Posts tagged ‘economy’

Arizona Near Last in Local Food Consumption -- Good!

Our local fishwrap laments:

The local food movement in Arizona needs just that – movement.

While some shoppers enjoy spending their Saturday mornings at local farmers markets, new research indicates Arizona lacks per-capita sales in the local food industry.

The 2015 Locavore Index found that of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., Arizona has the second lowest per-capita sales for local foods.

Here is a scoop for you:  We live in the middle of the freaking Sonoran desert.   It is a terrible place to grow most foods.  In fact, it is an environmentally awful place to grow food.   Local food folks somehow have gotten locked into transportation costs as the key driver of food sustainability that they want to focus on, but transportation costs are 10% or less of most food costs.  A small savings on transportation is absolutely dwarfed, from a productivity and resource use standpoint, by the productivity of the soil and the fit of the climate with whatever is being grown.

Here is one way to think of it -- yes, locally grown food may not have to be transported very far, but every drop of water for food grown here in the Phoenix area has to be brought hundreds of miles from declining reservoirs to grow that food.

The movement seems to imply that locally grown food is more healthy.  Why?  Why is an Arizona tomato healthier than a California tomato?

Finally, the micro-trade-protectionism is pretty funny:

If local Arizonans start buying more local food, the economy may benefit as well.

When buying local grown food, “the money stays here in the local economy, as opposed to buying something in a national chain,” said R.J. Johnson, a sales representative for Blue Sky Organic Farms in Litchfield Park. “You buy something locally, 75 percent of that money stays here in town.”

This is so economically ignorant as to be beyond belief.  If more people are growing food here locally (something that is likely a fairly unproductive task given our climate), what productive tasks are they giving up.  And this is a national effort -- are they really with a straight face telling every single state that they should buy more locally so their money stays at home?  Isn't that just one big zero sum game (actually a negative sum game because you lose benefits of specialization and comparative advantage).

I Have This Argument All The Time With The US Forest Service

I operate recreation areas in the US Forest Service and from time to time get criticized that my profit adds cost to the management of the facilities, and that the government would clearly be better off with a non-profit running the parks since they don't take a profit.  What they miss is that non-profits historically do a terrible job at what I do.  They begin in a burst of enthusiasm but then taper off into disorder.    Think about any non-profit you have ever been a part of.  Could they consistently run a 24/7/365 service operation to high standards?

Don Boudreaux has a great quote today that touches on this very issue

from page 114 of the 5th edition (2015) of Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics:

While capitalism has a visible cost – profit – that does not exist under socialism, socialism has an invisible cost – inefficiency – that gets weeded out by losses and bankruptcy under capitalism.  The fact that most goods are more widely affordable in a capitalist economy implies that profit is less costly than inefficiency.  Put differently, profit is a price paid for efficiency.

It is also the "price" paid for innovation.

Keynesians Have Shot Their Only Bolt -- How Will They Spend Their Way Through The Next Crisis?

Governments have spent so much, to so little effect, to try to stimulate the current economy, I wonder where they will find the resources to spend more the next time?  Because you can be sure that despite the fact that we are likely near the top of a weak cycle, no one is paying back what was spent in the last recession or proposing to reduce central bank balance sheets.

This is a couple of years old, but tells the story pretty well:

The financial crisis that began in late 2007, with its mix of liquidity crunch, decreased tax revenues, huge economic stimulus programs, recapitalizations of banks and so on and so forth, led to a dramatic increase in the public debt for most advanced economies. Public debt as a percent of GDP in OECD countries as a whole went from hovering around 70% throughout the 1990s to almost 110% in 2012. It is now projected to grow to 112.5% of GDP by 2014, possibly rising even higher in the following years. This trend is visible not only in countries with a history of debt problems - such as Japan, Italy, Belgium and Greece - but also in countries where it was relatively low before the crisis - such as the US, UK, France, Portugal and Ireland.

So over a third of the debt that has been built up in all of history by Western nations was added in just a few years from 2007-2012.  At the same time, the central banks of these countries were adding to their balance sheets like crazy, essentially printing money in addition to this deficit spending.  In the US, the Fed's balance sheet as a percent of GDP hovered around 6% until the second half of 2008.   That had tripled to over 18% in 2012 (source).  At the same time, European central bank assets grew from about 7% to over 16% of GDP.

James Taranto has a regular feature named after a reporter named Fox Butterfield.  The feature takes statements such as "Despite Mary getting a PhD in Peruvian gender studies from Harvard, she has struggled to find a job" and argues that the "despite" should be replaced by "because".

This is certainly true of the statement that "despite record stimulus and Fed balance sheet expansion, the economy has remained sluggish".  That "despite" should be "because of".  The government continues to distort the allocation of capital and wonders why investment is sluggish and tends towards bubbles in certain assets.  Japan has stimulated for 25 years to absurd levels of debt and has gotten 25 years of sluggishness in return.

