Friday, May 9, 2008

Happy Cows and Bullshit

Seen the Happy Cow Commercials? Happy cows may create better cheese, but the ads seem to imply (no, state) that happy cows come from California, mainly because it's so much warmer on average than it is in Wisconsin (doncha-no?). Don't be fooled!

Numerous studies show that cows are happy at much lower temperatures than humans are. Ideal temperatures for cows in terms of comfort and milk output range in the 50's (the range strictly for milk output is 41-77 according to some studies like this one). Cows are much more burdened by hotter temperatures in terms of comfort because they expend a lot more energy digesting their food than humans (or even cats or dogs), which creates a lot of heat. Cows in temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit produced around 25-30% less milk than cows in much cooler temperatures. On the low end of the scale it seems that the main concern for conditions that really hurts the cows and their productivity are: (1) wind, and; (2) teat frostbite (usually isn't a problem until temperatures drop below single-digits).

Better yet, this is a great example of comparative advantage. Even if cows in Collie-fornya are more productive in the absolute sense, it seems that Wisconsin or Vermont or Ohio would be better-suited for dairies anyway, on the basis of the basic Ricardian model of trade. If California and Wisconsin can both produce either wine or cheese, and California's land and labor resources are better-suited for both, that wouldn't mean that California would ideally end up producing both, or that Wisconsin would produce neither. Even if we concede the point that Cows like warmer climes (which is not clear cut at all), then we would still be better off if California did not try to promote and export its cheese, because there are higher returns for them in the wine sector. In other words, grapes are pickier about cold weather than cows are. And there you have a big bright example of comparative advantage at work.

Have a good summer, kids.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Scooped?

Sometimes it's frustrating for economists. We revel in the fact that we can pin down theoretical proposals in an airtight mathematical argument, and test them with some of the most sophisticated statistical techiniques. Even as we toil in the fuzzy world of "social" science, we push for and challenge the other social sciences to be "harder" in their scientific approaches, and we're just arrogant enough to think that we're better at what "they" (political scientists, sociologists, etc.) do than "they" themselves are. It's not surprising then that "we" get so jealous when one of "them" gets all the attention for saying what we've been saying – studying, measuring and quantifying – for quite some time.

That's why I'm jealous of Fareed Zakaria this week. His feature article this week has the indifference one would normally expect from an economist on the issue of "The Rise of the Rest." The nuts and bolts of it is that when you pose the question of rising China and India, offshoring, growth in Africa, and declines in certain manufacturing sectors of the U.S., the typical economist like myself says "So what?" I would then usually go into some boring, but well-vetted explanation of comparative advantage, non-zero-sum games, obscure empirical facts, and nearly put my audience to sleep.

Then here comes this… journalist, who has his fancy "words" (much like I have my fancy "models") and he gets the limelight. It's disgusting really. We do all the hard work, howl at the moon to anyone who might listen, and in swoops this very bright wise guy and publishes it all in a sexy multi-page spread in Newsweek. But, that's the way it goes. Bottom line: the rest of the world's rise is not our loss. In fact if the rest of the world has greater prosperity and economic freedoms, then the influence of extremist factions will probably wane, which is a win-win. But don't take my word for it – go to the library and read Mr. Zakaria's version – his way sounds better (jerk).

Sunday, May 4, 2008

No Trust in the Invisible Hand

People out there seem to have the misconception that Adam Smith had a lot of faith and confidence in the self-interested actions of individuals in the free market. A more realistic way of summarizing the Wealth of Nations, as PJ O'Rourke might put it, is that Smith had even less faith in politicians and bureaucrats. In fact, from Smith's Moral Sentiments it's pretty clear that he trusted a businessman about as far as he could throw one and didn't think that businessmen should be allowed to do so much as have a cup of tea together.

So how do we manage collusion and cartels? The European model usually involved an adversarial process – the government investigates and anyone and everyone touching the misdeed is prosecuted with the full force of the law. The new model, coming from the US and what it has learned from Enron and other scandals involves protecting and helping whistle-blowers. What this may do, more than anything, is help the investigators know what exactly it is that they should be looking for when they go in, which is the lesson now being learned by British regulators.

Getting the incentives right is important, which means that on the one hand regulators need to help and give protection to the informers, but also that the pendulum not be allowed to swing too far the other way. In other markets where Consumer Protection has become involved the incentives have been skewed to the point where frivolous accusations cloud the investigative process and discredit the government's involvement in the monitoring process. Such has been the case in Consumer Protection areas from medical malpractice to spilled coffee.