Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category.

This is a Really Good Inflation Chart -- Wish It Would Be Used More Often

Inflation statistics are always kind of hard to read -- what is driving the rise?  Is it across the board or a glitch in one sectors?  The media tries to deal with it by presenting a second number which is the number without the more volatile food and energy number.  The combination of the two gives a bit more information.

But this simple chart is way better.  It shows inflation by component at the same time while showing how much that component is weighted in the overall metric.  Via zero hedge.

click to enlarge

Krugman the Hack vs. Krugman the Economist

I am simply exhausted with Paul Krugman calling people anti-science neanderthals for staking out fairly mainstream economic positions that he himself has held in the past.  It would be one thing to say, "well, I used to believe the same thing but I changed my mind because x, y, z".  That would be a statement to respect.  Instead Krugman 1) pretends he never said any such thing and 2) acts like his opponent's position is so out of the mainstream that they are some sort of terrorist for even suggesting it.

I had an example just the other day.

Here is another, from Ben Domenech:

Yesterday, New York Times columnist and CUNY economics professor Paul Krugman had some very strong words about the position in Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s new poverty report that American welfare programs discourage work and “actually reduce opportunity, creating a poverty trap.”  In fact, after contrasting the Ryan report’s view on poverty traps with some data on inequality and welfare states, Krugman resoundingly concluded that Ryan’s ideas were a total sham:

So the whole poverty trap line is a falsehood wrapped in a fallacy; the alleged facts about incentive effects are mostly wrong, and in any case the entire premise that work effort = social mobility is wrong.

Despite Krugman’s strong conclusions, however, Ryan’s views about US welfare policies and poverty traps are actually pretty mainstream – cited by people across the political spectrum as a big reason to reform state federal poverty programs.  In fact, a New York Times columnist and Princeton economics professor expressed these widely-held views on the Old Grey Lady’s pages a mere two months ago:

But our patchwork, uncoordinated system of antipoverty programs does have the effect of penalizing efforts by lower-income households to improve their position: the more they earn, the fewer benefits they can collect. In effect, these households face very high marginal tax rates. A large fraction, in some cases 80 cents or more, of each additional dollar they earn is clawed back by the government.”

Even more, the Ryan report’s “poverty trap” analysis is based on the work of the Urban Institute’s Gene Steuerle’s (see p. 7 of the Ryan report), on whom the very same Princeton professor once wrote:

[I]t’s actually a well-documented fact that effective marginal rates are highest, not on the superrich, but on workers toward the lower end of the scale. Why? Partly because of the payroll tax, but largely because of means-tested benefits that fade out as your income rises. Here’s a recent discussion by Eugene Steuerle

That professor, if you haven’t already guessed, was none other than Paul Krugman. 

By the way, can I say how happy the first sentance of this quote makes me, to no longer see my alma mater mentioned in the same breath as Krguman at every turn?

Uhhh, So?

Apparently it is some kind of amazing new insight or quasi-scandal that the Fed seems to care more about inflation than unemployment, at least as measured by the language of its meeting notes.

Call me crazy, but the Fed's job is to manage the currency and money supply, not to manage employment or the broader economy.  I have always assumed that it was understood by all that keeping the value of money stable (ie fighting inflation) was the Fed's priority ahead of other economic issues.  What am I missing here?

Is Occupational Licensing Meant to Block Competition from Ethnic Minorities?

Looking at this map of state licensing regimes (darker is more onerous, with AZ being the worst), it is hard to correlate with states being Republican or Democrat.  That doesn't surprise me, because I have always thought the urge to restrict competition and protect incumbents has always been a bipartisan enterprise.

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So I sat and thought for a minute about my home state of AZ.  Why is it the worst?  We have a pretty good libertarian history here, from Goldwater onwards.  We have at least one fairly libertarian Senator (Jeff Flake).  So what is the deal?

My hypothesis is that it is related to immigration.  The same majority Republican legislators who are generally open to free markets simultaneously have an incredible fear and loathing of immigration.  Perhaps our onerous business licensing regime is driven by nativists wanting to protect themselves from competition by new immigrants, immigrants who would struggle to compete onerous licensing requirements?

So what does this map look like vs. immigrant population density?  Via Wikipedia, here are the states on density of Hispanics

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Hmm, we might be getting somewhere, but its not a perfect fit.  So instead, let's hypothesize that business licensing is aimed at non-white, non-hispanic groups in general (similar to early justifications for the minimum wage as a way to keep black workers migrating from the south out of traditionally "white" jobs).  I cannot get it by state, but the map below by county looks pretty dang similar to the licensing map.  Areas in blue have above average percent of non-whites, red is below average.

Not a perfect fit certainly (one would expect Texas to be more onerous), but perhaps close enough to treat the hypothesis seriously.  I had always thought that I would be the last one to play the race card in a policy analysis, but business licensing tends to have an inherently base motive (protect one group from competition from another group) that is pretty easy to square with racial and ethnic fear.

 

Want to Make Your Reputation in Academia? Here is an Important Class of Problem For Which We Have No Solution Approach

Here is the problem:  There exists a highly dynamic, multi- multi- variable system.  One input is changed.  How much, and in what ways, did that change affect the system?

Here are two examples:

  • The government makes a trillion dollars in deficit spending to try to boost the economy.  Did it do so?  By how much? (This Reason article got me thinking about it)
  • Man's actions increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.  We are fairly confident that this has some warming effect, but how how much?  There are big policy differences between the response to a lot and a little.

