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A Primer on Price
Posted by: McQ on Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Thomas Sowell breaks it down, economically, so even those with an aversion to economics can understand the function of price in any economy. Sadly, as he notes, it isn't just the common man who has no real conception of the economically important function served by the price mechanism, neither do politicians.
Many, if not most, of the economic policies advocated by politicians today would never pass muster if the average voter understood as much economics as an economist like Alfred Marshall understood 100 years ago or David Ricardo 200 years ago.

Nothing is more basic in economics than prices — and yet the role of prices is repeatedly ignored or even misrepresented by politicians and the media.
Amen. And never more so than when there are conversations about "universal health care". I'll leave it to you to read the article, but I want to put up one excerpt which covers something which I've been trying to get across to proponents of a universal system (and other fantasy government systems) for quite some time:
It doesn't matter whether you are talking about a capitalist economy, a socialist economy, a feudal economy or whatever. Resources are limited but desires are not. That is the basic and defining problem of economics.
It is that 'basic and defining problem of economics' which is regulated by "pricing" and which is consistently waved away by politicians and proponents of programs such as universal health care. And because of that ignorance of the role of price in economics, we buy into such horrific financial disasters such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Anyway, read the piece, spread it around, save it for those who just don't get the point Sowell explains so well (yeah, it's an old and bad pun, get over it).
 
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A Primer on Price:
Well he’s dead now but the ending of the Fly was classic, the Masque of the Red Death was an excellent work and hat’s off for The Pit and the Pendulum...
Oh wait....

This would be where friction meets realty, I guess. Sorry.
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
But what about The Abhominable Dr. Phibes?

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp
 
Written By: Tom Perkins
URL: http://
On Topic.
Resources are limited but desires are not.
That’s a good precis for human nature, actually. Far from not always being economic creatures, we are always economic creatures—it’s trivially true that not all desires can be monetized or rationalized in terms of monetary gain and risk.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp
 
Written By: Tom Perkins
URL: http://
Economic efficiency is not the sole basis for societal decision-making. Otherwise our DOD would be much smaller, and we would tolerate indentured servitude in lieu of workfare programs.

price signalling is bad enough in three-party transactions between an insured, an insurer and a private service provider. In a context where the USGovt will necessarily act as the safety net (unless you can convince a majority of your countrymen to allow people to die if they cannot afford care), price signals are very confused.

Demand for hearts, kidneys and other organs for transplant far exceeds supply. How should they be allocated? Auction? First-come, first-served? Most likely to live the longest? Most meritorious (scout leader over lawyer)?

One legitimate view of the health care industry is that services should be provided only to those that can afford it. Others disagree, believing that one function of society is to allow even the least fortunate / capable / whatever among us to live with minimum standards of human dignity.

a collateral point: the very process of going to the doctor imposes a cost, so it’s not necessarily the case that those with excellent insurance consume "too much" health care. My understanding of the distribution of health care costs is that in any given year a relatively small group of people consume a relatively large amount of care, but that it’s very difficult to predict who those people are going to be.
 
Written By: Francis
URL: http://
Demand for hearts, kidneys and other organs for transplant far exceeds supply. How should they be allocated? Auction? First-come, first-served? Most likely to live the longest? Most meritorious (scout leader over lawyer)?
My partner has had MULTIPLE organ transplants...though my partner disagrees; I think the obvious answer is let folks BUY and sell organs. You want more organ donations, make it possible to sell them. The equilibrium price will soon be established. As I tell my partner, I don’t rely on the kindness of the baker or bakers who bake bread becasue they LOVE baking, if I or we did we’d have darn little bread. And yes I know I just paraphrased Smith....
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
And there are ways that allow folks to pay for health care and for charity and society to HELP pay for health care that involve markets. So it’s not just Nature Red of Tooth and Claw you know.
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about a democracy, a communist state, a feudal kingdom or whatever. Coercive force appled by the society acts to limit & modify desire. That is the basic and defining action of government.
 
Written By: unaha-closp
URL: http://warisforwinning.blogspot.com/
Economic efficiency is not the sole basis for societal decision-making. Otherwise our DOD would be much smaller
That’s an interesting conclusion. Probably a false one, too.
 
