Quotulatiousness

July 19, 2017

QotD: Prices in a post-scarcity economy

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

The most important piece of information that the price system provides is “How much do I want this, given that other people want it too?” That’s the question that millions of people are answering, when they decide to use less tin, or pay more for tin and use less of something else. Computers are not good at answering this question.

How would a computer even get the information to make a good guess, in the absence of a price system? Please do not say surveys. You know what did really well on surveys? New Coke. Also, Donald Trump, who is not going to be president. We are, in fact, back to some version of the incentive problem, which is that when the stakes are low, people don’t put too much thought into their answers.

In many cases, people are interested in getting rid of prices precisely because they don’t like the signal that it is sending — that the best possible medical care is a scarce good that few people are going to get, or that other people do not value your labor very much. People are trying to override that information with a better program.

But even if we decide that the planners know best, we still have to contend with the resistance that will arise to their plan. Just as Communism’s critics need to remember that money is not the only reason people strive, post-capitalists need to remember that they will be dealing with people — cantankerous, willful and capable of all manner of subversions if the plan is not paying sufficient attention to their needs.

It’s possible that we’ll see versions of a “post-scarcity” economy in things like music and writing, since these are basically versions of activities that people have been doing for free for thousands of years. But when it comes to unpleasant labor like slaughtering animals, mining ore and scrubbing floors, even an advanced society needs to figure out exactly how badly it wants those things done. And so far, nothing beats prices for eliciting that information.

Megan McArdle, “Yes, Computers Have Improved. No, Communism Hasn’t”, Bloomberg View, 2015-09-02.

July 14, 2017

The Peltzman Effect

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

The odd situation where increasing the safety of an activity by adding protective gear is offset by greater risk-taking by the participants:

In the 1960s, the Federal Government — in its infinite wisdom — thought that cars were too unsafe for the general public. In response, it passed automobile safety legislation, requiring that seat belts, padded dashboards, and other safety measures be put in every automobile.

Although well-intended, auto accidents actually increased after the legislation was passed and enforced. Why? As [Professor of Economics Steven E.] Lansburg explains, “the threat of being killed in an accident is a powerful incentive to drive carefully.”

In other words, the high price (certain death from an accident) of an activity (reckless driving) reduced the likelihood of that activity. The safety features reduced the price of reckless driving by making cars safer. For example, seatbelts reduced the likelihood of a driver being hurt if he drove recklessly and got into an accident. Because of this, drivers were more likely to drive recklessly.

The benefit of the policy was that it reduced the number of deaths per accident. The cost of the policy was that it increased the number of accidents, thus canceling the benefit. Or at least, that is the conclusion of University of Chicago’s Sam Peltzman, who found the two effects canceled each other.

His work has led to a theory called “The Peltzman Effect,” also known as risk compensation. Risk compensation says that safety requirements incentivize people to increase risky behavior in response to the lower price of that behavior.

Risk compensation can be applied to almost every behavior involving risk where a choice must be made. Economics tells us that individuals make choices at the margin. This means that the incentive in question may lead the individual to do a little more or a little less of something.

[…]

The fact that incentives reduce or increase behavior is an economic law: Landsburg posits that “the literature of economics contains tens of thousands of empirical studies verifying this proposition and not one that convincingly refutes it.” Incentives change the effectiveness of government policy and shape day-to-day life.

June 28, 2017

Concert-goers rejoice, for the government is here to help you!

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

Of course, if you have any experience of the utility of “government help”, you shouldn’t get your hopes up too high, as Chris Selley explains:

The results of an online public consultation were clear, said Naqvi. “One: the current system clearly is not working for fans; and two: Ontarians expect the government to take action.” We should have expected nothing less: ticket rage is a real thing among concertgoers in particular — a mind-boggling 35,000 people completed the online consultation — and besides, the survey didn’t include an option to suggest the government do nothing.

Among other things, Naqvi said, it will be illegal to resell tickets for more than 150 per cent of face value, and it will be illegal to use bots. Soon, he promised, “everyone (will have) a fair shot at getting the tickets they want.” Ontario, he said, will become “a world leader in ticket sales regulation.”

You’re supposed to think that’s both plausible and desirable. You should instead be very, very skeptical. So long as U2, the Tragically Hip and other artists insist on pricing their tickets vastly below what people are willing to pay for them, there will be an enormous incentive to circumvent whatever laws are in place to prevent third parties from reaping those foregone profits. A 150-per-cent cap would reduce the incentive, as Naqvi says — but only if the entire scalping community decided to respect it.

