Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Middle School Economics 3

Here is another good one from the same middle school civics and economics textbook I've been quoting from:
“The federal government may sometimes intervene in business to help control prices. One way the government does this is by subsidizing, or giving money to, certain industries. For example, to make sure that people can buy flour, cereal, and other wheat products cheaply, the government might give subsidies to wheat farmers. Because they are receiving money from the government, the farmers do not have to charge high prices for their crops. As a result, prices for wheat products stay low.”
Yes, indeed, this has been the history of U.S. government intervention into agriculture, eh? Anyone else getting nervous yet?

UPDATE 10-24: Before I write about my concerns with this quote, I want to comment on the comments by Craig and Tim.

I agree with Craig that this illustration of a subsidy is incomplete because it does not include a consideration of where the money for the subsidy comes from. If government chooses to subsidize any activity, we can certainly confine our analysis of the impact of the subsidy to what happens after the subsidy is received. But, government gets the money for the subsidy because it has the power to tax. The power to tax means that the money for the subsidy is taken from people. It is money that people would have spent or saved if it had not been taken from them. Perhaps the subsidy will indeed result in more of some good thing, but because the subsidy money is taken from people it is is also the case that the money reduces other good things. A good economic lesson to learn is: "There is no such thing as a free lunch." That lesson could be taught by this textbook if it offered a more complete discussion of what must be the case with any government subsidy. But it doesn't.

Now Tim's comment seems a bit out of place relative to what I've quoted. I think he is thinking about how the U.S. government has actually intervened in the market process for wheat production, which has resulted in a greater quantity of wheat produced in the U.S. than would have otherwise have been the case. I think this is why he is considering crowding out wheat production in other countries. And, if you read my update to my first post on middle school economics, Tim's comment is another illustration of one U.S. government policy being at odds with other U.S. government efforts in some other arena. Certainly, this seems to me another important lesson for our middle school students to learn about how the real world works, but it seems it is going to be neglected.

My first reaction to the quote is that if the author wants to discuss government efforts to control prices, then the discussion should not be about subsidies. Actual government efforts to control prices have mostly involved government trying to set minimum prices (e.g., minimum wages) or maximum prices (e.g. rent controls).

A second point to suggest is that the author should not use an agricultural illustration for keeping prices down because historically the U.S. government policy toward agriculture has been to impose a price floor. Even in the middle of The Great Depression when so many people were without jobs and thus without their usual source of income, U.S. government policy was to impose a price floor on agricultural products so that prices would by higher than they otherwise would have been. Still today, the prices of agricultural products are often higher than they otherwise would be because of U.S. government agricultural policies. So, by choosing to offer up this specific illustration, it seems to me this textbook encourages our middle school students to think U.S. government policy is to keep agricultural prices low, which is pretty much the opposite what is true.

A third point is about what economic analysis suggests in the general result of a subsidy. If government offers to subsidize an activity, you are going to get more of that activity. Government really cannot directly subsidize a price. This is why government is likely to use a price ceiling if the goal is to try to keep a price low. Typically when economists discuss a government subsidy, the outcome is expected to be a higher price associated with the subsidized activity, not a lower price. And, I think this brings us back to the U.S. government policies toward agriculture. The government has wanted to subsidize farmers, but the way this was done was for government to impose a price floor. Instead of keeping agricultural prices low, the U.S. government has acted in an effort to keep prices for agricultural products higher than they would otherwise be, and these efforts have gone so far is to directly pay agricultural producers to take land out of cultivation.

Agricultural policy is a great case study for the economic analysis of price floors, but it is a really poor case study for discussing the results of government subsidies. And, if the author wants to discuss government efforts to keep a price low, then the discussion should really be about an illustration of a price ceiling, e.g., rent controls.


Tim Canon said...

Is it just me, or does the progressive plan of subsidizing the American wheat industry at the expense of third world countries who could climb out of poverty by selling such wheat if only US subsidies didn't crowd them out, seem like an anti-progressive idea?

Craig Glackman said...

This comment sounds as ignorant as those individuals who flock to the govenment office to get money from Obama- they do not know where it comes from. Where do the authors say the subsidy comes from? They do not. It is like the money is growing on trees to them. I think what is most interesting to me is that the world sees how ignorant some of us are becoming, but the majority of us cannot.

Tim Canon said...

I was too stupid and ignorant in middle school to understand economics. Economics properly understood is so often counterintuitive, and runs against what we are taught growing up -- that Abe Lincoln saved the country using gov't force, that FDR saved the country using gov't force, and, coming soon to a children's book near you, how Barack Obama saved the entire planet.

In other words, maybe high school is a more proper place for economics. Either way, the subject should be separated from the study of government, as the two should be largely separate in real life.