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
believing that one function of society is to allow even the least fortunate / capable / whatever among us to live with minimum standards of human dignity.
Why stop with health care when you’re handing things out, if ’dignity’ is your minimum standard.
Can we hand out 1200 sq foot houses to everyone yet?
Some land maybe?
A car?
How can you live in dignity without these things!
Who defines dignity?

I can get a lot of mileage out of the argument that as a society we’re obligated to provide ’things’ so people can live with minimum standards of human dignity.
Well, if times get tough, we can always outlaw inflation as they do in advanced countries like Zimbabwe or Venezuela.

We’ll all live in the mud together, but hey, at least it’ll be equitable.

(Joe, realty meets friction! ELBONIA FOREVER!)
 
Written By: looker
URL: http://
For anyone who has a good head on his shoulders, I highly recommend Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions.

Francis: I hope you’ll accept this fisking in the generous spirit in which it is offered.
Economic efficiency is not the sole basis for societal decision-making.
If you understand the full purview of economics (it’s essentially the study of choice, given constraints), then the appropriate question may be, "Why not?"

Second, ’society’ is not a decision-making unit, so let’s be careful with our terms. (Sowell explains this early in Knowledge and Decisions, by the way.)
Otherwise our DOD would be much smaller, and we would tolerate indentured servitude in lieu of workfare programs.
That’s a nice pair of assertions, but I’m searching for your point and coming up empty. So the DoD fails to meet conditions of economic efficiency or Pareto optimality; what does that disprove? An economist would probably tell you, "Giant government bureaucracy fails to be efficient? Pardon me while I pick my jaw up off the floor."
price signalling is bad enough in three-party transactions between an insured, an insurer and a private service provider.
Articulate what’s bad about these transactions, and then try to explain why. Don’t forget the part where massive government regulation kicks in.
In a context where the USGovt will necessarily act as the safety net (unless you can convince a majority of your countrymen to allow people to die if they cannot afford care), price signals are very confused.
Stole the words right from my mouth.
Demand for hearts, kidneys and other organs for transplant far exceeds supply. How should they be allocated? Auction? First-come, first-served? Most likely to live the longest? Most meritorious (scout leader over lawyer)?
Did you read the article?
One legitimate view of the health care industry is that services should be provided only to those that can afford it. Others disagree, believing that one function of society is to allow even the least fortunate / capable / whatever among us to live with minimum standards of human dignity.
Why can’t the latter go ahead and pay for it, or convince others to voluntarily pay for it, rather than force people who disagree with them to pay for it?
a collateral point: the very process of going to the doctor imposes a cost, so it’s not necessarily the case that those with excellent insurance consume "too much" health care.
"Too much"? It’s simply a matter of somebody having to pay. If people want more medical attention, somebody will have to pay the costs to attain it.
 
Written By: Bryan Pick
URL: http://www.qando.net
(snark)
But the government can subsidize it Bryan.

They have lots of money. I’m not sure where it all comes from, but I know there’s lots and lots of it because I keep hearing about billion dollar budgets being passed in Washington for things.

If the government weren’t so stingy, and allocated MORE billions, we could all have free lunches and free quality medical care, and things like that, right?

I’d even be satisfied if they allocated less billions to things I don’t like, and shifted those billions to things I do like!

Or don’t I understand? (/snark)
 
Written By: looker
URL: http://
The problem with health care is that, unlike most goods and services, there is practically zero limit on the amount of health care an individual can demand. This is particularly unique among goods that we as a society feel that everyone should have. It’s pretty easy to decide that we don’t want anyone in America to starve to death, as there is a limit on how much any single individual can eat.

Furthermore, there is a level of food consumption at which a person could be considered adequately provided for, i.e. not malnourished. Similarly, if we wanted to provide shelter for everyone, we could do so, and we wouldn’t have to give everyone a mansion: just give everyone a roof over his or her head. But how much health care is "enough"? Enough to get you to age 70? Enough to make sure you aren’t in pain? What about treatments for rare diseases that cost millions of dollars?

