Category Archives: economics

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What if the Government Gave Everyone a Paycheck? Well it just did. What did we learn?

Before the pandemic (i.e. 2018), people were asking this: What if the Government Gave Everyone a Paycheck? – The New York Times.

It seemed impossible at the time. Then the pandemic came, and governments in the US and Canada essentially did just that.

What I fear is going to happen is economic conservatives are going to rush in and start yelling “Deficits are Bad!!!” and all the Establishment will nod and a new wave of austerity will come in. What I hope is that better economists will come to the fore and push and see how close we can get to UBI, given what we learned so far.

Much depends on what happens in the next six to twelve months.

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Inequality is a fundamental problem over many centuries


At least, according to this:  700 years of Western inequality, in one chart – Vox

The chart shows the percentage of wealth owned by the top 10% since 1300. There are only two times it takes a major drop: during the Black Death in the 14th century and during World War II in the 20th century.

If true, it means that wealth concentration will continue unless another major catastrophe occurs (pandemic? global warming?).

There is lots to debate in all this. The numbers themselves are debatable (i.e. just how accurate and representative are they?)  As well, there is an argument to be made that it doesn’t matter how inequally distributed wealth is  if generally life for the 90% is good. But the Vox piece argues that such inequality leads to political instability and other problem, and that a good life for the majority isn’t enough.

Read the piece and consider it for yourself.

 

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How to think of climate change/the environment in terms of economics

Forget what Steven Mnuchin said about Greta Thunberg needing to study economics before offering climate change proposals. That was an asinine thing for him to say.. But read that article in the Washington Post for the ideas. They spoke to an economist about climate change and how economics comes in and it’s worthwhile for that.

People might argue that we need to do something about climate change, but we can’t afford it. If you want to argue back, the article can help.

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Falling

We don’t talk much about poverty anymore. We talk about the middle class a lot. We don’t talk about the upper class or the rich anymore: instead we talk about them in terms of percentage points. And we don’t talk about the poor as much as we talk about those who are homeless. But there are still poor people in our society, and one member of that group wrote about it here: Falling.

He has a home, he was middleclass, and now he is poor. The story is sad but not exceptional.

I don’t know why we don’t talk about the poor so much any more. Perhaps we see poverty as shameful, not for the people who are poor, but shameful for people who don’t see themselves as poor. I don’t know. I think we do need to talk about it and the spectrum of financial status, and I think we need to work towards a fairer and more equitable society. First, we need to look and talk about it more clearly.

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Something I think on often: capital Is no longer scarce


I have thought about this piece on capital often since I read it: Continuations by Albert Wenger : Capital Is No Longer Scarce.

I realize it is relative and that there are people and organizations that have difficulty accessing capital. But I believe overall there is an abundance of capital. I believe that is why you see a lot of the behaviours you see in the world, from negative interest rates to bogus unicorns like We and Uber and Lyft to high housing valuations to no inflation.

 

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The law of supply and demand strikes again, this time with truckers for Walmart

It seems to me that the law of supply and demand stops working from time to time. But I think that is wrong, and pieces like this remind me that I am wrong: How Walmart has successfully recruited truck drivers amid a labor shortage crisis.

The reason I think it stops working is because I see wage growth stagnating in many places. But I also see productivity stagnating too, and I think there is a relationship between that. There is some elasticity there that allows wage growth to stagnate but in return productivity growth stagnates too.

In Walmart’s case, the elasticity is gone: if they can’t get truckers, they lose business. It’s simple.  But for businesses without such hard and fast metrics, you might just continue to see slack productivity and slack wage growth.

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Senior Citizens Are Replacing Teenagers as Fast-Food Workers. Some thoughts.

Worth reading: Senior Citizens Are Replacing Teenagers as Fast-Food Workers – Bloomberg.

