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Top 10 Insights from Economics – EP129 show notes & transcript

In Economics Explored EP129, show host Gene Tunny reviews his top ten insights from economics with Tim Hughes. These include insights regarding specialization and trade, opportunity cost, and the price mechanism, among others. Applications to traffic congestion and climate change, among other issues, are explored.

You can listen to the episode using the podcast player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher, among other podcasting apps. A transcript of the conversation is included below.

The e-book which is the basis of this episode is available to subscribers of the economicsexplored.com website.

Links relevant to the conversation

On comparative advantage:

https://www.economicsonline.co.uk/global_economics/comparative_advantage.html

https://www.khanacademy.org/economics-finance-domain/ap-macroeconomics/basic-economics-concepts-macro/scarcity-and-growth/v/comparative-advantage-specialization-and-gains-from-trade

On California’s emissions reduction scheme:

https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/our-work/programs/cap-and-trade-program

Transcript: Top 10 insights from economics – EP129

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored. But can you imagine what traffic would be like in central London if you didn’t have a congestion charge? I mean, it’d just be mad. Well, you wouldn’t be able to move.

Tim Hughes  00:11

It was. I remember the few times I was there, and it was like every European city. It was just chockers. But regardless, I don’t mind those kind of charges. But I do resent the fact that they’re not straightforward.

Gene Tunny  00:25

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is Episode 129, which is about my top 10 insights from economics. And joining me today is my occasional co-host, Tim Hughes.

Tim Hughes 00:49

Hey, Gene. How are you?

Gene Tunny 00:50

Good, mate. Very good. Thanks for joining me for this mini episode in a way. I just want to go over my top 10 insights from economics. So I’ve prepared an e-book. And if you’re listening and you’re interested in getting it, you can subscribe to the website, the economicsexplored.com website, and you’ll get a copy of that e-book. So Tim, I just wanted to go through what I think those top 10 insights from economics are. And one thing I should note is we’re recording this on the 2nd of March, 2022. Currently, there’s a huge crisis in Ukraine with the Russian invasion. We’ve got no idea how that will play out.

Tim Hughes  01:36

Hopefully swiftly and peacefully.

Gene Tunny  01:38

Yeah. But look, I mean, huge, huge risk to the world. And yeah, just feel for the people of Ukraine who are suffering from that invasion.

Tim Hughes 01:48

Absolutely.

Gene Tunny 01:48

Just terrible. Okay, so should we get into it, Tim?

Tim Hughes  01:53

Yeah, let’s do it. Can I ask if this is one to 10 in any sort of preference or order? Is it just top 10 all round?

Gene Tunny  02:00

This is one to 10 in the order that they occurred to me as I was jotting them down.

Tim Hughes 02:05

Cool.

Gene Tunny 02:06

So I think I’ve tried to order them in what I think are the most important insights. But having said that, I recognise that there’s possibly insights that other economists would put ahead of the ones I’ve chosen, or maybe they don’t agree with what I think are insights. And so if you’re listening in the audience, and you have a different view, or if you think I haven’t explained something exactly correct, then sure, please get in touch. So you can send me a message via SpeakPipe, there’s a link in the show notes, or email contact@economicsexplored.com. We’d love to hear from you, as always.

So Tim, just to begin with, I mean, this is one that I often point out when we’re just chatting is that insight about how $50 bills or $50 notes aren’t just lying on the sidewalk, waiting to get picked up. There’s a famous joke about the two economics professors walking along the street and one of them sees a $50 note and says, “Oh, there’s a $50 note there.” He’s about to bend down to pick it up, and the other one says, “Don’t be silly. If it was a real $50 note, then somebody would have already picked it up.” So it’s the idea of opportunities for profit or gains from trade are rapidly exploited in a market economy. So it’s that sort of insight, this idea of arbitrage, so the fact that you don’t have exchange rates being out of alignment. If you think about what we trade, say Australian dollars for US dollars, and then US dollars for British pounds, they all sort of make sense collectively. You’re not going to get an opportunity to, say, take your British pounds, buy Australian dollars, then sell them for American dollars, and do better than if you just sold your British pounds for American dollars. So those gains will actually be arbitraged away.

Tim Hughes  03:58

So if there is a $50 note on the footpath, it’ll get picked up so quickly that it’ll be unnoticeable on the macro.

