Mitchell's Musings

  • 09 May 2015 10:39 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    Once upon a time, you could write a letter to the editor of a newspaper and, after a review process, it might be published. Most such letters, of course, ended up in the waste basket and never appeared in print. But when the web came along, newspapers started allowing comments to be posted on articles and what appeared in those comments was to put it politely – unfiltered. While some comments were thoughtful, what often appeared (and still often does appear) were (are) rants exhibiting poor grammar and spelling and a sense of paranoia.

    Some newspapers tried to provide a level of filtering in response. Recently, for example, the Sacramento Bee has developed a system which attempts to deal with the rant problem. The Bee’s guidelines for commenting are an attempt to reduce offensive ranting without having to employ editors to pre-screen every comment.[1] But there is one element in the guidelines that illustrates the problem: “We do not screen comments before they post.” So even if offensive comments are deleted eventually, they may appear on the Bee website for at least a time.

    There are similar issues regarding other popular social media sites such as Twitter, YouTube, or Facebook. Eventually, items that don’t meet whatever guidelines those sites have will be (or might be) deleted. But they will be posted for a period before the deletion occurs and persistent commenters may simply repost them repeatedly. Beyond reposting, web users can also create their own websites and blogs where even token filtering is absent. In short, the world of communication – while more accessible than ever before – has become a nasty place. Read what is there at your own risk.

    While the norms of the outside world have become nastier, there seems to have been an opposing reaction on university campuses. Universities have increasingly attempted to prevent “micro-aggressions” that might offend someone at a time when the norms of the Internet rarely block far more insensitive macro-aggressions. You may recall the brouhaha in the past year or so when there was agitation for inclusion of “trigger warnings” on university syllabi just in case there were topics or readings that might offend.

    More controversially, various commencement and other invited speakers have been effectively barred from campuses because of complaints that their views might be objectionable to somebody. These complaints came with threats of disruption. At a time when anyone could increasingly say anything on the Internet, in the university anyone could be a de facto censor.

    All around the university there are external web services that carry far more offensive messages than anything likely to be found on a college syllabus or in a graduation speech. Indeed, some of these web services are specifically directed at universities – particularly students - and their very appeal is that they don’t do much filtering and allow anonymous commentary. For example, there is a popular service called “Yik Yak” in which students can say just about anything using made-up names. As a result, Yik Yak tends to feature sexual references, racial and ethnic references, and whatever else flickers through the heads of young adults who are bored with doing their homework. And, of course, there are various outside professor-rating services with even less filtering than Yelp.

    Note that when everyone is speaking loudly, the only way to be heard is to shout. Presumably, that principle is why restaurants have become progressively noisier. Similarly, if everyone is speaking offensively, the only way to be noticed is to be yet more offensive. University administrators can try to encourage everyone to play nice when untoward behavior strikes – a recent occurrence on my own UCLA campus.[2] But the ability of university officials to change the norms that are imported from the outside is limited.

    Indeed, the recent UCLA event is in fact a repeat of an earlier episode four years ago.[3] But there one big difference; in the earlier case the offender didn’t act anonymously and ended up having to withdraw from the university. So the lesson really learned was that if you want to deliver an offensive missive, you should take care not to put your real name on it. Behave anonymously as is so often the case on the Internet.

    Universities tend to display their problems publically so that the tensions that arise between outside norms and inside exhortations not to follow those outside norms receive publicity. However, students who are exposed to such conflicts will eventually graduate and go into the workplace where issues of norms and acceptable behaviors are handled more privately. Workplaces have rules about behavior on the job (and sometimes off the job) that do not accord with the anything-goes approach of the Internet.

    A key difference between private workplaces and universities is that the former don’t necessarily feature all of the due process procedures and other legal protections that university students are provided. And private sector employees seldom have the equivalent of the tenure protections that university faculty members enjoy. As more and more students flow from colleges and universities into employment, it will be interesting to see how the widening gap between internal workplace norms and external Internet norms plays out.


    [2] In the UCLA episode, someone anonymously pasted stickers with offensive messages in university buildings. The result was a plea in the student newspaper from a senior administrator to avoid such behavior [see] which was followed by an email from the chancellor saying that “regardless of our politics or backgrounds, we are at our best when we acknowledge the humanity of others, appreciate diverse viewpoints and respond with empathy.”


  • 04 May 2015 12:36 PM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    Back in the day, economists used to debate about the “Phillips Curve,” essentially a prediction that nominal wages would rise more quickly as the unemployment rate fell. There were debates, starting in the late 1960s, over the stability of the relationship and about its lack of theoretical underpinnings. But in some form or other, early empirical forecasting models contained a version of the relationship. It was one of those things that, to paraphrase former Fed chair Ben Bernanke in another context, worked in practice even if not in theory. Today’s forecasters still have some kind of Phillips curve – perhaps much embellished – in their modeling apparatus.

    In the years after the Great Recession, however, there developed doubt as to whether we would see a rise in nominal wage growth despite the fall in the unemployment rate. It was noted that other elements of labor market activity measurement, notably the participation rate, seemed to suggest that there was a good deal of hidden or discouraged unemployment. From that perspective, the official unemployment rate was misleadingly low. Even though the official rate had fallen below 6% during 2014, perhaps the labor market wasn’t as tight as that number would suggest.
    Official Unemployment Rate, Seasonally Adjusted

    However, when we now look back over the last year or so, the Phillips Curve seems to be in operation. The chart below shows the 12-month change in the Employment Cost Index for the private sector on a total compensation (wages and benefits) basis.1 Total annual compensation growth settled into a 2 percentage-ish range until 2014. But as of early 2015, it was getting up toward 3 percent.
    Employment Cost Index, Private Sector, Total Compensation: 12-Month Percent Change

    Sometimes, on a short-term basis, benefit costs within the Employment Cost Index can exhibit erratic behavior. In theory, benefit cost growth should largely be offset by reduced wage growth, but in the short-term at least that result may not occur. Nonetheless, on a wage-only basis, more or less the same story emerges as with total comp, as can be seen in the next chart.

