Tag: Economics

Prisoner’s Dilemma: What Game Are you Playing?

In this classic game theory experiment, you must decide: rat out another for personal benefit, or cooperate? The answer may be more complicated than you think.

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What does it take to make people cooperate with each other when the incentives to act primarily out of self-interest are often so strong?

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a thought experiment originating from game theory. Designed to analyze the ways in which we cooperate, it strips away the variations between specific situations where people are called to overcome the urge to be selfish. Political scientist Robert Axelrod lays down its foundations in The Evolution of Cooperation:

Under what conditions will cooperation emerge in a world of egoists without a central authority? This question has intrigued people for a long time. And for good reason. We all know that people are not angels and that they tend to look after themselves and their own first. Yet we also know that cooperation does occur and that our civilization is based on it. But in situations where each individual has an incentive to be selfish, how can cooperation ever develop?

…To make headway in understanding the vast array of specific situations which have this property, a way is needed to represent what is common to these situations without becoming bogged down in the details unique to each…the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma game.

The thought experiment goes as such: two criminals are in separate cells, unable to communicate, accused of a crime they both participated in. The police do not have enough evidence to sentence both without further evidence, though they are certain enough to wish to ensure they both spend time in prison. So they offer the prisoners a deal. They can accuse each other of the crime, with the following conditions:

  • If both prisoners say the other did it, each will serve two years in prison.
  • If one prisoner says the other did it and the other stays silent, the accused will serve three years and the accuser zero.
  • If both prisoners stay silent, each will serve one year in prison.

In game theory, the altruistic behavior (staying silent) is called “cooperating,” while accusing the other is called “defecting.”

What should they do?

If they were able to communicate and they trusted each other, the rational choice is to stay silent; that way each serves less time in prison than they would otherwise. But how can each know the other won’t accuse them? After all, people tend to act out of self-interest. The cost of being the one to stay silent is too high. The expected outcome when the game is played is that both accuse the other and serve two years. (In the real world, we doubt it would. After they served their time, it’s not hard to imagine each of them still being upset. Two years is a lot of time for a spring to coil in a negative way. Perhaps they spend the rest of their lives sabatoging each other.)

The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma

A more complex form of the thought experiment is the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which we imagine the same two prisoners being in the same situation multiple times. In this version of the experiment, they are able to adjust their strategy based on the previous outcome.

If we repeat the scenario, it may seem as if the prisoners will begin to cooperate. But this doesn’t make sense in game theory terms. When they know how many times the game will repeat, both have an incentive to accuse on the final round, seeing as there can be no retaliation. Knowing the other will surely accuse on the final round, both have an incentive to accuse on the penultimate round—and so on, back to the start.

Gregory Mankiw summarizes how difficult it is to model cooperation in Business Economics as follows:

To see how difficult it is to maintain cooperation, imagine that, before the police captured . . . the two criminals, [they] had made a pact not to confess. Clearly, this agreement would make them both better off if they both live up to it, because they would each spend only one year in jail. But would the two criminals in fact remain silent, simply because they had agreed to? Once they are being questioned separately, the logic of self-interest takes over and leads them to confess. Cooperation between the two prisoners is difficult to maintain because cooperation is individually irrational.

However, cooperative strategies can evolve if we model the game as having random or infinite iterations. If each prisoner knows they will likely interact with each other in the future, with no knowledge or expectation their relationship will have a definite end, the cooperation becomes significantly more likely. If we imagine that the prisoners will go to the same jail or will run in the same circles once released, we can understand how the incentive for cooperation might increase. If you’re a defector, running into the person you defected on is awkward at best, and leaves you sleeping with the fishes at worst.

Real-world Prisoner’s Dilemmas

We can use the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a means of understanding many real-world situations based on cooperation and trust. As individuals, being selfish tends to benefit us, at least in the short term. But when everyone is selfish, everyone suffers.

In The Prisoner’s Dilemma, Martin Peterson asks readers to imagine two car manufacturers, Row Cars and Col Motors. As the only two actors in their market, the price each sells cars at has a direct connection to the price the other sells cars at. If one opts to sell at a higher price than the other, they will sell fewer cars as customers transfer. If one sells at a lower price, they will sell more cars at a lower profit margin, gaining customers from the other. In Peterson’s example, if both set their prices high, both will make $100 million per year. Should one decide to set their prices lower, they will make $150 million while the other makes nothing. If both set low prices, both make $20 million. Peterson writes:

Imagine that you serve on the board of Row Cars. In a board meeting, you point out that irrespective of what Col Motors decides to do, it will be better for your company to opt for low prices. This is because if Col Motors sets its price low, then a profit of $20 million is better than $0, and if Col Motors sets its price high, then a profit of $150 million is better than $100 million.

Gregory Mankiw gives another real-world example in Microeconomics, detailed here:

Consider an oligopoly with two members, called Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both countries sell crude oil. After prolonged negotiation, the countries agree to keep oil production low in order to keep the world price of oil high. After they agree on production levels, each country must decide whether to cooperate and live up to this agreement or to ignore it and produce at a higher level. The following image shows how the profits of the two countries depend on the strategies they choose.

