Month: December 2011

Could this be the best paper on nominal wage rigidity?

The Indian context is somewhat unusual for understanding the U.S. labor market, but arguably that throws the idea into all-the-stronger relief.  Here is an abstract and paper from Supreet Kaur, who is on the job market from Harvard this year:

Wage and employment responses to rainfall shocks in 500 Indian districts from 1956-2008 provide evidence for downward nominal wage rigidity in markets for casual daily agricultural labor. First, nominal wages rise in response to positive labor demand shocks but do not fall during droughts. Second, after transitory positive shocks have dissipated, nominal wages do not return to their previous levels—they remain high in future years. Third, inflation moderates these effects: when inflation is higher, real wages are more likely to be lower during droughts and after transitory positive shocks. Fourth, wage distortions generate employment distortions: employment is lower in the year after a transitory positive shock than if the positive shock had not occurred. Those with less land—who must sell their labor to other farms—are considerably more likely to face rationing. Landless laborers experience a 7% reduction in employment—twice as large as the employment decrease during a drought. Fifth, there is some evidence that wages are less rigid in areas where rigidity is likely to cause larger profit losses due to crop characteristics. Finally, data from a new survey I conducted in two Indian states suggests that agricultural workers and employers: view nominal wage cuts as unfair; are considerably less likely to regard real wage cuts as unfair if they are achieved through inflation rather than nominal cuts; and believe that nominal wage cuts cause effort reductions.

It is impressive how Kaur focuses on the cross-sectional variation.  You will note, of course, that wage rigidity for established workers is not the same as wage rigidity for the currently unemployed, or wage rigidity for new job market entrants, who also have high rates of unemployment.

Paragraphs to ponder

Signs of financial repression in the eurozone are already widespread. Greece this week sold six-month bills at auction at a yield of 4.95 per cent, more than 1.5 percentage points lower than Italy recently sold similar bills. But in the secondary markets, the only yields that Bloomberg quotes for Greek short-dated paper are 330 per cent for one-year bills.

Here is much more, excellent analysis throughout.

How American food got so bad

Here is a podcast with me, interviewed by Stephen Dubner.  Excerpt:

I think there is a very bad period for American food. It runs something like 1910 through maybe the 1980’s. And that’s the age of the frozen TV dinner, of the sugar donut, of fast food, of the chain, and really a lot of it is not very good. If you go back to the 19th century and you read Europeans who’ve come to the United States, they’re really quite impressed by the freshness and variety that is on offer.

I attempt to explain how this came about, in the podcast and in one chapter of my forthcoming book An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies.  Believe it or not, a lot of the blame can be placed on government, including Prohibition and immigration restrictions.  The book is due out in April, in both physical and e-copies, and it’s the longest and most comprehensive book I’ve written (yet without the price being high).

By the way, am I a food snob?  I told Dubner:

Let me just give you a few traits of food snobs that I would differ from. First, they tend to see commercialization as the villain. I tend to see commercialization as the savior. Second, they tend to construct a kind of good versus bad narrative where the bad guys are agribusiness, or corporations, or something like chains, or fast food, or microwaves. And I tend to see those institutions as flexible, as institutions that can respond, and as the institutions that actually fix the problem and make things better. So those would be two ways in which I’m not-only not a food snob, but I’m really on the other side of the debate.

What went wrong with U.S. health care cost control?

So if the real problem with U.S. health spending is that the U.S. diverged from its peer countries for a decade-long stretch, solving that problem isn’t quite as simple as mimicking the institutions and strategies of our peer countries, whether it’s Canada’s single-payer system or the hybrid models of France or Germany. Our peer countries are facing the same challenges we are, albeit with slightly more breathing room.

This raises the question of what exactly changed in the 1980s. Daeho Kim, a graduate student at Brown University, offers a provocative hypothesis in a new working paper. As Kim explains, a 1983 Medicare reform created the prospective payment system, or PPS, which offered fixed reimbursements for the use of a medical technology. If a physician decides to use bypass surgery as a cardiac treatment, she won’t be paid on the basis of what it cost her to perform the surgery. Instead, she’ll be paid the national average cost. This way, there is a strong incentive to beat the national average cost of performing bypass surgeries, thus lowering, in theory, systemwide costs.

But something quite different seems to have happened. A big part of the story is that providers can choose from a number of different cardiac treatments, some of which are more expensive than others. PPS encouraged them to focus on the treatments where the marginal cost — the cost of providing one more treatment, in this case — fell below the average cost, even if there are more cost-effective treatments available. Kim suggests that PPS may account for one of the most distinctive aspects of the U.S. health system — our extraordinarily overreliance on costly treatments. If Kim is right, it is the failure of bureaucratic price-setting, not the failure of market competition, that may have supercharged health inflation in the 1980s and beyond.

That is from Reiham Salam.  I will read through the Kim paper carefully and perhaps report back on it.  This is an important topic.

The Great Start-Up Stagnation

You see a long-term slowdown in start-ups:

The numbers are sobering. From the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, 450,000-550,000 new businesses with at least one employee were created in the US each year. In 2009, the latest year for which records are available, there were just 400,000. More recent numbers suggest that the climate has not improved: the number of incorporated self-employed people, a measure of the health of small businesses, was 5.06m in November, down from 5.37m in November 2009, official figures say.

A slowdown would be expected in a downturn, but the start of the decline predates the start of the recession at the end of 2007; the peak year for business starts was 2006.

The dwindling birth rate for new businesses matters because young companies are disproportionately responsible for job creation. Indeed, companies less than five years old have generated all of the net jobs in the US economy since the 1970s, according to research published by the Kauffman Foundation.

