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Many working-age males aren’t working: What should be done?

The steady disappearance of prime-age males (age 25-54) from the labor force has been occurring for decades and has recently become popular in policy circles. The prime-age male labor force participation rate began falling in the 1950s, and since January 1980 the percent of prime-age males not in the labor force has increased from 5.5% to 12.3%. In fact, since the economy started recovering from our latest recession in June 2009 the rate has increased by 1.3 percentage points.

The 12.3% of prime-age males not in the labor force nationwide masks substantial variation at the state level. The figure below shows the percentage of prime-age males not in the labor force—neither working nor looking for a job—by state in 2016 according to data from the Current Population Survey.

25-54 males NILF by state 2016

The lowest percentage was in Wyoming, where only 6.3% of prime males were out of the labor force. On the other end of the spectrum, over 20% of prime males were out of the labor force in West Virginia and Mississippi, a shocking number. Remember, prime-age males are generally not of school age and too young to retire, so the fact that one out of every five is not working or even looking for a job in some states is hard to fathom.

Several researchers have investigated the absence of these men from the labor force and there is some agreement on the cause. First, demand side factors play a role. The decline of manufacturing, traditionally a male dominated industry, reduced the demand for their labor. In a state like West Virginia, the decline of coal mining—another male dominated industry—has contributed as well.

Some of the most recent decline is due to less educated men dropping out as the demand for their skills continues to fall. Geographic mobility has also declined, so even when an adjacent state has a stronger labor market according to the figure above—for example West Virginia and Maryland—people aren’t moving to take advantage of it.

Of course, people lose jobs all the time yet most find another one. Moreover, if someone isn’t working, how do they support themselves? The long-term increase in female labor force participation has allowed some men to rely on their spouse for income. Other family members and friends may also help. There is also evidence that men are increasingly relying on government aid, such as disability insurance, to support themselves.

These last two reasons, relying on a family member’s income or government aid, are supply-side reasons, since they affect a person’s willingness to accept a job rather than the demand for a person’s labor. A report by Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors argued that supply-side reasons were only a small part of the decline in the prime-age male labor force participation rate and that the lack of demand was the real culprit:

“Reductions in labor supply—in other words, prime-age men choosing not to work for a given set of labor market conditions—explain relatively little of the long-run trend…In contrast, reductions in the demand for labor, especially for lower-skilled men, appear to be an important component of the decline in prime-age male labor force participation.”

Other researchers, however, are less convinced. For example, AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt thinks that supply-side factors play a larger role than the CEA acknowledges and he discusses these in his book Men Without Work. One piece of evidence he notes is the different not-in-labor-force (NILF) rates of native born and foreign born prime-age males: Since one would think that structural demand shocks would affect both native and foreign-born alike, the difference indicates that some other factor may be at work.

In the figure below, I subtract the foreign born not-in-labor-force rate from the native born rate by state. A positive number means that native prime-age males are less likely to be in the labor force than foreign-born prime age males. (Note: Foreign born only means a person was born in a country other than the U.S.: It does not mean that the person is not a citizen at the time the data was collected.)

25-54 native, foreign NILF diff

As shown in the figure, natives are less likely to be in the labor force (positive bar) in 34 of the 51 areas (DC included). For example, in Texas the percent of native prime-age men not in the labor force is 12.9% and the percentage of foreign-born not in the labor force is 5.9%, a 7 percentage point gap, which is what’s displayed in the figure above.

The difference in the NILF rate between the two groups is also striking when broken down by education, as shown in the next figure.

25-54 native, foreign males NILF by educ

In 2016, natives with less than a high school degree were four times more likely to be out of the labor force than foreign born, while natives with a high school degree were twice as likely to be out of the labor force. The NILF rates for some college or a bachelor’s or more are similar.

Mr. Eberstadt attributes some of this difference to the increase in incarceration rates since the 1970s. The U.S. imprisons a higher percentage of its population than almost any other country and it is very difficult to find a job with an arrest record or a conviction.

There aren’t much data combining employment and criminal history so it is hard to know exactly how much of a role crime plays in the difference between the NILF rates by education. Mr. Eberstadt provides some evidence in his book that shows that men with an arrest or conviction are much more likely to be out of the labor force than similar men without, but it is not perfectly comparable to the usual BLS data. That being said, it is reasonable to think that the mass incarceration of native prime-age males, primarily those with little formal education, has created a large group of unemployable, and thus unemployed, men.

Is incarceration a supply or demand side issue? On one hand, people with a criminal record are not really in demand, so in that sense it’s a demand issue. On the other hand, crime is a choice in many instances—people may choose a life of crime over other, non-criminal professions because it pays a higher wage than other available options or it somehow provides them with a more fulfilling life (e.g. Tony Soprano). In this sense crime and any subsequent incarceration is the result of a supply-side choice. Drug use that results in incarceration could also be thought of this way. I will let the reader decide which is more relevant to the NILF rates of prime-age males.

Criminal justice reform in the sense of fewer arrests and incarcerations would likely improve the prime-age male LFP rate, but the results would take years to show up in the data since such reforms don’t help the many men who have already served their time and want to work but are unable to find a job. Reforms that make it easier for convicted felons to find work would offer more immediate help, and there has been some efforts in this area. How successful they will be remains to be seen.

Other state reforms such as less occupational licensing would make it easier for people— including those with criminal convictions—to enter certain professions. There are also several ideas floating around that would make it easier for people to move to areas with better labor markets, such as making it easier to transfer unemployment benefits across state lines.

More economic growth would alleviate much of the demand side issues, and tax reform and reducing regulation would help on this front.

But has something fundamentally changed the way some men view work? Would some, especially the younger ones, rather just live with their parents and play video games, as economist Erik Hurst argues? For those wanting to learn more about this issue, Mr. Eberstadt’s book is a good place to start.

