Category Archives: Development Economics

Ancient Athens’ Economic Freedom Ranking

The abstract:

We use the Economic Freedom Index to characterize the institutions of the Athenian city-state in the fourth century BCE. It has been shown that ancient Greece witnessed improved living conditions for an extended period of time. Athens in the fourth century appears to have fared particularly well. We find that economic freedom in ancient Athens is on level with the highest ranked modern economies such as Hong Kong and Singapore. With the exception of the position of women and slaves, Athens scores high in almost every dimension of economic freedom. Trade is probably highly important even by current standards. As studies of contemporary societies suggest that institutional quality is probably an important determinant of economic growth, it may also have been one factor in the relative material success of the Athenians.

— Andreas Bergh and Hampus Lyttkens, “Measuring Institutional Quality in Ancient Athens.”

Instrumentally Rational People Will Not Follow Social Rules

Instrumentalists such as Gauthier tried to show that the best way to achieve our ends is to reason ourelves into being the sorts of instrumental reasoners who do not reason about the best way to achieve our ends. Although I have shown why this project comes to naught, the core idea needs to be explored: rule-based, cooperative, reasoning is best for us, and it tells us not to always decide on the grounds what is best for us. As Brian Skyrms has demonstrated so well, although rationality cannot explain this uniquely human characteristic, an evolutionary account can do so. Rationality, we have seen, must be a respecter of modularity and dominance reasoning, but evolution is not. Evolution can select strategy T on the grounds that those employing T outperform those who do not employ T in terms of who well they achieve their goals and yet T constitutes an instruction to those employing it not to perform some acts that would achieve their goals. The important lesson that Skyrms has taught us is that evolutionary selection can do for us what our reason cannot.

— Gerald Gaus, The Order of Public Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 104–105.

The Skyrms book Gaus is citing is Evolution of the Social Contract.

Note that Gaus writes that “rule-based, cooperative, reasoning” is a “uniquely human characteristic.” I think he’s mentioned that another time since the above excerpt, except he admits that there may be a few other animals who also evolve social rules. Actually, most animals probably follow social rules, and we’re just not aware of them.

A few months ago, I went to the La Brea Tar Pits, in Los Angeles. There is an underground field of asphaltum, which seeps up through the ground. You can see small puddles of this stuff at the La Brea museum, as it bubbles and evaporates into the air. This has been happening for tens of thousands of years. The museum collects fossils from animals who were trapped in these puddles, or small lakes, of liquid petroleum. The theory is that animals lower on the pecking order would get stuck in the tar, attracting predators. These, in turn, would rush into these tar pits, and get stuck themselves — the heavier the animal is, the more difficult it is to get out.

The museum has quite a few saber-toothed cats,* including a full skeleton on display. I took a guided tour, and when we got to display the guide starting discussing several social welfare instincts groups of these cats would have. I had actually made a comment, in passing, to someone who came with me on the tour about how injured animals must have lived horribly, because they most likely died. Not so, apparently. The guide told us that saber-toothed cats would tend to their wounded, sharing their hunted food with them, and caring for them.

Why would a predator which survives on strength and agility to hunt for its prey care for weak links? Doesn’t that bring down the group as a whole? Well, injuries happened fairly often. She, the tour guide, told us about an injury to the cat’s spine, because they would jump on the backs of larger prey and these would shake violently — this was common. Prey often fought back. And, a dead cat is worth less to your group than an injured cat, especially if you can nurse the latter back to full health. No doubt, groups that could maintain a full strength membership survived over those which allowed their members to gradually die off. Thus, saber-toothed cats adopted evolutionary social rules, just like humans do.

What I wonder is if some saber-toothed cats were frustrated that their hard earned income was being re-distributed to what they saw as a bunch of lazy cats who just didn’t want to work.

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* My memory isn’t 100 percent, so if the animal I have in mind isn’t the saber-toothed cat it’s okay, because the important part of this post is the general point being made.

Inequality and the Rentier State

Thomas Piketty distinguishes between “hyperpatrimonial” and “hypermeritocratic” societies. The latter is a society where relatively high inequality is caused by wage differentials. In contrast, a hyperpatrimonial society is one in which relatively high inequality is caused by differences in capital ownership. Piketty’s data shows that hyperpatrimonial countries were common prior to 1914, while hypermeritocracies are modern. This reminds me of Douglas Allen’s The Institutional Revolution (my review here). In that book, Allen argues that “pre-modern” English bureaucrats accumulated large stocks of low-return capital as a way of posting collateral against their privilege as bureaucrats.

