Contest results!

August 25th, 2015 at 2:43 pm

We have some winners to the latest episode of “where’s Jared?” It’s the VA Beach boardwalk, a crowded, bustling slice of Americana, with extra cheese! Along the way I learned that what the Romans call Neptune, the Greeks call Poseidon.

Those who had it right should submit a link to some music they’d like to share with the OTE community, along with a sentence or two as to why you chose that piece. It’s a family site, so nothing too nasty, please.

One winner, motivated by the specter of financial contagion in recent days, suggested this lovely number by the Beatles–Here, There, and Everywhere…a lovely tune, but it doesn’t sound like markets panicking!


New Pictures From CBO on the Extent of the Damage

August 25th, 2015 at 2:24 pm

The Congressional Budget Office just released their periodic update of our fiscal and economic outlook. Journalists often focus on their deficit projections as that’s the coin of the realm (the budget office found that near term deficits go down before they start going up). But I’m here to show you what I humbly submit are two important pictures of just how lasting and relentless economic slack—the under-utilization of our economic resources, including people—has been over this business cycle.

The first picture shows potential GDP against actual GDP in real dollars, where potential GDP is the output you’d expect at full employment. The recession is clear but note that all the way through the first half of this year, actual GDP still hasn’t linked up with potential.


Source: CBO

The second figure applies the same sort of concept to unemployment, with the “natural rate” line giving you CBO’s estimate of the jobless rate commensurate with full employment.


Source: CBO

The cost of these gaps is staggering. Output forgone is lost forever. Families that struggled with long months of unemployment can’t get those months back. The gap between actual and potential GDP in 2014 amounted to 4% of GDP—about $700 billion in today’s dollars, over $2,000 per person. That’s $8,000 for a family of four that’s missing due to these persistent gaps.

What’s “interesting”—as in “depressing”—about this is that the obsessive focus on the deficit has hamstrung the fiscal policy that should have been applied to closing these gaps. So pardon me if I don’t get flustered with joy that the deficit’s coming down or enraged that it starts going up again.

If policy makers had been doing their jobs, these gaps would have been closed well before today.

The Phillips Curve is at best in ill repair, if not just outright broken.

August 23rd, 2015 at 9:25 pm

Here’s an excellent piece by Ben Leubsdorf on how the Phillip’s curve–long a workhorse of macro-policy–is not much help these days in trying to quantify the relationship between slack and inflation.

From the piece:

In an influential 1958 paper, [A. W. Phillips (a Kiwi, btw!–JB)]  hypothesized that employers will bid up wages when workers are scarce, but feel little pressure to raise pay when unemployment is high and many workers are available. Data on the U.K. economy from 1861 to 1957 backed him up: High unemployment generally corresponded with low or negative wage growth; low unemployment was reflected in faster wage growth.

The sloped line depicting that relationship was embraced by many economists in the following decades to help explain how the economy works. Increasingly sophisticated versions of the so-called Phillips curve use measures of economic slack, model prices as well as wages and incorporate concepts like inflation expectations…

[Fed chair Janet]…Yellen has been a longtime booster, citing it as a Fed governor during policy discussions in the 1990s and telling lawmakers in 2010 that despite some shortcomings, “the Phillips curve model provides a coherent and useful framework for thinking about the influence of monetary policy on inflation.”

Yes, slack and inflation are correlated, but the extent of that correlation changes significantly over time, and lots of other factors get in the way–globalization (which increases both the supply of goods and labor, affecting both prices and wages), bargaining power, and the extent to which the Fed itself “anchors” inflationary expectations.

As the forthright David Altig from the Atlanta Federal Reserve puts it: “We haven’t lost faith in the framework [but] the numbers that you would plug into that framework and the exact levels at which the pressures begin to emerge, we’re not so clear on those.”

I myself, riffing off of work by Ball and Mazumder, have shown how the slope of the curve–the magnitude by which diminished slack drives up inflation and vice versa–has drifted about over time, landing around zero in recent years (see the figure here).

But this figure from the Leubsdorf piece tells the story perfectly well.


Source: WSJ

That doesn’t look like a lamppost that could shed much useful light on the Fed’s dual mandate (maintain full employment at stable inflation). Which makes this a timely discussion, because this is the week the Fed holds its annual retreat in Jackson Hole, Wy. I can only hope someone throws the figure above up on the screen, and says to their colleagues, “Really? Seriously?? This is the heart of our model?”

There are at least two responses to the questions this raises. The correct ones are “what’s wrong with the model? What factors are changing this historical relationship and how lasting are they? And what does this imply for monetary policy, especially our imminent interest raising campaign?”

Then there’s the response from Dennis Lockhart, president of the Atlanta Fed:

“In the absence of direct evidence that inflation is in fact converging to the target and in the absence of compelling or convincing direct evidence, I think a policy maker has to act on the view that the basic relationship in the Phillips curve between inflation and employment will assert itself in a reasonable period of time as the economy tightens up.”

To me, that sounds downright religious, not at all empirical, and certainly not in the spirit of what we’ve been told is a data-driven Fed.