Suppose you are the leader of Saudi Arabia. You might reason as follows:

I could keep production low as we agreed, or I could raise my production and sell more oil on world markets. If Iran lives up to the agreement and keeps its production low, then my country ears profit of $60 billion with high production and $50 billion with low production. In this case, Saudi Arabia is better off with high production. If Iran fails to live up to the agreement and produces at a high level, then my country earns $40 billion with high production and $30 billion with low production. Once again, Saudi Arabia is better off with high production. So, regardless of what Iran chooses to do, my country is better off reneging on our agreement and producing at a high level.

Producing at a high level is a dominant strategy for Saudi Arabia. Of course, Iran reasons in exactly the same way, and so both countries produce at a high level. The result is the inferior outcome (from both Iran and Saudi Arabia’s standpoint) with low profits in each country. This example illustrates why oligopolies have trouble maintaining monopoly profits. The monopoly outcome is jointly rational for the oligopoly, but each oligopolist has an incentive to cheat. Just as self-interest drives the prisoners in the prisoners’ dilemma to confess, self-interest makes it difficult for the oligopoly to maintain the cooperative outcome with low production, high prices and monopoly prices.

Other examples of prisoners’ dilemmas include arms races, advertising, and common resources (see The Tragedy of the Commons). Understanding the Prisoner’s Dilemma is an important component of the dynamics of cooperation, an extremely useful mental model.

Thinking of life as an iterative game changes how you play. Positioning yourself for the future carries more weight than “winning” in the moment.

Tradeoffs: The Currency of Decision Making

Every decision we make carries an opportunity cost. If we don’t budget wisely, we end up wasting time and energy on things that don’t matter. Here’s how to do it right.

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Economics teaches you that making a choice means giving up something. — Russ Roberts

The disregard of tradeoffs and opportunity costs play out in the same pattern again and again in our lives. We try to do everything and end up accomplishing nothing.

If you’re young, you think you can go all out in your career, have fulfilling relationships, travel on a regular basis, keep up with reading and social media, go without sleep, take out unnecessary credit card debt, and start a family at the same time. The end result is always a total meltdown.

Even if you are twenty or thirty years past this point, you are not immune. Every day we are faced with choices on how to invest our time, and we all can be guilty of the same thing: Taking on too much without properly understanding the costs. The problem is a misunderstanding of the importance of tradeoffs.

The dismal science

It’s not always that we need to do more but rather that we need to focus on less. — Nathan W. Morris

Economics is all about tradeoffs. A tradeoff is loosely defined as any situation where making one choice means losing something else, usually forgoing a benefit or opportunity. We experience tradeoffs in zero-sum situations, when a plus in one area must be a negative in another. A core component of economic theory is the study of how we allocate scarce resources and negotiate opportunity costs.

Economics offers tools that we can use as guides for getting what we want out of life if we take economic lessons and apply them to resources other than money. We all know our money isn’t infinite, yet we end up treating our time and energy and attention as if they are.  Many of us act as if there are no tradeoffs—we can just do everything if we try hard enough. The irony is that those who know how to make tradeoffs can get so much more out of life than those who try to get everything.

That’s not to say we can’t get more out of our time investments, while staying within the limitations imposed by mental and physical health. We can get more efficient in certain areas. We can combine activities. We can decide to focus on one area for a while, then switch to another. We can find plenty of smart ways to achieve more.

But blindly trying to overstuff our days and stretch our minds to their limits is foolish, whatever the self-help gurus and hustle porn promoters claim. We’re sold the false belief that we can be and have everything. As Julian Baggini writes in What’s It All About?: Philosophy & the Meaning of Life, a person in a content, long-term relationship might feel the pressure to get everything right:

They may well be an excellent life partner. But perhaps they are not a sexual athlete, the world’s best communicator, the possessor of a great body, a domestic god or goddess. In their local bookshop, however, they will be told by a book that they can and perhaps should be all of these things. This can foster feelings of inadequacy.

The truth is, when you’re trying to get everything right, you’re getting nothing right.

No one has everything

When we look at other people, we end up getting the impression that they are managing to do everything. They are fantastic parents, their relationships are novel-worthy, they look amazing, their careers are epic, they get enough sleep, and they feel good all the time. This, however, is far from true. We’re just not seeing the hidden tradeoffs they’re making.

Tradeoffs can take a while to become apparent. They sometimes only show up in the long term. We see this in complex adaptive systems. Try to optimize one area and there’s likely to be a price elsewhere. Sometimes it’s an obvious negative equation, like when steroid abuse leads to organ damage, or when fancy houses mask crippling debt.

But often the tradeoffs are genuinely hard to evaluate—people with world-class math abilities are often socially clueless, and many parents sacrifice career advancement to raise their kids. We all have to make sacrifices to be able to invest in what is important to us. Tradeoffs imply that to get really great at a few things, you have to accept being mediocre at a lot more.

