Tag Archives: Inequality

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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Grabbing Now Versus Later

Today and yesterday’s Democratic debates suggests a big recent bump in tastes for regulation and redistribution, in order to lower the status of big business and the rich, and to spend more on the needy and worthy causes. South Korea, which I’ve just visited, sees a similar trend, as does Europe:

Europe’s mainstream parties are going back to the 1970s. In Germany, the U.K, Denmark, France and Spain, these parties are aiming to reverse decades of pro-market policy and promising greater state control of business and the economy, more welfare benefits, bigger pensions and higher taxes for corporations and the wealthy. Some have discussed nationalizations and expropriations. It could add up to the biggest shift in economic policy on the continent in decades. (more)

While I often hear arguments on the moral and economic wisdom of grabbing to redistribute, I rarely hear about the choice of whether to grab now versus later. The issues here are similar to those for the related choice in charity, of whether to give now versus later:

Then Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias got up and just started Robin Hansonning at everybody. First he gave a long list of things that people could do to improve the effectiveness of their charitable donations. Then he declared that since almost no one does any of these, people don’t really care about charity, they’re just trying to look good. … he made some genuinely unsettling points.

One of his claims that generated the most controversy was that instead of donating money to charity, you should invest the money at compound interest, then donate it to charity later after your investment has paid off – preferably just before you die. … He said that the reason people didn’t do this was that they wanted the social benefits of having given money away, which are unavailable if you wait until just before you die to do so. And darn it, he was totally right. Not about the math – there are severe complications which I’ll bring up later – but about the psychology. (more)

Others … argue that giving now to help people who are sick or under-schooled creates future benefits that grow faster than ordinary growth rates. But … if real charity needs are just as strong in the future as today, then all we really need [for waiting to be better] are positive interest rates. (more)

You may be tempted to move resources from the rich and business profits to the poor and worthy projects, because you see business exploitation, you see low value in the rich buying mansions and yachts, you see others in great need, and you see great value in many worthy projects. But big business doesn’t actually exploit much, the consumption of the rich is less of real resources, and the rich tend to consume less relative to investing and donating.

So instead of grabbing stuff from the rich and businesses today, consider the option of waiting, to grab later. If you don’t grab stuff from them today, these actors will invest much of that stuff, producing a lot more stuff later. Yes, you might think some of your favorite projects are good investments, but let’s be honest; most of the stuff you grab won’t be invested, and the investments that do happen will be driven more by political than rate-of-return considerations. Furthermore, if you grab a lot today, news of that event will discourage future folks from generating stuff, and encourage those folks to move and hide it better.

Also, the rich put much of what they don’t invest into charity. And there’s good reason to think they do a decent job with their charity efforts. Most have impressive management abilities, access to skilled associates, and a willingness to take risks. And they can more effectively resist political pressures that typically mess up government-managed projects.

Finally, when the rich do spend money on themselves, much of that goes to paying for positional and status goods that generate much less in the way of real wastes. When they bid up the price of prestigious clubs, real estate, colleges, first-class seats, vanity books and conference talks, etc., real resources are transferred to those who get less prestigious versions. And our best model of status inequality says that allowing more of this doesn’t cause net harm.

So the longer you wait to grab from the rich, the longer they will grow wealth, donate it well, and transfer via status goods. Just as it is dangerous to borrow too much, because you may face big future crises, it can be unwise to grab from the rich today, when you could grow and farm them to create a crop available to harvest tomorrow. South Korea would have been much worse off doing big grabs in 1955, relative to waiting until today to grab.

Added 29June: Some people ask “wait how long?” One strategy would be to wait for a serious crisis. This is in fact when the rich have lost most of their wealth in history, in disasters like wars, pandemics, and civilization collapse. Another strategy would be to wait until there’s so much capital that market rates of return fall to very low levels.

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Range

A wide-ranging review of research … rocked psychology because it showed experience simply did not create skill in a wide range of real-world scenarios, from college administrators assessing student potential to psychiatrists predicting patient performance to human resources professionals deciding who will succeed in job training. In those domains, which involved human behavior and where patterns did not clearly repeat, repetition did not cause learning. Chess, golf, and firefighting are exceptions, not the rule. …

In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both. In the most devilishly wicked learning environments, experience will reinforce the exact wrong lessons. (more)

David Epstein’s book Range is a needed correction to other advice often heard lately, that the secret of life success is to specialize as early as possible. While early specializing works in some areas, more commonly one learns more by ranging more widely, collecting analogies and tools which can be applied too many new problems, and better learning which specialties fits you best.

