Yay Democracy Dollars

My proposal is that we give every American 100 democracy dollars that you can only give to candidates and causes that you like. This would washout the lobbyist cash by a factor of eight to one. (Yang in Thursday debate)

Gillibrand proposed this also, as have some law profs, and its been tried in Seattle. In my Twitter poll, the main concern people express re private firms doing things instead of government is that firms might lobby to change policy. I’m personally not so concerned about firm lobbying, as public employees and agencies also lobby, and as academics find it hard to see any substantial effects of lobbying. But there does seem to be a perception problem and $100 a person per year seems to me a small price to pay to address it.

Reading up on this idea, I see that many try to tie it to other policies they want, and so try to require politicians to accept no other money if they accept this, or only allow it to be spent in your state or only at particular points in the election cycle. Yang seems to have it right; spending constraints are mistakes. As Yang says, let people use the money at any time for any political organization, lobbyist, or candidate.

The only criticism I can find online, beyond harms from spending constraints, is this complaint that it might make politicians listen more to the public:

It would simply multiply the amount of money in politics by an order of magnitude, with effects that wouldn’t be good for the political system at large, but would be good for ad buyers and PR flacks and political operatives. … Citizens have no reason to think too hard about how they spend. … Will politicians get more populist or less? Will voters gravitate towards visionary leaders making hard decisions about confounding policy issues? Or will they pick whoever tells the most flattering lies in the most entertaining way? Because we know what that looks like. It’s ugly, and it’s orange. (More)

Yes, overall I might rather slant the system toward the better informed, and elite money in politics might be seen as doing that. But if that’s going to push people to avoid substituting firms for government, I’d rather use some other method to promote informed voters.

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Stamina Succeeds

You Need the Stamina and Mindset of a Professional Athlete to Make It in Business (more)
a reminder that success takes stamina, and you get stamina by training and experience (more)

It wasn’t until my mid-30s that I finally got to see some very successful people up close for long enough to notice a strong pattern: the most successful have a lot more energy and stamina than do others. Which was a disappointment, as I could clearly see that I didn’t have as much stamina as they.

The quotes above are about business management, but it also seems true in many other achievement areas. And while those above quotes focus on what you can do to increase stamina, I’m not sure you can change your stamina that much. You can do a few things, but stamina seems to me pretty resistant to conscious efforts to change it.

Of course stamina isn’t the only thing you need. It also helps to have motive, drive, intelligence, beauty, connections, charm, and many other things. But without stamina, you won’t be able to use those other things as many hours a day, which in close contests can make all the difference.

I think this helps explain many cases of “why didn’t this brilliant young prodigy succeed?” Often they didn’t have the stamina, or the will to apply it. I’ve known many such people. It helps explain why women have often suffered so much career-wise when they had more family demands, or when they were expected to have such soon. And why ambitious women often seem so sensitive on the topic of fertility.

I also think this explains why so many career paths have early periods with that place huge time and energy demands on competitors. With crazy unproductive work hours, as in medicine, law, and academia. These demands often seem counter productive from the point of view of learning,  production, or flourishing. But they may do well at distinguishing those with the most energy and stamina, and this may be their point.

If this all is true, why don’t we hear more about it the people talk about success. And why, when people do talk about stamina, do they focus so much on attitudes or practice that might improve something that is in fact hard to change? Why not suggest that people gauge their stamina, or potential for it, early on, and then calibrate their hopes for success accordingly?

The obvious answer: honestly about the stamina-success connection conflicts with our (forager-sourced) egalitarian norms, which promise that anyone can succeed if only they try in the right way. We’d rather give everyone hope than help the hopeful to better calibrate their success potential.

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Beware Multi-Monopolies

Back in 1948, the Supreme Court ordered Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and other movie studios to divest themselves of their theater chains, ruling that the practice of giving their own theaters preference on the best movies amounted to illegal restraint of trade.

In 1962, MCA, then the most powerful force in Hollywood as both a talent agency and producer of TV shows, was forced to spin off its talent agency after the Justice Department concluded that the combination gave it unfair advantage in both markets.

And in 1970, the Federal Communications Commission prohibited the broadcast networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — from owning or producing programming aired during prime time, ushering in a new golden era of independent production.