    Employment Cost Index, Private Sector, Wage-Only: 12-Month Change

    Of course, an average pay increase is just that – an average within a distribution. Some employees receive more and some less than the average. At present, some of the above-average increase seems to be concentrated in employees receiving pay in the form of incentives. And the charts above refer just to the private sector. Pay in the public sector tends to react more sluggishly for a variety of reasons including bureaucratic inertia. Also significant was that fact that the state and local sector had a prolonged budget crisis in the aftermath of the Great Recession resulting in layoffs and limited pay gains.

    Although the Phillips Curve pay prediction is typically expressed in nominal terms, the recent jump in nominal terms was also mirrored in real (inflation-adjusted) terms. The official Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) growth rate on a 12-month basis ending March 2015 (the latest date available at this writing) was actually slightly negative due to the downturn in oil prices. However, the “core” CPI-U (excluding volatile food and energy) has been running below 2% for the past three years. So, at least as officially measured, pay purchasing power has increased as nominal pay has risen.

    What about macro policy? Does the rise in pay mean the Federal Reserve should start raising interest rates? Once upon a time, as we have noted in prior musings, there was much worrying among macroeconomists about “wage-push” inflation. But with unions in the private sector now representing only a small minority of the workforce, the notion of some kind of autonomous push of wages independent from a more general inflation process seems farfetched. That approach is old economics.

    Also under the label old economics has been the continuous warning from monetarists that due to Fed credit expansion in response to the Great Recession, rapid inflation is an imminent threat. But our favorite measure, the spread between inflation-adjusted Treasury securities and conventional (unadjusted) securities – while sometimes volatile – has never been consistent with that forecast. It remains consistent with a multiyear inflation prediction of around 2% per annum as the chart below indicates. [2]

    Core CPI-U inflation is currently below the 2% per annum rate often said to be the Fed’s target. Watchful waiting would seem more prudent as a course of action than an over-hasty reaction to something that has not yet happened and, at least as seen by financial markets, is not expected to happen.

    [1] The Bureau of Labor Statistics released the latest data for the Employment Cost Index (through March 2015) on April 30, 2015.

    [2] The chart is derived from the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s FRED database.

  • 27 Apr 2015 8:39 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    American’s tend to believe that all problems have solutions – if only folks would just get together and work things out. Thus, they are annoyed when ideological differences cause gridlock in Congress. Americans tend to think simplistically about the Middle East. Why can’t the people there just sit down and settle their conflicts? But there is one problem which seems to escape the notion that all-problems-have-solutions and that is exchange rates. There are calls from time to time for someone to do something about exchange rate manipulation but the calls include no real solutions for the U.S. Someone should do something – but what? [1]

    As we have pointed out many times in prior musings, the U.S. has become the world’s champion debtor as the result of continuous net export deficits. The effect of such deficits falls disproportionately on U.S. manufacturing which was once the provider of those good jobs that politicians, policy wonks, and just about everyone else pine for when such topics as income inequality are raised. So if you want to do something for manufacturing, before you start proposing such remedies as more community college, you would want to focus on the trade side.

    First, let’s put the issue of manufacturing in perspective. Manufacturing as a proportion of total economic activity has been in decline since the end of World War II. Although we keep changing the measurement of that sector via changes in industrial classification systems, manufacturing in relative terms compared to overall GDP is about one third of what it was at that time. [2]
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    Manufacturing as Percent of GDP
    1950 31% 1960 29% 1970 25%
    1980 23% 1990 18% 2000 15%
    2010 11% 2014 11%
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    Given its rate of shrinkage, it is unlikely that any “remedy” – trade deals, community colleges – would restore manufacturing to its 1950s’ importance. On the other hand, since the sector is only 11% of total economic activity, even a modest trade-related boost could have a notable impact on the manufacturing sector.

    Exchange rates can change the relative costs of production between countries. The Federal Reserve has an index of the U.S. dollar exchange rate compared to a large array of other countries’ currencies, all adjusted for inflation. Attempts by the U.S. to retain a fixed exchange rate system relative to other currencies ended in the early 1970s. Since that time, the dollar has been subjected to substantial swings in value. It’s hard to look at the chart below and interpret these swings as having some “fundamental” causes. How much can “fundamentals” change in the course of a few years? In fact, the history suggests both speculative volatility (a characteristic of other financial markets) and opportunities for countries to set their exchange rates at arbitrary levels (including arbitrarily low levels).

    Although countries are not supposed to “manipulate” their exchange rates, it is hard to define that concept in practical terms. Given the kind of volatility exhibited in exchange markets, surely countries have the right to intervene in currency markets to try to smooth out the swings. And if they hold their exchange rates at levels that generate net export surpluses (so that official reserves accumulate), who is to say what the appropriate reserve levels should be? In short, unlike negotiations over tariffs and other trade barriers, no one has come up with a workable way of regulating exchange rate manipulation.

    However, because exchange rate manipulation cannot be regulated easily through international negotiations and trade treaties, that doesn’t mean there are no solutions. It just means that the solution won’t be found in trade treaties and negotiations. We have noted in prior musings that a solution was suggested many years ago and was ignored at that time and after. Below we will (again) repeat it for the record. But let’s first go back to U.S. manufacturing and the net export deficit.

    The chart below shows the U.S. net export surplus or deficit from the end of World War II through 2014. Immediately after the War, the U.S. had large surpluses reflecting both foreign aid to war-damaged countries and attempts by various countries to hold their currency values relative to the dollar at unsustainably high levels. But by the 1950s and until the end of fixed exchange rates in the early 1970s, the U.S. ran modest trade surpluses – typically in the range of 0-1% of GDP. [3] But once the fixed exchange regime ended, the U.S. ran chronic deficits. These deficits fluctuated in amount but at times ran over 5% of GDP. At present, they seem to have stabilized at around 3% of GDP.

    Suppose the dollar were now to be maintained at an exchange rate consistent with a zero deficit. While that wouldn’t begin to pay back the U.S. debt to the world, it would stop adding to the debt. Trade treaties, for reasons already explained, are unlikely to produce such a result. Negotiations with particular countries – China and Japan would be prime candidates – would also be unlikely to produce changes in behavior and would lead to charges of China-bashing or Japan-bashing. The U.S. shrinks from such charges officially because it wants cooperation from these countries in other matters of foreign policy. Politicians don’t necessarily shrink from such bashing – indeed they may be attracted to it around election time – but, as noted, their bashing doesn’t come with solutions.

