Mitchell's Musings

  • 05 Oct 2014 10:15 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    Academia is often described pejoratively as an Ivory Tower. I say “pejoratively” because the image of the Tower is one of a world somehow isolated from external reality. There is some truth to the image, but not entirely. The real world in fact constantly intrudes into academia. There are always the usual constraints of budgets, resources, and the pressures of competition with other institutions. Sometimes conflicts from outside the Tower make their way in.

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    One special value that runs through academia, however, is academic freedom, particularly for tenure-track and tenured faculty. But when academic freedom is considered, the discussion is often inconsistent. Let’s take “civility” for example. Recently, the chancellor at the University of California (UC)-Berkeley was criticized for suggesting that differences of opinion are best discussed with civility. Outside the Tower, such an assertion might be greeted with a yawn. It’s motherhood and apple pie stuff! But within certain circles of academia, alarm bells went off. You see, in those circles the chancellor was arguably talking in code about something else. Spoiler alert: It was the Middle East and Israel-Palestine to be more exact.

    Before we get to the details of the “something else,” let’s note that the dispute over civility at Berkeley spilled over to my own campus at UCLA where the student newspaper wrote an editorial saying that the Berkeley chancellor just shouldn’t be talking about civility.1 That is, in defense of academic freedom and free speech, the editorial prescribed what the Berkeley chancellor should and shouldn’t say! Did anyone notice the paradox? If anyone did, I didn’t notice.

    On another campus – this time at UC-Santa Barbara – we had an incident in which a professor got into a physical altercation with an anti-abortion high school student/demonstrator. The professor argued in her defense that her reaction was the result of “triggering” by a placard carried by the demonstrator.2 It was OK to be uncivil because, well, she felt like it. (That sort of defense, unfortunately, is taken more seriously in academic circles than in the court system where she was sentenced to three years of probation plus some community service and anger management classes.) The Santa Barbara incident took place among a more general discussion of whether university syllabi should have “trigger” warnings about topics that might upset a student. That is, students should be warned about possible ideas in courses that might upset them. (Fortunately, the trigger wave seems to have passed after a good deal of ridicule from outside the Tower.)

    In short, there seems to be a desire among some folks in academia not to be confronted with opinions with which they disagree and, if they can’t avoid such ideas or control them, to be free to be as uncivil about it as they like.3

    So let’s get back to the “something else” behind the civility issue at Berkeley. What was actually being discussed by the Berkeley chancellor, in the view of his anti-civility critics, was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. Now the Middle East is a complex place with many, many conflicts and lots of forces intent on fanning those conflicts. There are some students and faculty, however, focused only on Israel-Palestine and who are pushing for university divestment of, and academic boycotts of, Israel. Rhetoric around the issue sometimes gets out of hand and there are then learned debates about whether particular anti-Israel statements are actually anti-Semitic or just critiques of a policy.

    Calls for “civility” are thus generally seen more aimed at the anti-Israel group than the pro-Israel group. This interpretation was particularly likely to be drawn after the arrest and conviction in 2011 of some Moslem students who attempted to interrupt a speech by the Israeli ambassador at still another UC campus.4

    I don’t know if the local anti-civility agitation has prevented the UCLA chancellor from making a public call for civility comparable to the one at Berkeley. Maybe it has; maybe not. If you read further, you will find an official UCLA reference to “civil dialogue” as a Good Thing. There is at UCLA, however, an alternative strategy to deal with the Israel-Palestine problem by demonstrating that there is “balance.”
    The balancing act idea may actually have started with the UC Regents. The Regents annually select a student regent-elect who serves one year and then becomes a student-regent for the second year. There is some process – I have no idea what it is – that presents the Regents with a student candidate that they end up choosing, usually without much debate or fanfare. But two years ago, the process produced an anti-Israel Muslim woman student who supports divesting and boycotting.5 The Regents spent time on the issue – more time than usual – before selecting her. Somehow, the next year the very same process produced a pro-Israel Jewish male student – “balance” don’t you see?6

    There is something of interest not necessarily foreseen by the Regents that came out of the dual and “balanced” choice. The terms of the student regent-elect and the student regent overlap for one year. Somehow, the two of them decided they could work together on matters of concern to students. As far as I know, the Middle East simply hasn’t come up as one of those issues. The lesson seems to be that if you push people together with very different world views, at least sometimes they can cooperate. Balancing is not the key; fair-minded, civil dialogue is.

