Category Archives: Economics

Problem of low wages not easily solved

It seems like an easy fix for social injustice: pass a law requiring employers to pay workers more than they would otherwise. Magically, everyone has more wealth.

It would be nice if it were so easy and simple. Looking at only the immediate effects and listening to the rhetoric of some politicians and editorial writers, it would seem that a higher minimum wage is good. But considering all effects of a higher minimum wage reveals a different situation.

As Milton Friedman writes in Capitalism and Freedom:

Minimum wage laws are about as clear a case as one can find of a measure the effects of which are precisely the opposite of those intended by the men of good will who support it. Many proponents of minimum wage laws quite properly deplore extremely low rates; they regard them as a sign of poverty; and they hope, by outlawing wage rates below some specified level, to reduce poverty. In fact, insofar as minimum wage laws have any effect at all, their effect is clearly to increase poverty. The state can legislate a minimum wage rate. It can hardly require employers to hire at that minimum all who were formerly employed at wages below the minimum. … The effect of the minimum wage is therefore to make unemployment higher than it otherwise would be.

There are those who say that increasing the minimum wage won’t have any impact on the demand for labor, and therefore people won’t lose jobs. But that is false. If it weren’t false, why not raise the minimum wage to, say, $25? Most people would say that at that level, employers wouldn’t hire low-skill workers because they aren’t “worth” that much. But some workers aren’t “worth” even the present minimum wage, or they could find jobs at this wage.

(When we say workers aren’t “worth” a certain wage, we are really saying that the marketplace — that’s you and me — places a certain value on the output the worker is able to produce. It has nothing to do with their worth as a person. It has everything to do with their ability to produce goods and services that people are willing to pay for.)

Furthermore, if we are willing to agree that raising the price of employing certain workers won’t decrease the demand for their labor, we also have to be willing to ignore the law of supply and demand, which states that as the price if something increases, less will be demanded. I am confident that this law applies.

The problem is that an increase in the minimum wage does nothing to increase the productivity of workers, and increasing productivity is the only way that workers can make real progress.

How do we increase worker productivity? One way is through education. Sadly, as documented in many articles on this website, our public education system is failing children badly.

Capital — another way to increase wages — may be a dirty word to some. But as the economist Walter E. Williams says, ask yourself this question: who earns the higher wage: a man digging a ditch with a shovel, or a man digging a ditch using a power backhoe? The difference between the two is that the man with the backhoe is more productive. That productivity is provided by capital — the savings that someone accumulated (instead of spending on immediate consumption) and invested in a piece of equipment that helped workers to increase their output. Those who call for higher taxes — often the same people calling for a higher minimum wage — make it more difficult to accumulate capital.

These are the things we must do to increase productivity, and with it, real wealth. If the solution was really as simple as some claim, that in order to increase the wellbeing of low-wage workers we could merely pass a law, shouldn’t we be outraged that this law wasn’t passed a long time ago?

Then, if a law is passed to raise the minimum wage to x, shouldn’t we insist that it have been increased to x + $1, or x + $2, or x + …?

No, the solution to low wages is much more difficult than that.

The AirTran subsidy and its unseen effects

Writing from Natchez, Mississippi

In a June 16, 2006 column, Wichita Eagle editorial writer Rhonda Holman again congratulates local and state government for its success in renewing the AirTran subsidy, and for getting the entire state of Kansas to help for it.

We should take a moment to understand, however, that while the allure of the subsidy is undeniable, it may eventually extract a high price on Wichita. Currently, the legacy airlines provide service to Wichita and other small markets partly because they feel a duty to provide comprehensive, nationwide service. But that may be changing. In an article titled “Major Airlines Fuel a Recovery By Grounding Unprofitable Flights” from the June 5, 2006 Wall Street Journal, we learn that this may change:

The big carriers, which for decades have doggedly pursued market share at any cost, now are focusing just as aggressively on the profitability of each route and flight.

The so-called legacy carriers — those like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, with big pension and other obligations that predate the industry’s deregulation in 1978 — have abandoned many of the tactics that have led to their cyclical weakness. They are increasingly unwilling to fly half-empty aircraft to stay competitive on a given route just for the sake of feeding their nationwide networks.

