Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category.

Worst Argument for Regulation Ever

We generally use startup activity as a proxy for positive innovation and future increases in productivity and consumer value.  But it is only a proxy - based on the theory that in a free economy new startups generally add new value or die.  Startups per se are not inherently positive, especially when all they are doing is fixing the inefficiencies and mandates imposed by government regulation

I wrote about a new study suggesting that new federal regulation doesn't inhibit the creation of new startup companies in an industry. In fact, it might actually stimulate the creation of startups. This seems counterintuitive, but a reader with some experience in the education and health care sectors—which were influenced by NCLB and Obamacare, respectively—proposes an explanation for this:

Healthcare startups have absolutely exploded post-ACA....This was pretty well anticipated by venture capital; a bunch of Sand Hill firms started putting together ad-hoc health IT teams shortly after the ACA was passed, on the basic logic that anything that changed an industry as much as the ACA did would necessarily create a lot of startup opportunities.

Drum says, well this may be good or may be bad.  Look, it HAS to be bad.  All this investment and activity is going into trying to get back to even from productivity losses imposed by the government, or is being spent addressing government mandates for new services that the market did not want or value.  This is a diversion of resources from new value-creation to fixing things, and as such is just the broken windows fallacy re-written in a new form.

The language he is using, of shaking things up, is a bit like that of chemistry.  He seems to imagine that markets can reach and get stuck in local maxima, so that government action that shakes the system out of these maxima (like annealing in a metal) is positive in that it allows the system to progress to a better state over time even if the government's action initially makes things worse.  I know of absolutely no evidence for this being true, and my strong suspicion given how many industries the government has trashed is that this is rare or non-existent.  And impossible to spot, even if it did exist.  Not to mention the fact it is a total joke to talk of health care as if it was some pristine untouched-by-government industry before Obamacare.

Thoughts on the Minimum Wage

Mike Rowe has some thoughts that sound like what I have been saying of late:

From the business owners I’ve talked to, it seems clear that companies are responding to rising labor costs by embracing automation faster than ever. That’s eliminating thousands of low-paying, unskilled, entry level positions. What will that mean for those people trying to get started in the workforce? My job as an usher was the first rung on a long ladder of work that lead me to where I am today. But what if that rung wasn’t there? If the minimum wage in 1979 had been suddenly raised from $2.90 to $10 an hour, thousands of people would have applied for the same job. What chance would I have had, being seventeen years old with pimples and a big adams apple?

A Unified Theory of Poor Risk Management: What Climate Change Hysteria, the Anti-GMO Movement, and the Anti-Vaccination Movement Have in Common

After debating people online for years on issues from catastrophic man-made climate change to genetically-modified crops to common chemical hazards (e.g. BPA) to vaccination, I wanted to offer a couple quick thoughts on the common mistakes I see in evaluating risks.

1.  Poor Understanding of Risk, and of Studies that Evaluate Risk

First, people are really bad at thinking about incremental risk above and beyond the background risk  (e.g. not looking at "what is my risk of cancer" but "what is my incremental added risk from being exposed to X").  Frequently those incremental risks are tiny and hard to pick out of the background risk at any level of confidence.  They also tend to be small compared to everyday risks on which people seldom focus.  You have a far higher - almost two orders of magnitude - risk in the US of drowning in your own bathtub than you have in being subject to terrorism, but which do we obsess over?

Further, there are a lot of folks who seem all-to-ready to shoot off in a panic over any one scary study in the media.  And the media loves this, because it drives the meter on their earnings, so they bend over backwards to look for studies with scary results and then make them sound even scarier.  "Tater-tots Increase Risk of Ebola!"  But in reality, most of these scary studies never get replicated and turn out to be mistaken.  Why does this happen?

The problem is that every natural process is subject to random variation.  Even without changing the conditions of an experiment, there is going to be random variation in measurements.  For example, one population of white mice might have 6 cancers, but the next might have 12 and the next might have zero, all from natural variation.  So the challenge of most experiments is to determine whether the thing one is testing (e.g. exposure to a particular substance) is actually changing the measurements in a population, or whether that change is simply the result of random variation.  That is what the 95% confidence interval (that Naomi Oreskes wants to get rid of) really means.  It means there is only a 5% chance that the results measured were due to natural variation.

This is a useful test, but I hope you can see how it can fail.  Something like 5% of the time that one is measuring two things that actually are uncorrelated, the test is going to give you a false positive.  Let's say in a year that the world does 1000 studies to test links that don't actually exist.  Just from natural variation, 5% of these studies will still seem to show a link at the 95% confidence level.  We will have 50 studies that year broadcasting false links.  The media will proceed to scare the crap out of you over these 50 things.

I have never seen this explained better than in this XKCD cartoon (click to enlarge):

click to enlarge

All of this is just exacerbated when there is fraud involved, an unfortunate but not unknown occurrence when reputations and large academic grants are on the line.  This is why replication of the experiment is important.   Do the study a second time, and all but 2-3 of these 50 "false positive" studies will fail to replicate the original results.  Do it three times, and all will likely fail to replicate.   This, for example, is exactly what happened with the vaccine-autism link -- it came out in one study with a really small population and some evidence of fraud, and was never replicated.

2.  The Precautionary Principle vs. the Unseen, with a Dollop of Privilege Thrown In

When pressed to the wall too hard about the size and quality of the risk assessment, most folks subject to these panics will fall back on the "precautionary principle".   I am not a big fan of the precautionary principle, so I will let Wikipedia define it so I don't create a straw man:

The precautionary principle or precautionary approach to risk management states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action.

I will observe that as written, this principle is inherently anti-progress.  The proposition requires that folks who want to introduce new innovations must prove a negative, and it is very hard to prove a negative -- how do I prove there are no invisible aliens in my closet who may come out and eat me someday, and how can I possibly get a scientific consensus to this fact?  As a result, by merely expressing that one "suspects" a risk (note there is no need listed for proof or justification of this suspicion), any advance may be stopped cold.  Had we followed such a principle consistently, we would still all be subsistence farmers, vassals to our feudal lord.

One other quick note before I proceed, it turns out that proponents of the precautionary principle are very selective as to where they apply the principle.  They feel like it absolutely must be applied to fossil fuel burning, or BPA use, or GMO's.  But precautionary principle supporters never apply it in turn to, say, major new government programs and regulations and economic interventions, despite many historically justified concerns about the risks of these programs.

But neither of these is necessarily the biggest problem with the precautionary principle.  The real problem is that it focuses on only one side of the equation -- it says that risks alone justify stopping any action or policy without any reference at all to benefits of that policy or opportunity costs of its avoidance.   A way of restating the precautionary principle is, "when faced with risks and benefits of a certain proposal, look only at the risks."

Since the precautionary principle really hit the mainstream with the climate change debate, I will use that as an example.  Contrary to media appellations of being a "denier," most science-based climate skeptics like myself accept that man is adding to greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and that those gasses have an incremental warming effect on the planet.  What we deny is the catastrophe -- we believe we have good evidence that catastrophic forecasts from computer models are exaggerating future warming, and greatly exaggerating resulting forecast climate changes.  Whenever I am fairly successful making this argument, the inevitable rejoinder is "well, the precautionary principle says that if we have even a small percentage chance that burning fossil fuels will lead to a climate disaster, then we have to limit their use immediately".

