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.


Ask a Question

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.


E.g., Sunday, December 17, 2017
E.g., Sunday, December 17, 2017
Question:
If banks create credit from thin air, when they issue loans, and make astonishing interest in doing so, why would it not be beneficial to have their government create the credit? Then the interest collected on those loans could be used to fund goodies for the people, instead of super-yachts for crooks! Cheap loans for the poorest, expensive loans for the richest. Narrow the wealth gap a smidge. I cannot see a down side. Was this not how it once was, to our great prosperity? Is access to credit not the true essence of opportunity. Only people create value, thus, credit can only be created by the people. When did private banks capture our credit? And whom is responsible?
Answer:

There are government owned corporations or government backed corporations that directly lend to households or foster lending to households in other ways, for specific purposes. For example in the US, GNMA (Ginnie Mae), FNMA (Fannie Mae) and FHLMC...

Question:
Hi, quick question: can a tariff be counted as a fiscal policy measure? Currently studying the great depression and curious to know if the Smoot-Hawley act which raised US tariff on 20,000 imports counts as a contractionary Policy fiscal policy. My thinking behind this is it did involve the raising of taxes on imported goods,and increasing taxes are usually considered a contractionary fiscal policy measure. Please help. Thanks.
Answer:

In discussing the impact of economic policy on aggregate demand and the balance of trade in open economies, international economists often talk about two types of (non-monetary) policies: “expenditure reduction policies” and “expenditure...

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:
What is the impact of production being directed towards what appears to be endless product differentiation, for example multiple flavours of toothpaste or shampoo variations which ultimately do nothing to improve individual well being? Does this form of market operation generate employment or is it a waste of productive capacity that might be better directed towards activity that genuinely increases well being. For example, creating products that delivers a real benefit.
Answer:

Does the market provide too many or too few products, relative to some social optimum benchmark? It turns out that this question does not have a simple answer. It depends on whether or not consumers are well (perfectly) informed about products'...

Question:
I have noticed that Trillions of dollars of building during the Middle Ages went on in Europe from an agrarian/trading society. How did taxation of millions for farm labor become the basis of trade in Europe? It seems not rational that the food grown during the period 300 AD to 1780 was the basis of wealth. Therefore we know that mining silver, gold, copper allowed for coins but since there was no technology of the era that converts to the Trillions in Building out Paris, London, Prague, Austria, Russia. So, how was farm labor converted to the structures we see still standing today.....which architecturally are still the world standard for greatness.
Answer:

Medieval cathedrals and other structures are indeed impressive works of construction, and to look at them is to marvel at human ingenuity.  Medieval societies were in fact technological quite progressive, a fact documented for example in...

Question:
Here's what seems like a pretty fundamental one: Why do national government's now borrow exclusively from the private sector instead of from their own central banks and as a result pay high interest instead of essentially none, thereby greatly increasing the burden to the public and the national debt?
Answer:

If central banks are to lend to the government, they would have to print money and that is potentially inflationary. Forward-thinking countries try to control such a temptation by legislating in advance that their central bank be independent....

Question:
Does the ISU Economics Dept. have a position on whether the Federal Reserve Board should manipulate the federal fund rate to fight inflation? When I was at ISU there was a difference of opinion among professors due to the negative impact on employment.

When the Federal Reserve announces to the world that it’s going to slow down the economy to hold back inflation that has always meant that unemployment will eventually take a hit. In the three cycles since 1989 the unemployment rate starts declining 2.59-3.09 years after the Federal Reserve starts dropping the federal fund rate. The monthly unemployment rate has been falling at a predictable rate within 2.31% since January 2012. For some reason whoever is in the White House gets the blame or credit.
Answer:

As noted, when the Federal Reserve changes the amount of “monetary stimulus” in the economy, it tends to push inflation and employment in the same direction. Lowering the level of stimulus (by raising interest rates) puts downward pressure on...

Question:
In his answer to my previous question, Dr. Orazem states that 'Iowa's small towns are surviving' (compared to Nebraska). Are they? A vast majority of Iowa school districts have seen declining enrollments for years/decades, many/most of the small rural main streets that I see appear to be in serious decline, and the towns in general seem to be losing both population and vitality. I travel a lot through rural Iowa and it sure doesn't feel like most of these small towns are surviving. Am I incorrect? If my eyeball test and what I think are accurate demographic data aren't sufficient, how do we determine if rural towns are surviving? Thanks much. Just trying to wrap my head around issues related to small Iowa town vitality and the accompanying implications for schools.
Answer:

I think it is important in establishing policy to work from facts and not perceptions. While rural towns are getting smaller on average, not all are. While schools are consolidating in rural areas, they are also consolidating in cities as like...