Gene Tunny  04:04

Well, yeah, exactly. And I guess it’s a philosophy for life too. It’s something that Seth Godin, world’s number one marketing guru, will often say, that look, someone’s going to be number one, or someone’s going to win in this game. Someone’s going to be the top YouTuber. Somebody’s going to be Joe Rogan.

Tim Hughes  04:24

It’s probably not going to be you. Still hope yet, Gene, there’s still hope.

Gene Tunny  04:32

So I’ve always thought that was an important lesson from economics. That’s a key insight. It’s important in economics, because we’ve got all of these models in which there’s optimising behaviour. So we’ve got businesses trying to maximise profits and consumers trying to maximise their utility or their satisfaction. And generally if you assume competitive markets, then businesses can try to maximise profits all they like, but the force of competition means that they’re just earning a reasonable return on their capital. I mean, they’re being compensated for their investment, for their assumption of risk. But they shouldn’t generally be earning monopoly profits. Of course, then there’s that issue about, well, what about if you’re Amazon or what about if you’re Facebook, and so clearly, there are some monopoly profits or supernormal profits being earned. But the way that some economists rationalise that is that they’re being rewarded for the innovation. And you really need those supernormal profits to stimulate innovation in a way.

Tim Hughes  05:40

Yeah, it’s an interesting one, because, I mean, there are so many of those big companies. Certainly Amazon is profitable, but a lot of the big ones who aren’t profitable, just to get scale Uber, and I don’t know if Airbnb are profitable, but you know, it’s those ones that are massive to market. Spotify, for instance so they’re actually making money. But they’re getting market share. So it’s interesting to see how that’s possible without turning a profit. And it’s obviously on the future promise of reward.

Gene Tunny  06:15

It’s all based on future earnings. And so this is what’s interesting in this world of low interest rates, because interest rates are so low, and you can borrow money so cheap and invest for the long term. If you look at what these companies such as Uber could be earning in the future, and you make assumptions about, oh, well, we could all be using Uber, no one will own a car anymore, and look at what the potential revenues could be. If you’ve got very low interest rates, then if you discount those future earnings back to the present, they’re worth a lot more. And that pushes up the value of those companies, because in a way, it could make sense to borrow a lot of money now and invest in those companies, because interest rates are so low, and these companies have such huge potential earnings into the future. So that’s why you’re seeing a lot of these tech companies having such high valuations. And as soon as interest rates start increasing, that could reduce the value of these tech companies, because well, people would rather get the money in the short term, because the opportunity cost of money is higher if the interest rate is higher. Does that make sense?

Tim Hughes  07:32

It does. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, is this still along the lines of the $50 note on the on the street?

Gene Tunny  07:38

We somehow got onto that issue of … You’d talked about the tech companies.

Tim Hughes  07:42

It was my fault. I guess what it is is that they all lead from one to the other, but without getting off that first one, because it is a thing, for instance, of like, yeah, if there is innovation, and if people can copy it, then it will be copied. And generally more people will be doing it, so that general movement away, so that opportunities get taken advantage of by more than one person, obviously. If it works, then other people will copy it and follow and it becomes more dispersed. That would naturally be how it works. So I guess we’re talking about exceptions to that rule with these big, massive companies that are all on the promise of future reward, whereas most companies can’t operate that way. They have to be more instantly profitable if they’re going to survive.

Gene Tunny  08:29

Yeah, look, I may have gone on a bit of a tangent there. But that’s insight one. We might go into insight two. And that is this concept of, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Now a guest I’m having on in hopefully next episode or the episode after is David Bahnsen. He’s a fund manager over in the States. And he’s written a great book, There’s No Free Lunch. And this is the idea that, look, there’s always an opportunity cost with any action. And so my insight two is it’s opportunity costs rather than cash outlays that matter in economic decision making.

Now, I think the original idea or the original, is it a proverb or a saying about there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, came from bars in the, might have been late 19th century or early 20th century USA, where they advertised as having a free lunch to get the patrons in the door. And they’d know that they could cover the cost of the free lunch by selling them drinks, or maybe they inflated the prices of those drinks a bit while having the free lunch. So there’s that idea.

