The backfire effect has been greatly exaggerated

Sep 8 JDN 2458736

Do a search for “backfire effect” and you’re likely to get a large number of results, many of them from quite credible sources. The Oatmeal did an excellent comic on it. The basic notion is simple: “[…]some individuals when confronted with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs come to hold their original position even more strongly.”

The implications of this effect are terrifying: There’s no point in arguing with anyone about anything controversial, because once someone strongly holds a belief there is nothing you can do to ever change it. Beliefs are fixed and unchanging, stalwart cliffs against the petty tides of evidence and logic.

Fortunately, the backfire effect is not actually real—or if it is, it’s quite rare. Over many years those seemingly-ineffectual tides can erode those cliffs down and turn them into sandy beaches.

The most recent studies with larger samples and better statistical analysis suggest that the typical response to receiving evidence contradicting our beliefs is—lo and behold—to change our beliefs toward that evidence.

To be clear, very few people completely revise their worldview in response to a single argument. Instead, they try to make a few small changes and fit them in as best they can.

But would we really expect otherwise? Worldviews are holistic, interconnected systems. You’ve built up your worldview over many years of education, experience, and acculturation. Even when someone presents you with extremely compelling evidence that your view is wrong, you have to weigh that against everything else you have experienced prior to that point. It’s entirely reasonable—rational, even—for you to try to fit the new evidence in with a minimal overall change to your worldview. If it’s possible to make sense of the available evidence with only a small change in your beliefs, it makes perfect sense for you to do that.

What if your whole worldview is wrong? You might have based your view of the world on a religion that turns out not to be true. You might have been raised into a culture with a fundamentally incorrect concept of morality. What if you really do need a radical revision—what then?

Well, that can happen too. People change religions. They abandon their old cultures and adopt new ones. This is not a frequent occurrence, to be sure—but it does happen. It happens, I would posit, when someone has been bombarded with contrary evidence not once, not a few times, but hundreds or thousands of times, until they can no longer sustain the crumbling fortress of their beliefs against the overwhelming onslaught of argument.

I think the reason that the backfire effect feels true to us is that our life experience is largely that “argument doesn’t work”; we think back to all the times that we have tried to convince to change a belief that was important to them, and we can find so few examples of when it actually worked. But this is setting the bar much too high. You shouldn’t expect to change an entire worldview in a single conversation. Even if your worldview is correct and theirs is not, that one conversation can’t have provided sufficient evidence for them to rationally conclude that. One person could always be mistaken. One piece of evidence could always be misleading. Even a direct experience could be a delusion or a foggy memory.

You shouldn’t be trying to turn a Young-Earth Creationist into an evolutionary biologist, or a climate change denier into a Greenpeace member. You should be trying to make that Creationist question whether the Ussher chronology is really so reliable, or if perhaps the Earth might be a bit older than a 17th century theologian interpreted it to be. You should be getting the climate change denier to question whether scientists really have such a greater vested interest in this than oil company lobbyists. You can’t expect to make them tear down the entire wall—just get them to take out one brick today, and then another brick tomorrow, and perhaps another the day after that.

The proverb is of uncertain provenance, variously attributed, rarely verified, but it is still my favorite: No single raindrop feels responsible for the flood.

Do not seek to be a flood. Seek only to be a raindrop—for if we all do, the flood will happen sure enough. (There’s a version more specific to our times: So maybe we’re snowflakes. I believe there is a word for a lot of snowflakes together: Avalanche.)

And remember this also: When you argue in public (which includes social media), you aren’t just arguing for the person you’re directly engaged with; you are also arguing for everyone who is there to listen. Even if you can’t get the person you’re arguing with to concede even a single point, maybe there is someone else reading your post who now thinks a little differently because of something you said. In fact, maybe there are many people who think a little differently—the marginal impact of slacktivism can actually be staggeringly large if the audience is big enough.

