Archive for the 'Incentives' 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

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

May 18 2010

The role of taxes in income re-distribution – another preview of my textbook

Inequality in the distribution of income is an inevitable result of an economic system that rewards the households with the highest skills, best education and most access to capital with higher wages and incomes in the marketplace.

The existence of poverty, both relative and absolute, poses several obstacles to the improvement of well-being for a nation’s people. Social unrest among the poorest members of society can lead to political and economic instability for a nation as a whole. The hardships experienced by society’s poorest members are ultimately felt by the rest of society as the needs of the poor must be met in one way or another, and in extreme circumstances may lead to a violent struggle between economic classes.

The existence of absolute poverty poses the greatest obstacle to national economies and society as those who experience it are unlikely to contribute whatsoever to national output and economic growth given the desperate state of their health and education. Without promoting some degree of equality in the distribution of income, governments run the risk of undermining their accomplishment of other social and economic objectives. So how do governments achieve more equal income distribution? Before we look at the modern mechanisms by which this objective is achieved, it is important to examine the historical ideology that frames modern economic policy.

For centuries the role of government has been debated among economists. The extent to which it is the government’s job to assure equality in the distribution of income has never been fully agreed upon by policymakers, whose opinions differ depending on the school of economic ideology to which they prescribe. On the far left of the economic spectrum is Marxist/socialist ideology, which believes that households’ money incomes should be made obsolete and each household’s level of consumption should instead be based on the “use-value” of the output which it produces. In a pure Marxist or socialist economy, money incomes do not matter since the output of the nation will be shared equally among all those who contribute to its production. Private ownership of resources and the output those resources produce is wholly abolished in a socialist economy and the ownership and allocation of resources, goods and services is in the hands of the state and production and consumption is undertaken based on the principle of equality.

The slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, made populate by Karl Marx, summarized the view that a household’s consumption should be based on its level of need. To take this idea to its logical conclusion, all households in a nation have essentially the same basic needs therefore household incomes should be equal across the nation.

On the other extreme of the economic spectrum is the laissez faire, free market model which argues that the only role the government should play in the market economy is in the protection of private property rights, which assures that the private owners of resources, including land, labor and capital, are able to pursue their own self-interest in an unregulated marketplace where their money incomes are determined by the “exchange-value” of the resources they control. In a laissez-faire market economy, the level of income and consumption of households varies greatly across society as the exchange-value of the resources owned by households determines income, rather than the principle of equality underlying socialism. Each individual in society is free to pursue his monetary objectives through the improvement of his human capital and the subsequent increase in its exchange-value in the labor market.

In today’s world, there exists neither a purely socialist economy nor a purely laissez fair free market economy. In reality, all modern national economies are mixed economies in which governments do much more than simply protect property rights, but do not go so far as to own and allocate all factors of production. The role of government in the distribution of income in today’s economies is relegated to the collection of taxes and the provision of public goods and services and transfer payments.

A tax is simply a fee charged by a government on a person’s income, property, or consumption of goods and services. Taxes can be broken into two main categories: direct and indirect.
  • Direct taxes: These are taxes paid directly to the government by those on whom they are imposed. An income tax is a direct tax because it is taken directly out of a worker’s earned income. Corporate and business taxes are also direct taxes based on the revenues or profits of firms. Direct taxes cannot be legally avoided since they are based on the earned income of each individual. The burden of direct taxes is born entirely by the households or firms paying them.
  • Indirect taxes: These are the taxes paid by households through an intermediary such as a retail store. The consumer pays the tax at the time of his purchase of a good or service and the amount of the tax is usually calculated by adding a percentage rate to the price of the item being purchased. Indirect taxes include sales taxes, value added taxes (VAT), goods and services tax (GST) as well as ad valorem taxes (or excise taxes) which are placed on specific goods such as cigarettes, alcohol or petrol. Indirect taxes can be avoided simply by not consuming certain products or by consuming less of all products. The burden of indirect taxes is born by both households and firms, the proportion born by each is determined by the price elasticities of demand and supply (as demonstrated in chapter 4).

Taxes can be either progressive, regressive or proportional in nature, meaning that different taxes place different burdens on the rich and the poor.

