Ask an Economist

Welcome to Ask an Economist, a public service of the Department of Economics at Iowa State University, designed to answer your economic questions.

Our talented faculty and alumni can answer questions on a variety of economic topics to help you make more informed choices about your day-to-day decisions--or to just add a more reasoned voice when talk of the economy comes up around the dinner table.

If we answer your question, we'll post it along with the answer here. (Questions may be edited or adapted from their original form.)

Note: We do not do homework, give financial advice, or provide research support.

Ask an Economist

Question:
Please advise my going to become an economist. I was an average mathematics major as an undergraduate with a G.P.A. of 3.19 overall with a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics. I have about the average IQ for economists, but I know nothing about economics. Now that I am 41 this year, I am thinking of starting anew in a brand new area of applied mathematics. Is this advisable this late in life to switch careers from mathematics to economics given that the two share a common bond in mathematical economics and are theoretical in microeconomics?

Would the transition be better if I pursued pure mathematics instead, because my experiences has been lately in proof making? What can I look forward to? How and what should I be looking into, to start off, if economics is a good choice? I am a highly curious person. Plus, I have worked hard, I have been doing pure mathematics on my own since 2004 until presently; but, it has been slow going; so, I thought that by going into something that has a better return in investments of my intellectual energy, I should try microeconomics?
Answer:

The prospect of a mid-life career change would be daunting for anyone.  In the end, you’ll have to make that difficult decision on your own.  But I can give you a few tips on how you might begin to explore whether a career in economics...

Question:
A commodity (let's say a vegetable like squash or tomato) that is grown in Mexico and transported to the US and is being sold at 1.29/lb.
After about a month when the commodity has less than 2 weeks of shelf life it may be sold at .69/lb and then discarded after another week.

1) Why would the store not further discount these items at let's say .30/lb to clear the complete stock? ( I understand it is so as not to let the global/US prices of the commodity go down.)
2) Is wasting better for the store than to sell it at a discount?
3) Even if customers stop buying fresh commodity and start to wait until the price goes down to .30/lb. Isn't it economically profitable to the store to actually sell it than waste it ?

Thanks
Answer:

Food waste arises from preferences, incentives, and constraints. Retailers have time and other resource constraints which implies that it simply will not be worth it to sell every last item of food in every instance. It can be said that there is...

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:
When speaking about social welfare in economics, they are referring to the allocation of resources and imperfect markets, NOT the social welfare of Medicaid, food stamps etc. Is this assumption right?
Answer:

Social welfare maximization in Economics typically refers to the correct allocation of scare resources to agents (firms, individuals) so as to generate the maximum possible utility (or other criterion) for the agents. The term has no negative...

Question:
Would slowing down immigration and blocking illegals from working in the US automatically cause the minimum wage to rise on its own?
Answer:

Minimum wages are wage floors set by law, not by the market. They, however, are subject to political pressure from citizens. If, say, hypothetically, all immigration, legal or otherwise, was stopped, then there would be a stronger demand to hire...

Question:
I was wondering if there are any threats that could cause regression or the stop of progression in the arena football league. I know the Arena football league is trying to expand in order to create more revenue but their business models have been poor in the past. Wondering what's your take on the subject and what environmental factors could prohibit this development
Answer:

If I understand your question correctly, you are asking about factors that will determine the success or failure of the Arena Football League.  As with any firm or industry, ‘economic’ success or failure depends on the ability of the firm or...

Question:
Hi, I gross $52,500 a year in Suffolk County Long Island, NY. How does my personal income compare to other income earners on Long Island? Somewhere in the middle or on the low side?
Answer:

None of us here have direct expertise on this issue. You may look at: http://www.longislandindex.org/data_posts/household-income-distribution/ for more...

