Obamacare and the Laws of Supply and Demand

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 30th, 2013

Economics 101

A Scarce Thing has a Higher Price because Everyone that Wants One can’t Have One

Economics is the study of the use of scarce resources.  Scarce resources that have alternative uses.  For example, we can use corn for human food.  Animal feed.  We can make bourbon from it.  And we can even use it for fuel to power our cars.  So there are alternative uses for corn.

And corn is scarce.  There is not an unlimited supply of it.  During the drought the United States suffered in 2012 farmers brought in a greatly reduced corn harvest.  Which caused corn prices to rise.  Per the laws of supply and demand.  If demand remains relatively constant while the supply falls the price of corn rises.  Why?

Scarce things always have a higher price.  A painting by Vincent van Gogh has a very high price because each painting is a one of a kind.  And only one person can own it.  So those who want to own it bid against each other.  And the person who places the greatest value on the painting will get the painting.  Because they will pay more for it than anyone else.  Whereas no one would pay for a cartoon in a newspaper.  Because they are not scarce.  As they appear in every newspaper.  Newspapers we throw away or put in the recycling tub every week.  Something that would never happen with a Vincent van Gogh painting.

Price Controls fail because People won’t Change their Purchasing Habits when Buying Scarce Resources

Government spending exploded during the late Sixties and early Seventies.  Paid for with printed money.  A lot of it.  Igniting inflation.  Causing a great outflow of gold from the country.  And with inflation spiking prices soared.  Rising prices reduced the purchasing power of American paychecks.  Add in an oil shock and the people were reeling.  Demanding relief from the government.

With the price of gasoline going through the stratosphere President Nixon stepped in to fix that problem.  Or so he thought.  First he decoupled the dollar from gold.  So they could print more dollars.  Causing even more inflation.  And even higher prices.  Then to solve the high prices Nixon implemented price controls.  Setting a maximum price for gasoline.  Among other things.  Sounds nice.  Wouldn’t you like to see gas prices held down to a maximum price so it consumed less of your paycheck?  But there is only one problem when you do this.    People won’t change their purchasing habits when it comes to buying scarce resources.

Why is this a problem?  Because the oil shock caused a reduction in supply.  With the same amount of gas purchasing with a reduced supply the supply will run out.  Which is what happened.  Gas stations ran out of gas.  Which they addressed with gas rationing.  Which led to long gas lines at gas stations.  With people pushing their cars to the pump as they ran out of gas in line.

Obamacare will Fail because no matter how Good the Intentions you cannot Change the Laws of Supply and Demand

Obamacare is increasing the demand for health care.  By providing health care for millions who didn’t have health insurance before.  So demand is increasing while supply remains the same.  There is only one problem with this.  With more people consuming the supply of health care resources those health care resources will run out.  Leading to rationing.  And longer wait-times for health care resources.  Just like gasoline in the Seventies.

One of the stated goals of Obamacare was to lower health care costs.  But what happens when you increase demand while supply remains relatively constant?  Prices rise.  Because more people are bidding up the price of those scarce resources.  Obamacare may try to limit what doctors and hospitals can charge like they do in Medicare, but everything feeding into the health care industry will feel that demand.  And raise their prices.  Which will trickle down to the doctors and hospitals.  And if they can’t pass on those higher prices to whoever pays their bills they will have to cut costs.  Which means fewer doctors, fewer nurses, fewer technicians and fewer tests and procedures.  Which means rationing.  And longer wait-times for scarce health care resources.

President Obama may say he’s going to provide health care to more people while cutting health care costs but the laws of supply and demand say otherwise.  In fact the laws of supply and demand say Obamacare will do the exact opposite.  So whatever rosy picture they paint no one will be linking arms and singing Kumbaya.  Unless they like paying higher taxes, waiting longer and traveling farther to see a doctor.  Which is what is happening in the United Kingdom.  And in Canada.  Which is why Obamacare will fail. Because no matter how good the intentions you cannot change the laws of supply and demand.

