July 6, 2015

Price Ceilings: Deadweight Loss

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

Published on 25 Feb 2015

In this video, we explore the fourth unintended consequence of price ceilings: deadweight loss. When prices are controlled, the mutually profitable gains from free trade cannot be fully realized, creating deadweight loss. With price controls, less trading occurs and both buyers and sellers miss out on the mutually profitable gains that could have occurred. We’ll show how to calculate deadweight loss using our example of a price ceiling on gasoline.

July 3, 2015

The unintended consequences of a bottled water ban

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Economics,Health,Politics,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Mark J. Perry talks about the outcome of a well-intended ban of bottled water at the University of Vermont:

Here’s the abstract of the research article “The Unintended Consequences of Changes in Beverage Options and the Removal of Bottled Water on a University Campus,” which was just published in the July 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health (emphasis added):

    Objectives. We investigated how the removal of bottled water along with a minimum healthy beverage requirement affected the purchasing behavior, healthiness of beverage choices, and consumption of calories and added sugars of university campus consumers.

    Methods. With shipment data as a proxy, we estimated bottled beverage consumption over 3 consecutive semesters: baseline (spring 2012), when a 30% healthy beverage ratio was enacted (fall 2012), and when bottled water was removed (spring 2013) at the University of Vermont. We assessed changes in number and type of beverages and per capita calories, total sugars, and added sugars shipped.

    Results. Per capita shipments of bottles, calories, sugars, and added sugars increased significantly when bottled water was removed. Shipments of healthy beverages declined significantly, whereas shipments of less healthy beverages increased significantly. As bottled water sales dropped to zero, sales of sugar-free beverages and sugar-sweetened beverages increased.

    Conclusions. The bottled water ban did not reduce the number of bottles entering the waste stream from the university campus, the ultimate goal of the ban. With the removal of bottled water, consumers increased their consumption of less healthy bottled beverages.


Wow, nothing worked out as expected by the college administrators at the University of Vermont: a) the per capita number of bottles shipped to the University of Vermont increased significantly following the bottled water ban, and b) students, faculty and staff increased their consumption of less healthy bottled beverages following the bottled water ban. Another great example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. And the bottled water ban was not costless – the university paid to modify 68 drinking fountains, they paid for a publicity campaign, and they paid for lots of “free” reusable water bottles; and what they got was more plastic bottles on campus of less healthy beverages!

“People with money have alternatives”

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

Frances Woolley on the hidden advantages even a modest amount of money can provide:

Less often observed is that wealth itself generates consumption benefits, even if one never spends a dime of it.

I own a 12 year old Toyota Matrix. The front fender has collided with one too many snow banks, and is now held together with string. The exhaust system has seen better days. It breaks down occasionally. But overall it’s very cheap to run.

If I was poor, it would be tough having an old, unreliable car. The unexpected, yet inevitable, major repairs would be a financial nightmare. $750 to repair the clutch. $200 to fix the axle seal. If the car broke broke down, and I couldn’t get to work, I might lose my job.

But because I’m financially secure, I can afford a cheap car. I can self-insure against financial risks: unexpected repair costs, taxi fares, rental cars, and so on. I can afford to get my car towed. If it was beyond repair, I could get another car tomorrow.

The real value of having $10,000 in the bank isn’t $200 in interest income, or the stuff $200 in interest income might buy. $10,000 in the bank creates a little bit of room to take risks. One could call it the “implicit value of self-insurance generated by own capital.” It’s the comfort of being rich (or having rich relatives). It’s real. It’s valuable. But it wouldn’t be taxed if Canada had a consumption tax.

Admittedly, the insurance value of having wealth isn’t taxed under an income tax either. But at least under an income tax some of the return on wealth is taxed, so there is, at least potentially, some shifting of the tax burden onto those with wealth.

The greatest freedom money offers is the freedom to walk away. Your bank doesn’t offer you unlimited everything with no monthly fees? Walk away. There’s always someone else who wants your money. Your phone plan is too expensive? Walk away (o.k., that may not be the best example).

