Archive for the 'Public goods' Category

Jan 08 2013

Income inequality as a Market Failure

The prevalence of income inequality in free market economies indicates that inequality may be the result of a market failure. Those who are born rich are more likely to become rich, while individuals who are born poor are more likely to live a life of relative poverty. In a “free” market, it is believed, all individuals possess an equal opportunity to succeed, but due to a mis-allocation of resources in a purely market economy, this may not always be the case.

The resources I refer to here are those required for an individual to escape poverty and earn a higher income. These include public and merit goods that those with high incomes can afford to consume, while those in poverty depend on the provision of from the state, including:

  • Good education
  • Dependable health care
  • Access to professional networks and the employment opportunities they provide

Whenever a market failure exists, it can be argued that there is a role for government in regulating the market to achieve a more optimal distribution of resources. When it comes to income inequality, government intervention typically comes in the form of a tax system that places a larger burden on the rich, and a system of government programs that transfer income from the rich to poor, including welfare benefits, unemployment benefits, healthcare for low income households, public schools and support for economic development in poor communities.

Many politicians and some economists like to argue that income inequality is not as evil as many people make it out to be, and that greater income inequality can actually increase the incentive for poorer households to work harder to get rich, contributing to the economic growth of the nation as a whole. Allowing the rich to keep more of their income, in this way, leads more people to want to work hard to get rich, as they will be able to enjoy the rewards of their hard work.

Another common argument is that higher income inequality leads to social and economic disruptions that can slow economic growth and bring an economy into a recession or a depression, since the middle and lower income groups in the nation will not benefit from a relatively equal share of the nation’s output, and over time will see their living standards drop and their overal productivity and contribution to national output decline.

The debate over inequality and what government can or should do about it is at ther root of many other economic debates today. A recent study by the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, provides support for those who support the second argument above. Here are some of the main discoveries from the study, “Searching for the Supposed Benefits of Higher Inequality: Impacts of Rising Top Shares on the Standard of Living of Low and Middle-Income Families”.

Discoveries of the study:

Some believe that increase inequality leads to more growth, others argue that it leads to less growth.

A more interesting question is whether rising income inequality leads to a higher standard of living for everyone in society, or whether standards of living decline for those in the middle as the percentage of total income earned by the top 10% increases.

The study found that the higher the percentage of income earned by the top 10%, the incomes of those in the middle and bottom of the income distribution actually decreases. Not just the percentage of total income, but the actual incomes of these groups falls as the rich get richer.

The popular belief is that reducing taxes on the rich increases the amount of investment in the economy, creating more jobs and helping increase incomes of the middle and lower income households. This theory is sometimes referred to as “trickle down” economics, as the increased incomes and wealth at the top will “trickle down” and raise the incomes of the rest of society as well.

However, actual data shows that a 10% increase in the share of total income earned by the top 10% of income earners leads to a 2% decline in the incomes of households in the middle of the income distribution (based on data for the period between 1979 and 2005).

It’s not just that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, rather that the rich getting richer makes the poor (and the middle income earners) poorer. This is a breakthrough discovery.

Possible explanations:

  • The rich contribute to growth abroad, rather than at home: Rich households’ higher incomes allow them to consume more domestic output and imported goods and services, but it also allows them to save more, which sometimes translates into more investment. But more investment does not always translate into domestic economic growth, since investment is now global. A rich American saving more does not mean American firms will have access to cheaper capital, as domestic savings may fuel investment in emerging markets or elsewhere abroad. Foreign investment resulting from savings among rich Americans counts as a leakage from America’s circular flow of income, leaving less income within America for the middle and low income earners. Essentially, much of the income earned by the rich is saved abroad, contributing to employment and growth overseas, reducing incomes of the middle class at home.
  • Reduced support for the provision of public goods: When examining living standards, more than just income must be considered, but also access to education, provision of health care and other public goods such as public safety and security. Richer households are less interested in things like public schools and social welfare programs, as they do not rely on these for their own well-being. Therefore, the richer the top 10% become,  the greater their incentive to work against efforts to fund public education, public health and public safety. The underprovision of these social welfare enhancing goods by govenrment further widens the gap between the living standards of the richest and the middle class. Economist Robert Reich refers to this phenomenon as “the secession of the successful”.
  • Wage competition reduces incomes in the middle: Business owners, who make up a large percentage of the richest households in America, increase their own incomes to the extent that they can drive down the wages they pay their employees. In this way a higher share of national income is enjoyed by a smaller proportoin of society. The minimum wage has barely increased over time, and workers have less bargaining power as fewer workers than ever are members of labor unions; this has allowed business owners to pay lower wages over time, concentrating an increasing share of national income in business profits, and less and less in wages for workers.

