Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category.

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

The Ignorance of Pundits

Brad DeLong writes

What are they thinking?

I mean, some employers are going to drop hours below 30 a week once the employer pay-or-play hits. But we won't see that until the February 2015 employment report, and there is no reason for employers to start that eighteen months in advance. It isn't there in the data. And nothing would lead anybody to expect that it would be visible in the data right now.

So why are they claiming that it is?

I am amazed at how even prominent pundits don't bother to educate themselves on even the most basic aspects of the policy issues they discuss.

Let's go back before the 1-year delay in the employer mandate, which was scheduled to take effect on Jan 1, 2014.  In the implementation rules, employees would be classified as part-time or full-time on Jan 1, 2014 based on a 3-12 month look back at actual hours worked in 2013.  That means that for many companies, such as ours, to have employees classified as part-time on day 1 of Obamacare, we had to have them working part time in January of 2013.  By the time the Obamacare employee mandate was delayed, we had already made changes in our operations, so we are not going back and will just maintain them until 2015.

So for our company, and likely for many others, the change to part-time showed up in the first quarter of 2013.

So why is DeLong claiming otherwise?

OK, This Is The Most Absurd Defense I Have Seen of Obama, At Least This Week

Via Kevin Drum

Dave Weigel notes a conundrum today: according to a new poll, 54 percent of the public disapproves of Barack Obama's handling of the deficit. And yet, as the chart on the right shows, the deficit is shrinking dramatically. Last year it dropped by $200 billion, and this year, thanks to a recovering economy, lower spending from the sequester, and the increased taxes in the fiscal cliff deal, it's projected to fall another $450 billion.

Weigel notes that this has deprived conservative yakkers of one of their favorite applause lines: "You don't hear Republicans lulz-ing at Obama for failing to 'cut the deficit in half in my first four years,' because he basically did this, albeit in four and a half." That's true. It's also true that contrary to Republican orthodoxy, it turns out that raising taxes on the rich does bring in higher revenues and therefore reduces the deficit.

The logic here is that Obama has been diligent about cutting the deficit, so therefore Republicans are wrong to try to use the debt ceiling and continuing resolution as a vehicle for forcing more cuts.

It is just possible that a person from another planet landing today might buy this story, but how can anyone who has lived through the last 5 years read this without laughing their butts off?  Every one of Obama's budgets have been dead on arrival, even within his own party, because they have raised spending to such stupid levels.  There has not been even a hint of fiscal responsibility in them.  And the Democratic Senate has passed one budget in something like five years**.

The only fiscal discipline at all has come from the Republican House, and they have only had success in keeping these deficit down by ... using continuing resolutions and debt ceilings as bargaining chips.  This is the President that treated the almost insignificant sequester as if it were the end of the world, and now these sycophants from team Donkey are giving Obama the credit for the deficit reduction?

PS-  This is not an advocacy for Republicans as much as for divided government.  The Republicans when they had years of controlling the Presidency and both houses of Congress under Bush II did zero to get our fiscal house in order and in fact with the Iraq war and Medicare part D, among other things, showed a profligacy that belies their current pious words.

PPS- Kevin Drum needs to have the balls not to play both sides of the street.  He has made it clear in other articles that he thinks it is an economic disaster that the government is spending so little right now.  When he shows a deficit reduction chart, if he were consistent, he should be saying that Republicans suck for forcing this kind of deficit reduction against Obama's better judgement and we need the deficit to go back up.  Have the courage of your convictions.  Instead, he plays team loyalty rather than intellectual consistency, crediting Obama for deficit reduction while at the same time hammering Republicans for austerity.  Dude, its one or the other.

PPPS-  For the first time during this Presidency, both the President and both house of Congress offered a budget:

[The] House passed a budget calling for spending $3.5 trillion in 2014, the Senate passed one calling for $3.7 trillion, and Obama submitted one calling for $3.77 trillion

So the actor that submitted the highest budget gets the credit for deficit reduction?

Eeek! Austerity! Oh, Never Mind.

Yesterday I challenged a graph by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones as being a disingenuous attempt to paint US government spending as some sort of crazed austerity program which is making the recovery worse.  He uses this graph to "prove" that our fiscal response to this recession is weak vis a vis past recessions.  The graph is a bit counter-intuitive -- note that it begins at the end of each recession.  His point is that Keynesian spending needs to continue long after (five years ?!) after the recession is over to guarantee a good recovery, and that we have not done that.

Click to enlarge

For anyone not steeped in the special reality of the reality-based community, it is a bit counter intuitive for those of us who have actually lived through the last 5 years to call government spending austere.

The key is in the dates he selects.  He leaves out the actual recession years.  So by his chart, responses that are late and occur after the recession look better than responses that are fast and large but happen during the recession.  This seems odd, but it is the conclusion one has to draw.

