Wednesday, June 6, 2012

I'm changing blog titles.

New updates will now be found at Suspicious Heuristics. I think the name is a better fit (and much more fun to say!) All the old content will stay here to avoid confusion, but please join me at the new URL!

New legislation responding to old EU crisis

From BBC Business News on the status of Spain and a potential bail-out:
On Wednesday, the European Commission unveiled proposals designed to stop taxpayers' money being used to bail out failed banks.
The aim is to ensure losses are borne by bank shareholders and creditors and minimise costs for taxpayers.
However, new legislation is unlikely to come into force before 2014 at the earliest, too late to protect taxpayers from any further immediate bank failures.
"The proposal we have today may be only useful for the future but it does not solve the current problems we face," said Sharon Bowles, chair of the European Parliament's economic and finance committee.
There would be new requirements for countries to prepare for a bank collapse, collecting money through an annual levy on banks that would be used to provide emergency loans or guarantees.
Brilliant. The European Commission will have new laws on the books to prevent a redux of the EU crisis occurring again in the future... if the EU even still exists in the future.

It seems European politicians are acting as if their policies could apply retroactively, but even if these sort of reforms could have stopped the current crisis, that's no guarantee that future crises will look anything like the current one.

There's also the chance that this new legislation - "an annual levy on banks that would be used to provide emergency loans or guarantees" - will just add to the moral hazard problem and make excessive risk-taking by banks even more likely.

Responding to the last crisis is of great temptation to politicians, who must be "doing something" in order to satisfy their constituents, but this foolhardy rush to action may do more damage than good. Post-Enron accounting reforms have been blamed for making the U.S. financial crisis worse, and Europe could be reading a parallel story five years from now if these proposals go through.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Will Xbox Gold be Set Free? Doubt It.

This post today on Gizmodo, It’s Time for Xbox Live Gold to Be Free by Brian Barrett:
Why would I go to the club that has a cover charge when there are three right next door—each almost exactly identical—that'll let me in for free? Xbox 360 might offer great streaming, but it's also got a hell of a moat.
Yes, your Xbox Live Gold membership includes online gaming. And Microsoft is totally within its rights to charge for that; it's an added value experience unique to its ecosystem...
But the calculus has changed. Microsoft is so focused on making the Xbox the beating heart of your home theater, it's even convinced Comcast to stream its on-demand offerings through it. You can watch ESPN live, 24 hours a day, without ever signing out of your Xbox Live account. And when SmartGlass arrives later this year, you're going to route every piece of content you own through your Xbox.
All of which is wonderful. It's a beautiful future, and one that's never going to happen if Microsoft keeps a velvet rope up around all those wonderful services. It's frustrating enough to pay once for things that used to be free. Xbox Live Gold makes you pay twice.
So let's try this, Microsoft: Forget subsidizing a cheaper Xbox with a more expensive Xbox Live plan. Go ahead and charge a monthly fee for online gaming. Do it in Xbox Live points or yuan or mustard green bushels for all I care. But leave the services your customers are already paying good money for—and that every other set-top box serves up for them free—out of it.
A noble sentiment but not likely to happen. Looking at Microsoft's annual shareholder report tells the story.

In 2010, out of $62.4 billion in revenue, Microsoft took in $6.2 billion from their Entertainment and Devices Division, which includes the Xbox and Xbox gold. That same year, it was estimated that Xbox Gold subscriptions pulled in over $1 billion for Microsoft, or 1.6% of their overall revenue.

Sounds small in comparison to the total, but that Xbox Gold revenue matters a lot: operating and R&D costs to keep it running are relatively low compared to Microsoft's other divisions, I would guess. Also, revenue in the Entertainment and Devices Division grew by 40% between 2010 and 2011, much faster than any of Microsoft's other four divisions.

Don't expect Microsoft to kill the goose now that it's started laying golden eggs. Roku can try to compete with its cheaper offerings, but the Xbox still has a relatively slicker interface and better multimedia integration, so I don't think Microsoft is under much pressure.

Microsoft is also starting to offer Gold subscriptions at retail outlets rather than just online. All signs suggest that Xbox Gold is almost certain to stay a paid service.