But also, if you think about it, you’ve got an opportunity cost. Someone could offer to take you to lunch, but that’s an hour of your time and that hour is worth something Time is money. I mean, that’s one of the things we often do in economics in cost-benefit studies. We value people’s time and we work out well how much benefit could erode or a new bridge provide through the time savings. There’s an Australian government estimate. I think it’s $32 an hour or something, on average, you can value people’s time at.

Tim Hughes  10:11

I think it’s a good rule of thumb. You know, there’s usually some reason for something being given freely. Sometimes if it’s charitable, then that is what it is. But in many cases, I think it’s tied in the process of reciprocation, in the form of something else, the other party reciprocating in some form or other, or an opportunity to sell a product or service at some stage. So I think everyone’s aware of … I think that’s a fair one to have in there, Gene. That’s a good home truth, I think.

Gene Tunny  10:49

Yeah. And it’s important because you’ve got to recognise the opportunity cost of your own assets. If you’ve got assets, and they’re not being used, then you’re losing the income from that. So you’ve got to recognise that. It might make sense for you to offload something that’s just sitting around, like an old car or something, that’s costing you. You’re losing money on it through depreciation every year. So yeah, why not get rid of it? So I think that’s an important concept, this idea of opportunity cost, what are you giving up through your current course of action, your current actions.

Okay, insight three, comparative advantage and gains from trade. So this is the classic principle from David Ricardo, the British stockbroker, member of Parliament I think he was, economist from the 19th century, which is essentially arguing that there’s generally going to be gains from trade. Even if a country can produce most things, or in his model, it’s even if a country can produce everything better than another country, more efficiently, it still makes sense for one country to specialise in particular goods and services, relative to another country. Then that maximises the total amount that can be produced, and then you trade amongst each other. So it’s an argument in favour of specialisation and then trading.

Often the examples are given … I think they have the example of England trading with Portugal, and they use the commodities of cloth and wine. And there’s a numerical example that shows why it makes sense for, I guess it was England specialising in cloth and then Portugal specialising in wine. What’s neat about it is it doesn’t actually matter. If one country is superior in productivity to another country, it still makes sense to have specialisation.

One of the ways it’s often explained in economics classes is if, say, you’ve got a professor, and the professor has a secretary. And the professor could be as good as the secretary in administrative tasks, or even better. They could be an even better typist, or better at the admin stuff. But they’re also a great researcher. If the professor gives up an hour to do the admin stuff, that’s going to cost them a lot in terms of the great research output they could produce, whereas the admin person, they’re not going to be able to produce in an hour. If they gave up an hour, they’re not going to be able to produce anywhere near what the professor could in terms of research output. And it makes sense collectively. If you look at it collectively, it makes sense for specialisation to occur. So I’ve got some examples in the insight in the e-book. It’s essentially the benefits of specialisation.

Tim Hughes  13:56

And then maximising the available time within that sphere of specialisation as well, I guess. So for instance, like if you’re educated to a point of being a specialist in a certain area, like in your example there, so you want to be operating in that area of specialisation for the most amount of your available time.

Gene Tunny 14:16

Exactly.

Tim Hughes  14:17

This would speak to scale though, I guess, as well, wouldn’t it? For instance, certainly around my part of the world, originally Manchester, and cotton or linen production around there was huge. And so if you do that to such a scale, then per unit cost or square metre or however you measure the product, that would be ultimately cheaper to produce than if everyone tried to do it somewhat on a smaller scale.

Gene Tunny  14:47

Yeah. I think it’s related. I mean, definitely the gains from scale, the economies of scale, that will come from specialisation. And this is I think what Adam Smith was getting at. He was talking about how just the productivity and efficiency gains from specialisation, the division of labour. Ricardo’s model, his theory of comparative advantage doesn’t depend on that though. It is related. That’s a good point. I mean, maybe I needed insight about increasing returns in economies of scale in this in this e-book. I haven’t got one at the moment. I think that is an insight. That’s an important insight.

Tim Hughes  15:33

For instance, I don’t know what Portugal’s opportunity or capability was to manufacture cotton or linen, but I know the vineyards of Manchester wouldn’t have cut it as far as supplying the local areas with wine. I don’t know if anyone’s tried, but I’m certain that we would have heard about it if it was any cop.

Gene Tunny  15:51

I’ll have to put some examples in the show notes, a link to them on comparative advantage, because there are neat little numerical examples. And, I mean, yeah, it’s just not going to work in the podcast, but I’ll link to it in the show notes if you want to check it out.

