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    Conspicuous (Coffee) Consumption

    May 1 • Businesses, Developing Economies, Economic Thinkers • 834 Views

    How can you show your friends that you have ascended to your country’s middle class? Starbucks.

    A recent BusinessWeek article on the world’s most caffeinated countries cited a connection between an emerging middle class and coffee consumption. With the demand for instant coffee increasing in Turkey, Belarus, and Ukraine, analysts see Starbucks growing there also. Correspondingly, Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRIC countries), have accelerated their espresso machine orders.

    The list of the most caffeinated countries is topped by Finland (608.2 liters per capita), Norway, and Denmark. The U.S. is #16 with per capita consumption of 105.9 liters annually. Coffee researchers say that the U.S. is relatively low on the list because we put so much milk in our coffee. 

    The Economic Life

    In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1889), economist Thorstein Veblen introduced us to “conspicuous consumption”. Referring to society’s more affluent, he said that buying behavior relates more to displaying power and prestige than need. Perhaps having read Veblen, Starbucks founder and CEO, Howard Schultz, perceives the potential for expansion in China as a “major opportunity” for new growth.

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    Khakis and Lettuce

    Apr 30 • Businesses, Demand, Supply, and Markets • 355 Views

    Do you remember when we only had Levi’s? Until the late 1970s when Jordache arrived in department stores, buying jeans was not about style. After that, designer jeans became a fashion statement as did their higher prices.  

    I wonder whether yesterday’s WSJ article on $520 khaki pants for men described a similar phenomenon. The pricier pants represent a trend toward more detail, softer fabrics, and enzyme washes. According to the WSJ, most khakis had looked too much alike, even when sold by different retailers. How to stimulate sales? Create some “designer cachet”. 

    As an economist, we would say that khakis makers are creating product differentiation…sort of like lettuce.

    In a supermarket, lettuces can look alike. But, if you put them in packages, and prewash them, call them organic or provide a gourmet image, you might be able to generate some buyer recognition. And maybe, if the consumer really likes the lettuce (or wants designer cachet), he or she will buy that brand every time.

    The Economic Life

    Imagine a line representing different competitive market structures. The far left side of the line is labeled perfect competition while the far right side is monopoly. Very similar products such as unpackaged lettuce tend to be sold in markets that are on the left side of the scale. Their producers have little power over price because their goods look just like someone else’s. When individual lettuce growers gave their produce more individuality, they moved to the right on the market structure line. They also got more price making capability–just like Khakis. 

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    From Mill to Obama

    Apr 29 • Economic Thinkers, Government, Thinking Economically • 368 Views

    Yesterday, President Obama briefly said that some salaries on Wall Street were more than anyone should earn. 

    Approximately 160 years ago, John Stuart Mill responded by saying that he wanted to encourage work. Consequently, instead of limiting salaries through a progressive income tax, he supported a moderate proportional tax and high inheritance taxes. “To tax the larger incomes at a higher percentage than the smaller, is to lay a tax on industry and economy; to impose a penalty on people for having worked harder and saved more than their neighbors.” (1848, Principles of Political Economy)

    Believing that all too often government distorts incentives, Adam Smith points out that people personally have less to give and spend when taxed. Government, Smith believed, was more likely to poison virtue than spawn it.

    Not waiting for government, Ben & Jerry’s capped the salary of its highest paid executives at seven times the lowest pay. In 1994, though, they eliminated the cap when they could not find a new CEO who would accept it.

    The Economic Life

    Through a Teaching Company series on the history of economic thought, Professor Timothy Taylor discusses the life and ideas of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. They provide an ideal foundation to build from or tear down when contemplating salary caps and income distribution.    


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    Nobel Humor

    Apr 28 • Behavioral Economics, Demand, Supply, and Markets • 367 Views

    Presented at Harvard with Nobel laureate participation (and based on authentic scholarly research), the Ig Nobel awards are funny but they also make you think. 

    As they express it…

    The 2009 economics prize went to executives at four Icelandic banks “for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa-and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy.”

    The 2009 mathematics prize went to the governor of Zimbabwe’s central bank “for giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers-from very small to very big-by having his bank print bank notes with denominations ranging from one cent ($.01) to one hundred trillion dollars ($100,000,000,000,000).”

    In 2008, behavioral economist Dan Ariely won the Medicine prize “for demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine is more effective then low-priced fake medicine.” 

    In 2006, the economics price (to an MIT researcher) was “for inventing an alarm clock that runs away and hides, repeatedly, thus ensuring that people DO get out of bed, and thus theoretically adding many productive hours to the workday.”

    The 2006 Ornithology Prize was “for exploring and explaining why woodpeckers don’t get headaches.”

    The Economic Life

    Economics need not be the dismal science.


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    Max Bialystock and CDOs

    Apr 27 • Businesses, Demand, Supply, and Markets, Financial Markets, Regulation • 344 Views

    Comparing the deal to Bialystock, Bloom, and Springtime For Hitler in The Producers, NPR’s This American Life looked at how a Chicago hedge fund made money on seemingly unprofitable CDO transactions. Available as a podcast, the story made the CDO derivatives world entirely understandable. 

    The protagonist of the story is Magnetar, a Chicago hedge fund. The plot focuses on why Magnetar would buy a “layer” of a package of mortgage securities that was so speculative that its default was probable. The “climax” relates to the “insurance” that the firm purchased on the package. The podcast uses broadway music, a derivatives song that they commissioned, and clear explanations that provide insight. Listening to it is worth the opportunity cost.

    The Economic Life

    Imagine a big box filled with mortgages. Fundamentally, you are looking at a CDO, a collateralized debt obligation. Through financial reform legislation, Congress wants to limit who can buy and sell these packages and the securities that relate to them.


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