Category Archives: Economic History

Ludicrous regulations of the US Airline Industry and Contestable Markets

We discussed Contestable Markets in my A2 class today and I used this clip from Commanding Heights to show how regulated the US airline industry was during the 1970’s. Regulations meant that major carriers like Pan Am never had to compete with newcomers. However an Englishman named Freddie Laker was determined to break this tradition and set-up Laker airways to compete on trans-atlantic flights. He offered flights at less than half the price of what Pan Am charged. Alfred Kahn was given the task by the then President Jimmy Carter to breakup the Civil Aeronautics Board (the regulatory body) and he wanted a leaner regulatory environment in which the market was free to dictate price. There is a piece in the clip that shows how ludicrous some of the regulations were:

When I got to the Civil Aeronauts Board, the biggest division under me was the division of enforcement – in effect, FBI agents who would go around and seek out secret discounts and then impose fines. We would discipline them. It was illegal to compete in price. That means it was illegal to compete in the discounts you offer travel agents. So we regulated travel agents’ discounts. Internationally, since they couldn’t cut rates, they competed by having more and more sumptuous meals. We actually regulated the size of sandwiches. Alfred Kahn

When the CAB was closed down competition was the rule and the industry had vastly underestimated the demand for air travel at lower prices – a very elastic demand curve – see graph below.









In the A2 course contestable markets is a popular essay question and is usually combined with another market structure.

What is a contestable market?

• One in which there is one firm (or a small number of firms)
• Because of freedom of entry and exit, the firm faces competition and might operate in a way similar to a perfectly competitive firm
• The threat of “hit and run entry” from new firms may be sufficient to keep the industry operating at a competitive price and output
• The key requirement for a contestable market is the absence of sunk costs – i.e. costs that cannot be recovered if a business decides to leave a market
• When sunk costs are high, a market is more likely to produce an price and output similar to monopoly (with the risk of allocative inefficiency and loss of economic welfare)
• A perfectly contestable market occurs only when entry and exit into and out of a market is perfectly costless
• Contestable markets are different from perfect competitive markets
• It is possible for one incumbent firm to dominate the industry
• Each existing firm in the market produces a differentiated product (i.e. goods and services are not perfect substitutes for each other)

There are 3 conditions for market contestability:

• Perfect information and the ability and or legal right to use the best available technology
• Freedom to market / advertise and enter a market
• The absence of sunk costs

• Liberalisation of the US Airline Industry in the 1970’s and the European Airline Market in late 1990s
• Traditional “flag-flying” airlines faced new competition
• Barriers to entry in the industry were lowered (including greater use of leased aircraft)
• New Entrants – easyJet- Ryanair

Why everyone should know some basic economics.

Below is a great animation from RSA in which Ha-Joon Chang  (South Korean institutional economist specialising in development economics) explains why every single person should know some basic economics. He pulls back the curtain on the often mystifying language of derivatives and quantitative easing, and explains how easily economic myths and assumptions become gospel. He mentions the nine schools of economic thought which are Austrian, Behaviourist, Classical, Developmentalist, Institutionalist, Keynesian, Marxist, Neoclassical and Schumpeterian. Furthermore, he makes the point that given the complexity of the world and the partial nature of all economic theories, you should be humble about the validity of our own favorite theory. Therefore keeping an open mind about its usefulness in society.

A lot of what he talks about is in his excellent book entitled “Economics: A User’s Guide”. 

Relevance of Economics Teaching at University

What is the use of EcoHere is a link to Peter Day’s Global Business programme from the BBC World Service – Economic Rebellion. In this episode he looks at the history of economics teaching and asks why some universities are changing their courses whilst others are staying put. Since the crash of 2008 students have been rebelling against the economics teaching. In an interview with John Kay, he quite rightly stresses the importance of teaching ‘Economic History’.

Arthur Marshall gave his advice to the economics profession.

* Are you covering different schools of economic thought in your teaching? Is your approach intellectually pluralistic enough?

* Are you teaching enough economic history, so that we can learn the lessons from the past?

* Do your students have enough time to absorb and reflect on the material they are learning? In fact, as the discipline expands, are your students taking enough economics?

* Are you encouraging your students to embrace and respect the perspectives that other disciplines bring to thinking about and solving economic problems? What, for example, have we learned about neuro, evolutionary and behavioural economics? And how can that learning be better incorporated into public policy-making?

* How can we better understand the trade-offs between policies that improve incomes and those that improve social inclusion or environmental sustainability or our resilience to economic shocks?

