Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Redesigning the US Army's Branching Process, by Kyle Greenberg, Parag A. Pathak & Tayfun Sönmez,

 Here's a new NBER working paper that marks a significant step forward in matching soldiers to positions.

Mechanism Design meets Priority Design: Redesigning the US Army's Branching Process by Kyle Greenberg, Parag A. Pathak & Tayfun Sönmez, NBER WORKING PAPER 28911 DOI 10.3386/w28911,  June 2021

Army cadets obtain occupations through a centralized process. Three objectives – increasing retention, aligning talent, and enhancing trust – have guided reforms to this process since 2006. West Point’s mechanism for the Class of 2020 exacerbated challenges implementing Army policy aims. We formulate these desiderata as axioms and study their implications theoretically and with administrative data. We show that the Army’s objectives not only determine an allocation mechanism, but also a specific priority policy, a uniqueness result that integrates mechanism and priority design. These results led to a re-design of the mechanism, now adopted at both West Point and ROTC.

One of the unusual features of this paper is that the first author is both an economist and an Army officer, working in West Point's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis:

"MAJ Greenberg is an Assistant Professor of Economics in the Department of Social Sciences and is OEMA’s Director of Long-Term Research. His primary areas of research are labor economics and public finance, with a focus on veteran employment, disability compensation, and military labor markets. Currently a Major in the U.S. Army, Kyle served tours in Iraq and Germany prior to teaching at the United States Military Academy. He earned a BS in Mathematics from the United States Military Academy in 2005 and a Ph.D. in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2015."


Here's a related earlier post, in which Major Greenberg discusses some of the design issues still facing the Army's assignment systems.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Crisis in Catalonia, and Andreu Mas-Colell

 Catalonia's crisis has been in the news again, with different parts of the Spanish government taking different views about reconciliation.  Here's one story, from the Guardian:

Spanish right rallies against plans to pardon Catalan separatists.  Protest at Plaza de Colón in Madrid draws 25,000 people, including leaders of three rightwing parties. by Sam Jones

But outside of any news stories I've seen, there is a set of administrative actions that threaten a variety of Catalan people who have had public service jobs, including a number of economists, among them one of the world's leading economic theorists, Andreu Mas-Colell.

On twitter, his son, the economist Alex Mas, tells some of the alarming story: https://twitter.com/AlexMasPton/status/1404438475408035845

Alex Mas @AlexMasPton

"Normally I would not be posting personal developments on this website, but in this case I have a pressing concern. My dad, Spanish economist Andreu Mas-Colell, is dealing with an incredibly difficult and unjust situation.  1/

"In two weeks my parents home, his pension and his bank account may be seized by state authorities, without due process. This has to do with events in Catalonia over the last few years. That’s a lot to digest, so let me give some background.

"Following the global financial crisis my dad was called on to head the department in charge of finance and the budget in the government of Catalonia to help in the recovery from one of the worst recessions in history.

"He left his comfortable position as Secretary General of the European Research Council to take on this challenge. This was not surprising. He has been committed to public service from well before leaving Harvard in 1995 to help establish a new university in Barcelona.

"After my dad retired from public service in 2015, a new government formed. Catalonia then underwent a period of turmoil precipitated by a referendum for independence in October 2017.


"My dad did not have anything to do with the organization of the referendum, or the events that transpired. He has been living a retired life for years. And now, a full six year after retirement, he has been targeted for severe financial punishment.

"Last month, a politicized, non-judicial “tribunal” of controllers (“Tribunal de Cuentas”) made personally responsible 39 former government officials for the bulk of the expenses (back to 2011) of an entire section of the Catalan government: that concerned with foreign relations.

"The claim is that the Catalan government used public funds to promote Catalan independence, and specifically the 2017 referendum, abroad.

"What's my dad’s connection? The 18,000+ page document of accusations he was sent, and given ten days to respond to in writing (his only chance to defend himself in all this), does not specify.

"Though not stated, he seems to be targeted because he was, in the last resort, responsible for implementing the budgets voted on by parliament. It appears that for that he is now being held personally liable for a total amount that may add up to tens of millions of dollars.

"In what I understand is highly unusual, a member of the tribunal issued a written dissent against the decision. She says that the tribunal was not impartial, the decision was based on unproven allegations and contains exaggerations.


 "There will be no trial. There is simply a penalty that is handed down. The appeals will take years and can reach the EU Courts of Human Rights, but the neat trick is that in the meantime the accused will have to put up a guarantee for the full amount requested.

"Because the penalty could far exceed the combined net worth of all targeted individuals, they could have *all* of their personal property, assets and income seized. It will be complete and arbitrary expropriation. Without due process.

