Posts tagged ‘prices’

Does the Zero-Sum Nature of Academic Success Contribute to the Left-wards Bias of Academia?

For a while now, I have  had a theory that the zero-sum nature of academic success (competition for a fixed and perhaps shrinking number of tenured positions) affects the larger world-view of academia. (This article that compares academia to a harmful cult demonstrates this zero-sum thinking pretty well.)

It is pretty well-established that the American academic community is disproportionately of the Left, and in fact tilts pretty strongly in many cases to the far Left / progressive side.  People debate a lot about why this should be, but I think one contributing factor (but certainly not the only one) that I have never heard anyone discuss is the zer0-sum game these academics must play in their own careers.  I think that many of them incorrectly assume that all professions, and all of the economy and capitalism, is dominated by this same dog-eat-dog zero sum game -- remember, for most, academia is the only industry they have ever experienced from the inside.  And once you assume that the whole economy is zero-sum, it is small step from there to overly-narrow focus on distribution of wealth and income.

One of the mistakes folks on the Left make about capitalism is to describe capitalism as mostly about competition.  In fact, capitalism is mostly about cooperation, its a self-organizing process where people who don't even know each other cooperate to deliver products and services, facilitated by markets and the magic of prices.  Sure, competition exists but it is not the fundamental feature, but an enabler that makes sure the cooperation occurs as efficiently as possible.  Capitalism in fact is about zillions of voluntary trades and transactions every day that each make both parties better off -- or else both sides would not have agreed to it.  Capitalism in fact is a giant positive sum game, a fact that many on the Left simply do not grasp.

Never in my business life have I thought any company I worked for was playing in a zero-sum game.  Sure, individual sales to an individual customer might be zero sum -- UPS is going to order its bearings from Rockwell or Emerson and winning and losing that one order is zero sum.  But as a whole no business I have been in has ever felt zero sum.  In my business running campgrounds, I want our campgrounds to be the best but our growth is generally not at the expense of some other campground -- it is about attracting more people for more days to camping and offering those who do camp more value-added services.

Postscript on Metrics:  As an aside, it struck me that one improvement to the dysfunctional academic experience described in the Washington Post article linked above might be to an a measurement of the professoriate that went beyond just counting published articles and their citations.  Start counting the number of advisees each professor has that lands teaching and tenured positions and you could change some behavior.

How Does This New Trade Deal Offset My Higher Costs If I Don't Grow Soybeans?

Trump supporters are saying "I told you so" as Trump and European officials reached an agreement to dial back tariffs and pursue some efforts at free-er trade.  Trump supporters have argued, and I was skeptical, that Trump really wanted free trade but was engaging in brinkmanship as part of the opening phases of negotiation.  First, let's see exactly what this agreement included:

– They will work towards “zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies” on non-auto industrial products. That’s not a huge category of goods, as it excludes agriculture and raw materials, among other things, and zero non-tariff barriers and subsidies seems really unlikely. But still, it would be great if we made progress here.

– The EU will buy more U.S. soybeans and liquid natural gas. This was probably going to happen anyway because of market shifts and other factors.

– They will have a dialogue about conflicting regulatory standards in the U.S. and EU. This is a long-time goal of U.S. and EU trade policy-makers. It sounds easier than it really is.

– They will work together on reform of the WTO, and to address problems to the trading system caused by China.

In addition, the agreement effectively included:

  • Current Trump tariffs on steel and metals, and the European retaliation, will remain in place
  • Trump will not currently put in place his threatened $200 billion in auto tariffs on European vehicles

So the basic agreement is 1) leave all new tariffs in place; 2) sell more soybeans and natural gas to Europe; and 3) talk about tariff and non-tariff barriers that typically consume years and years of discussion.

This is basically a big zero.  Even beyond the fact that the agreement avoids most of the major trade categories, the act of negotiating towards lower tariffs, lower non-tariff barriers, and reconciling conflicting regulator standards has been done before -- its called NAFTA and the TPP, both of which Trump has sh*t on.  Sure, they can have flaws (especially the TPP), but these compromises are the only way these trade deals get made, as country leaders each are in thrall to their own influential crony industry.  The US's own high tariffs on SUV imports is a great example.  This is all not to mention the time -- TPP negotiations took 8 years -- through which we consumers apparently will still suffer under Trump's tariffs.

So for most US consumers, the end result of all of this is that we still are paying higher prices for any product that contains metal, from soda cans to automobiles.  This is great for soybean farmers, I suppose, but sucks for the rest of us.   This is all about politicians balancing one crony against another and in this calculus, consumers always lose.

Trump says he is for free trade, but he still spouts all this fairness BS.  Things that he considers "unfair" are actually just "unfair" to a few people in a few industries, but are eminently "fair" for 300 million consumers in the US.  Here is the true test of a free trader:

Consider two trade regimes.  In Regime #1, the US charges 0% tariffs on German steel and Germany charges 0% tariffs on US steel.  In Regime #2, the US is able to charge 10% tariffs on German steel while Germany still charges 0% tariffs on US steel.   I would bet quite a bit of money that Trump would say that Regime #2 is a better deal for the US, while free traders like myself and most economists would say that Regime #1 is not only better for the world as a whole, it is better for the US.  Zero tariffs allows the division of labor and comparative advantage to all work their magic to make sure capital and productive effort in this country are employed for the highest return.

If Only We Had One "Sustainability" Number That Summarized the Value of the Time and Resources That Went Into a Product or Service....

From an article about how China's decision to restrict imports of recyclable materials is throwing the recycling industry for a loop:

The trash crunch is compounded by the fact that many cities across the country are already pursuing ambitious recycling goals. Washington D.C., for example, wants to see 80% of household waste recycled, up from 23%.

D.C. already pays $75 a ton for recycling vs. $46 for waste burned to generate electricity.

"There was a time a few years ago when it was cheaper to recycle. It's just not the case anymore," said Christopher Shorter, director of public works for the city of Washington.

"It will be more and more expensive for us to recycle," he said.

Which raises the obvious question:  If it is more expensive, why do you do it?  The one word answer would be "sustainability" -- but does that really make sense?

Sustainability is about using resources in a way that can be reasonably maintained into the future.  This is pretty much impossible to really model, but that is not necessary for a decision at the margin such as recycling in Washington DC.  When people say "sustainable" at the margin, they generally mean that fewer scarce resources are used, whether those resources be petroleum or landfill space.

Gosh, if only we had some sort of simple metric that summarized the value of the time and resources that go into a service like recycling or garbage disposal.  Wait, we do!  This metric is called "price".  Now, we could have a nice long conversation about pricing theory and whether or not prices always mirror costs.  But in a free competitive market, most prices will be a good proxy for the relative scarcity (or projected scarcity) of resources.  Now, I am going to assume the numbers for DC are correct and are worked out intelligently (ie the cost of recycling should be net of the value of materials recovered, and the cost of burning the trash should be net of the value of the electricity generated).   Given this, recycling at $75 a ton HAS to be less "sustainable" than burning trash at $46 since it either consumes more resources or it consumes resources with a higher relative scarcity or both.

Postscript:  I have had students object to this by saying, well, those costs include a lot of labor and that doesn't count, sustainability is just about materials.  If this is really how sustainability is defined, then it is an insane definition.  NOTHING is more scarce or valuable than human time.  We have no idea, really, how much recoverable iron or oil there is in the world (and in fact history shows we systematically always tend to underestimate the amount).  But we do know for an absolute fact that there are 182.4 billion human hours lived in a given day. Period.  Labor is if anything more important than material in any sustainability question (after all, would you be willing to die a year earlier in exchange for there being more iron in the world?  I thought not.)

