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.

Monday, June 8, 2015

What is a rational choice?

 Many people know that economists use models of rational choice. But what does that mean?

Ruth Marcus explains to her readers that, “Economically speaking, the decision to have children is not utility-maximizing. And yet, most of us — intentionally, passionately, joyfully — make this least rational of choices. More than once.”

The economist Richard Thaler makes similar statements in the New York Times, as well as in his new book

“Economists create this problem with their insistence on studying mythical creatures often known as Homo economicus. I prefer to call them “Econs”— highly intelligent beings that are capable of making the most complex of calculations but are totally lacking in emotions. Think of Mr. Spock in “Star Trek.” In a world of Econs, many things would in fact be irrelevant.”

Thaler goes on to explain that

 “An Econ would not expect a gift on the day of the year in which she happened to get married, or be born. What difference do these arbitrary dates make? In fact, Econs would be perplexed by the idea of gifts. An Econ would know that cash is the best possible gift; it allows the recipient to buy whatever is optimal. But unless you are married to an economist, I don’t advise giving cash on your next anniversary. Come to think of it, even if your spouse is an economist, this is not a great idea.”

The problem is that all this is a bunch of nonsense. Utility simply means satisfaction. If you are doing something “intentionally, passionately, joyfully” it seems fair to assume you are getting a great deal of utility from it. How are people “totally lacking in emotions” going to get satisfaction from anything?

What do economists actually mean by rational choice? I’ll let Gary Becker explain:

“What is meant by rational behavior? Consider first what is not meant. Certainly not that people are necessarily selfish, “economic men” solely concerned with their own well being. That would rule out charity and love for children, spouses, relatives or anyone else, and a model of rational behavior could not be so grossly inconsistent with actual behavior and still be useful. A viable definition of rationality must not exclude charity and love: indeed consistent family behavior probably requires love between family members.

                Also, rationality should not imply that each household’s decisions are necessarily independent of those made by others. Different households are linked ultimately by a common cultural inheritance and background, and they may also be linked in a more proximate way. If household j increases its consumption of X, household I might be led to change its consumption of X. Such interdependencies commonly occur, and should be consistent with our model of rational behavior.

                The essence of the model of rational behavior is contained in just two assumptions: each consumer has an ordered sort of preferences, and he chooses the most preferred position available to him.” Becker Economic Theory pages 25 and 26)

Preferences can, and often are, driven by emotions. Preferences are also influenced by the culture we live in and the people we live with.

The one thing that the rational choice approach does not do is to say what people should want. This, of course, makes the traditional economic approach very different from a behavioral economic approach that seeks to “nudge” people to do what Richard Thaler thinks they should do.   

Thursday, June 4, 2015

On The Run and Social Science Research Methods

There has been a lot more about Alice Goffman’s On the Run the last few days.

Lubet’s response to the response


Although, much of the attention has been focused on the issue of her possible criminal conduct, it is the methodology of her project that really concerns me. I have not yet read the book. I have, however, read her paper in the American Sociological Review that was based upon the same research. She claims to have spent six years studying the residents of a neighborhood in Philadelphia. The name of the neighborhood is a pseudonym as are the names of all the individuals. Consequently, it is not possible to verify any of her claims. It is not even possible to check her account against her own field notes. She claims to have destroyed them. All of this is ostensibly to protect the people who are described in the book.

Her entire methodology is so alien to my view of research in the social sciences I find it hard to comprehend. It is not her immersion in the culture of the people she was studying that concerns me. It seems like a legitimate method of qualitiative research. Whether you use qualitative or quantitative methods should be determined by the question you are trying to answer. What puzzles me is the complete lack of accountability. One of the essential elements of good historical research is to be clear about the relationship between your conclusions and the sources that you use. Anyone should be able to follow your trail of sources to see if it leads to your conclusions. Is anyone going to believe you if you say that you use evidence from a secret notebook at an undisclosed archive? Could you write a history dissertation at Princeton based upon a secret diary that you say you destroyed to protect the author’s privacy?  In economics you are generally expected to be ready to present you data to other researchers or have a very good reason why you cannot. The American Economic Review, for instance, expects authors to make their data available. Reinhart and Rogoff got in trouble a while back for a spreadsheet error, but we should not forget that when a graduate student asked for the data they gave it to him. Goffman’s entire body of research appears to depend on “Just trust me.”

I am not saying that she lied. There are troubling inconsistencies within her accounts and between her accounts and other evidence. And her response to Lubet’s suggestion that she had committed a crime only adds another inconsistency. Her account in the book is completely different than the account in her response. Even if there were not inconsistencies, I would be concerned about a methodology that places so much weight trusting the author. The rewards in the social sciences for coming up with results that are deemed interesting and important are considerable. Goffman got a Ph. D. from Princeton, a best dissertation award, a book contract, a publication in the American Sociological Review, a TED talk, and a job at the University of Wisconsin. The temptations to give people what they want are too great to rely upon a methodology that provides no means for subsequent researchers to evaluate the evidence.


Note about the anonymous critique: Some might wonder why I am willing to link to an anonymous critique when I have such a problem with the anonymity in Goffman’s work. I have seen discussion on the web suggesting that because this critique is anonymous it should be completely disregarded. I don’t know why the author prefers to remain anonymous. As long as their argument is not based upon their authority I do not really care. The Federalist papers were published under a pseudonym. Gosset’s work on the t distribution was published under a pseudonym. I do not regard anonymity itself as a problem. The anonymous author of the critique does not at any point ask me to just trust them. There is nothing in their argument that hinges on their identity rather than the evidence.