Tim Hughes  16:06

I’ve just googled Manchester vineyards and it’s just tumbleweed blowing across my screen.

Gene Tunny  16:13

What about with climate change? See what happens.

Tim Hughes  16:15

Maybe, maybe.

Gene Tunny 16:16

See what happens. I shouldn’t be joking about that sort of thing, because there was a new IPCC report that came out. Was it yesterday? Just saying, yeah, still urgent. Something has to be done. We’re not really doing anything.

Tim Hughes  16:37

As far as climate change and crops.

Gene Tunny  16:39

We’re not doing enough. I think that’s what the message is.

Tim Hughes  16:41

Yeah, absolutely. There’s a different podcast on that one. And I know we’ve talked about it. But absolutely, I think, just very quickly, urgency would be a good thing. No matter whether people believe in climate change or not, urgency in the right direction, of all the changes that would make this planet cleaner, would be a good thing. Anyway, I’ll stop it there.

Gene Tunny  17:05

We’ll have to come back to that. I mean, there is one insight where we could talk about climate change. Insight nine, we can use market mechanisms, taxes or subsidies to correct market failures. So climate change can be thought of as a market failure, because businesses aren’t … At the moment, unless they’re paying a carbon tax, or there’s an emissions trading scheme of some kind … There aren’t many of those around the world. There’s one in Europe. I think there might be one in California. I’ll have to put that in the show notes. If they don’t have that, then they’re not paying the cost of the pollution. They’re not facing that cost. So the idea of the emissions trading scheme or the carbon tax, they’re two different ways of doing the same thing. It’s a way of putting a price on the carbon dioxide that’s emitted. So forcing people to pay for it. So the polluter would essentially pay for it. They’d have to buy the emissions permits. So they would pay the tax based on their emissions. And then they’d pass it on to consumers,  to an extent. That’s one of the insights.

So now, the challenge is, of course …  That sort of makes sense.  It’s a global problem. That’s the problem. So we really need a scheme that operates globally, or there’s some sort of compatibility or trading between different countries, the schemes of different countries. Otherwise, I’ve made this point many times about Australia. It doesn’t make sense for Australia to do much to reduce emissions if the rest of the world isn’t. If China and the USA aren’t doing it, what’s the point of us imposing these costs on our economy?

Tim Hughes  18:55

It’s a fair point, because it is that thing of like, why hobble yourself if other people … Then you’re just giving an advantage elsewhere, and making it harder. But here’s one of those things, it’s like one in all in, which of course, is different around the world, like people from different circumstances or Third World countries who are going to struggle to try and meet a matching scheme. But I’m certain that whatever the future holds in the way of making things better, I think technology and breakthroughs in cleaner energy and all these different things, they’re probably the areas which will get taken up, because if you can make it cheaper for someone to have clean energy, compared to digging fossil fuels out of the ground, or having something that’s not clean energy, as soon as it becomes cheaper, then you’ll have uptake naturally. You won’t have to have schemes or anything in place. That will be widely accepted and welcomed, because you’re going to be better off doing it.

And so those kind of breakthroughs, I think, I can only hope that that would be the sort of game changers. Of course we’re talking about future technology in most cases, but given the right intent behind doing that, and the right minds, the right backing, I’ve got no doubt that that would be a reality. And so that’s where the support globally could come from, if that’s supported, to go down that road and follow that opportunity, because there are opportunities there. Then that would be the global uptake, rather than … I think it would be too hard to try and expect everyone to join a global scheme. I think that is hard. And maybe that’s just an intermediate sort of measure. Maybe that’s an intermediate measure between those who can and that still would make a difference. But anyway, again, I don’t want to get off your top 10 here, Gene.

Gene Tunny  20:47

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  20:52

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Gene Tunny  21:21

Now back to the show. Okay, we better rip through these pretty quickly, because you’ve got to get going in about five to 10 minutes. So far we’ve got through … I think we’ve done four insights now. I’m up to insight four, the magic of the price mechanism, or you can ration by price or by queuing. So this is another point I often make about how a lot of the problems we’ve got is because we don’t have appropriate prices, or we’re not charging for scarce resources.

