Archive for the 'General' Category

Minimum Wage Study

“new evidence based on methods that let the data identify the appropriate control groups leads to stronger evidence of disemployment effects, with teen employment elasticities near −0.3. We conclude that the evidence still shows that minimum wages pose a tradeoff of higher wages for some against job losses for others, and that policymakers need to bear this tradeoff in mind when making decisions about increasing the minimum wage.” — David Neumark, J.M. Ian Salas, William Wascher, via Greg Mankiw

Quote Of The Day

“A few years back, Robert Ohsfeldt of Texas A&M and John Schneider of the University of Iowa asked the obvious question: what happens if you remove deaths from fatal injuries from the life expectancy tables? Among the 29 members of the OECD, the U.S. vaults from 19th place to…you guessed it…first. Japan, on the same adjustment, drops from first to ninth.” — Forbes Magazine Commentary

Quote Of The Day

“The Treasury Department announced earlier today that it’s ready to sell the 18 percent of General Motors that it still owns, which is going to leave the auto bailout as a large net loser for the government unless shares suddenly skyrocket up to almost $54 a share. By contrast, the bank bailout portion of TARP has turned a profit.” — Matthew Yglesias

Quote Of The Day

“One of the Obama arguments at the time was that the rush in the stimulus program was needed to avoid a Great Depression. This was and is highly doubtful (though, yes, it is widely accepted). The US economic emergency in late 2008 and early 2009 wasn’t really an aggregate demand crisis but a financial crisis. The chaotic failure of Lehman Brothers had led to an intense panic and credit squeeze. The Fed therefore needed to flood the markets with liquidity, which it rightly did, in order to unwind the panic. The Fed’s action was the real difference with 1933 (when the Fed allowed the banks to fail). It was the Fed, not the fiscal stimulus, which prevented a fall into depression.” — Jeffrey Sachs, Responding to Paul Krugman and Crude Keynesianism

Quote Of The Day

“Ironically, the minimum wage creates a reserve army of the unemployed. That in turn allows employers to be less thoughtful, helpful, and kind. It destroys the civilizing effect of competition by muting it. That encourages exploitation. It reduces the cost to employers of racism or cruelty. Before the increase, being obnoxious or racist made it much harder to find employees. A minimum wage makes it easier to indulge in bad behavior. The costs are lower. Before the minimum wage, a cruel, selfish employer might have had to mentor his employees or train them or be nice to them despite his nature. Now he won’t have to. He can still get workers to work for him. Even more cruelly, the minimum wage encourages workers to exploit themselves. They work harder and put up with more abuse from the boss because the minimum wage reduces the alternatives that are available.” — Economist Russ Roberts

Beverly Hills As The USA

Imagine that you lived in Beverly Hills, among the richest people in the United States. Some of your friends were the kids of executives at Fortune 500 companies. Others were the kids of famous Doctors, Lawyers, and some were the kids of hedge fund managers. While all relatively rich, assume there was quite a range of wealth from really rich, to filthy rich.

Further assume, that one day, a bleeding heart liberal starts feeling bad for the really rich. Her complaints are along the lines of: “The really rich can’t eat out at the $500/plate restaurants, they have to settle for the $100/plate restaurants, or, god forbid, make sandwiches at home”. Her complaints continue: “The really rich can’t afford the Lamborghini’s or Ferrari’s, they have to get by with the – GASP! – BMW’s and Mercedes Benz’s”. Worst yet, “the really rich actually have to live in mansions with no ocean view, or golf courses”. Most heartbreaking of all, “the really rich have to actually prioritize their lifestyle and set a budget. They can’t go to Europe on a moments notice, they can’t eat out everyday”.

Now further assume that said bleeding heart liberal decided to set up an “alleviate suffering” fund that took away from the filthy rich to give to the really rich. Such a fund would help equalize Beverly Hills and “bring people together”. But instead of making this fund voluntary, the bleeding heart liberal wanted to enforce this through the city. She wanted to make it a city tax that merely takes from the filthy rich and gives to the really rich. Her arguments, again, are to “alleviate suffering”.

