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January 30, 2008

Economist's View - 4 new articles

"Why Don't Chimpanzees Like to Barter Commodities?"

Chimpanzees are reluctant to trade "a very good commodity (apple slices)" for "an even more preferred commodity (grapes)." This research attempts to explain why and in the process learn something about how barter might have arisen among humans:

Why don't chimpanzees like to barter commodities?, EurekAlert: For thousands of years, human beings have relied on commodity barter as an essential aspect of their lives. It is the behavior that allows specialized professions, as one individual gives up some of what he has reaped to exchange with another for something different. In this way, both individuals end up better off. Despite the importance of this behavior, little is known about how barter evolved and developed.

This study (published in PLoS ONE on January 30) is the first to examine the circumstances under which chimpanzees, our closest relatives, will exchange one inherently valuable commodity (an apple slice) for another (a grape), which is what early humans must have somehow learned to do. Economists believe that commodity barter is one of the most basic precursors to economic specialization, which we observe in humans but not in other primate species. First of all, the researchers found that chimpanzees often did not spontaneously barter food items, but needed to be trained to engage in commodity barter. Moreover, even after the chimpanzees had been trained to do barters with reliable human trading partners, they were reluctant to engage in extreme deals in which a very good commodity (apple slices) had to be sacrificed in order to get an even more preferred commodity (grapes).

Prior animal behavior studies have largely examined chimpanzees' willingness to trade tokens for valuable commodities. Tokens do not exist in nature, and lack inherent value, so a chimpanzee's willingness to trade a token for a valuable commodity, such as a grape, may say little about chimpanzee behavior outside the laboratory.

In a series of experiments, chimpanzees at two different facilities were given items of food and then offered the chance to exchange them for other food items. A collaboration of researchers ... found that the chimpanzees, once they were trained, were willing to barter food with humans, but if they could gain something significantly better – say, giving up carrots for much preferred grapes. Otherwise, they preferred to keep what they had.

The observed chimpanzee behavior could be reasonable because chimpanzees lack social systems to enforce deals and, as a society, punish an individual that cheats its trading partner by running off with both commodities. Also because of their lack of property ownership norms, chimpanzees in nature do not store property and thus would have little opportunity to trade commodities. Nevertheless, as prior research has demonstrated, they do possess highly active service economies. In their natural environment, only current possessions are "owned," and the threat of losing what one has is very high, so chimpanzees frequently possess nothing to trade.

"This reluctance to trade appears to be deeply ingrained in the chimpanzee psyche," said one of the lead authors, Sarah Brosnan ... at Georgia State University. "They're perfectly capable of barter, but they don't do so in a way which will maximize their outcomes."

The other lead author, Professor Mark F. Grady, Director of UCLA's Center for Law and Economics, commented: "I believe that chimpanzees are reluctant to barter commodities mainly because they lack effective ownership norms. These norms are especially costly to enforce, and for this species the game has evidently not been worth the candle. Fortunately, services can be protected without ownership norms, so chimpanzees can and do trade services with each other. As chimpanzee societies demonstrate, however, a service economy does not lead to the same degree of economic specialization that we observe among humans."

The research could additionally shed light on the instances in which humans also don't maximize their gains, Brosnan said.

"The Three Trillion Dollar War"

Good question:

Keynesian trillions, Editorial, LA Times: President Bush['s]... final State of the Union speech made clear that he intends ... to ... spend whatever it takes to secure Iraq and Afghanistan -- and his legacy.

Threetrillion_2 While the president's speechwriters were tweaking his address Monday, the White House announced that Bush would ask for $70 billion more for the two wars this year. A Pentagon spokesman said combat operations were costing $12 billion a month, with $9.2 billion spent in Iraq. That's just for combat operations. Including replacing equipment that's being used up and providing medical care and disability benefits for the wounded, Iraq has already cost well over $1 trillion. Back in early 2006, when war spending was running about $5 billion a month, economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes were sharply criticized for a study that predicted the Iraq war would cost up to $2 trillion. Their sequel, to be released next month, is titled "The Three Trillion Dollar War."

The interesting question is why the U.S. economy, beneficiary since 9/11 of the largest military spending binge in history, now requires $150 billion more in the form of a short-term stimulus package. Why hasn't the $1 trillion in defense spending, in addition to the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, been sufficient to keep the economic boom going? ... Does that mean the fundamentals of our economy are weaker than we thought, and a deeper slump might have occurred without all that spending? ...

