May 13, 2016

QotD: The boring efficiency of North American freight railways

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

The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital. It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies. And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world. It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s). But here is the real key: it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world. Europe and Japan are not even close. Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan. As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States. For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible. You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains. This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail — not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

But there is little efficiency improvement in moving passengers by rail vs. other modes. Most of the energy consumed goes into hauling not the passengers themselves, but the weight of increasingly plush rail cars. Trains have to be really, really full all the time to make for a net energy savings for high-speed rail vs. cars or even planes, and they seldom are full. I had a lovely trip on the high speed rail last summer between London and Paris and back through the Chunnel — especially nice because my son and I had the rail car entirely to ourselves both ways.

The real rail efficiency comes from moving freight. As compared to passenger rail, more of the total energy budget is used moving the actual freight rather than the cars themselves. Freight is far more efficient to move by rail than by road, but only the US moves a substantial amount of its freight by rail. One reason for this is that freight and high-speed passenger traffic have a variety of problems sharing the same rails, so systems that are optimized for one tend to struggle serving the other.

Freight is boring and un-sexy. Its not a government function in the US. So intellectuals tend to ignore it, even though it is the far more important, from an energy and environmental standpoint, portion of transport to put on the rails.

Warren Meyer, “The US Has The Best Rail System in the World, and Matt Yglesias Actually Pointed Out the Reason”, Coyote Blog, 2016-05-02.

February 5, 2016

QotD: Chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans

Filed under: Health, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Popular concerns are often weirdly unrelated to actual circumstances. It was only in the 1960s, after the percentage of Americans failing to complete secondary school had been falling for decades and had reached an historic low, that Americans discovered the problem of “high school dropouts.” Political and economic conditions in France steadily improved in the decades leading up to the French Revolution; as Tocqueville explained, expectations rose faster than conditions could improve, so more humane government was accompanied by growing dissatisfaction over “despotism.” A similar process may underlie contemporary hysteria over “intimate partner violence.”

Many have commented on the “irony” that the most pampered women in history are the ones complaining most about oppression. Perhaps we should consider whether this does not represent an irony but a direct causal relation: whether modern woman complains of her lot because — rather than in spite of — its being so favorable.

Writer Jack Donovan has made an ethological argument in favor of such an interpretation. Bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees, are physically not very different from other chimps, but they are now classed as a separate species because of radical differences in their behavior. Bonobo males are not very aggressive. They compete less for status than do male chimps, and they do not compete at all for mates. Sex is promiscuous, and males are not possessive. Homosexual mating is common. All parenting is done by mothers. Female bonds are stronger and more enduring than male bonds. In short, bonobo society is a feminist paradise.

Chimpanzee behavior is the opposite of bonobo behavior in almost every respect. Male chimps form hierarchical gangs and compete constantly for status and access to females. They are violent and territorial, forming alliances both to defend their own territory and raid that of other chimpanzee bands. They kill stray males from other bands when the opportunity presents itself. They push females around, and females are expected to display submission to males. Homosexuality is uncommon among them. Chimpanzee social behavior is a feminist’s worst nightmare.

Evolutionary theory would lead us to look for a difference in the living environments of bonobos and chimps to which their radically different behavior could represent adaptations. And the primatologists have found such a difference: chimps must compete with other species, especially gorillas, for food. The bonobos live in a food-rich, gorilla-free environment where the living is easy. It is this lack of competitors which makes violence, hierarchy, competition, and male bonding unnecessary for bonobos.

F. Roger Devlin, “The Question of Female Masochism”, Counter-Currents Publishing, 2014-09-17.

December 16, 2015

To lower healthcare costs, increase the competition

Filed under: Business, Economics, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum links to an article that explicitly shows the cost of having monopoly providers in healthcare:

Regular readers of this blog should know that when it comes to the price of hospital care, it’s competition that matters, not insurance companies. In areas with only a single hospital, insurance companies have no leverage and have to accept whatever price the hospital charges. If there are lots of hospitals, they have to compete with each other to earn the insurance company’s business.

