Economics, Pethokoukis

Traffic nerds alert! A congestion pricing caveat

The economic logic behind congestion pricing is pretty straight forward. Tolls paid by drivers spread demand more evenly throughout the day. With a price attached to their decisions, people will make better commuting choices — maybe leaving earlier or later –reducing delays. Yay, efficiency! London already has congestion pricing, and many economists recommend the same for US urban areas. But Philly Fed economist Jeffrey Brinkman offers a caveat in a recent paper:

However, once we consider business location decisions, the efficacy of this policy comes into question. The policy, by design, will make it more costly for people to travel into dense business districts, and workers will therefore require higher wages to do so. Paying these higher wages might not be worth it for businesses, and therefore, some businesses will leave the business district, reducing employment density. Given the strong evidence for agglomeration economies, or some proximity-related economies of scale, there will be some loss in production. Understood in this way, the efficiency of congestion pricing becomes ambiguous. This suggests that a better policy may be to reduce the costs associated with congestion rather than charge fees to discourage commuting into dense areas.

Follow James Pethokoukis on Twitter at @JimPethokoukis, and AEIdeas at @AEIdeas.

Pethokoukis, Economics, U.S. Economy

Is the job market ready to bloom?

RDQ Economics

RDQ Economics

Only once during this recovery — which will hit its 5th birthday this summer — has the US economy grown by 3% or more in back-to-back quarters. But some on Wall Street see 3% or more GDP growth for the rest of the year. Data like today’s jobless claims numbers are one reason why. Initial claims for the week ending April 5th plunged 32,000 to 300,000, the lowest weekly reading since May 2007. The four-week average fell by 5,000 to 316,000, just 1,000 above the cycle low reached in late September. But as RDQ Economics points out, if you factor out the California computer issues last fall, the four-week average of jobless claims is actually at the lowest level since October 2007. JPMorgan: “The claims data remain consistent with steady job growth and a tightening labor market.” Barclays: “Overall, these data point to a labor market that is picking up steam along with activity as the weather normalizes in the spring.” We sure hope so.

Follow James Pethokoukis on Twitter at @JimPethokoukis, and AEIdeas at @AEIdeas.

Pethokoukis

What people are missing when it comes to Jeb Bush and Common Core

With Jeb Bush suddenly in the 2016 presidential spotlight, there is new attention to his embrace of the controversial Common Core academic standards. Many folks on the right see Common Core as a heavy-handed, top-down intrusion by a technocratic elite. But many on the center-left see Common Core as no-brainer, six-inch putt, policywise. Here is Isabel Sawhill of Brookings offering the GOP some advice on pushing policies to improve economic mobility:

 The public wants leadership that goes beyond criticism of the status quo and incremental policy measures. One idea: support the common core educational standards and guarantee a full scholarship to the college of one’s choice for anyone who is a high achiever, but pay for this by limiting Pell grants for those who fall below some acceptable level. This should motivate students to work harder to achieve the grade.

I asked AEI’s Mike McShane for his two-cents on the Common Core bit of Sawhill’s idea:

There seem to be any number of other more promising reform options (like a lot of the school choice stuff we’ve talked about) that are more in line with conservative principles than supporting the Common Core.  In fact, I’d say the Common Core in a way is itself an incremental reform.  It keeps schools and school systems essentially unchanged and just alters the goals that they’re trying to reach.  Creating a more market based system is a much greater disruption to the status quo, and would be far from incremental. Sure, to date, charter schools (that enroll something like 3 million of the nation’s 50 million-plus school children) and private school choice programs (that enroll just over 300,000) look incremental, but when you see cities like New Orleans (70%+ charters) and DC (almost 50% charters) you see a totally new way of organizing and managing school systems that has a great deal of promise.

I think that’s right. US education needs disruptive innovation, which McShane digs into during a recent podcast with me.

Follow James Pethokoukis on Twitter at @JimPethokoukis, and AEIdeas at @AEIdeas.

Pethokoukis

An inconvenient question: ‘If climate change is a planetary emergency, why take nuclear and natural gas off the table?’

