Mitchell's Musings

  • 10 Jan 2015 11:56 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    Back in 1978-79, I was at the Brookings Institution on leave from UCLA. At that time, several years after the Nixon-in-China episode, (mainland) China was emerging from the Mao/Red Guard era and opening up to the west. But the process was at an early stage. A delegation from China came to Brookings, ostensibly to investigate how western think-tanks operate. A group from Brookings (including yours truly) met with the delegation in a conference room.

    During the interaction, it occurred to me – based on the ensuing discussion – that the stated purpose and the actual purpose of the delegation’s visit were not the same. In fact, the Chinese delegation seemed to be talking more to themselves than to us. They seemed to be engaged in a kind of self-expression – some might even say a kind of therapy – relating to having emerged from the trauma of the Mao/Red Guard period. We were more of an audience than a source of information. Nonetheless, we seemed to have a purpose; apparently the self-expression could not take place without face-to-face contact with an outside audience.

    In more recent times, it has struck me that the same type of dynamic seems to occur with regard to protests and demonstrations related to contemporary social and political issues. Inherently, protesting by yourself or demonstrating by yourself alone and without any audience cannot accomplish anything. Whoever you are ostensibly trying to persuade won’t be aware of your protest in such a circumstance. So there has to be an audience to provide some justification. But the question is whether you are really trying to persuade that audience or – as in the case of the Chinese delegation – you are engaged in some form of more personal self-expression.

    For purposes of a blog I do for the UCLA Faculty Association, I watch (and record) live-streamed meetings of the University of California Regents. There is always a public comments period at such meetings. It is most frequently taken up by individuals who have some complaint about existing university policy or some proposal they want adopted. But I often have a sense – based on the conduct of those talking – that the speakers are conducting the exercise as part of some personal self-expression rather than to persuade the Regents of their viewpoint or to achieve a change in policy. Indeed, one wonders whether changing policy is even the goal or whether the act of protesting is the goal. It’s not even a question of the ends justifying the means. The means are the end and the justification.

    It’s largely a matter of tone. Yelling, demanding, denouncing, insulting, or following such conduct with a demonstration that temporarily disrupts the meeting (often ending in having police clear the room) doesn’t seem to be an effort in persuasion. Sometimes, when done by unions represented at the university, the objective may be an attempt by leaders to show members they are doing something; perhaps the energized membership will then become more supportive of the leadership. So there may be a rationale in such cases that has more to do with internal organizational politics and perhaps indirectly a link to contract goal achievements. In those cases, motivating the membership may be the goal with the Regents as bystanders.

    In other cases, however, the conduct seems to be pure self-expression without a goal of persuasion. If the desired end is simply self-expression, the fact that the approach is ineffective (or possibly counter-productive) at persuasion is irrelevant. Accomplishing a goal is not really an expected outcome. The real goal is therapeutic and cathartic.

    But you don’t have to go to public meetings to observe this phenomenon. A friend of mine with a Facebook account reported that an acquaintance of hers kept using the system to send her political articles and messages she had no interest in receiving. But the sending continued despite a request to stop. The fact that most folks go on Facebook expecting baby photos and travel pictures from friends didn’t matter to the sender. Apparently, the self-expression need of the sender was greater than a need to persuade. (She eventually de-friended the sender.)

    My impression is that there is more therapeutic self-expression and less persuasion going on these days regarding the political and social issues of the day, both in public (e.g., those Regents meetings) and personal (e.g., the Facebook example) than there used to be. I may be wrong, of course; perhaps some of the 1960s protests were similar instances of a therapeutic purpose. If that is the case, you can view this musing as obviously unpersuasive and just an example of purse self-expression.

  • 07 Jan 2015 4:10 PM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    When complaints are heard about currency exchange rate manipulation, the focus is usually on China. But if you went back in time, say back to the 1980s, you would have heard the same complaints about Japan. The fact is that for various reasons, the world has long tended to view the U.S. as a remedy for local concerns about employment and growth. Need more jobs; just export more to the U.S. and import less from the U.S.

    The impact on the U.S. from being the stimulus of last resort varies with the condition of the American economy. When the U.S. has a soft economy, the result is fewer jobs here; the counterpart of more jobs there. When the U.S. is closer to full employment, the impact here is more on the type of jobs than on the number of jobs.
    Right now, the European economy isn’t doing particularly well, nor is Japan’s. So what do we see? As the charts below and on the next page show, the dollar is rising in value relative to a weighted average of world currencies.1 And the currencies particularly responsible now are the euro and the yen. It’s not China this time around.

    A key sector in the U.S. that is affected by exchange rates is manufacturing. Even if the U.S. economy is doing well, an exchange rate appreciation of the dollar tends to weaken that sector. In some cases, the damage is permanent. You can’t turn a steel mill on an off. Once off, it tends to stay off. Deindustrialization is much easier than industrialization.

    One of the oddities of American politics is the dissolution of the old Roosevelt/New Deal voting coalition. Democrats nowadays keep wondering why they have lost support among white blue-collar workers. Don’t they understand their self-economic interests? You have only to look at the shrinkage of manufacturing jobs to find the answer.

    Neither party wants to address the manufacturing jobs issue beyond vague statements about favoring education and training. Democrats make invocations of new techy products, e.g., solar panels, but new products, just as old ones, are importantly affected by the exchange rate. Republicans – who don’t like “picking winners” – tend to use non-economic “social” issues to hold on to the white, blue-collar vote. Since neither party is effectively addressing the economic issue, those self-interests the Democrats puzzle over, the social concerns are what’s left over.

    There is the old adage that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. But the adage works in reverse. Avoiding doing something over and over again and expecting a different result is also crazy. In this case, the U.S. avoids the exchange rate issue and has for decades, regardless of which party is in control. The only consistent economic result has been a chronic imbalance of U.S. imports relative to exports (particularly a burden on manufacturing) and the emergence of a resulting massive debt by the U.S. to the rest of the world. The only consistent political result has been the continued dissolution of the old New Deal coalition.

