Random thoughts of an economist

Repairmen needed to give electrical pencil sharpeners a second life

Posted in Economics, Environment, Hong Kong, Parenting by kafuwong on July 16, 2015

A year ago, the ten-year-old electric pencil sharpener in our office began to fail. It was one of those better electric pencil sharpeners and could stopped automatically on sharpened pencils. Our office had no choice but to dispose the old one and to buy a new one of the same model. I took the old one home to let my son play with it.

The new one malfunctioned within days. As it was under warranty, the office then got a replacement. The newly replaced one worked but lacked the function of automatically stopping on sharpened pencils. My colleagues called the company for a repair. The salesperson said the new one did not have this function of automatic stopping and refused to send anyone to repair it. (Bad salesmanship, and lies as well!) After a year, it failed. Now, as it was no longer under warranty, the office decided to discard it. Again, I took it home to let my son play with it.

Were we successful in resurrecting the two pencil sharpeners? To my colleague’s surprise, we did. (I said “we” because I made substantial contribution.) On the ten-year-old pencil sharpener, we discovered that it just needed some oil — it took us a long time to discover. After applying some oil, it worked like new.

One the one-year-old, the major problem was a mis-alignment of a switch. Not only that we brought it back to life successfully, we also fixed the function of automatically stopping on sharpened pencils.

No, I am not trying to brag about how good we are in repairing the machine.

Here is my observation: Many years ago (when I was younger), a lot of broken electrical appliances were repaired and used for a long period of time. Now, most broken electrical appliances are thrown away. The natural question is WHY!

I think the answer lies in the cost of purchasing new electrical appliances and the labor cost of repairment. The labor cost has gone up substantially in Hong Kong. The cost of buying new electrical appliances is low. When the cost of repairment is higher than the cost of buying new electrical appliances, the decision is not to repair. As more people make similar decisions of not to repair their broken electrical appliances, more broken electrical appliances will end up at landfills.

How to reduce the amount of broken electrical appliances in landfills? We need more rag-and-bone men and repairmen.

Anyone interested in joining me to collect and repair broken electrical pencil sharpeners?


Why were there no toilet papers in the public washrooms in the old days?

Posted in China, Economics, Parenting by kafuwong on May 8, 2015

Most readers are astonished: Most of the “wind chimes” hanging on trees for a “Wind Chimes Festival” in China were stolen by tourists/visitors!

Tourists should not have stolen the wind chimes, should they? It is not ethical to take the wind chimes that is not yours.

On the other hand, shouldn’t the officials organizing the festival have predicted the stealing to happen? Not many years ago, Hong Kong provided no toilet papers in the public washrooms. Simply because the whole roll of toilet papers would be taken away as soon as it was installed. Anticipating this outcome, the government officials decided not to supply toilet papers in public washrooms (or at least not to replenish).

Why would Hong Kong people not remove the whole roll of toilet paper from public washrooms nowadays? Hong Kong people has become more ethical? Was there a campaign to teach Hong Kong people to be more ethical, and not to remove the whole roll of toilet paper from public toilet?

Yes, it is possible that Hong Kong people have been educated to become more ethical. On that, I am not so sure. I think the more important reason is that Hong Kong people has become richer. A roll of toilet paper is nothing when compared to their income/wealth. That is, richer people tend not to steal things like the toilet paper. (They may steal things that are of bigger value relative to their income/wealth.)

Thus, if the “wind chimes” is cheap relative to the tourist income/wealth, we would expect the wind chimes to stay on trees for a while. If the “wind chimes” is expensive (say gold wind chimes) relative to the tourist income/wealth, we would expect the wind chimes on trees to be gone in no time.

Be careful with your “title”!

Posted in China, Information, Life, Parenting, teaching by kafuwong on May 9, 2014

Saw a link in the Facebook about a page of supposedly prestigious “XYZ” university. But the title was shown as “XXX” university. If you had once been a student of the “XYZ” university, you should feel annoyed. One of my Facebook friends felt annoyed.