While Piketty mentions “civil servants” as being in the top income decile, and more-or-less surviving the Great Depression comfortably, one wonders how their relative status changed over time. Between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, there was a transition from an aristocratic bureaucracy to a merit-based bureaucracy. What made this change possible was the introduction of new technologies, such as watches, that made employee-monitoring more accurate and less expensive. In other words, trust started mattering less, because it became easier to track who was pulling their weight and who was not.

Why did trust matter more when monitoring efficiency was more difficult? Those who head government want their employees to fulfill a certain role. When monitoring is difficult and expensive, employees have more leeway — it’s easier for them to do something other than their official function. Thus, trust has to be established between the aristocrat and the government he or she is serving.

To signal trust, a prospective aristocrat needed capital to post as collateral. This capital was often in the form of large country homes, with sprawling gardens. It was low-return, and apparently low social value. In other words, apart from being what was needed to become an aristocrat, these types of investments were largely worthless. If a bureaucrat was seen to veer away from his proper function, he could be “fired” and this would mean something, because he would now be short a salary that accrues from his past position, and his wealth was mostly low return real estate. For an aristocrat, being “fired” was a lowering of status, and that was also reflected in a further shock to that person’s capital: aristocrats hold large social gatherings on their property, fired aristocrats don’t.

There were auxiliary rules that limited what aristocrats could do with their capital. There were, for example, inheritance laws, where the bureaucrat would leave the capital he posted as collateral against his position to a single family member, typically the eldest son. While in 1614 common law courts made it illegal to enforce perpetual restrictions on property rights, aristocrats would voluntary accept “temporary” (in practice, permanent) restrictions. These constraints guaranteed that a large chunk of a family’s wealth would be tied up, as they were unable to do anything with it other than pass it on to the heir.

Because of the cost of being an aristocrat — the cost of collateral —, “private investment” on their part was discouraged. They were also discouraged to make contacts outside the aristocracy. The rules were set up to sever opportunities for alternative income sources. To attract possible aristocrats/bureaucrats, then, government had to offer a competitive salary. They did this by paying a wage for a position an aristocrat held. Government incomes, those days, were relatively high. Allen writes, “prior to the eighteenth century, being wealthy and being a member of the aristocracy were almost synonymous. That is, the gross rate of return to the aristocracy was greater than to the merchant market for the average wealthy individual” (p. 72). The loss of government income was a big deal, and it disincentivized veering from one’s proper role in their position.

Piketty suggests that high inequality can be politically destabilizing. In the case of pre-modern England, inequality, in part, actually had the exact opposite effect. The rules of the game of the time called for a class of wealthy people, who invested their wealth into assets that signaled intentions of loyalty to the government. If it had been otherwise, there would have been no rules to help maintain some degree of efficiency in government organizations. In that sense, some inequality in pre-modern England was stabilizing — it improved social outcomes.

What Does a Football Manager Do?

I am watching the Benfica–Juventus match, and I couldn’t help but notice some of the behavioral patterns of members of both teams. The players are clearly following rules that they learn during their training, and that are both generalized (for all matches) and specific (to deal with specific qualities of the opposing team). It reminded me of a comment Atlético de Madrid manager Diego Simeone said a couple days ago. He said that managing is not so much about motivation, because all top division players are winners; rather, managing is about providing players with a specific set of instructions, to help them along with their own skills and intelligence. What characterizes a good football team?  A good set of instructions, or rules.

There is a similarity between what makes a good football team and what makes a well-off society. My discussion on rules and football serves as an analogy for rules, or institutions, and coordination between society’s members. Likewise, it may serve as a more direct analogy for what makes the firm what it is.

A football manager is similar to an entrepreneur, in that this person is responsible for finding the best way of allocating the inputs (the players) at his disposal. He is responsible for finding and producing along some demand curve. The way the manager does this is by imputing on to his team a set of tactics. Tactics specifies how the different players interact between each other, and therefore how they are allocated. But, it’s not enough to just organize your players on the field — i.e. decide on a formation —, and then let your players simply decide for themselves what to do on the field. Well, a manager could do this, but he wouldn’t be very successful (and they rarely are).

Good teams are well drilled. There are decision-making heuristics that players must known by second-nature. Defenders have to know when to challenge for the ball, and when only to harass the opponent; it might be that by challenging they can break their own defense, if they make a mistake. Players need to know when to press and when to track back. They need to be drilled on how to decide when to launch ambushes, to try to swarm an opposing player and rob the ball. In football, the team is greater than the sum of its parts. These rules are to in place to guide decision-making such that it is mostly congruent with the general tactics the manager has imposed. For the team to work the manager wants it to, the individual has to choose in certain ways that make the team work well.

