Can’t Get No Satisfaction

In economic terminology, the term “utility” has not much to do with multifunctionality nor completing specific useful tasks.

It does in context, relate to the level of satisfaction or “completeness” one derives from the consumption of a product or service. For example, there is only so much pizza one can eat before feeling ill from satiety.

On a broader and more macroeconomics spectrum, our utility levels will also help determine how resources are allocated and consumed.

Definition

The concept, a brainchild of Daniel Bernoulli, has so many relevant connotations. As humans, we individually have a maximum biological boundary which when reached, signals absolute satisfaction. This in economic terms is called maximum (total) utility.

Total utility as the complete satisfaction that you can get from consuming all units of a specific item.

Economists are more interested in the changes in levels of utility or what is referred to as the marginal utility.

We will return to its application to the economy.

Applying utility

Incidentally, utility has no formal unit of measurement – though some have coined the term “utils”. These so-called utils equate a number to utility levels in a controlled sample experiment.

Understandably it can be quite a feat to quantify utility as it is based on human behavioural preferences. The closest we got to quantifying such was via the marketing concept of the consumer black box.

N26_banner-160x600-ENAs an illustration, the concept can be applied to something as basic as eating a delicious meal.

Depending on how hungry you were, you would derive the highest utility from the first few bites of your meal.

As you progressed and depending on your appetite, each additional fork, spoon, handful more would provide fewer levels of satisfaction. As you reach your stomachs capacity (inch towards satiety) your utility diminishes.

This can be applied to the taste of the meal. It specifically explains why we tend to eat something sweet after a main (savoury) meal.

The appreciation of ice cream when you are starving would diminish quickly as you concentrate on filling up your stomach. This as opposed to enjoying the taste.

When applied properly to the running of an economy, governments and policymakers can determine which goods and services yield the most maximum utility.

This helps them to consequently direct expenditure to identified priority areas (products/services).

It is a long term concept

Education, for instance, may not provide immediate utility (gratification) for scholars and pupils. However, when appropriately harnessed, it could yield higher levels of satisfaction as individuals enter the job market with better remuneration packages.

Tweaking education curricula, taking into consideration levels of utility to whip up interest for the good of the individual. This should, therefore, be a prime focus for legislators.

Inputs such as maximum times that students can concentrate and the length of study for a degree, diploma or course should be offered without compromising the substance.

Without a doubt, there would be considerations, at a micro-level to assist in enhancing both marginal and total utility in the education sector.

Read more about fiscal policy and budgets here

More life-related uses

The concept of utility is a lot less ubiquitous as we think and relates to the unsavoury phenomenon of megalomania and why we have greed.

When the level of satisfaction or self-gratification diminishes quickly, you find that it takes longer for those experiencing lower levels of marginal utility to reach a plateau of pleasure.

Drug addiction, sexual appetites, and fetishes would then kick-in in such cases where people upgrade the “product or service” that they have already maximized their utility. At that stage, another level of fulfilment would be sought.

Utility applied to finances

120x600It also explains why people lose a lot of money gambling or investing in stocks. The satisfaction of gaining more for a little outlay based on your decisions, will often drive you to take more risk until a level of risk aversion kicks in.

High-risk equity investors “called whales”  are now delving into the Crypto market to maximize their utility. They are diverting their funds from property and stock trading into digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum.

The saying too much of a good thing is inevitably bad for you applies and can be countered by diversifying the things that deliver pleasure or satisfaction.

This is to ensure that you do not maximise utility on them too quickly and lose interest.  Worse case, delve too deep into the dangerous territories of addiction.

Economists need to be relevant, more than ever before. They also need to formulate a means to measure and quantify utility or provide “utils” for at least, the most common goods and services.

With such a strategy, policy-making, product pricing and the efficient allocation of resources would be more effortless.
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Criminal mindedness

One fundamental and often ignored view within economics is that humans have the propensity to display irrational behaviour in the decision-making processes.

