Today's Quote of the Day...

…is from this EconLog post by David Henderson (emphasis added):

If you think that the government should provide truly public goods, that is, goods that are non-excludable and non-rival in consumption, then you should think that government should provide the public good of preventing an asteroid from hinting earth. Here’s the problem: The U.S. government, which has access to more resources than any other government on earth, is almost certainly underinvesting in the technology to deflect or destroy asteroids. Just as private actors don’t have much of an incentive to produce truly public goods, neither do government actors.

JMM: In standard economic treatment of market failures, governments are treated as something of a deus ex machina. They can just come in costlessly and effortlessly to solve any problem by applying just the right remedy. On paper, it’s a simple enough story. But what incentives do governments face to provide such solutions (assuming away knowledge problems)? It’s unlikely they face incentives from voters. Market failures tend to be characterized by free-rider problems, and free-riders do not suddenly want to start paying, even if they benefit. Furthermore, the problems are often dispersed, making them hard to observe. Perhaps they are motivated by “doing the right thing,” and that’s all fine and dandy, but are we ready to assume all judges, bureaucrats, and politicians are purely motivated by the Greater Good?

On top of the difficulties of identifying a true market failure, we need to keep in mind the incentives people face.

Are Public Goods Necessarily Undersupplied?

In economics, public goods are goods which are non-rival (a person’s use of the good does not reduce the ability of another person to use the same good, eg listening to the radio) and non-excludable (people who do not pay cannot easily be prevented from using the good, eg when a burglar is arrested, everyone in a neighborhood benefits, not just those who paid for the security service). Because of this definition of public goods, we tend to teach undergrads that public goods will therefore necessarily be undersupplied, that in a free market the amount of the good produced is less than the socially optimal level of production. As such, government may be able to step in and, though use of taxation, correct this underproduction (see, for example, Page 369 of Modern Principles of Economics by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok).

But is it necessarily the case that public goods are necessarily undersupplied in a free market? It does not seem clear to me that it is.

The first question we need to ask is “as compared to what?” What is the free market outcome undersupplied compared to? It is compared to what would be the socially optimal level where everyone who benefits pays the cost (the intuition here is this: if an individual can earn more producing something, they will produce more of it, all else held equal. Supply curves slope upward).

Now we need to ask: is this an attainable alternative? In a free market setting, it does not appear to be so. After all, as we argued above, given the characteristics of a public good, they will tend to be undersupplied. Getting people to pay for their use is difficult. A more technical way of saying this is the transaction costs are high. The marginal benefit of receiving the payments exceeds the marginal cost of obtaining those payments. In a zero-transaction cost world, the socially optimal level would be easily obtained. There is some bargain that could be reached where those who enjoy the benefit without paying the cost (free rider problem) could be incentivized to pay the cost and production would increase. This is just an application of the Coase Theorem.

If, however, as posited by the public goods problem, the transaction costs of solving the free rider problem are too high, then the socially optimal level is not necessarily an attainable alternative. It’s a fantasy alternative. Thus, it is an irrelevant comparison. It’d like saying “I’d be better off with a fairy godmother who grants wishes than needing to work for my well-being.” Sure, but given faeries don’t exist, that’s a meaningless choice. The choice is between working and living well or not working and living poorly.

If the socially optimal outcome of the model is not a real alternative, then the situation is already at an optimal outcome. There is no undersupply. Thus, public goods are not necessarily undersupplied.

A note of caution: none of what I just wrote should be taken to mean that the free market outcome is necessarily the best outcome. There may be better alternatives. Government (or some other non-market force) may be able to achieve an alternative arrangement that is superior to the free market outcome. For example, better defining property rights can lead to less undersupply of public goods. But in movement from one alternative to the other, we need to consider the transaction costs. Do the benefits of moving from the market alternative to the non-market alternative outweigh the costs?

With this article, I reiterate a point made by Ronald Coase, Carl Dahlman, Harold Demsetz, and many others before me: transaction costs matter. We need to compare attainable alternatives and consider how institutions actually work as opposed to an idealized version of them. Comparing a market outcome to an idealized, but unobtainable, alternative does not provide any guidance to our thought.

The Economist as an Impartial Spectator

This upcoming Tuesday I will be giving a talk at the GMU Econ Society entitled “The Economist as an Impartial Spectator: Re-examining Welfare Economics.” The talk will be from 5:30-7:30 (as part of their general meeting) in Hub Meeting Room 2. If you are in the area, come by and say hi!

Jon Murphy
Today's Quote of the Day...

…is from this 1997 Reason Magazine interview with Ronald Coase:

Reason: Can you give us an example of what you consider to be a good regulation and then an example of what you consider to be a not-so-good regulation?

