Posts tagged ‘inflation’

An Idea on Grade Inflation

Grade inflation is back in the news, as the Harvard Crimson reports that the median grade at Harvard is an A-.  This is clearly absurd.  It reminds me of some of the old Olympics judging where they had a 10 point scale but everyone scored between 9.7 and 9.9.  The problem is not necessarily that the mean is skewed, but that there is almost no room left to discriminate between high and low performance.

There is one potential way to combat this, and it was invented by colleges themselves.  Consider grading in high school.  My kids go to a very tough-grading private school where A's are actually hard to get.  The school sends (for Arizona) a fairly high percentage of its students to Ivy and Ivy-level schools, but the school produces someone with a perfect 4.0 only once every four or five years.  Compare that to our local public school, that seems to produce dozens of perfect 4.0's every year -- in fact since it adds a point for honors classes, it produces a bunch of 5.0's.

Colleges understand that a 3.7 from Tough-grading High may be better than a 5.0 from We-have-a-great-football-team High.  They solve this by demanding that when high schools provide them with a transcript, it also provide them with data on things like the distribution of grades.

Employers should demand something similar from colleges.  This is a little harder for employers, since colleges seem to be allowed to legally collude on such issues while employers can get sued over it.  But it seems perfectly reasonable that an employer should demand, say, not only the student's grade for each class but also the median and 90th percentile grades given in that same class.  This will allow an employer to see how the school performed relative to the rest of the class, which is really what the employer cares about.  And schools that have too many situations where the student got an A, the median was an A, and the 90th percentile was an A may get punished over time with less interest from the hiring community.

One way to get this going is for an influential institution to start printing transcripts this way.  The right place to start would be a great institution that feels it has held the line more on grade inflation.  My alma mater Princeton claims to be in this camp, and I would love to see them take leadership on this (the campus joke at Princeton during the Hepatitis C outbreak there was that at Harvard it would have been Hepatitis A).

Postcript - An alternate grading system from Harvard Business School:  When I was at HBS, they did not give A's and B's.  We had three grades called category I, II, and III.   By rule, the professor gave the top 15% of the class category I, the bottom 10% category III, and everyone else got a category II.  I actually thought this was a hell of a system.  It discriminated at the top, and provided just enough fear of failure to keep people from slacking.

Why We Are Seeing Long Waits And Shortages of Doctors and Basic Medicines in Health Care

This is a re-post of an article I wrote in 2012.  I am re-posting it to demonstrate that recent stories about doctor shortages and wait times are absolutely inevitable results of government interventions in the health care economy.

My son is in Freshman econ 101, and so I have been posting him some supply and demand curve examples.  Here is one for health care.  The question at hand:  Does government regulation including Obamacare increase access to health care?  Certainly it increases access to health care insurance, but does it increase access to actual doctors?   We will look at three major interventions.

The first and oldest is the imposition of strong, time-consuming, and costly professional licensing requirements for doctors.  At this point we are not arguing whether this is a good or bad thing, just portraying its inevitable effects on the supply and demand for doctors.

I don't think this requires much discussion. For any given price for doctor services, the quantity of doctor hours available is certainly going to increase as the barriers to entry to the profession are raised.

The second intervention is actually a set of interventions, the range of interventions that have encouraged single-payer low-deductible health insurance and have provided subsidies for this insurance.  These interventions include historic tax preferences for employer-paid employee health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, the subsidies in Obamacare as well as the rules in Obamacare that discourage high-deductible policies and require that everyone buy insurance rather than pay as they go.  The result is a shift in the demand curve to the right, along with a shift to a more vertical demand curve (meaning people are more price-insensitive, since a third-party is paying).

The result is a substantial rise in prices, as we have seen over the last 30 years as health care prices have risen far faster than inflation

As the government pays more and more of the health care bills, this price rise leads to unsustainably high spending levels, so the government institutes price controls.  Medicare has price controls (the famous "doc fix" is related to these) and Obamacare promises many more.  This leads to huge doctor shortages, queues, waiting lists, etc.  Exactly what we see in other state-run health care systems.  The graph below posits a price cap that forces prices back to the free market rate.

So, is this better access to health care?

I know that Obamacare proponents claim that top-down government operation is going to reap all kinds of savings, thus shifting the supply curve to the right.  Since this has pretty much never happened in the whole history of government operations, I discount the claim.  When pressed for specifics, the ideas typically boil down to price or demand controls.  Price controls we discussed.  Demand controls are of the sort like "you can't get a transplant if you are over 70" or "we won't approve cancer treatments that only promise a year more life."

