Posts tagged ‘North Dakota’

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.

I Would Go Where the Jobs Are

Bloomberg does a ranking of where one should go if he is unemployed.  Before we go to their ranking criteria, lets think about what criteria I would recommend to someone:

  1. Go where the jobs are.  Duh.  Pay particular attention to where there are jobs that match your skills, but in general a rising tide will lift all boats (e.g. you don't just have to be an oil field worker to find opportunity in North Dakota, they are paying a fortune for waitresses and retail clerks to handle the new demand).
  2. Look at pay for your skills vs. cost of living.  Manhattan may pay the most for waitresses but living costs there are insane.  You can get good work in Vail, Colorado over the winter but good luck finding a low cost place to live anywhere nearby.
  3. Think about tax rates.  You may be exempt now, but hopefully as things get better you will care about income tax rates, and if you are unemployed you certainly are going to care about sales tax rates

OK, so let's look at Bloomberg's ranking criteria.  They also have three:

  1. Unemployment rate.  So far so good.  Go where the jobs are.
  2. State unemployment payment rates.  Seriously, their criteria is not cost of living or average payments for new workers, but how much one can extract from the government for NOT working?  But OK, this still makes some sense  (though there are a lot of barriers to crossing state lines for a better unemployment deal).
  3. Income inequality.  WTF?  What in heavens name does this have to do with unemployed people and how easily they can improve themselves.  Is this psychological -- ie you will feel worse about being unemployed if there are a lot of rich people around?  The average unemployed American is a service worker (if you are a skilled manufacturing worker, say a machine operator, and can't find work, you are in a minority).  Rich people drive demand for service workers.

Trapped Into Civic Participation, and A Note on Labor Mobility

Up until now, I had never know that there was actually a theory, propounded by people with a straight face, that trapping people in neighborhoods and institutions (like public schools) is a positive because it promotes civic virtue.  

If you own your home, then a lot of your wealth is tied in with the quality of your neighborhood. In theory, this should motivate you to vote more carefully in local elections. On the other hand, if you are a renter, and the neighborhood goes downhill, you will simply leave.

Collectivists prefer to trap households within specific government service areas. Their thinking is that with the “exit” option foreclosed, households will be forced to exercise their “voice” option, to everyone’s benefit. This is an argument against private schools. It goes back at least as far as A.O. Hirschman’s classic book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

I would argue just the opposite, that this creates state monopolies ripe for abuse, and besides, is disastrous for labor mobility and thus the healthy functioning of labor markets.  People keep arguing that this recession is long because recessions after financial bubbles are always long.  I am not sure that is proven out by history.

I would argue a big reason this recession is long is that the nature of this bubble, being in housing markets, short-circuited one of the ways we get out of recessions, which is labor mobility.   Trapped in homes the government encouraged them to buy but now they cannot sell, people can't move to find new regional opportunities.  Where are the mass migrations to the North Dakota oil fields?

Labor and Capital Mobility, and the Recovery

I was thinking this weekend that one reason the US recovery may be slow is related to labor and capital mobility.

One substantial avenue to recovery in a recession has always been labor and capital mobility.  The fast labor and capital can be redeployed from losing industries to improving ones, the faster a recovery occurs.  One reasons Japan and certain European countries have had slower recoveries in the past than the US is that our mobility was higher and barriers to entrepreneurship lower.

But it strikes me that two things are going on in the US to endanger this advantage we have always enjoyed

  1. The government push for home ownership has turned out to be a trap.  Not only did it help create the bubble, whose bursting destroyed a lot of real and paper wealth, but it has greatly reduced labor mobility.  Home ownership makes labor mobility much harder even in a good housing market when one can sell his or her home easily.  In a bad market like today, very few feel they can pick up and move.  I might want to give up on the construction industry in Michigan and move to the oil patch of North Dakota, but how can I do that if I own a home that I can't sell?  A number of other actions, most notably the repeated extension of unemployment benefits, contributes to the lack of mobility.
  2. The government seems hell bent on doing everything it can to prevent, even reverse the tide, of capital mobility.  The government shifted tends of billions of capital into auto industry hands that had destroyed value for decades.  It continues to put the brakes on what should be an oil and gas exploration and production boom.  It kills health industries like light bulbs and shifts billions into useless politically powerful hands making ethanol.  The NLRB is preventing major American manufacturers from making factory investments in southern states.