What would your reaction be if you were suddenly transplanted to that society and debate? Would you support the “Beverly Hills tax”? I am not one of those that believes there are absolutely no circumstances that justify forcibly taking the wages of one to give to another. But such circumstances have to be met with atleast reasonable justification. Yet simply moving money around amongst the worlds richest people does not seem to me like an acceptable justification.

Such is the image that comes to mind whenever I have a discussion with a liberal about increasing redistribution via taxes to help the USA “poor”.  It’s the image my dad and uncles, who immigrated to the United States in their twenties from ranch life in the poorest parts of Mexico, gave me. It is certainly how they viewed me and my cousins growing up – no matter what our circumstances, be it growing up in Compton (as I did), living off of the income of mechanics, gardeners, or window tinters – we were all blessed beyond their wildest dreams. Where they had to eat tortillas off the dirt floor, work in fields in the scorching heat where there were no “sick days” or “vacation time”, even the McDonalds cashier can seem privileged. And this view isn’t far from reality. Even the “poor” in the United States are among the richest in the world (see here and here).

Food Shortages In Venezuela

The New York Times writes:

Venezuela is one of the world’s top oil producers at a time of soaring energy prices, yet shortages of staples like milk, meat and toilet paper are a chronic part of life here, often turning grocery shopping into a hit or miss proposition.

Some residents arrange their calendars around the once-a-week deliveries made to government-subsidized stores like this one, lining up before dawn to buy a single frozen chicken before the stock runs out. Or a couple of bags of flour. Or a bottle of cooking oil.

The shortages affect both the poor and the well-off, in surprising ways. A supermarket in the upscale La Castellana neighborhood recently had plenty of chicken and cheese — even quail eggs — but not a single roll of toilet paper. Only a few bags of coffee remained on a bottom shelf.

Asked where a shopper could get milk on a day when that, too, was out of stock, a manager said with sarcasm, “At Chávez’s house.”

At the heart of the debate is President Hugo Chávez’s socialist-inspired government, which imposes strict price controls that are intended to make a range of foods and other goods more affordable for the poor. They are often the very products that are the hardest to find.

Maybe this is why you don’t see lefties singing the Hugo Chavez praise anymore? Is it time yet for a little “I Told You So”?

Austan Goolsbee Is Blogging

His blog can be found here.

Mobility In Context

Brookings Institute Scott Winshop on mobility:

However, evidence on earnings mobility in the sense of where parents and children rank suggests that our uniqueness lies in how ineffective we are at lifting up men who were poor as children. In other words, we have no more downward mobility from the middle than other nations, no less upward mobility from the middle, and no less downward mobility from the top. Nor do we have less upward mobility from the bottom among women. Only in terms of low upward mobility from the bottom among men does the U.S. stand out.

Full article here.

The Progressive Magazine On Ha-Joon Chang’s Book

I got back from a five day trip to Chicago yesterday, and as such, was able to catch up on a lot of my magazine reading. A review that caught my attention was Amitabh Pal, of The Progressive Magazine, review of Ha-Joon Chang’s recent book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. For those unfamiliar with Ha-Joon Chang, he is a heterodox economist who is a prominent supporter of industrial policy – a view largely shunned by mainstream economists.

Amitabh Pal gives a list of the positives and negatives of the book (some I agree with, some I don’t) but the part of the review that most caught my attention was this part:

Chang’s Achilles heel is his fixation with industrial policy, which he views as the road to salvation for poorer nations. Only if countries protect their infant industries, nurture them in various ways, and allow them to mature can they ascend to prosperity, he says.

But a number of nations have tried this with little success, the biggest example being India, where family-run conglomerates used protectionist policies to instead foist the most shoddy, substandard products on hapless Indian consumers (the dominant car model until the late 1980s was based on a 1950s British Morris Oxford).

