Wats On My Mind: Polling NOL readers about COVID-19

538 has some interesting new polling data. While the vast majority of respondents in the US agreed that social distancing et al is the right thing to do right now, there is a large and rapidly growing split between Democrats and Republicans on the future, and whether the worst is over or not. Their story fits what’s going on on my Facebook feed certainly. But I was curious what Notes on Liberty readers think (wherever in the world you happen to be living). Which of the following best describes your outlook in your country? Please choose only one:

a) There will be a 2nd or even 3rd wave during 2020 that will be far worse than we have had so far. Total deaths in my country will more than triple from where they are today. The highest number of new deaths in a single day is in the future. (For the US, that’s more than 255k deaths total and more than 4000 dead in a single day; for the UK and Italy, that’s more than 100k dead; and so forth)

b) There will be a 2nd or even 3rd wave during 2020 that will be worse than we have had so far. Total deaths in my country will double from where they are today. (For the US, that’s more than 170k deaths total and a return to 2000-3000 dead per day in on average; for the UK and Italy, that’s more than 65k dead; and so forth)

c) Right now is the worst it will be. Total deaths will increase from where they are today, but at a decreasing rate.

d) We have already survived the worst of the infections and death (For the US, total deaths will be less than 170k and average dead per day will not increase above 2000 again; and so forth).

And let me ask you a second polling question about civil liberties that have been constrained during the quarantine in most countries. Which of the following describe(s) your outlook? Feel free to answer more than one:

e) The restriction of my civil liberties will be temporary (less than 6 months).

f) The restriction of my civil liberties will be long lasting, but eventually I’ll get them back (6 months – 3 years)

g) The restriction of my civil liberties will be nearly permanent (3+ years)

h) The restriction of my civil liberties was a deliberate power grab by the state

i) The restrictions on civil liberties successfully prevented many more deaths in the last few months and in the future

j) The restrictions on civil liberties successfully prevented many more deaths in the last few months, but not many in the long run

k) The restrictions on civil liberties may have prevented some deaths in the last few months, but not many in the long run

Wats On My Mind: the state of the economy

I wrote the following update for my Principles of Macroeconomics students and thought it might just count as an update for Wats On My Mind.

In the first two minutes of class, I asked you how you would know how the economy is doing. Let’s focus on our three big areas: GDP, unemployment, and inflation.

Initial estimates are that GDP decreased by 4.8% in the first quarter (Jan-Mar). Let me comment on that a bit:

  1. That number is almost certainly inaccurate. It will be revised 3 months from now, 6 months from now, and be finalized 9 months from now. That is totally normal – as more and more data rolls in, our estimates get better. My bet is that the number is worse than that because closed firms won’t be reporting anything yet.
  2. The number for the second quarter will certainly be worse than that. We were only closed for 2-3 weeks in March, so the fact that we’re done that much in such a short window is a bad sign. We have already been closed longer in this quarter and the careful, measured opening we’re doing right now – which I think is wise to prevent a new spike of cases – won’t make for an instantaneous rebound.
  3. This is as bad as we saw during the Great Recession, but faster. Again, my hope and expectation is that our recovery will also be faster.
  4. GDP dropped in the EU by 14%. So it could be a lot worse!

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also released new numbers. So far 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment. That is roughly 18-19% of the workforce. This is officially, as expected, the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression in the 1930s. The good news is that the number of new applicants has been going down each week, from 6.8 million at the end of March to “only” 3.8 million last week. (Recall: That’s still 4x larger than the previous high set in the 1980s.) The other bit of good news is that 90% of unemployed workers expect to return to their old job, while that number is usually only 40%. That gives me more encouragement that we could quickly bounce back.

Inflation is DOWN. If this were primarily a supply shock, we would be seeing overall higher prices. That means the drop in aggregate demand is bigger than the supply shock. To a Keynesian or a Monetarist, that also means that all the fiscal and monetary stimulus we have done so far is not enough and more needs to be done. To a Classical economist, the thing that needs to be fixed is still supply – demand itself is not terribly important. A Hayekian, of course, thinks all this stimulus is making things worse – it messes with the price signals markets rely on.

To get a rough estimate of where inflation is going, I have been recommending comparing TIPS bonds to nominal bonds because the difference between the interest rate on those bonds (the TIPS spread) is the market’s best guess of inflation. As you can see here the TIPS spread fell from 1.8% in 2019 to 0.5% at the end of March. During April, it has recovered slightly to 1-1.2%. A very rough guesstimate based on that suggests we would need a stimulus 3x as large as we have done right now to return inflation expectations to normal. !!!

The very idea of having Congress spend an extra $5 trillion on top of what is already being done is more than my little fiscally-conservative heart can comprehend just now. Politically, though, I expect Congress will find it in their hearts/re-election campaigns to have another round of stimulus. The Federal Reserve has even called on Congress to spend more, so have no fears of monetary offset hampering anything. Here is a monetarist arguing the Fed needs to do a great deal more to ensure spending expectations don’t fall. One of the points, though, is that we should not expect hyperinflation is around the corner.

