Friday, September 26, 2008

New wikipedia entry

Just a short note this time.

I have written a new wikipedia entry for the Rebound Effect - which many of you would know is the topic of my thesis. If you are interested in a brief summary of what I have been spending my time on this past year, take a look.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Tyranny of Choice

No, the title is not original and there is a good reason for this – choices have long been a source of concern for many people. And in recent years, choices have grown at a rapid rate. The question posed by Barry Schwartz, author of the book The Paradox of Choice, is whether all this choice has improved the welfare of society. Or, as he suggests, has the dazzling array of choices put as all at a disadvantage. How does this paradox occur?

First imagine choosing an ice-cream flavour. First you go to a store with only chocolate and vanilla. You weigh up the benefits of each flavour against the other, and make a choice. If you choose chocolate, vanilla is what economists term the opportunity cost. It is the forgone alternative for making a decision. Every time we make a choice, not only are we choosing one alternative, we are choosing to forgo another.

No let’s consider an ice-cream store with 30 flavours. To make a decision here, you need to weigh up the benefits of each of the 30 flavours to decide which is preferred. This is no mean feat, considering the likely limitations in knowledge of each of the flavours. When we decide, the opportunity cost of the decision is any one of the 29 other flavours we have forgone. And quite simply, the more alternatives we forgo, the less likely we are to be assured that the decision we made was the best alternative. In fact, people are much less happy with the decision they made when there are more alternatives, even if it is definitely the best one for them. This is because there is only a slight benefit over the second best alternative, and people only judge outcomes on this marginal benefit.

Also, if we compare ice-cream flavours in a pairwise manner, which means comparing two at a time, to determine our preferred flavour, we end up with 2¬30 small decisions to make, equal to the one we made at the previous store when we only had to decide between chocolate and vanilla. This can often lead to decision paralysis, where we simply avoid the choice because the process of making a choice itself is such a burden that the ice-cream will not make up for it.

Decision paralysis can bee seen widely in everyday life. At the moment, a friend of mine is visiting from abroad, and is trying to make a choice about his direction in life. Because there are so many options to choose he cannot pick one over the other, and when he does choose, there will be a second best alternative very close to as good as the one he takes, which he will always compare himself to.

In behavioural economics experiments it has been clearly shown that too much choice is a hindrance. For example, consider those free taste tests you sometimes get at the supermarket. It has been shown that it is best not to give too many options. The taste tests that give less than five varieties get more people to buy any one of them than taste tests with ten or more varieties. Also, companies that offer only three or fewer alternative health insurance plans to their employees in the US, get a much higher uptake in insurance than those who offer between ten and thirty different plans.

This leaves us in a tricky situation. If we only derive satisfaction from the benefit we get from a choice compared with the next best alternative, than too much choice is bring down human welfare. It is making us unhappy. But is there an optimal amount of choice?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Valuing the apples and bananas

It has come up for discussion in blogs, at bbqs, and international conventions, but we are still no closer to a workable solution for valuing the environment. When I say environment, what I mean specifically are natural ecological systems. And when I say valuing, I mean determining the contribution of these systems to the welfare of humanity. The difficulty for environmental economists is determining the value of these ecological systems in a common measure with the value we derived from conventional consumption – that is, in dollar terms. If we can establish a value for the environment it becomes a simple procedure to evaluate the human welfare implications of any land development.

So how do we go about comparing apples (the welfare we gain from the environment) and bananas (the welfare we gain from consumption)? One approach often used is to estimate the contribution of one particular ecological service, for example pollination by insects, to the economic production ( But this conventional approach estimates the contribution of ecological services to the production of real goods – in the pollination example, the contribution to agricultural production. By this only tells half the story. It tells the banana story, as it only looks at the value to production. The apple story is the welfare we gain from pollination in terms of its role in ecological systems that provide us with clean air, water, and any other non-economic way it which it improves the human experience. We cannot maximise human welfare without an estimate of apples and bananas.

The only reason we have certainty that conventional consumption (the stuff money can buy) provides us with increased welfare is because we are willing to pay for it. If we are voluntarily willing to give up other consumption for consumption of that good we must be benefiting. But if we take this willingness to pay principle to the environment, we face some hurdles. First, imaging your willingness to pay for a day’s breathable air. For me, it is almost infinite (if there is no alternative way of getting breathable air). Then we can look at water. A man dying of thirst in the desert would pay his life’s fortune for a little clean water. So in a way, we could say that these environmental services we get each day for free are infinitely valuable.

But most of us still receive these free environmental services each day even though we have severely disrupted the ecological systems that support it. So how do we know whether development that destroys ecological systems leads to a reduction in the welfare?

