Paste your Google Webmaster Tools verification code here

A tip for Dominic Cummings: Don’t hire anyone who fails to grasp the power of incentives

A tip for Dominic Cummings: Don’t hire anyone who fails to grasp the power of incentives

The job advert issued by Dominic Cummings for people to work in government has attracted a wide range of comments. One particular focus has been on the sorts of skills he is looking for.

Computer science, forecasting, artificial intelligence, causality theory — all these topics excite his interest. Cummings advocates a small selection of scientific papers with which applicants should be familiar. He believes that humanities graduates are unlikely to be aware of them.

The papers are indeed quite challenging mathematically. Even the smartest arts graduate might struggle to cope with their content simply because of the language — maths — in which they are written.

The implication is that those with expertise in the humanities need not apply. Indeed, economics is conspicuous by its absence from the now notorious reading list.

I can empathise with his focus on the hard sciences. But economics does have one very powerful, general insight into behaviour that Cummings should heed. In fact, everyone — whether working in the civil service, think tanks or university social science departments — should be familiar with it.

It is, quite simply, that agents respond to incentives. When the set of incentives faced by an individual, a company, or a government changes, behaviour changes too. Different decisions are made as a result.

Two snippets of recent news, chosen almost at random, can illustrate the power of the concept.

Beggars have started to travel from Glasgow to Carlisle to ply their trade. In Scotland, the penalty for aggressive begging is up to a year in jail and a £5,000 fine. In England, it is only a £1,000 fine. These facts are sufficient to explain why Carlisle has become more attractive.

On a note that will be more relevant to most people, more than a million people a month now fail to turn up for GP appointments. From June to November last year, a record 7.8m patients did not attend.

This bad behaviour imposes extra costs on the NHS and makes it more difficult for people who really need to see a GP to get appointments.

A simple solution is to charge for visits to the GP surgery. It would not eliminate the problem, but it would make a big difference.  Once having paid, people would be much more likely to turn up.

Any proposal to introduce charges in the NHS causes the left to froth at the mouth. The standard argument is that charges would deter poor people from accessing healthcare.

It does not seem to do so in countries such as Ireland and Sweden. Both charge people to see their doctors. The impact is mitigated in the former by an annual cap on charges, and in the latter low-income people can visit for free. Other EU countries have similar schemes — in France, the principle of health services is pay upfront, get reimbursed later.

It is not necessary to believe that people act in a completely rational way all the time. They obviously don’t. But incentives work. Empirical examples of the principle can be found every day, in every situation.

A simple, sensibly designed set of incentives is worth a tonne of regulation. A clear understanding of this principle should be the key thing Cummings considers when hiring a new set of government “weirdos” to shake up the civil service.

As published in City AM Wednesday 15th January 2020
Image: Trending Topics via Flickr licensed for use CC BY 2.0
Read More

The balance between wages and capital is shifting – rent seekers had better beware

The balance between wages and capital is shifting – rent seekers had better beware

The first column of a new year is the time for a prediction.

By far the hardest part of forecasting is to identify tipping points. The success rate of calling a break in an established trend is very low.

Accompanied by suitable health warnings, 2018 looks like the year in which the longstanding relationship between capital and labour looks set to change.

The use of the words “capital” and “labour” does not mean that the two are antagonistic in the Marxist sense. Once a country has properly embraced capitalism, there is not a single instance of it ever being abandoned. And “labour” in particular is a very mixed category indeed, covering both university vice chancellors and the people who clean their offices at night.

But it is a useful simplification to describe the players in the evolutionary game of how to divide national income between profits and wages or salaries.

Over the past three decades or so, capital has been winning. The share of profits in national income across the west has risen, and the share of wages has fallen.

The reaction of a number of major companies to President Donald Trump’s cut in corporation tax rate from 35 per cent to 21 per cent suggests that the game is turning.

Almost immediately, firms like AT&T and Boeing announced special bonuses for their workforces. Even the banks got in on the act, with Wells Fargo, for example, raising its hourly minimum wage 11 per cent, to $15 from $13.50. Additionally, the bank plans to donate $400m to community and non-profit organizations in 2018.

The share of wages in American GDP has already started to stabilise. Since 2014, there have been no further falls. Short-term trends like this can be misleading, but for four years the wage share has been constant.

More generally, the surge towards greater globalisation which has characterised recent decades seems to have halted.

Strong political blocs have grown in the west that share a dislike of the liberal, open border consensus which has done so much to hold down the real wages of the less skilled.

The election of Trump is the obvious example. We see it in the vote on Brexit. We see it in the hostility to the free movement of labour shown by governments in Eastern Europe.

On a more parochial level, scrutiny of the “emoluments” (“pay” is too vulgar a word for these panjandrums to use) of chief executives and vice chancellors is intensifying on almost a daily basis.

There is very little resentment of monies made by those who are perceived to have earned it by their personal skill and effort. Entrepreneurs and footballers alike are held in high regard in this respect.

In contrast, there is distinct antagonism towards rent seekers: those at the top who get paid not on their merits, but merely on the basis of the position they hold.

