Friday, October 20, 2006

Argument for a Higher Gasoline Tax

Economist Greg Mankiw has an article in the Wall Street Journal arguing for a $1.00 increase in the per gallon gasoline tax. He argues for the tax to be phased in by $0.10 a year for the next 10 years and offers a very clear list of reasons why he favors it.

One of his reasons harkens back to our discussion of tax incidence in Unit C:
Tax incidence. A basic principle of tax analysis -- taught in most freshman economics courses -- is that the burden of a tax is shared by consumer and producer. In this case, as a higher gas tax discouraged oil consumption, the price of oil would fall in world markets. As a result, the price of gas to consumers would rise by less than the increase in the tax. Some of the tax would in effect be paid by Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
What do you think of his argument? If you agree, what is the most convincing aspect? If you disagree, is there a better alternative?

Celebrity Baby Names

Why do celebrities name their kids more unusual names than the general population? This may not seem like an economics question, but it involves a decision, which can always be examined from an economic perspective.

This article talks about some of the examples. There are the ones we have all heard of lately like Suri, Apple, and Shiloh. My favorites from the article are Penn Jillette's daughter named Moxie CrimeFighter and Jason Lee's son named Pilot Inspektor.

Why are celebrities choosing these names? I am not sure if the whole answer is publicity because I don't think that Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie need more publicity than they have now.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

An Economist also Won the Nobel Peace Prize

Last week the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus, who is actually known for his advances in applying economics to helping developing nations. Yunus is known for starting a microfinance organization called Grameen Bank, which gives loans to individuals in developing nations (Grameen operates in Bangladesh).

Here is a basic explanation:
One of the obstacles faced by individuals and families in developing nations is that they have a difficult time obtaining loans (for consumption or starting and running a small business, etc.). Two of the reasons why it is difficult is that poor families do not have anything to offer a collateral, and it is not cost-effective for larger banks to offer such small loans. Since they have no collateral to offer, banks have no way of ensuring repayment.

Yunus started a bank based on the fact that individuals in developing nations have strong social bonds that could be used as a type of collateral. He took advantage of these strong social bonds by having the lenders apply together in groups. If one person in the group defaults on their loan, then everyone in the group is responsible for the loan. Therefore, the bank uses social pressures (the borrower not wanting to let down or burden their peers) as a way to enforce repayment.

The bank has been incrdeibly successful and has a very high repayment rate. Overall, Yunus and Grameen Bank are an example of helping developing nations by helping them build their own economies and their own markets instead of forcing western models upon them or just throwing foreign aid money at the problem.

Edmund Phelps Wins the Nobel Prize in Economics

The announcement was really about a week ago, but I have not gotten around to posting about this until now. Edmund Phelps is a macroeconomist, so his accomplishments will not mean as much until next semester.

His main contribution is the idea of a natural rate of unemployment, which is a certain level of unemployment that will exist even when the economy is functioning at its potential. He also wrote about the importance of inflationary expectations -- the fact that it matters what people think inflation is going to be in the future.

Phelps is honestly not an economist whose work I know very well, but here is the press release announcing what he got the award for, and here is a summary of his accomplishments by economist Tyler Cowen.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Optimal Charitable Giving Strategies

Tim Harford has an article in Slate that talks about the economics of charitable giving. The part that I think is most interesting is when he argues that we should give only to one cause to maximize the effectiveness of our charitable giving. Here is his explanation:

Even the way we choose to dole out cash betrays our true motives. Someone with $100 to give away and a world full of worthy causes should choose the worthiest and write the check. We don't. Instead, we give $5 for a LiveStrong bracelet, pledge $25 to Save the Children, another $25 to AIDS research, and so on. But $25 is not going to find a cure for AIDS. Either it's the best cause and deserves the entire $100, or it's not and some other cause does. The scattershot approach simply proves that we're more interested in feeling good than doing good.

Many people are unconvinced by this argument—which I owe to Steven Landsburg—because they are used to diversifying their financial investments (a bit of Google stock and a bit of Exxon, too) and varying their choices (vanilla ice cream AND bananas). But those instincts are selfish: They are not intended to benefit both Google and Exxon, nor both the ice-cream company and the banana growers. With charity, the logic is different, and a truly selfless donor would bite the bullet and put his entire donation behind one cause. That we find that so hard to imagine is just one more indication of how hard it is for us to think ourselves into a truly selfless view of the world.

None of this is to say that these contributions are worthless or economically insignificant. Just don't get too starry-eyed about the motives behind them.

Economist Tyler Cowen discusses this article and gives another argument for giving to only one charity:
I agree with Harford's point in a different regard. The fixed costs of processing a donation are relatively high, if only because the charity will send further letters asking for more money. For that reason it may be better to focus our giving on a single charity.
What do you think? If you had $1,000 to give, what strategy would yield the biggest impact?

(Source: Marginal Revolution)

Doggie Ice Cream

Good Humour is going to start making ice cream sandwiches for dogs.

Companies appear to be on a never-ending quest for ways to pamper your pooch, and here's the latest evidence: Ice cream maker Good Humor and pet food producer Pedigree have announced plans to produce ice cream sandwiches for dogs.

Apparently this is not a stupid pet snack. The companies said they needed a special formula for the dairy treats, as many dogs are lactose intolerant and cannot easily digest regular ice cream. Pedigree Ice Cream Sandwich Treats for Dogs will be dairy-based and have the same texture as ice cream, but contain only 1 percent lactose. The treats also will have added protein and no sugar, and are "pawsitively delicious," the firms' press release exclaims. A package containing 6 frozen yummies will
sell for $3.99.

Why do you think there would be a market for this? You could also argue why there will not be a market for this (or why no one will buy it as long as they have that horrendous slogan).

(Source: Marginal Revolution)