Any government-provided health care program must either a) cost essentially infinity, or b) be willing to tell people "you’ve had enough health care; we aren’t giving you any more." Obviously, "b" is the rational solution, but that runs into political difficulties, viz. letting really sick children die, etc.

In the end, unless we’re willing to let sick people die or devote all of our resources to caring for a few, government-sponsored health care will fail.
 
Written By: Nathan
URL: http://nathansaper.com/blog/
One legitimate view of the health care industry is that services should be provided only to those that can afford it. Others disagree, believing that one function of society is to allow even the least fortunate / capable / whatever among us to live with minimum standards of human dignity.
Why can’t the latter go ahead and pay for it, or convince others to voluntarily pay for it, rather than force people who disagree with them to pay for it?
the snarky answer is it’s the difference between government and anarchy.

the longer answer is that the acquiesence by the people and the courts of assertion of power by the federal goverment in the New Deal and Great Society programs means that we the people have granted the federal government the power to establish national health care programs. And even if there were a radical shift in philosophy among the people and in the courts to strip the fed govt of that power, state constitutions give very broad powers to state governments to tax, spend and regulate in the public interest.

Our basic form of government is majority rule. It is certainly possible to conceive of a system of government in which the legislative and executive body’s spending powers are far more limited and subject to review by a judicial body. Wasn’t that one of the goals of the Free State Project — ultimately amend the New Hampshire Constitution to prevent various kinds of social spending? But that’s not the form of government in any state.

Don’t want to be forced to pay for social programs you don’t like? Elect people who won’t fund them, or persuade your fellow citizens to amend their constitution to prevent it.
 
Written By: Francis
URL: http://
Francis,

I agree with you that societal choices are not always economically efficient, but the point of the post was that prices exist and affect things and we should be aware of such things when talking policy.

You know, we have laws that require credit card companies to be explicit in their offers, and supermarkets use unit pricing for ease of comparison, but somehow I never see advocates of big government programs price things out for us clearly.

Oh, I did see a NYT piece (or was it the Guardian) that explained what we could have bought instead of the Iraq war (mainly a lot of childcare, healthcare etc.) Interestingly, I don’t recall these papers urging a reduction of social programs on 9/12 to pay for the looming war. Huh.

But, I will say again, that I agree - not all societal choices should be economically efficient, but we should be explicit about the costs and benefits which means price does matter.

I really do think elections should be held on April 16th to encourage such thinking among the electorate. Right now its more like a credit card purchase in November with the bill coming in April.

 
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
Francis,

Just an example:

The Earned Income Tax Credit is a great example of a social program that helps people while keeping their incentives in the right direction and that has a very transparent price structure.

This is probably much better than a foodstamp or welfare system whose price is not very clear - not only in how much it really helps but if it hinders too much.
 
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
Francis -

There are so many things wrong with that, I almost don’t know where to begin.
But let’s go in order of what you wrote:
One legitimate view of the health care industry is that services should be provided only to those that can afford it. Others disagree, believing that one function of society is to allow even the least fortunate / capable / whatever among us to live with minimum standards of human dignity.
Why can’t the latter go ahead and pay for it, or convince others to voluntarily pay for it, rather than force people who disagree with them to pay for it?
the snarky answer is it’s the difference between government and anarchy.
Try again, Francis. Absence of state intervention in one aspect of life does not come even close to anarchy.
the longer answer is that the acquiesence by the people and the courts of assertion of power by the federal goverment in the New Deal and Great Society programs means that we the people have granted the federal government the power to establish national health care programs. And even if there were a radical shift in philosophy among the people and in the courts to strip the fed govt of that power, state constitutions give very broad powers to state governments to tax, spend and regulate in the public interest.
That doesn’t sound like an answer to my question. My question was:
"Why can’t the latter go ahead and pay for it, or convince others to voluntarily pay for it, rather than force people who disagree with them to pay for it?"

Now, moving on...
Our basic form of government is majority rule.
Yikes. No, it’s not. Our basic form of government, going by the book, is a constitutional federal republic with (mostly representative) democratic elements and, more importantly, divided powers.

