An Economic Model of Loneliness and Being Extremely Online

Bo Burnham is a comedian and musician who, like so many of the artists I enjoy, produces art that I can only describe as extremely specific to him. His newest special on Netflix features a song, “Welcome to the Internet” (some NSFW lyrics), that I liked so much I thought it was worth writing as a formal model.

No, really. Hey, we all need a hobby.

The whole song is a meditation on the overwhelming nature of the internet and is, in my opinion, fantastic. I think if we zero in on two pieces of refrain in the lyrics, we can get some traction in what Burnham believes is the underlying problem, if not outright crisis, that resides within the internet and those that are “extremely online”:

First, the lure:

Could I interest you in everything?
All of the time?
A little bit of everything
All of the time

This is the value-add of the internet and why we can never, and will never, leave it behind willingly. This is also the “cognitive overload” hypothesis of why the internet is bad. Sure, for the infovores of the world there hasn’t been a bigger technological shift since the printing press, but there certainly exists the possibility that most human minds (if any) aren’t built to handle the deluge of information they are drowning in. That’s one theory, but I think that’s the kind of problem that isn’t actually a problem. Some will consume more of the internet, some will consume less, c’est la vie.

It’s in the second half of the refrain, however, that we see the actual problem.

Apathy’s a tragedy
And boredom is a crime
Anything and everything
All of the time

And therein lies the rub. You can’t opt out. But is that true? Well, that depends on who you are and how you live your best life i.e. how you optimize your utility function. So let’s do it. Let’s write down the utility function that lives inside the song. What we’re going to do is this- we’re going to lay out the simple components as natural language, then turn it into formal math, and then bring it back to natural language.

In our Burnhamian mode, people need two things: Private goods like food and shelter and Social Goods like friendship and camraderie. How much Utility you enjoy will always be increasing in both, but the optimal mix will depend on your constraints (wealth, time, accessible population) and the mathematical function determining how much Utility you get from a mix of Private and Social goods i.e. are they additive, multiplicative, or something else. Utility equal to zero is equivalent to death.

Let’s add one last layer of complexity. Let’s say that your Social goods are a function of two kinds of elements: Friends and Clubs. Friends are direct, one-to-one relationships. Clubs are large social groups. We will define and differentiate between the two as such: if you cease to be part of a friendship (whether between 2,3, or 5 people), then that friendship no longer exists in the same form. If you drop out of a club, on the other hand, that club will persist without you.

So what a person has to do is, within their constraints, try to optimize how much of their resources they invest in their Private goods, their Friends, and their Clubs.

The first line is our base model, the second is an expanded version with our two-input model of Social goods. The function we are using is called a Constant Elasticity of Substitution utility function. The key parameter, α, determines how Private and Social goods interact. If α=1, then they are what economists call perfect substitutes. All that matters is how much you have in total of the two inputs, and if you want you could specialize in just one of them. They are perfectly additive. If, on the other hand, α=-∞ (negative infinity), then they are perfect complements, like right and left shoes. There is no point in adding even one more unit of Private goods until you have another unit of Social goods to pair with it. In a sense, they are multiplicative, meaning if either value is zero, then your utility is zero. The value of α will tell us whether the best life requires more of a mix of Social and Private inputs (if they are more complementary), or simply the most of whatever is the easiest to come by (if they are good substitutes for each other).

We’ve nested in our Friends and Clubs production of Social goods as a CES function within the second equation, with a similar story, only here β will determine how much of a mix of Friends and Clubs we want, or whether we can specialize more in one over the other. In the third and last line of the model, we’ve reduced it down to the underlying questions that will tell our story represented by addition and multiplication signs:

Are Private and Social Goods complements (multiplicative) or substitutes (additive) when we internally produce utility? Are Friends and Clubs complements or substitutes when we internally produce our Social goods?

Assumption 1: α= -0.1 Private and Social goods are weak complements. What this means is that there are diminishing returns to Private and Social goods, you need some of both, but you can have less of one or the other and its fine. Let’s just assume wealthy people need other people in their lives to stay sane while, at the same time people with rich social lives and supportive communities still need food and shelter. You can specialize a bit more on one side, depending on what’s available, but you can’t live without at least some of both.

We’re all different in how we build our social lives and, in turn, how we internalize the internet in our lives. I think we can gain some insight into this process by working out the stories in this simple model through our second parameter, β. Let’s consider three broad types of people.

Person Type 1: Friends and Clubs are Strong Substitutes (high β)

These people are either relatively offline (e.g. they still use their phones as phones to make phone calls) or extremely online (e.g. they get a panic attack unless they have 80% battery and a charge pack on their person). These are the people who can become hyper-specialized in new clubs if they are extricated from prior social networks or club settings. This is why cults recruit people who move to new places where they don’t know anyone. This is how your diehard hippie socialist friend grew up to be a conservative evangelical after they moved to the Texas suburbs.

With regards to our original question, people who hyperspecialize in their club and club identity will be constantly contributing grist to the club’s identity: evidence of the necessity of the club and it’s mission, rage at non-members, disappointment in members who aren’t committed enough, and constant vigilance in the monitoring of everyone else’s commitment. They are in it, they are of it, and they are ready to purge.