In the late 1970's, the auto industry was in trouble but the oil patch was booming.  The Houston newspapers sold well in Michigan, popular for their help wanted ads.  From space, the Interstate highways between the Detroit and Texas probably looked orange from all the U-haul trailers.

The exact same dynamics could and should be occurring today.  Capital and labor should be shifting from, for example, the failing auto industry to the growing energy sector.  But the government today stands to block this reallocation. It is raising taxes on oil companies and placing barriers to their growth, while giving tax money to the auto industry and using every bit of power it can to sustain it.  Combine this type of barrier to capital flows (and auto/energy is but a couple of examples) with rising barriers to entrepreneurship, and it should be no surprise that growth is abysmal.

This is what happens in a corporate state.  Past winners retain huge amounts of power in the government long after their companies have become senescent in the marketplace.  Politicians argue for the power to pick winners and losers in the economy but generally use it only to protect current competitors and stand in the way of progress.

A Great Example Why Peak Oil Theory Has Never Been That Compelling to Me

As I have written a number of times, reserves numbers for oil are not based on the total oil though to be under the ground, but the total oil thought to be under the ground that is economically recoverable at expected prices.  Changes in technology and/or oil price expectations change the amount of reserves, even without the discovery of a single new field.

Oil companies have known about the formation, and the oil trapped in it, since at least the 1950s. But they couldn't get more than a trickle of oil from the dense, nonporous rock.

That began to change in the early 2000s, when companies in Texas began using new drilling techniques in a similar formation near Fort Worth known as the Barnett Shale. They would drill down thousands of feet and then turn and go horizontally through the gas-bearing rock"”allowing a single well to reach more gas. Then they would blast huge volumes of water down the well to crack open the rocks and free the gas trapped inside.

The real shift has come in the past two years as companies honed drilling techniques, leading to bigger wells, faster drilling and lower costs. Marathon, for example, last year took an average of 24 days to drill a well, down from 56 days in 2006."

So apparently, oil production in North Dakota may soon pass that of Alaska, though this is more due to the fact that production can be ramped up in North Dakota without an act of Congress, which is not the case in Alaska.

The largest threat to oil prices and production remains not peak oil, but the fact that most of the world's best reserves rest in the hands of state-run oil companies whose competence and willingness to invest for the long-term is sometimes in question.

This Can't Possibly End Well

Forget for a moment the real scientific questions about the future magnitude of anthropogenic global warming.  Just imagine the abuse of this new proposed statute, given that incredibly difficult nature of causality in a complex, chaotic system like climate:

An under-the-radar provision in a House climate bill would give plaintiffs who claim to be victims of global warming a way to sue the federal government or businesses, according to a report Friday in The Washington Times.

The Times reported that Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts added it into a bill they authored.

The provision, which was just released, reportedly would set grounds for plaintiffs who has "suffered" or expect to suffer "harm" attributable at least in part to government inaction. The provision defines "harm" as "any effect of air pollution (including climate change)," according to the Times. Plaintiffs could seek up to $75,000 in damages a year from the government, with $1.5 million being the maximum total payout.

Remember that it was just weeks ago that the President of the United States blamed flooding in North Dakota on global warming.  If flood damage that resulted from a colder-than-average winter and near record snowfall can be blamed on anthropogenic global warming, then anything can.

Will Mexico Follow Chavez?

As in Venezuela, the Mexican government is facing the problem of declining oil production in a state whose national government relies on oil revenues for much of its operating funds.  And, like Venezuela, this is a problem that is self-imposed. 