This can be frustrating, thankless work, for few people will ever thank you for changing their mind, and many will condemn you even for trying. Finding out you were wrong about a deeply-held belief can be painful and humiliating, and most people will attribute that pain and humiliation to the person who called them out for being wrong—rather than placing the blame where it belongs, which is on whatever source or method made you wrong in the first place. Being wrong feels just like being right.

But this is important work, among the most important work that anyone can do. Philosophy, mathematics, science, technology—all of these things depend upon it. Changing people’s minds by evidence and rational argument is literally the foundation of civilization itself. Every real, enduring increment of progress humanity has ever made depends upon this basic process. Perhaps occasionally we have gotten lucky and made the right choice for the wrong reasons; but without the guiding light of reason, there is nothing to stop us from switching back and making the wrong choice again soon enough.

So I guess what I’m saying is: Don’t give up. Keep arguing. Keep presenting evidence. Don’t be afraid that your arguments will backfire—because in fact they probably won’t.

Procrastination is an anxiety symptom

Aug 18 JDN 2458715

Why do we procrastinate? Some people are chronic procrastinators, while others only do it on occasion, but almost everyone procrastinates: We have something important to do, and we should be working on it, but we find ourselves doing anything else we can think of—cleaning is a popular choice—rather than actually getting to work. This continues until we get so close to the deadline that we have no choice but to rush through the work, lest it not get done at all. The result is more stress and lower-quality work. Why would we put ourselves through this?

There are a few different reasons why people may procrastinate. The one that most behavioral economists lean toward is hyperbolic discounting: Because we undervalue the future relative to the present, we set aside unpleasant tasks for later, when it seems they won’t be as bad.

This could be relevant in some cases, particularly for those who chronically procrastinate on a wide variety of tasks, but I find it increasingly unconvincing.

First of all, there’s the fact that many of the things we do while procrastinating are not particularly pleasant. Some people procrastinate by playing games, but even more procrastinate by cleaning house or reorganizing their desks. These aren’t enjoyable activities that you would want to do as soon as possible to maximize the joy.

Second, most people don’t procrastinate consistently on everything. We procrastinate on particular types of tasks—things we consider particularly important, as a matter of fact. I almost never procrastinate in general: I complete tasks early, I plan ahead, I am always (over)prepared. But lately I’ve been procrastinating on three tasks in particular: Revising my second-year paper to submit to journals, writing grant proposals, and finishing my third-year paper. These tasks are all academic, of course; they all involve a great deal of intellectual effort. But above all, they are high stakes. I didn’t procrastinate on homework for classes, but I’m procrastinating on finishing my dissertation.

Another common explanation for procrastination involves self-control: We can’t stop ourselves from doing whatever seems fun at the moment, when we should be getting down to work on what really matters.

This explanation is even worse: There is no apparent correlation between propensity to procrastinate and general impulsiveness—or, if anything, the correlation seems to be negative. The people I know who procrastinate the most consistently are the least impulsive; they tend to ponder and deliberate every decision, even small decisions for which the extra time spent clearly isn’t worth it.

The explanation I find much more convincing is that procrastination isn’t about self-control or time at all. It’s about anxiety. Procrastination is a form of avoidance: We don’t want to face the painful experience, so we stay away from it as long as we can.

This is certainly how procrastination feels for me: It’s not that I can’t stop myself from doing something fun, it’s that I can’t bring myself to face this particular task that is causing me overwhelming stress.

This also explains why it’s always something important that we procrastinate on: It’s precisely things with high stakes that are going to cause a lot of painful feelings. And anxiety itself is deeply linked to the fear of negative evaluation—which is exactly what you’re afraid of when submitting to a journal or applying for a grant. Usually it’s a bit more metaphorical than that, the “evaluation” of being judged by your peers; but here we are literally talking about a written evaluation from a reviewer.

This is why the most effective methods at reducing procrastination all involve reducing your anxiety surrounding the task. In fact, one of the most important is forgiving yourself for prior failings—including past procrastination. Students who were taught to forgive themselves for procrastinating were less likely to procrastinate in the future. If this were a matter of self-control, forgiving yourself should be counterproductive; but in fact it’s probably the most effective intervention.