I joked: “Will they give a scholarship or Starbucks coupon to the first person who will write to point out the typo in “XXX University”? They should!”

After writing the joke, I couldn’t help visiting the link. I found no obvious errors on the page. In fact, I search for “XXX”, I could not find any trace of “XXX” in that page. Then, why would Facebook showed the page title as “XXX”? It turned out that the error was more fundamental than I thought. I found that Facebook used the “title” of the html page (hidden unless we pay special attention to it) as the title of the link. That is, when I viewed page source, I saw:

“XXX University” inside the html code of “title”.

If I were the administrator of the XYZ university, I would feel very embarrassed to see this error. So, I decided to send the administrator an email.

This is a laughable “hidden” error in your page of view-source: http://abcde.org/#news-students. The error shows on your facebook link. It should be “XYZ” instead of “XXX” in the “title”. Please check!

Several hours later, I got a reply from the administrator:


In English, “Thank you $#%. We will make correction immediately.

Although I am proficient in Chinese, that “$#% (之处)” is something I cannot make sense of. It is an obvious typo.

They made a mistake. I alerted them of the mistake. They returned with another mistake in their “thank you” email. So, it looks like “to them, making mistake is a rule rather than exception”.

Just for fun, I have just sent the administrator another email asking what he meant by “$#% (之处)”. What would you feel and say upon receiving my email — if you were the administrator?

Are you selling body art, pornography or cars?

Posted in China, Leisure, Parenting by kafuwong on March 29, 2014

A friend forwarded to me pictures taken in a supposedly car show. Most of the people in there pictures were not looking at cars. Instead, their eyes were on the so called body art on naked women. Apparently, some car shows in China has started to include body art on naked women as an additional attraction.

I have no objection on body art, on naked women and men. I have no objection on car shows. But, mixing them annoys me.

I think such body art on naked women is better shown in night clubs than in car shows. The theme of the car show is supposedly cars. If I go to a car show, I want to see cars. If I want to see art, I go to a museum or a gallery. If I want to see a show of naked women, I will go to some night club. If paint on naked women is really an art piece, show them in a museum and admit only adults.

Showing naked women in a car show (packaged as body art) is way OUT OF LINE.

It is education! STUPID!

Posted in China, Economic growth, Economics, Parenting, teaching by kafuwong on March 24, 2014

Nobody said it better about the Taiwanese protest about a trade pact with mainland China than one of my friends who teaches Economics in Taiwan.

Rule no. 1 of free trade: comparative advantage.

All students who have taken Economics should know this principle. The major source of gains from trade is from the specialization in the tasks that we are relatively good at – at least in the short run.

Under free trade, refusing to specialize in tasks that we have comparative in will result in lower income and living conditions. In a sense, the competition that comes with free trade will crush us.

So, how can I survive the wave of free trade? The key is in understanding our own comparative advantage.

What determines our comparative advantage in performing different tasks? At the individual level, comparative advantage is determined by our inborn talent and temper (genes?), education, training and experience. Inborn talent and temper cannot be changed. However, education, training and experience can be adjusted to change our comparative advantage. For instance, an exchange experience at a German university might improve our comparative advantage in the trading business between Hong Kong and Germany. A bachelor degree in Economics will give us a comparative advantage in working in banks.

That is, we still can choose things we like to do but we have to invest enough so that we will have comparative advantage in the things we like to do!

In the longer run, competition will force us to invest in tasks that we want to have comparative in. You invest. I invest. Then, the productivity will eventually improve. We have a better world with higher productivity and more goods to consume.
What if you are the laid-back type who has no intention to invest and improve, or change career to specialize in things you have comparative advantage in? Then, you are doom to suffer once the competition (due to free trade) arrives.

In short, if you can ride on the wave of free trade, you win. If not, you will lose.

One way or the other, Taiwan has to open itself to the rest of the world. Keeping Taiwan close is not an option. Mainland China is the best example. Much of its growth has been due to the openness to the rest of world since 1978. Ride the wave earlier, you gain more. Ride the wave later, you lose (or gain less).

