Friday, March 26, 2010

The Opportunity Costs of Relationships

Since it is generally easy to compare the price-tag cost of one good or service against another, people tend to consider only the monetary cost of a decision. However, what’s also important to consider is the whole value of what you are giving up when you make a decision. In economics, this is known as the opportunity cost. A simple textbook example describes a market that offers two goods for sale: apples and oranges. If an apple can be bought for $1 and an orange for $0.50, the monetary cost of buying an apple is $1, but the opportunity cost is equal to how much you value the two oranges that you give up if you choose to buy an apple. While this observation may not seem particularly important in this context, it can be applied far beyond the realm of monetary dealings.

Romantic relationships are obviously not regular commodities like apples and oranges in that you don’t just head to your local date market and buy a girlfriend or boyfriend. Despite this violation of the competitive hypothesis, relationships have opportunity costs too. That is, the opportunity cost of a relationship is comprised of all the things one foregoes to be in that relationship. While it is not difficult to see the many wonderful things you gain from having a romantic partner, it is easy to overlook the things you give up in exchange.

Here’s a list of some of the things that most people forgo to some degree to be in a relationship:

(1) Spending time with friends and family
(2) Going out and meeting new people
(3) Developing or engaging in hobbies
(4) Working
(5) Exercising

Some people may find that being in a relationship allows them to do more of some of these things (maybe you work out together or spend lots of time with mutual friends), but usually the time you spend with your significant other tends to edge out at least some of the things you like to do on your own.

In economics we represent such trade-offs using graphs like the one below. The red line is known as the budget constraint, and while it typically represents a monetary budget, in this case it represents a sort of time budget for an individual in a relationship with eight hours of leisure time per day (assuming eight hours of sleep and eight hours of work). The eight hours of leisure can be divided anywhere between spending all 8 hours with your significant other or all 8 hours doing other things. Regardless of what allocation a person chooses on the red line, any movement along the line represents a tradeoff of one activity for another.

Despite the perception of economics as dismal science, the point is not that the cost of relationships outweighs the benefits, but rather that there is an opportunity cost to everything. So if you’re single and accustomed to thinking about all the things you’re missing out on, take comfort in the things that you aren't giving up.

Discussion Questions:

1. Consider the graph depicting the time-budget constraint. If a person quits their job and suddenly has more time, how does this affect the person’s position on the line or the position of the line itself?

2. If person A and person B primarily give up time spent with friends when they are in relationships, and person B really likes being with friends, which person’s relationship comes at a higher opportunity cost? If you were to draw each of their indifference curves on the budget constraint graph, how would the two compare?

3. How would being in a relationship affect your overall consumption? If you are in a relationship, are there some goods or services that you would consume more or less of in a given week? Which of these goods would you say are “complementary goods” with relationships? Which are “substitutes?”

4. Sometimes when economists model consumption choices for goods that are consumed over longer periods of time, they introduce switching costs. What sorts of things associated with a break-up may be considered a switching cost? If you assume that breakups are costly, how might this change a person’s decision to allocate their time?

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Monday, March 08, 2010

Pigouvian Tax the Rich?

A millionaire in Switzerland was recently fined a world-record $290,000 for driving his Ferrari Testarossa 87 miles per hour in a 50 miles per hour zone. The amount was so high because fines for speeding in Switzerland are based on a driver's wealth (and, in this case, because the driver falsely claimed diplomatic immunity). The story got me thinking about the economics of speeding tickets.

To an economist, speeding tickets can potentially act as a Pigouvian tax: a tax that makes an individual's cost of engaging in an activity equal to the cost imposed on society. For a driver, the cost of speeding includes things like fuel, the increased likelihood of damaging one's car, and injuring oneself in an accident. For society as a whole, though, the cost of speeding also includes the increased likelihood of an accident that damages other people's property or injures other people. As a result, speeding (and driving in general) imposes costs on society above and beyond those incurred by the driver. Moreover, the other people affected by speeding aren't compensated for the risk by the benefits of speeding, which are enjoyed strictly by the driver. Economists refer to the costs from an activity that are imposed on other people without any compensation as negative externalities. By making an individual's costs equal to society's costs, a Pigouvian tax gives individuals incentives to act as if they were considering everyone's costs. By doing so, a Pigouvian tax internalizes the externality and decreases the activity to the level that maximizes net benefits to society.

It can be difficult to set the Pigouvian tax exactly equal to the external costs of driving because these depend on so many hard-to-estimate variables (such as the likelihood of accidents at different speeds and the monetary damage caused by injuries or death). It's easy to determine, however, that externalities don't depend on the wealth of the driver. For example, the potential consequences for others of a poor person driving a rented Ferrari at 87 miles per hour are the same as from a rich person driving his own Ferrari at the same speed. Thus, for speeding tickets to serve as a Pigouvian tax, the fine for driving the same speed in the same car in the same conditions should be the same for everyone, regardless of wealth.

