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<<Spoilers Below>>

The Dark Knight is a good film.  What made it a great film for me – a man who has just spent a year writing a thesis on game theory – is the amount of game theory contained within it.  The most obvious is the ferry situation.  There has been some extremely good discussion on the blogosphere in regard to the game theory in the movie: here and here are what I found to be the best.  If you are interested in this, I suggest reading those blogs – and the comments – before proceeding with the rest of this post.  It will give necessary background.

The ferry situation could be described as a prisoner’s dilemma or a game of chicken. However, as the two aforementioned blogs point out, the situation is certainly a game of chicken with a twist.  Emphasis on the twist.

Here is my analysis for the situation:

Each boat has a choice of “Detonate” or “Not Detonate.”  However there is a chance that (1) Batman finds a way to prevent the Joker from detonating the boats if they both choose “Not Detonate” – which happens or (2) the Joker was dishonest in that he’d blow up the boats or (3) the Joker’s description of the rules are in some other way dishonest – he’ll blow up the boats anyway, etc.  The entirety of this chance could be represented as a chance node: p = probability that Batman can foil the Joker’s plan or the Joker was dishonest to the benefit of the people on the boat; (1-p) = probability that the game is exactly as the Joker states, or worse.  I assign payoffs as follows: 7 = live without blowing up the other boat; 5 = live with blowing up other boat; 0 = die.  (You could also complicate matters further by adding another payoff of 1 = die but with the dignity of not blowing up the other boat.  It would, however, not change the Nash equilibrium.)

The game tree would appear as:

Hopefully I’ll have a bit more time to work on developing this over the next few days.  Some great fun can be had with it.

– Timothy DeHaut


First, a disclaimer: I do not know nearly enough about (1) economics, particularly as applied to telecommunications markets, or (2) how the Internet works, or, put more festively, “the architecture of the Internet.” Please take my comment with a healthy grain of salt.

On the one hand, this seems very problematic. The Internet functions essentially by sending discrete packets of information anonymously over a decentralized “web” of local networks. If I’m not mistaken, Time Warner’s suggestion would seem to disrupt this model. I’ll steal an analogy I heard when NPR covered this story the other day– this seems no different than a cable company trying to refigure your bill to reflect how much TV you watch. And this seems somewhat absurd to most people.

On the other hand, isn’t this just a free market in action? And aren’t we, in fact, gaining greater efficiency by allowing people to more accurately absorb the costs of their actions, rather than displacing them across a larger population? One way of looking at this might be through a “Tragedy of the Commons” lens. Isn’t privatization the best route for us?

OK, so there’s both poles, at least as I see them. I’d love to have someone help me tidy this up a bit. Any techies and/or economists who can set me straight?

Daniel Corbett

Here’s a business model for you: (1) you have a highly-technical specialty with very few competitors, and (2) better yet, federal law dictates that the materials you use will be provided to you at zero cost. That’s the business model that biotech firms such as LifeCell Corp. are using to make money hand over fist. (LifeCell brought in the tidy sum of $140.6 M last year.)

So how is it that these biotech firms are profiting from our bodies while we get no compensation? The answer is fairly simple. The National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) of 1984 made it illegal for individuals to sell their body parts. This law might be comforting for ethical reasons. After all, we don’t like the idea of people hawking their organs like used cars. But, as with any law, we should be aware of its unintended consequences, one of which is the apparent windfall for ambitious biotech firms.

Those who support NOTA will argue two things. First, they’ll suggest that a donor-based system is the best way to meet the serious life and death health concerns of those who need organ transplants. This argument seems fairly naive when you look at the services these biotech companies, whose customers often rely on human tissue for ever-important procedures such as lip implants. The second tack NOTA proponents will take is the classic slippery-slope argument: creating a property right in one’s body parts will result in greed, exploitation, and unsafe practices. A look around the biotech field makes it pretty obvious that avarice is already afoot– it’s now just a question of who can share in the profits. And, as for the safety argument, we (and all those participating in overseas black markets) would all be a lot better off if we create an open, regulated market for human tissue.

Kerry Howley, writing for the LA Times puts it nicely:

“Saner rules would treat the human body as the increasingly valuable property it is, allowing potential donors to will the value of their bodies as they do the rest of their assets. At the very least, donors should know they’re giving to a system that will sell their parts, not a charity that funnels them to those in need.”

