Monday, December 23, 2013

Hannah Harris Green in The Guardian on Race, Crime and Television

She writes:

The First 48 is an A&E true crime reality show that documents real police investigations for the first 48 hours after a homicide report, including what happens inside interrogation rooms. If this sounds dangerous and ethically questionable, that's because it is. Police accidentally killed a child as A&E's cameras rolled, and a legally innocent man came to beknown as a murderer after of his appearance on the show. Catastrophes like these have led to lawsuits, and now many cities refuse to work with The First 48....

...This portrayal is not representative of American crime statistics. Although homicide arrests are disproportionately high among African Americans, about the same total number of white people are arrested in homicide cases as black people. The First 48's overemphasis on black crime is symptomatic of a larger disrespect for African American communities, which many Americans deem inherently suspicious.....

...Even release from jail isn't necessarily enough to erase the stigma that comes from appearing on the First 48. Tyson Mimms of Louisville, Kentucky sued A&E in 2011 for invasion of privacy and defamation. For over a year, the episode aired repeatedly with an onscreen message saying that Mimms was "awaiting trial", even though his charges were dismissed due of lack of evidence before the episode first aired.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow has issues with sifting and winnowing.

A geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Rachel Slocum, made the mildly controversial point in an email to her students that Republicans in the House of Representatives had brought about the partial closure of the US government, and had therefore brought about the closure of the US Census web site.  This closure prevented her students from completing their assignments.  She never used abusive or offensive language.

Her point raised howls among the conservative blogasphere and media; when confronted with this, her boss, UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow, publicly reprimanded her for expressing a factually based opinion to her class.  In my view, it was his job to back her--not to agree with her opinion, but rather to defend her right to express it.

The irony is that Wisconsin is the very state that in many ways laid the foundation for academic freedom in state supported universities.  When Richard Ely was attacked more than 100 years ago for advocating in his classes on behalf of labor unions, the Regents of the University of Wisconsin rose to defend him.  As the Wisconsin Historical Society writes:
In 1894 Ely was teaching economics at Madison, including the various socialist and communist economic theories gaining popularity at the time. When this was discovered by Oliver E. Wells, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ely was attacked in the press not just for teaching left-wing theories to Wisconsin's youth but also for supposedly advising radical activists who were organizing a strike in Madison. When his dismissal was demanded, the university regents investigated his activities. 
After a series of witnesses had testified, the regents found no cause to fire Ely. Instead, they issued a famous statement defending the importance of academic freedom in a democracy. "Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere," they wrote, "we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found." That statement has become one of the foundation stones of intellectual freedom in America, and a hallmark of the University of Wisconsin.     
One wonders what Chancellor Gow would have done with Ely.  

Full disclosure: this is personal for me.  I was on the faculty at Wisconsin for 12 years (after getting my Ph.D. there), and was always proud to teach there, in part because of the plaque on Bascom Hill that memorialized sifting and winnowing.  It just made me feel good to walk by it, because I believed that the place I worked believed it.

But even more important, my mother taught at Wisconsin-La Crosse for decades, serving as chair of the English Department there for many years.  She also began the Women's Studies program there--surely, a controversial thing to do at the time she did it.   I can't help but wonder whether Chancellor Gow would have had the vision and the fortitude to support her important work.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The Windy City and The Foggy City

Hannah Green writes:

ERNEST HEMINGWAY famously wrote of Paris, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." For half a century, Hemingway’s nostalgic vision of the city of lights has made undiscovered literary geniuses wish that they could be unemployed in Paris in the 1920s instead of unemployed wherever they live, now. Last year, Teju Cole’s debut novel, Open City, offered a different kind of literary city. The main character, Julius, who resembles Cole, wanders the streets of New York, conversing with the city’s residents and falling into reveries about music, history, and literature. Most of the people he speaks with are immigrants, among them investment bankers and prisoners, shoe shiners and Columbia professors. Each conversation is evidence of the many layers of humanity that make New York the constantly fluctuating city it is. Cole’s New York is too much in motion to be moveable....

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hannah Green interviews Josh Oppenheim Asia Times Online :: Skeletons in Indonesia's closet

Asia Times Online :: Skeletons in Indonesia's closet

Skeletons in Indonesia's closet
By Hannah Green 

LOS ANGELES - Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing is a transformative film. It presents a glimpse into one of the 20th century's lesser-known political mass killings: the extermination of suspected communists in Indonesia from 1965 to 1966. Unlike many other documentaries, however, The Act of Killing tells history through the eyes of the perpetrators. 