Most of these do not affect the chart above, since it is for doctor services and most of these cost control ideas are usually doctor intensive - more doctor time to have fewer tests, operations, drugs.  But even if we expanded the viewpoint to be for all health care, it is yet to be demonstrated that the American public will even accept these restrictions.  The very first one out of the box, a proposal to have fewer mamographies for women under a certain age, was abandoned in a firestorm of opposition from women's groups.  In all likelihood, there will be some mish-mash of demand restrictions, determined less by science and by who (users and providers) have the best lobbying organizations.

My longer series of three Forbes articles on this and other economic issues with Obamacare begin here:  Part 1 InformationPart 2 IncentivesPart 3 Rent-Seeking

Update:  Pondering on this, it may be that professional licensing also makes the supply curve steeper.  It depends on how doctors think about sunk cost.

 

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

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

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

click to enlarge

Uhhh, So?

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

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

Health Care Lost Opportunities

One of the real frustrations I have with Obamacare is that I believe we were on the cusp of a revolution in health care costs and payment systems, which the PPACA will likely kill.  As more and more of us adopted high-deductible health insurance plans, there was an increasing transparency in pricing, and new delivery models were emerging to serve this consumer-based, non-third-party payer health niche.

I think this even more as I read about the CMS revising its future health care cost inflation numbers to take into account a flattening of medical price inflation that has been occurring over the last few years.  The Left has hilariously claimed credit for this cost reduction via some kind of time-travelling effect of not-yet-implemented PPACA measures.  But Charles Blahous reads the CMS report more carefully and finds that the PPACA has nothing to do with these inflation reductions, and in fact is if anything slowing the cost reduction progress.

The obvious point that leaps out from this graph is that the chief CMS actuary found that the ACA would increase national health expenditures through 2016. Not content to let the tables speak for themselves on this point, CMS was explicit in the text of its memorandum that the ACA increased the near-term cost projections:

“The estimated effects of the PPACA on overall national health expenditures (NHE) are shown in table 5. In aggregate, we estimate that for calendar years 2010 through 2019, NHE would increase by $311 billion or 0.9 percent, over the updated baseline projection that was released on June 29, 2009. Year by year, the relative increases are largest in 2016, when the coverage expansions would be fully phased in…The increase in total NHE is estimated to occur primarily as a net result of the substantial expansions in coverage under the PPACA…”

...CMS is now projecting slower health care expenditure growth than they were in 2009 and 2010. CMS’s current projection of 2016 health spending totaling 18.4% of GDP is 1 percentage point lower than its June 2009 estimate (19.4%) and 0.9 points lower than its February 2009 estimate (19.3%).

Why did CMS lower its estimates of future health spending? It wasn’t because of the ACA. We know this for a fact because CMS has released a memorandum detailing the reasons for changes in their ten-year outlook since April 2010. Here are the factors CMS cited, and the percentage of the improvement each was responsible for:

1) Medicare/Medicaid/other programs “unrelated to the ACA” (50.7% of improvement).

2) Other factors “unrelated to the ACA” (26.1%).

3) Updated data on historical spending growth (21.8%).

4) Updated macroeconomic assumptions (6.1%).

Now, that adds up to 104.7% of the total improvement. The reason these four factors add to more than 100% is that a fifth factor, the “impact of the ACA,” worked against the improvement. Per CMS, adjusting the April 2010 projections for the subsequent impact of the ACA shows it further increasing spending over ten years (equal to and opposite from 4.7% of the total change).

Who the HELL is Jay Carney to Tell Me My Health Insurance Policy is "Sub-Standard"?

Via Bloomberg

The health-care law eliminates “substandard policies that don’t provide minimum services,” said Jay Carney, a White House spokesman, in response to the cancellations. The “80-plus percent” of Americans with employer plans or covered by government programs are unaffected.

I chose my policy very carefully, and don't think it is "sub-standard" because it does not include pediatric dental care for two people in their fifties.  This is the worst consumer dis-empowerment that I can remember in my lifetime.