In recent decades, however, because of new technology and the government’s willful neglect of the antitrust laws, most of those prohibitions have fallen by the wayside. (more)

My last post talked about how our standard economic models of firms competing in industries typically show industries having too many, not too few, firms. It is a suspicious and damning fact that economists and policy makers have allowed themselves and the public to gain the opposite impression, that our best theories support interventions to cut industry concentration.

My last post didn’t mention the most extreme example of this, the case where we have the strongest theory reason to expect insufficient concentration:

  • Multi-Monopoly: There’s a linear demand curve for a product that customers must assemble for themselves via buying components separately from multiple monopolists. Each monopolist must pay a fixed cost and a constant marginal cost per component sold. Monopolists simultaneously set their prices, and the sum of these prices is intersected with the demand curve to get a quantity, which becomes the quantity that each firms sells.

The coordination failure among these firms is severe. It produces a much lower quantity and welfare than would result if all these firms were merged into a single monopolist who sold a single merged product. So in this case the equilibrium industry concentration is far too low.

This problem continues, though to a lessor extent, even when each of these monopolists is replaced by a small set of firms, each of who faces the same costs, firms who compete to sell that component. This is because the problem arises due to firms having sufficient market power to influence their prices.

For example, this multi-monopoly problem shows up when many towns along a river each separately set the tax they charge for boats to travel down that river. Or when, to get a functioning computer, you must buy both a processing chip and an operating system from separate firms like Intel and Microsoft.

Or when you must buy a movie or TV experience from (1) an agent who makes actors available, (2) a studio who puts those actors together into a performance, and (3) a theatre or broadcast network who finally show it to you. When these 3 parties separately set their prices for these three parts, you have a 3-way monopoly (or strong market power) problem.

This last example is why the quote above by Steven Pearlstein is so sad. He calls for anti-trust authorities to repeat some of their biggest ever mistakes: breaking monopolies into multi-monopolies. And alas, our economic and policy authorities fail to make clear just how big a mistake this is. In most industrial organization classes, both grad and undergrad, you will never even hear about this problem.

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What’s So Bad About Concentration?

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist. (Keynes)

Many have recently said 1) US industries have become more concentrated lately, 2) this is a bad thing, and 3) inadequate antitrust enforcement is in part to blame. (See many related MR posts.)

I’m teaching grad Industrial Organization again this fall, and in that class I go through many standard simple (game-theoretic) math models about firms competiting within industries. And occurs to me to mention that when these models allow “free entry”, i.e., when the number of firms is set by the constraint that they must all expect to make non-negative profits, then such models consistently predict that too many firms enter, not too few. These models suggest that we should worry more about insufficient, not excess, concentration.

Two examples:

  • “Cournot” Quantity Competition Firms pay (the same) fixed cost to enter an industry, and (the same) constant marginal cost to make products there. Knowing the number of firms, each firm simultaneously picks the quantity it will produce. The sum of these quantities is intersected with a linear demand curve to set the price they will all be paid for their products.
  • “Circular City” Differentiated Products Customers are uniformly distributed, and firms are equally distributed, around a circle. Firms pay (the same) fixed cost to enter, and (the same) constant marginal cost to serve each customer. Each firm simultaneously sets its price, and then each customer chooses the firm from which it will buy one unit. This customer must pay not only that firm’s price, but also a “delivery cost” proportional to its distance to that firm.
  • [I also give a Multi-Monopoly example in my next post.]

In both of these cases, when non-negative profit is used to set the number of firms, that number turns out to higher than the number that maximizes total welfare (i.e., consumer value minus production cost). This is true not only for these specific models I’ve just described, but also for most simple variations that I’ve come across. For example, quantity competition might have increasing marginal costs, or a sequential choice of firm quantity. Differentiated products might have a quadratic delivery cost, allow price discrimination by consumer location, or have firms partially pay for delivery costs.

Furthermore, we have a decent general account that explains this general pattern. It is a lot like how there is typically overfishing if new boats enter a fishing area whenever they expect a non-negative profit per boat; each boat ignores the harm it does to other boats by entering. Similarly, firms who enter an industry neglect the costs they impose on other firms already in that industry.

Yes, I do know of models that predict too few firms entering each industry. For example, a model might assume that all the firms who enter an industry go to war with each other via an all-pay auction. The winning firm is the one who paid the most, and gains the option to destroy any other firm. Only one firm remains in the industry, and that is usually too few. However, such models seem more like special cases designed to produce this effect, not typical cases in the space of models.

