Posts tagged ‘prices’

Why Aren't The Chinese Ticked Off About Subsidizing American Consumers? And Why Aren't We Happy About It?

Ten years ago, we published an editorial from our Chinese sister publication Panda Blog.  Though some of the details of their government's financial actions have changed since then, the gist of it is still correct -- the Chinese government still engages in actions that they call "export promotion" and President Trump calls "currency manipulation".  So I think this editorial from the perspective of the Chinese consumer is still relevant:

Our Chinese government continues to pursue a policy of export promotion, patting itself on the back for its trade surplus in manufactured goods with the United States.  The Chinese government does so through a number of avenues, including:

  • Limiting yuan convertibility, and keeping the yuan's value artificially low
  • Imposing strict capital controls that limit dollar reinvestment to low-yield securities like US government T-bills
  • Selling exports below cost and well below domestic prices (what the Americans call "dumping") and subsidizing products for export

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

This policy of raping the domestic market in pursuit of exports and trade surpluses was one that Japan followed in the seventies and eighties.  It sacrificed its own consumers, protecting local producers in the domestic market while subsidizing exports.  Japanese consumers had to live with some of the highest prices in the world, so that Americans could get some of the lowest prices on those same goods.  Japanese customers endured limited product choices and a horrendously outdated retail sector that were all protected by government regulation, all in the name of creating trade surpluses.  And surpluses they did create.  Japan achieved massive trade surpluses with the US, and built the largest accumulation of foreign exchange (mostly dollars) in the world.  And what did this get them?  Fifteen years of recession, from which the country is only now emerging, while the US economy happily continued to grow and create wealth in astonishing proportions, seemingly unaware that is was supposed to have been "defeated" by Japan.

We at Panda Blog believe it is insane for our Chinese government to continue to chase the chimera of ever-growing foreign exchange and trade surpluses.  These achieved nothing lasting for Japan and they will achieve nothing for China.  In fact, the only thing that amazes us more than China's subsidize-Americans strategy is that the Americans seem to complain about it so much.  They complain about their trade deficits, which are nothing more than a reflection of their incredible wealth.  They complain about the yuan exchange rate, which is set today to give discounts to Americans and price premiums to Chinese.  They complain about China buying their government bonds, which does nothing more than reduce the costs of their Congress's insane deficit spending.  They even complain about dumping, which is nothing more than a direct subsidy by China of lower prices for American consumers.

And, incredibly, the Americans complain that it is they that run a security risk with their current trade deficit with China!  This claim is so crazy, we at Panda Blog have come to the conclusion that it must be the result of a misdirection campaign by CIA-controlled American media.  After all, the fact that China exports more to the US than the US does to China means that by definition, more of China's economic production is dependent on the well-being of the American economy than vice-versa.  And, with nearly a trillion dollars in foreign exchange invested heavily in US government bonds, it is China that has the most riding on the continued stability of the American government, rather than the reverse.  American commentators invent scenarios where the Chinese could hurt the American economy, which we could, but only at the cost of hurting ourselves worse.  Mutual Assured Destruction is alive and well, but today it is not just a feature of nuclear strategy but a fact of the global economy.

Why We Need School Choice, in One Chart

In 1973, when Ford was rolling out such losers as the Pinto and the Mustang II, would the cars have been any better if the Ford designers had, say, a budget twice as large?  Or would the same people have continued to roll out the same bad cars, just more expensively, until competition from Japan and Europe forced American car makers to get their act together?

If you have not been to a Sears store lately, and you have lots of company.  If you do not shop at Sears, think about why.  Now, imagine that Sears were to double the number of employees in their local store.  Would that change your mind and suddenly send you into the store to shop?  No?

There are times when everything about an organization is broken -- its management, its culture, its strategy.  These organizations may have perfectly good people in them -- I have no doubt that the folks at Ford in the 1970's were capable people, as are the employees at my local Sears store.   I call all these factors "organizational DNA".  This is from years ago about a corporate example, but the same is true of any organization:

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I don't think they would ever get there.  ...

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

I would argue that public schools in many parts of the country are in this situation.  Any organization can become senescent with value-killing DNA, but this process happens much more rapidly when there is no competition, as has been the case for public schools which have enjoyed a virtual monopoly enforced by the government (you can go to a competing school but you still have to pay for the government school you are not using).

If I am right, then the last thing you would expect to help is simply pouring more money into the same management, the same culture, the same organizational DNA.  But that is exactly what we have done.  That has been our lead strategy for 35 years, and still remains the preferred strategy of the Left.  Via Mark Perry:

Despite this history, President Obama's strategy was to throw even more money at the schools, and again it did not work:

One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.

Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program — the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools — than in schools that did not.

The Education Department published the findings on the website of its research division on Wednesday, hours before President Obama’s political appointees walked out the door.

“We’re talking about millions of kids who are assigned to these failing schools, and we just spent several billion dollars promising them things were going to get better,” said Andy Smarick, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has long been skeptical that the Obama administration’s strategy would work. “Think of what all that money could have been spent on instead.”

One will hear that criticism of public schools in unfair because they have all these great teachers in them.  Examples will be cited.   I say:  "Exactly!"  That is why change is needed.  Public schools are hiring good people and putting them in an organization and system where they deliver poor results.  Let's liberate this talent.

By the way, one of the misconceptions about school choice is that it necessarily means the end of public schools.  I find this an unlikely outcome, at least in most areas.  Competition from Japan meant that Ford lost some of its customers to Toyota, but it also meant that Ford became a lot better.




Trade and Consumer Advocacy, Part 2

Yesterday, I suggested we needed a new, real consumer advocacy organization to replace the economically ignorant Nader-led PIRG organizations.  The reason is that it is time that consumers banded together and resisted Trump's protectionism, since such protection generally protects a few politically favored unions and corporations while raising prices and reducing choice for all consumers.

A couple of hours after I posted that, the absolutely indispensable Mark Perry brings us a great post on academic research about how protectionist actions nearly always cost consumers more than they help producers.

The empirical evidence above helps us to understand a very important economic lesson about international trade, call it “protectionist math” — and that mathematical reality is that the costs of protectionism imposed on American consumers in the form of higher prices and a reduction in trade will always be greater than the benefits generated for the protected industries and the workers in those industries. And here’s another part of that “protectionist math” that helps us answer the question: Sure, we can save US jobs with protectionist trade policies, but how much does it cost consumers for every job saved with protectionist trade policy, and is that cost worth it? Economic analysis and the empirical evidence presented above suggest that it’s very, very expensive to save US jobs with protectionism — more than half-a-million dollars on average per year per job in 2016 dollars (see chart above). If Trump enacts protectionist policies that save $50,000 per year US factory jobs but at a cost to consumer of $500,000 annually for each job saved, that’s a surefire formula to “Make America Expensive and Poor Again,” not “great again.”

I won't reprint his chart, but he has detailed results form a number of academic studies in different industries that back this statement up.

My point about needing a new consumer advocacy group was a little tongue in cheek, but here is Perry quoting from a study at the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis a number of years ago (back during the last wave of protectionism, which was based on Japan rather than China bashing).

The primary reason for these costly protectionist policies relies on a public choice argument. The desire to influence trade policy arises from the fact that trade policy changes benefit some groups, while harming others. Consumers are harmed by protectionist legislation; however, ignorance, small individual costs, and the high costs of organizing consumers prevent the consumers from being an effective force. On the other hand, workers and other resource owners in an industry are more likely to be effective politically because of their relative ease of organizing and their individually large and easy-to-identify benefits. Politicians interested in re-election will most likely respond to the demands for protectionist legislation of such an interest group.