And I totally agree with this

Now an effective levy of several thousand dollars on the small fraction of middle class Americans who buy on the individual market is not history’s great injustice. But neither does it seem like the soundest or most politically stable public policy arrangement. And to dig back into the position where I do strong disagree with Cohn’s perspective, what makes this setup potentially more perverse is that it raises rates most sharply on precisely those Americans who up until now were doing roughly what we should want more health insurance purchasers to do: Economizing, comparison shopping, avoiding paying for coverage they don’t need, and buying a level of insurance that covers them in the event of a true disaster while giving them a reason not to overspend on everyday health expenses.

If we want health inflation to stay low and health care costs to be less of an anchor on advancement, we should want more Americans making $50,000 or $60,000 or $70,000 to spend less upfront on health insurance, rather than using regulatory pressure to induce them to spend more. And seen in that light, the potential problem with Obamacare’s regulation-driven “rate shock” isn’t that it doesn’t let everyone keep their pre-existing plans. It’s that it cancels plans, and raises rates, for people who were doing their part to keep all of our costs low.

With my high deductibles, I am actually out shopping every day on health care prices and I can tell you from my experience that if everyone did so, we would see a reversal of health care inflation.  More here

Total Fecklessness

If a city government cannot bring itself to end something so obviously abusive as pension spiking, what hope is there of any real reforms on tougher matters?  Government employees are increasingly running government in their own favor.

After nearly three hours of contentious debate, Phoenix city leaders were so divided over how to tackle pension “spiking” on Tuesday that they ended up doing nothing at all.

They walked into the City Council chambers prepared to make changes, but after splintering into three ideological factions, voted 5-4 against a plan to combat spiking, generally seen as the artificial inflation of a city employee’s income to boost his or her retirement benefit.

Several high-profile cases have come to light, pushing the effort to eliminate pension boosting to the forefront of the council’s agenda.

Former Phoenix City Manager David Cavazos, who retired last week to lead another city, was able to apply unused sick pay and other perks to spike his pension to an estimated $235,863, the second-largest retirement benefit in city history.

Earlier this month, a subcommittee of council members proposed modest reforms that they said would reduce pension spiking and provide transparency. They said the plan treated existing employees fairly and avoided potential litigation.

But the proposal fell apart Tuesday night, when a group of liberal-leaning council members joined the body’s fiscal conservatives in voting against it, though their rationales were vastly different.

After the motion to approve the proposal failed, the meeting ended. The result, greeted by cheers from employee unions in the crowd

Trying to Overcome My Ignorance on the Banking System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are In the Best of Hands: Janet Yellen Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For One Brief Moment, I Thought Reason Might Enter the Discourse on Budgets

Kevin Drum quoted this from James Fallows in a post labelled "threat inflation"

As I think about it this war and others the U.S. has contemplated or entered during my conscious life, I realize how strong is the recurrent pattern of threat inflation. Exactly once in the post-WW II era has the real threat been more ominous than officially portrayed

I thought, "wow, someone from the Coke or the Pepsi party is finally going to call BS on all the apocalyptic forecasts from both parties over the sequester."  But alas, he was just discussing foreign policy.  That is not to say I don't agree with the basic point, that foreign policy prescriptions are often accompanied by exaggerated horror stories of imminent threats -- I just wish they would recognize the same dynamic on the domestic front, whenever the smallest cut in government spending growth rates suddenly mean we are are going to put grandma out on an ice flow to freeze.

If It Was Good Enough For Diocletian....

Price controls, like those famously instituted by Diocletian, are something like 0 for 162,000 in their success rate at "fixing" inflation.

So of course, Argentina has instituted price controls on supermarkets.  Argentina, meet Zimbabwe.  Another agricultural powerhouse that will soon see food shortages.

A Quick Reminder to Swedish Workers

Apparently Swedish unions are demanding a looser monetary policy

Forget Chuck Schumer's cat-out-of-the-bag 'get back to work' comments to Bernanke, now it is union-leaders who are advising the world's central bankers. "There is a not a single reason not to lower rates" exclaims Sweden's trade union confederation to the central bank as he begins negotiations with employers on wage deals for next year. His demands (for lower rates) are "far from excessive" and he adds "should not cause inflation" as Swedish organized labor have "never called for levels that ... could not be supported economically."

Inflation and monetary debasement have always been Progressive favorites -- until, of course, they were not.  Consider the plight of the worker in Weimar Germany

By mid-1923 workers were being paid as often as three times a day. Their wives would meet them, take the money and rush to the shops to exchange it for goods. However, by this time, more and more often, shops were empty. Storekeepers could not obtain goods or could not do business fast enough to protect their cash receipts. Farmers refused to bring produce into the city in return for worthless paper. Food riots broke out. Parties of workers marched into the countryside to dig up vegetables and to loot the farms. Businesses started to close down and unemployment suddenly soared. The economy was collapsing.

