Mitchell's Musings

  • 15 May 2016 7:44 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 5-16-16: Worker Unrest

    Daniel J.B. Mitchell


    When people think about unrest in the 1960s and 1970s, they think about civil rights demonstrations, urban riots, and anti-Vietnam War protests. Of course, all of those things occurred. But often neglected was the worker unrest of that period. In that era, unions were much more prominent – especially in the private sector – than today. So strikes were one way in which worker discontent was expressed.

    The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) still tracks strikes (actually, “work stoppages” since some stoppages can be lockouts rather than worker- or union-initiated strikes). But it now tracks only “major” work stoppages, i.e., those involving 1,000 or more workers. As the chart below shows, major strikes have dwindled down to very small numbers. Whereas in the post-World War II period it was common for 300 or 400 such strikes to occur, in 2015 there were only 12 involving 47,000 workers.
      Number of Major Work Stoppages


    At one time, BLS tracked strikes below the 1,000 worker level. If memory serves me, the cutoff was something like 50. But as unions went into decline, BLS paid less attention to them as a priority for statistical programs. “Minor” strikes (those involving fewer than 1,000 workers) were dropped from the series after 1981. So up through 1981, it is possible to see what was going on in smaller units.

    Big strikes tended to be concentrated among “key” contracts that set “patterns” for smaller units. And they tended to involve basic contract renegotiation disputes over wages and benefits. Major contracts, sometimes involving tens or hundreds of thousands of workers, would expire and sometimes strikes occurred.  Smaller unit strikes were often over local issues, sometimes “wildcat” (unauthorized) strikes that could involve grievances, local workplace rules or issues, or even intra-union conflicts. Sometimes after the national bargaining was done, local branches of the national union would deal with local concerns.[1] Arguably, there is information about general worker unrest in “minor” disputes that is unrelated to accidents of big contract renegotiation timing.



    The charts above on minor strikes suggest that the second half of the 1960s and the 1970s was a period of notable worker unrest.[2] There was a bit of a lull in the early 1970s that seems to be associated with the wage-price controls of that era. With the exception of the Korean War period – in which wage controls seemed to provoke disputes – the period before the mid-1960s was relatively quiescent compared with what followed.

    Dramatic union decline begins in the early 1980s with two back-to-back recessions and we know that major strike activity declined, based on BLS data. We don’t know for sure what happened in minor contracts but anecdotally at least, there was also a decline in strike activity there. Fewer workers were unionized so strikes became progressively less useful as a proxy for general worker discontent.

    There were political developments that accompanied the rise in strike activity starting in the mid-1970s that have some resonance with the Trump phenomenon we see today. It appears that discontented white male blue collar workers, who back in the day were a major component of union activity, now form a part of the Trump coalition. The late 1960s saw a rise in inflation that eroded real wages – at least temporarily. That development was part of the discontent. But there were other developments in the larger society that also caused anxiety.

    The one-time solid Democratic south – under federal orders to desegregate – began its switch to becoming the solid Republican south as part of the “southern strategy.” But there were continuing racial tensions in the north and west, too. Reagan was elected governor in California in part in response to the Watts Riot, a fair housing law (that was repealed by voters), and college student demonstrations at Berkeley and elsewhere. As the 1960s progressed, the Vietnam War became another contentious issue.

    Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition of Dixiecrats (southern segregationists), northern liberals, minority voters, and unions began to fray in response. Well before there were “Reagan Democrats,” there were Nixon Democrats, part of the “silent majority” who were concerned about societal trends.[3] The Nixon administration made a conscious effort to appeal to “hard hat” union workers angered at Vietnam protestors. At the same time, the administration put pressure on those same hard hats to open their unions to blacks; it was the Nixon administration that unveiled modern affirmative action, first aimed at urban construction trades under the Philadelphia Plan.[4]

    By the mid-1970s, there were the first glimmers of deindustrialization (in part due to a major recession) and early signs of pressures on middle class incomes. Concerns about such matters became more and more prominent. But by the end of the decade, the country moved not to the left but rightwards. Senator Ted Kennedy played a role somewhat analogous to Bernie Sanders in the primaries, tending to undermine the Democratic establishment candidate, incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

    In short, the worker discontent that seems reflected in pre-1980s strike data must be seen as part of a larger phenomenon that was also expressed politically in the 1980 election. Nowadays, with the decline in unionization, the strike option is not available to most workers as an outlet for demonstrating unhappiness. We don’t have data on minor strikes and major strikes are no longer a proxy for generalized discontent. But the political option for expression remains and shows itself in voter support for unconventional candidates such as Trump and Sanders. And while it might not be surprising that some of the union workers who remain might be attracted to the latter candidate, Trump also has an appeal to them.[5]

    Sanders’ “path to the nomination” seems to be rapidly disappearing, as did Ted Kennedy’s in 1980. So that leaves Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump in November. Election campaigns in the U.S. are assemblages of various interests and groups behind a candidate. Discontented workers are one such group which is up for grabs and could be critical in determining the outcome.


    [1] A handful of nonunion stoppages were included in the data. But these were (are) rare for obvious reasons.