I’ve done a lot of wide ranging in my life, so I naturally like this advice. However, as one can obviously take this advice too far, the hard question is how widely to range for how long, and then how quickly to narrow when.

Alas, Epstein seems less useful on this hard tradeoff question. He does make it plausible that your chance of achieving the very highest success in creative areas like art or research is maximized by a wider range than is typical. But as most people have little chance of reaching such heights, this doesn’t say much to them.

I’m struck by the fact that all of his concrete examples of wide rangers who succeeded are people who at some point specialized to enough gain status within a particular speciality area. He gives stats which suggest that wide rangers continue to be productive and useful to society even if they never specialize so much, but those people are apparently not seen as personal successes.

For example, Epstein cites a study showing that innovative academic papers which cite journals never before cited in the same paper are published at first in less prestigious journals, but eventually get more citations. Yet in fields like economics, status depends much more on journal prestige than eventual citations.

So while you might contribute more to the world by continuing to range widely, you often succeed more personally by ranging somewhat widely at first, and then specializing enough to make specialists see you as one of them.

The hard problem then is how to get specialists to credit you for advancing their field when they don’t see you as a high status one of them. Epstein quotes people who say we should just fund all research topics even if they don’t seem promising, but that obviously just won’t work.

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Low Prestige Hurts More

It can feel terrible to feel unwanted. Unwanted by schools, labor markets, sport teams, music bands, acting troupes, or romantic partners. We feel bad when we feel unwanted, and we often pity others to see them unwanted. Though we don’t usually pity enough to actually choose them over alternatives. And they can feel even worse to see our pity, as it affirms the visibility of their rejection.

Ever since we were foragers, humans have distinguished two kinds of status: dominance and prestige. Dominance is illicit, and we have norms saying to prevent and resist it, while prestige is not only allowed but encouraged. So one way to sympathize with and support someone who is unwanted is to frame their rejection as illicit dominance.

Since rich folks and big for-profit firms are easily portrayed as illicit dominators, it is easy to blame their illicit dominance when they reject people. So many people like to support those rejected by firms, such as for jobs at firms or loans from banks, by blaming firm dominance. Big firms can also be blamed when the products and services they sell explain why people are rejected by others. E.g., video games, tobacco, and payday lending.

This all helps explain why so many are so quick to blame “capitalist” firms and a larger culture and “system” of capitalism, such as for many kinds of discrimination leading to unfair rejection. Such blamers can then self-righteously sympathize with the rejected without having to actually choose them.

Note that economists often blame public pressures to cut firm rejections for bad economic effects, such as high unemployment in Europe where it is hard to fire workers, and excess home loans to risky households before the 2008 financial crisis.

This perspective also helps explain why people are reluctant to blame their “systems” of romance, friendship, conversation, sport, music, arts, which also result in rejections that make so many feel unwanted. Those systems tend to be associated more directly with prestige, and lack identifiable villains to blame for dominance. Except when big business gets involved. Rejection there can also be blamed on a larger “capitalist” culture causing discrimination, such as re sexual preferences or gender identities.

But here’s the thing: even without any illicit domination, some will have lower prestige than others, and that will hurt. Badly. In fact, it probably hurts even more than having low dominance, as that can be self-righteously blamed on others’ illicit pursuit of high dominance. Being low prestige, in contrast, elicits little sympathy from others, as showing sympathy toward such folks risks being pushed to not reject them, and being seen has having poor evaluation abilities regarding prestige.

The only simple solutions I see are an easy one, ignore it all, and a hard one: sometimes actually and honestly sympathize with the low in prestige. And let them see that sympathy. Which yes, will sometimes lead you to make “pity” choices you might not otherwise make. Do it because it hurts. (Some propose more complex solutions; they must wait for another post.)

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The Persistence of Poverty

On Bryan Caplan’s recommendation, I just read The Persistence of Poverty, by Charles Karelis (2007). Karelis seeks to explain these patterns:

Five patterns that have been common among the poor in many times and places, then, and that played a role in keeping them poor or making them poorer, are: 1. not working much for pay; 2. not getting much education; 3. not saving for a rainy day; 4. abusing alcohol; and 5. taking risks with the law. … [And] having children early and out of wedlock … is doubtless a big factor in poverty in the United States today.