It was total hell.  If a worker's family member could not find something to buy in the morning with the worker's morning pay packet, the money was worthless by dinner time.  Not to mention the incredible lost productivity of all those man-hours spent running around trying to find goods on shelves (of which we got a small taste post-Sandy, as people spent hundreds of dollars of their own time waiting in queues because the government would not let gas station owners charge them an extra $20 for scarce gasoline).

Does This Make A Lick of Sense? Wikipedia Says No Inflation Risk in QE3

I know, I know -- this is Wikipedia.  But there is a line there in the quantitative easing article that makes even less sense than other political topics at that site:

It should be noted that mortagage-backed securities such as are being purchased as part of the QE3 program are not based on liquid assets, and their purchase [by the Fed] does not entail inflation risks

This makes zero sense to me.  But maybe I am missing something.

First, I don't understand why the fact that the assets purchased with the printed money are liquid or not liquid.  If anything, I would have assumed that purchasing less liquid assets would have more inflation risk than the other way around.  If one puts more currency into the economy, the more currency-like the asset one pulls off the market, ie the more liquid, the less the inflation risk, I would have thought.

Second, while mortgages may not be liquid, mortgage-backed securities are very liquid.  If liquidity of the asset matters here, I am not sure why the underlying asset would matter as much as the asset itself being purchased.   I mean, by this metric, treasuries are based on a really, really illiquid asset, simply the full faith and credit of the US government.

Third, printing of money would seem to always have inflation risk, no matter what the government is purchasing with the still-wet dollars.  (yeah, I know, it's all digital).

How Government Interventions Affect Health Care Supply and Demand

My son is in Freshman econ 101, and so I have been posting him some supply and demand curve examples.  Here is one for health care.  The question at hand:  Does government regulation including Obamacare increase access to health care?  Certainly it increases access to health care insurance, but does it increase access to actual doctors?   We will look at three major interventions.

The first and oldest is the imposition of strong, time-consuming, and costly professional licensing requirements for doctors.  At this point we are not arguing whether this is a good or bad thing, just portraying its inevitable effects on the supply and demand for doctors.

I don't think this requires much discussion. For any given price for doctor services, the quantity of doctor hours available is certainly going to increase as the barriers to entry to the profession are raised.

The second intervention is actually a set of interventions, the range of interventions that have encouraged single-payer low-deductible health insurance and have provided subsidies for this insurance.  These interventions include historic tax preferences for employer-paid employee health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, the subsidies in Obamacare as well as the rules in Obamacare that discourage high-deductible policies and require that everyone buy insurance rather than pay as they go.  The result is a shift in the demand curve to the right, along with a shift to a more vertical demand curve (meaning people are more price-insensitive, since a third-party is paying).

The result is a substantial rise in prices, as we have seen over the last 30 years as health care prices have risen far faster than inflation

As the government pays more and more of the health care bills, this price rise leads to unsustainably high spending levels, so the government institutes price controls.  Medicare has price controls (the famous "doc fix" is related to these) and Obamacare promises many more.  This leads to huge doctor shortages, queues, waiting lists, etc.  Exactly what we see in other state-run health care systems,  The graph below posits a price cap that forces prices back to the free market rate.

So, is this better access to health care?

I know that Obamacare proponents claim that top-down government operation is going to reap all kinds of savings, thus shifting the supply curve to the right.  Since this has pretty much never happened in the whole history of government operations, I discount the claim.  When pressed for specifics, the ideas typically boil down to price or demand controls.  Price controls we discussed.  Demand controls are of the sort like "you can't get a transplant if you are over 70" or "we won't approve cancer treatments that only promise a year more life."

Most of these do not affect the chart above, since it is for doctor services and most of these cost control ideas are usually doctor intensive - more doctor time to have fewer tests, operations, drugs.  But even if we expanded the viewpoint to be for all health care, it is yet to be demonstrated that the American public will even accept these restrictions.  The very first one out of the box, a proposal to have fewer mamographies for women under a certain age, was abandoned in a firestorm of opposition from women's groups.  In all likelihood, there will be some mish-mash of demand restrictions, determined less by science and by who (users and providers) have the best lobbying organizations.