On that first day, most students suggested looking at the stock market. From Feb 21-Mar 23 the Dow lost 10,000 points – 1/3 of its value. Since then it has recovered more than half. Notice that the drop came BEFORE quarantine and that the stock market has been recovering even as unemployment has climbed to record heights. This is another reason I don’t recommend imagining that the stock market gives a clear and unbiased view of what’s going on in “the economy”! The situation right now is clearly much worse than it was a month ago, so trying to figure out current conditions would not make sense. If I wanted to give it the best spin possible, I’d say the stock market is predicting better times ahead despite how bad things currently are.

 A few other data points:

  • 59% of Americans say they can social distance as long as needed, which is up from a few weeks ago. (Gallup)
  • Western European countries started reopening earlier than we have and they are starting to see an increase in cases and deaths again. Now, so far that’s only a 3-day trend and it could just be a blip, but it’s not encouraging.
  • Most people are actually behaving like decent, responsible people during the crisis – and they usually do.

Watson my mind … while I walk the streets of Moscow

I’m running a teacher training program this week in Moscow. While I will have wordier thoughts later, this piece of street art needs no commentary:
2020-01-27 09.02.31

Romance Econometrics

I had a mentor at BYU, Prof. James McDonald, who tried to convince us that

  • Econometrics is Fun.
  • Econometrics is Easy.
  • Econometrics is Your Friend.

One of his classes made a bronze plaque out of it for him. He also tried to convince us that Economics is Romantic because this one guy took a girl to his class on a date and she married him anyway. Because he was one of the economists I’ve tried to model my life after, I’ve always been on the lookout for ways to convince people that econometrics is, in fact, fun, friendly, easy, and romantic.

A while back, Bill Easterly blogged about how marriage search is like development, and in the process talking about how unromantic economists can be:

I recently helped one of my single male graduate students in his search for a spouse.

First, I suggested he conduct a randomized controlled trial of potential mates to identify the one with the best benefit/cost ratio. Unfortunately, all the women randomly selected for the study refused assignment to either the treatment or control groups, using language that does not usually enter academic discourse.

With the “gold standard” methods unavailable, I next recommended an econometric regression approach. He looked for data on a large sample of married women on various inputs (intelligence, beauty, education, family background, did they take a bath every day), as well as on output: marital happiness. Then he ran an econometric regression of output on inputs. Finally, he gathered data on available single women on all the characteristics in the econometric study. He made an out-of-sample prediction of predicted marital happiness. He visited the lucky woman who had the best predicted value in the entire singles sample, explained to her how he calculated her nuptial fitness, and suggested they get married. She called the police.

He goes on from there to describe how he eventually did find a mate and makes a comparison with development and over-reliance on econometric methods. As popular as it is in Libertarian circles to bash on econometrics, I’d like to defend empirics by pointing out that his regression advice was not sound:

1 – The suitor’s regressions ignored the self-selection bias. Regressions only tell us what the ‘average’ effects are, that is the effect for the ‘average’ person. Making the average guy happy is only relevant if he is the average guy. Economists being the strange lot we are, it is likely that it takes a special kind of person to marry one of us. He ought to have found a bunch of guys very similar to himself and examine the qualities that made a difference from among (and this is key) the population of women willing to marry guys like him – the women who self-select themselves into our group. If he then approached a women who was not in that group, no wonder he was rejected! I knew I had my work cut out for me since I was in junior high: a Latter-day Saint economist-in-embryo who read Shakespeare “in the original Klingon”, and who carried a briefcase to school? Small sample sizes indeed!

2 – He ignored endogeneity. Instead of trying to convince her that research showed she would make him happy, he needed to present research that demonstrated he would make her happy, and that’s the other half of the regression: male qualities on marital happiness. No wonder she rejected him: his regressions didn’t answer her question!

Personally, I took more of a Bayesian approach. Bayesians believe that a lot of things in life (like regression coefficients) are random and over time we get better and better signals about where the truth is, but we only ever approach it by degrees. First, by trying to become a friend, I identified if a woman was in the group of people who might marry someone like me. Each interaction gave me more information about the error term and the regression coefficients about fostering a happy, loving friendship that could endure. After any failed relationship, I had a new variable or two to add to my equations and I understood the ‘relationships’ between relationship variables better. That might be about finding out different things I needed (hunh, so her political affiliation isn’t as important as I thought and her willingness to smile at me is vital) or about learning more and better policies over time that I could enact to make her happier (tips for being a better listener or learn to identify her love languages and feed them to her regularly).

One of the most important regression-related romance tips I learned was to control the variables I could control, and leave the residual in God’s hands. I recall a graduate labor economics research seminar where the presenter claimed that the marriage market always cleared. I complained that I was willing to supply a great deal more marriage than had ever been demanded at prevailing prices. I was reassured that the marriage market clears in equilibrium, and I might not have found my equilibrium yet. The presenter’s prediction was, thankfully, prescient: I found a buyer a year later, and last week we celebrated 5250 days of married bliss.