In fact, it is probably the changing scarcity and value of labor in China that is driving the issues in this article in the first place.  China can't afford the labor any more to re-sort badly sorted American recyclables, likely because the economic boom in China has created much more useful and valuable things for Chinese workers to do than separate cardboard boxes from foam peanuts.  Another way to think of the market wage rate is as the opportunity cost for labor, ie if you use an hour of labor for to do X, what is the value of production you are giving up somewhere else by their no longer having access to this hour of labor.

Are You (or Trump) Really for Free Trade? Here is a Hypothetical to Test You

A few days back, we had a debate in the comments about whether Trump really wants free trade.   In my view, Trump looks at tariff rates and trade deficits like a simple scorecard of winning or losing without really understanding trade and its benefits.  Sure, Trump proposed a zero tariff rate agreement in passing with our European trading partners.  I think he did this because it made him look good and he knew they would never go for it.

But no matter the case, even if he is sincere, he still is judging this proposal by a very different standard than economists would.  Take European tariffs on passenger cars.  My understanding is that they are about 10% on US cars vs. our 2.5% on theirs  (this ignores the absolute hypocrisy in this whole thing that our light truck tariff on imports is like 25%, but put that aside).  Trump sees taking these two passenger car tariff rates to zero as a win NOT because it would be a benefit to consumers but because in his thinking the US gets a 10% concession out of Europe and only gives up a 2.5% concession in exchange.  Winning!

I tried to think of the best way to highlight the difference between Trump's thinking and good economic thinking on trade, and I came up with this hypothetical:

Consider two trade regimes.  In Regime #1, the US charges 0% tariffs on German steel and Germany charges 0% tariffs on US steel.  In Regime #2, the US is able to charge 10% tariffs on German steel while Germany still charges 0% tariffs on US steel.   I would bet quite a bit of money that Trump would say that Regime #2 is a better deal for the US, while free traders like myself and most economists would say that Regime #1 is not only better for the world as a whole, it is better for the US.  Zero tariffs allows the division of labor and comparative advantage to all work their magic to make sure capital and productive effort in this country are employed for the highest return.  I believe from reading the comment section of this blog that there are many many people who call themselves a free trader but who would say that Regime #2 is a better deal for the US.  If you believe that, you better have done a lot of work educating yourself on the issue because the great mass of economic theory and practice is against you.

I am not an economist and I am too busy today to give the whole explanation today, but here is one hint at part of the answer:

As of mid-2017, there were 29,288 steel-consuming firms, employing more than 900,000 workers who face higher prices versus just 916 steel-producing firms with 80,000 employees who benefit from those higher prices and reduced competition.

Businesses That Probably Did Not Expect to be Dis-aggregated By The Internet

This business in San Diego was probably just minding its own business, smug in the confidence that Internet companies like Amazon were not going to threaten a local rental business when, bam:

Bikes and scooters suddenly show up literally just sitting there on every corner, ready to be rented via smartphone app for prices starting at a dollar an hour.  Interestingly, even in sunny healthy California, I saw more than 100 people riding rental scooters and about 1 riding a rental bike.  This was not just tourists -- though it was certainly popular with visitors -- but I saw many young locals riding the scooters downtown to work.  In the morning they piled up in front of office buildings (from which they would presumably disperse at the end of day to apartment buildings).

Below is another business that could be in trouble, charging $7 (rather than $1 on the street bikes) an hour for a rental and requiring the bike be returned to a defined location, rather than dropped anywhere (I see these in many cities -- I wonder how much investment the government has in these or if it is a concession where all the investment was private).

Of course, in the long run this may work out better from an operational standpoint because it seems to take a lot less labor.  Re-positioning scooters and picking them up and dropping them off for recharge struck me as labor intensive and costly (particularly in California).  I am not sure how it is sustainable at the rates that are charged.  Fortunately, that is not my problem and I tried both the bikes and the scooters and enjoyed both.  Despite my doubts about their profitability, I hope they are making a fortune because it seems to be a fun a popular service and I would like to see it last.

Why Communism Always Devolves Into Heavy-Handed Authoritarianism

Every time one points out a historic failure of communism (most recently, for example, in Venezuela), Marxists will argue "well, that is not true communism."  Somehow they think that communism without heavy-handed exercise of state power is possible.  It is not.

Here is the latest example, from our own peoples' republic in California.  For reasons that are simply beyond me, no one in California wants to use market mechanisms and the power of prices to match supply and demand for water.  We use these market tools successfully in pretty much every other market, but not in water.  The result is that increasingly heavy-handed exercise of government power is necessary to match supply and demand.

Senate Bill 606 establishes a “governing body” to oversee all water suppliers, both private and public and will require extensive paperwork from those utility companies.

Assembly Bill 1668 is where it gets personal.  This establishes limits on indoor water usage for every person in California and the amount allowed will decrease even further over the next 12 years.

The bill, until January 1, 2025, would establish 55 gallons per capita daily as the standard for indoor residential water use, beginning January 1, 2025, would establish the greater of 52.5 gallons per capita daily or a standard recommended by the department and the board as the standard for indoor residential water use, and beginning January 1, 2030, would establish the greater of 50 gallons per capita daily or a standard recommended by the department and the board as the standard for indoor residential water use. The bill would impose civil liability for a violation of an order or regulation issued pursuant to these provisions, as specified.

If you’re wondering how the government would know how much water your family is using, the utility providers will be obligated to rat you out of face massive fines. And they’re encouraged to spy in all sorts of creative ways. They “shall use satellite imagery, site visits, or other best available technology to develop an accurate estimate of landscaped areas.”...

If you don’t plan to comply it’s going to be way cheaper to move. Here are the fines Californians will be looking at – and it’s not a typo – these fines are PER DAY.

(1) If the violation occurs in a critically dry year immediately preceded by two or more consecutive below normal, dry, or critically dry years or during a period for which the Governor has issued a proclamation of a state of emergency under the California Emergency Services Act (Chapter 7 (commencing with Section 8550) of Division 1 of Title 2 of the Government Code) based on drought conditions, ten thousand dollars ($10,000) for each day in which the violation occurs.

(2) For all violations other than those described in paragraph (1), one thousand dollars ($1,000) for each day in which the violation occurs.

All of this could easily be replaced with the simple expedient of allowing the price of water to rise until supply and demand matched, a solution that works for everything else and would provide the added benefit of giving financial incentives to seek out new sources of water.  If they are worried about prices for the poor, then they can have a subsidized rate for the first X gallons and then a market rate above that.  There are at least two reasons I think politicians don't do this, beyond just their socialist assumptions and distrust in markets

  1. The people who would most be hurt by market pricing for water -- farmers, golf course/resort owners, etc -- have a lot of political pull in the state and would prefer a regime where high-value uses are curtailed to save water for their potentially lower-value uses.  Just look at the carve-outs in the law for swimming pools, water features, and golf courses.
  2. Politicians like rationing, or more accurately they like being the rationers.  You can't generate political contributions from market pricing of water. But if you are the person doing rationing, then everyone is going to come to you and try to curry favor.

The simplest way to explain why Marxism fails is "incentives and information" -- planned economies shift economic decision-making from individuals who have the information and incentives to make the proper tradeoffs for their own set of circumstances and preferences and on to politicians whose main incentive is to see who is willing to do the most to curry favor with them.

Government Housing Policy: Restricting Supply and Subsidizing Demand

I am always amazed that folks, say those in government in places like San Francisco, consistently support restricting the supply of new housing while subsidizing home buyers and then are surprised when prices and rents keeps rising.  From the Market Urbanism Report via Walter Olson.

But a look at the numbers shows that, on the contrary, housing construction (or lack thereof) seems to be the driving factor behind whether or not large U.S. metros remain affordable.

This would be the conclusion from 7 years of data from the Census Bureau, which publishes annual lists on the number of new privately-owned housing units authorized in each metro area. Between 2010 and 2016, when overall national housing permits ticked up each year following the recession, most major metros have issued housing permit numbers in the high 4- or low 5-figures annually. But three metros have stood far above the rest.

The Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington MSA issued 273,853 housing permits over this 7-year period; New York-Newark-Jersey City issued 283,814; and Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land topped every metro with 316,639 permits. Combined, the 3 metros accounted for 13.5% of the nation’s approved housing units.

Other metros weren’t even close to these three....

These statistics are glaring, and show that the urban housing affordability crisis, and its solution, is far simpler than many pundits suspect. In their ongoing quest to satisfy their anti-growth biases, they’ve settled on demand-side responses (read: government subsidies) that ignore or worsen the fundamental problem of under-supply; while they continue to blame various third party boogeymen, including developers, landlords, Airbnb hosts, techies, hipsters, Asian families buying second homes, and migrants in general.

But, again, the Census data sheds light on the actual nature of the issue: some metros in America are building a LOT of housing. Other metros may think they are, but actually are not. And housing prices within given metros are either stabilizing or skyrocketing based on this decision.

 

Problems With Pigouvian Taxes

Pigouvian taxes are taxes meant to help markets and prices better account for certain externalities that wouldn't otherwise be priced in.  A good example is that to the extent one thinks that CO2 is having a deleterious effect on the environment, a carbon tax would be a pigouvian tax.  This brief note at Cato discusses some problems with Pigouvian taxes.  This note reminded me of another issue:  in real life, Pigouvian taxes are more likely to reflect biases and faulty assumptions and virtue signalling of politicians rather than real science and economics.  Here are two situations that come to mind, presented without comment:

Addressing the Pro-Tariff Arguments

Don Boudreaux and and Mark Perry have been doing a great job making the case against Trump's trade sanctions.  But it is always a danger only to learn about opposing views from those who disagree with you, so in the spirit of Bryan Caplan's "Ideological Touring Test" I wanted to address directly some of the arguments in support of Trump's sanctions.

I followed several links to this article by Spencer Morrison.  After reading the whole thing, I fear I have made the intellectual error of choosing a poor representative of the opposing side's argument, but I am committed now, so here goes.

Consider that China steals more than half a trillion dollars in American intellectual property every single year. This is one of the reasons America’s trade deficit with China is so massive. For example, in 2010 Chinese companies stole high-speed rail designs from American firms, thereby depriving them of hundreds of billions in potential revenues. Such theft occurs in nearly every industry, whether it’s software programs or branded consumer goods. And the worst part? We let it happen.

I find the author's figure absurd, and likely untrustworthy given his example.  Following his high-speed rail design "theft" link one quickly finds that 1) Americans were not involved at all, which is not surprising since we really don't have high-speed rail manufacturing industry or expertise in this country; 2) the technology seems to have been acquired or copied legally; and 3) the real competitive issue for non-Chinese companies seems to be that the Chinese have extended and improved the technology.

This one paragraph essentially summarized the theme of the article, that technology is the key to increased well-being and that the US is poorer when they cannot monopolize the best technology.  The first is true, the second is dead wrong and flies in the face of 200 years of history.

I won't spend time on the mass of the article where describes the economy in very production-based terms which I don't totally agree with, but his basic point is one I can partially accept -- that real economic growth over time comes from  productivity growth.  I agree that technology is part of the productivity equation, but unlike the author I also see other drivers such as trade (which he calls "noise").  Trade is a critical factor in productivity improvement as specialization and comparative advantage greatly increase productivity.

But where I think he really goes off the rails is to say that because technology is wealth-creating, we need to monopolize that technology in the US.

The core issue remains: we continue to  offshore our advanced industries at an alarming pace, which will only increase the likelihood that the “next big thing” will be invented abroad. If we do not reverse this trend, we will soon be on the outside looking in.

It would be entertaining to discuss the origins of the American textile industry in the late 18th and early 19th century with the author, which were largely based on spinning jenny and powerloom designs that were literally stolen from manufacturers in the UK (countries don't own technologies, only individuals and their companies do).  The UK at the time had strict technology export restrictions of which I am sure the author would have been approving.

So did the UK suddenly become poorer as America built a lively cloth industry?  No, in fact the UK boomed along with the US.  It turns out that spreading new technology and productivity techniques around more widely made everyone richer.  This only makes sense.  Would the West really be wealthier if they had kept all technology from spreading, and thus were surrounded by countries dominated by subsistence farming and medieval crafts?  A skeptic might argue that the UK did eventually become poorer relative to the US and upstart Germany, but Andrew Carnegie could have told you why at the beginning of the 20th century.  He went back and toured manufacturers in his old home and was horrified at how little they reinvested in new technology.

Which brings me back to Chinese high speed rail, the example he started with.  Clearly the Chinese have a growing high-speed rail manufacturing industry, and they DIDN'T invent the technologies originally in China.  This is what trade is all about.  Rather than keep technologies locked up in a secret underground bunker in the Rockies, as the author seems to prefer, it spreads technologies around the world.  Production then shifts around the world based on a variety of factors such as comparative advantage in ways that are hard to predict, but seldom has a strong relationship to the country in which the technology was first invented.  One place production does NOT shift, though, is towards countries whose government has artificially raised critical raw material prices through border taxes on its consumers called tariffs.

Which reminds me, if the problem is China "stealing" things like high-speed rail technology, then why in the hell are we imposing steel and aluminum tariffs?  What the heck does this have to do with technology transfer?  In fact, if the US really had a high-speed rail industry we were worried about, or if one were exclusively concerned with the auto industry, the author is essentially telling them "we are sorry you had your technology stolen so to help you out we going to substantially raise the prices of your two largest purchases (steel and aluminum) so that you can be even less competitive internationally."  Ahh, I can feel the economic growth from that already.

If the author wants better intellectual property protections for US companies and individuals, I am generally supportive of efforts to achieve this (as long as we don't over-specify intellectual property and end up again with endless patent troll suits).  For all its flaws, though, joining the TPP seems to be a better path to this end (it actually addresses, you know, intellectual property protections rather than just raise steel prices for consumers).

To conclude, I love this quote from his article because, despite being anti-trade, he in fact is echoing the pro-trade observation by Steven Landsburg.

Yet our trade policy does exactly the opposite. After the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994, U.S. corn exports surged, as did our imports of automobiles. The problem is that automobile manufacturing is much more likely to benefit from disruptive technology than is growing corn—under NAFTA, the preponderance of long-run benefits went to Mexico, not the United States. The same is true with America’s trade relationship with China: America’s advanced goods trade deficit with China now tops $120 billion. Meanwhile, our biggest export is soybeans.

Free trade is, quite literally, turning America into China’s mercantile resource colony: we buy their value-added, manufactured products, and we sell them raw materials.

This is freaking awesome!  We grow and sell soybeans and get back advanced technology products.  Brilliant!  No wonder we are the richest nation on Earth.

Postscript:  So to save the time clicking through to Steven Landsburg, here is a part of what he said (via Carpe Diem):

There are two technologies for producing automobiles in America. One is to manufacture them in Detroit, and the other is to grow them in Iowa. Everybody knows about the first technology; let me tell you about the second. First you plant seeds, which are the raw material from which automobiles are constructed. You wait a few months until wheat appears. Then you harvest the wheat, load it onto ships, and sail the ships eastward into the Pacific Ocean. After a few months, the ships reappear with Toyotas on them.

International trade is nothing but a form of technology. The fact that there is a place called Japan, with people and factories, is quite irrelevant to Americans’ well-being. To analyze trade policies, we might as well assume that Japan is a giant machine with mysterious inner workings that convert wheat into cars. Any policy designed to favor the first American technology over the second is a policy designed to favor American auto producers in Detroit over American auto producers in Iowa. A tax or a ban on “imported” automobiles is a tax or a ban on Iowa-grown automobiles. If you protect Detroit carmakers from competition, then you must damage Iowa farmers, because Iowa farmers are the competition.

