Production and Cost

Production and Cost
Start Up: Street Cleaning Around the World It is dawn in Shanghai, China. Already thousands of Chinese are out cleaning the city's streets. They are using brooms. On the other side of the world, night falls in Washington, D.C., where the streets are also being cleaned—by a handful of giant street-sweeping machines driven by a handful of workers. The difference in method is not the result of a greater knowledge of modern technology in the United States—the Chinese know perfectly well how to build street-sweeping machines. It is a production decision based on costs in the two countries. In China, where wages are relatively low, an army of workers armed with brooms is the least expensive way to produce clean streets. In Washington, where labor costs are high, it makes sense to use more machinery and less labor. All types of production efforts require choices in the use of factors of production. In this chapter we examine such choices. Should a good or service be produced using relatively more labor and less capital? Or should relatively more capital and less labor be used? What about the use of natural resources? In this chapter we see why firms make the production choices they do and how their costs affect their choices. We will apply the marginal decision rule to the production process and see how this rule ensures that production is carried out at the lowest cost possible. We examine the nature of production and costs in order to gain a better understanding of supply. We thus shift our focus to firms, organizations that produce goods and services. In producing goods and services, firms combine the factors of production—labor, capital, and natural resources—to produce various products. Economists assume that firms engage in production in order to earn a profit and that they seek to make this profit as large as possible. That is, economists assume that firms apply the marginal decision rule as they seek to maximize their profits. Whether we consider the operator of a shoe-shine stand at an airport or the firm that produces airplanes, we will find there are basic relationships between the use of factors of production and output levels, and between output levels and costs, that apply to all production. The production choices of firms and their associated costs are at the foundation of supply.
Production Choices and Costs: The Short Run Our analysis of production and cost begins with a period economists call the short run. The short run in this microeconomic context is a planning period over which the managers of a firm must consider one or more of their factors of production as fixed in quantity. For example, a restaurant may regard its building as a fixed factor over a period of at least the next year. It would take at least that much time to find a new building or to expand or reduce the size of its present facility. Decisions concerning the operation of the restaurant during the next year must assume the building will remain unchanged. Other factors of production could be changed during the year, but the size of the building must be regarded as a constant. When the quantity of a factor of production cannot be changed during a particular period, it is called a fixed factor of production For the restaurant, its building is a fixed factor of production for at least a year. A factor of production whose quantity can be changed during a particular period is called a variable factor of production; factors such as labor and food are examples. While the managers of the restaurant are making choices concerning its operation over the next year, they are also planning for longer periods. Over those periods, managers may contemplate alternatives such as modifying the building, building a new facility, or selling the building and leaving the restaurant business. The planning period over which a firm can consider all factors of production as variable is called the long run. At any one time, a firm will be making both short-run and long-run choices. The managers may be planning what to do for the next few weeks and for the next few years. Their decisions over the next few weeks are likely to be short-run choices. Decisions that will affect operations over the next few years may be long-run choices, in which managers can consider changing every aspect of their operations. Our analysis in this section focuses on the short run. We examine long-run choices later in this chapter.
The Short-Run Production Function A firm uses factors of production to produce a product. The relationship between factors of production and the output of a firm is called a production function Our first task is to explore the nature of the production function. Consider a hypothetical firm, Acme Clothing, a shop that produces jackets. Suppose that Acme has a lease on its building and equipment. During the period of the lease, Acme's capital is its fixed factor of production. Acme's variable factors of production include things such as labor, cloth, and electricity. In the analysis that follows, we shall simplify by assuming that labor is Acme's only variable factor of production.
Total, Marginal, and Average Products shows the number of jackets Acme can obtain with varying amounts of labor (in this case, tailors) and its given level of capital. A total product curve shows the quantities of output that can be obtained from different amounts of a variable factor of production, assuming other factors of production are fixed.
Clothing's Total Product Curve The table gives output levels per day for Acme Clothing Company at various quantities of labor per day, assuming the firm's capital is fixed. These values are then plotted graphically as a total product curve.