Proportional tax: A tax for which the percentage of income taxed remains constant as income increases is a proportional tax. The rich will pay more tax than the poor in absolute terms, but the burden of the tax will be no greater on the rich than it is on the poor. A household earning 20,000 euros may pay 10% tax to the government, totaling 2,000 euros. A rich household in the same country pays 10% on its income of 200,000 euros, totaling 20,000 euros in taxes, but the burden is the same on the rich household as it is on the poor household. Proportional taxes are uncommon in advanced economies, although some “payroll taxes”, which are those collected to support social security or welfare programs, are payed by employers based on a percentage of employees’ incomes up to a certain level. For instance, the US social security tax is 6.2% of gross income up to $108,000. Regardless of a person’s income below $108,000, he or she will pay 6.2% to the government to support the country’s social security program.

Regressive taxA tax that decreases in percentage as income increases is said to be regressive. Such a tax places a larger burden on lower income households than it does higher income earners since a greater percentage of a poor household’s income is used to pay the tax than a rich household’s. You may be wondering what kind of government would levy a tax that harms the poor more than it does the rich, but in fact almost every national government uses regressive taxes to raise a significant portion of its tax revenues. Most indirect taxes are actually regressive, which may not make sense at first, since a sales tax is a percentage of the price of products consumed consumed. The regressiveness is apparent when the amount of the tax is compared to the income of the consumer, however.

To demonstrate how a sales tax is regressive, imagine three different consumers who purchase an identical laptop computer for 1,000€ in a country with a value added tax of 10% added to the price of the computer.
Income of buyer Amount of tax paid % of income taxed
10,000€ 100€ 1%
50,000€ 100€ 0.2%
100,000€ 100€ 0.1%

The higher income consumer pays the same amount of tax as the lower income consumer, but the the tax makes up a lower percentage of her income than it did the lower income consumer’s. Although they appear to be fair since everyone pays the same percentage of the price of the the goods they consume, indirect taxes such as VAT, GST and sales taxes are in fact regressive taxes, placing a larger burden on those whose ability to pay is lower and a smaller burden on the higher income earners whose ability to pay is greater.


Progressive tax: This is a tax for which the percentage of income taxed increases as income increases. The principle underlying a progressive tax is that those with the ability to pay the most tax (the rich) should bear a larger burden of the nation’s total tax receipts than those whose ability to pay is less. Lower income households not only pay less tax, but they pay a smaller percentage of their income in tax as well. Most nation’s income tax systems are progressive, the most progressive being those in the Northern European countries which, not surprisingly, also demonstrate the most equal distributions of income. Of the various types of taxes, a progressive income tax aligns most with the macroeconomic objective of increased income equality.

A progressive income tax typically consists of a marginal tax bracket in which the increasing tax rates apply to marginal income, rather than to total income. In such a system, the average tax a household pays increases less rapidly than the marginal tax, since the higher marginal rate only applies to additional income beyond the upper range of the previous bracket.

Income range Marginal tax rate
Tax paid by someone
at top of bracket
Average tax rate
$0-$8,375 10%
$837.5
10.00%
$8,375-$34,000 15%
$4,681.25
13.77%
$34,000-$82,400 25%
$16,781.25
20.37%
$82,400-$171,850 28%
$41,827.25
24.34%
$171,850-$373,650 33%
$108421.25
29.02%
$373,850 -$500,000
(and above)
35%
$152,643.75
(on $500,000)
30.53%

Notice in the table above that the total tax paid by Americans at the top of each income bracket is NOT the simply the tax rate times income. Rather, the tax rate for each income bracket only applies to income earned above and beyond the upper boundary of the previous bracket. An American worker earning $8,000, for instance, will pay $800 in income tax. But if his income increases to $10,000 he will NOT pay 15% of the full $10,000, or $1,500. Rather, he will pay 15% on the income earned above $8,375. Such a worker would therefore pay 10% of his first $8,375 ($837.50) plus 15% on the additional $1,625 he earned, which is another $243.75. The marginal rate of taxation (MRT) is the change in tax (t) divided by the change in gross income (yg). His total tax would therefore equal $1,081.25.

The marginal rate of taxation between the first and second income brackets above is found using the equation:

The average rate of taxation (ART) is equal to the tax paid (t) divided by the gross income (yg):

The average rate for workers who fall in the second income bracket above can be found using the equation:

For workers in each of the income brackets above, the average rate of taxation is always lower than the marginal rate of taxation, since tax increases only apply to additional income earned beyond the previous bracket. The graph below shows the marginal (in blue) and the average (in red) rates of taxation for individuals earning between $0 and $500,000 in the United States in 2010.