The task of producing a given fleet of cars can be allocated between Detroit and Iowa in a variety of ways. A competitive price system selects that allocation that minimizes the total production cost. It would be unnecessarily expensive to manufacture all cars in Detroit, unnecessarily expensive to grow all cars in Iowa, and unnecessarily expensive to use the two production processes in anything other than the natural ratio that emerges as a result of competition.

That means that protection for Detroit does more than just transfer income from farmers to autoworkers. It also raises the total cost of providing Americans with a given number of automobiles. The efficiency loss comes with no offsetting gain; it impoverishes the nation as a whole.

A Chinese Consumer's Perspective on Chinese Trade Policy

This is, plus or minus, a reprint of an article on trade policy written 12 years ago at our Chinese sister publication, Panda Blog.

Our Chinese government continues to pursue a policy of export promotion, patting itself on the back for its trade surplus in manufactured goods with the United States. The Chinese government does so through a number of avenues, including:

  • Limiting yuan convertibility, and keeping the yuan's value artificially low
  • Selling exports below cost and well below domestic prices (what the Americans call "dumping") and subsidizing products for export

It is important to note that each and every one of these government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the expense of Chinese citizens and consumers. A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese. So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  We Chinese send our resources, our capital, and the output of our most productive workers overseas to be enjoyed by American consumers, and what do we get in return?  A trillion dollars or so of foreign exchange surpluses that our government invests for 2% returns in US government bonds.  Yes, that's right -- not only are we subsidizing American consumers, but we are subsidizing their taxpayers by financing their government's debt at low interest rates.

This policy of raping the domestic market in pursuit of exports and trade surpluses was one that Japan followed in the seventies and eighties. It sacrificed its own consumers, protecting local producers in the domestic market while subsidizing exports. Japanese consumers had to live with some of the highest prices in the world, so that Americans could get some of the lowest prices on those same goods. Japanese customers endured limited product choices and a horrendously outdated retail sector that were all protected by government regulation, all in the name of creating trade surpluses. And surpluses they did create. Japan achieved massive trade surpluses with the US, and built the largest accumulation of foreign exchange (mostly dollars) in the world. And what did this get them? Decades of recession, from which the country is only now emerging, while the US economy happily continued to grow and create wealth in astonishing proportions, seemingly unaware that is was supposed to have been "defeated" by Japan.

We at Panda Blog believe it is insane for our Chinese government to continue to chase the chimera of ever-growing foreign exchange and trade surpluses. These achieved nothing lasting for Japan and they will achieve nothing for China. In fact, the only thing that amazes us more than China's subsidize-Americans strategy is that the Americans seem to complain about it so much. They complain about their trade deficits, which are nothing more than a reflection of their incredible wealth. They complain about the yuan exchange rate, which is set today to give discounts to Americans and price premiums to Chinese. They complain about China buying their government bonds, which does nothing more than reduce the costs of their Congress's insane deficit spending. They even complain about dumping, which is nothing more than a direct subsidy by China of lower prices for American consumers.

And, incredibly, the Americans complain that it is they that run a security risk with their current trade deficit with China! This claim is so crazy, we at Panda Blog have come to the conclusion that it must be the result of a misdirection campaign by the CIA-controlled American media. After all, the fact that China exports more to the US than the US does to China means that by definition, more of China's economic production is dependent on the well-being of the American economy than vice-versa. And, with well over a trillion dollars in foreign exchange invested heavily in US government bonds, it is China that has the most riding on the continued stability of the American government, rather than the reverse. American commentators invent scenarios where the Chinese could hurt the American economy, which we could, but only at the cost of hurting ourselves worse. Mutual Assured Destruction is alive and well, but today it is not just a feature of nuclear strategy but a fact of the global economy.

Average People Used To Understand That Protectionism Was Welfare for Special Interests That Hurt Consumers. When Did This Change?

I have been watching the second season of Victoria on PBS (quite good, I think) and much of it has covered the famines of the 1840's and the debate over the Corn Laws.  At the time, it seems that average people understood that the British tariffs on imported food were in place solely to protect the agricultural profits of aristocratic (and by definition well-connected) landowners while hurting the country as a whole by raising food prices for every consumer and contributing to the famines that were sweeping Ireland and parts of England.

Trump's proposed tariffs are simply a disaster.  A lot of the media seems to believe the biggest reason they are bad is that they will incite retaliatory tariffs from other countries, which they almost certainly will.  But even if no one retaliated, even if the tariffs were purely unilateral, they would still be bad.  In case after case, they are justified as increasing the welfare of a certain number of workers in targeted industries, but they hurt the welfare of perhaps 100x more people who consume or work for companies that consume the targeted products.  Prices will rise for everyone and choices will be narrowed. This is Bastiat's classic seen and unseen -- the beneficiaries (say in the steel industry) are easy to identify, but the individual consumers who change their purchasing plans or industries that change their investment plans are frequently invisible.  It is the height of childish public policy to pretend those hurt by this don't exist merely because they can't easily be interviewed on TV.

Well, not completely invisible:

 A proposed expansion of an Exxon Mobil Corp oil refinery could be impacted by the Trump administration’s plan to place a 25 percent tariff on imported steel, a source familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

Exxon has been considering increasing its North American crude refining capacity since at least 2014, the company has said, but has not disclosed a final decision. An Exxon spokeswoman was not available for immediate comment.

 The nation’s largest oil producer has been weighing adding new processing capacity to its 362,000 barrel-per-day Beaumont, Texas, plant that could make it the nation’s largest. (Reporting by Erwin Seba Editing by James Dalgleish)

Why Monopsony Employer Power Is Virtually Irrelevant to the Impact of a Higher Minimum Wage on Employment

Most of us who took Econ 101 would expect that an increase in the minimum wage would increase unemployment, at least among low-skilled and younger workers most affected by the minimum wage.  After all, demand curves slope downwards so that an increase in price of labor should result in a decrease in demand for that labor.

There is a great body of work on employment effects of minimum wage, and surveying this corpus is beyond the scope of this paper, but a good starting point might be the recent detailed and careful study by Jardim et. al. of the University of Washington, which analyzed the employment effects of the increase in minimum wages in Seattle from $11 to $13.  They found that while average hourly wages for lower-paid workers went up by 3%, the total hours worked went down by 9%, resulting in a net reduction in total wages for lower-paid, lower-skill workers at the same time that other sectors of the Seattle economy were booming.

Monopsony Power & The Labor Market

Supporters of the minimum wage, however, argue that these employment effects are exaggerated, because employers have something called monopsony power when hiring low-skill workers.  What a monopoly is to customers – it limits choices – a monopsony does to suppliers, in this case the suppliers of labor.  The argument is that due to a bargaining power imbalance, employers can hire workers for less than they would be willing to pay in a truly competitive market, gaining the company added savings that increase its profits.  Under this theory, minimum wage laws help to offset this power imbalance and force companies to disgorge some of their excess profits in favor of higher wages.  If this assumption is true, then demand for labor would not be reduced due to a minimum wage increase because, prior to the wage increase, companies were paying less than they were willing to pay and thus are still willing to continue to pay the wages at the new higher rates.

While economists argue about this monopsony theory, my intuition as an employer makes me skeptical.  However, rather than argue about whether my little company that scrambles to staff itself every year somehow wields excess power in the labor markets, I am going to argue that the existence of monopsony power is irrelevant to the employment effects of a minimum wage increase: Even if companies are able to pay workers less than they might via such bargaining power imbalances, whatever gains they reap from workers will end up in consumer hands.  As a result, minimum wage increases still must result either in employment reductions or consumer price increases or more likely both.

