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Read: The second machine age

Bought in 2014, right after it was published, I should have read it much earlier. OK, there are still plenty of other books on my to-read shelves that I got before 2012

Brynjolfsson and McAfee present a compelling (and maybe alarming) case for (information / computer) technology induced economic growth and inequality. We have entered an age of noticeable advancement in computer technology and noticeable impact of computer technology on society. Networked computer technology and globalization leads not just to opportunities in the long tail, an increase in the diversity of goods we may consume, but also to a concentration of the benefits. Competition is not anymore about the absolute (perceived) quality of a good, it is about the relative quality. Only the global relatively best matters in a (digital) economy where local supply is global. A few lucky “superstars” may capture the whole market.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss the chances and challenges, and they offer some counsel. Will the growth be beneficial for all? While the presentation of the data, the discussion of what can and what will happen leaves no doubt (some people will, a lot of people may be harmed), their advice is less convincing. The short term policy recommendations are uncontroversial (and unspecific). Yet, they are less well argued for then all earlier points. This is even more true for the long-term recommendations: Even though I would mostly agree with them; me agreeing with their appropriateness has nothing to do with Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s advocacy. I always liked the idea of a negative income tax; I always would rather tax bads than goods, i. e. I would rather tax consumption than work. I do not agree with the authors’ fondness for MOOCs. I do not like MOOCs; I think they have failed their intended purpose.

So only 2 out of 15 chapters are lacking a little in persuasiveness. That ain’t bad. The other, better argued, chapters may even end up on a reading list for any course that discusses economic growth, GDP, and inequality.


Read: Are Markets Moral?

A complete waste of time.

“Are Markets Moral?” is a transcript of a one day inter-disciplinary workshop on the question that is this book’s title.

Presenters regurgitate ideas that they have presented much more eloquently and convincingly earlier, often in other, much longer books of their own, or they speculate about issues, social phenomena that they have absolutely no clue about. The discussions are shallow; the discussants talk at cross-purposes, don’t try to synthesize, or if they respond they resort to cheap attacks, free from empirical facts with the sole purpose to discredit an opposing (and reasonable, evidence-driven) opinion.

The composition of the group of participants is seriously biased. Everyone seems to have (just) their own pet peeve and no genuine interest in answering the workshop’s big question. I pity the poor souls who attended in the hope of gaining new insight.

Much more enjoyable, instructive, and insightful are Daniel Friedman’s “Morals and Markets” and Paul Zak’s “Moral Markets.”

Read: The Darwin Economy

Frank’s The Darwin Economy leaves me torn inside. I agree with essentially everything that Frank proposes and how he justifies his prescriptions. Yet, I expected something very different.

Of course I agree that there is a tension between individual interests and the individual action and the collective interest and the resulting desired action. The market mechanism does not guarantee the maximization of social welfare. That only happens under very specific circumstances, it is a special case.

Collective action: the agreement that individual action sometimes needs to be – voluntarily – restricted is not controversial at all.

I, of course, also agree that we need taxes to finance public goods and that we should rather tax bads instead of goods. Hence I find the suggestion to tax consumption instead of income rather compelling.

I also liked the reference to Coase and the re-focus on what may have been Coase’s actual intended lesson very enlightening.

Hence, for all this I may actually recommend The Darwin Economy. Frank is preaching to the choir.

On the other hand, the book is written almost exclusively for the North-American market. As a European I found the narrative, a discourse with an imagined dogmatic, narrow-minded “movement libertarian” very annoying. At first I did not even understand what Frank was trying to describe when he wrote “movement libertarian.” I believe – I know – that behind the term libertarian is much more than the anti-government market-devotee that Frank targets. More importantly, I am looking at the world from a completely different vantage point. There is no reason to believe any of Frank’s explanations would give rise to more government intervention (than we already have).

Finally, I do not share Frank’s expectation that Darwin will dethrone Smith as the intellectual starting point of modern economics. And, in this context, the title of Frank’s book is at least slightly misleading. Darwin, or rather Darwin’s survival of the fittest, has a comparatively minor role in the book. Evoking Darwin just allows to add a couple of non-economic collective action problems as introductory examples. The subtitle “Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good” is much more honest, much closer to the content and intent of the text.

