A Little More on “Price Gouging”

In my previous post on this subject I argued that the critics of “anti price-gouging laws” are mistakenly assuming that is possible to satisfy demand at the pre-natural disaster price. That is, sadly of course, fiction. It it not our reality anymore and we are better accepting the new situation than blindly deny it. As many economists are explaining these days, to not let prices increase after a natural disaster does more harm than letting prices increase. This can easily be seen in a demand and supply graph.

Prige gouging

Consider first just the lines in black. Those lines represent the pre natural disaster situation. What is considered “normal prices”. At price p0, a quantity q0 of a good is traded in the market (i.e. bottles of water.)

Now there is a shock. A hurricane hits this region and demand increases (shifts to the right). This is the demand line in color red. The red dotted line that extends to the right shows the size of the shortage (q2 – q1) at the “normal and fair” price.

Price gouging is an emotional loaded word, but it doesn’t have any specific economic meaning. How does “price gouging” show up in this graph? It is the increase in price from p0 to p1. This is the increase in price required to satisfy the higher demand and provide the extra number of goods (q1 – q0). No… supply is not horizontal.

What happens if price increases are banned? Then at the pre-crisis quantity (q0), consumers are willing to pay p2, a price even higher than price gouging. This means two things. First, a number of people in need will be unable to acquire the goods (the empty shelf problem). Second, that the actual total cost (to those who acquire the quantity q0) is p2, not p0. The difference between the price in the store and total cost falls into waiting in long lines, visiting a long number of stores, bribing producers (yes… with natural disaster price controls also lead to black markets), calling favors., etc. Any principles of microeconomic textbook has plenty of more examples under the price ceiling discussion.

There are three scenarios being discussed here.

  1. Quantity q0 at price p0
  2. Quantity q1 at price p1
  3. Quantity q0 at price p2

The natural disaster makes scenario 1 impossible. And it is not clear that scenario 3 is better for those in need than scenario 2. Less goods are provided at a higher total cost than in scenario 2.

One final remark. Note that in this analysis the natural disaster only affected demand. Of course, it is quite likely that supply would also be affected. The point, however, is to show that prices are not pushed up only by produces. As we can see in this case, it is consumers who are increasing the price and producers reacting to the new behavior of consumers.

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Price Gouging: Reality vs Fiction

In a previous post I comment on a too common economic fallacy, that a natural disaster is good for the economy because of its alleged impact on GDP. Economic fallacies are not the only misconceptions gaining momentum during a natural disaster, but a confusion between reality and fiction becomes also quite common. The issue of price gouging provides a good example of this situation.

After a natural disaster, the price of certain goods such as water or gas, increases significantly. This is seen as an immoral exploitation by merchants who are taking advantage of the people affected by the natural disaster. Even though in this post I want to comment on another issue, it is worth mentioning that the now limited resources should be allocated to those in most need (rather than, for instance, to whoever happens to be the first one in line.) And unless someone has a crystal ball, there is no way of knowing who is in most need without changes in relative prices.

The mention to reality versus fiction refers to the fact that the critics of price gouging seem to (implicitly) assume that the natural disaster did not occur. It is plausible to assume that an event like this would (1) shift the supply to the left [reduce supply of goods] and (2) shift the demand to the right [increase the demand of goods.] At the usual (or “normal”) price these goods are in serious shortage.

This means that in the event of a natural disaster the option is between (1) having goods at a higher price or (2) not having goods at the “normal” price. This is the new reality. The old and normal reality does not exist anymore. To limit price gouging results in a lower price in the store, but not goods on the shelf. This would not help those in need. The fiction consists in thinking that a larger supply can be secured without an increase in the price (why should we assume supply is horizontal when these goods usually have a low elasticity?) An efficient policy would secure the provision of goods rather than secure a low price without the goods. Reality, rather than fiction, should be the first driver of a policy designed to assist during a natural disaster. As Milton Friedman insisted, a policy is to be valuated by its results (or design), not by its intentions.

The first rule for an efficient policy should be to not get in the way of changes in relative prices. Otherwise help will become erratic and inefficient. It might be more efficient, for instance, to make use of firms specialized in logistics (i.e. firms such as Walmart) and subsidize the demand than start a price control policy. For instance, a tax credit or a check can be sent to those affected by the natural disaster allowing them to pay the now higher prices. Similarly, a subsidy can be given to those firms bringing goods to the damaged areas (who says the government has the monopoly of charity or that the only one who can do it efficiently?) A policy on these lines would be more efficient than interfering with relative prices.

