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About once a month, I come across a Facebook post or online article that expresses a sentiment along the lines of “If you have more than $X million/billion dollars and you’re not giving it away to causes that benefit poor people, you are a bad person”. So I wanted to provide an economic perspective on this view by discussing the distinction between having a lot of money and spending a lot of money.
Let’s start with what “money” is. Given that the dollar bills and electronic money have no inherent value, the best way to think about money today is that it gives you the right to control a certain amount of society’s resources that are made available for sale – final goods, services, land, and so on. The more money you have, the more resources you have the right to control.
But of course, having the right to control resources and having the resources themselves is not the same thing. You don’t get the resources unless you hand over the appropriate amount of money. So the most obvious things a millionaire can decide to do with her money is to finance consumption – buy herself a yacht, an island, and a private jet, and hire herself a personal shopper. But if a millionaire used all her money in this way, she would no longer be a millionaire. Thus, the next question is, what happens to money and the corresponding resources if the millionaire doesn’t use her money for consumption?
The answer depends a bit on where the money is. If I earn a billion dollars and put it under my mattress as cash, no one else has access to the money, and it just sits there (and I have a very tall bed to sleep on). Fewer dollars are now circulating in the economy and because dollars themselves are not worth anything, eventually the price of controlling resources (i.e., of goods and services) will fall just a tiny bit. Quite a boring outcome.
But millionaires and billionaires typically don’t put their money under a mattress. More likely, the money is with financial services firms (including banks) that either keep the money safe or manage the money to try to earn the rich person a return on investment. What happens then? Well, the firm will keep a bit on hand to meet demands for deposits/redemptions and loan out/invest the rest. The individuals and firms who receive that money then decide what to do with it. Generally, financial firms try not to invest in someone else’s consumption, so the money recipients will probably use that money to control resources in a way that could lead to profits down the road. Maybe they start an online retailer, invest in developing a new drug, open a new restaurant, or simply expand their existing operations.
The idea is similar if the billionaire is the one investing in a firm directly – the resources that money can buy will be used by the recipients of the money for various purposes. Finally, if the financial services firm or the millionaire herself buys an existing financial asset from another individual or firm, we’re back to the initial situation where someone just got a bunch of money and has to decide what to do with it.
Why did I make you read through this boring discourse on where money can go? To point out that there is only one case where the rich person is definitely using up resources that otherwise could have benefitted someone less fortunate than him – when he uses his money to finance his own consumption. In the other cases, it’s less clear that the billionaire’s decisions are hurting disadvantaged people, because it depends on how the economy’s resources end up being used. Thus, you want to make the argument that merely having a lot of money and holding onto it is immoral, you also have to believe that the vast majority of investments that are being made today do not benefit poor people. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that rich people have much higher savings rates than the average person, which helps finance aggregate investment in the economy. And, at the very least, we need investment to offset depreciation of the economy’s productive factors. At best, investment helps us create new technology that improves lives.
To anticipate some criticism, I am not trying to argue that inequality is not a problem and that we as a society shouldn’t do anything about it. I only want to point out that a blanket shaming of rich people misses an important facet of what their money could be doing for the economy.
Moral of this post: if you want to criticize rich people for being immoral, you should criticize their consumption, not the mere fact that they have a lot of money.
Obviously, it’s been a while since I’ve blogged. As it turns out, I’m up for tenure review in two years, and with the publication lag being what it is (especially considering my historical rejection probabilities), I’ve been focusing on getting my working papers published. The good news is that it worked – three papers got accepted this year, and two more are under review. I finally get to work on analyzing new-ish data and putting together first drafts, which is my favorite part of the process.
I’ve also been working on Academic Sequitur (slowly but surely). We’re all set up to track new articles in 88 journals and working paper series, which is very exciting. (The website is still being built, but if you want to be notified when it’s ready for prime-time, sign up here). In the meantime, I’ve decided to post some fun facts about our current database. Keep in mind that this database isn’t representative of all research in economics/finance because we have more years of information for some journals. But for blogging purposes, it’s close enough!
First fun fact: the average econ/finance paper has 2.08 authors. About 29 percent of the papers have one author, 42 percent have two, 22 percent have three, and 5 percent have four. That covers 98.7 percent of papers. Then we get into crazy territory with papers that have 5, 10, or even 17 authors! And the record for the largest number of authors goes to…“Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Inventors (But Never Asked): Evidence from the PatVal-EU Survey” (a CEPR Discussion Paper from 2006). Let’s see if another paper comes along in the future to break that record.
