State & Markets

Bihar
Now for political enlightenment...

While reading about Bihar’s Recovery, it dawned on me the importance of basic government structures in an economy. This sort of realisation had come to me while I was reading about the Haiti crisis and I really think all students of Economics should remind ourselves of the government structures working in the background implied in what we call a ‘Free Market’.

As observed from the article on Bihar, which interestingly is where the Buddha gained enlightenment (according to historical records), the state’s investment in infrastructure, maintaining order, a culture that respect the rights of all citizens (that can only be created from top down) often influenced very much by the enforcement of laws, as well as giving people freedom to pursue the market activities.

When we argue about the importance of not having government interventions in markets, and that state presence should only emerge in the case of market failures, we often neglect the notion that a government is in place in the background to honour the legal tender and anarchy is not the ruling ideology of the day. Trust in the free market is also important and it is upheld by law and order, which once again, falls on the government. As we’ve seen from the earthquake in Haiti, more room for market and less state is not always a good thing. Yet after acknowledging the need for a state we want to combat its advancement into various aspects of society that are usually governed by culture or self-organizing.

Maybe working on the margins of that would help Bihar discover this balance of state and market spaces.

Aliens & Laws

Jumping Fish
Jumping Ship

The Lexington of the latest The Economist made an important point about the indirect impact of terrorism on America. Migration of brains into America has slowed, tourist has become rather fed-up with security checks that comes with a vacation in America and even conferences have moved away from there as a result of the hassle brought about by security restrictions. Perhaps improving the ‘service quality’ of border customs would improve the situation.

The interesting phenomena raised in the article is that giving illegal workers legal status will help reduce their competition with the American workers.

American blue-collar workers fear that Mexican immigrants will undercut their wages. Mr Hinojosa-Ojeda says they won’t if they are legal. The fear of deportation makes illegal workers accept worse conditions, he finds. Once legal, they demand higher wages, and no longer drag down those of the native-born.

The report on the economic benefits of immigration reform is available from Center for American Progress. The idea fits into conventional wisdom about making choices between alternatives. Removing the option of getting deported would naturally help raise the expectations of the foreign workers and make it harder for them to compete with those native-born.

Free Market Madness

Free Market Madness
Market for Sanity

I was looking for George Arkelof and Robert Shiller’s Animal Spirits in the library but it was on loan so I decided to look for something else in the Call Number 330 (which some library-goers might note is the ‘Economics’ section) area. I stumbled on ‘Free Market Madness‘ by Peter Ubel.

Ubel’s book is a pretty simple and short one, I took only one and a half day of on-and-off reading to finish it, one of my fastest timing for a non-fiction. Admittedly, the text and paragraph spacings are pretty wide and the book is thin for a hard-cover one. It is largely about behavioural economics, a topic which I hardly have a hard time understanding so the speed by which I finished the book didn’t really surprise me. Nevertheless, I hardly consider Ubel’s Free Market Madness to be that good a book.

For a start, I understand that Ubel is trying to make a case for government intervention in the economy for markets where consumers are ill-placed to make wise choices and where market imperfections like the inadequacy of useful information and the apparent misalignment of producer’s interests and consumer’s interests are significant. He focuses on the case of junk food causing obesity though he touched on other cases such as insufficient retirement funding and overspending on branded drugs. Unfortunately, while he makes a good case for the fact that humans are not entirely rational (something we all know at least implicitly), based mainly on the study of other behavioural scientists and economists, he didn’t give very outstanding or original proposals on how to get around this problems. Even then, he fails to make a good connection with how the conflict between the short-term-self and long-term-self can be resolved by the governments; the question of what sort of happiness/well-being (long term or short term) the ‘Big Brother’ he is advocating should maximize it left to speculation by the reader.

The little technical issues in the examples he cited in his book is by and large criticized by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute. Austrian School economists probably think that no one can be innocently obese; it takes two hands to clap and producers and consumers must agree on the transaction for it to take place. In other words, people are obese through a process of attempting to maximize utility within their own accounting. On the other hand, Ubel thinks that the faculty accounting on the part of the consumers need to be rectified – in other words, internalities need to be addressed. The problem is we cannot exactly agree on which accounting is correct; after all, if one’s belief in the goodness of a product can provide additional positive experience in consuming it, the faculty accounting can have such a self-fulfilling effect. I believe I have the tendency to agree with the ordinary economists that humans would have a fair degree of foresight and self-control and in an event where they lack such discipline and ability, the market punishes them very much in the way evolution eliminates those who lack the fitness.