Coase: This is a very interesting question because one can't give an answer to it. When I was editor of The Journal of Law and Economics, we published a whole series of studies of regulation and its effects. Almost all the studies--perhaps all the studies--suggested that the results of regulation had been bad, that the prices were higher, that the product was worse adapted to the needs of consumers, than it otherwise would have been. I was not willing to accept the view that all regulation was bound to produce these results. Therefore, what was my explanation for the results we had? I argued that the most probable explanation was that the government now operates on such a massive scale that it had reached the stage of what economists call negative marginal returns. Anything additional it does, it messes up. But that doesn't mean that if we reduce the size of government considerably, we wouldn't find then that there were some activities it did well. Until we reduce the size of government, we won't know what they are.

JMM: Ronald Coase’s careful study of the data through the lens of theory is important for us to observe. Coase was unwilling to move to the conclusion that, just because the majority (if not all) the government regulation led to undesirable outcomes, it must therefore be true that all government regulation is necessarily harmful. He points out another answer that is contained within the very models used in the analyses: negative marginal returns.

Data cannot “speak for themselves.” Data without theory have no context and thus mislead. The man who looks only at data and ignores theory is not practicing science, but rather scientism.

From Spontaneous Order to Codification

A while ago, I did a blog post on the “Hayek Memorial Pathway,” one of a series of pathways that have developed on campus though people’s actions. Well, they’re doing a bunch of construction on campus and part of it includes paving the Hayek Memorial Pathway.

Some years from now, people will forget that the pathway was one unpaved and unplanned, that it was only by the constant movement of thousands of students that the path at all formed in the first place. All the “government” (i.e., George Mason University) did was codify what people already did.

Socialists and central planners often point out various institutions and state proudly “look at the good government is doing!” What they fail to see, however, is the spontaneous orders that predated those codifications. For example, they fail to see the development of the law that legislation merely codified. Or the development of money that legislation merely codified. These institutions were not part of government planning, but rather of government codification of already-in-action plans.

Likewise, this is why I disagree with “one-drop” libertarians (ie, those who oppose anything and everything government does, insisting it must inherently be inefficient). Not every institution the government codifies is inherently inefficient. When they merely codify what people are already doing, then that may not change the efficiency at all (indeed, given certain conditions, it may improve efficiency). GMU paving the Hayek Memorial Pathway does not in and of itself imply the pathway is in any way less a spontaneous order or less efficient.

Today's Quote of the Day...

…comes from the Preface of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes: A Dungeons and Dragons Supplement:

Perhaps it’s no accident that this book contains Mordenkainen’s first expression of the Balance. In here, he starts to describe the multiverse as a collection of opposing forces, each one trying to tip the scales of fate in its favor. But where does that leave us—all the soldiers in all these wars? Surely for the soldiers of all sides, a war is better when it is over.

Are you a soldier? What war do you fight? Whose side are you in? Law or Chaos? Evil or Good? Can you be sure that Mordenkainen would judge you as you judge yourself? When he puts his thumb on the scales to preserve the Balance, can you be certain that the weight of that finger will not crush you?

JMM: Protectionists often like to argue they are merely trying to get “a level playing field.” But, just like Mordenkainen putting his finger on the scale to restore the Balance, many people are crushed in the mean time. To the protectionist, they are simply dismissed as merely casualties that need to be sacrificed in the name of The Balance Of Trade. They are merely pawns to be sacrificed on their chessboard of politics.

And sometimes there are those who support The Balance but then find themselves crushed by the finger. Whirlpool, for example, who demanded tariffs in the name of fairness only to find themselves get crushed by the very fingers they demanded balance the scale.

Beware the sugar-coated words of those claiming to maintain some Balance; for those of us who live in the real word, who do not have the privilege of playing God, will often find themselves poisoned by those same words.

On the Presumption of Liberty

“[Harvey] Weinstein’s behavior is certainly dreadful, but even dreadful people have the right to a criminal defense. Indeed, probably most people who are charged with serious crimes, whether guilty or not, are not nice people, and many are moral reprobates. Yet forcing the government to prove guilt before tossing our fellow citizens in jail—even the reprobates among us—is the mark of a free people.”

This quote is taken from John McGinnis’ fine blog post The Campus Mob Comes for the Presumption of Innocence. A presumption of innocence permeates our justice system: the government has the burden of proof to convict. What’s more, this burden of proof is extremely high. The prosecution does not just need to produce some theory that the defendant might have committed the crime. Even a preponderance of evidence is not enough to take away a man’s liberty. What is necessary is the government needs to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Until that threshold is met in the eyes of a jury, the defendant is presumed innocent.