Apathy’s a tragedy (You must care about everything the club cares about)
And boredom is a crime (All of your time must be allocated to the club)
Anything and everything
All of the time

Type 2: Friends and Clubs are strong complements (low β)

These are the people that I think Burnham’s song is targeted at, for whom he has the most sympathy, and with whom I suspect he would count himself. These are people for whom the internet is the most taxing, the most exhausting to navigate.

Type 2 folks want to have personal friendships and friend groups while still feeling a part of something bigger, whether it’s a community, a political movement, or spiritual affiliation. Type 2 people will have preferences towards one or more social identities manifested as clusters on the internet, but they don’t want to purge people who don’t share those preferences from their circle of friends. Type 2 folks are interested in civil rights and social justice, but they want to diversify their emotional and material resources across their personal relationships and private wellbeing as well.

The deluge of the internet, with its stark images, focus on extreme outcomes, battle cries, and public reputation mauling, are constantly admonishing and shaming Type 2’s. Type 2 people are tired. Perhaps most importantly, the pandemic has been especially hard on Type 2’s. While Type 1 club-specialists have thrived by focusing the totality of their efforts to the online arena, their voices have been tearing the Type 2 social-portfolio diversifiers to shreds.

Type 3: Friends and Clubs are weak complements (middle β)

Type 3 people are a lot like Type 2’s, but it is easier for them to compartmentalize the production of their social goods. Type 3 people are often in clubs, but they are rarely of clubs. They’re not joiners. Whether you’re looking at sacrifice-demanding religious cults or extremely-online political culture warriors, if the social associations of the world demand too much of Type 3 people, they are happy to half-ass their contribution or opt-out entirely. They might be on Twitter or Facebook, but they don’t need to reply to anyone. They might go to church on Sunday with the family, but if the minister tells them their sister is going to hell for their sexual preference, it’s just not that costly to stop going. For them clubs will always remain a luxury good, never a necessity.


To be clear this post is an exercise in building a toy model of something big and complex and important. It’s a gross abstraction and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The process of formalizing your thinking on a social mechanism, however, is something that I think you should take very seriously. Formal models are useful because there is no hiding what your idea actually is. There’s no “sorry, you misread me” or reliance on obscure jargon. Formal models force you to clarify and reveal your thinking to everyone, including yourself. They can open up new avenues for explorations and even generate empirically testable predictions. Formal models have in many ways been the principal force behind economic imperialism in the social sciences. Not because the math is perfect or all encompassing or even correct. It’s because it’s all out there, ready to be judged and dissected and tested. That transparency makes it a useful.

I don’t know if my interpretation of Bo Burnham’s theory of the internet is correct or even necessarily what he intended it to be. But this is one way we can take it a step forward and see what we can actually learn from it. Which is pretty much all I want to do for the rest of my research life, on every topic, all of the time.

Behavioral Economist at Work

A blog post titled “The Death of Behavioral Economics” went viral this summer. The clickbait headline was widely shared. After Scott Alexander debunked it point-by-point on Astral Codex Ten, no one corrected their previous tweets. I recommend Scott’s blog for the technical stuff. For example, there is an important distinction between saying that loss aversion does not exist versus saying that its underlying cause is the Endowment Effect.

The author of the original death post, Hreha, is angry. Here’s how he describes his experience with behavioral economics.

I’ve run studies looking at its impact in the real world—especially in marketing campaigns.

If you read anything about this body of research, you’ll get the idea that losses are such powerful motivators that they’ll turn otherwise uninterested customers into enthusiastic purchasers.

The truth of the matter is that losses and benefits are equally effective in driving conversion. In fact, in many circumstances, losses are actually *worse* at driving results.

Why?

Because loss-focused messaging often comes across as gimmicky and spammy. It makes you, the advertiser, look desperate. It makes you seem untrustworthy, and trust is the foundation of sales, conversion, and retention.

He’s trying to sell things. I wade through ads every day and, to mix metaphors, beat them off like mosquitoes. Knowing how I feel about sales pitches, I don’t envy Hreha’s position.

I don’t know Hreha. From reading his blog post, I get the impression that he believes he was promised certain big returns by economists. He tried some interventions in a business setting and did not get his desired results or did not make as much money as he was expecting.

According to him, he seeks to turn people into “enthusiastic purchasers” by exploiting loss aversion. What would consumers be losing, if you are trying to sell them something new? I’m not in marketing research so I should probably just not try to comment on those specifics. Now, Hreha claims that all behavioral studies are misleading or useless.

The failure to replicate some results is a big deal, for economics and for psychology. I have seen changes within the experimental community and standards have gotten tougher as a result. If scientists knowingly lied about their results or exaggerated their effect sizes, then they have seriously hurt people like Hreha and me. I am angry at a particular pair of researchers who I will not name. I read their paper and designed an extension of it as a graduate student. I put months of my life into this project and risked a good amount of my meager research budget. It didn’t work for me. I thought I knew what was going to happen in the lab, but I was wrong. Those authors should have written a disclaimer into their paper, as follows:

Disclaimer: Remember, most things don’t work.

I didn’t conclude that all of behavioral research is misleading and that all future studies are pointless. I refined my design by getting rid of what those folks had used and eventually I did get a meaningful paper written and published. This process of iteration is a big part of the practice of science.