Based on this notion, one can conclude that we have a fundamental tendency to act corruptly and be generally criminally-inclined except maybe the virtuous few.

How advanced our economy or society is, depends on what measures or incentives we enforce to deter or punish criminals.

In most cases, we find that in countries where punishment is severe (e.g. in Central Europe or Nigeria), the criminals end up moving to less strict countries.

The economics of crime, especially violent crime experienced in countries like South Africa and Brazil, is something that requires adept research if anything is to be done.

In the US, studies were conducted to access the impact of legalized abortion on the level of crime. This was discussed in detail in a best-selling book by Levitt and Dubner’s called Freakonomics.

The study found that legalizing abortion (seen by many as legalized killing equivalent to death sentences) reduces the level of drug abuse and subsequently other criminal activity.

The real problem

Perhaps there is no relevance here but for instance, abortion is legal in South Africa yet a high crime rate prevails. So, what’s the problem then?

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the incentives/benefits of committing crime far outweigh the “costs” and chances of being caught and convicted by the judiciary.

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John Nash through his renowned works (well at least amongst economists), devised what he called “game theory” or “the prisoner’s dilemma”.

Cheating occurs through degrees of severity from a classroom test or examination all the way to the plotting and execution of murder or indirectly killing individuals by selling users addictive drugs.

Then you have your white-collar crime such as insider trading, corporate espionage (unlawfully acquiring recipes, formulas, and technologies from rival companies).

Or simply ‘cooking the books’ or siphoning off profits from a company’s coffers.

Nash’s rationale for such cheating behaviour boils down to the attitude of: ‘if I don’t, someone else will, and leave me with the short end of the stick – so given the option, I’ll always cheat’.

His explanation is one ‘formally proven’ reason for human ‘irrational’ behaviour – or rather, could we say it is rational if the outcome is to favour the decision-maker in the short or long term? This is instinct is innate in human behaviour of not such a few.

Crime and law enforcement

Back to the subject of crime: higher than usual levels has often been blamed on the poverty caused by poor and exclusionary fiscal, social and monetary policies.

There are of course more layers and underlying factors unique to the history of political climate and resource allocation.

Further studies (such as that in the Freakonomics book) need to be carried out such as the potential effects of police presence in deterring crime in the diagram below:

Police officers per 100,000 population by regions and sub-regions (medians)

Crime deterrant

Source: www.unodc.org

Also, highly recommended if you are a law enforcer, economist, government official, or student, is a book entitled Economics of Crime by Erling Eide, Paul H Rubin & Joanna M Shepherd.

This book covers the theory of public enforcement including probability and severity, fines and imprisonment, repeat offenders, incentives of enforcers, enforcement costs and enforcement errors.

It might shed some light as to how criminally-inclined people can be dealt with once and for all. Because as we know – whatever government is doing to fight crime now is clearly not really working!

“When crimes are left alone long enough to fester, a second economy is borne.”

The proceeds from a ‘secondary’ economy because of criminal activity never benefit society. Even though people like Pablo Escobar were seen by locals (in his Colombian town) as philanthropists, their assistance came at a price. Such contributions which are naturally tax-free generally are referred to in economics as ‘social ills‘.

A third market is formed – one comprised of the need to feel secure.

Dealing with the scourge

But fighting fire with fire (with more guns & police who are sometimes corrupt themselves) will not alone solve the problem.

Criminals simply become more aggressive when met with a more confrontational approach as seen in South Africa. The Jeppestown (Johannesburg) shoot-out in 2006 for example, left several police officers and criminals dead.

It’s time to get ’smarter’ about crime and look to the accuracy and conclusive study of human behaviour and the use of incentives.

As crimes continue to ravage communities, cities and countries, we can question why government officials have relatives who own or have stakes in security companies.

It basically places less of an ‘incentive’ for officials to do much about crime.

So, conceivably, those with such vested interests in the third economy would need to be weeded out of the system for crime to be curbed.