All this reminds me of a story in one of my favorite business books, "Barbarians at the Gate."  Back in the day, tobacco companies had a practice of jamming inventory into the channel just ahead of the semi-annual price increase.   They called this "loading."  The channel liked it because they got cheap product to sell at the new higher prices.  The tobacco companies liked it because it boosted quarterly revenues at the end of the quarter.  But that boost only happens once.  To show growth the next quarter, one must load even more.  Over time, they were jamming huge amounts of inventory into the channel.  I have never been a smoker, but apparently freshness is an issue with cigarettes and they can go stale.  Eventually, the company was loading so much their sales started to drop because everyone was buying stale cigarettes.

In find this a powerful metaphor for government interventions in the economy today.

Postscript:  I will give another example.  In Arizona, we are on a July-June fiscal year.  Years ago, some government yahoo had the bright idea to close a budget hole by passing a law that all businesses had to pre-pay their estimate of sales taxes due in July a month earlier in June.  For that one glorious year, politicians had 13 months of revenue to spend rather than 12.

But to set things aright the next year, they would have to live with just 11 months of revenue.  No way they were going to do that!  So they did the pull-forward thing again to get a full 12 months.  And they have done it every year since.  It has become an institution.  All this costs a ton of money to process, as the state must essentially process a 13th return each year, presumably paying overtime and temp costs to do it.  All for the benefit of one year where they got the use of one month of revenue early, we have been stuck with higher state operating costs forever.

Worried about your privilege? Want to be treated like an abused underclass? Start a business!

John Scalzi tries to explain privilege to non-SJW-types by saying that being a white male is like playing life on "easy" difficulty.

I'll grant I benefited from a lot of things growing up others may not have had.  I had parents that set high standards, taught me a work ethic, taught me the value of education, had money, and helped send me to Ivy League schools (though the performance there, I would argue, was all my own).

Well, for those of you concerned about living down a similar life of privilege, I have a solution for you: start a business.  Doing so instantly converted me into a hated abused underclass.  Every government agency I work with treats me with a presumption of guilt -- when I get called by the California Department of Labor, I am suddenly the young black man in St. Louis called out on the street by an angry and unaccountable cop**.  Every movie and TV show and media outlet portrays me as a villain.  Every failing in the economy is somehow my fault.   When politicians make a proposal, it almost always depends on extracting something by force from me -- more wages for certain employees, more health care premiums, more hours of paperwork to comply with arcane laws, and always more taxes.

Postscript:  I will add an alternative for younger readers -- there is also a way to play college on a higher difficulty:  Try to be a vocal male libertarian there.  Write editorials for the paper that never get published.  Sit through hours of mindless sensitivity training explaining all the speech limitations you must live with on campus.  Learn how you can be charged with rape if your sex partner regrets the sex months later.  Wonder every time you honestly answer a question in class from a libertarian point of view if you are killing any chance of getting a good grade in that course.  Live every moment in a stew of intellectual opinion meant mainly to strip you of your individual liberties, while the self-same authoritarians weep and cry that your observation that minimum wage laws hurt low-skilled workers somehow is an aggression against them.


** OK, this is an exaggeration.  I won't likely get shot.  I don't want to understate how badly abused a lot of blacks and Hispanics are by the justice system.   I would much rather be in front of the DOL than be a Mexican ziptied by Sheriff Joe.  But it does give one the same feeling of helplessness, of inherent unfairness, of the unreasoning presumption of guilt and built-in bias.

Me Then, Hillary Now: Progressives Are Too Conservative to Accept Capitalism

Coyote, in Forbes, December 2010 (excerpts):

My contention is that what drives most progressives, at a very fundamental level, is a deep conservatism.  Of course, most “progressives” would freak if they were called conservative, but what I mean by conservative in this context is not donate-to-Jesse-Helms capital-C Conservative but fearful of change and uncomfortable with uncertainty conservative.

Because capitalism is based so completely on individual decision-making, because its operation is inherently chaotic, and because its rewards can’t possibly be divided equally and still be “rewards”, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with it.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture at being “dynamic”, it turns out 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.  Which is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because 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 notion 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....

I am sure, if asked, most  progressives would profess to desire iPod’s and cures for cancer.  But they want these without the incentives that drive men to invent them, and the disruption to current markets and competitors and employees that their introduction entails.  They want to end poverty without wealth creation, they want jobs without employers, they want cars without unemployment for buggy whip makers.

Hillary Clinton in July, 2015:  via Instapundit

In her first major economic policy address of the 2016 campaign, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton raised questions about the effect that companies like Uber and Airbnb are having on American workers. . . .

Later in the speech, Clinton vowed to “crack down on bosses who exploit employees by misclassifying them as contractors” — a possible reference to something like the recent California Labor Commission decision that threatens to undermine Uber’s business model.

To be sure, Clinton does not want to destroy the sharing economy. She acknowledged that “these trends are real” and “none is going away.” But she may believe that, with the right application of political muscle, the new economy can be forced to conform with the antiquated blue social model — that is, the midcentury vision of steady, regulated, unionized employment with generous benefits.

As we have argued again and again, this notion is unrealistic. Like it or not, this 1950s model of economic organization is breaking down, and has been for several decades, thanks to globalization, demographic changes, technological innovation, and other trends that simply cannot be reversed. Measures like the California decision are futile and counterproductive. We should treat the emergence of a more entrepreneurial, dynamic landscape as an opportunity to be engaged with productively, not a danger to be henpecked by regulations better suited to the last century.

