Principles of Econ 2e

Principles of Econ 2e

OpenStax Publication

Steven A. Greenlaw

David Shapiro

OpenStax

Rice University

Principles of Econ 2e

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Preface

1

Welcome to Principles of Economics 2e (2nd Edition), an OpenStax resource. This textbook was written to increase student access to high-quality learning materials, maintaining highest standards of academic rigor at little to no cost.

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About Principles of Economics 2e

Principles of Economics 2e (2nd edition) covers the scope and sequence of requirements for a two-semester introductory economics course. The authors take a balanced approach to micro-and macroeconomics, to both Keynesian and classical views, and to the theory and application of economics concepts. The text also includes many current examples, which are handled in a politically equitable way. The second edition has been thoroughly revised to increase clarity, update data and current event impacts, and incorporate the feedback from many reviewers and adopters.

Coverage and scope

For the second edition, we received expansive and actionable feedback from hundreds of adopters who had used the book for several academic terms. These knowledgeable instructors informed the pedagogical courses, learning objective development and fulfillment, and the chapter arrangements. Faculty who taught from the material provided critical and detailed commentary.

The result is a book that covers the breadth of economics topics and also provides the necessary depth to ensure the course is manageable for instructors and students alike. We strove to balance theory and application, as well as the amount of calculation and mathematical examples.

The book is organized into eight main parts:

  • What is Economics? The first two chapters introduce students to the study of economics with a focus on making choices in a world of scarce resources.
  • Supply and Demand, Chapters 3 and 4, introduces and explains the first analytical model in economics: supply, demand, and equilibrium, before showing applications in the markets for labor and finance.
  • The Fundamentals of Microeconomic Theory, Chapters 5 through 10, begins the microeconomics portion of the text, presenting the theories of consumer behavior, production and costs, and the different models of market structure, including some simple game theory.
  • Microeconomic Policy Issues, Chapters 11 through 18, covers the range of topics in applied micro, framed around the concepts of public goods and positive and negative externalities. Students explore competition and antitrust policies, environmental problems, poverty, income inequality, and other labor market issues. The text also covers information, risk and financial markets, as well as public economy.
  • The Macroeconomic Perspective and Goals, Chapters 19 through 23, introduces a number of key concepts in macro: economic growth, unemployment and inflation, and international trade and capital flows.
  • A Framework for Macroeconomic Analysis, Chapters 24 through 26, introduces the principal analytic model in macro, namely the aggregate demand/aggregate supply model. The model is then applied to the Keynesian and Neoclassical perspectives. The expenditure-output model is fully explained in a stand-alone appendix.
  • Monetary and Fiscal Policy, Chapters 27 through 31, explains the role of money and the banking system, as well as monetary policy and financial regulation. Then the discussion switches to government deficits and fiscal policy.
  • International Economics, Chapters 32 through 34, the final part of the text, introduces the international dimensions of economics, including international trade and protectionism.

Alternate Sequencing Principles of Economics 2e was conceived and written to fit a particular topical sequence, but it can be used flexibly to accommodate other course structures. One such potential structure, which will fit reasonably well with the textbook content, is provided below. Please consider, however, that the chapters were not written to be completely independent, and that the proposed alternate sequence should be carefully considered for student preparation and textual consistency.

Chapter 1 Welcome to Economics!

Chapter 2 Choice in a World of Scarcity

Chapter 3 Demand and Supply

Chapter 4 Labor and Financial Markets

Chapter 5 Elasticity

Chapter 6 Consumer Choices

Chapter 33 International Trade

Chapter 7 Cost and Industry Structure

Chapter 12 Environmental Protection and Negative Externalities

Chapter 13 Positive Externalities and Public Goods

Chapter 8 Perfect Competition

Chapter 9 Monopoly

Chapter 10 Monopolistic Competition and Oligopoly

Chapter 11 Monopoly and Antitrust Policy

Chapter 14 Poverty and Economic Inequality

Chapter 15 Issues in Labor Markets: Unions, Discrimination, Immigration

Chapter 16 Information, Risk, and Insurance

Chapter 17 Financial Markets

Chapter 18 Public Economy

Chapter 19 The Macroeconomic Perspective

Chapter 20 Economic Growth

Chapter 21 Unemployment

Chapter 22 Inflation

Chapter 23 The International Trade and Capital Flows

Chapter 24 The Aggregate Demand/Aggregate Supply Model

Chapter 25 The Keynesian Perspective

Chapter 26 The Neoclassical Perspective

Chapter 27 Money and Banking

Chapter 28 Monetary Policy and Bank Regulation

Chapter 29 Exchange Rates and International Capital Flows

Chapter 30 Government Budgets and Fiscal Policy

Chapter 31 The Impacts of Government Borrowing

Chapter 32 Macroeconomic Policy Around the World

Chapter 34 Globalization and Protectionism

Appendix A The Use of Mathematics in Principles of Economics

Appendix B Indifference Curves

Appendix C Present Discounted Value

Appendix D The Expenditure-Output Model

Changes to the second edition

OpenStax only undertakes revisions when significant modifications to a text are necessary. In the case of Principles of Economics 2e, we received a wealth of constructive feedback. Many of the book’s users felt that consequential movement in economic data, coupled with the impacts of national and global events, warranted a full revision. We also took advantage of the opportunity to improve the writing and sequencing of the text, as well as many of the calculation examples. The major changes are summarized below.

  • Augmented explanations in chapters one through four provide a more comprehensive and informative foundation for the book.
  • A clearer explanation, using a numerical example, has been given for finding the utility maximizing combination of goods and services a consumer should choose.
  • The Theory of Production has been added to the chapter on costs & industry structure.
  • A more complete treatment has been given to labor markets, including the theories of competitive and monopsonistic labor markets, and bilateral monopoly; and the labor markets chapter and the poverty and
    economic inequality chapter have been resequenced.
  • Substantial revisions to the AD/AS model in chapters 24-26 present the core concepts of macroeconomics in a clearer, more dynamic manner.
  • Case studies and examples have been revised and, in some cases, replaced to provide more relevant and useful information for students.
  • Economic data, tables, and graphs, as well as discussion and analysis around that data, have been thoroughly updated.

Wherever possible, data from the Federal Reserve Economic Database (FRED) was included and referenced. In most of these uses, links to the direct source of the FRED data are provided, and students are encouraged to explore the information and the overall FRED resources more thoroughly.

Additional updates and revisions appear throughout the book. They reflect changes to economic realities and policies regarding international trade, taxation, insurance, and other topics. For issues that may change in the months or years following the textbook’s publication, the authors often provided a more open-ended explanation, but we will update the text annually to address further changes.

The revision of Principles of Economics 2e was undertaken by Steven Greenlaw (University of Mary Washington) and David Shapiro (Pennsylvania State University), with significant input by lead reviewer Daniel MacDonald (California State University, San Bernardino).

Pedagogical foundation

Throughout the OpenStax version of Principles of Economics 2e, you will find new features that engage the students in economic inquiry by taking selected topics a step further. Our features include:

  • Bring It Home: This added feature is a brief case study, specific to each chapter, which connects the chapter’s main topic to the real word. It is broken up into two parts: the first at the beginning of the chapter (in the intro module) and the second at chapter’s end, when students have learned what’s necessary to understand the case and “bring home” the chapter’s core concepts.
  • Work It Out: This added feature asks students to work through a generally analytical or computational problem, and guides them step by step to find out how its solution is derived.
  • Clear It Up: This boxed feature, which includes pre-existing features from Taylor’s text, addresses common student misconceptions about the content. Clear It Ups are usually deeper explanations of something in the main body of the text. Each CIU starts with a question. The rest of the feature explains the answer.
  • Link It Up: This added feature is a very brief introduction to a website that is pertinent to students’ understanding and enjoyment of the topic at hand.

Questions for each level of learning

The OpenStax version of Principles of Economics 2e further expands on Taylor’s original end of chapter materials by offering four types of end of module questions for students:

  • Self-Checks are analytical self-assessment questions that appear at the end of each module. They “click to reveal” an answer in the web view so students can check their understanding before moving on to the next module. Self-Check questions are not simple look-up questions. They push the student to think beyond what is said in the text. Self-Check questions are designed for formative (rather than summative) assessment. The questions and answers are explained so that students feel like they are being walked through the problem.
  • Review Questions have been retained from Taylor’s version, and are simple recall questions from the chapter in open-response format (not multiple choice or true/false). The answers can be looked up in the text.
  • Critical Thinking Questions are new higher-level, conceptual questions that ask students to demonstrate their understanding by applying what they have learned in different contexts. They ask for outside-the-box thinking, for reasoning about the concepts. They push the student to places they wouldn’t have thought of going themselves.
  • Problems are exercises that give students additional practice working with the analytic and computational concepts in the module.

Updated art

Principles of Economics 2e includes an updated art program to better inform today’s student, providing the latest data on covered topics.

Cost Curves at the Clip Joint


sample image

Banks as Financial Intermediaries


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Unemployment Rate by Demographic Group


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Additional resources

Student and instructor resources

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About the authors

Senior contributing authors

Steven A. Greenlaw, University of Mary Washington

Steven Greenlaw has been teaching principles of economics for more than 30 years. In 1999, he received the Grellet C. Simpson Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Mary Washington. He is the author of Doing Economics: A Guide to Doing and Understanding Economic Research, as well as a variety of articles on economics pedagogy and instructional technology, published in the Journal of Economic Education, the International Review of Economic Education, and other outlets. He wrote the module on Quantitative Writing for Starting Point: Teaching and Learning Economics, the web portal on best practices in teaching economics. Steven Greenlaw lives in Alexandria, Virginia with his wife Kathy and their three children.

David Shapiro, Pennsylvania State University

David Shapiro is Professor Emeritus of Economics, Demography, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. He received a BA in economics and political science from the University of Michigan, and an MA as well as a PhD in economics from Princeton University. He began his academic career at Ohio State University in 1971, and moved to Penn State in 1980. His early research focused on women and youth in the United States labor market. Following a 1978-79 stint as a Fulbright professor at the University of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his research shifted focus to fertility in Kinshasa and more broadly, in sub-Saharan Africa. He has also received the top prize for teaching at both Ohio State and Penn State.

Special thanks to Christian Potter from University of Mary Washington, who thoroughly researched and applied many of the data updates and provided the foundation for many new and revised illustrations.

Development editor

Thomas Sigel

Contributing authors

Eric Dodge, Hanover College

Cynthia Gamez, University of Texas at El Paso

Andres Jauregui, Columbus State University

Diane Keenan, Cerritos College

Dan MacDonald, California State University San Bernardino

Amyaz Moledina, The College of Wooster

Craig Richardson, Winston-Salem State University

David Shapiro, Pennsylvania State University

Ralph Sonenshine, American University

Reviewers

Bryan Aguiar, Northwest Arkansas Community College

Basil Al Hashimi, Mesa Community College

Emil Berendt, Mount St. Mary’s University

Zena Buser, Adams State University

Douglas Campbell, The University of Memphis

Sanjukta Chaudhuri, University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire

Xueyu Cheng, Alabama State University

Robert Cunningham, Alma College

Rosa Lea Danielson, College of DuPage

Steven Deloach, Elon University

Michael Enz, Framingham State University

Debbie Evercloud, University of Colorado Denver

Reza Ghorashi, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Robert Gillette, University of Kentucky

Shaomin Huang, Lewis-Clark State College

George Jones, University of Wisconsin-Rock County

Charles Kroncke, College of Mount St. Joseph

Teresa Laughlin, Palomar Community College

Carlos Liard-Muriente, Central Connecticut State University

Heather Luea, Kansas State University

Steven Lugauer, University of Notre Dame

William Mosher, Nashua Community College

Michael Netta, Hudson County Community College

Nick Noble, Miami University

Joe Nowakowski, Muskingum University

Shawn Osell, University of Wisconsin-Superior

Mark Owens, Middle Tennessee State University

Sonia Pereira, Barnard College

Jennifer Platania, Elon University

Robert Rycroft, University of Mary Washington

Adrienne Sachse, Florida State College at Jacksonville

Hans Schumann, Texas A&M University

Gina Shamshak, Goucher College

Chris Warburton, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

Mark Witte, Northwestern University

Part 1: Welcome to Economics

I

Do You Use Facebook?
Photo of a smartphone with the Facebook application open
Economics is greatly impacted by how well information travels through society. Today, social media giants Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are major forces on the information super highway. (Credit: Johan Larsson/Flickr)

Decisions … Decisions in the Social Media Age

To post or not to post? Every day we are faced with a myriad of decisions, from what to have for breakfast, to which route to take to class, to the more complex—“Should I double major and add possibly another semester of study to my education?” Our response to these choices depends on the information we have available at any given moment. Economists call this “imperfect” because we rarely have all the data we need to make perfect decisions. Despite the lack of perfect information, we still make hundreds of decisions a day.

Now we have another avenue in which to gather information—social media. Outlets like Facebook and Twitter are altering the process by which we make choices, how we spend our time, which movies we see, which products we buy, and more. How many of you chose a university without checking out its Facebook page or Twitter stream first for information and feedback?

As you will see in this course, what happens in economics is affected by how well and how fast information disseminates through a society, such as how quickly information travels through Facebook. “Economists love nothing better than when deep and liquid markets operate under conditions of perfect information,” says Jessica Irvine, National Economics Editor for News Corp Australia.

This leads us to the topic of this chapter, an introduction to the world of making decisions, processing information, and understanding behavior in markets —the world of economics. Each chapter in this book will start with a discussion about current (or sometimes past) events and revisit it at chapter’s end—to “bring home” the concepts in play.

Introduction

In this chapter, you will learn about:

What is economics and why should you spend your time learning it? After all, there are other disciplines you could be studying, and other ways you could be spending your time. As the Bring it Home feature just mentioned, making choices is at the heart of what economists study, and your decision to take this course is as much as economic decision as anything else.

Economics is probably not what you think. It is not primarily about money or finance. It is not primarily about business. It is not mathematics. What is it then? It is both a subject area and a way of viewing the world.

1.1 What Is Economics, and Why Is It Important?

1

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Discuss the importance of studying economics
  • Explain the relationship between production and division of labor
  • Evaluate the significance of scarcity

Introduction

Economics is the study of how humans make decisions in the face of scarcity. These can be individual decisions, family decisions, business decisions or societal decisions. If you look around carefully, you will see that scarcity is a fact of life. Scarcity means that human wants for goods, services and resources exceed what is available. Resources, such as labor, tools, land, and raw materials are necessary to produce the goods and services we want but they exist in limited supply. Of course, the ultimate scarce resource is time- everyone, rich or poor, has just 24 expendable hours in the day to earn income to acquire goods and services, for leisure time, or for sleep. At any point in time, there is only a finite amount of resources available.

Think about it this way: In 2015 the labor force in the United States contained over 158 million workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The total land area was 3,794,101 square miles. While these are certainly large numbers, they are not infinite. Because these resources are limited, so are the numbers of goods and services we produce with them. Combine this with the fact that human wants seem to be virtually infinite, and you can see why scarcity is a problem.

Introduction to FRED

Data is very important in economics because it describes and measures the issues and problems that economics seek to understand. A variety of government agencies publish economic and social data. For this course, we will generally use data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank’s FRED database. FRED is very user friendly. It allows you to display data in tables or charges, and you can easily download it into spreadsheet form if you want to use the data for other purposes. The FRED website includes data on nearly 400,000 domestic and international variables over time, in the following broad categories:

For more information about how to use FRED, see the variety of videos on YouTube starting with this introduction:

Thumbnail for the embedded element "Introduction | How to Use FRED"

A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here: http://textbooks.whatcom.edu/econ100/?p=27

The image is a photograph of two people who are homeless and sleeping on public city benches.
Homeless people are a stark reminder that scarcity of resources is real. (Credit: “daveynin”/Flickr Creative Commons)

If you still do not believe that scarcity is a problem, consider the following: Does everyone require food to eat? Does everyone need a decent place to live? Does everyone have access to healthcare? In every country in the world, there are people who are hungry, homeless (for example, those who call park benches their beds, as the above figure shows), and in need of healthcare, just to focus on a few critical goods and services. Why is this the case? It is because of scarcity. Let’s delve into the concept of scarcity a little deeper, because it is crucial to understanding economics.

The Problem of Scarcity

Think about all the things you consume: food, shelter, clothing, transportation, healthcare, and entertainment. How do you acquire those items? You do not produce them yourself. You buy them. How do you afford the things you buy? You work for pay. If you do not, someone else does on your behalf. Yet most of us never have enough income to buy all the things we want. This is because of scarcity. So how do we solve it?

Visit this website to read about how the United States is dealing with scarcity in resources.

Every society, at every level, must make choices about how to use its resources. Families must decide whether to spend their money on a new car or a fancy vacation. Towns must choose whether to put more of the budget into police and fire protection or into the school system. Nations must decide whether to devote more funds to national defense or to protecting the environment. In most cases, there just isn’t enough money in the budget to do everything. How do we use our limited resources the best way possible, that is, to obtain the most goods and services we can? There are a couple of options. First, we could each produce everything we each consume. Alternatively, we could each produce some of what we want to consume, and “trade” for the rest of what we want. Let’s explore these options. Why do we not each just produce all of the things we consume? Think back to pioneer days, when individuals knew how to do so much more than we do today, from building their homes, to growing their crops, to hunting for food, to repairing their equipment. Most of us do not know how to do all—or any—of those things, but it is not because we could not learn. Rather, we do not have to. The reason why is something called the division and specialization of labor, a production innovation first put forth by Adam Smith in his book, The Wealth of Nations.

The image is a profile sketch of Adam Smith.
Adam Smith introduced the idea of dividing labor into discrete tasks. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

The Division of and Specialization of Labor

The formal study of economics began when Adam Smith (1723–1790) published his famous book The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Many authors had written on economics in the centuries before Smith, but he was the first to address the subject in a comprehensive way. In the first chapter, Smith introduces the concept of division of labor, which means that the way one produces a good or service is divided into a number of tasks that different workers perform, instead of all the tasks being done by the same person.

To illustrate division of labor, Smith counted how many tasks went into making a pin: drawing out a piece of wire, cutting it to the right length, straightening it, putting a head on one end and a point on the other, and packaging pins for sale, to name just a few. Smith counted 18 distinct tasks that different people performed—all for a pin, believe it or not!

Modern businesses divide tasks as well. Even a relatively simple business like a restaurant divides the task of serving meals into a range of jobs like top chef, sous chefs, less-skilled kitchen help, servers to wait on the tables, a greeter at the door, janitors to clean up, and a business manager to handle paychecks and bills—not to mention the economic connections a restaurant has with suppliers of food, furniture, kitchen equipment, and the building where it is located. A complex business like a large manufacturing factory, such as the shoe factory, or a hospital can have hundreds of job classifications.

The image is a photograph of factory workers for a shoe company working separately on individualized tasks.
Workers on an assembly line are an example of the divisions of labor. (Credit: Nina Hale/Flickr Creative Commons)

Why the Division of Labor Increases Production

When we divide and subdivide the tasks involved with producing a good or service, workers and businesses can produce a greater quantity of output. In his observations of pin factories, Smith noticed that one worker alone might make 20 pins in a day, but that a small business of 10 workers (some of whom would need to complete two or three of the 18 tasks involved with pin-making), could make 48,000 pins in a day. How can a group of workers, each specializing in certain tasks, produce so much more than the same number of workers who try to produce the entire good or service by themselves? Smith offered three reasons.

First, specialization in a particular small job allows workers to focus on the parts of the production process where they have an advantage. (In later chapters, we will develop this idea by discussing comparative advantage.) People have different skills, talents, and interests, so they will be better at some jobs than at others. The particular advantages may be based on educational choices, which are in turn shaped by interests and talents. Only those with medical degrees qualify to become doctors, for instance. For some goods, geography affects specialization. For example, it is easier to be a wheat farmer in North Dakota than in Florida, but easier to run a tourist hotel in Florida than in North Dakota. If you live in or near a big city, it is easier to attract enough customers to operate a successful dry cleaning business or movie theater than if you live in a sparsely populated rural area. Whatever the reason, if people specialize in the production of what they do best, they will be more effective than if they produce a combination of things, some of which they are good at and some of which they are not.

Second, workers who specialize in certain tasks often learn to produce more quickly and with higher quality. This pattern holds true for many workers, including assembly line laborers who build cars, stylists who cut hair, and doctors who perform heart surgery. In fact, specialized workers often know their jobs well enough to suggest innovative ways to do their work faster and better.

A similar pattern often operates within businesses. In many cases, a business that focuses on one or a few products (sometimes called its “core competency”) is more successful than firms that try to make a wide range of products.

Third, specialization allows businesses to take advantage of economies of scale, which means that for many goods, as the level of production increases, the average cost of producing each individual unit declines. For example, if a factory produces only 100 cars per year, each car will be quite expensive to make on average. However, if a factory produces 50,000 cars each year, then it can set up an assembly line with huge machines and workers performing specialized tasks, and the average cost of production per car will be lower. The ultimate result of workers who can focus on their preferences and talents, learn to do their specialized jobs better, and work in larger organizations is that society as a whole can produce and consume far more than if each person tried to produce all of his or her own goods and services. The division and specialization of labor has been a force against the problem of scarcity.

Trade and Markets

Specialization only makes sense, though, if workers can use the pay they receive for doing their jobs to purchase the other goods and services that they need. In short, specialization requires trade.

You do not have to know anything about electronics or sound systems to play music—you just buy an iPod or MP3 player, download the music, and listen. You do not have to know anything about artificial fibers or the construction of sewing machines if you need a jacket—you just buy the jacket and wear it. You do not need to know anything about internal combustion engines to operate a car—you just get in and drive. Instead of trying to acquire all the knowledge and skills involved in producing all of the goods and services that you wish to consume, the market allows you to learn a specialized set of skills and then use the pay you receive to buy the goods and services you need or want. This is how our modern society has evolved into a strong economy.

Why Study Economics?

Now that you have an overview on what economics studies, let’s quickly discuss why you are right to study it. Economics is not primarily a collection of facts to memorize, although there are plenty of important concepts to learn. Instead, think of economics as a collection of questions to answer or puzzles to work. Most importantly, economics provides the tools to solve those puzzles. If the economics “bug” has not bitten you yet, there are other reasons why you should study economics.

The study of economics does not dictate the answers, but it can illuminate the different choices.

 

 

Key Concepts and Summary

Economics seeks to solve the problem of scarcity, which is when human wants for goods and services exceed the available supply. A modern economy displays a division of labor, in which people earn income by specializing in what they produce and then use that income to purchase the products they need or want. The division of labor allows individuals and firms to specialize and to produce more for several reasons: a) It allows the agents to focus on areas of advantage due to natural factors and skill levels; b) It encourages the agents to learn and invent; c) It allows agents to take advantage of economies of scale. Division and specialization of labor only work when individuals can purchase what they do not produce in markets. Learning about economics helps you understand the major problems facing the world today, prepares you to be a good citizen, and helps you become a well-rounded thinker.

Self-Check Questions

  • What is scarcity? Can you think of two causes of scarcity?
  • Scarcity means human wants for goods and services exceed the available supply. Supply is limited because resources are limited. Demand, however, is virtually unlimited. Whatever the supply, it seems human nature to want more.
  • Residents of the town of Smithfield like to consume hams, but each ham requires 10 people to produce it and takes a month. If the town has a total of 100 people, what is the maximum amount of ham the residents can consume in a month?
  • 100 people / 10 people per ham = a maximum of 10 hams per month if all residents produce ham. Since consumption is limited by production, the maximum number of hams residents could consume per month is 10.
  • A consultant works for $200 per hour. She likes to eat vegetables, but is not very good at growing them. Why does it make more economic sense for her to spend her time at the consulting job and shop for her vegetables?
  • She is very productive at her consulting job, but not very productive growing vegetables. Time spent consulting would produce far more income than it what she could save growing her vegetables using the same amount of time. So on purely economic grounds, it makes more sense for her to maximize her income by applying her labor to what she does best (i.e. specialization of labor).
  • A computer systems engineer could paint his house, but it makes more sense for him to hire a painter to do it. Explain why.
  • The engineer is better at computer science than at painting. Thus, his time is better spent working for pay at his job and paying a painter to paint his house. Of course, this assumes he does not paint his house for fun!

Review Questions

  • Give the three reasons that explain why the division of labor increases an economy’s level of production.
  • What are three reasons to study economics?

Critical Thinking Questions

  • Suppose you have a team of two workers: one is a baker and one is a chef. Explain why the kitchen can produce more meals in a given period of time if each worker specializes in what they do best than if each worker tries to do everything from appetizer to dessert.
  • Why would division of labor without trade not work?
  • Can you think of any examples of free goods, that is, goods or services that are not scarce?

References

Glossary

division of labor
the way in which different workers divide required tasks to produce a good or service
economics
the study of how humans make choices under conditions of scarcity
economies of scale
when the average cost of producing each individual unit declines as total output increases
scarcity
when human wants for goods and services exceed the available supply
specialization
when workers or firms focus on particular tasks for which they are well-suited within the overall production process

1.2 Microeconomics and Macroeconomics

2

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe microeconomics
  • Describe macroeconomics
  • Contrast monetary policy and fiscal policy

Economics is concerned with the well-being of all people, including those with jobs and those without jobs, as well as those with high incomes and those with low incomes. Economics acknowledges that production of useful goods and services can create problems of environmental pollution. It explores the question of how investing in education helps to develop workers’ skills. It probes questions like how to tell when big businesses or big labor unions are operating in a way that benefits society as a whole and when they are operating in a way that benefits their owners or members at the expense of others. It looks at how government spending, taxes, and regulations affect decisions about production and consumption.

It should be clear by now that economics covers considerable ground. We can divide that ground into two parts: Microeconomics focuses on the actions of individual agents within the economy, like households, workers, and businesses. Macroeconomics looks at the economy as a whole. It focuses on broad issues such as growth of production, the number of unemployed people, the inflationary increase in prices, government deficits, and levels of exports and imports. Microeconomics and macroeconomics are not separate subjects, but rather complementary perspectives on the overall subject of the economy.

To understand why both microeconomic and macroeconomic perspectives are useful, consider the problem of studying a biological ecosystem like a lake. One person who sets out to study the lake might focus on specific topics: certain kinds of algae or plant life; the characteristics of particular fish or snails; or the trees surrounding the lake. Another person might take an overall view and instead consider the lake’s ecosystem from top to bottom; what eats what, how the system stays in a rough balance, and what environmental stresses affect this balance. Both approaches are useful, and both examine the same lake, but the viewpoints are different. In a similar way, both microeconomics and macroeconomics study the same economy, but each has a different viewpoint.

Whether you are scrutinizing lakes or economics, the micro and the macro insights should blend with each other. In studying a lake, the micro insights about particular plants and animals help to understand the overall food chain, while the macro insights about the overall food chain help to explain the environment in which individual plants and animals live.

In economics, the micro decisions of individual businesses are influenced by whether the macroeconomy is healthy. For example, firms will be more likely to hire workers if the overall economy is growing. In turn, macroeconomy’s performance ultimately depends on the microeconomic decisions that individual households and businesses make.

Microeconomics

What determines how households and individuals spend their budgets? What combination of goods and services will best fit their needs and wants, given the budget they have to spend? How do people decide whether to work, and if so, whether to work full time or part time? How do people decide how much to save for the future, or whether they should borrow to spend beyond their current means?

What determines the products, and how many of each, a firm will produce and sell? What determines the prices a firm will charge? What determines how a firm will produce its products? What determines how many workers it will hire? How will a firm finance its business? When will a firm decide to expand, downsize, or even close? In the microeconomics part of this book, we will learn about the theory of consumer behavior, the theory of the firm, how markets for labor and other resources work, and how markets sometimes fail to work properly.

Macroeconomics

What determines the level of economic activity in a society? In other words, what determines how many goods and services a nation actually produces? What determines how many jobs are available in an economy? What determines a nation’s standard of living? What causes the economy to speed up or slow down? What causes firms to hire more workers or to lay them off? Finally, what causes the economy to grow over the long term?

We can determine an economy’s macroeconomic health by examining a number of goals: growth in the standard of living, low unemployment, and low inflation, to name the most important. How can we use government macroeconomic policy to pursue these goals? A nation’s central bank conducts monetary policy, which involves policies that affect bank lending, interest rates, and financial capital markets. For the United States, this is the Federal Reserve. A nation’s legislative body determines fiscal policy, which involves government spending and taxes. For the United States, this is the Congress and the executive branch, which originates the federal budget. These are the government’s main tools. Americans tend to expect that government can fix whatever economic problems we encounter, but to what extent is that expectation realistic? These are just some of the issues that we will explore in the macroeconomic chapters of this book.

Key Concepts and Summary

Microeconomics and macroeconomics are two different perspectives on the economy. The microeconomic perspective focuses on parts of the economy: individuals, firms, and industries. The macroeconomic perspective looks at the economy as a whole, focusing on goals like growth in the standard of living, unemployment, and inflation. Macroeconomics has two types of policies for pursuing these goals: monetary policy and fiscal policy.

Self-Check Questions

What would be another example of a “system” in the real world that could serve as a metaphor for micro and macroeconomics?

There are many physical systems that would work, for example, the study of planets (micro) in the solar system (macro), or solar systems (micro) in the galaxy (macro).

Review Questions

What is the difference between microeconomics and macroeconomics?

What are examples of individual economic agents?

What are the three main goals of macroeconomics?

Critical Thinking Questions

A balanced federal budget and a balance of trade are secondary goals of macroeconomics, while growth in the standard of living (for example) is a primary goal. Why do you think that is so?

Macroeconomics is an aggregate of what happens at the microeconomic level. Would it be possible for what happens at the macro level to differ from how economic agents would react to some stimulus at the micro level? Hint: Think about the behavior of crowds.

Glossary

fiscal policy
economic policies that involve government spending and taxes
macroeconomics
the branch of economics that focuses on broad issues such as growth, unemployment, inflation, and trade balance
microeconomics
the branch of economics that focuses on actions of particular agents within the economy, like households, workers, and business firms
monetary policy
policy that involves altering the level of interest rates, the availability of credit in the economy, and the extent of borrowing

1.3 How Economists Use Theories and Models to Understand Economic Issues

3

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Interpret a circular flow diagram
  • Explain the importance of economic theories and models
  • Describe goods and services markets and labor markets
The image is a photograph of John Maynard Keynes.
John Maynard Keynes One of the most influential economists in modern times was John Maynard Keynes. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), one of the greatest economists of the twentieth century, pointed out that economics is not just a subject area but also a way of thinking. Keynes famously wrote in the introduction to a fellow economist’s book: “[Economics] is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique of thinking, which helps its possessor to draw correct conclusions.” In other words, economics teaches you how to think, not what to think.

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Economists see the world through a different lens than anthropologists, biologists, classicists, or practitioners of any other discipline. They analyze issues and problems using economic theories that are based on particular assumptions about human behavior. These assumptions tend to be different than the assumptions an anthropologist or psychologist might use. A theory is a simplified representation of how two or more variables interact with each other. The purpose of a theory is to take a complex, real-world issue and simplify it down to its essentials. If done well, this enables the analyst to understand the issue and any problems around it. A good theory is simple enough to understand, while complex enough to capture the key features of the object or situation you are studying.

Sometimes economists use the term model instead of theory. Strictly speaking, a theory is a more abstract representation, while a model is a more applied or empirical representation. We use models to test theories, but for this course we will use the terms interchangeably.

For example, an architect who is planning a major office building will often build a physical model that sits on a tabletop to show how the entire city block will look after the new building is constructed. Companies often build models of their new products, which are more rough and unfinished than the final product, but can still demonstrate how the new product will work.

A good model to start with in economics is the circular flow diagram. It pictures the economy as consisting of two groups—households and firms—that interact in two markets: the goods and services market in which firms sell and households buy and the labor market in which households sell labor to business firms or other employees.

The Circular Flow Diagram

The circular flow diagram’s outer arrows represent a goods and services market, and the inner arrows represent a labor market. As illustrated by the outer arrows, in a goods and services market, firms give goods and services to households and, in exchange, households give payment to firms. As illustrated by the inner arrows, in a labor market, households provide labor to firms and, in exchange, firms give wages, salaries, and benefits to households.
The circular flow diagram shows how households and firms interact in the goods and services market, and in the labor market. The direction of the arrows shows that in the goods and services market, households receive goods and services and pay firms for them. In the labor market, households provide labor and receive payment from firms through wages, salaries, and benefits.

Firms produce and sell goods and services to households in the market for goods and services (or product market). Arrow “A” indicates this. Households pay for goods and services, which becomes the revenues to firms. Arrow “B” indicates this. Arrows A and B represent the two sides of the product market. Where do households obtain the income to buy goods and services? They provide the labor and other resources (e.g. land, capital, raw materials) firms need to produce goods and services in the market for inputs (or factors of production). Arrow “C” indicates this. In return, firms pay for the inputs (or resources) they use in the form of wages and other factor payments. Arrow “D” indicates this. Arrows “C” and “D” represent the two sides of the factor market.

Of course, in the real world, there are many different markets for goods and services and markets for many different types of labor. The circular flow diagram simplifies this to make the picture easier to grasp. In the diagram, firms produce goods and services, which they sell to households in return for revenues. The outer circle shows this, and represents the two sides of the product market (for example, the market for goods and services) in which households demand and firms supply. Households sell their labor as workers to firms in return for wages, salaries, and benefits. The inner circle shows this and represents the two sides of the labor market in which households supply and firms demand.

This version of the circular flow model is stripped down to the essentials, but it has enough features to explain how the product and labor markets work in the economy. We could easily add details to this basic model if we wanted to introduce more real-world elements, like financial markets, governments, and interactions with the rest of the globe (imports and exports).

Economists carry a set of theories in their heads like a carpenter carries around a toolkit. When they see an economic issue or problem, they go through the theories they know to see if they can find one that fits. Then they use the theory to derive insights about the issue or problem. Economists express theories as diagrams, graphs, or even as mathematical equations. (Do not worry. In this course, we will mostly use graphs.) Economists do not figure out the answer to the problem first and then draw the graph to illustrate. Rather, they use the graph of the theory to help them figure out the answer. Although at the introductory level, you can sometimes figure out the right answer without applying a model, if you keep studying economics, before too long you will run into issues and problems that you will need to graph to solve. We explain both micro and macroeconomics in terms of theories and models. The most well-known theories are probably those of supply and demand, but you will learn a number of others.

Key Concepts and Summary

Economists analyze problems differently than do other disciplinary experts. The main tools economists use are economic theories or models. A theory is not an illustration of the answer to a problem. Rather, a theory is a tool for determining the answer.

Self-Check Questions

Suppose we extend the circular flow model to add imports and exports. Copy the circular flow diagram onto a sheet of paper and then add a foreign country as a third agent. Draw a rough sketch of the flows of imports, exports, and the payments for each on your diagram.

Draw a box outside the original circular flow to represent the foreign country. Draw an arrow from the foreign country to firms, to represents imports. Draw an arrow in the reverse direction representing payments for imports. Draw an arrow from firms to the foreign country to represent exports. Draw an arrow in the reverse direction to represent payments for imports.

What is an example of a problem in the world today, not mentioned in the chapter, that has an economic dimension?

There are many such problems. Consider the AIDS epidemic. Why are so few AIDS patients in Africa and Southeast Asia treated with the same drugs that are effective in the United States and Europe? It is because neither those patients nor the countries in which they live have the resources to purchase the same drugs.

Review Questions

How did John Maynard Keynes define economics?

Are households primarily buyers or sellers in the goods and services market? In the labor market?

Are firms primarily buyers or sellers in the goods and services market? In the labor market?

Critical Thinking Questions

Why is it unfair or meaningless to criticize a theory as “unrealistic?”

Suppose, as an economist, you are asked to analyze an issue unlike anything you have ever done before. Also, suppose you do not have a specific model for analyzing that issue. What should you do? Hint: What would a carpenter do in a similar situation?

Glossary

circular flow diagram
a diagram that views the economy as consisting of households and firms interacting in a goods and services market and a labor market
goods and services market
a market in which firms are sellers of what they produce and households are buyers
labor market
the market in which households sell their labor as workers to business firms or other employers
model
see theory
theory
a representation of an object or situation that is simplified while including enough of the key features to help us understand the object or situation

1.4 How To Organize Economies: An Overview of Economic Systems

4

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Contrast traditional economies, command economies, and market economies
  • Explain gross domestic product (GDP)
  • Assess the importance and effects of globalization

Think about what a complex system a modern economy is. It includes all production of goods and services, all buying and selling, all employment. The economic life of every individual is interrelated, at least to a small extent, with the economic lives of thousands or even millions of other individuals. Who organizes and coordinates this system? Who insures that, for example, the number of televisions a society provides is the same as the amount it needs and wants? Who insures that the right number of employees work in the electronics industry? Who insures that televisions are produced in the best way possible? How does it all get done?

The image is a photograph of people riding camels in front of two pyramids in Egypt.
A Command Economy Ancient Egypt was an example of a command economy. (Credit: Jay Bergesen/Flickr Creative Commons)

There are at least three ways that societies organize an economy. The first is the traditional economy, which is the oldest economic system and is used in parts of Asia, Africa, and South America. Traditional economies organize their economic affairs the way they have always done (i.e., tradition). Occupations stay in the family. Most families are farmers who grow the crops using traditional methods. What you produce is what you consume. Because tradition drives the way of life, there is little economic progress or development.

Command economies are very different. In a command economy, economic effort is devoted to goals passed down from a ruler or ruling class. Ancient Egypt was a good example: a large part of economic life was devoted to building pyramids, like those above, for the pharaohs. Medieval manor life is another example: the lord provided the land for growing crops and protection in the event of war. In return, vassals provided labor and soldiers to do the lord’s bidding. In the last century, communism emphasized command economies.

The image is a photograph of the New York Stock Exchange’s entrance
A Market Economy Nothing says “market” more than The New York Stock Exchange. (Credit: Erik Drost/Flickr Creative Commons)

In a command economy, the government decides what goods and services will be produced and what prices it will charge for them. The government decides what methods of production to use and sets wages for workers. The government provides many necessities like healthcare and education for free. Currently, Cuba and North Korea have command economies.

Although command economies have a very centralized structure for economic decisions, market economies have a very decentralized structure. A market is an institution that brings together buyers and sellers of goods or services, who may be either individuals or businesses. The New York Stock Exchange is a prime example of a market which brings buyers and sellers together. In a market economy, decision-making is decentralized. Market economies are based on private enterprise: the private individuals or groups of private individuals own and operate the means of production (resources and businesses). Businesses supply goods and services based on demand. (In a command economy, by contrast, the government owns resources and businesses.) Supply of goods and services depends on what the demands. A person’s income is based on his or her ability to convert resources (especially labor) into something that society values. The more society values the person’s output, the higher the income (think Lady Gaga or LeBron James). In this scenario, market forces, not governments, determine economic decisions.

Most economies in the real world are mixed. They combine elements of command and market (and even traditional) systems. The U.S. economy is positioned toward the market-oriented end of the spectrum. Many countries in Europe and Latin America, while primarily market-oriented, have a greater degree of government involvement in economic decisions than the U.S. economy. China and Russia, while over the past several decades have moved more in the direction of having a market-oriented system, remain closer to the command economy end of the spectrum. The Heritage Foundation provides information about how free and thus market-oriented different countries’ are, as the following Clear It Up feature discusses. For a similar ranking, but one that defines freedom more broadly, see the Cato Foundation’s Human Freedom Index.

What countries are considered economically free?

Who is in control of economic decisions? Are people free to do what they want and to work where they want? Are businesses free to produce when they want and what they choose, and to hire and fire as they wish? Are banks free to choose who will receive loans, or does the government control these kinds of choices? Each year, researchers at the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal look at 50 different categories of economic freedom for countries around the world. They give each nation a score based on the extent of economic freedom in each category.

The 2016 Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom report ranked 178 countries around the world: the figure below lists some examples of the most free and the least free countries. Several additional countries were not ranked because of extreme instability that made judgments about economic freedom impossible. These countries include Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen.

The assigned rankings are inevitably based on estimates, yet even these rough measures can be useful for discerning trends. In 2015, 101 of the 178 included countries shifted toward greater economic freedom, although 77 of the countries shifted toward less economic freedom. In recent decades, the overall trend has been a higher level of economic freedom around the world.

Economic Freedoms, 2016(Source: The Heritage Foundation, 2016 Index of Economic Freedom, Country Rankings)
Most Economic Freedom Least Economic Freedom
1. Hong Kong 167. Timor-Leste
2. Singapore 168. Democratic Republic of Congo
3. New Zealand 169. Argentina
4. Switzerland 170. Equatorial Guinea
5. Australia 171. Iran
6. Canada 172. Republic of Congo
7. Chile 173. Eritrea
8. Ireland 174. Turkmenistan
9. Estonia 175. Zimbabwe
10. United Kingdom 176. Venezuela
11. United States 177. Cuba
12. Denmark 178. North Korea

Regulations: The Rules of the Game

Markets and government regulations are always entangled. There is no such thing as an absolutely free market. Regulations always define the “rules of the game” in the economy. Economies that are primarily market-oriented have fewer regulations—ideally just enough to maintain an even playing field for participants. At a minimum, these laws govern matters like safeguarding private property against theft, protecting people from violence, enforcing legal contracts, preventing fraud, and collecting taxes. Conversely, even the most command-oriented economies operate using markets. How else would buying and selling occur? The government heavily regulates decisions of what to produce and prices to charge. Heavily regulated economies often have underground economies (or black markets), which are markets where the buyers and sellers make transactions without the government’s approval.

The question of how to organize economic institutions is typically not a black-or-white choice between all market or all government, but instead involves a balancing act over the appropriate combination of market freedom and government rules.

The image is a photograph of a cargo ship transporting goods.
Globalization Cargo ships are one mode of transportation for shipping goods in the global economy. (Credit: Raul Valdez/Flickr Creative Commons)

The Rise of Globalization

Recent decades have seen a trend toward globalization, which is the expanding cultural, political, and economic connections between people around the world. One measure of this is the increased buying and selling of goods, services, and assets across national borders—in other words, international trade and financial capital flows.

Globalization has occurred for a number of reasons. Improvements in shipping, as illustrated by the container ship in the above figure, and air cargo have driven down transportation costs. Innovations in computing and telecommunications have made it easier and cheaper to manage long-distance economic connections of production and sales. Many valuable products and services in the modern economy can take the form of information—for example: computer software; financial advice; travel planning; music, books and movies; and blueprints for designing a building. These products and many others can be transported over telephones and computer networks at ever-lower costs. Finally, international agreements and treaties between countries have encouraged greater trade.

The table below presents one measure of globalization. It shows the percentage of domestic economic production that was exported for a selection of countries from 2010 to 2015, according to an entity known as The World Bank. Exports are the goods and services that one produces domestically and sells abroad. Imports are the goods and services that one produces abroad and then sells domestically. Gross domestic product (GDP) measures the size of total production in an economy. Thus, the ratio of exports divided by GDP measures what share of a country’s total economic production is sold in other countries.

The Extent of Globalization (exports/GDP) Source: DataBank
Country 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Higher Income Countries
United States 12.4 13.6 13.6 13.5 13.5 12.6
Belgium 76.2 81.4 82.2 82.8 84.0 84.4
Canada 29.1 30.7 30.0 30.1 31.7 31.5
France 26.0 27.8 28.1 28.3 29.0 30.0
Middle Income Countries
Brazil 10.9 11.9 12.6 12.6 11.2 13.0
Mexico 29.9 31.2 32.6 31.7 32.3 35.3
South Korea 49.4 55.7 56.3 53.9 50.3 45.9
Lower Income Countries
Chad 36.8 38.9 36.9 32.2 34.2 29.8
China 29.4 28.5 27.3 26.4 23.9 22.4
India 22.0 23.9 24.0 24.8 22.9
Nigeria 25.3 31.3 31.4 18.0 18.4

In recent decades, the export/GDP ratio has generally risen, both worldwide and for the U.S. economy. Interestingly, the share of U.S. exports in proportion to the U.S. economy is well below the global average, in part because large economies like the United States can contain more of the division of labor inside their national borders. However, smaller economies like Belgium, Korea, and Canada need to trade across their borders with other countries to take full advantage of division of labor, specialization, and economies of scale. In this sense, the enormous U.S. economy is less affected by globalization than most other countries.

The above table indicates that many medium and low income countries around the world, like Mexico and China, have also experienced a surge of globalization in recent decades. If an astronaut in orbit could put on special glasses that make all economic transactions visible as brightly colored lines and look down at Earth, the astronaut would see the planet covered with connections.

Despite the rise in globalization over the last few decades, in recent years we’ve seen significant pushback against globalization from people across the world concerned about loss of jobs, loss of political sovereignty, and increased economic inequality. Prominent examples of this pushback include the 2016 vote in Great Britain to exit the European Union (i.e. Brexit), and the election of Donald J. Trump for President of the United States.

Hopefully, you now have an idea about economics. Before you move to any other chapter of study, be sure to read the very important appendix to this chapter called The Use of Mathematics in Principles of Economics. It is essential that you learn more about how to read and use models in economics.

Decisions … Decisions in the Social Media Age

The world we live in today provides nearly instant access to a wealth of information. Consider that as recently as the late 1970s, the Farmer’s Almanac, along with the Weather Bureau of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, were the primary sources American farmers used to determine when to plant and harvest their crops. Today, farmers are more likely to access, online, weather forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or watch the Weather Channel. After all, knowing the upcoming forecast could drive when to harvest crops. Consequently, knowing the upcoming weather could change the amount of crop harvested.

Some relatively new information forums, such as Facebook, are rapidly changing how information is distributed; hence, influencing decision making. In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that 71% of online adults use Facebook. This social media forum posts topics ranging from the National Basketball Association, to celebrity singers and performers, to farmers.

Information helps us make decisions as simple as what to wear today to how many reporters the media should send to cover a crash. Each of these decisions is an economic decision. After all, resources are scarce. If the media send ten reporters to cover an accident, they are not available to cover other stories or complete other tasks. Information provides the necessary knowledge to make the best possible decisions on how to utilize scarce resources. Welcome to the world of economics!

Key Concepts and Summary

We can organize societies as traditional, command, or market-oriented economies. Most societies are a mix. The last few decades have seen globalization evolve as a result of growth in commercial and financial networks that cross national borders, making businesses and workers from different economies increasingly interdependent.

Self-Check Questions

The chapter defines private enterprise as a characteristic of market-oriented economies. What would public enterprise be? Hint: It is a characteristic of command economies.

Public enterprise means the factors of production (resources and businesses) are owned and operated by the government.

Why might Belgium, France, Italy, and Sweden have a higher export to GDP ratio than the United States?

The United States is a large country economically speaking, so it has less need to trade internationally than the other countries mentioned. (This is the same reason that France and Italy have lower ratios than Belgium or Sweden.) One additional reason is that each of the other countries is a member of the European Union, where trade between members occurs without barriers to trade, like tariffs and quotas.

Review Questions

What are the three ways that societies can organize themselves economically?

What is globalization? How do you think it might have affected the economy over the past decade?

Critical Thinking Questions

Why do you think that most modern countries’ economies are a mix of command and market types?

Can you think of ways that globalization has helped you economically? Can you think of ways that it has not?

References

The Heritage Foundation. 2015. “2015 Index of Economic Freedom.” Accessed March 11, 2015.

Garling, Caleb. “S.F. plane crash: Reporting, emotions on social media,” The San Francisco Chronicle. July 7, 2013.

Pew Research Center. 2015. “Social Networking Fact Sheet.” Accessed March 11, 2015.

The World Bank Group. 2015. “World Data Bank.” Accessed March 30, 2014.

Glossary

command economy
an economy where economic decisions are passed down from government authority and where the government owns the resources
exports
products (goods and services) made domestically and sold abroad
globalization
the trend in which buying and selling in markets have increasingly crossed national borders
gross domestic product (GDP)
measure of the size of total production in an economy
imports
products (goods and services) made abroad and then sold domestically
market
interaction between potential buyers and sellers; a combination of demand and supply
market economy
an economy where economic decisions are decentralized, private individuals own resources, and businesses supply goods and services based on demand
private enterprise
system where private individuals or groups of private individuals own and operate the means of production (resources and businesses)
traditional economy
typically an agricultural economy where things are done the same as they have always been done
underground economy
a market where the buyers and sellers make transactions in violation of one or more government regulations

Part 2: Choice in a World of Scarcity

II

This is a photograph of students at their high school graduation ceremony
Choices and Tradeoffs: In general, the higher the degree, the higher the salary, so why aren’t more people pursuing higher degrees? The short answer: choices and tradeoffs. (Credit: modification of work by “Jim, the Photographer”/Flickr Creative Commons)

Choices … to What Degree?

In 2015, the median income for workers who hold master’s degrees varies from males to females. The average of the two is $2,951 weekly. Multiply this average by 52 weeks, and you get an average salary of $153,452. Compare that to the median weekly earnings for a full-time worker over 25 with no higher than a bachelor’s degree: $1,224 weekly and $63,648 a year. What about those with no higher than a high school diploma in 2015? They earn just $664 weekly and $34,528 over 12 months. In other words, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), earning a bachelor’s degree boosted salaries 54% over what you would have earned if you had stopped your education after high school. A master’s degree yields a salary almost double that of a high school diploma.

Given these statistics, we might expect many people to choose to go to college and at least earn a bachelor’s degree. Assuming that people want to improve their material well-being, it seems like they would make those choices that provide them with the greatest opportunity to consume goods and services. As it turns out, the analysis is not nearly as simple as this. In fact, in 2014, the BLS reported that while almost 88% of the population in the United States had a high school diploma, only 33.6% of 25–65 year olds had bachelor’s degrees, and only 7.4% of 25–65 year olds in 2014 had earned a master’s.

This brings us to the subject of this chapter: why people make the choices they make and how economists explain those choices.

Introduction to Choice in a World of Scarcity

In this chapter, you will learn about:

You will learn quickly when you examine the relationship between economics and scarcity that choices involve tradeoffs. Every choice has a cost.

 

In 1968, the Rolling Stones recorded “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Economists chuckled, because they had been singing a similar tune for decades. English economist Lionel Robbins (1898–1984), in his Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science in 1932, described not always getting what you want in this way:

The time at our disposal is limited. There are only twenty-four hours in the day. We have to choose between the different uses to which they may be put. … Everywhere we turn, if we choose one thing we must relinquish others which, in different circumstances, we would wish not to have relinquished. Scarcity of means to satisfy given ends is an almost ubiquitous condition of human nature.

Because people live in a world of scarcity, they cannot have all the time, money, possessions, and experiences they wish. Neither can society.

This chapter will continue our discussion of scarcity and the economic way of thinking by first introducing three critical concepts: opportunity cost, marginal decision making, and diminishing returns. Later, it will consider whether the economic way of thinking accurately describes either how we make choices and how we should make them.

2.1 How Individuals Make Choices Based on Their Budget Constraint

5

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Calculate and graph budget constraints
  • Explain opportunity sets and opportunity costs
  • Evaluate the law of diminishing marginal utility
  • Explain how marginal analysis and utility influence choices

 

Consider the typical consumer’s budget problem. Consumers have a limited amount of income to spend on the things they need and want. Suppose Alphonso has 💲10 in spending money each week that he can allocate between bus tickets for getting to work and the burgers that he eats for lunch. Burgers cost 💲2 each, and bus tickets are 50 cents each. We can see Alphonso’s budget problem in the figure.

The graph shows the budget line as a downward slope representing the opportunity set of burgers and bus tickets.
The Budget Constraint: Alphonso’s Consumption Choice Opportunity Frontier Each point on the budget constraint represents a combination of burgers and bus tickets whose total cost adds up to Alphonso’s budget of 💲10. The relative price of burgers and bus tickets determines the slope of the budget constraint. All along the budget set, giving up one burger means gaining four bus tickets.

The vertical axis in the figure shows burger purchases and the horizontal axis shows bus ticket purchases. If Alphonso spends all his money on burgers, he can afford five per week. (💲10 per week/💲2 per burger = 5 burgers per week.) However, if he does this, he will not be able to afford any bus tickets. Point A in the figure shows the choice (zero bus tickets and five burgers). Alternatively, if Alphonso spends all his money on bus tickets, he can afford 20 per week. (💲10 per week/💲0.50 per bus ticket = 20 bus tickets per week.) Then, however, he will not be able to afford any burgers. Point F shows this alternative choice (20 bus tickets and zero burgers).