The difficulty, of course, is that there is no way to do a controlled study, and while one's studied variable is changing, so are thousands, even millions of others.  These two examples have a number of things in common:

  • We know feedbacks play a large role in the answer, but the system is so hard to pin down that we are not even sure of the sign, much less the magnitude, of the feedback.  Do positive feedbacks such as ice melting and cloud formation multiply CO2 warming many times, or is warming offset by negative feedback from things like cloud formation?  Similarly in the economy, does deficit spending get multiplied many times as the money gets respent over and over, or is it offset by declines in other categories of spending like business investment?
  • In both examples, we have recent cases where the system has not behaved as expected (at least by some).  The economy remained at best flat after the recent stimulus.  We have not seen global temperatures increase for 15-20 years despite a lot of CO2 prodcution.  Are these evidence that the hypothesized relationship between cause and effect does not exist (or is small), or simply evidence that other effects independently drove the system in the opposite direction such that, for example, the economy would have been even worse without the stimulus or the world would have cooled without CO2 additions.
  • In both examples, we use computer models not only to predict the future, but to explain the past.  When the government said that the stimulus had worked, they did so based on a computer model whose core assumptions were that stimulus works.  In both fields, we get this sort of circular proof, with the output of computer models that assume a causal relationship being used to prove the causal relationship

So, for those of you who may think that we are at the end of math (or science), here is a class of problem that is clearly, just from these two examples, enormously important.  And we cannot solve it -- we can't even come close, despite the hubris of Paul Krugman or Michael Mann who may argue differently.    We are explaining fire with Phlogiston.

I have no idea where the solution lies.  Perhaps all we can hope for is a Goedel to tell us the problem is impossible to solve so stop trying.  Perhaps the seeds of a solution exist but they are buried in another discipline (God knows the climate science field often lacks even the most basic connection to math and statistics knowledge).

Maybe I am missing something, but who is even working on this?  By "working on it" I do not mean trying to build incrementally "better" economics or climate models.  Plenty of folks doing that.  But who is working on new approaches to tease out relationships in complex multi-variable systems?

Krugman vs. Krugman 3 Days Earlier (A New Record For Self-Contradiction)

People like to compare what Krugman writes today in his political hack era with what he wrote in his real economist era.  But this time I do not have to look that far back.

On February 5 and On February 6, Krugman essentially agrees with the OMB review of Obamacare effects on employment, saying that the health care subsidies for lower-income workers would cause millions to work less by reducing the incentive to work, which he called "a good thing."  More here.

On February 9, Krugman returns to a theme he has been hitting on for some weeks now, calling the Republicans anti-science, mean-spririted, etc. for actually believing that unemployment benefits might reduce employment by reducing the incentive to work.  And here is what he wrote on the topic on December 8:

The view of most labor economists now is that unemployment benefits have only a modest negative effect on job search — and in today’s economy have no negative effect at all on overall employment. On the contrary, unemployment benefits help create jobs, and cutting those benefits would depress the economy as a whole.

Yes I understand the shape of the subsidy patterns with income are different, but good God man you cannot reasonably argue that the labor supply curve is sensitive to means-tested government subsidies for one program but not at all for another without a heroic analysis that I cannot imagine and Krugman has not supplied.

 

Minimum Wage and Teen Unemployment

The other day, when criticizing an incredibly facile minimum wage analysis in the Arizona Republic, I had meant to observe that since minimum wage jobs are such a tiny (1.5% if include jobs that work for tips) portion of the workforce, one should look at more targeted metrics to assess the effect of minimum wage hikes, such as teen employment.

Kevin Erdmann has such an analysis.  He observes, "Is there any other issue where the data conforms so strongly to basic economic intuition, and yet is widely written off as a coincidence?"

Note that there is still some danger, as I wrote before, in measuring employment effects from the implementation date. Businesses plan ahead an many job losses may be occurring between the announcement and the implementation date.  I know we have made all the job cuts we plan to make in response to California minimum wage increases six months ahead of the actual date the wage takes effect.

Update:  The charts are obviously far from a smoking gun.  That is the nature of economic analysis.  In complex and chaotic multi-multi-variable systems, controlled studies are almost impossible and direct correlations are hard to find, and even when found may be coincidence.  As an employer who hires a lot of summer seasonal employees in parks, I would obviously be a natural employer of teens.  But I no longer do so, and it is important to understand that wages are only a part of the equation.  Another major issue is one of liability.  Increasingly, the legal system makes the employer liable for any action of their employees, no matter how boneheaded or how much the action is against all policy and training.   I have enough trouble with employees that have years of good work history -- I am not really excited about taking a chance on an unproven 17-year-old.

This Just In -- Demand Curves Slope Down

Apparently when prices for things are arbitrarily doubled, the demand for them goes down.  Via the New York Times:

On Monday, about 175 employees of the buffet restaurant in the slot-machine and electronic gambling casino in Ozone Park learned that the restaurant had been closed and that their jobs no longer existed. The casino had received plaudits when, in late October, a labor arbitrator issued a ruling that doubled the average pay of workers.

...

“Everything is done,” said Mariano Cano, 45, a server at the buffet for the past two years. “They just threw us out like dogs. They just gave us a couple of dollars to shut up, and that’s it.”

In October, Mr. Cano’s pay went from just over $5 an hour, plus tips for the drinks he delivered to the tables and dishes he cleared, to around $12, because of the living wage agreement.

This is one of those regulatory overreach paired with corporate cronyism stories, so I won't express any sympathy for the business involved -- it is earning huge rents from insider political deals it cut, and though the NYT does not explain it very well, my sense is that the arbitration requirement on wages was part of that political deal.

But it is amazing to me how much the Left has simply hypnotized itself into believing that minimum wage increases don't affect employment.  If we go back a number of months and look at the article where the NYT announced the arbitration decision, there is not one single mention that there might be some job security issues with forcing a doubling of wages.

Jeannine Nixon looked as if she had hit the jackpot. Ms. Nixon, a customer relations representative at Resorts World Casino in Queens, had just learned that she would be making $40,000 a year, up from $22,300.

