Quotulatiousness

September 17, 2017

QotD: The great enrichment

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

The most fundamental problem in Piketty’s book, then, is that he misses the main act. In focusing solely on the distribution of income, he overlooks the most surprising secular event in history: the Great Enrichment of the average individual on the planet by a factor of 10 and in rich countries by a factor of 30 or more. Many humans are now stunningly better off than their ancestors were.

This includes a gigantic improvement of the poorest — your ancestors and mine. By dramatic increases in the size of the pie, the poor have been lifted to 90 or 95 percent of equal sustenance and dignity, as against the 10 or 5 percent attainable by redistribution without enlarging the pie.

What caused the Great Enrichment? It cannot be explained by the accumulation of capital, as the very name “capitalism” implies. Our riches were not made by piling brick upon brick, bachelor’s degree upon bachelor’s degree, bank balance upon bank balance, but by piling idea upon idea. The bricks, BAs, and bank balances were of course necessary. Oxygen is necessary for a fire. But it would be unenlightening to explain the Chicago Fire of 1871 by the presence of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere.

The original and sustaining causes of the modern world were indeed ethical, not material. They were the widening adoption of two new ideas: the liberal economic idea of liberty for ordinary people and the democratic social idea of dignity for them. This, in turn, released human creativity from its ancient trammels. Radically creative destruction piled up ideas, such as the railways creatively destroying walking and the stage coaches, or electricity creatively destroying kerosene lighting and the hand washing of clothes, or universities creatively destroying literary ignorance and low productivity in agriculture. The Great Enrichment requires not accumulation of capital or the exploitation of workers but what I call the Bourgeois Deal. In the historical lottery the idea of an equalizing liberty and dignity was the winning ticket, and the bourgeoisie held it.

That even over the long run there remain some poor people does not mean the system is not working for the poor, so long as their condition is continuing to improve, as it is, and so long as the percentage of the desperately poor is heading toward zero, as it is. That people still sometimes die in hospitals does not mean that medicine is to be replaced by witch doctors, so long as death rates are falling and so long as the death rate would not fall under the care of the witch doctors. It is a brave book Thomas Piketty has written. But it is mistaken.

Deirdre N. McCloskey, “How Piketty Misses the Point”, Cato Policy Report, 2015-07.

September 13, 2017

Tesla’s experiment in price discrimination

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

Alex Tabarrok links to a story about Tesla using an over-the-air software update to help Tesla owners in hurricane-threatened areas get more range from their lower-battery capacity cars … but he says this may eventually come back and bite the company:

Tesla knows that some of its customers are willing to pay more for a Tesla than others. But Tesla can’t just ask its customers their willingness to pay and price accordingly. High willing-to-pay customers would simply lie to get a lower price. Thus, Tesla must find some characteristic of buyers that is correlated with high willingness-to-pay and charge more to customers with that characteristic. Airlines, for example, price more for the same seat if you book at the last minute on the theory that last minute buyers are probably business-people with high willingness-to-pay as opposed to vacationers who have more options and a lower willingness-to-pay. Tesla uses a slightly different strategy; it offers two versions of the same good, the low and high mileage versions, and it prices the high-mileage version considerably higher on the theory that buyers willing to pay for more mileage are also more likely to be high willingness-to-pay buyers in general. Thus, the high-mileage group pay a higher price-to-cost margin than the low-mileage group. A familiar example is software companies that offer a discounted or “student” version of the product with fewer features. Since the software firm’s costs are mostly sunk R&D costs, the firm can make money selling a low-price version so long as doing so doesn’t cannibalize its high willingness-to-pay customers–and the firm can avoid cannibalization by carefully choosing to disable the features most valuable to high willingness-to-pay customers.

The kind gesture to Tesla owners in Florida is probably deeply appreciated right now, but…

Unfortunately, I fear that Tesla may have made a marketing faux-pas. When it turns off the extra mileage boost are Tesla customers going to say “thanks for temporarily making my car better!” Or are they going to complain, “why are you making MY car worse than it has to be?”

Human nature being what it is, the smart money is betting on the “Thanks for the temporary upgrade, but what have you done for me lately?” attitude setting in quickly.

September 11, 2017

QotD: Does inequality matter?