His explanation is that often we experience diminishing returns for “relievers” that reduce our pain. Which actually gives us increasing, not diminishing returns for getting “more” in that area. For example:

Consider housing. Suppose we take the perspective of a couple whose house has a bedroom for them and each of their six children, plus adequate room for entertaining and other functions besides. Clearly they are consuming or using housing in the more-than-sufficient range. Their house is a source of positive experience. As each child leaves for college (let us say), the amount of space available for the use of the couple goes up by roughly equal amounts, but probably their enjoyment of the house goes up by smaller and smaller amounts. …

Now imagine a couple whose dwelling is a one-bedroom house that is barely adequate for themselves. If a child arrives, then given the crowded conditions, the couple’s privacy is much reduced, their peace and quiet is disturbed, and they may have to start sleeping in shifts. Whatever the compensating joys of parenthood may be, these are impressive deteriorations in their physical comfort. By the time child number six arrives, the couple may hardly notice the further deterioration in their situation that occurs as a result. One more voice outside the bedroom door when you cannot sleep anyway on account of the five that are already audible probably will not make much difference.

That is, you don’t notice as much of a difference between very and mildly crowded, as you do between mildly and not at all crowded. Karelis further claims (though without sufficient support in my opinion) that this sort of things happens much more often for people who are poor relative to their culture:

Whether something is functioning as a reliever for a given consumer is relative. It is only partly a question of objective economic circumstances, because it depends too upon how the consumer sees those circumstances. … A more anthropological view responds that the difference lies in neither discipline nor opportunity but in the values of the various sub-cultures. … No one doubts that different cultural groups within the United States have different histories, and that these different histories create different economic norms and expectations. For instance, having come from much poorer countries, Asian immigrants to the United States often have relatively low norms and expectations. By contrast, African-Americans, who are closely acquainted with the lifestyles of middle-class whites, and who have long been exposed to “the American dream” and all it implies, often have relatively high norms, if not exactly expectations. … this … predicts that the felt relief of the marginal dollar will be greater for poor Asian immigrants than the felt relief of the marginal dollar for similarly poor African-Americans.

Karelis first published this idea in 1986, and he notes that similar ideas were published by van Praag in 1968 and Friedman & Savage in 1948. I find the idea coherent and mildly plausible, but just based on Karelis’ arguments, I wouldn’t put it much above other common poverty explanations, such as stupidity, sickness, impatience, impulsiveness, and lack of self-control.

However, I gave more weight to this account after I realized that it is implied by my usual favorite account of income status: utility linear in income rank. As income is usually distributed lognormally, the function relating rank to log income must be convex below and concave above median income. This implies diminishing returns in income above median income, and a range below median income with increasing returns to income. When you have increasing returns to income, you value each unit of income more when you have more of it, rather than the usual diminishing returns case, where you value each unit of income less, the more income you have.

Karelis suggests some policy implications:

Seeing that the income effect and the substitution effect of strategies to make work pay will be mutually reinforcing, making work pay [via increased wages] is a double-barreled anti-poverty approach. By contrast, no-strings assistance is a single-barreled approach, since it lacks a positive substitution effect. …

Thirty-five years ago the speeches and writings of American civil rights leaders often framed or interpreted the circumstances of their audiences by “comparing them up”—measuring them against the circumstances of the middle-classes and the upper-middle classes, or even against the images of the good life found within the American Dream. This was openly done for the sake of energizing audiences with discontent. The goal was reasonable enough, but according to our theory, the strategy was probably counterproductive. …

Increasing the differential between the income from crime and the income from honest work—by raising the odds of punishment, lengthening sentences, or making (honest) work pay better—is likelier to be effective than strategies built on the assumption that criminals are dysfunctional and hence unresponsive to sticks and carrots of this kind; and it is likelier to be effective than strategies built on the assumption of atypical preferences. …

Our utility function could [correctly] be used to justify putting the least poor people ahead of the very poorest people in distributing assistance.

Though Karelis didn’t mention it, the same logic says to allow and even promote more gambling among the poor; within the convex region gambles look like a net gain. For the same reason, it would be good to promote inequality among the poor.

