Archive for the 'Free Markets' Category

Oct 27 2009

Homo Economicus – “Economic Man”: Guest Lesson for ZIS Theory of Knowledge classes

Homo Economicus, the “Economic Man” is the concept underlying most economic theories. It holds that all humans are purely self-interested, rational actors who have the ability to make judgments that fulfill their subjectively defined ends. In modern economic theory, the end man seeks is generally accepted to be increasing monetary well-being and material wealth.

Philosophical foundations of “homo economicus“:

Aristotle (350 BC):

Again, how immeasurably greater is the pleasure, when a man feels a thing to be his own; for surely the love of self is a feeling implanted by nature and not given in vain, although selfishness is rightly censured; this, however, is not the mere love of self, but the love of self in excess, like the miser’s love of money; for all, or almost all, men love money and other such objects in a measure. And further, there is the greatest pleasure in doing a kindness or service to friends or guests or companions, which can only be rendered when a man has private property. These advantages are lost by excessive unification of the state.

  • What does Aristotle think about the interference of government in the private property rights of man?

Adam Smith (1776):

In almost every other race of animals, each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer: and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.

  • How does Smith believe the pursuit of individual self-interest can lead to benefits for society as a whole?

John Stuart Mill (1836)

What is now commonly understood by the term “economics” is not the science of speculative politics, but a branch of that science. It does not treat of the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging of the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end. It predicts only such of the phenomena of the social state as take place in consequence of the pursuit of wealth. It makes entire abstraction of every other human passion or motive; except those which may be regarded as perpetually antagonizing principles to the desire of wealth, namely, aversion to labor, and desire of the present enjoyment of costly indulgences. These it takes, to a certain extent, into its calculations, because these do not merely, like our other desires, occasionally conflict with the pursuit of wealth, but accompany it always as a drag, or impediment, and are therefore inseparably mixed up in the consideration of it.

  • According to Mill, labor is not something humans value for its own sake, but only because it allows us to do what?

Fredrick von Hayek (1930s):

We will benefit our fellow man most if we are guided solely by the striving for gain. For this purpose we have to return to an automatic system which brings this about, a self-directing automatic system which alone can restore liberty and prosperity.

  • How would Hayek respond to those who argue that the government’s role in society and the economy is to promote fairness and equality?

Are you a “homo economicus“? – The Golden Balls Game

The prize: $1 million

How to play:

  • Find an opponent from among your classmates.
  • You and your opponent have never met before today, never spoken to one another, and will never see nor speak to one another again after the game ends.
  • Since you do not know or care about your opponent, you must play this game with your own self-interest in mind, and assume that your opponent will play it with his or her self-interest in mind.
  • You have in front of you two folded pieces of paper. One says “SPLIT” and one says “STEAL”
  • You must decide which piece of paper to select, based on the following possible outcomes

The payoffs:

  • If both players decide to “split”, each player will take home $500,000.
  • If one player chooses to “split” and the other chooses to “steal” then the one who chooses to steel will take home $1 million, and the one who chose to split will get nothing
  • If both players choose to “steel”, both players go home empty handed.




Player 1: $500,000

Player 2: $500,000

Player 1: $1 million

Player 2: 0


Player 1: $0

Player 2: $1 million

Player 1: $0

Player 2: $0

Let’s play!

  • You only have one chance to play this game. Remember, you care only about yourself and should do what is best for you.
  • On the teacher’s command, reveal your decision to your opponent.
  • Take note of your payoff and report it to the teacher


  • What was the outcome of your game?
  • Was the outcome rational? Was it predictable?
  • Did the outcome reflect the concept of “homo economicus“? Were you and your opponents’ decisions purely self-interested and coldly rational, intended to maximize your OWN payoff?
  • Are you a homo economicus? What would homo economicus have done? Why?


Golden Balls – the real gameshow:


  • Which player was more like homo economicus? Sarah or Steve?
  • Which player acts rationally? What makes it rational?
  • Which player acts irrationally? What makes it irrational?

