Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Campbell Harvey: Interview on Topics in Finance

An interview of Campbell Harvey by David A. Price appears in Econ Focus, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond (2015 First Quarter, pp. 26-30). Here are some comments that especially caught my eye, but the rest of the interview contains many additional nuggets like Harvey's comments on Bitcoin, a countercyclical risk premium, CEO overconfidence, and why people keep buying actively managed investment funds although they don't seem to beat the market on average.

Concerning the differences between doing work in practical finance inside a company and doing academic finance
To be published in academic finance or economics, the idea must be unique; it's the same in the practice of finance — you're looking to do something that your competitors haven't thought of.
There are differences, though. The actual problems that are worked on by practitioners are more applied than the general problems we work on in financial economics.
The second difference is that in academic financial economics, you have the luxury of presenting your paper to colleagues from all over the world. You get feedback, which is really useful. And then you send it in for review and you get even more feedback. In business, it's different; you cannot share trade secrets. You really have to lean on your company colleagues for feedback.
The third thing that's different is access to data for empirical finance. When I was a doctoral student, academia had the best data. For years after that, the pioneering academic research in empirical finance relied on having this leading-edge data. That is no longer the case. The best data available today is unaffordable for any academic institution. It is incredibly expensive and that's a serious limitation in terms of what we can do in our research. Sometimes you see collaborations with companies that allow the academic researchers to access to data that they can't afford to buy. Of course, this induces other issues such as conflicts of interest. ... 
The fourth difference is the assistance that's available. Somebody in academia might work on a paper for months with a research assistant who might be able to offer five to 10 hours per week. In the practice of management, you give the task to a junior researcher and he or she will work around the clock until the task is completed. What takes months in academic research could be just a few days.
The fifth difference is computing power. Academics once had the best computing power. We have access to supercomputing arrays, but those resources are difficult to access. In the practice of management, companies have massive computer power available at their fingertips. For certain types of studies, those using higher frequency data, companies have a considerable advantage.

Concerning some major open questions in finance
One is how you measure the cost of capital. We had the capital asset pricing model in 1964, but the research showed very weak support for it. We have many new models, but we are still not sure. That's on the investment side. On the corporate finance side, it would certainly be nice to know what the optimal leverage for a firm should be. We still do not know that. In banking, is it appropriate that banks have vastly more leverage than regular corporations? Again, we need a model for that. Hopefully these research advances are forthcoming. Some people have made progress, but we just don't know.
Concerning the importance of looking for big research ideas
One thing that was pretty important for me in my development was an office visit with Eugene Fama, my dissertation adviser, where I had a couple of ideas to pitch for a dissertation. I pitched the first idea, and he barely looked up from whatever paper he was reading and shook his head, saying, "That's a small idea. I wouldn't pursue it." Then I hit him with the second idea, which I thought was way better than the first one. And he kind of looked up and said, "Ehh, it's OK. It's an OK idea." He added, "Maybe you can get a publication out of it, but not in a top journal." He indicated I should come back when I had another. Even though he had shot down both of my ideas, I left feeling energized. The message from him was that I had a chance of hitting a big idea. That interaction, which I am sure he doesn't remember, was very influential — it pushed me to search for big ideas and not settle on the small ones.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Crossing the Ravine from Economic Theory to Policy Advice

When describing the benefits of learning economics to often-skeptical listeners, I often quote Joan Robinson (in the 1978 book Contributions to Modern Economics, p. 75): "The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists."

After all, if you don't know any economics, you are likely at some point to find yourself in a discussion of policy or social issues where at some point the other person says: "Well, even a basic knowledge of economics will tell you that my view is correct." That person may be totally wrong; in my experience, that person is often totally wrong. But if you don't know any economics, you have no easy way to refute this claim about what "economics" implies.