The balance of forces is shifting. Smart politicians and business people should pay close attention during the coming year.

As published in City AM Wednesday 3rd January 2018

Image: Tightrope by Tom A La Rue is licensed under CC by 2.0
Read More

There’s a difference between priceless and worthless, but economics can’t measure it

There’s a difference between priceless and worthless, but economics can’t measure it

The so-called “productivity puzzle” just does not go away.

The October, employment figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) brings it into focus.

The number of people in work rose to a new record high of 32.1m, with an increase of around one per cent compared to a year ago.

Total output, measured by GDP, continues to rise, but modestly. We do not yet have official estimates for the year to October, but GDP seems to be up by some 1.5 per cent.

Productivity is defined as output per worker, so it is only around 0.5 per cent higher than a year ago. No scientific consensus has yet emerged to explain why productivity growth continues to be so low.

But there is increasing evidence that the rate of growth of output is being systematically underestimated.

The economy cannot be put in a set of scales and measured. Its size has to be estimated, and the ONS uses a wide variety of methods to do this.

The fundamental problem is that the foundations for estimating GDP were built in the 1930s and 1940s, when the economy was dominated far more by manufacturing. Measuring how many things have been produced is inherently easier than measuring services.

The ONS does not stand still, and tries to take account of the massive changes in the economy which have taken place. But the rise of the internet economy brings entirely new problems to solve.

A key one is what the futurologist Alvin Toffler many years ago called the “prosumer” sector.

Traditionally, products are developed and sold by companies, and consumed by, well, consumers.

In the prosumer sector, consumers themselves participate in the production and development of products and services.

A good example is the statistical package R. This is open source, and freely and readily downloadable by anyone.

In recent years, R has become the package of choice for young scientists in a wide range of disciplines around the world. They both use it, and contribute to its development by uploading their own algorithms.

A huge range of routines can be downloaded. Its graphics features are amazing. Software is appearing on it that has the potential to take on commercial giants such as Word and Powerpoint.

It has become a very valuable tool for scientific research, using the word “valuable” in its every day sense of the word. But it is run by a small not-for-profit foundation, so in ONS terms its value is close to zero.

The problem is that R is what economic theory describes as a “public good”.

This jargon phrase applies to anything where anyone can consume it, and where the supply never runs out. No matter how many people use R, it is always available for the next person.

For most goods and services, this is just not true. When I put my swimming towel on the pool lounger, it is no longer available to you.

The prosumer sector creates a lot of output. But economics has not yet solved the question of how to value public goods.

As published in City AM Wednesday 8th November 2017

Image: Vintage Scales by Public Domain Pictures is licensed under CC by 0.0
Read More

Full employment in Britain has lowered productivity instead of increasing wages

Full employment in Britain has lowered productivity instead of increasing wages

The UK jobs market is booming, as the latest ONS figures show. Unemployment is at its lowest for over 40 years. A record 32.1 million people are in employment, a rise of over 3 million since the financial crisis.

Apart from in a few scattered pockets, Britain is at full employment. Usually in such circumstances, wages would start to outpace inflation. Labour shortages would lead employers to start bidding for workers, who would themselves feel more confident about demanding pay increases.

Perhaps this is starting to happen, with the TUC voting for a campaign to raise public sector wages by 5 per cent.

But a combination of immigration and a concerted government campaign to get people off benefits means that the supply of labour has risen sharply. This holds down the price of labour, the wage, in the bottom half of the labour market.

Instead, full employment manifests itself in different ways. A few anecdotes might illustrate the key points.

I recently bought a new phone, which has proved to have an intermittent fault. The Richmond branch of EE advertises both on the internet and on its doors that it opens at 9.30am. I turned up at 9.40 to find the place in darkness. I went to another EE branch, where a listless young woman informed me that she could not replace it. I asked what she could do. She replied that she could take it in for repair, but that this “would take three weeks”. I left, and she slumped back to her stupor.

Later that day, I went to see someone at a leading London university. The department receptionist asked if I had the extension number. When I said I was rather hoping he might have it, he responded that he probably did, but that it would be “hard to find”. We looked at each other in silence. Then a light bulb came on in his mind. He winked at me, and pronounced “I’ll take you up there”.

These experiences are not confined to the dynamic capital city. A few weeks ago, I visited the maths department at Durham and left my glasses behind. They offered to post them guaranteed next day delivery. I tracked the parcel on the Royal Mail website. 39 hours later, it had arrived at the Newcastle sorting centre, all of 15 miles away.

These examples of appalling service arise for two reasons. First, the very high demand for labour means that some people now in jobs are scarcely able to perform work at all. Second, many low paid workers realise they can easily get another job, so why bother making an effort in your current one?

Here is part of the answer to the so-called productivity puzzle. During the recovery from a recession, productivity, output per worker, usually rises quickly. But it has been flat.

Whether due to limited ability or a lack of incentive, the output of some workers taken on in the jobs boom is close to zero. And this drags the average down.

