Game Theory and Oligopoly: Episode #26

This week’s episode is a little better than last week’s.  Crash Course does a good job of defining different kind of product markets out there, but could improve when talking about collusion and market substitutes.  Let’s get started:

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

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Suppose Stan and I are arrested for scrawling in wet cement outside the YouTube studios.  We’re being interviewed separately. If we both confess, we’ll both have to pay a $10,000 fine. If neither of us confesses, we’ll get off scot free. And If I take a deal and confess, but Stan doesn’t — I’ll walk away and Stan will owe $20,000. And vice versa.

This is not an appropriate example to show game theory.  In game theory, the result of confessing when your accomplice doesn’t confess should be greater than if neither of you confess.  If we were to tweak Crash Course’s example to make it work, if Adriene confessed and Stan didn’t, she would go free AND get $5000, making it a true dilemma between risking your freedom to get money.  In Crash Course’s scenario as is, neither prisoner would confess, since there is no extra incentive.

This is particularly strange because Crash Course actually gives a perfect example of the prisoner’s dilemma later in the episode when talking about bread pricing, which we’ll get to later.

Pricing and Product Differentiation

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If Craig lowers his price on Crash Course nesting dolls, Phil will likely compete by dropping his prices as well. In the end they’re gonna continue to share customers equally, and earn less money.

If Craig understands game theory, he knows there’s no reason to change his price. Instead he focuses on providing knick-knacks that differentiate his kiosk from Phil’s. This can help explain why prices in oligopolies tend to get stuck and why companies focus so much on non-price competition.

Crash Course often talks about price as if its determined arbitrarily by whims of the entrepreneur.  Businesses determine their price based on supply and demand, and are limited by a major factor: cost.  If Craig and Phil are selling the exact same good, and Craig can afford to sell his good at a lower price while Phil cannot, Phil needs to sell a different good, which in the hypothetical, is exactly what Phil does.

This is what Crash Course means when talking about non-price competition.  Companies often distinguish themselves by portraying their product to be original and having no substitute.  Think about how Apple markets the iPhone.  For a lot of Apple users, Android would not give them the same comfort and familiarity, and they are willing to pay more because they feel that they are getting more.  Android products give them a different (and to them, worse) experience that they won’t substitute for the iPhone.


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What if Craig and Phil don’t compete at all? What if instead, they agree to charge the same high price, conspiring to form what economists call a cartel?  Again they split the customers 50/50, but now they make even more profit — benefiting at the expense of consumers.  This is called collusion, and it’s illegal in the US. There are strict antitrust laws designed to prevent it. But that doesn’t mean companies don’t figure out other ways to raise prices.

Some economists argue that collusion would not occur in the free market, since it would not benefit the companies as Crash Course implies.  Absent any government restrictions on entering the market, if all the companies agree to raise their prices together, it creates a greater incentive for a new competitor to enter the marketplace and charge a lower price. Those former market leaders might benefit in the short term (before the new competitor emerges), but they might not.  People might buy substitutes if the price is too high.

Crash Course makes this exact point, although much later in the episode:

Even if they collude and agree to price high, they both have an incentive to cheat on that agreement.  So collusion and cartels are often unstable. They can only last if the agreement is monitored and strictly enforced.

Price Leadership

Price leadership is when one company changes its prices, and its competitors have to decide if they’re going to follow suit. Since they’re not actively colluding, it’s technically legal.  But it can be hard to tell the difference.

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Look at airline baggage fees.  When some airlines started charging fees for checked bags, other airlines quickly joined them. And when one big airline changes their baggage fee, the others tend move to the same price point.  Are they colluding, or is this a case of price leadership?  Well, the Justice Department’s looking into it.

Why would all of the airlines agree to raise their prices at once?  Any potential gains in profit would likely be offset by the decline in the number of people priced out of the market.  Does Crash Course think airlines arbitrarily chose luggage as their outlet for charging more for no reason?  Could Crash Course give any other alternative explanation?

