Saturday, November 30, 2019

What is the best way to increase demand for your service?

Get the government to make it illegal not to buy! has a nice post about the "Optometry Racket:"
In every other country in which I’ve lived, can simply walk into an optician’s store and ask an employee to give you an eye test, likely free of charge. If you already know your strength, you can just tell them what you want..—no doctor’s prescription necessary. ...
 The excuse for the law is that eye exams can discover other problems. ... [But] the requirement to get a medical exam from an optometrist who has spent a minimum of seven years in higher education ... creates unreasonable costs—and unjustifiable suffering….

Here is an issue that everyone but Optometrists would support:  put Americans in charge of their own vision care, and abolish mandatory eye exams!

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Taxes & transfers redistribute income

IN the graph above, the share of income earned by the top 1% is plotted against time.  Based on pre-tax income, it looks as if the share has doubled.  But this does not take account of our progressive tax system and government transfer payments, like Medicaid, (bottom line).  The after-tax and after-transfer shares of the richest look pretty flat.  

HT:  Greg Mankiw

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Incentives matter: physicians perform fewer surgeries on smokers

The move towards fixed fees, and away from fee-for-service, has given physicians an incentive to get their patients as healthy as possible before surgery, so that there are fewer complications.  Under a fixed fee system, e.g., $20,000 for a joint replacement, the surgeon makes less money if there are complications.
“A year from now, I’ll probably be at a point where I would require all my patients to stop smoking,” Spector said. “Currently, I evaluate it on a case-by-case basis. Over time, we’re going to feel comfortable being a little more stringent with our patients about these modifiable risks.” 
Edwards said he finds many patients “don’t take it well at first” when he advises them to quit smoking or lose weight. But many of them thank him later.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Moral hazard in parachuting

What happens when you make parachuting safer? 

People take more risks!
HT: Benjamin W.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Holiday book recommendations (add your own in the comments)

This year's book recommendations are below, in the order I would recommend them.  Click on the links for my blog posts that reference the book. 

Shoe Dog
An Economist Walks into a Brothel
Rising Strong (squishy, but good)

Last year's recommendations are copied below--the first two are highly recommended. 

Friday, November 30, 2018

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Sapiens, a brief history of humankind (2015)

The scope of the book Sapiens is extraordinary.  From the birth of our species, about 150,000 years ago until about 70,000 years ago, we were just another unremarkable "Great Ape."  Then about 70,000 years ago, we went through what Harari calls the "Cognitive Revolution," and we began to
...behave in far more ingenious ways than before, ... and we spread rapidly across the planet. About 11,000 years ago we enter on the agricultural revolution, converting in increasing numbers from foraging (hunting and gathering) to farming. The "scientific revolution" begins about 500 years ago. It triggers the industrial revolution, about 250 years ago, which triggers in turn the information revolution, about 50 years ago, which triggers the biotechnological revolution, which is still wet behind the ears. Harari suspects that the biotechnological revolution signals the end of sapiens: we will be replaced by bioengineered post-humans, "amortal" cyborgs, capable of living forever.  [Guardian Book review

Harari's grand vision is compelling, and his writing is engaging and fast moving.  So fast, in fact, that when you take time to dissect and critique what he is saying, you will find much with which to disagree.  For example, I would have had capitalism and religion playing a much bigger role in our history.  But this kind of conflict leads to growth, and after reading the book, I think I have a much better understanding of how we got here and, maybe, where we are going.

The book exhausted me, and I am reading some fiction before I go to the next two books in his trilogy.

Harari meditates for two hours every day, and goes on a 60-day silent retreat each year.  He attributes his extraordinary productivity (three books in three years) to this practice:

... It's so difficult, especially when you deal with long-term history, to get bogged down in the small details or to be distracted by a million different tiny stories and concerns. It's so difficult to keep reminding yourself what is really the most important thing that has happened in history or what is the most important thing that is happening now in the world. The discipline to have this focus I really got from the meditation.

This was enough to get me back to my paltry 15-minute prayer discipline.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Does a sense of fairness make us better bargainers?

Most ultimatum games, in which one player makes a take-it-or-leave-it offer to another, result 60-40 splits.  This occurs because the player making the offer knows that their offers will be rejected if seen as too "unfair." Some hypothesize that this notion of fairness makes us better bargainers so there might be some evolutionary basis for passing on a sense of fairness.

See how monkeys behave when they get an unfair payoff.

Friday, November 8, 2019

The benefits of being WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic)

Reputation and trust can solve a lot of business problems, like post-investment hold-up or free riding. It turns out that WEIRDo's (about 12% of the planet) have been successful, in part, because they manage to build and maintain reputations and trust more easily than others. 

 WEIRDos are more individualistic and independent, less conformist and obedient, more likely to favor “impersonal prosociality” — the idea that one set of moral rules should govern how you treat everyone, from the most distant stranger to your nearest kin. This seems normal to them, but in a global context, WEIRD people really are extremely weird. And as modernity erodes the last vestiges of traditionalism, they are probably getting WEIRDer and weirder by the day.  
 …More specifically, Western Christianity; the number of years that one’s ancestors were exposed to the medieval Catholic Church correlates pretty nicely with things like social trust, creativity and willingness to do things like donate blood — and correlates negatively with traits such as nepotism.

