Tuesday, September 27, 2011

$16 Muffins, A Recipe for Bad Economics

The AP posted a story where the Department of Justice paid $16 apiece for the morning muffins at a recent conference.  While the author rightly condemns the government for wasting tax money, the article takes an odd turn.  The article states,

"Which all kind of misses the most compelling issues. If you did spend $16 on a muffin, what would it look like? How would it taste? Is it even possible?"

It then goes on to say,

"The typical muffin baked in an institutional setting such as a hotel costs about 50 cents or less, not counting labor. If you go crazy extravagant and reach for the top-shelf organic flour, maybe some hand-harvested wild blueberries from Maine and fancy sugar, you're still going to max out around $1 per muffin on raw ingredients."

Talk about missing the "most compelling issue!"  The author makes a typical economic error, which should have been learned in the most basic economics class, and that point is this: the price of any good or service is determined by the interaction of supply and demand.  It is NOT determined by the price of the inputs.  If the cost of materials determined the price of anything, then no business would go out of business, ever.

Let me repeat this necessary fact: Costs do not determine price. 

Too many people simply do not understand this principle.  Too many people think that retailers simply take wholesale prices, mark them up and then viola!  Done.  If we stop to think for a moment, if this were the case, then why are there sales? 

Let's take a simple example...

You may have noticed that the price of corn is not that same as it was a few years ago. Today you might see ears of corn selling 3/$1, while just a year or two ago it was selling for 4/$1 or even 5/$1. A few years before that it may have even been 10/$1. Setting aside inflation, the grocer might tell you that the reason he raised his prices is because the wholesaler’s price has gone up. In other words, he says his costs have gone up.

In order to correctly analyze the problem, we need to look beyond the seen and think about the unseen. This technique is called Counter-Factual Reasoning. Counter Factual Reasoning is being able to compare the “seen” world with a hypothetical alternative. When we apply counter factual reasoning, we realize that we need to ask why the wholesalers’ price of corn rose. We begin the process of tracing the change in price to its root causes. After some thought, we realize that the problem is ultimately caused by an increase in demand. Corn has a wider variety of uses than just eating it on the cob. For example, it is used as a sweetener in drinks and it is also used to create ethanol for cars. With the increase in the number of uses for corn, the demand for corn rises. These competing uses each bid for the corn. The result is an increase in the demand for corn, which causes the wholesale price to rise. So while the grocer may tell you that the price is increasing because of supply reasons, the unseen fact is that it is really demand that is driving the price change.

I suppose that I cannot fault the author of the article for getting it wrong.  I see that it was just a segue to talk about expensive muffins.  But really, using economic fallacies to get to your topic, come on!  Can't we do better than that?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Austrian Economics Forum Fall '11 #2--The Entrepreneur

This session's Austrian Economics Forum dealt with Chapter 2, "The Entrepreneur" in Israel Kirzner's book, Competition and Entrepreneurship.  We had a dozen people attend this session, in which there were three Austrian Economists with PhDs.  Additionally there was Dr. Margolis, who is a close fellow traveller, and who we are very happy to have join us each week.  (I wonder if there are many other regular Austrian discussion sessions with such a line up each time.)

Israel M. Kirzner
The opening question centered on whether Kirzner's construction of the "pure entrepreneur" is a useful concept.  While it is obvious that Kirzner is discussing an archetype and that no such purity must exist in the real world, the central points that we were wrestling with was whether the pure entrepreneur acts and the implications derived from our conclusion.  According to Mises, acting is the application of means to achieve ends.  Kirzner's entrepreneur does not use means at all.  Kirzner states that the entrepreneurial "decision was made before the original act of purchase...." (p. 50)  He simply recognizes profit opportunities.  So Kirzner's pure entrepreneur never acts, at least in the Austrian sense.  Is a non-acting entrepreneur a fruitful concept in Austrian Economics?  The discussion group has not reached a conclusion. 

