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 20, 2015

Here’s a very disturbing economic issue

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

At Coyote Blog, Warren Meyer shares his concerns about the constantly increasing regulatory burden of American business:

5-10 years ago, in my small business, I spent my free time, and most of our organization’s training time, on new business initiatives (e.g. growth into new businesses, new out-warding-facing technologies for customers, etc). Over the last five years, all of my time and the organization’s free bandwidth has been spent on regulatory compliance. Obamacare alone has sucked up endless hours and hassles — and continues to do so as we work through arcane reporting requirements. But changing Federal and state OSHA requirements, changing minimum wage and other labor regulations, and numerous changes to state and local legislation have also consumed an inordinate amount of our time. We spent over a year in trial and error just trying to work out how to comply with California meal break law, with each successive approach we took challenged in some court case, forcing us to start over. For next year, we are working to figure out how to comply with the 2015 Obama mandate that all of our salaried managers now have to punch a time clock and get paid hourly.

Greg Mankiw points to a nice talk on this topic by Steven Davis. For years I have been saying that one effect of all this regulation is to essentially increase the minimum viable size of any business, because of the fixed compliance costs. A corollary to this rising minimum size hypothesis is that the rate of new business formation is likely dropping, since more and more capital is needed just to overcome the compliance costs before one reaches this rising minimum viable size. The author has a nice chart on this point, which is actually pretty scary. This is probably the best single chart I have seen to illustrate the rise of the corporate state:


November 19, 2015

The historical origins of the nation-state

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

Samizdata Illuminatus” on the historical evolution of a bunch of armed thugs into a modern government:

… I was familiar with the hypothesis that the origin of the modern state has its roots in criminal enterprise, yet it is always amusing attempting to reconcile this with the modern state’s increasingly matronly efforts to get its subjects to behave themselves. And it is certainly far from an implausible theory, when you consider how similar the objectives of a criminal enterprise and a state can be. The major difference is, of course, that the state functions within the law — hardly surprising since it is the major source of law — while criminal organisations operate outside of the law. But honestly, how could the activity of a crime gang that defeated a local rival in a turf war be described as anything other than a spot of localised gun control — in terms of ends, if perhaps not means?

But the article got me thinking about what we can do and perhaps intend to do about what Sean Gabb would describe as “the ruling class” — the politicians and senior bureaucrats — but also the minor apparatchiks, too. In terms of the big picture stuff, the bolded part above resonates with me as particularly axiomatic, and if libertarians or classical liberals or small government conservatives or one of the very many labels we choose to call ourselves — if we stand for any one single thing, surely it is for the obliteration of this instinct, this scourge, from the human species. Yes, I am fully aware that previous efforts to change human nature for various ends have generally worked out appallingly, so maybe I should write about ‘disincentivising’ an instinct rather than ‘obliterating’ it. (I’m keeping ‘scourge’. Fair’s fair.) Although there are those amongst us who favour a muscular Ceaușescu solution to big government for those who believe they can spend our hard-earned better than we can, along with those willing to assist them in taking it off us and spending it. Others prefer an incremental strategy of rolling back government to the point that those who wish to “command economic resources” for a living find they enjoy slightly less demand for their services than a VCR repairman. I suspect both methods, perhaps working in concert at times, will be necessary at differing stages of the struggle against the statists if we are ever to be able to declare victory over them (and then leave them alone, as Glenn Reynolds is wont to say).

I do have a gripe about a distinction the author makes between paper-stamping, useless, make-work bureaucracy, and “public goods” bureaucracy, an example of which he doesn’t actually specify, although throughout the piece the inference is quite clear that he’s referring to schools and hospitals and the like — and presumably in the parts of schools and hospitals where service provision takes place; not where the (many) papers are pushed and stamped. Now, many here (rightly, I believe) probably object to the contention made that the market traditionally failed to provide such services of the “public good”, hence the state springing to the rescue to address this “market failure”. There are many people here — Paul Marks comes to mind — who will know a great deal more than I do about the patchwork of friendly societies and other private arrangements that individuals and their families paid into voluntarily and turned to for financial aid in times of illness, unemployment, or other trouble, as well as the nature of the education sector prior to the era of compulsory government schooling; the vast majority of which was crowded out by “free” state healthcare and education. However, my purpose is not wish to dwell on this now, interesting a topic as it is.