“The Trap”: Intro to game theory and rational self-interest in politics and economics:


  • John Nash’s Game Theory proved that “a system driven by selfishness did not have to lead to chaos”, that “there could always be a point of equilibrium in which everyone’s self-interest is perfectly balanced against each other”? How does such a theory support the concept of homo economicus?
  • What is the Prisoner’s Dilemma? “The rational choice is always to betray the other person.” What does this say about humans in society? Is government regulation needed to prevent constant betrayal by greedy, self-interested individuals? Or are constant betrayal and self-interest themselves capable of achieving a socially optimal outcome?

Noam Chomsky on the inefficiency of markets and the threat posed by de-regulation:


  • What is the “externality” of financial market failure that Chomsky identifies?
  • Why is the failure of a financial market more worrisome than the failure of a market like that for used automobiles?
  • How does Chomsky feel about the de-regulation of financial markets? Does he think markets are always rational and efficient?

Modern applications of the concept of Homo Economicus:

  • Rational Expectations Theory (RET): This economic theory assumes that humans acting generally in their own self-interest will make rational decision based on the best available information. Therefore, it assumes that people (and therefore, markets, which are made up of rational people) do not make systematic errors when predicting the future.
  • Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH): Rooted in Rational Expectations Theory, which itself is rooted in the concept of homo economicus, EMH says that prices in markets, particularly financial markets (whose collapse has caused the today’s global economic crisis) represent the best possible estimates of the risks attached to the ownership of various financial assets (stocks, shares, bonds, etc…) Asset bubbles are therefore impossible, since “bubble” implies an irrational and unsustainable increase in the value of an asset which will ultimately “burst”. Markets are “self-correcting”, and the most effective tool for assuring economic stability is free markets, rather than government regulation or oversight.

Connecting the dots – from Homo Economicus to today’s Economic downturn:

The general acceptance of theories rooted in the concept of homo economicus led to the de-regulation of financial markets, which allowed money and resources to go whichever way the “market” (rational or not) determined.

  • During the last decade, the market decided that more and more money and resources should go towards particular assets, specifically the United States mortgage market (the market for new homes in the US).
  • As money flooded the US home mortgage market, it became cheaper and easier for Americans to get loans to build a home. GREAT, RIGHT?! Well, only until it came time to pay back those loans.
  • Trillions of dollars worldwide became tangled up in the US mortgage market, representing households’ savings from around the globe.
  • When Americans suddenly found their loans coming due, they found it hard to repay them due to adjustable interest rates and falling home price (supply had grown more rapidly than demand).
  • American and many Europeans began defaulting on their mortgages, meaning all that money that had been lent to home buyers literally disappeared.
  • Banks and financial markets faced a “liquidity crisis”, meaning they had no money.
  • Lending stopped to households, firms, and other banks , meaning spending on goods and services decreased, meaning jobs were lost and economies entered recession.
  • How could any of this have happened if the concept homo economicus and the economic theories based on the concept are correct? Are humans always rational, calculating, perfectly informed, self-interested beings acting purely in their own self-interest?

Conclusion: The concept of homo economicus has formed the basis for economic theories for centuries and for major macroeconomic policies over the last 30 years. Policies of “market liberalization” (freeing the market from the guiding, regulatory hands of government) have led to great prosperity, but even greater risk and volatility as irrational exuberance over asset prices has led to inefficient market outcomes, bubbles, and financial shocks plunging the “real” economies of the world into recession.

Perhaps a more complete understanding of humans is needed as the human science of economics enters a new era. The human as a cold, rational, calculating creature interested in only his own gain is an over-simplification, and forming theories and policies on such an assumption is dangerous. The future of economics must incorporate a more complete and complex understanding of human behavior if the economic crises of the last two years are to be avoided down the road.

7 responses so far

Sep 29 2009

Letting markets work: the Malaysia fuel subsidy goes bye bye

This article was originally published on June 9, 2008

Asia Sentinel – Malaysia cuts fuel subsidy

One of the recurring themes of this blog is the conflict between good politics and good economics. Most of the time in government, smart economic policy is sacrificed in order to achieve political favor with voters. Whether it’s price ceilings on petrol in China, Zimbabwe’s slashing of food prices, harmful import restrictions to benefit domestic producers, or the proposed suspension of gas taxes in a time when fuel conservation is really what’s needed, politicians often act in economically stupid ways to bolster or hang on to their popularity.