David Colander makes a similar point more thoroughly in his "Economics with Attitude" column in the Fall 2015 issue of the Eastern Economic Journal, "Economic Theory Has Nothing to Say about Policy(and Principles Textbooks Should Tell Students That)" (41: pp. 461-465). He begins his way:
Let me start with a quiz: 
● Question 1: According to economic theory, whenever possible government should avoid tariffs.
● Question 2: According to economic theory, the minimum wage lowers the welfare of society.
● Question 3: According to economic theory, if there are no externalities, the market is the preferable way of allocating resources. 
The correct answer to each of these questions is false; economic theory, on its own, has nothing to say about policy.
Colander distinguishes between theorems and precepts, and discuses how the pedagogical emphasis has shifted between these over time. Theorems are results derived from models and assumptions. "Precepts are based on the insights coming from models, combined with educated judgments about all relevant aspects of the decisions that the model assumes away for tractability reasons. These include moral judgments, historical knowledge, and institutional understanding. Precepts are the realm of economic statesmen, not economic scientists." With this distinction in mind, Colander writes:
 All students coming out of a principles course should know that before one can make a meaningful judgment about policy, there is a lot of history, moral philosophy, and additional peripheral knowledge that is needed to move from theory to policy. Even if we don’t teach the nuance, we can teach the need for nuance in policy discussion. Every beginning economics student should know that economic theorems are not enough to arrive at policy conclusion.
Colander has been contributing short, lively essays at the start of each issue for the EEJ, and the essays are freely available at least for a time. Earlier essays in 2015 include his remembrances of Gordon Tullock. an argument that there is too much intellectual in-breeding (that is, cross-hiring) at Harvard and MIT, and a critique of the overly enthusiastic reaction to Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Global Value Chains and Rethinking Production and Trade

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, manufacturing often meant enormous factories that tried to bring as many activities as possible under one roof--what economists call "vertical integration." However, the trend in recent decades has been toward "global value chains," in which production is not only divided up among a number of specialized facilities, but in additional those facilities are often located in different countries. João Amador and Filippo di Mauro have edited The Age of Global Value Chains: Maps and Policy Issues, a ebook from the Centre for Economic Policy Research. The volume includes an introduction, 13 essays, and an appendix about data.

One classic example of a vertically integrated plant was the River Rouge plant run by Ford Motor Company in the 1920s and 1930s. Here's a description:

Located a few miles south of Detroit at the confluence of the Rouge and Detroit Rivers, the original Rouge complex was a mile-and-a-half wide and more than a mile long. The multiplex of 93 buildings totaled 15,767,708 square feet of floor area crisscrossed by 120 miles of conveyors.
There were ore docks, steel furnaces, coke ovens, rolling mills, glass furnaces and plate-glass rollers. Buildings included a tire-making plant, stamping plant, engine casting plant, frame and assembly plant, transmission plant, radiator plant, tool and die plant, and, at one time, even a paper mill. A massive power plant produced enough electricity to light a city the size of nearby Detroit, and a soybean conversion plant turned soybeans into plastic auto parts.
The Rouge had its own railroad with 100 miles of track and 16 locomotives. A scheduled bus network and 15 miles of paved roads kept everything and everyone on the move.
It was a city without residents. At its peak in the 1930s, more than 100,000 people worked at the Rouge. To accommodate them required a multi-station fire department, a modern police force, a fully staffed hospital and a maintenance crew 5,000 strong. One new car rolled off the line every 49 seconds. Each day, workers smelted more than 1,500 tons of iron and made 500 tons of glass, and every month 3,500 mop heads had to be replaced to keep the complex clean.
In the modern economy, global value chains are coming to define what international trade is all about. From the introduction by Amador and di Mauro:

Until the late 19th century, the production of goods was very much a local affair, with inputs, factors of productions and markets being at only a marginal distance from one another. It was only after the ‘steam revolution’ that railroads and steamships started to be used for the transportation of goods, making the sale of excess production to other geographical areas feasible and profitable thanks to the exploitation of economies of scale. Baldwin (2006) refers to this as the first ‘unbundling’, i.e. the process that enabled production to be separated from consumption. ...

