Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Economic Issues and Paradoxes

Having a business and an economic background makes me curious on these areas especially in situations where there is a link to socio-economic studies which helps me understand a bit better the world I live in. This list that I am about to share with you was sent to me awhile ago, although some items might be already known or controversial this list as the purpose to have people thinking independently

Paradox of Value
This is sometimes known as the Diamond-Water Paradox. This paradox is about the contradiction that while water is more necessary than diamonds, diamonds get a higher market price. One argument could be that diamonds are more rare than water, thus, demand is higher than supply, which means that price will go up. However, consider the fact that less than 1% of the earth’s water is drinkable, also consider the fact that access to clean drinking water is one of the world’s most pressing problems as million of people die from a lack of drinkable water.

This paradox can possibly be explained by the Subjective Theory of Value, which says that worth is based on the wants and needs of a society, as opposed to value being inherent to an object. In the so called "developed countries", drinkable water in not only abundant but it’s considered a right. Seeing that in those countries people do not have to worry about paying for water, this gives them the rational to pay for other things like diamonds. However, individuals in the so called "developing countries" place a higher value on clean water than diamonds.
These is basically dependent on your surround conditions and your rational of necessity at a specific time. How? At the moment you are reading this you could decide that a reasonable price to pay for a glass of clean water is "x", however if you go for a 30 minute run the reasonable price that you would pay for the same glass of clean water will increase by a certain percentage since your necessity increased.

Khazzoom–Brookes Postulate
It seems that this proposal was named after economists Daniel Khazzoom and Leonard Brookes, who argued that increased energy efficiency, paradoxically, tends to lead to increased energy consumption. How? Well the increased energy efficiency can increase energy consumption by three means:
  1. the increased energy efficiency makes the use of energy relatively cheaper, thus encouraging increased use, i.e. since it is cheaper more people will use energy or items powered by energy.
  2. the increased energy efficiency leads to increased economic growth, which pulls up energy use in the whole economy, i.e. correlated to the previous point, using energy will allow the increase of production capabilities and therefore to an increase of economic growth (e.g. produce a car: man-made vs. machine-made)
  3. the increased efficiency in any one bottleneck resource multiplies the use of all the companion technologies, products and services that were being restrained by it, e.g. having a more self-sufficient phone will increase its use but also its services like apps which will have more demand which at the same time will require more energy to produce more interesting apps.

Bounded Rationality

This is a very good one! Economic theory generally assumes that individuals are rational, and as such, make rational decisions. However latest evidence (e.g. Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational) have brought forth evidence that people do not make rational decisions. Bounded Rationality is the idea that individual decision making is limited by personal information, cognitive limitations, and time constraints.
The basic idea of economics is that people act in ways to maximize their self-interest. We do things that will increase our “utility” or happiness. It seems logical that we would make rational decisions in order to accomplish that. Unfortunately, information asymmetry (described below) or cognitive biases and other factors conspire to bound our rationality, and people often make choices that lead to outcomes that go against their desires. Moreover Bounded Rationality sort of says that your brain will normally try to tell you that the things that you do are the correct ones and that you are being rational with your decisions… the problem is that your thoughts are different from other people’s thoughts right? What explains that? Education, surroundings, etc… essentially people have different values and ways to perceive life aka to make reason of the world. Example: Imagine I am the owner of a company and I have a brother and he is unemployed. Rationally should I give a job to him? Is he the best candidate for a position? Shouldn’t I protect my family?

Lipstick Effect
Has many people already know economics has many categories for “goods”. “Luxury Goods” are items that people normally buy more of as their income rises, as opposed to “Necessity Goods” like food and shelter, whose demand is unrelated to income. Examples of luxury goods can include fine jewelry, expensive sports cars and designer clothing.
The Lipstick Effect is the theory that during an economic calamity, people tend to buy more less costly luxury goods. Instead of buying a fur coat, people may buy expensive lipstick. The idea is that people will buy luxury goods even during economic crisis, however they will choose goods that have less of an impact on their funds. Other less expensive luxury goods besides cosmetics include small gadgets and spirits (i.e. whiskey).

Tragedy of the Commons
The tragedy of the commons is a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, deplete a shared resource, even when it is not in anyone’s interest to do so. The best current example of this is in the fishing industry. As fish is a shared resource nobody owns the fish population (yet?!). Fish are a good that normally we over consume, and as a result, there are multiple fisherman competing. Each fisherman will try to catch as many fish as possible in order to maximize his profits. However, it is also in the fishermen’s best interest to sustain the fish populations, i.e., leaving enough fish to repopulate, so that down the road, there are still fish to be caught. If each fisherman is concerned with sustainability, and they should be if they don’t want to find new careers in the near future, they theoretically will work to preserve the fish populations. Here is the problem: there is a lack of trust. A fisherman that acts responsibly and limits the amount he catches will be screwed if all the other fisherman do not. The other fisherman get more fish than he does, make more in profits, and will ultimately deplete the fish population anyway. So each fisherman, believing that the others will take more than their sustainable share, will take as many fish as he can, and the world’s fish supplies will deplete, even though no one wants them to.
What some areas are now doing to mitigate this is to create a determined quota for fishing, however this is always a risky decision as quotas create an imbalance in the overall natural order of things, i.e. if there are less fish in the sea there will be less food, with less food the population will decrease, with the decrease of the population more fish will repopulate.