    If the exchange rate were reset so that net exports were zero (“balanced” trade), perhaps half of the increased activity (more U.S. exports; more U.S.-made import substitutes) would be in manufacturing. At present, that would be about 1.5% of GDP (half of 3%). With manufacturing at about a tenth of total activity, the employment gains in that sector would be about 15%. No trade treaty or negotiation is likely to produce such an effect. Similarly, long term remedies such as more technical training in community college seem unlikely to produce that impact.

    But wait! What could bring about such an exchange rate effect and do it without singling out any particular country for bashing. As we have noted many times, back in 1987 (when Japan was seen as THE trade villain), financier Warren Buffett wrote an op ed in the Washington Post outlining a specific plan.4 It was basically a cap-and-trade plan for trade similar to the plans more commonly applied to air pollutants. Under the Buffet plan, U.S. exporters would receive a $1 voucher for each $1 of their exports of goods and services. The voucher would be a license to import $1 of goods and services. The voucher could be exercised directly by the exporter or sold in an open market to some importer. By definition under the system, value of exports = value of imports. The market cost of the voucher plus the prevailing exchange rate would be the equivalent of the exchange consistent with net exports = zero.

    The Buffett cap-and-trade exchange rate plan singles out no country or countries. There is no bashing. There is no negotiating with any particular country about its exchange rate relative to the U.S. dollar. It is not protectionist. It simply achieves the result of the exchange rate consistent with net exports = zero. Under the Buffett plan, U.S. debt to the world stops rising. [5]

    Would there be administrative problems? Any system has costs. There would need to be verification of export value in issuing vouchers and verification of import value when they were exercised. We do have customs inspectors in place but there would need to be more of them to implement the system. Perhaps one might oppose the Buffett plan on the basis of administrative cost but to do so, one would have first to recognize and evaluation the possibility of the plan.

    How can those commentators who lament exchange rate manipulation without even mentioning the Buffett plan be interpreted? Do they just want to pose a problem without offering any solution? Are they unaware of a plan that would provide a solution to the problem they pose even though the plan was published in a prominent daily newspaper and written by a well-known financier? You can chose between those two answers. I can’t think of any others.

    [1] For three examples, see

    [2] The chart uses the SIC code for 1972 through 1980, the SIC code for 1987 for 1990 and 2000 and the NAICS 2002 for 2010 and 2014. The two SICs showed no appreciable difference in 1987. NAICS measurement showed a slightly smaller manufacturing sector in 2000 compared with SIC.

    [3] The ongoing “balance of payments problem” of the U.S. before the end of fixed exchange rates had to do with the financial side of the accounts. Low interest rates in the U.S. (maintained for domestic reasons) encouraged borrowing in the U.S. by foreigners and U.S. direct investment abroad. In effect, that accumulation of claims on the world by the U.S. was financed by increased dollar reserves held by foreign central banks under the fixed exchange rate system that had been established by the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement.

    [4] Warren E. Buffett, “How to Solve Our Trade Mess Without Ruining Our Economy,” May 3, 1987, page B1.

    [5] The voucher entitlement could be set so that the U.S. ran a surplus and began paying off its debt. For example, each $1 of exports could produce an entitlement equal to, say, 90 cents worth of imports.

  • 20 Apr 2015 8:24 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    The Age Discrimination in Employment Act, as amended, generally prohibits mandatory retirement ages except in a few occupations such as airline pilots. Yet at one time, such practices were commonplace with the mandatory age often set at 65 or 70. For tenured university faculty, mandatory retirement was permitted later than for other occupations, but it, too, was ended in 1993. New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan – who had come out of the university setting with a PhD - expressed concerns about ending mandatory retirement in academia:

    I must note, however, that I am troubled by the application of this change to the unique situation of tenured faculty members at colleges and universities. In order for these institutions to remain effective centers of teaching and scholarship, they must have a balance of old and new faculty. Hence, universities must ensure that older faculty members retire at an appropriate age, not simply to "make room" for younger faculty, but to maintain a contemporary, innovative and creative atmosphere where students can obtain the fullest education. . .[1]

    However, despite Moynihan’s concerns, Congressional policy was to delay the end of mandatory retirement for tenured faculty while a study was being prepared but then – based on the study – ended authority for universities to impose it.

    Starting in the 1970s, the labor economics literature began looking at practices such as mandatory retirement ages under the rubric of the “new economics of personnel.” Mandatory retirement was seen as a component of “implicit contracting” in the labor market. The rationale was that career employees – seen as having long-term relationships with employers – worked for less than their value early in their careers in exchange for an overpayment later. The early period was seen as a form of posting a bond for good performance, given imperfect information at the time of hiring and as an incentive against “shirking.” Mandatory retirement was seen as a way of terminating the overpayment period.

    Similarly, defined-benefit pensions were depicted as having a similar function (by making it advantageous to retire after a given age). Under a defined-benefit pension plan, the monthly annuity is typically a function of age, length of service, and the level of recent (pre-retirement) earnings. The expected value of the future stream of pension payments begins to fall beyond a certain age since each year of continued work means one year less of pension receipt. Eventually, someone who continued working would be effectively working for nothing due to the continued pension loss which has to be subtracted from the pay expected from continuing to work.

    All of this history and economics literature came to mind recently when I participated as a panelist on a program at UCLA developed for faculty who were thinking of retiring but who were uncertain as to whether to do so. You can hear my presentation at the program at One thing to note about UCLA (as part of the entire University of California system) is that it has a defined-benefit pension. In that respect, it is unlike most universities that have defined-contribution plans (such as TIAA-CREF) which provide no particular incentive to retire. My impression – based on anecdotal evidence – is that, as a result, there has been less of an issue regarding tenured faculty retirement decisions at UCLA than has developed at many other universities.

