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The Biological Foundations of Economic Preferences  

Nikolaus Robalino and Arthur Robson

Modern economic theory rests on the basic assumption that agents’ choices are guided by preferences. The question of where such preferences might have come from has traditionally been ignored or viewed agnostically. The biological approach to economic behavior addresses the issue of the origins of economic preferences explicitly. This approach assumes that economic preferences are shaped by the forces of natural selection. For example, an important theoretical insight delivered thus far by this approach is that individuals ought to be more risk averse to aggregate than to idiosyncratic risk. Additionally the approach has delivered an evolutionary basis for hedonic and adaptive utility and an evolutionary rationale for “theory of mind.” Related empirical work has studied the evolution of time preferences, loss aversion, and explored the deep evolutionary determinants of long-run economic development.


Improving on Simple Majority Voting by Alternative Voting Mechanisms  

Jacob K. Goeree, Philippos Louis, and Jingjing Zhang

Majority voting is the predominant mechanism for collective decision making. It is used in a broad range of applications, spanning from national referenda to small group decision making. It is simple, transparent, and induces voters to vote sincerely. However, it is increasingly recognized that it has some weaknesses. First of all, majority voting may lead to inefficient outcomes. This happens because it does not allow voters to express the intensity of their preferences. As a result, an indifferent majority may win over an intense minority. In addition, majority voting suffers from the “tyranny of the majority,” i.e., the risk of repeatedly excluding minority groups from representation. A final drawback is the “winner-take-all” nature of majority voting, i.e., it offers no compensation for losing voters. Economists have recently proposed various alternative mechanisms that aim to produce more efficient and more equitable outcomes. These can be classified into three different approaches. With storable votes, voters allocate a budget of votes across several issues. Under vote trading, voters can exchange votes for money. Under linear voting or quadratic voting, voters can buy votes at a linear or quadratic cost respectively. The properties of different alternative mechanisms can be characterized using theoretical modeling and game theoretic analysis. Lab experiments are used to test theoretical predictions and evaluate their fitness for actual use in applications. Overall, these alternative mechanisms hold the promise to improve on majority voting but have their own shortcomings. Additional theoretical analysis and empirical testing is needed to produce a mechanism that robustly delivers efficient and equitable outcomes.


The Economics of Identity and Conflict  

Subhasish M. Chowdhury

Conflicts are a ubiquitous part of our life. One of the main reasons behind the initiation and escalation of conflict is the identity, or the sense of self, of the engaged parties. It is hence not surprising that there is a consistent area of academic literature that focuses on identity, conflict, and their interaction. This area models conflicts as contests and focuses on the theoretical, experimental, and empirical literature from economics, political science, and psychology. The theoretical literature investigates the behavioral aspects—such as preference and beliefs—to explain the reasons for and the effects of identity on human behavior. The theoretical literature also analyzes issues such as identity-dependent externality, endogenous choice of joining a group, and so on. The applied literature consists of laboratory and field experiments as well as empirical studies from the field. The experimental studies find that the salience of an identity can increase conflict in a field setting. Laboratory experiments show that whereas real identity indeed increases conflict, a mere classification does not do so. It is also observed that priming a majority–minority identity affects the conflict behavior of the majority, but not of the minority. Further investigations explain these results in terms of parochial altruism. The empirical literature in this area focuses on the various measures of identity, identity distribution, and other economic variables on conflict behavior. Religious polarization can explain conflict behavior better than linguistic differences. Moreover, polarization is a more significant determinants of conflict when the winners of the conflict enjoy a public good reward; but fractionalization is a better determinant when the winners enjoy a private good reward. As a whole, this area of literature is still emerging, and the theoretical literature can be extended to various avenues such as sabotage, affirmative action, intra-group conflict, and endogenous group formation. For empirical and experimental research, exploring new conflict resolution mechanisms, endogeneity between identity and conflict, and evaluating biological mechanisms for identity-related conflict will be of interest.


Time Consistent Policies and Quasi-Hyperbolic Discounting  

Łukasz Balbus, Kevin Reffett, and Łukasz Woźny

In dynamic choice models, dynamic inconsistency of preferences is a situation in which a decision-maker’s preferences change over time. Optimal plans under such preferences are time inconsistent if a decision-maker has no incentive to follow in the future the (previously chosen) optimal plan. A typical example of dynamic inconsistency is the case of present bias preferences, where there is a repeated preference toward smaller present rewards versus larger future rewards. The study of dynamic choice of decision-makers who possess dynamically inconsistent preferences has long been the focal point of much work in behavioral economics. Experimental and empirical literatures both point to the importance of various forms of present-bias. The canonical model of dynamically inconsistent preferences exhibiting present-bias is a model of quasi-hyperbolic discounting. A quasi-hyperbolic discounting model is a dynamic choice model, in which the standard exponential discounting is modified by adding an impatience parameter that additionally discounts the immediately succeeding period. A central problem with the analytical study of decision-makers who possess dynamically inconsistent preferences is how to model their choices in sequential decision problems. One general answer to this problem is to characterize and compute (if they exist) constrained optimal plans that are optimal among the set of time consistent sequential plans. Time consistent plans are those among the set of feasible plans that will actually be followed, or not reoptimized, by agents whose preferences change over time. These are called time consistent plans or policies (TCPs). Many results of the existence, uniqueness, and characterization of stationary, or time invariant, TCPs in a class of consumption-savings problems with quasi-hyperbolic discounting, as well as provide some discussion of how to compute TCPs in some extensions of the model are presented, and the role of the generalized Bellman equation operator approach is central. This approach provides sufficient conditions for the existence of time consistent solutions and facilitates their computation. Importantly, the generalized Bellman approach can also be related to a common first-order approach in the literature known as the generalized Euler equation approach. By constructing sufficient conditions for continuously differentiable TCPs on the primitives of the model, sufficient conditions under which a generalized Euler equation approach is valid can be provided. There are other important facets of TCP, including sufficient conditions for the existence of monotone comparative statics in interesting parameters of the decision environment, as well as generalizations of the generalized Bellman approach to allow for unbounded returns and general certainty equivalents. In addition, the case of multidimensional state space, as well as a general self generation method for characterizing nonstationary TCPs must be considered as well.