Optimal Policy & Technological Contingency

A person’s optimal choice depends on what they know. To consume more ice cream? Or to consume more alcohol? It depends on what we know about the expected utility across time. If a person thinks that alcohol has few calories, then it is understandable that they would choose to drink rather than eat. The person might be totally wrong, but they are acting optimally contingent on their knowledge about the world. (FWIW, 4oz of ethanol has 262 calories and 4oz of typical ice cream has 228 calories.)

The case is analogous for good government policy. The best policy is contingent on accessing the distribution of knowledge that’s inside of multiple people’s heads. It’s not sensible to assert that a policy is suboptimal if the optimal policy requires knowledge that neither a single individual nor all people together have. Even if the sum of all knowledge does exist, it may not be possible to access it.

Economists like to tell their undergraduate classes that it doesn’t matter who you tax. But that’s contingent on 1) identical compliance costs among buyers and sellers and 2) identical relevant information. If a tax comes as a surprise to the buyer or the seller, then it absolutely matters who is taxed.

When I was in 1st grade in North Carolina, my class went on a field trip to a Christmas tree farm. We learned a bunch about maintaining the farm and we got to choose a pumpkin to take home. At the end of our visit we took turns perusing the gift shop. My mother had generously given me a dollar to spend  and I was eager to spend it (I rarely had money to spend). Unfortunately, even in the early mid-90s, most of the things in the shop cost more than $1. So, I settled on purchasing some beef jerky that cost 99 cents.

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Best Books 2021

I read 23 books in 2021, but none that were written in 2021. Tim Ferriss stopped reading new books deliberately but for me it just happened, something about this year made me want to hang out in the ancient world instead.

I read about how five thousand years ago the Indo-Europeans figured out how to ride horses and use wheels, and so ended up spreading their language to half the world. I read about the Bronze Age Collapse three thousand years ago. Also set three thousand years ago are the semi-mythical events of the Aeneid and the Odyssey; I particularly enjoyed Emily Wilson’s new translation of the latter. From two thousand years ago, Caesar’s Commentaries reads like an action-packed fantasy novel but gives real insight into history and strategy. It was also a good year to go back to the Biblical events of two to three thousand years ago, though I didn’t make it cover to cover.

The one book about the modern world I gave 5 stars in 2021 was The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics. The short version of my review is that it’s secretly a development economics book:

Bueno de Mesquita, author of The Dictator’s Handbook, is a political scientist but his analysis is very much economic, in both the methods (rational choice & methodological individualism) and in the focus on material incentives as the main driver of behavior. The book is good as a manual for aspiring tyrants, but suprisingly great as an explanation for why many poor countries stay poor.

So overall compared to 2020 I don’t have many good books to share, apart from things like The Odyssey that you presumably already know about. The best new writing in 2021 probably isn’t happening in books at all, but in Substacks. Many bloggers switched to the Substack blogging/newsletter platform last year because it makes it easy to monetize their writing, while many professional journalists switched over as a way to keep being paid to write while enjoying near-complete editorial freedom. I recommend Byrne Hobart on finance and business strategy, and Razib Khan on history and genomics. Probably my favorite writing of 2021 was the return of Scott Alexander to blogging, now at Substack as Astral Codex Ten. He is also a great demonstration of just how much the monetization game has changed, as less than a year into the new Substack he is making enough money to start giving large amounts of it away.

Really Stable Prices

Breaking news in America this week: Little Caesars will be raising the price of their Hot-N-Ready Pizzas from $5 to $5.55. Some see this as a sign of the times, just another bit of bad news among all the inflation data lately. But what really surprised me is that this price has been stable they introduced it in 1997. This means that compared to median wages, these pizzas were about 50% cheaper than 1997 (before this price increase). That’s a doubling of America’s Pizza Standard of Living in just 24 years.