Furthermore, Kirzner argues that the pure entrepreneur receives a return for recognizing the profit opportunity.  As I understand it, Kirzner argues that after all the factor payments are paid out, there is a residual.  From that residual must be subtracted the implicit return to the entrepreneur’s use of his own money and his time, the opportunity costs of these subjective factors.  So the amount that then remains (above the opportunity costs) is the return to the pure entrepreneur.

However, my question is, "How can a non-actor earn a return?"  We speculated that the pure entrepreneur "acts" by conveying information to the resource owner.  Under the Misesian definition, this is clearly a no, but even under the normal usage of "acting" it is a stretch.  Later in the chapter, Kirzner references Mises article, "Profit and Loss."  I found this curious because in it, Mises has sa very different definition of entrepreneur.  Mises states,

"There is a simple rule of thumb to tell entrepreneurs from non-entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs are those on whom the incidence of losses on the capital employed falls. Amateur-economists may confuse profits with other kinds of intakes. But it is impossible to fail to recognize losses on the capital employed."

A key point is that the entrepreneur acts and opens himself up to potential losses.  Where's loss for Kirzner's Entrepreneur?  Where is the possibility of entrepreneurial error?  How does this error fit into the overall picture?  Furthermore, if we are looking at the structure of the firm, where is the responsibility within the firm?  Mises would say that it is the owner/entrepreneur, but it seems that Kirzner would split those functions.  So would the ultimate responsibility fall on the decision-maker, the resource owner and not the entrepreneur?

So, if the pure entrepreneur does not act, is this a step in the wrong direction?  The Austrians have consistently argued that the entrepreneur is central to coordinating the market.  Is creating this ideal type of a non-acting entrepreneur a direction that Austrians want to take?  I am not convinced that this is a proper course for Austrians.  It is clear that this issue will continue to develop as we progress through the book.  My thoughts are that under the standard definition of action (purposeful behavior), which is typically employed by Austrians, we should reject Kirzner's pure entrepreneur.  However, I might change my mind after we finish the book.

At this point the discussion turned to why Kirzner would employ such an abstract concept.  Our conclusion is that he was trying to draw the greatest possible distinction between his construct of the entrepreneur and Lord Robbins' maximizer (RM).  (While Kirzner uses the RM for comparison, I have been thinking that perhaps we might want to use the Walrasian auctioneer instead.)  It seems that the central reason why he wants to contrast with the RM is because the RM simply reacts and crunches numbers in response to changing conditions.  So here Kirzner is arguing that the entrepreneur is better because he is discovering new conditions about potential futures.  Without this recognition of discoordinations (profit opportunities) then we could at best stumble into superior (coordinating) moves.  The exploitation of the profit opportunities moves the market (unintentionally) toward a more coordinated state.

There was some discussion of moving the economy toward some "Ultimate Equilibrium" but that was quickly rejected.  On the other hand there is a discoordinating aspect of the actions of these owner/entrepreneurs.  Schumpeter's contribution to entrepreneurship theory is that the entrepreneur is essentially a destroyer of old methods of production and a creator of new equilibria.  Kirzner downplays this aspect and focuses on the coordinating role of the entrepreneur.  Contrasting with Schumpeter, Kirzner sees the entrepreneur as a responder to and "not as a source of innovative ideas."  (p. 74)  The entrepreneur must be alert to opportunities that already exist.  Cordato pointed out that in an open universe, inventing is equilibrating (in a sense), but the actions of the entrepreneur are not always coordinating, at least not in the short-run.
A causal reading of Kirzner might lead one to conclude that he rejects the creative feature of entrepreneurship, but the word Kirzner uses is "emphasis."  He states, "By contrast my own treatment of the entrepreneur emphasizes the equilibrating aspects of his role." [italics added]  I do not see Kirzner as completely rejecting Schumpeter’s creative-destroyer, but simply shifting the focus to the entrepreneur’s coordinating role.