But in case you’re still skeptical, a team of researchers has analyzed a huge database of health care claims in the US to check this out. They found enormous regional variation in hospital costs for the same procedure, and one of the biggest drivers of this variation was competition:

Market power and hospital price

    Hospital market structure stands out as one of the most important factors associated with higher prices, even after controlling for costs and clinical quality. We find that hospitals located in monopoly markets have prices that are about 15.3 percent higher than hospitals located in markets with four or more providers. This result is robust across multiple measures of market structure and is consistent in states where the HCCI data contributors (and/or Blue Cross Blue Shield insurers) have high and low coverage rates.

November 27, 2015

The Balance of Industries and Creative Destruction

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

Published on 18 Mar 2015

Why are price signals and market competition so important to a market economy? When prices accurately signal costs and benefits and markets are competitive, the Invisible Hand ensures that costs are minimized and production is maximized. If these conditions aren’t met, market inefficiencies arise and the Invisible Hand cannot do its work. In this video, we show how two major processes, creative destruction and the elimination principle, work with the Invisible Hand to create a competitive marketplace that works for producers and consumers.

November 23, 2015

Minimization of Total Industry Costs of Production

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

Published on 18 Mar 2015

This section connects several ideas covered in previous videos about the price system and profit maximization. In this video, we begin to understand two basic functions of the Invisible Hand. In competitive markets, the market price (with the help of the Invisible Hand) balances production across firms so that total industry costs are minimized. Competitive markets also connect different industries. By balancing production, the Invisible Hand of the market ensures that the total value of production is maximized across different industries. We’ll use the example of minimizing total costs of corn production, and demonstrate our findings through several charts.

November 13, 2015

QotD: To many the very concept of “tax competition” is anathema

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

I have written a fair bit on this site and elsewhere (I work in the financial/media world) about this subject, and there is no doubt in my mind that the idea that tax competition is harmful is almost always held by politicians and collectivist-minded commentators who want to create a sort of global tax cartel. Cartels are, we learn in our textbooks, harmful although they tend to fracture with time. (The OPEC cartel had a problem in the 80s and 90 sustaining high oil prices, which at one stage went below $10 a barrel). However futile the attempt, however, do not underestimate the harm that is being done in the process of trying to shut down offshore financial centres and the like. The possibility that people can and will take their money elsewhere is one of the few constraints that exist on otherwise rapacious governments. So naturally, governments try to stop this from happening – hence all this talk about shutting down tax “competition”.

When governments claim that tax dodgers are taking food from the mouths of poor babies, treat it with scorn. The money that goes offshore doesn’t disappear down some black hole, never to appear again: that money, if it is to earn a return and outpace inflation, is invested – ie, it is put to work, often far more effectively than would otherwise be the case.

Johnathan Pearce, “The end of tax competition?”, Samizdata, 2014-11-07.

November 12, 2015

Entry, Exit, and Supply Curves: Decreasing Costs

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

Published on 18 Mar 2015

In this video, we talk about the special case of the decreasing cost industry. As output increases, costs will continue to fall, and more firms will enter which, again, increases output. It’s a virtuous circle! At the end of this video, we review the major points made in this section. If you find that something doesn’t quite make sense, feel free to re-watch videos as many times as you’d like.

November 3, 2015

Brian Micklethwait explains why libertarians love Uber

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

At Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait discusses why Uber comes up in conversation with libertarians … constantly:

I and my libertarian friends all love Uber. By that I don’t just mean that we love using Uber, the service, although I am sure that just like many others, we do. I mean that we love talking about Uber, as a libertarian issue, as an issue that nicely illustrates what libertarianism is all about and the sorts of things that libertarians believe in. In particular, we believe in: technological innovation and the freedom to do it, for the benefit of all, except those in the immediate vicinity of it and overtaken by it, because they make a living from the technology that is being overtaken.


To me, the really interesting thing about Uber as an issue is how it makes a nonsense of the old Public Choice dilemma in pro-free market lobbying and opinion-mongering. I’m talking about the fact, which it does often tend to be, that when there is a lurch, proposed or actual, towards a free market, unleashed either by politics or by technology or by a mixture of the two, the people who suffer or who look like they will soon suffer are highly concentrated and easily organised and know exactly who they are. However, those who will benefit from the new dispensation are dispersed and hard to organise and tend not to know who they are. Consequently you get this imbalance in the political argument, in favour of the status quo, even if, in the longer run, many more people would benefit from the new dispensation than the old, and would like it very much, in the event that that ever discovered that they were benefiting from it.