What’s going on with Alaska’s budget?

Alaska is facing another budget deficit this year – one of $3 billion – and many are skeptical that the process of closing this gap will be without hassle. The state faces declining oil prices and thinning reserves, forcing state legislators to rethink their previous budgeting strategies and to consider checking their spending appetites. This shouldn’t be a surprise to state legislators though – the budget process during the past two years ended in gridlock because of similar problems. And these issues have translated into credit downgrades from the three major credit agencies, each reflecting concern about the state’s trajectory if no significant improvements are made.

Despite these issues, residents have not been complaining, at least not until recently. Every fall, some earnings from Alaska’s Permanent Fund get distributed out to citizens – averaging about $1,100 per year since 1982. Last summer, Governor Walker used a partial veto to reduce the next dividend from $2,052 to $1,022. Although politically unpopular, these checks may be subject to even more cuts as a result of the current budget crisis.

The careful reader might notice that Alaska topped the list of the most fiscally healthy states in a 2016 Mercatus report that ranks the states according to their fiscal condition (using fiscal year 2014 data). For a state experiencing so much budget trouble, how could it be ranked so highly?

The short answer is that Alaska’s budget is incredibly unique.

On the one hand, the state has large amounts of cash, but on the other, it has large amounts of debt. Alaska’s cash levels are what secured its position in our ranking last year. Although holding onto cash is generally a good thing for state governments, there appears to be diminishing returns to doing so, especially if there is some structural reason that makes funds hard to access for paying off debt or for improving public services. It is yet to be seen how these factors will affect Alaska’s ranking in the next edition of our report.

Another reason why Alaska appeared to be doing well in our 2016 report is that the state’s problems – primarily spending growth and unsustainable revenue sources – are still catching up to them. Alaska has relied primarily on oil tax revenues and has funneled much of this revenue into restricted permanent trusts that cannot be accessed for general spending. When the Alaska Permanent Fund was created in the 1980s, oil prices were high and production was booming, so legislators didn’t really expect for this problem to occur. The state is now starting to experience the backlash of this lack of foresight.

The first figure below shows Alaska’s revenue and expenditure trends, drawing from the state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs). At first look, you’ll see that revenues have generally outpaced spending, but not consistently. The state broke even in 2003 and revenues steadily outpaced expenditures until peaking at $1,266 billion in 2007. Revenues fell to an all-time low of $241 billion following the recession of 2008 and then fluctuated up and down before falling drastically again in fiscal year 2015.

alaska-revenues-exp4.5.17

The ups and downs of Alaska’s revenues reflect the extremely volatile nature of tax revenues, rents, and royalties that are generated from oil production. Rents and royalties make up 21 percent of Alaska’s total revenues and oil taxes 6 percent – these two combined actually come closer to 90 percent of the actual discretionary budget. Alaska has no personal income tax or sales tax, so there isn’t much room for other sources to make up for struggling revenues when oil prices decline.

Another major revenue source for the state are federal grants, at 32 percent of total revenues. Federal transfers are not exactly “free lunches” for state governments. Not only do they get funded by taxpayers, but they come with other costs as well. There is research that finds that as a state becomes more reliant on federal revenues, they tend to become less efficient, spending more and taxing more for the same level of services. For Alaska, this is especially concerning as it receives more federal dollars than any other state in per capita terms.

Federal transfers as an income stream have been more steady for Alaska than its oil revenues, but not necessarily more accessible. Federal funds are usually restricted for use for federal programs and therefore their use for balancing the budget is limited.

A revenue structure made up of volatile income streams and hard-to-access funds is enough by itself to make balancing the budget difficult. But Alaska’s expenditures also present cause for concern as they have been growing steadily, about 10 percent on average each year since 2002, compared with private sector growth of 6 percent.

In fiscal year 2015, education was the biggest spending category, at 28% of total expenditures. This was followed by health and human services (21%), transportation (11%), general government (10%), the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend (9%), public protection (6%), and universities (5%). Spending for natural resources, development, and law and justice were all less than 5 percent.

The next figure illustrates the state’s biggest drivers of spending growth since 2002. Education and general government spending have grown the most significantly over the past several years. Alaska Permanent Fund spending has been the most variable, reflecting the cyclical nature of underlying oil market trends. Both transportation and health and human services have increased steadily since 2002, with the latter growing more significantly the past several years as a result of Medicaid expansion.

alaska-spendinggrowth4.5.17

Alaska’s spending is significantly higher than other states relative to its resource base. Spending as a proportion of state personal income was 31 percent in fiscal year 2015, much higher than the national average of 13 percent. A high level of spending, all else equal, isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you have the revenues to support it, but as we see from this year’s budget deficit, that isn’t the case for Alaska. The state is spending beyond the capacity of residents to pay for current service levels.

What should Alaska do?

This is a complicated situation so the answer isn’t simple or easy. The Alaska government website provides a Microsoft Excel model that allows you to try and provide your own set of solutions to balance the budget. After tinkering with the state provided numbers, it becomes clear that it is impossible to balance the deficit without some combination of spending cuts and changes to revenues or the Permanent Fund dividend.

On the revenue side, Alaska could improve by diversifying their income stream and/or broadening the tax base. Primarily taxing one group – in this case the oil industry – is inequitable and economically inefficient. Broadening the base would cause taxes to fall on all citizens more evenly and be less distortive to economic growth. Doing so would also smooth revenue production, making it more predictable and reliable for legislators.

When it comes to spending, it is understandably very difficult to decide what areas of the budget to cut, but a good place to start is to at least slow its growth. The best way to do this is by changing the institutional structure surrounding the political, legislative, and budgeting processes. One example would be improving Alaska’s tax and expenditure limit (TEL), as my colleague Matthew Mitchell recommends in his recent testimony. The state could also look into item-reduction vetoes and strict balanced-budget requirements, among other institutional reforms.

