Posts tagged ‘GDP’

A Terrible Chart

OK, to go along with the bad study in the last chart, I will offer up a terrible chart.  From Kevin Drum:

Drum uses this chart to hammer home the point that the current deficit is Bush's, rather than Obama's fault.  I have absolutely no problem with blaming Bush for all variety of stupid spending and handing him a share of the blame for the Federal debt.   Even using this bad chart (more in a moment), I think Obama gets a lot of the blame, though.  The highlighted bars don't really substantially move the debt until 2009 and after, on Obama's watch.   His complete lack of any effort to take on the rising debt, to pare back past spending programs (or wars, or whatever) has been unparalleled.  In fact, I think it is his absolute indifference to deficit spending and the debt levels that saddles him with a lot of the blame.

Anyway, back to the chart.  Notice that these are just a few of the many components of Federal spending, all of which are increasing in this period.  Picking out which ones "caused the debt" is not a neutral procedure.  Money is fungible.  One could just as easily substitute rising Medicare and Social Security costs (or education funding or transportation funding or government employee salaries) for any of the bars above and be just as correct.  Even if one wanted to just look at Bush actions, one would reasonably need to include the debt associated with the costs of Medicare part D, something left off this chart presumably because Drum supports that particular spending.    All this chart does is demonstrate the biases or preferences of the author, showing us which categories of spending the author most opposes (or which the author feels Obama can't be blamed for, like the down economy).

By the way, the chart's construction actually worse than this, because the chart is only "public debt" rather than total debt (for example debt bought in QE is no longer public debt).  If one looks at public debt, the total number should have crossed 100% some time in the last year, rather than the 70% or so in the chart.   So there are a lot of other things, presumably that the author likes, that are also causing total debt to rise.  But these are hidden, because presumably the Fed only buys debt created by the good spending, and the public buys all the debt created by the bad spending.

Finally, my suspicion is that some of these numbers are just plain wrong.  The chart implies Fannie, Freddie, and Tarp are only going to cause a total of 1% of GDP in debt, or about $160 billion.  That is WAY below the loss numbers that Fannie and Freddie have already acknowledged, with more to come.

Real Reason for US Recession Uncovered

According to the RIAA prosecutors owned by the RIAA, it is all Kim Dotcom's fault:

Meanwhile, Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom is free on bail, living in his rented home near Auckland and awaiting extradition proceedings to begin in August. Dotcom along with Finn Batato, Julius Bencko, Sven Echternach, Mathias Ortmann, Andrus Nomm and Bram Van Der Kolk are charged with criminal copyright infringement and money laundering.

The men -- along with two companies -- are accused of collecting advertising and subscription fees from users for faster download speeds of material stored on Megaupload. Prosecutors allege the website and its operators collected US$175 million in criminal proceeds, costing copyright holders more than $500 billion in damages to copyright holders.

$500 billion is about 3.5% of US GDP.

Thinking About Greece

Mike Rizzo writes:

A typical sovereign government can secure funds from three “legitimate” places.*What are these sources?

  1. Taxes today.
  2. Taxes tomorrow. In other words we can borrow money today in order to build our bridge and then use future tax revenues to pay for the debt tomorrow. By the way, if the government is in the business of actually producing valuable “public goods” then you can easily think of this as value enhancing.
  3. Printing money. It’s not generally done this way, but in effect the monetary authorities can monetize the borrowing of a sovereign entity (how they do it is beyond the scope of this post). For simplicity, imagine instead that a central bank prints new bank notes from scratch, hands them to the Treasury, and then the Treasury spends them on goods and services. This is just another form of a tax, again beyond the scope of this post.

So, this is what the government budget identity looks like for “normal” countries:

G = T + the change in debt + the change in base money

I think this is a useful simplification, but I wanted to add a couple other refinements  (refinements by the way he did not neglect in his text, just did not put in the formula).  One other source of funds we have seen in Greece is what I would call Aid, which used to be humanitarian aid (think India in the 1970s) but today tends to be bailout money and debt forgiveness.  So we will write the equation

G = Taxes + ΔDebt  + Money Printing + Aid

But due to the Keynesian orientation of many commenters on the Greek and European situation, it becomes useful to expand the "taxes" term into some sort of base income, which I will just call GDP for simplicity, and some sort of tax rate t.  So then we get:

G = GDP x t + ΔDebt  + Money Printing + Aid

The Greeks can't print money (unless the EU does it for them) and at the moment no one in their right mind will lend to them without guarantees from stronger European countries (e.g. Germany).  If we call EU money printing for Greece or EU loan guarantee programs Aid, we get

G = GDP x t + Aid

As Rizzo noted, aid is drying up and Greek tax revenues are going down rather than up, so basically they are screwed.  The only out seems to be for Greece to exit the Euro and then, once on the drachma again, print money like crazy and inflate their way out of the debt.