If we connect all the points between A and F, we get Alphonso’s budget constraint. This indicates all the combination of burgers and bus tickets Alphonso can afford, given the price of the two goods and his budget amount.

If Alphonso is like most people, he will choose some combination that includes both bus tickets and burgers. That is, he will choose some combination on the budget constraint that is between points A and F. Every point on (or inside) the constraint shows a combination of burgers and bus tickets that Alphonso can afford. Any point outside the constraint is not affordable, because it would cost more money than Alphonso has in his budget.

The budget constraint clearly shows the tradeoff Alphonso faces in choosing between burgers and bus tickets. Suppose he is currently at point D, where he can afford 12 bus tickets and two burgers. What would it cost Alphonso for one more burger? It would be natural to answer 💲2, but that’s not the way economists think. Instead they ask, how many bus tickets would Alphonso have to give up to get one more burger, while staying within his budget? Since bus tickets cost 50 cents, Alphonso would have to give up four to afford one more burger. That is the true cost to Alphonso.

The Concept of Opportunity Cost

Economists use the term opportunity cost to indicate what one must give up to obtain what he or she desires. The idea behind opportunity cost is that the cost of one item is the lost opportunity to do or consume something else. In short, opportunity cost is the value of the next best alternative. For Alphonso, the opportunity cost of a burger is the four bus tickets he would have to give up. He would decide whether or not to choose the burger depending on whether the value of the burger exceeds the value of the forgone alternative—in this case, bus tickets. Since people must choose, they inevitably face tradeoffs in which they have to give up things they desire to obtain other things they desire more.  This website is an example of opportunity cost—paying someone else to wait in line for you.

A fundamental principle of economics is that every choice has an opportunity cost. If you sleep through your economics class, the opportunity cost is the learning you miss from not attending class. If you spend your income on video games, you cannot spend it on movies. If you choose to marry one person, you give up the opportunity to marry anyone else. In short, opportunity cost is all around us and part of human existence.

The following Work It Out feature shows a step-by-step analysis of a budget constraint calculation. Read through it to understand another important concept—slope—that we further explain in the appendix The Use of Mathematics in Principles of Economics.

Understanding Budget Constraints

Budget constraints are easy to understand if you apply a little math. The appendix The Use of Mathematics in Principles of Economics explains all the math you are likely to need in this book. Therefore, if math is not your strength, you might want to take a look at the appendix.

Step 1: The equation for any budget constraint is:

\text{Budget}={\text{P}}_{1}{\text{ × Q}}_{1}{\text{ + P}}_{2\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}}{\text{× Q}}_{2}

where P and Q are the price and quantity of items purchased (which we assume here to be two items) and Budget is the amount of income one has to spend.

Step 2. Apply the budget constraint equation to the scenario. In Alphonso’s case, this works out to be:

\begin{array}{rcl}\text{Budget}& =& {\text{P}}_{1}{\text{× Q}}_{1}{\text{+ P}}_{2\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}}{\text{× Q}}_{2}\\ \text{💲10 budget}& =& \text{💲2 per burger × quantity of burgers + 💲0.50 per bus ticket × quantity of bus tickets}\\ \text{💲10}& =& {\text{💲2 × Q}}_{\text{burgers}}{\text{ + 💲0.50 × Q}}_{\text{bus tickets}}\end{array}

Step 3. Using a little algebra, we can turn this into the familiar equation of a line:

\begin{array}{rcc}\text{y}& \text{ = }& \text{b + mx}\end{array}

For Alphonso, this is:

\begin{array}{rcl}\text{💲10}& \text{ = }& {\text{💲2 × Q}}_{\text{burgers}}\text{ + }\text{💲0.50}\text{ × }{\text{Q}}_{\text{bus tickets}}\end{array}

Step 4. Simplify the equation. Begin by multiplying both sides of the equation by 2:

\begin{array}{rcl}\text{2 × 10}& \text{ = }& {\text{2 × 2 × Q}}_{\text{burgers}}{\text{ + 2 × 0.5 × Q}}_{\text{bus tickets}} \\ \text{20}& \text{ = }& {\text{4 × Q}}_{\text{burgers}}{\text{ + 1 × Q}}_{\text{bus tickets}}\end{array}

Step 5. Subtract one bus ticket from both sides:

\begin{array}{rcl}{\text{20 - Q}}_{\text{bus tickets}}& \text{=}& {\text{4 × Q}}_{\text{burgers}}\end{array}

Divide each side by 4 to yield the answer:

\begin{array}{rcl}{\text{5 - 0.25 × Q}}_{\text{bus tickets}}& \text{=}& {\text{Q}}_{\text{burgers}}\\ & \text{or}& \\ {\text{Q}}_{\text{burgers}}& \text{=}& {\text{5 - 0.25 × Q}}_{\text{bus tickets}}\end{array}

Step 6. Notice that this equation fits the budget constraint in below figure. The vertical intercept is 5 and the slope is –0.25, just as the equation says. If you plug 20 bus tickets into the equation, you get 0 burgers. If you plug other numbers of bus tickets into the equation, you get the results which are the points on Alphonso’s budget constraint.

PointQuantity of Burgers (at 💲2)Quantity of Bus Tickets (at 50 cents)A50B44C38D212E116F02

Step 7. Notice that the slope of a budget constraint always shows the opportunity cost of the good which is on the horizontal axis. For Alphonso, the slope is −0.25, indicating that for every bus ticket he buys, he must give up 1/4 burger. To phrase it differently, for every four tickets he buys, Alphonso must give up 1 burger.

There are two important observations here. First, the algebraic sign of the slope is negative, which means that the only way to get more of one good is to give up some of the other. Second, we define the slope as the price of bus tickets (whatever is on the horizontal axis in the graph) divided by the price of burgers (whatever is on the vertical axis), in this case 💲0.50/💲2 = 0.25. If you want to determine the opportunity cost quickly, just divide the two prices.

Identifying Opportunity Cost

In many cases, it is reasonable to refer to the opportunity cost as the price. If your cousin buys a new bicycle for 💲300, then 💲300 measures the amount of “other consumption” that he has forsaken. For practical purposes, there may be no special need to identify the specific alternative product or products that he could have bought with that 💲300, but sometimes the price as measured in dollars may not accurately capture the true opportunity cost. This problem can loom especially large when costs of time are involved.

For example, consider a boss who decides that all employees will attend a two-day retreat to “build team spirit.” The out-of-pocket monetary cost of the event may involve hiring an outside consulting firm to run the retreat, as well as room and board for all participants. However, an opportunity cost exists as well: during the two days of the retreat, none of the employees are doing any other work.

Attending college is another case where the opportunity cost exceeds the monetary cost. The out-of-pocket costs of attending college include tuition, books, room and board, and other expenses. However, in addition, during the hours that you are attending class and studying, it is impossible to work at a paying job. Thus, college imposes both an out-of-pocket cost and an opportunity cost of lost earnings.

What is the opportunity cost associated with increased airport security measures?

After the terrorist plane hijackings on September 11, 2001, many steps were proposed to improve air travel safety. For example, the federal government could provide armed “sky marshals” who would travel inconspicuously with the rest of the passengers. The cost of having a sky marshal on every flight would be roughly 💲3 billion per year. Retrofitting all U.S. planes with reinforced cockpit doors to make it harder for terrorists to take over the plane would have a price tag of 💲450 million. Buying more sophisticated security equipment for airports, like three-dimensional baggage scanners and cameras linked to face recognition software, could cost another 💲2 billion.

However, the single biggest cost of greater airline security does not involve spending money. It is the opportunity cost of additional waiting time at the airport. According to the United States Department of Transportation (DOT), there were 895.5 million systemwide (domestic and international) scheduled service passengers in 2015. Since the 9/11 hijackings, security screening has become more intensive, and consequently, the procedure takes longer than in the past. Say that, on average, each air passenger spends an extra 30 minutes in the airport per trip. Economists commonly place a value on time to convert an opportunity cost in time into a monetary figure. Because many air travelers are relatively high-paid business people, conservative estimates set the average price of time for air travelers at 💲20 per hour. By these back-of-the-envelope calculations, the opportunity cost of delays in airports could be as much as 800 million × 0.5 hours × 💲20/hour, or 💲8 billion per year. Clearly, the opportunity costs of waiting time can be just as important as costs that involve direct spending.

In some cases, realizing the opportunity cost can alter behavior. Imagine, for example, that you spend 💲8 on lunch every day at work. You may know perfectly well that bringing a lunch from home would cost only 💲3 a day, so the opportunity cost of buying lunch at the restaurant is 💲5 each day (that is, the 💲8 buying lunch costs minus the 💲3 your lunch from home would cost). Five dollars each day does not seem to be that much. However, if you project what that adds up to in a year—250 days a year × 💲5 per day equals 💲1,250, the cost, perhaps, of a decent vacation. If you describe the opportunity cost as “a nice vacation” instead of “💲5 a day,” you might make different choices.

Marginal Decision-Making and Diminishing Marginal Utility

The budget constraint framework helps to emphasize that most choices in the real world are not about getting all of one thing or all of another; that is, they are not about choosing either the point at one end of the budget constraint or else the point all the way at the other end. Instead, most choices involve marginal analysis, which means examining the benefits and costs of choosing a little more or a little less of a good. People naturally compare costs and benefits, but often we look at total costs and total benefits, when the optimal choice necessitates comparing how costs and benefits change from one option to another. You might think of marginal analysis as “change analysis.” Marginal analysis is used throughout economics.

We now turn to the notion of utility. People desire goods and services for the satisfaction or utility those goods and services provide. Utility, as we will see in the chapter on Consumer Choices, is subjective but that does not make it less real. Economists typically assume that the more of some good one consumes (for example, slices of pizza), the more utility one obtains. At the same time, the utility a person receives from consuming the first unit of a good is typically more than the utility received from consuming the fifth or the tenth unit of that same good. When Alphonso chooses between burgers and bus tickets, for example, the first few bus rides that he chooses might provide him with a great deal of utility—perhaps they help him get to a job interview or a doctor’s appointment. However, later bus rides might provide much less utility—they may only serve to kill time on a rainy day. Similarly, the first burger that Alphonso chooses to buy may be on a day when he missed breakfast and is ravenously hungry. However, if Alphonso has a burger every single day, the last few burgers may taste pretty boring. The general pattern that consumption of the first few units of any good tends to bring a higher level of utility to a person than consumption of later units is a common pattern. Economists refer to this pattern as the law of diminishing marginal utility, which means that as a person receives more of a good, the additional (or marginal) utility from each additional unit of the good declines. In other words, the first slice of pizza brings more satisfaction than the sixth.

The law of diminishing marginal utility explains why people and societies rarely make all-or-nothing choices. You would not say, “My favorite food is ice cream, so I will eat nothing but ice cream from now on.” Instead, even if you get a very high level of utility from your favorite food, if you ate it exclusively, the additional or marginal utility from those last few servings would not be very high. Similarly, most workers do not say: “I enjoy leisure, so I’ll never work.” Instead, workers recognize that even though some leisure is very nice, a combination of all leisure and no income is not so attractive. The budget constraint framework suggests that when people make choices in a world of scarcity, they will use marginal analysis and think about whether they would prefer a little more or a little less.

A rational consumer would only purchase additional units of some product as long as the marginal utility exceeds the opportunity cost. Suppose Alphonso moves down his budget constraint from Point A to Point B to Point C and further. As he consumes more bus tickets, the marginal utility of bus tickets will diminish, while the opportunity cost, that is, the marginal utility of foregone burgers, will increase. Eventually, the opportunity cost will exceed the marginal utility of an additional bus ticket. If Alphonso is rational, he won’t purchase more bus tickets once the marginal utility just equals the opportunity cost. While we can’t (yet) say exactly how many bus tickets Alphonso will buy, that number is unlikely to be the most he can afford, 20.

Sunk Costs

In the budget constraint framework, all decisions involve what will happen next: that is, what quantities of goods will you consume, how many hours will you work, or how much will you save. These decisions do not look back to past choices. Thus, the budget constraint framework assumes that sunk costs, which are costs that were incurred in the past and cannot be recovered, should not affect the current decision.

Consider the case of Selena, who pays 💲8 to see a movie, but after watching the film for 30 minutes, she knows that it is truly terrible. Should she stay and watch the rest of the movie because she paid for the ticket, or should she leave? The money she spent is a sunk cost, and unless the theater manager is sympathetic, Selena will not get a refund. However, staying in the movie still means paying an opportunity cost in time. Her choice is whether to spend the next 90 minutes suffering through a cinematic disaster or to do something—anything—else. The lesson of sunk costs is to forget about the money and time that is irretrievably gone and instead to focus on the marginal costs and benefits of current and future options.

For people and firms alike, dealing with sunk costs can be frustrating. It often means admitting an earlier error in judgment. Many firms, for example, find it hard to give up on a new product that is doing poorly because they spent so much money in creating and launching the product. However, the lesson of sunk costs is to ignore them and make decisions based on what will happen in the future.

From a Model with Two Goods to One of Many Goods

The budget constraint diagram containing just two goods, like most models used in this book, is not realistic. After all, in a modern economy people choose from thousands of goods. However, thinking about a model with many goods is a straightforward extension of what we discussed here. Instead of drawing just one budget constraint, showing the tradeoff between two goods, you can draw multiple budget constraints, showing the possible tradeoffs between many different pairs of goods. In more advanced classes in economics, you would use mathematical equations that include many possible goods and services that can be purchased, together with their quantities and prices, and show how the total spending on all goods and services is limited to the overall budget available. The graph with two goods that we presented here clearly illustrates that every choice has an opportunity cost, which is the point that does carry over to the real world.

Key Concepts and Summary

Economists see the real world as one of scarcity: that is, a world in which people’s desires exceed what is possible. As a result, economic behavior involves tradeoffs in which individuals, firms, and society must forgo something that they desire to obtain things that they desire more. Individuals face the tradeoff of what quantities of goods and services to consume. The budget constraint, which is the frontier of the opportunity set, illustrates the range of available choices. The relative price of the choices determines the slope of the budget constraint. Choices beyond the budget constraint are not affordable.

Opportunity cost measures cost by what we forgo in exchange. Sometimes we can measure opportunity cost in money, but it is often useful to consider time as well, or to measure it in terms of the actual resources that we must forfeit.

Most economic decisions and tradeoffs are not all-or-nothing. Instead, they involve marginal analysis, which means they are about decisions on the margin, involving a little more or a little less. The law of diminishing marginal utility points out that as a person receives more of something—whether it is a specific good or another resource—the additional marginal gains tend to become smaller. Because sunk costs occurred in the past and cannot be recovered, they should be disregarded in making current decisions.

Self-Check Questions

Suppose Alphonso’s town raised the price of bus tickets to 💲1 per trip (while the price of burgers stayed at 💲2 and his budget remained 💲10 per week.) Draw Alphonso’s new budget constraint. What happens to the opportunity cost of bus tickets?

The opportunity cost of bus tickets is the number of burgers that must be given up to obtain one more bus ticket. Originally, when the price of bus tickets was 50 cents per trip, this opportunity cost was 0.50/2 = .25 burgers. The reason for this is that at the original prices, one burger (💲2) costs the same as four bus tickets (💲0.50), so the opportunity cost of a burger is four bus tickets, and the opportunity cost of a bus ticket is .25 (the inverse of the opportunity cost of a burger). With the new, higher price of bus tickets, the opportunity cost rises to 💲1/💲2 or 0.50. You can see this graphically since the slope of the new budget constraint is steeper than the original one. If Alphonso spends all of his budget on burgers, the higher price of bus tickets has no impact so the vertical intercept of the budget constraint is the same. If he spends all of his budget on bus tickets, he can now afford only half as many, so the horizontal intercept is half as much. In short, the budget constraint rotates clockwise around the vertical intercept, steepening as it goes and the opportunity cost of bus tickets increases.

The graph shows how opportunity cost is affected by the purchase of either burgers or bus tickets. The opportunity cost of bus tickets is the number of burgers that must be given up to obtain one more bus ticket.

Review Questions

Explain why scarcity leads to tradeoffs.

Explain why individuals make choices that are directly on the budget constraint, rather than inside the budget constraint or outside it.

Critical Thinking Question

Suppose Alphonso’s town raises the price of bus tickets from 💲0.50 to 💲1 and the price of burgers rises from 💲2 to 💲4. Why is the opportunity cost of bus tickets unchanged? Suppose Alphonso’s weekly spending money increases from 💲10 to 💲20. How is his budget constraint affected from all three changes? Explain.

Problems

Use this information to answer the following 4 questions: Marie has a weekly budget of 💲24, which she likes to spend on magazines and pies.

If the price of a magazine is 💲4 each, what is the maximum number of magazines she could buy in a week?

If the price of a pie is 💲12, what is the maximum number of pies she could buy in a week?

Draw Marie’s budget constraint with pies on the horizontal axis and magazines on the vertical axis. What is the slope of the budget constraint?

What is Marie’s opportunity cost of purchasing a pie?

References

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. 2015. “Median Weekly Earnings by Educational Attainment in 2014.” Accessed March 27, 2015. .

Robbins, Lionel. An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. London: Macmillan. 1932.

United States Department of Transportation. “Total Passengers on U.S Airlines and Foreign Airlines U.S. Flights Increased 1.3% in 2012 from 2011.” Accessed October 2013.

Glossary

budget constraint
all possible consumption combinations of goods that someone can afford, given the prices of goods, when all income is spent; the boundary of the opportunity set
law of diminishing marginal utility
as we consume more of a good or service, the utility we get from additional units of the good or service tends to become smaller than what we received from earlier units
marginal analysis
examination of decisions on the margin, meaning a little more or a little less from the status quo
opportunity cost
measures cost by what we give up/forfeit in exchange; opportunity cost measures the value of the forgone alternative
opportunity set
all possible combinations of consumption that someone can afford given the prices of goods and the individual’s income
sunk costs
costs that we make in the past that we cannot recover
utility
satisfaction, usefulness, or value one obtains from consuming goods and services

2.2 The Production Possibilities Frontier and Social Choices

6

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Interpret production possibilities frontier graphs
  • Contrast a budget constraint and a production possibilities frontier
  • Explain the relationship between a production possibilities frontier and the law of diminishing returns
  • Contrast productive efficiency and allocative efficiency
  • Define comparative advantage

Introduction

Just as individuals cannot have everything they want and must instead make choices, society as a whole cannot have everything it might want, either. This section of the chapter will explain the constraints society faces, using a model called the production possibilities frontier (PPF). There are more similarities than differences between individual choice and social choice. As you read this section, focus on the similarities.

Because society has limited resources (e.g., labor, land, capital, raw materials) at any point in time, there is a limit to the quantities of goods and services it can produce. Suppose a society desires two products, healthcare and education. The production possibilities frontier in (Figure) illustrates this situation.

The graph shows that a society has limited resources and often must prioritize where to invest. On this graph, the y-axis is ʺHealthcare,ʺ and the x-axis is ʺEducation.ʺ
A Healthcare vs. Education Production Possibilities Frontier This production possibilities frontier shows a tradeoff between devoting social resources to healthcare and devoting them to education. At A all resources go to healthcare and at B, most go to healthcare. At D most resources go to education, and at F, all go to education.

(Figure) shows healthcare on the vertical axis and education on the horizontal axis. If the society were to allocate all of its resources to healthcare, it could produce at point A. However, it would not have any resources to produce education. If it were to allocate all of its resources to education, it could produce at point F. Alternatively, the society could choose to produce any combination of healthcare and education on the production possibilities frontier. In effect, the production possibilities frontier plays the same role for society as the budget constraint plays for Alphonso. Society can choose any combination of the two goods on or inside the PPF. However, it does not have enough resources to produce outside the PPF.

Most importantly, the production possibilities frontier clearly shows the tradeoff between healthcare and education. Suppose society has chosen to operate at point B, and it is considering producing more education. Because the PPF is downward sloping from left to right, the only way society can obtain more education is by giving up some healthcare. That is the tradeoff society faces. Suppose it considers moving from point B to point C. What would the opportunity cost be for the additional education? The opportunity cost would be the healthcare society has to forgo. Just as with Alphonso’s budget constraint, the slope of the production possibilities frontier shows the opportunity cost. By now you might be saying, “Hey, this PPF is sounding like the budget constraint.” If so, read the following Clear It Up feature.

What’s the difference between a budget constraint and a PPF?

There are two major differences between a budget constraint and a production possibilities frontier. The first is the fact that the budget constraint is a straight line. This is because its slope is given by the relative prices of the two goods, which from the point of view of an individual consumer, are fixed, so the slope doesn’t change. In contrast, the PPF has a curved shape because of the law of the diminishing returns. Thus, the slope is different at various points on the PPF. The second major difference is the absence of specific numbers on the axes of the PPF. There are no specific numbers because we do not know the exact amount of resources this imaginary economy has, nor do we know how many resources it takes to produce healthcare and how many resources it takes to produce education. If this were a real world example, that data would be available.

Whether or not we have specific numbers, conceptually we can measure the opportunity cost of additional education as society moves from point B to point C on the PPF. We measure the additional education by the horizontal distance between B and C. The foregone healthcare is given by the vertical distance between B and C. The slope of the PPF between B and C is (approximately) the vertical distance (the “rise”) over the horizontal distance (the “run”). This is the opportunity cost of the additional education.

The Shape of the PPF and the Law of Diminishing Returns

The budget constraints that we presented earlier in this chapter, showing individual choices about what quantities of goods to consume, were all straight lines. The reason for these straight lines was that the relative prices of the two goods in the consumption budget constraint determined the slope of the budget constraint. However, we drew the production possibilities frontier for healthcare and education as a curved line. Why does the PPF have a different shape?

To understand why the PPF is curved, start by considering point A at the top left-hand side of the PPF. At point A, all available resources are devoted to healthcare and none are left for education. This situation would be extreme and even ridiculous. For example, children are seeing a doctor every day, whether they are sick or not, but not attending school. People are having cosmetic surgery on every part of their bodies, but no high school or college education exists. Now imagine that some of these resources are diverted from healthcare to education, so that the economy is at point B instead of point A. Diverting some resources away from A to B causes relatively little reduction in health because the last few marginal dollars going into healthcare services are not producing much additional gain in health. However, putting those marginal dollars into education, which is completely without resources at point A, can produce relatively large gains. For this reason, the shape of the PPF from A to B is relatively flat, representing a relatively small drop-off in health and a relatively large gain in education.

Now consider the other end, at the lower right, of the production possibilities frontier. Imagine that society starts at choice D, which is devoting nearly all resources to education and very few to healthcare, and moves to point F, which is devoting all spending to education and none to healthcare. For the sake of concreteness, you can imagine that in the movement from D to F, the last few doctors must become high school science teachers, the last few nurses must become school librarians rather than dispensers of vaccinations, and the last few emergency rooms are turned into kindergartens. The gains to education from adding these last few resources to education are very small. However, the opportunity cost lost to health will be fairly large, and thus the slope of the PPF between D and F is steep, showing a large drop in health for only a small gain in education.

The lesson is not that society is likely to make an extreme choice like devoting no resources to education at point A or no resources to health at point F. Instead, the lesson is that the gains from committing additional marginal resources to education depend on how much is already being spent. If on the one hand, very few resources are currently committed to education, then an increase in resources used can bring relatively large gains. On the other hand, if a large number of resources are already committed to education, then committing additional resources will bring relatively smaller gains.

This pattern is common enough that economists have given it a name: the law of increasing opportunity cost, which holds that as production of a good or service increases, the marginal opportunity cost of producing it increases as well. This happens because some resources are better suited for producing certain goods and services instead of others. When government spends a certain amount more on reducing crime, for example, the original increase in opportunity cost of reducing crime could be relatively small. However, additional increases typically cause relatively larger increases in the opportunity cost of reducing crime, and paying for enough police and security to reduce crime to nothing at all would be a tremendously high opportunity cost.

The curvature of the production possibilities frontier shows that as we add more resources to education, moving from left to right along the horizontal axis, the original increase in opportunity cost is fairly small, but gradually increases. Thus, the slope of the PPF is relatively flat near the vertical-axis intercept. Conversely, as we add more resources to healthcare, moving from bottom to top on the vertical axis, the original declines in opportunity cost are fairly large, but again gradually diminish. Thus, the slope of the PPF is relatively steep near the horizontal-axis intercept. In this way, the law of increasing opportunity cost produces the outward-bending shape of the production possibilities frontier.

Productive Efficiency and Allocative Efficiency

The study of economics does not presume to tell a society what choice it should make along its production possibilities frontier. In a market-oriented economy with a democratic government, the choice will involve a mixture of decisions by individuals, firms, and government. However, economics can point out that some choices are unambiguously better than others. This observation is based on the concept of efficiency. In everyday usage, efficiency refers to lack of waste. An inefficient machine operates at high cost, while an efficient machine operates at lower cost, because it is not wasting energy or materials. An inefficient organization operates with long delays and high costs, while an efficient organization meets schedules, is focused, and performs within budget.

The graph shows that when a greater quantity of one good increases, the quantity of other goods will decrease. Point R on the graph represents the good that drops in quantity as a result of greater efficiency in producing other goods.
Productive and Allocative Efficiency Productive efficiency means it is impossible to produce more of one good without decreasing the quantity that is produced of another good. Thus, all choices along a given PPF like B, C, and D display productive efficiency, but R does not. Allocative efficiency means that the particular mix of goods being produced—that is, the specific choice along the production possibilities frontier—represents the allocation that society most desires.

The production possibilities frontier can illustrate two kinds of efficiency: productive efficiency and allocative efficiency. (Figure) illustrates these ideas using a production possibilities frontier between healthcare and education.

Productive efficiency means that, given the available inputs and technology, it is impossible to produce more of one good without decreasing the quantity that is produced of another good. All choices on the PPF in (Figure), including A, B, C, D, and F, display productive efficiency. As a firm moves from any one of these choices to any other, either healthcare increases and education decreases or vice versa. However, any choice inside the production possibilities frontier is productively inefficient and wasteful because it is possible to produce more of one good, the other good, or some combination of both goods.

For example, point R is productively inefficient because it is possible at choice C to have more of both goods: education on the horizontal axis is higher at point C than point R (E2 is greater than E1), and healthcare on the vertical axis is also higher at point C than point R (H2 is great than H1).

We can show the particular mix of goods and services produced—that is, the specific combination of selected healthcare and education along the production possibilities frontier—as a ray (line) from the origin to a specific point on the PPF. Output mixes that had more healthcare (and less education) would have a steeper ray, while those with more education (and less healthcare) would have a flatter ray.

Allocative efficiency means that the particular combination of goods and services on the production possibility curve that a society produces represents the combination that society most desires. How to determine what a society desires can be a controversial question, and is usually a discussion in political science, sociology, and philosophy classes as well as in economics. At its most basic, allocative efficiency means producers supply the quantity of each product that consumers demand. Only one of the productively efficient choices will be the allocatively efficient choice for society as a whole.

Why Society Must Choose

In Welcome to Economics! we learned that every society faces the problem of scarcity, where limited resources conflict with unlimited needs and wants. The production possibilities curve illustrates the choices involved in this dilemma.

Every economy faces two situations in which it may be able to expand consumption of all goods. In the first case, a society may discover that it has been using its resources inefficiently, in which case by improving efficiency and producing on the production possibilities frontier, it can have more of all goods (or at least more of some and less of none). In the second case, as resources grow over a period of years (e.g., more labor and more capital), the economy grows. As it does, the production possibilities frontier for a society will tend to shift outward and society will be able to afford more of all goods.

However, improvements in productive efficiency take time to discover and implement, and economic growth happens only gradually. Thus, a society must choose between tradeoffs in the present. For government, this process often involves trying to identify where additional spending could do the most good and where reductions in spending would do the least harm. At the individual and firm level, the market economy coordinates a process in which firms seek to produce goods and services in the quantity, quality, and price that people want. However, for both the government and the market economy in the short term, increases in production of one good typically mean offsetting decreases somewhere else in the economy.

The PPF and Comparative Advantage

While every society must choose how much of each good or service it should produce, it does not need to produce every single good it consumes. Often how much of a good a country decides to produce depends on how expensive it is to produce it versus buying it from a different country. As we saw earlier, the curvature of a country’s PPF gives us information about the tradeoff between devoting resources to producing one good versus another. In particular, its slope gives the opportunity cost of producing one more unit of the good in the x-axis in terms of the other good (in the y-axis). Countries tend to have different opportunity costs of producing a specific good, either because of different climates, geography, technology, or skills.

Suppose two countries, the US and Brazil, need to decide how much they will produce of two crops: sugar cane and wheat. Due to its climatic conditions, Brazil can produce quite a bit of sugar cane per acre but not much wheat. Conversely, the U.S. can produce large amounts of wheat per acre, but not much sugar cane. Clearly, Brazil has a lower opportunity cost of producing sugar cane (in terms of wheat) than the U.S. The reverse is also true: the U.S. has a lower opportunity cost of producing wheat than Brazil. We illustrate this by the PPFs of the two countries in (Figure).

This graph shows two images. Both images have y-axes labeled “Sugar Cane” and x-axes labeled “Wheat.” In image (a), Brazil’s Sugar Cane production is nearly double the production of its wheat. In image (b), the U.S.’s Sugar Cane production is nearly half the production of its wheat.
Production Possibility Frontier for the U.S. and Brazil The U.S. PPF is flatter than the Brazil PPF implying that the opportunity cost of wheat in terms of sugar cane is lower in the U.S. than in Brazil. Conversely, the opportunity cost of sugar cane is lower in Brazil. The U.S. has comparative advantage in wheat and Brazil has comparative advantage in sugar cane.

When a country can produce a good at a lower opportunity cost than another country, we say that this country has a comparative advantage in that good. Comparative advantage is not the same as absolute advantage, which is when a country can produce more of a good. In our example, Brazil has an absolute advantage in sugar cane and the U.S. has an absolute advantage in wheat. One can easily see this with a simple observation of the extreme production points in the PPFs of the two countries. If Brazil devoted all of its resources to producing wheat, it would be producing at point A. If however it had devoted all of its resources to producing sugar cane instead, it would be producing a much larger amount than the U.S., at point B.

The slope of the PPF gives the opportunity cost of producing an additional unit of wheat. While the slope is not constant throughout the PPFs, it is quite apparent that the PPF in Brazil is much steeper than in the U.S., and therefore the opportunity cost of wheat generally higher in Brazil. In the chapter on International Trade you will learn that countries’ differences in comparative advantage determine which goods they will choose to produce and trade. When countries engage in trade, they specialize in the production of the goods in which they have comparative advantage, and trade part of that production for goods in which they do not have comparative advantage. With trade, manufacturers produce goods where the opportunity cost is lowest, so total production increases, benefiting both trading parties.

Key Concepts and Summary

A production possibilities frontier defines the set of choices society faces for the combinations of goods and services it can produce given the resources available. The shape of the PPF is typically curved outward, rather than straight. Choices outside the PPF are unattainable and choices inside the PPF are wasteful. Over time, a growing economy will tend to shift the PPF outwards.

The law of diminishing returns holds that as increments of additional resources are devoted to producing something, the marginal increase in output will become increasingly smaller. All choices along a production possibilities frontier display productive efficiency; that is, it is impossible to use society’s resources to produce more of one good without decreasing production of the other good. The specific choice along a production possibilities frontier that reflects the mix of goods society prefers is the choice with allocative efficiency. The curvature of the PPF is likely to differ by country, which results in different countries having comparative advantage in different goods. Total production can increase if countries specialize in the goods in which they have comparative advantage and trade some of their production for the remaining goods.

Self-Check Questions

Return to the example in (Figure). Suppose there is an improvement in medical technology that enables more healthcare with the same amount of resources. How would this affect the production possibilities curve and, in particular, how would it affect the opportunity cost of education?

Because of the improvement in technology, the vertical intercept of the PPF would be at a higher level of healthcare. In other words, the PPF would rotate clockwise around the horizontal intercept. This would make the PPF steeper, corresponding to an increase in the opportunity cost of education, since resources devoted to education would now mean forgoing a greater quantity of healthcare.

Could a nation be producing in a way that is allocatively efficient, but productively inefficient?

No. Allocative efficiency requires productive efficiency, because it pertains to choices along the production possibilities frontier.

What are the similarities between a consumer’s budget constraint and society’s production possibilities frontier, not just graphically but analytically?

Both the budget constraint and the PPF show the constraint that each operates under. Both show a tradeoff between having more of one good but less of the other. Both show the opportunity cost graphically as the slope of the constraint (budget or PPF).

Review Questions

What is comparative advantage?

What does a production possibilities frontier illustrate?

Why is a production possibilities frontier typically drawn as a curve, rather than a straight line?

Explain why societies cannot make a choice above their production possibilities frontier and should not make a choice below it.

What are diminishing marginal returns?

What is productive efficiency? Allocative efficiency?

Critical Thinking Questions

During the Second World War, Germany’s factories were decimated. It also suffered many human casualties, both soldiers and civilians. How did the war affect Germany’s production possibilities curve?

It is clear that productive inefficiency is a waste since resources are used in a way that produces less goods and services than a nation is capable of. Why is allocative inefficiency also wasteful?

Glossary

allocative efficiency
when the mix of goods produced represents the mix that society most desires
comparative advantage
when a country can produce a good at a lower cost in terms of other goods; or, when a country has a lower opportunity cost of production
law of diminishing returns
as we add additional increments of resources to producing a good or service, the marginal benefit from those additional increments will decline
production possibilities frontier (PPF)
a diagram that shows the productively efficient combinations of two products that an economy can produce given the resources it has available.
productive efficiency
when it is impossible to produce more of one good (or service) without decreasing the quantity produced of another good (or service)

2.3 Confronting Objections to the Economic Approach

7

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Analyze arguments against economic approaches to decision-making
  • Interpret a tradeoff diagram
  • Contrast normative statements and positive statements

Introduction

It is one thing to understand the economic approach to decision-making and another thing to feel comfortable applying it. The sources of discomfort typically fall into two categories: that people do not act in the way that fits the economic way of thinking, and that even if people did act that way, they should try not to. Let’s consider these arguments in turn.

First Objection: People, Firms, and Society Do Not Act Like This

The economic approach to decision-making seems to require more information than most individuals possess and more careful decision-making than most individuals actually display. After all, do you or any of your friends draw a budget constraint and mutter to yourself about maximizing utility before you head to the shopping mall? Do members of the U.S. Congress contemplate production possibilities frontiers before they vote on the annual budget? The messy ways in which people and societies operate somehow doesn’t look much like neat budget constraints or smoothly curving production possibilities frontiers.

However, the economics approach can be a useful way to analyze and understand the tradeoffs of economic decisions. To appreciate this point, imagine for a moment that you are playing basketball, dribbling to the right, and throwing a bounce-pass to the left to a teammate who is running toward the basket. A physicist or engineer could work out the correct speed and trajectory for the pass, given the different movements involved and the weight and bounciness of the ball. However, when you are playing basketball, you do not perform any of these calculations. You just pass the ball, and if you are a good player, you will do so with high accuracy.

Someone might argue: “The scientist’s formula of the bounce-pass requires a far greater knowledge of physics and far more specific information about speeds of movement and weights than the basketball player actually has, so it must be an unrealistic description of how basketball passes actually occur.” This reaction would be wrongheaded. The fact that a good player can throw the ball accurately because of practice and skill, without making a physics calculation, does not mean that the physics calculation is wrong.

Similarly, from an economic point of view, someone who shops for groceries every week has a great deal of practice with how to purchase the combination of goods that will provide that person with utility, even if the shopper does not phrase decisions in terms of a budget constraint. Government institutions may work imperfectly and slowly, but in general, a democratic form of government feels pressure from voters and social institutions to make the choices that are most widely preferred by people in that society. Thus, when thinking about the economic actions of groups of people, firms, and society, it is reasonable, as a first approximation, to analyze them with the tools of economic analysis. For more on this, read about behavioral economics in the chapter on Consumer Choices.

Second Objection: People, Firms, and Society Should Not Act This Way

The economics approach portrays people as self-interested. For some critics of this approach, even if self-interest is an accurate description of how people behave, these behaviors are not moral. Instead, the critics argue that people should be taught to care more deeply about others. Economists offer several answers to these concerns.

First, economics is not a form of moral instruction. Rather, it seeks to describe economic behavior as it actually exists. Philosophers draw a distinction between positive statements, which describe the world as it is, and normative statements, which describe how the world should be. Positive statements are factual. They may be true or false, but we can test them, at least in principle. Normative statements are subjective questions of opinion. We cannot test them since we cannot prove opinions to be true or false. They just are opinions based on one’s values. For example, an economist could analyze a proposed subway system in a certain city. If the expected benefits exceed the costs, he concludes that the project is worthy—an example of positive analysis. Another economist argues for extended unemployment compensation during the Great Depression because a rich country like the United States should take care of its less fortunate citizens—an example of normative analysis.

Even if the line between positive and normative statements is not always crystal clear, economic analysis does try to remain rooted in the study of the actual people who inhabit the actual economy. Fortunately however, the assumption that individuals are purely self-interested is a simplification about human nature. In fact, we need to look no further than to Adam Smith, the very father of modern economics to find evidence of this. The opening sentence of his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, puts it very clearly: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” Clearly, individuals are both self-interested and altruistic.

Second, we can label self-interested behavior and profit-seeking with other names, such as personal choice and freedom. The ability to make personal choices about buying, working, and saving is an important personal freedom. Some people may choose high-pressure, high-paying jobs so that they can earn and spend considerable amounts of money on themselves. Others may allocate large portions of their earnings to charity or spend it on their friends and family. Others may devote themselves to a career that can require much time, energy, and expertise but does not offer high financial rewards, like being an elementary school teacher or a social worker. Still others may choose a job that does consume much of their time or provide a high level of income, but still leaves time for family, friends, and contemplation. Some people may prefer to work for a large company; others might want to start their own business. People’s freedom to make their own economic choices has a moral value worth respecting.

Is a diagram by any other name the same?

When you study economics, you may feel buried under an avalanche of diagrams. Your goal should be to recognize the common underlying logic and pattern of the diagrams, not to memorize each one.

This chapter uses only one basic diagram, although we present it with different sets of labels. The consumption budget constraint and the production possibilities frontier for society, as a whole, are the same basic diagram. (Figure) shows an individual budget constraint and a production possibilities frontier for two goods, Good 1 and Good 2. The tradeoff diagram always illustrates three basic themes: scarcity, tradeoffs, and economic efficiency.

The first theme is scarcity. It is not feasible to have unlimited amounts of both goods. Even if the budget constraint or a PPF shifts, scarcity remains—just at a different level. The second theme is tradeoffs. As depicted in the budget constraint or the production possibilities frontier, it is necessary to forgo some of one good to gain more of the other good. The details of this tradeoff vary. In a budget constraint we determine, the tradeoff is determined by the relative prices of the goods: that is, the relative price of two goods in the consumption choice budget constraint. These tradeoffs appear as a straight line. However, a curved line represents the tradeoffs in many production possibilities frontiers because the law of diminishing returns holds that as we add resources to an area, the marginal gains tend to diminish. Regardless of the specific shape, tradeoffs remain.

The third theme is economic efficiency, or getting the most benefit from scarce resources. All choices on the production possibilities frontier show productive efficiency because in such cases, there is no way to increase the quantity of one good without decreasing the quantity of the other. Similarly, when an individual makes a choice along a budget constraint, there is no way to increase the quantity of one good without decreasing the quantity of the other. The choice on a production possibilities set that is socially preferred, or the choice on an individual’s budget constraint that is personally preferred, will display allocative efficiency.

The basic budget constraint/production possibilities frontier diagram will recur throughout this book. Some examples include using these tradeoff diagrams to analyze trade, environmental protection and economic output, equality of incomes and economic output, and the macroeconomic tradeoff between consumption and investment. Do not allow the different labels to confuse you. The budget constraint/production possibilities frontier diagram is always just a tool for thinking carefully about scarcity, tradeoffs, and efficiency in a particular situation.

 

Two graphs will occur frequently throughout the text. They represent the possible outcomes of constraints/production of goods. The graph on the left has “Good 2” along the y-axis and “Good 1” along the x-axis. The graph on the right has “Good 1” along the y-axis and “Good 2” along the x-axis.
The Tradeoff Diagram Both the individual opportunity set (or budget constraint) and the social production possibilities frontier show the constraints under which individual consumers and society as a whole operate. Both diagrams show the tradeoff in choosing more of one good at the cost of less of the other.

 

Third, self-interested behavior can lead to positive social results. For example, when people work hard to make a living, they create economic output. Consumers who are looking for the best deals will encourage businesses to offer goods and services that meet their needs. Adam Smith, writing in The Wealth of Nations, named this property the invisible hand. In describing how consumers and producers interact in a market economy, Smith wrote:

Every individual…generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain. And he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention…By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

The metaphor of the invisible hand suggests the remarkable possibility that broader social good can emerge from selfish individual actions.

Fourth, even people who focus on their own self-interest in the economic part of their life often set aside their own narrow self-interest in other parts of life. For example, you might focus on your own self-interest when asking your employer for a raise or negotiating to buy a car. Then you might turn around and focus on other people when you volunteer to read stories at the local library, help a friend move to a new apartment, or donate money to a charity. Self-interest is a reasonable starting point for analyzing many economic decisions, without needing to imply that people never do anything that is not in their own immediate self-interest.

Choices … to What Degree?

What have we learned? We know that scarcity impacts all the choices we make. An economist might argue that people do not obtain a bachelor’s or master’s degree because they do not have the resources to make those choices or because their incomes are too low and/or the price of these degrees is too high. A bachelor’s or a master’s degree may not be available in their opportunity set.

The price of these degrees may be too high not only because the actual price, college tuition (and perhaps room and board), is too high. An economist might also say that for many people, the full opportunity cost of a bachelor’s or a master’s degree is too high. For these people, they are unwilling or unable to make the tradeoff of forfeiting years of working, and earning an income, to earn a degree.

Finally, the statistics we introduced at the start of the chapter reveal information about intertemporal choices. An economist might say that people choose not to obtain a college degree because they may have to borrow money to attend college, and the interest they have to pay on that loan in the future will affect their decisions today. Also, it could be that some people have a preference for current consumption over future consumption, so they choose to work now at a lower salary and consume now, rather than postponing that consumption until after they graduate college.

Key Concepts and Summary

The economic way of thinking provides a useful approach to understanding human behavior. Economists make the careful distinction between positive statements, which describe the world as it is, and normative statements, which describe how the world should be. Even when economics analyzes the gains and losses from various events or policies, and thus draws normative conclusions about how the world should be, the analysis of economics is rooted in a positive analysis of how people, firms, and governments actually behave, not how they should behave.

Self-Check Questions

Individuals may not act in the rational, calculating way described by the economic model of decision making, measuring utility and costs at the margin, but can you make a case that they behave approximately that way?

When individuals compare cost per unit in the grocery store, or characteristics of one product versus another, they are behaving approximately like the model describes.

Would an op-ed piece in a newspaper urging the adoption of a particular economic policy be a positive or normative statement?

Since an op-ed makes a case for what should be, it is considered normative.

Would a research study on the effects of soft drink consumption on children’s cognitive development be a positive or normative statement?

Assuming that the study is not taking an explicit position about whether soft drink consumption is good or bad, but just reporting the science, it would be considered positive.

Review Questions

What is the difference between a positive and a normative statement?

Is the economic model of decision-making intended as a literal description of how individuals, firms, and the governments actually make decisions?

What are four responses to the claim that people should not behave in the way described in this chapter?

Critical Thinking Questions

What assumptions about the economy must be true for the invisible hand to work? To what extent are those assumptions valid in the real world?

Do economists have any particular expertise at making normative arguments? In other words, they have expertise at making positive statements (i.e., what will happen) about some economic policy, for example, but do they have special expertise to judge whether or not the policy should be undertaken?

References

Smith, Adam. “Of Restraints upon the Importation from Foreign Countries.” In The Wealth of Nations. London: Methuen & Co., 1904, first pub 1776), I.V. 2.9.

Smith, Adam. “Of the Propriety of Action.”  Part 1 in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. London: A. Millar, 1759, 1.

Glossary

invisible hand
Adam Smith’s concept that individuals’ self-interested behavior can lead to positive social outcomes
normative statement
statement which describes how the world should be
positive statement
statement which describes the world as it is

Part 3: Demand and Supply

III

This is a photograph of various organic vegetables in baskets at a farmer's market.
Farmer’s Market – Organic vegetables and fruits that are grown and sold within a specific geographical region should, in theory, cost less than conventional produce because the transportation costs are less. That is not, however, usually the case. (Credit: Modification of work by Natalie Maynor/Flickr Creative Commons)

Why Can We Not Get Enough of Organic?

Organic food is increasingly popular, not just in the United States, but worldwide. At one time, consumers had to go to specialty stores or farmers’ markets to find organic produce. Now it is available in most grocery stores. In short, organic is part of the mainstream.

Ever wonder why organic food costs more than conventional food? Why, say, does an organic Fuji apple cost $1.99 a pound, while its conventional counterpart costs $1.49 a pound? The same price relationship is true for just about every organic product on the market. If many organic foods are locally grown, would they not take less time to get to market and therefore be cheaper? What are the forces that keep those prices from coming down? Turns out those forces have quite a bit to do with this chapter’s topic: demand and supply.

Introduction to Demand and Supply

In this chapter, you will learn about:

An auction bidder pays thousands of dollars for a dress Whitney Houston wore. A collector spends a small fortune for a few drawings by John Lennon. People usually react to purchases like these in two ways: their jaw drops because they think these are high prices to pay for such goods or they think these are rare, desirable items and the amount paid seems right.

Visit this website to read a list of bizarre items that have been purchased for their ties to celebrities. These examples represent an interesting facet of demand and supply.

When economists talk about prices, they are less interested in making judgments than in gaining a practical understanding of what determines prices and why prices change. Consider a price most of us contend with weekly: that of a gallon of gas. Why was the average price of gasoline in the United States $3.71 per gallon in June 2014? Why did the price for gasoline fall sharply to $1.96 per gallon by January 2016? To explain these price movements, economists focus on the determinants of what gasoline buyers are willing to pay and what gasoline sellers are willing to accept.

As it turns out, the price of gasoline in June of any given year is nearly always higher than the price in January of that same year. Over recent decades, gasoline prices in midsummer have averaged about 10 cents per gallon more than their midwinter low. The likely reason is that people drive more in the summer, and are also willing to pay more for gas, but that does not explain how steeply gas prices fell. Other factors were at work during those 18 months, such as increases in supply and decreases in the demand for crude oil.

This chapter introduces the economic model of demand and supply—one of the most powerful models in all of economics. The discussion here begins by examining how demand and supply determine the price and the quantity sold in markets for goods and services, and how changes in demand and supply lead to changes in prices and quantities.

3.1 Demand, Supply, and Equilibrium in Markets for Goods and Services

8

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain demand, quantity demanded, and the law of demand
  • Identify a demand curve and a supply curve
  • Explain supply, quantity supplied, and the law of supply
  • Explain equilibrium, equilibrium price, and equilibrium quantity

First let’s first focus on what economists mean by demand, what they mean by supply, and then how demand and supply interact in a market.

Demand for Goods and Services

Economists use the term demand to refer to the amount of some good or service consumers are willing and able to purchase at each price. Demand is fundamentally based on needs and wants—if you have no need or want for something, you won’t buy it. While a consumer may be able to differentiate between a need and a want, but from an economist’s perspective they are the same thing. Demand is also based on ability to pay. If you cannot pay for it, you have no effective demand. By this definition, a homeless person probably has no effective demand for shelter.

What a buyer pays for a unit of the specific good or service is called price. The total number of units that consumers would purchase at that price is called the quantity demanded. A rise in price of a good or service almost always decreases the quantity demanded of that good or service. Conversely, a fall in price will increase the quantity demanded. When the price of a gallon of gasoline increases, for example, people look for ways to reduce their consumption by combining several errands, commuting by carpool or mass transit, or taking weekend or vacation trips closer to home. Economists call this inverse relationship between price and quantity demanded the law of demand. The law of demand assumes that all other variables that affect demand (which we explain in the next module) are held constant.

We can show an example from the market for gasoline in a table or a graph. Economist call a table that shows the quantity demanded at each price, such as (Figure), a demand schedule. In this case we measure price in dollars per gallon of gasoline. We measure the quantity demanded in millions of gallons over some time period (for example, per day or per year) and over some geographic area (like a state or a country). A demand curve shows the relationship between price and quantity demanded on a graph like (Figure), with quantity on the horizontal axis and the price per gallon on the vertical axis. (Note that this is an exception to the normal rule in mathematics that the independent variable (x) goes on the horizontal axis and the dependent variable (y) goes on the vertical. Economics is not math.)

(Figure) shows the demand schedule and the graph in (Figure) shows the demand curve. These are two ways to describe the same relationship between price and quantity demanded.

Price and Quantity Demanded of Gasoline
Price (per gallon) Quantity Demanded (millions of gallons)
$1.00 800
$1.20 700
$1.40 600
$1.60 550
$1.80 500
$2.00 460
$2.20 420
The graph shows a downward-sloping demand curve that represents the law of demand.
A Demand Curve for Gasoline. The demand schedule shows that as price rises, quantity demanded decreases, and vice versa. We graph these points, and the line connecting them is the demand curve (D). The downward slope of the demand curve again illustrates the law of demand—the inverse relationship between prices and quantity demanded.

Demand curves will appear somewhat different for each product. They may appear relatively steep or flat, or they may be straight or curved. Nearly all demand curves share the fundamental similarity that they slope down from left to right. Demand curves embody the law of demand: As the price increases, the quantity demanded decreases, and conversely, as the price decreases, the quantity demanded increases.

Confused about these different types of demand? Read the next feature.

Is demand the same as quantity demanded?

In economic terminology, demand is not the same as quantity demanded. When economists talk about demand, they mean the relationship between a range of prices and the quantities demanded at those prices, as illustrated by a demand curve or a demand schedule. When economists talk about quantity demanded, they mean only a certain point on the demand curve, or one quantity on the demand schedule. In short, demand refers to the curve and quantity demanded refers to the (specific) point on the curve.

Supply of Goods and Services

When economists talk about supply, they mean the amount of some good or service a producer is willing to supply at each price. Price is what the producer receives for selling one unit of a good or service. A rise in price almost always leads to an increase in the quantity supplied of that good or service, while a fall in price will decrease the quantity supplied. When the price of gasoline rises, for example, it encourages profit-seeking firms to take several actions: expand exploration for oil reserves; drill for more oil; invest in more pipelines and oil tankers to bring the oil to plants for refining into gasoline; build new oil refineries; purchase additional pipelines and trucks to ship the gasoline to gas stations; and open more gas stations or keep existing gas stations open longer hours. Economists call this positive relationship between price and quantity supplied—that a higher price leads to a higher quantity supplied and a lower price leads to a lower quantity supplied—the law of supply. The law of supply assumes that all other variables that affect supply (to be explained in the next module) are held constant.

Still unsure about the different types of supply? See the following feature.

Is supply the same as quantity supplied?

In economic terminology, supply is not the same as quantity supplied. When economists refer to supply, they mean the relationship between a range of prices and the quantities supplied at those prices, a relationship that we can illustrate with a supply curve or a supply schedule. When economists refer to quantity supplied, they mean only a certain point on the supply curve, or one quantity on the supply schedule. In short, supply refers to the curve and quantity supplied refers to the (specific) point on the curve.

The graph shows an upward-sloping supply curve that represents the law of supply.
A Supply Curve for Gasoline. The supply schedule is the table that shows quantity supplied of gasoline at each price. As price rises, quantity supplied also increases, and vice versa. The supply curve (S) is created by graphing the points from the supply schedule and then connecting them. The upward slope of the supply curve illustrates the law of supply—that a higher price leads to a higher quantity supplied, and vice versa.

(Figure) illustrates the law of supply, again using the market for gasoline as an example. Like demand, we can illustrate supply using a table or a graph. A supply schedule is a table, like (Figure), that shows the quantity supplied at a range of different prices. Again, we measure price in dollars per gallon of gasoline and we measure quantity supplied in millions of gallons. A supply curve is a graphic illustration of the relationship between price, shown on the vertical axis, and quantity, shown on the horizontal axis. The supply schedule and the supply curve are just two different ways of showing the same information. Notice that the horizontal and vertical axes on the graph for the supply curve are the same as for the demand curve.