* And, perhaps most importantly, are you challenging yourselves, and your students, to think beyond the comfortable?

Having read ‘This Time is Different’ by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff you often wonder why economists and public officials didn’t pick the common patterns amongst so many previous financial crises

I can also recommend the book “What’s the use of Economics”, edited by Diane Coyle, which examines what economists need to bring to their jobs, and the way in which education in universities could be improved to fit graduates better for the real world.

History of the Renminbi

Below is a very good video from the FT which outlines the growth of the Chinese currency – the Renminbi (RMB). It includes some excellent graphics including the value of the currency against the US$ from 2005 – 2015 (see graphic below)

  • 1948 – RMB was put into circulation by the Communist party
  • 1997 – RMB was pegged to the US$
  • 2005 – Peg was removed
  • 2009 – China allowed approved companies to settle trade payments with non-Chinese customers using the RMB
  • 2015 – 20% of China foreign trade is settled in RMB compared to 3% in 2010
  • 2015 – RMB the 5th most traded currency although it is a long way behind US$ and €

The Chinese authorities want to have the RMB included in the basket of currencies that make up the IMF’s special drawing rights. This would mean an official endorsement of the RMB as a reserve currency. However one of the conditions of the IMF of being a reserve currency is that it must be freely tradable. Although the Chinese government is reducing its interventionist approach it is not yet ready to give market forces complete free rein over its exchange rate.


Wealth Accumulation vs Imagination and Creativity

InnovationA recent piece by Edmund Phelps in the New York Review of Books argues that Western economies have generally failed at giving the labour force access to jobs that provide self-respect.

The classsical idea of political economy is to let wages rates fall to what the market determines and then provide everyone with a safety net of unemployment benefit, healthcare etc. Although this policy does assist those in need, it negates the desire for people to do something with their lives besides consuming goods and leisure time. A lot of people have a desire to participate in a community in which they can interact and develop new skills and self-esteem.

People need to ‘flourish’

He goes into the notion of “flourishing”( defined as “using one’s imagination, exercising one’s creativity, taking fascinating journeys into the unknown, and acting on the world”), and how current Western economies act to deter such human activity. Phelps refers to this as the good life which typically involves acquiring mastery in one’s work and using imagination, creativity and taking the journeys into the unknown. These benefits are in experience and not in material reward – he quotes Kabir Sehgal “Money is like blood. You need it to live but it isn’t the point of life.”

He argues that individuals prospered in the 19th Century when in Europe and America, economies emerged with the dynamism to generate their own innovation. Participants were constantly trying to think of new ways to produce things. What made innovating so powerful in these economies was that it was not limited to elites. It permeated society from the less advantaged parts of the population on up. People of ordinary background might be involved in innovations, large and small. George Stephenson was illiterate, John Deere a blacksmith, Isaac Singer a machinist, Thomas Edison of humble origins. People of ordinary ability could also have innovative ideas.

The Mechanical Model of Economics

Today most companies are highly efficient and labour that are reasonably well off, have gone on saving pushing up their wealth to very high levels. As a consequence the supply of labour contracts as does the labour force participation rate.  However many people although comparatively rich are poor in the conditions for the good life of flourishing and prospering. With the absence of innovation comes decreased investment and an underutilised labour force. This is especially prevalent in Europe where figures for levels of happiness are indicative of unemployment levels and job satisfaction – Spain (54), France (51), Italy (48), and Greece (37).

This is in contrast to nations which are labeled as ‘emerging’—Mexico (79), Venezuela (74), Brazil (73), Argentina (66), Vietnam (64), Colombia (64), China (59), Indonesia (58), Chile (58), and Malaysia (56).

The US has a similar syndrome with a productivity slowdown and the decline of job satisfaction but more significant is the loss of indigenous innovation in the established industries like traditional manufacturing and services that was not nearly offset by the innovation that flowered in a few new industries—digital, media, and financial. You may think that companies on Silicon Valley offer jobs that are very creative and forward thinking but companies like Google and Facebook account for only 3% of national income.

Causes of the narrowing of innovation?

Phelps looks at two possible causes of this narrowing of innovation.

