Posts tagged ‘Arnold Kling’

Root Cause

Arnold Kling argues that the root cause of mortgage and student debt problems is not the structure of mortgage and student debt contracts

What these forms of bad debt have in common, in my view, is that they reflect clumsy social engineering. Public policy was based on the idea that getting as many people into home “ownership” with as little money down as possible was a great idea. It was based on the idea of getting as many people into college with student loans as possible.

The problem, therefore, is not that debt contracts are too rigid. The problem is that the social engineers are trying to make too many people into home “owners” and to send too many people to college. Home ownership is meaningful only when people put equity into the homes that they purchase. College is meaningful only if students graduate and do so having learned something (or a least enjoyed the party, but not with taxpayers footing the bill).

Arnold Kling Provides An Interesting Framework for Economic Growth

I thought this was a useful simple picture from Arnold Kling, vis a vis countries and their economies:

Low Creation High Creation
Low Destruction Corporatist Stagnation Schumpeterian Boom
High Destruction Minsky Recession Rising Dynamism

He suggests the US may currently be in the lower-left quadrant.  Europe and Japan in the upper left.   My sense is that China is in the upper right, not the lower right (too much of the economy is controlled by the politicians in power for any real destruction to occur).

Once a government gains powerful tools for economic intervention, it becomes politically almost impossible to allow destruction to occur, no matter how long-term beneficial it can be.  The US is one of the few countries in the world that has ever allowed such destruction to occur over an extended period.  The reason it is hard is that successful incumbents are able to wield political power to prevent upstart competition that might threaten their position and business model (see here for example).

It takes a lot of discipline to have government not intervene in favor of such incumbents.  Since politicians lack this discipline, the only way to prevent such intervention is by castrating the government, by eliminating its power to intervene in the first place.  Feckless politicians cannot wield power that does not exist (though don't tell Obama that because he seems to be wielding a lot of power to modify legislation that is not written into my copy of the Constitution.).

The Positive Result Bias

This is a pretty well-known non-secret among about anyone who does academic research, but Arnold Kling provides some confirmation that there seems to be a tremendous bias towards positive results.  In short, most of these can't be replicated.

A former researcher at Amgen Inc has found that many basic studies on cancer -- a high proportion of them from university labs -- are unreliable, with grim consequences for producing new medicines in the future.

During a decade as head of global cancer research at Amgen, C. Glenn Begley identified 53 "landmark" publications -- papers in top journals, from reputable labs -- for his team to reproduce. Begley sought to double-check the findings before trying to build on them for drug development.

Result: 47 of the 53 could not be replicated. He described his findings in a commentary piece published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"It was shocking," said Begley, now senior vice president of privately held biotechnology company TetraLogic, which develops cancer drugs. "These are the studies the pharmaceutical industry relies on to identify new targets for drug development. But if you're going to place a $1 million or $2 million or $5 million bet on an observation, you need to be sure it's true. As we tried to reproduce these papers we became convinced you can't take anything at face value."...

Part way through his project to reproduce promising studies, Begley met for breakfast at a cancer conference with the lead scientist of one of the problematic studies.

"We went through the paper line by line, figure by figure," said Begley. "I explained that we re-did their experiment 50 times and never got their result. He said they'd done it six times and got this result once, but put it in the paper because it made the best story. It's very disillusioning."

This is not really wildly surprising.    Consider 20 causal relationships that don't exist.  Now consider 20 experiments to test for this relationship.  Likely 1 in 20 will show a false positive at the 95% certainty level -- that's what 95% certainty means.  All those 1 in 20 false positives get published, and the other studies get forgotten.

To some extent, this should be fixable now that we are not tied to page-limited journals.  Simply require as a grant condition that all findings be published online, positive or negative, would be a good start.

 

Modern Political Incentives

Arnold Kling has one of the best statements on modern political incentives I have seen lately

Salmon complains that as far as the latest [European debt] plan is concerned, "the commitment is still vague." What I want to suggest is that for the politicians, vagueness is a feature rather than a bug. This reflects a fundamental misalignment between political incentives and economic requirements.

What markets and the economy need are policies that resolve uncertainty. That way, people know who is going to take a hit. Most important, they know where they can invest with confidence going forward.

What politicians need are vagueness and opacity. Having a clear, well-defined policy exposes the politician to the people who are hurt by that policy. Thus, instead of producing a balanced budget today, you produce a plan to produce a plan to balance the budget down the road. Instead of restructuring sovereign debt, you make a commitment that everyone will be made whole, without explaining how that commitment will be honored.