There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.

— Thomas Sowell

Most of us can divide up our lives into a few important areas: work, health, family, relationships, friends, hobbies and so on. It’s an unfortunate truism that we can never quite keep everything in balance. We’re constantly going off-kilter in one area or another and having to make course corrections. When one area goes well, another is usually sliding. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole. Focus on one area and it’s often to the detriment of another.

If you feel like you’re always behind on some area of your life, it’s probably a sign to reconsider tradeoffs. If you feel like you’re always running in place without making any serious progress on anything you care about, you’re probably making the wrong tradeoffs. We often end up allocating our time, and other scarce resources like money, by default, not in the way that gets us what we want.

How to take tradeoffs into account

The necessity of making trade-offs alters how we feel about the decisions we face; more important, it affects the level of satisfaction we experience from the decisions we ultimately make.

― Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

One of the most important areas where we need to pay attention to tradeoffs is when we make decisions. It’s not always enough to consider what we stand to gain from going for option B over option A. We also need to take into account what we lose.

Most big decisions involve major tradeoffs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s neutral. It’s just the price we pay. Simply being aware of the notion of tradeoffs is enough to change the way we make decisions.

Time is our most fundamental constraint. If you use an hour for one thing, you can’t use it for anything else. Time passes, whatever we do with it. It seems beneficial then to figure out the means of using it with the lowest possible opportunity costs. One of the simplest ways to do this is to establish how you’d like to be using your time, then track how you’re using it for a week. Many people find a significant discrepancy. Once we see the gulf between the tradeoffs we’re making and the ones we’d rather be making, it’s easier to work on changing that.

For instance, understanding tradeoffs in time usage is a good way to cut out unwanted, unhelpful behaviors and wastage. It’s one thing to tell yourself you’re not going to spend half an hour reading the news every morning before starting work. It’s another matter to plan how you’re going to spend that time instead. Will you finish work earlier and cook a fancier dinner, or Skype with a friend who lives abroad, or read a chapter of a book?

The higher the value is of what you could be doing versus what you are doing, the greater the opportunity cost. We’d all agree that we’d rather devote our time to activities we value, yet we can end up not acting that way out of habit or obligation or simply because we haven’t considered what we’re forgoing. We will never manage to get rid of everything that has low value to us, but we can keep cutting it back.

Multitasking as a way of getting more out of our time without making tradeoffs doesn’t work. The tradeoff in that case is often not doing anything particularly well. If you answer emails when you’re with your kids or friends, you’re not really focusing on either. Your emails are banal and the people you are with feel unimportant. Even if we try to find ways around fundamental constraints, the tradeoffs show up somewhere.

The final requirement in order to take tradeoffs into account is that you really need to be able to let go of not being great at something. If you’ve chosen to prioritize your relationship with your kids over a clean house, then you need to be okay with letting other people see the mess. If you’ve prioritized physical activity over entertainment, you need to accept that other people are going to tease you for being ignorant of what’s going on in the world. If you’ve chosen to focus on your career versus maintaining every friendship you’ve ever had, you need to get over the pang of hurt when people stop inviting you out.

Tradeoffs aren’t always easy, which is probably why we try to avoid them.

Conclusion

If we think we can have it all, we’re more likely to end up with nothing. We can get much farther if we decide where to focus our energy and which areas to ignore. When we actively choose which tradeoffs we want to make, we can feel much better about it than when we’re forced to let things slide. We need to actively decide what we value the most.

Each of the myriad decisions we make on a daily basis carries an opportunity cost. If we don’t consider them, we easily end up stuck in situations where we’re forgoing things we’d rather prioritize. We end up lamenting what we’re missing out on against our will, unsure how this happened. But if we first consider the tradeoffs associated with the decisions we make, we can end up with far more satisfying choices.

Jared Diamond: How to Get Rich

We’re constantly asked for examples of the “multiple mental models” approach in practice. Our standard response includes great books like Garrett Hardin’s Filters Against Folly and Will Durant’s The Lessons of History.

One of the well-known examples of this brand of thinking is Guns, Germs, and Steel, a book that opened thousands of eyes to the power of leaping across the walls of history, sociology, biology, geography, and other fields to truly understand the world.

Jared Diamond, the book’s author, is a great master of synthesis across many fields — works like The Third Chimpanzee and Collapse show great critical thinking prowess, even if you don’t come to 100% agreement with him.

Lesser known than Guns, Germs, and Steel is a follow-up talk Diamond gave entitled How to Get Rich:

… probably most lectures one hears at the museum are on fascinating but impractical subjects: namely, they don’t help you to get rich. This evening I plan to redress the balance and talk about the natural history of becoming rich.

The talk is a great, and short, introduction to “multiple mental models” thinking. Diamond, of course, does not literally answer the question of How to Get Rich. He’s smart enough to know that this is charlatan territory if answered too literally. (Three steps to surefire wealth!)

