The morality of discounting

There’s a showdown at Overcoming Bias between Eliezer and Robin over discount rates. Eliezer says,

I’ve never been a fan of the notion that we should (normatively) have a discount rate in our pure preferences – as opposed to a pseudo-discount rate arising from monetary inflation, or from opportunity costs of other investments… If you wouldn’t burn alive 1,226,786,652 people today to save Giordano Bruno from the stake in 1600, then clearly, you do not have a 5%-per-year temporal discount rate in your pure preferences.

While this is music to the ears of environmentalists everywhere, Robin replies,

Very distant future times are ridiculously easy to help via investment. A 2% annual return adds up to a googol (10^100) return over 12,000 years, even if there is only a 1/1000 chance they will exist or receive it.

So if you are not incredibly eager to invest this way to help them, how can you claim to care the tiniest bit about them? How can you think anyone on Earth so cares? And if no one cares the tiniest bit, how can you say it is “moral” to care about them[?]

Read more

Higher minimum wage – higher employment?

Over at Not Sneaky they are discussing how a higher minimum wage may lead to higher employment when we have a firm that has market power in the labour market (hat-tip CPW). The argument is a very interesting one as economists often view a minimum wage as a way of placing a price floor, which leads to a lower level of employment and social ‘surplus’.

On the blog he uses this fine graph to explain the result. The purple line illustrates the path of wages and employment. According to that, there is a range where higher wages create greater employment in the labour market. Let me attempt to explain this.

Read more

Patents not so evil after all…

We’ve previously blogged about the potential for patent protections to restrict innovation when inventions are sequential. However, Sudipto Bhattacharya and Sergei Guriev suggest on VoxEU that the research we cited by Bessen and Maskin might be misleading. In particular they point out that there is a ‘third way’ that knowledge can be treated.

Rather than patent it or make it public, a firm may choose to simply keep the information private as a trade secret. It can then be licenced to a vendor in return for royalties. Unfortunately, this is less efficient than patents because the vendor will under-invest in development of the technology. Essentially this is because the vendor bears the whole cost of further development but is forced to pay a portion of the revenue generated from that investment to the original inventor in the form of royalties. The authors claim that decreasing patent protections could thus cause more inventions to be kept secret and inefficiently licenced, which reduces total welfare.

As a consequence is that the number of ideas available to firms to develop is probably a concave function of the level of patent protection, with an interior maximum! With no patent protections ideas are kept as trade secrets and handed out under exclusive licences. With full patent protection it is too costly to licence the patent and develop the idea. In both cases the level of innovation will be low. Somewhere in between is the ideal level of intellectual property rights enforcement. So even if innovation is sequential, reducing patent protections has the potential to stifle further invention, although not for the reasons usually cited.

NB. Besson and Maskin’s paper isn’t directly comparable with the Vox paper: the former use complementarities to drive their result while the latter exclude such complementarities and allow for private information. Bhattacharya and Guriev are therefore considering a more general problem than B & M, which is why I describe reliance on the B & M result as misleading: it doesn’t represent the vast majority of industries in which patents are used.