    [2] I subtracted major stoppages from total stoppages to obtain the minor residuals.

    [4] A review of Philadelphia construction trades practices began under the Johnson administration. The incoming Nixon administration under then-Labor Secretary George Shultz formulated an affirmative action plan featuring the kinds of goals and timetables that came to apply to such efforts.


  • 06 May 2016 5:11 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 5-9-16: Making the Grade

    Daniel J.B. Mitchell

    There is an old (but ongoing) debate about the economic value of general education, particularly at the level of higher education. We know that more education is correlated positively with what students eventually earn on the job. So there seems to be a reward by employers for added education. But is the association the result of some tangible job skill acquired with education? Or is there some kind of creeping credentialism under which workers compete for jobs by trying to be more educated than the average?

    The debate is really focused on fields such as humanities and social sciences in which – apart from the academic labor market itself – the knowledge acquired in college courses is not specifically sought by most employers. For most jobs, as an example, your knowledge of English literature may not be called upon very often. Yet employers say that they want employees who have skills that they associate with general college education. In certain fields, e.g., engineering, particular skills that have a more direct vocational link to jobs can be cited. But in the humanities and social sciences, the skills involved seem to be more amorphous, e.g., ability to learn, to organize, to evaluate.

    Once on the job, employees of all types are subject to some form of periodic evaluation. Most often, an important element of subjectivity is involved in these evaluations. In larger firms, some kind of evaluative rating is produced for various attributes and added monetary compensation may flow as a result of good ratings. Opportunities to advance on the job (promotion) may also be linked to the results of performance appraisals. Of course, some jobs entail easily countable outputs – widgets produced, value of sales made, etc.  However, even in jobs we associate with readily countable outputs such as production operatives in manufacturing, the use of mainly objective compensation systems (piece rates) seems to be in a long-term decline.[1]

    In white collar and professional fields, a typical reward system – particularly where “countability” of output is low - is for employees to be evaluated by their supervisors for various traits and behaviors they exhibit. And such evaluation schemes are inherently subjective, even where formal personnel appraisal forms with rating scales and the like are in use. Being evaluated by your boss may be arbitrary or even unfair – particularly as perceived by someone who receives a low rating. But what is the alternative? As economists put it, there is an “agency problem” inherent in employment. The “agent” (employee) may not do what is required by the “principal” (employer) unless there is some process of monitoring and evaluation, generally tied in some way to reward.

    So, getting back to higher education, what process found there is analogous to the real world of work? Grading is an obvious answer. The student (like an employee) is evaluated based on his/her performance in such assignments as term reports and exams and behaviors such as class participation. The evaluator is ultimately the instructor (like a boss/supervisor) even in large classes where there is delegation to teaching assistants (TAs). Although there is no direct pay linked to grades in college, opportunities for graduate school or scholarships or research assistant jobs are associated with good grades.

    As it happens, I co-teach a course on California Policy Issues. I won’t go into details, but the course has been taught at UCLA since 1994.[2] It now enrolls 60 students and is routinely over-subscribed (wait listed). For various reasons, the sponsoring department would like to upgrade the course so that it would give students additional credit. To make the change, an application must be completed and submitted. The instructions for filling out the requisite application indicate that a syllabus should be part of the application and say that the syllabus should include a “description of grading policy, specifically, the percentage that each component carries in determining a student’s career grade.” (Italics taken from instructions)

    Here is what the current syllabus in fact says:

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    GRADING POLICY: Unlike other classes you will have taken at UCLA, we do not use a mechanical formula for course grading, i.e., X% for this; Y% for that.  We do look at such matters as your record in terms of absences, lateness to class, leaving class early, and failure to hand in assignments on time.  The two instructors make a joint judgment about the quality of your individual and team reports as well as other aspects of your record.  In making that evaluation, we look to see if suggestions we made on the outlines and drafts were followed in the final product.  In short, we evaluate student performance in PP 10b in the way real-world future employers are likely to evaluate you. Your real-world future employers are very unlikely to evaluate you on the basis of some simple formula of X% for this and Y% for that…[3]

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    Exactly how this particular issue will be resolved has yet to be determined. However, there won’t be a change in the grading policy from its current subjective format. We will see whether the university powers-that-be will be flexible enough to accept a course that actually has workplace-like attributes when it comes to student evaluation.

    So research alert for labor economists and educational specialists! We are about to have a direct test of the idea that what students learn in college is of general application to their later employment.



    [2] I have posted about the course previously: and


  • 28 Apr 2016 4:17 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 5-2-16: The Gig is Up (or is it?)

    Daniel J.B. Mitchell

    Have you been hearing or seeing excited reports about the “gig economy”? Punching the phrase into Google produced 485,000 references. Here is one of them that provides a definition:

    A gig economy is an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements. The trend toward a gig economy has begun. A study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, 40 percent of American workers would be independent contractors. There are a number of forces behind the rise in short-term jobs. For one thing, in this digital age, the workforce is increasingly mobile and work can increasingly be done from anywhere, so that job and location are decoupled. That means that freelancers can select among temporary jobs and projects around the world, while employers can select the best individuals for specific projects from a larger pool than that available in any given area…[1] [underline added]

    The use of the phrase “gig economy” seems to have developed with the visibility of transportation services such as Uber and Lyft which depend on independent contractors to drive their cars. I particularly call your attention to the prediction above that by 2020, forty percent of workers will be independent contractors. How plausible is that prediction, given that changes in work arrangements tend to evolve slowly and that we are already in 2016?