The fact that you can’t predict what will happen in a controlled setting seems like a bad reason to abandon behavioral economics. It all got started because theories were put to the test and they failed. We can’t just retreat and say that theories shouldn’t get tested anymore.

I remember meeting a professor at a conference who told me that he doesn’t believe in experimental economics. He had tried an experiment once and it hadn’t turned out the way he wanted. He tried once. His failure to predict what happened should have piqued his curiosity!

There is a difference between behavioral economics and experimental economics. I recommend Vernon Smith’s whole book on that topic, which I quoted from yesterday, for those interested.

The reason we run experiments is that you don’t know what will happen until you try. The good justification for shutting down behavioral studies is if we get so good at predicting what interventions will work that the new data ceases to be informative.

Or, what if you think nudges are not working because people are highly sensible and rational? That would also imply that we can predict what they are going to do, at least in simple situations. So, again, the fact that we are not good at predicting what people are going to do is not a reason to stop the studies.

I posted last week about how economists use the word “behavioral” in conversation. Yesterday, I shared a stinging critique of the behavioral scientist community written by the world’s leading experimental researcher long before the clickbait blog.

Today, I will share a behavioral economics success story. There are lots of papers I could point to. I’m going to use one of my own, so that readers could truly ask me anything it. My paper is called “My reference point, not yours”.

I started with a prediction based on previous behavioral literature. My design depended on the fact that in the first stage of the experiment, people would not maximize expected value. You never know until you run the experiment, but I was pretty confident that the behavioral economics literature was a reliable guide.

Some subjects started the experiment with an endowment of $6. Then they could invest to have an equal chance of either doubling their money (earn $12) or getting $1. To maximize expected value, they should take that gamble. Most people would rather hold on to their endowment of $6 than risk experiencing a loss. It’s just $5. Why should the prospect of losing $5 blind them to the expected value calculation? Because most humans exhibit loss aversion.

I was relying on this pattern of behavior in stage 1 of the experiment for the test to be possible in stage 2. The main topic of the paper is whether people can predict what others will do. High endowment people fail to invest in stage 1, so then they predict that most other participants failed to invest. The high endowment people failed to incorporate easily available information about the other participants, which is that starting endowments {1,2,3,4,5,6} were randomly assigned and uniformly distributed. The effect size was large, even when I added in a quiz to test their knowledge that starting endowments are uniformly distributed.

Here’s a chart of my main results.

Investing always maximizes expected value, for everyone. The $1 endowment people think that only a quarter of the other participants fail to invest. The $6 endowment people predict that more than half of other participants fail to invest.

Does this help Mr. Hreha get Americans to buy more stuff at Walmart, for whom he consults? I’m not sure. Sorry.

My results do not directly imply that we need more government interventions or nudge units. One could argue instead that what we need is market competition to help people navigate a complex world. The information contained in prices helps us figure out what strangers want, so we don’t have to try to predict their behavior at all.

Here’s the end of my Conclusion

One way to interpret the results of this experiment is that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is costly. We often speak of it as a moral obligation, especially to consider the plight of those who are worse off than ourselves. Not only do people usually decline to do this for moral reasons, they fail to do it for money. Additionally, this experiment shows that, if people are prompted to think about a specific past experience that someone else had, then mutual understanding is easier to establish.

I’m attempting to establish general purpose laws of behavior. I’ll end with a quote from Scott Alexander’s reply post.

A thoughtful doctor who tailors treatment to a particular patient sounds better (and is better) than one who says “Depression? Take this one all-purpose depression treatment which is the first thing I saw when I typed ‘depression’ into UpToDate”. But you still need medical journals. Having some idea of general-purpose laws is what gives the people making creative solutions something to build upon.

Vernon Smith on Behavioral in 2008

Like last week, this post is adjacent to the internet chattering over whether behavioral economics is “dead”.

Vernon Smith wrote a book Rationality in Economics that came out in 2008. I’m going to pull some quotes from that book that I think are relevant. This is not an attempt to summarize the main point of the book.

I began developing and applying experimental economics methods to the study of behavior and market performance in the 1950s and 1960s…

Preface, pg xiii

Repetitive or real-time action in incomplete information environments is an operating skill different from modeling based on the “given” information postulated to drive the economic environment that one seeks to understand in the sense of equilibrium, optimality, and welfare. This decision skill is based on a deep human capacity to acquire tacit knowledge that defies all but fragmentary articulation in natural or written language.

Preface, pg xv

I think that improved understanding of various forms of ecological rationality will be born of a far better appreciation that most of human knowledge of “how,” as opposed to knowledge of “that,” depends heavily on autonomic functions of the brain. Human sociality leads to much unconscious learning in which the rules and norms of our socioeconomic skills are learned with little specific instructions… Humans are not “thinking machines” in the sense that we always rely on self-aware cognitive processes…

Introduction, pg 5, emphasis his

Research in economic psychology[footnote 6] has prominently reported examples where “fairness” and other considerations are said to contradict the rationality assumptions… Footnote 6: I will use the term “economic psychology” generally to refer to cognitive psychology as it has been applied to economics questions, and to a third subfield of experimental methods in economics and recently product-differentiated as “behavioral economics”… Behavioral economists have made a cottage industry of showing that SSSM assumptions seem to apply almost nowhere… their research program has been a candidly deliberate search “Identifying the ways in which behavior differs from the standard model…”

Introduction, pg 22, italics mine

Vernon Smith doesn’t always like the direction of the behavioral economics literature as a whole, however he agrees in the book that humans don’t always behave rationally. Chapter 6 has the very un-fuzzy title FCC Spectrum Auctions and Combinatorial Designs. Here’s an example of the way Vernon uses the word behavioral, which I offer like I did last week as an example of how “behavioral” is never going away.