As we mentioned before, cost is a significant limitation in pricing.  If one passenger is creating less cost for the airline, the airline would be able to give them a cheaper price.  This is the case for luggage; it’s not that everyone with luggage has to pay more, but instead, airlines are separating the luggage cost from the ticket price, allowing some people to opt-out of paying for their luggage cost.  Previously, luggage costs were priced into the ticket, making the overall ticket price higher.  Do you recall which were the first airlines to charge for luggage?  They were budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier, those who market the most towards having a low price.

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Other countries’ laws differ, and cartels do exist. The best example is OPEC — The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. It’s an international cartel made up of 12 oil-producing countries that manipulate oil supplies to control prices. They control 80% of the world’s known oil reserves and nearly half of the world’s crude oil production.

OPEC collusively raises prices (and sometimes, lowers their prices) to their own peril.  It takes longer for competitors and substitutes to enter the marketplace in energy markets, and OPEC may have benefitted at the outset, but the result was new competitors entering the markets (namely the fracking boom in the United States) as well as substitutes (more energy-efficient and electric cars were sold).  OPEC’s artificially high prices hurt both the consumers and OPEC itself, but the market adjusted to better meet the needs of consumers.

How Businesses Compete

The highlight of the episode is when Crash Course gives a perfect example of why businesses are incentivized to charge the lowest price for their goods.  As Crash Course explains, prices are determined by the predicted profit:

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If Brandon prices high, Stan’s best response is to price low and if Brandon prices low than Stan’s best response is, again, to price low. That’s called having a dominant strategy: it always gives the best available outcome, no matter what the other guy does.  For Brandon, pricing low is his dominant strategy too: regardless of what Stan does, pricing low always results in a better outcome.

Thanks for reading, and you can look forward to a new episode reviewed every Thursday! And don’t forget to join our newsletter and our facebook group, and comment below!

Tom Woods and Bob Murphy on Monopolies

Could this be timed any better?

Tom Woods and Bob Murphy talk about Monopolies and Competition in their podcast this week.  There is a lot of overlap with our post this past Thursday, and they explain antitrust law much differently (and perhaps, more persuasively) than I did, so do check it out here:


Monopolies and Anti-Competitive Markets, Episode #25

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 1.01.28 PM   This week, Crash Course talks about monopolies and competition.  This episode was a mixed bag with plenty to comment on.  Let’s get to it:

Crash Course’s Episode Introduction

Before beginning each episode, the hosts of Crash Course give a quick introduction to the subject of this week’s video, followed by the opening credits.  This week’s introduction was a little confusing:

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Today we’re going to talk about monopolies! Which are terrible, illegal, and only serve to exploit helpless consumers, except when they’re delivering essential services that competitive free markets kind of fail to deliver.

So from this definition we can figure out that 1) monopolies would not occur in a free market and 2) monopolies are good for delivering essential services because free markets fail to provide them.  We’ve already talked about the concept of Market Failures in Episode 21.  In short, sometimes markets, despite being more efficient than the public sector, do not provide certain goods because governments already provide them for “free” (see: tax revenue).  For example, why would you pay for a more efficient private fire department when you’re already forced to pay for one?  The “free” public option distorts eliminates the incentive for entrepreneurs to enter the market.

The Good: Barriers to Entry

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The true power of a monopoly comes from its ability to keep competitors out of the market. Monopolies are able to erect obstacles that economists call barriers to entry.

Most economists would agree that the monopolies themselves cannot erect the barriers to entry;  existing barriers to entry are just a fact of the market.  However, governments can and do create barriers to entry, sometimes with influence from the monopolies.  Crash Course gives a great example of how this is done:

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Imagine a city where there are a limited number of licenses for food trucks, and I own all of them for my fleet of artisanal macaroni and cheese trucks. I also know the mayor, since he’s a big fan of artisanal macaroni and cheese. If I can convince the mayor to ban traditional push cart food vendors, with their shwarma and their bacon-wrapped hot dogs, I’ll have a monopoly on street food.  