Ultimately, whatever steps Alaska’s legislators take to balance the budget this year will be painful. Hopefully the solution won’t involve ignoring the role that the institutional environment has played in getting them here. A narrow tax base reliant on volatile revenue sources, restricted funds, and growing spending are all factors that have led many to think that Alaska is and always will be “different.” But what constitutes sound public financial management is the same regardless of state. Although Alaska’s situation is unique, their susceptibility to fiscal stress absent any changes is not.

Why the lack of labor mobility in the U.S. is a problem and how we can fix it

Many researchers have found evidence that mobility in the U.S. is declining. More specifically, it doesn’t appear that people move from places with weaker economies to places with stronger economies as consistently as they did in the past. Two sets of figures from a paper by Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag succinctly show this decline over time.

The first, shown below, has log income per capita by state on the x-axis for two different years, 1940 (left) and 1990 (right). On the vertical axis of each graph is the annual population growth rate by state for two periods, 1940 – 1960 (left) and 1990 – 2010 (right).

directed migration ganong, shoag

In the 1940 – 1960 period, the graph depicts a strong positive relationship: States with higher per capita incomes in 1940 experienced more population growth over the next 20 years than states with lower per capita incomes. This relationship disappears and actually reverses in the 1990 – 2010 period: States with higher per capita incomes actually grew slower on average. So in general people became less likely to move to states with higher incomes between the middle and end of the 20th century. Other researchers have also found that people are not moving to areas with better economies.

This had an effect on income convergence, as shown in the next set of figures. In the 1940 – 1960 period (left), states with higher per capita incomes experienced less income growth than states with lower per capita incomes, as shown by the negative relationship. This negative relationship existed in the 1990 – 2010 period as well, but it was much weaker.

income convergence ganong, shoag

We would expect income convergence when workers leave low income states for high income states, since that increases the labor supply in high-income states and pushes down wages. Meanwhile, the labor supply decreases in low-income states which increases wages. Overall, this leads to per capita incomes converging across states.

Why labor mobility matters

As law professor David Schleicher points out in a recent paper, the current lack of labor mobility can reduce the ability of the federal government to manage the U.S. economy. In the U.S. we have a common currency—every state uses the U.S. dollar. This means that if a state is hit by an economic shock, e.g. low energy prices harm Texas, Alaska and North Dakota but help other states, that state’s currency cannot adjust to cushion the blow.

For example, if the UK goes into a recession, the Bank of England can print more money so that the pound will depreciate relative to other currencies, making goods produced in the UK relatively cheap. This will decrease the UK’s imports and increase economic activity and exports, which will help it emerge from the recession. If the U.S. as a whole suffered a negative economic shock, a similar process would take place.

However, within a country this adjustment mechanism is unavailable: Texas can’t devalue its dollar relative to Ohio’s dollar. There is no within-country monetary policy that can help particular states or regions. Instead, the movement of capital and labor from weak areas to strong areas is the primary mechanism available for restoring full employment within the U.S. If capital and labor mobility are low it will take longer for the U.S. to recover from area-specific negative economic shocks.

State or area-specific economic shocks are more likely in large countries like the U.S. that have very diverse local economies. This makes labor and capital mobility more important in the U.S. than in smaller, less economically diverse countries such as Denmark or Switzerland, since those countries are less susceptible to area-specific economic shocks.

Why labor mobility is low

There is some consensus about policies that can increase labor mobility. Many people, including former President Barack Obama, my colleagues at the Mercatus Center and others, have pointed out that state occupational licensing makes it harder for workers in licensed professions to move across state borders. There is similar agreement that land-use regulations increase housing prices which makes it harder for people to move to areas with the strongest economies.

Reducing occupational licensing and land-use regulations would increase labor mobility, but actually doing these things is not easy. Occupational licensing and land-use regulations are controlled at the state and local level, so currently there is little that the federal government can do.

Moreover, as Mr. Schleicher points out in his paper, state and local governments created these regulations for a reason and it’s not clear that they have any incentive to change them. Like all politicians, state and local ones care about being re-elected and that means, at least to some extent, listening to their constituents. These residents usually value stability, so politicians who advocate too strongly for growth may find themselves out of office. Mr. Schleicher also notes that incumbent politicians often prefer a stable, immobile electorate because it means that the voters who elected them in the first place will be there next election cycle.

Occupational licensing and land-use regulations make it harder for people to enter thriving local economies, but other policies make it harder to leave areas with poor economies. Nearly 13% of Americans work for state and local governments and 92% of them have a defined-benefit pension plan. Defined-benefit plans have long vesting periods and benefits can be significantly smaller if employees split their career between multiple employers rather than remain at one employer. Thus over 10% of the workforce has a strong retirement-based incentive to stay where they are.

Eligibility standards for public benefits and their amounts also vary by state, and this discourages people who receive benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) from moving to states that may have a stronger economy but less benefits. Even when eligibility standards and benefits are similar, the paperwork and time burden of enrolling in a new state can discourage mobility.

The federal government subsidizes home ownership as well, and homeownership is correlated with less labor mobility over time. Place-based subsidies to declining cities also artificially support areas that should have less people. As long as state and federal governments subsidize government services in cities like Atlantic City and Detroit people will be less inclined to leave them. People-based subsidies that incentivize people to move to thriving areas are an alternative that is likely better for the taxpayer, the recipient and the country in the long run.

How to increase labor mobility

Since state and local governments are unlikely to directly address the impediments to labor mobility that they have created, Mr. Schleicher argues for more federal involvement. Some of his suggestions don’t interfere with local control, such as a federal clearinghouse for coordinated occupational-licensing rules across states. This is not a bad idea but I am not sure how effective it would be.

