Archive for the 'Externalities' Category

Dec 06 2011

Grinchonomics, 2nd edition: “Santa’s hollow threat…” or “how the Economist can help save Christmas”

Last year, I argued that Christmas was the most inefficient time of the year due to the large loss of welfare that goes with the tradition of gift giving. This year I will argue that Santa Claus, as the tradition is embraced in the English speaking world, fails to provide children with strong enough incentives to behave nicely, thus resulting in too much naughty behavior, reducing society’s welfare in the months leading up to Christmas. We’ll explore a market-based solution to this market failure,  already being practiced across the European continent, which harnesses the power of incentives to improve children’s behavior, and the overall efficiency of the Christmas holiday.

The lyrics to the popular Christmas song, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, are a warning to little children that they better not act naughty, OR ELSE! Read them and see what I mean:

You better watch out, You better not cry
Better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He’s making a list, And checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good, So be good for goodness sake!
O! You better watch out! You better not cry
Better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

“So be good for goodness sake,” a child will say, ” OR WHAT? What are you going to do Santa, if I am naughty? Are you not going to bring me a present that I really want?”

You see, this is the problem with the Santa I grew up with. He is all carrot, and no stick. Humans respond to incentives, and the Santa I grew up with is great at incentivizing nice behavior, but he’s really bad at disincentivizing naughty behavior. Consider the following:

  • Santa sees me when I’m sleeping and knows when I’m awake, so he knows when I’ve been bad or good. If I’m good, the implication is that I will be rewarded with wonderful gifts from Santa come Christmas time.
  • If I’m bad, however, I will experience no loss whatsoever. While I will not benefit as much as the good children, nothing will be taken away from me. I will be made no worse off by being naughty, rather the degree to which I will be made better off is reduced.

This is a classic incentive problem. Santa provides rewards for good behavior, but fails to dole out punishment for bad behavior. A culture which embraces this benevolent Santa will invariably produce too many naughty children. Such a market failure can be illustrated clearly using benefit and cost analysis:

As economists, we’re always exploring ways to improve efficiency in the markets for different goods, services, and human behaviors. Clearly, in the market above, in which children determine how naughty they will be based on their perceived private benefits and costs of their own behavior, there is a market failure.

Due to Santa’s hollow threat (“…you better watch out!”), children lack a strong disincentive to not act naughtily, and therefore choose to engage in naughty behavior to the extent that overall welfare in society is reduced. The marginal private benefits of naughty behavior are far greater than the marginal social benefits of naughty behavior (let’s face it, acting naughty is FUN!).

So how could Santa better harness incentives and disincentives (both the carrot and the stick) to reduce naughty behavior and increase overall welfare in society, thereby increasing the overall efficiency? Santa must do more than just encourage good behavior; he must also strongly discourage naughty behavior.

Well, as it turns out, the Santa I grew up with is not the only version of Santa Claus in the world, and in fact the Santa known to millions of children all over Europe is one with a fearsome, wrathful side that is not timid about doling out punishment to naughty children. Allow me to introduce the European Santa, and his evil alter-ego, known here in Switzerland by the ominous name Schmutzli (which translates loosely to “dirty face”).

img source: http://www.ricksteves.com

The Swiss news site Swissinfo.ch introduces the character Schmutzli:

This is not the Santa Claus known to English-speaking countries but the Swiss version – who is normally accompanied by a strange-looking individual with a blacked out face.

The Swiss Father Christmas was based on Saint Nicholas, whose feast day was celebrated on Saturday – his Swiss German name, Samichlaus, alludes to that. But the origins of his sinister companion are less easy to make out.

Known as Schmutzli in the German part of the country… Samichlaus’s alter ego usually carries a broom of twigs for administering punishment to children whose behaviour throughout the year has not been up to scratch.

You see, here in Switzerland, and in much of Western Europe, Santa brings gifts for the children who have been nice, but his partner Schmutzli delivers harsh punishments to those children who have been naughty. Schmutzli, who goes by different names in other parts of Europe, is known to throw naughty children in his sack, carry them into the woods, and administer a fierce beating with his birch stick, and for the naughtiest children, to eat them or throw their beaten bodies into a river.