    As we have noted in previous Mitchell’s Musings, there are things that could be done about the exchange rate and the tendency of various countries, not just China, to see the U.S. as the jobs stimulus package of last resort. We have noted in particular that there are things that could be done that don’t single out particular countries as villains. We have noted the suggestion of financier Warren Buffett – made back in 1987! – that the U.S. could reward exporters with $1 import entitlement vouchers for each $1 of exports and require importers to have them. Such a cap-and-trade program would ensure a zero trade balance, stop the growth of U.S. debt to the world, and end practices abroad of exchange manipulation.2

    Undoubtedly, you can see complications in the Buffett solution, administrative and diplomatic. Perhaps you would like to argue about secondary effects of the Buffett plan or about relative saving rates in the U.S. and abroad. But have you got a better plan? An alternative proposal? Or do you propose not doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?



  • 26 Dec 2014 3:33 PM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    In past musings, we have noted that there is a group of monetarist-oriented economists who are convinced that the fact that the Federal Reserve greatly increased its lending in various ways during and in the aftermath of the Great Recession means a Great Inflation is on the way.  So far, however, that inflation has yet to appear, as the chart below indicates.  Although inflation has varied, as measured by the "core" Consumer Price Index (which excludes the volatile food and energy sectors), no Great Inflation is evident.


    Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


    Some Great Inflationists have suggested in response to the official numbers that the CPI is being rigged to hide inflation.  There is some irony in that charge since to the extent there have been modifications of the CPI methodology, they came largely in response to criticisms by many of the same folks who argued in the 1990s that the CPI exaggerated the inflation rate.  Apart from that historical detail, their estimate of the exaggeration was around 1 percentage point per annum, so any estimates of the effect of the modifications are upper-bounded by that limit.  In short, you can't make a case for a hidden Great Inflation based on recent changes in CPI methodology.

    Of course, what has happened to inflation so far does not necessarily indicate what could happen in the future.  An interesting question is what financial markets expect the trend in inflation to be.  One measure we have cited in prior musings is the yield spread between conventional Treasury securities and Treasury securities that are adjusted to the CPI - so-called TIPS.  You can see the yield spreads below and they are not suggesting any forthcoming Great Inflation. Indeed, for the last six months, inflation expectations have been diving.[1]

    For the full graph click HERE.

    Now there is no guarantee that the implicit inflation forecast by financial markets will come true.  Indeed, the Great Recession was a Great Illustration of the fallibility of such markets.  But what if something like the implicit forecast turns out to be accurate and the inflation rate – as measured by the CPI – turns out to be something like, say, 2% per annum over the long term?

    There would be implications of such a development for macroeconomic policy which is partially aimed at keeping inflation low.  But a neglected area in the inflation outlook is the implication for defined-benefit pension plans, nowadays mainly found in the public sector.  Such plans provide a pension based on a formula linked to the earnings history of the employee.  A trust fund is supposed to hold sufficient assets, derived from employer and employee contributions and past earnings on the portfolio, to pay those benefits.  Particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the related drop in the stock market that accompanied it, those plans tended to be underfunded.

    When actuaries calculate funding ratios for pension plans, they make assumptions about inflation.  Inflation is assumed to affect future wage growth of employees and thus will affect their eventual pensions, typically based on some version of end-of-career earnings.  In some cases, there may also be partial or full inflation adjustments to the pensions themselves after retirement.  Each plan has its own formulas so the impact of assuming more or less inflation will vary.

    In calculating the funding ratio of a pension plan, actuaries use an assumption of the expected earnings over the long term of the trust fund portfolio.  Typically, the assumption is expressed in nominal, not real, terms.  A common assumption nowadays is a nominal return of around 7.5% per annum.  Critics of such assumptions argue that numbers like 7.5% are too high.  While portfolios might have seen such long-term earnings before the Great Recession, we are now, they say, in a “new normal” of lower returns.  Therefore, the argument goes, estimates of pension underfunding are too low.  Maybe the long-term rate of earnings will be only 6.5% or less and not 7.5%.

    The impact of a lower actual nominal earnings rate on the funding ratio will vary from plan to plan.  But to illustrate the impact, consider a promise to pay $1 per year, adjusted for future inflation, “forever.”  Suppose, in addition, you thought the inflation rate over the long term (forever) would be 3%.  If you wanted to set aside enough today to meet that commitment (100% funding) and thought you could earn 7.5% per annum, you would need to set aside about $23.[2]  But if you thought you could earn only 6.5%, you would need over $29, i.e., roughly a fourth more.  The lower the rate you expect to earn in nominal terms, given an assumed rate of inflation, the greater is your liability.  (If you could earn only 3% - so your real rate of earnings was zero – your liability would be infinite since it goes on forever.)

    Suppose, however, your expectation of inflation dropped, say, from the 3% per annum of the previous example to 2%.  Essentially, your required earning would drop by the same amount in this story.  So with 2% inflation, nominal long-term earnings of 6.5% would produce about the same $23 liability that 7.5% earnings with 3% inflation gave you before.

    The bottom line here is that even if defined-benefit pension trustees have been over-optimistic about assumed future nominal earnings, if inflation over the long term will be less than they expect, they in fact won’t need as high a nominal earnings rate as they have anticipated.  Put another way, if you argue for lowering the assumed nominal earnings rate for a pension plan because we are in a “new normal” of lower stock market gains, you have to consider whether you should also be lowering your assumption of future inflation.  A “new normal” of lower inflation tends to offset a new normal of lower nominal earnings.

    [2] Nominal earnings of 7.5% and inflation of 3% amount to a real rate of about 4.4%. [(1.075/1.03)-1 is about 4.4%.]  Dividing $1 by .044 will give you about $23.

  • 22 Dec 2014 10:45 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    Retiree health care has largely disappeared in the private sector, lingering mainly in some legacy union-negotiated plans. However, it continues in the public sector. In both the public and private sectors, retiree health has tended to be treated differently from pension benefits. Pensions – and I am talking about defined benefit pensions – represent a promise of future benefits determined by a formula based on pre-retirement work and pay history. Once you know the formula and have the work and pay history of a given employee, the promised benefit can be easily determined.

