How dairy farmers unions in Canada are distorting the facts about supply management

Under heat recently as president Trump up has criticized supply management in Canada and retaliated against it, the different provincial associations representing dairy farmers have moved on the offensive. To promote the virtues of this system meant to reduce production in order to prop up prices through the use of trade tariffs, production quotas and price controls (how can we call those virtues), these unions have produced numerous infographics to make their case. It is even part of what they dub their These infographics show that diary prices are lower in Canada than elsewhere, that milk is still a cheap drink relative to other type of drinks and those prices, supposedly, increase more slowly than elsewhere. All of these graphics are dishonest and must be dismantled.

The most egregious of these infographics – present in the “lobby day kit” – shows the price of milk in Australia (1.55 CAD), Canada (1.45 CAD) and New Zealand (1.65 CAD). They are seemingly using 2014 prices. First of all, they use data that conflicts massively with the reports of Statistics Canada that suggest that milk prices hover between 2.33$ to 2.48$ per liter.  Their data is provided by AC Nielsen but no justification is presented as to why they are better than Statistics Canada. The truth is that it is not better. Participants in Nielsen surveys come from a self-selected pool of storeowners who wish to participate and are then selected by Nielsen to be part of the data collection. Then, they can record prices. It should be mentioned that not all regions of Canada are covered in the data. Although the Nielsen data does have some uses (especially with regards to market studies), it hardly measures up Statistics Canada when comes the time to evaluate price levels. This is because the government agency collects information from all regions and tries a broader sweep of retailers in order to create the consumer price index.

But an even larger problem is that, in their comparison of prices, they don’t mention that New Zealand taxes milk. In New Zealand, all food items are subjected to sales tax, which is not the case in Canada and Australia. Hence, when they compare retail prices, they are comparing prices that exclude taxes and prices that include taxes. One would like to find if they acknowledge this fact in the methodological mentions, but there are none!

Using prices available at Numbeo.com and Expatisan.com and the exchange rates made available by the Bank of Canada, we can correct for this problem of theirs. Simply changing prices source leads to a massively different result with regards to Australia whose milk prices are lower than in Canada. Secondly, once we adjust for the sales tax in New Zealand, we find that prices in New Zealand are lower than in Canada. In fact they are lower than in one of Canada’s cheapest market, Montreal (let alone Toronto or Vancouver).  So the infographic they show in order to lobby governments is a fabrication.

Table 1: The real price of milk

Using Numbeo.com (regular milk)
  Unadjusted Adjusted for taxes
 Australia  $           1.59  $                 1.59
 New Zealand  $           2.26  $                 1.97
 Canada  $           1.99  $                 1.99
 Using Expatisan.com (whole milk)
   Unadjusted  Adjusted for taxes
 Sydney  $           1.82  $                 1.47
 Wellington  $           2.42  $                 2.10
 Montreal  $           2.87  $                 2.87

Source: Numbeo.com and Expatisan.com, consulted May 16th 2014 and the Bank of Canada’s currency converter. Note: using the Statistics Canada price would make Canada’s situation even worse by comparison.

This is part of a pattern of deceit since they also massage data for numerous other graphs that are presented to Canadians in efforts to convince them of the virtues of supply management. One other example is an infographic that presents a figure of nominal milk prices in Australia before and after the abolition of supply management. Given that prices seem more volatile after 2000 and that they increase more steeply, they try to make us believe that liberalization was a failure. This is not the case. Any sensible policy analyst would deflate nominal prices by the general price index to control for inflation. When one does just that using the data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one sees that real prices stabilized in the first ten years of deregulation after increasing roughly 15% in the decade prior. And since 2010, real prices have been falling constantly.

Other examples abound. In one instance, the Quebec union of dairy farmers circulated an infographic meant to show that nominal prices for dairy products increased faster in the United States than in Canada. Again, they omit inflation. Since 1990 (their own starting date), prices of dairy products have risen more slowly than inflation – indicating a decline in real prices. In Canada, the opposite occurred – inflation increased more slowly than dairy prices indicating an increase of the real price.