People with money have alternatives, which makes their demand for goods and services elastic. Food may or may not cost more in poor areas. But a rich person can shop at Value Village if he chooses. A poor person may not be able to afford expensive purchases which save money in the long run, like bread machines or high efficiency appliances or pressure cookers. Consumption taxes aim to tax the amount of stuff people actually consume. But if poor people pay a higher price for their stuff than rich people, is a system that taxes only consumption spending, without taking into account the ability to command consumption wealth conveys, fair?

July 2, 2015

Price Ceilings: Lines and Search Costs

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

Published on 25 Feb 2015

In this video, we explore two more unintended consequences of price ceilings: long lines and search costs. What was it like waiting in long lines for gasoline back in the 1970s? Not fun. But why did this happen? When price ceilings were imposed on gasoline, people could not use prices to signal how much they were willing to pay for gas. Instead, the only way they could show how much (or how little) they wanted of gasoline, was to wait (or not wait) in line. Going to fuel up becomes less about paying in money and more about paying in time. At the end of the day, paying in time is much more wasteful. In this video, we’ll show how to calculate the value of the time wasted in line.

June 29, 2015

Price Ceilings: Shortages and Quality Reduction

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

Published on 25 Feb 2015

Price ceilings result in five major unintended consequences, and in this video we cover two of them. Using the supply and demand curve, we show how price ceilings lead to a shortage of goods and to low quality goods. Prices are signals that indicate to suppliers how much is being demanded, but when prices are kept artificially low with price ceilings, suppliers have no way of knowing how many goods they should produce and sell, leading to a shortage of goods. Quality also decreases under price controls. Do you ever wonder why the quality of customer service at Starbucks is generally better than at the DMV? The answer lies in incentives and price ceilings. We’ll discuss further in this video.

More on the “self-driving truck” issue

Filed under: Business,Economics,Railways,Technology,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In the comments to this post, Tom Kelley provided a worthwhile digression on the topic that I felt deserved a wider audience, so with his permission, here’s Tom’s response:

Given that the trucking industry has been my sandbox for quite some time, I can safely extend Megan’s prognosis to also include the low long-term risk of job losses due to self-driving vehicles.

Frankly, I have to be wary of any “expert” who can’t even get the name of his source (the American Trucking Associations — yes, plural — not the American Trucker Association) transcribed correctly.

Apart from the myriad technical issues standing in the way of driverless trucks, the insurmountable barrier is anti-competitive trucking regulations passed on behalf of the government’s favorite white elephant, the rail industry. Invariably, these regulations are tarted up under some guise of safety (Let’s see, was it a truck or a train that blew the town of Lac-Mégantic off the map??? Hmm).

The bottom line is that any change that would have the slightest possibility of making trucking more productive is quickly met with massive dis-information campaigns, and even more massive lobbying from the rail industry. Even the most minor dimensional changes designed to reflect the current realities of truck freight transportation stand little if any chance of making it past regulators with a permanent disdain for free enterprise.

We can’t have electronically actuated brakes on trucks because the regulators have no grasp of brakes or electronics, and somebody wants to replace the driver with electronics? Seriously? Of course these same folks seen to have no problem flying cross-country at 500 MPH in a commercial jetliner that is literally flown by wire.

And even if the government types were perfect actors in this little tale, then you have the American tort law system, run/regulated by, for, and about the trial lawyers. Even with professional truck drivers who can deftly avoid putting incompetent car drivers on their way to a Darwin award, hundreds of four-wheeler drivers still manage to commit suicide-by-truck every year, followed quickly by their otherwise destitute estates suing innocent trucking companies for millions.

Can’t you just hear the jury summation now: “The eeevvilll trucking company wanted to save a few pennies by outsourcing the driver’s job to a microchip! The must be punished! My client, a fourth cousin of the homeless man who jumped off a bridge in front of a truck MUST be awarded $10 million for the pain and suffering from losing a relative he never met. No justice, no peace!”

No insurance company in their right mind would insure a driverless truck for real-world operation.

There’s no question that the technology is available to make the concept work, I was on-board numerous autonomous vehicles of all sizes back in 1997.

It will take several major societal shifts before any serious degree of autonomy makes it into real world trucking operations.

June 27, 2015

Price Ceilings: The US Economy Flounders in the 1970s

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

Published on 25 Feb 2015

In 1971, President Nixon, in an effort to control inflation, declared price increases illegal. Because prices couldn’t increase, they began hitting a ceiling. With a price ceiling, buyers are unable to signal their increased demand by bidding prices up, and suppliers have no incentive to increase quantity supplied because they can’t raise the price.