And a classic example is car parking, the high cost of free parking, as Donald Shoup I think it was, who was a professor at UCLA, that’s what he calls it. And part of the reason you can never find a park is because the councils, at different times they’ll allow people to park for very little cost or for free on the streets. And so they’re not appropriately charging for the scarcity of that resource, the fact that yeah, street park is valuable, and it’s not necessarily going to the person who would be most willing to pay for it.

Tim Hughes  22:40

So going against the supply and demand model, you’re suggesting? Is that right?

Gene Tunny  22:43

Yes.

Tim Hughes  22:44

Because normally supply and demand would go to-

Gene Tunny 22:46

Economists, we’re great believers in supply and demand.

Tim Hughes 22:48

That makes sense.

Gene Tunny 22:49

Another example is congestion. And so economists for years have argued that there’s a lot of benefit to congestion charges. There’s a congestion charge in central London, and I think in Singapore. It’s terrible, isn’t it?

Tim Hughes  23:04

I got stung. I got stung. Don’t get me started, Gene. I haven’t got time to go through.

Gene Tunny  23:11

You get confused at Marble Arch and you end up in the centre of London.

Tim Hughes  23:17

Just very briefly, we were there for two days, like five years ago. And we left central London and paid. We knew there was a fee. We weren’t sure if we were in the central area or not. We were told we were just outside it, had a higher car, etc. But you’re supposed to pay by midnight the following day. And we did it the day after that, and it was 80 quid. It stung massively. It’s like, come on. It was not straightforward or easy to make those payments. And that’s my issue with any of this stuff. Happy to pay for … It was 12 quid a day, I think whatever. That sounds about right. But to then be fined 80 pounds in such a short period of non-payment, which by anybody’s standards, by midnight the following day was like, hang on.

Gene Tunny  24:07

Can you imagine what traffic would be like in central London if you didn’t have a congestion charge? I mean, it’d just be mad. Well, you wouldn’t be able to move.

Tim Hughes  24:13

It was. I remember like the few times I was there. It was like every European city, it was just chockers, you know. But regardless, I don’t mind those kind of charges. But I do resent the fact that they’re not straightforward. When you went across the Sydney Harbour Bridge 40, 30 years ago, whatever, you threw coins into the tollbooth, and off you went. It was very clear if you paid or hadn’t, etc. There was a little bay to pull over into if you couldn’t find the loose change or whatever it may be. Whereas now those costs are far less visible, I find. You just ticker over on these costs, which come out. I think there’s an element of rot in a lot of this, which I’m not so keen on.

Gene Tunny  24:54

Tim, I agree. That’s an implementation issue there. We’re dealing with the high level ideas here.

Tim Hughes  24:58

Sorry, Gene. I got sidetracked there. It’s a personal thing, and I said I wouldn’t talk about it, but I did.

Gene Tunny  25:02

It’s fair enough. Insight number five, ignore sunk costs. Bygones are bygones. Economics is forward looking.

Tim Hughes 25:11

That’s timely.

Gene Tunny 25:13

Well, it’s true.

Tim Hughes 25:15

That’s right, just forget about it, write it off.

Gene Tunny 25:18

But we often fall into the sunk cost fallacy and we just throw good money after bad. I mean, we spend a few billion developing a Concorde jet that we figure out pretty early on is not gonna be very commercial, or it’s just a money pit. The British and the French government just keep investing in it. And it turns out it just wasn’t commercially viable. Beautiful aeroplane.

Tim Hughes 25:41

Yeah, definitely.

Gene Tunny 25:43

Amazing technological feat, but the economics just didn’t make sense. You just couldn’t pack enough people on the Concorde.

Tim Hughes  25:50

I never knew the economics behind it. It was a tragic end to the Concorde era when it caught fire, which was awful, however many years ago that was. But I wasn’t aware of the economic cost of it at all.

Gene Tunny  26:07

I think the economics of it were bad, so never going to recommission them or to build new ones because I think the problem was you need so much jet fuel to get hypersonic. I mean, it was hypersonic, wasn’t it?

Tim Hughes 26:19

Supersonic.

Gene Tunny 26:20

Supersonic, that’s it. Supersonic, that’s right. And so you need a huge amount of jet fuel to get supersonic. Beautiful design, but it was very sleek.

Tim Hughes 26:32

It was stunning.

Gene Tunny 26:33

You couldn’t pack as many people into a Concorde as you could a 747, could you?

