Ask an Economist

E.g., Thursday, February 22, 2018
E.g., Thursday, February 22, 2018
Question:
I have a vegan friend who believes that the meat and dairy industry and all its affiliates and infrastructure could be phased out of the United States economy without causing it to collapse. In one year. I vehemently disagree. I found a statistic from 2009 by the meat industry saying they essentially make up 5% of the economy. I understand that if we include the dairy industry and all industries that exploit animals, it would be much higher, but let's stick with 5%. Would a sudden loss of 5% of the total US economy, with all those people being left jobless, all those companies going under, and all the ripple effects (Who needs a grill anymore?) (Where did fast food go?) destroy the economy? This is also assuming the animals would be harvested one last time; so there wouldn't be any costs concerning the animals themselves.
Answer:

Agriculture and agriculture-related industries contributed $777.0 billion to the U.S. GDP in 2012, a 4.7% share. The value of U.S. livestock production output (dairy products, milk; meat animals; miscellaneous livestock; and poultry and eggs)...

Question:
My friend and I have been engaged in a heated debate over the astronomical purchasing prices of apartments in New York (and even Shanghai, as we live in China) and what causes them to be so high. He believes they are solely based on supply and demand, while I believe there are other factors independent of supply and demand that determine why the prices are so astronomically high. Could you please inform us as to which is the case?
Answer:

As for the high price of apartments in China's big cities, I believe the supply and demand play the main role.

1. The supply in big cities is depressed by the heavy land regulation. There are two types of regulation. First, according to...

Question:
What are the signs of a bubble about to burst, such as the housing market in San Francisco or tech bubble?
Answer:

It’s logically impossible to predict the bursting of a bubble. If it were possible, everyone would sell before the bubble burst. The selling would cause the bubble to burst earlier. But then people would anticipate the earlier bursting and sell...

Question:
If growth rate is measured as % of GDP, and inflation is also measured as % of GDP, wouldn't a growth rate of 2% be completely offset by a 2% inflation rate for the same period? That is, the GDP would experience 0% effective increase?
Answer:

Hello, and thank you for sending us a question! The GDP growth rate is measured relative to last year’s GDP. Usually the Growth numbers that make headlines on the news are of what economists usually call “Real GDP,” meaning that it is already...

Question:
My name is Bob Galask and I grew up in Iowa (Fort Dodge). I've been in the diamond business in Los Angeles for over 35 years. Much of that time has been spent in Asia, particularly Thailand where I still have a diamond cutting factory. I've developed extensive connections in Thailand, Burma, India, Taiwan and Indonesia as well as a strong familiarity with most Asian countries and customs.

My question is, are there opportunities to purchase, process and export Iowa agricultural products? Pigs ears, gluten, chicken feet, ginseng, farm equipment etc., I'd be amenable to any opportunities.. I'll be in Iowa next week visiting friends and family. I'd appreciate any feedback be it positive or negative from any members of your staff.
Answer:

Yes, there are definitely opportunities to export Iowa agricultural products.  The U.S. Census Bureau currently calculates that Iowa companies exported $13.2...

Question:
I'm just an average joe, but I thought I had a decent grasp on inflation and top down economics. I don't understand, however, why the cost of EVERYTHING continues to rise in leaps and bounds. Yesterday, I went to Sam's Club and passed on a can of cashews priced at $18. I'm certain last year I was debating whether or not they were worth $13. I'm almost certain that the cost of picking and packing nuts hasn't increased that dramatically; how can they justify an almost 50% increase in price? I've noticed that the cost of eggs has increased everywhere; a dozen eggs are almost $4, the expensive ones used to be $1 and some change. Am I to believe it costs 400% more now than it did five years ago for chickens to lay eggs? The cost of butter has increased at the same rate of eggs, so I can see whatever is affecting the chickens are affecting the cows as well... This question was prompted when I noticed that the $18 cashews were close to the same price as the honey which was comparable to the price of shrimp. No way you can tell me it costs the same to harvest honey, nuts and shrimp! For whatever reasons I know that the cost of gasoline has increased 400% since I first started driving less than twenty years ago; although it is declining significantly now, but why does a gallon of milk cost more than a gallon of gas? Who is controlling this stuff?
Answer:

Let me answer the last question first. The markets are controlling the prices, based on supply and demand. So, depending on how you want to look at it, either everyone or no one is controlling the prices. Let’s dive into the factors that have...

