Would Cutting the Federal Excise Tax on Gasoline Lower the Price that Consumers Pay?

Photo from bloomberg.com.

The federal government levies an excise tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline. (An excise tax is a tax that a government imposes on a particular product. In addition to the tax on gasoline, the federal government imposes excise taxes on tobacco, alcohol, airline tickets, and a few other products.) In February 2022, inflation was running at the highest level in several decades. The average retail price of gasoline across the country had risen to $3.50 per gallon from $2.60 per gallon a year earlier. The following figure shows fluctuations in the retail price of gasoline since January 2000. 

Policymakers were looking for ways to lessen the effects of inflation on consumers. An article in the Wall Street Journalreported that several Democratic members of the U.S. Senate, including Mark Kelly of Arizona, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, and Raphael Warnock of Georgia proposed that the federal excise tax on gasoline be suspended for the remainder of 2022. The sponsors of the proposal believed that cutting the tax would reduce the price of gasoline that consumers pay at the pump. Other members of the Senate weren’t so sure, with one quoted as saying that cutting the tax was “not going to change anything” and another arguing that oil companies would receive most of the benefit of the tax cut.

Some members of Congress were opposed to suspending the gasoline tax because the revenue raised from the tax is placed in the highway trust fund, which helps to pay for federal contributions to highway building and repair and for mass transit. In that sense, the gasoline tax follows the benefits-received principle, under which people who receive benefits from a government program—in this case, highway maintenance—should help pay for the program. (We discuss the principles for evaluating taxes in Microeconomics, Chapter 17, Section 17.2 and in Economics, Chapter 17, Section 17.2) Other members of Congress were opposed to suspending the tax because they believe that the tax helps to reduce the quantity of gasoline consumed, thereby helping to slow climate change. 

Focusing just on the question of the effect of suspending the tax on the retail price of gasoline, what can we conclude? The question is one of tax incidence, which looks at the actual division of the burden of a tax between buyers and sellers in a market. In other words, tax incidence looks beyond the fact that gasoline stations collect the tax and send the revenue to federal government to the issue of who actually pays the tax. As we note in Chapter 17, Section 17.3:

When the demand for a product is less elastic than supply, consumers pay the majority of the tax on the product. When the demand for a product is more elastic than supply, firms pay the majority of the tax on the product. 

Consumers would receive all of the tax cut—that is, the retail price of gasoline would fall by 18.4 cents—only in the polar case where the demand for gasoline were perfectly price inelastic. Similarly, consumers would receive none of the tax cut and the price of gasoline would remain unchanged—so oil companies would receive all of the tax cut—only in the polar case where the demand for gasoline is perfectly price inelastic. (It’s a worthwhile exercise to show these two cases using demand and supply graphs.)

In the real world, we would expect to be somewhere in between these two cases, with consumers receiving some of the benefit of suspending the tax and producers receiving the remainder of the benefit. The short-run price elasticity of demand for gasoline is quite small; according to one estimate it is only −.06.  The short-run price elasticity of supply of gasoline is likely to be somewhat larger than that in absolute value, which means that we would expect that consumers would receive the majority of the tax cut. (Note that we would expect the long-run price elasticities of demand and supply to both be larger for reasons we discuss in Chapter 6, Section 6.2 and 6.6.) In other words, the retail price of gasoline would fall, holding all other factors constant, but not by the full tax cut of 18.4 cents.

Joseph Doyle of MIT and Krislert Samphantharak of the University of California, San Diego studied the effect of suspension in the state excise tax on gasoline in Indiana and Illinois in 2000. In that year, Indiana suspended collecting its gasoline excise tax for 120 days and Illinois suspended its tax for 184 days. The authors estimate that consumers received about 70 percent of the tax cut in the form of lower gasoline prices. If we apply that estimate to the federal gasoline tax, then suspending the tax would lower the price of gasoline by about 12.9 cents per gallon, holding all other factors that affect the price of gasoline constant. As the above figure shows, the retail price of gasoline frequently fluctuates up and down by more than 12.9 cents, even over fairly brief periods of time. In that sense, the effect on the gasoline market of suspending the federal excise tax on gasoline would be relatively small.  