The debate around supply management is complicated. The policy course to adopt in order to improve agricultural productivity and lower prices for Canadians is hard to pinpoint. But whatever position one may hold, no one is well-served by statistical manipulations offered by the unions representing dairy farmers.

Minimum wages: The economist as a psychologist

Both Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek are known for arguing that there is no such thing as a good economist who is only an economist. For these two thinkers, a good economist-as-scientist also needs to know history, philosophy of science, ethics, and physics. Mises and Hayek are thinking of what an economist-as-scientist should be familiar with and have some minimum knowledge beyond his discipline.

I would add that the economist as public educator, that is, when the economist talks as an economist to non-economists, also needs some awareness of psychology. I may not be using the term “psychology” in the most proper way, but I mean the awareness to understand what the interlocutor feels and needs and then figure out how to communicate economic insights in a way that will not be automatically (emotionally or psychologically) rejected; how to make someone accept an economics outcome they do not want to be true. How to break the bad news with empathy? This is a challenge I try to get my students to understand as one day they, too, will be economists out of the classroom in the real world.

A few days ago I found myself unexpectedly in the “psychologist” position. Only seconds after meeting for the first time two persons dropped the question: “So, what do you think about increasing the minimum wages, should we do it?” I knew nothing about these two individuals, and the only thing they knew about me was that I’m an economics professor. The answer to such a question is an Econ 101 problem: if you increase the minimum wage (above the equilibrium price) some lucky workers will get a wage increase at the expense of other ones loosing their jobs.

The first question I asked myself was “what do these two nice ladies actually want, the analytical/scientific answer, or do they want instead the ‘professor’ to confirm their bias?” This might be a delicate discussion since they may well have a loved one in the minimum wage market.

The first thing to get out of the way is that my answer as an economist is not ideologically driven or does not respond to secret political agendas. How can that be made clear? One way is to show the economics profession’s consensus on the subject from an impersonal position. I explained to them that any economics textbook from any author from any country in the world used in any university would say the same thing: “If you put the price of labor above its equilibrium (a minimum wage), it will produce a disequilibrium (unemployment). You cannot fix the price outside equilibrium and at the same time remain in equilibrium.” Yes, as Ben Powell reminds us, even Paul Krugman agrees on this. By mentioning a worldwide consensus there is no room for ideological or political agendas. It is important to mention that economics is not always about politics. The economic analysis of minimum wages has nothing to do with being a Democrat or a Republican; the political position of each party may differ, but those are not economic analyses, those are political strategies.

The next step was to deal with the issue that if such a consensus exists, why are there mentions of studies showing no harmful effects of increases in minimum wages. This is no mystery either. A well known reason of why an increase in minimum wages does not increase unemployment is because in fact there is no such increase. The politician may say he is increasing the minimum wage, but he does not say that the minimum wage is being located just above the equilibrium level and therefore he is not doing much. Another reason is to look at the effect of a minimum wage increase in a small location where low skilled workers can get another job in the next town without the need to move and therefore they will not show up as unemployed. This is another case of an ineffective increase in minimum wages. Or maybe the minimum wage increases but a benefit goes down. The total compensation to the employee does not change, its composition does.

But can the economist show his claim? Is there more clear evidence that the effects of increasing minimum wages does do harm than the complicated cases where there are no harmful effects? Again, I went geographically large. First, I compared the U.S. with Europe, which has higher minimum wages with respect to the U.S. In Europe you find higher unemployment rates, higher unemployment in the youth population, and also higher long-term unemployment. Second, I brought the case of the U.S. Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938, which fixed the minimum wage at 25 cents per hour. This law included Puerto Rico where the many workers were earning between 3 to 4 cents. Bankruptcies and unemployment skyrocketed. It was in fact unions who asked Congress to make an exception for Puerto Rico, which took two years to consider. For two years people in Puerto Rico were forced to work in the black market or fail to make a minimum income. Want more cases? See here. “See,” the psychologist says, “minimum wages are very dangerous; you can seriously harm yourself. Is that a bet you really want to make?”

