The Economics of Sustainability

George Leef writes,

The sustainability movement isn’t interested in the kind of analysis that scholars bring to controversies. It wants zealots, such as the “eco-reps” now employed on many campuses to push the agenda. Recycling, for instance, is always advanced as an imperative for saving the planet. There are trade-off questions about recycling that have caused many people to conclude that its costs often exceed its benefits, but students are not encouraged to think about them.

It strikes me that introductory economics teachers need to include some thoughts on sustainability. Here are mine:

1. The most reliable indication of sustainability is the ability to make a profit at unsubsidized market prices.

2. When people disagree with the market’s judgment, there is a good chance that they are focusing on a cost they can see and ignoring a cost that they cannot see. For example, someone who argues that “eating local” is sustainable probably sees the cost of transporting food but does not see the cost of allocating land and water to inferior uses. Before modern transportation, refrigeration, and food preservatives, more of us “ate local.” Consequently, we wasted land near cities on farms, and that land now is used to house people or has been returned to wilderness.

3. If in order to get people to recycle you need to use subsidies or regulations, then that is a sign that recycling does not save resources and instead wastes them.

4. Remember that one of the laws of science is that in chemical reactions matter is neither created nor destroyed. There is a sense in which production of goods and services does not “use up” physical resources. Instead, it changes the form of matter from something that is relatively useless to something that is relatively useful.

5. The great industries of the world came about because entrepreneurs were able to take abundant, seemingly useless resources and make them valuable. Before internal combustion engines, oil was just annoying gunk. Before computers, silicon was just the main constituent in sand.

6. In a free-market economy, price signals tell consumers and entrepreneurs what can be wasted and what must be conserved. If property rights are clear and market prices are free to move, then there is no need to fear running out of any valuable resource.

7. Public policy is subject to public choice problems, including the bootleggers and baptists problem. I believe that the consensus now is that using corn to fuel cars is not sustainable. If a free market had experimented with using corn to fuel cars, the experiment would have failed and that would be the end of it. However, because there is now a substantial lobby for the ethanol mandate, government policy to enforce the use of corn to fuel cars remains in place indefinitely.

Properly taught, freshman economics has a lot of useful things to say about sustainability.

Teach Price Gouging Using Uber

I was talking with some young people in Boston about getting around during the severe snow. They commented that Uber’s prices would go up by a factor of 4 or more when things got really tough. But they were not angry. They were grateful that the could get transportation at all. And they understood the role that the higher prices played in helping the situation.

Perhaps one could discuss this phenomenon in class. And then ask why the young people did not complain about “price gouging.” Why is it that if a store were to raise prices on snow shovels during a snowstorm that would be price gouging, but Uber’s approach was not price gouging? Why would someone be inclined to favor a regulation to prevent the store from raising the price of shovels during a snow storm?

I suspect that the intuition is that the store’s supply of shovels is presumed fixed, but Uber’s supply of drivers goes up as prices rise. Since the higher price creates a supply response, people can see it playing a constructive role. But with the store and the snow shovels, all you see are higher profits.

Of course, there are two other benefits to higher prices for snow shovels. First, it discourages people who do not really need shovels from hoarding them (if you already have one shovel, you would not go out and buy a second one at a high price). Second, in the long run it encourages stores to keep extra shovels in stock. Knowing that they can make a good return from having a large inventory of shovels in case of a snow storm, the stores will be willing to hold larger inventories than if their profits are constrained.

A Shortage Explained Using Textbook Economics

Alex Tabarrok writes,

California has plenty of water…just not enough to satisfy every possible use of water that people can imagine when the price is close to zero. As David Zetland points out in an excellent interview with Russ Roberts, people in San Diego county use around 150 gallons of water a day. Meanwhile in Sydney Australia, with a roughly comparable climate and standard of living, people use about half that amount. Trust me, no one in Sydney is going thirsty.

I often complain about textbook economics, but certainly this is an example where it offers important insights. When you see a “shortage,” look for the artificially low price.

The price system fosters order. Repression of the price system leads to disorder.

How to Fix Economic Education

In this essay, I argue that it is badly broken.

Unfortunately, the conventional misrepresentation takes seriously the economics of a camping trip. There are resources to be allocated, including the time that campers have available to pitch a tent, light a fire, cook a meal, and so forth. And there are goods to be allocated, including sleeping bags, food, and water. Thus, from the conventional standpoint, there is nothing wrong with using the camping trip as a metaphor for the economy.

Read the whole thing.

Disability and Employment

Sarah Portlock of the WSJ reports,

In 2013, just over one in six — or 17.6% — of people who were disabled had a job, down slightly from the prior year. The report tracks workforce characteristics of people with a disability, which includes hearing, sight, cognition, mobility or other impairments.

…The Labor Department report comes as new regulations require federal contractors to ask their employees if they have a disability in an effort to reduce joblessness in the community. Companies must employ a minimum of 7% disabled workers, or prove they are taking steps to hire more, or else they could face penalties or lose their government contracts.