The problem with this statement is that it assumes there is no harm or risk to reducing fossil fuel use.  But fossil fuel use pays enormous benefits to everyone in the world.  Even if we could find near substitutes that don't create CO2 emissions (and it is every much open to debate if such substitutes currently exist), these substitutes tend to be much more expensive and much more infrastructure-intensive than are fossil fuels.  The negative impact to the economy would be substantial.  One could argue that one particular impact -- climate or economy -- outweighs the other, but it is outright fraud to refuse to discuss the trade-off altogether.   Particularly since catastrophic climate change may only be a low-percentage risk while economic dislocation from reduction in fossil fuel use is a near certainty.

My sense is that if the United States chose to cut way back on fossil fuel use in a concerted effort, we could manage it and survive the costs.  But that is because we are a uniquely rich nation.  I am not sure anyone in this country understands how rich.  I am not talking just about Warren Buffet.  Even the poorest countries have a few rich people at the top.  I am talking about everybody.  Our poorest 20% would actually be among the richest quintile in many nations of the world.   A worldwide effort to eliminate fossil fuel use or to substantially raise its costs or to force shifts to higher cost, less easily-used alternatives  would simply devastate many developing nations, which need every erg their limited resources can get their hands on.  We are at a unique moment in history when more than a billion people are in the process of emerging from poverty around the world, progress that would be stopped in its tracks by a concerted effort to limit CO2 output.   Why doesn't the precautionary principle apply to actions that affect their lives?

College kids have developed a popular rejoinder they use in arguments that states "check your privilege."  I thought at first it was an interesting phrase.  I used it in arguments a few times about third world "sweat shops".  I argued that those who wanted to close down the Nike factory paying $1 an hour in China needed to check their privilege -- they had no idea what alternatives those Chinese who took the Nike jobs were facing.  Yes, you middle class Americans would never take that job, but what if your alternative was 12 hours a day in a rice paddy somewhere that barely brought in enough food for your family to subsist?  Only later, I learned that "check your privilege" didn't mean what I thought it meant, and in fact in actual academic use it instead means "shut up, white guy."  In a way, though, this use is consistent with how the precautionary principle is often used -- in many of my arguments, "precautionary principle" is another way of saying "stop talking about the costs and trade-offs of what I am proposing."

Perhaps the best example of the damage that can be wrought by a combination of Western middle class privilege and the precautionary principle is the case of golden rice.  According to the World Health Organization between 250,000 to 500,000 children become blind every year due to vitamin A deficiency, half of whom die within a year of becoming blind. Millions of other people suffer from various debilitating conditions due to the lack of this essential nutrient.  Golden Rice is a genetically modified form of rice that, unlike conventional rice, contains beta-Carotene in the rice kernel, which is converted to vitamin A in humans.

By 2002, Golden Rice was technically ready to go. Animal testing had found no health risks. Syngenta, which had figured out how to insert the Vitamin A–producing gene from carrots into rice, had handed all financial interests over to a non-profit organization, so there would be no resistance to the life-saving technology from GMO opponents who resist genetic modification because big biotech companies profit from it. Except for the regulatory approval process, Golden Rice was ready to start saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness in people around the world who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

Seems like a great idea.  Too bad its going nowhere, due to fierce opposition on the Left (particularly from Greenpeace) to hypothetical dangers from GMO's

It’s still not in use anywhere, however, because of the opposition to GM technology. Now two agricultural economists, one from the Technical University of Munich, the other from the University of California, Berkeley, have quantified the price of that opposition, in human health, and the numbers are truly frightening.

Their study, published in the journalEnvironment and Development Economics, estimates that the delayed application of Golden Rice in India alone has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002. That odd sounding metric – not just lives but ‘life years’ – accounts not only for those who died, but also for the blindness and other health disabilities that Vitamin A deficiency causes. The majority of those who went blind or died because they did not have access to Golden Rice were children.

Note this is exactly the sort of risk tradeoff the precautionary principle is meant to ignore.  The real situation is that a vague risk of unspecified and unproven problems with GMO's (which are typically driven more by a distrust on the Left of the for-profit corporations that produce GMO's rather than any good science) should be balanced with absolute certainty of people dying and going blind.  But the Greenpeace folks will just shout that because of the "precautionary principle", only the vague unproven risks should be considered and thus golden rice should be banned.

Risk and Post-Modernism

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Naomi Oreskes and the post-modern approach to science, where facts and proof take a back-seat to political narratives and the feelings and intuition of various social groups.  I hadn't really thought much about this post-modernist approach in the context of risk assessment, but I was struck by this comment by David Ropeik, who blogs for Scientific American.

The whole GMO issue is really just one example of a far more profound threat to your health and mine. The perception of risk is inescapably subjective, a matter of not just the facts, but how we feel about those facts. As pioneering risk perception psychologist Paul Slovic has said, “risk is a feeling.” So societal arguments over risk issues like Golden Rice and GMOs, or guns or climate change or vaccines, are not mostly about the evidence, though we wield the facts as our weapons. They are mostly about how we feel, and our values, and which group’s values win, not what will objectively do the most people the most good. That’s a dumb and dangerous way to make public risk management decisions.

Mr. Ropeik actually disagrees with me on the risk/harm tradeoffs of climate change (he obviously thinks the harms outweigh the costs of prevention -- I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he has actually thought about both sides of the equation).  Fine.  I would be thrilled for once to have a discussion with someone about climate change when we are really talking about costs and benefits on both sides of the equation (action and inaction).  Unfortunately that is all too rare.

Postscript:  To the extent the average person remembers Bjorn Lomborg at all, they could be excused for assuming he is some crazed right-wing climate denier, given how he was treated in the media.  In fact, Lomborg is very much a global warming believer.  He takes funding from Right-ish organizations now, but that is only because he has been disavowed by the Left, which was his original home.

What he did was write a book in which he looked at a number of environmental problems -- both their risks and costs as well as their potential mitigation costs -- and he ranked them on bang for the buck:  Where can we get the most environmental benefit and help the most people for the least investment.  The book talked about what he thought were the very real dangers of climate change, but it turned out climate change was way down this ranked list in terms of benefits vs. costs of solutions.

This is a point I have made before.  Why are we spending so much time, for example, harping on China to reduce CO2 when their air is poisonous?  We know how to have a modern technological economy and still have air without soot.  It is more uncertain if we can have a modern technological economy, yet, without CO2 production.   Lomborg thought about just this sort of thing, and made the kind of policy risk-reward tradeoffs based on scientific analysis that we would hope our policy makers were pursuing.  It was exactly the kind of analysis that Ropeik was advocating for above.

Lomborg must have expected that his work would be embraced by the environmental Left.  After all, it was scientific, it achnowleged the existence of a number of environmental issues that needed to be solved, and it advocated for a strong government-backed effort led by smart technocrats doing rational prioritizations.  But Lomborg was absolutely demonized by just about everyone in the environmental community and on the Left in general.  He was universally trashed.  He was called a climate denier when in fact he was no such thing -- he just pointed out that man-made climate change was way harder to solve than other equally harmful environmental issues.  Didn't he get the memo that the narrative was that global warming was the #1 environmental threat?  How dare he suggest a re-prioritization!

Lomborg's prioritization may well have been wrong, but no one was actually sitting down to make that case.  He was simply demonized from day one for getting the "wrong" answer, defined as the answer not fitting the preferred narrative.  We are a long, long way from any reasonable ability to assess and act on risks.

Minimum Wage Deja Vu

This letter to customers from San Francisco bookstore Borderlands is making the rounds.  Apparently, the new "living wage" legislation in San Francisco is killing this store:

In November, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed a measure that will increase the minimum wage within the city to $15 per hour by 2018.  Although all of us at Borderlands support the concept of a living wage in [principle] and we believe that it’s possible that the new law will be good for San Francisco – Borderlands Books as it exists is not a financially viable business if subject to that minimum wage.  Consequently we will be closing our doors no later than March 31st.  The cafe will continue to operate until at least the end of this year.