As published in City AM Wednesday 20th September 2017

Image: Fatigue by Shanghai is licensed under CC by 3.0
Read More

Beware the dysfunctional consequences of imposing misguided incentive systems

Beware the dysfunctional consequences of imposing misguided incentive systems

Following the disclosure of salaries at the BBC, it has hardly seemed possible to open a newspaper or switch on the television without being bombarded by stories about pay.

By pure coincidence, an academic paper entitled “Pay for Performance and Beyond” has just appeared. So what, you might ask? Except that it is one of the 2016 Nobel Prize lectures, by Bengt Holmstrom, a professor at MIT.

Holmstrom’s work began in the 1970s on the so-called principal-agent problem. This is of great practical importance. For example, how should the owners of companies (the “principals”, in economic jargon) design contracts so that the interests of the directors (the “agents”) are aligned as closely as possible with the interests of the shareholders?

Many aspects of economics have a lot of influence on policy making. But this is not yet one of them. We have only to think of the behaviour of many bankers in the run up to the financial crisis. Stupendous bonuses were paid out to the employees, and, in examples such as Lehman Brothers, the owners lost almost everything.

It is not just at the top levels that scandals occur. Towards the end of last year, Wells Fargo had to pay $185m in penalties. Holmstrom cites this prominently in his lecture. The performance of branch managers was monitored daily. They discovered that one way of doing well was to open shell accounts for existing customers. These were accounts which the customers themselves did not know about, but they counted towards the managers’ bonuses.

A culture of pressure to perform against measured criteria can lead to problems even when the organisations involved are not strongly driven by money.

The education system in the UK has many examples. But the one given by Holmstrom is even more dramatic. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 in the US was very well intentioned. But the test-based incentives eventually led, around a decade later, to teachers in Atlanta being convicted of racketeering and serving jail sentences for fixing exam results.

Holmstrom is in many ways a very conventional economist – his Nobel lecture rapidly becomes full of dense mathematics. He believes that, given the right information and incentives, people will make rational decisions.

This is why his conclusion is so startling.

He writes: “one of the main lessons from working on incentive problems for 25 years is that, within firms, high-powered financial incentives can be very dysfunctional and attempts to bring the market inside the firm are generally misguided”.

The whole trend in recent years has been to bring even more market-type systems inside companies, from bonuses for meeting potentially counter-productive targets, to devolving budget authority away from the discretion of mangers and handing it to specialised departments.

Holmstrom’s conclusion implies the need for a pretty radical rethink of the way incentives are structured, in both the public and private sectors.

As published in City AM Wednesday 26th July 2017

Image: Lehman Brothers Headquarters by Sachab is licensed under CC by 2.0
Read More

Believe it or not, Britain is getting happier

Believe it or not, Britain is getting happier

The dominant economic narrative in the UK is a pretty gloomy one just now.

True, employment is at a record high. But, counter the whingers and whiners, zero hours contracts and low pay proliferate.

The political discourse is full of the struggles of the JAMs – the Just About Managing The public sector moans about its pay. During the election, Labour played ruthlessly on the fears and anxieties of the elderly about inheritance and the value of pensions.

All in all, the picture seems bleak. But a much more positive vision is given by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in its measure of well-being.

The Measuring National Well-being (MNW) programme was established in November 2010 under David Cameron. It is not without its critics. But if we take it at face value, compared to a year ago the country is definitely happier.

As the ONS puts it: “the latest update provides a broadly positive picture of life in the UK, with the majority of indicators either improving or staying the same over the one year period”.

There seems to be a bit of a glitch. The ONS boasts of using no fewer than 43 separate indicators to measure well-being. But they go on to state, in the very same sentence, that of these 43 measures, “15 improved, 18 stayed the same and two deteriorated, compared with one year earlier”. Perhaps the relevant statistician here received his or her basic training at the Diane Abbott School of Arithmetic.

No matter, it could be that some of the series have simply not been updated at all. Certainly, many people might not be too concerned to learn that “on environmental sustainability, the proportion of waste from households that was recycled fell over a one-year period, while remaining unchanged over the three-year period”.

But compared to a year previously, on some key indicators, as a nation we were more satisfied with our jobs, felt our health was better, and enjoyed our leisure time more.

This does not fit readily with political discussion recently in the mainstream media.

One possible reason is that many of the ONS measures rely on conventional survey techniques. These can take some time to carry out. So the ONS only release new data every six months, and the latest one was in April. The indicators could just be out of date.

However, a very similar story is told by a real-time analysis of Twitter data, which I have been carrying out with my UCL colleague Rickard Nyman since June 2016 (admittedly just for the London area).

We use advanced machine learning algorithms which essentially measure the sentiment level of a tweet as a whole, rather than relying on the now obsolete approach of looking for specific positive and negative words.

Sentiment in London started to rise quite sharply last autumn, dipped down slightly in April and May, but is now back up again.

Many conventional economic statistics are not really designed for the modern economy. So, despite, all its faults, the ONS well-being measure may be a step in the right direction, and regardless of what the media tells you, Britain may indeed be getting happier.

As published in City AM Wednesday 19th July 2017

Image: Happiness by Geralt is licensed under CC by 2.0
Read More