The economics of publishing in economics

The following text was prepared for a conference organized by the Kiel Institute and the pure player journal E-conomics on “The future of scholarly publication in economics”. It was originally intended to be a full fledged paper, but I only got to page 2. If time permits, I will write a sequel containing suggestions on how to improve the system.

When I started my career as a professional economist in the 1990s, I naively believed that publications were the means by which economists were communicating their ideas and findings. I could not imagine that the papers published in  the journals were not actually meant to be read. I also naively thought that the final outlet of an academic paper did not matter so much – since the paper is read, it would get whatever influence and attention it deserves, regardless of where it is published, as long as it is a visible enough journal. Finally, I believed that the publication process resembled somewhat the publication process in a French book publishing house, with delays not exceeding three months. After all, it would not make any sense if it took years for a publication to be available to its public.

Of course I was wrong in all accounts. The publication process in economics is not a publication process, it is a validation process by which we acquire a certain rank in a certain pecking order. Submitting a paper to a journal has nothing to do with research dissemination, it is far more similar to taking an exam or participating in a sports competition. The actual dissemination takes place mostly orally, in seminars and conferences; these seminars and conferences are also important validation events, because they allow authors to signal some of their characteristics that may influence their position in the pecking order, while not being easy to infer from their papers.

Now, when you take an exam as a student, you are graded by your professor, not by a fellow student – who would be a competitor if this exam is actually a contest. If you participate in a tennis tournament, the referees do not participate themselves in the tournament. Would anybody take the winner of the French open seriously if in earlier round Federer had been eliminated by an arbitral decision made by Nadal?

Yet this is the way our own profession is organized. Each submission is “peer reviewed’, that is, it has to be accepted by anonymous referees who happen to be participating in the same beauty contest as the author(s), most often in the same subcategory. At a minimum, as believers of cost-benefit analysis, we should consider that the journal editors and referees themselves perform a cost-benefit analysis when deciding whether or not to publish a paper. I must say that if I apply such a theory to explain my own experience with acceptances and rejections, I easily get an R2 of 80 %.

So what are the costs and benefits of accepting a paper, when you maximize your own rank in the pecking order? The main cost is that if the paper is accepted, the author will gain ranks in the pecking order, and surely this cannot improve your own rank, at least if one focuses on a ranking by number of publications. You will be much more reluctant to accept a paper by somebody who is in the same league as you are, than a paper by an author who is much better or much worse ranked than you are[1]. If the author is similarly ranked as you are, his progress will typically harm you: if behind, he will be more likely to overtake you, if ahead, you will be less likely to overtake him.

Another cost is the opportunity cost: instead of publishing this paper, you may prefer to publish another one whose net benefits to you are greater.

On the benefit side, publishing a paper may improve your own career to the extent that you are cited in the reference list; however there may be a trade-off here. You do not want to publish a paper that displaces your own work. A typical such paper is a paper that proves that you did something wrong, or proposes a more elegant method to do what you already did. This paper will probably cite your work, but if displaces it as the new reference paper on the relevant topic, you end up losing citations in the long run. You much prefer a minor extension of your work, or a paper that makes use of a methodology that you introduced and applies it to a different problem (such papers generally cite your work as an ad autoritatem argument to justify the use of that methodology, therefore you will get more citations if the methodology is somewhat dubious).

The other benefit is quid pro quo. The most important example of that is that one may be fortunate enough to be in a cooperative equilibrium in the game played with the referees. Smith may accept the papers by Jones, and vice-versa. Together they progress in the pecking order at the expense of the others, despite that each individual acceptance of Jones by Smith harms Smith.  This is a standard case of repeated prisoner’s dilemma. While the referee reports are supposedly anonymous, it is very easy for Smith to signal to Jones that he wrote that favorable report: they meet each other all the time at conferences. And Smith’s reports generally cite the work of Jones with some emphasis.

Small subfields are better at solving the prisoner’s dilemma than large ones, because the same individuals match more often in the refereeing assignment game. Thus, the rumor has it that it is relatively easy to publish in the field of social choice, while macro is a cut-throat environment.