Students, go back to your classrooms. Study very very hard! Make sure you will have comparative advantage in the things you like to do.

P.S.: I am more sympathetic with those older people who would have difficulty in making their adjustment. To them, government should give a helping hand.

How much do you value my friendship?

Posted in Economics, Parenting, teaching by kafuwong on March 20, 2014

A Facebook friends put some used stuff for auction (some e-auction platform). To advertise, he announced it via his Facebook status. And, he added “Will give discount for friends!”

Immediately, I wanted to call him up and see how much discount I could get from him. The discount I got, when compared with the discount he gave to other friends, would tell me how much he valued my friendship.

It would be interesting to do a similar thought experiment: Suppose you have an item for sale. And, you are willing to give discount to friends. Suppose all your Facebook friends send you a private message and ask for a discount. What discount will you give to each of them?

Who stole my Chinese New Year?

Posted in Economics, Hong Kong, Life, Parenting, teaching by kafuwong on January 29, 2014

I still remember the great time people had during Chinese New Year in Hong Kong. At the end of the year, we would be busy preparing for the New Year. We always had a big house cleaning several days before the New Year. We always bought some new clothes to be worn during the New Year. We stocked up food (vegetables, live chickens, etc.) for the New Year. We had feasts during the first couple of days of the New Year. We visited relatives whom we have not seen for the whole year during the New Year. Yes, lucky money in red envelopes was something kids (myself included, back then) looked forward to eagerly, too.

Time has changed. The New Year day is no longer that different from an ordinary day – if not for the additional streak of public holidays. I could not help pondering the reasons behind such change.

Why are the days before New Year no longer a special clothes-shopping season. When I was kids, most families in Hong Kong were poor. We could hardly afford to buy any new clothes. So, a family may be able to buy one or two sets of new clothes for each family member per year. Since we wanted to celebrate the New Year and were going to meet relatives during the New Year, we wanted to dress the best then. Thus, the best time to buy new clothes was before the New Year. Now, families are richer. Most family can afford to buy clothes year round. Therefore, the days around New Year are no longer special shopping days for a typical family in Hong Kong.

Why don’t we stock up vegetables and live chickens at home anymore? Refrigerators allow us to store food, not just at home, but also in supermarkets. The supermarkets can stock up food and keep them fresh using refrigerators even if supply is short during the New Year. And, improvement of transportation technology allows us to procure supply from other countries who do not celebrate Chinese New Year. The need of stocking up food at home has greatly diminished.

Visiting relatives? Yes, we still do, but not just during the Chinese New Year. Imagine in the old days when transportation was costly (in terms of both time and money), we could not afford to visit our relatives any time we wanted to. Transportation has become faster and cheaper. We do not need to wait until the New Year to see them. In addition, the improvement of telecommunication allows us to communicate with our relatives any time. New Year is no longer a special time for such communication.

Yes, when we meet relatives during the first couple of days of the New Year, we may have feast. In the old days, we would cook at home. But, now, a great percentage of us will do it in restaurants. The chores are now left to the restaurant workers.

Even lucky money in red envelopes may not mean much to kids today. In the old days, when kids were so poor, any lucky money was good money. Kids are rich these days (their parents give them large amount of pocket money weekly). A ten-dollar bill in a red envelope? Are you kidding me?

Yes. We still celebrate Chinese New Year. Yes. I can always use a few days off work and get to see some friends and relatives.

When lamb means rat …

Posted in China, Economics, Information, Parenting, teaching by kafuwong on January 3, 2014

Some kebab stalls in Shanghai were found selling rat, not lamb. Now, donkey meat packs in WalMart are found to contain fox meat.

Such stories are not new to Chinese. The biggest story has been the milk contamination, I believe.

Food safety has become a big concern in mainland China. Mainlanders will come to Hong Kong to buy baby formula. A friend who occasionally has to work in mainland will bring their canned food from Hong Kong. One of my friends who visited mainland a couple weeks ago told me food safety would not be a problem if we were to eat with top government officials.