However, all these policy recommendations are based on assuming that the preferences of other poor people don’t change when you help one poor person move up their utility function. But if the transition from convex to concave utility, and other aspects of the utility of money, result from the actual distribution of income in one’s reference culture, then helping one person changes the distribution against which others compare themselves.

For example, if utility is linear in rank, the help you give one person is exactly cancelled by the hurt you thereby inflict on the others who this one person has jumped over in rank. Yes, with some other functional form, the help might outweigh the hurt, but with other forms the hurt might outweigh the help. This effect of changing the reference distribution is not small, and shouldn’t be ignored as Karelis does.

Finally, Karelis focuses entirely on immediate choices, rather than on long-term strategies. Young poor people who care about the long run should focus on trying to dig their way out of poverty, and so much less display the six patterns of poverty that Karelis tries to explain. So to predict typical poor behaviors, we need to add a substantial degree of impatience or lack of self-control to Karelis’ account.

Added 4p: Karelis responded to my email, and asked me to post this comment:

Thank you for blogging so thoughtfully about my book. One comment. The hypothesis of the book can fairly easily be extended to the putative fact that impulsiveness, impatience, and lack of self-control are commoner among the poor by introducing the idea that overcoming these weaknesses is a kind of work. The idea would be that this “will-work” will have less appeal when the material gain produced yields a smaller rather than larger addition to utility, as (the hypothesis contends) is the case in the lower income ranges. As I recall, Andrew Sullivan, Ezra Klein, and Ta-nehisi Coates all noted this extrapolation of my theory around the time the book appeared. The amendment was made possible, really, by research into the nature of willpower subsequent to the publication of my book.

This story can work re efforts to make small gains while poor, but doesn’t work re making big gambles or long-term efforts to dig oneself out of poverty. Those should be seen as large gains, even for someone who can’t find sufficient motivation to work for small gains. So to explain a poor person uninterested in either of those, we need to add something else to our story.

Added 6p: Karelis further responds:

Yes, we need to add something else to our story, but maybe not too much. My hypothesis says that medium-sized  additions to the consumption of someone at the low end of the income scale (additions that leave them shy of sufficiency) will raise and not lower their marginal utility for the good in question, and thereby increase their motivation to secure more of that good. You are right to see that these medium additions need not come from an external source. Self-help can be as effective as exogenous help in raising marginal utility in this way. For instance, if you have ten unwashed dishes in the sink, and someone washes eight of them, the psychological benefit you will get from washing the last two will be more than you would have gotten from washing the first two, and it doesn’t matter whether that “someone” is you or a friend.

So why don’t poor people perform this kind of self-help more often? They may have internalized the law of diminishing marginal utility, just like the policy folks who resist helping the poor for fear of undermining their motivation for self-help. More likely, none of us, rich or poor, is very good at self-gaming, i.e. figuring out and acting upon the likely impact of possible actions on what will seem rational to us when we have completed those actions.
One might plausibly argue that no one ever really makes long term plans. People who seem to be doing so, such as students going to college, are really just executing standard cultural plans, doing “what you are supposed to do”. Then the “extra” we’d need to add, to explain why the poor don’t seem to have long term plans to dig them out of poverty, is to say that the cultures of poor people often don’t have standard cultural plans that induce them to so dig.
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Liability Insurance For All

The world’s first modern limited liability law was enacted by the state of New York in 1811. In England … investors in such companies carried unlimited liability until the Limited Liability Act of 1855. There was a degree of public and legislative distaste for a limitation of liability, with fears that it would cause a drop in standards of probity. … Limited liability has been justified as promoting investment and capital formation by reassuring risk averse investors. … Others argue that while some limited liability is beneficial, the privilege ought not to extend to liability in tort for environmental disasters or personal injury. (more)

General Liability Insurance: Every business, even if home-based, needs to have liability insurance. The policy provides both defense and damages if you, your employees or your products or services cause or are alleged to have caused Bodily Injury or Property Damage to a third party. (more)

If a court finds you guilty and demands that you pay, you are on the hook to pay everything you’ve got. Same for most small businesses. But investors in big firms instead get to play “heads I win, tails we flip again”. If the firm does well they can win cash, but if the firm behaves badly, the court can only take what they’ve put into the firm. That is, the court can extract money that is in the firm, but can’t push further to get more from investors. This usually doesn’t sit well those inclined toward suspicion of big firms; why subsidize big for-profit firms relative to other forms of social organization?