What results when the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supplied? A shortage! In the 1970s, for example, buyers began to signal their demand for gasoline by waiting in long lines, if they even had access to gasoline at all. As you’ll recall from the previous section on the price system, prices help coordinate global economic activity. And with price controls in place, the economy became far less coordinated. Join us as we look at real-world examples of price controls and the grave effects these regulations have on trade and industry.

June 26, 2015

The self-driving truck won’t displace many human truck drivers for years to come

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

I’m far from being a Luddite, but I find Megan McArdle‘s analysis of the low short-to-medium term risk of job losses due to self-driving vehicles to be pretty convincing:

… my objections are actually to the understanding of the trucking industry works and of self-driving vehicles. Fully automated trucks, with no drivers at all, are probably going to arrive later than Santens thinks, take longer to roll out than he projects, and displace fewer workers than he thinks they will. I’m not saying it will never happen. I’m just skeptical that this is going to be a major policy problem in the next two decades.


Start with what truckers do, and how many of them there are. Santens quotes the American Trucker Association to get 3.5 million. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts that figure a bit lower, around 2.8 million. More importantly, only 1.6 million of those are long-haul truckers. The rest are “driver/sales” employees or “Light truck or delivery services drivers.” Those are short-haul services that will not quickly be replaced by automated cars, both because chaotic urban roads are harder for autonomous vehicles to handle and because part of the job is loading and unloading the truck (something that long haul drivers may also do).

Also: Why would we assume that the advent of driverless trucks would be bad for trucking support jobs? Those folks are doing stuff like maintenance or loading that still has to be done. Moreover, other jobs will be created, in designing and maintaining the new systems. Someone has to map all those roads.

But I think it will be a while before we get to a fully autonomous vehicle with no people in it. The “driverless truck” that Santens links is not actually driverless; it’s partially autonomous. If it foresees something it can’t deal with, such as heavy snow, it signals to the driver to take over; if the driver doesn’t respond, it slows to a stop. That’s an improvement in the lives of truck drivers, not a job killer.

June 25, 2015

Refuting Piketty on the inevitable “rich get richer” meme

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

At Reason, Ronald Bailey links to a study that appears to undermine most of Thomas Picketty’s claims:

From the study:

    We believe Piketty’s core message is provably flawed on several levels, as a result of fundamental and avoidable errors in his basic assumptions. He begins with the sensible presumption that the return on invested capital, r, exceeds macroeconomic growth, g, as must be true in any healthy economy. But from this near-tautology, he moves on to presume that wealthy families will grow ever richer over future generations, leading to a society dominated by unearned, hereditary wealth. Alas, this logic holds true only if the wealthy never dissipate their wealth through spending, charitable giving, taxation, and splitting bequests among multiple heirs.

    As individuals, and as families, the rich generally do not get richer; after a fortune is first built, the rich get relentlessly and inevitably poorer.

    The “evidence” Piketty uses in support of his thesis is largely anecdotal, drawn from the novels of Austen and Balzac, and from the current fortunes of Bill Gates and Liliane Bettencourt. If Piketty is right, where are the current hyper-wealthy descendants of past entrepreneurial dynasties — the Astors, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, Rockefellers, Mellons, and Gettys? Almost to a man (or woman) they are absent from the realms of the super-affluent. Our evidence — used to refute Piketty’s argument — is empirical, drawn from the rapid rotation of the hyper-wealthy through the ranks of the Forbes 400, and suggests that, at any given time, roughly half of the collective worth of the hyper-wealthy is first-generation earned wealth, not inherited wealth.

    The originators of great wealth are one-in-a-million geniuses; their innovation, invention, and single-minded entrepreneurial focus create myriad jobs and productivity enhancements for society at large. They create wealth for society, from which they draw wealth for themselves. In contrast, the descendants of the hyper-wealthy rarely have that same one-in-a-million genius. Bettencourt, cited by Piketty, is a clear exception. Typically, we find that descendants halve their inherited wealth — relative to the growth of per capita GDP — every 20 years or less, without any additional assistance from Piketty’s redistribution prescription.

