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Mind the gap: Economics is catching up to the fact that we’re not always rational

Mind the gap: Economics is catching up to the fact that we’re not always rational

Do Tube strikes make Londoners better off?

At first sight, the question is simply absurd. The answer is surely “no”.

But a paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics comes to the opposite conclusion. Cambridge economist Shaun Larcom and his colleagues analysed the two-day strike of February 2014.

They obtained detailed travel information on nearly 100,000 commuters for days before, during, and after the strike.

A key feature of the strike is that nearly half the stations remained open. So most commuters could experiment with routes different to the ones they normally use.

The project may seem barking mad. But it investigates an important issue in economic theory.

Richard Thaler’s recent Nobel Prize for behavioural economics received a lot of publicity. Behavioural economics looks for examples of people making decisions in ways which deviate from those predicted by the rational choice model of economics.

A criticism from the mainstream is that deviations might indeed be observed at a point in time. But over time, they will disappear as people learn to be rational and make the best decision.

The Tube network remains the same for long periods of time. Commuters have many opportunities to learn about it. So almost all of them should use the quickest possible route to work. If someone has just moved jobs or homes, there may be a short period of adjustment. But everyone else ought to have learned the best way to travel.

Yet Larcom and his colleagues find that a significant fraction of London commuters fail to find their optimal routes. They come to this conclusion by comparing the journeys of the people in their data set before and after the strike.

Of course, for many journeys the best route is trivially easy to discover. If you live in Richmond and work in Hammersmith, there is only the District Line. Other journeys have more options. Larcom notes that there are 13 potential ways to travel between Waterloo and King’s Cross.

The authors point out that many decisions faced by consumers are more complex and less repetitive than the commuter problem they analyse. So, in an excellent example of jargon, they state that “our estimate of suboptimal habits may be a lower bound to the problem in other contexts”.

In other words, systematic and persistent deviations from rational choice are an important feature of the real world.

Economists of course like to value everything, and there is a standard way of valuing time. The academics estimate that the time gains subsequently achieved by those who switched routes outweighed the time losses incurred by everyone else during the strike. So Londoners were better off as a result of the strike.

Bizarre though it may seem, the article is a good example of how economics is becoming much more empirical when thinking about individuals’ behaviour and less reliant on pure theory.

As published in City AM Wednesday 15th November 2017

Image: Underground by By Elliott Brown is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Embarrassing academic reversals show expert opinions are often built on sand

Embarrassing academic reversals show expert opinions are often built on sand

Last week we saw yet another major reversal of opinion by experts. For years we have all been lectured severely on the need to finish every single course of prescription drugs.

But the latest wisdom is that this is not necessary.

The announcement that petrol and diesel cars will be banned by 2040 only serves to remind the millions of diesel car owners that they were told only a few years ago that diesel was a Good Thing.

These stories have been very prominent in the media. But they are by no means isolated examples. Such reversals of opinion are all too common in the softer social and medical sciences. The “evidence base”, a phrase beloved of metropolitan liberal experts, is often built on sand.

This is neatly illustrated by psychology. Science is probably the most prestigious scientific journal in the world. At the end of 2015, a group of no fewer than 270 authors published a paper in it. They were all part of the teams which had published 100 scientific articles in top psychology journals.

In only 16 out of the 100 cases could the experimental results be replicated sufficiently closely to be confident that the original finding was valid.

The papers had been published in top psychology journals, and the original authors were involved in the replication experiment. So the replication rate should have been high.

Instead, it was so low that the lead author of the Science piece points out that they effectively knew nothing. The original finding could be correct, the different result in the attempted replication could be. Or neither of these could be true.

There is no suggestion at all that any sort of fraud or misrepresentation was involved when the original results were submitted for publication. But economic theory helps us understand how this absurd situation came about.

The great insight of economics is that people react to incentives.

Academics now face immense pressure to publish research papers. If they do not, they get more burdensome teaching loads, miss out on promotions, and might even get sacked. Their incentive is to publish.

Academic journals will only very rarely accept a paper which contains negative results. The whole culture is to find positive ones. So experiments will be re-designed, run with different samples, until that sought-after positive finding is obtained.

More and more academics are now desperate to publish more and more research papers. To meet this increase in demand, there has been a massive increase in the supply of journals willing to publish. Many of these are highly dubious, prepared to accept papers on payment of a fee by the authors.

For all except a small elite of individuals and institutions, academic life has become increasingly proletarianised. In the old Soviet Union, workers could get medals for exceeding the quota of, say, boot production. It did not matter if all the boots were left footed.

Many universities are now similar, with useless articles being churned out to meet the demands of bureaucrats. Time for a big purge, both of academics and their institutions.

As published in City AM Wednesday 2nd August 2017

Image: Sand Castle by Gregor is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Sorry Corbyn, consumers aren’t as sold on nationalisation as you’d like to think

Sorry Corbyn, consumers aren’t as sold on nationalisation as you’d like to think

One of the most remarkable features of the Conservative election campaign was the dog which did not bark.

