Nov 27 2008
Archive for November, 2008
Nov 25 2008
Berkley professor and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich argues that the $300 billion or so of the Treasury's $700 billion bailout of the financial markets has mostly been squandered, calling it “the worst type of trickle-down economics”. Reich hopes the Treasury will postpone further disbursements of the bailout funds until the new Administration takes office in the hope that it will go into the hands of consumers, not into the pockets of the big banks' shareholders.
Click the “play” button to listen to Reich's commentary on NPR's “Marketplace”:
- What is wrong with the way the banks have used the funds the Treasury has given them? Why hasn't the bailout worked so far?
- What does Reich mean when he calls the bailout “the worst type of trickle-down economics”?
- Who does Reich think the remainder of the bailout should go towards helping? What does he mean by a “bottom-up bailout”?
Nov 25 2008
Nov 24 2008
Below is the explanation of the “Multiplier effect” from our class wiki, as explained by my Econ students:
- The multiplier effect shows that an initial change in spending can cause a larger change in national income and output.
- The multiplier determines how much larger that change will be; it is the ratio of a change in GDP to the initial change in spending.
- It measures the effect that any change in expenditure (Investment, Government spending, Consumption, or Net exports) will have on GDP
Multiplier = 1/(1-MPC) = 1/MPS
Multiplier = change in real GDP/ initial change in spending
Change in GDP = mutlplier x the initial change in spending
Rationale: The multiplier is explained based on the following facts:
- The economy supports repetitive, continuous flows of expenditures and income
- Any change in income will vary both consumption and saving in the same direction as, and by a fraction of, the change in income
- Initial change in spending will set off a spending chain throughout the economy
- Chain of spending, although of diminishing importance at each successive step, will accumulate and result in a multiple change in GDP
Harvard Economist Gregory Mankiw has applied the concept of the spending multiplier to the proposal coming from Barack Obama's economic transition team to inject as much as $700 billion of goverment spending into the economy to stimulate aggregate demand and help America escape its recession. Mankiw quotes today’s Washington Post:
Facing an increasingly ominous economic outlook, President-elect Barack Obama and other Democrats are rapidly ratcheting up plans for a massive fiscal stimulus program that could total as much as $700 billion over the next two years….Obama has set a goal of creating or preserving 2.5 million jobs by 2011.
Mankiw, the Econ teacher that he is, applies the basic formula for the Spending Multiplier to the numbers coming from the Obama camp, and finds the following:
Dividing one number by the other, that (the $700b of government spending) works out to $280,000 per job.
What is going on here? Logically, it must be one of three possibilities:
- The fiscal stimulus is going to be much smaller than is being reported.
- The new administration is setting a low bar for itself when it comes to job creation.
- The Obama team believes in very small fiscal policy multipliers.
Let me amplify the last point. The average weekly earnings of production and nonsupervisory workers is about $600, or about $60,000 over a two-year period. Granted, labor income is only about two-thirds of national income, and we have to add a few supervisors into the mix.
So let's say each job created means $100,000 of extra national income. If we are generating $100,000 of income with $280,000 of government spending, the multiplier is only 100/280, or 0.36. Traditional Keynesian models suggest a multiplier closer to 2.0.
What Mankiw has found, using simple economic analysis understood by anyone who has studied AP or IB Economics, is that if we believe in the numbers given by the Obama camp itself, then government spending package of $700 billion will result in roughly $250 billion of new income for the nation.
How did we find this? Simply by applying the forumula given on our wiki above: Multiplier = change in real GDP/ initial change in spending, and plugging in the numbers calculated by Mankiw:
- Multiplier = 0.36.
- Change in spending = $700b.
- Therefore, the change in national income (or GDP) equals $700b x 0.36 = $252 billion
Perhaps Mr. Obama needs to consider the basic economic principle of the Spending Multiplier before he goes around throwing out numbers about the jobs that will be created or preserved from a new fiscal stimulus package. Clearly, 2.5 million jobs grossing an average of $100,000 each over two years, while SOUNDING good, in reality represents a truly unbelievable squandering of wealth and income by the US government.