My longer series of three Forbes articles on this and other economic issues with Obamacare begin here:  Part 1 Information, Part 2 Incentives, Part 3 Rent-Seeking

Update:  Pondering on this, it may be that professional licensing also makes the supply curve steeper.  It depends on how doctors think about sunk cost.

Well, I Was Wrong

I have been a stock market bear for some months now.  I don't really think the US economy is going to double dip on its own, but I felt like Europe and Asia would bring us down.  Well, I simply underestimated both the Fed's and the ECB's willingness to goose financial assets.  If the Fed and ECB are going to inflate our way out of, uh, whatever it is we are in, then I certainly don't want to be holding bonds, particularly at these absurdly low interest rates.  Stocks are not as good of an inflation hedge as some hard assets, but they are a hell of a lot better than most bonds.  I'm  certainly not going to buy back in the current euphoric highs, but I am giving up on trying to predict that market based on fundamentals.  It seems that fundamentals are a suckers game, and you better not be timing the market unless you have an inside line to government policy, because that seems to be what drives the train.

PS-  I wish Milton Friedman were still around.  QE was as much his idea as anyone else's.   I wonder what he would have thought of the results, or of this particular implementation.

It's A Mystery Why the European Economy is Not Growing

European economic problems must be due to the "austerity" (which means, in popular Leftist use, not growing government spending faster than the rate of inflation).  I am sure this kind of thing has nothing to do with high unemployment rates.  I would certainly be really excited to hire more employees under these conditions:

For most Europeans, almost nothing is more prized than their four to six weeks of guaranteed annual vacation leave. But it was not clear just how sacrosanct that time off was until Thursday, when Europe’s highest court ruled that workers who happened to get sick on vacation were legally entitled to take another [paid] vacation.

“The purpose of entitlement to paid annual leave is to enable the worker to rest and enjoy a period of relaxation and leisure,” the Court of Justice of the European Union, based in Luxembourg, ruled in a case involving department store workers in Spain. “The purpose of entitlement to sick leave is different, since it enables a worker to recover from an illness that has caused him to be unfit for work.

Government Spending Bait and Switch

New taxes are frequently sold as protecting police, fire, and education, though these together represent barely 25% of all US government spending.  Where does the rest go?  It's a giant bait and switch, made worse by the fact that even within these categories, new headcount is more likely to be added in administrative and overhead roles rather than in promised functions such as "teachers".  This is the subject of my Forbes column this week:

There is a way to reconcile this:   While increases in education spending are sold to the public as a way to improve results in the classroom, in reality most of the new money and headcount are going to anything but increasing the number of teachers.

Let’s start with an example from the city of Phoenix, New York.  Why this town?  Am I cherry-picking?  In fact, I was looking for data on my home town of Phoenix, Arizona.  But I have come to discover that while school districts are really good at getting tomorrow’s cafeteria menu on the web, they are a little less diligent in giving equal transparency to their budget and staffing data.  But it turns out that Phoenix, New York, which I discovered when I was looking for my home town data, publishes a lovely summary of its budget data, so I will use it as an example that helps make my point.

The city’s budget summary for 2012-2013 is here.  Overall, they are proposing a 0.4% increase in spending for next year, which initially seems lean until one understands that they are projecting a 4% decline in enrollment, such that this still represents an increase in spending per pupil faster than inflation.  But the interesting part is the mix.

What are the two things politicians are always claiming they need extra money for?  Classroom instruction and infrastructure.  As you can see in this budget, only two categories of spending go down:  classroom instruction and facility maintenance and cleaning.  Administrative expenses increase 4% (effectively 8% per pupil) and employee benefits expenses increase just under 1% despite a total decline in staffing.  Though I am not very familiar with the program, one irony here is that the fastest growing category is the 8.7% growth (nearly 13% per pupil) in spending with BOCES, a New York initiative that was supposed to reduce administrative costs in public schools.  In other words, spending increases are going to everything except the areas which politicians promise.

I don’t think these trends are isolated to this one admittedly random example.  The Arizona auditor-general recently did a study on trends in education spending in the state.  They found exactly the same tendency to reduce classroom spending to pay for increases in administrative headcounts.

Read it all, as they say.

College Grade Inflation

Apparently the news of the week is that the letter grade "A" is now the most common.  Mark Perry has more on college grade inflation.