    Dynastic wealth accumulation is simply a myth. The reality is that each generation spawns its own entrepreneurs who create vast pools of entirely new wealth, and enjoy their share of it, displacing many of the preceding generations’ entrepreneurial wealth creators. Today, the massive fortunes of the 19th century are largely depleted and almost all of the fortunes generated just a half-century ago are also gone. Do we really want to stifle entrepreneurialism, invention, and innovation in an effort to accelerate the already-rapid process of wealth redistribution?

A different kind of crowd-funding

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

Christopher Taylor starts off by praising to the skies a movie I’ve never seen … but he goes on to discuss a variant of crowdfunding that might be a significant change to how movies are made:

… the big studios are corporations that answer to a board of stockholders. And the stockholders aren’t interested in great film making, they are interested in making money off their stocks.

So the Broken Lizards guys went to crowdfunding to raise money for their film, and have done quite well. They did so well that they don’t need a big bunch of studio dollars and interference to make the movie.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. See, crowdfunding sites raise money by offering goodies and the joy of helping a product succeed. They are not investment sites so much as a chance to be a patron of something you want to see on the market as well as a chance to get something from the company. Free copies, a mention in the book, a token in the game named after you, and so on.
Well that’s all about to change in a big way.

Jay Chandrasekhar writes:

    At our meeting, I vented to Slava about my perception of crowdfunding. I told him I wished people could invest in the movie and then own an equity piece of the backend. He said, “I totally agree.” That’s when we hit it off. He said that there is legislation in Washington, as we speak, that if signed, will make equity-based crowdfunding a reality. Think about that.

I’m with Jay here. Think about that. Its very likely that soon you will be able to donate to a crowdfunded project and get money back from its sales. In other words, it will actually be an investment, not just patronizing.

This is a huge key in changing the way that media gets made. All those projects the studios and TV channels pass on because it isn’t hot or doesn’t make sense to them? If this happens, they can have a chance.

June 24, 2015

Nathan Rothschild did as much to defeat Napoleon as Wellington

Filed under: Britain,Economics,Europe,History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Matt Ridley decries his own taste in reading (too many cavalry charges and panzer tanks) and declares that we should honour the man who propped up the Duke of Wellington financially for making Wellington’s battlefield and diplomatic efforts meaningful:

Galloping bravely against an enemy, in however good a cause, is not the chief way the world is improved and enriched. The worship of courage as a pre-eminent virtue, which Hollywood shares with Homer, is oddly inappropriate today — a distant echo of a time when revenge and power, not justice and commerce, were the best guarantee of your security. Achilles, Lancelot and Bonaparte were thugs.

We admire achievements in war, a negative-sum game in which people get hurt on both sides, more than we do those in commerce, where both sides win.

The Rothschild skill in trade did at least as much to bring down Napoleon as the Wellesley skill in tactics. Throughout the war Nathan Rothschild shipped bullion to Wellington wherever he was, financing not just Britain’s war effort but also that of its allies, almost single-handedly. He won’t get much mention this week.

So I ought to prefer books about business, not bravery, because boring, bourgeois prudence gave us peace, plenty and prosperity. It was people who bought low and sold high, who risked capital, set up shop, saved for investment, did deals, improved gadgets and created jobs — it was they who raised living standards by ten or twentyfold in two centuries, and got rid of most child mortality and hunger. Though they do not risk their lives, they are also heroes, yet we have always looked down our noses at them. When did you last see an admirable businessman portrayed in a movie?

Dealing is always better than stealing, even from your enemies. It’s better than praying and preaching, the clerical virtues, which do little to fill bellies. It’s better than self-reliance, the peasant virtue, which is another word for poverty. As the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey put it in her book The Bourgeois Virtues: “The aristocratic virtues elevate an I. The Christian/peasant virtues elevate a Thou. The priestly virtues elevate an It. The bourgeois virtues speak instead of We”.

The precarious economics of recycling today

Filed under: Business,Economics,Environment,USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

The recycling industry is having economic problems, which means many municipalities are being forced to share those problems:

Once a profitable business for cities and private employers alike, recycling in recent years has become a money-sucking enterprise. The District, Baltimore and many counties in between are contributing millions annually to prop up one of the nation’s busiest facilities here in Elkridge, Md. — but it is still losing money. In fact, almost every facility like it in the country is running in the red. And Waste Management and other recyclers say that more than 2,000 municipalities are paying to dispose of their recyclables instead of the other way around.

