Category: Economics

Restaurant economics

It has long been a puzzle why certain commodities receive a higher “mark-up” than others. Why is popcorn so expensive at the movie theater? Why is wine so expensive in fine restaurants?

Daniel Boulud, one of New York’s leading chefs (Daniel, Cafe Boulud, and DB Bistro Moderne), addresses this question in his recent memoir Letters to a Young Chef. Boulud tells us that wines make up 30 percent of revenue in his restaurants and have a mark-up of two to three hundred percent.

John Lott and Russ Roberts (yes, that is the John Lott) once raised the possibility that a high drinks price is a way of charging those people who wish to linger at the table longer. Boulud offers another explanation based on price discrimination. He (p.62) claims that drinkers of fine wine are “a great clientele,” and are “willing to indulge.” They will expect “only the finest ingredients,” such as good truffles, and are willing to pay for them. By offering these people fancy wines at high prices, you induce them to pay a higher net price for their meal. At the same time you need some acceptable, cheaper wines: “Those [other] customers are your future and you cannot afford to drive them away with the sticker shock of a Greatest Hits wine list.”

Boulud also claims that good restaurants are well-situated to invest profitably in wine, thus the special importance of wine for revenue.

The book contains many kinds of advice. Keep your knives sharp, we are told, and if you want to make other chefs happy, serve them a pig’s head, not caviar.

Will Vouchers Split the Democratic Party?

The debate so far Tyler 1, Alex 1, Tyler 2.

Let me take Tyler’s weakest point first. He writes, “Imagine politicians upping the voucher amount and coverage to win votes each election cycle…” What like education spending is not a political issue today? In fact, over the past several decades we have doubled real per-capita spending on schooling with zero increase in productivity. It’s possible that government would set an education voucher at too high an amount (but let’s get it above zero before we worry about this!) but at least we will get something for our money.

Defining an acceptable school is a legitimate issue but one that we already face today with private schools, charter schools, and home schooling. I see no reason why private schools under a voucher system could not be regulated as private schools are today. Private schools do face some minimal regulations including hours and some content requirements but I don’t think these have been a significant constraint. Some private schools will undoubtedly teach nonsense but Tyler seems to forget that Ebonics, to give just one example, was a creature of the public schools not the private schools.

I will agree, however, that current voucher plans are typically terrible. Existing vouchers are often limited to poor students and sometimes just to poor students in “failing” schools, the voucher amounts are typically low and to add insult to injury it is often illegal to add-on to the voucher amount (a type of price control). Finally, nowhere near enough students are suported. The DC plan, for example, is aimed at some 2,000 students in a school system of 66,000.

I recommend John Merrifield’s School Choices: True and False as an antidote to this kind of limited thinking. Merrifield’s bottom line is that we need a system under which the government in no way discriminate against parents who send their children to private schools.

Being a collector is cheaper than you think

“…80 percent of the lots Christie’s sell go for under $8,000.” From the Thursday New York Times (registration required), and why couldn’t an editor improve the grammar in that sentence? The median lot at Sotheby’s sells for $4,177, at Christie’s South Kensington, a branch, the median lot sells for $2,259. More than ever before, collecting is no longer the exclusive province of the wealthy.

Why I worry about vouchers

Alex (my co-blogger) and I have been arguing for years, it is perhaps no surprise that now we do it in the blogosphere. He is more optimistic about the performance of school vouchers than I am. He notes that housing vouchers have worked well, better than government housing, I think that school vouchers are more problematic than housing vouchers for several reasons:

First, government must define which schools are acceptable recipient of vouchers. In the short run it is fairly clear, it is far less so if we have vouchers in place for twenty years and schooling evolves. What about schools that teach black supremacy? Radical Islam? Creationism? Remember how controversial a few supposedly obscene NEA grants were? Not all those grants went directly to the artists either. What if an educational program involves home schooling plus ten hours of class time a week? Would that qualify for a voucher? Defining “suitable housing” does not involve a problem of nearly this magnitude.