October 23, 2015

QotD: “Ever wonder why on earth anyone thought socialism would work?”

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

No, seriously: Ever wonder why? “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” sounds very fine, but by the time socialism rolled around, this idea had been tried, and fallen apart, in multiple communes. Moreover, sponging, shirking relatives had been observed in families from the dawn of history. The universal desire to work less than needed had long been countered by some variant on the biblical rule that “he who does not work, does not eat.” Why, then, did people want to throw out the profit motive and have the government run everything?

Conservatives and libertarians who ask themselves this question generally assume that socialists must have been naïve pointy-heads who didn’t understand that socialism would run into incentive problems. And of course, as in any sizeable movement, there were just such naïve pointy-heads. Even if I’m no expert on the history of socialist thought, the reading I have done suggests that the movement itself was not actually this naïve; there were people who understood that, as economists like to say, “incentives matter.” They thought that socialist economies would perform better despite the incentive problem because of various efficiencies: streamlining overhead, creating massive economies of scale, eliminating “wasteful competition,” and the many-splendored production enhancements possible through “scientific planning.”

In hindsight, this sounds ridiculous, because we know that socialized economies failed on a massive, almost unprecedented scale. Scientific planning proved inferior to the invisible hand of the market, scale turned out to have diseconomies as well as economies, and administrative overhead was not, to put it lightly, reduced. But before socialism was tried, this all seemed plausible.

Megan McArdle, “Will Ebola Be Good for the CDC?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-10-20.

September 16, 2015

The fate of pedestrians in Chinese traffic accidents

Filed under: China, Law — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At Gods of the Copybook Headings, Richard Anderson comments on a story about Chinese drivers ensuring that pedestrians they hurt in traffic accidents don’t survive to sue them … because incentives matter:

Smelling a story that was too interesting to be true, I texted a friend who lives in China. He read the article and texted back that every word was correct. This behaviour was so common that it was a kind of dark joke. The phrase “drive to kill” was considered practical life advice for young and old alike. These are not members of some obscure and barbarous cult. China is one of the oldest and most accomplished of human civilizations.

The legal explanation for this — a moral explanation I suspect is impossible — is a combination of a weak insurance system and easily bribable courts. An injured pedestrian can become a lifetime financial liability for the driver. Murder convictions, even in cases with clear video evidence, are still unusual. Faced with a choice of becoming a bankrupt or a murderer the popular choice seems to be the latter.

Homo homini lupus est. Man is wolf to man.

Mainland China is, of course, a dictatorship. It seems likely that in a functioning liberal democracy, such as those of the West, very basic legal reforms would long ago have been implemented to remove these quite literally perverse incentives. The rulers of China have deigned it beneath their notice to make such minor improvements.

September 14, 2015

An Introduction to Externalities

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

Published on 18 Mar 2015

What are externalities and what are the different kinds of costs? And what does this have to do with the rise of “superbugs”? This video is an introduction to externalities, including the concepts of private cost, external cost, and social cost. Using the example of antibiotics and viruses, we take a look at how costs are passed along to different members of society beyond the producer and consumer. We’ll use a chart to illustrate how to calculate the effects of a Pigouvian tax, and we provide definitions for the other key terms that will be used throughout this video series.

August 27, 2015

Incentives matter … but in a perverse manner for public employees

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

On the Property and Environmental Research Center website, Warren Meyer explains why the US Forest Service is cutting ties with private organizations that have been running federally owned facilities for less than the Forest Service is able to do … despite the private company’s proven higher levels of service:

Private concessionaires pay all operations costs out of the entrance fees paid by the public — and without further taxpayer subsidies. In addition, the concessionaire pays the public agency a concession fee. The resulting savings to taxpayers can be quite compelling. In a recent PERC case study, I showed how a parks agency had to supplement every dollar in visitor fees with an equal amount of tax dollars to keep a park open. By privatizing the park’s operations, the need for tax revenues could be eliminated. And in fact, the park could be turned into a money maker for the agency.