Chicken or the Egg

Brad DeLong and Arnold Kling have been going back and forth on Fannie Mae and its culpability, or lack thereof, for worsening the recent bubble and financial crisis.   DeLong originally argued, if I remember right, that the default rate for Fannie Mae conforming loans were not worse than those being bought by other groups.  Kling argued that even their based default rate of 7% was awful (How do you make money on a pool of debt paying 5% if there is a 7% default rate).  DeLong countered

Arnold Kling's response is simply not good. It is silly enough to make me think he has not thought the issues through. a 7% delinquency rate on a mortgage portfolio is horrible in normal times, but is actually very good if you are in a depression--ever our Lesser Depression. For an investment with a 15-year duration that's a cost of less than 50 basis points in a "black swan" near worst case scenario. A portfolio that does that well under such conditions is a solid gold one.

I may not be thinking about this right, but I think DeLong is making a mistake in this analysis.  In the comments I wrote

First, I have no clue what a "reasonable" default rate is in a black swan event, and my guess is that, almost by definition, no one else does either.

However, it strikes me that DeLong's argument is a bit off. If mortgage default rates went up in an economic crisis that was wholly unrelated to mortgages, ie due to an oil shock or something, that would be one thing. But in this case, the black swan is in large part due to the mortgages issued. I guess it is sort of a chicken and egg problem, but the mortgages started defaulting before the depression, not the other way around, and helped precipitate the depression.

Remember, we are not talking about how well a portfolio survived the economic downturn.  We are talking about if a portfolio contributed to the economic downturn.

 

I Have Had This Argument About a Zillion Times

From Arnold Kling

I think that (non-classical) liberals and libertarians see the problem of "special interests" differently. Liberals view special interests as exogenous to the policy process. You have to overcome special interests to create good policy. Libertarians see special interests as endogenous. Policy is what creates them.

Yep, I have had this argument about a million times with liberals.  Liberals will argue that government power is neutral to positive, and that it is private action corrupting government, and this corruption can be avoided if private action is aggressively policed (including campaign spending limits, etc).  Example:  If Wall Street money could be taken out of politics then financial regulation would work.

I argue that money in politics are a result of the stakes that we have put on the table -- the more power we give to government to reallocate wealth, the more money will be spent to have such decisions made in one's favor.  In the age old question of whether a bribe is more the fault of the politician that demanded it or the private party that offered it, I would answer that the fault is with the system that gives the politician enough power to make such a bribe pay.  And increasing the government's power to limit private involvement in politics (e.g. via campaign spending limits) only makes the government power problem worse.

Science and Complexity: The Convergence of Climate and Economics

I continue to be fascinated by the similarity between climate science and macro-economics.  Both study unbelievably complex multi-variable systems where we would really like to isolate the effect of one variable.  Because we only have one each of climates and economies  (we can define smaller subsets, but they are always going to be subject to boundary effects from the larger system) it is really hard to define good controlled experiments to isolate single variables.  And all of this is done in a highly charged political environment where certain groups are predisposed to believe their variable is the key element.

In this post by Russ Roberts, one could easily substitute "climate" for "economy" and "temperature" for "unemployment."

Suppose the economy does well this year–growth is robust and unemployment falls. What is the reason for the improvement? Will it be because of the natural rebound of an economy after a downturn that has lasted longer than people thought? The impact of the stimulus finally kicking in? The psychological or real impact of extending the Bush tax cuts? The psychological or real impact of the November election results? The steady hand of Obama at the tiller? All of the above? Can any model of the economy pass the test and answer these questions?

The reason macroeconomics is not a science and not even scientific is that the question I pose above is not answerable. If the economy improves, there will be much talk about the reason. Data and evidence will be trotted out in support of the speaker’s viewpoint. But that is not science. We don’t have a way of distinguishing between those different theories or of giving them weights to measure their independent contribution.

I’m with Arnold Kling. This is a time for humility. It should be at the heart of our discipline. The people who yell the loudest and with the most certainty are the least trustworthy. And the reason for that goes back to Hayek. We can’t measure many of the things we would have to measure to have any reasonable amount of certainty about the chains of connection and causation.

I have heard it said that the only way nowadays to advance pure science is to be working on arcana like the first microsecond of the universe or behavior of the 9th dimension in string theory.   There is still room for a ton of useful work on the analysis, solution, and forecasting of complex multi-variable systems, even if it is just a Goedel-like proof of where the boundaries of our potential understanding can be drawn.

By the way, I wrote my own piece about the limits of macroeconomics here.