The obvious difference between India and Chang’s native  South Korea was that big business in India held sway over the state, rather than the other way around in South Korea, as delineated in Vivek Chibber’s Locked In Place: State-Building and Late Industrialization in India. Chang sidesteps such issues.

What I find most interesting is that  Amitabh Pal’s rebuttal is nearly identical to the standard economic criticism of industrial policy: namely, if a countries government is independent enough to properly implement industrial policy, the country likely doesn’t need it, and if the government is too corrupt, industrial policy only makes things worse.

I find it interesting that one of the most prominent proponents of industrial policy, in arguing for industrial policy, completely avoids dealing with a central criticism head on. But I admit, I have personally not read the book – so maybe Amitabh Pal completely missed it?

I cannot seem to find the online version of the review, but it was listed in the printed edition of April’s publication.

The Washing Machine

Hans Rosling’s Ted Talk about the Washing Machine revolution and what it means to environmentalists:

If You Were Bill Gates, How Would You Solve Poverty?

If you were Bill Gates and had ten billion dollars to spend to solve poverty, what would you do? David Henderson, an economist at the Naval Postgraduate School, posed precisely that question to various economists at his school and those of us that read his blog. This is what I wrote:

I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately. What is the best form of charity? Clearly, just giving a bum on the streets money is a waste. He’ll probably just spend it on alcohol and is he really reformable? Clearly you want the money to go to something that is an investment – that grows, like paying for a poor persons college. Not only do you give them money, but its money that actually solves their problems – long term. But even that has its flaws. After all, they are living in the United States – our “poor”, are richer than 90% of the world.
So then the answer has to do with the worlds poor – not USA’s poor. India, Africa, China, places like that. But you dont want to just give it away either – it robs them of the dignity that comes with “earning”. One thing that I thought about is that when you visit poor countries, and someone offers you a service – say wash your windows, or clean your tires – you tip BIG. Not only are you hitting the target group, but you are rewarding them for a service, and having people participate in the economy makes us all better.

But now were at three qualities of efficient charity: a) targets the clearly truly poor, b) an investment that grows and solves their poverty long term and c) one that gives dividends to the rest of us.

As contrarian as it sounds, I am convinced that the best form of charity is giving jobs and education to the worlds poorest countries – like China’s new growth and capitalist turn. As Tyler Cowen mentioned in his book Economic Stagnation, you get alot of immediate growth and return when a poor population is brought into the world economy – through education, jobs and industrialization. China is at the same stage that the United States was say 100 years ago. And we can expect the same returns – as more and more people are given the opportunity to advance through higher education and innovation. Not only does this make the poorest people better off, but the rest of the world gets alot of the dividends (think of all the added medical innovations, technological innovations, and general increase in standard of living we will experience because of China’s 1 billion+ citizens increased standard of living).

So in the end: what would I do? Probably spend it on whatever makes businesses MORE likely to invest in China, India and other poor countries that bring them further into the economic fold and pull them and their people out of poverty. Maybe invite Intel to open up a training center and design center in a growing country – if the decision ends up losing money, you promise to refund them their losses. If not, you entice another company.

Something like a company insurance policy with the goal of targeting especially poor countries. That is what I would do.

Inequality In Context

World Inequality

George Mason University economics professor explains:

Along the horizontal axis are within-country income percentiles running from the bottom 5% (1st ventile) to the top 5% (20th ventile). Along the vertical axis are world income percentiles.

The graph shows that the bottom 5% of Brazilians are among the poorest people in the world but the top 5% are among the richest. Thus the vertical range of the curve tells us about within-country inequality.

Comparing between countries we see that the poorest 5% of Americans are among the richest people in the world (richer than nearly 70% of other people in the world). The poorest 5% of Americans, for example, are richer than the richest 5% of Indians.