I took roughly the same data and started each line two years earlier, so that my first year is two years ahead of his graph and the zero year in my graph is the same as the zero point in Drum's chart.  His data is better in the sense that he has quarterly data and I only have annual.  Mine is better in that it looks at changes in spending as a percentage of GDP, which I would guess would be the more relevant Keynesian metric (it also helps us correct for the chicken and egg problem of increased government spending being due to, rather than causing, economic expansion).

Here are the results (I tried to use roughly the same colors for the same data series, but who in the world with the choice of the entire color pallet uses two almost identical blues?)

recession-redux2

You can see that Drum makes spending look lower in the current recession by carefully dating the data series to the peak of the spending, rather than comparing it to pre-recession levels.  The right hand scale is the difference in government spending as a percentage of GDP from the -2 year.  So, for example, in the current recession government spending was 34.2% in 2007 and 41.4% in 2009 for a reading of 7.2% in year 0.

Even with the flat spending over the last three or four years in the current recession (flat nominal spending leads do a declining percent of GDP) the spending increase from pre-recession levels is still about twice as high as in other recent recessions.

Does this look like austerity to anyone?

Trying to Overcome My Ignorance on the Banking System

Over the last year, I have learned that those of us who took economics back in the 1980's with textbooks written in the 1960's and 1970's are not very well prepared to understand the modern banking system.  This was a pretty good article that whetted my appetite for understanding what has changed.  A couple of interesting bits from the piece:

One cannot think straight about the future impact of different exit strategies without understanding of the role of bank reserves in today’s financial markets.

  • Banking and money creation has not worked for at least two decades in the way that most people learned in school.

The old system was rather simple in the textbooks. The basic assumptions were (i) all credit was provided by banks; (ii) all bank credit (assets) were funded by the issuance, or creation, of depository liabilities (money) subject to a reserve requirement; and (iii) central banks controlled credit/money/inflation by rationing bank reserves. A stable 'money multiplier' was hypothesised to allow central banks to accurately predict the eventual impact of changes in bank reserves on money and credit.

The problem with the old theory of monetary operations is that none of the three assumptions has been true for at least a generation.
Most credit in the US is created by nonbanks; virtually all bank lending is funded by the creation of liabilities that are not subject to reserve requirements,3 and central banks do not ration reserves. In fact they take great pains to provide banks with the amount of reserves they desire. Central banks influence credit not by rationing the quantity of reserves but by altering the interest rate that banks must pay to obtain the quantity of reserves they desire.

  • Today, credit creation in general and money creation in particular are no longer tied to the stock of reserves (i.e. the stock of banks’ deposits at the Fed).

This gets to the heart of the question of why over $2 trillion in excess bank deposits built up at the Fed over the last 4 years are not really moving the needle on bank lending  (of course, this is a supply AND demand problem, and part of the issue with flat bank lending is tie to lack of demand as many businesses deleverage).  But in terms of supply, I am increasingly coming to terms with the following statement which seems counter-intuitive to someone who studied banking 30 years ago

One of the unintended consequences of Fed LSAPs has been the withdrawal of high quality liquid collateral such as US Treasuries from the financial markets paid for by crediting commercial bank reserve accounts. As discussed above, the banking system as a whole cannot dispose of these assets (reserves). At the same time, banks are under massive pressure world-wide to deleverage. This can take place either by increasing capital (a bank liability), which is costly to shareholders, or by reducing assets. Thus banks’ massive holdings of reserves at the Fed are ‘deadwood’ as far as the banks and their credit-creation capacity are concerned. They may crowd out credit.

The deadwood problem will get worse if the US tightens regulatory leverage ratios – that is, reduces the maximum ratio permitted between a bank’s total assets and capital.6

There is a great irony in the journalistic history of monetary policy. What many are calling central bank “money creation” “helicopter money” or “rolling the printing presses” may – in combination with tighter leverage ratios – lead to a tightening of bank credit and deflationary pressures.  And all this is occurring while the spectre of uncontrolled credit expansion and monetary debasement are being decried countless times by those who have not recognized that yesteryear’s monetary paradigm is defunct.

Interesting.  I hear this from a lot of people in the know about the system.  The author suggests one solution is having the Fed begin to do reverse repos with non-banks, which would drain excess reserves while adding high quality collateral back to the banking system which would allow more lending.  Which appears to be exactly what the Fed is considering.

I am reading this article next to see if I can get a better handle on how all this works.  I will let you know if I find it useful.

We Are In the Best of Hands: Janet Yellen Edition

The Arizona Republic today reviews a speech given by Yellen in January, 2007 in Phoenix:

It was January 2007 when Yellen, then head of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, spoke here about financial literacy before transitioning into comments about the economy — comments that now look remarkably unperceptive.