Our Medieval Economy

This is a pretty interesting observation, from Walter Russell Mead via Arnold Kling

Most intellectuals today still live in a guild economy. The learned professions - lawyers, doctors, university professors, the clergy of most mainline denominations, and (aspirationally anyway) school teachers and journalists - are organized in modern day versions of the medieval guilds. Membership in the guilds is restricted, and the self-regulated guilds do their best to uphold an ideal of service and fairness and also to defend the economic interests of the members. The culture and structure of the learned professions shape the world view of most American intellectuals today, but high on the list of necessary changes our society must make is the restructuring and in many cases the destruction of the guilds...

In most of our learned professions and knowledge guilds today, promotion is linked to the needs and aspirations of the guild rather than to society at large. Promotion in the academy is almost universally linked to the production of ever more specialized, theory-rich (and, outside the natural sciences, too often application-poor) texts, pulling the discourse in one discipline after another into increasingly self-referential black holes. We suffer from 'runaway guilds': costs skyrocket in medicine, the civil service, education and the law in part because the imperatives of the guilds and the interests of their members too often triumph over the needs and interests of the wider society.

The Murder Weapon Is Covered With His Wife's Fingerprints -- We Better Arrest the Butler

I am a bit late to this but from Arnold Kling:

The further into this crisis we go, the greater the share of subprime loans and mortgage losses are turning out to be located at Freddie and Fannie. Even one year ago, if you had asked me, I would have told you to expect at least 2/3 of the losses to be at companies like Citi and Bear, with less than 1/3 at Freddie and Fannie. It now looks quite different. Conservatively, 3/4 of taxpayers losses will be at Freddie and Fannie. Perhaps as much as 90 percent of taxpayer losses will be there.

Given the large role of Freddie and Fannie, it makes sense for politicians to create as large a diversion as possible. Hence, the brouhaha over bonuses at bailed-out banks.

Incidentally, the debate over the "public option" in health reform also can be viewed as an exercise in symbolic politics and diversion. The point is to divert attention away from the bankruptcy of Medicare.

Welcome to the Emergency Room. Can I See Your Insurance Card and Polling Numbers, Please?

From Mickey Kaus:

Democratic blogger Ezra Klein appears to be positioning Dem health care reforms as a way to cut costs, on the grounds that a reformed system will be able to make "hard choices" and "rational" coverage decisions, by which Klein seems to mean "not providing" treatments that are unproven or too expensive--when "a person's life, or health, is not worth the price." Matthew Yglesias' recent post seems to be saying the same thing, though clarity isn't its strong suit. (He must have left it on Journolist.)

...

The "rational," cost-cutting, "hard-choices" pitch isn't just awful marketing--I don't even think it's accurate. Put it this way: I'm for universal health care in large part precisely because I think the government will be less tough-minded and cost-conscious when it comes to the inevitable rationing of care than for-profit insurance companies will be. Take Arnold Kling's example of a young patient with cancer, where "the best hope is a treatment that costs $100,000 and offers a chance of success of 1 in 200." No "rational bureaucracy" would spend $20 million to save a life, Kling argues. I doubt any private insurance company is going to write a policy that spends $20 million to save a life.  But I think the government--faced with demands from patient groups and disease lobbies and treatment providers and Oprah and run, ultimately, by politicians as terrified of being held responsible for denying treatment as they are quick to pander to the public's sentimental bias toward life--is less likely to be "rational" than the private sector.

That is to say, the government's more likely to pay for the treatment (assuming a doctor recommends it). So it's government for me.

He comes oh-so-close to getting it right, but then falls short.

Klein is right that the pressure will be to ration care -- we already see such rationing being seriously considered in Massachusetts (the model of choice for Democrats) under the weight of massive expenditures.

But Kaus is correct that if some high-powered and well-funded interest group gets behind a certain procedure, cost-effective or not, the government overlords of the program will likely approve it.   As a result, for example, no potential treatment for breast cancer will ever be denied given the proven strength of women's groups lobbying for breast cancer treatment (already, breast cancer research is hugely over-funded vs. other diseases given its mortality, due in large part to this powerful lobbying).

But it is not one dynamic or the other.  Both will exist.  There will be huge pressures to cut back somewhere, as costs skyrocket.  And there will be huge pressure from certain interest groups to fund treatment for certain diseases in unlimited amounts.  The result will not be, as Kaus posits,  that everything will be funded more than it is today -- the result will be that certain procedures and conditions with strong lobbying and political muscle will get funded more, with the difference being made up from cutting funding for conditions and procedures without a well-organized lobby.

Access to care will no longer be determined by money, but by political pull.  (Yeah, I know, it's Ayn Rand's world and we all just live in it).