Trump is Going to Destroy Economic Growth If We Don't Find Ways to Block Him -- We Need A Real Consumer Advocacy Organization

As an example, from the WSJ today:

Auto executives typically spend the end of the year prepping for product debuts and thinking up ways to spark sales.

This time around, Detroit’s chiefs devoted considerable time to trying to figure out how to deal with the nation’s new commander in chief. Union bosses are being called in to consult on how to reshuffle factory work, board members are trying to figure out who has friends in President Donald Trump ’s new administration, and task forces have been created to monitor his Twitter account.

At a dinner party during the Detroit auto show earlier this month, Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Mark Fields said he reread Mr. Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” over the holidays. He first read it in the 1980s, but wants to better understand the new occupant of the Oval Office.

American companies, several of which have been scolded by Mr. Trump, often via Twitter, are suddenly grappling with a new, unpredictable force in their operations. Barbs have included the price the Pentagon pays for Lockheed Martin Corp. jets and whether Carrier Corp. assembles furnaces in Indiana. AT&T Inc. Chief Executive Randall Stephenson recently met with Mr. Trump, who had expressed concerns about the telecom giant’s proposed purchase of Time Warner Inc.

In other words, rather than worrying about pleasing consumers, auto companies are spending all their time figuring out how to please the occupant of the White House.  This sounds more like corporate life in Venezuela than the US.  It is absurd that Trump claims to be about reducing regulation, and then personally intervenes to micro-manage corporate division-of-labor and sourcing decision.

We need new consumer activist organizations.  The classic ones, like Nader's PIRG, are captured by progressives and economic illiterates.  Economic nationalism and tariffs and reduced immigration and border taxes and elimination of free trade treaties are all direct assaults on the American consumer.  Do all the Midwestern folks who voted for Trump ostensibly because they are struggling economically really want 20% higher prices in their Wal-Mart?

Postscript:  By the way, for a moment let's accept this awful situation.  Consider women's groups (as discussed here) and their response to Trump and Ford's response.  Which is more likely to succeed?  If abortion were my #1 issue (as it is for my wife), I would be seriously concerned that women's groups were using all the wrong tactics.  Trump is petulant.  He does not back down based on protests, he moves you up the target list.   This is a terrible, awful character flaw, but it is reality.  If women's groups had calmly sat down with Trump in a back room and worked out a deal (with a man who is a lifelong social liberal) they would probably be further ahead.

Capitalism vs. Socialism

This is a good video about various voting mechanisms for handling voting between more than 2 choices.

VotingParadoxes from Paul stepahin on Vimeo.  Via Alex Tabarrok

The video is about voting, but to make things simple it discusses voting among people for a single ice cream flavor they all have to share.   I don't think this video was meant to have any broader application beyond just highlighting basic paradoxes and strategies well-known in voting theory.   To me, though, this video highlights the strong advantages of capitalism over socialism in at least three ways

  1. Forcing one-size-fits-all socialist and authoritarian solutions sucks vs. allowing individuals to make choices based on their personal preferences regardless of other preferences in the group.  While the video discusses a variety of voting approaches for forcing everyone into a single choice, all of these result in a lot of folks who don't get their first preference.  Obamacare is a great example, where product features have been standardized, essentially through a voting process (though indirectly) and huge numbers of people are unhappy.
  2. The video fails to discuss one shortcoming of simple yes/no voting, and that is degree of preference.  In the real world, we both may prefer vanilla over chocolate, but your preference might be pretty close whereas I might be so allergic to chocolate that eating it will kill me.  Socialist and authoritarian approaches don't have a solution for this, but market capitalism does, as prices signal not only our preference but our degree of preference as well.  The real market for ice cream is a preference expression process orders of magnitude more sophisticated than voting.
  3. It is almost impossible for even an autocrat who legitimately wants to maximize well-being to do so, because the mass of individual preferences are impossible to encompass in any one mind.  Towards the end of the video, it became harder and harder for a person to synthesize a best approach from the preference data, and this was just for 10 people.  Imagine 300 million preferences.

Your Good Intentions Mean Virtually Nothing

I am exhausted with folks, particularly on the Progressive Left, judging themselves and each other based on their intentions.  Your intentions mean virtually nothing.  I suppose it is better to have good intentions than bad, but beyond that results, particularly in the public policy arena, are what should matter.  And the results of most Progressive well-intentioned legislation are generally terrible.  For example, as I wrote earlier today, poverty in this country is mainly caused by lack of work rather than low wage hours, but Progressives preen over their good intentions in introducing higher and higher minimum wages that will only serve to reduce the work hours of low-skilled poor people.

Via Mark Perry comes this great article on Progressive good intentions in Seattle collapsing into rubble.  It does not except well, so I recommend you check it out, but I will summarize it.

Begin with a libertarian goal that should be agreeable to most Progressives -- people should be able to live the way they wish.  Add a classic Progressive goal -- we need more low income housing.  Throw in a favored Progressive lifestyle -- we want to live in high density urban settings without owning a car.

From this is born the great idea of micro-housing, or one room apartments averaging less than 150 square feet.  For young folks, they are nicer versions of the dorms they just left at college, with their own bathroom and kitchenette.

Ahh, but then throw in a number of other concerns of the Progressive Left, as administered by a city government in Seattle dominated by the Progressive Left.  We don't want these poor people exploited!  So we need to set minimum standards for the size and amenities of apartments.  We need to make sure they are safe!  So they must go through extensive design reviews.  We need to respect the community!  So existing residents are given the ability to comment or even veto projects.  We can't trust these evil corporations building these things on their own!  So all new construction is subject to planning and zoning.  But we still need to keep rents low!  So maximum rents are set at a number below what can be obtained, particularly given all these other new rules.

As a result, new micro-housing development has come to a halt.  A Progressive lifestyle achieving Progressive goals is killed by Progressive regulatory concerns and fears of exploitation.  How about those good intentions, where did they get you?

The moral of this story comes back to the very first item I listed, that people should be able to live the way they wish.  Progressives feel like they believe this, but in practice they don't.  They don't trust individuals to make decisions for themselves, because their core philosophy is dominated by the concept of exploitation of the powerless by the powerful, which in a free society means that they view individuals as idiotic, weak-willed suckers who are easily led to their own doom by the first clever corporation that comes along.

Postscript:  Here is a general lesson for on housing affordability:  If you give existing homeowners and residents the right (through the political process, through zoning, through community standards) to control how other people use their property, they are always, always, always going to oppose those other people doing anything new with that property.  If you destroy property rights in favor of some sort of quasi-communal ownership, as is in the case in San Francisco, you don't get some beautiful utopia -- you get stasis.  You don't get progressive experimentation, you get absolute conservatism (little c).  You get the world frozen in stone, except for prices that continue to rise as no new housing is built.  Which interestingly, is a theme of one of my first posts over a decade ago when I wrote that Progressives Don't Like Capitalism Because They Are Too Conservative.

Postscript #2:  So, following the logic above, one can think of building restrictions and zoning as a form of cronyism.  Classic cronyism is providing subsidies to politically favored companies and restricting the ability of new competitors to arise to compete with them, granting them an effective monopoly and the ability to jack up their prices.  So what do we do with housing?  We give massive subsidies to home-owners and restrict competition from new housing that might reduce their home value, thus granting current homeowners an effective monopoly and the ability to jack up their prices.  I challenge anyone to tell me that rising home prices in Palo Alto are not driven by the exact same government actions for favored constituents as are rising prices for Epipens.