Back then, months before the real-estate and banking crisis took down the economy, Yellen expressed concern that inflation was uncomfortably high while job gains were coming too swiftly.

“If labor markets are as tight as the unemployment rate suggests, then there may be reason for concern about building inflationary pressures,” she said according to my Jan. 18, 2007, article.

Subsequent events showed that inflation was the last thing we had to worry about, while the lack of jobs has emerged as a central drag on the economy. Back then, U.S. unemployment was around 4.5 percent. But after the recession took hold, it more than doubled, peaking at 10 percent in late 2009. At 7.3 percent currently, it remains well above where it should be this far into an economic recovery.

In contrast, core consumer inflation (which excludes food and energy costs) of 1.8 percent today has hardly budged from the 2.2 percent rate that had Yellen all worked up back then.

In another comment during her Phoenix talk that now looks wildly off-base, Yellen, who later was named vice chair of the Fed’s board of governors, said recession risks had receded despite lingering weakness in housing. She cited the Valley as a place where home-price appreciation had come down from unsustainably high rates of increase.

The Great Recession, as we all now know in hindsight, began later that year, triggered by a home-price slide of epic proportions.

I don't want to beat her up too bad for missing the bubble burst, since most everyone did.  They also all missed the last bubble burst, and the one before that, etc.

This is what makes me crazy:  not that these folks were wrong, even consistently brutally wrong, but that they display absolutely no modesty in their actions given that they were so wrong.  They propose policy steps, such as seemingly eternal QE, that are astoundingly risky unless one assumes that they have a very, very good grasp on exactly where the economy is going.  Which they clearly never have had in the past.  If they acted like they had been wrong most of the time, then I would have little to criticize.  But to be consistently wrong and then make huge risky bets as if you have reliable predictive powers is hubris of the worst sort.

Raise Medicare Taxes

I have made this argument before -- your lifetime Medicare taxes cover only about a third of the benefits you will receive.   Social Security taxes are set about right -- to the extent we come up short on Social Security, it is only because a feckless Congress spent all the excess money in the good years and has none left for the lean years.

But Medicare is seriously mis-priced.  I have always argued that this is dangerous, because there is nothing that screws up the economy more than messed up price signals.  In particular, I have argued that a lot of the glowy hazy love of Medicare by Americans is likely due to the fact that it is seriously mis-priced.  Let's price the thing right, and then we can have a real debate about whether it needs reform or is worth it.

A recent study confirms my fear that the mispricing of Medicare is distorting perceptions of its utility.

As debate over the national debt and the federal budget deficit begins to heat up again, an analysis of national polls conducted in 2013 shows that, compared with recent government reports prepared by experts, the public has different views about the need to reduce future Medicare spending to deal with the federal budget deficit. Many experts believe that future Medicare spending will have to be reduced in order to lower the federal budget deficit [1] but polls show little support (10% to 36%) for major reductions in Medicare spending for this purpose. In fact, many Americans feel so strongly that they say they would vote against candidates who favor such reductions. Many experts see Medicare as a major contributor to the federal budget deficit today, but only about one-third (31%) of the public agrees.

This analysis appears as a Special Report in the September 12, 2013, issue of New England Journal of Medicine.

One reason that many Americans believe Medicare does not contribute to the deficit is that the majority thinks Medicare recipients pay or have prepaid the cost of their health care. Medicare beneficiaries on average pay about $1 for every $3 in benefits they receive. [2] However, about two-thirds of the public believe that most Medicare recipients get benefits worth about the same (27%) or less (41%) than what they have paid in payroll taxes during their working lives and in premiums for their current coverage.

Update:  Kevin Drum writes on the same study.  Oddly, he seems to blame the fact that Americans have been trained to expect something for nothing from the government on Conservatives.  I am happy to throw Conservatives under the bus for a lot of things but I think the Left gets a lot of the blame if Americans have been fooled into thinking expensive government freebies aren't really costing them anything.

The Inevitable Result of Government Policy on the Labor Market

Assume the following conditions:

  1. I am increasingly liable for any dumbass thing my employees say or do.  It does not matter if it is absolutely against my values and company rules, if someone, say, uses a racial epithet with a customer or another employee, I will likely at least get sued.  Given my deductibles on insurance, I am out $20,000 a case even if I win.
  2. Minimum wages have increased faster than the production value of unskilled, inexperienced laborers.
  3. Obamacare is raising the minimum cost of a full-time employee by at least $2,000-$3,000 a year, not including the as-yet-to-be-define but likely expensive record-keeping and administrative requirements 
  4. In states like California, the law increasingly gives employees the ability to make new claims on my income (e.g. fake workers comp and disability claims) or to even make themselves un-firable (by asking for a family medical leave, or claiming a disability, or claiming to be a whistle-blower).