I will provide a brief review of the theoretical issues and some… experimental findings that bear most directly on the conceptual and behavioral foundation of the FCC design problem.

Chapter 6, pg 116

Unfortunately, the popular press… has often interpreted the contributions of Kahneman as proving that people are “irrational,” in the popular sense of stupid… In the Nobel interview, Kahneman seems clearly to be uncomfortable with this popular interpretation and is trying to correct it.

Chapter 7, pg 150

Chapter 7 is about loss aversion and fairness and any other “behavioral” phenomenon of interest. I recommend anyone who is following the current conversation to read all of Chapter 7 for yourself. Vernon sees the best in all whenever possible, despite being annoyed that certain academics have used a tool he developed to make points that he believes are wrong. He forges a way forward for everyone in this book.

Experiments help us understand how human beings who are prone to error can arrive at good outcomes when they are working within good/effective institutions.

Purchasing Drinks with Push-ups.

Early in the summer of 2021, I was having fun. The semester was ended and traveling was on the horizon. Due to changes at my wife’s job I began driving to work instead of making the 20 minute trek by foot. And there was plenty of time to be social. And social I was — several days of the week. And, inevitably, drinks would be served. I was doing a lot less walking and a lot more drinking alcohol (responsibly).

I was footloose and fancy free. Until… The bathroom scale reminded me that I had surpassed the age of 30 years old. Being sedentary and drinking were starting to add up.

Right then and there, I made a decision. I would disincentivize my drinking, but I would also make drinking beneficial rather than detrimental to my waist line.

I made a deal with myself. For each drink that I had, I would have to ‘pay’ 25 push-ups. No exceptions. And, no borrowing from myself. Push-ups *had* to come first. None of this “I owe myself push-ups” nonsense (it’s a trap!). I could *save* for the future, however. Knowing that a social event was approaching, I’d build myself a nice little balance. And the exchange rate was constant: 25 push-ups per drink – always.

Who held me accountable? Me, myself, and I… And some incentive compatible approbation.

I wasn’t shy about any of it. At a outdoor beer garden with my wife and her cousin, I had prepared by banking 50 push-ups. But round 3 was impending… and I’m no square. So, over to the side, quite out of the way on the outdoor patio, I knocked out a quick 25. Round 4 came after still another 25.

Now let’s talk incentives. Requiring push-ups of myself increased my physical activity, so I felt better about my body. Further, if I hadn’t banked push-ups ahead of time, paying prior to each drink limited how many push-ups I could comfortably do. Once push-ups became uncomfortable, I stopped drinking.

That’s all great. But the social incentives were pivotal in keeping me dedicated. Upon seeing the push-ups in action, female friends would talk to my wife who quickly developed a well-crafted dialogue for each new observer, complete with convincingly spontaneous gesticulations and eye-rolls. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the attention.

Other men provided direct positive approval. I combined 3 activities that were already ‘manly’ when separate: muscle building, drinking, and dispassionate self control. Men would praise me immediately and similarly feel compelled to do there own sets of push-ups in my presence — as if being sedentary in my presence convicted them as guilty of something. At least one wife sent me a text after we had left town that included a picture of her husband knocking out some of his own pre-drink push-ups (Is this what it feels like to be an influencer??).

Aristotle would be proud.

I was very consistent for months. Being the summer and seeing a lot of friends and family, I did a lot of push-ups. But, as time passed, the exercise habit stuck even as the drinking began to pass by the wayside. What began as an arbitrary, self-imposed rule soon became a legit change in behavior. And then, that change in behavior became a practice. Did that practice improve my temperance and fortitude through habituation? Idk. But wouldn’t that be nice?

Why Do We Care About Inflation?

The title question may seem obvious. “We” care about inflation because, ultimately, any dollars we have saved will purchase fewer real goods and services. Additionally, we might worry that our incomes are not keeping pace with the increase in the prices of good and services that we want to purchase.

But the answer to that question is a little more nuanced. “We” also care about why prices are increasing. I keep putting “we” in quotation marks because who the we is crucial for answering the question. For example, individuals and families primarily care about inflation for the reasons I stated in the first paragraph.

But central bankers care about inflation for different reasons. In broad terms, monetary policy is an attempt to smooth out the fluctuations in the economy, especially to make recessions shorter and less deep. But monetary officials want to know: is the policy they are putting in place leading to prices rising in general? If so, especially if inflation gets above certain target levels, it may mean that monetary has been “too loose.”

However, if particular prices are rising, say the price of cars (due to a lack of computer chips), central bankers don’t really care about this: it gives them no indication of whether they’ve done “too much” or “too little” with regards to stimulating the economy. Similarly, if gasoline prices rise, consumers really care about this. Central bankers, not so much: it doesn’t really tell them much about their goal (stimulating the economy with stimulating it too much).