A presumption of innocence has a parallel in the presumption of liberty. The presumption of liberty holds that in assessing government policy we must meet a high burden of proof in order to endorse a reform that reduces liberty. There may be occasions where such intervention is desirable, sometimes even for overall liberty, but the mere possibility of such exceptions does not in and of itself justify the exception. A burden of proof must be met.

No liberal society can suffer the lack of a presumption of liberty. As McGinnis says above, the presumption of innocence, even to moral reprobates, is the mark of a free people. Likewise, the presumption of liberty, even if dealing with moral reprobates, is the mark of a free people. Exceptions can be made, such as the moral reprobate being thrown in prison after being shown beyond a reasonable doubt he committed a crime, but they must be exceptions rather than general rules.

Trade cannot be kept as free as it is without a presumption of liberty. The “free trade = fair trade” and “only reciprocal trade is free trade” claims are damaging to liberal society, because they weaken the presumption of liberty. Managed trade, where freedom to exchange is treated as an exception rather than a rule, spells illiberalism. The presumption of liberty must stand.

Trump's Trade War Rests Heavily on the Sunk Cost Fallacy

The trade war of the past year, and the rumblings of it on the campaign trail in 2016, are in support of a singular message from the President: “Make America Great Again!” By imposing tariffs on friend and foe alike, the idea is to force manufacturing jobs from other countries back to the United States. This scheme will supposedly bring back the halcyon days.

However, this argument rests on a logical fallacy: the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy is when one considers unrecoverable costs in their decision making. For example, someone goes to the movies and pays $10 for a ticket. The movie is terrible and they are trying to decide whether to stay or leave. Some will say “well, I paid the $10 so I might as well stay.” But that is fallacious reasoning. The choice being faced is whether to stay or go, not whether to pay $10 and stay or go. The $10 is already gone. The person will not get that money back; it’s property of someone else now.

The situation is similar with trade. Even if we take the short-run findings of Autor, Dorn, and Hanson at face value, even if we take the assumptions of Trump et al, that trade has made America weak, it does not logically follow that tariffs are a preferable option or that bringing back those jobs is desirable. The situation has changed. The effects of international trade are sunk costs; they do not factor into future decision making. The question is not whether or not tariffs can bring jobs back or return us to some virtuous past. The question is whether or not, given current conditions and margins along which people adjust, are tariffs the best trade-off?

Economic activity is dynamic. It evolves, just like any ecosystem. It is shaped by the people within it as much as it shapes their behavior. Just as returning Earth to a super-hot primordial period (or an ice age) in order to achieve some goal may benefit certain elements but destroy most others, so would tariffs mess with the economic ecosystem.

Merely closing off trade is not the answer, even if we are to (erroneously) assume trade is harmful. People have adjusted around it, and the cure may very well be worse than the disease.

Today's Quote of the Day...

…is from page 227 of the 6th edition of Robert Cooter and Thomas Ulen’s textbook Law and Economics:

In communist countries like the former Soviet Union, planners could not get the information that they needed to manage an increasingly complex economy, which caused the economy to deteriorate. An increasingly complex economy must rely increasingly upon markets, which decentralize information. In this respect, making law resembles making commodities. As the economy grows in complexity, central officials cannot get the information that they need to make precise regulations. Instead of centralized lawmaking, the modern economy needs decentralized lawmaking analogous to markets.

JMM: Oftentimes, complexity is given as a reason to justify increased regulation. But, just like with markets, more complexity means more knowledge, wisdom, and information are needed to formulate such regulations. What’s more, as complexity increases, the costs and likelihood of systematic errors increases. Law develops, emerges, and evolves not through some central planning process, but rather in the same manner as the market process: through challenges, trial and error, and good old-fashioned human ingenuity. Law is, like the economy, a matter of human action but not human design.

For more on this point, I highly recommend Bruno Leoni’s Freedom and the Law and Bruce Benson’s The Enterprise of Law

Jon MurphyLaw & Economics
The Presumption of Liberty in Adam Smith

As I discussed the other day, Adam Smith had a presumption of liberty that permeates his “liberal system.” There were exceptions that could be made, naturally, but these exceptions mere existence did not in and of themselves justify the sovereign to act. Consider one such example discussed in the Wealth of Nations (emphasis added):