This transport revolution, while making trade cheaper and at the same time favouring large-scale production, led to the local clustering of production in factories and industrial areas. The geographical proximity of various stages of production made it easier to coordinate increasingly complex production processes and to minimise the associated coordination costs. Due to coordination costs, proximity was very important up until the mid-1980s. It was only then that the information and communication technology (ICT) revolution made it possible to reduce those costs by enabling complexity to be coordinated at a distance. Thanks to the sharp progress in ICT, not only could
consumption be separated from production, but production could also be broken up. The possibility of relocating the different stages of production theoretically enabled different tasks within a production process to be performed by geographically dispersed production units. This was termed the ‘second unbundling’ in international trade, leading to the sharing of production between developed and developing economies from the mid-1980s onwards. ...
The relocation of these stages of manufacturing to developing countries fostered high growth rates in emerging markets and was further enhanced by domestic policies aimed at attracting foreign capital. As a consequence, the ‘second unbundling’ reversed the previous industrialisation/non-industrialisation pattern prevalent in developed and developing countries. This change of fortunes represents one of the biggest economic transformations of the last decades and it reshaped, and will continue to shape, the balance of power in both international and economic relations. ...
The importance of GVCs has been steadily increasing in the last decades and, as reported in UNCTAD’s 2013 World Investment Report, about 60% of global trade consists of trade in intermediate goods and services, which are then incorporated at different stages of production.
The shift to global value chains raises an array of questions from basic conceptual and measurement and conceptual issues to domestic and international policy. At the most basic level, global value chains challenge the standard ways of even talking about international trade as what one country imports from another. But some substantial portion of what, say, the US imports from China was actually imported into China, used to produce output, and then exported out of China. To put it another way, exports from a given country in a world with global value chains don't measure what was actually produced in that country.

In studies of global value chains, a standard measure is to calculate what proportion of the value-added from a country's exports are actually from imported inputs. Here's a table showing how the share of foreign-value added in exports has generally been rising since 2000, from the essay by João Amador, Rita Cappariello, and Robert Stehrer:

Measuring trade in terms of value-added between countries, not in terms of the value of what is shipped, can alter one's view of trade flows. For example, the essay by Arne J. Nagengast and Robert Stehrer provides a figure showing differences in trade flows between certain pairs of countries using the standard import and export statistics, and using statistics on value-added in exports and imports. As one example, the US trade deficit with China looks smaller and the trade deficit with Japan looks larger--because inputs from Japan are being exported to China, used in production, and then shipped to the US. As the importance of global value chains rises, these divergences become bigger, too.

Another issue is whether global value chains are truly global, or whether instead there are groupings of international but regional value chains--sometimes labelled as Factory Asia, Factory North America, and Factory Europe. In their essay, Bart Los, Marcel Timmer and Gaaitzen de Vries
argued that while the regional dimension has been strong in the past, "‘Factory World’ is emerging." They write: "Our analysis shows that value chains have become considerably more global in nature since 2003. Increasing shares of the value of a product are added outside the region to which the country-of-completion belongs. Regional blocs like ‘Factory Europe’ are still important, but the construction of ‘Factory World’ is progressing rapidly."

The rise in global supply chains also has implications for countries looking for their niche in the global economy. The old-style approach was to focus on what your domestic chain of production and what your economy produced; the new-style approach is to focus on how your economy might fit into an international global value chain. The new emphasis means that connections to information and communication technology become even more important, because they are essential to managing far-flung production chains. Financial and legal institutions also matter more, because these sprawling production chains will require moving money and solving disputes in expeditious ways.

For those who would like even more of an entree into the academic research on global value chains than provided in this ebook, a useful starting point is a two-paper symposium on this topic in the Spring 2014 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives:
(Full disclosure: I've worked as Managing Editor of JEP since the first issue of the journal in 1987.)

Friday, August 28, 2015

Falling Labor Share: Measurement Issues and Candidate Explanations

It is a remarkable fact that the labor share of income in the United States hovered in the range of 60-65% of total income for 50 years--but has declined since 2000 and seems to be still falling. Roc Armenter explores how this figure is measured and some possible explanations for the recent change in "A Bit of a Miracle No More: The Decline of the Labor Share," published in the Business Review from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve (Third Quarter 2015, pp. 1-7).

Armenter reminds us that in the construction of income statistics, "Every dollar of income earned by U.S. households can be classified as either labor earnings — wages and other forms of compensation — or capital earnings — interest or dividend payments and rent." Here's the basic pattern of the falling share of labor income:

One possible explanation for this change involves alterations in  how the statistics for labor and capital income are calculated over time. The single biggest factor here appears to be a change in how the income of self-employed workers is treated. The official statistics divide up their income as if the person was working a certain number of hours for pay, which is counted as "labor income," while the rest of their income is "capital income" due to ownership of capital in the form of their business. But the way in which the Bureau of Labor Statistics does this division changed back in 2001. Armenter explains:
Indeed, until 2001, the BLS’s methodology assigned most of proprietor’s income to the labor share, a bit more than four-fifths of it. Since then, less than half of proprietor’s income has been classified as labor income. ... [A]t least one-third and possibly closer to half of the drop in the headline labor share is due to how the BLS treats proprietor’s income.
Before thinking about why the labor share has fallen, it's worth thinking about the remarkable fact that it didn't change for such a long time. After all, the period from 1950-2000 sees a rise in the share of workers in service industry jobs, along with enormous growth in industries like health care and financial services. Surely, all of this should be expected to alter the labor share of income in one way or another?

