Browsed by
Tag: marginal cost

How Not to Fall for the Sunk-Cost Fallacy – Article by T. Norman Van Cott

How Not to Fall for the Sunk-Cost Fallacy – Article by T. Norman Van Cott

The New Renaissance HatT. Norman Van Cott

My wife and I frequently vacation near Asheville, North Carolina. Perhaps it’s the economist in me, but an interesting spot that I visit is the Western North Carolina Farmers’ Market. The WNC market is large (36 acres) with vendors selling every seasonal fruit and vegetable item you can imagine. Georgia and South Carolina peaches are always a highlight. Therein lies the basis for a teachable moment in economics.

Chasing Peaches

While returning to Indiana one year, we decided to stop at the market to buy peaches for ourselves and friends. Going west on I-40, we exited for the market. Turning left, we took the bridge over I-40 toward our intended exit. Since the on-ramp for I-40 east and the entrance to the market are not that far apart, we accidentally missed our exit. That was about a 6 mile mistake for me. Unavoidable costs should not figure in the decision about whether to pursue peaches.

By the time we had gotten back to the exit for the WNC market, the question arose whether we should (try again to) buy peaches. I pointed out to my wife that had we known the first time that getting to the peaches was going to entail an additional 6 or so miles of driving, we might not have ever tried to stop.

However, the gasoline, traffic delay and self-incriminating frustration associated with the 6 mile mistake were what economists call “sunk costs.” That is, there was no way to avoid them at that point. Being unavoidable means they should not figure in the decision about whether to pursue peaches. The only costs that matter at that point are the costs of exiting a second time, not both times. So we exited, bought peaches, and continued on our way.   

In retrospect, the net benefits of the peaches were less than what initially motivated us to try to buy them. The net benefits could actually have been negative, but had we not exited the second time, the loss would have been greater!

Sunken Soybeans

Let’s consider another example. Living in rural Indiana, I’ve heard farmers complain at harvest time about how the price of corn and soybeans has fallen so much during the summer. Seeing as they’re going to lose money for the year, “why even harvest” is the lament of some. This is bad thinking. At harvest time many of the costs associated with their crops are “sunk.” That is, the cost of the seed, pesticides, herbicides, fuel, etc. associated with getting to harvest time has already been incurred. Nothing can be done to get that investment back so it should be ignored. The only costs that matter at harvest time are the costs of harvesting itself. The only issue is whether lower prices will cover these costs.

When it comes to tax time those costs, previously labeled sunk at harvest time, suddenly become important in figuring farmers’ taxable income. The accountant is going to want to know them. Moreover, the IRS is going to be interested in their accuracy.

The following spring yields yet another issue. Those seeds, pesticides, herbicides, and fuel costs that didn’t matter last fall now matter, and not just for tax reasons. With planting not yet started, these costs are no longer sunk because they have yet to be incurred. If expectations are that the coming fall is to be a repeat of the previous fall, the farmers will be planting something different than corn and soybeans in the coming spring.

Sunk Costs Might Cost You a Championship

One final example. As a sports fan I have long noted the gargantuan salaries with multi-year, guaranteed contracts for professional baseball and basketball players. What’s interesting is the responses of team owners and general managers when “their” players perform below expectations. More often than not the owner or general managers will say something like “this guy’s contract means we’re paying him umpteen thousands of dollars for this season, so we have to play him to get our investment back.” Another case of bad thinking. Don’t put a bad player in the game just because you paid for them.

The player’s salary for the duration of his contract is a sunk cost. It has to be paid regardless of whether the player plays; it therefore shouldn’t figure in the decision about how much play time needs to be utilized from the player. What matters at this point is whether you can find somebody who can play better. If your favorite team(s) have owners and general managers who think sunk costs matter, I recommend you switch your allegiances.

I’ll admit that ignoring sunk costs is difficult to do. It seems like people have an innate desire to include them in their business and household decisions. But doing so can result in less than optimal decisions, which can include not being able to enjoy those large, juicy Georgia and South Carolina peaches.

T. Norman Van Cott; Economics
T. Norman Van Cott; Economics
T. Norman Van Cott

T. Norman Van Cott, professor of economics, received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1969. Before joining Ball State in 1977, he taught at University of New Mexico (1968-1972) and West Georgia College (1972-1977). He was the department chairperson from 1985 to 1999. His fields of interest include microeconomic theory, public finance, and international economics. Van Cott’s current research is the economics of constitutions.

This article was originally published on Read the original article.

Why Is the Middle Class Shrinking? – Article by Steven Horwitz

Why Is the Middle Class Shrinking? – Article by Steven Horwitz

The New Renaissance HatSteven Horwitz

Two Arguments in Favor of Economic Inequality

Economic inequality continues to be a major political issue even as the headlines scream about terrorism and climate change. Bernie Sanders has made it a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, and other candidates have addressed it along the way. And a recent study by the Pew Research Center has added new, though misplaced, fuel to the fire of those concerned about inequality.