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Mercantilism

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 14th, 2012

Economics 101

Wealth is the Stuff we use our Talent and Ability to Make

Mercantilism gave us the United States.  For it was because of these policies that the British established colonies in North America.  And it was those same policies that led to American Independence.  Because those polices pissed off the Americans. 

The mercantile system came into being as nation states arose from feudal estates.  Kings arose and consolidated these estates into larger kingdoms.  Then one king arose to consolidate the kingdoms into a nation.  Creating Spain, France, the Netherlands, England, etc.  Enlightened thinking and better technology created food surpluses.  With food surpluses a middle class of artisans arose.  And manufactured goods.  People met in markets to trade their food and goods.   These markets grew into cities.  All of this economic activity created wealth.  Food.  And manufactured goods.  That we bought with money.  Often silver and gold. 

There was wealth.  And there was money.  Two different things.  Wealth is the stuff we use our talent and ability to make.  Food and manufactured goods, for example.  And the more food and manufactured goods a nation has the wealthier that nation is.  This is a critical point.  And the mercantile policies ultimately failed because those policies mistook money for wealth.  But money is not wealth.  It’s a temporary storage of wealth.  To make our trading of food and manufactured goods easier.  By reducing the search costs to find people to trade with.  Which is why the barter system failed in a complex economy.  It just took too long to find people to trade with.  Money solved that problem.  Because you could trade what you had for money.  Then trade your money for what you wanted.

England used the Positive Flow of Bullion to Finance the Building of the Royal Navy

Mercantilism focused on the money.  And used wealth to accumulate it.  Instead of the other way around.  The way most advanced nations do today.  These European nations accumulated money with international trade.  Beginning in the 15th century they started looking at the balance of trade between nations.  And did everything they could to maintain a positive balance of trade.  Meaning they tried to export more than they imported.  Why?  Well, nations often did trade with each other.  So they owed each other money.  And when you settled your account if other nations owed you more than you owed them there was a net flow of money to you.  Bullion.  Silver and gold.  Which is what they wanted.

To maintain a positive balance of trade the government actively intervened into the economy.  It set up monopolies.  It provided subsidies for manufacturers who exported their goods for bullion.  It placed tariffs on imports.  Or simply blocked the importation of any goods that they produced domestically.  They set up colonies to harvest raw materials to ship back to the mother country.  Which would use those raw materials in their factories to produced higher valued finished goods.  That they would export.  Especially to their colonies.  Which were convenient captive markets for their finished goods.  On the mother country’s ships.  Through the mother country’s ports.  Where they, of course taxed it.  Guaranteeing that at every step of the way they added to the positive bullion flow back to the mother country.

And it worked.  To a certain extent.  England used that positive flow of bullion to finance the building of the Royal Navy.  Which proved invaluable in the wars that followed in the mercantile world.  For mercantilism is a zero-sum game.  For every winner there had to be a loser.  Which is why this era was an era of world war.  To wrest control of those colonies.  And those sea lanes.  Great Britain came out the victor.  Thanks to their Royal Navy.  But it wasn’t all good.  For Spain found gold in the New World.  And they took it.  Shipped it back to the Old World.  Just like a good mercantilist would.  Which caused problems in the Old World.  Because money is not wealth.  It’s a temporary storage of wealth.  And when they inflated their money supply it took more of it to hold the same amount of value it once did.  Because there was so much of it in circulation.  And what happens during inflation?  Prices rise.  Because the money is worth less it takes more of it to buy the same things as it did before.  So by hording bullion to create wealth they actually destroyed wealth.  With wealth-destroying inflation.

With the Boston Tea Party the Americans Renounced Mercantilism and Demanded Free Trade

Spain was one of the greatest mercantile nations of the era.  But they quickly became a shadow of their former self.  Even though they had more bullion than their European neighbors.  For it turned out that those mercantile policies hindered economic growth.  Which is the true source of wealth.  Economic growth.  Where people use their talent and ability to create things.  That’s where the true value lay.  Not the money that held that value temporarily.  All those mercantilist policies did was raise domestic prices.  And allocated scarce resources poorly. 