I find the authors surprisingly open to the Progressive assumptions behind this bill, despite the death of their business.  I don't know if this is a pair of hipsters destroyed by their own cause, or if the nods towards Progressivism are merely boiler plate that is required in any San Francisco conversation, like having a picture of Lenin on your wall in Soviet Russia.

Anyway, I found the language here familiar because I spent most of last year writing such letters to angry customer bases.  In our case, fortunately, we had the ability to raise prices so the letters were to defuse customer irritation rather than to announce a closure.  Here is one example I wrote in Minnesota:

Labor and labor-related costs (costs that are calculated as a percentage of wages, like employment taxes) make up nearly 50% of our costs.  The Minnesota minimum wage is set to rise from $7.20 to $9.50 in the next two years, an increase of 31%.  Since wages and wage-related costs are half our expenses, the minimum wage increase raises our total costs by 15.5%. This means that all by itself, without any other inflation in any other category of expenses, the minimum wage increases will drive a $3.10 increase in our camping fees (.155 x $20).  Note that this is straight math.  The moment the state of Minnesota passed their minimum wage increase, this fee increase was going to be required.

One of the problems with these minimum wage increases is that the people behind them, with their hazy assumptions and flawed understanding of economics, typically think that companies will just absorb the increase.   Our net profit margin runs in the 4% range, so it difficult to see how any such retail company can absorb a 15+% cost increase, but it happens all the time.  After some trial and error, the "this is straight math" phrase seems to work the best in communicating the need for price increases.

Everyone Gets Wealthier, Minorities and Women Hardest Hit

It is hard to look at this data and see anything but a positive story, but apparently the New York Times and the rest of the media only see tragedy.  If there is no problem, there is no justification for increased government power, therefore there must be a problem.

middle-class

(I am presuming this is in real dollars rather than nominal, but God forbid that the NYT ever makes such things clear).  They do manage to show a slight negative recent trend in the growth of the percentage of low income Americans, but only by cherry-picking the dates of comparison to the peaks and troughs of the last two business cycles.  Overall I would read the story as middle and lower class are moving into upper income brackets, but the Times headlines it as "Middle Class Shrinks Further as More Fall Out Instead of Climbing Up," illustrated with a classic empathy-inducing sad-mom photo.

By the way, since more rich people fall than middle class, it would seem to make sense to discuss instead the falling fortunes of rich people, but of course the NYT has no desire to write that article.

In China, It's 1928

I know I have been warning about a Chinese recession/depression for a while, but it takes a while (and still will take some time) for this disaster to play out.  But the warning signs are all there.  This article today in the WSJ is a great example.  

A little over a year ago, a Chinese credit agency downgraded a government-owned financing company in this dusty industrial city. Default—nearly unheard-of in China on government bonds—was a possibility, it said.

But during discussions with lenders, city officials made sure Wuhan Urban Construction Investment & Development Corp. could keep borrowing, officials with knowledge of the matter say. The city during those discussions said it backed the finance firm, essentially guaranteeing the debt, and helped the company restructure its assets to entice investors to lend more.

Borrowing by firms like Wuhan Urban is a big reason China’s debt load is expanding. The International Monetary Fund says China’s debt is growing more rapidly than debt in Japan, South Korea and the U.S. did before they tumbled into deep recessions. Local-government borrowing is responsible for one-fourth of the buildup in China’s overall domestic debt since 2008....

Even before its latest step, Beijing had put forward plans to slow local-borrowing growth. But China’s local governments have a surprising ability to resist policies. Another central-government priority—reducing excess production in steel, cement and other industries—has foundered due to local opposition.

“The guys running local government financing operations won’t roll over and die,” says Fraser Howie, co-author of “Red Capitalism,” a study of China’s financial system. “These companies take on a life of their own.”

Perhaps we should call this the looming Thomas Friedman recession, as China goes bankrupt doing exactly what Friedman admires - building more and more infrastructure and then taking out debt and building even more.

There is absolutely no reason to believe, as folks like Friedman do, that this investment in infrastructure automatically has a positive return, and in fact there are a lot of reasons to think it does not (ie gluts of housing and basic materials).  As I have written before, like light rail spending in the US, these infrastructure investments pay their benefits mostly in prestige to local government officials and rents for politically connected contractors and government workers and not in real returns to future economic growth.

I tend to accept the Austrian theory of recessions, which I would simplify (perhaps inaccurately) as mis-allocation of capital and labor investments leading to economic downturns as the economy restructures.  The longer the reckoning is put off, the worse the recession.   These mis-allocations can sometimes be due to private causes (e.g. over-euphoric investments in early Internet companies in the late 1990's) but they often have public causes (e.g. artificially low interest rates or government programs to promote investment in a single industry like, say, housing).

I am convinced this is what brought down Japan -- after years of admiration for Japan, inc. and MITI economic management, it turns out the government had directed all capital into a few export manufacturing industries, while continuing to protect retail and agriculture locally from any real change or competition.  Which is why 25 years of government directed deficit spending has not fixed the recession -- it just doubles down on the original cause.  For those of you too young to remember, the Friedman-types of the world were all praising Japan to the hilt in the late 80's as the model we should all be following.  People like this don't admit error, they simply shut up about Japan and started praising the same behaviors in China.

The same reckoning is coming to China.  Probably not this year or the next, but within the next 5 years almost for sure.  It is 1928 in China.

Postscript:  By 1928, I mean a year of apparent prosperity before the Great Depression in 1929.  I am not referring to the nominal reunification of China or start of the "republic" under Chiang Kai-shek.

The Miracle of Gas Prices

I have written before about how amazing it is that gasoline can be delivered to your car so cheaply.  The investments, the technological complexity, the distances covered, the molecular-level processing necessary, the density of retail distributions establishments -- they are all simply staggering.

I hate to steal this in full from Mark Perry, who has an awesome blog, but he has a list of the price per gallon of other liquids you buy.  Think about the complexity of, say, orange juice as opposed to gasoline.

Product Cost Per Gallon
HP Printer Ink $4,500
Nyquil $107.52
Premium Vodka $76.80
Honey $46.72
Hair Gel $44.80
Pancake Syrup $32.26
Red Bull $28.00
Windex $23.81
Real Lemon Juice $22.91
Soy Sauce $22.66
Chicken Noodle Soup $21.25
Mouthwash $19.65
Tide Laundry Detergent $18.18
Dawn Dish Detergent $17.92
Craft Beer $17.78
Mustard $17.41
Mayonnaise $17.02
409 Cleaner $16.64
Ranch Dressing $16.00
Half and Half Cream $15.87
Shampoo $15.36
Spaghetti Sauce $14.59
Ketchup $13.95
Vegetable Oil $13.44
Orange Juice $11.69
V-8 $10.37
Tomato Juice $9.47
Juicy Juice $8.83
Cranberry Juice $7.94
Soy Milk $6.66
Gatorade $6.53
Apple Juice $6.00
Iced Tea $5.89
Ammonia $4.10
Milk $4.00
Pepsi $3.71
Vinegar $3.07
Sparkling Water $2.94
Gasoline $2.05

This is a GOOD Sign for the United States

Thomas Friedman, and many others, think it is a sign of America's decline and some sort of failure of government will that other countries are building super-massive showcase infrastructure projects while we are not.  They would take this chart as a sign of decline:

