Category: Economics

Mid-level urban average is over?

Forty years ago, Nashville and Birmingham, Ala., were peers. Two hundred miles apart, the cities anchored metropolitan areas of just under one million people each and had a similar number of jobs paying similar wages.

Not anymore. The population of the Nashville area has roughly doubled, and young people have flocked there, drawn by high-paying jobs as much as its hip “Music City” reputation. Last month, the city won an important consolation prize in the competition for Amazon’s second headquarters: an operations center that will eventually employ 5,000 people at salaries averaging $150,000 a year.

Birmingham, by comparison, has steadily lost population, and while its suburbs have expanded, their growth has lagged the Nashville area’s. Once-narrow gaps in education and income have widened, and important employers like SouthTrust and Saks have moved their headquarters. Birmingham tried to lure Amazon, too, but all it is getting from the online retail giant is a warehouse and a distribution center where many jobs will pay about $15 an hour.

That is from Ben Casselman (NYT), interesting throughout.  Ben is yet another example of just how good the Times is at talent selection…

The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto

Tim May, physicist, libertarian-Randian, cypherpunk revolutionary, has died. Here is his Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto first published in 1992.

A specter is haunting the modern world, the specter of crypto anarchy.

Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner. Two persons may exchange messages, conduct business, and negotiate electronic contracts without ever knowing the True Name, or legal identity, of the other. Interactions over networks will be untraceable, via extensive re- routing of encrypted packets and tamper-proof boxes which implement cryptographic protocols with nearly perfect assurance against any tampering. Reputations will be of central importance, far more important in dealings than even the credit ratings of today. These developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation, the ability to tax and control economic interactions, the ability to keep information secret, and will even alter the nature of trust and reputation.

The technology for this revolution–and it surely will be both a social and economic revolution–has existed in theory for the past decade. The methods are based upon public-key encryption, zero-knowledge interactive proof systems, and various software protocols for interaction, authentication, and verification. The focus has until now been on academic conferences in Europe and the U.S., conferences monitored closely by the National Security Agency. But only recently have computer networks and personal computers attained sufficient speed to make the ideas practically realizable. And the next ten years will bring enough additional speed to make the ideas economically feasible and essentially unstoppable. High-speed networks, ISDN, tamper-proof boxes, smart cards, satellites, Ku-band transmitters, multi-MIPS personal computers, and encryption chips now under development will be some of the enabling technologies.

The State will of course try to slow or halt the spread of this technology, citing national security concerns, use of the technology by drug dealers and tax evaders, and fears of societal disintegration. Many of these concerns will be valid; crypto anarchy will allow national secrets to be trade freely and will allow illicit and stolen materials to be traded. An anonymous computerized market will even make possible abhorrent markets for assassinations and extortion. Various criminal and foreign elements will be active users of CryptoNet. But this will not halt the spread of crypto anarchy.

Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds and the social power structure, so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions. Combined with emerging information markets, crypto anarchy will create a liquid market for any and all material which can be put into words and pictures. And just as a seemingly minor invention like barbed wire made possible the fencing-off of vast ranches and farms, thus altering forever the concepts of land and property rights in the frontier West, so too will the seemingly minor discovery out of an arcane branch of mathematics come to be the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property.

Arise, you have nothing to lose but your barbed wire fences!

Addendum: Inspiring! But see my post The Demise of Crypto Anarchy from 15 years ago.

A Progressive review of *Stubborn Attachments*

By Joshua Kim, here are a few excerpts:

An oddity of Stubborn Attachments is that Cowen is reluctant to apply his pro-economic growth philosophy to real-world political choices.

[TC: that is on purpose of course]

Stubborn Attachments would have been more persuasive if Cowen was more willing to explore the implications of his philosophy on the political and policy choices before us. The question is, are progressive values are at odds with the belief that long-term economic growth is the engine of progress?


Nor does Cowen answer the question of at what point a wealthy society should be able to provide a measure of economic security to all of its citizens? Does the guarantee that work should come with a living wage and that everyone deserves access to health care and education incompatible with a long-term focus on economic progress?

As is always the case with a Cowen book, his writing will make you think. Stubborn Attachments is too abstract for my tastes.  But I’m happy to have spent 3.5 hours arguing with Cowen.

If he reads MR, he can always spend more.

Gulf States fact of the day

Between them the six Gulf states — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman — have provided $2.2bn to US universities since the beginning of 2012 to June this year, according to a Financial Times analysis of the US education department’s Foreign Gifts and Contracts Report. The Gulf total represents just under a quarter of all foreign gifts and contracts over that period. Qatar, the world’s richest state in per capita terms, led with $1.3bn, followed by Saudi Arabia with $580.5m and the UAE with $213m.