Such cooperative equilibria make it difficult for a researcher to change fields. First, you have no record of playing the game in the new field, and so you have to convince the incumbents that you will behave properly. Second, if you are perceived as a type who is likely to change fields, you may not be around any longer when it is time for you to reward your referees for having accepted your paper, by accepting theirs or otherwise. If you believe that it is a good thing for people to move across fields occasionally, this feature surely is a source of inefficiency.

There are other forms of quid pro quo. Some economists command resources, and they can offer in kind rewards to those who help them, for example by inviting them to very nice conferences in very nice places. The beauty of it is that this form of corruption is simply indistinguishable from good faith. After all, there is no reason why a conference would take place in an ugly, dangerous, and polluted city—it would harm the quality of the conference–and it is perfectly desirable to invite the most prominent people in the field, who also happen to control access to the best journals, a feature which is itself totally defensible on meritocratic grounds. It is also perfectly understandable for an economist who controls access to a nice conference in a nice place, not to invite as a keynote speaker somebody who sent him a nasty rejection letter[2]: There surely is some equally notable candidate that one may want to select instead.

[1] To the extent that the distribution of papers published across authors follows a power law, it is very unlikely for somebody to overtake the leaders, even if he is extremely well ranked, because the leader will have so many more publications than he has. That is, it is much more difficult for the 20th ranked economist to overtake the leader, than for the 250th ranked economist to overtake the 150th ranked one. Therefore, the leaders’ papers are more likely to be accepted, which reinforces the power law and path dependence aspect of the distribution. In essence, the leaders are not much of a threat. At the other end of the distribution, the fact that laggards and newcomers are also not much of a threat, generates a mechanism for upward mobility in the ranking.

[2] Although rejection letters usually start and end with ”I like your paper…”


Karma Camorra

When I was in my late thirties, we used to have a small house in the southeast of France.  It was in a village not far from orchards where they were growing apples, pears and peaches. In the village there was a scale for weighing the trucks so as to record the quantity of fruit they were carrying.

I remember my son and I when we were watching the weighing operations. He was fascinated by the magnificent peaches and by the magic of all the mechanical tasks. I was proud of providing him with a great educational moment, a firsthand encounter with human labor, in all its nobleness.

At the end of the operation, we naturally asked where all these peaches were going. I was eagerly waiting for an answer, expecting a dignified conclusion to this wonderful moral experience.

“We burn them”, said the farmer.

My son and I had a glimpse of what pure evil meant.

It turns out that the European Union has a price support scheme. When fruit prices hit the floor, the excess supply is carefully gathered, transported, weighed, inspected, and burned. The farmers are then paid by the government (aka us) for the burnt peaches, at the prevailing rate.

We were told the inspectors were severe. They were only accepting the best looking fruits for incineration. You see, they were wary of fraud. They did not want farmers to game the system by artificially collecting second rate fruits so as to reap more subsidies. Consumers would not have accepted those second rate peaches. Otherwise, they would have had to pay them with their own money. But bureaucrats who incinerate the peaches pay them with other people’s money. They have little incentives to control the quality of the peaches. Those particular inspectors, though, were loyal and conscientious. Only the best peaches were burned.

In the 1970s, French economists working on the theory of fixed price equilibrium were worried about the issue of manipulable rationing schemes. How do you allocate supply to demand when price regulation prevents them from being equal? You need to put in place a rationing scheme which is not manipulable, but you also care about efficiency. There is a trade-off. Random rationing is not manipulable but it is inefficient. Allocating scarcity according to self-reported marginal willingness to pay (MWP) is efficient if such reporting is truthful, but manipulable if consumers can overreport their MWP.

The EC rationing scheme was both inefficient and manipulable, because it forced the taxpayer to purchase the excess of supply over demand while destroying the excess supply – a complete waste of resources – and because supply could be boosted artificially by manipulating quality.

