“Vested interests are universal”

Every once in a while, we experience moments of clarity. I experienced one while listening to this EconTalk podcast.

In it, Terry Moe discusses the special case where the power of vested interests in the New Orleans school district was wiped out after Hurricane Katrina and the effects that had on the re-emergence of the public school system there. It was a very interesting episode and well worth a listen.

The moment of clarity is here, with Moe speaking:

Let me just take a step back and say: Vested interests are universal. Every institution in every policy area generates vested interests. And these are interests of people who get the services of those institutions but also who get the jobs that those institutions generate or the business contracts that those institutions generate. And, this is true in agriculture; it’s true in defense; it’s true in the environment–you name it. And it’s not just true in this country: it’s true in every country; and it’s been true throughout time. This is a universal thing. All institutions generate vested interests, and those vested interests have a stake in protecting their institutions from change because those institutions are the source of their benefits. And in many cases, those benefits, like jobs and profits, have absolutely nothing to do with whether the institutions are performing well.

And so these vested interests, which have a stake in investing in political power, will use their political power in order to stop reforms even when the institutions are performing very badly. And that is the problem that all societies face, and that our society faces, in trying to have a healthy democracy in which our institutions actually work. When we have institutions that are failing, the vested interests will still protect them and make it virtually impossible for us to reform them.

This is true in state, federal and local government, U.S. Soccer, business, non-profits, school districts, universities, unions, tenure and so on.

All these things can be good.

But, a question rarely asked is what happens when they aren’t performing well?

What brings about change that might improve performance?

Do those changes threaten vested interests benefiting from the current system?

In my opinion, competition is a more preferable option to limiting the power of vested interests than natural disasters. It acts is the same manner on vested interests without all the collateral death and destruction.

“Markets solve the same problem for different people in a different way”

(This is my first non-soccer post in awhile, but it will factor into a future post about soccer.)

The title is from Rory Sutherland on this Econtalk podcast (emphasis added):

…one of the things that annoys me about economics is that it likes markets for the wrong reason. Which is, that it likes free markets because they’re notionally efficient, whereas I like markets because they’re inventive. And, the two narratives–you know, it’s a perfectly–you can understand why free market people leapt on this idea of efficiency through competition. In fact, competition seems to be deeply wasteful if you look at it in a short time horizon. What’s magical about markets, of course, is that they solve problems through a process of kind of market-tested innovation.

Trial and error. But it’s a bit more than that too, because I think one of the extraordinary things markets do–which, I think this is one of the reasons I’m uncomfortable about economics trying to model itself on Newtonian physics–is quite often what markets find is more than one solution to the same problem. And I think if you approach business problems with the mentality of someone who is trying to make it look like physics, then one of the dangers is that you’re always trying to optimize something or find the single overarching solution that works for the average. And in many cases, I think markets and business do something much more ingenious than that. They solve the same problem for different people in a different way.

I’ve been trying to find words for this for a long time, but kept falling back on the not-so-compelling “competition is good because trial-and-error and solutions aren’t so obvious” yada.

His last sentence sums up what I’ve been trying to articulate.

Markets and businesses solve the same problem for different people in a different way.

That’s good. That gives more of us what we want.

What I like about McDonald’s, you may not like, and you might prefer Chipotle instead.

We both get more of what works best for us, instead of having to settle for what works for the average of us, which might not even represent real people.

For example, let’s say I’m age 50 and you are 30. Our average age is 40. Someone might solve a problem for a 40 year old, since that’s average.

But, in our small sample of two, a 40 year old doesn’t even exist. So, their solution isn’t good for either of us.

“Rethinking Economics”

I enjoyed this EconTalk podcast with guest Maeve Cohen, about rethinking economics.

I also think there is much room to improve economics education.

Maybe there could a little less emphasis on how to calculate GDP and more discussion on the implications of a ‘incentives matter,’ for example.

A good Thanksgiving podcast & book

I highly recommend listening to this week’s EconTalk podcast with guest A.J. Jacobs.

He and host, Russ Roberts, discuss Jacobs’ new book, Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey.

The book is about Jacobs’ experiences in attempting to thank all the folks who make his morning cup of coffee possible.

He starts at his favorite coffee shop and works back to thank the folks who deliver the coffee to the store, roast it, keep the store pest free, grow the coffee and even the folks that create the safe drinking water that makes up over 98% of his morning joe, to name a few.

The book is another take on the economic classic essay, I, Pencil, which explores the amazing coordination among large numbers of people who make something as mundane as pencils.

At the end of the podcast, Jacobs recommends being as creative as possible this Thanksgiving when considering what you are grateful for.

I, for one, am thankful for the price system, which enables the coordination among billions of folks and encourages them to make things that improve my life, like pencils and coffee.

Another good bit of advice that Roberts and Jacobs discuss is looking for the good. Russ recalled a bumper sticker, “Wag more. Bark less.”

Jacobs said he finds he has an inner Larry David and inner Mr. Rogers. Larry David looks for things to be annoyed about it. Mr. Rogers looks for things to be happy about and grateful for. He tries to encourage the inner Mr. Rogers more and good things happen.

Economic and political rights first

I just finished readingThe Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly.

Russ Roberts interviewed Easterly in this EconTalk podcast.

I recommend reading the book and listening to the podcast.

Easterly’s key and powerful point is that the economic and political rights of humans in third world countries are often not considered by experts looking to prove out their prescribed solutions for alleviating poverty and often do so by working with the very leaders of those countries who suppress those rights.

Easterly made the excellent observation that Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t seek to alleviate poverty among African-Americans first. He understood that ensuring that they had economic and political rights came first.

The last half of the book provides a nice description of how the incentives work in a free market (or when people have economic and political rights) to be the most effective pill against poverty. Easterly, though, steers away from using terms that carry baggage in today’s political clime, like markets and capitalism, and keeps the focus on the individuals. Instead of calling it capitalism, he refers it to a people trying to solve other people’s problems.

Signals v Causes: Poverty

From the Introduction of the William Easterly’s book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor:
:

The technical problems of the poor (and the absence of technical solutions for those problems) are a symptom of poverty, not a cause of poverty. This book argues that the cause of poverty is the absence of political and economic rights, the absence of a free political and economic system that would find the technical solutions to the poor’s problems. The dictator whom the experts expect will accomplish the technical fixes to the technical problems is not the solution; he is the problem.

Think of technical problems as problems like not having medicine, food or the internet and technical solutions as providing medicine, food and the internet.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book. I heard about it from this EconTalk episode with William Easterly and that discussion is worth a listen.

Feedback Matters in Customer Service

This EconTalk podcast features a panel discussion on the future of work, featuring Andrew McAfee, Megan McArdle and Lee Ohanian.

Host, Russ Roberts, makes a good point about 29 minutes into the podcast. They are discussing how people differ from artificial intelligence. McArdle points out that there is value in charm. McAfee isn’t so sure. He says:

But think of your last 10 service interactions with another human being. How many of them left you with that warm, chamomile tea feeling?

McArdle say most of them. McAfee responds:

Oh, come on, did you walk through a sea of pleasant experiences in the airports on your way here? If so, I want to travel with you. [Or] When you call up Comcast, when you go–

Roberts points out that these are outliers:

You’ve picked the example of the places in America where there is very little competition due to regulation and government monopoly.

Good point. Not all customer service experiences are great, but certainly the ones from the companies that compete for your business are better than those that don’t. Everybody dreads going to the DMV. Most people are okay with heading to McDonald’s.