Al Roth wins the Nobel: Put Theory to Action

Al Roth on a Busy Day

Alvin E. Roth is a Professor of Economics and Business Administration, currently at Harvard and soon at Stanford. He is one of the kindest people I know. As of yesterday, he is a Nobel laureate.

Dr. Roth’s interests include “game theory, experimental economics, and market design” says the Harvard website. But Dr. Roth became famous for putting economic theory to work – in the real world. He has designed and redesigned markets and institutions for better performance. Dr. Roth has changed how doctors and hospitals find each other, how students are assigned to high schools, and how kidney patients are matched with a donor.

Putting theory to work is risky. Most of us, me included, describe reality and hypothesize about causes and effects: what makes people cooperative or why some companies are successful, for example. We find it plenty difficult to convince peers, reviewers and editors of our ideas. Implementation is a whole different realm. We can advise, but usually let others practice: executives, government officials, leaders.

But Dr. Roth is different. Acting as both a scholar and an entrepreneur, he embarked on a difficult and perilous journey to reshape institutions. He had to convince laymen that economic theories are useful. He had to bear the risk of failure for organizational and political reasons. He could have failed even if right. Changing the way students are assigned to schools can disturb powerful education official and supervisors; reallocating kidneys to patients can upset hospitals and doctors.

Somehow, Roth triumphed. In his success, he made markets better and society – more prosperous. He also set a challenge for the rest of us. Coming up with a good idea and convincing your colleagues may be just the beginning of a journey. Putting it to action may be the ultimate goal.

For all of his accomplishments, Al remains friendly, humble and approachable. He seems excited by ideas, not glory. A day after the Nobel committee bestowed his prize, he wrote to me “it’s been a busy day…”. Probably nothing out of the ordinary for him.

A Fly in the Ointment…

An article in today’s New York Times highlights a dramatic increase in the price of generic ointments over the last few years — generics have gone up 6 to 7 times their 2008 prices. Here is a chart showing the climb in prices for a few products. Before you say, this is clearly fallout from the new healthcare law, the article doesn’t point to any change in legislation covering ointments. In fact, there is a certain amount of puzzlement over why prices have gone up so much.

They note that doctors are not price sensitive when they write prescriptions and patients do what doctors recommend — that’s nothing new.

It turns out that regulation for generic skin treatments is more stringent than other generics because they must demonstrate that products are absorbed as well as the original treatments. This, more costly process creates higher entry barriers for generic ointments Read the rest of this entry »

“Big Data” Business Strategy for Scammers

A terrific paper by Cormac Herley, Microsoft Research, came out entitled, “Why do Nigerian Scammers Say There are from Nigeria.” It turns out that 51% of scam emails mention Nigeria as the source of funds. Given that “Nigerian scammer” now make it regularly into joke punch-lines, why in the world would scammer continue to identify themselves in this way? The paper was mentioned in a news item here, if you want the executive summary version but, really, I can’t imagine readers of this blog not finding the actual paper worthwhile and fun (it contains a terrific little model of scamming). 

In a nutshell, the number of people who are gullible enough to fall for an online scam is tiny compared to the population that has to be sampled. This creates a huge false positive problem, that is, people who respond in some way and, hence, require an expenditure of scammer resources but who ultimately do not follow follow through on being duped.

As the author explains, in these situations, false positives (people identified as viable marks but who do not ultimately fall for the scam) must be balanced against false negatives (people who would fall for the scam but who are not targeted by the scammer). Since targeting is essentailly costless, the main concern of scammers is the false positive: someone who responds to an initial email with replies, phone calls, etc. – that require scammer resources to field – but who eventually fails to take the bait. Apparently, it does not take too many false positives before the scam becomes unprofitable. What makes this problem a serious issue is that the size of the vulnerable population relative to the population that is sampled (i.e., with an initial email) is minuscule.

Scammer solution? Give every possible hint – including self-identifying yourself as being from Nigeria – that you are a stereotypical scammer without actually saying so. Anyone replying to such an offer must be incredibly naive and uninformed (to say the least). False positives under this strategy drop considerably!


UPDATE: Josh Gans was blogging about this last week over at Digitopoly. He’s not convinced of the explanation though. To the extent there are “vigilante” types who are willing to expend resources to mess with scammers, the Easy-ID strategy could incur additional costs. As an interesting side note, in discussing this with Josh, he at one point suggested the idea that when legit firms come across scammers, they should counterattack by flooding them with, e.g., millions of fake/worthless credit card numbers (setting of something like a false positive atom bomb). Just one snag: US laws protect scammers from these kinds of malicious attacks.


A New Era of Cooperative Strategies in Cell Phones?

I read about Microsoft’s acquisition of patents from AOL with some interest. They note that this reflects a price of $1.3M/patent and compare it to other recent escalations in the IP arms race. Analysts estimate that Google only paid $400k/patent in the $12B acquisition of Motorola Mobility. Nortel patents recently went for about $750k each. Of course, given the wide variance in the value of a patent, clearly the average is not particularly informative — it treats all of these patents as homogeneous which is certainly not the case. Nevertheless, the escalating prices do suggest that the arms race is unlikely to create much value for the firms (and certainly not for consumers).

