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    The Ant or the Grasshopper?

    May 27 • Government, International Trade and Finance, Thinking Economically • 398 Views

    “What a silly little ant you are,” said the grasshopper in The Ant and the Grasshopper. “Forget about work…Enjoy the summer!” But all day, everyday, grain by grain, the ant continued to gather and store her wheat. When the harsh winter arrived and the ant’s larder was full, a starving grasshopper begs for some food but Aesop has the ant refusing. By contrast, in a Walt Disney version the ants feed the grasshopper while when the Muppets retold the story  the grasshopper squishes the ant and the grasshopper drives to warm, balmy Florida in his sports car. 

    In a recent column, Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf provides a more modern slant. Equating the ant with the Japanese, the Chinese, other Asian nations, and Germany, and the grasshopper with the United States, Greece, the U.K., the Irish, and Spain, he has the ants lending money to the grasshoppers. His moral is: “If you want to create enduring wealth, don’t lend to grasshoppers.”

    Is there a chance that we will see an ending that echoes what Walt Disney or the Muppets presented?

    The Economic Lesson

    Production possibilities curves illustrate the maximum production capability of a country when land, labor, and capital are fully utilized. Because the hardworking ant fully used her land, labor, and capital, the grain she harvested would be represented by dots on the curve. By contrast, the grasshopper was underutilizing resources. His productive capability would be shown by a dot to the left of the curve, closer to the Y and X axes. We can use production possibilities graphs to represent the impact of sovereign debt and the financial crisis on each nation’s production of goods and services.

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    More Water Dilemmas

    May 26 • Economic Debates, Environment, Government, Thinking Economically • 563 Views

    Bottled water has been around for a long time. Bottled Perrier was introduced in 1863 while people first drank a bottled Poland Spring product 13 years later. With bottled water consumption having increased until the recent economic contraction, environmentalists are hoping to perpetuate diminished sales.  As economists, deciding whether or not to drink bottled water is a classic opportunity cost dilemma.

    Opponents of bottled water cite alternative potential for the energy and materials used to manufacture and transport plastic bottles. As for the water, preserving natural springs is a priority as is the goal of diminishing corporate influence over our water supply.  

    Claiming that they are taking “water in a sustainable way,” Nestle, and other bottled water supporters are the source of jobs and a product. For the aspirational drinker, they claim that sipping a San Pellegrino is a “trendy statement.”

    A current battle is being fought over the water that Cascade Locks, Oregon can provide to Nestle. Ideally located for the Northwestern U.S. market, Cascade Locks, a town with 18% unemployment, would enjoy new jobs and tax revenue from Nestle. The local Fish and Wildlife Department supports Nestle’s plan to bring more water to their hatchery and to preserve its aquatic residents. The environmentalist community, though, is concerned about Nestle’s control of a spring, their impact on wildlife, and their takeover of municipal responsibilities.

    The Economic Lesson

    The choice is between buying and not buying bottled water. Perhaps we can best make a decision when we consider the benefits associated with each alternative and then determine what we are willing to sacrifice. If we do not buy bottled water then the opportunity cost is making the purchase. Correspondingly, we sacrifice such benefits as more jobs for Cascade Locks and tax revenue. All that we sacrifice is the cost of the decision.


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    May 25 • Financial Markets, Government, Households • 386 Views

    In many ways, the recent financial crisis was (and is) really about seesaws. A seesaw is a lever that lets you do a lot with a little. Using a seesaw, a person weighing 100 pounds can lift someone at the other end who is much larger.  

    As purchasers of mortgages from financial institutions, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had rules about the size of down payments for home loans. Lowered to 3% in 1998, new down payment rules meant that consumers needed a lot less money to get a mortgage. In 2001, the rules again shifted when buyers could use other people’s money and loans for a down payment. Leverage? Yes. It became possible to spend a lot on a home with very little money. According to 2002 Congressional testimony from the CEO of Fannie Mae, financing for low down payment loans (5% or less) grew from $109 million in 1993 to $17 billion in 2002. The number of Fannie and Freddie loans requiring less than a 5% down payment soared to 608,581 in 2007 from 75,694 in 1998. In a paper on the financial crisis, George Mason economist Russell Roberts details the leverage that people enjoyed.

