Economic Research on COVID-19

The past 12 months has been dominated by COVID-19, the related recession, the government response, and other matters. But it has not just dominated our lives, it has also dominated new research, including research by economists!

Working papers from the National Bureau of Economic Research are one place to track on-going research by economists. While not all economic research is released as an NBER working paper (there are other series, and some economists just post them on their own website or department page), the volume of NBER papers should tell us something about the trends.

Here’s a chart showing the weekly NBER working papers that are in some way related to COVID-19. The first batch of three papers was released in late February, one long year ago. The second batch of nine papers came one month later. Since then, there have been papers released every single week, with the exception of the week of Christmas.

In total, there have 373 papers released that relate to COVID-19. The peak comes in late May and early June, with 61 papers released in a 4-week period and 21 of those papers coming out on May 25 alone. Since the May-June peak, we’ve seen a slow decline in papers on COVID-19, and we are now at our lowest level, with just 14 papers released in the past 4 weeks.

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Cryptocurrencies, 1: What Exactly Is Bitcoin?

Everybody knows that Bitcoin is a “digital currency”. But what does that really mean, and what is Bitcoin really good for? Who developed it? Turns out, oddly, that we don’t actually know. Can you buy a pizza with it? Turns out that perhaps the most famous pizza purchase of all time was made with Bitcoin.

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Academia as tax shelter

A very brief story:

My advisor was Laurence Iannaccone, student of Gary Becker, seminal and in many ways founding contributor to the economic study of religion, now of Chapman University. His observation is a common one in academia, a point of pride for some even, though that varies greatly by discipline, as does their market options outside of the academy. And, yes, flexible work schedules, post-tenure job security, and sometimes picturesque campuses all should be counted towards the total compensation of those fortunate enough to secure a faculty appointment. But the power of the observation goes far beyond proper labor market accounting.

As I find so often to be the case, there is good sociology to be done, but the best first step in doing so is a little bit of economics. To wit:

The academy is, on average, considerably to the left of the population at large. Now this difference, mind you, is grossly exaggerated by your typical right-wing windbag who seems to think that universities begin and end in the English department, but the difference remains. So why would your typical economics, chemistry, or architecture professor tend to be left of the popular center? Well, if the median self-identified lefty got to choose the federal and state tax rates, what would they be? Ok, and how much of that will I have to pay out of my non-pecuniary income? Until they figure out how to tax the thrill of pursuing my own self-determined research agenda, not very much. Taxes are cheap when half of your compensation is non-pecuniary.

The academy is a club.

Scratch that.

The academy is a hierarchy of nested clubs. Which means that we often suffer from exclusionary FOMO akin to fourth tier English gentry trying to marry off five daughter in the early 19th century. Membership in those clubs– those famed research groups, donor-named centers, or even (god forbid) schools of thought — they become more than just sources of funding, workshop critique, and coauthor match-making sock hops. These clubs become the well springs from which ever increasing portions of our non-pecuniary income come from. They become our social networks, our friends, and even ,with a handful of co-authors you’ve gone into scientific battle alongside, a second family. The next time you see someone dig in their heels, seemingly denying the mounting evidence that they were on the wrong side of a scientific argument, don’t just blindly assume they are too stubborn and arrogant to acknowledge they might have been wrong. Consider how unfunded or, more importantly, how lonely they stand to be if they’re the first to give up the fight.

It’s why we covet tenure so much. Don’t get me wrong, everyone wants job security. But for most of us, the prospect of being laid off doesn’t necessarily include the possibility of being jettisoned from what you’ve slowly constructed as a separate parallel universe within which you have carefully curated the technical, educational, and social capital necessary to produce your career and life. If you get laid off from programming for Netflix, the next few weeks or months will be unpleasant, scary even. You may begin to doubt your ability or life choices. But that next job will come, and you will as often as not find yourself with a nearly identical life on the other side.

There are those in the academy though for whom this is all they’ve ever known. Bachelors, doctorate, tenure-track academic placement. Throw in a post-doc and that’s 20 years, and you’re entire adult life, in and around universities. Even if they’re from a field fortunate enough to have robust private sector options, how much will doubling your salary really soften the blow for such a person?

I say all of this now not as a critique of academia, or even to lead to prescriptions or advice. You want my advice? Fine, here: don’t go straight to grad school. Dip your toe in the real world, see how you like it. Come back in a few years with a little experience and distaste for office life. It’ll serve you well when your dissertation hits one of its many inevitable nadirs.

