Archive for June, 2007

Jun 06 2007

China makes, the world takes

Made in China – The Atlantic MonthlyShenzhen

Here’s a great slide show and narrative about the manufacturing industry in the industrial city of Shenzen. After viewing the slideshow, discuss some of the questions below.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the narrator mean when he says “Shenzhen is more or less an invented city?”
  2. Why does the word “scale” come to the narrator’s mind as he explores Shenzhen? What key concept from our economics class includes the world “scale”? HowShenzhen does the growth of Shenzhen relate to this concept?
  3. What is exported from Shenzhen to the US? What is being sent back to Shenzhen from the US? What does this suggest about the Chinese/US balance of trade? Why do you think this is happening?
  4. Where do Shenzhen’s factory workers come from? Why do you think young women make up such a large percentage of factories’ workforces? Are the wages paid factory workers in Shenzhen “fair” wages? Why or why not?
  5. Is manufacturing in Shenzhen labor intensive or capital intensive? What’s the difference?
  6. What’s the significance of the last line about how Liam Casey, whose office overlooks the headquarters of the Shenzen communist party, has never “met anybody who was in there”. What does this say about communism in China today?

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Jun 04 2007

“Monster Hog” and the price of pork in China

National Geographic News Photo Gallery: Week in Photos: Monster Hog

Near Delta, Alabama, May 3, 2007—Hogzilla may be headed for horror-movie heaven, but the massive swine that became an Internet sensation in 2004 may have been bested, size wise, by this reportedly wild pig killed May 3 by Jamison Stone, 11, and reported by the Associated Press on Wednesday.

From tip to tail, the newfound hog—dubbed “Monster Pig”—measures 9 feet, 4 inches (284 centimeters) and weighs in at 1,051 pounds (477 kilograms), according to Stone’s father.

At a 150-acre (60-hectare), fenced hunting range, Stone said, he shot the huge beast eight times with a revolver before tracking it with his father and guides for three hours. Finally, the boy shot the hog at point-blank range, killing the animal, the AP reported.

While hunting by children is legal in Alabama, officials are investigating whether anyone had transported and released the live feral pig into the hunting preserve, which would violate state law.

Okay, so maybe this one’s a stretch for a blog about economics, but sometimes when you see something in the news this amazing, you just have to share it with the world! Let’s see if I can come up with some questions about this one!

Discussion Questions:

  1. What impact would “monster hog” have on the price of pork (assuming it goes to market)?
  2. What will happen in the beef market once “monster hog’s” meat reaches the market? Explain.
  3. Can you think of a product that might be a compliment to pork? Describe
    what will happen in that product’s market thanks to “monster hog”.

Looks like China could use a few monster pigs of its own to relax the steep increase in pork prices recently!

Tighter supplies lead to big price rises for pork, eggs-21food.com

THE prices of pork and eggs have soared in past weeks across China due largely to tighter supplies and increasing production costs…Food products account for 33 percent of the CPI in China with meat, poultry and related products making up about 20 percent.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, live pigs nationwide were 71.3 percent more expensive than a month earlier, and pork, 29.3 percent higher.

In Beijing, the price of slaughtered pigs went up more than 30 percent in recent days…

An outbreak of blue ear disease, also known as Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, among pigs in Guangdong Province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, causing many deaths and a large amount of pigs to be culled, according to the National Development and Reform Commission…

“This sent a strong signal for distributors to jack up prices,” said Xu, adding that this exacerbated the unbalanced supply and demand.

“Pig raisers have lost money in the past couple years and they are reluctant to raise pigs. This led to a marginal decline in live pigs this year.”

Still worse, edible oil and grain prices rose at the beginning of this year, and feed prices followed suit.

Grain prices have risen largely due to an anticipated decline in output this summer and will continue to increase slightly in the coming weeks, boosting the prices of pork

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the “CPI” and why has it risen in China recently?
  2. Does this article discuss the determinants of demand or the determinants of supply? Which determinant is being affected in the pork market?
  3. What is happening in the market for pork in China? Which curve is shifting, supply or demand?
  4. What “strong signal” led pork distributors to “jack up prices”?
  5. If the price of pork continues to rise, what should happen to the supply of pork? Explain.

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Jun 03 2007

Gambling, prostitution and theft rampant among Yale monkeys

Freakonomics: Monkey Business: Keith Chen’s Monkey Research

No I’m not talking about the latest freshman class at an Ivy League school… rather a group of monkeys at Yale that have been taught how to use money:

The essential idea was to give a monkey a dollar and see what it did with it. The currency Chen settled on was a silver disc, one inch in diameter, with a hole in the middle — ”kind of like Chinese money,” he says. It took several months of rudimentary repetition to teach the monkeys that these tokens were valuable as a means of exchange for a treat and would be similarly valuable the next day. Having gained that understanding, a capuchin would then be presented with 12 tokens on aMonkey Vice tray and have to decide how many to surrender for, say, Jell-O cubes versus grapes. This first step allowed each capuchin to reveal its preferences and to grasp the concept of budgeting.

Turns out the law of Demand is not only true for humans but for monkeys too. When Chen “lowered the price of grapes”, monkeys would buy more grapes and less Jell-O, following the basic rule of utility maximization. Interestingly, the introduction of money led to more than just the simple exchanges of currency for candy and cucumber; the monkeys were also taught to gamble. Through their observations of several gambling scenarios, the researchers found monkeys tended to display “loss averse” behavior in games of chance, leading to an amusing conclusion:

The data generated by the capuchin monkeys, Chen says, ”make them statistically indistinguishable from most stock-market investors.”