Maybe They Choose to be Uninsured

Via Arnold Kling, Maggie Mahar writes:

Some citizens of the Commonwealth don't even want to pay for their own
health care insurance. Under the plan, everyone in Massachusetts is
required to buy insurance (or pay a penalty), with the state providing
a 100% subsidy for those who earn less than 150% of the poverty level.
Those receiving the full subsidy are enthusiastic. The state had hoped
to sign up 57,000 uninsured and they've over-shot their target: 76,200
of Massachusetts' poorest citizens have enrolled.

At the other end of the spectrum, the program isn't doing as well.
Uninsured citizens earning more than 300% of the poverty level are
expected to buy their own insurance. Here, the state hoped that 228,000
of its uninsured citizens would sign up. So far, just 15,000 have
enrolled.  Apparently, they've done the math and decided that it would
be cheaper to pay the penalty.  But their premiums are needed to keep
the program going.  If more in this group don't sign up, it is not at
all clear how the state will be  able to continue subsidizing the poor.

All of this adds up to "people without health insurance are so because it is not worth the price."  If they get it free, fine, they will use it like crazy, but they won't pay for it.  So I should for them?

Shopping for Health Care

I missed this article the first time around, but Arnold Kling makes a point that I have been trying to make coherently for a long time:  The biggest problem in health care is not under-insurance or efficiency or drug company profits.  The biggest problem is the insulation of the consumer from health care prices.

For health care providers, insulation is a bonanza. Because
consumers are not spending their own money, they accept doctors'
recommendations for services without questioning them and without
concern for cost. Faced with an insured patient, a health care provider
is like a restaurant catering to convention-goers with unlimited
expense accounts. The customer will gladly take the most high-end
recommendation and not worry about the price.

Consumers are
happy as well. Insulation relieves the patient of the stress of making
decisions about treatment. The patient also does not have to worry
about shopping around for the best price.

The problem with
insulation is that it is not a sustainable form of health care finance.
Individuals, employers, and government are all under stress.

Health care plans on the table basically put decision making for a) making price comparisons and b) deciding if a given procedure is worth the price -- in one of two people's hands:

  • The individual being cared for or
  • The government

That's it.  Its one or the other.  The current system of "nobody" is not sustainable.  To the extent that people have grief about their employer or their insurer, it is usually because the insurer is trying to make these decisions (someone has to) and the individual is resentful that the insurer is not making decisions the way the individual might like.  In this context, it is nuts that many people see the solution not as "let individuals take over this decision" but as "let the government do it."  I'm sure that will turn out well.

By the way, I have been with a high deductible policy for a while now, and the medical care shopping process is a real eye-opener.  I really highly recommend it -- not only am I managing the costs but I am learning more about the care itself.  For those of you who don't want to price compare,  Michael Cannon of Cato makes the very good point that everyone does not have to price shop - only a few people need to for all of us to get the benefit.  I never even look at the price of toilet paper, but I know it is probably a good price because there are folks out there who DO compare.

End of the Free Lunch Charade

Mitt Romney promised his state a health care free lunch, and everyone believed him.  So much so that other states are copying his plan.  Well, the charade is ending:

Last year, then-Gov. Mitt Romney made headlines by signing legislation
to cover all the state's uninsured. . . Romney suggested that annual
premiums for a single worker might total $2,400. But when insurance
companies recently provided real estimates, the cost was much higher:
$4,560.

Arnold Kling cries "I told you so."    And, I did too.

Low-deductible health care insurance (Massachusetts does not allow, by law, any other kind) is nuts, but it is what everyone is used to.  For some reason, people have a huge aversion to paying for medical costs directly, even if it is demonstrably cheaper.  Samuelson gets at this in his article when he says:

For decades, Americans have treated health care as if it exists in a
separate economic and political world: When people need care, they
should get it; costs should remain out of sight

Let us take a quick example.  Let's say that the average family generates $1000 in medical costs in a normal year, that is, without any major hospitalizations.  This would mean that if I got an insurance policy with a $1000 deductible, my coverage should be (relatively) cheap, since I am only really insurance against catastrophes -- I am effectively paying my normal annual costs out of pocket.

Now let's say I switch to a zero deductible. The premiums are going to have to be at least a thousand dollars higher a year.  And, in fact, they are likely to be more, given markups and administrative costs.  And that extra $1000+ will now be unavoidable to me, whereas I might have managed my own out of pocket spending lower if I am paying the bills.  Paying for a health care plan that covers one's normal annual medical costs is a dead loss.  There is no free lunch  (except for tax -- historically, medical costs payed by the employer were tax deductible, whereas costs paid out of your own pocket were not, which is one reason our health care market is structured in such a silly manner).