Price and Supply of Gasoline
Price (per gallon) Quantity Supplied (millions of gallons)
$1.00 500
$1.20 550
$1.40 600
$1.60 640
$1.80 680
$2.00 700
$2.20 720

The shape of supply curves will vary somewhat according to the product: steeper, flatter, straighter, or curved. Nearly all supply curves, however, share a basic similarity: they slope up from left to right and illustrate the law of supply: as the price rises, say, from $1.00 per gallon to $2.20 per gallon, the quantity supplied increases from 500 gallons to 720 gallons. Conversely, as the price falls, the quantity supplied decreases.

Equilibrium—Where Demand and Supply Intersect

Because the graphs for demand and supply curves both have price on the vertical axis and quantity on the horizontal axis, the demand curve and supply curve for a particular good or service can appear on the same graph. Together, demand and supply determine the price and the quantity that will be bought and sold in a market.

The graph shows the demand and supply for gasoline where the two curves intersect at the point of equilibrium.
Demand and Supply for Gasoline: The demand curve (D) and the supply curve (S) intersect at the equilibrium point E, with a price of $1.40 and a quantity of 600. The equilibrium is the only price where quantity demanded is equal to quantity supplied. At a price above equilibrium like $1.80, quantity supplied exceeds the quantity demanded, so there is excess supply. At a price below equilibrium such as $1.20, quantity demanded exceeds quantity supplied, so there is excess demand.

(Figure) illustrates the interaction of demand and supply in the market for gasoline. The demand curve (D) is identical to (Figure). The supply curve (S) is identical to (Figure). (Figure) contains the same information in tabular form.

Price, Quantity Demanded, and Quantity Supplied
Price (per gallon) Quantity demanded (millions of gallons) Quantity supplied (millions of gallons)
$1.00 800 500
$1.20 700 550
$1.40 600 600
$1.60 550 640
$1.80 500 680
$2.00 460 700
$2.20 420 720

Remember this: When two lines on a diagram cross, this intersection usually means something. The point where the supply curve (S) and the demand curve (D) cross, designated by point E in (Figure), is called the equilibrium. The equilibrium price is the only price where the plans of consumers and the plans of producers agree—that is, where the amount of the product consumers want to buy (quantity demanded) is equal to the amount producers want to sell (quantity supplied). Economists call this common quantity the equilibrium quantity. At any other price, the quantity demanded does not equal the quantity supplied, so the market is not in equilibrium at that price.

In (Figure), the equilibrium price is $1.40 per gallon of gasoline and the equilibrium quantity is 600 million gallons. If you had only the demand and supply schedules, and not the graph, you could find the equilibrium by looking for the price level on the tables where the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied are equal.

The word “equilibrium” means “balance.” If a market is at its equilibrium price and quantity, then it has no reason to move away from that point. However, if a market is not at equilibrium, then economic pressures arise to move the market toward the equilibrium price and the equilibrium quantity.

Imagine, for example, that the price of a gallon of gasoline was above the equilibrium price—that is, instead of $1.40 per gallon, the price is $1.80 per gallon. The dashed horizontal line at the price of $1.80 in (Figure) illustrates this above equilibrium price. At this higher price, the quantity demanded drops from 600 to 500. This decline in quantity reflects how consumers react to the higher price by finding ways to use less gasoline.

Moreover, at this higher price of $1.80, the quantity of gasoline supplied rises from the 600 to 680, as the higher price makes it more profitable for gasoline producers to expand their output. Now, consider how quantity demanded and quantity supplied are related at this above-equilibrium price. Quantity demanded has fallen to 500 gallons, while quantity supplied has risen to 680 gallons. In fact, at any above-equilibrium price, the quantity supplied exceeds the quantity demanded. We call this an excess supply or a surplus.

With a surplus, gasoline accumulates at gas stations, in tanker trucks, in pipelines, and at oil refineries. This accumulation puts pressure on gasoline sellers. If a surplus remains unsold, those firms involved in making and selling gasoline are not receiving enough cash to pay their workers and to cover their expenses. In this situation, some producers and sellers will want to cut prices, because it is better to sell at a lower price than not to sell at all. Once some sellers start cutting prices, others will follow to avoid losing sales. These price reductions in turn will stimulate a higher quantity demanded. Therefore, if the price is above the equilibrium level, incentives built into the structure of demand and supply will create pressures for the price to fall toward the equilibrium.

Now suppose that the price is below its equilibrium level at $1.20 per gallon, as the dashed horizontal line at this price in (Figure) shows. At this lower price, the quantity demanded increases from 600 to 700 as drivers take longer trips, spend more minutes warming up the car in the driveway in wintertime, stop sharing rides to work, and buy larger cars that get fewer miles to the gallon. However, the below-equilibrium price reduces gasoline producers’ incentives to produce and sell gasoline, and the quantity supplied falls from 600 to 550.

When the price is below equilibrium, there is excess demand, or a shortage—that is, at the given price the quantity demanded, which has been stimulated by the lower price, now exceeds the quantity supplied, which had been depressed by the lower price. In this situation, eager gasoline buyers mob the gas stations, only to find many stations running short of fuel. Oil companies and gas stations recognize that they have an opportunity to make higher profits by selling what gasoline they have at a higher price. As a result, the price rises toward the equilibrium level. Read Demand, Supply, and Efficiency for more discussion on the importance of the demand and supply model.

Key Concepts and Summary

A demand schedule is a table that shows the quantity demanded at different prices in the market. A demand curve shows the relationship between quantity demanded and price in a given market on a graph. The law of demand states that a higher price typically leads to a lower quantity demanded.

A supply schedule is a table that shows the quantity supplied at different prices in the market. A supply curve shows the relationship between quantity supplied and price on a graph. The law of supply says that a higher price typically leads to a higher quantity supplied.

The equilibrium price and equilibrium quantity occur where the supply and demand curves cross. The equilibrium occurs where the quantity demanded is equal to the quantity supplied. If the price is below the equilibrium level, then the quantity demanded will exceed the quantity supplied. Excess demand or a shortage will exist. If the price is above the equilibrium level, then the quantity supplied will exceed the quantity demanded. Excess supply or a surplus will exist. In either case, economic pressures will push the price toward the equilibrium level.

Self-Check Question

Review (Figure). Suppose the price of gasoline is $1.60 per gallon. Is the quantity demanded higher or lower than at the equilibrium price of $1.40 per gallon? What about the quantity supplied? Is there a shortage or a surplus in the market? If so, how much?

Since $1.60 per gallon is above the equilibrium price, the quantity demanded would be lower at 550 gallons and the quantity supplied would be higher at 640 gallons. (These results are due to the laws of demand and supply, respectively.) The outcome of lower Qd and higher Qs would be a surplus in the gasoline market of 640 – 550 = 90 gallons.

Review Questions

What determines the level of prices in a market?

What does a downward-sloping demand curve mean about how buyers in a market will react to a higher price?

Will demand curves have the same exact shape in all markets? If not, how will they differ?

Will supply curves have the same shape in all markets? If not, how will they differ?

What is the relationship between quantity demanded and quantity supplied at equilibrium? What is the relationship when there is a shortage? What is the relationship when there is a surplus?

How can you locate the equilibrium point on a demand and supply graph?

If the price is above the equilibrium level, would you predict a surplus or a shortage? If the price is below the equilibrium level, would you predict a surplus or a shortage? Why?

When the price is above the equilibrium, explain how market forces move the market price to equilibrium. Do the same when the price is below the equilibrium.

What is the difference between the demand and the quantity demanded of a product, say milk? Explain in words and show the difference on a graph with a demand curve for milk.

What is the difference between the supply and the quantity supplied of a product, say milk? Explain in words and show the difference on a graph with the supply curve for milk.

Critical Thinking Questions

Review (Figure). Suppose the government decided that, since gasoline is a necessity, its price should be legally capped at $1.30 per gallon. What do you anticipate would be the outcome in the gasoline market?

Explain why the following statement is false: “In the goods market, no buyer would be willing to pay more than the equilibrium price.”

Explain why the following statement is false: “In the goods market, no seller would be willing to sell for less than the equilibrium price.”

Problems

Review (Figure) again. Suppose the price of gasoline is $1.00. Will the quantity demanded be lower or higher than at the equilibrium price of $1.40 per gallon? Will the quantity supplied be lower or higher? Is there a shortage or a surplus in the market? If so, of how much?

References

Costanza, Robert, and Lisa Wainger. “No Accounting For Nature: How Conventional Economics Distorts the Value of Things.” The Washington Post. September 2, 1990.

European Commission: Agriculture and Rural Development. 2013. “Overview of the CAP Reform: 2014-2024.” Accessed April 13, 205. .

Radford, R. A. “The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp.” Economica. no. 48 (1945): 189-201. .

Glossary

demand curve
a graphic representation of the relationship between price and quantity demanded of a certain good or service, with quantity on the horizontal axis and the price on the vertical axis
demand schedule
a table that shows a range of prices for a certain good or service and the quantity demanded at each price
demand
the relationship between price and the quantity demanded of a certain good or service
equilibrium price
the price where quantity demanded is equal to quantity supplied
equilibrium quantity
the quantity at which quantity demanded and quantity supplied are equal for a certain price level
equilibrium
the situation where quantity demanded is equal to the quantity supplied; the combination of price and quantity where there is no economic pressure from surpluses or shortages that would cause price or quantity to change
excess demand
at the existing price, the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supplied; also called a shortage
excess supply
at the existing price, quantity supplied exceeds the quantity demanded; also called a surplus
law of demand
the common relationship that a higher price leads to a lower quantity demanded of a certain good or service and a lower price leads to a higher quantity demanded, while all other variables are held constant
law of supply
the common relationship that a higher price leads to a greater quantity supplied and a lower price leads to a lower quantity supplied, while all other variables are held constant
price
what a buyer pays for a unit of the specific good or service
quantity demanded
the total number of units of a good or service consumers are willing to purchase at a given price
quantity supplied
the total number of units of a good or service producers are willing to sell at a given price
shortage
at the existing price, the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supplied; also called excess demand
supply curve
a line that shows the relationship between price and quantity supplied on a graph, with quantity supplied on the horizontal axis and price on the vertical axis
supply schedule
a table that shows a range of prices for a good or service and the quantity supplied at each price
supply
the relationship between price and the quantity supplied of a certain good or service
surplus
at the existing price, quantity supplied exceeds the quantity demanded; also called excess supply

3.2 Shifts in Demand and Supply for Goods and Services

9

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify factors that affect demand
  • Graph demand curves and demand shifts
  • Identify factors that affect supply
  • Graph supply curves and supply shifts

Introduction

The previous module explored how price affects the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied. The result was the demand curve and the supply curve. Price, however, is not the only factor that influences demand, nor is it the only thing that influences supply. For example, how is demand for vegetarian food affected if, say, health concerns cause more consumers to avoid eating meat? How is the supply of diamonds affected if diamond producers discover several new diamond mines? What are the major factors, in addition to the price, that influence demand or supply?

Visit this website to read a brief note on how marketing strategies can influence supply and demand of products.

What Factors Affect Demand?

We defined demand as the amount of some product a consumer is willing and able to purchase at each price. That suggests at least two factors in addition to price that affect demand. Willingness to purchase suggests a desire, based on what economists call tastes and preferences. If you neither need nor want something, you will not buy it. Ability to purchase suggests that income is important. Professors are usually able to afford better housing and transportation than students, because they have more income. Prices of related goods can affect demand also. If you need a new car, the price of a Honda may affect your demand for a Ford. Finally, the size or composition of the population can affect demand. The more children a family has, the greater their demand for clothing. The more driving-age children a family has, the greater their demand for car insurance, and the less for diapers and baby formula.

These factors matter for both individual and market demand as a whole. Exactly how do these various factors affect demand, and how do we show the effects graphically? To answer those questions, we need the ceteris paribus assumption.

The Ceteris Paribus Assumption

A demand curve or a supply curve is a relationship between two, and only two, variables: quantity on the horizontal axis and price on the vertical axis. The assumption behind a demand curve or a supply curve is that no relevant economic factors, other than the product’s price, are changing. Economists call this assumption ceteris paribus, a Latin phrase meaning “other things being equal.” Any given demand or supply curve is based on the ceteris paribus assumption that all else is held equal. A demand curve or a supply curve is a relationship between two, and only two, variables when all other variables are kept constant. If all else is not held equal, then the laws of supply and demand will not necessarily hold, as the following Clear It Up feature shows.

When does ceteris paribus apply?

We typically apply ceteris paribus when we observe how changes in price affect demand or supply, but we can apply ceteris paribus more generally. In the real world, demand and supply depend on more factors than just price. For example, a consumer’s demand depends on income and a producer’s supply depends on the cost of producing the product. How can we analyze the effect on demand or supply if multiple factors are changing at the same time—say price rises and income falls? The answer is that we examine the changes one at a time, assuming the other factors are held constant.

For example, we can say that an increase in the price reduces the amount consumers will buy (assuming income, and anything else that affects demand, is unchanged). Additionally, a decrease in income reduces the amount consumers can afford to buy (assuming price, and anything else that affects demand, is unchanged). This is what the ceteris paribus assumption really means. In this particular case, after we analyze each factor separately, we can combine the results. The amount consumers buy falls for two reasons: first because of the higher price and second because of the lower income.

How Does Income Affect Demand?

Let’s use income as an example of how factors other than price affect demand. (Figure) shows the initial demand for automobiles as D0. At point Q, for example, if the price is $20,000 per car, the quantity of cars demanded is 18 million. D0 also shows how the quantity of cars demanded would change as a result of a higher or lower price. For example, if the price of a car rose to $22,000, the quantity demanded would decrease to 17 million, at point R.

The original demand curve D0, like every demand curve, is based on the ceteris paribus assumption that no other economically relevant factors change. Now imagine that the economy expands in a way that raises the incomes of many people, making cars more affordable. How will this affect demand? How can we show this graphically?

The graph shows demand curve D sub 0 as the original demand curve. Demand curve D sub 1 represents a shift based on increased income. Demand curve D sub 2 represents a shift based on decreased income.
Shifts in Demand: A Car Example Increased demand means that at every given price, the quantity demanded is higher, so that the demand curve shifts to the right from D0 to D1. Decreased demand means that at every given price, the quantity demanded is lower, so that the demand curve shifts to the left from D0 to D2.

Return to (Figure). The price of cars is still $20,000, but with higher incomes, the quantity demanded has now increased to 20 million cars, shown at point S. As a result of the higher income levels, the demand curve shifts to the right to the new demand curve D1, indicating an increase in demand. (Figure) shows clearly that this increased demand would occur at every price, not just the original one.

Price and Demand Shifts: A Car Example
Price Decrease to D2 Original Quantity Demanded D0 Increase to D1
$16,000 17.6 million 22.0 million 24.0 million
$18,000 16.0 million 20.0 million 22.0 million
$20,000 14.4 million 18.0 million 20.0 million
$22,000 13.6 million 17.0 million 19.0 million
$24,000 13.2 million 16.5 million 18.5 million
$26,000 12.8 million 16.0 million 18.0 million

Now, imagine that the economy slows down so that many people lose their jobs or work fewer hours, reducing their incomes. In this case, the decrease in income would lead to a lower quantity of cars demanded at every given price, and the original demand curve D0 would shift left to D2. The shift from D0 to D2 represents such a decrease in demand: At any given price level, the quantity demanded is now lower. In this example, a price of $20,000 means 18 million cars sold along the original demand curve, but only 14.4 million sold after demand fell.

When a demand curve shifts, it does not mean that the quantity demanded by every individual buyer changes by the same amount. In this example, not everyone would have higher or lower income and not everyone would buy or not buy an additional car. Instead, a shift in a demand curve captures a pattern for the market as a whole.

In the previous section, we argued that higher income causes greater demand at every price. This is true for most goods and services. For some—luxury cars, vacations in Europe, and fine jewelry—the effect of a rise in income can be especially pronounced. A product whose demand rises when income rises, and vice versa, is called a normal good. A few exceptions to this pattern do exist. As incomes rise, many people will buy fewer generic brand groceries and more name brand groceries. They are less likely to buy used cars and more likely to buy new cars. They will be less likely to rent an apartment and more likely to own a home. A product whose demand falls when income rises, and vice versa, is called an inferior good. In other words, when income increases, the demand curve shifts to the left.

Other Factors That Shift Demand Curves

Income is not the only factor that causes a shift in demand. Other factors that change demand include tastes and preferences, the composition or size of the population, the prices of related goods, and even expectations. A change in any one of the underlying factors that determine what quantity people are willing to buy at a given price will cause a shift in demand. Graphically, the new demand curve lies either to the right (an increase) or to the left (a decrease) of the original demand curve. Let’s look at these factors.

Changing Tastes or Preferences

From 1980 to 2014, the per-person consumption of chicken by Americans rose from 48 pounds per year to 85 pounds per year, and consumption of beef fell from 77 pounds per year to 54 pounds per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Changes like these are largely due to movements in taste, which change the quantity of a good demanded at every price: that is, they shift the demand curve for that good, rightward for chicken and leftward for beef.

Changes in the Composition of the Population

The proportion of elderly citizens in the United States population is rising. It rose from 9.8% in 1970 to 12.6% in 2000, and will be a projected (by the U.S. Census Bureau) 20% of the population by 2030. A society with relatively more children, like the United States in the 1960s, will have greater demand for goods and services like tricycles and day care facilities. A society with relatively more elderly persons, as the United States is projected to have by 2030, has a higher demand for nursing homes and hearing aids. Similarly, changes in the size of the population can affect the demand for housing and many other goods. Each of these changes in demand will be shown as a shift in the demand curve.

Changes in the prices of related goods such as substitutes or complements also can affect the demand for a product. A substitute is a good or service that we can use in place of another good or service. As electronic books, like this one, become more available, you would expect to see a decrease in demand for traditional printed books. A lower price for a substitute decreases demand for the other product. For example, in recent years as the price of tablet computers has fallen, the quantity demanded has increased (because of the law of demand). Since people are purchasing tablets, there has been a decrease in demand for laptops, which we can show graphically as a leftward shift in the demand curve for laptops. A higher price for a substitute good has the reverse effect.

Other goods are complements for each other, meaning we often use the goods together, because consumption of one good tends to enhance consumption of the other. Examples include breakfast cereal and milk; notebooks and pens or pencils, golf balls and golf clubs; gasoline and sport utility vehicles; and the five-way combination of bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and bread. If the price of golf clubs rises, since the quantity demanded of golf clubs falls (because of the law of demand), demand for a complement good like golf balls decreases, too. Similarly, a higher price for skis would shift the demand curve for a complement good like ski resort trips to the left, while a lower price for a complement has the reverse effect.

Changes in Expectations about Future Prices or Other Factors that Affect Demand

While it is clear that the price of a good affects the quantity demanded, it is also true that expectations about the future price (or expectations about tastes and preferences, income, and so on) can affect demand. For example, if people hear that a hurricane is coming, they may rush to the store to buy flashlight batteries and bottled water. If people learn that the price of a good like coffee is likely to rise in the future, they may head for the store to stock up on coffee now. We show these changes in demand as shifts in the curve. Therefore, a shift in demand happens when a change in some economic factor (other than price) causes a different quantity to be demanded at every price. The following Work It Out feature shows how this happens.

Shift in Demand

A shift in demand means that at any price (and at every price), the quantity demanded will be different than it was before. Following is an example of a shift in demand due to an income increase.

The graph represents the directions for step 1.A demand curve shows how much consumers would be willing to buy at any given price.
Demand Curve: We can use the demand curve to identify how much consumers would buy at any given price.
  1. Draw the graph of a demand curve for a normal good like pizza. Pick a price (like P0). Identify the corresponding Q0. See an example in (Figure).
  2. Suppose income increases. As a result of the change, are consumers going to buy more or less pizza? The answer is more. Draw a dotted horizontal line from the chosen price, through the original quantity demanded, to the new point with the new Q1. Draw a dotted vertical line down to the horizontal axis and label the new Q1. (Figure) provides an example.
  3. Now, shift the curve through the new point. You will see that an increase in income causes an upward (or rightward) shift in the demand curve, so that at any price the quantities demanded will be higher, as (Figure) illustrates.
The graph represents the directions for step 2. With an increased income, consumers will wish to buy a higher quantity (Q sub 1) than they bought with a lower income.
Demand Curve with Income Increase. With an increase in income, consumers will purchase larger quantities, pushing demand to the right.
The graph represents the directions for step 3. An increased income results in an increase in demand, which is shown by a rightward shift in the demand curve.
Demand Curve Shifted Right. With an increase in income, consumers will purchase larger quantities, pushing demand to the right, and causing the demand curve to shift right.

Summing Up Factors That Change Demand

(Figure) summarizes six factors that can shift demand curves. The direction of the arrows indicates whether the demand curve shifts represent an increase in demand or a decrease in demand. Notice that a change in the price of the good or service itself is not listed among the factors that can shift a demand curve. A change in the price of a good or service causes a movement along a specific demand curve, and it typically leads to some change in the quantity demanded, but it does not shift the demand curve.

The graph on the left lists events that could lead to increased demand. The graph on the right lists events that could lead to decreased demand.
Factors That Shift Demand Curves (a) A list of factors that can cause an increase in demand from D0 to D1. (b) The same factors, if their direction is reversed, can cause a decrease in demand from D0 to D1.

When a demand curve shifts, it will then intersect with a given supply curve at a different equilibrium price and quantity. We are, however, getting ahead of our story. Before discussing how changes in demand can affect equilibrium price and quantity, we first need to discuss shifts in supply curves.

How Production Costs Affect Supply

A supply curve shows how quantity supplied will change as the price rises and falls, assuming ceteris paribus so that no other economically relevant factors are changing. If other factors relevant to supply do change, then the entire supply curve will shift. Just as we described a shift in demand as a change in the quantity demanded at every price, a shift in supply means a change in the quantity supplied at every price.

In thinking about the factors that affect supply, remember what motivates firms: profits, which are the difference between revenues and costs. A firm produces goods and services using combinations of labor, materials, and machinery, or what we call inputs or factors of production. If a firm faces lower costs of production, while the prices for the good or service the firm produces remain unchanged, a firm’s profits go up. When a firm’s profits increase, it is more motivated to produce output, since the more it produces the more profit it will earn. When costs of production fall, a firm will tend to supply a larger quantity at any given price for its output. We can show this by the supply curve shifting to the right.

Take, for example, a messenger company that delivers packages around a city. The company may find that buying gasoline is one of its main costs. If the price of gasoline falls, then the company will find it can deliver messages more cheaply than before. Since lower costs correspond to higher profits, the messenger company may now supply more of its services at any given price. For example, given the lower gasoline prices, the company can now serve a greater area, and increase its supply.

Conversely, if a firm faces higher costs of production, then it will earn lower profits at any given selling price for its products. As a result, a higher cost of production typically causes a firm to supply a smaller quantity at any given price. In this case, the supply curve shifts to the left.

The graph shows supply curve S sub 0 as the original supply curve. Supply curve S sub 1 represents a shift based on decreased supply. Supply curve S sub 2 represents a shift based on increased supply.
Shifts in Supply: A Car Example Decreased supply means that at every given price, the quantity supplied is lower, so that the supply curve shifts to the left, from S0 to S1. Increased supply means that at every given price, the quantity supplied is higher, so that the supply curve shifts to the right, from S0 to S2.

Consider the supply for cars, shown by curve S0 in (Figure). Point J indicates that if the price is $20,000, the quantity supplied will be 18 million cars. If the price rises to $22,000 per car, ceteris paribus, the quantity supplied will rise to 20 million cars, as point K on the S0 curve shows. We can show the same information in table form, as in (Figure).

Price and Shifts in Supply: A Car Example
Price Decrease to S1 Original Quantity Supplied S0 Increase to S2
$16,000 10.5 million 12.0 million 13.2 million
$18,000 13.5 million 15.0 million 16.5 million
$20,000 16.5 million 18.0 million 19.8 million
$22,000 18.5 million 20.0 million 22.0 million
$24,000 19.5 million 21.0 million 23.1 million
$26,000 20.5 million 22.0 million 24.2 million

Now, imagine that the price of steel, an important ingredient in manufacturing cars, rises, so that producing a car has become more expensive. At any given price for selling cars, car manufacturers will react by supplying a lower quantity. We can show this graphically as a leftward shift of supply, from S0 to S1, which indicates that at any given price, the quantity supplied decreases. In this example, at a price of $20,000, the quantity supplied decreases from 18 million on the original supply curve (S0) to 16.5 million on the supply curve S1, which is labeled as point L.

Conversely, if the price of steel decreases, producing a car becomes less expensive. At any given price for selling cars, car manufacturers can now expect to earn higher profits, so they will supply a higher quantity. The shift of supply to the right, from S0 to S2, means that at all prices, the quantity supplied has increased. In this example, at a price of $20,000, the quantity supplied increases from 18 million on the original supply curve (S0) to 19.8 million on the supply curve S2, which is labeled M.

Other Factors That Affect Supply

In the example above, we saw that changes in the prices of inputs in the production process will affect the cost of production and thus the supply. Several other things affect the cost of production, too, such as changes in weather or other natural conditions, new technologies for production, and some government policies.

Changes in weather and climate will affect the cost of production for many agricultural products. For example, in 2014 the Manchurian Plain in Northeastern China, which produces most of the country’s wheat, corn, and soybeans, experienced its most severe drought in 50 years. A drought decreases the supply of agricultural products, which means that at any given price, a lower quantity will be supplied. Conversely, especially good weather would shift the supply curve to the right.

When a firm discovers a new technology that allows the firm to produce at a lower cost, the supply curve will shift to the right, as well. For instance, in the 1960s a major scientific effort nicknamed the Green Revolution focused on breeding improved seeds for basic crops like wheat and rice. By the early 1990s, more than two-thirds of the wheat and rice in low-income countries around the world used these Green Revolution seeds—and the harvest was twice as high per acre. A technological improvement that reduces costs of production will shift supply to the right, so that a greater quantity will be produced at any given price.

Government policies can affect the cost of production and the supply curve through taxes, regulations, and subsidies. For example, the U.S. government imposes a tax on alcoholic beverages that collects about $8 billion per year from producers. Businesses treat taxes as costs. Higher costs decrease supply for the reasons we discussed above. Other examples of policy that can affect cost are the wide array of government regulations that require firms to spend money to provide a cleaner environment or a safer workplace. Complying with regulations increases costs.

A government subsidy, on the other hand, is the opposite of a tax. A subsidy occurs when the government pays a firm directly or reduces the firm’s taxes if the firm carries out certain actions. From the firm’s perspective, taxes or regulations are an additional cost of production that shifts supply to the left, leading the firm to produce a lower quantity at every given price. Government subsidies reduce the cost of production and increase supply at every given price, shifting supply to the right. The following Work It Out feature shows how this shift happens.

Shift in Supply

We know that a supply curve shows the minimum price a firm will accept to produce a given quantity of output. What happens to the supply curve when the cost of production goes up? Following is an example of a shift in supply due to a production cost increase.

Step 1. Draw a graph of a supply curve for pizza. Pick a quantity (like Q0). If you draw a vertical line up from Q0 to the supply curve, you will see the price the firm chooses. (Figure) provides an example.

The graph represents the directions for step 1. A supply curve shows the minimum price a firm will accept (P sub 0) to supply a given quantity of output (Q sub 0).
Supply Curve: You can use a supply curve to show the minimum price a firm will accept to produce a given quantity of output.
The graph represents the directions for step 2. For a given quantity of output (Q sub 0), the firm wishes to charge a price (P sub 0) equal to the cost of production plus the desired profit margin.
Setting Prices: The cost of production and the desired profit equal the price a firm will set for a product.

Step 2. Why did the firm choose that price and not some other? One way to think about this is that the price is composed of two parts. The first part is the cost of producing pizzas at the margin; in this case, the cost of producing the pizza, including cost of ingredients (e.g., dough, sauce, cheese, and pepperoni), the cost of the pizza oven, the shop rent, and the workers’ wages. The second part is the firm’s desired profit, which is determined, among other factors, by the profit margins in that particular business. If you add these two parts together, you get the price the firm wishes to charge. The quantity Q0 and associated price P0 give you one point on the firm’s supply curve, as (Figure) illustrates.

The graph represents the directions for step 3. An increase in production cost will raise the price a firm wishes to charge (to P sub 1) for a given quantity of output (Q sub 0).
Increasing Costs Leads to Increasing Price: Because the cost of production and the desired profit equal the price a firm will set for a product, if the cost of production increases, the price for the product will also need to increase.

Step 3. Now, suppose that the cost of production increases. Perhaps cheese has become more expensive by $0.75 per pizza. If that is true, the firm will want to raise its price by the amount of the increase in cost ($0.75). Draw this point on the supply curve directly above the initial point on the curve, but $0.75 higher, as (Figure) shows.

The graph represents the directions for step 4. An increase in the cost of production will shift the supply curve vertically by the amount of the cost increase.
Supply Curve Shifts: When the cost of production increases, the supply curve shifts upwardly to a new price level.

Step 4. Shift the supply curve through this point. You will see that an increase in cost causes an upward (or a leftward) shift of the supply curve so that at any price, the quantities supplied will be smaller, as (Figure) illustrates.

 

Summing Up Factors That Change Supply

Changes in the cost of inputs, natural disasters, new technologies, and the impact of government decisions all affect the cost of production. In turn, these factors affect how much firms are willing to supply at any given price.

The graph on the left lists events that could lead to increased supply. The graph on the right lists events that could lead to decreased supply.
Factors That Shift Supply Curves (a) A list of factors that can cause an increase in supply from S0 to S1. (b) The same factors, if their direction is reversed, can cause a decrease in supply from S0 to S1.

(Figure) summarizes factors that change the supply of goods and services. Notice that a change in the price of the product itself is not among the factors that shift the supply curve. Although a change in price of a good or service typically causes a change in quantity supplied or a movement along the supply curve for that specific good or service, it does not cause the supply curve itself to shift.

Because demand and supply curves appear on a two-dimensional diagram with only price and quantity on the axes, an unwary visitor to the land of economics might be fooled into believing that economics is about only four topics: demand, supply, price, and quantity. However, demand and supply are really “umbrella” concepts: demand covers all the factors that affect demand, and supply covers all the factors that affect supply. We include factors other than price that affect demand and supply are included by using shifts in the demand or the supply curve. In this way, the two-dimensional demand and supply model becomes a powerful tool for analyzing a wide range of economic circumstances.

Key Concepts and Summary

Economists often use the ceteris paribus or “other things being equal” assumption: while examining the economic impact of one event, all other factors remain unchanged for analysis purposes. Factors that can shift the demand curve for goods and services, causing a different quantity to be demanded at any given price, include changes in tastes, population, income, prices of substitute or complement goods, and expectations about future conditions and prices. Factors that can shift the supply curve for goods and services, causing a different quantity to be supplied at any given price, include input prices, natural conditions, changes in technology, and government taxes, regulations, or subsidies.

Self-Check Questions

Why do economists use the ceteris paribus assumption?

To make it easier to analyze complex problems. Ceteris paribus allows you to look at the effect of one factor at a time on what it is you are trying to analyze. When you have analyzed all the factors individually, you add the results together to get the final answer.

In an analysis of the market for paint, an economist discovers the facts listed below. State whether each of these changes will affect supply or demand, and in what direction.

  1. There have recently been some important cost-saving inventions in the technology for making paint.
  2. Paint is lasting longer, so that property owners need not repaint as often.
  3. Because of severe hailstorms, many people need to repaint now.
  4. The hailstorms damaged several factories that make paint, forcing them to close down for several months.
  1. An improvement in technology that reduces the cost of production will cause an increase in supply. Alternatively, you can think of this as a reduction in price necessary for firms to supply any quantity. Either way, this can be shown as a rightward (or downward) shift in the supply curve.
  2. An improvement in product quality is treated as an increase in tastes or preferences, meaning consumers demand more paint at any price level, so demand increases or shifts to the right. If this seems counterintuitive, note that demand in the future for the longer-lasting paint will fall, since consumers are essentially shifting demand from the future to the present.
  3. An increase in need causes an increase in demand or a rightward shift in the demand curve.
  4. Factory damage means that firms are unable to supply as much in the present. Technically, this is an increase in the cost of production. Either way you look at it, the supply curve shifts to the left.

Many changes are affecting the market for oil. Predict how each of the following events will affect the equilibrium price and quantity in the market for oil. In each case, state how the event will affect the supply and demand diagram. Create a sketch of the diagram if necessary.

  1. Cars are becoming more fuel efficient, and therefore get more miles to the gallon.
  2. The winter is exceptionally cold.
  3. A major discovery of new oil is made off the coast of Norway.
  4. The economies of some major oil-using nations, like Japan, slow down.
  5. A war in the Middle East disrupts oil-pumping schedules.
  6. Landlords install additional insulation in buildings.
  7. The price of solar energy falls dramatically.
  8. Chemical companies invent a new, popular kind of plastic made from oil.
  1. More fuel-efficient cars means there is less need for gasoline. This causes a leftward shift in the demand for gasoline and thus oil. Since the demand curve is shifting down the supply curve, the equilibrium price and quantity both fall.
  2. Cold weather increases the need for heating oil. This causes a rightward shift in the demand for heating oil and thus oil. Since the demand curve is shifting up the supply curve, the equilibrium price and quantity both rise.
  3. A discovery of new oil will make oil more abundant. This can be shown as a rightward shift in the supply curve, which will cause a decrease in the equilibrium price along with an increase in the equilibrium quantity. (The supply curve shifts down the demand curve so price and quantity follow the law of demand. If price goes down, then the quantity goes up.)
  4. When an economy slows down, it produces less output and demands less input, including energy, which is used in the production of virtually everything. A decrease in demand for energy will be reflected as a decrease in the demand for oil, or a leftward shift in demand for oil. Since the demand curve is shifting down the supply curve, both the equilibrium price and quantity of oil will fall.
  5. Disruption of oil pumping will reduce the supply of oil. This leftward shift in the supply curve will show a movement up the demand curve, resulting in an increase in the equilibrium price of oil and a decrease in the equilibrium quantity.
  6. Increased insulation will decrease the demand for heating. This leftward shift in the demand for oil causes a movement down the supply curve, resulting in a decrease in the equilibrium price and quantity of oil.
  7. Solar energy is a substitute for oil-based energy. So if solar energy becomes cheaper, the demand for oil will decrease as consumers switch from oil to solar. The decrease in demand for oil will be shown as a leftward shift in the demand curve. As the demand curve shifts down the supply curve, both equilibrium price and quantity for oil will fall.
  8. A new, popular kind of plastic will increase the demand for oil. The increase in demand will be shown as a rightward shift in demand, raising the equilibrium price and quantity of oil.

Review Questions

  • When analyzing a market, how do economists deal with the problem that many factors that affect the market are changing at the same time?
  • Name some factors that can cause a shift in the demand curve in markets for goods and services.
  • Name some factors that can cause a shift in the supply curve in markets for goods and services.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • Consider the demand for hamburgers. If the price of a substitute good (for example, hot dogs) increases and the price of a complement good (for example, hamburger buns) increases, can you tell for sure what will happen to the demand for hamburgers? Why or why not? Illustrate your answer with a graph.
  • How do you suppose the demographics of an aging population of “Baby Boomers” in the United States will affect the demand for milk? Justify your answer.
  • We know that a change in the price of a product causes a movement along the demand curve. Suppose consumers believe that prices will be rising in the future. How will that affect demand for the product in the present? Can you show this graphically?
  • Suppose there is a soda tax to curb obesity. What should a reduction in the soda tax do to the supply of sodas and to the equilibrium price and quantity? Can you show this graphically? Hint: Assume that the soda tax is collected from the sellers.

Problems

(Figure) shows information on the demand and supply for bicycles, where the quantities of bicycles are measured in thousands.

Price
Qd
Qs
$120
50
36
$150
40
40
$180
32
48
$210
28
56
$240
24
70
  1. What is the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied at a price of $210?
  2. At what price is the quantity supplied equal to 48,000?
  3. Graph the demand and supply curve for bicycles. How can you determine the equilibrium price and quantity from the graph? How can you determine the equilibrium price and quantity from the table? What are the equilibrium price and equilibrium quantity?
  4. If the price was $120, what would the quantities demanded and supplied be? Would a shortage or surplus exist? If so, how large would the shortage or surplus be?

The computer market in recent years has seen many more computers sell at much lower prices. What shift in demand or supply is most likely to explain this outcome? Sketch a demand and supply diagram and explain your reasoning for each.

  1. A rise in demand
  2. A fall in demand
  3. A rise in supply
  4. A fall in supply

References

Glossary

ceteris paribus
other things being equal
complements
goods that are often used together so that consumption of one good tends to enhance consumption of the other
factors of production
the resources such as labor, materials, and machinery that are used to produce goods and services; also called inputs
inferior good
a good in which the quantity demanded falls as income rises, and in which quantity demanded rises and income falls
inputs
the resources such as labor, materials, and machinery that are used to produce goods and services; also called factors of production
normal good
a good in which the quantity demanded rises as income rises, and in which quantity demanded falls as income falls
shift in demand
when a change in some economic factor (other than price) causes a different quantity to be demanded at every price
shift in supply
when a change in some economic factor (other than price) causes a different quantity to be supplied at every price
substitute
a good that can replace another to some extent, so that greater consumption of one good can mean less of the other

3.3 Changes in Equilibrium Price and Quantity: The Four-Step Process

10

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify equilibrium price and quantity through the four-step process
  • Graph equilibrium price and quantity
  • Contrast shifts of demand or supply and movements along a demand or supply curve
  • Graph demand and supply curves, including equilibrium price and quantity, based on real-world examples

Introduction

Let’s begin this discussion with a single economic event. It might be an event that affects demand, like a change in income, population, tastes, prices of substitutes or complements, or expectations about future prices. It might be an event that affects supply, like a change in natural conditions, input prices, or technology, or government policies that affect production. How does this economic event affect equilibrium price and quantity? We will analyze this question using a four-step process.

  1. Draw a demand and supply model before the economic change took place. To establish the model requires four standard pieces of information: The law of demand, which tells us the slope of the demand curve; the law of supply, which gives us the slope of the supply curve; the shift variables for demand; and the shift variables for supply. From this model, find the initial equilibrium values for price and quantity.
  2. Decide whether the economic change you are analyzing affects demand or supply. In other words, does the event refer to something in the list of demand factors or supply factors?
  3. Decide whether the effect on demand or supply causes the curve to shift to the right or to the left, and sketch the new demand or supply curve on the diagram. In other words, does the event increase or decrease the amount consumers want to buy or producers want to sell?
  4. Identify the new equilibrium and then compare the original equilibrium price and quantity to the new equilibrium price and quantity.

Let’s consider one example that involves a shift in supply and one that involves a shift in demand. Then we will consider an example where both supply and demand shift.

Good Weather for Salmon Fishing

The graph represents the four-step approach to determining shifts in the new equilibrium price and quantity in response to good weather for salmon fishing.
Good Weather for Salmon Fishing: The Four-Step Process Unusually good weather leads to changes in the price and quantity of salmon.

Supposed that during the summer of 2015, weather conditions were excellent for commercial salmon fishing off the California coast. Heavy rains meant higher than normal levels of water in the rivers, which helps the salmon to breed. Slightly cooler ocean temperatures stimulated the growth of plankton, the microscopic organisms at the bottom of the ocean food chain, providing everything in the ocean with a hearty food supply. The ocean stayed calm during fishing season, so commercial fishing operations did not lose many days to bad weather. How did these climate conditions affect the quantity and price of salmon? (Figure) illustrates the four-step approach, which we explain below, to work through this problem. (Figure) also provides the information to work the problem.

Salmon Fishing
Price per Pound Quantity Supplied in 2014 Quantity Supplied in 2015 Quantity Demanded
$2.00 80 400 840
$2.25 120 480 680
$2.50 160 550 550
$2.75 200 600 450
$3.00 230 640 350
$3.25 250 670 250
$3.50 270 700 200
  1. Draw a demand and supply model to illustrate the market for salmon in the year before the good weather conditions began. The demand curve D0 and the supply curve S0 show that the original equilibrium price is $3.25 per pound and the original equilibrium quantity is 250,000 fish. (This price per pound is what commercial buyers pay at the fishing docks. What consumers pay at the grocery is higher.)
  2. Did the economic event affect supply or demand? Good weather is an example of a natural condition that affects supply.
  3. Was the effect on supply an increase or a decrease? Good weather is a change in natural conditions that increases the quantity supplied at any given price. The supply curve shifts to the right, moving from the original supply curve S0 to the new supply curve S1, which (Figure) and (Figure) show.
  4. Compare the new equilibrium price and quantity to the original equilibrium. At the new equilibrium E1, the equilibrium price falls from $3.25 to $2.50, but the equilibrium quantity increases from 250,000 to 550,000 salmon. Notice that the equilibrium quantity demanded increased, even though the demand curve did not move.

In short, good weather conditions increased supply of the California commercial salmon. The result was a higher equilibrium quantity of salmon bought and sold in the market at a lower price.

Newspapers and the Internet

The graph represents the four-step approach to determining changes in equilibrium price and quantity of print news.
The Print News Market: A Four-Step Analysis A change in tastes from print news sources to digital sources results in a leftward shift in demand for the former. The result is a decrease in both equilibrium price and quantity.

According to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, increasingly more people, especially younger people, are obtaining their news from online and digital sources. The majority of U.S. adults now own smartphones or tablets, and most of those Americans say they use them in part to access the news. From 2004 to 2012, the share of Americans who reported obtaining their news from digital sources increased from 24% to 39%. How has this affected consumption of print news media, and radio and television news? (Figure) and the text below illustrates using the four-step analysis to answer this question.

  1. Develop a demand and supply model to think about what the market looked like before the event. The demand curve D0 and the supply curve S0 show the original relationships. In this case, we perform the analysis without specific numbers on the price and quantity axis.
  2. Did the described change affect supply or demand? A change in tastes, from traditional news sources (print, radio, and television) to digital sources, caused a change in demand for the former.
  3. Was the effect on demand positive or negative? A shift to digital news sources will tend to mean a lower quantity demanded of traditional news sources at every given price, causing the demand curve for print and other traditional news sources to shift to the left, from D0 to D1.
  4. Compare the new equilibrium price and quantity to the original equilibrium price. The new equilibrium (E1) occurs at a lower quantity and a lower price than the original equilibrium (E0).

The decline in print news reading predates 2004. Print newspaper circulation peaked in 1973 and has declined since then due to competition from television and radio news. In 1991, 55% of Americans indicated they received their news from print sources, while only 29% did so in 2012. Radio news has followed a similar path in recent decades, with the share of Americans obtaining their news from radio declining from 54% in 1991 to 33% in 2012. Television news has held its own over the last 15 years, with a market share staying in the mid to upper fifties. What does this suggest for the future, given that two-thirds of Americans under 30 years old say they do not obtain their news from television at all?

The Interconnections and Speed of Adjustment in Real Markets

In the real world, many factors that affect demand and supply can change all at once. For example, the demand for cars might increase because of rising incomes and population, and it might decrease because of rising gasoline prices (a complementary good). Likewise, the supply of cars might increase because of innovative new technologies that reduce the cost of car production, and it might decrease as a result of new government regulations requiring the installation of costly pollution-control technology.

Moreover, rising incomes and population or changes in gasoline prices will affect many markets, not just cars. How can an economist sort out all these interconnected events? The answer lies in the ceteris paribus assumption. Look at how each economic event affects each market, one event at a time, holding all else constant. Then combine the analyses to see the net effect.

A Combined Example

This image has two panels. The one on the left shows the four step analysis of higher compensation for postal workers. The one on the right shows the four-step analysis of a change in tastes away from Postal Services.
Higher Compensation for Postal Workers: A Four-Step Analysis (a) Higher labor compensation causes a leftward shift in the supply curve, a decrease in the equilibrium quantity, and an increase in the equilibrium price. (b) A change in tastes away from Postal Services causes a leftward shift in the demand curve, a decrease in the equilibrium quantity, and a decrease in the equilibrium price.

The U.S. Postal Service is facing difficult challenges. Compensation for postal workers tends to increase most years due to cost-of-living increases. At the same time, increasingly more people are using email, text, and other digital message forms such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate with friends and others. What does this suggest about the continued viability of the Postal Service? (Figure) and the text below illustrate this using the four-step analysis to answer this question.

Since this problem involves two disturbances, we need two four-step analyses, the first to analyze the effects of higher compensation for postal workers, the second to analyze the effects of many people switching from “snail mail” to email and other digital messages.

(Figure) (a) shows the shift in supply discussed in the following steps.

  1. Draw a demand and supply model to illustrate what the market for the U.S. Postal Service looked like before this scenario starts. The demand curve D0 and the supply curve S0 show the original relationships.
  2. Did the described change affect supply or demand? Labor compensation is a cost of production. A change in production costs caused a change in supply for the Postal Service.
  3. Was the effect on supply positive or negative? Higher labor compensation leads to a lower quantity supplied of postal services at every given price, causing the supply curve for postal services to shift to the left, from S0 to S1.
  4. Compare the new equilibrium price and quantity to the original equilibrium price. The new equilibrium (E1) occurs at a lower quantity and a higher price than the original equilibrium (E0).

(Figure) (b) shows the shift in demand in the following steps.

  1. Draw a demand and supply model to illustrate what the market for U.S. Postal Services looked like before this scenario starts. The demand curve D0 and the supply curve S0 show the original relationships. Note that this diagram is independent from the diagram in panel (a).
  2. Did the change described affect supply or demand? A change in tastes away from snail mail toward digital messages will cause a change in demand for the Postal Service.
  3. Was the effect on demand positive or negative? A change in tastes away from snailmail toward digital messages causes lower quantity demanded of postal services at every given price, causing the demand curve for postal services to shift to the left, from D0 to D1.
  4. Compare the new equilibrium price and quantity to the original equilibrium price. The new equilibrium (E2) occurs at a lower quantity and a lower price than the original equilibrium (E0).
The graph shows a leftward supply shift as well as a leftward demand shift.
Combined Effect of Decreased Demand and Decreased Supply: Supply and demand shifts cause changes in equilibrium price and quantity.

The final step in a scenario where both supply and demand shift is to combine the two individual analyses to determine what happens to the equilibrium quantity and price. Graphically, we superimpose the previous two diagrams one on top of the other, as in (Figure).

Following are the results:

Effect on Quantity: The effect of higher labor compensation on Postal Services because it raises the cost of production is to decrease the equilibrium quantity. The effect of a change in tastes away from snail mail is to decrease the equilibrium quantity. Since both shifts are to the left, the overall impact is a decrease in the equilibrium quantity of Postal Services (Q3). This is easy to see graphically, since Q3 is to the left of Q0.

Effect on Price: The overall effect on price is more complicated. The effect of higher labor compensation on Postal Services, because it raises the cost of production, is to increase the equilibrium price. The effect of a change in tastes away from snail mail is to decrease the equilibrium price. Since the two effects are in opposite directions, unless we know the magnitudes of the two effects, the overall effect is unclear. This is not unusual. When both curves shift, typically we can determine the overall effect on price or on quantity, but not on both. In this case, we determined the overall effect on the equilibrium quantity, but not on the equilibrium price. In other cases, it might be the opposite.

The next feature focuses on the difference between shifts of supply or demand and movements along a curve.

What is the difference between shifts of demand or supply versus movements along a demand or supply curve?

One common mistake in applying the demand and supply framework is to confuse the shift of a demand or a supply curve with movement along a demand or supply curve. As an example, consider a problem that asks whether a drought will increase or decrease the equilibrium quantity and equilibrium price of wheat. Lee, a student in an introductory economics class, might reason:

The graph shows the difference between shifts of demand and supply, and movement of demand and supply.
Shifts of Demand or Supply versus Movements along a Demand or Supply Curve: A shift in one curve never causes a shift in the other curve. Rather, a shift in one curve causes a movement along the second curve.

“Well, it is clear that a drought reduces supply, so I will shift back the supply curve, as in the shift from the original supply curve S0 to S1 on the diagram (Shift 1). The equilibrium moves from E0 to E1, the equilibrium quantity is lower and the equilibrium price is higher. Then, a higher price makes farmers more likely to supply the good, so the supply curve shifts right, as shows the shift from S1 to S2, shows on the diagram (Shift 2), so that the equilibrium now moves from E1 to E2. The higher price, however, also reduces demand and so causes demand to shift back, like the shift from the original demand curve, D0 to D1 on the diagram (labeled Shift 3), and the equilibrium moves from E2 to E3.”

At about this point, Lee suspects that this answer is headed down the wrong path. Think about what might be wrong with Lee’s logic, and then read the answer that follows.

Answer: Lee’s first step is correct: that is, a drought shifts back the supply curve of wheat and leads to a prediction of a lower equilibrium quantity and a higher equilibrium price. This corresponds to a movement along the original demand curve (D0), from E0 to E1. The rest of Lee’s argument is wrong, because it mixes up shifts in supply with quantity supplied, and shifts in demand with quantity demanded. A higher or lower price never shifts the supply curve, as suggested by the shift in supply from S1 to S2. Instead, a price change leads to a movement along a given supply curve. Similarly, a higher or lower price never shifts a demand curve, as suggested in the shift from D0 to D1. Instead, a price change leads to a movement along a given demand curve. Remember, a change in the price of a good never causes the demand or supply curve for that good to shift.

Think carefully about the timeline of events: What happens first, what happens next? What is cause, what is effect? If you keep the order right, you are more likely to get the analysis correct.

 

In the four-step analysis of how economic events affect equilibrium price and quantity, the movement from the old to the new equilibrium seems immediate. As a practical matter, however, prices and quantities often do not zoom straight to equilibrium. More realistically, when an economic event causes demand or supply to shift, prices and quantities set off in the general direction of equilibrium. Even as they are moving toward one new equilibrium, a subsequent change in demand or supply often pushes prices toward another equilibrium.

Key Concepts and Summary

When using the supply and demand framework to think about how an event will affect the equilibrium price and quantity, proceed through four steps: (1) sketch a supply and demand diagram to think about what the market looked like before the event; (2) decide whether the event will affect supply or demand; (3) decide whether the effect on supply or demand is negative or positive, and draw the appropriate shifted supply or demand curve; (4) compare the new equilibrium price and quantity to the original ones.

Self-Check Questions

Let’s think about the market for air travel. From August 2014 to January 2015, the price of jet fuel increased roughly 47%. Using the four-step analysis, how do you think this fuel price increase affected the equilibrium price and quantity of air travel?

  1. Step 1. Draw the graph with the initial supply and demand curves. Label the initial equilibrium price and quantity.
  2. Step 2. Did the economic event affect supply or demand? Jet fuel is a cost of producing air travel, so an increase in jet fuel price affects supply.
  3. Step 3. An increase in the price of jet fuel caused a decrease in the cost of air travel. We show this as a downward or rightward shift in supply.
  4. Step 4. A rightward shift in supply causes a movement down the demand curve, lowering the equilibrium price of air travel and increasing the equilibrium quantity.

A tariff is a tax on imported goods. Suppose the U.S. government cuts the tariff on imported flat screen televisions. Using the four-step analysis, how do you think the tariff reduction will affect the equilibrium price and quantity of flat screen TVs?

  1. Step 1. Draw the graph with the initial supply and demand curves. Label the initial equilibrium price and quantity.
  2. Step 2. Did the economic event affect supply or demand? A tariff is treated like a cost of production, so this affects supply.
  3. Step 3. A tariff reduction is equivalent to a decrease in the cost of production, which we can show as a rightward (or downward) shift in supply.
  4. Step 4. A rightward shift in supply causes a movement down the demand curve, lowering the equilibrium price and raising the equilibrium quantity.

Review Questions

  • How does one analyze a market where both demand and supply shift?
  • What causes a movement along the demand curve? What causes a movement along the supply curve?

Critical Thinking Questions

  • Use the four-step process to analyze the impact of the advent of the iPod (or other portable digital music players) on the equilibrium price and quantity of the Sony Walkman (or other portable audio cassette players).
  • Use the four-step process to analyze the impact of a reduction in tariffs on imports of iPods on the equilibrium price and quantity of Sony Walkman-type products.
  • Suppose both of these events took place at the same time. Combine your analyses of the impacts of the iPod and the tariff reduction to determine the likely impact on the equilibrium price and quantity of Sony Walkman-type products. Show your answer graphically.