Rather, I invite you to consider this: what does the world start to look like when our utility comes less from the goods that we buy and the experiences we have, and more from the clubs we are members of? What does it look like when those clubs find newer and better ways to monitor our behavior and our expressed beliefs? What does it look like when the purging of membership rolls becomes a part of the culture of those clubs?

The Role of Prices in an Emergency, Winter Storm Edition

When natural disasters and other emergencies strike, two things are certain. First, many essential goods will run out of stock at stores. Second, economists will complain that if only prices would rise in response to the increase in demand, shortages could be avoided.

Let’s take the current winter storm passing through much of the center of the nation, importantly including the southern US where both individuals and governments are unprepared for major winter storms. Here is a sign up at Home Depot in Arkansas:

I can verify that many people in Arkansas don’t have snow shovels. I’ve seen folks using dust pans and leaf rakes to try and clear their driveway. This video is a few years old, but I have no doubt that someone in Arkansas right now is strapping a widescreen TV box to their lawn tractor to clear snow.

So why no snow shovels in Arkansas at Home Depot? The common answer: it doesn’t snow much here, so the stores don’t stock many, and then when it does snow everyone rushes out to buy them.

Simple enough, but the economist says: WRONG! The reason Home Depot doesn’t have any snow shovels in Arkansas is because they didn’t raise the price. Why do economists insist on this?

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You’ll Never Walk Alone…to the Moon🚀?

As a dedicated supporter of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, it is with much shame that I have referenced the anthem of Liverpool FC, but the sentiment implied by their club slogan is a powerful one.* To promise someone they will never have to suffer the torments of loneliness is to promise them a lifetime of riches. When we soft, vulnerable human beings find a source of community and support, we are loathe to give it up. Which is to say the promise of membership and threat of banishment are powerful means of solving collective action problems.

The promise of forever walking within columns of lockstep compatriots is a big part of why Gamestop (GME) went to the moon 🚀🚀🚀, but also why it came back down to earth. As Scott noted in his post, the story of the last, and most meteoric, stage of the Gamestop saga was the “short-squeeze”– short-sellers suddenly desperate to cover their positions found themselves needing more shares than existed, while the “unsophisticated” gamblers of r/wallstreetbets refused to sell their shares. Specifically, the large, but uncoordinated institutional short-position holders all pursued their independent self-interest, while the seemingly disaggregated redditors managed to solve their collective action problem. Which raises what, to me, is the most interesting question of the whole saga: if coordinating a short-squeeze is so lucrative, why doesn’t it happen more often? Put another way, why were a large number of strangers able to coordinate a complex financial gambit rarely pulled off by sophisticated institutional investors?

The answer, in part, is that they weren’t strangers. They may be anonymous to one another, absent recognition or connection in real life (IRL aka meatspace), but that doesn’t make them strangers. These men and women had built a community so deep they had their own (often incredibly offensive) language. Their own jokes. They had a culture and sources of status, going so far as to create their own within-group celebrities. And, absent any visible coordination, that culture had evolved in this moment toward a single idea: hold the stock. They were playing a massive prisoner’s dilemma game with each other. Can you form a group for the express purpose of creating a short-squeeze? Probably not – the very action of creating an identity around profit from financial speculation belies the prospect of building an identity valued more than pure profit by its members. That’s the rub – if you want to pull off a massive collective financial action, you’re going to have to build a group of people interested in financial collective action that nonetheless values the identity of the group above the profits of collective financial action. That’s what makes this Planet Money podcast about Gamestop so special– more than anyone anyone else, they seemed to understand that the absurdist emoji usage and language, the elaborate memes, the actual freaking sea-shanties, those weren’t just color for the story, they were the story. Hedge funds weren’t losing tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars in a zero sum game to a bunch of idiots obsessed with chicken tender-centric memes and sea shanties. They were losing a millions of dollars in a zero sum game because of the memes and sea shanties.

Put succinctly, at every stage leading up to and during the short-squeeze, each and every holder of Gamestock shares would have been better “defecting” on their r\wallstreetbets comrades-in-arms. Yes, the group is better off if everyone holds, but everyone knows the incentives faced by everyone else, which creates a seemingly irresistible economic gravity of self-interest (defect, defect). So how do we solve these collective action problems? Well, first and foremost, we change the payoffs. That’s what we do in successful families, mafias, and religious groups. It’s what we fail to do in our misfiring coups, cooperatives, and communes.

