Posts tagged ‘Adam Smith’

I Think I Am A Macroeconomics Denier

Microeconomics generally provides a powerful set of tools that have proven useful and successful predictors of how things work in the world.  But I am not sure I trust anything at all from macroeconomics.  Sure, I am fine with work about what contributes to or hinders wealth creation over long time periods -- Ricardo and Adam Smith and Julian Simon and Deirdre McCloskey and that sort of work.  But I am not sure macro is capable of any useful predictions on the 5-20 year scale.  Perhaps it is like climate and trying to isolate output effects of changing one input when millions of other variables are changing is simply impossible for us at this time.  Perhaps the stakes of macro, since it drives major public policy and government spending and regulator decisions, are simply too high for objective work.  I don't know, but I don't trust any of it.  Particularly when so many of the current recommendations for increasing near-term prosperity contradict what we know to have driven long-term prosperity.

Why Monopsony Power May Be Irrelevant to the Effects of A Minimum Wage Increase

Most of us who took Econ 101 would expect that an increase in the minimum wage would increase unemployment, at least among low-skilled and younger workers.  After all, demand curves slope downards so that an increase in price of labor should result in a decrease in demand for that labor.

Supporters of the minimum wage, however, argue that employers have monopsony power when hiring low-skill workers. What they mean by this is that due to a bargaining power imbalance, employers can hire workers for less than they would be willing to pay in a truly competitive market.  As the theory goes, this in turn creates an additional consumer surplus for employers, which manifests itself as higher profits.  A minimum wage increase would thus reduce this surplus but not effect employment because companies before the new minimum wage were paying less than they were willing to pay.  Thus minimum wage supporters argue that higher wages mandated by minimum wage laws will be paid out of these excess profits, and not result in higher prices or less employment.

My understanding (and I am not an economist) is that the evidence for monopsony power in hiring low-skill workers is weak or at best limited to niche circumstances.  However, I am going to argue that it does not matter. Even if companies are able to pay workers less than they might via such monopsony power, whatever gains they reap from workers ends up in consumer hands.  As a result, minimum wage increases still must result either in employment reductions or consumer price increases or more likely both.

Why Monopsony Power May Not Matter

Why? Well, we need to back up and do a bit of business theory.  Just as macroeconomics (all the way back to Adam Smith) spends a lot of time thinking about why some countries are rich and some are poor, business theory spends a lot of time trying to figure out why some firms are profitable and some are not.  One of the seminal works in this area was Michael Porter's Five Forces model, where he outlines five characteristics of markets and firms that tend to drive profitability.  We won't go into them all, but the most important for us (and likely for Porter) is the threat of new entrants -- how easy or hard is it for new firms to enter the marketplace and begin competing against an incumbent firm.  If new companies can enter into competition easily, a profitable firm will simply attract new competitors, and keep attracting them until the returns in that market are competed down.

So let's consider a company paying minimum wage to most of its employees.  At least at current minimum wage levels, minimum wage employees will likely be in low-skill positions, ones that require little beyond a high school education.  Almost by definition, firms that depend on low-skill workers to deliver their product or service have difficulty establishing barriers to competition. One can’t be doing anything particularly tricky or hard to copy relying on workers with limited skills. As soon as one firm demonstrates there is money to be made using low-skill workers in a certain way, it is far too easy to copy that model.  As a result, most businesses that hire low-skill workers will have had their margins competed down to the lowest tolerable level.  Firms that rely mainly on low-skill workers almost all have single digit profit margins (net income divided by revenues) -- for comparison, last year Microsoft had a pre-tax net income margin of over 23%.

As a result, the least likely response to increasing labor costs due to regulation is that such costs will be offset out of profits, because for most of these firms profits have already been competed down to the minimum necessary to cover capital investment and the minimum returns to keep owners invested in the business. The much more likely responses will be

  1. Raising prices to cover the increased costs. This approach may be viable competitively, as most competitors will be facing the same legislated cost pressures, but may not be acceptable to consumers
  2. Reducing employment. This may take the form of stealth price increases (e.g. reduction in service levels for the same price) or be due to a reduction in volumes caused by price increases. It may also be due to targeted technology investments, as increases in labor costs also increase the returns to capital equipment that substitutes for labor
  3. Exiting one or more businesses and laying everyone off. This may take the form of targeted exits from low-margin lines of business, or liquidation of the entire company if the business Is no longer viable with the higher labor costs.

