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November 28, 2012

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Latest Posts from Economist's View

'Higher Education and Theory of the Second Best'

Posted: 25 Oct 2012 12:27 AM PDT

John Holbo:

... My basic thought ... is that the paradigm college experience is just plain going to cost a lot. Four years being a full-time student at a residential college, say. That's not going to come cheap. We shouldn't beat our brains out about how we can do this thing inexpensively... There isn't some conspiracy to artificially inflate the cost of college. We could do different things. That might cost less. ... But there isn't any reason to think we can do substantially the same things we already are, just at much lower cost. This is clearly a source of sincere disagreement... Some people think that the rate at which college costs have gone up means that there must be some way to pop the cost bubble and dramatically lower costs back down without sacrificing quality. There's some conspiracy of incompetence or venality by the administrators/teachers. We need to break the back of that, whatever it is, then things would get better. I don't really think that's plausible, but if you think it's plausible, go ahead and work out your own solution to the problem along those lines.
College is a premium product. A costly good. But a valuable one we want people to have. If the state isn't going to subsidize its provision, making it available to all, then how will it go?
Option 1: everyone who isn't rich goes into serious debt to pay for this costly but valuable good.
Option 2: we devise a less premium product. It won't be as good, but it will cost less.
I distrust Option 1. In fact, I'm paranoid about it, for reasons outlined in this article. I don't quite drink the full jug of kool-aid. For example, I don't buy that tuition has skyrocketed 'because it can'. That is, there's just a speculative bubble, in effect. I don't think the growth in administration is quite as sinister as they suggest. It's largely a function of universities wanting to do so much for students – so many programs and options and choices – which is a good thing. But it creates overhead costs.
I do agree that private for-profit outfits like University of Phoenix are, in effect, trying to get their noses into the huge trough of student loan money. That's worrisome. The old are eating their young, leaving them holding the debt bag [pardon my mixed metaphor]. I am less worried by things like Western Governors University, which seems genuinely committed to trying to find a way to Option 2. Which makes me sad, but at least it isn't some private sector trick to saddle students with debt. At least it's an attempt to keep the democratic ideal of higher education for all alive, even if the dream looks pretty shabby.
Western Governors gives up the dream of a well-rounded liberal arts education. It gives up all the stuff that you can only do hands-on, in person. It gives up college as a formative social experience. It gives up a lot. But what it provides is worth something, and it's not clear they are charging more than it is worth. It just makes me depressed to look at it, is all. But I can't really argue with the logic of it, if the alternative is Option 1..., it might be the way of the future. ...

Links for 10-25-2012

Posted: 25 Oct 2012 12:06 AM PDT

The Myth that Growing Consumption Inequality is a Myth

Posted: 24 Oct 2012 06:46 PM PDT

Kevin Hassett and Aparna Mathur argue that consumption inequality has not increased along with income inequality. That's not what recent research says, but before getting to that, here's their argument:

Consumption and the Myths of Inequality, by Kevin Hassett and Aparna Mathur, Commentary, WSJ: In multiple campaign speeches over the past week, President Obama has emphasized a theme central to Democratic campaigns across the country this year: inequality. ... To be sure, there are studies of income inequality—most prominently by Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley—that report that the share of income of the wealthiest Americans has grown over the past few decades while the share of income at the bottom has not. The studies have problems. Some omit worker compensation in the form of benefits. And economist Alan Reynolds has noted that changes to U.S. tax rules cause more income to be reported at the top and less at the bottom. But even if the studies are accepted at face value, as a read on the evolution of inequality, they leave out too much.

Let me break in here. Here's what Piketty and Saez say about Reynold's work:

In his December 14 article, "The Top 1% … of What?", Alan Reynolds casts doubts on the interpretation of our results showing that the share of income going to the top 1% families has doubled from 8% in 1980 to 16% in 2004. In this response, we want to outline why his critiques do not invalidate our findings and contain serious misunderstandings on our academic work. ...