I am actually a fan of the grading system at Harvard Business School when I was there.   15% of the students in each course get the top grade (category I) -- no more, no less.  10% get the bottom grade (category III) -- again by rule, no more and no less.  All the rest are in the middle.  It effectively acknowledges that for most folks, the point is to demonstrate you have satisfactorily learned the course material, while still allowing folks to distinguish themselves on both ends.  Budding young executives who complain that it is unfair to automatically "fail" the bottom 10% of each course are reminded that this is exactly how many Fortune 500 companies run their HR systems, seeking to constantly weed out the bottom 10%.

Update:  The argument usually is that students need high grades to compete with other kids from grade-inflated schools in the marketplace.  I just don't think this is true.  Colleges themselves deal with this all the time in admissions.  When they get a high school transcript, attached to that transcript is a fact sheet about the high school that gives its distribution of grades.  That way the recipient can discount the GPA as appropriate.  Every company doing hiring should demand the same of colleges.

Here is a personal anecdote.  My son Nic's school grades hard.  Something like 2 kids over the last 2 decades have graduated with a 4.0.  One could argue my son's grades could have been higher at another school, but knowledgeable consumers of high school GPA's know how our school works and we have never felt he somehow was at a loss due to the school's grading policies (but Oh God can type A parents fret about this incessantly among themselves).   [edit:  took out brag about my son.  Nothing more boring than other people bragging on their kids.]

Am I Missing Something?

Maybe I am missing something, but "friction-reduced" tires seem to be going in the wrong direction.   Hopefully friction-reduced brake pads or inflation-reduced airbags are not next.

What's the Difference?

What is the difference between this hypothetical family budget and the US Government's budget?

One answer is:  eight zeros, because these are essentially the US budget numbers with eight zeros knocked off.

A second answer is:  Prisons and the printing press.  Because the biggest difference is that in the family budget context, everyone sees these numbers as simply insane, while on the national level at least half of folks think they are just fine.  The difference is that the US government can take money from other people at whim and by force, backed by the threat of incarceration.  And if that fails, it can print money  (actually using bits and bytes rather than the printing press, but that's just a detail) to pass the cost of its extravagance onto other people in the form of inflation.

Update:  The chart above probably over-estimates the belt-tightening.  If you really wanted a comparable situation to today's federal government, the example would say that the family spent $37,000 last year, proposed to spend 38, 285 next year, but agreed to only spend 37,900 for a $385 "cut", said cut being claimed despite the fact that actual spending will be $900 more than last year.

Flash: European Finances Still Screwed Up

As I predicted, the various highly touted European debt and currency interventions last month did squat.  This is no surprise.  The basic plan currently is to have the ECB give essentially 0% loans to banks with the implied provision that they use the money to buy sovereign debt.  Eventually there are provisions for austerity, but I wrote that I don't think it's possible these will be effective.   It's a bit unclear where this magic money of the ECB is coming from - either they are printing money (which they refuse to own up to because the Germans fear money printing even more than Soviet tanks in the Fulda Gap) or there is some kind of leverage circle-jerk game going where the ECB is effectively leveraging deposits and a few scraps of funding to the moon.

At this point, short of some fiscal austerity which simply is not going to happen, I can't see how the answer is anything but printing and devaluation.  Either the ECB prints, spreading the cost of inflation to all counties on the Euro, or Greece/Spain/Italy exit the Euro and then print for themselves.

The exercise last month, as well as the months before that, are essentially mass hypnosis spectacles, engineered to try to get the markets to forget the underlying fundamentals.  And the amazing part is it sort of works, from two days to two weeks.  It reminds me of nothing so much as the final chapters of Atlas Shrugged where officials do crazy stuff to put off the reckoning even one more day.

Disclosure:  I have never, ever been successful at market timing investments or playing individual stocks, so I generally don't.  But the last few months I have had fun shorting European banks and financial assets on the happy-hypnosis news days and covering once everyone wakes up.  About the only time in my life I have made actual trading profits.

Thought problem:  I wish I understood the incentives facing European banks.  It seems like right now to be almost a reverse cartel, where the cartel holds tightly because there is a large punishment for cheating.  Specifically, any large bank that jumps off the merry-go-round described above likely starts the whole thing collapsing and does in its own balance sheet (along with everyone else's).  The problem is that every day they hang on, the stakes get higher and their balance sheets get stuffed with more of this crap.  Ironically, everyone would have been better getting off a year ago and taking the reckoning then, and certainly everyone would be better taking the hit now rather than later, but no one is willing to jump off.  One added element that makes the game interesting is that the first bank to jump off likely earns the ire of the central bankers, perhaps making that bank the one bank that is not bailed out when everything crashes.  It's a little like the bidding game where the highest bidder wins but the two highest bidders have to pay.  Anyone want to equate this with a defined economics game please do so in the comments.