Tim Hughes  26:39

No. I mean, I guess looking back at the time, that was very soon after the lunar landings, and around that sort of time, so it was very much a modern forethinking sort of thing to get involved in. So there’s probably a bit of ego involved in the whole thing.

Gene Tunny  27:01

Yeah. It was British and French prestige. I mean, they wanted to play with the big boys. I mean, they wanted to play with the Russians and the Americans. There was a space race, and the Brits and the French wanted to, I don’t know, I guess they wanted to show that they were technologically advanced as well.

Tim Hughes  27:24

I was just a kid at the time. But I remember there was pride in the Concorde. Pictures of it were plastered everywhere. And it did, it looked amazing. You did take some pride in that in some way. And I guess that, yeah, maybe if they felt that there was other benefits from having that kind of visibility of something that modern looking. I don’t know.

Gene Tunny  27:50

Yeah. Well, it’s a shame. But anyway, it’s the example I give about sunk cost, because they just kept throwing money at this thing, even though it was a really bad investment. So you’ve got to ignore what you’ve spent already, and just think about, is the additional money you’re spending on this endeavour, is that going to be worthwhile?

Tim Hughes 28:09

So cutting the losses?

Gene Tunny 28:10

Exactly, exactly. We better rip through the rest of them pretty quickly. Insight 10, that’s an easy one. We’ve chatted about this one before. Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. So that’s something from Milton Friedman. I’ve chatted about that enough on this programme. So far, we probably don’t need to elaborate.

Insight six, redistributing via the tax transfer system can be superior to redistributing via fixing prices. What I’m talking about there is, a lot of times governments try to fix prices, try to set wage rates or try to fix prices of different goods and services. Rent control is one example, generally a bad idea, because that can discourage investment in new apartments. And that can make the situation worse for people. It’s good for the people who’ve got a rent-controlled apartment, but it’s not good for the majority. So economists tend to think that rather than trying to fix prices, you’re better off letting prices adjust, because there’s the magic of the price mechanism that economists talk about. And then if people, they’re doing it tough,  because there are people who need help, then provide that through the welfare system. That’s an idea. That’s one of the insights there.

Tim Hughes  29:30

So now we’ve got something to talk about more in more depth in that area as well, coming up. It would be good to expand on that because it’s certainly an area where it’s getting very, very difficult for new homeowners to get a foot on the market ladder. And I know there are different schemes in place around the world. I know Singapore has got a scheme whereby the government buys the buildings and allows people to get homeownership through a scheme that they basically provide the building or the land.

Gene Tunny  30:08

It seems very interventionist to me. But yeah, we should chat about that in a future episode.

Tim Hughes  30:13

There were a few things. I know we never talked about having that. But it’s along the lines of this, because that still basically isn’t a fixed thing, but it’s more of an assisted service or assisted package.

Gene Tunny  30:26

Insight seven, collusion and monopoly power can be a concern and may require regulatory action. That’s probably pretty self explanatory. I mean, economists celebrate the market generally.  We think the market system’s great. But of course, there can be situations where companies become extremely dominant, they can abuse their market power, and hence, you might want to have some antitrust action against them. I mean, we’ve got an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission here in Australia to do that sort of thing. The United States has got a Federal Trade Commission, I think, or they’ve got the Department of Justice. So there’s a lot of talk now about should we break up big tech companies like Facebook, like split Facebook proper from Instagram and WhatsApp,  is there something that they should do with Google, should we break Google away from YouTube, etc. There’s  all that debate going on at the moment. I’ve covered that on the show before

Tim Hughes  31:23

 It’s a thorny issue, isn’t it?

Gene Tunny  31:28

It is. And I think what my takeaway from economics would be that, yeah, it can be a problem in some circumstances. And there’s some guidance in the literature. I’ve offered that as an insight. And I guess it’s a topic we should come back to in a future episode, because there are a lot of issues to consider pros and cons, because you don’t want to eliminate that process of creative destruction as Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian economist, who is at Harvard, called it, because that’s important. We like that creative destruction. New companies are rising and innovating and offering services that everyone enjoys. I mean, Amazon. I’m not a great Facebook fan. Maybe Google’s a better example. I think Amazon and Google have certainly provided a lot of value to consumers and to people in the community,

Tim Hughes  32:25

it seems to come down to ethics, I think, and that’s maybe the direction to take. That would be my feeling on it, because it’s hard to put limitations on a free market. The less governance I think is always a good thing. But then there comes responsibility with these massive companies then to do the right thing and to employ people under good conditions, etc, all those kind of areas, you know. That money should be going back into society at some level. If the profits are so huge, then yeah, it would be, I think, a fair thing to tax those companies more, to give back to society.

