Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category.

If We Are Using Every Stimulus Tool in the Book at the Top of the Cycle, What Are We Going To Do In The Next Downturn?

From the Telegraph

The world will be unable to fight the next global financial crash as central banks have used up their ammunition trying to tackle the last crises, the Bank for International Settlements has warned.

The so-called central bank of central banks launched a scatching critique of global monetary policy in its annual report. The BIS claimed that central banks have backed themselves into a corner after repeatedly cutting interest rates to shore up their economies.

These low interest rates have in turn fuelled economic booms, encouraging excessive risk taking. Booms have then turned to busts, which policymakers have responded to with even lower rates....

“Rather than just reflecting the current weakness, [lower rates] may in part have contributed to it by fuelling costly financial booms and busts and delaying adjustment. The result is too much debt, too little growth and too low interest rates.

"In short, low rates beget lower rates."

The BIS warned that interest rates have now been so low for so long that central banks are unequipped to fight the next crises.

Dear Paul Krugman: Please Explain Labor Demand Elasticity in Puerto Rico

Paul Krugman and a surprisingly large portion of Leftish economists have staked out a position that labor does not act like any other commodity, such that higher minimum wages have no effect on demand.  I have had people on the Left tell me that this absurd, common-sense-offending position is actually "settled".  So explain Puerto Rico:

Another problem is that just 40 percent of the population [of Puerto Rico] has a job—or is even looking for one. That figure has plummeted in recent years. In the United States as a whole, it is 62.9 percent....

The report cites one surprising problem: the federal minimum wage, which is at the same level in Puerto Rico as in the rest of the country, even though the economy there is so much weaker. There are probably some people who would like to work, but because of the sickly economy, businesses can't afford to pay them the minimum wage.

Someone working full time for the minimum wage earns $15,080 a year, which isn't that much less than the median income in Puerto Rico of $19,624.

The report also cites regulations and restrictions that make it difficult to set up new businesses and hire workers, although it's difficult to know just how large an effect these rules might or might not have on the labor market.

By the way, the fact that the author thinks this is "surprising" just goes to show how far this anti-factual meme of a non-sloping labor demand curve has penetrated.

As pointed out in several places today, Puerto Rico has a surprising number of parallels to Greece.   It seems to have zero fiscal restraint, it has structural and regulatory issues in its economy that suppress growth, and has its currency pegged to that of a larger, much richer nation.  It is apparently facing a huge $70+ billion potential debt default.

Greece's Lesson for Gold Bugs

I have been predicting for years that the only solution for the Greece problem is for it to exit the Euro, go through a horrible economic crisis and deal with substantial devaluation, and then hopefully move on with a cheaper currency that makes its tourist industry look better and plugs the hole between taxing and spending with inflation.  It appears we are closer than ever to this actually happening.  The Greeks would likely be moving forward now, like Iceland, if they had taken their medicine years ago rather than try to kick the can.  Now it is just going to be worse.

I have been enamored off and on with the idea of a gold standard but Megan McArdle made some powerful points today about how the Greek situation teaches us that a gold standard doesn't necessarily impose discipline on governments.

It's easy to moralize Greece's feckless borrowing, weak tax collection and long history of default, and hey, go ahead; I won't stop you. But whatever the nation's moral failures, what we're witnessing now shows the dangers of trying to cure the problems of weak fiscal discipline with some sort of externally imposed currency regime. Greek creditors and Brussels were not the only people to joyously embrace the belief that the euro would finally force Greece to keep its financial house in order; you hear the same arguments right here at home from American gold bugs. During the ardent height of Ron Paul's popularity, I tried to explain why this doesn't work: "You don't get anything out of a gold standard that you didn't bring with you. If your government is a credible steward of the money supply, you don't need it; and if it isn't, it won't be able to stay on it long anyway."

This goes double for fiscal discipline. Moving to a fixed exchange rate protects bond-holders from one specific sort of risk: the possibility that inflation will erode the real value of your bonds. But that doesn't remove the risk. It just transforms it. Now that the government can't inflate away its debt, you instead face the risk that they are going to run out of money to pay their bills and suddenly default. That's exactly what happened to Argentina, and many other nations on various other currency regimes, from the gold standard to a currency peg. The ability to inflate the currency had gone away, but the currency regime didn't fix any of the underlying institutional problems that previous governments had solved with inflation. So bondholders protected themselves from inflation, and instead took a catastrophic haircut.

Postscript #1:  I had one issue with McArdle's piece when she writes

The only people this will be good for is people who long to vacation on the Greek Islands. If Grexit actually happens, book those plane tickets now, but hold off on the hotel. It will be cheaper in six months. Then try to enjoy it as you remember that those fabulous savings are someone else's whole life evaporating.

Hey, if Grexit occurs, you have no reason to feel guilty about taking advantage of the weak currency and low prices for a Greek vacation.  There is nothing the Greeks need more than for you to do exactly that.   It is the single best thing you could do for the Greek people.

Postscript#2:  Here is why exiting the Euro, devalutation, and inflation are the only way out for Greece at this point. Creditors allow countries to run long-term deficits and keep lending despite rising debt (see: Japan) because of a combination of a) the country can always just print the money they need; b) the country can raise taxes and take the money it needs or c) the country can keep spending flat and grow their way out from the debt.

None of these are available to Greece. They can't print money, at least without running up new debts (excess printing of Euros is automatically added to Greece's debt to the ECB).  They can't raise taxes because their citizens don't pay the taxes that already exist.  And they can't grow their way out because there is zero support for austerity or market-based reforms that would be necessary, and besides a huge portion of Greek deficit spending is for inherently unproductive activities.  At this point Greece's only option is charity, that the other countries of the EU will forgive debt or write them new debt, either to be nice or to avoid bad precedents with other PIGS countries.  But  the EU seems at the end of its charity rope, and besides given zero prospects of any sort of Greek recovery, even after a major write-off of debt the EU would be in the position of still having to send Greece new money for its new debts.

