Thursday, December 28, 2006

Soviet Light Bulb Story

Economists generally oppose price controls because they distort markets, and cause either shortages (e.g. rent control) when there is a price ceiling, or surpluses (e.g. minimum wage) when there is a price floor. Shortages (excess demand) and surpluses (excess supply) represent an inefficient use of scarce resources, and economists support market prices because they eliminate shortages and surpluses, and therefore lead to efficiency.

From the Soviet Union, there are many examples of distortions and inefficiencies from its long history of price controls, but here is a real classic.

Light bulbs, like most other basic goods and staples in the Soviet Union, were often in short supply because the official price was below the market price, resulting in excess demand and prolonged shortages. As a result of the chronic light bulb shortage, an informal, black market developed in the USSR for used, burned-out light bulbs. That is, Soviet citizens would actually pay a positive price for a light bulb that didn’t work.

How would it be possible for a burned-out light bulb to have a positive price, when it would normally just be thrown out? Of what use could anybody have for a used light bulb? Think about it first, and read the
answer here.


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