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April 4, 2014

Gary Becker's Grandson Ponders Opportunity Cost of College



HarboeLouisYoungTechEntrepreneur2014-03-30.jpg



"Louis Harboe with his parents, Frederik Harboe and Catherine Becker. Louis, now 18, got his first freelance tech job at age 12. Last year, he attended the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. 1) Ryan was headed to South by Southwest Interactive, the technology conference in Austin. There, he planned to talk up an app that he and a friend had built. Called Finish, it aimed to help people stop procrastinating, and was just off its high in the No. 1 spot in the productivity category in the Apple App store.


. . .


Ryan is now 17, a senior at Boulder High. He is among the many entrepreneurially minded, technologically skilled teenagers who are striving to do serious business. Their work is enabled by low-cost or free tools to make apps or to design games, and they are encouraged by tech companies and grown-ups in the field who urge them, sometimes with financial support, to accelerate their transition into "the real world." This surge in youthful innovation and entrepreneurship looks "unprecedented," said Gary Becker, a University of Chicago economist and a Nobel laureate.

Dr. Becker is assessing this subject from a particularly intimate vantage point. His grandson, Louis Harboe, 18, is a friend of (p. 6) Ryan's, a technological teenager who makes Ryan look like a late bloomer. Louis, pronounced Louie, got his first freelance gig at the age of 12, designing the interface for an iPhone game. At 16, Louis, who lives with his parents in Chicago, took a summer design internship at Square, an online and mobile payment company in San Francisco, earning $1,000 a week plus a $1,000 housing stipend.

Ryan and Louis, who met online in the informal network of young developers, are hanging out this weekend in Austin at South by Southwest. They are also waiting to hear from the colleges to which they applied last fall -- part of the parallel universe they also live in, the traditional one with grades and SATs and teenage responsibilities. But unlike their peers for whom college is the singular focus, they have pondered whether to go at all. It's a good kind of problem, the kind faced by great high-school athletes or child actors who can try going pro, along with all the risk that entails.

Dr. Becker, who studies microeconomics and education, has been telling his grandson: "Go to college. Go to college." College, he says, is the clear step to economic success. "The evidence is overwhelming."

But the "do it now" idea, evangelized on a digital pulpit, can feel more immediate than academic empiricism. "College is not a prerequisite," said Jess Teutonico, who runs TEDxTeen, a version of the TED talks and conferences for youth, where Ryan spoke a few weeks ago. "These kids are motivated to take over the world," she said. "They need it fast. They need it now."



For the full story, see:

MATT RICHTEL. "The Youngest Technorati." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Fri., MARCH 9, 2014): 1 & 6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 8, 2014.)






February 12, 2013

The War on Drugs Likely "Increased the Rate of Addiction"



DrugPrisonerGraph2013-02-03.jpg






Source of graph: online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.







(p. C1) President Richard Nixon declared a "war on drugs" in 1971. The expectation then was that drug trafficking in the United States could be greatly reduced in a short time through federal policing--and yet the war on drugs continues to this day. The cost has been large in terms of lives, money and the well-being of many Americans, especially the poor and less educated. By most accounts, the gains from the war have been modest at best.

The direct monetary cost to American taxpayers of the war on drugs includes spending on police, the court personnel used to try drug users and traffickers, and the guards and other resources spent on imprisoning and punishing those convicted of drug offenses. Total current spending is estimated at over $40 billion a year.

These costs don't include many other harmful effects of the war on drugs that are difficult to quantify. For example, over the past 40 years the fraction of students who have dropped out of American high schools has remained large, at about 25%. Dropout rates are not high for middle-class white children, but they are very high for black and Hispanic children living in poor neighborhoods. Many factors explain the high dropout rates, especially bad schools and weak family support. But another important factor in inner-city neighborhoods is the temptation to drop out of school in order to profit from the drug trade.

The total number of persons incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the U.S. has grown from 330,000 in 1980 to about 1.6 million today. Much of the increase in this population is directly due to the war on drugs and the severe punishment for persons convicted of drug trafficking. About 50% of the inmates in federal prisons and 20% of those in state prisons have been convicted of either selling or using drugs. The many minor drug traffickers and drug users who spend time in jail find fewer opportunities for legal employment after they get out of prison, and they develop better skills at criminal activities.


. . .


(p. C2) It is generally harder to break an addiction to illegal goods, like drugs. Drug addicts may be leery of going to clinics or to nonprofit "drugs anonymous" groups for help. They fear they will be reported for consuming illegal substances. Since the consumption of illegal drugs must be hidden to avoid arrest and conviction, many drug consumers must alter their lives in order to avoid detection.