Keeping a fixed price is a somewhat rare, but fascinating pricing strategy. It can even become part of the identity of the product. The most famous example was Coca-Cola, which sold a 6.5 ounce bottle for 5 cents from 1886 to 1959. It’s so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page! “Always 5 cents” became a marketing slogan for them. And while we may regard that time period as one of generally low inflation, consumer prices on average more than tripled from 1886 to 1959.

Probably the most famous recent example is Costco’s $1.50 hot dog and soda combo, which has been stable in price since 1985. Rumor has it that the founder of Costco once told the current CEO that he’d kill him if he raised the price of the hot dog. Since 1985, nominal median wages in the US have tripled, meaning that your Costco Hot Dog Standard of Living has also tripled.

The concept of nickel and dime stores and later dollar stores are similar concepts, but they aren’t necessarily selling the exact same products over time. Coca-Cola, Hot-N-Ready pizzas, and Costco hot dogs really are the same product from year-to-year, so these products stand out as amazing examples of price stability during periods of time when most prices were rising in nominal terms (other than new technologies).

What are some other examples of consistently stable prices?

Covid-19 & The Federal Reserve

I remember people talking about Covid-19 in January of 2020. There had been several epidemic scare-claims from major news outlets in the decade prior and those all turned out to be nothing. So, I was not excited about this one. By the end of the month, I saw people making substantiated claims and I started to suspect that my low-information heuristic might not perform well.

People are different. We have different degrees of excitability, different risk tolerances, and different biases. At the start of the pandemic, these differences were on full display between political figures and their parties, and among the state and municipal governments. There were a lot of divergent beliefs about the world. Depending on your news outlet of choice, you probably think that some politicians and bureaucrats acted with either malice or incompetence.

I think that the Federal Reserve did a fine job, however. What follows is an abridged timeline, graph by graph, of how and when the Fed managed monetary policy during the Covid-19 pandemic.

February, 2020: Financial Markets recognize a big problem

The S&P begins its rapid decent on February 20th and would ultimately lose a third of its value by March 23rd.  Financial markets are often easily scared, however. The primary tool that the Fed has is adjusting the number of reserves and the available money supply by purchasing various assets. The Fed didn’t begin buying extra assets of any kind until mid-March. There is a clear response by the 18th, though they may have started making a change by the 11th.  One might argue that they cut the federal funds rate as early as the 4th, but given that there was no change in their balance sheet, this was probably demand driven.

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=JYVL
https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=JYVy

March, 2020: The Fed Accommodates quickly and substantially.

In the month following March 9th, the Fed increased M2 by 8.3%. By the week of March 21st, consumer sentiment and mobility was down and economic policy uncertainty began to rise substantially – people freaked out. Although the consumer sentiment weekly indicator was back within the range of normal by the end of April, EPU remained elevated through May of 2020. Additionally, although lending was only slightly down, bank reserves increased 71% from February to April. Much of that was due to Fed asset purchases. But there was also a healthy chunk that was due to consumer spending tanking by 20% over the same period.

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=JYXj
https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=JYYz

In the 18 months prior to 2020, M2 had grown at rate of about 0.5% per month. For the almost 18 months following the sudden 8.3% increase, the new growth rate of M2 almost doubled to about 1% per month. The Fed accommodated quite quickly in March.

April, 2020: People are awash with money

Falling consumption caused bank deposit balances to rise by 5.6% between March 11th and April 8th. The first round of stimulus checks were deposited during the weekend of April 11th. That contributed to bank deposits rising by another 6.7% by May 13th.

By the end of March, three weeks after it began increasing M2, the Fed remembered that it really didn’t want another housing crisis. It didn’t want another round of fire sales, bank failures, disintermediation, collapsed lending, and debt deflation. It went from owning $0 in mortgage-backed securities (MBS) on March 25th to owning nearly $1.5 billion worth by the week of April 1st. Nobody’s talking about it, but the Fed kept buying MBS at a constant growth rate through 2021.