Problems

(Figure) illustrates the market’s demand and supply for cheddar cheese. Graph the data and find the equilibrium. Next, create a table showing the change in quantity demanded or quantity supplied, and a graph of the new equilibrium, in each of the following situations:

  1. The price of milk, a key input for cheese production, rises, so that the supply decreases by 80 pounds at every price.
  2. A new study says that eating cheese is good for your health, so that demand increases by 20% at every price.
Price per Pound
Qd
Qs
$3.00
750
540
$3.20
700
600
$3.40
650
650
$3.60
620
700
$3.80
600
720
$4.00
590
730

(Figure) shows the supply and demand for movie tickets in a city. Graph demand and supply and identify the equilibrium. Then calculate in a table and graph the effect of the following two changes.

  1. Three new nightclubs open. They offer decent bands and have no cover charge, but make their money by selling food and drink. As a result, demand for movie tickets falls by six units at every price.
  2. The city eliminates a tax that it placed on all local entertainment businesses. The result is that the quantity supplied of movies at any given price increases by 10%.
Price per Pound
Qd
Qs
$5.00
26
16
$6.00
24
18
$7.00
22
20
$8.00
21
21
$9.00
20
22

References

Pew Research Center. “Pew Research: Center for the People & the Press.”

3.4 Price Ceilings and Price Floors

11

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain price controls, price ceilings, and price floors
  • Analyze demand and supply as a social adjustment mechanism

 

Introduction

To this point in the chapter, we have been assuming that markets are free, that is, they operate with no government intervention. In this section, we will explore the outcomes, both anticipated and otherwise, when government does intervene in a market either to prevent the price of some good or service from rising “too high” or to prevent the price of some good or service from falling “too low”.

Economists believe there are a small number of fundamental principles that explain how economic agents respond in different situations. Two of these principles, which we have already introduced, are the laws of demand and supply.

Governments can pass laws affecting market outcomes, but no law can negate these economic principles. Rather, the principles will become apparent in sometimes unexpected ways, which may undermine the intent of the government policy. This is one of the major conclusions of this section.

Controversy sometimes surrounds the prices and quantities established by demand and supply, especially for products that are considered necessities. In some cases, discontent over prices turns into public pressure on politicians, who may then pass legislation to prevent a certain price from climbing “too high” or falling “too low.”

The demand and supply model shows how people and firms will react to the incentives that these laws provide to control prices, in ways that will often lead to undesirable consequences. Alternative policy tools can often achieve the desired goals of price control laws, while avoiding at least some of their costs and tradeoffs.

Price Ceilings

Laws that government enact to regulate prices are called price controls. Price controls come in two flavors. A price ceiling keeps a price from rising above a certain level (the “ceiling”), while a price floor keeps a price from falling below a given level (the “floor”). This section uses the demand and supply framework to analyze price ceilings. The next section discusses price floors.

A price ceiling is a legal maximum price that one pays for some good or service. A government imposes price ceilings in order to keep the price of some necessary good or service affordable. For example, in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, the price of bottled water increased above $5 per gallon. As a result, many people called for price controls on bottled water to prevent the price from rising so high. In this particular case, the government did not impose a price ceiling, but there are other examples of where price ceilings did occur.

In many markets for goods and services, demanders outnumber suppliers. Consumers, who are also potential voters, sometimes unite behind a political proposal to hold down a certain price. In some cities, such as Albany, renters have pressed political leaders to pass rent control laws, a price ceiling that usually works by stating that landlords can raise rents by only a certain maximum percentage each year. Some of the best examples of rent control occur in urban areas such as New York, Washington D.C., or San Francisco.

The graph shows a shift in demand with a price ceiling.
A Price Ceiling Example—Rent Control The original intersection of demand and supply occurs at E0. If demand shifts from D0 to D1, the new equilibrium would be at E1—unless a price ceiling prevents the price from rising. If the price is not permitted to rise, the quantity supplied remains at 15,000. However, after the change in demand, the quantity demanded rises to 19,000, resulting in a shortage.

Rent control becomes a politically hot topic when rents begin to rise rapidly. Everyone needs an affordable place to live. Perhaps a change in tastes makes a certain suburb or town a more popular place to live. Perhaps locally-based businesses expand, bringing higher incomes and more people into the area. Such changes can cause a change in the demand for rental housing, as (Figure) illustrates. The original equilibrium (E0) lies at the intersection of supply curve S0 and demand curve D0, corresponding to an equilibrium price of $500 and an equilibrium quantity of 15,000 units of rental housing. The effect of greater income or a change in tastes is to shift the demand curve for rental housing to the right, as the data in (Figure) shows and the shift from D0 to D1 on the graph. In this market, at the new equilibrium E1, the price of a rental unit would rise to $600 and the equilibrium quantity would increase to 17,000 units.

Rent Control
Price Original Quantity Supplied Original Quantity Demanded New Quantity Demanded
$400 12,000 18,000 23,000
$500 15,000 15,000 19,000
$600 17,000 13,000 17,000
$700 19,000 11,000 15,000
$800 20,000 10,000 14,000

Suppose that a city government passes a rent control law to keep the price at the original equilibrium of $500 for a typical apartment. In (Figure), the horizontal line at the price of $500 shows the legally fixed maximum price set by the rent control law. However, the underlying forces that shifted the demand curve to the right are still there. At that price ($500), the quantity supplied remains at the same 15,000 rental units, but the quantity demanded is 19,000 rental units. In other words, the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supplied, so there is a shortage of rental housing. One of the ironies of price ceilings is that while the price ceiling was intended to help renters, there are actually fewer apartments rented out under the price ceiling (15,000 rental units) than would be the case at the market rent of $600 (17,000 rental units).

Price ceilings do not simply benefit renters at the expense of landlords. Rather, some renters (or potential renters) lose their housing as landlords convert apartments to co-ops and condos. Even when the housing remains in the rental market, landlords tend to spend less on maintenance and on essentials like heating, cooling, hot water, and lighting. The first rule of economics is you do not get something for nothing—everything has an opportunity cost. Thus, if renters obtain “cheaper” housing than the market requires, they tend to also end up with lower quality housing.

Price ceilings are enacted in an attempt to keep prices low for those who need the product. However, when the market price is not allowed to rise to the equilibrium level, quantity demanded exceeds quantity supplied, and thus a shortage occurs. Those who manage to purchase the product at the lower price given by the price ceiling will benefit, but sellers of the product will suffer, along with those who are not able to purchase the product at all. Quality is also likely to deteriorate.

Price Floors

A price floor is the lowest price that one can legally pay for some good or service. Perhaps the best-known example of a price floor is the minimum wage, which is based on the view that someone working full time should be able to afford a basic standard of living. The federal minimum wage in 2016 was $7.25 per hour, although some states and localities have a higher minimum wage. The federal minimum wage yields an annual income for a single person of $15,080, which is slightly higher than the Federal poverty line of $11,880. As the cost of living rises over time, the Congress periodically raises the federal minimum wage.

Price floors are sometimes called “price supports,” because they support a price by preventing it from falling below a certain level. Around the world, many countries have passed laws to create agricultural price supports. Farm prices and thus farm incomes fluctuate, sometimes widely. Even if, on average, farm incomes are adequate, some years they can be quite low. The purpose of price supports is to prevent these swings.

The most common way price supports work is that the government enters the market and buys up the product, adding to demand to keep prices higher than they otherwise would be. According to the Common Agricultural Policy reform passed in 2013, the European Union (EU) will spend about 60 billion euros per year, or 67 billion dollars per year (with the November 2016 exchange rate), or roughly 38% of the EU budget, on price supports for Europe’s farmers from 2014 to 2020.

(Figure) illustrates the effects of a government program that assures a price above the equilibrium by focusing on the market for wheat in Europe. In the absence of government intervention, the price would adjust so that the quantity supplied would equal the quantity demanded at the equilibrium point E0, with price P0 and quantity Q0. However, policies to keep prices high for farmers keeps the price above what would have been the market equilibrium level—the price Pf shown by the dashed horizontal line in the diagram. The result is a quantity supplied in excess of the quantity demanded (Qd). When quantity supplied exceeds quantity demanded, a surplus exists.

The graph shows an example of a price floor which results in a surplus.
European Wheat Prices: A Price Floor Example The intersection of demand (D) and supply (S) would be at the equilibrium point E0. However, a price floor set at Pf holds the price above E0 and prevents it from falling. The result of the price floor is that the quantity supplied Qs exceeds the quantity demanded Qd. There is excess supply, also called a surplus.

Economists estimate that the high-income areas of the world, including the United States, Europe, and Japan, spend roughly $1 billion per day in supporting their farmers. If the government is willing to purchase the excess supply (or to provide payments for others to purchase it), then farmers will benefit from the price floor, but taxpayers and consumers of food will pay the costs. Agricultural economists and policy makers have offered numerous proposals for reducing farm subsidies. In many countries, however, political support for subsidies for farmers remains strong. This is either because the population views this as supporting the traditional rural way of life or because of industry’s lobbying power of the agro-business.

Key Concepts and Summary

Price ceilings prevent a price from rising above a certain level. When a price ceiling is set below the equilibrium price, quantity demanded will exceed quantity supplied, and excess demand or shortages will result. Price floors prevent a price from falling below a certain level. When a price floor is set above the equilibrium price, quantity supplied will exceed quantity demanded, and excess supply or surpluses will result. Price floors and price ceilings often lead to unintended consequences.

Self-Check Questions

  • What is the effect of a price ceiling on the quantity demanded of the product? What is the effect of a price ceiling on the quantity supplied? Why exactly does a price ceiling cause a shortage?
  • A price ceiling (which is below the equilibrium price) will cause the quantity demanded to rise and the quantity supplied to fall. This is why a price ceiling creates a shortage.
  • Does a price ceiling change the equilibrium price?
  • A price ceiling is just a legal restriction. Equilibrium is an economic condition. People may or may not obey the price ceiling, so the actual price may be at or above the price ceiling, but the price ceiling does not change the equilibrium price.
  • What would be the impact of imposing a price floor below the equilibrium price?
  • A price ceiling is a legal maximum price, but a price floor is a legal minimum price and, consequently, it would leave room for the price to rise to its equilibrium level. In other words, a price floor below equilibrium will not be binding and will have no effect.

Review Questions

  • Does a price ceiling attempt to make a price higher or lower?
  • How does a price ceiling set below the equilibrium level affect quantity demanded and quantity supplied?
  • Does a price floor attempt to make a price higher or lower?
  • How does a price floor set above the equilibrium level affect quantity demanded and quantity supplied?

Critical Thinking Questions

  • Most government policy decisions have winners and losers. What are the effects of raising the minimum wage? It is more complex than simply producers lose and workers gain. Who are the winners and who are the losers, and what exactly do they win and lose? To what extent does the policy change achieve its goals?
  • Agricultural price supports result in governments holding large inventories of agricultural products. Why do you think the government cannot simply give the products away to poor people?
  • Can you propose a policy that would induce the market to supply more rental housing units?

Problems

A low-income country decides to set a price ceiling on bread so it can make sure that bread is affordable to the poor.(Figure) provides the conditions of demand and supply. What are the equilibrium price and equilibrium quantity before the price ceiling? What will the excess demand or the shortage (that is, quantity demanded minus quantity supplied) be if the price ceiling is set at $2.40? At $2.00? At $3.60?

Price
Qd
Qs
$1.60
9,000
5,000
$2.00
8,500
5,500
$2.40
8,000
6,400
$2.80
7,500
7,500
$3.20
7,000
9,000
$3.60
6,500
11,000
$4.00
6,000
15,000

Glossary

price ceiling
a legal maximum price
price control
government laws to regulate prices instead of letting market forces determine prices
price floor
a legal minimum price
total surplus
see social surplus

3.5 Demand, Supply, and Efficiency

12

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Contrast consumer surplus, producer surplus, and social surplus
  • Explain why price floors and price ceilings can be inefficient
  • Analyze demand and supply as a social adjustment mechanism

Introduction

The familiar demand and supply diagram holds within it the concept of economic efficiency. One typical way that economists define efficiency is when it is impossible to improve the situation of one party without imposing a cost on another. Conversely, if a situation is inefficient, it becomes possible to benefit at least one party without imposing costs on others.

Efficiency in the demand and supply model has the same basic meaning: The economy is getting as much benefit as possible from its scarce resources and all the possible gains from trade have been achieved. In other words, the optimal amount of each good and service is produced and consumed.

Consumer Surplus, Producer Surplus, Social Surplus

Consider a market for tablet computers, as (Figure) shows. The equilibrium price is $80 and the equilibrium quantity is 28 million. To see the benefits to consumers, look at the segment of the demand curve above the equilibrium point and to the left. This portion of the demand curve shows that at least some demanders would have been willing to pay more than $80 for a tablet.

The graph shows consumer surplus above the equilibrium and producer surplus beneath the equilibrium.
Consumer and Producer Surplus: The somewhat triangular area labeled by F shows the area of consumer surplus, which shows that the equilibrium price in the market was less than what many of the consumers were willing to pay. Point J on the demand curve shows that, even at the price of $90, consumers would have been willing to purchase a quantity of 20 million. The somewhat triangular area labeled by G shows the area of producer surplus, which shows that the equilibrium price received in the market was more than what many of the producers were willing to accept for their products. For example, point K on the supply curve shows that at a price of $45, firms would have been willing to supply a quantity of 14 million.

For example, point J shows that if the price were $90, 20 million tablets would be sold. Those consumers who would have been willing to pay $90 for a tablet based on the utility they expect to receive from it, but who were able to pay the equilibrium price of $80, clearly received a benefit beyond what they had to pay. Remember, the demand curve traces consumers’ willingness to pay for different quantities. The amount that individuals would have been willing to pay, minus the amount that they actually paid, is called consumer surplus. Consumer surplus is the area labeled F—that is, the area above the market price and below the demand curve.

The supply curve shows the quantity that firms are willing to supply at each price. For example, point K in (Figure) illustrates that, at $45, firms would still have been willing to supply a quantity of 14 million. Those producers who would have been willing to supply the tablets at $45, but who were instead able to charge the equilibrium price of $80, clearly received an extra benefit beyond what they required to supply the product. The amount that a seller is paid for a good minus the seller’s actual cost is called producer surplus. In (Figure), producer surplus is the area labeled G—that is, the area between the market price and the segment of the supply curve below the equilibrium.

The sum of consumer surplus and producer surplus is social surplus, also referred to as economic surplus or total surplus. In (Figure) we show social surplus as the area F + G. Social surplus is larger at equilibrium quantity and price than it would be at any other quantity. This demonstrates the economic efficiency of the market equilibrium. In addition, at the efficient level of output, it is impossible to produce greater consumer surplus without reducing producer surplus, and it is impossible to produce greater producer surplus without reducing consumer surplus.

Inefficiency of Price Floors and Price Ceilings

The imposition of a price floor or a price ceiling will prevent a market from adjusting to its equilibrium price and quantity, and thus will create an inefficient outcome. However, there is an additional twist here. Along with creating inefficiency, price floors and ceilings will also transfer some consumer surplus to producers, or some producer surplus to consumers.

Imagine that several firms develop a promising but expensive new drug for treating back pain. If this therapy is left to the market, the equilibrium price will be $600 per month and 20,000 people will use the drug, as shown in (Figure) (a). The original level of consumer surplus is T + U and producer surplus is V + W + X. However, the government decides to impose a price ceiling of $400 to make the drug more affordable. At this price ceiling, firms in the market now produce only 15,000.

As a result, two changes occur. First, an inefficient outcome occurs and the total surplus of society is reduced. The loss in social surplus that occurs when the economy produces at an inefficient quantity is called deadweight loss. In a very real sense, it is like money thrown away that benefits no one. In (Figure) (a), the deadweight loss is the area U + W. When deadweight loss exists, it is possible for both consumer and producer surplus to be higher, in this case because the price control is blocking some suppliers and demanders from transactions they would both be willing to make.

The two graphs show how equilibrium is affected by price floors and price ceilings.
Efficiency and Price Floors and Ceilings: (a) The original equilibrium price is $600 with a quantity of 20,000. Consumer surplus is T + U, and producer surplus is V + W + X. A price ceiling is imposed at $400, so firms in the market now produce only a quantity of 15,000. As a result, the new consumer surplus is T + V, while the new producer surplus is X. (b) The original equilibrium is $8 at a quantity of 1,800. Consumer surplus is G + H + J, and producer surplus is I + K. A price floor is imposed at $12, which means that quantity demanded falls to 1,400. As a result, the new consumer surplus is G, and the new producer surplus is H + I.

A second change from the price ceiling is that some of the producer surplus is transferred to consumers. After the price ceiling is imposed, the new consumer surplus is T + V, while the new producer surplus is X. In other words, the price ceiling transfers the area of surplus (V) from producers to consumers. Note that the gain to consumers is less than the loss to producers, which is just another way of seeing the deadweight loss.

(Figure) (b) shows a price floor example using a string of struggling movie theaters, all in the same city. The current equilibrium is $8 per movie ticket, with 1,800 people attending movies. The original consumer surplus is G + H + J, and producer surplus is I + K. The city government is worried that movie theaters will go out of business, reducing the entertainment options available to citizens, so it decides to impose a price floor of $12 per ticket. As a result, the quantity demanded of movie tickets falls to 1,400. The new consumer surplus is G, and the new producer surplus is H + I. In effect, the price floor causes the area H to be transferred from consumer to producer surplus, but also causes a deadweight loss of J + K.

This analysis shows that a price ceiling, like a law establishing rent controls, will transfer some producer surplus to consumers—which helps to explain why consumers often favor them. Conversely, a price floor like a guarantee that farmers will receive a certain price for their crops will transfer some consumer surplus to producers, which explains why producers often favor them. However, both price floors and price ceilings block some transactions that buyers and sellers would have been willing to make, and creates deadweight loss. Removing such barriers, so that prices and quantities can adjust to their equilibrium level, will increase the economy’s social surplus.

Demand and Supply as a Social Adjustment Mechanism

The demand and supply model emphasizes that prices are not set only by demand or only by supply, but by the interaction between the two. In 1890, the famous economist Alfred Marshall wrote that asking whether supply or demand determined a price was like arguing “whether it is the upper or the under blade of a pair of scissors that cuts a piece of paper.” The answer is that both blades of the demand and supply scissors are always involved.

The adjustments of equilibrium price and quantity in a market-oriented economy often occur without much government direction or oversight. If the coffee crop in Brazil suffers a terrible frost, then the supply curve of coffee shifts to the left and the price of coffee rises. Some people—call them the coffee addicts—continue to drink coffee and pay the higher price. Others switch to tea or soft drinks. No government commission is needed to figure out how to adjust coffee prices, which companies will be allowed to process the remaining supply, which supermarkets in which cities will get how much coffee to sell, or which consumers will ultimately be allowed to drink the brew. Such adjustments in response to price changes happen all the time in a market economy, often so smoothly and rapidly that we barely notice them.

Think for a moment of all the seasonal foods that are available and inexpensive at certain times of the year, like fresh corn in midsummer, but more expensive at other times of the year. People alter their diets and restaurants alter their menus in response to these fluctuations in prices without fuss or fanfare. For both the U.S. economy and the world economy as a whole, markets—that is, demand and supply—are the primary social mechanism for answering the basic questions about what is produced, how it is produced, and for whom it is produced.

 

Why Can We Not Get Enough of Organic?

Organic food is grown without synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified seeds. In recent decades, the demand for organic products has increased dramatically. The Organic Trade Association reported sales increased from $1 billion in 1990 to $35.1 billion in 2013, more than 90% of which were sales of food products.

Why, then, are organic foods more expensive than their conventional counterparts? The answer is a clear application of the theories of supply and demand. As people have learned more about the harmful effects of chemical fertilizers, growth hormones, pesticides and the like from large-scale factory farming, our tastes and preferences for safer, organic foods have increased. This change in tastes has been reinforced by increases in income, which allow people to purchase pricier products, and has made organic foods more mainstream. This has led to an increased demand for organic foods. Graphically, the demand curve has shifted right, and we have moved up the supply curve as producers have responded to the higher prices by supplying a greater quantity.

In addition to the movement along the supply curve, we have also had an increase in the number of farmers converting to organic farming over time. This is represented by a shift to the right of the supply curve. Since both demand and supply have shifted to the right, the resulting equilibrium quantity of organic foods is definitely higher, but the price will only fall when the increase in supply is larger than the increase in demand. We may need more time before we see lower prices in organic foods. Since the production costs of these foods may remain higher than conventional farming, because organic fertilizers and pest management techniques are more expensive, they may never fully catch up with the lower prices of non-organic foods.

As a final, specific example: The Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and vegetables, which test high for pesticide residue even after washing, was released in April 2013. The inclusion of strawberries on the list has led to an increase in demand for organic strawberries, resulting in both a higher equilibrium price and quantity of sales.

 

Key Concepts and Summary

Consumer surplus is the gap between the price that consumers are willing to pay, based on their preferences, and the market equilibrium price. Producer surplus is the gap between the price for which producers are willing to sell a product, based on their costs, and the market equilibrium price. Social surplus is the sum of consumer surplus and producer surplus. Total surplus is larger at the equilibrium quantity and price than it will be at any other quantity and price. Deadweight loss is loss in total surplus that occurs when the economy produces at an inefficient quantity.

Self-Check Questions

Does a price ceiling increase or decrease the number of transactions in a market? Why? What about a price floor?

Assuming that people obey the price ceiling, the market price will be below equilibrium, which means that Qd will be more than Qs. Buyers can only buy what is offered for sale, so the number of transactions will fall to Qs. This is easy to see graphically. By analogous reasoning, with a price floor the market price will be above the equilibrium price, so Qd will be less than Qs. Since the limit on transactions here is demand, the number of transactions will fall to Qd. Note that because both price floors and price ceilings reduce the number of transactions, social surplus is less.

If a price floor benefits producers, why does a price floor reduce social surplus?

Because the losses to consumers are greater than the benefits to producers, so the net effect is negative. Since the lost consumer surplus is greater than the additional producer surplus, social surplus falls.

What is consumer surplus? How is it illustrated on a demand and supply diagram?

What is producer surplus? How is it illustrated on a demand and supply diagram?

What is total surplus? How is it illustrated on a demand and supply diagram?

What is the relationship between total surplus and economic efficiency?

What is deadweight loss?

What term would an economist use to describe what happens when a shopper gets a “good deal” on a product?

Explain why voluntary transactions improve social welfare.

Why would a free market never operate at a quantity greater than the equilibrium quantity? Hint: What would be required for a transaction to occur at that quantity?

Glossary

consumer surplus
the extra benefit consumers receive from buying a good or service, measured by what the individuals would have been willing to pay minus the amount that they actually paid
deadweight loss
the loss in social surplus that occurs when a market produces an inefficient quantity
economic surplus
see social surplus
producer surplus
the extra benefit producers receive from selling a good or service, measured by the price the producer actually received minus the price the producer would have been willing to accept
social surplus
the sum of consumer surplus and producer surplus

Part 4: Labor and Financial Markets

IV

The photograph shows a nurse administering a vaccine to a patient.
People often think of demand and supply in relation to goods, but labor markets, such as the nursing profession, can also apply to this analysis. (Credit: modification of work by “Fotos GOVBA”/Flickr Creative Commons)

Baby Boomers Come of Age

The Census Bureau reports that as of 2013, 20% of the U.S. population was over 60 years old, which means that almost 63 million people are reaching an age when they will need increased medical care.

The baby boomer population, the group born between 1946 and 1964, is comprised of approximately 74 million people who have just reached retirement age. As this population grows older, they will be faced with common healthcare issues such as heart conditions, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s that may require hospitalization, long-term, or at-home nursing care. Aging baby boomers and advances in life-saving and life-extending technologies will increase the demand for healthcare and nursing. Additionally, the Affordable Care Act, which expands access to healthcare for millions of Americans, has further increase the demand, although with the election of Donald J. Trump, this increase may not be sustained.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nursing jobs are expected to increase by 16% between 2014 and 2024. The median annual wage of $67,490 (in 2015) is also expected to increase. The BLS forecasts that 439,000 new nurses will be in demand by 2022.

These data tell us, as economists, that the market for healthcare professionals, and nurses in particular, will face several challenges. Our study of supply and demand will help us to analyze what might happen in the labor market for nursing and other healthcare professionals, as we will discuss in the second half of this case at the end of the chapter.

Introduction to Labor and Financial Markets

In this chapter, you will learn about:

The theories of supply and demand do not apply just to markets for goods. They apply to any market, even markets for things we may not think of as goods and services like labor and financial services. Labor markets are markets for employees or jobs. Financial services markets are markets for saving or borrowing.

When we think about demand and supply curves in goods and services markets, it is easy to picture the demanders and suppliers: businesses produce the products and households buy them. Who are the demanders and suppliers in labor and financial service markets? In labor markets job seekers (individuals) are the suppliers of labor, while firms and other employers who hire labor are the demanders for labor. In financial markets, any individual or firm who saves contributes to the supply of money, and any who borrows (person, firm, or government) contributes to the demand for money.

As a college student, you most likely participate in both labor and financial markets. Employment is a fact of life for most college students: According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2013 40% of full-time college students and 76% of part-time college students were employed. Most college students are also heavily involved in financial markets, primarily as borrowers. Among full-time students, about half take out a loan to help finance their education each year, and those loans average about $6,000 per year. Many students also borrow for other expenses, like purchasing a car. As this chapter will illustrate, we can analyze labor markets and financial markets with the same tools we use to analyze demand and supply in the goods markets.

4.1 Demand and Supply at Work in Labor Markets

13

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Predict shifts in the demand and supply curves of the labor market
  • Explain the impact of new technology on the demand and supply curves of the labor market
  • Explain price floors in the labor market such as minimum wage or a living wage

Introduction

Markets for labor have demand and supply curves, just like markets for goods. The law of demand applies in labor markets this way: A higher salary or wage—that is, a higher price in the labor market—leads to a decrease in the quantity of labor demanded by employers, while a lower salary or wage leads to an increase in the quantity of labor demanded. The law of supply functions in labor markets, too: A higher price for labor leads to a higher quantity of labor supplied; a lower price leads to a lower quantity supplied.

Equilibrium in the Labor Market

In 2015, about 35,000 registered nurses worked in the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, Minnesota-Wisconsin metropolitan area, according to the BLS. They worked for a variety of employers: hospitals, doctors’ offices, schools, health clinics, and nursing homes. (Figure) illustrates how demand and supply determine equilibrium in this labor market. The demand and supply schedules in (Figure) list the quantity supplied and quantity demanded of nurses at different salaries.

This graph shows how equilibrium is affected by demand and supply. The downward- sloping demand curve and the upward-sloping supply curve intersect at equilibrium salary.
Labor Market Example: Demand and Supply for Nurses in Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington The demand curve (D) of those employers who want to hire nurses intersects with the supply curve (S) of those who are qualified and willing to work as nurses at the equilibrium point (E). The equilibrium salary is $70,000 and the equilibrium quantity is 34,000 nurses. At an above-equilibrium salary of $75,000, quantity supplied increases to 38,000, but the quantity of nurses demanded at the higher pay declines to 33,000. At this above-equilibrium salary, an excess supply or surplus of nurses would exist. At a below-equilibrium salary of $60,000, quantity supplied declines to 27,000, while the quantity demanded at the lower wage increases to 40,000 nurses. At this below-equilibrium salary, excess demand or a shortage exists.
Demand and Supply of Nurses in Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington
Annual Salary Quantity Demanded Quantity Supplied
$55,000 45,000 20,000
$60,000 40,000 27,000
$65,000 37,000 31,000
$70,000 34,000 34,000
$75,000 33,000 38,000
$80,000 32,000 41,000

The horizontal axis shows the quantity of nurses hired. In this example we measure labor by number of workers, but another common way to measure the quantity of labor is by the number of hours worked. The vertical axis shows the price for nurses’ labor—that is, how much they are paid. In the real world, this “price” would be total labor compensation: salary plus benefits. It is not obvious, but benefits are a significant part (as high as 30 percent) of labor compensation. In this example we measure the price of labor by salary on an annual basis, although in other cases we could measure the price of labor by monthly or weekly pay, or even the wage paid per hour. As the salary for nurses rises, the quantity demanded will fall. Some hospitals and nursing homes may reduce the number of nurses they hire, or they may lay off some of their existing nurses, rather than pay them higher salaries. Employers who face higher nurses’ salaries may also try to replace some nursing functions by investing in physical equipment, like computer monitoring and diagnostic systems to monitor patients, or by using lower-paid health care aides to reduce the number of nurses they need.

As the salary for nurses rises, the quantity supplied will rise. If nurses’ salaries in Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington are higher than in other cities, more nurses will move to Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington to find jobs, more people will be willing to train as nurses, and those currently trained as nurses will be more likely to pursue nursing as a full-time job. In other words, there will be more nurses looking for jobs in the area.

At equilibrium, the quantity supplied and the quantity demanded are equal. Thus, every employer who wants to hire a nurse at this equilibrium wage can find a willing worker, and every nurse who wants to work at this equilibrium salary can find a job. In (Figure), the supply curve (S) and demand curve (D) intersect at the equilibrium point (E). The equilibrium quantity of nurses in the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington area is 34,000, and the equilibrium salary is $70,000 per year. This example simplifies the nursing market by focusing on the “average” nurse. In reality, of course, the market for nurses actually comprises many smaller markets, like markets for nurses with varying degrees of experience and credentials. Many markets contain closely related products that differ in quality. For instance, even a simple product like gasoline comes in regular, premium, and super-premium, each with a different price. Even in such cases, discussing the average price of gasoline, like the average salary for nurses, can still be useful because it reflects what is happening in most of the submarkets.

When the price of labor is not at the equilibrium, economic incentives tend to move salaries toward the equilibrium. For example, if salaries for nurses in Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington were above the equilibrium at $75,000 per year, then 38,000 people want to work as nurses, but employers want to hire only 33,000 nurses. At that above-equilibrium salary, excess supply or a surplus results. In a situation of excess supply in the labor market, with many applicants for every job opening, employers will have an incentive to offer lower wages than they otherwise would have. Nurses’ salary will move down toward equilibrium.

In contrast, if the salary is below the equilibrium at, say, $60,000 per year, then a situation of excess demand or a shortage arises. In this case, employers encouraged by the relatively lower wage want to hire 40,000 nurses, but only 27,000 individuals want to work as nurses at that salary in Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington. In response to the shortage, some employers will offer higher pay to attract the nurses. Other employers will have to match the higher pay to keep their own employees. The higher salaries will encourage more nurses to train or work in Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington. Again, price and quantity in the labor market will move toward equilibrium.

Shifts in Labor Demand

The demand curve for labor shows the quantity of labor employers wish to hire at any given salary or wage rate, under the ceteris paribus assumption. A change in the wage or salary will result in a change in the quantity demanded of labor. If the wage rate increases, employers will want to hire fewer employees. The quantity of labor demanded will decrease, and there will be a movement upward along the demand curve. If the wages and salaries decrease, employers are more likely to hire a greater number of workers. The quantity of labor demanded will increase, resulting in a downward movement along the demand curve.

Shifts in the demand curve for labor occur for many reasons. One key reason is that the demand for labor is based on the demand for the good or service that is produced. For example, the more new automobiles consumers demand, the greater the number of workers automakers will need to hire. Therefore the demand for labor is called a “derived demand.” Here are some examples of derived demand for labor:

  • The demand for chefs is dependent on the demand for restaurant meals.
  • The demand for pharmacists is dependent on the demand for prescription drugs.
  • The demand for attorneys is dependent on the demand for legal services.

As the demand for the goods and services increases, the demand for labor will increase, or shift to the right, to meet employers’ production requirements. As the demand for the goods and services decreases, the demand for labor will decrease, or shift to the left. (Figure) shows that in addition to the derived demand for labor, demand can also increase or decrease (shift) in response to several factors.

Factors That Can Shift Demand
Factors Results
Demand for Output When the demand for the good produced (output) increases, both the output price and profitability increase. As a result, producers demand more labor to ramp up production.
Education and Training A well-trained and educated workforce causes an increase in the demand for that labor by employers. Increased levels of productivity within the workforce will cause the demand for labor to shift to the right. If the workforce is not well-trained or educated, employers will not hire from within that labor pool, since they will need to spend a significant amount of time and money training that workforce. Demand for such will shift to the left.
Technology Technology changes can act as either substitutes for or complements to labor. When technology acts as a substitute, it replaces the need for the number of workers an employer needs to hire. For example, word processing decreased the number of typists needed in the workplace. This shifted the demand curve for typists left. An increase in the availability of certain technologies may increase the demand for labor. Technology that acts as a complement to labor will increase the demand for certain types of labor, resulting in a rightward shift of the demand curve. For example, the increased use of word processing and other software has increased the demand for information technology professionals who can resolve software and hardware issues related to a firm’s network. More and better technology will increase demand for skilled workers who know how to use technology to enhance workplace productivity. Those workers who do not adapt to changes in technology will experience a decrease in demand.
Number of Companies An increase in the number of companies producing a given product will increase the demand for labor resulting in a shift to the right. A decrease in the number of companies producing a given product will decrease the demand for labor resulting in a shift to the left.
Government Regulations Complying with government regulations can increase or decrease the demand for labor at any given wage. In the healthcare industry, government rules may require that nurses be hired to carry out certain medical procedures. This will increase the demand for nurses. Less-trained healthcare workers would be prohibited from carrying out these procedures, and the demand for these workers will shift to the left.
Price and Availability of Other Inputs Labor is not the only input into the production process. For example, a salesperson at a call center needs a telephone and a computer terminal to enter data and record sales. If prices of other inputs fall, production will become more profitable and suppliers will demand more labor to increase production. This will cause a rightward shift in the demand curve for labor. The opposite is also true. Higher prices for other inputs lower demand for labor.

Click here to read more about “Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century.”

Shifts in Labor Supply

The supply of labor is upward-sloping and adheres to the law of supply: The higher the price, the greater the quantity supplied and the lower the price, the less quantity supplied. The supply curve models the tradeoff between supplying labor into the market or using time in leisure activities at every given price level. The higher the wage, the more labor is willing to work and forego leisure activities. (Figure) lists some of the factors that will cause the supply to increase or decrease.

Factors that Can Shift Supply
Factors Results
Number of Workers An increased number of workers will cause the supply curve to shift to the right. An increased number of workers can be due to several factors, such as immigration, increasing population, an aging population, and changing demographics. Policies that encourage immigration will increase the supply of labor, and vice versa. Population grows when birth rates exceed death rates. This eventually increases supply of labor when the former reach working age. An aging and therefore retiring population will decrease the supply of labor. Another example of changing demographics is more women working outside of the home, which increases the supply of labor.
Required Education The more required education, the lower the supply. There is a lower supply of PhD mathematicians than of high school mathematics teachers; there is a lower supply of cardiologists than of primary care physicians; and there is a lower supply of physicians than of nurses.
Government Policies Government policies can also affect the supply of labor for jobs. Alternatively, the government may support rules that set high qualifications for certain jobs: academic training, certificates or licenses, or experience. When these qualifications are made tougher, the number of qualified workers will decrease at any given wage. On the other hand, the government may also subsidize training or even reduce the required level of qualifications. For example, government might offer subsidies for nursing schools or nursing students. Such provisions would shift the supply curve of nurses to the right. In addition, government policies that change the relative desirability of working versus not working also affect the labor supply. These include unemployment benefits, maternity leave, child care benefits, and welfare policy. For example, child care benefits may increase the labor supply of working mothers. Long term unemployment benefits may discourage job searching for unemployed workers. All these policies must therefore be carefully designed to minimize any negative labor supply effects.

A change in salary will lead to a movement along labor demand or labor supply curves, but it will not shift those curves. However, other events like those we have outlined here will cause either the demand or the supply of labor to shift, and thus will move the labor market to a new equilibrium salary and quantity.

Technology and Wage Inequality: The Four-Step Process

Economic events can change the equilibrium salary (or wage) and quantity of labor. Consider how the wave of new information technologies, like computer and telecommunications networks, has affected low-skill and high-skill workers in the U.S. economy. From the perspective of employers who demand labor, these new technologies are often a substitute for low-skill laborers like file clerks who used to keep file cabinets full of paper records of transactions. However, the same new technologies are a complement to high-skill workers like managers, who benefit from the technological advances by having the ability to monitor more information, communicate more easily, and juggle a wider array of responsibilities. How will the new technologies affect the wages of high-skill and low-skill workers? For this question, the four-step process of analyzing how shifts in supply or demand affect a market (introduced in Demand and Supply) works in this way:

The two graphs show how new technology influences supply and demand. The graph on the left represents low-skill labor, and the graph on the right represents high-skill labor.
Technology and Wages: Applying Demand and Supply (a) The demand for low-skill labor shifts to the left when technology can do the job previously done by these workers. (b) New technologies can also increase the demand for high-skill labor in fields such as information technology and network administration.

Step 1. What did the markets for low-skill labor and high-skill labor look like before the arrival of the new technologies? In (Figure) (a) and (Figure) (b), S0 is the original supply curve for labor and D0 is the original demand curve for labor in each market. In each graph, the original point of equilibrium, E0, occurs at the price W0 and the quantity Q0.

Step 2. Does the new technology affect the supply of labor from households or the demand for labor from firms? The technology change described here affects demand for labor by firms that hire workers.

Step 3. Will the new technology increase or decrease demand? Based on the description earlier, as the substitute for low-skill labor becomes available, demand for low-skill labor will shift to the left, from D0 to D1. As the technology complement for high-skill labor becomes cheaper, demand for high-skill labor will shift to the right, from D0 to D1.

Step 4. The new equilibrium for low-skill labor, shown as point E1 with price W1 and quantity Q1, has a lower wage and quantity hired than the original equilibrium, E0. The new equilibrium for high-skill labor, shown as point E1 with price W1 and quantity Q1, has a higher wage and quantity hired than the original equilibrium (E0).

Thus, the demand and supply model predicts that the new computer and communications technologies will raise the pay of high-skill workers but reduce the pay of low-skill workers. From the 1970s to the mid-2000s, the wage gap widened between high-skill and low-skill labor. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1980, for example, a college graduate earned about 30% more than a high school graduate with comparable job experience, but by 2014, a college graduate earned about 66% more than an otherwise comparable high school graduate. Many economists believe that the trend toward greater wage inequality across the U.S. economy is due to improvements in technology.

Visit this website to read about ten tech skills that have lost relevance in today’s workforce.

Price Floors in the Labor Market: Living Wages and Minimum Wages

In contrast to goods and services markets, price ceilings are rare in labor markets, because rules that prevent people from earning income are not politically popular. There is one exception: boards of trustees or stockholders, as an example, propose limits on the high incomes of top business executives.

The labor market, however, presents some prominent examples of price floors, which are an attempt to increase the wages of low-paid workers. The U.S. government sets a minimum wage, a price floor that makes it illegal for an employer to pay employees less than a certain hourly rate. In mid-2009, the U.S. minimum wage was raised to $7.25 per hour. Local political movements in a number of U.S. cities have pushed for a higher minimum wage, which they call a living wage. Promoters of living wage laws maintain that the minimum wage is too low to ensure a reasonable standard of living. They base this conclusion on the calculation that, if you work 40 hours a week at a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour for 50 weeks a year, your annual income is $14,500, which is less than the official U.S. government definition of what it means for a family to be in poverty. (A family with two adults earning minimum wage and two young children will find it more cost efficient for one parent to provide childcare while the other works for income. Thus the family income would be $14,500, which is significantly lower than the federal poverty line for a family of four, which was $24,250 in 2015.)

Supporters of the living wage argue that full-time workers should be assured a high enough wage so that they can afford the essentials of life: food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare. Since Baltimore passed the first living wage law in 1994, several dozen cities enacted similar laws in the late 1990s and the 2000s. The living wage ordinances do not apply to all employers, but they have specified that all employees of the city or employees of firms that the city hires be paid at least a certain wage that is usually a few dollars per hour above the U.S. minimum wage.

The graph shows how a price floor results from an excess supply of labor.
A Living Wage: Example of a Price Floor: The original equilibrium in this labor market is a wage of $10/hour and a quantity of 1,200 workers, shown at point E. Imposing a wage floor at $12/hour leads to an excess supply of labor. At that wage, the quantity of labor supplied is 1,600 and the quantity of labor demanded is only 700.

(Figure) illustrates the situation of a city considering a living wage law. For simplicity, we assume that there is no federal minimum wage. The wage appears on the vertical axis, because the wage is the price in the labor market. Before the passage of the living wage law, the equilibrium wage is $10 per hour and the city hires 1,200 workers at this wage. However, a group of concerned citizens persuades the city council to enact a living wage law requiring employers to pay no less than $12 per hour. In response to the higher wage, 1,600 workers look for jobs with the city. At this higher wage, the city, as an employer, is willing to hire only 700 workers. At the price floor, the quantity supplied exceeds the quantity demanded, and a surplus of labor exists in this market. For workers who continue to have a job at a higher salary, life has improved. For those who were willing to work at the old wage rate but lost their jobs with the wage increase, life has not improved. (Figure) shows the differences in supply and demand at different wages.

Living Wage: Example of a Price Floor
Wage Quantity Labor Demanded Quantity Labor Supplied
$8/hr 1,900 500
$9/hr 1,500 900
$10/hr 1,200 1,200
$11/hr 900 1,400
$12/hr 700 1,600
$13/hr 500 1,800
$14/hr 400 1,900

The Minimum Wage as an Example of a Price Floor

The U.S. minimum wage is a price floor that is set either very close to the equilibrium wage or even slightly below it. About 1% of American workers are actually paid the minimum wage. In other words, the vast majority of the U.S. labor force has its wages determined in the labor market, not as a result of the government price floor. However, for workers with low skills and little experience, like those without a high school diploma or teenagers, the minimum wage is quite important. In many cities, the federal minimum wage is apparently below the market price for unskilled labor, because employers offer more than the minimum wage to checkout clerks and other low-skill workers without any government prodding.

Economists have attempted to estimate how much the minimum wage reduces the quantity demanded of low-skill labor. A typical result of such studies is that a 10% increase in the minimum wage would decrease the hiring of unskilled workers by 1 to 2%, which seems a relatively small reduction. In fact, some studies have even found no effect of a higher minimum wage on employment at certain times and places—although these studies are controversial.

Let’s suppose that the minimum wage lies just slightly below the equilibrium wage level. Wages could fluctuate according to market forces above this price floor, but they would not be allowed to move beneath the floor. In this situation, the price floor minimum wage is nonbinding —that is, the price floor is not determining the market outcome. Even if the minimum wage moves just a little higher, it will still have no effect on the quantity of employment in the economy, as long as it remains below the equilibrium wage. Even if the government increases minimum wage by enough so that it rises slightly above the equilibrium wage and becomes binding, there will be only a small excess supply gap between the quantity demanded and quantity supplied.

These insights help to explain why U.S. minimum wage laws have historically had only a small impact on employment. Since the minimum wage has typically been set close to the equilibrium wage for low-skill labor and sometimes even below it, it has not had a large effect in creating an excess supply of labor. However, if the minimum wage increased dramatically—say, if it doubled to match the living wages that some U.S. cities have considered—then its impact on reducing the quantity demanded of employment would be far greater. As of 2017, many U.S. states are set to increase their minimum wage to $15 per hour. We will see what happens. The following Clear It Up feature describes in greater detail some of the arguments for and against changes to minimum wage.

What’s the harm in raising the minimum wage?

Because of the law of demand, a higher required wage will reduce the amount of low-skill employment either in terms of employees or in terms of work hours. Although there is controversy over the numbers, let’s say for the sake of the argument that a 10% rise in the minimum wage will reduce the employment of low-skill workers by 2%. Does this outcome mean that raising the minimum wage by 10% is bad public policy? Not necessarily.

If 98% of those receiving the minimum wage have a pay increase of 10%, but 2% of those receiving the minimum wage lose their jobs, are the gains for society as a whole greater than the losses? The answer is not clear, because job losses, even for a small group, may cause more pain than modest income gains for others. For one thing, we need to consider which minimum wage workers are losing their jobs. If the 2% of minimum wage workers who lose their jobs are struggling to support families, that is one thing. If those who lose their job are high school students picking up spending money over summer vacation, that is something else.

Another complexity is that many minimum wage workers do not work full-time for an entire year. Imagine a minimum wage worker who holds different part-time jobs for a few months at a time, with bouts of unemployment in between. The worker in this situation receives the 10% raise in the minimum wage when working, but also ends up working 2% fewer hours during the year because the higher minimum wage reduces how much employers want people to work. Overall, this worker’s income would rise because the 10% pay raise would more than offset the 2% fewer hours worked.

Of course, these arguments do not prove that raising the minimum wage is necessarily a good idea either. There may well be other, better public policy options for helping low-wage workers. (The Poverty and Economic Inequality chapter discusses some possibilities.) The lesson from this maze of minimum wage arguments is that complex social problems rarely have simple answers. Even those who agree on how a proposed economic policy affects quantity demanded and quantity supplied may still disagree on whether the policy is a good idea.

Concepts and Summary

In the labor market, households are on the supply side of the market and firms are on the demand side. In the market for financial capital, households and firms can be on either side of the market: they are suppliers of financial capital when they save or make financial investments, and demanders of financial capital when they borrow or receive financial investments.

In the demand and supply analysis of labor markets, we can measure the price by the annual salary or hourly wage received. We can measure the quantity of labor various ways, like number of workers or the number of hours worked.

Factors that can shift the demand curve for labor include: a change in the quantity demanded of the product that the labor produces; a change in the production process that uses more or less labor; and a change in government policy that affects the quantity of labor that firms wish to hire at a given wage. Demand can also increase or decrease (shift) in response to: workers’ level of education and training, technology, the number of companies, and availability and price of other inputs.

The main factors that can shift the supply curve for labor are: how desirable a job appears to workers relative to the alternatives, government policy that either restricts or encourages the quantity of workers trained for the job, the number of workers in the economy, and required education.

Self-Check Questions

In the labor market, what causes a movement along the demand curve? What causes a shift in the demand curve?

Changes in the wage rate (the price of labor) cause a movement along the demand curve. A change in anything else that affects demand for labor (e.g., changes in output, changes in the production process that use more or less labor, government regulation) causes a shift in the demand curve.

In the labor market, what causes a movement along the supply curve? What causes a shift in the supply curve?

Changes in the wage rate (the price of labor) cause a movement along the supply curve. A change in anything else that affects supply of labor (e.g., changes in how desirable the job is perceived to be, government policy to promote training in the field) causes a shift in the supply curve.

Why is a living wage considered a price floor? Does imposing a living wage have the same outcome as a minimum wage?

Since a living wage is a suggested minimum wage, it acts like a price floor (assuming, of course, that it is followed). If the living wage is binding, it will cause an excess supply of labor at that wage rate.

Review Questions

What is the “price” commonly called in the labor market?

Are households demanders or suppliers in the goods market? Are firms demanders or suppliers in the goods market? What about the labor market and the financial market?

Name some factors that can cause a shift in the demand curve in labor markets.

Name some factors that can cause a shift in the supply curve in labor markets.

Critical Thinking Questions

Other than the demand for labor, what would be another example of a “derived demand?”

Suppose that a 5% increase in the minimum wage causes a 5% reduction in employment. How would this affect employers and how would it affect workers? In your opinion, would this be a good policy?

Under what circumstances would a minimum wage be a nonbinding price floor? Under what circumstances would a living wage be a binding price floor?

Problems

Identify each of the following as involving either demand or supply. Draw a circular flow diagram and label the flows A through F. (Some choices can be on both sides of the goods market.)

  1. Households in the labor market
  2. Firms in the goods market
  3. Firms in the financial market
  4. Households in the goods market
  5. Firms in the labor market
  6. Households in the financial market

Predict how each of the following events will raise or lower the equilibrium wage and quantity of oil workers in Texas. In each case, sketch a demand and supply diagram to illustrate your answer.

  1. The price of oil rises.
  2. New oil-drilling equipment is invented that is cheap and requires few workers to run.
  3. Several major companies that do not drill oil open factories in Texas, offering many well-paid jobs outside the oil industry.
  4. Government imposes costly new regulations to make oil-drilling a safer job.

References

American Community Survey. 2012. “School Enrollment and Work Status: 2011.” Accessed April 13, 2015. http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acsbr11-14.pdf.

National Center for Educational Statistics. “Digest of Education Statistics.” (2008 and 2010). Accessed December 11, 2013. nces.ed.gov.

Glossary

minimum wage
a price floor that makes it illegal for an employer to pay employees less than a certain hourly rate

4.2 Demand and Supply in Financial Markets

14

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify the demanders and suppliers in a financial market
  • Explain how interest rates can affect supply and demand
  • Analyze the economic effects of U.S. debt in terms of domestic financial markets
  • Explain the role of price ceilings and usury laws in the U.S.

 

Introduction

United States’ households, institutions, and domestic businesses saved almost $1.3 trillion in 2015. Where did that savings go and how was it used? Some of the savings ended up in banks, which in turn loaned the money to individuals or businesses that wanted to borrow money. Some was invested in private companies or loaned to government agencies that wanted to borrow money to raise funds for purposes like building roads or mass transit. Some firms reinvested their savings in their own businesses.

In this section, we will determine how the demand and supply model links those who wish to supply financial capital (i.e., savings) with those who demand financial capital (i.e., borrowing). Those who save money (or make financial investments, which is the same thing), whether individuals or businesses, are on the supply side of the financial market. Those who borrow money are on the demand side of the financial market. For a more detailed treatment of the different kinds of financial investments like bank accounts, stocks and bonds, see the Financial Markets chapter.

Who Demands and Who Supplies in Financial Markets?

In any market, the price is what suppliers receive and what demanders pay. In financial markets, those who supply financial capital through saving expect to receive a rate of return, while those who demand financial capital by receiving funds expect to pay a rate of return. This rate of return can come in a variety of forms, depending on the type of investment.

The simplest example of a rate of return is the interest rate. For example, when you supply money into a savings account at a bank, you receive interest on your deposit. The interest the bank pays you as a percent of your deposits is the interest rate. Similarly, if you demand a loan to buy a car or a computer, you will need to pay interest on the money you borrow.

Let’s consider the market for borrowing money with credit cards. In 2015, almost 200 million Americans were cardholders. Credit cards allow you to borrow money from the card’s issuer, and pay back the borrowed amount plus interest, although most allow you a period of time in which you can repay the loan without paying interest. A typical credit card interest rate ranges from 12% to 18% per year. In May 2016, Americans had about $943 billion outstanding in credit card debts. About half of U.S. families with credit cards report that they almost always pay the full balance on time, but one-quarter of U.S. families with credit cards say that they “hardly ever” pay off the card in full. In fact, in 2014, 56% of consumers carried an unpaid balance in the last 12 months. Let’s say that, on average, the annual interest rate for credit card borrowing is 15% per year. Thus, Americans pay tens of billions of dollars every year in interest on their credit cards—plus basic fees for the credit card or fees for late payments.

The graph shows how a price set below equilibrium causes a shortage of credit and how one set above the equilibrium creates a surplus of credit
Demand and Supply for Borrowing Money with Credit Cards In this market for credit card borrowing, the demand curve (D) for borrowing financial capital intersects the supply curve (S) for lending financial capital at equilibrium E. At the equilibrium, the interest rate (the “price” in this market) is 15% and the quantity of financial capital loaned and borrowed is $600 billion. The equilibrium price is where the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied are equal. At an above-equilibrium interest rate like 21%, the quantity of financial capital supplied would increase to $750 billion, but the quantity demanded would decrease to $480 billion. At a below-equilibrium interest rate like 13%, the quantity of financial capital demanded would increase to $700 billion, but the quantity of financial capital supplied would decrease to $510 billion.

(Figure) illustrates demand and supply in the financial market for credit cards. The horizontal axis of the financial market shows the quantity of money loaned or borrowed in this market. The vertical or price axis shows the rate of return, which in the case of credit card borrowing we can measure with an interest rate. (Figure) shows the quantity of financial capital that consumers demand at various interest rates and the quantity that credit card firms (often banks) are willing to supply.