As I have written before, if AirTran — one of the newer airlines without the baggage of high costs that plague the legacy airlines — can’t earn a profit on its service to Wichita, it may be that other airlines are not, either. This article tells us that we may be in danger of losing the service of the legacy airlines. And, as I have written earlier, there are a great many destinations you can’t get to on AirTran.

(The same article also tells us that during much of the time of the subsidy, airfares were falling nationwide anyway: “… the Air Travel Price Index, a quarterly measure of changes in airfares, rose 9.1% in the fourth quarter of last year from a five-year low a year earlier.” So we might have had lower fares even without the subsidy. Of course, we can’t know that, just as subsidy advocates can’t know how much we’ve saved from the subsidy, no matter what they may say.)

Our local government leaders simply do not have the knowledge needed to successfully run a planned economy, which, in essence, is what they are doing when they apply price controls to the airfare market in Wichita. That’s right. The subsidy is a form of price controls. After all, if the subsidy didn’t serve to reduce the price of airfare, what would be its reason for existence?

No government has ever been able successfully impose price controls without the people suffering harmful consequences. As economist Thomas Sowell wrote in a 2005 column:

Prices are perhaps the most misunderstood thing in economics. Whenever prices are “too high” — whether these are prices of medicines or of gasoline or all sorts of other things — many people think the answer is for the government to force those prices down.

It so happens there is a history of price controls and their consequences in countries around the world, going back literally thousands of years. But most people who advocate price controls are as unaware of, and uninterested in, that history as I was in the law of gravity.

Prices are not just arbitrary numbers plucked out of the air or numbers dependent on whether sellers are “greedy” or not. In the competition of the marketplace, prices are signals that convey underlying realities about relative scarcities and relative costs of production.

Those underlying realities are not changed in the slightest by price controls. You might as well try to deal with someone’s fever by putting the thermometer in cold water to lower the reading.

Municipal transit used to be privately owned in many cities, until local politicians’ control of fares kept those fares too low to buy and maintain buses and trolleys, and replace them as they wore out. The costs of doing these things were not reduced in the slightest by refusing to let the fares cover those costs.

All that happened was that municipal transit services deteriorated and taxpayers ended up paying through the nose as city governments took over from transit companies that they had driven out of business — and government usually did a worse job.

The immediate effect of the subsidy is a drop in airfares. The long-term effects, the effects that we can’t really see right now (even though the number of daily flights to and from Wichita has decreased in the last year) are unknown, but are likely to be quite bad for our town. These unseen effects of a policy are important, and, being unseen, are hard to spot, even if you’re looking. Frederic Bastiat, in his pamphlet titled “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen” http://bastiat.org/en/twisatwins.html said this:

Between a good and a bad economist this cons
titutes the whole difference — the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee. Now this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, — at the risk of a small present evil.

Henry Hazlitt writes of the fallacy of unseen effects, but realizes they are often obfuscated by “the special pleading of selfish interests.”

Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine — the special pleading of selfish interests. While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The group that would benefit by such policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for then plausibly and persistently. It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case. And it will finally either convince the general public that its case is sound, or so befuddle it that clear thinking on the subject becomes next to impossible.

In addition to these endless pleadings of self-interest, there is a second main factor that spawns new economic fallacies every day. This is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.

We must hope that the legacy airlines choose to continue their service to and from Wichita, in spite of our government’s action.

Economics In One Lesson, 50th Anniversary Edition

Economics In One Lesson, 50th Anniversary Edition
Henry Hazlitt
Laissez Faire Books, 1996

This book, first published in 1946, explains common fallacies (a false or mistaken idea) that are particularly common in the field of economics and public policy. At the very start of the book Mr. Hazlitt explains:

Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine — the special pleading of selfish interests. While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The group that would benefit by such policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for then plausibly and persistently. It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case. And it will finally either convince the general public that its case is sound, or so befuddle it that clear thinking on the subject becomes next to impossible.

In addition to these endless pleadings of self-interest, there is a second main factor that spawns new economic fallacies every day. This is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.

At first it seems as though not much has changed since the end of World War II. What has changed, though, is the scope of the dangers Mr. Hazlitt identifies. That’s because government is much expanded and more assertive today than when this book was written. In 1946 the New Deal was not very old, and the tremendous expansion of government social programs was still in the future. We should take these lessons as even more important today.