Were all nations to follow the liberal system of free exportation and free importation, the different states into which a great continent was divided would so far resemble the different provinces of a great empire. As among the different provinces of a great empire the freedom of the inland trade appears, both from reason and experience, not only the best palliative of a dearth, but the most effectual preventative of a famine; so would the freedom of the exportation and importation trade be among the different states into which a great continent was divided. The larger the continent, the easier the communication through all the different parts of it, both by land and by water, the less would any one particular part of it ever be exposed to either of these calamities, the scarcity of any one country being more likely to be relieved by the plenty of some other. But very few countries have entirely adopted this liberal system. The freedom of the corn trade is almost every-where more or less restrained, and, in many countries, is confined by such absurd regulations as frequently aggravate the unavoidable misfortune of a dearth into the dreadful calamity of a famine. The demand of such countries for corn may frequently become so great and so urgent that a small state in their neighbourhood, which happened at the same time to be labouring under some degree of dearth, could not venture to supply them without exposing itself to the like dreadful calamity. The very bad policy of one country may thus render it in some measure dangerous and imprudent to establish what would otherwise be the best policy in another. The unlimited freedom of exportation, however, would be much less dangerous in great states, in which the growth being much greater, the supply could seldom be much affected by any quantity of corn that was likely to be exported. In a Swiss canton, or in some of the little states of Italy, it may perhaps sometimes be necessary to restrain the exportation of corn. In such great countries as France or England it scarce ever can.

Page 539.39

In short, there may be good reason to limit exports of food to a neighboring country if they are so famished that they would draw away local food production due to higher prices. However, this potential exception does not in and of itself justify the prohibitions. Smith goes on to say (emphasis added):

To hinder, besides, the farmer from sending his goods at all times to the best market is evidently to sacrifice the ordinary laws of justice to an idea of public utility, to a sort of reasons of state; an act of legislative authority which ought to be exercised only, which can be pardoned only in cases of the most urgent necessity. 

Page 539.39

The act of interfering in trade is a sacrifice of the ordinary laws of justice, the laws the sovereign is sworn to uphold in the liberal system of Adam Smith (for the list of sovereign duties, see Pg. 687.51). Thus, Smith reasons, the sovereign should only undertake these exceptions, not when it is merely justified, but when it is “urgent[ly] necessary.”

Another example of this high burden of proof exists in his discussion of the national defense exception to free trade. Smith writes:

There seem, however, to be two cases in which it will generally be advantageous to lay some burden upon foreign for the encouragement of domestic industry.

The first is, when some particular sort of industry is necessary for the defence of the country. The defence of Great Britain, for example, depends very much upon the number of its sailors and shipping. The act of navigation, therefore, very properly endeavours to give the sailors and shipping of Great Britain the monopoly of the trade of their own country in some cases by absolute prohibitions and in others by heavy burdens upon the shipping of foreign countries.

Pg. 463.23-24

However, Smith goes on to say this mere justification is not enough (emphasis added):

When the act of navigation was made, though England and Holland were not actually at war, the most violent animosity subsisted between the two nations. It had begun during the government of the Long Parliament, which first framed this act, and it broke out soon after in the Dutch wars during that of the Protector and of Charles the Second. It is not impossible, therefore, that some of the regulations of this famous act may have proceeded from national animosity. They are as wise, however, as if they had all been dictated by the most deliberate wisdom. National animosity at that particular time aimed at the very same object which the most deliberate wisdom would have recommended, the diminution of the naval power of Holland, the only naval power which could endanger the security of England.

Page 464.30

The acts of navigation, which were indeed a violation of the ordinary laws of justice, were justified and proper (note this word “properly” appears in his initial justification in paragraph 24) in this particular case because war with Holland was inevitable and imminent. National defense, then, is not a broad exception to the liberal system of free importation and free exportation, but rather a very specific exception in the face of imminent national danger.

The duties of the sovereign in Smith are threefold: defend the nation from outside invasion, enforce the rules of justice domestically, and provide public works that are necessary and proper for the nation. These actions imply a presumption of liberty within the liberal system. The sovereign certainly has the right as a sovereign to perform certain actions that may violate liberty, but this power is one that must be executed with propriety as it violates the role of the sovereign as administrator of justice. Violations of the most ordinary laws of justice should not be undertaken lightly, and as these above quotes show (and many others throughout the Wealth of Nations, Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Lectures on Jurisprudence, not to mention his own correspondences), mere justification for a sovereign act is not enough to authorize such an act.

Economic Growth and the Division of Labor

Tyler Broker, the Free Expression and Privacy Fellow at U. Arizona Law School (also my friend), has a very good article at Above the Law. There is much to like in Tyler’s article, but I do want to pick one important nit. Tyler writes:

Indeed, in near-Earth space one can easily visualize how the best aspects of capitalism will be utilized to lift humanity into a new age. Capitalism operates best when markets are allowed to continually grow and expand. This is in part why a capitalist system has been so successful (for some), here in the United States. This country began with 13 colonies and followed with continual territorial and population expansion for the next 200 and counting years. Of course, this expansion came at the great conquest and exploitation of human labor, including enslaving whole civilizations and generations of human beings. An unfathomable wrong yet to be fully acknowledged, appreciated in the scope of barbarity, or morally corrected.