May, 2020 – December, 2021: The Fed Prevents Last-Time’s Crisis

Jerome Powell presided over the shortest US recession ever on record. The Fed helped to successfully avoid a housing collapse, disintermediation, and debt deflation – by 2008 standards. The monthly supply of housing collapsed, but it had bottomed out by the end of the summer. By August of 2021, the supply of housing had entirely recovered. The average price of new house sales never fell. Prices in April of 2020 were typical of the year prior, then rose thereafter. A broader measure of success was that total loans did not fall sharply and are nearly back to their pre-pandemic volumes. After 2008, it took six years to again reach the prior peak. A broader measure still, total spending in the US economy is back to the level predicted by the pre-pandemic trend.

The Fed can’t control long-run output. As I’ve written previously, insofar as aggregate demand management is concerned, we are perfectly on track. The problem in the US economy now is real output. The Fed avoided debt deflation, but it can’t control the real responses in production, supply chains, and labor markets that were disrupted by Covid-19 and the associated policy responses.

What was the cost of the Fed’s apparent success? Some have argued that the Fed has lost some of its political insulation and that it unnecessarily and imprudently over-reached into non-monetary areas. Maybe future Fed responses will depend on who is in office or will depend on which group of favored interests need help. Personally, I’m not so worried about political exposure. But I am quite worried about the Fed’s interventions in particular markets, such as MBS, and how/whether they will divest responsibly.

Of course, another cost of the Fed’s policies has been higher inflation. During the 17 months prior to the pandemic, inflation was 0.125% per month. During the pandemic recession, consumer prices dipped and inflation was moderate through November.  But, in the 16 months since April of 2020, consumer prices have grown at a rate of 0.393% per month – more than three times the previous rate. Some of that is catch-up after the brief fall in prices.

Although people are genuinely worried about inflation, they were also worried about if after the 2008 recession and it never came. This time, inflation is actually elevated. But people were complaining about inflation before it was ever perceptible. The compound annual rate of inflation rose to 7% in March of 2021. But it had been almost zero as recent as November, 2020. That March 2021 number is misleading. The actual change in prices from February to March was 0.567%. Something that was priced at $10 in February was then priced at $10.06 in March. Hardly noticeable, were it not for headlines and news feeds.

Pumpkin Spice: 15th Century Edition

It’s pumpkin spice season. That means that not only can you get pumpkin spice lattes, but also pumpkin spice Oreos, pumpkin spice Cheerios, and even pumpkin spice oil changes.

The most important thing to know about “pumpkin spice” things is that they don’t actually taste like pumpkin. They taste like the spices that you use to flavor pumpkin pie. (Notable exception: Peter Suderman’s excellent pumpkin spice cocktail syrup, which does contain pumpkin puree.)

Last week economic historian Anton Howes posted a picture of the spice shelf at his grocery store and guessed that this would have been worth millions of dollars in 1600.

Some of the comments pushed back a little. OK, probably not millions but certainly a lot. Howes was alluding to the well-known fact that spices used to be expensive. Very expensive. Spices, along with precious metals, were one of the primary reasons for the global exploration, trade, and colonialism for centuries. Finding and controlling spices was a huge source of wealth.

But how much more expensive were spices in the past? One comment on Howes’ tweet points to an excellent essay by the late economic historian John Munro on the history of spices. And importantly, Munro gives us a nice comparison of the prices of spices in 15th century Europe, including a comparison to typical wages.

As I looked at the list of spices in Munro’s essay, I noticed: these are the pumpkin spices! Cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and mace (from the nutmeg seed, though not exactly the same as nutmeg). He’s even included sugar. That’s all we need to make a pumpkin spice syrup!

Last week in my Thanksgiving prices post I cautioned against looking at any one price or set of prices in isolation. You can’t tell a lot about standards of living by looking at just a few prices, you need to look at all prices. So let me just reiterate here that the following comparison is not a broad claim about living standards, just a fun exercise.

That being said, let’s see how much the prices of spices have fallen.