The figures include funding from state oil companies, such as Saudi Aramco and Qatar Petroleum, Gulf universities and cultural missions. Much of the money also goes to student fees — Riyadh funded about 110,000 US scholarships for Saudis between 2005 and 2015.

That is from Andrew England and Simeon Kerr in the FT.  On the list of recipients, Georgetown and Northwestern are the top two.

*A Life of Experimental Economics, volume I*, by Vernon Smith

I learned a great deal from this stimulating and highly unorthodox biography.  Here are a few points from the book:

1. It offers a brief but excellent early economic history of Wichita, where Vernon grew up.

2. Vernon, at the time, was very critical of the use of the atomic bombs on Japan, which he considered to be a disproportionate use of force.

3. In the 1940s he became active in CORE and its fight against racial discrimination.

4. In 1948 Vernon was an antiwar pacifist and a supporter of Norman Thomas.

5. At MIT, Paul Samuelson was a show-off lecturer, according to Vernon.

6. The book has plenty of sentences like: “Grandpa Smith and Uncle Norman were always a delight to have around — lots of jokes, wisecracks, and laughs.”

7. pp.163-164: “The details, as we came to know them, were not the least bit complicated…It was at first thought that she had considered using the knife on herself, but apparently the knife was there because she considered cutting a length from a nearby piece of rope.  Instead, she used a chain.  It was so like my mother — a clean job with no mess.  Everyone who knew her knew that she would never have used the butcher knife.  Even the hanging could never have occurred in the house.  No fuss, no mess; a clean job, with no room for error.”

8. On attention-switching: “I have always had what my mind has gradually come to recognize — by comparative observation of others — as a brain task-switching problem.  When I am thinking, writing, or composing, I pass into another world of experience, a world that is isolated from my surroundings…I experience many chaotic but loosely connected thought.  One, then another, rises and there emerges a hint of how they are to come together.”  He notes that interruptions are very costly to him, and he much prefers one-to-one conversations rather than group dialogues.  Furthermore, he argues that his capacity to “hyper-focus” is more valuable than his measured IQ of 130.

9. There are considerable and interesting discussions of autism, Asperger’s and ADHD.

10. The book offers an excellent account of why Purdue was an important economics department in the 1950s and 1960s.

11. In 1957, Vernon considered going to work for a private railroad and leaving Purdue for St. Louis.  He didn’t.

You can buy the book here, vol.II is good too.

Interstate trade is relatively high in India

The first-ever estimates for interstate trade flows indicate a trade to GDP ratio of about 54 per cent, a number that is comparable to other large jurisdictions and that contradicts the caricature of India as a barrier-riddled economy; the ratio of India’s internal and international trade also compares favourably with others.  De facto, at least, India seems well-integrated internally.  A more technical analysis confirms this: trade costs reduce trade by roughly the same extent in India as in other countries.

When it comes to internal trade, the big negative outlier is in fact Indonesia.

That is all from the new and interesting Of Counsel: The Challenges of the Modi-Jaitley Economy, by the excellent Arvind Subramanian.

Fewer, Bigger Entrepreneurs Explains Rising Inequality

Why has wealth inequality increased in the United States? A lot of semi-plausible but vague theories have been offered–changes in the tax code, the diminished role of unions and so forth–but there are surprisingly few fully-specified models. In an important paper, Mohsen Mohaghegh (on the job market) has a new answer.

Wealth inequality has risen considerably in the US since 1975. For instance, the wealth share of households in the top 1 percent of the distribution rose from 25 percent in 1975 to more than 37 percent in 2007. This paper builds on theories of entrepreneurship and wealth inequality to address changes in inequality in the US between 1975 and 2007.

In the data, there are two trends in entrepreneurship since 1975: the average debt-to-asset ratio among entrepreneurs has increased, and the number of entrepreneurs (the entrepreneurship rate) has fallen. I study how the distribution of wealth changes over time, when these two trends are accounted for in a model.

…[two] channels accounts for both the fall in the entrepreneurship rate and the rise in the entrepreneurs’ leverage: an increase in banks’ willingness to fund risky entrepreneurial projects and a rise in the costs of starting a business. When changes in entrepreneurship are accounted for, my model explains more than 90 percent of the rise in the share of wealth held by the top 1 percent of households, and just under half of the rise in the share of the top 0.01 percent of households in the data.

A lower rate of entrepreneurship implies that a smaller number of households can take advantage of their productive ideas. Active entrepreneurs, however, have access to more capital which allows highly productive entrepreneurs to expand their businesses. Both of these changes contribute to a rise in inequality over time.