Oppenheimer said that when he first started working in Indonesia, he was shocked to hear former executioners boasting about their many killings. The paramilitary groups that helped perpetrate the genocide still had power, and society continued to uphold them as heroes. In order to understand their boasting, Oppenheimer and his crew asked Anwar Congo, a retired executioner, and other members of the paramilitary group Pancasila Youth, to tell their story by reenacting their killings on film. 

The result is as haunting as it is absurd. Anwar, the film's central figure, jumps from genre to genre as he struggles to capture his past. He casts himself first as a tough guy in a riff on American gangster films, then later as a bloodied corpse in a nightmare scenario where one of his victims seeks post-mortem revenge, and later as a victim of the same violence he perpetrated against others.... 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

How I wish I could get an unbundled subscription to the Wall Street Journal

I cannot do my job without reading it, and its reporters are still excellent, even in the Murdoch era.  And in general, I have learned to ignore the rantings of the editorial page, which basically say that if a policy is first-order good for poor people, it is bad for poor people, and if a policy is first-order bad for poor people, it is good for poor people.

But there is one worthy in particular, sitting high in his aerie at the tip of Manhattan, whose misogynistic braying should be issued (if at all) from his parents' basement: James Taranto, the eager defender of sexual assaulters.  That I am sending any money at all his way is a constant annoyance.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Hannah Green writes on the problem of how victims of rape who are college students are treated

In Open Magazine (an Indian newsweekly), she writes:

Angie Epifano always wears the same necklace. It is simple—a round blue stone set in silver on a silver chain. When something reminds her of her rape, she holds the pendant in her palm and concentrates on how it feels. This brings her a sense of calm.

“It’s called ‘grounding,’” she says, touching the pendant during a Skype interview. It’s a technique psychological counsellors teach those who have experienced rape or other types of trauma: when something occurs in their daily life that reminds them of what happened—whether it’s seeing their rapist, or a certain smell or sound—they must concentrate on something else that will bring them back to the present.

“Some people have a memory that they think of, or a place that they felt safe in, like a wooded space. Or they’ll think of their favourite food or just anything that will bring them back to reality. If you were to run into or see your rapist—that’s the kind of tool that will help you get through the encounter.”
Read the rest here.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ten Favorite Metro Systems--A Personal View (reposted from Forbes blog).

10) New York.  Butt ugly, smells bad, too many rats, but gets you a whole lot of places at reasonable speeds.
9) Washington, DC.  Very pleasant, beautiful stations, and when working properly, fast.  But its major design flaw (lack of double tracking) means that if one train goes down, the whole system gets gummed up.  And it is not maintained well enough.
8) London.  See New York, except I haven’t used it enough to see a rat.
7) Delhi.  Modern and fast, but you sure better like your fellow human if you are going to use it.
6) Tokyo. Miraculously efficient, but see Delhi.  As such, it reflects its city.
5) Kiev.  Metros may have been the only economic thing the Soviets did well.
4) Seoul.  Longest system in the world.  Clean and reliable.
3) Taipei.  Almost luxurious.
2) Paris.  If i weren’t for the strikes, it would be as close to perfect as a metro system gets.  The Louvre-Rivoli station is so beautiful, you wouldn’t mind waiting for a long time there.  On the other hand, you rarely have to.
1) Barcelona.  Goes everywhere, swiftly, cheaply, comfortably.
[Update: Hong Kong needs to be on the list too.  Maybe 2.5?]

Who Moves? Not Old People? (reposted from my Forbes blog)

A meme is out there that baby boomers, having raised their children, are ready to downsize.  (See here).  Some scholars, such as Arthur Nelson at Utah, say that as the population ages, there could be a mass sell-off of houses which will lead to a collapse in house prices.
One of our Ph.D. students here at USC, Hyojung Lee, and I are redoing a paper I did with Patric Hendershott about 17 years ago on the impact of age on the demand for housing.  Back then, Pat and I found that the effect of age was pretty minimal.  But times have changed, and so Hyojung and I decided it would be worth redoing the exercise using current data–the 2006-2010 American Community Survey.  We decided to look at moving behavior over the entire five years, and in 2006 and 2010 individually, since 2006 was a boom year for housing and 2010 was a bust year.
After controlling for marital status, income, educational levels, race and ethnicity, and geography, we estimated the impact of age on the propensity to have moved in the previous year.  The results are summarized in the graph below (for those who want to know, these are the coefficients from a linear probability model):
As you can see, basically the propensity to move peaks in the early 20s, and then declines to about age 50-55, and then stays pretty flat for the remainder of life (although in 2010 the very oldest seem to have a slightly greater propensity to move).
Some other findings: those never married are most likely to move, while those widowed are least likely to move (after controlling for age).  This implies that the typical elderly person is even less like to move than is implied by the graph above.  Asians are the racial/ethnic group most likely to move–non-hispanic whites, hispanics and African-Americans have similar propensities.  Mobility increases with educational attainment.  Higher income people move less than low income people.
We are doing a lot more work with this data as we prepare it for a paper, but in the meantime, our findings suggest that a mass sell-off (which means mass moving) arising from aging is unlikely.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