I’m also not claiming that firms would always set efficient prices. For example, a sufficiently well-informed regulator might be able to improve welfare by lowering the price set by a monopolist. But that’s about the efficiency of prices, not of the number of firms. You can’t say there’s too much concentration even with a monopolist unless the industry would actually be better with more than one firm.

Of course the world is complex and space of possible models is vast. Even so, it does look like the more natural result for the most obvious models is insufficient concentration. That doesn’t prove that this is in fact the typical case in the real world, but it does at least raise a legitimate question: what theory model do people have in mind when they suggest that we now have too much industry concentration? What are they thinking? Can anyone explain?

Added 11a: People sometimes say the cause of excess concentration is “barriers to entry”. The wikipedia page on the concept notes that most specific things “cited as barriers to entry … don’t fit all the commonly cited definitions of a barrier to entry.” These include economies of scale, cost advantages, network effects, regulations, ads, customer loyalty, research, inelastic demand, vertical integration, occupational licensing, mergers, and predatory pricing. Including these factors in models does not typically predict excess concentration.

That wiki page does list some specific factors as fitting “all the common definitions of primary economic barriers to entry.” These include IP, zoning, agreements with distributors and suppliers, customers switching costs, and taxes. But I say that models which include such factors also do not consistently predict excess firm concentration. And I still want to know which of these factors complainers have in mind as the source of the recent increased US concentration problem that they see.

Added 7Sep: Many have in mind the idea that regulations impose fixed costs that are easier on larger firms. But let us always agree that it would be good to lower costs. Fixed costs are real costs, and can’t be just assumed away. If you know a feasible way to actually lower such costs, great let’s do that, but that’s not about excess concentration, that’s about excess costs.

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10% Less Democracy

My GMU econ colleague Garett Jones has a book coming out in February: 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less. I just read it, and found it so engaging that I’ll respond now, even though Jones’ publisher surely prefers book publicity nearer its publication date.

Regarding to the vast space of possible governments, it seems to me that Jones uses “more democratic” to describe situations closer to a 100% democracy ideal, wherein all citizens have an equal say and can vote directly on all government choices, with government able to control all other choices. In this framing, anything that makes it harder for voters to simply and directly choose the options they understand and prefer makes a system less democratic.

That includes electing representatives instead of directly voting on policy, and also logrolling, divided government, and other complexities that make it harder for citizens to tell what is going on and to assign responsibility. It includes any limits on who can vote, and any ties to outsiders that limit internal discretion, like treaties with other nations or selling debt to bondholders. And it includes longer terms for the elected, and more indirection, such as when politicians appoint other officials instead of directly electing those other officials.

By these standards, our current system obviously deviates greatly from a fully democratic ideal, and Jones approves of most of these deviations, especially ones that result in longer term views and in more informed voters and officials. And he’d like to move modestly further in such less-democracy directions, though not too far, as he accepts that strong autocrats tend much more to kill their citizens, allow famines, and create more economic growth volatility (though similar average levels of war and growth). Jones musters a lot of data in support of his modestly-cut-democracy view.

I did a few surveys yesterday which suggest that overall my Twitter followers find the existing degree of democracy pretty close to their ideal, though a majority would also prefer a reduction. So, for them, Jones’ position doesn’t seem at all controversial:

In the past I’ve tended to think about all this in terms of principal-agent problems. It doesn’t always make sense to make all decisions yourself, if you can instead consult an agent who does or could know more than you. But you must be careful to keep such agents under sufficient control. So if they are careful, voters may reasonably gain by delegating to experts. However, the reason I found Jones’ book so engaging is that I found a lot of the data Jones presented to be challenging to understand from this principal-agent view. (And also, it was a pleasure to engage such fundamental issues.)

For example, politicians with longer terms but without safe districts act at the end of their term more like politicians who have shorter terms. They pass fewer bills, make more pork projects, more trade protection, more labor market regulation, more environmental reforms, have optimistic budget forecasts, and support fewer currency devaluations. Apparently, voters don’t remember much of what politicians do beyond the last years or so.

Cities with appointed (vs elected) city treasurers pay 0.7% lower interest rates. Central bankers who are more independent produce lower inflation and fewer financial crises, at no overall cost to unemployment or real growth rates. Elected judges give more awards to in-state folks at the expense of out of state folks, and their legal opinions are less often cited as precedent. Nations with more independent judges have stronger property rights, less red tape to start a business, fewer employment regulations, and less government ownership of banks.

