Another weak jobs report with payrolls up only 80,000, unemployment stuck at 8.2 percent, and underemployment ticking up to 14.9 percent.
But the real news continues to be how far employment has fallen. As recently as 2006, more than 63 percent of adults had a job. Today, that figure is less than 59 percent.
With the exception of the past several years, you’ve got to go back almost three decades to find the last time that so few Americans were employed (as a share of the adult population).
The stunning decline in the employment-to-population ratio (epop to its friends) reflects two related factors. First, the unemployment rate has increased from less than 5 percent to more than 8 percent. That accounts for roughly half the fall in epop. The other half reflects lower labor force participation. Slightly more than 66 percent of adults were in the labor force back them, but now it’s less than 64 percent.
The fun economics story of the day is that Orbitz sometimes looks at your computer’s operating system to decide what hotel options to show you. Dana Mattioli breaks the story over at the Wall Street Journal:
Orbitz Worldwide Inc. has found that people who use Apple Inc.’s Mac computers spend as much as 30% more a night on hotels, so the online travel agency is starting to show them different, and sometimes costlier, travel options than Windows visitors see.
The Orbitz effort, which is in its early stages, demonstrates how tracking people’s online activities can use even seemingly innocuous information—in this case, the fact that customers are visiting Orbitz.com from a Mac—to start predicting their tastes and spending habits.
Orbitz executives confirmed that the company is experimenting with showing different hotel offers to Mac and PC visitors, but said the company isn’t showing the same room to different users at different prices. They also pointed out that users can opt to rank results by price.
The WSJ emphasizes that Mac users see higher-priced hotels. For example, Mattioli’s article is headlined: “On Orbitz, Mac Users Steered to Pricier Hotels.”
My question: Would you feel any different if, instead, the WSJ emphasized that Windows users are directed to lower-priced hotels? For example, Windows users are prompted about the affordable lodgings at the Travelodge in El Paso, Texas. (Full disclosure: I think I once stayed there.)
As Mattioli notes, it’s important to keep in mind that Orbitz isn’t offering different prices, it’s just deciding which hotels to list prominently. And your operating system is just one of many factors that go into this calculation. Others include deals (hotels offering deals move up the rankings), referring site (which can reveal a lot about your preferences), return visits (Orbitz learns your tastes), and location (folks from Greenwich, CT probably see more expensive hotels than those from El Paso).
Financial repression and extractive institutions are two of the big memes in international economics today.
Financial repression occurs when governments intervene in financial markets to channel cheap funds to themselves. With sovereign debts skyrocketing, for example, governments may try to force their citizens, banks, and others to finance those debts at artificially low interest rates.
Extractive institutions are policies that attempt to redirect resources to politically-favored elites. Classic examples are the artificial monopolies often granted by governments in what would otherwise be structurally competitive markets. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have recently argued that such institutions are a key reason Why Nations Fail. Inclusive institutions, in contrast, promote widely-shared prosperity.
Over at Bronte Capital, John Hempton brings these two ideas together in an argument that Chinese elites are using financial repression to extract wealth from state-owned enterprises. In a nutshell, he believes Chinese authorities have artificially lowered the interest rates that regular Chinese citizens earn on their savings (that’s the repression), and have directed these cheap funds to finance “staggeringly unprofitable” state enterprises that nonetheless manage to spin out vast wealth for connected elites and their families.
Twenty years ago, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro to grapple with climate change, biological diversity, and other environmental challenges. Today they are back again, but with much less fanfare. If my Twitter feed is any indication, Rio+20 is getting much less attention that the original Earth Summit.
One item that deserves attention is greater emphasis on getting business involved in protecting the environment. For example, two dozen leading businesses–from Alcoa to Xerox–teamed up with The Nature Conservancy on a vision for The New Business Imperative: Valuing Natural Capital (interactive, pdf).
The report lays out the business case that natural resources have real economic value, even if they aren’t traded in markets, and that protecting them can sometimes reduce costs, maintain supplies, soften the blow of future regulation, and build goodwill with customers, communities, and workers. All kind of obvious, at one level, but nonetheless useful to see in print with examples and commitments.
One item that caught my eye is the potential for “green” infrastructure to replace “gray”:
Strong, reliable manmade (“gray”) infrastructure undergirds a healthy marketplace, and most companies depend heavily on it to operate effectively and efficiently. Yet increasingly, companies are seeing the enormous potential for “natural infrastructure” in the form of wetlands and forests, watersheds and coastal habitats to perform many of the same tasks as gray infrastructure — sometimes better and more cheaply.
