We all like to think that we are individuals. We like to think that we grow and that our tastes develop and mature. We begin to appreciate different things in life, and among other behaviors, our spending habits change.
But what would you say if I told you that your maturing tastes didn’t cause your maturing consumption patterns? Indeed, what if it’s the other way around? Maybe, you’re just a bumbling ball bearing bouncing about and pinging off of various stimuli in a very predictable fashion. What if the prices that you face changed over the course of the past two decades, adjusting your optimal bundle of consumption, and then you contrived reasons for your new behavior in an elegant post-hoc fashion.
Have you *really* taken a liking to whole wheat bread and pasta over the past decade because your tastes have developed? Or maybe it’s because you found that scrumptious New York Times recipe that turned you away from potatoes and toward rice. Whether it’s a personal experience, a personal influence, or a personal development, we like to think about ourselves as complex organisms with a narrative that makes sense of the way in which we interact with the world.
On the other hand, we have price theory. Price theory still accepts that you are special and that you have preferences. Then, it asserts that your preferences remain fixed and that your changes in behavior are merely responses to changing costs and benefits that you perceive in the world. Maybe you’re not any more inclined to eat healthily than you were previously, but the price ratio of whole wheat bread to white bread is 10% less than it use to be. Maybe your east-Asian inspired recipe didn’t cause you to spurn potatoes, but instead the price ratio of rice to potatoes fell by 20%.
Housing has become more expensive. Below is a figure that illustrates the change in housing prices since 1975 by state. By far the leaders in housing price appreciation are the District of Columbia, California, and Washington. The price of housing in those states has increased about 2,000% – about double the national average. That’s an annualized rate of about 6.7% per year. That’s pretty rapid seeing as the PCE rate of inflation was 3.3% over the same period. It’s more like an investment grade return considering that the S&P has yielded about 10% over the same time period.
Winter holiday travel is notoriously frustrating. This year was especially bad if you were flying on Southwest. But that frustration about delayed and cancelled flights seems to have caused a big increase in pundits criticizing the airline industry generally. Here’s one claim I’ve seen a few times lately, that airline prices have “soared” as airlines consolidated.
Reich’s claim that there are 4 airlines today is strange — yes, there are the “Big Four” (AA, United, Delta, and Southwest), but today there are 14 mainline carriers in the US. There have been many mergers, but there has also been growth in the industry (Allegiant, Frontier, JetBlue, and Spirit are all large, low-cost airlines founded since 1980).
But is he right that prices have increased since 1980? Using data from the Department of Transportation (older data archived here), we can look at average fare data going back to 1979 (the data includes any baggage or change fees). In the chart below, I compare that average fare data (for round-trip, domestic flights) to median wages. The chart shows the number of hours you would have to work at the median wage to purchase the average ticket.
The dip at the end is due to weird pandemic effects in 2020 and 2021, so we can ignore that for the moment (early analysis of the same data for 2022 indicates prices are roughly back to pre-pandemic levels, consistent with the CPI data for airfare).
The main thing we see in the chart is that between 1980 and 2019, the wage-adjusted cost of airfare was cut in half. Almost all of that effect happened between 1980 and 2000, after which it’s become flat. That might be a reason to worry, but it’s certainly not “soaring.”
Of course, my chart doesn’t show the counterfactual. Perhaps without several major mergers in the past 20 years, price would be evenlower. Perhaps. But research which tries to establish a counterfactual isn’t promising for that theory. Here’s a paper on the Delta/Northwest merger, suggesting prices rose perhaps 2% on connecting routes (and not at all on non-stop routes). Here’s another paper on the USAir/Piedmont merger, which shows prices being 5-6% higher.
There are probably other papers on other mergers that I’m not aware of. And maybe all of these small effects from particular mergers add up to a large effect in the aggregate. But, as my chart indicates, even if the consolidation has led to some price increases, they weren’t enough to overcome the trend of wages rising faster than airline prices.
One last note: the average flight today is longer than in 1979. I couldn’t find perfectly comparable data for the entire time period, but between 1979 and 2013, the average length of a domestic flight increased by 20%. So, if I measured the cost per mile flown, the decline would be even more dramatic.
On Twitter, folks have been supporting and piling on to a guy whose bottom line was that we are able to afford much less now than we could in 1990 (I won’t link to it because he’s not a public figure). The piling on has been by economist-like people and the support has been from… others?
Regardless, the claim can be analyzed in a variety of ways. I’m more intimate with the macro statistics, so here’s one of many valid stabs at addressing the claim. I’ll be using aggregates and averages from the BEA consumer spending accounts.