Yes, your bank account balance will increment upwards if you defect and sell your stock. But that also means you’re no longer a true Son of Gondor. Sure, no one else on the subreddit knows it, but you’ll know it. You’ll know it in your cold, lonely, traitorous heart. Sure, you can use the words and participate in the jokes, but will you ever know the same sense of fellow-feeling within the community as you knew before. That’s a real cost. Is it worth cashing in $5000 in profit a week early, especially knowing it might be worth more next week? Remember – the benefit of group identity doesn’t have to be greater than the profit at hand, it only has to be greater than the risk holding the stock bears for your future profit. Combined with a little motivated reasoning, and it quickly becomes clear how a community, formed independent of profit-via-collective-action, now suddenly becomes an engine of pro-social decision-making sufficient to create an existential threat to any institution over-leveraged on a short position.

The same payoff matrix, however, also demonstrates that a short-squeeze built around a group identity is living on borrowed time. With every short position that gets closed out, the price climbs both higher and closer to its (actually) inevitable peak. There are a finite number of short positions, and there is a finite number of days their share lenders will allow them to hold out, all of which mean a peak will be reached, after that point the price will begin to rapidly decline. Which all means that as the price rises the risk to holding also rises, both of which are increasing the opportunity costs of holding the stock, shifting the payoffs back to a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma. Sure, your group identity might be worth $5K, or even $50K, but there’s a point at which anonymous community is dominated by the prospect of material wealth. I’m not saying you can buy true friends, but eventually you can buy something that offers a close substitute for anonymous friends. Or an island.

*I mean, I personally believe “To Dare is to Do” is a far smarter and sexier slogan.

Charities will pick up used stuff but not businesses

There are reality TV shows dedicated to the spectacle of Americans drowning in their own material goods. What a year to be alive. Household income is rising around the world, as will clutter issues.

For now, I’m abstracting away from irrational hoarders. Lots of people have items that they would happily sell at a small price if only a buyer would come to their home. I see people posting items for sale all the time online, with the condition that the buyer come to them. (Most of these items are “used”, but some are brand new in the box.)

Why is there not a truck circling every American neighborhood offering to haul away unwanted stuff in exchange for a small payment?

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Broad Base, Low Rates: Every US State Fails on Good Sales Tax Principles

In a previous post, I contrasted the income and property taxes, but I left out the other important tax: the retail sales tax. So let’s rectify that omission.

The retail sales tax is like the “Little Engine that Could,” delivering a steady stream of revenue to governments, while mostly staying out of the passionate debates surrounding the income and sales taxes. About 23% of state and local tax revenue comes from general sales taxes in the US, roughly equal to income taxes, and if you include selective sales taxes it’s slightly larger than the property tax share.

But there’s a problem with sales tax. The sales tax “base,” basically the extent of economic activity that the base covers, has been shrinking. A lot. As Jared Walczak has recently written, in just the past 20 years the “breadth” of the sales tax (how much of the potential base it covers) has fallen from about 50% to 30%.

As Walczak also notes, there are seven or so broadly agreed on principles of sales taxes, but I would say there are two primary ones (the first two on his list):

  1. An ideal sales tax is imposed on all final consumption, both goods and services.
  2. An ideal sales tax exempts all intermediate transactions (business inputs) to avoid tax pyramiding.

But US states violate these two principles in various ways, leading to (oddly enough) a tax base that is simultaneously too narrow and too wide. Why is this?

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I Miss Paying Rent

I’ve been a homeowner not quite long enough to watch the entire run of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose in one sitting, but I have already arrived at the incontrovertible conclusion that being a landlord is foolish. Renting is a blissful paradise that I am wistfully nostalgic for, a glorious time when I had only one job: feasibly above-average economist. Now I’m also the worst plumber, woodworker, mason, electrician, and landscaper I’ve ever met. To be clear, none of that is true. Rather, I am a poor home inspector and over-qualified errand boy who moonlights as the manager of a hastily assembled team of contractors to whom I write a litany of checks.

I know the rent is too d*mn high, but the interesting question is why? Thinking about high rise apartments, rowhouses, or detached homes, its seems pretty clear that there are significant returns to specialization and scale. Whether its 212 apartments or 25 detached homes, a team of salaried handymen, inspectors, and property managers offers considerable efficiency gains, a reality borne out by the inexorable rise of HOAs and their continuing growing reach into their constituents lives. But as anyone who’s ever attended an HOA meeting can attest, the limits to contracting and the value of our time provides the opportunity for an industrious individual or firm to bundle collective ownership and services into a single entity, selling the turnkey solution that is the modern rental residence, at considerable potential savings to the tenant in a competitive market.