I’m not increasing profit by producing more stuff. I’ve influenced government regulations in such a way that anyone who’s hungry, but doesn’t want to enter a building, has to buy food from me. This is sometimes called crony capitalism.

Crash Course’s example does not show the monopolies themselves creating barriers to entry for competitors, but rather using the power of the government regulation to crush competition.

The Bad: Freewheelin’ Monopolies

Monopolies can restrict output and charge higher prices without worrying about competitors. This is why most economists support anti-trust laws that promote competition and outlaw anticompetitive tactics.

This is the quick-and-easy justification for antitrust laws.  However, some schools of economic thought take issue with this.

These schools argue that as a company with monopoly power increases its prices (or restricts supply arbitrarily), the greater the incentive for a competitor to enter the market to provide the good for a lower price.  For example, if Google Search (which has a dominant market share) started charging $1 per search, it would encourage Bing, Yahoo, or a new competitor to move into that market.  This would apply to monopolies as well as oligopolies, so it does not matter how much market share a company has in the market, since there is always the threat of a new competitor entering, even if there are high barriers to entry.

In the above scenario, we are assuming that the companies are functioning in a free market, and that there are not any legal barriers to entry for the other companies.  If there is a law that there can only be so many search engine licenses, this would prevent new competitors from entering the market.

Examples of Bad Monopolistic Behavior

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In the late 1990s, Microsoft was accused of pressuring PC manufacturers to pre-install Microsoft’s web browser, Internet Explorer, and exclude their main browser competitor, Netscape. Regulators busted them, and almost busted up the company.

Companies in different markets often make deals with each other.  For example, Pepsi and Taco Bell agreed that only Pepsi products would be sold at Taco Bell.  Is this also monopolistic behavior?  And if Microsoft had a main browser competitor, then they wouldn’t be a monopoly, would they?

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Even Toys R Us! It’s gotten in trouble for conspiring with toy suppliers, like Hasbro and Mattel, to stop the manufacturers from selling certain toys to other stores.

Examples of exclusive deals between companies are numerous and simply a part of business relationships.  From Crash Course’s explanation, I do not see the difference between corporate contracts and bad monopolistic behavior.

“Natural” Monopolies

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Natural monopolies are special situations where it is more cost effective to have one large producer rather than several smaller competing firms. The best examples are public utilities in markets such as electricity, water, natural gas, and sewage. They may be privately owned or publicly owned but either way, they remain a monopoly because the government limits competition.

The better definition of a natural monopoly is one that exists because of high fixed or start up costs.  They are highly regulated and often completely managed by government.  Competition in these markets are usually not allowed.

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I mean, if there were three competing electric power companies in one city, that would mean building three different power plants, and running three sets of power lines through the streets.  The result would be higher costs. So, in this case, it would be cheaper to have one electric company because they have economies of scale.

I’ve mentioned this before, but since we don’t know what a free market in power would look like, everything is speculation.  Especially today with more people going off the power grid, we are seeing how the power market free from government monopolization would be, and it’s not as horrific as many speculate.

Competition encourages cost-lowering efficiency.  With an active market in power, companies would be competing with providing the best service for the cheapest price.  In the current market, the main incentive is to not attract any negative attention from the regulators.

that would mean building three different power plants, and running three sets of power lines through the streets

Are people really concerned with how many power plants exist or how many power lines there are?  If the argument is that fewer competitors creates a better market, these arguments are really grasping at straws here.  Why not make the same argument for automobiles?

Right now there are multiple factories producing cars and motorcycles, with multiple dealerships taking up space in every town.  Why not pass a law that only allows for one automotive producer?  It would save so much in cost!

While Crash Course did have some good nuggets in this episode, it failed to explain a coherent standard for when a central power should allow monopolies, create them, or destroy them.  As with most subjects, Crash Course sums things up with “monopolies are sometimes good, sometimes bad, but it’s complicated.”

The use of government force to regulate or manipulate businesses activity is significant, and there should be a division between “natural monopolies that occur in a free market” and “government-created monopolies” because the way an economist looks at them will be different depending on the monopoly.

