Category: Economics

Infant Formula, Price Controls, and the Misallocation of Resources

For the week of April 3, at least 12 states faced out of stock rates higher than 40 percent, including Connecticut, Delaware, Montana, New Jersey, Rhode IslandI’ve been reluctant to write about the shortage of infant formula simply because it’s so tiring to say the same thing over and over again. Obviously, this is a classic case where the FDA should allow imports of any food or baby formula approved by a stringent authority. (Here’s the US Customs and Border Patrol bragging about how they nabbed 588 cases of infant formula from Germany and the Netherlands as if it were cocaine.) Scott Lincicome has an excellent run down which covers not just the FDA but the problems caused by trade regulation and the WIC program as well.

What I want to do is focus on something less discussed: Why does the shortage vary across the country and even city by city?

I believe one reason is implicit price controls, either due to fear of regulatory backlash, regulatory constraints through other programs, or a misplaced desire not to upset consumers.

Price controls create shortages–that much is well known–but they also create a misallocation of goods. No doubt you have seen pictures from the 1970s of long lines of cars waiting to get gasoline. But there weren’t lineups everywhere at all times–rather we had the strange situation where there were shortage of gasoline in some places while, just a hundred miles away, there was plenty. Or shortages one day and surpluses the next.

Prices rationally allocate goods across space and time in response to shifts in demand and supply. If demand increases in one place, for example, prices rise, creating an incentive to bring in supplies from elsewhere. A rising price signals where supplies are needed and creates an incentive to deliver. Or, as Tyler and I put it, A price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive. A price controlled below the market price creates a shortage and it also kills the signaling and incentive function of prices. The result is allocational chaos: Shortages in some places and times and excess supply in other places and times.

In fact, price controls in a capitalist economy give you a window onto a planned economy. If you think of communism as a system of universal price controls this allocation chaos is the essence of why a communist state cannot rationally allocate resources.

Tyler and I discuss allocational chaos in our chapter on price controls in Modern Principles of Economics. See also this excellent video.

 

 

 

Russia fact of the day

Russia has stopped publishing detailed monthly trade statistics. But figures from its trading partners can be used to work out what is going on. They suggest that, as imports slide and exports hold up, Russia is running a record trade surplus.

On May 9th China reported that its goods exports to Russia fell by over a quarter in April, compared with a year earlier, while its imports from Russia rose by more than 56%. Germany reported a 62% monthly drop in exports to Russia in March, and its imports fell by 3%. Adding up such flows across eight of Russia’s biggest trading partners, we estimate that Russian imports have fallen by about 44% since the invasion of Ukraine, while its exports have risen by roughly 8%.

Here is more from The Economist, and that is why the ruble has maintained its value:

As a result, analysts expect Russia’s trade surplus to hit record highs in the coming months.

ESG Versus Innovation

Some wise words on ESG and innovation from the excellent Bart Madden:

Excessive focus on looking good in the short term via ESG metrics can be at cross-purposes with a long-term planning horizon keyed to innovation. A sizable portion of a firm’s major innovations may not move the needle much as to ESG metrics but may score high in the eyes of customers as to value creation (and quite possibly improve their customers’ ESG performance). Recent research reveals a tendency during quarterly earnings conference calls for those managements who have reported weaker-than-expected profits to talk less about financial results and more about their ESG progress.31 Keep in mind that innovation is the key to sustainable progress that jointly delivers on financial performance and taking care of future generations through environmental improvements.

Addendum: Bart has a history of smart investing.

I favor bird consequentialism

We have to be more willing to disrupt current animal habitats when building wind or hydroelectric power. That means, to put it bluntly, that we have to be more willing to kill animals. Erecting wind turbines, for instance, often leads to the death of some number of birds. To favor more wind turbines is not to support the death of more birds; it is to support a more robust long-term supply of green energy — which would benefit birds (and of course humans too)…

I favor a much more proactive policy agenda to boost the welfare of animals. That could include subsidies to new “artificial meat” technologies, more research into animal diseases and pandemics, even research into the possibility of bringing back extinct animals through genetic engineering. The US should also have more consistent enforcement of animal cruelty laws.