20150114_sky

I disagree.  This is a sign of growing maturity on the part of the United States.  Many of these super-tall building projects make little economic sense, but are completed to validate the prestige of emerging nations, like teenage boys comparing penis sizes.  Grown men are beyond that behavior, just as are grown-up nations.  I discussed this in the context of rail a while back at Forbes.  In that case, it seems everyone thinks the US is behind in rail, because it does not have sexy bullet trains.  But in fact we have a far more developed freight network than any other country, and shift of transport to rail makes a much larger positive economic and environmental impact for cargo than for rail.  It comes down to what you care about -- prestige or actual performance.   Again choosing performance over prestige is a sign of maturity.**

The US had a phase just like China's, when we were emerging as a world economic and political power, and had a first generation of successful business pioneers who were unsure how to put their stamp on the world.  So they competed at building tall buildings.   Many of the tallest were not even private efforts.  The Empire State Building was a crony enterprise from start to finish, and ended up sitting empty for years.  The World Trade Center project (WTC) was a complete government boondoggle, built by a public agency at the behest of the Rockefeller family, who wanted to protect its investments in lower Manhattan.  That building also sat nearly empty for years.   By the way, the Ken Burns New York documentary series added a special extra episode at the end after 9/11 on the history of the WTC and really digs in to the awful crony and bureaucratic history of that project.  Though Burns likely did not think of it that way, it could as easily be a documentary of public choice theory.  His coverage earlier in that series of Robert Moses (featuring a lot of Robert Caro) is also excellent.

** I have always wondered if you could take this model further, and predict that once-great nations in decline (at least in decline relative to their earlier position) might not re-engage with such prestige projects, much like an aging male seeking out the young second wife and buying a Porche.

Update:  Here is part of what I wrote on US vs. European and Japanese railroading, which I think is an absolutely awesome example of where the triumphalists like Friedman go wrong:

In particular, both Friedman and Epstein think we need to build more high speed passenger trains.  This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that these folks do not have the dictatorial powers they long for.   High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution.   But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this:  The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital.  It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies.    And, it is by farthe greatest rail system in the world.  It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s).  But here is the real key:  it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world.  Europe and Japan are not even close.  Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan.   As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States.  For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible.  You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains.  This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail — not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

But there is little efficiency improvement in moving passengers by rail vs. other modes.   Most of the energy consumed goes into hauling not the passengers themselves, but the weight of increasingly plush rail cars.  Trains have to be really, really full all the time to make for a net energy savings for high-speed rail vs. cars or even planes, and they seldom are full.  I had a lovely trip on the high speed rail last summer between London and Paris and back through the Chunnel — especially nice because my son and I had the rail car entirely to ourselves both ways.

The real rail efficiency comes from moving freight.  As compared to passenger rail, more of the total energy budget is used moving the actual freight rather than the cars themselves.  Freight is far more efficient to move by rail than by road, but only the US moves a substantial amount of its freight by rail.    One reason for this is that freight and high-speed passenger traffic have a variety of problems sharing the same rails, so systems that are optimized for one tend to struggle serving the other.

Freight is boring and un-sexy.  Its not a government function in the US.  So intellectuals tend to ignore it, even though it is the far more important, from and energy and environmental standpoint, portion of transport to put on the rails.  In fact, the US would actually probably have even a higher rail modal percentage if the US government had not enforced a regulatory regime (until the Staggers Act) that favored trucks over rail.   If the government really had been asleep the last century, we would be further along.

Keynesian Moving Target on What Constitutes Austerity

The other day I said I was confused by what exactly creates Keynesian stimulus, and in reverse, what constitutes austerity.  I had thought that it was deficit spending that creates the stimulus, but then sometimes it seems to just be spending and in the case of the Kevin Drum post I was discussing, he says it is not the level of spending but only the first derivative of per capita real government spending (with no reference to whether it is debt or tax funded) that matters.

I figured that I was just confused because I had not formally studied economics past my undergrad years, but apparently practicing economists are also confused.  Here is Scott Sumner:

What is the proper measure of austerity?  The textbooks talk about deficits.  But most of the Keynesian bloggers focus on government purchases.  So which is it?  And if it’s purchases, why did these same bloggers claim that austerity would result from big tax increases in the US in 2013, and a big tax increase in Japan in 2014?  And why does the measure chosen (ex post) usually seem to be the one that best supports their argument in that particular case?

As a postscript, I will add that every climate skeptic can totally empathize with this Sumner concern:

A number of Keynesian bloggers have recently expressed dismay that the rest of us don’t buy their model.  Maybe it would help if they’d stop ignoring our criticisms of their model, and respond to our complaints.

Wow, Who Could Have Predicted This?

Full-time employment in one fast-food survey drops over last several years from 50% of workers to less than 2%.

This is the conclusion I draw from my survey in December of 136 fast-food restaurants (franchisees) that employed close to 3,500 workers. Before 2014 about half the employees were “full time” as defined by ObamaCare; that is, they worked 30 hours or more a week. The potential cost to the employers of providing mandated health insurance to their full-time staff would have been about $7 million a year. But by the time the employers took advantage of all their legal options they were able to reduce their cost to less than 1% of that amount.

The first step was to make all hourly workers part time. That may seem easy to do, but in the fast-food business it’s not uncommon that employees fail to show up for work. Other employees are asked to work additional hours to prevent the restaurant from shutting down. By the end of 2014, 58 employees had crossed the line to full-time status and were eligible for mandated health insurance in 2015.

My 2012 article about the end of full-time work in the retail service sector.  The follow-up at Forbes was here.

The Big Government Trap: Does Stimulus Require Government Spending to Continuously Rise?

There has been a lot of back and forth over the last few years about "austerity".  I have wondered how government spending levels over the last few years that dwarf any peacetime levels in history could be called "austerity", but that is exactly what folks like Paul Krugman have been doing.   Apparently, the new theory is that the level of spending is irrelevant to stimulus, and only the first derivative matters.  In other words, high spending is not stimulative unless it is also increasing year by year.   Kevin Drum provides an explanation of this position:

Austerity is all about the trajectory of government spending, and this is what it looks like. You can argue about whether flat spending represents austerity, but a sustained decline counts in anyone's book. The story here is simple: for a little while, in 2009 and 2010, stimulus spending partially offset state and local cuts, but by the end of 2010 the stimulus had run its course. From then on, the drop in government expenditures was steady and significant. It was also unprecedented. If you run this chart back for 50 years you'll never see anything like it. In all previous recessions and their aftermaths, government spending rose.

blog_total_govt_expenditures_per_capita_inflation

So, by this theory of stimulus, the fact that we spent substantially more money in 2010-2014 than in pre-recession years (and are still spending more money) turns out not to be stimulative.  The only way government can stimulate the economy is to increase year-over-year per capital real spending every single year.

I will leave macro theory (of which I am increasingly skeptical) to the Phd's.  In this case however, Drum's narrative is undermined by his own chart he published a few weeks ago:

blog_private_employment_2001_vs_2010

In his recent austerity article quoted above, he describes a sluggish recovery with a step-change in 2014 only after "austerity" ends.  But his chart from a few weeks earlier shows a steady recovery from 2010-2014, right through his "austerity" period.  In fact, during the Bush recovery he derides, we actually did do exactly what he thinks is stimulative, ie increase government spending per capita steadily year by year.  How do we know this?  From another Drum chart, this one from last year.  I changed the colors (described in this article) and compared his two charts:

click to enlarge

 

By Drum's austerity theory, the Bush spending was stimulative but the Obama spending was austerity.  But the chart on the right sure makes it look like the Obama recovery is stronger than the Bush recovery.