So why are we so mad at our landlords? I see a couple possible answers:

  1. The rent isn’t too high, we’re all just greedy and would complain about the purveyor of any good that represented 40% of household expenses, regardless of how much value we were or were not receiving for the price.
  2. Landlords have considerable market power, allowing them to reduce supply and jack up the price, leaving us little recourse but to either nationalize housing or apply that sweet, never-ever-backfired rent control.
  3. The market is relatively well-functioning, but with incomplete contracts, leaving us all nervous that our tenants are going to bankrupt us while our landlords cast us out into the streets.

(1) likely has some behavioral truth to it, but isn’t a very satisfying explanation*, while (2) has likely more merit in the short run or in areas where landlords have solved their collective action problem sufficiently to stymie growth of the housing supply at every turn (<cough> San Francisco <cough>).

But perhaps (3) is underappreciated. Everyone who’s ever lived in a major city, especially when they were young, has a story about how they were screwed over by their landlord. At the same time, landlords (particularly smaller, independent ones) live in terror of tenants arriving at a cost-benefit conclusion that paying their rent is a suboptimal decision. Plenty of states and cities have enacted tenant bills of rights, creating considerable variation across states, often making it incredibly difficult and costly to evict someone. Regardless of state laws, however, I am comfortable saying without any evidence or additional research that landlords and tenants continue to have a strained relationship. Tenants think landlords are getting rich off their backs without any labor, only the property their wealthy parents no doubt handed them on a silver platter, property they themselves acquired by exploiting their employees while running a puppy mill. Landlords, meanwhile, find out real quick they’re not actually making that much profit trying to keep a home intact as their hippie tenants burn sofas and flush paper towels while the bathtubs been flooding the 2nd floor for a month.

The interesting question, to my mind, isn’t whether landlords are exploiting tenants or vice versa, but rather why have property tenant laws evolved to such an inefficient equilibrium, where there doesn’t seem to be any satisfied parties?** If no one feels protected by a contract, then it’s likely not a very good one.

* The behavioral answer in (1) shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly, to be fair. Given that size of rent as a fraction of most household budgets combined with profits to be had churning tenants in supply-restricted cities, its possible that all parties are constantly trying to scam each other, leading to the observed acrimony.

**Yes, I know people have become quite wealthy as landlords, but my read on that market outcome is not the profitability of property management but rather of property speculation, with equal parts winners and losers. Rental management is principally in service of subsidizing said speculation and lower property tax rates.

Coase and COVID

Update: I added a comment on the post to clarify why I don’t think that having seniors stay at home is the correct Coasean solution. In short: social isolation has high costs!

Bryan Caplan has an interesting post on COVID and reciprocal externalities. Caplan starts off with the straightforward Coasean statement: “Yes, people who don’t wear masks impose negative externalities on others. But people who insist on masks impose negative externalities, too.”

For those not familiar with Coase’s 1960 article, one of his fundamental insights about property rights is that when property rights are not clearly defined, both parties can be imposing costs on one another. The externalities are reciprocal, not just in one direction. The efficient outcome, when bargaining is not possible, is to allocate the property right such that the “least cost avoider” is the one that adjusts their behavior. In other words, you allocate the property right to the party who would obtain the property right if bargaining were possible.

But Caplan uses this Coasean framework to come to the opposite conclusion that I would. Why?

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The Matriculant Theory of Value

The Labor Theory of Value goes like this: the value of a good, and the price it should command in the market, will (should) reflect the amount of labor it takes to produce it. It’s a classic fallacy, but not one we should mock. Yes, Marxist thought still often cling to it as it chases its own Hegelian dragon, but Adam Smith and David Ricardo both struggled with understanding why something that yields so little predictive value could still feel so right.

Which brings me to the updated credentialist version of this fallacy:

Now, I apologize for picking on this person, and this tweet, in particular. Similar gripes appear appear regularly in social media and The Chronicle of Higher Education on a regular basis. The formula runs as such: I, and people such of myself, have spent many years in school, have successfully been credentialed with a BA/MA/MFA/PhD, but the labor market refuses to reward us appropriately.