Unsurprisingly, those with the highest stress level had the highest rates of procrastination (causality could run both ways there); but this is much less true for those who are good at practicing self-compassion. The idea behind self-compassion is very simple: Treat yourself as kindly as you would treat someone you care about.

I am extraordinarily bad at self-compassion. It is probably my greatest weakness. If we were to measure self-compassion by the gap between how kind you are to yourself and how kind you are to others, I would probably have one of the largest gaps in the world. Compassion for others has been a driving force in my life for as long as I can remember, and I put my money where my mouth is, giving at least 8% of my gross income to top-rated international charities every year. But compassion for myself feels inauthentic, even alien; I brutally punish myself for every failure, every moment of weakness. If someone else treated me the way I treat myself, I’d consider them abusive. It’s something I’ve struggled with for many years.

Really, the wonder is that I don’t procrastinate more; I think it’s because I’m already doing most of the things that people will tell you to do to avoid procrastination, like scheduling specific tasks to specific times and prioritizing a small number of important tasks each day. I even keep track of how I actually use my time (I call it “descriptive scheduling”, as opposed to conventional “normative scheduling”), and use that information to make my future schedules more realistic—thus avoiding or at least mitigating the planning fallacy. But when it’s just too intimidating to even look at the paper I’m supposed to be revising, none of that works.

If you too are struggling with procrastination (and odds of that are quite high), I’m afraid that I don’t have any brilliant advice for you today. I can recommend those scheduling techniques, and they may help; but the ultimate cause of procrastination is not bad scheduling or planning but something much deeper: anxiety about the task itself and being evaluated upon it. Procrastination is not laziness or lack of self-control: It’s an anxiety symptom.

I don’t care what happened in that video

Jan 27 JDN 2458511

Right now there is an ongoing controversy over a viral video of a confrontation between young protesters wearing MAGA hats and an elderly Native American man. Various sources are purporting to show “a fuller picture” and “casting new light” and showing “a different side”. Others are saying it’s exactly as bad as it looks.

I think it probably is as bad as it looks, but the truth is: I don’t care. This is a distraction.

If you think litigating the precise events of this video is important, you are suffering from a severe case of scope neglect. You are looking at a single event between a handful of people when you should be looking at the overall trends of a country of over 300 million people.

First of all: The government shutdown only just ended. There are still going to be a lot of pieces to pick up. That’s what we should be talking about. That’s what we should be posting about. That’s what we should be calling Senators about. This is a national emergency. The longer this lasts, the worse it is going to get. People will die because of this shutdown—from tainted food and polluted water and denied food stamps. Our national security is being jeopardized—particularly with regard to cybersecurity.

The shutdown was also a completely unforced error. Government shutdowns shouldn’t even exist, and now that this one is over, we need to change the budget process so that this can never happen again.

And if you want to talk about the racist, sexist, and authoritarian leanings of Trump supporters, that’s quite important too. But it doesn’t hinge upon one person or one confrontation. I’m sure there are Trump supporters who aren’t racist; and I’m sure there are Obama supporters who are. But the overall statistical trend there is extremely strong.

I understand that most people suffer from severe scope neglect, and we have to live in a world filled with such people; so maybe there’s some symbolic value in finding one particularly egregious case that you can put a face on and share with the world. But if you’re going to do that, there’s two things I’d ask of you:

1. Make absolutely sure that this case is genuine. Nothing will destroy your persuasiveness faster than holding up an ambiguous case as if it were definitive.
2. After you’ve gotten their attention with the single example, show the statistics. There are truths, whole truths, and statistics. If you really want to know something, you use statistics.

The statistics are what this is really about. One person, even a hundred people—that really doesn’t matter. We need to keep our eyes on the millions of people, the directions of entire nations. For a lot of people, looking at numbers is boring; but there are people behind those numbers, and numbers are what tell us what’s really going on in the world.

