Ec101: Choices matter!

We’ve, in our Thursday posts this year, learnt about incentives and costs. But, and this is a really, really big “but” – they become operational only when we live in a world where we’re able to choose.

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabbarok – two people who have probably done more for educating people in economics than anybody else over the last thirty years or so – have written two of the best textbooks on economics available anywhere – one on micro and the other on macro.

In the book on microeconomics, they summarize ten different “big ideas” in economics: incentives, the invisible hand is the best kind of magic*, trade-offs matter, thinking on the margin matters, trade matters, wealth matters, institutions matter, business cycles are unavoidable, printing more money will lead to inflation and central baking is hard.

*I’ve paraphrased practically all of the big ideas, but this in particular is my phrasing, not theirs.

Two other asides before we proceed: in retrospect, it is interesting (at least to me) that at least one of their PhD’s (Tyler Cowen’s) and quite a few of their books are based literally on nothing more complicated than an exposition of these big ideas. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Also, they say that the biggest idea of them all is that economics is fun. I’d paraphrase that too: learning about the world is fun, and economics is a great tool to use towards that end.

Now, that allows for a neat segue to the topic du jour. At the very start of the book, even before the table of contents, they provide their definition of economics, one that I agree with wholeheartedly: economics is the study of how to get the most out of life.

Here’s the two word version: choices matter!

Unless we live in a society that is free to choose, at an individual level or otherwise, none of the other big ideas even come into play. So, to me, economics is first and foremost about being free to choose – and then about the benefits and costs of the choices that you make.

Which, I’d argue, means that learning about choices is plenty important. Ergo, this post.

  1. First things first. What is choice?
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    I chose (see what happened there?) this Quora post not because it is the “best”, but simply because it is so typical. Here’s what I think choice is: it is an admission of the fact that you can’t have everything. A particularly relevant example for me: what to eat from a buffet at a five star restaurant? With every passing year, “everything!” becomes an increasingly unrealistic answer. So choose those dishes that are likely to taste the best (maximizing happiness), or those dishes that are likely to cause the least harm (minimizing unhappiness) along some dimensions such as spiciness, oiliness or what have you.
    Or hey, do both at the same time! Choose the dish that is likely to taste the best and the dish that is likely to do the least harm. That’s half your micro paper right there – the rest is just math and diagrams. (I am kidding, of course, but only a little bit.)
    Choice is an admission of the fact that you can’t have everything, but that’s a good thing! It forces you to go with the best. Which paintings should you look at when you’re at the Louvre? “Every single one!” is unrealistic. Force yourself to choose, therefore, the very best of the lot. Constraints help you understand your own tastes better: aesthetics is, among other things, a matter of acknowledging the existence of constraints.
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  2. So having too many choices is a bad thing? It would seem so:
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    “It all began with jam. In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a remarkable study. On one day, shoppers at an upscale food market saw a display table with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. Those who sampled the spreads received a coupon for $1 off any jam. On another day, shoppers saw a similar table, except that only six varieties of the jam were on display. The large display attracted more interest than the small one. But when the time came to purchase, people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display.”
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  3. But hang on. Of what use is an economics theory that doesn’t have a on-the-other hand angle? Tim Harford, as is so often the case, to the rescue.
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    “But a curious thing happened almost immediately. They began by trying to replicate some classic experiments – such as the jam study, and a similar one with luxury chocolates. They couldn’t find any sign of the “choice is bad” effect. Neither the original Lepper-Iyengar experiments nor the new study appears to be at fault: the results are just different and we don’t know why.”
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  4. And on a related note, have you heard of Herbert Simon and satisficing? This excerpt is from a Wikipedia article on Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, but it is actually about Herbert Simon.
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    “A maximizer is like a perfectionist, someone who needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made. The way a maximizer knows for certain is to consider all the alternatives they can imagine. This creates a psychologically daunting task, which can become even more daunting as the number of options increases. The alternative to maximizing is to be a satisficer. A satisficer has criteria and standards, but a satisficer is not worried about the possibility that there might be something better. Ultimately, Schwartz agrees with Simon’s conclusion, that satisficing is, in fact, the maximizing strategy.”
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  5. And the final word goes to Tyler Cowen. Or is it Herbert Simon all over again? Choices, choices.
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    “What if you asked people the following: do you wish to choose your own means of limiting your (subsequent) choices, or do you wish to let someone else, perhaps the government, do the work? I suspect the answers would overwhelmingly favor the former option, namely voluntary choice at the meta-level. And if you reexamine the experiments mentioned above, they are all about ways in which people voluntarily limit their own choices. Maybe you don’t wish to run your own cancer treatments, but you wish to choose the doctor who will.”