    The forty percent prediction must have seemed plausible to the person that wrote the item cited. But did he/she check to see what the current proportion is that is projected to go to forty percent in a space of four years? Specifically, did he/she check the numbers that are available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)? If you go to the BLS website, you won’t find a data series called ”gig workers.” But you will find data on self-employed workers which is what independent contractors are. Of course, some self-employed workers do such things as run small retail stores or are proprietors of other businesses. So gig workers are a subset of the self employed.[2] Still looking at the ratio of self-employed workers to wage-and-salary workers should give us a sense of any trend and the magnitude of the gig phenomenon.

    As the chart shows, the ratio of self-employed workers to wage and salary workers depicts a long-term downward trend and certainly no rise in recent years.[3] Note that the ratio measure slightly overstates the proportion of total employment represented by self-employed workers. But we are talking about a proportion of around 6%.[4] So the idea that the proportion is going to be 40% in a mere four years is implausible. More than 50 million workers would have to be converted from “regular” status as wage-and-salary employees to self-employed, even if you assume that all self-employed workers are independent contractors.[5] Perhaps a more interesting employment-related question than the trend in gig workers is the presence of incentives for journalists to exaggerate workforce developments.



    [2] We are ignoring the litigation challenging that independent contractor status of some gig workers.

    [3] I used March data (seasonally adjusted) since March is the latest month available at this writing.

    [4] There is a small number of “unpaid family workers” that is omitted from the chart and the calculation. Early in the period on the chart, such workers were more numerous but they are a minor fraction of the workforce today.

    [5] One might argue that perhaps the new gig workers will be moonlighters with regular jobs and a gig job. But the proportion of moonlighters, like that of the self employed, has shown a long-term decline. The proportion is about 5%. See

  • 22 Apr 2016 11:34 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 4-25-16: Just Plain Bills

    Daniel J.B. Mitchell

    There is a great deal of excitement over the recent announcement that Andrew Jackson will be taken off the twenty dollar bill and replaced with Harriet Tubman. Although various images of the Tubman bill have appeared in the news media, the actual redesigned bill has yet to be, well, redesigned. There was also excitement over the decision not to take Hamilton off the ten dollar bill – apparently due in part to the influence of the current hit Broadway musical about him.

    But here’s the thing. When the new Tubman bill does appear – news reports say the new bill will be unveiled in 2020 – it will be worth precisely two Hamiltons. That sum is the same value that Jackson has today. That is, despite the political and historical significance of exchanging Jackson for Tubman, there will be no monetary significance of the switch. Zilch. So with 20-20 vision, I can predict that two tens will be equal to one twenty when the new bill comes out. Why is that? Why is that true, now and then?

    Is it because the twenty dollar bill says it is “legal tender for all debts public and private.” Actually, the ten dollar bill has the same wording. So that phrase can’t be the difference. Is the paper in the twenty worth double the value of the paper in the ten? No, it’s the same material. And unlike some foreign currencies where the size of bills vary from denomination to denomination, the size of the ten and twenty will likely be the same, as is the case now.

    Is it because the twenty is “backed” with twice as much something (gold? silver? bananas?) as is the ten? No. The twenty isn’t backed by anything except two tens, or four fives, or ten twos (remember them?) or twenty ones.

    Well, what about the coins you could get for a twenty? They are made out of metal(s) and metal(s) is (are) something. You could get 2000 metallic pennies for a twenty, for example. Indeed, in recent years, it costs the U.S. Mint more to make pennies (and nickels) than their face value.[1] So you might even say a penny is worth more than a penny.[2] In which case you might say a twenty (exchangeable into pennies) is thus worth more than a twenty, albeit by the same percentage that a ten is worth more than a ten.

    OK, you get the point. Money in modern times is a social convention, although a very useful one. Money is used for exchange because everyone does it. Everyone in 2020 will know that with beginning-to-wilt Jacksons and newly-printed Tubmans both in circulation at that time, both will be worth the same amount and both will be worth two Hamiltons. The only real difference between a Tubman and a Hamilton will be that the former will be stamped “20” and the latter “10.”

    It may seem odd that people compete for – and even steal and murder for – the obtaining of pieces of paper (or electronic representations thereof) which have value due to a social convention. But people do. And it is the same social convention that allows macro policy control of interest rates and exchange rates and thus the general pace of the economy.


    [1] The U.S. mint at present has negative “seigniorage” on pennies and nickels (the “profit” it makes on selling coins to the Federal Reserve) but makes it up on other coins. See  Note that economists sometimes use the word seigniorage to refer to more complicated concepts such as implicit interest-free loans to the central bank.

    [2] At present, the excess cost of pennies and nickels is not so high that it pays to melt them down. 

