Friday, September 22, 2017

Imperfect Information: Is It For or Against Free Markets?

In the real world, no one has full and complete information about economic interactions. But is that an argument for or against free markets? For or against government regulation? The answer seems to be "all of the above."

Friedrich von Hayek (Nobel 1974) is among the most prominent of those who have made the case that imperfect information strengthens the case for free markets. Samuel Bowles, Alan Kirman, and Rajiv Sethi offer an overview of Hayek's beliefs about information and free markets in "Retrospectives: Friedrich Hayek and the Market Algorithm," in the Summer 2017 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (31:3, pp. 215-230).

In one much-quoted example, Hayek offers a discussion of what  happens in the market for some raw material, like tin, when "somewhere in the world a new opportunity for the use" arises, or "one of the sources of supply of tin has been eliminated." Either of these changes (rise in demand, or a fall in supply) will lead to a higher market price. But as Hayek points out, no company that uses tin, nor any consumer who uses products made with tin as an ingredient, needs to know any details about what happened. No commission of government officials needs to meet to discuss how every firm and consumer should be required to react to this change in the price of tin. No government quota system for allocation of tin supplies needs to be established. No special government program for research and development into cheaper substitutes for tin, and no government-subsidized producers for potential-but-still-costly substitutes needs to be created. Instead, the shifts in demand or supply, and the corresponding changes in price, work themselves out with a larger number of small-scale shifts in the market.

A government agency might collect information on who currently produces and uses tin. But that government lacks the granular information about all the different alternatives that might possibly be used for tin, and any sense of when a user of tin would be willing to pay twice as much, or when a user of tin would shift to a substitute if the price rose even a little. Indeed, this granular information about the tin market is not even theoretically available to a government planner or regulator! Many users of tin, or potential suppliers of additional tin, or potential suppliers of substitutes, don't actually know just how they would react to the higher price until after it happens. Their reactions emerge through a process of trial and error.

Hayek's point becomes even more acute if one considers not just existing basic products, like tin, but the potential for innovative new products or services. One can make a guess about whether a certain type of new smartphone, headache remedy, spicy sauce, alternative energy source, or water-in-a-bottle will be popular and desired. But government planners--especially given that they are operating under political constraints--won't have the knowledge to make these decisions. Hayek's point is not only that government economic planners not only that government planners lack perfect information, but that is is not even theoretically possible for them to have perfect information--because much of the information about production, consumption, and prices does not exist. thus, Hayek wrote:
"[The market is] a system of the utilization of knowledge which nobody can possess as a whole, which … leads people to aim at the needs of people whom they do not know, make use of facilities about which they have no direct information; all this condensed in abstract signals … [T]hat our whole modern wealth and production could arise only thanks to this mechanism is, I believe, the basis not only of my economics but also much of my political views ..."
As Bowles, Kirman and Sethi point out in the title of their article, Hayek's view of market system can be viewed as an "algorithm" for calling information into existence and then coordinating among the agents in the market.

On the other side, there's also a powerful case that imperfect information can cause markets not to function well. For example, the financial meltdown leading up to the Great Recession can be described as a situation where the available information was highly imperfect about the expected path of housing prices, and more specifically about complex financial securities based on home mortgages (that is, collateralized debt obligations). The information about what could happen to the macroeconomy as a result was imperfect, too. Bowles, Kirman and Sethi point out that there are a variety of economic settings where imperfect information can lead a market, or even an entire economy, into dysfunction and recession.

Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel, 2001) is among the best-known of those who have explained how imperfect information can hinder the functioning of a market, and thus offer a justification for government intervention or regulation.  Stiglitz offers a readable overview of his perspective in "The Revolution of Information Economics: The Past and the Future" (September 2017, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 23780). The paper isn't freely available online, although readers may have access through a library subscription, but a set of slides from when he presented a talk on this topic at the World Bank in 2016 are available here.  Stiglitz emphasizes two particular aspects of imperfect information: it leads to a lack of competition and especially to problems in the financial sector. He writes:
"The imperfections of competition and the absence of risk markets with which they are marked matter a great deal. ... And in those sectors where information and its imperfections play a particularly important role, there is an even greater presumption of the need for public policy. The financial sector is, above all else, about gathering and processing information, on the basis of which capital resources can be efficiently allocated. Information is central. And that is at least part of the reason that financial sector regulation is so important. Markets where information is imperfect are also typically far from perfectly competitive ... In markets with some, but imperfect competition, firms strive to increase their market power and to increase the extraction of rents from existing market power, giving rise to widespread distortions. In such circumstances, institutions and the rules of the game matter. Public policy is critical in setting the rules of the game."
Stiglitz also argues that in a modern economy, concerns over information are likely to become more acute.
"Looking forward, changes in structure of demand (that is, as a country gets richer, the mix of goods purchased changes) and in technology may lead to an increased role of information and increased consequences of information imperfections, decreased competition, and increasing inequality. Many key battles will be about information and knowledge (implicitly or explicitly)—and the governance of information. Already, there are big debates going on about privacy (the rights of individuals to keep their own information) and transparency (requirements that government and corporations, for instance, reveal critical information about what they are doing). In many sectors, most especially, the financial sector, there are ongoing debates about disclosure—obligations on the part of individuals or firms to reveal certain things about their products." 
Both Hayek and Stiglitz use a similar "straw man" argumentative tactic: that is, set up a weak position as the opposing view, and then set it on fire. Hayek's preferred straw man is government economic planners who seek to dictate every economic decision. He was writing in part with economic systems like the Communist Soviet Union in mind. But arguing that a market is better than wildly intrusive and weirdly over-precise old-time Soviet-style economic planning doesn't make a case against more restrained and better-aimed forms of economic regulation. Indeed, Hayek occasionally expressed support for a universal basic income and for certain kinds of bank regulation.

Stiglitz's straw man is a free market that operates essentially without government intervention or regulation. He likes to emphasize that in the real world of imperfect information, there is no conceptual reason to presume that markets are efficient. But arguing that imperfect information can offer a potential justification for government regulation doesn't make a case that all or most government regulation is justified. especially given that the real-world government regulators labor with their own problems of political constraints and limited information. And indeed, while Stiglitz tends to favor an increase in US economic regulations in a number of specific areas, his vision of the economy always leaves a substantial role for private sector ownership, decision-making, and innovation.

So what's the bottom line here? In my introductory economic textbook (if you are teaching the course, I encourage you to check it out), I seek some resolution between these competing views by quoting the well-known line from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time.” In this case, the contradictory ideas are that markets can often be a substantial improvement on government regulators, and government regulators can often be a substantial improvement on unconstrained market outcomes. One can't presume that unconstrained markets are efficient, one can't presume that government interventions are efficient, either. I finish Chapter 20 of the textbook with this comment:
As the famous British economist, Joan Robinson (1903–1983), wrote some decades ago: “[E]conomic theory, in itself, preaches no doctrines and cannot establish any universally valid laws. It is a method of ordering ideas and formulating questions.” The study of economics is neither politically conservative, nor moderate, nor liberal. There are economists who are Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, socialists, and every other political group you can name. Of course, conservatives may tend to emphasize the virtues of markets and the limitations of government, while liberals may tend to emphasize the shortcomings of markets and the need for government programs. But such differences only illustrate that the language and terminology of economics is not limited to one set of political beliefs, but can be used by all.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Antitrust in the 1520s: Diet of Nuremberg, Martin Luther, and the City of Augsberg

Monopolies can come into existence for reasons that are beneficial to consumers: for example, perhaps a monopoly has patent protection for an innovative new product, or perhaps economies of scale allow a big company to sell at a cheaper price. However, once the monopoly is in place, it then has incentives to increase its profits by raising prices for consumers. Thus, the ongoing challenge of antitrust law is to encourage behaviors that are beneficial to consumers. like innovation and economies of scale, while offering consumers some protection from the price-fixing power of monopolies. This story has of course played itself out numerous times in US economic history, from the trusts and "robber barons" of the late 19th century to more recent arguments about IBM, Microsoft, and the most recent batch of high-tech giants.

But these issues of the benefits and costs of monopoly behavior have a much longer historical pedigree. One prominent example is the situation that had arisen in Germany in the 1520s. It's described in some detail in "Social Reform and the Reformation," by Jacob Salwyn Schapiro, which was published in 1909 in a series of volumes edited by the Columbia University Political Science Department alled  Studies in History Economics and Public Law (Volume XXXIV, number 2). Here I'll focus on the story that Schapiro tells in "Chapter 1: The Growth of Monopolies." 