Oil Economics

Economist David Henderson, in a book review, states oil economics that many environmentalists lack:

Another problem, state Hubbard and Navarro, is that America’s heavy oil dependence makes our economy far more vulnerable to slower growth and recessions triggered by sudden price increases. But because oil is traded in a world market, we are vulnerable to price increases whether we import all or none of our oil. So whether we produce all or none of the oil we use, an oil price increase hurts our consumers the same amount. To be sure, if we imported less oil and produced more domestically, a price increase would help our producers. But how would we put ourselves in the position of having more production? By guaranteeing a higher price to domestic producers. By insisting on higher-cost domestic production, we would avoid the possibility of more-expensive oil when prices spike for the certainty of more-expensive oil all the time.

The full review can be found here.

In Defense Of For-Profit Colleges

One of the biggest blind spots of policymakers and pundits is the inability to take target market into account. For example, you can’t just compare the wages of employees at Hilton Hotels vs Motel 6’s and conclude that Hilton Hotels are superior because the employees are paid more. You have to take the companies vastly different target market into account. Motel 6’s target a much poorer and cost sensitive segment of the economy, and so it’s understandable that they pay their employees less. In addition, Motel 6’s also hire from a lower socioeconomic level than does Hilton Hotels, so again you’d expect their pay to be lower (in exchange for lower productivity, ie education, ability to speak English, etc). What seemed like a bad wrap for the poor without taking target market into account, turns out to be an overall net gain when it’s included (who doubts that from the poor’s perspective, Motel 6’s are better than Hilton hotels?).

The same blind spot is apparent in the Wal-Mart vs union run grocery stores debate. Wal-Mart caters to a lower socioeconomic class, by hiring and providing cheaper products to those at the lower end of the income distribution. So it makes sense that their employees are paid less than their union run grocery stores counterparts, who cater to a higher socioeconomic class. Seen in that aspect, Wal-Mart is no different than the Motel 6. And since it’s our ghettos and poor areas that are plagued by unemployment, empty lots and general lack of opportunities, the Wal-Mart model is a superior model for the ghettos and poor areas.

The same blind spot resurfaces when talking about for-profit colleges. When comparing for-profit colleges to non-profits, critics will primarily focus on graduation rates and default rates, taking nothing else into account. But what happens when you take target market into account?

For-profit colleges tend to cater primarily to the marginalized segments of society: working mothers, high school drop outs, older people trying to change careers, and people who are in a rush to graduate. In other words, the riskier segment of society. The very same people that the non-profit education system often ignores.

Seen from this perspective, it’s expected that for-profit schools will be worse than non-profits when it comes to student debt. It’s expected because they cater to riskier students, so they are going to have a larger variance of outcome – whether that is graduation rates, or student loan repayment. But catering to a riskier segment of the population is not something that should be punished, it should be encouraged. Lets remember, for-profits are actually doing what we berate businesses to do – serve those at the bottom, often forgotten by others. They are a lot better at helping students who may have messed up through high school and want to change their lives around.

And this is without even mentioning all of the other benefits that come from for-profit colleges vs traditional colleges. For example, a significantly shorter time to graduation (averaging 3 years, when non-profits are getting closer to 6 years – a huge gain in opportunity cost), more income oriented majors (even the worst of the for-profit colleges will never have such time wasted majors like Chicano Studies, for example) and a clear path towards graduation. All benefits that primarily help the marginalized segments of society.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I graduated from a for-profit institution. I got my BS in 3 years. Before that I was a high school drop out (in 10th grade) with about a 2.0 GPA. I had only a GED and no community college credits. I was also the child of a poor single mother, living in Compton, Ca. The group of friends I currently run with all have similar stories – all of us grew up poor, are minorities and graduated from the same for-profit college. None of us received any grants (my mom refused to fill out the FAFSA – she always hated anybody knowing how much she made and was convinced I would find out). More importantly, in the for-profit college I went to there were others – not a majority, but certainly a strong minority – in the same situation I grew up in. It’s the privileged kids that were the exception at the for-profit college, not the the poor minorities.

