Tag Archives: Economics

Updates from Chicago Booth

Why banning plastic bags doesn’t work as intended
Benefits of bag regulations are mitigated by changes in consumer behavior
By Rebecca Stropoli – As well-intentioned bans on plastic shopping bags roll out across the United States, there’s an unintended consequence that policy makers should take into account. It turns out that when shoppers stop receiving free bags from supermarkets and other retailers, they make up for it by buying more plastic trash bags, significantly reducing the environmental effectiveness of bag bans by substituting one form of plastic film for another, according to University of Sydney’s Rebecca L. C. Taylor.

Economists call this phenomenon “leakage”—when partial regulation of a product results in increased consumption of unregulated goods, Taylor writes. But her research focusing on the rollout of bag bans across 139 California cities and counties from 2007 to 2015 puts a figure on the leakage and develops an estimate for how much consumers already reuse those flimsy plastic shopping bags.

This is a live issue. After all those localities banned disposable bags, California outlawed them statewide, in 2016. In April 2019, New York became the second US state to impose a broad ban on single-use plastic bags. Since 2007, more than 240 local governments in the US have enacted similar policies.

She finds that the bag bans reduced the use of disposable shopping bags by 40 million pounds a year. But purchases of trash bags increased by almost 12 million pounds annually, offsetting about 29 percent of the benefit, her model demonstrates. Sales of small trash bags jumped 120 percent, of medium bags, 64 percent, and of tall kitchen garbage bags, 6 percent. Moreover, use of paper bags rose by more than 80 million pounds, or 652 million sacks, she finds. more>

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Why economics must go digital

By Diane Coyle – One of the biggest concerns about today’s tech giants is their market power. At least outside China, Google, Facebook, and Amazon dominate online search, social media, and online retail, respectively. And yet economists have largely failed to address these concerns in a coherent way. To help governments and regulators as they struggle to address this market concentration, we must make economics itself more relevant to the digital age.

Digital markets often become highly concentrated, with one dominant firm, because larger players enjoy significant returns to scale. For example, digital platforms incur large upfront development costs but benefit from low marginal costs once the software is written. They gain from network effects, whereby the more users a platform has, the more all users benefit. And data generation plays a self-reinforcing role: more data improves the service, which brings in more users, which generates more data.

To put it bluntly, a digital platform is either large or dead.

As several recent reports (including one to which I contributed) have pointed out, the digital economy poses a problem for competition policy.

Competition is vital for boosting productivity and long-term growth because it drives out inefficient producers and stimulates innovation. Yet how can this happen when there are such dominant players?

Today’s digital behemoths provide services that people want: one recent study estimated that consumers value online search alone at a level equivalent to about half of US median income.

Economists, therefore, need to update their toolkit. Rather than assessing likely short-term trends in specific digital markets, they need to be able to estimate the potential long-term costs implied by the inability of a new rival with better technology or service to unseat the incumbent platform.

This is no easy task because there is no standard methodology for estimating uncertain, non-linear futures. Economists even disagree on how to measure static consumer valuations of free digital goods such as online search and social media.

And although the idea that competition operates dynamically through firms entering and exiting the market dates back at least to Joseph Schumpeter, the standard approach is still to look at competition among similar companies producing similar goods at a point in time. more>

Too much theory leads economists to bad predictions

By Peter A Coclanis – In economics, as a result, both economic history and (especially) the history of economic thought withered for a generation or two.

So what accounts for the recent change of course? For starters, there was the Great Recession – or ‘Lesser Depression’, as Krugman called it in 2011 – which seemed to a few influential economists such as Ben Bernanke, Carmen Rinehart, Ken Rogoff and Barry Eichengreen similar in many ways to other financial crises in the past. But there were other factors too, including the general retreat from globalisation, and the renascence of both nationalist and authoritarian movements around the world, which sounded the death knell for Fukuyama’s benign new world.

As ‘history’ returned, so too has a degree of acceptance of historical approaches among social scientists, who sense, however vaguely, that though history might not repeat itself, it often rhymes, as Mark Twain (might have) put it.

Thinking historically, of course, entails both temporal and contextual dimensions and, in addition, often requires a significant amount of empirical work. Indeed, finding, assembling, analysing and drawing accurate conclusions from the bodies of evidence that historians call data is not for the weak of heart or, more to the point, for those short of time.