Question:
The Chinese government recently added a tax on imported luxury cars. My question is why "extravagant spending by the elite is politically dangerous at a time of slowing economic growth"?
Answer:

Although China has had a spectacular economic growth in the last three decades, income/wealth inequality has been rising over time. It would not be a big problem as long as the high growth of economy can be sustained. This is because most people...

Question:
What's the best place to put your money if your primary focus is preserving its value? During the recent financial crisis, stocks and bonds went down the tubes. Government debt is approaching unsustainable levels, the Fed is "printing money" (via quantitative easing) like it's going out of style, and it's all fiat money anyway, so keeping cash is looking riskier all the time. Real estate (housing) also lost value during the crisis, is highly illiquid, and has ongoing costs (property taxes). Is gold the answer? Is any place safe in a crisis? Help!
Answer:

First, a disclaimer. Whatever is written below is not actual investment advice; it is general economics discussion, a dinner table conversation, no more. When it comes to preserving value, it becomes important to figure out, over what length of...

Question:
Are goods and services purchased to comply with regulations included in GDP? For example, is money spent on preparing tax returns considered "production" in GDP calculations? It kind of feels like it should *not* be, but I suspect that it is.
Answer:

GDP is the final $ value of all final goods and services produced in a year. Even if a service exists to help compliance with a regulation, it is included because the provision of that service, such as that performed by a tax attorney, is income...

Question:
This is a naive question from a fellow economist.

The model of perfect competition among firms is supposed to eliminate economic profits (a.k.a producers' surplus) in the long run. The idea is that such surplus will bring in new firms, pushing the economic surplus down to nothing, so that there are only normal market rates of return on all factor inputs, explicit and implicit.

Why then does this same model not apply to consumers? I have never seen it stated in any econ text that the entry of new consumers will push their surplus down to zero, including their search costs. Is this a serious inconsistency, or is unlimited entry of new consumers simply not a good way to model most markets? (I suspect the latter.) Even if this is so, should not this asymmetry in our most basic model be explicitly noted?
Answer:

Yes, economic theory traditionally has emphasized the role of the entry and exit of firms in dividing market surplus. In microeconomics, free entry and exit of firms is an important part of the assumption of free competition. For macroeconomists...

Question:
What percentage of Iowa's current row-crop farmer prosperity is the result of row-crop agriculture being completely unregulated in terms of water pollution, and therefore able to externalize water pollution costs? Installing new conventional pattern tiling, for example, raises crop yields but sends more polluted water into the drainage outlet (usually a river or lake). The farmer profits from the increased yield but pays nothing for the increased water pollution, which impacts society at large, since most rivers and lakes are public. Has any research been done on this question?
Answer:

The writer of this question understands economics and the market failure associated with externalities very well. Thank you for such an informed and interesting question! The writer is quite correct that the fact that agriculture generates an...

Question:
Should Internet companies like Uber and Airbnb be regulated?
Answer:

Should Uber and Airbnb be regulated? As a matter of fact, these companies, like any other in the United States, need to comply with a large number of regulations that cover for example workers compensation and health care. But should Uber and...

Question:
Generally speaking, an efficient allocation of ‘ownership’ or ‘control’ of a business is one that matches contribution to capital or input. For example, if I commit 60% of the resources a business requires (human or other capital), then I would expect approximately 60% control (ownership). It seems that both Partner 1 and Partner 2 contributed the same amount of cash equity (each secured “the same” loan to fund Business 2). Therefore, a starting point is that each Partner has equal ownership (on grounds of invested risk capital). One might also consider that Business 1 is a ‘partner’ because of the subsidization of land (rent) and Partner B’s salary. Business 1’s contribution is an amortized amount of rent and salary over the years in which Business 1 will subsidize Business 2. In this case, Business 1’s ownership is not trivial and should be recognized as risk capital to be repaid by Business 2 or purchased by either Partner A or Partner B at some point, giving the purchasing Partner a greater share of the remaining control.
Answer:

Partner A secures a loan for startup through a business (business 1) he owns 90% of. Partner A will have significant input in business decisions but little to do with day to day operations. The new business (business 2) is in a different industry...

Question:
There has been a lot of talk about how millennial college graduates have had difficulty finding work. As a millennial I find this topic very interesting. I have heard explanations such as the lack of job growth in the 21st century, or the fact that most kids do not graduate college with practical skills. Although the second reason makes sense, statistically college graduates used to have a much easier time finding jobs. That being said, what kind of jobs did people with liberal arts degrees get 20 years ago?
Answer:

In a recent study of U.S. Census data on individual earnings for those with a wide range of degrees for 2010-2011, liberal arts majors who have completed a baccalaureate degree (only) have the lowest median salaries early after graduation ($22,...