I have another story regarding fruit burning. A big French company had sold trains to Argentina. At that time, Argentina was short of foreign currency. Instead of telling the argentines that it was not France’s problem, the geniuses in the French government accepted an in-kind payment. And that in-kind payment was in apples – presumably the government made a transfer to the train manufacturer and ended up with the apples. Unfortunately, this large supply shock inflicted upon the market for apples drove the price down to the common agricultural policy floor, so that most of the apples obtained in exchange for the trains were incinerated. The French government might have just as well directly purchased the trains and sunk them into the ocean.

But everyone has his Karma, or Nemesis, and the Nemesis of all regulators and politicians is an organized crime institution called the Camorra. Every economist should have read Roberto Saviano’s book. It is a treatise describing one of the most efficient organizations on earth. I also highly recommend the movie, which trumps any of your favorite Halloween horror show, if anything because it’s true.

The Camorra will not leave any gain from trade arising from state regulation untouched. This is their business model: they spot an arbitrage opportunity created by government, and they exploit it. This equally applies, of course, to sound and unsound regulation. The Camorra does not care whether regulation is good or bad. But if it is bad, this makes their job easier. They can expect more cooperation down the line.

And so I must confess that I was quite happy to read on page 306 of the French translation of Gomorra that at least in Campania, the peach burning officials had found their Karma. Apparently the fruits were no longer burned but buried into the ground (perhaps as a tribute to the global warming crowd), and the Camorra had set up a scheme by which garbage was illegally buried instead of the fruits. The criminals were getting the subsidies that should have been reserved for burying the beautiful fruits, and at the same time had established a distribution network so that the fruits would reach the consumer, presumably at a price below the EU floor.

The Camorra had managed to annihilate the EU policy according to which the fruits should be destroyed. Instead, because of the Camorra’s criminal activities, the fruits were eaten. By people.

Along with Uber-style web platforms, the Camorra is an institution that considerably reduces the margin of manoeuver for economic regulation and taxation. Its existence should be acknowledged in any policy evaluation exercise.

For example, there is talk of eliminating cash transactions in the Eurozone. Officially, the goal is to fight money laundering. In fact, the true goal is to eliminate the parallel economy, which is flourishing due to the secular upward trend in taxes and in the amount of regulation. If cash disappears, many transactions will have to be effected legally, and even more would probably no longer take place because they will no longer be profitable. Recorded GDP will go up but actual GDP will fall.

But this policy is likely to simply fail, because the private sector will end up with an alternative means of exchange. While there is much talk about Bitcoin, the Camorra is in an excellent position to become a central bank for the new currency.  Should cash be eliminated by the ECB, it has a huge incentive to introduce such a currency, so as to preserve its commercial operations. It is credible enough to impose it as de facto legal tender, because of its ability to use violent means against competing means of exchange. But, since violence is costly, it will probably also make its currency more desirable than competitors by pursuing a price stability objective, keeping its money supply in line with the volume of transactions. An inflationary policy would be hurting itself substantially, since by nature it must have large cash holdings.

New working paper

Bobos in Paradise: Urban Politics and the New Economy

The term “bobo” stands for “Bourgeois Bohème” and was coined by David Brooks (2000) in a famous book about the rise of a new knowledge elite. This new kind of bourgeoisie is generally considered as prevalent in globalized capital cities, and its lifestyle and political attitude stand in contrast to that of the traditional bourgeoisie. Furthermore, the bobos are generally viewed as a politically powerful group. They have been instrumental in bringing about left-wing governments in municipalities such as Berlin, Paris or San Francisco, despite the relatively high economic status of this social class.

Politically, the bobos are viewed as generally supportive of environmentalists and/or socialist parties. Their takeover of major cities has taken place in the context of sharply increasing house prices from the mid-1990s to the onset of the financial crisis, and led to policies that recognizably differ from the ones implemented both by the right and by the traditional left. These policies can be summarized as follows

∙  Greater investment in collective urban amenities and socialized recreational events.