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

The central problem with the book, however, is an ethical one. Piketty does not reflect on why inequality by itself would be bad. To be sure, it’s irritating that a super rich woman buys a $40,000 watch. The purchase is ethically objectionable. She should be giving her income in excess of an ample level of 2 cars, say, not 20; 2 houses, not 7; 1 yacht, not 5 — to effective charities. Andrew Carnegie enunciated in 1889 the principle that “a man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Carnegie gave away his entire fortune. (Well, he gave it at death, after enjoying a castle in his native Scotland and a few other baubles.) But the fact that many rich people act in a disgraceful fashion does not automatically imply that the government should intervene to stop it. People act disgracefully in all sorts of ways. If our rulers were assigned the task in a fallen world of keeping us all wholly ethical, the government would bring all our lives under its fatherly tutelage, a nightmare achieved approximately before 1989 in East Germany and now in North Korea.

Notice that in Piketty’s tale the rest of us fall only relatively behind the ravenous capitalists. The focus on relative wealth or income or consumption is one serious problem in the book. Piketty’s vision of apocalypse leaves room for the rest of us to do very well indeed — rather non-apocalyptically — as in fact since 1800 we have. What is worrying Piketty is that the rich might possibly get richer, even though the poor get richer, too. His worry is purely about difference, about a vague feeling of envy raised to a theoretical and ethical proposition.

But our real concern should be with raising up the poor to a condition of dignity, a level at which they can function in a democratic society and lead full lives. It doesn’t matter ethically whether the poor have the same number of diamond bracelets and Porsche automobiles as do owners of hedge funds. But it does indeed matter whether they have the same opportunities to vote or to learn to read or to have a roof over their heads.

Adam Smith once described the Scottish idea as “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice.” It would be a good thing, of course, if a free and rich society following Smithian liberalism produced a Pikettyan equality. In fact, it largely has, by the only ethically relevant standard of basic human rights and basic comforts. Introducing liberalism in Hong Kong and Norway and France, for instance, has regularly led to an astounding betterment and to a real equality of outcome — with the poor acquiring automobiles and hot-and-cold water at the tap that were denied in earlier times even to the rich, and acquiring political rights and social dignity that were denied in earlier times to everyone except the rich.

Deirdre N. McCloskey, “How Piketty Misses the Point”, Cato Policy Report, 2015-07.

September 9, 2017

QotD: Picketty’s unsupported inequality claims

Filed under: Books, Britain, Cancon, Economics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Piketty’s definition of wealth does not include human capital, owned by the workers, which has grown in rich countries to be the main source of income, when it is combined with the immense accumulation since 1800 of capital in knowledge and social habits, owned by everyone with access to them. Once upon a time, Piketty’s world without human capital was approximately our world, that of Ricardo and Marx, with workers owning only their hands and backs, and the bosses and landlords owning all the other means of production. But since 1848 the world has been transformed by what sits between the workers’ ears.

The only reason in the book to exclude human capital from capital appears to be to force the conclusion Piketty wants to achieve. One of the headings in Chapter 7 declares that “capital [is] always more unequally distributed than labor.” No it isn’t. If human capital is included — the ordinary factory worker’s literacy, the nurse’s educated skill, the professional manager’s command of complex systems, the economist’s understanding of supply responses — the workers themselves, in the correct accounting, own most of the nation’s capital — and Piketty’s drama falls to the ground.

Finally, as he candidly admits, Piketty’s own research suggests that only in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada has income inequality increased much, and only recently. In other words, his fears were not confirmed anywhere from 1910 to 1980; nor anywhere in the long run at any time before 1800; nor anywhere in Continental Europe and Japan since World War II; and only recently, a little, in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. That is a very great puzzle if money tends to reproduce itself as a general law. The truth is that inequality goes up and down in great waves, for which we have evidence from many centuries ago down to the present, which also doesn’t figure in such a tale.

Deirdre N. McCloskey, “How Piketty Misses the Point”, Cato Policy Report, 2015-07.

September 3, 2017

QotD: Picketty’s misunderstanding of the supply and demand curves

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

The technical flaws in Piketty’s argument are pervasive. When you dig, you find them. The fundamental problem is that Piketty does not understand how markets work. In keeping with his position as a man of the left, he has a vague and confused idea about how supply responds to higher prices. Startling evidence of Piketty’s miseducation occurs as early as page 6.

He begins by seeming to concede to his neoclassical opponents: “To be sure, there exists in principle a quite simple economic mechanism that should restore equilibrium to the process: the mechanism of supply and demand. If the supply of any good is insufficient, and its price is too high, then demand for that good should decrease, which would lead to a decline in its price.” The words I italicize clearly mix up movement along a demand curve with movement of the entire curve, an error of first-term college students. The correct analysis is that if the price is “too high” it is not the whole demand curve that “restores equilibrium,” but an eventually outward-moving supply curve. The supply curve moves out because entry is induced by the smell of super-normal profits.