The Greek Problem is Not a New Thing

I found this quote from an older Finem Respice article about Greek financial problems in the mid-20th-century to be pretty funny:

So hopeless was the state of Greek finances that, even as [the Nazis] routinely hung with piano wire prominent citizens and officials on the thinnest of provocations, and even given three years to do it, the Nazi's were somehow unable to compel what amounted to a totally subservient collaborator government to put its fiscal house in order.

The Axis administration soon realised it would be a waste of effort to get the Greek government to balance its accounts.

Later, in 1945, it was a British problem.  These problems from the late 1940's should sound really familiar:

Fortunately for Germany, by the time the matter came to a head the Germans had RSVP'd to Scobie and Greece was Britain's problem. It wasn't just partisans the British would end up having to fight....

What followed could only be described as a comic progression of populist pandering, the spread to the national economy of a series of parasitic labor unions and cabals, and a confidence on the part of the Allies in their own fiscal administration abilities that was as enduring as it was inflated.

At first [British Treasury Secretary] Waley sold gold to support the drachma, conditioning the sale on a series of fiscal and monetary reforms the Greeks adopted in principle and promised to implement– at some later date when it was somewhat more convenient. It was around this time Waley quipped:

...the Greek government are in effect paying doles to a large part of the population who spend all day parading in the streets in idleness with political demonstrations as their chief occupation.9

Liberation governments, fearing popular backlash were terrified of taxing the Greeks. Instead they continued to look for sources of wealth to redistribute, and were happy to resort to even the most gamey monetary policies to buy time. After raiding "punitively" the only entities with wealth of any kind (businesses) in 1945 in order to buy popular support with cheap food and wage increases, the Greeks were, again, running out of options.

The whole thing is interesting, and depressing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Five Causes of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Rocochet asks this question over the weekend:  What are your top 5 causes of the fall of the Roman Empire.  OK, I will take a shot at this from my decidedly amateur perspective:

  1. Demographic collapse, caused by a series of plagues (perhaps even an Ur version of the black death) and possibly climate change (colder) that depopulated the western half of the empire
  2. A variety of policies (e.g. grain dole) that shifted population from productive farms to the cities.  In the 19th century, this shift was to be growth-inducing as farm labor was moving into growing factories, but no such productivity revolution existed in Roman cities.  The combination of #2 with #1 left huge swaths of farmland abandoned, and the Romans dependent on grain ships from North Africa to feed the unproductive mouths in large Italian cities.  It also gutted the traditional Roman military model, which depended strongly on these local farmers for the backbone of the army.
  3. The Romans lost their ability to be innovative in including new peoples in their Empire.  The Romans had a bewildering array of citizenship and tax statuses for different peoples who joined or were conquered by the empire.  For hundreds of years, this innovation was hugely successful.   But by the 4th and 5th centuries they seemed to have lost the trick.  The evidence for this is that they could have solved multiple problems -- the barbarians at the gates and the abandonment of farm land and the need for more soldiers -- by finding a way to settle barbarians on empty farm land.  This is in fact exactly what the barbarians wanted.  That is why I do not include the barbarian invasions as one of my five, because it did not have to be barbarian invasions, it could have been barbarian immigration.  Gibson's thesis was that Christianity killed the Roman Empire by making it "soft".  I don't buy that, but it may have been that substituting the Romans' earlier incredible tolerance for other religions in their Pagan period with a more intolerant version of Christianity contributed to this loss of flexibility.
  4. Hand in hand with #3, the Roman economy became sclerotic.  This was the legacy of Diocletian and Constantine, who restructured the empire to survive several centuries more but at the cost of at least an order of magnitude more state control in every aspect of society.  Diocletian's edict of maximum prices is the best known such regulation, but in fact he fixed most every family into their then-current trades and insisted the family perform the same economic functions in all future generations.  Essentially, it was Ayn Rand's directive 10-289 for the ancient world, and the only reason these laws were not more destructive is that the information and communication technologies of the time did not allow for very careful enforcement.
  5. Splits in the governance of the empire between west and east (again going back to Diocletian) reduced the ability to fund priorities on one side of the empire with resources from the other side.  More specifically, the wealthy eastern empire had always subsidized defense of the west, and that subsidy became much harder, and effectively ended, in the century after Diocletian.

I will add, as a reminder, that to some extent this is all a trick question, because the Roman Empire really did not totally fall until the capture of Constantinople in 1453.  So I should have stated at the outset that all of the above refers to the fall of the western empire in the late 5th century, which in part explains why #5 is there in the list.

And, if you were in a room of historians of this era, you could quickly get into an argument over whether the western Roman empire really fell in the late 5th century.  For example, the Visigothic Kingdom in the area of modern southern France and Spain retained a lot of Roman practices and law.  But I have gone with tradition here and dated the "fall" of the empire to 476 when the Roman Emperor was deposed and not replaced.