  • 16 Apr 2016 2:16 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Below in italics is a quote from a recent Urban Institute policy brief:

    “Though the Supreme Court’s four-to-four deadlock in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association on Tuesday upheld the requirement that nonunion members pay union fees, it raised new doubts about the fairness of a practice conservative activists have fought for decades. But a more insidious—and lesser known—injustice faces teachers in California and around the nation: they must contribute a substantial share of their salaries to pension plans that deny them a fair return…  A 25-year-old teacher hired today would receive a future annual pension of only $12,000 if she teaches for 20 years or $3,500 if she teaches for 10 years. That teacher would have to remain employed for at least 28 years to collect benefits worth more than the required plan contributions. Teachers who stop teaching earlier lose money in the mandatory plan. They would receive more retirement income if they could opt out of the plan and invest their contributions elsewhere. Teachers with shorter tenures end up subsidizing the large pensions received by the longest-tenured teachers. Only 35 percent of new hires and 47 percent of teachers who work at least five years will receive pensions more valuable than their required plan contributions…”[1]

    What is odd about the quote above is that the author’s seemingly-astounding discovery of an “insidious” element in teacher compensation is simply a description of any run-of-the-mill defined-benefit pension plan. All such traditional plans favor long-service employees and can be viewed as “subsidizing” the pensions that are received by those long-career workers by those with short careers. The more generous the plans are to long-service career workers, the greater is the cross-subsidy they provide from short-timers.

    But is such a compensation structure “insidious”? Let’s note that a retirement plan that is offered as one part of an employment package differs importantly from, say, a stand-alone investment opportunity offered by a financial institution. Whether you should invest in a stand-alone opportunity is your own decision and is independent of your occupational choice. Absent false promises by the offering financial institution, you should not - and presumably won’t - invest in something that offers you an expected below-market, substandard return.

    Employment packages are different from stand-alone investments in that they contain elements that may be more or less advantageous depending on your job-related behavior. Thus, a sales commission could be said to be a bad deal for sales personnel who turn out not to sell much. A piece rate would be a bad deal for a factory worker who turns out to be not especially productive. Contingent and competitive promotion arrangements (tenure for professors; making partner for lawyers) – sometimes referred to as “tournaments” by economists - can be bad deals for those who don’t “win“ the tournament prize. (That is, those faculty who don’t make tenure and those lawyers who don’t make partner are losers in such arrangements.) Etc. Etc.

    A defined-benefit pension is meant as a reward for those employees who don’t leave the job early (voluntarily or not) and who stay for a long time. They also provide a significant incentive toward the end of a career to retire (and thus for labor force renewal). If you don’t stay for a long career – or if you persist beyond some “normal” retirement - such pensions are not going to reward you and you will in effect subsidize those who do follow the incentives. So, yes, it’s true that a 401k plan or cash balance plan would be better deal for short-career teachers.[2] But if that’s not the kind of employee school districts want, is it insidious for those districts to offer a particular compensation arrangement that isn’t a good deal for them?

    If we drop the inflammatory language of the policy brief (which I have to say is a bit surprising for the Urban Institute) and if we look at the critique apart from that language, is there something more useful to be said? Note that Congress, in its wisdom, has chosen the employment relationship as a locus for a kind of privatized social insurance. Through tax incentives, it has incentivized employers to offer health insurance (an offering now reinforced by “Obamacare” rules) and retirement plans.

    Congress does directly provide health care for older individuals (Medicare) and a defined-benefit pension (via Social Security). However, to the extent social insurance is promoted through the employment relationship, the social welfare motivation doesn’t necessarily mesh with a general policy preference to let employers design workplace compensation and incentive packages as they think best. In effect, there are two objectives of public policy at issue here – adequate retirement income and letting employers design their own personnel motivational systems. Tinbergen’s rule in economics – usually stated as a general need to have the number of policy instruments match the number of policy goals – points to the tension created when social welfare/social insurance objectives are imposed on workplace arrangements. One instrument – a tax incentives for retirement plans – may not accomplish both goals.

    If the concern is for adequate retirement incomes for oldsters, perhaps beefing up Social Security – a program which Congress directly controls – would be a better approach than discouraging defined-benefit pensions.[3] Social Security could be a Tinbergen-style second instrument. It’s too bad the Urban Institute’s policy brief didn’t consider that approach, although I wouldn’t characterize that omission as insidious.



    [2]We are ignoring substantial behavioral research that suggests that employees are not great at either setting appropriate saving levels for themselves or at selecting investments for their retirement funds. So 401k plans in practice may turn out to be inferior to defined-benefit pensions. Surely, the security value of defined-benefit pensions has to be considered in comparing them to other tax-favored saving plans; 401k-type plans create risks assumed by employers under defined-benefit pensions. The cash-balance approach deals partly with such risks, but typically offers a low rate of return. None of these complications are addressed in the Urban Institute brief.

    [3]Note that public school teachers under defined-benefit pension are often excluded from Social Security. 