Other suggestions are more intrusive and range from complete federal preemption of state and local rules to federal grants that encourage more housing construction or suspension of the mortgage-interest deduction in places that restrict housing construction.

Local control is important due to the presence of local knowledge and the beneficial effects that arise from interjurisdictional competition, so I don’t support complete federal preemption of local rules. Economist William Fischel also thinks the mortgage interest deduction is largely responsible for excessive local land-use regulation, so eliminating it altogether or suspending it in places that don’t allow enough new housing seems like a good idea.

I also support more people-based subsidies that incentivize moving to areas with better economies and less place-based subsidies. These subsidies could target people living in specific places and the amounts could be based on the economic characteristics of the destination, with larger amounts given to people who are willing to move to areas with the most employment opportunities and/or highest wages.

Making it easier for people to retain any state-based government benefits across state lines would also help improve labor mobility. I support reforms that reduce the paperwork and time requirements for transferring benefits or for simply understanding what steps need to be taken to do so.

Several policy changes will need to occur before we can expect to see significant changes in labor mobility. There is broad agreement around some of them, such as occupational licensing and land-use regulation reform, but bringing them to fruition will take time. As for the less popular ideas, it will be interesting to see which, if any, are tried.

What else can the government do for America’s poor?

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1996 welfare reforms, which has generated some discussion about poverty in the U.S. I recently spoke to a group of high school students on this topic and about what reforms, if any, should be made to our means-tested welfare programs.

After reading several papers (e.g. here, here and here), the book Hillbilly Elegy, and reflecting on my own experiences I am not convinced the government is capable of doing much more.

History

President Lyndon Johnson declared “War on Poverty” in his 1964 state of the union address. Over the last 50 years there has been some progress but there are still approximately 43 million Americans living in poverty as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Early on it looked as if poverty would be eradicated fairly quickly. In 1964, prior to the “War on Poverty”, the official poverty rate was 20%. It declined rapidly from 1965 to 1972, especially for the most impoverished groups as shown in the figure below (data from Table 1 in Haveman et al. , 2015). (Click to enlarge)

poverty-rate-1965-72

Since 1972 the poverty rate has remained fairly constant. It reached its lowest point in 1973—11.1%—but has since fluctuated between roughly 11% and 15%, largely in accordance with the business cycle. The number of people in poverty has increased, but that is unsurprising considering the relatively flat poverty rate coupled with a growing population.

census-poverty-rate-time-series-2015

Meanwhile, an alternative measure called the supplemental poverty measure (SPM) has declined, but it was still over 15% as of 2013, as shown below.

poverty-rate-time-series

The official poverty measure (OPM) only includes cash and cash benefits in its measure of a person’s resources, while the SPM includes tax credits and non-cash transfers (e.g. food stamps) as part of someone’s resources when determining their poverty status. The SPM also makes adjustments for local cost of living.

For example, the official poverty threshold for a single person under the age of 65 was $12,331 in 2015. But $12,331 can buy more in rural South Carolina than it can in Manhattan, primarily because of housing costs. The SPM takes these differences into account, although I am not sure it should for reasons I won’t get into here.

Regardless of the measure we look at, poverty is still higher than most people would probably expect considering the time and resources that have been expended trying to reduce it. This is especially true in high-poverty areas where poverty rates still exceed 33%.

A county-level map from the Census that uses the official poverty measure shows the distribution of poverty across the 48 contiguous states in 2014. White represents the least amount of poverty (3.2% to 11.4%) and dark pink the most (32.7% to 52.2%).

us-county-poverty-map

The most impoverished counties are in the south, Appalachia and rural west, though there are pockets of high-poverty counties in the plains states, central Michigan and northern Maine.

Why haven’t we made more progress on poverty? And is there more that government can do? I think these questions are intertwined. My answer to the first is it’s complicated and to the second I don’t think so.

Past efforts

The inability to reduce the official poverty rate below 10% doesn’t appear to be due to a lack of money. The figure below shows real per capita expenditures—sum of federal, state and local—on the top 84 (top line) and the top 10 (bottom line) means-tested welfare poverty programs since 1970. It is from Haveman et al. (2015).

real-expend-per-capita-on-poverty-programs

There has been substantial growth in both since the largest drop in poverty occurred in the late 1960s. If money was the primary issue one would expect better results over time.

So if the amount of money is not the issue what is? It could be that even though we are spending money, we aren’t spending it on the right things. The chart below shows real per capita spending on several different programs and is also from Haveman et al. (2015).

expend-per-cap-non-medicaid-pov-programs

Spending on direct cash-assistance programs—Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—has fallen over time, while spending on programs designed to encourage work—Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)—and on non-cash benefits like food stamps and housing aid increased.

In the mid-1970s welfare programs began shifting from primarily cash aid (AFDC, TANF) to work-based aid (EITC). Today the EITC and food stamps are the core programs of the anti-poverty effort.

It’s impossible to know whether this shift has resulted in more or less poverty than what would have occurred without it. We cannot reconstruct the counterfactual without going back in time. But many people think that more direct cash aid, in the spirit of AFDC, is what’s needed.

The difference today is that instead of means-tested direct cash aid, many are calling for a universal basic income or UBI. A UBI would provide each citizen, from Bill Gates to the poorest single mother, with a monthly cash payment, no strings attached. Prominent supporters of a UBI include libertarian-leaning Charles Murray and people on the left such as Matt Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker.

Universal Basic Income?

The details of each UBI plan vary, but the basic appeal is the same: It would reduce the welfare bureaucracy, simplify the process for receiving aid, increase the incentive to work at the margin since it doesn’t phase out, treat low-income people like adults capable of making their own decisions and mechanically decrease poverty by giving people extra cash.

A similar proposal is a negative income tax (NIT), first popularized by Milton Friedman. The current EITC is a negative income tax conditional on work, since it is refundable i.e. eligible people receive the difference between their EITC and the taxes they owe. The NIT has its own problems, discussed in the link above, but it still has its supporters.

