Mainstream Economists Rediscover the Marginal Pair

I have published my first blog post over at Mises Canada. The post relates Böhm-Bawerk’s price theory to modern job-matching models. Here are the key paragraphs:

[M]odern labour economists’ use of discrete reasoning in job-matching models should be lauded as a step towards greater realism. In these models, there are a discrete number of unemployed workers seeking to fill a discrete number of job openings. These models are summarized by Alvaredo, Atkinson, Piketty, and Saez:

“[I]n the now-standard models of job-matching, a job emerges as the result of the costly creation of a vacancy by the employer and of job search by the employee. A match creates a positive surplus, and there is Nash bargaining over the division of the surplus, leading to a proportion β going to the worker and (1 – β) to the employer.”[4]

In these models, as in the real world, workers and employers must find each other before they can engage in exchange. Often, the model is set up such that only one worker and one employer find each other at a given time, making their exchange a case of isolated exchange. If multiple workers or employers discover each other at the same time, then Böhm-Bawerk’s analysis of one- or two-sided competition applies. Both workers and employers form their valuations based on their expectations of the other opportunities they might find if they engage in further search.

However, while Böhm-Bawerk and his heirs in the Austrian school are satisfied to leave the determination of price unspecified within the range bounded by the marginal pairs, modern economists feel the need to uniquely determine prices within their models, thus the addition of Nash bargaining and the nebulous “β” term, the “bargaining power” of the worker. β must be precisely specified and known so that the homines economici in search models can form their valuations based on perfect knowledge of the random processes determining the future outcomes of search and of their exact payoffs under all possible matchings. If economists were to admit that the division of surplus is inherently idiosyncratic and unpredictable, their models would break.

Furthermore, simply by referring to “bargaining power,” economists imply more than their models can support. Suppose that the marginal pairs determined that the price of a given item should fall between $396 and $412. If the actual price attained is $400, should we conclude that buyers’ “bargaining power” is four times that of sellers, or that they settled on $400 simply because it is a round number acceptable to both buyers and sellers? One cannot know.

Read the whole thing.

Gold and the Great Depression with James Caton

In this episode, James Caton discusses the classical and inter-war gold standards. James is an economics PhD student at George Mason University.

Gold has many qualities that make it an ideal money: It is valuable, scarce, divisible, and easy to transport. It is also easy to verify the value of a given amount of gold: The Old Testament references weights and scales being used to measure gold. Ancient people could verify the purity of the gold by observing its water displacement.

Before 1870, only Great Britain was on a gold standard, while gold, silver, and other metals would circulate freely alongside one another throughout the rest of Europe. The classical gold standard began in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, when the victorious Germany demonetized silver in favour of gold and the rest of Western Europe followed suit (see Caton on the deflation that resulted from the demonetization of silver). America converted to the gold standard in 1879 upon redeeming the Civil War greenbacks for gold. Continue reading Gold and the Great Depression with James Caton

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Simple Keynesianism

XKCD Comic about simple English Wikipedia
Source: http://xkcd.com/547/

Simple English Wikipedia is an edition of the open-source encyclopedia designed to be intelligible to small children, adults with learning disabilities, and people who are learning English.  It is also an entertaining read, because the simple language often makes things silly. I found the article on Keynesian economics to be particularly silly and entertaining:

Keynesian economics (also called Keynesianism) describes the economics theories of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes wrote about his theories in his book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. The book was published in 1936.

Keynes said capitalism was a good economic system. In a capitalism system, people earn money from their work. Businesses employ and pay people to work. Then people can spend their money on things they want. Other people work and make things to buy. Sometimes the capitalism system has problems. People lose their work. Businesses close. People cannot work and cannot spend money. Keynes said the government should step in and help people who do not have work.

This idea is called “demand-side policy”. If people are working, the economy is good. If people are not working, the economy is bad.

Keynes said when the economy is bad, people want to save their money. That is, they do not spend their money on things they want. As a result there is less economic activity.