It won’t. It doesn’t. Scalping is illegal in Arkansas. Tickets for the University of Arkansas Razorbacks’ Nov. 24 game against Missouri are going on Stubhub for well over twice face value. Scalping is illegal in Quebec. Stubhub will put you in the third row for Bob Dylan’s show at the Montreal Jazz Festival next month for US$275; face value is $137.50 Canadian. The experiment works in every scalping-restrictive North American jurisdiction I tried. Heck, scalping used to be illegal in Ontario. That sure didn’t deter the gentlemen who prowled around outside Maple Leaf Gardens and SkyDome.

Many Stubhub users aren’t even in Ontario — that’s even more true for the people with the bots. Is the Attorney General really going to prosecute people for the crime of selling tickets at prices people are perfectly willing to pay? People in other countries? That would get awfully old in an awful hurry.

As he points out in the article, this is yet another instance of the Ontario government pandering to the demands of economic illiterates (recent examples include slapping on new rent controls in the middle of a housing crunch and significant increases in the minimum wage as new workforce entrants are already finding it tough to get hired). It’s as though the government is reading the economic textbook upside down … bringing in exactly the wrong “solutions” to every problem they see.

May 26, 2017

Puzzle of Growth: Rich Countries and Poor Countries

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

Published on 16 Feb 2016

Throughout this section of the course, we’ve been trying to solve a complicated economic puzzle — why are some countries rich and others poor?

There are various factors at play, interacting in a dynamic, and changing environment. And the final answer to the puzzle differs depending on the perspective you’re looking from. In this video, you’ll examine different pieces of the wealth puzzle, and learn about how they fit.

The first piece of the puzzle, is about productivity.

You’ll learn how physical capital, human capital, technological knowledge, and entrepreneurs all fit together to spur higher productivity in a population. From this perspective, you’ll see economic growth as a function of a country’s factors of production. You’ll also learn what investments can be made to improve and increase these production factors.

Still, even that is too simplistic to explain everything.

So we’ll also introduce you to another piece of the puzzle: incentives.

In previous videos, you learned about the incentives presented by different economic, cultural, and political models. In this video, we’ll stay on that track, showing how different incentives produce different results.

As an example, you’ll learn why something as simple as agriculture isn’t nearly so simple at all. We’ll put you in the shoes of a hypothetical farmer, for a bit. In those shoes, you’ll see how incentives can mean the difference between getting to keep a whole bag of potatoes from your farm, or just a hundredth of a bag from a collective farm.

(Trust us, the potatoes explain a lot.)

Potatoes aside, you’re also going to see how different incentives shaped China’s economic landscape during the “Great Leap Forward” of the 1950s and 60s. With incentives as a lens, you’ll see why China’s supposed leap forward ended in starvation for tens of millions.

Hold on — incentives still aren’t the end of it. After all, incentives have to come from somewhere.

That “somewhere” is institutions.

As we showed you before, institutions dictate incentives. Things like property rights, cultural norms, honest governments, dependable laws, and political stability, all create incentives of different kinds. Remember our hypothetical farmer? Through that farmer, you’ll learn how different institutions affect all of us. You’ll see how institutions help dictate how hard a person works, and how likely he or she is to invest in the economy, beyond that work.

Then, once you understand the full effect of institutions, you’ll go beyond that, to the final piece of the wealth puzzle. And it’s the most mysterious piece, too.

Why?

Because the final piece of the puzzle is the amorphous combination of a country’s history, ideas, culture, geography, and even a little luck. These things aren’t as direct as the previous pieces, but they matter all the same.

You’ll see why the US constitution is the way it is, and you’ll learn about people like Adam Smith and John Locke, whose ideas helped inform it.

And if all this talk of pieces makes you think that the wealth puzzle is a complex one, you’d be right.

Because the truth is, the question of “what creates wealth?” really is complex. Even the puzzle pieces you’ll learn about don’t constitute every variable at play. And as we mentioned earlier, not only are the factors complex, but they’re also constantly changing as they bump against each other.

Luckily, while the quest to finish the wealth puzzle isn’t over, at least we have some of the pieces in hand.

So take the time to dive in and listen to this video and let us know if you have questions along the way. After that, we’ll soon head into a new section of the course: we’ll tackle the factors of production so we can further explore what leads to economic growth.