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Happy 400th Thanksgiving from EWED

In 1621 the pilgrims were starving after their communal farming system gave them little incentive to work hard, leading them to rely on the generosity of their native neighbors at the first Thanksgiving. But in the long run they were able to produce their own feasts after switching to a private property system. Economist Ben Powell tells the story briefly here, or you can read the primary source, William Bradford’s Diary here.

It is customary in many families to “give thanks to the hands that prepared this feast” during the Thanksgiving dinner blessing. Perhaps we should also be thankful for the millions of other hands that helped get the dinner to the table: the grocer who sold us the turkey, the truck driver who delivered it to the store, and the farmer who raised it all contributed to our Thanksgiving dinner because our economic system rewards them

Powell calls this “the real lesson of Thanksgiving”, and while I think there are other great angles to the story this is certainly a real lesson of Thanksgiving.

Compulsory Schooling by Gender & Age

This weekend I’ll be at the Southern Economic Association Conference in Houston Texas. I’m organizing and chairing a session called Education Policy Impacts by Sex (you should come by and see me if you will be there too!).

Personally, I will be presenting on the impact of compulsory school attendance laws on attendance. Today I just want to share and discuss a single graph that’s not my presentation.

Prior to my research, there was already a canon of existing literature on compulsory attendance legislation (CSL) and I’ve previously written on this blog about it (attendance, CSL, and differences by sex). However, the literature had some limitations. Authors examined smaller samples, ignored gender, or ignored different effects by age.

I examine full-count IPUMS data from the 1850-1910 US censuses of whites in order to investigate the so-far-omitted margins mentioned above. Here are some conclusions:

Prior to CSL:

  • Males and females attended school at similar rates until the age of 14.
  • After 14, women stopped attending school as much as men.
    • By the age of 18, the attendance gender gap was 10 percentage points.

After CSL

  • Male and female attendance increased from the ages of 6 to 14
  • Women began attending school more than prior to CSL until about age 18.
  • After the age of 18, women experienced no greater attendance than previously.
  • But, both sexes attended school less than prior to CSL for ages 5 and younger.
  • Men began attending school less after the age of 17.
  • CSL increased lifetime attendance for both males and females

Overall, examining the impact of CSL across many ages allows us to see when and not just whether people attended more school. Previous authors would say something like “CSL increased total years of school by about 5% on average”. For men, almost all of those gains were between the ages of 6 & 16. But women experienced greater attendance from ages 6 to 18.

Additionally, examining the data by age reveals that there was some intertemporal substitution. Once it became legally mandatory for children to attend school between the ages of 6 & 14, parents began sending their younger children to school at lower rates. Indeed – why invest in education for two or three early years of life if you’ll just have to send your children to school for another eight years anyway. Older boys dropped out of school at higher rates after CSL too. Essentially, the above figure became compressed horizontally. People ‘put in their time’, but then reduced investments at non-mandatory ages.

This reveals a shortcoming of the current literature, which focuses mostly on 14 year olds. By focusing on a popular age of attendance that was also compulsory, previous authors have missed the compensating fall in attendance at other ages. Granted, the life-time effect is still positive – but it’s attenuated by a richer picture. The picture reveals that individuals were not attending school by accident. Students or their parents had in mind an amount of educational investment for which they were aiming. When children were forced to attend school at particular ages, the attendance for other ages declined.

Joy on Books 2021

The non-fiction book for adults I recommend this year is Liberty Power by historian Corey Brooks. If you have ever cared about social justice or affecting change, then wouldn’t you be curious to know how the abolitionists really did it around 1850? How, practically speaking, did a handful of people with moral convictions rid the United States of legal slavery? Abolitionists were striving and scheming to use the newly minted American democratic political system to their advantage even though they were in the minority. One of their big decisions was to start a third political party after they grew frustrated with slavery-complicit Northern Whig politicians. I blogged here about the connection with current politics.