Megan McArdle on California Declaring Uber Drivers to be Employees

Megan McArdle is one of my favorite writers on the web.  So it was fun to see my recent post on California and Uber drivers get a mention from her.  I just focused on the implications for Uber and its customers, but she goes further to say that the likely results for its drivers will be negative as well, comparing their likely plight to that of freelance writers.

On the face of it, this ruling seems ludicrous. Raise your hand if you've ever had an employer who said: "Hey, as long as you don't actively alienate the customers, you can just show up and work whenever you feel like. No need to let me know when you're coming, just show up and I'll pay you for any work you do. Just put in a couple of hours every six months, m'kay?" Yeah, I never had that job either, and neither did anyone else who wasn't blackmailing the boss or working for a family member.

Not even freelance writers or contract columnists have this job......

Uber has to worry about not just the expense of complying with all these mandates, but also the expense of documenting that it has complied with these mandates -- which will mean more paperwork and hassle for Uber's HR staff and for the drivers themselves. The effect would be to introduce a substantial wedge between what Uber spends to keep a driver on the road and what drivers actually get in their checks. How many people will still be driving when their work starts to be micromanaged and their checks are docked to pay for all the new requirements?

In other words, the possibilities for Uber drivers are probably not "status quo" or "status quo plus paid sick leave"; the possibilities are probably "status quo" or "figure out what to do next because Uber just went out of business." Since economists generally assume that whatever that is, it's a less attractive option than driving for Uber, that's not a happy answer for the driver.

And in fact, these are exactly the complaints we are hearing from freelance writers as more places rely more heavily on staff, because with the economics of the Internet, it makes more sense to manage a small number of staffers than a large number of freelancers. The staffers are happy, because they're working. The freelancers are miserable, however, because here the new version of our old "gig economy" does not support that many people

Trade and The World's Most Misunderstood Accounting Identity: Y=C+I+G+X-M

Repeat after me:  Y=C+I+G+X-M is an accounting rule.  It does not explain anything about the economy.  It is as useful to telling us anything interesting about the economy as the equation biomass=plants+animals+bacteria tells us anything about the ecosystem.

Which is why this kind of article in the press makes me crazy (emphasis added)

The U.S. trade gap narrowed in April as the effects of a West Coast port slowdown faded, easing one of the biggest drags on economic growth during the opening months of the year....

This year’s volatile import and export figures worked out to an overall drag on the economy in the opening months of 2015....

A surge in imports and falling exports subtracted 1.9 percentage points from the headline figure. As measured by GDP, exports are a positive for economic growth, while imports are a negative...

“The huge drag on GDP from trade in Q1 will almost certainly not be repeated in Q2,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.

Here is the logic.  The GDP is calculated by adding Consumer spending + Industrial spending + Government spending + eXports and then subtracting iMports.  Because imports are subtracted in the GDP equation, they look to the layman like they shrink the economy.  How do we grow the economy?  Why, let's reduce that number that is subtracted!  But this is wrong.  Totally wrong.   I have tried many times to explain this, but let me see if I can work by analogy.

Let's say we wanted an equation to count the amount of clothing we owned.  To make things simple, let's say we are only concerned with the total of Shirts, Pants, and Underwear.   Most of our clothes are in the closet, so we say our clothes are equal to the S+P+U we count in our closet.  But wait, we may have Loaned clothes to other people.  Those are not in our closet but should count.  So now clothes = S+P+U+L.  But we may also have borrowed clothes.  Some of those clothes we counted in the closet may be Borrowed and thus not actually ours, so we need to back these out.  Our final equation is clothes = S+P+U+L-B.  Look familiar?

Let's go further.  Let's say that we want to increase our number of clothes.  We want wardrobe growth!  Well, it looks like those borrowed clothes are a "drag" on our wardrobe size.  If we get rid of the borrowed clothes, that negative B term will get smaller and our wardrobe has to get larger, right?

Wrong.  Remember, like the GDP equation, our wardrobe size equation is just an accounting identity.  The negative B term was put in to account for the fact that some of the clothes we counted in S+P+U in the closet were not actually ours.  But if we decrease B, say by returning our friend's shirt, the S term will go down by the exact same amount.  Sure, B goes down, but so do the number of shirts we count in the closet.  So focusing on the B term gets us nowhere.

But it is actually worse than that, because focusing on reducing B makes us worse off.  If B rises, our wardrobe is no larger, but we get the use of all of those other pieces of clothing.  Our owned wardrobe may not be any larger but we get access to more choices and clothing possibilities.  When we drive B down to zero, our wardrobe is no larger and we are worse off with fewer choices.

Returning to the economy, I don't want to say that it's impossible for increases in imports to drag the economy.  For example, if oil prices rise, the imports number measured in dollars will likely rise, and the economy will likely be worse off as we have to give up buying other things to continue to buy the oil we need.  But, absent major price changes, drops in exports more likely just mirror drops in C+I+G.  If consumers are hurting, they spend less on everything, including imported goods.   At the end of the day, none of these numbers (Mr. Keynes, are you listening?) are independent variables.

Postscript:  By the way, the trade deficit is a mirage in another way - it looks at only a subset of trans-national financial transactions.   The flow of dollars is (mostly) always in balance.  So if we are net sending dollars overseas when trading hard goods, the dollars come back in foreign purchases of investments and financial goods (which aren't included in the trade numbers).  Saying we have a trade deficit is the same as saying we have a net investment surplus.  For you physical scientists out there, measuring the trade deficit is like drawing your box around the process wrong such that you miss some of the forces.

If you really want to know our trade problem, it's not the trade deficit per se, but the fact that the funds coming back via investments are largely invested in value-destroying government debt rather than productive investments.

The New York Times Retro Report

I had not seen this feature before, but I wanted to give the New York Times some kudos for its "retro report" which apparently looks at past news articles and predictions and wonders what happened to those issues since.  This report is on the failure of Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb predictions.  It is the kind of feature I have wanted to see in the press for a long time.  Good for them.