    Nonetheless, some elderly faculty do have a problem in making the retirement decision, even at UCLA. One factor is that the defined-benefit incentive to retire – while self-evident to economists – is not necessarily fully appreciated by others. (Having understandable incentives is always an issue in designing personnel systems and retirement programs are no exception.) Thus, some faculty may think that the point of “working of nothing” arrives only when the pension is equal to the rate of final pay, which at UCLA occurs only after 40 years of credited service.[2] Or they may think that the optimum decision is to wait until you are working for nothing.

    It was clear from the program at which I spoke that there is a subset of folks who have a problem in letting go of their long-time activities despite economic incentives to do so. What about folks in sectors outside academia? We do know that labor-force participation rates for those 65 years and over have been increasing since the late 1990s, as the charts below show. Participation rates fell from the end of World War II until they leveled out in the 1980s (particularly for men). Clearly, there were various underlying factors in this pattern, notably the availability of Social Security, private pensions, and improved elder health.[3]


    Now it’s easy to say that the experience of university faculty is vastly different from those of other employees in other sectors and occupations. Other employees may not be committed to their careers to the same extent as faculty and they rarely have anything like tenure. They may have work histories in physically demanding occupations that produce health issues which make job continuance difficult beyond a given age. Nonetheless, for whatever reasons, the overall participation rates for those 65 and over throughout the labor market have been rising as a long-term trend.

    Note, too, that the stories that were especially in vogue about stock market losses in 401k plans due to the Great Recession don’t fit the timing of the trend. Such stories tied continuation of working to depleted retirement accounts. The rise in participation for older women seems to start in the late 1980s. For older men, it seems to occur in early the 2000s, halting – not beginning - in the Great Recession.

    When we move to a still older age bracket – 75 years and over – the same pattern emerges, as the charts below illustrate. The male participation rate heads up after the late 1990s; the female rate goes up from the late 1980s.4 Using the older age cutoff likely filters out individuals with physically difficult job histories. But it can be assumed that most remaining workforce participants still are not tenured faculty.



    In short, the faculty reluctance-to-retire phenomenon may be part of a larger set of forces that are not unique to academia. Economic incentive devices such as defined-benefit pensions may mitigate the phenomenon for many individuals.[5] But they don’t entirely eliminate it. Thus, universities may need to consider other types of programs - such as phased retirement - to encourage turnover.


    [2] The system multiplies an age factor of 2.5 times years of service and then multiplies that product by what for most faculty is final base pay for the last three years. (The age factor rises with age but peaks at 2.5.) For many faculty, it might be noted, the base rate of pay on which the pension is calculated excludes pay beyond the official salary rate. Such extra pay may be a considerable fraction of total pay – especially in medicine. Pay received during the summer months for teaching, research, or other reasons is also excluded from the pension to avoid “spiking.” So, in such cases, i.e., cases in which non-base pay is significant, the idea that you are working for nothing only if your pension equals your pay means that such a condition is perceived never to arrive.

    [3] Data for the charts are from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website. The charts were created on the website.

    [4] Data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for ages 75 and over are not available before 1987.

    [5] Universities with defined-contribution pension systems sometimes create ad hoc incentives – essentially retirement bonuses – from time to time. But such practices can have perverse effects; faculty may delay retirement waiting for the next special deal to come around.

  • 13 Apr 2015 8:47 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)
    My UCLA office is located in a building constructed in the 1960s that contains four elevators. At least one elevator seems always to be out of service. Although the building now houses the School of Public Affairs, when I first came to UCLA in 1968, it was the home of the business school (where I had my office, too). Even then, the elevators never seemed to behave properly.

    Elevator misbehavior gave rise to a kind of mythology. Some in the building believed that if you jumped up and down in an elevator that seemed not to want to go, it would start to move. Others believed that some sequence of button pushing would do the trick. I would sometimes suggest to annoyed riders that if the authorities would only feed the donkey pulling the rope better, service would improve. But that suggestion was always taken as a joke. Actually, it was as good a story as any of the others. There is a human need, apparently, to have explanations for events and situations, even if there aren’t any explanations.

    I was reminded of that phenomenon in reading a news account interpreting the April 7 release by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics JOLTS (Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey) data through February:[1]

    A new Labor Department report Tuesday showed that job openings surged 3.4 percent to 5.1 million in February — a 14-year high. That’s a clear sign that companies are willing to boost their staffs… To be sure, there were some negative signs in Tuesday’s report. Total hiring slipped 1.6 percent in February to 4.9 million, the second straight decline. At the same time, layoffs fell sharply. The declines in hiring and layoffs suggest that employers were cautious in the face of a faltering economy but weren’t spooked enough to cut jobs...[2]

    When you look at the actual media release, it’s just a couple of charts, data tables, and text describing the data. There is nothing in the release itself about caution or being insufficiently spooked. In any case, if employers were being cautious, perhaps they would hire at a lower rate. But why would they also reduce separations? Wouldn’t they want to let workers leave their employment voluntarily who wanted to leave if there were reasons for caution about a slowing economy? That is, might they not cut back on efforts at worker retention out of caution? And might they not want to step up their involuntary layoffs?

    Perhaps, more pointedly, we are talking about a one-month change in the various rates being tracked and discussed. And the data we are talking about are seasonally-adjusted. So there could be any number of explanations for the one-month changes. Perhaps the seasonal factor – which is based on the past history of seasonality – was wrong for the particular weather that occurred in January-February 2015? Maybe the especially bad weather this winter led to delayed decision making on both separations and hiring. Or maybe the underlying (unadjusted) data were simply affected by some statistical noise since we are talking about figures from a sample survey. The release footnotes the latest data as “preliminary” so they might well be revised. In short, maybe there is no story here to tell at all.

    Let’s put in perspective the data that the news account describes. The job openings rate (job vacancies rate) during January-to-February went from 3.3% to 3.4%.[3] I am not sure that move (if it was more than noise) qualifies as a “surge.” The “slippage” in hiring was in fact so miniscule that it left the hiring rate unchanged at 3.5%.[4] For separations, the supposed slippage was a drop from 3.4% to 3.3%.[5]

    If you are looking for a “story” on the job openings rate, you need to focus on long-term trends and not one-month blips. The chart below tells you that story, but it isn’t one that you didn’t already know. Labor markets are generally recovering since the bottom of the Great Recession in 2009. Maybe that isn’t news at all. But as they say, no news is good news. Would you rather have a reverse story of no recovery?