For example: Trump really does seem to have brought bigotry out in the open. Hate crimes in the US increased for the third year in a row last year.

Then there are his direct policy actions which are human rights violations: The number of children detained at the border has skyrocketed to almost 13,000.

On the other hand, the economy is doing quite well: Unemployment stands at about 4%, and median income is increasing and poverty is decreasing.
Global extreme poverty continues its preciptious decline, but global climate change is getting worse, and already past the point where some serious consequences are going to be unavoidable.

Some indicators are more ambiguous: Corporate profits are near their all-time high, even in inflation-adjusted terms. That could be a sign of an overall good economy—but it also clearly has something to do with redistribution of income toward the wealthy.

Of course, all of those things were true yesterday, and will be true tomorrow. They were true last week, and will be true next week. They don’t lend themselves to a rapid-fire news cycle.

But maybe that means we don’t need a rapid-fire news cycle? Maybe that’s not the best way to understand what’s going on in the world?

What would a new macroeconomics look like?

Dec 9 JDN 2458462

In previous posts I have extensively criticized the current paradigm of macroeconomics. But it’s always easier to tear the old edifice down than to build a better one in its place. So in this post I thought I’d try to be more constructive: What sort of new directions could macroeconomics take?

The most important change we need to make is to abandon the assumption of dynamic optimization. This will be a very hard sell, as most macroeconomists have become convinced that the Lucas Critique means we need to always base everything on the dynamic optimization of a single representative agent. I don’t think this was actually what Lucas meant (though maybe we should ask him; he’s still at Chicago), and I certainly don’t think it is what he should have meant. He had a legitimate point about the way macroeconomics was operating at that time: It was ignoring the feedback loops that occur when we start trying to change policies.

Goodhart’s Law is probably a better formulation: Once you make an indicator into a target, you make it less effective as an indicator. So while inflation does seem to be negatively correlated with unemployment, that doesn’t mean we should try to increase inflation to extreme levels in order to get rid of unemployment; sooner or later the economy is going to adapt and we’ll just have both inflation and unemployment at the same time. (Campbell’s Law provides a specific example that I wish more people in the US understood: Test scores would be a good measure of education if we didn’t use them to target educational resources.)

The reason we must get rid of dynamic optimization is quite simple: No one behaves that way.

It’s often computationally intractable even in our wildly oversimplified models that experts spend years working onnow you’re imagining that everyone does this constantly?

The most fundamental part of almost every DSGE model is the Euler equation; this equation comes directly from the dynamic optimization. It’s supposed to predict how people will choose to spend and save based upon their plans for an infinite sequence of future income and spending—and if this sounds utterly impossible, that’s because it is. Euler equations don’t fit the data at all, and even extreme attempts to save them by adding a proliferation of additional terms have failed. (It reminds me very much of the epicycles that astronomers used to add to the geocentric model of the universe to try to squeeze in weird results like Mars, before they had the heliocentric model.)

We should instead start over: How do people actually choose their spending? Well, first of all, it’s not completely rational. But it’s also not totally random. People spend on necessities before luxuries; they try to live within their means; they shop for bargains. There is a great deal of data from behavioral economics that could be brought to bear on understanding the actual heuristics people use in deciding how to spend and save. There have already been successful policy interventions using this knowledge, like Save More Tomorrow.

The best thing about this is that it should make our models simpler. We’re no longer asking each agent in the model to solve an impossible problem. However people actually make these decisions, we know it can be done, because it is being done. Most people don’t really think that hard, even when they probably should; so the heuristics really can’t be that complicated. My guess is that you can get a good fit—certainly better than an Euler equation—just by assuming that people set a target for how much they’re going to save (which is also probably pretty small for most people), and then spend the rest.

The second most important thing we need to add is inequality. Some people are much richer than others; this is a very important fact about economics that we need to understand. Yet it has taken the economics profession decades to figure this out, and even now I’m only aware of one class of macroeconomic models that seriously involves inequality, the Heterogeneous Agent New Keynesian (HANK) models which didn’t emerge until the last few years (the earliest publication I can find is 2016!). And these models are monsters; they are almost always computationally intractable and have a huge number of parameters to estimate.