Piketty does not acknowledge that each wave of inventors, entrepreneurs, and even routine capitalists find their rewards taken from them by entry. Look at the history of fortunes in department stores. The income from department stores in the late 19th century, in Le Bon Marché, Marshall Field, and Selfridge’s, was entrepreneurial. The model was then copied all over the rich world. In the late 20th century the model was challenged by a wave of discounters, and they then in turn by the internet. What happens is that the profit going to the profiteers is more or less quickly undermined by outward-shifting supply. The original accumulation dissipates. The economist William Nordhaus has calculated that the inventors and entrepreneurs nowadays earn in profit only 2 percent of the social value of their inventions. If you are Sam Walton the 2 percent gives you personally a great deal of money from introducing bar codes into stocking of supermarket shelves. But 98 percent at the cost of 2 percent is nonetheless a pretty good deal for the rest of us. The gain from macadamized roads or vulcanized rubber, then modern universities, structural concrete, and the airplane, has enriched even the poorest among us.

Deirdre N. McCloskey, “How Piketty Misses the Point”, Cato Policy Report, 2015-07.

August 17, 2017

Words & Numbers: The Illusion of School Choice

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, Education — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

Published on 16 Aug 2017

In private schools, as in private enterprise in general, poor performance drives funding away by driving paying customers away. Yet in public schools, poor performance is used as an excuse for increased funding. With incentives like these, is it any wonder that public schools are failing our children so badly? Isn’t it time to inject some competition into the system?

Education for all is a worthy wish. So is food for all. But we don’t force poor people to eat state-produced food. Even food stamp recipients get to choose where to shop. Why shouldn’t beneficiaries of public education spending get to choose where to send their kids?

Our hosts James R. Harrigan and Antony Davies want to know…

August 10, 2017

Words & Numbers: Has Tipping Gone Out of Control?

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

Published on 9 Aug 2017

In 1922, famed etiquette writer Emily Post advised her readers that 10% is the standard for tipping your waiter. Since then, “gratuity creep” has been so steady that tip jars are now ubiquitous and 25-30% is considered the rule in New York City. Uber once resisted this trend, but recently added a tipping feature to its app.

What is the economic rationale behind tipping? Does the usefulness of tipping diminish the more that a certain rate becomes an expectation? At a certain point, would it be better to do without the fuss involved and simply include that portion of a service-provider’s compensation in the wages paid by the employer?

Our valiant hosts, Antony Davies and James Harrigan explore these questions and more!

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.

June 21, 2017

QotD: Profit

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

While capitalism has a visible cost – profit – that does not exist under socialism, socialism has an invisible cost – inefficiency – that gets weeded out by losses and bankruptcy under capitalism. The fact that most goods are more widely affordable in a capitalist economy implies that profit is less costly than inefficiency. Put differently, profit is a price paid for efficiency.

Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics (fifth edition), 2015.

June 1, 2017

QotD: Economics

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

Science may be the noblest endeavor of the human mind, but I believe (though I cannot prove) that the most crippling and dangerous kind of ignorance in the modern West is ignorance of economics, the way markets work, and the ways non-market allocation mechanisms are doomed to fail. Such economic ignorance is toxic, because it leads to insane politics and the empowerment of those whose rhetoric is altruist but whose true agenda is coercive control.

Eric S. Raymond, “What Do You Believe That You Cannot Prove?”, Armed and Dangerous, 2005-01-06.

May 31, 2017

Introduction to Consumer Choice

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

Published on 30 May 2017

Everyday, you make tons of decisions about consumption. Your choices about what and how much of a good to buy are influenced by the laws of supply and demand. These choices are nearly endless. For example, at Starbucks, each drink is highly customizable. In fact, they offer over 80,000 combinations!

When you buy a good or make a decision about how to use your time, you’re getting some sort of value, like a sense of happiness or satisfaction, out of it – economists call this “utility.” The increase in that value from buying an additional unit of a good or service is its marginal utility. When you make these decisions, you’re thinking at the margin, even if you don’t realize it.

Think about how wonderful a shot of espresso, or your beverage of choice, is first thing in the morning. You probably derive quite a bit of utility! But how about a second, third, or even fourth shot of espresso? With each extra shot, you probably get a little less utility. At some point, the cost will outweigh the marginal utility.

When you add up the satisfaction you get out of all of the shots of espresso, that is your total utility. Since each additional shot of espresso has a little less utility, economists refer to this concept as diminishing marginal utility.

