Thursday, July 23, 2015

Some random stuff

The history of Kool Aid at the Hastings Museum.

Until I was 9 I lived a block away from the Hastings Museum. My Grandma Schneider bought my brother and me annual passes. We spent a lot of time there as kids and went back for the first time in over thirty years last week. It is still one of my favorite museums. Some of my other favorites are Pioneer Village in Minden, NE, the Deutsches Museum in Munchen, the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, VA, the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, B.C., and the National Museum of American History in D.C.


By the way if you are near Kearney, NE and want some good Mexican food go to El Maguey

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How are prices determined? The case of statistical consultants

How are prices determined? AnnMaria De Mars offers advice to statisticians on how to price their services. It comes down to this

 So, that’s it, decide a fair rate based on what the market is paying, where, based on objective criteria, your skills and experience fall compared to the general population of whatever-you-do and figure in what non-monetary requirements you or the employer have .” 

Dr. De Mars’ offers good advice and good economics. This is pretty much what I tell students regarding how businesses set prices, except I throw in a little economic terminology. She essentially describes a price that is a function of the price elasticity of demand. The price elasticity of demand is the percentage change in the quantity demanded in response to a one percent change in price. Other things equal, when the price of a good increases people buy less of it. Consequently, the more inelastic the demand for the product you sell, the greater your ability to mark up the price above the cost of production.

What determines elasticity? Elasticity is determined by the availability of close substitutes. The more close substitutes for the good you sell (the more elastic the demand), the less control you have over the price; the less close substitutes there are for the good you sell (the more inelastic the demand), the more control you have over the price. In other words, if you are pretty much like the other statisticians out there you need to charge what they are charging; you can only charge more if you can convince people that you are superior in some way. And, in the long run, you can probably only convince people that you are better than others if it is true. In other words, businesses that do not generally follow De Mars’ suggestions are unlikely to survive.

Understanding how prices are determined also provides a better understanding of business strategy. I tell students that if they plan on starting a business they should aim to be a monopolist. The essence of being a monopolist is that you are the only seller. To be the only seller, you need to convince customers that other goods are not a substitute for yours, and you need some barriers to entry, things that keep people from copying what you do. Fortunately for statisticians, they already have somewhat of a barrier to entry in that most people think that math is a lot of work and not much fun.

The other good point that she makes is that people should not just focus on the money. A lot of people think economists are totally focused on money. Nothing could be further from the truth about good economics. Economists assume that people maximize utility, which means satisfaction. People can get satisfaction from a lot of different things.

Two related things:

2. One of De Mars’ daughters has done an extraordinary job of demonstrating that none of her competitors provide a close substitute for what she does.  

Friday, June 19, 2015

How much are auto workers paid in Mexico?

The Washington Post reports that “The Center for Automotive Research, a Michigan-based think tank, found that in salaries and benefits, car companies pay an average of $8 an hour for Mexican workers, while in the United States that figure would be four to seven times as high.” A few paragraphs later it reports on a walkout at a Mazda plant where the supervisor was abusive to the workers, stating that “For a job with 12-hour days, often including weekends, that paid about $75 a week — with $3 of that disappearing into union dues — some decided it was not worth it.” Forget about the weekends, $75 for twelve hour days five days a week would come out to $1.25 an hour. That is a lot less than $8. To reconcile the two either workers would have to get about $6.75 an hour in benefits or there would have to be a very high variance in wages. It is possible that both numbers are accurate. One number is an average while the other refers to a particular factory. The large discrepancy does, however, raise a lot of questions that the author and editors do not even seem to notice.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I really don't get Richard Thaler

I was listening to Here and Now yesterday and there was a discussion with Dan Gilbert and Richard Thaler about Thaler’s new book. In the discussion Thaler brought up the story of how he had told an audience of psychologists at Cornell about something like the life cycle theory of saving and how they had all laughed “hysterically.” He seemed to think it was another great example of how everyone else can see how getting a Ph.D. in economics subtracts “common sense” from economists. He probably hadn’t told them about the numerous empirical studies that found some degree of consumption smoothing. But haven’t they at least heard about the debt their students are taking on in the expectation that their future earnings will be higher. Haven’t they met anyone saving for the retirement they are looking forward to? Do they all really live as if there is no tomorrow? Really? Surely he can come up with a better example of the problem with economics than a theory that fits with common sense, casual empiricism and careful statistical analysis.

Thaler also said that the first sentence in every economics textbook is something like “People maximize utility.” Name one. It’s not in the versions of Mankiw, or Krugman and Wells, or Frank and Benanke, or Cowen and Tabarrok. I'm sorry. I really shouldn't keep letting the evidence get in the way of a clever story.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Panic of 1907 and the Analysis of Financial Crises

I started to research the Panic of 1907 late in 2009. I came to the topic by a rather circuitous route. While working on my dissertation on the origins of the 1898 Bankruptcy Act, I also started to study the evolution of corporate reorganization, which wasn’t covered by the Act. That research ultimately appeared in Business History Review. Several important reorganization cases involved the Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company. The name was familiar to me from teaching American Economic History because of the income tax case, Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co., and two important railroad regulation cases, Reagan v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co. and Stone v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.  I was curious what this company did that left its fingerprints all over nineteenth century legal and economic history. So I wrote a book about the Farmers’ Loan and Trust company and its influence on the law.

About the time that I finished the book there was increased attention to the Panic of 1907. The descriptions of New York City trust companies as novel, unregulated and reckless did not fit with what I had been reading and writing about trust companies like the Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.  So I ended up writing a paper that argued that the panic was not the result of inadequate regulation of trust companies and that to understand the Panic one has to understand that not all trust companies were the same.

 What is really remarkable is that we know so much more about the panic of 1907 than when I started my work in 2009.

Rodgers and Payne have shown how gold shipments from France played a role in ending the Panic.

Hilt, Frydman and Zhou show how the Panic impacted the companies doing business with the trust companies that experienced runs.

Most recently, Fohlin, Gehrig and Haas have shown the role that lack of transparency played in the panic in the stock market.

I believe that we have a much more about what happened in 1907 than we did just a few years ago, but these additions to our knowledge about financial crises in history should also promote caution. I like to think that my work will stand up to the test of time, but I’m sure previous authors did as well. It seems to me that the fact that we are still learning about the Panic of 1907 should cause economists to speak with some caution about the current economic events.

Stoller on Goffman and Ethnography

Paul Stoller examines the Goffman controversy and the future of ethnography. He recognizes that there are really two different sorts of issues involved. The first has to do with her interactions with her subjects. Stoller argues that emotional involvement with one’s subjects is likely to occur in ethnographic research and that ethical dilemmas can arise from getting close to one’s subjects.

doing ethnography, like living life, involves love and hate, fidelity and betrayal, and courage and fear. Sometimes ethnographic experience brings us to face to face with issues of life and death--the real stuff of the human condition.

 This seems reasonable, though, if in the process of research someone commits a crime, I think they should be prepared to accept the consequences.
Unfortunately, when he gets to the second issue, which has to do with methodology, I think he throws up a straw man. He asks

“But can we trust ethnographic accounts? Can ethnographers get "it" right? Given the infinite complexities of the social laboratory "the quest for certainty," as the philosopher John Dewey put it, is an illusion. If ethnographers cannot provide a perfect, scientifically verifiable representation of reality, how can anyone judge the contribution of an ethnographic work? This question, which has been raised by some of Goffman's critics, fails to fully appreciate the aim of ethnography.

I believe we should try to get it right, but I think most of recognize that out understanding of the world is always incomplete, we can only have varying degrees of certainty depending on the degree to which the available evidence appears to support or contradict a particular belief.  I certainly do not want everyone to follow some supposed model of what is “scientific.” I don’t even know what “scientifically verifiable” means.

What I do ask is that a scholar’s attempts to persuade me involve more than saying “trust me.” What appears to be lacking in Goffman’s work is a means by which one can determine whether or not her interpretation is based upon empirical evidence, her observations, or on her imagination. This is particularly problematic because of the numerous inconsistencies within the story that she tells and the inability to find evidence consistent with some of her claims, described here and here and here and here.

In his own work on sorcerers, Stoller reported which villages he worked in. If I thought his stories of sorcery were a little far-fetched, I could visit Tillaberi and see if my observations of sorcerers resembled Stoller’s; I could even ask people if they had any recollection of Stoller. Anthropologists have done this and, occasionally, challenged the validity of earlier ethnographies: Mead on Somoa, and Chagnon on the Yanomami. It doesn’t seem to me that this sort of follow up is possible for Goffman’s study. Goffman writes about an anonymous group of people in an unidentified neighborhood in Philadelphia. Yes, I could go to Philadelphia, but if my experience was completely different than Goffman’s should could just say I got the wrong neighborhood. The problem is not that her work isn’t verifiable; the problem is that her work does not appear to be falsifiable. Any evidence that appears to contradict her work will be explained away.

I want to know how an impartial, or even critical, observer can evaluate her evidence. Michael LaCours and Michael Bellisales, just to name two, have shown that “just trust me” is not enough.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mostly economic history

Did people in the U.S. actually get shorter during the Industrial Revolution? Maybe not Bodenhorn, Guinnane and Mroz and  Ariell Zimran. (HT @pseudoerasmus)

Pseudoerasmus on famines.

Business History Conference program

Economic History Association program

Special issue of Journal of Financial Stability on alternatives to the Fed. Lawrence White advocates a return to a commodity standardOn the other hand, the St. Louis Fed doesn’t think a return to gold would be such a good idea. . Also, here is George Selgin on 10 things economists should know about the gold standard. Selgin argues out that most of the problems that arose under the gold standard arose less from the gold standard itself than from attempts to interfere with it. I agree with a lot of what he has to say, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say “That U.S. financial crises during the gold standard era had more to do with U.S. financial regulations than with the workings of the gold standard itself is recognized by all competent financial historians.” I do think that U.S. financial regulations were largely responsible for financial crises, but I am not prepared to call anyone who disagrees with me incompetent. Hanes and Rhode, for instance make a case for a combination of  cotton crops and the gold standard.

But I assume if we had a gold standard again governments would interfere with it just like they did back then.  

While I do not regard all advocates of the gold standard as nuts, I am skeptical that it would be a good idea. First, there seemed to be a fair amount of manipulation of gold flows. Attempts by the Bank of England to prevent the outflow of gold played a role in several U.S. Panics, e.g. 1837 and 1907, and Irwin has made a case that France’s sterilization of gold inflows played a significant role in causing the Great Depression. Second, when push comes to shove, countries abandon the gold standard. In other words, it’s not obvious why a commitment to uphold a commodity standard should be more convincing than a commitment to strictly adhere to a rule to target money supply growth, inflation, NGDP, or something else.   


And here is another take on the Alice Goffman controversy.