Usually overlooked in discussions of the effects of the war on drugs is that the illegality of drugs stunts the development of ways to help drug addicts, such as the drug equivalent of nicotine patches. Thus, though the war on drugs may well have induced lower drug use through higher prices, it has likely also increased the rate of addiction. The illegality of drugs makes it harder for addicts to get help in breaking their addictions. It leads them to associate more with other addicts and less with people who might help them quit.


. . .


The decriminalization of both drug use and the drug market won't be attained easily, as there is powerful opposition to each of them. The disastrous effects of the American war on drugs are becoming more apparent, however, not only in the U.S. but beyond its borders. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon has suggested "market solutions" as one alternative to the problem. Perhaps the combined efforts of leaders in different countries can succeed in making a big enough push toward finally ending this long, enormously destructive policy experiment.



For the full commentary, see:

GARY S. BECKER and KEVIN M. MURPHY. "Have We Lost the War on Drugs? After more than four decades of a failed experiment, the human cost has become too high. It is time to consider the decriminalization of drug use and the drug market." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., January 5, 2013): C1 & C2.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 4, 2013.)






July 1, 2012

Behavioral Economics Does Not Undermine Capitalism



thinkingfastandslowBK2012-06-21.jpg












Source of book image: http://www.brainpickings.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/thinkingfastandslow.jpg





Daniel Kahneman first gained fame in economics through research with Tversky in which they showed that some of economists' assumptions about human rationality do not always hold true.

Kahneman, whose discipline is psychology, went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics, sharing the prize with Vernon Smith. (Since the Prize is not normally awarded posthumously, Tversky was not a candidate.)

I have always thought that ultimately there should be only one unified science of human behavior---not claims that are "true" in economics and other claims that are "true" in psychology. (I even thought of minoring in psychology in college, before I realized that the price of minoring included taking time-intensive lab courses where you watched rats run through mazes.)

But I don't think the implications of current work in behavioral economics are as clear as has often been asserted.

Some important results in economics do not depend on strong claims of rationality. For instance, the most important "law" in economics is the law of demand, and that law is due to human constraints more than to human rationality. Gary Becker, early in his career, wrote an interesting paper in which he showed that the law of demand could also be derived from habitual and random behavior. (I remember in conversation, George Stigler saying that he did not like this paper by Becker, because it did not hone closely to the rationality assumption that Stigler and Becker defended in their "De Gustibus" article.)

The latest book by Kahneman is rich and stimulating. It mainly consists of cataloging the names of, and evidence for, a host of biases and errors that humans make in thinking. But that does not mean we cannot choose to be more rational when it matters. Kahneman believes that there is a conscious System 2 that can over-ride the unconscious System 1. In fact, part of his motive for cataloging bias and irrationality is precisely so that we can be aware, and over-ride when it matters.

Sometimes it is claimed, as for instance in a Nova episode on PBS, that bias and irrationality were the main reasons for the financial crisis of 2008. I believe the more important causes were policy mistakes, like Clinton and Congress pressuring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make home loans to those who did not have the resources to repay them; and past government bailouts encouraging finance firms to take greater risks. And the length and depth of the crisis were increased by government stimulus and bailout programs. If instead, long-term cuts had been made in taxes, entrepreneurs would have had more of the resources they need to create start-ups that would have stimulated growth and reduced unemployment.

More broadly, aspects of behavioral economics mentioned, but not emphasized, by Kahneman, can actually strengthen the underpinnings for the case in favor of entrepreneurial capitalism. Entrepreneurs may be more successful when they are allowed to make use of informal knowledge that would not be classified as "rational" in the usual sense. (I discuss this some in my forthcoming paper, "The Epistemology of Entrepreneurship.")

Still, there are some useful and important examples and discussions in Kahneman's book. In the next several weeks, I will be quoting some of these.


Book discussed:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.


The Becker article mentioned above is:

Becker, Gary S. "Irrational Behavior and Economic Theory." Journal of Political Economy 70, no. 1 (Feb. 1962): 1-13.


The Stigler-Becker article mentioned above is:

Stigler, George J., and Gary S. Becker. "De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum." American Economic Review 67, no. 2 (March 1977): 76-90.





January 20, 2012

Gary Becker Says "Economics Trumps Culture"



At the Chicago American Economic Association (AEA) meetings, I attended an 8 AM session on Sun., Jan. 8, 2012 in honor of the 30 anniversary of Gary Becker's Treatise on the Family. At the end of the session, Becker discussed five issues related to the book.