To set the stage, the end of the 15th century and into the 16th century is a very prosperous time for Germany. Schapiro writes:
The end of the fifteenth century witnessed Germany's high noon of prosperity. Old and insignificant towns like Augsburg Nuremberg and Ulm blossomed forth into wealthy and populous cities. The great merchants vied with princes and kings in magnificence and luxury. Their gardens palaces and entertainments were the envy of the poorer nobility. Aeneas Sylvius writing in 1458 says: "We proclaim it aloud Germany has never been richer or more prosperous than to-day. She takes the lead of all other nations in wealth and power One can say truly that God has favored this land above all others On all sides are seen cultivated farms cornfields and vineyards and gardens Everywhere are great buildings, walled cities and well-to-do farmers." Jacob Wimpheling, the famous humanist, declared fifty years later that Germany was never more prosperous than to day and she owes it chiefly to the untiring industry and energy of her people artisans as well as merchants. The peasants too are rich and prosperous."  The desire for wealth became the all absorbing passion and we find the popular preacher Martin Butzer denouncing the materialistic spirit of the time. "All the world," he says, "is running after those trades and occupations that will bring the most gain. The study of the arts and sciences is set aside for the basest kind of manual work. All the clever heads, which have been endowed by God with capacity for the nobler studies are engrossed by commerce, which nowadays is so saturated with dishonesty that it is the last sort of business an honorable man ought to engage in." The headquarters of German capitalism was the city of Augsburg which because of its situation acted as a distributing center for all Eastern goods received from both Lisbon and Venice. 
But the importance of ports and trade routes shifting. Venice, which was relatively close to German merchants, was declining while farther-away Lisbon was rising. Doing business at this greater distance tended to favor the larger German merchants, who could afford to have dedicated representatives in Lisbon to manage their transactions, warehouses, and shipping. As Schapiro explains, this shift provided a launching pad for Germany's wealthier merchants to act as price-fixing monopolists. He wrote:
The wealthier merchants quickly took advantage of this condition and organized themselves into associations or "companies." At first they united for the purpose of buying and transporting in common in order to reduce expenses; but very soon they united for the purpose of selling as well. These associations quickly developed into monopolistic combines that controlled the entire Asiatic trade in and arbitrarily fixed the prices of all Eastern articles. The small merchant found himself crowded to the wall. All methods familiar to monopoly everywhere and at all times were used to drive him out of business. 
Schapiro cites a number of contemporary complaints about the situation. Here are three, one from from Martin Luther, and the other two from religious and civil assemblies of that time:
Luther complains in his pamphlet On Trade and Usury, printed in 1524: "The monopolists succeed in driving out the small merchants by buying up large quantities of goods, and then suddenly raise the prices when they are left masters of the field. So, these monopolists, have everything in their hands and do whatever they wish raise and lower prices at will and oppress and ruin small dealers, just as a great pike swallows up a lot of little fishes. They have become lords over God's creatures and free from all bonds of religion and humanity ..... If monopolies are permitted to exist, then justice and righteousness must vanish." ...
The Diet of Nuremberg complained in 1522: "The companies take special care to monopolize those spices that are most needed. If one company is not rich enough it associates itself with another and so gets the article in its hands. If a poor merchant desires to deal in these wares, the companies are immediately at his throat. They are able to ruin him, because having more money and more goods, they are able to sell cheaper and give longer credit .... The companies are responsible for lessened business. To-day, there is one great concern with many branches where formerly there were twenty independent merchants ..."   
The Landtag of the Austrian hereditary dominions at Innsbruck in 1518 declared: "The great companies have monopolized all things and are not to be borne any longer. All sorts of merchandise-- silver, copper, steel, iron, linen, sugar, spices, corn, cattle, wine, meat, tallow. and leather--have fallen into their hands Through their money power, they have become so strong, that no merchant having less than 10,000 florins is able to compete with them. They raise prices arbitrarily when it is to their advantage and as a result their incomes are as great as those of princes. They are a great harm to our land."
The tensions created by these monopoly powers were then heightened by an enormous rise in the overall price level. Schapiro writes: "During the first quarter of the sixteenth century there occurred a most remarkable revolution in prices. Every article foreign and domestic rose enormously in some cases one hundred per cent and over Naturally the monopolies were blamed by all classes for this extraordinary advance in the prices of the necessities of life." As he is also quick to note, monopoly is not the only cause here, and may not have been the primary cause. For example, there were wartime shortages resulting from the conflict between Venice and the League of Cambray. There was also an enormous increase in the volume of currency in circulation, with large increases in silver and copper production in Germany and Hungary, as well as imported silver from the new world by Spain.

Ultimately, these issues arose again in the Diets of Nuremberg from 1522-24. The main agenda of these gathering was to coordinate a response to Soliman the Turk, who had just invaded Hungary, and to Martin Luther, who was posing a danger to the established Catholic Church. But the issue of monopoly came up as well, and as Schapiro explains, a committee was appointed which "sent a questionnaire to the councils of the towns that represented the trading interests." The reply of the city of Augsburg has been much-quoted over the years, because it offers a defense of the large monopoly firms. Here are some snippets of the response from the city Augsburg, as quoted (and translated) by Schapiro:
Where there is no business, the country is of little account. Hence it follows that commerce is useful to kings and princes and good for the common weal. The more business a country does, the more prosperous are its people. There are lands where business interests are better protected than in Germany and where they do everything to encourage and attract the merchants .... Commerce adds to the coffers of princes and is besides absolutely essential to the common welfare where there are many merchants there is plenty of work. Only the great merchants are able to do business on a large scale, because the small traders have not enough capital.  ...
It is impossible to limit the size of the companies for that would limit business and hurt the common welfare; the bigger and more numerous they are the better for everybody. If a merchant is not perfectly free to do business in Germany he will go elsewhere to Germany's loss. Any one can see what harm and evil such an action would mean to us. If a merchant cannot do business, above a certain amount, what is he to do with his surplus money? It is impossible to set a limit to business and it would be well to let the merchant alone and put no restrictions on his ability or capital. ... Some people talk of limiting the earning capacity of investments. This would be unbearable and would work great injustice and harm by taking away the livelihood of widows, orphans and other sufferers, noble and non-noble, who derive their income from investments in these companies. Many merchants out of love and friendship invest the money of their friends--men, women and children--who know nothing of business in order to provide them with an assured income. Hence any one can see that the idea that the merchant companies undermine the public welfare ought not to be seriously considered. ... 
Of course, discussions making similar points have continued up to the present. Countries with lots of business activity are better off, and create jobs. If the companies are overregulated at  home, they will move elsewhere. Limiting what investment can earn would be unbearable. Out of love and friendship, the giant monopolists will look out for the widows and orphans. The committee for the Diet of Nuremburg didn't buy these arguments! But its report is an interesting mix of opposition to the big companies and admitting that their defenders are not altogether wrong. Here's Schapiro quoting from the committee report:
"The companies have done more injury to the common man than all the highwaymen and thieves put together yet the monopolists and their associates strut about in all the magnificence and luxury that wealth can buy. ...  We have already given reasons why the great companies should be destroyed but that does not mean that all business associations should be done away with. Such a course would be foolish and harmful to the whole German people, for the following reasons: In the first place, it would give the foreigners an opportunity to take over our business and then the companies could exploit Germany at will. Secondly, if we permitted only single individuals to trade, failure would be sure to result, which would be avoided by permitting associations of moderate size only. This, too, would give an opportunity to an individual who possesses great capital to do exactly what a company does and yet be within the law. Finally, a single individual cannot go to many places for goods and he cannot afford to hire agents as this costs money Therefore the foreign companies will have a great advantage over the German merchant."
Ultimately, the Diet of Nuremberg passed a set of anti-monopoly laws. Schapiro writes:
After a great deal of debate, the Diet passed a series of laws designed to mitigate the evils of monopoly. These provide that:
I. Companies are not to be capitalized for more than fifty thousand gulden and are to have only three branches. A statement of its membership and business must be filed with the government.
II. The profits must be divided every two years and the authorities notified of the fact.
III. No money may be loaned at usurious rates of interest.
IV. No commodity shall be entirely under one control.
V. No merchant shall buy during a single quarter of a year more than 100 cwt. of pepper, 100 cwt. of ginger, and 50 cwt. of other spices.
VI. The companies shall not impose a minimum selling price.
VII. The government shall regulate the prices of wares because the companies secretly agree to raise prices.
VIII. Each article imported shall be taxed by the imperial government a fixed sum on the hundredweight.
IX. Voyaging to Portugal is to be forbidden because of too much speculation there and the king of that country is to be asked to send the spices into Germany.
X. The penalty for violating these laws is to be confiscation of the property of the company one half to go to the imperial and the other half to the local government 
Whatever the merits and demerits of these rules, they made little difference. This early round of the anti-monopoly battles was won by the monopolists. As Schapiro explains: "In spite of the denunciations, petitions, laws, and decrees, the monopolies were not seriously disturbed. The vast wealth of the great companies, the political importance of the cities which they controlled, the weakness of the central government and the intimate relations of the merchants with the governing powers, were proof against all laws aimed at them." 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Should the Federal Reserve Buy Corporate Bonds?