Intrade and hedging your bets in life

The prediction market Intrade is a neat contribution to economics as well as everyday living. It offers odds on a variety of important world events occurring, and allows users to buy or sell "shares" in the occurrence of events (take a look at the site for details of how it functions).

If you're interested in knowing what the chance of some upcoming event is, go to Intrade and you can see what the market rates the odds as. It's better than listening to pundits because on Intrade, people are putting money where their collective mouths are.

The recall election of Governor Scott Walker is going on in Wisconsin as I type this. Ballots are yet to be counted and Intrade currently prices his chance of victory at 93.6%. I'm ignorant about the political climate in Wisconsin, but even so I can quickly see that it would be an extremely strange event for Walker to lose this recall.

There are more subtle benefits to be gained from Intrade besides just information. Mainstream economic models of consumer behavior predict that people want to equalize consumption across time; a stable income with minimal variance is most desirable. Another nice aspect of Intrade (although I suspect rarely taken advantage of) is smoothing consumption over time.

For people who are deeply concerned about the outcome of political events, this should be a great service.

For example: if you expect that a loss for Walker will cause fiscal crisis and collapse of civilization, you should bet against the possibility that he wins, so you'll have enough shotgun shells and canned beans to survive the oncoming apocalypse. If instead you think that Walker winning another term will bring about a neo-fascist corporate state and crush middle-class living standards, you should bet heavily that he wins so you can bribe your way out of the country. Either way, the option is there!

Realistically, few people likely think that the outcome of political contests will have such divergent results. If money was used to match political rhetoric, Intrade would have even more money and traffic flowing through than it does now (hopefully enough to keep the site open, unlike some past attempts at prediction markets).

Obesity: Class Warfare, Imperfect Information... or both?

Saw this on CNN today: Poor and fat: The real class war, by L.Z. Granderson. Some figures from the article:
Ground beef that is 80/20 is fattier but cheaper than 90/10. Ground turkey breast is leaner than the other two but is usually the more expensive. And many of us can't even begin to think about free-range chicken and organic produce -- food without pesticides and antibiotics that'll cost you a second mortgage in no time at all.
...The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recently published a study that found $1 could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips but just 250 calories of vegetables and 170 calories of fresh fruit. And it is also true that Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, is also the fattest.
In fact, the five poorest states are also among the 10 fattest, and eight of the 10 poorest states are also among the 10 with the lowest life expectancy.
I guess one could dismiss this as one big coincidence, but is it also a coincidence that half of the top 10 states with the highest median incomes are also in the top 10 in life expectancy?
I would interpret Granderson's argument as: low-income leads to unhealthy foods leads to fat (leads to more healthcare spending and even lower incomes). Looking at calorie counts compared to food prices does seem to support that. However, bringing some micro theory into the discussion complicates this causal story somewhat.

We can quantify the effect of income on food choices through this simplified model. Imagine two different families, both trying to fill a calorie requirement of 2000, but the low-income family has a food budget of $3 and the high-income family has a food budget of $10.

After plugging numbers into the formula above, the high-income family buys only 0.3 servings of potato chips and 9.7 servings of fruit, while the low-income family gets about 1.4 servings of potato chips and 1.6 servings of fruit.

The same intuition is expressed graphically below. Purchasing decisions are represented by points where the red and blue lines cross.

So far, so good: as one would expect, the high-income family buys more fruit and less potato chips than the low income family. One problem for this example, though, is that neither of these families will be gaining any weight!

If people only eat the necessary calories to keep an even weight, it won't matter whether their income is high or low. They'll just adjust their purchasing choices to get the right amount of calories. A dietitian might frown on you for eating chips as a snack instead of fruit, but as long as your consumption of chips is small, it won't necessarily cause you to gain weight.

It takes some extra assumptions to model over-eating. Maybe there's some property of potato chips that causes people to eat too much of them, i.e. what if someone buys potato chips thinking that a $1 serving will be 1200 calories, when it's actually equivalent to 1600 calories? Keeping with the numerical example above, the rich family would overeat by about 120 calories and the poor family by 560 calories.

