April 2012

Here's the economist's outlook on the problem: While a new rail link would provide positive returns for society, neither private nor public institutions are properly incentivized to make it happen.

Traffic on the current rail links, two 100 year old tunnels, is at full capacity and will only increase over time. Lawmakers and analysts dispute the cost of building a new tunnel, but it's generally estimated to be in the neighborhood of $10 billion. It will take decades to recoup the investment. This type of massive-scale infrastructure is beyond the scope of any corporation, but not for the simple reason of scale. Consortiums of private institutions can raise massive amounts of money. But can you imagine anyone in the private sector investing in a project that may not earn money for several generations?

More important is that the project would have many positive "externalities," or societal benefits that no owner can capture and charge for. If 100 people need to get from New Jersey to New York City every day, society benefits from them sitting in a single train, rather than 100 automobiles: less pollution and less congestion. But the owner of the train or the tunnel it goes through cannot charge one person for the value of slightly cleaner air. Only a government can internalize the value of clean air for all.

While the government can value something like clean air, it is not good at valuing long term investments. In the same way that corporations are obsessed with daily stock prices and quarterly earnings, politicians are obsessed with monthly poll numbers and biennial elections.

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François Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate for president of France, has an 85.3 percent likelihood of capturing the presidency from incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in the upcoming election. At this point, the other three major competitors: Marine Le Pen (far-right), Jean-Luc Melenchon (far-left), and François Bayrou (center) have negligible likelihoods of victory. It is almost certain that the election will be decided in a run-off, rather than anyone gaining a majority in the first round.

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Now that the race for the Republican nomination is effectively over, Mitt Romney's campaign is speaking publicly about who they might choose as his running mate. While the prediction markets we rely on for forecasting elections also take action on vice-presidential nominees, this is a different type of race, decided by a small council of insiders rather than an election or caucuses. The current frontrunner in the prediction market data is Marco Rubio, the first term senator from Florida.

A presidential candidate has two political priorities for his second-in-command: That the candidate helps and that the candidate does not hurt. For Romney, this breaks down as follows: A candidate can help by providing the former Massachusetts governor cover from the right, recruiting some votes from the center or left, or by helping capture the candidate's home state or region. A candidate can hurt Romney by overshadowing the campaign, either with questions about his or her fitness for the top office--see Quayle and Palin--or by causing a scandal of some degree. Reaching a bit farther back, one can recall Thomas Eagleton of Missouri throwing the 1972 McGovern ticket into total chaos when it was revealed he was treated with shock therapy for depression and possibly an alcoholic.

Let's look at who leads in the market and their individual potential for helping or harming Romney's chances ...

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Gingrich is excited to be the last legitimate challenger to Romney, at least in his own mind, having told Justin Sink of the Hill that "there's a conservative, named Newt Gingrich, and there's Mitt Romney." But with Santorum out, Gingrich's likelihood in any given primary contest remains negligible.

In fact, it's Ron Paul who has an increased likelihood of carrying a state with Santorum out of the way. The market on Paul winning any primary (other than the disputed Maine) jumped to a 7 percent likelihood Wednesday. He has small but non-negligible chances in a few states, including Kentucky, home of his son, Sen. Rand Paul. Santorum dropping out will allow Romney to focus fewer resources on some small states with late primaries, giving Paul and his massive national organization the opportunity for a surprise win.

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The future of the Republican primary hinges on Pennsylvania, where Rick Santorum must win his home state to hang on to his tenuous position in the race.

The political gambling markets that we watch so closely are extremely confident that Mitt Romney will ultimately win the nomination. This gives Santorum supporters in Pennsylvania an interesting choice when they go to the polls:

Option 1: Vote for Rick Santorum. By definition, supporters believe his positions align the closest with their own. Voting for Santorum sends a message to the Republican Party that the voter wishes the party would nominate a person with similar political philosophies.

Option 2: Hold your nose and vote for Mitt Romney. Presumably, the majority of Santorum supporters would prefer Romney to Obama in the White House in 2013. A vote for Romney helps him end the primary sooner and focus on Obama. Quite simply, it increases the likelihood that Romney wins the presidency in November.

Here is how an economist like me would approach the problem: First, think about how different your political opinions are from those of Santorum, Romney and Obama. If you feel that the distance between Romney and Santorum is very far apart, and that Obama is not much further from your positions than Romney, then it would be rational to vote for Santorum and send a message of support for his positions. If you feel that the differential between Romney and Santorum is relatively small, and that Obama is much further from your positions than Romney, then it would be rational to vote for Romney and give him a boost in November.

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Because the measure is Obama's signature domestic accomplishment, many people are more interested in the impact the decision has on politics than it has on healthcare. We'll see how Obama's odds of reelection move when the decision comes out. It's not a foregone conclusion what this relationship will be--there are those who argue that the having the law overturned will benefit Obama by relieving his campaign of a political liability. But I am not personally that interested in the effect of healthcare on the election. I am more interested in the effect of the election on healthcare.

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There are three choices for how to respond to the uninsured when they require health care. The first is to let them die if they are faced with catastrophic medical costs. We as a country have deemed that unacceptable, so we allow people in this situation to receive emergency care which, if they cannot afford it, is ultimately paid for by the insurance companies in the form of higher fees charged by the hospitals in order to absorb these costs. That means the cost ultimately is born by the insured. Second, we can raise taxes and have the government pay for insurance, which conservatives of course do not like. Third, we can find a private solution, like the individual mandate, that provides for full insurance coverage, but does not rely on government taxes. This raises the number of healthy people on insurance, which allows the system to accommodate higher-cost customers--the basic concept behind market-based insurance.

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