Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Economics of Discrimination

The late Gary Becker was one of the first economists to examine the economic motivations and consequences of discrimination. He published a book on the topic in 1957. Since then, many students and colleagues of Becker at the University of Chicago and elsewhere have continued to study the topic. There are many pieces to the discrimination puzzle to unpack, but given its current media focus, I thought it was worthwhile to archive some thoughts.
An important distinction in economics is that price discrimination is not always the same as outright bigot behavior. As John List and Uri Gneezy recognize in their 2013 book "The Why Axis," men pay about 20% more for identical car insurance than women. This is based on statistical data that women have fewer driving accidents. You can always call your insurance company and negotiate lower premium payments based on your safe driving history, but otherwise, the insurer will trust the data that says a client is more or less risky and charge him/her accordingly. Another instance of price discrimination is that senior citizens often enjoy lower priced tickets at the movie theater. This may be because they are underrepresented among moviegoers, so the theater does not lose much money, or because the theater makes most of its profits off of concession sales, or because it provides good public relations value to the theater. In both of these instances, people either would not complain about the price discrimination or they would not be successful in changing company practices.
The more opportunistic form of discrimination is harder to spot in markets. One example that List and Gneezy found in their research is quite ugly. They observed disabled men getting estimates for car repair work and compared their price quotes to those of able-bodied men getting the same work done on their cars. The study found, "On average, the disabled men received price quotes that were 30 percent higher than the able-bodied men." The authors go on to note that car mechanics likely tried to get more money out of the disabled because they realized how difficult it is for the handicapped to transport themselves. If vendors feel they have a "captive customer," (like a patron at a amusement park that wants a bottle of water) they will probably charge a higher than average price for goods and services.
But even opportunistic discrimination differs form outright bigotry. Its effects are no less important in market economies. Despite the intention of markets to be free and open to everyone regardless of age, race, gender, nationality, etc. vendors can consciously and unconsciously bias their habits along these dimensions. It can come in the form of poorer service to individuals outside of a merchant's approved social groups or lower job acceptance rates for people outside a hiring company's desired groups. The costs due to bigotry are hard to measure, but the benefits of diversity are documented in various studies. Ottaviano and Peri found that U.S. born citizens benefited economically by living in a city where the share of foreign born citizens was increasing. And Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, has found that bringing together people of diverse backgrounds in an organization increases the rate of problem solving due to the new perspectives it lends. This applies as much to merging workers of different races as it does to merging those who practice different areas of study. Often scientific discoveries occur when scientists from different fields cross into new areas and open up new perspectives on unsolved problems. Hence, the costs of discriminating in the workplace and marketplace can be large.
These findings do not include the possibility that local governments could legalize merchant discrimination against customers and potential employees. But given the research findings noted above, such developments would prove doubly harmful. Humans already have a natural predilection to identify and favor other similar humans. Making economic discrimination legal in the marketplace would only amplify its harmful effects. Much like the public denouncing trade with Mexico, where does discrimination end? Should West Virginians refuse to trade with Kentuckians? Should Kanawha County residents refuse to trade with Cabell County residents? Or should everyone refuse to trade with a person outside his/her household? Obviously by reducing the argument for trade discrimination to an absurd level the flawed logic becomes more obvious. The same type of illogical arguments populate bigotry discrimination in the broader economy. Ultimately, the current research shows that a more diverse society is a more prosperous society.