In theory I like a UBI. Economists in general tend to favor cash benefits over in-kind programs like vouchers and food stamps due to their simplicity and larger effects on recipient satisfaction or utility. In reality, however, a UBI of even $5,000 is very expensive and there are public choice considerations that many UBI supporters ignore, or at least downplay, that are real problems.

The political process can quickly turn an affordable UBI into an unaffordable one. It seems reasonable to expect that politicians trying to win elections will make UBI increases part of their platform, with each trying to outdo the other. There is little that can be done, short of a constitutional amendment (and even those can be changed), to ensure that political forces don’t alter the amount, recipient criteria or add additional programs on top of the UBI.

I think the history of the income tax demonstrates that a relatively low, simple UBI would quickly morph into a monstrosity. In 1913 there were 7 income tax brackets that applied to all taxpayers, and a worker needed to make more than $20K (equivalent to $487,733 in 2016) before he reached the second bracket of 2% (!). By 1927 there were 23 brackets and the second one, at 3%, kicked in at $4K ($55,500 in 2016) instead of $20K. And of course we are all aware of the current tax code’s problems. To chart a different course for the UBI is, in my opinion, a work of fantasy.

Final thoughts

Because of politics, I think an increase in the EITC (and reducing its error rate), for both working parents and single adults, coupled with criminal justice reform that reduces the number of non-violent felons—who have a hard time finding employment upon release—are preferable to a UBI.

I also support the abolition of the minimum wage, which harms the job prospects of low-skilled workers. If we are going to tie anti-poverty programs to work in order to encourage movement towards self-sufficiency, then we should make it as easy as possible to obtain paid employment. Eliminating the minimum wage and subsidizing income through the EITC is a fairer, more efficient way to reduce poverty.

Additionally, if a minimum standard of living is something that is supported by society than all of society should share the burden via tax-funded welfare programs. It is not philanthropic to force business owners to help the poor on behalf of the rest of us.

More economic growth would also help. Capitalism is responsible for lifting billions of people out of dire poverty in developing countries and the poverty rate in the U.S. falls during economic expansions (see previous poverty rate figures). Unfortunately, growth has been slow over the last 8 years and neither presidential candidate’s policies inspire much hope.

In fact, a good way for the government to help the poor is to reduce regulation and lower the corporate tax rate, which would help economic growth and increase wages.

Despite the relatively high official poverty rate in the U.S., poor people here live better than just about anywhere else in the world. Extreme poverty—think Haiti—doesn’t exist in the U.S. On a consumption rather than income basis, there’s evidence that the absolute poverty rate has fallen to about 4%.

Given the way government functions I don’t think there is much left for it to do. Its lack of local knowledge and resulting blunt, one size fits all solutions, coupled with its general inefficiency, makes it incapable of helping the unique cases that fall through the current social safety net.

Any additional progress will need to come from the bottom up and I will discuss this more in a future post.

Pension funding practices and investment risk

A recent paper by Donald J. Boyd and Yimeng Yin of The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at SUNY  investigates how public pension funding practices contribute to big funding gaps and the need for sudden contribution increases. This is a situation public sector plans find themselves in due to three reasons 1) muddling the valuation of debt-like pension liabilities with the plan’s investment strategy (i.e. using discount rates basked on risky asset portfolios to measure pension liabilities) 2) amortization methods and 3) asset smoothing.

To find out the impact of these assumptions the authors build a stochastic simulation model for public sector plans that allows them to look at how different funding policies affect plan funding. They find that the funding polices and practices of most plans reduce the volatility of contributions and increase the risk of severe underfunding. And “even if investment return assumptions (7.5 percent annually) are met every single year and employers make the full actuarially determined contributions” they would only reach 85 percent funding after 30 years.

Now consider that it’s unlikely that plans will meet the 7.5 percent annual return each year. If investment returns vary – as they do –  the same plan faces a one-in-six chance of falling below 40 percent funding.

The authors have an interesting chart from a recent presentation highlighting what happens when returns vary each year. In reality, a plan with a portfolio made up of a mix of stocks and bonds is likely to achieve greater than 7.5 percent return in some years and less than 7.5 percent returns in other years). Current plan assumptions project steady and gradually increasing funding ratios and completely flat contribution levels. But in reality, it is all over the map: a roller coaster for funding levels levels and the potential for a huge ramp up in contributions.

Source: Boyd and Yin, 2016 "Standards and Metrics for Public Retirement Systems" The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute at SUNY

source: Boyd and Yin, 2016, “Standards and Metrics for Public Retirement Systems” The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute at SUNY

New York’s Buffalo Billion initiative has been underwhelming

New York’s Buffalo Billion plan has come under fire amidst an ongoing corruption probe looking into whether some contracts were inappropriately awarded to political donors. The investigation has led to funding delays and there are reports of some contractors and companies rethinking their investments. But even without these legal problems, it is unlikely that the Buffalo Billion initiative will remake Buffalo’s economy.

Buffalo, NY has been one of America’s struggling cities since the 1950s, but before then it had a long history of growth. After it became the terminal point of the Erie Canal in 1825 it grew rapidly; over the next 100 years the city’s population went from just under 9,000 to over 570,000. Growth slowed down from 1930 to 1950, and between 1950 and 1960 the city lost nearly 50,000 people. It has been losing population ever since. The Metropolitan Area (MSA), which is the economic city, continued to grow until the 1970s as people left the central city for the surrounding suburbs, but it has also been losing population since then. (click to enlarge figure)

buffalo-population

Buffalo’s population decline has not escaped the notice of local, state and federal officials, and billions of dollars in government aid have been given to the area in an effort to halt or reverse its population and economic slide. The newest attempt is Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion, which promises to give $1 billion of state funds to the region. The investment began in 2013 and as of January 2016, $870.5 million worth of projects have been announced. The table below lists some of the projects, the amount of the investment, and the number of jobs each investment is supposed to create, retain, or induce (includes indirect jobs due to construction and jobs created by subsequent private investment). This information is from the Buffalo Billion Process and Implementation plan (henceforth Buffalo Billion Plan).

buffalo-billion-projects

The projects listed have been awarded $727 million in direct investment, $150 million in tax breaks and $250 million in other state funds. The total number of jobs related to these investments is 9,900 according to the documentation, for an average cost of $113,859 per job (last column).