In general, elected regulators allow utilities to pass fewer costs on to customers, resulting in both lower prices but also in less investment and worse service. Electric utilities regulated by elected officials have lower consumer prices, pay higher interest rates, and more blackouts. Elected telecom regulators oversee lower capacity services, and independent telecom regulators gave in less to demands by government telecom organizations.

Jones is inspired by these examples to support Alan Blinder’s proposal to create an independent central-bank-like expert body to set tax policy, with Congress deciding only broad parameters like total take, progressively, and corporate fraction.

Some of these patterns can be understood in terms of commitment problems. When there is a temptation for politicians to renege on prior commitments, it can help to let them commit via choosing appointees who are out of their control at the crucial moments of temptation. Commitment problems seem especially important for city treasurers, central bankers, and utility regulators. And law court decisions are a classic commitment problem.

These results can also be somewhat understood in terms of the advantages of retrospective relative to prospective voting, and of aggregation in retrospective voting. That is, if voters are impatient and can better judge how their life has gone in the past than they can judge the effects of policies on the future, then voters can be better off when politicians are judged more on their past accomplishments, which happens more with longer terms. And if voters find it hard to attribute responsibility to specific officials, it can be better if they they focus on electing fewer bigger politicians (like mayors) who appoint more other officials.

However, I’m not sure that commitment problems and retrospective voting actually account for most of these patterns. Jones’ book subtitle talks instead about trusting elites, and do note that there is a much more widespread pattern of governments authorizing high status experts in each area to decide key results in their area, including who are to be considered the next generation of experts.

Consider how much we defer to military experts on defense, police on crime, medical experts on health, academics on research, lawyers on law, etc. Yes, in principle we could punish them if past outcomes in their area were bad, but we rarely do this. And professional licensing is a more general policy by which government authorizes control by the high status people in each area. These policies seem less like clever indirect ways to commit or to enable retrospective voting, and more like a simple status effect, wherein voters and politicians want to be seen as respecting and not opposing those high in status.

While all these examples that Jones didn’t include seem to be examples of less democracy, they seem to me to less clearly support his position that this kind of less democracy is good. Excess professional licensing does a lot of harm. The military seems to overemphasize things that high status leaders like more, like fighter planes and aircraft carriers. Medicine seems to overemphasize high status doctors over other medical professionals. Education and research seems to overemphasize the topics by which academics gain the highest status. Law seems overly complex and to overemphasize the need for expensive lawyers. And so on.

Compared to arguing over specific policies, I very much appreciate Jones calling our attention to larger more general issues regarding the design of our political system. But I prefer to generalize even further, via something like futarchy. I can support futarchy without needing opinions on whether tax policy should be run by a panel of independent experts, nor even whether it is in general better or worse to let high status experts in each area control those areas. As long as we use some reasonable (broad retrospective) national welfare measure, with futarchy I could instead trust a general mechanism to make good choices about such things.

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Why Not Hi-Tech Forms?

A half century ago, when people tried to imagine a future full of computers, I’m sure one of the most obvious predictions they made is that we today wouldn’t have to work so hard to fill out forms. Filling out forms seemed then to be a very mechanical task, based on explicit mechanical rules. So once computers had enough space to store the relevant data, and enough computing power to execute those rules, we should not longer need to fill out most tedious parts of forms.

Oh sure, you might need to write an essay for a school application, or make a design for the shed when you ask your homeowner’s association permission to build a shed. But all that other usual tedious detail, no.

Now this has in fact happened for businesses, at least for standard forms and for big business. In fact, this happened many decades ago. Most of them wrote or bought programs to fill out standard forms that they use to talk to customers, to suppliers, and to government. But for ordinary people, this mostly just hasn’t happened. Oh sure, maybe your web browser now fills in an address or a credit card number on a web form. (Though it mostly gets that wrong when I try it.) But not all the other detail. Why not?

Many poor people have to fill out a lot of forms to apply for many kinds of assistance. Roughly once a year I’m told, at least. They see many of these forms as so hard to fill our that many of them just don’t bother unless they get help from someone like a social worker. So a lot of programs to help the poor don’t actually help many of those who are eligible, because they don’t fill out the forms.