It's only imperfect information or self-control problems which make food choices cause weight-gain. If we assume that low- and high-income types have exactly the same sort of bounded information, we'll find that the rich gain less weight, because their greater resources have them purchasing less unhealthy food to begin with.

This story gets even more pessimistic if there is some difference between low- and high-income people's capacity to overcome imperfect information. It might be that the poor have less time/energy to research and craft their diet than the rich do, so they are more prone to mistakes. Additionally, there could be some personal attribute - an impulsive nature or low conscientiousness - which both causes someone to have low income and also makes diet control more difficult.

While the costs of obesity are worth addressing given their heavy contribution to public healthcare spending, as Granderson rightly observes, the lens of class warfare isn't the best for understanding the problem.

Ultimately, to prevent obesity people need more incentive to monitor their own health. For me, it's knowing that on the current trajectory of public health care spending, there probably won't be any money left by the time I'm old and infirm. It doesn't entirely surprise that current beneficiaries of public health care are not too concerned about solving this spending problem for the rest of us (morbid fact: about a third of health care spending goes to patients in their last year of life). Which class is under attack, and which class is attacking anyway?

Maybe the obesity problem will resolve itself as young people make the calculations and figure they will likely be on their own, in terms of medical care, by the time it is most necessary. Or maybe the lure of potato chips is simply too great for us as a nation and will lead to our fiscal undoing.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Paycheck Fairness Act is anti-womens' employment

Scheduled to come to a vote in Congress tomorrow, the Paycheck Fairness Act is a bad solution to a statistically trumped-up problem.

The most frequently cited statistic is that women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. However, not all of that gap can be attributed to discrimination.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that comparing male and female full-time workers, men work more hours: 8.2 versus 7.8 hours per day, on average. Just assuming an exactly even hourly rate, we'd expect women to earn 95% of men's total on a yearly basis; however, there are also more women working part-time than men, widening the gap further. Men are also disproportionately likely to die from an injury on the job, as this chart shows.

Source: US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, and Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, 2012.
But put aside those statistical details. A gap in male-female wages undoubtedly remains, and some of it is probably due to gender-bias and discrimination. What does the Paycheck Fairness Act do to fix that?

The Act would strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which already requires similar workers be paid the same. The new legislation would expand the damages that women can claim in court, and give women more tools to sue their employers if discrimination is suspected.

The new law would result in effectively unlimited liability for a business sued for giving unequal pay. Put yourself in the shoes of a small business owner. Suppose you are considering hiring either a male or female employee for an entry-level position. Suddenly knowing that your business could be shut down if a court decides your payment to the woman is unfair, who would you be more inclined to hire?

Let's think of another group that has been "protected" by sweeping federal legislation. Persons with physical disabilities are given additional tort resources by the Americans with Disabilities Act if it's found that they were treated unfairly. A paper by Acemoglu and Angrist (2001), using reliable econometric techniques, found that employment of disabled people dropped substantially following the ADA's passage. Now, twenty years later, physically disabled persons are unemployed at record levels.

There are obvious weaknesses in the analogy between the Paycheck Fairness Act and Americans with Disabilities Act - women are a larger segment of the population, and aren't physically limited from doing most jobs - but a lesson remains. Creating new protected classes of workers is not always to that group's overall benefit.

Even well-intentioned laws may end up punishing businesses for hiring certain workers, which hurts both individuals and the economy as a whole. The Paycheck Fairness Act is almost certainly dead in the water; even without passage, its political purpose will have been achieved. But, if President Obama and the Democrats want to show they are helping women, a first step is to not shut them out of the labor market.

The Conservative/Libertarian Echo Chamber on Twitter

Lately I've noticed many many free market think tanks showing up on my "Suggested People to Follow" list on Twitter. I'm not sure if this is because the Twitter suggestion algorithm has improved to better reflect my interests, or these organizations have been beefing up their efforts in preparation for the electoral cycle, or some of both.

I was curious how many of these free market think tanks are following each other. So I used some social network analysis tools to plot out what those follower relationships look like. I was hoping to see a diverse cast of players, connected perhaps by region or common interests. What I got instead was a hairball.