However, these jobs numbers are projections, not actual counts. This is one of the main criticisms of investment efforts like Buffalo Billion—a lot of money is spent and a lot of jobs are promised, but rarely does anyone follow up to see if the jobs were actually created. In this case it remains to be seen whether reality will match the promises, but the early signs are not encouraging.

Executives of the first project, SolarCity, which received $750 million of benefits and promised 5,000 jobs in western New York, appear to have already scaled back their promise. One company official recently said that 1,460 jobs will be created in Buffalo, including 500 manufacturing jobs. This is down from 2,000 in the Buffalo Billion Plan, a 27% decrease.

The SolarCity factory is not scheduled to open until June 2017 so there is still time for hiring plans to change. But even if the company eventually creates 5,000 jobs in the area, it is hard to see how that will drastically improve the economy of an MSA of over 1.1 million people. Moreover, page eight of the Buffalo Billion Plan reports that the entire $1 billion is only projected to create 14,000 jobs over the course of 5 years, which is again a relatively small amount for such a large area.

Contrary to the local anecdotes that say otherwise, so far there is little evidence that Buffalo Billion has significantly impacted the local economy. Since the recession, employment in Buffalo and its MSA has barely improved, as shown below (data are from the BLS). There has also been little improvement since 2013 when the Buffalo Billion development plan was released. (City data plotted on the right axis, MSA on the left axis.)

buffalo-employment

Real wages in both Erie and Niagara County, the two counties that make up the Buffalo MSA, have also been fairly stagnant since the recession, though there is evidence of some improvement since 2013, particularly in Erie County (data are from the BLS). Still, it is hard to separate these small increases in employment and wages from the general recovery that typically occurs after a deep recession.

buffalo-county-wages

The goal of the Buffalo Billion is to create a “Big Push” that leads to new industry clusters, such as a green energy cluster anchored by SolarCity and an advanced manufacturing cluster. Unfortunately, grandiose plans to artificially create clusters in older manufacturing cities rarely succeed.

As economist Enrico Moretti notes in his book, The New Geography of Jobs, in order for Big Push policies to succeed they need to attract both workers and firms at the same time. This is hard to do since either workers or firms need to be convinced that the other group will eventually arrive if they make the first move.

If firms relocate but high-skill workers stay away, then the firm has spent scarce resources locating in an area that doesn’t have the workforce it needs. If workers move but firms stay away, then the high-skill workers are left with few employment opportunities. Neither situation is sustainable in the long-run.

The use of targeted incentives to attract firms, as in the aforementioned SolarCity project, has been shown to be an ineffective way to grow a regional economy. While such incentives often help some firms at the expense of others, they do not provide broader benefits to the economy as a whole. The mobile firms attracted by such incentives, called footloose firms, are also likely to leave once the incentives expire, meaning that even if there is a short term boost it will be expensive to maintain since the incentives will have to be renewed.

Also, in order for any business to succeed state and local policies need to support, rather than inhibit, economic growth. New York has one of the worst economic environments according to several different measures: It’s 50th in overall state freedom, 50th in economic freedom, and 49th in state business tax climate. New York does well on some other measures, such as Kauffman’s entrepreneurship rankings, but such results are usually driven by the New York City area, which is an economically vibrant area largely due to historical path dependencies and agglomeration economies. Buffalo, and western New York in general, lacks the same innate and historical advantages and thus has a harder time overcoming the burdensome tax and regulatory policies of state government, which are particularly harmful to the local economies located near state borders.

Buffalo officials can control some things at the local level that will improve their economic environment, such as zoning, business licensing, and local taxes, but in order to achieve robust economic growth the city will likely need better cooperation from state officials.

State and local policy makers often refuse to acknowledge the harm that relatively high-tax, high-regulation environments have on economic growth, and this prevents them from making policy changes that would foster more economic activity. Instead, politicians invest billions of dollars of taxpayer money, often in the form of ineffective targeted incentives to favored firms or industries, with the hope that this time will be different.

Discovering an areas comparative advantage and creating a sustainable industry cluster or clusters requires experimentation, which will likely result in some failures. Local and state governments should create an environment that encourages entrepreneurs to experiment with new products and services in their region, but they shouldn’t be risking taxpayer money picking winners and losers. Creating a low-tax, low-regulation environment that treats all businesses—established and start-up, large and small—the same is a better way to grow an economy than government subsidies to favored firms. Unfortunately the Buffalo Billion project looks like another example of the latter futile strategy.

Economic Freedom, Growth, and What Might Have Been

Economists are obsessed with growth. And for good reason. Greater wealth doesn’t just buy us nicer vacations and fancier gadgets. It also buys longer life spans, better nutrition, and lower infant mortality. It buys more time with family, and less time at work. It buys greater self-reported happiness. And as Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman has argued, wealth even seems to make us better people:

Economic growth—meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens—more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy.

For much of my lifetime, brisk economic growth was the norm in the United States. From 1983 to 2000, annual growth in real (that is, inflation-adjusted) GDP averaged 3.67 percent. During this period, the U.S. experienced only one (short and mild) recession in the early ‘90s. The era was known among macroeconomists as the “great moderation.”