Question:
In corporate finance, operating expenses and capital expenses are tracked separately. Total opex within a fiscal calendar goes against revenues to net at EBITDA. Capex is recorded as fixed assets and amortized over x years to net at net earnings. (I know I'm simplifying things.) Importantly, the company's treasury function provides funding for Capex through a mix of cash flow and issuing debt. This seems clean.

My confusion is how this is reported (at least in public spheres) with governments. When we talk about a government's deficit, we seem to be including operating shortfalls (Opex or where existing programs spending is greater than revenues) plus Capex.

Say my government is running a $10B deficit and no change occurs in revenues and in program spending in the next fiscal year. If they propose a new infrastructure project (say railway) that will cost $$20B starting that year, what would be the deficit? I expect the $20B (assuming it actually stays at that level) would eventually be added to the accumulated debt but only the amortized allocation of it would be recorded as a part of the deficit.

Is that how it's supposed to be? Is that what they actually do? It seems the press never makes a distinction between these, which only confuses the public and obfuscates debate about spending.
Answer:

In your example, the infrastructure investment of $20B will be included in the next fiscal year expenditures in the full amount. Thus, the deficit during the next fiscal year will be $10B + $20B = $30B. Also, the debt level at the end of the next...

Question:
I'm writing a story about the impacts of incrementally raising the minimum wage each year, until it reaches $13/hour. Washington just passed the law and it goes into effect Jan. 1.

In my research I was surprised not to discover that not a single economic impact study had been done. Sure the state Office of Financial Management did theirs, and the restaurant/lodging lobbies did theirs. But there is no INDEPENDENT THIRD PARTY study out there ... that I could find.

The question is: Is that a kind of breach of sound fiscal management? Meaning, Washington citizens are sitting back and saying, "Well, let's just vote for it and see what happens?"
Answer:

Alas, your concern about lack of sound fiscal management is not only justified in this case but is justified far more broadly. Many policy changes are initiated without third party studies to back them up. One assumes the government agencies do a...

Question:
Hi.. I am a writer. I am from India.. I need some help on a story I am writing based on economics.. India is a poor as well as a wealthy country. Therefore, it seems to me that money has a dual purpose - Basic Survival and Human Ambition. The poor I see are busting their asses off just to reach basic survival, while the rich are making millions by the strength of their ambition, intelligence, and passion.. I have always heard the argument that printing money to get rid of poverty will in turn lead to inflation thus in turn leading to even bigger poverty. But one day, I had a different idea... What if, anyone is allowed access to print money.. Every money that is printed can only be accepted by government bodies providing basic necessities like food, basic clothing, water, and modest shelter. These government bodies can later exchange that money for anything they want. But the initial printer cannot exchange the first printed money for anything but only for basic public services. All the money in the market will therefore come from a government source providing one of basic services to people. If people want to then improve, meaning if they want to go to a fancy restaurant rather than a public mess,, they will have to earn that money.. Therefore earning money will be associated with human ambition and passion while money itself will be associated with public basic needs.. With survival out of question,, all people can focus on doing a personal business, taking better jobs, etc. in order to improve their lifestyle; economy will bloom... What I need to know, is, for the sake for my story,, what things can go wrong in this model?? Why is this kind of a system practically impossible because I assume if it was possible it would have been already there.. What are the flaws of this model?? Why does this sound too good to be practical?? I thank you for your time and your patience.. I hope to hear from you soon..
Answer:

I think you don't want everyone to have access to the money-printing press or if you do, then let there be a fixed limit (say, they can print no more than a thousand "basics", the name of this currency). If anyone can print as much basics as they...

Question:
Can you see the number GDP per capita increase in the next year and subsequently causing an increase in commercial boat ownership within the United States?
Answer:

Let me start by saying that I have expertise in the economics of commercial fishing. I cannot speak to whether GDP will increase next year. If GDP does rise, there may be channels by which commercial boat building and therefore boat ownership...