Postscript #3:  I will ask a question using Progressive terminology -- you were worried about these young renters and their power imbalance vs. development companies and landlords.  So how much more powerful are they now with a thousand fewer rental units on the market?  Consumers have power when supply is plentiful.  Anything done to reduce supply is going to reduce consumer power.

Why Are We Making It So Hard For the Chinese to Provide Us With Lower-Cost Aluminum?

This WSJ article's hook is a huge cache of raw aluminum photographed in the Mexican desert.  American aluminum manufacturers claim that this is Chinese aluminum being illegally transshipped through Mexico to get a lower tariff rate.

The U.S. Commerce Department says it is investigating the Mexican aluminum’s origin as part of a slew of trade complaints by the U.S. metals industry against China, many of which include allegations of transshipping.

China’s booming industrial production has reordered global markets, few more dramatically than aluminum. Fueled by access to inexpensive electricity and tax breaks, Chinese aluminum output doubled between 2010 and 2015. With local demand slowing,more of it was sent to the U.S., which was importing 40% of its aluminum by 2015—up from only 14% in 2010.

By the end of 2016, only five aluminum smelters will be operating in the U.S., down from 23 in 2000.

Alcoa Inc., the largest American aluminum maker, is splitting in two, isolating its profitable parts-making units from its troubled raw-aluminum operations. Alcoa Chief Executive Klaus Kleinfeld last year said illegitimate Chinese exports were “the major driver” of lower aluminum prices.

I suppose to an incumbent who has convinced himself that he has a God-given right to his historic market share, new sources of competition are always "illegitimate."  But through the whole article I kept asking myself, why are we forcing these folks in China to jump through so many hoops just to bring us lower-cost aluminum?  Given how fundamental aluminum is to almost every manufactured product today, we should be welcoming them as heroes, not forcing them to play silly games in the Mexican desert just to deliver their product at the price they want to sell it for.

It turns out that all this government effort to "protect" us from lower cost aluminum is to support an American aluminum industry that is tiny, maybe 2% of world production.


The industry would argue that the lower prices of Chinese imports are "illegitimate" in part because the sales price in the US is subsidized by Chinese taxpayers.  To which I answer, "so what?"  Or actually, to which I answer, "yay!"  If another country's taxpayers want to pay higher taxes so that they can provide valuable raw materials to US industry at lower prices, why in the heck would we want to stop them?

Perfect Example of Blaming the Free Market for Government Interventions

Hillary Clinton, along with many politicians and most of the media, is arguing that the recent large price increase in Epipens is some sort of market failure requiring government intervention to solve.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton jumped into the fray over rapid price increases for the EpiPen, a life-saving injection for people who are having severe allergic reactions.

Mrs. Clinton called the recent price hikes of the EpiPen “outrageous, and just the latest example of a company taking advantage of its consumers.”

In a written statement calling for Mylan to scale back EpiPen prices, Clinton added, “It’s wrong when drug companies put profits ahead of patients, raising prices without justifying the value behind them.”

Why aren't similar government interventions required to curb greed in the pricing of paint, or tacos, or toilet paper?  Because the markets are allowed to operate and competitors know that if they raise prices too high, their existing competitors will take sales from them, and new competitors may enter the market.  The reason this is not happening with Epipens is that the Federal government blocks other companies from competing with Mylan for the Epipen business with a tortuous and expensive and pointless regulatory process (perhaps given even more teeth because Mylan's CEO has a lot of political pull).  The MSNBC article fails to even mention why Mylan has no competition, and in fact essentially assumes that Epipens are a natural monopoly and should be treated as such, despite the fact that there are 3 or 4 different companies that have tried (and failed) to clear the regulatory process over the last several years with competing products.  Perhaps these other companies would have been smarter to appoint a Senator's daughter to a senior management position.

Hillary Clinton is proposing a dumb government intervention to try to fix some of the symptoms of a previous dumb government intervention.  It would be far better to work the root cause instead.

Postscript:  Credit Vox with the stupid argument of the day:  

Other countries do this for drugs and medical care – but not other products, like phones or cars – because of something fundamentally unique about medication: If consumers can’t afford the product, they could have worse odds of living. In some cases, they face quite certain odds of dying. So most governments have decided that keeping these products affordable is a good reason to introduce more government regulation.

Hmm, let me pick a slightly different example -- food.  I will substitute that into the Vox comment.   I think it would be perfectly correct to say that there is not price regulation of food in the US, and that "If consumers can’t afford [food], they could have worse odds of living. In some cases, they face quite certain odds of dying."  In fact, the best place today to face high odds of dying due to lack of food is Venezuela, where the government heavily regulates food prices in the way Vox wished to regulate drugs prices.

China Doesn't Kill American Jobs, Politicians Do

I am simply exhausted with the notion that seems to have taken over both political parties that trade with China is somehow the source of US economic woes.

Remember that voluntary trade can't happen unless both parties are benefiting from each trade.  Remember the masses of academic evidence that the (largely hard to see) benefits of trade in terms of lower costs and more choice tend to be greater than the (easier to see) job losses in a few trade-affected industries.  But even if none of that is compelling to you, consider that our trade deficit with China is just 2% of GDP.  It's almost a rounding error.

If politicians want to know why lower-skilled laborers struggle to find employment, they need to look past imports from China and Mexican immigration and look at their own policies that are making it more and more expensive for businesses to hire people in this country.   I have written about this many times before, but some of the most prominent include:

  • minimum wage laws, rising to $15 an hour in many parts of the country, and increasingly draconian overtime rules, both of which substantially raise the cost of hiring someone.
  • minimum benefit laws, including expensive health care requirements in Obamacare and a myriad of other state-level requirements such as mandatory paid sick leave or family leave
  • payroll taxes that act as sales taxes on labor  -- we understand that cigarette taxes are supposed to reduce cigarette purchases but don't understand that payroll taxes reduce purchases of labor?
  • employment regulations, such as chair laws and break laws in California, that make employing people more expensive and risky
  • employer liability laws, that make employers financially responsible for any knuckleheaded thing their employees do, even when these actions violate company policy (e.g. making racist or sexist statements)**
  • laws that make hiring far more risk, including those that limit the ability to do due diligence on potential employees (e.g. ban the box) and those that limit the ability of employers to fire poor performing employees.

And this is just employment law -- we could go on all day with regulations that make life difficult for lower income workers, such as the numerous laws that restrict the housing stock and drive up housing prices and rents for these same folks who are struggling to find a job.

Let's say you live in California.  Who has killed more jobs in your state -- China or the California legislature?  The answer is no contest.   The California legislature wins the job destruction race in a landslide.   While California's high-tech community enjoys a symbiotic relationship with China that has created immense wealth, the California legislature works overtime to make sure low-skilled workers in the state don't benefit.


**Postscript:  Of all the factors here, I won't say that this is the largest but I think it is the most underrated and least discussed.  But think about it.  If you are going to be personally financially libel for ignorant, insensitive, or uncouth remarks made by your employees, even when you have explicitly banned such behavior in company rules and don't personally tolerate it, how likely are you going to be to hire a high school dropout without a good work history to interact with customers?

Another Problem With the National Minimum Wage

Beyond the basic lunacy of attempting to help the poor by mandating that they sell their labor for more than most businesses are willing to pay, I am reminded of another problem with proposals for a higher national minimum wage.

This problem is related to one that is seldom discussed in the context of most economic statistics, and that is the differences in the cost of living in different parts of the country.   The Tax Foundation looks at the cost of living by state, showing the value of $100 ($100 is worth more in states with lower prices and cost of living, since one's money will go further).  Magenta states are lower cost of living, yellow states are higher.