The world abounds in spurious correlations, of course. But the authors of “The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation” propose a very plausible mechanism: the Catholic Church’s extreme obsession with incest, which isn’t found in the Eastern Orthodox branch. The church kept banning marriages between more and more distant relations, up to sixth cousins, which smashed the tight kin-based networks common to agricultural cultures.


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Is predatory pricing profitable?

Predatory pricing is rare, at least in the US, because it is an investment that rarely pays off.  After an incumbent firm drives an entrant out of the market by pricing low (and deliberately losing money), the incumbent must be able to recoup the lost money by raising price--without attracting more entry--when the entrant exits the industry.

Perhaps the best examples of predatory pricing come from the airline industry, when the Department of Justice brought several cases in the 1990's.
Probably our best known airline predation investigation involved Northwest's response to Reno Air's entry into the Reno-Minneapolis city-pair in 1993. Not only did Northwest institute service of its own on this route that it had previously abandoned, it also opened a new mini-hub in Reno that overlaid much of Reno Air's own operation. Our investigation was well under way when the matter was resolved because, with the intervention of the Department of Transportation, Northwest decided to abandon its overlay of Reno Air's hub operation.

See here why these cases are so hard to win.
In other words, the government needs to prove that the low fares and extra flights would prove financially ruinous if continued indefinitely. To make the argument stick, the government will have to prove that American could reasonably expect to recover its losses after Vanguard or Sun Jet exits the market by raising fares -- confident that its high fares would not attract another round of upstarts.

RELATED:  DOJ loses predatory pricing case against American Airlines

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

What happens if we reduce drug prices by 70%?

Senator Warren's proposed policy fails a benefit-cost test:

Between 1982 and 2015, for example, the US saw the launch of 719 new drugs, the most of any country in the sample; Israel had about half as many launches. By looking at the resultant change in each country between mortality and disease, Lichtenberg calculated that the years of life lost before the age of 85 in 2013 would have been 2.16 times as high if no new drugs had been launched after 1981. For a subset of 22 countries with more full data, the number of life-years gained in 2013 from drugs launched after 1981 was 148.7 million.

Monday, November 4, 2019

How does Google auction ads?

Note the analogy to second price auctions--the highest rejected bid determines the price.  Because advertisers do not pay what they bid, they are willing to bid their values.

Fight in the Eurozone about negative interest rates

New EU Bank Head Christine Lagarde, pushing for lower interest rates and a weaker euro, said "We Should Be Happier To Have A Job Than To Have Savings," appealing to voters as producers, not consumers.

Lagarde's direct attempt at shaming Europe's fiscal conservatives was nothing short of shocking: normally ECB officials avoid naming individual countries in public statements, because their mandate is to act in the interests of the eurozone as a whole. But when Lagarde made her speech she had not yet officially taken over at the Frankfurt-based institution — she succeeds Mario Draghi on Friday.

We somehow doubt this "explanation" will fly with the German population, which sees itself as funding peripheral Europe's profligate ways for the past decade, even as it benefited from the weak euro to supercharge the German export machine.

Lower interest rates weaken the Euro because fewer people want to keep savings in euros at such low rates (they sell euros and, e.g., buy dollars to invest in the US), and more people want to borrow in euros (the carry trade), change euros to, e.g., dollars to invest in the US.  This weakens the euro relative to the dollar, which increases employment in the EU via an increase in export demand.  But EU consumers are hurt by higher import prices.


Sunday, November 3, 2019

Switzerland vs Sweden

NY Times on Sweden:
Die-hard admirers of Scandinavian socialism overlook the change of heart in countries such as Sweden, where heavy government spending led to the financial crises of the 1990s. Sweden responded by cutting the top income tax rate from nearly 90 percent to as low as 50 percent. Public spending fell from near 70 percent of G.D.P. to 50 percent. Growth revived, as the largest Scandinavian economy started to look more like Switzerland, streamlining government and leaving business more room to grow.

Same article on Switzerland:
Capitalist to its core, Switzerland imposes lighter taxes on individuals, consumers and corporations than the Scandinavian countries do. In 2018 its top income tax rate was the lowest in Western Europe at 36 percent, well below the Scandinavian average of 52 percent. Government spending amounts to a third of gross domestic product, compared with half in Scandinavia. And Switzerland is more open to trade, with a share of global exports around double that of any Scandinavian economy.


Friday, November 1, 2019

Never start a land war in Asia (or a price war)

Competition has brought pizza prices down to $0.75/slice in a midtown Manhatten, with a predictable response:

... [One of the competitors] Eli Halali made it clear that 75 cents was a temporary price point. He said he could not make money at that level and eventually would return to $1. He said that if Bombay/6 Ave. Pizza went back to $1, he would as well.

This public statement seems like what the FTC called an "invitation to collude" in its suit against Vlassis who made a similar offer to end a price war with News America:

If News America continued to compete for Valassis customers and market share, then Valassis would return to its previous pricing strategy, and the price war would resume.

..., Valassis made the foregoing proposal with the intent to facilitate collusion and without a legitimate business purpose. ... Valassis’ statements described with precision the terms of its invitation to collude to News America. If the invitation had been accepted by News America, the result likely would have been higher FSI prices and reduced output

FSI refers to newspaper inserts, the product in question.

HT: Greg Mankiw