Question:
Hi. I studied economics at undergraduate level and have encountered the profit maximising rule of MR = MC; with the standard premise for such calculations involving the production of goods with a fixed price per unit. I currently work in the construction sector (demolition) where each of our projects have a different cost and revenue from other projects. As such, I would like to know if/how the above measure could be applied to the service sector? My current thinking is that the data must be manipulated to achieve the cost per square foot of a site. However, this will involve significant data manipulation just to run the calculations. Could you tell me if I am on the right track with this direction or whether there is an alternative way that I could calculate the profit-maximising output? My goal in answering this question is to determine the appropriate mark-up for our business when submitting a quote to a client. At present, we are charging a 10% mark-up which I currently believe to be too low to be sustainable. Any assistance on this would be greatly appreciated.
Answer:

Hello:

 

Suppose you have N projects, each of them with possibly different but constant marginal costs (MC). Since the marginal cost for each project is constant, the average variable cost is also constant, and your profits can...

Question:
A few of my friends believe that the cure for cancer already exists, but the pharmaceutical companies won't release it because they make more money treating the disease rather than curing it. In my head, the company that had the cure would end up making the most because they would have a better product. My questions is which model would be the most profitable?
Answer:

You have put your finger on an important topic that economists have been arguing about since Kenneth Arrow’s analysis of the incentives to innovate in “Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources for Inventions” in _The Rate and...

Question:
Many markets in third-world countries have small stores selling exactly the same goods located side-by-side. In the Mid-East you can go to the gold souk, or the carpet souk. In the Far East you will see an entire street of hat shops, or bamboo-pole shops. My favorite street in Hanoi is full of shops that only sell gaffer-tape and scotch-tape. What is the economic mechanism that drives this clustering? Surely the pressure would be to price your goods lower than the next guy, thus driving down prices overall, to all of the shop-owners disbenefit?
Answer:

Souks and bazaars are in appearance competitive market places. The close proximity of shops selling virtually identical goods should drive price down. So, why do shops locate close to each other instead of locations where they would have less...

Question:
I have read a few recent articles in the Wall Street Journal recently regarding farmers going out of business, prices for fertilizer inputs, and how well farmers have been doing producing crops. They were titled "The Next American Farm Bust Is Upon Us", "Here’s One Industry Where the U.S. Is Already Catching China—Fertilizers".

Regarding the first article, why are American farmers still incurring such high costs for production inputs and why do they really have no where to sell their grain and product to make any money? Secondly why are fertilizer inputs in particular so expensive when the second article talks about how our supply is expanding and we are producing more fertilizer than any other country? Shouldn't these input costs go down or be down because of such a high supply?

Lastly it seems that farm production has been peaking and they are doing extremely well in regards of yield and product output, consequently having no place to sell their grain. My question is where do Ag Economists forecast job growth will be greatest in the Agriculture Sector in the next five years? Which particular majors in certain sectors of the Ag industry will do the best and be in high demand?

Thank you for your time
Answer:

While it is true that, in general, farmers are still facing high production costs.  They have also seen some of those costs fall over the past couple of years.  And it is not true that they have nowhere to sell their products. ...

Question:
With the Trump administration intent on fiscal spending, there is opinion from bank economists that this shall cause weakness in the USD. If we assume the spending will be serviced by domestic bonds, is this really a credible argument in today's climate and why? Thanks
Answer:

An increase in government spending will increase the domestic interest rate. A lot depends on how analysts perceive future price levels and inflation. If the government spending is not expected to cause future inflation, an increase in interest...

Question:
If 25% of the US population left their 401k (and other retirement funds) alone, reduced contributions by 25%(50%, 75%, 100%), withdrew all non-penalized funds and kept personal savings out of their banks, did not otherwise invest their money, what would happen nationally, internationally, immediately, long-term?
Answer:

My best guess is that you are interested in the effects of investors withdrawing from the financial market (as opposed to the labor market or some other market).

If 25% of the US population suddenly changed their investment behavior as you...

Question:
One of the macro economic indicator that is monitored by organizations is "the contribution of construction to the GDP". This is measured in terms of percentage contribution of construction.

My question is:
What does this comprise? Does it include large infrastructure projects/oil refineries/nuclear plats etc or not?
Answer:

As you probably have seen already, you can find the measure of value added to GDP per sector of the US economy at the Bureau of Economic Analysis website, specifically at this web address: https...

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"...