 

Ec101: Links for 19th December, 2019

  1. “Based on the provided support, it is apparent then that it’s advantageous to be as random as possible for generation of ideas, but sticking with a particular response is predictive of creative originality. So next time your friends say that you are “sooo random,” hold your head up high and keep at it. But don’t forget to spot those brilliant ideas among the dis-order, and focus. Such is the recipe for creativity.”
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    On the benefits of being random.
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  2. “Convex functions play an important role in many areas of mathematics. They are especially important in the study of optimization problems where they are distinguished by a number of convenient properties. For instance, a strictly convex function on an open set has no more than one minimum. Even in infinite-dimensional spaces, under suitable additional hypotheses, convex functions continue to satisfy such properties and as a result, they are the most well-understood functionals in the calculus of variations. In probability theory, a convex function applied to the expected value of a random variable is always bounded above by the expected value of the convex function of the random variable.”
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    That is from the Wikipedia article on convexity, and the next sentence after the excerpt leads us to…
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  3. Jensen’s inequality!
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  4. “The point is subtle and widely misunderstood. Here’s a simple example. Suppose that the average return is 10%. If $100 is invested for two periods the average payoff is $100(1.1)^2=$121. But on average that is not what happens. More typically, you get say 0% in the first period and 20% in the second period, i.e. $100(1.0)*(1.2)=$120. Notice that the average return is exactly the same, 10%, but the total payoff is smaller in the second and more realistic case”
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    And Alex Tabbarok explain why Jensen’s Inequality matters
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  5. As does Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Tech: Links for 10th December, 2019

  1. “To be clear, both roles can be beneficial — platforms make the relationship between users and 3rd-parties possible, and Aggregators helps users find 3rd-parties in the first place — and both roles can also be abused.”
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    The always excellent Ben Thompson on regulating monopolies online, drawing a distinction between platforms and aggregators. His articles, as I have mentioned before, are always a delight to read, and this one in particular is a great collection of links to articles he has written before. Plus, this article is inspiration, if you will, for the links that follow.
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  2. “Columbia University law professor Tim Wu coined the term “network neutrality” in a 2003 paper about online discrimination. At the time, some broadband providers, including Comcast, banned home internet users from accessing virtual private networks (VPNs), while others, like AT&T, banned users from using Wi-Fi routers. Wu worried that broadband providers’ tendency to restrict new technologies would hurt innovation in the long term, and called for anti-discrimination rules.”
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    An excellent explainer from Wired about Net Neutrality.
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  3. “For years, I winced at how Big Tech approached regulatory matters. When they wade into policy matters, they fail to see the bigger picture — and the younger the company, the worse they are at this. The hole that Facebook has dug for itself is entirely because its leadership seemed to believe that if they stayed within the letter of the current law they wouldn’t be regulated. This is a completely naive and ahistorical view. And this view has prevented Facebook from innovating in their own policy space. Without that policy innovation, we are left with essentially nonsensical suggestions to break up Facebook — which wouldn’t actually solve any of the issues anyone has with Facebook.”
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    If you’re looking to do research in this field, you can’t not read Joshua Gans. This is just one of many excellently argued articles. Do read the whole thing!
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  4. The internet activist Nikhil Pahwa lists out his expectations about the future of internet regulation in India. Agree or disagree (as usual, I fall in the middle), it is worth reading.
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  5. “More generally, however, the bigger Google gets the more countries it has a physical presence in (servers, sales staff and support etc.) and thus the more leverage individual countries, especially large countries, will have to degrade the services that Google offers not just within-country but to the world.”
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    Alex Tabarrok gives a fun example and a chilling analysis in the same short blog post.