But expanding the tax term reveals one more policy alternative that is being suggested.   Keynesians seem to believe there is a path out of this situation in Greece (or if Greece is too far gone, certainly in Italy and Spain) where money from some source  (aid, borrowing, whatever) is spent in the economy by the government in some way that is stimulative, thus increasing GDP and therefore taxes and allowing Greece to increase the money available to the government.  Since Aid is currently only be granted tied to "austerity" programs rather than stimulative spending, they feel Germany et al are following exactly the wrong course.

I am incredibly skeptical of this for two reasons, beyond just my general skepticism of Keynesian stimulus.  First, I have heard something akin to this in my personal experience.  For a short time in my life, during the Internet crazy period, I was brought in by some investors to look at their portfolio of languishing Internet plays (e.g. discountshoelaces.com)* and decide if they should keep pouring money in or shut down.  The plan I got from management was always - always - this stimulus approach.  They suggested that rather than cut back, the investors should give them a bunch of new money to really blow out the marketing effort, which would kick start their growth, etc. etc.

The problem was that they never, ever had a lick of evidence beyond just hope that the next $1 million would suddenly do what the last $10 million failed to do.  So we shut most of these efforts down.  Your first loss is your best loss, as they say.

Similarly, I don't think Keynesians can point to any example in history where this actually worked.   A country is drowning in debt, but suddenly a Hail Mary play of adding a huge chunk more to the debt and spending it on civil service worker salaries suddenly turned the tide.  Seriously, do people honestly think this will work?  Or are they just frustrated because they grew up with an assumption that there is always a public policy answer for everything and there just does not seem to be one here.

I have an emerging hypothesis, not backed by any evidence at this point, that the value of the Keynesian multiplier shifts as debt to total GDP increases.  I am not sure in actual practice it is ever above one, but if it were to be above 1 at 20% debt to GDP, it certainly is not going to be the same at, say, 150%.

OMG, Austerity!

via here

The UK line is particularly interesting, since that is the country that Krugman has declared is austerity-izing itself into a depression. As I have pointed out before, real government spending in UK has been and is still rising.  The percent of GDP of this spending has fallen a bit, but there is nothing about Keynesian stimulus theory that says changes in the percentage of government spending is stimulative, only its absolute value.

Here is one thing I would love to here Krugman et. al. opine on -- at what percentage of government debt to GDP does additional deficit spending become counter-stimulative.   I imagine there is an inverse relationship for deficit-funded stimulus, such that it has a larger effect at lower debt levels with a zero to negative effect at higher interest levels.

Update:  From another source, here is the UK in real $

New Greek Bailout Announced

It is an open question how long this bailout will plug the dam.  I continue to maintain the position that Greece is going to have to be let out of the Euro. Pulling this Band-Aid off a millimeter at a time is delaying any possible recovery of the Greek economy, and really the European economy, indefinitely.  All to protect the solvency of a number of private banks (or perhaps more accurately, to protect the solvency of the counter-parties who wrote the CDO's on all that debt).

Anyway, the interesting part for me is that with this bailout, the total cumulative charity sent the Greek's way by other European countries now exceeds Greek GDP, by a lot.

Will Reality Never Set In?

I had thought the situation in Greece would eventually hammer home for everyone the perils of reckless enlargement of the state and deficit spending.  But apparently, it is not to be.  This is how Kevin Drum describes the core problem in Greece:

the austerity madness prompted by the 2008 financial collapse

So the problem is not a bankrupt state, but the "austerity" which by the way has at best carved only a trivial amount out of spending.  And it was triggered not by a ballooning deficit as a percent of GDP and an inability to meet interest and principle payments, but by the US financial crisis.