Back in 1939, John Maynard Keynes wrote an article (“Relative Movements of Real Wages and Output,” Economic Journal, 49: 34–51) pointing out that the division between labor and capital income appeared to have been the same for the preceding 20 years in the data available to him. He points out five separate factors that should have been affecting the shares of labor and capital over time, and notes that apparently the changes in these factors are almost exactly offsetting each other, He characterized these closely offsetting effects as  "a bit of a miracle"--a phrase that Armenter uses in the title of his article.  The minor miracle of a roughly stable labor share of income for several decades after 1950 arises from its own array of offsetting changes in industries and in labor share of industries,  Armenter explains (footnotes omitted):
The reader would not be surprised to learn that different sectors use labor and capital in different proportions. In 1950, the manufacturing sector averaged a labor share of 62 percent, with some subsectors having even higher labor shares, such as durable goods manufacturing, with a labor share of 77 percent. Services instead relied more on capital and thus had lower labor shares: an average of 48 percent. Thus, from 1950 to 1987, the sector with a high labor share (manufacturing) was cut in half, while the sector with a low labor share (services) doubled. The aggregate labor share is, naturally, the weighted average across these sectors. Therefore, we would have expected the aggregate labor share to fall. But as we already know, it did not. The reason is that, coincidentally with the shift from manufacturing to services, the labor share of the service sector rose sharply, from 48 percent in 1950 to 56 percent in 1987. Education and health services went from labor shares around 50 percent to the highest values in the whole economy, close to 84 percent. In manufacturing, the labor share was substantially more stable, increasing by less than 2 percentage points over the period. And this is the “bit of a miracle” — that the forces affecting the labor share across and within sectors just happened to cancel each other out over a period of almost half a century.
So what changed? The gradual shift from manufacturing to service jobs continued. The labor share within the service sector has continued increasing. The big change is that the labor share of manufacturing has fallen dramatically. More specifically, what seems to have happened is labor productivity in the manufacturing sector has kept rising, but wages in manufacturing have not kept pace. Here's Armenter:
We readily find out which part of the economy is behind the decline of the labor share once we look at the change in the labor share within manufacturing, which dropped almost 10 percentage points. Virtually all the major manufacturing subsectors saw their labor shares fall; for nondurable goods manufacturing it dropped from 62 percent to 40 percent. ... What ended the “miracle” was the precipitous decline in the labor share within manufacturing.

This divergence between manufacturing productivity and wages started back in the 1980s, which seems a little early to match the timeline of the decline in labor share starting in 2000. However, one can cobble together a story in which the decline in labor share started in the late 1980s, was interrupted for a time by the white-hot and unsustainable labor market conditions during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, and then continued on its path of decline.

What caused the decline in labor share? Armenter runs through some possible explanations, while emphasizing that none of them are complete. For example, a "capital deepening" explanation holds that there is more capital in US manufacturing, which could explain lower income shares in manufacturing--but doesn't explain why wages in manufacturing stopped keeping up with productivity increases. A globalization explanation might help to explain this shift if the US was tending to import goods in industries that had high labor share and to export goods in industries with a lower labor share. But this factor doesn't seem able to explain the observed shift. as Armenter explains: "The main challenge to the hypothesis is that U.S. exports and imports are very similar in their factor composition. That is, were trade driving down the labor share, we would observe the U.S. importing goods that use a lot of labor and exporting goods that use a lot of capital. Instead, most international trade involves exchanging goods that are very similar, such as cars."

