Tag Archives: economic incentives

Where Should All the Coal Miners Go? – Pacific Standard

An interesting discussion about the failures and lessons for broad scale retraining programs.

My own thought is that we need to buy out the homes of displaced workers at the higher of either their purchase cost or the assessed value to facilitate moving to a new job location.

Source: Where Should All the Coal Miners Go? – Pacific Standard

How to misconstrue statistics in your favor: an example arguing against SB 32


statebystatechangeinco2emissionrateThis blog post on Fox & Hounds is an example of how to take statistics of one cause-and-effect relationship and misapply them to another situation. In this case, this graphic above shows how GHG emissions have dropped dramatically in states that used to burn coal to generate electricity, but now rely much more on natural gas. The decline in coal emissions has occurred over the last half-decade due to the fall in gas prices and the increased stringency in air quality regulations. But more importantly, those states had higher emissions that California to start with because they have been laggards in protecting their environments. The chart shows that these states are finally starting to catch up! If anything, this supports adopting SB 32 as a follow on to AB 32!

Yet the blog post misconstrues this situation to argue that it’s the “free market” that somehow is generating these greater reductions, implying that California and Mississippi had started from the same place–which of course if far from the truth. Yes, the market push from natural gas fracking explains some of this, but California was already so far ahead due to its own efforts that it has less room to improve.

Watch for these types of misrepresentations. Understand the initial premises by the authors. Ask hard questions before you accept their conclusions.

Source: There’s a Better Way :: Fox&Hounds

Let’s end being NIGO’d in California


I was struck by the juxtapose of these two items:

  • AquaMetal is building a new environmentally-friendly battery recycling plant near Sparks, NV. They considered California, but “In California, you put in your permit application, and six months later, someone tells you you filled out line 26 wrong.”
  • “(T)he Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) today awarded 23 state officials across various agencies and departments certificates of completion for the Lean 6-Sigma training program administered by GO-Biz which helps streamline permitting and make state government more business friendly.”

California has many progressive and necessary regulations, but the state does an awful job of administering them. Too often, the bureaucrats are too wrapped up in believing the process is actually important. Instead, they should be thinking about how they can ease the permitting and compliance process so that businesses can focus on achieving everyone’s goals.

A bureaucrat should be filling in the missing blanks rather than waiting for months to kick back an application. A friend noted the all too common “NIGO” response–“not in good order.” Being NIGO’d is not conducive to good business.




Today’s rise of populism and loss of economic opportunity

Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor, now UC Berkeley professor, and Friend of Bill (Clinton) wrote about how he found he agreed with the basic points of Tea Party supporters:

For example, most condemned what they called “crony capitalism,” by which they mean big corporations getting sweetheart deals from the government because of lobbying and campaign contributions…The more conversations I had, the more I understood the connection between their view of “crony capitalism” and their dislike of government. They don’t oppose government per se. …Rather, they see government as the vehicle for big corporations and Wall Street to exert their power in ways that hurt the little guy. They call themselves Republicans but many of the inhabitants of America’s heartland are populists in the tradition of William Jennings Bryan.

Eliana Johnson, a conservative columnist at the National Review, made a similar observation on NPR:

I actually think Donald Trump is really an embodiment of blue-collar frustration with what are really a bipartisan elite consensus on a number of issues that Republicans and Democrats in Washington agree on. One is free trade, and you see Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders taking similar positions there reflecting frustration. Another is immigration, where Donald Trump is an ardent opponent of letting more immigrants into the country. And I think you see the far left and the far right coming together on that issue. And so Barack Obama is certainly an embodiment of elite Washington opinion, but it’s really, I think, frustration among the grassroots of both parties about issues, really, that Republicans and Democrats agree on and where they feel they are not getting a hearing.

The first question is what is at the heart of the frustration among the white middle-class that is at the core of the Tea Party, and support for Donald Trump. Essentially the white middle class sees that the social compact that guaranteed a comfortable life style with little uncertainty by simply working steadily has come apart. The Great Recession accelerated a trend that was already gaining steam as unemployment and underemployment for older white men increased. Job security for a group that historically has enjoyed the greatest job security is disappearing. And they’re angry about it.

The next question is what is at the core of this trend. First a digression into what we do for “work.” Typically we can divide up what we work on into three areas: making things used by other people, directly serving people, and creating ideas and concepts that people can enjoy or use in the other two work areas. There are physical limits on the value that any one worker can create either in manufacturing or in services. A factory worker can produce only one car at a time and a consumer can buy and use only one car. A coffee barista can serve only one customer at a time, who in turn can only drink one coffee at a time. Nobel Prize winner William Baumol identified this “cost disease” 50 years ago, but he was focused only on services versus manufacturing. He observed that technology could help the factory worker make a car faster, but it wouldn’t be much help for a coffee barista.  But he hadn’t considered the role of workers who create ideas and concepts, simply because this wasn’t a big part of the economy then.

With the advent of computers and the Internet, along with other mass media, it’s now possible for a “worker” such as an entertainer, an athlete, an investment banker, or an app programmer, to create a “product” that can be consumed by millions with no limitations on how many can buy and use that product at one time. Distribution of the product is now almost costless. As a result, a single worker can create huge amounts of economic value single-handedly. That’s not the case with either manufacturing or services. The workers in the ideas and concepts industries can now command extraordinary salaries. Bay Area tech workers are earning an average of $176,275!