April 18, 2017

QotD: Rent control

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

To someone ignorant of economic reasoning, rent control seems like a great policy. It appears instantly to provide “affordable housing” to poor tenants, while the only apparent downside is a reduction in the income flowing to the fat-cat landlords, people who literally own buildings in major cities and who thus aren’t going to miss that money much. Who could object to such a policy?

First, we should define our terms. When a city government imposes rent control, it means the city makes it illegal for landlords to charge tenants rent above a ceiling price. Sometimes that price can vary, but only on specified factors. For the law to have any teeth — and for the politicians who passed it to curry favor with the public — the maximum rent-controlled price will be significantly lower than the free-market price.

The most obvious problem is that rent control immediately leads to a shortage of apartments, meaning that there are potential tenants who would love to move into a new place at the going (rent-controlled) rate, but they can’t find any vacancies. At a lower rental price, more tenants will try to rent apartment units, and at a higher rental price, landlords will try to rent out more apartment units. These two claims are specific instances of the law of demand and law of supply, respectively.

[…]

In the long run, a permanent policy of rent control restricts the construction of new apartment buildings, because potential investors realize that their revenues on such projects will be artificially capped. Building a movie theater or shopping center is more attractive on the margin.

There are further, more insidious problems with rent control. With a long line of potential tenants eager to move in at the official ceiling price, landlords do not have much incentive to maintain the building. They don’t need to put on new coats of paint, change the light bulbs in the hallways, keep the elevator in working order, or get out of bed at 5:00 a.m. when a tenant complains that the water heater is busted. If there is a rash of robberies in and around the building, the owner won’t feel a financial motivation to install lights, cameras, buzz-in gates, a guard, or other (costly) measures to protect his customers. Furthermore, if a tenant falls behind on the rent, there is less incentive for the landlord to cut her some slack, because he knows he can replace her right away after eviction. In other words, all of the behavior we associate with the term “slumlord” is due to the government’s policy of rent control; it is not the “free market in action.”

Robert P. Murphy, “The Case Against Rent Control: Bad housing policy harms lower-income people most”, The Freeman, 2014-11-12

January 29, 2017

QotD: Perverse incentives for journalists

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

Unfortunately, the incentives of both academic journals and the media mean that dubious research often gets more widely known than more carefully done studies, precisely because the shoddy statistics and wild outliers suggest something new and interesting about the world. If I tell you that more than half of all bankruptcies are caused by medical problems, you will be alarmed and wish to know more. If I show you more carefully done research suggesting that it is a real but comparatively modest problem, you will just be wondering what time Game of Thrones is on.

Megan McArdle, “The Myth of the Medical Bankruptcy”, Bloomberg View, 2017-01-17.

December 24, 2016

QotD: Getting NATO nations’ attention

Filed under: Europe, Military, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

How to make some NATO members move in the right direction? Here’s an idea. Let me pull one of my “NATO Motivator” concepts out of my goodie-bag.

You learn quickly in NATO that one of the most critical and important things to many in the alliance is a thing called Flags-to-Post.

It is when NATO decides which nations will get which senior uniformed and senior civilian adviser billets. Trust me on this; the conflict in AFG, refugee crisis, etc – none of that stuff goes in front of anything related to Flags to Post.

If you’d like to bring attention to the “Press allies on defense spending” point, do this; the minute an Estonian General (pop. 1.3 million, percent of GDP on defense, 2.04%) take a position usually held by say, a Belgian General (pop. 11.2 million, percent of GDP on defense, 1.05%), then you will get people’s attention.

Just an idea.

CDR Salamander, “Make NATO Great Again”, CDR Salamander, 2016-11-14.

December 6, 2016

Alex & Tyler’s Economist’s Christmas

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

Published on 5 Dec 2016

This week: Let’s get in the holiday spirit! What would an economist do about Christmas gifts?

What do you really want for the holidays? And how can you be sure you’re giving the perfect gift to someone else?

Of course, you want to get your loved ones something they will appreciate, but you face a knowledge problem: you don’t know everything about their wants and needs. You also have an incentive problem: oftentimes people aren’t quite as careful choosing a gift for others as they would be if buying something for themselves.

We’ve all received a present that we didn’t really want. When that happens, the value that we place on the gift can be less than its cost. According to research by economist Joel Waldfogel, gift givers spend an average of $50 on gifts that recipients only value at $40. Given that Americans spend around $100 billion on Christmas gifts, we’re wasting $18-20 billion every holiday season!