Back to Hassett and Mathur

Another way to look at people's standard of living over time is by their consumption. Consumption is an even more relevant metric of overall welfare than pre-tax cash income, and it will be set by consumers with an eye on their lifetime incomes. Economists, including Dirk Krueger and Fabrizio Perri of the University of Pennsylvania, have begun to explore consumption patterns, which show a different picture than research on income.

Let me break in again and deal with the Krueger and Perri Krueger and Perri (2006) paper, which followed the related work by Slesnick (2001):

Has Consumption Inequality Mirrored Income Inequality?: This paper by Mark Aguiar and Mark Bils finds that "consumption inequality has closely tracked income inequality over the period 1980-2007":

Has Consumption Inequality Mirrored Income Inequality?, by Mark A. Aguiar and Mark Bils, NBER Working Paper No. 16807, February 2011: Abstract We revisit to what extent the increase in income inequality over the last 30 years has been mirrored by consumption inequality. We do so by constructing two alternative measures of consumption expenditure, using data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE). We first use reports of active savings and after tax income to construct the measure of consumption implied by the budget constraint. We find that the consumption inequality implied by savings behavior largely tracks income inequality between 1980 and 2007. Second, we use a demand system to correct for systematic measurement error in the CE's expenditure data. ...This second exercise indicates that consumption inequality has closely tracked income inequality over the period 1980-2007. Both of our measures show a significantly greater increase in consumption inequality than what is obtained from the CE's total household expenditure data directly.

Why is this important? (see also "Is Consumption the Grail for Inequality Skeptics?"):

An influential paper by Krueger and Perri (2006), building on related work by Slesnick (2001), uses the CE to argue that consumption inequality has not kept pace with income inequality.

And these results have been used by some -- e.g. those who fear corrective action such as an increase in the progressivity of taxes -- to argue that the inequality problem is not as large as figures on income inequality alone suggest. But the bottom line of this paper is that:

The ... increase in consumption inequality has been large and of a similar magnitude as the observed change in income inequality.

So they are citing what is now dated work. They either don't know about the more recent work, or simply chose to ignore it because it doesn't say what they need it to say.

Okay, back to Hassett and Mathur once again. They go on to cite their own work -- more on that below. One thing to note, however, is that the recent research in this area says the data they use must be corrected for measurement error or you are likely to find the (erroneous) results they find. As far as I can tell, the data are not corrected:

Our recent study, "A New Measure of Consumption Inequality," found that the consumption gap across income groups has remained remarkably stable over time. ...
While this stability is something to applaud, surely more important are the real gains in consumption by income groups over the past decade. From 2000 to 2010, consumption has climbed 14% for individuals in the bottom fifth of households, 6% for individuals in the middle fifth, and 14.3% for individuals in the top fifth when we account for changes in U.S. population and the size of households. This despite the dire economy at the end of the decade.

Should we trust this research? First of all this is Kevin Hassett. How much do you trust the work once you know that? Second, it's on the WSJ editorial page. How much does that reduce your trust? I'd hope the answer is "quite a bit." Third, big red flags when researchers cherry pick start and/or end dates. Fourth, as already noted, recent research shows that the no growth in consumption inequality result is due to measurement error in the CES data. When the data are corrected, consumption inequality mirrors income inequality. They don't say a word about correcting the data.

Next, we get the "but they have cell phones!" argument:

Yet the access of low-income Americans—those earning less than $20,000 in real 2009 dollars—to devices that are part of the "good life" has increased. The percentage of low-income households with a computer rose... Appliances? The percentage of low-income homes with air-conditioning equipment..., dishwashers..., a washing machine..., a clothes dryer..., [and] microwave ovens... grew... Fully 75.5% of low-income Americans now have a cell phone, and over a quarter of those have access to the Internet through their phones.