Sadly, gambling was not the only vice that accompanied the introduction of money in to monkey society:

Then there is the stealing. Santos has observed that the monkeys never deliberately save any money, but they do sometimes purloin a token or two during an experiment.

But the debauchery does not stop with gambling and theft:

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of money, after all, is its fungibility, the fact that it can be used to buy not just food but anything. During the chaos in the monkey cage, Chen saw something out of the corner of his eye that he would later try to play down but in his heart of hearts he knew to be true. What he witnessed was probably the first observed exchange of money for sex in the history of monkeykind. (Further proof that the monkeys truly understood money: the monkey who was paid for sex immediately traded the token in for a grape.)

As if we needed any proof beyond the widespread immorality and loss of values that distinguish many rich human societies, the steep decline of monkey morality observed at Yale can only be attributed to the introduction of currency! The implications of the Yale study on economics are clear: humans are not necessarily unique in our understanding of currency as a means of exchange. As long as money has imbued human societies, the wont to enrich ourselves through immoral means such as gambling, theft and prostitution has stained civilizations from ancient Mesopotamia to modern America.

When taught to use money, a group of capuchin monkeys responded quite rationally to simple incentives; responded irrationally to risky gambles; failed to save; stole when they could; used money for food and, on occasion, sex. In other words, they behaved a good bit like the creature that most of Chen’s more traditional colleagues study: Homo sapiens.

To make a more poignant observation, one thing is clear and disturbing, among the human societies today, Americans are most like monkeys when it comes to saving.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Of the various functions of money, which role does money play for monkeys?
  2. What gives the money used by the monkeys its value?
  3. Discuss the evidence from this article suggesting that monkeys follow the law of demand.
  4. What is the utility maximization rule and what evidence from this article supports the suggestion that monkeys follow this rule?
  5. How are monkeys more similar to American consumers than to, say, Japanese or Chinese consumers?

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Jun 03 2007

What don’t you know about yourself?

What I didn’t know about myself was that I was a “libertarian leftist”. I had always considered myself a liberal, which I had been told meant I was so-called “left of center”. Where the terms left and right came from, I really didn’t know before now. It’s always bothered me that we describe our politicians, our economists, our professors, our teachers, our historic figures as either “left wing” or “right wing”; is the socioeconomic spectrum really only one dimension? Turns out it’s not, and now there’s a new tool for measuring your social/economic position in two dimensions.

Welcome to the Political Compass

According to the homepage of the Political Compass:

The old one-dimensional categories of ‘right’ and ‘left’, established for the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly of 1789, are overly simplistic for today’s complex political landscape. For example, who are the ‘conservatives’ in today’s Russia? Are they the unreconstructed Stalinists, or the reformers who have adopted the right-wing views of conservatives like Margaret Thatcher?

On the standard left-right scale, how do you distinguish leftists like Stalin and Gandhi? It’s not sufficient to say that Stalin was simply more left than Gandhi. There are fundamental political differences between them that the old categories on their own can’t explain. Similarly, we generally describe social reactionaries as ‘right-wingers’, yet that leaves left-wing reactionaries like Robert Mugabe and Pol Pot off the hook.

Take this test, see where you fall in the social and economic spectra. Personally, I thought that as a teacher of Economics, a science dominated by a neo-classical, free market perspective, that I would have ended up in the quadrant of the libertarian right. I guess those old left-wing ideals of my college years are more ingrained than I thought!

Hat tip to Gregory Mankiw for the link!

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Jun 02 2007

Technology and Education- like Love and Marriage

You can’t have one without the other.

Will schools be able to provide the level of education needed for American workers to keep up with the rapidly advancing technology of the modern economy? Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, looks at the
challenge America faces to provide the level of education needed to produce workers capable of dealing with a dynamic, technologically advanced economy.

Why Is Income Inequality in America So Pronounced? Consider Education – New York Times

Cowen suggests that the rising inequality in Americans’ incomes is not because of some corrupt failure of capitalism, rather it’s a simple problem of supply and demand. The new economy demands high skilled, well-educated workers, and at the same time our schools system has failed to produce such workers. In places like Silicon Valley, firms are turning to India and China for high skilled workers today; not because of cheap wages, rather because these countries are producing workers equipped with the skills to maneuver the technologically dynamic workplace of the 21st century.

The result of America’s schools’ failure to prepare students for the demanding university programs required to compete in this high tech economy: wages for highly educated individuals with an education in a technical field are rising, while wages of the majority of high school and college graduates are stagnating or even declining. Simply stated, the 21st century economy requires workers with 21st century skills. The problem is, schools are simply not preparing children to excel in such a technologically driven economy. According to Cowen:

…the evidence suggests that when additional higher education becomes available, it offers returns in the range of 10 to 14 percent per year of college, at least for the first newcomers to enroll.

Nonetheless it will, sooner or later, become increasingly difficult to deliver the gains from college — not to mention postgraduate study — to the entire population. Technology is advancing faster than our ability to educate. So even if inequality declines today, it may well intensify in the future. Even if American education improves at every level, the largely not-for-profit educational sector may simply be less dynamic than the progress of new technologies.

A pessimistic view, perhaps, but the message seems clear enough. Technology and education must go hand in hand now and in the future if our students are to be prepared for a career in the dynamic, technology driven environment that is our 21st century economy.

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