Two issues remain to be explained after dealing with these three problems, (1) objection to minimum wage increases is not (necessary) an ideological or political position, (2) studies that deny the effect are doubtful for easy reasons to understand, and (3) if you look at a sample broad enough the economist’s prediction is right there.

First, when an economist objects to an increase in minimum wages it does not mean we do not want wages to go up. We are just saying that a minimum wage increase is not the right way to do it. I wish it were so easy, but the laws of demand and supply inform otherwise. I guess most economists would advocate for minimum wages if their negative effects were not real. Second, explain Milton Friedman’s lesson that a policy is valued by its results, not by its intentions. The economist objects because of the unintended effects of fixing the price of labor outside equilibrium, not because we wouldn’t like to see real wages increasing.

Immigration and Jobs

A couple of thoughts about immigration. It seems that there is a widespread belief in the US that immigrants take jobs from Americans. It makes superficial sense if you also assume that the number of jobs to be filled is fixed and that just about anyone can do any kind of work.

Both assumptions are mostly false. Here is an example that illustrates why.

I keep hearing native-born Americans trained in various high-tech fields who claim that they are unemployed because of competition from low-cost H1B visa holders. H1B visas go to foreigners with skills deemed to be needed by the American economy. A large number of H1B visa holders are from India and many are from China; they also come from a wide variety of other countries, including Russia, France, Bulgaria, etc. The implicit affirmation is that were such visas stopped completely, those who complain would step right into the vacant jobs.

Two things. First the claim that foreign H1B visa holders work for less is largely unsubstantiated although it should be easy to investigate such abuse. Second, I think it’s illegal to pay H1B holders less than Americans. Why would many employers risk a distracting lawsuit? Of course, a few might because there are irrational people everywhere.

Next and last: Hundreds of thousands of high-tech jobs are going begging as I write. Are employers so vicious that they would rather have the work not done at all than to give it to a credentialed American? Or is it more likely that the unemployed native-born high-tech workers have skills that do not match demand? If the second supposition is correct, ending the H1B visa program would cause even more high-tech positions to remain empty. Of course, this would have a negative effect on everyone, on every American’s prosperity.

Missing from this narrative: the possibility that high power, accelerated re-training programs would bring unemployed Americans the skills the high-tech sector requires.

I have to begin a confession that’s going to make me even more unpopular locally than I already am. I mean unpopular among my conservative friends. I taught in an MBA program in the middle of Silicon Valley for 24 years, two quarters each year. It was an evening program squarely directed at the ambitious hard-working. During that span of time, I must have had 150 students from India. I remember only one who was a bad student. I was intrigued, so I made inquiries. Sure enough, he had an Indian first name and last name, and the corresponding appearance but he was born in the US.* I cannot report so glowingly about other, non-Indian students that sat in my classroom through the years.

This little narrative proves nothing, of course. Consider it food for thought. Do it especially if you voted for Pres. Trump – as I did.

Reminder: H1B visas are awarded to individuals with an occupational qualification deemed to be in short supply in the US. Right now, it’s likely that most of those who get an H1B are trained in some IT area but that’s not all. For a long time, farriers from everywhere could easily get one. (If you don’t know what a farrier is, shame on you and look it up.)

There are other – presumably non-specialized – categories of immigrants who are widely suspected of taking jobs from Americans. The truth is not always easy to discern, not even conceptually. Five or six miles from where I live in Santa Cruz, there are growers who are tearing off their hair. Their problem is that they can’t figure out who is going to pick the crops they are now putting into the ground. As I have said repeatedly, the Mexicans they counted on in years past have largely stopped coming.

A quarter of a mile from where I live, and in the same direction, there are dozens of perfectly healthy US-born Americans who are working as “sales associates.” The apparent conceptual issue is this: sales associates earn $10/hr while a moderately experienced crop picker earns $15. The question arises of why we don’t see a full exodus from the sales positions to jobs that pay 50% more?

