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What’s better: Knowing the price of something or knowing with perfect information how much something should cost?
It’s a trick question.
Suppose there are two farmers – Al Trewis and Moe Cashferme. Each of them has 500 acres of land
that could grow either corn or soybeans. Suppose I ask what their plans are. Both of
them text back, “I don’t know.” Now suppose we borrowed a crystal ball from
some genie and we know everything. Among the things the crystal ball can tell us are that
Brazil has had a terrible summer with drought then late floods that wiped out 40% of their
soybean crop. It also tells us that new uses for soybean curd have pushed up consumer demand for
soy paste all over Asia. Meanwhile, corn crop yields have hit record highs all over the world and,
At the same time, several countries ended their corn-based ethanol programs leading to an extraordinary corn surplus.
Our first farmer, Al, has to decide what to
plant. Al never wanted anything for himself. All he cares about was doing what’s best
for all of humanity. He does research trying to decide which crop would be better for humanity
as a whole, but it’s hard for Al to determine what information is most relevant because
he doesn’t trust price information and the knowledge that he needs is too dispersed, too
specific, and too hard to learn. Now Al knows a lot – but still not enough.
He’s stuck at, “I don’t know.” So he makes a guess, plants corn. Al’s put
a tremendous amount of time and resources into his research instead of focusing on what
he’s good at – running a farm. As a result, he doesn’t get much corn planted, has a
hard time selling the corn he does produce. He has to sell for very little and he ends up
bankrupt. Let’s look at Moe’s experience.
Since he cares only about profits, he focuses on prices. In early February, the price of corn futuresfalls sharply.
But soy futures indicate that prices for soy delivered in August should
be excellent. Why did this happen? Moe has no idea and he
couldn’t possibly care less. Moe sells a large soy futures contract to lock in the
high price and plants soy on every square inch of land that he owns. It’s a selfish
bet, one that’ll make Moe a lot of money. Instead of trying to be an expert in all the
disparate subjects he’d need to master to have perfect information about the marketplace,
he just focused time and resources on running his farm. And the only other information he
used was prices. So he produced a lot of soybeans and did well for himself.
Which of the two did the right thing, the better thing for society? What would the genie
with the crystal ball have told us? The genie would have looked at the glut of corn and
the shortage of soy that made it so valuable and told us what people need is more soy.
But of course, there’s no such thing as genies in the real world. Information is too
dispersed, too complicated, to solve the "IDK" problem through research. There's just too
much to know. Fortunately, farmers don’t need a crystal
ball because prices do exactly what we were hoping that the genie would do. Farmers don’t
need to know why a price is high or low, and in fact no single person could possibly explain
it fully. But by growing the crop that produces the greater profit, farmers can produce the
crop that solves the shortage, meets the demand, and satisfies the requirements of innovation.
It’s impossible to attain perfect information about the entire marketplace, which is changing
all the time. Prices are a way of condensing all that information into one easily understood
signal. Almost like magic.



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Eating 2015 年 1 月 26 日 に公開
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