Against this backdrop, what am I going to do?  I am going to hire more skilled and experienced workers who justify my minimum employment costs.   I am going to hire mature people less likely to get me in trouble via their immature actions.  I am going to hire people with a long work history so I can see there is not a history of scams and fraud.

In other words, I am going to hire older people.  And thus:

click to enlarge

 

Of all the issues I raised above, the first one gets the least attention but in our customer contact business is perhaps the most important.  The cost of hiring a knucklehead is immense.  And the folks that do stupid stuff in 1 are often the very same people who try to take us in 4.

Keynesian Multiplier of 0.05

So much for that Keynesian stimulus notion (emphasis in the original)

With everyone focused on the 5th anniversary of the Lehman failure, we are taking a quick look at how the world's developed (G7) nations have fared since 2008, and just what the cost to restore "stability" has been. In a nutshell: the G7 have added around $18tn of consolidated debt to a record $140 trillion, relative to only $1tn of nominal GDP activity and nearly $5tn of G7 central bank balance sheet expansion (Fed+BoJ+BoE+ECB). In other words, over the past five years in the developed world, it took $18 dollars of debt (of which 28% was provided by central banks) to generate $1 of growth. For all talk of "deleveraging" G7 consolidated debt has been at a record high 440% for the past four years.

The theory of stimulus -- taking money out of the productive economy, where it is spent based on the information of hundreds of millions of people as to the relative value of millions of potential investments, and handing it to the government to spend based on political calculus -- never made a lick of sense to me.  I guess I would have assumed the multiplier in the short term was fractional but at least close to one, indicating in the short run that if we borrow and dump the money into the economy we would get some short-term growth, only to have to pay the piper later.  But we are not even seeing this.

The Problem With Affirmative Action

Janet Yellen may soon be a victim of affirmative action.  I know that sounds odd, but I think it is true.

To preface, I have no preferences in the competition to become the next head of the Federal Reserve, and assume that Janet Yellen and Larry Summers are equally qualified.   I don't think the immense power the Fed has to screw with the economy can be wielded rationally by any individual, so it almost does not matter who sits in the chair.  Perhaps someone with a bit less hubris and a little more self-awareness would be better with such power, which would certainly mitigate against Summers.

But Yellen has a problem.  When this horse race first emerged in the press, many in the media suggested that Yellen would be a great choice because she was a woman, and qualified.  Most of the press coverage centered (probably unfairly given that she does seem to be quite qualified) on her woman-ness.  This leaves Yellen with a problem because many people were left with a first impression that the reason to choose her was primarily due to her having a womb, rather than her economic chops.

This is the downside of affirmative action.

Most Unsurprising Headline of the Year

Via the AZ Republic:

The pay gap between the richest 1 percent and the rest of America widened to a record last year.

...

Last year, the incomes of the top 1 percent rose 19.6 percent compared with a 1 percent increase for the remaining 99 percent.

...

But since the recession officially ended in June 2009, the top 1 percent have enjoyed the benefits of rising corporate profits and stock prices: 95 percent of the income gains reported since 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent.

That compares with a 45 percent share for the top 1 percent in the economic expansion of the 1990s and a 65 percent share from the expansion that followed the 2001 recession.

The Federal Reserve is pumping over a half trillion dollars of printed money into inflating a bubble in financial assets (stocks, bonds, real estate, etc).  It should be zero surprise that the rich, who disproportionately get their income and wealth from such financial assets, should benefit the most.   QE is the greatest bit of cronyism the government has yet to invent.

(yes, I understand that there are many reasons for this one-year result, including tax changes that encouraged income to be moved forward into last year and the fact it was a recovery off of a low base.  Never-the-less, despite decades of Progressive derision for "trickle down" economics, this Administration has pursue the theory that creating an asset bubble that makes the rich much richer will in the long term help the economy via the "wealth effect.")

When Environmentally Sustainable Actually Was Sustainable

Many of your know that my company operates public parks.  So I see a lot of different approaches to park design and construction.  Of late I have been observing a trend in "environmental sustainability" in park design that is actually the opposite.

The US Forest Service has built more campgrounds, by far, than any other entity in the world.  For decades, particularly in the western United States, the USFS had a very clear idea about what they wanted in a campground -- they wanted it to be well-integrated with nature, simple, and lightly developed.  They eschewed amenities like pools and playgrounds and shuffleboard.  They avoided building structures except bathroom and shower buildings.  The camp sites were simple, often unpaved with a table and fire ring and a place for a tent.  They used nature itself to make these sites beautiful, keeping the environment natural and creating buffers of trees and natural vegetation between sites.   I have never seen an irrigation system in a western USFS campground -- if it doesn't grow naturally there, it doesn't grow.