  • 09 Apr 2016 6:45 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 4-11-16: What is the Point? – Part 2

    Daniel J.B. Mitchell

    Last week’s musings dealt with a lecture I gave in my course California Policy Issues on state economic policy. Basically, after watching that lecture, it seemed (to me at least) that there were a few key points in the presentation and that those points were in fact made clear. Earlier in the same course, however, I gave a lecture on fiscal policy which has some obvious overlaps with the later one. See After watching that fiscal presentation, I am less confident that all the key points that should have been made actually were made or were made clearly enough.

    In that earlier lecture the topic is really budgeting. There was a time, back when I was an undergraduate in the 1960s, in which courses were offered which dealt with that topic in economics departments under the heading of “Public Finance.”  Since that time, Public Finance has become “Public Economics” and the name change signified that the topic is now a whole lot more theoretical than in olden times. So the nuts and bolts of state and local fiscal affairs are not likely to receive much attention.

    Undergraduate students can still take courses in accounting, as I did. But such courses tend to be focused on corporate, i.e., private sector, accounting and not the kind of accounts routinely found at the state and local level. That’s a definite gap in the curriculum, particularly for students who might be considering careers in the public sector. Nonetheless, there is one benefit that a student with an accounting background would have and that benefit is a recognition of a key point in the lecture: the distinction between stocks and flows and the related notion that flows have to be defined over a unit of time (such as a fiscal year).

    The lecture does make it clear (I think) that notions of surplus and deficit should be defined as flows (and thus linked to a specified time period). In corporate accounting, for example, flows are reflected in income statements. And the profits and losses shown on those statements are roughly analogous to surpluses and deficits in government budgets.

    Similarly, the balance sheet in corporate accounting is a stock measure since it shows assets vs. liabilities at a point in time, e.g., the end of the fiscal year. But the analogy somewhat breaks down since balance sheets for governments typically value only cash as assets and omit physical assets that governments own (office buildings, roads, bridges, schools, equipment, etc.). Balance sheets for government do show debt although there are issues about what debts are to be reflected. (Should unfunded retirement-related liabilities be listed along with bond-type debt, for example?)

    What I think is not clear is that, although the lecture notes that the budget is the most complete piece of legislation establishing priorities, the budget doesn’t directly tell you much about judgment or good administration. Fiscal prudence, i.e., managing the budget so that bills can be paid both in good times and bad, doesn’t mean that budgetary priorities are the “right” ones. Right and wrong in that case are individual political preferences, not matters of accounting. And even if your priorities match those of the legislature and the budget, fiscal prudence doesn’t tell you whether the priorities are being accomplished efficiently or effectively.

    Although the budget lecture focuses on California and provides some of that state’s recent budgetary history (including the fiscal crisis surrounding the Great Recession), it omits an important observation. It doesn’t note that popular opinion judges whether fiscal affairs in Sacramento are being managed correctly by the absence of crisis. That is, if there are no dark headlines, things must be OK.

    For many years, until voters changed the rules through a ballot proposition in 2010, a budget could not be passed without a two-thirds vote of the legislature (in both houses). That requirement rarely caused significant delay in good times. In bad times, however, budgets were late – sometimes by months – creating a crisis. Bills couldn’t be paid without budgetary authorization, even if cash was on hand to do so. Thus, delay and crisis in Sacramento was a signal to the voters that something was wrong and that fiscal affairs were being mishandled. Typically, pollsters would detect a sharp drop in favorability ratings of the governor and legislature when budget delays occurred.

    Crisis via delay was a crude public signal, but it was a highly visible signal. Delays in budget enactment at least gave an indication of a problem before fiscal affairs reached a point – as occurred in 2009 – that cash couldn’t be found to pay all bills and IOUs had to be issued instead. Now that the delay signal is gone (thanks to the end of the supermajority requirement), the need for consistent budget definitions of concepts such as deficits is heightened.

    Yes, Governor Jerry Brown got voters to approve a “rainy day” fund that is supposed to (help) avert future fiscal crises. But the rainy day fund itself tends to obscure the issue of whether there is a deficit so long as a crisp definition of that concept is not mandated. The flows into and out of the General Fund now have to be added to the flows into and out of the rainy day fund to calculate deficits and surpluses properly.

    You can find the elements of such a conclusion in the lecture. But after a replay, I have to conclude that the implication may not be apparent. Next year, I will have to clarify. In the meantime, all that can be said is that such policy reforms as removing the two-thirds budget rule or creating a rainy day fund have unintended consequences. Perhaps that is another point that also needs to be made next year.

  • 05 Apr 2016 8:54 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 4-4-16: What is the Point?

    Daniel J.B. Mitchell

    The Mitchell’s Musings column resumes now that the UCLA winter quarter has ended along with the course I co-teach each winter with Michael Dukakis on California Policy Issues. UCLA’s winter quarter consists of ten weeks of instruction (plus a week for exams). Each week of the course is devoted to a different area of public policy, although there is often a significant overlap between the various subjects.

    In particular, the topic of week 8 is California economic policy. Each year, I give a presentation in that week involving PowerPoint slides and videos on state economic policy. Although the presentations each year have been similar, they are updated and evolve as events change. You can find the latest version at the link below:  (About an hour and a half in five parts.)