Thanks for reading, and you can look forward to a new episode reviewed every Thursday! And don’t forget to join our newsletter and our facebook group, and comment below!

Revenue, Profits, and Price: Crash Course Economics #24

After last week’s more theoretical discussion on the what-ifs of the US education system, Crash Course comes back to hard textbook economics in week 24.  What’s even better is that this week’s topic falls within microeconomics, which is the most agreeable and least controversial area of economics.

Crash Course doesn’t make any objectionable comments in this video, but there are some points I’d like to flesh out, especially because I know it’ll be helpful when reviewing future episodes.  Let’s get to it:

Opportunity Costs

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Let’s say a lawyer stops practicing law and decides to open up a pizza parlor. Let’s say his total revenue from selling pizza is $50,000 and he has to pay $20,000 to cover stuff like the ingredients, the oven, rent, and wages. Now, an accountant would calculate his profit, the revenue minus the costs, as $30,000. Not bad. But an economist recognizes that there‘s a cost missing: the opportunity cost. Our pizza entrepreneur loses the income he would have earned by being a lawyer, let’s say $100,000. If you factor that in, he is actually losing $70,000.

The concept of opportunity costs is so fundamental to economics, it cannot be overstated.  Crash Course’s example is spot on here with the example of a private business owner.

However, this principle of opportunity cost might be even more important in public policy work.  When a government spends tax revenue on a particular project, it’s easy to look at the project and say “Wow, how great is this!  We didn’t have this thing before, and now we do!  Thanks government!”

The problem occurs when you think about all the other places the money could have gone.  For example, instead of building an expensive statue in town square, the city government could have built shelters for the homeless, fix the potholes in the street, or subsidize a local medical clinic.  Or even better (to many economists), the money could be left in the hands of taxpayers, and then they can decide where to spend their money (spoiler: it probably wouldn’t be on a statue).

This problem of opportunity costs for public projects only gets bigger if you look at larger governments.  For example, the US federal government spent $3 million to research obesity rates for lesbians.  Do you think that, maybe, the money could be better spent on just about anything else?

No economist does a better job at explaining opportunity cost than Frederic Bastiat in his Parable of the Broken Window.  If you aren’t familiar with it, do yourself a favor and check it out.  It’s still changing the way many people think about spending and opportunity cost, and it’s 150 years old.

Businesses and Marginal Cost

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Businesses use this same logic. They calculate their potential revenue and their costs of production, including implicit costs, to make informed decisions […] eventually, they’ll get to a point where hiring another worker only adds one more pizza to their hourly total. Now, the marginal cost of that last pizza is huge. And, it’s likely to be higher than the additional revenue the company is gonna get from selling that pizza.

Crash Course then moves on to talk about a different subject without reaching the obvious conclusion: the business would not hire that additional worker.

This principle of marginal cost will be very important when talking about the minimum wage, which will have its own episode.  Crash Course has already stated in a previous episode that some universal economic principles do not apply when talking about the minimum wage, so we’ll see how they reconcile their lessons on marginal cost and price floors with the minimum wage when we get to it.

Economic Profit, Normal Profit, and Competition

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So there’s actually two types of profit. Accounting profit, which is revenue minus just explicit costs, those traditional out-of-pocket costs you think of when you run a business. And there’s Economic profit which is revenue minus explicit and implicit costs — which is those indirect opportunity costs.

The idea of the two-profit system was a little confusing to me at first, and I still think it causes more confusion than helpful understanding of economics.  Basically, economic profit occurs when a business creates or dominates a market before other competitors enter the market to take away profit share.  Economic profit is zero when you have a competitive market, since it is theorized that normal profit will equal the opportunity cost of doing something else.  This is all pretty theoretical and not very helpful since it’s tough to think about a business’s opportunity cost (although it may be easy to determine a person’s opportunity cost), and the term “economic profit” is not used too frequently from what I’ve read.