House Prices in Southern California need to Rest now (reposted from Forbes).

From my Forbes blog:

DataQuick today reported that house prices in Southern California have risen 28 percent from the last year.  A year ago, people who were buying houses in this part of the world were getting a good deal.  Now, the deal is so-so.
Take a look at the table below (it is something I constructed for my class on mortgages and mortgage backed securities).  The numbers on the vertical axis (.03,.05,.05..)are cost of capital numbers–the financing costs of owning a house.  Generally speaking, the cost of capital for owning a house is the mortgage rate plus one percent, which reflects that the cost of the equity in the house (the down-payment) is higher than the cost of the mortgage.  The numbers across the horizontal axis (10, 15,20…) are rent-to-price ratios.  Suppose you can own a condo for $360,000; the rent on the same unit is $1500 per month or $18,000 per year.  The price to rent ratio is then 20.
In the example given here, we are looking at a household that pays a federal marginal tax rate of 25 percent, a state marginal tax rate of 7.9 percent, faces closing costs of 3 percent, annual maintenance cost of 2.5 percent, a property tax rate of one percent, a Realtor commission of 5 percent, and expects to hold the property for five years (feel free to email me at if you wish to put your own assumptions in the spreadsheet that produced the numbers listed below).
As it happens, I have been looking at costs and rents in Westwood, a neighborhood just west of Beverly Hills and on the other side of the 405 from Brentwood.  Rents on 2 bedroom units run around $28 per year per square foot; prices are around $650 per square foot, so the price to rent ratio is around 23.  With current mortgage rates at 4.5 percent, the cost of capital is 5.5 percent.  So lets look at the cells that are bolded: a price to rent ratio of 23 and a cost of capital of 5.5 lies in the middle of them.  The numbers in the cell is the amount of appreciation that is required each year that one holds a property for renting and owning to break even with each other.
So right now, for owning to be a better financial deal than renting, prices must rise around 4 percent each year.  Is this feasible in the long run for Los Angeles?  Yes, because over the long term, prices in LA tend to rise by about the rate of inflation plus one percent, so if we think 3 percent steady state inflation is in our future, we should be fine.  But will it rise much more than inflation plus one percent for a long time?  I doubt it.  And of course, CPI growth is less than two percent right now.  House prices are about where fundamentals say they should be, but it is time for increases to slow down.
Price to Rent Ratio
Cost of Capital0.06-0.0090.0240.0410.0510.058

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Internet is Truly Awesome (Leonard Bernstein Mahler edition).

David Denby wrote a nice piece in the New Yorker a little over a year ago about this ten most "perfect" orchestra recordings of all time.  Coming in at Number 5 was Leonard Bernstein's Mahler 7 (the second time through) with the New York Philharmonic. (FWIW, I know seven of his choices, and love them all).

If one looks it up on the NY Phil's website, one finds a link to Lenny's marked up score of the piece, allowing us to see, among other things, directions from the composer he really wanted to make sure got  emphasis.  As such, the internet allows us to see how Leonard Bernstein went about thinking about one of the great, quirky pieces of all time, at any time we wish.

This is truly awesome.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

John Roberts is supposed to be a smart man.

But he makes a specious argument.  He says that because in the presence of Voting Rights Acts, there is no disparity in voter turn-out, there is no need for a Voting Rights Act.  Huh?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Are models that assume linear utility useful?

I just saw a paper on how the desire of households to match with particular houses could explain housing market dynamics--in particular why house prices are more volatile than incomes.

Performing such an exercise is very difficult, and requires simplifying assumptions.  One of the most important simplifying assumptions in the paper is that utility is linear--that people value their last unit of consumption just as much as their first.  This assumption is clearly wrong--we know that marginal utility diminishes in consumption.  Yet the assumption was necessary to make the model tractable.

So do we know more about the world because of the model or not?  I really don't know.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

If in 1987 you bought the average house in the average place...