Weak job creation remains at the heart of America’s unemployment problem.  Accepting this hypothesis does not require the rejection of Keynesian economics; for instance you can think of weak job and start-up creation as one reason why AD is not recovering so well on its own, with causation running both ways of course.  Remember — monetary velocity is endogenous to perceived gains from trade.

By the way, here is a profile of me and TGS from The Washington Diplomat.  It is very good, and the journalist understands TGS quite well.

It’s already dead in the water

“Right now, there is not much more than a blank sheet of paper and even the name of the future treaty might still change,” said Petr Necas, the prime minister of the Czech Republic. “I think that it would be politically short-sighted to come out with strong statements that we should sign that piece of paper.”

There is so much more at the FT link, and from numerous countries.  Of course on day one they were all going to say it is great and that they support it.  Then the new equilibrium is revealed.

Rising in status: Timur Kuran’s theory of preference falsification, Buchanan and Tullock’s Calculus of Consent, Thomas Schelling’s Strategy of Conflict.

Falling in status: French rationalist constructivism, claiming that the failures of social democratic multinational collective governance stem mainly from a misguided belief in fiscal austerity.

Sentences to ponder

From a new NYT article:

“Education policies here are always written to be ‘the best’ or ‘the top this or that,’ ” he said. “We’re not like that. We want to be better than the Swedes. That’s enough for us.”

There is also this:

Besides high-quality teachers, Dr. Sahlberg pointed to Finland’s Lutheran leanings, almost religious belief in equality of opportunity, and a decision in 1957 to require subtitles on foreign television as key ingredients to the success story.

And this:

Dr. Sahlberg said another reason the system had succeeded was that “only dead fish follow the stream” — a Finnish expression.

Finland is going against the tide of the “global education reform movement,” which is based on core subjects, competition, standardization, test-based accountability, control.

A large number of Finns want to grow up to be teachers.

For the pointer I thank Adam Ozimek.  Here is Adam’s post on education and mood affiliation.

Assorted links

1. “Sorry, I can’t spread my fingers the way you Vulcans do!”

2. A TGS/cryonics cartoon.

3. Spiral of death, ho hum, drunks, lampposts, etc..

4. Japanese markets in everything, and Irish betting odds on woolly mammoth cloning.

5. What does it mean to discover the Higgs particle?, and further opinions here.

6. More on the Target2 debates and whether European monetary policy, and collateral practices, will collapse.

Words of wisdom

From Scott Sumner:

Something to cheer up my British readers, as the press is bashing Britain for not blindly signing on to the failed Eurozone policies being promoted on the continent.  Britain was bashed even more viciously in 1931, when they opted out of the failed international gold standard regime.   History has vindicated that “obstructionism” and it will vindicate this obstructionism as well.

Richard Thaler prefers a playoff system to BCS

Even if you think the tradition of the bowl games is worth preserving, going to an eight-team playoff would help such bowls. Here is how it might work. In an eight-team playoff there are seven games. Give each of the existing bowl games one of the first-round games, played the first weekend in December. These games would attract more attention than any of the nonchampionship BCS games now because they determine who keeps playing. Then rotate the semifinal and final games among various locations, much as is done with the Super Bowl and the NCAA basketball tournament. For traditionalists, restore the championship game to New Year’s Day, thereby shortening the season by a week even for the teams that play in the championship.

This system would not only be attractive to college-football fans, it would also help curtail high-stakes conference-jumping by colleges that want a share of that BCS money. This turmoil is leaving some conferences desperately short of teams. Rumor has it that the Big East has offered a spot to the Sorbonne.

Here is more.

Copiers vs. innovators?

Mark Pagel writes:

A tiny number of ideas can go a long way, as we’ve seen. And the Internet makes that more and more likely. What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.

For the pointer I thank John Brockman.

John Hussman and Neil Hume on the Modigliani-Miller approach to the eurozone crisis

The document is here, Hussman writes:

We’ve seen some theories that Europe intends to address the problem through ECB lending to banks, taking distressed debt as collateral, with the banks turning around and buying more distressed debt.

Apart from the fact that this would be the sort of “legal trick” that the ECB would be unwilling to facilitate, this would imply an increase in bank leverage ratios far beyond the 30-40 multiples that already exist (which would be a disaster when tighter Basel III capital requirements kick in). In practice, depositors would flee, and you would end up with a European banking system where bank bondholders, not the ECB, would be subject to the losses, since the ECB’s collateral claims would be senior.

As I noted last week, what investors really want isn’t just for someone to buy distressed European debt, but for someone to buy that debt and willingly take a loss on it so the money doesn’t ever actually have to be repaid. This is a solvency issue – a shortfall between money owed and the resources to credibly repay it. There is no legal trick to get around that. Ultimately, you either have to restore credibility, or you have to restructure the claims through default or devaluation.

The FT Neil Hume source and discussion is here, very good comments there as well.  My view is simple: unless they pull the plug on the new plan, it will be very hard to stop this from happening.  What kind of firewall can you erect between a domestic bank and its regulating government?  Arbitrage is a strong force.  And why should an insolvent bank fear more leverage?  It’s a form of doubling down, not a solution, and it is one way of hoping for a longer-run growth bailout.  To meet a problem of leverage with…more leverage is not exactly unheard of.

More practically, the markets are not taking the new plan well (though not for this reason, I think) and it probably will have to be revised in any case.

Assorted links

1. A simple solution to the eurozone crisis?  And how the solution in place is supposed to work.

2. More on whether Hungary will become a fascist state, and some background here, and today Krugman on Hungary.

3. Joseph Stiglitz on the Great Depression, and today, with a bit of PSST.

4. Is this relationship movie-like or idea-like?

5. Can lawyers figure out what is a structural deficit?  And what has been the deficit history so far?  Doesn’t Bengt Holmstrom’s 1982 paper, “Moral Hazard in Teams,” imply there is a problem here?