    In contrast, a promise of a future health benefit tends to be fuzzy. Such benefits are typically administered by an insurance carrier. The carrier offers a plan which changes over time based partly on carrier discretion and partly on (changing) legal requirements. The actual medical services are provided by doctors, labs, hospitals, etc., who have some contractual agreement with the carrier. However, which doctors, labs, hospitals, etc., have such contracts can change over time. In short, something is being promised, but what it is can vary over time. The benefits can be limited or constrained as time passes.

    A major difference between the easy-to-calculate pension promise and the fuzzy health care promise is the funding mechanism. Pensions are typically prefunded through a “trust” fund. Yes, as has often been in the news of late, the plan may be underfunded, i.e., the actuarial estimate of what is in the fund, what those monies will earn, and incoming contributions, may add up to less than the estimated future liability. But something has been set aside in the trust fund and commonly there has been both an employee and an employer component to the contributions that have gone into the fund.

    Now we could get into a legal conversation about whether pension promises are ironclad, particularly in the public sector where governments are making those promises. We could look at the recent Detroit example in which municipal pension benefits were cut back as part of a bankruptcy plan. I am not a lawyer and can’t discuss such matters with any expertise. But what I can tell you is that creating a trust fund and have a component of contributions made by employees creates an expectation by those employees. And my non-expert observation suggests that the Detroit example is an exception and that pension promises are hard to break, once made. In the end, what does a trust fund imply other than “trust”?

    Even Social Security pension promises – which detractors will be quick to point out can be legally taken away by any Congress with a mind to do so – are in practice hard to modify in ways that are adverse to retirees. Those detractors will also point out that the Social Security trust funds that are part of the funding mechanism are a mirage – it’s all just federal money flowing in and out – and Social Security is underfunded despite the trusts. But as President Roosevelt (correctly) believed when Social Security was set up in the 1930s with a mix of employee and employer contributions and trust funds in imitation of the embryonic private pensions that existed at the time, future Congresses would in fact be unable to undo the system. Trust funds may be symbolic, but as political symbols they are powerful.

    As noted, at the state and local level, the health care side of retiree benefits – unlike the pension side – is rarely prefunded. The benefits are essentially funded on a pay-as-you-go model. And state and local governments tend to take the position that unlike pensions, the pay-as-you-go model means that such benefits are not a legal obligation. They are nice things that are done for former workers, but if budgets run into problems, retiree health care can be cut back or even discontinued.

    Those folks who have been active in pointing to underfunding of public pensions with alarm have also taken to pointing out the zero advance funding of retiree health care in the public sector. Part of their agitation has resulted in accounting requirements that public employers calculate the value of their unfunded retiree health care promises. Note, however, that there are two problems with such calculations, apart from the technical details of the calculation:

    • Exactly what is being promised is unclear due to the changing nature of health care plans. A calculation has to be based on what a health care plan will cost in the future. But, as pointed out above, plans change over time in terms of benefits provided and who will be providing those benefits. How do you calculate the cost of promising benefits when you don’t know what those benefits will be in the future?
    • Public employers, again as noted earlier, tend to take the position that health care promises are not ironclad like pensions, but are nice things they provide for former workers which can be cut back or withdrawn in cases of budget exigencies. What does it mean to calculate a long-term cost of a benefit that might not exist in the long term?
    • It’s not that you can’t come up with a number for the liability of a retiree health plan; pay an actuarial consulting firm to come up with a number and assumptions will be made by the firm that produce a number. Those folks who pushed for such calculations probably thought that by requiring the production of a number, state and local authorities would be shocked by its magnitude and would therefore cut back on their retiree health plans. But another reaction is possible.

    In my home state of California, Governor Jerry Brown is promising to come up with a prefunding plan for retiree health in his forthcoming budget message. The outgoing state controller (who has been elected the incoming state treasurer) has suggested a prefunding approach. Whatever the details, pension-style prefunding means some combination of employer and employee contributions going into a trust fund.

    However, the more you move toward the pension model, the harder it will be to assert that health care promises are just nice things that are done for former workers but which can be undone at any time. I am not talking just about the legalities – although, even as a non-lawyer, I suspect there will be some implicit obligations inherent in the pension model when it is applied to health care. I am also talking about the Roosevelt-style political element. If you formalize the system with employer and employee contributions and prefunded trust funds, discontinuing it will be tough.
    In short, those who point with alarm at public retiree health plans in the hopes they will be abolished may be disappointed. Prefunding may in fact protect such systems both financially and politically. As for the legalities, it’s hard for me to believe that judges – public sector workers who are often covered by such retirement systems – won’t think of “trust” in its common English meaning.

  • 16 Dec 2014 9:43 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)
    Back in 1971, I took a sabbatical leave in the spring quarter at a university in France. One of the differences I discovered between American faculty and French faculty back then was that French faculty did not have home phones. There were phones at the university. Businesses and government agencies had phones. But residential phones were hard to get. One might spend years on a waiting list before a phone could be installed. 

    As a result, when faculty members wanted to talk with one another, they arranged in advance to meet at school. I can recall one faculty member telling me that he was surprised to discover during a short leave at a university in Quebec that he could have a phone installed immediately in the temporary apartment he had rented. It never occurred to him that such a thing was even possible.

    I am sure things have improved since that time with regard to French phone service. But an interesting question was why in 1971 residential phone service was so difficult to obtain. The answer seemed to be that phone service was handled by the Post Office. If new equipment was needed to meet demand, the money had to be allocated by the central government in the same way that a government might allocate money for, say, a new road. With budget constraints, expanding phone service was apparently not a high priority when placed in competition with other government programs. Apparently, user charges from those who had phones were insufficient to cover needed investment and expansion so phone service access was rationed. There were long queues for service. (Of course, if you had pull with someone in authority, you might be able to jump the queue.)