His proposals are rather unoriginal, citing stuff like fat taxes once mentioned in The Economist, default options, persuasion campaigns (largely moral suasion) and possibly outright ban. He did discuss implications on liberty and such but doesn’t dwell much on it – often it seems to me like he’s saying ‘I just want everything to be good and right, I don’t care how’.

I do agree with Ubel, that humans in our age needs more self-control and the public’s awareness of the ills of the markets, the ills of different products that are so ubiquitous in our world today needs to be improved. This self-improvement in discipline and improvement of public knowledge can come from bottom-up rather than top-down. After all, given the circumstances today, it is likely that the group with better knowledge of the markets, those making wiser market decisions and the ones who have better self-control is going to thrive. Parents will have to recognize that and respond accordingly (not too much to hope for given the limited rationality of humans I hope) when educating their children and developing them. And I must have to say that in markets like healthcare and pharmaceutical products, doctors like Ubel himself will have to take the responsibility of protecting their patients from the ills of the market/industry. The imperfect information is really too serious in this market and Ubel is right to say that doctors are practically making decisions for patients – doctors’ recommendations are almost equals to patients’ choice (doctors can’t possibly give their diagnosis to patients and get them to choose medicine for themselves). The government can only do so much to protect the doctors from manipulation by the industry and thus defend the interests of the patients. Physicians themselves will have to take the big step to be responsible doctors.

On the whole, Free Market Madness gives us good idea of how behavioural economics came into being and how traditional economic analysis of indifference is difficult to apply in today’s complex world. As a result, rationality of human beings becomes undermined today. Beyond that, it makes a good alert on the problems humans might have with markets that makes us poor economic agents – in long run we will get exploited somehow. We will need to exploit back by becoming producers of certain exploitive products ourselves or try to defend ourselves through self-restraint and aggressive self-education. Otherwise, if the book is hoping to inspire any sort of action, it might need to be much more.

Corporate Responsibility

Corporate Social Responsibility
More ideas to have more trees

While we tinker with the idea that governments and politics are important sources of forces for the good when it comes to climate, corporations are already doing loads in the real world with the advent of Corporate Social Responsibility.

To be frank, CSR can sometimes be make-up for the company’s public face but there are still substantial number of firms who are doing real big good stuff and tackling different aspects of social costs the company might have inflicted on the society. Knowledge @ Wharton introduces the CSR moves of Campbell, which covers not only environmental actions but also social programmes (mostly to do with employees).

The Economist thinks little of CSR but highlights the ordinary good that firms and companies does by just doing their own stuff (manufacturing, marketting, improving, innovating). The newspaper argues that business people should probably trumpet these achievements of fostering innovation, cooperation between groups and individuals across the globe besides being so engrossed with CSR.

Sometimes I guess if you look on the bright side, everyone is probably doing good through being selfish – the central idea of economics.

Weekend Reads

More medallions!
More medallions!

We begin this week’s reads with an interview with Paul Samuelson by John Cassidy from The New Yorker. John Cassidy recently published a new book, How Markets Fail, which I’ll read some time soon. It won’t be that soon though – I’m still reading Thinking Strategically and moving on to Art of Strategy after that.

Eric Morris shared something about the cab industry in New York, which eventually concluded with urging for less regulation (ie. raising the supply of cab licenses or “medallions” as they’re called). One of the comments revealed a really humourous story of how the cabbie’s industry in Ireland got deregulated overnight; I shall reproduce it here:

A similar sitution existed in Ireland up to a few years ago. Change was brought about when the government went to issue more wheel chair accessable taxi licenses. The Taxi driver / owners group foolishly sued the government. They claimed that the government didn’t have the right to issue new licenses. They won but the court ruled that the government didn’t have the power to issue any licenses. The taxi ma[r]ket was deregulated overnight.

The current complaint from taxi drivers is that there are too many taxis etc etc. There were clear winners, the consumer and those new taxi drivers who are now free to ply their trade in a vastly increased taxi market.

The fact that GPS navigation on-board cars/cabs are widely available means that the tacit barrier to entry for the cab business have been significantly lowered. Anyone who can drive and have a car with on-board GPS navigation (and perhaps a meter) can technically offer good taxi services. Knowledge of the city and the different landmarks have become less of an advantage or requirement.

As for talks that you might want to listen to, Magnus Larsson speaks about structuring sand in deserts to prevent further desertification. His proposal won the Holcim Awards.

On Incentives & Debts

Red and White; all too familiar
Red and White; all too familiar

James Surowiecki fiddled about the idea that our tax breaks on debt interests are encouraging debt, the ones that eventually pulled down the system with it. He makes a lot of sense, especially when he mentioned:

Debt didn’t get dangerously out of scale because the system was broken. It got out of scale, in part, because the system worked.