    Job Openings Rate, seasonally adjusted, 2005-2015


    [3] The job openings rate is computed by dividing the number of job openings by the sum of employment and job openings and multiplying that quotient by 100. (Description taken directly from release.)
    [4] The hires rate is computed by dividing the number of hires by employment and multiplying that quotient by 100.
    [5] The separations rate is computed by dividing the number of separations by employment and multiplying that quotient by 100.

    Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • 06 Apr 2015 1:17 PM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    Statistics are in principle “neutral.” They are just facts. In theory, it’s up to the user of the statistics to interpret the numbers. But nice as that theory is, it is not quite true. How you display statistics or which statistics you choose to display can influence users’ perceptions. To take an example, consider the monthly “Employment Situation” release of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shown below. There is much information in the body of the release. But someone has determined for you that the two most important pieces of data you want to see first are the official unemployment rate and its trend and the monthly change in non-farm payroll employment over the past two years. In effect, those two items are the cover story to the rest of the information. They are often the headline stories in the news media.

    As noted, it’s not that those two items are the only pieces of information contained within the release. But they are prominently displayed. For example, someone might alternatively have chosen average weekly hours or the median duration of unemployment to display, data that are also part of the release. There are alternative unemployment rates in the release based on definitions differently from those used for the official rate. But you have to know about these other data series and look for them.

    How you display data has long been known to be important. When I taught a course in labor markets and we arrived at the unit on productivity, I would note that in a broad context, productivity can refer to management and effective decision making. Your decision making is in part a function of the facts at hand. In that context, I would bring up the name of Florence Nightingale who at least some students would identify as “the first nurse.” Less known about her is her use of statistics and her presentation of statistics to persuade the powers-that-be in Britain on appropriate treatment of wounded and ill Crimean War soldiers. Nightingale developed a circular bar chart form of display to make her points.[1] Indeed, she said that “To understand God's thoughts we must study statistics, for these are the measure of his purpose.”[2] She didn’t add that the choice of which statistics to study is a human choice.

    The display of data may not necessarily tell you about God’s thoughts, but they do tell you something about the thoughts of whoever arranged the display. Which brings me to the Mitchell’s Musings of March 23, 2015.[3] In a footnote in that musing, I noted that the St. Louis Fed’s database system “Fred” indicated that a statistical series on the holdings of U.S. Treasury securities holdings of foreign official monetary institutions (central banks and similar institutions) had been discontinued.[4] This series, which has been produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) in the Dept. of Commerce, may seem obscure to you. But it previously could be found on Table 1 of the quarterly “balance of payments” releases of the BEA. Putting it on Table 1 – and therefore among the first information you see - was a decision someone had made that the information was important. I agree with whoever that was that the series was important, and still is, but let me delay getting into why.

    When you go to that release now, the series has indeed vanished from Table 1 as can be seen on the latest posting.[5] A year earlier, the same release had the series.[6] So I emailed BEA to find out why the change was made. The response I got back was essentially in two parts. Basically, there was an effort by BEA to simplify the release and put it in a format similar to that said to be used by other countries. Second, it was noted that because users might want to see the information that had previously been displayed, you could go on the web and find it on another table (a table not included in, or mentioned in the latest release). So the data are available (FRED was wrong), but surely not displayed in a way that Florence Nightingale would have used if she thought there was importance in the series. (You go to and then click on “Addendum Table 9.1”)

    OK. Who cares? Why is the series important? To answer that question, you have to know something about the international monetary system. From the end of World War II and until the early 1970s, the U.S. and other major currencies used a fixed exchange rate system. All countries defined the price of their currencies relative to the U.S. dollar. To make the market price the same as the official price, central banks committed themselves to buy and sell their currencies in unlimited amounts at that dollar exchange rate. The system suffered a major shock in 1971 and essentially fell apart in 1973. Thereafter, with some exceptions, the U.S. took a relatively passive position with regard to the dollar. However, other countries in varying degrees bought and sold their currencies to achieve a target exchange rate with the dollar, or at least to stay within an exchange rate range around the dollar.

    When we look at the change in U.S. dollar holdings of foreign central banks and official monetary institutions, particularly U.S. Treasury securities, we can determine whether they were acquiring more dollars (a “capital inflow” aimed essentially at preventing their currencies from rising in value relative to the dollar) or doing the opposite (a “capital outflow”). The series on the change in foreign official dollar holdings (flow data) is paralleled by a series showing the absolute amount of the holdings at the end of each quarter (stock data). As in the case of the flow data, BEA no longer includes this information on its basic table and leaves it to the user to find it in a supplementary table.[7]

    The question of exchange rates and what other countries are doing to control the movement of their exchange rates relative to the dollar is crucial to the debate over the unprecedented growth of U.S. liabilities to the world, the imbalance of trade (imports far in excess of exports), and the shrinkage of American manufacturing due to that imbalance. A decision to reduce the prominence of a data series that relates to that debate (whether deliberate or not) is equivalent to a decision that the debate over those issues isn’t of much importance. Florence Nightingale would have understood the significance of the change in data presentation. Whether the decision maker at BEA understood is unknown.

    [6] Go to line 58 and the more comprehensive line 56 of Table 1.
    [7] You go to and then click on Table 3.1.

  • 30 Mar 2015 11:50 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) regularly publishes state opinion poll data on political, economic, and social issues. Among the questions included as part of the survey is an open-ended inquiry in which respondents are asked about what they think is the most important issue facing the state:

    “Thinking about the state as a whole, what do you think is the most important issue facing people in California today?”

