May 18, 2015

QotD: Inflation

Filed under: Economics,Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Inflation is a phenomenon that occurs when the value of a given unit of currency becomes debased in some way, and prices then rise to offset the currency’s loss in value. The standard definition of inflation is given in terms of rising prices rather than falling currency value, but that’s misleading. The value of goods and service don’t increase so much as the currency’s value relative to those goods and services decreases, so inflation is more of a monetary phenomenon than a market-price phenomenon.

The more the currency loses value, the higher prices denominated in that currency rise. The classical example of hyperinflation is the 1921-1924 hyperinflation in Weimar-era Germany, though in modern times Zimbabwe’s currency has undergone the same radical devaluation.

What causes a currency to become devalued? There are many causes. With specie currency like gold and silver coins, debasement is usually physical — in former times coins were “shaved” or “clipped” or adulterated with baser metals. The clippings could then be melted down and recast into new coins, but the clipped coin could still be passed off at full value (until the merchants got wise and started weighing and/or assaying the coins). This is why coins began to have milled edges — it made the practice of clipping easier to spot. A variant of the “shaving” debasement strategy is one carried out by the treasury or mint itself: reducing the amount of gold or silver in a coin, but leaving the face-value of the coin the same. This happened often to the Roman denarii — as the Imperial stocks of silver bullion waned, each coin was reduced in weight but mandated to retain the same value. (In modern fiat-money times, coins are generally manufactured out of base metals like nickel, tin, and zinc, but even so, the value of the metal is sometimes still higher than the face-value of the coin.)

In a fiat money regime, debasement is usually the result of creating too much currency for the economy to absorb. If the money supply exceeds some thresh-hold (it’s very complicated to figure out exactly what that thresh-hold is), you have more units of currency chasing the same amount of goods and services — which means that the real unit value of the currency will drop and prices will go up.

Another way a fiat currency can become debased is to arbitrarily re-value your currency relative to the market, or relative to other currencies. If an issuing authority declares the value of a quatloo to be three quatloos to a dollar, even if the market is trading at five quatloos to a dollar, the currency will be debased because it’s not actually worth what the issuing authority says it is. Prices go up, and the government usually responds by implementing price-controls, and in turn the goods and services simply become unobtainable at any price because producers won’t continue to produce at a loss.

No good or service has an absolute value. The value of a good or service is what someone is willing to pay for it. Currency is a specialized good, and is subject to the same law. If the stock of currency grows faster than the value represented by that currency in the wider economy, the currency is in an inflationary state.

Monty, “Inflation, Deflation, and Monetary Policy”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-07-11.

May 15, 2015

This is why California’s water shortage is really a lack of accurate pricing

Filed under: Economics,Government,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

David Henderson explains:

Of the 80 million acre feet a year of water use in California, only 2.8 million acre feet are used for toilets, showers, faucets, etc. That’s only 3.5 percent of all water used.

One crop, alfalfa, by contrast, uses 5.3 million acre feet. Assuming a linear relationship between the amount of water used to grow alfalfa and the amount of alfalfa grown, if we cut the amount of alfalfa by only 10 percent, that would free up 0.53 million acre feet of water, which means we wouldn’t need to cut our use by the approximately 20 percent that Jerry Brown wants us to.

What is the market value of the alfalfa crop? Alexander quotes a study putting it at $860 million per year. So, assuming, for simplicity, a horizontal demand curve for alfalfa, a cut of 10% would reduce alfalfa revenue by $86 million. (With a more-realistic downward-sloping demand for alfalfa, alfalfa farmers would lose less revenue but consumers would pay more.) With a California population of about 38 million, each person could pay $2.26 to alfalfa growers not to grow that 10%. Given that the alfalfa growers use other resources besides water, they would be much better off taking the payment.

May 14, 2015


Filed under: Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 27 Jan 2015

What is a subsidy? A subsidy is really just a negative or reverse tax. Instead of collecting money in the form of a tax, the government gives money to consumer or producers. In this video, we look at the subsidy wedge and who benefits the most from different subsidies.

May 13, 2015

QotD: Mono-culture banking

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Economics,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One of the factors in the financial crisis of 2007-2009 that is mentioned too infrequently is the role of banking capital sufficiency standards and exactly how they were written. Folks have said that capital requirements were somehow deregulated or reduced. But in fact the intention had been to tighten them with the Basle II standards and US equivalents. The problem was not some notional deregulation, but in exactly how the regulation was written.