  1. There has been a suppression of innovation by vested interests. Professions have had instituted regulation and licensing to curb experimentation and thus reducing innovation. He uses the example of the US car industry which was able to regain their positions in the market by government bailouts. This meant that companies like BMW and Toyota lose money in their attempts to be more innovative in order to acquire market share. Consequently companies would be skeptical of being innovative in the US car market. Furthermore stakeholders use lobbyists to regulate and implement patents which increases the barriers to entry for new entrants.
  2. Schools are doing less to expose the young to the great books of adventure and personal development. Parents teach their children from infancy to be careful and stay close to the family. There is discussion now of the overprotected child: the need for a return to “free range” children who are allowed to explore, to try things and take chances

The problem is that young people are not taught to see the economy as a place where participants may imagine new things, where entrepreneurs may want to build them and investors may venture to back some of them. It is essential to educate young people to this image of the economy.

Final thought

We will all have to turn from the classical fixation on wealth accumulation and efficiency to a modern economics that places imagination and creativity at the center of economic life.

Which institution has the most Nobel Prizes in Economics?

Nobel Prize WinnersThe Nobel Prize in Economics was first awarded in 1969 with Angus Deaton being the 2015 recipient receiving US$975,000 for his research into policy responses to poverty and how individual choices shape a better economy. Seaton became the sixth Princeton University academic staff member to win the honor – New York Time columnist and Princeton Professor Paul Krugman being another. However if you look at the institution with the most Nobel Laureates in Economics the University of Chicago is quite far ahead with twelve. They include Milton Friedman and Gary Becker.

Paul Mason interview on Radio New Zealand – "Pay People to Exist"

Post Cap MasonYesterday on Radio New Zealand Kim Hill interviewed Paul Mason – Channel 4 economics correspondent – about his new book entitled PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. The book gives a very radical and innovative view of history, and offers a vision of a post capitalist society.

Mason believes that after two centuries in which capitalism has dominated the western world, this economic system has become desperately dysfunctional: inequality is growing, climate change is accelerating and nations are beset with bad demographics, debt burdens and angry voters. He makes three assertions according to Gillian Tett of the Financial Times:

  1. “information technology has reduced the need for work” — or, more accurately, for all humans to be workers.For automation is now replacing jobs at a startling speed
  2. “information goods are corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly”. For the key point about cyber-information is that it can be replicated endlessly, for free; there is no constraint on how many times we can copy and paste a Wikipedia page. “Until we had shareable information goods, the basic law of economics was that everything is scarce. Supply and demand assumes scarcity. Now certain goods are not scarce, they are abundant.”
  3. “goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy”. More specifically, people are collaborating in a manner that does not always make sense to traditional economists, who are used to assuming that humans act in self-interest and price things according to supply and demand.

Radio NZHe also makes the point that we are going to live through a long transition from capitalism – the state and the market to post capitalism which is the state, the market and the shared collaborative economy. With technology taking a lot of the jobs in traditional industries in the UK he states that further development in this sector is not the way of creating new jobs. He talks about delinking work from wages by just paying people to actually exist – rather than tax to exist. He does come up with some very interesting thoughts and it is well worth listening to. Click below to hear the interview:

Paul Mason interview on Radio New Zealand

The Influence of Economists – Seven Bad Ideas.

7 bad ideasAlan Blinder wrote a review of Jeff Madrick’s book “Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World” – in the December edition of The New York Review of Books. The basis of the book is that ‘economists’ most fundamental ideas contributed centrally to the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great recession that followed.” Blinder quoted George Stigler’s contrary verdict “that economists exert a minor and scarcely detectable influence on the societies in which they live.” He comes up with a test that asks you which of the statements below comes closer to the truth.

The dominant academic thinking, research, and writing on economic policy issues exert a profound, if not dispositive, influence on decisions made by politicians.

Politicians use research findings the way a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not for illumination.

Most people chose the second statement but Madrick’s answer seems closer to the first.

Blinder is at odds with three of Madrick’s ‘Bad Ideas’

1. The Influence of Economists – they don’t have as much influence on economic policy as Madrick suggests.

Blinder quotes his idea of Murphy’s Law of Economic Policy:
Economists have the least influence on policy where they know the most and are most agreed; they have the most influence in policy where they know the least and disagree the most vehemently.

However when you consider who has the most influence on the election of politicians it is the general public and not economic experts. According to Binder the GFC of 2008 has in part been the fault of economists. Most graduate take at least one economics paper but professors have failed to convince the public of even the most obvious lessons, like the virtues of international trade and the success of expansionary fiscal policy in a slump. It’s a pedagogical failure on a grand scale. Many economists teach and praise the efficient market hypothesis.