The ignorance with which most of the media writes about oil reserves is staggering.  Most writers fall in the trap of talking about oil reserves as if they are big pools underground that will eventually be sucked dry and have a fixed recoverable size.  The reality is that the amount of oil that can be pumped from any field depends greatly on how much capital investment one puts into the field.  In the short term, wells even in perfectly viable fields will start to fall off in production unless they are reworked every so often.  Longer term, addition of pumps, water/steam/CO2 injection, drilling deeper, etc. all can greatly extend the life of fields.  There are fields in Texas just as old as those in Mexico which continue to be reinvigorated by investment.  And we continue to find new fields in the US through exploration investment, and would find more if the government did not restrict the most promising areas from exploration.  (by the way, this is why much of the peak oil analysis is BS)

The problem, then, is not that Mexican oil reservoirs are going dry but that the amount of investment required to keep them producing is rising as they age (the converse of the law of diminishing returns is the law of increasing capital investment requirement).  And the Mexican government, like that in Venezuela, is committed to siphoning off oil revenues for short term political spending and to provide gas at below-market pricing rather than reinvest the money in the fields.  In this context, the Mexican government is seeking foreign investment to help bail them out of this problem, while the socialist elements want to keep foreign corporations out.

For once, I agree with the socialists.  I see no reason why US oil companies should venture back into a country that still celebrates as a holiday the day in 1938 when the Mexican government stole the assets of US oil companies.

Postscript: 
special recognition to the AZ Republic writer who gratuitously tried to justify nationalization of assets owned by US citizens by claiming that the US oil companies essentially asked for it by "evading Mexican taxes and paying meager salaries."  The entire history of the third world oil industry can be written as follows:
1.  US companies invest huge amounts of capital and know-how to build oil industry
2.  Once things are producing, local government steals it all
3.  Oil fields go into extended decline due to short-term focused and incompetent government management
4.  US companies invited back int to invest huge amounts of know-how and capital
5. repeat

Update: Here is a great example of why peak oil analysis is probably flawed -- such analysis assumes that the size of reserves are static.  But in fact they are not.  They can vary greatly with the price of oil, because the size of the recoverable reserves, as discussed above, depends on how much one is willing to invest in recovering them and that depends on price.

In the next 30 days the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) will release
a new report giving an accurate resource assessment of the Bakken Oil
Formation that covers North Dakota and portions of South Dakota and
Montana. With new horizontal drilling technology it is believed that
from 175 to 500 billion barrels of recoverable oil are held in this
200,000 square mile reserve that was initially discovered in 1951. The
USGS did an initial study back in 1999 that estimated 400 billion
recoverable barrels were present but with prices bottoming out at $10 a
barrel back then the report was dismissed because of the higher cost of
horizontal drilling techniques that would be needed, estimated at
$20-$40 a barrel.

The Irrational Voter

Much has been made of late of the irrational voter, a voter who demands of politicians government economic measures that actually are not in his/her long-term best interest.   For example, a large number of voters want the government to shut down NAFTA, thinking this is in their economic best interest when in fact the evidence is pretty strong that for most of them, it is not.   

What is a gung-ho but thoughtful politician to do?  Do you listen to your experts, who council free trade, or do you pander to the masses?  Do you stick by our trading allies, or do you begin your kindler-gentler foreign policy by unilaterally abrogating treaties with our neighbors. 

Well, if you are the modern presidential candidate, you tell the masses what they want to hear, and then tell our allies you are just kidding.

Update: Cato brings us a great example from North Dakota

Sustainability Through Poverty

In my previous post on urban planning, I mentioned the increasingly popular idea of sustainability through povertyDon Boudreaux responds to the currently hip idea that somehow we need to revert to a more local economy with local food production.  This is absolutely absurd, for any number of reasons.  I'll just list three:

  • It doesn't work.  The total energy used for transport, say of food products, is a small percentage of the total energy used in the total production process.  The energy transportation budget is generally smaller than efficiency gains from scale or from optimizing location.  For example, a wheat farm in Arizona on 50 acres is going to use a lot more energy (and water, and fertilizer, and manpower) than a wheat farm on a thousand acres in North Dakota.
  • It leads to poverty.  Our modern society, our lifestyles, our lifespans all are a result of the fantastic increases in efficiency we have reaped from the division of labor.  A push to localize all production reverses the division of labor.  Many products, such as semiconductors, become outright impossible on a local scale.
  • It leads to starvation.  It is hard for us to imagine famine in the wealthy nations of the world.  Crop failures in one part of the world are replaced with crops from other parts of the world.  But as recently as the 19th century, France, then the wealthiest nation on earth but reliant on local agriculture, experienced frequent crop failures and outright starvation.