Question:
Why are economists and retailers surprised at the 11 percent lower Black Friday sales given the slight rise in the economy? Seems like just because gas is a bit less expensive and overall unemployment, people have still taken a financial hit that cannot be recovered in bank accounts simply by saving a few dollars at the gas pump. Is there an economic theory behind this surprise? I know I save more than most people but the outcome doesn't surprise me. Thanks for any thoughts and for this service!
Answer:

Black Friday is mostly a marketing gimmick to stimulate shopping during an extended weekend of wide-spread idleness, and the weekend’s performance is not a reliable predictor of total holiday spending or the health of the economy. To understand...

Question:
Some goods and services are provided by the government (e.g., mail delivery and schools) while others are provided by private business firms (e.g., grocery stores and dry cleaning). Economically, what goods and services would be best provided by the public sector and which are best provided by the private sector?
Answer:

Economists distinguish broadly among three types of goods along the private to public continuum. Purely private goods are purchased and used by individuals and families. Another way of explaining a private good is to say that my use (or...

Question:
I stumbled across a link regarding a Financial Settlement Tax (not FTT) from Scott Smith who is running a presidential campaign. The idea is to tax financial payments estimated to be $4515 trillion per annum in the US:

“The Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland, known as the BIS, publishes an annual report known as the Red Book, which reports on the volume of payments for most of the major nations in the world. The Federal Reserve keeps track of payments in the United States and provides the data to the BIS for publication in the Red Book. The Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures at the BIS oversees the publication of the Red Book. International Financial Settlement payments are recorded and published and 1/10 of 1% could be deducted and transparently reported on the Internet.”

My questions are below:
1) Roughly what percentage of settlements would disappear with a 0.1% tax? My guess is there’s a significant percentage of very low margin trades that would end with such a tax.

2) Since you can’t take nearly 30% from the economy without someone noticing, what distortion(s) would be introduced in the market?
Answer:

1) There is no way to tell even approximately without a well calibrated model. As you suggested, very small profit margin trades will no longer be conducted. However, there are other, potentially much more important routes. First, many small...

Question:
During a discussion with some friends on the whole "free college tuition" debate, along with the trillions of dollars currently owed on student loans, I began to wonder about a solution that would be somewhat liberal, but not so far to the left that it would be completely dismissed.

My question is: would it be economically feasible if the United States changed its tax code to allow all citizens to deduct 100% of all monies paid towards student loan lenders (interest AND principle)?

Responsible tax payers could see a lower tax bill (something we all know conservatives AND most liberals love), or most likely a refund (even better!, and the American public would have a greater incentive to pay down the trillions in student loan debt we currently owe.

I am what people are calling a millennial. I am a liberal. However, I do believe that nothing is free. But after graduating in 2008, my loans quickly rent into repayment long before I earned the chance to pay them off. Almost a decade later, my wife and I have a combined student loan debt of just about $100,000. And that WITH going to a cheaper public in-state school!

Anyways, I digress. I just had this notion, and since my education is more in marketing, I felt I could let the economists tell me if I'm flat out crazy, or if it was a viable plan.
Answer:

This is a great question. Currently interest (but not principal) on student loans is deductible within certain limits. The maximum deduction is $2,500 and the amount of the deduction begins to diminish once your Modified Adjusted Gross Income...

Question:
Has the advent of the 401K retirement plan impacted the stock market? It seems to me that the massive flow of cash that must be invested immediately would drive up prices. I understand that prior to 401Ks, retirement plans tended to invest in the host company's stock rather than the general market.
Answer:

In principle, if most companies offering retirement plans switched to 401(k)'s simultaneously and no new stocks were issued (i.e., no change on the supply side of the stock market), I would expect a substantial increase in the stock prices, as...

Question:
In the recent Canadian federal election, the winning Liberal party's platform included running a "small" fiscal deficit of about C$10B each year for 3 years to invest in infrastructure. The commentary about this that most surprised me was this would not increase the accumulated debt, and in fact would still contribute to reducing the debt, albeit more slowly.

Does that make sense? My understanding is that any fiscal year you end up with a deficit means you're borrowing more to make up the shortfall, and thus adding to the accumulated debt. Or are there technical aspects during the year that do otherwise?
Answer:

Given that the standard definition of government spending does not include the repayment of maturing debt, your understanding is correct. In particular, during the three years of running the deficit as planned, the Canadian federal government...

Question:
In news and other articles it often is stated "the cost of something could reach billions" or some such statement. Do these statements mean anything?
Answer:

It means that once the dust has settled, insurance companies have paid out, homes have been rebuilt, infrastructure redone, people have moved out, businesses rebuilt, and so on, the total cost of all that would reach billions. These "billions"...

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