Tyler is correct that markets are best when they can grow and expand. However, Tyler’s comment suggests this growth is in physical territory and labor. While those resources are important, they are not the only thing. Markets also expand by taking advantage of the division of labor and specialization. Early on in his famous book, Adam Smith shows how specializing allows a pin factory to become more productive. When people divide their labor, they can become more productive. This means they produce more with fewer (or the same number of) inputs.

However, the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. On a deserted island, Robinson Crusoe cannot specialize. When Friday comes, he can. If more people can come to the island, Robinson can specialize more and more.

Expanding the market can mean, as Tyler discusses above, expanding land and labor. But it can also occur by trade. If the world were to discover an alien race beyond the stars and (assuming transaction costs overcome) began trading with them, that would expand our markets.

More land and labor can help markets flourish, but imperialism need not be an end-point for capitalism (I do not think Tyler is suggesting it is, but there are some out there who do argue imperialism is the only way to sustain capitalism). Rather, simply opening up trade, markets can expand, and prosperity can grow.

Adam Smith and the Nirvana Fallacy

Adam Smith was no anarchist. Indeed, at the time he was writing, he was a fairly conservative liberal (interesting that those of us who follow Adam Smith’s teachings are considered radical). Adam Smith did have a strong presumption of liberty, but this presumption was not absolute. Under certain conditions, a jural superior (such as a sovereign or magistrate) could violate this presumption of liberty.

But Smith’s analysis did not stop there. He also explored the nature of the jural superior. While Smith does have a science of the legislator, he also repeatedly emphasized that jural superiors are also human beings like us.

To give one such example, in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith writes on how it is a natural human reaction to feel resentment and revenge when once does something against us. Indeed, not rendering gratitude where gratitude is due can cause this passion to arise (see Part 2, and especially Section 2). This jealousy can cause us to act in a harmful and unjust manner; beneficence cannot be extracted by force. But, while Smith is examining jural equal relations here, he also applies this same sentiment to national governments and legislators. In The Wealth of Nations, when Smith is discussing a potential use of tariffs to reduce/eliminate tariffs by other governments, he begins by stating that, when one nation raises tariffs on another “[r]evenge…naturally dictates retaliation, and that we should impose the like duties and prohibitions upon the importation of some or all of their manufactures into ours. Nations, accordingly, seldom fail to retaliate in this manner“ (Page 467.38). Revenge, that natural emotion according to Smith, is applied to national governments here and not just individuals. Smith goes on to tell of a trade war between the Dutch and French which became a shooting war.

After this story, Smith lays out his potential exception to the aforementioned presumption of liberty (Emphasis added):

There may be good policy in retaliations of this kind, when there is a probability that they will procure the repeal of the high duties or prohibitions complained of. The recovery of a great foreign market will generally more than compensate the transitory inconveniency of paying dearer during a short time for some sorts of goods. 

Page 467.39

However, he immediately follows it up with a reminder that we are dealing with people here. The science of a legislator may recommend this policy, but we must remember we are dealing with people with passions, not necessarily a dispassionate legislator:

To judge whether such retaliations are likely to produce such an effect does not, perhaps, belong so much to the science of a legislator, whose deliberations ought to be governed by general principles which are always the same, as to the skill of that insidious and crafty animal, vulgarly called a statesman or politician, whose councils are directed by the momentary fluctuations of affairs.

Page 467.39

He then brings us back to the presumption of liberty:

When there is no probability that any such repeal can be procured, it seems a bad method of compensating the injury done to certain classes of our people to do another injury ourselves, not only to those classes, but to almost all the other classes of them. his may no doubt give encouragement to some particular class of workmen among ourselves, and by excluding some of their rivals, may enable them to raise their price in the home-market. Those workmen, however, who suffered by our neighbours prohibition will not be benefited by ours. On the contrary, they and almost all the other classes of our citizens will thereby be obliged to pay dearer than before for certain goods. Every such law, therefore, imposes a real tax upon the whole country, not in favour of that particular class of workmen who were injured by our neighbours prohibition, but of some other class.

Page 467.39

By starting with a reminder that revenge is a natural passion within our breast and a story about a war of jealousy between two nations, Smith argues that the probability that higher domestic tariffs will lead to the reduction of foreign tariffs is not particularly high.

Smith avoids the trap that many economists after him would fall into: the Nirvana Fallacy. A term first coined by the late Harold Demsetz, the Nirvana Fallacy is when one compares an imperfect current situation to an idealized alternative. Mid-Century economists often made this mistake by pointing to market failures and justifying some policy to correct these failures. Public Choice economics expanded on the Nirvana Fallacy by assuming government actors are just like market actors. Smith did not fall into this trap, and thus his presumption of liberty was extremely strong in his eyes.