    I recently attended a presentation by a fellow named Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian who lives on the West Bank. He was imprisoned on two occasions by the Israelis during demonstrations and his brother was killed in a confrontation at a checkpoint. At some point, however, he decided that dialogue was a better approach than violence and confrontation. He is currently touring the U.S. with an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi from a West Bank settlement with whom he made contact under sponsorship of a Christian organization. You can find out more at

    At UCLA, when there are complaints about anti-Israel faculty and events – one research Center (the Center for Near Eastern Studies) seems to be the focus of those people and events – the official response is that UCLA has another Center which is pro-Israel. Events and programs can be trotted out to demonstrate “balance,” i.e., some are pro and some are con. Consider a recent official UCLA response to the issue:

    “Academic units all across our campus are constantly working to provide programming that exposes our students and the public to a vast range of perspectives and topics. In fact, three centers at UCLA focus on Middle Eastern Affairs and regularly provide programming on Israel, among other topics: the Center for Near Eastern Studies, the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and the Center for Middle East Development. Israeli academics, students, speakers and artists are regularly part of programming at UCLA. We recognize many subjects may engender passionate debate and difficult conversations and we encourage civil dialogue that appreciates the paramount importance of free expression, academic freedom and a respectful exchange of ideas."7 [Bold face added.]

    Any student of labor relations (my own interest) or any other form of conflict resolution can see the problem with this official response. There is no dialogue inherent in balancing, civil or uncivil. Balance is marginally better than imbalance, I suppose. But unlike the student-regent and the student-regent-elect, who were forced by their positions to engage each other, and unlike Ali Abu Awwad and his rabbinical associate who voluntarily chose to engage each other with civility, there is nothing in the balancing approach that brings about any engagement.
    Yes, with balance, you could wander from program to program at UCLA and hear different views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the holders of those views remain separate and in isolation. Separate but equal and lack of dialogue is itself a problem – not an answer - and the larger problem isn’t solved by demonstrating balance. Every program doesn’t have to be precisely balanced and there certainly shouldn’t have to be “trigger” warnings to protect anyone from hearing something he/she doesn’t like. But just having different messages and opinions in totally separate presentations and classes (hopefully, at least, expressed in civil terms) – while better than no balance at all – can’t be the complete solution. Civil dialogue is needed, perhaps with encouragement from the powers-that-be if faculty cannot do it themselves.

    Maybe on some future trip to the U.S., Mr. Awwad might drop by the UCLA campus. Maybe someone in authority might want to invite him. His phone number can be found below. (469) 516-4543.

    And if there are other universities with the same campus problems, the same advice applies


    2 and

    3 Full disclosure: I am on the executive board of the UCLA Faculty Association which voted to take a stance against what the Berkeley chancellor said. I voted AGAINST the resolution (I was the only negative vote) because a) I agree with what the chancellor said and b) there are too many other pressing issues facing faculty – tangible economic concerns – to engage in obscure side issues.


  • 29 Sep 2014 9:45 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)
    In recent years, there has been much discussion of unfunded liability. Usually, the targets of this concern are pension and social insurance programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and various state and local public pension plans. The concern is that even if these plans have assets in them at the moment, the projections are that the eventual liabilities exceed those assets and coming generations, therefore, will have to come up with the money to cover obligations that represent labor services in the past.

    Full article: Mitchell Musings 9-29-14.pdf

    From time to time, I have had fun calculating the unfunded liabilities of the Pentagon (we are committed to national defense “forever” but we don’t have assets on hand today to pay for that future commitment). I have even calculated the similar unfunded liability of my hometown Santa Monica’s police department. (As in the Pentagon case, the city is committed to provide police protection to all inhabitants “forever” but there are no assets set aside today to pay for that commitment.) Suffice it to say, you get very big numbers, numbers sufficient to scare your average congressional representative or Santa Monica city council member.

    There is a difference, however, between pension unfunded liabilities and future service liabilities. In the former case, we seek to have assets accumulated in the past that pay for past service, even though the actual payments are received by employees at some point in the future. In the case of promised future services (Pentagon, Santa Monica police), future taxpayers will have to pay only for services which they will benefit from in the future. In the underfunded pension case, future taxpayers are paying for the services provided for, but not paid for, by past taxpayers.

    In short, according to the idea of matching services and paying for services over time, it is a Bad Thing to have people in the future pay for the consumption of folks in the past. So let’s see if there is anywhere to be found an unfunded liability in which folks in the future must somehow pay for things in the past, apart from Social Security, Medicare, and public pensions.