“It’s life-changing,” Ms. Nixon, her voice cracking, said on Thursday. “I can finally feel relieved.”

It is amazing to me that it did not even occur to any at the NYT to think that a doubling of worker pay might be anything but a pure bonanza.  I suppose they were blinded by a sense that casino margins were so high (though I find that the public consistently overestimates margins of many businesses, confusing revenues with profits).  Even if the casino is wildly profitable, one had to consider that all activities in the casino were not equally profitable.   Restaurants often have thin margins and 20-30% labor costs.  There is simply no room for doubling them in a business that typically has single digit margins at best (in fact, most restaurants lose money).

There are a number of reasons why people can fool themselves into thinking that minimum wage increases have no effect on employment

  1. The biggest reason is that only about 3% of American workers earn the minimum wage.  So even a large drop in minimum wage job prospects, say by 10%, might only affect total US employment by a few tenths of a percent, a number that might not be seen in the general economic noise.
  2. Minimum wage increases are typically implemented in small steps and announced well in advance.  Looking at employment the day after vs. the day before the actual date of change likely misses most of the effect.  For example, California announced almost a year in advance that minimum wages were going up by 25% in July of 2014.  Our company closed one operation and made substantial reductions in our work force in response, but we made these changes in December 2013, months before the change actually took effect.

Which makes this article in the Arizona Republic by Ronald Hansen one of the worst, most facile bits of economic analysis I have ever seen.

But, at the most basic level, there is good reason to think the minimum wage doesn’t kill jobs.

The minimum wage has gone up 22 times since it was instituted in 1938. There is complete seasonally adjusted data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics available for 21 of those hikes.

In 15 of those 21 cases, the U.S. economy added jobs in the year after the minimum wage went up.

On 11 occasions, it added more jobs after the hike than it did in the year before the raise went into effect.

This alone suggests that raising the minimum wage isn’t an automatic drag on employment growth.

This is simply absurd for all the reasons I listed above.   I understand how I might find this kind of "analysis" in the comments section of the Daily Kos, but how does one get this past an editor?

Ugh -- Krugman Bringing Climate-Style Argument by Marginalization to Economics

Climate alarmists have mastered the trick of portraying opposition to their theories as not just being wrong, but being anti-science.  For years many scientists who have not looked into climate science at all have reflexively signed petitions supporting the alarmists, in the belief they were supporting science against anti-science. (By the way, time and again when these physicists and Earth scientists have actually later looked at the quality of climate science work, they have been astounded at the really poor quality garbage they were implicitly supporting -- I know, I am in that camp myself).

It looks like Paul Krugman, the most politicized economist ever(TM), is trying to bring the same style argumentation to economics.  If you don't agree with him, you are not just wrong, you are anti-science.  He is Galileo, and you are the ill-informed mystic.

So let me summarize: we had a scientific revolution in economics, one that dramatically increased our comprehension of the world and also gave us crucial practical guidance about what to do in the face of depressions. The broad outlines of the theory devised during that revolution have held up extremely well in the face of experience, while those rejecting the theory because it doesn’t correspond to their notion of common sense have been wrong every step of the way.

Yet a large part of both the political establishment and the economics establishment rejects the whole thing out of hand, because they don’t like the conclusions.

Galileo wept.

There are two other similarities between economics and climate that support this kind of blind (but unwarranted) certainty:

  1. There are few if any opportunities for controlled experiments to truly test cause and effect
  2. There are near infinite numbers of moving parts and variables, such that one can almost always find an analysis that shows your favored variable correlated to something good or bad -- as long, of course, as you are willing to pretend that a zillion other variables weren't changing at the same time which could have equally likely been part of the causation.

Presented with Many Questions, But No Comment

Inequality Metrics Exclude Effects of Government Actions to Reduce Inequality

I have seen this fact a number of times and am always amazed when I read it, since poverty figures are never, ever presented with this bit of context

LBJ promised that the war on poverty would be an "investment" that would "return its cost manifold to the entire economy." But the country has invested $20.7 trillion in 2011 dollars over the past 50 years. What does America have to show for its investment? Apparently, almost nothing: The official poverty rate persists with little improvement.

That is in part because the government's poverty figures are misleading. Census defines a family as poor based on income level but doesn't count welfare benefits as a form of income. Thus, government means-tested spending can grow infinitely while the poverty rate remains stagnant.

Rector argues that poor today is very different than poor in  Johnson's day, and that perhaps we might celebrate a bit

Not even government, though, can spend $9,000 per recipient a year and have no impact on living standards. And it shows: Current poverty has little resemblance to poverty 50 years ago. According to a variety of government sources, including census data and surveys by federal agencies, the typical American living below the poverty level in 2013 lives in a house or apartment that is in good repair, equipped with air conditioning and cable TV. His home is larger than the home of the average nonpoor French, German or English man. He has a car, multiple color TVs and a DVD player. More than half the poor have computers and a third have wide, flat-screen TVs. The overwhelming majority of poor Americans are not undernourished and did not suffer from hunger for even one day of the previous year.

Remember what I presented a while back.  This is what the Left thinks, or wants us to think, American income inequality looks like -- our rich are richer than comparable European welfare states because our poor are poorer.

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And this is what income inequality in the US actually looks like -- our rich and middle class are richer, but our poor are not poorer.  A less redistributionist approach floats all boats.  I compared the US to many European welfare states, using the Left's own data source.  Here is an example, but hit the link to see it all.