Sort of.  They fairly ably demonstrate that this 1970's-era doomster prediction was overblown, but then simply substitute a new one: over-consumption.  Ironically, the "over-consumption" doom predictions are based on the exact same false assumptions that led to the population bomb fiasco, namely an overly static view of the world that gives little or no credit to market mechanisms and innovation combined with an ideological bias that opposes things like technological progress, increased wealth, and free exchange.  The modern "over-consumption" meme shares with the Population Bomb the assumption that the world has a fixed carrying capacity, that we have or will soon exceed this capacity, and that actions of man can do nothing to change this capacity.

In essence, the over-consumption doom scenario is essentially identical to the Population Bomb.  In essence, then, the New York Times ably debunks a failed prediction and then renews that prediction under a new name.

OK, I am Calling the Market Top

As readers will know, I am frustrated that the Feds continue to fuel a huge financial asset bubble.  While I was wrong, so far, that the Feds would create consumer and industrial price inflation from their massive money printing operation, they have created an enormous price inflation in financial assets.   Every week they pour more newly printed dollars into the hands of financial asset holders, and corporations have joined in the fun by taking advantage of low borrowing rates to buy back record amounts of their own shares.   With both the Fed and publicly-traded corporations taking so many financial assets off the market at the same time investors have new cash to invest, someone has to create some new assets to buy.

Enter:  The $500 million spec home.  I kid you not.

LOL, I am betting the neighbors are not happy

click to enlarge

As an upside, I suppose they are creating a future tourist attraction.  Many of the great Gold Coast and Newport mansions of the late 19th century were too expensive for later generations to operate and ended up in the hands of non-profits and governments.

The Next Time the Media Complains About High CEO Pay.... It May be Projection

Six of the ten highest paid CEO's run media companies.

Six of the 10 highest-paid CEOs last year worked in the media industry, according to a study carried out by executive compensation data firm Equilar and The Associated Press.

The best-paid chief executive of a large American company was David Zaslav, head of Discovery Communications, the pay-TV channel operator that is home to "Shark Week." His total compensation more than quadrupled to $156.1 million in 2014 after he extended his contract.

Les Moonves, of CBS, held on to second place in the rankings, despite a drop in pay from a year earlier. His pay package totaled $54.4 million.

The remaining four CEOs, from entertainment giants Viacom, Walt Disney, Comcast and Time Warner, have ranked among the nation's highest-paid executives for at least four years, according to the Equilar/AP pay study.

More power to 'em, as long as their shareholders are happy.  But I am tired of these self-same individuals attempting to bring regulatory pressure on the rest of us in the name of high CEO pay.

A Couple Lessons We Can Learn from Disney Pricing

Bloomberg (via Zero Hedge) had this chart on Disney theme park entrance prices:

disneyprices

A few random thoughts:

  • This highlights how hard it is to do inflation statistics correctly.  For example, the ticket being sold in 1971 is completely different from the one being sold in 2015.  The 2015 ticket gets one access without additional charge to all the attractions.  The 1971 ticket required purchase of additional ride tickets (the famous, among Disney fans, A-E tickets).  So this is not an apples to apples comparison.  Further, Disney has huge discounts for multi-day tickets.  The first day may cost $105, but adding a fourth day to a three day ticket costs just a trivial few bucks.  Local residents who come often for a single day get special rates as well.  So the inflation rate here grossly overestimates that actual increase in per person, per trip total spending for access to park attractions
  • This is a great case in pricing strategy.  Around 1980, the Bass family bought into a large ownership percentage of Disney.  The story I am about to tell is often credited to their influence, but I am not positive.  Never-the-less, someone had a big "aha!" moment at Disney.  They realized that families were taking trips just to visit DisneyWorld.  These trips cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars.  The families were thus paying hundreds of dollars per person to enjoy Disney, of which Disney was reaping... $9.50 a day.  They had a stupendously valuable product (as far as consumers were concerned) but everyone else in the supply chain was grabbing most of the value they created.  So Disney raised prices, on the theory that if a family were paying over a thousand dollars to get and stay there, they would not object to paying an extra $50 at the gate.  And they were right.

Currency Manipulation

One of the critiques of any trade deal of late is that there should be penalties for countries guilty of "currency manipulation."  The concern is that countries will devalue their currency in an effort to make their own exports cheaper to other nations while making it harder for other countries to export back to them.  As an example, if the Chinese were to do something that cuts the value of the Yuan in half vs. the dollar, their products look very cheap to American consumers while American-produced goods suddenly look a lot more expensive to Chinese consumers.

I have two brief responses to this:

  1. I find it hilarious that anyone in the United States government, which has a Federal Reserve that has added nearly $2 trillion to its balance sheet in the service of cramming down the value of the dollar, can with a straight face accuse other nations of currency manipulation.  In practice in today's QEconomy, currency manipulation means another country is doing exactly what we are doing, but just doing it faster.
  2. As an American consumer, to such currency manipulation by other countries I say, Bring it On!  If China wants to hammer its own citizens with higher prices and lower purchasing power just to subsidize lower prices for me, I am happy to let them do it.  Yes, a few specific politically-connected export businesses lose revenues, but trying to prop them up is pure cronyism.  Which is one reason I think Elizabeth Warren is a total hypocrite.  The constituency of the poor and lower middle class she presumes to speak for are the exact folks who shop at Walmart and need very price break on everyday goods they can get.  Senator Warren's preferences for protectionist trade policies and a weak dollar will hurt these folks the most.

The Fatal Allure of the Sexy Business

The tech site Engadget directed me to this article on Visual FX and CGI as a "must-read".  What I found was one of the odder economics and business hypotheses I have encountered lately.

The article begins by relating that VFX and digital effects specialty houses all lose money, even when they are providing effects for wildly profitable movies (e.g. Avengers) and purports to explain why this should be.  The author believes that this is a result of Hollywood purposely criticizing the artistry of VFX movies as a way to keep returns in the VFX companies down (and thus increase the returns of film producers).