Read: The power of fifty bits

The Praise. What happens when a practitioner writes about behavioral sciences’ insights and their applications? You get a refreshingly different perspective, refreshingly new examples for behavior change strategies that work, and in this particular case a refreshingly balanced discussion of the underlying ethical principles.

In contrast to many other authors in the popular behavioral science genre Bob Nease does not write about human irrationality. That is already a reason to recommend his book: The term irrationality is often misunderstood as stupidity, and some authors seem to emphasize this interpretation, pushing the need for paternalistic advice and guidance. Nease, on the other hand, is focusing on bounded rationality – limited cognitive ability, limited willpower, (and limited self-interest) – as the result of a long evolutionary process. People are not (that) inherently stupid and do not need to be guided by a better-knowing and well-meaning paternalistic entity, our decision processes and the resulting (in)actions are just maladaptive as a consequence of a rapidly changed environment. As a result, there is an intention—action gap. A gap that can be closed with the right choice architecture, or rather action-taking architecture. Since the intentions are already there it just needs to get easier to follow through with them.

Nease offers a small set of strategies that have this goal in mind: Making it easier to follow through (when the inaction is caused by inattention and inertia). The strategies are, of course, not new or unique to Nease’s insight. Default options, mandated choice, and framing are discussed at length in the academic and the popular behavioral science literature. Yet, the examples from his personal work experience and the reminders (for the action-taking-environment engineer) for the constant need to experiment make his book entertaining, instructive, and hence worthwhile to read.

Fifty bits is a rather short, concise, and focused book. There is no padding. Indeed, some parts could have been slightly more detailed. As a result, there is no excessive hurdle for picking up the book and reading it. I guess this feature of the book, making it easier to pick it up and read it in full, is intentional.

The critique. While Nease is very careful to present a balanced discussion, to consider the ethics of behavior changing interventions, and to call for intellectual honesty, avoidance of deception, and generally being “nice” there is an inconsistency in one of his arguments. At least, I cannot agree with his rationale for choosing between mandated choice and defaults with opt-out.

First Nease recommends requiring an active choice (chapter 3), what is sometimes also called “mandated choice.” Then, however, in chapter 5 (“Let it Ride”) he also recommends setting defaults with opt-outs and tries to establish a rule when to ask for an active decision vs when to rely on the default.

It is all linked to the “Effort [cost] of Active Choice”, “Effort [cost] of Opting out”, and the “Fraction who would Opt out.” Setting a default with opt-out leads to a larger behavioral effect at the population level. If the expected cost of opting out is lower (at the population level) than the cost of active choice the choice architect should implement a default with opt-out.

This may sound reasonable. So, let me add one of Nease’s insights that he offers in chapter 9 “Simplify wisely” under the heading “Why is easy so good?”

The bottom line is that what logically looks like a small bump on the road to better behavior psychologically looks more like a wall. (p. 135)

Seemingly small obstacles can be associated with high psychological costs. Looking only at the physical cost to opt out, let’s say looking only at the time it would take, neglects these psychological costs (to overcome inertia). Naively applied – as in Nease’s example –, the rule would too often recommend setting a default with opt-out instead of mandated choice.

Yet, there is another reason why I do not like this advice and cannot agree with the presented rationale for it.

The rule is based on a cost to society argument and the, at least, theoretical possibility to compensate the losers (i. e. aiming at a Kaldor-Hicks improvement). However, since compensation never occurs it remains unclear whether there is indeed an increase in society’s welfare. Further, this requires that the disutilities and utilities caused to the individual members of society can be compared across individuals and aggregated in a meaningful way. I would contest this assumption. (For more and more eloquent critiques on this kind of social welfare improvements see the works of Arrow, Baumol, Bergson, Little, … ) Mandated choice, on the other hand, does not require any of these interpersonal utility comparisons.