Protecting birds by limiting wind power is about the most damaging way to try to serve nature and the environment. It is a way of pretending to care about birds. It is also an illustration of how so many institutions are so dedicated to protecting entrenched interests — whether they are in the political or natural world.

Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column.  Bell the cat!  You should be the one who gets to kill the bird.  And while we’re at it, let’s ban octopus farms too.

Systemic Bias versus Concentrated Bias

Discrimination exists but rather than being systemic Campbell and Brauer argue it’s due to a small number of prejudiced individuals.

Discrimination has persisted in our society despite steady improvements in explicit attitudes toward marginalized social groups. The most common explanation for this apparent paradox is that due to implicit biases, most individuals behave in slightly discriminatory ways outside of their own awareness (the dispersed discrimination account). Another explanation holds that a numerical minority of individuals who are moderately or highly biased are responsible for most observed discriminatory behaviors (the concentrated discrimination account). We tested these 2 accounts against each other in a series of studies at a large, public university (total N = 16,600). In 4 large-scale surveys, students from marginalized groups reported that they generally felt welcome and respected on campus (albeit less so than nonmarginalized students) and that a numerical minority of their peers (around 20%) engage in subtle or explicit forms of discrimination. In 5 field experiments with 8 different samples, we manipulated the social group membership of trained confederates and measured the behaviors of naïve bystanders. The results showed that between 5% and 20% of the participants treated the confederates belonging to marginalized groups more negatively than nonmarginalized confederates. Our findings are inconsistent with the dispersed discrimination account but support the concentrated discrimination account. The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Our results suggest that the Pareto principle also applies to discrimination, at least at the large, public university where the studies were conducted. We discuss implications for prodiversity initiatives.

The cause of discrimination matters because as Hambrick notes writing about this paper in Scientific American:

 In recent years, the view that most people engage in discriminatory acts because of implicit biases has gained widespread public acceptance. In a 2016 presidential debate, Hillary Clinton commented that “implicit bias is a problem for everyone.” Campbell and Brauer’s findings suggest it’s still not clear the extent to which implicit biases explain discriminatory conduct. (Other work has called into question the validity of implicit bias measures for predicting real-world discrimination.) Research aimed at answering this fundamental question will inform the design of interventions that may one day meaningfully reduce levels of discrimination.

….If, for example, a small number of explicitly prejudiced people are responsible for most or all of the discrimination occurring in a company, an intervention that requires all employees to undergo implicit bias training will probably fail to address the problem. Research suggests that interventions that convey the message that nearly everyone engages in discriminatory behavior may even make the workplace atmosphere worse for marginalized employees, because after the training, nonmarginalized employees may avoid interacting with them out of fear of unwittingly discriminating.

How to make talent scouts work for you

With Daniel Gross, here is a (very much) shortened bit from Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creators, and Winners Around the World, published at a16z, excerpt from the chapter on when to use talent scouts:

It is worth thinking about why the scouting model works in this context [finding supermodels]. First, the relevant talent could come from many different parts of the world, and the number of people to be scouted is very large. It is hard to imagine a centralized process getting the job done. Second, many of the scouts plausibly have a decent sense of who might make a good model. Looks are hardly the only factor behind modeling success, but they are a kind of “first stop,” and expecting the scouts to judge looks well from first impressions is more plausible than expecting the scouts to use first impressions to judge talent well for skill in, say, quantum mechanics. Third, a follow-up investigation to judge the modeling talent of the chosen candidates is not extremely costly. You can have them in for a photo shoot and see how popular they prove in the market without having to invest millions of dollars right away…

Scouting is also becoming more important as the options for self-education are rising. With more people trying their hand at various avocations than ever before, that places more and more burden on talent search. We need to be more open to the accomplishments of self-taught individuals without traditional training, and that holds all the more true for the tech world, where many of the most important founders have eschewed the institutions of traditional education.