When (not "if") the next recession arrives, the Federal Reserve will want to take action to stimulate the economy. In recent decades, this action has often involved cutting a certain targeted interest rate--the "federal funds interest" rate--by 3-4 percentage points. However, the federal funds interest rate is now in the range of 1-1.25%, and for a variety of underlying reasons, it seems unlikely that these rates will climb to the 4-5% range any time soon.  Thus, central banks around the world are experimenting with nontraditional tools of monetary policy. For example, a number of central banks have pushed their own targeted policy interest rates into mildly negative territory, with what seems to be mild success so far. The US Federal Reserve, along with a number of other central banks, has engaged in "quantitative easing" policies in which the central bank buys financial assets directly. So far, the Fed has focused on Treasury debt and on mortgage-backed securities. But when the next recession  hits, should the Fed think about buying government bonds?

Thomas Belsham and Alex Rattan provide an overview of the issues that arise in making this choice, along with a review of what has happened since the Bank of England made a decision in August 2016 purchase up to £10 billion in corporate bonds, in their article "Corporate Bond Purchase Scheme:design, operation and impact," which appears in the Quarterly Bulletin of the Bank of England (2017 Q3, pp. 170-181).

Why might a central bank decided to purchase corporate bonds at all, as opposed to other assets?

If more parties in the market are willing to buy bonds--whether government bonds, corporate bond, or mortgage-backed securities-- it should be easier for borrowers to issue such securities. But Belsham and Rattan offer a few arguments as to why buying corporate bonds might have a bigger effect on the real economy than buying government bonds.

For example, they argue that when a central bank buys investment-grade bonds, which are typically issued by larger companies, those large companies become more likely to obtain capital by issuing bonds and less likely to do so through borrowing from banks. In turn, this could cause banks to become more willing to lend money to medium-sized and smaller-sized firms. Another reason is that part of the risk in bond markets is that such markets are often not very liquid, meaning that it isn't always easy to buy or sell bonds right away--at least not without taking a hit on your desired price. But if the central bank is steadily involved as a buyer of bonds, liquidity in the bond market improves, and the risk of holding bonds diminishes accordingly. Finally, when a central bank buys corporate bonds, those who had previously been holding the bonds (or would have been holding the bonds) clearly have some appetite for the risks and returns associated with corporate activities, so they are likely to try to seek out some other ways to invest their funds into active corporate activities (rather than into lower-risk and safer investments).

If a central bank decides to purchase corporate bonds, how can it keep the risk of doing so relatively low and avoid favoritism to certain industrial sectors or specific corporations? 

The Bank of England was willing to buy up to £10 billion in "investment-grade" corporate bonds (that is, relatively safe bonds, not high-yield, high-risk "junk bonds"). For comparison, the total amount of such bonds was about £500 billion. The goal of the BoE was to purchase these bonds without unbalancing the market.

In a regular auction, buyers compete to purchase an item. However, the Bank of England purchased bonds with a "reverse auction," in which sellers compete to sell an item--in this case a bond--to the central bank. Thus, the Bank of England was agreeing to pay the lowest possible interest rates (and there was also a "maximum price" that the Bank would not exceed when purchasing any given bond). In addition, the Bank of England looked at how much of the  £500 billion in bonds came from each sector of the economy, and took care to purchase bonds (tweaking the prices it was willing to pay just a bit as needed) so the Bank ended up owning bonds from each sector in the same proportion as these sectors were represented in the overall bond market.

What were some effects of the Bank of England Corporate Bond Purchase Scheme?
One quick-and-dirty way to evaluate the effects of this policy is to compare interest rates on corporate bonds of similar risk levels that are denominated in US dollars, euros, and pounds. If one sees a drop in the interest rate for these corporate bonds around the time the policy starts, a drop which isn't mirrored in the other markets, it suggests the policy had some effect.

The authors carry out some more sophisticated calculations, which tend to confirm this general result. They write: "Sterling-denominated investment-grade private non-financial corporate (PNFC) bond spreads fell 10 basis points on the day of the announcement of the CBPS, and around a further
10 basis points in the days that followed. Issuance in sterling by UK PNFCs picked up sharply after the announcement, with the highest recorded monthly issuance of sterling-denominated investment-grade bonds in September of that year. Market intelligence also suggests that there was an improvement in liquidity in the sterling corporate bond market ... While the direct impact on the corporate bond market is encouraging, it is still too early to assess fully the transmission of the Corporate Bond Purchase Scheme to the real economy."

What's the Bank of England plan going forward? 

The current plan is that as bonds make payments and mature, these amounts will be reinvested into other bonds. Thus, the Bank of England portfolio of corporate bonds is planned to remain at about £10 billion -- at least for now.

This experiment is worth watching. If the US Federal Reserve feels a need during a future recession to carry out large-scale quantitative easing, the Bank of England process is likely to serve as a model. It would be interesting, and perhaps not in a good way, to watch the political pressure that would surely be exerted if the US Federal Reserve attempting to purchase corporate bonds in a way that doesn't intervene to favor certain parts of the bond market.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Federal Subsidies for Health Insurance

When I posted a couple of days ago on the most recent Census Bureau report about "Health Insurance Coverage in the United States," I didn't know that the Congressional Budget Office was about to come out with an updated set of estimates for "Federal Subsidies for Health Insurance Coverage for People Under Age 65: 2017 to 2027" (September 2017). Obviously, it's useful to consider the number of people with health insurance and the government subsidies at the same time!

The CBO calculation is that federal subsidies for those under age 65 (that is, not counting Medicare spending on those over 65, and not counting the portion of Medicaid funded by US states) are $705 billion in 2017. Here's the graph from the cover of the report summarizing these subsidies:
A few thoughts:

1) Total US health care spending is about $3.5 trillion in 2017. For the present calculation, subtract out Medicare, which is about $700 billion. Thus, the total federal subsidies of $705 billion represent about one-fourth of non-Medicare health care spending.

2) The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 increased these federal subsidies in 2017 by $117 billion: that is $72 billion for expansions of Medicaid coverage and $45 billion for subsidies involving the state-based insurance exchanges that are called the "Basic Health Plan."

3) The federal government subsidizes employer-provided health insurance to the tune of $279 billion in 2017 by treating it as an untaxed fringe benefit. The single largest method through which Americans get their health insurance continues to be employer-based coverage.
4) The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 expanded Medicaid enrollment by about 13 million people, and another 8 million have received subsidies for purchasing insurance on the state-level exchanges.

5) It's a little tricky to calculate how much the Affordable Care Act of 2010 expanded coverage. For example, if some employers decided to stop providing health insurance with the idea that their employees could turn to the state-based health  insurance exchanges, one would need to take those effects into account. But as a back-of-the-envelope estimate, one could reasonably say that the Affordable Care Act provide health insurance for about 21 million people, with a corresponding increase in federal health care subsidies of $117 billion. Thus, the average cost of person of expanded health insurance coverage has been about $5,500. As I've written before, there was never any mystery in how the 2010 legislation expanded insurance coverage: if the federal government was willing to spend an extra $117 billion, it could provide insurance coverage for another 21 million people.

6) A substantial number of US residents continue to lack health insurance. The CBO breaks it down this way: "Over the next decade, roughly 1 out of every 10 residents under age 65 is projected
to be uninsured each year, and the number of people who are uninsured is projected to be 31 million in 2027 ...  In that year, according to CBO and JCT’s estimates, about 30 percent of those uninsured
people would be unauthorized immigrants and thus ineligible for subsidies through a marketplace or for most Medicaid benefits; about 10 percent would be ineligible for Medicaid because they lived in a state that had not expanded coverage; about 20 percent would be eligible for Medicaid but would not enroll; and the remaining 40 percent would not purchase insurance to which they had access through an employer, through the marketplaces, or directly from insurers."