As the debate surrounding what visual effects are worth rages on, it is clear that the studios themselves have an interest in perpetuating the myth that VFX are the product of clinical assembly lines and the results are equally lifeless and mechanical. Blaming computers for the dumbing down of movies has become a journalistic trope that is bandied about to squeeze the one part of the Hollywood machine that has no union or organizational skill to push back. The right hand asserts they are something not worth paying top dollar for, while the left lines up an interminable roster of VFX-based box office juggernauts for the foreseeable future.

The author goes so far as to say that Avatar was denied the best picture Oscar specifically to support the anti-VFX sentiment and keep returns of VFX companies down (emphasis added).

In 2010, James Cameron’s Avatar became the highest grossing film of all time just 41 days after its release, raking in an incredible $2.7 billion by the end of its run. Weta Digital, the VFX studio that created the majority of the visual effects, along with Lightstorm Entertainment, invested years in developing the tools and talent necessary to create Cameron’s almost entirely computer generated vision, with the cost of making the film rumored to be upwards of $500 million. Cameron had promised to show the world what visual effects could do and he succeeded. The results were universally lauded as visually stunning and unparalleled.

Yet, rather famously, the film and Cameron were snubbed that year at the Academy Awards, both for Best Picture and Best Director. The blame was laid at the feet of the critical success of The Hurt Locker. However, awarding Avatar the Academy’s highest honor would have been acknowledging visual effects as not only lucrative, but high art as well, worthy of its astronomical price tag. And that was a bargaining chip Hollywood was unwilling to concede to an industry it continues to hold hostage with threats of outsourcing to unskilled laborers around the globe.

This hypothesis seems outlandish, and in fact the author never really provides any evidence whatsoever for her hypothesis.   At least equally likely is that Hollywood insiders are snobbish and conservative and reject new approaches to film-making in a way that the public does not.  Or it could be that Avatar wasn't a very good movie (go try to watch it again today, you will be surprised what a yawner it is).  So why are VFX companies really losing money on profitable films?   Let's take a step back, because there is a useful business lesson buried in here somewhere.  I think.

This discussion is a sub-set of an age-old business problem -- how do rents in a supply chain get divided up?   Think of the billion plus dollars the new Avengers movie will make.  Everyone in the supply chain for making that movie, from the actors to the caterers to the VFX houses to the distribution companies believe their contribution has immense value, and that they should be getting a solid cut of the profits.  But profits in a supply chain are not divided up based on some third party assessing value, they are divided up by negotiation.  And the results of that negotiation depend on a lot of factors -- the number of competitors, the uniqueness of the service, regulatory rules, etc.  The most visible example of this sort of negotiation we see frequently in the news is in sports, where players and team owners are explicitly negotiating the division of the end revenue pie between themselves.

If we return to the article, the author actually gives us a hint of the true dynamic that is likely bringing down VFX profits.

The international subsidies-driven business model under which VFX companies operate has been well documented. In pursuit of tax rebates offered by various governments to produce films in their jurisdiction, studios insist that VFX companies open branches in these locations or reduce their bids by the amount of the subsidy in question. Even as studios, directors, and audiences demand the latest in cutting edge technology, VFX houses must underbid one another to get the work and many have been shuttered due to operational losses in the wake of explosive blockbuster budgets. The cost of research and development, shrinking schedules, and the unlimited changes that are the building blocks of every tentpole film, are shouldered entirely by VFX houses.

This is the best clue we get to the real problem.  Here is what I infer from this paragraph:

  1. This is a high fixed cost industry.  There are enormous up-front investments in research into new techniques and large investments in the latest technology, which presumably must be constantly refreshed because it has a short half-life before it is out of date.  The situation is worsened by government policy, which provides incentives for VFX companies to build extra capacity in multiple countries, losing economy of scale benefits from large concentrated production facilities.    One would presume from this that these companies' marginal cost of output, say 15 seconds of finished effects, is way way below their total costs.
  2. There is rivalry among VFX companies that seem to have excess capacity, such that bidding for work is very aggressive.  In such situations (think American railroads in the late 19th century) competitors lower prices down to marginal cost to keep their capacity and their trained people working.  Over time, of course, this leads to numerous bankruptices

I will add a third point which the author fails to cover.  To do so I will return to one of my favorite things I learned at Harvard Business School (HBS).  At HBS, in the first two days of strategy class, we studied two very different business cases.  The first was of a water meter manufacturer, a dead boring predictable unsexy business.  The second was a semiconductor company, which was hip and cool and really sexy.  It turned out that the water meter company coined money.  The semiconductor business was in and out of bankruptcy.

Why?  Well the water meter company had limited investment (made the same meters the same way for decades) and made most of its money off the replacement market, where it had no competitors since users pretty much had to replace with the same meter.  The semiconductor business had numerous shifting competitors and was constantly trying to scrape up enough investment money to keep up with shifting technology.  But there was one more difference.  By being sexy, tons of people wanted to be in the semiconductor business. They got non-monetary benefits from being in it (ie it was cool and interesting).  When there is an industry where lots of people are getting into the business for reasons other than making money, look out!  The profits are probably going to be terrible.   This is why most restaurants fail.  The business-for-sale listings are awash in brew pubs.   The aviation industry was like this for years, and I would argue this also suppresses rents in farming.

I don't know this for a fact, but I would bet that the VFX industry attracts a lot of people because it is sexy.  Yes, like a lot of programming, the actual work is detailed and dull.  But if the coding is detailed and dull, would you rather be doing it for Exxon's new back-office system or to put Ironman on the big screen (and have your name deep into the film credits, seen by the dozen or so people who hang around waiting for the Marvel Easter egg at the end)?

This is why I think a conspiracy theory to believe Hollywood is dissing the artistry of VFX movies as a way to keep VFX company rents down is silly.  It is totally unnecessary to explain the bad rents.  Had you told me it was a high investment business with huge fixed costs and much lower marginal costs and alot of rivalry driven by participants who piled into the business because it was sexy, I would have told you to stop right there and I could have immediately predicted poor returns and bankruptcies.

