The difference between price, cost, and value

JDN 2457559

This topic has been on the voting list for my Patreons for several months, but it never quite seems to win the vote. Well, this time it did. I’m glad, because I was tempted to do it anyway.

“Price”, “cost”, and “value”; the words are often used more or less interchangeably, not only by regular people but even by economists. I’ve read papers that talked about “rising labor costs” when what they clearly meant was rising wages—rising labor prices. I’ve read papers that tried to assess the projected “cost” of climate change by using the prices of different commodity futures. And hardly a day goes buy that I don’t see a TV commercial listing one (purely theoretical) price, cutting it in half (to the actual price), and saying they’re now giving you “more value”.

As I’ll get to, there are reasons to think they would be approximately the same for some purposes. Indeed, they would be equal, at the margin, in a perfectly efficient market—that may be why so many economists use them this way, because they implicitly or explicitly assume efficient markets. But they are fundamentally different concepts, and it’s dangerous to equate them casually.

Price

Price is exactly what you think it is: The number of dollars you must pay to purchase something. Most of the time when we talk about “cost” or “value” and then give a dollar figure, we’re actually talking about some notion of price.

Generally we speak in terms of nominal prices, which are the usual concept of prices in actual dollars paid, but sometimes we do also speak in terms of real prices, which are relative prices of different things once you’ve adjusted for overall inflation. “Inflation-adjusted price” can be a somewhat counter-intuitive concept; if a good’s (nominal) price rises, but by less than most other prices have risen, its real price has actually fallen.

You also need to be careful about just what price you’re looking at. When we look at labor prices, for example, we need to consider not only cash wages, but also fringe benefits and other compensation such as stock options. But other than that, prices are fairly straightforward.

Cost

Cost is probably not at all what you think it is. The real cost of something has nothing to do with money; saying that a candy bar “costs $2” or a computer “costs $2,000” is at best a somewhat sloppy shorthand and at worst a fundamental distortion of what cost is and why it matters. No, those are prices. The cost of a candy bar is the toil of children in cocoa farms in Cote d’Ivoire. The cost of a computer is the ecological damage and displaced indigenous people caused by coltan mining in Congo.

The cost of something is the harm that it does to human well-being (or for that matter to the well-being of any sentient being). It is not measured in money but in “the sweat of our laborers, the genius of our scientists, the hopes of our children” (to quote Eisenhower, who understood real cost better than most economists). There is also opportunity cost, the real cost we pay not by what we did, but by what we didn’t do—what we could have done instead.

This is important precisely because while costs should always be reduced when possible, prices can in fact be too low—and indeed, artificially low prices of goods due to externalities are probably the leading reason why humanity bears so many excess real costs. If the price of that chocolate bar accurately reflected the suffering of those African children (perhaps by—Gasp! Paying them a fair wage?), and the price of that computer accurately reflected the ecological damage of those coltan mines (a carbon tax, at least?), you might not want to buy them anymore; in which case, you should not have bought them. In fact, as I’ll get to once I discuss value, there is reason to think that even if you would buy them at a price that accurately reflected the dollar value of the real cost to their producers, we would still buy more than we should.

There is a point at which we should still buy things even though people get hurt making them; if you deny this, stop buying literally anything ever again. We don’t like to think about it, but any product we buy did cause some person, in some place, some degree of discomfort or unpleasantness in production. And many quite useful products will in fact cause death to a nonzero number of human beings.

For some products this is only barely true—it’s hard to feel bad for bestselling authors and artists who sell their work for millions, for whatever toil they may put into their work, whatever their elevated suicide rate (which is clearly endogenous; people aren’t randomly assigned to be writers), they also surely enjoy it a good deal of the time, and even if they didn’t, their work sells for millions. But for many products it is quite obviously true: A certain proportion of roofers, steelworkers, and truck drivers will die doing their jobs. We can either accept that, recognizing that it’s worth it to have roofs, steel, and trucking—and by extension, industrial capitalism, and its whole babies not dying thing—or we can give up on the entire project of human civilization, and go back to hunting and gathering; even if we somehow managed to avoid the direct homicide most hunter-gatherers engage in, far more people would simply die of disease or get eaten by predators.