Schmutzli, quite literally, provides the stick to accompany Santa’s carrot. In Europe, children not only receive wonderful rewards from Santa for good behavior, but fierce punishments from Schmutzli for naughty behavior.

From an economic perspective, Schmutzli’s existence increases the efficiency of the Santa character dramatically, and therefore improves overall welfare in society by giving children both an incentive to act nice and a strong disincentive to act naughty, thereby internalizing the negative social costs of naughty behavior. The outcome can be as illustrated as below:

As the graph illustrates, Schmutzli’s presence by Santa’s side come Christmas time forces children, in their decisions regarding naughty behavior, to account for the likelihood that Santa truly “knows when you’ve been bad or good”. For if he does know when you’ve been bad, Santa will unleash Schmutzli, his child-hauling sack and his birch stick on those whose behavior has been more naughty than nice.

Schmutli’s existence in Switzerland’s Santa story internalizes the external costs of naughty behavior among children, and thereby reduces the marginal benefits enjoyed by naughty children, reducing the actual number of naughty children and the size of the deadweight loss they impose on society. Fewer children will act naughty, the externality is reduced, and overall welfare in society improves.

There you have it. The deadweight loss of Santa. If you ever doubted that Economists could find the inefficiency in Christmas, I’ve shown you once again that it is indeed the most inefficient time of the year. By providing a balance of rewards and punishments, Schmutzli’s presence corrects the incentive problem of an always benevolent Santa. Society as a whole should therefore suffer from less naughty behavior among its children.

Once again, a little Economic analysis can help make Christmas more efficient for all!

8 responses so far

Nov 29 2011

“I am the condom friend ever useful to you”

Market failures exist all around us. Until you have studied the concept, however, you would probably never know it! Not all market failures are in the form of pollution, however, and in fact many of the goods that are beneficial to society can be pointed to as examples of market failure.

If a good creates external benefits for society beyond those enjoyed by the consumer of the good itself, it is said to create positive externalities of consumption. Condoms are an example of such a good; when an individual uses a condom when having sex, he enjoys several private benefits, such as reducing the chance of becoming infected with a sexually transmitted disease and reducing the likelihood of an unwanted pregnancy. However, the benefits for society of condom use are much greater, and include lower HIV and other STD infection rates, thus a healthier, more productive population, lower birth rates thus less pressure on resources from excessive population growth. These are external benefits of condom use, which means they will not be considered when an individual decides whether or not he will use a condom when engaging in sex.

Using the terminology of market failure, the marginal social benefits of condom use exceed the marginal private benefits. Thus, when left to the free market, the quantity of condoms consumed will be less than the socially optimal quantity. Not enough people will use protection when having sex: birth rates will be higher than desired, HIV infection rates will be higher and society as a whole will bear the costs of unsafe sexual activity.

In India, a developing country where the average woman still has nearly three children in her life, population growth threatens to put increasing pressure on the nation’s resources. Therefore, the country could benefit greatly from increased use of condoms.  The video below demonstrates an attempt by non-governmental organizations to increase awareness among Indian males about the purpose and appropriate use of condoms.

Watch the video and respond to the questions that follow:

Discussion Questions:

  1. What approach does the video take to correcting the market failure in the use of condoms?
  2. Why is condom use lower than what is socially optimal in India?
  3. Is this video an example of a commercial, or is it a public service announcement? What’s the difference?
  4. Do you think it will work? How would we know if the video succeeded or failed?

100 responses so far

Nov 29 2011

Market failure versus Government failure – what should we be more concerned about?

One of the most prominent economists of the 20th century was the late Milton Friedman, an ardent free market supporter who remained skeptical of government’s ability to correct market failures through interventionist policies.

I found the talk below interesting. Friedman offers several examples of market failures that have been pointed to as a justification for government intervention, and argues that in fact, government often does not truly know what the right outcome is in most cases. He believes that government failure should be just as much a concern as market failure; and that therefore societal welfare would be best met by finding market-based solutions to the misallocation of resources that sometimes arises under conditions in which externalities exist.

As you watch the video, consider Friedman’s claims regarding the role of government, then post your response to one of the discussion questions below.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is government better able to know the “optimal” quantity of output of different goods and services than private individuals are?
  2. Under what conditions would the free market be best able to achieve solutions to market failures such as those described by Friedman?
  3. What do you think should be of greater to concern to society, market failure or government failure?

