fashionable the practice of “marginal gains” — rapid optimisation in search of the tiniest edge. It turns out that corporate research took the same turn decades ago. There is nothing wrong with marginal improvements, but they must not be allowed to crowd out more speculative research. Science is a deeper, messier practice than sport. We must continue to devote time, space and money to bigger, riskier leaps.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 27 Oct 2017.

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Disruption can be a benefit – shame our politicians are giving us the wrong sort

“We seem to be living in the riskiest moment of our lives, and yet the stock market seems to be napping,” said Richard Thaler recently. He is not alone in expressing such views, although since he had just won the Nobel memorial prize in economics, his comment understandably drew attention.

Money is loose and global economic growth is robust, yet the strength and the stability of the S&P 500 is still puzzling. This week it was the 30th anniversary of Black Monday, the largest-ever one-day crash in US stock prices, and it is eerily quiet.

One explanation of the puzzle is that markets have finally got smart: when behavioural economists turned their attention to financial markets in the 1980s, two key findings were that shares were implausibly volatile and implausibly cheap. They are now much less volatile and much less cheap; perhaps that is simply a long-awaited recognition of the way things should be. Perhaps.

An alternative view is that, while 2017 seems risky, it really isn’t. This is hard to believe. Among the obvious political risks: Donald Trump’s attempts to undermine both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal; the rise of the far right in Germany and Austria, with Marine Le Pen waiting for President Emmanuel Macron to stumble in France; serious unrest in Spain over the Catalan independence movement; a Brexit process that seems as unclear as ever; and of course, the small-yet-conceivable chance of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula. This is no time to panic, but it hardly seems a time for euphoria either.

There is never a good moment to create uncertainty over the prospects of a nuclear first strike. As the great Thomas Schelling once explained: “If I go downstairs to investigate a noise at night, with a gun in my hand, and find myself face to face with a burglar who has a gun in his hand, there is a danger of an outcome that neither of us desires. Even if he prefers to just leave quietly, and I wish him to, there is danger.” The danger results from mutual uncertainty over what the other person may do.

Other threats are less apocalyptic, but still have the potential to cause serious economic harm. Those who think Brexit will boost the British economy — I am not among them — have begun to acknowledge that the uncertainty is damaging. Business can no longer afford to wait for the British government to finish negotiations with itself and begin serious negotiations with the EU27.

Similar damage is likely to be done by Donald Trump’s attacks on Nafta. As the economist Nuno Limão has shown, unpredictable trade policy is itself a form of trade barrier.

And yet, despite all these political risks, the world economy might benefit from a little more disruption. Whether a more volatile stock market might usefully puncture complacency, in the real economy volatility can be an asset. We should expect old companies to fade and die, being absorbed or replaced by fresh ideas: that corporate failure is the flip side of economic vitality.

For example, a study by Kathy Fogel, Randall Morck and Bernard Yeung — published in 2008 — compiled lists of the 10 largest employers in each of 44 countries across the world. More churn in the list was a sign of a strongly growing economy, and a predictor of fast growth to come, too. The results were being driven by the extinction of corporate dinosaurs more than the rapid ascent of new stars.

The upbeat word to describe this process of success through failure is dynamism. But economic dynamism is at risk. The economist John Haltiwanger has charted a fall since the early 1980s in the rate of start-ups, business exits, job creation and job destruction. It is probably not a coincidence that low-productivity companies are able to limp on rather than disappearing.

Calm waters eventually stagnate. It is time to agitate the real economy. But how? Even acts of economic vandalism such as a train-crash Brexit can have unexpected benefits, much as Tube strikes have been shown to help some commuters discover better routes. Yet overall the costs of chaos seem likely to outweigh the benefits.

There are more positive ways to shake things up: looser planning regulations in the sclerotic UK economy, more infrastructure in much of the western world, and support for small-business finance, would all add much needed fizz to the economic system.

And the authorities could be much more assertive in challenging market power. According to the economist Luigi Zingales, federal antitrust cases in the US were five times more common between 1970 and 1999 than since the year 2000. In a world of high profits and high concentration, that passivity is hard to excuse.

