Archive for October, 2010

Oct 24 2010

What does a good IB Economics Commentary look like?

It’s that time of the IB Economics course when I get to start teaching my year one students to write the dreaded Internal Assessment Commentaries. For their first IA, my students are writing a commentary on an article relating to Section 2.1 and 2.2 of the IB course, on supply, demand, market equilibrium and elasticities.

After reading a dozen or so out of my 38 students’ first drafts, I began to realize that what many of them needed was a clearer idea of what a good IB Economics commentary should look like. So I went back through past years’ commentaries and decided in the end just to write a sample commentary myself.

As you know, I do a lot of economics writing, so I thought this would be a breeze; I’d bust out a 700 word commentary modelling to my students what a top IA should look like. Well, I did it, but it proved to be much harder than I thought it would be. Why? Because after my first draft I was at 1100 words! The word limit, as IB students know, is 750, so I proceeded to spend as much time as it took me to write figuring out how to get it down to within the word limit.

Well, I did it. Below is my sample commentary for year one IB students. I do owe some credit to a past student of mine, Maren, whose article I stole and whose own commentary I adapted to write this one.

First, here’s the link to the article:

Where is Switzerland’s Cheapest Place to Live? – SwissInfo

And my commentary:

Introduction of theory:
Demand, supply and elasticity are basic economic concepts that when applied to different markets can help governments and individuals make informed decisions about things as basic as where to live and how to collect taxes.

Connection to article:
Recently, Credit Suisse conducted a survey and determined that Switzerland’s most expensive canton is Geneva, while the cheapest place to live is Appenzell Inner Rhodes, (AIR)

Analysis:
Demand is a curve showing the various amounts of a product consumers want and can purchase at different prices during a specific period of time. Supply is a curve showing the different amounts of a product suppliers are willing to provide at different prices. Equilibrium price and quantity are determined by the intersection of demand and supply. Price elasticity of demand (PED) indicates the responsiveness of consumers to a change in price, and is reflected in the relative slope of demand.

In the graph below, the markets for housing in Geneva and AIR are shown.

Demand for housing in Geneva (Dg), is high because of the many employment opportunities there. In addition, Geneva’s scarce land means supply of housing is low, resulting in a high equilibrium rent (Rg). Demand for housing in Geneva is inelastic, since renters in Geneva are less responsive to changes in rent compared to AIR, perhaps due to the perceived necessity of living close to their work.

Demand for housing in AIR (Da) is low, but supply is high due to the abundance of land. AIR is a rural canton with few jobs, therefore fewer people are willing and able to live there than in Geneva. Since living in the countryside is not a necessity, demand is relatively elastic, or responsive to changes in rent. The lower demand and greater supply make the AIR’s equilibrium rent relatively low.

The effect of a tax on property is a shift of the supply curve to the left and in increase in rents as landowners, forced to pay the canton a share of their rental incomes, raise the rent they charge residents.

In Geneva, property taxes are high, but this has little effect on the quantity demanded.

Geneva’s property tax shifts the supply of housing leftwards, as fewer landlords will be willing and able to supply properties to renters when the canton taxes rental incomes. However, the decrease in quantity demanded is proportionally smaller than the increase in the price caused by the tax, since demand for housing in Geneva is highly inelastic, or unresponsive to the higher price caused by the tax.

Renters in AIR are far more responsive to higher rents caused by property taxes, perhaps because living in AIR is not considered a necessity and there are more substitutes for rural cantons to live in. Renters in Geneva do not have the freedom to live in one of Switzerland’s many rural cantons, and are therefore less responsive to higher rents resulting from cantonal taxes.

Evaluation:
A tax decrease in AIR could lead to a significant increase in the number of people willing to live there, since renters are highly responsive to lower taxes. To some extent, housing in AIR and Geneva are substitutes for one another. Lower taxes in AIR would make living there more attractive, and subsequently the demand for housing in Geneva would fall putting downward pressure on rents there. People would move to AIR, attracted by lower rents, and commute to work in the cities. According to the article, this is already happening:

The disparity in the amount of disposable income… has increased the trend of people moving cantons for financial reasons… Economic necessities had led to an increase… of people moving address and opting to commute into work”.

