Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal

A Partisan Nonpartisan Blog

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Shark Tank Markups


Mark Cuban, Daymond John, Kevin O’Leary, Barbara Corcoran and Robert Herjavec are judges on “Shark Tank.” Credit Richard Cartwright/ABC

For an economist, one of the most educational and entertaining shows on TV these days is Shark Tankwhich lies squarely in the intersection between venture capital and reality TV. The judges, called “sharks” are shown as choosing whether or not to invest their own money in ventures on the spot as entrepreneurs make their pitch during the taping of the show. There are also some follow-up segments about how ventures one or more of the sharks invested in previously have been doing.  

It is well worth hearing the incisive questions and opinions given by the sharks. Among the inevitable questions are “How much do you sell it for?” and “How much does it cost to make and deliver?” or in the case of a service “How much does it cost you to do it?” The intriguing thing to me about that is being able to get a measure of the actual markup ratio

Actual Markup Ratio = Price/Marginal Cost

for a wide variety of goods and services. I think a great undergraduate economics thesis could be written by watching all of the episodes of Shark Tank, compiling all the data on price and marginal cost and then analyzing the determinants of the markup ratio (such as sector and how different the product is from competing products—something that could be coded up systematically from the televised discussion in the show).

Once price has had a chance to adjust optimally, the markup ratio should equal the target markup ratio

Target Markup Ratio = Price/Marginal Revenue = ε / (ε - 1)

where ε is the price elasticity of demand seen by the firm. The price elasticity of demand seen by a typical firm (or a typical firm’s target markup ratio) is a key parameter for macroeconomics as well as for industrial organization. For example, the value of ε tells how close things are to perfect competition. and ε is important for optimal monetary policy, as you can see in my discussion of Michael Woodford and Vasco Curdia’s paper at a conference at the Bank of Japan. Macroeconomists typically assume a value of 1.1 for the markup ratio, which implies ε = 11. To me, that seems too low a markup ratio and correspondingly, too high a firm-level price elasticity of demand. In any case, the value of typical markup ratios is a central issue that should be disputed in the light of as many different types of relevant information as we can get hold of.

Sometimes the sharks also ask about marketing costs. It is important to recognize that marketing costs (for example, “customer acquisition costs”) should not be included in marginal cost. They are a different animal. When price is above marginal cost, then there is a reward to marketing that pushes out the demand curve the firm faces. If a firm is optimizing, then it should be true that 

Marginal Cost to Make and Deliver + Marginal Marketing Cost of Raising Demand by 1 Unit at the Going Price = Price

So if one (in my view mistakenly) includes marginal marketing cost as part of “marginal cost” then the markup ratio should always look like 1 for an optimizing firm. This obscures the key forces arising from a markup of price over the marginal cost of making and delivering a product.  

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Too many people spend too much time trying to perfect something before they actually do it. Instead of waiting for perfection, run with what you’ve got, and fix it along the way.
Paul Arden (via creativesomething)

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Kim Schoenholtz and Stephen Cechetti: Has Paper Money Outlived Its Purpose?


Link to Kim Schoenholtz’s and Stephen Cechetti’s post "Has paper money outlived its purpose?"

This is a nice article that speaks favorably of my proposal for enabling negative interest rates. In the end, they come down in favor of keeping paper money.

I wish Kim and Stephen had made it clearer that my proposal in "How Subordinating Paper Currency to Electronic Money Can End Recessions and End Inflation" involves keeping paper money in a subordinate role that retains the positive aspects of paper money they mention. Indeed, during periods of time in which negative interest rates haven’t been necessary for a while, the monetary system I propose would look very much like the current system. That makes it very different from proposals to abolish paper money entirely. 

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John Stuart Mill: People Should Be Allowed to Govern Their Own Lives Because They Care More and Know More about Themselves Than Anyone Else Does


Image source: "Self-knowledge, A Path to Happiness" by Karem-Barrett

Even if the self is an illusion, what we call the self reflects a fundamental fact about the aggregate of all human consciousness: informational links are much thicker within a human being than between human beings. Even a Utilitarian social planner who has no doctrinal attachment to Libertarianism should take advantage of those dense informational links within a human being by allowing each person to make decisions about his or her own life. 

John Stuart Mill makes that case in On LibertyChapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraph 4:

But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being: the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong personal attachment, can have in it, is trifling, compared with that which he himself has; the interest which society has in him individually (except as to his conduct to others) is fractional, and altogether indirect: while, with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else. The interference of society to overrule his judgment and purposes in what only regards himself, must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases, by persons no better acquainted with the circumstances of such cases than those are who look at them merely from without. In this department, therefore, of human affairs, Individuality has its proper field of action.

John talks not just about an individual knowing more about his or her own situation but also about how the individual cares more about him or herself than others do. Letting people make decisions about their own lives does a lot to take care of bringing the the strongest preferences into social choice.

But in addition to simply making sure that all strong preferences are well represented in social choice, letting each individual make decisions about his or her own life makes sense also because each person also typically has a knowledge advantage not only with regard to circumstances, but also with regard to his or her own preferences. Without a great deal of tricky inference, one of the most difficult things for someone else to know about me without me telling them, is what I want and how much I want it. One of the most basic jobs of any adult is to carefully figure out what he or she wants. It is difficult for anyone else to do that for the individual, though software designers for websites like Amazon, Netflix, Pandora etc. are trying hard to be able to predict what someone will like.   

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