Second, school vouchers could become the new middle class entitlement, as I mentioned in my New Zealand post earlier today. Imagine politicians upping the voucher amount and coverage to win votes each election cycle, just as they are now extending senior health coverage to prescription drugs. Again, we have not seen this with housing vouchers but “parents” are a much bigger and stronger constituency.

If I had my finger on the vouchers button, I would press it and allow experimentation at the state and local levels. So many American urban public schools are a disgrace. But few partial deregulations have worked better than promised. Most have created perverse incentives and occasioned considerable backlash, we all know that electricity “deregulation” has been a mixed bag at best, although the idea in principle makes sense.

If we are going to move forward with vouchers, I would like to know what the plan will look like, once it gets through the political meatgrinder. I don’t know any voucher proponent who has done this.

How rich are you, globally?

If you earn $36,000 per year, you are in the top one percent of our planet, for a more comprehensive look at your relative status, check out the Global Rich List, don’t use commas when you type in your yearly income. Their stated goal is to encourage charity and make us feel happy about how rich we are, in reality I think they are trying to make us feel guilty about how rich we are. They don’t mention the policies and cultural attitudes that created this wealth.

The reference is from the blog of John M Scalzi.

Addendum: Donald Sensing tells us much more about the genesis and meaning of the list.

“Blame Sarbanes-Oxley”

Peter Wallison, in today’s Wall Street Journal (registration required, and yes you have to pay), serves up a biting critique of Sarbanes-Oxley, the recent legislation aimed at limiting conflicts of interest within corporations.

Here is a key passage:

…this was a wholesale change in the governance of American corporations, putting significantly more authority into the hands of independent directors and correspondingly reducing the power of corporate managements…it may have had unintended consequences – a reluctance of managements to take the risks and make the investments that had previously brought the economy roaring back from periods of stagnation or recession…The independent directors of a company are part-timers…Unfamiliarity in turn breeds caution and conservatism…They [directors] have little incentive to take risk and multiple reasons to avoid it.

There is not much more to the Op-Ed than that, no real facts, but this is an important point. Passing Sarbanes-Oxley was a kneejerk reaction from a Congress that felt the need to do something, anything, about corporate scandals. The Senate voted for it 99-0 (only a few negative votes in the House), never a good sign, unanimous votes often mean that an angry and uninformed public opinion rules the day. Time will tell what costs we will pay for this mistake.

Here is a small bit on implementation costs, but keep in mind they are secondary to the question of how investment gets distorted. I realize that corporate insiders are not the ones to trust here, but they don’t like the law either.

Let’s accept the fact that corporate governance isn’t always fair, and opt for the system that does the best job of delivering the goods.

Addendum: Here is a direct link.

Education Vouchers: The Lessons from Housing

Tyler is concerned that a voucher system for education might end up looking like our health care market – “a crazy-quilt mix of bad incentives, high costs, and increasing levels of intervention.” But our health care system is not a voucher system – much more relevant is the existing voucher system for housing. Public housing has been a disaster in this country, low quality, dangerous and expensive (to the taxpayer). The Section 8 voucher and similar certificate programs have been far superior on all measures. What would you rather have – an apartment in a public housing project, costing the taxpayer $1000 a month, or a voucher worth $500 a month that you could spend on private housing?

The economic studies on the superiority of vouchers are unanimous. Here is Ed Olsen, one of the country’s leading researchers:

Five major studies have estimated both the cost per unit and the mean market rent of units provided by housing certificates and vouchers and important production programs, namely Public Housing, Section 236, and Section 8 New Construction.1 These studies are based on data from a wide variety of housing markets and for projects built in many different years. Three were multi-million dollar studies conducted for HUD by respected research firms during the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations. They are unanimous in finding that housing certificates and vouchers provide equally desirable housing at a much lower total cost than any project-based assistance that has been studied, even though all of these studies are biased in favor of project-based assistance to some extent by the omission of certain indirect costs.