An explanation not explicitly considered by Armenter, although it is in the spirit of the other explanations, comes from the work of Susan Houseman. She argues that most of what looks like productivity growth in manufacturing isn't about workers actually producing more, but is because computers have ever-greater capabilities--which the government statisticians measure as productivity growth. She also argues that there is a shift within the manufacturing sector toward importing less expensive inputs to production, which looks like a gain in productivity (that is, fewer inputs needed to produce a given level of output), but is really just cheaper imports of production inputs.

In the spirit of half-full, half-empty analysis, I suppose the positive side of this analysis is that the drop in the share of US labor income is focused on only one part of the economy, and it's a part of the economy--manufacturing, which employs less than 10% of the US workforce (12.3 million jobs in manufacturing, compared to 148 million jobs in the entire US economy). Of course, the half-empty side is that no matter what the reason why the minor miracle of a fairly stable labor share has changed, it has in fact changed--and in a way that tends to disadvantage those who receive their income through labor.

For some earlier posts on the falling share of labor income, both from a US and an international point of view, see:

Thursday, August 27, 2015

States as the Laboratories of Democracy: An Historical Note

Perhaps the most famous metaphor defending the virtues of US federalism is that states can act as laboratories of democracy: that is,  states can enact a range of policies, and can then learn from the experiences of other states. The phrase was coined by Justice Louis Brandeis in the 1932 Supreme Court case of New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann (285 U.S. 262). Brandeis wrote: "It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country."

But there's a hearty dash of irony here. Brandeis, however admirable his sentiments about the states as laboratories of democracy, was writing in dissent. In the specific case, the state of Oklahoma had passed a law that required approval from a state-level Corporation Commission for anyone who wanted to start a firm that would make, distribute, or sell ice. The law required that all existing ice-related firms be granted approval by the Corporation Commission to continue functioning: it was only new firms that were required to appear before the Corporation Commission and to argue against the incumbent firms that they should be allowed to begin operations. Thus, the question before the Supreme Court was whether the states, as laboratories of democracy, might ban entry into certain market.

Justice George Sutherland, writing for the majority, argued that the Oklahoma law was unconstitutional under the "due process" clause of the 14th Amendment. Here's  a taste of Sutherland's argument, which argues that state-level experimentation could happen in many ways, but not in a way that stopped people from engaging in lawful business. Sutherland wrote:
"Plainly, a regulation which has the effect of denying or unreasonably curtailing the common right to engage in a lawful private business, such as that under review, cannot be upheld consistent with the Fourteenth Amendment. ...