And because some prices are so volatile, historical context is important for understanding what a recent increase or decrease means. For example, gasoline prices are up 45% in the past 12 months. That’s a lot! But it’s an increase from a very low base, and the historical reality is that gasoline prices today (around $3.00/gallon on average) are at similar levels to what they were way back in 2006, and are lower than they were for almost all of 2011-2014. And these are all in nominal terms, median household income has gone up a lot since 2006 (up 40% in nominal terms) and even since 2014 (up 25%).

All of this is important background for thinking about the latest release of the CPI-U data this week. The headline inflation number of 5.3% is indeed startling, similar to last month. We haven’t touched that level since mid-2008, and that was only for a few months. If consumer price inflation were to stay at around 5% for a sustained period of time, it would be a new, harsh reality for most consumers today: we haven’t had a year with 5% inflation since 1990, and for the past decade the average has hung around 2%.

So will it stay this high? Sadly, I have no crystal ball and I will just reiterate what I said last month: the picture is just too muddled right now to say anything concrete. Perhaps by the end of the year we will have a better picture. But is there anything we can say right now even with the muddled picture? I continue to like this chart from the Council of Economic Advisors:

Image

Bottom line: if we strip out the unusual supply chain disruptions to automobiles as well as airline/hotel prices making up for lost ground during the pandemic, inflation is at completely normal levels. It’s almost exactly 2%

But is this cheating? Can we really strip out the things that are increasing at rapid rates?

Continue reading

In States that Ended the Extra $300/Week Unemployment Benefits, People Returned to Work at Over Twice the Rate than in the Other States

Anecdote # 1. In June we stayed a couple nights in a motel in western Massachusetts. The proprietor was outside watering flowers and trimming shrubs. I asked about business. He told me, “Well, we are starting to get customers back, though we are still hurting. But my bigger problem is that I cannot find a single person who wants to come back and work. Between federal and state unemployment benefits, they are making $850 a week, which is over $21 per hour. Anybody can claim those benefits, you don’t even have to prove that you were laid off. I cannot match that money, much less beat it.  My wife and I are doing all the work. I don’t know how we will manage long term.”

I murmured something sympathetic, and opined hopefully that if these benefits run out in September, folks might come back to work. This area has been economically depressed for decades, and normally people would jump at any kind of job. He shook his head and said that the state benefits would continue, and that his key workers have told him that they have saved so much money from unemployment and stimulus funds (and perhaps being allowed to skip rent or mortgage payments due to federal “forbearance” laws) that they may never come back to work.

Anecdote #2. In July my wife and I went into a hardware store in northern Virginia to buy some stuff. The employees were helpful and efficient. My wife complimented them, and said something like it must be nice working in an environment where everyone seemed to have a good attitude. The clerk’s response was yes, but they were having to work more overtime than they really wanted. And why was that? Because  the other workers won’t come in, because they were making about as much money staying home on unemployment – – so why should they bother working?

Those are a few personal data points on the effects extending the big unemployment benefits. I have read numerous other anecdotes from small businessmen and women that they cannot operate as fully as they would like because they cannot get help. And really, anybody with eyeballs can see the Help Wanted signs everywhere today.

Deeper thinkers than I will have to tease out all the ramifications of this situation. In GDP growth terms, it seems clear that incentivizing people to not work is a bad thing. On the one hand, we could say, “Just pay the workers more and they will come”. That is fine, if a business can raise the prices it charges for its products to cover the added labor costs, but that can only go so far. What is more likely is that businesses will figure out ways to get by permanently with fewer workers. This may lead to higher nominal productivity per worker, but also more structural unemployment.

Without further ado, here are some data which may illuminate the extent to which extended unemployment benefits have kept people from working. The nation has been running a real time experiment over the past several months. 27 states (“red” states, as you would have guessed) stopped the extra $300/week benefits in June, while 23 states and DC retained them.

Wolf Richter has compiled some numbers on unemployment insurance (UI) claims by state, reported weekly by the Department of Labor. A data point of “continued claims” reflects the number of people that have claimed UI for at least one week. A drop in continued claims would indicate that they have started working again. He lumped the states into two groups, “Enders” who terminated the extra unemployment benefits, and “Keepers” who retained them. Here are the results through the end of August:

These results seem to speak for themselves. Far more people went back to work in the “Ender” states (32% vs. 14%).  Here are the same results, reported as four-week rolling averages for smoothing, though that introduces a time lag:

Richter quotes the Wall Street Journal to the effect that:

Economists at Goldman Sachs analyzed the behavior of workers in the July jobs report after adjusting for age, gender, marital status, education, household income, industry and occupation of a respondent’s current or prior job. They said they found “clear evidence that benefit expiration increased the rate at which unemployed workers became employed.”

Goldman Sachs estimated that if all states had ended benefits, July payroll growth would have been 400,000 stronger. Economists at the firm projected the nationwide benefit cutoff this month will account for 1.5 million job gains through the end of the year.

Richter notes that after the federal cutoff, some states will continue to offer the $300/week funded with leftover stimulus money, but he expects overall more people to report for work this fall. I think that is likely, but I am concerned that conditioning a lot of people to not work for 1.5 years may have given us a long-lasting step downward in the percentage of adults who are willing to work. Some other post, some other time, maybe I will explore how we saw that effect in the wake of the 2008-2009 Great Recession where again people got conditioned to getting by without working.