Question:
http://imgur.com/4uBj6mc

How do I read what is the most profitable? I want to buy low and sell high. Something called item-flipping.
Answer:

I’m not able to read (too small) the table. Regardless, I think the question relates to flipping stocks. Admittedly, my expertise is much more in commodity futures markets, but I believe the theory/rationale holds across markets. As such, my...

Question:
I have simple question and I hope you could help me with it. Why when someone books for one week for international flight during vacation time, it will be cheaper than two weeks, and two weeks cheaper than three weeks? Why is that from an economic prospective?
Answer:

I always thought that it was the other way around: the closer you are to the departure date the higher the price. Airlines have some market power and use pricing overtime as a way to second degree price discriminate: Consumers who plan long ahead...

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:
I’m a student at Centennial High School in Pueblo, Colorado. I had a few questions about being an economist. What is it like being an economist? What do you do on a day-to-day basis? What benefits do you get from being an economist?
Answer:

Economics is a science, and the goal of all sciences is to better understand phenomena that we observe in the real world. In social sciences, like economics, the focus is on phenomena related to human behavior; and for economists, the...

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:
A recent Economist article www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21639587-beware-heavily-traded-stocks-drop-pops reports on an academic paper that seems to offer a mechanical rule for beating the stock market by a substantial margin. Is this a disproof of the efficient market hypothesis or is there some trick?
Answer:

Assume that you decide to buy a new cell phone. Are you going to buy iPhone or Xiaomi, some unknown brand? For a typical US consumer, you have about 40% chance to buy iPhone, but almost 0% chance to buy Xiaomi. An iPhone costs you about $600, but...

Question:
I came across a company recently which farms mussels off the coast of a small town in Bulgaria, and I started thinking about its structure in the economy. I know since it produces a homogenous product along with hundreds of other mussel farmers, it must be in perfect competition; however this mussel company also sold locally on top of selling to suppliers. This means it was the only mussel supplier (locally) in the town, and as far as I know that's a monopoly. My question is, what would this company's graphs look like? Would it be more like a perfect competition, or a monopoly? Although it is the only supplier in the town, it sells the mussels at the same price if not cheaper to locals as it does to suppliers, which I know unlike monopolies. Would there be any deadweight loss in a company like this? Is it inefficient or is it more efficient than normal? Consumers can buy mussels from the supermarket, but local supermarkets all get their supply of mussels from this one local company. Please help me understand!
Answer:

The local mussel farm has a cost advantage in supplying in its own town mostly because it saves on transportation costs. Even with that cost advantage, the local firm may not be able to fully exert monopoly power on the local market. It is easy...

Question:
When I attended ISU and graduated with an M.S. in economics in 1967, I was taught that government debt was largely a good thing, as it was (then) mostly money owed to ourselves. It also provided a useful tool for the Fed. to use for controlling the money supply by buying or selling bonds. Has general economic thought changed with the large amount of debt being taken on by government spending, quantitative easing, and a larger percentage of our debt being owned by foreign powers (China, etc.). Do we now believe that our national debt is not such a "good" thing?
Answer:

Your understanding is correct that government debt is “good” in the sense that it serves as a useful tool for conducting both monetary and fiscal policy. By allowing federal, state, and municipal governments to borrow, it lets these entities...

Question:
I am an Amerian citizen and have been considering applying to graduate school in London for a while now, and have finally found multiple programs of interest and have a plan in motion to raise enough money to be a financially stable unemployed student. Due to recent events (Brexit) I am trying to determine if it is financially feasible to continue pursuing obtaining a degree in London. Would school become more affordable for someone like me being an international student there? What about the cost of living? Or is it too early to determine all of this?
Answer:

It’s hard to answer your question since the situation in Britain is in flux. I can only mention a few considerations that may be relevant.

One is the exchange rate.  The British Pound has fallen in response to the Brexit vote. ...