An Example

When I discuss this with folks, they will say that the increase could still come out of profitability -- a 5% margin could be reduced to 3% say.  When I get comments like this, it makes me realize that people don't understand the basic economics of a service firm, so a concrete example should help. Imagine a service business that relies mainly on minimum wage employees in which wages and other labor related costs (payroll taxes, workers compensation, etc) constitute about 50% of the company’s revenues. Imagine another 45% of company revenues going towards covering fixed costs, leaving 5% of revenues as profit.  This is a very typical cost breakdown, and in fact is close to that of my own business.  The 5% profit margin is likely the minimum required to support capital spending and to keep the owners of the company interested in retaining their investment in this business.

Now, imagine that the required minimum wage rises from $10 to $15 (exactly the increase we are in the middle of in California).  This will, all things equal, increase our example company's total wage bill by 50%. With the higher minimum wage, the company will be paying not 50% but 75% of its revenues to wages. Fixed costs will still be 45% of revenues, so now profits have shifted from 5% of revenues to a loss of 20% of revenues. This is why I tell folks the math of absorbing the wage increase in profits is often not even close.  Even if the company were to choose to become a non-profit charity outfit and work for no profit, barely a fifth of this minimum wage increase in this case could be absorbed.  Something else has to give -- it is simply math.

The absolute best case scenario for the business is that it can raise its prices 25% without any loss in volume. With this price increase, it will return to the same, minimum acceptable profit it was making before the regulation changed (profit in this case in absolute dollars -- the actual profit margin will be lowered to 4%). But note that this is a huge price increase. It is likely that some customers will stop buying, or buy less, at the new higher prices. If we assume the company loses 1% of unit volume for every 2% price increase, we find that the company now will have to raise prices 36% to stay even both of the minimum wage increase and lost volume. Under this scenario, the company would lose 18% of its unit sales and is assumed to reduce employee hours by the same amount.  In the short term, just for the company to survive, this minimum wage increase leads to a substantial price increase and a layoff of nearly 20% of the workers.   Of course, in real life there are other choices.  For example, rather than raise prices this much, companies may execute stealth price increases by laying off workers and reducing service levels for the same price (e.g. cleaning the bathroom less frequently in a restaurant).  In the long-term, a 50% increase in wage rates will suddenly make a lot of labor-saving capital investments more viable, and companies will likely substitute capital for labor, reducing employment even further but keeping prices more stable for consumers.

As you can see, in our example we don’t need to know anything about bargaining power and the fairness of wages. Simple math tells us that the typical low-margin service business that employs low-skill workers is going to have to respond with a combination of price increases and job reductions.

How My Company Has Responded

Just to put a bit more flesh on this, I will give a real example from my own company.  My company operates public recreation facilities, mainly campgrounds, under bid contracts.  To understand our response to rising minimum wage, you need to understand some background:

  • In bidding these, we bid both the camping fee we will charge to customers as well as the rent we will pay to the government for the concession.  Given the weights the government uses in the bid process, keeping customer price low is more important than the rent we pay, so in most cases the prices we charge customers are well below the private market rate for similar campgrounds.
  • We have limited ability to further increase productivity, in part because our ability to invest in these campgrounds in limited.
  • Because we have many contracts across the country, our reputation is important and so we seldom will entertain reductions in service, such as cleaning frequency
  • Labor and labor-related costs are about 50% of revenues, and most employees are paid minimum wage.  Profit margins hover around 5% of revenues

One of the states we operate in is California.  We are in the midst of a minimum wage increase there from $8 an hour several years ago to $15 several years hence, or an increase of 87.5%.  Basically we have had two responses:

  • In places where we are under the market price, we have been able to raise prices without a lot of drop in volume.  But this means that our camping rates in some locations have risen from $18 to a future $26 a night, an enormous increase in just a few years.
  • In places where we did not think the market would bear such a rate increase, or where our contract did not allow such a rate increase, we closed our operation.  In fact, we have exited about half our business in California (while simultaneously growing it aggressively in states like Tennessee).  In all cases this has resulted in a loss of employment -- either the location was never reopened by anyone else, or else it was reopened by a competitor with different reputational concerns who staffed the location with far fewer employees.

