Thankful List in 2022

  1. I was able to get a free Covid-19 booster shot reformulated to fight new Omicron strains. This was easy to schedule at Walgreens, and I got a flu shot at the same time to save time. Vaccines for all types of diseases are advancing.  
  2. I didn’t lose money on crypto.
  3. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February of this year, I ordered Potassium Iodide tablets. I have not needed them.
  4. The shrinking ozone hole shows that the world can actually solve an environmental crisis
  5. NASA can save us from an incoming asteroid
  6. Bringing one over from Dynomight (HT: Tyler) “That there’s been a 93% decline in stomach cancer deaths over the past 100 years—from by far the biggest killer among cancers to one of the smaller ones—and mostly this was an accident, it happened because better food refrigeration reduced infections of H. pylori, a bacterium that wasn’t even identified until 1982 after most of the decline had already happened.” 

Mises’s Interventionism, A Recap

I suspect that Mises may have felt somewhat restless after writing Socialism. He had taken a very good stab at describing the socialist economy and its inadequacy for the promotion of human flourishing. By 1940 fascism had arisen in both Italy and in Germany, who Mises considered the clear antagonists of World War II. Further, the communist Soviets were allied with Germany at the time of writing Interventionism.

A communist-fascist alliance may seem strange to idealogues, but it appeared quite natural to Mises that the two distasteful versions of socialism should find cooperation convenient to achieve their own ends. In America, the revelations of German atrocities had yet to arrive and there were many sympathizers with both Russia and Germany. In Britain, union leaders were promoting the idea of socialism as a reward to the public who would be bearing the costs of the war.

Mises thought that the disfunction of socialism was adequate to describe its ultimate failure as an economic system. However, socialist tendencies were pervasive in the liberal market economies among both idealogues and demagogues enough to make the transition to socialism a very real threat. After all, while socialism may not be a stable regime in a dynamic world, certain features within specific market economies may nonetheless tend toward it. What is the cause of such tendencies?

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Thanksgiving Dinner is Once Again More Expensive (But Not the Most Expensive Ever)

Last year inflation hadn’t quite hit the levels we would see in 2022, but they were already rising. When Thanksgiving rolled around, many media sources were reporting that it was the “most expensive Thanksgiving ever.” In nominal terms that was true, though in nominal terms it isn’t that surprising. In a post last year, I compared the prices of Thanksgiving dinners (using the same data from Farm Bureau) to median earnings going back to 1986. While 2021 was more expensive the 2020, it turned out it was still the second lowest it had been since 1986.

As you might expect, this year’s Thanksgiving dinner is even more expensive than last year in nominal terms. It’s up about 20% since last year or over $10 more, according to Farm Bureau. That’s certainly more than the overall rate of inflation (7.7% in the past 12 months) and more than inflation for groceries (12.4% in the past 12 months). But how does that compare with median wages? Comparing the 3rd quarter of this year with the same quarter in 2021, median wages are only up about 7%, certainly not enough to keep up with those rising turkey prices.

When we add 2022 to the historical chart, here’s what it looks like.

The spike in the last 2 years is clear in the chart but notice that at about 6% of median weekly earnings, we have essentially returned to the average level of the entire series. From 2017-2021, we could be thankful that the price of your Thanksgiving dinner had dropped below that 6% level. We’ll have to find something else to be thankful for this year.

Blogging about Tweet Threads

Elon Musk bought Twitter almost a month ago.

The community I follow was speculating, half-seriously, that Musk has abruptly fired so many employees that the entire site would just crash.

My prediction is that many economists will stay on Twitter because it is such a useful venue for sharing work and ideas. There was also a sizable migration to Mastodon this week where a critical mass of economists will likely remain for a while. I made an account there   I don’t think my habits are going to change much right now, meaning I will not add being active on Mastodon to my current slate of activities. Personally, I find Facebook to be a place for meaningful connection in my professional community, as well, but that might be much harder for younger researchers to break into.

Here’s my “What if it all goes down?” moment. I’ll document a great tweet thread by Dennie van Dolder, who is an inspiration for the art form of announcing a working paper on Twitter. (Mastodon does not currently have the thread format, which might point people back to blogging on the margin?)

Dennie van Dolder of the University of Essex provides a tweet thread

I’ll screenshot that thread (just in case).