$100 Map-state-01

I have written before that not taking this into account messes up our view of things like poverty and income by state.  Well-being of folks in high cost states like California and New York are often exaggerated, as is poverty in states like those in the deep south.

But another issue is that this large variation in cost of living changes the effective value of a minimum wage.  Based on these numbers, a $15 minimum wage in Washington DC becomes, effectively, a $20.43 minimum wage in Mississippi.  Employment effects are likely to be much worse in these lower costs states.  Since the higher cost states all vote Democrat in Presidential elections, and the lower cost states all vote Republican, one wonders if this is a bug or a feature of Democrat-proposed $15 minimum wage plans.

Progressivism is Not Caring. It is Authoritarianism

The city of Seatac (a small area of land around the Seattle-Tacoma Airport) gained national attention a while back for passing a $15 minimum wage.  Many other groups, including the city of Seattle itself, as well as this year's Democratic platform committee, cited the Seatac example as an impetus for higher minimum wages everywhere.

In today's politics, there is no better way for a Leftish politician to virtue-signal than to advocate for a $15 minimum wage.  It is a classic case of a government law that helps a few easy to identify people and hurts a whole bunch of people in ways that are hard to attribute to the law, such as reduced employment for low-skill workers and higher prices for consumers.

So the City of Seatac has been taking a victory lap over the last year, patting itself on its back for how caring it is of its citizens.  Oh, and it has also been doing this:

A three-month-long civil trial revealed the shadowy subterfuge behind a secret land grab that was orchestrated by the city of SeaTac, replete with backroom deals, baldfaced deceptions, and a mayor intent on driving Somali refugees from the neighborhood.

The aim of it all: to wrestle 4.23 acres of prime real estate from entrepreneurs Gerry and Kathy Kingen, according to the judge and jury who heard the case.

The West Seattle couple sued the city and won, proving in court that SeaTac officials intentionally sabotaged their development plans, strong-armed them into giving up their property and then violated the state’s Public Records Act by withholding city emails and documents proving the deception.

The trial judge also concluded the former SeaTac mayor wanted condos built on the site, believing they would price out Somalis who had moved into “his neighborhood.”...

In March 2004, K&S Developments [the Kingen's investment vehicle] began working with SeaTac’s planning department to get approval for [a] park-and-fly, and city officials “voiced support and encouragement” for the proposal. The judge noted there “was never any public opposition” to the plan.

But unbeknown to the Kingens, SeaTac’s planning director, city manager and other staff decided in late 2005 they didn’t want K&S to build the park-and-fly because it would create competition for a park-and-fly the city wanted to build about a mile south at South 176th Street.

So in February 2006, city staff “devised a secret plan” to get the City Council to pass a moratorium designed to kill the Kingens’ park-and-fly project, the judge wrote. After learning of the permanent ban, Gerry Kingen met with members of the City Council and then-Mayor Gene Fisher, who “promised to make things right.”


The Corporate State, In One Chart

James Bessen has a terrific article in the Harvard Business Review on the estimated contribution to corporate profits of rent-seeking, or the acquisition of special favors, subsidies, and protections from the government that shelter a company from the normal competition of a free market.  Bessen argues that such rent-seeking is major explanatory factor for recent rises in corporate profits.


This topic will be a familiar one to Coyoteblog readers.   Show me a regulation and I will show you the large corporation that is able to use it to throttle competition.  I remember when everyone claimed the retail minimum wage was going to hurt Wal-Mart, but in fact Wal-Mart actually supported it because it was paying a higher wage than its smaller upstart competitors and thus the minimum wage would tend to hurt Wal-Mart's competition worse than it would be hurt.  Taxi service is one of the most regulated businesses in the country (at least in relation to the complexity of the business) and we are seeing just how much these regulations have supported taxi profits as we watch the taxi companies use the regulations to try to hammer Uber and Lyft.

According to Bessen, the effect is both large and on the rise:

I find that investments in conventional capital assets like machinery and spending on R&D together account for a substantial part of the rise in valuations and profits, especially during the 1990s. However, since 2000, political activity and regulation account for a surprisingly large share of the increase....

The pattern around the 1992 Cable Act is representative: I find that firms experiencing major regulatory change see their valuations rise 12% compared to closely matched control groups. Smaller regulatory changes are also associated with a subsequent rise in firm market values and profits.

This research supports the view that political rent seeking is responsible for a significant portion of the rise in profits. Firms influence the legislative and regulatory process and they engage in a wide range of activity to profit from regulatory changes, with significant success. Without further research, we cannot say for sure whether this activity is making the economy less dynamic and more unequal, but the magnitude of this effect certainly heightens those concerns.

Two characteristics make these changes particularly worrisome. First, the link between regulation and profits is highly concentrated in a small number of politically influential industries. Among non-financial corporations, most of the effect is accounted for by just five industries: pharmaceuticals/chemicals, petroleum refining, transportation equipment/defense, utilities, and communications. These industries comprise, in effect, a “rent seeking sector.” Concentration of political influence among a narrow group of firms means that those firms may skew policy for the entire economy. For example, the pharmaceutical industry has actively stymied efforts to address problems of patent trolls that affect many other industries.

I would add two other industries to this list -- medicine and legal.  The reason it likely does not show up in his study is that the returns in these businesses show up to individuals or small private firms.  But heavy regulation, and in particular a licensing process wherein one must get permission from the incumbents in order to compete with them, has always kept prices and returns in these businesses artificially high.

Note by the way that the breakpoint year of 2000 makes this a bipartisan issue, occurring in equal measure in Republican and Democratic Congresses and Presidencies.

And I don't think I need to remind folks, but both of our Presidential candidates are absolutely steeped in and committed to this cronyist, corporatist system

UK: The Kids Are All Right Post-Brexit

There has been a lot written about "chaos" in UK government and financial markets since the Brexit vote, so much so there are supposedly folks who voted for Brexit who want a do-over.

A few thoughts:

  • Short term changes in financial asset prices, like bank stock prices or currency futures, are largely irrelevant in the long-term.  The recent supposed "big drop" in US equities markets, for example, took the market all the way back to where it was in... March, barely 3 months ago.  You will see buying in these assets in the coming days and the drop of the last few days will be largely forgotten soon.   Financial markets don't react well to being surprised, but they will get over it.
  • I don't see how the UK and the pound are necessarily weaker post-Brexit.  The US is fine.  The Swiss are fine.  Heck, the Swiss have to constantly fight to keep their currency lower.
  • Unlike other EU nations, the majority of UK trade is with non-UK nations.  While trade with the EU will likely be on worse terms in the future (though the Swiss and Norwegians have pretty good deals), UK will be unshackled from the EU bureaucracy in negotiating new deals with the rest of the world.  If the US President had any vision whatsoever, he would already have offered the UK a free trade deal, rather than being petty and saying the UK goes to the back of the line for exiting a transnational body the US would never join itself.
  • Much of the "chaos" in British government can be traced 100% to the anti-Brexit folks.  The Anti-Brexit folks very explicitly refused to craft any Brexit contingency plans, using threats of post-Brexit chaos to try to up the pressure against the Brexit vote.  President Obama did the exact same thing with Obamacare, refusing to create contingency plans if the SCOTUS overturned key parts of the ACA, hoping to ratchet up pressure against that outcome.  Had their been at least the outlines of a plan, they would be checking down it right now.  Things I would do as PM on the trade front:  1.  Demand the Swiss deal from the EU for Britain.  2.  Approach major trading partners with offers of free trade deals.  A British commonwealth free trade zone is a great idea.