This is willful blindness of absolutely astounding proportions.  Which means the same folks are likely just rehearsing to ride the US right into the same hole.

100.012%

Greek Government Essentially in State of Default

Nice tax refund you have coming .... we think we'll keep it

The [Greek] government has decided to stop tax returns and other obligation payments to enterprises, salary workers and pensioners as it sees the budget deficit soaring to over 10 percent of gross domestic product for 2011.

For all the supposed austerity, the budget situation is worse in Greece.  Germany and other countries will soon have to accept they have poured tens of billions of euros down a rathole, and that they will have to do what they should have done over a year ago - let Greece move out of the Euro.

Government workers and pensioners simply will not accept any cuts without rioting in the street.  And the banks will all go under with a default on government debt.  And no one will pay any more taxes.  And Germany is not going to keep funding a 10% of GDP deficit.  The only way out seems to be to print money (to pay the debt) and devalue the currency (to effectively reduce fixed pensions and salaries).  And the only way to do all that is outside of the Euro.  From an economic standpoint, the inflation approach is probably not the best, but it is the politically easiest to implement.

Also From the "This Time We Really, Really Mean It" Files

Apparently European leaders are close to an agreement that countries cannot run budget deficits higher than 3% of GDP.  If you are left to wonder, "hey, didn't they already have that rule before" the answer is yes.  Everyone had to promise a really, really stern oath not to run higher deficits before joining in the Euro group.

Of course, these promises meant nothing as there was no penalty for breaking the promise, and so the EU is proposing a new enforcement mechanism

Governments whose debts exceeded three percent of their GDP would be cited by the European Court of Justice, after which a super-majority of 85 percent of European governments would have to agree to impose some sort of sanction against the offending country.

I am not clear if the 85% is of the whole EU  (which would require a vote of 23 of the 27 members) or of just the Euro zone (which would require 15 of the 17 countries that use the Euro as currency).  Either way, I disagree with Drum and can't see how there is any hope at all here.  I am left with a number of questions

  • What is the likelihood that European countries will adopt this Constitutional provision and precedent for reduced sovereignty?  Don't treaty changes have to be unanimous?
  • Even if ratified, does anyone imagine the penalties will be high?  Imagine Greece today if such penalties exist.  How much are they going to worry about fines when they are already bankrupt?  And what will be the optics of the EU adding new costs to countries that are in financial crisis?  If a country in the future is doing things to endanger the euro from too much debt, the last thing the EU is going to be able to do is add to that country's burdens -- in fact, it is doing the opposite now, sending huge checks to all these countries
  • How are they every going to get the votes when this comes up?  Again, think about today.  Would Italy, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, etc. vote to sanction Greece, when they know they are next?

I just can't see this going anywhere.  And I would be surprised if the folks involved do either.  My guess is that they hope this will settle the bond markets so they can kick the can down the road.  Sure, we will have to deal with this all over again the first, inevitable time a country breaches the 3%, but that is later and right now they will accept a few years, even a few months, of survival.

Help for the Super Committee: Is It A Tax or Spending Problem

You decide  (origins and data for chart here)

 

I am generally opposed to tax increases because they never seem be matched to spending cuts -- the tax increases are passed but Congress finds ways to gut the spending cuts.  But I would accept this proposal in a heartbeat:  Return to both Clinton era tax and spending levels.  There, that's my super committee proposal.   Taxes and spending both targeted at 19% of GDP.    Problem solved.

What Thomas Friedman Wants for America

When it comes to high speed rail, the Left tends to have a Santa Clause mentality.   They want the rail, but refuse to even discuss its costs vs. benefits, as if it is going to be dropped in place by Santa Clause.

I have actually had pro-high-speed rail writers call me a dinosaur for taking a cost-benefit approach.  After a reasoned article on why our rail system, with its focus on freight, makes more sense than China and Europe's focus on high speed passenger rail, Joel Epstein wrote me that I should get out of the country more, as if I am some backwoods rube that would just swoon if I saw a nifty bullet train.  For the record, my actual experience on a high-speed rail train in Europe confirmed that it was a nice experience (I knew it would be) and that it was a financial mess, as my son and I were the only passengers in my car.  I would be all for HSR if Santa Clause dropped in down from the North Pole, but it costs a lot of real money.