"This administrative body has taken this action in past cases.


"The penalties will be levied on June 29, coincidentally the day of his 77th birthday. Before then the best thing we can do is raise awareness. If you are able, I would be grateful if you can share what is going on with others, on social media or simply in real life. Thank you."


Here's a related story, for which Google Translate works reasonably well:



Professor Dora Costa has started a petition of support on Change.org, here http://chng.it/NkLRKvszpF

Monday, June 14, 2021

Repugnance to high incentives, by Robert Stüber

Here's a paper that seeks to understand why some transactions are permitted when only low incentives are offered, but banned when high incentives are offered. (Donation of human eggs is one example; high payments to participate in experiments is another...)


WZB Berlin March 2021

Abstract: A key feature of markets for repugnant transactions is that certain transactions seem to raise moral concerns only when they involve high monetary incentives. Using a framed field experiment with a representative sample, I show that these preferences exist, and I investigate why people display it. Participants can permit or prevent a third party from being financially compensated for registering as a stem cell and bone marrow donor. I find that a substantial fraction of individuals permit a low payment but prevent high monetary incentives. With the help of experimental treatment variation, I show that their preference to prevent high incentive offers is caused by the desire to protect individuals with high reservation prices. Evidence from a survey experiment with ethic committees emphasizes the practical importance of this finding. These results imply that shortages in the supply of controversial goods are unlikely to be solvable by providing higher incentives. 


Here's a short video presentation of (an early version of) the paper by Dr Stüber.  I understand that he will be moving from the WZP to NYU Abu Dhabi in September.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Blame shifting in methane emission and climate change

 Luke Coffman had a paper in 2011 reporting an experiment in which a participant had an opportunity to play a dictator game with a second participant, but faced punishment by a third party if he was judged to have behaved badly.  It was found that if the first participant "sold" the game to still another player in a way that didn't change the outcome, he faced less punishment. ("Intermediation reduces punishment and reward"AEJ Micro, Nov 2011)

I'm reminded of this by the recent NY Times story about how oil and gas companies are selling their most polluting operations (in which methane is released into the atmosphere) to small companies that continue to operate them.

Here Are America’s Top Methane Emitters. Some Will Surprise You.  Oil and gas giants are selling off their most-polluting operations to small private companies. Most manage to escape public scrutiny.  By Hiroko Tabuchi

"As the world’s oil and gas giants face increasing pressure to reduce their fossil fuel emissions, small, privately held drilling companies are becoming the country’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, often by buying up the industry’s high-polluting assets.


"In some cases, the companies are buying up high-polluting assets directly from the largest oil and gas corporations, like ConocoPhillips and BP"

Saturday, June 12, 2021

It's time to explore compensation for kidney donors: Dr. Arthur Matas in JAMA Surgery

 Dr Arthur Matas, the distinguished surgeon who directs the renal transplant program at the University of Minnesota, is tired of seeing his patients die for lack of an organ transplant.  Here's his latest plea to the profession.

A Regulated System of Incentives for Kidney Donation—Time for a Trial!, by Arthur J. Matas, MD, JAMA Surg. Published online June 2, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2021.1435

"In the past 2 decades, numerous attempts have been made to increase the number of both living donors (eg, nondirected donors, paired exchange) and deceased donors (eg, donation after circulatory death), yet there has been little change in the number of donated kidneys. With increasing need but limited supply, the waiting list for a transplant has grown and waiting times have increased, with substantial negative consequences for patients in the US. In the last 20 years, more than 89 000 candidates in the US died while waiting for a kidney. An additional 54 838 were removed from the waiting list because of becoming too sick to undergo a transplant.1

"A regulated system of incentives for donation could provide a sizable increase in the number of kidneys available for transplant. Yet incentives for kidney donation are illegal in the US. Proposals for a regulated system have existed since the 1980s. But, in addition to other objections to changing the law (discussed later in this article), the constant refrain has been “let’s see if this next innovation works first.” Although the previously described innovations have been important advances, none have significantly reduced the waiting list. Given the ongoing failure to provide the best treatment option for a large segment of the patient population, it is time to move forward with trials of incentives.


"Trials of incentives for kidney donation may not be successful. Yet while trials have been prohibited, donation rates have been stagnant and wait-listed patients are dying or becoming too sick to undergo a transplant. The American Society of Transplantation and the American Society of Transplant Surgeons have endorsed moving toward pilot projects of incentives.3 The US government, recognizing the benefits of transplant, recently initiated incentivization of providers for directing kidney failure patients to transplantation9 and provided lifetime coverage for immunosuppressive drugs.10

"It is time to move past the feelings that incentives are wrong to the reality that as a result of a potentially preventable shortage of organs, patients on the waiting list are dying or becoming too sick to transplant. We need to act to determine if we can improve outcomes for these patients while providing benefit to, and not harming, incentivized donors. It is time for professional societies and patient groups to advocate for changing the law to allow trials of incentives for donation."