Some thoughts:

  • the reasons to hire older workers for fast food places is also true for other work as well.
  • the notion of retirement needs to be rethought. People are living lives well past traditional retirement ages, and some people retire involuntarily decades before they die.  Additionally, many of them cannot afford to not work all that time. Having work and an income in their later years makes sense.
  • Good work is uplifting. If you can find good work as you get older, you can find a way to make your later years more worthwhile.

 

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How economic hardship traumatizes people individually and as a culture

This piece, Opinion | Still Haunted by Grocery Shopping in the 1980s – The New York Times, by a Brazilian economist highlights the emotional scars that economic hardship has on a person. Key quote for me was this:

Research has found that children living in poverty are at increased risk of difficulties with self-regulation and executive function, such as inattention, impulsivity, defiance and poor peer relationships. It takes generations until society fully heals from periods of deep instability. A study in the early 2010s showed that Germans were more worried about inflation than about developing a life-threatening disease such as cancer; hyperinflation in the country ended almost 100 years ago.

Not only does it touch people individually, but you could make the case that it gets embedded into the culture. Germans are still worrying about inflation! Indeed, I remember my mom telling me how the Great Depression affected her mother to the point that she adopted behaviors she could never shake, not matter how much she had in the future.

Economics can seem dry, especially when people focus on numbers. But those numbers paper over how people are really affected. What is the emotional impact of high (or low) unemployment? What do we see happening in the culture when housing becomes unaffordable or work impossible to get. The numbers are an essential part of the story but they are also just the start of the story.

 

Can we have greater equality without great catastrophes?

This is the question reviewed here:  Are plagues and wars the only ways to reduce inequality? | Aeon Essays.  (It’s a long read but a good one.)

If you are not familiar with this idea, consider this graph:

The higher the red line is, the greater inequality is. Throughout the last 2000+ years, inequality has been reduced only by terrible events like plague and war.

For a time post World War II, inequality was declining in much of the world. Then, around the 1980s, it started to increase and continues to do so. Now we have a race on. Population declines should occur over the next 100 years, leading to greater equality. To counter that, we have greater automation occurring which may boost inequality as those with the means to control the automation make much of the income and increase their wealth. Will this inequality lead to events that once again levels off the distribution of wealth and income? Or will we reach a balance somehow?

I highly recommend the article. Rising inequality will be one of the great strains on the 21st century, and this article helps to provide some context on the subject.

 

Good news regarding food and agriculture


The good news is this: There’s More Farmland in the World Than Was Previously Thought | Agweb.com.

There are still problems in preventing hunger and famine, but decreasing farmland should not be adding to that. Good! Now to decrease conflicts and ensure everyone has access to good, cheap, nutritious food.

(image via pexels.com)

An introduction to Richard Thaler, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics

Often times it is hard to appreciate the work of Nobel Prize winners, including those in Economics. Thaler is not one of those people. His work is very approachable for laypeople, and the benefits of his work is obvious.

Here’s one example, of how his work led to better results for people in terms of pensions.

Youtube is a great source of videos on Thaler. If you want to get started understanding what is behind his thinking, you can start there.
In addition, the New York Times covers his award winning here and it is another good introduction. Finally, here is a piece in the Times that Thaler wrote himself, on the power of Nudges. If you do anything, read that.

Good to see him win.

A cautionary tale of what low taxes and libertarianism brings

Amish women on the beach
There can be many lessons that can be drawn from the story here: The Rise and Fall of the ‘Freest Little City in Texas’

The ones I drew were

  • You get the society you pay for. In this case, the people of this part of Texas were unwilling to pay for anything, and they got nothing in return. It’s hard to believe this even needs to be said in this age, but apparently it does.
  • Even basic services cost money. That money comes from taxes or service fees.
  • Those services are expensive to pay for individually: it makes much more sense for people to pool their money (in the form of taxes),  to make it cheaper overall for everyone.
  • Taxes are only part of what makes a society, but a society that is based on money and that does not have taxes is no society at all.
  • Only a society that does not depend on money can get away without taxes. Typically those a tightly knit,  cohesive, pre-money communities that depend heavily on sharing and barter. These communities are more socialist or communist in nature as opposed to libertarian. More like an Amish community or hippie commune or a religious community of some form.
  • The best way to have a libertarian society is to have one of great abundance. Scarcity requires people to share and work together if they want to survive.