Before turning to their conclusion, let me note more new research in this area from a post earlier this year, But They Have TVs and Cell Phones!, emphasizing the measurement error problem:

Consumption Inequality Has Risen About As Fast As Income Inequality, by Matthew Yglesias: Going back a few years one thing you used to hear about America's high and rising level of income inequality is that it wasn't so bad because there wasn't nearly as much inequality of consumption. This story started to fall apart when it turned out that ever-higher levels of private indebtedness were unsustainable (nobody could have predicted...) but Orazio Attanasio, Erik Hurst, and Luigi Pistaferri report in a new NBER working paper "The Evolution of Income, Consumption, and Leisure Inequality in The US, 1980-2010" that the apparently modest increase in consumption inequality is actually a statistical error.
They say that the Consumer Expenditure Survey data from which the old-school finding is drawn is plagued by non-classical measurement error and adopt four different approaches to measuring consumption inequality that shouldn't be hit by the same problem. All four alternatives point in the same direction: "consumption inequality within the U.S. between 1980 and 2010 has increased by nearly the same amount as income inequality."

Here's Hassett and Mathur's ending:

It is true that the growth of the safety net has contributed to massive government deficits—and a larger government that likely undermines economic growth and job creation. It is an open question whether the nation will be able to reshape the net in order to sustain it, but reshape it we must. ...

After arguing (wrongly) that consumption has kept pace with income, they say it's only because of the deficit -- but it's not sustainable. So suck it up middle class America, consumption inequality has increased despite the claims of denialists like Hassett, and if they get their way and reduce the social safety net, it will only get worse.

Hassett and company denied that income inequality was growing for years (notice their attempt to do just that in the first paragraph by citing discredited research from Alan Reynolds), then when the evidence made it absolutely clear they were wrong (surprise!), they switched to consumption inequality. Recent evidence says they're wrong about that too.

Video: Krugman and Stiglitz

Posted: 24 Oct 2012 02:18 PM PDT

[Note: The video starts at the 16:15 mark, and the Krugman and Stiglitz discussion begins at 25:30]

Attempted Price Manipulation at Intrade? Probably Not.

Posted: 24 Oct 2012 09:18 AM PDT

Rajiv Sethi argues that the abrupt change in the price of presidential contracts on Intrade was probably due to something other than attempted manipulation of the market to make Romney look better:

Algorithms, Arbitrage, and Overreaction on Intrade, by Rajiv Sethi: There were some startling price movements in the presidential contracts on Intrade yesterday. ...
What caused this unusual price behavior? There's been some talk of attempted price manipulation, but I have my doubts because the trader who was buying aggressively over this period was extremely naive. ... Throughout the buying frenzy, the Obama contract never fell below 57 and there was a substantial block of bids at or above this price. The trader who was buying Romney at 48 could have made the same bet for 43 by simply selling the Obama contract at 57. In fact, he would have obtained a slightly superior contract, which would pay off if any person other than Obama were to win, including but not limited to Romney.
This fact also explains the oscillations in the Romney price, and the decline to 57 under selling pressure of the Obama price. Any individual who had posted ask prices in the 43-48 range in the Romney market had these orders met by the crazed buyer, and could then sell Obama above 57 for an immediate arbitrage profit. As it happens, there are algorithms active on Intrade that do precisely this. ...
If this was not an instance of attempted manipulation, then what was it? I suspect that it was an overzealous response to reports of a major announcement concerning the presidential race, promised by Donald Trump. Further frenzied activity in the presidential and state level markets took place in the evening, as speculation about the nature of the announcement started to spread.
This whole bizarre episode tells us very little about the presidential race, but does shed some light on how these markets work. Changes in one market spill over instantaneously to changes in linked markets via arbitrage, some of it executed algorithmically. And algorithms that work very effectively when rare can end up with disastrous results if copied. For instance, if two algorithms were to follow the strategy outlined above, it is possible that only one of them may be able to complete the second sale since the first mover would have snapped up the existing bids. This kind of game is currently being played in the world of high frequency trading, but with much higher stakes and considerably more serious economic consequences.
Whoever it was lost money, which seems an appropriate outcome for putting one's faith in Donald Trump's crazy ramblings.

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