Now let’s talk about the content of the articles themselves. If we don’t count word variations as unique words (“rate” and “rated”, “tax” and “taxes”, etc.), only count words that are used 3 times or more (even the internet has spelling errors!), and ignore very common English words like “the”, “I”, and “we”, the abstracts contain over 15,000 unique words. Out of these, what do you think is the most common word that economists use in their abstracts? It is…drum roll…“model”. How stereotypical, right? That is followed by (in order): “effect”, “paper”, “market”, “result”, “increase”, “country”, “policy”, “firm”, and “data”. Interestingly, “increase” is used almost 6 times more than “decrease” (which ranks 195th on the list). So maybe economics are not so dismal after all? Unless all these articles are about tax increases.
At this point, it would be pretty straightforward for us to release a product that lets you pick which journals, authors, and/or user-specified keywords you want to be notified about. But we’re going further and developing an algorithm that classifies articles into both broad subject areas (e.g., “Development economics”) and narrower topics (e.g., “credit constraints”). Text analysis is a difficult problem, especially when you’re dealing with text that’s not written in everyday English language (because there are fewer existing tools available to process the words). But we have a plan, and we’re confident that it will succeed! Shameless self-promotion over. Stay tuned.
Many charter schools appear to work quite well. Here are two quotes from two articles summarizing the research:
“sound research has shown that, when properly managed and overseen, well-run charter schools give families a desperately needed alternative to inadequate traditional schools in poor urban neighborhoods.” (NY Times, October 13, 2016)
“The briefest summary is this: Many charter schools fail to live up to their promise, but one type has repeatedly shown impressive results.” (NY Times, November 4, 2016)
Because in many cases admissions to charter schools is done through a lottery, assignment to charter schools is literally random, for students that apply. So the level of confidence in these results should be as high as it gets. There’s also no reason to think that the “one type” of charters that has shown significant results cannot be replicated elsewhere (in fact, it has). Then why do so many liberals appear to be against charter schools?
I don’t have a good answer to that question. Liberals’ resistance to charter schools in any way, shape or form reminds me of conservatives’ resistance to any gun control regulation. No matter what type of gun control legislation is proposed, their answer is always “this is a terrible idea”. They also frequently invoke a slippery slope argument – “first, the Democrats will impose more thorough background checks, next, they will take away all our guns”. My sense is that liberal voters see charter schools as a similar existential threat to public school funding. But just like in the case of gun control, to me that logic is very dubious.
We need more evidence-based education reform. Charter schools that have been shown to work seem worthy of our support. I agree with Sue Dynarski, a prominent economics of education scholar, who was quoted in the second article as saying “To me, it is immoral to deny children a better education because charters don’t meet some voters’ ideal of what a public school should be. Children don’t live in the long term. They need us to deliver now.”
I’ve been getting increasingly frustrated with how hard it is to keep up with new research. At some point after starting my job, I subscribed to table of contents emails for the top five + a few other econ journals. Then I noticed that, once in a while, I would see a newly published article in my research area that I had never heard about. Given that it typically takes at least 1-2 years to publish a paper in economics and that drafts are widely available as working papers, that was not a good sign.
To try to remedy that problem, I then subscribed to two working paper series: NBER and SSRN. But even that didn’t seem good enough. In environmental economics, there are plenty of good researchers who are not part of the NBER (and thus can’t release their working papers that way) and do not use SSRN. But how could I possibly remember to check all of their websites once in a while to see new papers? On top of that, my inbox was getting bombarded with abstracts of many irrelevant papers, and I was wasting a lot of my already precious time sorting through them to figure out which ones I should read.
I looked to see if there was anything out there that could help me stay up to date efficiently and sanely. I won’t bore you with the details, but places like Research Gate, Google Scholar, Mendeley, RePEc, and others fell far short of what I was looking for. So I decided to build it myself (or, more accurately, hire a programmer to build it for me) and in the process also create a tool for others who may be having the same problem. I’m calling it “Academic Sequitur”.
The idea is simple: Academic Sequitur will be a one-stop shop where you can create a “portfolio” of research to follow, whether it’s research in a specific journal, on a specific topic, or by a specific researcher. We’re starting with economics and finance but depending on how things go, we may expand to other disciplines. A beta version will be available in about 6 months, so stay tuned! And if you want to be notified of when Academic Sequitur comes out or have any other thoughts, let me know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This is based on a true story, but I may have changed some details like field of study and gender to protect the student’s anonymity)
Shortly after Trump got elected president, a student made an appointment to talk to me. She was in the last year of her finance degree and had a good job lined up, but was doubting whether she should continue with her life plan in light of the election. She realized that she wanted to make a difference in the world and a career path in finance didn’t seem like a good way to do so. Instead, she was considering going to work for a women’s reproductive rights organization (I definitely changed this detail, but it roughly captures the spirit of this student’s desires).