But he does effectively answer an interesting part of the equation of getting rich: What conditions do we need to set up maximal productivity, learning, and cooperation among our groups? 

Diamond answers his question through the same use of inter-disciplinary synthesis his readers would be familiar with: As you read it, you’ll see models from biology, military history, business/economics, and geography.

His answer has two main parts: Optimal group size/fragmentation, and optimal exposure to outside competition:

So what this suggests is that we can extract from human history a couple of principles. First, the principle that really isolated groups are at a disadvantage, because most groups get most of their ideas and innovations from the outside. Second, I also derive the principle of intermediate fragmentation: you don’t want excessive unity and you don’t want excessive fragmentation; instead, you want your human society or business to be broken up into a number of groups which compete with each other but which also maintain relatively free communication with each other. And those I see as the overall principles of how to organize a business and get rich.

Those are wonderful lessons, and you should read the piece to see how he arrives at them. But there’s another important reason we bring the talk to your attention, one of methodology.

Diamond’s talk offers us a powerful principle for our efforts to understand the world: Look for and study natural experiments, the more controlled, the better.

I propose to try to learn from human history. Human history over the last 13,000 years comprises tens of thousands of different experiments. Each human society represents a different natural experiment in organizing human groups. Human societies have been organized very differently, and the outcomes have been very different. Some societies have been much more productive and innovative than others. What can we learn from these natural experiments of history that will help us all get rich? I propose to go over two batches of natural experiments that will give you insights into how to get rich.

This wonderfully useful approach, reminiscent of Peter Kaufman’s idea about the Three Buckets of Knowledge, is one we see used effectively all the time.

Judith Rich Harris used the naturally controlled experiment of identical twins separated at birth to solve the problem of human personality development. Michael Abrashoff had a naturally controlled experiment in leadership principles when he had to turn around the USS Benfold without hiring or firing, or changing ships or missions, or offering any financial incentive to his cadets. Ken Iverson had a naturally controlled experiment in business principles by succeeding dramatically in a business with massive headwinds and no tailwinds.

And so if we follow in the steps of Diamond, Peter Kaufman, Judith Rich Harris, Ken Iverson, and Michael Abrashoff, we might find natural experiments that help illuminate the solutions to our problems in unusual ways. As Diamond says in his talk, the world has already tried thousands of things: All we have to do is study them and then align with the way the world works.

Ben Franklin and the Virtues and Ills of Pursuing Luxury

In a letter written in 1784 to his friend Benjamin Vaughan, Ben Franklin has a very interesting cogitation on the aggregate effect of the pursuit of luxuries beyond our needs.

Franklin displays a mastery of rational, balanced thought, and a deep understanding of human nature. Is the pursuit of luxury a net benefit or detriment to a country? Why do we pursue it?

The salient passages are below. (You can find his full writings here.) The last paragraph, in particular, is a gem, but taking 10 minutes to read it through is worth the time.

I have not, indeed yet thought of a Remedy for Luxury  I am not sure, that in a great State it is capable of a Remedy. Nor that the Evil is in itself always so great as it is represented.  Suppose we include in the Definition of Luxury all unnecessary Expence, and then let us consider whether Laws to prevent such Expence are possible to be executed in a great Country, and whether, if they could be executed, our People generally would be happier, or even richer. Is not the Hope of one day being able to purchase and enjoy Luxuries a great Spur to Labour and Industry? May not Luxury, therefore, produce more than it consumes, if without such a Spur People would be, as they are naturally enough inclined to be, lazy and indolent?

[…]

In our Commercial Towns upon the Seacoast, Fortunes will occasionally be made. Some of those who grow rich will be prudent, live within Bounds, and preserve what they have gained for their Posterity ; others, fond of showing their  Wealth, will be extravagant and ruin themselves. Laws  cannot prevent this; and perhaps it is not always an evil to the Publick. A Shilling spent idly by a Fool, may be picked up by a Wiser Person, who knows better what to do with it.  It is therefore not lost. A vain, silly Fellow builds a fine House, furnishes it richly, lives in it expensively, and in few years ruins himself; but the Masons, Carpenters, Smiths, and other honest Tradesmen have been by his Employ assisted in maintaining and raising their Families ; the Farmer has been paid for his labour, and encouraged, and the Estate is now in better Hands. In some Cases, indeed, certain Modes of Luxury may be a publick Evil, in the same Manner as it is a Private one. If there be a Nation, for Instance, that exports its Beef and Linnen, to pay for its Importation of Claret and Porter, while a great Part of its People live upon Potatoes, and wear no Shirts, wherein does it differ from the Sot, who lets his Family starve, and sells his Clothes to buy Drink? Our American Commerce is, I confess, a little in this way. We sell our Victuals to your Islands for Rum and Sugar; the substantial Necessaries of Life for Superfluities. But we have Plenty, and live well nevertheless, tho’ by being soberer, we might be richer.