One of my specializations in graduate school at George Mason University was monetary theory. It included two classes taught by Larry White who specializes in free-banking, Austrian macroeconomics, and monetary regimes. Separately, my dad was a libertarian and I’ve attended multiple Students for Liberty events. Right now, I’m writing from my hotel room at a Catholic/Crypto conference, where I learned that the deepest trench in Dante’s Inferno includes money debasers.
Everything about my pedigree suggests that I should have a disdain for the Federal Reserve and cast a wistful gaze toward the perpetually falling value of the US dollar. But I don’t. I certainly do have opinions about what the Fed should be doing and how our monetary system could work. But I’m not excited by the long-run depreciation of the dollar.
Let me tell you why.
Learning a little bit of theory is a dangerous thing. Monetary theory is especially hard because we examine the non-good side of the transaction: the medium of exchange. In frantic excitement, enthusiasts often point out that the value of the dollar has lost very much of its value in the past 100 years. They describe that loss by describing the lower quantity of something that a dollar can purchase now versus what it could have purchased historically. That information is incapsulated in the price of a good. The price of a good is the number of dollars that one must exchange in order to purchase the good. Similarly, the price of a dollar is the number of goods that one must give up in order to purchase the dollar.
We can consider a variety of goods. Below is a graph that describes the quantity price of the dollar where the quantities are CPI basket units, gold, and housing. In the 35 years following 1986, a single dollar purchases 60% less of the consumer basket, 74% fewer houses (not quality adjusted), and 76% less gold.
If you’re like me, then you are very fond of food. What determines the price of food? Supply and demand of course!
We can consider food as a commodity because just about anyone can buy and sell it. Almost all foods have partial substitutes. Therefore, the long-run price in the competitive market for food is largely dictated by the marginal cost. Demand has an impact on the price only in the short run.
A long-run driver of food prices are the costs that food producers face. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics divides the Producer Price Index into multiple categories that are relevant for a variety of sectors and points within the production process. Below is a table of the most fundamental, relatively unprocessed farm products and their weight among all farm products in December 2021. Cotton is a relatively large component for farm products even though it’s not a food and I include it for completeness. Fruits, veggies, and nuts makeup the overwhelming proportion of the cost of farm products. I was at first surprised that grains composed such a small proportion. But, being dirt cheap, it makes sense.
We all know that inflation has been in the news. It’s been elevated since the second quarter of 2021. Consumer prices tend to lag producer prices. One indicator of where food prices will be in the near future is where the producer prices are now. Below is a graph that displays the above seasonally adjusted farm product prices since the start of 2021*.
People were all excited last week when the CPI numbers were released because… the year-over-year rate of inflation did a whole lot of nothing. See below. The 12-month rate of inflation was practically constant. The 8.2% number was all over the headlines and twitter. We already know that news outlets don’t always report on the most relevant numbers. And I say that this is one of those times.
First of all, there is a problem with the year-over-year indicator. Well, not so much problem in the measure itself, but more a problem of interpretation. The problem is that the 12-month rate of inflation is the cumulative compound rate for 12 individual months. Each month that we update the 12-month inflation rate, we drop a month from the back of the 12-month window and we add a month to the front of the 12-month window. Below are both a graph and a table indicating the monthly rate of inflation and the 12-month periods ending in August 2022 (pink) and in September 2022 (green).
Are resources becoming scarcer as world population increases and per capita consumption increases? Are basic goods becoming more expensive relative to wages in the face of potential resource shortages? These are some of the main questions that are addressed in the just released book Superabundanceby Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley. The authors were kind enough to provide me with an advance copy, which is why I’m already able to review this book on its release date (I’m not really that fast of a reader).
The author take a very optimistic view of the issues surrounding those opening questions. Properly measured (one of the key tasks of their work), resources are becoming more abundant, not more scarce. And properly measured, almost all consumer goods are becoming cheaper relative to wages.
The authors use the approach of “time prices” throughout the book. They are not the first to use this approach. Julian Simon (their inspiration for this project) used it in various places in his work. William Nordhaus famously used it is in paper on the history of the price of lighting. And Michael Cox and Richard Alm have used the time-price approach in many of their writings, from the 1997 Dallas Fed annual report, to a full-length book a few years later, as well as updates to the original 1997 report. And if you follow me on Twitter, I like to use this approach too.