Uber might have been invented to solve the above problem.

Thought: maybe there is a sense in which it was invented to solve this problem. Discuss.

October 19, 2015

Maximizing Profit under Competition

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

Published on 18 Mar 2015

A company in a competitive environment does not control prices. So the key to maximizing profit is choosing how much to produce. To do that, we need to factor in the costs involved in production. So what exactly are the costs? How do these costs influence how you maximize profit? And, remember, if you want to think like an economist, you must factor in opportunity cost!
In this video, we define profit, including how to calculate total revenue and total cost. We also go over fixed costs, variable costs, marginal revenue, and marginal cost.

October 14, 2015

Introduction to the Competitive Firm

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

Published on 18 Mar 2015

How does a company really behave? We tend to assume profit — the bottom line — is the main motivation for a firm’s actions. For most firms most of the time, this is a good assumption, especially in a competitive market. With this video, you will explore how a company maximizes profit in a competitive environment where there are many buyers and sellers.

This idea comes with a few surprises. Does a company really control what price it sets? Or does the market determine the price? Here’s a clue. If you owned an oil well, even your mother wouldn’t buy your oil if she could get the same oil somewhere else for less money. Watch and find out why.

September 15, 2015

Ontario wineries and the demands of the Chinese market

Filed under: Business, Cancon, China, Wine — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In the most recent edition of his wine review newsletter, Michael Pinkus just barely avoids sounding like an editorialist from the anti-Chinese era of American yellow journalism (er, sorry) over Chinese money being used to buy up Ontario wineries to concentrate on icewine production for the Chinese market:

Hinterbrook, Joseph’s, Marynissen, Alvento, Lailey – all wineries in Niagara that have seen a major shake-up of ownership over the past few years; in fact it is reported that about 8 or so wineries have seen new ownership, which potentially can be seen as a good thing: a revitalized interest in wineries in Ontario’s largest growing area.

Now before I go any further, I’m sure this topic is going to spark some controversy and some of the comments I’ll make might come off a tad inflammatory, but hear me out over the next few paragraphs.

The majority of these wineries have been purchased by those of Oriental decent, namely Chinese interests, who see exporting Ontario Icewine back to the homeland as a path paved with gold … On the positive side this provides wineries and workers with jobs, another bonus is that Icewine is still being made here at home, instead of being falsified, forged, misappropriated, and wrongly-labelled elsewhere; and some longtime growers and owners are finally cashing-in after a lifetime of tilling the soil, and growing the grapes to make the wines we all know and love … but at what cost to the industry and reputation of Ontario wine?

We have been battling a snake-belly-low reputation for years – one that never lets us forget we put Baby Duck and inferior Baco Noirs (with apologies to Henry of Pelham) into bottle. Now we have some of our most beloved names (namely Lailey and Marynissen) seemingly on the brink of becoming Icewine houses. The fear here is that Ontario will be bought up by foreign interests and our wines moved off-shore, and most, if not all our grapes used for the purpose of making Icewine – for all intents and purposes killing off our quality domestic dry wine production.

These fears were realized once again in July after reports were confirmed that Lailey had been sold. They then closed their doors for “renovations”, subsequently re-opened to sell their remaining inventory, and netted their entire 2015 crop to be used in the production of Icewine … As the French say, “quel domage!” (what a pity) – those beautiful old vines of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, that fantastic Syrah, the Sauvignon Blanc … all the grapes that were lovingly nurtured so that they produced the fruit to make wines full of terroir / character will go into lifeless sweet Icewine. Frustration and dismay were echoed time and time again on Twitter and FaceBook with the hashtag “RIPLailey”.

No matter how we may try to romanticize them, wineries are just businesses. Not only businesses, but farm-related businesses. Farming is a hell of a way to earn a living — ask any farmer — so if someone comes up to your farm gate and offers you enough money to sell up … at least some farmers/grape growers/winery owners are going to take the cash and split. From the list of wineries that Michael lists, I’d had poor experiences at three of them … bad enough that I’ve never been back. If my experiences were typical of other customers, then selling up was a great thing for the former owners. Treat your customers like shit, don’t expect them to come back (but do expect them to mention you to all their friends).