7) For ll the controversy surrounding the 2010 health care legislation, both at the time and since, it was essentially incremental. For most Americans with health insurance--most of those with employer-provided plans, Medicare, or already eligible for Medicaid--the 2010 act did not disrupt their health insurance in any substantial way.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Health Insurance Coverage in the US

Since a number of major provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 took effect in January 2014, the share of Americans without health insurance has dropped substantially. But that success story remains incomplete, and the the progress that has been made has come at substantial financial cost.

Jessica C. Barnett and Edward R. Berchick of the US Census Bureau have authored this year's version of the authoritative report: Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2016 (Current Population Reports, September 2017, P60-660). Here's the share of Americans without health insurance from 2008-2016.  The big drop starting in 2014 is quickly apparent.
What forms of health insurance expanded in a way that can help to explain this decline? In private plans, employer-based health insurance didn't budge, but direct-purchase plans expanded--surely due to the expansion that occurred through the subsidized state-based insurance exchanges. On the government side, both Medicare and Medicare have seen expansions, with the rise in Medicaid in particular being traceable to the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

The report offers lots of detail about what groups are more or less likely to have health insurance. Many of the correlations are unsurprising. Those with less work experience in the previous year, or lower levels of education,  are less likely to be covered by health insurance. Even with the existence of Medicaid and Medicare, those with lower incomes remain less likely to have health insurance (including both public and private health insurance).

But I was intrigued by this figure showing the likelihood of not having health insurance by age. The different shading shows different years, and the drop in the rate of uninsured over time. The big drop-off around age 65 shows the effect of Medicare. The uninsurance rate for children is also relatively low, because low-income families with children are typically eligible for insurance through Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The age group least likely to have health insurance are in their 20s and 30s.
This report from the Census Bureau is about documenting patterns, not drawing policy conclusions.  But I'll add that the gains that have been made in expanding health insurance coverage are costing the US government about $110 billion per year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.  As I've written in the past, I support expanded spending for this reason, given the very limited array of policy options actually available. But I do have a number of qualms.

For example, a number of recipients of public health insurance or insurance subsidies might prefer a lower level of health insurance and more income in their pocket for other purposes--but that choice isn't available to them. Employer-provided health insurance in the United States is an untaxed fringe benefit that cost the US Treasury $266 billion in 2016, which encourages employers and employees to provide compensation in the form of health insurance and helps propel the ongoing rise in health care costs. Finally, the rate of uninsurance has fallen by less than one-half since the provisions of the Affordable Care Act went into effect. Thus, the problem that millions of Americans lack health insurance is far from resolved.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"Rationality is an Assumption I Make About Other People"

Self-aware people recognize that they sometimes act irrationally. So how can self-aware economists assume that other people act rationally? Here's how David D. Friedman answered that question in his 1996 book Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life (pp. 4-5).
"Suppose someone is rational only half the time. Since there is generally one right way of doing things and many wrong ways, the rational behavior can be predicted but the irrational cannot. If we assume he is rational, we predict his behavior accurately about half the time--far from perfect, but a lot better than nothing. If I could do that well at the racetrack I would be a very rich man. 
“One summer, a colleague asked me why I had not bought a parking permit. I replied that not having a convenient place to park made me more likely to ride my bike. He accused me of inconsistency. As a believer in rationality, I should be able to make the correct choice between sloth and exercise without first rigging the game. My response was that rationality is an assumption I make about other people. I know myself well enough to allow for the consequences of my own irrationality. But for the vast mass of my fellow humans, about whom I know very little, rationality is the best predictive assumption available.
"One reason to assume rationality is that it predicts behavior better than any alternative assumption. Another is that, when predicting a market or a mob, what matters is not the behavior of individuals but the summed behavior of many. If irrational behavior is random, its effects may cancel out. 
"A third reason is that we are often dealing not with a random set of people but with people selected for the particular role they are playing. If firms picked CEOs at random, Bill Gates would still be a programmer and Microsoft would have done a much worse job than it did of maximizing its profits. But people who do not want to maximize profits or do not know how are unlikely to get the job. If they do get it, perhaps through an accident of inheritance, they are unlikely to keep it. If they do keep it, their companies are likely to go on a downhill slide. So the people who run companies can be safely assumed to know what they are doing--generally and on average. And since businesses that lose money eventually shut down, the assumption of rational profit maximization turns out to be a pretty good way of explaining and predicting the behavior of firms."

Monday, September 11, 2017

Interview with Jesse Shapiro: Media and Political Bias

Renee Haltom interviews Jesse Shapiro on the topic of media bias and political bias in Econ Focus,  published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond (2nd Quarter 2017, pp. 24-29).  The entire interview is worth reading, but here are a few points that caught my eye. The headings are my words, and the explanations are Shapiro.

Newspaper political bias is more likely to reflect readership, rather than bias of owners.
"What we were trying to figure out is which newspapers are right-leaning and which newspapers are left-leaning and by how much. In the context of the news media in the United States, there isn't really a training set. So we took an idea that was developed by Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo to use the Congressional Record as the training set. We have a lot of text by speakers who have a known political affiliation — what party they belong to and how they vote on issues. Then we find the phrases that are diagnostic of the speaker's party. We came up with things like "death tax" for Republicans and "estate tax" for Democrats, or "personal retirement accounts" for Republicans and "private retirement accounts" for Democrats, or "the war in Iraq" for Democrats and "the war on terror" for Republicans. We could then look for those keywords or key phrases in newspapers and answer the question: If this newspaper were a speaker in Congress, would it be more likely to be affiliated with the Republican Party or the Democratic Party? That's our quantitative answer to how right-leaning or left-leaning a newspaper is. ...
"What we found is that newspapers with a more Republican customer base are much more Republican than newspapers in more Democratic markets. And once you control for geography, there's very little evidence of an influence of owner ideology — whether you measure that by the positions of the other newspapers owned by that owner or by the owner's donations to different political parties. There really isn't much evidence that the owner plays a big role in how a newspaper slants the news.
There is less ideological segregation in online media than you might have thought. 
"Think of an online news outlet, like a blog, as a neighborhood, and let's measure who's in that neighborhood: What fraction of those people would self-identify as conservative? What fraction would self-identify as liberal? And let's calculate how segregated is this universe, how segregated is the Internet. To what extent are people visiting news sites that are only populated by other people like them ideologically?
"We found that the extent of segregation on the Internet is surprisingly low. It's certainly true that people gravitate to like-minded sources. So for example, has a more conservative audience than 
"But the Internet is not radically different from traditional media. Take the fraction of the audience on a given news site that is conservative and call that the conservativeness of the site. Then take the website visited by the average conservative on the average day — that website is about as conservative as Now do that same thing for the average liberal, that's about as liberal as If you were to read those two outlets, you wouldn't find that they're radically different.
"In fact, we find that isolation is very rare in the data. We have individual-level data on users on the Internet. People who get all of their news from outlets to the left of, say, the New York Times are very unusual. Likewise, people who get all of their news from sites to the right of Fox News are extremely rare. Folks that go to a fringe conservative site like are more likely to go to than readers of Yahoo News. The people who are consuming niche media are probably pretty politically engaged people, and therefore they want to read a lot of things. So in the end, the picture is a lot more muted than what people have feared."
Use of online news and social media is not correlated with political polarization. 
"We just compare trends in polarization for groups of people that have high or low propensities to use the Internet and social media. Our favorite and most important comparison is with respect to age. People who are 75 years and over rarely use social media and don't report getting a lot of political information online. People who are 18 to 25 frequently use social media and report getting a lot of political information online. So if you thought that social media was contributing to the rise in polarization, what you would expect to see in the data is that polarization is rising especially fast for younger Americans — and if anything, the story is the opposite. The rise in polarization is similar between the relatively old and the relatively young, and if anything, maybe polarization is rising faster among the relatively old. So in that sense the data don't line up with the hypothesis that social media is driving the rise in polarization.
"I think the effect of the Internet on polarization remains an open question. We're arguing that it doesn't appear that social media is accounting for the increase in polarization, but we haven't offered a constructive account of what is driving it. Until we have a better understanding of that, it's hard to rule anything out."
Political phrases have become more specialized and identifiable by party affiliation over time. 
"So what we did is try to figure out, for every session of Congress and every point in time, how easily a neutral observer could tell whether someone is a Republican or Democrat based on how they talk. We took the entire Congressional Record and used computer scripts to turn it into quantitative data about the use of phrases. Then we took the counts of phrases by every speaker and every session of Congress back to the 1870s and fed that through a model of speech. The model can tell us, at every point in time, how informative your speech is about your party.
"What we find is that in the 1870s, if I give you a minute of random speech from somebody in Congress, you're going to guess his party correctly about 54 percent of the time, only modestly higher than chance. In the late 1980s, you'd be doing a little bit better, but barely. By the 2000s, the number is closer to 75 percent. Something enormous changes between the late 1980s and the 2000s to cause the parties to diverge tremendously in how they're talking — many more phrases like "death tax" and "estate tax."
"The timing of the change coincides with the "Contract with America" and the Republican takeover in the 104th Congress in 1994. That was a watershed moment in political marketing. It showed the power of language to frame a set of issues and craft a narrative that could be very powerful in winning elections and changing policy views. In the wake of that, strategies on both sides crystallized around trying to have a very consistent message and use very consistent language to try and influence how voters saw the issues. I think that's what's reflected in the data.
"In terms of implications, one speculative possibility is that the fact that Republicans and Democrats are speaking differently to each other might contribute to hostility. It might make it harder for them to find common ground or recognize positions on which they do agree. That's not something that we show in the study, but that's one not-so-optimistic possibility suggested by it."

