An Economic Argument for a Mathematical Conclusion

27 04 2008

How valuable is an income stream that pays $1000 a year in perpetuity? Naively, one might suspect that since this stream will eventually pay out arbitrarily large amounts of money, it should be worth infinitely much. But of course, this is clearly not true – for a variety of reasons, future money is not as valuable as present money. (One reason economists focus on is the fact that present money can be invested and thus become a larger amount of future money. Another reason is that one may die at any point, and thus one may not live to be able to use the future money. Yet another reason is that one’s interests and desires gradually change, so one naturally cares less about one’s future self’s purchasing power as one’s current purchasing power.) Thus, there must be some sort of discount rate. For now, let’s make the simplifying assumption that the discount rate is constant over future years, so that money in any year from now into the future is worth 1.01 times the same amount of money a year later.

Then we can calculate mathematically that the present value of an income stream of $1000 a year in perpetuity is given by the sum \frac{1000}{1.01}+\frac{1000}{1.01^2}+\frac{1000}{1.01^3}\dots. Going through the work of summing this geometric series, we find that the present value is \frac{1000/1.01}{1-1/1.01}=\frac{1000}{1.01-1}=100,000. However, there is an easier way to calculate this present value that is purely economic. The argument is not mathematically rigorous, but there are probably economic assumptions that could be used to make it so. We know that physical intuition can often suggest mathematical calculations that can later be worked out in full rigor (consider things like the Kepler conjecture on sphere packing, or the work that led to Witten’s Fields Medal) but I’m suggesting here that the same can be true for economic intuition (though of course the mathematical calculation I’m after is much simpler).

The economic argument goes as follows. If money in any year is worth 1.01 times money in the next year, then in an efficient market, there would be investments one could make that pay an interest of 1% in each year. Investing $100,000 permanently in this and taking out the interest each year gives rise to this income stream, and thus one can fairly trade $100,000 to receive this perpetual income stream, so they must be equal in value. We don’t need to sum the series at all.

Now perhaps there is a sense in which the mathematical argument given above and the economic argument given below can be translated into one another, but it’s far from clear to me. Thus, it looks like at least sometimes, economic intuition can solve mathematical problems. People often talk about the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the sciences”, but here I think I have another example of the unreasonable effectiveness of the sciences in mathematics.





Updates

24 04 2008

I suppose it’s been about four months since I last updated here – partly that’s been because I was busy with the job search, and partly it’s because I’m still finishing up my dissertation. Anyway, I’m glad to announce that I’ll be taking a tenure-track position at USC starting next year. Additionally, I’ll be spending two semesters as a post-doc in the RSSS department of philosophy at ANU, most likely from June to December of 2008 and of 2009. Part of the reason why it took so long to sort out my job situation is that I’ve been trying to make sure these two positions will be compatible. (Part of the reason was also that the tenure-track offers I did receive were all offered to other people first, who turned them down.) At any rate I’m very excited to be affiliated with both of these institutions. The other job offers I had were also quite attractive, and it was very hard to turn them down.

I’ve missed a few things in the past few months that I should mention. My second book review was published, as was my first actual paper:
Review of Jody Azzouni’s Tracking Reason
“The Role of Axioms in Mathematics”
Plus, I also got a paper accepted to Mind, and a paper (with Mark Colyvan) accepted to The Australasian Journal of Logic!

Also, since I was tagged by Shawn, here’s the 5th, 6th, and 7th sentences of p. 123 of the book that happened to be closest to me when I read his post (which is Roger Penrose’s, The Road to Reality, which I’ve been using so far to refresh my multivariable and complex analysis, and hope to eventually learn a bit of physics from).

From the complex perspective, we see that 1/z is indeed a single function. The one place where the function ‘goes wrong’ in the complex plane is the origin z=0. If we remove this one point from the complex plane, we still get a connected region.

From now on I hope I’ll be back to more regular posting.