Month: January 2016

Regdata, a new database of the regulatory state

There is a new and very important regulatory database now published and on-line:

RegData: A numerical database on industry-specific regulations for all United States industries and federal regulations, 1997–2012

Omar Al-Ubaydli and Patrick A. McLaughlin


We introduce RegData, formerly known as the Industry-specific Regulatory Constraint Database. RegData annually quantifies federal regulations by industry and regulatory agency for all federal regulations from 1997–2012. The quantification of regulations at the industry level for all industries is without precedent. RegData measures regulation for industries at the two, three, and four-digit levels of the North American Industry Classification System. We created this database using text analysis to count binding constraints in the wording of regulations, as codified in the Code of Federal Regulations, and to measure the applicability of regulatory text to different industries. We validate our measures of regulation by examining known episodes of regulatory growth and deregulation, as well as by comparing our measures to an existing, cross-sectional measure of regulation. Researchers can use this database to study the determinants of industry regulations and to study regulations’ effects on a massive array of dependent variables, both across industries and time.

Here is the published piece.  Here is a working paper version.  Here is the database itself.  Here is background and an explanation of different versions of the data base.

The end of Schengen?

If so, a sad day, here is the scoop:

Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone is facing the biggest test of its two-decade existence after Sweden  re-imposed controls on visitors crossing from Denmark across what had been one of most open borders in the world.

Hours after the measures came into effect, Denmark announced it would slap new controls on its own border with Germany, while Berlin warned that the 26-nation zone of passport-free travel was now “in danger”.

Six Schengen countries – Austria, Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark and non-EU member Norway – have now reintroduced border checks as Europe struggles to cope with an unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants from conflict zones including Syria and Afghanistan.

Here is the story, via Meg Greene.

Monday assorted links

1. Detroit renaissance fact of the day.

2. Earth fact of the day: “According to BIS total public and private debt to GDP for the world stands at 265% vs 220% at the peak of the prior credit cycle”  Good thing those interest rates are low, I guess.

3. A comic on RCTs.

4. MIE: a history of farting for money.  Those old service sector jobs…

5. MIE: death by chocolate.

6. Cato on Oregon.  Better background than I’ve seen from any other media source.

7. Is Brazil just a China problem?

The minimum wage and the Great Recession

I believe Card and Krueger will and should win Nobel Prizes, but their work is also not the last word on the minimum wage, especially during weak labor markets.  Here is the most recent study, by Jeffrey Clemens:

I analyze recent federal minimum wage increases using the Current Population Survey. The relevant minimum wage increases were differentially binding across states, generating natural comparison groups. I first estimate a standard difference-in-differences model on samples restricted to relatively low-skilled individuals, as described by their ages and education levels. I also employ a triple-difference framework that utilizes continuous variation in the minimum wage’s bite across skill groups. In both frameworks, estimates are robust to adopting a range of alternative strategies, including matching on the size of states’ housing declines, to account for variation in the Great Recession’s severity across states. My baseline estimate is that this period’s full set of minimum wage increases reduced employment among individuals ages 16 to 30 with less than a high school education by 5.6 percentage points. This estimate accounts for 43 percent of the sustained, 13 percentage point decline in this skill group’s employment rate and a 0.49 percentage point decline in employment across the full population ages 16 to 64.

Do any of you see an ungated version?  In any case I hope this receives the media attention it deserves.  Will it?

The first beauty contest judged by a robot jury

…people don’t usually give machine intelligence much credence when it comes to judging beauty. That may change with the launch of the world’s first international beauty contest judged exclusively by a robot jury.

The contest, which requires participants to take selfies via a special app and submit them to the contest website, is touting new sophisticated facial recognition algorithms that allow machines to judge beauty in new and improved ways.

I wonder who will win.


The full story is here, via Michelle Dawson.

A new age of discovery

Caving offers explorers opportunities to test themselves that until recently were not even known to exist. Speleology “has changed massively” in the past two decades, says Andy Eavis, widely considered the world’s foremost caver. The Krubera cave in Georgia, near the Black Sea, down which a Ukrainian team descended in 2004, is twice as deep, at more than 2,000 metres, as the Pierre St Martin cave in the French Pyrenees, which had been reckoned the deepest when Mr Eavis plumbed it in 1971. A new technique of laser scanning can measure such “chambers” far more accurately than before. Mr Eavis still marvels at the great chambers still being found in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. In 1981 he was the first to explore a cave there that is still the largest by area in the world—it could enclose the Hollywood Bowl. Now South China, among other places, is offering new opportunities for cavers. Its Miao Room, penetrated in 1989, is 852 metres long, and the largest by volume.

Access to forest canopies is also being transformed by technology. Towers, balloons, inflatable rafts, light aerial walkways, drones and even giant cranes that have been helicoptered into place allow scientists to see what is going on under once-inaccessible foliage. A new remote-sensing technology known as lidar can illuminate objects high up under the canopy and analyse them through reflected light.

Not as good as jetpacks, but in the meantime it will have to do.  The ocean depths remain mostly unexplored, although a variety of attempts are underway, as discussed in the article.

It is also suggested, contrary to what I had thought, that there are still a variety of undiscovered peoples in the Amazon.

That article is from this week’s Economist.

What is the anti-austerity recommendation for Brazil?

At 70% of GDP, public debt is worryingly large for a middle-income country and rising fast. Because of high interest rates, the cost of servicing it is a crushing 7% of GDP. The Central Bank cannot easily use monetary policy to fight inflation, currently 10.5%, as higher rates risk destabilising the public finances even more by adding to the interest bill. Brazil therefore has little choice but to raise taxes and cut spending.

Too often, at the popular level, there is a confusion between “austerity is bad” and “the consequences of running out of money are bad.”

Sophisticated analysts of fiscal policy do not make this mistake.

