Monday, July 24, 2023

Geoffrey Brennan (9/15/44-7/28/22)


Long-time Duke faculty member and friend Geoffrey Brennan died in Canberra, Australia of complications from acute leukemia. 

 “Geoff” joined the Duke Department of Political Science in January 2005 as the Nan Keohane Distinguished Visiting Professor, and has served as a Research Professor since. He helped co-found, and staff, the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program, a joint effort of Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. His primary appointment, and most of his time, was spent at the Australian National University in Canberra. He was an eminent scholar in Public Choice, and Public Economics, with some of his influential early work published with Nobel Prize-Winner James Buchanan, including The Power to Tax and The Reason of Rules

In the 1990’s Geoff’s interests turned toward the connections between Public Choice and the growing field of “behavioral economics.” In Democracy and Decision (with Loren Lomasky), he considered a novel solution to the “paradox of voting” by giving expressive voting a much firmer theoretical foundation. In 2000 Brennan followed up this work with Democratic Devices and Desires, with Alan Hamlin. He extended this perspective with the discipline-crossing book The Economy of Esteem, written with philosopher and political scientist Philip Pettit. 

His final book, Explaining Norms, with Lina Erikkson, Robert Goodin and Nicholas Southwood, has implications that are still being explored in research work and laboratory experiments. Geoff was co-editor of the collected works of James M Buchanan, and was extraordinarily energetic in working to create intellectual bridges. 

He was the first non-U.S. president of the Public Choice Society in 2002, and helped co-found the European Center for the Study of Public Choice in Rome. Locally, Geoff and his spouse Margaret were famous hosts when they were renting Duke’s R. Taylor Cole House at 7 Sylvan Road in Durham. Guests enjoyed not just fellowship and good food, but might be an audience for Geoff’s remarkable singing voice, perhaps in a rendition of “Bye, Bye, Blacksburg” or other favorites. 

Election Day 2022

Got to walk to our polling place and exercise my voting privilege.

Even Gordon Tullock would have approved of my voting today, since I got to vote for myself!  (NC Senate District 13)

It was crowded, but the line was negligible, two people at each of two different stations to be identified and then to get the ballot.

On every election day, I am often reminded of Emerson's 1844 observations of watching folks go to vote. That's almost 180 years ago, but it rings true now.

At least, it rings true to me. 

I remember standing at the polls one day, when the anger of the political contest gave a certain grimness to the faces of the independent electors, and a good man at my side looking on the people, remarked, "I am satisfied that the largest part of these men, on either side, mean to vote right." I suppose, considerate observers looking at the masses of men, in their blameless, and in their equivocal actions, will assent, that in spite of selfishness and frivolity, the general purpose in the great number of persons is fidelity. The reason why any one refuses his assent to your opinion, or his aid to your benevolent design, is in you: he refuses to accept you as a bringer of truth, because, though you think you have it, he feels that you have it not. You have not given him the authentic sign. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “New England Reformers,” 1844.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Transaction Costs in Everything: Wooden Puzzle Sharing Platform

This is actually pretty remarkable.

There is small (by proportion, though fairly large in number) subculture of wooden puzzle enthusiasts. Really high quality, die-cut, wooden puzzles.

But of course each puzzle is reasonably expensive, and once it's assembled it's really just....well, a picture with a bunch of squiggly lines in it. Not that much to look at.

A natural for sharing. Enter the Hoefnagel Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle Club!   You keep the puzzle for as long as you want. And puzzles are generally "returned" by mailing it to the the next user, not back to the central facility. And everyone can afford better and more varied puzzling!

A library of wooden jigsaw puzzles delivered by mail.
Browse The Library
 Like old-school Netflix, but for puzzles 
 Unlimited puzzles, keep puzzles as long as you want 
 30 brands: Artifact, Liberty, Stave, Wentworth 
 800+ different wooden jigsaw puzzles 

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Transaction Costs in Everything: Needs a Lift

 This request appeared on "Next Door," an app for communicating about neighborhood doings and information.

Many "shade tree mechanics" have their own set of ramps, some with hydraulic lifts like this one.

But if I could rent a real lift for (say) $44.95 an hour, and could schedule the time, I could get a lot more done very quickly. Oil change, tires, brakes; could do several things at once. Plus, the rental could come with a standard set of basic tools, which in the case of auto repair is both standard and quite specialized. Would need a way to check all the tools are there at the end, and are unbroken, but that should be possible if we can just use electronics to reduce (say it with me!) transaction costs.

Okay, the $44.95 is NOT HYPOTHETICAL! Anything I can imagine, some entrepreneur has already tried.  That one is in Denver, by the way. A video, if you are interested:

Given the labor shortages plaguing many parts of the country, we might see apps/facilities that rent out auto lifts, commercial kitchens....what else, folks?  The sky is the limit, if the sky were transaction costs.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Transaction Costs in Everything: "MiLaw Who Needs Constant Attention"

CraigsList ad seeks a wedding escort for a future bride's mother-in-law, offering $1,000 for two days work.

The ad, titled "Wedding Date Wanted for Mother-in-Law," was posted on July 11 to the Hudson Valley Craigslist, Times Union reported. The ad said it was looking for someone available for an August wedding in Hudson Valley.

