Archive for the 'Cost-minimization' Category

Nov 21 2008

Eight basic economic arguments against a bailout of the auto industry

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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”.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

38 responses so far

Mar 04 2008

Free trade and low death rate = bad business

How do Chinese granite quarries and a decline in the US death threaten a family business in rural Vermont?

Listen and find out…

Source: NPR Economy Podcast, 2/29/2008 

2 responses so far

Jan 11 2008

Reducing negative externalities – the European market for carbon emissions

Tighter European limits set to push up price of carbon emissions – Times Online

Market for pollution permits

When it comes to correcting the market failure of negative externalities, governments have several options. The most interventionist approaches may involve placing strict limits on the amount of a pollutant firms are allowed to emit and fining them for exceeding this limit, taxing firms that pollute in order to increase their costs and decrease market supply, reducing output and increasing price closer to a socially optimal level, or simply banning the production and consumption of goods whose existence places excessive spillover costs on society.

Such interventionist approaches to externality reduction tend to require a complex bureaucracy to administer, monitor, execute and enforce. The government may not be able to determine the appropriate level of a tax on a polluter if it can’t determine the exact level of the externalized costs placed on society; the government cannot always check up on every producer in the economy to determine just exactly how much pollution each factory’s producing, and then levying a fine on excessive polluters again raises the question of how high should a penalty be?

Because of the complexities involved in the interventionist approaches above, economists have recently promoted and the worlds’ governments have begun adopting a market-based approach to reducing negative externalities, involving the creation of a whole new market: one in which the right to pollute is bought and sold by firms. This may sound crazy at first, but here’s a basic summary of how these markets work:

  • A government or international agency decides on the acceptable amount of pollution in a particular region and issues permits that firms can purchase giving them the right to pollute. Each permit will allow a certain amount of pollution. The total supply of permits is perfectly inelastic since it is decided by the government agency.
  • The demand for pollution permits is downward sloping. At high prices, firms will either stop polluting or pollute less by acquiring pollution-abatement equipment, which is more attractive when the rights are more expensive. If the “cost of pollution” is cheap, then firms will chose to buy permits rather than acquiring expensive abatement equipment or upgrading to “greener” technology.
  • In the market for pollution permits, the “price to pollute” will be determined by the downward sloping demand among firms for pollution permits and the perfectly inelastic supply of permits determined by the number issued by the government. If the price of permits is too low to make firms bear the full environmental and social costs of their production, the government can reduce the supply thus increase the price and decrease the quantity of pollution permits demanded, reducing the negative externalities of pollution as firms will shift to greener production techniques.

There are several advantages to this system over direct government controls:

  • It reduces society’s costs because pollution rights can be bought and sold. Some firms will find it cheaper to buy the rights than to acquire abatement equipment; other firms can sell their rights because they may be able to reduce pollution at a lower cost. The incentive for all firms is to reduce their own pollution and sell the permits they no longer need, adding to the profits of “green firms”.
  • Conservation groups and  individuals can buy permits as  well as producers. If conservation or individuals wish to make it more expensive for firms to pollute, they can buy permits and hold them. This drives up the price of remaining rights, further encouraging polluters to reduce emissions.
  • The revenue from the sale of pollution rights could be used to improve the environment or subsidies more environmentally friendly methods of production.
  • The rising cost of pollution rights should lead to improved pollution-control techniques.

In the article above, we see how the creation of a market for carbon pollution permits in Europe evolved from a fledgling, ineffective experiment in market-based externality reduction a few years ago to a major market where billions of dollars worth of carbon permits are exchanged each day between firms, all of which have incentives to continually reduce their level of carbon emissions so as to minimize their costs and perhaps even earn revenue through the sale of unneeded permits.

The first phase (of the carbon permit market) was launched in 2005 but was widely dismissed as a failure, primarily because too many permits were granted by member states to individual polluters, leading to a collapse in market prices to as little as €1 (74p) per tonne. The slide undermined the principle of the scheme – to make carbon emissions a meaningful cost for big polluters, thereby encouraging reductions.

The key difference in the second phase is a reduction of between 5 per cent and 10 per cent in the emissions permits granted. Mr Marcu said that he expected the tougher regime to “start delivering some substantive reductions” in carbon emissions.