By the way, here is a long study of how Brazilian fiscal policy has been excessively pro-cyclical (pdf).

And how is Brazilian output doing you may wonder?:

By the end of 2016 Brazil’s economy may be 8% smaller than it was in the first quarter of 2014, when it last saw growth; GDP per person could be down by a fifth since its peak in 2010, which is not as bad as the situation in Greece, but not far off. Two ratings agencies have demoted Brazilian debt to junk status. Joaquim Levy, who was appointed as finance minister last January with a mandate to cut the deficit, quit in December. Any country where it is hard to tell the difference between the inflation rate—which has edged into double digits—and the president’s approval rating—currently 12%, having dipped into single figures—has serious problems.

Don’t forget this:

Since the constitution’s enactment, federal outlays have nearly doubled to 18% of GDP; total public spending is over 40%. Some 90% of the federal budget is ring-fenced either by the constitution or by legislation. Constitutionally protected pensions alone now swallow 11.6% of GDP, a higher proportion than in Japan, whose citizens are a great deal older. By 2014 the government was running a primary deficit (ie, before interest payments) of 32.5 billion reais ($13.9 billion) (see chart).

Brazilian commodity prices have fallen 41% since their 2011 peak, so I say Ed Prescott has earned his Nobel Prize right there.

The first underlying article/op-Ed also is from The Economist.  Without intending any slight to their other recent issues, the January 2-8 issue is one of their best in a long time.  I am very pleased to have bought it in advance at the airport rather than waiting to get to my copy back at home.

Ontario fact of the day

Ontario is the largest sub-national debtor in the entire world, just one alarming distinction. Its debt is more than twice that of California, a state with three times the population and one that has its own severe fiscal problems. Its debt is $294 billion, or over $21,000 per capita. Net debt to GDP is up 48 per cent in the past 10 years to almost 40 per cent, second only to Quebec. Last year’s interest obligations totalled $11.4 billion, about the same as the cost of community and social services. I doubt many Ontarians realize how much they are paying just in interest on the provincial debt. It averages $840 per person every year and rising. Not surprisingly, Standard and Poor’s downgraded Ontario’s bond credit from AA- to A+, citing a very high debt burden and very weak budgetary performance.

Not a major cause for concern in terms of systemic risk, but not good news either.

That is from Joe Oliver, via Felix Salmon.

Why not sell a portion of your home?

Mr. [Alex] Rampell sees further opportunities in new asset classes. One example, he said, might be selling an equity stake in homes. “Why not sell a portion of your home?” he asks.

Ample capital exists around the world, as in the deep coffers of the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund, with $870 billion in assets, thanks to North Sea oil and a small population. With the right financial vehicle, Mr. Rampell said, such a fund could invest to co-own houses in, say, pricey Palo Alto, Calif., making it easier for prospective home buyers to make down payments and reduce their mortgage burden. “They could own 10 percent or 15 percent of your house, so you don’t have to borrow as much,” Mr. Rampell said. “I think there’s a lot of room for more of those kind of new asset classes.”

Here is the short NYT blog post.

Are checked bag fees for flights too high, too low, or just right?

Air Genius Gary Leff has a take on this, here is the concluding bit:

While checked bag fees are profitable, airlines want passengers to pay lower fares and higher checked bag fees, not price checked bag fees so high that people don’t pay them. That’s because moving revenue out of fares and into ancillary revenue excludes that revenue from the domestic 7.5% excise tax on tickets.

Checked bag fees are in large measure a tax arbitrage play. Eliminate the tax disparity and — since most aircraft don’t max out their carrying capacity — in ten years I’d bet that checked bags get rebundled back into the fare.

Higher checked bag fees may be disadvantageous since charging more for checked bags pushes more luggage to carry on, causing boarding to take longer, and resulting in aircraft not getting scheduled/utilized as effectively.

Do read the whole thing.  Don’t forget — Glazer’s Law!

What was 19th and early 20th century TFP? Which was America’s most inventive decade?

There is a new paper (pdf) on this question by Bakker, Krafts, and Woltjer, here is the abstract:

We present new estimates of TFP growth at the sectoral level and an amount of sectoral contributions to overall productivity growth.  We improve on Kendrick (1961) in several ways including expanding the coverage of sectors, extending estimates to 1941, and better accounting for labor quality.  The results have important implications including that the pattern of productivity growth was generally ‘yeasty’ rather than ‘mushroomy’, that the 1930s did not experience the fastest TFP growth of the 20th century, and that the role of electricity as a general purpose technology does not explain the ‘yeastiness’ of manufacturing in the 1920s.

They instead suggest that TFP growth is rising throughout the 1920s through the 1960s, a view which I cannot quite agree with.  I view the 1960s as a time when previous ideas spread widely, rather than the key years of invention.

My strictly intuitive, historical guess is that TFP growth peaked in the 1890-1930 period, give or take.

More generally, the TFP concept is most useful, and most exact, when TFP growth is low rather than high.  The bigger TFP growth might be, the more you have to worry about unmeasured changes in labor quality, and also worry about what is “technical progress embodied in capital goods” as opposed to “sheer accumulation.”  When there is less progress, these measurement issues are smaller too.

I am most skeptical of TFP estimates for China, even if you believe the underlying statistics.  Compared to “the global frontier,” TFP growth for China has been pretty close to zero, for centuries.  Compared to “the frontier within China”…er…Chinese TFP growth and “embodied accumulation of foreign ideas through savings and investment” become pretty much the same thing.  The distinction theory was trying to create then has been abolished.

So I’m not convinced by the results of this paper, but they are a useful corrective to excess certainty about Alexander Field and the previous view that the peak of American TFP was the 1930s.

In any case, thumbs up to any paper which uses the word “yeasty.”