He also provides a blog post with high production quality and the more traditional SSRN working paper. It’s 2022 and that’s the trifecta for putting work out online, or at least it was.  I have a “News” and a “History” category for classifying these blog posts. Where does this post belong? I settled on “Technology”.

The Unimportance of Inflation: Stocks & Flows

One of my specializations in graduate school at George Mason University was monetary theory. It included two classes taught by Larry White who specializes in free-banking, Austrian macroeconomics, and monetary regimes. Separately, my dad was a libertarian and I’ve attended multiple Students for Liberty events. Right now, I’m writing from my hotel room at a Catholic/Crypto conference, where I learned that the deepest trench in Dante’s Inferno includes money debasers.

Everything about my pedigree suggests that I should have a disdain for the Federal Reserve and cast a wistful gaze toward the perpetually falling value of the US dollar. But I don’t. I certainly do have opinions about what the Fed should be doing and how our monetary system could work. But I’m not excited by the long-run depreciation of the dollar.

Let me tell you why.

Learning a little bit of theory is a dangerous thing. Monetary theory is especially hard because we examine the non-good side of the transaction: the medium of exchange. In frantic excitement, enthusiasts often point out that the value of the dollar has lost very much of its value in the past 100 years. They describe that loss is by describing the lower quantity of something that a dollar can purchase now versus what it could have purchased historically. That information is incapsulated in the price of a good. The price of a good is the number of dollars that one must exchange in order to purchase the good. Similarly, the price of a dollar is the number of goods that one must give up in order to purchase the dollar.

We can consider a variety of goods. Below is a graph that describes the quantity price of the dollar where the quantities are CPI basket units, gold, and housing. In the 35 years following 1986, a single dollar purchases 60% less of the consumer basket, 74% fewer houses (not quality adjusted), and 76% less gold.

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New Data: State Regulatory Procedures

Released this April, but I just heard about it today. Researchers did the painstaking work of going through all 50 states to determine which steps must be taken in each state before new regulations can take effect. For instance, it turns out half of states require economic analysis for new regulations, and half don’t. The paper is here:

My BlockFi Crypto Account Is Frozen Due to Monster FTX Exchange Blowup

About a year ago, I posted some articles touting the use of BlockFi as an alternative checking account. It paid around 9% interest (this was back when interest rates were essentially zero on regular savings accounts), and allowed withdrawal or deposit of funds at any time. Nice. BlockFi is associated with respected firm Gemini, and (unlike many crypto operations) is U.S. based, with consistent formal auditing. They earned interest on my crypto by lending it out to “trusted counter-parties”, always backed by extra collateral. What could possibly go wrong?

In July I wrote about a big cryptocurrency meltdown, in which a number of medium-sized players went bust.  At that time, BlockFi assured its customers that its sound business practices put it above the fray, no problemo. They did make it through that juncture OK. But I withdrew a third of my funds, just to be on the safe side.

The huge news in crypto this past week has been the sudden, total implosion of major exchange FTX (more on that below). FTX is a major business partner with BlockFi. No worries, though, as of Tuesday of last week,  BlockFi COO Flori Marquez tweeted that “All BlockFi products are fully operational”.  Then the hammer dropped: On Thursday (11/10), BlockFi froze withdrawals, due to complications with FTX. My remaining crypto is stranded, most likely for years of legal proceedings, and I may never get it all back. I’m not going to starve, but the amount is enough to hurt.

In this case, I don’t really blame BlockFi – by all accounts, they have been trying to run an honest, responsible business. Before last week, nobody had much reason to think that FTX was totally rotten.  My bad for not connecting the FTX-BlockFi dots earlier, and pulling out more funds when I had the chance.

The Great FTX Debacle

The star of this show is Sam Bankman-Fried, the (former) head of FTX:

James Bailey posted here on EWED on the FTX crash last week. CoinDesk author David Morris summarized the downfall of Bankman-Fried’s crypto empire:

FTX and Bankman-Fried are unique in the stature they achieved before self-immolating. Over the past three years, FTX has come to be widely regarded as a reputable exchange, despite not submitting to U.S. regulation. Bankman-Fried has himself become globally influential, thanks to his thoughts on cryptocurrency regulation and his financial support for U.S. electoral candidates – not necessarily in that order.