So why doesn’t some tech company offer a form app, where you give all your personal info to the form and it fills out most parts of most forms for you? You just have to do the unusual parts. And they could have a separate app to give to orgs that create forms, so they can help make it easier for their forms to get filled out. Yes, much of the effort to make this work is more in standardization than in abstract computer algorithms. But still, why doesn’t some big firm do it?

I suggested all this to a social worker I know, who was aghast; she didn’t want this tech firm knowing all these details, like her social security number. But if you fill out all these forms by hand today, you are telling it all to one new org per year. Adding one firm to the list to make it all much easier doesn’t seem like such a high cost to me.

But maybe this is all about the optics; tech firms fear looking like big brother if they know all this stuff about you. Or many legal liability would fall on these tech firms if the form had any mistakes. Or maybe privacy laws prevent them from even asking for the key info. And so we all suffer with forms, and poor folks don’t get the assistance offer to them. And we all lose, though those of us who are better at filling out forms lose less.

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How Idealists Aid Cheaters

Humans have long used norms to great advantage to coordinate behavior. Each norm requires or prohibits certain behavior in certain situations, and the norm system requires that others who notice norm violations call attention to those violations and coordinate to discourage or punish them.

This system is powerful, but not infinitely so. If a small enough group of people notice a minor enough norm violation, and are friendly enough with each other and with the violator, they often coordinate instead to not enforce the norm, and yet pretend that they did so. That is, they let cheaters get away with it.

To encourage norm enforcement, our social systems make many choices of how many people typically see each behavior or its signs. We pair up police in squad cars, and decide how far away in the police organizational structure sits internal affairs. Many kinds of work is double-checked by others, sometimes from independent agencies. Schools declare honor-codes that justify light checking. At times, we “measure twice and cut once.”

These choices of how much to check are naturally tied to our estimates of how strongly people tend to enforce norms. If even small groups who observe violations will typically enforce them, we don’t need to check as much or as carefully, or to punish as much when we catch cheaters. But if large diverse groups commonly manage to coordinate to evade norm enforcement, then we need frequent checks by diverse people who are widely separated organizationally, and we need to punish cheaters more when we catch them.

I’ve been reading the book Moral Mazes for the last few months; it is excellent, but also depressing, which is why it takes so long to read. It makes a strong case, through many detailed examples, that in typical business organizations, norms are actually enforced far less than members pretend. The typical level of checking is in fact far too little to effectively enforce common norms, such as against self-dealing, bribery, accounting lies, fair evaluation of employees, and treating similar customers differently. Combining this data with other things I know, I’m convinced that this applies not only in business, but in human behavior more generally.

We often argue about this key parameter of how hard or necessary it is to enforce norms. Cynics tend to say that it is hard and necessary, while idealists tend to say that it is easy and unnecessary. This data suggests that cynics tend more to be right, even as idealists tend to win our social arguments.

One reason idealists tend to win arguments is that they impugn the character and motives of cynics. They suggest that cynics can more easily see opportunities for cheating because cynics in fact intend to and do cheat more, or that cynics are losers who seek to make excuses for their failures, by blaming the cheating of others. Idealists also tend to say what while other groups may have norm enforcement problems, our group is better, which suggests that cynics are disloyal to our group.

Norm enforcement is expensive, but worth it if we have good social norms, that discourage harmful behaviors. Yet if we under-estimate how hard norms are to enforce, we won’t check enough, and cheaters will get away with cheating, canceling much of the benefit of the norm. People who privately know this fact will gain by cheating often, as they know they can get away with it. Conversely, people who trust norm enforcement to work will be cheated on, and lose.

When confronted with data, idealists often argue, successfully, that it is good if people tend to overestimate the effectiveness of norm enforcement, as this will make them obey norms more, to everyone’s benefit. They give this as a reason to teach this overestimate in schools and in our standard public speeches. And so that is what societies tend to do. Which benefits those who, even if they give lip service to this claim in public, are privately selfish enough to know it is a lie, and are willing to cheat on the larger pool of gullible victims that this policy creates.

That is, idealists aid cheaters.

Added 26Aug: In this post, I intended to define the words “idealist” and “cynic” in terms of how hard or necessary it is to enforce norms. The use of those words has distracted many. Not sure what are better words though.

