Archive for the 'Efficiency' Category

Dec 16 2010

Grinchonomics – or “how the Economist stole Christmas”

Every year around this time economics students and teachers alike begin looking forward to the long Christmas holiday right around the corner. Two or three weeks of yuletide cheer, mistletoe, snow men, caroling, food, family and… dead weight loss. That’s right, what’d you think this post would be about, the efficiency of Christmas? Come on… it’s the DISMAL science! Not the jolly science!

The tradition of giving Christmas presents has long fallen under the scope of economic researchers who seek to understand more about the rational, or as it turns out, irrational behavior of individuals in society. From an economic standpoint, many of the things that Christmas traditionalists believe are bad, are actually good, while the traditions many believe are good are in fact quite bad from an economist’s viewpoint. Basically, economists are grinches. So prepare to be grinchified…

Are you the kind of person who thinks doing all your Christmas shopping online is cold, impersonal, and against the holiday spirit? Well, Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics, argues that shopping online is far more efficient than spending days roaming the malls and shopping centers searching for the right gift for your loved ones. Says Dubner about “clicking and gifting” (i.e. shopping online):

See here’s the thing: I like the sound of clicking and gifting, that sounds efficient to me. That’s what we need to bring to the holidays, is more efficiency, less emotion. Let’s get rid of that.

Economists’ disdain for Christmas shopping is not limited to criticizing the inefficiency of spending hours shopping for gifts, in fact the tradition of giving gifts itself is considered economically irrational and inefficient. Sure, you say, it’s the thought that counts. Well, that’s just stupid. A gift giver can think all he wants about what a friend or a loved one may want for Christmas, and end up buying the thing they think the other person wants. But when it comes down to it, each of us only really knows what one person in this world wants, and that is ourselves, that’s right, the royal ME.

So basically, any gift you can buy for someone else will bring them less benefit than a purchase they themselves make; so WHY BOTHER? What it comes down to is self-interest in the end. When we buy a gift for another person, it is ultimately for our own benefit, which as we will see soon, most often exceeds the benefit of the receiver of the gift.

This is what’s known as the dead weight loss of Christmas. From an economic standpoint, Christmas is not “the most wonderful time of the year”, rather it’s “the most inefficient time of the year” (not so catchy as a song lyric, I’m afraid). Dead weight loss is like when,

…my wife’s great-grandma buys me a sweater at $85 and to me it’s worth like $1.50. Because I don’t like it… so that’s $83.50 deadweight loss… And the holidays are jam-packed with that kind of waste.

We’ve all been there, as both the gift giver and the unfortunate receiver of a gift we don’t like or even want. In fact, this phenomenon can be graphed using a basic diagram learned by all high school economic students: the marginal benefit, marginal cost diagram. Look at the graph below and see if you can figure out what it shows, then scroll down and read the explanation.

Basically, what the graph above shows is that the act of giving gifts brings benefits to the gift giver that are not enjoyed by the gift’s receiver. From the ultimate consumer’s standpoint (i.e. from the perspective of the gift receivers), many of the gifts received for Christmas will be valued far less than the amount of money, time and energy that went into choosing and buying them by the gift giver.

In other words, the marginal cost of shopping for and buying Christmas presents exceeds the marginal benefit of those who receive them, hence, the market for Christmas gifts fails since the behavior of private individuals results in a level of Christmas shopping that exceeds the socially optimal efficient level, at which the marginal benefit of the give receivers intersects the marginal cost of gift production. Resources are over-allocated towards Christmas present shopping because it is simply impossible for gift givers to know the precise preferences of those for whom they shop.

That $85 sweater, for instance, may have only been “worth” $1.50 to the poor fellow who received it. The dead weight loss, therefore, is the resources that went towards producing and purchasing a sweater for someone who doesn’t even like it, and all the other possible ways those resources and that money could have been allocated.