Sources: Andrew Duehren and Richard Rubin, “Some Lawmakers Want to Halt Gas Tax Amid High Inflation. Others See a Gimmick,” Wall Street Journal, February 16, 2022; Tony Romm and Jeff Stein, “White House, Congressional Democrats Eye Pause of Federal Gas Tax as Prices Remain High, Election Looms,” Washington Post, February 15, 2022; Joseph J. Doyle, Jr., Krislert Samphantharak, “$2.00 Gas! Studying the Effects of a Gas Tax Moratorium,” Journal of Public Economics, Vol. 92, No.s 3-4, April 2008, pp. 869-884; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

New 10/17/21 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss economic impact of infrastructure spending & the supply-chain challenges.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the economic impact of the recent infrastructure bill and what role fiscal policy plays in determining shovel-ready projects. Also, they explore the vast impact of the economy-wide supply-chain issues and the challenges companies face. Until the pandemic, we had a very efficient supply chain but now we’re seeing companies employ the “just-in-case” inventory method vs. “just-in-time”!

Some links referenced in the podcast:

Here’s Alan Cole’s blog: https://fullstackeconomics.com/how-i-reluctantly-became-an-inflation-crank/

Neil Irwin wrote a column referencing Cole here:  https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/10/upshot/shadow-inflation-analysis.html

Here’s a Times article on the inefficiency of subway construction in NYC:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/nyregion/new-york-subway-construction-costs.html

A recent article on the state of CA’s bullet train:  https://www.kcra.com/article/california-bullet-trains-latest-woe-high-speed/37954851

A WSJ column on goods v. services: https://www.wsj.com/articles/at-times-like-these-inflation-isnt-all-bad-11634290202

More Than You Probably Want to Know about the Debate Over Whether Giving Presents Causes a Deadweight Loss

If your sister gives you a sweater that you don’t like, the subjective value you place on the sweater will probably be less than the price your sister paid for it. As we saw in Chapter 4, Sections 4.1 and 4.2, consumer surplus is the difference between the highest price a consumer is willing to pay for a good (which equals the consumer’s marginal benefit from the good) and the actual price the consumer pays. We expect that you will only buy things that have a marginal benefit to you greater than (or, at worst, equal to) the price you paid. Therefore, everything you buy provides you with positive (or, again at worst, zero) consumer surplus. But if the price is greater than the marginal benefit—as is the case with the sweater your sister gave you—consumer surplus is negative and there is a deadweight loss.

In the early 1990s, Joel Waldfogel, currently at the University of Minnesota, published an article in the American Economic Review in which he reported surveying his undergraduate students, asking them to: (1) list every gift they had received for Christmas, (2) estimate the retail price of each gift, and (3) state how much they would have been willing to pay for each gift. Waldfogel’s students estimated that their families and friends had paid $438 on average on the students’ gifts. The students themselves, however, would have been willing to pay only $313 for the goods they received as gifts—so, on average, each student’s gifts caused a deadweight loss of $313 – $438 = –$125. If the deadweight losses experienced by Waldfogel’s students were extrapolated to the whole population, the total deadweight loss of Christmas gift giving could be as much as $23 billion (adjusting the value in Waldfogel’s article to 2020 prices).

If the gifts had been cash, the people receiving the gifts would not have been constrained by the gift givers’ choices, and there would have been no deadweight loss. If your sister had given you cash instead of that sweater you didn’t like, you could have bought whatever you wanted and received positive consumer surplus.

Waldfogel’s article attracted much more attention than is received by the typical academic journal article, being covered in newspaper articles and on television. It also set off a lively debate among economists over whether his approach was valid. Waldfogel later published a short book, Scroogenomics, in which he argued that, in fact, his journal article had underestimated the deadweight loss of gift giving because it compared the value of the gift to the person receiving it to the value of receiving cash instead. He noted that a more accurate comparison would be not to cash but to the value of the good the person receiving the gift would have bought with the cash. Because that purchase would provide positive consumer surplus to the buyer, the buyer’s loss from receiving a gift rather than cash is significantly greater than he had originally calculated.

