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    Unopened Stimulus Packages

    Aug 19 • Economic History, Economic Thinkers, Government • 296 Views

    Economists recently have been debating whether the $787 billion 2009 stimulus package has helped the economy. Perhaps first they should ask what has been spent.

    For a variety of reasons, recipients of stimulus money are not spending it. Dollars destined for energy efficiency in Detroit have barely been used.  Worried that next year they might not be able to afford teachers hired with stimulus money, school districts in NJ, Texas, NYC, and CA have said that they are not spending it. Other places have just not figured out what to do with their money.

    Responding to criticism about slow spending, the Obama Admnistration points out that the stimulus package had 3 sections. They say that: 1) $360 billion in tax breaks and other help for businesses and individuals has been paid out. 2) The $296 billion that targeted unemployment assistance, food stamps, and other aid programs has mostly been spent. 3) $170 billion meant for infrastructure projects has not been spent while $66 billion has.

    You might want to look at the Obama administration’s stimulus website to identify local projects. Have you seen any spending near your home?

    The Economic Lesson

    Fiscal policy includes government spending, taxing, and borrowing. During the 1930s Great Depression, President Roosevelt and the Congress used fiscal policy to try to stimulate economic growth and to create jobs through the TVA and other government funded projects.



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    A Little Sunshine at General Motors

    Aug 18 • Businesses, Developing Economies, International Trade and Finance • 295 Views

    A question: How are a little Sunshine and the U.S. taxpayer similar?

    The answer: Both are helping General Motors grow.

    The Wuling Sunshine is the most popular car in China. Manufactured by General Motors with 2 Chinese partners, it is a no frills minivan that sells for as low as $4,500. With AC a $366 extra, thinner bumpers, no airbags, a top speed of 80 mph, and lots of hard plastic and plastic liner, the Wuling Sunshine is what the rural Chinese small business person is willing and able to pay for. As the most popular car in China, it is a profitable low cost prototype that General Motors plans to replicate in India and beyond.

    The Economic Lesson

    While the global reach of U.S. multinational corporations extends around the world, so, too, do the activities of foreign multinationals. Called foreign direct investment (FDI), in China, General Motors has 10 joint ventures, 10 assembly plants (11 in U.S.), and 32,000 employees (77,000 in U.S.).

    In 2005, the latest year for which we have detailed data, 5.5. million Americans were employed by foreign firms doing business in the U.S. Led by the UK (think BP), other firms with a major U.S. presence are Japan (autos, for example), Canada (banking and finance), the Dutch (oil), Germans (media), and the French.

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    Utilities Included

    Aug 17 • Demand, Supply, and Markets, Economic Thinkers, Environment, Households, Thinking Economically • 349 Views

    In NYC, there are 250,000 housing units that use more electricity than most others. The reason? Buildings without meters for each apartment have leases that say “utilities included”. So, whether tenants use more or less power, the rent is the same.  Consequently, they perceive that their electrical consumption is “free”.

    What happens when we think something has little or no cost? We tend to use more of it.

    Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics wrote about how people abuse a good that appears free because it is owned by all of us. Called the tragedy of the commons, for a pasture, we overgraze our cows. For a workplace refrigerator, we create a mess. Factories tend to pollute more when there is no cost. Parking is tough to find when no one has to pay for a space. Dr. Ostrom believed though, that when people care about their common pasture or refrigerator or air, they can willingly formulate a solution together.

    The Economic Lesson

    With price as the y-axis and quantity as the x-axis, a demand curve is downward sloping. Lower prices make us willing and able to purchase more of an item. With a lower price, the item requires less sacrifice and we have more to spend elsewhere.

    According to British economist Arthur Pigou (1877-1959), the tragedy of the commons can be solved with a fee or tax that makes an overused commodity more expensive. For those NYC overusers of electricity, individual meters that connect cost to usage would eliminate the extra expense to landlords and diminish the ease with which additional greenhouse gases can be created.

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    Parking Problems

    Aug 16 • Demand, Supply, and Markets, Environment, Thinking Economically • 505 Views

    Parking expert Professor Donald Shoup has identified a traffic problem with implicatons far beyond city streets. Essentially he says that cheap city parking is really rather expensive.  Throughout parts of NYC, for example, drivers can select meters that might require $1.50 an hour or a free side street. With so low a price, demand is considerable and there are few empty spaces. Consequently, drivers create pollution, exacerbate congestion, and generate pedestrian challenges while searching for spots. Also, land used for parking might have a better alternative function. Explained economically, while “parkers” pay little, the cost (sacrifice) for everyone else is high.

    One way to solve the problem of underpriced public commodities is to charge more. San Francisco has begun to experiment with variably priced meters and parking lots. Spaces with higher demand will become more expensive. The result? Fewer people will demand them and negatively impact the neighborhood. Correspondingly, as suggested by George Mason economics professor Tyler Cowen, “…if we are ging to wean ourselves away from excess use of fossil fuels, we need to remove current subsidies to energy-unfriendly ways of life.”

    One concern: Should we care that more expensive parking is regressive? Other costs?

    The Economic Lesson

    An externality is the impact of a behavior or contract that is experienced by a third uninvolved party. When the impact on third parties is undesirable, as with cheap parking, we call the result a negative externality. A benevolent impact on an uninvolved third party is called a positive externality. A community experiences the positive externality of flu vaccinations.

    How to diminish a negative externality? Increase its source’s cost. How to encourage a positive externality? Make it cheaper to create.

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    Social Insecurity: Part 3

    Aug 15 • Government • 339 Views

    Do you prefer adjusting COLAs or the full retirement age (FRA) to ensure the survival of the U.S. Social Security program? To decide, you might want to know how different solutions will affect high and low income earners.  

    One way to solve Social Security insolvency is to decrease COLAs. COLAs (Cost of Living Adjustments) typically increase the amount that Social Security recipients receive each year. For example, if a person got a $100 check during year 1 and the inflation rate was 3%, then a COLA would mean a $103 check during year 2. If COLAs are diminished then lower income and older beneficiaries will be hit hardest.

    Another solution is to increase the retirement age when people start to collect Social Security. A decade ago, the full retirement age was 65. While now it will be 66 for people who are currently 62, starting with individuals born during 1960, the retirement age will be 67. If the retirement age is the solution, then higher earners will feel it more than others.

    COLAs and FRA solutions take us to the benefits received side of the problem. Revenue increasing solutions such as higher taxes are also possibilities.

    The Economic Lesson

    Social Security is a progressive program with low earners collecting more than they paid in taxes and high earners getting much less. According to the August 2010 report from the Trustees of the Social Security Trust Fund, during 2014 deficits will begin because of the baby boomers. During 2037, when the trust fund will be depleted, benefits will decrease.


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