The Pew study has been discussed in the media, and one key point has been grossly misunderstood. Among other things, the study found that the American middle class is shrinking and is now just under half of the population. Commentators quickly began to refer to the “hollowing out” of the middle class and to tie this study to the concerns about growing inequality.

However, a close look at the data shows that the middle class has shrunk since 1971 because more members of the middle class have moved up the income ladder than down it.

Don’t believe me? Look for yourself at the terrific graphic that the Financial Times created to illustrate the data:

ft2015inequalitygraphYou can watch as the folks on the left slowly slide to the right over 44 years. When you compare the 1971 distribution with the 2015 one, what do you see? A growth in households earning around $80,000 or above, adjusted for inflation, since 1971 and a significant decline in those making less than that amount (with the exception of the folks right around $0). It’s true that there’s not a fat middle class anymore, but why should that trouble us if there are more high-income households and fewer low-income households overall?

The funny part of this is that if you read the story in the Financial Times that accompanies this graphic, it’s as if they never actually looked at the graphic they produced. Their narrative is at odds with it, as the narrative proclaims the doom-and-gloom story that the graphic actually refutes. As they say, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

This growth in household income may, to some extent, be a by-product of the same economic processes that have produced the concerns about inequality, illustrated in this graphic by the significant growth of the ultra-rich.

There are far more very rich people today than there were 44 years ago, but the growth of the upper class has gone hand in hand with the enrichment of a large number of less-well-off households. Are there ways in which economic inequality is good, then? I think the answer to that question is yes. If so, then, what are they? Here are two defenses of economic inequality that proponents of the free market could make.

First is the more obvious one: growing inequality is good because it might be a consequence of economic institutions that produce all kinds of results that we think are desirable. For example, if competitive markets lead to peace and rising prosperity for all but also create inequality along the way by allowing some folks to get very rich, then we should at least tolerate that inequality because the things that produce it also produce other things we like.

This is the usual defense libertarians invoke, and it’s a good argument. The critic, however, might say that even if the defense is true, it doesn’t prove that inequality is necessary for that result. There’s a difference between saying, “Good economic institutions will produce inequality while creating good economic outcomes for all,” and saying, “Good economic outcomes for all can’t be produced without inequality.” The critic would likely ask how reducing the inequality that markets produce will harm their ability to produce those good results.

And here is where we come back to the Pew study and get a second defense of inequality. One way the middle class (and all of us) has become richer in the last generation is that the cost of so many goods and services has dropped in terms of the number of hours we have to work at the average wage in order to purchase them. The lower price of basic goods has enabled more and more people to afford things like large TVs, smartphones, and new, cheaper medications.

One thing that has made this process happen is inequality. In The Constitution of Liberty, F.A. Hayek argued,

A large part of the expenditure of the rich, though not intended for that end, thus serves to defray the cost of the experimentation with the new things that, as a result, can later be made available to the poor.… Even the poorest today owe their relative material well-being to the results of past inequality.

Having a group of very rich people is what enables yesterday’s luxuries to become today’s basics.

There are two parts to this process: cost bearing and discovery. The very rich are able to afford the high prices of new technologies, thereby providing an incentive for firms to market new and expensive products. Once the rich pay the high initial price and cover the fixed costs of research and development, sellers can begin to price closer to the much lower marginal cost of producing additional units, making the good much more affordable to more people.

But the rich are also an economic canary in the coal mine that informs producers whether they are getting it right.

For example, a critic of inequality might complain that no one “really needs” a $100,000 luxury car with all kinds of new high-tech gadgets on it. But the fact that some can afford it and want to buy it helps the car companies figure out which new features might be popular. Rear-view cameras were once only available on top-end cars, but they have slowly become a standard feature. The same may soon be true of collision warning systems now available on high-end models of some cars.

In fact, everything we think of as basics today was once the province of only the well-off. The first microwaves were expensive and bought mostly by the rich. I can remember my parents paying about $900 for a VCR in the late 1970s. VCRs, of course, fetch a price close to zero these days. The rich who bought the early LCD TVs helped manufacturers defray the fixed production costs and figure out what people wanted, and now these TVs are in the vast majority of houses at a more affordable price.

The inequality at any point in time is a key part of the process that creates wealth for the rest of society over the years to follow. The very rich enable producers to experiment and cover their costs, and that makes more goods more affordable for the rest of us, from fun toys to life-saving necessities.

The inequality produced by the market is a key part of how the market moves forward, enriching all of us in the process. And that’s why the middle class is shrinking: the rich, through the competitive market, have helped make the middle class richer.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.