Competition will lower the price and reduce your sales.  New vendors will continue to enter until all that extra profit disappears […]

But remember, this is only in very competitive markets that have low barriers for entry. If it’s hard for other companies to enter a market than a business can earn economic profit.

Another great economic principle that Crash Course is citing here is that businesses will enter markets with good profitability.  Markets with good profitability are those will a sustainable demand for the goods, so if enough people buy a particular good, potential businesses will see the increased demand in the market and try to move in to compete for those profits.

But unlike Crash Course might be suggesting, this can also happen in markets with high capital barriers to entry.  For example, creating and manufacturing smart phones is very capital intensive, but yet there are currently numerous competitors in the market, each fighting for a share of the profit.  On the other hand, high regulatory barriers to entry are much harder to overcome and will reduce the number of competitors in the market.

This was a pretty great episode for Crash Course.  The rest of the episode on economies of scale, sunk costs, and marginal return are spot on and don’t require further comment.  This week was pretty unobjectionable, which is a relief for us at Crash Course Criticism.

Thanks for reading, and you can look forward to a new episode reviewed every Thursday! And don’t forget to join our newsletter and our facebook group, and comment below!

Economics of Education, Episode #23

If last week’s episode was meek, this week’s was a giant.  There is a lot to unpack when talking about Education in general, and this episode goes from preschool to graduate school, all in one 10-minute lesson.

Unfortunately, this episode contained a lot of conclusions that were not backed up by full arguments (then again, you can only do so much in 10 minutes), and we’ll talk about some of these conclusions.   There’s a lot to say about this episode, and we’ll be nailing the important points in this blog post.  Let’s get started:

Education vs. Public Schooling

Crash Course begins this episode with a comment about how every country needs public schooling:

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Why do governments spend billions funding universal public education? Why not just let profit seeking businesses handle it? Many argue that if education was entirely privatized it’s likely that some children would be excluded, and that would make society, as a whole, worse off.

We mentioned this in Episode 21, but there is no way anyone could make this conclusion on anything but speculation.  The existence of a “free” primary and secondary school option pushes private competition out of the market, so when predicting a vastly different schooling market, economists don’t have much data to work with besides their own imagination.

Let’s also look at the numbers (given by Crash Course themselves): Public schooling costs about $12,500 per student per year.  In comparison, the average private elementary school costs $7,770 per student, and private high schools cost an average of $13,030.

So public school costs about as much (or more) to provide than private school, yet generally speaking, provides worse education for the students.  This is why many economists promote the idea of school vouchers, where parents can spend the tax revenue that would have gone toward public schools on the private school of their choice.

Equivocation of “Education”

Immediately after talking about the need for public schooling and its positive externalities, Crash Course talks about the benefits of education in general, including mentioning that it…

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also benefits society as these individuals create art, invent cool stuff, cure diseases, and make interesting conversation at parties. More education increases productivity, GDP, and standards of living.

All of this is true, although this isn’t really an argument for state-funded education, but more for education in general.  Is the public school system better at educating students in art, invention, or medicine?


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The US has some serious problems with its education system. One of the biggest is inequality. Students from low income families tend to have lower math and reading test scores than those from higher income families. African American, Latino, and Native American students are much more likely to drop out of high school than their White or Asian counterparts.

When talking about the problems with the education system, I was surprised to see such a major focus on inequality in this Crash Course episode, especially since they already dedicated a full episode to it.  I thought that Crash Course would focus on the problems with the education system (falling test scores, lack of preparation for the real world, rising tuition) and not on the racial/economic divide.

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For some economists, the best way to level the playing field is to focus on funding.  They argue that the government should pay for early education programs, and provide extra money for disadvantaged and low-income students.

First, economists and sociologists are very torn on whether there’s any correlation between pre-schooling and later academic achievement, and I’m surprised that Crash Course wouldn’t mention that this is highly debated.

Second, how would sending all kids to preschool solve the inequality problem?  Doesn’t the US already send all kids to school from grades K – 12, and the inequality problem still exists?  Can anyone please explain how government-funded preschool solves this problem?

It’s clear that the first step to improving equality is to invest in primary and secondary education.

Crash Course has isolated the educational performance data in a box.  They are surprised by how students of different races/income levels succeed at different levels, and the only solution they see is for the government to put money somewhere, anywhere in the school system.

Could it be that there are other things besides education funding that could contribute to why kids of different races/incomes are performing differently?  Could it be, for example, all other life circumstances, or that parents with greater income will send their kids to private schools?  It’s incredible that Crash Course doesn’t consider these other factors to be an influence on educational achievement.  Keep this mind for later in the video.

As a side note, the only problem with the US education system that Crash Course mentions is one of inequality.  It’s not really an economist’s place to talk about the problems of the US school system, but I think most people can think of some problems other than inequality.

College and Higher Education

Crash Course starts off their discussion about college by mentioning that those who attend college are generally self-selected privileged people:

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First, it takes a modicum of intelligence and dedication to even get into college. Second, you have to receive a fairly good primary and secondary education to be able to keep up with college work.  Third, the students who attend college are more likely to come from well-off families with educated parents who have the time and energy to help encourage their success.

I’m not going to guess that ages of the co-hosts of the show, but as anyone who has attended college in the past 10 years can tell you, there are not filled with only smart people, and even if you don’t come from a well-off family (as many are not), you can still go to college with government loans.

But here is the real kicker:

The fact that college graduates make more money isn’t just about college. It’s also about life circumstances.

Why couldn’t Crash Course use this exact explanation when talking about difference in academic achievement between races/incomes?  In other words, life circumstances are the best predictor of academic/financial success, not college degrees or preschool education funding.

Human Capital vs. Signaling

Does college actually increase your productive capacity, or does it just give you a nice thing to put on your resume for others to see?  Crash Course tries to explain it here:

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They have compared the earnings of people who have earned 7 ½ semesters worth of college credits but didn’t graduate, to people who finished and got a degree. Both groups received about the same amount of education, so if the Human Capital theory is correct, they should earn about the same amount of money. If the Signaling theory is correct, those with degrees should earn noticeably more, and they do.

It’s no surprise to most people in their 20’s and 30’s that employers are looking for that college degree, unless you work in an area that’s really all about human capital (like computer science).  For most people looking to get the standard post-grad job, the employer will look at your degree and your GPA, and that’s pretty much all you can do, unless you’ve held a big job before.  If you try to apply for the job without a degree, your chances are much worse, even if you are better skilled to work the job.  Since a lot more people go to college these days, having the degree is no longer a bonus, but rather it’s a huge negative if you don’t have it.

But it’s a smaller gap [in income] than you would find from just comparing high school and college grads. It seems that both theories apply.

But according to Crash Course’s earlier analysis, since privileged people (with better education/skills) are more likely to self-select into college, wouldn’t that account for the difference in income between the two groups (high school graduates and those with some college education)?  In other words, since Crash Course argued the barrier between high school and college mostly divides the “at least some education/skill” and “not enough education/skills” groups, wouldn’t this self-selection explain the differences in income?

High Tuition

The rising costs of college education and the enormous amount of student debt are subjects barely covered in this episode, and yet, it has so much to do with economics. 

In short, since the federal government allows students to borrow money to pay for college, regardless of the price, colleges have no incentive to keep costs low like other businesses do.  They can feel free to increase tuition year after year, and the demand curve remains inelastic.  In basic terms, government loans skyrocket the demand for education, and with the supply of universities staying about the same, the price has to rise.  It was very surprising that Crash Course made no mention of this, even though it would have been perfect for this week’s episode.


Does your brain hurt after this episode?  You’re not alone.  This one was a struggle.  Thanks for reading and be sure to come back every Thursday for a fresh post.  And don’t forget to join our newsletter and our facebook group, and comment below!