Facts first uncovered by CoinDesk played a major role in the events of the past week. On Nov. 2, reporter Ian Allison published findings that roughly $5.8 billion out of $14.6 billion of assets on the balance sheet at Alameda Research, based on then-current valuations, were linked to FTX’s exchange token, FTT.

This finding, based on leaked internal documents, was explosive because of the very close relationship between Alameda and FTX. Both were founded by Bankman-Fried, and there has been significant anxiety about the extent and nature of their fraternal dealings. The FTT token was essentially created from thin air by FTX, inviting questions about the real-world, open-market value of FTT tokens held in reserve by affiliated entities.

Negative speculation about a financial institution can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, triggering withdrawals out of a sense of uncertainty and leading to the very liquidity problems that were feared.

Customers started a “run on the bank”, withdrawing billions of dollars of assets, leading to total insolvency of FTX:

The Financial Times reported that FTX held approximately $900 million in liquid crypto and $5.4 in illiquid venture capital investments against $9 billion in liabilities the day before it filed for bankruptcy.

If FTX had been run as an honest exchange, this withdrawal should not have been too much of a problem – – just give customers back the coins they had deposited with FTX. Apparently, though, FTX had taken customer assets and transferred them over to a sister company, Alameda, to trade with. The valuable customer crypto assets left the FTX balance sheet, and were largely replaced by the self-generated (and now nearly worthless) FTT token:

It remains worryingly unclear, though, exactly why even such a dramatic rush for the exits would have led FTX to seek its own bailout. The exchange promised users that it would not speculate with cryptocurrencies held in their accounts. But if that policy was followed, there should have been no pause to withdrawals, nor any balance sheet gap to fill. One possible explanation comes from Coinmetrics analyst Lucas Nuzzi, who has presented what he says is evidence that FTX transferred funds to Alameda in September, perhaps as a loan to backstop Alameda’s losses.

It doesn’t help that on Friday (11/11) some $477 million was outright stolen from FTX wallets. (The Kraken exchange said it has identified the thief and are working with law enforcement).

Where does the FTX saga go from here? There seems little in the way of assets left for the bankruptcy judge to distribute to former customers and creditors. In the case of BlockFi, they are dependent on a $400 million line of credit extended to them by FTX back in June, to keep operating. And who knows how much of BlockFi assets were stored with FTX – – since FTX was to be their white knight, BlockFi would not be in a position to withdraw deposits from FTX like other customers did.

I predict that nothing really bad will happen to Bankman-Fried and his buddies who ran this thing. Although its operation was apparently dishonest, it is not clear how much is subject to U.S. federal or state legal jurisdiction. Bankman-Fried and friends ran their empire from a big apartment suite in the Bahamas. Plus, he is pretty well-connected. Beside his massive campaign contributions, his business and sometimes romantic partner Caroline Ellison (she is CEO of Alameda) is the daughter of MIT professor Glenn Ellison, the former boss (as colleagues at MIT) of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission chair Gary Gensler. These relations were captured in an impish tweet by Elon Musk:

The long tail of American politics

The Democratic party won more elections than was broadly anticipated last week, though results fell roughly within a standard deviation of the highest regarded forecasts. There were, however, some patterns worth noting. Election deniers seemed to have systematically underperformed expections. Conservative democrats seem to have overperformed expectations, sometimes radically so.

Putting aside forecasts based on polls, make no mistake: the Democrats should have been slaughtered in these elections. High inflation, high gas prices, a frozen housing market, a declining stock market? I’m not Ray Fair, but his inflation+income+incumbency model has been accurately forecasting elections for 50 years for a reason. If Democrats overperformed as massively as it appears they have, then the most likely explanation is that Republicans did something wrong.

First, as is tradition, let us render tribute unto the median voter theorem by whispering Anthony Downs name before taking a sip of coffee. Now, again as is tradition, let us cast mild aspersions upon those who declared the theory obsolete at best, comically reductive and coarse at worst, a relic of a less sophisticated era of social science. Yes, politics exists in more than just the single liberal-conservative dimension and we are all characterized by multi-dimensional preferences. But the liberal-conservative spectrum is the dominant political shorthand for a reason. If politics really were a played out on a single dimension with single-peaked preferences, then the candidate closest to the preferences of the median voter would always win. That has to count for something.