    I was reminded of the old French phone problem by a column that appeared in the Los Angeles Times concerning a current dispute between the Regents of the University of California (UC) and Governor Jerry Brown over university funding. I will come back to that column below, but here is some cursory background. During the Great Recession and its aftermath, the University of California experienced notable budget cutbacks, as did many public universities around the country. Economic recovery helped add back tax revenue. But in California there had been ongoing fiscal problems even before the recession.

    Governor Brown put on the ballot - and voters enacted - temporary tax increases in 2012 that added to state revenue. Although the UC Regents do not usually take official positions on ballot measures, in this case they backed the governor’s initiative. After the initiative passed, the governor proposed a schedule of multi-year budget increases for UC conditioned on a tuition freeze. UC never formally agreed to the deal, but it initially froze tuition and received the increases on a year-to-year basis.

    However, a few weeks ago, UC President Janet Napolitano – a former Arizona governor hired by the Regents for her presumed political skills – proposed multi-year tuition increases to supplement state funding, thus putting UC in direct opposition to the governor. Her proposal was that the state could either accept the tuition increases or buy them out with additional funding. It is unclear how this drama will play out; the governor will make a budget proposal for the 2015-16 fiscal year in early January and he hasn’t said exactly what he will do with regard to UC as of this writing. Legislative leaders, who don’t like tuition increases, have been proposing their own plans.

    The governor is an ex officio member of the UC Board of Regents and - unlike most of his predecessors - he often turns up at regental meetings. His theme has been that the university needs to be more efficient – which often seems to be defined as offering more online education. Moreover, working at UC as a public university should be seen as a “calling” so faculty can’t (shouldn’t) expect to be paid competitive wages such as those at major private universities. Perhaps the calling idea was another reason I thought of the telephone example.

    In the past, the Regents have been deferential to the governor’s statements about priorities and callings. At their meeting when the tuition/funding proposal was made public, however, the atmosphere was less cordial. Not surprisingly, the conflict engendered considerable editorial commentary.

    I alluded above to a particular newspaper column in the Los Angeles Times by George Skelton, an old hand who writes on state politics. That column was entitled “Many want more money; UC should get in line.”1 You can guess the message from the title, but here is the opening salvo from the column:

    First of all, Californians think that raising university tuition again is a really bad idea. A non-starter. Second, although the University of California is crying for more state money, it needs to get in line. Join the crowd of folks with their hands out. K-12 schools, the impoverished aged and disabled, highway users undefined among others undefined also are clamoring for more tax dollars...

    The problem with that approach is that it follows the (1971) French telephone model. Phone service back then got “in line” with every other activity of government “clamoring for more tax dollars.” Raising user charges for phone service wasn’t popular. So what resulted from that model was poor telephone service and rationed access. Of course, in theory the governor and legislature could decide to make UC funding a top priority. They then could buy out the proposed tuition increases. They could accede to something like the plan proposed by the Regents involving tuition increases (which because of internal cross subsidies mainly hit higher income students). Or there could be some kind of negotiated compromise which is probably Napolitano’s objective.

    One of the developments that eventually improved phone service in countries that followed the French model was the invention of cellphones. In some countries with highly rationed and poor quality landlines, cellphones became the alternative route to personal communication service for the masses. That kind of “disruption” example seems to be the basis for a hope by Governor Brown that “technology” will solve the problem of rising tuition and limited state funding. The problem is that despite substantial hype, online higher education hasn’t proved to be a cheap quality substitute for the traditional classroom. Until some miracle of technology arrives, California can’t have both UC at its current level of quality – however you might define that term – and the French phone funding model.


  • 08 Dec 2014 9:49 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    You have by now heard about the hacking into Sony’s computer systems, essentially shutting down those systems and stealing data including video of new and unreleased movies. Some of the stolen information has been put online.

    In the wake of the Sony attack, the FBI issued a private warning to companies… to be on the lookout for a certain type of destructive malware that can make data on hard drives inaccessible, according to someone who had seen it. Retrieving any data from an affected hard drive can be quite difficult and costly, according to the FBI warning…

    Employees at the Sony Corp.-owned studio behind “The Amazing Spider-Man” and hit TV show “The Blacklist,” have been forced to work with cellphones and personal email accounts since images of a skull appeared on company computers last week along with the message “Hacked by #GOP.” Employees were warned by Sony not to use any digital devices connected to its internal networks. The hacker group, known as “Guardians of Peace,” hasn't revealed any details about its identity or provided Sony with a list of demands…

    There is speculation in the article cited above that the attack came from North Korea, possibly because its leader was insulted in a Sony movie.1 I have no idea if that suspicion is true, others have raised doubts, but the focus in the news media has been on videos that were pirated and now are being circulated on the web and on the North Korean angle. Secondarily, there has been concern about cyber security in general. And finally, there is interest in the idea of Sony employees having to revert to non-Internet technology and, presumably, the lost productivity therefrom.

    At the bottom of the list of interests is the information on employees that appears to have been stolen:

    Several files being traded on torrent networks seen by this author include a global Sony employee list, a Microsoft Excel file that includes the name, location, employee ID, network username, base salary [Underline added] and date of birth for more than 6,800 individuals.2

    The public radio program “Marketplace” did report on the employee data aspect and a cyber-security expert who was interviewed said in passing on the broadcast, “You know, what employee wants their salary leaked out to the world like that?”3 In general, however, the employee angle was not a central focus of the media coverage of the Sony hacking and the (self-evident) idea that employees might not like to have their salaries made public seems confined to the Marketplace interviewee.4 Of course, not only would employees not want to have their salaries made public, you can bet that Sony doesn’t want its salary data out there. Such data are competitive information and could lead to raiding by other firms and internal demands to remedy perceived salary inequities. Indeed, many private employers have (legally suspect) personnel policies barring employees from discussing their salaries.5

    What’s interesting about the comment said in passing on Marketplace is that no distinction was made between types of employees. In particular, the comment is equally applicable to private sector employees – such as those of Sony – and to public sector employees. Public sector employees don’t want their salaries leaked out to the world any more than private. Public sector employers have the same concerns as private, although they are less likely to have personnel policies banning employees from discussing their pay among themselves.