This misnomer– the idea that this is an area of charity, not of big business– is what keeps our system of mandatory donations alive. We think it crass to sell our body parts, especially to nonprofits who are trying to save lives. But when the veil is lifted, and we start to see the growing cadre of biotechs getting rich off our bodies, we shouldn’t hesitate to ask: where’s our cut?

I will admit that I’ve only skimmed the surface of this issue. I haven’t discussed the ethics, or for that matter the economics, of creating property rights in human tissue. Am I way off base in arguing what I’ve argued? Are there serious risks I’m overlooking?

Daniel Corbett


When you ask “why are we such poor imperialists?”  you’re hitting on a very interesting question, inside of which lies a whole host of contemporary debates– covering everything from foreign policy, to culture, to economics.   But it’s a question that might be easily brushed aside as a matter of good taste.  After all, we aren’t imperialists, nor do we want to be.  Right?

Maybe not.  There are some who argue that 21st century globalization is just the latest instantiation of the West’s imperial legacy.  And, in all honesty, that argument doesn’t seem too far afield:

“Political globalisation is a fancy word for imperialism, imposing your values and institutions on others. However you may dress it up, whatever rhetoric you may use, it is not very different in practice to what Great Britain did in the 18th and 19th centuries.”

If globalization is part and parcel to imperialism, aren’t we succeeding, rather than failing?  We are good– perhaps a little too good– at exporting our culture.  After all, it’s the almighty bottom line that brings Western businesses to every corner of the globe (all the while, mind you, catering to the local culture, giving us such gems as the McFelafel).  We clearly aren’t lacking the imperial will in the economic arena.

What you’re driving at, I think,  relates more to our foreign policy goals, primarily in the Middle East.  As we all know at this point, our efforts to rebuild Iraq are ranging from “mess” to “bungled mess.”  And why is this?  As you point out, we don’t have a vast contingent of dedicated civil servants, lining up to “do their share” for democracy.  The British Empire was what it was not only by virtue of its military might, but also by virtue of its core of hardworking young doctors,  economists, farmers, and the like who were willing to go to any corner of the globe in the name of the Empire. 

As was noted in a recent news story on the rebuilding efforts: “[In Iraq] the U.S. government has contracted the job of promoting democracy to a Pakistani citizen who has never lived or worked in a democracy.”

For many in our generation, our cultural and economic presence abroad is distasteful.  For a variety of reasons, some meritorious and others not, America’s international reputation is not sterling.  Small wonder we are not lining up to rebuild hospitals in Iraq. 

So I take your last question (whether postmodernism has made the idea of exporting our way of life), and I send it back to you in a slightly different form.  We know that globalization at some level is inevitable.  But we also know that globalization is not beholden to the same laws as imperialism.  The world today is far more cosmopolitan that it was duringthe height of the British Empire, and with that cosmopolitanism comes a necessary respect for other ways of living.  (Need I invoke the McFelafel once more?)  So the question is this:

Are the rules of empire different in a postmodern world?  Corporations can web their way into every country on the map, but when they do so, they must adapt at some level.  Is this what our political structures must also do?  But even if we recognize that we have to be more tolerant and flexible in implementing political institutions, how do we go about meeting basic human needs when globalization has cowed our would-be civil servants into apathy? 

Daniel Corbett

On this, my first day of law school, I’ve decided to spare all of you a law-related post. And since I went to undergrad at Ohio, a school with quite a large population of indie kids, I thought I’d write about Pitchfork instead. Wired has an interesting article this month about the “Pitchfork Effect,” a phenomenon by which relatively obscure (OK, so the more obscure the better…) bands become big overnight due to exposure in Pitchfork. In short, when it comes to indie rock, street cred is worth more than any advertising budget could buy.

You may remember last summer’s economic experiment by the name of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!. The 5-piece band did not rely on advertisements or large scale distribution. Instead, they burned a few CD’s (which quickly spread across the globe), played a few shows, and sat back, waiting for the self-generating hype machine to do its work. And it did; the band became the summer’s biggest band in virtually no time. The same logic has worked for other independent successes like the Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio.

This phenomenon, part social networking, part bloodthirsty marketing has even caught the eye of Rupert Murdoch, who recently acquired the website for its revenue generating potential.

Where’s the line between solicited marketing and “real” word-of-mouth? Is there a line to begin with?

In one of my PR classes, my professor told us about cell phone companies who would pay “undercover” sales reps to stand at public gathering places and loudly sing their praises for the product. Ever since, I’ve been at least slightly more skeptical of the ringing endorsements I hear. But at the same time, I want to have a “filter” like Pitchfork Media because it helps me sort through the best and worst of an area in which I’m interested but not an expert.