Demand and Supply for Borrowing Money with Credit Cards
Interest Rate (%) Quantity of Financial Capital Demanded (Borrowing) ($ billions) Quantity of Financial Capital Supplied (Lending) ($ billions)
11 $800 $420
13 $700 $510
15 $600 $600
17 $550 $660
19 $500 $720
21 $480 $750

The laws of demand and supply continue to apply in the financial markets. According to the law of demand, a higher rate of return (that is, a higher price) will decrease the quantity demanded. As the interest rate rises, consumers will reduce the quantity that they borrow. According to the law of supply, a higher price increases the quantity supplied. Consequently, as the interest rate paid on credit card borrowing rises, more firms will be eager to issue credit cards and to encourage customers to use them. Conversely, if the interest rate on credit cards falls, the quantity of financial capital supplied in the credit card market will decrease and the quantity demanded will fall.

Equilibrium in Financial Markets

In the financial market for credit cards in (Figure), the supply curve (S) and the demand curve (D) cross at the equilibrium point (E). The equilibrium occurs at an interest rate of 15%, where the quantity of funds demanded and the quantity supplied are equal at an equilibrium quantity of $600 billion.

If the interest rate (remember, this measures the “price” in the financial market) is above the equilibrium level, then an excess supply, or a surplus, of financial capital will arise in this market. For example, at an interest rate of 21%, the quantity of funds supplied increases to $750 billion, while the quantity demanded decreases to $480 billion. At this above-equilibrium interest rate, firms are eager to supply loans to credit card borrowers, but relatively few people or businesses wish to borrow. As a result, some credit card firms will lower the interest rates (or other fees) they charge to attract more business. This strategy will push the interest rate down toward the equilibrium level.

If the interest rate is below the equilibrium, then excess demand or a shortage of funds occurs in this market. At an interest rate of 13%, the quantity of funds credit card borrowers demand increases to $700 billion, but the quantity credit card firms are willing to supply is only $510 billion. In this situation, credit card firms will perceive that they are overloaded with eager borrowers and conclude that they have an opportunity to raise interest rates or fees. The interest rate will face economic pressures to creep up toward the equilibrium level.

The FRED database publishes some two dozen measures of interest rates, including interest rates on credit cards, automobile loans, personal loans, mortgage loans, and more. You can find these at the FRED website.

Shifts in Demand and Supply in Financial Markets

Those who supply financial capital face two broad decisions: how much to save, and how to divide up their savings among different forms of financial investments. We will discuss each of these in turn.

Participants in financial markets must decide when they prefer to consume goods: now or in the future. Economists call this intertemporal decision making because it involves decisions across time. Unlike a decision about what to buy from the grocery store, people make investment or savings decisions across a period of time, sometimes a long period.

Most workers save for retirement because their income in the present is greater than their needs, while the opposite will be true once they retire. Thus, they save today and supply financial markets. If their income increases, they save more. If their perceived situation in the future changes, they change the amount of their saving. For example, there is some evidence that Social Security, the program that workers pay into in order to qualify for government checks after retirement, has tended to reduce the quantity of financial capital that workers save. If this is true, Social Security has shifted the supply of financial capital at any interest rate to the left.

By contrast, many college students need money today when their income is low (or nonexistent) to pay their college expenses. As a result, they borrow today and demand from financial markets. Once they graduate and become employed, they will pay back the loans. Individuals borrow money to purchase homes or cars. A business seeks financial investment so that it has the funds to build a factory or invest in a research and development project that will not pay off for five years, ten years, or even more. Thus, when consumers and businesses have greater confidence that they will be able to repay in the future, the quantity demanded of financial capital at any given interest rate will shift to the right.

For example, in the technology boom of the late 1990s, many businesses became extremely confident that investments in new technology would have a high rate of return, and their demand for financial capital shifted to the right. Conversely, during the 2008 and 2009 Great Recession, their demand for financial capital at any given interest rate shifted to the left.

To this point, we have been looking at saving in total. Now let us consider what affects saving in different types of financial investments. In deciding between different forms of financial investments, suppliers of financial capital will have to consider the rates of return and the risks involved. Rate of return is a positive attribute of investments, but risk is a negative. If Investment A becomes more risky, or the return diminishes, then savers will shift their funds to Investment B—and the supply curve of financial capital for Investment A will shift back to the left while the supply curve of capital for Investment B shifts to the right.

The United States as a Global Borrower

In the global economy, trillions of dollars of financial investment cross national borders every year. In the early 2000s, financial investors from foreign countries were investing several hundred billion dollars per year more in the U.S. economy than U.S. financial investors were investing abroad. The following Work It Out deals with one of the macroeconomic concerns for the U.S. economy in recent years.

The Effect of Growing U.S. Debt

Imagine that foreign investors viewed the U.S. economy as a less desirable place to put their money because of fears about the growth of the U.S. public debt. Using the four-step process for analyzing how changes in supply and demand affect equilibrium outcomes, how would increased U.S. public debt affect the equilibrium price and quantity for capital in U.S. financial markets?

The graph shows the supply and demand for financial capital that includes the foreign sector.
The United States as a Global Borrower Before U.S. Debt Uncertainty The graph shows the demand for financial capital from and supply of financial capital into the U.S. financial markets by the foreign sector before the increase in uncertainty regarding U.S. public debt. The original equilibrium (E0) occurs at an equilibrium rate of return (R0) and the equilibrium quantity is at Q0.

Step 1. Draw a diagram showing demand and supply for financial capital that represents the original scenario in which foreign investors are pouring money into the U.S. economy. (Figure) shows a demand curve, D, and a supply curve, S, where the supply of capital includes the funds arriving from foreign investors. The original equilibrium E0 occurs at interest rate R0 and quantity of financial investment Q0.

Step 2. Will the diminished confidence in the U.S. economy as a place to invest affect demand or supply of financial capital? Yes, it will affect supply. Many foreign investors look to the U.S. financial markets to store their money in safe financial vehicles with low risk and stable returns. Diminished confidence means U.S. financial assets will be seen as more risky.

The graph shows the supply and demand for financial capital that includes the foreign sector.
The United States as a Global Borrower Before and After U.S. Debt Uncertainty The graph shows the demand for financial capital and supply of financial capital into the U.S. financial markets by the foreign sector before and after the increase in uncertainty regarding U.S. public debt. The original equilibrium (E0) occurs at an equilibrium rate of return (R0) and the equilibrium quantity is at Q0.

Step 3. Will supply increase or decrease? When the enthusiasm of foreign investors’ for investing their money in the U.S. economy diminishes, the supply of financial capital shifts to the left. (Figure) shows the supply curve shift from S0 to S1.

Step 4. Thus, foreign investors’ diminished enthusiasm leads to a new equilibrium, E1, which occurs at the higher interest rate, R1, and the lower quantity of financial investment, Q1. In short, U.S. borrowers will have to pay more interest on their borrowing.

 

The economy has experienced an enormous inflow of foreign capital. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, by the third quarter of 2015, U.S. investors had accumulated $23.3 trillion of foreign assets, but foreign investors owned a total of $30.6 trillion of U.S. assets. If foreign investors were to pull their money out of the U.S. economy and invest elsewhere in the world, the result could be a significantly lower quantity of financial investment in the United States, available only at a higher interest rate. This reduced inflow of foreign financial investment could impose hardship on U.S. consumers and firms interested in borrowing.

In a modern, developed economy, financial capital often moves invisibly through electronic transfers between one bank account and another. Yet we can analyze these flows of funds with the same tools of demand and supply as markets for goods or labor.

Price Ceilings in Financial Markets: Usury Laws

As we noted earlier, about 200 million Americans own credit cards, and their interest payments and fees total tens of billions of dollars each year. It is little wonder that political pressures sometimes arise for setting limits on the interest rates or fees that credit card companies charge. The firms that issue credit cards, including banks, oil companies, phone companies, and retail stores, respond that the higher interest rates are necessary to cover the losses created by those who borrow on their credit cards and who do not repay on time or at all. These companies also point out that cardholders can avoid paying interest if they pay their bills on time.

The graph shows the results of an interest rate that is set at the price ceiling, both beneath the equilibrium interest rate
Credit Card Interest Rates: Another Price Ceiling Example The original intersection of demand D and supply S occurs at equilibrium E0. However, a price ceiling is set at the interest rate Rc, below the equilibrium interest rate R0, and so the interest rate cannot adjust upward to the equilibrium. At the price ceiling, the quantity demanded, Qd, exceeds the quantity supplied, Qs. There is excess demand, also called a shortage.

Consider the credit card market as (Figure) illustrators. In this financial market, the vertical axis shows the interest rate (which is the price in the financial market). Demanders in the credit card market are households and businesses. Suppliers are the companies that issue credit cards. This figure does not use specific numbers, which would be hypothetical in any case, but instead focuses on the underlying economic relationships. Imagine a law imposes a price ceiling that holds the interest rate charged on credit cards at the rate Rc, which lies below the interest rate R0 that would otherwise have prevailed in the market. The horizontal dashed line at interest rate Rc in (Figure) shows the price ceiling. The demand and supply model predicts that at the lower price ceiling interest rate, the quantity demanded of credit card debt will increase from its original level of Q0 to Qd; however, the quantity supplied of credit card debt will decrease from the original Q0 to Qs. At the price ceiling (Rc), quantity demanded will exceed quantity supplied. Consequently, a number of people who want to have credit cards and are willing to pay the prevailing interest rate will find that companies are unwilling to issue cards to them. The result will be a credit shortage.

Many states do have usury laws, which impose an upper limit on the interest rate that lenders can charge. However, in many cases these upper limits are well above the market interest rate. For example, if the interest rate is not allowed to rise above 30% per year, it can still fluctuate below that level according to market forces. A price ceiling that is set at a relatively high level is nonbinding, and it will have no practical effect unless the equilibrium price soars high enough to exceed the price ceiling.

Key Concepts and Summary

In the demand and supply analysis of financial markets, the “price” is the rate of return or the interest rate received. We measure the quantity by the money that flows from those who supply financial capital to those who demand it.

Two factors can shift the supply of financial capital to a certain investment: if people want to alter their existing levels of consumption, and if the riskiness or return on one investment changes relative to other investments. Factors that can shift demand for capital include business confidence and consumer confidence in the future—since financial investments received in the present are typically repaid in the future.

Self-Check Questions

In the financial market, what causes a movement along the demand curve? What causes a shift in the demand curve?

Changes in the interest rate (i.e., the price of financial capital) cause a movement along the demand curve. A change in anything else (non-price variable) that affects demand for financial capital (e.g., changes in confidence about the future, changes in needs for borrowing) would shift the demand curve.

In the financial market, what causes a movement along the supply curve? What causes a shift in the supply curve?

Changes in the interest rate (i.e., the price of financial capital) cause a movement along the supply curve. A change in anything else that affects the supply of financial capital (a non-price variable) such as income or future needs would shift the supply curve.

If a usury law limits interest rates to no more than 35%, what would the likely impact be on the amount of loans made and interest rates paid?

If market interest rates stay in their normal range, an interest rate limit of 35% would not be binding. If the equilibrium interest rate rose above 35%, the interest rate would be capped at that rate, and the quantity of loans would be lower than the equilibrium quantity, causing a shortage of loans.

Which of the following changes in the financial market will lead to a decline in interest rates:

  1. a rise in demand
  2. a fall in demand
  3. a rise in supply
  4. a fall in supply

b and c will lead to a fall in interest rates. At a lower demand, lenders will not be able to charge as much, and with more available lenders, competition for borrowers will drive rates down.

Which of the following changes in the financial market will lead to an increase in the quantity of loans made and received:

  1. a rise in demand
  2. a fall in demand
  3. a rise in supply
  4. a fall in supply

a and c will increase the quantity of loans. More people who want to borrow will result in more loans being given, as will more people who want to lend.

Review Questions

How do economists define equilibrium in financial markets?

What would be a sign of a shortage in financial markets?

Would usury laws help or hinder resolution of a shortage in financial markets?

Critical Thinking Questions

Suppose the U.S. economy began to grow more rapidly than other countries in the world. What would be the likely impact on U.S. financial markets as part of the global economy?

If the government imposed a federal interest rate ceiling of 20% on all loans, who would gain and who would lose?

Problems

Predict how each of the following economic changes will affect the equilibrium price and quantity in the financial market for home loans. Sketch a demand and supply diagram to support your answers.

  1. The number of people at the most common ages for home-buying increases.
  2. People gain confidence that the economy is growing and that their jobs are secure.
  3. Banks that have made home loans find that a larger number of people than they expected are not repaying those loans.
  4. Because of a threat of a war, people become uncertain about their economic future.
  5. The overall level of saving in the economy diminishes.
  6. The federal government changes its bank regulations in a way that makes it cheaper and easier for banks to make home loans.

(Figure) shows the amount of savings and borrowing in a market for loans to purchase homes, measured in millions of dollars, at various interest rates. What is the equilibrium interest rate and quantity in the capital financial market? How can you tell? Now, imagine that because of a shift in the perceptions of foreign investors, the supply curve shifts so that there will be $10 million less supplied at every interest rate. Calculate the new equilibrium interest rate and quantity, and explain why the direction of the interest rate shift makes intuitive sense.

Interest Rate Qs Qd
5% 130 170
6% 135 150
7% 140 140
8% 145 135
9% 150 125
10% 155 110

References

CreditCards.com. 2013. http://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/credit-card-industry-facts-personal-debt-statistics-1276.php.

Glossary

interest rate
the “price” of borrowing in the financial market; a rate of return on an investment
usury laws
laws that impose an upper limit on the interest rate that lenders can charge

4.3 The Market System as an Efficient Mechanism for Information

15

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Apply demand and supply models to analyze prices and quantities
  • Explain the effects of price controls on the equilibrium of prices and quantities

 

Prices exist in markets for goods and services, for labor, and for financial capital. In all of these markets, prices serve as a remarkable social mechanism for collecting, combining, and transmitting information that is relevant to the market—namely, the relationship between demand and supply—and then serving as messengers to convey that information to buyers and sellers. In a market-oriented economy, no government agency or guiding intelligence oversees the set of responses and interconnections that result from a change in price. Instead, each consumer reacts according to that person’s preferences and budget set, and each profit-seeking producer reacts to the impact on its expected profits. The following Clear It Up feature examines the demand and supply models.

Why are demand and supply curves important?

The demand and supply model is the second fundamental diagram for this course. (The opportunity set model that we introduced in the Choice in a World of Scarcity chapter was the first.) Just as it would be foolish to try to learn the arithmetic of long division by memorizing every possible combination of numbers that can be divided by each other, it would be foolish to try to memorize every specific example of demand and supply in this chapter, this textbook, or this course. Demand and supply is not primarily a list of examples. It is a model to analyze prices and quantities. Even though demand and supply diagrams have many labels, they are fundamentally the same in their logic. Your goal should be to understand the underlying model so you can use it to analyze any market.

(Figure) displays a generic demand and supply curve. The horizontal axis shows the different measures of quantity: a quantity of a good or service, or a quantity of labor for a given job, or a quantity of financial capital. The vertical axis shows a measure of price: the price of a good or service, the wage in the labor market, or the rate of return (like the interest rate) in the financial market.

The demand and supply model can explain the existing levels of prices, wages, and rates of return. To carry out such an analysis, think about the quantity that will be demanded at each price and the quantity that will be supplied at each price—that is, think about the shape of the demand and supply curves—and how these forces will combine to produce equilibrium.

The graph shows a straightforward example of standard supply and demand curves that intersect at equilibrium.
Demand and Supply Curves The figure displays a generic demand and supply curve. The horizontal axis shows the different measures of quantity: a quantity of a good or service, a quantity of labor for a given job, or a quantity of financial capital. The vertical axis shows a measure of price: the price of a good or service, the wage in the labor market, or the rate of return (like the interest rate) in the financial market. We can use the demand and supply curves explain how economic events will cause changes in prices, wages, and rates of return.

We can also use demand and supply to explain how economic events will cause changes in prices, wages, and rates of return. There are only four possibilities: the change in any single event may cause the demand curve to shift right or to shift left, or it may cause the supply curve to shift right or to shift left. The key to analyzing the effect of an economic event on equilibrium prices and quantities is to determine which of these four possibilities occurred. The way to do this correctly is to think back to the list of factors that shift the demand and supply curves. Note that if more than one variable is changing at the same time, the overall impact will depend on the degree of the shifts. When there are multiple variables, economists isolate each change and analyze it independently.

 

An increase in the price of some product signals consumers that there is a shortage; therefore, they may want to economize on buying this product. For example, if you are thinking about taking a plane trip to Hawaii, but the ticket turns out to be expensive during the week you intend to go, you might consider other weeks when the ticket might be cheaper. The price could be high because you were planning to travel during a holiday when demand for traveling is high. Maybe the cost of an input like jet fuel increased or the airline has raised the price temporarily to see how many people are willing to pay it. Perhaps all of these factors are present at the same time. You do not need to analyze the market and break down the price change into its underlying factors. You just have to look at the ticket price and decide whether and when to fly.

In the same way, price changes provide useful information to producers. Imagine the situation of a farmer who grows oats and learns that the price of oats has risen. The higher price could be due to an increase in demand caused by a new scientific study proclaiming that eating oats is especially healthful. Perhaps the price of a substitute grain, like corn, has risen, and people have responded by buying more oats. The oat farmer does not need to know the details. The farmer only needs to know that the price of oats has risen and that it will be profitable to expand production as a result.

The actions of individual consumers and producers as they react to prices overlap and interlock in markets for goods, labor, and financial capital. A change in any single market is transmitted through these multiple interconnections to other markets. The vision of the role of flexible prices helping markets to reach equilibrium and linking different markets together helps to explain why price controls can be so counterproductive. Price controls are government laws that serve to regulate prices rather than allow the various markets to determine prices. There is an old proverb: “Don’t kill the messenger.” In ancient times, messengers carried information between distant cities and kingdoms. When they brought bad news, there was an emotional impulse to kill the messenger. However, killing the messenger did not kill the bad news. Moreover, killing the messenger had an undesirable side effect: Other messengers would refuse to bring news to that city or kingdom, depriving its citizens of vital information.

Those who seek price controls are trying to kill the messenger—or at least to stifle an unwelcome message that prices are bringing about the equilibrium level of price and quantity. However, price controls do nothing to affect the underlying forces of demand and supply, and this can have serious repercussions. During China’s “Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s, the government kept food prices artificially low, with the result that 30 to 40 million people died of starvation because the low prices depressed farm production. This was communist party leader Mao Zedong’s social and economic campaign to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy to a socialist society through rapid industrialization and collectivization. Changes in demand and supply will continue to reveal themselves through consumers’ and producers’ behavior. Immobilizing the price messenger through price controls will deprive everyone in the economy of critical information. Without this information, it becomes difficult for everyone—buyers and sellers alike—to react in a flexible and appropriate manner as changes occur throughout the economy.

Baby Boomers Come of Age

The graph shows an increase in the demand for and nurses from D0 to D1.
Impact of Increasing Demand for Nurses 2014-2024 In 2014, the median salary for nurses was $67,490. As demand for services increases, the demand curve shifts to the right (from D0 to D1) and the equilibrium quantity of nurses increases from Qe0 to Qe1. The equilibrium salary increases from Pe0 to Pe1.

The theory of supply and demand can explain what happens in the labor markets and suggests that the demand for nurses will increase as healthcare needs of baby boomers increase, as (Figure) shows. The impact of that increase will result in an average salary higher than the $67,490 earned in 2015 referenced in the first part of this case. The new equilibrium (E1) will be at the new equilibrium price (Pe1).Equilibrium quantity will also increase from Qe0 to Qe1.

The graph shows increases in both the supply and demand for nurses and its effect on equilibrium price and quantity
Impact of Decreasing Supply of Nurses between 2014 and 2024 The increase in demand for nurses shown in Figure 4.10 leads to both higher prices and higher quantities demanded. As nurses retire from the work force, the supply of nurses decreases, causing a leftward shift in the supply curve and higher salaries for nurses at Pe2. The net effect on the equilibrium quantity of nurses is uncertain, which in this representation is less than Qe1, but more than the initial Qe0.

Suppose that as the demand for nurses increases, the supply shrinks due to an increasing number of nurses entering retirement and increases in the tuition of nursing degrees. The leftward shift of the supply curve in (Figure) captures the impact of a decreasing supply of nurses. The shifts in the two curves result in higher salaries for nurses, but the overall impact in the quantity of nurses is uncertain, as it depends on the relative shifts of supply and demand.

While we do not know if the number of nurses will increase or decrease relative to their initial employment, we know they will have higher salaries.

Key Concepts and Summary

The market price system provides a highly efficient mechanism for disseminating information about relative scarcities of goods, services, labor, and financial capital. Market participants do not need to know why prices have changed, only that the changes require them to revisit previous decisions they made about supply and demand. Price controls hide information about the true scarcity of products and thereby cause misallocation of resources.

Self-Check Questions

Identify the most accurate statement. A price floor will have the largest effect if it is set:

  1. substantially above the equilibrium price
  2. slightly above the equilibrium price
  3. slightly below the equilibrium price
  4. substantially below the equilibrium price

Sketch all four of these possibilities on a demand and supply diagram to illustrate your answer.

A price floor prevents a price from falling below a certain level, but has no effect on prices above that level. It will have its biggest effect in creating excess supply (as measured by the entire area inside the dotted lines on the graph, from D to S) if it is substantially above the equilibrium price. This is illustrated in the following figure.


The graph shows a dashed price floor line substanitally above the equilibrium price with excess supply beneath the equilibrium.

It will have a lesser effect if it is slightly above the equilibrium price. This is illustrated in the next figure.


The graph shows a dashed price floor line that is just slightly above equilibrium.

It will have no effect if it is set either slightly or substantially below the equilibrium price, since an equilibrium price above a price floor will not be affected by that price floor. The following figure illustrates these situations.


The left image shows a dashed price floor line that is just slightly below equilibrium. The right image shows a dashed price floor line that is substantially below equilibrium.

A price ceiling will have the largest effect:

  1. substantially below the equilibrium price
  2. slightly below the equilibrium price
  3. substantially above the equilibrium price
  4. slightly above the equilibrium price

Sketch all four of these possibilities on a demand and supply diagram to illustrate your answer.

A price ceiling prevents a price from rising above a certain level, but has no effect on prices below that level. It will have its biggest effect in creating excess demand if it is substantially below the equilibrium price. The following figure illustrates these situations.


The left image shows a dashed price ceiling line that is substantially below equilibrium. The right image shows a dashed price floor line that is just slightly below equilibrium.

When the price ceiling is set substantially or slightly above the equilibrium price, it will have no effect on creating excess demand. The following figure illustrates these situations.


The left image shows a dashed price ceiling line that is substantially above equilibrium. The right image shows a dashed price ceiling line that is just slightly above equilibrium.

Select the correct answer. A price floor will usually shift:

  1. demand
  2. supply
  3. both
  4. neither

Illustrate your answer with a diagram.

Neither. A shift in demand or supply means that at every price, either a greater or a lower quantity is demanded or supplied. A price floor does not shift a demand curve or a supply curve. However, if the price floor is set above the equilibrium, it will cause the quantity supplied on the supply curve to be greater than the quantity demanded on the demand curve, leading to excess supply.

Select the correct answer. A price ceiling will usually shift:

  1. demand
  2. supply
  3. both
  4. neither

Neither. A shift in demand or supply means that at every price, either a greater or a lower quantity is demanded or supplied. A price ceiling does not shift a demand curve or a supply curve. However, if the price ceiling is set below the equilibrium, it will cause the quantity demanded on the demand curve to be greater than the quantity supplied on the supply curve, leading to excess demand.

Review Question

Whether the product market or the labor market, what happens to the equilibrium price and quantity for each of the four possibilities: increase in demand, decrease in demand, increase in supply, and decrease in supply.

Critical Thinking Questions

Why are the factors that shift the demand for a product different from the factors that shift the demand for labor? Why are the factors that shift the supply of a product different from those that shift the supply of labor?

During a discussion several years ago on building a pipeline to Alaska to carry natural gas, the U.S. Senate passed a bill stipulating that there should be a guaranteed minimum price for the natural gas that would flow through the pipeline. The thinking behind the bill was that if private firms had a guaranteed price for their natural gas, they would be more willing to drill for gas and to pay to build the pipeline.

  1. Using the demand and supply framework, predict the effects of this price floor on the price, quantity demanded, and quantity supplied.
  2. With the enactment of this price floor for natural gas, what are some of the likely unintended consequences in the market?
  3. Suggest some policies other than the price floor that the government can pursue if it wishes to encourage drilling for natural gas and for a new pipeline in Alaska.

Problems

Imagine that to preserve the traditional way of life in small fishing villages, a government decides to impose a price floor that will guarantee all fishermen a certain price for their catch.

  1. Using the demand and supply framework, predict the effects on the price, quantity demanded, and quantity supplied.
  2. With the enactment of this price floor for fish, what are some of the likely unintended consequences in the market?
  3. Suggest some policies other than the price floor to make it possible for small fishing villages to continue.

What happens to the price and the quantity bought and sold in the cocoa market if countries producing cocoa experience a drought and a new study is released demonstrating the health benefits of cocoa? Illustrate your answer with a demand and supply graph.

Part 5: Elasticity

V

Photo of the Netflix Watch Instantly tab to watch movies and TV episodes instantly via streaming media
Netflix On-Demand Media Netflix, Inc. is an American provider of on-demand Internet streaming media to many countries around the world, including the United States, and of flat rate DVD-by-mail in the United States. (Credit: modification of work by Traci Lawson/Flickr Creative Commons)

That Will Be How Much?

Imagine going to your favorite coffee shop and having the waiter inform you the pricing has changed. Instead of $3 for a cup of coffee, you will now be charged $2 for coffee, $1 for creamer, and $1 for your choice of sweetener. If you pay your usual $3 for a cup of coffee, you must choose between creamer and sweetener. If you want both, you now face an extra charge of $1. Sound absurd? Well, that is similar to the situation Netflix customers found themselves in—they faced a 60% price hike to retain the same service in 2011.

In early 2011, Netflix consumers paid about $10 a month for a package consisting of streaming video and DVD rentals. In July 2011, the company announced a packaging change. Customers wishing to retain both streaming video and DVD rental would be charged $15.98 per month, a price increase of about 60%. In 2014, Netflix also raised its streaming video subscription price from $7.99 to $8.99 per month for new U.S. customers. The company also changed its policy of 4K streaming content from $9.00 to $12.00 per month that year.

How would customers of the 18-year-old firm react? Would they abandon Netflix? Would the ease of access to other venues make a difference in how consumers responded to the Netflix price change? We will explore the answers to those questions in this chapter, which focuses on the change in quantity with respect to a change in price, a concept economists call elasticity.

Introduction to Elasticity

In this chapter, you will learn about:

Anyone who has studied economics knows the law of demand: a higher price will lead to a lower quantity demanded. What you may not know is how much lower the quantity demanded will be. Similarly, the law of supply states that a higher price will lead to a higher quantity supplied. The question is: How much higher? This chapter will explain how to answer these questions and why they are critically important in the real world.

To find answers to these questions, we need to understand the concept of elasticity. Elasticity is an economics concept that measures responsiveness of one variable to changes in another variable. Suppose you drop two items from a second-floor balcony. The first item is a tennis ball. The second item is a brick. Which will bounce higher? Obviously, the tennis ball. We would say that the tennis ball has greater elasticity.

Consider an economic example. Cigarette taxes are an example of a “sin tax,” a tax on something that is bad for you, like alcohol. Governments tax cigarettes at the state and national levels. State taxes range from a low of 17 cents per pack in Missouri to $4.35 per pack in New York. The average state cigarette tax is $1.69 per pack. The 2014 federal tax rate on cigarettes was $1.01 per pack, but in 2015 the Obama Administration proposed raising the federal tax nearly a dollar to $1.95 per pack. The key question is: How much would cigarette purchases decline?

Taxes on cigarettes serve two purposes: to raise tax revenue for government and to discourage cigarette consumption. However, if a higher cigarette tax discourages consumption considerably, meaning a greatly reduced quantity of cigarette sales, then the cigarette tax on each pack will not raise much revenue for the government. Alternatively, a higher cigarette tax that does not discourage consumption by much will actually raise more tax revenue for the government. Thus, when a government agency tries to calculate the effects of altering its cigarette tax, it must analyze how much the tax affects the quantity of cigarettes consumed. This issue reaches beyond governments and taxes. Every firm faces a similar issue. When a firm considers raising the sales price, it must consider how much a price increase will reduce the quantity demanded of what it sells. Conversely, when a firm puts its products on sale, it must expect (or hope) that the lower price will lead to a significantly higher quantity demanded.

5.1 Price Elasticity of Demand and Price Elasticity of Supply

16

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Calculate the price elasticity of demand
  • Calculate the price elasticity of supply

 

Introduction

Both the demand and supply curve show the relationship between price and the number of units demanded or supplied. Price elasticity is the ratio between the percentage change in the quantity demanded (Qd) or supplied (Qs) and the corresponding percent change in price. The price elasticity of demand is the percentage change in the quantity demanded of a good or service divided by the percentage change in the price. The price elasticity of supply is the percentage change in quantity supplied divided by the percentage change in price.

We can usefully divide elasticities into three broad categories: elastic, inelastic, and unitary. An elastic demand or elastic supply is one in which the elasticity is greater than one, indicating a high responsiveness to changes in price. Elasticities that are less than one indicate low responsiveness to price changes and correspond to inelastic demand or inelastic supply. Unitary elasticities indicate proportional responsiveness of either demand or supply, as (Figure) summarizes.

Elastic, Inelastic, and Unitary: Three Cases of Elasticity
If . . . Then . . . And It Is Called . . .
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Elastic
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Unitary
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Inelastic

Before we delve into the details of elasticity, enjoy this article on elasticity and ticket prices at the Super Bowl.

To calculate elasticity along a demand or supply curve economists use the average percent change in both quantity and price. This is called the Midpoint Method for Elasticity, and is represented in the following equations:

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\begin{array}{rcl}\text{% change in quantity}& =& \frac{{\mathrm{Q}}_{2}-{\mathrm{Q}}_{1}}{\left({\mathrm{Q}}_{2}+{\mathrm{Q}}_{1}\right)/2} × 100\\ \text{% change in price}& =& \frac{{\mathrm{P}}_{2}-{\mathrm{P}}_{1}}{\left({\mathrm{P}}_{2}+{\mathrm{P}}_{1}\right)/2} × 100\end{array}

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The advantage of the Midpoint Method is that one obtains the same elasticity between two price points whether there is a price increase or decrease. This is because the formula uses the same base (average quantity and average price) for both cases.

Calculating Price Elasticity of Demand

Let’s calculate the elasticity between points A and B and between points G and H as (Figure) shows.

Calculating the Price Elasticity of Demand
We calculate the price elasticity of demand as the percentage change in quantity divided by the percentage change in price.

The graph shows a downward sloping line that represents the price elasticity of demand.

First, apply the formula to calculate the elasticity as price decreases from 💲70 at point B to 💲60 at point A:

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\begin{array}{rcl}\text{% change in quantity}& =& \frac{3,000-2,800}{\left(3,000+2,800\right)/2} × 100\\ & =& \frac{200}{2,900} × 100\\ & =& 6.9\\ \text{% change in price}& =& \frac{60-70}{\left(60+70\right)/2} × 100\\ & =& \frac{-10}{65} × 100\\ & =& -15.4\\ \text{Price Elasticity of Demand}& =& \frac{    6.9%}{-15.4%}\\ & =& 0.45\end{array}

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Therefore, the elasticity of demand between these two points is

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which is 0.45, an amount smaller than one, showing that the demand is inelastic in this interval. Price elasticities of demand are always negative since price and quantity demanded always move in opposite directions (on the demand curve). By convention, we always talk about elasticities as positive numbers. Mathematically, we take the absolute value of the result. We will ignore this detail from now on, while remembering to interpret elasticities as positive numbers.

This means that, along the demand curve between point B and A, if the price changes by 1%, the quantity demanded will change by 0.45%. A change in the price will result in a smaller percentage change in the quantity demanded. For example, a 10% increase in the price will result in only a 4.5% decrease in quantity demanded. A 10% decrease in the price will result in only a 4.5% increase in the quantity demanded. Price elasticities of demand are negative numbers indicating that the demand curve is downward sloping, but we read them as absolute values. The following Work It Out feature will walk you through calculating the price elasticity of demand.

 

Finding the Price Elasticity of Demand

Calculate the price elasticity of demand using the data in (Figure) for an increase in price from G to H. Has the elasticity increased or decreased?

Step 1. We know that:

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Step 2. From the Midpoint Formula we know that:

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\begin{array}{rcl}% \text{change in quantity}& =& \frac{{\text{Q}}_{2}-{\text{Q}}_{1}}{\left({\text{Q}}_{2}+{\text{Q}}_{1}\right)/2} × 100\\ % \text{change in price}& =& \frac{{\text{P}}_{2}-{\text{P}}_{1}}{\left({\text{P}}_{2}+{\text{P}}_{1}\right)/2} × 100\end{array}

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Step 3. So we can use the values provided in the figure in each equation:

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\begin{array}{rcl}\text{% change in quantity}& =& \frac{1,600-1,800}{\left(1,600+1,800\right)/2} × 100\\ & =& \frac{-200}{1,700} × 100\\ & =& -11.76\\ \text{% change in price}& =& \frac{130-120}{\left(130+120\right)/2} × 100\\ & =& \frac{10}{125} × 100\\ & =& 8.0\end{array}

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Step 4. Then, we can use those values to determine the price elasticity of demand:

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\begin{array}{rcl}\text{Price Elasticity of Demand}& =& \frac{\text{% change in quantity}}{\text{% change in price}}\\ & =& \frac{-11.76}{8}\\ & =& 1.47\end{array}

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Therefore, the elasticity of demand from G to is H 1.47. The magnitude of the elasticity has increased (in absolute value) as we moved up along the demand curve from points A to B. Recall that the elasticity between these two points was 0.45. Demand was inelastic between points A and B and elastic between points G and H. This shows us that price elasticity of demand changes at different points along a straight-line demand curve.

 

Calculating the Price Elasticity of Supply

Assume that an apartment rents for 💲650 per month and at that price the landlord rents 10,000 units are rented as (Figure) shows. When the price increases to 💲700 per month, the landlord supplies 13,000 units into the market. By what percentage does apartment supply increase? What is the price sensitivity?

The graph shows an upward sloping line that represents the supply of apartment rentals.
Price Elasticity of Supply: We calculate the price elasticity of supply as the percentage change in quantity divided by the percentage change in price.

Using the Midpoint Method,

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\begin{array}{rcl}\text{% change in quantity}& =& \frac{13,000-10,000}{\left(13,000+10,000\right)/2} × 100\\ & =& \frac{3,000}{11,500} × 100\\ & =& 26.1\\ \text{% change in price}& =& \frac{💲700-💲650}{\left(💲700+💲650\right)/2} × 100\\ & =& \frac{50}{675} × 100\\ & =& 7.4\\ \text{Price Elasticity of Supply}& =& \frac{26.1%}{  7.4%}\\ & =& 3.53\end{array}

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Again, as with the elasticity of demand, the elasticity of supply is not followed by any units. Elasticity is a ratio of one percentage change to another percentage change—nothing more—and we read it as an absolute value. In this case, a 1% rise in price causes an increase in quantity supplied of 3.5%. The greater than one elasticity of supply means that the percentage change in quantity supplied will be greater than a one percent price change. If you’re starting to wonder if the concept of slope fits into this calculation, read the following Clear It Up box.

Is the elasticity the slope?

It is a common mistake to confuse the slope of either the supply or demand curve with its elasticity. The slope is the rate of change in units along the curve, or the rise/run (change in y over the change in x). For example, in (Figure), at each point shown on the demand curve, price drops by 💲10 and the number of units demanded increases by 200 compared to the point to its left. The slope is –10/200 along the entire demand curve and does not change. The price elasticity, however, changes along the curve. Elasticity between points A and B was 0.45 and increased to 1.47 between points G and H. Elasticity is the percentage change, which is a different calculation from the slope and has a different meaning.

When we are at the upper end of a demand curve, where price is high and the quantity demanded is low, a small change in the quantity demanded, even in, say, one unit, is pretty big in percentage terms. A change in price of, say, a dollar, is going to be much less important in percentage terms than it would have been at the bottom of the demand curve. Likewise, at the bottom of the demand curve, that one unit change when the quantity demanded is high will be small as a percentage.

Thus, at one end of the demand curve, where we have a large percentage change in quantity demanded over a small percentage change in price, the elasticity value would be high, or demand would be relatively elastic. Even with the same change in the price and the same change in the quantity demanded, at the other end of the demand curve the quantity is much higher, and the price is much lower, so the percentage change in quantity demanded is smaller and the percentage change in price is much higher. That means at the bottom of the curve we’d have a small numerator over a large denominator, so the elasticity measure would be much lower, or inelastic.

As we move along the demand curve, the values for quantity and price go up or down, depending on which way we are moving, so the percentages for, say, a 💲1 difference in price or a one unit difference in quantity, will change as well, which means the ratios of those percentages and hence the elasticity will change.

 

Key Concepts and Summary

Price elasticity measures the responsiveness of the quantity demanded or supplied of a good to a change in its price. We compute it as the percentage change in quantity demanded (or supplied) divided by the percentage change in price. We can describe elasticity as elastic (or very responsive), unit elastic, or inelastic (not very responsive). Elastic demand or supply curves indicate that quantity demanded or supplied respond to price changes in a greater than proportional manner. An inelastic demand or supply curve is one where a given percentage change in price will cause a smaller percentage change in quantity demanded or supplied. A unitary elasticity means that a given percentage change in price leads to an equal percentage change in quantity demanded or supplied.

Self-Check Questions

From the data in (Figure) about demand for smart phones, calculate the price elasticity of demand from: point B to point C, point D to point E, and point G to point H. Classify the elasticity at each point as elastic, inelastic, or unit elastic.

PointsPQA603,000B702,800C802,600 D90 2,400E 1002,200F 1102,000 G 1201,800H 1301,600

From point B to point C, price rises from 💲70 to 💲80, and Qd decreases from 2,800 to 2,600. So:

*** QuickLaTeX cannot compile formula:
\begin{array}{rcl}\text{% change in quantity}& =& \frac{2600-2800}{\left(2600+2800\right)÷2}× 100\\ & =& \frac{-200}{2700}× 100\\ & =& -7.41\\ \text{% change in price}& =& \frac{80-70}{\left(80+70\right)÷2}× 100\\ & =& \frac{10}{75}× 100\\ & =& 13.33\\ \text{Elasticity of Demand}& =& \frac{-7.41%}{13.33%}\\ & =& 0.56\end{array}

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The demand curve is inelastic in this area; that is, its elasticity value is less than one.

Answer from Point D to point E:

*** QuickLaTeX cannot compile formula:
\begin{array}{rcl}\text{% change in quantity}& =& \frac{2200-2400}{\left(2200+2400\right)÷2}× 100\\ & =& \frac{-200}{2300}× 100\\ & =& -8.7\\ % \text{change in price}& =& \frac{100-90}{\left(100+90\right)÷2}× 100\\ & =& \frac{10}{95}× 100\\ & =& 10.53\\ \text{Elasticity of Demand}& =& \frac{-8.7% }{10.53%}\\ & =& 0.83\end{array}

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The demand curve is inelastic in this area; that is, its elasticity value is less than one.

Answer from Point G to point H:

*** QuickLaTeX cannot compile formula:
\begin{array}{rcl}\text{% change in quantity}& =& \frac{1600-1800}{1700}× 100\\ & =& \frac{-200}{1700}× 100\\ & =& -11.76\\ \text{% change in price}& =& \frac{130-120}{125}× 100\\ & =& \frac{10}{125}× 100\\ & =& 8.00\\ \text{Elasticity of Demand}& =& \frac{-11.76% }{8.00%}\\ & =& -1.47\end{array}

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The demand curve is elastic in this interval.

From the data in (Figure) about supply of alarm clocks, calculate the price elasticity of supply from: point J to point K, point L to point M, and point N to point P. Classify the elasticity at each point as elastic, inelastic, or unit elastic.

Point Price Quantity Supplied
J 💲8 50
K 💲9 70
L 💲10 80
M 💲11 88
N 💲12 95
P 💲13 100

From point J to point K, price rises from 💲8 to 💲9, and quantity rises from 50 to 70. So:

*** QuickLaTeX cannot compile formula:
\begin{array}{rcl}\text{% change in quantity}& =& \frac{70-50}{\left(70+50\right)÷2}× 100\\ & =& \frac{20}{60}× 100\\ & =& 33.33\\ \text{% change in price}& =& \frac{💲9-💲8}{\left(💲9+💲8\right)÷2}× 100\\ & =& \frac{1}{8.5}× 100\\ & =& 11.76\\ \text{Elasticity of Supply}& =& \frac{33.33%}{11.76%}\\ & =& 2.83\end{array}

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The supply curve is elastic in this area; that is, its elasticity value is greater than one.

From point L to point M, the price rises from 💲10 to 💲11, while the Qs rises from 80 to 88:

*** QuickLaTeX cannot compile formula:
\begin{array}{rcl}\text{% change in quantity}& =& \frac{88-80}{\left(88+80\right)÷2}× 100\\ & =& \frac{8}{84}× 100\\ & =& 9.52\\ \text{%change in price}& =& \frac{💲11-💲10}{\left(💲11+💲10\right)÷2}× 100\\ & =& \frac{1}{10.5}× 100\\ & =& 9.52\\ \text{Elasticity of Demand}& =& \frac{9.52%}{9.52%}\\ & =& 1.0\end{array}

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The supply curve has unitary elasticity in this area.

From point N to point P, the price rises from 💲12 to 💲13, and Qs rises from 95 to 100:

*** QuickLaTeX cannot compile formula:
\begin{array}{rcl}\text{% change in quantity}& =& \frac{100-95}{\left(100+95\right)÷2}×100\\ & =& \frac{5}{97.5}×100\\ & =& 5.13\\ \text{% change in price}& =& \frac{💲13-💲12}{\left(💲13+💲12\right)÷2}× 100\\ & =& \frac{1}{12.5}× 100\\ & =& 8.0\\ \text{Elasticity of Supply}& =& \frac{5.13%}{8.0%  }\\ & =& 0.64\end{array}

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The supply curve is inelastic in this region of the supply curve.

Review Questions

What is the formula for calculating elasticity?

What is the price elasticity of demand? Can you explain it in your own words?

What is the price elasticity of supply? Can you explain it in your own words?

Critical Thinking Questions

Transatlantic air travel in business class has an estimated elasticity of demand of 0.62, while transatlantic air travel in economy class has an estimated price elasticity of 0.12. Why do you think this is the case?

What is the relationship between price elasticity and position on the demand curve? For example, as you move up the demand curve to higher prices and lower quantities, what happens to the measured elasticity? How would you explain that?

Problems

The equation for a demand curve is P = 48 – 3Q. What is the elasticity in moving from a quantity of 5 to a quantity of 6?

The equation for a demand curve is P = 2/Q. What is the elasticity of demand as price falls from 5 to 4? What is the elasticity of demand as the price falls from 9 to 8? Would you expect these answers to be the same?

The equation for a supply curve is 4P = Q. What is the elasticity of supply as price rises from 3 to 4? What is the elasticity of supply as the price rises from 7 to 8? Would you expect these answers to be the same?

The equation for a supply curve is P = 3Q – 8. What is the elasticity in moving from a price of 4 to a price of 7?

Glossary

elastic demand
when the elasticity of demand is greater than one, indicating a high responsiveness of quantity demanded or supplied to changes in price
elastic supply
when the elasticity of either supply is greater than one, indicating a high responsiveness of quantity demanded or supplied to changes in price
elasticity
an economics concept that measures responsiveness of one variable to changes in another variable
inelastic demand
when the elasticity of demand is less than one, indicating that a 1 percent increase in price paid by the consumer leads to less than a 1 percent change in purchases (and vice versa); this indicates a low responsiveness by consumers to price changes
inelastic supply
when the elasticity of supply is less than one, indicating that a 1 percent increase in price paid to the firm will result in a less than 1 percent increase in production by the firm; this indicates a low responsiveness of the firm to price increases (and vice versa if prices drop)
price elasticity
the relationship between the percent change in price resulting in a corresponding percentage change in the quantity demanded or supplied
price elasticity of demand
percentage change in the quantity demanded of a good or service divided the percentage change in price
price elasticity of supply
percentage change in the quantity supplied divided by the percentage change in price
unitary elasticity
when the calculated elasticity is equal to one indicating that a change in the price of the good or service results in a proportional change in the quantity demanded or supplied

5.2 Polar Cases of Elasticity and Constant Elasticity

17

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Differentiate between infinite and zero elasticity
  • Analyze graphs in order to classify elasticity as constant unitary, infinite, or zero

 

Two graphs, side by side, show that perfectly elastic demand and perfectly elastic supply are both straight, horizontal lines.
Infinite Elasticity: The horizontal lines show that an infinite quantity will be demanded or supplied at a specific price. This illustrates the cases of a perfectly (or infinitely) elastic demand curve and supply curve. The quantity supplied or demanded is extremely responsive to price changes, moving from zero for prices close to P to infinite when prices reach P.

There are two extreme cases of elasticity: when elasticity equals zero and when it is infinite. A third case is that of constant unitary elasticity. We will describe each case.
Infinite elasticity or perfect elasticity refers to the extreme case where either the quantity demanded (Qd) or supplied (Qs) changes by an infinite amount in response to any change in price at all. In both cases, the supply and the demand curve are horizontal as (Figure) shows. While perfectly elastic supply curves are for the most part unrealistic, goods with readily available inputs and whose production can easily expand will feature highly elastic supply curves. Examples include pizza, bread, books, and pencils. Similarly, perfectly elastic demand is an extreme example. However, luxury goods, items that take a large share of individuals’ income, and goods with many substitutes are likely to have highly elastic demand curves. Examples of such goods are Caribbean cruises and sports vehicles.

The two graphs show that zero elasticity of supply and zero elasticity of demand are straight, vertical lines.
Zero Elasticity: The vertical supply curve and vertical demand curve show that there will be zero percentage change in quantity (a) demanded or (b) supplied, regardless of the price.

Zero elasticity or perfect inelasticity, as (Figure) depicts, refers to the extreme case in which a percentage change in price, no matter how large, results in zero change in quantity. While a perfectly inelastic supply is an extreme example, goods with limited supply of inputs are likely to feature highly inelastic supply curves. Examples include diamond rings or housing in prime locations such as apartments facing Central Park in New York City. Similarly, while perfectly inelastic demand is an extreme case, necessities with no close substitutes are likely to have highly inelastic demand curves. This is the case of life-saving drugs and gasoline.

This graph shows how a demand curve with unitary elasticity at all points will always be a curved line.
A Constant Unitary Elasticity Demand Curve: A demand curve with constant unitary elasticity will be a curved line. Notice how price and quantity demanded change by an identical percentage amount between each pair of points on the demand curve.

Constant unitary elasticity, in either a supply or demand curve, occurs when a price change of one percent results in a quantity change of one percent. (Figure) shows a demand curve with constant unit elasticity. Constant unitary elasticity, in either a supply or demand curve, occurs when a price change of one percent results in a quantity change of one percent. Figure 5.6 shows a demand curve with constant unit elasticity. Using the midpoint method, you can calculate that between points A and B on the demand curve, the price changes by 28.6% and quantity demanded also changes by 28.6%. Hence, the elasticity equals 1. Between points B and C, price again changes by 28.6% as does quantity, while between points C and D the corresponding percentage changes are 22.2% for both price and quantity. In each case, then, the percentage change in price equals the percentage change in quantity, and consequently elasticity equals 1. Notice that in absolute value, the declines in price, as you step down the demand curve, are not identical. Instead, the price falls by $2.00 from A to B, by a smaller amount of $1.50 from B to C, and by a still smaller amount of $0.90 from C to D. As a result, a demand curve with constant unitary elasticity moves from a steeper slope on the left and a flatter slope on the right—and a curved shape overall. Notice that in absolute value, the declines in price, as you step down the demand curve, are not identical. Instead, the price falls by $23 from A to B, by a smaller amount of $1.50 from B to C, and by a still smaller amount of $.90 from C to D. As a result, a demand curve with constant unitary elasticity has a steeper slope on the left and a flatter slope on the right—and a curved shape overall.

Unlike the demand curve with unitary elasticity, the supply curve with unitary elasticity is represented by a straight line, and that line goes through the origin. In each pair of points on the supply curve there is an equal difference in quantity of 30. However, in percentage value, using the midpoint method, the steps are decreasing as one moves from left to right, from 28.6% to 22.2% to 18.2%, because the quantity points in each percentage calculation are getting increasingly larger, which expands the denominator in the elasticity calculation of the percentage change in quantity.

This graph shows that a supply curve with unitary elasticity at all points will always be a straight line.
A Constant Unitary Elasticity Supply Curve: A constant unitary elasticity supply curve is a straight line reaching up from the origin. Between each pair of points, the percentage increase in quantity supplied is the same as the percentage increase in price.

Consider the price changes moving up the supply curve in (Figure). From points D to E to F and to G on the supply curve, each step of $1.50 is the same in absolute value. However, if we measure the price changes in percentage change terms, using the midpoint method, they are also decreasing, from 28.6% to 22.2% to 18.2%, because the original price points in each percentage calculation are getting increasingly larger in value, increasing the denominator in the calculation of the percentage change in price. Along the constant unitary elasticity supply curve, the percentage quantity increases on the horizontal axis exactly match the percentage price increases on the vertical axis—so this supply curve has a constant unitary elasticity at all points.

Key Concepts and Summary

Infinite or perfect elasticity refers to the extreme case where either the quantity demanded or supplied changes by an infinite amount in response to any change in price at all. Zero elasticity refers to the extreme case in which a percentage change in price, no matter how large, results in zero change in quantity. Constant unitary elasticity in either a supply or demand curve refers to a situation where a price change of one percent results in a quantity change of one percent.

Self-Check Questions

Why is the demand curve with constant unitary elasticity concave?

The demand curve with constant unitary elasticity is concave because the absolute value of declines in price are not identical. The left side of the curve starts with high prices, and then price falls by smaller amounts as it goes down toward the right side. This results in a slope of demand that is steeper on the left but flatter on the right, creating a curved, concave shape.

Why is the supply curve with constant unitary elasticity a straight line?

The constant unitary elasticity is a straight line because the curve slopes upward and both price and quantity are increasing proportionally.

Review Questions

Describe the general appearance of a demand or a supply curve with zero elasticity.

Describe the general appearance of a demand or a supply curve with infinite elasticity.

Critical Thinking Question

Can you think of an industry (or product) with near infinite elasticity of supply in the short term? That is, what is an industry that could increase Qs almost without limit in response to an increase in the price?

Problems

The supply of paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci, who painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper and died in 1519, is highly inelastic. Sketch a supply and demand diagram, paying attention to the appropriate elasticities, to illustrate that demand for these paintings will determine the price.

Say that a certain stadium for professional football has 70,000 seats. What is the shape of the supply curve for tickets to football games at that stadium? Explain.

When someone’s kidneys fail, the person needs to have medical treatment with a dialysis machine (unless or until they receive a kidney transplant) or they will die. Sketch a supply and demand diagram, paying attention to the appropriate elasticities, to illustrate that the supply of such dialysis machines will primarily determine the price.

Glossary

constant unitary elasticity
when a given percent price change in price leads to an equal percentage change in quantity demanded or supplied
infinite elasticity
the extremely elastic situation of demand or supply where quantity changes by an infinite amount in response to any change in price; horizontal in appearance
perfect elasticity
see infinite elasticity
zero inelasticity
the highly inelastic case of demand or supply in which a percentage change in price, no matter how large, results in zero change in the quantity; vertical in appearance
perfect inelasticity
see zero elasticity

5.3 Elasticity and Pricing

18

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Analyze how price elasticities impact revenue
  • Evaluate how elasticity can cause shifts in demand and supply
  • Predict how the long-run and short-run impacts of elasticity affect equilibrium
  • Explain how the elasticity of demand and supply determine the incidence of a tax on buyers and sellers

 

Introduction

Studying elasticities is useful for a number of reasons, pricing being most important. Let’s explore how elasticity relates to revenue and pricing, both in the long and short run. First, let’s look at the elasticities of some common goods and services.

(Figure) shows a selection of demand elasticities for different goods and services drawn from a variety of different studies by economists, listed in order of increasing elasticity.