Waldfogel again surveyed his undergraduate students asking them to make this revised comparison and found (p. 35): “Dollars on gifts for you produce 18 percent less satisfaction, per dollar, than dollars you spend on yourself.” Waldfogel also noted that a gift giver has to spend time shopping for a gift, which—unless the giver enjoys spending time shopping—should be added to the cost of gift giving.

As a number of critics of Waldfogel’s analysis have noted, if giving gifts rather than cash makes the recipient worse off and the giver no better off (or worse off if we take into account the cost of the time spent shopping) why has the tradition of giving gifts on holidays and birthdays persisted? Waldfogel argues that for a large fraction of the U.S. population, giving gifts at Christmas is a strong social custom that people are reluctant to break. He believes there is also a social custom against close friends and relatives—parents, siblings, girlfriends, boyfriends, and spouses—giving cash. (Although he believes that it’s socially acceptable for relatives—such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles—who see the gift recipient infrequently to give cash or gift cards).

Some economists have questioned Waldfogel’s results because he surveyed only college students, who are not a representative sample of the population because they are on average younger and come from higher-income families. Because Waldfogel’s students were all enrolled in an economics course, their views may have been affected by what they learned in class. Sarah Solnick, of the University of Vermont, and David Hemenway, of the Harvard University School of Public Health, argue that because most economics students know the economic result that receiving cash as a gift is likely to be preferable to receiving a good, they may have felt social pressure to value their gifts at less than the price paid for them.

To see whether Waldfogel’s including only college students in his survey mattered for his results, Solnick and Hemenway surveyed graduate students and staff at the Harvard School of Public Health as well as people randomly approached at train stations and airports in Boston and Philadelphia. On average the people Solnick and Hemenway surveyed gave their Christmas gifts a value 114 percent higher than the price they estimated the gift giver had paid. In other words, contrary to Waldfogel’s result, gift giving generated a large positive consumer surplus or a welfare gain rather than a welfare loss. The authors speculate that the positive consumer surplus in gift giving may result because the recipient “respects the tastes of the giver, or the item is something the recipient never remembers to get.” Or, perhaps, “The individual wants the item but would feel bad purchasing it for herself. She is grateful to receive it as a gift.”

Solnick and Hemenway’s analysis has also been criticized. Bradley Ruffle and Orit Tykocinski of Ben Gurion University in Israel point out that the order in which questions are asked in a survey can influence the responses. Both Waldfogel and Solnick and Hemenway asked people being surveyed to first estimate what the giver had paid for the gift before asking the value the recipient assigned to the gift. Ruffle and Tykocinski also noted that Solnick and Hemenway changed one question being asked from “the amount of cash such that you are indifferent” between receiving the gift and receiving cash (which is how Waldfogel phrased the question) to the “amount of money that would make you equally happy.” Ruffle and Tykocinski believe this change in wording may also help account for why Solnick and Hemenway’s results differed from Waldfogel’s.

Ruffle and Tykocinski carried out a survey using undergraduate psychology and economics students, varying the wording and the order of the questions. Their results indicated that the wording of the questions mattered, although the order the questions had only a slight effect, and that the psychology students and the economics students did not have significant differences in how much they valued gifts, although psychology students tended to estimate that gift givers had paid a higher price for the gifts. The authors concluded: “Is gift-giving a source of deadweight loss? Our results indicate that it depends critically on how you ask the question and, to a lesser degree, on whom you ask.”

Solnick and Hemenway responded that Ruffle and Tykocinski’s analysis was flawed because, like Waldfogel, they surveyed only undergraduate students: “Ours remains the only study to use adults, living independently, as subjects.” They note that “Ruffle and Tykocinski’s subjects performed poorly in estimating costs,” which may indicate that they lack the experience in buying a large range of goods and so have trouble comparing the value they place on a gift to the cost the giver paid.