    As can be seen on the chart on the previous page, when you consider the US as a whole, you find that since 1980, we have tended to accumulate international assets (claims on the world) more slowly than we have accumulated liabilities. Whereas before the 1980s, our international liabilities generally grew more slowly than our international assets, afterwards, the reverse trend developed. Of course, there were periods of fluctuation in which the trend generalization did not hold, thanks to such things as
    movements in exchange rates. But the underlying trend is evident from the chart. In 1980, we had assets > liabilities of roughly 10% of GDP, we now have assets < liabilities of about one third of GDP. In the former period, we could in theory have “paid off” our gross international debt by selling assets and still had 10% of GDP in assets left over. Now, if we tried to “pay off” our gross liabilities, we would come up short after asset sales by about a third of GDP. That’s a lot.

    Unless you think that we can go on increasing our net debt to the world forever (so there never will be a point where future folks will be paying for past consumption, you might be concerned by this forgotten unfunded liability now that you know. Of course, there is a comeback. Maybe our net borrowing has been directed toward accumulating capital assets which someday, somehow will produce the needed pay back. A visit to your local retail electronics store should disabuse you of the notion that the increase
    in debt is all going into capital goods. Flat screen TVs, iPhones, sure seem like consumption goods. Go to your local toy store and look at the country of origin of the products you find there. Sure seems like consumption goods there, too.

    For that matter, go to your local Toyota, Kia, Volkswagen, Mercedes, or BMW dealer. We can argue over what exactly is a capital good. But your car, in the end, is more consumption than investment in the sense that it is unlikely to generate resources for the US to repay our net foreign debt.1

    When pensions are underfunded, their trustees often create a plan to achieve full funding over a period of time. Essentially, what is involved is first paying into the fund the “normal” cost of the plan (the amount that covers the incremental liability generated each year) and then setting up a schedule to amortize (pay off over time) the accumulated past unfunded liability. The analog to the normal cost in the case of net foreign debt is (roughly) the net export balance. If the US from now on kept its net
    export balance to zero, the unfunded liability would cease to increase since we would be paying for current consumption from the world (imports) with sales to the world (exports). But moving to a zero balance of net exports would not pay off the accumulated past debt. To do that, we would need to run a net export surplus. The bigger the surplus, the faster we would retire net debt.

    Our net export balance seems to be around -$500 billion per annum. Our net debt is roughly 10 times that amount. (The figures vary from year to year.) So to pay off the net debt in ten years, we would have to run a net export surplus of around +$500 billion per annum. So the total “swing” from the current deficit situation to the 10-year payoff plan would be about a trillion dollars. In effect, the swing would be a stimulus of about 5-6% of GDP, with a fair amount coming from added manufacturing

    There are ways to make it happen. All that is needed is for the folks who are so upset about the unfunded liability of programs such as Social Security to become equally concerned about the hidden unfunded liability embedded in international commerce.

    1 Yes, I know; in principle if I buy a Toyota instead of a Ford, you could say that I freed up US capacity to turn out that hypothetical capital good which will someday pay off that debt. There are a lot of formerly employed auto workers who might not have experienced it quite that way.

  • 20 Sep 2014 8:38 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    Let’s suppose that I am a journalist. I read somewhere that real wages have been stagnant and I want to illustrate this point in an article I am writing. I discover that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on a monthly basis produces a series called "real average hourly earnings." So I go to the BLS website to get some historical data on that series for my article. When I get there, I find: (Image 1)


    Click HERE for pdf of article with screen shots.


    I don’t immediately see a link for real average hourly earnings, but I do see a search option up in the right-hand corner. So I type in "real average hourly earnings" there and get:  (Image 2)


    Click HERE for pdf of article with screen shots. 

    As you can see on the screen shot on the previous page, a bunch of references pop up, mainly to BLS media releases that have only very limited recent data. I am looking for a longer time series, not just a few recent data points, for my article. So I go back to the starting page and click on "home." (Image 3)


    Click HERE for pdf of article with screen shots. 

    One of the options I then see there in a drop-down menu is called "pay and benefits." That sounds right. Earnings are "pay," after all. So I click there and get: (Image 4)


    Click HERE for pdf of article with screen shots.

    The result is a whole list of options as the screenshot on the prior page shows, but "real average hourly earnings" is not one of them. So I go back to the home page and try "data tools" since I am looking for a data series. Another drop-down menu appears: (Image 5)


    Click HERE for pdf of article with screen shots.


    One of the options there is "series report," so I click on that one hoping that real average hourly earnings might be one of the series reported. The result is shown below: (Image 6)


    Click HERE for pdf of article with screen shots.


    Sadly, what I find is that if you want a particular data series such as the one I am searching, you have to know its ID number. But wait! There is another option to click on "series ID formats." Maybe I will find a listing of the ID number for "real average hourly earnings" there. Another disappointment results. But I do find an option called "national employment, hours, and earnings." That option at least has the words "hours" (which is close to "hourly") and "earnings." So I click there and get: (Image 7)


    Click HERE for pdf of article with screen shots.