In the first paragraph, she links to a report from the Department of Labor.

Government policies shift the supply curve of disabled workers to the left, by offering benefits for not working. The second paragraph describes a policy to shift the demand curve to the right. What would standard economic analysis predict?

Who Says These Are Public Goods?

By paying for public goods like education and health care, governments can improve efficiency as well as welfare.

That is from John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, writing in The Fourth Revolution. I have just started to read it, based on Tyler Cowen’s recommendation.

If one of my high school students wrote the quoted sentence, it would receive a bad grade. The standard economic definition of public goods is that they are neither excludable nor rivalrous. That means that once the good is produced, it is hard to stop anyone from enjoying it, and one person’s enjoyment does not interfere with someone else’s enjoyment. National defense and pubic public safety are classic examples. Sanitary conditions in a city would qualify.

However, education and health care do not qualify as public goods under the standard definition. If it chooses to, a school or hospital can exclude non-paying customers from obtaining its services. And your use of a teacher’s or a doctor’s time can reduce my ability to use that person’s time.

Another characteristic of public goods is that the social benefits exceed the private benefits. One can make a case that vaccinations have that property. In theory, driver education would have that property also. However, for the most part, the benefit I receive from your education and health care is extremely low, particularly relative to the benefit that you receive from those goods.

In my opinion, casually making the case that government should pay for health care and education by asserting that these are public goods sounds to me like what Tyler would call “mood affiliation,” not sound reasoning. I hope that his endorsement of the book does not turn out to be mood affiliation.

Who Says Markets Work Perfectly?

David Henderson writes,

I know of no Econ 101 course or its equivalent that talks just about “a world where free markets work perfectly and government intervention is always bad.” Zero, none, nada.

I can confirm that the AP economics curriculum, which is based on freshman economics, does not contain either the phrase or the implication that markets work perfectly and government intervention is always bad. On the contrary, it includes a major section on market failure and on government’s (presumably perfectly executed) role in correcting it.

When I see the phrase “markets work perfectly,” I know that I am going to see a straw-man argument against conservative economists. I know of no instance in which someone who is berated for believing that markets work perfectly has actually claimed to hold that belief. Zero, none, nada.

If you want to pass an ideological Turing test, then drop the phrase “markets work perfectly” from your vocabulary. What conservative economists do believe is that government has a propensity to fail that often exceeds the propensity of markets to fail.

Public Choice 101

From Cathy Reisenwitz.

Earlier this year, Center for American Progress donor Citibank hired lobbyists to literally write 70 out of 85 lines of a bill regulating derivatives trading which passed the House. If this regulation was meant to hurt Citibank’s profitability while defending their customers it’s unlikely to have done so.

There are three main reasons corporations like Citibank write their own legislation. First, lawmakers feel pressure from constituents to regulate industries about which their staffs know nothing; corporate lobbyists and lawyers provide much-needed information. Second, it’s much easier and faster for a company to understand and comply with a regulation it wrote. Third, and most important, companies write regulation that is easier and cheaper to comply for them than for their competitors.

Read the whole thing. Of course, it will change no one’s mind. The way to resist public choice theory is to insist that with sufficient moral authority “we” can regulate in a non-corporatist way. That is a non-falsifiable hypothesis, because the premise of sufficient moral authority is never satisfied.

Supply-Side Housing Policy

From the Center for an Urban Future.

An Accessory Dwelling Unit is a small, self-contained residential structure sharing a lot with an existing house. In Seattle, Vancouver and Santa Cruz, legislation was enacted to permit ADUs on sufficiently sized lots in one- and two-family zones. Building regulations were also relaxed to allow formerly illegal subdivisions to be safely brought to code without facing severe fines.

They argue that this could be useful in the outer boroughs of New York city. Overall, our country’s policy on housing is to raise demand (think HUD, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, etc.) and restrict supply (think urban zoning laws). We also do that in higher education and in health care. The result is what you would predict, given the laws of supply and demand.

The Minimum Wage Debate

Clearly, the debate left things unsettled, because the protagonists are still arguing. [update: Betsey Stevenson contributes noise to the debate.]

The point that I would like to hear shouted from the rooftops is that the minimum wage in the United States is just barely effective. We teach in freshman economics that a price floor is only binding if it is above the equilibrium price. But looking at the number of workers covered by the minimum wage is small, and knowing that the vast majority of unemployed workers are not clamoring for minimum-wage jobs, I would say that you should draw your labor supply and demand diagram with the minimum wage just epsilon above the market equilibrium. It should be hard to see the effect of the minimum wage on employment in your diagram, and it should be hard to see the effect in the real world.

In that sense, Elizabeth Warren is right–if you really want to have an effective minimum wage, it needs to be a lot higher. That is what the debate should focus on, in my opinion. What would happen if we raised the minimum wage by $5 an hour or more? In that case, if somebody wants to try to argue that the effect on employment would be negligible, good luck to them.