Think Economically


Maximum understanding, minimum average total cost.

Good news or bad? Unemployment rate drops despite weak jobs numbers

So on first glance, these jobs numbers are nothing but bad. 96,000 new jobs with downward revisions on the two previous months. So as far as description is concerned, it looks like weak growth continues to carry the day. So “what does it mean?” Well, it means we aren’t suddenly in a booming economy; things continue to peter along.

“What does it mean” has another interpretation, though: what will happen as a result? The upshot as far as I can tell?

  • Undecided voters will mostly hear 8.1% unemployment and think these are good numbers.
  • QE3 is gonna happen.
  • The fire under the Republicans to ensure the “fiscal cliff” doesn’t occur will continue to burn hotter, meaning Obama might be able to make some headway on either stimulus or deficit reduction or both in a second term.

Certainly Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight has stressed that the jobs numbers will have significant consequences for the election: good numbers and Obama’s sure to win; bad enough numbers and he’s out. The Bernanke  is relying on these BLS numbers, among others, to try to decide what to do. So I was trying to think about what to think about the actual consequences of the numbers. I’m just freewheeling here, but I think there might be some interesting and counter-intuitive results.

Read the rest of this entry »


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Principles of Microeconomics – news video feed and some commentary

So the Fall semester has begun. I show YouTube clips in my class and discuss them. If you’re interested in following along, the playlist is here and will expand as the semester goes:

In the first class, I talked about texting campaign contributions, Rio drug gangs banning crack, and football players going on diets.

First, texting campaign contributions. The goal here, presumably, is to drive down the transaction cost of contributing–or at least the psychic transaction cost borne by the contributor.

A few things worth noting: this is probably aiming at people for whom texting is a regular activity–so read: younger.

Second, the contributions are for $10, which is not very much, so this is probably aiming at some kind of “warm-glow” giving, which when aggregated can really add up; the danger being that if people are substituting texting donations for $25 checks, then the campaigns are in trouble.

Finally, the transaction costs here are actually really high–the video said 40% if I recall. That means that even if these are substituting for $7 checks, the campaigns are in trouble. Unless there are some sort of external benefits of voter engagement or something, but yeah…I’m curious whether this is a flash in the pan or a new way of giving that pans out. Read the rest of this entry »

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David Brooks, Romney/Ryan, and the Faustian Shell Game

Do you have gay friends? Colleagues? Loved ones? First things first.

Do you think women should receive equal pay for equal work? First things first.

Do you have sympathy for those who are struggling to find work? First things first.

David Brooks makes an ass out of Uma Thurman and you can tell his heart’s not in it. It’s a shame, because it’d be really nice to read the other version of this column. He frames the column as a “Guide to the Perplexed”, and buries the lede way down in the third-to-last paragraph:

You’re still deeply uncomfortable with many other Romney-Ryan proposals. But first things first. The priority in this election is to get a leader who can get Medicare costs under control.

Oh, so first things first? Okay, so the evidence that Romney/Ryan will do that–get Medicare costs under control–is hard to come by, and the evidence that they will do it without destroying one of the most beloved social programs is even more scant. It’s actually really easy to get Medicare costs under control: just stop paying the bills. I’m guessing there’s some reason that that proposal hasn’t been floated, but the Ryan budget is as close as anyone has gotten. So that’s the Faustian bargain that’s–at least ostensibly–on the table: don’t you care about your grandchildren? Then old people have to take it on the chin.

Medicare spending per capita

Which, if I’m being honest, if I thought there was a chance they could actually do it, well, it might sound appealing. Clearly they can’t, but let’s just assume they can, to ride where Brooks is leading us. Read the rest of this entry »

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Home is … somewhere, right?

There was an interesting sermon this week–one I didn’t expect to like–about real estate and home, and how a life is woven in there somehow. It is complicated, the intermingling between the rapidly shifting economic forces that have untethered us and our traditions; the difficulties in negotiating, or even understanding, how we should live differently with constraints lifted, how to take Polonius’s advice to “neither a borrower nor a lender be” when it seems to make so little sense to miss out on record-low interest rates.

I was reminded of Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, which is a beautiful story.

And it doesn’t make sense. The advice of past generations is not useful, sometimes. And sometimes it is. And picking apart the difference is actually super-difficult.

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Will everything be free in the future? Robots, information, value, and the long view of relative prices.

I don’t think everything will be free–more likely relative prices of raw goods and manufactured goods are just likely to swing drastically. If you take the long view of human history, increasingly the value of a good is defined by the information in it, and we have gotten much better at separating, recording and transmitting that information. If you think about it, mathematics and engineering are about inventing the language to describe the information contained in a good, interchangeable parts and mass production increase the signal-to-noise ratio, information goods like books, music, movies, research, software–these *are*their information–and then the development of an information infrastructure as well as cheaper and more widely distributed mechanized production methods mean that the information slowly becomes the only missing part.

Another way to think about it is that we have steadily shortened the distance between knowing how to make something and having it made. Little by little, the having it made part is becoming trivial relative to the knowing how to make something. Because information is non-rival–my having information implies nothing about your ability to have it–private goods become less private. Read the rest of this entry »

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This week I have read: Patent Trolling, Cloudpaging, Santorum’s Polls, Obama’s Polls, Taco trucks, Gas and Crude Oil Prices, LEGO Monthly Mini Builds

Patents are broken

Economists, for the most part, have not yet developed the tools to think about information goods. Undergraduate econ still revolves mostly around agriculture. So what do we do about software patents? Or the sharing economy?