Juventus provides one piece of evidence. Dominated by Benfica, they formed two lines of four, with Tévez and Vicinic looking for the counter-attack. Benfica’s midfield was passing it between themselves in front of the Italian team’s defensive lines. You could see Paul Pogba and, I think, Andrea Pirlo trotting back and forth as Benfica’s men passed it in front of them. In fact, the entire defense was synchronized. These players have internalized a set of rules that help them the display a high degree of unity and discipline as a team, oftentimes at the expense of the individual. In a Europa League semifinal, this type of intensity is to be expected, but an average team does not display this degree of tactical rigor in an average game — because they are not well drilled, that is they don’t always follow the rules.

Rules are important in attack, as well. Players are taught how to coordinate counter-attacks with each other, by passing into open spaces ahead of them and relying on their individual strengths to beat their rivals to the ball. They develop heuristics on who to seek, and what the best way of providing a teammate the ball is. A team, for example, might have a distributor, which other players might seek. This player is the lynchpin in the transition from defense to attack, because he distributes the ball to wingers or strikers. The decision to seek out a specific player to set up the counter-attack is based on a rule, because that rule leads to the best outcome on average.

If the ball is lost, a good, title-winning team needs to be drilled on how to press, and how to track-back the defense if they can’t recover the ball soon after losing it. A well drilled team will shave a good number of seconds in the amount of time it takes to recompose their defense if their counter-attack is cut short. Players need to be given instructions on how to judge when to press, when to ambush, when to track back, and how to maintain cohesion. In fact, a great example of the advantage of a well-drilled defense is Benfica’s defense during this semifinal with Juventus: their defense responded as quickly as Juventus’ counter-attack.

This Benfica–Juventus match provides yet another example of how rules are used in football. In the first half, Benfica managed to essentially nullify Juventus’ midfield. They did this by minimizing Pirlo’s interaction with the ball. How? The Benfica manager, Jorge Jesus, instructed his midfield to organize in what almost looks like a box, with four men surrounding Pirlo and moving to block passing spaces. Remember, the manager has to think about how to best associate his inputs with each other, to produce the highest value product possible. Jorge Jesus is denying Juventus the use of one of their most important inputs, their playmaker. Juventus’ manager, Antonio Conte, did not provide Pirlo, and other players, a set of rules to deal with these kind of situations. The Juventus midfield is doing better this second half, so maybe Conte has issued a new set of instructions.

Why are rules so important? A player can respond to a situation in many different ways. If he does not consider anything else but his own circumstances, there will be some optimal decision that he will come to. But, there may be circumstances which matter, but which he does not consider because he’s not aware of them. The player has an imperfect set of knowledge. Rules help him overcome this “ignorance.” Rules are informed by disparate circumstances. Good rules guide individual decision-making for the good of the team, because they help the player decide as if he held knowledge on circumstances other than his own.

The more complex a system is, the more difficult it is to plan and impose a set of rules. Rules have to be informed by many different circumstances, and the less of these any one person is aware of, the less any one person is capable of designing a set of good set of rules for the system. In complex societies, many rules may arise spontaneously. They may be developed by players, but they become popular because they work — it’s a sort of institutional evolution, of the kind Hayek had in mind. But, orders of lower complexity can be well understood, and once abstract rules come to be well-known, they can be imposed. A good manager is a good central planner, because he can devise a set of rules that allows his inputs to work best with each other and produce the most value product.

Stagnation and Technology

One line of reasoning tells us that growth is stagnating, because we have picked the majority of “low hanging fruit” and we haven’t been adequately reproducing it through technological invention. Tyler Cowen and Robert Gordon may, for example, claim that the internet is incomparable to the railroad, the automobile, et cetera. On the one hand, maybe their judgment on the value added by the internet is flawed; on the other, maybe their judgment of 19th century inventions is too,

On this basis the social saving made possible by the 59,000 million ton-miles of non-agricultural freight service provided by railroads in 1890 was $189 million. The last figure added to the ” pure ” agricultural saving yields a total of $329 million on all commodities. Thus, the availability of railroads for the transport of commodities appears to have increased the production potential of the economy by about 3% of gross national product.

— Robert W. Fogel, “Railroads as an Analogy to the Space Effort: Some Economic Aspects,” p. 40.

Institutional Discrimination Against North American Football

Why don’t Spanish teams recruit heavily from Spanish-speaking leagues in North America (all those north of, and including, Panama)? While these countries produce the occasional star, the average quality of their players is relatively lower than that of South America and Europe. Panamanian, Nicaraguan, even Mexican (the strongest league in North America), players do not attract the lucrative offers that many South American players do. Why is that? Because the way regional football associations are organized. The average quality of their continental tournament is much, much lower than South America’s. Thus, their players are exerted less as they develop, and their average quality is lower when compared internationally.