One of these was the question of whether the features of the family are best understood on the basis of economic issues or cultural issues. He mentioned two examples: the Irish family and the Asian family. In the past it had been claimed that the Irish family would have enduring features due to religion and culture, features such as many children and women who stayed at home. Today, Becker noted, the Irish family looks much like other European families. He then paraphrased Singapore's former ruler Lee Kuan Yew as having claimed in the past that the Asian family is superior to the Western family in its cohesiveness and loyalty. Today, Becker noted, Asian families look much more like Western families. Becker concluded that in the short run cultural factors may dominate, but that in the long run economic factors dominate. He said "Economics trumps culture."

Becker's discussion has broader relevance. One of the issues that I am grappling with in my research and teaching is the extent to which success at entrepreneurial innovation depends on cultural differences and the extent to which it depends on differences in constraints and policies.

If policies matter more, then it is easier to see a clear path toward progress, than if murkier cultural issues matter more.





May 1, 2011

Reduce Spending for Stronger Economy



GovernmentSpendingGraph2011-04-25.jpgSource of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A17) To the extent that government spending crowds out job-creating private investment, it can actually worsen unemployment. Indeed, extensive government efforts to stimulate the economy and reduce joblessness by spending more have failed to reduce joblessness.

Above all, the federal government needs a credible and transparent budget strategy. It's time for a game-changer--a budget action that will stop the recent discretionary spending binge before it gets entrenched in government agencies.


. . .


We can see such a sensible budget strategy starting to emerge. The first step of the strategy is largely being addressed by the House budget plan for 2011, or HR1. Though voted down in its entirety by the Senate, it is now being split up into "continuing" resolutions that add up to the same spending levels.



For the full commentary, see:

GARY S. BECKER, GEORGE P. SHULTZ AND JOHN B. TAYLOR. "OPINION; Time for a Budget Game-Changer; Assurance that current tax levels will remain in place would provide an immediate stimulus. House Republican budget planners are on the right track." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., APRIL 4, 2011): A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





October 6, 2010

China's Continued Growth Requires Reliance on Private Enterprise



(p. A21) No country in the modern world has managed persistent economic growth without considerable reliance on private enterprise and decentralized private markets. All centrally planned economies failed to achieve sustained development, including the Soviet Union before its collapse, China before market reforms began in the late 1970s, and Cuba since Castro's revolution in the late 1950s.

China's private sector has led its dominance in textiles, electronics, and other consumer and producer goods. It's followed the model of the "Asian Tigers"--Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan--and relied heavily on exports produced with cheap labor. In the process, China has accumulated enormous reserves, as Taiwan, Japan and other rapidly growing Asian economies did in past decades.

Poorer countries like China need not get everything "right" to grow rapidly through exports to richer countries. They need only have some strong sectors that use world markets to fuel overall growth. Japan's rapid growth from the 1960s-1980s was led by a highly efficient manufacturing sector. Yet at the same time Japan also had a large and inefficient service sector, and an agricultural sector that was riddled with subsidies and inefficient incentives.

Similarly, China's economy still has a glut of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) with excessive employment and low productivity. Their importance has fallen over time, but Chinese economists estimate that they still control about half of nonagricultural GDP. One crucial example is the state-controlled financial sector that makes cheap loans to other large, inefficient and unprofitable state enterprises. China's economy also suffers from extensive price controls, restrictions on migration, and many other structural barriers to efficient growth.



For the full commentary, see:

GARY S. BECKER. "China's Next Leap Forward; The jump from middle-income to rich status is much harder to achieve than the ascent from poverty. But there are plenty of reasons to believe China's growth prospects remain strong." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., SEPTEMBER 29, 2010): A21.






June 5, 2010

Becker Believes the Fight for Liberty Can Be Won



(p. A13) My last question involves a little story. Not long before Milton Friedman's death in 2006, I tell Mr. Becker, I had a conversation with Friedman. He had just reviewed the growth of spending that was then taking place under the Bush administration, and he was not happy. After a pause during the Reagan years, Friedman had explained, government spending had once again begun to rise. "The challenge for my generation," Friedman had told me, "was to provide an intellectual defense of liberty." Then Friedman had looked at me. "The challenge for your generation is to keep it."

What was the prospect, I asked Mr. Becker, that this generation would indeed keep its liberty? "It could go either way," he replies. "Milton was right about that."