It is the overlooked consequences that cause harm. They are overlooked sometimes because they are difficult to see, as in the broken window fallacy explained by Frederic Bastiat and also in this book. They are also “overlooked” because, as Mr. Hazlitt tells us, one group wants special favors from the government, and although there is no way to grant these favors without harming some other group, the favor-seeking group will seek to hide, obfuscate, muddle, or minimize the bad effects. At the same time they promote the policy as good for everyone. This is largely the job that lobbyists perform, and billions are spent on it each year. That’s because a powerful government has the ability to bestow valuable favors, those favors being paid for by someone else, someone often not easily seen.

An example of overlooked secondary consequences is government spending. When government spends, it means it must tax or borrow. What government spends is not available for individuals to spend. When we see magnificent public works (say a new downtown arena in Wichita), we don’t see all the things that would have been bought had the government not taxed to build the public work. We see the jobs created by the public work — all the construction workers that will be building the new arena — but we don’t see the jobs destroyed because people had to reduce their spending elsewhere.

Foreign trade is a case where people often fail to grasp the complete picture. We often see exports as something good for our economy, while imports are seen as bad. Imported things are things that American workers can’t compete with, and so American jobs are lost, it is often said. But as Mr. Hazlitt says: “It is exports that pay for imports. The greater exports we have, the greater imports we must have, if we ever expect to get paid. The smaller imports we have, the smaller exports we can have. Without imports we can have no exports, for foreigners will have to funds with which to buy our goods.” So those wanting restrictions on imports are also — although they do not say this, either because they do not recognize it or it doesn’t matter to them — calling for fewer exports.

In recent years we have been told that our is a “consumer-driven” economy, fueled by people tapping their home equity that accumulated from increased home values, or spending by going into debt. It is as though if consumers started saving rather then spending on immediate consumption, the American economy would collapse. But Mr. Hazlitt tells us that “saving is only another form of spending.” After all, what is done with money that is saved? Today, few put their savings under the mattress. Instead, it is loaned to a bank or invested. Then it is spent on capital goods, which businesses use to increase their productive capability. The key fact is that businesses spend it. And, they spend it on capital goods that either expand their capacity to produce, or decease their present costs of production. Either way, that is good for everyone. It means more jobs, and better jobs. But this saving is derided as not being “productive.”

As a conclusion Mr. Hazlitt tells us:

And this is our lesson in its most generalized form. For many things that seem to be true when we concentrate on a single economic group are seen to be illusions when the interests of everyone, as consumer no less than producer, are considered.

To see the problem as a whole, and not in fragments: that is the goal of economic science.

This is a very valuable book, which while dated a bit, cuts through the fog and haze of economics and public policy and lets us understand the effects of our government’s policies.

The Undercover Economist

The Undercover Economist
(Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, The Poor Are Poor — And Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car)
Tim Harford
Oxford University Press: 2006

This is an enjoyable book that explains the basics of how economics works, which is to say, how the world works. Mr. Harford doesn’t go into any technical detail at all, so there are no charts and graphs to decipher (although a very few are used for illustration), and there are no mathematical formulas.

Mr. Harford seems to believe more than I do that government may need to step in and correct some types of market failures. All in all, though, I agree with almost everything Mr. Harford writes.

In one chapter, Mr. Harford correctly assesses the current U.S. health care payment system as a mess. What he proposes as a solution is health savings accounts, where a low cost (about $1,500 per year) insurance policy to cover catastrophic charges is combined with individually owned health care savings accounts. People manage their own health care savings accounts. They get to keep what they don’t spend, so there is an incentive to spend wisely and reduce the need for health care through prevention.

Mr. Harford, with slight modification, believes in the random walk theory of security prices. I don’t think I would trust an economist who doesn’t.

In a chapter titled “Why Poor Countries Are Poor” he explains, using his trip to Cameroon, how terrible a plague political corruption is. That alone, he says, is the most important reason why most poor counties stay poor. He didn’t mention lack of formal property systems as described in Hernando De Soto’s book The Mystery of Capital.