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Laissez Faire and the Potato Famine

Via Cafe Hayek

As explained by historian Stephen Davies, after defeating James II in 1690, protestants subjected Irish Catholics to harsh restrictions on land ownership and leasing.  Most of Ireland’s people were thus forced to farm plots of land that were inefficiently small and on which they had no incentives to make long-term improvements.  As a consequence, Irish agricultural productivity stagnated, and, in turn, the high-yield, highly nutritious, and labor-intensive potato became the dominant crop.  In combination with interventions that obstructed Catholics from engaging in modern commercial activities – interventions that kept large numbers of Irish practicing subsistence agriculture well into the 19th century – this over-dependence on the potato spelled doom when in 1845 that crop became infected with the fungus Phytophthora infestans.

To make matters worse, Britain’s high-tariff “corn laws” discouraged the importation of grains that would have lessened the starvation.  Indeed, one of Britain’s most famous moves toward laissez faire – the 1846 repeal of the corn laws – was partly a response to the famine in Ireland.

Had laissez faire in fact reigned in Ireland in the mid-19th century, the potato famine almost certainly would never had happened.

Arnold Kling Provides An Interesting Framework for Economic Growth

I thought this was a useful simple picture from Arnold Kling, vis a vis countries and their economies:

Low Creation High Creation
Low Destruction Corporatist Stagnation Schumpeterian Boom
High Destruction Minsky Recession Rising Dynamism

He suggests the US may currently be in the lower-left quadrant.  Europe and Japan in the upper left.   My sense is that China is in the upper right, not the lower right (too much of the economy is controlled by the politicians in power for any real destruction to occur).

Once a government gains powerful tools for economic intervention, it becomes politically almost impossible to allow destruction to occur, no matter how long-term beneficial it can be.  The US is one of the few countries in the world that has ever allowed such destruction to occur over an extended period.  The reason it is hard is that successful incumbents are able to wield political power to prevent upstart competition that might threaten their position and business model (see here for example).

It takes a lot of discipline to have government not intervene in favor of such incumbents.  Since politicians lack this discipline, the only way to prevent such intervention is by castrating the government, by eliminating its power to intervene in the first place.  Feckless politicians cannot wield power that does not exist (though don't tell Obama that because he seems to be wielding a lot of power to modify legislation that is not written into my copy of the Constitution.).

Wealth and China Through History

The media tends to talk about the growth of the Chinese economy as if it is something new and different.   In fact, there probably have been only about 200 years in the history of civilization when China was not the largest economy on Earth.  China still held this title into the early 18th century, and will get it back early in this century.

This map from the Economist (via Mark Perry) illustrates the point.

economic map

 

Of course there is a problem with this map.  It is easy to do a center of gravity for a country, but for the whole Earth?  The center in this case (unless one rightly puts it somewhere in the depths of the planet itself) depends on arbitrary decisions about where one puts the edges of the map. I presume this is from a map with North America on the far left side and Japan on the far right.  If one redid the map, say, with North America in the center, Asia on the left and Europe on the right, the center of gravity would roam around North America through history.

Triangle Trade and Physics

You have heard of the Atlantic triangle trade in school.  It is always discussed in terms of its economic logic (e.g. English rum to African slaves to New World sugar).  But the trade has a physical logic as well in the sailing ship era.  Current wind patterns:

Earth-wind-map

 

Real time version here.  Via Flowing data.

Seriously, click on the real time link.  Even if you are jaded, probably the coolest thing you will see today.  One interesting thing to look at -- there is a low point in the spine of the mountains of Mexico west of Yucatan.  Look at the wind pour through it like air out of a balloon.

Do We Care About Income Inequality, or Absolute Well-Being?

I have a new column up at Forbes.com, and it addresses an issue that has bothered me for a while, specifically:

Do we really care about income inequality, or do we care about absolute well-being of our citizens?  Because as I will show today, these are not necessarily the same thing.

What has always frustrated me about income inequality arguments is that no one ever seems to compare the actual income numbers of the poor between countries.  Sure, the US is more unequal, and I suppose from this we are supposed to infer that the poor in the US are worse off than in “more equal” countries, but is this so?  Why do we almost never see a comparison across countries of absolute well-being?

I have never been able to find a good data source to do this analysis, though I must admit I probably did not look that hard.  But then Kevin Drum (in a post titled “America is the stingiest rich country in the world”) and John Cassidy in the New Yorker pointed me to something called the LIS database, which has cross-country income and demographic data.  I can't vouch for the data quality, but it has the income distribution data and it struck me as appropriate to respond to Drum and Cassidy with their own data.

In short, Cassidy made the point that the Gini coefficient (a statistical measure of income inequality) was higher in the US than for most other wealthy western countries.  Drum made the further point that the US is "stingy" because we do the least to coercively alter this pattern through forced redistribution.

But all we ever see are Gini's are ratios.  We never, ever see a direct comparison of income levels between countries.  So I did that with the data.  I won't reiterate the whole article here, but here is a sample of the analysis, in this case for Sweden which has one of the lowest Gini ratios of western nations and which Drum ranks as among the least "stingy".  This is the model to which the Left wants us to aspire:

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I argue that the purchasing power parity(ppp) numbers are the right way to look at this since we are comparing well-being, and on this basis Sweden may be more equal, but more than 90% of the people in the US are better off.  Sweden does not have a lower Gini because their poor are better off (in fact, if you consider the bottom quartile, the poor are better off in the US).

We are going to see months of obsession by the Left and Obama over income inequality -- but which country would you rather live in, even if you were poor?

Read the whole thing, there are lots of other interesting charts.

Wal-Mart and GINI

I am working on some posts on income inequality, especially as compared between nations.  One thing I have been thinking about is whether the US GINI (a measure of income inequality) is overstated because the US has a tiered retail system that gives lower income people access to lower prices (though for sometimes lower quality goods).  We have Wal-Mart and Family Dollar, discount retail concepts that are rare, and often illegal (due to limitations on retail discounting) in European countries.