Obviously, if my critique is on such a technicality, a point that is often dismissed and ignored in practice it cannot be that bad. Let’s just say I would prefer active choice on principle. It seems more honest, more autonomy preserving, maybe even autonomy enhancing (if the action-taking-environment engineer does not add peer pressure).

Disclosure: The author, Bob Nease, sent me a copy of his book for free. Thank you, Bob! I enjoyed it.

Read: Phishing for Phools

Phishing for Phools leaves me with a rather ambivalent feeling. Some parts I like and found interesting, in other parts Akerlof and Shiller seem to just state the obvious, and in the remaining parts they offer interpretations that I cannot agree with. The particular mix that equates legal and illegal actions, welfare enhancing activities and plain fraud seriously subtract from the (entertaining) value of their little book.

I like their discussion of finance and fraud. (They are not the first to offer such an account.) And I agree that “greed” (that is not really a bad thing in it self), the (bad) design of incentives, and the lack of proper regulation to ensure well functioning markets in the presence of information asymmetries are all contributing to the problems we have observed.

Also their discussion of the misaligned incentives in the pharma industry is not controversial. Others have, of course, beaten that horse before. Bad Science / Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre come to mind. Recommending better regulation to reduce the problems caused by information asymmetries here is not a controversial issue.

The voter’s rational ignorance and the influence of special interest groups are also ultimately linked to information asymmetries. In contrast to the authors who seem to like to regulate lobbying more I do not believe that more and stricter regulation will necessarily lead to a better outcome of the political decision making process. It may reduce some waste, resources spent on lobbying may find better uses somewhere else. It will not change anything about he voter’s ignorance.

Though there is nothing really new up to here – the authors admit that their book may not offer anything new except for their interpretation – these parts are both instructive and, yes, entertaining.

Finally, the moment Akerlof and Shiller talk about Phishing for Phools that is not linked to information asymmetries (that moment actually comes first in their book) I cannot agree with them. The provision of goods in convenient ways and places is not a bad. Yes, ceteris paribus I like to live healthy. But if I buy donuts the trade-off between the immediate satisfaction of my needs and wants and the long run effects of that satisfaction is decided. By me. I do not need any paternalistic restrictions of my choice set. Educate me but do not tell what to do or take my choices away.

I really do not like how the entrepreneur who provides a valuable service to his customers is placed on the same level as the con man and the financial fraudster, or even the price discriminating used car sales person.


Read: How do you know?

Seemingly irrational behavior or rather bounded rationality is the result of bounded cognitive abilities, bounded willpower, bounded self-interest, and - yes - bounded knowledge. Russell Hardin offers an account of the consequences of - fully rational - limited knowledge, an economics of ordinary knowledge. The question is what extent of knowledge in terms of quantity and quality can we expect from an ordinary person.

Rational ignorance permeates all domains of our daily lives and not just public policy and politics. To illustrate his point, maybe even delineating an extreme, Hardin singles out religious belief. Believes are just one instance of knowledge by authority that lie at the core of an economics of ordinary knowledge. No one can gain expert knowledge in everything and hence has to take many bits and pieces of knowledge at face value from an authoritative source. What is an authoritative source and who is an authority from the perspective of an ordinary person then may limit the quality of knowledge, the extent of its objective truth. Hardin discusses the tension between science and religion, the individual and communal incentives to believe, sincerity, fundamentalism, and extremism. He draws a very bleak picture of society.

Even though Hardin acknowledges the existence of limits on cognitive abilities, will-power, and self-interest his analysis only drops the assumption of perfect knowledge, he is able to explain many seemingly irrational patterns in our behavior. His ordinary person still tries to maximize their utility and decides that obtaining more and better knowledge may not be worth its cost. People remain rational ignorant. Yet, already this small deviation from the standard economic analysis of decisions, choices under uncertainty and in strategic interactions seems sufficient to explain seemingly irrational, i. e. objectively sub-optimal, behavior.

Adding the further bounds to our abilities is not likely to improve the quality of our decisions and welfare. So yes, Hardin draws a very bleak picture indeed.