A chapter on globalization explains relative advantage and how it contributes to the increased wealth of nations that participate in free trade. A quote:

Contrary to popular belief, it is simply not possible for trade to destroy all of our jobs and for us to import everything from abroad and export nothing. If we did, we would have nothing to buy the imports with. For there to be trade at all, somebody in America must be making something to sell to the outside world.

He explains the Lerner theorem, which says that a tax on imports is exactly equivalent to a tax on exports. Another interesting insight:

Trade can be thought of as another form of technology. Economist David Friedman observes, for instance, that there are two ways for the United States to produce automobiles: they can build them in Detroit, or they can grow them in Iowa. Growing them in Iowa makes use of a special technology that turns wheat into Toyotas: simply put the wheat onto ships and send them out into the Pacific Ocean. The ships come back a short while later with Toyotas on them. The technology use to turn wheat into Toyotas out in the Pacific is called “Japan,” but it could just as easily be a futuristic biofactory floating off the cost of Hawaii. Either way, auto workers in Detroit are in direct competition with farmers in Iowa. Import restriction on Japanese cars will help the auto workers and hurt the farmers; they are the modern-day equivalent of “frame breaking” [what Luddites did to mills and machines in England].

(Perhaps Mr. Harford has never been to Iowa, because in my experience, Iowa wheat fields are rare. Corn, however, is abundant.)

The problem is that the change that trade brings about affects different groups in different ways. Politicians love trade protection measures because they generally help a small, well-defined group immensely, at a lower and perhaps unnoticed cost to the rest of the people.

This book, combined with a few others such as Thomas Sowell’s works and Common Sense Economics: What Everyone Should Know About Wealth and Prosperity (all reviewed on this site) will work to increase anyone’s understanding of how economics works.

Common Sense Economics: What Everyone Should Know About Wealth and Prosperity

Common Sense Economics: What Everyone Should Know About Wealth and Prosperity
James D. Gwartney, Richard L. Stroup, and Dwight R. Lee
St. Martin’s Press, 2005

This is a wonderful book that can teach anyone what is important to know about economics. It teaches the insights that people can use to understand and evaluate the mechanism of our economy and government themselves. It is not a textbook with charts, graphs, and formulas. It requires no special prerequisite from the reader.

The book contains four parts: The ten key elements of economics, seven major sources of economic progress, economic progress and the role of government, and twelve key elements of practical personal finance.

This book promotes a restricted role for government. From page 80: “A government can promote social cooperation and enhance its citizens’ economic welfare primarily in two ways: (1) by providing people with protection for their lives, liberties, and properties (as long as the properties and liberties were acquired without force, fraud, or theft) and (2) by supplying a few select goods that have unusual characteristics that make them difficult to provide through markets.” Later, in the section titled “Government is not a corrective device” we read, “When thinking about government, it is important to recognize that there are fundamental differences between political democracy and markets. When a democratic government levies taxes, it does so through coercion. Dissenting minorities have to pay taxes regardless of whether they receive or value the goods that the taxes supply. … There is no such parallel coercive power in the private sector. Private firms can charge a high price, but they cannot force anyone to buy. Indeed private firms must provide customers with value or they will be unable to attract consumers’ dollars.”

We also learn that when decisions are made through the political process, it is the majority that wins and sets policy, and the minority must yield to the majority. But when decisions are left to the market, each person can choose what they want. If they want something different from what the majority wants, they can get it without also having to pay for what the majority decided on.

This part of the book also explains how special-interest groups are usually able to get the government to implement laws and policies that benefit the group at the expense of the rest of the country. An example is the sugar tariff, which is very valuable to a small group of people. They focus tremendous energy and money on getting politicians to keep the tariff in place. The average American may not be aware that the sugar tariff costs them an additional $20 per year in the form of higher prices for products containing sugar, and even if they are aware, well, what’s the use of getting worked up over $20? Even the employees of American candy makers who have moved out of America to somewhere where they can buy sugar at world market prices may not know who to blame for the loss of their job.