"Stated succinctly, a private corporation here seeks to prevent a competitor from entering the business of making and selling ice. It claims to be endowed with state authority to achieve this exclusion. There is no question now before us of any regulation by the state to protect the consuming public either with respect to conditions of manufacture and distribution or to insure purity of product or to prevent extortion. The control here asserted does not protect against monopoly, but tends to foster it. The aim is not to encourage competition, but to prevent it; not to regulate the business, but to preclude persons from engaging in it. There is no difference in principle between this case and the attempt of the dairyman under state authority to prevent another from keeping cows and selling milk on the ground that there are enough dairymen in the business; or to prevent a shoemaker from making or selling shoes because shoemakers already in that occupation can make and sell all the shoes that are needed. We are not able to see anything peculiar in the business here in question which distinguishes it from ordinary manufacture and production. ... It is not the case of a natural monopoly, or of an enterprise in its nature dependent upon the grant of public privileges. The particular requirement before us was evidently not imposed to prevent a practical monopoly of the business, since its tendency is quite to the contrary. Nor is it a case of the protection of natural resources. There is nothing in the product that we can perceive on which to rest a distinction, in respect of this attempted control, from other products in common use which enter into free competition, subject, of course, to reasonable regulations prescribed for the protection of the public and applied with appropriate impartiality.
"And it is plain that unreasonable or arbitrary interference or restrictions cannot be saved from the condemnation of that amendment merely by calling them experimental. It is not necessary to challenge the authority of the states to indulge in experimental legislation; but it would be strange and unwarranted doctrine to hold that they may do so by enactments which transcend the limitations imposed upon them by the Federal Constitution."
In his dissent, Brandeis made several interlocking arguments. He argued that the ice business might have large economies of scale, in which case a few large firms could produce more cheaply than many small firms. In this setting, he argued that competition in the ice business could easily lead to a downward spiral of bankruptcies, and cited the past experience of railroads as a situation where capacity was overbuilt and mass bankruptcies occurred. He also argued that ice could be viewed as a "necessity of life" in Oklahoma. Here's a taste of the Brandeis argument (footnotes omitted):
In Oklahoma a regular supply of ice may reasonably be considered a necessary of life, comparable to that of water, gas, and electricity. The climate, which heightens the need of ice for comfortable and wholesome living, precludes resort to the natural product. There, as elsewhere, the development of the manufactured ice industry in recent years has been attended by deep-seated alterations in the economic structure and by radical changes in habits of popular thought and living. Ice has come to be regarded as a household necessity, indispensable to the preservation of food and so to economical household management and the maintenance of health. Its commercial uses are extensive. ... We cannot say that the Legislature of Oklahoma acted arbitrarily in declaring that ice is an article of primary necessity, in industry and agriculture as well as in the household, partaking of the fundamental character of electricity, gas, water, transportation, and communication. ...
The business of supplying ice is not only a necessity, like that of supplying food or clothing or shelter, but the Legislature could also consider that it is one which lends itself peculiarly to monopoly. Characteristically the business is conducted in local plants with a market narrowly limited in area, and this for the reason that ice manufactured at a distance cannot effectively compete with a plant on the ground. In small towns and rural communities the duplication of plants, and in larger communities the duplication of delivery service, is wasteful and ultimately burdensome to consumers. At the same time the relative ease and cheapness with which an ice plant may be constructed exposes the industry to destructive and frequently ruinous competition. Competition in the industry tends to be destructive because ice plants have a determinate capacity, and inflexible fixed charges and operating costs, and because in a market of limited area the volume of sales is not readily expanded. Thus, the erection of a new plant in a locality already adequately served often causes managers to go to extremes in cutting prices in order to secure business. Trade journals and reports of association meetings of ice manufacturers bear ample witness to the hostility of the industry to such competition, and to its unremitting efforts, through trade associations, informal agreements, combination of delivery systems, and in particular through the consolidation of plants, to protect markets and prices against competition of any character.
I'm not confident that Brandeis's economics is coherent. If it's true that large established firms in the ice industry have a huge cost advantage from economies of scale, then presumably they shouldn't have much to fear from smaller-scale competitors. In such a case, there might be an argument for regulating the price of ice as a monopoly. But smaller-scale competitors seeking to enter the industry would immediately face losses and have little chance of gaining market share. Industries looking for protection always claim that hobbling the competition would benefit consumers, and such claims were especially popular during the Great Depression, but there is ample reason to be skeptical of such self-interested claims.

But more broadly, an open society can be viewed as having a number of laboratories. States can be one of the laboratories of democracy, along with cities, and the opportunities for experimentation within federal laws. Private firms and new entrants are the laboratories for methods of production, workplace rules and compensation, and new technologies. Public schools can be viewed as laboratories of education, while colleges and universities are also laboratories of education, as well as research. Media and publications can be viewed as laboratories for shaping social opinions and decisions. Social structures like families, communities, and churches can be viewed as a series of laboratories for other changes in social relations. In a constitutional democracy, government should face some limits when it seeks to shut down society's other laboratories. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

John Kenneth Galbraith on Writing, Inspiration, and Simplicity

John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) was trained as an economist, but in books like The Affluent Society (1958) and The New Industrial State (1967), he found his metier as a social critic. In these books and voluminous other writings, Galbraith didn't propose well-articulated economic theories, and carry out systematic empirical tests, but instead offered big-picture perspectives of the economy and society of his time. His policy advice was grindingly predictable: big and bigger doses of progressive liberalism, what he sometimes called "new socialism." 

For a sense of how mainstream and Democratic-leaning economists of the time dismissed Galbraith's work, classic example is this scathing-and-smiling review of The New Industrial State by Robert Solow in the Fall 1967 issue of The Public Interest. Galbreath's response appears in the same issue. Connoisseurs of academic blood sports will enjoy the exchange.