040914climatechange

Plenty of Americans, especially on the right, think climate change is a sham meant to enrich researchers and provide an excuse for bigger, more intrusive government. A recent Gallup poll found that just 34% of adults said they worried “a great deal” about global warming. That’s down from a peak of 41% in 2007. The Great Recession no doubt has played a role. But Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute think climate change activists are blowing it by (a) trying to scare up support by linking natural disasters to global warming, and (b) rejecting nuclear energy and natural gas as alternative, low-carbon energy sources. From their New York Times op-ed:

What works, say environmental pollsters and researchers, is focusing on popular solutions. Climate advocates often do this, arguing that solar and wind can reduce emissions while strengthening the economy. But when renewable energy technologies are offered as solutions to the exclusion of other low-carbon alternatives, they polarize rather than unite. One recent study, published by Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project, found that conservatives become less skeptical about global warming if they first read articles suggesting nuclear energy or geoengineering as solutions. Another study, in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2012, concluded that “communication should focus on how mitigation efforts can promote a better society” rather than “on the reality of climate change and averting its risks.”

Nonetheless, virtually every major national environmental organization continues to reject nuclear energy, even after four leading climate scientists wrote them an open letter last fall, imploring them to embrace the technology as a key climate solution. Together with catastrophic rhetoric, the rejection of technologies like nuclear and natural gas by environmental groups is most likely feeding the perception among many that climate change is being exaggerated. After all, if climate change is a planetary emergency, why take nuclear and natural gas off the table?

A 2013 Breakthrough Institute report offers a number of suggestions for government policy on nuclear, including more R&D on advanced reactor designs and licensing reform. Also, here is a post from last year on why the GOP needs to step up its game on climate change.

Follow James Pethokoukis on Twitter at @JimPethokoukis, and AEIdeas at @AEIdeas.

Economics, Pethokoukis, U.S. Economy

More Americans will have no choice but to be entrepreneurs and invent their own jobs

Kauffman Foundation

Kauffman Foundation

Entrepreneurial activity is down, but more of those starting businesses lately are doing so because they spy a market opportunity than because they just lost their job. According to the annual Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, the startup rate declined slightly from 0.32% of American adults per month starting businesses in 2011 and 0.30% in 2012 to 0.28% in 2013.

But 78.2% were “opportunity entrepreneurs” last year vs. 72.8% in 2009. The Wall Street Journal’s Rhonda Colvin and Sarah Needleman, keying off the new Kauffman study, see fewer “necessity entrepreneurs” as a “silver lining” in the steady decline in US business formation. Some further explanation:

Josh Lerner, an economist at Harvard Business School, says that necessity entrepreneurs “were the M.B.A. who got laid off and created a one-man consulting business and the guy who got laid off from the steel mill and started doing car repair in his backyard.”

It’s the “opportunity entrepreneurs”—those who start businesses because they see an opportunity in the market rather than because they have no other employment options—who tend to be better positioned for success, according to Aaron Chatterji, an associate professor of business administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “They’ve made the choice—the calculation—that this is the time to do it,” he says, adding that such people are also more likely to create jobs.

We need more opportunity entrepreneurs and should eliminate government-erected barriers to entry. We need more “permissionless innovation” and fewer bureaucratic hassles. But a rising number of US workers may become de facto necessity entrepreneurs as automation eliminates routine positions and temp jobs rise as a share of the economy. We will need to invent our own jobs. How can government help? In their excellent book, “The Second Machine Age,” MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee offer policy recommendations such as a universal basic income or negative income tax, taxing consumption rather than human labor, teaching entrepreneurship throughout an improved education system, and keeping the entrepreneurial “peer economy,” such as Airbnb, deregulated. The point is to boost firm entry (more startups) and exit (no cronyist bailouts or subsidies), while bolstering the safety net for workers.

Follow James Pethokoukis on Twitter at @JimPethokoukis, and AEIdeas at @AEIdeas.

Economics, Financial Services, Pethokoukis

Wall Street should stop complaining about new bank capital rules

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Wall Street is kvetching up a storm over modest toughening of megabank capital requirements by federal regulators. ”This rule puts American financial institutions at a clear disadvantage against overseas competitors,” Tim Pawlenty, chief executive of The Financial Services Roundtable and former GOP presidential candidate, told Reuters.

The new rule increases the required leverage ratio – the amount of equity capital a bank holds as a share of assets — to 5% versus the 3% ratio in the international Basel III agreement. Under the new rule, megabanks could borrow only 95% of money they lend versus 97% under Basel. By 2018, they would have to rely more on selling stock or retained earnings.

