What a Little Bit of Economics Does to You
By James Kwak
For a class, I read an old (1986) paper by Kahneman, Knetsch, and Thaler on fairness. It’s based on surveys posing various hypothetical situations where businesses can take some action. For example, most people thought that it was OK for a grocer to pass on a wholesale price increase to consumers (Question 7) but not to raise prices because there is a general shortage and the grocer has the only shipment of a certain item (Question 12). In short, people have an intrinsic sense of fairness the authors summarize this way: “The cardinal rule of fairness is surely that one person should not achieve a gain by simply imposing an equivalent loss on another.”
Today in class, the professor posed the first question from the paper:
“A hardware store has been selling snow shovels for $15. The morning after a large snowstorm, the store raises the price to $20.”
In 1986, 82 percent of respondents thought this was unfair. In class, it was about 50-50.
As the professor said, this is probably because there are a lot of business school students in this class. Business school students are classic Econ 101 robots. They know enough to know that if there is a demand shift, not only is it OK to raise prices, but you should raise prices in order to clear the market. In this case, supply is fixed in the short term, so raising the price won’t increase supply; the Econ 101 argument is that raising the price allocates the shovels to people who will derive more utility from them (because they will pay more), thereby increasing social welfare.
But this rests on a huge assumption: that willingness to pay is the same as utility. Unfortunately, however, this assumption fails in the real world; poor people simply can’t pay as much for snow shovels as rich people, and as a result a price increase will allocate shovels to rich people, not to those who need them the most.* But people who believe Econ 101 only remember the demand and supply curves they saw on the first day of class, so they think firms should raise prices.
I suspect that belief in Econ 101 is not only stronger among business school students (and the businessmen they become) than among ordinary people, but is also stronger today than it was in 1986. The free market ideology teaches not only that businesses can maximize profits by any legal means, but that they have a moral imperative to maximize profits by any legal means, including generating profits by imposing equivalent losses on their counterparties. (Essentially all proprietary trading fulfills this condition.) And three decades of this ideology have probably changed people’s responses to these types of questions.
More fundamentally, the 1986 paper shows that Econ 101 is diametrically opposed to human beings’ intuitive sense of fairness. Yet public policy largely follows the dictates of Econ 101. Is that a good thing?
* I’m not saying that there is a perfect way to allocate the shovels, just that using price isn’t perfect, and does have inequality effects.