Nov 24 2008
Comedian Louis CK puts things into perspective for us in these hard economic times. As he says, “Everything is amazing right now, yet nobody's happy.”
Louis CK “Everything's amazing, nobody's happy”
Much of what Louis jokes about here refers to technologies that members of my generation hardly remember and that my students had never seen. This video did make me think… with all the talk today of the Great Depression, a new period of prolonged economic hardship in America and the world, it is easy to forget just how amazing our innovative economy really is. The impact of technology on our lives is astounding, and the pace of change humans have witnessed in the last 50 years is unprecedented in human history.
Hat tip to Tim Schilling at MV=PQ Blog for the link!
Nov 22 2008
Nov 21 2008
This week the CEOs of the “Big Three” US auto makers boarded their private jets in Detroit and touched down in Washington to beg and plead in front of Congress for a “low-interest bridge loan” from the US government to help them avoid bankruptcy. They are asking Congress for $25 billion of taxpayer money to give them the chance to re-structure and re-equip themselves for the future.
Below are eight arguments based on basic economic principles for why a bailout of the United States automobile industry is a bad idea and is bound to fail:
- Incentives matter: A bailout of the US auto industry ignores the basic economic principle that incentives matter. Individuals and firms respond to incentives, pursuing behavior that is likely to bring them the greatest rewards. In the face of falling demand for their product and ever-increasing competition from more efficient foreign producers, providing a $25 billion bailout creates a disincentive to drastically reduce costs and increase competitiveness, and an incentive to continue using tired old techniques and providing the same old models for which demand has declined among Americans for over a decade.
- Comparative advantage: The basic economic principle of comparative advantage states that in an era of free trade and globalization, countries should produce the types of goods for which they have the lowest opportunity cost. Since the average American car of a particular class costs the Big Three $2000 more in wages and benefits for workers than its Japanese counterpart, it makes sense that Japan (and other lower-cost countries) produce more cars, and the Big Three produce less.
- Efficient allocation of resources: The United Auto Workers Union has a member ship of over 400,000 workers. Since the 1970s the union has lost over 1 million workers. Clearly the US auto industry has been in decline for decades, a fact that should be taken as a sign: resources employed in America's car industry are inefficient and represent a over-allocation of resources. A drastic down-sizing of the auto industry, while resulting in short-run hardships for the hundreds of thousands whose jobs will be lost, will in the long run strengthen the US economy as labor and other resources will be freed up to be employed in sectors in which the US has comparative advantage.
- Economic Darwinism or “the survival of the most efficient”: America has stood for free trade in the world since helping found GATT in 1948 and later the WTO. The gains from embracing free trade are shared among all stakeholders in the economy. Consumers enjoy lower prices (thus higher real income), firms enjoy access to cheaper inputs and larger markets for their products, and governments enjoy the increased tax revenues from rising incomes driven by export-led economic growth. To bail out an uncompetitive, inefficient, and long-declining industry is to spit in the eye of free trade and denies America any moral suasion it may hold in the future over potential trading nations in our attempt to open their markets to our nation's products. To protect our own dying industry now will send a clear message to our trading partners. “America does NOT stand for free trade”. If we believe in free trade and the allocative power of markets, then we must let the dinosaurs of American industry meet the fate the natural selection of the marketplace has determined for it.
- The benefits enjoyed by the few represent costs born by the many: A bailout by the US government of the auto industry will protect a few hundred thousand jobs for a few years at the most but spells a reduction in the disposable incomes and spending power of millions for years to come. The US does not have $25 billion laying around to give the Big Three, which means the money must be borrowed. Increased government borrowing raises interest rates now (further tightening the credit markets) and will result in increased taxes down the road. All government debt must eventually be paid off, and in the immediate future interest on this debt must be paid directly from tax revenue. A $25 billion bailout is the same as a subsidy, meaning it redistributes income and welfare from consumers to producers. Millions are asked to sacrifice for the continued survival of a few hundred thousand in an industry that has failed to evolve in a global auto market that has seen increased competition and efficiency from foreign firms for decades.
