Quotulatiousness

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?

The twisted incentive system for government bureaucrats

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Government — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

At Coyote Blog, Warren Meyer explains why bureaucrats so often make what appear to be incomprehensible decisions and then double-down on the decision despite any irrational, economically destructive, or humanitarian consequences:

I want to take an aside here on incentives. It is almost NEVER the case that an organization has no incentives or performance metrics. Yes, it is frequently the case that they may not have clear written formal metrics and evaluations and incentives. But every organization has informal, unwritten incentives. Sometimes, even when there are written evaluation procedures, these informal incentives dominate.

Within government agencies, I think these informal incentives are what matter. Here are a few of them:

  1. Don’t ever get caught having not completed some important form or process step or having done some bureaucratic function incorrectly.
  2. Don’t ever get caught not knowing something you are supposed to know in your job.
  3. Don’t ever say yes to something (a project, a permit, a program, whatever) that later generates controversy, especially if this controversy gets the attention of your boss’s boss.
  4. Don’t ever admit a mistake or weakness of any sort to someone outside the organization.
  5. Don’t ever do or support anything that would cause the agency’s or department’s budget to be cut or headcount to be reduced.

You ever wonder why government agencies say no to everything and make it impossible to do new things? Its not necessarily ideology, it’s their incentives. They get little or no credit for approving something that works out well, but the walls come crashing down on them if they approve something that generates controversy.

So consider the situation of the young twenty-something woman across the desk from me at, say, the US Forest Service. She is probably reasonably bright, but has had absolutely no relevant training from the agency, because a bureaucracy will always prefer to allocate funds so that it has 50 untrained people rather than 40 well-trained people (maintaining headcount size will generally be prioritized over how well the organization performs on its mission). So here is a young person with no training, who is probably completely out of her element because she studied forestry or environment science and desperately wanted to count wolves but now finds herself dumped into a job dealing with contracts for recreation and having to work with — for God sakes — for-profit companies like mine.

One program she has to manage is a moderately technical process for my paying my concession fees in-kind with maintenance services. She has no idea how to do this. So she takes her best guess from materials she has, but that guess is wrong. But she then sticks to that answer and proceeds to defend it like its the Alamo. I know the process backwards and forwards, have run national training sessions on it, have literally hundreds of contract-years of experience on it, but she refuses to acknowledge any suggestion I make that she may be wrong. I coined the term years ago “arrogant ignorance” for this behavior, and I see it all the time.

But on deeper reflection, while it appears to be arrogance, what else could she do given her incentives? She can’t admit she doesn’t know or wasn’t trained (see #2 and #4 above). She can’t acknowledge that I might be able to help her (#4). Having given an answer, she can’t change it (#1).

January 22, 2016

QotD: Non-monetary incentives

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

… the free market flourishes when everyone, most of the time, refrains from taking advantage of each other’s vulnerability.

Many people, especially college professors, are surprised by how much honesty, reciprocity, and trust exist among those who engage in business. The biggest, most successful corporations in the world, such as Google and Apple, are renown[ed] for how much they trust their employees and how much independence they give them. (There are much smaller companies that do so, too.) A very successful entrepreneur I know told me recently that the key to running a large, profitable business is to treat your employees, suppliers, and customers with respect and like responsible people. It’s just not possible always to be looking over someone’s shoulder.

When you trust people to reciprocate that trust, you’re taking a chance that they may take advantage of you. Such pessimism, however, means your relationships with other people — your suppliers, employees, and customers — will never have a chance to flourish. That’s why it goes against your long-term interests to hunker down and never leave yourself vulnerable to opportunistic behavior.

The incentive to treat people right by following norms of honesty and fair play is non-monetary, but it can make your business prosper. It seems that the best business owners aren’t driven primarily by profit-seeking, although they probably wouldn’t do what they’re doing without earning that profit. No, the incentives they follow often have more to do with knowing that they’ve done things the right way and so deserve all that they’ve earned. (Which is why they can get very upset when a politician says, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”) That knowledge is something all the money in the world can’t buy.

Sandy Ikeda, “Incentives 101: Why good intentions fail and passing a law still won’t get it done”, The Freeman, 2014-11-13.

January 15, 2016

The Costs and Benefits of Monopoly

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

Published on 18 Mar 2015

In this video, we explore the costs and benefits of monopolies. We cover how monopolies and patents breed deadweight loss, market inefficiencies, and corruption. But we also look at what would happen if we eliminated patents for industries with high R&D costs, such as the pharmaceutical industry. Eliminating patents in this case may result in less innovation and, specifically, fewer new drugs being created. We also consider some of the tradeoffs of patents and look at alternative ways to reward research and development such as patent buyouts and using prizes to foster innovation.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress