By James Kwak
I was catching up on some old Planet Money episodes and caught Allen Sanderson of the University of Chicago talking about how to allocate scarce resources. The first day of introductory economics, he says, there are always more students than seats. Say there are forty extra people, and he can only accept ten more into the class. He asks the class: how should the ten slots be allocated? You can easily guess the typical suggestions: by seniority, because seniors won’t be able to take the class later; by merit (e.g., GPA), because better students will contribute more to the class and get more out of it; to the first ten people outside his office at 8 am the next day, since that is a proxy for desire to get in; randomly, since that’s fair; and so on. Someone also invariably suggests auctioning off the slots.
This, Sanderson says, illustrates the core tradeoff of economics: fairness and efficiency. If you auction off the slots, they will go to the people to whom they are worth the most, which is best for the economy as a whole.* If we assume that taking the class will increase your lifetime productivity and therefore your lifetime earnings by some amount, then you should be willing to pay up to the present value of that increase in order to get into the class. An auction therefore ensures that the slots will go to the people whose productivity will go up the most. But of course, this isn’t necessarily fair, especially when you consider that the people who will get the most out of a marginal chunk of education are often the people who have the most already.
We haven’t had a Beginners post in a long time, but David Kestenbaum’s Planet Money post about traffic court got that part of my brain going again.
Kestenbaum’s story is that he went to traffic court and the judge was a friendly populist, but not an economist:
“The judge went on to say that this was the “people’s court” and explained that if she gave probation on a ticket, no points would appear and the insurance companies wouldn’t find out. ‘This court is not in the business of enriching the insurance companies,’ she said.”
Aha! Kestenbaum, who after a year on Planet Money is an economist, even if his Ph.D. is in physics, points out that whether or not people get points on their licenses doesn’t affect insurance company profits. They need to charge bad drivers more because their loss payments for those drivers will be higher; if they can’t find out who the bad drivers are, they will just raise premiums on everyone.
Stephen Carter, one of my best professors at law school and also an accomplished novelist, has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post arguing that high corporate profits are a good thing, and as a consequence we need to have a strong and profitable for-profit health insurance sector. Here’s the essence of his argument:
High profits are excellent news. When corporate earnings reach record levels, we should be celebrating. The only way a firm can make money is to sell people what they want at a price they are willing to pay. If a firm makes lots of money, lots of people are getting what they want.
I agree that the pursuit of high profits is a good thing. That is what makes a free-market capitalist system work, and it’s what made me start a company eight years ago. But basic microeconomics says that high profits themselves are generally not a good thing.