I think it’s lazy to call the US-born sales associates “lazy.” The reality is that the Mexicans who came, and are still coming, to pick vegetables and fruits in California overwhelmingly came from a rural population. They were reared under conditions where almost everyone around them labored in the fields. When they arrive in the US – legally through family reunion – or illegally, they are ready to take picking jobs. They then just do here more or less the same work they would do at home but for five times the pay or more.

In American society that kind of population disappeared several generations ago through mechanization and, of course, through the importation of foreign labor, precisely. Native-born Americans won’t do the work because it’s alien to their background. I think US-born people of Mexican ascendancy whose parents labored in the field won’t do the work either. Their parents do what they can to make their own work experience alien to their children. I am not surprised, that’s another expression of the American dream. It’s  what many would do back in Mexico but then, why emigrate?

I am pretty sure that any immigration reform should include a temporary agricultural program, a sort of H1A ( “A” for “Agriculture”) visa. It would allow foreigners to come to the US legally, just to work in the fields and for a set period only. It would not lead to permanent residency, nor, of course, to citizenship. Such a program existed between the forties and the early sixties, if memory serves. It was called the “Bracero program.” I don’t know why it was terminated. (Perhaps a reader can tell us.)

Mexicans would be the first to take advantage of such a program. As Mexico’s economy develops, they may be replaced by Central Americans and, eventually, by Africans. Such a program would sidestep the kind of assimilation problem France, for example, is facing right now with its North African population.

PS Personally, I think Mexicans make good immigrants to the US. I would bet than in ten years we will be begging them to come.


* Disclosure: I am married to an Indian woman. She is not in high-tech unfortunately.

On Sugary Drinks, Taxes and Demand Curves

A few days ago, I discovered a blog post on the website of Jayson Lusk (a very good agricultural economist whose work has often guided some of my own economic history research given that most economic history is also agricultural history). The post relates to a study of the implementation of a sugary drink tax in Berkeley to fight obesity.

Obviously, a tax will reduce the consumption of any good. That is pretty axiomatic and all that we need to know is how much. In other words, how elastic is demand. If all things are held constant, the quantity consumed relative to the price change will give you that measure.* However, the study that Lusk pointed too basically shows that we often do not hold everything constant.

The authors of the study point out that when tax is passed, there is generally a debate that occurs beforehand. This generates publicity about the issue. This alters the behavior of consumers because they face more information. This is an effect that must be isolated from that of the tax itself.  That is what the authors do in their papers and they find that a reduction of soft drinks consumption did occur during the campaign and after the tax was adopted but before it was implemented (they rely on on-campus sales of soft drinks at a “major university” which we can assume is UC-Berkeley). Thus, the reduction in consumption preceded the price change. Lusk himself found something similar in a case related to animal welfare. Using a Californian electoral proposition regarding animal welfare in the production of eggs, he found that the publicity surrounding the proposition changed consumer behavior.

Lusk, rightly in my opinion, points out this suggests that information-based policies are probably more efficient than heavy-handed measures like taxes.

But I think there is a deeper point to make. When you inform consumers, you don’t only change the location of the demand, you also change the slope of the curve. If a consumer is made aware of the costs (and benefits) of his consumption that he had not previously considered, he may become more sensitive to the price. Informing people about the ill-effects of sweet drinks might make them more sensitive to the price they pay. Imagine that the information campaign during the Berkeley vote on the tax caused consumption to become more elastic. That means that the tax’s effects is being amplified by the information effect from the publicity. Had the tax been imposed as a surprise, the effect would have been smaller. Basically, Lusk’s presentation of the argument is understating the effects of information-based policies.


* On a tangential point, I would like to remind that people can reduce their consumption of soft drinks without changing their total calorific intake. Indeed, if I am taxed when I consume a soft drink, I can switch to coffee with cream. Thus, pundits often confuse a reduction in soft drinks consumption after a tax as a step in favor of reducing obesity.

Fight for your economic right to party

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Two months ago, London’s iconic Fabric nightclub was shut-down by Islington Council on the dubious grounds that it had failed to adequately search club-goers for drugs. Fabric, a sprawling multi-level concrete venue, is dear to the heart of many Londoners. Its dramatic closure came as a shock. David Nutt blamed our hypocritical drug laws, while others spied conspiracies to turn the venue over to housing developers. In response to the public outcry, this month, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has appointed Amy Lamé as ‘night tzar’ (some use the even grander title Night Mayor) with the task of reviving London’s nightlife and especially trying to save venues like Fabric.