City analysts believe that it will lead to a big increase in the market price of carbon. Deutsche Bank expects forward prices to rise from the present level of about €23 a tonne to €35. UBS has predicted a rise to €30 a tonne.

35 euros per ton of carbon may not sound like a lot, until you consider how many millions of tons of carbon are emitted by the big factories of Europe each year. In fact, when we realize the size of this market at $100 billion, we then begin to grasp just how significant such a market can be in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That means that firms are spending $100 billion for the right to pollute!

Just imagine, if you were a manager of a firm that was polluting heavily, the more expensive these permits get, the higher your average costs of production get, the less competitive you become with firms who have taken steps to clean up their production. Not only do you not have to buy as many permits once you start cleaning up, but you actually start earning revenue by selling the permits you no longer need!

A market for externality permits minimizes the role the government must play in managing the production and emission practices of the economies big polluters. Furthermore, if the permits are auctioned off from the beginning, billions can earned in revenue for the government, which in theory could be used to subsidize the research and development of pollution abatement technologies and “green energies” like wind and solar power.

While it still may seem weird that governments are giving firms the right to pollute, the logic of such a plan makes sense once the picture is clear. Markets work, even when they’re being used to correct a market failure.

Discussion questions:

  1. What are some ways a government could invest the revenue earned from the sale of pollution permits to firms?
  2. Why is a market for pollution permits easier to implement than strict government control of the pollution of individual firms?
  3. What is the importance of incentives in achieving reduction of negative externalities? Does a market for pollution permits create more or less of an incentive to reduce emissions than direct government controls?

167 responses so far

Aug 20 2007

Red Storm Rising!! China bashing picks up steam…

Made in China: News & Videos about Made in China –

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Thanks to James Hannam from my IB Econ class for providing the link to the site above. CNN jumps on the China bashing bandwagon and does its part to trump up fears of the danger posed by the “Wild West” of China’s manufacturing sector. This site has a wealth of anti-Chinese features including videos, quizzes, investigative reports and so on. Here’s the headlines warning us to be afraid of Chinese imports:

Given the tendency of media to dramatize and blow out of proportion certain issues for the sake of entertainment and to feed the American appetite for scandal, the full blown anti-Chinese campaign is no real surprise. Americans’ own insecurity about the strength (or should I say weakness) of their manufacturing sector surely fuels the Sino-bashing trend that seems to be dominating the media. All this will provide political fodder for lots of nationalistic, pro-America “protect American jobs” rhetoric in the upcoming presidential race too, I’m sure.

What I would challenge you, my students and readers, to ask is: who’s really at fault here? Are Chinese factory owners, whose sole purpose is to make a profit, really to be trusted to uphold standards of product quality and safety that America’s highly industrial economy took over a century to put in place? China only started industrializing in a modern way less than 30 years ago, and much of the development has been spearheaded and overseen by, yes, American firms. The sourcing of manufacturing to third party factories in recent years is a sign of the growing entrepreneurial spirit of China’s new generations of capitalists. Weak regulation by Chinese authorities is a sign not of corruption or malice on the behalf of Chinese producers, but of American consumer’s expectation that goods from China will get cheaper and cheaper.

American consumers seem to have forgotten an old adage, “you get what you pay for”. Just today, in my principles course, we talked about how you don’t always get what you pay for (i.e. diamonds). But in the case of cheap Chinese products, it would appear today that perhaps this adage holds true. Americans take for granted that products like seafood maybe aren’t supposed to be cheap! The freezers of Costco and Wal-Mart are filled with giant bags of shrimp, frozen fish, and other cheap seafoods that we have grown to expect to be there. If Americans want guarantees of their products’ safety, they should look for quality rather than quantity. Try eating locally if you fear the safety of imported food products.

Ultimately, the harm caused by Chinese products will be minimized not only by more and more government regulation, but also by consumers who change their buying patterns to reflect an appreciation for quality and safety over quantity and cheapness. Consumers who demand quality should vote with their pocket books, not rely on government to protect them from the dangers of the “Red Storm” Lou Dobbs warns us of. Markets contain the perfect mechanism for improving the quality and safety of products coming from China, and that’s the power of consumer sovereignty and strength to influence producer behavior through their buying behaviors.

Students, debate and discuss!