While this may resonate with the public, it’s a hard sell to the agencies themselves. The National Park Service uses concessionaires to provide some visitor services, but it has not considered private operation of entire parks. Even the Forest Service — which does allow some private park management — often seems eager to go back to running the parks themselves.


No private company would behave like this. So why does the government? Over the years, I have observed three possible explanations:

1. Government employees have incentives that go beyond “public service.” For most agency managers, their pay and prestige and future job prospects are tied to the size of their agency’s headcount and budget. Privatization savings that look like a boon to taxpayers may look like a demotion to agency managers.

2. People who are skeptical of private enterprise and more confident in government-led solutions tend to self-select for government jobs. Even in the Forest Service, concessionaires frequently experience outright hostility from the agency’s rank and file. “It’s wrong to make a profit on public lands” is one common statement.

3. Government accounting is not set up to make these sorts of decisions well. Few agencies have reports that tell them whether an individual park’s revenues are covering its full operational costs. Costs can be spread over multiple budgets, making it seem as though public park operation is less expensive than it really is.

To overcome these obstacles, we’ve learned that progress generally has to start above the agency. Some sort of legislative push is necessary. And we try to find ways to pitch our solutions as a way for agencies to free up money to address other problems, such as fixing rotting infrastructure.

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.

June 17, 2015


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

Published on 8 Feb 2015

Speculation is often considered to be morally dubious. But, can speculation actually be useful to the market process? This video shows that speculation can actually smooth prices over time and increase welfare.

Speculators take resources from where they have low value and move them through time to where they have high value. We also take a look at speculation in the futures market — for instance, can orange juice future prices help predict Florida weather? Let’s find out.

June 4, 2015

Information and Incentives

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

Published on 8 Feb 2015

What does an increase in the price of oil tell us? What does it signal? And how do we adjust to that signal? The price of oil gives users of oil an incentive to respond — by using less oil or substituting lower-cost alternatives for oil.

The key here is that we let people decide how to most effectively allocate the use of goods and resources. To solve the great economic problem, we need to solve information and incentive problems.

In this video, we take a look at how Nobel Prize-winner Friedrich Hayek described the price system and its approach to solving the information problem. We’ll also continue with our example of oil to show how the price is equal to the marginal value of oil or the social opportunity cost.

June 2, 2015

The Great Economic Problem

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

Published on 8 Feb 2015

In this video, we discuss how different markets are linked to one another. How does the price of oil affect the price of candy bars? When the price of oil increases, it is of course more expensive to transport goods, like candy bars. But there are other, more subtle ways these two markets are connected. For instance, an increase in the price of oil leads to an increase in demand for oil substitutes, like ethanol. And when the supply of oil falls, oil should shift to higher-valued uses. But, which uses? How do we decide where to use less oil?

This brings us to the great economic problem: how to most effectively arrange our limited resources to satisfy our needs and wants. Which approach — central planning or the price system — is better at solving this problem? Join us as we explore this question further.

May 28, 2015

Markets Link the World

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

Published on 8 Feb 2015

In this video, we discuss how markets link people and places all over the world. We’ll take a look at production and consumption markets and, importantly, the role that prices play in it all. Following up on our example of a rose, we take a look at other global products such as the Apple iPhone. Where is the iPhone made? It’s produced by thousands of people all over the world, working in cooperation in order to make one product that many of us enjoy. Join us as we observe the invisible hand in action.

April 9, 2015

Politicians love to build infrastructure – they’re not as eager to maintain it

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Media, Politics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Politicians love big infrastructure projects, from gala announcement — featuring plenty of face time in the media for the politicos themselves — to ground-breaking, also featuring lots of media along with hard hats and “first shovel” action through to grand opening, usually featuring lots of media along with ribbon cutting and some sort of first action involving the newly built bridge/dam/tunnel/streetcar/etc. For some inscrutable reason, politicians are much less eager to get involved in making sure that the glitzy new infrastructure of a few years back gets appropriate and timely maintenance (and the permanent bureaucracy in charge of the now-built infrastructure have rather different long-term goals):