 

A better explanation of the data is that a recession driven by the highly-leveraged mis-allocation of too much capital to home real estate was made worse in 2008-2009 by a massive increase in government spending, which is almost by definition a further mis-allocation of capital (government is taking money from where the private sector thinks it should be invested and moves it to where politicians think it should be spent).  The economy has recovered as that increase in government spending has been unwound.

Low Oil Prices and Prosperity

I continue to see reports about how bad falling oil prices are for the economy -- most recently some layoffs in the steel industry were blamed on the looming drop (or crash) in oil drilling and exploration driven by substantially lower prices.

I find this exasperating, a classic seen-and-unseen type failure whose description goes back at least to the mid-19th century and Bastiat and essentially constituted most of Hazlitt's one lesson on economics.  Yes, very visibly, relatively high-paid steel and oil workers are going to lose their jobs.  They will have less money to spend.  The oil industry will have less capital spending.

But the world will pay over a trillion dollars less this year for oil than it did last year (if current prices hold).  That is a huge amount of money that can be spent on or invested in something else.  Instead of just getting oil with those trillion dollars, we will still have our oil and a trillion dollars left over to spend.   We may never know exactly who benefits, but those benefits are definitely there, somewhere.  Just because they cannot be seen or portrayed in short visual anecdotes on the network news does not mean they don't exist.

Ugh, this is just beyond frustrating.  I would have bet that at least with oil people would have understood the unseen benefit, since we get so much media reportage and general angst when gas prices go up that people would be thrilled at their going down.  But I guess not.

I explained in simple terms why the world, mathematically, HAS to be better off with lower oil prices here.

Explaining the Financial Crisis: Government Creation of a Financial Investment Mono-culture

Arnold Kling on the recent financial crisis:

1. The facts are that one can just as easily blame the financial crash on an attempted tightening of regulation. That is, in the process of trying to rein in bank risk-taking by adopting risk-based capital regulations, regulators gave preference to highly-rated mortgage-backed securities, which in turn led to the manufacturing of such securities out of sub-prime loans.

2. The global imbalances that many of us thought were a bigger risk factor than the housing bubble did not in fact blow up the way that we thought that they would. The housing bubble blew up instead.

What he is referring to is a redefinition by governments in the Basel accords of how capital levels at banks should be calculated when determining capital sufficiency.  I will oversimplify here, but basically it categorized some assets as "safe" and some as "risky".  Those that were risky had their value cut in half for purposes of capital calculations, while those that were "safe" had their value counted at 100%.  So if a bank invested a million dollars in safe assets, that would count as a million dollar towards its capital requirements, but would count only $500,000 towards those requirements if it were invested in risky assets.  As a result, a bank that needed a billion dollars in capital would need a billion of safe assets or two billion of risky assets.

Well, this obviously created a strong incentive for banks to invest in assets deemed by the government as "safe".  Which of course was the whole point -- if we are going to have taxpayer-backed deposit insurance and bank bailouts, the prices of that is getting into banks' shorts about the risks they are taking with their investments.  This is the attempted tightening of regulation to which Kling refers.  Regulators were trying for tougher, not weaker standards.

But any libertarian could tell you the problem that is coming here -- the regulatory effort was substituting the risk judgement of thousands or millions of people (individual bank and financial investors) for the risk judgement of a few regulators.  There is no guarantee, in fact no reason to believe, the judgement of these regulators is any better than the judgement of the banks.  Their incentives might be different, but there is also not any guarantee the regulators' incentives are better (the notion they are driven by the "public good" is a cozy myth that never actually occurs in reality).

Anyway, what assets did the regulators choose as "safe"?  Again, we will simplify, but basically sovereign debt and mortgages (including the least risky tranches of mortgage-backed debt).  So you are a bank president in this new regime.  You only have enough capital to meet government requirements if you get 100% credit for your investments, so it must be invested in "safe" assets.  What do you tell your investment staff?  You tell them to go invest the money in the "safe" asset that has the highest return.

And for most banks, this was mortgage-backed securities.  So, using the word Brad DeLong applied to deregulation, there was an "orgy" of buying of mortgage-backed securities.  There was simply enormous demand.  You hear stories about fraud and people cooking up all kinds of crazy mortgage products and trying to shove as many people as possible into mortgages, and here is one reason -- banks needed these things.  For the average investor, most of us stayed out.   In the 1980's, mortgage-backed securities were a pretty good investment for individuals looking for a bit more yield, but these changing regulations meant that banks needed these things, so the prices got bid up (and thus yields bid down) until they only made sense for the financial institutions that had to have them.

It was like suddenly passing a law saying that the only food people on government assistance could buy with their food stamps was oranges and orange derivatives (e.g. orange juice).  Grocery stores would instantly be out of oranges and orange juice.  People around the world would be scrambling to find ways to get more oranges to market.  Fortunes would be made by clever people who could find more oranges.  Fraud would likely occur as people watered down their orange derivatives or slipped in some Tang.  Those of us not on government assistance would stay away from oranges and eat other things, since oranges were now incredibly expensive and would only be bought at their current prices by folks forced to do so.  Eventually, things would settle down as everyone who could do so started to grow oranges. And all would be fine again, that is until there was a bad freeze and the orange crop failed.

Government regulation -- completely well-intentioned -- had created a mono-culture.  The diversity of investment choices that might be present when every bank was making its own asset risk decisions was replaced by a regime where just a few regulators picked and chose the assets.  And like any biological mono-culture, the ecosystem might be stronger for a while if those choices were good ones, but it made the whole system vulnerable to anything that might undermine mortgages.  When the housing market got sick (and as Kling says government regulation had some blame there as well), the system was suddenly incredibly vulnerable because it was over-invested in this one type of asset.  The US banking industry was a mono-culture through which a new disease ravaged the population.

Postscript:  So with this experience in hand, banks moved out of mortage-backed securities and into the last "safe" asset, sovereign debt.  And again, bank presidents told their folks to get the best possible yield in "safe" assets.  So banks loaded up on sovereign debt, in particular increasing the demand for higher-yield debt from places like, say, Greece.  Which helps to explain why the market still keeps buying up PIIGS debt when any rational person would consider these countries close to default.  So these countries continue their deficit spending without any market check, because financial institutions keep buying this stuff because it is all they can buy.  Which is where we are today, with a new monoculture of government debt, which government officials swear is the last "safe" asset.  Stay tuned....

Postscript #2:  Every failure and crisis does not have to be due to fraud and/or gross negligence.  Certainly we had fraud and gross negligence, both by private and public parties.  But I am reminded of a quote which I use all the time but to this day I still do not know if it is real.  In the great mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon", the actor playing astronaut Frank Borman says to a Congressional investigation, vis a vis the fatal Apollo 1 fire, that it was "a failure of imagination."  Engineers hadn't even considered the possibility of this kind of failure on the ground.

In the same way, for all the regulatory and private foibles associated with the 2008/9 financial crisis, there was also a failure of imagination.  There were people who thought housing was a bubble.  There were people who thought financial institutions were taking too much risk.  There were people who thought mortgage lending standards were too lax.  But with few exceptions, nobody from progressive Marxists to libertarian anarcho-capitalists, from regulators to bank risk managers, really believed there was substantial risk in the AAA tranches of mortgage securities.  Hopefully we know better now but I doubt it.