So what can VFX companies do?  I have no idea.  The first idea I would offer them is branding.  If you are buried deep in the supply chain and want to increase your bargaining power, one way to do it is to develop a brand with the end consumer.   If consumers suddenly latch on to, say, the CoyoteFX brand as being innovative or better in some way, such that they might be more likely to go to a movie with CoyoteFX sequences, then CoyoteFX now has a LOT more power in negotiations with producers.  Dolby Sound is a great example -- you probably don't even know what it is but movies used to advertise they had it.  Certain camera technologies like Panavision are another, where movies actually sold themselves in part on the features of one member of their supply chain.  As a digital house, Pixar effectively did this -- so well in fact its brand actually was bigger than Disney's (its distributor) for a while, and Disney was forced to buy them.  This does not happen just in movies.  I just bought a car that advertised it had a premium Bose sound system.  The car maker doesn't advertise who made, say, the fuel tanks, so my guess is that Bose, via branding, gets a better cut of the supply chain than does the fuel tank maker.

When "Pro-Science" Environmentalists Fall For Idiotic Technologies: Solar Roads Edition

I am mostly inured to being told I am "anti-science" for thinking manmade global warming will be less than catastrophic.  In debate situations (which are increasingly rare, since most colleges where I do most of my speaking no longer want a second side in climate discussions) I usually can demonstrate I know a hell of a lot more about the science than my opponent in the first 3 minutes or so.

But the whole "pro-science" pose of environmentalists is especially funny when they get really excited about some very stupid technology.  Environmentalists' support for corn ethanol is a good case in point.  Most of them have retreated on this, and the media has pretty much allowed them to pretend they were never really vociferous supporters of this technology that most now consider (and I considered from the beginning) to be environmentally damaging.

Here is the new, latest, greatest example.  From Think Progress, where else, but the story has been reprinted all over the hip environmental Left:

The World’s First Solar Road Is Producing More Energy Than Expected

DSC8910_kinderenvanboven2-638x424

In its first six months of existence, the world’s first solar road is performing even better than developers thought.

The road, which opened in the Netherlands in November of last year, has produced more than 3,000 kilowatt-hours of energy — enough to power a single small household for one year, according to Al-Jazeera America.

“If we translate this to an annual yield, we expect more than the 70kwh per square meter per year,” Sten de Wit, a spokesman for the project — dubbed SolaRoad — told Al Jazeera America. “We predicted [this] as an upper limit in the laboratory stage. We can therefore conclude that it was a successful first half year.”

De Wit said in a statement that he didn’t “expect a yield as high as this so quickly.”

The 230-foot stretch of road, which is embedded with solar cells that are protected by two layers of safety glass, is built for bike traffic, a use that reflects the road’s environmentally-friendly message and the cycling-heavy culture of the Netherlands.

In the US, we pay about 12 cents a KwH for electricity  (the Dutch probably pay more).  But at this rate, in 6 months, the solar sidewalk has generated... $360 of electricity.  Double that for a year, and we get $720 of electricity a year.

How much did the sidewalk cost?  The article doesn't say.  You will find this typical of wind and solar articles.  If they quantify the installation cost, they will not quantify the value of power produced.  If they quantify the power produced, they will never quantify the installation cost. This article says the installation cost was $3.5 million, though I suppose one should subtract from that the cost to build a similar length concrete bike path, but that can't be more than $100,000 for 230 feet.  They say they are getting 70kwh per year per square meter, which is $8.40 worth of electricity per square meter per year.  Since regular solar panels - without all the special glass overlays and installation in the ground and inverters and wiring - cost about $150-$200 per square meter, you can see this is a horrible investment.

Part of the reason this is a bad investment is that solar panels are simply not efficient enough and cheap enough to be cost effective -- I think they will be someday, but not now.   But this project has special problems:

  • The panels are actually in the ground with people driving over them.  Honestly, could one actually choose a worse spot for a solar panel?  This installation location, vs. say a roof, adds incredible cost to toughen the panels for wear.  Also, it increases their maintenance costs and likely reduces their life.
  • Even worse, the panels have to sit flat on the ground, which is not the most efficient place for them.  Panels are most efficient if tilted at an angle and (in the case of Holland) facing south.  Further, they are more efficient up in the air where they do not get shaded by trees or buildings.

This is just stupid, stupid, stupid.  Perhaps if solar becomes more efficient and we have run out of space on every roof in the world, one might possibly maybe (but probably not) consider this.  But despite the inherent inanity of this idea, look at all the articles on Solaroad -- Think Progress, the Huffington Post, Engadget, Tree Hugger, Extreme Tech, NPR, Sustainable Business -- they all have multiple, gushing, unrelentingly positive articles about this.  Look at all the positively fawning comments on Think Progress.  I can't find a single article on the web that is even slightly skeptical.

 Update:  A reader sends me this epic video takedown of this stupid idea.  He did this in advance of the article today.  He finds it to be complete BS, despite the fact that he overestimates electrical production by a factor of 2.

Wow, It's Sure Lucky We Don't Allow All Those Dangerous Oil Pipelines to Get Built

Massive Fire Rages After Another Buffett-Owned Oiltrain Derails In North Dakota, Town Evacuated

This is CLASSIC seen and unseen.  New pipelines are discussed as if the alternative to building the pipeline is "do nothing" when in fact the alternative is moving crude by rail.  When looked at against the correct alternative, pipelines look like environmental saviors.

Update:  I do know the usage rules for its and it's.  I am just a terrible proof reader.

Celebrate the Strong Dollar

We are already seeing articles bemoaning the strong dollar as somehow a threat to the American economy.  Don't believe it.  Maintaining a weak dollar is yet another crony government program that benefits a tiny minority of admittedly vocal and politically connected Americans.

First, a bit of an aside.  It is amazing to me that the US dollar can be strong at all right now, given the actions of the Fed.  With its near infinite QE and zero-interest rate programs, one would expect the dollar to be weak (Oversimplifying, driving down the returns on financial assets reduces the overseas demand for them, thus reducing the demand for dollars, driving down the price of dollars).  But it turns out that the rest of the world (esp. Japan and the EU) are actually working twice as hard to trash their own currencies (they are actually heading into negative interest rate territory, not just zero) and thus on a relative basis, the dollar is stronger.