Minimum Wage Pits Employees vs. Customers, Not Employees vs. Management

This post earlier on the customer service downsides of the new salaried overtime rules got me thinking more broadly about the impact of minimum wage type laws.  Progressives justify such laws by saying that there is a power imbalance between management and employees, and that the government needs to have minimum wage laws to make up for the fact that employees lack power.

But from my experience in the service world, it is wrong to look at the situation as a power struggle between managers and employees.  It is much more correct to look at this as a power struggle between employees and customers.  Let me explain.

Service and retail firms tend to live on razor-thin margins.  Retailers typically live on single-digit profit margins, and those of companies like Wal-Mart are as low as 2% of revenues.  Our company in the service business has a similar experience, averaging profit margins of 3-5% of revenues over the last 10 years.

This is not an accident.  Most service and retail businesses depend on simple service-delivery models using relatively low-skilled workers.  There are many low-skilled workers in the world.  If a company were to start making huge profits with a service model using such workers, it would be easy for others to copy it and hire the same types of workers and undercut them on price.  Margins tend to get competed down to the bare minimum.

No matter how much progressives would like it to be so, when California raises its minimum wage, it probably is not going to come out of company margins, at least in the near term.  Over the 10 years from about 2013 to 2022, California will have raised its minimum wage over 87% from $8 an hour to $15.  Wages and costs like workers comp premiums that are tied to wages are about half my costs.  This means an 87% labor cost increase will increase my total costs 44%.  How is that going to come out of a 4% margin?  It is not.

There are really only two things we can do, individually or in combination.  First, we can raise prices 44%, just to try to stay even.  Of course, some customers will balk and stop buying, and then we will lose business and perhaps have to close (we have already closed over half our businesses in California for just this reason).  Or second, we could cut staff in half to keep wages under control.  Of course, this means customers get served much more poorly, which also may drive customers away.  Other companies like fast food restaurants have a third option of automation, replacing people with machines -- I wish we could do this but right now we have run out of ideas for automating bathroom cleaning and landscape work.

Hopefully, you can see what is going on here.  The real tension here is between employees and customers.  When the state mandates a minimum wage in low margin service businesses (such laws are largely irrelevant to high-margin technology companies and such), compliance is paid for by the customer, either in the form of higher prices or worse service or both.

The Customer Service Downside to the New Federal Overtime Rules

I and others have written a number of times about the many downsides to new Federal rules that will force most junior salaried managers to start punching a timeclock.

I run a service business and these rules affect us substantially.  Like many retail operations, we have hourly employees who work for a local manager who is salaried and generally earns less than the new $47,476 annual cutoff.   We are not entirely sure how we are going to comply, but in the near-term compliance will likely involve a combination of hard hour limits for managers, some devolution of manager tasks to minimum wage workers, and price increases to customers.  In the long-term, we may have to consolidate manager positions.

But there is one additional change that is almost certainly going to occur -- a reduction in customer service.  To understand why that is, you need to understand the retail and services world.

In the service world, sh*t happens.  The ice machine suddenly breaks.  An important worker just does not show up.  A customer complains that no one is cleaning the bathroom.  Because of razor thin margins, service work loads are carefully scheduled.  There simply is not a lot of slack.  So when something unusual happens, it is usually the local manager who takes up the slack.  They fix the problem, somehow, even if it means they have to clean the bathroom themselves.  Not one of my managers has bathroom cleaning as part of their duties, but every single one of them likely cleans bathrooms every month, because they are covering the performance gaps left by other employees.

When managers are subject to overtime, this changes.  We only get 40 hours a week of that person's time (at least at a reasonable rate) and so every hour must count.  Every hour must suddenly be carefully husbanded and spent only on value-added tasks, like balancing the register and merchandising the shelves.  We can't waste them on the manager covering for employee shortcomings.

So who will clean the bathroom when the employee assigned to do so fails?  Who will cover the second register when an employee just does not show up for work?  Who will expedite the ice machine replacement so customers don't have to go long without ice?  I don't know.  Maybe nobody.  Or at least nobody as long as prices charged to customers aren't raised substantially.

Postscript:  If you are not in retail or a service business, you may read this and say, "well, if you hired better workers, they would be more reliable and you wouldn't have to cover for them."  I have two responses.  First, only someone who never worked retail could say that.  People are individuals and have their own needs and lives, and those sometimes conflict with getting the job done, no matter how well we screen.

Second, let me tell a story from this last weekend when I was at the graduation ceremony for Amherst College.  Amherst could reasonably be considered among the 10 most selective schools in the nation.   It is consistently ranked as the #1 or #2 small liberal arts college in the nation.  This weekend they selected an outstanding student from this outstanding bunch to make a presentation at graduation.  In it, she told a story of never, ever being able to get to a certain class, that is held at 12:30 in the afternoon, on time.  She said she was late every single time.   This is supposedly one of the elite young people in the country who would never even consider accepting a "menial" service job with my company, but never-the-less can't get to a class on time.

Why Don't Progressives Use Their Power as Hedge Fund Customers to Challenge Hedge Fund Compensation?

Kevin Drum observes that the top 25 hedge fund managers earned $13 billion in total, including one hapless dude who made $250 million despite losing money and shutting down the fund.

I will say that I have always scratched my head over asset manager compensation.  The tradition is that they get paid as a percentage of assets managed, sometimes with a percentage of the profits as well but never taking a percentage of the losses.   Perhaps this made some sense with smaller pools of money, but today with huge pools of money, the same old percentages yield ludicrous compensation results.  I certainly understand why the managers would defend this compensation scheme, but why do customers accept it?

This reminds me of real estate broker compensation.  The tradition when I grew up is that the seller paid 6%, about half of which went to the seller's broker and half to the buyer's broker.  For years that 6% was etched in stone and no one broke ranks -- the agents were pretty good at maintaining the cartel, and the government helped by putting the force of law behind broker licensing that helped keep the agent supply down.  But as home prices kept increasing, people started noticing that while 6% of $100,000 may have made some sense as reasonable compensation, 6% of $2 million was absurd, especially since a $2 million home was not even close to 20x harder to sell.   So people, initially savvy high net worth folks, and later everyone, began negotiating the 6%.  I have negotiated this number on every home I have sold since the mid-1990s.

I am not really knowledgeable about the asset management business -- in some sense I have negotiated my commission by choosing to put all my money in low-fee Vanguard funds.  How does the asset management business hold the line on fees, particularly when they are in a business where it is so easy to measure their relative performance, and presumably pay them based on this performance?

Which got me to thinking about the customers of hedge funds.  Aren't many of these customers progressive or controlled by progressives?  Hedge funds have been very successful marketing to university endowments, non-profit foundations, and public pension funds -- aren't these institutions often controlled by progressives, or at least left-liberals?  Aren't a disproportionate share of the very high net worth Hollywood and billionaire types who invest in hedge funds also progressive or liberal?  Heck, Hillary Clinton's son-in-law ran a hedge fund until recently.  So why don't these folks get together and instead of worrying about whether their portfolios are invested in Israel or Exxon or some other progressive bette noir, why don't they agree to a set of principles as to how they are going to pay for their asset management services in the future, and stick to these?  I say that progressives should get together, because they are politically passionate about this, but I can't think of any good reason why good libertarians or conservatives wouldn't happily join in to reduce their fees.

I understand that to the extent that there are black swan hedge funds that beat the market year in and year out, these folks will be hard to challenge as they can probably write their own terms.  But for the other 99% of hedge funds, why not use the power progressives already have as customers before we start talking about various government hammers.