However, some opponents of price gouging seem to be more interested in damaging merchants than in making sure resources will be efficiently allocated among the ones affected by the natural disaster. Those who do not oppose price gouging do so because they have the affected ones first in line. It is not about merchant’s revenue, it is about allocating goods efficiently. Damaging the merchants should not be more important than worsening the situation of those in need.

Declare Peace on North Korea!

The United States should offer a peace treaty with North Korea and offer diplomatic relations. The Korean War did not officially end. Let’s end it now.

The chiefs of North Korea have feared an invasion by the USA. They recognize that several heads of countries without nuclear weapons, such as in Lybia and Iraq, were overthrown. It is recognized that nuclear weapons that can be sent to the USA provide a deterrent against an overthrow of the state and even against an assassination of the Korean head of state.

The government of North Korea has evidently convinced the people there that the USA is their enemy and a threat. That propaganda would be less effective if there were a peace treaty.

So the US government should, together with South Korea, China, Russia, and the United Nations, offer to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea.

The USA has negotiated with North Korea on a stoppage of its nuclear weapons project, but North Korea will not give up its weapons, and negotiations along with economic pressure will not be effective, since their greatest accomplishment has been their nuclear achievements, and the Chinese leaders seek to avoid an economic collapse.

Therefore a peace treaty with North Korea should not seek to end the nuclear status of the regime, but eliminate the deeper problem of mutual fears. The peace treaty would state that the U.S. recognizes North Korea as a sovereign country, and that there will be no invasion.

If the government of North Korea refuses to negotiate a peace treaty, then it will be seen that the hostility is being generated by North Korea, not the USA. The USA should then declare peace unilaterally. With the governments of South Korea and China, the USA would write a peace treaty and they would declare unilateral peace. The US would offer diplomatic relations, and if refused, would appoint an ambassador anyway, who would reside in China.

The US government would then broadcast to the people of North Korea, and send them messages via leaflets and computer files, that the USA has declared peace.

The opponents of a peace treaty could argue that this would leave North Korea with weapons that could reach US territory. But if the North Koreans will refuse to give up their nuclear capability, the peace treaty does not increase the danger. Indeed, the treaty, when agreed to by North Korea, would increase safety by prohibiting North Korea from providing nuclear materials and technology to others.

If North Korea accepts the peace treaty, the US would withdraw its troops from South Korea. Their presence is antiquated, since the threat would be from missiles rather than from an invasion by North Korean troops.

North Korea would gain four advantages from a peace treaty. First, assurance that the US is no longer a potential threat. Second, global diplomatic recognition. Third, removal of US troops from Korea. Fourth, the ability to trade freely with the rest of the world.

If the North Korean regime is not suicidal and seeks to maximize its well being, it would accept a peace treaty. But even if it does not accept a treaty, a unilateral offering would deflate its fears and propaganda.

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This article also appears in http://www.progress.org

No, natural disasters are not good for the economy.

Every time there is a natural disaster old economic fallacies make their appearance. And they are usually always the same. In particular, the argument that a natural disaster is good for the economy. This should make little sense. Wealth is not created by destroying things. A natural disaster destroys wealth, doesn’t create it. I doubt anyone affected by a hurricane would argue that he is better off after the natural disaster than before.

The argument that an event such as a natural disaster is good for the economy rests in the positive impact seen in GDP (as is argued) after the natural event. If GDP increases, then the economy is doing better. But this is a misreading of GDP. This variable is a flow of wealth, it is not a stock of accumulated wealth. It is possible that wealth creation (flow) increases at the same time the stock of wealth is decreasing. And this is what happens during a natural disaster.

Imagine that someone’s house caught fire and burns down. Because of this situation, this person decides to start working extra hours to increase his income and be able to buy a new one. The extra hours makes his income (GDP) increase. But his situation is considerable worst because he lost his stock of wealth (remember Bastiat’s broken window fallacy…?). Arguing that a natural disaster (or a war, etc…) is good for the economy is like arguing that this person is better of because he has to work extra hours to recover his loss.

