Problems facing the Euro

Read this good article on the difficulties of maintaining the Eurozone. Here are some of the big problems:

France and Germany, which have the biggest economies of the 12 countries that use the euro, are breaking the strict budget rules governing the currency by running huge public-spending deficits. Growth continues to sputter in the euro zone, while the United States is showing initial signs of recovery. Unemployment has risen to 12.5 million. And the near-record-high value of the currency is hurting competitiveness by dampening exports. Last week voters in Sweden overwhelmingly rejected adopting the euro in favor of keeping their national currency, the krona.

Mom works, child eats

Childhood obesity rates have tripled since the early 1970s. Television, junk food, and fast food are all reasons. A recent study from the Chicago Fed highlights the role of working mothers in this problem. When the mother works, the child watches more TV, eats more junk food, and has fewer good meals at home, thereby becoming heavier. A causal impact is found, however, only for families in the top quarter of income distribution. Could hired nannies bear some part of the blame? The authors also note that schools have a financial incentive to encourage children to eat meals that are not very good for them (an argument for more school choice I might add), click here for more on that topic.

How have newspapers changed since the early 1960s?

1. They devote more space to news, about twice as much.

2. Hard news gets lower priority for space. Business coverage, sports, and special features have all risen in relative prominence, business coverage doubling in percentage terms.

3. Front pages are much more local in their orientation. Foreign stories are down from 20 percent to 5 percent.

4. Female bylines have increased from 7 to 29 percent.

5. Stories are longer.

6. Papers print more letters to the editor.

And what about overall feel?

Papers of the 1960s seem naively trusting of government, shamelessly boosterish, unembarrassedly hokey, and obliging. There was apparently no bottom to the threshold for local news and photos. Writing was matter of fact, and stories were surprisingly often not attributed at all, simply passing along an unquestioned, quasi-official sense of things. The worldview seemed white, male, middle-aged, and middle-class, a comfortable and confident Optimist Club bonhomie. With it came a noblesse oblige sense of purpose. A paper was inextricably woven into its community, a self-anointed major player almost preening with pride and duty.

From a 1999 study by Carl Sessions Stepp, recently republished in Breach of Faith: A Crisis of Coverage in the Age of Corporate Newspapering.

Addendum: Bruce Bartlett adds: “You neglected to note that over the same period, newspaper circulation fell like a rock. Perhaps people would read more papers if they were more like those in the ’60s.”

Small, Medium, Large

Ever wonder why product quality often comes in threes? (Basic, Regular, Premium. Bronze, Silver, Gold. Third, Second, and First Class etc.) When there are only two product qualities consumers are torn between two “extremes,” either of which makes them uneasy. Add a third quality and you create a happy medium. Simonson and Tversky (the cite is in the link below) report that when offered a low-end and a midrange microwave oven consumers chose the midrange 45% of the time. But when offered the same two ovens plus a high-end oven they significantly increased their purchases of the midrange. Even when few consumers buy the premium product the mere fact that it is offered can increase sales of the midrange product. Hal Varian calls this Goldilocks pricing (see discussion beginning at p.10).

OPEC, Iraq and Taxes

OPEC unexpectedly announced a cutback in production today. I wonder if the administration tacitly encouraged the cutback? At the very least, I suspect that they are secretly pleased. The increase in oil prices will mean greater funds for rebuilding Iraq – funds that the administration is having difficulty getting Congress to approve. Unlike a tax, the increase in oil prices does not require Congressional approval.

Smart credit cards: markets in self-constraint

The bottom line is simple:

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have one-upped “smart” credit cards with embedded microchips: They’ve developed a technique that lets ordinary card users program in their own spending parameters…The technology could let employers better manage spending on corporate cards or permit parents to get teenage children emergency credit cards usable only at locations like car repair shops, hotels or pay phones.

Programmable credit cards could let cardholders limit expenditures, for instance, to $100 a day or to spending only on certain days or at certain establishments, Gunter said. The programmable card’s added layer of security could also help cut fraudulent online use of credit cards, which has grown into a significant problem for consumers and industry. The same technology could be used in cell phones that use a smart card, Gunter said, to provide owners with ways to regulate the use of the phone by others.

For the full account click here.

What caused the London power blackout?

Today’s Financial Times offers an interesting Op-Ed (registration and subscription required), here are two bottom lines:

First, since the 1990s the rate of investment in the British electricity grid has nearly doubled.

Second, British electricity is more reliable than ever before:

The halcyon days when ‘things were better’ never existed. Since privatisation, the number of power cuts has fallen by 10 per cent and the duration of those cuts has fallen by nearly a third.

OK, the author is Callum McCarthy, chief energy regulator in the UK, and he presumably has a vested interest in defending the status quo. And I don’t understand his convoluted take on overcapacity and price history, as I read McCarthy he is committed to both high and low prices at the same time, these equivocations make me more skeptical about his conclusions. Still, his perspective deserves wider circulation.

Are stock traders just random?

Nature reports this new article on the stock market, which purports to show that trader behavior might simply be random. I haven’t read the whole piece yet, but I worry when it characterizes the mainstream view as suggesting that all traders are fully rational. I don’t consider myself an advocate of the efficient markets hypothesis, but the notion is more modest than that. Still, anything published in Nature is newsworthy.

More on price gouging

Click here, here (scroll through, their archives aren’t working), and here to read some responses to my earlier post on why we do not see more price gouging.

I agree gouging should not be illegal, the question is why the refusal to gouge persists when gouging is legal. Here are some possibilities:

1. People are just irrational, gouging would be an improvement over shortages.

2. Gouging would violate fairness constraints, break down our trust in business, and lower the overall gains from trade.

The above links discuss these options. Last night I was pondering another hypothesis, to be sure it has some holes, but since the absence of gouging is often a puzzle, let us look more closely.

