Leftwing Vegan Problems

I'm neither leftwing nor a vegan. I just found the following line of thought to be an interesting logical problem.

There are many animals killed in mechanical crop harvesting. Clearing native vegetation, or even just utilizing mechanical harvesters, kills many sentient beings. There seems to be an active debate over whether or not enough animals are killed to justify the argument that eating cattle harms fewer sentient beings than eating vegetarian, but there is no question that many animals are killed in the cultivation of plants.

One way to avoid this is to utilize more human labor. Humans are less likely to indiscriminantly kill animals. Farming processes that require significant amounts of human labor, such as having humans pick fruit and vegetables, means that fewer animals are going to be killed by mechanical harvesters.

Vegans (and ethical vegetarians) are more likely than the average population to have political beliefs that see low wage occupations performed by immigrants as a form of exploitation. 

Until they succeed in getting at least some agricultural companies to raise wages to levels that they deem acceptable, leftwing vegans are forced to choose between exploiting immigrant labor or buying products whose production required the deaths of numerous small mammals.

One way to get around this is to not think about or discuss the problem of small animal deaths caused by food production methods. To the extent that the problem of animals killed in plant cultivation is ignored, it is evidence that being a vegan isn't actually about not harming animals.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Years to Train Physicians: An International Comparison

One aspect that is under weighted in the discussion on US Health Care is the focus on how our doctors are trained. When reform in the healthcare system is discussed, the main question is how the existing healthcare services should be allocated. We look to other countries for models on how health care is produced. Liberals cite the single payer systems in Europe that seem to work with relatively low expenses while conservatives often point to the public/private system in Singapore that are able to provide suitable services at a fraction of the cost of their gross national product.

But the question of allocation is only half the problem. The education of healthcare workers, and more specifically physicians, is a variable that is basically ignored by almost everyone in the health care debate. A 2009 paper by the Global Knowledge Exchange Network provides an overview of differing physician training requirements.
The table above contains data from the paper, supplemented with data from the World Bank, the OECD, the Congressional Research Service, the German Medical Association, and Singapore's Ministry of Health.

A 2013 OECD study found that the United States has the third lowest proportion of general practitioners to specialists among developed economies, with only Hungary and Greece having fewer general practitioners. Looking at the above table it's easy to see why - with education already lasting over ten years, the addition of a few more years for a significant bump up in salary is a strong incentive to avoid general practice. The return on those last few years of training is quite high.

It is interesting to note that a recent study found that foreign trained primary care physicians trained abroad outperformed American born physicians. Whether that says more about industrious foreign born immigrants or burnt out Americans is an exercise left to the reader.

Longer training times restrict the supply of physicians available to treat patients. A restricted supply means that demand must be rationed. In capitalist systems, that rationing occurs with the wages of doctors and costs to the patient going up. In socialist systems, that rationing occurs via longer wait times for patients with less serious conditions. But if restrictions on doctor training were loosened then in mixed systems there would be downward pressure on both prices and on wait times.

Unfortunately, no political reform of the medical system is going to occur without the public support of physicians. And the American Medical Association, the modern guild of physicians, is not going to support policies which have any chance of creating downward pressure on the wages of its members.

While analyzing which countries are most efficient in training physicians is a fun exercise, actual reform in the medical system needs to come more from other places. Ideas to reduce the incentives of hospital physicians to practice defensive medicine, price disclosure by medical service providers and the proper implementation of technology and standardization to reduce administration costs need to be given more weight. The political question surrounding the allocation of resources gets much easier if the amount of those resources can be significantly increased.

Remember - It's Tesla vs Dealerships

Another state has effectively banned Tesla sales - Michigan. From a public choice perspective it's not surprising that the homebase of the old auto manufacturers is moving against their upstart electric competitor. Creative destruction is always opposed by those who are hurt by changes in the status quo. But people looking at the newest twist in the story from the angle of "Big Three vs Tesla" are missing a key point:

Old school auto manufacturers have been held hostage to dealerships for decades. Laws originally designed to protect large capital investments of dealerships have been extended indefinitely. None of the auto manufacturers are allowed to sell directly into states themselves - politically influential dealerships have locked automanufacturers into a disadventagous long term relationships via dealer franchise laws.