Its All About the Consumer (wink wink)

Countless regulations and laws in the US that are ostensibly consumer protection turn out to be simple power plays by government officials and well-connected corporations.

We see this yet again in Argentina, where a government takeover of the newsprint business was ostensibly justified based on "unfair" business practices by the previous owners.  Of course, the only thing the Argentine government, which recently started prosecuting private economists for disagreeing with government inflation numbers, finds "unfair" is the fact that newsprint is being sold to papers who publish unflattering articles about the government.  More here.

The same Argentine legislation defines a new crime right out of Atlas Shrugged that they call economic terrorism, which in practice will likely be interpreted as 1) businesses that do anything that the current rules do not like or 2) businesses that get just too valuable for government officials to resist grabbing them for themselves.

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.

Rearranging the Deck Chairs in Europe

My new column is up at Forbes, and discusses solutions to the European debt crisis.  The problem is that there are really only three, and all are bad, so most solutions being proposed either attempt to disguise that they are bad or to disguise that they are not really doing anything.  An excerpt:

The default option will almost certainly wipe out a lot of powerful banking and financial interests as well as make it very hard for governments to keep spending money at their historic pace.  This will certainly have a bad effect on the larger economy, but we should be careful accepting forecasts of economic catastrophe as most of these come from these same powerful bankers and politicians.   Every group, down to the local dog catchers, argue that the world will suffer a calamity if their particular profession is harmed.  What we do know is that large banks and financial companies are even more intertwined with the political elite in Europe than they are in the US.   We can be pretty certain that, push come to shove, a solution that saves the banks and allows politicians to keep spending will be preferred.

That is why the Europeans will likely end up printing money to pay off the debt.  They almost certainly would be doing so already,were it not for Germany’s strong memories of its Weimar inflation years, when exactly this kind of money printing to pay down government debt led to hyperinflation and political instability.  But the appeal to politicians of shifting the costs from themselves and banks to the average consumer is simply too great to pass up.  If Germany can be convinced, then the European Central Bank will print Euros.  If Germany cannot be convinced, then countries will leave the Euro and print Lira and Drachma.

Over the Cliff, My Fellow Lemmings!

I found this 2009 graph and comment by Paul Krugman (dredged up by Megan McArdle) to be a hilarious call to arms for all his fellow lemmings to follow him over the cliff

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[from November 2009]:  Why, people ask, would I want to compare us to Belgium and Italy? Both countries are a mess!

Um, guys, that's the point. Belgium is politically weak because of the linguistic divide; Italy is politically weak because it's Italy. If these countries can run up debts of more than 100 percent of GDP without being destroyed by bond vigilantes, so can we.

Today I spent time arguing with a group of folks about global warming and the precautionary principle.  The others all argued that a slim chance of a catastrophe justified immediate action.  I argued, of course, that they were understating the cost of the intervention, but that is another story.

Its amazing to me that so many on the Left squawk about the precautionary principle in the case of climate, but are ready to continue running up government spending and deficits despite the fact that the disaster of this approach, given the experience in Europe, is no longer even debatable.  Its simply math.

Our problem will play out differently than in Europe.  Long before interest rates on US securities run up to the 6% or so tipping point, the Fed will be running the printing presses.  Don't believe me, well, they already have been.

Savers beware, our path will be devaluation and inflation.

By the way, the speed with which hyperinflation can take hold is astounding.  Here is the inflation rate in the Weimar Republic.  As with the Fed today, the central bank of the Weimar Republic was buying up government debt with printed currency.  Look how fast the inflation took hold:

(source)  Imagine a quarterly meeting of the Fed in August of '22.  They are probably looking at month-old data, and in July it looks like everything is under control.  Boom, three months later, by the next schedule quarterly meeting, inflation is already out of control.  Krugman would say not to worry about inflation, they will have plenty of time to act.  Coincidently, this is exactly what Italy and France and Spain said about their sovereign debt, but in a flash, the crisis was upon them and so far out of control there is nothing they can do.