Daniel Corbett

True, Morgan, we don’t have at hand a tidy constitutional argument against traffic enforcement cameras. Our argument hangs on a messy premise: that there should be a “human element in law enforcement.” How can we defend such a claim? You are right that we won’t find our answer in the the constitution or the rule of law. We’d be barking up the tree, because, as you noted, you (and countless others) have indeed broken the law. Simple as that. So the debate then shifts to matters of institutional policy and implementation, how cops do their jobs.

The letter of the law says nothing of how many cops should be on the street. Nor should it attempt to. Rather, it simply determines legal questions such as the correct speed limit. We could have, under the rule of law, a state of perfect enforcement, a cop on every corner. Every speeder, every red light runner, and any other violater of law would be caught and punished accordingly. They were in the wrong, and they were caught. No problems from a legal perspective here.

But why do we limit the scope of law enforcement?

We do it for a number of reasons. Sometimes, for instance, it’s because a new technology is not as perfect and certainly not as desirable as we once thought. And other times it’s because, simply put, we don’t want a cop on every corner. We can argue this along myriad lines. Economically, there is a point at which administrative and judicial costs (because we won’t jettison that pesky thing we call due process) will exceed incoming revenues. In other words, a glut of speeders would create a case backlog that would be– well– not worth it. Or we can take this on from a very different perspective and focus on the new technology’s effect on personal autonomy. If I know there is a finite number of cops on the road, I can make a choice whether to speed. I assess the costs and the benefits for myself and, likely, extract some benefit from making that choice. But in a world of perfect law enforcement, that choice is gone. One will blindly obey the speed limit, for fear of being caught at any time.

What changes about law when the choice to break the law disappears? Is it still a “law” as we know it?
Daniel Corbett

It’s happened to two of my friends already. And Morgan, unfortunately, you’re one of them.

Yes, you’ve been nabbed (twice, is it?) by the newest, and perhaps most irksome, law enforcement technology: the traffic camera. Cities across the country have installed the cameras in an effort to expand law enforcement’s watchful eye. Some have hailed these efforts as an essential step in making our roads safer. But others, often those who have received their bills– er, tickets– in the mail, have lashed against the technology for its imperfections and its prying nature.

What are these cameras and how do they work? Under the general mantle of “road-rule enforcement cameras” there are various cameras with many different designs: to catch people speeding, running red lights, or even driving unauthorized in bus/HOV lanes. These technologies trace their roots– as do many “nanny-state” innovations– to the UK. And it’s certainly worth noting that if I run a red light in Pittsburgh, up to 80 percent of the revenue from my ticket will not go to my city, but instead will be sent overseas to the UK or Australia to the corporations that manage traffic cameras. So much for the revenue generation trope local governments often try to play.

OK, so maybe we don’t buy that argument. There is little appeal to a cash-strapped municipality asking its citizens for more money. But what about the public safety argument? Don’t traffic cameras make us safer? Well, if we look at a study by U.S. Department of Transportation,  “the results do not support the view that red light cameras reduce crashes. Instead, we find that RLCs are associated with higher levels of many types and severity categories of crashes.” The study found cameras have a statistically insignificant effect on severe and fatal crashes, but cause a 40 percent increase in less serious crashes, especially rear-end accidents. Makes sense, right? People are slamming on their brakes because they’re afraid of that eerie white structure protruding above their heads and the $150 ticket that looms in the mail.

So why are we seeing a proliferation of these cameras? First, it isn’t just corporate greed. Local and city governments, by dint of the sheer number of extra tickets, often make more in revenue than they would otherwise. So why not put in a few more cameras? Second, the public safety numbers can support either side. And it’s a lackadaisical citizenry– people who will trade their freedom for protection– that allows governments to push these cameras on them in the name of the public good.

So how do we respond? Jim Raussen R-Springdale is an Ohio senator who is currently fighting the plan in his home state. He is proposing a bill that would require that a police officer be present in order for any ticket to be written.

Raussen’s efforts, I believe, are a step in the right direction. Our law is a human system– messy, confusing, and often brilliant in adapting to particulars. If we take the human element out of law enforcement, we are taking out one of its most essential components– its problem-solving ability. A police officer can often see by the look on your face, your circumstances either in your car or with fellow motorists, things crucial in fairly deciding whether you should be ticketed. A machine cannot make a gut-level decision like that. So for now, we need humans, not machines, running law enforcement.