In effect, capital sufficiency standards declared that mortgage-backed securities and government bonds were “risk-free” in the sense that they were counted 100% of their book value in assessing capital sufficiency. Most other sorts of financial instruments and assets had to be discounted in making these calculations. This created a land rush by banks for mortgage-backed securities, since they tended to have better returns than government bonds and still counted as 100% safe.

Without the regulation, one might imagine banks to have a risk-reward tradeoff in a portfolio of more and less risky assets. But the capital standards created a new decision rule: find the highest returning assets that could still count for 100%. They also helped create what in biology we might call a mono-culture. One might expect banks to have varied investment choices and favorites, such that a problem in one class of asset would affect some but not all banks. Regulations helped create a mono-culture where all banks had essentially the same portfolio stuffed with the same one or two types of assets. When just one class of asset sank, the whole industry went into the tank,

Well, we found out that mortgage-backed securities were not in fact risk-free, and many banks and other financial institutions found they had a huge hole blown in their capital.

Warren Meyer, “When Regulation Makes Things Worse — Banking Edition”, Coyote Blog, 2014-07-07.

May 12, 2015

Tax Revenue and Deadweight Loss

Filed under: Economics,Government — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 27 Jan 2015

Why do taxes exist? What are the effects of taxes? We discuss how taxes affect consumer surplus and producer surplus and discuss the concept of deadweight loss at length. We’ll also look at a real-world example of deadweight loss: taxing luxury yachts in the 1990s.

May 11, 2015

Who Pays the Tax?

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 27 Jan 2015

Who bears the burden of a tax? Buyers or sellers? Why is it that the more elastic side of the market pays a smaller share of a tax? Again, we’ll apply what we know to the example of Social Security taxes and also look at the health insurance mandate as a part of the Affordable Care Act. Who pays for the mandate? The employers or the workers? We’ll also look at supply and demand of labor. Is the demand for labor more elastic than the supply?

QotD: Tariffs are generally harmful, but persist anyway

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

For another example, consider trade barriers such as tariffs. There are good economic arguments to show that we would be better off if we went to complete free trade. That seems puzzling — if we would be, why don’t we?

The answer is provided by public choice theory, the branch of economics that deals with the workings of the political market. A tariff makes the inhabitants of the country that imposes it worse off but the politicians who pass the tariff better off, since it benefits a concentrated interest group at the cost of dispersed interest groups. More concentrated interest groups are better able to pay politicians to do things for them. Trade policy is optimized, but for the wrong objective.

David D. Friedman, “Why Improving Things Is Hard”, Ideas, 2014-07-08.

May 9, 2015

Everybody panic! The robots are coming to steal our jobs!

Filed under: Economics,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Tim Worstall explains why we can easily disregard the calls to panic about the impending invasion of our new robotic overlords:

Essentially, what [economist Joe] Stiglitz is saying is that under certain conditions the advance of the robots means that we all lose our jobs and the capitalists, the people who own the robots, get to have all of the economy. And one can see his mechanism to get there: if robots become ever more productive then yes, we can see the idea that there will be more robots and fewer people employed by the capitalists and so on. But it’s still impossible for that end state to arrive: simply because we non-capitalists aren’t going to let it.


So, let’s recast that end state. There’s the 1% (the plutocrats, the capitalists, whatever) and then there’s us, the 99%. Robots become ever more productive and we the 99% all lose our jobs working for the capitalists. Hmm, tant pis in one telling of this story because as Karl Marx pointed out that’s a precondition for true communism, that we overcome the scarcity problem. But even leaving that aside what is going to happen next?

That 1% owns all the robots and gets all the production from them. We, the 99%, have no jobs and thus no incomes. We cannot purchase any of that robotic consumption from the capitalists. This is the very point that Stiglitz is making, that the capitalists will own and consume 100% of the robotic output. Well, yes, OK, but what are we the 99% going to do? This new peasantry: do we all just wander around the fields until we keel over from starvation? No, quite obviously we don’t. Sure, the robots are more efficient than we are, produce things for much lower prices. But we don’t have any of the currency with which we can buy that production. So, what are we going to do?