Megan McArdle on California Declaring Uber Drivers to be Employees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrate the Strong Dollar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, I Relent: I Will Support A Carbon Tax If Y'all Will Stop the Torrent of Stupid

President Obama is preparing to unleash a Colorado-River-sized torrent of stupid.  He wants to spend tens of billions of dollars on goofy green energy projects that will have an indiscernible affect on world temperatures but will have a very robust effect on some crony bottom lines.   Here is one example:

As part of President Obama’s plans to combat climate change, the White House announced a program on Friday for the U.S. Department of Energy to train 75,000 people to work in the solar power industry by 2020, many of whom will be part of a military veterans jobs initiative called Solar Ready Vets.

Seriously, is the training costs of workers really a substantial portion of a solar installation?

Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of the Solar Foundation, which publishes the annual National Solar Jobs Census, said that Obama’s announcement will not likely increase the size of the solar industry’s workforce but will instead ensure that the industry will be able to find highly skilled workers to fill jobs.

“We’re experiencing difficulty finding more skilled and qualified workers to install and do design work required,” she said, adding that the industry’s workforce has a “skills gap” as well-trained electricians and other workers go back to other construction jobs as the economy gains momentum.

I will translate that trade-group speak for you:  We like to pay our workers less than similarly-skilled construction workers so we lose a lot of skilled workers to higher paying construction companies. This program will not add any net employment to the economy but will help us keep wages lower by increasing the supply of qualified workers.

I can't help but think of Henry Ford, who famously raised the wages of his employees substantially.  The fake story is that he did this so all his workers could buy his product.   The real reason he did this was that he had horrendous labor turnover problems.  Like the solar industry, he was training folks who then left for higher paying jobs.  So he had to raise his wages to retain trained people.  How history would have changed if Ford had instead been able to call Obama and ask him to have the taxpayer pay to feed him with new, trained workers so he wouldn't have to raise his wage rates!

Seriously, did a bunch of technocrats get together and study the whole solar industry and come to the conclusion that solar installation skills were the keystone problem that was holding back the whole industry?  Of course not.  The solar industry will sink or swim based on panel costs and efficiencies.   What happened is someone said, "well the public always seems to like job training programs.  Those poll well."  And then they called the solar crony association or whatever it is called and they said, "sure, we would love to have taxpayers pay some of our training costs.  Thanks, we will be very supportive." And then someone said, "well, won't the Republicans pitch a fit over this?" And then someone had the brilliant idea of making it a veterans program -- "Republicans love soldiers, that will help defuze their opposition."  And an expensive crony giveaway was born.

About 5 years ago I said I would be willing to accept a carbon tax whose proceeds were used to reduce various labor tax rates (e.g. social security).  Substituting an energy consumption tax for a labor consumption tax was probably at least neutral and maybe even a net positive.

Now, I want to come back to that idea.  I don't believe any more than I did then that CO2-driven global warming will be catastrophic.  In fact, I am more confident than ever that while CO2-induced warming is a reality, the sensitivity of temperatures to CO2 levels is relatively low.  But please, I am willing to fully support a carbon tax that offsets some other existing tax if only we will stop all this stupid crony useless green energy stuff.  At least with a carbon tax, the markets will reduce fossil fuel use in the most efficient ways possible.  As opposed to programs like this one that will reduce fossil fuel use not at all but will cost a lot of money.

Cronyism, State by State

I get sent a lot of infographics and I generally just delete them but I thought this one was pretty good.  The largest recipients of corporate welfare from state governments.  Perhaps appropriately given the tilt of our economy here, our largest recipient in AZ is a real estate developer.

click to enlarge

Scenes from the Last Chapters of Atlas Shrugged

I have always read Atlas Shrugged not as a character story (and thus I don't get bent out of shape by the stiff black and white characters) but as a story about the world itself changing and crashing under socialism and cronyism.  As such, my favorite scene in the book is the hobo's tale of the socialist experiment on the 20th Century Motor Company.

Anyway, the final chapters of the book are full of more and more outrageous state interventions that build to a point that they are hard to believe anyone would actually ever try such things.   Unbelievable, until one looks at Venezuela

Venezuelans soon may need to have their fingerprints scanned before they can buy bread and other staples. This unprecedented step was proposed after Maduro had the brilliant idea of proposing mandatory grocery fingerprinting system to combat food shortages. He said then that "the program will stop people from buying too much of a single item", but did not say when it would take effect.

Privacy concerns aside (clearly Venezuelans have bigger, well, smaller fish to fry) there was hope that this plunge into insanity would be delayed indefinitely, as the last thing Venezuela's strained economy would be able to handle is smuggling of the most basic of necessities: something such a dramatic rationing step would surely lead to.

Unfortunately for the struggling Venezuelan population, the time has arrived and as AP reported over the weekend, Venezuela "will begin installing 20,000 fingerprint scanners at supermarkets nationwide in a bid to stamp out hoarding and panic buying" as of this moment.

The government has been selectively rolling out the rationing system for months at state-run supermarkets along the western border with Colombia where smuggling of price-controlled goods is a major problem.

On Saturday, President Nicolas Maduro said that seven large private retail chains had voluntarily agreed to install the scanners.

Last month the owners of several chains of supermarkets and drugstores were arrested for allegedly artificially creating long queues by not opening enough tills.

It gets better: Maduro also accused Colombian food smugglers of buying up price-controlled goods in state-run supermarkets along the border.

