The idea of a “marriage market”

For those not familiar with the idea of a “marriage market”, consider the following quote from Gary Becker from his paper “A Theory of Marriage, Part 1” (emphasis own),

“Two simple principles form the heart of the analysis. The first is that, since marriage is practically always voluntary … the theory of preferences can be readily applied, and persons marrying can be assumed to expect to raise their utility level above what it would be were they to remain single. The second is that, since many men and many women compete as they seek mates, a market can be presumed to exist. Each person tries to find the best mate, subject to … market conditions” (p. 814)

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Vegetarians and Profits

Like most people, vegetarians have some weird opinions. Let’s assume that they have the ultimate goal of fewer live-stock deaths and less chattel cattle. Ask a vegetarian what they are achieving by choosing not to eat meat and you’ll hear the explanations let loose. By abstaining from meat they’re “reducing factory farm profits” or “helping to keep the price of beef low and unprofitable”. While being a vegetarian may save more cows from the butcher’s blade, it’s not at all clear that vegetarians have a good understanding of their sometimes perpetual boycotts.

What do vegetarians even do?

The decision to consume meat or not falls nicely into the supply-and-demand framework. Fewer people willing to eat meat means fewer purchases of meat products – no matter the price. A decline in meat demand lowers both the number of cows that ranchers will raise a slaughter and the price that they receive. There you have it. By lowering demand for meat, vegetarians reduce both the quantity and price of meat, reducing profits for those evil, animal-carving businessmen.

Not so fast.

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How Should We Teach Public Goods Theory?

Joshua Hendrickson recently wrote about the provision of public goods, and how we teach public goods in economics. My post today is not so much a reply to Hendrickson, but is inspired by his mediation on public goods as I gear up to teach another semester of Public Finance.

The theory of public goods that economists discuss among themselves is pretty straightforward: when a good is both non-rival and non-excludable, there is a strong case for government intervention of some sort (though not necessarily public provision). The opposite is true when a good is both rival and excludable: there is a strong case for laissez faire.

Seems simple enough, right? But communicating this concept to undergraduates and the general public has been a major challenge. Part of the confusion arises from the term itself, “public good.” Non-economists tend to use the term interchangeably with the notion of “the common good, as is clear from Wikipedia, a dictionary, or a conversation with your grandma. For this reason, I sometimes substitute the awkward phrase “collective consumption good” (this is actually Samuelson’s term in his classic article on the topic), but all the textbooks so use it so I often default to the standard terminology.

From Jonathan Gruber’s Public Finance and Public Policy

But I think there’s a deeper problem than just terminology. Economists have put themselves in a box. Literally. Here’s a standard 2×2 matrix from Jonathan Gruber’s undergraduate public finance textbook. I don’t mean to pick on Gruber here — this is a pretty standard presentation. You can find it in many microeconomics textbooks too, or on Wikipedia. Everything goes in a box! It’s a nice stylized way to think of the terminology. It makes for nice test questions. But here’s the real problem with it as a pedagogical tool: it doesn’t seem to help many students! Or at least, it doesn’t seem to help them retain the knowledge between their micro principles courses and upper division courses (at least in my experience, I’d be happy to hear others chime in here).

So how can we teach this concept better? I have a few ideas. I’d like to hear yours too.

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The Kalecki Profit Equation: Why Government Deficit Spending (Typically) MUST Boost Corporate Earnings

Some equations or relations in economics are inspired guesswork, which may or may not precisely describe the real world. There are other equations which always hold, since they are simple accounting identities. The Kalecki Profit Equation is of the latter type. It describes precisely the factors which determine corporate profits. Knowing this relation can give investors a leg up in predicting earnings.

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An Army of Fools

Armies, both for violence and social change, are costly. Costly to recruit, to train, to provision. But what of mobs? Mobs are cheap, if difficult to plan. Born of the moment, more opportunism born of wildfire than carefully orchestrated arson.

When I see footage of the attack on the Capitol and threads of the angry anonymous on Twitter, I see something in between an army and a mob. At first glance they appear like mobs, phenomena emerging from countless micro-interactions, absent an organizing force. Within the chaos of recent years, however, we’re seeing increased evidence of organizing agents. Within the scores of angry teenagers on the social media warpath for a stronger welfare state and MAGA zealots pushing white ethno-nationalism, we’re finding incepting Russian trolls and coordinating Capitol intruders equipped for ghastly violent theater. These mobs offer evidence of ambition. Ambition to undermine US governance; ambition to prove true the prophecies of some guy from Jersey.

Social media has radically lowered the cost of rousing a mob. Even in the face of technological advancement, however, it remains an unmitigated truth that you get what you pay for. The rabble are filled to the brim with fools, absent leadership, pulling from the tails of distribution. Those with the lowest opportunity cost of time and risk. If democracies are ruddered by the median voter, what guides the mob? The people with the most time on their hands? The least to lose? The most rage? The most bored?