There are many determinants of demand for housing in Switzerland, the primary one being location. High rents in Geneva are explained by the high demand for and the limited supply of housing. On the other hand, residents in AIR enjoy much lower rents, due to the weak demand and abundant land. Cantons should take into consideration the PED for housing when determining their property tax levels. Raising the tax Geneva will have little effect on rentals but could create substantial tax revenue. On the other hand, reducing taxes in AIR may attract many households away from the city to the countryside, drawn by the lower rents and property taxes.

Applying the basic principles of demand, supply and elasticity to Switzerland’s housing market allows households and government alike to make better decisions about where to live and how much to tax citizens.

Note: To see the full commentary including a cover page and highlighted article, click here

27 responses so far

Oct 08 2010

The clear and simple gains from trade

Russell Roberts of George Mason University is a well-known advocate of free trade. This article is one of my favorite and certainly one of the clearest explanations of the mutual benefits resulting from free trade that I have read.

Foreign Policy: Why We Trade – by Russ Roberts

To hear most politicians talk, you’d think that exports are the key to a country’s prosperity and that imports are a threat to its way of life. Trade deficits—importing more than we export—are portrayed as the road to ruin… Politicians are always talking about the necessity of other countries’ opening their markets to American products. They never mention the virtues of opening U.S. markets to foreign products.

This perspective on imports and exports is called mercantilism. It goes back to the 14th century and has about as much intellectual rigor as alchemy, another landmark of the pre-Enlightenment era.

The logic of “exports, good—imports, bad” seems straightforward at first—after all, when a factory closes because of foreign competition, there seem to be fewer jobs than there otherwise would be. Don’t imports cause factories to close? Don’t exports build factories?

But is the logic really so clear? As a thought experiment, take what would seem to be the ideal situation for a mercantilist. Suppose we only export and import nothing. The ultimate trade surplus. So we work and use raw materials and effort and creativity to produce stuff for others without getting anything in return. There’s another name for that. It’s called slavery. How can a country get rich working for others?

Then there’s the mercantilist nightmare: We import from abroad, but foreigners buy nothing from us. What would the world be like if every morning you woke up and found a Japanese car in your driveway, Chinese clothing in your closet, and French wine in your cellar? All at no cost. Does that sound like heaven or hell? The only analogy I can think of is Santa Claus. How can a country get poor from free stuff? Or cheap stuff? How do imports hurt us?

We don’t export to create jobs. We export so we can have money to buy the stuff that’s hard for us to make—or at least hard for us to make as cheaply. We export because that’s the only way to get imports. If people would just give us stuff, then we wouldn’t have to export. But the world doesn’t work that way.

It’s the same in our daily lives. It’s great when people give us presents—a loaf of banana bread or a few tomatoes from the garden. But a new car would be better. Or even just a cheaper car. But the people who bring us cars and clothes and watches and shoes expect something in return. That’s OK. That’s the way the world works. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the goal of life is to turn away bargains from outside our house or outside our country because we’d rather make everything ourselves. Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty.

And imports don’t destroy jobs. They destroy jobs in certain industries. But because trade allows us to buy goods more cheaply than we otherwise could, resources are freed up to expand existing opportunities and to create new ones. That’s why we trade—to leverage the skills of others who can produce things more effectively than we can, freeing us to make things we otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.

Discussion Questions:

  1. “Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty” – Discuss…
  2. Explain the logical economic fallacy of the mercantilist philosophy of “exports good, imports bad”
  3. “…because trade allows us to buy goods more cheaply than we otherwise could, resources are freed up to expand existing opportunities and to create new ones”. What basic economic principle is Professor Roberts alluding to here?

77 responses so far

Oct 07 2010

US / China Trade War – Could this be the beginning?

This post was originally published on September 15, 2009. It is being reposted today for my year 2 IB Econ students, who are studying free trade and protectionism as part of Unit 4 of the IB Econ course.