The economist John Maynard Keynes taught us in the 1930s that money spent on guns -- or butter, or even digging ditches and filling them up again -- had the same stimulative effects on a slumping economy. We've developed a more nuanced view of government spending since then, but it's still worth asking: What would Keynes say about a $3-trillion war?

Update: Paul Krugman:

An Iraq recession?, Paul Krugman Blog: One thing I get asked fairly often is whether the Iraq war is responsible for our economic difficulties. The answer (with slight qualifications) is no.

Just to be clear: I yield to nobody in my outrage over the way we were lied into a disastrous, unnecessary war. But economics isn't a morality play, in which evil deeds are always punished and good deeds rewarded.

The fact is that war is, in general, expansionary for the economy, at least in the short run. World War II, remember, ended the Great Depression. The $10 billion or so we're spending each month in Iraq mainly goes to US-produced goods and services, which means that the war is actually supporting demand. Yes, there would be infinitely better ways to spend the money. But at a time when a shortfall of demand is the problem, the Iraq war nonetheless acts as a sort of WPA, supporting employment directly and indirectly.

There is one caveat: high oil prices are a drag on the economy, and the war has some — but probably not too much — responsibility for pricey oil. Mainly high-priced oil is the result of rising demand from China and other emerging economies, colliding with sluggish supply as the world gradually runs out of the stuff. But Iraq would be exporting more oil now if we hadn't invaded — a million barrels a day? — and that would have kept prices down somewhat.

Overall, though, the story of America's economic difficulties is about the bursting housing bubble, not the war.

The Myth of the Rational Politician?

Robert Reich is not a big fan of using accelerated depreciation as a means of stimulating a lagging economy. Who wants to invest in more plants and equipment when the economic slowdown means you aren't even using all the plants and equipment you have now? Suppose that, due to an economic downturn, a trucking company that usually runs 100 trucks now has 15 sitting in the yard idle with the drivers at home waiting for the phone to ring. Will a cut in interest rates or a change in the depreciation rate allowed on taxes cause the firm to run out and buy more trucks? I can imagine reasons why you might want to jump on a great deal in such a situation and store up for the future, but generally you'd expect the response to be fairly small:

The Real Recession Problem: Consumers Are at the End of Their Ropes, by Robert Reich: Perhaps the silliest part of an already silly stimulus bill is a provision giving corporations big tax deductions this year on the costs of new machinery, instead of spreading those deductions over several years, as is normally the case. The idea is to get businesses to invest in more machinery, which will stimulate the economy.

But accelerated depreciation, as it's called, doesn't work. Almost the same tax break was enacted in 2002 and studies show just about no increase in business investment as a result. Why? Because companies won't invest in more machines when demand is dropping for the stuff the machines make. And right now, demand is dropping for just about everything.

This tax break exemplifies the illogic of what's called supply-side economics. If you reduce the cost of investing, so the thinking goes, you'll get more investment. What's left out is the demand side of the equation. Without consumers who want to buy a product, there's no point in making it, regardless of how many tax breaks go into it.

Which gets us to the real problem. Most consumers are at the end of their ropes and can't buy more. Real incomes are no higher than they were in 2000... And home values are dropping... Supply-siders who want to cut taxes on corporations and the rich just don't get it. Neither does most of official Washington. ...

The "political tax" on the stimulus bill, i.e. the things in the bill that make it less than fully effective but are necessary to ensure its passage, appears to be high due to the need to produce legislation quickly. I hope the less than optimal bill that has been produced does not come from politicians holding the stimulus package hostage and knowingly reducing its impact in order to pursue ideological goals. It could be that, but if it's not, then what is it?

Maybe it's "the myth of the rational politician", i.e. politicians who are so uninformed about economics that they truly believe the policies they are insisting be part of the stimulus package will help put people back to work. I know I care about this more than most, but that's why it's necessary to talk about things other than haircuts and laughs, why it's necessary to listen when a politician keeps insisting that tax cuts can pay for themselves, or spouts other such nonsense along the campaign trail or after they are in office.

There are times when it actually matters if politicians understand the basics of economics, and now could well be one of them. Yet most of what passes for information on this topic amounts to reporters asking questions, then nodding their heads at whatever answer the candidate gives - whether it makes sense or not - before moving on to the next question on the list. Sometimes I wonder if the reporters are even listening to the answer, and if they are, if they know enough themselves to follow up effectively.

We can reduce the "political tax" on fiscal policy, but it will require, for one, that the media let the public know when political games or ignorance of basic economics is causing the government to under perform and produce legislation that is less than fully effective. We've had enough government under performance in recent years, failures to serve people in need, but it hasn't always been like that, and it doesn't have to continue.

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