    There is a key point in the presentation: If you think of economic policy in the short-term macroeconomic sense (trying to flatten out the business cycle), there isn’t a great deal California can do.  The California business cycle is pretty much a reflection of the U.S. business cycle and the policy instruments needed to deal with that issue are largely in the hands of the federal – not the state - government. Much of the impotence at the state level lies with the fact that states do not have independent monetary policies since they don’t have their own currencies. The states of the United States are part of the larger U.S. dollar zone. What countries in the euro-zone have discovered, perhaps to their dismay, is that giving up their national monetary systems meant that they have become as limited in macro affairs as are states with the U.S.

    However, despite the greatly constrained capacity of states such as California to deal with macroeconomic affairs, that fact has not limited the ability of the electorate to hold governors responsible for local economic conditions. It’s best not to be a governor during a downturn. Being a governor in the expansion phase is far more pleasant. As California governor Jerry Brown recently commented while reflecting upon the current state expansion:

    "It's quite remarkable what California's been able to do. That won't always be, and when that turns around, I think the job [of governor] will be far more challenging than it is today."[1]

    During Hard Times, despite the seeming unfairness of holding a governor responsible for something that ultimately has to be dealt with at a higher level, there is often some justice in it. When they stand for election, governors and other state and local officials often take credit for good economic conditions when those circumstances are present. If they are candidates for office (but not actually in office) during election campaigns, they may well blame incumbents for Hard Times and promise to do something about conditions. So voters can’t be faulted from attributing to governors more economic authority and control than they actually have.

    There is an interesting question, one which is not raised in the class presentation since the course is confined to the state level. Numerous studies indicate that presidential elections are influenced by the state of the national macro-economy. And my presentation does note that the macro-economy is largely the province of the federal government which does have a monetary system and, thus, a monetary policy. State and local governments can’t create money; the federal government can. But in the American system, what exactly is the federal government?

    It isn’t just the President (any more than a state within the U.S. is just the governor). There are three distinct branches of government and fiscal policy, even if the President can propose a particular fiscal approach, is largely a matter for the Congress (with the judiciary chiming in on whether what Congress did is constitutional). Apart from the three branches, the Federal Reserve is quasi-autonomous by design. The President cannot order up a particular monetary policy. But as at the gubernatorial level, that fact doesn’t prevent presidents from taking credit for good economic conditions. And it doesn’t prevent presidential candidates from claiming that they will unilaterally produce improved conditions.

    In the class presentation, I note that there is a difference between macroeconomics in the short-term, business-cycle sense of the word - as we have been using it above - and long-term trends. Averaging out the business cycle, what is the underlying growth trend of a state? It could be faster, slower, or the same as the national trend of which it is a component. Obviously, there are external factors beyond state control that can affect the long-term trend. In the California case, from World War II until the end of the Cold War, the state growth rate was boosted by military-related expenditures from the federal government as can be seen in Appendix A. So world events were an important economic driver for California.

    However, even though there was an outside boost to state growth, California took advantage of the tax revenues that the boost generated to build up its physical and educational infrastructure. Those investments were expenditures that helped reinforce the effect of the external stimulus. Indeed, one could argue that much of the challenge facing California after the end of the Cold War involved (and still involves) maintaining and expanding that Cold War-era infrastructure in a period when the pie is not expanding as fast as the old trend.

    In short the lesson I hope the students in California Policy Issues take away is to be skeptical of candidates at the state and local level who promise quick economic miracles, particularly during periods of national economic difficulty. And while the federal/presidential story is more complex than the state and local version, at least I hope they will remember that under the U.S. system of governance, presidents cannot decree monetary and fiscal policies. They are not dictators, beneficent or not.


    [1] Brown was governor in the 1975-83. In 2005, he was back in California state politics and joked and philosophized about the limits of the role of governor at a conference at UCLA:


    Appendix A: California’s Post-Cold War Deviation from Cold War Employment Trend

  • 28 Dec 2015 10:44 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    A 1947 children’s record intended to teach kids tolerance of others – The Churkendoose – ended with a song whose refrain was “It depends on how you look at things.”[1] It came to mind when I saw a recent NPR interview with President Obama. The interview dealt largely with terrorism and Middle East policy.

    But it then turned to a variety of domestic issues including black-lives-matter protests, campus protests more generally, and issues of blue-collar workers who – the President said – have economic difficulties which are being exploited by candidate Donald Trump.[2]

    The President’s view of the problems of blue-collar workers was basically that grand forces – globalization, technology, etc. – were moving against that group and leading to “frustration.” The old deal that these workers once had, or perhaps their parents had, is gone or going. However, when you look at the chart below from the Economic Policy Institute, it suggests that the “frustration” issue may be more general than just blue-collar workers.[3] The chart focuses on all prime age workers (25-54) so trends in staying in school and/or early retirement are not likely to have much impact. The drop in the employment-to-population ratio since 2000 suggests a broader labor market issue than just one affecting blue-collar folks. The ratio is still below 1990 levels despite the marked drop in unemployment rate since the Great Recession. 