We do not directly elect the President, and as such, the President can be elected without a popular majority; we do not elect the Supreme Court; until the Seventeenth Amendment, we didn’t directly elect Senators. The Constitution can’t be touched by a simple majority (you need either two thirds of both houses of Congress or two thirds of the states, and then you need three quarters of state legislatures), and let’s thank our lucky stars for that consolation. The executive branch bureaucracy is virtually immune from the majority as well, not to mention being virtually immune from the executive administration. Truly national majority-rule referendums are nonexistent except in the final rounds of American Idol.
Don’t want to be forced to pay for social programs you don’t like? Elect people who won’t fund them, or persuade your fellow citizens to amend their constitution to prevent it.
That’s a strange way to dodge my initial question, but in case you hadn’t noticed, that’s a part of what we neolibertarians are trying to do.
-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
Harun -
I agree - not all societal choices should be economically efficient
Why not?
 
Written By: Bryan Pick
URL: http://www.qando.net
oh for god’s sake it was a comment on a blog not a doctoral thesis on political science. hence my use of the word "basic". yes i’m fully aware that the Senate is profoundly anti-majoritarian due to the admission of low-population High Plains states, that the Presidency is anti-majoritarian compared to a parlimentary system due to the inability to cast a no-confidence vote and that judges are only "elected" indirectly by virtue of being appointed by elected officials.

thanks for the civics class. really.

as to why people can’t use voluntary methods of funding healthcare for the underprivileged, the question as phrased is meaningless, because many people do and many hospitals rely a great deal on voluntary fundraising to pay for capital costs. The question becomes nontrivial only if one adds the word "exclusively" to the first part of the sentence.

why can’t people rely exclusively on charity to fund public healthcare? Doesn’t work. Too hard. Not where the money is. Inefficient. State constitutions do not prohibit the use of taxes for this kind of social programs.

many small employers in California don’t offer health insurance. if your wife died from cancer attributable at some level to her failure to get an early diagnosis because your employer didn’t have a group policy nor pay enough for you to afford a stand-alone policy, would you tap (a) David Geffen or (b) your state senator for the funds necessary to screen your teenage daughter?

 
Written By: Francis
URL: http://
You can chill, Francis. Yes, it’s just a blog comment. We’re just having a nice little debate here. I’m just a bit more thorough than you may be used to.

I brought up several important items that contradicted your simple assertion because marshalling evidence is better than just saying "Nuh-uh!" If you didn’t want a "civics class," how would you have preferred I argued my point?

The conclusion I’ve reached is that the U.S. government isn’t even "basically" based on majority rule. It’s partly based on majority rule, yes, but the decision-making is largely out of the hands of the majority, i.e., a pretty substantial majority of political decisions rest in the hands of government officials who are insulated against feedback (especially effective and timely feedback) from the majority of people.
as to why people can’t use voluntary methods of funding healthcare for the underprivileged, the question as phrased is meaningless, because many people do and many hospitals rely a great deal on voluntary fundraising to pay for capital costs. The question becomes nontrivial only if one adds the word "exclusively" to the first part of the sentence.
I figured that the second half of my question indicated that I meant "exclusively." I quote myself again, with different emphasis:
"Why can’t the latter go ahead and pay for it, or convince others to voluntarily pay for it, rather than force people who disagree with them to pay for it?"
As to your answer:
why can’t people rely exclusively on charity to fund public healthcare? Doesn’t work. Too hard. Not where the money is. Inefficient. State constitutions do not prohibit the use of taxes for this kind of social programs.
First, I didn’t limit it to "charity," and I certainly didn’t mean funding public (i.e. state) healthcare. To a great extent, if there were no government provision of medical services, I’d expect people to pay for themselves and their dependents. I’d also expect most people to modify their behavior and balance the risks they can control against their ability to pay, just like people do with lots of other aspects of their lives. And while they’re at it, they will try to avoid paying unnecessary costs like making trips to the doctor when they have a head cold or a probably-temporary ache. I don’t have to paint a picture of all the incentives for you.

Furthermore, I would expect more flexible options for medical insurance and financing of urgent medical services to emerge as the government left a vacuum. Some people would obtain such compensation with the help of unions (I have no problem with collective bargaining per se), while others would simply be able to put part or all of their savings on payroll taxes into their own health, while still others would likely seek out financing from other institutions.

