Think Economically


Maximum understanding, minimum average total cost.

Minivans, booyah. Search costs, the internets, weak ties, and our used car purchasing experience.

We just bought a used minivan, and it was by far the best car purchasing experience of my life. There was so much to it, so many improvements in the process as a result of technology, that the overall result was really stunning. There is so much really excellent information out there. Stronger “weak ties” lead to broader access to private sellers, while the power of search, through sites like, provides price information across dealerships. It felt like we knew what we were doing.

We ended up with a nice minivan that looks pretty much like the following. This is not ours, but it looks like ours, which is why we need to put a sticker on its feet so we can tell the difference. Check out this sweet ride:Image

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Will everything be free in the future? Robots, information, value, and the long view of relative prices.

I don’t think everything will be free–more likely relative prices of raw goods and manufactured goods are just likely to swing drastically. If you take the long view of human history, increasingly the value of a good is defined by the information in it, and we have gotten much better at separating, recording and transmitting that information. If you think about it, mathematics and engineering are about inventing the language to describe the information contained in a good, interchangeable parts and mass production increase the signal-to-noise ratio, information goods like books, music, movies, research, software–these *are*their information–and then the development of an information infrastructure as well as cheaper and more widely distributed mechanized production methods mean that the information slowly becomes the only missing part.

Another way to think about it is that we have steadily shortened the distance between knowing how to make something and having it made. Little by little, the having it made part is becoming trivial relative to the knowing how to make something. Because information is non-rival–my having information implies nothing about your ability to have it–private goods become less private. Read the rest of this entry »

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This week I have read: Patent Trolling, Cloudpaging, Santorum’s Polls, Obama’s Polls, Taco trucks, Gas and Crude Oil Prices, LEGO Monthly Mini Builds

Patents are broken

Economists, for the most part, have not yet developed the tools to think about information goods. Undergraduate econ still revolves mostly around agriculture. So what do we do about software patents? Or the sharing economy?

I got nothin’. Maybe I’ll devote some focused thought to it some time soon. By then, of course, the entire industry will have changed.

For and insider’s view on the patent wars, check out Andy Biao on his work on patents for Yahoo that have been weaponized and fired at Facebook.

Polls are broken

Political polls have been turned into the analogue to baseball statistics by Nate Silver. As someone who teaches and uses statistics, and watches politics and baseball, this has been delightful. And yet.

Nate Silver points out that Santorum has significantly outperformed his poll numbers. What to make of that? Are people disinclined to admit they’ll vote for Santorum?

That would be odd enough, but no one can figure out whether Obama is universally reviled or climbing back into the catbird seat. On net, InTrade seems to think there has been little change in Obama’s likelihood of reelection in the last six days, and so I read all that news for nothing.

Tacos are yummier from trucks?

For some reason Felix Salmon wants to know why tacos taste better from taco trucks. For some other reason, Matt Yglesias responds. My guess? Because you’re at SXSW and it’s a slow news morning? Also something about more competition, lower average total cost, etc. It doesn’t actually seem that mysterious.

The President can’t affect gas prices

In the CBS/NYTimes poll linked to above, 56% of people thought that the President could affect gas prices. He can’t. Peter Van Doren and Jerry Taylor over at Cato point this out, but if you don’t like reading words and stuff, the White House has just released a very involved, but stylish, infographic. Personally, I think they protest a little too much, with a dash of preaching to the choir.

Ultimately, James Hamilton argues it shouldn’t matter for the recovery, and IMHO, he would know. Matt Yglesias concurs.

Everything else

It was a good week for us. Personal spending is low; personal income is steady. David Brooks is apparently a Mets fan. I bought some silicone-based glue to repair a mug. Also, LEGO Monthly Mini Builds are awesome and brickset has instructions from mid-2010 onward.

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Economics is a science. An awesome science. Newton, Feynman, Maxwell, Hooke, et al. would agree.

I wrote this in reply to a list-serv conversation with some criticisms of economics as a  science, and since I still work for my supper, I figured in addition to making lemonade, I would clone that lemonade with the handy-dandy Replicator function on my futuristic writing contraption. The names have been changed to protect the innocent (Not very much. Einstein was changed to Galileo, and Galileo was changed to Einstein. I just switched the ‘n’s in Newton, and the same with Feynman. With Hooke it was the ‘o’s. Maxwell is not innocent, so I left his name as is.).