The usual argument for limited liability is that without it investors would be reluctant to invest. Which makes sense and plausibly explains the initial introduction of limited liability. But that happened before the rise of the modern insurance industry. Now that insurance is easy, the obvious solution is liability insurance. Then in case of a court demanding a large payment, the insurance company pays, and the investors are insulated. Small businesses today typically buy such insurance as a matter of good practice, and many contracts with other businesses require them to have it.

Today we require auto accident liability insurance for car drivers. And recently some have proposed requiring gun owners to have liability insurance regarding their gun use. Insurers would then discourage risky people from owning guns, and help others reduce their risk. But many gun owners see this as a back hand way to tax guns; why should guns be singled out relative to lots of other risky products?

Yes, if we require liability insurance for some products and organizations but not others, we are implicitly subsidizing and taxing some relative to others. The obvious simple solution is to require everyone to get liability insurance for everything. The insurance could stand ready to pay the 99th percentile amount demanded of that sort of person or organization. Then we aren’t favoring any particular activity or organization type. And then some new interesting reforms become possible.

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Populists Like Late Bloomers 

Late bloomers … possess qualities that can only be acquired through time and experience. They tend to be more curious, compassionate, resilient and wise than younger people of equal talent. (more)

We don’t treat people as equals in our society; some are seen as more valuable than others. And a key question is: how fast do we learn who is more valuable? The faster that we learn, the faster we can successfully sort people into the more versus less valuable, and the more strongly success and respect will correlate with merit. But the longer it takes to learn who is more valuable, the less we can infer about who is good from who has succeeded so far. 

A populist culture will pander more to the typical person, who wants to believe that he or she is really more valuable than their success so far suggests. An elitist culture, in contrast, will pander more to the typical elite, who wants to believe that his or her current high success level is a strong indicator of their higher merit. So is our culture populist or elitist? 

One big clue comes from our attitudes toward late bloomers. The harder it is to tell quality early in life, the more often that people who seemed low quality early in life will be revealed as high quality later in life. That is, in the world that populists want to believe in, there are more late bloomers. So a populist culture should more expect and celebrate late bloomers. An elitist culture, in contrast, should expect few late bloomers, as quality is quickly revealed early in life. Both should expect that at older ages a higher fraction of elites are late bloomers.

The tech industry famously prefers young workers, and rejects older workers, and so takes a more elitist stance. The high status of that industry suggests that our larger culture is also more elitist. Finance, management consulting, and athletics are also high status areas that prefer younger workers who are quickly sorted into high versus low value. Management and politics, in contrast, usually prefer older workers. Overall I’d say our culture leans elitist, though I admit this is hard to tell.

Note that the degree to which people want to believe more in late bloomers depends both on their status and on their age; the strongest difference is that mid-aged unsuccessful people want to believe in late blooming, while mid-aged successful people don’t want to believe in that. Early in life, the indicators are weak, and so everyone can believe that they will eventually succeed. And late in life, people have mostly been sorted, and there’s relatively little chance left for reversals of fortune. It is in the middle of life that the successful most want to believe the game is over, while others most want to believe the game has hardly begun. 

Within traditional gender roles, it takes longer to evaluate men than women. Women are traditionally evaluated more on beauty, fertility, and nurturing, which are revealed earlier. Men are evaluated more on fame, wealth, and career success, which are revealed later. Thus traditionally, men were more the late bloomers. This implies that the populist stance made more sense regarding men, and the elitist stance made more sense regarding women. 

This implied that when men and women paired up with others of the same age, men could more reliably see what they were getting in female partners, while women were taking more of a chance on male partners. So women who prefer older men would tend to believe more in late blooming for men, and thus take a more populist attitude. Similarly, men who prefer younger women would believe less in late blooming for women.  

I was personally a late bloomer; I started my Phd at the age of 34, with two kids age 0 and 2 at the time. I also chose to marry a woman who was four years older than me. So I guess that leans me toward populism regarding how fast value is revealed. Though now that I’m getting relatively old, I guess I’m less vested in such opinions. 

Added 29May: The new book Range argues that late blooming correlates with a more generalist strategy. The longer you search for an area in which to specialize, the more general skills you collect.

