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:
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:
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:
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:
Given the increasing population migration to more urban centers - and maybe the possible validation of Richard Florida's 'creative cities' theory - what viable economic models are we seeing for smaller, rural Iowa communities, most of which are really struggling to maintain population and economic viability? In other words, is there any hope for these once thriving rural towns and, if so, what does that look like?
Answer:

It is useful to begin by noting that Nebraska has a higher proportion of its population living in urban areas (73%) than Iowa (64%). The reason is that Nebraska has only 4 metropolitan areas (Lincoln, Grand Island, Sioux City, Omaha), all of...

Question:
Why aren't citizens who have given up looking for work not included in the unemployment numbers?
Answer:

Various measures of the U.S. labor market are prepared and published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor. The (civilian) labor force (L) is defined to be the summation of those in the non-institutionalized and non-...

Question:
Iowa’s 2016 current gubernatorial race is starting to heat up. Democratic challengers, as are all politicians, citing "job creation" as a major platform focus of their political campaign. In his 2010 campaign, Terry Branstad set a "job creation" goal for his 5th term as Iowa's governor at 200,000 new jobs. The Governor now claims to have created 130,000 Iowa jobs to date. How many "new" jobs has the Governor actually created and how many "net" jobs have been created in Iowa since January 2011?
Answer:

Governors really do not create jobs. Their departments of economic development, as well as other departments, may provide assistance, subsidies, and other types of aid to industries, but they do not create the jobs. The industries create the jobs...

Question:
I am student and recently have come across 2 equations which explain basically the same thing. It's about the real interest rate. One equation tells us: real interest = nominal interest - inflation The other one says: 1+real interest = ((1+inflation) / (1+nominal interest)) Which one is correct? Which one should we use? Thank you!
Answer:

The nominal interest rate associated with an asset (for example, a deposit in an interest-bearing savings account) is the rate at which the dollar value of the asset increases over time. The corresponding real interest rate is the rate at which...

Question:
I took an undergrad macro economics class at Drake University a few years back and I had a hard time understanding the professor on several issues. (I want to say that I'm not politically motivated here, or trying to make a political point). One issue was regarding national debt and deficit spending. In class we discussed how historically the USA general public and government hadn't looked favorably on holding debt until the 1930's. During this time through borrowing and spending on domestic projects the federal government helped pull the nation out of the grips of the depression. Since then it's been an accepted part of life that deficit spending by the federal government has more good than ill effects. Sometimes I think this works, but too often it's just assumed it works and we've worked ourselves into a massive financial hole by this unchallenged assumption. The rational he used was the debt was being bought by citizens and thus the interest on this debt was owed to ourselves, and when the gov repaid the debt and interest there was a gain somewhere in the US economy for purchase or investment in something else. I could buy this point of view if the Treasury sales were restricted to US citizens, but the fact is there are many international purchasers of our debt so we are actually paying out interest to England, Canada, Japan, China, etc. So the beneficiaries are not ourselves, but foreigners. I'm not sure if the professor was getting his point of view from a textbook or his own judgement, but I'm curious why these viewpoints are not scrutinized more in academia. Any insight would be helpful, thanks!
Answer:

Your understanding is correct that government debt allows governments to handle economic recessions better. When the private sector employment and therefore consumption demand is shrinking, the government can increase its public sector spending (...

Question:
How high can our national debt get (as a % of GDP) before it will be a threat to our financial stability? ie: dollar loses its status as the reserve currency.
Answer:

The national debt of the US is the amount owed by the US federal government and is the value of the Treasury securities that have been issued primarily by the Treasury and which are outstanding at that point of time. By far, the largest component...

Question:
What would happen if the minimum wage laws were repealed? Would businesses pay their employees a penny an hour?

If raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would be good for the economy, wouldn't raising it to $20 be better? If not, at what point are the good economic effects of a minimum wage outweighed by the bad?
Answer:

If minimum wage laws were repealed, the vast majority of U.S. workers would not have their wages impacted. Through supply and demand, competitive market forces drive up the wage rates of most workers to levels considerably above the current...

Question:
Can a market failure occur when there is a high amount of risk within the market leading producers and consumers to avoid the market?
Answer:

To answer this question, it is critical to agree on the definition of "market failure." In what follows, by "market failure" we will mean a situation where a free market fails to provide an efficient allocation of goods and services (i.e., risk...

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:
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:
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 would be the costs and benefits of returning to the gold standard?
Answer:

Under the gold system, either gold circulates as money, or there is a fixed relationship between the amount of currency in circulation and the amount of gold, given the dollar price of gold. In either case, it means that a valuable resource which...