When Tesla was let into New York, it wasn't a compromise with the Big Three that got them a spot at the table - the deal that let Tesla keep their retail outlets also helped the dealerships in their relationships with out-of-state manufacturers. 

This doesn't make the strategy of the Big Three in Michigan and elsewhere right. But from their perspective they are just trying to ensure that their new competitor has to deal with the same parasites that they are forced to do business with. This may entitle them to sympathy, but it does not mean they deserve any support in their misguided quest to expand the reach of their rent seeking dealership partners.

Tesla's real enemy has always been the car dealerships and their lobbyists. And in the battle of corporations vs. rent seekers, consumers win when rent seekers lose. 

Side note: Dealerships are often portrayed as small businesses that help drive economic growth. This is because small businesses are seen as engines of job growth. This is wrong - the actual causation is that young firms are drivers of job growth and the correlation between size and job growth exists because many young firms just happen to be small.  Dealerships are generally old businesses.

Attempting to Align Incentives: Banking Employees Edition

William Dudley, President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, has an interesting idea on how to align the incentives of banking employees with the desires of bank regulators: Defer their bonus payments for 10 years and take regulatory fines out of the bonus pool. From his speech:

However, in contrast to the issue of trading risk, unethical and illegal behavior may take a much longer period of time—measured in many years—to surface and to be fully resolved.  For this reason, I believe that it is also important to have a component of deferred compensation that does not begin to vest for several years.  For example, the deferral period might be five years, with uniform vesting over an additional five years.  Given recent experience, a decade would seem to be a reasonable timeframe to provide sufficient time and space for any illegal actions or violations of the firm’s culture to materialize and fines and legal penalties realized.  As I will argue below, I also believe that this longer vesting portion of the deferred compensation should be debt as opposed to equity.

There is no question that banking incentives are broken. In the run up to the 2008 financial crisis employees were generating what looked like revenue in the short term, but ended up actually destroying many companies. Other companies were found to be systematically violating regulations designed to protect consumers, often because a simple cost benefit analysis can find that breaking the rules now and paying the fines later is more profitable than other approaches. Employees involved might accurately estimate that the chance of significant bonus clawbacks are generally close to zero percent. It's the shareholders who are stuck with the bill years after the bank's employees have walked away with between 40% to 50% of the revenue they generated.

What challenges will a Dudley style system encounter?

If the bonus pool is too lumped together the responsibility will be too diffuse to matter. Bear Stearns and Lehman both had significant employee stock ownership, and yet both firms went belly up in the 2008 crisis. Work will have to be done to ensure that the people causing the trouble are hit first and hardest by the problems they cause.

The deferal unilaterally changes the deal between shareholders and employees, and employees who do not want to wait for their bonus payments will leave the regulated sector. This may actually be a good thing, as FDIC insured institutions shouldn't be in the business of creating free call options for employees looking for a quick payout.

Base salaries will go up as a portion of total compensation to make up for slower payouts. Higher base salaries and smaller bonuses can cause employees to act in a more risk averse manner.

If this system isn't implemented unilaterally through all FDIC insured banks at once the employees with the most earnings potential will leave banks implementing this policy for greener pastures. Like reform to the modern college education system, reform has to come from the high status players or all at once.  

If a mandatory deferred compensation system was imposed from the top down as one of the requirements for deposit insurance or for institutions with access to the Federal Reserve discount window or for primary dealers then it has the potential to help more than harm. Shareholders win because they are more protected from the bad behavior of their employees. Citizens who are better protected against renegade employees and less likely to fund bank bailouts win, while certain employees who have been enjoying a "heads I win, tails you lose" dynamic are inconvenienced.