[…]

It has been computed by some Political Arithmetician, that, if every Man and Woman would work for four Hours each Day on something useful, that Labour would produce sufficient to procure all the Necessaries and Comforts of Life, Want and Misery would be banished out of the World, and the rest of the 24 hours might be Leisure and Pleasure.

What occasions then so much Want and Misery? It is the Employment of Men and Women in Works, that produce neither the Necessaries nor Conveniences of Life, who, [along] with those who do nothing, consume the Necessaries raised by the Laborious.

To explain this.

The first Elements of Wealth are obtained by Labour, from the Earth and Waters. I have Land, and raise Corn. With this, if I feed a Family that does nothing, my Corn will be consum’d, and at the end of the Year I shall be no richer than I was at the beginning. But if, while I feed them, I employ them, some in Spinning, others in hewing Timber and sawing Boards, others in making Bricks, &c. for Building, the Value of my Corn will be arrested and remain with me, and at the end of the Year we may all be better clothed and better lodged. And if, instead of employing a Man I feed in making Bricks, I employ him in fiddling for me, the Corn he eats is gone, and no Part of his Manufacture remains to augment the Wealth and Convenience of the family; I shall therefore be the poorer for this fiddling Man, unless the rest of my Family work more, or eat less, to make up the Deficiency he occasions.

Look round the World and see the Millions employ’d in doing nothing, or in something that amounts to nothing, when the Necessaries and Conveniences of Life are in question. What is the Bulk of Commerce, for which we fight and destroy each other, but the Toil of Millions for Superfluities, to the great Hazard and Loss of many Lives by the constant Dangers of the Sea? How much labour is spent in Building and fitting great Ships, to go to China and Arabia for Tea and Coffee, to the West Indies for Sugar, to America for Tobacco! These things cannot be called the Necessaries of Life, for our Ancestors lived very comfortably without them.

A Question may be asked; Could all these People, now employed in raising, making, or carrying Superfluities, be subsisted by raising Necessaries? I think they might. The World is large, and a great Part of it still uncultivated. Many hundred Millions of Acres in Asia, Africa, and America are still Forest, and a great Deal even in Europe. On 100 Acres of this Forest a Man might become a substantial Farmer, and 100,000 Men, employed in clearing each his 100 Acres, would hardly brighten a Spot big enough to be Visible from the Moon, unless with HerschelTs Telescope ; so vast are the Regions still in Wood unimproved.

‘Tis however, some Comfort to reflect, that, upon the whole, the Quantity of Industry and Prudence among Mankind exceeds the Quantity of Idleness and Folly. Hence the Increase of good Buildings, Farms cultivated, and populous Cities filled with Wealth, all over Europe, which a few Ages since were only to be found on the Coasts of the Mediterranean; and this, notwithstanding the mad Wars continually raging, by which are often destroyed in one year the Works of many Years’ Peace. So that we may hope the Luxury of a few Merchants on the Seacoast will not be the Ruin of America.

One reflection more, and I will end this long, rambling Letter. Almost all the Parts of our Bodies require some Expence. The Feet demand Shoes; the Legs, Stockings; the rest of the Body, Clothing; and the Belly, a good deal of Victuals. Our Eyes, tho’ exceedingly useful, ask, when reasonable, only the cheap Assistance of Spectacles, which could not much impair our Finances. But the Eyes of other People are the Eyes that ruin us. If all but myself were blind, I should want neither fine Clothes, fine Houses, nor fine Furniture.

Adieu, my dear Friend, I am

Yours ever
B. FRANKLIN.

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Still Interested? Check out Franklin’s Rule for Decision Making, and check out the excellent book The Way to Wealth and Other Writings on Finance for an edited and condensed look at Franklin’s various essays on economics, business, and finance.

 

Why Fiddling With Prices Doesn’t Work


“The fact is, if you don’t find it reasonable that prices should reflect relative scarcity,
then fundamentally you don’t accept the market economy,
because this is about as close to the essence of the market as you can find.”

— Joseph Heath

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Inevitably, when the price of a good or service rises rapidly, there follows an accusation of price-gouging. The term carries a strong moral admonition on the price-gouger, in favor of the price-gougee. Gas shortages are a classic example. With a local shortage of gasoline, gas stations will tend to mark up the price of gasoline to reflect the supply issue. This is usually rewarded with cries of unfairness. But does that really make sense?

In his excellent book Economics Without Illusions, Joseph Heath argues that it doesn’t.

In fact, this very scenario is market pricing reacting just as it should. With gasoline in short supply, the market price rises too so that those who need gasoline have it available, and those who simply want it do not. The price system ensures that everyone makes their choice correctly. If you’re willing to pay up, you pay up. If you’re not, you make alternative arrangements – drive less, use less heat, etc. This is exactly what market pricing is for – to give us a reference as we make our choices. But it’s still hard for many well-intentioned people to understand. Let’s think it through a little, with Heath’s help.