US president Barack Obama made a speech directly to Wall Street today. In his speech, Obama reflected on the many lessons America has learned in the last year since the financial crisis began. He urged his audience of investors, bankers and brokers that

“Normalcy cannot lead to complacency,” Obama said. “Unfortunately, there are some in the financial industry who are misreading this moment. Instead of learning the lessons of Lehman and the crisis from which we are still recovering, they are choosing to ignore them.”

“They do so not just at their own peril, but at our nation’s,” the president added.

In addition to his warnings about the threat posed by overly risky financial markets to the US economy, President Obama expressed his commitment to free trade and “the fight against protectionism”.

Obama says:

…enforcing trade agreements is part and parcel of maintaining an open and free trading system.

The enforcement of existing trade agreements Obama refers to is his way of justifying a decision his administration made over the weekend that actually limits free trade between America and one of its largest trading partners, China.

Trade relations between two of the world’s biggest economies deteriorated after Barack Obama, US president, signed an order late on Friday to impose a new duty of 35 per cent on Chinese tyre imports on top of an existing 4 per cent tariff.

In his first big test on world trade since taking office in January, Mr Obama sided with America’s trade unions, which have complained that a “surge” in imports of Chinese-made tyres had caused 7,000 job losses among US factory workers.

So, in his speech today, Obama decries protectionism and calls for expanded trade and free trade agreements which are “absolutely essential to our economic future”. But only three days ago, he supported a blatantly protectionist measure aimed at keeping foreign produced goods out of America in order to save a few thousand American jobs.

Obama’s decision is a bad one for several reasons. As an economics teacher, I will turn firstly to a diagram for an illustration of the net loss to the American people of higher tariffs on imported tires:
Tire protection

The key point to notice in the above graph is that a tariff on imported tires results in a net loss of welfare in America. The blue area represents the increase in the welfare of tire manufactures (this could be interpreted as the jobs saved in the tire industry and the profits earned due to higher prices); the black areas, on the other hand, are welfare loss. Since all tire consumers in America pay more for their tires due to the 35% tariff, real income is affected negatively for the nation as a whole.

One effect of the protectionist policy the graph does not illustrate, and perhaps the most serious negative impact of the tariff on America, is the response the Chinese are likely to take to what they interpret as a violation of existing free trade agreements between the US and China.

“This is a grave act of trade protectionism,” Mr Chen said in a statement. “Not only does it violate WTO rules, it contravenes commitments the US government made at the [April] G20 financial summit.”

Beijing said it had requested WTO-sanctioned consultations with the US over Washington’s new duties on tyres. Yao Jian, a commerce ministry spokesman, said the duties were in ”violation of WTO rules”.

China said it would now investigate imports of US poultry and vehicles, responding to complaints from domestic companies.

The problems with protectionism are myriad. Clearly American consumers suffer through higher tire prices. In addition, Chinese manufacturers will see sales fall as their product becomes less competitive in the US market. According to the CCTV report below, as many as 9,000 workers in the Chinese tire industry will lose their livelihoods due to declining demand from the US. But the unforseen effects of the US tariff on Chinese tires is the retaliatory measures China will almost certainly take. If China imposes new tariffs on American automobiles and poultry, the scenario in the graph above will be reversed, and Chinese consumers will face higher prices, Chinese car and poultry producers will experience rising sales, while the American auto worker and chicken farmer will suffer.

Free trade tends to result in net benefits for economies that choose to participate in it. American tire manufacturers are certainly harmed by cheap Chinese imports; however, America as a whole benefits through cheaper goods, more consumer surplus, higher incomes in China and therefore greater demand for imports of products made in America. The road to protectionism is a dangerous path to take for the Obama administration. Justifying these new tariffs by claiming that they “enforce existing free trade agreements” is a political maneuver aimed at covering up the truth, which is that the Obama administration has sided with a special interest group to save a few thousand jobs and garner political favor at a time when 700,000 American jobs are being lost each month. By doing so, he is calling into question his own commitment to free trade, and harming America’s image as a global proponent of global economic integration.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is the Chinese government so upset about a new tax on such an insignificant product as automobile tires?
  2. “Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty”: Do you agree?
  3. Some would say that it is a small price to pay for Americans to face higher prices for one product like tires in order to “save” 7,000 Americans’ jobs. Would you agree? Why or why not?
  4. If 7,000 Americans were to lose their jobs due to free trade with China, what would we call the type of unemployment experienced by these workers? Is this the same type of unemployment experienced by the 700,000 workers who have lost their jobs each month during the last year of recession in the United States?

