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The Political Temptation Posed by “Price Gouging”

The arc of explanations about the rise in inflation and the end of the disinflationary era was foreordained:

  • There’s no inflation.
  • What you’re calling inflation is just a series of one-offs.
  • This is just a ‘transitory’ phenomenon, a one-off at the broad economy level, and will soon fade.
  • “It’s actually okay.” (NY Times: Inflation Could Stay High Next Year, and That’s OK)
  • It’s greedy manufacturers and vendors that are price-gouging. Where is my pitchfork?

In the current arc, we are already easing past level 3, as “transitory” is starting to be stretched a bit to “well, not past 2022” (Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke opined yesterday at an online event that inflation would “moderate” in 2022). And we’ve seen signs of #4, and even some #5. The blame game is heating up, and with an Administration under pressure for its handling of…well, everything…I suspect we will move sooner rather than later into the full-blown level 5, complete with price controls in some industries and possibly economy-wide. Yes, there’s a very clear lesson from history that price controls don’t work to restrain inflation, but (a) today’s politicians don’t seem to really know much history, and (b) price controls need not be about restraining inflation – for some, it’s worth the political points.

Since it’s a term we will hear more of, I thought I’d try and put a little more structure around the accusation of “price gouging.” It is an easy term to throw around, but what does it mean?

Developed economies are still mostly free markets, in that buyers and sellers are given wide latitude to negotiate on price and quantity. In certain markets, where there are limitations on competition (electric utilities being a classic example) or vast differences in negotiating power or information (health insurance?) there are limits on the terms of trade but for the most part, if you want to buy an apple from the apple vendor you can strike whatever deal suits you both. In a free market, either the buyer or the seller can choose not to transact at the proffered price; ergo, economists assume that if a transaction occurs then both buyer and seller made themselves better off or at least not worse off. Unlike many economist assumptions, this one doesn’t seem like a bad one, at least in most cases.

If the price is “too high” for the buyer, then the buyer can complain but the buyer can always choose to not transact. So there’s only two senses in which “price gouging” might mean something:

  1. The price is egregiously high because the seller knows you really have no alternative, as the buyer, other than to buy. If there is a mandate to buy insurance or lose your liberty, but no cap on the price of insurance, then the insurance provider can charge any price it wants. This is infrequent. Arguably, in the aftermath of hurricanes it might apply to building materials, but even in that case I would argue #2 below is a more-accurate sense of the word.
  2. The price is, in some sense, “unfair.”

What is “unfair?” We do, as social animals, have some innate sense of fairness. A classic result from “the ultimatum game,” where one person is endowed with money that he/she chooses unilaterally how to split with a second person who can in turn accept the split or reject it (in which case both parties get nothing) is that under experimental conditions splits that are worse than 70:30 tend to be rejected by the responding party – in other words, the respondent would rather get zero than 30%, if it feels “unfair.” It is in that context that “price-gouging” accusations could be related to “anchored” inflation expectations. If a vendor is charging a very high price, but the buyer expects price changes to be large, volatile, and generally not in the buyer’s favor, then an accusation of “price gouging” is less likely than if the buyer expects price changes to be low and random. So, it might be that accusations of price gouging simply means that the buyers have not adjusted to a new inflation/pricing paradigm, and perceive the price increases as unfair even if they are objectively fair.

If that’s the case, then the buyer is going to lose in cases where the higher prices are a result of changes in the supply/demand balance. Higher prices are how limited supply gets rationed among the buyers – it is a feature, not a bug, of the capitalist system. In the case where a surge in demand (caused by, say, massive government transfers to consumers) causes stock-outs and rising prices, then accusations of price gouging are just sour grapes. Rising prices in this case are simply normal inflation happening in an environment that has not adapted to normal inflation again. (Listen to the Inflation Guy Podcast, episode 2, where I point out that “supply chain problems” is exactly what inflation caused by too much money looks like.)

Nevertheless, where the “price gouging” accusation is code for “this feels unfair,” it is a terrific opportunity for a political lever. Politicians will feel that they can make people happy by instituting price controls, and blaming the wealthy industrialist, even though economics and history tell us that this isn’t the right answer. But it is a siren song, and I think that we are very likely to start hearing this more and more.

Once price controls are instituted, what follows is that the stock market craters (since the difference between input costs and consumer prices is some part profit), a black market develops in the restricted goods and services, and many products get impossible to acquire or rationed by a lengthening waitlist rather than by price.

Can you really control prices in the Internet age? It hardly matters. Politicians don’t really care about controlling prices after all; they merely want to appear as if they’re on the side of the voters. Bashing suppliers is one easy way to do that. I don’t think it will be long now. Keep the torches and pitchforks at the ready.

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