But starting around the turn of the millennium, things changed. Instead of averaging 3.67 percent growth, the U.S. economy grew at less than half that rate, 1.78 percent on average. To see the effect of this deceleration, consider the chart below (data are from the BEA). The blue line shows actual GDP growth (as measured in billions of chained 2009 dollars).

The red line shows what might have happened if we’d continued to grow at the 3.67 percent rate which prevailed for the two previous decades. At this rate, the economy would have been 30 percent larger in 2015 than it actually was.

This assumes that the Great Recession never happened. So to see what would have happened to GDP if the Great Recession had still occurred but if growth had resumed (as it has in every other post-WWII recession), I calculated a second hypothetical growth path. The green line shows the hypothetical path of GDP had the economy still gone through the Great Recession but then resumed its normal 3.67 percent rate of growth from 2010 onward. Under this scenario, the economy would have been fully 8 percent larger in 2015 than it actually was.

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(Click to enlarge)

So what happened to growth? One answer is economic freedom—or a lack thereof. Just yesterday, the Fraser Institute released its annual Economic Freedom of the World report. Authored by Professors James Gwartney of Florida State University, Robert Lawson of Southern Methodist University, and Joshua Hall of West Virginia University, the report assesses the degree to which people are free to exchange goods and services with one another without interference. As Adam Smith might have put it, it measures the degree to which we live under “a system of natural liberty.”

As the chart below shows, economic freedom was on the steady rise before 2000. This coincided with modest deregulation of a few industries under Carter and Reagan, tax cuts under Reagan and Clinton, free trade deals, and restrained growth in the size of government. But from 2000 onward, U.S. economic freedom has been in precipitous decline. This coincides with major new financial regulations under both Bush II and Obama, significant growth in government spending, and a steady erosion in measures of the rule of law.

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(Click to enlarge)

As I’ve noted before, the research on economic freedom is quite extensive (nearly 200 peer-reviewed academic studies use economic freedom as an explanatory variable). Moreover, meta-studies of that literature find “there is a solid finding of a direct positive association between economic freedom and economic growth.”

Perhaps the two charts have something to do with one another?

 

 

Local governments reluctant to issue new debt despite low interest rates

The Wall Street Journal reports that despite historically low interest rates municipal governments and voters don’t have the appetite for new debt. Municipal bond issuances have dropped to 20-year lows (1.6 percent) as governments pass on infrastructure improvements. There are a few reasons for that: weak tax revenues, fewer federal dollars, and competing budgetary pressures. As the article notes,

“Many struggling legislatures and city halls are instead focusing on underfunded employee pensions and rising Medicaid costs. Some cash-strapped areas, such as Puerto Rico and the city of Chicago, face high annual debt payments.”

The pressures governments face due to rising employee benefits is likely to continue. The low interest rate environment has already had a negative effect on public pensions. In pursuit of higher yields, investors have taken on more investment risk leaving plans open to market volatility. At the same time investments in bonds have not yielded much. WSJ reporter Timothy Martin writes that public pension returns are, “expected to drop to the lowest levels ever recorded,” with a 20-year annualized return of 7.4 percent for 2016.

The end result of this slide is to put pressure on municipal and state budgets to make up the difference, sometimes with significant tradeoffs.

The key problem for pensions is “baked into the cake,” by use of improper discounting. Linking the present value of guaranteed liabilities to the expected return on risky investments produces a distortion in how benefits are measured and funded. Public sector pensions got away with it during the market boom years. But in this market and bond environment an arcane actuarial assumption over how to select discount rates shows its centrality to the fiscal stability of governments and the pension plans they provide.

Congestion taxes can make society worse off

A new paper by Jeffrey Brinkman in the Journal of Urban Economics (working version here) analyzes two phenomena that are pervasive in urban economics—congestion costs and agglomeration economies. What’s interesting about this paper is that it formalizes the tradeoff that exists between the two. As stated in the abstract:

“Congestion costs in urban areas are significant and clearly represent a negative externality. Nonetheless, economists also recognize the production advantages of urban density in the form of positive agglomeration externalities.”

Agglomeration economies is a term used to describe the benefits that occur when firms and workers are in proximity to one another. This behavior results in firm clusters and cities. In regard to the existence of agglomeration economies, economist Ed Glaeser writes:

“The concentration of people and industries has long been seen by economists as evidence for the existence of agglomeration economies. After all, why would so many people suffer the inconvenience of crowding into the island of Manhattan if there weren’t also advantages from being close to so much economic activity?”

Since congestion is a result of the high population density that is also associated with agglomeration economies, there is tradeoff between the two. Decreasing congestion costs ultimately means spreading out people and firms so that both are more equally distributed across space. Using other modes of transportation such as buses, bikes and subways may alleviate some congestion without changing the location of firms, but the examples of London and New York City, which have robust public transportation systems and a large amount of congestion, show that such a strategy has its limits.

The typical congestion analysis correctly states that workers not only face a private cost from commuting into the city, but that they impose a cost on others in the form of more traffic that slows everyone down. Since they do not consider this cost when deciding whether or not to commute the result is too much traffic.

In economic jargon, the cost to society due to an additional commuter—the marginal social cost (MSC)—is greater than the private cost to the individual—the marginal private cost (MPC). The result is that too many people commute, traffic is too high and society experiences a deadweight loss (DWL). We can depict this analysis using the basic marginal benefit/cost framework.

congestion diagram 1

In this diagram the MSC is higher than the MPC line, and so the traffic that results from equating the driver’s marginal benefit (MB) to her MPC, CH, is too high. The result is the red deadweight loss triangle which reduces society’s welfare. The correct amount is C*, which is the amount that results when the MB intersects the MSC.