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Netherlands: The #2 Food Exporter in the World

Densely populated Netherlands, with 17 million people and a GDP similar to the state of Illinois, is the second-largest exporter of food products in the world as measured by volume of sales. Frank Viviano explains in "This Tiny Country Feeds the World: The Netherlands has become an agricultural giant by showing what the future of farming could look like," which appears in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Essentially, Netherlands does it with high-tech farming and greenhouses, which enable very high yields. The online version of the essay has a number of remarkable photographs. Here's one showing a farmer's home surrounded by greenhouses:

The essay has lots of details and is worth reading in full, but the main points that jump out at me are that yields of many crops are vastly higher while environmental effects are lower. And while the high-tech agricultural model cannot be directly applied to every crop in every country (of course!), it does offer lessons that can be much more broadly applied.

For example, the Dutch are the world's top exporters of tomatoes, potatoes, and onions, and second-largest overall in vegetables (by value of sales). "More than a third of all global trade in vegetable seeds originates in the Netherlands. Some of the example read like science fiction: 15 varieties of tomato plants that are 20 feet tall, growing not in soil but in fibers spun from basalt and chalk.

Meanwhile, the plentiful use of sensors and enviromental controls means that many "have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90 percent. They’ve almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 percent."

Of course, the Dutch expertise cannot simply be tranplanted to other places. Part of the technology is a use of geothermal energy--plentiful in Netherlands--to keep greenhouses at a reasonably consistent temperature. Another issue is that the Dutch are (understandably) focused on vegetable crops with relatively high values, more than on the field crops that are food staples around the world.

But there are lessons be learned, and probably the main one is the importance of research and development, even in an industry like agriculture that may seem fairly mature already. Apparently in the Netherlands, developments in high-tech agriculture and are facilitated by Wageningen University & Research. Instead of a US-style Silicon Valley, they aspire to a Food Valley. Moreover, there are now "a thousand WUR projects in more than 140 countries." However, "Less than 5 percent of the world’s estimated 570 million farms have access to a soil lab."

In the big picture, a crucial issue for the world economy is how to feed a world population that is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 or so. For some earlier posts on aspects of this topic, see:

Friday, September 8, 2017

Middle East Economic Challenges (as the Role of Fossil Fuels Declines)

The Middle East and North Africa region contains about half of the world's proven reserves of oil and natural gas. This has already proven to be a mixed blessing for economic growth in the region, and in a world economy where many countries are making efforts to reduce carbon-emitting sources of energy, a dependence on production of fossil fuels will be even more problematic. Abdelhak, Bassou, Mario Filadoro, Larabi Jaidi, Marion Jansen, Yassine Msadfa, and Simone Tagliapietra consider these isues in "Towards EU-MENA Shared Prosperity," a report recently co-published by the European think tank Breugel and the Moroccan think tank OCP Policy Center (which receives funding through Office Chérifien des Phosphates, a Morocco-based mining company).

The report offers a reminder that while oil and gas money is intertwined with the economy of the Middle East and North Africa region, the energy resources are not evenly distributed across countries.  Countries like Libya, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are highly dependent on oil, while others like Egypt and Jordan are actually oil importers.
For the oil-rich countries of this region, oil tends to be a very large share of government revenues and of exports. In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, more than 60% of the citizen workforce (that is, not counting immigrant workers from other countries) work in the government sector.

But countries that are heavily dependent on natural resources, and especially oil reserves, have often found themselves without much economic growth. Around the world, Nigeria, Angola, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia have examples of some extraordinary wealth for the few, but it's hard to make the case that This pattern is so common that it is sometimes called the "natural resources curse" or the "Dutch disease," after Netherlands experienced a slowdown in economic growth after tapping into North Sea natural gas resources. For an overall discussion, I recommend the article by Anthony J. Venables,"Using Natural Resources for Development: Why Has It Proven So Difficult?" in the Winter 2016 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Or you can check an earlier blog post on the subject, "The Natural Resources Curse" (October 27, 2011), discussing an article by Jeffrey Frankel.

The present report looks at both economic and political causes of the resource curse. On the economic side, it cites "Resource Curse Theory":
"Richard M. Auty (1993) formulated the Resource Curse Theory to describe the reasons why natural resource-abundant countries often perform poorly in economic and political terms. He claimed this can happen for several reasons, such as the presence of weak institutions, commodity price volatility, conflicts and the so-called ‘Dutch disease’ – a perverse mechanism by which the increased revenues from natural resource discoveries lead to appreciation of the local currency, thus negatively affecting the exports of all other sectors in the economy."
They supplement this argument with "rentier state theory":
The RST [rentier state theory] was first postulated by Hussein Mahdavy in 1970, in the context of a discussion on the evolution of economic development in the Middle East in general, and in Iran in particular. Mahdavy (1970) defined as rentier states those countries that receive on a regular basis substantial amounts of external rents, which have little to do with the production processes in their domestic economies. Building on Mahdavy’s seminal study, Hussein Beblawi and Giacomo Luciani in 1987 systematised the RST, and developed it into a widely-accepted tool to interpret theMENA political economy and – more broadly– the political economies of all the world’s oil-producing countries ... As Hvidt (2013) outlines, MENA rentier states easily give up their well-argued and planned policies when under pressure and fall back on established ways of doing business, namely through patronage and the predominant role of the public sector."
The combination of these factors creates some unpleasant economic patterns behind. In the long run, productivity growth is what improves the standard of living in an economy. But as the figure shows, countries in the Middle East and North Africa region that export a lot of oil have typically seen a decline in productivity growth since 1980, while those with little in the way of energy resources have tended to see a rise in productivity. Energy resources are not inevitably a curse--as Venables and Frankel explain in the articles mentioned above--but with a rentier state and an otherwise weak economy, they can be.

The pressures to find substitutes for fossil fuels are on the risk. Production of fossil fuels outside the Middle East using unconventional methods like hydraulic fracturing are on the rise, too. Energy exports from the Middle East don't seem likely to vanish, but they also don't seem likely to grow, and oil and gas prices seem likely to remain low. The economic foundation of the Middle Eastern oil exporters is being shaken. Of course, these countries have been trumpeting plans for diversifying their economies for a long time, but without a lot of real effect. As the report notes: "However, it should be outlined that these kinds of economic diversification plans have been part of MENA oil exporters’ rhetoric for a long time. For instance, Kuwait’s government was already discussing the need for economic diversification during the 1950s. After 60 years, oil continues to represent more than 60 percent of Kuwait’s GDP, and more than 70 percent of its fiscal revenues."

The report focuses on the possibility of generating an alternative source of economic growth for this region through participation in global supply chains. Why this approach? The countries that have experience growth "miracles" in recent decades (Japan, South Korea, China, and others) have typically done so with expanded exports. The typical pattern was that countries started in low-tech manufacturing (like textiles), moved up to intermediate level assembly lines, and then moved to higher-tech products like information technology. But this economic ladder of success may not function very well in the future. The difficulty is what Dani Rodrik has called "premature deindustrialization," referring to the fact that the low-tech manufacturing jobs that used to be a point of entry into the global economy are now being taken over by automation and robots.