Why? Well, we need to back up and do a bit of business theory.  Just as macroeconomics (all the way back to Adam Smith) spends a lot of time thinking about why some countries are rich and some are poor, business theory spends a lot of time trying to figure out why some firms are profitable and some are not.  One of the seminal works in this area was Michael Porter's Five Forces model, where he outlines five characteristics of markets and firms that tend to drive profitability.  We won't go into them all, but the most important of the forces for us (and likely for Porter) is the threat of new entrants -- how easy or hard is it for new firms to enter the marketplace and begin competing against an incumbent firm?  If new companies can enter into competition easily, a profitable firm will simply attract new competitors, and keep attracting them until the returns in that market are competed down to some minimum level.

Let’s consider a company paying minimum wage to most of its employees.  At least at current minimum wage levels, minimum wage employees will likely be in low-skill positions, ones that require little beyond a high school education.  Almost by definition, firms that depend on low-skill workers to deliver their product or service have difficulty establishing barriers to competition. One can’t be doing anything particularly tricky or hard to copy relying on workers with limited skills. As soon as one firm demonstrates there is money to be made using low-skill workers in a certain way, it is far too easy to copy that model.    As a result, most businesses that hire low-skill workers will have had their margins competed down to the lowest tolerable level.  Firms that rely mainly on low-skill workers almost all have single digit profit margins probably averaging around 5% of revenues (for comparison, last year Microsoft had a pre-tax net income margin of over 23%).

If there were some margin windfall to be obtained from labor market power that allowed a company to hire people for far less than their labor was worth to it, and thus earn well above this lowest tolerable margin,  new companies would try to enter the market, probably by lowering prices to consumers using some of that labor premium.  Eventually, even if the monopsony premium exists, it is given away to consumers in the form of lower prices.  If the wholesale price of gasoline suddenly falls sharply, gasoline retailers don't get to earn a much higher margin, at least not for very long.  Competition quickly causes the retailer's lowered costs to be passed on to consumers in the form of lower retail prices.  The same goes for any lowering of labor costs due to monopsony power  -- if such a windfall exists, it is quickly passed on to consumers.

As a result, the least likely response to increasing labor costs due to regulation is that such costs will be offset out of profits, because for most of these firms, profits have already been competed down to the minimum necessary to cover capital investment and the minimum returns to keep owners interested in the business. The much more likely responses will be:

  • Raising prices to cover the increased costs. While competitors that are subject to the same laws will likely have similar increases, the increase may not be acceptable to consumers and almost certainly will result in some loss in unit sales.
  • Reducing employment. There are a variety of ways in which a minimum wage increase could result in employment losses.  A company might raise its prices to compensate for higher costs, only to find its unit volumes falling, necessitating a layoff in staff.  Or the staff reductions may also be due to targeted technology investments, as increases in labor costs also increase the returns to investments in capital equipment that substitutes for labor
  • Exiting one or more businesses and laying everyone off. This may take the form of exiting a few selected low-margin lines of business, or liquidation of the entire company if the business is no longer viable with the higher labor costs.

A Real-World Minimum Wage Increase Example

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 places like Seattle and 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 supposedly 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 given both the minimum wage increase and the 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.

Classic Government Economics: Subsidize Demand, Restrict Supply.

Name the field:  Housing, education, health care.  In most any industry you can name, the sum of the government's interventions tend to subsidize demand and restrict supply.  In health care for example, programs like Medicaid, Obamacare, Medicare, and others subsidize demand while physician licensing, long drug approvals and prescription requirements, certificates of need, etc restrict supply.

If you are wondering why, it turns out that most government regulatory processes are captured by current incumbents, who work to get the government to subsidize customers to buy their product or service while simultaneously having the government block upstart competitors, either foreign or domestic.  For example in housing, existing homeowners form a powerful lobby that limits housing supply through restrictive zoning while demanding that the government subsidize mortgage interest (as well as low-cost mortgage programs) and give special tax treatment to capital gains from homes.   The result in every industry is supply shortages and rising prices.

Yesterday, we saw another classic example.  Federal, state and local governments have spent billions of dollars over the last decades subsidizing solar panel installations in homes and businesses.  But now, they are also simultaneously restricting the supply of solar panels:

President Donald Trump is once again burnishing his protectionist bona fides by slapping imported solar cells and washing machines with 30% tariffs - his most significant action taking aim at the world's second-largest economy since he ordered an investigation into Chinese IP practices that could result in tariffs.

Acting on recommendations from US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Trump imposed the sliding tariffs. Solar imports will face a 30% tarifffor the first year, then the tariff will decline to 15% by the fourth year.It also exempts the first 2.5 gigawatts of imported cells and modules, according to Bloomberg.

And... who would have guessed that Elon Musk would be on the receiving end of another government crony handout?  The patron saint of subsidy consumption will get yet another, as Tesla's solar city is currently building a large domestic panel manufacturing plant, an investment decision that makes little sense without tariff protection.

Transparent and Visible Cross-Subsidy: Unethical; Invisible Legally-Mandated Cross-Subsidy at the Behest of a Special Interest: A-OK

From Engadget, apparently the EU has banned retailers for adding a surcharge on credit card purchases.  Since it is an absolute fact that credit card sales cost retailers at least 3% more (due to merchant processing fees) than cash sales, I likely would have written about this story something like "EU knuckles under special interest lobbying from credit card processors and forces non-customers (ie those paying in cash) to subsidize credit card purchases."  Of course, given the consistent and predictable economic ignorance of Engadget, that is not how the story actually was written:

Thanks to new EU regulations, you won't have to put up with irritating card surcharges for much longer. Unfortunately, minimum card spends you come across in small shops and such will stick around, but from January 13th, the Payment Services Directive comes into play. This stops retailers from charging you more for, say, using a credit card than a debit card, or generally just passing the transaction fee onto the customer. It won't, however, make your Just Eat delivery any cheaper. That's because yesterday, ahead of the new EU rules being implemented, Just Eat did away with its 50p fee for paying by card, and instead created a new 50p "service charge" that applies to all orders.

What's particularly cheeky is pay-by-cash customers now also have to fish between the sofa cushions for an extra coin -- a move Just Eat calls "fairness for all" (lol) -- meaning it's making even more moolah while sticking a middle finger up to the spirit of the EU directive. Just Eat told the BBC it had previously thought about tweaking charges, while also totally confessing that "the change to legislation did play a part in prompting the review." A spokesperson also said, predictably, that it'll enable the company to keep providing its stellar services: "The 50p charge simply means that along with our restaurant partners, we can continue to deliver the best possible takeaway experience."

The law essentially forces cash customers to subsidize credit card customers.  I know what retail profits look like (think small single digits) and the lost surcharge is not coming out of profits, it is going to be covered by establishments in generally higher prices paid by everyone, including cash customers.  In my mind, this retailer is a hero, by actually making this legally-mandated cross subsidy transparent.

First, and Last, Marathon

About 18 months ago I was diagnosed with osteo-arthritis in both my knees, though of course I had been experiencing some pain before that.  The condition has become increasingly irritating not just because of the knee pain, but because the pain leads to a second condition called a Bakers Cyst (also known as water on the knee) that adds new pains in the back of both my upper and lower legs.

For years my exercise of choice has been running.  I have run in many of the world's cities (except for Bangkok -- only a crazy person would run the streets there) and find the experience synergistic -- the new sights keeps me from being bored in my runs and the running helps me see details of a city I might have missed.  I am not really competitive, but I have run four or five half-marathons and a number of shorter races.

It has become clear I have to give this all up.  So I decided to go out with a bang, and run my first and last marathon, which will be January 7 at Disneyworld (I love the Disney marathons because the vibe is pretty chill, there are lots of fun things to look at as you run through the parks and past characters and bands, and the medals are really nice).  I usually run in costume for the Disney races but I think not for this race -- I will be shedding every pound;  I am considering cutting off the ends of my shoelaces to save weight 😉

The big event comes in the next few weeks when my doctor is going to shoot me up with cortisone in each knee and drain my Bakers cysts.  From past experience, this will help a ton.  Even without the cortisone I have done a couple of 16-18 mile runs in addition to my daily running of 6-ish miles so I am fairly sure I will make it.