Some Selected Elasticities of Demand
Goods and Services Elasticity of Price
Housing 0.12
Transatlantic air travel (economy class) 0.12
Rail transit (rush hour) 0.15
Electricity 0.20
Taxi cabs 0.22
Gasoline 0.35
Transatlantic air travel (first class) 0.40
Wine 0.55
Beef 0.59
Transatlantic air travel (business class) 0.62
Kitchen and household appliances 0.63
Cable TV (basic rural) 0.69
Chicken 0.64
Soft drinks 0.70
Beer 0.80
New vehicle 0.87
Rail transit (off-peak) 1.00
Computer 1.44
Cable TV (basic urban) 1.51
Cable TV (premium) 1.77
Restaurant meals 2.27

Note that demand for necessities such as housing and electricity is inelastic, while items that are not necessities such as restaurant meals are more price-sensitive. If the price of a restaurant meal increases by 10%, the quantity demanded will decrease by 22.7%. A 10% increase in the price of housing will cause only a slight decrease of 1.2% in the quantity of housing demanded.

Read this articleTuttle, Brad. “Movie Ticket Prices Hit All-Time High in 2012: Why That’s Probably Good for Moviegoers.Time. . for an example of price elasticity that may have affected you.

Does Raising Price Bring in More Revenue?

Imagine that a band on tour is playing in an indoor arena with 15,000 seats. To keep this example simple, assume that the band keeps all the money from ticket sales. Assume further that the band pays the costs for its appearance, but that these costs, like travel, and setting up the stage, are the same regardless of how many people are in the audience. Finally, assume that all the tickets have the same price. (The same insights apply if ticket prices are more expensive for some seats than for others, but the calculations become more complicated.) The band knows that it faces a downward-sloping demand curve; that is, if the band raises the ticket price and, it will sell fewer seats. How should the band set the ticket price to generate the most total revenue, which in this example, because costs are fixed, will also mean the highest profits for the band? Should the band sell more tickets at a lower price or fewer tickets at a higher price?

The key concept in thinking about collecting the most revenue is the price elasticity of demand. Total revenue is price times the quantity of tickets sold. Imagine that the band starts off thinking about a certain price, which will result in the sale of a certain quantity of tickets. The three possibilities are in (Figure). If demand is elastic at that price level, then the band should cut the price, because the percentage drop in price will result in an even larger percentage increase in the quantity sold—thus raising total revenue. However, if demand is inelastic at that original quantity level, then the band should raise the ticket price, because a certain percentage increase in price will result in a smaller percentage decrease in the quantity sold—and total revenue will rise. If demand has a unitary elasticity at that quantity, then an equal percentage change in quantity will offset a moderate percentage change in the price—so the band will earn the same revenue whether it (moderately) increases or decreases the ticket price.

Will the Band Earn More Revenue by Changing Ticket Prices?
If Demand Is . . . Then . . . Therefore . . .
Elastic % \text{change in Qd}>% \text{change in P} A given % rise in P will be more than offset by a larger % fall in Q so that total revenue (P × Q) falls.
Unitary % \text{change in Qd}=% \text{change in P} A given % rise in P will be exactly offset by an equal % fall in Q so that total revenue (P × Q) is unchanged.
Inelastic % \text{change in Qd}<% \text{change in P} A given % rise in P will cause a smaller % fall in Q so that total revenue (P × Q) rises.

What if the band keeps cutting price, because demand is elastic, until it reaches a level where it sells all 15,000 seats in the available arena? If demand remains elastic at that quantity, the band might try to move to a bigger arena, so that it could slash ticket prices further and see a larger percentage increase in the quantity of tickets sold. However, if the 15,000-seat arena is all that is available or if a larger arena would add substantially to costs, then this option may not work.

Conversely, a few bands are so famous, or have such fanatical followings, that demand for tickets may be inelastic right up to the point where the arena is full. These bands can, if they wish, keep raising the ticket price. Ironically, some of the most popular bands could make more revenue by setting prices so high that the arena is not full—but those who buy the tickets would have to pay very high prices. However, bands sometimes choose to sell tickets for less than the absolute maximum they might be able to charge, often in the hope that fans will feel happier and spend more on recordings, T-shirts, and other paraphernalia.

Can Businesses Pass Costs on to Consumers?

Most businesses face a day-to-day struggle to figure out ways to produce at a lower cost, as one pathway to their goal of earning higher profits. However, in some cases, the price of a key input over which the firm has no control may rise. For example, many chemical companies use petroleum as a key input, but they have no control over the world market price for crude oil. Coffee shops use coffee as a key input, but they have no control over the world market price of coffee. If the cost of a key input rises, can the firm pass those higher costs along to consumers in the form of higher prices? Conversely, if new and less expensive ways of producing are invented, can the firm keep the benefits in the form of higher profits, or will the market pressure them to pass the gains along to consumers in the form of lower prices? The price elasticity of demand plays a key role in answering these questions.

The two graphs show a highly elastic demand curve (on the left) and highly inelastic demand curve (on the right).
Passing along Cost Savings to Consumers: Cost-saving gains cause supply to shift out to the right from S0 to S1; that is, at any given price, firms will be willing to supply a greater quantity. If demand is inelastic, as in (a), the result of this cost-saving technological improvement will be substantially lower prices. If demand is elastic, as in (b), the result will be only slightly lower prices. Consumers benefit in either case, from a greater quantity at a lower price, but the benefit is greater when demand is inelastic, as in (a).

Imagine that as a consumer of legal pharmaceutical products, you read a newspaper story that a technological breakthrough in the production of aspirin has occurred, so that every aspirin factory can now produce aspirin more cheaply. What does this discovery mean to you? (Figure) illustrates two possibilities. In (Figure) (a), the demand curve is highly inelastic. In this case, a technological breakthrough that shifts supply to the right, from S0 to S1, so that the equilibrium shifts from E0 to E1, creates a substantially lower price for the product with relatively little impact on the quantity sold. In (Figure) (b), the demand curve is highly elastic. In this case, the technological breakthrough leads to a much greater quantity sold in the market at very close to the original price. Consumers benefit more, in general, when the demand curve is more inelastic because the shift in the supply results in a much lower price for consumers.

Aspirin producers may find themselves in a nasty bind here. The situation in (Figure), with extremely inelastic demand, means that a new invention may cause the price to drop dramatically while quantity changes little. As a result, the new production technology can lead to a drop in the revenue that firms earn from aspirin sales. However, if strong competition exists between aspirin producer, each producer may have little choice but to search for and implement any breakthrough that allows it to reduce production costs. After all, if one firm decides not to implement such a cost-saving technology, other firms that do can drive them out of business.

Since demand for food is generally inelastic, farmers may often face the situation in (Figure) (a). That is, a surge in production leads to a severe drop in price that can actually decrease the total revenue that farmers receive. Conversely, poor weather or other conditions that cause a terrible year for farm production can sharply raise prices so that the total revenue that the farmer receives increases. The Clear It Up box discusses how these issues relate to coffee.

How do coffee prices fluctuate?

Coffee is an international crop. The top five coffee-exporting nations are Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. In these nations and others, 20 million families depend on selling coffee beans as their main source of income. These families are exposed to enormous risk, because the world price of coffee bounces up and down. For example, in 1993, the world price of coffee was about 50 cents per pound. In 1995 it was four times as high, at 💲2 per pound. By 1997 it had fallen by half to 💲1.00 per pound. In 1998 it leaped back up to 💲2 per pound. By 2001 it had fallen back to 46 cents a pound. By early 2011 it rose to about 💲2.31 per pound. By the end of 2012, the price had fallen back to about 💲1.31 per pound.

The reason for these price fluctuations lies in a combination of inelastic demand and shifts in supply. The elasticity of coffee demand is only about 0.3; that is, a 10% rise in the price of coffee leads to a decline of about 3% in the quantity of coffee consumed. When a major frost hit the Brazilian coffee crop in 1994, coffee supply shifted to the left with an inelastic demand curve, leading to much higher prices. Conversely, when Vietnam entered the world coffee market as a major producer in the late 1990s, the supply curve shifted out to the right. With a highly inelastic demand curve, coffee prices fell dramatically. (Figure) (a) illustrates this situation.

 

Elasticity also reveals whether firms can pass higher costs that they incur on to consumers. Addictive substances, for which demand is inelastic, are products for which producers can pass higher costs on to consumers. For example, the demand for cigarettes is relatively inelastic among regular smokers who are somewhat addicted. Economic research suggests that increasing cigarette prices by 10% leads to about a 3% reduction in the quantity of cigarettes that adults smoke, so the elasticity of demand for cigarettes is 0.3. If society increases taxes on companies that produce cigarettes, the result will be, as in (Figure) (a), that the supply curve shifts from S0 to S1. However, as the equilibrium moves from E0 to E1, governments mainly pass along these taxes to consumers in the form of higher prices. These higher taxes on cigarettes will raise tax revenue for the government, but they will not much affect the quantity of smoking.

These two graphs show how a supply shift affects price and quantity. Figure (a) shows how supply shifts when demand is inelastic and figure (b) shows how supply shifts when demand is elastic.
Passing along Higher Costs to Consumers: Higher costs, like a higher tax on cigarette companies for the example we gave in the text, lead supply to shift to the left. This shift is identical in (a) and (b). However, in (a), where demand is inelastic, companies largely can pass the cost increase along to consumers in the form of higher prices, without much of a decline in equilibrium quantity. In (b), demand is elastic, so the shift in supply results primarily in a lower equilibrium quantity. Consumers suffer in either case, but in (a), they suffer from paying a higher price for the same quantity, while in (b), they suffer from buying a lower quantity (and presumably needing to shift their consumption elsewhere).

If the goal is to reduce the quantity of cigarettes demanded, we must achieve it by shifting this inelastic demand back to the left, perhaps with public programs to discourage cigarette use or to help people to quit. For example, anti-smoking advertising campaigns have shown some ability to reduce smoking. However, if cigarette demand were more elastic, as in (Figure) (b), then an increase in taxes that shifts supply from S0 to S1 and equilibrium from E0 to E1 would reduce the quantity of cigarettes smoked substantially. Youth smoking seems to be more elastic than adult smoking—that is, the quantity of youth smoking will fall by a greater percentage than the quantity of adult smoking in response to a given percentage increase in price.

Elasticity and Tax Incidence

The example of cigarette taxes demonstrated that because demand is inelastic, taxes are not effective at reducing the equilibrium quantity of smoking, and they mainly pass along to consumers in the form of higher prices. The analysis, or manner, of how a tax burden is divided between consumers and producers is called tax incidence. Typically, the tax incidence, or burden, falls both on the consumers and producers of the taxed good. However, if one wants to predict which group will bear most of the burden, all one needs to do is examine the elasticity of demand and supply. In the tobacco example, the tax burden falls on the most inelastic side of the market.

If demand is more inelastic than supply, consumers bear most of the tax burden, and if supply is more inelastic than demand, sellers bear most of the tax burden.

The intuition for this is simple. When the demand is inelastic, consumers are not very responsive to price changes, and the quantity demanded reduces only modestly when the tax is introduced. In the case of smoking, the demand is inelastic because consumers are addicted to the product. The government can then pass the tax burden along to consumers in the form of higher prices, without much of a decline in the equilibrium quantity.

Similarly, when a government introduces a tax in a market with an inelastic supply, such as, for example, beachfront hotels, and sellers have no alternative than to accept lower prices for their business, taxes do not greatly affect the equilibrium quantity. The tax burden now passes on to the sellers. If the supply was elastic and sellers had the possibility of reorganizing their businesses to avoid supplying the taxed good, the tax burden on the sellers would be much smaller. The tax would result in a much lower quantity sold instead of lower prices received. (Figure) illustrates this relationship between the tax incidence and elasticity of demand and supply.

This graph shows two images that represent the relationship between elasticity and tax incidence. Image (a) shows the situation that occurs when demand is elastic and supply is inelastic: tax incidence is lower on consumers. Image (b) shows the situation that occurs when demand is inelastic and supply is elastic: tax incidence is lower on producers.
Elasticity and Tax Incidence: An excise tax introduces a wedge between the price paid by consumers (Pc) and the price received by producers (Pp). The vertical distance between Pc and Pp is the amount of the tax per unit. Pe is the equilibrium price prior to introduction of the tax. (a) When the demand is more elastic than supply, the tax incidence on consumers Pc – Pe is lower than the tax incidence on producers Pe – Pp. (b) When the supply is more elastic than demand, the tax incidence on consumers Pc – Pe is larger than the tax incidence on producers Pe – Pp. The more elastic the demand and supply curves, the lower the tax revenue.

In (Figure) (a), the supply is inelastic and the demand is elastic, such as in the example of beachfront hotels. While consumers may have other vacation choices, sellers can’t easily move their businesses. By introducing a tax, the government essentially creates a wedge between the price paid by consumers Pc and the price received by producers Pp. In other words, of the total price paid by consumers, part is retained by the sellers and part is paid to the government in the form of a tax. The distance between Pc and Pp is the tax rate. The new market price is Pc, but sellers receive only Pp per unit sold, as they pay Pc-Pp to the government. Since we can view a tax as raising the costs of production, this could also be represented by a leftward shift of the supply curve, where the new supply curve would intercept the demand at the new quantity Qt. For simplicity, (Figure) omits the shift in the supply curve.

The tax revenue is given by the shaded area, which we obtain by multiplying the tax per unit by the total quantity sold Qt. The tax incidence on the consumers is given by the difference between the price paid Pc and the initial equilibrium price Pe. The tax incidence on the sellers is given by the difference between the initial equilibrium price Pe and the price they receive after the tax is introduced Pp. In (Figure) (a), the tax burden falls disproportionately on the sellers, and a larger proportion of the tax revenue (the shaded area) is due to the resulting lower price received by the sellers than by the resulting higher prices paid by the buyers. (Figure) (b) describes the example of the tobacco excise tax where the supply is more elastic than demand. The tax incidence now falls disproportionately on consumers, as shown by the large difference between the price they pay, Pc, and the initial equilibrium price, Pe. Sellers receive a lower price than before the tax, but this difference is much smaller than the change in consumers’ price. From this analysis one can also predict whether a tax is likely to create a large revenue or not. The more elastic the demand curve, the more likely that consumers will reduce quantity instead of paying higher prices. The more elastic the supply curve, the more likely that sellers will reduce the quantity sold, instead of taking lower prices. In a market where both the demand and supply are very elastic, the imposition of an excise tax generates low revenue.

Some believe that excise taxes hurt mainly the specific industries they target. For example, the medical device excise tax, in effect since 2013, has been controversial for it can delay industry profitability and therefore hamper start-ups and medical innovation. However, whether the tax burden falls mostly on the medical device industry or on the patients depends simply on the elasticity of demand and supply.

Long-Run vs. Short-Run Impact

Elasticities are often lower in the short run than in the long run. On the demand side of the market, it can sometimes be difficult to change Qd in the short run, but easier in the long run. Consumption of energy is a clear example. In the short run, it is not easy for a person to make substantial changes in energy consumption. Maybe you can carpool to work sometimes or adjust your home thermostat by a few degrees if the cost of energy rises, but that is about all. However, in the long run you can purchase a car that gets more miles to the gallon, choose a job that is closer to where you live, buy more energy-efficient home appliances, or install more insulation in your home. As a result, the elasticity of demand for energy is somewhat inelastic in the short run, but much more elastic in the long run.

Two graphs that show an inelastic demand curve means that a shift in supply will mainly affect price and that an elastic demand curve means that a shift in supply will mainly affect quantity.
How a Shift in Supply Can Affect Price or Quantity:  The intersection (E0) between demand curve D and supply curve S0 is the same in both (a) and (b). The shift of supply to the left from S0 to S1 is identical in both (a) and (b). The new equilibrium (E1) has a higher price and a lower quantity than the original equilibrium (E0) in both (a) and (b). However, the shape of the demand curve D is different in (a) and (b), being more elastic in (b) than in (a). As a result, the shift in supply can result either in a new equilibrium with a much higher price and an only slightly smaller quantity, as in (a), with more inelastic demand, or in a new equilibrium with only a small increase in price and a relatively larger reduction in quantity, as in (b), with more elastic demand.

(Figure) is an example, based roughly on historical experience, for the responsiveness of Qd to price changes. In 1973, the price of crude oil was 💲12 per barrel and total consumption in the U.S. economy was 17 million barrels per day. That year, the nations who were members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cut off oil exports to the United States for six months because the Arab members of OPEC disagreed with the U.S. support for Israel. OPEC did not bring exports back to their earlier levels until 1975—a policy that we can interpret as a shift of the supply curve to the left in the U.S. petroleum market. (Figure) (a) and (Figure) (b) show the same original equilibrium point and the same identical shift of a supply curve to the left from S0 to S1.

(Figure) (a) shows inelastic demand for oil in the short run similar to that which existed for the United States in 1973. In (Figure) (a), the new equilibrium (E1) occurs at a price of 💲25 per barrel, roughly double the price before the OPEC shock, and an equilibrium quantity of 16 million barrels per day. (Figure) (b) shows what the outcome would have been if the U.S. demand for oil had been more elastic, a result more likely over the long term. This alternative equilibrium (E1) would have resulted in a smaller price increase to 💲14 per barrel and larger reduction in equilibrium quantity to 13 million barrels per day. In 1983, for example, U.S. petroleum consumption was 15.3 million barrels a day, which was lower than in 1973 or 1975. U.S. petroleum consumption was down even though the U.S. economy was about one-fourth larger in 1983 than it had been in 1973. The primary reason for the lower quantity was that higher energy prices spurred conservation efforts, and after a decade of home insulation, more fuel-efficient cars, more efficient appliances and machinery, and other fuel-conserving choices, the demand curve for energy had become more elastic.

On the supply side of markets, producers of goods and services typically find it easier to expand production in the long term of several years rather than in the short run of a few months. After all, in the short run it can be costly or difficult to build a new factory, hire many new workers, or open new stores. However, over a few years, all of these are possible.

In most markets for goods and services, prices bounce up and down more than quantities in the short run, but quantities often move more than prices in the long run. The underlying reason for this pattern is that supply and demand are often inelastic in the short run, so that shifts in either demand or supply can cause a relatively greater change in prices. However, since supply and demand are more elastic in the long run, the long-run movements in prices are more muted, while quantity adjusts more easily in the long run.

Key Concepts and Summary

In the market for goods and services, quantity supplied and quantity demanded are often relatively slow to react to changes in price in the short run, but react more substantially in the long run. As a result, demand and supply often (but not always) tend to be relatively inelastic in the short run and relatively elastic in the long run. A tax incidence depends on the relative price elasticity of supply and demand. When supply is more elastic than demand, buyers bear most of the tax burden, and when demand is more elastic than supply, producers bear most of the cost of the tax. Tax revenue is larger the more inelastic the demand and supply are.

Self-Check Questions

The federal government decides to require that automobile manufacturers install new anti-pollution equipment that costs 💲2,000 per car. Under what conditions can carmakers pass almost all of this cost along to car buyers? Under what conditions can carmakers pass very little of this cost along to car buyers?

Carmakers can pass this cost along to consumers if the demand for these cars is inelastic. If the demand for these cars is elastic, then the manufacturer must pay for the equipment.

Suppose you are in charge of sales at a pharmaceutical company, and your firm has a new drug that causes bald men to grow hair. Assume that the company wants to earn as much revenue as possible from this drug. If the elasticity of demand for your company’s product at the current price is 1.4, would you advise the company to raise the price, lower the price, or to keep the price the same? What if the elasticity were 0.6? What if it were 1? Explain your answer.

If the elasticity is 1.4 at current prices, you would advise the company to lower its price on the product, since a decrease in price will be offset by the increase in the amount of the drug sold. If the elasticity were 0.6, then you would advise the company to increase its price. Increases in price will offset the decrease in number of units sold, but increase your total revenue. If elasticity is 1, the total revenue is already maximized, and you would advise that the company maintain its current price level.

Review Questions

If demand is elastic, will shifts in supply have a larger effect on equilibrium quantity or on price?

If demand is inelastic, will shifts in supply have a larger effect on equilibrium price or on quantity?

If supply is elastic, will shifts in demand have a larger effect on equilibrium quantity or on price?

If supply is inelastic, will shifts in demand have a larger effect on equilibrium price or on quantity?

Would you usually expect elasticity of demand or supply to be higher in the short run or in the long run? Why?

Under which circumstances does the tax burden fall entirely on consumers?

Critical Thinking Questions

Would you expect supply to play a more significant role in determining the price of a basic necessity like food or a luxury like perfume? Explain. Hint: Think about how the price elasticity of demand will differ between necessities and luxuries.

A city has built a bridge over a river and it decides to charge a toll to everyone who crosses. For one year, the city charges a variety of different tolls and records information on how many drivers cross the bridge. The city thus gathers information about elasticity of demand. If the city wishes to raise as much revenue as possible from the tolls, where will the city decide to charge a toll: in the inelastic portion of the demand curve, the elastic portion of the demand curve, or the unit elastic portion? Explain.

In a market where the supply curve is perfectly inelastic, how does an excise tax affect the price paid by consumers and the quantity bought and sold?

Problems

Assume that the supply of low-skilled workers is fairly elastic, but the employers’ demand for such workers is fairly inelastic. If the policy goal is to expand employment for low-skilled workers, is it better to focus on policy tools to shift the supply of unskilled labor or on tools to shift the demand for unskilled labor? What if the policy goal is to raise wages for this group? Explain your answers with supply and demand diagrams.

Glossary

tax incidence
manner in which the tax burden is divided between buyers and sellers

5.4 Elasticity in Areas Other Than Price

19

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Calculate the income elasticity of demand and the cross-price elasticity of demand
  • Calculate the elasticity in labor and financial capital markets through an understanding of the elasticity of labor supply and the elasticity of savings
  • Apply concepts of price elasticity to real-world situations

 

Introduction

The basic idea of elasticity—how a percentage change in one variable causes a percentage change in another variable—does not just apply to the responsiveness quantity supplied and quantity demanded to changes in the price of a product. Recall that quantity demanded (Qd) depends on income, tastes and preferences, the prices of related goods, and so on, as well as price. Similarly, quantity supplied (Qs) depends on factors such as the cost of production, as well as price. We can measure elasticity for any determinant of quantity supplied and quantity demanded, not just the price.

Income Elasticity of Demand

The income elasticity of demand is the percentage change in quantity demanded divided by the percentage change in income.

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For most products, most of the time, the income elasticity of demand is positive: that is, a rise in income will cause an increase in the quantity demanded. This pattern is common enough that we refer to these goods as normal goods. However, for a few goods, an increase in income means that one might purchase less of the good. For example, those with a higher income might buy fewer hamburgers, because they are buying more steak instead, or those with a higher income might buy less cheap wine and more imported beer. When the income elasticity of demand is negative, we call the good an inferior good.

We introduced the concepts of normal and inferior goods in Demand and Supply. A higher level of income causes a demand curve to shift to the right for a normal good, which means that the income elasticity of demand is positive. How far the demand shifts depends on the income elasticity of demand. A higher income elasticity means a larger shift. However, for an inferior good, that is, when the income elasticity of demand is negative, a higher level of income would cause the demand curve for that good to shift to the left. Again, how much it shifts depends on how large the (negative) income elasticity is.

Cross-Price Elasticity of Demand

A change in the price of one good can shift the quantity demanded for another good. If the two goods are complements, like bread and peanut butter, then a drop in the price of one good will lead to an increase in the quantity demanded of the other good. However, if the two goods are substitutes, like plane tickets and train tickets, then a drop in the price of one good will cause people to substitute toward that good, and to reduce consumption of the other good. Cheaper plane tickets lead to fewer train tickets, and vice versa.

The cross-price elasticity of demand puts some meat on the bones of these ideas. The term “cross-price” refers to the idea that the price of one good is affecting the quantity demanded of a different good. Specifically, the cross-price elasticity of demand is the percentage change in the quantity of good A that is demanded as a result of a percentage change in the price of good B.

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Substitute goods have positive cross-price elasticities of demand: if good A is a substitute for good B, like coffee and tea, then a higher price for B will mean a greater quantity consumed of A. Complement goods have negative cross-price elasticities: if good A is a complement for good B, like coffee and sugar, then a higher price for B will mean a lower quantity consumed of A.

Elasticity in Labor and Financial Capital Markets

The concept of elasticity applies to any market, not just markets for goods and services. In the labor market, for example, the wage elasticity of labor supply—that is, the percentage change in hours worked divided by the percentage change in wages—will reflect the shape of the labor supply curve. Specifically:

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The wage elasticity of labor supply for teenage workers is generally fairly elastic: that is, a certain percentage change in wages will lead to a larger percentage change in the quantity of hours worked. Conversely, the wage elasticity of labor supply for adult workers in their thirties and forties is fairly inelastic. When wages move up or down by a certain percentage amount, the quantity of hours that adults in their prime earning years are willing to supply changes but by a lesser percentage amount.

In markets for financial capital, the elasticity of savings—that is, the percentage change in the quantity of savings divided by the percentage change in interest rates—will describe the shape of the supply curve for financial capital. That is:

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Sometimes laws are proposed that seek to increase the quantity of savings by offering tax breaks so that the return on savings is higher. Such a policy will have a comparatively large impact on increasing the quantity saved if the supply curve for financial capital is elastic, because then a given percentage increase in the return to savings will cause a higher percentage increase in the quantity of savings. However, if the supply curve for financial capital is highly inelastic, then a percentage increase in the return to savings will cause only a small increase in the quantity of savings. The evidence on the supply curve of financial capital is controversial but, at least in the short run, the elasticity of savings with respect to the interest rate appears fairly inelastic.

Expanding the Concept of Elasticity

The elasticity concept does not even need to relate to a typical supply or demand curve at all. For example, imagine that you are studying whether the Internal Revenue Service should spend more money on auditing tax returns. We can frame the question in terms of the elasticity of tax collections with respect to spending on tax enforcement; that is, what is the percentage change in tax collections derived from a given percentage change in spending on tax enforcement?

With all of the elasticity concepts that we have just described, some of which are in (Figure), the possibility of confusion arises. When you hear the phrases “elasticity of demand” or “elasticity of supply,” they refer to the elasticity with respect to price. Sometimes, either to be extremely clear or because economists are discussing a wide variety of elasticities, we will call the elasticity of demand or the demand elasticity the price elasticity of demand or the “elasticity of demand with respect to price.” Similarly, economists sometimes use the term elasticity of supply or the supply elasticity, to avoid any possibility of confusion, the price elasticity of supply or “the elasticity of supply with respect to price.” However, in whatever context, the idea of elasticity always refers to percentage change in one variable, almost always a price or money variable, and how it causes a percentage change in another variable, typically a quantity variable of some kind.

Formulas for Calculating Elasticity
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That Will Be How Much?

How did the 60% price increase in 2011 end up for Netflix? It has been a very bumpy ride.

Before the price increase, there were about 24.6 million U.S. subscribers. After the price increase, 810,000 infuriated U.S. consumers canceled their Netflix subscriptions, dropping the total number of subscribers to 23.79 million. Fast forward to June 2013, when there were 36 million streaming Netflix subscribers in the United States. This was an increase of 11.4 million subscribers since the price increase—an average per quarter growth of about 1.6 million. This growth is less than the 2 million per quarter increases Netflix experienced in the fourth quarter of 2010 and the first quarter of 2011.

During the first year after the price increase, the firm’s stock price (a measure of future expectations for the firm) fell from about 💲33.60 per share per share to just under 💲7.80. By the end of 2016, however, the stock price was at 💲123 per share. Today, Netflix has more than 86 million subscribers million subscribers in fifty countries.

What happened? Obviously, Netflix company officials understood the law of demand. Company officials reported, when announcing the price increase, this could result in the loss of about 600,000 existing subscribers. Using the elasticity of demand formula, it is easy to see company officials expected an inelastic response:

\begin{array}{rcl}& =& \frac{\text{-600,000/[(24 million + 24.6 million)/2]}}{\text{💲6/[(💲10 + 💲16)/2]}}\\ & =& \frac{\text{-600,000/24.3 million}}{\text{💲6/💲13}}\\ & =& \frac{\text{-0.025}}{\text{0.46}}\\ & =& \text{-0.05}\end{array}

In addition, Netflix officials had anticipated the price increase would have little impact on attracting new customers. Netflix anticipated adding up to 1.29 million new subscribers in the third quarter of 2011. It is true this was slower growth than the firm had experienced—about 2 million per quarter.

Why was the estimate of customers leaving so far off? In the more than two decades since Netflix had been founded, there was an increase in the number of close, but not perfect, substitutes. Consumers now had choices ranging from Vudu, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Redbox, to retail stores. Jaime Weinman reported in Maclean’s that Redbox kiosks are “a five-minute drive for less from 68 percent of Americans, and it seems that many people still find a five-minute drive more convenient than loading up a movie online.” It seems that in 2012, many consumers still preferred a physical DVD disk over streaming video.

What missteps did the Netflix management make? In addition to misjudging the elasticity of demand, by failing to account for close substitutes, it seems they may have also misjudged customers’ preferences and tastes. Yet, as the population increases, the preference for streaming video may overtake physical DVD disks. Netflix, the source of numerous late night talk show laughs and jabs in 2011, may yet have the last laugh.

 

Key Concepts and Summary

Elasticity is a general term, that reflects responsiveness. It refers to the change of one variable divided by the percentage change of a related variable that we can apply to many economic connections. For instance, the income elasticity of demand is the percentage change in quantity demanded divided by the percentage change in income. The cross-price elasticity of demand is the percentage change in the quantity demanded of a good divided by the percentage change in the price of another good. Elasticity applies in labor markets and financial capital markets just as it does in markets for goods and services. The wage elasticity of labor supply is the percentage change in the quantity of hours supplied divided by the percentage change in the wage. The elasticity of savings with respect to interest rates is the percentage change in the quantity of savings divided by the percentage change in interest rates.

Self-Check Questions

What would the gasoline price elasticity of supply mean to UPS or FedEx?

The percentage change in quantity supplied as a result of a given percentage change in the price of gasoline.

The average annual income rises from 💲25,000 to 💲38,000, and the quantity of bread consumed in a year by the average person falls from 30 loaves to 22 loaves. What is the income elasticity of bread consumption? Is bread a normal or an inferior good?

\begin{array}{rcl}\text{Percentage change in quantity demanded}& =& \text{[(change in quantity)/(original quantity)] × 100}\\ & =& \text{[22 - 30]/[(22 + 30)/2] × 100}\\ & =& \text{-8/26 × 100}\\ & =& \text{-30.77}\\ \text{Percentage change in income}& =& \text{[(change in income)/(original income)] × 100}\\ & =& \text{[38,000 - 25,000]/[(38,000 + 25,000)/2] × 100}\\ & =& \text{13/31.5 × 100}\\ & =& \text{41.27}\end{array}

In this example, bread is an inferior good because its consumption falls as income rises.

Suppose the cross-price elasticity of apples with respect to the price of oranges is 0.4, and the price of oranges falls by 3%. What will happen to the demand for apples?

The formula for cross-price elasticity is % change in Qd for apples / % change in P of oranges. Multiplying both sides by % change in P of oranges yields:

% change in Qd for apples = cross-price elasticity X% change in P of oranges

= 0.4 × (–3%) = –1.2%, or a 1.2 % decrease in demand for apples.

Review Questions

What is the formula for the income elasticity of demand?

What is the formula for the cross-price elasticity of demand?

What is the formula for the wage elasticity of labor supply?

What is the formula for elasticity of savings with respect to interest rates?

Critical Thinking Questions

Economists define normal goods as having a positive income elasticity. We can divide normal goods into two types: Those whose income elasticity is less than one and those whose income elasticity is greater than one. Think about products that would fall into each category. Can you come up with a name for each category?

Suppose you could buy shoes one at a time, rather than in pairs. What do you predict the cross-price elasticity for left shoes and right shoes would be?

References

Abkowitz, A. “How Netflix got started: Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings tells Fortune how he got the idea for the DVD-by-mail service that now has more than eight million customers.” CNN Money. Last Modified January 28, 2009. http://archive.fortune.com/2009/01/27/news/newsmakers/hastings_netflix.fortune/index.htm.

Associated Press (a). ”Analyst: Coinstar gains from Netflix pricing moves.” Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC. Accessed June 24, 2013. http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2011/10/12/analyst_coinstar_gains_from_netflix_pricing_moves/.

Associated Press (b). “Netflix loses 800,000 US subscribers in tough 3Q.” ABC Inc. Accessed June 24, 2013. http://abclocal.go.com/wpvi/story?section=news/business&id=8403368

Baumgardner, James. 2014. “Presentation on Raising the Excise Tax on Cigarettes: Effects on Health and the Federal Budget.” Congressional Budget Office. Accessed March 27, 2015. http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/45214-ICA_Presentation.pdf.

Funding Universe. 2015. “Netflix, Inc. History.” Accessed March 11, 2015. http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/netflix-inc-history/.

Laporte, Nicole. “A tale of two Netflix.” Fast Company 177 (July 2013) 31-32. Accessed December 3 2013. http://www.fastcompany-digital.com/fastcompany/20130708?pg=33#pg33

Liedtke, Michael, The Associated Press. “Investors bash Netflix stock after slower growth forecast – fee hikes expected to take toll on subscribers most likely to shun costly bundled Net, DVD service.” The Seattle Times. Accessed June 24, 2013 from NewsBank on-line database (Access World News).

Netflix, Inc. 2013. “A Quick Update On Our Streaming Plans And Prices.” Netflix (blog). Accessed March 11, 2015. http://blog.netflix.com/2014/05/a-quick-update-on-our-streaming-plans.html.

Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECC). n.d. “Average annual hours actually worked per worker.” Accessed March 11, 2015. https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=ANHRS.

Savitz, Eric. “Netflix Warns DVD Subs Eroding; Q4 View Weak; Losses Ahead; Shrs Plunge.” Forbes.com, 2011. Accessed December 3, 2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericsavitz/2011/10/24/netflix-q3-top-ests-but-shares-hit-by-weak-q4-outlook/.

Statistica.com. 2014. “Coffee Export Volumes Worldwide in November 2014, by Leading Countries (in 60-kilo sacks).” Accessed March 27, 2015. http://www.statista.com/statistics/268135/ranking-of-coffee-exporting-countries/.

Stone, Marcie. “Netflix responds to customers angry with price hike; Netflix stock falls 9%.” News & Politics Examiner, 2011. Clarity Digital Group. Accessed June 24, 2013. http://www.examiner.com/article/netflix-responds-to-customers-angry-with-price-hike-netflix-stock-falls-9.

Weinman, J. (2012). Die hard, hardly dying. Maclean’s, 125(18), 44.

The World Bank Group. 2015. “Gross Savings (% of GDP).” Accessed March 11, 2015. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNS.ICTR.ZS.

Yahoo Finance. Retrieved from http://finance.yahoo.com/q?s=NFLX

Glossary

cross-price elasticity of demand
the percentage change in the quantity of good A that is demanded as a result of a percentage change in good B
elasticity of savings
the percentage change in the quantity of savings divided by the percentage change in interest rates
wage elasticity of labor supply
the percentage change in hours worked divided by the percentage change in wages

Part 6: Consumer Choices

VI

This is a photograph of students at their outdoor college graduation ceremony.
Investment Choices: We generally view higher education as a good investment, if one can afford it, regardless of the state of the economy. (Credit: modification of work by Jason Bache/Flickr Creative Commons)
“Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe”—Making Choices

The 2008–2009 Great Recession touched families around the globe. In too many countries, workers found themselves out of a job. In developed countries, unemployment compensation provided a safety net, but families still saw a marked decrease in disposable income and had to make tough spending decisions. Of course, non-essential, discretionary spending was the first to go.

Even so, there was one particular category that saw a universal increase in spending world-wide during that time—an 18% uptick in the United States, specifically. You might guess that consumers began eating more meals at home, increasing grocery store spending; however, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey, which tracks U.S. food spending over time, showed “real total food spending by U.S. households declined five percent between 2006 and 2009.” So, it was not groceries. What product would people around the world demand more of during tough economic times, and more importantly, why? (Find out at chapter’s end.)

That question leads us to this chapter’s topic—analyzing how consumers make choices. For most consumers, using “eeny, meeny, miney, moe” is not how they make decisions. Their decision-making processes have been educated far beyond a children’s rhyme.

Introduction to Consumer Choices

In this chapter, you will learn about:

Microeconomics seeks to understand the behavior of individual economic agents such as individuals and businesses. Economists believe that we can analyze individuals’ decisions, such as what goods and services to buy, as choices we make within certain budget constraints. Generally, consumers are trying to get the most for their limited budget. In economic terms they are trying to maximize total utility, or satisfaction, given their budget constraint.

Everyone has their own personal tastes and preferences. The French say: Chacun à son goût, or “Each to his own taste.” An old Latin saying states, De gustibus non est disputandum or “There’s no disputing about taste.” If people base their decisions on their own tastes and personal preferences, however, then how can economists hope to analyze the choices consumers make?

An economic explanation for why people make different choices begins with accepting the proverbial wisdom that tastes are a matter of personal preference. However, economists also believe that the choices people make are influenced by their incomes, by the prices of goods and services they consume, and by factors like where they live. This chapter introduces the economic theory of how consumers make choices about what goods and services to buy with their limited income.

The analysis in this chapter will build on the budget constraint that we introduced in the Choice in a World of Scarcity chapter. This chapter will also illustrate how economic theory provides a tool to systematically look at the full range of possible consumption choices to predict how consumption responds to changes in prices or incomes. After reading this chapter, consult the appendix Indifference Curves to learn more about representing utility and choice through indifference curves.

6.1 Consumption Choices

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Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Calculate total utility
  • Propose decisions that maximize utility
  • Explain marginal utility and the significance of diminishing marginal utility

Information on the consumption choices of Americans is available from the Consumer Expenditure Survey carried out by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Figure) shows spending patterns for the average U.S. household. The first row shows income and, after taxes and personal savings are subtracted, it shows that, in 2015, the average U.S. household spent 💲48,109 on consumption. The table then breaks down consumption into various categories. The average U.S. household spent roughly one-third of its consumption on shelter and other housing expenses, another one-third on food and vehicle expenses, and the rest on a variety of items, as shown. These patterns will vary for specific households by differing levels of family income, by geography, and by preferences.

U.S. Consumption Choices in 2015(Source: http://www.bls.gov/cex/csxann13.pdf)
Average Household Income before Taxes 💲62,481
Average Annual Expenditures 💲48.109
Food at home 💲3,264
Food away from home 💲2,505
Housing 💲16,557
Apparel and services 💲1,700
Transportation 💲7,677
Healthcare 💲3,157
Entertainment 💲2,504
Education 💲1,074
Personal insurance and pensions 💲5,357
All else: alcohol, tobacco, reading, personal care, cash contributions, miscellaneous 💲3,356

Total Utility and Diminishing Marginal Utility

To understand how a household will make its choices, economists look at what consumers can afford, as shown in a budget constraint (or budget line), and the total utility or satisfaction derived from those choices. In a budget constraint line, the quantity of one good is on the horizontal axis and the quantity of the other good on the vertical axis. The budget constraint line shows the various combinations of two goods that are affordable given consumer income. Consider José’s situation, shown in (Figure). José likes to collect T-shirts and watch movies.

In (Figure) we show the quantity of T-shirts on the horizontal axis while we show the quantity of movies on the vertical axis. If José had unlimited income or goods were free, then he could consume without limit. However, José, like all of us, faces a budget constraint. José has a total of 💲56 to spend. The price of T-shirts is 💲14 and the price of movies is 💲7. Notice that the vertical intercept of the budget constraint line is at eight movies and zero T-shirts (💲56/💲7=8). The horizontal intercept of the budget constraint is four, where José spends of all of his money on T-shirts and no movies (💲56/14=4). The slope of the budget constraint line is rise/run or –8/4=–2. The specific choices along the budget constraint line show the combinations of affordable T-shirts and movies.

The points on the graph show how a budget is affected by spending choices. Spending more money at the movies (y-axis) means that Jose' has less money to spend on T-shirts (x-axis).
A Choice between Consumption Goods: José has income of 💲56. Movies cost 💲7 and T-shirts cost 💲14. The points on the budget constraint line show the combinations of affordable movies and T-shirts.

José wishes to choose the combination that will provide him with the greatest utility, which is the term economists use to describe a person’s level of satisfaction or happiness with his or her choices.

Let’s begin with an assumption, which we will discuss in more detail later, that José can measure his own utility with something called utils. (It is important to note that you cannot make comparisons between the utils of individuals. If one person gets 20 utils from a cup of coffee and another gets 10 utils, this does not mean than the first person gets more enjoyment from the coffee than the other or that they enjoy the coffee twice as much. The reason why is that utils are subjective to an individual. The way one person measures utils is not the same as the way someone else does.) (Figure) shows how José’s utility is connected with his T-shirt or movie consumption. The first column of the table shows the quantity of T-shirts consumed. The second column shows the total utility, or total amount of satisfaction, that José receives from consuming that number of T-shirts. The most common pattern of total utility, in this example, is that consuming additional goods leads to greater total utility, but at a decreasing rate. The third column shows marginal utility, which is the additional utility provided by one additional unit of consumption. This equation for marginal utility is:

\begin{array}{rcl}\text{MU}& =& \frac{\text{change in total utility}}{\text{change in quantity}}\end{array}

Notice that marginal utility diminishes as additional units are consumed, which means that each subsequent unit of a good consumed provides less additional utility. For example, the first T-shirt José picks is his favorite and it gives him an addition of 22 utils. The fourth T-shirt is just something to wear when all his other clothes are in the wash and yields only 18 additional utils. This is an example of the law of diminishing marginal utility, which holds that the additional utility decreases with each unit added. Diminishing marginal utility is another example of the more general law of diminishing returns we learned earlier in the chapter on Choice in a World of Scarcity.

The rest of (Figure) shows the quantity of movies that José attends, and his total and marginal utility from seeing each movie. Total utility follows the expected pattern: it increases as the number of movies that José watches rises. Marginal utility also follows the expected pattern: each additional movie brings a smaller gain in utility than the previous one. The first movie José attends is the one he wanted to see the most, and thus provides him with the highest level of utility or satisfaction. The fifth movie he attends is just to kill time. Notice that total utility is also the sum of the marginal utilities. Read the next Work It Out feature for instructions on how to calculate total utility.

Total and Marginal Utility
T-Shirts (Quantity) Total Utility Marginal Utility Movies (Quantity) Total Utility Marginal Utility
1 22 22 1 16 16
2 43 21 2 31 15
3 63 20 3 45 14
4 81 18 4 58 13
5 97 16 5 70 12
6 111 14 6 81 11
7 123 12 7 91 10
8 133 10 8 100 9

(Figure) looks at each point on the budget constraint in (Figure), and adds up José’s total utility for five possible combinations of T-shirts and movies.

Finding the Choice with the Highest Utility
Point T-Shirts Movies Total Utility
P 4 0 81 + 0 = 81
Q 3 2 63 + 31 = 94
R 2 4 43 + 58 = 101
S 1 6 22 + 81 = 103
T 0 8 0 + 100 = 100

Calculating Total Utility

Let’s look at how José makes his decision in more detail.

  1. Step 1. Observe that, at point Q (for example), José consumes three T-shirts and two movies.
  2. Step 2. Look at (Figure). You can see from the fourth row/second column that three T-shirts are worth 63 utils. Similarly, the second row/fifth column shows that two movies are worth 31 utils.
  3. Step 3. From this information, you can calculate that point Q has a total utility of 94 (63 + 31).
  4. Step 4. You can repeat the same calculations for each point on (Figure), in which the total utility numbers are shown in the last column.

 

 

For José, the highest total utility for all possible combinations of goods occurs at point S, with a total utility of 103 from consuming one T-shirt and six movies.

Choosing with Marginal Utility

Most people approach their utility-maximizing combination of choices in a step-by-step way. This approach is based on looking at the tradeoffs, measured in terms of marginal utility, of consuming less of one good and more of another.

For example, say that José starts off thinking about spending all his money on T-shirts and choosing point P, which corresponds to four T-shirts and no movies, as (Figure) illustrates. José chooses this starting point randomly as he has to start somewhere. Then he considers giving up the last T-shirt, the one that provides him the least marginal utility, and using the money he saves to buy two movies instead. (Figure) tracks the step-by-step series of decisions José needs to make (Key: T-shirts are 💲14, movies are 💲7, and income is 💲56). The following Work It Out feature explains how marginal utility can effect decision making.

A Step-by-Step Approach to Maximizing Utility
Try Which Has Total Utility Marginal Gain and Loss of Utility, Compared with Previous Choice Conclusion
Choice 1: P 4 T-shirts and 0 movies 81 from 4 T-shirts + 0 from 0 movies = 81      –      –
Choice 2: Q 3 T-shirts and 2 movies 63 from 3 T-shirts + 31 from 0 movies = 94 Loss of 18 from 1 less T-shirt, but gain of 31 from 2 more movies, for a net utility gain of 13 Q is preferred over P
Choice 3: R 2 T-shirts and 4 movies 43 from 2 T-shirts + 58 from 4 movies = 101 Loss of 20 from 1 less T-shirt, but gain of 27 from two more movies for a net utility gain of 7 R is preferred over Q
Choice 4: S 1 T-shirt and 6 movies 22 from 1 T-shirt + 81 from 6 movies = 103 Loss of 21 from 1 less T-shirt, but gain of 23 from two more movies, for a net utility gain of 2 S is preferred over R
Choice 5: T 0 T-shirts and 8 movies 0 from 0 T-shirts + 100 from 8 movies = 100 Loss of 22 from 1 less T-shirt, but gain of 19 from two more movies, for a net utility loss of 3 S is preferred over T

Decision Making by Comparing Marginal Utility

José could use the following thought process (if he thought in utils) to make his decision regarding how many T-shirts and movies to purchase:

Step 1. From (Figure), José can see that the marginal utility of the fourth T-shirt is 18. If José gives up the fourth T-shirt, then he loses 18 utils.

Step 2. Giving up the fourth T-shirt, however, frees up 💲14 (the price of a T-shirt), allowing José to buy the first two movies (at 💲7 each).

Step 3. José knows that the marginal utility of the first movie is 16 and the marginal utility of the second movie is 15. Thus, if José moves from point P to point Q, he gives up 18 utils (from the T-shirt), but gains 31 utils (from the movies).

Step 4. Gaining 31 utils and losing 18 utils is a net gain of 13. This is just another way of saying that the total utility at Q (94 according to the last column in (Figure)) is 13 more than the total utility at P (81).

Step 5. Thus, for José, it makes sense to give up the fourth T-shirt in order to buy two movies.

 

José clearly prefers point Q to point P. Now repeat this step-by-step process of decision making with marginal utilities. José thinks about giving up the third T-shirt and surrendering a marginal utility of 20, in exchange for purchasing two more movies that promise a combined marginal utility of 27. José prefers point R to point Q. What if José thinks about going beyond R to point S? Giving up the second T-shirt means a marginal utility loss of 21, and the marginal utility gain from the fifth and sixth movies would combine to make a marginal utility gain of 23, so José prefers point S to R.

However, if José seeks to go beyond point S to point T, he finds that the loss of marginal utility from giving up the first T-shirt is 22, while the marginal utility gain from the last two movies is only a total of 19. If José were to choose point T, his utility would fall to 100. Through these stages of thinking about marginal tradeoffs, José again concludes that S, with one T-shirt and six movies, is the choice that will provide him with the highest level of total utility. This step-by-step approach will reach the same conclusion regardless of José’s starting point.

We can develop a more systematic way of using this approach by focusing on satisfaction per dollar. If an item costing 💲5 yields 10 utils, then it’s worth 2 utils per dollar spent. Marginal utility per dollar is the amount of additional utility José receives divided by the product’s price. (Figure) shows the marginal utility per dollar for José’s T shirts and movies.

\begin{array}{rcl}\text{marginal utility per dollar}& =& \frac{\text{marginal utility}}{\text{price}}\end{array}

If José wants to maximize the utility he gets from his limited budget, he will always purchase the item with the greatest marginal utility per dollar of expenditure (assuming he can afford it with his remaining budget). José starts with no purchases. If he purchases a T-shirt, the marginal utility per dollar spent will be 1.6. If he purchases a movie, the marginal utility per dollar spent will be 2.3. Therefore, José’s first purchase will be the movie. Why? Because it gives him the highest marginal utility per dollar and is affordable. Next, José will purchase another movie. Why? Because the marginal utility of the next movie (2.14) is greater than the marginal utility of the next T-shirt (1.6). Note that when José has no T- shirts, the next one is the first one. José will continue to purchase the next good with the highest marginal utility per dollar until he exhausts his budget. He will continue purchasing movies because they give him a greater “bang for the buck” until the sixth movie which gives the same marginal utility per dollar as the first T-shirt purchase. José has just enough budget to purchase both. So in total, José will purchase six movies and one T-shirt.

Marginal Utility per Dollar
Quantity of T-Shirts Total Utility Marginal Utility Marginal Utility per Dollar Quantity of Movies Total Utility Marginal Utility Marginal Utility per Dollar
1 22 22   22/💲14=1.6 1 16 16 16/💲7=2.3
2 43 21   21/💲14=1.5 2 31 15 15/💲7=2.14
3 63 20   20/💲14=1.4 3 45 14 14/💲7=2
4 81 18   18/💲14=1.3 4 58 13 13/💲7=1.9
5 97 16   16/💲14=1.1 5 70 12 12/💲7=1.7
6 111 14   14/💲14=1 6 81 11 11/💲7=1.6
7 123 12   12/💲14=1.2 7 91 10 10/💲7=1.4

A Rule for Maximizing Utility

This process of decision making suggests a rule to follow when maximizing utility. Since the price of T-shirts is twice as high as the price of movies, to maximize utility the last T-shirt that José chose needs to provide exactly twice the marginal utility (MU) of the last movie. If the last T-shirt provides less than twice the marginal utility of the last movie, then the T-shirt is providing less “bang for the buck” (i.e., marginal utility per dollar spent) than José would receive from spending the same money on movies. If this is so, José should trade the T-shirt for more movies to increase his total utility.

If the last T-shirt provides more than twice the marginal utility of the last movie, then the T-shirt is providing more “bang for the buck” or marginal utility per dollar, than if the money were spent on movies. As a result, José should buy more T-shirts. Notice that at José’s optimal choice of point S, the marginal utility from the first T-shirt, of 22 is exactly twice the marginal utility of the sixth movie, which is 11. At this choice, the marginal utility per dollar is the same for both goods. This is a tell-tale signal that José has found the point with highest total utility.

We can write this argument as a general rule: If you always choose the item with the greatest marginal utility per dollar spent, when your budget is exhausted, the utility maximizing choice should occur where the marginal utility per dollar spent is the same for both goods.

\begin{array}{rcl}\frac{{\text{MU}}_{1}}{{\text{P}}_{1}}& =& \frac{{\text{MU}}_{2}}{{\text{P}}_{2}}\end{array}

A sensible economizer will pay twice as much for something only if, in the marginal comparison, the item confers twice as much utility. Notice that the formula for the table above is:

\begin{array}{rcl}\frac{22}{\text{💲14}}& =& \frac{11}{\text{💲7}}\\ \text{1.6}& =& \text{1.6}\end{array}

The following Work It Out feature provides step by step guidance for this concept of utility-maximizing choices.

Maximizing Utility

The general rule, \begin{array}{rcl}\frac{{\text{MU}}_{1}}{{\text{P}}_{1}}& =& \frac{{\text{MU}}_{2}}{{\text{P}}_{2}}\end{array}, means that the last dollar spent on each good provides exactly the same marginal utility. This is the case at point S. So:

Step 1. If we traded a dollar more of movies for a dollar more of T-shirts, the marginal utility gained from T-shirts would exactly offset the marginal utility lost from fewer movies. In other words, the net gain would be zero.

Step 2. Products, however, usually cost more than a dollar, so we cannot trade a dollar’s worth of movies. The best we can do is trade two movies for another T-shirt, since in this example T-shirts cost twice what a movie does.

Step 3. If we trade two movies for one T-shirt, we would end up at point R (two T-shirts and four movies).

Step 4. Choice 4 in (Figure) shows that if we move to point R, we would gain 21 utils from one more T-shirt, but lose 23 utils from two fewer movies, so we would end up with less total utility at point R.

In short, the general rule shows us the utility-maximizing choice, which is called the consumer equilibrium.

