Archive for the ‘#supplyanddemand’ Tag

Relying on “Experts”   Leave a comment

I have emerged from the writer’s cave once more. I hope you’ve enjoyed the various reblogged articles. Thank you for your patience and I should probably even be back on Twitter when this runs. Lela

 

For April Fools Day of 1957, the British Broadcasting Corporation broadcasted a short segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. The “documentary” explained that the bumper crop was due to “an unusually mild winter and to the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.” The television audience “watched video footage of a Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets. The segment concluded with an enthusiastic “for those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti.”

Related imageThe BBC reports that “hundreds of people phoned the network wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree.”

Okay, did you know that the word “gullible” is not in the dictionary?

Apparently, 7% of the American public believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Yeah, some of us are really that ignorant.

But, wait ….

I know a little bit about a lot of things. Writers research and we’re curious. But I really wouldn’t know how to build a car or manufacture a toaster. So while ignorance can be alarming, is it really so surprising? Few Americans live on farms anymore and most urbanites have never gardened. Many of us use appliances and gadgets with no idea how they are constructed and work. Without the skills, knowledge, and efforts of others, most of us would quickly perish. None of us would enjoy our current standard of living.

Conversely, one of the advantages of living in a modern society is that we don’t need to know how to construct the things we take for granted. We don’t even need to understand how they work. This frees us up to be “experts” in other fields while enjoying the benefits of what others know.

In 2008, British artist Thomas Thwaites set out to make a toaster from scratch. After nine months of mining, smelting, and assembling raw materials, he succeeded in making a rudimentary but extremely expensive and single-use toaster. When he used it for the first time, it melted.

Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist) summarized the lesson of Thwaites’s toaster:  

To Thwaites this illustrated his helplessness as a consumer so divorced from self-sufficiency. It also illustrates the magic of specialization and exchange: thousands of people, none of them motivated by the desire to do Thwaites a favor, have come together to make it possible for him to acquire a toaster for a trivial sum of money.

Our state of boundless ignorance leads directly to “the case for individual freedom,” Hayek argues in The Constitution of Liberty. Achieving “our ends” depends upon us recognizing that we are ignorant of much of what we need to flourish. Hayek writes:

It is because every individual knows so little and, in particular, because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.

We live comfortably in a state of ignorance because, in a modern economy, others are free to cooperate and provide for our needs without necessarily even knowing we exist.

The possibility of men living together in peace and to their mutual advantage, without having to agree on common concrete aims and bound only by abstract rules of conduct, was perhaps the greatest discovery mankind ever made. (Hayek in Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 2)

 

Of course, nowadays, our ignorance is used as an argument insisting we need to be directed by the self-proclaimed wisest among us. Listen to the “experts” because they aren’t ignorant. Really? I’m willing to bet that any expert you look at is personally ignorant in some field in which you are expert. Expertise is usually in a narrow field and outside of that field, the “expert” is just an ordinary ignorant person. So why do we act as if their expertise in some narrow field makes them expert in all fields? Einstein was a great mathematician, but he once lost his ticket on a train and had no idea where he was going.

A part of the push toward technocracy has to do with our desire to control others through government force.

“Humiliating to human pride as it may be, freedom means the renun­ciation of direct control of in­dividual efforts,” Hayek explained. When we renounce controls, “a free society can make use of so much more knowledge than the mind of the wisest ruler could comprehend.”

I may be ignorant in many areas, but when I encounter a field where my ignorance will be a problem, I take it upon myself to become educated on the subject. That’s one reason that I feel free to offer my opinion on so many topics. I may not be “an expert” in that I lack a license and haven’t spent four years studying it in an accredited college, but I know enough on some subjects to know what works and what doesn’t. I can see, for example, that old-fashioned supply-and-demand economics makes more sense in reality than Keynesian voodoo. By and large, I am comfortable with making my own decisions, secure in the knowledge that I can educate myself, weigh the value of the advice derived from “experts” and take the hits if my analysis fails.

There is evidence that a declining percentage of Americans believes that uncoerced cooperation is the best way to satisfy our needs. “According to an April 2016 Harvard University pollsupport for capitalism is at a historic low.” The Harvard poll echoes a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, in which 46% of 18- to 29-year-olds had a positive view of capitalism, and 47% held a negative one. Many of these young people would prefer if the government controlled the economy at the level of individual interactions because they believe people other than themselves are just too ignorant to make their own decisions.

Being ignorant that spaghetti is produced by processing wheat is not inherently a problem, but ignorance of how markets work can become one. The cornucopia of food that predictably appears on supermarket shelves today is the product of a market process in which farmers, manufacturers, trucking companies and supermarkets spontaneously cooperate on our behalf. It’s been feeding us very well for many years. Government would only complicate the functional system. If Americans are ignorant of these invisible market processes, they may support socialism and policies that interfere with the freedom of others to cooperate and create. Just look at how the thriving Venezuela of yesterday became the impoverished, chaotic, socialist Venezuela of today.

Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should all want for bread. (Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, reprinted in Basic Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 1944)

Not knowing how spaghetti or chocolate milk gets made won’t cause starvation, but socialistic inference in the market is causing it in some countries today and could cause it in the US if we don’t curtail our human arrogance and desire to control what others do.

The Folly of the Horizon Air Pilot Shortage   Leave a comment

Supposedly robots are going to take over our jobs pretty soon, but there are six million job openings in the US, and large companies in a range of industries claim they are running short of humans to perform labor, so maybe the truth is that robots aren’t quite ready to take all of our jobs. American companies don’t have a shortage of people. Their problem rests with wages, benefits, and training, and that’s a problem they could fix, but haven’t.

Horizon Air is a prime example. A regional airline and subsidiary of Alaska Air Group, Horizon services the Pacific Northwest including Alaska. The Seattle Times reports it’s “cutting its flight schedule this summer because of a severe shortage of pilots for its Q400 turboprop planes. The shortage became a crisis this summer when Horizon was forced to cancel more than 318 flights because it didn’t have enough pilots to fly all its planes. That represents 6.2% of the flights Horizon runs between Seattle and places like Boise, Spokane, and Portland.

Let that sink in a moment. Horizon’s bread and butter is flights between Seattle and smaller airports like Boise and Spokane and Nome, Alaska. Flying these routes isn’t a side business for Horizon. That’s it’s only business. Canceling flights damages their brand and their company’s long-term prospects — it alienates and annoys customers who have already purchased tickets. It also hits short-term profits. If you’re in the business of moving people from Point A to Point B, the more you can move the better. You’ve already committed to pay the overhead of planes, insurance, gate slots at airports, maintenance, and ground crews. You should want passenger volume to be as high as it can be. This is the equivalent of Starbucks deciding not to open several hundred existing stores because it doesn’t have enough managers.

Recognize that Horizon Air isn’t some fly-by-night operation unable to cope with the mysterious ways of the marketplace. It’s a unit of Alaska Air Group, a publicly held company that has a market capitalization of $11 billion and chalked up $1.7 billion in revenue and $99 million in net income in its most recent quarter. That’s a big balance sheet, representing vast resources, stock, borrowing capacity, and access to all kinds of services. While not considered one of the majors yet, Alaska Airlines is an up-and-comer who is pushing the major airlines to either do better or get out of the way. So, what’s going on?

alaska airlines horizon air

There’s a metaphor in a big airline intentionally grounding flights because it can’t find pilots. Horizon (and other companies in this situation) are paying the price for a decade or more of corporate sickness surrounding wages. Here’s an economics lesson.

Labor is a commodity … just like gasoline or sugar. It’s subject to the laws of supply and demand.

When labor is in abundant supply and lots of people with the needed skills are looking for jobs, but openings are few, companies don’t have to pay as much to fill positions.  That’s where we were from 2008 to 2012 … a lot of hungry people, not that many openings, so the companies could set whatever wage they wanted and workers would take it because they needed to make some money rather than make no money.

Conversely, when labor is in short supply and few people with the needed skills are seeking work, but there’s lots of openings, companies have to pay a lot more to fill positions. That’s the reality of airlines in the last few years. The number of people flying has increased, but a lot of Baby Boomer pilots have retired, so now the pilots who are still working are in demand and they know it, and expect to be paid more.

So why aren’t businesses adapting? Maybe a lot of business managers never took Economics. They’ve become accustomed to thinking they can have all the labor they want, with all the skills they need, without having to pay much for it. They no longer want to offer good benefits or long-term job security or they refuse to fund the training needed for pilots to qualify to fly new aircraft.

We’ve been hearing complaints about a pilot shortage for a few years now. The problem seems particularly acute at regional airlines, which often pay exceedingly low wages for jobs that require training and education that can cost up to $100,000. To weather its current problems, Horizon will pay some pilots overtime to fly extra hours. Of course, there are FAA rules against flying too many hours in a given day, so that’s a temporary fix at best.

I happen to know several Alaska Airlines pilots (I have a friend who caters to them), who have privately told me what the problem is and it doesn’t just affect Alaska/Horizon. The airlines have become tightwads who don’t understand supply and demand. If Alaska Air Group wants to fix the problem, they need to:

  • offer higher wages to people who already have jobs so they will leave their jobs to work for the other airline
  • offer existing employees better long-term incentives — profit-sharing, stock options, pensions and other benefits that will encourage them to stay
  • Recruit new employees by offering to train them or pay back the loans they incur while getting the training, or offer to split flight school tuition in exchange for a long-term commitment to the airline

Coping with a shortage of skilled workers by shuttering a portion of your operations doesn’t seem like much of a solution. Of course, this affects me because Alaska Air Group provides the majority of air travel in and out of Alaska. So work it out, guys. Don’t allow your great customer service to deteriorate because you’re stuck in a business model from nearly a decade ago.

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