This has proven to be an eminently sustainable design.  With the exception of their underground water systems, which tend to suck, they are easy to maintain.  There is not much to go wrong.  The sites need new gravel every once in a while.  Every 5-10 years the tables and fire rings needs replacement, hardly a daunting task.  And every 20-30 years the bathrooms needs refurbishment or replacement.  The design brilliance was in the placement of the sites and their integration with the natural environment.

Over the last several months, I have been presented with plans from three different public parks agencies for parks they want to redevelop.   Each of these have been $10+ million capital projects and each one had a major goal of being "sustainable."   I have run away from all three.  Why -- because each and every one will be incredibly expensive and resource intensive to operate and of questionable popularity with the public.  Sustainability today seems to mean "over-developed with a lot of maintenance-intensive facilities".

What each of these projects has had in common are a myriad of aggressively architected buildings - not just bathrooms but community rooms and offices and interpretive centers.  These buildings have been beautiful and complex, made from expensive materials like stainless steel and fine stone.  They have also had a lot of fiddly bits, like rainwater collection and recycling systems and solar and windmills.  They have automatic plumbing valves that never seem to work right.  The grounds have all been heavily landscaped, with large lawns that require water and mowing, with non-native plants that need all kinds of care.  Rather than a traditional sand pad for tents they have elaborate wooden platforms.

The plans for these facilities are beautiful.  They win awards.  In fact, I am increasingly convinced that that is their whole point, to increase prestige of the designer and the agency that hired them through awards.  But they make no sense as a recreation facility.  In 10 years, they will look like hell.  Or sooner, since one agency that is in the process of spending a $22 million bond issue on 5 campgrounds seems to not have one dollar budgeted for operation and maintenance.

These things actually win awards for sustainability, which generally means they save money on one input at the expense of increasing many others.  One design  got attention for having grass on the roofs, which perhaps saved a few cents of electricity at the cost of having to irrigate and mow the roof (not to mention the extra roof bracing to carry the load).  I briefly operated a campground that had a rainwater recovery system on the bathrooms, which required about 5 hours of labor each week to keep clean and running to save about a dollar of water costs.

Prices and Sustainability

I had a discussion with a locavore-type person in Boulder, Colorado last week at their farmers market.    He told me that while his costs to grow his produce were higher than the stuff I might find in Safeway, his products were more sustainable.

I asked him how that could be.  I observed that in a well functioning market, the costs of his inputs should reflect their relative scarcity and the scarcity of the resources that went into them.   Over time, particularly in a commodity market, prices were a sort of amazing scarcity integral.  If his costs were higher, that should mean he is using more or scarcer resources.  Isn't that the opposite of sustainability?

In fact, prices are such an amazing, almost magical, gauge of an item's resource intensity that it should tell us something that folks who purport to care about sustainability tend to have a disdain and distrust for markets and prices.   Sure, I understand certain externalities (CO2, for example, if you accept it as one) are not necessarily priced in, but the mistrust of prices seems to go beyond this.

In this particular case, his argument was the food was local and so used a lot less resources in transportation, and organic, so used less fertilizer and other chemicals.  But this is simply tipping the scales, trying to apply new weights and priorities to certain inputs that simply don't obtain in the real world.  The locavore focus on transportation costs is amazing, as it focuses on just one narrow cost and energy input for food, ignoring the energy of production and the energy to deliver other inputs to the local farm.  Take our situation in Phoenix -- sure, a local farmer used less energy to truck the finished food to market, but how much energy and other resources were used to move the water to grow it hundreds of miles to our desert here?  Or what about land use -- organic local farming may save trucking and chemicals, but what if the yields per acre are a third of what one might get on the best soils in a another part of the country?  Prices take into account the scarcity of not just tranportation fuel but land and labor as well.  Sustainability advocates often want to put their thumb on the scales and overweight just one resource.  That is why, for example, in the name of CO2 reduction we are clearing tons of virgin land, including land in the Amazon, to farm biofuel products.

Blast from the Past

I have not reread this little classic article from 9 years ago, until a customer in California found it and complained that it was outrageous that the state would actually allow such a person as its author to operate anything in a state park.  So I suppose it is worth relinking, if just for that reason.  Most of it holds up pretty well, though I regret the jab implying that progressives supported suicide bombers.  Here is an example:

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount.  That is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because, to paraphrase Hayek, only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave.

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it.

This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to repeat itself through the generations.  In the seventies and eighties, progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries.  Just like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to services....

Take prescription drugs in the US - isn't it pretty clear that the progressive position is that they would be willing to pretty much gut incentives for any future drug innovations in trade for having a system in place that guaranteed everyone minimum access to what exists today?  Or take the welfare state in Continental Europe -- isn't it clear that a generation of workers/voters chose certainty over growth and improvement?  That workers 30 years ago voted themselves jobs for life, but at the cost of tremendous unemployment amongst the succeeding generations?