In the video below, the study’s author shares some of the findings discussed above. Watch the video and respond to the discussion questions that follow.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Summarize the argument against a government taking measures to redistribute its nation’s income to reduce the level of inequality between the rich and the poor.
  2. Summarize the argument for a government reducing inequality.
  3. Popular belief holds that “a rising tide lifts all boats”. In other words, if the total income of a nation is increasing, it does not matter if the rich are enjoying a larger percentage of the higher income than the poor and middle, because everyone is likely to be better off than if total income were not growing at all. Does the study discussed above support this popular view? Why or why not?
  4. What measures can a government take to assure that higher national income leads to higher standards of living for everyone in society, including the middle class and the poor? Why might the highest income earners be opposed to such attempts by government?
  5. Should government intervene to reduce the level of income inequality in society?

65 responses so far

Jan 29 2012

A History of Public Goods

One question that often comes up in my class discussions of market failure and public goods is “Why can’t we just have a global government that intervenes to correct those market failures with global impacts?” The global market failures my students get so worked up about are those arising from common access resources, such as deforestation, over-fishing and global warming, those resulting from information asymmetry, such the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, and the global inequality in the distribution of income and economic opportunity.

What I haven’t ever really considered or explained to my students (until now) is the history of public goods. In the column below, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times’,  tells the history of public goods, which as it turns out, is intimately tied to the history of the modern state as we know it. This column should become a must read for all economic students studying market failure.

From The World’s Hunger for Pulbic GoodsJanuary 24, 2012, Financial Times

What… is a public good? In the jargon, a public good is “non-excludable” and “non-rivalrous”. Non-excludable means that one cannot prevent non-payers from enjoying benefits. Non-rivalrous means that one person’s enjoyment is not at another person’s expense. National defence is a classic public good. If a country is made safe from attack everybody benefits, including residents who make no contribution. Again, enjoyment of the benefits does not reduce that of others. Similarly, if an economy is stable, everybody has the benefit and nobody can be deprived of it.

Public goods are an example of what economists call “market failure”. The point is generalised in the language of “externalities” – consequences, either good or bad, not taken into account by decision-makers. In such cases, Adam Smith’s invisible hand does not work as one might like. Some way needs to be found to shift behaviour; public goods usually involve some state provision; externalities usually involve a tax, a subsidy or some change in property rights…

The history of civilisation is a history of public goods. The more complex the civilisation the greater the number of public goods that needed to be provided. Ours is far and away the most complex civilisation humanity has ever developed. So its need for public goods – and goods with public goods aspects, such as education and health – is extraordinarily large. The institutions that have historically provided public goods are states. But it is unclear whether today’s states can – or will be allowed to – provide the goods we now demand.

The story of public goods goes back to the very beginning of states, which were the result of the agricultural revolution. The latter made populations vulnerable to… “roving bandits”. The answer was the “stationary bandit” – the state. It was not a perfect answer – answers almost never are. But it worked well enough to permit substantial increases in population. The state provided defence in return for taxation. The empires – Rome or China – enjoyed economies of scale in providing security. When Rome collapsed, security was privatised by local gangsters, at huge social cost: this we now call feudalism.

The industrial revolution expanded the activities of the state in innumerable ways. This was fundamentally because of the needs of the economy itself. Markets could not, on their own, provide an educated population or large-scale infrastructure, defend intellectual property, protect the environment and public health, and so on. Governments felt obliged – or delighted – to intervene, as suppliers and regulators, or subsidisers and taxers. In addition to this, the arrival of democracy increased the demand for redistribution, partly in response to the insecurity of workers. For all these reasons, the modern state, vastly more potent than any that existed before, has exploded in the range and scale of its activities. Will this be reversed? No. Does it work well? That is a good question.

Yet consider where we are now. The impact of humanity is, like the economy, increasingly global. Economic stability is a global public good. So, in the era of nuclear weapons, is security. So, in important respects, are control of organised crime, counterfeiting, piracy and, above all, pollution. So, even, is the supply of education or health. What happens anywhere affects everybody – and increasingly so. Unless there is a global economic collapse, an increasing number of the public goods demanded by our civilisation will be global or have global aspects.