So when a government makes a bold move that is economically sound, it sometimes comes as a surprise, as in the case of the Malaysian government this week. The government in Kuala Lumpur has for years subsidized domestic fuel prices, which at under 2 Malaysian Ringit per liter have been the equivelant of roughly $2.40 US per gallon, far below the average price in the west. Drivers benefited from this subsidy, but were not forced to bear any of the burden of rising oil prices, nor had they any incentive to conserve or switch to more fuel efficient automobiles or alternative forms of transportation. The Malaysian government, on the other hand, has had to allocate more and more of its limited budget towards subsidizing petrol prices.

Well, as of yesterday, all price supports for petrol are cancelled, and the effect will be sweeping in the Malaysian economy:

The government announced Wednesday evening that petrol prices would rise by 78 sen (US24¢) at midnight — a 41 percent jump from RM1.92 per liter to RM2.70. That means those spending RM2,000 per month to fill the tanks of their BMWs will now be paying RM2,820. Regardless of income levels, it is likely most Malaysians will feel the pinch.

The subsidy would have cost the Malaysian government 56 billion ringit (around $17 billion) this year. With the money it will now save by ending the subsidy, the government will begin making public transport cheaper and more convenient for commuters who wish to avoid paying for the more expensive petrol to fuel their personal automobiles:

The government hopes to channel the savings into improving public transportation, as it promised many years and elections ago but with little to show. In Kuala Lumpur, despite having a light rail train service and monorail, public transportation is expensive and inconvenient. Worse, intercity travel is still being serviced by old and slow trains, and accident-prone buses.

Malaysia is not the only country taking measures to end government fuel-price supports:

Indonesia has hiked fuel prices by an average of 29 percent, saving about 34.5 trillion rupiah and kicking off a series of street demonstrations… Similarly, after slashing subsidies, Taiwan will distribute US$659 million to middle and low-income families. The latest to raise oil prices is India, whose government announced Wednesday that gasoline and diesel prices will increase by 10 percent.

As more and more countries allow the market mechanism to work, and in the short-run fuel prices rise with the price of oil, the chances are that the long-run equilibrium price of petrol will actually begin to fall.Price controls and subsidies distort market demand. In Malaysia, where a government subsidy kept the price consumers paid around 2 RM, the quantity demanded exceeded the free market quantity. With the removal of the subsidy, consumers will respond by driving less, reducing overall quantity demanded for petrol. As other Asian nations follow suit, global quantity demanded for petrol will decline, while higher prices incentivize producers to increase output. New prouction facilities will come online, just as drivers begin to find alternative ways to get to work, either through carpooling, public transportation, cycling or walking.

The combined effect of slowing increases in demand (or perhaps even a decline in demand if enough substitution of alternative forms of transportation takes place), and increases in supply as new production facilities come on line will be a stabilization and eventual fall in the price of oil.

The future fall in oil prices is explained in more detail here. Malaysia’s repealing of the fuel subsidy is one example of how markets work to restore equilibrium in a market such as that for oil today, where short-term bubbles always burst. $135 oil is probably not here to stay, if only the market is allowed to works its magic.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does a subsidy create disequilibrium in a product market like the petrol market in Malaysia?
  2. Give two examples of how consumers may respond to the 40% increase in petrol prices once the subsidy is removed in Malaysia.
  3. How could making fuel more expensive to consumers in the short-run actually lead to a fall in oil and fuel prices in the long-run?

41 responses so far

Feb 14 2009

Lest we forget… Milton Friedman on the power of free enterprise

Milton Friedman: “there is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by the free enterprise system”

With all the talk of government spending, fiscal stimulus, nationalization of the financial industry, the “new new deal”, infrastructure, education, health, “job creation”, and on and on… I thought it wise to share this bit of wisdom from the greatest advocate of free markets of the last 100 years, Milton Friedman.