Friday, June 11, 2021

Governments should buy kidneys, in Journal of Applied Philosophy

 Philosophers argue differently than economists do, but can sometimes reach similar conclusions.  And (like economists) philosophers can sometimes reach very different conclusions from one another. Here's a philosopher who comes out in favor of allowing governments to pay for kidneys, to be allocated to transplant recipients without requiring any payment from them. Among the philosophical counterarguments to a market that must be dealt with along the way are those such as "it is unjust to be paid to do one's duty" (i.e. since the healthy may be argued to have a duty to the ill, we shouldn't try to reduce the shortage of organs by compensating donors because they have a duty to be altruistic...).  I don't think this is a line of argument that an economist would feel compelled to respond to.

 Why States Should Buy Kidneys, by Aksel Braanen Sterri, Journal of Applied Philosophy, First published: 02 June 2021 https://doi.org/10.1111/japp.12523

ABSTRACT: In this article, I argue we have collective duties to people who suffer from kidney failure and these duties are best fulfilled through a government-monopsony market in kidneys. A government-monopsony market is a model where the government is the sole buyer, and kidneys are distributed according to need, not ability to pay. The framework of collective duties enables us to respond to several of the most pressing ethical and practical objections to kidney markets, including Cécile Fabre's objection that it is unjust to be paid to do one's duty, Simon Rippon's objections that it is harmful to be pressured to sell a kidney and that a market is unfair, Richard Titmuss's crowding out objection, and Ronald Dworkin's objection that body parts should not be among the goods we owe each other.

"By prohibiting monetary compensation, it has been objected that the government takes advantage of people who feel compelled to save someone close to them. Receiving a kidney may also come with a price, a price compounded by how kidney donations are framed within the current system: as priceless gifts and extraordinary acts of sacrifice. When kidney donations are seen in this way, they may impose a burden of gratitude on the recipient; recipients may feel they can never repay such priceless gifts. ‘The tyranny of the gift’ challenges the donor and recipient's equal standing.


"Several authors, most notably Charles Erin and John Harris, have defended a government-monopsony model. My primary contribution is to present a novel defence of this model. I argue we have collective duties to provide the sick with kidneys and derivative duties to pay donors. This view provides us with resources to respond to many of the most compelling ethical objections to kidney markets."

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Congestion in applications and interviews, by Arnosti, Johari and Kanoria

 Here's a paper modeling the issue that some labor markets may face congestion related to large numbers of applications followed by costly interviews.

Nick Arnosti, Ramesh Johari, Yash Kanoria (2021) Managing Congestion in Matching Markets. Manufacturing & Service Operations Management 23(3):620-636. https://doi.org/10.1287/msom.2020.0927

Abstract. "Problem definition: Participants in matching markets face search and screening costs when seeking a match. We study how platform design can reduce the effort required to find a suitable partner. Practical/academic relevance: The success of matching platforms requires designs that minimize search effort and facilitate efficient market clearing.

"Methodology: We study a game-theoretic model in which “applicants” and “employers” pay costs to search and screen. An important feature of our model is that both sides may waste effort: Some applications are never screened, and employers screen applicants who may have already matched. We prove existence and uniqueness of equilibrium and characterize welfare for participants on both sides of the market. Results: We identify that the market operates in one of two regimes: It is either screening-limited or application-limited. In screening-limited markets, employer welfare is low, and some employers choose not to participate. This occurs when application costs are low and there are enough employers that most applicants match, implying that many screened applicants are unavailable. In application-limited markets, applicants face a “tragedy of the commons” and send many applications that are never read. The resulting inefficiency is worst when there is a shortage of employers. We show that simple interventions—such as limiting the number of applications that an individual can send, making it more costly to apply, or setting an appropriate market-wide wage—can significantly improve the welfare of agents on one or both sides of the market. 

"Managerial implications: Our results suggest that platforms cannot focus exclusively on attracting participants and making it easy to contact potential match partners. A good user experience requires that participants not waste effort considering possibilities that are unlikely to be available. The operational interventions we study alleviate congestion by ensuring that potential match partners are likely to be available.