Keynes said the government should spend more money when people do not have work. The government can borrow money and give people jobs (work). Then people can spend money again and buy things. This helps other people find work.

Some people, such as conservatives, libertarians, and people who believe in Austrian economics, do not like Keynes’ ideas. They say government work does not help capitalism. They say when the government borrows money, it takes money away from businesses. They do not like Keynesian economics because they say the economy can get better without government help.

During the late 1970s Keynesian economics became less popular because inflation was high.

When a big recession happened in 2007, Keynesian economics became more popular. Leaders around the world (including Barack Obama) created stimulus packages which would allow their government to spend a lot of money to create jobs.

Hilarious!

How Private Certification Regulates the Market for Piano Teachers

The economic argument for state certification of certain professions rests on asymmetric information. The idea is that consumers might not know enough about medicine, for instance, to tell the difference between a good doctor and a quack. If we let consumers choose their doctors without constraint, so the reasoning goes, we would be overrun with quacks.

This is a decent argument for certification, but it’s not a good argument for mandatory state certification. If mandatory state certification were necessary to combat asymmetric information problems, the world would be overrun with bad piano teachers. Most parents are not pianists; how are they expected to know the difference between good and bad piano teachers? The answer is that they don’t have to know. If they want to know that their kid’s piano teacher is qualified, they just need to hire a teacher that a respected institution like the Royal Conservatory of Music has certified. Parents may not know what makes a good piano teacher, but this only means there is a market opportunity in delivering that information.

Private certification has many advantages over mandatory state certification. The first is that consumers who care less about quality, such as the parent who only wants a piano lesson as a substitute for babysitting and doesn’t intend his child to become a virtuoso pianist, can still choose to hire the cheaper, uncertified service. Continue reading How Private Certification Regulates the Market for Piano Teachers

Radicalism and the Political Landscape

Last night I had a nice conversation with some other Queen’s economics alumni. When the conversation turned to politics, I said that I didn’t want to follow the next election and that I had promised myself I wouldn’t support the lesser evil. I may have come off as apathetic about politics, but that was not my intention.

The way I see it, there is a tradeoff between having a small (i.e. negligible) influence on present politics, by volunteering for political parties, talking (or blogging) about current political issues, and of course voting, and having a potentially larger influence on future politics. Here is the opening paragraph of Hayek’s essay, The Intellectuals and Socialism:

In all democratic countries, in the United States even more than elsewhere, a strong belief prevails that the influence of the intellectuals on politics is negligible. This is no doubt true of the power of intellectuals to make their peculiar opinions of the
moment influence decisions, of the extent to which they can sway the popular vote on questions on which they differ from the current views of the masses. Yet over somewhat longer periods they have probably never exercised so great an influence as they do today in those countries. This power they wield by shaping public opinion.

Hayek’s view, which I share, is that there is a fundamentally different mechanism at play in short-run politics and in long-run politics: The short run turns on popular opinion, while the long run turns on the forces that shape popular opinion. Continue reading Radicalism and the Political Landscape

Hermione Granger, Capitalist?

J. K. Rowling has revealed in interviews what some of her characters went on to do after the close of the Harry Potter series. Unfortunately, they all became bureaucrats! Here is what she revealed about Hermione Granger’s future:

Hermione Granger

Hermione began her post-Hogwarts career at the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures where she was instrumental in greatly improving life for house-elves and their ilk. She then moved (despite her jibe to Scrimgeour) to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement where she was a progressive voice who ensured the eradication of oppressive, pro-pureblood laws.

I think a lot of people see politics as the noblest and most altruistic career path. The world would be a better place if the misplaced respect for politicians was instead directed at entrepreneurs. A better epilogue for Hermione would go something like this:

Hermione began her post-Hogwarts career working in potion development. Her greatest creation was an elixir for the enhancement of non-pureblood wizards’ magical abilities. She used the wealth from this popular elixir to start a financial firm that specialized in extending loans to house elves and their ilk, allowing them to buy their freedom from servitude. Despite an extended legal battle with the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, Hermione’s firm became large and successful. She retired wealthy and comfortable, and when the history of house-elf servitude was written, the wizarding world remembered that over 60 per cent of freed house elves had bought their freedom with a Granger Capital loan.