It makes sense to recruit from countries with lower transaction costs. There are, for example, many African players who leave for France early in their careers. 19 out of 20 Ligue 1 (top flight) teams have African players on their roster (for Paris Saint-Germain, few transaction costs are high enough to impede them from signing players). France’s national team’s last roster include two players born in Africa. 20 out of 20 Belgian Pro League teams include African players in their roster. English Premier League clubs also buy relatively heavily from African leagues, but often French clubs act as intermediaries. Spain recruits heavily from Argentina, and has started to increase recruitment in Chile and Colombia; countries which have built strong national teams without (originally) having access to strong players playing in strong European leagues.

Why are transaction costs lower? Countries with shared history — namely, colonialism — form “linkages,” such as a widely known common language, oftentimes looser immigration laws — especially for those with high MVP (marginal value product) —, strong immigrant communities in receiving states, et cetera. Apart from the attractive relative real cost (weighing for average skill) of African players, linkages also make assimilation within teams easier. A team with relatively perfect substitutes performs better than those with relatively imperfect substitutes on average, because the strength of the relationship between the players matters a lot in football (it’s a common characteristic in teams with high discipline, relative to other teams in their league).

Although Spain colonized much of North America, including most of the geography between the western United States and Panama, it does not draw on players born in these countries nearly as often as those originating in South America. I suspect the reason for that is that the average quality of the North American player simply cannot compete with those of the South American and African leagues (growing African migration to Spain also creates a network effect through migrant communities, lowering transaction costs). The reason this is the case is because of the way continental FIFA associations are organized: CONCACAF is one of the weakest associations. It is one of the weakest associations because of the countries which make it up.

Consider the size of national football markets in CONCACAF nations. Most of Latin American enjoys football as its major sport, but most Latin American countries have very small national economies — they are not comparable to those of larger South American and European nations —, and in the two largest economies, United States and Canada, football (i.e. soccer) is not big compared to rival sports (basketball, American football, hockey, and baseball). In other words, the football market in CONCACAF is very small, and therefore much less competitive (assuming the football industry enjoys increasing returns to scale). In less competitive environments, the motivation to innovate  is relatively low, and top leagues do not have to very internationally competitive to be regionally competitive. Think of Mexico’s domination of CONCACAF (on the league level especially), but the relative paucity of Mexican players in Europe.

Inter-regional competition matters. European leagues are strong because the UEFA Champions League is strong. The Copa Libertadores is a much more difficult competition than the CONCACAF Champions League — the latter almost exclusively dominated by Mexican clubs. Being inter-regionally competitive is attractive because it means higher revenue flows, largely as a result of prize money. Atlético Madrid, in Spain, has an average revenue between 120–140 million, and typically makes a loss (and has to sell players, on net, to make a profit). So far, UEFA will pay them ~40€ million for participating in the Champions League, a 33 percent increase in revenue. Most teams do not earn that much, but the prize money is lucrative and all participants draw from the cash pot. Regional competitions are strong when national football markets are large in association member countries. UEFA benefits from England, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, et cetera (the list is long); strong local economies, where football is the main sport.

Size of the market matters because of the assumption of increasing returns to scale. A few implications are,

  1. Larger markets will enjoy lower average costs, shifting the long-run average cost schedule down, and increasing the amount of firms in an imperfectly compMonopolistically Competitive Marketetitive market. In the football industry, this can mean stronger overall football associations, because of stronger competition between national leagues (stated another way, Spain’s second division is much better than Mexico’s). This creates a good environment for innovation and progress. Most groundbreaking tactical discoveries are made by UEFA teams — e.g. catenaccio, total football, and tiki-taka;
  2. Returns to scale internal to the firm will increase profits as average cost falls (and output increases). Relatively wealthy clubs have a broader recruitment base, as they can offer higher salaries (and often a wealthy life in the receiving state) than local competitors. They also typically have better youth programs, so they can better exploit the qualities of non-national players;
  3. If there are external economies of scale, lower average costs bring with them a cumulative advantage relative to competing regional industries. These industries attract more investment, at a higher rate than clubs in associations with relatively high average costs.