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Aug 19 2007

IB: US protectionism threatens trade liberalization – and a little irony to stir things up

Trade protectionism could cause economic isolation – Poole – Aug. 17, 2007

In our coming unit on International Economics we will weigh the various arguments for and against protectionism, or the erecting of barriers to trade, and examine examples of various types of protection, its aims and effects on international trade.

In the article above, St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President William Poole warns that the US is working against trade liberalization goals established in Doha, Qatar in 2001 by playing on fears among American consumers of harmful food and toy imports from countries such as China:

Poole said in his speech that the slackening in trade liberalization could have serious consequences. “The Doha Development Agenda multilateral trade negotiations are on the verge of collapse. A collapse of the Doha round would raise doubts about the future effectiveness of the World Trade Organization,” he warned.

The current world trade talks to reduce barriers to imports are called the Doha round because they were launched in Doha, Qatar, in 2001.

Poole also said recent safety worries on product imports from China must not be allowed to create barriers to trade.

“My concern is that certain groups will attempt to use concerns over safety and job loss to restrict imports and thereby pursue an agenda of economic isolation in an increasingly globalized world.”

Recent scares following the discovery that Chinese imports of pet food and toothpaste into the United States contained impurities were compounded after a major U.S. toy maker withdrew millions of toys with lead paint.”

It is easy for retaliatory trade measures to escalate and derail the desirable movement to a more open trading environment. It is in the best interests of all the countries of the world to avoid trade wars,” Poole

Ironically, some say the blame for the potentially dangerous imports from China lay not entirely on Chinese manufactures, but on American companies that own the factories producing the dangerous products. Check out this article:

Recalls: Should U.S. companies share some blame with China? – Aug. 14, 2007

The recent spate of product recalled – melamine-tainted pet food, toothpaste laced with antifreeze and a second batch of Mattel-branded toys made with lead paint – were all made in Southern China’s low-cost manufacturing hub that’s notorious for its lax regulations.But some industry watchers say U.S. importers that do business with these factories are more to blame than even their Chinese suppliers for allowing those unsafe products to enter the U.S. marketplace.

“U.S. law is pretty clear. The importer is responsible for quality and safety of goods imported into the country,” said Erin Ennis, vice president with the U.S.-China Business Council

Part of the problem, says the article, is that competition has forced American firms to cut costs wherever possible, and often this means “sourcing” production to factories owned not by the American company, but by Chinese (or Vietnamese, Mexican, Malaysian, and other foreign owners) where strict oversight of product quality is not assured. Does this mean American firms are no longer responsible for their own product safety? Should the blame be placed on China when an American company produces toys that turn out to be dangerous?

One reason manufacturing products such as toys in China (80% or the world’s toys are made in China, according to the article) is because standards for products safety are so low, so the regulatory obstacles to production are almost non-existant, making production cheap.

Another connection this article makes to our IB course is in the area of development economics. The theory of comparative advantage says that a country should specialize in the products for which its resources are most adept at production. For two decades, China has emerged as a manufacturing giant. But with new fears of product safety, and more significantly the rising cost of labor and land in manufacturing hubs such as Shenzhen and Shanghai, Western firms are looking to China’s less developed neighbors as an alternative:

“If I was sourcing heavily in China, I would be exploring alternatives like Vietnam and Cambodia,” said Sean McGowan, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities, referring to rising labor and production costs in the southern China’s manufacturing belt.

If China moves towards enforcing tighter standards of product safety in its thus far highly unregulated manufacturing industry, this will surely result in higher costs of production for companies like Mattel (the toy manufacturer who recalled 14 million toys last week because of safety issues). Higher production costs in China will send firms looking elsewhere for manufacturing options (such as Vietnam and Cambodia). In effect, the demand for higher quality standards will lead to tighter regulation by the Chinese government, leading to higher production costs in Chinese factories, leading to loss of business from Western firms, leading to the opening of new factories in even less regulated countries like Cambodia.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are retaliatory measures by the US government necessary to punish China for the dangerous exports that have arrived in the US recently?
  2. Does tighter enforcement of quality standards by the Chinese government assure products like toys being imported to the US will be safer? Explain.
  3. As wages and production costs continue to rise in China, how will less developed countries in Asia and elsewhere be affected?

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