This part of a book also contains a section titled “Unless Restrained by Constitutional Rules, Legislators Will Run Budget Deficits and Spend Excessively.” This is certainly the case with the recent Congress, and in the state of Kansas too, except that our state can’t deficit spend. The root of the problem is this: “Legislators like to spend money on programs to please their constituents. They do not like to tax, since taxes impose a visible cost on voters. Debt is an alternative to current taxes; it pushes the visible cost of government into the future.” The solution, we are told, is political modifications such as a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, or supermajority requirements for spending proposals.

The book concludes with a good section on personal finance. The authors strongly recommend, as I do, that investors use low-cost stock index funds instead of actively managed funds or individual stocks.

This book is very easy to read, and contains a great deal of valuable information. I strongly recommend it to people just starting to learn about economics, and to people like me who had some college training in economics, but didn’t really learn how economics and its relation to government affects our wealth, prosperity, and freedom. If you couple this book with Thomas Sowell’s two recent books Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy, Revised and Expanded Edition and Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One you will have an excellent understanding of how our economy and government work.

Hypocrisy over oil profits abounds

Writing from Orlando, Florida

The recent swell of criticism over oil company “windfall” profits, some even coming from people who should know better, is truly remarkable in its hypocrisy.

It seems that the critics feel that oil companies did nothing extraordinary to earn these profits. Therefore, they don’t deserve them.

What’s wrong with this criticism? First, I don’t think we want to let the government get in the position of deciding who deserves to keep the profits they earn. It does enough of this already.

Second, most people would be delighted to find themselves in the position of the oil companies: owning something that is scarce and in high demand. And, a lot of people are in that position, made huge profits, and did little to “deserve” the profits other than being in the right place at the right time. Who are these windfall profiteers that I speak of? They’re homeowners in hot real estate markets, who, by chance, happen to own property that other people are willing to pay high prices for, thereby generating huge windfall profits for those lucky homeowners. Has anyone proposed a windfall tax on these profits?

(A further irony concerning profits from the sale of one’s own home is that the profit, which is a capital gain, is taxed at rates lower than most people pay on income. Homeowners don’t pay any tax on the first $250,000 (or $500,000 for married taxpayers) of profit, and the rest is taxed at the capital gains tax rate of 15%, and only 5% for those with low incomes. These rates were reduced in 2003. A cut in the capital gains tax rate is usually criticized as a tax cut only for the “wealthy,” but it turns out that many regular people will benefit. I suppose, though, that if your residence that you bought 25 years ago for maybe $50,000 is now worth over a million dollars, you have become “wealthy.”)

Third, prices are the best way we have to allocate scarce resources. Every other way doesn’t work. But many people forget the lessons of history and think that somehow government can suspend the law of supply and demand.

Finally, consider who owns these oil companies. If you own any mutual funds, especially index funds, you probably own a piece of these companies.

Prices ration scarce goods

As the price for gasoline rises, politicians hear increased calls for regulation of gas prices. We hear news stories of hotels increasing prices for victims of hurricane Katrina, and prices for needed goods in the destructed area could rise, too.

In Wichita, when gasoline prices rose rapidly, someone told me that this was price gouging, because the price the gas stations pay for gasoline hasn’t increased yet. I’m sure that’s true, their cost hasn’t increased yet, as they’re still selling gasoline they already bought some time ago. This analysis, however, doesn’t consider the most important role of prices: to strike a balance between supply and demand. That’s what prices do.

Consider what the economist Walter E. Williams wrote about plywood prices:

Windfall profits are indeed profits far beyond what’s necessary for an entrepreneur to stay in business, but windfall profits also play a vital role. Windfall profits signal that a human want is not being met. Resources emerge to meet that want. For example, when Hurricane Andrew devastated parts of South Florida, plywood prices skyrocketed. Florida’s attorney general threatened actions against companies for price-gouging.

Those windfall profits conveyed messages to the rest of the economy. Let’s say that pre-hurricane plywood prices were $10 a sheet and afterward they were $20. That profit potential created a powerful signal. Instead of plywood manufacturers selling their plywood inventory to, say, Pennsylvania wholesalers for $8 a sheet, they were more than happy to ship them to Floridian wholesalers for higher prices. Wholesalers in other states were happy to sell their plywood to Floridians for higher prices. Since plywood supplies were moving to Florida, plywood prices elsewhere rose.