One consequence of not basing them on wealth, however, is that wealthier people will likely speed more. In most cases, the richer you are, the more you are willing to spend to save time, and thus the more willing you are to speed and risk getting a ticket. Moreover, if the "pure desire for speed" (in the words of the Swiss court that sentenced the driver) is a normal good, wealthier people will consume more of it. From an efficiency perspective, this result is completely appropriate. As long as individuals act as if they were considering all the costs of an activity, their decision to engage in it means that there are net benefits to them and thus to society.

However, because speeding puts others' lives at risk, the idea that it is appropriate for wealthier people to speed more runs counter to many people's idea of fairness. Switzerland's law suggests that its citizens are willing to forego the efficient level of speeding in order to obtain an arguably more equitable result—everyone has similar incentives to speed, and endanger others, regardless of wealth. So, if you ever find yourself about to drive in Switzerland, be sure to check your bank account first: the less you have, the better.

Discussion Questions:

1. What if, considering its external costs, $290,000 was actually the appropriate fine for speeding, but that only extremely wealthy drivers paid that much, with most drivers paying considerably less. Who would speed at the appropriate rate, while who would speed more than was appropriate?

2. Consider what factors make speeding more or less dangerous for other people. On what variables could you base fines for speeding so that drivers internalized the external costs?

3. Are there variables used to determine fines for speeding where you live that have little or no relation to the external costs of speeding?

4. In addition to acting as a deterrent for speeding, fines for speeding can also serve as a source of government revenue. How does this consideration impact the efficiency and equity of basing the fines on wealth?

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Larry Murphy: Hall of Famer, Champion, Economist?

Over his NHL career, Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Murphy was praised for his reliable defense, gifted offense, and his immense hockey skill. But until now, I doubt he has been lauded for his economic insight. Perhaps even Murphy is unaware that his recent comments about head injuries in the NHL perfectly illustrate a real-world example of moral hazard. Speaking to an reporter, Murphy explained current players rely on referees rather than their own decisions to keep them safe on the ice. "You always had to be aware of where you are in relation to the boards and you had to stay close to the boards and protect yourself that way," Murphy said. "Now the play is to turn your back to a guy and it's like, hands off.” While it may appear that Murphy was simply talking about how his sport has changed, his logic rests on the same clear principles economists use when analyzing many situations with the concept of moral hazard.

First, let’s start with a bit of back-story for those not familiar with hockey. The rules of the game allow for a great deal of contact, called checking, during play on the ice. Legally, only the player who controls the puck can be checked, and contact is allowed anywhere on the ice, even near the boards. As modern medical understandings of head injuries and long-term brain damage have advanced, the hockey community, and specifically the NHL, has made efforts to further protect its players. In the past three seasons, a large emphasis in rule enforcement has been made to prevent hits from behind that would send a player head-first into the boards without warning. There is no debate in my eyes that the intent of this policy should be supported in every way. The economics in all this stems from the fact that players have begun to play the game differently due to a change in incentives.

Murphy outlined how current players now take a more aggressive position on the ice because they no longer have to protect themselves; rather, the players know that the referees will protect them by calling penalties. From an economic standpoint, defensemen now face different incentives than they did before the rule change occurred. The risks associated with being hit from behind can be viewed as the cost associated with turning around on the ice. Since the new rules make those dangerous hits less likely, they essentially lower the cost defensemen face when deciding if they should put themselves in a vulnerable position. Economists refer to a moral hazard as any time a change in the larger economic system designed to protect an individual causes that person to alter his behavior to be more risky.

Perhaps the most vivid illustration of moral hazard comes from a quip by an economist who realized that as safety features in automobiles have advanced, so have the number of accidents. He stated that technological advances that have reduced the number of fatal car accidents in the country (e.g. airbags, seatbelts, etc.) would be just as successful as removing all safety features from a car and installing a giant metal spike in the center of the steering wheel that would be sure to impale the driver even in a minor crash. While the comment is tongue in cheek, its underlying point is very valid. Consider if this alternate proposal were true. I imagine that drivers would be much more attentive when driving and make many more efforts to drive safely, such as reducing their speed and avoiding distractions like cell phones. Whether talking about new rules on the ice or safety changes on the road, the theme is the same: as technology changes the rules of the game to make people safer, they will respond by worrying less about risks and engage in more dangerous behavior.

Discussion Questions:

1. Suppose the NHL is unhappy with the change in the style of play that has occurred since hits from behind have been more carefully officiated. What sort of rules or incentives could they introduce to continue to keep protecting players, but return play to the way it was before?

2. Consider the following scenario: A baseball pitcher is traded in the middle of the season. His previous team was the worst defensive team in the league. However, now he has been traded to the team with the best defensive players. In his first start for his new team, his coaches are baffled when he starts throwing many more aggressive and risky pitches that could be hit into play. How would you explain the change in the pitcher’s behavior to his coaches? What would you suggest they do if they want him to continue to pitch the way he did for his previous team?

3. Suppose the U.S. government passes new legislation that provides free healthcare to everyone in the country. As an economist, apply the principle of moral hazard to predict what will happen to the number of doctor visits that patients choose to make in a year.

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