Tragedy of the AntiCommons
The opposite of the above mentioned tragedy of the commons, the anticommons is a situation where too many owners (and bureaucratic red tape) discourages accomplishment of a socially desirable outcome. The classic example is patents. If a product requires multiple components or techniques patented by different people or companies, then it becomes difficult, time consuming and very costly to negotiate with all the owners, and the product may not be produced. This can be a huge loss if the product is in great demand or would have great social benefits. Everybody loses in this situation, the patent holders, the would-be manufacturers and the consumers who would have bought the product. So the more spread ownership the less overall and proportional benefits (i.e. the sum of all parties will be less the more parties there are).

Interesting fact: A single microchip contains up to 5,000 different patents. No one can create a microchip unless every single patent holder agrees to license their patent.

Perverse Incentives
Perverse incentive is an incentive that has an unintended and undesirable effect which is opposite to the initial interests. A type of unintended consequences, perverse incentives are the result of an honest good intention. A historical example illustrates the problem: 19th century palaeontologists travelling to China used to pay peasants for each piece of dinosaur bone that they presented. It was later found the peasants found bones and then smashed them into many pieces, which significantly reduced their scientific value, to get more payments. More modern examples include paying architects and engineers based on project costs, which leads to excessively costly projects as they overspend unnecessarily to make income.

Information Asymmetry
Information asymmetry is a prevalent issue in economics. In most sales transactions, the seller has more information than the buyer, and as such has the opportunity to try to pass off low quality or defective products for higher prices. This leads to buyer distrust and the old idiom: Buyer Beware.
Adverse selection is a market process where information asymmetry causes negative results. A good example is health insurance. Insurance companies depend on a mix of clients: they need a certain number of healthy individuals (low-risk) to pay premiums and not use a lot of services so that the premium prices can average out. However, the people most likely to buy health insurance are people who need it because of health problems (high-risk). These people are more costly to the insurance companies because they need more services than a healthy person. The insurance companies do not know every new policy applicants health status (but they certainly do everything in their power to find out as much as they can), and this lack of information requires the companies to raise premiums to mitigate the risk. This increase in premiums causes the healthiest people to cancel their insurance. This leads to a further increase in premium price as the insurance companies now have a riskier group, which leads to the now healthiest people canceling their insurance, continuing the “adverse selection spiral”, until the only people insured are the direly ill. At this point, the premiums paid will not even begin to offset the costs of the sick. In theory, this could lead to the collapse of the health insurance industry, however, this is an unlikely scenario as their risk is diminished by things such as employer offered insurance, which includes a large set of healthy individuals who average out the risk.

Another information asymmetry example is the “Market for Lemons”, a term coined by the economist George Akerlof. The used car market is the classic example of quality uncertainty. A defective used car (“lemon”) is generally the result of untraceable actions, like the owners driving style, maintenance habits and accidents. Because the buyer does not have this information, their best assumption is that the vehicle is of average quality, and therefore will pay only an average fair price. As a result, the owner of a car in great condition (“cherry”), will not be able to get a price high enough to make selling the cherry worthwhile. End result: the owners of good cars will not sell their vehicles in the used-car market. This reduces the quality of cars in the used-car market, this reduces the price buyers will pay, this further reduces the quality of cars sold.
Essentially information asymmetry, is more the sense that there is always more information out there and you will never know everything. More… since the information is infinite there is always something more to know about everything even about rock and since the human mind cannot process so much  information (bounded rationality) we need to make concessions on how to perceive things and what information is more important than other but that choice is a choice that each individual will make and therefore it can be subject to differences.

The Cobra Effect
This occurs when the solution to a problem actually makes the problem worse, a bit like the perverse incentive. The term ‘Cobra effect’ comes from an anecdote from colonial India. The British government wanted to decrease the population of venomous cobra snakes, so they offered a reward for every dead snake. However, the Indians began to breed cobras for the income. When the government realized what was going on, the reward was canceled, and the breeders set the snakes free. The snakes consequently multiplied, and increased the cobra population. The term is now used to illustrate the origins of wrong stimulation in politics and economic policy as every new effect will have a new consequence.

The Samaritans Dilemma
This is the idea that giving charity can reduces an individual’s incentive to help themselves. When given assistance, the recipient has two choices: use the aid to improve their situation, or come to rely on the aid to survive. Obviously, good Samaritans give assistance in the hopes of the former, that the recipient will use the aid to improve their situation. Arguers against charity often bring up this dilemma, claiming that beneficiaries of such aid lose incentive to work or become productive members of society. A “transfer of wealth” from someone who can spare a few money to someone who will use it to improve their situation is a wonderful arrangement. However, if the recipient is not going to use the money for a noble purpose, and instead is going to buy illicit drugs with them, it is a less desirable arrangement, and most charitable people would decline to give some help. The problem? It is hard to know how the person you are providing help will use the funds, so people might instead opt to not give to any homeless people this also provides a problem as the individuals who would have used the money to improve their situations will suffer.
The person that is “transferring of wealth” may not bother to know how will that money will be use for as the rational may be the "feel good / good deed" however he/she may want to question how would that “transfer of wealth”be better used in society.

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Blog Editor and Owner: Luis Aparicio Fernandes (or Mikey) is a Business Expert and a Traveler based in London, UK. He is a member of The International Honor Society Beta Gamma Sigma due to his achievements in business. You can follow Luis on Google+, and LinkedIn.