On a sort of purchasing power parity basis, I wonder if this has any impact in narrowing the US effective GINI.  Of course, this mitigating factor is somewhat mitigated itself by the fact that a number of urban areas with some of the poorest families (e.g. Washington DC) restrict entry of these low-cost retail establishments.

Hidden Employment Impacts of the Minimum Wage

I have seen several stories of late suggesting that minimum wage phase-ins tend to mask the full employment effects of the wage change.  That is because people tend to look at employment before and after the wage change itself, when in fact many companies may have already adjusted their employment long before the wage change goes into effect based on the original announcement.

This certainly rings true with me.  We decided to close one operation in California after the state passed legislation to raise the state minimum wage (the minimum wage change was one of three factors leading to the closure, the other being the PPACA employer mandate which would be particularly expensive at this location and vexing litigation harassment in this one particular area).   This means that for a minimum wage change that does not take effect until July 1, 2014, our decision to reduce staff came in the fall of 2013 and the jobs will go away on December 31, 2013, months before the minimum wage change actually takes effect.

I can certainly see how this would make designing a study to capture the employment effects of the minimum wage change very difficult.  From a more cynical point of view, it also makes it far easier for minimum wage supporters to understate the employment effects.

This same phase-in effect can be seen with the Obamacare employer mandate.  I criticized Brad Delong for arguing that we would not see any shifts to part time labor until the employment report after the actual start date of the employer mandate.  But I know our company had been shifting people to part-time status in anticipation of the start date nearly a year earlier, as had most other retail businesses.  While it may be normal for the government to put off working on something until on or after the due date (e.g. the Obamacare web site), private industry tends to start planning and implementation of responses to government regulations months or years in advance.

Connecting Government Actions to the Jobs Report

This is an update of a chart I have published a couple of times.  The Obama Administration in the past couple of years has threatened at various times that a) the sequester and b) the government shutdown would have a devastating impact on employment.  Here is the most recent job addition data (I would prefer just private job changes but this is public and private, via here).

I have helpfully annotated it with two government actions the Left claimed would negatively affect employment growth, and one item I claimed would do so.  You be the judge:

job-report-annotated2

 

The media published 6 zillion articles worrying or outright predicting in advance that the government shutdown would hurt the economy and destroy private employment.  No such thing appears to have happened.  But of course the media never, ever, ever goes back and retrospectively revisits predictions of doom gone wrong.

What I Hate Most About Political Discourse...

..is when people attribute differences of opinion on policy issues to the other side "not caring."

I could cite a million examples a day but the one I will grab today is from Daniel Drezner and Kevin Drum.  They argue that people with establishment jobs just don't care about jobs for the little people.  Specifically Drum writes:

Dan Drezner points out today that in the latest poll from the Council on Foreign Relations, the opinions of foreign policy elites have converged quite a bit with the opinions of the general public. But among the top five items in the poll, there's still one big difference that sticks out like a fire alarm: ordinary people care about American jobs and elites don't. Funny how that works, isn't it?

Here are the specific poll results he sites.  Not that this is a foreign policy survey

blog_public_elite_cfr_priorities

 

The first thing to note is that respondents are being asked about top priorities, not what issues are important.  So it is possible, even likely, the people surveyed thought that domestic employment issues were important but not a priority for our foreign policy efforts.  Respondents would likely also have said that (say) protecting domestic free speech rights was not a foreign policy priority, but I bet they would still think that free speech was an important thing they care about.  The best analogy I can think of is if someone criticized a Phoenix mayoral candidate for not making Supreme Court Justice selection one of her top priorities.  Certainly the candidate might consider the identity of SCOTUS judges to be important, but she could reasonably argue that the Phoenix mayor doesn't have much leverage on that process and so it should not be a job-focus priority.

But the second thing to note is that there is an implied policy bias involved here.  The Left tends to take as a bedrock principle that activist and restrictive trade policy is sometimes (even often) necessary to protect American jobs.   On the other hand many folks, including me and perhaps a plurality of economists, believe that protectionist trade policy actually reduces total American employment and wealth, benefiting a few politically connected and visible industries at the expense of consumers and consumer industries (Bastiat's "unseen").  Because of the word "protecting", which pretty clearly seems to imply protectionist trade policy, many folks answering this survey who might consider employment and economic growth to be valid foreign policy priorities might still have ranked this one low because they don't agree with the protectionist / restrictionist trade theory.  Had the question said instead, say, "Improving American Economic Well-Being" my guess would be the survey results would have been higher.

Whichever the case, there is absolutely no basis for using this study to try to create yet another ad hominem attack out there in the political space.  People who disagree with you generally do not have evil motives, they likely have different assumptions about the nature of the problem and relevant policy solutions.  Treating them as bad-intentioned is the #1 tendency that drags down political discourse today.

Postscript:  This is not an isolated problem of the Left, I just happened to see this one when I was thinking about the issue.  There likely is a Conservative site out there taking the drug policy number at the bottom and blogging something like "Obama state department doesn't care about kids dying of drug overdoses."  This of course would share all the same problems as Drum's statement, attributing the survey results to bad motives rather than a sincere policy difference (e.g. those of us who understand that drugs can be destructive but see the war on drugs and drug trafficking to be even more destructive).

 

@kdrum Missing the Point. Doctors May Control the Cartel, but Government Gives it Power.

The other day, Kevin Drum wrote a post wondering why we had so few doctors per capital in the United States and observing, reasonably, that this might be one reason to explain why physician compensation rates were higher here than in other countries.

He and Matt Yglesisus argued that this smaller number of doctors and higher compensation rates were due to a physician-operated cartel.  This is a proposition I and most libertarians would agree with.  In fact I, and many others apparently, wrote to him saying yes there is a cartel, but ironically it owed its existence to government interventionism in the economy and health care.  In a true free market, such a cartel would only have value so long as it added value to consumers.