To be clear, I understand the deeply intuitive appeal of the Labor Theory of Value– the more labor I put into making something, the more people should pay me for the product of my labor. The problem with this logic is the very core of the economic puzzle: goods are only worth what people are willing to exchange for them. If you spend a year molding rotting eggshells into a 25-foot statue of Mickey Mouse, it might earn you something at an art auction, but probably not as much as you would have earned working an equivalent number of hours at Taco Bell. At the same time, you could take an art class at a local community college, paint a soft focus acrylic of the local high school, and sell it to an alum for $100. Or you could find a dinosaur egg in your backyard the day after you bought the house and sell it for $2000. Which is the more compelling artistic statement or mantle centerpiece is debatable, but the price each commands in the market is entirely objective, and has nothing to do with the hours of labor that went into them.

Which me brings to me the Matriculant Theory of Value: the more labor and tuition money I put towards producing a more credentialed version of myself, the more people should pay for the product of my labor. I’m sorry to report that the market doesn’t care about your degrees, it cares about what you can produce and the value the market places on that product. If you didn’t acquire any skills valued by the labor market, then your degree is only worth however much the firm values any marginal prestige it might enjoy from your credentials or the interesting conversation you may offer in the break room. If I’m an academic drawing a salary from an institution of higher education (and I am), then I’m reading not as a sign that I should be angry we’re not getting paid enough, but as a sign that I should be terrified that employers don’t value educational product I am currently producing.

Now, unlike a lot of scolds, I am sympathetic to the academic misinformation that students often find themselves marinating in. Professors enjoy telling students who might be wary of joining the glut of PhDs applying for scarce academic jobs, “Don’t worry, you’ll get a job. You’re special and brilliant and you deserve a job.” Given that these professors need cheap labor, but often lack resources, they are all to happy to pay “in trade” i.e. with an advanced degree. For that deal to work though, you have to convince students that the degree has value. They are all too quick to valorize a “life of the mind” not unlike acolytes being invited to take a vow of poverty, and with more than a little implied denigration of more proletarian endeavors.

We also have a tendency to grossly overemphasize grades, academic status, and completion. Rarely do I see a student told that it might be better to get a C in a challenging technical class than dodge it for the sake of their GPA. Who is going to be better valued in the market: a 3.9 GPA student who glided on fluff for four years, or a student who took 5 challenging technical courses over 4 years, failing 2 of them, and collapses at the finish line with a 2.1 GPA and hard earned BS?

What I am less sympathetic to is the frequent failure to admit the other allures of degrees less valued by the market: they’re fun. For a certain type of person, there is pleasure bordering on euphoric to sitting in a comfortable chair and reading histories, grand theories, and poetics for 8 hours a day. If you love your job, you don’t have to work a day in your life. True, but that doesn’t mean anyone has to pay you for it. It should worry you if your anticipated vocation is what other people do on their vacation. Not that it doesn’t have social value (it may have significant social value), but you should be terrified of trying to make a career doing what someone else is willing to do for free. You’ll not be surprised to learn no one is paying me to write these rambling diatribes.

So, yes, $38k a year for 9 months of work giving 10 hours of lectures a week, plus prep, grading, and office hours maybe doesn’t seem like much in the way of wages to you. I was paid $34k (2003 dollars) for 10 months a year teaching 19 hours of lectures a week, plus prep, grading, and parent meetings when I was a high school teacher, so I guess I could make a snarky case that the professor in question is being overpaid, especially since I hold to the belief that public K-12 teachers are underpaid relative to the social value they produce, but that is another post. But I also have enough awareness to know not to complain too much about how an indoor job with no heavy lifting is underpaid, particularly if we are resorting to any version of the labor theory of value. I dare you to walk into any professional kitchen and tell them these exact contract details, the nature of your work, and then explain to them that you’re the one who deserves to be paid more.

One last gripe. If you are sufficiently talented, conscientious, and privileged to complete a PhD, but your field of study offers you no option better than $38k/year to teach, my guess is that you’ve been not just unlucky, but proactively diligent in dodging every bit of coursework that could lead to a higher wage in the market. And I don’t just mean all of that unpleasant math you hate. Or statistics. Or java/C++/Python/etc. I mean even the adjacent courses of study or research projects where the skill acquisition path is that much more taxing or unpleasant. You didn’t study computational anthropology or physical anthropology or field anthropology. You studied cultural anthropology, fine…but you were also careful to avoid data at every step, opting instead you to memorize soft theory jargon and write the kind of dissertation that tells everyone exactly how smart you are, but not much else. Make no mistake, if you spend 5-8 years getting a PhD you may have gotten bad advice, you may have suffered the fallacy of sunk costs, you may have been done a gratuitous disservice by the faculty guiding your education, and may have been deluded by the matriculant theory of value, but on the bright side you chose a safe and comfortable line of work.

And make no mistake, you did choose it.