Tag: Stuff I Nick from O&M

There is no such thing as a law in Economics?

In an anecdote recounted in some economics books, Vilfredo Pareto is giving a presentation, only to be interrupted repeatedly by an indignant Gustav von Schmoller with this provocative question: “But are there laws in economics?” The next day, Pareto, dressed like a beggar, approached Schmoller in the street. We turn to Organizations and Markets for the rest of the story:

“Please, sir,” Pareto said, “can you tell me where I can find a restaurant where you can eat for nothing?” “My dear man,” replied von Schmoller, “there are no such restaurants, but there is a place around the corner where you can have a good meal very cheaply.” “Ah,” said Pareto, laughing triumphantly, “so there are laws in economics!”

Could this be the origin of the famous “law” about free lunches? Not likely, based on a quick look at Wikipedia. The history there, confirmed by Google searches of contemporary books, does raise a different question, though: Had Pareto and Schmoller been at a conference in New Orleans rather than Geneva, would they have had to revise their notions of certain economic laws? Because in that case, Schmoller’s answer would have had to be something like: “Why, in just about any public house you can eat for nothing this time of day! Try the one around the corner, they serve oyster stew! All you need to do is buy a drink for fifteen cents.” If the drinks are not overpriced at 15 cents, is the lunch still free? Some sources suggest that the whole “free lunch” custom was, in fact, a relief program, a socially necessary outcome of high unemployment and poverty. This would merit (and require) more than a superficial Google search, so I’ll leave it as an exercise to the interested reader.

The Levee Appears to be Drying Up

Today I give to you a couple of visual snapshots of the recorded music industry, along with a lesson on the importance of adjusting for inflation &/or population growth.

Here are the raw numbers that caused something of a hubbub.  Ask yourself — where is the industry at its peak?

So, there are several technology transitions going on here, culminating in a sorry state of affairs for the supply side of the music industry.  One implication is that the introduction of cassette tapes had no real discernible impact on industry revenues, even though people rampantly started taping one anothers vinyl at that point.  (I actually have several boxes of tapes that I recorded from record rentals from That’s Rentertainment.)   Interesting that the Record Labels only began shaking them down when the compact disk market took off).  A second implication is that CDs marked the real heyday for the record labels.

With that in mind, let’s look at these same numbers adjusted for inflation and put in per capita terms:

Completely different picture, isn’t it?

This seems to suggest that (non-prerecorded) cassettes cannibalized vinyl revenues, and it was only the introduction of the superior CD format that resuscitated the industry.

In IO, we are talking about the big challenge of the “New Economy” is often not in creating value, but in capturing it.  Do you think the total value of recorded music is 35% of what it was 15 years ago?  Or, is it more likely that consumer surplus has gone through the roof?  I don’t have any way of answering that question, but I have my doubts about the former proposition.

As per usual, I nicked this from O&M.  And their comment section pointed me to a really excellent analysis of all of this at Business Insider, where I now subscribe to their Chart of the Day!

Our Annual Scrooge Endorsement

From last year: an oldie, but goodie.:

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 fall.

See you there.

You might also want to check out the links at the O&M blog, including the fabulous Santa on leadership.

Should Ideas Be Left to the Free Market?

The good folks at Organizations & Markets ask why economists haven’t paid closer attention to the economics of free speech. The classic piece on this is Ronald Coase’s “The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas” (available from campus IP addresses).   Coase asks why the rationale for goods’ market regulation doesn’t carry over into the realm of the market for ideas. Here is how he characterizes the prevailing attitudes:

In the market for goods, the government is commonly regarded as competent to regulate and properly motivated. Consumers lack the ability to make the appropriate choices. Producers often exercise monopolistic power and, in any case, without some form of government intervention, would not act in a way which promotes the public interest.

Fair enough. But then,

In the market for ideas, the position is very different. The government, if it attempted to regulate, would be inefficient and its motives would, in general, be bad, so that, even if it were successful in achieving what it wanted to accomplish, the results would be  undesirable. Consumers, on the other hand, if left free, exercise a fine discrimination in choosing between the alternative views placed before them, while producers, whether economically powerful or weak, who are found to be so unscrupulous in their behavior in other markets, can be trusted to act in the public interest, whether they publish or work for the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune or the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Coase wrote the piece in the early 1970s, partly in response to federal regulation of commercial advertising, wondering whether there is a difference between firms schlepping products via commercial advertisements in the goods market is really any different than an article or an editorial in the New York Times.

Improbably, Time Magazine carried an article on Coase’s article and summarized his position nicely:

Coase challenged two assumptions that, he says, have created the distinction in public policy: 1) that consumers are able to distinguish good ideas from bad on their own, though they need help in choosing among competing goods; and 2) that publishers and broadcasters deserve laissez-faire treatment while other entrepreneurs do not.