Below are two figures from the paper showing the declining entrepreneurship rate and increasing leverage. Mohaghegh doesn’t explain these facts but he connects three literatures, declining entrepreneurship, increasing financialization and rising inequality and he shows that the first two of these well-known features of the US economy can explain a large share of the third, the rise in inequality.

The Cryptoeconomics Lab at Ivey

Ivey Business School at Western University (London Ontario, Canada) is looking for a Post doctoral Research Fellow to join our newly established CryptoEconomics Lab:

The focus of the position is on conducting foundational research in the emerging discipline of cryptoeconomics, which examines the protocols and incentives that govern the production, distribution, and consumption of digital goods and services within decentralized online platforms.

The CryptoEconomics Lab at Ivey Business School is a cutting-edge initiative that is just getting started, and builds upon the school’s Scotiabank Digital Banking Lab and its interdisciplinary team of faculty members and graduate students.

The wild west era of blockchain is ending and the scams and flimflams are being revealed but the fundamental of the technology will be used to build socially useful mechanisms.

By the way, the CryptoEconomics Lab has a good bitcoin crash course ( I believe that should be read, bitcoin crash-course!).

Increases in Inequality Have Been Overestimated

Stephen Rose of the Urban Institute (not exactly a right-wing or libertarian think tank) compares recent studies measuring changes in inequality and finds that although inequality has increased the Piketty and Saez (2003) results, which generated a tremendous amount of discussion and research, are very likely over-stated.

The results from at least four studies were compared for three measures of income change: change in median incomes, share of growth captured by the top 10 percent, and the changing income share of  the top 1 percent. In all cases, Piketty and Saez (2003) were the outlier, showing the most increased inequality. And in all three measures of income change , Piketty, Saez, and Zucman (2018) found much less growth in income inequality than Piketty and Saez (2003).

This brief does a meta-analysis of different findings to estimate a “consensus” level of change…I find that instead of stagnating, real median incomes grew by just over 40 percent (1 percent a year) from  1979 to 2014;  the top 10 percent of the income ladder captured 45 percent of income growth from 1979 to  2014; and the share of the top 1 percent grew 3.5 percentage points.

All studies find that income inequality rose after 1979, but common perceptions that all income gain went to the top 10 percent and middle class incomes stagnated (or even declined) are wrong.

Russ Roberts also has several good videos showing how the numbers can be cut in various ways.

The jobs of the future, circa 1988

A syndicated article published in the September 5, 1988, edition of the Press and Sun-Bulletin newspaper in New York talked with a number of experts about what the jobs of tomorrow would look like. The article first quotes S. Norman Feingold, a clinical psychologist and career counselor who died in 2005.

From the 1988 article:

Feingold envisions a range of exotic careers: Ocean hotel manager, wellness consultant, sports law specialist, lunar astronomer and even robot trainer.

The piece also quotes the George Tech engineering professor Alan Porter who gave his opinion on the future of fast food.

He predicts such innovations as “the Autoburger,” a fast-food dispensary something like McDonald’s, but without human workers.

And the article ends with a mixed bag of good and bad predictions:

Marvin Cetron, a technological forecaster, looks at the year 2000 and predicts a 32-hour work week. “The only job a woman won’t be holding is Catholic priest,” he said.

Cetron said college students of the future will study enzyme research and genetic and robot engineering.

Here is the piece, via Tim Harford.  The broad lesson I think is that bets on computers were basically right, and will be for some time to come, and other bets are either obvious or stupid, in retrospect.

The Cost of Occupational Licensing

In an NBER paper, Blair and Chung find that occupational licensing reduces labor supply significantly. I had expected that occupational licensing would be worse for blacks than for whites because it imposes an additional locus of discrimination but that effect seems to be opposed by a certification effect (the license helps black workers to overcome statistical discrimination) so the net effect is not as bad for blacks as for whites:

We exploit state variation in licensing laws to study the effect of licensing on occupational choice using a boundary discontinuity design. We find that licensing reduces equilibrium labor supply by an average of 17%-27%. The negative labor supply effects of licensing appear to be strongest for white workers and comparatively weaker for black workers.

An Institute for Justice report by Morris M. Kleiner, the dean of occupational licensing studies, and Evgeny S. Vorotnikov attemps to calculate the net loss to the US economy from occupational licensing and concludes that when all costs are considered it is on the order of $200 billion annually.

In preventing people from working in the occupations for which they are best suited, licensing misallocates people’s human capital. In forcing people to fulfill burdensome licensing requirements that do not raise quality, licensing misallocates people’s human capital, money and time. And with its promise of economic returns over and above what can be had absent licensing, licensing encourages occupational practitioners and their occupational associations to invest resources in rent-seeking instead of more productive activity. Taking these misallocated resources into account, we find potential costs to the economy that far exceed those from deadweight losses and that likely provide a more complete picture of the extent to which licensing reduces economic activity.