John List, of the University of Chicago, and Jason Shogren, of the University of Wyoming, raised the issue of whether the hypothetical nature of the values the gift recipients placed on their gifts mattered. That is, whatever subjective value the recipient gave to a gift, he or she would not actually have the opportunity to sell the gift at a price equal to that value. To test the possibility the recipient’s valuation of a gift would change if the recipient had the opportunity to sell the gift, List and Shogren asked a group of undergraduates to estimate the costs of the gifts they had received for Christmas and to indicate the value they placed on the gifts (just as Waldfogel and the other economists discussed earlier had done). But List and Shogren then added another step by carrying out a so-called random nth price auction of the gifts: “For example, suppose G = 500 gifts overall and #6 was chosen as the random nth price, then only the five lowest-valuation gifts overall would be purchased at the sixth lowest offer.” This somewhat complicated auction design was intended to make it more likely that the students being surveyed would reveal the true value they placed on the gifts.

The results were similar to those found by Solnick and Hemenway in that the recipients put a higher value on the gifts than their estimates of the price the givers paid—so there was positive consumer surplus from gift giving. Their estimate of the welfare gain was significantly smaller than Solnick and Hemenway’s estimate—21 percent to 35 percent versus 114 percent.

Solnick and Hemenway were not entirely convinced by List and Shogren’s findings. They note that because the auction design made it unlikely that the students would actually have to sell their most expensive gifts, the students may have placed a subjective value on these gifts that was too low. In addition, they note that List and Shogren, like Waldfogel, included only college students in their survey.

Joel Waldfogel also replied to List and Shogren, making several of the points he was later to elaborate on in his Scroogenomics book, as discussed above: Basic economic analysis assumes that consumers choose the goods and services they buy to maximize their utility (see Chapter 10 in our textbook), therefore: “If givers, through their choice of gifts, can achieve higher recipient utility than can the recipients themselves, then a fundamental economic assumption is called into question.” List and Shogren compare the value students place on their gifts to the value of receiving cash rather than to the consumer surplus the students would receive from the goods and services they could buy with the cash. Finally, Waldfogel notes that List and Shogren’s results may be affected by what behavioral economists call the endowment effect: The tendency of people to be unwilling to sell a good they already own even if they are offered a price that is greater than the price they would be willing to pay to buy the good if they didn’t already own it. (See the discussion in Chapter 10, Section 10.4 of our textbook.) Because people will require a higher price to sell a good they already own than the price they would pay to buy it, “deadweight loss estimates based on selling prices are much smaller than deadweight loss estimates based on buying prices.”

Even though economists have carried on the debate over the deadweight loss of gift giving in technical terms involving how consumer surplus is best measured, how surveys should be designed, and how best to solicit accurate answers from survey takers, journalists have been intrigued enough by the debate to write it about for general audiences. Josh Barro, who writes for New York magazine and is the son of Harvard economist Robert Barro, wrote a column for the New York Times, “An Economist Goes Christmas Shopping,” in which he observes that the debate among economists over gift giving “makes ordinary people think economists are kind of crazy.” He writes that his father had given him a box of chocolates for Christmas and notes that because he’s on a diet, the gift was “an example of what Mr. Waldfogel warned us about: gift mismatch leading to deadweight loss.” But that he actually ate half the box of chocolates indicated that his father had “identified an item I would not have bought for myself but apparently wanted.” But “now feel I should not have eaten the chocolates, or at least not so many of them in two days.” He concludes that, “The real drag on the economy then isn’t gifts; it’s bad gifts.”

A recent article by Andrew Silver on the Wired website in the United Kingdom notes that a study by academics in India found “an average deadweight loss of about 15 per cent for non-monetary gifts” given during the Hindu festival Diwali. Silver notes that the deadweight loss to gift giving is difficult to avoid because the social custom of gift giving during holidays is very strong in many countries. He concludes, “Sometimes you’ve just got to buckle down and buy something you suspect the recipient won’t value as much as you paid for it.”

Finally, do most economists agree with Waldfogel that there is a significant deadweight loss to gift giving or do they agree with his critics who argue that holiday gift giving actually increases welfare? Although the question has never been asked in a large survey of economists, it was included in a survey of leading economists conducted by the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago as part of its Initiative on Global Markets (IGM). The IGM regularly surveys a panel of economists on important (although in this case, maybe not so important) economic issues.