    Investment bankers also had their own seesaw. When businesses can borrow at a low interest rate and then earn a higher return on that money, their profits multiply. Between 2003 and 2007, investment banking firms started to increase their leverage ratio from 21x to 30x.  The leverage ratio compares money borrowed to a firm’s total assets. The change was the result of more lenient borrowing parameters from the SEC during 2004. Interest rates trending downward since 2000 then incentivized further borrowing. Leverage? Yes! Investment banking firms could use a little to borrow and then invest a lot. A paper from University of Maryland associate law professor Robert J. Rhee describes the leverage employed by the major investment banking firms.

    Pondering Greece, I realized that they too had their own seesaw. With debt totaling 113% of G.D.P., they too were spending a lot when they had a little.

    The Economic Lesson

    Hoping to use other people’s money to grow their own assets, in a market economy, individuals, business firms, and governments borrow money. Then, when you have a sufficient return on the investment, you can pay it back. Problems only develop when leverage works in reverse. If the returns do not materialize, then you owe more than you can pay back.

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    No Free Lunch

    May 24 • Thinking Economically • 311 Views

    In NYC, new pedestrian plazas are easing harried city life. Sitting in the middle of a once busy street where traffic congregated, now, you can relax at a table, drink some coffee and enjoy a sandwich.

    The only problem is the opportunity cost. Pedestrian plazas upset former traffic patterns. For certain bus travelers, the new routes add 25% more time for them to get to their destination. Multiply that by hundreds of riders and you get a cost that could be considerable. On the other hand, though, other bus routes actually benefited from their detours and saved riders’ time.

    The conclusion? Whether contemplating health care reform, financial regulation, or pedestrian plazas, I hope that legislators will take economics and remain aware of opportunity cost, thinking at the margin, and cost and benefit.

    The Economic Lesson

    Choosing is refusing. Any decision has an alternative choice being rejected. Optimal decision making involves identifying the best two alternatives, comparing their benefits, and then making a decsiion. In this way, we are minimizing the opportunity cost of all that we decide to do. Whether deciding what to export to other nations or which college to attend, an opportunity cost analysis will maximize efficiency. 

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    Pay What You Want

    May 23 • Businesses, Demand, Supply, and Markets • 374 Views

    The place is the SAME Cafe in Denver, a “pay-what-you-want” restaurant. Recently, one person paid $5 for a large soup and coffee and a second individual left $7.50 for 2 slices of pizza, a large soup, and a salad. Then, a third person decided $7.00 was a fair price for a slice of pizza, a salad, and an iced tea while someone left $1.50 for a large soup, a salad, and a slice of pizza. I checked out the reviews for the Cafe and they are overwhelmingly positive. Good healthy food, great atmosphere.

    I don’t quite get it.

    Yes, as a concept, “pay-what-you-want” has benefits. Those who cannot afford the price of a meal pay less but can volunteer time instead to compensate for their purchase. Those who can afford it pay more, enjoy a meal, and also know they are helping others. Based on SAME Cafe’s reviews, most experiece a communal pleasure. In addition, because the business is a non-profit, it pays no income tax and enjoys all nonprofit perks. With a semi-volunteers workforce, their labor costs must be diminished.

    But I still have many economic questions. Demand/supply graphs tell us that price is determined by the intersection of what buyers are willing and able to spend and the amounts, at different prices, that suppliers can provide. Here, the costs of the supply side seem distant from price determination. If their variable costs such as the food, are not covered, then how can they stay in business? How can they plan for the future? Does it matter that government gets no revenue?

    In a recent NY Times article, a similar venture from Panera Bread was described. Through a non-profit subsidiary, Panera Bread is trying out the “pay-what-you-want” concept. Here though, they provide patrons with a suggested price. I wonder whether a chain can generate the same spirit as a local establishment like SAME.

    Another question: Does anyone leave a tip or is there no wait staff?

    The Economic Lesson

    I suspect we are not talking about a new business model. Instead, these are non-profit charitable ventures, just like Ben & Jerry’s had a charitable foundation that functioned with their for-profit ice cream business. Also, we are looking at the fallacy of composition which states that what is good for one becomes dysfunctional when everyone does it.

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