From a social point of view, this is wonderful. Say I planned to spend a Saturday afternoon building a house for my dog. I go to my neighborhood lumberyard in Pennsylvania expecting to pay $10 for a plywood sheet, and get there and find out it’s $18. I say, “The heck with the dog; let him sleep in the rain!” I have voluntarily made a plywood sheet available for a more valuable use — rebuilding the house of a human.

None of these and other voluntary actions making plywood available to Floridians would happen if price controls were slapped on plywood making the pre- and post-hurricane prices the same. Freely fluctuating prices, including the potential for windfall profits, encourage people to do voluntarily what’s in the social interest.

In free and open markets, profits are to be praised — not scorned, as economic and political charlatans would have us do.

We might consider the prices for hotel rooms. As families evacuated before (or after) Katrina struck, they needed hotel rooms. If the usual price for a hotel room was, say, $50, and hotel operators can’t increase their prices, there will be a shortage of hotel rooms. Why is this? Think of the Jones family with children. At a room price of $50, the Jones family might take two rooms, one for the parents, and another for the children. If the hotel operator is allowed to increase prices, the room price might rise to, say, $100. At that price, the Jones family might decide they could all stay in one room. That makes the second room, the room the Jones family children would have occupied at a price of $50, available for the Smith family. Otherwise, the Jones family children would be in the second room, and the Smith family is on the street, or has to drive farther to find a room.

Yes, the Smith family had to pay $100 for a room when they would prefer to pay only $50, but if the price is $50, there is no hotel room available for them.

Some people might object that the hotel operator is unjustly enriched by being able to sell hotel rooms for $100, when normally they fetch only $50. But what is the alternative? Is there anyone who has the power to say to the Jones family that they should all stay in one room, leaving a room free for the Smith family? Or, in the case of gasoline prices held artificially low through price controls, someone has to judge whose use of gasoline is more valued.

But if the prices of hotel rooms, plywood, and gasoline are allowed to fluctuate, each person is free to make their own judgment as to how much they want to consume. If the Jones family really wants two hotel rooms, they can have them. If Dr. Williams really wants to build the doghouse, he can. But people acting as they do — demanding less of something as its price rises — there will be more hotel rooms or plywood available for others. If the price of plywood in Florida is controlled so that it can’t increase, the cost of plywood in Pennsylvania will likely be the same $10 as it always is. So plywood is used in Pennsylvania to make doghouses as people in Florida need plywood to patch the roofs of the homes so that they can stay dry.

That’s what is important about prices. They represent people voluntarily — and that’s a very important word that Dr. Williams used — adjusting their behavior. The alternative is shortages, gas lines, rationing, government control, and commissions deciding who gets what at what price — all the signs of a planned economy. That does no one any good.

In the case of my friend in Wichita, who was going to make a weekend trip that would require about 100 gallons of gasoline in a vehicle that gets 12 miles per gallon, I suggested renting a car that gets better fuel economy. That’s what he did. In the end, he’s saving about $100, even considering the cost of car rental, and he’s making about 50 gallons of gasoline available to someone else. That’s the power of prices in action.

What to do about gasoline prices

Almost anything the government does in response to the recent high gasoline prices is bound to fail. The easy political solution is to place price controls on gasoline, as Hawaii has done. Basic economics tells us that when a price is held artificially low through price controls, demand will be higher than what it would otherwise be, and supply will be less than it would otherwise be. What does that spell? A shortage, as was the case the last time there were price controls on gasoline. The misery of dealing with lines at gas stations was much worse than slightly higher gasoline prices.

As Thomas Sowell wrote in a recent column: “The last time we had price controls on gasoline, we had long lines of cars at filling stations, these lines sometimes stretching around the block, with motorists sitting in those lines for hours.

That nonsense ended almost overnight when President Ronald Reagan, ignoring the cries of liberal politicians and the liberal media, got rid of price controls with a stroke of the pen.

What happened is what usually happens when government restrictions are ended: There was more production of oil. In fact the 1980s became known as the era of an ‘oil glut’ and gasoline prices declined.”