PS-  I will put my two cents in.  I think the new Mother Jones site design is awful.

The Virtues of Short-Selling

Is there anything that rankles populists who are "anti-speculator" more than the ability to short stocks?  From time to time countries that are upset about falling markets will ban short-selling.  But I have defended stock (and other asset shorting) as a critical market mechanism that helps to limit damaging bubbles.  I wrote waaaaaay back in 2008, after the US temporarily banned short selling of certain assets:

At the start of the bubble, a particular asset (be it an equity or a commodity like oil) is owned by a mix of people who have different expectations about future price movements.  For whatever reasons, in a bubble, a subset of the market develops rapidly rising expectations about the value of the asset.  They start buying the asset, and the price starts rising.  As the price rises, and these bulls buy in, folks who owned the asset previously and are less bullish about the future will sell to the new buyers.  The very fact of the rising price of the asset from this buying reinforces the bulls' feeling that the sky is the limit for prices, and bulls buy in even more.

Let's fast forward to a point where the price has risen to some stratospheric levels vs. the previous pricing as well as historical norms or ratios.  The ownership base for the asset is now disproportionately
made up of those sky-is-the-limit bulls, while everyone who thought these guys were overly optimistic and a bit wonky have sold out. 99.9% of the world now thinks the asset is grossly overvalued.  But how does it come to earth?  After all, the only way the price can drop is if some owners sell, and all the owners are super-bulls who are unlikely to do so.  As a result, the bubble might continue and grow long after most of the world has seen the insanity of it.

Thus, we have short-selling.  Short-selling allows the other 99.9% who are not owners to sell part of the asset anyway, casting their financial vote [on] the value of the company.  Short-selling shortens bubbles, hastens the reckoning, and in the process generally reduces the wreckage on the back end.

I am remembering this old post because Arnold Kling links an interesting bit on economists discussing the Big Short, who among a number of interesting things say this:

Shorting the market in the way they did is very risky, and one has to be very confident, perhaps overconfident, in one’s forecast to take such risks. As a consequence, many people who were pessimistic about the housing market simply stayed on the sidelines—which in turn meant that for a while, valuations in the market primarily reflected the beliefs of optimists.

The timing issue is key.  I have been right probably in 4 of out the 5 major market shorting opportunities I have identified in the last 10 years, but have been on average 2 years early with all of them, meaning I lost money on most of them, or made money after enduring some really big paper losses for a while.

As A Reward for Introducing Price Competition into the Taxi Monopoly, Uber Gets Sued for Price Fixing

From Engadget:

After failing to get a class-action lawsuit dismissed, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick will go to court over price fixing claims. A US district court judge in New York ruled Kalanick has to face the class of passengers alleging that he conspired with drivers to set fares using an algorithm, including hiking rates during peak hours with so-called surge pricing. According to Reuters, district court judge Jed Rakoff ruled the plaintiffs "plausibly alleged a conspiracy" to fix pricing and that the class action could also pursue claims the set rates led to the demise other services, like Sidecar.

I guess this is the downside of calling all their drivers independent contractors -- it leads Uber potentially being vulnerable to accusations of price fixing among these contractors.  Of course, taxi cartels have been fixing prices for decades, but that is government-assisted price-fixing so I suppose that is OK.   It would be ironic that the first price competition introduced into the taxi business in decades is killed based on antitrust charges.

As with just about all modern anti-trust cases, this has little to do with consumer well-being and more about the well-being of supply chain participants (ie the drivers) and competitors (ie Sidecar and taxis).

California Creates Another Setback of Unskilled Workers -- And Possibly A Setback for Immigrant Integation

It appears that California is going to increase its state minimum wage to $15 in steps over the next five or six years.  This is yet another body blow for unskilled workers in the state.  As I wrote a while back, it is already overly difficult to build a business based on unskilled labor in that state, and increasing the price people have to pay for that labor by 50% is only going to make things worse.  It is possible low-skill workers in large wealthy cities like San Francisco will be OK, as service businesses are still going to want to be there to access all that wealth, and will just raise their prices even higher to account for the higher wages.   For laborers in rural areas that are already suffering from high unemployment, the prospects are not very bright.

As most readers know, we run a service business operating campgrounds across the country, including a number in California.  Over the last  years, due to past regulation and minimum wage increases, and in anticipation of further goofiness of this sort, we exited about 2/3 of our business in California.

Our problem going forward is that in rural locations, sometimes without even electricity or cell phone service on site, we have simply exhausted all the productivity measures I can think of.  There appears to be a minimum amount of labor required to clean a bathroom and do landscaping.  Which leaves us the options of exiting more businesses or raising prices.  Most of our customers in California are blue collar rural folks whose lot is only going to be worse as a result of these minimum wage increases, and so I am not sure how far they will be able to bear the price increases we will need to cover our higher costs.   Likely we will keep raising prices until customers can bear no more, and then exit.

By the way, the 5-6 year implementation time is a frank admission by the authors of the law, not matter what they say in pubic to the contrary, that they know there will be substantial negative employment effects from the minimum wage increase.   They are hoping that by spreading it out over several years, those negative effects will lost in the noise of economic fluctuations.  The Leftist playbook is to do something like this that trashes the earnings of the most vulnerable low-skilled workers, and then later point to the income inequality of those low-skilled workers as a failure of free markets.

On a related note, one of the more interesting things I have read lately is this comparison of successful integration of Muslim immigrants in the US vs. poor integration in Europe.  Alex Tabarrok raises the hypothesis that high minimum wages and labor market rigidity in Europe may be an important factor in reducing immigrant integration.  He quotes from the OECD:

Belgian labour market settings are generally unfavourable to the employment outcomes of low-skilled workers. Reduced employment rates stem from high labour costs, which deter demand for low-productivity workers…Furthermore, labour market segmentation and rigidity weigh on the wages and progression prospects of outsiders. With immigrants over-represented among low-wage, vulnerable workers, labour market settings likely hurt the foreign-born disproportionately.

…Minimum wages can create a barrier to employment of low-skilled immigrants, especially for youth. As a proportion of the median wage, the Belgian statutory minimum wage is on the high side in international comparison and sectoral agreements generally provide for even higher minima. This helps to prevent in-work poverty…but risks pricing low-skilled workers out of the labour market (Neumark and Wascher, 2006). Groups with further real or perceived productivity handicaps, such as youth or immigrants, will be among the most affected.

In 2012, the overall unemployment rate in Belgium was 7.6% (15-64 age group), rising to 19.8% for those in the labour force aged under 25, and, among these, reaching 29.3% and 27.9% for immigrants and their native-born offspring, respectively.

Wow, I guess it is sure lucky California does not have a very large immigrant population.  Oh, wait....

When You Give Up On Allocating Resources via Markets and Prices, All That is Left is Interest Group Politics

One of the ugly facts about how we manage water is that by eschewing markets and prices to allocate scarce water, all that is left is command and control allocation to match supply and demand.  The uglier fact is that politicians like it that way.  A golf course that pays a higher market rate for water doesn't help a politician one bit.  A golf course that has to beg for water through a political process is a source of campaign donations for life.

In a free society without an intrusive government, it would not matter whether California almond growers were loved or hated.  If people did not like them, then they just wouldn't buy their product.  But in California, the government holds the power of life or death over businesses through a number of levers, not least of which is water.