It’s a good story. Read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

(Photo above is Amish women on the beach)

Wages, Nash equilibrium, and the productivity paradox: a small theory of my own

Economists write a lot about the mystery of why productivity is not increasing, with pieces such as this. There’s even a section on it in Wikipedia.

My own theory is that limited wage increases is also limiting the benefits of productivity aids. How I think this works is so:

  1. Employers wont raise wages for employees.
  2. Employers deploy technology that should result in productivity gains.
  3. Employees take the technology deployed and use them to decrease their efforts.
  4. The employer sees some productivity gains and assumes that is the limit for the technology deployed.

Look at this chart:

In much of the world economy, all the job growth is in the services sector (green line), not the manufacturing sector (red line). Achieving productivity gains in the manufacturing sector is more straightforward: replace people with robots and you are done. It’s not as straightforward as that in the services sector. In some services sector jobs, it is not possible to decrease effort without it being visible. But in many services sector jobs, it is. If employees cannot improve their lives by making more money, they may decide to do so by working less and working right up to the point where they don’t lose their job.

If you look at employment as a game, then we currently have a Nash equilibrium where the employees know that they won’t get paid more working for the same company, because that is the best strategy for the company. Therefore the best strategy for the employee is to minimize their effort without getting fired and while showing little if any productivity gains.

That’s to me is key reason why I think we have the productivity paradox.

I would add that the reason this is a paradox is because no one wants to admit that this is happening. It seems like a failure on both the employers and the employees side. The employee wants to be seen as a good worker and the employer doesn’t want to admit it could be paying more. Instead technology is brought in to solve an organizational problem, which is something technology cannot do.

(Chart from Business Insider).

 

 

Foodism and the problem with home-cooked meals

I was prepared to argue with this article in Vox from some time ago: The problem with home-cooked meals , because I am a big proponent of such meals.  However, the closer I read it, I think the main issue I have with it is the title. If it was titled “The difficulties in preparing home-cooked meals”, I would have been more receptive. Read the article. If you are a foodist like myself, it might seem hard to understand at first that people have difficulties with home-cooked meals, but like many things, the difficulties arise from lack of time, knowledge, and resources (money but also access to good food, even if you have money).

I believe that there are a number of ways to address those difficulties. First, I think city governments need to treat access to food the same way they treat access to other things such as transportation, water, parks and even sunlight. If housing doesn’t have access to water or electricity or transportation, then developers shouldn’t be allowed to build it and people should not be expected to move there. Access to good food should be part of that set of restrictions.

Second, we need to better educate people on how to prepare food.  Too much of our education system is spent on academic topics. Kids should be taught a wide range of subjects, and one of those should be how to prepare food no matter how much time or a budget you have. (They should also be taught how to manage finances, how to do basic home repairs, and how to deal with personal difficulties, among other topics.) There is a wealth of information available on food preparation, but often to me it seems aimed at foodists and is aspirational. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to make good food. In addition, though, people should learn how to make straightforward nutritious food, with anything from 2 ingredients on up, with or without a recipe, in 2 minutes or over 2 days.

Third, we need to change our emphasis on a form of eating. There is a belief that some North Americans have that home cooked meals should be prepared and eaten a certain way. Often this certain way involves 30 minutes to an hour of food preparation followed by an equal amount of time eating it. Culturally that may have been the way it was done, but there is nothing that says we must continue to eat that way. You should be able to prepare and eat good meals with the resources you have.  If that means a 5 minute preparation and a 5 minute stand up meal, so be it. Better that than 30 minutes spent eating over processed food in a chain restaurant.