As with housing, the market for education would be very competitive so we would not see price rises due to monopoly problems (as Tyler fears might be the case). There has been a big debate about whether private schools result in better outcomes that public schools. Put aside this debate and focus on what is undeniable – private schools have achieved at least as good outcomes as have public schools but at about half the cost (similar to the cost savings of vouchers over public housing). Thus we are starving the most productive sector of the educational market and throwing money at the least productive sector. Prices might rise in a voucher market but only as a rational response to the lower price of quality in private schools.

What will a voucher buy?

I have often wondered what an educational voucher will buy. How large need vouchers be to give students access to decent education? A recent Cato study, by David Salisbury, attempts to answer this question.

Here is part of the Executive Summary:

“Government figures indicate that the average private elementary school tuition in the United States is less than $3,500 and the average private secondary school tuition is $6,052. Therefore, a voucher amount of $5,000 would give students access to most private schools. Since average per pupil spending for public schools is now $8,830, most states could offer a voucher amount even greater than $5,000 and still realize substantial savings. A survey of private schools in New Orleans; Houston; Denver; Charleston, S.C.; Washington, D.C.; and Philadelphia shows that there are many options available to families with $5,000 to spend on a child’s education. Even more options would be available if all parents were armed with a voucher or tax credit of that amount.”

Salisbury admits that the cost figures do not include all capital outlays or pension liabilities. On the other hand, vouchers could introduce more competition, lowering costs.

I worry about how vouchers themselves will affect prices and costs. Private schools for poor urban students are cheap, in part, because the school knows the parents cannot afford much more. If the first $5000 is free, the price could go up considerably. In addition, if the schools can somehow coordinate on yet higher prices, there will be political pressures to raise the voucher amount.

Mixed public-private systems are not always cheaper than more public systems, in part because private firms are often skilled in extracting resources from the public sector. The American health care system, for instance, has considerably higher administrative costs than does the “single-payer” Canadian system, read here for a recent comparison. I don’t favor national health insurance by any means, but these figures should give pause to voucher advocates.

The research of Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby suggests that increased school competition brings increased school quality. But her work does not clear up the most difficult questions about vouchers. If you imagine the system in place, on a large scale, for lengthy periods of time, and subject to pressures for rent-seeking and regulation, what would it look like? Would it truly serve parent demands for good education, or would it look more like the American system of health care, a crazy-quilt mix of bad incentives, high costs, and increasing levels of intervention?

Galbraith II

James K. Galbraith (son of John K.) has a strange review of William Greider’s The Soul of Capitalism in today’s Washington Post. He doesn’t say much about Greider’s book but does offer the following:

More deeply, we may question the book’s premise. Has the United States really solved the scarcity problem? That may have been more true five decades ago when a tract called The Affluent Society first made the case. Then, the United States was the world’s dominant industrial power. Today, our material abundance rests on fragile strands: our military reach, the willingness of the world to export cheap goods to us and to lend us the means to pay for them.

In the past 50 years real GDP per-capita has almost tripled (and this doesn’t account for improvements in the quality of many goods and services) and yet it may have been more true 50 years ago that the scarcity problem was solved?!! This is taking family fealty too far. The explanations for our fragile abundance are not too convincing either. Put aside the fact that the US is less dependent on trade than most other industrial nations. More interesting is that Galbraith thinks that the hundreds of billions of dollars we are spending on military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are a net positive for the economy. Why? Later he suggests that the Iraq war is about a “tenacious drive for oil.” Where then is the oil dividend? Has Galbraith filled up at the pump recently? In truth, Empire rarely pays and whatever the political case for war it will never turn a profit.

The Cost of a Sibling

Having siblings costs you money over the course of a lifetime, just ask Ohio State sociologist Lisa Keister.