Understanding inequality will require more parameters, that much is true. But if we abandon dynamic optimization, we won’t need as many as the HANK models have, and most of the new parameters are actually things we can observe, like the distribution of wages and years of schooling.

Observability of parameters is a big deal. Another problem with the way the Lucas Critique has been used is that we’ve been told we need to be using “deep structural parameters” like the temporal elasticity of substitution and the coefficient of relative risk aversion—but we have no idea what those actually are. We can’t observe them, and all of our attempts to measure them indirectly have yielded inconclusive or even inconsistent results. This is probably because these parameters are based on assumptions about human rationality that are simply not realistic. Most people probably don’t have a well-defined temporal elasticity of substitution, because their day-to-day decisions simply aren’t consistent enough over time for that to make sense. Sometimes they eat salad and exercise; sometimes they loaf on the couch and drink milkshakes. Likewise with risk aversion: many moons ago I wrote about how people will buy both insurance and lottery tickets, which no one with a consistent coefficient of relative risk aversion would ever do.

So if we are interested in deep structural parameters, we need to base those parameters on behavioral experiments so that we can understand actual human behavior. And frankly I don’t think we need deep structural parameters; I think this is a form of greedy reductionism, where we assume that the way to understand something is always to look at smaller pieces. Sometimes the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Economists obviously feel a lot of envy for physics; but they don’t seem to understand that aerodynamics would never have (ahem) gotten off the ground if we had first waited for an exact quantum mechanical solution of the oxygen atom (which we still don’t have, by the way). Macroeconomics may not actually need “microfoundations” in the strong sense that most economists intend; it needs to be consistent with small-scale behavior, but it doesn’t need to be derived from small-scale behavior.

This means that the new paradigm in macroeconomics does not need to be computationally intractable. Using heuristics instead of dynamic optimization and worrying less about microfoundations will make the models simpler; adding inequality need not make them so much more complicated.

Fighting the zero-sum paradigm

Dec 2 JDN 2458455

It should be obvious at this point that there are deep, perhaps even fundamental, divides between the attitudes and beliefs of different political factions. It can be very difficult to even understand, much less sympathize, with the concerns of people who are racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and authoritarian.
But at the end of the day we still have to live in the same country as these people, so we’d better try to understand how they think. And maybe, just maybe, that understanding will help us to change them.

There is one fundamental belief system that I believe underlies almost all forms of extremism. Right now right-wing extremism is the major threat to global democracy, but left-wing extremism subscribes to the same core paradigm (consistent with Horseshoe Theory).

I think the best term for this is the zero-sum paradigm. The idea is quite simple: There is a certain amount of valuable “stuff” (money, goods, land, status, happiness) in the world, and the only political question is who gets how much.

Thus, any improvement in anyone’s life must, necessarily, come at someone else’s expense. If I become richer, you become poorer. If I become stronger, you become weaker. Any improvement in my standard of living is a threat to your status.

If this belief were true, it would justify, or at least rationalize, all sorts of destructive behavior: Any harm I can inflict upon someone else will yield a benefit for me, by some fundamental conservation law of the universe.

Viewed in this light, beliefs like patriarchy and White supremacy suddenly become much more comprehensible: Why would you want to spend so much effort hurting women and Black people? Because, by the fundamental law of zero-sum, any harm to women is a benefit to men, and any harm to Black people is a benefit to White people. The world is made of “teams”, and you are fighting for your own against all the others.

And I can even see why such an attitude is seductive: It’s simple and easy to understand. And there are many circumstances where it can be approximately true.
When you are bargaining with your boss over a wage, one dollar more for you is one dollar less for your boss.
When your factory outsources production to China, one more job for China is one less job for you.

When we vote for President, one more vote for the Democrats is one less vote for the Republicans.