The fun thing about reading Adam Smith is seeing insights in his work that would, for one reason or another, be lost to economists only to be discovered centuries later. The example above of the Nirvana Fallacy is one, but Smith also had many insights into Law & Economics.

Adam Smith had a presumption of liberty, and while that presumption was not absolute, he was under no impression that the mere existence of a justification for policy X or Y was in any way sufficient to create policy X or Y. After all: “They whom we call politicians are not the most remarkable men in the world for probity and punctuality” (Lectures on Jurisprudence, Pg. 539).

Today's Quote of the Day

Comes from Ball State University economist Steve Horwitz, who writes on Facebook:

The question remains: why do we want to leave "essential services" in the hands of people operating under institutional incentives that put their self-interest at cross-purposes with providing the essential services in question? When your whole manner of raising and allocating funds is completely separate from actually providing those services, you are at the mercy of third parties with their own interests at stake.

Food is pretty essential, but Kroger doesn't "shut down."
Clothing is pretty essential, but Lands End/Eddie Bauer etc don't "shut down."
Amazon doesn't "shut down."

If you really think services are "essential," why would you leave them in the hands of people whose incentives are primarily, if not exclusively, political, rather than oriented toward service provision?

The great virtue of the market process is it turns self-interest toward the greater good. The great vice of politics is it turns self-interest against the common good.

Jon Murphypublic choice
Market Failure, Epiphany, and $20 Bills on Sidewalks

There’s a joke economists like to tell:

Two economists are walking down the street. One spots a $20 bill on the sidewalk in front of them. He bends down to pick it up. “What are you doing?” says the other. “I am picking up this $20 bill,” says the first. “Nonsense! If that were a real $20 bill, it would have already been picked up!”

Economists like to tell this joke as an effort to demonstrate that profit opportunities tend to be quickly accounted for in a market: if there was indeed a $20 bill on the sidewalk, then the “market” is “out of equilibrium” and someone would have recognized this, picked up the bill, and the “equilibrium” would have been restored.

But there is a subtle assumption in this joke, namely that the two economists would have been aware of an opportunity to pick up the $20 bill. There is some behavior they are doing (such as paying attention to the sidewalk) that allows them to be susceptible to notice this profit opportunity. Perhaps everyone else walking down the street had their eyes upward doing window shopping.

Perhaps a literary tale will better tell this story: “The Verger” by W. Somerset Maugham. In the Verger, the verger of St. Peter’s was sacked for being illiterate. In his sadness, we wandered the neighborhood and fancied a cigarette. He noticed no tobacco store existed and alighted upon the idea to open his own store in the neighborhood. It was a roaring success (this story is recounted in Dan Klein’s book Knowledge and Coordination, and much of this blog post is inspired by that book).

Many people walked the streets the verger did. Why was the verger able to notice the metaphorical $20 bill on the sidewalk and not the many others who were walking? It appears it was because he was in a position to notice this particular $20 bill. He was in a certain frame of mind that allowed him to notice this particular “market failure,” this profit opportunity.

Dan Klein, in the aforementioned book, calls this form of discovery “epiphany.” This has an interesting implication for regulatory economics in that market failure needs to be “discovered.” The “market failure” in the verger (that the quantity supplied of tobacco products was less than the quantity demanded) was discovered only when the verger was in the right frame of mind to notice it and in a position to reduce transaction costs (he made have had passing thoughts in the past on the lack of a tobacconist, but given his job as a verger, did not possess the resources, such as time, to act on this market failure). Thus, market failures are something that arises from the market process. But likewise, the solution to this market failure had itself to be discovered. It was discovered in an alert mind: this street needs a tobacconist!

That both the failure and solution need to be discovered gives us great pause when considering law & economics. Mere welfare analysis does not capture this discovery process. Indeed, your standard economic analysis assumes all knowledge is known by all actors. Once we realize that such knowledge is dispersed and cannot easily be obtained, the whole concept of activist government to “fix” market failures becomes extremely shaky to say the least.

On the Optimal Tariff and the Law of Demand

In his 1987 Economic Review article detailing the history of optimal tariffs, Thomas Humphrey writes:

“[The optimal tariff model] assumes unrealistically (1) that foreign countries will not retaliate with tariffs of their own, (2) that elasticities of supply and demand in foreign trade are not so large in the long run as to render the tariff ineffective, (3) that the optimum tariff rate can be precisely identified and skillfully administered, and (4) that politicians can resist pressures to raise tariff rates above the optimum level” 

All four of these objections of the optimal tariff model are difficult to overcome when addressing the model as a policy procedure. I have written on some of these other points before (as have many people far smarter than I). However, I want to focus on point #2 and I’ll try to keep this not wonky.

That the optimal tariff model depends on elasticities of supply and demand is not controversial. Indeed, that is how the calculation of the tariff works. However, given condition (2) above, we can see the optimal tariff is, at best, a short-run policy. This follows from the Law of Demand.