Drum seems to have missed the point.  In this post, he reacts to themany commenters who said that government power was at the heart of the cartel by saying no, it's not the government because doctors control the nuts and bolts decisions of the cartel.  Look!  Doctors are in all the key positions in the key organizations that control the cartel!

Well, no sh*t.  Of course they are.   Just as lawyers occupy all the key slots in the ABA.  But neither the ABA nor these doctors cartels would have nearly the power that they have if it were not for government laws that give them that power (e.g. giving the ABA and AMA monopoly power over licensing and school credentialing).  I had never heard of the RUC before, which apparently controls internship slots, but its ability to exercise this control seems pretty tied to the billions in government money of which it controls the distribution.

Let's get out of medicine for a second.  I am sure Best Buy wishes it had some mechanism to control new entrants into its business.  Theoretically (and it may have even done this) it could form the Association of Bricks and Mortar Electronics Retailers (ABMER).  It could even stake a position that it did not think consumers should shop at upstarts who are not ABMER members.  Take that Amazon!  Of course, without any particular value proposition to do so, consumers are likely to ignore the ABMER and go buy at Amazon.com anyway.

Such cartel schemes are tried all the time, and generally fail (the one exception I wonder about is the Visa/Mastercard consortium, but that is for another post).  Anyway, the only way the ABMER would really work is if some sort of government licensing law were passed that required anyone selling consumer electronics to be ABMER members.  And my guess is that the ABMER might not invite Amazon.com to join.  All of a sudden, Amazon is out of the electronics business.  Or maybe it just gets forced to deliver all its product through Best Buy stores, for a fee of course.

Crazy stupid, huh?  The government would never write licensing laws to protect a small group of incumbent retailers, right?  Well, tell that to Elon Musk.  Tesla has been trying for years to bring its cars to consumers in innovative ways, but have time and again run up against state auto dealership laws that effectively force all cars to be sold through the state dealer cartel.  Or you can talk to California wine growers, who have tried for years to sell directly to consumers in other states but get forced into selling through the state liquor wholesaler cartels.

All these cartels are controlled and manned by the industry, but they are enforced -- they are given their teeth -- by the government.

Here are a few off-the-top-of-my-head examples of cartel actions in the medical field admittedly initiated and supported and administered by doctors, that are enforced by state and federal law:

  • Certificate of need laws prevent hospitals from expanding or adding new equipment without government permission.  The boards in this process are usually stacked with the most powerful local hospitals, who use the law to prevent competition and keep prices high.  This is a great example where Drum could say that the decisions are essentially being made by hospitals.  Yes they are, but they only have the power to do so because the government that grants them this licensing power over competitive capacity.  Without this government backing, new hospitals would just laugh at them.
  • Government licensing laws let the AMA effectively write the criteria for licencing doctors, which are kept really stringent to keep the supply low.  Even if I wanted to only put in stitches all day to busted up kids, I would still have to go through 8 years of medical school and residency. Drum and Yglesias focus on the the number of medical schools and residencies.  I do not know if these are an issue or not.  But what clearly is an issue is the fact that one has to endure 8 expensive years or more just to be able to hand out birth control or stitch up a skinned knee.
  • Government licensing laws help doctors fight a constant rearguard action against nurse practitioners and other less expensively trained folks who could easily do half or more of what doctors do today.
  • The FDA and prescription drug law not only helps pharma companies keep profits up, but also increases business to doctors as people have to have a prescription for certain drugs they could easily buy on their own (e.g birth control pills, antibiotics).
  • The government limits immigration and thus labor mobility, reducing the ability of doctors from other countries to move here.

I am sure there are more.

There is no denying that in the middle of every industry cartel are insiders who are maneuvering to increase the rents of the incumbent players.  In fact, I am sure that every industry has participants who dream about getting off the competitive treadmill and creating a nice industry cartel, and would be the first to sign up.  But none of these dreams are ever going to happen unless they are enabled by the coercive power of government.

Of course, the consistent answer is, well, we just have the wrong guys running things.  If we had the right guys, it would work great.  But this kind of co-option always happens.   Look at taxis and liquor license holders and the entire banking sector.  Five years ago I would bet that progressives thought they finally had that right guy in the administration.  And look what has happened.  Banking cronyism is as strong as ever.  Obama's signature health legislation is full of crony giveaways.  In 6 months the health insurers are going to be running the entire PPACA infrastructure to their own benefit.

update:  This post is verging on the "is cronyism capitalism's fault" argument.  Rather than go into that again, it is here.

Update #2:  Related

Arkansas orthodontist Ben Burris was hauled in front of the state dental board in September after dentists in northeast Arkansas complained that he was offering dental cleanings to the general public in his Braces by Burris orthodontics clinics. The price for dental cleanings was $98 for an adult and $68 for a child, which Burris has said is about half of what dentists in northeast Arkansas typically charge.

Burris said most of the patients who need cleanings don’t have a dentist, but are checked by one of the three orthodontists in his clinic. Also, Burris said he offered the service because it was good for his business and good for the public. Some of his competitors “have gone absolutely ballistic” over the price and complained to the board, Burris said.

MP: Of course, the Arkansas dental cartel has no basis to complain directly about the low prices for dental cleaning at Braces by Burris clinics, so they are instead complaining that the clinic’s low-cost teeth cleaning services violate the states Dental Practice Act, which prohibits orthodontists and other specialists from practicing “outside their specialty.”

Yep, the Current Economic Stagnation Must Have Been Due to the Sequester and "Austerity"

jobs-report-annotated

Monthly job additions, taken from Kevin Drum's site, who blames this on.... austerity and the sequester.  Yes, I can't prove that the PPACA helped drive the stagnation, but the Left can't prove the austerity link either, and at least I have correlation on my side.