Etc: Links for 29th Nov, 2019

  1. “When the British actor Jonathan Routh published the first edition of his Good Loo Guide (“Where to Go in London”) in 1965, he singled out the device for mention every time he found one. Only five toilets, out of more than a hundred, held hand dryers – of the pedal-operated kind that, in the 1965 movie Help!, inhale the jacket sleeves of Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. Mostly, Routh encountered towels of cloth or paper, and quite often, he had to pay to use these products. (“Do loos ever advertise their attractions?” he wondered, while extolling the virtues of the splendid restrooms of Hyde Park in the 1968 update. “Has anyone ever seen an ad saying ‘Just arrived – new free electric hand-drier at the so-and-so loos.’”) Even in the third and final edition of the guide, released in 1987, I counted more instances of electric razors, armchairs and pre-pasted disposable toothbrushes than of hand dryers.”
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    The excellent, excellent Samanth Subramanian in this lovely article about (of all things) paper towels and hand driers. Yes, really. What’s more, Samanth won the Financial/Economic story of the year award for this write-up. Read the book by clicking on his name here, also read Following Fish, and definitely read this article itself. Congratulations, Samanth!
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  2. “And which book takes the very top prize for best of the year? You can’t compare the Alter to the others, so I will opt for Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift and also Pekka Hämäläinen’s Lakota America, with Julia Lovell on Maoism and Alain Bertaud on cities as the runner-ups. But again a strong year all around.”
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    Tyler Cowen’s list of books he found worth his time in 2019. As he would say, self-recommending.
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  3. “So what’s a desperate founder to do? Smith impulsively flew to Las Vegas and played blackjack with the last of the company money .Amazingly, when he came back the next week, he had turned the remaining $5,000 into $27,000 – just enough for the company to stay in operation for another week.

    In the book “Changing How the World Does Business: FedEx’s Incredible Journey to Success – The Inside Story,” Roger Frock, a former senior vice president of operations at FedEx, describes the scene when he found out what Smith did. “I said, ‘You mean you took our last $5,000 – how could you do that? [Smith] shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘What difference does it make? Without the funds for the fuel companies, we couldn’t have flown anyway.'””
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    A lovely story about how Fedex came back from the dead.
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  4. “The money of the world’s mega-wealthy, though, is heading there in ever-larger volumes. In the past decade, hundreds of billions of dollars have poured out of traditional offshore jurisdictions such as Switzerland and Jersey, and into a small number of American states: Delaware, Nevada, Wyoming – and, above all, South Dakota. “To some, South Dakota is a ‘fly-over’ state,” the chief justice of the state’s supreme court said in a speech to the legislature in January. “While many people may find a way to ‘fly over’ South Dakota, somehow their dollars find a way to land here.””
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    Oh hey, Tiebout. Whassup.
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  5. “Behavioral finance is finance. That individual human beings can sometimes do silly things, for reasons to do with either nature or nurture, is not under dispute. That they may make these same mistakes in the aggregate is no longer heretical. That is the gift of those that have been “misbehaving” by attacking hallowed, efficient market doctrine. Economists now can consider potential irrationality versus a standard model of profit-maximizing utility without being disinvited to (those wild and crazy) economist parties. Economists can now suggest that cognitive biases can affect asset prices without threatening their tenure.”
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    The term may be overrated – the logic isn’t: in defense of behavioral finance.

Ec101: Links for 21st November, 2019

  1. What is the Coase Theorem? Watch.
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  2. Why does it matter? Listen.
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  3. Where all is it applicable? Laugh.
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  4. “Coasean solutions exist. But governments need to set up the relevant property rights and create an exchange, and then trust its prices to incentivize the appropriate action.”
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    And here’s the first reason why  we learn about the Coase theorem today
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  5. “Some also suggest that we create a market for the stubble. But how do you get it out in the first place? Indeed, that’s why it is burnt as the cheapest form of disposal.”
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    And here’s the second!

