Markets, Incentives and a Krugman (et al.) Fail

Pity the poor teenager taking an AP Economics course whose father is an economist. Especially when the local school district has adopted a text that is based on Paul Krugman’s Economics (3rd ed., coauthored with Robin Wells). Even more especially when the father-economist has a fundamental disagreement with much of what Mr. Krugman has become since surrendering his academic credentials for political punditry. Yeah, that’s my lucky kid.

So of course, I had to thumb through the text. I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised to find on only the third page of Module 1 a gross error in explaining the trouble with command economies. After explaining the failed history of command economies, the text asserts (p. 3):

At the root cause of the problem with command economies is a lack of incentives, which are rewards or punishments that motivate particular choices.

Where to start? How about with the simple fact that incentives always exist, no matter the type of economy. And there were plenty of incentives in the former Soviet Union (the textbook example of a command economy–literally in this case). I remember the late Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan sharing the story of his visit to Moscow shortly after the fall of the Soviet empire during which he was surprised to learn of a market for burned out light bulbs — because people could use them to steal working light bulbs from their workplaces when they couldn’t get light bulbs in the stores. People responding to incentives. It’s The Basics 101. The problem with command economies is not a lack of incentives–but a lack of incentives that are based on the wants of consumers themselves and a lack of incentives for innovation or efficiency. In short–the absence of the incentives created by a free market economy.

More importantly, the focus on incentives misses the point in a way that has significant implications for what the text goes on to say about economic policy. At the root of the problem with command economies was the lack of information available to decision-makers about the wants and desires of an entire population of individual consumers with different tastes and preferences and about the conditions of scarcity and desires in dispersed local markets across the society’s economy. As F.A. Hayek (another Nobel Prize winner) explained, the fundamental role of markets is to discover and reveal information based on the complex interactions of individuals across product types and geographic space.These interactions result in prices that reflect the relative scarcity and value of goods across society. Those prices create incentives, and those incentives are fundamentally important in guiding individuals to use their resources in ways that innovate, create value, and serve consumers. But the incentives are secondary–derived from the information discovery role of market that cannot be replicated in a command economy.

Why is this such an important distinction? Because of the way the text goes on to describe the objective of policy making. After (fairly accurately) explaining how prices create incentives, the authors state (p. 3):

In fact, economists tend to be skeptical of any attempt to change people’s behavior that doesn’t change their incentives. For example, a plan that calls on manufacturers to reduce pollution voluntarily probably won’t be effective; a plan that gives them a financial incentive to do so is more likely to succeed.

The implication? All we need to do is create incentives (implicitly, in the form of taxes, fines or subsidies) to create financial incentives for manufacturers (or people) to do what we want them to do. But this line of argument ignores the more fundamental question of determining whether the plan makes social or economic sense in the first place. What is the economic basis for whether we uses fines or subsidies and how large they should be? At what point, if any, would doing nothing be economically more efficient than doing something? By taking away the fundamental information function of the market and jumping immediately to incentives, we skip the whole messy discussion of the information requirements by legislators, bureaucrats and policy makers in coming up with “the plan” to begin with. All we need to do is trust the omniscience and beneficence of policy makers to know what the “right price” is–and to set arbitrarily the incentives to get the outcomes we want. But that’s why command economies fail.

The root problem of a command economy is not that there are no incentives, but that there are socially inefficient incentives. The incentives are socially inefficient because it is impossible for a central authority to know the value individual citizens place not only on existing goods and services, but on the latent value of potential goods and services that can only be discovered by innovation and experimentation–and a central planner cannot think beyond her own imagination in the realm of possibilities. And it’s not only true of Soviet-style planned economies, but of any central decision-making authority–including the US federal government–even in the context of a heavily market-dominated economy.

Note: AP Economics students (and teachers), remember….the correct answer on the test may not be the right answer in reality. Answer the questions from the textbook based on the information in the textbook. But in your real life as a consumer of information and participant in the market place of ideas and politics, be sure to get to the fundamentals rather than the superficial.

We’re From The FCC and We’re Here To Help

“We’re from the government, and we’re here to help.” Yeah, you know that punchline, right?

I saw a report from NPR that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler had decided to do just that in the dispute between Dish Network and Sinclair Broadcasting. As reported in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Dish blacked out some 150 local stations owned or operated by Sinclair as a result of their ongoing distribution contract renegotiation dispute. The blackout affects some 5 million consumers in 79 markets.

Enter Chairman Wheeler to the rescue. Per the NPR article,Wheeler stated “We will not stand idly by while millions of consumers in 79 markets across the country are being denied access to local programming.”

Just one problem: Consumers are not being denied access to local stations–particularly to local news, weather and information on their local NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox affiliates. These affiliates are required–by the FCC–to provide free digital broadcasts, meaning consumers are perfectly able to access these stations for relatively modest investments in a digital antenna for their television. Moreover, in most markets Dish is not the sole distributor of paid-access television, meaning consumers also have the option of switching to a different television service provider. Indeed, as reported by both NPR and the WSJ, Dish is already hemorrhaging subscribers in large part due to service interruptions that have come to characterize Dish’s negotiating tactics with local station owners. And no doubt Dish has taken that into account in their negotiation strategy with Sinclair.