If the median voter is on social media, they’re listening to the mob and also getting what they paid for. What I’m curious about, however is more statistical in nature. One of the points in favor of the median versus the mean is it’s resilience to outliers. But what happens when the median is endogenous to the outliers? What happens when the median voter finds its information increasingly filtered through an army of fools?

Armies are expensive, but mobs have never been cheaper. Why bother with the risk and investment of raising an army, or build a social movement, when you can raise a mob without leaving your home?

Leopold on supply chain independence

Leopold said when he started his new blog that he would be thinking long-term. He has managed to stop staring at footage of the capital raid last week and produced a forward-looking blog. He is not the first person to speculate that the US has a vulnerability in its reliance on the country we buy the most stuff from.  

Free trade is awesome. Something that is going to link together all EWED writers is a common respect for the power of trade to make lives better. Consumers who have access to world market can have much more great stuff. Enjoying your chair, or your phone, or you lightbulbs right now? It’s great to have access to more stuff and be able tot get it cheaper.

However, there are those who worry that if country A abandons domestic production of widget B, then in the unfortunate/unexpected event of a war, country A will be in trouble. For example, it would be concerning for a military power if they are not able to make any steel themselves.

Should country A use tariffs to stimulate domestic production? Tariffs really bother economists. Tariffs bite into the wonderful benefits of free trade. Since I talk to economists, I have heard a lot of arguments against tariffs. Leopold makes a novel argument against using tariffs to advance national security interests.

The problem with tariffs, however, is that they are royally ineffective at reducing the security vulnerability we are concerned about. A general tariff incentivizes onshoring the production that is cheapest and easiest to onshore—but it is likely the imports for which onshoring would be the most expensive and difficult that present the greatest security vulnerability, as I will explain.  In the language of economics, I argue that the imports that present the greatest security vulnerability are those with the most inelastic import demand—while a general tariff most reduces those imports with the most elastic import demand.

I propose an alternative approach: general per-product quotas. These would better target vulnerability than a general tariff.

Instead of having tariffs, require that a certain number of several products be made domestically. That would be expensive, but we already put up with huge losses from tariffs. We already spend hundreds of billions of dollars on defense. The question is not whether we are going to spend money on defense. How can we spend money in the smartest way that recognizes how markets generate information? Think about the government buying 1,000 digital watches made on a friendly supply chain, and also dispensing with some costly tariffs.

Note that Leopold, if I understand him correctly, uses the word quota to mean that the government will buy a block of domestically produced goods at above-world-market prices. This is different from the way “quota” is sometimes used in international trade. See this MRU video narrated by Alex Tabarrok for a discussion of import quotas versus tariffs, a separate topic.

Fitbit got 2 billion and all I got was an email

I made a Fitbit account years ago, even though I don’t wear one. As a user, I got an email on Jan 14, 2021 alerting me that they just sold Fitbit to Google. The email assured me that Google will not try to muscle Fitbit users away from iPhones or iOS. Google has said that it will keep Fitbit data “separate from other Google ad data.” TechCrunch had some more details for me, including how many billions of dollars Fitbit was getting out of this deal.

Is it so bad to see adsbased on your sleep habits? What if you had a bad night and then saw more coffee ads the next day? Seems fine. Is it more “creepy” than seeing an ad for something you just bought?

I don’t actually know much about Google’s data structure. But I can imagine ways that a large tech company could use Fitbit data in a way that users would not like. What if Google knows that you didn’t sleep well this week. Say someone else is using Google search to find a person to recruit for a desirable job in Public Relations. What if predictive models indicate that people who don’t get at least 6.5 hours of sleep per night are low performers? What if you ended up not getting linked up with your dream job, because you weren’t sleeping well one week? This is all speculative. What if Google starts measure how your heart rate responds to viewing various website that you access through Chrome? Have they agreed to not do that as part of the acquisition deal?

In 2018, Tyler sat down with Eric Schmidt, a senior executive of Google. Tyler asked him why Google doesn’t use their massive stores of data to inform investments for a hedge fund. Here was the reply:

SCHMIDT: Well, I’ll give you a more generic answer, which is, from the moment I joined the company, there were many people who said, “Why don’t you take this information and do something that will use it for marketing purposes?”

And the answer is always the same, which is that you need people’s permission to do that, and you can be sure you won’t get that permission, if you follow that reasoning. So we decided that was a pretty bright line. For example, if a tech company that were a consumer company were bundled with a hedge fund, you would have to disclose that it was being used in that context. The people would go crazy.

But the other thing that’s true — and Google was good about this — is we took the position that it was important for us to disclose everything we were doing as well as we could.