How much money?  Well take the system in China that Friedman and Epstein and many others have begged the US to emulate:

The rail ministry that builds and operates the trains has an incredible 2.1 million employees, more than the number of civilians employed by the entire U.S. government. Moreover, the ministry is in debt to the tune of 2.1 trillion yuan ($326 billion), about 5 percent of the country’s GDP.

It's A Spending Problem

So, should our deficit today be considered a spending problem or a taxation problem?  Kevin Drum argued yesterday it is a tax problem, and used a historic chart of spending as a percent of GDP to make his point.

I have to thank him.  I would have normally been skeptical of such an analysis yielding much that was useful, but I was forced to do the analysis to correct some obvious data errors in Drum's chart.  Having done so, I found the exercise useful and it became the basis for my column this week at Forbes.  The short answer, its a spending problem.  For more, hit the link.

Worst Chart of the Day: Political Rather Than Mathematical Calculation of Trend Lines

Update:  Make sure to see bottom of post, I have run the numbers from the source and the chart below is proven to be totally BS.

In an effort to paint the current budget deficit as a tax shortfall (ie we don't take enough of others people's money) rather than a spending problem, Kevin Drum offers this chart:

OK, I was going to talk about how they cherry-picked the start date (which is the peak of spending at that time since WWII) and the end date (the left off the ugly 2011).  But I just can't bring myself to talk about anything else except those trendlines.  Not sure what algorithm Drum uses to create the trendlines -- they seem suspicious but surely someone in the science-based, reality-based community would not just draw them on by eye!

It is just incredibly disingenuous (and ballsy) to try to portray 2009 and 2010, which represented the highest numbers since WWII, as a declining trend line falling faster than revenues.

Postscript: Here is the longer view, from here, with projections which I presume come from the Obama budget.  I think if I took 1950 as a start point I would get pretty different trend lines.

Update: Here is the data right from the Federal web site with Excel adding a linear trend.  Sure looks like Drum is wildly exaggerating.  Just as in Drum's chart, red is outlays as a percentage of GDP, blue is collections.

So lets look at the longer trend.  WWII was obviously an anomaly, so we will jump to 1950 to make sure we are well past it.  And we will go through 2012, because those projections are probably pretty good (though optimistic on the spending side).

Here is Drum's chart, with the longer trend and actual mathematically rather than politically calculated trend lines.

 

Hmmmm.  Revenue or spending problem.  You make the call.

Medicare and Social Security Trustee Reports

Here is some analysis of these reports. A few things I found interesting

  • I have always understood the "trust funds" for these programs were a crock, that we had spent the money in these funds years ago.  But the accounting fiction is important for a reason I did not know - when the trust fund is used up from an accounting standpoint  (vs. a cash standpoint, where it is not only already used up but never existed) in 2036 or whenever, statutory authority for spending is capped at annual tax collections, which at that point will be way, way below programmed spending levels.
  • Medicare alone is projected to grow to 6% of GDP.  wow.
  • The reality of Obamacare's promises of cost reductions is starting to appear, as already these supposed cost reductions are being discounted by folks who have accountability for getting the numbers right.

One thing to note -- Social Security actually has some shot at being repaired, because benefits are a fixed, predictable amount (as long as your actuarial tables are right).  Medicare and Medicaid are far harder, because the benefits are open ended, and every recent "fix" has tended to shift incentives to encourage rather than discourage more spending.  Note, for an example, the political pressure to eliminate the part D donut hole that actually is there to provide incentives to camp drug spending and prices.

Ugh, I Missed This Little Turd

From Dan Mitchell

Called a “debt failsafe trigger,” Obama’s scheme would automatically raise taxes if politicians spend too much. According to the talking points distributed by the White House, the automatic tax increase would take effect “if, by 2014, the projected ratio of debt-to-GDP is not stabilized and declining toward the end of the decade.”

Pretty good evidence that the default mentality in Washington is that "all your money are belong to us" and whatever is leftover that the government does not happen to spend, you are welcome to use for yourself.

Measuring the New Economy

From Slate.com via Carpe Diem:

"Maybe it is not the growth that is deficient. Maybe it is the yardstick that is deficient. MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson explains the idea using the example of the music industry. "Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we're not listening to less music. There's more music consumed than before." The improved choice and variety and availability of music must be worth something to us—even if it is not easy to put into numbers. "On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it's not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music."