    Respondents don’t choose from a menu of issues. Rather their responses are coded into various categories by the interviewer. (So far, the inelegant use of participles by pollsters has not been among the coded top issues reported to be facing the state!) The table below summarizes the responses of the March 2015 poll and the trend in responses going back to 2007.
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    California Unemployment Rate and Percentage of Adults in PPIC Poll Listing Jobs/Economy or Some Other Issue as the First or Second Most Important Issue Facing the State
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

       Unemployment [a]  Jobs/Economy
    Second Most Important Issue [b]
     5.4%  13%  immigration/illegal immigration 19%
    March 2008  7.3%  35%  education/schools  12%
    March 2009
     11.2%  58%  state budget/deficit/taxes  13%
    March 2010  12.2%  57%  education/schools  12%
    March 2011
     11.7%  53%  state budget/deficit/taxes  14%
    10.4%  52%  education/schools  8%
    March 2013
     8.9%  45%  education/schools  11%
    March 2014
     7.5%  32%  Water/drought  15%
    March 2015
     {6.9% [c]}
     24%  Water/drought  23%

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    [a] Annual unemployment rate except 2015.
    [b] In 2007, jobs/economy was the second most cited issue; immigration/illegal immigration was first.
    [c] February 2015, preliminary, seasonally adjusted.
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    As might be expected, the Great Recession and its aftermath had a major effect on the responses given by those surveyed to the poll. The rise in unemployment during the Great Recession and its high level during the subsequent recovery made jobs/economy the number one response for most of the period. Before the Great Recession took hold, however, another issue – immigration – was the lead concern and the percentage citing jobs/economy was low (number 2). In the latest survey, jobs/economy is essentially tied for first with the drought California is experiencing.1 The level of concern over jobs/economy shown on the table has been roughly cut in half from the peak. Various water districts are currently imposing limits on water use and raising the price of water. Scary headlines about the drought have appeared. So it’s not surprising that as jobs/economy has faded in perceived importance, the water/drought issue has risen in relative prominence.

    As noted, jobs/economy was in second place just prior to the Great Recession and before the unemployment rate shot up. At that time, drought was not an issue. However, the immigration issue had simmered somewhat during the gubernatorial election year of 2006 which may account for its showing in the early 2007 poll. Within California in the most recent survey, there is regional variation. Jobs/economy receives the most attention in the higher unemployment areas of the state. Thus, it is seen as more important in the Inland Empire, an area generally east of Los Angeles which was a center of flaky mortgages, foreclosures, and has featured the municipal bankruptcy of San Bernardino. In contrast, jobs/economy is a low concern in the San Francisco area which is now in the midst of a tech boom. An exception to the unemployment effect is the Central Valley which has high unemployment but also an agricultural base and therefore has heavy water dependence. Water and jobs/economy are tied together in that region.

    Percentage of California Adults in March 2015 PPIC Poll Listing Jobs/Economy or Water/Drought as the First or Second Most Important Issue Facing the State
      - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

     All Adults  24%  23%
     Central Valley  17%  32%
     San Francisco Bay Area  15%  32%
     Los Angeles, Long Beach, Anaheim  29%  13%
     Orange, San Diego  27%  22%
     Inland Empire  35%  15%

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    Despite the recovery, California, as has the rest of the U.S., shows signs of labor-market distress that go beyond the basic unemployment rate. For example, the labor force participation rate has fallen in the state, as it has in the country as a whole. The drop in participation seems particularly marked among younger age groups. The current overall participation rate for the state (62.4%) is below the level at the pre-Great Recession peak of the last business cycle (65.7%) and below the level at the trough date of the Great Recession (65.3%). But while the news media have carried stories about such job market difficulties,2 there has not been much political traction to them.

    California at the statewide level is a “blue” state and its (Democratic) political establishment tends to focus on jobs created since the Great Recession and the decline in the unemployment rate. Issues such as poverty and labor force participation are more likely to be raised on the right side of the political spectrum, but mainly to decry perceived state overregulation and high taxes to which such ills are attributed. As the PPIC survey suggests, however, the problems of the labor market – whatever their cause - are receding from public view. The political significance of jobs/economy is becoming progressively limited.

    PPIC data refer only to California, of course, but it is likely that similar attitudinal and political developments have occurred throughout the U.S. as the general unemployment rate has fallen. The unemployment rate may not capture all of the aspects of the labor market on which economists focus. However, at least at the state and local level, and absent another economic downturn, both the unemployment rate’s decline and its current reduced level suggest that other issues are likely to dominate future political contests. Unemployment may not capture all that is occurring in the labor market, but it seems to capture the level of public attention to that market.

    [1] Among “likely voters,” the statistical tie was reversed with the drought as the lead issue. For the most recent poll, see The question about the most important issue is asked several times during the year. I picked the earlier March surveys, or a date close to March if that month was not available, to match the most recent survey month.


  • 23 Mar 2015 9:49 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    Below is an excerpt from the transcript of a recent (March 18, 2015) National Public Radio (NPR)

    DON GONYEA, HOST: Call it one of those conflicts that happen among friends - in this case, Democrats and labor unions. The sore spot is trade and the Obama administration's push for authority to negotiate a big, new trade deal covering the Pacific region. Unions want to stop it. At a speech in Washington today, AFL-CIO President Richard  Trumka said history shows such deals have hurt the little guy…

    GONYEA: Trumka and labor are clearly already looking ahead to next year's elections including the presidential race. Joining us to talk about all of this is longtime labor journalist Steven Greenhouse. Steve, hello…

    GREENHOUSE: …The Obama administration, like the Clinton administration, think trade deals are great. They help bring in cheaper foreign goods that help American consumers. They create investment opportunities for American companies. And they say, look, labor, manufacturing jobs are going to go overseas anyway because labor costs are cheaper in Mexico or China, and it's not trade deals that are doing it. You know, labor unions say no, these trade agreements really accelerate this, and we don't like it, and we want to slow it and maybe stop it…


    Perhaps you heard the broadcast. The bulk of the interview consists of the political angle, i.e., a threat by organized labor to withhold campaign funding for Democrats who support the trade agreement. Neither the host nor the guest commented on the premise attributed to both the Clinton and Obama administrations that “manufacturing jobs are going to go overseas anyway because labor costs are cheaper in Mexico or China, and it's not trade deals that are doing it.” So let’s unpack the premise.

    There are really three elements in the premise: 1) manufacturing jobs are going overseas, 2) the job loss in manufacturing isn’t due to trade deals, and 3) the job loss is due to lower labor costs abroad.