***

As Heath points out in the book, the objection to so-called “price gouging” goes back at least to the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who in AD 301 imposed an Edict of Maximum Prices:

If the excesses perpetrated by persons of unlimited and frenzied avarice could be checked by some self-restraint—this avarice which rushes for gain and profit with no thought for mankind; or if the general welfare could endure without harm this riotous license by which, in its unfortunate state, it is being very seriously injured every day, the situation could perhaps be faced with dissembling and silence, with the hope that human forbearance might alleviate the cruel and pitiable situation.

And with that, Diocletian set a hard cap on the price of over a thousand different items. Some were tangible, like wheat and barley, and some were intangible, like farm labor and barber services.

This was, of course, very dumb and did not last very long as people realized that one barber and another were not equal, that wheat and barley might have local supply constraints, and that an arbitrary government price was not the fair one for most of the 1000+ items.

Inflation vs. Supply

As Heath points out in his book, there are two separate issues to untangle when we talk about “price-gouging” — general inflation and constraints on supply. The two are very different, and confusing a supply issue for general inflation leads to a lot of wrong thinking:

If you wander into a Polish supermarket and discover that a kilo of carrots is selling for four zlotys, you probably haven’t learned very much. It’s only once you find out what a pound of potatoes costs, and a chicken, and a pint of beer, that you begin to discover whether carrots are expensive or cheap.

As a result, the price of everything going up is analytically equivalent to the price of nothing going up. It follows that if the price of everything seems to be going up, it must be because the price of at least one thing is (inconspicuously) going down. Usually that inconspicuous item with the falling price is hidden in plain sight — money. We tend to overlook money because it’s not directly consumed; it simply circulates, thus we forget that it has a price. We think of “four zlotys per kilo” as the price of carrots, expressed in zlotys, while forgetting that it is also the price of zlotys, expressed in carrots.

As Garrett Hardin would well recognize, part of the problem is the way language misleads us. When the price of stuff is going up, we don’t always make the equivalent connection that the value of our money is going down. And thus, we can often confuse a rising price environment for greedy so and so’s who are simply reacting to the declining value of money.

Often, governments hurt the value of money purposely. In Diocletian’s time, a denarius coin went from being made entirely of silver to being made of about 2% silver and 98% base metals – the origin of the term currency debasement. In a world of inflation, what seems like greed is often an illusion caused by money losing its value generally (a complex phenomenon in its own right).

To see the flow-through effects of this, imagine that all wage-earners were given a significant raise next month. Sounds good, right? Problem is, the increased cost of labor would be passed through in the form of higher prices for everything, or alternatively, businesses would figure out how to operate with fewer workers altogether. The owners of society’s capital don’t just sit back and lose money — they figure out a new plan or reallocate their resources elsewhere.

Thus, a wage increase would put us right back to where we started. This is why the minimum wage debate isn’t simply a humanitarian “business versus workers” issue — there are no easy answers. (In other words, The consequences have consequences.)

Prices are simply signals which allow us to make decisions on how much we really need that thing. If each of us was handed $5,000 to spend each month, we could choose to spend X amount on food, Y amount on housing, and Z amount of organic 97% cacao chocolate. The alternative would be a state planner sitting in a high tower trying to fix prices based on how he or she thought everyone should make their food/housing/chocolate allocation for the month. The history of planned economies would show this to be a majorly bad idea.

This leads us to our next point which is that, of course, our income allocations are not the same. Might price-fixing help level the playing field?

Fixing What, Exactly?

Heath quotes the economist Abba Lerner who once said that the problem for the poor is not that prices are too high, but that they don’t have enough money. (“The solution of poverty lay not with the manipulation of prices but with the distribution of money income.”)

On this, Heath turns to the example of electricity prices, an occasional hot-button issue which leads to subsidies because high electricity prices are seen as regressive — poor people spend a larger percentage of their money on electric power than those more well-off. Why not subsidize electricity prices to help?

The problem is that it’s a massively inefficient way to help, and puts a lot of dollars into pockets of those who don’t need it. Citing Canadian statistics on the use of subsidies to keep electricity prices down, Heath writes:

The middle-income quintile spends an average of $1,117 per year (2.4% of income), while the upper quintile spends $1,522 per year (1.1% of income). This means that the $250 million annual gift being bestowed upon the poor is coupled with a $408 million gift to the middle class and a $556 million gift to the richest 20% of the population. Needless to say, a welfare program that required giving $2 to a rich person for every $1 directed to a poor person would hardly be regarded as progressive (despite the fact that, when expressed as a percentage of income, the poor person is receiving “more”).

Of course, finding a way to get the entire $1.2 billion to the people who truly need it, through a deserving program, would be a far better solution, and one that would also avoid encouraging people to use more electricity than they need (which artificially lower prices can do).

This kind of thing happens, but worse, when it comes to rent control, the system of fixing rental prices for apartments in cities. In addition to subsidizing some of the wrong people, who also have access to rent-controlled housing, the lower prices tend to distort the market for apartment and housing construction.