Our states cannot supply them on their own. They need to co-operate. Traditionally, the least bad way of securing such co-operation is through some sort of leadership. The leader acts despite free riders. As a result, some global public goods have been adequately – if imperfectly – supplied. But as we move again into a multipolar era, the ability of any country to supply such leadership will be limited. Even in the unipolar days, it only worked where the hegemon wanted to provide the particular public good in question.

I started with economic stability, because the big surprise of the past few years is just how difficult it has proved to provide even this. The point I finish with is far broader. Ours is an ever more global civilisation that demands the provision of a wide range of public goods. The states on which humanity depends to provide these goods, from security to management of climate, are unpopular, overstretched and at odds. We need to think about how to manage such a world. It is going to take extraordinary creativity.


3 responses so far

Jan 11 2012

The Tragedy of the Commons as a Market Failure

Over the last few weeks in our IB Economics class, we have been studying cases in which markets fail to achieve an efficient, socially optimal level of production and consumption when the private buyers and sellers are left to interact in a free market. Markets fail in many ways; sometimes they produce too much of a good, and sometimes too little is produced. There are some things society would benefit from having more of, while other things society would be better off with less than what is produced by the free market.

When the free market fails to achieve a socially optimal level of output, at which the costs and benefits not just of the individual consumers and producers are accounted for, but all social, environmental and health costs and benefits are weighed as well, the government may be able to improve on the free market outcome by intervening in some way. For example, certain goods deemed beneficial for society are simply under-provided by private firms: Education, infrastructure, public transportation, security, health care… these are all markets in which government often intervenes to increase the provision of the good to society. In other cases, government intervenes to decrease the amount of a good consumed: Cigarettes, alcohol, reckless driving, polluting factories, violence on TV, child pornography, dangerous drugs… in each of these cases governments tend to use taxes, regulation or legislation to reduce the amount of the harmful good available on the market.

Besides the merit (beneficial) goods and the demerit (harmful) goods described above, markets may fail in other ways as well. One notable form of market failure arises due to a phenomenon first articulated by American ecologist Garrett Hardin, who warned of the Tragedy of the Commons. In his 1968 essay, Hardin explained that when there exist common resources, for which there is no private owner, the incentive among rational users of that resources is to exploit it to the fullest potential in order to maximize their own self gain before the resource is depleted. The tragedy of the commons, therefore, is that common resources will inevitably be depleted due to humans’ self-interested behavior, leaving us with shortages in key resources essential to human survival.

Each of the videos below illustrates a different example of the tragedy of the commons. Watch the videos and think about how each applies Hardin’s concept.

Example 1: Thousands of fishermen empty lake in minutes:

Example 2 – Dr. Suess’s The Lorax

Example 3 – Tuna fishing

In each of the videos above, there is a common resource (fish and trees) over which no ownership has previously been established. The resource users (the Malian fishermen, the Once-ler and his family and the tuna boat), all have a strong incentive to maximize their own short term gain by extracting and exploiting the resource as quickly as possible.

  • In the Mali fishing hole, the outcome is observable: within minutes the resource is depleted and there are no more fish for for future fisherman to enjoy.
  • In The Lorax the result of the Once-ler’s exploitation of the forest is foretold in the beginning of the story when the young boy comes upon the desolate outskirts of his town.
  • The tragedy of the commons acts as a warning to the tuna fishing industry, in which there are still tuna surviving in the world’s oceans, but at the rates industrial fishing boats such as the Albatun Tres exploit the resource, it will not be around much longer.
In each instance above, a market failure occurs. Due to the lack of private ownership over valuable resources, self-interested individuals stand to gain by exploiting them to the fullest extent possible while they still exist. The unfortunate outcome is that over time the resources are exploited unsustainably until they are ultimately depleted. As in the case of merit and demerit goods, the market failure of common resources provides an opportunity for government to intervene to achieve a more socially optimal allocation of resources. In the interview below, Garrett Hardin suggests that there are only two possible solutions to the tragedy of the commons. Watch the video and then respond to the discussion questions that follow.