There is much more at the link, we also consider when scouting models fail relative to centralized evaluation, and which kinds of incentives should be given to scouts.

When were U.S. home prices at their worst?

That of course is only one metric, and it focuses on flows rather than homes as an asset.  It nonetheless puts a number of matters in perspective.  Here it is in words:

1981 was the most unaffordable year for those who need a mortgage, with annual payments consuming a whopping 52% of their income. For comparison, in 2022 mortgage payments require 27% and the absolute lowest point is back in 1963 when only 18% was required. In 2006 (at the peak of the housing bubble), families would need 30% of their income. Thus we can confidently say that 2022 is so far not the worst year in history for those who can’t afford to buy a house without a loan.

Canada and New Zealand seem to be the truly scary places.  Here is the full essay by Nikita Sokolsky.

“If economists are so smart, why aren’t they rich?”

Peter Coy (NYT) considers a few hypotheses.  My take here is pretty simple.  Here are three of the main ways to beat market returns:

1. Build a new product and sell it successfully.

2. Assemble and maintain an especially talented team of quants.  (It is a separate but still relevant question at what scale you can do this and thus how rich you can become.)

3. “See” something about the market, at least for a limited period of time, that other people do not and invest accordingly.  That might be falling interest rates, the rise of consumer tech, or the persistence of low inflation (all until recently!).  Note that #3 requires you to have some money in the first place, and for your run to be long enough that you truly become rich.

Putting aside generic demographic factors, there is no particular reason to expect #1 or #2 to be much correlated with expertise in economics.

You might think that #3 is somewhat correlated with expertise in economics, but I don’t think it is very much.  You can pile up a bunch of ancillary reasons why economists might not be practically oriented enough to succeed at #3.  But even putting all that aside, economic theories of “regime change” just aren’t very good!  (It is comparative statics that we excel at, but that knowledge can be replicated and sold cheaply to the rest of the investment community, if it turns out to be valuable.)  So knowing economics won’t correlate much with success at strategy #3.  And some of those non-economists who succeed at #3 are just lucky anyway.

And that is why, dear reader, most economists are not very rich.  You are correct in downgrading their intelligence for these reasons, though there are still some regards in which they are quite smart, such as having ability at hypothesis testing, or perhaps having the ability to ask very good and penetrating questions about economic issues.

That was then, this is now, cryptocurrency edition

Nouriel Roubini, a blockchain basher who famously called Bitcoin “the mother of all bubbles,” is working to develop a suite of financial products including a tokenized asset intended to act as a “more resilient dollar” in the face of higher inflation, climate change and civil unrest.

Roubini, nicknamed “Dr. Doom” for his bearish views, sees room for an asset-backed digital coin that could help protect against higher prices and benefit from soaring demand for land and commodities, as well as a loss of confidence in fiat currencies. He’s working with Dubai-based Atlas Capital Team LP, which he joined two years ago as co-founder and chief economist, to create the new products.

In doing so, Roubini is tapping into growing concerns over the pace of inflation as well as speculation about the longer-term outlook for the dollar, with prominent financial voices including Bridgewater Associates LP’s Ray Dalio and Credit Suisse AG strategist Zoltan Pozsar having argued the U.S. currency risks gradually losing its reserve status.

The greenback’s lofty position could be in jeopardy as the U.S. “prints too much money and adversaries start de-dollarizing,” Roubini said in an interview. “We recognized that America’s dollar reserve currency could be at risk and are working to create a new instrument that’s effectively a more resilient dollar.”

Unlike many cryptocurrencies, Roubini stresses that the coin would be backed by real assets — a mix of short-term U.S. Treasuries, gold and U.S. property (in the form of Real Estate Investment Trusts, or Reits) that’s expected to be less affected by climate change.

Here is more from Bloomberg.  Here are earlier writings of relevance.  I’m all for new business ventures, but perhaps he has the inflation timing wrong on this one?  In any case, welcome Nouriel to the Austrian School of Economics!