Companies that export or compete a lot with manufacturers in other countries hate the strong dollar.  It makes their domestically produced products more expensive vis a vis products manufactured in other countries.  Many of these companies have powerful political voices, and some have large unions with even more powerful political voices.  They lobby for a weaker dollar.  Part of that lobbying is often to portray other countries as nefariously "manipulating" their currencies to hurt the US.

What these countries that are weakening their own currencies are actually doing is trashing the prosperity of the vast majority of their citizens to protect the earnings of a few politically powerful producers.  Japan is a great example.  Japan is a country in which consumers have been stomped on from decades in order to reduce the price of the country's exports.  Japanese consumers pay far more for everything than we do, all so their exporters can lower their prices in the US.

This is the same in China.  We frequently host visiting Chinese students.  You know what every one of these kids do on their trip to the US?  They bring an empty suitcase that they fill up with electronic and fashion goods they buy here, many of which were actually manufactured in China  (I have never, ever have hosted a Chinese student that did not buy at least one Chinese-manufactured iPhone here).

So, we must oppose this currency "manipulation" that impoverishes Japanese, Chinese, and European citizens in favor of giving much lower prices to Americans -- Why?

We should celebrate the strong dollar.  It makes every one of us richer.  Not just when we buy Chinese electronics, but even when we buy American-made products that now must be less expensive to compete with foreign products and which benefit from cheaper inputs in their own manufacturing.

Years and years ago I wrote a hypothetical post about Chinese interventions to maintain a trade surplus form a Chinese consumer's perspective in a post from our sister publication Panda Blog.  I think it holds up really well.  It said in part:

It is important to note that each and every one of these government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the expense of Chinese citizens and consumers.  A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese.  So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  And limiting foreign exchange re-investments to low-yield government bonds has acted as a direct subsidy of American taxpayers and the American government, saddling China with extraordinarily low yields on our nearly $1 trillion in foreign exchange.   Every single step China takes to promote exports is in effect a subsidy of American consumers by Chinese citizens.

Nestle: Private Company Getting Blamed for Government Incompetence

The story begins with a discovery that the permit under which Nestle's Arrowhead Water has been collecting water in the San Bernardino National Forest expired in 1988.  LOL, oops.  Environmental and other Leftish sites are calling for Nestle's head and somehow blaming Nestle for this.

As a permittee with the US Forest Service (USFS) in California and across the country, I can guess with pretty high confidence exactly what happened here.  For years I was head of a trade group of recreation concessionaires (think lodges and guides and such) who do business in the USFS under permit.  Most of these were located in California.  For years, the biggest problem we have had with the USFS in California is that they are years and years behind in nearly all their permit renewals.  There are literally hundreds of expired permit in the USFS in California alone.

For reasons that probably go to bureaucratic incentives, despite the Forest Service's huge budget, they are loath to allocate resources to renewing these permits -- they want to fill their organization with biologists and archaeologists and arborists, not contracts people.  Making the situation worse, Forest Service and other Federal rules have burdened the permit renewal process with so many legal requirements that each one, even if trivial in size and impact, is absurdly time-consuming to complete.

This is not a new situation -- it has obtained for years.  Almost five years ago I met personally with the Chief of the Forest Service in DC and begged for more resources to be assigned to permit renewals, but to no avail.   I did the same in a meeting barely a month ago with the head of the USFS's Region 5 (basically California).   All of us permittees have been vociferously complaining about this for years.

When you look at these situations, then, what you will see is not some evil private business trying to get over on the public, but a business that is literally screaming in frustration, year in and year out, begging the US Forest Service to address its permit renewal.   Generally, local Forest Service staff will give the company verbal assurances that they should keep operating, so they do, continuing to pay their fees and operate within the guidelines of the old, expired contract.

I would be willing to bet a fair amount of money that this is exactly what happened to Nestle.

By the way, the usual groups seem to be piling on Nestle about bottled water from the Sacramento tap water system.  A couple of comments:

  • Environmentalists seem to obsessively hate bottled water, but ignore what a trivial, trivial percentage of total water use is bottled.
  • Critics are accusing Nestle of making obscene profits on Sacramento tap water.  But if they really think the spread between tap water and bottled water is too large, isn't the real issue that Sacramento is under-pricing its tap water?  After all, Nestle is paying what everyone else in the town is paying for water.
  • Environmentalists have a misguided fetish for local foods, often ignoring that transportation costs and energy are a tiny percentage of most food production costs  (a percentage small enough to be dwarfed by differential productivity of soils and climates).  But here, all they can possibly accomplish is to chase Nestle's bottling plant out of California and then have the water trucked back into the state.  This might be a net gain depending on the differential value of California water vs. fuel, but we can't know that because California water pricing is so screwed up.

OMG, Someone Actually Mentioned Price in an Article in Our Paper About Avoiding Water Shortages

Kudos to Jeff Gibbs for finally bringing to the pages of the Arizona Republic what strikes me as the most economically obvious, but least mentioned, solution to future water shortages:  Price.

Materials I Use to Teach My 90-Minute Economic Class

I teach one 90-minute class a year in the senior economics elective at my kids' high school.  The teacher gives me a pretty free ability to cover whatever I wish.

Rather than trying to cover some school of thought, I instead focus the class on the seen and unseen (starting with quotes from Bastiat and Hazlitt).  We have about 12 economic problems, where we start with the seen, and then introduce the unseen.  We start with the classic broken window as the first one.

I teach the class with role play.  I give every student a couple of business cards with their role typed on them.  When I call on them I have them advocate for their role.  I have started to give a small food reward at the end of class to the student who best gets into character -- this has helped the role play immensely.   Let's take one example I do towards the end of the class involving price gouging after a hurricane.

We begin with the governor of Florida who has just signed an anti-price-gouging law.  We talk about how everyone hates price-gouging after a disaster.  What could be worse, right?