Trump Silver Lining: Liberals Are Now Defending Trade Deficits

Thanks to Trump, it appears that some of the Left have discovered economic reality and are defending trade and suddenly seem less unsettled by trade deficits.  Here is Kevin Drum with one in a series trying to downplay panic over trade deficits, in this case with Mexico.    Here are some of my recent thoughts on the trade deficit.

International trade is such an obvious benefit to the country that it is simply incredible that we are, hundreds of years after Adam Smith and Ricardo and Bastiat, still trying to explain and defend it against ignorance.  It's like we have to constantly battle recurrences of the phlogiston theory of combustion.

On Income Inequality

Most folks who lament income inequality have the following model in their head:  Wealth comes at a fixed rate from a fountain in the desert, and the rich are the piggy ones who hog all the output of the fountain and won't let anyone else in close to drink.  The more anyone takes from the fountain, the less that is available for everyone else.  And this was probably a pretty good model for considering pre-capitalist societies.  The actual robber barons, before the term was abused to describe successful industrialists of the 19th century, were petty nobles (ie the government of the time) who did absolutely nothing useful except prey on those around them and on those who passed by conducting rudimentary commerce, taking from them by force.  That is not how most people become wealthy today, with the exception of a few beneficiaries of cronyism (e.g. Terry McAuliffe).

These issues are dealt with quite clearly from a surprising source -- this review by an economist of the movie "Elysium".   I don't really get the schtick at the end with the Adam Smith cameo, but the rest is quite good

Postscript:  A while back I was reading the Devil's Candy (terrific book) and thinking about movie-making.  Perhaps it is not surprising that wealthy movie stars think in zero-sum terms.  I suppose much of their success can be thought of as zero-sum.  If I get the part, someone else does not.  If I get an extra point of the gross, that is less for everyone else.  If this movie does well, that probably means less revenue for another movie that came out the same weekend.   Particularly for actors trying to make it or on the rise, movies have a fixed sum of value and they are trying to grab a larger share of that value.

It is interesting that in their own sphere of influence, I never hear about such folks seeking any sort of income redistribution.  Perhaps I have missed it, but I never hear Matt Damon say "hey, take one of my gross points and split it up among all the craft folks on the movie, or share it out with the 20 guys who didn't land my part."

I've Got To Finish A Book Project

I am working on a submission (outline and several chapters) for a book prize that is due December 31, so I may not be posting much over the next week.  The contest is for a novel that promotes the principals of freedom, capitalism, and individual responsibility in the context of a novel (hopefully without 120-page John Galt radio speeches). 

My project is one I have been tinkering with for a while, an update of the Marshall Jevons economist mysteries from the 1980's.  If you are not familiar with this series, Marshall Jevons was a pseudonym for a couple of economists who wrote several murder mysteries that included a number of expositions on how economics apply to everyday life.  Kind of Agatha Christie meets Freakonomics.  I found the first book, Murder at the Margin, to be disappointing, but the second book called the Fatal Equilibrium was pretty good.  I think the latter was a better book because the setting was university life, and the murder revolved around a tenure committee decision, topics the authors could write about closer to their experience.  The books take a pro-free-market point of view (which already makes them unique) and it is certainly unusual to have the solution to a murder turn on how search costs affect pricing variability.

Anyway, for some time, I have been toying with a concept for a young adult book in roughly the same tradition.  I think the Jevons novels are a good indicator of how a novel can teach some simple economics concepts, but certainly the protagonist as fusty stamp-collecting Harvard professor would need to be modified to engage young adults. 