Environmental Economics, Episode #22

In this week’s episode, Crash Course covers the topic of Environmental Economics.  Unfortunately, this episode mostly repeats the same economic lessons taught in the previous two episodes, making this week more of a bottle episode than anything else.  We’ve already covered Crash Course’s points on externalities and tragedy of the commons, but we will touch on some new concepts that Crash Course introduces.

Climate Change and Context

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For sake of simplicity[…], we’re going to focus on one type of pollution: carbon dioxide emissions. They’re one of the primary greenhouse gases.  These greenhouse gases basically blanket the earth and are causing climate change.  CO2 levels are the highest they’ve been for millions years which is why environmentalists consider it a “planetary emergency.”

There is without a doubt an enormous fervor about Climate Change (formerly known as “Global Warming”).  Scientists from across the spectrum agree on the principles about how carbon dioxide affects the atmosphere, but there is disagreement on the how bad the earth’s situation is and what is likely to happen in the future.  While your media source of choice might classify some beliefs as “denying” or “alarmist” about climate change, not many are talking about the real differences between the two scientific arguments.  These arguments are not on economics, but I thought I’d give my two cents since Crash Course seems pretty confident in their point of view that it is a “planetary emergency”.

Scientists agree that increasing carbon dioxide emissions means an increase in temperature.  This relationship is not doubted; however, what is argued is how much CO2 creates how much of an increase in temperature.  The jury is still out on this one.  So far, no one has been able to accurately predict the earth’s surface temperature year in and year out with predictive models, but people do have theories about how it is going to turn out.  We know now that the climate models of the 90’s were wrong (remember Al Gore’s hockey stick graph?), but as for the current models, we’ll have to wait to find out.

Scientifically speaking, Crash Course’s claim that it is a “planetary emergency” is at least debatable, depending on which predictive model you’re using.  But for the purposes of the rest of our analysis, we’re just going to assume that the goal is to reduce carbon emissions.

Rebound Effect

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Let’s say Hank uses a gallon of gas to drive to work everyday. Then, partially to help the planet but mostly to help his wallet, he buys a new fuel efficient car that only takes half a gallon of gas for the same commute. He saves money and there’s less pollution. It is a win-win.

The rebound effect says that the benefits of energy efficiency might be reduced as people change their behavior.  With the money he saves, Hank might start driving more than he normally would or he might go on a vacation in Hawaii. That leads to more consumption and possibly even more emissions.

The moral that Crash Course derives here is that it is very difficult to predict human behavior.  The entire financial sector trade trillions of dollars every day based on what they think humans will do, and many of them still get it wrong.  Governments, believe it or not, have even less at stake if they get these predictions wrong, and they are more likely to overlook the rebound effects (although it does look good to be doing something).

However, let’s not forget that energy efficient vehicles actually do wonders for the economy in other, non-environmental ways.  If Hank switches from a regular car to a hybrid, he is saving significant amounts of money which can later be spent on other consumer goods for himself.  Hank’s standard of living increases, and this is the real beauty of fuel efficient cars.

Government Investment

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Private companies and governments are also funding research into green technology.  In the U.S. the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocated billions to fund renewable energy.

This is a great point that Crash Course brings up, although they fail to comment on the potential downside of government investment into green technology.  When free market economists think of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 in the field of green technologies, one company in particular comes to mind: Solyndra.


Solyndra received over half of a billion dollars in loan guarantees from the federal government as a part of this 2009 law.  Two years later, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is being investigated by the FBI and the Treasury for accounting fraud.  As it turns out, Solyndra was not a good investment.  Remember my previous comment on governments not having much at stake when making these investment decisions?

I would have liked to see Crash Course comment on the potential economic downsides to government intervention.  Besides possibly wasting taxpayer money on poor investments, government intervention into a market will necessarily distort it, and sometimes the efficient and productive companies get pushed out if the government chooses unwisely.  To many economists, government intervention into any market (environmental or not) will do more harm than good for the consumers.

This week was a short one, but thanks for reading and be sure to come back every Thursday for a fresh post!  And don’t forget to join our newsletter and our facebook group, and comment below!