LineQuest, err Comic-Con Report

Having now been to my first Comic-con International conference in San Diego, I have come up with a new official T-shirt for the event.  It will say on the front, "What is this line for?"

That was the question on everyone's lips.  No matter where you went, either in the exhibit hall or in the meeting room area or outside, there were lines everywhere.  There were lines for giveaways.  There were lines to get in rooms.  There were lines for autographs.  There were even lines to get tickets to have a preferential place in a line later.   One line, for the largest theater that had the hottest programming, was over a mile and a quarter long, with people lined up overnight to get in.  There were so many lines it was often unclear what lines were for.  Five people could likely start a line randomly by simply standing in line at some random spot and people would start getting in behind them.

I have decided that the origin of the word Comic-Con is not actually from Comic-Convention but in fact is actually a corruption of COMECON.  It is an organization that has embraced the old Soviet economy with both arms.  It has bent over backwards to absolutely ensure that no allocation of scarce resources will be based on price -- thus the incredibly complicated process for even obtaining a ticket to the event in the first place.  So all goods are free (or in the case of a 4-day ticket, very inexpensive) and allocation of scarce resources is entirely by queue.

A one-day pass to see the exhibit hall and people-watch the Cosplay is well worth the price, both in money and more importantly in time.  My son and I had a great time.  But any attempt to enjoy any of the programming content will require at least 1 hour of line-standing for every 1 hour of program time.  And if the program has any recognizable person's name in it, or if the title includes the words "Star Wars, Star Trek, or Firefly", then you can count on at least 3 hours of waiting for every one hour of programming.

As an example, my son and I showed up 1-1/2 hours early for an afternoon program called something like "Star Wars vs. Firefly."   We were about 50th in a line that eventually ran to about 600 people.  We thought we were in good shape.  Foolish mortals.  It turns out people showed up at 7 and 8 in the morning for the first program of the day in that room, and then never left, solely to get to the 1:30 Star Wars/Firefly program.  None of us in line outside the door at 1:30 got in.

I am not going to argue resource allocation methodologies here -- this is a private event and they are welcome to do it any way they wish.  And since their target audience tends to be young and perhaps under-employed, then I can see how an allocation methodology based on investing one's time rather than money would be appealing to that audience.  Again, a day at the trade show and people watching the Cosplay is worth it.  As for the rest, if you are someone who will wait in line an hour to save 10 cents on gas, you will probably love it.  If you are someone who thought the FastPass system was the greatest thing ever implemented by Disney, they you should likely give the programming a miss.

A few other notes:

  • One of the shorter lines was for autographs from Stan Lee, which goes to show how far Comic-Con has evolved from its roots
  • Building on the previous observation, I saw only one or two booths on the entire (huge) exhibit floor actually selling vintage comic books
  • The Cosplay is everywhere but the best place to see it is just outside the hall where the photographers are taking pictures of folks coming in.  This is one area Comic-Con is really missing an opportunity.  If I were them I would create a red carpet ala the Oscars for Cosplayers to come in and everyone else to watch.   Put in some grandstands and big screens, maybe even with live commentary or voting
  • The masquerade is very miss-able.  A costume competition but it is run in a tedious manner and the Cosplay on the exhibit floor is better.
  • Fortunately I have a lot of nerds in my clan so I came away with good gifts.  My son got an autographed Summer Glau photo, my daughter an autographed Benedict Cumberbatch photo, and my niece an autograph of the most current Doctor Who (sorry, my first Doctor was Tom Baker and I can't keep track of the new ones).  My son also scored a Disney Princess calendar drawn in that, ahem, fantasy style made famous in publications like Heavy Metal.  It is sure to horrify my wife and daughter, which I assume was half the point.

The End of Full-Time Work in the US Retail Service Sector

Frequent readers will know that I have been predicting for over a year that the economic story of 2013 would be the end of full time work in the retail service sector due to the PPACA, or Obamacare (example).   QED, from the most recent economic report:

In June, the household survey reported that part-time jobs soared by 360,000 to 28,059,000 – an all time record high. Full time jobs? Down 240,000.  And looking back at the entire year, so far in 2013, just 130K Full-Time Jobs have been added, offset by a whopping 557K Part-Time jobs.

It is unclear how the 1-year delay in the employer mandate implementation will affect this.  Probably not a lot -- based on the way Obamacare was being implemented, companies needed to be switching workers to part-time now (really, early this year) so that they would qualify as part-time for next year  (a company needed 6-12 months of records from this year to prove the employee was part-time).  In other words, most companies have already switched, and having done so, will not likely switch back just for one year.

