Ec101: Understanding Opportunity Costs

I mean, come on. Who doesn’t understand opportunity costs?

The cost of the next best alternative, of the opportunity foregone. We could have told you this in our sleep.

So answer me this (and please don’t cheat):

“Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga – there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b), £10, (c) £40, or (d) £50.”

  1. That is from Tim Harford, and is unfortunately behind an FT paywall. But here’s the original paper.
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    “We were surprised by the diversity of opinion regarding the value to which the
    term “opportunity cost” applies. As Table 2 indicates, the most popular answer
    was $50, with 27.6% of respondents choosing this answer. The second most
    popular answer was $40, with 25.6% of respondents choosing this answer. The
    third most popular answer was $0, with 25.1% of respondents choosing this
    answer. The correct answer, $10, was the least popular, with only 21.6% of
    respondents choosing this answer. In essence, the answers given to us by well trained economists appear to be randomly distributed across possible answers.” (Emphasis added)
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    So what did you guess?
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  2. People got plenty upset about the whole thing – check the comments, especially,
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  3. “I don’t have any quarrel with Alex’s economics; as far as I can see this point is semantic. (I’ll also admit that my gross perspective on opportunity cost is somewhat anachronistic; it is one reason why mainstream economists work directly with consumer surplus.) What disturbs me is how few economists gave $50 or $40 as the right answer; the actual answers were close to randomly distributed. Most Web-based sources appear confused on the net vs. gross issue, but at least they hover across the $40 and $50 options.”
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    Economists don’t always agree, but it mostly comes to down to splitting hairs? If only it were so
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  4. “This paper analyzes the relationship between opportunity costs of waiting and bribery in rationing by waiting situations. Assuming that a uniform waiting time clears the market for any given bribe and the bureaucrat chooses a bribe to maximize profit, the market equilibrium is characterized in terms of individual valuations of the good and opportunity costs of waiting. If individual valuations take discrete values and opportunity costs of waiting are uniformly distributed, then in an equilibrium individuals with low costs of waiting choose to wait while those with high opportunity costs pay the bribe”
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    While traveling on India’s highways, have you ever seen trucks waiting by the highway for no apparent reason?
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  5. For interested students, a big fat list of examples, drawn from multiple walks of life.

Ec101: Links for 9th January, 2020

Five articles on sunk costs today.

  1. First up, a somewhat basic introductory article. Feel free to skip it if you’re sure you know what sunk costs are (pausing only to note that it is not so much the knowing that matters with sunk costs, but remembering to apply it)
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  2. “The United States has invested much in attempting to achieve its objectives. In addition to the many millions of dollars that have been spent, many thousands of lives have been lost, and an even greater number of lives have been irreparably damaged. If the United States withdraws from Vietnam without achieving its objectives, then all of these undeniably significant sacrifices would be wasted”
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    The quote itself is a quote (if you see what I mean) from this paper, which is a wonderful rumination on sunk costs. Read Taleb on the subject (and not just his tweets!)
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  3. This entire post by Alex Tabarrok is very short (and I have linked to it before, I think), but it is worth reading. Especially the last sentence: do think about it, if you are an economics student.
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  4. “Once your model of choice is at all complex, no one knows what a sunk cost means any more. So a theoretical scolding of those who honor “sunk costs” is not completely well-defined. That being said, there is still the empirical question of whether most people attach too much weight to previous plans and have a status quo bias. The experimental evidence suggests that we are more rigid than we need to be. The propensity to honor previous commitments may have efficiency properties, but we cannot discard this proclivity when we ought to.”
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    The bottom line from Tyler Cowen’s post on the topic. He was responding to Tabarrok’s post above.
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  5. “Suppose that you are trying to pursue a morally worthy goal, but cannot do so without incurring some moral costs. At the outset, you believed that achieving your goal was worth no more than a given moral cost. And suppose that, time having passed, you have wrought only harm and injustice, without advancing your cause. You can now reflect on whether to continue. Your goal is within reach. What’s more, you believe you can achieve it by incurring—from this point forward—no more cost than it warranted at the outset. If you now succeed, the total cost will exceed the upper bound marked at the beginning. But the additional cost from this point is below that upper bound. And the good you will achieve is undiminished. How do the moral costs you have already inflicted bear upon your decision now?”
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    I am reminded, very strongly indeed, of the Mahabharata. That is the abstract of this paper.

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 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.”

RoW: Links for 6th November, 2019

  1. “The food courts are good, and clean, but too homogenized for my taste. Plastic trays reign.”
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    Tyler Cowen is not, on the face of it, a fan of food courts, but to a relative novice like me – and perhaps you – they are a great way to sample the food of the country you happen to be in. I have thoroughly enjoyed eating at food courts in KL, and now in Bangkok.
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  2. Six different food courts to choose from in Bangkok…
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  3. But I can vouch for the best of the lot – unreservedly so – Pier 21. And  if I may be so bold: ignore all of what is said over here, and have the stewed pork leg with fried pork, rice and eggs. Ooh yum.
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  4. There’s still a lot of to-do’s on my South East Asian list
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  5. By the time you read this, I hope to have tried out at least some of Mark Wiens’ recommendations.

