Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A book that changed my life

"We believe that the confounding of the aggregate with the individual is as dangerous as it is pervasive...."  Page 81.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Apartments, Energy and Bad Incentives

I am spending this academic year working in Washington working at HUD, so I am renting an apartment here.  When I signed the lease, I understood that I would pay utilities; what I didn't understand, because I did not read the lease carefully enough, is how I would be charged for utilities.

Even though I live in a professionally managed building that has something like 400 units, and even though each unit has its own circuit breaker the units are not metered individually.  Instead, utility costs are allocated on a pro rate basis based on unit square footage and number of residents in the unit.

Since moving into this place, I have been very conscientious about setting the air conditioner at 80 degrees F. before leaving the apartment for the day.  I will do my best to continue to do this, but the fact is, my principal motivation for doing so was thinking that I could reduce the very expensive cost of cooling an apartment in the hot DC summer.

Of course, as one of 400 units, my influence on electricity usage for the complex is small.   There is essentially no financial reason to avoid blasting the AC all day long.  It must be the case that how one consumes air conditioning has a large impact on how much one spends on air conditioning.  In fact, people who like Bikram Yoga could drive their air conditioning costs to nothing.

A Google search on the cost of individual metering implies that the cost of installing meters for electricity would be about $300-$500 per unit.  Summer electricity costs in my unit are about $100 per month, so if price incentives lead to a 10 percent saving, each unit could save about $60 per year on electricity (I am applying the savings to six months).  Beyond this, of course, energy use produces negative externalities, so the social benefit of metering would be greater than the private benefit. This implies the benefits of metering exceed the costs. [If I am completely wrong about either the cost of metering or the savings arising from it, I would be happy to hear about it].

So why don't landlords do this?  The answer might be that they can't get enough extra net rent from tenants to justify paying for metering.  The only private cost they bear is not being able to charge as much rent as they otherwise might.  It might be worth doing serious analysis to determine the social benefits of metering in the context of individual apartments, and whether such metering should consequently be subsidized.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Is Free Trade Good for Everyone?

Greg Mankiw implies that it is, and that all economists agree that it is.  But it actually isn't.  Who says so?  Economists.

In particular, the workhorse theory of International Trade, the Hecksher-Ohlin Theorem, leads to the Stolper-Samuleson Theorem, which shows that when countries start trading with each other, the relatively abundant factor of production in each country becomes better off, while the relatively scarce factor becomes worse off.   In the US context, this implies that opening up trade will leave capital better off relative to labor, and skilled labor better off relative to unskilled labor.

Does trade increase the total size of economies?  Yes--this is something that economists do agree on. But in the absence of redistribution--something that seems to be anathema to we Americans--more open trade will make low skilled laborers worse off.

In my ideal world, we would pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a potential [quasi]-trade agreement among the US and 11 other countries of the Pacific Rim, and redistribute its bounty such that everyone would be better off.  There is no evidence that our political system would allow this to happen.

Despite all this, I do and will continue to support trade agreements such as the TPP because that there is some evidence that they prevent wars.  Of course, as someone who has had nothing but good fortune in life, it is easy for me to think that the abstract prevention of war is more important than the tangible reduction in other people's already low wages.  

Thursday, March 12, 2015

LA has zoned itself out of the ability to house its residents (h/t Matthew Glesne)

Once upon a time, the zoning in Los Angeles would have allowed for 10 million residents to live within its municipal boundaries.  Greg Morrow, in his UCLA dissertation, "Homeowner Revolution: Democracy, Land Use and the Los Angeles Slow Growth Movement 1965-1992," documents how this was eroded over time:

So LA really did create a moat around itself and pulled up the drawbridge.  For those of us who think the blessings of cities should be shared widely, this is a shame.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

It is hard to feel urban form sometimes.

I have spent a fair amount of time in Sao Paulo over the past 3-4 years, and always thought it sprawled more than LA, because it takes forever to get from one side of the place to the other.  So was I surprised when I went to Google Earth and looked at both of them from the same elevation.

Here is LA:

Now here is SP:

It is far more compact.  Metro LA has about 18 million people; SP has about 20 million. But it takes about 2 hours to get from Santa Clarita in the west to San Bernardino in the east--the distance between the two is 85 miles; it can take four hours to go just 30 kilometers in SP.  Sao Paulo feels much larger to me.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Should Finance Departments Pay Pigou Taxes?

The purpose of this paper is to examine why financial sector growth harms real growth. We begin by constructing a model in which financial and real growth interact, and then turn to empirical evidence. In our model, we first show how an exogenous increase in financial sector growth can reduce total factor productivity growth.2 This is a consequence of the fact that financial sector growth benefits disproportionately high collateral/low productivity projects. This mechanism reflects the fact that periods of high financial sector growth often coincide with the strong development in sectors like construction, where returns on projects are relatively easy to pledge as collateral but productivity (growth) is relatively low.  
 Next, we introduce skilled workers who can be hired either by financiers to improve their ability to lend, increasing financial sector growth, or by entrepreneurs to improve their returns (albeit at the cost of lower pledgeability). We then show that when skilled workers work in one sector it generates a negative externality on the other sector. The externality works as follows: financiers who hire skilled workers can lend more to entrepreneurs than those who do not. With more abundant and cheaper funding, entrepreneurs have an incentive to invest in projects with higher pledgeability but lower productivity, reducing their demand for skilled labour. Conversely, entrepreneurs who hire skilled workers invest in high return/low pledgeability projects. As a result, financiers have no incentive to hire skilled workers because the benefit in terms of increased ability to lend is limited since entrepreneurs’ projects feature low pledgeability. This negative externality can lead to multiple equilibria. In the equilibrium where financiers employ the skilled workers, so that the financial sector grows more rapidly, total factor productivity growth is lower than it would be had agents coordinated on the equilibrium where entrepreneurs attract the skilled labour. Looking at welfare, we are able to show that, relative to the social optimum, financial booms in which skilled labour work for the financial sector, are sub-optimal when the bargaining power of financiers is sufficiently large. 
Maybe the lesson is that finance departments should subsidize physics/chemistry/engineering departments.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

One reason to worry about US inequality...it is really bad for our babies.

My colleague Alice Chen, along with Emily Oster and Heidi Williams, have a new paper that explains differences in the infant mortality rate in the United States and other OECD countries. Despite its affluence, the US ranks 51st in the world in infant mortality, which puts it at the same level as Croatia.

One reason the US performs poorly on the infant mortality measure actually reflects differences in measurement between it and other countries--babies born very prematurely in the United States are recorded as live births, but in other countries might be reported as miscarriages.  Because extremely premature babies have higher mortality rates, their inclusion in the US birth and mortality rate makes the US look relatively worse.

Nevertheless, when Chen, Oster and Williams control for reporting differences, and focus on microdata from the US, Austria and Finland, they find that the US continues to lag the others in terms of first year survival.  What is particularly interesting is that the difference between the US and other countries accelerates over the course of the first year of life--as neonatal threats recede, the position of the US worsened relative to Austria and Finland.

Here is where inequality comes in--if when Chen and co-authors look at children born to advantaged individuals (meaning married, college-educated and white) in the US, they survive at the same rates as their counterparts in Austria and Finland.  But the trio find that children of disadvantaged parents in the US have much lower survival rates than children of disadvantaged parents in the other countries.  This may well be because Europe's safety nets make the disadvantaged less disadvantaged.

(Dylan Matthews blogs on this paper also).