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:
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:
I work for the federal government as an auditor of costs proposed/incurred by government contractors, for goods and services for which there is no competitive market, and cannot be priced by the normal forces of supply and demand. We are supposed to help make sure the costs for the goods and services received are not unreasonable, or for purposes not allowed by the contract. My question is: What impact, if any, would it have on the economy if there weren't people in my position, and contractors could more easily charge the government unreasonable and unallowable costs for the goods and services provided?
Answer:

I am not sure I agree with the premise that the government buys a lot of goods and services which are otherwise not traded in a competitive market. (I suppose military expenses come under that description, to some extent.). If we assume that...

Question:
Although I studied economics at an undergraduate level and have spent almost a decade working for financial advisers, I've never understood the idea of target inflation ranges or why some countries are described as 'struggling with low inflation'. Is inflation a measure of the rising cost of living? Or is it a measure of the declining value of money? Perhaps it's both i.e. some sort of inverse relationship? Why do economies target an inflation range? I can't understand why we would want the cost of living to rise or want the value of our money to fall. If a country has low inflation, does that mean the cost of living is increasing at a low rate? And wouldn't that be a good thing for the population? Taking that a step further, wouldn't it be even better if the cost of living was declining over time (I believe that's called deflation)? Why is deflation a bad thing? Thanks in advance!
Answer:

If prices are not rising at all over time or even falling, it would act as an disincentive for firms to produce goods for the market. For durables, if people expect prices to fall, they will wait. Since most financial contracts are denominated in...

Question:
I've read that the total bank bailout was just under 30 trillion dollars http://ritholtz.com/2011/12/bailout-total-29-616-trillion-dollars/ I don't understand the purpose of the bailout: why did the Federal Reserve give out money to the banks instead of buying up the bad mortgages? I thought that money doesn't trickle down, but instead grows and multiplies from below. Am I misunderstanding the purpose of the bailout?
Answer:

Without questioning the specific numbers cited in the study, I would argue that much of the total does not represent a bailout of banks in a conventional sense. For example, $10T in central bank liquidity swaps refers to agreements between the...

Question:
It's said that printing more money causes inflation. What if the Federal Reserve printed a bunch of money and gave to someone secretly? How would that cause inflation? Thank you
Answer:

If the central bank printed some money and "gave to someone secretly" and that person did not spend it, nothing would happen. If they did spend it, it would add to the money already in circulation, which may or may not (if output went up) cause...

Question:
What would be the possible outcome if the President were to initiate a program that would buy up all bad credit for those with credit scores below, say 670. All those who participate would agree to an auto draft of $20 per month or something until they reach 65 to pay back the debt owed the govt via creditors. Would this not help to stimulate the economy with individuals now having more credit power? Most people who get a second chance in the credit score will more than likely take care of it. You said ask right?
Answer:

This is a very intriguing proposal that deserves to be researched. It can have a stimulative effect for sure, at least in the short run. Once the government has paid off the bad debt, presumably banks will start lending again and that help...

Question:
What are the fringe benefits of being an economist?
Answer:

Taken literally, fringe benefits are extra, non-monetary compensation, such as health insurance, etc. provided you by your employer.  I suspect, however, that the person who submitted this question is not interested in the package of...

Question:
From 1934 to 2015 the mean difference between the national debt and commercial bank assets has been as follows: National Debt = 0.94 x Commercial Bank Assets. There is a simplistic narrative of the national debt that goes as follows. The government spends into the economy and then removes some of the spent money and then spends more, etc and the amount the government does not take from the economy is equal to the debt. This simplistic narrative does not include the complexities of a central bank, an endogenous money supply system, etc. Is it possible that the narrative is true but the system enables commercial banks to "capture" the money as their assets?
Answer:

A fundamental principle of accounting is that the liabilities of one party are the assets of another. National debt is simply the amount owed by the federal government – that is, its liabilities. Some other party must hold these as assets, but it...

Question:
I work for a local government in Kansas and recently discovered FDIC deposit data by county, zip code, institution. I was wondering what an increase or decrease in deposits might indicate about a community? I couldn't find discussion on-line regarding how to interpret this FDIC data. Thanks for you help. -Mike
Answer:

Information on changes in deposits at commercial banks can be useful in gaining a better understanding of a local economy. However, determining whether an increase in deposits is positive, negative, or neutral can be difficult if the reason for...

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