It might be tempting for us to dismiss Coase’s argument as glib posturing, or as an example of economists being too clever for our own good. But how we define and constrain free speech is a central element of our political system.  President Obama, in fact, spent his weekly radio address admonishing the recent Supreme Court decision that removed many legislative controls of corporate campaign financing.  One would suspect that Coase was arguing to relax regulation of the goods market, not extend regulation to the ideas market, but the proliferation of the internet and other news sources has perhaps muddied the waters so much that the distinction is unrecognizable.

So, more to come, I suspect.

Safety First

“The safer they make the cars, the more risks the driver is willing to take. It’s called the Peltzman effect.” — Some CSI Episode

The basic idea is so simple that it’s hardly controversial.  If you reduce the cost of doing something, you would expect more of it.  The classic Sam Peltzman paper has to do with making cars safer, which reduces the costs (in terms of potential injury or fatality) and hence increases “driver intensity,” as Peltzman puts it.  The startling result is that the behavioral changes completely offset the technological improvements, though this does not have to be so.

This is similar to the “rebound effect,” where improving energy efficiency or fuel economy, for example, causes people to set their thermostats more aggressively or to drive more miles (that is, because the marginal costs go down).

The Peltzman effect has crept into my RSS feed twice in the past week.  From this morning’s Marginal Revolution:

The NHTSA had volunteers drive a test track in cars with automatic lane departure correction, and then interviewed the drivers for their impressions. Although the report does not describe the undoubted look of horror on the examiner’s face while interviewing one female, 20-something subject, it does relay the gist of her comments.

After she praised the ability of the car to self-correct when she drifted from her lane, she noted that she would love to have this feature in her own car. Then, after a night of drinking in the city, she would not have to sleep at a friend’s house before returning to her rural home.

Well, that certainly makes me feel safer.

One of the classic jokes associated with the Peltzman effect is that NHTSA should put a spear extending out of the steering column, making the driver exercise extra caution so as not to be impaled. In that vein, the good folks at Organizations & Markets alerted me to this cartoon:

Pretty funny.

Peltzman is one of the most prominent empirical economists ever.  Certainly, having an “effect” named after you is a pretty big deal.  Some of the more astute of you also recall Peltzman from the Stigler-Peltzman capture theory. Love him or hate him, he is an interesting character.  I recommend this interview at EconTalk.

Review of Invention of Enterprise

GerardoA few weeks ago, despite its substantial girth, I added the new Kaufmann Foundation volume, Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times to the black hole that is my reading list.  The reason for my excitement was the extra-ordinary group of volume editors.  David Landes is a pioneer in entrepreneurship and development, having written the highly-regarded The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Joel Moykr is the author of a classic in the economic history of technology, The Lever of Riches. And William Baumol has written the seminal article on productive and unproductive entrepreneurship, as well as The Free Market Innovation Machine. Those of you embroiled in our burgeoning I&E curriculum will certainly hear from these gentlemen.

So, with these three pulling together a volume on entrepreneurship for the Kaufmann Foundation, this seemed like a can’t-miss deal.

But, according to Reuven Brenner, it missed.

It doesn’t take much time for him to find fault, either.  He starts out:

Carl Schramm, who wrote the Foreword to this book, and who, through the Kauffman Foundation, paid for it, states clearly that the book is about “entrepreneurship” as people — entrepreneurs in particular — understand the term: Someone who creates a business that, in some respects, differs from existing ones.

Yet, just two pages later, William Baumol writes in his Preface that the book is about both “redistributive” and “productive” entrepreneurship, the former covering warfare, crime, bribes, lobbying — any innovative ideas. Since this covers just about everything from Napoleon and his Code to Robin Hood, and from Muhammad, the merchant and one of the very few of Heavens’ intermediaries on this Earth to 35,000 registered lobbyists in Washington — it is little wonder that most of the 18 chapters, written by 18 different academics are all over the map, and provide little illumination on Schramm’s targeted subject matter.

Continue reading Review of Invention of Enterprise

“in this, the most efficient of all possible worlds”

Following this past weekend’s performance of Candide on campus (with our own Alex Gmeinder in the leading role), I was reminded of this sight gag in a set of slides by Professor Richard Langlois of the University of Connecticut.

For those of you not in Economics 450, that’s recent Nobel Prize winner, Oliver Williamson, pictured delivering a lecture.  Professor Langlois appears to be chiding him about the rather strong efficiency implications of transaction cost economics.

You can read the full explanation at the Organizations & Markets blog.