    This time I get a lot of strange information about things like where a seasonal adjustment would be indicated in the ID number, if only I had the ID.

    We could go on with this fruitless search but you surely get the point. The key issue here is that what should be a user-friendly public website just plain isn’t. Why - when I search for "real average hourly earnings" - don’t I immediately land on a webpage which gives the historical data for that series. Note that "real average hourly earnings" is not one of the more obscure data series produced by BLS. BLS in fact puts out a monthly release just for that series.

    BLS has been in the data business for a long time. The agency’s history actually predates the creation of its parent, the U.S. Department of Labor, early in the 20th century. BLS got on the web when the web got going and there has been plenty of time since then to produce a website that simply lists every series and doesn’t require some arcane ID number. The website should be accessible to folks such as my hypothetical journalist, and not just to professional users of labor market data who have figured out the vagaries of the website. There are commercial data providers who make BLS data and data from other official government agencies available – generally for a cost - in just the simple way I have suggested. Other government websites are more user-friendly than BLS offers. Check out, for example, the website of the U.S. Bureau of Economic Affairs, the agency that puts out the national income accounts.


    Note that this musing is not dealing with the methodology behind particular data series. Maybe "real average hourly earnings" has drawbacks as a measurement. Maybe our hypothetical journalist would do better to use some other series. Those considerations are separate issues. The only point being made here is that if a data series is being made public, the figures should be easy to access.

    It can be done.


  • 13 Sep 2014 11:28 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    In past musings, we have commented on the uncertainty raised by opinion polls on important public issues. Complex issues that many people have never heard of or considered are presented by pollsters to respondents who provide “answers” that are highly dependent on the framing of the questions. Recent polls regarding two initiatives that are on the November 2014 California ballot illustrate this issue. If you doubted my point before, read on!

    Proposition 45 would provide for rate regulation of health insurance by the state’s elected insurance commissioner, who currently can opine on such rates, but cannot cap them. Not surprisingly, the insurance commissioner supports Prop 45 since it expands his authority. The opposition comes from two sources. Again, not surprisingly, the insurance carriers in the state oppose the proposition. But also opposed are the operators of the state’s “Obamacare” health exchange. There seems to be a turf war going on between the health exchange administrators and the insurance commissioner that is behind the controversy.

    MitchellMusings 9-15-14.pdf

    Proposition 46 ostensibly is about drug testing of doctors (who wants a drugged out doctor?), but is actually an effort by trial lawyers to raise the state’s cap on malpractice awards.1 So, not surprisingly, doctors are opposed and lawyers are in favor. In both the cases of Prop 45 and 46, vast sums will be expended on TV, radio, and other advertising as Election Day approaches.2 And you can already assume that the sponsors of these propositions spent $1-$2 million just to hire commercial signature gatherers to put these initiatives on the ballot.

    Naturally, there is much at stake for the proponents and opponents of these ballot propositions. And, of course, anything related to health care is topical these days because of the changes the health system is undergoing at the national level. Those in the policy wonk world and those representing the major interest groups involved are obviously aware of the initiatives and have been aware since the petitions to put them on the ballot began to circulate. But it is reasonable to assume that the general public had little knowledge of the propositions and are only now – as advertising has begun and news media articles are appearing – forming opinions.

    One of the major sources of public opinion polling information in California is the Field Poll which for many years has been a source of political information on attitudes toward public issues. Like all pollsters, however, to be relevant and interesting, Field has to track opinions on what voters might be feeling about ballot issues and candidates. But that need poses a dilemma, since Field must produce opinions about issues on which many in the public simply don’t have formed opinions. So in one way or another, it must tell those being surveyed what the issues are all about. What it says is and how it says it is going to be important in determining the answers received.

    As the table above from the Field poll shows, there was a dramatic swing in reported voter attitudes towards Prop 45 and 46 between late June/early July and late August/early September.3 In the earlier survey, the two were reported as favored by 69% and 58%, respectfully. A couple of months later, the percentages had dropped to 41% and 34%. Note that in the earlier survey, 15% and 12% said they were undecided. A couple months later, a lot of folks who were decided early on apparently changed their minds concerning what they were decided about. And the really heavy advertising regarding the two propositions had not begun in that interval.

    Let’s put aside the merits and demerits of the two ballot propositions. It should be obvious that when dealing with issues in which there will be controversy as the election approaches, early polling is not very helpful as a forecast unless you can present the questions as voters will eventually hear them. QED

  • 08 Sep 2014 12:56 PM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    On September 5, the latest “Employment Situation” release for August became available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). One of the closely watched numbers in that release is the latest month-to-month (July to August) change in nonfarm payroll employment. According to the release, the preliminary seasonally adjusted estimate is that there was a net increase of 142,000 jobs in August. Commentators immediately pronounced this number to be disappointing because it was lower than (someone) expected and lower than recent employment gains.