P.S. Zachary Bartsch’s recent post on this blog, Redesigning Unemployment Insurance, speaks to some of these issues of incentivizing people to (not) work.

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Contrarianism

A disproportionate share of my influences have been, at least in track record if not in conscious intellectual identity, contrarian voices. Contrarians are to me those thinkers who have a persistent mistrust of conventional wisdom. They tends towards a certain amount of Burkean conservativism (i.e. the status quo is usually better than we give it credit for), though not necessarily economic or cultural conservatism. The last 5 years, specifically the Trump administration and the Covid-19 pandemic, have to my mind presented perhaps the single greatest challenge for contrarians in my lifetime for a host of (maybe) obvious and non-obvious reasons. To better understand why, I think it’s worth casually investigating the strengths and weakness of contrarian sensibilities.

Contrarians are an antidote to herding

The Banerjee model of herding behavior is a masterclass of parsimonious modeling that changes the way you see the world the moment you internalize it. To oversimplify and already simple model, it’s the classic business cliché of “Nobody gets fired for buying IBM” writ both much larger and much smaller. If you’re on Twitter, it means nobody gets cancelled reaffirming the shibboleths within your intellectual and political social network. Following the herd can insulate you from bespoke micro consequences (i.e. no one can punish you without punishing everyone), but it can’t protect you from macro consequences (i.e. if the herd runs off a cliff, you’re going over with them).

Contrarian’s are useful because they are seemingly less susceptible to such pressures to conform because their identity, and the product they sell in the intellectual marketplace is defined by their distance from modal positions. What’s interesting here is that whether they are right or wrong is almost beside the point – contrarians add value just by adding noise to the intellectual marketplace, jittering herding populations out of potentially suboptimal equilibria. This is a powerful consideration – contrarians can make the world a smarter place even if their actual intellectual goods are complete trash.

Contrarians maintain our intellectual hygiene

Similar to their ability to break herding equilibria, contrarians offer a custodial service for science. Through their constant devil’s advocation, contrarians serve up intermittent stress tests for old ideas that might otherwise survive simply based on past glories. Just because something is an old truth doesn’t mean it’s a good or useful truth. Contrarians force us to regularly consider our core models and assumptions. Is it annoying when someone asks whether or not NASA was actually successful? Of course, it’s always annoying to defend a position that is obviously true. But sometimes you get a Warren Nutter telling anyone who will listen that Paul Samuelson’s textbook is wrong and the Soviet Union is a shell of its industrial reputation. Sure, it probably wasn’t fun to get run out of academia <adopts the snarkiest Ivy-league-jerk-in-a-skit-voice>for being just so obviously wrong, but checking every now and then that we actually know the things we think we know is an underprovided public good. We need contrarians to tell use when fads and social shibboleths are masquerading as science.

There’s more wisdom than madness in crowds

Hygiene and herd-prevention are definitively good things, but it’s important to remember that most conventional wisdom is in fact wisdom. There’s a been a certain agony in watching my favorite contrarians tie themselves in knots trying to find the strategic genius to Donald Trump, the collective madness that must be behind Covid fears, the grand lie of that surrounds Joe Biden as he sells his secret Republicanism to Democrats. Sometimes things are obvious because they are obvious.

Most of the time, whether it’s guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or finding the best pizza in town, the crowd gets it right. The reason that most politically informed people think Donald Trump is a wet-brained buffoon is that he’s a buffoon (I will forever hold to the believe that his buffoonery wasn’t a strategic choice, but rather an pre-existing attribute that the political marketplace generally, and the Republican Primary specifically, selected for in 2016 and may select for again. Politics, like any habitat, can be quite cruel in its amorality.) The reason most people are afraid of Covid is because Covid is a danger of sufficient magnitude that it warrants private and public action to mitigate it. The reason that Joe Biden seems like a mix of the modal Republican and Democrat is because that’s exactly what the median voter is. The mob is good any taking a million small clues and turning them into a big conventional wisdom.

Intellectual Serial Autocorrelation

We should all be careful of our own intellectual brands, doubly so for contrarians. Yes, I’ll admit that in the market for takes there is a strong incentive to differentiate, but most following the path of optimal differentiation end up being just a different flavor of one of the two or three dominant conventional positions. Contrarians are far more likely to stake out territory as lone(-ish) wolves, perhaps on the periphery of one or more of the major intellectual identity clusters.

For these thinkers and commentators, they can often find themselves repelled from the obvious. Cultivating too strong a revulsion to the wisdom of crowds is often foolish and sometimes dangerous. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes there is no spoon. Sometimes. But most of the time it’s just a spoon and you should move on to the next puzzle. Maybe your model of world of the world is telling you to keep plowing ahead, but if everyone in the car is telling you to stop, you should probably stop.

Behavioral Economics Conversation: Cutler and Glaeser

I haven’t written a formal response, yet, to the “behavioral economics is dead” claim going around Twitter. I’m too busy doing my referee reports on behavioral papers to write in depth about why behavioral is not dead. Incidentally, I’m not loving the most recent paper I was sent, so maybe that’s a point in the column of Team Death. I’ll write a few posts intersecting with the arguments being had.