33 responses so far

Oct 05 2010

From heart transplants to watermelons: Understanding price elasticity of demand

Consumers are interesting creatures to study. Economics offers us a unique set of tools for understanding the behavior of consumers in various markets. Elasticity is one of those tools, one which helps us understand how consumers will respond to the change in price of some goods more or less than others. Some of the questions about consumer behavior elasticity helps answer are:

  • Why do governments place such huge taxes on cigarettes?
  • Why did Apple cut the price of the new iPhone in half from the original one, despite the fact that it had so many new features?
  • Why do movie theaters seem to raise their prices so steadily over the years, rather than doubling the price of tickets each year?

These and other questions can be answered by knowing something about the relative price elasticities of demand for the goods in question. Price elasticity of demand refers to the sensitivity of consumers to a change in price. For some goods, even the slightest increase in price will scare consumers away, while for others, price can go up and up and up and the quantity demanded won’t budge!

Here’s just one illustration of a good for which consumers are extremely sensitive to changes in price: Every autumn, around the city of Shanghai thousands of small farms harvest the Chinese watermelon, a small, green, juicy melon that looks and tastes the same regardless of which farm it came from. The farmers sell their melons to one of the hundreds of melon vendors who drive their big blue trucks into the city of Shanghai during about two weeks in October to sell the watermelons to the city folk who love their refreshing taste.

During the two weeks of the melon harvest, there are hundreds of blue trucks parked two or three per block all over the city. The hundreds of melon vendors sell an identical product, acquired at identical costs from thousands of farms using identical techniques for farming. In other words, the melon market in Shanghai during these two weeks is close to being perfectly competitive.

The price of melons is established through competition at something very close to the exact cost to the vendor of getting the melons into the city. Consumers know this, and therefore if one vendor tries to sell his melons for more than the equilibrium price, consumers will respond by buying NONE of that vendors melons. Conversely, if a vendor were to lower his price at all, rationally EVERY consumer would want to buy from that vendor, but since the price is already at the cost to the vendor, no vendor is able to lower the price without losing money. The outcome in the market for melons in Shanghai is that demand for melons is close to being perfectly elastic, meaning that consumers are completely sensitive to changes in price of watermelons.

Not all goods are like watermelons. In fact, for some goods demand is close to perfectly inelastic. Study the graph below, showing the relative elasticities of five different products, then answer the questions below in your comment!

Discussion Questions:

  1. For which product is demand pefectly inelastic? Perfectly elastic? Unit elastic?
  2. What relationship exists between relative slopes of demand curves and elasticity?
  3. What are two characteristics of cigarettes that make demand for them inelastic?
  4. What are two characteristics of heart transplants that make demand perfectly inelastic?
  5. What are the characteristics of a good for which demand is perfectly elastic?

73 responses so far

Oct 04 2010

The role of advertising in determining price elasticity of demand

Published by under Elasticity

How can a commercial like the one below decrease the price elasticity of demand for a product like Molson Canadian beer? After this extremely successful commercial was released in Canada, Molson’s share of the beer market increased by 3%, while that of Labatt’s its largest competitor, shrunk by 3%.

[youtube Du-3DZILy2M nolink]

The factors that affect the price elasticity of demand for a particular good are:
S -the number of  substitutes the good has.
P – The proportion of income the good is of the consumer’s income.
L - Whether the good is a luxury or a necessity
A - Whether the good is addictive
T - The amount of time consumers have to respond to a change in the price

Discussion Questions:

  1. How can a successful advertising campaign reduce consumers’ responsiveness to changes in price of a good like Molson beer?
  2. Why is it in the interest of a firm like Molson to decrease the price elasticity of demand for its product?

82 responses so far

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