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    High, Low, or No Cigarette Tax?

    Sep 11 • Behavioral Economics, Demand, Supply, and Markets, Government, Thinking Economically • 219 Views

    Recently, Connecticut legislators were pleasantly surprised because an increase in the cigarette tax generated more revenue than they expected. You might say that the results were predictable. However, if a state increases taxes, it is possible that consumers will stop buying the item or go somewhere else to get it.

    If a person who smokes lives in New York where the cigarette tax is $4.35, would he travel to Pennsylvania to pay $1.60 or further to Virginia where the tax is $.30? According to a 2008 study from Harvard’s Kennedy School, to save $1.00 on a cigarette purchase, a person will travel 2.7 miles when each extra mile costs that consumer $.37.

    The Economic Lesson

    All of this is about much more than cigarettes. It relates to recession generated diminishing state tax revenue. States need to pay for roads and teachers and police. They have current salaries and pension payments for retired workers. 

    Income taxes and sales (excise) taxes are primary sources of most states’ revenue. However, with tax revenue down because of the recession, states are trying to figure out how to raise more money (or to spend less). Arizona has even tried to sell its state capitol building. Other possibilities are “sin” taxes on cigarettes, soda, and alcohol. The question, though, is how high can taxes go before they backfire. Too high and people avoid them; too low and they miss potential revenue.

    An economist would say the sales tax debate is about the price elasticity of demand. If price changes a lot and the quantity we buy remains the same, as with medication and gasoline, then our demand is inelastic. By contrast, if price swings have an impact on buying, then our response is elastic. With soda, within a certain price range our demand is inelastic. Once we reach a 35% increase, though, we switch to an elastic response. Connecticut’s revenue increase implies that cigarette demand is inelastic.

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    A Smaller Safety Net?

    Sep 10 • Economic Debates, Government, International Trade and Finance, Labor • 232 Views

    In France, a 24 hour workers’ strike brought retirement rights back to the headlines. Saying that a 60 year old retirement age was no longer affordable, French President Sarkozy has proposed moving it up to 62. French workers disagree.

    In the U.S., a leader of the Older Women’s League (OWL) reacted angrily to a comment about Social Security from former Senator Alan Simpson. Mr. Simpson is the co-chairman of the recently created National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Using rather vivid language, Mr. Simpson said that Social Security would not have the future capabiity to continue its current obligations. In an email, OWL responded that Mr. Simpson displayed, “…his clear disrespect for Social Security, women and the American people…”

    You can see the dilemma. Our resources are limited. In most eurozone countries and in the U.S. federal spending is skyrocketing. To what extent should we provide support to an aging population?

    The Economic Lesson

    Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system; today’s workers pay the benefits for today’s recipients. When Social Security began in 1935, there were 42 workers for each beneficiary, life expectancy was close to 62, and benefits began at 65. Today, U.S. life expectancy averages close to 78 and minimum benefits can begin at 62. By 2027, the full benefits age will gradually have risen from 65 to 67. Currently, while there are approximately 3.3 workers for each beneficiary, for 2030 the projection is 2.2.

    In France also, and in other OECD countries, the older population is growing and birth rates have diminished. By 2050, if current labor force participation rates remain the same, in Europe, there will be one worker for every retired person.

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    The Housing Dilemma

    Sep 9 • Demand, Supply, and Markets, Economic Debates, Financial Markets, Regulation • 199 Views

    Is it time for shock therapy? Since the housing bubble popped, from tax credits to mortgage modification programs, government has tried to support housing prices. The goal was to provide support and diminish foreclosures until the market stabilized. With housing sales still sinking, some suggest a different solution: the market.

    On the one hand…Enabling overextended homeowners to keep their homes has many benefits. Neighborhoods remain occupied and home values are sustained. Children remain in the same school, emotional dislocation is minimized, the court system is not overloaded, banks can keep securities that have a higher value.

    On the other hand…Shock therapy would involve the efficiency of the market. Buyers would offer bids for houses. With so many homes for sale from banks that foreclosed and homeowners with unaffordable properties, prices would probably plummet. Buyers would be pleased and sellers would be distraught. Confidence would initially suffer. Eventually, though, prices would stabilize at a market chosen level. The balance between demand and supply would be restored.

    Which solution do you prefer? Government assistance favors sellers/owners. The market would help buyers. Neither solution though, as discussed by Gretchen Morgenson is quite as simple as it sounds. And to further complicate the issue, here is another perspective.

    The Economic Lesson

    Please imagine a demand and supply graph with price the Y-axis, quantity the X-axis, a downward sloping demand curve, and an upward sloping supply curve. If government support were eliminated, then the supply curve would shift to the right because the number of sellers increases. As a result, supply crosses demand at a lower price. How low? No one knows.

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    Kidney Markets?

    Sep 8 • Demand, Supply, and Markets, Regulation, Thinking Economically • 397 Views

    What should we be able to buy and sell? Alcohol? Land? People? Body Parts?

    In a Teaching Company lecture on organ transplants, Wake Forest economist Robert Whaples says that the answers depend on the market’s boundaries. And, he soon adds, those boundaries change. Prohibition, for example, transformed the price, demand, and supply of alcohol between 1918 and 1933.

    Dr. Whaples asks whether a similar change should happen for organ transplants. Describing current shortages, he says that the demand side of the market, with insurance covering the expense, is considerable. By contrast, on the supply side, with altruism the key incentive since selling body parts is illegal, the hearts, lungs, kidneys, intestines that certain people need, are insufficiently available.

    That returns us to the market. Whether looking at human transplants or the viability of the housing market, we seem to keep on returning to how much we want to permit unfettered supply and demand.

    Should we be able to buy and sell kidneys if it will diminish massive shortages?

    The Economic Lesson

    When demand and supply interact, they allocate resources. If they are interacting successfully, then resources are allocated efficiently. Sometimes, though, markets fail. For example, when a factory pollutes, we can say we have market failure because the cost of pollution has been ignored by the price. We also have market failure when government partially affects the market’s boundaries through subsidized housing or a minimum wage. Finally, as with organ transplants, those boundaries can completely eliminate the market.

     

     

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    Vacation Daze

    Sep 7 • Behavioral Economics, Businesses, Economic History, Economic Thinkers, Innovation, Labor • 254 Views

    In a column about Netflix, author Daniel Pink described their vacation policy for salaried employees. They have none. All who are salaried can take off as many or as few days as they want. Their rationale? Because many people do a lot of work away from the workplace, time at the workplace is increasingly irrelevent.

    Netflix vacation policy is what Pink means what he says autonomy at work motivates us.  In an econtalk discussion, he said that once we are sufficiently paid, autonomy (directing our own lives), mastery (desire to get better and better at a task), and purpose (“yearning to do what we do in a service larger than ourselves”) propel our performance. Discussing the same ideas in a TED talk, he quotes a Federal Reserve paper that suggests high compensation can even detract from job performance.

    Should we care about Pink’s ideas? Do big changes have to happen at work? Can they?

    The Economic Lesson

    During the past several centuries, management styles have changed. We could start with Adam Smith’s description of small businesses and the division of labor in a market system and conclude with Alfred Chandler and Peter Drucker’s discussions of the structure and strategy of management and the worker in the modern corporation. 

    But then, as suggested by journalist Alan Murray in an excellent WSJ article about the demise of old management models, the 21st century might require that we begin all over again.

     

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