…we find licensing costs the American economy $197.3 billion in misallocated resources.

*The Economist* covers *Stubborn Attachments*

Philosophers are accustomed to discussions about how to value lives distant from our own in time and place; economists are not. But in a new book, “Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals”, Tyler Cowen of George Mason University argues that the moral status of human lives ought not to be traded off over time in the same way that a bond portfolio might be. He puts the results of discounting in evocative terms: given a 5% rate of discount, one human life today is worth 132 a century hence. Is it really ethically acceptable to save one life now at the expense of so many in the future? The lives of humans born decades from now might be difficult for us to imagine, or to treat as of equal worth to our own. But our own lives were once similarly distant from those taking their turn on Earth; the future, when it comes, will feel as real to those living in it as the present does to us. Economists should treat threats to future lives as just as morally reprehensible as present threats to our own.

Here is the full article, on Twitter attributed to Ryan Avent.

My Conversation with Paul Romer

Here is the audio and transcript, Paul was in top form and open throughout.  Yes economic growth, blah blah blah, but we covered many related topics too:

COWEN: And you also think we should simplify the English language. Right?

ROMER: [laughs] Well, there’s two parts to that. One is, in writing and communication, there should be a very high priority on clarity. It’s hard to know what’s the mechanism that enforces that. There are variants on English, like the English used to write the manuals people use to service airplanes, where there’s a very restricted vocabulary. The words are chosen so that you can’t have any ambiguity because you don’t want somebody servicing a plane to get confused. So there are some things you could do on writing, word choice, vocabulary, exposition.

There’s a separate issue, which is that amongst the modern languages, English has the worst orthography, the worst mapping between spelling and sounds of any of the existing languages. And it’s a tragedy because English is becoming the universal second language.

The incidence of people who don’t learn to read is substantially higher in English than in other languages. People have known for a long time, it takes longer to learn to read in English because of the bad orthography. But what hasn’t gotten enough attention is that there’s an effect on the variance as well. There are more people who never get over this hurdle to actually learning to read.

If there were a way to do in English what they’ve done in other languages, which is to clean up the orthography, that could make a huge difference in the variation associated with whether or not people can learn to read English.


COWEN: Can a charter city work if we import good laws from the outside world but not the appropriate matching culture?

ROMER: You’ve zeroed right in on the connection. The real motivation that I had for charter cities was exactly this one that you can see in the US versus New Zealand. You can think of a charter city exercise . . .

This is actually the story of Maryland: We’re going to create laws, and we’re going to guarantee freedom of religion in Maryland, and it’s in the laws; it’s in the institution somehow. That didn’t turn out very well. Maryland had a Catholic elite but then large numbers of Protestant indentured servants or workers. And this kind of commitment to freedom of religion was not stable in Maryland at all.

The case that’s worth trying to copy is Pennsylvania, where William Penn recruited large numbers of people who actually believed in freedom of religion. The word charter comes from the charter that Penn wrote for Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t the document that mattered. What mattered was that there were a bunch of people in the founding population who were committed to this idea of a separation of church and state and religious freedom. And that’s what made it durable in Pennsylvania in a way it wasn’t in Maryland.

And this:

ROMER: …Moses was of this generation that was too enamored of the car, and this is where I think Jacobs had a better intuition. But the challenge, the dichotomy I would pose would be Jane Jacobs versus Gouverneur Morris.

Morris was the guy who drew the grid that laid out the rectangular street map for Manhattan.

We also discussed music, including Hot Tuna, Clarence White, and Paul’s favorite novel, dyslexia, what Paul has learned about management, and much more.  Self-recommending, if there ever was such a thing.

Tariff Man

Some good economics in Tariff Man, sung to the tune of Piano Man (with apologies to Billy Joel) by Art Carden:

Now Paul is a real estate contractor
He’d like to buy things for his wife
But he canceled a deal because structural steel’s
More expensive—it’s doubled in price!
And the firms are all practicing politics
As their businessmen fly to DC!
Yes, they’re spreading a problem called poverty,
And calling it prosperity!

Jack up that tax, you’re a Tariff Man!
Let’s make Americans pay
For the right to buy stuff from those foreigners–
We should make it here, anyway!
These policies concentrate benefits
And they spread costs to you and to me
These costs are concealed, but see, they are still real—
They are there, though they’re harder to see.
Some goods are expensive that shouldn’t be
Because tariffs have made them cost more!
And we’d have more for bars, and put bread in their jars
But we’re stopping goods at our shores!

La la la, di da da
La la, di da da da dum

Jack up that tax, you’re a Tariff Man!