How much? Holding a variety of relevant factors constant, individuals with one sibling have an average net worth of $62,000. If you have another sibling, it drops to $49,000, then to $40,000, then to $24,000. Seven or more siblings, you have on average net worth of $6,000. Keister suggests, consistent with the research of Gary Becker, that parents invest less in each child when they have more children.

Keister herself has three brothers. See this summary of the research.

I am surprised that the effect from one child to two, or from two to three, is so small. And how much stems from a change in parental investments? Some fraction of the parents with more kids did not expect the pregnancies but rather made planning mistakes. If you think that planning/execution capabilities are carried in the genes, you would expect the offspring to be worth less for genetic reasons. So the Becker effect may be weak rather than strong, at least for the first few children.

Keister’s research also argues that much of the black-white wealth gap is due to the lesser willingness of African-Americans to put their money into stocks and mutual funds. It has long been a puzzle to economists (see here for one account) why individuals do not invest more money in the stock market, given that American stocks have outperformed bonds by significant margins over all previous twenty to thirty time horizons. Keister’s research both deepens the puzzle and hints at the relevance of psychology and context for understanding investment decisions.

Endowment effects and trader experience

The Economist has a good write-up on the work of experimental economist John List. As you may know, an endowment effect arises when you value something more, simply because you own it. In the context of laboratory experiments, often people will value a coffee mug more, much more (say five times more), once someone gives them the mug as theirs. In contrast, economic theory suggests that your willingness to pay for the mug should only be slightly less than your willingness to give up the mug for money (willingness to be paid). Here is a piece by recent Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman on the same topic.

List had the ingenious idea to see which traders were most subject to this ownership bias. So he took people who traded sporting cards and gave them other sporting memorabilia. The key result is this: the more real world trading experience a person had, the weaker the ownership or endowment effect. Professional dealers hardly seemed to be biased at all. The lesson is simple: asset markets work well when traders have the necessary experience. List also showed that sellers learn how to trade properly, without much of a bias, more rapidly than buyers do, which may explain why neophyte buyers get taken advantage of in stock markets, and why upward-moving bubbles may start. (Researchers have found that other distinctions may matter as well, you may value the mug more if you won it in a tough competition, as opposed to receiving it as a gift.)

Al Roth has a good general site on experimental economics, as does Vernon Smith’s ICES group, who are colleagues of ours at George Mason.

Road pricing, taken to an extreme

Iain Murray reports on the new London five pound fee (about eight dollars, and enforced by a penalty), charged to each car entering central London. It turns out the fee has been set too high, and traffic has fallen by more than the projected fifteen percent. Nor does the fee appear to be maximizing revenue. Mayor Livingstone wants to continue the high fee, however, because he likes the environmental effects of much lower traffic, despite a serious hit to London retail sales.

By the way, over 100,000 people are refusing to pay their penalty notices.

Addendum:, an excellent source, offers some follow-up and commentary.

Is Alan Greenspan underpaid?

If you look at what different central bankers earn, Alan Greenspan is way down on the list with his $172,000 a year. Is the Finnish central banker really worth more money?

The deeper question is whether we need to pay American central bankers more. How many of you have heard of Matti Vanhala? Well, he is the Finnish central banker. Greenspan earns a greater fame (and power) return. The head of the Hong Kong central bank makes over a million dollars a year. High public sector salaries are useful for limiting corruption, but this is not an obvious danger in the case of the American Fed. The head of the New York Fed makes $315,000, almost twice what Greenspan does, but how many of you could produce the name of Bill McDonough at the drop of a hat?

Virtual economies

What does it mean to have property rights and prices in the virtual world of computer games? Did you know that you can buy a “virtual sword” on ebay? Did you know that the male avatars sell for more than the female avatars, despite having the same capabilities? What are virtual economies all about? Read this article, fascinating but sometimes incoherent as well, for a take on these new developments.