Friday, February 19, 2010

Accidental Incentives: Speculation and Reputational Enforcement

If a copper mine shuts down in Chile the price of copper goes up, giving other producers an incentive to produce more copper, consumers an incentive to consume less. The objective of the individual producer or consumer is to improve his own welfare, not the functioning of the economy, but he is led, as Adam Smith long ago pointed out, as by an invisible hand to achieve a desirable objective that is no part of his intent.

Seen from the individual's point of view, the effect on the market is an accident—indeed, an undesirable one. Producing more makes prices go down, which is not what the producer wants to happen. But seen in a broader sense, the market is a system of feedbacks, signals, that give the individual actors the right message, make it in their interest to produce more copper or consume less when and only when doing so improves the overall outcome. The gain to the individual actor is a measure of the social gain from his action.

There are some cases which look very similar but are actually quite different—where the link between what it pays an actor to do and the benefit his action produces is in some sense an accident.

One example is speculation. A successful speculator buys things when they are cheap, sells when they are expensive, and so both makes a profit for himself and smooths out price movements. The latter effect can be a very large benefit to other people. A speculator who sees a food shortage coming well in advance and takes the opportunity to buy up grain early gives other and less well informed people an incentive to use less grain, to plant more of other food crops, and thus to alleviate what might otherwise be a serious famine.

Unlike the usual case, however, the profit to the speculator is not a measure of the benefit produced. To see that, consider a case where the speculator learns of the shortage only a short time before everyone else would have learned—short enough so that the increase in price due to his activity does not have any significant effect on other people's behavior. He can still make a lot of money—not because he has produced valuable information but because goods belong to him instead of someone else when their price goes up. One implication, pointed out long ago in a classic article by Jack Hirshleifer, is the possibility of inefficient speculation. A rational speculator might spend a million dollars acquiring information about future price movements whose social value is zero—his whole profit is coming at the expense of whomever would have held the goods when their price went up if he hadn't bought them first.

The point is illustrated by a famous law case, Laidlaw v. Organ. A tobacco trader in New Orleans somehow got advance word of the treaty that ended the war of 1812 and took the opportunity to buy a large quantity of tobacco at the low price that had resulted from the British blockade. When the seller discovered that the war was over he attempted to reneg on the contract. The court held that the contract was binding.

The same pattern occurs in at least one other important context. I buy a jacket from a department store that guarantees to refund the purchase price if I am not satisfied with the produce, and when I return it they refuse to give me back my money. It is not worth suing them, but it is worth telling my friends—and anyone else who will listen—how badly I have been treated. The result is that other people stop buying from the store. That is a good reason why stores should live up to their promises, even if they are not at risk of being sued if they do not.

This sort of reputational enforcement surely plays a large role in encouraging commercial honesty. But, just as in the case of speculation, the incentive that makes it work is not linked to the actual usefulness of the behavior. The reason my friends—and even enemies—stop buying from the store is not to punish it for mistreating me but to protect themselves from similar mistreatment.

To see why this matters, imagine a case where it is not immediately obvious which party to a dispute is at fault. In order for interested third parties to punish the right person, they have to know who it is. But they have little incentive to investigate the claims of each, since they have the easier alternative of no longer doing business with either. That "punishes" one of us for cheating, the other for reporting the cheat. Anticipating that I realize that, having been cheated, I am better off saying nothing. At which point the mechanism for keeping firms honest stops working.

One conclusion is that reputational enforcement works only in contexts where it is cheap and easy for interested third parties to discover who was at fault; elsewhere I have argued that one function of arbitration is to lower the cost to third parties of doing so. My point here is a more general one—that it is worth distinguishing between those feedback mechanisms that work because the incentive to act measures the value of acting, and those that work, as it were, by accident.

Deleting Comments

It occurs to me that some posters may be curious about the "This post has been removed by a blog administrator" notices on the comments to many of my posts, and wonder if I'm censoring people who disagree with me.

I'm not. So far, all of the posts I have been deleted have been ones that make no contribution at all to the subject and are simply there to get a link up on the web to something else. Recently there have been a bunch of them where the text is "Hi, thank you very much. good job." The link is the name of the poster--not to his profile but to a web page.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cookie-cutter Elites

"There is no single academic path we expect all students to follow, but the strongest applicants take the most rigorous secondary school curricula available to them. An ideal four-year preparatory program includes four years of English, with extensive practice in writing; four years of math; four years of science: biology, chemistry, physics, and an advanced course in one of these subjects; three years of history, including American and European history; and four years of one foreign language."
(From Harvard College Admissions)

Next year my son will be applying to colleges, so we are currently collecting information about colleges he might apply to. One thing that strikes me is the degree to which the elite liberal arts colleges almost all want the same thing in their applicants—a standardized record of academic accomplishment whose production will have consumed most of the educational opportunities of four years of high school.

Consider the passage quoted above. Despite the initial disclaimer, the description of an "ideal four-year preparatory program" implies a pretty uniform picture of the ideal student. It is a picture that any reasonably intelligent and hard-working student should be able to fit—provided that he is more interested in getting into Harvard than in getting an education.