As more of our lives are lived online, he wonders whether this might become a bigger problem. "If everybody focuses on the part of the economy that produces dollars, they would be increasingly missing what people actually consume and enjoy. The disconnect becomes bigger and bigger."

But providing an alternative measure of what we produce or consume based on the value people derive from Wikipedia or Pandora proves an extraordinary challenge—indeed, no economist has ever really done it.

Ditto Facebook, free flash games, ichat, etc.  I think the point is dead on, though I have no idea how to fix it.  Maybe as a value of the consumer's time?  If your time is worth $15 an hour, and you spend it on Facebook, then your benefit must have been at least $15?

Thinking about this, it strikes me that there is no GDP credit for leisure time, either.  There is almost nothing more valuable to me .  If everything in my life stays the same but I can use technology or other factors to restructure my time to get one extra hour of leisure, isn't that of huge value?  But there is no credit for it in GDP or earnings accounts.

The article discusses consumer surplus, which strikes me as the heart of the matter.  GDP and earnings metrics track what we pay, not how much value we receive.  If one hypothesizes that consumer surplus is rising as a percentage of purchase price, then we are missing a lot of wealth creation.

What if We Bought Into the Light Rail Hype, and Built It For Everyone?

Last year, there were about 3.2 trillion passenger miles driven by urban drivers in cars in the US.  My point about light rail is that we can barely afford it for just a few people, given that we spent $1.3 billion to build a rail line for just 17,000 daily round trip riders in Phoenix.  If it were truly a sustainable technology, it could be applied to all commuters.  But at a national average taxpayer subsidy per light rail passenger mile of about $2**, this means that to roll light rail out to every urban commuter would cost $6.4 trillion a year in government spending, almost half our annual GDP.  If it required the subsidy rates we have in Phoenix per passenger-mile, such a system would cost over $12 trillion  year.  In fact, the numbers would likely be even higher in reality, because light rail in most cities is almost certainly built on the highest populated corridors with the most bang for the buck (though some of the diminishing returns would be offset by network effects).

Light rail only works today because we drain resources from millions of taxpayers to benefit just a few generally middle class commuters.    This is not a model that will scale.

** This includes both service on the debt, which is payment for the original construction costs, as well as annual operating losses.  This subsidy is required essentially forever.  After 20-30 years when the original bonds are paid off, by that time systems generally have to be rebuilt in their entirety   (as folks in places like Washington DC are learning).  There are probably only 5-6 cities in this country that have the urban population densities to make rail systems come even in the ballpark of working financially, and places like Phoenix, Seattle, Houston, Portland and LA are NOT among them.

Light Rail and Sustainability

Let me offer up a definition of sustainability that I think most environmentalists and progressives would accept:

We are acting in a sustainable manner if we are achieving our goals in a way that does not hamper the ability of other people in the world, or of future generations, to achieve their goals.

Most environmentalists and progressives would call light rail lines in US cities a "sustainable" technology because of its notional impact on fuel use and CO2 output (yeah, I know, but we are not going to address those assumptions today).

Let me present one fact, from Federal Transit Administration's 2009 survey of public transit authorities, whose data is linked in various ways here.  Or you can download the summary spreadsheet here.  For all US light rail systems in total:

User fares paid per passenger-mile:           $0.18

Total cost per passenger-mile:                     $2.22

Taxpayer subsidy per passenger-mile:       $2.04

Since I live in Phoenix and the Phoenix light rail system seems to get particular praise as a "success" from light rail supporters, here are the Phoenix light rail numbers;

User fares paid per passenger-mile:          $0.07

Total cost per passenger-mile:                     $3.89

Taxpayer subsidy per passenger-mile:       $3.82

So there, folks, is your sustainable technology.  As I have written before about sustainability, "I do not think that word means what you think it means."

Nationwide, non-users of light rail pay for 92% of its costs.   In Phoenix, non-users pay for 98% of the costs.  Taking the Phoenix system as an example, resources are drained from literally millions of people so that 17,000 or so people can ride it round trip each day.   Using resources from millions of people, and building up debts that will last into the next generation, to support the transit of just a few people, seems to be the antithesis of sustainability.