It turned out free trade was the secret to wealth.  For free trade can increase wealth.  For both nations.  Thanks to something we call comparative advantage.  Instead of both nations manufacturing all of their goods they should only manufacture those goods that they can manufacture best.  And trade for the goods they can’t manufacture best.  This more efficiently allocates those scarce resources.  And produces a greater total amount of wealth.  By allowing people to buy lower cost imports they have more money left over to buy other stuff.  Increasing the overall amount of economic activity.  Which is why when Great Britain adopted free trade in the 19th century the British Empire went on to rule the world for a century or so.  And led the Industrial Revolution.  By creating wealth.  Goods and services people created with their talent and ability.  That changed the world.  And ushered in the modern era.  Something no amount of bullion could do.

But before Britain adopted free trade they were struggling with one of their belligerent colonies.  Their British American colonies.  Who were unhappy over taxation without representation in Parliament.  And the mother country forcing them to buy only British tea shipped on British ships at higher prices than they could get from the Dutch.  The British thought they found a solution to their problem.  By permitting their British East India Company monopoly to ship their tea directly to America without passing through an English port.  The tea was cheaper because of this.  But it also would set a precedent for taxation without representation.  Something the Americans weren’t about to accept.  So they threw that tea into Boston Harbor.  What we affectionately call the Boston Tea Party.  Renouncing mercantilism.  And demanding the right to engage in free trade.  Which they got after winning their independence.  And the mother country would follow suit in a few decades.  Because they, too, would learn that free trade was better than mercantilism.

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Inflation and Deflation

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 26th, 2011

Economics 101

When Demand is Greater than Supply there’s Inflation, when Supply is greater there is Deflation

Agriculture advances gave us food surpluses.  Food surpluses gave us a division of labor.  The division of labor gave us trade.  Money made that trade more efficient.  Religion and the Rule of Law allowed great gatherings of people to live and work together in urban settings.  Free trade let us maximize this economic output and elevated our standard of living.  Free labor sustained economic growth by increasing the number of people making economic exchanges.  Prices automated the process of assigning value and allocating scarce resources (that have alternative uses).  And provided incentive and competition.  The free movement of prices in our economy, then, is very important.  So important that we track extremes in these movements and give them special names.  Inflation.  And deflation.

When the economy is good we typically see prices increase.  Because the greater amount of economic activity is competing for the same scarce resources.  So businesses ‘bid’ up the price of these scarce resources.  To make sure they get what they need before someone else beats them to them.  This more intense competition for these resources causes their prices to rise.  We call this inflation.  Telling other suppliers that demand is greater than the current supply.  This encourages suppliers to bring more supplies to market.  And attracts others into the market.  As this happens the available supply of these scarce resources increases.  And approaches the level of demand.  Where prices then stabilize.

This is the free market correcting prices.  Prices were high because demand was greater than supply.  When supply caught up to demand they stopped rising.  And if supply continues to grow and exceeds demand they will start falling.  Because those scarce resources won’t be so scarce anymore.  Which happens when people bring too much supply to market.  Of course they have no way of knowing this.  Until the prices tell them so.  Falling prices, then, are a signal that supply has exceeded demand.  So suppliers scale back on what they bring to market.  We call this fall in prices deflation.  And when supply drops at or below demand the price correction is complete.  And prices stop falling.

When Government Interferes with Market Prices we can get Bubbles where both Prices and Supply are High

This price-correction deflation goes by another name.  Recession.  And we call this inflation/deflation cycle the business cycle.  Often referred to as a boom-bust cycle.  Times are good on the inflation side.  But not so good on the deflation side.  Because recessions aren’t fun.  Unless you like periods of high unemployment.  But it’s a natural and necessary part of the business cycle.  It’s how the free market corrects prices.  Allocates scarce resources that have alternative uses.  And provides incentive and competition.  Everything that makes free market capitalism function.  Providing the highest standard of living man has ever known.