Finally, we need a more expansive and less snobby approach to what constitutes good food. If you are a foodist and you want to cook with homemade stock, fresh herbs, wine and hard to source ingredients, and that works for you, that’s great. For most people, if you have limited access to good food, then you can still make good meals with what you have available, and there is no shame in that.  Besides, the social status of ingredients come and go: eat the best you can with what you have, be that a roasted chicken and a salad or a bowl of chunky vegetable soup.

For many people, food is a means to an end: I’m hungry, I eat food, I’m no longer hungry. For others, their life revolves around food. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, having an open mind about how others eat and being open to alternative ways to dealing with food will benefit everyone, including yourself.

(Image is of a ham, painted by Manet.)

P.S. In case you don’t think it is a word, here is the definition of definition of foodism, from the Oxford English Dictionary:  “A keen or exaggerated interest in food, especially in the minute details of the preparation, presentation, and consumption of food.” Therefore people who have foodism are foodists.

 

 

Two interesting pieces on UBI (universal basic income)

There have been many articles written on UBI. (If you don’t know what it is, it’s  universal basic income: a cash payment made to every individual in the country).

Two of the more interesting ones I’ve read are here: The UBI already exists for the 1% – Medium, and this one here (on how India is looking to do it).

UBI is coming. It may take some time though.

Is the FED broken? Some random thoughts.

Is the FED  (Federal Reserve System) broken? If not broken then certainly being strongly tested, as this piece shows to me: The Fed Is Searching for a New Framework. New Minutes Show It Doesn’t Have One Yet. – The New York Times.

Since the start of the Great Recession, the target interest rate has gone from just over 5% to just over 0% and has more or less stayed that way for over half a decade. (See the chart). After a very long pause, the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve has begun the process of raising interest rates,  a process that her predecessors have engaged in over recent decades as they put their own distinctive stamp on the economy. (See A History of Fed Leaders and Interest Rates – The New York Times). Some of them, like Paul Volcker, have been hugely successful in shaping the economy. Others, like Alan Greenspan, also have shaped the economy hugely, but I would add, unsuccessfully. So what should the FED do?

Paul Krugman has his take, here. Perhaps an extreme inflation target is the answer, just like Volcker’s extreme interest rates were the answer for their time. However, I don’t think they are symmetrical, and the goals of a higher inflation target would be dampened down by other forces. Furthermore, the FED and most other central banks seem only capable dealing with tamping down inflation and not so capable when dealing with unemployment.

The Chairwoman is signalling she will be raising rates soon. We should see what the effect is, and how the economy and President Trump and Congress responds. If the economy goes into a recession, that would say to me the FED is broken.  If the economy does not go into a recession, I would say this means the FED still has a limited role in managing the economy. Let’s see.

Uber is reaching an inflection point (and may be reaching a crisis point)

Why? According to Bloomberg:

After touting profitability in the U.S. early this year, the ride-hailing company is said to post second-quarter losses exceeding $100 million.

A main source of the losses: subsidizing Uber drivers. As Christopher Mims commented on Twitter, “So Uber is a giant machine for transferring wealth from venture capitalists to underemployed Americans”. This is both clever and something that can’t go on indefinitely. It makes clearer to me now why Uber is keen to make self driving cars work. Sure, Uber could charge more for cabs or pay cab drivers less, but in either case, they risk losing market share.

The losses this quarter certainly are an inflection point. It remains to be see if it is a crisis point. That will depend on how the VCs see this loss. I believe they will have patience and they haven’t reached a crisis point yet. Uber should hope that their investors have the same patience that Amazon’s investors have.

For the rest of the story, see: Uber Loses at Least $1.2 Billion in First Half of 2016 – Bloomberg (Image above via the Bloomberg article)

Is facadism/urban taxidermy bad?

In this piece, Are we killing Yonge Street? from NOW Toronto Magazine, there is a good discussion on what is happening to development on Yonge Street in Toronto. NOW reports that for a lot of development happening on Yonge Street, the facades of the existing building are kept and much of the development is happening behind it. The article argues that this is a bad thing, and they raise some good points.