However, buried in the stories is another rather interesting observation – some of the key players earn more from selling rivals’ handsets than their own. Read the rest of this entry »

How much rationality is enough?

Last week I had the great good fortune to attend the Max Planck Institute at Leipzig’s first conference on Rigorous Theories of Business Strategies in a World of Evolving Knowledge. The conference spanned and intense four days of presentations, exploration, and discussion on formal approaches to business strategy. Participants were terrific and covered the scholarly spectrum: philosophers, psychologists, game theorists, mathematicians, and physicists. Topics included cooperative game theory, unawareness games, psychological micro-foundations of decision making, and information theory. It was heartening to see growth in the community of formal theorists interested in strategy and my guess is that the event will spawn interesting new research projects and productive coauthoring partnerships. (Thanks to our hosts, Jurgen Jost and Timo Ehrig for organizing and sponsoring the conference!)

If one had to pick a single, overarching theme, it would have to be the exploration of formal approaches to modeling agents with bounded rationality. For example, I presented on subjective equilibrium in repeated games and its application to strategy. Others discussed heuristic-based decision making, unawareness, ambiguity, NK-complexity, memory capacity constraints, the interaction of language and cognition, and dynamic information transmission.

Over the course of the conference, it struck me just how offensive so many of my colleagues find the rationality assumptions so commonly used in economic theory. Of course, rational expectations models are the most demanding of their agents and, as such, seem to generate the greatest outrage. What I mean to convey is the sense that displeasure with these kinds of modeling choices go beyond dispassionate, objective criticism and into indignation and even anger. If you are a management scholar, you know what I mean.

Thus, at a conference such as this, we spend a lot of time reminding ourselves of all the research that points to all the limitations of human cognition. We detail how humans suffer from decision processes that are emotional, memory constrained, short-sighted, logically inconsistent, biased, bad at even rudimentary probability assessment, and so on. Then, we explore ways to build formal models in which our agents are endowed with “more realistic” cognitive abilities.

Perhaps contrary to your intuition, this is heady stuff from a modeler’s point-of-view: formalizing stylized facts about real cognition is seen as a worthy challenge … and discovering where the new assumptions lead is always amusing. From the perspective of many management scholars, such theories are more realistic, better able to explain observations of shockingly stupid decisions by business practitioners and, hence, superior to the silly, overly simplistic models that employ a false level rationality.

I am not mocking the sentiment. In fact, I agree with it. Indeed, none of the economists I know dispute the fact that human cognition is quite limited or that perfect rationality is an extreme and unrealistic assumption. (This isn’t to say there aren’t those who believe otherwise but, if there are, they are not acquaintances of mine.) On the contrary, careers have been made in game theory by finding clever ways to model some observed form of irrationality and using it to explain some observed form of decision failure. If this is the research agenda then, surely, we have hardly scratched the surface.

Yet, as I thought about it during the MPI conference last week, it dawned on me that our great preoccupation with irrational agents is misdirected. That animals as cognitively limited as us often, if not typically, fail to achieve rational consistency in our endeavors is no puzzle. What else would you expect? Rather, the deep mystery is how agents so limited in rational thought invent democracy, create the internet, land on the moon, and run purposeful organizations that succeed in a free market. Casual empiricism suggests that the pattern of objective-oriented progress in the history of mankind is too pervasive to ascribe to dumb luck. Even at the individual level, in spite of their many cognitive failings, the majority of people lead purposeful, productive lives.

This leads me to remind readers that economists invented the rational expectations model precisely because it was the only option that came anywhere close to explaining observed patterns in economy-level reactions to changes in government policies. This, even though the perfect rationality assumption is axiomatically false. There you have it.

Which leaves open the challenge of identifying which features of human cognition lead to persistent patterns of success in highly unstable environments. I conjecture that our refined pattern recognition abilities play a role in this apparent miracle. Other candidates include our determination to see causality everywhere we look as well as our incredible mental flexibility. Social factors and institutions must be involved — and, somewhere in there, a modicum of rationality and logic. After all, we did invent math.

Duly Noted: Solving the Principal-Agent Problem in Firms:The dumbest idea in the world?

This article in Forbes argues that a new book by the Dean of Rotman School provides an antidote to the rampant excesses of modern day capitalism.  The principle swipe is against the landmark paper (over 29000 Google Scholar citations)  by Jensen and Meckling on both the prevalence of the principal agent problem in the governance of firms and the various solutions to overcome it – including creating incentives that maximize shareholder value.  Quoting Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, the article says that maximizing shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world.  I my self am not sure if this is THE dumbest idea in the world – in fact there are many more that would easily surpass P-A problem resolution – but I am sure this will ignite a debate about why firm’s exist – what is the best governance mechanism for them and the role of economic theory and action in our lives.  I for one need to go back and read the article and then read the book.

Signaling cooperation, hiding punishment

An interesting paper forthcoming in PNAS – “To Qualify as a Social Partner, Humans Hide Severe Punishment, Although Their Observed Cooperativeness is Decisive.”

Abstract below the fold.  Read the rest of this entry »