…you have about broken even relative to the consumer price index. The Case-Shiller National Index for March 1987 was 62.03; for March 2013, it was 136.70.  The Consumer Price Index in March 1987 was 112.7; in March 2013 it was 232.77.  So the Case-Shiller Index has risen by  120.4 percent in 26 years; the CPI has risen by 106.5 percent.  So in inflation adjusted terms, the average house in the average place has risen by 13 percent over the past 26 years, or a little less than half of one percent per year.
[At the suggestion of Austin Kelly, I looked to see what would happen if I used the unit-weighted FHFA index instead of the value-weighted Case-Shiller index.  I found that based on FHFA, real house prices rose by 11 percent since 1991 (the first year for which data are available), or a little less than .5 percent per year.  So even though the index is different, the result is the same.]
Reposted from Forbes.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Could someone explain the market failure that protecting car dealerships solves?

The Wall Street Journal has a good story today about how car dealerships are (successfully) lobbying legislatures to ban Tesla Motors from marketing their cars directly to consumers.  GOP legislators, who get the willies about regulation that actually solves real problems, are on board with supporting protectionist policies for auto dealerships.

Does anyone really think that the industrial organization of the automobile retail industry works well?  My family buys a car every five years or so, and our experience is that no one tries to exploit asymmetric information like auto dealers.  I have lots of reasons to believe that our experiences are not unique.

What amazes me is that even in the age of the internet, when one can use sites like Edmunds to figure out what to pay for a car, dealers start out by assuming that the consumer is stupid, hope they get an absurdly marked up price, and only get reasonable when they find out their customer actually knows something.

Elon Musk is a visionary in many ways.  With the Tesla, he might make two important contributions--he might free  from petroleum, and he might free us from car dealers.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A metaphor for why Goodness of Fit tests are, well, not very good.

I am proud to say I learned my econometric from Art Goldberger, who had little use for R-squared.

Anyway, a smart friend of mine (who works in industry and therefore might not want to be named) pointed out that he could probably fit the brushstrokes of a Jackson Pollack painting with a 17 degree polynomial and get an excellent R-squared.  But he still couldn't predict what a next brush stroke might look like.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Reposting from my Forbes blog: the debate on Debt and GDP

Within the past day or so, economics conversations have been all about Rogoff and Reinhart and their critics, Herndon, Ash and Pollin.  The Rogoff and Reinhart (RR) paper purported to show that countries with more debt grow more slowly than countries with less; Herndon, Ash and Pollen (HAP) show that Rogoff and Reinhart’s data contains mistakes, and there is not much dispute about whether Herndon, Ash and Pollin’s corrections are right–they are.
HAP also do a pretty good job of showing that connections between debt to gdp ratio are not robust–they are sensitive to time period and country.  But they do not ask the question about direction of causality between debt and growth (page 3):
For the purposes of this discussion, we follow RR in assuming that causation runs from public debt to GDP growth. RR concludes, “At the very minimum, this would suggest that traditional debt management issues should be at the forefront of public policy concerns” (RR 2010a p. 578). In other work (see, for example, Reinhart and Rogo (2011)), Reinhart and Rogo acknowledge the potential for reverse causality, i.e., that weak economic growth may increase debt by reducing tax revenue and increasing public expenditures. RR 2010a and 2010b, however, make clear that the implied direction of causation runs from public debt to GDP growth.
But the question of direction matters a lot.  Consider a country whose GDP weakens–both tax revenues fall and social spending (on things like unemployment insurance) rises.  This means that in the absence of a policy change, weak GDP leads to higher debt.
There is a simple way to take a first cut at the question of direction of causation–by using a technique known as Granger Causality.  The set up is to try to explain something (such as GDP growth) by looking at its own lagged values and the lagged values of another variable (such as debt-to-GDP ratio).  I took the  data set in Herndon, Ash and Pollen and ran Granger tests using one lag explaining real GDP growth and debt-to-GDP ratios; I ran separate regressions for each country in the data set. I tested for significance at the 90 percent level of confidence.  I am happy to share my results with anyone who is interested (
In the tests where I was exploring whether debt-to-GDP “caused” GDP growth, I found that debt’s impact was negative in five countries (AustriaGermany,ItalyJapan and Portugal); positive in four countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Norway), and zero in 11 countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the US; although France was close to being statistically negative).
RR emphasize that there is a critical point at which debt becomes toxic, and that is at a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 90 percent.  Doing Granger tests using this variable (on “on-off switch” for a country being at greater than 90 percent), we find that the impact of greater than 90 percent debt on GDP growth is positive in two cases (Australia and New Zealand), and is not statistically different from zero in eight cases (Belgium, Canada, Greece, Ireland, Japan, the UK and the US).  Ten countries have not had debt-to-GDP ratios above 90 percent.
When we look in the other direction, however, the impact of GDP growth on debt is negative 12 times (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, and Sweden) and is not statistically different from zero in the eight other countries (Canada, France, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, the UK and the US).  Reverse causality IS a big issue here, and until it is really sorted out, we can’t say what the true, structural relationship between GDP and debt really is.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Please follow me to Forbes

I am at

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Why not worry about the deficit right now?