Most people tend to think of the Law of Demand in its common form: all else held equal, an increase in the price of a good will reduce the quantity demanded of that good. But there is a second Law of Demand: the longer a price remains relatively high, the more elastic the demand for a good becomes.

Given that the goal of a tariff is to increase the relative price of a good, then as long as the tariff remains in place, the more elastic demand for that good becomes. Indeed, if the tariff remains in place and, again, everything else held equal, over enough time, the tariff could cause the demand curve for a good to become perfectly elastic. A perfectly elastic demand curve would indicate no consumer welfare gains from the trade. The elimination of consumer welfare would then mean that the tariff is a net welfare loss for the country in question. So, an optimal tariff cannot persist in the long run, only in the short run given the Second Law of Demand.

Some might object by saying: “But wait, Jon, you sly and handsome devil! That would just mean the optimal tariff would need to be reduced. There’s no reason to think the tariff would eventually become a net welfare loss.”

Indeed, it may very well be that some benevolent government can milk the tariff for everything its worth by constantly adjusting the optimal tariff as the elasticities change. However, this is where public choice comes into play. As Gordon Tullock discussed in 1975, government support of firms is very difficult to remove. Domestic producers have capitalized on the gains the tariff has provided them. To remove the tariff is not to eat up “extra normal” profit for monopolizing firms, but rather to eat into normal profit for them. These firms are legitimately harmed, profit-wise, by the removal or alternations of these protections like an optimal tariff. Any adjustment to an optimal tariff, even if demanded by the economic scenario is likely to be fought tooth-and-nail by affected firms. The resulting stagnation will likely result in an optimal tariff that is too high! Any short-run gains from the optimal tariff (assuming all the above conditions are met) would likely be eaten up by this un-optimal tariff that results from the changing elasticity and lack of change in the statuary tariff.

In a general-equilibrium theoretical framework, an optimal tariff makes perfect sense. But, once public choice enters the fray, the reasonableness of an optimal tariff goes out the window. And, as my professor Garett Jones likes to say: in a knockdown fight between general equilibrium and public choice, public choice wins every time.

HT to Dallas Weaver, whose comment on this Cafe Hayek blog post inspired this post.

Who Are the Job Creators?

We sometimes hear about job creation in the economy and typically this is referenced toward business owners. Jeff Bezos created X number of jobs with Amazon, or some new company will move to an area and create Y number of jobs. There is a sense where these entrepreneurs created jobs since their actions are bringing the jobs into being.

But there is another way to consider who creates jobs: to whom does the job benefit? A job exists in a market because it looks to fill a hole, to satisfy some end. My mechanic has a job because I need him to work on my car. My grocer has a job because I want her to feed me. My doctor has a job because I want her to give me medical advice. In this sense, the consumers are the job creators.

A productive job exists to serve some end that someone is willing to pay for. A job that does not serve some end ceases to exist. To the extent entrepreneurs are creating jobs, it is because they are seeking to satisfy some desire; the “demand” for the service has created the jobs.

Jon MurphyEconomic Thought
Institutions Matter, Even for Monopolies

Noah Smith has a rather interesting new article at Bloomberg detailing new research and proposals on regulating monopolies. I have written on the dangers of knee-jerk regulation as a solution to various market failures and others have written on the dangers of the perfectly competitive model to measure market failure. However, there is a different flaw I want to discuss with Smith’s article:

The big question Smith needs to ask is this: what are the institutional arrangements that allow for the monopoly (granting that the effects discussed, lower wages and higher prices, are due to the monopoly) to arise and persist? Monopolies are not necessarily a permanent fixture in industries; they always face competition (think of once “dominant” firms that are now on the garbage bin of history: Sears, Blockbuster, Myspace, etc). Monopolies theoretically arise under only a handful of situations and are constantly feeling the pressure of competition. Why is it some of these firms can now effectively ignore competition and suppress wages?

Smith blames lax anti-trust regulation and implicitly blames low minimum wages and unions. (The irony, of course, of using these last two options to “solve” monopoly issues is that both minimum wage and unions are themselves means of building monopoly power). However, the issue may (and, I’d wager, likely is) not one of lax regulation but rather excessive regulation. Regulation, by its nature, restricts competition. Granted, some restrictions may be desirable (eg, a prohibition on using violence to conduct business), but that does not change the fact that regulations are designed to restrict competition and this provides some level of monopoly power to firms. So, what are these institutional arrangements? What legislation is in place? Occupational licensing? Tariffs? Environmental Regulations? All these things raise the fixed costs of suppliers, and when fixed costs rise, and subsequently barriers of entry imposes, one should not be surprised when monopolies arise.