Notice what happens to the slope of the total product curve in . Between 0 and 3 units of labor per day, the curve becomes steeper. Between 3 and 7 workers, the curve continues to slope upward, but its slope diminishes. Beyond the seventh tailor, production begins to decline and the curve slopes downward. We measure the slope of any curve as the vertical change between two points divided by the horizontal change between the same two points. The slope of the total product curve for labor equals the change in output (ΔQ) divided by the change in units of labor (ΔL): Slope of the total product curve = ΔQ / ΔL The slope of a total product curve for any variable factor is a measure of the change in output associated with a change in the amount of the variable factor, with the quantities of all other factors held constant. The amount by which output rises with an additional unit of a variable factor is the marginal product of the variable factor. Mathematically, marginal product is the ratio of the change in output to the change in the amount of a variable factor. The marginal product of labor (MPL), for example, is the amount by which output rises with an additional unit of labor. It is thus the ratio of the change in output to the change in the quantity of labor (ΔQL), all other things unchanged. It is measured as the slope of the total product curve for labor. MPL = ΔQL In addition we can define the average product of a variable factor. It is the output per unit of variable factor. The average product of labor (APL), for example, is the ratio of output to the number of units of labor (Q/L). APL = Q/L The concept of average product is often used for comparing productivity levels over time or in comparing productivity levels among nations. When you read in the newspaper that productivity is rising or falling, or that productivity in the United States is nine times greater than productivity in China, the report is probably referring to some measure of the average product of labor. The total product curve in Panel (a) of is repeated from . Panel (b) shows the marginal product and average product curves. Notice that marginal product is the slope of the total product curve, and that marginal product rises as the slope of the total product curve increases, falls as the slope of the total product curve declines, reaches zero when the total product curve achieves its maximum value, and becomes negative as the total product curve slopes downward. As in other parts of this text, marginal values are plotted at the midpoint of each interval. The marginal product of the fifth unit of labor, for example, is plotted between 4 and 5 units of labor. Also notice that the marginal product curve intersects the average product curve at the maximum point on the average product curve. When marginal product is above average product, average product is rising. When marginal product is below average product, average product is falling.
From Total Product to the Average and Marginal Product of Labor The first two rows of the table give the values for quantities of labor and total product from . Marginal product, given in the third row, is the change in output resulting from a one-unit increase in labor. Average product, given in the fourth row, is output per unit of labor. Panel (a) shows the total product curve. The slope of the total product curve is marginal product, which is plotted in Panel (b). Values for marginal product are plotted at the midpoints of the intervals. Average product rises and falls. Where marginal product is above average product, average product rises. Where marginal product is below average product, average product falls. The marginal product curve intersects the average product curve at the maximum point on the average product curve.
As a student you can use your own experience to understand the relationship between marginal and average values. Your grade point average (GPA) represents the average grade you've earned in all your course work so far. When you take an additional course, your grade in that course represents the marginal grade. What happens to your GPA when you get a grade that is higher than your previous average? It rises. What happens to your GPA when you get a grade that is lower than your previous average? It falls. If your GPA is a 3.0 and you earn one more B, your marginal grade equals your GPA and your GPA remains unchanged. The relationship between average product and marginal product is similar. However, unlike your course grades, which may go up and down willy-nilly, marginal product always rises and then falls, for reasons we will explore shortly. As soon as marginal product falls below average product, the average product curve slopes downward. While marginal product is above average product, whether marginal product is increasing or decreasing, the average product curve slopes upward. As we have learned, maximizing behavior requires focusing on making decisions at the margin. For this reason, we turn our attention now toward increasing our understanding of marginal product.