Question:
I have a question about nomenclature related to resources and commodities. Am I right to say that a natural resource is something that is not refined or changed and sold on as a resource. Am I then also right to say that a commodity is a refined natural resource or product?

If possible could you folks better describe the raw product that comes from the ground as sold, vs the raw product that is transformed (in some way) then sold?

I think of wheat as a resource. I think of cereal as a commodity. Is that right?
Answer:

Here is a definition that I found on an OECD website https://stats.oecd.org/glossary/detail.asp?ID=1740. It is as good as any definition I have seen.

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:
My wife and I live in the US and are trying to plan for a retirement abroad. We wish to retire to my wife's native Brazil, and one of my principal concerns while we save our nest egg is accounting for the relationship between inflation and exchange rates after retirement, which I do not understand well. The BRL has had fairly high inflation since it's inception in the mid 90's, on average around 7% per year. Due to the inflation of the Real, and my familiarity with investing in the US, I am inclined to leave our assets in USD, and transfer funds into BRL as needed for the duration of our retirement. The exchange rate between BRL and USD also seems to vary wildly, from R$1.50 per USD all the way up to just under $R4.00.

So if we're looking into the future and we predict that the BRL will have an inflation rate of 7% per year, and the USD will have inflation of 3% per year, obviously the cost to live in Brazil will grow much faster than in the US. If that's true, over a period of 30-40 years, in theory, should the exchange rate become more favorable to the USD as the value of the BRL is eroded due to inflation? If so, is there a way I can replicate that effect in my retirement planning? Thank you for hearing my question. Please reach out to my email address if any clarification is needed.
Answer:

First, a disclaimer. Whatever is written below is not actual investment advice; it is general economics discussion, a dinner table conversation, no more.

It is certainly a great thing to be planning your retirement to such a...

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:
If budgets have to be approved by Congress before they get signed by the President, why does the Congress again have to approve an increase in the borrowing limits?

If govt debt is at $10 trillion, and Congress approves a budget with a budget deficit of $1 trillion, isn't it implied that the administration can implement the budget only by borrowing an extra trillion?
Answer:

Just to be clear, “the debt limit is the total amount of money that the United States government is authorized to borrow to meet its existing legal obligations, including Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, interest on the...

Question:
I read a summary of perfect competition which said that:
1. All market participants have perfect knowledge.
2. Excess profit is only possible in the short run.

If all participants have perfect knowledge, wouldn't all producers instantly know about excess profit opportunities, causing all of them to switch to producing that product at the same time, causing the price to crash and all of them to experience losses? Or, with second-order knowledge, wouldn't they all know that they all knew about the opportunity, and none of them would switch?

Is there a resolution to this perfect market dilemma?
Answer:

"I read a summary of perfect competition which said that: 1. All market participants have perfect knowledge."

An assumption that a market M for a good Q is a "perfectly competitive market" is not a presumption of perfect knowledge...

Question:
What would be the economic impact of eliminating the federal income tax system and replacing it with a national consumption tax such as the FairTax?
Answer:

This policy change would redistribute income from lower to higher income households because the current income tax is progressive while the flat tax would not be as progressive, if at all.

The change would also lead to the double taxation...

Question:
Hello!

I would humbly like to inquire whether this theory explains the drift apart of labor productivity and worker wage as a result of the progress of mechanization. And also I would like to know if it is new and worthy of exhaustive research.

"Increased productivity does not cause nor correspond with an increase in labor compensation. Wages increase in relation to the need for added and specialized skills and the relative scarcity of available labor possessing these. This carries over to skills needed to deploy and operate capital. If capital needs labor with added and specialized skills for it to operate, it will drive the need for higher paid, more specialized workers. The more autonomous the capital is corresponds with an increasingly inverse or stagnant relationship between real labor compensation and increased productivity. Productivity, in itself, is not a driver of added worth to labor." - Michael Nogle July 4, 2016

I am an avid student of history, and social studies, including economics, in my pursuit to gain my secondary teaching credentials. I also have two master degrees, one in liberal studies. I came up with this as a result of these studies. I believe the logic is sound and cannot think of specific areas where my model does not fit. My training in liberal studies has taught me that it is time to ask specialists for further insight.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Mike Nogle
Answer:

Your proposed theory of wage setting appears to be consistent with the way that most economists would approach this issue.  That is, most economists would accept that an individual’s wage is determined by the “human capital” – i.e., skills,...

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