AP Economics teacher Michelle Hastings sent the link to this video to the AP Econ email list. Thanks, Michelle.


Discussion Questions:

  1. What is Friedman’s view of command economies?
  2. Does Friedman imply that “greed is good”? To what extent is greed an important component of free markets?
  3. Do you think Milton Friedman would support the current $800 billion fiscal stimulus package being debated in Washington right now? Why or why not?

7 responses so far

Feb 11 2009

Will the economy self-correct?

Does the Economy Self-Correct? – Welker’s Wikinomics Page
The debate in Washington over Obama’s fiscal stimulus package, which has now been re-written by both the House and the Senate, is ultimately one of the validity of orthodox economic theories. By voting for a nearly $1 trillion government spending bill, the Obama administration and Congress are clearly taking the position that an economy in recession will either not be able to correct itself, or will take too long to self-correct, thus the government is needed to accellerate the recovery process.

Washington’s stimulus package presents students and teachers of economics with an all too rare opportunity to put to the test the two competing hypotheses of macroeconomics: the Demand-side Theory versus the Supply-side Theory.

At the core of the long-running macroeconomic debate is the simple question, “Does the economy self-correct in times of recession?” The supply-side theory, attributed to the “classical” economists dating back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo, argues that the answer to this question is YES. The rationale between this laissez faire approach to macroeconomics is the following:

  1. Falling demand in an economy means less output by firms, forcing them to lay off workers.
  2. As inventories build up due to their inability to sell their output, firms will be forced to lower their prices, putting downward pressure on the price level in the economy (deflation).
  3. High unemployment and falling prices eventually lead to workers in the economy being willing to accept lower wages.
  4. Weak demand for commodities such as oil and minerals put downward pressure on raw material and energy prices faced by firms.
  5. Falling wages and raw material prices mean more potential for profits for firms in various enterprises, even as overall demand in the economy is weak. Firms begin hiring workers at lower wages, and increase production to take advantage of lower input costs. Overall supply of goods and services in the economy begins to increase due to lower costs faced by firms in all sectors.
  6. The downward spiral caused by weak aggregate demand, rising unemployment, falling prices for output, falling wages and commodity prices, is eventually reversed and turns into an upward spiral as firms hire more workers, employ more resources, creating more income and spending, moving the economy towards recovery and economic growth.

The supply-side theory of self-correction (so called because recovery results due to an outward shift of aggregate supply) outlined above depends on the downward flexibility of wages. If wages do NOT fall, as some demand-siders propose, then the idea that firms will eventually begin to hire more workers is busted, and unemployment will only continue to increase as overall demand remains weak.

Today, there is some evidence that wages in the United States may in fact be downwardly flexible.

GM Slashing 10,000 White-Collar Jobs, Cutting Pay –

…the base pay of higher-level U.S. executives will be lowered by 10 percent, while other salaried employees will face cuts of between 3 and 7 percent.

General Motors employees are beginning to accept lower wages. Rising unemployment, especially in the white collar sector, mean that the number of highly educated and skilled American workers unable to find work will grow as corporate layoffs continue.

A “shovel-ready” stimulus package from Washington may indeed help to “create or save” 3 million jobs, as Obama claims, but it is the self-correcting nature of markets due to flexible commodity prices and wages that will ultimately contribute to a recovery of the US economy. As prices of commodities fall, combined with lower wages for white collar workers and deflation in the overall economy, firms will find it profitable to begin employing resources at their lower costs, putting people back to work, stimulating spending through market forces.

Fiscal stimulus may accellerate the recovery process, but the threat it poses is the same threat posed by all forms of government intervention in the free market: that the nearly trillion dollars will go towards satisfying the priorities of politicians rather than the wants and needs of society as a whole, resulting in a misallocation of the nation’s resources towards goods, services, and infrastructure projects that are chosen by legislators, not the market itself. Stimulus is needed, but only the right kind. The recognition by politicians and the media that markets may also self-correct is also needed. News like GM’s wage cuts may sound dire, but the underlying implication of falling wages may be a sign that the US economy is already on the path to recovery, even before Washington has spent a single dollar on stimlus.

3 responses so far

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

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