Greg on Greg

Meaning Cochran on Clark.

If moxie is genetic, most economists must be wrong about human capital formation. Having fewer kids and spending more money on their education has only a modest effect: this must be the case, given slow long-run social mobility. It seems that social status is transmitted within families largely independently of the resources available to parents.

Pointer from Jason Collins.

Nick Rowe on Secular Stagnation

He writes,

What is it with you townies? Have you never looked out of the window, when you fly (do you ever drive?) from one city to another, and wondered about all that stuff you see out there? It’s called “land”. It grows food, that you eat. And that land is valuable stuff, and there’s a lot of it, and it can last a very long time, and it pays rent (or owner-equivalent rent). And if the rent on that land is strictly positive (which it is), and if the price of that land is finite (which it is), then the rate of interest you get by dividing that annual rent on land by the price of land is going to be strictly positive. And that’s a real rate of interest, because land is real stuff, and what it produces is real stuff too.

So when you go to a helluva lot of trouble to build a model with a negative equilibrium real rate of interest, and it’s a very fancy complicated model, but it totally ignores land, I really wonder where you are coming from. Actually I don’t wonder. I know where you are coming from. You are coming from the town, or the big city, where you can easily forget about land. But even then: you know that stuff your house or condo is built on? That’s called “land” too.

Brad DeLong on Piketty

Brad writes,

We have a world in which some eminent economists (Larry Summers) say r1 is too low, and other eminent economists (Thomas Piketty) say r2 is too high…

The difference between r1 and r2 is the risk premium. In a well-functioning market economy with well-functioning financial markets, there are powerful reasons to believe that this risk premium should be small: less than 1%-point per year. The fact the risk premium appears to me to be 7%-points per year today is a powerful evidence of the profound dysfunctionality of our financial markets, and of their failure to do their proper catallactic job. But that is a separate and largely independent discussion: that is a dysfunction of our modern market economy which is different from either the dysfunction feared by Summers or the dysfunction freaked by Piketty. For the moment, simply note that it is perfectly possible for all three of these major dysfunctions to occur together.

Pointer from Mark Thoma. Read the whole thing. The risk-premium solution was also suggested here in a comment by Matt Rognlie.

So far, the left-wing journalistic verdict on Piketty is rapture. Economists, even those inclined to agree with Piketty’s conclusions, seem somewhat unsatisfied with with his treatment of capital and interest.

College Sports Spending

Tamar Lewin reports,

Even as their spending on instruction, research and public service declined or stayed flat, most colleges and universities rapidly increased their spending on sports, according to a report being released Monday by the American Association of University Professors.

She reports that colleges contest this report.

“This comes from the American Association of University Professors, which has a vested interest in finding that too little money is going to faculty and too much to sports and administration,” Mr. Hartle [senior vice president of the American Council on Education] said. “If you just look at the percentage increases, without the base they’re working from, it’s hard to tell what it means.”

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

Even if the AAUP is talking its book, I think that they may be right. College spending on facilities in general, and athletic facilities in particular, is out of control. Consider this:

Our athletic facilities are among the best in Division III. In 2006, we acquired the former headquarters and practice facility of the Baltimore Ravens. The grounds are now home to Mustang Stadium, a 3,500-seat facility for the football, men’s and women’s soccer, field hockey and men’s and women’s lacrosse teams, and Owings Mills Gymnasium, a 38,000 square foot complex for the men’s and women’s basketball, and men’s and women’s volleyball teams. Caves Sports and Wellness Center is the primary training facility for more than 800 Mustang student-athletes.

That is from Stevenson University, a very low-tier institution located in a suburb northwest of Baltimore.

In general, this is one of my pet peeves. I also could cite Brandeis University–even though it was practically broke due to the Madoff scheme, it proceeded with a totally unnecessary rebuilding of its admissions office. Or I could cite Swarthmore college–I would love to get a measure of the square footage of facilities per student. I am sure that it is ridiculous. It was huge when I went there, and since then the facilities appear to me to have increased by more than the number of students.

Wealth, Income, and Stock Prices

As I start to read Piketty, the following train of thought occurred to me.

How would I explain fluctuations in the ratio of wealth to income? In particular, why did that ratio fall in the 1930s and why has it risen in recent decades?

My first thought is to look at stock prices, and at the P/E ratio. As the P/E ratio goes up, the ratio of stock market wealth to earnings goes up.

What drives the P/E ratio? The standard explanation would use some version of the discounted earnings model. That is, the P/E ratio will be high when the discount rate is low and/or expected future earnings are high. Over the past century, stock prices have trended upward because of one or both of these factors. That is, investors have been willing to discount earnings at lower rates or they have raised their expectations for earnings.

Call the discount rate r and the expected growth rate of earnings g. In short, the discounted earnings model says that the P/E ratio will be high when r is low and/or g is high.