Update#1:  The LA Times attributes "failure of imagination" as a real quote from Borman.  Good, I love that quote.  When I was an engineer investigating actual failures of various sorts (in an oil refinery), the vast majority were human errors in procedure or the result of doing things unsafely that we really knew in advance to be unsafe.  But the biggest fire we had when I was there was truly a failure of imagination.  I won't go into it, but it resulted from a metallurgical failure that in turn resulted form a set of conditions that we never dreamed could have existed.

By the way, this is really off topic, but the current state of tort law has really killed quality safety discussion in companies of just this sort of thing.  Every company should be asking itself all the time, "is this unsafe?"  or "under what conditions might this be unsafe" or "what might happen if..."   Unfortunately, honest discussions of possible safety issues often end up as plaintiff's evidence in trials.  The attorney will say "the company KNEW it was unsafe and didn't do anything about it", often distorting what are honest and healthy internal discussions on safety that we should want occurring into evidence of evil malfeasance.  So companies now show employees videos like one I remember called, I kid you not, "don't write it down."

Krugman on the Minimum Wage

Via Don Boudreaux:

Bluecravat found something telling that I missed a few months ago, namely, Paul Krugman explaining back in August that one potential cause of the high unemployment rate in France is that country’s “high minimum wage.”  As Bluecravat exclaims after quoting from Krugman’s August post: “Excuse me?  What was that?  Minimum wage levels impact employment?”

Of course, it could be that France’s minimum wage is too high compared to the one that Krugman advocates for the U.S.  Krugman supports Pres. Obama’s call for a $10.10 hourly minimum wage.  So how does the employment-discouraging minimum wage in France compare to the allegedly prosperity-enhancing, non-employment-discouraging minimum wage that Krugman, Obama, et al., support for the U.S.?  According to Bluecravat, France’s current minimum wage, when adjusted for purchasing-power parity, is $9.30 per hour, a rate that is lower than the minimum-wage rate advocated by Krugman, Obama, et al.

The minimum wage is terrible anti-poverty policy.  The thing to remember is that A. The majority of minimum wage earners are not poor (or in the poorest 20%); and B.  The majority of the poor don't earn minimum wage.  In most cases, the poor are poor because they don't get enough hours or don't have a job at all, a situation that will only be made worse with a higher minimum wage.

Wrong Way Corrigan

I missed it, but Dan Mitchell had a good article starting from my post on Kevin Drum's unintentionally anti-Keynesian chart pair.

Readers will know from my "trend that is not a trend" series how fascinated I am by how often data referenced in the media tells exactly the opposite story as the one claimed.

How Is This Even A Question? Oil Price Drop is Great

The recent drop in oil prices has been met with a surprising amount of negativity, as if something bad is happening.  This strikes me as insane.  The world uses 90 or so million barrels of oil a day.  The recent $30+ price drop in oil thus equals a world savings of $1 trillion a year.

Sure, oil companies and their suppliers are worse off (and believe me, I care -- a lot of my portfolio was invested in such things when oil started dropping).  But the economy as a whole is clearly better off and wealthier.

To understand why, the analysis we need to undertake is an exact parallel of the broken window fallacy analysis.  Its sort of a healing window analysis.

After the oil price drop, consumers have a trillion dollars more and oil producers have a trillion dollars less.  Even right?  Actually, not.  Because consumers then spend that trillion on other things.  Those other manufacturers and producers get the trillion dollars lost to the oil industry.  Still even, right?  No.  Think of it this way:

Before the price drop

  • Oil companies have $1 trillion extra revenue
  • Other producers have no extra revenue
  • Consumers have 90 million barrels a day of oil

After the price drop

  • Oil companies have no extra revenue
  • Other producers have $1 trillion extra revenue
  • Consumers have 90 million barrels a day of oil AND $1 trillion of extra stuff (goods, service, savings, etc)

The world in the second case is wealthier.  And this is assuming all the people involved are private parties.   In fact, much of the oil revenue drop comes out of the hands of  value-destroying governments so that in fact the wealth increase in the price drop scenario is actually likely even greater than in this simplistic analysis.

Postscript:  OK, yes I am ignoring any cost of carbon pollution.  But the market is not set up to price that, and readers will know that I am skeptical that the cost is that high.  Never-the-less, this is a separate issue that if it needs to be dealt with should be dealt with as a carbon tax on fuels.  The price drop should not affect the value of that tax.  Or another way to put it, if one thinks the tax should be $30 per ton based on a $30 cost of carbon, it should be $30 per ton at $100 oil and $30 per ton at $60 oil.

Kevin Drum Inadvertently Undermines His Own Keynesianism

This is a follow-up from a post this morning here.  Kevin Drum is a Keynesian who thinks that the government is committing economic suicide if it does not increase its spending substantially during and after a recession.  Kevin Drum is also a fierce partisan who wants to defend President Obama against his detractors.  Unfortunately, trying to do the two simultaneously has led to what I think may be an embarrassing result for him.

In the chart below, I combine two graphs of his.  The one on the left is a chart from last year in a Mother Jones cover story blasting "austerity" and lamenting how dumb it was to decrease spending in the years after a recession.  The chart on the right is from the other day, when Drum is agreeing with Paul Krugman that the recession recovery under Obama has been much stronger than the one under Bush II.  The result is a juxtaposition that seems to undermine his Keynesian assumptions - specifically, the recession where we had the "austerity" was the one with the better recovery.  The only thing I have done to his charts is removed lines in the left chart for other past recessions and changed the line colors on the two charts to match.   You can click to enlarge:

click to enlarge

The blue line is the Bush II recession, the red line is the Obama recession.  I believe the start dates are consistent in both charts.  All the numbers and choice of start dates and measurement scales are Drum's.  Don't yell at me for something in the chart construction being unfair -- they are his choices.

The conclusion?  Higher government spending seems to inhibit recovery.  Thanks Kevin!

Economic Drivers I Had Not Considered Before

Geographic mobility costs are a drag on the economy, because they slow and/or truncate relocation of labor to shifting areas of demand (a good example is the fact that North Dakota currently can't get enough workers because people can't/won't move there to take advantage of the opportunities.

Apparently, there are economists who make the argument that one reason for the post-WWII boom is that the war increased mobility for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the forced extrication of young men from their homes via the draft.  Apparently Hurricane Katrina may have had the same effect, blasting people out of the moribund New Orleans economy and forcing them to move to more dynamic areas.

This is probably true, but also one of those areas where economic analysis falls short of total well-being analysis (for lack of a better term).  I know folks from New Orleans and they often seem to be deeply tied to the New Orleans culture and miss it when they have moved away.   Many move back.  So just because someone is better off economically with a job in Houston does not necessarily mean they consider themselves better off.

Kevin Drum Undermines His Own Cover Story and Refutes His Own Keynesian Assumptions

Update:  I have posted an update with a side by side chart comparison here.

Last year, Kevin Drum wrote what I believe was the cover story of the September / October issue of Mother Jones (I read the online edition so exactly how the print version is laid out is opaque to me).  That article, entitled "It's the Austerity, Stupid: How We Were Sold an Economy-Killing Lie" features this analysis:

Click to enlarge

 

He described the chart as follows:

 In the end, for reasons both political and ideological, Obama decided that he needed to demonstrate that he took the deficit seriously, and in his 2010 State of the Union address he did just that. "Families across the country are tightening their belts," he said, and the federal government should do the same. To that end, he announced a three-year spending freeze and the formation of a bipartisan committee to address the long-term deficit.