So, bottom line: economic forecasters would profit from thinking a bit more about history before gazing into their crystal balls, or at least before telling us what they see. more>

We need to rethink our economic assumptions

By Isabel V. Sawhill – To defeat Trump in the upcoming election, Democrats are advancing a set of proposals engineered to excite their base: a single payer health system, college for all, a guaranteed jobs program.

All are worthy of debate but perhaps the problems go deeper. Perhaps they go to the core of our beliefs about how the world works, what makes the economy tick, and how this relates to human welfare.

The dominant paradigm right now is what is sometimes called Neoliberalism which I define as a belief in the efficiency of markets. Those on the left believe that a market economy needs more than a little help from government. There are social costs and benefits that markets ignore; economic downturns are not self-correcting; and a lack of competition or transparency can harm consumers.

By addressing these and other shortcomings, government can free the market to do what it does best. Still, the central belief is that markets are the most efficient way to organize a society and by extension optimize individual freedom.

Critics of this paradigm note that it is fundamentally flawed. Human beings are not just consumers, they don’t always behave rationally, and they don’t always maximize their own well-being. They need a sense of community, they care about the welfare of others, and their sense of what matters goes well beyond a larger GDP. They respond not just to economic incentives but to the desire for respect from their peers, to social norms, and to moral or religious principles.

There is an efficient allocation of resources to go with every possible allocation of dollar votes and the distribution of dollar votes should be a communal decision arrived at by democratic means.

At the core of the neoliberal theory – arguably its most influential precept — is the idea that people are paid what they are worth.

If incomes are unequal it’s because skills and talents are unequal. The rich deserve their riches because, for the most part, they earned them. The poor lack income because they have too little education or the other skills needed to get ahead.

There is a lot that’s ignored in the wages equal marginal productivity equation: the asymmetry of bargaining power, the difficulty of discerning who contributes what, the stickiness of established wage norms and employment relationships, and the lack of competition. more>

What Happens When You Believe in Ayn Rand and Modern Economic Theory

The reality of unfettered self-interest
By Denise Cummins – “Ayn Rand is my hero,” yet another student tells me during office hours. “Her writings freed me. They taught me to rely on no one but myself.”

As I look at the freshly scrubbed and very young face across my desk, I find myself wondering why Rand’s popularity among the young continues to grow.

The core of Rand’s philosophy — which also constitutes the overarching theme of her novels — is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. This, she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. In “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” Rand put it this way:

Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.

By this logic, religious and political controls that hinder individuals from pursuing self-interest should be removed.

The fly in the ointment of Rand’s philosophical “objectivism” is the plain fact that humans have a tendency to cooperate and to look out for each other, as noted by many anthropologists who study hunter-gatherers. These “prosocial tendencies” were problematic for Rand, because such behavior obviously mitigates against “natural” self-interest and therefore should not exist. more>

How a Decade of Crisis Changed Economics

By J. W. Mason – Has economics changed since the crisis?

As usual, the answer is: it depends. If we look at the macroeconomic theory of PhD programs and top journals, the answer is clearly, no. Macroeconomic theory remains the same self-contained, abstract art form that it has been for the past twenty-five years.

As Joan Robinson once put it, economic theory is the art of pulling a rabbit out of a hat right after you’ve stuffed it into the hat in full view of the audience.

Many producers of this kind of model actually have a quite realistic understanding of the behavior of real economies, often informed by firsthand experience in government. The combination of real insight and tight genre constraints leads to a strange style of theorizing, where the goal is to produce a model that satisfies the methodological conventions of the discipline while arriving at a conclusion that you’ve already reached by other means. It’s the economic equivalent of the college president in Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution:

About anything, anything at all, Dwight Robbins believed what Reason and Virtue and Tolerance and a Comprehensive Organic Synthesis of Values would have him believe. And about anything, anything at all, he believed what it was expedient for the president of Benton College to believe. You looked at the two beliefs, and lo! the two were one. more>

Economics as a moral tale

By John Rapley – Think of human development as a long journey.

At the beginning, we live at the mercy of nature. Dependent on its bounty, we pray for rains and freedom from natural disasters and plagues. At the end of the journey, nature lives at our mercy.

We use science and technology to release new wealth and remake the planet. Today, as humans implant themselves with microchips, install artificial organs and plan Mars colonies, we even aim for a ‘singularity’ that will lift us out of nature once and for all.