A few years ago, they asked their panel whether they agreed with this statement: “Giving specific presents as holiday gifts is inefficient, because recipients could satisfy their preferences much better with cash.” Of the 42 economists who responded to the question, 25 disagreed with the statement, 7 agreed, and 10 were uncertain. Of those who commented, several mentioned a point that Waldfogel had intentionally excluded from his analysis: the sentimental or emotional value that some people attach to giving and receiving presents. For instance, Janet Currie of Princeton noted that: “Gifts serve many functions such as signaling regard and demonstrating social ties with the recipient. Cash transfers don’t do this as well.” Or as Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley put it: “Implications of a specific gift (signal it sends, behavioral impact) may give additional utility to either the giver or receiver.” Eric Maskin of Harvard may have stated his reason for disagreeing with the statement most succinctly: “Only an economist could think like this.”

Sources: Joel Waldfogel, “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas,” American Economic Review, Vol. 83, No. 4, December 1993, pp. 328–336; Joel Waldfogel, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009; Sara J. Solnick and David Hemenway, “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas: Comment,” American Economic Review, Vol. 86, No. 5, December 1996, pp. 1299-1305; Bradley J. Ruffle and Orit Tykocinski, ““The Deadweight Loss of Christmas: Comment,” American Economic Review, Vol. 90, No. 1, March 2000, pp. 319-324; Sara J. Solnick and David Hemenway, “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas: Reply,” American Economic Review, Vol. 90, No. 1, March 2000, pp. 325-326; John A. List and Jason F. Shogren, “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas: Comment,” American Economic Review, Vol. 88, No. 5, December 1998, pp. 1350-1355; Sara J. Solnick and David Hemenway, “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas: Reply,” American Economic Review, Vol. 88, No. 5, December 1998, pp. 1356-1357; Joel Waldfogel, “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas: Reply,” American Economic Review, Vol. 88, No. 5, December 1998, pp. 1358-1360; Tim Hyde, “Did Holiday Gift Giving Just Create a Multi-Billion-Dollar Loss for the Economy?” aeaweb.org, December 28, 2015; Josh Barro, “An Economist Goes Christmas Shopping,” New York Times, December 19, 2014; Andrew Silver, “Economists Want You to Have the Most Boring Christmas Possible,” wired.co.uk, December 17, 2020; and Chicago Booth School of Business, The Initiative on Markets, “Bah, Humbug,” December 17, 2013.

11/06/20 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss the economic outlook given where the Presidential election stands.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien look at the economic outlook given the current status of the presidential election. Will a divided government lead to economic prosperity or result in more gridlock? They discuss how much the President actually controls economic policy by setting the tone but that other instruments of our government likely have more effect in creating long-term growth in the Economy.

Just search Hubbard O’Brien Economics on Apple iTunes or any other Podcast provider and subscribe!

Please listen & share!

10/24/20 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss the economics of issues raised during the Final 2020 Presidential Debate.

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien discuss the economic impacts of what was discussed in the final Presidental debate on 10/22/20. They discuss wide-ranging topics that were raised in the debate from reopening the economy & schools, decreasing participation of women in the workforce due to COVID, healthcare, environment, and general tax policy. Listen to gain economic context on these important items. Click HERE for the New York Times article discussed during the Podcast:

Just search Hubbard O’Brien Economics on Apple iTunes and subscribe!

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9/11/20 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien cover current events, Micro, and Macro! They discuss 9/11, the rising stock market, the challenges facing restaurants, as well as shifts in strategy for the Fed!

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien continue their weekly discussion about the effects of the Pandemic on the US Economy. They discuss the disconnect between stock market performance and the overall economy. Also, they look at the decision of restaurants to stay open despite struggling to breakeven due to limitations on indoor seating. The Fed’s pivot on the dual-mandate is also discussed as they announce more of their monetary policy focus will be on unemployment rather than inflation.

Over the next several weeks, we will be gearing up this podcast to become an essential listen during your week. Whether your interest is teaching or policy, you will learn from this discussion.

Just search Hubbard O’Brien Economics on Apple iTunes and subscribe!

Please listen & share!

COVID-19 Update: Should the Government Limit Price Gouging in an Emergency?