 

8 responses so far

Feb 07 2011

Internalizing externalities: Zurich’s expensive garbage

This post is about how Switzerland has successfully employed an innovative system of incentives to encourage its citizens to reduce the amount of garbage they create. Just three weeks in this amazing country and I can already see why it earned the highest score in last year’s Environmental Performance Index.

In the AP and IB Economics units on market failure, we study the concept of negative externalities, which exist when the behavior of one individual or firm creates spillover costs to be faced by other individuals or society as a whole. A simple example is a factory that dumps waste in a river. Clearly, disposing of its waste in such a manner poses little or no cost on the factory owners, but significant costs on downstream users of the river’s water. A community that wishes to use the river for drinking water must now install expensive filtration and purifying systems just to make the water usable. The factory has kept its own costs down by externalizing the cost of filtration by passing it on to downstream users.

Spillover costs exist on micro levels as well. While it is easy to see how a large factory creates negative externalities, it is often harder to imagine how we as individuals create spillover costs for our neighbors and society in our everyday actions. The stark truth, however, is that an individual’s behavior, multiplied by millions upon millions of individuals making up a citizenry, can have as great if not greater negative impacts on the environment and society as the negligent behavior of one firm.

Here in Switzerland, the behavior of each individual citizen is subject to unusually strict scrutiny. No, Big Brother is not watching, as you may be thinking, (however, I have heard stories of snoopy neighbors alerting the police upon witnessing the most minor of infractions by a fellow citizen), rather, one finds it in his best economic interest to strictly monitor his own behavior down to the finest detail. Allow me to explain what I mean.

Let’s take garbage for example. The definition of garbage in Switzerland is very different from that in the United States. Where I’m from, garbage is anything that you can’t use anymore. You throw it “away”, put it on the curb and it disappears.

A garbage bag in the US is usually a 40 gallon (160 litre) plastic bag that could fit an entire family inside, and the typical American family probably produces two to three bags worth of “garbage” each week, which conveniently disappears in the wee hours of the morning to be taken “somewhere”, which most Americans don’t know or care to know where that is. How much does it cost an American household to dispose of this voluminous quantity of garbage? Well, the bags cost around 18 cents each, and monthly removal services vary depending on the community, but are typically a flat rate for almost any amount of garbage.

In the United States, it is very easy for individuals to pass the true cost of their garbage disposal onto society as a whole. It doesn’t matter all that much whether you put one tiny plastic bag on the curb or a half dozen 40 gallon bags on the curb, you are going to generally pay the same amount for collection regardless. The result of such a system is that the typical household has no incentive to reduce the amount of garbage that it produces. Logically, Americans are inclined to over-consume and produce copious amounts of garbage in the absence of any significant system of incentives in place to encourage waste reduction.

So, what’s different about Switzerland? It’s all about incentives. Let me explain. Here, you don’t pay a flat rate for garbage removal. In fact, you don’t HAVE to pay anything for garbage removal! Oh wow, you say, it’s FREE? In fact, quite the opposite is true. You don’t have to pay anything for garbage removal as long as you don’t create any garbage. In other words, you only pay for what you throw away.

Unlike in the US, here a typical garbage bag here is a 35 litre plastic sack, only slightly larger than a plastic grocery bag. Each village requires its citizens to buy official garbage bags for that community, and each individual bag costs anywhere from $1.50 – $2.50. A role of ten 35 litre bags can cost around $25.

When we consider that anything a household wishes to throw away must be put in an official village garbage bag which itself must be purchased for $2.25, and we know that a typical 40 gallon (160 litre) garbage bag in the US costs just $0.18, we can easily calculate and compare the costs of garbage disposal to both US and Swiss households.

  • In Switzerland: 100 litres of garbage costs $6.40 to dispose of
  • In the US: 100 litres of garbage costs a little over $0.11 to dispose of
  • In other words, garbage removal costs Swiss households around 57 times as much per litre as it does Americans, when we consider the price of garbage bags alone.