Here, I come not to quarrel with Galbraith's economics, but to praise him as one of the finest writers on economics and social science topics it has ever been my pleasure to read. I take as my text his essay on "Writing, Typing, and Economics," which appeared in the March 1978 issue of The Atlantic and which I recently rediscovered. Here are some highlights:

"All writers know that on some golden mornings they are touched by the wand — are on intimate terms with poetry and cosmic truth. I have experienced those moments myself. Their lesson is simple: It's a total illusion. And the danger in the illusion is that you will wait for those moments. Such is the horror of having to face the typewriter that you will spend all your time waiting. I am persuaded that most writers, like most shoemakers, are about as good one day as the next (a point which Trollope made), hangovers apart. The difference is the result of euphoria, alcohol, or imagination. The meaning is that one had better go to his or her typewriter every morning and stay there regardless of the seeming result. It will be much the same. ..."
"My advice to those eager students in California would be, "Do not wait for the golden moment. It may well be worse." I would also warn against the flocking tendency of writers and its use as a cover for idleness. It helps greatly in the avoidance of work to be in the company of others who are also waiting for the golden moment. The best place to write is by yourself, because writing becomes an escape from the terrible boredom of your own personality. It's the reason that for years I've favored Switzerland, where I look at the telephone and yearn to hear it ring. ..."
"There may be inspired writers for whom the first draft is just right. But anyone who is not certifiably a Milton had better assume that the first draft is a very primitive thing. The reason is simple: Writing is difficult work. Ralph Paine, who managed Fortune in my time, used to say that anyone who said writing was easy was either a bad writer or an unregenerate liar. Thinking, as Voltaire avowed, is also a very tedious thing which men—or women—will do anything to avoid. So all first drafts are deeply flawed by the need to combine composition with thought. Each later draft is less demanding in this regard. Hence the writing can be better. There does come a time when revision is for the sake of change—when one has become so bored with the words that anything that is different looks better. But even then it may be better. ..." 
"Next, I would want to tell my students of a point strongly pressed, if my memory serves, by Shaw. He once said that as he grew older, he became less and less interested in theory, more and more interested in information. The temptation in writing is just the reverse. Nothing is so hard to come by as a new and interesting fact. Nothing is so easy on the feet as a generalization. I now pick up magazines and leaf through them looking for articles that are rich with facts; I do not care much what they are. Richly evocative and deeply percipient theory I avoid. It leaves me cold unless I am the author of it. ..." 
"In the case of economics there are no important propositions that cannot be stated in plain language. Qualifications and refinements are numerous and of great technical complexity. These are important for separating the good students from the dolts. But in economics the refinements rarely, if ever, modify the essential and practical point. The writer who seeks to be intelligible needs to be right; he must be challenged if his argument leads to an erroneous conclusion and especially if it leads to the wrong action. But he can safely dismiss the charge that he has made the subject too easy. The truth is not difficult. Complexity and obscurity have professional value—they are the academic equivalents of apprenticeship rules in the building trades. They exclude the outsiders, keep down the competition, preserve the image of a privileged or priestly class. The man who makes things clear is a scab. He is criticized less for his clarity than for his treachery.
"Additionally, and especially in the social sciences, much unclear writing is based on unclear or incomplete thought. It is possible with safety to be technically obscure about something you haven't thought out. It is impossible to be wholly clear on something you do not understand. Clarity thus exposes flaws in the thought. The person who undertakes to make difficult matters clear is infringing on the sovereign right of numerous economists, sociologists, and political scientists to make bad writing the disguise for sloppy, imprecise, or incomplete thought. One can understand the resulting anger." 

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Human Breast Milk Market

The market for human breast milk starts with demand from hospitals for pre-term infants.. The American Academy of Pediatrics writes:
The potent benefits of human milk are such that all preterm infants should receive human milk. ...  Mother’s own milk, fresh or frozen, should be the primary diet, and it should be fortified appropriately for the infant born weighing less than 1.5 kg. If mother’s own milk is unavailable despite significant lactation support, pasteurized donor milk should be used.
The demand then continues with a belief that human milk might have properties that are useful to adults as well. Some biomedical companies are involved in research, and there is apparently a subculture of bodybuilders who believe that consuming human milk helps them build muscle.

What are the sources of supply to meet this demand? One source is donations that happen though the 19 locations of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, as well as other donor organizations. But there are also for-profit companies emerging like Prolacta Bioscience and International Milk Bank which buy breast-milk, screen and test it, sometimes add additional nutrients, and then sells it to hospitals. There are also websites that facilitate buying and selling breast-milk.