My new novel (or series of novels, if things go well) revolves around a character named Adam Smith.  Adam is the son of a self-made immigrant and heir to a nearly billion dollar fortune.  At the age of twenty, he rejects his family and inheritance in a wave of sixties rebellion, joins a commune, and changes his name to the unfortunate "Moonbeam."  After several years, he sours on commune life, put himself through graduate school in economics, and eventually reclaims his family fortune.  Today, he leads two lives:  Adam Smith, eccentric billionaire, owner of penthouses and fast cars, and leader of a foundation [modeled after the IJ]; and Professor Moonbeam, aging hippie high school economics teacher who drives a VW beetle and appears to live in a trailer park.  There is a murder, of course, and the fun begins when three of his high school students start to suspect that their economics teacher may have a second life.  As you might expect, the kids help him solve the murder while he teaches them lessons about life and economics.  The trick is to keep the book light and fun rather than pedantic, but since one business model in my last novel revolved around harvesting coins in fountains, I think I can do it.

Anyway, wish me luck and I will be back in force come the new year. 

Libertarian Plea to the Left

My Princeton college roommate Brink Lindsey, now of Cato, has been raising a moderate rumpus by arguing that the traditional libertarian-Right coalition is stale and that libertarians should look for allies on the left as well.  He called it liberaltarianism.  Fair enough.   I will take a shot at the same plea.

I will use this map of the teaching of evolution in schools by state as a jumping off point.  I can't validate whether it is accurate or not, so I won't reproduce it here, but let's accept it as a fair representation of the diversity of approach to teaching evolution by state, even if you don't agree with the implicit value judgments embedded in the chart.  I will use it to reflect on two points I have made in the past to try to interest the left in libertarianism.

1.  Building complex machinery of state may feel good at first, when "your guys" are in control, but your opposition, or outright knaves, will eventually co-opt the system. As I wrote here:

I am reminded of all this because the technocrats that built our
regulatory state are starting to see the danger of what they created.
A public school system was great as long as it was teaching the right
things and its indoctrinational excesses were in a leftish direction.
Now, however, we can see the panic.  The left is freaked that some red
state school districts may start teaching creationism or intelligent
design.  And you can hear the lament - how did we let Bush and these
conservative idiots take control of the beautiful machine we built?  My
answer is that you shouldn't have built the machine in the first place
- it always falls into the wrong hands.... 

Today, via Instapundit, comes this story about the GAO audit of the decision by the FDA to not allow the plan B morning after pill to be sold over the counter.
And, knock me over with a feather, it appears that the decision was
political, based on a conservative administration's opposition to
abortion.  And again the technocrats on the left are freaked.  Well,
what did you expect?  You applauded the Clinton FDA's politically
motivated ban on breast implants as a sop to NOW and the trial
lawyers.  In
establishing the FDA, it was you on the left that established the
principal, contradictory to the left's own stand on abortion, that the
government does indeed trump the individual on decision making for
their own body
  (other thoughts here).
Again we hear the lament that the game was great until these
conservative yahoos took over.  No, it wasn't.  It was unjust to scheme
to control other people's lives, and just plain stupid to expect that
the machinery of control you created would never fall into your
political enemy's hands.

2.  As public school boards come under sway of the Christian Right, the left should learn to embrace school choice, just as the Christian Right did a generation ago.  As I wrote here:

After the last election, the Left is increasingly worried that red
state religious beliefs may creep back into public school, as evidenced
in part by this Kevin Drum post on creationism.
My sense is that you can find strange things going on in schools of
every political stripe, from Bible-based creationism to inappropriate environmental advocacy.
I personally would not send my kids to a school that taught creationism
nor would I send them to a school that had 7-year-olds protesting
outside of a Manhattan bank.

At the end of the day, one-size-fits-all public schools are never
going to be able to satisfy everyone on this type thing, as it is
impossible to educate kids in a values-neutral way.  Statist parents
object to too much positive material on the founding fathers and the
Constitution.  Secular parents object to mentions of God and
overly-positive descriptions of religion in history.  Religious parents
object to secularized science and sex education.  Free market parents
object to enforced environmental activism and statist economics.   Some
parents want no grades and an emphasis on feeling good and self-esteem,
while others want tough grading and tough feedback when kids aren't
learning what they are supposed to.