But some in government like to tinker.  They think why not make the inflation part last longer?  And try to end the deflation part?  So they play with the tools at their disposal.  Monetary policy.  Fiscal policy.  And regulatory policy.  To stimulate demand beyond what the market is demanding.  To keep the good times rolling.  Where we live with permanent but ‘manageable’ inflation.  And avoid deflationary periods all together.  And recessions.  Sounds good.  In theory, at least.  But it rarely ends well when the government interferes with market prices.

When they interfere with market prices they give false information to those in the market.  Continued inflation means continued high prices.  Prices go even higher than they would have if left to market forces.  Indicating a high demand when there is none.  So suppliers rush in to meet this false demand.  Greatly increasing supply beyond demand.  Creating what we call a bubble.  Where both prices and supply are high.  An artificial creation.  And one that cannot last.  And when prices do correct they have a lot farther to fall.  As excess supply is sold off at discount prices.  And employers cut back and shed excess capacity.  Creating high levels of unemployment.  And a long and unpleasant recession until prices finally stabilize once again.  When supply once again matches demand.

The More we try to Eliminate the Deflationary Side of the Business Cycle the More Painful the Recession

Interestingly, government interference into the free market was to eliminate the business cycle.  Especially the unpleasant deflationary side of it.  But their actions only made the deflationary side far more painful.  Because it was their actions that created those inflationary bubbles.  Not the market.  Their actions only delayed the inevitable market correction.  It couldn’t stop it.  Nothing can.  The more they tried the bigger the bubbles they created.  And the bigger the bubble the bigger the correction.  And the more painful the recession.

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Prices, Scarcity and Value

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 12th, 2011

Economics 101

“Economics is the Study of the Use of Scarce Resources which have Alternative Uses”

Agriculture advances gave us food surpluses.  Food surpluses gave us a division of labor.  The division of labor gave us trade.  Money made that trade more efficient.  Religion and the Rule of Law allowed great gatherings of people to live and work together in urban settings.  Free trade let us maximize this economic output and elevated our standard of living.  And free labor sustained economic growth by increasing the number of people making economic exchanges.  Of course, we need something else to facilitate these economic exchanges.  Prices.

British economist Lionel Robbins defined economics as the “study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses.”  Resources are the things we buy.  Or they make up the things we buy.  We can use these resources to make many different things.  For example, we can eat corn as a food.  It can be an ingredient in food.  We can make it into a sweetener.  We can use it to make bourbon whiskey.  We can even use it to make fuel to burn in our cars.   So corn has many alternative uses.

Depending on the corn harvest corn can be abundant.  Or scarce.  We can have a lot of it.  Or if there was a drought we may not have so much of it.  For another example of scarcity you can consider a concert.  Whether it is for your favorite band or a Broadway show, ticket prices for that show will vary.  The pair of tickets that are front row center are the most coveted.  And typically end up with a service or a scalper.  Thousands of people may be able to enjoy the show.  But only two can sit front row center.  These two tickets are very scarce.  And if you ever bought a pair of these tickets you know how expensive these tickets can be.

We Agree to Economic Exchanges when both Buyer and Seller Agree on the Value which is Communicated by Price

Those tickets are expensive because they are scarce.  The price of these tickets tells us this.  There are more seats available that are not as good.  And they cost less.  Because there are so many of these ‘cheap’ seats pretty much anyone can buy them.  Unlike the front-row center seats.  The scarcer something is, then, the greater its value.  And the more expensive it is.

Something becomes scarcer when the alternative uses for it grows.  For example, we now use corn to make ethanol to fuel our cars.  Leaving less available for food.  So food prices rise.  Because with this new use for corn the users in the food industry have to compete with each other to buy the smaller amount of remaining corn.  Corn, then, became scarcer when we added another use for it.  And more expensive.

We determine the price we are willing to pay for something based on the value it has to us.  In every economic exchange both buyer and seller assign a value.  Of what the buyer is willing to pay.  And what the seller is willing to accept.  We communicate this information with prices.  And we agree to make the economic exchange when both buyer and seller agree on the value of what they’re exchanging.  By agreeing on a sales price.