The economist’s solution to this problem is to levy a tax equal to the difference between the MSC and the MPC. This difference is sometimes referred to as the marginal damage cost (MDC) and it’s equal to the external cost imposed on society from an additional commuter. The tax aligns the MPC with the MSC and induces the correct amount of traffic, C*. London is one of the few cities that has a congestion charge intended to alleviate inner-city congestion.

But this analysis gets more complicated if an activity has external benefits along with external costs. In that case the diagram would look like this:

congestion diagram 2

Now there is a marginal social benefit associated with traffic—agglomeration economies—that causes the marginal benefit of traffic to diverge from the benefits to society. In this case the efficient amount of traffic is C**, which is where the MSC line intersects the MSB line. Imposing a congestion tax equal to the MDC still eliminates the red DWL, but it creates the smaller blue DWL since it reduces too much traffic. This occurs because the congestion tax does not take into account the positive effects of agglomeration economies.

One solution would be to impose a congestion tax equal to the MDC and then pay a subsidy equal to the distance between the MSB and the MB lines. This would align the private benefits and costs with the social benefits and costs and lead to C**. Alternatively, since in this example the cost gap is greater than the benefit gap, the government could levy a smaller tax. This is shown below.

congestion diagram 3

In this case the tax is decreased to the gap between the dotted red line and the MPC curve, and this tax leads to the correct amount of traffic since it raises the private cost just enough to get the traffic level down from CH to C**, which is the efficient amount (associated with the point where the MSB intersects the MSC).

If city officials ignore the positive effect of agglomeration economies on productivity when calculating their congestion taxes they may set the tax too high. Overall welfare may improve even if the tax is too high (it depends on the size of the DWL when no tax is implemented) but society will not be as well off as it would be if the positive agglomeration effects were taken into account. Alternatively, if the gap between the MSB and the MB is greater than the cost gap, any positive tax would reduce welfare since the correct policy would be a subsidy.

This paper reminds me that the world is complicated. While taxing activities that generate negative externalities and subsidizing activities that generate positive externalities is economically sound, calculating the appropriate tax or subsidy is often difficult in practice. And, as the preceding analysis demonstrated, sometimes both need to be calculated in order to implement the appropriate policy.

Pokémon Go Represents the Best of Capitalism

An article uploaded to Vox.com by Timothy Lee earlier this week, “Pokémon Go is everything that is wrong with late capitalism,”has caused quite a stir, since it was fairly critical of the “Pokémon Go economy.” Given the popularity of the game though (and our concern that some players would be alarmed that their lighthearted entertainment was somehow destroying the economy) we wanted to offer a different perspective to some of the points made in the article.

In fact, we think that Pokémon Go actually represents the best of capitalism. In less than a week the game has topped 15 million downloads and the 21 million active daily users spend an average of 33 minutes a day playing. That amounts to over 11.5 million hours of playing per day, and those numbers only look to increase. The app doesn’t cost anything to download and play, which means that Nintendo and Niantic (the game developer) are essentially giving away tens of millions of dollars of value to the eager players.

We know that’s a bold statement. But this is why it’s true: A person’s time is scarce and valuable. Every moment they spend playing Pokémon Go they could instead be doing something else. The fact that they’re voluntarily choosing to play means that the benefit of playing is more than the cost.

Economists call this “consumer surplus” – the difference between a customer’s willingness to pay for a good or service and the price that it actually costs. It’s a measurement of the dollar value gained by the consumer in the exchange. If a person was to buy a game of bowling for $5 that they value at $7, instead of playing an hour of Pokémon that they value at $3 for free, that person would lose out on value that would have made their life better.

So even if the average consumer surplus is only a measly dollar an hour, consumers are getting $11.5 million dollars of value each day. The fact that customers are buying special items to use in the game, spending upwards of $1.6 million each day, implies that the value players receive from the game is actually higher.

The article laments that local economies are harmed because people are turning toward forms of entertainment that don’t have high production costs, like movie theaters or bowling alleys that need expensive buildings or numerous employees selling buckets of popcorn. What the article misses is that the economic activity associated with traditional entertainment options represent the costs of providing the entertainment. The reality we have now is much better, since we not only gain the value of the entertainment, but we have the money we would have paid for it to purchase other things as well. It’s almost like getting something for nothing, and our lives – and the economy in general – are better as result.

This is the core of economic growth – decreasing the scarcity of goods and services that limits our lives. The article makes it seem as if economic growth comes from simply spending money. This view can lead us astray because it ignores the importance of entrepreneurs, whose role is critical in the creation of new products and services that improve everyone’s well-being.

Pokémon Go is actually a great example of this. The game developers and their investors thought that they could make something that customers might like and they took the entrepreneurial risk to create the game without the certainty that it was going to be a success. Obviously, it was a good gamble, but I’m sure that even they are amazed at the results. Imagine if the game development funds had been used to build a couple of bowling alleys instead. Wow. What fun.

Think of what would have been lost to society if entrepreneurs didn’t have the funds and the freedom to take that gamble. And their success has spawned a sub-industry of “Poképreneurs” who are selling drinks and providing rides to Pokémon players. Economic growth – and our increased social well-being – depends on this kind of permissionless innovation.

In short, Pokémon Go represents the very best of capitalism because it’s premised on voluntary exchange – no one is forced to download the game, players can stop playing at any time they like, and if they value the special items available in the game store they can buy them to enhance their fun. Furthermore, the entrepreneurs who had the foresight and the guts to dare to make the world a better place are being rewarded for their accomplishment. Most importantly, that success only comes about because they have made people’s lives better in the process. That’s something Team Rocket could never learn to do.

About the Authors:

Michael Farren is a Research Fellow in the Study of American Capitalism at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He’s a proud member of Team Instinct, because he likes a challenge.

Adam A. Millsap is a Research Fellow in the State and Local Policy Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. No team will allow him to join, because all he can catch is Pidgeys.

*The title and opening sentence of this article has changed since it was originally published.