Etc: Links for 15th November, 2019

  1. Bibek Debroy about Abhijit Banerjee’s father. This was fascinating!
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    “There were people who didn’t have an exceptional publication record. They were simply superb teachers.Dipak Banerjee was one of them. Except for a paper on utility he wrote while he was at LSE (London School of Economics), he rarely published. He was an exceptional teacher who produced exceptional students. Bhaskar Dutta, Subhashis Gangopadhyay, Dilip Mukherjee and Debraj Ray should be familiar names. They (all Dipak Banerjee’s students) edited a collection of essays in his honour in 1990. Mihir Rakshit primarily taught us macroeconomics and Dipak Banerjee primarily taught us microeconomics. Mihir babu’s teaching was precise. He never deviated from the topic. Dipak babu’s teaching was also precise, but he deviated from the topic and told us “stories”, especially at tutorials. In the course of these stories, we learnt he had two sons. He wasn’t worried about his younger son, who was “street smart”. But he worried about his elder son, who wasn’t that street smart. We learnt this elder son was called Jhima and that he had a middle name of Vinayak because he was born in Mumbai and because his mother (Nirmala Banerjee) was a Maharashtrian.”
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  2. A short article about the “perils” of Amazon Prime
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    “”Because of multiple Prime orders, Amazon has had to think more about packaging. Recognizing some customers’ “wrap rage,” they are using more bubble envelopes. Aware that the excessive space occupied by smaller inexpensive items increases transport costs, they’ve been developing algorithms that match box size to contents to avoid “over-boxing.” And they want manufacturers to know that online packaging needs to be compact rather than attractive.”
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  3. “We therefore predicted that reactivating previously unsolved problems could help people solve them. In the evening, we presented 57 participants with puzzles, each arbitrarily associated with a different sound. While participants slept overnight, half of the sounds associated with the puzzles they had not solved were surreptitiously presented. The next morning, participants solved 31.7% of cued puzzles, compared with 20.5% of uncued puzzles (a 55% improvement).”
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    Fascinating is an understatement – Alex Tabarrok on being productive while sleeping.
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  4. “For me, sleep is the #1 important factor for my cognitive productivity. I typically get between 6½–7¼ hours per night. Much less, and I feel my brain turning to goo when I try to do anything cognitively demanding. I track my sleep with a fitness tracker so I can anticipate when I should expect a “bad day” and plan accordingly.”
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    On the importance of sleep, and holidays. Please look up Jensen’s inequality as well.
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  5. “…music streaming subscriptions are typically far cheaper in emerging markets than they are in the US and Europe, but hardware built to play that music – often from the very same companies running the music services – is significantly more expensive.”
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    I pay 179 INR per month for Spotify – for six family members. INR 189 per month for YouTube Premium – for six family members.

Ec101: Links for 14th November, 2019

Four of one today, and one of the other.

 

  1. “In their new book, The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay, economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman challenge seemingly every fundamental element of conventional tax policy analysis. Given the attention the book has generated, it is worth stepping back and considering their sweeping critique of conventional wisdom. Spoiler: My goal here is to present these issues, not resolve them.”
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    William G. Gale on the public economics topic du jour, tax policy as per Saez and Zucman.
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  2. “I find this episode appalling, and I hope The New York Times is properly upset at having been “had.”#TheGreatForgetting”
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    Strong language from Prof. Cowen is an underrated signal by definition. He is less than happy about this article.
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  3. A Twitter thread that only econ nerds should read – but econ nerds really should read it.
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  4. And finally, another post about it from MR.
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    “”This is quite remarkable. If the sensible way of defining tax rates involves excluding transfers from the denominator (as they claim), the fact that it leads to very high rates by construction at the bottom should be because this is a sensible summary of reality. Yet, in their own words, it’s a problem. Rather than switching method, they drop the people at the very bottom which conveniently covers up the problem (but leaves a less severe version of the problem in their remaining lower income sample). Of course, they could have just used the standard definition which includes transfers in the denominator, but doing this destroys the entire headline result.”
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  5. And because we can all have more than our fair share of public economics and taxes, here’s Gulzar Natarajan wondering aloud, as he puts it, about the Indian economy.
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    “”Therefore public spending has to be tailored to maximise the boost to consumption and investment. In other words, it should seek to target instruments with the highest fiscal multipliers and target population or consumption groups with the highest marginal propensity to consume.”