We then shifted gears to address Mises’ claim that “every actor is always an entrepreneur.” (Human Action (1949), p. 253.)  The reasoning is this, if all ends are subjectively determined and since these ends are necessarily projections of potential future states, then there is uncertainty surrounding the means to employ to achieve these ends.  With the uncertainty, we move away from the perfect knowledge of the RM in the state of (so-called) “perfect competition,” and we move into the world of the Austrians.  With this uncertainty, there is an opportunity for pure gain to come from pure entrepreneurial insight.

Margolis posed the question, "Have we lost the separation with the Robbinsian maximizer if all are entrepreneurial?"  I would have to say yes.  There are no given payoffs and production functions without Kirznerian entrepreneur.  I do not recall who said it, but a wonderful insight was made, “Means are not given, they must be perceived.”  Additionally, there is a separation between acting and reacting.  The Robbinsian maximizer is clearly reacting.  There are outside stimuli and the maximizer adjusts.  "Robbinsian decision-making ... see ends and means as data."  (p. 78 fn 34)  The Austrian conception of the owner/entrepreneur is that he enters the market with knowledge and acts upon profit opportunities.  The unintended consequence is the addition of information into the market and a higher degree of coordination. 

So now we have it straight.  The Kirznerian pure entrepreneur stands in sharp contrast to the Robbinsian Maximizer in that the RM merely reacts to outside stimuli.  The Kirznerian entrepreneur differs with the Schumpeterian entrepreneur in that the primary role of the Kirznerian version is coordinating while the other discoordinates.  The Kirznerian pure entrepreneur differs from the Misesian concept because the pure entrepreneur does not act and only perceives.  Right?

And then we come to page 84 where Kirzner says, "It is the deliberate exploitation of perceived opportunities which is essential to the entrepreneurial role."  Does this radically change Kirzner’s pure entrepreneur?  Now he acts.  That implies using means, which implies resources.  Was the pure entrepreneur a long side step?  I argued that this statement should just be thrown out.  Cordato argued that the payoff is the distinction between Robbinsian maximizer and the pure entrepreneur.  However, I think Palasek got it right.  She pointed out that he is using “entrepreneurial role” here and not concept of the pure entrepreneur.  The use of the word role does indicate that he has taken a step away from his pure entrepreneur.  I am not sure exactly where this leaves us.  Clearly, reading Kirzner is difficult.  I am hoping that more will develop along these lines in the later chapters.

I had one further observation.  The definition of the entrepreneur from the French is from entreprendre, to undertake, one who undertakes a project, or an “undertaker.”  This definition of the entrepreneur follows in the tradition of Cantillon, Turgot, Say, Menger and the Austrian School.  The mainstream tradition of Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Walras, and Marshall has tended to neglect the entrepreneur and his function.  While Kirzner is clearly emphasizing the role of entrepreneur, his definition of the pure (non-acting) entrepreneur does not fit within older the Austrian tradition.  He has broken new ground.  For this reason alone, Kirzner is worth reading.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Which Economists Show Support for Obama's Plan?

Today there was an article by Derek Kravitz on the AP which was entitled as "Economists Show Support for Obama Job-Growth Plan".  Now which economists are those?  Well, he quotes Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics, Allen Sinai, chief economist of Decision Economics, Susan Wachter, a finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Michael Mandel, chief economic strategist for the Progressive Policy Institute, Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics and Menzie Chinn, an economist at the University of Wisconsin.  (Personally, I have only heard of Zandi before and I think he usually has it wrong.)  Amazingly they say that more stimulus is what is needed.  Well, maybe not Mandel.  (Kravitz is not very clear on this point.)  And Ashworth says that people might just save it instead of running out and spend, spend, spending it.  (How horrible!)  However, as we see by the article's title, the whole point is to show how much economists love Obama's plan.  In fact, Chinn says that the plan doesn't go far enough.

Here's the commonality: they are all locked into the formula GDP = C + I + G + (X-M).  In other words, the size of the economy is equal to Consumption + Government Spending + Investment + Net Exports.  Of these components, they rightly see that consumption is by far the largest. 