CONCACAF simply cannot compete with UEFA or CONMEBOL (yea, FIFA abbreviations are absolutely horrid) in average quality. I reckon that CAF (Africa) is marginally more competitive than CONCACAF. But, it’s not because their local markets are strong — well, that explains comparatively little. However, most of Africa enjoys strong, and exclusive, linkages with many European nations (France, England, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy). These same European countries do not recruit as heavily from Spanish-speaking countries (except for Brazil and Argentina, because of the strength of their leagues — CONMEBOL is the second-most competitive association in FIFA). Likewise, France, England, and Belgium recruit more Africans than Spanish team do on average. Spain often serves as an intermediary for South American players, who pass through Spanish clubs and then move on to other European squads. Thus, African players have a large market for their labor that is exclusive to them. National teams draw on their players who play for European clubs, and therefore perform more strongly than what the strength of their leagues suggests.

But, CAF also has decently sized economies where football is the primary sport. Africa might be the poorest continent in per capita income, but it has several large countries in population. Many of these countries also have large deposits of highly valued raw materials. Their national associations are most likely subsidized, and in absolute terms subsidies (and cash prizes) are likely to be higher in larger economies. CAF clubs have done better than CONCACAF clubs in the FIFA Club World Cup. The CAF Champions League is relatively competitive. Mexican teams have won six out of ten of their continental competitions. If the MLS is slowly improving it’s not because of CONCACAF, it’s because of the growing market for the sport in the United States.

Another piece of evidence is Australia’s national football association’s, the FFA, 2006 decision to leave the OFC (Oceania) confederation for AFC (Asia). While Australia dominated the OFC, not only enjoying the major share of regional cups, but almost virtually guaranteed entry into the World Cup finals, it judged that it could simply not grow in quality unless it benefited from stronger competition. And, the A-League and the Australian national team have benefited from this change. Regional competitions matter. They determine the total size of the market. Regional associations, or what are also known as confederations, which have large markets will be stronger than those which have small markets.

I originally asked why Spain recruits much more from South African than it does from North America, While there are many countries in CONCACAF that have strong linkages with Spain, the low average quality of their confederation makes CONCACAF players relatively less attractive. Where soccer as a sport is strong, the national economies are usually very small. Mexico is an exception to the rule, but neither is Mexico as wealthy as England, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Canadian soccer is probably the most uncompetitive in the region. And, the market in the U.S. is still comparatively small (although growing). Therefore, Spanish clubs prefer to recruit from South America and Africa. The geographic fate of North American Latin America has condemned it to facing an extreme inequality in football quality, from the perspective of the worst-off (excepting AFC and OFC). Only very exceptional North American players are recruited by European teams, and its the rules which determine membership within regional associations that are fault.

Crony Capitalism, Crony Communism, and Crony Anarchism

Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Matt Zwolinski poses a challenge to libertarians who defend capitalism by suggesting that its current iteration is “impure.” He shows that there may be some hypocrisy if we also critique communism because it has historically led to oppressive dictatorships — that communism could be just as “impure” as current capitalism. This is not the first time I have read this challenge, and I feel that it has been largely ignored by libertarians — but, I think there is an intuition behind that choice.

In the comments, I wrote,

You can make a case that the “pure” communist society leads to an authoritarian, extractive dictatorship. You can also make the case that a capitalist system leads to a liberal society. I think the empirical evidence is broadly in favor of this interpretation.

But, I’m not entirely satisfied with my answer. I believe that a welfare state, of a size determined endogenously, is perfectly compatible with capitalism (which does not mean that all welfare states are compatible). But, those who disagree with me will still consider that a state of “impure” capitalism.

One way to look at social change is to interpret (part of) history as a gradual improvement of institutions. These institutions make our weaknesses less relevant, and they promote coordination between agents. Consider institutions such as property and contract rights, the rules that make bad people less relevant in government (there are positive outcomes, regardless of the intentions of a single agent), et cetera. Economists interpreted these institutions, but only within a narrow time frame: ~1700–present. They called the institutional framework they saw “capitalism,” referring to a narrow set of institutions that define “the market.”* Government was seen as exogenous to market institutions, but this probably isn’t right. Institutions of governance form part of the process of social change just as much as institutions of markets, and the often are interrelated.

A critique of communism could be: communism disrupts this process of change for the worst, causing institutions to deteriorate, rather than improve. Capitalism, on the other hand, embraces the process of change, causing institutions to improve. I think the first is right, and the second is wrong. What we define as capitalism today is the product of institutional change, and if we force the process towards a defined end — what some may call “pure” capitalism (anarcho-capitalism?) — we will end up with institutional deterioration. In that sense, “pure capitalism” and “pure communism” may not be that different. Both “pure capitalism” and “pure communism” are ideals we construct, but as such they are both equally weak to the accusation of a “fatal conceit.”

* Marx, however, did not interpret market institutions so narrowly. He thought that capitalism led to a deterioration of political institutions, or crony capitalism.