I have little doubt that financial markets will rediscover the knack of panicking in due course, but the real economy may need more help. If only our politicians would stop shaking the nitro-glycerine of geopolitics, and start stirring the cocktail of market forces instead.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 20 October 2017.

My new book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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Richard Thaler: How to change minds and influence people

The best thing about Thaler, what really makes him special, is that he is lazy.” So said Daniel Kahneman, winner in 2002 of the Nobel memorial prize in economics. Prof Kahneman was talking about Richard Thaler, who has emulated that achievement 15 years later. Prof Thaler’s thesis adviser, the economist Sherwin Rosen, put it differently: “We didn’t expect much of him.”

The story of how a lazy and unpromising man won a Nobel memorial prize is perhaps just as important as what he won the prize for. The Nobel announcement recognised Prof Thaler “for his contributions to behavioural economics”. But there’s another way to describe the way he reshaped economics: he persuaded a large group of successful people with a strongly held view of the world to change their minds.

What was that view? To oversimplify, it was that all of us are Spock-like rational optimisers, able to instantly trade off risk and reward, rebalance a spending plan in the face of a price change, and resist temptations such as chocolate brownies or payday loans.

Of course, no economist has ever quite believed this. But for several decades most economists believed that departures from the world of Spock were small enough, rare enough and random enough that they could be ignored. Humans weren’t quite like Spock, yet when building economic models and formulating economic policies, we could treat them as if they were.

This approach is not as absurd as it might seem. It’s flexible, powerful, and consistent. It is often close enough to reality to be useful. Prof Thaler himself told me: “If you want one unifying theory of economic behaviour, you won’t do better than the neoclassical model.”

Yet the power of the neoclassical approach made it hard to challenge. Prof Thaler wasn’t the first Nobel laureate to operate outside that paradigm — others include Maurice Allais, Herb Simon and Thomas Schelling. Yet all these men, while admired, did not manage to divert the mainstream of economic thought beyond the well-worn channel of rational optimisation. It was Prof Thaler who shifted the norms of how economics is practised, both in academia and in the policy world.

Behavioural economics is now respectable in places from the American Economic Review to the World Bank. Whether or not you think behavioural economics matters, as a feat of persuading people to change their minds this is a case worth studying. So how did he do it? We could all do with knowing, because the world is full of stubborn-minded people who need to be persuaded to change their views about important things.

Part of the story is simple persistence: Prof Thaler’s first behavioural economics paper was published in 1980; he has been banging this drum for a long time. More important was that Prof Thaler fully understood what he was criticising. It is all too easy to attack those with whom we disagree based on the haziest idea of what they think and why they think it. But he grasped perfectly why his fellow economists embraced rationality, and the arguments (good and bad) they used to defend it. Prof Thaler engaged honestly and thoughtfully with the mainstream.

His third technique was to look at the facts — not only clever statistics, but everyday facts about human existence. We find snack food hard to resist. We divide up money into separate mental accounts — rainy-day money, an entertainment budget, money for food, money for clothes. If we find a fine old bottle of port in the attic, we might refuse to sell it for hundreds of pounds, even though we would not dream of spending a three figure sum on a bottle of anything. Having secured agreement on these facts, he then moved to arguing that they might matter.

Finally, Prof Thaler engaged people’s sense of curiosity. His long running series “Anomalies”, published in the widely-read scholarly Journal of Economic Perspectives, would often begin with a puzzle — some piece of behaviour or pattern in the data that simply didn’t make sense from the mainstream point of view. He would then explore the puzzle, extend it, and consider various possible solutions.

Economists would talk about these anomalies in faculty coffee rooms. They would, at Prof Thaler’s invitation, send in their own suggestions. Rather than telling his opponents they were wrong, Prof Thaler would present a conundrum and invite everyone to discuss it together. One of his critics, the great Chicago economist Merton Miller, was reduced to complaining that Prof Thaler’s anomalies were a distraction from serious modelling because they were simply too interesting.

Which brings us back to his laziness. Prof Kahneman thought Prof Thaler’s laziness made him “special” because it meant that he could only be bothered to work on the most fascinating questions. Maybe.