    How you look at the empirical data, as The Churkendoose song says, “depends.” The President, in his interview, sees the adversity in the labor market as something that just happened. When you view the data as something that just happened, you are tilted toward the notion that nothing could be done - could have been done - about the consequences. Blind forces such as globalization are seen as akin to the weather, i.e., forces of nature. It’s safe to say that this view of labor market trends is widely shared by many mainstream commentators. At best, they think, the only thing to be done is to offer palliative care after the fact (food stamps?) and to advise or encourage the younger generation of incoming workers to go to college. 

    Trends in technology are indeed weather-like in their genesis. Globalization, on the other hand, or at least its domestic impact, is susceptible to public policy. Indeed, from its founding in the late 18th century through at least the first half of the 20th century, the politics of the U.S. often revolved around what to do about global competition. You can call the debate protectionism vs. free trade if you like. But it was a major American political issue. And the debate was often put in terms of labor-market impacts of external competition. 

    Thus, it’s really not true that the domestic impact of globalization is like the weather. It may be cold outside. But what the temperature is indoors has a lot to do with whether you choose to open the window. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the window wasn’t all that open. For a variety of reasons, a policy decision was made in the U.S. to open it.

    The decision to reduce protection, starting with the Kennedy administration, was made with regard to foreign affairs considerations in the context of the Cold War. But in recent years, it is less protection that is the issue when it comes to the domestic labor market impact and more the U.S. trade (im)balance. The U.S. could – as we have noted in many prior musings – have chosen to take steps to reduce and eliminate the trade deficit. It has chosen not to do so, apparently for foreign policy reasons related especially to relations with China and Japan. (We want China to cooperate on such problems as North Korea and Iran. And we want Japan to be a counterweight to China.) So while the President and his predecessors have depicted the labor market impacts of globalization as something over which they have no control, that stance depends on a view that no policy decisions were, or are, involved.

    In short, it depends on how you (choose to) look at things - and how you then frame them.
    NOTE: During the 2016 winter quarter at UCLA, I will be teaching. Hence, weekly Musings posts will not resume until April 2016. However, if some issues arise before April on which I can’t resist commenting, I will do so.


  • 21 Dec 2015 2:06 PM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    I went to a play entitled “Straight White Men” at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, California recently. The play, written by an Asian female, tells the story of a retired father and his three adult sons who are home for Christmas. Mom has died earlier and there are no wives or other women in the cast. It wasn’t exactly clear what Dad had done for a living in the past but all appeared to be middle class, college educated men. One son was a banker (divorced). Another was some kind of academic or teacher who was in therapy. The third, around whom the play revolves, is a Harvard grad who seems to be clinically depressed. He bursts out crying at one point without an obvious cause, to the dismay of the other characters.

    The Harvard son was apparently expected to do great things in the world of do-good nonprofits, but he has apparently drifted from job to job taking on only menial roles. At present, he seems to be running a copying machine for some nonprofit organization. He has moved back in with Dad due to his monetary problems: low earnings and unpaid college debt. Dad offers to pay off the debt, academic son recommends therapy, and banker son and Dad try to teach the Harvard son how to interview for better jobs (look the interviewer in the eye, etc.). However, the depressed son won’t cooperate and, at the end, Dad gives him some money and tells him to leave the house. Interspersed in the play were occasional references to white privilege.

    I can’t tell you what this drama was supposed to mean. After the play ended, there was an organized session of audience discussion which wasn’t very enlightening. But there is an interesting question, apart from the family drama. Assuming the characters in the play were supposed to represent straight white men, how representative were they? Again, forget the “social significance” element. I am just talking demographics.

    The characters come from what appears to be a well off middle class family with college educations. (Harvard, no less, for the depressed son!) What fraction of the group they are supposed to represent fit that model? Let’s look at Census data on educational attainment by race for men. What percent of various racial groups had a BA (or more) in 2014? The table below gives the numbers.[1] I list the results for all men 25 years old and older, 45-49 years (maybe the sons’ age group), and 65-69 (maybe Dad’s age).

                    White         Asian        Black       Hispanic*
    All 25+         35.9%         54.7%        20.4%          14.2% 
    45-49           37.7          56.4         20.9           16.2
    65-69           37.2          50.9         19.3           20.3
    *Any race

    Now the Census does not give a further breakdown by sexual orientation. But as best we can determine, well over 60% of adult white non-Hispanics of whatever orientation don’t have a college degree.

    Ironically for a play written by an Asian female, the only demographic group where at least a majority of adult men have a college degree is Asians. The biggest contrasts in college degree attainment are Asian vs. black and Asian vs. Hispanic.

    It’s unlikely that the 60-plus percent of non-college degree white males are having conversations about white privilege. (For that matter, it’s unlikely that they are the typical of patrons of the Kirk Douglas Theater.) Again, numbers tell the story.

    The Appendix to this musing has some data on trends of three sectors of the economy that are heavily male in employment and heavily using of folks with less than a college degree. I also pulled some recent data together that suggest that the three sectors would collectively have a workforce that would be well over half non-Hispanic white male. Manufacturing, the biggest, has been in a long term decline since the 1980s. In contrast, construction was doing OK until the Great Recession. But, while it’s now improving since the bottom of that recession, construction employment is still at the absolute levels of the late 1990s. The smallest of the three sectors, mining and logging, is heavily affected by the ups and downs of oil prices (oil extraction is classified as “mining”), but that sector is essentially trendless over the long period shown. Moreover, the recent decline in oil prices has now adversely affected this sector.