I got nothin’. Maybe I’ll devote some focused thought to it some time soon. By then, of course, the entire industry will have changed.

For and insider’s view on the patent wars, check out Andy Biao on his work on patents for Yahoo that have been weaponized and fired at Facebook.

Polls are broken

Political polls have been turned into the analogue to baseball statistics by Nate Silver. As someone who teaches and uses statistics, and watches politics and baseball, this has been delightful. And yet.

Nate Silver points out that Santorum has significantly outperformed his poll numbers. What to make of that? Are people disinclined to admit they’ll vote for Santorum?

That would be odd enough, but no one can figure out whether Obama is universally reviled or climbing back into the catbird seat. On net, InTrade seems to think there has been little change in Obama’s likelihood of reelection in the last six days, and so I read all that news for nothing.

Tacos are yummier from trucks?

For some reason Felix Salmon wants to know why tacos taste better from taco trucks. For some other reason, Matt Yglesias responds. My guess? Because you’re at SXSW and it’s a slow news morning? Also something about more competition, lower average total cost, etc. It doesn’t actually seem that mysterious.

The President can’t affect gas prices

In the CBS/NYTimes poll linked to above, 56% of people thought that the President could affect gas prices. He can’t. Peter Van Doren and Jerry Taylor over at Cato point this out, but if you don’t like reading words and stuff, the White House has just released a very involved, but stylish, infographic. Personally, I think they protest a little too much, with a dash of preaching to the choir.

Ultimately, James Hamilton argues it shouldn’t matter for the recovery, and IMHO, he would know. Matt Yglesias concurs.

Everything else

It was a good week for us. Personal spending is low; personal income is steady. David Brooks is apparently a Mets fan. I bought some silicone-based glue to repair a mug. Also, LEGO Monthly Mini Builds are awesome and brickset has instructions from mid-2010 onward.

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Kony2012 and its discontents: how much snark does it take to fix all the world’s solutions to the world’s problems?

So, Invisible Children posted a video (which video henceforward I shall refer to as “KONY 2012”) in order to develop awareness about a terrible person named Joseph Kony who has done some reprehensible things and is currently at large. One of the terrible things of which he stands accused is abducting children and pressing them into military service and/or sex slavery.

In response to aesthetic and rhetorical choices on the part of the film’s producers, all the people who think they’re smarter than you or too cool for school (or both) started tearing it down. Not from the right, mind you–this wasn’t a case of “who cares about African kids?” No, this is criticism from the left. There is a drinking game. This kind of nonsense is as nauseating as it is sophomoric. It’s snarky, and elitist, and counterproductive…and my people (by which I mean ridiculous, absurd intellectuals and/or academics) are to blame.

And while I’ve been annoyed by this dynamic in the past, this particular episode feels like the apotheosis of this idiosyncratic brand of annoyance, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to get down a few thoughts. Read the rest of this entry »

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Economists and crises: my take on Krugman’s take on economists’ take on The Big One.

Krugman gave a speech on receiving an honorary degree in Lisbon; he reprints the full text here:

Krugman’s general story: the field of macroeconomics was better, descriptively and predictively, back in the 1970s, but at the cost of being coherent and complete. In the intervening years, a number of economists sacrificed completeness and consistency for external validity, and that blinded us (well, them; I’m not a macroeconomist) to the causes and cures of the recent financial crisis. He pitches it as a saltwater v. freshwater battle, which maybe it is.

Then again, maybe it’s a matter of getting high off your own supply. Read the rest of this entry »

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Read up: Tax expenditures cost $1 trillion a year, or almost the entire deficit.

Tax expenditures are huge. What are they? Government spending disguised in tax language. They make government look smaller than it is.

Income tax expenditures added up to about 75% of the tax actually collected (Burman et al 2007), but have gone up to about 94%. I’m just doing this math in my head, but that means income tax rates are almost twice as high as they would have to be without these loopholes. Not only that, but these deductions cause a regressive shift in the tax structure.

The politics governing them are pretty straightforward: provide a tax loophole to a favored constituency and from below, your profile looks like that of a small-government conservative, axe in hand, taking apart the beast blow by blow. Meanwhile, from above, lobbyists and special interests get the bird’s-eye-view of someone well aware of who, precisely, is circling overhead, waiting to pluck that axe from the hand right before pecking out the liver.

So what to do? There’s been some political chatter, but bilateral disarmament here…well, I’m skeptical.

Read up and then write somebody, maybe:

Wikipedia has a surprisingly terse overview–someone should maybe get on this–here:, with a little more here:

The tax policy center has a briefing book here:

Burman, Geissler, and Toder have a 2007 paper in the AER proceedings that does the accounting and analysis:

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Price controls in the market for gasoline. Could Gingrich push gas prices lower? Should we actively make gas more expensive?

Gingrich says gas should cost two dollars and fifty cents. When markets and politicians disagree, the market usually wins. Still, every time gas prices creep higher, there’s political hay in claiming you can fix it.

Thomas Friedman has a whole different idea on how to handle the price of gas: push it up and let it stay there. Ivan Eland calls it mercantilism.

Some crazy guy still thinks we should peg the dollar to gold. I say crazy because that’s crazy.

What would happen to the market for gas with price controls? Check the video:

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