What I think they don’t touch on are some of the alternatives. Toronto is fortunate in that there is development ongoing. For poor cities, the alternative is boarded up or demolished buildings and vacant neighborhoods.  Instead, we have neighborhoods and buildings being improved. That’s good.

Another alternative is the old buildings being torn down and replaced with new storefronts and new buidlings. I think some of that is good, but I also think preservation of old buildings is also good.

When it comes to preservation and improvements of old buildings, I also think that some of them should be preserved outright. However, Toronto is a growing city, and in some cases, we need larger buildings. In that case, facadism is a good compromise.

Now whether or not facadism is effective or not depends on at least two things. The first is how well the new architecture uses the existing architecture. Done well, the marriage of the old and new building results in something that enhances the area and preserves the city while allowing it to grow.  The second thing that determines if facadism is effective is how the new building affects the neighborhood. Here, I think, is the root of the problem. It’s not so much facadism as it is gentrification. Old buildings get preserved, but old stores do not. New developments can cause rents to rise, driving out the stores and organizations that made the neighborhood great. You get bank branches and big chain stores replacing old bookshops and cafes.

I hope the next phase of development tries to understand how to preserve not just the existing architecture, but the neighborhood as well. I realize that is a difficult task, but it is one worth trying to accomplish.

Nate Silver and Paul Krugman on the importance of good models to understand and predict

This piece by Nate Silver, How I Acted Like A Pundit And Screwed Up On Donald Trump in FiveThirtyEight, is ostensibly about how he messed up in his predictions on the rise of Donald Trump. What I think is worth reading is how he goes about his work and what he learned from his mistakes. Specifically, it’s a great study on how important models are and how a good model works and what it can tell us.

Related, Paul Krugman talks about his model here: Economics and Self-Awareness in The New York Times. Like Silver, he uses models both to understand and predict. Obviously they are modelling different things, but in both cases good models are the basis of their thinking and the work they do.

It’s likely too much to ask now, but eventually anyone doing analysis and making predictions should have to disclose the models they are basing their decisions upon. The opinions of anyone not having such models are likely not worth much.

Detroit: imploding city

While I knew things were rough in Detroit, this story, Volume of abandoned homes ‘absolutely terrifying’ (from DetroitNews.com), gives you a context of just how incredibly bad it is. Two take aways from that story. First, this statistic:

Since 2005, more than 1-in-3 Detroit properties have been foreclosed because of mortgage defaults or unpaid taxes

Two, this map of foreclosures:

The situation is terrible, but the story is worth reading and the visuals (e.g. a bigger view of that map) really illustrate the damage. Worth reading, especially if you have recently read some pieces, as I have, of good news coming out of Detroit.

An astounding interview of Yanis Varoufakis

This New Statesman interview of Yanis Varoufakis is astounding. The way he describes negotiations between Greece and other members of the Troika should not surprise me, and yet it does.

You might think: that can’t be right….he’s exaggerating for his own benefit. But many of the things Varoufakis states I have read referenced elsewhere, but in snippets.

Well worth the time spent reading it.

P.S. He has some interesting things to say about Piketty, as well. The link to his critique of Piketty is here.

Economic inequality is rising, plain and simple.

As this piece at Vox shows , economic inequality really is rising, no matter how you fuss with the data. Possibly because of the skepticism from some, Vox explores this using differing analysis. The conclusion is always the same: economically, things are getting worse.

Data aside, this anecdotal argument at the end of the piece nails it for me:

Outside the sphere of political debate, you also see the real world impact of inequality. Merrill Lynch recommends an investment strategy to its clients based on the growing economic clout of plutocrats, Singapore Airlines is now selling $18,400 first class cabin tickets, and observers think Apple is going to start selling a $10,000 watch. Conversely, Walmart is now primarily worried about competition from dollar stores. The executives at these companies are not hysterical liberals trying to drum up paranoia about inequality, they are trying to respond to real economic conditions — conditions that have entailed very poor wage growth paired with decent returns for those proserous enough to own lots of shares of stock.

Worthwhile and recommended.