And what makes you so sure that charity’s "too hard"? People give all the time to charities.
For that matter, what makes you so sure any of this (combination of private providers and charities) is any more inefficient than government provision of medical services? The government makes mistakes for which it is relatively unaccountable and doles out money relatively indiscriminately, while individuals and businesses (and to a lesser extent charities) have direct incentives to manage risk more carefully and produce better results, especially as they themselves typically know their own preferences better than the government does. Why would we expect government, then, to be more efficient or cost-effective? Seems you’ve got a number of hurdles to jump before you can make such bold claims.

Finally, the fact that state constitutions allow something does not necessarily mean that people can’t (or won’t) live without it and be better off as a result.
many small employers in California don’t offer health insurance. if your wife died from cancer attributable at some level to her failure to get an early diagnosis because your employer didn’t have a group policy nor pay enough for you to afford a stand-alone policy, would you tap (a) David Geffen or (b) your state senator for the funds necessary to screen your teenage daughter?
That’s a question loaded with assumptions about how I’d end up in that situation in the first place. There are about a million trade-offs I’d have to make before ending up in that nightmare scenario, and in a free-market situation, I’d have many incentives not to let it get to that in the first place.

Without a safety net paid for by taking other people’s money, the scenario is:
1) I decide to get married.
2) I end up with a kid somehow (talk about taking huge risks).
3) I make a series of choices that end with me not having a job that compensates me well enough that I can pay for even the most basic care for me-plus-one.
4) My wife does the same.
5) My teenage (employable age?) daughter does the same.
6) When deciding how to spend what income I do make, for some reason I decide to make a trade-off, accepting higher risks for my family’s health in favor of something else.
7) For some reason, I’m not even able to borrow money to pay for such screening. I must have really spoiled my credit at some point.

Under each of those assumptions, I’ve made these choices despite large incentives to do otherwise. Either I did so because the "me" in that scenario is an idiot, or because there were compelling reasons (from my point of view) to make those choices. For me to turn around in either case and demand someone else’s wealth be stripped from them and given to me is pretty distasteful.

Because even in that highly unlikely situation, I’m going to go to a charity (probably one that runs through my church) and/or friends and family, before I even start thinking of picking money from other people’s pockets.

Arbitrary ideas of what levels of health or comfort (or, in the case of screening, of risks to health and comfort) constitute a claim on someone else’s livelihood aren’t my cup of tea.

Now, I don’t think this world is coming any time too soon, and I’d rather not discuss some Libertopia too much when I’m really much more pragmatic about what can be accomplished politically. But for the moment, I wanted to engage in an intellectual exercise about how the price mechanism would function if it, rather than government, regulated the satisfaction of desires in that sector. Rather than discuss the normative aspects, i.e., what the role of government should be, let’s talk about the consequences of various alternatives and let everyone come to their own normative conclusions.
I don’t really want this discussion to be all about health care either, since the price mechanism applies to so much more.
 
Written By: Bryan Pick
URL: http://www.qando.net
The Constitution can’t be touched by a simple majority (you need either two thirds of both houses of Congress or two thirds of the states, and then you need three quarters of state legislatures), and let’s thank our lucky stars for that consolation.
Not true. The legislative, executive and judicial branches of the federal government can simply chose to ignore the constitution and act as they please.

As long as no branch of government decides to exercise its constitutional right to put checks and balances on the others, we have simple majority rule in all things the government does, which is limited solely by the popular will. From the Louisiana Purchase to the Civil War to the founding of the Federal Reserve to the New Deal to all of the undeclared wars of the 20th century, none of these has been in any way constitutional, and with the exception of the first new deal being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the checks and balances designed into the constitution have done very little to actually force those who run the leviathan to live by its restrictions. With the destruction of States Rights and the option of secession from the union, there is no mechanism available for the constitution to be enforced if those people running the government choose to exceed its bounds. None. Majority rule is little more of a restraint on unbridled power than dictatorship, it just reduces the number of victems from the whole population to 49% of the population.