Of course, he was speaking largely of corporate debts as well as mortgages but he did also raised the point that “In the U.S., people used to be able to write off the interest they paid on credit cards. That tax break was abolished in 1986…” Interestingly, Fortune Magazine ran a story about record debt in China. The diagnosis sounds grim but it does little to compare the context of the debts in China and US, making it difficult to assess if the ‘some economists’ quoted by them makes sense. Moreover, the statement about infrastructural investments is way too wobbly, China has much room to pull ahead when you compare them with the developed world; to be frank, the top cities in China barely compare with top cities of the world. In addition, The Economist have also tried to offer an alternative, more comprehensive explanation of China’s growth linked to productivity.

Some economists believe China’s infrastructure, already superior to that of many other developing economies, has now passed the point where more investment can contribute much to growth. China, in other words — despite the rosy, headline GDP numbers — might be stuck.

And yes, Japan is now fearful of the D-word, or rather the comeback of it; not depression, or debts. It’s kind of cool to have a central bank that combats ‘deflation’ rather than ‘inflation’ though.

Honest Abe

The Political Genius
The Political Genius

Team of Rivals is one of the rare books I left at camp to be read consistently and then finished within plan. I brought it into camp two weeks ago and planned to have it finish exactly today; I knew that if I was reading it consistently I would finish about 2 chapters per day, which means it’ll take me 13 days for the 26 chapters that Doris Kearns Goodwin penned. I initially thought I might bring home to read over the weekends but resolved to leave it in camp as a material to be read in camp.

The book turned out to be incredibly entertaining and while I could put it down for a drink, a chat or some other minor distractions, I’d be happy to resume reading wherever I left. The prose flows smoothly and easily for me and I love Goodwin’s narration. She makes history seem alive and playing in front of you with the thoughtfully embedded quotes in the narration that is carefully credited at the end notes. The pictures, diagrams and maps included made the experience even more wonderful.

The most important part about Team of Rivals that I enjoyed was the little bits scattered all over the book where Abraham Lincoln related his little anecdotes and jokes to others. From our frame of reference, these all are anecdotes themselves demonstrating the character and personality of Lincoln. One that I liked in particular involves Lincoln telling someone about his dream:

In his dream, Lincoln was at a party where he overheard a guest commenting on him, “He is a very common-looking man.” Lincoln joined the conversation immediately, suggesting “The Lord must prefer common-looking men, that is the reason He made so many of them”. Lincoln was positively amused by the response he gave in his dream.

And having read the book and gotten to know more about Abraham Lincoln, I came to realised that the response in his dream was very real; it was something so characteristically Father Abe. I was naturally drawn to the many other jokes and stories he shared – some I understood, others were perhaps closer to the hearts and minds of those who were audience of his time.

Months ago I bought a little selection of speeches by Abraham Lincoln and I haven’t gone beyond reading his Gettysburg Address and wondering what so great about it. Now that I’m more familiar with the course of his political life and the circumstances in which he made those speeches, I shall revisit the book and appreciate the wonders and influence of his oratory prowess as well as his ability to weave issues into stories for the layman. And perhaps, I’d learn something out of all that.

Monopoly on Monopoly

Yes, it's Mine!
Yes, it's Mine!

Intellectual Property is becoming an important area of contention that needs to be closely studied by lawyers, economists and governments around the world. Every IP case have deep implications for the general welfare of the society (for important innovations and inventions), the meaning of property and the ways laws can protect them. From Free Exchange Blog at The Economist, I learnt the story of Ralph Anspach’s battle against Parker Brothers, the owners of the world famous Monopoly game.

Professor Ralph invented Anti-Monopoly, a game much like the Monopoly with its principles somewhat reversed where in its original version, players start off with monopolies and try to get to the free market state. In the latest version of the game, players get to choose to be either free-marketters or monopolist. In any case, he spent a lifetime battling Parker Brothers and researching the origins of the true, original Monopoly game (and how the capitalists were indeed true to the principles of the game).

Governments have to engage in design of laws that allows for Intellectual Property rights to be enforced but in a way that allows further innovation so that there are incentives to make improvements to existing innovations or discover mash-ups that utilizes stuff under IP protection. Economists have to consider the balancing of these incentives and how different ways of enforcing IP laws would alter the innovation patterns of the environments governed. Joseph Stiglitz happened to pen some of his musings on this issue on Project Syndicate.

It is interesting to note, as the Free Exchange Blog entry mentioned, that board games are countercyclical products. This is true for comfort foods as well, ranging from chocolates, candies to lollipops and other treats for those with a sweet tooth as mentioned in the recent Fortune Magazine.