For instance, investing in protection of coral reefs and mangroves can provide a stronger barrier to protect coastal operations against flooding and storm surge during extreme weather, while inland flooding can be reduced by strategic investments in catchment forests, vegetation and marshes. Forests are also crucial for maintaining usable freshwater sources, as well as for naturally regulating water flow.
Putting funds into maintaining a wetland near a processing or manufacturing plant can be a more cost- effective way of meeting regulatory requirements than building a wastewater treatment facility, as evidenced by the Dow Chemical Seadrift, Texas facility, where a 110-acre constructed wetland provides tertiary wastewater treatment of five million gallons a day. While the cost of a traditional “gray”treatment installation averages >$40 million, Dow’s up-front costs were just $1.4 million.
For companies reliant on agricultural systems, improved land management of forests and ecosystems along field edges and streams, along with the introduction of more diversified and resilient sustainable agriculture systems, can minimize dependency on external inputs like artificial fertilizers, pesticides and blue irrigation water.
To encourage such investments, where they make sense, lawmakers and regulators need to focus on performance–is the wastewater getting clean?–rather than the use of specific technologies or construction.
Will natural gas ever catch on as an important transportation fuel?
Yes, argues MIT Professor Christopher Knittel, in a new discussion paper for the Hamilton Project. Given the now-enormous spread between gasoline and natural gas prices, Knittel thinks that natural gas vehicles should become increasingly popular. Here, for example, are his calculations of the lifetime operating costs for various vehicles using gasoline or natural gas (click to enlarge, and be sure to read the caveat in the footnote):
As you would expect, the biggest potential savings accrue to the most fuel-guzzling vehicles, heavy-duty trucks in particular.
Knittel does not believe, however, that the private market will exploit this potential as fast or extensively as it should. He thus proposes policies to accelerate refueling infrastructure build-out and to encourage natural gas vehicles. Here’s his abstract:
Technological advances in horizontal drilling deep underground have led to large-scale discoveries of natural gas reserves that are now economical to access. This, along with increases in oil prices, has fundamentally changed the relative price of oil and natural gas in the United States. As of December 2011, oil was trading at a 500 percent premium over natural gas. This ratio has a number of policy goals related to energy. Natural gas can replace oil in transportation through a number of channels. However, the field between natural gas as a transportation fuel and petroleum-based fuels is not level. Given this uneven playing field, left to its own devices, the market is unlikely to lead to an efficient mix of petroleum- and natural gas-based fuels. This paper presents a pair of policy proposals designed to increase the nation’s energy security, decrease the susceptibility of the U.S. economy to recessions caused by oil-price shocks, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. First, I propose improving the natural gas fueling infrastructure in homes, at local distribution companies, and along long-haul trucking routes. Second, I offer steps to promote the use of natural gas vehicles and fuels.
His ”steps to promote the use of natural gas vehicles and fuels” are subsidies and regulations. Regular readers will recall that I believe environmental taxes would be a better way of addressing environmental concerns and, in particular, of promoting natural gas over gasoline. Of course, that view hasn’t gained much traction among policymakers. As least not yet.
I get the impression that many Americans believe Medicare is financed like Social Security. They know that a portion of payroll taxes goes to Social Security and a portion goes to Medicare. So they conclude workers are paying for Medicare benefits the same way they are paying for Social Security benefits.
That isn’t remotely true, as new data from the Congressional Budget Office demonstrate.
In 2010, payroll taxes covered a little more than a third of Medicare’s costs. Beneficiary premiums (and some other earmarked receipts) covered about a seventh. General revenues (which include borrowing) covered the remainder, slightly more than half of total Medicare costs.
If you prefer to focus on just the government’s share of Medicare (i.e., after premiums and similar payments by or on behalf of beneficiaries), then payroll taxes covered about 40% of the program, and other revenues and borrowing covered about 60%.
In contrast, payroll taxes and other earmarked taxes covered more than 93% of Social Security’s costs in 2010, and that was after many years of surpluses.
The difference between the two programs exists because payroll taxes finance almost all of Social Security, but only one part of Medicare, the Part A program for hospital insurance. Parts B and D (doctors and prescription drugs) don’t get payroll revenues; instead, they are covered by premiums and general revenues. But that distinction often gets lost in public discussion of Medicare financing.