I’ll give you a governance argument. In a large company, the employees are independent citizens of humanity, and if they see corruption in your leadership — in other words, if they see you doing things which are inconsistent with the values, you will be criticized.

Schmidt doesn’t deny that Google could take advantage of data in order to become a successful hedge fun. He says that it would look bad, and Google doesn’t want to look bad even to its own employees. Hmmm, right? I don’t bring this up to accuse Google of wrongdoing. It just makes you wonder how things will unfold in the future. One can, at least, see why the acquisition of Fitbit was scrutinized.

I use Google products heavily on my laptop. I don’t have many “smart” devices aside from my smartphone. I wore the Fitbit step tracker for a few days, but I didn’t find the information to be helpful. It’s not like the Fitbit does the dishes for me or drives me to the gym. Get me that smart device and I’ll look at any ads you want.

Taxes and Commitment

An American tourist in a foreign land surveys the surroundings. Down on the river he sees a boat at a distance coming into town. The men are being whipped as they row the boat filled-to-the-brim with fresh produce. Angered at the sight, the tourist rushes down to the dock to meet them as they unload. He tells the men of their value and worth. He yells at the man who whipped them. Then, a twist happens. The men explain that they were concerned they would not row fast enough and therefore were worried the fresh produce would spoil before getting to market. They hired the monitor to ensure they all rowed fast.

The source of that apocryphal story is unclear, but the economic content is rich. The men were concerned with the free-rider problem and sought a commitment device to ensure their fast rowing. How often are we willing to suffer the lashes of inefficiency to obtain some measure of the public good?

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What’s the Worst Tax?

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when we start to get all those little documents in the mail and electronically showing how much you earned in the past year. The purpose of these little documents, of course, is to complete your federal and state income tax returns. While many Americans dislike paying income taxes, there is another tax that is rated as even worse in surveys: the property tax.

Why do Americans dislike the property tax so much? One popular explanation is that people don’t like the idea that “you never really own your property.” In other words, even after you have paid off your mortgage, you must continue to pay property taxes, which feels like a form of “rent” that you pay to the government. Of course, that “rent” does pay for a variety of public services, primarily K-12 education in most locations, but this still seems to rub many Americans the wrong way. The libertarian phase “taxation is theft” conveys a similar sentiment for income taxes, that you never “really own” your own labor if you must pay taxes on your earnings.

But there is also an economic explanation for the hatred of the property tax: it is very salient, especially to taxpayers that no longer have a mortgage. While those of us that still have a mortgage on our home pay property taxes through our normal monthly mortgage payment, Americans that have paid off their mortgage typically write a check (or two) to pay the full amount of their property tax bill. An interesting paper by Cabral and Hoxby finds that jurisdictions with more taxpayers using escrow for their property taxes (meaning they have a mortgage) also have higher property tax rates. And furthermore, they “find that owners with tax escrow report their taxes much less accurately than those without tax escrow” (look at Figure 2 in the paper to see the huge differences).

Income taxes, on the other hand, are not salient for most Americans. Payroll withholding means that the taxes are taken out before we even get our paycheck, and you’ll only notice them if you look at your pay stub. And about three-quarters of US taxpayers get a tax refund at the end of the year. For most Americans, the only salient part of the income tax system is a check they receive as a refund, rather than writing a check for their property taxes.

What does all this mean? Should income taxes be made more salient? Should property taxes be made less salient? A simple answer could be that all taxes should be equally salient. Or if you view one tax as superior in some way, maybe that tax should be less salient, so there is less opposition to it.

I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I do have a question for readers: do you know your own income tax rate? Specifically, what is the marginal rate on your federal income taxes? I invite readers to write down their guesses, then look up the correct answer. How close were you? Please leave a comment, and be honest!

QE, Stock Prices, and TINA

The U.S. economy as quantified by GDP has been sputtering along in slow growth mode for a number of years. It took a huge hit in 2020 due to covid shutdowns and has not nearly recovered. But stock prices have been rocketing upwards, and this past year is no exception. Markets took a cliff-dive in March, but have since way overshot to the upside.

Here is a plot of the past five decades of U.S. GDP and of the Wilshire 5000 index, which approximates the total stock market capitalization in the U.S.:

Chart Source: St. Louis Fed, as plotted by Lyn Alden Schwartzer

These two curves have crisscrossed each other over the past five decades, but in recent years the stock market has roared to the upside. One of Warren Buffet’s favorite metrics as to whether stock are overvalued is to consider the ratio of these two quantities, i.e. the market-capitalization-to-GDP (Cap/GDP) ratio:

Source: Lyn Alden Schwartzer

The ratio is much higher than it has even been. The last time it got this high was in 2000, and that did not end well.

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