If someone thinks that it’s worth the money to buy up these places and convert them to all-icewine production and concentrate on exporting to China, great. More wineries are opening every month, so the loss of a few under-performing (and customer-abusing) “old names” has more chance to improve the overall wine scene in Ontario.

August 27, 2015

Comparative Advantage Homework

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

Published on 25 Feb 2015

Make sure you’ve completed the homework introduced in the Comparative Advantage video before you watch this video, as we’ll be going over the answer. We take a look at our example which compares shirt and computer production and consumption in Mexico and the United States. At the end of this video, you’ll have a better understanding of why it makes sense for countries to engage in trade.

August 24, 2015

Billionaires, good and bad

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

In the Washington Post, Ana Swanson examines the good and bad (for economic growth) of the billionaire class:

Over the past few decades, wealth has become more concentrated in the hands of a few global elite. Billionaires like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim Helú and investing phenomenon Warren Buffett play an outsized role in the global economy.

But what does that mean for everyone else? Is the concentration of wealth in the hands of a select group a good thing or a bad thing for the rest of us?

You might be used to hearing criticisms of inequality, but economists actually debate this point. Some argue that inequality can propel growth: They say that since the rich are able to save the most, they can actually afford to finance more business activity, or that the kinds of taxes and redistributive programs that are typically used to spread out wealth are inefficient.

Other economists argue that inequality is a drag on growth. They say it prevents the poor from acquiring the collateral necessary to take out loans to start businesses, or get the education and training necessary for a dynamic economy. Others say inequality leads to political instability that can be economically damaging.

A new study that has been accepted by the Journal of Comparative Economics helps resolve this debate. Using an inventive new way to measure billionaire wealth, Sutirtha Bagchi of Villanova University and Jan Svejnar of Columbia University find that it’s not the level of inequality that matters for growth so much as the reason that inequality happened in the first place.

Specifically, when billionaires get their wealth because of political connections, that wealth inequality tends to drag on the broader economy, the study finds. But when billionaires get their wealth through the market — through business activities that are not related to the government — it does not.

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 19, 2015

Even the Fed pays attention to the rise of craft brewing

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

The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond had an interesting article on the rise of craft beer by Jamie Feik and Joseph Mengedoth:

In many places across the country, it’s hard not to notice the shift in product offerings at local bars and restaurants and in the beer aisle of the grocery store. The colorful, ornate tap handles of craft brewers have joined the classic blue, red, and silver posts of the traditional powerhouses, and bartenders play the role of consultant purveying the selections. Shoppers who once stood in the beer aisle trying to decide how many cans of beer to buy now stand in front of coolers filled with different brands and styles of beer available in single bottles, packs of four, six, or 12, and even on tap in a growing number of stores. Many of them have been made at a brewery down the street; according to the Brewer’s Association (BA), the trade association that represents the craft beer industry, approximately 75 percent of the drinking-age population in the United States lives within 10 miles of a brewery.

In 2014, there were 615 new craft breweries that opened, pushing the number in the United States to 3,418, more than twice the number that existed just five years earlier. The BA defines a craft brewery as one that produces fewer than 6 million barrels a year, is less than 25 percent controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer, and produces a beverage “whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.” The ownership restriction excludes the craft-style subsidiaries — such as Shock Top, Goose Island, Leinenkugel, and Blue Moon — of large brewers like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors (the two largest brewers in the United States).

Although craft beer remains a relatively small segment of the market, accounting for only 11 percent of the beer produced in the United States in 2014, the segment is growing rapidly. Craft beer’s share of production has more than doubled since 2010, when it was just 5 percent. In 2014, craft beer sales volume increased nearly 18 percent, according to the BA, versus just 0.5 percent for the overall beer industry. The retail dollar value of craft beer grew 22 percent in 2014, while the total U.S. beer market increased only 1.5 percent in value.

The growth of small breweries runs counter to the trend of consolidation in the beverage industry that persisted through much of the 20th century. Why are craft brewers thriving?

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