Power & Market

Explaining the Economic Calculation Problem in a Principles Class

03/14/2018Jim Cox

A microeconomics principles class presents professors with the opportunity to at least briefly explain the economic calculation problem. Almost every text spends a page or two on the production function — the relationship between inputs and outputs by a firm.

Here is the relevant data and graphs from one such text.

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The professor can ask the students, “at what output should the firm produce?”— which is a central issue in microeconomics. Looking at the figures and the graphs the students will likely answer, “at the peak of Total Product”, or “at the highest Marginal Product”, or “at the highest Average Product”.

None of these responses is correct, as there is no rational way to answer based on the limited information given. There is no rational way to answer because the data only include quantities of inputs and quantities of outputs. There is no value in the form of prices attached to either the inputs or the outputs. Until the prices of these are included there is no answer.

Here’s an example to illustrate this point:

If the outputs are valued by consumers in the market at a price of $1.00 while each input costs the firm $100.00 it is obvious that to produce any of these outputs would be a financial disaster for the firm in the way of major losses (and thus the firm will be destroying value in the world). Conversely, if the consumers in the market value the outputs at a price of $50 each and the input costs are $2 for each, the firm can make major profits (and thus the firm can be adding value in the world).

Socialists had proposed abolishing both money and prices leaving them in the same position as our students in trying to determine which output quantity would be best. Pointing this out allows the professor to recount Ludwig von Mises’s highlighting this problem in his 1920 article, "Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth" and the resulting debate over the issue in the 1920s through the 1930s.

While Mises — and Hayek who also participated in this debate — maintained their views, the socialist critics retired from the debate self-satisfied that they had answered the challenge by claiming that the socialist authorities could direct the managers to adjust production by simulating markets, that is non-existent markets! They would just be “playing market”.

As Mises pointed out, even the best intentioned socialist manager would be lost in trying to discover just what the best output would be.

I also like to make the point in my classes that playing market with assets one does not own is far removed from risking personal assets one does own! When one owns the assets, such decisions will have a major impact on the owner’s personal financial well-being.

(By the way, I have never in my many years of teaching principles classes seen a text that raises the economic calculation issue at all.)

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Economic Value and the Post Office

12/31/2017Peter G. Klein

Paul Waldman tries to defend the US Postal Services in this Twitter rant, but all he does is show the need for better economics education. He lists a bunch of things the post office does and deems it a "fricking marvel." Well, nobody disputes that the post office does home pickup and delivery, charges prices independent of distance, and provides services in small towns and low-income areas. The economic question is whether the post office should do these things -- or, more precisely, whether the value (to consumers) of the goods and services produced exceeds the opportunity cost of the resources used to produce them. That, as the Austrian economists have emphasized more vigorously than any other thinkers and writers, can only be determined on the market, in a system of private property and free prices.

Waldman has made the common error, which I've written about often in the context of government-funded science and technology, of confusing economic value and technological or engineering value. The former relates to economic well-being, the latter to the technical aspect of doing X, Y, or Z. The fact that something is produced or performed does not tell us whether the production or performance is valuable. When government is paying the bills (not to mention owning the property and, often, outlawing competition), there is no way to know.

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Europe Isn't Budging on Its Rock-Bottom Interest Rates

12/14/2017Ryan McMaken

This week, the US Federal Reserve raised the target for its key rate — the Federal Funds Rate — to 1.5 percent. That's the highest its been since 2008, although well below 5.25 percent rate reached during the last expansion. Europe, however, has signaled it has no plans to follow the US in moving key rates upward. 

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The Wall Street Journal reports today that European central banks "showed continued caution, leaving policy unchanged":

Despite that stronger outlook, Mr. Draghi once again had to acknowledge that the inflation outlook is “muted.” Indeed, the ECB’s economists don’t expect the inflation target of just below 2% being reached in either 2018 or 2019. This isn’t an ECB-specific problem, but it helps explain why interest rates are set to stay where they are “for an extended period.”

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The U.K.’s central bank raised it’s key interest rate for the first time in a decade last month, and Thursday confirmed it isn’t in any hurry to follow that up. Policy makers face a unique challenge in the U.K.’s departure from the European Union in 2019, and the path for rates is therefore more uncertain than elsewhere in Europe.

Draghi "repeatedly stressed that what the eurozone is experiencing is no longer a mere 'recovery' but instead an 'expansion...'" One is left wondering, however, why the ECB refuses to let up on the stimulus if the economy is doing so well. 

Over the past decade, central bankers have gotten into a fairly predictable habit of declaring the economy to be "strong" or "robust" while simultaneously refusing to scale back the central bank's stimulus. As numerous commentators have pointed of, though, Europe's monetary policy remains in the service of debt-laden governments which rely on rock-bottom rates to keep debt payments low. Moreover, the threat of a banking crisis in Italy isn't exactly exactly motivating central bankers to raise rates. 

From their perspective, it's better to just keep rates low indefinitely, and hope for the best. 

Not all central banks outside the US are as cautious as the Europeans. The Bank of Canada was raised rates twice in recent months, and is now hinting that it may raise rates again soon:

Financial markets expect the bank to raise rates further in 2018 after hiking in July and September, but analysts are divided over whether the next move will come as soon as Jan. 17.

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