Besides, as I have written before, it is actually cheaper and easier for many retail establishments to stitch together full coverage of their business hours from part-time workers.   Making jobs full-time is a hassle, and was done by most of us mainly for competition reasons, ie to be able to attract the best employees.  Other laws like California's absurd lunch-break mandate (which has caused me to make working through lunch a firing offense at our company) just add to the cost of offering full-time work.   If everyone is only offering part-time, and the labor market is weak with plenty of workers available, there is no reason to go back to offering full time employment.

European Auster-Yeti

There are people who will swear to this day that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Bigfoot exists and they have seen it.  Paul Krugman similarly is just sure he has seen European austerity.  The rest of us are left scratching our heads for the evidence -- he doesn't even have a blurry photo or footprint.  Just tales from a friend of a friend, who is not only sure there has been austerity, but that it caused an old lady to dry her cat in a microwave and that if you swim 20 minutes after eating you will get cramps.

The official Keynesian story is that the PIIGS of Europe (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) have been devastated by cutbacks in public spending. Austerity has made things worse rather than better – clear proof that Keynesian stimulus is the answer. Keynesians claim the lack of stimulus (of course paid for by someone else) has spawned costly recessions which threaten to spread.  In other words, watch out Germany and Scandinavia: If you don’t pony up, you’ll be next.

Erber finds fault with this Keynesian narrative. The official figures show that PIIGS governments embarked on massive spending sprees between 2000 and 2008. During this period, their combined general government expenditures rose from 775 billion Euros to 1.3 trillion – a 75 percent increase. Ireland had the largest percentage increase (130 percent), and Italy the smallest (40 percent). These spending binges gave public sector workers generous salaries and benefits, paid for bridges to nowhere, and financed a gold-plated transfer state. What the state gave has proven hard to take away as the riots in Southern Europe show.

Then in 2008, the financial crisis hit. No one wanted to lend to the insolvent PIIGS, and, according to the Keynesian narrative, the PIIGS were forced into extreme austerity by their miserly neighbors to the north. Instead of the stimulus they desperately needed, the PIIGS economies were wrecked by austerity.

Not so according to the official European statistics. Between the onset of the crisis in 2008 and 2011, PIIGS government spending increased by six percent from an already high plateau.  Eurostat’sprojections (which make the unlikely assumption that the PIIGS will honor the fiscal discipline promised their creditors) still show the PIIGS spending more in 2014 than at the end of their spending binge in 2008.

As  Erber wryly notes: “Austerity is everywhere but in the statistics.”

The Plan For Universities to Raise Tuition to Infinity

Via the WSJ, President Obama is proposing debt forgiveness for student borrowers

The White House proposes that the government forgive billions of dollars in student debt over the next decade, a plan that cheers student advocates, but critics say it would expand a program that already encourages students to borrow too much and stick taxpayers with the bill.

The proposal, included in President Barack Obama's budget for next year, would increase the number of borrowers eligible for a program known casually as income-based repayment, which aims to help low-income workers stay current on federal student debt.

Borrowers in the program make monthly payments equivalent to 10% of their income after taxes and basic living expenses, regardless of how much they owe. After 20 years of on-time payments—10 years for those who work in public or nonprofit jobs—the balance is forgiven.

Already, it's pretty clear that many students pay little attention to size of the debt they run up.  Easy loans for students have essentially made them less price sensitive, however irrational this may seem (did you make good short - long term trade-offs at the age of 18?)  As a result, tuition has soared, much like home prices did as a result of easy mortgage credit a decade ago.  The irony is that easier student debt is not increasing access to college for the average kid (since tuition is essentially staying abreast of increases in debt availability), but is shifting student's future dollars to university endowments and bloated administrations.  Take any industry that has in the past been accused of preying on the financially unsophisticated by driving them into debt for profit, and universities are fifty times worse.

So of course, the Progressives in the White House and Congress (unsurprisingly Elizabeth Warren has a debt subsidy plan as well) are set to further enable this predatory behavior by universities.  By effectively capping most students' future financial obligations from student debt, this plan would remove the last vestiges of price sensitivity from the college tuition market.  Colleges can now raise tuition to infinity, knowing that the bulk of it will get paid by the taxpayer some time in the future.  Just as the college price bubble looks ready to burst, this is the one thing that could re-inflate it.

Postscript:  By the way, let's look at the numbers.  Let's suppose Mary went to a top college and ran up $225,000 in debt.  She went to work for the government, averaging $50,000 a year (much of her compensation in government is in various benefits that don't count in this calculation).  She has to live in DC, so that's expensive, and pay taxes.  Let's say that she has numbers to prove she only has $20,000 left after essential living expenses.  10% of that for 10 years is $20,000 (or about $13,500 present value at 8%).  So Mary pays less than $20,000 for her education, and the taxpayer pays $205,000.  The university makes a handsome profit - in fact they might have given her financial aid or a lower tuition, but why bother?  Mary doesn't care what her tuition is any more, because she is capped at around $20,000.  The taxpayer is paying the rest and is not involved in the least in choosing the university or setting prices, so why not charge the taxpayer as much as they can?

