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Economic Myths

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

By taking a couple of courses in economic theory, we could immunize ourselves from nonsense spouted by politicians and pundits, but in the meantime check out Professor John R. Lott's "Freedomnomics: Why the Free Market Works."


His first chapter is "Are You Being Ripped Off?" It addresses myths about predation where it's sometimes alleged that corporations will charge below-cost prices to bankrupt their rivals and then charge unconscionable prices. There's little or no evidence that corporations would choose predation as strategy; there are too many pitfalls. A major one is that in order to recoup losses from charging low prices to bankrupt rivals, the predator would later have to charge higher-than-normal prices. That would attract new rivals who might have purchased the bankrupt assets of the predator's prey and be able to undercut the predator's prices.

A far more successful means to monopoly wealth is for businesses to enlist the aid of congressmen to form a collusion. Classic examples are the dairy industry, which uses the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Federal Milk Marketing Orders to set statutory minimum prices, or the Gasoline Retailers Association using state law to do the same or the sugar industry using Congress to establish quotas on foreign sugar imports.

Professor Lott's chapter "Government as Nirvana" highlights examples of government predation. When the U.S. Postal Service raised the price of first-class mail in 1999, it reduced its price for domestic overnight express mail from $15 to $13.70, even though it was losing money at $15. The Postal Service was facing stiff competition from FedEx and UPS overnight services and wanted to keep its market share.


During the 1980s, private meteorology firms saw a chance to make money by selling television stations specialized forecasts that weren't provided by the National Weather Service. The National Weather Service started providing television stations the same services for free, thus driving private forecasting companies out of business.

Predation is observed in higher education. UCLA is both Lott's and my alma mater. It spends $40,000 per student but charges $6,522 tuition for in-state students. Such below-cost pricing gives public universities a significant competitive advantage over private universities. State universities have acquired many formerly private universities after driving, or threatening to drive, them out of business. Lott gives examples of George Mason University School of Law, University of Buffalo, University of Houston and University of Pittsburgh. In the case of University of Buffalo, the State University of New York reportedly threatened to open a public university across the street unless the University of Buffalo joined the state system.

The U.S. Department of Justice would go after a private business using similar predatory practices of intimidating its rivals and selling goods and services below cost. The U.S. Department of Commerce sanctions foreign companies accused of selling goods in the U.S. below cost with anti-dumping duties. If selling goods below cost is seen as unfair in the international arena, why is it not when it's done by government entities?


Lott's "Crime and Punishment" chapter has a lot of interesting tidbits. It starts off stating a fundamental principle of economics: the higher the cost of something, the less people will do of it. To demonstrate the generality of this principle, Lott says that when the number of referees were increased from two to three in the Atlantic Coast Basketball Conference, fouls fell by 34 percent; fouling became more costly. The American League has more hit batsmen than the National League, but the difference only appeared after 1973 when the American League removed its pitchers from the batting lineup in favor of designated hitters. Not being afraid of being hit themselves, American League pitchers threw more bean balls; bean balls became cheaper. The same principle applies to the U.S. crime rate that fell after the death penalty was reinstated, more prisons were built and concealed-weapon carry laws were enacted. The higher the cost of a crime, the less people will do of it.


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