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Economists and crises: my take on Krugman’s take on economists’ take on The Big One.

Krugman gave a speech on receiving an honorary degree in Lisbon; he reprints the full text here:

Krugman’s general story: the field of macroeconomics was better, descriptively and predictively, back in the 1970s, but at the cost of being coherent and complete. In the intervening years, a number of economists sacrificed completeness and consistency for external validity, and that blinded us (well, them; I’m not a macroeconomist) to the causes and cures of the recent financial crisis. He pitches it as a saltwater v. freshwater battle, which maybe it is.

Then again, maybe it’s a matter of getting high off your own supply. Read the rest of this entry »

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How do people decide what they like? Atlanta commute with and without train tracks and decision under risk and uncertainty.

So I’m trying to put something together here with some coauthors and I thought it might be useful to put down some really back-of-the-envelope thoughts to see if I can get some of this articulated, as well as any comments or criticisms anybody might like to offer.

The question I/we are grappling with is this: how do people decide what they like?

The anecdote that got me interested in this particular question is this: when I lived in Atlanta, I would regularly (2x a week) have to drive from my friends’ house in Clarkston, where my daughter would stay for the day, to the train station at Edgewood/Candler Park. There are two routes between the two locations (clearly there are more, but let’s say there are two routes). One of the routes is shorter but has a set of train tracks across it. The other is longer, but manages to circumvent the train tracks by going under a railway bridge. Read the rest of this entry »

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Read up: Tax expenditures cost $1 trillion a year, or almost the entire deficit.

Tax expenditures are huge. What are they? Government spending disguised in tax language. They make government look smaller than it is.

Income tax expenditures added up to about 75% of the tax actually collected (Burman et al 2007), but have gone up to about 94%. I’m just doing this math in my head, but that means income tax rates are almost twice as high as they would have to be without these loopholes. Not only that, but these deductions cause a regressive shift in the tax structure.

The politics governing them are pretty straightforward: provide a tax loophole to a favored constituency and from below, your profile looks like that of a small-government conservative, axe in hand, taking apart the beast blow by blow. Meanwhile, from above, lobbyists and special interests get the bird’s-eye-view of someone well aware of who, precisely, is circling overhead, waiting to pluck that axe from the hand right before pecking out the liver.

So what to do? There’s been some political chatter, but bilateral disarmament here…well, I’m skeptical.

Read up and then write somebody, maybe:

Wikipedia has a surprisingly terse overview–someone should maybe get on this–here:, with a little more here:

The tax policy center has a briefing book here:

Burman, Geissler, and Toder have a 2007 paper in the AER proceedings that does the accounting and analysis:

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Price controls in the market for gasoline. Could Gingrich push gas prices lower? Should we actively make gas more expensive?

Gingrich says gas should cost two dollars and fifty cents. When markets and politicians disagree, the market usually wins. Still, every time gas prices creep higher, there’s political hay in claiming you can fix it.

Thomas Friedman has a whole different idea on how to handle the price of gas: push it up and let it stay there. Ivan Eland calls it mercantilism.

Some crazy guy still thinks we should peg the dollar to gold. I say crazy because that’s crazy.

What would happen to the market for gas with price controls? Check the video:

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Stupid subsidies are stupid. Economists know this. Obama’s proposed manufacturing subsidy may be good politics but it’s bad policy..

Matt Yglesias is great here. Seriously? What possible argument can there be for manufacturing subsidies?

It’s not an infant industry. It’s not clear that we have huge returns to capital in manufacturing that are being ignored by the private markets. And if we do, lowering the corporate tax rate and broadening the base is the right solution–why would we favor manufacturing jobs over other jobs? It just means less jobs.


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Ezra Klein: Romneycare is working. The jury is still out on Obamacare, but the outlook is good.

Ezra Klein has an excellent summary of economists’ analyses of Obamacare and Romneycare. Healthcare coverage certainly seems like a natural monopoly, and it looks like costs are declining with increases in scale.

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