I had a huge gap in my knowledge of American history before reading this book. Nothing that happened between George Washington and the Civil War seemed interesting, until this book created a narrative that I cared enough about to follow. History books might not be the perfect gift for everyone, but I bet no one in your family already has it!

Another book I reviewed earlier is Emily Oster’s The Family Firm, which any parent of young children would probably find helpful if they like research.

When I’m not reading for work, I read to my kids. I strongly recommend, for kids aged 6-12, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This ties into Liberty Power, because the main characters abolish the slave trade on one of the islands they sail to!

Before reading Dawn Treader, you should certainly start with the book that sets up the world, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe. I have a tip for younger kids: start reading this book right at the point where Lucy walks into the wardrobe for the first time. Younger kids won’t miss the first few pages that explain how the 4 children came to be in the old house.

For 4yo and 5yo kids, I recommend Aesop’s fables. These are short and self-contained. There are many versions of fable books for kids with good illustrations.

In addition of my specific plug for the Narnia series, I encourage parents to read fantasy with children. I see a lot of children’s books that promote science or STEM-readiness. My son enjoys learning about dinosaurs and nature, however I am certain that he’s learned the most from the conversations we have had about adventure stories.

Reading to your kids is costly in terms of time. We have limited time, so let me make an argument for dropping some of the other competing activities. I speak as someone who professionally teaches hundreds of college students to program. Those games that try to trick 5-year-olds into “programming” are less valuable than reading and discussing fantasy stories.

Inspire them with the story of a ship sailing to unknown islands. Talk about how a lovable band of flawed characters can escape from a clever magician. What your child will need to be able to do when they are 20 is read and comprehend a textbook that explains a totally new technology that no one alive today understands. Then they will need to think of creative ways to apply that technology to real world problems.

What to Read: Claudia Goldin’s Career and Family

A better battery is an excellent gift, but for the gift that never needs recharging, a book is always a great idea. So this week Joy asked us to recommend a book. Again, this would be great as a gift or for yourself!

My recommendation is a very new book: Claudia Goldin’s Career and Family, which just came out this month. Confession: the book is so new, that I’ve only read about half of it so far! But this book is, as they say, self-recommending.

Goldin has spent almost her entire academic career studying the history of women’s participation in the US labor force. I think it’s fair to say that there is no person living today that knows more about the subject, possibly no one ever. This book is her attempt to sum up much of her research into a cohesive narrative about the changes in women’s labor force participation throughout the 20th century.

Her 2006 AEA Ely Lecture, “The Quiet Revolution,” was an earlier attempt to explain these long changes, and it is highly readable still today. Her 2014 AEA Presidential Address, “A Grand Gender Convergence,” is also excellent (watch the video of it too!). But this book brings all the ideas together into a complete narrative, tracking five cohorts of women and their experience in the labor force from 1900 to 2000. The last of these five cohorts matches the title of her book, the generation of women that entered the labor force since 1980 and now have a reasonable chance of achieving both an career and a family, rather than having to chose between the two.

This does not mean, and certainly Goldin would not say, that the journey is over and all is well for women today. Goldin focuses primarily on college graduates in this story, since they are the group most well-positioned to achieve the goal of having a career and a family. Obviously there are still challenges, and Goldin spends some time discussing one that the COVID pandemic revealed but was always there: the challenge of finding affordable childcare.

If you want a taste of the book, you can read or watch her 2020 Feldstein Lecture, “Journey Across a Century of Women.” But really the story is so complex that it does take a book to explain it all.

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Book Recommendation: “How the Irish Saved Civilization”

It is hard to wrap our minds around how rapid and thorough was the loss of literate culture throughout Europe after the collapse of the Roman political and economic order. As of 400 A.D, the Pax Romana held throughout the whole Mediterranean world, and up through what is now France (“Gaul”) and England. The immense depth and breadth of classical knowledge comes through, for instance, in the works of Augustine. Writing just as the barbarian wave was starting to overrun the empire, Augustine casually alludes to a wide range of Greek and Roman philosophers, historical events, skilled medical procedures and a long list of metals and precious stones, knowing that his contemporary readers would be familiar with all these things.