Mr. Becker recites some figures. For years, federal spending remained level at about 20% of GDP. Now federal spending has risen to 25% of GDP. On current projections, federal spending would soon rise to 28%. "That concerns me," Mr. Becker says. "It concerns me a great deal.

"But when Milton was starting out," he continues, "people really believed a state-run economy was the most efficient way of promoting growth. Today nobody believes that, except maybe in North Korea. You go to China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, even Western Europe. Most of the economists under 50 have a free-market orientation. Now, there are differences of emphasis and opinion among them. But they're oriented toward the markets. That's a very, very important intellectual victory. Will this victory have an effect on policy? Yes. It already has. And in years to come, I believe it will have an even greater impact."

The sky outside his window has begun to darken. Mr. Becker stands, places some papers into his briefcase, then puts on a tweed jacket and cap. "When I think of my children and grandchildren," he says, "yes, they'll have to fight. Liberty can't be had on the cheap. But it's not a hopeless fight. It's not a hopeless fight by any means. I remain basically an optimist."



For the full interview, see:

PETER ROBINSON. "'Basically an Optimist'--Still; The Nobel economist says the health-care bill will cause serious damage, but that the American people can be trusted to vote for limited government in November." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 27, 2010): A13.

(Note: the online version of the interview is dated March 26, 2010.)





January 16, 2010

Recession Is Prolonged By Doubts on Obama Policies



(p. A17) Several pieces of evidence point to extreme caution by businesses and households. A regular survey by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) shows that recent capital expenditures and near-term plans for new capital investments remain stuck at 35-year lows. The same survey reveals that only 7% of small businesses see the next few months as a good time to expand. Only 8% of small businesses report job openings, as compared to 14%-24% in 2008, depending on month, and 19%-26% in 2007.

The weak economy is far and away the most prevalent reason given for why the next few months is "not a good time" to expand, but "political climate" is the next most frequently cited reason, well ahead of borrowing costs and financing availability. The authors of the NFIB December 2009 report on Small Business Economic Trends state: "the other major concern is the level of uncertainty being created by government, the usually [sic] source of uncertainty for the economy. The 'turbulence' created when Congress is in session is often debilitating, this year being one of the worst. . . . There is not much to look forward to here."

Government statistics tell a similar story. Business investment in the third quarter of 2009 is down 20% from the low levels a year earlier. Job openings are at the lowest level since the government began measuring the concept in 2000. The pace of new job creation by expanding businesses is slower than at any time in the past two decades and, though older data are not as reliable, likely slower than at any time in the past half-century. While layoffs and new claims for unemployment benefits have declined in recent months, job prospects for unemployed workers have continued to deteriorate. The exit rate from unemployment is lower now than any time on record, dating back to 1967.

According to the Michigan Survey of Consumers, 37% of households plan to postpone purchases because of uncertainty about jobs and income, a figure that has not budged since the second quarter of 2009, and one that remains higher than any previous year back to 1960.

These facts suggest that it was a serious economic mistake to press for a hasty, major transformation of the U.S. economy on the heels of the worst financial crisis in decades. A more effective approach would have been to concentrate first on fighting the recession and laying solid foundations for growth. They should have put plans to re-engineer the economy on the backburner, and kept them there until the economy emerged fully from the recession and returned to robust growth. By failing to adopt a measured approach to economic policy, Congress and the president may be slowing the economic recovery, and thereby prolonging the distress from the recession.




For the full commentary, see:

GARY S. BECKER, STEVEN J. DAVIS AND KEVIN M. MURPHY. "OPINION; Uncertainty and the Slow Recovery; A recession is a terrible time to make major changes in the economic rules of the game." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., JANUARY 4, 2010): A17.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)





August 4, 2009

"It Is No Time to Concede"



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Gary Becker. Source of caricature: online version of the WSJ interview quoted and cited below.




(p. A9) "What can we do that would be beneficial? [One thing] is lower corporate taxes and businesses taxes and maybe taxes in general. Particularly, you want to lower the tax on capital so you raise the after-tax return to investing and get more investing going on."


. . .


What Mr. Becker has seen over a career spanning more than five decades is that free markets are good for human progress. And at a time when increasing government intervention in the economy is all the rage, he insists that economic liberals must not withdraw from the debate simply because their cause, for now, appears quixotic.

As a young academic in 1956, Mr. Becker wrote an important paper against conscription. He was discouraged from publishing it because, at the time, the popular view was that the military draft could never be abolished. Of course it was, and looking back, he says, "that taught me a lesson." Today as Washington appears unstoppable in its quest for more power and lovers of liberty are accused of tilting at windmills, he says it is no time to concede.