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Ways to Choose A Futarchy Welfare Measure

In my futarchy proposal, I suggest a big change in how we aggregate info re our policy choices, but not in how we decide what outcomes we are trying to achieve. My reason: one can better evaluate proposals that do not change everything, but instead only change a bounded part of our world. So I described choosing a “national welfare function” the way we now choose most things, via a legislature that continually passes bills to edit and update a current version. And then I described a new way to estimate what policy actions might best increase that welfare. (I also outline an agenda mechanism for choosing which policy proposals to evaluate when.)

In this post, I want to consider other ways to choose a welfare function. I’ll limit myself here to the task of how to choose a function that makes tradeoffs between available measured quantities. I won’t discuss here how to choose the set of available measured quantities (e.g, GDP, population, unemployment) to which such functions can refer. Options include:

1) As I said above, the most conservative option is to have an elected legislature vote on edits to an existing explicit function. Because that’s the sort of thing we do now.

2) A simple, if radical, option is to use a “market value” of the nation. Make all citizenships tradeable, and add up the market value of all such citizenships. Add that to the value of all the nation’s real estate, and any other national assets with market prices. With this measure, the nation would act like an apartment complex, maxing the net rents that it can charge, minus its expenses. (A related option is to use a simple 0 or 1 measure of whether the nation survives in some sufficient form over some very long timescale.)

3) A somewhat more complex option would be to define a simple measure over possible packages of measured quantities, then repeatedly pick two random packages (via that measure) and ask a random citizen which package they prefer. Then fit a function that tries predict current choices. (Like they do in machine learning.) Maybe slant the random picks toward the subspaces where citizen choice tests will add the most info to improve the current best fit function.

4) An option that requires a lot of complexity from each ciziten is to require each citizen to submit a welfare function over the measured quantities. Use some standard aggregation method to combine these into a single function. (For example, require each function to map to the [0,1] interval and just add them all together.) Of course many organizations would offer citizens help constructing their functions, so they wouldn’t have to do much work if they didn’t want to. Citizens who submit expensive-to-compute functions should pay for the extra computational that they induce.

5) Ralph Merkle (of Merkle-tree fame) proposed  that “each citizen each year report a number in [0,1] saying how well their life has gone that year”, with the sum of those numbers being the welfare measure.

I’m sure there must be other interesting options, and I’ll add them here if I hear of some. Whatcha got?

A common issue with all these mechanisms is that, under futarchy, every time a bill is considered, those who trade on it acquire assets specified in terms of the then-current national welfare measure. So the more often that the official welfare measure changes, the more different kinds of assets are in circulation. These assets last until all the future measures that they refer to are measured. This is a reason to limit how often the official measure changes.

Inspired by a conversation with Teddy Collins.

Added 22Aug: Some polls on this choice:


The status quo approach is the most popular option, followed by market value and then fitting random picks.

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Paternalism Is About Status

… children, whom he finds delightful and remarkably self-sufficient from the age of 4. He chalks this up to the fact that they are constantly lied to, can go anywhere and in their first years of life are given pretty much anything they please. If the baby wants the butcher knife, the baby gets the butcher knife. This novel approach may not sound like appropriate parenting, but Kulick observes that the children acquire their self-sufficiency by learning to seek out their own answers and by carefully navigating their surroundings at an early age. … the only villagers whom he’s ever seen beat their children are the ones who left to attend Catholic school. (more)

Bofi forager parenting is quite permissive and indulgent by Western standards. Children spend more time in close physical contact with parents, and are rarely directed or punished by parents. Children are allowed to play with knives, machete, and campfires without the warnings or interventions of parents; this permissive patently style has been described among other forager groups as well. (more)

Much of the literature on paternalism (including my paper) focuses on justifying it: how much can a person A be helped by allowing a person B to prohibit or require particular actions in particular situations? Such as parents today often try to do with their children. Most of this literature focuses on various deviations from simple rational agent models, but my paper shows that this is not necessary; B can help A even when both are fully rational. All it takes is for B to sometimes know things that A does not.

However, this focus on justification distracts from efforts to explain the actual variation in paternalism that we see around us. Sometimes third parties endorse and support the ability of B to prohibit or require actions by A, and sometimes third parties oppose and discourage such actions. How can we best explain which happens where and when?

First let me set aside situations where A authorizes B to, at some future date, limit or require actions by A. People usually justify this in terms of self-control, i.e., where A today disagrees with future A’s preferences. To me this isn’t real paternalism, which I see as more essentially about the extra info that B may hold.