There is another equivalent way to think about this. We can also express the general rule as the ratio of the prices of the two goods should be equal to the ratio of the marginal utilities. When we divide the price of good 1 by the price of good 2, at the utility-maximizing point this will equal the marginal utility of good 1 divided by the marginal utility of good 2.

\begin{array}{rcl}\frac{{\text{P}}_{1}}{{\text{P}}_{2}}& =& \frac{{\text{MU}}_{1}}{{\text{MU}}_{2}}\end{array}

Along the budget constraint, the total price of the two goods remains the same, so the ratio of the prices does not change. However, the marginal utility of the two goods changes with the quantities consumed. At the optimal choice of one T-shirt and six movies, point S, the ratio of marginal utility to price for T-shirts (22:14) matches the ratio of marginal utility to price for movies (of 11:7).

Measuring Utility with Numbers

This discussion of utility began with an assumption that it is possible to place numerical values on utility, an assumption that may seem questionable. You can buy a thermometer for measuring temperature at the hardware store, but what store sells an “utilimometer” for measuring utility? While measuring utility with numbers is a convenient assumption to clarify the explanation, the key assumption is not that an outside party can measure utility but only that individuals can decide which of two alternatives they prefer.

To understand this point, think back to the step-by-step process of finding the choice with highest total utility by comparing the marginal utility you gain and lose from different choices along the budget constraint. As José compares each choice along his budget constraint to the previous choice, what matters is not the specific numbers that he places on his utility—or whether he uses any numbers at all—but only that he personally can identify which choices he prefers.

In this way, the step-by-step process of choosing the highest level of utility resembles rather closely how many people make consumption decisions. We think about what will make us the happiest. We think about what things cost. We think about buying a little more of one item and giving up a little of something else. We choose what provides us with the greatest level of satisfaction. The vocabulary of comparing the points along a budget constraint and total and marginal utility is just a set of tools for discussing this everyday process in a clear and specific manner. It is welcome news that specific utility numbers are not central to the argument, since a good utilimometer is hard to find. Do not worry—while we cannot measure utils, by the end of the next module, we will have transformed our analysis into something we can measure—demand.

Key Concepts and Summary

Economic analysis of household behavior is based on the assumption that people seek the highest level of utility or satisfaction. Individuals are the only judge of their own utility. In general, greater consumption of a good brings higher total utility. However, the additional utility people receive from each unit of greater consumption tends to decline in a pattern of diminishing marginal utility.

We can find the utility-maximizing choice on a consumption budget constraint in several ways. You can add up total utility of each choice on the budget line and choose the highest total. You can select a starting point at random and compare the marginal utility gains and losses of moving to neighboring points—and thus eventually seek out the preferred choice. Alternatively, you can compare the ratio of the marginal utility to price of good 1 with the marginal utility to price of good 2 and apply the rule that at the optimal choice, the two ratios should be equal:

\begin{array}{rcl}\frac{{\text{MU}}_{1}}{{\text{P}}_{1}}& =& \frac{{\text{MU}}_{2}}{{\text{P}}_{2}}\end{array}

Self-Check Questions

Jeremy is deeply in love with Jasmine. Jasmine lives where cell phone coverage is poor, so he can either call her on the land-line phone for five cents per minute or he can drive to see her, at a round-trip cost of 💲2 in gasoline money. He has a total of 💲10 per week to spend on staying in touch. To make his preferred choice, Jeremy uses a handy utilimometer that measures his total utility from personal visits and from phone minutes. Using the values in (Figure), figure out the points on Jeremy’s consumption choice budget constraint (it may be helpful to do a sketch) and identify his utility-maximizing point.

Round TripsTotal UtilityPhone MinutesTotal Utility0   0   0     01 80  20  2002150  40  3803210  60  5404260  80  6805300100  8006330120  9007200140  9808180160104091601801080101402001100

The rows of the table in the problem do not represent the actual choices available on the budget set; that is, the combinations of round trips and phone minutes that Jeremy can afford with his budget. One of the choices listed in the problem, the six round trips, is not even available on the budget set. If Jeremy has only 💲10 to spend and a round trip costs 💲2 and phone calls cost 💲0.05 per minute, he could spend his entire budget on five round trips but no phone calls or 200 minutes of phone calls, but no round trips or any combination of the two in between. It is easy to see all of his budget options with a little algebra. The equation for a budget line is:

\begin{array}{rcl}\text{Budget}& =& {\text{P}}_{\mathrm{RT}}\end{array}× {\text{Q}}_{\mathrm{RT}} + {\text{P}}_{\mathrm{PC}} × {\text{Q}}_{\mathrm{PC}}

where P and Q are price and quantity of round trips (RT) and phone calls (PC) (per minute). In Jeremy’s case the equation for the budget line is:

\begin{array}{rcl}\text{💲10}& =& \text{💲2 }×{\text{ Q}}_{\text{RT}}\text{ }+\text{ 💲.05 }×{\text{ Q}}_{\text{PC}}\\ \frac{\text{💲10}}{\text{💲.05}}& =& \frac{{\text{💲2Q}}_{\text{RT}}\text{ }+{\text{ 💲.05Q}}_{\text{PC}} }{\text{💲.05}}\\ \text{200}& =& {\text{40Q}}_{\text{RT}}\text{ }+{\text{ Q}}_{\text{PC}}\\ {\text{Q}}_{\text{PC}}& =& \text{200 }-{\text{ 40Q}}_{\text{RT}}\end{array}

If we choose zero through five round trips (column 1), the table below shows how many phone minutes can be afforded with the budget (column 3). The total utility figures are given in the table below.

Round Trips Total Utility for Trips Phone Minutes Total Utility for Minutes Total Utility
0     0 200 1100 1100
1   80 160 1040 1120
2 150 120   900 1050
3 210   80   680   890
4 260   40   380   640
5 300     0       0   300

Adding up total utility for round trips and phone minutes at different points on the budget line gives total utility at each point on the budget line. The highest possible utility is at the combination of one trip and 160 minutes of phone time, with a total utility of 1120.

Take Jeremy’s total utility information in (Figure), and use the marginal utility approach to confirm the choice of phone minutes and round trips that maximize Jeremy’s utility.

The first step is to use the total utility figures, shown in the table below, to calculate marginal utility, remembering that marginal utility is equal to the change in total utility divided by the change in trips or minutes.

Round Trips Total Utility Marginal Utility (per trip) Phone Minutes Total Utility Marginal Utility (per minute)
0     0 200 1100
1   80 80 160 1040   60/40 = 1.5
2 150 70 120 900 140/40 = 3.5
3 210 60   80 680 220/40 = 5.5
4 260 50   40 380 300/40 = 7.5
5 300 40     0     0 380/40 = 9.5

Note that we cannot directly compare marginal utilities, since the units are trips versus phone minutes. We need a common denominator for comparison, which is price. Dividing MU by the price, yields columns 4 and 8 in the table below.

Round Trips Total Utility Marginal Utility (per trip) MU/P Phone Minutes Total Utility Marginal utility (per minute) MU/P
0 0 200 1100 60/40 = 1.5 1.5/💲0.05 = 30
1   80 80 80/💲2 = 40 160 1040 140/40 = 3.5 3.5/💲0.05 = 70
2 150 70 70/💲2 = 35 120   900 220/40 = 5.5 5.5/💲0.05 = 110
3 210 60 60/💲2 = 30   80   680 300/40 =7.5 7.5/💲0.05 = 150
4 260 50 50/💲2 = 25   40   380 380/40 = 9.5 9.5/💲0.05 = 190
5 300 40 40/💲2 = 20    0      0

Start at the bottom of the table where the combination of round trips and phone minutes is (5, 0). This starting point is arbitrary, but the numbers in this example work best starting from the bottom. Suppose we consider moving to the next point up. At (4, 40), the marginal utility per dollar spent on a round trip is 25. The marginal utility per dollar spent on phone minutes is 190.

Since 25 < 190, we are getting much more utility per dollar spent on phone minutes, so let’s choose more of those. At (3, 80), MU/PRT is 30 < 150 (the MU/PM), but notice that the difference is narrowing. We keep trading round trips for phone minutes until we get to (1, 160), which is the best we can do. The MU/P comparison is as close as it is going to get (40 vs. 70). Often in the real world, it is not possible to get MU/P exactly equal for both products, so you get as close as you can.

Review Questions

Who determines how much utility an individual will receive from consuming a good?

Would you expect total utility to rise or fall with additional consumption of a good? Why?

Would you expect marginal utility to rise or fall with additional consumption of a good? Why?

Is it possible for total utility to increase while marginal utility diminishes? Explain.

If people do not have a complete mental picture of total utility for every level of consumption, how can they find their utility-maximizing consumption choice?

What is the rule relating the ratio of marginal utility to prices of two goods at the optimal choice? Explain why, if this rule does not hold, the choice cannot be utility-maximizing.

Critical Thinking Questions

Think back to a purchase that you made recently. How would you describe your thinking before you made that purchase?

The rules of politics are not always the same as the rules of economics. In discussions of setting budgets for government agencies, there is a strategy called “closing the Washington Monument.” When an agency faces the unwelcome prospect of a budget cut, it may decide to close a high-visibility attraction enjoyed by many people (like the Washington Monument). Explain in terms of diminishing marginal utility why the Washington Monument strategy is so misleading. Hint: If you are really trying to make the best of a budget cut, should you cut the items in your budget with the highest marginal utility or the lowest marginal utility? Does the Washington Monument strategy cut the items with the highest marginal utility or the lowest marginal utility?

Problems

Praxilla, who lived in ancient Greece, derives utility from reading poems and from eating cucumbers. Praxilla gets 30 units of marginal utility from her first poem, 27 units of marginal utility from her second poem, 24 units of marginal utility from her third poem, and so on, with marginal utility declining by three units for each additional poem. Praxilla gets six units of marginal utility for each of her first three cucumbers consumed, five units of marginal utility for each of her next three cucumbers consumed, four units of marginal utility for each of the following three cucumbers consumed, and so on, with marginal utility declining by one for every three cucumbers consumed. A poem costs three bronze coins but a cucumber costs only one bronze coin. Praxilla has 18 bronze coins. Sketch Praxilla’s budget set between poems and cucumbers, placing poems on the vertical axis and cucumbers on the horizontal axis. Start off with the choice of zero poems and 18 cucumbers, and calculate the changes in marginal utility of moving along the budget line to the next choice of one poem and 15 cucumbers. Using this step-by-step process based on marginal utility, create a table and identify Praxilla’s utility-maximizing choice. Compare the marginal utility of the two goods and the relative prices at the optimal choice to see if the expected relationship holds. Hint: Label the table columns: 1) Choice, 2) Marginal Gain from More Poems, 3) Marginal Loss from Fewer Cucumbers, 4) Overall Gain or Loss, 5) Is the previous choice optimal? Label the table rows: 1) 0 Poems and 18 Cucumbers, 2) 1 Poem and 15 Cucumbers, 3) 2 Poems and 12 Cucumbers, 4) 3 Poems and 9 Cucumbers, 5) 4 Poems and 6 Cucumbers, 6) 5 Poems and 3 Cucumbers, 7) 6 Poems and 0 Cucumbers.

References

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2015. “Consumer Expenditures in 2013.” Accessed March 11, 2015. http://www.bls.gov/cex/csxann13.pdf.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2015. “Employer Costs for Employee Compensation—December 2014.” Accessed March 11, 2015. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/ecec.pdf.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2015. “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.” Accessed March 11, 2015. http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat22.htm.

Glossary

budget constraint (or budget line)
shows the possible combinations of two goods that are affordable given a consumer’s limited income
consumer equilibrium
point on the budget line where the consumer gets the most satisfaction; this occurs when the ratio of the prices of goods is equal to the ratio of the marginal utilities.
diminishing marginal utility
the common pattern that each marginal unit of a good consumed provides less of an addition to utility than the previous unit
marginal utility
the additional utility provided by one additional unit of consumption
marginal utility per dollar
the additional satisfaction gained from purchasing a good given the price of the product; MU/Price
total utility
satisfaction derived from consumer choices

6.2 How Changes in Income and Prices Affect Consumption Choices

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Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain how income, prices, and preferences affect consumer choices
  • Contrast the substitution effect and the income effect
  • Utilize concepts of demand to analyze consumer choices
  • Apply utility-maximizing choices to governments and businesses

Introduction

Just as we can use utility and marginal utility to discuss making consumer choices along a budget constraint, we can also use these ideas to think about how consumer choices change when the budget constraint shifts in response to changes in income or price. Because we can use the budget constraint framework to analyze how quantities demanded change because of price movements, the budget constraint model can illustrate the underlying logic behind demand curves.

How Changes in Income Affect Consumer Choices

The graph's various points represent which good is viewed as inferior. The first solid downward sloping line represents the original budget constraint. The second budget constraint represents a different set of options based on the consumer having more money to spend on both items.
How a Change in Income Affects Consumption Choices: The utility-maximizing choice on the original budget constraint is M. The dashed horizontal and vertical lines extending through point M allow you to see at a glance whether the quantity consumed of goods on the new budget constraint is higher or lower than on the original budget constraint. On the new budget constraint, Kimberly will make a choice like N if both goods are normal goods. If overnight stays is an inferior good, Kimberly will make a choice like P. If concert tickets are an inferior good, Kimberly will make a choice like Q.

Let’s begin with a concrete example illustrating how changes in income level affect consumer choices. (Figure) shows a budget constraint that represents Kimberly’s choice between concert tickets at $50 each and getting away overnight to a bed-and-breakfast for $200 per night. Kimberly has $1,000 per year to spend between these two choices. After thinking about her total utility and marginal utility and applying the decision rule that the ratio of the marginal utilities to the prices should be equal between the two products, Kimberly chooses point M, with eight concerts and three overnight getaways as her utility-maximizing choice.

Now, assume that the income Kimberly has to spend on these two items rises to $2,000 per year, causing her budget constraint to shift out to the right. How does this rise in income alter her utility-maximizing choice? Kimberly will again consider the utility and marginal utility that she receives from concert tickets and overnight getaways and seek her utility-maximizing choice on the new budget line, but how will her new choice relate to her original choice?

We can replace the possible choices along the new budget constraint into three groups, which the dashed horizontal and vertical lines that pass through the original choice M in the figure divide. All choices on the upper left of the new budget constraint that are to the left of the vertical dashed line, like choice P with two overnight stays and 32 concert tickets, involve less of the good on the horizontal axis but much more of the good on the vertical axis. All choices to the right of the vertical dashed line and above the horizontal dashed line—like choice N with five overnight getaways and 20 concert tickets—have more consumption of both goods. Finally, all choices that are to the right of the vertical dashed line but below the horizontal dashed line, like choice Q with four concerts and nine overnight getaways, involve less of the good on the vertical axis but much more of the good on the horizontal axis.

All of these choices are theoretically possible, depending on Kimberly’s personal preferences as expressed through the total and marginal utility she would receive from consuming these two goods. When income rises, the most common reaction is to purchase more of both goods, like choice N, which is to the upper right relative to Kimberly’s original choice M, although exactly how much more of each good will vary according to personal taste. Conversely, when income falls, the most typical reaction is to purchase less of both goods. As we defined in the chapter on Demand and Supply and again in the chapter on Elasticity, we call goods and services normal goods when a rise in income leads to a rise in the quantity consumed of that good and a fall in income leads to a fall in quantity consumed.

However, depending on Kimberly’s preferences, a rise in income could cause consumption of one good to increase while consumption of the other good declines. A choice like P means that a rise in income caused her quantity consumed of overnight stays to decline, while a choice like Q would mean that a rise in income caused her quantity of concerts to decline. Goods where demand declines as income rises (or conversely, where the demand rises as income falls) are called “inferior goods.” An inferior good occurs when people trim back on a good as income rises, because they can now afford the more expensive choices that they prefer. For example, a higher-income household might eat fewer hamburgers or be less likely to buy a used car, and instead eat more steak and buy a new car.

How Price Changes Affect Consumer Choices

The graph shows how price changes influence spending choices.
How a Change in Price Affects Consumption Choices: The original utility-maximizing choice is M. When the price rises, the budget constraint rotates clockwise. The dashed lines make it possible to see at a glance whether the new consumption choice involves less of both goods, or less of one good and more of the other. The new possible choices would be fewer baseball bats and more cameras, like point H, or less of both goods, as at point J. Choice K would mean that the higher price of bats led to exactly the same quantity of bat consumption, but fewer cameras. Theoretically possible, but unlikely in the real world, we rule out choices like L because they would mean that a higher price for baseball bats means a greater consumption of baseball bats.

For analyzing the possible effect of a change in price on consumption, let’s again use a concrete example. (Figure) represents Sergei’s consumer choice, who chooses between purchasing baseball bats and cameras. A price increase for baseball bats would have no effect on the ability to purchase cameras, but it would reduce the number of bats Sergei could afford to buy. Thus a price increase for baseball bats, the good on the horizontal axis, causes the budget constraint to rotate inward, as if on a hinge, from the vertical axis. As in the previous section, the point labeled M represents the originally preferred point on the original budget constraint, which Sergei has chosen after contemplating his total utility and marginal utility and the tradeoffs involved along the budget constraint. In this example, the units along the horizontal and vertical axes are not numbered, so the discussion must focus on whether Sergei will consume more or less of certain goods, not on numerical amounts.

After the price increase, Sergei will make a choice along the new budget constraint. Again, we can divide his choices into three segments by the dashed vertical and horizontal lines. In the upper left portion of the new budget constraint, at a choice like H, Sergei consumes more cameras and fewer bats. In the central portion of the new budget constraint, at a choice like J, he consumes less of both goods. At the right-hand end, at a choice like L, he consumes more bats but fewer cameras.

The typical response to higher prices is that a person chooses to consume less of the product with the higher price. This occurs for two reasons, and both effects can occur simultaneously. The substitution effect occurs when a price changes and consumers have an incentive to consume less of the good with a relatively higher price and more of the good with a relatively lower price. The income effect is that a higher price means, in effect, the buying power of income has been reduced (even though actual income has not changed), which leads to buying less of the good (when the good is normal). In this example, the higher price for baseball bats would cause Sergei to buy fewer bats for both reasons. Exactly how much will a higher price for bats cause Sergei’s bat consumption to fall? (Figure) suggests a range of possibilities. Sergei might react to a higher price for baseball bats by purchasing the same quantity of bats, but cutting his camera consumption. This choice is the point K on the new budget constraint, straight below the original choice M. Alternatively, Sergei might react by dramatically reducing his bat purchases and instead buy more cameras.

The key is that it would be imprudent to assume that a change in baseball bats will only or primarily affect the good’s price whose price is changed, while the quantity consumed of other goods remains the same. Since Sergei purchases all his products out of the same budget, a change in the price of one good can also have a range of effects, either positive or negative, on the quantity consumed of other goods.

In short, a higher price typically causes reduced consumption of the good in question, but it can affect the consumption of other goods as well.

Read this article about the potential of variable prices in vending machines.

The Foundations of Demand Curves

The two graphs show how budget constraints influence the demand curve.
The Foundations of a Demand Curve: An Example of Housing (a) As the price increases from P0 to P1 to P2 to P3, the budget constraint on the upper part of the diagram rotates clockwise. The utility-maximizing choice changes from M0 to M1 to M2 to M3. As a result, the quantity demanded of housing shifts from Q0 to Q1 to Q2 to Q3, ceteris paribus. (b) The demand curve graphs each combination of the price of housing and the quantity of housing demanded, ceteris paribus. The quantities of housing are the same at the points on both (a) and (b). Thus, the original price of housing (P0) and the original quantity of housing (Q0) appear on the demand curve as point E0. The higher price of housing (P1) and the corresponding lower quantity demanded of housing (Q1) appear on the demand curve as point E1.

Changes in the price of a good lead the budget constraint to rotate. A rotation in the budget constraint means that when individuals are seeking their highest utility, the quantity that is demanded of that good will change. In this way, the logical foundations of demand curves—which show a connection between prices and quantity demanded—are based on the underlying idea of individuals seeking utility. (Figure) (a) shows a budget constraint with a choice between housing and “everything else.” (Putting “everything else” on the vertical axis can be a useful approach in some cases, especially when the focus of the analysis is on one particular good.) We label the preferred choice on the original budget constraint that provides the highest possible utility M0. The other three budget constraints represent successively higher prices for housing of P1, P2, and P3. As the budget constraint rotates in, and in, and in again, we label the utility-maximizing choices M1, M2, and M3, and the quantity demanded of housing falls from Q0 to Q1 to Q2 to Q3.

Thus, as the price of housing rises, the budget constraint rotates clockwise and the quantity consumed of housing falls, ceteris paribus (meaning, with all other things being the same). We graph this relationship—the price of housing rising from P0 to P1 to P2 to P3, while the quantity of housing demanded falls from Q0 to Q1 to Q2 to Q3—on the demand curve in (Figure) (b). The vertical dashed lines stretching between the top and bottom of (Figure) show that the quantity of housing demanded at each point is the same in both (a) and (b). We ultimately determine the shape of a demand curve by the underlying choices about maximizing utility subject to a budget constraint. While economists may not be able to measure “utils,” they can certainly measure price and quantity demanded.

Applications in Government and Business

The budget constraint framework for making utility-maximizing choices offers a reminder that people can react to a change in price or income in a range of different ways. For example, in the winter months of 2005, costs for heating homes increased significantly in many parts of the country as prices for natural gas and electricity soared, due in large part to the disruption caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Some people reacted by reducing the quantity demanded of energy; for example, by turning down the thermostats in their homes by a few degrees and wearing a heavier sweater inside. Even so, many home heating bills rose, so people adjusted their consumption in other ways, too. As you learned in the chapter on Elasticity, the short run demand for home heating is generally inelastic. Each household cut back on what it valued least on the margin. For some it might have been some dinners out, or a vacation, or postponing buying a new refrigerator or a new car. Sharply higher energy prices can have effects beyond the energy market, leading to a widespread reduction in purchasing throughout the rest of the economy.

A similar issue arises when the government imposes taxes on certain products, such as on gasoline, cigarettes, and alcohol. Say that a tax on alcohol leads to a higher price at the liquor store. The higher price of alcohol causes the budget constraint to pivot left, and alcoholic beverage consumption is likely to decrease. However, people may also react to the higher price of alcoholic beverages by cutting back on other purchases. For example, they might cut back on snacks at restaurants like chicken wings and nachos. It would be unwise to assume that the liquor industry is the only one affected by the tax on alcoholic beverages. Read the next Clear It Up to learn about how who controls the household income influences buying decisions.

The Unifying Power of the Utility-Maximizing Budget Set Framework

An interaction between prices, budget constraints, and personal preferences determine household choices. The flexible and powerful terminology of utility-maximizing gives economists a vocabulary for bringing these elements together.

Not even economists believe that people walk around mumbling about their marginal utilities before they walk into a shopping mall, accept a job, or make a deposit in a savings account. However, economists do believe that individuals seek their own satisfaction or utility and that people often decide to try a little less of one thing and a little more of another. If we accept these assumptions, then the idea of utility-maximizing households facing budget constraints
becomes highly plausible.

Does who controls household income make a difference?

In the mid-1970s, the United Kingdom made an interesting policy change in its “child allowance” policy. This program provides a fixed amount of money per child to every family, regardless of family income. Traditionally, the child allowance had been distributed to families by withholding less in taxes from the paycheck of the family wage earner—typically the father in this time period. The new policy instead provided the child allowance as a cash payment to the mother. As a result of this change, households have the same level of income and face the same prices in the market, but the money is more likely to be in the mother’s purse than in the father’s wallet.

Should this change in policy alter household consumption patterns? Basic models of consumption decisions, of the sort that we examined in this chapter, assume that it does not matter whether the mother or the father receives the money, because both parents seek to maximize the family’s utility as a whole. In effect, this model assumes that everyone in the family has the same preferences.

In reality, the share of that the father or mother controls does affect what the household consumes. When the mother controls a larger share of family income a number of studies, in the United Kingdom and in a wide variety of other countries, have found that the family tends to spend more on restaurant meals, child care, and women’s clothing, and less on alcohol and tobacco. As the mother controls a larger share of household resources, children’s health improves, too. These findings suggest that when providing assistance to poor families, in high-income countries and low-income countries alike, the monetary amount of assistance is not all that matters: it also matters which family member actually receives the money.

The budget constraint framework serves as a constant reminder to think about the full range of effects that can arise from changes in income or price, not just effects on the one product that might seem most immediately affected.

Key Concepts and Summary

The budget constraint framework suggest that when income or price changes, a range of responses are possible. When income rises, households will demand a higher quantity of normal goods, but a lower quantity of inferior goods. When the price of a good rises, households will typically demand less of that good—but whether they will demand a much lower quantity or only a slightly lower quantity will depend on personal preferences. Also, a higher price for one good can lead to more or less demand of the other good.

Self-Check Questions

Explain all the reasons why a decrease in a product’s price would lead to an increase in purchases.

This is the opposite of the example explained in the text. A decrease in price has a substitution effect and an income effect. The substitution effect says that because the product is cheaper relative to other things the consumer purchases, he or she will tend to buy more of the product (and less of the other things). The income effect says that after the price decline, the consumer could purchase the same goods as before, and still have money left over to purchase more. For both reasons, a decrease in price causes an increase in quantity demanded.

As a college student you work at a part-time job, but your parents also send you a monthly “allowance.” Suppose one month your parents forgot to send the check. Show graphically how your budget constraint is affected. Assuming you only buy normal goods, what would happen to your purchases of goods?

This is a negative income effect. Because your parents’ check failed to arrive, your monthly income is less than normal and your budget constraint shifts in toward the origin. If you only buy normal goods, the decrease in your income means you will buy less of every product.

Review Questions

As a general rule, is it safe to assume that a change in the price of a good will always have its most significant impact on the quantity demanded of that good, rather than on the quantity demanded of other goods? Explain.

Why does a change in income cause a parallel shift in the budget constraint?

Critical Thinking Questions

Income effects depend on the income elasticity of demand for each good that you buy. If one of the goods you buy has a negative income elasticity, that is, it is an inferior good, what must be true of the income elasticity of the other good you buy?

Problems

If a 10% decrease in the price of one product that you buy causes an 8% increase in quantity demanded of that product, will another 10% decrease in the price cause another 8% increase (no more and no less) in quantity demanded?

Glossary

income effect
a higher price means that, in effect, the buying power of income has been reduced, even though actual income has not changed; always happens simultaneously with a substitution effect
substitution effect
when a price changes, consumers have an incentive to consume less of the good with a relatively higher price and more of the good with a relatively lower price; always happens simultaneously with an income effect

6.3 Behavioral Economics: An Alternative Framework for Consumer Choice

22

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Evaluate the reasons for making intertemporal choices
  • Interpret an intertemporal budget constraint
  • Analyze why people in America tend to save such a small percentage of their income

 

Introduction

As we know, people sometimes make decisions that seem “irrational” and not in their own best interest. People’s decisions can seem inconsistent from one day to the next and they even deliberately ignore ways to save money or time. The traditional economic models assume rationality, which means that people take all available information and make consistent and informed decisions that are in their best interest. (In fact, economics professors often delight in pointing out so-called “irrational behavior” each semester to their new students, and present economics as a way to become more rational.)

However, a new group of economists, known as behavioral economists, argue that the traditional method omits something important: people’s state of mind. For example, one can think differently about money if one is feeling revenge, optimism, or loss. These are not necessarily irrational states of mind, but part of a range of emotions that can affect anyone on a given day. In addition, actions under these conditions are predictable, if one better understands the underlying environment. Behavioral economics seeks to enrich our understanding of decision-making by integrating the insights of psychology into economics. It does this by investigating how given dollar amounts can mean different things to individuals depending on the situation. This can lead to decisions that appear outwardly inconsistent, or irrational, to the outside observer.

The way the mind works, according to this view, may seem inconsistent to traditional economists but is actually far more complex than an unemotional cost-benefit adding machine.
For example, a traditional economist would say that if you lost a $10 bill today, and also received an extra $10 in your paycheck, you should feel perfectly neutral. After all, –$10 + $10 = $0. You are the same financially as you were before. However, behavioral economists have conducted research that shows many people will feel some negative emotion, such as anger or frustration, after those two things happen. We tend to focus more on the loss than the gain. We call this loss aversion, where a $1 loss pains us 2.25 times more than a $1 gain helps us, according to the economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in a famous 1979 article in the journal Econometrica. This insight has implications for investing, as people tend to “overplay” the stock market by reacting more to losses than to gains. This behavior looks irrational to traditional economists, but is consistent once we understand better how the mind works, these economists argue.

Traditional economists also assume human beings have complete self control, but, for instance, people will buy cigarettes by the pack instead of the carton even though the carton saves them money, to keep usage down. They purchase locks for their refrigerators and overpay on taxes to force themselves to save. In other words, we protect ourselves from our worst temptations but pay a price to do so. One way behavioral economists are responding to this is by establishing ways for people to keep themselves free of these temptations. This includes what we call “nudges” toward more rational behavior rather than mandatory regulations from government. For example, up to 20 percent of new employees do not enroll in retirement savings plans immediately, because of procrastination or feeling overwhelmed by the different choices. Some companies are now moving to a new system, where employees are automatically enrolled unless they “opt out.” Almost no-one opts out in this program and employees begin saving at the early years, which are most critical for retirement.

Another area that seems illogical is the idea of mental accounting, or putting dollars in different mental categories where they take different values. Economists typically consider dollars to be fungible, or having equal value to the individual, regardless of the situation.

You might, for instance, think of the $25 you found in the street differently from the $25 you earned from three hours working in a fast food restaurant. You might treat the street money as “mad money” with little rational regard to getting the best value. This is in one sense strange, since it is still equivalent to three hours of hard work in the restaurant. Yet the “easy come-easy go” mentality replaces the rational economizer because of the situation, or context, in which you attained the money.

In another example of mental accounting that seems inconsistent to a traditional economist, a person could carry a credit card debt of $1,000 that has a 15% yearly interest cost, and simultaneously have a $2,000 savings account that pays only 2% per year. That means she pays $150 a year to the credit card company, while collecting only $40 annually in bank interest, so she loses $130 a year. That doesn’t seem wise.

The “rational” decision would be to pay off the debt, since a $1,000 savings account with $0 in debt is the equivalent net worth, and she would now net $20 per year. Curiously, it is not uncommon for people to ignore this advice, since they will treat a loss to their savings account as higher than the benefit of paying off their credit card. They do not treat the dollars as fungible so it looks irrational to traditional economists.

Which view is right, the behavioral economists’ or the traditional view? Both have their advantages, but behavioral economists have at least identified trying to describe and explain behavior that economists have historically dismissed as irrational. If most of us are engaged in some “irrational behavior,” perhaps there are deeper underlying reasons for this behavior in the first place.

“Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe”—Making Choices

In what category did consumers worldwide increase their spending during the Great Recession? Higher education. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), enrollment in colleges and universities rose one-third in China and almost two-thirds in Saudi Arabia, nearly doubled in Pakistan, tripled in Uganda, and surged by three million—18 percent—in the United States. Why were consumers willing to spend on education during lean times? Both individuals and countries view higher education as the way to prosperity. Many feel that increased earnings are a significant benefit of attending college.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from May 2012 supports this view, as (Figure) shows. They show a positive correlation between earnings and education. The data also indicate that unemployment rates fall with higher levels of education and training.

Why spend the money to go to college during recession? Because if you are unemployed (or underemployed, working fewer hours than you would like), the opportunity cost of your time is low. If you’re unemployed, you don’t have to give up work hours and income by going to college.

The graph shows the unemployment rate and median weekly earnings in 2012 for various levels of education. People with professional degrees made around $1,735 a week and suffered a 2.1% unemployment rate. People with doctoral degrees made around $1,624 a week and suffered a 2.5% unemployment rate. People with Master’s degrees made around $1,300 a week and suffered a 3.5% unemployment rate. People with Bachelor’s degrees made around $1,066 a week and suffered a 4.5% unemployment rate. People with Associate’s degrees made around $785 a week and suffered a 6.2% unemployment rate. People with some college, no degree made around $727 a week and suffered a 7.7% unemployment rate. People with a high school diploma made around $652 a week and suffered an 8.3% unemployment rate. People with less than a high school diploma made around $471 a week and suffered a 12.4% unemployment rate.
The Impact of Education on Earnings and Unemployment Rates, 2012 Those with the highest degrees in 2012 had substantially lower unemployment rates; whereas, those with the least formal education suffered from the highest unemployment rates. The national median average weekly income was $815, and the nation unemployment average in 2012 was 6.8%. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 22, 2013)

 

Key Concepts and Summary

People regularly make decisions that seem less than rational, decisions that contradict traditional consumer theory. This is because traditional theory ignores people’s state of mind or feelings, which can influence behavior. For example, people tend to value a dollar lost more than a dollar gained, even though the amounts are the same. Similarly, many people over withhold on their taxes, essentially giving the government a free loan until they file their tax returns, so that they are more likely to get money back than have to pay money on their taxes.

References

Holden, Sarah, and Daniel Schrass. 2012. “The rose of IRAs in U.S Households’ Saving for Retirement, 2012.” ICI Research Perspective 18.8 (2012). http://www.ici.org/pdf/per18-08.pdf.

Kahneman, Daniel and Amos Tversky. “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk.”
Econometrica 47.2 (March 1979) 263-291.

Thaler, Richard H. “Shifting Our Retirement Savings into Automatic.” The New York Times, April 6, 2013.
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/07/business/an-automatic-solution-for-the-retirement-savings-problem.html?pagewanted=all.

UNESCO Institute for Statistics. “Statistics in Brief / Profiles” Accessed August 2013. http://stats.uis.unesco.org/unesco/TableViewer/document.aspx?ReportId=121 &IF_Language=en&BR_Country=5580.

Glossary

behavioral economics
a branch of economics that seeks to enrich the understanding of decision-making by integrating the insights of psychology and by investigating how given dollar amounts can mean different things to individuals depending on the situation
fungible
the idea that units of a good, such as dollars, ounces of gold, or barrels of oil are capable of mutual substitution with each other and carry equal value to the individual

Part 7: Production, Costs, and Industry Structure

VII

This image is a photograph of a box from Amazon.com.
Amazon is an American international electronic commerce company that sells books, among many other things, shipping them directly to the consumer. Until recently there were no brick and mortar Amazon stores. (Credit: modification of work by William Christiansen/Flickr Creative Commons)

Amazon

In less than two decades, Amazon.com has transformed the way consumers sell, buy, and even read. Prior to Amazon, independent bookstores with limited inventories in small retail locations primarily sold books. There were exceptions, of course. Borders and Barnes & Noble offered larger stores in urban areas. In the last decade, however, independent bookstores have mostly disappeared, Borders has gone out of business, and Barnes & Noble is struggling. Online delivery and purchase of books has overtaken the more traditional business models. How has Amazon changed the book selling industry? How has it managed to crush its competition?

A major reason for the giant retailer’s success is its production model and cost structure, which has enabled Amazon to undercut the competitors’ prices even when factoring in the cost of shipping. Read on to see how firms great (like Amazon) and small (like your corner deli) determine what to sell, at what output, and price.

 

Introduction to Production, Costs, and Industry Structure

In this chapter, you will learn about:

This chapter is the first of four chapters that explores the theory of the firm. This theory explains how firms behave. What does that mean? Let’s define what we mean by the firm. A firm (or producer or business) combines inputs of labor, capital, land, and raw or finished component materials to produce outputs. If the firm is successful, the outputs are more valuable than the inputs. This activity of production goes beyond manufacturing (i.e., making things). It includes any process or service that creates value, including transportation, distribution, wholesale and retail sales.

Production involves a number of important decisions that define a firm’s behavior. These decisions include, but are not limited to:

The answers to these questions depend on the production and cost conditions facing each firm. That is the subject of this chapter. The answers also depend on the market structure for the product(s) in question. Market structure is a multidimensional concept that involves how competitive the industry is. We define it by questions such as these:

(Figure) illustrates the range of different market structures, which we will explore in Perfect Competition, Monopoly, and Monopolistic Competition and Oligopoly.

The line chart provides characteristics of perfect competition, monopolistic competition, oligopoly, monopoly.
The Spectrum of Competition:  Firms face different competitive situations. At one extreme—perfect competition—many firms are all trying to sell identical products. At the other extreme—monopoly—only one firm is selling the product, and this firm faces no competition. Monopolistic competition and oligopoly fall between the extremes of perfect competition and monopoly. Monopolistic competition is a situation with many firms selling similar, but not identical products. Oligopoly is a situation with few firms that sell identical or similar products.

Let’s examine how firms determine their costs and desired profit levels. Then we will discuss the origins of cost, both in the short and long run. Private enterprise, which can be private individual or group business ownership, characterizes the U.S. economy. In the U.S. system, we have the option to organize private businesses as sole proprietorships (one owner), partners (more than one owner), and corporations (legal entitles separate from the owners.

When people think of businesses, often corporate giants like Wal-Mart, Microsoft, or General Motors come to mind. However, firms come in all sizes, as (Figure) shows. The vast majority of American firms have fewer than 20 employees. As of 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 5.7 million firms with employees in the U.S. economy. Slightly less than half of all the workers in private firms are at the 17,000 large firms, meaning they employ more than 500 workers. Another 35% of workers in the U.S. economy are at firms with fewer than 100 workers. These small-scale businesses include everything from dentists and lawyers to businesses that mow lawns or clean houses. (Figure) does not include a separate category for the millions of small “non-employer” businesses where a single owner or a few partners are not officially paid wages or a salary, but simply receive whatever they can earn.

Range in Size of U.S. Firms(Source: U.S. Census, 2010)
Number of Employees Firms (% of total firms) Number of Paid Employees (% of total employment)
Total 5,734,538 112.0 million
0–9 4,543,315 (79.2%) 12.3 million (11.0%)
10–19 617,089 (10.8%) 8.3 million (7.4%)
20–99 475,125 (8.3%) 18.6 million (16.6%)
100–499 81,773 (1.4%) 15.9 million (14.2%)
500 or more 17,236 (0.30%) 50.9 million (49.8%)

Glossary

long run
period of time during which all of a firm’s inputs are variable

7.1 Explicit and Implicit Costs, and Accounting and Economic Profit

23

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain the difference between explicit costs and implicit costs
  • Understand the relationship between cost and revenue

Introduction

Each business, regardless of size or complexity, tries to earn a profit:

\text{Profit}=\text{Total Revenue - Total Cost}

Total revenue is the income the firm generates from selling its products. We calculate it by multiplying the price of the product times the quantity of output sold:

\text{Total Revenue}=\text{Price × Quantity}

We will see in the following chapters that revenue is a function of the demand for the firm’s products.

Total cost is what the firm pays for producing and selling its products. Recall that production involves the firm converting inputs to outputs. Each of those inputs has a cost to the firm. The sum of all those costs is total cost. We will learn in this chapter that short run costs are different from long run costs.

We can distinguish between two types of cost: explicit and implicit. Explicit costs are out-of-pocket costs, that is, actual payments. Wages that a firm pays its employees or rent that a firm pays for its office are explicit costs. Implicit costs are more subtle, but just as important. They represent the opportunity cost of using resources that the firm already owns. Often for small businesses, they are resources that the owners contribute. For example, working in the business while not earning a formal salary, or using the ground floor of a home as a retail store are both implicit costs. Implicit costs also include the depreciation of goods, materials, and equipment that are necessary for a company to operate. (See the Work It Out feature for an extended example.)

These two definitions of cost are important for distinguishing between two conceptions of profit, accounting profit, and economic profit. Accounting profit is a cash concept. It means total revenue minus explicit costs—the difference between dollars brought in and dollars paid out. Economic profit is total revenue minus total cost, including both explicit and implicit costs. The difference is important because even though a business pays income taxes based on its accounting profit, whether or not it is economically successful depends on its economic profit.

Calculating Implicit Costs

Consider the following example. Fred currently works for a corporate law firm. He is considering opening his own legal practice, where he expects to earn 💲200,000 per year once he establishes himself. To run his own firm, he would need an office and a law clerk. He has found the perfect office, which rents for 💲50,000 per year. He could hire a law clerk for 💲35,000 per year. If these figures are accurate, would Fred’s legal practice be profitable?

Step 1. First you have to calculate the costs. You can take what you know about explicit costs and total them:

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Step 2. Subtracting the explicit costs from the revenue gives you the accounting profit.

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\begin{array}{lc}\text{Revenues}:& \text{💲200,000}\\ \text{Explicit costs}:& \underset{\text{____________}}{\text{-💲85,000}}\\ \text{Accounting profit}:& \text{💲115,000}\end{array}

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However, these calculations consider only the explicit costs. To open his own practice, Fred would have to quit his current job, where he is earning an annual salary of 💲125,000. This would be an implicit cost of opening his own firm.

Step 3. You need to subtract both the explicit and implicit costs to determine the true economic profit:

\begin{array}{rcl}\text{Economic profit}& =& \text{total revenues - explicit costs - implicit costs}\\ & =& \text{💲200,000 - 💲85,000 - 💲125,000}\\ & =& \text{-💲10,000 per year}\end{array}

Fred would be losing 💲10,000 per year. That does not mean he would not want to open his own business, but it does mean he would be earning 💲10,000 less than if he worked for the corporate firm.

Implicit costs can include other things as well. Maybe Fred values his leisure time, and starting his own firm would require him to put in more hours than at the corporate firm. In this case, the lost leisure would also be an implicit cost that would subtract from economic profits.

 

Now that we have an idea about the different types of costs, let’s look at cost structures. A firm’s cost structure in the long run may be different from that in the short run. We turn to that distinction in the next few sections.

Key Concepts and Summary

Privately owned firms are motivated to earn profits. Profit is the difference between revenues and costs. While accounting profit considers only explicit costs, economic profit considers both explicit and implicit costs.

Self-Check Questions

A firm had sales revenue of 💲1 million last year. It spent 💲600,000 on labor, 💲150,000 on capital and 💲200,000 on materials. What was the firm’s accounting profit?

Accounting profit = total revenues minus explicit costs = 💲1,000,000 – (💲600,000 + 💲150,000 + 💲200,000) = 💲50,000.

Continuing from (Figure), the firm’s factory sits on land owned by the firm that it could rent for 💲30,000 per year. What was the firm’s economic profit last year?

Economic profit = accounting profit minus implicit cost = 💲50,000 – 💲30,000 = 💲20,000.

Review Questions

What are explicit and implicit costs?

Would you consider an interest payment on a loan to a firm an explicit or implicit cost?

What is the difference between accounting and economic profit?

Critical Thinking Questions

Small “Mom and Pop firms,” like inner city grocery stores, sometimes exist even though they do not earn economic profits. How can you explain this?

Problems

A firm is considering an investment that will earn a 6% rate of return. If it were to borrow the money, it would have to pay 8% interest on the loan, but it currently has the cash, so it will not need to borrow. Should the firm make the investment? Show your work.

References

2010 U.S. Census. www.census.gov.

Glossary

accounting profit
total revenues minus explicit costs, including depreciation
economic profit
total revenues minus total costs (explicit plus implicit costs)
explicit costs
out-of-pocket costs for a firm, for example, payments for wages and salaries, rent, or materials
firm
an organization that combines inputs of labor, capital, land, and raw or finished component materials to produce outputs.
implicit costs
opportunity cost of resources already owned by the firm and used in business, for example, expanding a factory onto land already owned
private enterprise
the ownership of businesses by private individuals
production
the process of combining inputs to produce outputs, ideally of a value greater than the value of the inputs
revenue
income from selling a firm’s product; defined as price times quantity sold

7.2 Production in the Short Run

24

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Understand the concept of a production function
  • Differentiate between the different types of inputs or factors in a production function
  • Differentiate between fixed and variable inputs
  • Differentiate between production in the short run and in the long run
  • Differentiate between total and marginal product
  • Understand the concept of diminishing marginal productivity

Introduction

In this chapter, we want to explore the relationship between the quantity of output a firm produces, and the cost of producing that output. We mentioned that the cost of the product depends on how many inputs are required to produce the product and what those inputs cost. We can answer the former question by looking at the firm’s production function.

Image of a pizza peel with mushroom and arugula.
The production process for pizza includes inputs such as ingredients, the efforts of the pizza maker, and tools and materials for cooking and serving. (Credit: Haldean Brown/Flickr Creative Commons)

Production is the process (or processes) a firm uses to transform inputs (e.g. labor, capital, raw materials) into outputs, i.e. the goods or services the firm wishes to sell. Consider pizza making. The pizzaiolo (pizza maker) takes flour, water, and yeast to make dough. Similarly, the pizzaiolo may take tomatoes, spices, and water to make pizza sauce. The cook rolls out the dough, brushes on the pizza sauce, and adds cheese and other toppings. The pizzaiolo uses a peel—the shovel-like wooden tool– to put the pizza into the oven to cook. Once baked, the pizza goes into a box (if it’s for takeout) and the customer pays for the good. What are the inputs (or factors of production) in the production process for this pizza?

Economists divide factors of production into several categories:

The cost of producing pizza (or any output) depends on the amount of labor capital, raw materials, and other inputs required and the price of each input to the entrepreneur. Let’s explore these ideas in more detail.

We can summarize the ideas so far in terms of a production function, a mathematical expression or equation that explains the engineering relationship between inputs and outputs:

Q=f\left[NR\text{,}\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}L\text{,}\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}K\text{,}\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}t\text{,}\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}E\right]

The production function gives the answer to the question, how much output can the firm produce given different amounts of inputs? Production functions are specific to the product. Different products have different production functions. The amount of labor a farmer uses to produce a bushel of wheat is likely different than that required to produce an automobile. Firms in the same industry may have somewhat different production functions, since each firm may produce a little differently. One pizza restaurant may make its own dough and sauce, while another may buy those pre-made. A sit-down pizza restaurant probably uses more labor (to handle table service) than a purely take-out restaurant.

We can describe inputs as either fixed or variable.

Fixed inputs are those that can’t easily be increased or decreased in a short period of time. In the pizza example, the building is a fixed input. Once the entrepreneur signs the lease, he or she is stuck in the building until the lease expires. Fixed inputs define the firm’s maximum output capacity. This is analogous to the potential real GDP shown by society’s production possibilities curve, i.e. the maximum quantities of outputs a society can produce at a given time with its available resources.

Variable inputs are those that can easily be increased or decreased in a short period of time. The pizzaiolo can order more ingredients with a phone call, so ingredients would be variable inputs. The owner could hire a new person to work the counter pretty quickly as well.

Economists often use a short-hand form for the production function:

Q=f\left[L\text{,}\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}K\right]\text{,}

where L represents all the variable inputs, and K represents all the fixed inputs.

Economists differentiate between short and long run production.

The short run is the period of time during which at least some factors of production are fixed. During the period of the pizza restaurant lease, the pizza restaurant is operating in the short run, because it is limited to using the current building—the owner can’t choose a larger or smaller building.

The long run is the period of time during which all factors are variable. Once the lease expires for the pizza restaurant, the shop owner can move to a larger or smaller place.

Let’s explore production in the short run using a specific example: tree cutting (for lumber) with a two-person crosscut saw.

Image of two men at a crosscut saw event.
Production in the short run may be explored through the example of lumberjacks using a two-person saw. (Credit: Wknight94/Wikimedia Commons)

Since by definition capital is fixed in the short run, our production function becomes

Q=f\left[L\text{,}\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}\stackrel{-}{K}\right]\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}\text{or}\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}Q=f\left[L\right]

This equation simply indicates that since capital is fixed, the amount of output (e.g. trees cut down per day) depends only on the amount of labor employed (e.g. number of lumberjacks working). We can express this production function numerically as (Figure) below shows.

Short Run Production Function for Trees
# Lumberjacks 1 2 3 4 5
# Trees (TP) 4 10 12 13 13
MP 4 6 2 1 0

Note that we have introduced some new language. We also call Output (Q) Total Product (TP), which means the amount of output produced with a given amount of labor and a fixed amount of capital. In this example, one lumberjack using a two-person saw can cut down four trees in an hour. Two lumberjacks using a two-person saw can cut down ten trees in an hour.

We should also introduce a critical concept: marginal product. Marginal product is the additional output of one more worker. Mathematically, Marginal Product is the change in total product divided by the change in labor: MP=\Delta TP/\Delta L. In the table above, since 0 workers produce 0 trees, the marginal product of the first worker is four trees per day, but the marginal product of the second worker is six trees per day. Why might that be the case? It’s because of the nature of the capital the workers are using. A two-person saw works much better with two persons than with one. Suppose we add a third lumberjack to the story. What will that person’s marginal product be? What will that person contribute to the team? Perhaps he or she can oil the saw’s teeth to keep it sawing smoothly or he or she could bring water to the two people sawing. What you see in the table is a critically important conclusion about production in the short run: It may be that as we add workers, the marginal product increases at first, but sooner or later additional workers will have decreasing marginal product. In fact, there may eventually be no effect or a negative effect on output. This is called the Law of Diminishing Marginal Product and it’s a characteristic of production in the short run. Diminishing marginal productivity is very similar to the concept of diminishing marginal utility that we learned about in the chapter on consumer choice. Both concepts are examples of the more general concept of diminishing marginal returns. Why does diminishing marginal productivity occur? It’s because of fixed capital. We will see this more clearly when we discuss production in the long run.

We can show these concepts graphically as (Figure) and (Figure) illustrate. (Figure) graphically shows the data from (Figure). (Figure) shows the more general cases of total product and marginal product curves.

Figure 7.5a is a graph showing the short run total product for trees. The x-axis is the number of lumberjacks and is numbered one through five. The y-axis is the number of trees and is numbered zero through sixteen in increments of four. The curve begins at the left of the graph, at coordinates indicating one lumberjack and four trees. It curves upward as it moves to the right, as the number of lumberjacks increases. It levels off at thirteen. Figure 7.5b is a graph showing the marginal product for trees. The x-axis is the number of lumberjacks and is numbered one through five. The y-axis is the marginal product and is numbered zero through eight in increments of two. The curve begins at the left of the graph, at coordinates indicating one lumberjack and a marginal product of four. It then increases (moves up) to a marginal product of six when the lumberjacks increase to two, but then proceeds downward and to the right as the number of lumberjacks increases, ultimately reaching zero when the number of lumberjacks equals five.
The graph shows the data from figure 7.2. The x-axis is the change in labor, and is labelled L. The y-axis is the change in total product, and is labelled TP. The curve in the graph starts relatively steeply, and levels off after time. The graph shows the more general cases of total product and marginal product curves. The x-axis is labor, and is labelled L. The y-axis is marginal product, and is labeled MP. The graph initially curves upward, then peaks before continuning in a downward direction until it tails off near the x-axis, showing nearly zero marginal product as labor increases.

Key Concepts and Summary

Production is the process a firm uses to transform inputs (e.g. labor, capital, raw materials, etc.) into outputs. It is not possible to vary fixed inputs (e.g. capital) in a short period of time. Thus, in the short run the only way to change output is to change the variable inputs (e.g. labor). Marginal product is the additional output a firm obtains by employing more labor in production. At some point, employing additional labor leads to diminishing marginal productivity, meaning the additional output obtained is less than for the previous increment to labor. Mathematically, marginal product is the slope of the total product curve.

Review Questions

What is a production function?

What is the difference between a fixed input and a variable input?

Glossary

diminishing marginal productivity
general rule that as a firm employs more labor, eventually the amount of additional output produced declines
factors of production (or inputs)
resources that firms use to produce their products, for example, labor and capital
fixed inputs
factors of production that can’t be easily increased or decreased in a short period of time
marginal product
change in a firm’s output when it employees more labor; mathematically, MP=\Delta TP/\Delta L
production function
mathematical equation that tells how much output a firm can produce with given amounts of the inputs
short run
period of time during which at least one or more of the firm’s inputs is fixed
total product
synonym for a firm’s output
variable inputs
factors of production that a firm can easily increase or decrease in a short period of time

7.3 Costs in the Short Run

25

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Understand the relationship between production and costs
  • Understand that every factor of production has a corresponding factor price
  • Analyze short-run costs in terms of total cost, fixed cost, variable cost, marginal cost, and average cost
  • Calculate average profit
  • Evaluate patterns of costs to determine potential profit

Introduction

We’ve explained that a firm’s total costs depend on the quantities of inputs the firm uses to produce its output and the cost of those inputs to the firm. The firm’s production function tells us how much output the firm will produce with given amounts of inputs. However, if we think about that backwards, it tells us how many inputs the firm needs to produce a given quantity of output, which is the first thing we need to determine total cost. Let’s move to the second factor we need to determine.