What a mess.  An entirely predictable mess.

Republicans Are Crazy for Wanting Dynamic Scoring at the CBO

Dynamic scoring of budget proposals has been on the Republican wish list for decades.  They have always been frustrated that tax cut proposals look like such budget losers with static scoring.  In their supply-side bones, Republicans know that tax cuts will stimulate economic activity and thus increase future tax revenues.  Taking this second order effect into account is what they mean by dynamic scoring (see: Laffer Curve).

I have some sympathy for this argument, but in making it Republicans are falling for the "this will work great when our guys are in charge" fallacy  (I need to find a name for that).  Democrats fall into this all the time, expanding government power only to be shocked at what their political enemies do with this power once in charge.

Because it is pretty clear what dynamic scoring will mean in a Democratic Congress.  Remember that stimulus bill?  Democrats all thought that expanded the economy, so its costs would, by their Keynesian assumptions, appear much lower under dynamic scoring.  The Left thinks the auto bailout was stimulative.  They even think that Obamacare was stimulative.  Do you really want some BS Keynesian fudge factor obscuring the true cost of such proposals in the future?

Related:  Greg Mankiw discusses why, if I read him right, dynamic scoring is impossible to do correctly


What Musicians and ExxonMobil Have in Common: Both Get "Ripped Off" By Consumers

We have all heard that artists make very little money from their songs, and get "ripped off"by record labels and other folks in the chain.  I have always had mixed reactions to this.  I have no doubt that, with zero power and a burning desire to "make it big", young acts sign uneven deals with record labels.  However, I find it hard to believe that Beyonce is getting hosed in that negotiation.

I saw this chart in TechDirt about where the money consumers spend on music goes (I think this is for a CD sale):


So the performers themselves get about 9% of the retail price after everyone in the chain is paid.  That certainly seems paltry -- after all, they are the owners and creators of the music.  Everyone else is just in the service chain to make sure the music reaches the customers, all the accounting is done, the legal documents are correct, etc.

But it turns out that they may not be doing that badly.  I am a shareholder of ExxonMobil (XOM).  I own a piece of all the oil that XOM owns and controls, along with all the other shareholders.  Think of us as the band, though a really big band with lots of players.   That oil we own, like the band's music, has a ton of value.  When sold as raw crude, it goes for $40-$60 a barrel nowadays.  When sold in pieces (such as gasoline, or asphalt, or lubrication oil) it can sell for hundreds of dollars a barrel.

But out of those proceeds, we have to pay people to help us.  We have to pay managers, and lawyers.  We have to pay oilfield services companies and equipment companies and transportation companies.  We have to pay retailers.  When all those payments are made, before taxes, in 2014 we were left with just under 8% of every dollar we sell.  We own all this oil and we are not even getting as much as a musician!

And XOM shareholders do pretty well.  Owners of Wal-Mart only get about 3% of every dollar they sell.   In my company, I get about 5% of every dollar I sell.   And those evil health insurers?  Their shareholders get just over 2% of every dollar sold (all based on 2014 full-year financials).

Does that mean that Exxon shareholders are getting "ripped off" by Haliburton and Burlington Northern?  Is Wal-Mart getting ripped off by Proctor and Gamble?  Is Humana getting ripped off by GE imaging?  No?

I will reveal the ugly secret:  There is one person who is "ripping off" all of these folks, from Exxon to Rihanna to me.  That person is.... the consumer.  Yep, there are certainly many examples of people signing bad contracts in all these businesses, but the only entity systematically and consistently ripping all these folks off is us.  Because in a capitalist economy, we have the ultimate power.  We drive down the street to get the gas that is 10 cents cheaper, we now shop for our books and TVs at Wal-Mart and Amazon rather than at Borders and Best Buy, and we buy 99-cent individual songs on iTunes instead of buying a whole CD of songs we don't want for $14.99.

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.

What Exactly Is the Conservative Theory of Free Markets?

Conservatives say they are for free markets and free enterprise, but then I read stuff like this (have have added the bold):

Lynch supports Obama’s unconstitutional amnesty, believes illegal immigrants should have the same rights to employment as American citizens, opposes voter ID laws, advocates federal intrusion in local law enforcement under the guise of civil rights, supports the government taking private property on flimsy grounds, and offers no opposition to using drones against American citizens.

I agree with some of these concerns, but the one in bold is a real head scratcher.   What theory of free markets do Conservatives hold that accepts as valid the government licensing of labor?  On what possible grounds should a government bar me from hiring, say, a Russian immigrant to do my programming?  Or crazier still, why can I hire a Mexican in my Mexico office but can't have the same person working for me in my Phoenix office?

I have a theory about the Romans that is probably shared by nobody.  The Romans were strong and powerful and vital when they were creating a variety of citizenship types to accommodate multiple peoples who entered the empire in multiple ways.  In particular I think of civitas sine suffragio or citizenship without the vote.  But this was just one of many variations.   By the first century AD  (or CE per the modern academic trend), a lot of people of a lot of cultures and races and over a wide geography called themselves Romans.