Yet Piketty sees the rise in the ratio of wealth to income as caused by the opposite configuration. That is, he thinks it has taken place because r is high and g is low.

Of course, his r is “return to capital,” not the discount rate. And his g is the growth rate of total income, not corporate earnings. But I wonder how one sorts this all out, and how one goes about choosing between the finance-theoretic explanation of changes in the ratio of wealth to income and the Piketty-Marxist explanation.

UPDATE: James Galbraith writes,

when asset values collapsed during the Great Depression, it mainly wasn’t physical capital that disintegrated, only its market value. During the Second World War, destruction played a larger role. The problem is that while physical and price changes are obviously different, Piketty treats them as if there were aspects of the same thing.

Krugman Reviews Piketty

He sticks to economics, which makes the review quite readable. He drops this sentence into the end of a minor paragraph:

the fact is that the most conspicuous example of soaring inequality in today’s world—the rise of the very rich one percent in the Anglo-Saxon world, especially the United States—doesn’t have all that much to do with capital accumulation, at least so far. It has more to do with remarkably high compensation and incomes.

In fact, that is one of the more damning criticisms of Piketty that one is likely to read. Krugman stops short of calling the book an intellectual swindle, but it appears to be one (I have yet to read it).

Suppose we know two things: First, wealth at the high end of the wealth distribution has increased a lot. Second, the share of wages and salaries in GDP has decreased. Do these two things tell us that capital is gaining at the expense of labor?

The swindle here is to treat “capital” and “labor” as homogeneous, separate categories. You are either a worker or a coupon-clipper. In fact, most people are labor-capitalists. They invest in human capital. They decide how much to save and how much risk to take with their savings. And there is a lot of heterogeneity among these labor-capitalists.

Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg are not coupon-clippers. Their wealth comes from a combination of skill and risk-taking.

Looking at the 21st-century economy through the filter of the Marxist categories of “capital” and “labor” is not particularly insightful. This is not a good era for either a plain coupon-clipper or an ordinary worker to accumulate great wealth. For that purpose, it is better to be a successful entrepreneur or a high-skilled worker.

I think that Krugman correctly views Piketty’s scenario dominated by inherited wealth as offering a speculative analysis of the future. It does not well describe the present.

For example, suppose you look at the Forbes 500 or somesuch, meaning a list of the wealthiest Americans. Compare the list in 2010 to the list in the supposedly egalitarian era of 1950-1970. I will wager that the 2010 list has a smaller fraction of inherited fortunes as opposed to fortunes that were amassed by the wealthy themselves.

Moreover, looking at the low interest rate on risk-free assets today, I would say that the near-term future is one in which the inheritors shall be meek. The next generation of great entrepreneurs should easily surpass the heirs of current fortunes.

UPDATE: Steve Sailer has links to some papers on the Forbes 400. In particular, one paper by Kaplan and Rauh, says

We find that the Forbes 400 in recent years did not grow up as advantaged as in decades past. Those in the Forbes 400 today are less likely to have inherited their wealth or to have grown up wealthy.

A Case Against Charter Schools

Several readers have pushed back on my support for charter schools. I admit that it is difficult to reconcile with my belief in the null hypothesis, which is that no educational intervention makes a real difference. I guess I would say that my support for charters is tentative and based more on sympathy for entrepreneurs than on hope to find an education “cure.”

Here is a post from a few months ago from the blog Education Realist.

As any Cato wonk knows, charters are killing private schools. Increasing charters increases public school spending. More charters will increase the number of kids under government oversight, give even more control to the states and ultimately the federal government. So why are choice people pro-charters? Charter schools purport to give choices but actually just drive up public education costs for the express benefit of a lucky few underrepresented minorities or suburban whites and Asians too cheap to send their kids to private school. As long as I’m ordering the world, choice folks, can’t you go back to pushing tax deductions for private schools? Then let Bill Gates pay tuition scholarships for URMs rather than fund meaningless and usually unsuccessful initiatives in his public school sandbox.

Thanks to a commenter for a generic pointer to the Education Realist blog.

I mostly disagree with the quoted paragraph.

1. I think of charter schools as having primarily a down-market appeal. Maybe I am falling for some public-relations stuff, but I don’t see them as competing with elite private schools. I don’t think they currently compete with elite public schools, for that matter.

2. The fact that charter schools are public schools poses problems for both the left and the right. For the right, they represent schools that are funded and regulated by government, even though they are not operated by government. To me, this is not such a big issue, since even with vouchers, or for that matter with tax deductions, government is going to claim a rationale for regulating schools.

For the left, I think that the problems are more acute. Membership in teachers’ unions drops. I think that the balance of power shifts away from government school boards and toward parents.

One scenario for charters is that they could suffer from what I called a “stifling embrace” by the government. That is, left-wing politicians could endorse charters heartily, with a strong dose of regulation to make sure that charters “serve the community,” meaning that they are forced to adopt all of the worst practices of public schools.