Postscript #2:  It is hard to figure out exactly what Elizabeth Warren is proposing, as most of her proposal is worded so as to take a potshot at banks rather than actually lay out a student loan plan.  But it appears that she wants to reduce student loan interest rates for one year.  If so, how is this different from teaser rates on credit cards, where folks -- like Elizabeth Warren -- accuse credit card companies of tricking borrowers into debt with low initial, temporary rates.  I  find it  a simply astounding sign of the bizarre times we live in that a leading anti-bank progressive is working on legislative strategies to get 18-year-olds further into debt.

Update on the Economic Story of 2013

Yes, more evidence that the PPACA is ending full-time work in the American retail service sector

Circle K Southeast joined a growing list of national companies shifting workers to part-time status this week, in order to avoid paying Obamacare’s mandatory benefits, CBS-WTOC reports.

The alternative is to pay a $2,000 fine per fulltime worker who is not covered, leading Circle K to become the latest in a long line of companies to slice employee hours to avoid increased costs.

Here was my article several weeks ago in Forbes, though I have been predicting this since last year (when my own company started planning for the same change).

NPR on the Obamacare-Driven Shift to Part-Time Work

I don't have time to excerpt but, as I predicted, the media is finally catching up to the enormous shift (mainly in the retail and service sector) to part-time work.    I had a long article on this at Forbes last week.

Blaming Excessive Taxation on .... Capitalism?

Megan McArdle has a lot more patience than I explaining to a writer at Crooked Timber why artists don't get special tax deductions that aren't available to anyone else.

But what I thought was amazing, was the fact that they seem to blame an overbearing and over-reaching IRS on .... markets and capitalism. I'll give one example of the general tone:

One of the days, I’ll get around to reading the copy of Sandel’s ‘What Money Can’t Buy; The Moral Limits of Markets’. It’s even made the exquisitely painful cut of being one of only two dozen books brought on our three-month sojourn on the south coast of England. When I do read Sandel, I hope to acquire a greater appreciation for exactly how market thinking has permeated and corrupted so many aspects of human life.

One surprising place a weirdly attenuated and manically zealous form of market thinking has popped up is in the Minnesota tax office. (via BoingBoing) They’re running a quite unhinged vendetta against Lynette Reini-Grandell and Venus DeMars, a married couple who make music, art, poetry and teach English. The taxman running their audit says Reini-Grandell and DeMars’ creative activities don’t make enough money, and haven’t for years, thus proving the artists are mere hobbyists who shouldn’t get a tax break. Either they should turn a consistent profit by now, or have given up already and gone back to being good little consumers.

I am exhausted with people with people equating free markets and capitalism with the crony corporate state we have today.

By the way, I am the first to acknowledge that the government does not consider non-monetary benefits in many parts of their legislation.  Just one example is minimum wage legislation. For a teenager without work experience, being able to have an internship where they can prove they are reliable and learn how to work in an organization has tremendous value.  But these huge non-monetary benefits (so large many teens and low-skilled workers might take a job for free, at least to prove themselves initially) cannot be counted in the minimum wage calculation.

Short Memories

I just heard a radio commercial today urging listeners to learn how to flip houses to great profit with absolutely no capital or down payment required.  What a great idea.

On The Minimum Wage

I got an email today from some group telling me that the majority of small business owners support annual increases to the minimum wage.  I found that odd, so I clicked through to the study.   I will save you the time looking for it, the study had no discussion of how it identified a representative group of small business owners, or even how it validated the respondents were business owners in the first place.  All it says is that it was an "internet survey".

It turns out the second question of the poll answers the first.  The people in the poll overwhelmingly supported raising the minimum wage because the businesses polled overwhelmingly did not hire minimum wage workers.

In fact, the most lost fact in the minimum wage debate is the percentage of the work force that actually earns the minimum wage.  According to the Department of Labor, in 2011 only about 3% of all employed wage and salary workers were making minimum wage or less.  However, about half of these folks are people who mainly work for tips (which are not included in the base wage number).  When you exclude the folks whose tips presumably take them over the minimum wage, just 1.5% of American workers make minimum wage.

Minimum wage work is a niche, generally confined to special situations and to low-skilled young people entering the work force.

Sure, a minimum wage hike would help many of those 1.5%  (at least those who did not lose their jobs when the higher wage rates priced out their work).  But what about the group five times larger than this, the unemployed?  Are they really better off when the bar they have to clear to find their first work keeps getting raised?  If no one will currently hire 30% of teens at $7.25 an hour, how many will get hired at $10 an hour?

Here is the question the group should have asked:  For those of you who currently pay some workers minimum wage, would you expect to employ more, the less, or about the same after an increase in the minimum wage?