More on the food-miles stupidity here.  And an interesting study that shows that processed foods greatly reduces waste and trash to landfills was here.

Update: More on food miles here at Reason

Manufacturing Jobs Myth

From TJIC:

"America cannot be great if most of its workers are in the service
sector"¦" Senator Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) declares in his book
"Take This Job and Ship It,""¦

This typical reading of historic manufacturing and service jobs stats is ignorant.  My first rule of quoting a statistic, which I admit I sometimes violate, is to make sure you understand how it is calculated.  Nothing could be truer than with manufacturing jobs statistics.

The best way to illustrate this is by example.  Let's takean automobile assembly plant circa 1955.  Typically, a large manufacturing plant would have a staff to do everything the factory needed.  They had people on staff to clean the bathrooms, to paint the walls, and to perform equipment maintenance.  The people who did these jobs were all classified as manufacturing workers, because they worked in a manufacturing plant.  Since 1955, this plant has likely changed the way it staffs these type jobs.  It still cleans the bathrooms, but it has a contract with an outside janitorial firm who comes in each night to do so.  It still paints the walls, but has a contract with a painting contractor to do so.  And it still needs the equipment to be maintained, but probably has contracts with many of the equipment suppliers to do the maintenance.

So, today, there might be the exact same number of people in the factory cleaning bathrooms and maintaining equipment, but now the government classifies them as "service workers" because they work for a service company, rather than manufacturing workers.  Nothing has really changed in the work that people do, but government stats will show a large shift from manufacturing to service employment.

Is this kind of statistical shift really worth complaining about?  By complaining about the shift of jobs from manufacturing to services, you are first and foremost complaining about a chimera that is an artifact of how the statistics are compiled.  So if we were to correct for this, would manufacturing jobs be up or down?  I don't know, but given on the wailing about "shrinkage" of manufacturing in the US, I bet you would not have guessed this:

Considering total goods production (including things like mining and
agriculture in addition to manufacturing), real goods production as a
share of real (inflation-adjusted) Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is
close to its all-time high.

  • In the second quarter of 2003, real goods
    production was 39.2 percent of real GDP; the highest annual figure ever
    recorded was 40 percent in 2000. See the Figure.

  • By
    contrast, in the "good old days" of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the
    United States actually produced far fewer goods as a share of total
    output, reaching 35.5 percent in the midst of World War II.

So manufacturing is close to an all time high as a percentage of the economy.  There is absolutely no way anyone who looks at this graph can, with a straight face, talk about the "shrinking" of America's manufacturing sector.   If manufacturing employment is somehow down vs. some historical "norm", then that means that manufacturing productivity has gone up faster than service productivity.  So what?  And to the extent there has been a shift, as TJIC writes, who cares?

Yeah, we hates the service sector.

Who needs lawn care, child care, food preparation, legal
services, stockbrokers, professors, blogs, actors, and contract
software engineers ?

Let's get everyone involved in good 19th century atoms-and-mortar activities like raising corn and smelting iron.

Sure, some flakes argue "those are jobs for machines", but we
aim to recapture the glory of our national greatness, when men were
men, women were women, America was strong, and the average life lasted
50 years and ended with pneumonia, a threshing accident, or a crushing
injury.

The same populists who complain today about the shift from manufacturing to services complained a hundred years ago about the shift from agriculture to manufacturing.  And I am sure all of us would much rather be waking up with the sun each day to push a plow.