But perhaps the truth is that laziness isn’t special at all. Prof Thaler realised that most of us are lazy. Most of us don’t want to think hard about our beliefs, or challenges to them. His solution was to make sure those challenges were simply too intriguing to ignore.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 13 Oct 2017.

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Monty Hall and the game show stick-or-switch conundrum

Forget Fermat’s last theorem. The most vexing challenge in mathematics just might be the Monty Hall problem. Monty Hall — born Monte Halparin — presented nearly 5,000 episodes of Let’s Make a Deal, the US game show that inspired the puzzle.

It is an onion of a conundrum; layer after layer, and guaranteed to make you cry. The puzzle is this: a contestant faces three doors. Behind one of them is a big prize such as a Cadillac. Each of the other two doors conceals a booby prize such as a goat.

The contestant chooses a door, hoping to win the grand prize. But just as the door is about to be opened, Hall steps in and halts proceedings. He opens one of the other two doors instead, revealing a goat. Then he turns to the contestant. Would they like to switch to the other closed door? Or would they prefer to stick with their original choice?

The problem was initially posed in The American Statistician in 1975, by Steve Selvin, but achieved national prominence when Marilyn vos Savant wrote about it in Parade in 1990. She suggested that it pays to switch doors. Her reward was a mailbag full of letters assuring her she was wrong — some from prominent mathematicians. John Kay’s inbox also overflowed when he addressed the problem in 2005 in the Financial Times.

What should the contestant do? Mathematically, it seems not to matter: there are two doors now, so surely they face a 50-50 proposition. And as it happens, many people prefer to stick. They have made their choice and would regret switching if it did not work out.

More careful analysis, however, reveals that the contestant should switch. One way to think of the problem is to notice that their chance of picking the grand prize was initially one in three.

Hall’s intervention does not change that, but it does guarantee that if they failed to pick the correct door initially then they will definitely get the prize by switching. Two times out of three, switching will win the prize.

A second way to think about the problem is to exaggerate the underlying process. Imagine 100 doors, but still only one grand prize. The contestant picks a door, probably not the correct one. Hall then opens 98 other doors, revealing no prize.

Should we really conclude that we have learnt nothing about the other door? The first door was picked at random but the one that Hall has left closed was selected with great care. With probability of 99 per cent, switching will win the prize.

A third way to attack the puzzle is to run an experiment. It will quickly reveal what intuition does not: the contestant should switch. In Ms vos Savant’s experience, many mathematicians changed their minds only on the basis of empirical evidence — which is revealing, since the underlying proof, using Bayes’ theorem, is not especially technical.

Some people will find these explanations persuasive, and others will not. Over the years I have concluded that there is something about the Monty Hall problem that makes it wonderfully resistant to our intuitions.

And there is a twist in the tale, too: after Ms vos Savant brought the problem to national attention, the journalist John Tierney visited Hall himself and they began to play the game repeatedly at his dining-room table, with car keys representing the grand prize and a pack of raisins serving as the goat. At first, things went as Mr Selvin and Ms vos Savant had explained: switching won the prize far more often.

Then, suddenly, things changed. At the beginning of a game, Mr Tierney pointed to one of the options. “Too bad,” said Hall, immediately. “You’ve just won a goat.”

He did not offer Mr Tierney a chance to switch. He did not always make such an offer in the game show — why should he make it now?

Hall’s change of approach turns a probability puzzle into what we might call a cheesecake bet. In the musical Guys and Dolls, Nathan Detroit offers Sky Masterson a bet that Mindy’s sells more strudel than cheesecake. Sky is sceptical, and rightly so, since Nathan already knows the answer. For much the same reason, a contestant in Let’s Make a Deal should ask themself: “If it is really such a good idea to switch, then why has Hall offered me the chance?”

I have great respect for the way Ms vos Savant faced down a posse of contemptuous mathematicians. But we must be careful not to confuse a precise mathematical description of a game for the vagaries of reality itself, something Nassim Nicholas Taleb has named the “ludic fallacy”. Rigorous mathematical thinking can be invaluable, or it can leave you blinkered and on the wrong side of a cheesecake bet.

The solution to the formal Monty Hall problem is counterintuitive and incontrovertible. But the right approach in the game show depended on what Hall himself was trying to do in offering the choice. Was he benevolent, malevolent, or simply aiming for great television?