    The difference between public and private is that thanks to court decisions, public sector salaries aren’t leaked out by hackers. No hackers, whether North Korean or other, are needed. Instead, government employees’ salaries are deemed to be public information and not just for top officials and executives. All public employees and their salaries down to the lowest paid and those employees otherwise not key to any public policy debate are included on open Internet sources run by various sources including newspapers. No newspapers, however, put their own payrolls online even though, of course, they have the data.

    As pointed out in earlier musings, making such information available by name risks ID theft for the individuals included. While there is an argument to be made for providing such data for top government executives and officials, there is little that can be learned from the data for others that couldn’t be learned by simply reporting pay by job title without the name. If, for example, you wanted to compare public vs. private pay, you don’t need the name. Yes, in theory, one could always have gone to city hall and requested to see what John Doe or Jane Doe was being paid. But it was a bother and the information by name was thus not available at the click of a keystroke.

    Courts seem not to understand that the degree of availability matters and that rules about what is public were made at a time when ease of availability online didn’t exist. If for some reason there was a real public interest in a specific employee’s pay – say John Doe or Jane Doe had been involved in a crime – a news reporter could obtain the information. Most people were not about to make a trip to city hall to peruse salary information. They were not about to write a letter to city hall requesting the information.

    Privacy advocates ought to be raising a fuss about this issue. The rules could be different; they could be updated for the reality of the Internet. Indeed, even under current rules, not everything that could be made available is made available. For example, you could argue in theory that public employees’ health records should be available on the Internet. Someone might be interested in whether John Doe or Jane Doe was driving up health insurance costs for his/her government employer because of some medical condition. But no one makes that argument in practice and in fact health records are protected on privacy grounds.

    There are numerous other examples in which the Internet has developed faster than the law and a review is warranted. What’s not good for Sony is not good for other employers and employees, private or public.


    3. The comment is not in the written transcript – perhaps not considered important enough - but you can hear the full broadcast at and find the comment at around minute 2:20.
    4. As in much of the reporting on the Sony incident, it is unclear which employees had their information stolen. Some reports suggest it was managerial employees. Others don’t specify.
    5. Such policies tend to violate the protections of “concerted activity” by employees found in the National Labor Relations Act, as amended. (Supervisors and managers are not protected by the Act.)

  • 01 Dec 2014 11:31 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    You would have to travel to the MOON to get away from talk about how MOOCs (massive open online courses) are going to revolutionize higher education. There are commercial firms such as Coursera which promote such courses and have an obvious interest in keeping the talk going. In California, Governor Jerry Brown is a big fan of online higher education and is convinced, despite evidence to the contrary, that vast savings are available through MOOCs and online ed in general. The result has been a confrontation between the governor and the University of California that we will discuss in a future musing.

    The problem is that MOOCs seem not to be producing the hoped-for results. You can put them on the web and get large “enrollments” but few completions. Enrollees seem to regard them as forms of entertainment – more like YouTube videos – than actual educational experiences that lead to degrees or credits. If you see MOOCs as lectures which you passively watch, there are precedents for them and, in principle, they can be cheaply produced. I found reference to an early version when radio was in its infancy offered by Tufts University in the 1920s. When TV came along, the idea was revived; you could see lectures early in the morning on Sunrise Semester in the 1950s and, if you bought the textbook and took the exam somewhere, you could get college credit.1 Many more watched than ever got credit.

    ♬ Sunrise, TV Set, Sunrise, TV Set, How quickly technology puts you in a daze…2 ♬

    MOOCs, if they are not passively watched TV-style entertainments/lectures, need to provide feedback, discussions, and exams (that can be verified as taken properly and by the person purportedly enrolled in the course) All of that interaction is costly to provide and the expenses go up as the number of enrollees increases. Just putting a camera in the back of a lecture hall, in contrast, is cheap, but the immediate interaction is lost. Telling those enrollees who want credit to report to a physical exam room somewhere on the Sunrise Semester model means that enrollment around the world model won’t work unless there are exam rooms everywhere with proctors. These requirements are all problems that have yet to be overcome.

    However, despite the problems of MOOCs, there is much use being made of the Internet in higher ed today in other ways. Much of it is improvised. Email exchanges now substitute for office hours for many students. Videos are assigned along with readings. Courses have their own websites with reading materials and other information for students.

    An interesting experiment is being conducted at Harvey Mudd College in southern California to see if video lectures can be substituted for classroom lectures while the freed-up classroom is used for question and answer sections with the instructor.3 Students are divided between those in a conventional course with classroom lectures (controls) and another section in which lessons are online and discussions are in class (the treated group). The latter gives the student the convenience of being able to watch lectures at any time and repeat those lectures at will. But the ability to ask questions during the lecture is lost.

    So far, despite the differences between the controls and the treated group, the results seem to be that student performance is the same across the two models, conventional and lecture/videos. Whether there is cost saving from the lecture/videos approach presumably will depend on whether the lecture-online model allows larger enrollments. The larger lesson so far, however, is that a revolution in higher education – particularly with regard to vast cost savings – has yet to arrive, despite all the trendy talk about technological “disruption.”
    Fashionable buzzwords are fine but don’t save money. Abstract ideas about the impact of technology don’t necessarily translate into useful innovations. Radio was the latest technology in the 1920s, but college-by-radio didn’t pan out. TV was the latest technology in the 1950s, but today Sunrise Semester survives only on a few grainy YouTube videos. Despite the TV option, baby boomers got their college degrees in classrooms rather than on television.

    The impact on higher ed today of the Internet seems to be falling more on the library (online documents and sources) and on the registrar (student record keeping) than on the classroom. Technology will obviously affect the classroom; it already has. But, the Harvey Mudd College approach – trying out innovations against controls – seems the best way to advance. Meanwhile, don’t expect miracles.