2. Mainstream economics is right wing.

Milton Friedman (University of Chicago) is targeted by Madrick with regard to right wing doctrine. It is quoted in the book that Keynesian economics is not part of what anybody has taught graduate students since the 1960’s. Keynesian ideas are fairly tales that have been proved false. Blinder refutes these statements with the latter being farcical. One can argue over the macroeconomic policies of the Chicago School but it’s clear that their views are far from the mainstream.

The success of Keynesian policy since the GFC has been well documented. Experts were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the two statements about fiscal stimulus.

1. Because of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the US unemployment rate was lower at the end of 2010 that it have been without the stimulus bill. 82% agreed 2% disagreed
2. Taking into account all the ARRA’s economic consequences – including the economic costs of raising taxes to pay for the spending, its effects on future spending, and any other likely future effects – the benefits of the stimulus will end up exceeding its costs. 56% agreed 5% disagreed and 23% uncertain.

So from this the mainstream is overwhelmingly Keynesian.

3. Bad ideas

Madrick’s first bad idea was Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Blinder sees this as a great idea as throughout history, there has never been a serious practical alternative to free competitive markets as a mechanism for delivering the right people at the lowest possible costs. So it is essential that students learn about the virtues of the invisible hand in their first economics course.

Blinder also challenges another of Madrick’s Bad Ideas – Say’s Law, which states that supply creates its own demand, means that an economy can never have a generalized insufficiency of demand (and hence mass unemployment) because people always spend what they earn. Therefore: no recessions, no depressions. The Great Depression and then Keynes put an end to Say’s Law.

A Bad Idea – Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH)
This Bad Idea became destructive as the EMH gave Wall Street managers the tools with which to build monstrosities like Collateralized Debt Obligations and Credit Default Swaps on top of the rickety foundation of subprime mortgages. This was further backed up by the credit rating agencies who gave AAA ratings to risky investments. EMH also handed the conservative regulators a rationale for minimal financial regulation.

According to Blinder, Madrick is an important and eloquent voice for what’s left of the American left – at least in economic matters.

University students sign petition over impossible economics exam

A HT to Jane Hickey for this story about University economics exams. Final year economics students from the University of Sheffield are protesting vigorously about about their final exam as there were compulsory questions on topics which they had never been taught. According to the BBC one student said:

“We had been told it was not a maths-based paper.

“We feel misled and angry.

“Every part of the question was, ‘Calculate this, partially differentiate that.'”

Below is an image of the question.

sheffield eco paper

It seems that most major degrees in economics still focus on the neoclassical ideology and associates humans as perfectly rational walking calculators working out their utility for each purchase. The main model of consumer behaviour assumes that we never buy anything until we’ve calculated the impact on, for example, our retirement fund, and we’re so good at maths we use interest rates to compute our pleasure, over time, after buying something. However I know there is a movement for change in the composition of Economics Degrees which is discussed in the Diane Coyle edited book “What’s the use of Economics”, which examines what economists need to bring to their jobs, and the way in which education in universities could be improved to fit graduates better for the real world.

“US economist Philip Mirowski recounts how a colleague at his university was asked by students in spring 2009 to talk about the crisis. The world was apparently collapsing around them, and what better forum to discuss this in than a macroeconomics class. The response? “The students were curtly informed that it wasn’t on the syllabus, and there was nothing about it in the assigned textbook, and the instructor therefore did not wish to diverge from the set lesson plan. And he didn’t. In the 1970s at Cambridge “There were big debates, and students would study politics, the history of economic thought.” And now? “Nothing. No debates, no politics or history of economic thought and the courses are nearly all maths.”

Also have a look at this video from the New Economics Foundation – again it debates the value of mathematical models and neoclassical theory. Does the market actually reach equilibrium? I like Steve Keen’s comment – “the pirate obsession of Economics – they love X marks the spot”. It also includes Joseph Stiglitz, Gillian Tett, David Tuckett, Stephen Kinsella, John Kay, David Weinstein, and Dirk Bezemer.

WE THE ECONOMY – 20 short movies on economics

WE THE ECONOMY website provides a series of short films that explain economic concepts or key features of the modern economy. Each of the 20 movies focuses on some aspect of the U.S. economy or on some economic concept. The films are grouped into five ‘chapters’ covering the basics of the economy:

What is the Economy?
What is Money?
What is the Role of our Government in the Economy?
What is Globalization?
What Causes Inequality?

Every 5-8 minute video is well worth watching and useful for the classroom. Below is the trailer – very professionally done and excellent reinforcement when teaching certain topics.