Because if I did my math right, Federal Government interest payments are at a long-term low relative to GDP. [Update, after looking more closely, I see that the source of the data--the US Treasury--includes state and local interest payments as well]. Consider the chart below:

Federal Government Interest Expense on Debt Outstanding Relative to GDP

The numerator is annual Federal Government interest payments, which come from here.  I am pretty sure these numbers are in nominal dollars.  The denominator comes from the BEA, and is in nominal dollars. Years are fiscal years.

Note that interest rates would have to double for us to be in the situation we were in the late 1980s, the end of the (ahem) Reagan Administration.  Do we ultimately need a steady state in which debt to GDP doesn't rise?  Absolutely.  Just not tomorrow.

Monday, March 04, 2013

The American People agree with George Orwell

This video presents what the American people consider to be the ideal wealth distribution.  At 2:47, the narrator notes that under this ideal distribution, "the wealthiest folks are about 10 to 20 times better off than the poorest Americans."

George Orwell in Why I Write:

2. Incomes. Limitation of incomes implies the fixing of a minimum wage, which implies a managed internal currency based simply on the amount of consumption goods available. And this again implies a stricter rationing scheme than is now in operation. It is no use at this stage of the world's history to suggest that all human beings should have exactly equal incomes. It has been shown over and over again that without some kind of money reward there is no incentive to undertake certain jobs. On the other hand the money reward need not be very large. In practice it is impossible that earnings should be limited quite as rigidly as I have suggested. There will always be anomalies and evasions. But there is no reason why ten to one should not be the maximum normal variation. And within those limits some sense of equality is possible. A man with Ј3 a week and a man with £1,500 a year can feel themselves fellow creatures, which the Duke of Westminster and the sleepers on the Embankment benches cannot.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Why is the luxury housing market recovering so well?

The fashionable thing to say is because of foreign money.  I suspect the actual reason is that the one percent have gotten 122 percent of the recovery (h/t/ Tim Noah).

The demand curve for housing among the rich has shifted out.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The future of efficient transportation

Might look like this:

I heard a lecture from Alain Bertaud on how networked, scheduled transportation is not a good solution for many people--even in poor parts of the world.  And I can testify that auto rickshaws are often the best way to get around cities in India--they are quick, cheap, and when fueled by natural gas, environmentally not too bad (those with two stroke engines are a whole other matter).

One of the most provocative things I learned from Alain is that buses are often less fuel efficient than cars--for a bus system to work, they have to run at periods where demand is fairly low.     As it happens, while sitting at dinner in downtown Los Angeles last night, we watched bus after bus on 6th Street go by nearly empty.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Where's the monopsony?

President Obama, Paul Krugman and Robert Reich have all been pushing for an increase in the minimum wage.  I want to agree with them, and Krugman is certainly correct that the preponderance of empirical evidence shows that the minimum wage's impact on total employment is negligible.

But the question is, why?  Krugman's statement that human beings are not Manhattan apartments is true, and allows him to support the minimum wage while being appropriately skeptical of rent control, but it doesn't give a satisfactory answer as to why putting a floor on the price of labor would not create excess supply of labor.

There is in economic theory a set of circumstances, however, under which an increase in the minimum wage might raise employment.  If an employer has a market largely to itself--if it has monopsony power--then it will both pay its workers less than their productivity warrants and not hire enough workers to be at the most efficient level of employment.  Raising the minimum wage would then both increase pay and induce more workers into the labor market, hence increasing employment.  If government could nail the minimum wage to the marginal revenue product of the least productive  workers, the minimum wage could produce a first-best outcome--one where pay and employment levels were efficient.

For the argument to work, the demand for labor needn't be perfectly monopsonistic, but rather less than perfectly competitive.  The fact that wages and labor productivity seem to have less and less to do with each other is evidence that the demand for labor is not competitive, but it would be nice to have further, detailed evidence of the industrial organization of labor demand.  