The only problem with this approach of looking at the macroeconomy is that it is completely wrong

GDP is defined as the summation of all final goods and services in an economy over a certain period of time, usually a quarter or a year.  Only final goods and services are counted because we do not want to double count.  In other words, when we make a table, we don't want to count the table when we chop down the tree, and count it again when we turn it into boards, and again when we construct the table and then again when it goes to the wholesalers, and so on.  It's one table and we only want to count the one table once.  Fine.  That makes perfect sense; however most economic activity does not take place at the final stages of production.  That's the "Do you want fries with that?" stage.  Most people and most economic activity are not there. 

So what is a better approach?  The Austrian Approach is, by far, better.

We need to disaggregate the Capital Structure--The Structure of Production.  Only by viewing the economy as a process of production can we get an idea of how the economy works, and more importantly, how it grows.

The economy does not grow because people simply "demand" stuff.  Think about it.  Do you demand more than your parents, or grandparents, or people who lived 1,000 years ago?  Are we rich in the US because we simply want things more than those who came before us?  Ridiculous!  So, if it isn't demand that has caused us to be wealthy, then it must be that other thing that economists talk about--supply.

Yes, it is supply that allows us to be wealthy.  Now, let's pause as before and think about this point too.  Could it possibly be that more stuff is what allows us to have more stuff?  Duh!  Yes of course it is.  Supply has always been the limiting factor, not demand.  Thus, we need to focus our attention on production. 

In order to get out of these economic doldrums, we need to produce more.  It is only through production that we will be able to grow.  So how do we grow when starting from a depressed economy?  We need to let the costs of production fall.  We need to stop propping up prices and let them fall.  As input prices (yes, this includes wages) fall, profitability will rise.  As profitability rises, there will be more economic activity from both existing companies and new rivals.

The bottom line is that the business sector needs to cut its costs.  We could let input prices fall (commodity prices are still fairly high); we could let nominal wage rates fall; and we could reduce the costs of keeping up with rules and regulations.  Additionally, imagine how much productive energy would be released if we simply abolished the corporate income tax.  All those wasted hours converted into productive activity.  A zero corporate income tax would attract capital from all over the world to the US.  The first country to do this will be the big winner and then other countries will have to do the same to remain competitive.  Instead of implementing Frank-Dodd and ObamaCare, we should repeal these and even more regulatory burdens.  What a boon to business and the economy!  Production will grow and with it, the economy. 

And remember, consumption, jobs and prosperity are a consequence of production, they are not the reason for it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Austrian Economics Forum Fall '11 #1--Competition & Entrepreneurship

We have finally kicked-off the new semester of the Austrian Economics Forum at NCSU.  About a dozen of us decided that the best thing to do at 4:30pm on a Friday afternoon was discuss Austrian Economics.  (I know that this is not normal behavior, but I still find that I have an overwhelming need to be there.)

We are reading Israel Kirzner's Competition and Entrepreneurship (1973).  There are six sessions scheduled for this semester and there are six chapters.  (That was just fortunate.)  The first chapter "Market Process versus Market Equilibrium" was this week's focus.  I found that I needed to remind myself several times that this is only the introductory chapter.  There are a number of points that need further clarification and refinement, but Kirzner doesn't (and shouldn't) go into an in depth explanation in the introductory chapter. 

The next point that I needed to remind myself was who the target audience was for Kizner.  Professor Cordato gave a brief overview of the state of the profession in 1973.  This was a time when General Equilibrium (price) theory reigned supreme and that all firms were either perfectly or imperfectly competitive.  So the target of this book is not me.  I was "raised" Austrian.  I was taught from the beginning competition is a verb and not a noun.  The target of the book is obviously not those professors who are locked into their ways.  Then who is the target?  My guess is that the targets are graduate students in economics.  They are still forming their opinions on which school is correct and will be more open-minded about the different approaches.