"She needs constant attention and supervision," the ad read. "She will probably wear white and try to escalate small dramas - your job is simply to distract and de-escalate. Flatter her for 2 days and make an easy $1,000."

I dunno. $1,000 is not much, for the set of skills and...well, "attention" that this might require.

Not putting too fine a point on it, but applicants MIGHT want to see a photo of the MiLaw in question, before a final price is negotiated.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Don't Cross the Streams: Economies of Scale in Ignoring Sports Teams

 Three weeks ago today, Sept. 5, I paid close attention to the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game against the Brewers. The Cards lost by giving up 5 runs, in stupid and inept fashion, in the 9th inning, blowing a 5-1 lead.

I announced that baseball season was (for me) OVER, and I would be ignoring the Cardinals and all of baseball from this point until Spring training, when pitchers and catchers report in February.

This promise I have kept, scrupulously. 

My impression (I wouldn't actually KNOW, of course, because I'm ignoring baseball) that soon after I unplugged the Cardinals have won some games, and are playing better. Given that their winning percentage at the time I began to ignore them was 0.51, it is a simple binomial calculation to show that the chances of them winning (say, I don't know) 15 games in a row is less than .000001. 

By any reasonable standard of inference, then, it is MY IGNORING OF THE CARDINALS that has produced any success (of which of course I am unaware, but have heard rumors). 

This is an enormous power; my good friend Christina Wolbrecht has gone so far as to suggest that I seclude myself in a remote Unibomber style cabin, to ensure that I am able to continue to ignore the Cards. I should note that Donna Gingerella has endorsed this proposal, on condition that I write home occasionally. 

So far so good. But I have a friend, a pathetic Reds fan (if that is not redundant, and of course it IS redundant), who has asked that I should ALSO ignore the Reds. He would be willing (I won't give his name, but his initials are Michael Martin) to pay a small amount for this service.

It struck me that this is quite a business opportunity. Rooting FOR a team is time-consuming; that's why I gave up on the Cards: it was taking a lot of time and sadness. But IGNORING a team is easy, and of course it SCALES. I could ignore MANY teams, with no additional cost.

But then I saw the problem in the reasoning: what if two teams I'm ignoring PLAY EACH OTHER. It would be the equivalent of "crossing the streams" in Ghostbusters. And that would be very, very bad. Egon said so.

So, sorry folks: ignoring the Cardinals is going to be my sole project for the rest of this year. I'm happy to accept bids to ignore YOUR team next year, once I have started watching the Cards again.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Transaction Costs in Everything: Thai Taxi Gardens

 For now, at least, Thailand has WAY "too many" taxis.

Parked, they take up a lot of valuable surface area, and create runoff for rain.

But if you put a small plot of "land" atop each taxi...voila! Modular commodification of excess capacity!

As argued in my recent book, these are LITERAL platforms!


Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Is Behavioral Economics Dead? Should It Be?

  Wow....Pretty harsh, from an insider of Behavioral Economics

But also this, rather embarrassing and even ironic since the study was "about" honesty... 

To be fair, Nassim Taleb and a few others have been very critical for a long time. But the collapse of house of behavioral cards is still pretty dramatic. 

Taleb's argument is very plausible: If human behaviors are evolved, then the existence of certain patterns cannot actually be "irrational," though it may be atavistic).




Monday, September 06, 2021

Transaction Costs in Everything

 As any reader of KPC knows, we often credit Tyler Cowen ("LeBron") for his occasional, but always insightful, series of posts on "Markets in Everything.

I have been accused of finding "Transaction Costs in Everything," so I might as well own that. My plan is to post at least weekly on this, and so have a collection of applications.

Prompted in part by this (accurate) comment from the LMM:

An example, then.

We had a piece of furniture, a bed frame actually, that we were going to throw away. But the LMM wondered if someone might want it. So she posted a "free, take it!" listing on NextDoor

Within half an hour, two people had said they wanted it. Instead of sending it to the dump, it was now actually going to be used by someone who needed it.

I was very excited by this, and of course launched off into my rambling: "Do you know WHY this happened, why someone will now use something we were going to throw away?"

LMM: "Well, it's not because of you...." (It is barely possible, as all my coauthors know, that I sometimes take credit for things I did not actually do, I'll admit that. So her response was not out of line...) 

MM: "Quite so. No, the answer is...." (LMM is staring at me, already mildly disgusted at the coming lengthy disquisition)

"transaction costs! Or rather the reduction in transaction costs. The small value of the thing we are giving away, an old bed frame, limits the amount of effort justified by finding someone who needs it. YOU would not have gone door to door, knocking and asking 'need a bed frame? need a bed frame?'  But you didn't have to. Because the transaction costs on both sides, announcing the availability of the free thing and finding a willing taker for the free thing, were reduced by a platform, the bed frame went to a higher valued use instead of the dump! The online platform helped us make better use for a bed platform! It's a triumph of cooperation in the new sharing economy!"

She's got that thousand yard stare at this point.

I continue, very excited: "Such an important, general insight! Why, I bet they'll put 'He's Reducing Transaction Costs in Heaven' on my tombstone!"

LMM (sotto voce): "Soon, I hope."