First, I’ll point out two places in a CWT discussion of health and cities where the phrase “behavioral” was used. This is obviously a current conversation. David Cutler probably wouldn’t say that behavioral economics is his field, but here’s how he describes puzzles in decision making over health issues. (bold emphasis mine)

Everything that we know in healthcare is that people have difficulty choosing on the basis of price and quality. It goes back a little bit to some of the behavioral issues that we were talking about, but I think it’s slightly different. If you go to the doctor, and the doctor says you should take medication X, and you go to the pharmacy, and the pharmacy says that’ll be $30, a fair number of people will walk away and say, “I don’t have $30.”

What we would hope they would do is go to their doctor and say, “Doctor, is there any way that there could be a cheaper medicine that might work because $30 is hard for me this month?” In practice, people are extremely uncomfortable doing that. They really don’t like to go to their doctor and say, “Doctor, how do I trade off the money here versus the medicine?”

David Cutler

The previous issues Cutler mentioned had to do with time preference and delayed gratification. The turmoil over dieting alone is evidence that people don’t always make the best decisions.

Here’s the second of two appearances of the word “behavioral”, in response to Tyler’s question about how to make cities healthier.

I certainly join the crowd of economists who have argued that congestion pricing is the best way to deal with urban traffic jams. There’s no reason not to charge people for the social cost of their actions on that. And giving away street space for free is just crazy, especially since we now have technologies that can handle this.

And if we introduce autonomous vehicles without congestion pricing, you have just lowered the cost of sitting in traffic, which means the first-order behavioral response is that more people will sit in traffic, and our congestion will get even worse unless we introduce this from the beginning. So I think pricing is really good.

Ed Glaeser

In the second use of the word, it sounds like an individually-rational decision to sit in your autonomous vehicle and read blogs until your arrive at your destination. Maybe we can use mechanism design to reduce traffic congestion and improve life for all.

Whether or not you think behavioral economics is dead, economists are going to keep using the word “behavioral” for a long time.

I did a quick Ngram to get a sense of how common the word is, although this does not restrict the search to books about economics. Ngrams are easier to interpret if there is a comparison word. I choose the word “clustering” because it’s also a relatively new technical term. Both words were quite rare before 1930.

If you missed the small discussion about behavioral econ, Mike Munger did a link round-up here. Tomorrow’s post will be Vernon Smith’s view of behavioral economics.

20 Years To The Day

It’s a blog. I’ll write about 9/11, since it’s 20 years today. 9/11 was an attack on my family and I will always be sad on this day remembering the horror. 9/11 was more than the number of murders we can count.

The Twin Towers episode was more than an attack on American citizens. New York City is the place people from all over the country and all over the world dream of reaching. It is the great melting pot. It is the symbol of American ideals, even as it is paradoxically at odds sometimes with the conservative heartland. Anything is possible for anyone, in New York.

I was not a New Yorker as a kid. I grew up nearby, but my parents avoided the city. I think the fact that you had to pay for parking and fight traffic was their primary reason. We were transcendentalists, preferring to park for free by some hiking trail on weekends. Anyway, I want to be a New Yorker now, if they’ll have me. I will always share that dream of moving to New York and experiencing the version of freedom that was uniquely created there.

I follow a lot of smart people who want to fix all problems. By all means, fix problems. This day just hurts. No one is expected, for example, to cure cancer on the day their deceased husband’s birthday comes around. This day can be for remembering what was lost and listening to a favorite song and talking to a favorite person. I try to convert the survivor’s guilt into gratitude.

9/11 will haunt me all my life.  I know this is becoming a topic for history textbooks. People will interpret this event as coldly as I do when I read about massacres in history books. My professor peers are getting the first wave of kids born after 9/11. “I can’t believe these kids were born after 9/11. Is that… Do I have a gray hair?” It is in fact true that everyone born after 9/11 was born after 9/11. Maybe we should be happy that it’s been so long. I don’t wish this memory on my children.

The kids-these-days lost their innocence to Covid (and watching adults fight about it). I can only imagine how the 9th graders felt who were sent home from school to watch from the windows while a parent-killing plague swept through their community. They will want to share their lockdown stories in the way that I want to share my “where were you on…” story.

I lived close enough to New York to feel the outer ripple of grieving families. A schoolmate’s uncle died. I had a flamboyant Sunday School teacher who told us that God told him to stay home that morning and make muffins, else he would have been in lower Manhattan at his job in the fashion industry.

Tomorrow, I will begin a series of post about “behavioral economics” and the rumor that it died.

Here’s a song I have been listening to this week. https://youtu.be/zyVZ4uVHYRw

Redesigning Unemployment Insurance

How does unemployment insurance work?

From the worker’s perspective, unemployment insurance isn’t detectable unless the worker loses their job. Once that’s happened, the person can apply for benefits – a check that you can cash or deposit into your bank account. These benefits vary by state, with the composition of your family, and your income prior to separation. The most generous maximum benefit is provided by Massachusetts at $823 per week for an individual and the least generous is provided by Mississippi at $235 per week. States also vary by the length of time for which a person can collect benefits. Montana is the most generous at 28 weeks and North Carolina ties with Florida for the least generous at 12 weeks. If you find a job and become employed before the maximum benefit duration, then you stop receiving payments.