    We have noted in previous musings that manufacturing jobs have been in long-term decline, although – after a dive in manufacturing employment resulting from the Great Recession – there is some cyclical recovery. So let’s just say that point #1 is not controversial. That conclusion leaves points #2 and #3.

    You probably have noted that there are many Japanese and German cars on the road. Neither country features cheap factory labor. So you should at least be somewhat suspicious about #3. On the other hand, we haven’t really had any big trade deals involving Japan and Germany for a long time so you might have a sense that #2 is plausible. But if it isn’t trade deals or #3 that is causing #1, then there must be some other causal elements at work. Let’s note some statistical facts about U.S. foreign trade in manufactures. Although there are various industrial classifications used for defining trade in “manufacturing,” here are some numbers to keep in mind.

    • In 2014, using the SITC statistical division, about three fourths of U.S. goods exports were manufactures. In that same year, about 80% of U.S. goods imports were manufactures.[1]
    • In 2014, about three fourths of exports of goods and services consisted of just goods. In that same year, over 80% of U.S. goods and services imports were just goods.[2]

    Those two facts suggest that if there were increases in U.S. exports of goods and services, surely U.S. manufacturing exports would have to rise. If everything stayed proportional, a billion dollars of increased exports would entail something like half a billion dollars’ worth of manufacturing exports. ($1 billion x .75 x.75 = $563 million.) Similarly, a billion dollar decline in U.S. imports of goods and services would entail about $600 million decline in manufacturing imports. ($1 billion x .8 x .75 = $600 million.)

    Using these approximate ratios, what would happen if the U.S. net export balance on goods and services, instead of having been around -$500 billion in 2014 had been zero (so that U.S. indebtedness to the world would stop increasing)? One way to close the gap between exports and imports would be to raise exports by about 15% and cut imports by about 10%. Exports and imports of goods and services in that case would have been about $2.5 trillion each. Again, just assuming simple proportionality would imply that there would be a net increase in U.S. domestic manufacturing (more production for manufacturing exporting and more production to make up for the drop in foreign manufacturing imports) of something around $300 billion. Bumping up net foreign demand for U.S. manufactures by that amount would raise economic activity in the manufacturing sector by around 15%.
    You can play with these assumptions any way you like. Obviously, simple proportionality is only one possible assumption. But no matter what you can reasonably assume, manufacturing can’t simply “go away” if the net export balance is ever to improve, at least from negative to zero. The only way to stop American indebtedness to the world from increasing is to achieve at least a zero net export balance. The only way to start paying down U.S. net indebtedness to the world is to run a net export surplus – which would require an even bigger step up in U.S. manufacturing.

    When you put the idea of manufacturing “going away” in that perspective, you have to have a plausible scenario under which the U.S. manufacturing sector disappears because the U.S. simply borrows the money from the rest of the world need to finance its absorption of manufactured goods. U.S. debt to the world grows forever and never has to be repaid under that scenario. Alternatively, if you think the borrowing at some point must at least halt, if not reverse, while at the same time manufacturing “goes away,” you have to believe that the U.S. pays for its absorption from abroad of manufactures and other goods and services by exporting something other than manufactures. What might those other exports be? Movie royalties? Tourist services? Fees from patent licensing? Rice? Coal? What?

    Although the numbers bounce around due to exchange rate variation and the market valuations of particular assets and liabilities, the U.S. net international position (assets minus liabilities) stood at around -$2 trillion in the years leading up to the Great Recession. The most recent estimate (for the third quarter of 2014) is over -$6 trillion.[3] That’s a big jump for a period of about a decade.

    Now let’s go back to the unquestioned premise contained in the NPR broadcast with which we started this musing. Is it some trade agreement that is behind the net export deficit and growing U.S. international debt? Trade agreements typically lower barriers to trade (tariffs, quotas, other regulatory limits on trade) in both directions. If they increase imports, they should also increase exports, other things equal. But is there an influence - outside of trade agreements - that tends to increase one and decrease the other?

    Think about the exchange rate. An increase in the value of the dollar relative to other currencies discourages exports and encourages imports. Put another way, if the U.S. dollar’s value relative to other currencies is “too high,” there will tend to be a net export deficit. To sustain such a deficit, someone has to accept more and more net borrowing by the U.S. Foreign central banks – for reasons internal to their national polities - can always stand by to absorb excess U.S. net debt if the private sector won’t do it. [4]

    We have discussed what might be done about the dollar exchange rate in previous musings. But the bottom line for this musing is that you can’t talk about manufacturing “going away” (and about the possible role of trade agreements in its assumed demise) without at least discussing the exchange rate issue. Once you start looking at the exchange rate issue, it will become clear that whatever other objections you have to particular features of trade agreements, such agreements are not the basic element that is – as the NPR broadcast put it - “hurting the little guy.”

    [1] SITC = Standard International Trade Classification.


    [3] and

    [4] At one time, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis in its balance of payments and international position tables readily made available “foreign official assets in the U.S.” which allowed tracking of the accumulation of dollar holdings by foreign central banks. It showed a burst in such activity starting with the Great Recession. That series has been discontinued, a decision that should bother someone. See

  • 16 Mar 2015 3:38 PM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    In past musings, we have discussed the decline of unionization – and therefore the frequency of union-management negotiations – and a consequent drop in public understanding of what a negotiation entails. In a repeat negotiation process, there are rituals which experienced parties to the negotiation understand, some of which are symbolic. But at the end of the day, skilled negotiators (are supposed to) keep their eye on eventual goals and outcomes. If symbolic actions and statements get in the way, we have evolved techniques of mediation to reframe issues so that some eventual deal can be reached.

    I was recruited to the UCLA faculty as a graduate student at MIT by UCLA Professor Frederic Myers who was visiting MIT at the time. Myers had been a union negotiator just after World War II and he related a story to me. In that era, there was much labor strife as wartime controls were lifted. There were “rounds” of bargaining in various industries in which certain targets – expressed in cents per hour – developed. At one point, there was a round in which a pay raise of 18½ cents per hour became a union target. Union leaders were expected by their members to achieve 18½ cents, regardless of whether that number was appropriate for their unit. In short, 18½ cents became a symbol. The target therefore also became a figure that management wanted to resist, a kind of anti-symbol symbol.