For the full interview, see:

MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY. "OPINION: THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; Now Is No Time to Give Up on Markets." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., MARCH 21, 2009): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)



Gary Becker_2009_07_10.jpg Gary Becker. Source of photo: http://larryevansphotography.com/Gary%20Becker_2.jpg






June 15, 2009

Becker and Farmer on the Economics of Discrimination



FarmerDonnaAndChildren2009-06-09.jpg "ROYAL SUBJECTS; Donna Farmer, with her children, applauds Disney's efforts." Source of photo and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


In Gary Becker's initially controversial doctoral dissertation, he argued that those who discriminate in the labor market pay a price for their prejudice: they end up paying higher wages, than do those employers are not prejudiced.

The bottom line is that the free market provides incentives for the encouragement of diversity and tolerance.

Similarly, Donna Farmer argues, in the passages below, that the marketplace provides the Disney company with incentives to have "The Princess and the Frog" appeal to black audiences.


(p. 1) "THE Princess and the Frog" does not open nationwide until December, but the buzz is already breathless: For the first time in Walt Disney animation history, the fairest of them all is black.


. . .


After viewing some photographs of merchandise tied to the movie, which is still unfinished, Black Voices, a Web site on AOL dedicated to African-American culture, faulted the prince's relatively light skin color. Prince Naveen hails from the fictional land of Maldonia and is voiced by a Brazilian actor; Disney says that he is not white.

"Disney obviously doesn't think a black man is worthy of the title of prince," Angela Bronner Helm wrote March 19 on the site. "His hair and features are decidedly non-black. This has left many in the community shaking (p. 8) their head in befuddlement and even rage."

Others see insensitivity in the locale.

"Disney should be ashamed," William Blackburn, a former columnist at The Charlotte Observer, told London's Daily Telegraph. "This princess story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community."

ALSO under scrutiny is Ray the firefly, performed by Jim Cummings (the voice of Winnie the Pooh and Yosemite Sam). Some people think Ray sounds too much like the stereotype of an uneducated Southerner in an early trailer.

Of course, armchair critics have also been complaining about the princess. Disney originally called her Maddy (short for Madeleine). Too much like Mammy and thus racist. A rumor surfaced on the Internet that an early script called for her to be a chambermaid to a white woman, a historically correct profession. Too much like slavery.

And wait: We finally get a black princess and she spends the majority of her time on screen as a frog?


. . .


Donna Farmer, a Los Angeles Web designer who is African-American and has two children, applauded Disney's efforts to add diversity.

"I don't know how important having a black princess is to little girls -- my daughter loves Ariel and I see nothing wrong with that -- but I think it's important to moms," she said.

"Who knows if Disney will get it right," she added. "They haven't always in the past, but the idea that Disney is not bending over backward to be sensitive is laughable. It wants to sell a whole lot of Tiana dolls and some Tiana paper plates and make people line up to see Tiana at Disney World."



For the full article, see:

BROOKS BARNES. "Her Prince Has Come. Critics, Too." The New York Times, SundayStyles Section (Sun., May 31, 2009): 1, 8-9.

(Note: ellipses added.)


The published version of Becker's doctoral dissertation is:

Becker, Gary S. The Economics of Discrimination. 2nd Rev ed, Economic Research Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.


DisneyPrincessAndFrog2009-06-09.jpg Movie still of Princess Tiana from Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" to be released in December 2009. Source of movie still: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





March 10, 2009

Larry Moss Made a Difference



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Laurence S. Moss

Source of photo: http://www3.babson.edu/academics/faculty/lmoss.cfm



On Sunday (3/8/09) I learned that Larry Moss passed away on February 24, 2009.

Larry was full of the joy of life. He was intense. He was an amateur magician, and a wit, and an energetic conversationalist. I used to run into him once a year at the History of Economics Society meetings, and always enjoyed our conversations.

He was a neo-Austrian, though not "pure" enough for some of the ultra-Rothbardians. I first met him at a long-weekend seminar in Austrian economics when I was a graduate student, and he was a presenter.

I remember that he and I thought that the dialogue would be richer, and the neo-Austrian position ultimately strengthened, if its defenders understood better some of the alternative positions. So we announced a kind of rump session during one of the free-time periods. During this session, Larry gave the attendees a brief summary of what Walras had been up to, and I summarized Becker's paper on the robustness of the law of demand to various forms of irrational and habitual behavior.