The first question I always get is what time am I shooting for.  Timing for my distance race performances is generally by google calendar.   I did my last half in around 2:30 so extrapolating that I will likely be far behind Oprah's time of 4:29, but I think my ego can survive.

Once the race is over, I have already found my new preferred form of excercise.  The eliptical machine feels good with my knees but I hate excercising indoors.  Biking can be fun but my *ss always falls asleep.  So I bought one of these bad boys and am already having a lot of fun with it.  Super expensive, but hopefully prices will come down if they get popular.

Uber Is About To Become A Much Worse Place To Work

Here are some cool things about working for Uber:

  • You can work any time you want, for as long as you want.  You can work from 2-4 in the morning if you like, and if there are no customers, that is your risk
  • You can work in any location you choose.  You can park at your house and sit in your living room and take any jobs that come up, and then ignore new jobs until you get back home (I actually have a neighbor who is retired who does just this, he has driven me about 6 times now).
  • The company has no productivity metrics or expectations.  As long as your driver rating is good and you follow the rules, you are fine.

All of this is going to change.  Why?  Due to lawsuits in most countries that seek to redefine Uber drivers as employees rather than contractors.  One such suit just succeeded in England:

Is Uber a taxi firm or a technology company, and are its drivers self-employed or mistreated employees? These questions are being asked of Uber the world over, and last year an employment tribunal case in the UK concluded two drivers were, in fact, entitled to minimum wage, holiday pay and other benefits. The ride-hailing service contested this potentially precedent-setting decision, as you'd expect, but today Uber lost its appeal. In other words, the appeal tribunal upheld the original ruling that drivers should be classed as workers rather than self-employed.

The appeal tribunal agreed that when a driver is logged in and waiting for a job, that's still tantamount to "working time." Working time they aren't getting paid for, of course. Interestingly, the ruling also noted that Uber basically has a monopoly on private hire via an app. Therefore, drivers are beholden to them and can't reasonably engage in other work while also being at Uber's disposal.

GMB, the union for professional drivers that's behind the original case, is calling it "a landmark victory." Naturally, the law firm representing the GMB and Uber drivers feels much the same. No points for guessing who has a slightly different opinion.

Despite Engadget's usual economic ignorance that this must be all good for drivers, in fact this is going to destroy about everything that makes Uber attractive as compared to 9-5 office jobs.  That is, if rulings like this don't kill the company entirely, as I have previously prophesied.

This is going to add a new cost for Uber, forcing them to pay money to drivers for dead time when they are not actually driving a passenger.  Let's make the reasonable assumption that Uber's first response to this is to A) stay in business and B) attempt to keep prices to customers from rising.  The only way they can do this is to minimize dead time.

Want to park at your house in an unpromising neighborhood with little business?  Forget it, Uber can't allow that in the future.  Want to work at an unproductive hour of your choosing?  Forget it.  Uber is going to have to set quotas on certain regions and hours of the day that are less productive and find a way to ban drivers from working those times.   In addition, they are likely to institute some sort of productivity metric for drivers, ie something like revenue minutes as a percent of total, and then they are going to rank all the drivers and start cutting drivers from the bottom of the list.  If Uber survives, it is going to be a very different company to work for, and is going to feel much more like a regular office job with a boss hanging around your cubicle pestering you about TPS reports.

The Irony and Internal Contradiction of Passive Investment Management

My relatively snarky post on hedge fund fees and passive management got a lot of response, including a few of challenging emails from friends and acquaintances.  So I wanted to cover a few followups here.

One of the interesting features of passive investment management is that it doesn't work if everyone does it.  I vaguely remember there is some name for this in the game theory world but I can't for the life of me remember.  Anyway, passive investment is based on the theory that the market for financial products is relatively transparent and efficient.  While one stock will certainly perform better than another, it is almost impossible (or at least really expensive) in a mostly-efficient market for a regular investor, or even an average fund manager, to parse this out.  As a  result, high fees or expenses one might incur to find these opportunities generally don't pay for themselves, and it is better to just invest in a broad basket of securities and accept the average market return.

But note that this is predicated on the assumption that someone, somewhere is actively managing.  Someone must be looking for good stocks and bad stocks and buying the former and selling the latter.  Without these folks actively managing, it would not be an efficient market.  [I am reminded at this point of the old joke about a man walking down the street with an economist.  The economist steps right over a $100 bill on the sidewalk without stopping.  The man asks the economist, "why didn't you stop and pick up that money?" and the economist answers, "in an efficient market it can't really be there."]

I remember a while back reading economic research about shopping.  What percentage of customers have to be active price-shoppers to make a market efficient?  I personally don't price shop for the small stuff.  If I need a bunch of cheap bulk stuff, I just run to Wal-Mart or Costco and buy it with confidence I am getting a pretty good price.  But why can I do that?  Because I trust these large corporations to honor their promise for low prices?  Hah!  No way.  What I trust is that there are people who clip coupons and price every dang item to the penny, and it is these folks who keep Costco and Walmart honest.  Government interventionists like to talk about the free rider problem all the time, but most all of us are free riders on these hard core shoppers.

The same is true with us passive investors.   I like to get snarky about the fees certain active investors charge, but I am still dependent on their work.  And I don't particularly doubt that there are hedge funds and private equity firms that make consistently above market returns, but I do think they are a minority.  I would equate it to max-contract players in the NBA.  No one doubts Lebron James merits a max contract -- any of the teams in the NBA would sign that deal in five seconds.  But a max deal for, say, Chandler Parsons?  Joakim Noah?  The problem with hedge funds is that the few of these folks who merit the two and twenty max contract have very likely been closed to new investors for years, in the same way it is impossible to get LeBron James to play for Memphis.  It is frustrating for me to see public and private institutions chasing yield and continuing to pay 2 and 20 to folks with an unproven algorithm and a marketing plan.  If I am going to pay 2 and 20, its more likely to be to someone in private equity or an LBO fund who is doing more than stock picking.  That's because I do think that stocks are generally well-valued on the market based on their current management, investment plans, culture, etc.  But they may contain opportunities for smart people who can come in and, for example, apply different management and culture and strategy to the people and assets.  A box that is half Kale and half candy corns might not sell for a good price because no one wants the combination, so value can be created splitting it up.

A couple of other thoughts that came up in discussions since yesterday:

  • I am willing to believe that passive investing looks so good vis a vis active investing because central banks have inflated assets and compressed volatility.  If all the boats are rising with the tide of state actions that are raising the tide, then one is less likely to be fussy about which boat he is on.  What's the point of value investing when the market treats stocks as commodities?  But I can certainly see that in markets like the late 70's or pre-market-boom early 80's that stock pickers might have had more room to differentiate themselves.
  • I am also willing to concede that passive investing may turn out to be a terrible trend for corporate governance.  If all your shareholders are just holding your stock as part of a basket of 500 stocks, who is going to hold you accountable?  It is very awkward for a Vanguard agitate for changes in a company, even when they might be the largest single shareholder.  Also, ironically, passive investing may be opening the door for single lone wolf activist investors to impose their will on companies, sometimes to the other shareholders' detriment.  If one person with 5% cares a lot and the other 95% are passive, that one person might be able to raise a lot of hell.

As a final note, I am a screaming hypocrite on the whole passive investing thing, since with most of my net worth I am the ultimate in active investors.  I have most of my savings in one company, the one I run.

Are You Smarter Than A Public Pension Fund Manager

From the WSJ:

Some $333 billion moved into all U.S.-listed ETFs [exchange traded funds] in 2017 through September, a figure that eclipses last year’s $288 billion all-time high with three months yet to be tallied, according to Morningstar.