On the other hand, there is also a scenario in which charters achieve a sort of escape velocity, and the education system becomes more decentralized and diverse. That is the scenario I tried to paint in my earlier post.

Meanwhile, it does not seem that more purist libertarian education reforms are getting anywhere.

Setting National Priorities, Revised Version

Again, the inspiration is an old Brookings Institution series, called Setting National Priorities. The idea is to create a web document, with a lot of cross-references, that works top-down from a few high-level objectives down to specific administrative/regulatory and legislative changes. Schematically, it might be:

  1. Ultimate Objective I

    1. Intermediate Objective IA

      1. Administrative/regulatory initiatives

        1. Administrative/regulatory initiative ARIA1
        2. Administrative/regulatory initiative ARIA2
      2. Legislative initatives
        1. Legislative initiative LIA1
        2. Legislative initiative LIA2
    2. Intermediate Objective IB
  2. Ultimate Objective II
    1. Intermediate Objective IIA

At each level in the outline, there would be a single member of the Administration who is the “owner” responsible for execution. That is, there must be an organization chart corresponding to the outline. I will have more to say about the organization chart in future posts.

Here is a more specific example of a high-level objective and the lower breakdown.

  1. Increase the employment/population ratio by three percentage points. This objective will be owned by the chief of domestic government operations.

    1. Reduce for businesses the cost of compensation by 20 percent for workers earning less than $30,000 per year. This objective will be owned by the project manager for reducing the cost of compensation.

      1. Regulatory Changes

        1. Rewrite regulation X to say ____. This initiative will be owned by the head of the agency responsible for regulation X.
      2. Legislative Changes
        1. Pass legislation modifying employer-paid payroll tax rules to _____. This initiative will be owned by the project manager for the payroll tax legislative package.
    2. Reform safety-net programs and tax code in order to limit the total of implicit and explicit marginal tax rates for workers earning less than $80,000 per year to no more than 35 percent.
      1. Regulatory changes

        1. Rewrite eligibility rule Y to say ____. This initiative will be owned by the head of the agency responsible for eligibility rule Y.
      2. Legislative changes
        1. Enact legislation to change safety-net program Z to ____. This initiative will be owned by the project manager for the safety-net reform program legislative package.
        2. Enact legislation modifying employee-paid payroll tax rules to ____. This initiative will be owned by the project manager for the payroll tax legislative package.
    3. Replace anti-competitive occupational licensing rules with sensible consumer protection in health care and other services…[regulatory and legislative changes]

This is still very sketchy, but I hope it gives readers a better idea of the sort of thing I have in mind.

The Real Inequality Problem

John Cochrane writes,

The worry is that we are more and more bifurcating into a market with a small number of “permanent,” high benefit, high hours worked, career jobs, and a larger group of “temporary” employees, limited in hours and incidentally limited in career and human capital development.

That sounds a lot like the academic job market. The tenured professors on one side of the inequality gap, and the adjuncts on the other.

But never fear. Progressive policies are here to solve exacerbate the problem. Casey Mulligan writes,

Under the Affordable Care Act, between six and eleven million workers would increase their disposable income by cutting their weekly work hours. About half of them would primarily do so by making themselves eligible for the ACA’s federal assistance with health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket health costs, despite the fact that subsidized workers are not able to pay health premiums with pre-tax dollars. The remainder would do so primarily by relieving their employers from penalties, or the threat of penalties, pursuant to the ACA’s employer mandate. Women, especially those who are not married, are more likely than men to have their short-term financial reward to full-time work eliminated by the ACA. Additional workers, beyond the six to eleven million, could increase their disposable income by using reduced hours to climb one of the “cliffs” that are part of the ACA’s mapping from household income to federal assistance.

Science and Cultural Wars

Ezra Klein profiles Dan Kahan.

Consider the human papillomavirus vaccine, he says. That’s become a major cultural battle in recent years with many parents insisting that the government has no right to mandate a vaccine that makes it easier for teenagers to have sex. Kahan compares the HPV debacle to the relatively smooth rollout of the hepatitis B vaccine.

Actually, the HPV vaccine is not a guarantee against becoming stricken by HPV. It does not protect against all of the viruses in the family. Although I believe that there is still a case for this partial vaccination, I think that the advocates make it sound much better than it is. They make it seem as if getting vaccinated frees you to have relations without fear of getting the virus, and that is just plain not true.

Jonah Goldberg has a saying that “The left is the aggressor in the culture war.” I think that statement has some merit, looking Hobby Lobby or Brendan Eich or this example.

Tyler Cowen liked the article. I confess to being a bit disappointed. If you are going to write an article about “how politics makes us stupid,” then the article should be about how politics makes us stupid. Instead, this article is about how politics makes them stupid. It focuses solely on examples where the science is allegedly on the side of the left, and the right is culturally obtuse.

As an aside, the article says that climate-change deniers misuse scientific arguments. I think that this, too, is more of a two-way street.