If there is any common denominator among progressives, it is that they have little respect for how individuals spend their money.  So they might be unmoved by the loss of resources from so many.  So lets just look narrowly at transit, which I presume the do care about.

Before Valley Metro operated a light rail system in Phoenix, they also operated a bus transit system.  This system still requires a subsidy, but it is much lower than the light rail subsidy.  In 2009, the bus subsidy was $0.74 per passenger-mile.  This means that for the same amount of taxpayer funds, Valley Metro can provide 1.0 passenger-mile by train or 5.2 by bus ($3.82/$0.74).   I can guarantee that cities building light rail are not having their budgets quintupled.  So the result is that, as light rail gets built, total transit ridership falls in most cities as rail costs crowd out existing bus services.

Update: Most light rail articles in our local papers, which have been mindless boosters of the system, generally consist of asking riders if they like the system, who inevitably answer "yes!"  This is somehow a proof the system is great.  Well, duh.  I too am likely to be happy with a service where I only pay 2% of the costs.

Update #2:  Last year, there were about 3.2 trillion passenger miles driven by urban drivers in cars in the US.  My point about light rail is that we can barely afford it for just a few people, given that we spent $1.3 billion to build a rail line for about 17,000 daily round trip riders in Phoenix.  If it were truly a sustainable technology, it could be applied to all commuters.  But at a national average taxpayer subsidy per light rail passenger mile of about $2, this means that to roll light rail out to everyone would cost $6.4 trillion a year, almost half our annual GDP.  If it required the subsidy rates we have in Phoenix per passenger-mile, such a system would cost over $12 trillion  year.  In fact, the numbers would likely be even higher in reality, because light rail in most cities is almost certainly built on the highest populated corridors with the most bang for the buck (though some of the diminishing returns would be offset by network effects).

Angola?

I love maps like this one, and a year or two ago I linked an earlier version.  This one is from the Economist via Carpe Diem, and shows the name of the country whose GDP is similar in size to that of the state.

I have to criticize the map-maker, though.  They used Thailand at least four times on this map -- the original version managed to do it without repeats.  But I am amazed that Arizona ranks right there with Thailand.  This is not to diss the rest of the state, which has a lot going for it, but in terms of population and economic activity, a huge percentage in in just one city, Phoenix.

I do have to wonder whether New Mexico being matched up with "Angola" is really very flattering, and pairing Mississippi with Bangladesh is funny on a couple of levels.

Getting the Feds to 20% of GDP

I thought this Federal budget proposal by TJIC was interesting for a couple of reasons.  Not the least of which is the sight of TJIC trying to be reasonable and compromising.  Libertarians (as with other political extremists, and make no mistake we are extremists) tend to skew between those who want anarcho-capitalism and will accept no less and those who seek for improvements at the margin, believing that the world is only going to change so much.  I would normally put TJIC in category 1 but it is interesting to seem him delve into category 2.  Even I, normally a category 2 guy, can't totally get behind this plan as there are just two many programs, in the words of David Stockman, that need to be zeroed out.

Wal-Mart and Income Inequality

First, I have not doubt that income inequality--  in whatever way the folks who care about such things measure it -- has increased.  The analysis that has been making the rounds of liberal blogs show the rich "capturing a higher share" of total output.  The very terminology here reveals their faulty core assumption, treating wealth as a zero-sum that must be grabbed and fought for and can only be gained to someone else's disadvantage.  They always write about incomes as if GDP is a sort of natural fountain in the desert, and the piggy rich crowd in too close to get more than their fair share of water from the fountain.

This is silly.  Wealth is created from the minds of human beings, and there are human minds that create far more wealth than others, and are able to keep some of that wealth for themselves as a reward.  I say "some" because even the richest people tend to keep only a small percentage of the wealth they create.  Sum up the benefits we all get from our iPods and iPhones and iPads, and the total number dwarfs what Apple shareholders have made from these devices.

Anyway, the actual point of this post was to revisit the notion that there are different inflation rates for the rich and poor (via Carpe Diem) that may be skewing income inequality numbers

Using scanner data on household consumption of non-durable goods between 1994 and 2005, we document that the relative prices of low-quality products that are consumed disproportionately by low-income households were falling over this period. This implies that non-durable inflation for the 10th percentile of the income distribution has only been 4.3 percent between 1994 and 2005 (0.4 percent per annum), while the non-durable inflation for the 90th percentile has been 11.9 percent (1.0 percent annually), and 13.4 percent (1.2 percent annually) for the richest 5 percent of households in the sample (see chart above)."...