Do welfare payments limit crime?

The effect of SSI removal on criminal justice involvement persists more than two decades later, even as the effect of removal on contemporaneous SSI receipt diminishes. In response to SSI removal, youth are twice as likely to be charged with an illicit income-generating offense than they are to maintain steady employment at $15,000/year in the labor market. As a result of these charges, the annual likelihood of incarceration increases by a statistically significant 60% in the two decades following SSI removal. The costs to taxpayers of enforcement and incarceration from SSI removal are so high that they nearly eliminate the savings to taxpayers from reduced SSI benefits.

And:

The increase in charges is concentrated in offenses for which income generation is a primary motivation (60% increase), especially theft, burglary, fraud/forgery, and prostitution.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Manasi Deshpande and Michael G. Mueller-Smith.

The LGBTQ+ earnings gap

There is a new paper on this topic, here is the abstract:

This article provides recent estimates of earnings and mental health for sexual and gender minority young adults in the United States. Using data from a nationally representative sample of bachelor’s degree recipients, I find a significant earnings and mental health gap between self-identified LGBTQ+ and comparable heterosexual cisgender graduates. On average, sexual and gender minorities experience 22% lower earnings ten years after graduation. About half of this gap can be attributed to LGBTQ+ graduates being less likely to complete a high-paying major and work in a high-paying occupation (e.g., STEM and business). In addition, LGBTQ+ graduates are more than twice more likely to report having a mental illness. I then analyze the role of sexual orientation concealment and find a more pronounced earnings and mental health gap for closeted graduates.

That is from Marc Folch at the University of Chicago.

I Hate Paper Straws!

I am interviewed by James Pethokoukis at his substack Faster, Please! Here’s one Q&A:

JP: American political debates are generally more interested in redistribution than long-term investment for future innovation. What are the incentives creating that problem and can they be fixed?

A big part of the incentive problem is that future people don’t have the vote. Future residents don’t have the vote, so we prevent building which placates the fears of current homeowners but prevents future residents from moving in. Future patients don’t have the vote, so we regulate drug prices at the expense of future new drug innovations and so forth. This has always been true, of course, but culture can be a solution to otherwise tough-to-solve incentive problems. America’s forward looking, pro-innovation, pro-science culture meant that in the past we were more likely to protect the future.

We could solve many more of our problem if both sides stowed some of their cultural agendas to focus on areas of agreement. I think, for example, that we could solve the climate change problem with a combination of a revenue neutral carbon tax and American ingenuity. Nuclear, geo-thermal, hydrogen–these aren’t just clean fuels they are better fuels! Unfortunately, instead of focusing on innovation we get a lot of nonsense about paper straws and low-flow showers. I hate paper straws and low-flow showers! There is a wing of the environmental movement that wants to punish consumerism, individualism, and America more than they want to solve environmental problems so they see an innovation agenda as a kind of cheating. Retribution is the goal of their practice.

In contrast, what I want is for all of us to use more water, more energy and yes more plastic straws and also have a better environment. That’s the American way.

Subscribe to Faster, Please! for more.

Learn Public Choice!

The Public Choice Outreach Conference is a compact lecture series designed as a “crash course” in Public Choice for students planning careers in academia, journalism, law, or public policy. The Outreach Conference will be online Monday July 25 to Saturday July 30, noon to 1:15 est daily. Sign up here!

Everyone welcome. Teachers please do let your students know about this opportunity!

Monday, July 25
An Introduction to Public Choice—Alex Tabarrok
Tuesday, July 26
Arrow’s Theorem and All That—Alex Tabarrok
Wednesday, July 27
Public Choice and Development Economics—Shruti Rajagopalan
Thursday, July 28
Public Choice and The Military Industrial Complex—Abby Hall Blanco
Friday, July 29
Government by Insurance or Who vouches for You?—Robin Hanson
Saturday, July 30
Hayek and Buchanan—Peter Boettke

Sign up here!