For every factor of production (or input), there is an associated factor payment. Factor payments are what the firm pays for the use of the factors of production. From the firm’s perspective, factor payments are costs. From the owner of each factor’s perspective, factor payments are income. Factor payments include:

We now have all the information necessary to determine a firm’s costs.

A cost function is a mathematical expression or equation that shows the cost of producing different levels of output.

Cost Function for Producing Widgets Q 1 2 3 4 Cost 💲32.50 💲44 💲52 💲90

What we observe is that the cost increases as the firm produces higher quantities of output. This is pretty intuitive, since producing more output requires greater quantities of inputs, which cost more dollars to acquire.

What is the origin of these cost figures? They come from the production function and the factor payments. The discussion of costs in the short run above, Costs in the Short Run, was based on the following production function, which is similar to (Figure) except for “widgets” instead of trees.

Workers (L) 1 2 3 3.25 4.4 5.2 6 7 8 9
Widgets (Q) 0.2 0.4 0.8 1 2 3 3.5 3.8 3.95 4

We can use the information from the production function to determine production costs. What we need to know is how many workers are required to produce any quantity of output. If we flip the order of the rows, we “invert” the production function so it shows L=f\left(Q\right).

Widgets (Q) 0.2 0.4 0.8 1 2 3 3.5 3.8 3.95 4
Workers (L) 1 2 3 3.25 4.4 5.2 6 7 8 9

Now focus on the whole number quantities of output. We’ll eliminate the fractions from the table:

Widgets (Q) 1 2 3 4
Workers (L) 3.25 4.4 5.2 9

Suppose widget workers receive 💲10 per hour. Multiplying the Workers row by 💲10 (and eliminating the blanks) gives us the cost of producing different levels of output.

Widgets (Q) 1.00 2.00 3.00 4.00
Workers (L) 3.25 4.4 5.2 9
× Wage Rate per hour 💲10 💲10 💲10 💲10
= Cost 💲32.50 💲44.00 💲52.00 💲90.00

This is same cost function with which we began! (shown in (Figure))

Now that we have the basic idea of the cost origins and how they are related to production, let’s drill down into the details.

Average and Marginal Costs

The cost of producing a firm’s output depends on how much labor and physical capital the firm uses. A list of the costs involved in producing cars will look very different from the costs involved in producing computer software or haircuts or fast-food meals.

We can measure costs in a variety of ways. Each way provides its own insight into costs. Sometimes firms need to look at their cost per unit of output, not just their total cost. There are two ways to measure per unit costs. The most intuitive way is average cost. Average cost is the cost on average of producing a given quantity. We define average cost as total cost divided by the quantity of output produced. AC=TC/Q
If producing two widgets costs a total of 💲44, the average cost per widget is 💲44/2=💲22 per widget. The other way of measuring cost per unit is marginal cost. If average cost is the cost of the average unit of output produced, marginal cost is the cost of each individual unit produced. More formally, marginal cost is the cost of producing one more unit of output. Mathematically, marginal cost is the change in total cost divided by the change in output: MC=\Delta TC/\Delta Q. If the cost of the first widget is 💲32.50 and the cost of two widgets is 💲44, the marginal cost of the second widget is 💲44-💲32.50=💲11.50. We can see the Widget Cost table redrawn below with average and marginal cost added.

Extended Cost Function for Producing Widgets
Q 1 2 3 4
Total Cost 💲32.50 💲44.00 💲52.00 💲90.00
Average Cost 💲32.50 💲22.00 💲17.33 💲22.50
Marginal Cost 💲32.50 💲11.50 💲8.00 💲38.00

Note that the marginal cost of the first unit of output is always the same as total cost.

Fixed and Variable Costs

We can decompose costs into fixed and variable costs. Fixed costs are the costs of the fixed inputs (e.g. capital). Because fixed inputs do not change in the short run, fixed costs are expenditures that do not change regardless of the level of production. Whether you produce a great deal or a little, the fixed costs are the same. One example is the rent on a factory or a retail space. Once you sign the lease, the rent is the same regardless of how much you produce, at least until the lease expires. Fixed costs can take many other forms: for example, the cost of machinery or equipment to produce the product, research and development costs to develop new products, even an expense like advertising to popularize a brand name. The amount of fixed costs varies according to the specific line of business: for instance, manufacturing computer chips requires an expensive factory, but a local moving and hauling business can get by with almost no fixed costs at all if it rents trucks by the day when needed.

Variable costs are the costs of the variable inputs (e.g. labor). The only way to increase or decrease output is by increasing or decreasing the variable inputs. Therefore, variable costs increase or decrease with output. We treat labor as a variable cost, since producing a greater quantity of a good or service typically requires more workers or more work hours. Variable costs would also include raw materials.

Total costs are the sum of fixed plus variable costs. Let’s look at another example. Consider the barber shop called “The Clip Joint” in (Figure). The data for output and costs are in (Figure). The fixed costs of operating the barber shop, including the space and equipment, are 💲160 per day. The variable costs are the costs of hiring barbers, which in our example is 💲80 per barber each day. The first two columns of the table show the quantity of haircuts the barbershop can produce as it hires additional barbers. The third column shows the fixed costs, which do not change regardless of the level of production. The fourth column shows the variable costs at each level of output. We calculate these by taking the amount of labor hired and multiplying by the wage. For example, two barbers cost: 2 × 💲80 = 💲160. Adding together the fixed costs in the third column and the variable costs in the fourth column produces the total costs in the fifth column. For example, with two barbers the total cost is: 💲160 + 💲160 = 💲320.

Output and Total Costs
Labor Quantity Fixed Cost Variable Cost Total Cost
1 16 💲160 💲80 💲240
2 40 💲160 💲160 💲320
3 60 💲160 💲240 💲400
4 72 💲160 💲320 💲480
5 80 💲160 💲400 💲560
6 84 💲160 💲480 💲640
7 82 💲160 💲560 💲720
The graph shows how costs increase with output.
How Output Affects Total Costs At zero production, the fixed costs of 💲160 are still present. As production increases, variable costs are added to fixed costs, and the total cost is the sum of the two.

At zero production, the fixed costs of 💲160 are still present. As production increases, we add variable costs to fixed costs, and the total cost is the sum of the two. (Figure) graphically shows the relationship between the quantity of output produced and the cost of producing that output. We always show the fixed costs as the vertical intercept of the total cost curve; that is, they are the costs incurred when output is zero so there are no variable costs.

You can see from the graph that once production starts, total costs and variable costs rise. While variable costs may initially increase at a decreasing rate, at some point they begin increasing at an increasing rate. This is caused by diminishing marginal productivity which we discussed earlier in the Production in the Short Run section of this chapter, which is easiest to see with an example. As the number of barbers increases from zero to one in the table, output increases from 0 to 16 for a marginal gain (or marginal product) of 16. As the number rises from one to two barbers, output increases from 16 to 40, a marginal gain of 24. From that point on, though, the marginal product diminishes as we add each additional barber. For example, as the number of barbers rises from two to three, the marginal product is only 20; and as the number rises from three to four, the marginal product is only 12.

To understand the reason behind this pattern, consider that a one-man barber shop is a very busy operation. The single barber needs to do everything: say hello to people entering, answer the phone, cut hair, sweep, and run the cash register. A second barber reduces the level of disruption from jumping back and forth between these tasks, and allows a greater division of labor and specialization. The result can be increasing marginal productivity. However, as the shop adds other barbers, the advantage of each additional barber is less, since the specialization of labor can only go so far. The addition of a sixth or seventh or eighth barber just to greet people at the door will have less impact than the second one did. This is the pattern of diminishing marginal productivity. As a result, the total costs of production will begin to rise more rapidly as output increases. At some point, you may even see negative returns as the additional barbers begin bumping elbows and getting in each other’s way. In this case, the addition of still more barbers would actually cause output to decrease, as the last row of (Figure) shows.

This pattern of diminishing marginal productivity is common in production. As another example, consider the problem of irrigating a crop on a farmer’s field. The plot of land is the fixed factor of production, while the water that the farmer can add to the land is the key variable cost. As the farmer adds water to the land, output increases. However, adding increasingly more water brings smaller increases in output, until at some point the water floods the field and actually reduces output. Diminishing marginal productivity occurs because, with fixed inputs (land in this example), each additional unit of input (e.g. water) contributes less to overall production.

Average Total Cost, Average Variable Cost, Marginal Cost

The breakdown of total costs into fixed and variable costs can provide a basis for other insights as well. The first five columns of (Figure) duplicate the previous table, but the last three columns show average total costs, average variable costs, and marginal costs. These new measures analyze costs on a per-unit (rather than a total) basis and are reflected in the curves in (Figure).

The graph shows marginal cost as an upward-sloping curve, and average variable cost and average total cost as U-shaped curves.
Cost Curves at the Clip Joint We can also present the information on total costs, fixed cost, and variable cost on a per-unit basis. We calculate average total cost (ATC) by dividing total cost by the total quantity produced. The average total cost curve is typically U-shaped. We calculate average variable cost (AVC) by dividing variable cost by the quantity produced. The average variable cost curve lies below the average total cost curve and is also typically U-shaped. We calculate marginal cost (MC) by taking the change in total cost between two levels of output and dividing by the change in output. The marginal cost curve is upward-sloping.
Different Types of Costs
Labor Quantity Fixed Cost Variable Cost Total Cost Marginal Cost Average Total Cost Average Variable Cost
1 16 💲160 💲80 💲240 💲15.00 💲15.00 💲5.00
2 40 💲160 💲160 💲320 💲3.33 💲8.00 💲4.00
3 60 💲160 💲240 💲400 💲4.00 💲6.67 💲4.00
4 72 💲160 💲320 💲480 💲6.67 💲6.67 💲4.44
5 80 💲160 💲400 💲560 💲10.00 💲7.00 💲5.00
6 84 💲160 💲480 💲640 💲20.00 💲7.62 💲5.71

Average total cost (sometimes referred to simply as average cost) is total cost divided by the quantity of output. Since the total cost of producing 40 haircuts is 💲320, the average total cost for producing each of 40 haircuts is 💲320/40, or 💲8 per haircut. Average cost curves are typically U-shaped, as (Figure) shows. Average total cost starts off relatively high, because at low levels of output total costs are dominated by the fixed cost. Mathematically, the denominator is so small that average total cost is large. Average total cost then declines, as the fixed costs are spread over an increasing quantity of output. In the average cost calculation, the rise in the numerator of total costs is relatively small compared to the rise in the denominator of quantity produced. However, as output expands still further, the average cost begins to rise. At the right side of the average cost curve, total costs begin rising more rapidly as diminishing returns come into effect.

We obtain average variable cost when we divide variable cost by quantity of output. For example, the variable cost of producing 80 haircuts is 💲400, so the average variable cost is 💲400/80, or 💲5 per haircut. Note that at any level of output, the average variable cost curve will always lie below the curve for average total cost, as (Figure) shows. The reason is that average total cost includes average variable cost and average fixed cost. Thus, for Q = 80 haircuts, the average total cost is 💲8 per haircut, while the average variable cost is 💲5 per haircut. However, as output grows, fixed costs become relatively less important (since they do not rise with output), so average variable cost sneaks closer to average cost.

Average total and variable costs measure the average costs of producing some quantity of output. Marginal cost is somewhat different. Marginal cost is the additional cost of producing one more unit of output. It is not the cost per unit of all units produced, but only the next one (or next few). We calculate marginal cost by taking the change in total cost and dividing it by the change in quantity. For example, as quantity produced increases from 40 to 60 haircuts, total costs rise by 400 – 320, or 80. Thus, the marginal cost for each of those marginal 20 units will be 80/20, or 💲4 per haircut. The marginal cost curve is generally upward-sloping, because diminishing marginal returns implies that additional units are more costly to produce. We can see small range of increasing marginal returns in the figure as a dip in the marginal cost curve before it starts rising. There is a point at which marginal and average costs meet, as the following Clear it Up feature discusses.

Where do marginal and average costs meet?

The marginal cost line intersects the average cost line exactly at the bottom of the average cost curve—which occurs at a quantity of 72 and cost of 💲6.60 in (Figure). The reason why the intersection occurs at this point is built into the economic meaning of marginal and average costs. If the marginal cost of production is below the average cost for producing previous units, as it is for the points to the left of where MC crosses ATC, then producing one more additional unit will reduce average costs overall—and the ATC curve will be downward-sloping in this zone. Conversely, if the marginal cost of production for producing an additional unit is above the average cost for producing the earlier units, as it is for points to the right of where MC crosses ATC, then producing a marginal unit will increase average costs overall—and the ATC curve must be upward-sloping in this zone. The point of transition, between where MC is pulling ATC down and where it is pulling it up, must occur at the minimum point of the ATC curve.

This idea of the marginal cost “pulling down” the average cost or “pulling up” the average cost may sound abstract, but think about it in terms of your own grades. If the score on the most recent quiz you take is lower than your average score on previous quizzes, then the marginal quiz pulls down your average. If your score on the most recent quiz is higher than the average on previous quizzes, the marginal quiz pulls up your average. In this same way, low marginal costs of production first pull down average costs and then higher marginal costs pull them up.

The numerical calculations behind average cost, average variable cost, and marginal cost will change from firm to firm. However, the general patterns of these curves, and the relationships and economic intuition behind them, will not change.

Lessons from Alternative Measures of Costs

Breaking down total costs into fixed cost, marginal cost, average total cost, and average variable cost is useful because each statistic offers its own insights for the firm.

Whatever the firm’s quantity of production, total revenue must exceed total costs if it is to earn a profit. As explored in the chapter Choice in a World of Scarcity, fixed costs are often sunk costs that a firm cannot recoup. In thinking about what to do next, typically you should ignore sunk costs, since you have already spent this money and cannot make any changes. However, you can change variable costs, so they convey information about the firm’s ability to cut costs in the present and the extent to which costs will increase if production rises.

Why are total cost and average cost not on the same graph?

Total cost, fixed cost, and variable cost each reflect different aspects of the cost of production over the entire quantity of output produced. We measure these costs in dollars. In contrast, marginal cost, average cost, and average variable cost are costs per unit. In the previous example, we measured them as dollars per haircut. Thus, it would not make sense to put all of these numbers on the same graph, since we measure them in different units (💲 versus 💲 per unit of output).

It would be as if the vertical axis measured two different things. In addition, as a practical matter, if they were on the same graph, the lines for marginal cost, average cost, and average variable cost would appear almost flat against the horizontal axis, compared to the values for total cost, fixed cost, and variable cost. Using the figures from the previous example, the total cost of producing 40 haircuts is 💲320. However, the average cost is 💲320/40, or 💲8. If you graphed both total and average cost on the same axes, the average cost would hardly show.

 

 

Average cost tells a firm whether it can earn profits given the current price in the market. If we divide profit by the quantity of output produced we get average profit, also known as the firm’s profit margin. Expanding the equation for profit gives:

\begin{array}{rcl}\text{average profit}& =& \frac{\text{profit}}{\text{quantity produced}}\\ & =& \frac{\text{total revenue - total cost}}{\text{quantity produced}}\\ & =& \frac{\text{total revenue}}{\text{quantity produced}}-\frac{\text{total cost}}{\text{quantity produced}}\\ & =& \text{average revenue - average cost}\end{array}

However, note that:

\begin{array}{lcl}\text{average revenue}& =& \frac{\text{price × quantity produced}}{\text{quantity produced}}\\ & =& \text{price}\end{array}

Thus:

\begin{array}{rcl}\text{average profit}& =& \text{price - average cost}\end{array}

This is the firm’s profit margin. This definition implies that if the market price is above average cost, average profit, and thus total profit, will be positive. If price is below average cost, then profits will be negative.

We can compare this marginal cost of producing an additional unit with the marginal revenue gained by selling that additional unit to reveal whether the additional unit is adding to total profit—or not. Thus, marginal cost helps producers understand how increasing or decreasing production affects profits.

A Variety of Cost Patterns

The pattern of costs varies among industries and even among firms in the same industry. Some businesses have high fixed costs, but low marginal costs. Consider, for example, an internet company that provides medical advice to customers. Consumers might pay such a company directly, or perhaps hospitals or healthcare practices might subscribe on behalf of their patients. Setting up the website, collecting the information, writing the content, and buying or leasing the computer space to handle the web traffic are all fixed costs that the company must undertake before the site can work. However, when the website is up and running, it can provide a high quantity of service with relatively low variable costs, like the cost of monitoring the system and updating the information. In this case, the total cost curve might start at a high level, because of the high fixed costs, but then might appear close to flat, up to a large quantity of output, reflecting the low variable costs of operation. If the website is popular, however, a large rise in the number of visitors will overwhelm the website, and increasing output further could require a purchase of additional computer space.

For other firms, fixed costs may be relatively low. For example, consider firms that rake leaves in the fall or shovel snow off sidewalks and driveways in the winter. For fixed costs, such firms may need little more than a car to transport workers to homes of customers and some rakes and shovels. Still other firms may find that diminishing marginal returns set in quite sharply. If a manufacturing plant tried to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, little time remains for routine equipment maintenance, and marginal costs can increase dramatically as the firm struggles to repair and replace overworked equipment.

Every firm can gain insight into its task of earning profits by dividing its total costs into fixed and variable costs, and then using these calculations as a basis for average total cost, average variable cost, and marginal cost. However, making a final decision about the profit-maximizing quantity to produce and the price to charge will require combining these perspectives on cost with an analysis of sales and revenue, which in turn requires looking at the market structure in which the firm finds itself. Before we turn to the analysis of market structure in other chapters, we will analyze the firm’s cost structure from a long-run perspective.

Key Concepts and Summary

For every input (e.g. labor), there is an associated factor payment (e.g. wages and salaries). The cost of production for a given quantity of output is the sum of the amount of each input required to produce that quantity of output times the associated factor payment.

In a short-run perspective, we can divide a firm’s total costs into fixed costs, which a firm must incur before producing any output, and variable costs, which the firm incurs in the act of producing. Fixed costs are sunk costs; that is, because they are in the past and the firm cannot alter them, they should play no role in economic decisions about future production or pricing. Variable costs typically show diminishing marginal returns, so that the marginal cost of producing higher levels of output rises.

We calculate marginal cost by taking the change in total cost (or the change in variable cost, which will be the same thing) and dividing it by the change in output, for each possible change in output. Marginal costs are typically rising. A firm can compare marginal cost to the additional revenue it gains from selling another unit to find out whether its marginal unit is adding to profit.

We calculate average total cost by taking total cost and dividing by total output at each different level of output. Average costs are typically U-shaped on a graph. If a firm’s average cost of production is lower than the market price, a firm will be earning profits.

We calculate average variable cost by taking variable cost and dividing by the total output at each level of output. Average variable costs are typically U-shaped. If a firm’s average variable cost of production is lower than the market price, then the firm would be earning profits if fixed costs are left out of the picture.

Self-Check Questions

The WipeOut Ski Company manufactures skis for beginners. Fixed costs are 💲30. Fill in (Figure) for total cost, average variable cost, average total cost, and marginal cost.

Quantity Variable Cost Fixed Cost Total Cost Average Variable Cost Average Total Cost Marginal Cost
0 0 💲30
1 💲10 💲30
2 💲25 💲30
3 💲45 💲30
4 💲70 💲30
5 💲100 💲30
6 💲135 💲30
Quantity Variable Cost Fixed Cost Total Cost Average Variable Cost Average Total Cost Marginal Cost
0 0 💲30 💲30
1 💲10 💲30 💲40 💲10.00 💲40.00 💲10
2 💲25 💲30 💲55 💲12.50 💲27.50 💲15
3 💲45 💲30 💲75 💲15.00 💲25.00 💲20
4 💲70 💲30 💲100 💲17.50 💲25.00 💲25
5 💲100 💲30 💲130 💲20.00 💲26.00 💲30
6 💲135 💲30 💲165 💲22.50 💲27.50 💲35

Based on your answers to the WipeOut Ski Company in (Figure), now imagine a situation where the firm produces a quantity of 5 units that it sells for a price of 💲25 each.

  1. What will be the company’s profits or losses?
  2. How can you tell at a glance whether the company is making or losing money at this price by looking at average cost?
  3. At the given quantity and price, is the marginal unit produced adding to profits?
  1. Total revenues in this example will be a quantity of five units multiplied by the price of 💲25/unit, which equals 💲125. Total costs when producing five units are 💲130. Thus, at this level of quantity and output the firm experiences losses (or negative profits) of 💲5.
  2. If price is less than average cost, the firm is not making a profit. At an output of five units, the average cost is 💲26/unit. Thus, at a glance you can see the firm is making losses. At a second glance, you can see that it must be losing 💲1 for each unit produced (that is, average cost of 💲26/unit minus the price of 💲25/unit). With five units produced, this observation implies total losses of 💲5.
  3. When producing five units, marginal costs are 💲30/unit. Price is 💲25/unit. Thus, the marginal unit is not adding to profits, but is actually subtracting from profits, which suggests that the firm should reduce its quantity produced.

Review Questions

How do we calculate marginal product?

What shapes would you generally expect a total product curve and a marginal product curve to have?

What are the factor payments for land, labor, and capital?

What is the difference between fixed costs and variable costs?

Critical Thinking Questions

A common name for fixed cost is “overhead.” If you divide fixed cost by the quantity of output produced, you get average fixed cost. Supposed fixed cost is 💲1,000. What does the average fixed cost curve look like? Use your response to explain what “spreading the overhead” means.

How does fixed cost affect marginal cost? Why is this relationship important?

Average cost curves (except for average fixed cost) tend to be U-shaped, decreasing and then increasing. Marginal cost curves have the same shape, though this may be harder to see since most of the marginal cost curve is increasing. Why do you think that average and marginal cost curves have the same general shape?

Problems

Return to (Figure). What is the marginal gain in output from increasing the number of barbers from 4 to 5 and from 5 to 6? Does it continue the pattern of diminishing marginal returns?

Compute the average total cost, average variable cost, and marginal cost of producing 60 and 72 haircuts. Draw the graph of the three curves between 60 and 72 haircuts.

Glossary

average profit
profit divided by the quantity of output produced; also known as profit margin
average total cost
total cost divided by the quantity of output
average variable cost
variable cost divided by the quantity of output
fixed cost
cost of the fixed inputs; expenditure that a firm must make before production starts and that does not change regardless of the production level
marginal cost
the additional cost of producing one more unit; mathematically, MC=\Delta TC/\Delta L
total cost
the sum of fixed and variable costs of production
variable cost
cost of production that increases with the quantity produced; the cost of the variable inputs

7.4 Production in the Long Run

26

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Understand how long run production differs from short run production.

Introduction

In the long run, all factors (including capital) are variable, so our production function is Q=f\left[L\text{,}\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}K\right].

Consider a secretarial firm that does typing for hire using typists for labor and personal computers for capital. To start, the firm has just enough business for one typist and one PC to keep busy for a day. Say that’s five documents. Now suppose the firm receives a rush order from a good customer for 10 documents tomorrow. Ideally, the firm would like to use two typists and two PCs to produce twice their normal output of five documents. However, in the short turn, the firm has fixed capital, i.e. only one PC. The table below shows the situation:

Short Run Production Function for Typing
# Typists (L) 1 2 3 4 5 6
Letters/hr (TP) 5 7 8 8 8 8 For K = 1PC
MP 5 2 1 0 0 0

In the short run, the only variable factor is labor so the only way the firm can produce more output is by hiring additional workers. What could the second worker do? What can they contribute to the firm? Perhaps they can answer the phone, which is a major impediment to completing the typing assignment. What about a third worker? Perhaps he or she could bring coffee to the first two workers. You can see both total product and marginal product for the firm above. Now here’s something to think about: At what point (e.g. after how many workers) does diminishing marginal productivity kick in, and more importantly, why?

In this example, marginal productivity starts to decline after the second worker. This is because capital is fixed. The production process for typing works best with one worker and one PC. If you add more than one typist, you get seriously diminishing marginal productivity.

Consider the long run. Suppose the firm’s demand increases to 15 documents per day. What might the firm do to operate more efficiently? If demand has tripled, the firm could acquire two more PCs, which would give us a new short run production function as Table 7.4 below shows.

Long Run Production Function for Typing
# Typists (L) 1 2 3 4 5 5
Letters/hr (TP) 5 6 8 8 8 8 For K = 1PC
MP 5 2 1 0 0 0
Letters/hr (TP) 5 10 15 17 18 18 For K = 3PC
MP 5 5 5 2 1 0

With more capital, the firm can hire three workers before diminishing productivity comes into effect. More generally, because all factors are variable, the long run production function shows the most efficient way of producing any level of output.

Key Concepts and Summary

In the long run, all inputs are variable. Since diminishing marginal productivity is caused by fixed capital, there are no diminishing returns in the long run. Firms can choose the optimal capital stock to produce their desired level of output.

Self-Check Questions

If two painters can paint 200 square feet of wall in an hour, and three painters can paint 275 square feet, what is the marginal product of the third painter?

The marginal product of the third painter is 75 square feet.

\begin{array}{ccc}\hfill \text{marginal product}& =& \text{change in total product/change in variable output}\hfill \\ & & \text{change in total product}=275\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}\text{square feet}-200\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}\text{square feet}\hfill \\ & & \text{change in total product}=75\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}\text{square feet}\hfill \\ \hfill \text{marginal product}& =& 75\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}\text{square feet}/1\phantom{\rule{0.2em}{0ex}}\text{worker}\hfill \\ \hfill \text{marginal product}& =& 75\hfill \end{array}

Review Questions

How do we calculate each of the following: marginal cost, average total cost, and average variable cost?

What shapes would you generally expect each of the following cost curves to have: fixed costs, variable costs, marginal costs, average total costs, and average variable costs?

7.5 Costs in the Long Run

27

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Calculate long run total cost
  • Identify economies of scale, diseconomies of scale, and constant returns to scale
  • Interpret graphs of long-run average cost curves and short-run average cost curves
  • Analyze cost and production in the long run and short run

Introduction

The long run is the period of time when all costs are variable. The long run depends on the specifics of the firm in question—it is not a precise period of time. If you have a one-year lease on your factory, then the long run is any period longer than a year, since after a year you are no longer bound by the lease. No costs are fixed in the long run. A firm can build new factories and purchase new machinery, or it can close existing facilities. In planning for the long run, the firm will compare alternative production technologies (or processes).

In this context, technology refers to all alternative methods of combining inputs to produce outputs. It does not refer to a specific new invention like the tablet computer. The firm will search for the production technology that allows it to produce the desired level of output at the lowest cost. After all, lower costs lead to higher profits—at least if total revenues remain unchanged. Moreover, each firm must fear that if it does not seek out the lowest-cost methods of production, then it may lose sales to competitor firms that find a way to produce and sell for less.

Choice of Production Technology

A firm can perform many tasks with a range of combinations of labor and physical capital. For example, a firm can have human beings answering phones and taking messages, or it can invest in an automated voicemail system. A firm can hire file clerks and secretaries to manage a system of paper folders and file cabinets, or it can invest in a computerized recordkeeping system that will require fewer employees. A firm can hire workers to push supplies around a factory on rolling carts, it can invest in motorized vehicles, or it can invest in robots that carry materials without a driver. Firms often face a choice between buying a many small machines, which need a worker to run each one, or buying one larger and more expensive machine, which requires only one or two workers to operate it. In short, physical capital and labor can often substitute for each other.

Consider the example of local governments hiring a private firm to clean up public parks. Three different combinations of labor and physical capital for cleaning up a single average-sized park appear in (Figure). The first production technology is heavy on workers and light on machines, while the next two technologies substitute machines for workers. Since all three of these production methods produce the same thing—one cleaned-up park—a profit-seeking firm will choose the production technology that is least expensive, given the prices of labor and machines.

Three Ways to Clean a Park
Production technology 1 10 workers 2 machines
Production technology 2 7 workers 4 machines
Production technology 3 3 workers 7 machines

Production technology 1 uses the most labor and least machinery, while production technology 3 uses the least labor and the most machinery. (Figure) outlines three examples of how the total cost will change with each production technology as the cost of labor changes. As the cost of labor rises from example A to B to C, the firm will choose to substitute away from labor and use more machinery.

Total Cost with Rising Labor Costs
Example A: Workers cost 💲40, machines cost 💲80
Labor Cost Machine Cost Total Cost
Cost of technology 1 10 × 💲40 = 💲400 2 × 💲80 = 💲160 💲560
Cost of technology 2    7 × 💲40 = 💲280 4 × 💲80 = 💲320 💲600
Cost of technology 3    3 × 💲40 = 💲120 7 × 💲80 = 💲560 💲680
Example B: Workers cost 💲55, machines cost 💲80
Labor Cost Machine Cost Total Cost
Cost of technology 1 10 × 💲55 = 💲550 2 × 💲80 = 💲160 💲710
Cost of technology 2    7 × 💲55 = 💲385 4 × 💲80 = 💲320 💲705
Cost of technology 3    3 × 💲55 = 💲165 7 × 💲80 = 💲560 💲725
Example C: Workers cost 💲90, machines cost 💲80
Labor Cost Machine Cost Total Cost
Cost of technology 1 10 × 💲90 = 💲900 2 × 💲80 = 💲160 💲1,060
Cost of technology 2    7 × 💲90 = 💲630 4 × 💲80 = 💲320 💲950
Cost of technology 3    3 × 💲90 = 💲270 7 × 💲80 = 💲560 💲830

Example A shows the firm’s cost calculation when wages are 💲40 and machines costs are 💲80. In this case, technology 1 is the low-cost production technology. In example B, wages rise to 💲55, while the cost of machines does not change, in which case technology 2 is the low-cost production technology. If wages keep rising up to 💲90, while the cost of machines remains unchanged, then technology 3 clearly becomes the low-cost form of production, as example C shows.

This example shows that as an input becomes more expensive (in this case, the labor input), firms will attempt to conserve on using that input and will instead shift to other inputs that are relatively less expensive. This pattern helps to explain why the demand curve for labor (or any input) slopes down; that is, as labor becomes relatively more expensive, profit-seeking firms will seek to substitute the use of other inputs. When a multinational employer like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s sets up a bottling plant or a restaurant in a high-wage economy like the United States, Canada, Japan, or Western Europe, it is likely to use production technologies that conserve on the number of workers and focuses more on machines. However, that same employer is likely to use production technologies with more workers and less machinery when producing in a lower-wage country like Mexico, China, or South Africa.

Economies of Scale

Once a firm has determined the least costly production technology, it can consider the optimal scale of production, or quantity of output to produce. Many industries experience economies of scale. Economies of scale refers to the situation where, as the quantity of output goes up, the cost per unit goes down. This is the idea behind “warehouse stores” like Costco or Walmart. In everyday language: a larger factory can produce at a lower average cost than a smaller factory.

(Figure) illustrates the idea of economies of scale, showing the average cost of producing an alarm clock falling as the quantity of output rises. For a small-sized factory like S, with an output level of 1,000, the average cost of production is 💲12 per alarm clock. For a medium-sized factory like M, with an output level of 2,000, the average cost of production falls to 💲8 per alarm clock. For a large factory like L, with an output of 5,000, the average cost of production declines still further to 💲4 per alarm clock.

The graph shows a downward sloping line that represents how large-scale production leads to a decrease in average costs.
Economies of Scale: A small factory like S produces 1,000 alarm clocks at an average cost of 💲12 per clock. A medium factory like M produces 2,000 alarm clocks at a cost of 💲8 per clock. A large factory like L produces 5,000 alarm clocks at a cost of 💲4 per clock. Economies of scale exist when the larger scale of production leads to lower average costs.

The average cost curve in (Figure) may appear similar to the average cost curves we presented earlier in this chapter, although it is downward-sloping rather than U-shaped. However, there is one major difference. The economies of scale curve is a long-run average cost curve, because it allows all factors of production to change. The short-run average cost curves we presented earlier in this chapter assumed the existence of fixed costs, and only variable costs were allowed to change.

One prominent example of economies of scale occurs in the chemical industry. Chemical plants have many pipes. The cost of the materials for producing a pipe is related to the circumference of the pipe and its length. However, the cross-section area of the pipe determines the volume of chemicals that can flow through it. The calculations in (Figure) show that a pipe which uses twice as much material to make (as shown by the circumference) can actually carry four times the volume of chemicals because the pipe’s cross-section area rises by a factor of four (as the Area column below shows).

Comparing Pipes: Economies of Scale in the Chemical Industry
Circumference (2\pi r) Area (\pi {r}^{2})
4-inch pipe 12.5 inches 12.5 square inches
8-inch pipe 25.1 inches 50.2 square inches
16-inch pipe 50.2 inches 201.1 square inches

A doubling of the cost of producing the pipe allows the chemical firm to process four times as much material. This pattern is a major reason for economies of scale in chemical production, which uses a large quantity of pipes. Of course, economies of scale in a chemical plant are more complex than this simple calculation suggests. However, the chemical engineers who design these plants have long used what they call the “six-tenths rule,” a rule of thumb which holds that increasing the quantity produced in a chemical plant by a certain percentage will increase total cost by only six-tenths as much.

Shapes of Long-Run Average Cost Curves

While in the short run firms are limited to operating on a single average cost curve (corresponding to the level of fixed costs they have chosen), in the long run when all costs are variable, they can choose to operate on any average cost curve. Thus, the long-run average cost (LRAC) curve is actually based on a group of short-run average cost (SRAC) curves, each of which represents one specific level of fixed costs. More precisely, the long-run average cost curve will be the least expensive average cost curve for any level of output. (Figure) shows how we build the long-run average cost curve from a group of short-run average cost curves. Five short-run-average cost curves appear on the diagram. Each SRAC curve represents a different level of fixed costs. For example, you can imagine SRAC1 as a small factory, SRAC2 as a medium factory, SRAC3 as a large factory, and SRAC4 and SRAC5 as very large and ultra-large. Although this diagram shows only five SRAC curves, presumably there are an infinite number of other SRAC curves between the ones that we show. Think of this family of short-run average cost curves as representing different choices for a firm that is planning its level of investment in fixed cost physical capital—knowing that different choices about capital investment in the present will cause it to end up with different short-run average cost curves in the future.

This graph shows a long run average cost as a sum of minimum short run average costs.
From Short-Run Average Cost Curves to Long-Run Average Cost Curves: The five different short-run average cost (SRAC) curves each represents a different level of fixed costs, from the low level of fixed costs at SRAC1 to the high level of fixed costs at SRAC5. Other SRAC curves, not in the diagram, lie between the ones that are here. The long-run average cost (LRAC) curve shows the lowest cost for producing each quantity of output when fixed costs can vary, and so it is formed by the bottom edge of the family of SRAC curves. If a firm wished to produce quantity Q3, it would choose the fixed costs associated with SRAC3.

The long-run average cost curve shows the cost of producing each quantity in the long run, when the firm can choose its level of fixed costs and thus choose which short-run average costs it desires. If the firm plans to produce in the long run at an output of Q3, it should make the set of investments that will lead it to locate on SRAC3, which allows producing q3 at the lowest cost. A firm that intends to produce Q3 would be foolish to choose the level of fixed costs at SRAC2 or SRAC4. At SRAC2 the level of fixed costs is too low for producing Q3 at lowest possible cost, and producing q3 would require adding a very high level of variable costs and make the average cost very high. At SRAC4, the level of fixed costs is too high for producing q3 at lowest possible cost, and again average costs would be very high as a result.

The shape of the long-run cost curve, in (Figure), is fairly common for many industries. The left-hand portion of the long-run average cost curve, where it is downward- sloping from output levels Q1 to Q2 to Q3, illustrates the case of economies of scale. In this portion of the long-run average cost curve, larger scale leads to lower average costs. We illustrated this pattern earlier in (Figure).

In the middle portion of the long-run average cost curve, the flat portion of the curve around Q3, economies of scale have been exhausted. In this situation, allowing all inputs to expand does not much change the average cost of production. We call this constant returns to scale. In this LRAC curve range, the average cost of production does not change much as scale rises or falls. The following Clear It Up feature explains where diminishing marginal returns fit into this analysis.

How do economies of scale compare to diminishing marginal returns?

The concept of economies of scale, where average costs decline as production expands, might seem to conflict with the idea of diminishing marginal returns, where marginal costs rise as production expands. However, diminishing marginal returns refers only to the short-run average cost curve, where one variable input (like labor) is increasing, but other inputs (like capital) are fixed. Economies of scale refers to the long-run average cost curve where all inputs are allowed to increase together. Thus, it is quite possible and common to have an industry that has both diminishing marginal returns when only one input is allowed to change, and at the same time has economies of scale when all inputs change together to produce a larger-scale operation.

 

Finally, the right-hand portion of the long-run average cost curve, running from output level Q4 to Q5, shows a situation where, as the level of output and the scale rises, average costs rise as well. We call this situation diseconomies of scale. A firm or a factory can grow so large that it becomes very difficult to manage, resulting in unnecessarily high costs as many layers of management try to communicate with workers and with each other, and as failures to communicate lead to disruptions in the flow of work and materials. Not many overly large factories exist in the real world, because with their very high production costs, they are unable to compete for long against plants with lower average costs of production. However, in some planned economies, like the economy of the old Soviet Union, plants that were so large as to be grossly inefficient were able to continue operating for a long time because government economic planners protected them from competition and ensured that they would not make losses.

Diseconomies of scale can also be present across an entire firm, not just a large factory. The leviathan effect can hit firms that become too large to run efficiently, across the entirety of the enterprise. Firms that shrink their operations are often responding to finding itself in the diseconomies region, thus moving back to a lower average cost at a lower output level.

Visit this website to read an article about the complexity of the belief that banks can be “too-big-to-fail.”

The Size and Number of Firms in an Industry

The shape of the long-run average cost curve has implications for how many firms will compete in an industry, and whether the firms in an industry have many different sizes, or tend to be the same size. For example, say that the appliance industry sells one million dishwashers every year at a price of 💲500 each and the long-run average cost curve for dishwashers is in (Figure) (a). In (Figure) (a), the lowest point of the LRAC curve occurs at a quantity of 10,000 produced. Thus, the market for dishwashers will consist of 100 different manufacturing plants of this same size. If some firms built a plant that produced 5,000 dishwashers per year or 25,000 dishwashers per year, the average costs of production at such plants would be well above 💲500, and the firms would not be able to compete.

The two graphs show how the LRAC is affected by competition between firms.
The LRAC Curve and the Size and Number of Firms (a) Low-cost firms will produce at output level R. When the LRAC curve has a clear minimum point, then any firm producing a different quantity will have higher costs. In this case, a firm producing at a quantity of 10,000 will produce at a lower average cost than a firm producing, say, 5,000 or 20,000 units. (b) Low-cost firms will produce between output levels R and S. When the LRAC curve has a flat bottom, then firms producing at any quantity along this flat bottom can compete. In this case, any firm producing a quantity between 5,000 and 20,000 can compete effectively, although firms producing less than 5,000 or more than 20,000 would face higher average costs and be unable to compete.

How can we view cities as examples of economies of scale?

Why are people and economic activity concentrated in cities, rather than distributed evenly across a country? The fundamental reason must be related to the idea of economies of scale—that grouping economic activity is more productive in many cases than spreading it out. For example, cities provide a large group of nearby customers, so that businesses can produce at an efficient economy of scale. They also provide a large group of workers and suppliers, so that business can hire easily and purchase whatever specialized inputs they need. Many of the attractions of cities, like sports stadiums and museums, can operate only if they can draw on a large nearby population base. Cities are big enough to offer a wide variety of products, which is what appeals to many shoppers.

These factors are not exactly economies of scale in the narrow sense of the production function of a single firm, but they are related to growth in the overall size of population and market in an area. Cities are sometimes called “agglomeration economies.”

These agglomeration factors help to explain why every economy, as it develops, has an increasing proportion of its population living in urban areas. In the United States, about 80% of the population now lives in metropolitan areas (which include the suburbs around cities), compared to just 40% in 1900. However, in poorer nations of the world, including much of Africa, the proportion of the population in urban areas is only about 30%. One of the great challenges for these countries as their economies grow will be to manage the growth of the great cities that will arise.

If cities offer economic advantages that are a form of economies of scale, then why don’t all or most people live in one giant city? At some point, agglomeration economies must turn into diseconomies. For example, traffic congestion may reach a point where the gains from being geographically nearby are counterbalanced by how long it takes to travel. High densities of people, cars, and factories can mean more garbage and air and water pollution. Facilities like parks or museums may become overcrowded. There may be economies of scale for negative activities like crime, because high densities of people and businesses, combined with the greater impersonality of cities, make it easier for illegal activities as well as legal ones. The future of cities, both in the United States and in other countries around the world, will be determined by their ability to benefit from the economies of agglomeration and to minimize or counterbalance the corresponding diseconomies.

 

We illustrate a more common case in (Figure) (b), where the LRAC curve has a flat-bottomed area of constant returns to scale. In this situation, any firm with a level of output between 5,000 and 20,000 will be able to produce at about the same level of average cost. Given that the market will demand one million dishwashers per year at a price of 💲500, this market might have as many as 200 producers (that is, one million dishwashers divided by firms making 5,000 each) or as few as 50 producers (one million dishwashers divided by firms making 20,000 each). The producers in this market will range in size from firms that make 5,000 units to firms that make 20,000 units. However, firms that produce below 5,000 units or more than 20,000 will be unable to compete, because their average costs will be too high. Thus, if we see an industry where almost all plants are the same size, it is likely that the long-run average cost curve has a unique bottom point as in (Figure) (a). However, if the long-run average cost curve has a wide flat bottom like (Figure) (b), then firms of a variety of different sizes will be able to compete with each other.

We can interpret the flat section of the long-run average cost curve in (Figure) (b) in two different ways. One interpretation is that a single manufacturing plant producing a quantity of 5,000 has the same average costs as a single manufacturing plant with four times as much capacity that produces a quantity of 20,000. The other interpretation is that one firm owns a single manufacturing plant that produces a quantity of 5,000, while another firm owns four separate manufacturing plants, which each produce a quantity of 5,000. This second explanation, based on the insight that a single firm may own a number of different manufacturing plants, is especially useful in explaining why the long-run average cost curve often has a large flat segment—and thus why a seemingly smaller firm may be able to compete quite well with a larger firm. At some point, however, the task of coordinating and managing many different plants raises the cost of production sharply, and the long-run average cost curve slopes up as a result.

In the examples to this point, the quantity demanded in the market is quite large (one million) compared with the quantity produced at the bottom of the long-run average cost curve (5,000, 10,000 or 20,000). In such a situation, the market is set for competition between many firms. However, what if the bottom of the long-run average cost curve is at a quantity of 10,000 and the total market demand at that price is only slightly higher than that quantity—or even somewhat lower?

Return to (Figure) (a), where the bottom of the long-run average cost curve is at 10,000, but now imagine that the total quantity of dishwashers demanded in the market at that price of 💲500 is only 30,000. In this situation, the total number of firms in the market would be three. We call a handful of firms in a market an “oligopoly,” and the chapter on Monopolistic Competition and Oligopoly will discuss the range of competitive strategies that can occur when oligopolies compete.

Alternatively, consider a situation, again in the setting of (Figure) (a), where the bottom of the long-run average cost curve is 10,000, but total demand for the product is only 5,000. (For simplicity, imagine that this demand is highly inelastic, so that it does not vary according to price.) In this situation, the market may well end up with a single firm—a monopoly—producing all 5,000 units. If any firm tried to challenge this monopoly while producing a quantity lower than 5,000 units, the prospective competitor firm would have a higher average cost, and so it would not be able to compete in the longer term without losing money. The chapter on Monopoly discusses the situation of a monopoly firm.

Thus, the shape of the long-run average cost curve reveals whether competitors in the market will be different sizes. If the LRAC curve has a single point at the bottom, then the firms in the market will be about the same size, but if the LRAC curve has a flat-bottomed segment of constant returns to scale, then firms in the market may be a variety of different sizes.

The relationship between the quantity at the minimum of the long-run average cost curve and the quantity demanded in the market at that price will predict how much competition is likely to exist in the market. If the quantity demanded in the market far exceeds the quantity at the minimum of the LRAC, then many firms will compete. If the quantity demanded in the market is only slightly higher than the quantity at the minimum of the LRAC, a few firms will compete. If the quantity demanded in the market is less than the quantity at the minimum of the LRAC, a single-producer monopoly is a likely outcome.

Shifting Patterns of Long-Run Average Cost

New developments in production technology can shift the long-run average cost curve in ways that can alter the size distribution of firms in an industry.

For much of the twentieth century, the most common change had been to see alterations in technology, like the assembly line or the large department store, where large-scale producers seemed to gain an advantage over smaller ones. In the long-run average cost curve, the downward-sloping economies of scale portion of the curve stretched over a larger quantity of output.

However, new production technologies do not inevitably lead to a greater average size for firms. For example, in recent years some new technologies for generating electricity on a smaller scale have appeared. The traditional coal-burning electricity plants needed to produce 300 to 600 megawatts of power to exploit economies of scale fully. However, high-efficiency turbines to produce electricity from burning natural gas can produce electricity at a competitive price while producing a smaller quantity of 100 megawatts or less. These new technologies create the possibility for smaller companies or plants to generate electricity as efficiently as large ones. Another example of a technology-driven shift to smaller plants may be taking place in the tire industry. A traditional mid-size tire plant produces about six million tires per year. However, in 2000, the Italian company Pirelli introduced a new tire factory that uses many robots. The Pirelli tire plant produced only about one million tires per year, but did so at a lower average cost than a traditional mid-sized tire plant.

Controversy has simmered in recent years over whether the new information and communications technologies will lead to a larger or smaller size for firms. On one side, the new technology may make it easier for small firms to reach out beyond their local geographic area and find customers across a state, or the nation, or even across international boundaries. This factor might seem to predict a future with a larger number of small competitors. On the other side, perhaps the new information and communications technology will create “winner-take-all” markets where one large company will tend to command a large share of total sales, as Microsoft has done producing of software for personal computers or Amazon has done in online bookselling. Moreover, improved information and communication technologies might make it easier to manage many different plants and operations across the country or around the world, and thus encourage larger firms. This ongoing battle between the forces of smallness and largeness will be of great interest to economists, businesspeople, and policymakers.

Amazon

Traditionally, bookstores have operated in retail locations with inventories held either on the shelves or in the back of the store. These retail locations were very pricey in terms of rent. Until recently, Amazon had no retail locations. It only sold online and delivered by mail. Amazon now has retail stores in California, Oregon and Washington State and retail stores are coming to Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Amazon offers almost any book in print, convenient purchasing, and prompt delivery by mail. Amazon holds its inventories in huge warehouses in low-rent locations around the world. The warehouses are highly computerized using robots and relatively low-skilled workers, making for low average costs per sale. Amazon demonstrates the significant advantages economies of scale can offer to a firm that exploits those economies.

 

Key Concepts and Summary

A production technology refers to a specific combination of labor, physical capital, and technology that makes up a particular method of production.

In the long run, firms can choose their production technology, and so all costs become variable costs. In making this choice, firms will try to substitute relatively inexpensive inputs for relatively expensive inputs where possible, so as to produce at the lowest possible long-run average cost.

Economies of scale refers to a situation where as the level of output increases, the average cost decreases. Constant returns to scale refers to a situation where average cost does not change as output increases. Diseconomies of scale refers to a situation where as output increases, average costs also increase.

The long-run average cost curve shows the lowest possible average cost of production, allowing all the inputs to production to vary so that the firm is choosing its production technology. A downward-sloping LRAC shows economies of scale; a flat LRAC shows constant returns to scale; an upward-sloping LRAC shows diseconomies of scale. If the long-run average cost curve has only one quantity produced that results in the lowest possible average cost, then all of the firms competing in an industry should be the same size. However, if the LRAC has a flat segment at the bottom, so that a firm can produce a range of different quantities at the lowest average cost, the firms competing in the industry will display a range of sizes. The market demand in conjunction with the long-run average cost curve determines how many firms will exist in a given industry.

If the quantity demanded in the market of a certain product is much greater than the quantity found at the bottom of the long-run average cost curve, where the cost of production is lowest, the market will have many firms competing. If the quantity demanded in the market is less than the quantity at the bottom of the LRAC, there will likely be only one firm.

Self-Check Questions

Return to the problem explained in (Figure) and (Figure). If the cost of labor remains at 💲40, but the cost of a machine decreases to 💲50, what would be the total cost of each method of production? Which method should the firm use, and why?

The new table should look like this:

Labor CostMachine CostTotal CostCost of technology 110 × 💲40 = 💲4002 × 💲50 = 💲100💲500Cost of technology 27 × 💲40 = 💲2804 × 💲50 = 💲200💲480Cost of technology 33 × 💲40 = 💲1207 × 💲50 = 💲350💲470

The firm should choose production technology 3 since it has the lowest total cost. This makes sense since, with cheaper machine hours, one would expect a shift in the direction of more machines and less labor.

Suppose the cost of machines increases to 💲55, while the cost of labor stays at 💲40. How would that affect the total cost of the three methods? Which method should the firm choose now?

Labor CostMachine CostTotal CostCost of technology 110 × 💲40 = 💲4002 × 💲55 = 💲110💲510Cost of technology 27 × 💲40 = 💲2804 × 💲55 = 💲220💲500Cost of technology 33 × 💲40 = 💲1207 × 💲55 = 💲385💲505

The firm should choose production technology 2 since it has the lowest total cost. Because the cost of machines increased (relative to the previous question), you would expect a shift toward less capital and more labor.

Automobile manufacturing is an industry subject to significant economies of scale. Suppose there are four domestic auto manufacturers, but the demand for domestic autos is no more than 2.5 times the quantity produced at the bottom of the long-run average cost curve. What do you expect will happen to the domestic auto industry in the long run?

This is the situation that existed in the United States in the 1970s. Since there is only demand enough for 2.5 firms to reach the bottom of the average cost curve, you would expect one firm will not be around in the long run, and at least one firm will be struggling.

Review Questions

Are there fixed costs in the long-run? Explain briefly.

Are fixed costs also sunk costs? Explain.

What are diminishing marginal returns as they relate to costs?

Which costs are measured on per-unit basis: fixed costs, average cost, average variable cost, variable costs, and marginal cost?

What is a production technology?

In choosing a production technology, how will firms react if one input becomes relatively more expensive?

What is a long-run average cost curve?

What is the difference between economies of scale, constant returns to scale, and diseconomies of scale?

What shape of a long-run average cost curve illustrates economies of scale, constant returns to scale, and diseconomies of scale?

Why will firms in most markets be located at or close to the bottom of the long-run average cost curve?

Critical Thinking Questions

What is the relationship between marginal product and marginal cost? (Hint: Look at the curves.) Why do you suppose that is? Is this relationship the same in the long run as in the short run?

It is clear that businesses operate in the short run, but do they ever operate in the long run? Discuss.

Return to Table 7.2. In the top half of the table, at what point does diminishing marginal productivity kick in? What about in the bottom half of the table? How do you explain this?

How would an improvement in technology, like the high-efficiency gas turbines or Pirelli tire plant, affect the long-run average cost curve of a firm? Can you draw the old curve and the new one on the same axes? How might such an improvement affect other firms in the industry?

Do you think that the taxicab industry in large cities would be subject to significant economies of scale? Why or why not?

Problems

A small company that shovels sidewalks and driveways has 100 homes signed up for its services this winter. It can use various combinations of capital and labor: intensive labor with hand shovels, less labor with snow blowers, and still less labor with a pickup truck that has a snowplow on front. To summarize, the method choices are:

Method 1: 50 units of labor, 10 units of capital

Method 2: 20 units of labor, 40 units of capital

Method 3: 10 units of labor, 70 units of capital

If hiring labor for the winter costs 💲100/unit and a unit of capital costs 💲400, what is the best production method? What method should the company use if the cost of labor rises to 💲200/unit?

Glossary

constant returns to scale
expanding all inputs proportionately does not change the average cost of production
economies of scale
the long-run average cost of producing output decreases as total output increases
diseconomies of scale
the long-run average cost of producing output increases as total output increases
long-run average cost (LRAC) curve
shows the lowest possible average cost of production, allowing all the inputs to production to vary so that the firm is choosing its production technology
production technologies
alternative methods of combining inputs to produce output
short-run average cost (SRAC) curve
the average total cost curve in the short term; shows the total of the average fixed costs and the average variable costs
economies of scale
the long-run average cost of producing output decreases as total output increases

Part 8: Perfect Competition

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