All this changed after 406. On the last day of that year, the Rhine River, which formed the border between the Roman empire and the Germanic tribes to the north and east, froze solid.  A vast horde of barbarians began to surge across the border, overwhelming the thin force of Roman frontier guards. Every German man was a warrior, and their armed women followed closely behind. The invaders quickly spread south through Gaul and into Italy, Spain, and North Africa, looting and doing the generally disruptive sorts of things that invading barbarians do. Rome itself was sacked in 410.

In an orderly, diverse pre-industrial economy, there are enough slaves and peasants toiling away at the bottom of the pyramid to support a reasonable number of merchants, priests and aristocrats who can carry on higher culture. But with societal collapse in the fifth century, and new class of overlords who knew and cared little about literacy, centuries of Greek and Roman learning were nearly lost to most of Europe. In this bare survival situation, nobody had the leisure or drive to learn to read and appreciate literature, and to do the physical copy of manually copying  manuscripts which was necessary before the printing press.

The big, bright, exception, which is the subject of Thomas Cahill’s book, was the newly minted set of monasteries in Ireland. The Irish had been thoroughly pagan (think human sacrifice) and thoroughly illiterate until Patrick brought Christianity to them in the middle of the fifth century. Cahill describes the Irish mindset in detail, and how Patrick appealed to its best elements.

(Patrick’s story is very dramatic and monumental in its impact, but I won’t try to summarize it here in the interests of space.  Just one quote:  “The greatness of Patrick is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery. Nor will any voice as strong as his be heard again until the 17th century”).

The few monasteries on the European continent saw little value in the ancient non-Christian Greek and Roman writers, so those works were not reproduced. The Irish had a more eclectic attitude, and happily copied whatever texts came their way, including “pagan” authors like Plato.

The final step in this cultural saga is that starting around 600 many of these Irish monks, along with their precious manuscripts, made their way back to Gaul and northern Italy. They established their monasteries, which served as outposts of literacy, and they started to educate the local kings and  warlords and their children. And that is how “the Irish saved civilization”.

Anyone with an inquiring mind should enjoy this book. It manages to be deeply erudite and deeply engaging, giving depth portraits of representative personages in the late Roman empire, the Irish before and after Patrick, and key leaders in the succeeding centuries. One thing the author points out is that life in the later Roman empire was not typically much fun unless you were in the oppressive, narcissistic upper upper crust. Although we may rightfully mourn the loss of classical learning, for the vast majority of its inhabitants, the demise of the empire and its tax collectors was maybe not such a tragedy.

Cahill further makes the case that the fusion of Patrick’s Christianity with Irish sensibilities gave rise to a richer, healthier spirituality than could be found in Roman-type Catholicism:

Patrick could put himself – imaginatively –  in the position of the Irish. To him, no less than to them, the world is full of magic. One can invoke the elements – the lights of Heaven, the waves of the sea, the birds and the animals – and these will come to one’s aid, as in the incantation of [Patrick’s famous prayer] the “Breastplate”. The difference between Patrick’s magic and the magic of the druids is that in Patrick’s world all beings and events come from the hand of a good God, who loves human beings and wishes them success. And though that success is of an ultimate kind – and, therefore does not preclude suffering – all nature, indeed the whole of the created universe, conspires to mankind‘s good, teaching, succoring, and saving.

Patrick… could assure you that all suffering, however dull and desperate, would come to its conclusion and would show itself to have been worthwhile.

… Christ has trodden all pathways before us, and at every crossroads and by every tree the Word of God speaks out. We have only to be quiet and listen.

…This sense of the world as holy, as a Book of God – as a healing mystery, fraught with divine messages – could never have risen out of Greco- Roman civilization, threaded with the profound pessimism of the ancients and their Platonic suspicion of the body as unholy and the world as devoid of meaning.