    1 and

    2 Apologies to Fiddler on the Roof.


  • 24 Nov 2014 11:39 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    A brouhaha developed in the Los Angeles Times recently over John Muir (pictured at left). You probably know his name as the founder of the Sierra Club. Indeed, until recently, he had near-sainthood status for his environmentalism. The Club has a bio of Muir online which starts:

    John Muir (1838-1914) was America's most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist. He is one of California's most important historical personalities. He has been called "The Father of our National Parks," "Wilderness Prophet," and "Citizen of the Universe." He once described himself more humorously, and perhaps most accurately, as, a "poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist etc. etc. !!!!"

    Legendary librarian and author Lawrence Clark Powell (1906-2001), (anticipating an event that was not to occur until 2006), said of him:

    "If I were to choose a single Californian to occupy the Hall of Fame, it would be this tenacious Scot who became a Californian during the final forty-six years of his life." More recently, famed documentary film maker Ken Burns said, "As we got to know him... he [John Muir] ascended to the pantheon of the highest individuals in our country; I'm talking about the level of Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, and Thomas Jefferson, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jackie Robinson -- people who have had a transformational effect on who we are." …1

    I said “until recently” because an article appeared in the LA Times that said in part:

    …Muir's notion that immersing people in "universities of the wilderness" undefined such as Yosemite undefined sends the message that only awe-inspiring parks are worth saving, at the expense of smaller urban spaces. Critics also say Muir's vision of wilderness is rooted in economic privilege and the abundant leisure time of the upper class. Rather than accessing Muir's beloved Sierra Mountains as backpackers, skiers or rock climbers, they argue, Californians would benefit more from the creation of urban parks, additional roads and trails in wild lands…2

    There was sufficient reader blowback from this article that one of those quoted as supporting the view above felt compelled to write a quasi-apology.

    I don't come here to dispute anything about (the LA Times’) story, especially the quotations attributed to me. My quotations are accurate and the story reflects a range of perspectives on Muir's legacy, including mine.

    …I…apologize to the many people I offended on Thursday and afterward as the story ricocheted around the Internet. I have heard you. I am sorry that I came across as disrespecting John Muir and his history. And I am especially sorry that I seemed to publicly denigrate your passion for understanding and caring for nature, because I share that passion. And the way that I stated my view was blunt, insensitive, and meant to provoke, like, well, a jackass…3

    The problem here is a more general one that affects (infects?) current attitudes toward historical figures. The first difficulty is expecting that historical figures must be saints, not only with regard to what they accomplished, but in every facet of their lives. And the second difficulty is expecting that those sainthood standards must be those now prevailing rather than those prevalent in the past. There is no thought given to the likelihood that our approved behavioral standards today may be seen by future generation as improper according to their norms – whatever those norms may be.

    Thus, John Muir did not promote urban parks and wasn’t appealing to just-plain-folks as we now define them. Never mind the preservation of Yosemite which those just-plain-folks can now visit. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves while writing about how all men are created equal. (Obviously, he should have said all people are created equal.) Too bad for him, therefore, and his Declaration of Independence. Never mind that most slave owners of his era did not think about all men (or people) being created equal, but Jefferson did. Abraham Lincoln said things that by contemporary standards might be considered as racist. Never mind that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Etc., Etc., Etc.

    There is also an incentive, certainly in academia and journalism, to be able to disprove something long thought to be true or to be able to show that things are not what they seem. That’s what gets attention. Just showing that things are what they seem and that longstanding views are correct wins no prizes. So the incentives are strong to undermine those historical figures generally held in high repute rather than reinforce them.

    Historical figures are what they were. Sometimes they had bad judgment and human faults. Not surprisingly, someone writing in 1776 had a different view of the world than someone writing in 2014. Sometimes, in retrospect, the causes historical personalities wanted to promote had inadvertent consequences. There was an old joke during the communist era in Russia and Eastern Europe: “The future is fixed; it’s the past that keeps changing.” Under communist ideology, the world was inevitably moving towards a (fixed) communist utopia, but the past had to be rewritten continually as historical figures moved in and out of favor. That old Eastern European joke seems more applicable to our current attitudes than we might care to admit.

    Poor John Muir. He clearly doesn’t meet our self-evidently high standards. Wait! Self-evident? Wasn’t that a Thomas Jefferson concept? Something about certain truths being self-evident? Maybe I should have said Muir doesn’t meet our enlightened standards.



  • 17 Nov 2014 4:18 PM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    I attended a seminar at UCLA featuring several political science experts giving their reactions to the recent November general election. The panelists were mainly focused at the federal offices – House and Senate – but with some reference to state-level outcomes. Although not the focus of this musing, for those wondering, these were some of the conclusions:

    • The notion that the Democrats did badly due to low turnout was debunked. Various convincing statistical charts based on historical data were unveiled showing that midterm elections with low turnout did not especially favor Republicans.
    • The variable that did affect midterm election results was how favorably or unfavorably voters viewed the President. If he had low favorability ratings, his party did poorly. Again, statistics over time backed up this point.
    • There is a potential longer-term effect of the most recent election. The Democrats lost seats in state legislatures and in governorships. The result is that their “minor leagues” are damaged, which means there will be fewer Democratic candidates to promote into the majors (governors, senators, congressional representatives). In the political context, what’s called succession planning in business comes down to have elected officials in lower offices who can be promoted. Texas was cited as a state in which the Democrats don’t have a strong minor league which hurts them in finding candidates to promote. California was cited as a state in which Republicans don’t have a strong minor league which also hurts them in finding candidates to promote.
    • It isn’t really true that what voters want nowadays is for the two parties to cooperate and comprise to get things done. Increasingly, voters are polarized and want their party’s perceived policies to prevail. My way or the highway is the prevailing mood.
    • Pollsters don’t have good systems for separating “likely voters” from other respondents to their surveys.

    I am an amateur in such matters so I will take the top two points as proven. I would have liked to hear more about why President Obama had low favorability ratings, but that issue didn’t come up. The third point seems reasonable and at least in California seems to be mainly true. (But let me come back to that topic below.)