That would be the first major step in order to bring about some rationality to society.

Nine Reasons Why Globalization Can’t Be Permanent

We spoke about globalization in an earlier post on some general terms – citing that it has taken a different shape or evolved.

This article below however, delves deeper and highlights on nine reasons why this evolution will be forced to happen.

It well written and covers all salient points and asks all the right questions – such as what you may have pondered on the validity of GDP as a measure of success.

The Intelligence Quotient (IQ) has of late been questioned as the main determinant of intelligence. This especially so with the growing popularity of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and soon Artificial Intelligence (AI).

You must also question the accuracy in the way the success (or disguised failures) of a nation is presented.  This follows what you are told is required for this success to materialize.

We especially loved this analogy of the current world situation and if anything is to be taken from this article, this is it:

bicycle-analogy

Again kudos to the author Gail Tverberg for this in-depth piece (featured on her website on 31 Jan 2018).

In it, Gail touches on issues such as a population growth, a growing wage-disparity, heavy energy consumption, and the demand for cheaper alternative energy:

Read about the 9 reasons here:   https://wp.me/p3dRG-b4w

Also read more on how Globalization has evolved here

Hope you enjoy it as much as we did.  That it has the same effect it had – getting one to think outside the box and look at the big picture.

How countries operate

At times, we can all become frustrated by political agendas, misfortunes and perceived lack of planning by various governments around the world. As a result not quite often seeing the bigger picture – or the economics of how countries work.

Naturally, the political fracases provide fuel for media companies who in turn bombard us with their 24-hour news cycles. But we need to understand that politicians are only temporary custodians of the country and its economy.

Each economic model is built on the same premise that started many hundreds of years ago – that of bartering.

Two pillars of government

There are two main mandates or rather tasks that a ruling party is assigned by the electorate when it comes to governing. These are: controlling the country’s fiscal and monetary policy.

Fiscal policy is the internal running of the country and basically deals with tax and how it is allocated. The fiscal budget is then awarded to the various sectors of any economy.

These include education, transport, healthcare, finance, trade and industry, defence, agriculture and many other building blocks of your country.

How the government prioritizes the spending on each of these sectors will determine its policy priorities. It will also be a signal of its wider political intentions. And this not only to voters but also to its neighbouring countries in regard to international trade and security.

A nation concerned with information and its human capital will prioritize education in its budget. There are however other approaches to budgetary allocation such as funding trade and industrial activities.

This leads to job creation that will, in turn, drive a need for tradesmen and women to diversify and obtain the new skills required.

This also provides an incentive for state-run schools, privately funded schools, and institutions to develop new skill sets.

Doing both is ideal – as governments must foster innovation by promoting and funding higher learning institutions where top talent can be nurtured and developed.

Fiscal policy forms the larger mandate as this budget is derived from the collective taxation of income, capital gains, trading and customs, sin taxes, corporate, and simple public services.

That way allocation of the fiscal budget to finance will pave the way for monetary policy to function.

International trade is the key to generating further income as a government cannot rely on an internally driven economy to sustain wealth. The same applies to business so an agreed trade policy would need to accommodate all aspects of the country’s economy.

National specialization

Every thriving nation has been built on either skilfully utilizing internal resources or have created global demand for a service or industry.

The UK has strong financial and corporate offerings plus its geo-positioning (GMT) allows it to be a central commercial trading point for the world.

Germany has always had a rich source of steel enabling the production of cars, rail brands, and manufacturing.

In addition, it continues to be a market leader in developing technologies to compliment those industries thus allowing the country to thrive as a major European power.

The Nordic countries are rich in mineral resources of which they have converted the revenues into national trust funds. These are used to aid its citizens; many of whom develop skills in trade, innovation, and finance (and now Fintech).

Though Japan is a geographically smaller and is made up of two islands it continues to prosper by becoming a global leader in the exporting of innovation, artificial intelligence (robotics), fishing stocks.