A while back, I switched from a $500 deductible plan to a $3500 deductible plan (I pay for my own health care).  You know how much I save in annual premiums?  $3000!  Talk about the biggest no-brainer ever.  Even if my annual health care spending was $3500, this would still be a break-even decision.  But since my actual spending in a normal year is probably $1000-$1500  (depending mainly on whether my wife or I get sent for some weird test) this was a huge financial gain.  And remember, this decision would not have been available to me in Massachusetts, because they do not allow high-deductible health insurance.  For some reason we are all caught up in this paradigm that health care expenses remain out of sight.  Even my wife, the Harvard MBA  (but from Massachusetts!) took some time to get comfortable with the concept of paying medical expenses out of pocket -- you're not supposed to do that, that's what insurance is for!

Awesome Statement of Principles

From Arnold Kling, one of those articles so good I have trouble excerpting it to do it justice.  Here is just a small taste of some of the principles he puts forward:

1. Liberty is important for its own sake. People are entitled to make their own choices.

2. There are other values in addition to liberty. However, many
noble causes end up infringing on liberty without achieving their
desired ends. Government policies should be evaluated on the basis of
their consequences, not on the basis of how they make us feel. It may
feel good to set a minimum wage, to impose rent control, or to declare
a war on drugs, but the evidence is that such policies tend to work to
the detriment of their intended beneficiaries.

3. I value relieving the suffering of others. However, compared with
liberals, I have considerable humility when it comes to advocating
taking other people's money in order to satisfy my urge to alleviate
poverty.

4. Corporate power is adequately checked by market forces.
Competitors are the main force protecting consumers. Alternative job
opportunities are the main force protecting workers. For corporate
power to be a threat, it must be allied with government power.

Please, go enjoy the whole post.

PS- OK, if you really aren't going to read the whole thing, here is another taste:

I believe that in reality what has helped the less fortunate is
economic growth. Today's elderly are affluent not because of Social
Security, but because of all of the wealth created by private sector
innovation over their lifetimes. Government involvement in health care
and education is an impediment to progress in those fields. Job
training and welfare are demonstrable failures.

More on Wealth and Poverty

A few days ago, I spilled a lot of electrons discussing the sources of wealth and poverty. This week, Arnold Kling has a great article applying many of the same concepts to give advice to Live8 and others who want to eliminate poverty.  While I droned on for about 30 inches of computer monitor space, Robert Lucas's quote in Kling's article gets to the heart of the issue in just a few lines:

"of the vast increase in the well-being of hundreds
of millions of people that has occurred in the 200-year course of the industrial
revolution to date, virtually none of it can be attributed to the direct
redistribution of resources from rich to poor. The potential for improving the
lives of poor people by finding different ways of distributing current
production is nothing compared to the apparently limitless potential of
increasing production."

He concludes with some advice for protestors:

1. The world is a complex place. The farther you are
removed from a situation, the less likely that your intervention there will do
good and the greater risk that it will cause harm. No matter how thoughtfully it
is administered, long-distance aid will tend to be
ineffective.

 

2. The easiest poverty to prevent is poverty that is
close by. By developing useful skills and remaining employed, you can help keep
yourself and your family out of poverty. That makes you less of a burden on the
world than if you fly half way around the world to stage
confrontations
.

 

3. Learn to distinguish motives from consequences. A
well-meaning policy can backfire. The seemingly cold-hearted impersonal market
is enormously beneficial.

 

4. Poverty is not a simple problem. See What Causes
Prosperity?

 

5. Remember that unlike the Folk Song Army of Tom
Lehrer's song, you have no monopoly on good intentions. A morality play in which
those who care crusade against those who are square makes for great theater.
However, it is not a realistic basis for economic policy.

 

As a parting shot, I noted previously the odd contradiction that is inherent in many G8 and similar protestors who purport to want to eliminate poverty:

In a nutshell, they want to fix poverty in the third world by
disavowing everything -- private property rights, individual
enterprise, free commerce, entrepreneurship, individual freedoms, etc.
-- that made the G8 not impoverished.  Rich nations, you have to help
the poor nations, but whatever you do, don't allow they to emulate what
you did to get rich. 

This is so nutty its unbelievable.  If they were camping outside of
the G8's door and saying that we want you to drop trade barriers on our
goods and help us foster entrepreneurship and we want your help
promoting private investment in our economy and infrastructure, I could
understand perfectly.  This is like activists camping outside of Jack
Welch's door looking for him to help the poor by funding programs to
teach children to drop out of school and avoid getting a jobs.