Is there a solution to this costly problem? Well, you can always give cold, hard cash! Many gift recipients would prefer it. But if you know the recipient’s tastes very well, you do have the opportunity to give them a non-cash present that they’ll love and that creates value by lowering their search costs.

There are, of course, occasions where the gift of money doesn’t make sense. Perhaps you want to signal that you care in a different way, or maybe there’s a custom you want to follow. You’ll just have to risk it in these situations.

Around the holidays, there’s also a spike in charitable giving. If you face knowledge and incentive problems in giving gifts to loved ones, you can imagine that these issues increase when you’re giving to someone you’ve never met. To combat this problem, some charities, such as GiveDirectly, give cash to people in need so that they spend charitable donations however meets their needs.

The efficiency of an economist’s Christmas may feel less warm and fuzzy, but the value creation is no less generous!

November 24, 2016

Solutions to Moral Hazard

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

Published on 23 Sep 2015

What are some solutions to moral hazard? We could try to make information less asymmetric — meaning both parties have similar information, making it harder for one party to exploit the other. We could also try to reduce the incentive of the agent to exploit their information advantage. Online ratings and reviews on Yelp, Angie’s List, or Amazon, for instance, incorporate both of these solutions. The reviews give you more information about a product or service and close the information gap between buyers and sellers. In addition, sellers’ incentives change, as they now have to think about their reputation. They likely won’t want to exploit you if they know it will result in a negative online review.

What are some other approaches to modifying the incentives of those with an information advantage? One approach is to split the diagnosis of a problem from the actual work that needs to be done — for instance, home inspectors don’t fix the problems they identify during their inspection. Another approach is to alter the payment structure to change incentives. For instance, a lawyer is less likely to run up their hours when payment is contingent on winning your case as opposed to the number of hours they work on the case. Ethics also plays a role. Doctors swear to the Hippocratic Oath, which provides them an incentive to not exploit their information advantage. As you can see, there are many solutions to addressing moral hazard.

November 16, 2016

Moral Hazard

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

Published on 23 Sep 2015

Imagine you take your car in to the shop for routine service and the mechanic says you need a number of repairs. Do you really need them? The mechanic certainly knows more about car repair than you do, but it’s hard to tell whether he’s correct or even telling the truth. You certainly don’t want to pay for repairs you don’t need. Sometimes, when one party has an information advantage, they may have an incentive to exploit the other party. This type of exploitation is called moral hazard, and can happen in many situations — a taxi driver who takes the “long route” to get a higher fare from a tourist, for example. In this video, we cover moral hazard and what is known as the principal-agent problem.

October 17, 2016

Hillary Clinton tells us to expect a major US recession shortly after January 20, 2017

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

Fortunately, as Tim Worstall explains, politicians can rarely be believed — especially when it comes to economics:

Hillary Clinton Vows To Slam The Economy Into Recession Immediately Upon Election

This probably isn’t quite what Hillary Clinton intended to say but it is what she did say at a fundraiser on Friday night. That immediately upon election she would slam the US economy into a recession. For what she has said is that she’s not going to add a penny to the national debt. Which, in an economy running a $500 billion and change budget deficit means tax rises and or spending cuts of $500 billion and change immediately she takes the oath. And that’s a large enough and fierce enough change, before she does anything else, to bring back a recession.

[…]

Now, what she meant is something more like this. That she has some spending plans, which she does. And she is also proposing some tax rises. And that her tax rises will balance her spending plans and thus the mixture of plans will not increase the national debt. Which is possibly even true although I don’t believe a word of it myself. For her taxation plans are based upon static analyses when we really must use dynamic ones to measure tax changes. This is normally thought of as something that the right prefers. For if we measure the effects of tax cuts using the dynamic method then there will be some (please note, some, not enough for the cuts to pay for themselves) Laffer Effects meaning that the revenue loss is smaller than that under a static analysis. But this is also true about tax rises. Behaviour really does change when incentives change. Thus tax rises gain less revenue in real life than what a straight line or static analysis predicts.

That is, as I say, probably what she means. But that’s not actually what she said. She said she’ll not add a penny to the national debt. Which means that immediately on taking office she’s got to either raise taxes by $500 billion and change or reduce spending by that amount. Because the budget deficit is that $500 Big Ones and change at present and the deficit is the amount being added to the national debt each year. The problem with this being that that’s also some 3.5% or so of GDP and an immediate fiscal tightening of that amount would put the US economy back into recession.

