Food for thought

Tag: Food for thought

Going Mobile

During the recent oil price spike in 2008, one of my mates suggested that our generation will be the last to enjoy relative ease in air travel.  A large number of people, even those with decidedly middle class incomes, have the means to travel extensively and find their way to every nook and cranny the world has to offer. A sustained oil crunch, absent a viable fuel substitute, could indeed cripple the airline industry and leave globetrotting to the relatively affluent.

Taking it a step further, Brian Ladd extends the thought experiment to automotive travel.  I’m not sure I endorse his argument, but I certainly like the thought experiment.  One passage pertaining to industrial production caught my eye:

Economists who blithely assume that pre-2008 automobile sales are “normal,” because Americans “need” their cars, misunderstand the nature of the automobile market. Enormous cars, long commutes, and vast parking lots do have their advantages, but we could manage to live without them.

I am inclined to think that economists would be the last group to assume such a thing based on “need.” In fact, I would think that we would be in the opposite camp, arguing that price signals will lead to adjustments both on the demand side (fewer miles, more fuel-efficient vehicles, shorter commutes, maybe even public transportation) and the supply side (improved fuel efficiency, alternate fuel source).

For an excellent discussion, I recommend the classic James Hamilton blog post on “How to Talk to an Economist about Peak Oil.”  I’ll go through that in a future post.

Freshman Studies Thought for the Day

“It was a good idea to get science and democracy from the ancient Greeks. It’s not such a good idea to get fiscal policy from the modern Greeks.” — David Boaz from The Cato Institute

I’m guessing Professor Wulf would find this amusing.

Speaking of Professor Wulf and Freshman Studies, it is shaping up to be awesome this fall, so I encourage you to enroll as a Freshman to take advantage.

Food for Thought, Students Going Bananas

This question came up in class the other day — are you peeling your bananas wrong?   As usual, the Armchair Economist Steven Landsburg has something to say about the matter:

My friend Petal peels her bananas from the bottom. Well, it’s the top, actually, since bananas grow upside down. Come to think of it, that’s not quite right either—bananas grow the way they grow, which should be right-side up by definition, even if we think of them as upside down. So let me start over. Petal peels her bananas from the end without the stem.

Petal’s method is counterintuitive and thus instantly appealing to economists, who love nothing more than to overturn conventional wisdom. Multiple experiments (well, two experiments, actually, since we only had two bananas) quickly convinced a majority of the department that Petal’s way is—surprisingly—easier than the traditional method, though the econometricians thought you’d need to test at least 30 bananas to report that result with confidence. The labor economists immediately resolved to apply for a grant.

Still not convinced?  Well, you aren’t alone.  But the peel-from-the-bottom case is a compelling one:

In the anti-Petal camp, we have the theorists who argue that peeling from the stem end must be optimal because that’s what people do. But Petal counters—and indeed this is her clincher argument—that monkeys do it her way (though I think it would be more accurate to say that she does it the monkeys’ way) and monkeys are the real experts.

If such knotty problems interest you, you should consider taking Econ 300 with me this fall.   In fact, you should consider it anyway.

Food for Thought or Thought for Food?

Looking for a conversation starter?  Perhaps you should take a sample off this menu from Alex Tabarrok over at Marginal Revolution:

Suppose that you are a cow philosopher contemplating the welfare of cows.  In the world today there are about 1.3 billion of your compatriots.  It would be a fine thing for cows if all cows were well treated and if none were slaughtered for food.  Nevertheless, being a clever cow, you understand that it’s the demand for beef that brings cows to life.  How do you regard such a trade off?

If each cow brought to life adds even some small bit of cow utility to the grand total of cow welfare must not beef eaters be lauded, at least if they are hungry enough?  Or is the pro beef-eater argument simply repugnant?

Should a cow behind a haystack of ignorance choose the world with the highest expectation of utility?  In which case, a world of many cows each destined for slaughter could well be preferable to one with many fewer but happier cows.

Or is it wrong to compare the zero of non-existence with existence?  Should a cow philosopher focus on making cows happy or on making happy cows?  If the former, would one (or two) supremely happy cows not be best?

As I tell all my students — cows are more like gold and buffalo are more like oil.

Savings = Investment, Ebenezer Scrooge Edition

Before The Accidental Theorist, before Freakonomics, there was The Armchair Economist, and that’s Steven Landsburg.

In this Slate piece, Landsburg makes the case that Scrooge wasn’t such a bad guy, and that savings, in fact, might just be more virtuous than spending. To wit:

In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser–the man who could deplete the world’s resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser spreads his largess far and wide.

If you build a house and refuse to buy a house, the rest of the world is one house richer. If you earn a dollar and refuse to spend a dollar, the rest of the world is one dollar richer–because you produced a dollar’s worth of goods and didn’t consume them.

You will know you’ve arrived as an economist when you can annoy your brethren by expounding on the virtues of Scrooge over the holiday season. For more pithy advice from Landsburg, we’ll be using his text in Economics 300 next term.

See you there.

Now if only Wal Mart sold textbooks

Anyone care to take a stab at estimating the consumer surplus generated from the price war blowing up between Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Target?

The price war began last week when Wal-Mart announced that it would offer customers who preordered any of 10 of the coming holiday season’s biggest potential best sellers the chance to buy the books in hardcover editions for just $10. Typically new hardcovers sell for $25 to $35, although some discounting is common. quickly matched Wal-Mart’s preorder price on the same books, which include “Ford County” by Mr. Grisham, “Under the Dome” by Mr. King and “Going Rogue,” Sarah Palin’s memoir. Wal-Mart then lowered the price to $9, and Amazon followed suit. By late Friday afternoon Wal-Mart had cut another penny off the price.

On Monday, Target entered the fray by offering six of the preorder titles on for $8.99. By Tuesday Wal-Mart had lowered the price on those titles to $8.98.

Full story here

Interestingly, independent booksellers are claiming that this price competition “is damaging to the book industry and harmful to consumers.”

Well, I don’t know how damaged consumers are by paying half price for hardcover books, but it is certainly won’t be good for independent booksellers.