But of course the world is not actually zero-sum. Both you and your boss would be worse off if your job were to disappear; they need your work and you need their money. For every job that is outsourced to China, another job is created in the United States. And democracy itself is such a profound public good that it basically overwhelms all others.

In fact, it is precisely when a system is running well that the zero-sum paradigm becomes closest to true. In the space of all possible allocations, it is the efficient ones that behave in something like a zero-sum way, because when the system is efficient, we are already producing as much as we can.

This may be part of why populist extremism always seems to assert itself during periods of global prosperity, as in the 1920s and today: It is precisely when the world is running at its full capacity that it feels most like someone else’s gain must come at your loss.

Yet if we live according to the zero-sum paradigm, we will rapidly destroy the prosperity that made that paradigm seem plausible. A trade war between the US and China would put millions out of work in both countries. A real war with conventional weapons would kill millions. A nuclear war would kill billions.

This is what we must convey: We must show people just how good things are right now.

This is not an easy task; when people want to believe the world is falling apart, they can very easily find excuses to do so. You can point to the statistics showing a global decline in homicide, but one dramatic shooting on the TV news will wipe that all away. You can show the worldwide rise in real incomes across the board, but that won’t console someone who just lost their job and blames outsourcing or immigrants.

Indeed, many people will be offended by the attempt—the mere suggestion that the world is actually in very good shape and overall getting better will be perceived as an attempt to deny or dismiss the problems and injustices that still exist.

I encounter this especially from the left: Simply pointing out the objective fact that the wealth gap between White and Black households is slowly closing is often taken as a claim that racism no longer exists or doesn’t matter. Congratulating the meteoric rise in women’s empowerment around the world is often paradoxically viewed as dismissing feminism instead of lauding it.

I think the best case against progress can be made with regard to global climate change: Carbon emissions are not falling nearly fast enough, and the world is getting closer to the brink of truly catastrophic ecological damage. Yet even here the zero-sum paradigm is clearly holding us back; workers in fossil-fuel industries think that the only way to reduce carbon emissions is to make their families suffer, but that’s simply not true. We can make them better off too.

Talking about injustice feels righteous. Talking about progress doesn’t. Yet I think what the world needs most right now—the one thing that might actually pull us back from the brink of fascism or even war—is people talking about progress.

If people think that the world is full of failure and suffering and injustice, they will want to tear down the whole system and start over with something else. In a world that is largely democratic, that very likely means switching to authoritarianism. If people think that this is as bad as it gets, they will be willing to accept or even instigate violence in order to change to almost anything else.

But if people realize that in fact the world is full of success and prosperity and progress, that things are right now quite literally better in almost every way for almost every person in almost every country than they were a hundred—or even fifty—years ago, they will not be so eager to tear the system down and start anew. Centrism is often mocked (partly because it is confused with false equivalence), but in a world where life is improving this quickly for this many people, “stay the course” sounds awfully attractive to me.
That doesn’t mean we should ignore the real problems and injustices that still exist, of course. There is still a great deal of progress left to be made.  But I believe we are more likely to make progress if we acknowledge and seek to continue the progress we have already made, than if we allow ourselves to fall into despair as if that progress did not exist.

If you really want grad students to have better mental health, remove all the high-stakes checkpoints

Post 260: Oct 14 JDN 2458406

A study was recently published in Nature Biotechnology showing clear evidence of a mental health crisis among graduate students (no, I don’t know why they picked the biotechnology imprint—I guess it wasn’t good enough for Nature proper?). This is only the most recent of several studies showing exceptionally high rates of mental health issues among graduate students.

I’ve seen universities do a lot of public hand-wringing and lip service about this issue—but I haven’t seen any that were seriously willing to do what it takes to actually solve the problem.

I think this fact became clearest to me when I was required to fill out an official “Individual Development Plan” form as a prerequisite for my advancement to candidacy, which included one question about “What are you doing to support your own mental health and work/life balance?”