Supports:  Hubbard/O’Brien, Chapter 4, Economic Efficiency, Government Price Setting, and Taxes

Apply the Concept: Should the Government Limit Price Gouging in an Emergency?

Here’s the key point:   In the long run, the market will respond to an increase in demand by increasing supply without an increase in price, but in the short run consumers as a group lose from a sharp increase in price.

In early 2020, the coronavirus epidemic spread through many countries, including the United States.   The Centers for Disease Control encouraged people to thoroughly wash their hands and disinfect surfaces to help slow the spread of the virus.   People flooded supermarkets and pharmacies to buy hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and toilet paper.  By March, these products had largely disappeared from store shelves.  People who hoped to buy them on Amazon or eBay found that sellers were charging prices far above normal.

 For instance, sellers on Amazon were charging $99.95 for large bottles of hand sanitizer that normally sell for $9.95. One seller was even charging $459 for a two-ounce bottle!  Such large increases in the prices of essential goods, particularly during an emergency, is called price gouging and is against the law in 34 states. Many people consider price gouging immoral because it makes it difficult for people to afford essential goods during an emergency.  During the coronavirus epidemic, using hand sanitizer was an important safety measure when people lacked easy access to soap and water.  (Note: A list of state price gouging laws as of March 25, 2020 can be found here: https://consumer.findlaw.com/consumer-transactions/price-gouging-laws-by-state.html)

            Laws against price gouging are essentially price ceilings set at the price of a good before the emergency began. Recall that a price ceiling is a legally determined maximum price that sellers may charge.  What economic effect do price gouging laws have?  It’s useful to distinguish the very short run, during which it isn’t possible to produce more of the good, and the medium run when additional production is possible.

The effect of price gouging laws in the very short run

The following graph shows the market for hand sanitizer in the very short run of a few weeks.  Assume that the price of an 8-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer prior to the arrival of the coronavirus epidemic in the United States was $3.99.  The normal level of demand is shown as demand curve, D1. In the very short run, the supply of hand sanitizer is fixed at the quantity, Q1, currently available at retail stores and on online sites such as Amazon. We show this fixed quantity as the vertical supply curve, S.

The increased demand for hand sanitizer resulting from the epidemic shifts the demand curve to the right from D1 to D2. In the absence of price gouging laws, the price will rise from $3.99 to a higher price, which we’ll assume is $9.99.  Laws against price gouging (assuming they are enforced) will impose a price ceiling at $3.99.  The result of the price ceiling is a shortage equal to the difference between the new quantity demanded, Q2, and the fixed supply Q1.  The price ceiling results in consumers receiving consumer surplus equal to the area below demand curve D2 and above the price of $3.99, shown in the figure as the sum of A and B. If there is no price ceiling and the equilibrium price rises to $9.99, area B will become part of producer surplus, reducing consumer surplus to just area A.  Sellers have gained from the higher price at the expense of buyers.

Remember, though, that in a market system prices play an important role in directing resources to their most valuable use.  If the equilibrium price rises to $9.99, at point A on D2, the marginal benefit from the last bottle of sanitizer sold is equal to its price, which is the economically efficient outcome.  With the imposition of a price ceiling, some buyers whose marginal benefits are represented by the values along D2 between point A and point B may buy bottles of sanitizer while some buyers with a higher marginal benefit may be unable to.  Consider a bus driver or police officer who does not have easy access to soap and water.  These people would have been willing to pay $9.99 for sanitizer but may be unable to find any because of the shortage resulting from the price ceiling. Now consider someone who spends most of his or her time at home or who already has a supply of hand sanitizer and would be unwilling to buy a bottle at a price of $9.99 decides to do so at a price of $3.99.

Someone with a low income may have greater difficulty paying $9.99 than would someone with a high income and so, holding everything else constant, we might expect that without a price ceiling more high-income people will be able to buy sanitizer than will low-income people. This consideration leads many people to support laws against price gouging even if they know that the laws reduce economic efficiency.