Where the FCC should act is in clarifying its rules regarding negotiation rights and station ownership. Two weeks before the blackout, Dish filed a complaint with the FCC regarding Sinclair’s negotiating tactics–which revolve in part around whether Sinclair was the property rights to negotiate on behalf of several stations it operates, but does not own. The FCC issued a rule forbidding such negotiations, but Sinclair alleges their operating agreements were grandfathered in. If the FCC were more clear in its rules and interpretations, perhaps the contracting dispute would have resolved itself already without the need for Chairman Wheeler to mount his white horse and ride to the rescue.

Public Choice Society Call For Papers

The Public Choice Society has issued a Call for Papers for their annual meetings March 10-12, 2016. The plenary speakers include Vernon Smith (Chapman Univ and 2002 economics Nobel laureate), Robert Cooter (UC Berkeley), David Levy (George Mason) and Sandra Peart (Richmond). If you’re not familiar with the Public Choice Society, their purpose statement reads:

The goal of the Society is to facilitate the exchange of research and ideas across disciplines in the social sciences, particularly economics, political science, sociology, law, and related fields. It started when scholars from all these groups became interested in the application of essentially economic methods to problems normally dealt with by political theorists. It has retained strong traces of economic methodology, but new and fruitful directions have developed that transcend the boundaries of any self-contained discipline.The Society meets annually to facilitate scholarly inquiry and exchange of ideas on the range of topics included in non-market decision making.

Paper proposals and early registration begin October 1. Proposals are due by December 1.

TOTM Symposium Honoring Josh Wright

My once-and-future colleague at Truth on the Market, Joshua Wright, resigned this week from the Federal Trade Commission. While a Commissioner, Josh was a voice of economic reason that shaped significant policy decisions and illuminated shortcomings. TOTM is hosting a blogposium this week on the legacy of Josh Wright’s tenure at the FTC, including some significant players in the area of law and economics. It’s definitely worth checking out and following along.

How Federal Student Loans Increase College Costs

A recent paper by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows how increases in federal student loan programs–intended to make college more affordable–actually increase the cost of college. As with other markets, when the supply of money available to pay tuition increases, the price of tuition rises. The abstract reads:

When students fund their education through loans, changes in student borrowing and tuition are interlinked. Higher tuition costs raise loan demand, but loan supply also affects equilibrium tuition costs—for example, by relaxing students’ funding constraints.To resolve this simultaneity problem, we exploit detailed student-level financial data and changes in federal student aid programs to identify the impact of increased student loan funding on tuition. We find that institutions more exposed to changes in the subsidized federal loan program increased their tuition disproportionately around these policy changes, with a sizable pass-through effect on tuition of about 65 percent. We also find that Pell Grant aid and the unsubsidized federal loan program have pass-through effects on tuition, although these are economically and statistically not as strong. The subsidized loan effect on tuition is most pronounced for expensive, private institutions that are somewhat, but not among the most, selective.
But the effects don’t stop with rising tuition. This increased demand for college education also exacerbates income inequality by inflating the supply of college graduates. (See this piece by George Leef for a full overview of both the NY Fed paper and the income inequality effects).
It’s not rocket science. It’s pretty simple supply-and-demand stuff, actually. No matter how good the intentions, policies that ignore these effects tend to do more harm than good. In this case, generous federal student loan programs not only lead to increases in tuition that result in even higher loans, but reduce the earning power of graduates (on average) and decrease their ability to repay those loans. A pretty perverse circle of effects indeed.

SCOTUS Rejects USDA’s Raisin Cartel

A couple years ago I posted (here) about a lawsuit progressing through the courts concerning the USDA’s raisin marketing order. The Raisin Administrative Committee (RAC) basically sets a quota on the amount of raisins that can be marketed in a given year as a way of maintaining high-priced raisins. The RAC requires produ799184_1280x720cers to turn a portion of their crop over to the RAC, which then markets the “excess” raisins to other countries or uses.

Today, the US Supreme Court ruled in Horne v. Department of Agriculture that the USDA-sponsored Raisin Administrative Committee’s process amounts to an unconstitutional governmental “taking”. Apparently the decision is limited to the raisin program and it opens the doors to other ways for the USDA to control the raisin market, but the decision also raises questions about the constitutionality of other agricultural commodity programs.


The Editorial Process in Economics and Social Sciences

Marc Bellemare offers some thoughts about the editorial review process in economics and social sciences…from an editors perspective. His insights are helpful for new or younger scholars, and a good reminder for those more seasoned.

On May 1, I will become editor of Food Policy, replacing the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies’ Bhavani Shankar, and sharing the role of editor with the University of Bologna’s Mario Mazzocchi, serving for an initial term of three years.


Given that, I thought now would be as good a time as any to write my thoughts about the editorial process. This will allow me to go back to these thoughts once my term as editor ends, to see what else I might have learned. So here goes–in no particular order–some thoughts I’ve accumulated on the editorial process in the social sciences. I hope others with editorial experience can chime in with their own additional thoughts in the comments.