May 7, 2015

Vancouver – where “happiness” doesn’t co-relate with “quality of life”

Filed under: Cancon,China,Economics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Reducing the realities of life in a given city to a quick numerical value or data point on a chart requires you to ignore subtleties and local influences. Last month, Mark Collins linked to this article by Terry Glavin on what the “quality of life” numbers for Vancouver actually conceal:

If the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual top 10 world cities rankings are what you’ve been relying on, you probably weren’t surprised last month when the global human resources outfit Mercer tagged Vancouver on its Quality of Living index as the best city in North America. But you might have been surprised this week when Statistics Canada released a study showing that, by a variety of indices, Vancouverites are the unhappiest people in Canada, falling dead last among the residents of 33 cities across the country.

We like to think of Lotusland’s grand metropolis as a place where people ski, sail, ride their bikes, swim, and hike though lush rainforests, all in the same day. But StatsCan’s annual survey of median household income in Canadian cities routinely puts Vancouver close to the bottom of the heap on that same list of 33 cities, and in January the Demographia International research institute ranked Vancouver second to last in a global survey of 378 cities on its Housing Affordability Survey.

Vancouver’s median household income in 2014 was $66,400, while the city’s median home price was 10.6 times higher: $704,800. Only Hong Kong fared worse, and just barely. Hong Kong also tops Vancouver, again only barely, as the property investment bolt-hole most favoured by Mainland China’s loot-laden millionaires. For years, we’ve been instructed to pretend that this is somehow mere coincidence. You can’t get away with talking to Hong Kongers like that, but Vancouverites take it sitting down.

In happier places like Saguenay, Sudbury and Thunder Bay, there’s manufacturing, dairy farming, forestry and mining, and there’s a high degree of neighborliness and civility. But Vancouverites make most of their money from increases in the real estate value of whatever property they might be lucky to own. This tends to skew any real sense of hometown belonging, and nothing quite so rattles the cages as loose talk about the elaborate, federally-sanctioned swindle that has been keeping the bubble inflated all these years.

Commodity Taxes

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 27 Jan 2015

In this video we cover taxes and tax revenue and subsidies on goods. We discuss commodity taxes, including who pays the tax and lost gains from trade, also called deadweight loss. We’ll take a look at the tax wedge and apply what we learn to the example of Social Security taxes.

May 6, 2015

Applications Using Elasticity

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 27 Jan 2015

In this video, we take a look at real-world applications of elasticity, using the examples of slave redemption in Sudan and and the effects of gun buyback programs in the U.S.

May 4, 2015

In praise of “unfettered” capitalism

Filed under: Economics,History,Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:00

L. Neil Smith isn’t happy with the Pope’s latest anti-capitalist comments:

Just for the record, when private capitalism came into being, it was a revolutionary economic, political, and social system that has since fed, clothed, and housed — not to mention educated and cured — more individual human beings than any other system in history. When it appeared on the world scene in the mid-1700s, a person’s average life expectancy at birth — in London, the most advanced and civilized city on the planet — was about 20 1/2 years. A hundred years later, life expectancy was three times that number, and it is now approaching four times.

If only for those reasons (and there are many others), capitalism has been the target of centuries of relentless, vicious attack by evil parasites who wish to be perceived as humanity’s benefactors without actually benefiting anybody at all, Today, virtually every member of what the great essayist H.L. Mencken called the “booboisie” believe (you can’t really say “think”) that capitalism and capitalists are evil.

Capitalism’s gravest “sin” in this connection is that it has made more widespread and greater individual freedom available than ever before (even though in his abysmal ignorance — or ideological delirium — the Pope accuses it of imposing ” a new tyranny” that is “causing people to die”. That, of course, is why there are seven billion people in the world today, as opposed to a few hundred cold and starving millions when his gang of terrorists was running things.).

That is a critically important key to why capitalism is hated and reviled, and to who hates and reviles it. Watch the various enemies of capitalism on TV; Obama, Reid, Pelosi, Waxman, Feinstein, Bush, Hatch, Cheney. None of them are genuine advocates of freedom. There are political vermin in the world — all over the world, in fact, generally in positions of leadership — who hate, loathe and despise individual freedom, and will do absolutely anything to eradicate it. They achieve their leadership positions because no decent human being really wants anything to do with telling other human beings what to do.

The headline reads “Pope Francis rebukes unfettered capitalism”. When he says “unfettered” you can bet he means it literally; this is the heir of a gang of thugs who used to “change” people’s theological opinions with the rack, the whip, and red-hot pincers. You can also bet they’d be doing it today if they believed they could get away with it.