There was no systematic attempt to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s wholly implausible economic narrative. Magic Money Tree comments aside, Labour’s economic incompetence was allowed to pass almost unchallenged.

One part of Labour’s economic offer which really did strike a chord with the electorate was the promise to nationalise industries such as rail and water. To anyone with direct experience of the old British Rail or the Post Office (which made you wait six months to get a phone installed) this almost defies belief. But only those over 55 can remember.

The fact is that for a number of years there has been strong and consistent support in surveys for taking industries such as rail into public ownership.

In 2013, for example, the moderate Labour website Labour List commissioned an analysis by the poll company Survation. In terms of rail nationalisation, 42 per cent thought fares would be cheaper, compared to only 12 per cent who thought they would go up. Those believing the quality of the services would improve easily outnumbered those who thought it would get worse, by 38 to 14 per cent. There are many similar examples.

Economists are pretty dismissive of the results of surveys about hypothetical situations or choices. A key foundation of economic theory is the concept of revealed preference, to use the jargon phrase. Individuals are assumed to have reasonably stable tastes and preferences. These preferences are revealed not through answers to hypothetical questions, but through how they actually respond to changes in the set of incentives which they face.

In the National Passenger Survey, for example, 80 per cent of respondents routinely express satisfaction with their journey, compared to fewer than 10 per cent who are dissatisfied. But how does this translate into actual decisions?

Prior to rail privatisation just after the 1992 election, the peak number of passenger journeys made each year was some 1.1bn in the mid-1950s. Faced with rapidly rising road competition, the rail industry saw journeys fall steadily, to a trough of around 750m in the mid-1990s.

After privatisation, massive investment programmes have been carried out and, in the form of the train operating companies, there is now a distinct part of the industry whose priority is the consumer. Journey numbers rose, passing the 1bn mark in 2003, to the current level of 1.7bn, a figure not seen since the early 1920s, when road competition was weak.

So the revealed preference of consumers seems to be that they rather like the current structure. They actively choose to use rail in massive numbers.

Rather like a good Party member in George Orwell’s book 1984, the electorate seems capable of believing two contradictory things at the same time. This reinforces the importance of narratives in politics. Trying to treat voters as rational agents often ends in tears, as both Cameron and May have discovered.

As published in City AM Wednesday 14th June 2017

Image: Jeremy Corbyn by Garry Knight is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Labour’s plans add up on paper, but that won’t translate to the real world

Labour’s plans add up on paper, but that won’t translate to the real world

The two main manifestos have been published. Initially at least, the Labour one seems the more popular. Many people are susceptible to being bribed with other people’s money.

Labour claims that their plans to spend an additional £49 billion have been fully costed. At one level, this is true. A set of tax changes and estimates of the additional revenue they will bring is presented. These numbers do add up to the same sum as the extra spending.

It would be pure nit picking to ask where the money is to come from to pay for the nationalisation of the rail, water and mail industries. Labour says the shareholders would receive government bonds in exchange for their equity. This extra borrowing would foot the bill.

Perhaps it would be even more trivial and tendentious to draw attention to the proposed National Transformation Plan, which will spend an extra £250 billion over ten years on infrastructure. This, too, would be financed by additional government borrowing.

After all, Labour says: “we will take advantage of near-record low interest rates”. Indeed, longer term UK government bonds are currently trading at a yield of around 1 to 1.5 per cent.

But this is the essence of the problem. In economics-speak, the bond yield may not be invariant to the size of the deficit. In English, if borrowing rises sharply, interest rates might also go up.

Keynes is often regarded as the intellectual inspiration of those who want to see government borrowing increased. He himself was far more cautious. True, in his magnum opus the General Theory, he did advocate higher government spending to try and solve the depression of the 1930s. But he was very careful to point out that the potential benefits of a bigger deficit could be cancelled out if, as a result, interest rates rose sharply.

This is not a mere theoretical abstraction. In the Mediterranean economies in recent years, interest rates have regularly risen to 6 or 7 per cent, and sometimes higher still, in one of the many crises in confidence in government prudence which have taken place. The idea that Labour could borrow hundreds of billions of pounds with no consequence for interest rates is stretching credibility to breaking point.

More generally, the whole of Labour’s manifesto is costed on the naive assumption that tax and spending changes would not lead to any changes in how individuals and companies behave.

An additional £23 billion is planned from the corporate sector. It is possible that the tax will be passed onto consumers and this amount will be raised. But it may well be that companies will be deterred from operating in the UK at all, and corporation tax receipts will fall rather than rise.

Ex-President Hollande in France raised the top tax rate to 75 per cent. As a result, large numbers of highly skilled young French people moved to London.

The Left is very good at drawing up well intentioned detailed plans. But they usually fail because people change their behaviour in response to them.