It even ‘exports’ financial aid (loans) to other countries due to strong and disciplined monetary policy.

The US has invested heavily in services, human capital, and innovation – to a large extent immigration has played a major role in these areas of growth.

The emerging economies

Russia is mineral-rich and has outsourced its intelligence gathering skills, military technology, and training for years.

China continues to grow and subsidizes its agriculture and manufacturing industries fully utilizing the abundance of manual labour at its disposal.

China even exports this labour thus gaining influence and soft power enabling Chinese goods and services to be exported more freely to other economies.

The ability to offer the global economy a form of expertise or goods/service can attribute hugely to each country’s economic wealth.  Israel – military and intelligence; Brazil agriculture and tourism not to mention countries in the Far East – oil and fossil fuels.

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Most African countries obtain their sources of income (though not as much as they should) from natural minerals, agriculture, and tourism.

Ghana has gold and cocoa; Nigeria – oil; South Africa – gold and many mineral resources; Kenya and Tanzania – tourism. Even a poor country like Zambia has survived because of its coal and coffee reserves.

Any country without resources or the ability to offer goods and services would have to be more subsistence-like. This usually means having to rely on aid or import goods and services.

That, however, comes at a price and leads to the country functioning with an unsustainable debt burden.

Application of policies
Interesting food for thought by Dr. Jagdish Bhagwati, a famous Indian-born economist in the US:
Americans spend, save little. Also US imports more than it exports.
Has an annual trade deficit of over $400 billion. Yet, the American economy is considered strong and trusted to get stronger.
The Japanese on a contrary, save a lot. They do not spend much. Also, Japan exports far more than it imports, has an annual trade surplus of over 100 billion. Yet Japanese economy is considered weak, even collapsing.
Modern economists complain that Japanese do not spend, so they do not grow. To force the Japanese to spend, the Japanese government exerted itself, reduced the savings rates, even charged the savers. Even then the Japanese did not spend (habits don’t change, even with taxes, do they?). Their traditional postal savings alone is over $1.2 trillion.
Thus, savings, far from being the strength of Japan, has become its pain.
International trade

This then gives way to various trading blocs, which over time have been built, broken or renegotiated when it was not suiting either of the participants.

The strength of a country’s currency is primarily determined by supply and demand for its sovereign currency – but demand can only be fostered by trade.

The more the demand for a countries commodity the greater the demand for its currency – which is the medium we use to compensate for transactions.

In terms of a country’s monetary policy, it is more of a singular relationship between a government and its banks.

The banking system

Banking is the system to which people can place their disposable income (gross income after tax). The central (reserve) bank regulates the money supply into the economy ensuring that locally, inflation does not corrode the value of its currency.

The central bank controls how much it lends to local banks and at which payable interest rate.

The central bank is independent of government. They have their policies shaped by fiscal influences and is under obligation to impact the strength of the economy through its interest rates and exchange rates.

So, the central bank sets the mandate by which banks offer security interest, loans and building deposits to help you benefit from their hard-earned cash.

Banks, however, have a wide range of consumer charges so transacting doesn’t offer much protection against inflation. In some cases, banks offer you zero interest on savings deposited!

You can therefore understand the frustration of citizens who would like to see increased corporate taxes especially for banks.

This especially as they reward executives with excessive remuneration packages even in a failing economy.

Financial governance and regulations

The new wave of Cryptocurrency aims to shake-up these long-standing benefits banks have enjoyed.

Benefits such as the bailouts from taxpayers’ money from risk-taking behaviour that nearly brought the global economy to its knees.

Like a petulant child knowing well that its parents will only mildly reprimand but ultimately still allow the continuation of behaviour with a slap on the wrist.

Governments continue to tolerate excessive wage packets and risk-taking due to the fact banks play a strategic role in the stability and growth of an economy.

This is just a tip of the iceberg and paints a big picture of how a country is managed – or indeed can be mismanaged.