Of that amount, 73% has gone into ETFs that boast expense ratios less than or equal to 0.2%, or $20 per $10,000 invested, according to Morningstar data through September. Such low-fee funds account for just 15% of the more than 2,000 exchange-traded funds and notes on the market....

The market for low-cost funds, long dominated by BlackRock, Vanguard Group and State Street Global Advisors, is getting increasingly crowded as other players attempt to muscle in. State Street last month slashed management fees on more than a dozen of its funds. Franklin Templeton Investments, a unit of Franklin Resources, this week announced 16 ultra-low-cost foreign stock ETFs that will undercut the management fees of nearly every rival product currently on the market.

“It’s become insanely competitive,” said Ben Johnson, head of ETF research at Morningstar.” Mr. Johnson said that advisers and other intermediaries are feeling the pressure to emphasize the lowest prices available. “This has upped the ante for providers of products that have really been commoditized.”

If you are a typical investor, you too are likely investing in lower-cost funds, and for most of us that is a great choice.  But large public pension funds are still the #1 largest investors in hedge funds, whose absurd 2 and 20 (2% of the assets invested, 20% of the gains, 0% of the losses) fee schedules still exist, incredibly, despite their systematic under-performance of the market.  I have always wondered how these fees don't get competed down.  But beset by under-funding, public pension funds are so desperate for yield to try to close the gap that they will still fall for the hedge fund pitch.  Which is why your local public teacher pension fund probably helped build a number of the mansions in Greenwich.  You do have to sort of respect folks who figured out a financial model for profiting in direct proportion to government fecklessness.  Talk about hitting the mother load!

Government Regulatory Template: Subsidize Demand, Restrict Supply

The government does it in health care, education, and housing.  Usually in the name of increasing access to or usage of something, they will subsidize demand.  But then at the same time they will restrict supply, giving lie to this stated justification of increasing access, making the whole exercise a crony enrichment of a small number of incumbent producers or asset owners.  The government creates low income housing programs and subsidized mortgages but limits the ability to construct new homes, thus having the primary effect not of increasing housing access but of driving up home prices for current incumbent home owners.  In health care the government subsidizes access to care in any number of ways but then restricts supply through certificates of need, onerous licencing programs, and drug manufacturing restrictions.

Now, consider solar panels.  The government has many programs to subsidize the purchase of solar panels.  Often, one can get local, state, and federal rebates and tax breaks for buying solar panels.  But at the same time:

President Donald Trump’s pledge to offer American companies more aggressive protection from foreign competition got fresh ammunition Friday, when a government board cleared the way for him to deploy a long-dormant legal weapon to restrict solar panel imports....

In the solar panel case, filed by Georgia-based Suniva Inc. and joined by Oregon-based SolarWorld Americas Inc., the ITC commissioners will now consider specific policy recommendations and submit those to the White House by Nov. 13. Mr. Trump then has two months to decide whether to impose solar trade barriers....

“We brought this action because the U.S. solar manufacturing industry finds itself at the precipice of extinction at the hands of foreign market overcapacity,” Suniva said. The firm filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year.

This really is utter madness, even from a domestic employment standpoint.  I would be willing to be that the solar panel installation industry, which will be hurt by rising costs of solar panels, employs way more people than the US panel manufacturing industry.  The solar industry's trade association seems to agree:

“Analysts say Suniva’s remedy proposal will double the price of solar, destroy two-thirds of demand, erode billions of dollars in investment and unnecessarily force 88,000 Americans to lose their jobs in 2018,” said the Solar Energy Industries Association, which promotes solar use.

For Progressives who are suspicious of public choice theory, this is they sort of prediction public choice theory makes and should be an area where Progressives and libertarians could make common cause.  But traditionally Progressives have always been trade restrictionists, which seems crazy to me.

 

Engadget Is My Go-To Source For Bad Economic Analysis. Today's Lesson: Apparently Items Are More Valuable If You Can't Resell Them

The following from Endadget may be clearer if you translate the British "touts" to the American "scalpers"

Touts are unnecessary middlemen, inflating ticket prices purely to create a cut for themselves. Gig-goers hate them, artists hate them, and the government isn't too keen either. The use of automated online bots to hoover up tickets (that are later listed on resale sites with a mark-up) is set to become a criminal offence thanks to the Digital Economy Act. The government has also implored venues and resale sites to address the ways they might be enabling touts. Sure, we might be lose the stub souvenir, but can we just make digital-only ticketing mandatory and kill all the birds with one stone already?

This view of scalpers as leeching middlemen with no economic value but rather as rent-seekers who merely mark up tickets and pocket the money is unfortunately common.  But they are in fact a perfectly normal functioning of markets.  They perform at least two economic functions

  1.  Events often are mispriced for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes they charge too much, as in the recent McGregor-Mayweather fight, and the arena is half-empty.  The market can't do much to fix this.  But sometimes events are under-priced, and the demand far exceeds the available supply of tickets.  When this happens, some method of rationing must occur.  Back in my day rationing was by who was lucky enough to dial in at the exact right moment or who was willing to camp out all night.  Resale markets, including scalpers, where tickets are resold well above face value are another approach.  Scalpers don't make money taking some sort of middleman fee, they make money buying tickets at face and then taking the risk that they can resell them later at a higher price.  They are not always successful.  I have sold a number of tickets I could no longer use under face to get rid of them, taking a loss.
  2. If you cannot resell a ticket to the person you want for the price you like, you lose some of your property rights in that ticket and it is less valuable to you.  Look at airline tickets, which are all electronic today and cannot be resold or transferred.  Are you better off as a consumer not having a secondary market for airline tickets?  Do you really like tickets that are use-them-or-lose-them propositions?  The contention in this article that consumers are better off if their concert tickets worked more like airline tickets is simply nonsense.  Scalpers increase our consumer sovereignty.

It should be noted that a digital ticket does not automatically mean loss of property rights in that ticket.  I bought Dallas Cowboys playoff tickets and Hamilton tickets on a secondary market and got them transferred to me electronically.  The Ticketmaster electronic app, at least currently, allows you to transfer the ticket to someone else and so digital ticketing platforms don't have to mean scalpers go away -- one could easily imagine two guys in a parking lot can still transact in tickets from their cell phones.  But the danger, of course, is that unlike with paper tickets this right of resale can be taken away any time by simply blocking the transfer function.  The article does not make this clear but I assume they are promoting a platform where once you buy the ticket you can only resell it back via the original seller (if at all), or else the entire article would be complete nonsense (always a possibility on engadget).

Artists and producers are complete hypocrites on this issue.  They are jealous because they would like to charge what the market could bear for their tickets but fear fan backlash if they do.  So they keep prices low so they can claim to be the fan's friend, but with a catch -- they hold back a ton of inventory in the hottest shows and do not offer that to the public at the published low price.  They sell this inventory at high prices to sponsors and other special groups or even sell it themselves at high market rates on the same 3rd party resale sites they publicly criticize.   What these folks really want is for there only to be secondary markets that they control. They don't want competition from third parties, and this lack of competition is only going to be worse for the consumer.  Think of it this way -- what if by law you could only resell your car to the dealer you bought it from.  Would you get as good of a price.  Hah!

 

Price Gouging Laws: Allocating Goods in An Emergency To People Who Have Nothing Much Valuable to Do

During an emergency like a hurricane, many different categories of goods and services experience supply-demand shocks.  The shock may be because of a fall in supply (e.g. oil companies can't get gasoline into the area) or a spike in demand (e.g. for generators or plywood) or a combination of both.  In a free market, prices will rise to help match supply and demand.  Higher prices cause people with less valuable or more frivolous uses of the scarce goods to defer purchase, and can cause suppliers to expend extra effort to get product into the area, even diverting supplies from other areas.

