Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Were They Screaming Loudly?

This is more about how/when academic economists insert themselves into the debate than research, but in response to Paul Krugman I'm curious about how many mainstream economists (aside from him) were attempting to correct public perception about the underlying causes of and obvious solution to the California energy crisis.

It was a useful little event which provided me with a nice lecture (nice to me, no idea if my students agreed) about counterintuitive results which could be taught in a simple Econ 101 framework. The result is that if a firm is a monopoly then instituting hard price caps can have the counterintuitive effect of actually leading them to increase output. Capping prices would've kept the price down and the lights on.

I don't actually remember at the time too many academic economists getting into the newspapers to gently explain why, contrary to much of the nonsense being peddled at the time, the obvious short term solution was to institute immediate hard price caps, a policy the Bush FERC was resisting. A quick Nexis hunt doesn't turn up anything to contradict that idea, though I didn't do an exhaustive search.

Economists may not have tried to make that case because most of them just don't attempt to participate in the public discourse very often and they aren't on journalists' rolodexes. Maybe they didn't make the case because they weren't aware of or didn't believe evidence of market manipulation. Maybe they hesitated to make the case because they worried that they'd negatively impact a deregulation agenda they tended to agree with at least in general terms. Maybe they hesitated because they were concerned because if a policy which they're generally allergic to (government price setting) had a positive effect that politicians would try applying it to other areas.

I don't know what the answer is, or which combination, but it's worth thinking about.