"A large literature has focused on the rising inequality observed in official statistics, but have mostly abstracted from the fact that these official measures are based on a single price index for a representative consumer. This assumption is not crucial in a world with a stationary relative price distribution or where an identical basket of goods is consumed by different income groups. However, using household data on non-durable consumption, we document that the relative prices of low-quality products that are consumed disproportionately by low-income consumers have been falling over this period.

This fact implies that measured against the prices of products that poorer consumers actually buy, their "real" incomes have been rising steadily. As a consequence, we find that around half of the increase in conventional inequality measures during 1994"“2005 is the result of using the same price index for non-durable goods across different income groups. Moreover, given that the increase in price dispersion does not seem to be specific to our sample or time period, the overstatement in the increases in inequality from official measures can be even more significant, changing our view of how progress has been distributed in recent decades substantially."

The price of a night at the Four Seasons has gone up more than the price of a shirt at Wal-Mart.

Juxtaposition

This post and this post came up back to back in my feed reader this morning.  The first explored per capita GDP between Greece and Germany, and wonders why the published numbers can be so close when visual evidence is that the average Greek is far less prosperous than the average German.  Brian Caplan explains the largest difference between Greece and Germany in terms of public sector productivity, with 10% of the workforce in Germany working for the state while a third of Greeks do so.

Knowing the Germans, it's easy to believe that its government employees accomplish as much as the Greeks' despite their smaller population share.  This implies that 25% of the Greek labor force is, contrary to official stats, producing nothing.

So using Sumner's other numbers - and assuming output is roughly proportional to labor force - per-capita GDP is more than 50% higher in Germany than Greece.  First-hand observation tells me that's still an understatement, but it still closes a big chunk of the gap between official stats and reality.  How's that for a mental image?

UPDATE: The NY Times apparently overstated the 1/3 figure, see here.

Right after reading that piece, I read this from Jim O'Brien via Tad DeHaven:

Back in 1990, Halstein Stralberg coined the term "automation refugees" to describe Postal Service mail processing employees who were assigned to manual operations when automation eliminated the work they had been doing. Since the Postal Service couldn't lay off these employees, they had to be given something to do, and manual processing seemed to have an inexhaustible capacity to absorb employees by the simple expedient of reducing its productivity. The result was a sharp decline in mail processing productivity and a sharp increase in mail processing costs for Periodicals class. Periodicals class cost coverage has declined steadily since that time.

O'Brien then tells of visiting seventeen mail processing facilities as part of a Joint Mail Processing Task Force in 1998. During those visits he noted that the periodical sorting machines always happened to be down even though the machines were supposed to be operating seventeen hours a day. Although the machines weren't working, manual operations were always up and running.

A decade later, O'Brien points out that the situation apparently hasn't changed:

More Periodicals mail is manually processed than ever, and manual productivity continues to decline. Periodicals Class now only covers 75% of its costs. How can this dismal pattern of declining productivity and rising costs continue more than two decades after it was first identified, especially when the Postal Service has invested millions of dollars in flats automation equipment?

Years ago, I briefly consulted to the SNCF, the French national railroad.  I say briefly, because thought they technically asked us to benchmark them against US firms, its clear they did not really want to hear the results.  The one figure that sticks in my mind is that they had something like 100,000 freight cars, but 125,000 freight car maintenance employees.  I remember observing to a highly unamused SNCF executive that they could assign one maintenance worker to his very own freight car and still lay off 20% of the staff.  And apparently France is an order of magnitude better on stuff like this than Greece.

Economic Alchemy

So Obama just signed a new "jobs" package

It's the first of several such measures Democrats have promised this election year to address the public's top worry: jobs. The measure includes about $18 billion in tax breaks and pumps $20 billion into highway and transit programs.

This is fascinating to me.  Let's take it in reverse order, starting with the $20 billion in new spending.  We are going to take 0.14% of the GDP out of some people's hands, who presumably thought they were employing the money productively, and put it into some other people's hands, and that is going to be a net jobs creator? **  Does this Keynesian myth really make sense to thoughtful people any more?

