Incentive Matters

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Sep 30, 2010    •    1006 Views

Economics always seems to relate to incentives. Whether looking at demand and supply, or health care policy, or international trade, always we can return to how incentives shape our behavior. This takes me to several good incentive stories.

An op-ed in the Boston Globe recently described why used car prices are soaring. As a part of the cash for clunkers program, old gas guzzling, fume emitting vehicles had to be destroyed by car dealers when their owners had the incentive to trade them for newer vehicles. The upward sloping supply curve for used cars responded by shifting leftward. In addition, with joblessness soaring, when more people sought “pre-owned” transportation, the demand curve shifted to the right. The result? Equilibrium price is higher.

In 1989, Mexico initiated a pollution reduction policy for autos. One day weekly, depending on the last number of your license plate, you could not use your car. Incentive? Acquire a second car. Minimally used, that car could be older and less fuel efficient. The second response? Find a second license plate for your car. Third response? Use a taxi. As you might conclude, overall air quality did not improve.

Here is an 18th century story from Planet Money where government ultimately figures out the correct incentive. Hearing that close to one third of all felons died when they were shipped by sea to Australia from Great Britain, people were horrified. They demanded more onboard doctors, added lemons to cure scurvy, and  delivered sermons encouraging moral behavior. Nothing worked until the payment system changed. “Instead of paying for each prisoner…on the ship…” the government paid for whoever “…walked off the ship in Australia.” Adopted in 1793, the new incentive solved the problem.  

The Economic Lesson

If anyone suggests that economics is primarily about money and math, you could suggest looking further. At the core of economics is scarcity. Because there are limited quantities of all land, labor, and capital, we have to make choices. Incentives shape our choices. 


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