I think the cause lies in a couple areas related to government incentives

  1. Legislatures never want to appropriate for capital maintenance. If the legislature somehow has, say, $100 million money it can spend on infrastructure, their incentives are to use it to build new things rather than to keep the old things in repair (e.g. to extend a rail line rather than to keep the old one fixed).
  2. If you want to understand a government agency’s behavior, the best rule of thumb is to assume that they are working to maximize the headcount and the payroll budget of their agency. I know that sounds cynical, but if you do not understand an agency’s position or priorities, try applying this test: What would the agency be doing or supporting if it were trying to maximize its payroll. You will find this explains a lot

To understand #2, you have to understand that the pay and benefits — and perhaps most important of all — the prestige of an agency’s leaders is set by its headcount and budgets. Also, there are many lobbying forces that are always trying to pressure an agency, but no group is more ever-present, more ubiquitous, and more vocal than its own staff. Also, since cutting staff is politically always the hardest thing for legislators to do, shifting more of the agency’s budget to staff costs helps protect the agency against legislative budget cuts. Non-headcount expenses are raw meat for budget cutters, and the first thing to get swept. By the way, this is not unique to public agencies — the same occurs in corporations. But corporations, unlike government agencies, face the discipline of markets that places a check on this tendency.

This means that agencies are loath to pay for the outside resources (contractors and materials) that are needed for capital maintenance projects out of their regular budgets. When given the choice of repairing a bathroom at the cost of keeping a staff person, agencies will always want to choose in favor of keeping the staff. They assume capital maintenance can always be done later via special appropriation, but of course we saw earlier that legislators are equally unlikely to prioritize capital maintenance vs. other alternatives.

The other related problem faced is that this focus on internal staff tends to drive up pay and benefits of the agency workers. This drives up the cost of fundamental day to day tasks (like cleaning bathrooms and mowing) and again helps to starve out longer-horizon maintenance functions.

February 14, 2015

“I, Rose” and “A Price is Signal Wrapped Up in an Incentive”

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

Published on 8 Feb 2015

How is it that people in snowy, chilly cities have access to beautiful, fresh roses every February on Valentine’s Day? The answer lies in how the invisible hand helps coordinate economic activity, Using the example of the rose market, this video explains how dispersed knowledge and self-interested actors lead to a global market for affordable roses.

Published on 8 Feb 2015

Join Professor Tabarrok in exploring the mystery and marvel of prices. We take a look at how oil prices signal the scarcity of oil and the value of its alternative uses. Following up on our previous video, “I, Rose,” we show how the price system allows for people with dispersed knowledge and information about rose production to coordinate global economic activity. This global production of roses reveals how the price system is emergent, and not the product of human design.

February 3, 2015

Senator Elizabeth Warren doesn’t really understand what “public goods” are

Filed under: Government, Science, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Tim Worstall on what’s wrong with Senator Warren’s most recent proposal to claw back profits that are derived from government-sponsored research:

The answer being that finding out basic knowledge is something we call a public good. This has a specific economic meaning and it really means that private actors, whether people or companies, will do too little of this whatever it is. Because it’s just simply too difficult to make money out of having done this whatever it is. That’s really what “public good” means. It doesn’t mean goods supplied to the public nor even things that it is good for the public to have.

So, given that private actors won’t do these things but we also think that it would be just great for lots of these things to be done, well, we’ve got to do something about it then. And the answer to that is government. Even the most minarchist of us (although perhaps not the anarchists) would agree that some of the public goods provided by government are pretty good. A military to defend us from the ravening Canadian hordes, a criminal justice system to protect us from crime, a Constitution to protect us from politicians. All seem pretty good to me. The answer really is government in those cases.

The argument gets extended: that basic research is a public good. It’s very difficult to make a profit from it therefore not enough of it gets done in the private sector. So we should get government to go do it for us. Excellent, so, when we get that research being done then we’re getting what we pay our taxes to get government to do. We’ve got our public good.

What both Warren and Mazzucato are arguing is that government should then come back for a second bite of the cherry. They should get some of the profits from that basic research. But there aren’t any profits from that basic research: that’s why we’re getting government to do it because you can’t make a profit from having done the research. If we can make a profit from having done this research then government shouldn’t be doing it because it’s not a public good.

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