Have I ruined your Christmas yet? Well, fear not, there is an economically efficient way to approach the Christmas season and to maintain the beloved tradition of gift giving! That’s right, even the Grinch economists have a solution to this wasteful problem! And it is so simple… it is… CASH! Cash is the ultimate gift, perfect in every way. No time whatsoever is wasted in the process of deciding what to give someone. Simply put your debit card in the ATM machine and your entire season of shopping is done!

Cash is the perfect gift to receive too. There is no chance you will be unsatisfied with what you ultimately “get” for Christmas.  Cash can be spent on the goods from which the receiver himself enjoys the greatest marginal utility per dollar he spends. The dead weight loss above is completely eliminated when cash is given instead of other presents. The marginal benefit of the giver and the marginal benefit of the receiver are the same since the giver can rest assured that the receiver will spend it on something that provides him with the greatest possible benefit.

So there is a happy ending to this story after all! Maybe someday when economic education has truly succeeded we can once and for all do away with the wastefulness and inefficiency of Christmases past and form new traditions rooted in the efficiency of cash gifts. So, students of economics, if you want to make your loved ones happy this Christmas, you now know what to do. In the process, you’ll help make the world just a little bit more efficient!

For more on the dead weight loss of Christmas, listen to and discuss with your class the two podcasts below, from two of my favorite shows, American Public Media’s Marketplace (from which the quotes above are taken) and NPR’s Planet Money.

Discussion Questions:

  1. A market failure in economics exists whenever resources are allocated inefficiently towards the production or the consumption of a certain good. What makes holiday gift giving a market failure?
  2. Why is the marginal benefit of a gift giver often times greater than the marginal benefit of a give receiver? How does this discrepancy result in “negative social benefits” as indicated on the graph?
  3. What is dead weight loss and how does holiday gift giving result in it?
  4. Why are cash gifts more “efficient” than buying presents for others? How would an economist analyze the efficiency of gift cards or gift certificates compared to presents? To cash?
  5. Should we scrap Christmas and replace it with Economistmas? For Economistmas, everyone would get exactly what they want, which is to say, everyone would get money to BUY exactly what everyone wants. Surely you agree this would be far superior to our antiquated traditions rooted in inefficiency and dead weight loss, right?

Author’s note: For the record, I have bought my wife and family the perfect gifts this year! They’re simply going to love what I got them! And no, it is not cash! ;o) Merry Christmas!!

20 responses so far

Dec 08 2010

Why Greed is Good (or how in pursuit of their own self-interest firms do what’s best for society)

Efficiency means more than just producing in the least cost manner. To be efficient a market must also allocate the right amount of resources towards the production of the good or service it provides. Allocative efficiency occurs when land, labor and capital are allocated towards the production of goods and services in combinations that are socially optimal. In other words, the right amount of output of various products is being produced given the demands of consumers in the economy and the costs faced by firms.

Because of firms’ profit maximizing behavior, perfectly competitive markets allocate resources efficiently, neither over nor under-producing the goods consumers demand.

Allocative Efficiency: P=MC

Under the conditions of perfect competition, a market will be allocatively efficient as long as the firms in that market produce at the P=MC level of output. Price is a signal from buyers to sellers, and the price seen by firms signals the marginal benefit of consumers in the market. If the price consumers pay for a product is greater than the marginal cost to firms of producing it, then the message being sent to producers is that more output is demanded. In the pursuit of profits, more resources will be allocated towards the production of the product until the marginal cost and the price are equal. At the P=MC point firms maximize their profits and resources are said to be efficiently allocated.

Graph: Profit maximizing behavior leads to allocative efficiency

Assume that the firm on the right represents the typical firm in a perfectly competitive market. When firms produce at Q1 level of output, resources are under-allocated towards this good, since the price consumers are willing to pay (Pe, determined by market supply and demand) is greater than firms’ marginal cost of production. Notice that when individual firms produce Q1 units, the market supply of Qs is less than the market demand of Qd; there is a shortage in the industry as long as firms produce only Q1 units.