The food contamination shows that some people were trying to sell fox meat for the price of donkey meat. Why would they do that? Because fox meat is much cheaper than donkey meat. If they can mix fox meat into donkey meat and sell at the price of donkey meat, they will earn more profit.

What is wrong with such profit-maximizing “cheating” behavior? To economists, in a competitive market, we usually would not worry about such cheating behavior because they cannot last long. Someone is going to discover the cheats — eventually — and the market will penalize the cheaters. In today’s world with quick information flow, such cheating behavior should not last long. Cheaters will be penalized in no time. No one is going to buy from the company. Honest merchants will be rewarded. WalMart in China quickly recalled donkey meat products from some of its stores in China when tests have found them to be contaminated with fox meat. The reason is simple: they know that consumers will penalize them if they do not do so. The key is that we will need to make such information publicly available. Better, if we allow class lawsuit that will penalize companies that sell contaminated products. That will force these companies to conduct food safety check before food products are put on shelves. Then, the food suppliers will become much more aware of food safety.

Yes. We need to allow quick information flow and higher penalty for misconduct.

While economists will tell us that the market will correct this kind of cheating behavior, most of us feel that it is not happening — at least not quickly enough. In my opinion, it shows a failure in education. Our education system is supposed to teach us honesty. Does it not? Cheating is like a habit and an attitude. Like smoking, cheating can be additive. It is difficult to change once you have acquired it. You teach your kids to cheat, you kids will cheat. You cheat, your kids will learn from you and become cheaters. When substantially number of people cheat, we will feel that we would look stupid if we do not cheat as well. As we cheat ourselves, we begin to tolerate the cheating behavior of others. A vicious cycle!

I have not lost hope for China. Challenges also mean opportunities. Gradually, more small networks of trusted companies will appear. They will benefit from being honest with each other. Honesty is maintained within the group because one will be expelled from the group (and hence the benefit) When one is caught dishonest within the group.

All Americans are nice people and most of them lives in either Wisconsin or Minnesota.

Posted in Information, Life, Parenting, Statistics/Econometrics, teaching by kafuwong on November 26, 2013

During my high school years. I thought all Americans were nice people and most of them lived in either Wisconsin or Minnesota. Because… all Americans I met during my high school years were from either Wisconsin or Minnesota and they were all very nice people.

Now I know this view is biased. My biased view is due to the small sample size I had (the sample of only nice Americans from Wisconsin and Minnesota). Now I understand that my view was wrong because I had looked at demographic data and found that there are a lot more Americans from the other States than from Wisconsin and Minnesota. And because I have met not-so-nice Americans since my high school years.

Now I understand that my view is necessarily biased because no matter how hard I try, I can only obtain an incomplete picture of the world (limited time, limited brain power). There are many people out there who know what I do not know and therefore can teach me good lessons.

Get educated!

Posted in China, Economics, Life, Parenting, teaching by kafuwong on August 16, 2013

Have you ever lied? Do you still lie? Most of us would say: “Yes and yes!”

There are good liars and bad liars. Good liars are able to lie without being caught.

What makes good liars? At the very least, liars have to make a judgment on whether a lie will be easily discovered. If you know your chance of being caught is high, will you lie? If you know the penalty of lying is high, will you lie? Most of us will say: “No and no!”

Good liars know when to lie and what to lie. This is non-trivial. The ability to do so is often positively related to knowledge/education. That is one of the reasons why liars caught are less educated. In fact our ability of catching liars increases with our education too.

An example is the attempt of faking a African lion by Tibetan mastiff (a large, hairy breed of dog) by a zoo in mainland China. An educated kid can easily distinguish a dog’s barking from a lion’s roaring. (http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/08/15/212327280/zoo-in-china-swaps-lion-for-dog-hopes-no-one-notices) Laughable, indeed. That is what we would expect when a low-educated liar meets a high-educated observer.

The upshot is that education is important for all of us — liars or not!