These are just some of the hurdles we face when trying incorporate the value to humanity from the environment into consideration. If you know of other concerns, please let me know. This is a big topic that will be the focus of much future research.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Too fat to fail

I remember a quirky line from Richard Branson’s autobiography. It went something like this – if you borrow $40,000 from the bank and can’t repay, it’s your problem, but if you borrow $40million and can’t repay, it’s the bank’s problem. He was talking about borrowing to buy planes for Virgin airlines, but a similar principle applies in so many places – the larger your business, the more people who have an interest in keeping it going. This includes the lenders but also the employees, other firms that do business with you, and the customers.

The reason I raise this point is because of the US Federal government bailout of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae - both private firms dealing in the secondary market for mortgages. While Fannie Mae is a former government agency, and was privatised in 1968, Freddie Mac is a wholly private company, chartered by the US congress in 1970 to provide competition in the secondary mortgage market. All assets of these companies are solely owned by the shareholders, who also reap the profits from their investment.

So we see an interesting dilemma. For an economist, competition between producers provides great benefits to society by responding to demands and pushing down prices. However, inherent in this competitive environment is that businesses will occasionally fail. Problems arise when firms become very large. You can imagine that if the Queensland bank Suncorp went broke – that’s 9000 people out of a job, not to mention the problems with people who are insured by them, and flow on effects to other businesses.

I think economists often forget that their model of perfect markets is far removed from reality. In this model there are a large number of buyers and sellers, and no barriers to entry. Any market with few players and high capital costs is not perfectly competitive. If a firm fails in these oligopolistic markets there can be quite a degree of social disruption. Governments see these social costs as motivation for bailing out large firms. The US, an icon of capitalism, has probably the worst track record for corporate bailouts, with the airline industry post 9-11 another example.

What is most interesting about the bailout of the two secondary mortgage market players is that the intention is to prop up the whole economy. But you don’t see the government propping up the family fish and chip shop, or the local grocer, even though that is their intention in the end. One must wonder what criteria is used to determine whether a corporate bailout will or will not occur.

It is a surprising that any government would go ahead and privatise an industry if they are going to guarantee the newly created private firm against bankruptcy anyway. One criteria for privatisation much surely be that the firm be allowed to go bust. In any case, the issue over excessive scale of corporate enterprise, to the point where failure of the firm creates massive social disruption, should be an issue for governments worldwide.

Any thoughts on this type of government involvement in private enterprise?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Change required for change - a common conundrum

I have witnessed an interesting trend from experts lately. And probably have for a long time, but only recently noticed. They all simply state the obvious - change can happen when change happens.

Maybe an example would help me explain. I watched an interesting movie lately called Where in the world is Osama bin Laden. The guy from Supersize Me goes in search of bin Laden, and along the way interviews an expert on the Middle East. He says, that peace will come, but whenever the process gets started, someone goes and blows something up. Only when people stop fighting for long enough can we begin the peace process. To translate – when peace comes, peace comes. The ‘process of peace’ is peace itself – so where on Earth do you start?

Another example. On the news a few nights ago, an expert on eating disorders said (and I’ll just paraphrase) “that people need to accept their eating disorder and overcome their emotional attachment before therapy can take place”. So, therapy only works if you’ve already cured yourself!

This got me thinking about the origins of change. If the experts can at best say that change comes because change comes, where did it really come from?

I think I’ve found an answer in agent-based computational modelling (ACM). What is that you might ask? Well it’s basically a computer tool that can show how the individual actions of agents (people) in an environment can generate order on a macro level. You simply give each agent a set of rules to live by, and then run the program. As the agents interact with each other and their environment, they simply follow the rules, and you often get amazing patterns occurring.

ACM has been used to show how cooperation can emerge from a population of selfish individuals. As they interact they learn how cooperation can bring beneficial outcomes. But occasionally one of the agents stops cooperating, and depending on the strategy of the others, they can all act selfishly again. But then, cooperation can build up once more.

There are parallels between this and the dilemma of peace in the Middle East. When peace appears to be on its way, one agent stops cooperating, then all the previous cooperation collapses. Then the whole thing starts again.

ACM also has found that long periods of cooperation actually reinforces cooperation by making individuals tolerant of small discrepancies from other agents. But at some point agents will begins to abuse this tolerance. They will free ride, until there are so many free-riders that the others stop benefiting from cooperation, and we start the process once more. The optimistic finding of one of these models is that after a few long periods of peace, a final period of peace emerged that was sustained until the limits of computational power. My only concern is that in this model agents lived forever, and my suspicion is that if agents reproduce, due to lack of experience of the population, the chances of getting to this point are much lower.

Anyway, the expert was right the peace is needed for peace.

The big feature of ACM is that radical changes can appear to happen spontaneously in an environmental where every agent is simple following the same set of rules. Individual actions change even though the rules they are applying stay the same. So the eating disorder person may simply one day ‘snap out of it’ simply because the unconscious, instinctual rules tell us to – just like the got us into it in the first place.

I would like some more examples of change requiring change if you have any.