However, firms are unlikely to produce at this socially undesirable level for long because in their pursuit of profits they will increase their output to the quantity at which marginal cost equals the price. When they increase their output to Qf, firms maximize their profits and as a result the shortage in the market that existed when firms produced at Q1 is eliminated, improving social welfare and maximizing the total amount of consumer and producer surplus (the combined areas of the pink and green triangles in the industry graph).

Because of the profit maximizing behavior of self-interested business managers in the competitive market above, resources are more efficiently allocated than they would be otherwise. The price determined by supply and demand in the market signals the benefit society derives from this good, and as long as the price is greater than the marginal cost, the message sent from buyers to seller is “WE WANT MORE!” On the other hand, if at a given level of output marginal cost exceeds the price, resources are over-allocated towards the good. The message sent in such a market is that consumers value the product less than it costs firms to produce, so firms will reduce their output to maximize profits, correcting the over-allocation of resources and restoring a socially optimal level of output.

Allocative efficiency is achieved in a perfectly competitive market precisely because firms will always wish to maximize their profits by producing the quantity of goods at which their marginal cost equals the price.

The article Farmers May Switch Crops Due to Labor Shortage discusses some the effects of rising costs on a perfectly competitive market. Read the extract below and answer the questions that follow.

Farmers may change their crops due to the shortage of immigrant labor. Of all crops, fresh fruits and vegetables are the most labor intensive. Lettuce, strawberries and broccoli all have to be picked by hand. In Arizona, farmers are passing on chili peppers to plant corn, which is harvested by machine.

After 37 years, Ed Curry is not planting green chili anymore because corn can be harvested by machines; green chili can’t.

Curry explains, “It would take about 250 people to pick this year’s chili crop. With immigration tightened up the way it is, well, number one, we just can’t get the labor.”

About seven years ago, Ed Curry was busted for using illegal labor. Today his workers are legal. They go back and forth from Mexico each day, making seven to $8 an hour. Most are in their 50s and 60s. One man is 72 years old. Younger workers can’t get visas or don’t want the jobs. So as his workers age and his workforce dwindles, Ed Curry says he’s thinking about moving some of his operation to Mexico.

“We’re down to survival. Am I going to stay in this or not? And if I’m going to stay in it, I’ve got to do it where there’s plenty of labor and we can be competitive.”

That’s one farmer’s plight. The Western Growers Association based in California represents 3,000 farmers across the region. Its president, Tom Nassif, says farmers need Congress to pass legislation that will allow more workers in, something he says it should have done already.

Nassif says his association polled a dozen members and found more than 40,000 acres had moved to Mexico in the last year or so.


  1. Assuming the market for chili peppers is perfectly competitive, illustrate the effects of the shortage of immigrant workers on the short-run production costs and profits of chili farmers in the American Southwest.
  2. Based on your answer to #1, explain how the chili market will evolve in the long-run in response to the shortage of immigrant workers. How will the market for corn and other capital-intensive agricultural commodities be affected?
  3. Assume the US chili pepper market reaches a new long-run equilibrium following the shortage of immigrant labor. Now demand for chili peppers increases. Use a diagram to illustrate how the profit maximizing behavior of chili pepper farmers assures that there will not be a shortage of chili peppers following the increase in consumers’ demand.

Discussion Questions: In their pursuit of economic profits, firms in a competitive market will, through their collective pursuit of self-interest, inadvertently achieve an allocation of society’s scarce resources that is socially optimal.

  1. Discuss the view that allocative efficiency as defined in this chapter is a socially desirable outcome.
  2. Is it accurate to say that goodness can be achieved through greediness in a market economic system?

10 responses so far

Nov 01 2010

The problem with price controls in Europe’s agricultural markets

The following is an excerpt from chapter three of my upcoming IB Economics Textbook published by Pearson Baccalaureate

Understanding price elasticity of supply, which measures the responsiveness of producers to changes in the price of different goods, allows firm managers and government policymakers to better evaluate the effects of their output decisions and economic policies.