In an article titled “What’s the Answer for High Gasoline Prices? Absolutely Nothing” by Jerry Taylor & Peter VanDoren, published last October in National Review, we read:

“… consumers have a right to make their own decisions about trade-offs between higher gasoline prices and conservation without the government whacking them over the head with higher taxes, constrained choices in the vehicle market, or extracting their earnings for the benefit of corporations engaged in making cars or fuels that consumers presently don’t want to buy. Simply put, individuals know better how to order their personal affairs than do politicians or bureaucrats no matter how well meaning they might be.

At the end of the day, the best remedy for high gasoline prices is…high gasoline prices, which provide all the incentives necessary for motorists to conserve, for oil companies to put more product into the marketplace, and for investors to look into alternatives fuel technologies. Government has never demonstrated an ability to do better.”

There are also unintended consequences of any action. When government requires higher fuel economy quickly (as many are calling for), automakers will find that the easiest way to comply is to decrease the weight of cars, since weight is the most important determinant of fuel economy. As Dr. Sowell wrote: “Many of the same people who cry ‘No blood for oil!’ also want higher gas mileage standards for cars. But higher mileage standards have meant lighter and more flimsy cars, leading to more injuries and deaths in accidents — in other words, trading blood for oil.”

News stories tell us of SUV drivers considering trading for vehicles with more efficient usage of gasoline. Anyone who is considering such a move needs to do a little arithmetic first. Figure out the cost per mile, considering gasoline only, for the two vehicles. Then consider the costs of ownership of a new vehicle. Sales tax alone on a new $25,000 car (that’s about the average price now) in Wichita is $1,825. If you trade a 15 mpg vehicle for a 25 mpg vehicle, with gas at $2.60 per gallon, you’re saving about $.173 per mile in gasoline costs. That seems like a lot, but you’ll need to drive 10,549 miles just to “save” what you paid in sales tax. For many people, it might take a year to drive that many miles.

Consider the other costs. Since cars depreciate at about 2% per month, a $25,000 vehicle depreciates about $500 its first month. The vehicle you already own that’s worth, say, $10,000 depreciates just $200 the same month. That difference of $300 requires 1,734 miles of driving to pay for (but will decrease each month as the new car rapidly loses its value). If you borrow money to buy the new car, you’re paying interest that needs to be allowed for. Add it all up, and you may not be saving as much as you thought you might. Then, if the price of gasoline drops, you may not save anything at all.

Book Review: Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy

Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy
Revised and Expanded Edition
Thomas Sowell
Basic Books, 2004

This book is a general introduction to economics written in a non-technical way. It provides excellent coverage of many introductory topics in economics, and you don’t have to be a mathematical sophisticate to understand it. It is very readable by anyone who is interested in this topic.

One of the best things the author does in this book is to distinguish between what politicians want to happen and say they are doing when they implement economic policies, and what incentives are actually created. Often there is a big difference between the two.

One of the most important things to learn from this book is the importance of prices, and what goes wrong when governments interfere with prices. As the author says: “Prices play a crucial role in determining how much of each resource gets used where. Yet this role is seldom understood by the public and it is often disregarded entirely by politicians.” As an example: “The last premiere of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, is said to have asked British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: How do you see to it that people get food? The answer was that she didn’t. Prices did that. And the British people were better fed than those in the Soviet Union, even though the British have never grown enough food to feed themselves in more than a century. Prices bring them food from other countries.”

The example of rent control illustrates how what politicians intend to do may not be what actually happens: “In short, a policy intended to make housing affordable for the poor has had the net effect of shifting resources towards housing affordable only by the affluent or rich, since luxury housing is often exempt from rent control.” What lower-priced housing that remains is in short supply (since less is supplied at a lower price), is in high demand (because more is demanded at a lower price), and is in poorer condition than it would be otherwise (since housing is in a shortage, landlords have an easy time finding tenants, and there is little incentive to maintain their housing stock). In fact, rent control often leads to rental housing being taken off the market, or, especially in New York City, entire buildings being abandoned when the (artificially low) rent that comes in isn’t sufficient to provide city-required services to the tenants.

But because there are more tenants than landlords, Dr. Sowell explains, rent control is often a political success. It is easier for the average person to look at the situation superficially, to see that politicians are looking out for them by protecting them from landlords who would otherwise gouge them on rent.

You can learn all this and more just by reading through page 40 of this nearly 400 page book. I highly recommend this book.