When the government institutes price gouging laws in an emergency, the supply-demand mismatch that leads to the rising prices isn't magically eliminated.   First, without higher price incentives, all the incentives to get more supply into the area are lost.  Supply and demand under these regulations can only be matched by rationing demand, and typically this is through queuing and increasing search costs (e.g. driving around all over the place looking for a station that is open and has gas).  People who gain the limited supplies in this regime are thus those with a lot of time on their hands, where the marginal cost of queuing and driving around does not impose a lot of cost.  Think about a roofer scrambling to repair roofs after the a storm -- do they have time to have their trucks and crews sitting dormant in gas lines?  Thus, price gouging laws tend to ensure that scarce goods in an emergency flow to those with the least use for them.

How Scarce Goods Are Allocated In A World Without Prices

I can think of at least two ways goods are allocated when there are no prices

  • By use of force.  In modern societies, use of force is generally limited to the government so in practice this means that goods without prices will tend to flow to those with government power or who are cronies of those in power.  A great example were the special stores in the Soviet Union for party officials, but examples great and small abound today.  Here is one small one.
  • By queuing or time spent searching.  The examples of this are all around us, though they frequently are not strictly of things without prices but of things that have been priced far below their market clearing price.  I think back to my days queuing in physical lines (long before Ticketmaster and the Internet) for concert tickets that were not free but were priced so far below market clearing prices that one had to wait in long lines to get them.  The gasoline lines of the 1970's and the time spent driving around looking for a gas station that had gas is another example.  A more recent example would be long hospital emergency room lines created by people who get care "free" at emergency rooms.

It was in this context that I read this article on finding parking in New York City.  Residential street parking in NYC is an extremely valuable resource for which there is no monetary charge.  So there is a lot more demand than supply.  So people spend scores of hours a year searching and queuing for spaces.

To some extent, this time cost is sort of like a money cost -- when the cost gets too high in relation to the value people assign to having a car, people give up their cars and bring supply and demand in balance.  But while people may vary in the amount they value having a car, one perverse aspect of any queuing system is that it will tend to allocate goods to the people with the lowest marginal value for their time.   The lower the marginal value one assigns to one's time and labor, the more hours one might be willing to queue and search.

This is a large reason why I have always thought price controls during emergencies - e.g. the "no price gouging during hurricanes" sorts of laws - are particularly destructive.  In the aftermath of a disaster like a hurricane there will be those who are mainly just sitting at home waiting things out, wondering how many days they will get off work and school; and there will be those who have a ton to do - roof repairers, tree cutters, etc.  Think about gasoline, where there is often a temporary supply shortfall after a hurricane.  Prices should rise to bring things in balance but laws do not allow this, so queuing results.  Who is most able to afford to sit in these queues - the person who is just sitting around waiting for things to reopen or the person who is totally bombarded with work and needs to be 23 places at once?  Do we really want roof repairers sitting 2 hours in line for gas behind three teenagers** who had nothing else to do so their parents sent them to top of the tank "just in case"?

** Growing up in Houston through several hurricanes, I have been this teenager and assigned exactly this task.

AP Writes Over 1300 Words on the Loss Of Summer Jobs for Teens, Never Mentions Minimum Wage

If one is curious why the public is economically illiterate, look no further than our media.  The AP's Paul Wiseman managed to write 1300 words on the loss of teenage summer jobs, and even lists a series of what he considers to be the causes, without ever once mentioning the minimum wage or the substantial restrictions on teen employment in place in many states.  I do not know Paul Wiseman and so I will not guess at his motivations - whether ignorance or intentional obfuscation - but it is impossible to believe that this trend isn't in part due to the minimum wage.  As I wrote in the comments on the AZ Republic:

How is it possible to write over 1300 words on the disapearance of teenage summer jobs without once mentioning the minimum wage?

Two of the most substantial criticisms of the minimum wage are 1. it prices low-skilled workers out of the market (and there is no one more unskilled than an inexperienced teenager) and 2. it put 100% emphasis on pay as the only reward for work, while giving no credit for things like gaining valuable experience and skills. We clearly see both at work here, and it is likely no coincidence that we are seeing this article in the same year minimum wages went up by 25% in AZ, as they have in many other states.

By the way, in addition to the minimum wage, AZ (as has many other states) has established all sorts of laws to "protect" underrage workers by adding all sorts of special work rules and tracking requirements. In our business, which is a summer recreation business, we used to hire a lot of teenagers. Now we have a policy banning the hiring of them -- they are too expensive, they create too much liability, and the rules for their employment are too restrictive.

Without evidence, he treats it entirely as a supply problem, ie that teens are busy and are not looking for work. But the data do not support this.  The teen unemployment rate, defined as employment by teens actively looking for work, is up.  The workforce participation rate for teens is down, but the author has nothing but anecdotal evidence that this is a supply rather than a demand issue.  It could be because teens are busier or buried in their cell phones or whatever or it could be because they have given up looking for work.

My Philanthropy Idea for Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos is apparently crowdsourcing philanthropy ideas from the public at large.  I wish him well, and hope he finds some interesting and useful outlets for his excess cash.  I would however encourage him to find something whose model can grow and still remain robust.  I have found that there are many charitable activities that work great because of the passion and vision of one person, but are not easy to grow (many examples of local successful public school reforms fall in the same category).  If Jeff Bezos gives money, a charity is likely to see a huge increase in resources, both from Bezos's money and, because his decision is going to be public and high-profile, from money from others who donate because Bezos did.

Any decision he makes will likely be more to satisfy his inner need to be involved with something new and different rather than the optimal approach to help the maximum number of people.  Because he is presumably uniquely good a creating businesses, probably the best way for him to maximize the use of his money and time in improving the lives of a maximum number of people is to go start another business.  Certainly Amazon has created value for the rest of us that dwarfs the amount he has earned from it.  Taken another way, via Amazon he has hugely improved the lives of many, many people and in turn taken just a small commission for himself on this value created. He has lowered prices for us, he has saved us time, he has brought us many more choices.  He has created a platform for small businesses to sell their product that they could never duplicate themselves.  He has nearly single-handedly created the self-publishing business and provided an outlet for a ton of new authors (myself included).  He helps keep Apple and Google honest (and vice versa) from his competition with them.

Of course, he is likely tired of doing only this kind of stuff so he wants to do something more traditionally charitable, and that is fine, but I am exhausted with the notion that charity helps people but business and commerce do not.  Learning from this, one decision criteria might be that he looks for something that not only needs his money, but needs his expertise and vision as well.  The latter is likely way more valuable than the former.

If I had a billion dollars for philanthropy, I might start a new university with a totally new approach.  I would call Brian Caplan and I'd see if we could build a curriculum and an entire educational approach out of engaging multiple perspectives on each issue.   Admissions essay question #1:  "Tell us about a time you encountered a perspective or opinion on an issue very different from you own and tell us how you responded."

 

How Governments Break Markets: 1. Restrict Supply 2. Subsidize Demand 3. Declare Market Failure When Prices Soar

Restrict supply, subsidize demand, and then declare a market failure.  That is how the government has jacked prices through the ceiling in higher education, health care, and housing:

Oregon is responding to its housing affordability crisis by doing all the wrong things. The crisis is due to a shortage in supply which in turn is due to urban-growth boundaries.

So the legislature legalized inclusionary zoning ordinances and Portland passed one. Such ordinances require developers to provide a certain percent of the homes they build to low-income people at below-market rates. In response, developers are building fewer homes, exacerbating the supply problem. City officials “hope the slowdown is temporary,” but that hasn’t proven to be the case in other cities that passed inclusionary zoning ordinances.

Now the state legislature is considering a bill to provide $5 million to help first-time home buyers make down payments on homes. This will have the effect of increasing demand, which will only drive up prices even more.