Of course, we should have safety standards; but the benefits of higher safety must be carefully weighed against the potential costs of inefficiency, unemployment, and poverty. Safety regulations can reduce some real costs and increase others, even if they almost always increase prices. A good balance is struck when real cost is minimized, where any additional regulation would increase inefficiency more than it improves safety.

Actually OSHA are unsung heroes for their excellent performance at striking this balance, just as EPA are unsung heroes for their balance in environmental regulations (and that whole cutting crime in half business). If activists are mad at you for not banning everything bad and business owners are mad at you for not letting them do whatever they want, you’re probably doing it right. Would you rather people saved from fires, or fires prevented by good safety procedures? Would you rather murderers imprisoned, or boys who grow up healthy and never become murderers? If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, why does everyone love firefighters and hate safety regulators?So let me take this opportunity to say thank you, OSHA and EPA, for doing the jobs of firefighters and police way better than they do, and unlike them, never expecting to be lauded for it.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming. Markets are supposed to reflect costs in prices, which is why it’s not totally nonsensical to say “cost” when you mean “price”; but in fact they aren’t very good at that, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.

Value

Value is how much something is worth—not to sell it (that’s the price again), but to use it. One of the core principles of economics is that trade is nonzero-sum, because people can exchange goods that they value differently and thereby make everyone better off. They can’t price them differently—the buyer and the seller must agree upon a price to make the trade. But they can value them differently.

To see how this works, let’s look at a very simple toy model, the simplest essence of trade: Alice likes chocolate ice cream, but all she has is a gallon of vanilla ice cream. Bob likes vanilla ice cream, but all he has is a gallon of chocolate ice cream. So Alice and Bob agree to trade their ice cream, and both of them are happier.

We can measure value in “willingness-to-pay” (WTP), the highest price you’d willingly pay for something. That makes value look more like a price; but there are several reasons we must be careful when we do that. The obvious reason is that WTP is obviously going to vary based on overall inflation; since $5 isn’t worth as much in 2016 as it was in 1956, something with a WTP of $5 in 1956 would have a much higher WTP in 2016. The not-so-obvious reason is that money is worth less to you the more you have, so we also need to take into account the effect of wealth, and the marginal utility of wealth. The more money you have, the more money you’ll be willing to pay in order to get the same amount of real benefit. (This actually creates some very serious market distortions in the presence of high income inequality, which I may make the subject of a post or even a paper at some point.) Similarly there is “willingness-to-accept” (WTA), the lowest price you’d willingly accept for it. In theory these should be equal; in practice, WTA is usually slightly higher than WTP in what’s called endowment effect.

So to make our model a bit more quantitative, we could suppose that Alice values vanilla at $5 per gallon and chocolate at $10 per gallon, while Bob also values vanilla at $5 per gallon but only values chocolate at $4 per gallon. (I’m using these numbers to point out that not all the valuations have to be different for trade to be beneficial, as long as some are.) Therefore, if Alice sells her vanilla ice cream to Bob for $5, both will (just barely) accept that deal; and then Alice can buy chocolate ice cream from Bob for anywhere between $4 and $10 and still make both people better off. Let’s say they agree to also sell for $5, so that no net money is exchanged and it is effectively the same as just trading ice cream for ice cream. In that case, Alice has gained $5 in consumer surplus (her WTP of $10 minus the $5 she paid) while Bob has gained $1 in producer surplus (the $5 he received minus his $4 WTP). The total surplus will be $6 no matter what price they choose, which we can compute directly from Alice’s WTP of $10 minus Bob’s WTA of $4. The price ultimately decides how that total surplus is distributed between the two parties, and in the real world it would very likely be the result of which one is the better negotiator.