If memory serves, we suffered some mild heckling, and Larry was more severely criticized for disloyalty to the cause. (I cannot prove it, but I believe he paid a price for that in terms of invitations to future similar gatherings.)


I did not follow Larry's research systematically, but know that he wrote the definitive account of Mountifort Longfield's economics. He also had a nice, early paper in the JEL on the uses of film in teaching economics.

He took Schumpeter seriously, and wrote the script for the wonderful Schumpeter tapes in the Knowledge Products series on great economists that Kirnzer edited.

A couple of year's ago, I invited Larry to participate in the Schumpeter session that I organized at George Mason's Summer Institute for the Preservation of the History of Economic Thought. He initially agreed, but then had to withdraw because of his health.

More recently, I submitted one of my more idiosyncratic efforts (on the career consequences of writing on polywater) to the journal that Larry edited. I received excellent comments, and the editorial process was handled with grace and efficiency.


Larry was one of the "good guys" in many different ways, and the world is worse for his passing.


Here are a couple of Larry's more obscure writings, that I have found useful:

Moss, Laurence S. "Film and the Transmission of Economic Knowledge: A Report." Journal of Economic Literature 17, no. 3 (1979): 1005-19.

Moss, Laurence S. "Review: Robert Loring Allen's Biography of Joseph A. Schumpeter." American Journal of Economics and Sociology 52, no. 1 (1993): 107-18.

The reference to Larry's Schumpeter tapes is:

Moss, Laurence S. Joseph Schumpeter & Dynamic Economic Change: Capitalism as "Creative Destruction". Nashville, TN: Knowledge Products, Inc., 1988. audio.





February 20, 2009

Stimulus Bill Causes "Burden from Higher Taxes Down the Road"


In the op-ed piece quoted below, Nobel-prize winner Gary Becker, along with Kevin Murphy, express reservations about the recently-passed stimulus bill, although they apparently do not go quite as far as Harvard economist Robert Barro, who believes the multiplier may be close to zero (which would imply no stimulus from the stimulus bill).

Although Becker and Murphy believe that there will be some stimulus, they emphasize that the costs will be substantial:

(p. A17) The increased federal debt caused by this stimulus package has to be paid for eventually by higher taxes on households and businesses. Higher income and business taxes generally discourage effort and investments, and result in a larger social burden than the actual level of the tax revenue needed to finance the greater debt. The burden from higher taxes down the road has to be deducted both from any short-term stimulus provided by the spending program, and from its long-run effects on the economy.


For the full commentary, see:

GARY S. BECKER and KEVIN M. MURPHY. "There's No Stimulus Free Lunch." Wall Street Journal (Tues., February 10, 2009): A17.




July 1, 2008

The Method of Milton Friedman's Practice Was Better Than the Method of His Essay


The method of the Chicago School is often thought to be the method outlined in Friedman's famous essay "The Methodology of Positive Economics." It can be (and has been) persuasively argued that the actual methodology practiced by Friedman is broader, and more eclectic than that advocated in his early essay.

His practice continued to exemplify a kind of empiricism, but it was a kind of empiricism that included, not only 'rigorous' econometrics, but also economic history, case studies, and 'stylized facts.'

I believe that the method of Friedman's practice is sounder than the method of his essay. So it is unfortunate that the Institute founded in Friedman's name will probably only support those who practice the formal method of the essay.

(p. B5) The University of Chicago will announce Thursday that it plans to establish a center for economics honoring the late economist Milton Friedman.

The school plans to raise an endowment of $200 million to support the Milton Friedman Institute.

. . .

. . . his approach to economics embodies what has come to be known as the Chicago School. He defined that as "an approach that insists on the empirical testing of theoretical generalizations and that rejects alike facts without theory and theory without facts."

It is that approach, and the intellectual rigor that Mr. Friedman brought to it, that the Friedman Institute is meant to advocate, rather than any ideology, says Chicago economist Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize-winning former student of Mr. Friedman's who was on the faculty committee that recommended the institute.


For the full story, see:

JUSTIN LAHART. "University Plans Institute to Honor Milton Friedman." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., May 15, 2008): B5.

(Note: ellipses added.)


The famous Friedman method essay is:

Friedman, Milton. "The Methodology of Positive Economics." In Essays in Positive Economics, 3-43. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.




January 31, 2007

Increase in Minimum Wage Hurts Poor

 

The strong bipartisan support for increasing the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour from the current $5.15 -- a 40% increase -- is a sad example of how interest-group politics and the public's ignorance of economics can combine to give us laws that manage to be both inefficient and inegalitarian.