∙  Reduced urban space for the automobile, generally coupled with a reduction in parking space, higher taxes and more stringent regulations and constraints for personal vehicles. More investment in public transportation and in dedicated areas for bicycles, skate-boards, roller skates, and so forth. Deregulation of the use of bicyles (authorization to use wrong ways and bus corridors). Public provision of cheap bike and electrical car rental, and dedication of public space to those devices.

∙  Promotion of “social mixity” and “diversity”, by means of transfer policies and/or subsidized housing that maintain a critical mass of lower class dwellers in the city center, while intermediate classes are eliminated and relocate themselves in the outer periphery

This paper provides some elements for understanding these developments from a “pure economic perspective”. By this I mean that I will attempt to explain them as a consequence of technological developments, instead of just assuming that bobos are a new kind of individuals with their own preferences. The paper focuses on the relative roles of, and conflict of interest between two kinds of bourgeoisie:  The skilled workers of the old economy versus the skilled workers of the new economy (bobos). The former work in activities that are more land intensive, while still preferring to live in a city centre. As a result they derive more utility from commuting and are less willing to raise commuting costs in order to improve urban amenities than the bobos. The paper shows that as the new economy grows faster than the old economy, the bobos overtake the cadres as the politically decisive group in the city. As a result, the level of urban amenities goes up and so do transportation costs.  I also show that it may be profitable for the decisive bobo class to subsidize location of lower class unskilled workers in the city, in absence of any altruism toward them or intrinsic taste for a socially diverse makeup of the city. This is because such subsidies allow to force the economy to settle in a “bunkerized” equilibrium in which the service providers to city dwellers are located in the city, so that the price of services no longer goes up with the amenity level. As a result, ex-post there is no cost to raising the amenity level in the city, and the resulting political equilibrium involves the highest possible level of amenities, while commuting has disappeared.

Finally, I provide evidence using French cities that those urban areas that have most invested in amenities are such that (i) had a greater employment share in the new economy initially, (ii) experienced the fastest growth in house prices, and (iii) tended to have a greater increase in service employment as well as the proportion of inhabitants in public rent-controlled housing.

Read it here

ELA, Grexit, and the technocrat turned politician.

The missing link between the Greek solvency problems and its membership of the eurozone is called liquidity. Absent liquidity problems, for example under 100% reserve banking, the two issues would be entirely disconnected, since the banking system would never need emergency liquidity assistance from the ECB.

I believe the doctrine of the ECB underlying ELA, is that ELA deals with a technical (as opposed to political) issue (The way ELA works is nicely described in this piece by The Economist). And this technical issue is what we call multiple equilibria.

According to this view, there exists a bad equilibrium where expectations of exit from the Eurozone and bank runs mutually reinforce each other. Under normal circumstances, banks can get fresh liquidity from the ECB at the going interest rate (which is very low), in exchange for collateral. This collateral has to be “good”. Assuming Greek banks hold Greek debt, the collateral becomes “worse”, the less solvent the Greek government. To the extent that Greek bonds are denominated in euros and owned by non-Greek residents, Grexit would either trigger a redenomination of those bonds in a depreciated drachma, or make it more difficult for Greece to pay them back, since it will presumably experience a substantial real depreciation. Therefore, expectation of Grexit makes Greek sovereign debt worse and Greekn banks less solvent. As depositors fear that their own bank could be liquidated, they run to the bank to get their cash back. Running to the bank delivers not a double dividend, nor a triple dividend, but a quadruple one:

First I am protecting myself against the bank’s bankruptcy. True, my deposit may be insured, but if the bank run is general the insurance system is undercapitalized and I may not get my money back.

Second I am converting the virtual euros of my bank account, that may be converted into drachmas any time, into actual euros that are physically the same as those circulating in Germany, and are much more difficult to convert except by extreme coercion.

Third, I am certain to have cash when I need it, instead of being rationed by bank holidays and controls on withdrawals.

Fourth, I am protecting my savings against a surprise capital levy that could be imposed by the troika on deposits in order to pay back creditors.