The enormous cost of our distorted understanding

(See what I did there?) If markets were perfectly efficient, prices would automatically adjust so that, at the margin, value is equal to price is equal to cost. What I mean by “at the margin” might be clearer with an example: Suppose we’re selling apples. How many apples do you decide to buy? Well, the value of each successive apple to you is lower, the more apples you have (the law of diminishing marginal utility, which unlike most “laws” in economics is actually almost always true). At some point, the value of the next apple will be just barely above what you have to pay for it, so you’ll stop there. By a similar argument, the cost of producing apples increases the more apples you produce (the law of diminishing returns, which is a lot less reliable, more like the Pirate Code), and the producers of apples will keep selling them until the price they can get is only just barely larger than the cost of production. Thus, in the theoretical limit of infinitely-divisible apples and perfect rationality, marginal value = price = marginal cost. In such a world, markets are perfectly efficient and they maximize surplus, which is the difference between value and cost.

But in the real world of course, none of those assumptions are true. No product is infinitely divisible (though the gasoline in a car is obviously a lot more divisible than the car itself). No one is perfectly rational. And worst of all, we’re not measuring value in the same units. As a result, there is basically no reason to think that markets are optimizing anything; their optimization mechanism is setting two things equal that aren’t measured the same way, like trying to achieve thermal equilibrium by matching the temperature of one thing in Celsius to the temperature of other things in Fahrenheit.

An implicit assumption of the above argument that didn’t even seem worth mentioning was that when I set value equal to price and set price equal to cost, I’m setting value equal to cost; transitive property of equality, right? Wrong. The value is equal to the price, as measured by the buyer. The cost is equal to the price, as measured by the seller.

If the buyer and seller have the same marginal utility of wealth, no problem; they are measuring in the same units. But if not, we convert from utility to money and then back to utility, using a different function to convert each time. In the real world, wealth inequality is massive, so it’s wildly implausible that we all have anything close to the same marginal utility of wealth. Maybe that’s close enough if you restrict yourself to middle-class people in the First World; so when a tutoring client pays me, we might really be getting close to setting marginal value equal to marginal cost. But once you include corporations that are owned by billionaires and people who live on $2 per day, there’s simply no way that those price-to-utility conversions are the same at each end. For Bill Gates, a million dollars is a rounding error. For me, it would buy a house, give me more flexible work options, and keep me out of debt, but not radically change the course of my life. For a child on a cocoa farm in Cote d’Ivoire, it could change her life in ways she can probably not even comprehend.

The market distortions created by this are huge; indeed, most of the fundamental flaws in capitalism as we know it are ultimately traceable to this. Why do Americans throw away enough food to feed all the starving children in Africa? Marginal utility of wealth. Why are Silicon Valley programmers driving the prices for homes in San Francisco higher than most Americans will make in their lifetimes? Marginal utility of wealth. Why are the Koch brothers spending more on this year’s elections than the nominal GDP of the Gambia? Marginal utility of wealth. It’s the sort of pattern that once you see it suddenly seems obvious and undeniable, a paradigm shift a bit like the heliocentric model of the solar system. Forget trade barriers, immigration laws, and taxes; the most important market distortions around the world are all created by wealth inequality. Indeed, the wonder is that markets work as well as they do.

The real challenge is what to do about it, how to reduce this huge inequality of wealth and therefore marginal utility of wealth, without giving up entirely on the undeniable successes of free market capitalism. My hope is that once more people fully appreciate the difference between price, cost, and value, this paradigm shift will be much easier to make; and then perhaps we can all work together to find a solution.

So what can we actually do about sweatshops?

JDN 2457489

(The topic of this post was chosen by a vote of my Patreons.) There seem to be two major camps on most political issues: One camp says “This is not a problem, stop worrying about it.” The other says “This is a huge problem, it must be fixed right away, and here’s the easy solution.” Typically neither of these things is true, and the correct answer is actually “This is a huge problem, well worth fixing—but we need to do a lot of work to figure out exactly how.”

Sweatshop labor is a very good example of this phenomenon.