3. Non-gouging is a form of price discrimination that raises long-term profits, for reasons that have nothing to do with fairness constraints.

I was first pondering the case of airlines. It is sometimes argued that airlines keep coach quality low deliberately, to raise the demand for business and first class tickets. I don’t know if this is true, but an analogous argument can be made in the intertemporal context. If flashlights are scarce when a storm comes, the pre-storm demand for flashlights will rise. Conversely, if the flashlight market clears when a storm comes, fewer people will stock up on flashlights in the first place.

Assume that right now flashlights cost $5 (laugh at this number if you want, I haven’t bought a flashlight in ages). If prices cleared the market every period, flashlights might cost $20 when there is a storm, and $4 otherwise. Both the wealthy and the careless might hold off on flashlight purchases, knowing they can always get one at the last minute, if they need to. So fewer flashlights are sold up front. By keeping flashlights scarce during a storm, the store forces people to invest in a flashlight now as a form of insurance against not being able to get one later. This might raise the overall demand for flashlights. In similar fashion, perhaps sports arenas (another classic venue for non-market-clearing prices) may not wish to give everyone the option of showing up at the last moment to purchase tickets.

What are some of the holes in this argument? First, the store must have some market power (but note that most plausible explanations of sales and coupons require this same assumption). Second, the numbers need not work out in favor of keeping the price steady. Third, why would this effect hold for flashlights and not for all commodities? Fourth, I can think of gouging cases where this argument would not apply. I recall a peanut butter shortage about twenty years ago, and the market did not clear, it is hard to imagine that this encouraged people to stock up on peanut butter.

Still, the absence of price gouging is a puzzle, and we need to look at all available explanations. Intertemporal considerations might be part of a broader understanding of the phenomenon. Perhaps market-clearing prices don’t boost profits as much as we would otherwise expect.

Addendum: Gary Leff offers an instructive post on the pricing of airline seats, more generally check out his excellent travel blog.

An even shorter introduction to intelligence

I recommend Ian Deary’s Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction. I am going to buy more books in this Oxford series. We at Marginal Revolution aim to provide value for attention, however, so here is an even shorter introduction.

1) Almost all measures of intelligence correlate with one another and quite a few measures of different aspects of intelligence are highly correlated. It is thus meaningful to talk about general intelligence, g. Howard Gardner’s work on “multiple intelligences” is on the fringes of scientific psychology.

2) Intelligence rankings are stable with age but fluid intelligence, meaning something like pure reasoning power, as opposed to crystalized intelligence peaks in the 20-30s and then declines with age.

3) Connecting IQ scores to brain morphology and activity is still in its infancy but there are modest, but well established, correlations between brain size and IQ (psychometric intelligence) and measures of reaction time (which plausibly measure brain speed) and IQ.

4) Intelligence is in large part genetic and that which is due to environment is primarily not due to the obvious possibilities such as family upbringing.

5) Intelligence matters for work performance and education. IQ is a better forecaster of work performance than just about any other test short of a trial run on the actual work to be performed.

6) IQ has been rising, the Flynn effect. No one knows why.

7) None of the above points are controversial among intelligence researchers.

Aside from Dreary’s book another useful introduction to intelligence research is the authoritative consensus report from the American Psychological Assocation, Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns, summary here.

Why don’t we see more price gouging?

I survived hurricane Isabel, but couldn’t buy a flashlight or the right size batteries, the night before the storm was to come. Merchants let supply run out rather than raise the prices. C.C. Kraemer at tells us that half of all states have anti-gouging laws. More significantly, merchants fear that customers will resent price increases during times of trouble. The testable prediction is that wandering “umbrella merchants,” as I have encountered in Manhattan, will raise their prices when it is raining. They have little reason to fear long-run negative effects on their reputation. I have found this to be true but can cite only two data points in its favor. Twice, when it was raining, I bought umbrellas for $10 rather than for the usual price of $5.

Kraemer suggests that we should allow price gouging in times of emergencies. This policy conclusion need not follow. Since supply is constant in the short-run, higher prices won’t give more flashlights to more people, although in the long run the economy will stand readier with emergency flashlights. Higher prices will allocate flashlights to those people most willing to bid for them, but at the cost of all buyers feeling gouged. After all, not wanting to be gouged is a preference too. And the subsequent decline in trust will eliminate other potential gains from trade.

Arguments by N. Gregory Mankiw and George Akerlof suggest that small costs of changing prices can have large macroeconomic effects. They focus on cases where prices remain too high and output is restricted as a consequence. In contrast, if a firm refuses to raise its prices, presumably it feels that the resulting “resentment costs” are higher than the extra revenue it would reap. First, the price changing costs are not small. Second, if the firm had initial monopoly power, as the Mankiw argument requires, keeping prices lower will not in general lower consumer welfare. (It is a tricky intertemporal problem, there can be cases where contrived ex post shortages pump up ex ante demand for the good, to the benefit of the monopolist and to the detriment of social welfare.)

I would repeal the anti-gouging laws, on libertarian freedom grounds, but I don’t welcome more price gouging as a means of making us better off. Markets are quite willing to gouge us in a wide variety of instances, just try hearing a good jazz show on New Year’s Eve. We should take it seriously when markets are not willing to gouge us. We can also ask whether people would be better off if they had weaker fairness norms, or better fairness norms, that is the next relevant question for assessing the costs and benefits of price stickiness. Just keep in mind that our current norms help keep our suppliers in line and limit their ability to defraud us.

Addendum: I’ve made some slight re-edits in the interests of clarity.