Marginal and average tax rates in the US

The main argument against progressive income taxes is that taxing higher incomes at higher rates creates a disincentive to work, in effect punishing any increase in productivity or effort among the nation’s workers. However, the fact that higher rates only apply to marginal income, rather than total income, assures that a worker’s after tax income will always be an increasing function of gross income; therefore there will always be an incentive to increase income by working harder, longer, or more efficiently since the increase in taxes will always be less than the increase income.

A progressive income tax system provides governments with an effective means of re-distributing the nation’s income since those with the greatest ability to pay (the rich) provide the nation with far more of its tax revenue than those with the least ability to pay (the poor). The graph below shows the total amount of tax revenue generated by each of the five quintiles of income earners in the United States in 2006. While the lowest 20% of income earners accounted for around 1% of total tax receipts, the top quintile contributed nearly 70% to America’s tax revenues.

Progressive income tax burden:data source:http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxfacts/displayafact.cfm?DocID=558&Topic2id=20&Topic3id=22

In other Western economies, progressive income taxes typically account for the largest proportion of total tax receipts by the government. America’s neighbor to the north, Canada, has an even higher top marginal tax rate than the US, and rather than applying to people earning above $370,000, as it does in the US, Canada’s top tax rate kicks in for workers earning just $100,000 per year. In Canada, personal income taxes account account for around 50% of total federal tax revenues, while the corporate tax and the national goods and services tax make up the next largest portions.

As mentioned, the highest marginal tax rates tend to exist in the social democratic nations of Northern and Western Europe. Denmark, a country with a Gini index of 29, has the highest tax rate on top income earners. More significant than the high rate, however, is the fact that it kicks in at such a low income level, around $50,000 per year. This means that a large number of Danish workers are paying a high marginal and average tax rate. The burden of the income tax in Denmark is born not by only the rich, but by the middle class as well. In contrast, Germany’s top marginal tax rate of 47% is only reached when a worker’s gross income exceeds $300,000 per year, meaning the income tax burden in Germany will be born more by the rich than those earning lower incomes, as is the case in the United States.

Marginal tax rates in OECD countrieshttp://www.oecd.org/document/60/0,3343,en_2649_34533_1942460_1_1_1_1,00.html#pir


Arguments against progressive income taxes – the Laffer Curve:

The primary argument against the use of progressive income taxes as a means to redistribute national income comes from the “supply-side” school of macroeconomic thought. Supply-siders, whose views are formed by the classical theory of macroeconomics based on the belief that a free market economy left entirely to its own devices will always gravitate towards a level of production corresponding with full employment of the nation’s resources, believe there is a certain level of taxation at which a nation’s total tax receipts will be maximized. Beyond this point, further increases in the tax rat actually lead to a decline in the amount of taxable income due to the disincentive created by the higher tax rate. The Laffer Curve demonstrates the relationship between tax rate and tax revenue graphically:




At a tax rate of 0% households and firms will keep 100% of their gross income and there will be no tax revenue for the government. At a tax rate of 100%, however, there will also be no tax revenue since no rational individual will choose to work if the government takes everything he or she earns. The supply of labor falls as the tax rate increases since fewer individuals will be willing to work as the government collects higher percentages of their earned income. Therefore there will be no income for the government to tax when the tax rate is 100%.

Since both 0% tax and 100% create zero tax revenue, the Laffer Curve theory holds that at some tax rate (m) in between 0% and 100% the government’s total tax receipts will be maximized.The Laffer Curve is often cited by supply-side advocates as an argument for reducing marginal income tax rates on the top income earners. If, for instance, the tax rate is at y, it is possible that a lower tax rate could lead to higher tax revenue if the falling taxes incentivize individuals to join the labor force and existing workers to work harder and longer hours, creating more taxable income. In addition, entrepreneurs may be more inclined to start businesses and firms to increase their investments in physical and human capital, both activities contributing further to increases in national output and taxable income. At lower tax rates, argue the supply-siders, the level of taxable income may increase leading to higher tax revenues for the government.

It is not clear from the Laffer Curve at what precise level of taxation tax revenues are maximized. The model is most commonly employed by supply-siders to justify their desire for lower income and corporate taxes and a general reduction in the interference of the government in the functioning of the free market. The supply-side argument holds that lower taxes lead to an increase in the supply of labor and capital as households and firms are incentivized to become more economically active, leading to increases in the nation’s aggregate supply and thereby promoting the accomplishment of the macroeconomic goals of full employment and economic growth.