We then talk about a woman who spends most of her time at home, but rushes out to fill her gas tank right after the storm hits.  She has to wait in line for gas for 2 hours because everyone else has done the same as she, racing to the station, but she doesn't mind because she doesn't have anything else to do and feels better.  If asked if she would have topped off her tank if the price jumped to $6 from $3, she says no way.

Then we have an owner of a roofing company enter the fray.  His men are working 14 hours a day to put roofs on houses.  He is making a lot of money, and doing a lot of good as well.  Nothing is more important to people than fixing the roof before the next rain.  He may be the most important man in Florida at that moment.  But he can't keep up with demand, and worse, his guys are having to sit for 2 hours at a time to fill up their company trucks, when they should be repairing roofs.   He would gladly pay $10 a gallon if he could just keep his men on the job and not in gas stations.

So at this point we discuss "fairness".  It seems fair not to raise prices to "take advantage" of a disaster.  But is it fair to allocate gas away from the busiest and most productive whose time is most valuable to the people who are least productive and have the lowest value for their time?  We discuss how price caps shift rationing from price to queuing, and the people who get the product shift from those who most value it to those who assign the lowest value to their own time.

Finally, we discuss a guy in Georgia who has a tanker of gas he was going to send to a station in Atlanta.  They need the gas more in Florida, but they aren't paying more for it under the new price-gouging law, and so with his higher costs of driving all the way to Florida vs. Atlanta he is going to sell the gas in Atlanta.  If the price of gas in Florida were to rise to $6, he would send his truck of gas to Florida in a heartbeat.

This is the kind of discussion we have.   We will end up in a debate, with kids pointing out all kinds of things -- eg poor people who have a life or death need and might be shut out at $6.  We don't try to resolve things, but want them to understand there are unseen consequences to actions like price-gouging laws that must be considered along with the seen.  They may end up dismissing the unseen as less important than the seen, but it should not be ignored.

If anyone finds themselves in the same situation as me needing to teach a group (it could be adults as well) you are welcome to use my materials.  I actually print the business cards on Avery two-sided business card paper.  Attached are separate files for the front and back of cards as well as a sort of discussion key I use to guide the conversation.  We get into things, at least tangentially, like public choice theory and concentrated benefits / dispersed costs.

If you want to use the materials, you are welcome to email me with questions.  But these are all public domain so help yourself without permission.  (By the way, in trying to match the front to the back of each card in your mind, remember there is a mirroring effect, so the text on the right card on the backs in any given row goes with the front of the card on the left of the same row in the other file).

economics class discussion guide

economics class biz cards front

economics class biz cards back

Who's Subsidizing Whom? And Should We Oppose All New Anti-Poverty Programs as Crony Giveaways?

Well, the new meme on the Left in favor of higher minimum wages seems to be that since many minimum wage workers also receive government benefits, those benefits "subsidize" the employers paying minimum wage.  Example from Kevin Drum here.  This is utter madness.  A few responses:

  • The implication is that the choice is between a job at $8 an hour or a job at $15 an hour.  But this assumes the jobs still all exist at $15 an hour.  Clearly, many would disappear over time, either as companies automate or as consumers reduce purchases at now higher cost establishments.  If the alternative to offering a $8 an hour job is in fact offering no job at all, then minimum wage employers are reducing government benefits payouts.
  • The Left has pushed eligibility for many programs (e.g. the changes in Obamacare to Medicaid) into higher income bands of people making more than 100% of the poverty line.  How is this creeping up of transfer program eligibility somehow the fault of employers?
  • Does this mean that all right-thinking Americans should oppose any future expansions of transfer programs as crony giveaways?  And if you say no, that they should not be thought of crony giveaways in advance of their passage, why should they be considered such afterwards?
  • The whole point of many of these programs, like the EITC which is listed among the programs in Drum's post, is exactly this -- to provide transition assistance from not working to supporting oneself.  The Left's view on this is, as usual, entirely static.  What are the folks who are on benefits and working in food service doing 5-10 years from now?  Would they look back on that time as a stepping stone to something better?
  • If you require that all employers pay a salary such that none of its workers are on assistance of any sort, which is the logical conclusion of this meme, then you divide the world into two classes -- those 100% employed and those 100% on benefits, with most people in the latter having little or no prospect of moving to the former.
  • My company pays minimum wage to the vast majority of our 300+ campground workers.  But who is subsidizing whom?  Most of these folks are over 60 and on Social Security and find that they need or want more money than their Social Security can provide.  One reason for this is that Social Security is a horrible retirement savings program, essentially paying a negative interest rate on the money contributed to the system in the retiree's name.  If Social Security were a private retirement plan, its proprietors would be in jail by now.  Because Social Security is so lame, older people seek work, and come to me, happy to stay active and earn money to supplement their government checks.  So am I subsidizing the SSA's inability to provide a fair return?

Two Hedge Fund Managers Walk into a Bar

This one is priceless, and I have been remiss in not posting it.  Reminded most recently by the link at Maggie's Farm.  Excerpt, but the whole thing is great:

"Here's the problem. Most hedge funds are indistinguishable from mutual funds, other than the fact that they feel entitled to charge 30 times the fees."

"Two percent of assets for showing up in the morning, and 20% of any profits."

"There are probably 100 hedge funds that will consistently beat the market after fees. They won't take your money. They provide just enough hope for investors to keep the rest of us in business. We earn half the performance of index funds, charge 30 times the fees of mutual funds, pay half the income tax rates of school teachers, have triple the ego of rock stars, and fewer disclosure requirements than the NSA."

"We're basically a conduit between public pension funds and Greenwich real estate agents."

 

Minimum Wages as a Terrible Anti-Poverty Program, Part 2

The Unbroken Window has more along the lines I wrote about last week.  It is all good, here is an excerpt:

MaCurdy found that less than 40% of wage increases [from a minimum wage hike] went to people earning less than twice the poverty line, and among that group, about third of them are trying to raise a family on the minimum wage. In other words, something like 1 in 8 people who do receive the minimum wage (and ignoring any potential adverse effects of it), are actually in what you might call the “targeted” group. 7 out of 8 people who receive minimum wage increases fall outside the targeted group.