If other nations want riskier big banks, that’s the business of their taxpayers who’ll be on the hook for future bailouts. A tougher leverage ratio and bigger safety cushion make the US financial system somewhat safer, but not as safe as it could and should be. The US has suffered 14 major banking crises over the past two centuries, as documented by Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber in their new book, “Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit.” (None in Canada, by the way.) One could reasonably assume US economic growth would have been a least a smidge better without all those other crises.

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Calomiris and coauthor Allan Meltzer note that at the start of the Great Depression, the big New York City banks ”all maintained more than 15% of their assets in equity” and none went bust. Likewise, “losses suffered by major banks in the recent crisis would not have wiped out their equity if it had been equal to 15% of their assets.”

Wouldn’t a 15% leverage ratio hurt bank lending and economic growth? Consider: First you have to calculate whether it would hurt economic growth more than a continuation of America’s serial financial crises. Second, it’s a pernicious myth that debt is somehow “more expensive” than equity capital. The more stock a bank issues, the less risky the bank becomes, and the lower the return shareholders demand.

Don’t banks know this? Look, banks are responding to incentives. Bank debt operates on unequal footing thanks to Washington’s “too big to fail” backstop. University of Chicago economist John Cochrane explains that without government guarantees, “a bank with 3% capital would have to offer very high interest rates—rates that would make equity look cheap.” Like researchers Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig in their book “The Bankers’ New Clothes,” Cochrane endorses dramatically higher capital levels. So should policymakers if they want to avoid another century of financial shocks.

Follow James Pethokoukis on Twitter at @JimPethokoukis, and AEIdeas at @AEIdeas.

Pethokoukis

Obamacare is, apparently, declining to implode

HealthCare.gov

HealthCare.gov

Jim Capretta and Ramesh Ponnuru, in separate pieces, offer some gentle truth telling about Obamacare. It’s not going to implode of its own inherent economic faults anytime soon. Ponnuru: “The law will continue to be implemented, with the administration making whatever revisions it thinks necessary.”

And even if Republicans gain control of the White House and Congress, there are limitations to what a GOP president would do. For instance, maybe President Rand Paul would decide to disallow the federal health exchange from paying premium credits to 10 million Americans. As Capretta puts it, “A reversal of this kind would be politically tumultuous, to put it mildly.” Adds Ponnuru: “It seems unlikely that Congress would pass legislation to strip coverage from millions of people.”

And that’s probably even with a reasonable replacement plan all lined up. Just a few years after one massive, convulsive change, Republican are going to offer another massive, convulsive change? What’s more, while center-right policymakers are cooking up various reform plans, one ingredient needs to be in all of them: universal coverage as an explicit policy goal. As Avik Roy wrote earlier this year:

No conservative politicians oppose universal public education; instead, we champion reforms that improve the quality of public education that poor Americans receive. Ensuring that every American has access to quality health coverage is a legitimate goal of public policy, and it can be done in a way that expands freedom and reduces the burden on American taxpayers.

There is no “repeal” in the Roy plan. Broadly he would (a) deregulate the exchanges, (b) gradually raise the Medicare age, effectively funneling more people into the exchanges, and (c) put acute-care Medicaid patients into the exchanges, “while returning its long-term care and disabled populations fully back to the states, free of federal interference.” Whatever the flaws in the Roy plan, it has a big advantage in that it works off the status quo, rather than attempting to scrap the status quo. (See: path dependence.)

Follow James Pethokoukis on Twitter at @JimPethokoukis, and AEIdeas at @AEIdeas.

Pethokoukis, Economics, U.S. Economy

Is the temp economy permanent?

Image Credit: shutterstock

Image Credit: shutterstock

If the US job market were undergoing some sort of major, long-lasting transformation, how would we know? Well, the data might start looking kind of weird. Maybe the labor force participation would collapse, or wages would stagnate, or job creation would shrivel. Or we might see something like a big rise in temporary workers. Indeed, Wall Street Journal reporter Damian Paletta points out, “More than 2.8 million workers were categorized as having temp jobs in March—about 2.5% of the workforce—up from 1.7 million in August 2009.” Of course a rise in short-term jobs is typical after a downturn, and a big increase often comes right before an upturn in permanent hiring. But maybe not this time. Paletta:

The boost is fueled by companies that reduced hiring amid the recession and learned they can save money in wages and benefits, as well as increase their flexibility, by using fewer permanent workers—even as the economy grows. Technology advances, particularly in manufacturing, have led companies to rethink how many permanent workers they need at a time when temp jobs have become increasingly long term.