Practice calculating marginal and average rates of taxation in France (2010)http://www.french-property.com/guides/france/finance-taxation/taxation/calculation-tax-liability/rates/:

Marginal Income Brackets Marginal rate of taxation Worker’s gross income Tax paid Average rate of taxation
0-€5,875 0% €5,000
€0
0%
€5,876 – €11,720 5.5% €10,000
€11,721 – €26,030 14% €20,000 €1,480.675 7.4%
€26,031 – €69,783 €50,000 19%
€69,783 and above 40% €100,000 €27,537.575
  1. Calculate the total amount of tax paid by a French worker earning €10,000 per year.
  2. Calculate the average rate of taxation the same worker pays. Which is greater, the marginal rate of taxation or the average rate of taxation? Explain.
  3. What will a French worker earning €50,000 pay in taxes?
  4. Calculate the marginal rate of taxation for for a worker whose income increases from €20,000 to €50,000.
  5. What is the average rate of taxation for a French worker earning €100,000 per year?
  6. Evaluate the claim that a progressive income tax decreases the incentive among workers to work harder improve their productivity.

7 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

Nov 02 2009

When is acting irrational the rational thing to do?

FT.com / Comment / Opinion – Magic and the myth of the rational market.

Imagine you’re a poor farmer who has always had just enough to feed your family, with no surplus left over to sell. Then one day the government decides to grant your family and your neighbors enough land to grow your own food and plenty more to sell on the market. The government’s intention, of course, is for you to cultivate all your land, sell your surplus, generate income for your family to improve your quality of life, send your children to school and save for the future.

You’re the farmer. You’ve just been given land. What would you do?

1. Plant crops on all your land, harvest the crops, sell the surplus and enjoy the profits from your surplus?

OR

2. Plant crops on only part of your land, grow enough food to feed your family, and let the rest of the land lie uncultivated. You have no surplus, nothing to sell, and continue to live the way you always have lived: poorly.

The science of economics assumes that individuals always act rationally in their own self-interest. Self-interest is the ultimate motive of economic actors: firms are profit-maximizers, individuals are utility-maximizers. The theory of rational behavior would lead one to assume that the farmer would pursue option 1 above. But in Papua New Guinea, where the government recently relocated thousands of displaced farmers to new plots of land, it is more common for farmers to chose option 2:

“If they see me planting too much cocoa, they’ll do things to my land and my family, and they won’t bear fruit; really bad things; puripuri and other witchcraft.”

Such an avoidance of profit maximisation might have appeared economically irrational. But from the perspective of those villagers, putting in extra work just to make oneself a target for the jealousy of one’s neighbours would be highly irrational behaviour.

Economists need to re-think their assumptions on rational behavior. What appears irrational to one person may be perfectly rational to someone else, as in the case of the Papuan farmers who only plant half their land. Humans, it seems, are a bit more complicated than the cold, calculating arithmeticians economists have long assumed them to be.

In the wake of the largest economic crisis since the great depression, the assumption of rational actors interacting in rational markets has come into question. A new field of economics blending the traditional study of resource allocation in the market place and human psychology has arisen to tackle the challenge of better understaning the seemingly irrational behaviors of investors, buyers and sellers in today’s global economy:

One response to the current crisis has been a rise in the popularity of behavioural economics, which examines the psychological and emotional factors behind transactions. These models drop the assumption of the rational actor yet implicitly keep the same model of economic rationality at their heart. We may diverge from the path of rationality for all sorts of psychological reasons but only because emotion, Keynes’s famous “animal spirits”, clouds our judgment.

To break human behavior down to the basic pursuit of profits by producers and utility by consumers neglects to acknowledge the “animal spirits” within us all. Economics is entering a new era, in which psychology and markets are intertwined. Rational behavior will remain a basic assumption of the science, but a re-defining of what it means to be rational will allow economists to better understand the behaviors of individuals, investors and firms as the economy emerges from a slump Alan Greenspan might say was ushered in on a wave of irrational exuberance.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are economists wrong to assume that individuals always act rationally? Why do the Papuan farmers only use half their land? Are they stupid or lazy?
  2. Can you think of any examples in which you or someone you know has done something that was not in his best economic self interest?
  3. Is charity irrational? What about gift giving? If you calculated that the chance of getting caught steeling something you REALLY wanted was 0%, wouldn’t it be irrational NOT to steal? What would keep you from stealing that thing if you deemed it rational to do so?

2 responses so far

« Prev - Next »