I have always thought that these "softer" issues, rather than just
test scores and class sizes, were the real "killer-app" that might one
day drive acceptance of school choice in this country.  Certainly
increases in home-schooling rates have been driven as much by these
softer values-related issues (mainly to date from the Right) than by
just the three R's.

So here is my invitation to the Left: come over to the dark side.
Reconsider your historic opposition to school choice.  I'm not talking
about rolling back government spending or government commitment to
funding education for all.  I am talking about allowing parents to use
that money that government spends on their behalf at the school of
their choice.  Parents want their kids to learn creationism - fine,
they can find a school for that.  Parents want a strict, secular focus
on basic skills - fine, another school for that.  Parents want their
kids to spend time learning the three R's while also learning to love
nature and protect the environment - fine, do it.

Yes, I know, private schools to fit all these niches don't exist
today.   However, given a few years of parents running around with
$7000 vouchers in their hands, they will.  Yes, there will be
problems.  Some schools will fail, some will be bad, some with be
spectacular (though most will be better than what many urban kids,
particularly blacks, have today).   Some current public schools will
revitalize themselves in the face of competition, others will not. It
may take decades for a new system to emerge, but the Left used to be
the ones with the big, long-term visions.  The ultimate outcome,
though, could be beautiful.  And the end state will be better if the
Left, with its deep respect and support of publicly-funded education,
is a part of the process.

Of course, there is one caveat that trips up both the Left and the
Right:  To accept school choice, you have to be willing to accept that
some parents will choose to educate their kids in a way you do not
agree with, with science you do not necessarily accept, and with values
that you do not hold.  If your response is, fine, as long as my kids
can get the kind of education I want them to, then consider school
choice.  However, if your response is that this is not just about your
kids, this is about other people choosing to teach their
kids in ways you don't agree with, then you are in truth seeking a
collectivist (or fascist I guess, depending on your side of the aisle)
indoctrination system.  Often I find that phrases like "shared public
school experience" in the choice debate really are code words for
retaining such indoctrination.

In other words, are you OK if Bob Jones high school or Adam Smith
high school exist, as long as Greenpeace high school exists as well?
Or do you want to make everyone go to Greenpeace high school
exclusively?

What Happened to Prior Art?

I wrote below that I am not an economist, but I am really, really not a patent lawyer.  However, I find this story totally mystifying:

Apple Computer may be forced to pay royalties to Microsoft for every iPod it
sells after it emerged that Bill Gates's software giant beat Steve Jobs' firm in
the race to file a crucial patent on technology used in the popular portable
music players. The total bill could run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Although Apple introduced the iPod in November 2001, it did not file a
provisional patent application until July 2002, and a full application was filed
only in October that year.

In the meantime, Microsoft submitted an application in May 2002 to patent
some key elements of music players, including song menu software.

I have already become suspicious that the patent process as applied to software and online concepts (e.g. the Amazon "1-click" purchase patent) is broken.  For me, this is more evidence.  How can a Microsoft patent filed in May 2002 have any validity if it attempts to patent concepts already embodied in a competitive product on the market in 2001?

I once found myself in the middle of one of these patent battles several years ago.  I was on the management team at Mercata, an online shopping site who's bit of uniqueness was that it had three or four day purchase windows for various products, and the price of the product would fall as more people signed up to purchase it.  Kind of a fun, with some interesting viral marketing potential if it had caught on, but patentable?  I mean, doesn't Adam Smith have prior art on this?

Hat tip to Prof. Bainbridge.

Might "Red Statism" Cause the Left to Embrace School Choice?

After the last election, the Left is increasingly worried that red state religious beliefs may creep back into public school, as evidenced in part by this Kevin Drum post on creationism.  My sense is that you can find strange things going on in schools of every political stripe, from Bible-based creationism to inappropriate environmental advocacy.  I personally would not send my kids to a school that taught creationism nor would I send them to a school that had 7-year-olds protesting outside of a Manhattan bank.