The irony here is absolutely excruciating, because advancement to candidacy has been overwhelmingly my leading source of mental health stress for at least the last six months. And it is only one of several different high-stakes checkpoints that grad students are expected to complete, always threatened with defunding or outright expulsion from the graduate program if the checkpoint is not met by a certain arbitrary deadline.

The first of these was the qualifying exams. Then comes advancement to candidacy. Then I have to complete and defend a second-year paper, then a third-year paper. Finally I have to complete and defend a dissertation, and then go onto the job market and go through a gauntlet of applications and interviews. I can’t think of any other time in my life when I was under this much academic and career pressure this consistently—even finishing high school and applying to college wasn’t like this.

If universities really wanted to improve my mental health, they would find a way to get rid of all that.

Granted, a single university does not have total control over all this: There are coordination problems between universities regarding qualifying exams, advancement, and dissertation requirements. One university that unilaterally tried to remove all these would rapidly lose prestige, as it would not be regarded as “rigorous” to reduce the pressure on your grad students. But that itself is precisely the problem—we have equated “rigor” with pressuring grad students until they are on the verge of emotional collapse. Universities don’t seem to know how to make graduate school difficult in the ways that would actually encourage excellence in research and teaching; they simply know how to make it difficult in ways that destroy their students psychologically.

The job market is even more complicated; in the current funding environment, it would be prohibitively expensive to open up enough faculty positions to actually accept even half of all graduating PhDs to tenure-track jobs. Probably the best answer here is to refocus graduate programs on supporting employment outside academia, recognizing both that PhD-level skills are valuable in many workplaces and that not every grad student really wants to become a professor.

But there are clearly ways that universities could mitigate these effects, and they don’t seem genuinely interested in doing so. They could remove the advancement exam, for example; you could simply advance to candidacy as a formality when your advisor decides you are ready, never needing to actually perform a high-stakes presentation before a committee—because what the hell does that accomplish anyway? Speaking of advisors, they could have a formalized matching process that starts with interviewing several different professors and being matched to the one that best fits your goals and interests, instead of expecting you to reach out on your own and hope for the best. They could have you write a dissertation, but not perform a “dissertation defense”—because, again, what can they possibly learn from forcing you to present in a high-stakes environment that they couldn’t have learned from reading your paper and talking with you about it over several months?

They could adjust or even remove funding deadlines—especially for international students. Here at UCI at least, once you are accepted to the program, you are ostensibly guaranteed funding for as long as you maintain reasonable academic progress—but then they define “reasonable progress” in such a way that you have to form an advancement committee, fill out forms, write a paper, and present before a committee all by a certain date or your funding is in jeopardy. Residents of California (which includes all US students who successfully established residency after a full year) are given more time if we need it—but international students aren’t. How is that fair?

The unwillingness of universities to take such actions clearly shows that their commitment to improving students’ mental health is paper-thin. They are only willing to help their students improve their work-life balance as long as it doesn’t require changing anything about the graduate program. They will provide us with counseling services and free yoga classes, but they won’t seriously reduce the pressure they put on us at every step of the way.
I understand that universities are concerned about protecting their prestige, but I ask them this: Does this really improve the quality of your research or teaching output? Do you actually graduate better students by selecting only the ones who can survive being emotionally crushed? Do all these arbitrary high-stakes performances actually result in greater advancement of human knowledge?

Or is it perhaps that you yourselves were put through such hazing rituals years ago, and now your cognitive dissonance won’t let you admit that it was all for naught? “This must be worth doing, or else they wouldn’t have put me through so much suffering!” Are you trying to transfer your own psychological pain onto your students, lest you be forced to face it yourself?

MSRP is tacit collusion

Oct 7 JDN 2458399

It’s been a little while since I’ve done a really straightforward economic post. It feels good to get back to that.

You are no doubt familiar with the “Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price” or MSRP. It can be found on everything from books to dishwashers to video games.

The MSRP is a very simple concept: The manufacturer suggests that all retailers sell it (at least the initial run) at precisely this price.