    After a stalemate in negotiations was reached by Myers and his management counterpart, they met informally in a bar. Myers proposed that the two of them find a settlement for which he could credibly claim to have won 18½ cents for his union members and his counterpart could credibly claim that the settlement was actually less. With that understanding, a deal was reached. It was “win-win,” before anyone had even heard of that phrase.

    The lesson is that it’s fine to have symbols as long as they don’t stand in the way of achieving some feasible objective. If symbols stand in the way of achieving such an objective, negotiators need to find some way around them. Nowadays, when union-management negotiations are rare in the private sector, you generally hear nothing about them in the news media at all. When they do make the news, the accounts take a naïve view that what is said publicly by the parties is what they expect to achieve. Put another way, symbolic speech is taken literally in the news media.

    Outside the labor-management context, I have the impression that symbols are taking over at the expense of actual deal making. Either the parties to political disputes have no objective other than promoting their symbols or they don’t understand the process of finding an approach so that symbols don’t get in the way of goals. In my home state of California, for example, there is at present a drought and so there is a renewed attention being paid to water infrastructure. However, dams have now become symbols in California. Democrats are against them, ostensibly for environmental reasons, even if they are euphemistically called “water storage facilities.” Republicans are for them because, well, Democrats are against them.

    Presumably, however, there is a trade-off on a case-by-case basis between the environmental impact of any particular “water storage facility” and reliable water delivery and cost. After much haggling, the legislature put a water bond on the ballot last November which seemingly earmarked certain funds for water storage. That was a good sign; some way was found around the symbol. The bad news is that any decision on what actually happens to the bond funds – now approved by the voters – is likely to restart the symbolic battle.

    You see the same symbolic takeover in Congress over the proposed Keystone oil pipeline. Republicans are in favor of the project. Democrats are opposed. Presumably, however, the pipeline could (should) be evaluated with regard to its environmental costs vs. economic benefits. No one seems especially inclined to do so. The situation repeats with regard to almost every major issue at the federal level.

    One interpretation, a plausible one in my view, is that the legislative or Congressional goal is just re-election and that the partisan public has, over time, become more interested in symbols than results. Yet polls results suggest that there is a substantial nonpartisan center with aversion to gridlock, state or federal. Congress’ favorability ratings, in particular, are low as a result of a sense that it is unable to deal with the nation’s business.

    There is no doubt that the partisan public likes symbolic behavior. However, there is a growing nonpartisan public that isn’t symbol minded. When I examine California’s voter registration data, I find that there is a long-term decline in the proportion of the electorate registered as either Democrats or Republicans. The only growth in registration is what is termed “decline to state,” i.e., voters registered with no party as their choice, a proportion approaching a fourth. Neither of the major political parties has a simple majority of registered voters although Democrats with 43% have a plurality. (Republicans have 28%, third parties have 5%, and the rest are “decline to state.”)

    California voters through a ballot proposition a few years ago abandoned partisan primaries and substituted a “top-2” nonpartisan system in which all candidates run in one election regardless of party affiliation. In short, even if folks no longer have frequent labor-management negotiations as potential models for how to reach feasible outcomes when there are conflicts, there is a trend in sentiment – not yet dominant, of course – against the current clash of symbols.

  • 09 Mar 2015 10:42 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    There was much excitement when the latest employment release came out from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last week. The February month-to-month change, seasonally adjusted, in payroll employment was officially 295,000, considered “good.” In past musings, I have cautioned about the vagaries of one-month, seasonally-adjusted data that are preliminary and subject to revision and re-revision. But those folks who were excited about the employment gain pointed to a series of months with gains above 200,000. And the stock market took a dive on the news, purportedly because good news is bad news if you are worried about the Fed eventually raising interest rates as the economy picks up.

    There is no doubt, however, that apart from monthly noise in the data, U.S. employment has been expanding steadily, if not rapidly, for the past five years, as the chart below illustrates.

    Private Sector Payroll Employment

    However, there are sectoral differences in the post-Great Recession experience. In particular, manufacturing employment (see chart on the next page), while showing gains over the past five years, is nowhere near its prior cyclical peak. While total private employment surpassed its previous peak in 2014, manufacturing employment is still depressed. As we have noted in prior musings, if you want to do something for manufacturing, offering training at community colleges or providing subsidies to this or that “greentech” company won’t do it. Photo ops at high-tech factories won’t do it. You have to look at the international side of the problem of long-term job erosion in manufacturing. And, having looked there, you have to address the issue of the chronic American trade deficit.

    Manufacturing Payroll Employment

    The world has grown used to the U.S. playing Keynes when job expansion abroad is needed. In the past year or so, both Japan and the Euro-zone have experienced economic slumps of varying degrees and have allowed (encouraged?) their currency exchange rates to depreciate relative to the U.S. dollar. While such foreign currency depreciation adversely affects the competitiveness of a variety of U.S. industries, the impact is particularly felt in the manufacturing sector. Import-competing sectors of manufacturing are put under additional pressure. And exports become more difficult to sell abroad. The former “good jobs” in manufacturing that aren’t there anymore are not gone because of some mysterious force of nature. Some may have gone due to technological advance. But others are gone because no one in either political party wants to address the real deficit that matters to manufacturing – the trade deficit.

    As the chart above shows, just to get back to the prior peak in manufacturing would require growth of roughly two million jobs. Both political parties claim an interest in job creation, particularly in manufacturing. But neither has a program for addressing the dollar exchange rate. And in less than a year, the dollar has appreciated on a trade-weighted basis by almost 10%, as can be seen on the chart on the next page from the St. Louis Fed database. Much of that change is Euro and Yen related.

    Have you heard any Congressional debate about that dollar appreciation? Are there statements from the White House? When you do hear discussion of the “deficit” from either source, it is always the federal budget deficit and not the trade deficit that is the target. Why is that? Why is there a taboo when it comes to discussing exchange rates? A 10% jump in gasoline prices creates headlines, but not a 10% dollar appreciation (about the magnitude on the chart below). Why is the U.S. the one country elected to play Keynes (i.e., to provide stimulus to other economies) when foreign economies need help? It’s time to change the rules of the international game.


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