Gene Tunny  33:07

Yeah. So there’s a big issue there on multinational tax avoidance. So that’s covered on the show with Pascalis Raimondos.

Tim Hughes 33:13

Outrageous, yeah.

Gene Tunny 33:14

Important issue. Final insight for now, inside eight, because we’ve already covered nine and 10.

Fallacy of composition and the paradox of thrift. So what’s good for the household is not necessarily good for the economy, so just the idea that in economics, you’ve got to think about how everything fits together, just how does everything connect together. And this comes from Keynes in the ‘30s. There are a lot of people who are negative about Keynes and think it’s a very … It’s the economics of depression, you could argue, but the idea is that it might make sense for a household to cut back on its spending if the breadwinner loses their job or one of the household members loses a job. But if everyone in the economy does that, it’s bad for the economy collectively. It’s less spending, less income, less production. So that’s the paradox of thrift, that what could be good for the household may not be good for the economy.

Now I’m not necessarily advocating a Keynesian viewpoint or Keynesian fiscal policies. But I think that is a key insight, that you’ve got to think about how everything collectively fits together. And if you think about governments, back in the ‘30s, when the revenues fell due to the Depression, a lot of the governments thought, we’ve got to tighten our belts, we’ve got to cut spending, to make sure we balance the budget. Sound public finance was what was going to help us in the Depression. But it turns out that wasn’t the case, because when they cut spending, that meant they weren’t spending as much on their public servants or on infrastructure projects. And that meant less activity in the economy. So it was a perverse fiscal policy.

Tim Hughes  35:13

That’s interesting, because now that’s happened more recently, when there have been cases of the government handing out money to people just to get the stimulus packages, for instance, just to keep money moving around and keeping businesses going in it. The first time it happened, it seemed like the craziest thing. I’d never seen that happen before. I’m trying to remember when it was.

Gene Tunny  35:37

2009, Kevin Rudd, the Rudd money.

Tim Hughes  35:39

That’s right. Yeah, it was the GFC, wasn’t it?

Gene Tunny  35:40

$900 checks.

Tim Hughes  35:42

Yeah. And it was just like, it seems insane. But it appeared to work, which is remarkable. But it’s exactly what you’re talking about, I guess, isn’t it?

Gene Tunny  35:51

I’d say it’s got a mixed record historically. But that’s the idea that comes from John Maynard Keynes in the 30s. That’s why Keynes is seen as revolutionising economics, because up until the ‘30s, in 1936, when he published the General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, everyone thought that idea was crazy.

Tim Hughes  36:12

It seemed counterintuitive. We’re in tough times, and you start spending. But there was sense to it.

Gene Tunny 36:18

What’s counter?

Tim Hughes 36:19

Well, for instance, the stimulus package, like at the time, a GFC.

Gene Tunny 36:24

Oh, I see.

Tim Hughes 36:25

It would appear. And at a household level, you’d think, yeah, tighten your belts and sort of, like, hold on to everything, whereas like, it was completely the opposite. Here you go, put this into the economy, like keep everything moving. The value of that on the greater scale, on the national scale, was really effective. It was impressive to see.

Gene Tunny  36:52

Exactly. So I’m not in any way endorsing Keynesian fiscal stimulus, because there are all sorts of issues with it in terms of timing, are we gonna get the timing of it right. There’s a possibility you could actually add instability to the economy, that sort of thing. Crowding out impacts, all that sort of thing we can cover in another, or I’ve covered with Tony Makin in a previous episode. Tim, that’s been great. Thanks so much for sitting in, as I’ve sort of done this quick tour of my top 10 insights of economics. You’ve given me some things to think about. I want to add something in about economies of scale or increasing returns to a future addition to this. But at the moment, if you’re listening, you’re interested in this, please get on the website and subscribe so you can download it. Tim, thanks so much. Really enjoyed that conversation.

Tim Hughes  37:37

Thank you, Gene. That was great. It was really interesting.

Gene Tunny  37:39 Thank you. Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com, and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Credits

Big thanks to my guest Tim Hughes and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.