- Moral hazard: Bailing out the Big Three today represent a classic case of moral hazard. When American industries fail to take steps to increase their efficiency and remain competitive in the face of increased global competition, they find themselves not surprisingly on the brink of collapse. To reward these firms by taking money out of Americans' pockets and handing it to them to do as they will, we send the wrong message and create the wrong incentives in the American economy. The message is: “Don't worry, the market doesn't choose the winners and losers in the economy, the government does, and certain industries are too big to fail”.
- Market failure, or Firm Failure?: The fate of the auto industry is in the hands of the US government. But so is the fate of the free market. My fear now is that the pendulum will swing too far to the left in America's state of panic over the ill-fated downfall of the financial markets, rooted in the irrational exuberance and over-leveraging of big financial institutions. The failure of the financial markets, however, is an entirely different story from that of a dinosaur industry like automobiles. The Big Three have had decades to reform themselves, lower their costs, improve their products, and remain competitive. THEY have failed, NOT the market. Government intervention is necessary in instances of market failure, but NOT IN CASES OF FIRMS' FAILURE TO COMPETE IN A WELL FUNCTIONING MARKET like the global auto industry.
- Inflexible labor markets: I saw the president of the UAW on the news today giving 101 reasons why the government should approve a bailout deal for the Big Three. In fact, the unions that supposedly represent American Auto Workers are a big part of the problem the industry is facing. For decades the UAW has fought against wage and benefit cuts for auto workers, lobbying instead for higher tariffs and other barriers aimed at keeping foreign cars out of the country. This anti-competitive behavior is a major reason the Big Three cannot compete with European and Asian car makers today. Wage inflexibility leads to higher unemployment. Unions keep wages from going down, leaving the Big Three with one of two choices: Drastically downsize your workforce and employ fewer high paid auto workers, or beg the government for a multi-billion dollar subsidy to that the unions can be placated and you can survive for a couple more years until you're in the same situation all over again. The unions helped cause the problem, now they should pay the price by experiencing the downsizing their demands inevitably foretold.
The US government should allow the free market to function and let the dinosaurs go extinct. Cars will still be made in America, they'll just be made by the better, more efficient firms that emerge from bankruptcy when this is all over, as well as the numerous foreign firms already making cars in the US. Survival of the most efficient, that's what markets are all about. Allowing the market to work will strengthen the US auto industry far more than a “short-term low-interest bridge loan” ever will, it will free up labor and capital resources to be employed by industries the country is better at, and make sure household income is NOT reallocated to inefficient firms to be squandered on the manufacture of a product for which demand has steadily declined for the last decade plus.
Nov 20 2008
Web 2.0 never ceases to amaze me. Over at our class wiki, Zurich International School students regularly debate economic issues that relate to the topics we are studying in IB and AP Economics. The latest hot topic of debate was started by an 11th grade Brazilian student, Mark, who posed the following question:
Should the US bail-out their car industry?
Monday, 4:04 PM EST
In America, everyone believes that the American car companies like GM, Ford and Chrysler, which are nearly bankrupt, should be bailed-out by the government, to save their national pride. In this week’s “The Economist” magazine, they argue that bailing-out the car industry would be a grave mistake. Firstly, they argue that it would “open an invitation” to other companies to apply for aid to survive the recession. Banks qualify for this help because the economy depends on them; the car industry in the US failing would not be so disastrous. Secondly, they argue that the car industry is shifting from the saturated (full, at its peak) markets to the fast-growing emerging markets. This means, even if the car businesses fail in America, they would still have opportunities in other countries. In Brazil for example, Fiat has a plant where they produce 800,000 cars each year… that is a new car coming off the production line each 20 seconds! And they are not slowing the production; the plant continues operating with three shifts a day!