As published in City AM Wednesday 24th May 2017

Image: Labour Party General Election Launch 2017 by Sophie Brown is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Economists have lost the public’s trust by meddling in politics

Economists have lost the public’s trust by meddling in politics

Michael Gove famously said during the Brexit campaign that people “have had enough of experts”. Certainly, the outcome suggests that many were sceptical of the doom-laden economic projections of Project Fear.

But what do the public think about economists themselves? An intriguing survey released last week by ING bank and the Bristol University Economics Network sheds light on how this particular group of experts is viewed. The findings were presented at a seminar held in the Treasury last week.

Some key results were reassuringly as expected. For example, an overwhelming majority of respondents, in the poll conducted by You Gov, think that economics is important.

There is a widespread misconception of what economists actually do. A great deal of media focus on economics is about macro economic forecasts, what will happen to GDP, inflation, interest rates and the like. In fact, very few academic economists work on forecasting problems, and even within the Treasury and the Bank of England, the teams directly involved with this are small.

Most economists work on micro problems, trying to figure out, for example, the impact of changing tax rates on incentives, or trying to assess the costs and benefits of an infrastructure problem.

In principle this is useful work. But, regrettably, the survey did not disclose to the respondents just how many economists are employed in the public sector. In 1964, the incoming Labour government of Harold Wilson doubled the number of economists in the civil service from six to twelve.

Now there are 1,400, not counting those working in the Bank of England and the numerous regulatory authorities. Much of the expansion took place under Gordon Brown. It is hard to believe that diminishing marginal returns, to use a jargon economics phrase, have not set in. In plain English, there are far too many of them.

An important feature of the survey is that there is a big problem of trust in the opinions of economists. This is particularly the case with older people and with Leave voters. Many believe that economists express views based on personal and apolitical opinion than on verifiable data and analysis.

A striking illustration of this is of course Brexit itself. It cannot be said too often that the Treasury forecasts of the consequences of a Leave vote predicted a massive rise in unemployment of 500,000 by the end of 2016. It has of course fallen.

At least 90 per cent of professional economists in the UK supported the Remain campaign. Some brave souls in university departments who favoured Leave found themselves virtually ostracised. The shameful attacks on Leave voters, accusing them of being dupes and incapable of understanding the arguments, are based on the misplaced intellectual certainty of the economics mainstream on this topic.

Economics is far from being an empty box, and it can usefully illuminate many practical problems. But the profession needs to be more honest with the public. Some parts of the discipline do have strong empirical backing. Others seem based more on groupthink than on objective science.

As published in City AM Wednesday 10th May 2017

Image: Big Ben from London Eye by Zen Whisk is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Don’t believe the myths: Capitalism has performed well since the financial crisis

Don’t believe the myths: Capitalism has performed well since the financial crisis

Ten years ago, the financial crisis began to grip the Western economies. During the course of 2007, GDP growth slowed markedly everywhere. By the end of 2008, output was in free fall.

A key theme in economic commentary is the sluggishness of the subsequent recovery of the developed economies.

The picture is not quite as bad as it is usually painted. True, last week the Office for National Statistics announced a dip in UK growth in the first quarter of this year. But from 2009, the trough of the recession, to 2016, GDP growth averaged 2.0 per cent a year.  Not exactly a stellar performance. But from 1973, the year prior to the major oil price shock, to 2007, the British economy expanded by just 2.3 per cent a year on average. The contrast between the two periods in the US is slightly greater. From 1973 to 2007, growth averaged 3.0 per cent a year, and since 2009 it has been 2.1 per cent.

There is a very stark contrast with the experience of the 1930s, the last time there was a global financial crisis. This time is different, things have only got better. The recovery may be slower than desirable, but it has been much more widespread than in the years following the Great Depression of the 1930s.

A decisive indicator is the length of time it took not just for growth to resume, but for the previous peak level of GDP to be regained.  So in the UK, for example, the economy started to grow again in 2010. But it was not until 2013 that there had been enough growth for the economy to get back to its 2007 size.

Looking at a group of 18 developed economies, which includes all the main and medium sized ones, GDP had regained its previous peak within 3 years in no fewer than 8 of them. By 2016, everyone in the group except Finland, Italy and Spain had a GDP which exceeded its previous peak.

Three years after output began to fall in 1930, not a single economy had managed to regain its 1929 level of output. Even by 1938, output was below its 1929 level in Austria, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain.

Perhaps Keynes’ most powerful insight was why the slump was so prolonged. He developed the concept of “animal spirits”, which are not a mathematically based prediction of the future, but the sentiment of the narratives which companies form about the future. He wrote: “the essence of the situation is to be found in the collapse of animal spirits…. this may be so complete that no practicable reduction in the rate of interest will be enough.”

Zero interest rates and low growth! Keynes got there before us.

Still, capitalism has performed much better in the aftermath of the financial crisis of the late 2000s than it did in the crisis of the early 1930s. Animal spirits may not be buoyant, but they are in much better shape than in the 1930s.

As published in City AM Wednesday 2nd May 2017

Image: Day 20 Occupy Wall Street by David Shankbone is licensed under CC by 2.0
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