    In short, the job market doesn’t look so hot for those non-college degree white males, straight or otherwise. And those males comprise the core of the disaffected group that some recent opinion polls suggest is behind the Trump phenomena in the Republican presidential race. So perhaps thinking about the job prospects for this group was what was depressing the play’s socially-minded Harvard son. Perhaps the Harvard son, unlike the playwright apparently, had cared to look up the numbers.

    [1] Source: 

  • 14 Dec 2015 9:57 AM | Daniel J.B. Mitchell (Administrator)

    Organizations nowadays have business plans for the lines of activity in which they hope to succeed. The business plans for terrorist groups – even if not formalized as such - involve recruitment by commission of the most outrageous atrocities they can conceive. For example, the attacks in Paris seemed to be mainly a recruitment tool for those attracted to such behavior, thus perpetuating the organization. The new recruits join the organization and follow its coordinated plans or, without formally joining, they commit similar atrocities that they choose on their own (as appears to be the case in San Bernardino). Thus, even though such attacks are often suicidal, enough new recruits are attracted to replace those who perish. 

    Of course, the leaders of organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaeda don’t themselves commit suicide or die in such acts. Osama Bin Laden did not crash a plane into a building. Instead, leaders like Bin Laden induce others to commit suicidal acts for them. It’s a viable, working business model that has so far been a success.

    The terrorism marketplace seems to operate within a kind of circular “Say’s Law” framework in which supply creates its own demand.[1] Supply (of new atrocities) creates demand for more among a subset of external witnesses for whom the Internet and conventional news media make the images available. A sufficient number of those individuals (it doesn’t have to be a large percentage) who are attracted to such events are induced to supply more of them. The process gives the phrase “vicious cycle” an entirely new meaning.

    I’m no expert on terrorism but I do think that official statements by government authorities indicating that terrorists are being defeated miss the point. Individual terrorists may be defeated. But the overall terror enterprise has developed a successful business plan, in part dependent on social media. Like “crime,” it probably can’t be defeated if defeat is defined as no attacks anywhere, or even just not in the U.S. But like crime, it can be suppressed and discouraged. The sad fact is that terrorism as a problem can be managed, but not solved.

    Terrorism is the extreme example of the phenomenon of outrageous behavior as a successful business strategy. However, there seems to be a related development in less extreme circumstances. The recent statements by GOP candidate Donald Trump – banning Muslims from entering the U.S., etc. – fall into that category. It’s not that other GOP candidates are induced to say exactly the same thing or to say even wilder things. But making outrageous statements attracts both media coverage and supporters. From the news media perspective, even if there are angry editorial denunciations of the remarks, the coverage of them attracts readers, listeners, and viewers. The denunciations, in fact, seem to reinforce the enthusiasm of Trump supporters. So the supply of outrageous statements seems to create a demand for more of them.

    Say’s Law applied to public discourse seems to invoke yet another 19th century economic law: Gresham’s proposition that bad money drives out good.[2] Gresham’s Law was a product of the U.S. bimetallism (gold vs. silver) monetary standard of that era. Under Gresham’s law, the metal which is of relatively high value disappears from circulation as a currency and is replaced through market forces by the low-value metal. The contemporary version is that bad discourse drives out good. Outrageous statements are a successful business strategy.

    As the Gresham effect has operated in recent days, economic concerns seemed to have totally disappeared from the presidential campaign. Remember the debate about the proposed TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) accord and its potential effects on the domestic economy? Whatever you may think about that issue, you haven’t seen much about it of late. Similarly, the Pew Research Center a few days ago released a report documenting the relative decline of the American middle class.[3] Not much discussion was to be found about that development, either. 

    That lack of attention is especially of interest since declining economic opportunity seems to be an underlying influence animating the most enthusiastic Trump Republican supporters: individuals with less than a college degree. In fact, neither political party can claim to have done much for them in that area. Telling them to get their degrees and even promising subsidies to do so – the Democrats’ response – is not all that helpful.

    In fact, the days of presidential campaigns based on “it’s-the-economy-stupid” seem to have evaporated in the market for outrage. Undoubtedly, another recession would refocus the public discussion on the economy, but a recession is hardly a result to be desired. And there is an interesting question of whether, if a recession did occur, public policies could be mounted – as they were in 2008 – to prevent a disastrous downward spiral. 

    We now, post-2008, have banks supposedly too large to fail and political gridlock and polarization that might let them fail. That possibility alone should be of concern to presidential candidates and the electorate. But you haven’t heard much about it, have you? In the marketplace for outrage, you probably won’t. Still, the odds that you will be adversely affected by a recession in the future are much greater than the odds you will be the victim of a terrorist.

    Happy Holidays.


    [1] Say’s Law is the 19th century economic proposition that supply creates demand (because the income paid out to those who produce the supply becomes their demand for products). You can find numerous expositions on the web, e.g.,  




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