Daniel Corbett 

      Copyright 101 question: Dan, an aging but venerable author asks Morgan, a fellow author to help him with a book. In a correspondence, Dan says to Morgan, “Here’s a little sketch but make whatever you want.” Dan turns around to sue Morgan for infringing– er– himself?

      Now take and apply it to an even more contentious arena for IP– the world of glass sculpture.

      That's the story behind a recent copyright suit being brought forward by Seattle glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. Chihuly is suing a longtime collaborator for putting out glass sculptures that too closely resemble his postmodern, sea-inspired works.

      There are two key problems with this suit: 1.) the quotation from the hypothetical is an direct quotation from the plaintiff to the defendant in a correspondence between the two. Chihuly stopped blowing glass 27 years ago and has since relied on other artists to carry out– obviously with varying degrees of guidance– his visions (hat tip to Prof. Michael Madison). 2.) How easy is it to declare ownership over abstracted, nautical themed glass sculptures? There is a reason copyright has been slow to show itself in the art world. As the defense attorney in the case put it: "If the first guy who painted Madonna and Child had tried to copyright it," Mr. Wakefield said, "half of the Louvre would be empty."

Daniel Corbett

    By the time waters had receded in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina had wrought twin disasters. One was the obvious flesh and blood tragedy– thousands of human lives were lost in the disaster. The other disaster was for FEMA, for Bush, and for all the civil servants whose bungling in the face of devastation was a sharp blow to their credibility.

    One lesson we can take away is this: "Ordinary people can solve communication problems much quicker than clueless government officials when catastrophes like hurricane Katrina strike." So says Steven Berlin Johnson, in an article for Discover magazine. Why is this the case? The simple answer: as technology continues to grow, there is more and more intelligence in mobs.

    When Katrina struck, panicked survivors went to sites like Craigslist, Yahoo!, and the Red Cross website. But the information on these sites– by virtue of the sheer number of people affected– was too much to sift through. Survivors were lost in what is often termed "data smog." How would they find their way through all this?

    The answer did not come in the form of a systemic plan, be it state or private sector. It came, instead, through the diffuse actions of thousands of tech-savvy volunteers. In response to the tragedy, David Geilhufe and his small team formed the PeopleFinder Interchange Format– "a service that gathered information from all over the Web through something called "screen scraping," an automated process that involves grabbing the relevant information for each person—name, location, age, and description—and depositing it in a single database." The team's efforts were picked up by a few prominent bloggers, who spread the word. Almost overnight, Geilhufe's team had expanded to a decentralized army of thousands, all helping survivors connect and communicate.

    Johnson notes that only through spontaneous order could such a sucessful task be executed:

"PeopleFinder was the kind of data-management effort that could have taken a year to execute at great expense if a corporation or a government agency had been in charge of it. The PeopleFinder group managed to pull it off in four days for zero dollars."

Daniel Corbett

    Interesting, Morgan. I think you're right: this new politics of "behaviour management" is, on its face, nothing short of Orwellian. It is the brazen proclamation of lawmakers: "We Know Better." Don't believe me? Here's what Jowell told the Guardian:

"Many people ask whether there is a coherent moral and intellectual position behind our approach to these issues. I am convinced there is. Our actions are motivated by conviction and compassion. The fact that our philosophy is not well understood does not mean it does not exist."

    This is precisely why J.S. Mill, as we recently discussed, wanted a check on his father's utilitarian calculus. Maybe we'd be better off with more smoking bans. OK, I'll stop being facetious; we would be better off, at least in terms of public health. But is the overall well-being of society (whether physical, moral, or otherwise) all we need to take into account as policymakers? Mill certainly didn't think so. He argued, rather persuasively, that we need to balance our well-intentioned claims about the service public good against an assumed priority on individual freedom. I'm inclined to agree.

    But why should individual freedom matter? Right now, I'm reading F.A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, in which he argues that freedom is desirable because, inter alia, it ultimately brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. When the onus of decision making rests on many, as opposed to a few, we are then able to escape what Hayek terms a "knowledge problem," which essentially refers to the idea that knowledge is disperse, and is best accessed by many people over time, through self-correcting, non-coercive processes. Some people argue that we're "too stupid to be free." In Hayek's view, they have it half right. Our knowledge is limited, but this is precisely why we should have more freedom and less control.

– –Daniel Corbett

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