So, should the US government bail-out GM, Ford and Chrysler, save many lost jobs, and one of their nation’s prides, or should they be influenced not to, by economists that predict it would not help the economy at all?
I love to see students take an interest in the issues dominating our news that tie so closely to the topics we study in our principles classes at the AP and IB levels. The debates are interesting, insightful, and conflicting yet valid viewpoints on controversial issues.
If you're interested in the economic issues dominating our news and want to join the debate, join the Discussion Forum at Welker’s Wikinomics Wiki and share your points of view.
Nov 17 2008
Free trade is an ideal. This is a theme of my IB Economics class which I emphasize repeatedly during year two of the course. Free trade, defined as the exchange of goods, services, resources, and financial assets based on the principle of comparative advantage, results in a more efficient allocation of the world's resources, an increase in total world output and welfare, and increases the opportunity for growth and development for all countries that prescribe to its principles. This is the ideal, at least.
In the real world, free trade is rarely practiced. Free trade agreements between nations represent managed trade; the selected removal of protections such as tariffs, quotas and subsidies on the exchange of particular goods does not represent free trade, rather managed trade. The problem with free trade in the real world is simply that it has never been truly practiced, therefore the adjustments that both developed and developing countries would have to undergo to adopt widespread free trade would be extremely disruptive both economically and socially. Entire industries would disappear from the developed countries as manufacturing resources were reallocated to low cost countries. Poor countries trying to build their manufacturing industries would lose any competitive advantage offered by protectionism, forcing their “infant industries” to wither and die in the face of global competition from countries that long ago achieved economies of scale in manufacturing. Farmers used to heavy subsidies would see their livelihoods disappear as the world's food would be sourced from the countries with true comparative advantages in agriculture. Simply stated, the social costs of the widespread adoption of free trade are not politically palatable, thus leaders have only hesitantly pursued this ideal on the world stage.
For decades, America has stood for the ideal of free trade, proselytizing its advantages and urging developing countries to reduce or remove their barriers to the free flow of resources and goods from nation to nation. Today, however, the United States faces the very fate free trade prophesized as its own automobile industries teeters on the edge of collapse. As many as 3 million American jobs stand to be lost if the auto industry goes under. Today, America faces the ultimate test of its will to stand for and defend free trade in the world. Should America erect new barriers to trade, bail out its auto industry, and save this dying sector from collapse to avoid the political hardships its death would incur? Or should America stand for the ideal of market liberalization and allow the auto industry to disolve as the principle of comparative advantage indicates it should?
The question is dire, and it's one that Barack Obama will be forced to address early in his term as president. Cambridge economcis professor Ha-Joon Chang argues the case for protectionism by America in this time of economic turmoil:
Mr Obama’s trade policy… is already causing controversy. He has vowed to protect American jobs and even argued for re-negotiating the NAFTA. There is already some hand wringing among free-trade economists, worrying that his protectionist policies may destroy the world trading system in the same way the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariffs of 1930 did after the Great Depression. They counsel that the US should maintain its historical commitment to free trade.
However, contrary to what most people think, the US is the true home of protectionism. Between the 1830s and the 1940s, against superior European competition, the US developed its industries behind literally the highest tariff wall in the world, with the average industrial tariff rate ranging between 35% and 55%. Even the Smoot-Hawley Tariffs were not an aberration – the average US industrial tariff in 1931 was, at 48%, well within the historical range.
Moreover, the theory that justified such protectionism, namely, the ‘infant industry’ argument, had been first developed by none other than the first Treasury Secretary of the US – Alexander Hamilton (that’s the guy you see on the $10 bill). Hamilton argued that producers in relatively backward economies needed to be protected and nurtured through tariffs, subsidies, and other government policies before they mature and can compete with producers from more economically developed countries.