Okay, let’s start with a quick survey of some of the main observed correlates of paternalism. Continue reading "Paternalism Is About Status" »

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A Model of Paternalism

Twenty years ago this month I started my job here at GMU. My “job talk paper”, which got me this job, was on a game theory model of paternalism. While the journal that published it insisted that it be framed as a model of drug regulation, it was in fact far more general. (Why would a journal be reluctant to publish a general result? The econ journal status hierarchy dictates that only top journals may publish general results.) Oddly, I’ve never before discussed that paper here (though I discussed related concepts here). So here goes.

Here’s the abstract:

One explanation for drug bans is that regulators know more than consumers do about product quality. But why not just communicate the information in their ban, perhaps via a “would have banned” label? Because product labeling is cheap-talk, any small market failure tempts regulators to lie about quality, inducing consumers who suspect such lies to not believe everything they are told. In fact, when regulators expect market failures to result in under-consumption of a drug, and so would not ban it for informed consumers, regulators ex ante prefer to commit to not banning this drug for uninformed consumers.

Consider someone choosing how much alcohol or caffeine to drink per day on average. The higher is the quality of alcohol or caffeine as a drink, in terms of food, fun, productivity and safety, then the more they should want to drink it. However, they are ignorant about this quality parameter, and so must listen to advice from someone who knows more. Furthermore, this advisor doesn’t exactly share their interests; for the same value of quality, this advisor might want them to drink more or less than they would want to drink. Thus the advisor has a reason to be not entirely honest with their advice, and so the listener has a reason to not believe everything they are told.

When the advisor can only advise, we have a standard “cheap talk signaling game”. In equilibrium, the advisor picks one of a limited number of quality options. For example, they might only say either “bad” or “good”. The person being advised will believe this crude advice, but would not believe more precise advice, due to the incentive to lie. The closer are the interests of these two people, the more distinctions the advisor can make and be believed, and thus the better off both of them are on average.

My innovation was to give the advisor the additional option to, instead of offering advice, ban the person from drinking alcohol or caffeine. The result of a ban is a low (though maybe not zero) level of the activity. When quality happens to be low, the advisor would rather ban than give the lowest possible advice. This is in part because the listener expects the advisor to ban when quality is low. So even when their interests differ by only a little, the advisor bans often, far more often than they would if the listener was perfectly informed about quality.

My model wasn’t about alcohol in particular; it applies to any one-dimensional choice of an activity level, a choice influenced by an uncertain one-dimensional quality level. Thus my model can help us understand why people placed into a role where they can either advise or ban some activity would often ban. Even when both parties are fully rational, and even when their interests only differ by small amounts. The key is that even small differences can induce big lies and an expectation of frequent bans, which force the advisor to ban often because extreme advice will not be believed.

My model allows for relatively general functional forms for the preferences of both parties, and how those depend on quality. It can also handle the case when the advisor has the option to “require” the product, resulting in some high consumption level. (Though I never modeled the case where the advisor has both the option to ban or require the product, in addition to giving advice.) The model can also be easily generalized to varying levels of info for both parties, and to random errors in the choices made by both parties. The essential results don’t change much in those variations.

The main theorem that I prove in my paper is for the case where the advisor’s differing interest makes that advisor prefer a higher activity level for any given quality level. For example, the advisor might be an employer and the listener might be their employee. In this case, for any given quality level, the employer might prefer their employee to drink more caffeine than the employee would choose, in order to be more productive at work. What I prove is that on average both parties are better off in the game where the advisor is not able to ban the activity; this is because the option to ban reduces the activity level on average.

Similarly, when the advisor prefers a lower activity level for any given quality level, both parties are better off when the advisor is not able to require the activity. This could apply to the case where the activity is alcohol, and the advisor is the government. Due to the possibility of auto accidents, the government could prefer less alcohol consumption for any given level of alcohol quality.

This main theorem has direct policy relevance for things like medicines, readings, and investments. If policy makers tend to presume that people on average consume too few medicines, read too little, and invest too little, then they should regret having the ability to ban particular medicines, readings, or investments, as this ability will on average make both sides worse off.

So that’s my model. In my next post, I’ll discuss how much this actually helps us understand where we do and don’t see paternalism in the world.

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