When faced with the bank run, the ECB has to do something. If it refuses to provide liquidity, say because the collateral is no longer acceptable, then the banking system in Greece collapses. And in order to provide liquidity to its banks, the Government will have no choice but to exit the Euro, making Grexit a self-fulfilling prophecy. The bank run equilibrium is a Grexit equilibrium, indeed expected Grexit acts as a catalyst for the bank run by reducing the market value of bank assets.

But it makes no sense for the ECB to value the collateral of Greek banks at its price under the Grexit equilibrium, if instead a better equilibrium can be enforced: that is, an equilibrium where the bank run does not occur. ELA is an attempt to enforce the good equilibrium by setting interest rates and haircuts at levels consistent with the good, not bad, equilibrium. If the good equilibrium is indeed an equilibrium, sufficient liquidity should be provided under those terms so as to “tame” the bank run and keep Greece within the Euro area.

The problem with this fairy tale is twofold.

First, technicality is not so easily distinguishable from politics. We see that the ELA tap is being shut by the ECB, because the Greeks are not accepting the conditions set by the troika. The banking crisis in Greece, initiated by the ECB, may bring the government down. There is no way Tsipras can decide, as the democratically elected ruler of Greece, to provide liquidity to banks despite the ECB veto, unless he exits the Eurozone immediately. Voters on Sunday may support the Yes vote because they believe banks will reopen sooner than if No wins. That is, the ECB can bring down a democratically elected government by stopping providing liquidity to its banks. In that respect, the similarity between Alexis Tsipras and Salvador Allende is striking; in both cases we have radical leftists heading a minority government. The difference stops in that instead of having a military coup (Pinochet and the CIA) we have a monetary coup (Draghi and the Troika/Eurogroup), and instead of the trucks blocking the roads, we have the banks blocking the transactions.

While closing the liquidity tap inevitably is a political coup against the Tsipras regime, keeping it open is another forced transfer from European taxpayers to Greek residents. In other words, regardless of the decision, the non-elected ECB cannot avoid doing politics.

Given the fiscal situation in Greece, the terms under which the ECB is accepting Greek bonds as collateral under ELA are probably too generous. Under ELA the ECB lends to Greece at 1.5 % and the haircuts are secret (See here and here on haircuts). Under the assumption that the ECB is successful at killing the bad equilibrium, the terms under which a Greek bank can borrow from the ECB should be the same as those in the market. Since Greece is tapping ELA it means that these terms are better, hence that there is a transfer. The transfer is larger, the larger the gap between the market prices the ECB is trying to achieve and actual market prices. If the ECB were fully credible in extending an infinite credit line to the Greek banking system, this gap would disappear. If the good equilibrium exists, the fiscal transfer to the Greeks is the mirror image of the ECB’s limited credibility and of the market view that the probability of getting to the good equilibrium is lower than 100%. The transfer, and the likelihood of the bad equilibrium, could then be eliminated by making the credit line infinite, killing any doubt by markets about the viability of Greek banks.

But, if the good equilibrium does not exist, Hans-Werner Sinn is right: The Greeks will take advantage of ELA to sell all the Greek debt to the ECB at an inflated price, converting their deposits into fresh and good euros, and leaving the ECB, that is, the taxpayers from solvent countries, with dubious claims on the Greek banks’ balance sheet. An unlimited credit line can no longer kill the bad equilibrium since it is the only one. It would simply raise the amount of money transferred to the Greeks by other euro area residents.

That the bank of Greece, not the ECB, is supposed to bear all the risk of ELA, is a cosmetic provision: ultimately, the bank of Greece accounts are implicitly consolidated with those of the bankrupt Greek government.

And it is hard to believe that the good equilibrium exists. That is, if the Euro were made as big a taboo as incest, the quadruple dividend from getting your money back would just become a triple dividend. Think about it. The benefits of having your money in a bank deposit rather than cash are quite small. The reason we keep it there is because it is the default option for most wage earners (they call it libertarian paternalism). So you only need a small cost of having your money deposited in a bank for it to be rational to withdraw your money. The asset side of the Greek banking system provides ample reasons to justify a bank run.