A possible alternative for developing countries in search of their own growth miracle is to integrate into global supply chains, and the Middle East and North Africa region does have some success stories along these line: for example, the report offers some detailed discussion of ties from Morocco and Tunisia to the global automotive and aeronautics sectors. But more broadly, the report has some tough language about why this global supply chain approach will be difficult for the countries of this region:
"A closer look at import and export flows of MENA countries suggests that MENA trade has at least two characteristics that do not put it in pole position for trade in the 21st century. First, the MENA region is characterized by an apparent lack of regional integration, which is important to attract foreign investment (ITC,2017). ... [E]xports and imports within the MENA region represent only 10% and 13% respectively of total flows.
"Second, the region is characterized by a relative lack of integration with “factory China” and “factory Germany”. The relationship with China and Germany is important given the role these countries play within regional value chains. ... [G]lobal trade in parts and components is mostly centred around three important hubs: Germany, China and the US. This distribution suggests that international value chains tend to be regionally diversified, spinning around Factory Europe, Factory Asia and Factory US (Baldwin and Lopez-Gonzalez, 2015). ...
"One of the weaknesses characterizing the MENA region is the relatively weak capacity of firms to meet internationally recognized standards and regulations. ITC (2016) pointed out that the MENA region is the weakest performing region measured by the percentage of firms meeting internationally recognized certificates. This performance is notably driven by the very weak performance of small firms in this criterion. When their products do not meet international quality standards, firms find it very difficult, if not impossible, to find international buyers. ...
"The lack of integration within the MENA region is a well-known phenomenon and – if unaddressed – may continue to be a drag on the region’s integration into global markets. Non-tariff measures have been found to present an important explanation for this lack of integration. Non-tariff measures (NTMs) create heavy burdens for regional trade. Many of these barriers occur “before the border”, applied by the home country prior to goods being exported. A sizeable share of NTMs affects domestic and regional trade. In the case of the European Union, 36% of exporters report that they face restrictive regulations or related procedural obstacles to trade while exporting or importing goods. In the Arab States region, 44% of all trading companies report that they face burdensome NTMs – both within and outside the region. ... 
"An example of a sector with significant unexploited growth potential for the MENA region is fresh and processed food (ITC, 2016). Much of this is for trade within the region itself. Yet, the MENA region imposes, on average, the largest number of technical regulations on fresh and processed food imports – nearly four times more than other regions. Reforming those regulations could be very beneficial for the region."
To put it bluntly, when countries can't find a way to trade food products with their nearest neighbors, their prospects for being a reliable part of farther-flung global supply chains seem limited.  I have no magic answer for development priorities in this region. But as I've written before, population growth in this region means that there is a need for about 60 million new jobs in the next decade or so. The oil industry isn't going to provide those jobs, both because it won't be growing and because it's highly capital-intensive. Governments aren't going to be able to provide those jobs, because both oil-exporters and oil-importers of the region lack the resources to do so. There is a dire need for the development of private sector firms not focused on oil and gas. A basic and preliminary step for job creation would be to reduce trade barriers for trade within the region itself. 

For some other posts on economic development issues in the Middle East and North Africa region, see: 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Limited Exposure of the US Economy to Trade

Listening to complaints about the effects of globalization on the US economy, one might be tempted to believe that the US economy is more exposed to the pressures of global trade than most other countries, and that the US market is uniquely open to world trade. countries.

But these beliefs are not true. A common pattern is that large economies have lower levels of global trade relative to GDP--because so much of their economy happens inside their own  borders. Moreover, countries like the US with some geographic separation from most other substantial economies have less trade. Thus, the ratio of exports/GDP for the world economy is about 30%. But the export/GDP ratio for the US is only about 13%. Japan has an export/GDP ratio of about 17%. Canada is near the world average, with an export/GDP ratio of 31%, while Mexico is above the world average with an export/GDP ratio of 38%. For a small economy in the middle of the European Union, like Belgium, the export/GDP ratio is 84%.

Moreover, US markets are not especially open to international trade. The evidence comes from the fourth edition of the International Chamber of Commerce Open Markets Index 2017. The index rates 75 large economies across the world in four broad areas: observed openness to trade; trade policy settings; foreign direct investment (FDI) openness; and trade-enabling infrastructure. These scores are combined to a ranking on a scale from 1 (least open) to 6 (most open). The US economy is in a tie for 40th place in openness. Here are the rankings:

Among the group of larger economies around the world known as the G20, the US ranks 8th, behind Japan, Germany, Canada, Korea, and others in this measure of trade openness. In the more detailed analysis, the US scores higher in the categories of explicit trade policy and trade-enabling infrastructure, about average on openness to foreign direct investment, and below average on "observed openness to trade."

Globalization and trade are forces of economic disruption and change, and those forces have grown stronger in recent decades. But the notion that the enormous US economy is vulnerable to international trade or especially buffeted by the winds of trade just doesn't hold up.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Breaking Down the Black-White Wage Gap

It's just a fact that blacks fare worse than whites in the US labor market using basic comparisons like average wage levels or unemployment rates. However, controversy arises in the possible explanations for these differences. It's easy enough to put forward potential hypotheses. For example, does the wage gap mostly represent discrimination by employers between equally well-qualified applicants? Or does it reflect a lower average level of education for black workers, which in turn might in part trace back to societal discrimination in housing patterns or methods of school funding? Is it differences in occupational choices, which might in part trace back to patterns of expectations in social networks?

The big questions are hard to answer. But Mary C. Daly, Bart Hobijn, and Joseph H. Pedtke set the stage for a more insightful discussion in their short essay, "Disappointing Facts about the Black-White Wage Gap," written as an "Economic Letter" for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (September 5, 2017, 2017-26). Here are  a couple of figures showing the black-white wage gap, and then seeking to explain what share of that gap is associated with differences in state of residence, education, part-time work, industry/occupation, and age. The first figure shows the wage gap for black and white men; the second for black and white women.



Here are some thoughts on these patterns:

1) The black-white wage gap is considerably larger for men (about 25%) than for women (about 15%). Also, the wage gaps seem to have risen since the 1980s.

2) The three biggest factors associated with the wage gap seem to be education level, industry/occupation, and "unexplained."

3) The "unexplained" share is rising over time time. As the authors explain: "Perhaps more troubling is the fact that the growth in this unexplained portion accounts for almost all of the growth in the gaps over time. For example, in 1979 about 8 percentage points of the earnings gap for men was unexplained by readily measurable factors, accounting for over a third of the gap. By 2016, this portion had risen to almost 13 percentage points, just under half of the total earnings gap. A similar pattern holds for black women, who saw the gaps between their wages and those of their white counterparts more than triple over this time to 18 percentage points in 2016, largely due to factors outside of our model. This implies that factors that are harder to measure—such as discrimination, differences in school quality, or differences in career opportunities—are likely to be playing a role in the persistence and widening of these gaps over time." The authors also cite this more detailed research paper with similar findings.

4) In looking at the black-white wage gap for women, it's quite striking that this gap was relatively small back in the 1980s, at only about 5%, and that observable factors like education and industry/occupation explained more than 100% of the wage gap at the time. But as the black-white wage gap for women increased starting in the 1990s, an "unexplained" gap opens up.

5) It is tempting to treat the "unexplained" category as an imperfect but meaningful measure of racial discrimination, but it's wise to be quite cautious about such an interpretation. On one side, the "unexplained" category may overstate discrimination, because it doesn't include other possible variables that affect wages (for example, one could include previous years of lifetime work experience, or length of tenure at a current job, scores on standardized tests, or many other variables). In addition, the variables that are included like level of education are being measured in broad terms, and so it is possible that, say, a blacks and whites with a college education are not the same in their skills and background. On the other side, the "unexplained" category could easily understate the level of discrimination. After all, education levels and industry/occupation outcomes don't happen in a vacuum, but are a result of the income, education, and jobs of family members. For this reason, noting that a wage gap is associated with some different in education or industry/occupation may reflect aspects of social discrimination. The kinds of calculations presented here are useful, but they don't offer final answers.