RoW: Links for 16th October, 2019

Five links about the NBA, China and the United States of America

  1. “Apple removed an app late Wednesday that enabled protesters in Hong Kong to track the police, a day after facing intense criticism from Chinese state media for it, plunging the technology giant deeper into the complicated politics of a country that is fundamental to its business.”
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    The NYT gives us useful background about the topic…
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  2. “But Apple is in a particularly difficult position, due to the company’s success in China: Unlike several other big consumer tech companies, which either do little business in China or none at all, Apple has thrived in China. The country is Apple’s third-biggest market, which generates some $44 billion a year in sales. And Apple’s supply chain, which lets it produce the hundreds of millions of iPhones it sells around the world each year, is deeply embedded in China.”
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    Recode explains the perils of integrating too successfully with China in terms of both backward linkages as well as final sales (that’s a loaded statement, worthy of a deeper analysis!)
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  3. “This morning brings new and exciting news from the land of Apple. It appears that, at least on iOS 13, Apple is sharing some portion of your web browsing history with the Chinese conglomerate Tencent. This is being done as part of Apple’s “Fraudulent Website Warning”, which uses the Google-developed Safe Browsing technology as the back end. This feature appears to be “on” by default in iOS Safari, meaning that millions of users could potentially be affected.”
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    Via John Gruber, over at Daring Fireball (please follow that blog!), a somewhat unsurprising, yet depressing revelation.
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  4. “I am not particularly excited to write this article. My instinct is towards free trade, my affinity for Asia generally and Greater China specifically, my welfare enhanced by staying off China’s radar. And yet, for all that the idea of being a global citizen is an alluring concept and largely my lived experience, I find in situations like this that I am undoubtedly a child of the West. I do believe in the individual, in free speech, and in democracy, no matter how poorly practiced in the United States or elsewhere. And, in situations like this weekend, when values meet money, I worry just how many companies are capable of choosing the former?”
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    Ben Thompson provides useful background and an even more useful overview of the larger picture.
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  5. “Daryl Morey wrote a pro-Hong Kong tweet and had to retract it, and then both the Rockets and the NBA had to eat crow. ESPN — part of the Disney empire I might add — has given only tiny, tiny coverage to the whole episode, even though it is a huge story on non-basketball sites. I’ve been checking the espn/nba site regularly over the last 24 hours, and there is one small link in the upper corner, no featured story at all.”
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    And finally, Tyler Cowen explains how incentives always and everywhere matter.

RoW: Links for 2nd October, 2019

I thoroughly enjoyed reading each of the five links today, both for how informative they were, but also for how thought provoking they were. A rare treat, this selection.

  1. James Fallows, from 1993 (!) on How The World Works.
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  2. Adam Mintner on Asia’s haze problem.
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  3. Tyler Cowen on his recent visit to Karachi.
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  4. Housing and the middle class in China.
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  5. I’m cheating a little, but this qualifies as an essay, right?

RoW: Links for 18th September, 2019

  1. How was London’s tech scene built?
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  2. If you ever get the chance to pick a train journey…. for me, this one, for sure.
    “And so it was no small relief when, there the next morning, was the train at the platform. Its Chinese provenance was confirmed by the ethnicity of the “Captain” ushering people aboard, and by our salmon-colored tickets, the same as those issued by China’s National Railway.An hour later, we were enjoying a rare sensation: swift, ceaseless movement through a sub-Saharan landscape.”
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  3. Or wait, hang on
    “For most of human history, it was impossible to grasp the range of the habitable world in a single day. Beginning in the mid-20th century, one could fly from a cool region to a hot region in one day. But that was an artificial experience—you missed everything in between. That all changed in 2012, when China built a high speed rail line from the north to the south of the country. Now you could board a train at 9am in cold, snowy Beijing, and get off 8 hours later in tropical Guangzhou, at the same latitude as Havana.

    A few years later the line was extended further south to Hong Kong, where you arrive an hour later. For the first time ever, humans can see the gradual change in landscape from the temperate zone to the tropics, all in a single day.”
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  4. “In the picture, he departs from this earth like an arrow.”
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    Especially given the context, the rest of this first paragraph is some of the finest writing I have ever read. That is not an exaggeration.
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  5. “But improving American higher education would be the final plank of the Tyler Cowen industrial policy.”
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    Tyler Cowen on industrial policy in America.

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”

ROW: Links for 4th September, 2019

  1. “Culinarily, they are among the most homesick people I have ever met.”
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    Guess who? The last paragraph I enjoyed thoroughly, by the way
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  2. Sanjaya Baru on the (new?) geopolitics of Asia.
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  3. speaking of which
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  4. On aspirations.
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  5. Would you recognize the queen if you happened to bump into her?