This is true for all goods and activities, but the amount of utility and marginal utility depends on the individual. For example, let’s say that Starbucks drops the price of shot of espresso. This can change the quantity demanded on aggregate because for some people, the drop in price will make the marginal utility they derive from an extra shot now worth the cost. But perhaps that’s not true for you and your consumption will not change.

Are you starting to see how you instinctively think and act at the margin in your daily life?

Up next, we’ll explore other factors beyond price that affect your habits as a consumer, such as preferences and income.

QotD: Capitalism

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

Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort…. [T]he capitalist process, not by coincidence but by virtue of its mechanism, progressively raises the standard of life of the masses.

Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 1942.

May 16, 2017

How service companies might respond to a mandated increase in the minimum wage

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

At Coyote Blog, Warren Meyer discusses how real world service companies that employ a lot of minimum wage workers are likely to respond when the minimum wage is raised:

When I discuss this with folks, they will say that the increase could still come out of profitability — a 5% margin could be reduced to 3% say. When I get comments like this, it makes me realize that people don’t understand the basic economics of a service firm, so a concrete example should help. Imagine a service business that relies mainly on minimum wage employees in which wages and other labor related costs (payroll taxes, workers compensation, etc) constitute about 50% of the company’s revenues. Imagine another 45% of company revenues going towards covering fixed costs, leaving 5% of revenues as profit. This is a very typical cost breakdown, and in fact is close to that of my own business. The 5% profit margin is likely the minimum required to support capital spending and to keep the owners of the company interested in retaining their investment in this business.

Now, imagine that the required minimum wage rises from $10 to $15 (exactly the increase we are in the middle of in California). This will, all things equal, increase our example company’s total wage bill by 50%. With the higher minimum wage, the company will be paying not 50% but 75% of its revenues to wages. Fixed costs will still be 45% of revenues, so now profits have shifted from 5% of revenues to a loss of 20% of revenues. This is why I tell folks the math of absorbing the wage increase in profits is often not even close. Even if the company were to choose to become a non-profit charity outfit and work for no profit, barely a fifth of this minimum wage increase in this case could be absorbed. Something else has to give — it is simply math.

The absolute best case scenario for the business is that it can raise its prices 25% without any loss in volume. With this price increase, it will return to the same, minimum acceptable profit it was making before the regulation changed (profit in this case in absolute dollars — the actual profit margin will be lowered to 4%). But note that this is a huge price increase. It is likely that some customers will stop buying, or buy less, at the new higher prices. If we assume the company loses 1% of unit volume for every 2% price increase, we find that the company now will have to raise prices 36% to stay even both of the minimum wage increase and lost volume. Under this scenario, the company would lose 18% of its unit sales and is assumed to reduce employee hours by the same amount. In the short term, just for the company to survive, this minimum wage increase leads to a substantial price increase and a layoff of nearly 20% of the workers. Of course, in real life there are other choices. For example, rather than raise prices this much, companies may execute stealth price increases by laying off workers and reducing service levels for the same price (e.g. cleaning the bathroom less frequently in a restaurant). In the long-term, a 50% increase in wage rates will suddenly make a lot of labor-saving capital investments more viable, and companies will likely substitute capital for labor, reducing employment even further but keeping prices more stable for consumers.

As you can see, in our example we don’t need to know anything about bargaining power and the fairness of wages. Simple math tells us that the typical low-margin service business that employs low-skill workers is going to have to respond with a combination of price increases and job reductions.

May 14, 2017

The earliest lesson in economics

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

Steve Kates posted this at Catallaxy Files, saying it was everything you need to know about public spending:

December 31, 2016

Signaling

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

Published on 23 Sep 2015

A signal is an action that reveals information. Let’s look at higher education, for example. A large fraction of the value you receive from your degree comes on the day you earn your diploma. Your expected wages don’t increase with each class you complete along the way; instead, they spike sharply at the end when you receive your diploma. This is often referred to as the “Sheepskin Effect” because diplomas used to be printed on sheepskin.

Nobel Prize winner Michael Spence did research on this subject and found that education is valuable not necessarily because it creates valuable skills, but rather that it signals valuable skills. So how does the signal, represented by a degree, alleviate asymmetric information?

Employers don’t necessarily know how smart or skilled you are. Your degree, however, provides a credible signal of these traits and gives them more information they can use in the hiring process.

What other signals exist? We discuss examples like diamond engagement rings, why criminals tattoo their face, and why a peacock has a colorful tail. Let us know what examples you come up with in the comments.

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