‘High’ Prices make sure Scarce Resources that have Alternative Uses are Always Available for those Alternative Uses

In this way prices automatically ration limited resources that have alternative uses.  And directs these limited resources to where their use is valued most.   By automatically flowing to the highest bidder.  This is the hallmark of capitalism.  And why you can walk into any American supermarket and be overwhelmed by the choices available.  But when you interfere with prices you have shortages.  And rationing by government bureaucrats.  Such as the gas lines during the Seventies.  When price controls made gas cheap to buy.  But it was almost impossible to find any to buy.  Because that cheap price for a scarce resource (made scarce by the Arab oil embargo) allowed people to buy it up until there was no more left.  Had we allowed the price to rise we would have bought less gas.  Guaranteeing there would be gas available for those who needed it most.  And who were willing to pay the higher price.

During the height of the Cold War when Soviet defectors came to the United States the American supermarket astonished them.  They never saw anything like it behind the Iron Curtain.  For communism didn’t use prices to manage their resources.  Bureaucrats managed their resources.  Their decisions filled stores with things no one wanted to buy.  And made people stand in line for hours to buy their ration of soap or toilet paper.  Things these defectors could fill a shopping cart with on any day of the week in any American supermarket.  And have money left over to buy so much more.  Thanks to capitalism.

Prices are relative.  Prices that may seem high serve a purpose.  They make sure scarce resources that have alternative uses are always available for those alternative uses.  Yes, the prices may be ‘high’ from time to time.  But these high prices guarantee these scarce resources will always be available to buy.  Unlike a low price.  Which, if too low, it will make a scarce item unavailable.  At any price.  Such as gasoline in the Seventies.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #39: “Socialism is easier said than done.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 9th, 2010

Capitalism vs. Socialism

Socialism as a political/economic theory is pretty involved.  With an involved history.  And if you’re suffering insomnia one night I recommend reading some of it with a glass of warm milk.  Should put you right to sleep.

Let me simplify it a bit.  To begin with, by ‘socialism’ I mean any form of collectivism (socialism, communism, fascism, statism, social democracy, etc.).  They’re all similar.  Just variations on a theme.  And they all suffer the same defects.  Three of which I summarize here:

  • Public (instead of private) ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange
  • Put the common good before individual wants or desires
  • Equality of outcomes

That’s not everything.  But it’s the 3 big reasons why socialism fails.  Basically, socialism is the opposite of capitalism.  In fact, socialism was created to defeat capitalism.  The East-West rivalry during the Cold War was the final showdown between the two systems.  And we know how that turned out.  (In case you don’t, capitalism won).

Public (instead of private) ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange

Mikhail Gorbachev asked the great Margaret Thatcher how she fed her people.  Her reply stunned him.  She did nothing.  The Soviet Union was struggling to feed her people with their socialist command economy.  And they couldn’t do it.  They who had great tracts of some of the most fertile farmland in the world.  And yet they still had to import grain from their arch nemesis.  The United States.  To keep famine at bay.  The free markets of capitalism didn’t have to struggle to feed her people, though.  The United States had food to spare.  And even though Great Britain is an island nation that had to import much of her food, there were no famine fears in Great Britain.  The socialist just couldn’t understand how that was possible.

One of the problems with socialism is that it ignores market forces.  And perverts the economic decision making process.  In a free market, market forces maximize the use of scarce resources that have alternative uses.  The market does this through the laws of supply and demand.  And prices.  Things high in demand but low in supply have high prices.  This ensures there is enough of that supply available for those who really need it.  Anyone who pushed a car to the gas pump during the gas shortages in the 1970s understands this.  When the Nixon administration kept prices artificially low, everyone bought and used gas until the supply ran out.  If we had let prices rise to their true market price, those who didn’t absolutely need gas would have cut back on their purchases, leaving gas available to those who really needed it and were willing to pay a high price for it.