The Beltway establishment may have applauded Obama's pivot to the deficit, but much of the economic community saw it as nothing short of a debacle. Sure, there were still a few economists who believed that even in a deep recession government spending merely crowded out private spending and thus did no good, but they were a distinct minority. Most economists acknowledged that deficit spending was appropriate at a time like this. Paul Krugman fumed that Obama was cravenly trying to score political points by doing a "deficit peacock-strut" that would be destructive in the wake of the financial crisis. Mark Zandi, a centrist economist who has advised leaders of both parties, used more judicious language, but likewise warned that spending cuts might "cost the economy significantly in the longer run."...

Taken as a whole, these measures have cut the deficit by $3.9 trillion over the next 10 years. And that doesn't even count the expiration of desperately needed stimulus measures like the payroll tax holiday and extended unemployment benefits.

This was unprecedented, as the chart above shows. After every other recent recession, government spending has continued rising steadily throughout the recovery, providing a backstop that prevented the economy from sliding backward. It happened under Ronald Reagan after the recession of 1981, under George H.W. Bush after the recession of 1990, and under George W. Bush after the recession of 2001. But this time, even though the 2008 recession was deeper than any of those previous ones, it didn't.

 

I thought the choice of baseline dates for his charts was deceptive, but never-the-less for the moment lets accept this at face value.  Make sure to take a note of the red line, which is the current recession, and the brown line, which was the recovery from the recession in the late Clinton / early Bush years.  By Mr. Drum's earlier analysis, the earlier 1990 recession was better handled than the current one (against his Keynesian assumptions) by the government continuing to increase spending after the recession to keep the recovery going.   The point of Drum's earlier article was to say that Republicans in Congress were sinking the current economy by not increasing spending as was done after these earlier recessions.

So this is what Drum published the other day, I think based on a Paul Krugman article.

But I think Krugman undersells his case. He shows that the current recovery has created more private sector jobs than the 2001-2007 recovery, and that's true. But in fairness to the Bush years, the labor force was smaller back then and Bush was working from a smaller base. So of course fewer jobs were created. What you really want to look at is jobs as a percent of the total labor force. And here's what you get:

blog_private_employment_2001_vs_2010

The Obama recovery isn't just a little bit better than the Bush recovery. It's miles better. But here's the interesting thing. This chart looks only at private sector employment. If you want to make Bush look better, you can look at total employment instead. It's still not a great picture, but it's a little better:

Awesome, Kevin!  So I guess that austerity you were complaining about was the right thing to do, yes?

Seriously, in his article a year ago Drum argued that the Republicans in Congress were sinking the economy vis a vis the 1990 recession by not continuing to boost spending in the years after the recession.  Now, he admits  (though since he does not refer back to the original article I guess it is not an admission per se) that this "austerity" led to a stronger recovery than the spending-fueled 1990 version.  All hail smaller government, the solution to growing employment!

PS-  I wonder how much of this change in private employment since the last recession came in the oil and gas industry, whose expansion the Left generally opposes?  Well, they'll bash on oil tomorrow but today, they will take credit for the jobs added.

Update:  Here are the two charts combined, with other recessions removed and the colors on the data series set to match (click to enlarge)

click to enlarge

The Science of Complex Systems -- Economics and Climate

I saw two statements written about economics over the weekend that could easily have been written about climate as well.  These are both complex systems where researchers try to link one output variable (e.g. global average surface temperatures or economic growth) to one input variable (e.g. CO2 or government spending).

Via Cafe Hayek, here is Bob Gelfond discussing Keynesian multiples

When it comes to the “evidence” demonstrating the magic of the Keynesian Multiplier, what we see, in fact, is merely careful curation of statistical flukes on a grand scale over decades. Economist Ryan Murphy, who runs a project called govtmultiplier.com that attempts to catalog scholarly measurements of the Keynesian Multiplier, has categorized and analyzed 128 papers on the subject. Only four papers even attempt to include this kind of statistical test, and none of these validate the original results, meaning simply that none of them prove the Keynesian Multiplier actually leads to more dollar-for-dollar economic growth. And this is after these models are ginned up to make their theory look as good as possible. If attempts to employ macroeconomics purport to be science, they must boldly make predictions about the future, not rummage around for convenient data from the past. But no peddler of the Keynesian Multiplier has been able to make demonstrable predictions borne out by the test of time.

Morgan Housel on economic data, but applies to climate without changing a word.

Ideally we’d have 500 years of unimpeachably perfect data. In reality we have about 50 years of so-so data. If we had the former, we’d learn that so much of what we’ve learned from the latter is wrong and incomplete.

Update:  Here is a third bit from Arnold Kling in the same vein:

Sometimes, I think that there are macroeconomists (Krugman is not the only one) for whom there is no path of economic variables that could ever contradict their point of view. They remind me of the climate scientists who tell us that Buffalo’s Snowvember came from global warming.

Macroeconomics is infinitely confirmable because of its high causal density and lack of controlled experiments. The macroeconomist has enough interpretative degrees of freedom to twist any pattern of economic activity to fit his or her priors.

 

Government Supply-Side Health Care Restrictions that Raise Costs

One of the least reported issues related to health care cost inflation is the existence of artificial government restrictions on health care supply, often called "certificates of need".

The COPN [certificate of public need] law is supply-side Obamacare: top-down, command-and-control restrictions on which providers can offer which services. A certificate of public need is, essentially, a government permission slip. Without one, a Virginia doctor can’t put an MRI machine in his clinic. A hospital can’t build a new wing. A hospital company can’t add a satellite campus. And so on.

Getting such permission slips is a long and costly process. The owner of a Northern Virginia radiology practice, for example, spent five years and $175,000 asking permission to buy a new MRI machine. The state said no.

One reason the process takes so long is that competitors often fight such requests. When Bon Secours proposed the St. Francis Medical Center in Chesterfield, rival chain HCA fought it vigorously, arguing there was insufficient demand. The hospital was approved and enjoys a robust business. You’d think state regulators would laugh off competitors’ arguments, but sometimes they’re actually taken seriously. When a Richmond radiology practice wanted to move—not add, but move—a radiation device to its Hanover offices, the state said no in part because Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center worried the project “could take some of their business.”

This is cronyism and protection of incumbent competitors, pure and simple.  It is often justified by the economically-ignorant as reducing costs because it reduces expenditures on expensive machinery.  But in what industry can you think of does restricting supply ever reduce costs?

In any other industry, the proper response to that would be: So what? If Kroger sets up across the street from Food Lion, we consider that good for consumers: They have more choice. And if they migrate from Food Lion to Kroger, that’s not a bad thing. It means they’re getting more utility for their grocery dollar.

Studies of the COPN system around the country have confirmed what seems intuitively obvious. A joint examination by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission found that COPN regulations hurt competition, fail to contain costs, and “can actually lead to price increases.” Restricting supply raises prices? Imagine that.

On Income Inequality

Most folks who lament income inequality have the following model in their head:  Wealth comes at a fixed rate from a fountain in the desert, and the rich are the piggy ones who hog all the output of the fountain and won't let anyone else in close to drink.  The more anyone takes from the fountain, the less that is available for everyone else.  And this was probably a pretty good model for considering pre-capitalist societies.  The actual robber barons, before the term was abused to describe successful industrialists of the 19th century, were petty nobles (ie the government of the time) who did absolutely nothing useful except prey on those around them and on those who passed by conducting rudimentary commerce, taking from them by force.  That is not how most people become wealthy today, with the exception of a few beneficiaries of cronyism (e.g. Terry McAuliffe).