Almonds have become the Left's] new bête noir. The nut is blamed for exacerbating the California drought, overtaxing honeybee colonies, starving salmon of river water, and price-gauging global consumers. Almonds may be loved by consumers, but almond growers, it seems, are increasingly despised in the media. In 2014, The Atlantic published a melodramatic essay, “The Dark Side of Almond Use”—with the ominous subtitle, “People are eating almonds in unprecedented amounts. Is that okay?” If no one much cared that California agriculture was in near depression for much of the latter twentieth century—and that almonds were hardly worth growing in the 1970s—they now worry that someone is netting $5,000 to $10,000 per acre on the nut.

It is almost too much to bear for a social or environmental activist that a corporate farm of 5,000 acres could in theory clear $30 million a year—without either exploiting poor workers or poisoning the environment, but in providing cool people with a healthy, hip, natural product. The kind of people who eat almond butter and drink almond milk, after all, are the kind of people who tend to endorse liberal causes.

As for almonds worsening the drought: The truth is that the nut uses about the same amount of water per acre as other irrigated California crops such as pasture, alfalfa, tree fruit, pistachios, cotton, or rice. In fact, almonds require a smaller percentage of yearly irrigation use than their percentage of California farmland calls for. Nonetheless, the growth of almond farming represents to many a greedy use of scarce collective resource.

Home Ownership and Labor Mobility

Alex Tabarrok discusses some academic work that shows a declining inter-regional mobility in the United States which is causing local economic declines to last much longer than they used to last.

In a new paper, also cited by Leubsdorf, Danny Yagan at Berkeley suggests that reduced migration is only part of the problem. What has made the aftermath to the 2008-2009 recession so bad is that migration is low at the same time that it has become more necessary than ever. The 2008-2009 recession was especially localized, it hit some places harder than others and in a way that appears to be permanent. But migration has been too slow to solve the problem.

The usual story is that in-and-out migration equalizes wage, unemployment and employment rates across the nation. Some places may be harder hit than others but movement quickly makes the US into one labor market. In the aftermath of this recession, however, that isn’t happening for employment rates. Using a clever research design that looks at workers with similar education and skills doing the same jobs at the same large firms but in different locations, Yagan finds that location continues to matter years after the recession has ended. Workers who worked in the places hardest hit in the 2007-2009 recession have employment rates today that are 1% lower than similar workers in regions that were less hard hit.

It is probably unfair for me to comment on this because I have been highly mobile in  my life, having lived and worked in about 10 places as diverse as Houston, Dallas, Boston, Boulder, Seattle, Phoenix, St. Louis.  However, I will take  a shot at this.  Some of my hypotheses:

  1. Government programs to encourage home ownership have reduced mobility.  It is simply harder to move if one has a house to sell, and this was worse in the last recession, which was driven in large part by falling home prices, which made it even harder to move when one has an underwater home to sell.
  2. Political/Cultural redlining reduces mobility.  As an example, certain millennials want to be nowhere else but San Francisco, despite how absurdly hard it is to live there.  They will starve in poverty there before going to, say, Houston, which is an easy place to live when one is young but which many consider to be a evil redneck backwater.
  3. Use of Communication technology causes people to think they can reduce mobility when they perhaps can't.  I think a lot of folks with modern communication technology assume that location is irrelevant and that they should be able to do X work anywhere they want.   I think they are overestimating where many industries and companies are right now (though they may be correct in the future).  Just from tax compliance and regulatory perspectives, it is pure hell for a company in, say, Texas to have an employee in, say, California.  Plus I think there are still real networking and management reasons for employees to be concentrated in facilities.


Utter Madness: Phoenix Has The Cheapest Water in the Country

The Arizona Republic reports that the Arizona Department of Water Resources has set six priorities for managing expected water shortages in the future.  The six are listed in one of those annoying click-bait page-flipping things, so I will summarize them below:

  1. Resolve water disputes
  2. Pursue reclaimed water
  3. Expand monitoring (of the public's water use)
  4. Look at water transfers (between communities)
  5. Go for desalinization
  6. Find funding (for large scale projects)

What is missing here?  Well I will give you a hint.  This article was on the very same page (at least online) of the newspaper -- Phoenix has the cheapest water in the country!

If you live in Phoenix, you’re probably paying one of the cheapest annual water bills in the country, even with the rate increase that took effect this month, according to a recent national report on public water systems.

The February report by Food & Water Watch said the lead-tainted water supply in Flint, Michigan, was the most expensive in the country, with customers there paying $910.05 a year. It said Phoenix residents paid just $84.24 a year, then the lowest rate in the nation.

A city water department official said the rates could be a little misleading – rates jump for heavy users, one factor that has helped Phoenix keep water use down even as the number of water users has risen sharply.

But even after the 3 percent increase that took effect March 1, analysts say Phoenix rates are probably still among the lowest, if not the lowest, in the country for residential customers who don’t use large amounts of water in a month.

This is absurd.  Why does the state agency need to go around spying on private water use and begging for funding when price is such an obvious lever to match supply and demand.  Raise the freaking prices!  Are we drawing from lakes and groundwater faster than they can replenish themselves?  Raise the dang price until demand falls to a sustainable level.  As an extra bonus, this would help solve the funding problem, and have it solved by water users themselves rather than taxpayers.

By the way, I ask these questions but I actually know the answers -- government officials don't want to take the heat when the prices rise.  They want to pander to the public and hand them populist goodies like cheap water, and then manage the inevitable water crisis with authoritarian actions like rationing and surveillance that increase their personal power.

And congrats to our newspaper:  It has article after article, day after day, listing all the dire water shortages that face the area, and then they write this article with nary a mention that having the country's lowest water rates might be related.

More Evidence Against My Least Favorite Legislation of the 20th Century

I have written about the National Industrial Recovery Act many times, a love-note from FDR to Mussolini's fascist economic system that was thankfully overturned by the Supreme Court.  Its intent was to make the corporate-crony state the default economic system of the US.

Essentially, the NIRA cartelized the US economy, creating government-sponsored cartels in every industry that would set prices and wages as well as output and quality.  You can imagine exactly how well upstart competitors would have fared under this system.  I am pretty sure, for example, that the government mainframe cartel would never have let apply, or even DEC, see the light of day.

Now, a couple of academics have laid the blame for the long duration of the Great Depression at the NIRA's doorstep.

"President Roosevelt believed that excessive competition was responsible for the Depression by reducing prices and wages, and by extension reducing employment and demand for goods and services," said Cole, also a UCLA professor of economics. "So he came up with a recovery package that would be unimaginable today, allowing businesses in every industry to collude without the threat of antitrust prosecution and workers to demand salaries about 25 percent above where they ought to have been, given market forces. The economy was poised for a beautiful recovery, but that recovery was stalled by these misguided policies."

Using data collected in 1929 by the Conference Board and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Cole and Ohanian were able to establish average wages and prices across a range of industries just prior to the Depression. By adjusting for annual increases in productivity, they were able to use the 1929 benchmark to figure out what prices and wages would have been during every year of the Depression had Roosevelt's policies not gone into effect. They then compared those figures with actual prices and wages as reflected in the Conference Board data.
In the three years following the implementation of Roosevelt's policies, wages in 11 key industries averaged 25 percent higher than they otherwise would have done, the economists calculate. But unemployment was also 25 percent higher than it should have been, given gains in productivity.

Meanwhile, prices across 19 industries averaged 23 percent above where they should have been, given the state of the economy. With goods and services that much harder for consumers to afford, demand stalled and the gross national product floundered at 27 percent below where it otherwise might have been.

"High wages and high prices in an economic slump run contrary to everything we know about market forces in economic downturns," Ohanian said. "As we've seen in the past several years, salaries and prices fall when unemployment is high. By artificially inflating both, the New Deal policies short-circuited the market's self-correcting forces."