But that’s all just (mildly silly) social scientific gloating. What might we have learned, if anything, from the last two elections? What I think I’ve learned is that the elections– not the discourse, elections, are moving to the center relative to six years ago, and the forces behind it are the same ones that gave us Amazon and the golden age of television. The fixed costs of serving the long tail of consumer demands.

Quick refresher. Amazon succeeded as a retailer not by selling you the 90% of things that everyone else buys, but by offering the 10% of things that you want that relatively few other people want. Once you enter into the long tail of consumption, its extremely difficult for a brick-and-mortar to offer everyone what they want because the opportunity cost of stocking and shelving are to high relative to the small number they will sell. Similarly, in the age of 5 channels, the opportunity cost of niche entertainment is too high. You can’t make Mad Men for 2 million people when you have the potential to air a show that is close enough to the median viewer to grab the attention of 40 million. When the marginal cost of a product listing approaches zero, though, when a 500 channels cut audiences into thousands of slices, however, the math changes. Now the opportunity lies not in serving the lowest common denominator, but giving each person exactly what they want. That’s easier said than done, of course, just ask current Netflix shareholders.

And this appears to be exactly that is happening in the political discourse. The conversation around politics is becoming more niche and, yes, in many cases more extreme. Yes, we are increasingly living in echo chambers served by content producers more than happy to produce bespoke information bundles that will confirm your pre-existing beliefs at the highest possible pitch and volume. But elections are not the discourse. Elections are still played out in a one person, one vote construct and politics is still reducible to a single coarse dimension. Politicians have incentive to incite the id of voters, especially their base, to rile them up to turn out in greater numbers, but that is not without cost. Aligning yourself with your party’s id distances you from the true median voter, who through the forces pushing and pulling political brands will always find herself wary of the most extreme elements of clubs she isn’t particularly interested in joining.

Parties continue to exist and thrive for the same reason that Amazon does. Super-niche product sellers and echo chambers can thrive independently, but when the moment of aggregation arrives, scale matters. Where decision-making bottle necks, either with a credit card or a ballot box, there’s an enormous advantage to having a brand that lowers information costs and mitigates risk. Amazon wins because it’s boring. Amazon mitigates the risk of buying from a million niche producers, some of whom you might only buy from once in your life, but at the end of the day you know everything is almost definitely going to show up. Democrats won more last week than they should have because they’re boring. Voters knew the candidates, some of whom they may never vote for again, would show up to govern and maintain longstanding institutions. The Republican party, in their independent efforts to serve specific niches within their coaltition, let their collective brand deteriorate and, in doing so, failed to mitigate the risk facing the median voter.

Republican’s got caught up serving the discourse, fractured across a thousand channels, but elections aren’t carried out on a thousand channels. There’s still just one ballot box in every election. The median voter theoreom may be based on an unchanging analog model, but so is our democracy.

New Double Auction Paper

This weekend I am at the Economic Science Association meeting.

Most of the economists in this group use experiments as part of their empirical research. In this post I will highlight some recently published work that is in the tradition of Vernon Smith, who influenced all of us so much.

Martinelli, C., Wang, J. & Zheng, W. Competition with indivisibilities and few traders. Experimental Economics (2022).

Abstract: We study minimal conditions for competitive behavior with few agents. We adapt a price-quantity strategic market game to the indivisible commodity environment commonly used in double auction experiments, and show that all Nash equilibrium outcomes with active trading are competitive if and only if there are at least two buyers and two sellers willing to trade at every competitive price. Unlike previous formulations, this condition can be verified directly by checking the set of competitive equilibria. In laboratory experiments, the condition we provide turns out to be enough to induce competitive results, and the Nash equilibrium appears to be a good approximation for market outcomes. Subjects, although possessing limited information, are able to act as if complete information were available in the market.

This small excerpt from their results shows a market converging toward equilibrium over time, under different treatment conditions. With some opportunities for practice and feedback, agents create surplus value by trading.

Figure 4 plots the average efficiency in each round in the four treatments. Efficiency is defined as the percentage of the maximum social surplus realized. … learning takes longer under the clearing house institution; hence, average efficiency under the clearing house institution presents a stronger upward trend over time. Under the clearing house institution, the average efficiencies start at levels lower than under the double auction institution, and remain statistically lower in the second half of the experiment. Nevertheless, we can observe from Fig. 4 that the upward trend of the efficiencies in clearing house treatments persist over time, and at the end of the experiment, the efficiency levels from the two institutions are close.