Increasing, Diminishing, and Negative Marginal Returns Adding the first worker increases Acme's output from 0 to 1 jacket per day. The second tailor adds 2 jackets to total output; the third adds 4. The marginal product goes up because when there are more workers, each one can specialize to a degree. One worker might cut the cloth, another might sew the seams, and another might sew the buttonholes. Their increasing marginal products are reflected by the increasing slope of the total product curve over the first 3 units of labor and by the upward slope of the marginal product curve over the same range. The range over which marginal products are increasing is called the range of increasing marginal returns. Increasing marginal returns exist in the context of a total product curve for labor, so we are holding the quantities of other factors constant. Increasing marginal returns may occur for any variable factor. The fourth worker adds less to total output than the third; the marginal product of the fourth worker is 2 jackets. The data in show that marginal product continues to decline after the fourth worker as more and more workers are hired. The additional workers allow even greater opportunities for specialization, but because they are operating with a fixed amount of capital, each new worker adds less to total output. The fifth tailor adds only a single jacket to total output. When each additional unit of a variable factor adds less to total output, the firm is experiencing diminishing marginal returns. Over the range of diminishing marginal returns, the marginal product of the variable factor is positive but falling. Once again, we assume that the quantities of all other factors of production are fixed. Diminishing marginal returns may occur for any variable factor. Panel (b) shows that Acme experiences diminishing marginal returns between the third and seventh workers, or between 7 and 11 jackets per day. After the seventh unit of labor, Acme's fixed plant becomes so crowded that adding another worker actually reduces output. When additional units of a variable factor reduce total output, given constant quantities of all other factors, the company experiences negative marginal returns. Now the total product curve is downward sloping, and the marginal product curve falls below zero. shows the ranges of increasing, diminishing, and negative marginal returns. Clearly, a firm will never intentionally add so much of a variable factor of production that it enters a range of negative marginal returns.
Increasing Marginal Returns, Diminishing Marginal Returns, and Negative Marginal Returns This graph shows Acme's total product curve from with the ranges of increasing marginal returns, diminishing marginal returns, and negative marginal returns marked. Acme experiences increasing marginal returns between 0 and 3 units of labor per day, diminishing marginal returns between 3 and 7 units of labor per day, and negative marginal returns beyond the 7th unit of labor.
The idea that the marginal product of a variable factor declines over some range is important enough, and general enough, that economists state it as a law. The law of diminishing marginal returns holds that the marginal product of any variable factor of production will eventually decline, assuming the quantities of other factors of production are unchanged. Heads Up! It is easy to confuse the concept of diminishing marginal returns with the idea of negative marginal returns. To say a firm is experiencing diminishing marginal returns is not to say its output is falling. Diminishing marginal returns mean that the marginal product of a variable factor is declining. Output is still increasing as the variable factor is increased, but it is increasing by smaller and smaller amounts. As we saw in and , the range of diminishing marginal returns was between the third and seventh workers; over this range of workers, output rose from 7 to 11 jackets. Negative marginal returns started after the seventh worker. To see the logic of the law of diminishing marginal returns, imagine a case in which it does not hold. Say that you have a small plot of land for a vegetable garden, 10 feet by 10 feet in size. The plot itself is a fixed factor in the production of vegetables. Suppose you are able to hold constant all other factors—water, sunshine, temperature, fertilizer, and seed—and vary the amount of labor devoted to the garden. How much food could the garden produce? Suppose the marginal product of labor kept increasing or was constant. Then you could grow an unlimited quantity of food on your small plot—enough to feed the entire world! You could add an unlimited number of workers to your plot and still increase output at a constant or increasing rate. If you didn't get enough output with, say, 500 workers, you could use 5 million; the five-millionth worker would add at least as much to total output as the first. If diminishing marginal returns to labor did not occur, the total product curve would slope upward at a constant or increasing rate. The shape of the total product curve and the shape of the resulting marginal product curve drawn in are typical of any firm for the short run. Given its fixed factors of production, increasing the use of a variable factor will generate increasing marginal returns at first; the total product curve for the variable factor becomes steeper and the marginal product rises. The opportunity to gain from increased specialization in the use of the variable factor accounts for this range of increasing marginal returns. Eventually, though, diminishing returns will set in. The total product curve will become flatter, and the marginal product curve will fall. Try It! Suppose Acme gets some new equipment for producing jackets. The table below gives its new production function. Compute marginal product and average product and fill in the bottom two rows of the table. Referring to , draw a graph showing Acme's new total product curve. On a second graph, below the one showing the total product curve you drew, sketch the marginal and average product curves. Remember to plot marginal product at the midpoint between each input level. On both graphs, shade the regions where Acme experiences increasing marginal returns, diminishing marginal returns, and negative marginal returns.