Question:
Why is the growth of GDP so important? I understand that we want living standards to go up in the aggregate, but if the economy produced the same amount of goods/services per year for, say, three years, would that be catastrophic in itself (i.e., aside from policymakers and economists freaking out about it)?
Answer:

The event that you are referring to is what economists call recessions. During recessions, GDP drops or grows significantly below normal times for a period of usually less than two years. Recessions are dreaded by many but not all economists....

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:
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:
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:
What percent of hog firms use forward contracting or options? Why do hog producers not use futures or options?
Answer:

Unfortunately data are not readily available on the percent of hog firms using forward contracting or options. What is readily available through Mandatory Price Reporting (MPR) data provided by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is the volume...

Question:
How many families would be helped by raising the minimum wage?

This week the Congressional Budget Office analyzed the effects of raising the minimum wage to $10.10. They say (Table 4) that it will raise the average income for families in poverty by $300, but also (Table 1) that it will raise the total income for families in poverty by $5 bn.

These two numbers would make sense if there were 17 million families in poverty, but the census says there are only 9.5 million families in poverty. The numbers about families at other income levels have the same issue. Somewhere a number or an interpretation is wrong -- but where?

CBO link: www.cbo.gov/publication/44995

Census link: www.census.gov/hhes/www/cpstables/032013/pov/pov04_000.htm
Answer:

That’s an astute observation. As you say, $5 billion divided by $300 per family in poverty suggests there are about 17 million families in poverty. But the Census data cited in the CBO report indicate far fewer families in poverty. Updating your...

Question:
Regarding the great minimum wage debate, I found a quote attributed to John Boehner that goes something like this: “Employment is like everything else: the more expensive it is, the less you get.” What would be a bumper stickerable argument to counter that? I think Boehner’s point works because it is short, simple, and has economic cred. For my students’ benefit I'd like to find as effective a point to make in support of a higher minimum wage.
Answer:

Are your students economists? If so, it will be difficult to fashion a legitimate bumper sticker in support of the minimum wage. Boehner’s quote is called the “Law of Demand” in economics. You might use:

“Because employers can pay...

Question:
With the debate on whether or not to raise the minimum wage to $15, I think there is another question looming. I previously worked at a large parcel carrier, who paid their new couriers around $15 an hour. The work included:

Lifting boxes up to 150 lbs.
Loading and unloading trucks in a warehouse that can be freezing or sweltering,
Driving a large truck anywhere from 10-150 miles a day,
Customer interaction,
Route planning.

Now if the minimum wage was raised to $15, what would make me choose to work at this parcel company when I could work at a grocery store as a cashier? Wouldn't the new minimum wage increase cascade into other jobs in order to entice people to fill those more difficult positions?

I can see such a large jump in the minimum wage having unforeseen consequences. I would love someone's opinion on this. Thank you for your time!
Answer:

The current federal minimum wage for workers in covered sectors is $7.25 an hour. As you suggest, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would motivate many workers who were already being paid $15 in the old regime to seek employment in less...

Question:
Hello, I'm a 42 year old woman from Los Angeles CA. Due to personal reasons I left the state for about 10 years. Now that I'm back, I noticed that things have changed a lot! For example: when I was a young adult, I used to work as a waitress. I remember that most of my co-workers were about the same age and most of us were attending Junior College. However, now I'm 42 years old, I noticed a completely new group of people. Most are mature, in their mid 30s to mid 40s. A lot of them made careers out of working as servers. How does it affect the economy to have more people pursue careers in minimum wage jobs?
Answer:

First, the characterization of foodservice and restaurant workers as a career track is inaccurate. The median age of restaurant workers is 28.4 years, the second youngest sector of our economy (next to retail shoe stores at 24 years). As shown in...

Question:
I wonder what "reduced-form analysis" is, and a non-reduced form would be. To be more specific, I'm reading an article (www.clevelandfed.org/research/review/1996/96-q1-craig.pdf) which states the following:

"Economic data usually influence policy through a reduced-form analysis...Explicit assumptions about behavior that underlie the relationship are not emphasized; rather, the researcher asserts that the “data do the talking.”"

The author later specifies what he means by "reduced-form":

"We use the term in a wider context, where the pattern in the data — not an assumed behavioral structure — forms the point of departure for estimation."
Answer:

A “reduced-form” analysis, also often referred to as “non-structural” analysis, is the most common kind of econometric analysis performed by economists. The other kind, which you called “a non-reduced form,” is customarily referred to as “...

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