I told her to consider sticking to finance and donating a large part of her salary to her favorite organization. Why? Because individuals who hold high-paying jobs can often make a lot more of a difference this way. Her starting finance salary would have been probably at least $120,000 a year. If she left finance and went to work for the non-profit, she would make at best $40,000 a year. But what if she donated $80,000 of her finance salary to the non-profit instead? Well, the non-profit could hire TWO people like her and she would still earn $40,000 per year, as much as she would have at the non-profit.
Of course, there are some caveats to this. She would probably have to work longer hours in finance and maybe she would enjoy it less than the non-profit job. So to stay indifferent between the two, maybe she would donate “only” $50,000. Still, the organization might prefer having that money to having her work there, especially if she didn’t have any special training.
That brings me to the second piece of advice I gave her. If, after considering the high-paying-job-plus-donations option, she still thought going into the non-profit world was better, I advised her to think about positions in non-profits where her finance training would be useful. For example, if she wanted to help low-income women, perhaps she could get involved with an organization that provides financial training to disadvantaged women or manage a non-profit’s endowment. Even though that may not have been her first choice, it would probably be more valuable to society.
So as we sit here wondering, “What the f*** do I do now?”, consider whether your salary allows you to make a substantial donation to the many organizations out there fighting the good fight. If you’re a student, don’t feel like you have to drop everything and become a full-time activist (though you should still call your Congressman once in a while and follow the non-alternative news!). First, sit down and think about how much money you can generate for your favorite organization by not working for them. Alternatively, consider which causes your skills could be useful for – a lawyer going to work for ACLU is a lot more useful than a lawyer going to build houses for Habitat for Humanity.
To be clear, I am not saying that you should take a job you find immoral or incredibly unpleasant. There is ultimately nothing wrong with leaving (or not taking) a high-paying job where you don’t feel like you’re making a difference for a low-paying job where you feel like you do. And of course we need people actually working at organizations like ACLU or Planned Parenthood (yes, I’m shamelessly promoting my favorite ones). But these organizations need money too, and if you face a high opportunity cost of joining them full-time (i.e., your salary is or will be high), consider giving them your money instead. You might not get the same pat on the back from your activist friends, but I promise you that you will be making a big difference!
For the longest time, I didn’t say anything about my views on gun control publicly. I dislike prolonged Facebook arguments where people seem to be speaking past each other. But, meh, you only have one life to live, and I don’t want to keep my mouth shut for all of it.
So here goes: dear people who say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, do you really think that someone could do just as much damage with a knife/axe/sword/crossbow or your other weapon of choice? If you yourself had to face an attacker, would you rather have it be someone with a knife/axe/sword/crossbow or a gun? No one is saying that ONLY guns kill people, but they sure as hell make it a lot easier. Also, maybe restaurants shouldn’t give people forks and knives? After all, forks and knives don’t eat the food, people eat the food.
And people who say “limiting gun access would only hurt law-abiding citizens; the criminals will get their guns somewhere else”, I hope you support full legalization of all drugs and free access to prescription drugs, including opiate painkillers. Because in your world, if it’s just as easy for a criminal to get an illegal gun as a legal one, the same logic should apply to drugs, right? But I suspect most who are so vehemently against any additional restrictions on guns don’t have the same view about drugs.
I’m not saying we should ban guns. In fact, I don’t know what the optimal gun policy looks like, but there are plenty of experts out there who have some good ideas. But what I’m sure about is that there is definitely a way to reduce gun violence through more gun control and saying there isn’t is either dishonest or stupid or both (ok, the other alternative is that you’re a nihilist). Resisting more gun control at all costs is simply irresponsible. That is all.
Inevitably, there comes an election cycle where people start talking about moving to Canada if Candidate X wins the race. Of course, this is mostly an expression of a dislike for a candidate rather than a serious intention. As far as I can tell, there was no statistical increase in out-migration to Canada when Bush Jr. won, for example.