So are we are headed to where Japan already is? A third of its workers are temps who are paid less, receive fewer benefits, and have less job security. Not surprisingly, all this takes a toll on family formation, the last thing a nation with a shrinking population needs. If this trend is longer-term, it argues for better education and training so workers can do the high-value things machines can’t. Government should also be careful of polices that raise hiring costs like mandating benefits or wage floors. In fact,  policymakers should take a deep look at wage subsidies for lower-skilled workers. Above all, lawmakers at all levels need to take seriously the impact of technology on labor markets. From The Economist:

Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford, has seen a big change of heart about such technological unemployment in his discipline recently. The received wisdom used to be that although new technologies put some workers out of jobs, the extra wealth they generated increased consumption and thus created jobs elsewhere. Now many economists are taking the short- to medium-term risk to jobs far more seriously, and some think the potential scaleof change may be huge.

Follow James Pethokoukis on Twitter at @JimPethokoukis, and AEIdeas at @AEIdeas.

Pethokoukis

More signs the US labor market is hardly back to full health

040714jobs

There are ways to gauge the job market besides the unemployment rate or labor force participation. One way is to look at total job opening and total job separations, from the Labor Department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. If you add total job openings to total job separations, you get a sense of job churn. Deutsche Bank:

Generally speaking, higher job churn corresponds to a healthier and more dynamic labor market. At present, gross job churn is only around 8.4 million per month, which is where the series was in July 2008. From 2003 to 2007, when the unemployment rate averaged just 5.2%, gross monthly job flow averaged slightly more than 10 million workers per month from 2003 to 2007.

Also both the hiring rate and quit rate remain low:

…  the hiring rate was only 3.3% in January, which is 70 basis points (bps) below its 2005 peak, and 50 bps below the 3.8% average that prevailed from 2003 to 2007. The hiring rate is closely correlated with the change in nonfarm payrolls, so if the pace of the latter accelerates, then the hiring rate should rise significantly.

The pattern on the quit rate is similar to that of the hiring rate.  The quit rate is currently 1.7%, which is up 40 bps from its record low of 1.3% set during 2009 and 2010.  However, the quit rate averaged 2.0% from 2003 to 2007, so it still has to edge a bit higher to get back to “normal”.

Follow James Pethokoukis on Twitter at @JimPethokoukis, and AEIdeas at @AEIdeas.

Economics, Pethokoukis

If the West has never had so much economic freedom, why do our economies stink?

"Economic liberty in the long run: Evidence from OECD countries" by Leandro Prados de la Escosura,

"Economic liberty in the long run: Evidence from OECD countries" by Leandro Prados de la Escosura,

In “Economic liberty in the long run: Evidence from OECD countries” economist Leandro Prados de la Escosura takes the long view of economic freedom — as measured by trade, property rights, monetary policy, and regulation — and arrives at the following conclusion:

Economic liberty is higher nowadays in the OECD than at any time over the last one and a half centuries and, probably, in history.

Let’s assume that’s true regarding advanced economies. (Weird that the level of marginal tax rates isn’t in the mix.) De la Escosura highlights this quandry: “If economic freedom is usually associated with economic growth, how can we reconcile good economic performance in the OECD during the 1960s and early 1970s with stagnant and relatively low levels of economic freedom?”

This seems not so hard. The 1960s and 1970s saw Europe complete its postwar catchup. Also, one might expect mature economies to grow a bit more slowly. And maybe the “neoliberal” revolution that brought this flowering of freedom had a big flaw that de la Escosura is missing. Ashwin Parameswaran:

The neo-liberal era is often seen as the era of deregulation and market supremacy. But as many commentators have noticed, ”deregulation typically means reregulation under new rules that favor business interests.” As William Davies notes, “the guiding assumption of neoliberalism is not that markets work perfectly, but that private actors make better decisions than public ones”.

And this is exactly what happened. Public sector employees were moved onto incentive-based contracts that relied on their “greed” and the invisible hand to elicit better outcomes. Public services were increasingly outsourced to private contractors who were theoretically incentivised to keep costs down and improve service delivery. Nationalised industries like telecom were replaced with heavily licensed private oligopolies

The neo-liberal era saw a rise in incentive-based contracts across the private and public sector but without the invisible foot of the threat of failure. The predictable result was not only a stagnant economy but an increase in rent extraction as private actors gamed the positive incentives on offer.

Follow James Pethokoukis on Twitter at @JimPethokoukis, and AEIdeas at @AEIdeas.