Excises taxes and PES: A tax on a particular good, known as an excise tax, will be paid by both the producers and the consumers of that good. When a government taxes a good for which supply is highly elastic, it is the consumer who ends up bearing the greatest burden of the tax, as producers are forced to pass the tax onto buyers in the form of a higher sales price. If the producer of a highly elastic good bears the the tax burden itself, it may be forced to reduce output to such a degree that production of the good becomes no longer economically viable. A tax on a good for which supply is highly inelastic will be born primarily by the producer of the good. The price paid by consumers will only increase slightly while the after-tax amount received by the producer will decrease significantly, but in the case of inelastic supply this will have a relatively small impact on output. A graphical representation of the effects of taxes on different goods will be introduced in chapter 4.

Price controls and PES: A common policy in rich countries aimed at assisting farmers is the use of minimum prices for agricultural commodities. The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) involves a complex system of subsidies, import and export controls and price controls, the objective of which is to ensure a fair standard of living for Europe’s agricultural community. The use of minimum prices in agricultural markets can have the unintended consequence of creating substantial surpluses of unsold output. Take the example of butter in the EU. The following excerpt was taken from the January 22, 2009 issue of the New York Times:

“Two years after it was supposed to have gone away for good, Europe’s ‘butter mountain’ is back… Faced with a drastic drop in the [demand for] dairy goods, the European Union will buy 30,000 tons of unsold butter. Surpluses… have returned because of the sharp drop in the [demand for]… butter and milk resulting partly from the global slowdown.

In response, the union’s executive body, the European Commission, said it would buy 30,000 tons of butter at a price of 2,299 euros a ton… Michael Mann, spokesman for the European Commission, said that the move was temporary but that if necessary, the European Union would buy more than those quantities of butter — though not at the same price.”

The situation in the European Union butter market can be attributed to an underestimate by policy makers of the responsiveness of butter producers to the price controls established under the CAP. A minimum price scheme of any sort, if effective, will result in surplus output of the good in question, but the 30,000 tons of unsold butter in Europe appears to exceed the expected surplus considerably. The graph below illustrates why:

A price floor (Pf) is set above the equilibrium price of butter established by the free market. Butter producers in Europe are guaranteed a price of Pf, and any surplus not sold at this price will be bought by the European Commission (EC). Assuming a relatively inelastic supply, which corresponds with the short-run period (Ssr), the increase in butter production is relatively small (Qsr), resulting in a relatively small surplus (Qsr – Qd). In the short-run, the amount of surplus butter the EU governments needed to purchase was minimal. But as we learned earlier in this chapter, as producers of goods have time to adjust to the higher price, which in the case of the CAP is a price guaranteed by the EC, they become more responsive to the higher price and are able to increase their output by much more than in the short-run. Slr represents the supply of butter in Europe after years of the minimum price scheme. As demand has fallen due to the global economic slowdown, butter producers have continued to produce at a level corresponding with the price floor (Pf), leading to ever growing butter stocks and the need for the EC to spend, in this case, 69 million euros on surplus butter.

Understanding the behavior of producers in response to changes in prices, whether due to excise taxes or price controls, better allows both firm managers and government policy makers to respond appropriately to the conditions experienced by producers and consumer in the market place and avoid inefficiencies resulting from various economic policies.

Discussion questions:

  1. Explain why the price elasticities of both demand and supply of primary commodities tend to be relatively low in the short run and higher in the long-run.
  2. Explain the factors which influence price elasticity of supply. Illustrate your answer with reference to the market for a commodity or raw material.
  3. Discuss the importance of price elasticity of supply and price elasticity of demand for producers of primary commodities in less developed countries.

6 responses so far

Oct 04 2010

The high cost of tariffs

CBC News – Money – Shipping industry gets tariff break

A tariff is a tax on imported goods or services aimed at raising the price of foreign products to make domestically produced substitutes more attractive to consumers. A tariff is a form of protectionism, which we study in unit 4.1 of the IB Economics course.