When the state takes over the economy, politicians make economic decisions for political reasons.  They ignore the ‘invisible hand’ of the market place.  In the Soviet Union, the state boasted about its industrial output and filled stores with tractor parts no one wanted to buy.  Meanwhile, people stood in line for hours in hopes of buying soap or toilet paper.  And no matter how hard they tried they just couldn’t increase the yield of some of the world’s most fertile farmland.

Put the common good before individual wants or desires

Doing what’s best for the common good sounds noble.  And easy to do.  We all agree our children should be safe.  And should have enough to eat.  And that our schools should serve them breakfast each morning.  And teach them about contraception.  Well, okay, it’s not that easy to do.  Because different people want different things.  And different people think different things are better for the common good.

This is the problem of putting the common good before our individual wants or desires.  Few can agree on what the common good is.  We know our own wants and desires.  But we have no idea what other people want or desire.  Unless we ask them.  But does that even help in determining the common good?  Get a group of your friends and family together.  Make it at least 10 people.  Now get the ten of you to agree on a movie to see.  You know what will happen?  First of all, you’ll waste a lot of time saying, “I don’t care.  What do you want to see?”  Then people will start suggesting movies.  And for every one suggested, someone will vote it down.  This will go on until you finally arrive at a movie that no one wants to see.  But because it’s the movie everyone hates the least, everyone’s willing to settle for it.

Now imagine that little exercise with a thousand people.  The agreeing process will be even more difficult.  In fact, it may be impossible.  It is very unlikely that one thousand people will agree to anything.  And if they try they will waste an enormous amount of time in the process.  No.  Someone will have to decide for the group.  Someone will have to weigh everyone’s opinion and decide what is best for the common good. No matter how many people disagree with this one person’s decision.  F.A. Hayek wrote a book about this.  The Road to Serfdom.  He said socialism ends in dictatorship.  Because there’s no efficient means to determine what’s best for the common good.  He predicted this would happen in Germany with their creeping state socialism.  And Adolf Hitler proved him right.

Equality of Outcomes

If a business has a good year, they tend to be more generous at the holidays.  Let’s say a business owner wants to give out some Christmas bonuses to thank her employees for all their hard work.  She goes to her accountant.  Asks what’s the maximum she can give out without giving herself any cash-flow problems at the beginning of the new year (taxes, insurance, etc.).  The accountant crunches some numbers and says $50,000.  If she has 15 employees, that’s about $3,300 each.  Which should make for a pretty Merry Christmas.  Now, let’s say she has 125 employees.  That works out to a $400 bonus per employee.   Which won’t be quite as merry.

The lesson learned?  The more people included in the getting of something, the less each one gets.  And so it is with socialism.  The only way to get equality in outcomes is to give everyone less.  Sure, we can afford to give Congress people a Cadillac health insurance plan.  But we could never afford to give the same coverage to everyone.  To be able to give coverage to all the people, each person will have to get less.

And they will continue to get less.  As costs go up, it is difficult to maintain the same level of government benefits.  Eventually, they’ll have to raise taxes to cover the higher costs.  And when they can’t raise taxes anymore, they’ll have to reduce the amount of benefits.  Or, in other words, they’ll have to ration benefits.  A bureaucrat will have to decide who should get what.  Which could easily turn health care into politics.  A political opponent needs an expensive cancer treatment?  So sorry.  We’ve already reached our quota this year.  Try again next year.

Socialism is Slavery

What it comes down to is this; socialism really fails for one reason.  It goes against human nature.  It only works when we sacrifice our wants and desires so that others may have their wants and desires.  It’s not trying to keep up with the Jones.  It’s helping the Jones get ahead of you.  It’s living your life to serve others.  And there’s another word for that.  Slavery.  Hence the title of Hayek’s book.  The Road to Serfdom.  For socialism to work, the state must become a dictatorship.  And we must become its slaves.  But few willingly volunteer for servitude.  So, given the choice, we will ultimately choose to make socialism fail.

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