Why would they want to do that? There is basically only one possible reason: They are trying to sustain tacit collusion.

The game theory of this is rather subtle: It requires that both manufacturers and retailers engage in long-term relationships with one another, and can pick and choose who to work with based on the history of past behavior. Both of these conditions hold in most real-world situations—indeed, the fact that they don’t hold very well in the agriculture industry is probably why we don’t see MSRP on produce.

If pricing were decided by random matching with no long-term relationships or past history, MSRP would be useless. Each firm would have little choice but to set their own optimal price, probably just slightly over their own marginal cost. Even if the manufacturer suggested an MSRP, retailers would promptly and thoroughly ignore it.

This is because the one-shot Bertrand pricing game has a unique Nash equilibrium, at pricing just above marginal cost. The basic argument is as follows: If I price cheaper than you, I can claim the whole market. As long as it’s profitable for me to do that, I will. The only time it’s not profitable for me to undercut you in this way is if we are both charging just slightly above marginal cost—so that is what we shall do, in Nash equilibrium. Human beings don’t always play according to the Nash equilibrium, but for-profit corporations do so quite consistently. Humans have limited attention and moral values; corporations have accounting departments and a fanatical devotion to the One True Profit.

But the iterated Bertrand pricing game is quite different. If instead of making only one pricing decision, we make many pricing decisions over time, always with a high probability of encountering the same buyers and sellers again in the future, then I may not want to undercut your price, for fear of triggering a price war that will hurt both of our firms.

Much like how the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma can sustain cooperation in Nash equilibrium while the one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma cannot, the iterated Bertrand game can sustain collusion as a Nash equilibrium.

There is in fact a vast number of possible equilibria in the iterated Bertrand game. If prices were infinitely divisible, there would be an infinite number of equilibria. In reality, there are hundreds or thousands of equilibria, depending on how finely divisible the price may be.

This makes the iterated Bertrand game a coordination gamethere are many possible equilibria, and our task is to figure out which one to coordinate on.

If we had perfect information, we could deduce what the monopoly price would be, and then all choose the monopoly price; this would be what we call “payoff dominant”, and it’s often what people actually try to choose in real-world coordination games.

But in reality, the monopoly price is a subtle and complicated thing, and might not even be the same between different retailers. So if we each try to compute a monopoly price, we may end up with different results, and then we could trigger a price war and end up driving all of our profits down. If only there were some way to communicate with one another, and say what price we all want to set?

Ah, but there is: The MSRP. Most other forms of price communication are illegal: We certainly couldn’t send each other emails and say “Let’s all charge $59.99, okay?” (When banks tried to do that with the LIBOR, it was the largest white-collar crime in history.) But for some reason economists (particularly, I note, the supposed “free market” believers of the University of Chicago) have convinced antitrust courts that MSRP is somehow different. Yet it’s obviously hardly different at all: You’ve just made the communication one-way from manufacturers to retailers, which makes it a little less reliable, but otherwise exactly the same thing.

There are all sorts of subtler arguments about how MSRP is justifiable, but as far as I can tell they all fall flat. If you’re worried about retailers not promoting your product enough, enter into a contract requiring them to promote. Proposing a suggested price is clearly nothing but an attempt to coordinate tacit—frankly not even that tacit—collusion.

MSRP also probably serves another, equally suspect, function, which is to manipulate consumers using the anchoring heuristic: If the MSRP is $59.99, then when it does go on sale for $49.99 you feel like you are getting a good deal; whereas, if it had just been priced at $49.99 to begin with, you might still have felt that it was too expensive. I see no reason why this sort of crass manipulation of consumers should be protected under the law either, especially when it would be so easy to avoid.

There are all sorts of ways for firms to tacitly collude with one another, and we may not be able to regulate them all. But the MSRP is literally printed on the box. It’s so utterly blatant that we could very easily make it illegal with hardly any effort at all. The fact that we allow such overt price communication makes a mockery of our antitrust law.