By not considering the institutional framework in which economic activity takes place, Smith is mistaking symptoms for causes. Regulation, even if we ignore the public choice, law & econ, and behavioral economics concerns laid out in my linked article, would at best be treating these symptoms rather than the causes of monopolies. Indeed, ignoring institutional arrangements may lead to a regulatory action that worsens, rather than helps, the problem.

Whenever some “market failure” is supposed, the first question in any analysts mind should be “why did this outcome happen?” That is the line of inquiry for the economist, for the lawyer, for the scientist. We assume too much by ignoring that all important question.

Turning Wizards into Teachers

Competition turns wizards into teachers.

-Roger Koppl and E. James Cowan, quoted in “Expert Failure” pg 91

Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under a bushel, but on a lamp stand; and it gives light unto all that are in the house.

The Gospel of Matthew, 5:15

In my spare time, I have been reading The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. They’re dime-store paperback fantasy novels about a crime-fighting wizard in modern-day Chicago (highly recommend). In the second book of the series, Fool Moon, the titular character, Harry Dresden, is having a conversation with his subconscious while passed out from blood loss. He is reflecting on the death of his apprentice and attack of his partner/friend Lt. Murphy (no relation) at the hands of a werewolf. His subconscious reflects: “perhaps you should spend less time playing ‘shepherd’ and more time playing ‘coach.’ Ready [Lt. Murphy] for what she faces.”

This is a profound insight into the role of the teacher and mentor. Teachers can take on two main roles: that of the wizard, guiding people toward certain ideas or conclusions while hiding the details behind the veil of magic; or that of the “coach”, where people are prepared to think on what they are learning and all the magic is stripped away.

This seems doubly true in the economics profession, where we can hide behind complex mathematical models as a method to display brilliance. Sort of a “look how smart I am! I must be right because my math is correct!” attitude. That attitude can be conveyed by professors onto the students who memorize endless models on maximizing welfare, finding tangent points on curves, or endless proofs that cost-minimization is the same as profit-maximization. These students may learn these phrases and formulae, and indeed chant them like the nonsense phrases of a wizard casing a spell, but do not understand a lick of what is behind them, what the magic really is.

I think this outcome is a failure of teaching economics. I see my role of the teacher is to strip away the mathematics and look at what is really going on. What really is “marginal analysis”? What really are “indifference curves”? Why do we think with the tools we do? Why do we use homo economicus? etc. In other words, I want to teach “The Economic Way of Thinking” rather than calculus or algebra (let the math teachers do that, I say!). I want the students to understand the world they live in.

Our jobs as economists, as experts, is not to hide our light under a bushel but rather to share that light with the world. I want to start with my students. And I hope, by stripping away the magic, I can help them see who really are the wizards and who are just people who glued stars onto the dunce caps.

Jon Murphy
Do Not Fear Monopolies: Competition is a Process

CNBC reports that a large deposit of rare earth metals, enough to supply current world demand for nearly 1,000 years, was discovered off the coast of Japan.

Presently, almost all of the world’s rare earth metal consumption is supplied by China. This effective monopoly on rare-earths have caused some to wring their hands in fear of Chinese dominance and calls for protectionists tariffs soon followed. While this seems like a classic national-defense argument for tariffs, and a textbook case for monopoly regulation, the result of Japan indicates why fears of monopolies are overblown.

From the article:

Japan started seeking its own rare-earth metals after China held back shipments in 2010 during a dispute over islands both countries claim, Reuters reported in 2014. As a major electronics manufacturer, Japan needs rare earths for components.

Separately, China held back exports of certain types of rare earths starting 2010, which caused prices to jump by as much as 10 times — further pushing Japan to seek other sources, according to the Journal.

The Chinese government attempted to flex their “market power” on Japanese consumers in order to get some policy change (again, a classic example of protectionist fears). However, simple price theory predicted why the strategy would fail: Demand curves slope downward and (subsequently) supply curves slope upward. When China raised the relative price of rare earth metals for Japan, Japan looked for other sources and indeed discovered this massive deposit.

Currently, the deposit is too expensive to mine profitably given current prices. But, if China were to try and flex their “market power” again, they would quickly find another competitor in Japan (indeed, when China attempted to raise prices on rare earth metals through their role of a monopoly in 2008, it failed miserably as mothballed mines in other countries came back online).

Monopolies are not perpetual things. Relatively high prices induce people to enter the market (note this is true even when there are high barriers to entry). Relatively high prices induce technological innovation (like fracking in oil). If a monopolist seeks to exploit “market power,” then we will find people who respond. The Law of Demand remains in effect.

In short, I do not fear monopolies, even one that dominates like China and rare earths, because competition is a process, not a static state of affairs.

Jon MurphyPrice Theory