As one poster proudly, depressingly and correctly pointed out: we live in a pure democracy where the majority of those who bother to vote can plunder the rights and assets of the minority, at will. We have become what the "founding fathers" feared the most; a pure democracy, a creature with a 100% historical failure rate.

Since 1787 the United States has gone in one direction: towards bigger and more intrusive government. The constitution ultimately is just a piece of paper protected by thick glass, security guards and nothing else.
 
Written By: DS
URL: http://
Yeah DS the whole place is going to H@(( in a handbasket...grow up. It’s the best that can be said of such a silly rant. Country’s been going down hill since 1804...Heck we only had 15 good years and then *POOF* that dratted Jefferson bought Louisiana and then those D@mn Yankees snuffed out State’s Rights and the ability to secede, oh true they may have liberated a few Nigra’s but in the grand scheme that was Nuth’n......
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Joe,

Actually DS has a good point. We don’t really follow the Constitution. Even Jefferson questioned the constitutionality of the Luisiana Purchase.

DS,

The growth of the government has hardly been linear. Same with the violation of the Constitution. These things have ramped up considerably in the last 60 years or so.

Furthermore, I question the ability of any piece of paper to restrict the will of the majority. The reality is that the Constitution can never be more than a guide, since it will be interpreted at will to achieve desired outcomes.
 
Written By: Don
URL: http://
The reality is that the Constitution can never be more than a guide, since it will be interpreted at will to achieve desired outcomes.
Could be, if we started hanging a few people.
 
Written By: kyle N
URL: http://impudent.blognation.us/blog
The growth of the government has hardly been linear. Same with the violation of the Constitution. These things have ramped up considerably in the last 60 years or so.
146 years. 60 years would put the beginning of big government as starting after World War II. In fact, I would argue there have been no NEW violations to basic constitional principals since the 1930’s, everything that has happened since has simply been to reinforce and confirm the precedents set by FDR. Any pretense of the federal government living within the constraints established by the original constitution (1787-1861) were already dead for generations by 1947.
Furthermore, I question the ability of any piece of paper to restrict the will of the majority.


Mob rule, ie., the will of the majority, can only be restricted by brutal autocratic tyrrany, an uncomfortable fact supported by the whole of human history. The "founding fathers" were most afraid of the tyrrany of the majority, not afraid enough unfortunately, since their document has not put up much of a fight.
 
Written By: DS
URL: http://
Any pretense of the federal government living within the constraints established by the original constitution (1787-1861) were already dead for generations by 1947.
Agreed much of the damage had been accomplished by 1947, but there was nothing about the constituion that changed in 1861, and nothing that changed in 1865 either. Or in the intervening years, for that matter.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp
 
Written By: Tom Perkins
URL: http://
Harun -

I agree - not all societal choices should be economically efficient

Why not?

—Special Ed classes. What’s the economic return on that?
—Just nuke the Pashtun parts Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan after 9/11. Much cheaper.
—Hire assassins at the CIA to kill Saddam/Castro, etc. Much cheaper.

Now these are off the top of my head and most likely arguable, but I think you can get the picture.


Not to mention I don’t think you could have a democracy that manages to consistently choose the economically efficient options.
 
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
Without a safety net paid for by taking other people’s money, the scenario is:
1) I decide to get married.
2) I end up with a kid somehow (talk about taking huge risks).
3) I make a series of choices that end with me not having a job that compensates me well enough that I can pay for even the most basic care for me-plus-one.
4) My wife does the same.
5) My teenage (employable age?) daughter does the same.
6) When deciding how to spend what income I do make, for some reason I decide to make a trade-off, accepting higher risks for my family’s health in favor of something else.
7) For some reason, I’m not even able to borrow money to pay for such screening. I must have really spoiled my credit at some point.
No, no, no Bryan! If the above were true, then I would be responsible for the choices I make. Who are you to question if I marry, if I have children, etc.?????

/end sarcasm

My true feeling is that you put into 7 points a very clear assessment of the choices that CUMULATIVELY add up to something greater than the sum of each separately. Bravo!
 
Written By: meagain
URL: http://

 
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