    On the fourth point, I would also have liked more discussion beyond the immediate consequences. There seemed to be a consensus on the panel that even if voters did want compromise and getting things done, they were unlikely to get that outcome – not just in the coming two years but over the long run. Voters are also unlikely to get an uncompromised version of what they think their party supports. The panelists didn’t go into the implications, i.e., what are the long-term implications of voters being perpetually disappointed, election after election? I have a sense that continued voter frustration itself may be a Bad Thing.

    What did strike me was the discussion on public opinion polling and the problems thereof, the last bullet-point item above. In fact, several Mitchell’s Musings have been devoted to that issue, but at a less technical level than the panel addressed. However, shortly before Election Day, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a column about what seemed to be an odd poll result.

    First, some background. As it happened, the November 2014 election in California was headed by the governor’s “race.” I put “race” in quotes because the outcome was never in question; Jerry Brown would be elected as governor. Nonetheless, Brown is the governor so what he does gets news coverage. There was a primary election in June in which he was on the ballot as a prelude for November. News media have covered the two elections, both the primary and the November general vote. Brown was running for an unprecedented fourth term, no longer allowed for any candidate in the future due to term limits (which he escaped). No other California governor has served four terms. (Earl Warren was elected three times as governor.) So that fact of the election was newsworthy because of that unusual feature.

    There was also some interest in the primary because under the top-2 primary rules, the issue effectively became who would come in second behind Brown and it was clear it would be one of two Republicans. One of the two was a member of the legislature, a Tea Party type named Tim Donnelly who had a habit of making provocative and controversial remarks. And there was also an unknown former U.S. Treasury official – Neel Kashkari - who the establishment of the Party was backing because it did not want a Tea Party candidate at the head of the ticket. (You can see the Republicans’ “minor league” problem in California mentioned earlier in the personalities of these two candidates.)

    The result was that Kashkari, the establishment’s favored candidate in the primary, had debates on AM talk radio with his opponent Donnelly. And the race between them got media attention. The Republican establishment also provided enough monetary support to make Kashkari Brown’s opponent in the general election. Finally, there was a debate on TV between Brown and Kashkari, albeit one that was scheduled at an inconvenient time thanks to Brown’s insistence. Still, some soundbites from the debate aired on newscasts and were picked up in the newspapers.

    I am telling you all of this because of that item – published just days before the general election - in the San Francisco Chronicle that was referenced above: [excerpt]

    Here’s an eye-opener: With the election Tuesday, a whopping 4 out of 10 voters don’t even know Gov. Jerry Brown is running for another term. “Isn’t that astonishing?” said David Metz of the polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates. Metz included the question, “As far as you know, is Gov. Jerry Brown up for re-election this year?” on a statewide survey of 457 likely voters last week. Metz said the question was prompted by several casual conversations he’d had with people not involved in politics. “I was struck by how many of them were totally unaware that Brown was up for re-election, so I decided to test it out,” he said. The findings: Forty-two percent of likely voters didn’t know Brown was running undefined and only about 1 in 5 could name Republican Neel Kashkari as his opponent…

    Full story at

    It might be noted that the firm that conducted the poll is linked to Jerry Brown and has no particular reason to highlight the fact that folks didn’t know he was running.

    Now there were special circumstances surrounding the gubernatorial election. Because Brown knew he would win, he barely campaigned. He appeared in TV ads but those ads, which were plentiful, were endorsements of two ballot propositions he was supporting. One involved a bond for water projects. The other was to establish a “rainy day” fund in the state budget. (Both passed.) The ads did not specifically ask voters to vote for Brown although he did all the talking. Kashkari did run ads in a limited way. But after the establishment of his Party put him on the ballot via the primary, they did not choose to throw a lot of money into a general election campaign that would lose anyway. So his ads were aired sparsely for lack of money.

    Nonetheless, the fact is that pollsters typically give voters a choice of named candidates. Evidently, that is more information than many voters actually had. Naming the candidates when voters don’t know they are going to be on the ballot is a form of framing, even if it was inadvertent.

    So what did the standard voter opinion polls show? Here is a table from the California Field Poll, a long time and respected operation in the state:

    Only 13% in late October were said to be undecided by Field between two candidates who were named. No one apparently said “who?” about Kashkari when he was named. No one apparently said “I didn’t know he was running” when Brown was named. 1 When it came to the actual election, Brown got 59% of the vote and Kashkari got 41%. 2

    Now you could say that by confronting voters with the information that there was a gubernatorial election and who the candidates were, the Field Poll was simulating what (surprised) voters would have learned when they got into the voting booth or filled out their mail ballots. Suddenly, they would discover Brown was running. And the Field Poll did say Brown would win by a large margin (which was not a hard result to forecast). However, it’s hard to get away from the fact that a major piece of information was missing – because no one thought to ask. The poll didn’t ask if you knew that 2014’s general election was gubernatorial and who the candidates were. If poll takers inadvertently stumbled on that information from ad hoc comments of respondents, their finding didn’t make it into the published results. Or maybe respondents just didn’t say.

    So now let’s go back to that seminar I attended on the election. Yes, questions were raised about accuracy of poll results. But they focused on technical issues such as adjusting the sample to mirror who would actually vote. The question of how to conduct a poll without asking a question that suggested something to respondents that they didn’t know didn’t come up.

    Is all this a fluke? Maybe California was unique in voter in 2014 in the degree of voter ignorance. But polling often entails the asking of questions – particularly when it comes to complicated ballot propositions – that involve more than just the names of the candidates who are running. It’s hard to get results from respondents if large portions of them don’t know what you are talking about or what is on the ballot or what it means. So the temptation is to “explain” things to the folks you survey. And how you explain will inevitably influence the answers you obtain. Keep that in mind the next time you read a poll.


  • 07 Nov 2014 2:01 PM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    Note: This musing was originally prepared as a background note for the UCLA Anderson Forecast December conference. A shorter version will appear on a blog of the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Despite its focus on California, readers in other areas may find it instructive.

