Thursday, August 15, 2019

Microeconomic success, macroeconomic failure

When I teach macroeconomics, I use a dog and bone analogy to demonstrate that the macro-economy is not equivalent to just “adding up” the micro.

Let’s see the analogy in action.

In the dog and bone economy, ten dogs repeatedly try to find nine bones buried in the yard. Each round, at least one dog misses out. We think that this outcome is undesirable— we can’t have an economy with over 10% dog “bone poverty” and perpetual “dog unemployment”!

Some astute dog economists notice that dogs that miss out on a bone are usually a little slower, or have some other traits that make them relatively poor performers. They reason that there is a “skills mismatch” that, if corrected, could solve the macro-economic problems in the dog economy.

These economists go the extra mile and conduct some randomised controlled trials on interventions that seem promising.
  1. Give the dogs that miss out a head start
  2. Provide the dogs that miss out advice about where to find the bones
  3. Train the dogs that miss out to sniff out bones better
After trialling each of these interventions, the results come in. They are astounding!

In each policy experiment, dogs that missed out on finding a bone 75% of the time in the control group only missed out 5% of the time in the treatment group.

The researchers responded to media enquiries about their results. “This is the largest effect I’ve ever seen in a social science intervention,” they said.

If it can be replicated at scale, the experimenters may have hit on a powerful new tool for dismantling bone poverty in the dog economy. Policymakers are now looking to invest in expanding these programs in dog parks across the country.

I don’t know about you, but it always helps me to understand what is really going on when we talk in the abstract. In the dog economy, it is clear that regardless of the microeconomic success of these interventions, there is still going to be “dog poverty” and “dog unemployment” because of the macroeconomic conditions. There are always nine bones and ten dogs. At least one dog still misses out and experiences “dog poverty”.

Helping someone jump the queue for access to scarce resources is obviously going to help that individual. But it can’t help everyone in the queue.

And yet, these microeconomic “queue-jumping” policies are politically attractive. Job training is widely thought to be an important tool for solving unemployment. But if the unemployed are competing over scarce jobs, then job training can only change the preferred ordering of candidates.

A recently popular policy in this vein has been “intensive housing counselling”. This involves lobbying landlords on behalf of housing voucher tenants and advising these tenants to move to “high opportunity areas”. Not surprisingly, these tenants took up the professional advice and assistance given to them.

As one tenant noted, after deciding where they would like to move, the housing counsellors “pretty much took care of the rest. I gave them my information, they gave my information to the leasing office, they applied for me, and they helped with the first month’s rent and the renter’s insurance for a year.”

Making renting and finding a home easier is great. I’m not going to argue against that.

But what puzzles me is this. Like the nine dogs and ten bones, not everyone in a “low opportunity area” can move to a “high opportunity area”. And in fact, as people start to move out of these “low opportunity areas” those areas will have even fewer economic opportunities for residents that ultimately move into them! The policy can’t “add up” to the macro, despite its success at the micro-level.

So what sort of policies do work at a macro level?

In the dog economy, the thing that works is to compress the “bone distribution”—take the nine bones, cut off one-tenth of each bone, and let the ten dogs access 9/10ths of a bone each. Alternatively, have a handler keep some bones in reserve to share amongst the dogs that miss out. Macroeconomic success requires a mechanism that changes the nature of the game itself, rather than the individual behaviour within it.

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