All of us, also, are currently successful engineers. We all make around 6 figures a year or more. All of us with just the bachelors degree from the for-profit college (I have some undergraduate and graduate work at UCSD, but never completed a full degree there). Without a doubt, graduating from that for-profit college was the single best thing I could have done for my life. Without it, my life would have been very different.

Update: Matt Rognlie makes a similar point here.

Two Arguments In Favor Of Immigration

With the Arizona (anti-)immigration laws coming into affect soon, I have seen a lot of arguments in favor of immigration by those opposed to the Arizona laws. Most of them are either weak on economics, or miss the point completely. As a strong supporter of immigration, I thought I’d give two of my favorite arguments in favor of immigration.

My favorite argument in favor of immigration is that immigration is a huge boom to the immigrants themselves. It is, without a doubt, the strongest poverty alleviation tool in the history of man. Nothing else, no social program, no foreign aid, no economic reform, nothing, can so positively improve the lives of people like the freedom of an immigrant to move from an underdeveloped country to a developed country. The only way immigration is even debatable on humanitarian grounds is for one to assign almost zero importance to the welfare of the immigrants themselves. The argument is made stronger when you consider that immigrants also have a (small) net positive affect on the developed country. But even if you disagree, and believe that immigrants are a net loss to the receiving country, that loss would still have to be weighed against the overwhelming positive gain it gives immigrants themselves, almost always of which consist of the poorest members of the world. An impossible hurdle to overcome.

My second favorite argument in support of immigration, and this one specifically appeals to my libertarian and conservative friends, is that immigration is mutually exclusive from social programs. You have to pick: either an economy with abundant immigrants and low levels of social programs, or an economy with abundant social programs and low levels of immigrants. You can’t have both. Counter intuitive you say?

Not really:

Although poor immigrants are likely to support a bigger welfare state than natives do, the presence of poor immigrants makes natives turn against the welfare state. Why would this be? As a rule, people are happy to vote to “take care of their own”; that’s what the welfare state is all about. So when the poor are culturally very similar to the rich, as they are in places like Denmark and Sweden, support for the welfare state tends to be uniformly strong.

As the poor become more culturally distant from the rich, however, support for the welfare state becomes weaker and less uniform. There is good evidence, for example, that support for the welfare state is weaker in the U.S. than in Europe because our poor are disproportionately black. Since white Americans don’t identify with black Americans to the same degree that rich Danes identify with poor Danes, most Americans are comfortable having a relatively small welfare state.

Thus, even though black Americans are unusually supportive of the welfare state, it is entirely possible that the presence of black Americans has on net made our welfare state smaller by eroding white support for it.

Immigration is likely to have an even stronger counter-balancing effect on natives’ policy preferences because, as far as most Americans are concerned, immigrants from Latin American are much more of an “out-group” than American blacks. Faced with the choice to either cut social services or give “a bunch of foreigners” equal access, natives will lean in the direction of cuts. In fact, I can’t think of anything more likely to make natives turn against the welfare state than forcing them to choose between (a) helping no one, and (b) helping everyone regardless of national origin.

This is not something peculiar to one blogger, this is widely recognized on the left and the right. From Paul Krugman and Matthew Yglesias on the left, to Bryan Caplan, Jeffrey Miron and David Friedman (also here) on the right.

Taking the side of immigration over safety nets doesn’t just make sense economically, it also makes sense on humanitarian grounds. As Bryan Caplan explained:  “…unlike the welfare state, immigration has and continues to help absolutely poor people, not relatively poor Americans who are already at the 90th percentile of the world income distribution. There’s no reason for libertarians to make apologies to social democrats: Libertarian defenders of immigration are the real humanitarians in the world, and the laissez-faire era of open borders without the welfare state was America’s real humanitarian era.”