Camp A is represented here by the American Enterprise Institute, which even goes as far as to defend child labor on the grounds that “we used to do it before”. (Note that we also used to do slavery before. Also protectionism, but of course AEI doesn’t think that was good. Who needs logical consistency when you have ideological purity?) The College Conservative uses ECON 101 to defend sweatshops, perhaps not realizing that economics courses continue past ECON 101.

Camp B is represented here by Buycott, telling us to buy “made in the USA” products and boycott all companies that use sweatshops. Other commonly listed strategies include buying used clothes (I mean, there may be some ecological benefits to this, but clearly not all clothes can be used clothes) and “buy union-made” which is next to impossible for most products. Also in this camp is LaborVoices, a Silicon Valley tech company that seems convinced they can somehow solve the problem of sweatshops by means of smartphone apps, because apparently Silicon Valley people believe that smartphones are magical and not, say, one type of product that performs services similar to many other pre-existing products but somewhat more efficiently. (This would also explain how Uber can say with a straight face that they are “revolutionary” when all they actually do is mediate unlicensed taxi services, and Airbnb is “innovative” because it makes it slightly more convenient to rent out rooms in your home.)

Of course I am in that third camp, people who realize that sweatshops—and exploitative labor practices in general—are a serious problem, but a very complex and challenging one that does not have any easy, obvious solutions.

One thing we absolutely cannot do is return to protectionism or get American consumers to only buy from American companies (a sort of “soft protectionism” by social construction). This would not only be inefficient for us—it would be devastating for people in Third World countries. Sweatshops typically provide substantially better living conditions than the alternatives available to their workers.

Yet this does not mean that sweatshops are morally acceptable or should simply be left alone, contrary to the assertions of many economists—most famously Benjamin Powell. Anyone who doubts this must immediately read “Wrongful Beneficence” by Chris Meyers; the mere fact that an act benefits someone –or even everyone—does not prove that the act was morally acceptable. If someone is starving to death and you offer them bread in exchange for doing whatever you want them to do for the next year, you are benefiting them, surely—but what you are doing is morally wrong. And this is basically what sweatshops are; they provide survival in exchange for exploitation.

It can be remarkably difficult to even tell which companies are using sweatshops—and this is by design. While in response to public pressure corporations often try to create the image of improving their labor standards, they seem quite averse to actually improving labor standards, and even more averse to establishing systems of enforcement to make those labor standards followed consistently. Almost no sweatshops are directly owned by the retailers whose products they make; instead there is a chain of outsourced vendors and distributors, a chain that creates diffusion of responsibility and plausible deniability. When international labor organizations do get the chance to investigate the labor conditions of factories operated by multinational corporations, they invariably find that regulations are more honored in the breach than the observance.

So, what would a long-run solution to sweatshops look like? In a word: Development. The only sustainable solution to oppressive labor conditions is a world where everyone is healthy enough, educated enough, and provided with enough resources that their productivity is at a First World level; furthermore it is a world where workers have enough bargaining power that they are actually paid according to that productivity. (The US has lately been finding out what happens if you do the former but not the latter—the result is that you generate an enormous amount of wealth, but it all ends up in the hands of the top 0.1%. Yet it is quite possible to do the latter, as Denmark has figured out, #ScandinaviaIsBetter.)

To achieve this, we need more factories in Third World countries, not fewer—more investment, not less. We need to buy more of China’s exports, hire more factory workers in Bangladesh.

But it’s not enough to provide incentives to build factories—we must also provide incentives to give workers at those factories more bargaining power.

To see how we can pull this off, I offer a case study of a (qualified) success: Nike.

In the 1990s, Nike’s subcontractors had some of the worst labor conditions in the shoe industry. Today, they actually have some of the best. How did that happen?

It began with people noticing a problem—activists and investigative journalists documented the abuses in Nike’s factories. They drew public attention, which undermined Nike’s efforts at mass advertising (which was basically their entire business model—their shoes aren’t actually especially good). They tried to clean up their image with obviously biased reports, which triggered a backlash. Finally Nike decides to actually do something about the problem, and actually becomes a founding member of the Fair Labor Association. They establish new labor standards, and they audit regularly to ensure that those standards are being complied with. Today they publish an annual corporate social responsibility report that actually appears to be quite transparent and accurate, showing both the substantial improvements that have been made and the remaining problems. Activist campaigns turned Nike around almost completely.