These issues are dealt with quite clearly from a surprising source -- this review by an economist of the movie "Elysium".   I don't really get the schtick at the end with the Adam Smith cameo, but the rest is quite good

Postscript:  A while back I was reading the Devil's Candy (terrific book) and thinking about movie-making.  Perhaps it is not surprising that wealthy movie stars think in zero-sum terms.  I suppose much of their success can be thought of as zero-sum.  If I get the part, someone else does not.  If I get an extra point of the gross, that is less for everyone else.  If this movie does well, that probably means less revenue for another movie that came out the same weekend.   Particularly for actors trying to make it or on the rise, movies have a fixed sum of value and they are trying to grab a larger share of that value.

It is interesting that in their own sphere of influence, I never hear about such folks seeking any sort of income redistribution.  Perhaps I have missed it, but I never hear Matt Damon say "hey, take one of my gross points and split it up among all the craft folks on the movie, or share it out with the 20 guys who didn't land my part."

Thoughts on the Japanese Economy

I would characterize long-term Japanese economic policy this way:

  • Technocratically planned economy where the government chose winners and losers and directed capital to industries favored for development (e.g. MITI with steel, autos, electronics).
  • Strong government favoritism for exports and exporters over the domestic economy -- export industries are heavily protected at the cost of raising costs for internal consumers and limiting competition in domestic markets.
  • Enormous, near Herculean commitment to deficit spending as stimulus.  With deficits consistently running in the 8% of GP range and total government debt a stratospheric levels, Japan is the poster child for Krugman's anti-austerity

To these three I would add something that is seldom mentioned, that Japan has a near Scandinavian GINI index, with income inequality well under that of the US.  Oh yes, and they were an enthusiastic adopter of CO2 limits.

And the result of all this has been... 25 years of stagnation.

I remember when every one of these three planks was enthusiastically lauded by the US elite.  I was at Harvard Business School in the late 1980's and much of the discussion was about the US needing to adopt MITI-like government industrial planning and management.  If pressed at the time, people might kind of sort of acknowledge that life wasn't so good for Japanese consumers, but we were in a Michael Porter big picture competitiveness-of-nations phase, and no one seemed to care that their definition of national success did not turn out so well for the people actually living there.

To me, Japan is a giant case study in Austrian economics.  It's like they set out to run a quarter-century test: "let's see if mispricing of credit and forced misallocation of capital is really the cause of recessions."  So it is amazing that no one seems to want to acknowledge the results of this experiment.  Paul Krugman appears weekly in the New York Times to frequently advocate for exactly this same economic plan.

Net Neutrality is Not Neutrality, It is Actually the Opposite. It's Corporate Welfare for Netflix and Google

Net Neutrality is one of those Orwellian words that mean exactly the opposite of what they sound like.  There is a battle that goes on in the marketplace in virtually every communication medium between content creators and content deliverers.  We can certainly see this in cable TV, as media companies and the cable companies that deliver their product occasionally have battles that break out in public.   But one could argue similar things go on even in, say, shipping, where magazine publishers push for special postal rates and Amazon negotiates special bulk UPS rates.

In fact, this fight for rents across a vertical supply chain exists in virtually every industry.  Consumers will pay so much for a finished product.  Any vertical supply chain is constantly battling over how much each step in the chain gets of the final consumer price.

What "net neutrality" actually means is that certain people, including apparently the President, want to tip the balance in this negotiation towards the content creators (no surprise given Hollywood's support for Democrats).  Netflix, for example, takes a huge amount of bandwidth that costs ISP's a lot of money to provide.  But Netflix doesn't want the ISP's to be be able to charge for this extra bandwidth Netflix uses - Netflix wants to get all the benefit of taking up the lion's share of ISP bandwidth investments without having to pay for it.  Net Neutrality is corporate welfare for content creators.

Check this out: Two companies (Netflix and Google) use half the total downstream US bandwidth.  They use orders and orders of magnitude more bandwidth than any other content creators, but don't want to pay for it (source)

sandvine-2h-2013

Why should you care?  Well, the tilting of this balance has real implications for innovation.  It creates incentives for content creators to devise new bandwidth-heavy services.  On the other hand, it pretty much wipes out any incentive for ISP's (cable companies, phone companies, etc) to invest in bandwidth infrastructure (cell phone companies, to my understand, are typically exempted from net neutrality proposals).  Why bother investing in more bandwidth infrastrcture if the government is so obviously intent on tilting the rewards of such investments towards content creators?  Expect to see continued lamentations from folks (ironically mostly on the Left, who support net neutrality) that the US trails in providing high-speed Internet infrastructure.

Don't believe me?  Well, AT&T and Verizon have halted their fiber rollout.  Google has not, but Google is really increasingly on the content creation side.  And that is one strategy for dealing with this problem of the government tilting the power balance in a vertical supply chain:  vertical integration.

Postscript:  There are folks out there who always feel better as a consumer if their services are heavily regulated by the Government.  Well, the Internet is currently largely unregulated, but the cable TV industry is heavily regulated.  Which one are you more satisfied with?

Update:  OK, after a lot of comments and emails, I am willing to admit I am conflating multiple issues, some of which fit the strict definition of net neutrality (e.g.  ISP A can't block Planned Parenthood sites because its CEO is anti-abortion) with other potential ISP-content provider conflicts.  I am working on some updates as I study more, but I will say in response that

  1. President Obama is essentially doing the same thing, trying to ram through a regulatory power grab (shifting ISPs to Title II oversight) that actually has vanishly little to do with the strict definition of net neutrality.   Net neutrality supporters should be forewarned that the number of content and privacy restrictions that will pour forth from regulators will dwarf the essentially non-existent cases of net neutrality violation we have seen so far in the unregulated market.
  2. I am still pretty sure the net effect of these regulations, whether they really affect net neutrality or not, will be to disarm ISP's in favor of content providers in the typical supply chain vertical wars that occur in a free market.  At the end of the day, an ISP's last resort in negotiating with a content provider is to shut them out for a time, just as the content provider can do the same in reverse to the ISP's customers.  Banning an ISP from doing so is like banning a union from striking. And for those who keep telling me that this sort of behavior is different and won't be illegal under net neutrality, then please explain to me how in practice one defines a ban based on a supply chain rent-division arguments and a ban based on nefarious non neutrality.

Poverty and the Minimum Wage

Mark Perry had this chart on the demographics of income distribution.  From it, I want to draw a couple of conclusions about minimum wage and poverty

Click to Enlarge

Note the household income per earner for the lowest quintile.  It equates to something over $14 an hour, well above minimum wage almost everywhere in the US and nearly as high as the $15 national minimum wage proposed as an anti-poverty program.

The problem with most poor households is not wage rate, it is getting full time work.  The household income per earner is nearly as high as the average income of the second quintile.  The problem is that most poor households do not have full-time earners.   The key stat is that only 16% worked full-time and only 30% had any sort of job at all.

This is what always amazes me about the minimum wage discussions.  An increased minimum wage doesn't address the root problem of poverty at all, and in fact will tend to make it worse by pricing the 85% of the poor who need a job or need more hours out of the job market.  If they can't find a job at $8, it is the purest insanity to think they will have a better chance with their limited skills of finding a job at $15.**

 

**Postscript:  I suppose there is one set of facts that would lead to a minimum wage increasing employment in this lowest quintile:  If people who don't work in this quintile are not seeking work because they are happy to live on government benefits and other sources of charity.  This would imply that the reason they are not working full-time is not because no work is available but because they choose indolence.  If this were the case, then a rising minimum wage would provide enough incentive, I suppose, for some to get off the couch and go to work.  I am reluctant to buy into this explanation, but I am SURE that those on the Left who promote the idea of rising minimum wages increasing employment would not accept these assumptions.