From the employer’s perspective, unemployment insurance is the premium that you pay per employee each year. The premium is not optional – so it’s a tax. Employers pay it for the privilege employing workers. There are two components of the tax: a state and federal portion. The federal portion is more or less constant per employee. The state portion changes with the incidence of unemployment claims and payments that a state makes in the prior year. When a lot of people get fired, state unemployment taxes rise as a policy response.

Why provide UI benefits?

There are two typical reasons for governments to provide unemployment benefits – and a 3rd not-so-typical reason. The first is as a matter of relief. People often lose a job through no fault of their own, and we don’t want those people to become destitute or to forego the bare essentials that money can afford. The second reason to provide benefits is as a matter of macroeconomic spending stimulus. Contrary to popular belief, this stimulus is not about encouraging greater production through greater sales. The stimulus is meant to encourage total spending in the economy to be higher than it would have been otherwise (See Irving Fisher on debt deflation and Scott Sumner on NGDP targeting). The 3rd and not so typical reason for governments to provide unemployment insurance is to keep people from going to work (See Tyler Cowen for why this might be desirable during a pandemic).

Incentives Matter

The 3rd reason above hints at a problem. People lose benefits when they become employed again. It is exactly because benefits provide relief that they reduce the incentive to find a job. Importantly, this is not a judgment of propriety or moral chastisement. It simply is the case that UI payments make being unemployed a little more tolerable. The tenacity with which people search for a job becomes a little less urgent. Anyone well acquainted with human nature (outside of a textbook) will tell you that it is good for humans to work. There are economic, social, and psychological benefits – not to mention the material benefits enjoyed by society. So, longer periods of unemployment are a problem.

Not only does the receiving UI benefits cause longer unemployment spells, losing benefits when you find a job acts as a penalty to finding a labor market match. It’s not happenstance that people who lose their UI benefits tend to become employed shortly thereafter. In terms of economic activity and gains from trade, society is materially better off when people find jobs more quickly (probably socially better off too). If you can get people to acknowledge the above logic, then there is plenty of room for people to disagree on the propriety of the UI benefits system.

Remove Disincentives – Keep the Relief

As Thomas Sowell is known for saying “There are no solutions – only trade-offs.”  That’s true. It’s also true that there is also no such thing as a free lunch. But some things are a lot more like a free lunch than others.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just help unemployed people and not disincentivize them from finding a job? In part it’s impossible. The UI payments do both and there is no separating them. But, the disincentive provided by removing payments when a job is found can be addressed. Why not just permit UI benefits even after someone has found a job?

An Outlay Neutral Prescription

What does the social program designer consider? Simply, the policy maker considers government outlays, government revenues, and economic impact. All else constant, policy makers like small outlays, high revenues, and good economic impacts.

I propose that states adopt the following policy. First, eliminate variables benefits. This part of the policy is not essential, but it clarifies the exposition. Now, it doesn’t matter whether you were an executive at a bank or a janitor at the bank – both receive the same weekly UI payment if they lose their job. What should the benefit be? For the purposes of outlay neutrality, the new benefit is the same as the average benefit was last year. The average benefit and total outlay across all claimants is unchanged.

When a person finds a job under the current system they are paying an implicit tax when their benefits get pulled. Let’s eliminate the employment disqualification. That’s right. When a person finds a job, they just continue to receive benefits. They don’t receive UI benefits indefinitely, however. In order to maintain outlay neutrality, the duration of UI benefit payments will be equal to the average duration last year.

Say what?!

Put yourself in the shoes of the person looking for a job under the current system. Say that your UI benefit is $800 per week and that you job-search for 10 hours each week. Say that you find a job that pays $1,000 per week. If you take the job, then you will go from working 10 hours per week to working 40 hours per week. And, you go from having an income of $800 per week to having an income of $1,000 per week. In other words, you get to work 30 more hours per week for $200 more income. The unemployed person is making the decision to take the job at $25 per hour, or stay home at $80 per hour ($1,000/40 Vs $800/10).

But what’s the perspective under the outlay neutral proposal in which the benefits continue even after employment? The decision is substantially different.  The unemployed person is making the decision to take the job at an average of $45 per hour, or stay home at $80 per hour ($1,800/40 Vs $800/10).

Of course, staying home still might look attractive. But it looks relatively less attractive than it did under the standard system of work-disqualifying benefits. If a person has 4 weeks of remaining benefits when they find the job, then continuing to receive UI benefits would mean that the total income over that month would be $7,200, versus $3,200 from staying home, or $4,000 under the standard system. Again putting yourself in the shoes of the unemployed, doesn’t this decision look different? Might you feel enticed to accept the job?

Under the proposed policy, government outlays are constant – there is no change in expenditures. Revenues increase because more employed workers means more employer-paid UI tax payments (not to mention other tax payments). Economic performance improves because greater employment increases total output. Let’s go ahead and throw in the additional social benefits too.

People Have Feelings

…And they’re complicated. Part of the sympathetic idea of unemployment insurance benefits is to provide relief. As a matter of gut instinct, this is why many people favor the UI transfer program over others. They can imagine themselves in such a circumstance through no wrong-doing of their own. But once we say that benefits will continue – even after someone finds their job – the UI program becomes less obviously a matter of sympathy-inducing relief. There is a political problem.

I say: put your feelings aside. Let’s get people employed again. Let’s increase tax revenues and increase economic activity. Let’s address the problem of unemployment in a better way – and spend not a dime more doing it.