Now Candidate X is Donald Trump, and I think it’s time for me to finally speak up and say “Shut up about moving to Canada and do something useful instead!” Talking about moving to Canada is about as lazy as you can get in helping avoid this outcome. So instead of making that your next Facebook post, go and convince someone else not to vote for Donald Trump. As much as you hate to admit it, you very likely know people who will vote for him if you don’t do something about it. Don’t believe? Go ask your friends who they’re planning on voting for. Eventually, you will find at least one person who will say (maybe hesitatingly) “Donald Trump.”
The next thing to say to such a person is not “How could you possibly be so stupid?” or “Our friendship is over!” even if that’s what you’re thinking. What you should do next is find out why that person thinks Donald Trump is the best option this country has and listen to the answer. Don’t assume that anyone who’s willing to vote for Trump is crazy or racist – they may be, but telling them that won’t convince them not to vote for Trump. Instead, engage in a discussion with them about whether their reasons for voting for Trump are justified. Tell them why you’re not voting for Trump and why you think he’s the wrong choice for America in general (other than “He’s an orange-faced idiot”). Help them see that voting for Trump is not in their best interest. Yes, this is a lot harder than lamenting the sad state of American politics, threatening to move to Canada, and calling Trump supporters names. But it’s also a lot more productive. You might even learn something along the way!
To give you some ideas, I will tell you why I think Trump is the absolutely the wrong choice. To keep my posts from getting too long, I’ll do one reason per post. So today will be reason #1 why no one should vote for Donald Trump: we should not let anyone with absolutely no political experience be President, regardless of how smart they are, how much money they’ve made, or how good their ideas are. We don’t let pilots straight out of flight school fly international jetliners – they have to fly regional jets for a while. No one gets to build a house or a bridge until they’ve built something smaller – again, no matter how brilliant they are. Anyone who wants to be President should first do something easier – Congressman, governor, even city mayor. It’s too important of a job to trust to someone completely inexperienced at that particular job.
I know that one of the reasons people support Trump is because they’re tired of politicians’ crap. I very much sympathize with that sentiment. But the solution to that is to look for better politicians, not to take a chance on someone who has never held political office. The better politicians are out there and they can rise to the top. We put the current ones in charge and we can replace them. But let’s start from the bottom up and not the top. Too many lives are at stake to let inexperienced pilots fly 500-person planes; too many lives are affected by the US President for us to pick someone who has no experience governing.
One of my colleagues recently put up a story on her door that can be summarized by the quote "Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions". I can certainly relate to that sentiment. I learned how to make most of the good decisions I make the hard way (and some from watching others make good/bad decisions). But the main reason I want to share this quote is because I think, among many things, it applies to doing research in economics. In particular, I can attest that "Doing good research comes from experience, and experience comes from doing bad research"; "Writing good papers comes from experience, and experience comes from writing bad papers"; and "Making good presentations comes from experience, and experience comes from making bad presentations."
A related sentiment that one of my MIT professors expressed when I was in grad school is that you have to give X bad presentations before you start giving good presentations and you have to write X bad papers before you start writing good papers (X was not specified; I suspect that it's a lot higher for me than it was for that professor). The moral of this is that you should start writing papers and presenting ASAP so you can make it through the bad ones and get to the good ones!
This is a completely unproven and untested theory, which is why it's in a blog post and not a paper (and maybe there already is a paper).
Result: If you don't account for the fact that you would have gotten better without doing anything, almost anything you try will appear to improve your health (e.g., eating soup/lemons/capers, standing on your head, applying a warm compress to your back, etc).
I'm guilty of this myself. It's very tempting to think that some weird remedy "worked", but you have to ask yourself whether you would have felt better anyway.
Ever since a class I took in college, I've been skeptical about whether organic fruits and vegetables are better for you in any meaningful way. What happened in that class? The professor pointed out that the term "organic" does not mean that the produce was grown with no pesticides or herbicides; only that it was grown with non-man-made ones. But surely that's better than synthetic pesticides and herbicides? Maybe. Nature has produced some pretty toxic crap (think of all the plants out there that are poisonous to humans). It's not clear that being restricted to a subset of chemicals (i.e., ones approved for organic farming) will mean that organic food ends up covered with less harmful ones. Indeed, the best available evidence, summarized here, is that organic isn't necessarily better for you.
I think it's entirely appropriate to worry about the pesticide and herbicide levels in our food. But the organic label is at best a distraction because the distinction between man-made and natural chemicals is quite meaningless. At worst, it's harmful because it leads people to believe that they can avoid the negative impacts of chemicals by eating organic. What we really need is a way to know what was sprayed on the food we're eating and how much. Unfortunately, as long as people believe that "organic" = "healthy", that's unlikely to happen.