Who are these tech workers? Not older white middle class men with a high school education or less. Instead economic value is accruing to the younger, college educated (particularly in STEM fields) and the “middle class” is disappearing. The supporters of the populist causes and the demagogues who exploit those opportunities are those being left behind by this radical transformation of the economy.

The same thing happened at the turn of the twentieth century as the nation moved from an agrarian economy with a 38% of its population on the farm to an industrial powerhouse. William Jennings Bryant thrice ran for President as a populist, in his time railing against the gold standard and calling for “free silver.” His supporters were the farmers being left behind by rapid economic change.

As was the case then, the older dominant labor force working in traditional, stable industries today are not well equipped to adapt to the coming of disruptive changes. They have been extolled as the core of a virtuous workforce, as was the case with farmers then, so they have become part of the American pantheon. Just watch any pickup truck commercial. They understood the social compact as putting in a 40-hour week being sufficient to deliver a comfortable lifestyle. These workers understood that they wouldn’t have to change their careers or learn new skills to live the “American dream.” Unfortunately, that was a false promise. (We can’t really expect that everyone should understand how the economy works–at least not without major changes in our education and media systems.)

Now they look for “easy solutions” of the type long offered by politicians, and they are not disappointed by the offerings. Blocking immigration, imposing trade restrictions, and creating opportunity are all buzz word solutions without real substance or a likelihood for success in solving their problems (and may make the problems worse.)

The change a century ago led to economic benefits that few would dispute improved the well-being of most Americans; we would not have wanted to freeze the proportion of the U.S. economy devoted to agriculture. The final question then is what should be the appropriate policy responses to mitigate these harsh effects on a group that long enjoyed a favorable position in our economy while allowing for another beneficial economic transformation?

The shaky foundation of benefit-cost analysis

A post by Tim Brennan at RFF on the uncertain foundations of benefit-cost analysis. (Another RFF post explores the question of whether policies should influence preferences.) The bottom line: that we can’t rely on a cut-and-dried economic analysis to define the “most efficient” policy action.

His conclusion is that we need to turn back to policymakers to decide, rather than relying on the “high priests” of economists:

The best alternative may be to use a fair and open democratic process to choose those who would change (or ignore) revealed preferences. This sounds more radical than it is; we do it all the time. We elect officials who directly or indirectly make choices according to noneconomic values based on ethical rights or distributive justice. Moreover, we also cannot forget that though economics takes preferences as given, they have to come from somewhere. Manipulating preferences is already part of public policy, most notably using education to inculcate preferences to be good citizens as well as to acquire useful skills. Although the puzzles mentioned here are real, we may not have the choice to ignore them, much as we might prefer to do so.


The decisions utilities must make soon

Jeff McMahon at Forbes wrote a nice two-part series on the existential decisions that utilities face going forward. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 here. I posted earlier a longer article from the New Yorker looking at the changing landscape.

Citigroup climate risk study part 2 – stranded assets

The CitiGPS study makes a unique contribution to the climate change risk literature: reducing GHG emissions will lead to stranded investment assets. These assets include both fossil fuel holdings and the equipment that uses those fuels. Protecting those investments is at the heart of much of the resistance to addressing climate change risk.  Removing political barriers is probably the single greatest difficultly in moving to implement policies to mitigate this risk; many policy proposals are at the ready so there’s no lack there. Given the apparent urgency of acting, perhaps it’s time to ask the question whether these asset owners should be compensated by those who will benefit directly, i.e., the rest of us? 

What’s behind the reluctance of political actors to propose this type of solution is the belief in the underlying premise of benefit-cost analysis. Economists have unfortunately perpetuated a misconception on the public that so long as total societal benefits exceed costs, a policy is justified even if those suffering those costs are not compensated for their losses. The basis of this is the Kaldor-Hicks efficiency criterion. In contrast, market transactions are presumed to only occur if both parties gain through Pareto efficiency--one party fully compensates the other one for the transaction. Public policy now casts aside this compensation requirement. Unfortunately this leads to significant redistribution impacts that are too often left unexamined. And of course, the losers resist these policies, with a ferocity that is accentuated by both loss aversion (where potential losses are felt more strongly than gains) and that these losses are usually concentrated among a smaller group of individuals than the spread of the benefits.

Too often public agencies are running over these interests to push for societal benefits without compensating the losers. A recent example that I was involved with was the adoption by the California Air Resources Board of the in-use off-road diesel engine regulations. CARB mandated the premature scrappage of construction equipment that had been purchased to comply with previous regulatory mandates from CARB and the US EPA. CARB claimed societal air quality benefits of $13 billion at the cost of $3 billion to the construction industry. Yet CARB never proposed to pay the owners of the equipment for their lost investments. GHG regulation is proceeding down the same path.

If the benefits truly justify adopting a policy, and GHG reductions certainly appear to meet that criterion, then society should be willing to compensate those who made investments under the previous policy environment that endorsed those investments. Certainly there’s questions about whether those investors truly had property rights in the resources they used, but that issue should be addressed directly, not as an implicit assumption that no such property rights ever existed. (This question about property rights has been raised in regulating California’s water use.) Too often policy proponents conflate a goal of an improved environment with goals to redistribute wealth. By jumping over the property rights question, wealth also can be redistributed implicitly. Societal equity issues are important, but they shouldn’t be achieved through backdoor measures that make all of us worse off. Requiring politicians and bureaucrats to consider the actual cost of their policy proposals will make us all better off, and maybe even remove obstacles to a better environment.