Petulantly, the man complains that the worship of wealth has become a religion in itself. There is lots I could say about that. I’ll limit myself to the observation that the wealth is really there; it manifests itself. In that respect, it’s hell of a lot better than the Imaginary Playmate he claims to speak for and wants us all to worship.

Elasticity and Slave Redemption

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 27 Jan 2015

Beginning in 1993, Sudan entered into a civil war, with one of the worst parts being that many people were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Humanitarian groups traveled to Sudan to redeem slaves by buying them out of slavery. Is this good policy? Did it work out, or make it worse? Let’s use elasticity to analyze the situation.

May 2, 2015

A revolutionary fix for California’s water problems – pricing

Filed under: Economics,Environment,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Last month, Megan McArdle pointed out that the state of California is reacting to the water shortages in one of the least effective ways by mandating rationing, rather than addressing the absurd under-pricing of the resource:

I’ve seen a lot of apocalyptic writing about California only having a year of water left (not true), and I’ve heard some idle talk about whether California can continue to grow. But California’s problem is not that it doesn’t have enough water to support its population. Rather, the problem is that its population uses more water than it has to. And the reason people do this is that water in California is seriously underpriced, as Marginal Revolution‘s Alex Tabarrok notes. While the new emergency rules do include provisions for local utilities to raise rates, that would still leave water in the state ludicrously mispriced. According to Tabarrok, the average household in San Diego pays less than 80 cents a day for the 150 gallons of water it uses. This is less than my two-person household pays for considerably less water usage, in an area where rainfall is so plentiful that the neighborhood next door to me has a recurrent flooding problem.

Artificially cheap water encourages people to install lush, green lawns that need lots of watering instead of native plants more appropriate to the local climate. It means they don’t even look for information about the water efficiency of their fixtures and appliances. They take long showers and let the tap run while they’re on the phone with Mom. In a thousand ways, it creates demand far in excess of supply.

Having artificially goosed demand, the government then tries to curb it by mandating efficiency levels and outlawing water-hogging landscaping. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work nearly as well as pricing water properly, then letting people figure out how they want to conserve it. For one thing, you can only affect large and visible targets, such as appliance manufacturers or lawns. For another, people will often try to evade your regulations — my low-flow showerhead came with handy instructions on how to remove the flow restrictor. And, perhaps most important, you limit the potential conservation to the caps. So people have an efficient dishwasher but don’t consider doing small loads by hand; they have a low-flow showerhead but don’t consider taking shorter showers. In short, no one is looking for ways to conserve more than whatever you’ve mandated. This may be enough to temporarily manage the current crisis, but it does nothing to set California’s water usage on a more sustainable path.

May 1, 2015

Statistical myths in California’s water shortage

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Economics,Environment,Media,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Devin Nunes debunks the common claim that California’s farmers use “80 percent” of the available water in the state:

As the San Joaquin Valley undergoes its third decade of government-induced water shortages, the media suddenly took notice of the California water crisis after Governor Jerry Brown announced statewide water restrictions. In much of the coverage, supposedly powerful farmers were blamed for contributing to the problem by using too much water.

“Agriculture consumes a staggering 80 percent of California’s developed water, even as it accounts for only 2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product,” exclaimed Daily Beast writer Mark Hertsgaard in a piece titled “How Growers Gamed California’s Drought.” That 80-percent statistic was repeated in a Sacramento Bee article titled, “California agriculture, largely spared in new water restrictions, wields huge clout,” and in an ABC News article titled “California’s Drought Plan Mostly Lays Off Agriculture, Oil Industries.” Likewise, the New York Times dutifully reported, “The [State Water Resources Control Board] signaled that it was also about to further restrict water supplies to the agriculture industry, which consumes 80 percent of the water used in the state.”

This is a textbook example of how the media perpetuates a false narrative based on a phony statistic. Farmers do not use 80 percent of California’s water. In reality, 50 percent of the water that is captured by the state’s dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, and other infrastructure is diverted for environmental causes. Farmers, in fact, use 40 percent of the water supply. Environmentalists have manufactured the 80 percent statistic by deliberately excluding environmental diversions from their calculations. Furthermore, in many years there are additional millions of acre-feet of water that are simply flushed into the ocean due to a lack of storage capacity — a situation partly explained by environmental groups’ opposition to new water-storage projects.

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