By the end of the empire, the "reforms" of Diocletian and Constatine purged all flexibility from both governance and the economy (in sum, their laws amounted to the Directive 10-289 of the ancient world).  By the time the Empire started falling apart, they had lost all ability to integrate new peoples or innovate with citizenship models.  What was eventually called the Barbarian invasions began decades earlier as the attempted barbarian migrations.   The barbarians wanted to just settle peacefully.  And Rome desperately needed them -- their system was falling apart as their farms and countryside was depopulated from a combination of government policy and demographic collapses (e.g. plagues).  Rome desperately needed new people to settle their farms and form the new backbone of the army and the barbarians desperately wanted to settle and had a lot of military skill, but they couldn't make it work.

The Parasite Economy

I had an argument with someone of the Left last night.  We both agreed that crony government protections and favors of businesses were one of the worst problems in the country.  But we couldn't agree on solutions.   It was a chicken and egg thing.  She thought corporations were at fault for seeking them.  I argued that the problem was given the government the power in the first place to grant such requests.  She thought the only way to fight it was by empowering government to put more restrictions on business.  My argument was that increasing the power of government to intervene in the economy only increased the problem.    No resolution.  I run into this all the time and need to think my way through a better way of expressing my concerns.

Anyway, I am reminded of all this because Stossel has a nice piece on the parasite economy and cronyism.

Postscript:  I can say from this discussion that OFA and Media Matters and Common Cause and the like have really done their job on the Kochs because this particular person was absolutely convinced the #1 best thing we could do to improve the future of America was to shut the Kochs up and prevent them from spending any more money on politics and speech.   My son says that is nearly impossible to argue any issue at all on campus without someone laying into the Kochs at some point in the conversation.   I find this whole tendency to conduct politics by vilifying individuals rather than discussing issues -- individuals with absolutely no political position -- totally depressing.  But it must work, because the Republicans did it too, in fact really pioneered this when they went after George Soros and made him the the secret villain behind everything Conservatives hated.   People like Rush Limbaugh may get on the Left nowadays for vilifying the Kochs but go listen to his radio shows from 5 or 10 years ago -- he couldn't go three sentences without saying "Soros".

Let's Make Employment of Low-Skill Labor Profitable Again

Brink Lindsey of Cato is on the topic "If you could wave a magic wand and make one or two policy or institutional changes to brighten the U.S. economy’s long-term growth prospects, what would you change and why?"  I am by no means in the distinguished academic company that were invited to contribute, but I thought it was an interesting topic.  Here is my (uninvited) contribution.

The question of skills and the American workforce is typically tackled in only one direction:  that we need more high-skilled workers to meet the challenge of emerging industries and business models that are increasingly driven by technology.  A recent report by the OECD, and as summarized in the New York Times, is a typical example of this concern.  As Eduardo Porter writes in the Times:

To believe an exhaustive new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the skill level of the American labor force is not merely slipping in comparison to that of its peers around the world, it has fallen dangerously behind.

The report is based on assessments of literacy, math skills and problem-solving using information technology that were performed on about 160,000 people age 16 to 65 in 22 advanced nations of the O.E.C.D., plus Russia and Cyprus. Five thousand Americans were assessed. The results are disheartening....

“Unless there is a significant change of direction,” the report notes, “the work force skills of other O.E.C.D. countries will overtake those of the U.S. just at the moment when all O.E.C.D. countries will be facing (and indeed are already facing) major and fast-increasing competitive challenges from emerging economies.”

A lot of head scratching goes on as to why, when the income premium is so high for gaining skills, there are not more people seeking to gain them.  School systems are often blamed, which is fair in part (if I were to be given a second magic wand to wave, it would be to break up the senescent government school monopoly with some kind of school choice system).   But a large portion of the population apparently does not take advantage of the educational opportunities that do exist.  Why is that?

When one says "job skills," people often think of things like programming machine tools or writing Java code.  But for new or unskilled workers -- the very workers we worry are trapped in poverty in our cities -- even basic things we take for granted like showing up on-time reliably and working as a team with others represent skills that have to be learned. CEO Jeff Bezos, despite his Princeton education, still learned many of his first real-world job skills working at McDonald's.  In fact, back in the 1970's, a survey found that 10% of Fortune 500 CEO's had their first work experience at McDonald's.

Part of what we call "the cycle of poverty" is due not just to a lack of skills, but to a lack of understanding of or appreciation for such skills that can cross generations.   Children of parents with few skills or little education can go on to achieve great things -- that is the American dream after all.  But in most of these cases, kids who are successful have parents who were, if not educated, at least knowledgeable about the importance of education, reliability, and teamwork -- understanding they often gained via what we call unskilled work.   The experience gained from unskilled work is a bridge to future success, both in this generation and the next.

But this road to success breaks down without that initial unskilled job.   Without a first, relatively simple job it is almost impossible to gain more sophisticated and lucrative work.  And kids with parents who have little or no experience working are more likely to inherit their parent's cynicism about the lack of opportunity than they are to get any push to do well in school, to work hard, or to learn to cooperate with others.