Garret Hardin – the Tragedy of the Commons

Discussion Questions:

  1. Hardin refers to Karl Marx’s adage “from each according to his abilities, to each according to this needs.” What does Hardin have against this socialist idea?
  2. How does Hardin’s example of a “common pasture” illustrate the tragedy of the commons? How is a common pasture similar to the three examples in the videos above?
  3. According to Hardin, what are the only two solutions to the common pasture problem? Which of these solutions do you think would be most socially desirable?
  4. Explain Hardin’s claim that “the unmanaged commons cannot possibly work once the population gets above a certain size”. Of the world’s common resources today, what are some examples of common resources that remain unmanaged?
  5. Whose responsibility should it be to decide how common resources should be dealt with?
  6. Do you agree with Hardin’s claim that “the world cannot possibly live at the American standard of living at its present population size”? Which of his predictions do you think is most likely to occur: Will the American (and Western European) standard of living have to go down or will the number of people in the world have to be reduced? Or is there a third possibility? Discuss.

5 responses so far

Sep 02 2010

“Guns vs. Butter” – The PPC and tradeoffs in the real world

School kids feel the bite of high food prices – May. 5, 2008

A classic method of teaching the basic economic concept of the production possibilities curve is to illustrate the relationship between a nation’s decision to invest in military goods versus civilian goods. The model typically includes two “products” that a nation can choose to invest in: guns and butter. The specific goods themselves are not so important, rather what they are meant to represent: the tradeoff any nation faces between allocating more of its scarce resources towards national defense versus goods and services that benefit the nation’s consumers.

Today the United States faces a very real version of the old “guns vs. butter” model. Rising global food prices have put public school districts in a bind: how to feed kids nutritious meals as the prices ingredients has risen at unprecedented rates:

Rising food prices are making it harder for schools to cook up ways to give kids the nutrition they need.

Right now, they’re taking shortcuts and shuffling ingredients to make up the difference, but that’s only a short-term solution with long-term consequences on the horizon.

“I’ve been in school service for 27 years and this is the worst it’s ever been,” said Sara Gasiorowski, food service director for Wayne Township Schools in Indianapolis. “I have never seen food prices jump up so far…”

Food prices nationwide have risen 4.5% between March 2007 and March 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index, with flour and eggs rising even more dramatically than milk. Grumbles said milk prices in her district are up 22% from last year, which means an increase of 3.5 cents for each of the federally required 16,000 half-pints she provides every day.

“For every penny on a carton of milk, it costs me $30,000 a year,” she said. “That’s $105,000 extra on my food bill.”

Flour prices have roughly doubled over the last year, according to Grumbles, to $19 per 50-pound bag. To make up for the difference, she substitutes canned peaches for fresh apples “to save a couple pennies” per meal, or she uses ground beef in place of chicken.

Unfortunately, federal funding for school lunches has increased at a much slower rate than cost to districts of providing those meals:

Federal reimbursement programs cover all or part of school districts’ lunch tabs. Congress lifts reimbursement rates every year, but Gasiorowski said it hasn’t been enough: “We need to be looking at an increase of 12% to 15%, instead of our usual annual increase of 2 or 3%.”

The current federal reimbursement program is based on household incomes; the poorest American students receive $2.47 of federal funding towards their “free lunches”, while students from the highest income bracket only receive $0.23 per meal. The problem is, the average school lunch now costs $3.10, so these days no one is actually receiving a “free lunch”, not even the poorest American students.

This article struck me in that is truly does illustrate the concept of tradeoffs as illustrated in the production possibilities curve. Society must allocate its scarce resources towards the goods and services it deems most desirable based on the needs of its citizens. Complications arise in this basic model, however, when government is involved.

The commitment to subsidizing school lunches is based on the idea that if the responsibility of feeding American school children were left to the free market, resources would surely be underallocated towards nutritious meals, representing a market failure. School lunches are a merit good, meaning they would be underprovided by the free market, since without public provision and support, millions of American children would come to school every day without nutritious meals to get them through the day.

National defense is another service that governments find it necessary to provide.  If it were left completely up to the free market, national defense would probably not be provided at all. Instead, only individuals who could afford it would hire private security forces to protect their property. To protect a whole nation, however, government provision of defense is a necessity.

Clearly, both “guns” and “butter” create benefits for society. Among the countless other goods and services the government provides or supports the provision of, the United States faces a tradeoff arising from the scarce resources at the government’s disposal. Currently, the US government spends far more on  its military ($660 billion in 2010!) than it does on lunches for American school children. Clearly, military spending is necessary, but it may be that in the tradeoff between these two important services more resources should be allocated towards “butter” at a period in the US economy when low income households are finding it harder than ever to provide their children with one of life’s most basic necessities, nutritious food.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do “guns and butter” represent on the PPC above? Why have economists found it useful to use these two goods on their analysis of the tradeoffs faced by nations?
  2. Why doesn’t the United States just make all school lunches FREE for all American school children? Wouldn’t that make sense? Give an economic argument against this suggestion.
  3. Why does the government feel it necessary to allocate any resources towards school lunches? Shouldn’t the government just let American families provide their own children with lunch?
  4. Say the US government decided to increase its provision of both national defense and school lunches, without reducing its provision of some other good or service. How would it do this? Why wouldn’t the government do this?