Kirzner sees the profession completely focused on equilibrium.  The dominant view is that we should be in equilibrium and, if reality differs from it, then there is an imperfection that needs to be studied and corrected (usually by government).  Kirzner suggests that there is an alternative.  Competition should not be studied as a state of being, for example, "the XYZ Market is in a state of perfect competition."  Rather the normal, vernacular, usage of "competition" as a rivalrous process should be adopted.  Competition is a verb and not a state of being.  Therefore, equilibrium, while an important tool, should not be the focus of the economist.  Instead the questions of "Why is there a change in prices?" and "What are the forces behind the price changes?" should dominate the economist's thinking.

Economists too often use phrases such as "market forces" to describe the market process.  "Market Forces" move the market to equilibrium.  Professor Margolis challenged the group by asking us to describe exactly what we mean by "market forces"?  He stated that we all like to tell a story that illustrates an example of market forces, but we tend to leave "market forces" as a fuzzy concept.  My thoughts are that it is shorthand for explaining how individuals have some sort of "felt uneasiness" (to use Mises' phrase) and think about how they can replace that state for a better one.  Then they act.  Within this analysis we are implicitly assuming time and ignorance (to use the title from Rizzo and O'Driscoll's book).

As buyers and sellers enter into the market they bring with them knowledge.  As the desires of the buyers confront scarcity, a price is generated and ignorance is lessened.  It is in this step-by-step manner that the market will equilibrate.  Contained in this notion is an implicit ceteris paribus assumption.  We need to realize that tastes, preferences, expectations, etc. need to be held constant.  When we (economists using this thought experiment) start to relax the ceteris paribus assumption, we are allowing supply and demand to change and thus equilibrium prices and quantities change.  Despite the fact that the equilibrium point (intersection of supply and demand curves) changes, the market forces are chasing that point around.  So while equilibrium is an important theoretical concept, we might never, ever be in equilibrium.  The important concept to focus on is that competition is always driving us toward equilibrium.

These driving forces then require the interaction of individuals with limited knowledge.  They require that this process takes time, meaning that we do not simply jump from equilibrium point to equilibrium point.  Finally, this is not an automatic or mechanical process; it requires actual people to move the market.  That person is called the entrepreneur. 

The Kirznerian pure entrepreneur is an ideal type.  This archetype has no physicality.  It is an observation of a profit opportunity.  This construction is fairly controversial within Austrian circles.  To me it seems strange to push it this far.  Without physicality, there is no action and it then falls outside of praxeology and is therefore not a market force.  (It is at this point I need to remind myself that this is the introductory chapter and there is a whole book to follow.) 

We argued about the implications of the pure entrepreneur.  A traditional manner of characterizing the Kirznerian entrepreneur is someone stumbles across money lying on the ground.  (If this is the case, then my son is a Kirznerian entrepreneur because he found 12-cents on the ground today!)  However, the act of picking up the money is a physical act and thus is not a pure entrepreneur.  After much discussion, the consensus of the group was that the pure entrepreneur is an observer and accumulates knowledge.  The action is separate and distinct.  An interesting question was raised and so I'll throw it out to you to ponder and comment...  "Is an entrepreneur only a person who finds Pareto Superior moves?"

The last issue that we discussed was the point on resource monopoly.  While he defines most monopolies are a "barrier to entry" problem, Kirzner argues that resource monopolies are "very real and significant."  In other words, a single owner of a resource can be a monopolist and this has consequences that are "very real and significant."  I disagree.  Rothbard disagrees.  In fact most of the people in the room disagreed.  (Some didn't vocalize one way or another, which was fine.)  We thought about who else (Austrian) thinks that a single resource owner is a real and significant problem, and the only one that anyone could think of is Sandy Ikeda, at SUNY - Purchase.  I like Sandy and he is usually fairly solid in his economics so I will have to ask him about this point.  Furthermore, this is still just the first chapter and there is a whole chapter on monopolies coming up and so we will see how "real and significant" this problem really is.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time and closed the meeting there.  If you are reading along (or even if you aren't) please feel free to post your comments and continue the discussion.