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Should college be subsidized?

Mark Thoma has a very nice piece today about how Cal State-Chico changed his life.  One of the reasons it changed his life is that he could afford it--it cost $100 per semester when he went there.  The story is heartwarming, to say the least.

I have always struggled with how much college should be subsidized.  People who go to college almost certainly create positive externalities, and so Pigou would say there should be some subsidy.  But people who go to college also earn substantially more over their lifetimes than those who don't.  Low income people who pay state sales taxes thus subsidize high income people.  Hence the idea that people graduate with debt seems reasonable to me, because the value they get from college far exceeds what they need to invest in college, and it means they are reducing the tax burden of those who don't go to college [I should note that I was among the lucky people whose parents paid for college, so perhaps I am in no position to comment].  On the other hand, if high prices keep 18 year olds from going to college, one of the most important routes to social mobility is blocked.

In any event, a government economist friend of mine has the obvious solution to the problem of the regressive nature of subsidizing college: progressive taxes.  

Friday, February 01, 2013

Will smart phones be the end of built in automobile NAV systems?

Four years ago, my wife bought me car for my birthday.  She reasoned that as a newly minted Angeleno, I would be spending more time in my car than ever before (she was right), and so that I might tire of my slightly beat-up Corolla.

She got me a Honda Accord with all the trimmings, including a NAV device, which I enjoyed very much.  And four years later, I continue to love the car.  But I recently downloaded WAZE to my phone.  WAZE provides crowd-sourced information on traffic, and allows one to find the fastest route from place to place with remarkable dependability.  It provides turn by turn directions, but will change the directions on the fly when traffic conditions change, a regular feature of life in LA.

WAZE is, by the way, a free app.  It also takes us one small step closer to self-driving cars.  By guess is the built-in NAV system, as it currently exists, is a dinosaur.

Bankers and tail events

I participated in a panel last note hosted by the German American Business Association.  Overall, I had a nice time.

But before the panel, a managing director from a very large bank gave a speech, and he was trying to make some sort of point about tail risk.  The example he used is going to jail in Monopoly, an event for which the average probability is four percent.

Maybe I am being picky here, but two points.  One: four percent is not that far out on the tail.  I suppose it would be good if banks tried to avoid things that happen four percent of the time or less.  Two, and more important: random events in Monopoly come from a finite state space, so risk can be completely characterized.  We know with a great deal of certainly the probabilities of particular events happening in Monopoly.

Banks have to deal with uncertainty--random shocks that are not easily characterized by well defined distributions of outcomes.  The Monopoly metaphor is thus a bad one.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Does Modigliani-Miller apply to countries?

If it does, the capital structure of the US is just fine.  Current GDP is 15.8 trillion.  Let's apply a  real discount rate of 4 percent (which is probably high, given that the yield on 10-years TIP is negative), and assume a real long-term growth of 2 percent (which is likely low).  This means the country is worth about $316 trillion (this figure includes human capital as well as asset values).

Total debt outstanding in the US, public and private, is $55 trillion.  So we are about 17 percent debt funded, which means we are about 83 percent equity funded.  This should be OK.  What I am missing here?

(note: it was Matthew Yglesias' Slate piece today that got me thinking along these lines).


Steve Oliner shows that it takes too damn long to build things in California

The set-up:

Recent research, which I conducted with Jonathan Millar of the Federal Reserve Board and Daniel Sichel of Wellesley College..... presents the first comprehensive estimates of planning times for commercial construction projects across the United States. We analyze roughly 82,000 projects nationwide for which planning was initiated  between 1999 and 2010, using data obtained from CBRE Econometric Advisors/Dodge Pipeline. The projects in the dataset include office buildings, retail stores, warehouses, and hotels. About 95 percent of these projects involve the construction of a new building; the remainder are additions or alterations to an existing building or conversions to a new use.
They find that average planning time in the US for a commercial building is 17 months.   But the longest planning times are in California and the Northeast.  Planning times in some California MSAs are about a year longer than the national average.  This makes California's economy less nimble than others.

This is not about whether or not there should be strong rules to protect the environment--California needs such rules.  This is about making rules straightforward and predictable, and allowing economic agents to behave quickly within the rules.  My hypothesis is that it is California's clumsy implementation of planning, more than anything else, that puts it at a needless disadvantage relative to Texas.

It's the G.