In short, “time prices” tell us how many hours of work it takes to purchase a given good or service at different points in time. How many hours would you have to work to buy a pound of ground beef? A square foot of housing? An hour of college tuition? It’s the superior method when you are looking at the price of a particular good or service over time, compared with a naïve inflation adjustment, which only tells you if the price of that good/service rose faster or slower than goods or services in general, not if it’s become more affordable. Inflation adjustments are really only useful when you are trying to compare income or wages to all prices, to see if and how much incomes have increased over time. Of course, which wage series you choose is important (and you need to have a consistent series over time, or at least the end points), but as the authors point out (which they learned from me!), if you looking at wages after 1973, the wage series you use doesn’t matter much. Median wages, average wages, wages of the “unskilled” — these all give you the same trend since 1973. We don’t have all of these back earlier (especially median wages), but there’s not much reason to believe they’ve diverged that much. And the authors also present their data using multiple wage series in many of the charts and tables.
We are living in volatile times. With covid-19, big federal legislation packages, and the Ruso-Ukrainian conflict disruptions to grain, seed oils, and crude oil, relative prices are reflecting sudden drastic ebbs of supply and demand. I want to make a small but enlightening point that I’ve made in my classes, though I’m not sure that I’ve made it here.
Economists often get a bad rap for being heartless or unempathetic. Sometimes, they are painted as ideologues who just disguise their pre-existing opinions in painfully specific terminology and statistics. Let’s do a litmus test.
Consider two alternative markets. One is a perfect monopoly, the other has perfect competition. All details concerning marginal costs to firms and marginal benefits to consumers are the same. In an erratic world, which market structure will result in greater price volatility for consumers? Try to answer for yourself before you read below. More importantly, what’s your reasoning?
Extreme Market Power
A distinguishing difference between a competitive market and a monopoly concerns prices. While firms maximize profits in both cases, the price that consumers face in a competitive market is equal to the marginal cost that the firms face. There is no profit earned on that last unit produced. In the case of monopoly, the price is above the marginal cost. Profits can be positive or negative, but the consumer will pay a price that is greater than the cost of producing the last unit.
Below are two graphs. Given identical marginal costs of production and benefits that the consumers enjoy, we can see that:
The monopoly price is higher.
The monopoly quantity produced is lower.
But static models only go so far. What about when there is volatility in the world?
Oil and gasoline are important inputs for producing many (most?) physical goods. Not only that, they are short-lived, meaning that they disappear once they are used, making them intermediate goods. Therefore, changes in the price of oil constitutes a change in the marginal cost for many firms. If the price of oil rises, or is volatile otherwise, then which type of market will experience greater price and quantity volatility?
Below are two figures that illustrate the same change in the marginal cost. We can see that:
Monopoly price volatility is lower (in absolute terms and percent).
Monopoly quantity produced volatility is lower (in absolute terms, though no different as a percent).
The take-away: While monopoly does constrict supply and elevate prices, Monopoly also reduces price and output volatility when there are changes in the marginal cost.
That covers the costs. But what about volatile demand? A large part of the Covid-19 recession was the huge reallocation of demand away from in-person services and to remote services and goods. What is the effect of market power when people suddenly increase or decrease their demand for goods?
Below are two figures that illustrate the same change in demand. We can see that:
Monopoly price volatility is higher (in absolute terms, though no different as a percent).
Monopoly quantity produced volatility is lower (in absolute terms, though no different as a percent).
Monopolies Don’t Cause Inflation
Economists know that inflation can’t very well be blamed on greed (does less greed beget deflation?). Another problematic story is that market concentration contributes to inflation. But the above illustrations demonstrate that this narrative is also a bit silly. Monopolistic markets cause the price level to be higher, it’s true. But inflation is the change in prices. Changing market concentration might be a long term phenomenon, but can’t explain acute price growth. If demand suddenly rises, monopolies result in no more price growth than perfectly competitive markets. If the marginal cost of production suddenly rises, monopolies result in less price growth.
All of this analysis entirely ignores welfare. Also, no market is perfectly competitive or perfectly monopolistic. They are the extreme cases and particular markets lie somewhere in between.
Did you guess or reason correctly? Many econ students have a bias that monopolies are bad. So, in any side-by-side comparison, students think that “monopolies-bad, competition-good” is a safe mantra. But the above illustrations (which can be demonstrated mathematically) reveal that economic reasoning helps to reveal truths about the world. Economists are not simply a hearty band of kool-aid drinking academics.
During the week of thanksgiving in 2020, our thirteen-year-old microwave bit the dust. NBD, I thought. Microwaves are cheap, and I’m willing to spend a little more in order to get one that I think will be of better quality (GE, *cough*-*cough*). So, I filtered through the models on multiple websites and found the right size, brand, and wattage. No matter the retailer, at checkout I learned that regardless of price, I’d be waiting a good two months before my new, entirely standard, and unexceptional microwave oven would arrive. I’d have to wait until the end of January of 2021.