One caveat: Top down regulations on compensation are generally undesirable. Right now it is arguably too difficult to comply with all of the regulations that banks are supposed to follow - it's crazy that Citi needs 30,000 people working in compliance. This part of the system is also broken. And a congress plus a regulatory body trying to implement Dudley's reforms in some form may end up doing much more harm than good. But the financial industry, with both government subsidies and significant moral hazard, needs better ways to reign in broken incentives. Dudley's proposal gets a lot of things right.

Note to Silicon Valley: Jean Tirole is Relevant

Most Nobel Prize winning economic work is ignored by people trying to understand Silicon Valley, and for good reason. Subjects like macroeconomics and trade theory are rarely relevant for what people are doing on a day to day basis. Even the issue of efficient markets is a non-question. The venture capitalists don't believe and the people trying to automate wealth management accept it is true as a matter of faith.

But the work of Jean Tirole, who was awarded The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for 2014, is far more applicable to understanding the ecosystem of the technology sector. His work spanned many areas, but it is primarily on how to understand and regulate industries with few powerful firms. The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences released a short summary of Jean Tirole's work here and their in-depth look is here - or just read Tyler Cowen's summary.

But why is this relevant for understanding the technology ecosystem? As Peter Thiel makes clear in Zero to One, one of the goals of a startup is to create an area where they are a monopoly. Google has an effective monopoly in online search. Facebook is the internet's most complete personal directory and the world's largest photo sharing company, LinkedIn owns everyone's online rolodex. Airbnb, Uber and many other successful new companies are successful because they essentially own their respective domains. Understanding the dynamics of market power is essential to understanding the most successful technology companies.

Once a firm is first to market, the question of what extent they should go to in order to deter competitors is a complicated question. In 1984, Jean Tirole and Drew Fudenberg plublished a paper on whether firms in various scenarios should over invest to protect their monopolies or if they should accept that they are going to face competition and stay lean and agile. The paper also highlights scenarios where the large initial investment to claim market share reduces a company's incentive to innovate, leaving them ripe for disruption after they have enjoyed the benefits of monopoly profits for a decade or two.

Another interesting question often faced today is that there is a company with a monopoly over one area, but how can they take that advantage to profit in other sectors? Tirole wrote many papers on vertical integration and monopoly power, and he did a literature survey of the field with Patrick Rey. Even if the goal of the literature is to figure out when to regulate these monopolies, companies can also use these strategies to find ways to expand their profit and market share. A mild version of this tactic is utilized by Microsoft when they release subpar versions of Microsoft Office to Mac so that power Excel users will be pushed to remain on the Windows platform.

Many startups are looking to build platform companies, where one company owns a two sided market and sells to both consumers and producers. Others may just want to better understand the incentives of the stores they are using to get their product to consumers. Jean was one of the first people to understand that maybe newspapers should be giving away their paper for free if that means they can charge businesses more for ads. This type of competition by the newspapers can drive their competitors out of business, but this seemingly monopolistic practice is benign - in many scenarios platform companies make is so everybody (except the platform competitors) wins. Here is a paper on Platform Competition that Tirole wrote with Jean-Charles Rochet - or better yet, a literature survey published three years later.  Alex Tabarrok and Vox have short posts addressing some of his work on platform markets.

This is only scratching the surface of his work, but it shows that many of the ideas driving value creation in Silicon Valley today have been analyzed in academia to a significant degree. These are complicated problems and sometimes returning to look at what the theory says can keep practitioners from making avoidable mistakes.  

Snapshots of our world: Assorted Links

1. Tim Harford uses the analogy of picking the fastest grocery store checkout line to explain the efficient market hypothesis. Ironically, the advent of self service aisles has created an option that lets customers get out of the grocery store


3. Welcome to the US, where everyone is guilty of something

4. And some things (literally things, not people) are guilty until proven innocent. (HT: MR)

5. Consumers in the US are spending more money on luxuries. All of them, not just the one percent.

6. A chart that highlights one of the impacts of the expansion of democracy to the masses. Presidents have to speak more simply in modern times. 