Tariffs are appealing to policymakers as a tool for protecting domestic firms from foreign competition. Used wisely, a barrier to trade such as a tariff can promote the development of certain vital industries in the domestic economy that might otherwise not exist due to the existent of more efficient, lower cost foreign competition. Tariffs benefit domestic producers but harm domestic consumers, who must pay a higher price for the imported good than they would have to under purely free trade.

The Canadian government has, until recently, charged a 25% tariff on cargo ships, tankers and large ferries built in foreign countries. As of this month, however, this tariff is being removed.

Imported cargo ships, tankers and large ferries will no longer be subject to a 25 per cent tariff, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced Friday.

The measure is aimed at making it cheaper for Canadian shipowners to replace aging fleets with more modern and more efficient vessels.

Waiving the tariff will save the industry $25 million a year for the next 10 years, the government estimates.

“These were tariffs that don’t serve any purpose because … the ships to which they apply are not capable of being made competitively in Canada,” Flaherty told reporters…

The effects of a tariff in the Canadian ship market can be illustrated using a simple supply and demand diagram. The diagram below shows the Canadian ship market before the removal of the 25% tariff and after its removal.

The domestic supply and demand curves for ships in Canada are shown above. Notice that the domestic equilibrium price for ships in Canada without trade is very high. This is because Canadian ship builders have high costs of production and therefore would require a very high price in order to be able to build ships domestically.

So where do Canadian ship buyers get their ships from? The article mentions that one Canadian company bought ships from a Turkish ship builder. Besides Turkey, some of the other countries that specialize in ship production include Denmark, South Korea, China and Japan. The world supply of ships is represented by the blue line. In a purely free trade environment, the price of ships in Canada is determined by the intersection of domestic demand and world supply, at a price of Pw.

The world price of ships is completely unresponsive to changes in demand from Canadian ship buyers. This explains why world supply is horizontal. Since the Canadian market makes up such a small proportion of the total market for ships, an increase in demand in Canada will have no impact on the world price of ships. Therefore, the world supply curve as seen by Canada ship buyers is perfectly elastic. Canadian ship buyers can buy as few ships or as many ships as they like without affecting world price.

A tariff is a tax, and a tax is a determinant of supply. A tariff of 25% increases the costs of imported ships, and shifts the world supply curve upwards. This raises the price of imported ships, and decreases the quantity demanded of ships in Canada from Q3 to Q2 ships. Notice that at the higher world price of Pwt, there are a few domestic ship builders in Canada willing and able to produce and sell ships, so domestic quantity supplied increases from 0 to Q1.

The existence of a tariff reduces the number of imported ships in Canada from 0Q3 to Q1Q2. Domestic producers of ships, who without protection would not be able to compete and therefore produce zero ships, instead produce Q1 and enjoy producer surplus represented by the triangle X. The Canadian government collects taxes on the imported ships represented by the area Z, found by multiplying the number of imported ships (Q1Q2) by the amount of the tariff (Pwt-Pw).

The tariff on imported ships did little good for the Canadian ship market. Canadian ship builders were already uncompetitive and benefited little if at all. While the government did earn revenues from the tax, the net effect on the market was a loss of welfare represented by the triangles labelled Y in the graph above. These gray areas represent the net welfare loss (or dead weight loss) of the ship tariff.

The consumers of ships, which are in fact Canadian companies that produce other goods and services, such as the ferry companies that provide access to Canada’s several remote coastal and island communities, were clearly harmed by the 25% tariff, since the price of ships is a resource cost and the tariff translated into lower supply and higher prices for consumers of ferry services. The tariff’s effect on ship buyers in Canada is visible in the graph above. At a price of Pw, the total consumer surplus in the ship market is the area of VXYZ. With the higher price resulting from the tariff, however, consumer surplus is only the are V, while producer surplus increased only to the area X and government surplus (the tax revenue from the tariff) is area Z. The net effect, however, is a loss of total welfare of the triangles labelled Y.

The tariff’s removal, on the other hand, increases the welfare of ship consumers back to VXYZ, eliminating the dead weight loss and increasing total welfare and efficiency in the ship market. This also benefits the customers of the companies that buy ships, including ferry passengers, as evidenced in the article

“The duty remission to BC Ferries will allow it to implement a two per cent rate reduction for its users later this month, the Finance Department said.”