With apartments so affordable, people who might otherwise have purchased a house now choose to rent, crowding out some people who could never afford a home at all. And with prices artificially low, fewer apartment houses are built! Not a great outcome for the people rent control hopes to help.

To understand why think about the massive spike in energy prices leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. At one time, oil neared $140 per barrel and natural gas reached $13 per MMbtu. The result was somewhat predictable: A massive investment went into the energy complex, leading to new resources and new technologies, while demand quickly abated. Almost no one correctly predicted that 8 years later, oil would be sitting below $50 per barrel and natural gas around $2 per MMbtu. This is, of course, how pricing markets are supposed to work. The signals did their job. Artificial prices for metropolitan apartments don’t allow the market to do this job effectively.

Relative Scarcity: The Key to Understanding Market Prices

The main problem with manipulating and fixing prices is a misunderstanding of what determines prices. What usually determines prices in a true market is relative scarcity, the intersection between how much you want a particular good relative to another one, and the availability of that good. As our wants and needs change, and available supplies change, prices go up and down (ignoring, for now, speculative factors, which play a huge role in some price markets).

What exactly are we paying for when we buy an item?

Clearly, it’s not just the cost of the physical thing being produced. A cup of coffee costs a lot more than a few beans and some water. The total cost is something Heath calls the “social cost” of the good, which includes the entire chain of costs and opportunity costs in producing it:

Whenever someone consumes a good (say, a cup of coffee), this can be thought of as creating a benefit for that individual, combined with a loss for the rest of society (all the time and trouble it took to produce that cup of coffee, now gone). Paying for things is our way of compensating all the people who have been inconvenienced by our consumption. (Next time you buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks, imagine yourself saying to the barista, “I’m sorry that you had to serve me coffee when you could have been doing other things. And please communicate my apologies to the others as well: the owner, the landlord, the shipping company, the Columbian peasants. Here’s $1.75 for all the trouble. Please divide it amongst yourselves.)

“Social cost” represents the level of renunciation, or foregone consumption, imposed upon the rest of society by each individual’s own consumption. This is a fairly abstract notion, since it’s not just that the good could have been consumed by someone else, but that the labor and resources that went into making that good could have been used to produce something else, which then could have been consumed by someone else. (So when I drink a cup of coffee, I am not only taking away that cup of coffee from all those who might like to have drunk it, but taking away vegetables from those who might like to have used the land to grow food, clothing from those who might like to have employed the agricultural workers in a garment factory, and so on.)

[…]

If the price of coffee tracks changes in supply and demand, it will tend to reflect this level of hardship. If the rest of us really want coffee, then we will be prepared to pay more for it, and so the price will rise. Coffee will become more “dear” (as the British would say), reflecting the fact that the person who drinks it is denying the rest of us something we really want. Thus the coffee-drinker had better really want it in order to justify depriving us of it. His willingness to pay the higher price is precisely what ensures that he does, in fact, really want it.

At the price where the hardship of creating a certain amount of some good meets the desire for a good, a price emerges. It’s this “market clearing” price which efficiently allocates most of society’s resources the way we need them allocated.

If prices are systematically lower than they should be, consumers benefit from society’s hard work in a way that might be better allocated elsewhere, where some other group would happily pay more for the same level of “social costs” imposed, and the producers would receive more for all their work.

Conversely, if prices are too high, then consumers don’t really get to be as happy as they should be relative to the modest “social cost” they’ve imposed. Each outcome is inefficient and produces less happiness and material wealth. A well-established pricing mechanism does the job of sending the right signals about wants, needs, and supplies.

Income Over Pricing

Heath makes a final important point about the inequality of income in society, and that in many cases, people who have had a rough hand dealt to them do deserve help. It’s just that playing with the pricing mechanism is usually the worst way to do it — as we saw above, you hand people money who don’t need it while distorting an efficient allocation of resources throughout society. Heath calls this the just price fallacy — the idea that some alternative level of prices are more “fair” and that we should intervene to ensure them. The “just price fallacy” fails because it doesn’t ask the crucial question: And then what?

Returning to the dictum that poor people simply don’t have enough money (ridiculous as it sounds), the better method is to attack the other side — income — through the system of taxation and other mechanisms, things which we do in great heaps in modern society, but will always be argued over. If market prices tend to efficiently signal suppliers about the wants and needs of society, we can usually help the less fortunate best by giving them more “claim checks” rather than distorting the very thing that works.

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Still Interested? Try reading more from the wonderful book Economics Without Illusions, where Heath takes on some fallacies from the left and some fallacies from the right in the economic debate.

For more from Farnam Street, check out Charlie Munger’s speech on what could make the economics profession work a little better or check out economist John Kay’s recommendations on books about economics in the real world.

Incentives Gone Wrong: Cobras, Severed Hands, and Shea Butter

Incentives drive our behavior. Failing to consider incentives can lead to unintended consequences. In this post, we show you how incentives can go wrong and how we can use them to our advantage.