After I saw the weak 4th quarter GDP number reported this morning, I went to the National Income and Products Accounts website, where I found that in the 4th quarter, government expenditures and investment has declined by 6.6 percent on a seasonally adjusted annualized rate and that defense spending had dropped 22.2 percent, again, on a SAAR.

Can this possibly be correct?  I am wondering if there is some anomaly in the data.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

An update of my tinker-toy model of housing starts and GDP

We had pretty robust growth in housing starts in December:

A few months ago, I suggested that we could have second quarter GDP growth of 2.9 percent.  I am now revising that to greater than 3 percent growth (the point estimate is 3.2 percent).  We'll see how things turn out....

Thursday, January 24, 2013

I didn't think Phil Mickelson's Tax Rate Could be > 60 percent

From the Tax Foundation:

Mickelson lives outside of San Diego so he is subject to one of the highest tax rates in the country, but it doesn’t appear to be quite that high.  Gerald Prante and Austin John total up all the top tax rates on wage income in the 50 states and they do find California has the highest at 51.9 percent:

"For example, the 51.9% top METR [marginal effective tax rate] for wage income in California for 2013 under the Fiscal Cliff scenario is equal to the 39.6% federal income tax rate plus the new 13.3% top state income tax rate in California minus the deductibility of state taxes against one’s federal taxes (5.27%) plus the marginal tax rate effect of Pease returning (1.18%) plus the current 1.45% Medicare employee tax plus the new 0.9% tax on Medicare plus the current 1.45% Medicare employer tax which we assume is borne by workers in the form of reduced after-tax wages. The sum of these tax rates, which equals 52.6%, is then divided by 1.0145 (1 + Medicare employer tax) because by assuming that the incidence of the Medicare employer tax is borne by workers, we must add back the employer contribution to the worker’s income. The final METR figure is thereby 51.9%."

It’s not clear how Mickelson is getting to 62 percent, since there is no other income tax at the local level in or around San Diego. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Do higher marginal tax rates lead superstar athletes to play less often?

Let's think, for a moment, about why people want more money:

(1) To buy stuff.

(2) To keep score.

(3) To accumulate power.

Perhaps there are others, but these seem to me to be the big three.

OK, so there seem to be two kinds of athletes in the world (with respect to consumption):

(I) Those with entourages.
(II) Those without entourages.

It takes an entourage for superstar athletes to spend all the money they make--it would otherwise be hard to spend an eight figure money quickly enough (people can even afford private jets at those incomes).

So let's think about those with entourages.  If their taxes go up, they will actually have to work harder to keep their entourages.  That should mean they play more, not less.

For those without entourages, the marginal utility of consumption must be zero--this is the implication of not being able to spend all your money.  So their incentives must arise from reasons (2) and (3).

Scorekeeping is independent of taxes.  If an athlete wants to say he/she has the most winnings, they will have an incentive to play more games.

That leaves power.  Higher marginal taxes reduce the ability of high income people to accumulate power, which may mean they work/play less.  I don't know that this is entirely a bad thing. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Morris Davis gives a talk where he shows that fewer American homeowners think they are underwater than actually are

Morris--along with Erwan Quintin--calculates median house prices by MSA using the American Community Survey from 2006-2010.  Because the ACS samples all houses, the change in price from year to year is largely not biased by the change in composition of the housing stock (the only change comes via new construction and home improvements--and the US had little of either from 2008-2010).  As such, the calculation, which is based on what people think their house is worth, is in some ways superior to house price indexes, which inevitably suffer from composition bias, even when their designers make admirable efforts to mitigate such bias.

In his talk, Morris showed that people thought the value of their houses went down substantially less than Case-Shiller implies.  Where Case-Shiller or people are right is not particularly important to mortgage performance, because people will not default if they think their house is worth more than their house.  Those who are forced to move for economic reasons might find themselves unpleasantly surprised, and may wind up selling (now) through a short-sale.  But it is possible that the reason many underwater borrowers are not walking away is that they think they are not under water.

Friday, January 18, 2013

City of New Orleans

In one of those lovely, serendipitous moments in life, I was flying over the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans while reading Tom Fitzmorris's Hungrytown.  The city, alit at night, on the south bank of a black Lake Pontchartrain, looked beautiful, and the Fitzmorris book made me hungry as it relayed the history of the city's unique cuisine.

In the wake of Katrina, Ed Glaeser was pointed in his evaluation of New Orleans as an economic entity.

The 2000 Census reported that more than 27 percent of New Orleans residents
were in poverty (relative to 12 percent for the U.S. as a whole). Median family
income was only 64 percent of the median family income in the U.S.

