Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Archive for the ‘the interweb’ Category

Network Externalities Can Be Negative

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Economists often explain tech monopolies by reference to (positive) “network externalities”- basically the idea that the more people that use a service, the more valuable it is to each person. So, I want to use Windows not because it has the best features of any operating system in principle, but because most people use it and so lots of programs are made for it, there will be few compatibility issues working with others, et c.

Social media is often said to have the same network externality feature- I want to be on Facebook and Twitter because thats where everyone else is, so I’ll stay there even if some other site has some better features. If everyone else thinks the same way, Facebook and Twitter will maintain durable monopolies.

Network externalities are very important in social media, in that other consumers have a huge influence on how much I enjoy a site. But the externality isn’t always positive; often other users make the experience much worse by saying things that are mean, stupid, or boring, not to mention deliberately trolling.

In a way I’m just saying what’s blindingly obvious to everyone on social media: hell is other people. But I haven’t heard anyone put it this way before, in particular during the recent flurry of conversations about breaking up or regulating “tech monopolies“.

To me this actually seems like a great time to be starting a new, more selective/restrictive/smaller social network (think “the Facebook” starting out only available at Harvard- great filter). In the sea of information that is the modern internet, so much value comes from filtering and curation, and the biggest networks aren’t doing a great job here. Reddit is a great example of both the pitfalls of scale and virtues of being small and well curated- the default front page is a classic reference for what “lowest common denominator” looks like, but the site makes it easy to form small, strongly curated sub-Reddits and many of them are wonderful. It seems like someone figuring out how to implement a new, small Facebook or Twitter competitor would at least have a fighting chance if they can attract the right people and not simply try to grow as quickly as possible.

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The Long Tail of Criticism

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One of the many bizarre features of our current political and cultural moment is that every side feels like they’re losing.

One of the generally wonderful features of the internet is the Long Tail– lower costs of search distribution have made it easier to find things that were previously obscure, or didn’t exist at all in mediums like TV, radio, and print publishing that had relatively high fixed costs and strict gatekeepers.

But I’m realizing there is a dark side to this Long Tail feature of the internet- the Long Tail of Criticism. No matter how small or obscure a group is, they have been criticized somewhere on the internet. A group like economists, psychologists, or English professors, who number at most in the low hundreds of thousands, have now been the subject of literally hundreds of critical articles. In politics, people can branch out beyond criticizing Democrats and Republicans to complain about ever-smaller groups like libertarians, Bernie Sanders supporters, “the alt-right”, or fans of whatever public intellectual you don’t like.

Unlike with the classic Long Tail phenomenon where the growth in niche products comes at the expense of mainstream ones, the growth in niche criticism seems to coincide with a near-constant barrage of criticism at large/mainstream groups (genders, races, religions, nationalities, major political parties). Social media seems to ensure that critical pieces reach those they target, if nothing else because members of targeted groups fell the need to denounce them; Twitter is a spectacular engine for making sure people let you know the dumbest or most offensive thing anyone said today so that they can tell you how dumb or offensive it was.

Because people tend to identify more strongly with the smaller groups they are a part of, this Long Tail criticism may be felt more strongly. Sometimes it starts to seem like the internet is bent on attacking the specific groups I identify with, but probably people in every group feel the same way.

I’d love to hear from anyone who thinks “actually, my group is winning and people on the internet love us”. You must be a cat.

Cats heart

Written by James Bailey

May 21, 2018 at 10:05 am

Physicians Per Capita by State Multiyear Panel Data

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I was recently trying to get data on the number of physicians in each state for a paper I’m doing on the politics of health insurance mandates. I found that this data was very easy to find for a single year (lots of popular articles and sites) or a few years (Statistical Abstract of the US and the CDC), but hard to find for every year in a multiyear panel. It turns out that the answer is the Area Resource File from the Department of Health and Human Services, which has data from 1995 to 2011 (except 2009, because that would be too easy).

I hope this post will save someone from spending over an hour Googleing, as I just did.

The Optimal Amount of Hipsterdom is Increasing

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For a radio station to be profitable, they have to play things there is a large audience for. Since most radio stations only have a few hundred thousand people in range, they need to play popular music in order to get a few thousand listeners.

In the age of the internet, its easy to make your music accessible worldwide, so you can still reach a huge audience even if only 1% of the population likes your music. This much-discussed phenomenon of the “long tail“, and it is one reason that it is easier to listen to obscure bands than it used to be.

Add to this the way the concerts have always worked. Going to see a popular band is expensive, going to see an obscure band is cheap. I can go see Rush for $200, or the Mountain Goats for $20.

The demand for hipster music is downward sloping: when technology makes listening to obscure bands cheaper and easier, more people will do it. And technology has in fact made this cheaper and easier. Thus, the optimal amount of hipsterdom has increased.

Written by James Bailey

October 12, 2012 at 11:42 am

It’s a Liquidity Trap!

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I’m not proud of this, but its seems no one in the whole wide internets had done it yet, and it needed to be done:

Ackbar realizes he's trying to push on a string

The best part is that our solution to the liquidity TRAP was a TARP.  Now let’s hear the Bernanke/Ackbar jokes.

Written by James Bailey

February 16, 2010 at 11:30 am

Macro Flame War

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There are lots of Great Internet Debates- over operating systems, video game consoles, or politics.  This last week, a similar sort of name-calling verbal brawl broke out among prominent macro-economists.  But that exchange featured long posts and highly technical arguments.  To simplify it for you, I will summarize the debate as the flame war it was at heart.

Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman: Who is to blame for the failure of economists to respond effectively to this crisis?  Well, there are two types of economists: freshwater and saltwater.  It sure wasn’t us saltwater people, so it must be that the freshwater types are to blame.  They are so detached from reality that they think the Great Depression was just a Great Vacation for workers, resurrecting absurd fallacies I thought we had dispatched for good 70 years ago and thinking they must be right because their ideas are gussied up with fancy equations.  Saltwater Keynesianism is the only game in town.

John Cochrane: Paul Krugman wants us to ignore the last 40 years of work in economics.  In science, he would be the global warming skeptic of the HIV-AIDS denier.  Only a paranoid, calumnous, superficial, idea-less schlock would rely on name-calling and personal attack like he did.  Us freshwater types do not, in fact, deny the reality of bubbles, recessions, and other such real events.  Krugman has no idea what caused the crash, and just advocated fiscal stimulus because he wants the government to be bigger. “So what is Krugman up to? Why become a denier, a skeptic, an apologist for 70 year old ideas, replete with well-known logical fallacies, a pariah… The only explanation that makes sense to me is that Krugman isn’t trying to be an economist, he is trying to be a partisan, political opinion writer…. Krugman wants to be Rush Limbaugh of the Left. I still want to be Milton Friedman, but each is a worthy calling.”

Brad Delong: John Cochrane’s 9-page response had one sentence that was TOTALLY wrong.  The rest of what he said? I don’t feel like talking about it.

Paul Krugman: Nobody likes the freshwater people.  They have no idea what Keynesians even said.  I, by contast, know the literature so well that I finally cited a paper.  Maybe next post I will cite two!

Brad Delong: Freshwater types haven’t read Keynesians?  Of course, but more than that they haven’t read anyone.  They commit fallacies which show they haven’t read Knut Wicksell, Irving Fischer, (fellow Chicago-school monetarist) Milton Friedman, or David Hume’s First Economics Paper Ever.  Today’s Chicago school is an intellectual train-wreck.

Narayana Kockerlakota: What are you talking about guys?  Macro is fine.  If freshwater economists are so clueless why do we dominate the journals and provide most new hires at top universities?  Really there isn’t even a freshwater/saltwater divide anymore.  Here are links to a bunch of papers that Krugman thinks don’t exist, because they are about things he says we ignore.

Brad DeLong: Richard Posner is Uranus!

Justin Wolfers: All these old dudes are just cranky, Narayana is right that the new hires are moving past these problems and these flame wars.  But macro isn’t really ok until the new generation starts paying attention to policy, and policymakers start paying attention to them.

David Levine: Paul Krugman is clueless about economics and just wants to expand government.  It makes me feel physically ill that a distinguished economist could be so ignorant of his own profession.

Brad DeLong: David Levine is so clueless he is not in our galaxy.  His piece is so bad the Huffington Post [not exactly the newspaper of record! JB] should not have published it.

Bob Murphy: A pox on both their houses! Paul Krugman is a jerk and offers horrible policy advice. But John Cochrane’s response is no friend-of-the-court brief in the Austrian critique of Keynesianism.

Scott Sumner: A pox on all their houses! Old Keynesians, New Keynesians, Monetarists, New Classicals, and Austrians are all wrong, and I am right.

Eric Falkenstein: All macro-economists are wrong!  They have tried to fit their business cycle theories to the same ten data points, and the appearance of an eleventh one is not about to solve anything.  It may eliminate some theories, but this is not so helpful since there an infinite number of ways to be wrong.  Macroeconomics is the triumph of hope over experience, and has been no more successful than sociology [the ultimate insult to economists! JB].  At least private companies have figured out how useless this is and stopped hiring macro-economists.

Tyler Cowen: What the hell guys, you really thought you were going to fix macro with a flame war?  I look forward to seeing some peer-reviewed journal articles.

Yoram Bauman: Maybe macro flame wars are a good thing, because the three most terrifying words in the English language are “macro-economists agree that”.  The trouble with macro is built in to the definition of the field: micro-economists are wrong about specific things, while macro-economists are wrong about things in general.

Me: It is a bit traumatic for a young economist like myself to see this go down.  I wonder, why do Mommy and Daddy have to fight like this?  This is weird even by internet standards, because incivility is usually attributed to anonymity, but everyone here uses their real names and goes to the same conferences.  What happened to the good old days when Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson could lead opposing schools but still be friends?  Do real sciences ever get this divided- was there ever a string theory flame war?  But as economist/comedian Yoram Bauman says, maybe this will turn out for the best.  Perhaps Krugman and Cochrane will do a joint show at the AEA humor session this January in which they reveal that this was all a hoax, and ask whether that wasn’t the most epic trolling ever.  But it seems more likely that the reconciliation will be slow.  Indeed, we may see a repeat of the late 70’s, when the two main factions (Keynesians vs Chicago Monetarists then, New Keynesians vs Chicago Ratex/RBC/New Classicals now) so effectively discredit each other that a third school will seize control of the policy arena.

Written by James Bailey

September 22, 2009 at 6:09 pm

A small step toward a much better world

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The website Wikileaks is currently down.  They recently broke the story of the list of websites banned by the Australian government, and their bandwidth has been overloaded by peoples’ interest.

Wikileaks allows little people to get information indicting powerful organizations in to the view of the larger world.  They protect the anonymity of their sources, and by locating servers in many countries and having extensive legal defense help they can keep stories up despite the opposition of governments.  Almost no case is too big or too small for them to handle.

But they have run out of money.

I can’t think of any other way a small donation could go further toward promoting freedom for individuals and transparency and accountability for institutions.  Freedom isn’t free, but this is your chance to buy it cheap!

Written by James Bailey

March 22, 2009 at 2:33 am