Unfortunately, there seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities for unskilled workers to find a job.  As I mentioned earlier, economists scratch their heads and wonder why there are not more skilled workers despite high rewards for gaining such skills.  I am not an economist, I am a business school grad.   We don't worry about explaining structural imbalances so much as look for the profitable opportunities they might present.  So a question we business folks might ask instead is:  If there are so many under-employed unskilled workers rattling around in the economy, why aren't entrepreneurs crafting business models to exploit this fact?

A few months back, I was at my Harvard Business School 25th reunion.  Over the weekend, they had dozens of lectures and programs on what is being researched and taught nowadays at the school.  I can't remember a single new business model discussed that relied on unskilled workers.

Is this just the way it is now?  Have the Internet and computers and robotics and complex genomics made unskilled work obsolete?  I don't think so.  I have been running a business for over a decade that employs more than 300 people in unskilled positions.  I will confess that the other day I came home tired from work and told my wife, "Honey, in my next company, I have to find a business that doesn't require employees."  But that despair doesn't come from a lack of opportunities to deliver value to customers with relatively unskilled labor.  And it doesn't come from any inherent issues I might have running a large people-driven service company -- in fact, I will say there has been absolutely nothing in my business life that has been more rewarding than seeing a person who has never had anything but unskilled jobs discover that they can become managers and learn more complex tasks.

The reason for my despair comes from a single source:  the government is making it increasingly difficult and costly to hire unskilled workers, while simultaneously creating a culture among new workers that short-circuits their ability to make progress.

The costs that government taxes and rules add to labor have been discussed many times, but usually individually.  Their impact is clearer when we discuss them as a whole.  Let's take California, because that state is one I know well.  To begin, the minimum wage is $9 (going to $10 an hour in 2016).  To that we have to add taxes and workers compensation premiums, both of which are high because because California does little to police fraud in unemployment and injury claims.  For us, these add another $3.15 an hour.  We also now have to add in the Obamacare employer mandate, which at a minimum of $3000 per full-time employee (accepting the penalty is cheaper than paying for health care) adds another $1.50 an hour.  And the new California paid sick leave mandate adds another 45 cents an hour.  So, looking just at core requirements, we are already up to a minimum of $14.10 an hour, less than 2/3 of which actually shows up in the employee's paycheck.

But these direct costs don't even begin cover the additional fixed costs of hiring employees.  We pay a payroll company thousands of dollars a year to make sure that regulations on taxes and paychecks are followed.  We spend so much time making sure our written plans and documentation on safety meet the requirements of OSHA and its California state equivalent that we barely have the capacity to actually focus on safety.  In California we have to have complex systems in place to make sure our employees don't work through their lunch break, that they have the right sort of chair and that they sit in them frequently enough, that they follow all the right procedures when the temperature outside goes over 85 degrees, that they get paid for sick leave and get their job back after extended medical leave.... the list goes on and on.

In a smaller company, we don't have lawyers and a large human resource staff.  In fact, we tend to have little staff at all.  If some new compliance issue arises -- which happens about every day the California legislature is in session -- the owner (me) has to figure out a solution.  In one year I literally spent more personal time on compliance with a single regulatory issue -- implementing increasingly detailed and draconian procedures so I could prove to the State of California that my employees were not working over their 30 minute lunch breaks -- than I did thinking about expanding the business or getting new contracts.

Towards the end of last year I was making a speech to a group of business school students, and someone asked me what my biggest accomplishment had been over the prior year.  I told them it was probably getting the company down from hundreds of full-time workers to less than 50, converting everyone to part-time.  And it was a huge effort, involving new systems and a number of capital investments to accommodate more staff working fewer hours.  And it had a huge payout, saving us hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in Obamacare penalties and compliance costs.  But come on!  How depressing is it that my biggest business accomplishment was not growing the business or coming up with a new customer service but in cutting the working hours for good employees?  But that is the reality of trying to run a service business today.  The business couldn't be profitable until we'd adjusted our practices to these new regulations, so there was no point in even thinking about growth until we had done so.

Labor-based business models that work at a $7 or $8 total labor cost may well not work at $15, and they certainly are not going to grow very fast if the people responsible for seeking out growth opportunities are instead consumed in a morass of legal compliance issues.  But there is perhaps an even more damaging impact of government interventions, and that is to the culture of work.  I will confess in advance I don't have comprehensive data to prove my hypothesis, but let me tell a couple of stories.

Until 2010, we never had an employee sue us.  We had over 8 years hiring 350 seasonal workers a year, mostly older retired folks, without any sort of legal issues.  Since 2010, we have had eight employee suits threatened or filed, all of which we have won but at a legal cost of $20-$25 thousand each (truly Pyrrhic victories).  So what changed around 2010?  Well, our work force composition changed a lot.  Before that time, we typically hired older retired folks, because the seasonal nature of the job is simply not very appropriate for a younger person trying to support themselves without other means (like retirement or Social Security).   However, after 2009 when a lot of younger folks were losing their traditional jobs, they began applying to our company.  Our work force shifted younger, which actually excited me because I felt it would help us in attracting a younger demographic to the campgrounds we operate.    But all eight of these legal actions were by these new, younger employees.  I asked one person who was suing us over what was a trivial slight, really a misunderstanding, why they did not just call me (my personal number is in their employee handbook) to fix it.  They said that if I had fixed it, they would have lost the opportunity to sue.