An increase in the minimum wage raises the costs of fast foods and other goods produced with large inputs of unskilled labor. Producers adjust both by substituting capital inputs and/or high-skilled labor for minimum-wage workers and, because the substitutes are more costly (otherwise the substitutions would have been made already), by raising prices. The higher prices reduce the producers' output and thus their demand for labor. The adjustments to the hike in the minimum wage are inefficient because they are motivated not by a higher real cost of low-skilled labor but by a government-mandated increase in the price of that labor. That increase has the same misallocative effect as monopoly pricing.

Although some workers benefit -- those who were paid the old minimum wage but are worth the new, higher one to the employers -- others are pushed into unemployment, the underground economy or crime. The losers are therefore likely to lose more than the gainers gain; they are also likely to be poorer people. And poor families are disproportionately hurt by the rise in the price of fast foods and other goods produced with low-skilled labor because these families spend a relatively large fraction of their incomes on such goods. And many, maybe most, of the gainers from a higher minimum wage are not poor. Most minimum-wage workers are part time, and for the majority their minimum-wage income supplements an income derived from other sources. Examples are retirees living on Social Security or private pensions who want to get out of the house part of the day and earn pin money, stay-at-home spouses who want to supplement their spouse's earnings, and teenagers working after school. An increase in the minimum wage will thus provide a windfall to many workers who are not poor.

Some economists deny that a minimum wage reduces employment, though most disagree. And because most increases in the minimum wage have been slight, their effects are difficult to disentangle from other factors that affect employment. But a 40% increase would be too large to have no employment effect; about a tenth of the work force makes less than $7.25 an hour. Even defenders of minimum-wage laws must believe that beyond some point a higher minimum would cause unemployment. Otherwise why don't they propose $10, or $15, or an even higher figure?

A number of countries, including France, have conducted such experiments; the ratio of the minimum wage to the average wage is much higher in these countries than in the U.S. Economists Guy Laroque and Bernard Salanie find that the high minimum wage in France explains a significant part of the low employment rate of married women. Mr. Salanie has argued that the minimum wage also contributes to the dismal employment prospects of young persons in France, including Muslim youths, an estimated 40% of whom are unemployed. 

 

For the full commentary, see: 

GARY S. BECKER and RICHARD A. POSNER.  "How to Make the Poor Poorer."  The Wall Street Journal (Fri., January 26, 2007):  A11.

 




January 18, 2007

Becker on Friedman

 

MiltonFriedmanDay.jpg   Source of graphic:  http://www.ideachannel.com/Friedman.htm

 

David Levy has noted in an email that at the reception to preview the new Friedman documentary, Gary Becker gave a great presentation on Milton Friedman, and it was a great shame that no one recorded it.  I feel especially guilty, because I had thought of recording it, and had even brought a small camera that would have (badly) done the job.  But the room was dark and crowded, and by the time the talk started, I was in conversation a long way from where Becker started speaking. 

Levy suggests that maybe those of us who were there, should record our memories of what Becker said.  I like that idea, and will record mine here.

 

Becker started out by saying to Bob Chitester that he wasn't sure that the documentary did justice to Friedman.  (Chitester was the producer, I think, of the original Free to Choose series, and a moving force behind the new Friedman documentary, to be first shown on PBS on January 29th, 2007.)  

Becker mentioned that Friedman was a missionary.  He would talk economics to anyone--if a taxi driver made a mistaken comment about economics, Friedman would set him straight.

Becker mentioned that while Friedman liked to argue about ideas, he never saw him be mean to anyone.

Becker mentioned that a friend of his taking Friedman's price theory class (I think Becker may have said the friend was Gregory Chow?) asked Becker how he could keep asking questions in Becker's class, when Friedman would keep showing the ways in which Becker was mistaken.

Becker mentioned that he talked to Friedman a few days before his death, and that they even talked a little economics.

Becker emphasized that Friedman had been both a great economist, and had made an enormous difference in the world, in particular in making the world more free.

 

Some background:  Becker spoke about Friedman at two sessions at the Allied Social Sciences Association meetings in Chicago in early January.  One was in the afternoon (about 2:30 PM?) of January 5, 2007, and also included Robert Lucas, and Tom Sargent.  I missed that session because I wanted to attend a session featuring the research program of Robert Fogel on longevity.  The second session, at 6:00 - 7:30 PM on Sat., January 6, 2007 was at a reception sponsored by the University of Chicago to preview the new documentary on Friedman.  I attended this reception through Becker's presentation, but did not stay for the documentary preview.  My friend Luis Locay attended both sessions, and told me that some, but not all, of the stories Becker told were similar in both sessions.  Locay also mentioned that Becker appeared to get more choked-up at the session on January 5, 2007.