There, now isn’t that better?

Archie Dies for Leftism

Well, that was unexpected:

Archie Andrews, a staple of American comics since 1941, will die in Wednesday’s issue of Life with Archie. And he’ll say goodbye to the series with one last act of heroism: Archie will take a bullet meant for best friend Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character in his comic universe. In doing so, he’ll foil an assassination attempt against Keller and, according to the story’s creators, give rise to greater understanding and tolerance in his fictional town of Riverdale. The final issue arrives as many Americans continue to work tirelessly on behalf of gay rights and to extend marriage equality across the US.

“He dies selflessly,” said Jon Goldwater, Archie Comics publisher and co-CEO, speaking to the Associated Press. “He dies in the manner that epitomizes not only the best of Riverdale but the best of all of us.”

That’s a little dark for a comic book about teen romance and hamburgers, but OK. I hope the creators would agree that dying selflessly for a friend would still qualify as a noble act regardless of the friend’s sexual orientation, race, religion, or gender. Continue reading Archie Dies for Leftism

American Apparel Demonstrates a Fundamental Principle of Capitalism

The American Apparel board of directors has ousted the company’s founder. The company stock jumped up nearly 20% on the announcement. Contrary to what we see in the movies, being a successful founder of a big company does not entitle one to kick back, smoke cigars, and let the profits roll in. Dov Charney had some innovative ideas about clothing and about turning a small enterprise into a global chain, but his personal failings became damaging, so he had to go.

An interesting question to ask is “who works for whom?” A week ago we might have thought that American Apparel worked for Charney, and not the other way around, but we would have been wrong. The board that fired him is itself beholden to the shareholders; the old share price (before the 20% jump) was the result of investors restricting their investments in the company because its bad CEO made it less appealing than some alternative investments. And who are the shareholders beholden to? Continue reading American Apparel Demonstrates a Fundamental Principle of Capitalism

My Get-Rich-Slow Scheme

Today I will be dispensing life advice. There’s a certain type of person who will tell you that you should follow your passion regardless of money concerns; to do otherwise would be “selling out.” This is pretty terrible advice. If eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom are not my passions, should I never do these things?  What is it about money (or rather, all the things that exchange for money) that makes it unacceptable to include among one’s goals?

The big problem with this advice is that it is often given to young people. Young people have passions, but they can only be passionate about the things they have experienced at their young age. When I was young, I was passionate about painting. Now I am passionate about economics. If I had taken the oft-repeated advice to “follow my passion,” I would be struggling to make a living as an oil painter. Only by not following my passion was I able to discover a different (and much more remunerative) passion.

Not bad, huh?
Not bad, huh?

Continue reading My Get-Rich-Slow Scheme

How Do We Know (That The Minimum Wage Hurts Workers)?

Airplane Takeoff
One thousand internet points to the commenter who can correctly identify this image!

Here’s a conversation between a reporter and one of the alleged beneficiaries of Seattle airport’s $15/hour minimum wage:

“Are you happy with the $15 wage?” I asked the full-time cleaning lady.

“It sounds good, but it’s not good,” the woman said.

“Why?” I asked.

“I lost my 401k, health insurance, paid holiday, and vacation,” she responded. “No more free food,” she added.

The hotel used to feed her. Now, she has to bring her own food. Also, no overtime, she said. She used to work extra hours and received overtime pay.

What else? I asked.

“I have to pay for parking,” she said.

This may have come as a surprise to some, but not to those of us who are familiar with economic theory. The minimum wage hike here was large and sudden, so the impact was dramatic and visible. Continue reading How Do We Know (That The Minimum Wage Hurts Workers)?

Garrett M. Petersen's blog about markets, institutions, and ideas.