And from the Conclusion:

"We also compare the effects of an application limit to those of other available levers: either raising application costs or lowering the wage paid to applicants. Although these interventions can lead to thesame aggregate welfare as an application limit, they differ in how they distribute this welfare. Charging fees and lowering wages both increase aggregate welfare at the expense of applicants. Although these interventions may be appropriate for a platform looking to monetize its services or attract more employers, an application limit can yield Pareto improvements in welfare and may be more suitable if the platform is primarily concerned with applicant welfare. These considerations might explain why the tutoring platform TutorZ charges tutors for each potential client that they contact, whereas the dating platforms Coffee Meets Bagel and Tinder limit the number of likes/right swipes permitted in a certain period."

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Congestion in interviews for pediatric surgery fellowships

 In recent years, pediatric surgery has been a very popular subspecialty among Stanford surgical residents (upon completion of their 5 year general surgery residency).  A lot of time and treasure is spent interviewing for these relatively few fellowship positions: except in 2020 when interviews were remote, fellowship applicants pay for their own travel, etc.  And Stanford hospitals pull back on elective surgeries while the surgical residents are on the road interviewing.  Is so much interviewing inefficient?  Many think so, and here are some data.

Analysis of the pediatric surgery fellowship application process using the Thalamus™ database, by  Saunders Lin, Jason Reminick, Ephy Love, Benedict Nwomeh, Sanjay Krishnaswami, Journal of Pediatric Surgery, Volume 56, Issue 6, June 2021, Pages 1095-1100

"Background: The pediatric surgery fellowship interview process is costly and time intensive. We hypothesized that the increasing number of interviews completed by applicants and programs have become inefficient over time.


"Results: Our dataset included 34, 41, and 45 programs, which represented 81%, 91%, and 97% of all programs in 2018, 2019, and 2020, respectively. The median number of interviews completed per program remained constant, while the median number of interviews per applicant increased from 9.0 in 2018 to 13.0 in 2020. For 75% of programs, a program required only 4 or less candidates to fill their position. On average, 96% of program interviews do not result in a matched candidate.

"Conclusions: Programs offer interviews out of proportion to the number of positions available, and most applicants attend all interviews offered. We recommend an initial program goal of 20 interviews, which may be achieved by increased use of virtual interviews and the creation of program-level data on ideal applicant profiles.


"1. Introduction: With the advent of computer scheduling software and electronic interview platforms, data collection regarding the pediatric surgery fellowship interview process on a national level is now possible. One such platform is Thalamus, a scheduling software currently used for pediatric surgery fellowship interviews [1].

"The pediatric surgery match remains one of the most competitive fellowship application processes, with a total of 43 available positions for 78 applicants in the 2020 match cycle [2]. Published data show that extensive time and monetary resources are used every applicant cycle, with the average candidate spending around 14% of pretax salary and using up to three full weeks of residency days to complete interviews [3]. Despite these costs, however, programs continue to place considerable value on in-person interviews.


"2.1. Data source and methods: Thalamus is a comprehensive online and mobile Graduate Medical Education (GME) scheduling and communication software currently used in the pediatric surgery interview process. For applicants, features include a real-time scheduling system with online and mobile compatibility that allows applicants to self-schedule and instantly confirm their interview dates. From a program perspective, Thalamus is able to handle all interview confirmations, cancellations and rescheduling, and allows for comprehensive collection of applicant and program data both on the aggregate and individual levels.

"Thalamus was founded in 2013 and has been used in pediatric surgery since December 2016. The software is also currently used by more than 2200 residency and fellowship programs at more than 200 hospital systems across more than 100 specialties. It segments each institution by institutional ID and each program within each institution by program + ACGME ID (or a similar number for non-ACGME accredited programs). This is a cloud hosted database on the Microsoft Azure/SQL Server. Thalamus maintains several IRB approved/exempt research relationships with various specialties and other leadership organizations in Graduate Medical Education. This data is not shared between programs nor any other organization outside of Thalamus.

"We performed a retrospective investigation using Thalamus to identify population-level parameters regarding the pediatric surgery match between 2018 and 2020. This study was deemed exempt from approval by the Oregon Health and Sciences University Institutional Review Board as it did not contain patient data and applicant data was de-identified.

"3.2. Individual program and applicant data: With regards to individual program and applicant match data, the mean number of interviews offered and completed per program were similar in all three years (Table 2). The highest number of interviews a program completed was 44 in 2020. The number of interviews offered and completed per program have remained constant during the time-period. In contrast, both the mean and median number of interviews received and completed by applicants have increased. The median number of interviews completed per applicant increased 33.3% between 2018 and 2019 and an additional 12.5% between 2019 and 2020. Furthermore, the number of applicants who complete three or less interviews have been decreasing in the past three years: 25% in 2018, 20.6% in 2019, and 11.4% in 2020. Conversely, the number of applicants who completed more than 20 interviews has also been increasing in the past three years.