 




September 15, 2006

Added Evidence for Weidenbaum's 'Birth Dearth'

 

BirthDearthBK.gif Source of book image:  http://www.aei.org/books/bookID.497,filter.all/book_detail.asp

 

Ben Wattenberg had already been predicting a world population decline for years, when he published The Birth Dearth in 1987.  Back then, scepticism was widespread.  Governments and philanthropists spent billions promoting birth control to restrain population growth.  Many were still convinced of the wisdom of Isaac Ehrlich, darling of the environmentalist enemies of economic growth, who had predicted disaster in his Population Bomb.

(Note that the plausibility of many environmentalist disaster scenerios is based on the assumption of continuous population growth.) 

The current decline in birth rates is not a total puzzle.  Nobel-prize winner Gary Becker long-ago claimed that quality of children is what economists call a 'normal' good, which means that families invest more in quality as their incomes rise.  As families invest more in quality, they invest less in quantity.

Whatever the reasons, the evidence continues to accumulate that Wattenberg was right:

 

After a long decline, birthrates in European countries have reached a historic low, as potential parents increasingly opt for few or no children.  European women, better educated and integrated into the labor market than ever before, say there is no time for motherhood and that children are too expensive anyway.

The result is a continent of lopsided societies where the number of elderly increasingly exceeds the number of young -- a demographic pattern that is straining pension plans and depleting the work force in many countries.

 

For the full story, see:

ELISABETH ROSENTHAL.  "European Union's Plunging Birthrates Spread Eastward."  The New York Times   (Mon., September 4, 2006):  A3.

 

 EuropeanBirthratesGraph.gif  Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited above.

 




April 17, 2006

Becker on Goals of Economics: Understand the World, and Improve It

 

Becker.jpg   Gary Becker at April 7, 2006 tribute dinner.  Source of image:  online press release cited below.

 

Gary Becker has made enormous contributions to economic theory, most notably in convincing the profession of the importance of human capital and the family.  A new center has been established at the University of Chicago in Gary Becker's honor.

 

Becker's brief remarks concluded the evening.  Economics will change over time, but one constant—whatever the tools or techniques—is the goal of economics, he said.   “It is judged ultimately by how well it helps us understand the world, and how well we can help improve it.”

 

For the full story, see:

Goddu, Jenn Q.  "Gift Names the Becker Center on Chicago Price Theory, Founded by Richard O. Ryan."  University of Chicago News Office, 2006.

 




March 5, 2006

The Market Rewards the Unprejudiced

 

  Source of book cover image: Amazon.com.

 

In his doctoral disseratation on the economics of discrimination, Gary Becker argued that those who discriminate in the labor market pay a price for their prejudice in the form of having to pay higher wages. Those who do not discriminate have open to them an additional pool of workers, whose talents will contribute to the firm's bottom line. GE's Jack Welch recounts a story that supports Becker's claims:

 

(p. 212) Another idea I'll leave behind is one that developed when I was visiting Japan in the fall of 2000. I had been going there for years and found it difficult to get the best male Japanese graduates (p. 213) to join us. We were having increasing success, but still had a long way to go. Finally, it dawned on me. One of our best opportunities to differentiate GE from Japanese companies was to focus on women. Women were not the preferred hires for Japanese companies, and few had progressed far in their organizations. Again, I got revved up. Fortunately, we had Anne Abaya, an ideal Japanese-speaking U.S. woman in a senior position at GE Capital. She agreed to go to Tokyo to become head of human resources for GE Japan. I gave her a million dollars for an advertising campaign to position GE as "the employer of choice for women. What I didn't know was how much talent we already had in place. In May 2001, when Jeff and I were on a Japanese business trip, we had a private dinner with 14 of our high-potential women. They ranged from CFO of GE Plastics Japan, general manager of sales and marketing of GE Medical Systems Japan, marketing director of GE Consumer Finance Japan, to the heads of human resources for GE-Toshiba Silicones and GE Medical Systems. Jeff and I had never been with a more impressive young crowd. It confirmed for me how big the opportunity could be.

 

Source:

Welch, Jack. Jack: Straight from the Gut. New York: Warner Business Books, 2001.

 

For the revised version of Becker's dissertation, see:

Becker, Gary S. The Economics of Discrimination. 2nd Rev. ed., Economic Research Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.

 




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