I write this from an undisclosed location. Which provides us a chance for another round of “Where’s JB?” Prizes same as always: winner gets to choose a musical interlude I’ll post for all to enjoy. I think this one is easier than the last one, from Aspen CO, that no one got!


Teresa Tritch and the Birmingham Bounce

August 21st, 2015 at 3:19 pm

Curse you, Teresa Tritch of the NYT’s editorial page! I–not you–am the one who connects progressive economic stories to obscure jazz pieces!

JK! Ms. Tritch highlights a great and surprising development: “By a vote of 7 to 0 with one abstention, the city council of Birmingham, Ala. adopted a citywide minimum wage this week of $10.10 by 2017, with increases for inflation every year after that.” The increase still has to be approved by the city attorney.

In recent years, as more states have adopted minimum wages above the Federal level (29, thus far), I’ve argued that the federal minimum wage is becoming the southern minimum wage. So I’ve been pleased and surprised to see developments like this one, or the recently legislated increase in Arkansas, Nebraska, and other red places, even if it does take away a talking point.

At some level, what we have here is the triumph of research and fact over fiction. I’m old enough to remember NYT editorials that opposed the minimum wage based not on empirical evidence of what actually happened when the wage floor was raised, but on their allegiance to the classical model of labor supply and demand. The assumption there is that the market is “in equilibrium” and thus a price change (in this case, the price of low-wage workers) would have the unintended consequence of pricing them out of the market.

Then came the modern era of minimum-wage research, launched by David Card and Alan Krueger and now summarized by Belman and Wolfson, wherein rigorous statistical research on the outcome of moderate increases in the minimum wage showed the policy to have its intended effects, or, as Belman and Wolfson summarized it in their highly praised tome: “the effect of the minimum wage has largely been one of intended consequences.” To the extent that there’s an equilibrium at all in low-wage labor markets, it’s often one in which low-wage workers with little to nothing in the way of bargaining power are exploited. The higher wage floor thus shifts a bit of “economic rents” back into their paychecks.

Those whose minds can be changed by new information–and that includes the NYT editorial page–have absorbed this work, and as elite opinions moved, many policy makers, particularly at the sub-national level, have supported advocates’ calls for increases in state and city minimum wages.

So as low-wage workers in Birmingham get a bounce, as will the businesses there in which they shop, go ahead and do the Birmingham Bounce right along with them, courtesy of Ms. Tritch!

“Smell something, say something!” Teachers’ unions do not hurt student outcomes.

August 20th, 2015 at 1:13 pm

Welcome to the first edition of a new OTE feature, dedicated to the parting admonition of the great Jon Stewart: when it comes to BS, “smell something, say something!

To be clear, I’m not trying to emulate the fact checkers out there. Nor am I going to peruse the papers, like Dean does so effectively, to find errant economics reporting.  Instead, I’m just going to occasionally pounce on a specific brand of assertion: a stylized, accepted fact that isn’t a fact at all.

For example, conservative partisans (as well as many centrist D’s) consistently assert that teachers’ unions are bad for student outcomes, and if we want to improve such outcomes, we must diminish the impact of teachers’ unions. Most recently, this negative role of unions was a featured assertion in a Republican primary debate.

That claim smelled bad to me, as in I know of no body of evidence to support it. I know it’s a constant refrain, but I figured I’d have seen something from the deep academic community that runs analyses of such issues over the years to support it, and I haven’t.

Maybe I missed it. So I asked some experts in this field and they confirmed my intuition.

–Berkeley econ prof Jesse Rothstein, who’s done important work on “value-added-measurement” in teacher evaluations, confirmed my priors that such evidence is wanting.

–He and education policy expert Kevin Carey made the same interesting point: there’s a significant measurement challenge in that school districts that don’t have unions, and would thus serve as a useful control, “tend to have teachers associations and/or contracts that aren’t too different from what unionized districts have” (Rothstein).

–The unions themselves will correctly tell you that states with fewer unions, including “right-to-work” states, have worse student outcomes. And there are countries, like Finland, that have very high unionization rates and consistently rank highly in international comparisons of student outcomes. But, as Carey stressed, right-to-work states are also poorer, and Finland ain’t the US, and there’s the quasi-union arrangements noted above, even in non-union states. So it’s very hard to make an all-else-equal run at this question.

–Larry Mishel shares this paper by himself and Emma Garcia. It tests–rigorously, I thought–for correlations–again, we’re not talking causality–between the strength of teachers unions and whether unions shift more experienced and higher credentialed teachers away from poorer schools. Their results fail “to show an association between the strength of unions in the states and the allocation of teacher credentials across schools. We find no negative or no association between the allocations of credentials in average schools or in high poverty schools and the unions’ strength…we find no association between the unions’ strength and the misallocation of credentials among high poverty schools relative to the average.”

In other words, there is nothing like a well-established consensus that teachers’ unions have any impact one way or the other on student outcomes. That doesn’t mean teachers’ unions are great for kids either. It means that when you hear a politician bashing teachers’ unions on behalf of students, they’re BS’ing…so: smell something and say something.