In short, consumer pressure led to private regulation. Many development economists are increasingly convinced that this is what we need—we must put pressure on corporations to regulate themselves.

The pressure is a key part of this process; Willem Buiter wasn’t wrong when he quipped that “self-regulation stands in relation to regulation the way self-importance stands in relation to importance and self-righteousness to righteousness.” For any regulation to work, it must have an enforcement mechanism; for private regulation to work, that enforcement mechanism comes from the consumers.

Yet even this is not enough, because there are too many incentives for corporations to lie and cheat if they only have to be responsive to consumers. It’s unreasonable to expect every consumer to take the time—let alone have the expertise—to perform extensive research on the supply chain of every corporation they buy a product from. I also think it’s unreasonable to expect most people to engage in community organizing or shareholder activism as Green America suggests, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt if some did. But there are just too many corporations to keep track of! Like it or not, we live in a globalized capitalist economy where you almost certainly buy from a hundred different corporations over the course of a year.

Instead we need governments to step up—and the obvious choice is the government of the United States, which remains the world’s economic and military hegemon. We should be pressuring our legislators to make new regulations on international trade that will raise labor standards around the globe.

Note that this undermines the most basic argument corporations use against improving their labor standards: “If we raise wages, we won’t be able to compete.” Not if we force everyone to raise wages, around the globe. “If it’s cheaper to build a factory in Indonesia, why shouldn’t we?” It won’t be cheaper, unless Indonesia actually has a real comparative advantage in producing that product. You won’t be able to artificially hold down your expenses by exploiting your workers—you’ll have to actually be more efficient in order to be more profitable, which is how capitalism is supposed to work.

There’s another argument we often hear that is more legitimate, which is that raising wages would also force corporations to raise prices. But as I discussed in a previous post on this subject, the amount by which prices would need to rise is remarkably small, and nowhere near large enough to justify panic about dangerous global inflation. Paying 10% or even 20% more for our products is well worth it to reduce the corruption and exploitation that abuses millions of people—a remarkable number of them children—around the globe. Also, it doesn’t take a mathematical savant to realize that if increasing wages by a factor of 10 only increases prices by 20%, workers will in fact be better off.

Where would all that extra money come from? Now we come to the real reason why corporations don’t want to raise their labor standards: It would come from profits. Right now profits are extraordinarily large, much larger than they have any right to be in a fair market. It was recently estimated that 74% of billionaire wealth comes from economic rent—that is to say, from deception, exploitation, and market manipulation, rather than actual productivity. (There’s a lot of uncertainty in this estimate; the true figure is probably somewhere between 50% and 90%—it’s almost certainly a majority, and could be the vast majority.) In fact, I really shouldn’t say “money”, which we can just print; what we really want to know is where the extra wealth would come from to give that money value. But by paying workers more, improving their standard of living, and creating more consumer demand, we would in fact dramatically increase the amount of real wealth in the world.

So, we need regulations to improve global labor standards. But we must first be clear: What should these regulations say?

First, we must rule out protectionist regulations that would give unfair advantages to companies that produce locally. These would only result in economic inefficiency at best, and trade wars throwing millions back into poverty at worst. (Some advantage makes sense to internalize the externalities of shipping, but really that should be created by a carbon tax, not by trade tariffs. It’s a lot more expensive and carbon-intensive to ship from Detroit to LA than from Detroit to Windsor, but the latter is the “international” trade.)