Clearly, Swiss households are given a significant incentive NOT to create garbage. So what DO the Swiss do with lots of their waste? Recycle it, of course! See, here in Switzerland all recycling is free. The villages even offer free curb side pick-ups for all recyclable materials.

A simple system of incentives (and dis-incentives) is the secret to Switzerland’s environmental success. Other systems are in place to encourage citizens to use public transport, tread lightly while hiking in the outdoors, conserve energy and water at home, and behave in other environmentally friendly ways, but I’ll save my discussion of those items for another time, once I figure out how to reduce, re-use and recycle all my own “garbage” here in Zurich!

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Zurich’s system of garbage collection “internalize” the “externality” associated with household consumption?
  2. Incentives matter. This is a basic economic concept that can be used to fix many of the environmental, social, economic and health problems faced in society. Identify one way your parents have used incentives to try to get you to do something or NOT do something they think you should or shouldn’t do.
  3. Discourage what society want less of, encourage what society wants more of.  Identify and discuss one example of a market in which a government (local or national) uses incentives to discourage certain behaviors, and one example of a market in which incentives are used to encourage certain behaviors.

45 responses so far

Jan 17 2011

Market Failure and Bullets

Should hunters switch to ‘green’ bullets? – CNN.com

Chis Rock once said,

“We don’t need gun control, we need bullet control. I think a bullet should cost $5,000, cause if a bullet cost $5,000 there would be no more innocent bystanders.”

Chris Rock may not have had market failure in mind when he wrote this joke, but he unknowingly demonstrated a perfect example of a case in which the over-consumption of a particular good results in spillover costs on third parties not involved in the original transaction (the “innocent bystanders”). In economics, this is known as a negative externality of consumption, and is considered a market failure because without some kind of government intervention, too much of the harmful good will be produced and consumed: in this case, too many bullets are consumed causing harm to society.

I always thought Chris Rock’s idea of taxing bullets was a good idea, but never thought I’d find a real example of such a solution to market failure, until now. Although the bullets in the article below are those used by hunters, whereas Chris Rock’s bullets are probably those used by gangsters, the economic concepts underlying the market failures are similar.

Three years ago, Phillip Loughlin made a choice he knew would brand him as an outsider with many of his fellow hunters:

He decided to shoot “green” bullets.

“It made sense,” Loughlin said of his switch to more environmentally friendly ammo, which doesn’t contain lead. “I believe that we need to do a little bit to take care of the rest of the habitat and the environment — not just what we want to shoot out of it.”

Lead, a toxic metal that can lower the IQs of children, is the essential element in most ammunition on the market today.

But greener alternatives are gaining visibility — and stirring controversy — as some hunters, scientists, environmentalists and public health officials worry about lead ammunition’s threat to the environment and public health.

Hunting groups oppose limits on lead ammunition, saying there’s no risk and alternatives are too expensive…

Lead bullets cause harm to the environment and possibly to human health. The private consumption of these bullets exceeds what is socially optimal, while “green” bullets, on the other hand, are under-consumed by private individuals. There are two market failures occurring here, and they can be illustrated as follows:
When markets fail, government action is sometimes necessary to achieve a more socially optimal allocation of resources. The bullet market represents a market failure because too many harmful lead bullets are being consumed while not enough environmentally friendly “green” bullets are being consumed.

The graphs above show the impact of corrective taxes and subsidies in resolving these market failures. Whether or not governments will pursue such corrective policies has yet to be seen. A couple of states, however, appear to already understand that market failures require government intervention.

Last year, California banned lead bullets in the chunk of the state that makes up the endangered California condor’s habitat. The large birds are known to feed on scraps of meat left behind by hunters. Those scraps sometimes contain pieces of lead bullets, and lead poisoning is thought to be a contributor to condor deaths.

Arizona, another condor state, gives out coupons so hunters can buy green ammunition. Utah may soon follow suit.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why don’t all states simply ban the use of lead bullets by hunters? Is this solution socially optimal?
  2. Besides corrective taxes and subsidies, how could government reduce the demand for lead bullets and increase demand for “green” bullets?
  3. How will Arizona’s use of coupons demonstrate a market-based approach to externality reduction?
  4. And this one is from the authors of the Environmental Economics blog: “Do you think the deer care which kind of bullets the hunters use?”

18 responses so far

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