 

Trading $1 in Debt for 85 cents of Economic Activity

UPDATE:  Mea culpa.  One point in the original post was dead wrong.  It is possible, contrary to what I wrote below, to get something like a 0.7%  difference in annual growth rates with the assumptions he has in the chart below (Drum still exaggerated when he called it 1%).  I don't know if the model is valid (I have little faith in any macro models) but I was wrong on this claim.  Using the 0.7% and working more carefully by quarter we get a cumulative GDP addition a bit lower than the cumulative debt addition.  There is still obviously a reasonable question even at a multiplier near 1 whether $1 of economic activity today is worth $1 of debt repayment plus interest in the future.  

I am not a believer, obviously, in cyclical tweaking of the economy by the Feds.  To my thinking, the last recession was caused by a massive government-driven mis-allocation of capital so further heavy-handed government allocation of capital seems like a poor solution.  But what really drives me crazy is that most folks on the Left will seductively argue that now is not the time to reduce debt levels, implying sometime in the future when the economy is better will be the appropriate time.  But when, in any expansion, have you heard anyone on the Left say, "hey, its time to reduce spending and cut debt because we need the fiscal flexibility next time the economy goes wrong."

I will leave the stuff in error below in the post because I don't think it is right to disappear mistakes.  For transparency, my spreadsheet reconstruction both confirming the 0.7% and with the updated numbers below is here:   reconstruction.xls.

 

Kevin Drum is flogging the austerity horse again

I see that Macroecomic Advisors has produced a comprehensive estimate of the total effect of bad fiscal policies. Their conclusion: austerity policies since the start of 2011 have cut GDP growth by about 1 percentage point per year.

Something seemed odd to me -- when I opened up the linked study, it said the "lost" government discretionary spending is about 2% of GDP.  Is Drum really arguing that we should be spending 2% of GDP to increase GDP by 1%?

Of course, the math does not work quite this way given compounding and such, but it did cause me to check things out.  The first thing I learned is that Drum partook of some creative rounding.  The study actually said reductions in discretionary spending as a percent of GDP reduced GDP growth rates since the beginning of 2011 by 0.7% a year, not 1% (the study does mention a 1% number but this includes other effects as well).

But it is weirder than that, because here is the chart in the study that is supposed to support the 0.7% number:

click to enlarge

Note that in the quarterly data, only 2 quarters appear to show a 0.7% difference and all the others are less.  I understand that compounding can do weird things, but how can the string of numbers represented by the green bars net to 0.7%?  What it looks like they did is just read off the last bar, which would be appropriate if they were doing some sort of cumulative model, but that is not how the chart is built.  If we interpolate actual values and are relatively careful about getting the compounding right, the difference is actually about 0.45%.  So now we are down to less than half the number Drum quoted see update above (I sent an email to the study author for clarification but have not heard back.  Update:  he was nice enough to send me a quick email).

So let's accept this 0.45% 0.7% number for a moment.  If GDP started somewhere around 16 trillion in 2010, if we apply a 0.45% the quarterly growth numbers from his chart, we get an incremental economic activity from 2011 through 2013:Q2 of about $333 billion.

So now look at the spending side.  The source says that discretionary spending fell by about 2% of GDP over this period.  From the graph above, it seems to bite pretty early, but we will assume it fell 1/12 of this 2% figure each quarter, so that by the end of 2013 or beginning of 2014 we get a fall in spending by 2% of GDP.  Cumulatively, this would be a reduction in spending over the 2.5 years vs. some "non-austere" benchmark of $388 billion.

Thus, in exchange for running up $677 billion $388 billion in additional debt, we would have had $445 billion $333 billion in incremental economic activity.  A couple of reactions:

  1. Having the government borrow money and spend it definitely increases near-term GDP.  No one disputes that.  It is not even in question.  Those of us who favor reigning in government spending acknowledge this.  The question is, at what cost in terms of future obligations.  In fact, this very study Drum is quoting says

    Economists agree that failure to shrink prospective deficits and debt will bestow significant economic consequences and risks on future generations. Federal deficits drive up interest rates, “crowding out” private investment. If government borrowing supports consumption (e.g., through Social Security and major health programs) rather than public investment, the nation’s overall capital stock declines, undermining our standard of living. The process is slow but the eventual impact is large.2 In addition, accumulating debt raises the risk of a fiscal crisis. No one can say when this might occur but, unlike crowding out, a debt crisis could develop unexpectedly once debt reached high levels.

    High deficits and debt also undermine the efficacy of macroeconomic policies and reduce policymakers’ flexibility to respond to unexpected events. For example, in a recession, it would be harder to provide fiscal stimulus if deficits and debt already were high. Furthermore, fiscal stimulus might be less effective then. Additional deficit spending could be seen as pushing the nation closer to crisis, thereby forcing up interest rates and undercutting the effects of the stimulus. With fiscal policy hamstrung, the burden of counter-cyclical policy is thrust on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) but, particularly in a low interest-rate environment, the FOMC may be unable (or unwilling) to provide additional monetary
    stimulus.

  2. I guess we have pretty much given up on the >1 multiplier, huh?  Beggaring our children for incremental economic growth today is a risky enough strategy, but particularly so with the implied .66 .85 multiplier here.

This is not the first time Drum has taken, uh, creative data approaches to cry "austerity" during a mad spending spree. 

Understanding "Mix": Is Flattening in Income Growth Due in Part to Geographic Cost of Living Differences and Migration Within the US?

For 20 years, before I liberated myself from corporate America, I spent a hell of a lot of time doing business and market analysis (e.g. why are profits declining in Division X).  I was pretty good at it.  If I had to boil down everything I learned in those years to one lesson, it would be this:  Pay attention to changes in the mix.