(The reason why the “good equilibrium” has existed for so long is that banks have been regularly provided with fresh cash by central banks, bailout money by governments, and deposits have been insured. But we may ask whether this form of financial intermediary makes sense. Perhaps the financial crises tell us that it is an evolutionary dead end and that banks should be eliminated. By saving them each time, public authorities are fighting against economic evolution and sowing the seeds of the following crisis.)

Post Scriptum — Here is an interesting piece by Dirk Niepelt. Clearly, the reason why governments would like to eliminate cash has everything to do with exercising discretionary control upon private savings — so as to implement a capital levy when needed, as advocated by Mrs Lagarde — and very little to do with “combating crime”. Virtual cash held at the monetary institute is also vulnerable to capital levy. In the long run, suppression of cash  by heavily indebted government will eventually harm them, as private means of payments (like bitcoin) will arise.

Two things I do not get about Greece

There are two things that baffle me about Greece.

First, the insistence on linking sovereign default with exiting the Euro area. Technically there is no relationship between the two. Greece can default on its debt and continue to use the single currency (in fact its seignoriage share could be confiscated by the creditors), just like many American states defaulted without stopping to use the dollar. Conversely, Greece could decide to exit the euro area and continue to meet its oligations. Indeed, there is talk in Finland of leaving the Euro and this has nothing to do with any looming sovereign default.

The Grexit ghost is a superstition which allows to mutualize the bailout among members of the eurozone in a way which is disconnected from their holding of Greek debt. Conversely, non euro area members contribute little or nothing to supporting Greece.

Second, the Grexit ghost is a way of manipulating public opinion in solvent euro area countries so as to make them accept the bailout. The implicit blackmail is that Greek default would trigger Grexit, then contagion and a collapse of the Eurozone, which would be a catastrophy. In order to avoid catastrophy, we are told, the taxpayer, not the holders of debt, should bear the cost of the Greek default. This blackmail is backfiring against its conceptors as Greece voted for a government which plans on reneging on austerity and live off other people’s money. This blackmail works well as the troika has just offered another 15 bn euros of our money to postpone a decision by five months. Presumably the Spaniards are taking due notice of this hilarious joke and will gladly adopt the Greek mutilated beggar strategy in the next elections.

Second, the lack of recognition that Greece suffers from a debt overhang problem. Despite falling wages the economy is not recovering, because firms expect that the profits they make will be taxed so as to meet the sovereign debt obligations. This is a well understood problem that has been identified decades ago in the context of similar crises and popularized by prominent economists such as Dornbusch, Krugman, or Sachs.

There is no difference between erasing a debt and lending to your debtor the interests he owes you: in both cases you do not get your money back. But in the second case the debt overhang problem destroys the economic incentives of the debtor. Instead of renewing the loans in exchange for fuzzy structural reforms that are unlikely to work because of the debt overhang problem, the troika should erase 75 % of Greek debt once and for all and stop any new institutional lending to the country. Greece will then be able to grow again for ten years. Private lending will resume relatively fast, as suggested by the historical experience.

This has little to do with Euro membership, except that once private lending resumes, another crisis may graduallybuild up. Greece will be too happy to live again with large twin deficits financed by capital inflow, because this will generate an economic boom driven by demand, a welcome substitute for the structural reforms its government is unwilling to do. It will accumulate the competitiveness problems and the debt overhang of the next crisis. For this reason it is not in the interest of Greece to remain in the Euro. Should it have its own currency it could supplement its insufficient fiscal receipts with seignoriage (as recently as 1990, inflation in Greece was 20 %, yielding perhaps 2-3 % of GDP in seignoriage revenues). It could devalue to boost its competitiveness (prices have fallen by 2 % in Greece and only very recently, despite then huge fall in GDP), maintaining external balance despite its tendency to create inflationary surprises so as to boost the economy. All these considerations are important, but they do not imply conditioning exit on default. If anything, it is the future defaults that the exit prevents.