 

Generic Economics Report

Learn Microeconomics

We discuss a lot of economic issues on this site, and economics has become pretty much a staple of political discussion.  If concepts such as price elasticity, compensating differentials, or tax wedges leave you scratching your head, this is a great (free) online video series teaching the fundamentals of microeconomics.  Complete this course and you will be way ahead of 99% of politicians and journalists.  Of course, the newspaper headlines will start to drive you even crazier than they likely do today, with their total ignorance of basic economics, but there is a price to everything.

Last week, I was giving my usual introduction speech to some of my front-line employees.  One of the things I said to them is that this was a very low-margin business, which meant that wages were not very high but we try hard to compensate by making the job fun (since all of our employees essentially get to live in campgrounds).  It turns out that Cowen and Tabarrok actually have a lecture on this very topic in chapter 13 of their series.

Everything You Need to Know About California Water Pricing

California is the #2 rice grower in the nation, with 22% of US production.

There is a debate growing in California about whether crops like almonds (that use a lot of water) should be allowed.  But all that authoritarian command and control debate about "allowing" certain activities is unnecessary.  Just raise prices to some sort of supply and demand matching level (it is a bit awkward to do this because there is not a true free market in water supply but any attempts have got to be better than the current absurdly low prices).  Then the almond growers themselves, and the rice growers, and the golf courses, and everyone else will decide if they can still operate in CA or not.  No politicians' commands necessary.

Raising prices also creates a secondary benefit over government-imposed rationing -- it provides incentives for people to seek out and invest in new sources of supply.  Desalinization, any one?

That Mysterious, Unavailable "Correct" Price

This quote from a hotel owner in Venezuela that now asks its patrons to bring their own toilet paper caught my eye:

Camacho says she refuses to buy toilet paper from the black market on principle.

“In the black market you have to pay 110 bolivares [$0.50] for a roll of toilet paper that usually costs 17 bolivares [$ 0.08] in the supermarket,” Camacho told Fusion. “We don’t want to participate in the corruption of the black market, and I don’t have four hours a day to line up for toilet paper” at a supermarket….

I see this all the time, the notion there is somehow a "correct" price that no one is willing to charge.   There is nothing real about the 17 bolivares price.  It is a fiction.  There are only two real prices in the market -- 110 bolivares PLUS any risk/penalty from breaking the law or 17 bolivares PLUS 4 hours of your personal time.  My sense is that if the legal risk of buying on the black market is low, and you knew the average order size and the value people placed on their own time, you would find these two prices converging.  But in any case, it is dumb to continue to insist that 17 bolivares is the "right" price.

Why Minimum Wage Increases are a Terrible Anti-Poverty Program

The other day when I expressed my (temporary) ennui about blogging, I said I was tired of posting about things like "why the minimum wage is a terrible anti-poverty program" and getting back one line comments such as "you hate poor people."  In looking back at that post, I realize I actually haven't put in one place my reasons why minimum wage increases are a bad way to fight poverty.  So here they are:

1.  Only a tiny minority of workers make the minimum wage.  Something like 5% of hourly workers, and 3% of all workers, are paid minimum wage or less.  This number is not quite right for two reasons.  One, many states have higher minimum wages than the Federal rate and this analysis by the BLS is done at the Federal rate only.  Thus this understates the number of minimum wage workers in those higher minimum wage states.  But, these numbers also exclude tips, which about half these workers receive.  If one reasonably includes tip income, these numbers are overstated.  On balance, if one looks carefully state by state and excludes workers who get tips, the percentage of all workers who make the minimum wage holds around 3%.

Further, about half (53% by the source above) of minimum wage earners are 24 years old and under.  These are not the folks activists generally picture when they say "A family cannot live on that wage..."   Thus only about 1.5% of all workers are people 25 and older making minimum wage.  The target for this "anti-poverty" program is thus truly tiny.

2.  Most minimum wage earners are not poor.  The vast majority of minimum wage jobs are held as second jobs or held by second earners in a household or by the kids of affluent households (source)

casselman-minwage

 

Most of the data I have seen points to about a third of minimum wage jobs held by earners in families below the poverty line.  So 2/3 of the increased wages from a minimum wage increase go to non-poor households (it is actually probably more than this given #4 below).

3.  Most people in poverty don't make the minimum wage.  In fact, the typically hourly income of the poor appears to be around $14 an hour.  The problem is not the hourly rate, the problem is the availability of work.  The poor are poor because they don't get enough job hours.

4. Minimum wage increases kill unskilled labor hours.  You can certainly find Leftish studies that point to niche situations where a minimum wage increase maybe kindof didn't hurt employment.  But in general I think most people understand that when you raise the price of something, people will use less of it.  In this case, businesses will find ways to hire less unskilled labor as the price of such labor rises with the minimum wage.  Even if businesses hire the same number of people after a minimum wage increase, they likely will demand and get more skilled and experienced employees for this money, which likely will leave the poor out in the cold just as much as if the job were eliminated.

minwage

 

If one replaces the words "minimum wage" with "starting wage for new unskilled workers", the problem becomes more obvious.

5. Minimum wage laws ignore substantial non-monetary benefits of entry-level jobs.   Many young workers or poor workers with a spotty work record need to build a reliable work history to get better work in the future, just as a young couple must build their credit history with small purchases before they can take out a mortgage.  Further, many folks without much experience in the job market are missing critical skills -- by these I am not talking about sophisticated things like CNC machine tool programming.   I am referring to prosaic skills you likely take for granted (check your privilege!) such as showing up reliably each day for work,  overcoming the typical frictions of working with diverse teammates, and working to achieve management-set goals via a defined process.  I wrote a lot more about these here.  By defining acceptable compensation of jobs only as dollars of pay rather than to include softer skills and such, these wages disproportionately discriminate against unskilled and inexperienced workers.