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 the 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 exactly 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.

The “Laws” of Economics

Economics has few “laws”. The most notable is the Law of Demand, which simply states that there is an inverse relationship between the price of a thing and how many units people are willing to buy (i.e., when the price goes down (up), people buy more (less)). The Law of Demand is basically just the culmination of the most basic observations of human behavior; specifically, The Basics with which I started this blog.

There are a few other things that sometimes get labelled as “laws” in economics textbooks. The “law of supply” only applies to things still actively produced, for which the necessary inputs are available; but in general, the more people are willing to pay for something, the more of it producers will try to produce. The “law of diminishing returns”–typically applied in the context of production–assumes there is at least one fixed input that constrains the marginal productivity of the rest. It’s more a rule of thumb than a “law.” But it is also analogous to Rule #3 in The Basics: More more is less better.

Whether we consider them “laws” or not, one thing is for certain: when we ignore these basic principles, we do so at our own peril. And that brings me to the motivation for this post; namely a recent blog post by “The Edgy Optimist” (aka Zachary Karabell) at Reuters.com titled “The ‘laws of economics’ don’t exist.” Continue reading The “Laws” of Economics

The Ethics and Economics of Agrifood Competition

My colleague, Harvey James, recently edited a volume for Springer’s The International Library of Environmental, Agricultural and Food Ethics titled The Ethics and Economics of Agrifood Competition. The book is a collection of essays addressing the adequacy and fairness of agrifood competition and includes pieces from a variety of scholars, from philosophy to sociology to economics. The volume includes several essays addressing conceptual issues and questions around agrifood competition and several studies of specific agrifood sectors from around the globe.

One of the chapters, written by yours truly, is titled “The ‘Fallacy’ of Competition in Agriculture.” The abstract reads:

Agriculture has long been viewed by economists as the best example of an industry characterized by perfect competition. However, the history of modern agriculture is marked with differences about just how competitive the industry is and whether competition is in fact a desirable thing. Present debates about competition in agriculture rally discontent with the competitive environment around the mantra of “free and fair competition.” But this populist ideal presents problems of its own. First, what is the economic meaning of “free and fair” competition? Second, how does the argument about the need for free and fair competition meet with the facts of how the agricultural industry behaves? And finally, what are the ethical implications of arguments for government intervention in the agricultural economy?

A copy of an early draft of the chapter is available here. But by all means, buy the book!

Beginning With The Basics

The purpose More Is Better Than Less (MIBTL…I may have to think about that acronym) is to have a venue for sharing information and for sharing my perspective on various economic issues. So I figured it would be good to start with the basics. And I think these basics are so important that I also have a page devoted to them so they’ll be easy to find as the blog grows. If you think economics is too complicated, too mathematical, or just plain stupid, I hope I can convince you otherwise—and that you, too, are capable of wielding the sword of economics to cut through much of the muck and mire that muddles public discourse.

Economics, at its foundation, is simply a framework for understanding how people choose to use the resources available to them; whether money, raw physical goods, knowledge, talents or time. Economists can make it very complicated–to the point of losing the economic intuition in the mathematics of the models they use. But at its foundation economics is based on some very simple premises that don’t take a PhD in economics–or mathematics–to understand and apply to real life. Sadly, too few people understand that–and fewer still use that understanding.

There are three basic assumptions I propose at the beginning of every course I teach. I believe they are sufficient to understand the vast majority of human behavior. And they involve no math: Continue reading Beginning With The Basics