Economists began to compose the narrative of this odyssey, from subjection to dominion, in the 1700s. Once it became apparent that Europe had broken with millennia of stasis to begin a long period of rising growth – the same through which we are still living – political economists abandoned philosophical reflection to draft roadmaps to development.

Two broad types emerged. One approach described the walk, the other the walker. The first presumed that the context in which we made the journey – the natural environment, the institutions, the culture, the legal and political systems – determined the direction of the path. In this model, the government bore responsibility to build the path so that it could accommodate as many people as possible.

The second approach took a more individualist perspective. It presumed that the walker determined his or her own success in the journey. It concentrated on the moral, intellectual and physical attributes it believed an individual needed to advance. In this model, the task of the government was to sweep aside obstacles impeding the gifted few from embarking on their personal journeys – restraints that ranged from restrictions on labor mobility to usury laws. Thus liberated, gifted individuals would beat the path to prosperity. more>

Complexity Economics Shows Us Why Laissez-Faire Economics Always Fails

By Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer – Over the last three decades, an unprecedented consolidation and concentration of earning power and wealth has made the top 1 percent of Americans immensely richer while middleclass Americans have been increasingly impoverished.

Traditional economic theory is rooted in a 19th- and 20th-century understanding of science and mathematics. At the simplest level, traditional theory assumes economies are linear systems filled with rational actors who seek to optimize their situation. Outputs reflect a sum of inputs, the system is closed, and if big change comes it comes as an external shock. The system’s default state is equilibrium. The prevailing metaphor is a machine.

But this is not how economies are. It never has been. As anyone can see and feel today, economies behave in ways that are non-linear and irrational, and often violently so. These often-violent changes are not external shocks but emergent properties—the inevitable result—of the way economies behave.

The traditional approach, in short, completely misunderstands human behavior and natural economic forces. The problem is that the traditional model is not an academic curiosity; it is the basis for an ideological story about the economy and government’s role—and that story has fueled policymaking and morphed into a selfishness-justifying conventional wisdom.

It is now possible to understand and describe economic systems as complex systems like gardens. And it is now reasonable to assert that economic systems are not merely similar to ecosystems; they are ecosystems, driven by the same types of evolutionary forces as ecosystems. Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth is the most lucid survey available of this new complexity economics. more>

Looking Past GDP to Measure Economic Strength

By Sophie Mitra – GDP has many limitations. It captures only a very narrow slice of economic activity: goods and services. It pays no attention to what is produced, how it is produced, or how it might improve lives.

Still, many policymakers, analysts, and reporters remain fixated on the GDP growth rate, as if it encapsulates all of a nation’s economic goals, performance, and progress.

The obsession about GDP comes, in part, from the misconception that economics only has to do with market transactions, money, and wealth. But the economy is also about people.

Despite the media’s obsession with GDP, many economists would agree that economics considers wealth or the production of goods and services as means to improve the human condition.

One approach is to have a dashboard of indicators that are assessed on a regular basis. For instance, workers’ earnings, the share of the population with health insurance, and life expectancy could be monitored closely, in addition to GDP.

However, this dashboard approach is less convenient and simple than having one indicator to measure progress against. A wide set of indicators are, in fact, available already in the U.S.—but attention remains stuck on GDP. more>

The real Adam Smith

By Paul Sagar – If you’ve heard of one economist, it’s likely to be Adam Smith. He’s the best-known of all economists, and is typically hailed as the founding father of the dismal science itself.

As he put it in The Wealth of Nations: ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.’

The merchants had spent centuries securing their position of unfair advantage. In particular, they had invented and propagated the doctrine of ‘the balance of trade’, and had succeeded in elevating it into the received wisdom of the age.

The basic idea was that each nation’s wealth consisted in the amount of gold that it held. Playing on this idea, the merchants claimed that, in order to get rich, a nation had to export as much, and import as little, as possible, thus maintaining a ‘favorable’ balance. They then presented themselves as servants of the public by offering to run state-backed monopolies that would limit the inflow, and maximize the outflow, of goods, and therefore of gold.

But as Smith’s lengthy analysis showed, this was pure hokum: what were needed instead were open trading arrangements, so that productivity could increase generally, and collective wealth would grow for the benefit of all.

When he argued that markets worked remarkably efficiently – because, although each individual ‘intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention’ – this was an appeal to free individuals from the constraints imposed upon them by the monopolies that the merchants had established, and were using state power to uphold. The invisible hand was originally invoked not to draw attention to the problem of state intervention, but of state capture. more>