This is just another case of a too common fallacy in economics. We know that if the economy is doing better the result will be better GDP and unemployment indicators. But from observing a better GDP and unemployment indicators we cannot, and should not, conclude that the economy is doing better. More important than observing what is happening to GDP is understanding why is changing its behavior.

It could be argued that one of the problem of the Keynesian view of the world is the focus on what happens to output and unemployment rather than why these variables are moving. Not surprisingly, we get to the conclusion that going to war (or having a natural disaster) would be a good way to achieve full employment.

A short note on ideological neutrality

William‘s excellent post on dishonesty reminded me of an equally excellent post by John McGinnis over at Liberty Law Blog on the ACLU and free speech. The post ended, though, with the following sentence:

It would be a tragedy for our nation if the ACLU’s decision begins to dissolve the strong social fabric supporting the ideologically neutral First Amendment.

Ach. There is nothing neutral about the First Amendment. It’s a law based on liberal ideology. The idea of free speech is based on liberal ideology. The other ideologies out there pay great lip service to free speech, but there’s no First Amendment in the post-colonial states of Africa and Asia. Free speech is trumped by an ambiguous form of censorship called “hate speech” in other OECD countries (Western Europe, Australia-New Zealand, Japan). There is no First Amendment in Russia or China or Venezuela.

Liberalism is the only ideology out there that actually encourages rival ideologies to attack it, not with provocative laws but with one specific law that allows all factions the same space for their platform. The First Amendment is not neutral at all; it is instead an aggressive flaunting of liberalism’s staying power and ability to deliver freedom.

When libertarians start thinking of their preferred values as “neutral” or “centrist” they begin to echo the Left, which has been dishonest with itself for the past 45-50 years. That’s a road I’d hate to the movement plod through.

What is going on in Brazil

I’ve been thinking about writing a short essay about some of the things going on in Brazil right now, especially concerning politics and economics, for my English speaking friends. I guess one can get really lost in the middle of so much news, and to the best of my knowledge, some left-leaning journalists are saying quite some nonsense already. So here we go!

President Dilma Rousseff was impeached over a year ago. Her party, the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT in Portuguese) is officially a social democrat party, close to the European social democracy tradition, i.e., socialists who want to attain power through a non violent, non revolutionary path. In the end, as it happens with so many big parties, PT has many internal tendencies and in-fighting, but I believe the party can be summarized especially in two tendencies.

On one hand you have cultural Marxists, in the Frankfurt School but even more in the Antonio Gramsci tradition. Many people in PT and other Brazilian socialist parties understood long ago that they had to win a cultural war before they won the political war. And so, these factions are much more interested in feminism, gay rights, and minority rights in general than in anything else. To the best of my knowledge, this is a strategy that backfires somewhat: cultural Leftism is a self defeating philosophy, and so, cultural Marxists are more and more into a witch hunt that damages even themselves. They make a lot of noise, to be sure, but they can’t run a country.

On the other hand, many Brazilian socialists are almost entirely pragmatic. It seems that they forgot about Marxism long ago, and are somehow even convinced of the Washington Consensus. They know basic economics, such as money doesn’t grow on trees and there’s no such thing as free lunch. But they also don’t want to lose face, and most importantly, don’t want to lose position. So, they surely won’t take measures that really shrink the size of the state to a healthy degree.

Dilma’s supporters still say she was the victim of a coup. Of course, she wasn’t. She was impeached with overwhelming evidence of her wrongdoings according to Brazilian law. Other than that, it is hard to believe in a coup where all branches of government agree and the military are not involved in any way. Eventually her supporters sophisticated the argument by saying she was the victim of a “parliamentary coup.” It is nonsense, but if we take it with a grain of salt we can be reminded of something important in Brazilian politics – or politics in general. Dilma was not impeached because of her wrongdoings. Many politicians in Brazil have done similar or worse things than her. She was impeached because she lost support, mostly in the legislative branch. For the wrong reasons (opposition to Dilma), the representatives did the right thing.

One of the problems that Brazil faces today is that the same congress that impeached Dilma for the wrong reasons expects from her successor, Michel Temer, the political favors they used to get from Dilma’s predecessor, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. But these favors are not cheap. Other than that, even if he is a crook, Temer seems to realize that Brazil can’t suffer any more socialism. In the end Brazil is facing some (sort of) free market reforms, but without really shaking the basis of a state too big to function properly.