In short, the black-white wage gap is rising, not falling. The wage gap is also less associated with basic measures like level of education or industry/occupation than it was before. I can hypothesize a number of explanations for this pattern, but none of my hypotheses are cheerful ones.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Some Economics for Labor Day

For those who need a dose of economics with their end-of-summer Labor Day family cookout (and really, don't we all need that?), here's a sampling of some earlier posts.

1) "Origins of Labor Day" (September 7, 2015)

The first Labor Day march and celebration almost didn't happen, for lack of a band. Also, was Maguire or McGuire the one who had the idea for such a holiday?

Paying unemployment insurance is a "passive" labor market policy. Assistance with job search and training is an "active" policy. Compared with other high-income economies, the US does relatively little "active" labor market policy--and should consider doing more. See also this follow-up post, "Improving How Job Markets Function: Active Labor Market Policies" (December 30, 2016)

The length of time that a US worker has been in that person's present job--that is, their "job tenure"--seems to be rising. In theory, this could be good news, if workers were finding better and more rewarding job matches. But a more likely explanation seems to be that longer job tenure is arising from a less dynamic economy and a less fluid labor market.

4) Some Economics of Parental Leave (March 3, 2017)

The US has far less parental leave than other high-income countries. But figuring out the effects of parental leave is tricky, because in some countries (like Denmark) it is enacted as a way of encouraging parents (and women in particular) to remain connected with the labor force, while in other countries (like Italy) it is enacted as a way of encouraging parents (and women in particular) to stay home with children. Moreover, the effects seem to vary depending on the length of parental leave and if the leave is paid (and if so, how much!) In "Facing the Costs of Paid Parental Leave" (June 12, 2017), I discuss a proposal from a bipartisan group for expanded US parental leave. 

A National Academy of Sciences report looks at how technology is altering work relationships, the mixture of US occupations, and contributing to wage inequality -- but also how, despite literally centuries of gloomy predictions, it is not decimating the number of jobs. 

The US unemployment rate has now been under 5% for two years. Here are some thoughts from interviews with three different economists about the current situation of US labor markets in terms of shifts in workplace interactions, job search, interactions of jobs and technology.  

Friday, September 1, 2017

Adam Smith on the Benefits of Public Education

As one more school year gets underway, here's the argument from Adam Smith about the benefits of public education. All the way back in 1776, long before public education was widespread, Adam Smith made the case in The Wealth of Nations for the government to provide public education for everyone, partly on the grounds that it would benefit the economy to have more educated workers, but also partly on the grounds that in a political context,  educated people are "less liable ... to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition" and "less apt to be misled" in a political context. As usual when quoting Smith, I turn here to the version of The Wealth of Nations freely available online at the Library of Economics and Liberty website. In Book V, Smith wrote: 
The more they are instructed the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations, frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders. An instructed and intelligent people, besides, are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one. ... They are more disposed to examine, and more capable of seeing through, the interested complaints of faction and sedition, and they are, upon that account, less apt to be misled into any wanton or unnecessary opposition to the measures of government. In free countries, where the safety of government depends very much upon the favourable judgment which the people may form of its conduct, it must surely be of the highest importance that they should not be disposed to judge rashly or capriciously concerning it.
This passage comes at the end of a more extended discussion. For additional context, here's a longer cut from paragraphs 183-190:
But though the common people cannot, in any civilized society, be so well instructed as people of some rank and fortune, the most essential parts of education, however, to read, write, and account, can be acquired at so early a period of life that the greater part even of those who are to be bred to the lowest occupations have time to acquire them before they can be employed in those occupations. For a very small expence the public can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education.

The public can facilitate this acquisition by establishing in every parish or district a little school, where children may be taught for a reward so moderate that even a common labourer may afford it; the master being partly, but not wholly, paid by the public, because, if he was wholly, or even principally, paid by it, he would soon learn to neglect his business. ... There is scarce a common trade which does not afford some opportunities of applying to it the principles of geometry and mechanics, and which would not therefore gradually exercise and improve the common people in those principles, the necessary introduction to the most sublime as well as to the most useful sciences.

The public can encourage the acquisition of those most essential parts of education by giving small premiums, and little badges of distinction, to the children of the common people who excel in them. ...

A man without the proper use of the intellectual faculties of a man, is, if possible, more contemptible than even a coward, and seems to be mutilated and deformed in a still more essential part of the character of human nature. Though the state was to derive no advantage from the instruction of the inferior ranks of people, it would still deserve its attention that they should not be altogether uninstructed. The state, however, derives no inconsiderable advantage from their instruction. The more they are instructed the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations, frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders. An instructed and intelligent people, besides, are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one. They feel themselves, each individually, more respectable and more likely to obtain the respect of their lawful superiors, and they are therefore more disposed to respect those superiors. They are more disposed to examine, and more capable of seeing through, the interested complaints of faction and sedition, and they are, upon that account, less apt to be misled into any wanton or unnecessary opposition to the measures of government. In free countries, where the safety of government depends very much upon the favourable judgment which the people may form of its conduct, it must surely be of the highest importance that they should not be disposed to judge rashly or capriciously concerning it.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

What Students Owe Teachers: Trust, Docility, Effort, Thinking

James V.  Schall, who has long been a Professor Political Philosophy at Georgetown University, has argued that students have obligations to teachers, not just the other way around. Specifically, these obligations are "trust, docility, effort, thinking." It's one of those claims that I'm not sure I agree with 100%, but I agree with it enough to pass it along as worthy of reflection. This is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Schall's 1988 book, Another Sort of Learning.
Students have obligations to teachers. I know this sounds like strange doctrine ... [Let me state the obligations of students. The first obligation, particularly operative during the first weeks of a new semester, is a moderately good will toward the teacher, a trust, a confidence that is willing to admit to oneself that the teacher has probably been through the matter, and, unlike the student, knows where it all leads. I do not want here to neglect the dangers of the ideological professor, of course, the one who imposes his mind on what is. But to be a student requires a certain modicum of humility.
Yet to be a student also requires a certain amount of faith in oneself, a certain self-insight that makes a person realize that he can learn something that seems unlearnable in the beginning. This trust in the teacher also implies that the student, if he has trouble understanding, makes this known to the teacher. Teachers just assume that everything they say or illustrate is luminously clear. A student does a teacher a favor by saying, "I do not understand this". But the student should first really try to understand before speaking. ... 
The student ought to have the virtue of docility. He owes the teacher his capacity of being taught. We must allow ourselves to be taught. We can actually refuse this openness of our own free wills. This refusal is mostly a spiritual thing with roots of the profoundest sort in metaphysics and ethics. ... When a teacher, crusty as he may be, sees his students leave his classroom for the last time at the end of some fall or spring semester, he wants them to carry with them not so much the memories of his jokes – though he hopes they laughed – or his tests, but the internal possession of the subject matter itself. The student ought to become independent of the teacher to the point of even forgetting his name, but, not the truth he learned. ...
So the student owes to his teacher the effort of study. A good teacher ought to exercise a mild coercion on his students, a kind of pressure that takes into account their lethargy and fallenness and distractions, a pressure that indicates that the professor wants the students to learn, lets them know it is important, a pressure that has a purpose of guiding the students through the actual thought process, the actual exercise of the mind on the matter at hand. Few students, on being given The Republic of Plato or The Confessions of St. Augustine to read, will bounce right up to their room, shut off the stereo, cancel a date, and proceed to ponder the eternal verities in these books. The teacher who assigns such books – and a university in which they are not assigned has little claim to that noble name – always must wonder if the intrinsic fascination, the thinking through of such works will somehow reach into his students' minds. He hopes that the next time they read Plato or Augustine, they will do so because they want to, because they are challenged by them, and not because they might receive a C- grade if they do not.
Thus, the student owes the teacher trust, docility, effort, thinking.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

How the Jargonauts Keep Normies in their Place

I spend most of my working life, and even a disturbingly high share of my private life, trying to move back and forth from academic jargon to a more widely-shared human vocabulary. Maximillian Alvarez offers some pungent thoughts on the temptation of academics to become entombed in their jaron in "The Accidental Elitist: Academia is too important to be left to academics," posted February 22, 2017 at The Baffler website. At this time this was written, Alvarez was a PhD candidate in History and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan.
"There’s a huge difference, for instance, between defending academic jargon as such and defending academic jargon as the typical academic so often uses it. ... It’s not that things like specialized disciplinary jargon are inherently bad or unnecessary. They are bad, however, when they’ve traveled into that special category of identity markers, which so often allow people in contemporary academia to at least act like their primary purpose is to confirm their identity as academics. Like the tweed jacket, things like jargon help form a template of accepted behaviors and traits that qualify one’s identity as an academic, and such qualification becomes the primary justification for keeping them around. You’re not an academic unless you use a certain kind of jargon when you speak and write; you’re not an academic unless you publish in certain journals, etc.
"The scales tip a certain way and being an academic becomes less about what you do, how you do it, and whom you do it for, and more about where you do it and how you look and sound doing it. There are still other, more noble parts of the profession (advancing human knowledge, shaping the minds of tomorrow, etc.), but on a daily basis they can slip unnoticed into the background of secondary concerns. ... The sinister part of all this, then, occurs when, even if you don’t realize it, you end up being more willing to serve your public image and professional ego than you are inclined to put yourself out for the sake of other people. ...
"The perpetual conceit of academics in the humanities is that translating their work into a more accessible vernacular will “dumb down” what are necessarily complex subjects. Important stuff will be lost. Behind this conceit, though, is an implicit presumption from just about every academic that they could perform this kind of translation if pressed to. It has been one of the great sources of my disillusionment with academia to realize that a staggering majority of jargonauts, when pressed, actually can’t. ...