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Who Complains How About Whom

We humans like to complain. And while we might pretend that the main purpose of our complaints is to help others adjust their behavior, more likely we like to collect successful complaints as a resource. Collect enough complaints, and maybe you can trade them for some compensation, or at least sympathy. 

One way to collect complaints is to find others who are violating social norms. But complaints are much more socially valuable to us when we can frame them as something done to us personally. Which is why we prefer to complain about people who are associated with us in some concrete way. 

Our associates vary both in how strong is our interaction with them, and also in how much responsibility we have for them, and they for us. Consider the difference between a consultant and an employee, or between a lover and a spouse. The former types of associates can have just as strong an influence on us, but we are seen socially as more responsible for what happens to the latter types, who I will call “allies”.  

Since our associates do things that influence us, we can in principle complain whenever their impact could be framed as negative to observers. But we have to be careful complaining about allies. We often have norms that complaints between allies should be kept private. Also, as we are in part responsible for what our allies do, and thus in part responsible for what they do to hurt us. So we feel more free to complain when less-ally associates do things that impact us negatively.

While we are less able to complain publicly about specific effects of our allies, we are more able to complain about their loyalty as allies. If they are responsible for us, we can complain that they have not done enough to help us, especially when we are in unusual need. We can also complain that by their actions they are taking unjustified risks. Their actions can risk their running into problems that would lead to needing help from us, and can also lead to complaints by others, which would then reflect badly on us because of our ally relation.

Notice that this analysis predicts some general patterns in our relations to allies and to non-ally associates (this is of course really a spectrum). We do more to help allies, but we more limit their behavior. We feel less free to break off our relation with an ally, or even to visibly shop around for substitutes. Non-ally associates, in contrast, can take more risks, and thereby gain both more upsides and downsides. We demand that allies more conform to social norms, and more avoid what we consider risky behavior. It is more okay to have non-ally associates who are greedy, arrogant, or braggarts, even assholes. 

Another important way in which our associates vary is in their dominance “size”.  We humans still feel the pull of egalitarian forager norms, norms which disapprove of some agents having, and seeming willing to use, more “power”, whether physical or monetary. We often have associations where one party is seen as larger in this sense. These include relations between parents and children, firms and individual customers or employees, bosses and subordinates, rich and poor friends or family, and between men and women.  

In an association between a “big” and a “small” agent, observers tend to hold the larger agent to a higher “ally” standard. The larger agent is supposed to do more to help the smaller agent when they are in need, and to do less that might risk the safety of that smaller agent. The larger agent is also seen as more entitled to regulate the behavior of the smaller agent. In contrast, the smaller agent is less obligated to help the larger agent in need, and if they are less allied they are less entitled to regulate the behavior of the larger agent.  

Of course it is possible for a large and a small agent to have a strong ally relation, in which case the small agent will then be expected do a lot to help the large one when that agent is in need. It is just less acceptable for the larger agent to not treat the smaller one more like an ally. When the small agent is not held to an ally standard, the large agent is seen as more free to take risks, as the smaller agent will less be held responsible for them.  

Note that a smaller agent who is to be treated by a larger associate as an ally, but who need not treat that associate as an ally, has maximal opportunities to complain. They are less restrained from complaining about particular negative effects, and they can also complain if their associate isn’t sufficiently loyal or fair in ally terms.

This whole analysis seems to be particularly useful for understanding relations between men and women, and between firms and their customers and employees. Women tend to complain more about men, compared to vice versa, women tend more to initiate breakups, and they tend more to be protected from downside risks (e.g. via welfare). More conformity is demanded of women, while men are allowed to take more risks, from which they can gain larger upsides but suffer larger downsides. It is more okay for men to act harshly, even as assholes, such as in management.

Similarly, individuals tend to complain more about big business, and it is more okay for an individual to quit a firm than for a firm to quit an individual. We protect individuals much more from downsides, and also regulate their behaviors more. We mainly regulate firms to limit the harm they might cause to individuals, and to ensure they treat individuals “fairly” as an ally should, e.g., avoiding unfair discrimination.

Note that I’m not claiming that these patterns are genetic, or that they can’t be changed. (I’m not claiming the opposite either.) These patterns have a logic, but there may be other important logics at play. These may also be only patterns in social perceptions in our society, which need not exist in all societies and which need not correspond to reality in our society.

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