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There’s a great little story on incentives which some of you may already know. The tale may be apocryphal, but it instructs so wonderfully that it’s worth a repeat.

“You must have the confidence to override people with more credentials than you whose cognition is impaired by incentive-caused bias or some similar psychological force that is obviously present. But there are also cases where you have to recognize that you have no wisdom to add— and that your best course is to trust some expert.”

— Charlie Munger

During British colonial rule of India, the government began to worry about the number of venomous cobras in Delhi, and so instituted a reward for every dead snake brought to officials. In a wonderful demonstration of the importance of second-order thinking, Indian citizens dutifully complied and began breeding venomous snakes to kill and bring to the British. By the time the experiment was over, the snake problem was worse than when it began. The Raj government had gotten exactly what it asked for.

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There’s another story, much more perverse, from the Congolese massacre in the late 19th and early 20th century under Belgian rule — the period Joseph Conrad wrote about in Heart of Darkness. (Some of you might know the tale better as Apocalypse Now, which was a Vietnam retelling of Heart of Darkness.)

As the wickedly evil King Leopold II of Belgium forced the Congolese to produce rubber, he sent in his Force Publique to whip the natives into shape through genocidal murder. (Think of them as a Belgian Congo version of the Nazi’s SS.) Fearful that his soldiers would waste bullets hunting animals, Leopold ordered that the soldiers bring back the severed hands of dead Congolese as proof that they were enforcing the rubber decree. (Leopold himself never even visited his colony, although he did cause at least 10 million deaths.)

Given that Leopold’s quotas were impossible to meet, shortfalls were common. And with the incentives placed on Belgian soldiers, many decided they could get human hands more easily than meeting rubber quotas, while still conserving their ammo for hunting. An interesting result ensued, as described by Bertrand Russell in his book Freedom and Organisation, 1814-1914.

Each village was ordered by the authorities to collect and bring in a certain amount of rubber – as much as the men could collect and bring in by neglecting all work for their own maintenance. If they failed to bring the required amount, their women were taken away and kept as hostages in compounds or in the harems of government employees. If this method failed, native troops, many of them cannibals, were sent into the village to spread terror, if necessary by killing some of the men; but in order to prevent a waste of cartridges, they were ordered to bring one right hand for every cartridge used. If they missed, or used cartridges on big game, they cut off the hands of living people to make up the necessary number.

In fact, as Peter Forbath describes in his book The River Congo, the soldiers were paid explicitly on the number of hands they collected. So hands gained in demand.

The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. … The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber… They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace… the people who were demanded for the forced labour gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected.

Looking to bolster an economy of rubber, Leopold II got an economy of severed hands. Like the British Raj, he got exactly what he asked for.

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Joseph Heath describes another case of incentives gone wrong in his book Economics Without Illusions, citing the book Out of Poverty: And Into Something More Comfortable by John Stackhouse.

Stackhouse spent time in Ghana in the 1990s, and noticed that the “socially conscious” retailer The Body Shop was an enormous purchaser of shea nuts, which were produced in great quantities by Ghanians. The Body Shop used shea butter, produced from the nuts, to produce a variety of skin products, and as a part of its socially conscious mission, and its role in the Trade, Not Aid campaign, decided they were willing to pay above-market prices to Ghanian farmers, to the tune of an extra 50% on top of the going rate. And on top of that premium price, The Body Shop also decided to throw in a bonus payment for every kilogram of shea butter purchased, to be used for local development projects at the farmers’ discretion.

Thinking that the Body Shop’s early shea nut orders were a harbinger of a profitable boom, farmers began to rapidly up their production of shea butter. Stackhouse describes the result in his book:

A shea-nut rush was on, and neither the British chain nor the aid agencies were in a position to absorb the glut. In the first season, the northern villages, which normally produced two tonnes of shea butter a year, churned out twenty tonnes, nearly four times what the Body Shop wanted….Making matters worse, the Body Shop, after discovering it had overestimated the international market for shea products, quickly scaled back its orders for the next season. In Northern Ghana, it wasn’t long before shea butter prices plunged.

Unfortunately, in its desire to do good in a poor part of the world, the Body Shop created a situation which was worse than when they began: Massive resources went into shea butter production only to find that it was not needed, and the overproduction of nuts ended up being mostly worthless.

These three cases above, and many more, lead us to the conclusion that people follow incentives the way ants follow sugar. It’s imperative that we think very literally about the incentive systems we create. Remember that incentives are not only financial. Frequently it’s something else: prestige, freedom, time, titles, sex, power, admiration…all of these and many other things are powerful incentives. But if we’re not careful, we do the equivalent of creating an economy for severed hands.

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Still Interested? Learn about one company that understood and harnessed incentives correctly, or re-read Munger’s discussion on incentive-caused bias in his famous speech on The Psychology of Human Misjudgment. Also, check out the Distorting Power of Incentives.