A tariff on imports is a protectionist measure aimed at increasing domestic producer surplus in a market in which domestic firms face competition from lower cost foreign producers. However, it should be observed that a tariff generally creates a net loss of welfare for society as a whole, as the consumers of the taxed good face a higher price and demand a lower quantity of output. While a tariff reduces imports may increase domestic production, the benefit to producers comes at the cost of lost consumer surplus and a net loss of welfare in the market as a whole. The tariff also leads to allocative inefficiency in a market, as domestic resources are over-allocated towards the production of a good on which imports are subject to tariffs.

Removing tariffs on ships increases the benefit to ship buyers, who in turn pass that benefit on to their own customers, lowering the prices of important services such as shipping and ferry service to Canadian consumers. In addition, foreign producers of ships increase their sales in Canada and experience greater demand, benefiting foreign producers and workers. The increase in foreign income may mean more demand for Canada’s exports in turn, increasing employment in other sectors of the Canadian economy in which they do have a comparative advantage over their trading partners. Overall the elimination of tariffs increases total welfare, eliminates dead weight loss, and leads to a more efficient allocation of a nation’s resources towards the goods it is able to competitively produce in the global economy.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the intended purpose of the 25% tariff on imported ships? Was this a valid reason to tax foreign built ships?
  2. Who are the various “stakeholders” affected by a tariff on imported ships. Try to identify five different stakeholders who are affected by the tariff and its removal.
  3. Why does the removal of a tariff improve allocative efficiency in a country? Does it also improve productive efficiency?

15 responses so far

Dec 01 2009

Economic growth, the Chinese way

YouTube – Chinas empty city – 10 Nov 09.

My buddy living in Shanghai posted this video to his Facebook profile today. It demonstrates how misaligned incentives in China lead local government officials to launch massive government infrastructure projects, all with the goal of meeting the growth targets handed down from Beijing.

Building roads to nowhere and cities that stand empty certainly creates jobs and new spending by the workers employed in their construction, so in that regard at least one goal of such projects is achieved. But whether or not all growth is good growth depends on whether efficiency in the economy is increase or decreased as a result of the growth strategies used.

Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of resources in China are currently being allocated by the government in Beijing towards massive public works projects such as this sparkling new city in remote Inner Mongolia. But it seems that government plans don’t always fall in line with the wishes of the nation’s people. A wise man once said, “build it… and they will come.” Apparently in China, that’s not always true.

I happen to have traveled in Inner Mongolia a few years ago with a group of students from my school in Shanghai. It was a sad thing in my opinion to witness the rampant development of the once pristine and culturally rich Inner Mongolian steppes. Ethnic Mongolians had been put on large reservations (not unlike the Native American people 150 years ago) and turned into tourist attractions. The cities were populated almost entirely with ethnic Han Chinese, there for the purpose of building more new cities, mining raw materials, and selling them to the rest of China’s industries.

Fiscal policy (the use of government spending and taxes to stimulate or reduce the overall level of demand in an economy) is a powerful tool for achieving the macroeconomic goals of full-employment, economic growth and price level stability. When used effectively, government spending can also improve efficiency in an economy by allocating society’s scarce resources towards socially and economically valuable projects. In China, it appears, the government’s incentives are aimed more towards pleasing the higher ups and continuing to inflate the speculative  bubble in real estate that has almost certainly formed, rather than pursuing socially desirable and allocatively efficient projects that actually help the Chinese people. Damn shame!

Discussion Questions:

  1. What type of fiscal policy is the government in China pursuing? Expansionary or contractionary? What is the difference?
  2. Why is government spending sometimes less efficient than private sector spending?
  3. What would have been an alternative policy to allocating over $220 billion of public money into infrastructure projects that may have resulted in a more efficient allocation of China’s resources than projects such as the “empty city” in the video above?

5 responses so far

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