August 24, 2016

The Tragedy of the Commons

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

Published on 26 Jun 2015

In this video, we take a look at common goods. Common resources are nonexcludable but rival. For instance, no one can be excluded from fishing for tuna, but they are rival — for every tuna caught, there is one less for everyone else. Nonexcludable but rival resources often lead to what we call a “tragedy of the commons.” In the case of tuna, this means the collapse of the fishing stock. Under a tragedy of the commons, a resource is often overused and under-maintained. Why does this happen? And how can we solve this problem? Like we’ve done so many times throughout this course, let’s take a look at the incentives at play. We also discuss Nobel Prize Winner Elinor Ostrom’s contributions to this topic.

August 18, 2016

QotD: The environmental and economic idiocy of the ethanol mandate

Ever since the beginning of the ethanol mandate it was obvious to anybody with eyes to see that the whole thing was a boondoggle and a huge waste for everybody except ADM. What the Greens failed to understand is that if you prop up corn prices by buying, distilling and burning massive amounts of corn whisky in cars, two things are going to happen. One the price is going to go up, making things like cow feed and other uses of corn more expensive and 2. farmers are going to, without restraint, plant ever larger amounts of corn, which will 1. push out other crops like wheat and 2. require more land use to plant even more corn. Which is why you can now go from Eastern Colorado to Western NY and essentially see nothing but corn. Millions of acres of corn, across the country, grown to burn. Somehow this was supposed to be environmentally friendly?

J.C. Carlton, “The Law Of Unintended Consequences Hits Biofuels”, The Arts Mechanical, 2016-08-07.

July 26, 2016

Craft brewing has a growing trademark problem

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

At Techdirt, Timothy Geigner predicts that the craft beer market is getting close to trademark armageddon … they’re running out of punny names they can legally use for their beer:

With all the trademark actions we’ve seen taken these past few years that have revolved around the craft beer and distilling industries, it seems like some of the other folks in the mass media are finally picking up on what I’ve been saying for at least three years: the trademark apocalypse is coming for the liquor industries. It’s sort of a strange study in how an industry can evolve, starting as something artisan built on friendly competition and morphing into exactly the kind of legal-heavy, protectionist profit-beast that seems like the very antithesis of the craft brewing concept. And it should also be instructive as to how trademark law, something of the darling of intellectual properties in its intent if not application, can quickly become a major speed bump for what is an otherwise quickly growing market.

All of this appears to have caught the eye of Sara Randazzo, blogging at the Wall Street Journal, who notes that the creatively-named craft beers that have been spewing out of microbreweries across the country may be running out of those creative names.

    As today’s Wall Street Journal explores, legal disputes in the beer world are becoming the norm as new craft breweries spring up at a rate of roughly two per day. Trademark lawyers have gotten so used to the beer disputes that they are now turning on each other. Some dozen lawyers are contesting San Diego lawyer Candace Moon’s attempt to trademark the term “Craft Beer Attorney,” which she says she rightfully deserves.

Within the rest of the post, Randazzo highlights one dispute between craft brewers in order to give a sense of just how small these belligerent parties are. It’s a dispute that escaped even my radar, despite what has become something of my “beat” around Techdirt. Three professionals with day jobs decided to make a go at brewing craft beer and named their company Black Ops Brewing, the pun resting upon “hops” used in their beer, while also serving as a nod to their family members that served in the military. Three guys making beer, but the trademark dispute came almost immediately.

The problem is that once you’ve been granted a trademark, you have to defend it early and often or you’ll lose it. This means tiny companies with a couple of trademarked products are pretty much required to lawyer-up and threaten to go nuclear at the faintest hint of an infringement for fear they’ll lose the right that they’ve claimed. The gains from pursuing a possible infringement are usually tiny and the legal costs almost always outweigh any “winnings”, but the risks of not doing so are potentially huge. This is an example of a perverse incentive in law.

June 27, 2016

Compensating Differentials

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

Published on 7 Apr 2015

Firms have an incentive to increase job safety, because then they can lower wages. In this video, we explore this surprising claim in much greater depth. Bear in mind that wages adjust until jobs requiring a similar level of skill have similar compensation practices. Why do riskier jobs often pay more? Why has job safety increased over the years? How does a firm’s profit motive play a role?

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