Alas, we can no longer ask him. Hall died in September. But the Monty Hall problem will live on.

 
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 6 October 2017.

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Undercover Economist

The pendulum swings against privatisation

Political fashions can change quickly, as a glance at almost any western democracy will tell you. The pendulum of the politically possible swings back and forth. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the debates over privatisation and nationalisation.

In the late 1940s, experts advocated nationalisation on a scale hard to imagine today. Arthur Lewis thought the government should run the phone system, insurance and the car industry. James Meade wanted to socialise iron, steel and chemicals; both men later won Nobel memorial prizes in economics.

They were in tune with the times: the British government ended up owning not only utilities and heavy industry but airlines, travel agents and even the removal company, Pickfords. The pendulum swung back in the 1980s and early 1990s, as Margaret Thatcher and John Major began an ever more ambitious series of privatisations, concluding with water, electricity and the railways. The world watched, and often followed suit.

Was it all worth it? The question arises because the pendulum is swinging back again: Jeremy Corbyn, the bookies’ favourite to be the next UK prime minister, wants to renationalise the railways, electricity, water and gas. (He has not yet mentioned Pickfords.) Furthermore, he cites these ambitions as a reason to withdraw from the European single market.

That is odd, since there is nothing in single market rules to prevent state ownership of railways and utilities — the excuse seems to be yet another Eurosceptic myth, the leftwing reflection of rightwing tabloids moaning about banana regulation. Since the entire British political class has lost its mind over Brexit, it would be unfair to single out Mr Corbyn on those grounds.

Still, he has reopened a debate that long seemed settled, and piqued my interest. Did privatisation work? Proponents sometimes mention the galvanising effect of the profit motive, or the entrepreneurial spirit of private enterprise. Opponents talk of fat cats and selling off the family silver. Realists might prefer to look at the evidence, and the ambitious UK programme has delivered plenty of that over the years.

There is no reason for a government to own Pickfords, but the calculus of privatisation is more subtle when it comes to natural monopolies — markets that are broadly immune to competition. If I am not satisfied with what Pickford’s has to offer me when I move home, I am not short of options. But the same is not true of the Royal Mail: if I want to write to my MP then the big red pillar box at the end of the street is really the only game in town.

Competition does sometimes emerge in unlikely seeming circumstances. British Telecom seemed to have an iron grip on telephone services in the UK — as did AT&T in the US. The grip melted away in the face of regulation and, more importantly, technological change.

Railways seem like a natural monopoly, yet there are two separate railway lines from my home town of Oxford into London, and two separate railway companies will sell me tickets for the journey. They compete with two bus companies; competition can sometimes seem irrepressible.

But the truth is that competition has often failed to bloom, even when one might have expected it. If I run a bus service at 20 and 50 minutes past the hour, then a competitor can grab my business without competing on price by running a service at 19 and 49 minutes past the hour. Customers will not be well served by that.

Meanwhile electricity and phone companies offer bewildering tariffs, and it is hard to see how water companies will ever truly compete with each other; the logic of geography suggests otherwise.

All this matters because the broad lesson of the great privatisation experiment is that it has worked well when competition has been unleashed, but less well when a government-run business has been replaced by a government-regulated monopoly.

A few years ago, the economist David Parker assembled a survey of post-privatisation performance studies. The most striking thing is the diversity of results. Sometimes productivity soared. Sometimes investors and managers skimmed off all the cream. Revealingly, performance often leapt in the year or two before privatisation, suggesting that state-owned enterprises could be well-run when the political will existed — but that political will was often absent.

My overall reading of the evidence is that privatisation tended to improve profitability, productivity and pricing — but the gains were neither vast nor guaranteed. Electricity privatisation was a success; water privatisation was a disappointment. Privatised railways now serve vastly more passengers than British Rail did. That is a success story but it looks like a failure every time your nose is crushed up against someone’s armpit on the 18:09 from London Victoria.

The evidence suggests this conclusion: the picture is mixed, the details matter, and you can get results if you get the execution right. Our politicians offer a different conclusion: the picture is stark, the details are irrelevant, and we metaphorically execute not our policies but our opponents.