What do I mean by "changes in the mix"?  Here is an example.  A company has two products.  One has a 20% margin, and the other has a 30% margin, and both margins have been improving over time because of a series of cost reduction investments.  But overall, company margins are falling.  The likely reason:  the mix is shifting.  The company is selling a higher proportion of the lower margin product.

Here is a real world example:  When I was at AlliedSignal (now Honeywell) aviation, they had exactly this problem.  They were operating in a razor and blades business -- ie they practically gave the new parts away to Boeing and Airbus to put on their planes, because they made all their money selling aftermarket replacements at a premium (at the time, government rules made it almost impossible to buy anything but the original manufacturer's part, so they could charge almost anything for a replacement, especially given that an airline likely had a $50 million plane sitting dormant until the part was replaced).  I routinely would tell managers in the company that essentially our business made money from unreliability -- the less reliable our parts, the more money we made.  Because newer technology, competition, and pressure form airlines was forcing us to greatly improve our reliability (at the same time we were giving stuff to Boeing at ever greater losses), all our newer products on newer planes were less profitable than the old stuff.  As planes aged and dropped out of the fleet, our product mix was getting less and less profitable.

This same effect can be seen in many economic and political issues.  Take for example an argument my mother-in-law and I had years and years ago.  She said that Texas (where I was living at the time) had crap schools that were much worse that those in Massachusetts, her argument for the blue political model.  She observed that average educational outcomes were much better in MA than TX (which was and still is true).  I observed on the other hand that this was in part a result of mix.  Texas had better outcomes than MA when one looked at Hispanics alone, and better outcomes for non-Hispanics alone, but got killed on the mix given that Hispanics typically have lower educational outcomes than non-Hispanics everywhere in the US, and Texas had far more Hispanics than MA.

All of this is a long introduction to some thinking I have been doing on all the "Average is Over" discussion talking about the flattening of growth in median wages.  I begin with this chart:

click to enlarge

 

There is a lot of interstate migration going on.  And much of it seems to be out of what I think of as higher cost states like CA, IL, and NY and into lower cost states like AZ, TX, FL, and NC.  One of the facts of life about the CPI and other inflation adjustments of income numbers is that the US essentially maintains one average CPI.  Further, median income numbers and poverty numbers tend to assume one single average cost of living number.  But everyone understands that the income required to maintain lifestyle X on the east side of Manhattan is very different than the income required to maintain lifestyle X in Dallas or Knoxville or Jackson, MS.

Could it be that even with a flat average median wage, that demographic shifts to lower cost-of-living states actually result in individuals being better off and living better?

For some items one buys, of course, there is no improvement by moving.  For example, my guess is that an iPhone with a monthly service plan costs about the same anywhere you go in the US.  But if you take something like housing, the differences can be enormous.

Let's compare San Francisco and Houston.  At first glance, San Francisco seems far wealthier.  The median income in San Francisco is $78,840 while the median income in Houston in $55,910.  Moving from a median wage job in San Francisco to a media wage job in Houston seems to represent a huge step down.  If you and a bunch of your friends made this move, the US median income number would drop.  It would look like people were worse off.

But something else happens when you take this nominal pay cut to move to Houston.  You also can suddenly afford a much nicer, larger house, even at the lower nominal pay.  In San Francisco, your admittedly higher nominal pay would only afford you the ability to buy only 14% of the homes on the market.  And the median home, which you could not afford, has only about 1000 square feet of space.  In Houston, on the other hand, your lower nominal pay would allow you to buy 56% of the homes.  And that median home, which you can now afford, will have on average 1858 square feet of space.

So while the national median income numbers dropped when you moved to Houston, you actually can afford a much nicer home with perhaps twice as much space.  Thus, it strikes me that there are important things happening in the mix that are not being taken into account when we say that the "average is over".

Of course, while this effect is certainly real, I have no idea how much it affects the overall numbers, ie is it a small effect or a large effect.  Fortunately my son is studying economics in college.  If he ever goes to grad school, I will add this to my list of research suggestions for him.

Postscript:  This exact same discussion could apply to US poverty statistics.  We have one poverty line income number whether you live in Manhattan or Tuscaloosa.  I have always wondered how much poverty statistics would change if you created some kind of purchasing power parity test rather than a fixed income test.

The True Poverty Rate

I thought this was interesting.  I guess I never realized that poverty rate excludes anti-poverty programs, nor that frequent comparisons made by the Left that our poverty rates compare unfavorably to those in Europe are essentially completely disingenuous as they are comparing apples and oranges.

the only way anyone’s ever really found to reduce the number living in poverty is to give the poor money n’stuff so that they’re no longer living in poverty. But if we don’t count the money n’stuff that is being given to the poor then we’re not going to be able to show that giving the poor money n’stuff alleviates poverty, are we?

And that’s the point at the heart of this necessary correction to the US poverty numbers. The 15% number is not the number living in poverty. It is the number who would be living in poverty if it weren’t for all the money n’stuff we give to the poor. For when we calculate the poverty number we ignore almost all of what is done to alleviate poverty. We leave out all four of the largest anti-poverty programs in fact. We don’t count the money spent on Medicaid, we don’t count the EITC, we ignore the costs of SNAP and we completely overlook Section 8 housing vouchers. That’s hundreds of billions of dollars worth of spending on poverty alleviation right there and all of it is entirely ignored when calculating the poverty numbers. What’s worse, we could double the amount of money we spend to alleviate poverty and the number under the poverty line wouldn’t change by one single digit.

 

uspoverty2

 

 

These alternative measures are explained in WAY more depth here (pdf) by Bruce Meyer and James Sullivan