Sunday, September 28, 2014

How the price of a Martini reveals the property value of a city

A Hendricks Gibson is basically a commodity (although the bartender does need to know what she is doing). But a good Gibson at the Starlight Lounge in LaCrosse, Wisconsin is $8; at the Roof Garden at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills is $16; at the King Cole Bar of the St. Regis Hotel in New York is $22. 
Let's say the cost of the cocktail, including labor, but exclusive of real estate, is $7. Then the implicit rent you are paying for sitting in a bar in LaCrosse is $1; in Beverly Hills on a rooftop is $9; and in NYC is $15. If one consults Zillow, one will find that this ratio of 1:9:15 for real estate in LaCrosse, BH and Manhattan is pretty close to the truth.
One key thing--all these drinks are served in competitive markets--there is true thickness in bars in these markets. And the people at the Roof Garden and the King Cole will let you sit a nurse your drink without hassling you about it.  So while having a drink in these lovely spots is very expensive, it is not a rip-off--one just has to pay the rent.
A drink at, say, Disney World, or FedEx field, doesn't count, because if you want to stay at the Park/Game and have a drink, you have to pay a monopoly price for a drink (in the case of the stadium of the Washington Football Team, you might even pay for a drink that is past its expiration date).
Needless to say, further research is necessary.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How Piketty's care with language can improve economics

When I was a freshman in college, I read Fogel and Engerman's Time on the Cross.  I loathed the book, because it implicitly endorsed the idea that it is OK, "in the interested of science," to dehumanize those African-Americans that were placed in bondage by viewing them as capital (I loathed it for other reasons as well, but that is for another time.) It also contributed to the broad view currently within much of mainstream economics that it is (1) acceptable to treat human beings as objects, and (2) that it is embarrassing to embrace humanity.  I was embarrassed that the book helped Fogel ultimately won the Nobel Prize in economics.

I thought of Fogel and Engerman again when a recent review in the Economist of Edward Bishop's The Half Has Never Been Told complained that a book based on the perspective of slaves could not be objective.  (To the Economist's credit, it repudiated the review and apologized for allowing it to be printed, but also kept a link to it so that readers could see how misguided it was).  Again, an allegiance to "scientific detachment" led to a bizarre view of an evil institution.  A "detached" view of slavery helps legitimize its practice, and thus is not in any way objective.

And so we come to Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century.  I have some issues with the book, but I love the first third of it.  I particularly like his treatment of "human capital:"
There are many reasons to exclude human capital from our definition of capital.  The most obvious is that human capital cannot be owned by another person or traded on a market.
The language of economics often treats people as commodities: the phrases "representative agent" and "human capital" are examples of this.   Sometimes these phrases are useful abstractions, but they also contribute to the sometimes pernicious indifference of mainstream economics to issues of justice.  Piketty's take on human capital might make us a little less indifferent.