Tzars sound great in theory but tend to fail in practice. They are meant to break-up bureaucratic silos and join-up policymaking so that it conforms to a grand plan in a particular policy area. Rather than following rules regardless of outcomes, they have an outcome that the executive asks them to pursue remorselessly. However, I argue that this is precisely the opposite of what you want if your goal is a sustainable, thriving night-life culture. London night-life has suffered because of its politicization, not from a lack of it. The answer is strong rights for entrepreneurs to provide entertainment to willing consumers. This means reforming of government powers to license venues and prohibit development on arbitrary grounds. While ending drug prohibition is of deep importance, here the drug-use excuse was the face of a more pernicious power that local governments have to shut down successful businesses on arbitrary grounds.

In the United Kingdom, land development and property-use decisions have essentially been nationalized since 1947. While building still takes place, it only happens following detailed, expensive consultation with local planning authorities with significant input from local residents. As a result, the supply of building amenities has become unmoored from demand. The most noticeable impact has been rising house prices and rents in areas where the economy is growing. This is a boon to landlords lucky enough to own property in areas of high demand. But it causes those without property to suffer significantly higher living costs. It has led to bizarre developments such as it being easier to open a new golf course in the South-East than to start a new housing development.

While the majority of people feel the strain primarily through higher rents, less visible is the impact on businesses who are equally constrained by planning laws. They struggle to find suitable buildings for their commercial activities. Competitors and local residents can use the planning process to block new construction or changes to lawful uses for particular venues. Businesses lack legitimate expectations about where they will be allowed to expand. Those that do succeed need to invest heavily in lobbying and legal support. The result is that people end up travelling further to get to shops and to their places of work.

Club venues face a number of additional biases in this process. Local officials are more likely to be blamed for noise and crime associated with clubs but not praised for their fun and economic benefits. This fosters risk-aversion amongst local policymakers. At the same time, club-goers may outnumber local residents but most are not able to vote in local council elections. Residents might well have originally moved into a central London location precisely to experience fun, exciting nightlife. But once there, perhaps especially as they get a little older, their priorities change. They realize that they may want to live in an exciting city, but just so long as their particular neighborhood is a little less exciting. Rather than move to a quieter area, they express their preferences through the political process and demand that venues that have been around a lot longer than they have be closed.

Unfortunately, if too many residents in the city come to the same conclusion, you end up shutting down historic clubs on the slightest pretext. When it comes to hosting unlawful activities, businesses can be presumed guilty, with no secure way of ever proving their innocence.

In this context, having a tzar is an understandable response as a counter-balance to the call of the NIMBYs. But it doesn’t solve the core problem which is a system that cannot adequately represent revelers but augments complaints. The tzar can champion venues but will be silenced once these entrenched interests turn up the noise. Instead, we need a system that recognizes the presumptive right of businesses to market entertainment to willing consumers. Only provable nuisance should be cause to fine or eventually close venues. Once established, entertainment venues should not have to regularly prove their social worth to a licensing committee (the fact that they have willing customers is sufficient warrant for that).

Most importantly, complaints from recent arrivals against historic venues that have always hosted loud parties should be discounted. This works in a fashion in Tokyo, where mixed development is widely permitted (no one stops people from taking up residence in an otherwise commercial district) but without any assumption that those residents can then alter the make-up of their community through the political process.

A vision for environmentalists

The sun is setting and people start settling in for bed instead of staying up late and watching TV. As fast as battery technology advances, it’s imperfect so we deal with it by using less electricity at night. Similarly, on windy days, people stay inside, but leave once the wind calms down and it’s nicer to be outside. This is a world where people are in tune with the weather and adjust their behavior accordingly.