    Whenever California infrastructure investment is mentioned, there is a tendency to hark back to a Golden Age after World War II. During that period, our current governor’s dad, Pat Brown, is credited with freeways, a major state water project, and the 1960 Master Plan. But there were other political figures involved and when you look more deeply, you find that these accomplishments had a longer history. Economists have a phrase, path dependency, which suggests that events of the past direct and constrain what we do in the present. And that was certainly true of the Golden Age.

    One factor that ushered in the Golden Age was World War II and subsequent Cold War, both of which boosted California’s economy and its growth rate with an influx of federal spending on what became the aerospace industry and other related military sectors. The result was notably faster economic and population growth in California relative to the rest of the U.S. and with a focus on technology and high paying jobs. Fast growth with good incomes meant that nasty trade-offs could be avoided. We could have expanding social programs and infrastructure investment without worrying that a dollar more for one meant a dollar less for the other.
    While the era of fast growth made infrastructure investment decisions easier, even in the Golden Age there was inevitable opposition. Then-Governor Earl Warren pushed through the Collyer-Burns Act of 1947 which opened the door to the modern California freeway system, using a funding model based on gasoline taxes and a trust fund for road construction. So successful was that model in California that it was imitated at the federal level and became national policy during and after the Eisenhower years for the interstate highway system.

    What we now call the three segments of higher education - the University of California, the California State University system, and the community colleges - were already expanding before the Master Plan. But turf battles between the three segments were hindering the expansion and needed to be sorted out. What the Master Plan did, therefore, was to provide a politically-acceptable division of labor for the three segments. Similarly, the idea for Pat Brown’s state water project did not suddenly spring into existence in the 1960s; there had been water planning and debate for decades before. The project was built on a foundation of prior planning and it was (narrowly) approved by voters in the face of the north-south conflict that often arises when water in California is discussed.

    Fast growth during and after World War II was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the Golden Age of California infrastructure investment. What was also needed for conditions to be sufficient was public confidence that promised projects would in fact be delivered as promised. Luckily, there was a pre-war history that suggested they could be confident. In the early 20th century, for example, the City of Los Angeles built its Owens Valley water project on time and within budget.

    OK; I know. You saw the movie “Chinatown” and you think the Owens Valley project was nothing but a municipal scandal built around corruption, murder and incest. Without going into more detail, let’s just say that the movie was fictional. Not long after L.A. constructed its Owens Valley project, San Francisco built its Hetch-Hetchy water project, a project which with your modern environmental sensibilities you may also disdain. But suffice it to say, that’s not how it was perceived back then.

    During the Great Depression, there were other impressive projects - some of which were motivated in part by the need for job creation and federal subsidy. With regard to water in southern California, there was the aqueduct bringing water from the Colorado River. In the Bay Area, there was the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. In southern California, there was the Arroyo Seco Parkway (now the Pasadena Freeway). The upshot was that in post-World War II California, voters had reason to believe that if they supported projects, those projects would be delivered. Thus, Governor Earl Warren could mobilize public pressure on the legislature to enact Collyer-Burns for freeways in the face of gridlock engendered by oil companies that disliked gasoline taxes. And Governor Pat Brown, as noted, beat back regional opposition to his water project sufficiently to obtain voter approval.

    Each quarter for many years, the UCLA Anderson Forecast has updated a chart that illustrates the consequences for the state when the Cold War came to an end around 1990. You can see the chart below.

    Click HERE for PDF with graph.

    The old Cold War trend line of employment on the chart begins to separate in 1990 from actual employment and it continues to do so even in the face of the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and the housing/mortgage boom of the mid-2000s. Since 1990, California has entered a period in which its growth rate is more or less average compared with the rest of the U.S. If we had stayed on the old trend, we would have something like 6 million more jobs than we actually do. Nowadays, unlike the era of above-average growth during the Cold War’s Golden Era, there are those nasty trade-offs. More money for social programs means fewer dollars for infrastructure. Alternatively, if you want to have both, someone will have to pay more in taxes. The temptation, given that unpleasant trade-off, is to charge the costs to the future via bond finance. Let somebody in the future pay for what we want.

    Absent some new external accident of history, Cold War-style above-average growth rates are not going to return to California. Despite the temptation to do so, in a period of mere average growth, infrastructure – whether water projects or college campuses – should not simply be charged off to the future via bond sales, the pattern that has developed in recent years and that was, for example, reflected in the water bond on the November 2014 ballot. Absent rapid growth, we can’t count on the future economy to be so much larger than it is today so that paying off past debt when the future arrives will be painless. If nothing else, there are intergenerational inequities in relying too heavily on bond finance.

    At the same time, the state’s record in recent infrastructure investment is blemished. The new replacement segment of the Bay Bridge, a state project, has been marked by improper state inspections, faulty components, and costs beyond budget. Closer to UCLA, the large expenditures on widening the I-405 freeway in the Sepulveda Pass - and years of inconvenience during construction - seem to have produced no marked traffic improvement. Sidewalks in the City of Los Angeles are notoriously cracked, uneven, and misaligned due to tree root damage. Public support in the future for infrastructure repairs and expansion, the funding for which should increasingly depend on user fees and less on bonds, will be limited unless there is a better record of success in past projects. Badly done projects today mean public skepticism tomorrow.

    So what is to be done? Key elected officials are going to have to explain to the public what the end of the Cold War has meant for California fiscal affairs and for its infrastructure finance. It may seem odd a quarter of a century later that our politics are stuck at 1990, but that is the reality. User fees and user taxes for water, roads, and other public projects need to become a larger part of the funding mix; it can’t be all bonds. And the credibility of public authorities when it comes to infrastructure implementation needs to be restored.

    The old Master Plan approach, used for higher education in 1960, may be useful model today, not only for higher ed, but for transportation and water, too. We need to set up mechanisms outside the legislature for developing overall plans. Once plans are developed, key politicians need to sell the plans, first to the public and then to the legislature. Folks, the Cold War is over.


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