The effect of price gouging laws in the medium run

            The following figure shows the more familiar situation when the time period is long enough for firms to increase production of hand sanitizer.  (Note that this figure is similar to Figure 4.9 in the Hubbard and O’Brien textbook.) In this case, as demand shifts to the right from D1 to D2 because of the epidemic, in the absence of a price ceiling, the price will increase from $3.99 per bottle to $5.99 per bottle and the equilibrium quantity of bottles will increase from Q1 to Q3.  

The supply curve, S, is upward sloping because we would expect that firms’ marginal cost of producing sanitizer will increase as they expand output. For example, in March 2020, an article in the Wall Street Journal described how EO Products, located in San Rafael, California, quadrupled its output of hand sanitizer by “running extra shifts, speeding up lines, hiring temporary workers and converting factory lines designed for other products to make hand sanitizer instead.” These actions made it possible for EO to increase the quantity of sanitizer it supplied, but meant that its marginal cost of production was increasing.

            A price gouging law that kept the price of hand sanitizer fixed at $3.99 per bottle would result in the quantity of sanitizer supplied remaining at Q1, causing a shortage equal to the difference between Q2 and Q1.  Note that the price ceiling eliminates the incentive for firms to increase production of sanitizer. Because marginal cost is increasing, firms will ordinarily need to receive a higher price in order to increase production. In fact, though, that EO Products President Tom Feegel decided not to raise his price despite the firm’s higher cost: “Raising prices at this time would not be in alignment with our core values.”

The price ceiling causes consumer surplus to increase by the area of rectangle A and fall by the area of rectangle B. Rectangle A would have been part of producer surplus in the absence of the price ceiling. In that sense, the price ceiling benefits buyers at the expense of sellers. Compared with the situation in which the price is allowed to rise to $5.99, producer surplus declines by the area of A plus the area of C. The areas of triangles B and C represent deadweight loss or the reduction in economic surplus resulting from the imposition of the price ceiling resulting from the price gouging law.

We can summarize the effects of the price gouging law shown in the figure:

  1. Consumers who are able to buy the sanitizer at the ceiling price of $3.99 gain.
  2. Consumers who would be able to buy the sanitizer at the equilibrium price $5.99 but are unable to find any at the ceiling price of $3.99 lose.
  3. Sellers experience a loss of producer surplus.
  4. Economy efficiency is reduced by an amount equal to the deadweight loss.

What happens in the market for hand sanitizer in the long run?

            Suppose that the demand for hand sanitizer permanently increases as a result of the coronavirus epidemic because many people decide that it is now worthwhile to routinely sanitize their hands.  In that case, we would expect to see an increase quantity of bottles of hand sanitizer sold with price ending up back at the original price of $3.99. Why wouldn’t the price need to be permanently higher? Remember that we expect the marginal cost of producing a good to increase as a firm produces more of a good during a given period of time.

For instance, if EO products has to pay workers a higher hourly wage to work more than 8 hours per day or hires new workers who initially aren’t as skilled at producing sanitizer, the company’s marginal cost will increase. But over time EO’s new workers will become more familiar with their jobs and the company will be able to hire enough workers so that none will have to work more than 8 hours per day. We would expect that EO’s marginal cost of producing sanitizer will eventually fall back to $3.99 per bottle and that the same will be true for other firms in the industry. As a result, the price declines back to $3.99.

In addition, the price increase to $5.99 may give other firms an incentive to begin producing hand sanitizer. If more firms enter the industry, in the long run, the supply curve for hand sanitizer will shift to the right, which will contribute to bringing the price back down to $3.99.  In general, in the long run the market will respond to an increase in demand by increasing supply without an increase in price.

Sources: Sharon Terlep, “One Company’s Hands-On Effort to Ramp Up Sanitizer Production,” Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2020; Sharon Terlep, “Amazon Dogged by Price Gouging as Coronavirus Fears Grow,” Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2020; and Jack Nicas, “The Man With 17,700 Bottles of Hand Sanitizer Just Donated Them,” New York Times, March 15, 2020.


Many state laws against price gouging apply only during emergencies.

  1. Why might state governments decide that the laws should apply during emergencies rather than at all times?
  2. What protects consumers from price gouging during times that aren’t emergencies?

Instructors can access the answers to these questions by emailing Pearson at christopher.dejohn@pearson.com and stating your name, affiliation, school email address, course number.