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    Soda Wars

    Oct 8 • Demand, Supply, and Markets, Economic Debates, Regulation • 336 Views

    In “the soda wars,” who is fighting whom? Past news articles refer to state legislative attempts to tax sugary soft drinks. Now, a NY Times article focuses on how New York City is trying to bar use of food stamps for sugary soft drinks. The Department of Agriculture, as the agency that oversee NYC’s food stamp program, will make the decision.

    On one side is the city saying it is fighting obesity. Their ammunition? “…nearly 40% of public-school children in kindergarten thorugh 8th grade were overweight or obese,…and…obestity rates were substantially higher in poor neighborhoods.” With the ban, poorer familieis “…would have as much, if not more, to spend on nutritious food.” 

    Disagreeing with the ban, a spokeman for the oppostion cites concern about stimatizing people on food stamps. Yes, he says, we do want to diminish sugary drink purchases but let’s use education. An industry spokewoman said, “This is just another attempt by government to tell New Yorkers what they should eat and drink.”

    The Economic Lesson

    Wearing economic lenses, we are seeing a classic opportunity cost battle. The (short term) benefit of enjoying soft drinks is experienced by the purchaser and soft drink manufacturers. The cost, though is borne by the tax payer twice: 1) once when the drink is purchased with public funding 2) and then again when obesity related illnesses are paid for by publically funded health care.

    I expect opportunity cost battles to multiply as society pays for additional benefits. If we pay for more, do we have the right to control behavior more also?

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    Presidents’ Net Worth

    Oct 7 • Economic History • 319 Views

    Who was wealthier George Washington or John F. Kennedy? You’ll find the answer in a fascinating Atlantic article that describes, from Washington through Obama, presidential affluence.

    George Washington was very rich. Including his land, savings, inheritance, slaves, and other assets, Washington’s net worth, in today’s dollars, would have been a whopping $525 million! Yes, he did marry the wealthiest widow in Virginia. But perhaps more importantly, Washington’s papers indicate his interest in running his estate.

    Moving through the article’s slide show and descriptions, trends emerge. Until the middle of the 19th century, presidents had considerable land wealth. Then, net worth plunges as attorneys and other salaried professionals became president. At the end of the century, with Grover Cleveland, we again start seeing some very wealthy men. During the 20th century, the Roosevelts, the Bushes, and JFK had inherited wealth while Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Harry Truman were not rich.

    The Economic Lesson

    We can divide our economic history into 5 major eras: 1) An agricultural era during which a transport network started to develop (1st half of 19th century). 2) An era dominated by capital goods formation and railroad expansion (second half of 19th century). 3) A consumer goods series of decades that was characterized by the onset of the automobile (first third of 20th century). 4) A depression era when government became more economically active (1930s). 5) An era when production of services surpasses manufacturing (1950s-now).

    Each president’s wealth reflects the economic era in which he lived.


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    Traffic and the Economy

    Oct 6 • Households, Innovation, Regulation, Thinking Economically • 252 Views

    Sometimes policies for economic growth can be found in the most surprising places. Seeing a new paper on peak hour travel started me thinking about the amount of time we spend commuting. And commuting took me to economic growth.

    If you have to commute, Chicago is the place to live. At 32.6 minutes each day, Chicago has the shortest commuting time when compared to 51 major U.S. metropolitan areas. By contrast, Nashville and Oklahoma City are among the worst. Much more than congestion, though, the study’s author says that distance is the cause.

    Variables that commuter researchers look at include the time spent in free flowing and congested traffic and the distance. Then, of course, gasoline enters the picture. Time and gas are economic variables. Whenever time and gas can be used more efficiently, the economy is affected.

    The solution is urban planning. If, like Chicago, more communities were closer to commercial districts, then commuting would require “about 40 billion fewer miles per year and two billion fewer gallons of fuel”.

    The Economic Lesson

    Suburban sprawl has a massive opportunity cost. With “denser metros” as the alternative, commuters would have more time and spend less on fuel. Resources not used to commute would be allocated elsewhere.


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    Supply, Demand, and Kimchi

    Oct 5 • Demand, Supply, and Markets, Developing Economies, International Trade and Finance • 387 Views

    The kimchi mini-crisis is a perfect tale of supply and demand. Kimchi, “a fiery cabbage-based staple of Korea,” is typically made from “seasoned, fermented napa cabbage”.

    Farmers supply the napa cabbage for kimchi and demand comes from restaurants and consumers. Excessive rainfall has devastated napa cabbage harvests. Available for free at restaurants, sort of like salt and sugar, kimchi is a South Korean staple.

    With supply plummeting and demand at a consistent high, you can imagine where price has gone. Moving from 2500 won a month ago, to 4,000 won 2 weeks ago, to 11,500 won ($10.09 USD) now, the price of one 5.5 pound head of napa cabbage has more than tripled during the past month. At 3.6%, the South Korean inflation rate has risen to a 17 month high.

    The Economic Lesson

    An economist would ask how to affect the supply and demand curves. On the supply side, tariffs on foreign napa cabbage have been suspended and the government is buying extra napa cabbage from China. As an upward sloping curve, supply should shift to the right as imports increase. Demand appears much harder to affect since kimchi is a staple. The South Korean president has said he will use a different kind of cabbage in his kimchi but few seem to be following his lead.

    If supply shifts to the right and the downward sloping demand curve shifts to the left, then equilibrium price would start moving back to 2,500 won.

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    Health Care Insight

    Oct 4 • Demand, Supply, and Markets, Government, Households, Macroeconomic Measurement, Regulation • 320 Views

    Perhaps it all began when President Lyndon Johnson called Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “Wilbur, I’ve just been looking through the polls here, and I’ve only got a few weaknesses, and the worst of them is that I’m not doing anything for the old folks. I need some help from you.” The result? During 1965 Congress passes Medicare Parts A and B.

    Fast forward to 2010 and health care spending that far exceeds what Congress originally projected. Why? Through an excellent 2 week series, The Incidental Economist concisely explains where we spend and “what makes it so expensive”. In a short period of time, you will be able to gain considerable insight.

    No, they say, obesity is not the problem. Instead, they look at inpatient and outpatient care, drugs, administration and insurance, investment in health, and health care workers. Then, areas of underspending and red herrings precede their conclusion.

    For each component, they provide 2 or 3 paragraphs with basic facts and a summary graph. Discussing inpatient care, they point out that, at the hospital, we actually spend less than other comparable countries. While each day costs more, we stay there for a shorter time period. However, once we are at home, as 41% of all health care outlays, outpatient care propels spending. Moving through big pharma, bureaucracy, and health care workers, some facts are surprising. Interestingly, goods and services that we privately pay for are the focus of their underspending discussion.

    At the end of each day’s entry they say, “None of this proves that this money is wasted or fraudulently taken. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t spend more money than other countries. But this is money that goes above what you’d expect us to spend based on our greater wealth. We should at least be able to account for and explain this increased spending in some way.”

    The Economic Lesson

    Health care spending is close to 17% of GDP. However, the opportunity cost of health care is far more than dollars. The cost is the missed opportunities to spend some of that money elsewhere, or, instead, to save it.

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