Etc: Links for 11th October, 2019

  1. Celebtrating Rafa Nadal. That this piece is written 14(!) years after Nadal won his first Grand Slam is beyond remarkable. I am, for the record (and will forever be) a Federer acolyte, but I gave up on the who-is-better battle long, long ago. I am just grateful to be a tennis fan alive in this era.
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    “”Under different circumstances, his performance would have been more than good enough to win the tournament. He had the bad luck of facing Nadal, one of the sport’s greatest champions, on a night when Nadal simply refused to lose.”
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  2. A useful list for lazy weekends: the signature film of every city. The excerpt below is about Washington D.C. Pair this recommendation with an app called JustWatch, which is worth it’s proverbial weight in gold.
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    “If you want to get a sense of a city in a movie, following around a couple of reporters for a major paper is a damn good way to evoke the mood of the metropolis. Watching Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein relentlessly prowl the streets and restaurants and parking garages of the nation’s capital in pursuit of a truth that will ultimately bring down the President of the United States is as D.C., and American, as it gets. Honorable mention: Ashby’s “Being There,” Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”, Brooks’ “Broadcast News,” the Coens’ “Burn After Reading,” Schumacher’s “D.C. Cab” and countless others.”
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  3. Humanity is a kind of ‘biological boot loader’ for AI, says Elon Musk.
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    “People don’t realize we are already a cyborg. Because we are so well integrated with our phones and our computers. The phone is almost like an extension of yourself. If you forget your phone, it’s like a missing limb. But the bandwidth, the communication bandwidth to the phone is very low, especially input. So in fact, input bandwidth to computers has actually gone down, because typing with two thumbs, as opposed to 10 fingers, is a big reduction in bandwidth.”
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  4. The 100 Best Albums of the 21st Century. I am not qualified to pass opinion, but my commute is, as they say, sorted.
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  5. A book recommendation via MR. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, by Daniyal Mueenuddin. I have purchased it, but haven’t read it yet. Probably (and hopefully) on the Thailand trip.

EC101: Links for 3rd October, 2019

  1. Everything is correlated.
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  2. For students at Gokhale Institute for sure, but elsewhere too: the Stiglitz essay prize.
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  3. Capitalim vs Socialism.
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  4. On reforming the PhD.
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  5. On complements, substitutes, YouTube and reading.

EC101: Links for 5th September, 2019

All five links from Marginal Revolution today, in relation to a talk that was held at the Gokhale Institute yesterday, by Murali Neelakantan. This is a topic that I am becoming more interested in, so you might see more posts about this topic.

  1. “It is less commonly recognized by the critics, however, that tougher IP protection may induce more foreign direct investment. Why for instance invest in a country which might subject your patents and copyrights to an undesired form of compulsory licensing?”
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    A typically Cowenian (and by that I mean contrarian) statement, and therefore also likely to be at least somewhat true. MR on Why TPP in IP law is better than you think.
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  2. “It’s hard to believe that the extension of copyright for decades after an author’s death can appreciably increase artistic creation and innovation, thus the public has gained little from copyright extension. What has been lost?”
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    Alex Tabarrok on the tragedy of the anti-commons.
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  3. “Patents are supposed to increase the progress of the useful arts.”
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    Are patents out of control?
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  4. “Walt Disney was long-dead when his copyright to Mickey Mouse was extended. Rumors to the contrary, Walt ain’t coming back no matter how much we incentivize him with a longer copyright.”
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    Alex Tabarrok is rather exasperated with copyright protectionism.
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  5. “How can we increase innovation? I look at patents, prizes, education, immigration, regulation, trade and other levers of innovation policy.”
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    Alex Tabarrok’s blog post on his book, “Launching the Innovation Resistance”