In short, the business of American recycling has stalled. And industry leaders warn that the situation is worse than it appears.

“If people feel that recycling is important — and I think they do, increasingly — then we are talking about a nationwide crisis,” said David Steiner, chief executive of Waste Management, the nation’s largest recycler that owns the Elkridge plant and 50 others.


The problems of recycling in America are both global and local. A storm of falling oil prices, a strong dollar and a weakened economy in China have sent prices for American recyclables plummeting worldwide.

Environmentalists and other die-hard conservation advocates question if the industry is overstating a cyclical slump.

“If you look at the long-term trends, there is no doubt that the markets for most recyclables have matured and that the economics of recycling, although it varies, has generally been moving in the right direction,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council who tracks solid waste and recycling in New York.

QotD: Surge pricing

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

New York just killed every economist’s favorite thing about Uber: surge pricing. Sure, many economists also love convenient car service at the touch of a button. But black-car services have been around for a long time. Explicit surge pricing — which both creates new supply and rations demand — has not, but it’s long been a core feature of Uber Technologies Inc.’s business model. While it can be annoying at times (during a recent rainstorm, I noticed a sudden epidemic of drivers canceling rides, which I suspect was due to the rapidly rising surge price), it also allows you to be sure that you will be able to get a taxi on New Year’s Eve or during a rainstorm as long as you’re willing to pay extra.

Sadly, no one else loves surge pricing as much as economists do. Instead of getting all excited about the subtle, elegant machinery of price discovery, people get all outraged about “price gouging.” No matter how earnestly economists and their fellow travelers explain that this is irrational madness — that price gouging actually makes everyone better off by ensuring greater supply and allocating the supply to (approximately) those with the greatest demand — the rest of the country continues to view marking up generators after a hurricane, or similar maneuvers, as a pretty serious moral crime.

Megan McArdle, “Uber Makes Economists Sad”, Bloomberg View, 2014-07-09.

June 20, 2015

Prediction Markets

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

Published on 8 Feb 2015

We’ve discussed how prices are signals that convey information about goods — but can prices also convey information about events and even predict the future? For instance, can we predict Middle East politics based on the price of oil futures? Or predict the consequences of climate change based on the price of flood insurance in coastal cities? Of course, prices in these examples are imperfect predictors as there are many factors that influence the price.

We also take a look at some markets that have been designed to make predictions, like the Iowa Electronic Markets, and a specific example of how it was used to predict the outcome of the 2008 presidential election between John McCain and Barack Obama. What about the Hollywood Stock Exchange, where traders buy and sell shares and options in movies and music? What did the studio learn about its casting choices for the film, “50 Shades of Grey”? We discuss these examples and more in this video.

June 19, 2015

QotD: There is a lot of ruin in a nation … but not an infinite amount

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

Over the years, I’ve had many arguments about economic policy with my statist friends. I put them into three categories.

  • The completely unreasonable statists blindly assert, notwithstanding all the evidence around the world, that bigger government and more intervention are actually good for growth.
  • The somewhat unreasonable statists acknowledge that bigger government and more intervention might have some minor “efficiency” costs, but those costs are acceptable and affordable in the pursuit of more “equity.”
  • The semi-reasonable statists admit that bigger government and more intervention hurt growth, but they argue that “libertarian types” must somehow be wrong because our predictions of economic chaos never materialize.

The folks in the last category have a point. For decades, advocates of limited government and free markets have warned about the economic cost of bad policy, yet where’s the collapse?

Why hasn’t Atlas shrugged, as libertarians have warned? Why have predictions of economic dystopia (examples here and here) been wrong?

I have two responses to these questions.

First, the economic damage caused by an expanding welfare state has been offset by improvements in other types of economic policy.

Second, maybe dour libertarians have been right, but got the timing wrong because it takes a long time and a lot of bad policy to destroy an economy.

And that’s today’s topic, because it certainly looks like both Greece and Venezuela have finally reached the end of the road. Let’s call it the Thatcher Inflection Point.

Dan Mitchell, “Atlas Is Shrugging in Greece and Venezuela: Two Case Studies of Statist Failure”, International Liberty, 2015-05-27.

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