As recently at 2000, general revenues covered only a quarter of Medicare’s costs. That share has increased because of the creation of the prescription drug benefit in 2003 and because population aging and rising health care costs have pushed Medicare spending up faster than worker wages. Over the next decade, CBO projects that premiums will cover a somewhat larger share of overall costs, while the general revenue share will slightly decline.
Note: For simplicity, I have focused on the annual flow of taxes and benefits. The same insight applies if you want to think of Social Security and Medicare as programs in which workers pay payroll taxes to earn future benefits. That’s approximately true for workers as a whole in Social Security (but with notable differences across individuals and age cohorts and uncertainty about what the future will bring). But it’s not true at all for Medicare.
Yesterday I had the chance to testify before the Select Revenue Measures Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee about a perennial challenge, the “tax extenders,” which really ought to be known as the “tax expirers.” Here are my opening remarks. You can find my full testimony here.
As you know, the United States faces a sharp “fiscal cliff” at yearend when numerous policy changes occur. If all these changes happen, they will reduce the fiscal 2013 deficit by about $500 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, before taking into account any negative feedback from a weaker economy. About one-eighth of that “cliff”—$65 billion—comes from the expiring and expired tax cuts that are the focus of today’s hearing.
In deciding their fate, you should consider the larger problems facing our tax system. That system is needlessly complex, economically harmful, and widely perceived as unfair. It’s increasingly unpredictable. And it fails at its most basic task, raising enough money to pay our bills.
The “expirers” often worsen these problems. They create uncertainty, complicate compliance, and cost needed revenue. Some make the tax code less fair, some more fair. Some weaken our economy, while others strengthen it.
Fundamental tax reform would, of course, be the best way to address these concerns. But such reform isn’t likely soon.
So you must again grapple with “the expirers.” As a starting point, let me note that they come in three flavors:
- Tax cuts enacted to address a temporary challenge such as recession, the housing meltdown, or regional disasters.
- Tax cuts that have reached a sunset review. Prolonged economic weakness and recent omnibus extensions mean there aren’t that many of these, but they do exist.
- Tax cuts that expire to game budget rules. These appear to be the most common. Supporters intend these provisions to be long-lived or permanent, but they haven’t found the budget resources to do so.
To determine which of these policies should be extended and which not, you should consider several factors:
- Does the provision address a compelling need for government intervention?
- Does it accomplish its goal effectively and at reasonable cost?
- Does it make the tax code more or less fair?
- Do its potential benefits justify the revenue loss or the need for higher taxes elsewhere?
In short, you should subject these provisions to the same standards applied to other policy choices. And in this case, you should keep in mind that most of the so-called “tax extenders” are effectively spending through the tax code. You should thus hold them to the same standards as equivalent spending programs.
You should also reform the way you review expiring tax provisions.
- Flip the burden of proof. Today’s standing presumption is that most of these provisions will ultimately be extended. That’s why they are called “the extenders,” even after they have expired. Ultimately, though, we should move to a system in which the presumption, rebuttable to be sure, is that expiring provisions will expire unless supporters can justify their continuation. In short, they should be “the expirers.”
- Second, divide them up. Like musk oxen, the beneficiaries of these provisions have realized that there is safety in numbers. They thus do their best to coalesce as a single herd—“the extenders”—and to migrate across the annual legislative tundra with as little individual attention as possible.You should break up the herd. Reviewing each provision in detail may not be practical in a single year, but you can identify specific groups for careful review. For example, you can separate out the stimulus provisions, the charity provisions, the energy provisions, and so on.You should also spread scheduled expirations out over time. If fewer expire each year, you will be able to give each one more attention.
- Third, change budget rules for temporary tax cuts. Pay-as-you-go budgeting creates crucial discipline but has an unfortunate side effect: long-term tax policies often get chopped into one-year segments. In addition, 10 years of offsets can be used to pay for a single-year extension.To combat this, you could require that any temporary tax provision be assumed to last no less than five years in the official budget baseline. Proponents would then have to round up enough budget offsets to pay for those five years.In addition, Congress could require that offsets happen over the same years as an extension. That would eliminate situations in which 10 years of offsets pay for a single-year extension.
A man with one clock always knows the time. A man with two clocks is never sure.
