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    Innovative Challenges

    Feb 25 • Businesses, Economic Debates, Government, Innovation, Labor, Macroeconomic Measurement, Regulation, Thinking Economically • 354 Views

    Is it likely that, with each new discovery, innovation gets tougher?

    It might have been easier to identify an asteroid a century ago because the undiscovered ones were very big. It might have been simpler to find a new human organ; the last one, the parathyroid gland, was discovered in 1880. Similarly, developing plants with larger fruit gets to a point where incremental progress is smaller and smaller.  

    So, where does this take us?

    1. To teams. With discoveries becoming more complex, the “renaissance man” like Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein, no longer can know it all. Instead, scientists need to pool their expertise.

    2. To a knowledge plateau. According to economist Tyler Cowen, because the “low hanging” fruit has been picked, it is ever more difficult to make the scientific breakthroughs that spearhead growth.

    3. To a very busy patents office. With scientific teams submitting ever more complex research, it takes the patent office more expertise, more people, and more money to issue the patents that new firms frequently require.

    4. To a President with a challenge. Saying in his State of the Union address that innovation is the key to future economic growth, President Obama now needs to determine the governmental incentives that will accelerate innovation. Economist Mike Mandel has several policy suggestions

    The Economic Lesson

    With Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 saying, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limit Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries,” the US Constitution established the right to protect innovation.

    Interestingly, although Hamilton and Jefferson did not entirely agree, both were involved with the first Patent Act in 1790.


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    An Oil Surprise

    Feb 24 • Demand, Supply, and Markets, Developing Economies, Environment, Government, Households, International Trade and Finance • 410 Views

    As the turmoil in the Middle East unfolds, if you want to sound knowledgeable about oil, you could just say $147, contango and floating storage.

    As you can see on this graph, it was mid-July, 2008, when the price of oil peaked at slightly more than $147 a barrel. A plunging line that went below $40 during 2009 followed the 2008 peak. Most people were surprised by the plunge and also by the peak. 

    Meanwhile, only last July, the supertankers that were carrying “floating storage,” started to download their cargo because oil prices appeared to be declining. The reason they had initially loaded the oil could have been “contango.” Very simply defined, contango just means that traders expect a higher price in the future.

    Now, floating storage could come in handy. As the oil that is stored oil tankers around the world, floating storage could be used to compensate for any Libyan oil shortfalls. In addition, extra Saudi Arabian production could equal 4 times a day what the world gets from Libya. So, if we need it, the oil is right there.

    Conclusion? The future price of oil will be a surprise.

    The Economic Lesson

    When you hear a price for oil, it probably refers to Brent or West Texas Intermediate. The origin of Brent is the North Sea while West Texas is the U.S. This explanation explains oil prices further and names other types including Nigerian Bonny Light and Algerian Saharan Blend.

    The $147 was for Brent.


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    Cotton Markets

    Feb 23 • Businesses, Demand, Supply, and Markets, Developing Economies, Financial Markets, Macroeconomic Measurement, Money and Monetary Policy, Regulation, Thinking Economically • 452 Views

    On November 10, 2009, the price of 1 pound of cotton was 59.2 cents. A year later it was $1.02 and now, it is close to $1.90.

    For many of us, the result will be more expensive jeans, more polyester, and smaller buttons. 7 For all Mankind and North Face said prices would probably be higher next year. The Jones Group CEO, owner of Anne Klein and Nine West, said that an $80 jacket could experience a $15 price increase.

    We also might see more organic cotton products. In the Alabama town that used to be called “The Official Sock Capital of the World,” one factory switched to organic cotton. Make a more upscale product and people might accept the price increase. Others just had to close because they could not compete.

    You can see how the impact of more expensive cotton will ripple from cotton fields to fabric factories, to designers, to synthetics, to retailers and to Congress because opposition to cotton subsidies has intensified. Even Ben Bernanke might have something to say.

    The Economic Lesson

    The cotton story is classic Econ 101 1/2.

    On the supply side, events have shifted the supply curve to the left. We started with less supply because of depleted inventories during the recession. Then, bad weather in cotton producing nations like Pakistan, hoarding in China, and export restrictions in India have further diminished supply. In addition, when biofuel commodities started to rise in price, some farmers shifted acreage away from cotton.

    The result? Because the upward sloping supply curve shifts to the left, price rises.

    But then, suppliers try to cut costs and high prices attract more cotton growers. Lululemon Athletica, for example, has moved factories from China to Vietnam and Cambodia because of cheaper labor. Demand for cotton diminishes as suppliers try new fabric combinations. Quantity demanded for cotton will rise when supply increases. Ultimately, the market could take care of the problem.



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    Good and Bad Capitalism

    Feb 22 • Demand, Supply, and Markets, Developing Economies, Innovation, International Trade and Finance, Macroeconomic Measurement • 453 Views

    If you are trying to figure out the economics of the Middle East, I recommend starting with Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism. One of the book’s 4 different kinds of capitalism, oligarchic capitalism, provides a good “slot” for grouping most Arab nations. (You can actually download the whole book here.  It is excellent.)

    Oligarchic capitalism is characterized by government policies that perpetuate the wealth and power of a few. As you probably guessed, the authors say that most nations in the Arabic Middle East practice oligarchic capitalism. The results? Inequality, corruption, sluggish growth, little concern about economic growth. The World Bank’s ease of “Doing Business” index confirms the complexity of starting and expanding businesses in most economies with oligarchic capitalism. Interesting–Saudi Arabia appears to be an exception.

    Thinking about oligarchic capitalism, it is much easier to understand the facts that John Cassidy presents in his New Yorker article, “Prophet Motive.” After looking at the economic impact of a Muslim past, the article concludes that even with new leadership, the institutions necessary for a vibrant economy, one that we might call entrepreneurial capitalism, could take years to develop.

    The Economic Lesson

    In Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism, capitalism is defined as recognizing private ownership of property. Then, though, the authors point out that so broad a definition necessitates dividing capitalistic countries into 4 categories: 1) state-guided, 2) oligarchic, 3) big-firm, 4) entrepreneurial or 5) a blend. From there, they tell us that entrepreneurial capitalism is the premier growth engine. 

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    Paying Less For a House

    Feb 21 • Demand, Supply, and Markets, Economic Debates, Government, Households, Money and Monetary Policy • 420 Views

    In an interesting Politico opinion column, journalist Michael Kinsley wonders why everyone seems to assume that climbing home prices are good. He points out that most people are happy when the prices of essentials like gas go down. So why the opposite for homes? 

    After all, the young couple first buying a home wants a low price. The family that is trading up might not want their new home to be priced higher. Only, he says, the retiring couple that intends to downsize or leave the market entirely clearly benefits from higher prices.

    Yes, he admits he is oversimplifying. Still, he asks why the media uses pejorative terms for declining prices and affirming adjectives and verbs for rising prices.

    Your opinion?

    The Economic Lesson

    Certain economists might say that the market is the solution and that prices have to fall until the demand side of the market has enough to buy. Other economists, worried about foreclosures, diminished perceptions of wealth, and higher home prices fueling economic recovery believe that government should subsidize the housing market and/or keep mortgage rates low.

    You can go to an excellent S&P/Case-Shiller graph here to see where home prices have gone between 1988 and 2010.

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