What do Easter trading laws and bus timetables have in common?

Today is Good Friday, I have just moved house, and have no food – so I’m trying to work out how to source some.  As a result, you may think I’d be supportive of ACT saying that the Easter trading laws are archaic and need to be overhauled.  But even in my hungry stupor, I realise that there is a potential defence of Easter trading laws – the co-ordination of bus routes.

Now that might seem entirely random, but hear me out.  Making firms close on Good Friday is a way to ensure that no-one is working, and that everyone is on holiday at the same time.  As a result, having the day off today isn’t just having the day off – it is having the day off while everyone else is having the day off.  It is an enforced holiday for all.  This may be a good thing, if there is a “co-ordination failure” in terms of when people take time off.

How does this work?  Say that you value having the day off more when all your friends, family, and arbitrary other people are also having the day off than having the day off with everyone else still busily working – or at least you like that to occur a few times a year.  However, it is costly and difficult to organise a situation where that happens with people.  If individuals take days off on the basis of specific personal plans, or at random, then we will end up in a situation where people take holidays at different times – and as a result, we end up in a pareto inferior equilibrium.  But if the government, or some overarching institution (the Church) organises a day we can all have off together, then we can do that and all be a bit happier for it.

How is this like bus timetables?  Well, the co-ordination of bus routes is another type of co-ordination game – if you have to catch two buses, you would like the times to line up.  If the first bus is too early, your trip takes longer.  If your first bus is too late, you can’t take trip!  As a result, having bus routes planned help out.

Anyway, I’m done with this.  I’m going to go find a service station so I can buy something to eat!  Happy Easter and all that!

Thinking more carefully about gifts

Mieke Welvaert recently discussed gift giving, pointing out that it was significantly more complicated than the “just give cash” statement Matt Nolan made a few years back.  For example a gift is an inherently different good to the same self-purchased product – I good is not just the set of physical properties that constitute it:

There are some things people like to receive but probably wouldn’t buy if you gave them the cash to do so. Flowers and chocolate come to mind for this category.  I personally, much prefer to receive flowers than to buy them for myself.  I understand that many people enjoy a box of chocolates free of guilt if they were given the chocolates rather than if they bought them for themselves.

Furthermore let us not forget the importance of signalling – gift giving can be a signal, which may have value, or may in itself be waste.  When it comes to gifts the key point that comes out is that “efficiency is a really hard idea”.

The UK: agglomerating since forever

Agglomeration externalities are the hot thing in policy these days. For believers they’re one of the things that economists have missed by excluding geography in the past. To sceptics they’re just another excuse for the Government to justify picking winners and organising the country. I recently came across a couple of VoxEU articles that might point the way to a reasonably middle ground. Read more

Marriage, investment, and sunk costs

At the moment, many of my friends are getting married.  At the same time some of my other friends who are not married are telling me they don’t understand why people get married.

While I am not married, I think the idea of marriage is grand.  I think it is a great way of dealing with a social issue that involves both search and relationship specific investment!

Now, you may think I’m being too romantic here by bringing up terms like “relationship specific investment” – but let us not forget the awesome power of economics for dealing with these ideas.  The question is, given marriage as an institution what specific type of co-ordination failure did marriage turn up to solve?

Read more

Co-ordintation: Daylight savings and global warming

This week (Infometrics link here), Matt Nolan discuss daylight savings, specifically discussing the way an economist would probably look at it – as a type of ‘co-ordination game’ where a government can help individuals co-ordinate actions.

He then goes on to discuss a prisoner’s dilemma that exists between government around global warming – implying that organisation that may help individuals co-ordinate in some place (daylight savings) may fail to co-ordinate themselves about broad action (such as global warming).  Concluding he states:

Here we have concentrated on examples where government, and other institutions, can help individuals co-ordinate their actions – helping improve outcomes.

This is a great way to view, and understand, government policy.  However, we always need to keep in mind that individuals are co-ordinating themselves, by making choices given the incentives they face.  Prices, which are determined by the relative supply and demand of products, offer the main device for co-ordination in our society.

To understand the role of government, we need to think about how the use of prices, and co-ordination move generally, may fail – and in what ways government can sensibly recognise this and lend a hand.

The hard thing with global warming is that individual governments do not have an incentive to solve this problem, which was the original justification for the Kyoto Protocol.  With that failing there is a genuinely concerning policy issue here, which the global community does not appear to be able or willing to face.