This week brings the two heavyweights of economic statistics. On Thursday morning we got the latest read on economic growth, and on Friday we learn how the job market fared in May.
Government statisticians and outside commenters usually emphasize a particular headline number in these reports. For the economy as a whole, it’s the annual growth rate of gross domestic product (GDP), which logged in at a mediocre 1.9 percent in the first quarter. For jobs, it’s the number of nonfarm payroll jobs created in the past month (115,000 in April, but that will be revised on Friday morning).
In each case, the government also reports a second measure of essentially the same thing. Jobs day aficionados are familiar with this. The payroll figure comes from a survey of employers, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports results from a survey of people. That provides the other famous job metric, the unemployment rate, and a second count of how many people have a job. The concept isn’t exactly the same as the payroll measure–it includes a broader array of jobs, for example, but doesn’t reflect people holding multiple jobs–but it’s sufficiently similar that it can be an interesting check on the more-quoted payroll figure.
The downside of this extra information, however, is that it can foster confusion. In April, for example, payrolls increased by 115,000, but the household measure of employment fell by 169,000. Did jobs grow or decline in April?
Another, less well-known example happens with the GDP data. The Bureau of Economic Analysis calculates this figure two different ways: by adding up production to get GDP and by adding up incomes to get gross domestic income (GDI). In principle, these should be identical. In practice, they differ because of measurement challenges. As Brad Plummer notes in a piece channeling Wharton economist Justin Wolfers, the two measures tell somewhat different stories about recent economic growth. In Q1, for example, GDI expanded at a respectable 2.7 percent, much faster than the 1.9 percent recorded for GDP. Is the economy doing ok or barely plodding along?
Such confusion is the curse of having two clocks. We can’t be sure which measure to believe. Experts offer good reasons to prefer the payroll figure (e.g., it’s based on a much larger survey) and GDP (e.g., income measurement is difficult for various technical reasons, including capital gains). But there are counterviews as well; for example, at least one paper finds that GDI does a better job of capturing swings in the business cycle.
Despite this confusion, two clocks are better than one. They remind us of the fundamental uncertainty in economic measurement. That uncertainty is often overlooked in the rush to analyze the latest economic data, but it is real. There are limits to what we know about the state of the economy.
In addition, a weighted average of two readings may well provide a better reading than either one alone. If one clock says 11:40 and another says 11:50, for example, you’d probably do well to guess that it’s 11:45. Unless, of course, you have reason to believe that one clock is better than the other.
The same may well be true for GDP and GDI - the truth is likely in the middle. (This is less true with the jobs data; because of the larger sample, I weight the payroll measure much more heavily than the household measure, at least for monthly changes.)
P.S. For more on GDP vs. GDI, see Dean Baker and Binyamin Appelbaum.
Public opinion surveys provide a wealth of information about beliefs in America and around the world. For example, they document how much public approval for same-sex marriage has been increasing, how Facebook has infiltrated many of our daily lives, and how humanitarian aid affects how citizens of other nations view America.
Fifteen years ago, more than one in three of households responded to surveys. Today, that rate is less than one in ten.
That increases the cost of reliable surveys — to get a reasonable sample, you need to try to contact more households. Even more important, declining participation raises the question of whether the minority of respondents are representative of the population as a whole. The Pew Research Center study took a close look at that question:
The general decline in response rates is evident across nearly all types of surveys, in the United States and abroad. At the same time, greater effort and expense are required to achieve even the diminished response rates of today. These challenges have led many to question whether surveys are still providing accurate and unbiased information. Although response rates have decreased in landline surveys, the inclusion of cell phones – necessitated by the rapid rise of households with cell phones but no landline – has further contributed to the overall decline in response rates for telephone surveys.
A new study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds that, despite declining response rates, telephone surveys that include landlines and cell phones and are weighted to match the demographic composition of the population continue to provide accurate data on most political, social and economic measures. This comports with the consistent record of accuracy achieved by major polls when it comes to estimating election outcomes, among other things.
This is not to say that declining response rates are without consequence. One significant area of potential non-response bias identified in the study is that survey participants tend to be significantly more engaged in civic activity than those who do not participate, confirming what previous research has shown. People who volunteer are more likely to agree to take part in surveys than those who do not do these things. This has serious implications for a survey’s ability to accurately gauge behaviors related to volunteerism and civic activity. For example, telephone surveys may overestimate such behaviors as church attendance, contacting elected officials, or attending campaign events.