DFW: No such thing as atheism

I recently came across a collection of audio recordings by David Foster Wallace. Some of the short stories from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men are far more disturbing when I am forced to listen to every word and cannot just skim quickly past some of the more gruesome scenes. 

His commencement speech "This is Water" (transcript) is one of the more striking parts of the collection. This passage is towards the end of the piece:

Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

It's worth noting that a trite message can still be important, true and undervalued.

Assorted Links

1. Bill Gross left Pimco. When some CEOs leave their companies the shareholders celebrate. In the case of Bill Gross leaving the shareholders of Pimco's parent company, Allianz, decided that the company was worth about 3.8 billion dollars less than the day before. Part of this 3.8 billion dollars is related to new information about the severity of the problems that caused Gross to leave in the first place. But because Bill Gross chose to join Janus Capital the same day, we are left with an estimate of about how much the market values the human capital of Bill Gross - slightly under $900 million dollars.

2. Clay Shirky tries to help his students stop multitasking. Apparently there are many drawbacks to multitasking and I should stop making assorted link posts. (fortunately for me these posts are generally a symptom of my multitasking and not one of its causes)

3. Regulatory capture in the financial sector: Goldman Sachs vs the Fed. We should expect these problems to persist for as long as regulators are hoping to find work for the companies they are regulating (or companies doing a significant amount of business with the regulated companies).

It's interesting to see the PR machine of Goldman go to work on damage control. First the response is "This person tried to get a job from us many times" implying that the employee was merely bitter. They also highlighted the fact that Goldman did have a conflict of interest policy and thus the whistle-blower was wrong (without any emphasis as to whether or not it was effective). Shortly thereafter, there is a massive change in Goldman's conflict of interest policy. 

The Best People on the Internet

Are those who don't comment. So those who accidentally browse the comment section of popular websites should take solace in the fact that comments are not a reflection of the general population.

Via slate and the original paper.

While the study focuses on the behavior of trolls, it's interesting to note that people who are interested in debating issues also have more traits associated with Machiavellianism and sadism than others.

An implication of the BABA IPO

After the Alibaba IPO, the market is on average expecting that Yahoo's CEO Marissa Mayer is going to destroy $11 billion dollars in shareholder value. That's how much the operating company of Yahoo is valued at when stripped of its cash, Alibaba and Yahoo Japan holdings.  

This is actually a little harsh. There are some tax issues which would lower the $11 billion number slightly. On top of this - Alibaba is currently very hard for an arbitrager to short. Once it becomes easier to borrow Alibaba stock it is likely that the implicit negative valuation of the core Yahoo business will shrink.

Investors are guessing that a significant portion of proceeds from Yahoo's Alibaba stake are going to go towards value destroying acquisitions that boost the importance of the CEO at the expense of shareholders. When Facebook bought Instagram, they made a good decision to buy a nascent competitor who understood the mobile space. When Yahoo bought Tumblr for $1.1 billion, Mayer spent $750 million of that cost on intangible assets in an attempt to try make Yahoo relevant/cool, with the side effect that the person running Yahoo would also be more relevant*. 

Mayer can prove the doubters wrong in one of two ways. The easiest way is to find a tax advantageous way to return money and shares to the shareholders. The harder way is to make acquisitions like the market expects, but to buy companies that will actually generate earnings for the core operating company.

Mayer taking the hard approach is the most likely, but she has committed to returning at least 50% of the proceeds of the Alibaba IPO to Yahoo shareholders. Given that this payback, it is really hard to destroy as much value as the market is currently pricing in . They are probably paying too much attention to Yahoo's past acquisitions of GeoCities and Broadcast.com. 

And given how cheaply Yahoo is currently trading, this entire discussion could be moot. Yahoo itself could be bought before we have a chance to find out what Mayer would have done with its influx of money.


*It's important to note that Tumblr's value has gone up if value is measured on a basis of how many users the service has, but it has disappointed the market in that it has been harder than expected to generate revenue from these users.