OK, but lets accept the logic - somehow if the government spends the money, it is more stimulative than if private people spend the money.  But then the whole package is contradictory, because it includes $18 billion in tax breaks.   Isn't that just taking money away from that great optimizer, the US Government, and handing it back to yucky old individuals who might just save it or pay down debt or something equally silly in the Keynesian world?

**Postscript- to answer a frequent comment I get, it does not matter if it is borrowed or taxed.  Either way it takes money from some private purpose.  There is only so much capital in the capital markets, and more government borrowing squeezes out private borrowing.

Is Greece the New Montreal?

Hosting the Olympics practically bankrupted Montreal.  Via Megan McArdle, Victor Matheson argues that the current Greek financial problems may have stemmed from hosting the Olympics.

Greece's federal government had historically been a profligate spender, but in order to join the euro currency zone, the government was forced to adopt austerity measures that reduced deficits from just over 9% of GDP in 1994 to just 3.1% of GDP in 1999, the year before Greece joined the euro.

But the Olympics broke the bank. Government deficits rose every year after 1999, peaking at 7.5% of GDP in 2004, the year of the Olympics, thanks in large part to the 9 billion euro price tag for the Games. For a relatively small country like Greece, the cost of hosting the Games equaled roughly 5% of the annual GDP of the country.

Of course, the Olympics didn't usher in an economic boom. Indeed, in 2005 Greece suffered an Olympic-sized hangover with GDP growth falling to its lowest level in a decade.

Hosting Olymics is just a super-sized version of the fallacy that causes governments to fund billion dollar sports stadiums.

Are CO2 Initiatives Already Working?

Cameron Scott argues this when he says:

It's funny how green-haters accuse greens of being catastrophists, and then argue that cutting carbon emissions will destroy our economy and send us back to the Dark Ages. (See the trailer of Phelem McAleer's Not Evil Just Wrong for a prime example.)

Well, the last pooh-pooh is on them: It turns out we're already cutting emissions in the United States. Sure, some of that is due to a sluggish economy. But negative economic circumstances don't account for the 9 percent reduction in carbon emissions since 2007. In fact, the amount of carbon dioxide produced for every dollar of economic output declined by 3.8 percent in 2008.

I responded:

I really wish you would apply your analytical abilities to equities so I would have some way to bet against you.

Had you looked, you would see that the US has been reducing the CO2 intensity for a unit of economic output for decades. Here is the first source I found online but there are zillions.  In terms of improvement, the US has done better on this metric in the last 20 years than nearly any other country in the world, and just as well as the best (e.g. Germany)

So what you tell is not a new story, and has nothing to do with recent governmental dictats or pleas by environmentalists and everything to do with the ongoing incentives of individuals and businesses to reduce costs and be more efficient.

The reason our total Co2 output has not decreased is that while CO2 per unit of GDP (I will call this CO2 efficiency) has improved 2-4 percent per year, our GDP has grown the same rate or faster. So our overall CO2 output is flat to up (and has actually been down the last few years). One of the main reasons Europe has done better than the US in total CO2 reductions is not improvements in CO2 efficiency, but because their economies have lagged. They bent over backwards in Kyoto to make 1990 the baseline year, so they could include the horrible economies of Russia and East Germany which were in the process of crashing, thus giving them an automatic CO2 reduction for nothing.

Anyway, just look at your own numbers. In the year before, we got about 3% improvement in Co2 efficiency and had about 3% economic growth so CO2 output was flat to down. Last year we had about 3% improvement in Co2 efficiency and the economy was down a lot and thus CO2 was down a lot. When there are two variables in a function, and only one is changing, most logical people attribute the change in output of the function (ie changes in total CO2 output) to the variable that changed (ie economic growth). You, for some reason, attribute changes in the output to the variable (co2 efficiency improvements) which basically remained unchanged. Nice analysis.

You can even see it in your numbers. If CO2 efficiency is up 3.8 percent and Co2 output is down 9 percent, then that means the economic growth/size component has to be down 5.4% (.91/.962 - 1). So almost 60% of the "improvement" is due to a very bad recession and 10% unemployment, but you attribute it to the unchanging 40% piece.

Did anyone in the environmental movement study math or economics?