However, the study finds that the tendency to volunteer is not strongly related to political preferences, including partisanship, ideology and views on a variety of issues. Republicans and conservatives are somewhat more likely than Democrats and liberals to say they volunteer, but this difference is not large enough to cause them to be substantially over-represented in telephone surveys.
In short, opinion surveys likely overstate civic activity, but otherwise appear to track other observable political, social, and economic variables.
Medicare Part A is one of several federal programs that control spending through a “belt and suspenders” combination of regular program rules (the belt) and an overall limit (the suspenders). But it’s the only one that allows legislated savings to offset the costs of policy changes in other programs and extend the time before the overall limit constrains operations.
Congress can’t increase Social Security payroll taxes to pay for increased health care spending or reduce flood insurance subsidies to pay for tax cuts; in both cases, the resources stay within the affected programs. And when it cuts spending on Medicare Parts B and D to pay for other spending, no one claims those cuts will also postpone the day when trust fund exhaustion will disrupt their operations.
Such double counting is possible only in Medicare Part A. And it’s a real problem, creating needless confusion and reinforcing the sense that Washington plays fast and loose with budget numbers.
Happily, Congress knows how to fix this problem. All it needs to do is apply to Medicare A the practices used by one of the other programs that have “belt and suspenders” budgeting but avoid potential double counting.
One approach would be the rules used by the National Flood Insurance Program. As I discussed in more detail last week, those rules require that any legislated savings remain in the program. Lawmakers can’t reduce NFIP subsidies to pay for new spending in other programs. Instead, any savings are automatically earmarked to pay future NFIP claims that would go unpaid because of the program’s borrowing limit. (For an example, see here.)
This approach brings the overall limit explicitly into the budget. But it makes for weird budgeting. For example, the budget baseline would show Medicare A breaking even over the long run, since the trust fund limit would take precedence over its fundamental deficits.
A better approach would adopt the rules used by Social Security. Those rules show Social Security running deficits far into the future in the budget baseline, but they still take the trust fund seriously when examining new legislation. Any proposed cuts to the program’s spending or increases in its revenues are “off budget”. The Congressional Budget Office reports them, but Congress can’t use them to pay for other spending.
A recent Senate bill provides a telling example. The bill would expand the type of income subject to payroll taxes in order to pay for a one-year extension of low interest rates on student loans. Those low rates would cost $6 billion, but the Senate proposal would raise $9 billion. The bill had to overshoot that much because $3 billion comes from higher Social Security taxes and is thus off limits. Meanwhile, the $6 billion in usable revenues comes from Medicare Part A, which is considered “on budget” despite having a trust fund just like Social Security’s.
That difference highlights the inconsistency in current budgeting. If policymakers believe the Part A trust fund is as sacrosanct as Social Security’s, they should provide the same budgetary protection: Part A savings should be off budget, where they couldn’t be used to pay for health reform, student loans, tax cuts, or anything else outside the hospital insurance program.
If Congress doesn’t believe the trust fund deserves that protection, it should adopt a third approach: make the Part A fund as operationally toothless as the one for Medicare B and D. Those programs spend much more than they receive, so their trust fund has unlimited ability to draw on general revenues. If the same were true for Medicare Part A, program changes could be used to pay for health reform (as they were in 2010) or anything else, just like any other mandatory program. But we wouldn’t have any confusion over whether those changes also extend the program’s ability to operate.
The Social Security and Medicare B and D approaches both make more sense than the mishmash that applies to Medicare A today. I think the Medicare B and D approach is the better of the two, not least because it would put all the parts of Medicare on equal footing. But one could certainly argue for the Social Security approach instead. That’s the discussion we should have now so that we can avoid needless double-counting debates in the future.
P.S. Several readers noted an important qualification to my Social Security discussion in my earlier post. Many experts believe past Social Security surpluses have been used to finance deficits in the rest of the budget and, as a result, Social Security resources have been paying for higher spending or lower revenues elsewhere in government. I agree. My comments in these posts apply only to explicit budgeting decisions, like those in 2010’s health reform or today’s student loan legislation. In that context, Social Security savings cannot be legislatively used to pay for other programs. But they still might have indirect effects. For example, by reducing future unified budget deficits, Social Security savings might weaken future congressional efforts to reduce deficits outside Social Security.