In 2004, according to the American Community Survey, the unemployment rate
for the city was over 11 percent. And New Orleans’ housing prices, prehurricane,
remained far below those of the nation as a whole, providing further
evidence of weak pre-existing demand for living in the city.

By most objective measures, the city, pre-hurricane, was not doing a good job of
taking care of its poorer residents. For most students of urban distress, New
Orleans was a problem, not an ideal. Poverty and continuing economic decline
fed upon each other, delivering despair to many of the city’s residents.
In light of all this, Ed argued that providing cash to residents of New Orleans might be superior economic policy to rebuilding New Orleans.

Were he talking about any other city, I think Ed would almost certainly be right.  But somehow, it seems to me, if we were to have lost New Orleans, we as a country would have lost something beyond an economic agglomeration.  Its continuing contributions to American culture--through food and music both--have provided a positive externality to the remainder of the country that it has not been able to internalize through revenue, and the country owes it something for that.  Perhaps the cost of losing these contributions would have been less than the cost of rebuilding, but I am skeptical.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Economists and the public are both right about free trade

Noahpinion has a nice post this morning on how the public doesn't trust economists.  Exhibit A:

"Free trade" is the one issue on which economists - at least, American economists - famously agree. And yet, substantial majorities of Americans think that free trade has hurt them. In the Zingales paper, trade was the issue where there was the greatest divergence between economists and the public. How can the common people disagree so sharply with the overwhelming expert consensus? Are the common people simply a bunch of flat-earthers who refuse to look at the evidence? Or do they have a point?
The workhorse model of trade is the Heckscher-Olin model.   The model predicts that trade leads to higher output for the countries that trade.  I actually think that this is hard to dispute.  But the model also predicts that when a country opens up trade, its scarcer factor of production winds up worse off.  In the case of a capital intensive country like the United States, Heckscher-Olin predicts that returns to capital will rise and returns to labor will fall.  The return to capital rising is greater than the return to labor falling, so the size of the pie increases.  Nevertheless, without redistribution, trade makes labor (particularly unskilled labor) in the US worse off.

When the US was going through the process of trade liberalization, workers were promised that the damage imposed on them would be mitigated by Trade Adjustment Assistance.  To say that the program is too small to be effective is an understatement.  The only way to effectively offset the harm done to workers via trade is with redistribution that leaves workers at least as well off as they were before trade liberalization.  Note that such redistribution would still leave owners of capital better off than they would be in the absence of liberalized trade.

I continue to have the view that on balance open trade is a good thing--among other things, it almost certainly reduces the probability of war breaking out, and this is pretty valuable in and of itself.  But when many Americans think trade has made them worse off, they are not being unreasonable.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Why Moneyball and Nate Silver work, but derivatives don't

I find Nassim Taleb's style annoying, and he often mischaracterizes the views of others.  But when I teach my mortgage backed securities course, I have my students read the Black Swan because of an important point he makes (over and over again): some things are well characterized by distribution functions with small numbers of sufficient statistics (such as mean and variance), while other things are not.

With baseball and politics, we can fully characterize the distribution of outcomes (or at least come close enough to doing so).  With financial markets, we really cannot.  What is sad is that many people disdain  the insights of statistical inference when it really works; others embrace such inference when it does not.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The V-shaped nature of the Fiscal Cliff Fix

Here is a first approximation of the change in effective tax rates [for a single taxpayer] as a result of the deal (the effective rates   are based on changes in payroll and income taxes).

The builds in a 2 percentage point increase in payroll taxes us to the income cap of $110,100, and a 4.9 percentage point increase in marginal tax rates above $400,000.  The rates actually rise a teeny bit faster for those above the $400,000 threshold, because the tax on capital gains is increasing by 5 percentage points, but this doesn't change the basic point of the picture, which is that it is not until income reaches around $560,000 that the change in effective tax rates at the high end of the distribution match the rate at the low end. [note: y-axis is the change in effective tax rates].

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

In the glass half-full department...

(1) Grover Norquist must be pissed.

(2) If I understand the deal, Mitt Romney's taxes go up by about 33 percent.

[update: GN says he is happy because R's voted for tax cut.  Oh well].

How we are not all in it together in a small, but perhaps meaningful, way

The Rose Bowl is not longer on ABC, but rather ESPN, meaning that for someone to watch the oldest bowl game, they must be able to pay for cable TV.

One of the cliches about sports that I actually believe is that sports provide something the CEO and Custodian can talk about, thus producing social cohesion across economic classes.  But for this to be true, it need to be easy for everyone to watch.