"[M]any academics will subconsciously fall back on the “complex” nature of our work as a way to put normies back in their place and get them to stop asking questions. Remember, we’re neurotic, anxious, self-conscious people. We have our own defense mechanisms and will do much to deflect the realization that very often, the problem is not that our work is so complex that it can only be understood through disciplinary jargon, but that we can’t or don’t want to do the work of “putting it in terms others would understand.” Or, even worse, we fear that making ourselves easier to understand will take away some of our social capital, our special aura as keepers of the densest secrets. We fear that, if we actually could explain our dissertation and book projects to others in simple, but still precise, ways, we might face that most troubling question—“So what?”—without being able to come up with a remotely plausible answer."

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Timidity and Buzzard Mentality of Professors

One of my favorite scathing essays about the dysfunctionalities of academic writing and academic life is the "Dancing with professors: the trouble with academic prose," by Patricia N. Limerick, a history professor at the University of Colorado, which appeared almost 25 years ago in the NY Times Book Review (October 31, 1993). It's available various places on the web (like here and here). It's not at all fair-minded, but it's funny--which is better--and it has enough truth to carry some sting. Here's Limerick:
In ordinary life, when a listener cannot understand what someone has said, this is the usual exchange: 
Listener: I cannot understand what you are saying. 
Speaker: Let me try to say it more clearly. 
But in scholarly writing in the late 20th century, other rules apply. This is the implicit exchange:
Reader. I cannot understand what you are saying. 
Academic Writer. Too bad. The problem is that you are an unsophisticated and untrained reader. If you were smarter, you would understand me. 
The exchange remains implicit, because no one wants to say: "This doesn't make any sense," for fear that the response, "It would, if you were smarter," might actually be true. 
While we waste our time fighting over ideological conformity in the scholarly world, horrible writing remains a far more important problem. For all their differences, most right-wing scholars and most left-wing scholars share a common allegiance to a cult of obscurity. Left, right and center all hide behind the idea that unintelligible prose indicates a sophisticated mind. The politically correct and the politically incorrect come together in the violence they commit against the English language.  ...
Ten years ago, I heard a classics professor say the single most important thing -- in my opinion--that anyone has said about professors: "We must remember," he declared, "that professors are the ones nobody wanted to dance with in high school."
This is an insight that lights up the universe--or at least the university. It is a proposition that every entering freshman should be told, and it is certainly a proposition that helps to explain the problem of academic writing. What one sees in professors, repeatedly, is exactly the manner that anyone would adopt after a couple of sad evenings sidelined under the crepe-paper streamers in the gym, sitting on a folding chair while everyone else danced. Dignity, for professors, perches precariously on how well they can convey this message: "I am immersed in some very important thoughts, which unsophisticated people could not even begin to understand. Thus, I would not want to dance, even if one of you unsophisticated people were to ask me." 
Think of this, then, the next time you look at an unintelligible academic text. "I would not want the attention of a wide reading audience, even if a wide audience were to ask for me." Isn't that exactly what the pompous and pedantic tone of the classically academic writer conveys? Professors are often shy, timid and even fearful people, and under those circumstances, dull, difficult prose can function as a kind of protective camouflage. When you write typical academic prose, it is nearly impossible to make a strong, clear statement The benefit here is that no one can attack your position, say you are wrong or even raise questions about the accuracy of what you have said, if they cannot tell what you have said. In those terms, awful, indecipherable prose is its own form of armor, protecting the fragile, sensitive thoughts of timid souls. ...
Fortunately, we have available the world's most important and illuminating story on the difficulty of persuading people to break out of habits of timidity, caution and unnecessary fear. I borrow this story from Larry McMurtry, one of my rivals in the interpreting of the American West, though I am putting this story to a use that Mr. McMurtry did not intend. 
In a collection of his essays, "In a Narrow Grave," Mr. McMurtry wrote about the weird process of watching his book "Horseman, Pass By" being turned into the movie ''Hud." He arrived in the Texas Panhandle a week or two after filming had started, and he was particularly anxious to learn how the buzzard scene had gone. In that scene, Paul Newman was supposed to ride up and discover a dead cow, look up at a tree branch lined with buzzards and, in his distress over the loss of the cow, fire his gun at one of the buzzards. At that moment, all of the other buzzards were supposed to fly away into the blue Panhandle sky. 
But when Mr. McMurtry asked people how the buzzard scene had gone, all he got, he said, were "stricken looks."
The first problem, it turned out, had to do with the quality of the available local buzzards--who proved to be an excessively scruffy group. So more appealing, more photogenic buzzards had to be flown in from some distance and at considerable expense. 
But then came the second problem: how to keep the buzzards sitting on the tree branch until it was time for their cue to fly. That seemed easy. Wire their feet to the branch, and then, after Paul Newman fires his shot, pull the wire, releasing their feet, thus allowing them to take off. 
But, as Mr. McMurtry said in an important and memorable phrase, the film makers had not reckoned with the "mentality of buzzards." With their feet wired, the buzzards did not have enough mobility to fly. But they did have enough mobility to pitch forward.
So that's what they did: with their feet wired, they tried to fly, pitched forward and hung upside down from the dead branch, with their wings flapping.
I had the good fortune a couple of years ago to meet a woman who had been an extra for this movie, and she added a detail that Mr. McMurtry left out of his essay: namely, the buzzard circulatory system does not work upside down, and so, after a moment or two of napping, the buzzards passed out. 
Twelve buzzards hanging upside down from a tree branch: this was not what Hollywood wanted from the West, but that's what Hollywood had produced. 
And then we get to the second stage of buzzard psychology. After six or seven episodes of pitching forward, passing out, being revived, being replaced on the branch and pitching forward again, the buzzards gave up. Now, when you pulled the wire and released their feet, they sat there, saying in clear, nonverbal terms: "We tried that before. It did not work. We are not going to try it again." Now the film makers had to fly in a high-powered animal trainer to restore buzzard self-esteem. It was all a big mess; Larry McMurtry got a wonderful story out of it; and we, in turn, get the best possible parable of the workings of habit and timidity. 
How does the parable apply? In any and all disciplines, you go to graduate school to have your feet wired to the branch. There is nothing inherently wrong with that: scholars should have some common ground, share some background assumptions, hold some similar habits of mind. This gives you, quite literally, your footing. And yet, in the process of getting your feet wired, you have some awkward moments, and the intellectual equivalent of pitching forward and hanging upside down. That experience --  especially if you do it in a public place like a graduate seminar ­-- provides no pleasure. One or two rounds of that humiliation, and the world begins to seem like a very treacherous place. Under those circumstances, it does indeed seem to be the choice of wisdom to sit quietly on the branch, to sit without even the thought of flying, since even the thought might be enough to tilt the balance and set off another round of napping, fainting and embarrassment.
Yet when scholars get out of graduate school and get Ph.D.'s, and, even more important, when scholars get tenure, the wire is truly pulled. Their feet are free. They can fly wherever and whenever they like. Yet by then the second stage of buzzard psychology has taken hold -- and they refuse to fly. The wire is pulled, and yet the buzzards sit there, hunched and grumpy. If they teach in a university with a graduate program, they actively instruct young buzzards in the necessity of keeping their youthful feet on the branch.