The pendulum swings — but shows no sign of pausing in the centre.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 29 September 2017.

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Undercover Economist

Fatal Attraction of Fake Facts Sours Political Debate

He did it again: Boris Johnson, UK foreign secretary, exhumed the old referendum-campaign lie that leaving the EU would free up £350m a week for the National Health Service. I think we can skip the well-worn details, because while the claim is misleading, its main purpose is not to mislead but to distract. The growing popularity of this tactic should alarm anyone who thinks that the truth still matters.

You don’t need to take my word for it that distraction is the goal. A few years ago, a cynical commentator described the “dead cat” strategy, to be deployed when losing an argument at a dinner party: throw a dead cat on the table. The awkward argument will instantly cease, and everyone will start losing their minds about the cat. The cynic’s name was Boris Johnson.

The tactic worked perfectly in the Brexit referendum campaign. Instead of a discussion of the merits and disadvantages of EU membership, we had a frenzied dead-cat debate over the true scale of EU membership fees. Without the steady repetition of a demonstrably false claim, the debate would have run out of oxygen and we might have enjoyed a discussion of the issues instead.

My point is not to refight the referendum campaign. (Mr Johnson would like to, which itself is telling.) There’s more at stake here than Brexit: bold lies have become the dead cat of modern politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Too many politicians have discovered the attractions of the flamboyant falsehood — and why not? The most prominent of them sits in the White House. Dramatic lies do not always persuade, but they do tend to change the subject — and that is often enough.

It is hard to overstate how corrosive this development is. Reasoned conversation becomes impossible; the debaters hardly have time to clear their throats before a fly-blown moggie hits the table with a rancid thud.

Nor is it easy to neutralise a big, politicised lie. Trustworthy nerds can refute it, of course: the fact-checkers, the independent think-tanks, or statutory bodies such as the UK Statistics Authority. But a politician who is unafraid to lie is also unafraid to smear these organisations with claims of bias or corruption — and then one problem has become two. The Statistics Authority and other watchdogs need to guard jealously their reputation for truthfulness; the politicians they contradict often have no such reputation to worry about.

Researchers have been studying the problem for years, after noting how easily charlatans could debase the discussion of smoking, vaccination and climate change. A good starting point is The Debunking Handbook by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, which summarises a dispiriting set of discoveries.

One problem that fact-checkers face is the “familiarity effect”: the endless arguments over the £350m-a-week lie (or Barack Obama’s birthplace, or the number of New Jersey residents who celebrated the destruction of the World Trade Center) is that the very process of rebutting the falsehood ensures that it is repeated over and over again. Even someone who accepts that the lie is a lie would find it much easier to remember than the truth.

A second obstacle is the “backfire effect”. My son is due to get a flu vaccine this week, and some parents at his school are concerned that the flu vaccine may cause flu. It doesn’t. But in explaining that I risk triggering other concerns: who can trust Big Pharma these days? Shouldn’t kids be a bit older before being exposed to these strange chemicals? Some (not all) studies suggest that the process of refuting the narrow concern can actually harden the broader worldview behind it.

Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale, points out that issues such as vaccination or climate change — or for that matter, the independence of the UK Statistics Authority — do not become politicised by accident. They are dragged into the realm of polarised politics because it suits some political entrepreneur to do so. For a fleeting partisan advantage, Donald Trump has falsely claimed that vaccines cause autism. Children will die as a result. And once the intellectual environment has become polluted and polarised in this way, it’s extraordinarily difficult to draw the poison out again.

This is a damaging game indeed. All of us tend to think tribally about politics: we absorb the opinions of those around us. But tribal thinking pushes us to be not only a Republican but also a Republican and a vaccine sceptic. One cannot be just for Brexit; one must be for Brexit and against the UK Statistics Authority. Of course it is possible to resist such all-encompassing polarisation, and many people do. But the pull of tribal thinking on all of us is strong.

There are defences against the dead cat strategy. With skill, a fact-check may debunk a false claim without accidentally reinforcing it. But the strongest defence is an electorate that cares, that has more curiosity about the way the world really works than about cartoonish populists. If we let politicians drag facts into their swamp, we are letting them tug at democracy’s foundations.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 23 September 2017.