I mentioned earlier that we had struggled to comply with California meal break law.   The problem was that my workers needed extra money, and so begged me to be able to work through lunch so they could earn a half-hour more pay each day.  They said they would sign a paper saying they had agreed to this.  Little did I know that this was a strategy devised by a local attorney who understood meal break litigation better than I.  What he knew, but I didn't, was that based on new case law, a company had to get the employee's signature every day, not just once, to avoid the meal break penalties.  The attorney advised them they could get the money for working lunch AND they could sue later for more money (which he would get a cut of).  Which is exactly what they did, waiting until November to sue so they could get some extra money to pay for Christmas bills.  This is why -- believe it or not -- it is now a firing offense at our company to work through lunch in California.

Hopefully you see my concern.   I fear that we have trained a whole generation that the way one gets ahead is not to work hard and gain new skills but to seek out and exploit opportunities to file lawsuits.  That the way to work in an organization is not to learn to manage the inevitable frictions that result from different sorts of people working together but to sue at the first hint that you have been dissed.  As an aside, I think this sort of litigiousness, both of employees and customers, is yet another reason employers are reluctant to hire low-skilled employees.  If as a business owner one is absolutely liable for any knuckle-headed thing your most junior employee might utter, no matter how clear you are in your policies and actions that such behavior is not tolerated, then how likely are you to hire a high-school dropout with no work experience?

Is it any surprise that most entrepreneurs are pursuing business models where they leverage revenues via technology and a relatively small, high-skill workforce?  Uber and Lyft at first seem to buck this trend, with their thousands of drivers.  But in fact they prove the rule.  Uber and Lyft are very very careful to define themselves and their service in a way that all those drivers don't work for them.  I would go so far to say that if Uber were forced to actually put all of those drivers on their payroll, and deal with they myriad of labor compliance issues, their model would fall apart

We cannot address the skill gap unless people have entry level, low-skill-tolerant jobs to take the first steps up the ladder of success.  If the government continues on its current course, it will become impossible to run a business that employs unskilled workers.  The value of the work performed will simply not justify the cost.  We may be concerned about income inequality today, but if we kill off the profitability of employing unskilled workers, then we are going to be left with a true two-class society -- those with high-skill jobs and those on government assistance --and few options for moving from one to the other.

Surprise! Greek Problems Were Not Solved By Kicking the Can Down the Road

Greece is looking like it's falling apart again.  Or perhaps more accurately: Greece continues to fall apart and the lipstick Europe put on the pig a few years ago is wearing off and people are noticing again.

I warned about this less than a year ago:

Kevin Drum quotes Hugo Dixon on the Greek recovery:

Greece is undergoing an astonishing financial rebound. Two years ago, the country looked like it was set for a messy default and exit from the euro. Now it is on the verge of returning to the bond market with the issue of 2 billion euros of five-year paper.

There are still political risks, and the real economy is only now starting to turn. But the financial recovery is impressive. The 10-year bond yield, which hit 30 percent after the debt restructuring of two years ago, is now 6.2 percent....The changed mood in the markets is mainly down to external factors: the European Central Bank’s promise to “do whatever it takes” to save the euro two years ago; and the more recent end of investors’ love affair with emerging markets, meaning the liquidity sloshing around the global economy has been hunting for bargains in other places such as Greece.

That said, the centre-right government of Antonis Samaras has surprised observers at home and abroad by its ability to continue with the fiscal and structural reforms started by his predecessors. The most important successes have been reform of the labour market, which has restored Greece’s competiveness, and the achievement last year of a “primary” budgetary surplus before interest payments.

Color me suspicious.  Both the media and investors fall for this kind of thing all the time -- the dead cat bounce masquerading as a structural improvement.  I hope like hell Greece has gotten its act together, but I would not bet my own money on it.

In that same article, I expressed myself skeptical that the Greeks had done anything long-term meaningful in their labor markets.  They "reformed" their labor markets in the same way the Obama administration "reformed" the VA -- a lot of impressive statements about the need for change, a few press releases and a few promised but forgotten reforms.  At the time, the Left wanted desperately to believe that countries could continue to take on near-infinite amounts of debt with no consequences, and so desperately wanted to believe Greece was OK.

I have said it for four years:  There are only two choices here:  1.  The rest of Europe essentially pays off Greek debt for it or 2.  Greece leaves the Euro.  And since it is likely Greece will get itself into the same hole again some time in the future if #1 is pursued, there is really only leaving the Euro.  The latter will be a mess, with rampant inflation in Greece and destruction savings, but essentially the savings have already been destroyed by irresponsible government borrowing and bank bail-ins.  At least the falling value of Greek currency would make it an attractive place at for tourism if not investment and Greece could start rebuilding its economy on some sort of foundation.  Instead of bailing out banks and Greek officials, Germany should let it all fall apart and spend its money on helping Greece to pick up the pieces.

By letting Greece join the Euro, the Germans essentially let their irresponsible country cousins use their American Express Platinum card, and the Greeks went on a bender with the card.   The Germans can't keep paying the bill -- at some point you have to take the card away.

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.


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:


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:

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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.

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.

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.