Second, we should not naively assume that every country should have the same minimum wage. (I am similarly skeptical of Hillary Clinton’s proposal to include people with severe mental or physical disabilities in the US federal minimum wage; I too am concerned about people with disabilities being exploited, but the fact is many people with severe disabilities really aren’t as productive, and it makes sense for wages to reflect that.) If we’re going to have minimum wages at all—basic income and wage subsidies both make a good deal more sense than a hard price floor; see also my earlier post on minimum wage—they should reflect the productivity and prices of the region. I applaud California and New York for adopting $15 minimum wages, but I’d be a bit skeptical of doing the same in Mississippi, and adamantly opposed to doing so in Bangladesh.

It may not even be reasonable to expect all countries to have the same safety standards; workers who are less skilled and in more dire poverty may rationally be willing to accept more risk to remain employed, rather than laid off because their employer could not afford to meet safety standards and still pay them a sufficient wage. For some safety standards this is ridiculous; making sufficiently many exits with doors that swing outward and maintaining smoke detectors are not expensive things to do. (And yet factories in Bangladesh often fail to meet such basic requirements, which kills hundreds of workers each year.) But other safety standards may be justifiably relaxed; OSHA compliance in the US costs about $70 billion per year, about $200 per person, which many countries simply couldn’t afford. (On the other hand, OSHA saves thousands of lives, does not increase unemployment, and may actually benefit employers when compared with the high cost of private injury lawsuits.) We should have expert economists perform careful cost-benefit analyses of proposed safety regulations to determine which ones are cost-effective at protecting workers and which ones are too expensive to be viable.

While we’re at it, these regulations should include environmental standards, or a global carbon tax that’s used to fund climate change mitigation efforts around the world. Here there isn’t much excuse for not being strict; pollution and environmental degradation harms the poor the most. Yes, we do need to consider the benefits of production that is polluting; but we have plenty of profit incentives for that already. Right now the balance is clearly tipped far too much in favor of more pollution than the optimum rather than less. Even relatively heavy-handed policies like total bans on offshore drilling and mountaintop removal might be in order; in general I’d prefer to tax rather than ban, but these activities are so enormously damaging that if the choice is between a ban and doing nothing, I’ll take the ban. (I’m less convinced of this with regard to fracking; yes, earthquakes and polluted groundwater are bad—but are they Saudi Arabia bad? Because buying more oil from Saudi Arabia is our leading alternative.)

It should go without saying (but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to) that our regulations must include an absolute zero-tolerance policy for forced labor. If we find out that a company is employing forced labor, they should have to not only free every single enslaved worker, but pay each one a million dollars (PPP 2005 chained CPI of course). If they can’t do that and they go bankrupt, good riddance; remind me to play them the world’s saddest song on the world’s tiniest violin. Of course, first we need to find out, which brings me to the most important point.

Above all, these regulations must be enforced. We could start with enforceable multilateral trade agreements, where tariff reductions are tied to human rights and labor standards. This is something the President of the United States could do, right now, as an addendum to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. (What he should have done is made the TPP contingent on this, but it’s too late for that.) Future trade agreements should include these as a matter of course.If countries want to reap the benefits of free trade, they must be held accountable for sharing those benefits equitably with their people.

But ultimately we should not depend upon multilateral agreements between nations—we need truly international standards with global enforcement. We should empower the International Labor Organization to enact sanctions and inspections (right now it mostly enacts suggestions which are promptly and dutifully ignored), and possibly even to arrest executives for trial at the International Criminal Court. We should double if not triple or quadruple their funding—and if member nations will not pay this voluntarily, we should make them—the United Nations should be empowered to collect taxes in support of global development, which should be progressive with per-capita GDP. Coercion, you say? National sovereignty, you say? Millions of starving little girls is my reply.

Right now, the ability of multinational corporations to move between countries to find the ones that let them pay the least have created a race to the floor; it’s time for us to raise that floor.

What can you yourself do, assuming you’re not a head of state? (If you are, I’m honored. Also, any openings on your staff?) Well, you can vote—and you can use that vote to put pressure on your legislators to support these kinds of polices. There are also some other direct actions you can take that I discussed in a previous post; but mainly what we need is policy. Consumer pressure and philanthropy are good, and by all means, don’t stop; but to really achieve global justice we will need nothing short of global governance.