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    Some readers may recall the Al Jolson’s line from The Jazz Singer, “Wait a minute; wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet.” (If not, go to or watch here.)

    The problem with getting excited or disappointed as a result of the reported monthly change in employment is that the preliminary data, which already reflect the vagaries of seasonal adjustment, are subject to major revision. So we need to stand back and “wait a minute” before reading the monthly figures as guides to policy or to the general state of the economy. Maybe we haven’t heard “nothing” when we get the monthly number, but the “something” we have heard is pretty fuzzy.

    The chart below shows the reported preliminary monthly changes for 2013 versus what now (as of September 2014) appears on the BLS website:

    As it turned out for 2013, not only are the deviations of the preliminary figures relative to the current figures large, but they don’t even average out over that year. That is, except for July 2013, the preliminary numbers consistently understated what is now taken to be the true figure. Only in July 2013 was there an overestimate. Almost all of 2013, as seen initially, was disappointing relative to 2013 as seen today. The average error was a monthly understatement of about 30,000 jobs, i.e., something like 360,000 jobs over the year.

    In past musings, I have made the heretical statement that maybe we don’t really need monthly releases and maybe, say, quarterly releases would be better. Of course, we will continue to do monthly releases because that’s how it has always been. Moreover, any change in frequency would become the subject of conspiracy theories about manipulated figures. But it would be nice if commentators just focused on changes over longer periods than just one month. Why not use August 2013 to August 2014 (a full year)? If you do it that way – and use just the numbers that are not seasonally adjusted since you are covering a full year – it turns out that we are creating net jobs per month at a rate of around 209,000. You can then decide whether that number is disappointing or not and what policy response, if any, should be taken. You may be right or wrong in your thinking but at least you won’t be basing it on statistical noise.
  • 01 Sep 2014 9:42 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    Sometimes, unusual things happen that seem unique to our time. Sometimes, however, the seemingly new developments may be echoes of events in the past. For this Labor Day musing, surely the unusual event de jour is the semi-strike and now settlement of a dispute at Market Basket, a family-owned supermarket chain in New England. There are a variety of unusual elements of the Market Basket story, not the least of which is that smaller regional supermarket chains are being swallowed up by national giants.


    Read entire article...

  • 23 Aug 2014 10:37 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    It’s rare when you find an article in which you agree with the title but almost nothing else. However, I found one in an op ed entitled “Don't believe that a sluggish economy must be the new normal” by Stephen Moore, president of the Heritage Foundation and available at

    I have expressed the view in previous musings that the “new normal” thing is being way overdone. Whenever there is an adverse blow to the economy, it seems as if someone begins promoting the idea that what has happened was some kind of structural shift and things will be bad from now on. During the Great Depression, for example, when the cause was clearly a negative macro shock, there were voices saying that new technology meant that unemployment would be high forever. The idea persisted until the unemployment rate fell to record low levels during World War II. for more

  • 19 Aug 2014 1:58 PM | Emily Smith (Administrator)

    You could grow bananas at the North Pole. How? With enough subsidy for insulation, heating, solar lamps, etc., it would be possible. Since there would be a need to construct the facilities and then maintenance, there would be jobs created at the North Pole. But would such a project be worthwhile? Surely not. The North Pole is clearly not the best place for growing bananas.

    It is also true in less extreme circumstances that you can artificially create jobs. Providing a subsidy can induce economic activity in the location offering the subsidy. But you can always ask whether it is worthwhile.


    MitchellMusings 8-18-14.pdf

  • 11 Aug 2014 9:01 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    A few weeks ago, Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik ran a piece entitled “A new right-wing claim: Obama must be lying about inflation!” which was about a new conspiracy theory concerning government price change data.1 The theme, as the headline suggests, is that some folks believe that the official inflation statistics are being kept too low, i.e., the books are being cooked. So let’s look at the data and see what the fuss is all about.

    MitchellMusings 8-11-14.pdf

  • 04 Aug 2014 2:24 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    California has long had a system of direct democracy – the initiative, referendum, and recall – going back to the early 20th century. The idea was that politicians – corrupted by special interest money – needed to be checked by the electorate. At the time, the villain de jour was the Southern Pacific Railroad, often depicted back in the day as an octopus strangling commerce and buying politicians. Reform was needed.

    MitchellMusings 8-4-14.pdf


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