Reading? Four years of English will include lots of it, almost all selected and required by someone else—a pretty good way of persuading a student that reading is someone only to be done when someone makes you do it. Science? There are, perhaps, high school age kids who are interested in every science offered by their school, or at least able to fake it. But they are less likely to make a real world contribution than the enthusiast who reads up on relativity and quantum mechanics when he is supposed to be studying Dickens—and thinks biology is icky.

Studying a language is for some people an interesting intellectual activity; speaking a foreign language can be a useful skill. But the world is full of interesting things to do and skills to learn. This particular skill is well short of essential for someone living in the middle of some three hundred million English speakers. So why make it the key to Harvard—in preference to the ability to build furniture, or write sonnets, or survive in the woods?

It is a poorly hidden secret that the reason professors give multiple choice tests is that, whatever their limitations as a tool for measuring learning, at least they are easy to grade. The attitude seems to have trickled down to the admissions officers. Make sure there is a check mark in each box. If too many applicants manage it, they can always be ranked by SAT scores. Perhaps give an extra point to an applicant who seems to actually know something outside the curriculum or care about something other than checking boxes.

If all else fails, flip a coin.

Perhaps I am being unfair—I have not discussed my reaction with any admissions officers. But reading those web pages leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Salamander is now Webbed

The Usenet group rec.arts.sf.composition, where people talk about writing speculative fiction, has had a number of discussions over the years on whether one should or should not web unpublished work. I offered my experience with my two most recent nonfiction books, both of which were on the web as late drafts well before they were published; the response I got from a number of posters was "fiction is different." Their basic argument was that publishers would be less willing to publish a work that had already been available for free.

My agent, whose opinion I respect, disagrees. Acting on her advice and my own inclination, have just put the entire text of Salamander, my as yet unpublished second novel, on the web for anyone who wants to read it. Comments are welcome, either here or by email.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Ultimate Pocket Computer?

A commenter on a recent post points to the availability of a virtual keyboard—a tiny device that projects a keyboard on a nearby flat surface and watches your keystrokes. Combine that with something like the just announced Samsung Beam and a desk and adjacent wall, and you have a cell phone sized device with a desktop sized keyboard and screen. No key travel and you may have to use it in the dark, but it would still be quite a gadget.

Googling around, I found a better price for the keyboard.

Bayh's Withdrawal: A Conjecture

The news stories I have seen on Indiana senator Evan Bayh's decision not to run for reelection have mostly focused on the decision, not the timing, although they usually mention that, by leaving it to the last minute, he made it almost impossible for anyone to collect the signatures required to enter the primary. Nobody seems to be asking why he did it that way.

One interesting possibility occurs to me. Perhaps he believed that an earlier announcement would result in a bruising primary fight and the probable winner would be a candidate unlikely to win the election—roughly speaking, what happened to the Republicans not long ago in a New York congressional district. Resigning only a few days before the deadline for the primary throws the choice to the state democratic committee—which can, and perhaps will, pick the strongest candidate.

I should add that I know very little about Indiana state politics, so this is only a conjecture. Perhaps some better informed reader can tell me if it is a plausible one.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Suggestion for Samsung

Samsung has just announced at Barcelona a new cell phone, the Beam, that they expect to have on the market this summer. Its special feature is a built-in pico projector, making it a combination cell phone and (very wimpy) video projector. A cute gadget, although not one that I am likely to have much use for. I do, however, have one suggestion for improving it.

The Beam lacks a hardware keyboard, and so will use the usual on-screen virtual keyboard. One disadvantage is that the keyboard takes up a good deal of the screen, reducing how much else you can see. So why doesn't Samsung modify the software to let the virtual keyboard be visible on the camera's screen, where it is needed to type on, but invisible in the image that the pico projector is throwing on the wall, giving the user the best of both worlds?

Meanwhile I continue to wait for Verizon to announce tethering for its Android phones so I can switch from T-Mobile to a mobile network generally regarded as much better, for the Nexus One or its near twin the HTC Incredible to become available on Verizon, for an Android version of the giant screen HD2 to show up somewhere, for ... .

Technology as a spectator sport.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Words: "Reform"

When people are arguing about healthcare reform, it is worth thinking a little about what the word means. Taken literally, reforming something only means changing it, putting it into a new form. In that sense, both the institution of a U.S. version of national health care and the abolition of all government involvement in health care in the U.S. would be reforms—just different ones.

The word is used in practice, however, not to mean "make different" but "make better." Which means that if I disagree with you about what changes would make something better then, from your standpoint, I am against reform—and from my standpoint you are.

Not a usage of language likely to promote productive dialogue.

Words: "Sustainability"

The university I teach at is very big on "sustainability." As best I can tell, what it means is doing things in such a way that you could continue doing them forever, or at least for a very long time. Use of fossil fuels is "not sustainable" since, eventually, we would run out. Use of windmills, on the other hand, is. Similarly for a variety of other issues.

It sounds very nice if you don't think about it. If you do, it may occur to you that belief in the vital importance of sustainability is based on an implicit assumption of stasis—a world where, whatever you are doing, you will keep doing it forever. That isn't the world we live in. The critical resource of today may be irrelevant fifty years from now; the pollution of today may be a resource then--consider manure—or the resource pollution. Rabbits were a resource—until they became, in Australia, a plague. Similarly for Kudzu in the U.S.

We don't know how we will doing things fifty or a hundred years hence, but that it will be the same way we are doing them at present is not a likely guess.