Of course, the protectionism that Mr Obama is advocating is protection to ease the adjustment of mature industries, rather than to promote infant industries. The case for such protectionism is not as overwhelming as that of infant industry protection. However, well-designed and time-bound protection of mature industries can facilitate, rather than hinder, trade adjustment and industrial upgrading. Japan and some European countries in the aftermath of the 1970s Oil Shocks come to mind.
Mr Obama should use protectionism in a similarly forward-looking way. Industries that can be revived through re-tooling of its factories and re-training of its workers should be given protection, but only if they fulfill certain conditions regarding investment and training. Industries that have no future should be given strictly temporary protection to ease phasing-out through orderly liquidation and redundancy.
…Keeping its market open is not enough for the US to play a genuinely positive role in the world trading system. The US should also stop pushing for trade liberalization in developing countries and give them the chance to use (intelligently-designed, of course) infant industry protection, which it invented and benefited so much from. Mr Obama should take a lead in creating a world trading system that allows asymmetric protectionism between the rich countries and the poor countries, with the latter protecting their markets more and gradually opening up in line with their economic development.
All these call for a much more activist role for the US government than it has been the norm. Providing protectionism to facilitate structural changes, and not just to protect existing jobs, would require a much closer coordination between trade policy and those policies to upgrade American industries, such as R&D support and worker training. Redesigning the welfare state as a vehicle to promote skills upgrading and labor mobility would push the US government into an uncharted territory.
These are big challenges. However, the US cannot continue its peculiar mixture of free-trade mythology and uncoordinated, ‘reactive’ protectionism that has served ordinary Americans and the developing nations so poorly.
Mr Obama has turned a new chapter in US history by becoming the country’s first Afro-American president. He will turn a new chapter in world history if he can come up with a forward-looking protectionist strategy that that both protects American jobs better in the long run and help developing countries develop faster.
- What is the difference between the protectionism America needs today and the protectionism it used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
- How could protectionism be used responsibly by developing countries to promote economic growth and development?
- Professor Chang argues that responsible protectionism should allow industries with no future to be phased out “through orderly liquidation and redundancy”. What does he mean by this and why is such a policy so hard to accomplish politically?
Nov 12 2008
A German engineer has given an old technology new life to help make trans-oceanic shipping greener and least costly.
A cargo ship pulled by a giant, parachute-shaped kite will leave Germany on Tuesday on a voyage that could herald a new “green” age of commercial sailing on the high seas.
The owners of the MS Beluga, a 462ft cargo vessel, will try to prove that modern steel ships can harness wind power and reduce their reliance on diesel engines.
During the journey from Bremen to Venezuela, the crew will deploy a SkySail, a 160 square metre kite which will fly more than 600ft above the vessel, where winds are stronger and more consistent than at sea level.
Its inventor, Stephan Wrage, a 34-year-old German engineer, claims the kite will significantly reduce carbon emissions, cutting diesel consumption by up to 20 per cent and saving £800 a day in fuel costs. He believes an even bigger kite, up to 5,000 square metres, could result in fuel savings of up to 35 per cent.
Here's a thought… reduced fuel costs to trans-oceanic shipping companies should shift the supply of such services out, as the marginal cost of shipping falls. Greater supply will mean lower prices to customers demanding such services, moving downward along the demand curve, increasing the equilibrium quantity of trans-oceanic cargo journeys.
Question: Assume all cargo ships in the world eventually incorporate the sail technology, increasing the supply and reducing the price of shipping by an average of 20% and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases of vessels by an average of 20%. What would have to be true about the price elasticity of demand for trans-oceanic shipping in order for a 20% reduction in price to result in an overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by cargo ships? Depending on the answer to this question, this “green” technology could actually result in greater emissions of greenhouse gases by cargo ships.