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Undercover Economist

Echoes of a bygone age show Britain losing its sense of direction

“It’s that 1970s vibe again,” a senior colleague tells me. This being the Financial Times I presume he is picking up echoes of a bygone economic and political milieu, rather than gleefully anticipating the re-emergence of flares or X-rated movie theatres. Either way, it is hard to venture a firm opinion on the matter: as late as the 1990s, I was still at school. My recollection of James Callaghan is pretty hazy, and I know Edward Heath only through a charming book of Christmas carols that he compiled after leaving office. (Millennials and foreigners confused by the direction this column is taking may be interested to know that both men were UK prime ministers.)

There certainly are parallels: now, as then, politics is dominated by the two big parties; the nation is led by a weak minority government; and Jeremy Corbyn’s views seem politically relevant. There is even an economic echo: the unemployment rate, at 4.3 per cent, is back down to the levels last seen in 1975, when I was in nappies.

But in other ways it feels absurd to compare today’s economy with that of 40 years ago. The uptick in inflation that has attracted some attention this week — to 2.9 per cent on the consumer price index measure — is a molehill compared with the Himalayan peaks of yesteryear, with retail price index inflation rarely slipping below 10 per cent per year and sometimes exceeding 25 per cent. With inflation at 25 per cent, prices double every three years; with inflation at 2.9 per cent the doubling would take a generation. Bank of England base rates then shuttled breathlessly between 5 and 15 per cent — whereas they sit today, as they have done since 2009, at record lows. The price of oil remains of interest not because it has spiked but because it has halved.

And rather than joining the European Economic Community in a desperate attempt to save the British economy, we are now leaving in a desperate attempt to . . . well, I am still trying to figure that one out.

But those are the dry numbers. What of the zeitgeist, the more ineffable spirit of the times? That is a curious question. Dominic Sandbrook, a leading British historian of the 1970s, reminds us of the words of Callaghan to his Labour party colleagues in 1974: “Our place in the world is shrinking: our economic comparisons grow worse, long-term political influence depends on economic strength — and that is running out . . . If I were a young man, I should emigrate.”

Callaghan’s mournful diagnosis cuts deep today. Much of the country knows how he felt. But the curious thing is that half of them believe that the UK was doing just fine until we voted for a once-in-a-generation act of self-harm last June. The other half were as gloomy as Callaghan until the Brexit vote gave them hope. Say what you like about the 1970s, at least their grimness is a fact that we can agree on.

Then, national humiliation was inflicted by the need to approach the International Monetary Fund for help — and everyone could agree that this was not an encouraging development. Now, national humiliation is in the eye of the beholder and we have either broken free of decades of subjugation to Brussels — or voted to make ourselves a laughing stock. I hope the rest of the world is enjoying the joke, at least. Our foreign secretary is Boris Johnson, our prime minister is “strong and stable”, our foreign policy is built on the steadfastness of President Donald Trump, and our back-up plans include Mr Corbyn and the Conservative member of parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Economically, our 2017-era service industries and just-in-time supply chains are highly unlikely to survive a hard Brexit unscathed, despite the gung-ho cheerleading of a few economists who seem to think nothing much has changed in international economics since David Ricardo outlined the principle of comparative advantage in 1817.

Jill Lepore, a Harvard history professor, commented not long ago that she was wary of glib historical comparisons: “Trump is like Andrew Jackson”; “Cryptocurrencies are like the tulip bubble”. Rather than squashing together the past and present like an accordion, she advocates expanding the instrument, “stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance”.

So if we stretch the accordion out, what do we see? A country that becomes more open, liberal, tolerant, wealthy and confident but also more economically unequal. The rise in inequality largely took place in the 1980s, but only became politically salient after the banking crisis of 2007. But also, perhaps, a country that now, as then, has lost a sense of direction. What ever you think of the journey, we travelled a long way under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. But we have been becalmed now for a decade. Where exactly are we going? Ponder again this week’s unemployment and inflation numbers, which reinforce the picture of the UK economy that has become familiar: plenty of jobs, but not a lot of money.
The nation, like its government, is working flat out and going nowhere.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 15 September 2017.

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