How can we get such a world? Education won’t be enough (though it will be necessary) because, let’s face it, people are creatures of habit, and lazy people (i.e. 80%+ of the population) would rather leave any given habit alone. We could try to mandate behavior, but that will be costly and the Law of Unintended Consequences promises ironic blow-back.*

Luckily there’s a fairly simple way to effectively nudge people in the direction we (environmentalist-types) would like to see: flexible prices! In a world where a lot of electricity is generated by solar and wind** market determined prices would automatically encourage people to conserve resources and set the pace of their lives to match natural rhythms. Will it be enough? Probably not, but it will certainly be an essential step in the right direction.


* I recently came across the following in The Complete Walker:

I’m tempted to suggest they [trowels] be made obligatory equipment for everyone who backpacks into a national park or forest. I resist the temptation, though–not only because (human nature being what it is, thank God) any such ordinance would drive many worthy people in precisely the undesired direction but also because blanket decrees are foreign to whatever it is a man goes out into wilderness to seek, and bureaucratic decrees are worst of all because they tend to accumulate and perpetuate and harden when they’re administered, as they so often are, by people who revel in enforcing petty ukases. Anyways, a rule that’s impossible to enforce is a bad rule. (p. 698)

** Obviously the likelihood of such a world is a whole ‘nuther can of worms. Let’s leave that for another post.

Garbage could be beautiful

And I don’t mean in the artistic sense, though that’s an option and one that sheds light on the larger question of what to do with garbage. I recently heard a podcast on garbage incineration; how it’s widespread in Europe as a way to generate electricity and reduce the need for landfills. The discussants were wondering why America doesn’t do more of that and concluded that progress was barred by a combination of NIMBYism and the fervor of recycling enthusiasts. Whether you agree with the producer of that segment or not, they are certainly correct that this industry is stagnant, and this rigidity results in plenty of unnecessary inefficiencies. But I think the real low hanging fruit is in waste collection.

The other day I saw a garbage truck and it struck me that the institution of “garbage day” is just a hold-over from the days before apps and algorithms were available to efficiently route garbage trucks to where they’re needed. For that matter, the trucks could be different; the service level could be different, and surely resources could be saved.

There are plenty of ways garbage could be picked up, and they could all coexist next to one another. Different towns and different neighborhoods

This sort of competition would be beautiful. The results would be better service, less room for corruption, clean trucks taking away your garbage when it’s necessary and saving resources* in the process. Rich neighborhoods would have sleek electric wagons grabbing their trash cans from the side of the garage in the middle of the night. In poor and rural neighborhoods something more like Uber would give the out-of-work construction worker a  way to pay for his truck.

The problems are surely due to regulations that limit innovation and competition. So, how could we open up this market? Debate and committees is the correct response, but it’s not the only one. “If I were a Silicon Valley millionaire,” I thought while driving past that truck, “I could change this, and probably make a buck doing it.”

So here’s the exciting part: A wealthy libertarian-type benefactor (or even a non-profit funded through a Kickstarter campaign (don’t forget to comment on this article!) could make a bet with the mayor of some city (which would need certain features to be a viable first candidate) that privatization would work. The bet goes like this:

  1. Pass legislation that opens up genuine competition in trash collection in one year.
  2. Private garbage companies spring into existence and do a better job at a better price (as determined by a study we will pay for by a consultant you will pick).
  3. If (2) does not happen, we will pick up the tab at your current provider for one year.

Obviously, our first hurdle is structuring the bet property to avoid problems like Waste Management from abusing their position. And that’s probably a big problem. But here’s the thing: if someone can figure this out, and motivate the right people to contribute, it will:

  1. Make it easier for an electorate/politicians to face the risk that something will go horribly wrong, and
  2. Create a profit opportunity for the (probably) tech billionaire backing this.

Opening up waste collection to competition allows for the possibility of the next Uber or AirBnB being in the garbage business. And for that matter, this betting approach might be used for other industries. For Uber to use this approach would be even easier. They would have to pay for a study on transportation in some city, and could offer to bet some lump sum to the city if competition doesn’t work.

*”Saving resources” has practically become a verbal tic with me. I use it as a synonym for the much less evocative “reducing costs.”