At the end of the day, one-size-fits-all public schools are never going to be able to satisfy everyone on this type thing, as it is impossible to educate kids in a values-neutral way.  Statist parents object to too much positive material on the founding fathers and the Constitution.  Secular parents object to mentions of God and overly-positive descriptions of religion in history.  Religious parents object to secularized science and sex education.  Free market parents object to enforced environmental activism and statist economics.   Some parents want no grades and an emphasis on feeling good and self-esteem, while others want tough grading and tough feedback when kids aren't learning what they are supposed to.

I have always thought that these "softer" issues, rather than just test scores and class sizes, were the real "killer-app" that might one day drive acceptance of school choice in this country.  Certainly increases in home-schooling rates have been driven as much by these softer values-related issues (mainly to date from the Right) than by just the three R's.

So here is my invitation to the Left: come over to the dark side.  Reconsider your historic opposition to school choice.  I'm not talking about rolling back government spending or government commitment to funding education for all.  I am talking about allowing parents to use that money that government spends on their behalf at the school of their choice.  Parents want their kids to learn creationism - fine, they can find a school for that.  Parents want a strict, secular focus on basic skills - fine, another school for that.  Parents want their kids to spend time learning the three R's while also learning to love nature and protect the environment - fine, do it.

Yes, I know, private schools to fit all these niches don't exist today.   However, given a few years of parents running around with $7000 vouchers in their hands, they will.  Yes, there will be problems.  Some schools will fail, some will be bad, some with be spectacular (though most will be better than what many urban kids, particularly blacks, have today).   Some current public schools will revitalize themselves in the face of comeptition, others will not. It may take decades for a new system to emerge, but the Left used to be the ones with the big, long-term visions.  The ultimate outcome, though, could be beautiful.  And the end state will be better if the Left, with its deep respect and support of publicly-funded education, is a part of the process.

Of course, there is one caveat that trips up both the Left and the Right:  To accept school choice, you have to be willing to accept that some parents will choose to educate their kids in a way you do not agree with, with science you do not necesarily accept, and with values that you do not hold.  If your response is, fine, as long as my kids can get the kind of education I want them to, then consider school choice.  However, if your response is that this is not just about your kids, this is about other people choosing to teach their kids in ways you don't agree with, then you are in truth seeking a collectivist (or fascist I guess, depending on your side of the aisle) indoctrination system.  Often I find that phrases like "shared public school experience" in the choice debate really are code words for retaining such indoctrination.

In other words, are you OK if Bob Jones high school or Adam Smith high school exist, as long as Greenpeace high school exists as well?  Or do you want to make everyone go to Greenpeace high school exclusively?

I honestly don't know how folks on the left would answer this question.  Is Kevin Drum hoping that all parents have the choice of a secular education available to their kids, or is he hoping that all parents are forced to have a secular education for their kids?  Is he trying to protect his kids from intrusive creationism supporters or is he trying to impose his beliefs on the children of those creationism supporters?  I can read the article and his fear of creationism either way. 

Economics and Creationism

Most "progressives" who reject capitalism do so in part because they do not trust the bottom-up organic progress and social structure that comes with capitalism.  They prefer top-down god-like statist technocratic control.

This is an interesting article contrasting the rejection by liberals and progressives of creationism in the complex systems within nature to their embrace of it in economics and society.

Just as in the natural world, society and the economy is self-organizing, and arises without any sort of central direction or central planning. This is a view that has been put forward by economists and social thinkers such as Frederick Hayek, Adam Smith, David Hume and many others and, like its non-creationist counterpart in the realm of biology, has the advantage of empirical support.

Cool article.  I have written on similar thoughts here.  Listen closely to about any politician today, liberal, conservative, progressive, etc and you will hear, in almost every statement, a distrust of individual decision-making.  Ironically there are many liberal professors out there who will explain to you all evening how termites can build an elaborate mound without any centralized control, but will deny to the death the suggestion that individual humans can build a strong economy and social structure without central control.