The policies were contained in the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which exempted industries from antitrust prosecution if they agreed to enter into collective bargaining agreements that significantly raised wages. Because protection from antitrust prosecution all but ensured higher prices for goods and services, a wide range of industries took the bait, Cole and Ohanian found. By 1934 more than 500 industries, which accounted for nearly 80 percent of private, non-agricultural employment, had entered into the collective bargaining agreements called for under NIRA.

Hmm.  Certainly wages and prices are going to be especially "sticky" if the government creates cartels to keep them that way.

A Media Article Actually Highlights the Trouble with A Falling Currency

If you listened to the media and political candidates, you would quickly come to the conclusion that the quickest way to prosperity and wealth is to have a worthless currency.  Every politician the world over argues for devaluing their own currency vs. other nations, with the logic that this helps domestic manufacturers by making imported competitors more expensive and making their own products less expensive to buy in other countries.  **

While the latter two statements are nominally true, the only way this actually helps an economy is if one ignores everyone except manufacturers in markets dominated by international trade.  What it ignores is that a falling currency makes purchases more expensive for everyone else.  Consumers and service industries and even manufacturers who depend on imported raw materials all suffer from a falling currency.  And this is not even to mention the effect on wealth -- if one's savings are all in assets denominated in the falling currency, one is clearly losing wealth as the currency falls.

Well, for the first time in a really long time, I actually saw an article this week that focuses on some of the problems of having a falling currency.  via zero hedge.

“I’ve never seen it that high. It’s usually $6.99, maybe $8 but that seems like quite a jump.”

Grapefruit isn’t the only produce to soar in price as fresh fruit has increased by 12.4 per cent since December 2014, and fresh vegetables are up 14.4 per cent, according to data from Statistics Canada released Friday. Led by those surging produce prices, Alberta’s annual inflation rate rose last month by 1.5 per cent, year over year.

The high prices are a direct result of adverse weather in the United States and the lower Canadian dollar since most produce is imported, said Jason Wiebe, president of Chongo’s Market at the Crossroads Farmers Market.

“Tomatoes trade the same as the TSX. It’s a commodity, too, and all produce is traded in U.S. dollars. In November, the retail cost of tomatoes on the vine was $1.99 a pound. Now I have to sell the same box at $3.99 pound.

“What’s going to be really interesting going forward is what happens to local growers come summer. With the dollar, they can make one and half or two times as much exporting than selling here.”

And that may only be the beginning of higher food costs, according to ATB chief economist Todd Hirsh.

“Going forward I think we’ll see even higher upward pressure on imported fruits and vegetables. If not for weather conditions, certainly that low Canadian dollar will affect it. Because the numbers we’re talking about today are from December and now in January we’re almost five to six per cent lower on that dollar….If people insist on eating fresh tomatoes and pineapple in January, they’ll be forced to pay for it.”


** To my eye, every government in the industrialized world is working as hard as they can to hammer down the value of their own currency.  As a result, a rising currency tends to mean only that the country in question has a central bank that is not working as hard and as fast as other countries to trash their currency.  All of which makes accusations that China is manipulating its currency an enormous joke.  Several trilling dollars in QE here and they are the ones manipulating their currency?

Looking at the Business Cycle as an MBA Rather Than an Economist: The Effect of Organizational Dynamics on Recessions

I will confess that there is much about advanced economics that I have trouble following, because I just don't have the background.  I suspect I am more comfortable with a mal-investment model of recessions because it is something I can see and understand as a business guy, whereas when talk gets into monetary policy I can quickly get lost.

For example, in this Arnold Kling review of Scott Sumner's book on the Great Depression, I totally get this:

Sumner's theoretical framework starts with a straightforward explanation for fluctuations in employment and output. Large shortfalls in output and employment occur when relatively flexible prices fall in relation to relatively sticky wages. When firms face high wages and low prices, they have to cut back on employment and output.

A business guy (outside of a commodity business) would probably say he sees a fall in demand for his product rather than a fall in prices, but I understand enough economics to know that these are essentially interchangeable -- the business is seeing a fall in demand at the old price but would likely see the same old demand if the price were lowered.

However, when I read stuff like this, I start to get lost.

If investors believe that the future path of monetary policy is expansionary, then they will immediately start to bid up prices for sensitive commodities. This means that if the central bank sends a credible signal today that it will maintain an expansionary stance going forward, this can quickly raise prices relative to wages, leading to a rapid expansion of employment and output.

I understand it intellectually, but I certainly don't go on a buying spree the moment the Fed announces more QE (though in retrospect looking a the rise in financial asset prices over the last few years, I should have).

But where I was going with all this is there are real-world effects that I am positive contribute to the depth of recessions that I seldom see in these economic theories.  For example, economic theories tend to assume firms are properly staffed heading into the downturn, such that layoffs are driven by the fall in prices/demand.

But that is not ever the case.  In my experience, it is an iron law of organizations that their staffing grows fat in the good times.  No matter how tough or attentive the management, firms will put on too much staff.

My personal theory is that organizations have a life of their own.  Almost literally.   In many ways the organization acts as a living entity with a mind of its own, trying to grow and feed itself.  It does not consider what size it should be, any more than a deer heard is concerned about its size vs. the available food supply.  It will keep growing until it is culled by an outside  force (lack of food or a predator).

I think of organizations the same way, and the only way to check its growth is with active management from the top.  Managers have to constantly stay on top of the organization's size and be pruning or culling it constantly (depending on the metaphor you want to latch on to).  However, because of scale economies, profits tend to grow faster than revenues at the top of the business cycle.  This creates a certain comfort level among management, and since pruning the organization is emotionally difficult -- at the least saying no to people's resource requests and at the most demanding layoffs --managers don't keep up with their job in this area in the good times.  No one notices that a 15% profit growth could have been 20% if they organization had properly been kept in check.

Then comes the downturn.  Demand and/or prices are falling, and profits are falling faster than revenues, and the crisis is now at hand.   Now that we have overcome whatever emotional starting friction there is to have layoffs, we might as well do the job right and cut not only what is required to keep up with falling prices, but we might as well take a look at the bloat we accumulated in the good times and right-size that away as well.  In fact, many businesses I have worked for or with as a consultant like to overshoot what they might have previously thought of as the right-size point, and cut even deeper, hoping that the limited resources will push the organization into finding new inefficiencies in how it does things.

And thus, in my view, the degree of layoffs in a recession will tend to be larger than that one might predict solely from sticky wages and declining  prices/demand.

By the way, for those of us who are skeptical about the government's ability ever mange a task efficiently, this organizational theory is one explanation.  Often commenters make the mistake of assuming that when I criticize tendencies in government organizations to look after themselves (rather than their mission) that I am singling government out as somehow operating differently from the private world.  That is not true.  Government is made up of the same human beings as businesses (though perhaps there is some negative self-selection) and government organizations are going to have the same tendencies as private organizations.

The difference is one of correction mechanisms and incentives.  Eventually, the private organization must clean out the bloat or else it will fail and go out of business entirely (unless of course the government bails it out, see: GM).  There is no such accountability with government organizations.   They just deficit spend or demand more taxes when they get bloated.   Making this worse are the incentives of  government agency leaders.   Lacking a profit metric or even a customer service metric, government agency managers typically get their pay and prestige set based on the budget and headcount of the organization they run, so cost and headcount cutting run directly counter to their incentives.  Combine this with higher barriers in government organizations to cleaning house (e.g. public union power and politicization of what should be efficiency decisions) and we get the dysfunctionality of government.  But again note, this is an issue of accountability mechanisms and incentives, not of having better or worse or smarter people.