This market is one where prices are fairly clear: the for-profit companies typically offer moms $1.50- $2 per ounce for breast milk, and end up selling it to hospitals for roughly $4 per ounce. Quantities are less clear, although for a rough sense, the nonprofit Human Milk Banking Association of North America dispensed 3.1 million ounces of breast milk in 2013, while a single for-profit firm, Prolacta, plans to process 3.4 million ounces this year.

Any product that involves a mixture of donated and paid-for elements is going to be a source for controversy, and when the product involves fluids from the human body, the controversy is going to ramp up one more level. Here are some of the issues:

Many people have a gut-level reaction that human breast milk for neonatal children is the sort of product that should be run on the basis of donations. But two concerns arise here, as enunciated by Julie P.  Smith in "Market, breastfeeding and trade in mother's milk," which appears earlier this year in the International Breastfeeding Journal (10:9). As Smith writes: "Human milk is being bought and sold. Commodifying and marketing human milk and breastfeeding risk reinforcing social and gender economic inequities. Yet there are potential benefits for breastfeeding, and some of the world’s poorest women might profit. How can we improve on the present situation where everyone except the woman who donates her milk benefits?" There are a number of ideas to unpack here.

First, a substantially expanded supply of breast-milk would improve the health prospects of pre-term infants. Donated breast-milk doesn't seem able to fill the need.

Second, it's not clear why mothers should be expected to pump, save and donate breast milk for free, when the rest of the health care system is getting paid. In some practical sense, the social choice may come to paying the health care system to address the sicknesses that infants experience from a lack of breast milk, or paying mothers for breast milk.

Third, there are real issues here involving social inequalities. Earlier this year in Detroit,  a company called Medolac announced a plan to purchase breast milk. It received a hostile open letter with a number of signatories, starting with the head of the Black Mothers' Breastfeeding Association. The letter read, in part:

[W]e are writing to you in the spirit of open dialogue about your company’s recent attempts to recruit African-American and low-income women in Detroit to sell their breast milk to your company, Medolac Laboratories. We are troubled by your targeting of African-American mothers, and your focus on Detroit in particular. We are concerned that this initiative has neither thoroughly factored in the historical context of milk sharing nor the complex social and economic challenges facing Detroit families. ... Around the country, African-American women face unique economic hardships, and this is no less true in our city. In addition, African American women have been impacted traumatically by historical commodification of our bodies. Given the economic incentives, we are deeply concerned that women will be coerced into diverting milk that they would otherwise feed their own babies.
Medolac withdrew its proposal. Without getting into the language of the letter ("commodification" and "coercion" are not being used in the sense of an economics class), the basic public health question remains: Given the very substantial health benefits of breast milk for infants, can it make sense to offer mothers a financial incentive to sell their breast milk? Especially knowing that this incentive will have greater weight for mothers in lower income groups?

Fourth, the economic choices involves in breastfeeding are inevitably intertangled with other choices that face nursing mothers. Julie Smith points out that there are a variety of incentives to encourage early weaning of infants, like the promotion of infant formula and baby food products, combined with laws and rules affecting how quickly new mothers will re-enter the workforce. Reconsidering these incentives in a broader context, with an eye to encouraging breastfeeding in all contexts, could potentially lead both to more breastfeeding and to greater supplies of donated breast milk. Smith writes;
‘The market’ fails to protect breastfeeding, because market prices give the wrong signals. An economic approach to the problem of premature weaning from optimal breastfeeding may help prioritise global maternity protection as the foundation for sustainable development of human capital and labour productivity. It would remove fiscal subsidies for breast milk substitutes, tax their sale to recoup health system costs, and penalise their free supply, promotion and distribution. By removing widespread incentives for premature weaning, the resources would be available for the world to invest more in breastfeeding.
Finally, in an internet-based economy that excels at connecting decentralized suppliers and buyers, there is no chance that the paid market for breast milk is going away/ At least some of the market--say, the demand from body-builders--is likely to remain shadowy. But for neonatal infants and research purposes, it is useful for the bulk of  the breast-milke market to come out of the shadows so that it can be subject to basic regulations, assuring that the breast milk isn't adulterated by cow's milk, microbes, or worse.

If you'd like another example of the potential for economic markets in bodily fluids, I discuss the arguments concerning how to increase the supply of blood in "Volunteers for Blood, Paying for Plasma" (May 16, 2014).  A proposal for using the recently dead as a source of blood donations is here.