Update: I received an email message from a reader about the above blog post:

I have to say that your “guns and butter” diagram is “interesting.” I am not clear on why the United States should spend vastly more on school lunches than on defending the free world While government provided school lunches may have a place, most Americans feed their own children and do not depend on Federal financing.

Where did you get the notion that feeding our children would be “under-provided by the free market

Here was my reply to this reader. I’m posting it here because I want to make it clear the the diagram above is not meant to make any political statement about US military spending:


Actually, the PPC was included simply to illustrate the basic tradeoff that society faces when it chooses how to allocate its scarce resources.

Having taught at least for a short while in public schools, I can say that nutritious lunches are definitely “underprovided” by the free market, that is, many students in poor communities in America depend on the “free and reduced” lunches that are provided through federal and state funding programs… I once volunteer taught in a poor Elementary School in Spokane, Washington where 40% of the students ate only two meals a day, both provided free by the school district: one at 8 in the morning, one at noon. Many of these children had parents who were poor, unemployed, often addicted to drugs, who failed to put any food on the table whatsoever.

In other words, I do think that nutritious meals are a “merit good” which by definition is one that is underprovided by the free market, therefore requires subsidies from the government. Otherwise, why would the government offer such subsidies at all, if these meals were something the free market could adequately provide on its own?

Again, I was not making any political statement with the graph, only pointing out the basic economic concept of tradeoffs and the idea that society must allocate its scarce resources towards an “optimal” combination of goods and services. The article indicates that in this time of rising food prices, not enough of America’s resources are going towards providing nutritious meals for school children, indicating that a movement along the PPC might be in order. The degree of such a move is irrelevant, only the fact that a movement must occur if nutritious meals are to continue to be provided. In fact, the x-axis could have represented any other public good the government provides for society, I chose “military spending” so that the current example was consistent with the classic example of “guns vs. butter”.

Hope that clears things up… Best regards,


39 responses so far

Aug 23 2010

From public to private – what’s next, lighthouses?

In both IB and AP Economics, students will learn in their Market Failure unit about a particular type of good that private companies have never found it profitable to produce, and which therefore would not be provided to consumers if it were not for the government. A public good is one that is non-rivalrous in consumption and non-exclusive in production. In other words, if one person enjoys the benefits of such a good, this does not exclude others from enjoying it as well. Additionally, once such a good is produced, the producer finds it impossible to exclude particular people from enjoying its benefits.
Examples of public goods include sidewalks, streetlights, public art, light houses and, up until now at least, park benches. I’ve always used park benches as an example of a typical good that is both non-rivalrous and non-exclusive. If you sit on a park bench for ten or fifteen minutes and then get up and walk away, the bench is still there for whoever comes along next to enjoy! Also, once a city or state or national government has placed a bench in a park, it is nearly impossible to exclude anyone from using it. These characteristics make park benches a pretty good example of a public good, they are both non-rivalrous in consumption and non-excludable in production.  Because of this, this is a common sight in many cities’ parks:
Well, I have some bad news for bums and sleepy park visitors the world over. The era of lazy naps on park benches may be coming to an end.  The video below shows the invention of a German designer that may soon be coming to a park near you. The funny thing is, I used to joke in my classes that even park benches could be made into private goods if someone could devise a mechanism  by which metal spikes would prevent passersby from using the bench unless they inserted a coin into a slot, causing the spike to retract and the bench to become usable. Well, my humorous image has come to life!
Discussion questions:
  1. How does the device turn a park bench, which is traditionally a public good, into a private good?
  2. Can you think of other means by which a private firm may be willing to provide park benches without resorting to metal spikes?
  3. Would you be willing to pay 50 cents to use a park bench for 10 minutes if there were no more public benches in city parks? If not, is there any place you would be willing to pay to sit down?
  4. Identify an example of another good or service that traditionally was provided by government but you now must pay for in some places. Is there anything wrong with making people pay to use goods and services that they truly enjoy the benefit of? Are there some things that should never be privatized? Discuss.

5 responses so far

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