Archive for the 'Public goods' Category

Mar 06 2008

Walking the fine line between good growth and bad growth in China

FT.com / Asia-Pacific / China – China to focus on curbing inflation

Growth – the ultimate macroeconomic policy goal. Growth leads to improvements in material well-being; by definition it means more output per person. Growth also enriches society in other ways: more tax revenue for governments means more to spend on public goods like education, health care, and infrastructure, which all contribute to development of human capital, standard of living, and productivity. But is there such a thing as too much of a good thing? When it comes to growth in China, that may be the case.

According to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao:

“The primary task for macro­economic regulation this year is to prevent fast economic growth from becoming overheated growth…”

So, fast growth is good, but overheated growth is bad?

I once had a Jeep Wrangler that when I drove it across the country, anytime it hit 70 mph it started to overheat… is that the kind of overheating China’s economy is experiencing? Well, kind of, yes.

The reason my Jeep would overheat was that the pistons in the engine had to move so rapidly to keep the engine going at enough RPMs that the friction created overwhelmed the engine’s ability to properly cool itself. In China, the pistons can be compared to the manufacturing industry and agricultural sectors, which last year were stretched to their limits to meet not only rising demand from foreigners for China’s output, but record levels of domestic demand as well.

For the first time last year, China’s domestic consumption made up a larger component of the country’s GDP than investment. Returning to our metaphor, the engine was forced to work harder than usual, but I hadn’t spent enough to maintain the engine, so it was not properly lubed and tuned for the stress of long-distance travel. Maintenance on an engine is important, otherwise it will wear out and overheat while driving at high speeds over long distances. Likewise, investment in new capital is vital for an economy to keep from overheating as it grows at high rates over long periods of time.

Rising consumption and exports, without a corresponding increase in investment, means capital depreciates too quickly to meet Chinese and the world’s demand for output. In terms of our macroeconomic model, AD shifts out more rapidly than AS, causing inflation:

“the premier said the political priority was to tame consumer price inflation, which hit an 11-year high of 7.1 per cent in January.”

Rising consumption and net exports puts upward pressure on prices in China. To worsen matters, food prices have experienced record increases in the last year, making the matter especially hard for China’s urban poor, separated from the farmland and its produce as they are.

Investment, while an expenditure itself, tends not to contribute to inflation (as might be thought, since it shifts AD outward), but mitigate it, due to the supply-side effect attributable to the increase in capital and productivity that it creates. To combat rising food prices in China, Mr. Wen plans to encourage investment in the agricultural sector through targeted government intervention:

The government would expand agricultural commodity production, strictly control industrial grain use, establish an early-warning system to monitor supply and demand, and strengthen “market oversight” and “price inspections”, he said.

Subsidies for the poor would be increased and provincial governors and mayors held directly responsible for ensuring basic food supplies, said Mr Wen.

Overall China’s picture is looking rather rosy, it would appear. While 7.1% inflation is certainly something to fear, it seems to be manageable in the context of a global slowdown in income growth, and the corresponding decrease in demand for Chinese exports that implies. Combined with a strengthening RMB, China can look forward to a slower rate of growth in 2008, (“a now routine annual ‘target’ of 8 percent expansion in [GDP]”). The trick for the government is to foster investment and productivity growth in the agricultural sector to keep food prices down in the face of growing demand for meat products among China’s middle class.

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Jan 14 2008

When markets work…

Michael Munger, Bosses Don’t Wear Bunny Slippers, If Markets Are So Great, Why Are There Firms: Library of Economics and Liberty

The other day when we introduced our unit on market failure, we began by revisiting the concept of free markets as mechanisms for allocating scarce resources efficiently. As I was reading blogs tonight, I stumbled upon this blog post by Michael Munger, professor of political economy at Duke University, where he shares an anecdote he uses when introducing the allocating power of markets through the price mechanism:

When I teach political economy, I start with the neoclassical theory of consumption, and then cover production. And I show students how miraculous is it that the actions of millions of people who have never met can be directed by prices. Resources move toward their highest valued use, and consumption goods are delivered to the consumers who want them.

For example, the United States promoted ethanol as an auto fuel. This sharply increased the price of corn worldwide. As Brazilian reporter Kieran Gartlan put it: “Higher prices are leading Brazilian farmers to plant more second crop corn this year, and the country’s modest corn exports are expected to expand [from 42 million tonnes to 48 million tonnes, an increase of 230 million bushels.]” (DTN, March 2, 2007, emphasis mine).

No one directed the Brazilian farmers to shift to corn production. The article puts it perfectly: “Higher prices are leading farmers….” The leadership comes from the prices themselves! The farmers may have had no idea why the price of corn had increased, to $4.00 per bushel. (After all, Brazil uses sugar, not corn, to produce its ethanol.) But Brazilian corn production increased within a year, by nearly 15%. No one made the farmers switch; they made choices. Other corn producers, in Argentina, Mexico, and several African countries, followed suit. No one talked about it, no one gave any orders; prices led them.

The reason I post this excerpt from professor Munger’s blog now is that it serves as a great response to a student who on the first day of our market failure class posited that perhaps the government could do a better job of deciding what goods and services and how much of them should be produced in an economy.

Yes, markets fail, and for many reasons: a concentration of power among a few large firms, an underallocation of resources towards goods that have spillover benefits, the over-provision of goods that have spillover costs, the failure of the market to provide public goods: these are examples of how market fail.

But when markets work, they really work! The efficiency of resource allocation that results from free, competitive, markets is unrivaled by any central planning agency. Munger’s example above is a simple illustration of this allocative power of markets and prices.

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Jun 01 2007

Can you say, “paranoia”?

Promotional Fax Mistaken for Bomb Threat – washingtonpost.com

the threatening fax!

I don’t know, but I would say the American people are a little on edge these days. What does it say about our society when a paranoid bank employee receives a fax and calls in the bomb squad? The arrival of the threatening fax coincided with the arrival of a “suspicious” package, escalating the fears of the terrified bank staff. Turns out the fax was from the corporate office, and the package contained some paper files, but by the time police figured it out 15 local businesses and a nearby day care’s 30 children had been evacuated from the area!

Okay, so this story may not appear to have much to do with our Econ course… or does it?

Discussion questions*:

  1. What impact might mass paranoia about terrorism have on the macro economy? Explain.
  2. Would the free market provide the security and protection needed to ensure a healthy and safe environment for investment? Why or why not?
  3. What is the term for a service or product that provides spillover benefits for society but which is under-provided by the free market (such as a police force)?
  4. Do you think the bank employees were right to be frightened by the threatening fax? Is their fear rational or irrational given the political and social climate in America today?

*From now on, most of the posts on this blog will include discussion questions. These are meant to help students start their own discussion about the issues raised in the posts and how they connect to our economics course. Posts like this one are tagged with a category, and next year when we get to a particular topic in our Econ course, students will be asked to find a past post from that category on the blog, read it and post their comments. This will become a part of students’ grades. To see how the blog will graded, click here.

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