Watson my mind today: culture change

That, and spring time: that mystical time of year when a young student’s fancy turns to their neglected grades and wonders if there is anything they can do once the semester is over to raise them.

Culture is an emergent order. It cannot be owned, so you can’t have a “right” to a culture. It can’t be controlled, and while it can be influenced, it’s a complex system so beware lest your efforts backfire.

— Change doesn’t come, until it comes quickly. This serves as another reminder of the importance of keeping true ideals alive even when they are unpopular and they seem doomed to obscurity.

— It is also a warning about other changes, such as the growing anti-natalism of the left, brought in through environmentalism.

Caplan’s review of Moller’s Governing Least. “Instead of focusing on the rights of the victims of coercion, Moller emphasizes the effrontery of the advocates of coercion.” Even if “exceptions abound” to the “common-sense morality … that rights to person and property are not absolute … Moller sternly emphasizes … that these exceptions come with supplemental moral burdens attached.” Highly recommended.

— Responding to Ambassador Araud’s claim that the culture of neoliberalism and free trade are dead, Sumner says “Intellectuals focus too much on interesting rhetoric and too little on mundane reality.”

— On the importance of a culture that allows people to repent and change, that allows someone to apologize, make amends, and receive public forgiveness.

Watson my mind today: labor markets

And how ‘bout them Dodgers, hunh? Actually, how about each division’s top team? That’s a lot of winning!

— A partial response to Marx’ claim that managers are expropriating the value produced by the workers while providing nothing themselves: “The study showed that managers didn’t just influence the results their teams achieved, they explained a full 70% of the variance. In other words, if it’s a superior team you’re after, hiring the right manager is nearly three-fourths of the battle.”

— Boudreaux wonders what supposedly-enormous transaction cost prevents firms from offering workers a choice of pay packages – buying more parental time for a lower wage, for instance. One commenter notes their firm does just that, letting workers buy back vacation time. This is also, of course, standard practice in much of academia, where faculty are allowed to reduce their teaching load in exchange for a salary cut – usually funded by a research grant.

— Sumner on how labor market reforms (including cutting unemployment benefits) helped Germany and Israel to lower average unemployment rates and increase economic growth.

— But there appears to be a great deal that only deregulation will not be able to change. A new paper by Berger and Engzell finds correlation between the European-country-of-origin of people in modern US and the level of inequality and intergenerational mobility. Institutions persist for a very, very long time … again. (Homework: How does this apply to the reparations debate?)

— Another new paper by Fone, Sabia, and Cesur finds that higher minimum wages increase property crime arrests – contra expectations – so that “a $15 Federal minimum wage could generate criminal externality costs of nearly $2.4 billion.”

— A history of civil asset forfeiture tells how the British Crown’s attempt to encourage the Royal Navy to enforce trade restrictions and tariffs became so widely used in modern America.

— Summers and Sarin show that wealth taxes will take in much less than their proponents hope.

Watson my mind today

Apart from grading, reviewing, and my soon-to-be 5-yr-old’s birthday, that is…

–  A good question from Don Boudreaux. “Assuming (contrary to fact) that American trade deficits do necessarily cause Americans’ indebtedness to foreigners to rise, why do you bemoan these deficits? Why not instead cheer them? … Being indebted to foreigners means that we Americans must repay these debts, which in turn means that we Americans must in the future work to produce more goods and services for export. Isn’t this situation precisely what you and other protectionists want? Isn’t a rise in the demand for American exports – especially a rise not derived from, or offset by, a simultaneous rise in American imports – your very ideal?”

–  Speaking of protectionism, Tyler Cowen on Elizabeth Warren’s agriculture proposal: “a disappointment on two fronts: too wonky to be considered a purely political document, but not nearly wonky enough to be defensible in terms of substance.” It fails to understand inflation and food price data, calls for more protectionism, and doesn’t remove subsidies. He says he might be persuadable on a “right to repair” law, but worries about copyright infringement.

–  One of the issues Ludwig von Mises himself, I am told, never fully settled in his mind was over patents and copyright. It seems a necessary evil to encourage innovation, but granting someone a government-sanctioned monopoly just grates the wrong way. Now we’ve got “patent trolls” to add to the mix, who do not innovate themselves but buy up patents to collect licenses and sue or threaten to sue others. A paper finds that patent trolls encourage more upstream innovation while discouraging downstream innovation.

–  Why does Scott Sumner simultaneously support the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hike last year and expect a cut this year? As a market monetarist, he would like the market to dictate Fed policy and “the fed funds futures market forecasts a rate cut. … Because markets continue to forecast slightly below 2% inflation, even as the economy slows, the market forecast of an interest rate cut should be taken as evidence that a rate cut is probably needed at some point this year.” I also enjoyed the picture that goes with the article – he is an owl, neither a hawk nor a dove.

–  There’s a dictionary, detailing how Africans speak about politics, including some fascinating idioms. “Three-piece suit voting” refers to supporting the same party for all elected positions. On the contrary, “skirt-and-blouse voting” means to vote for different parties for presidential and legislative elections.” Other enjoyable examples at the link.

–  538 has an interesting piece on the perceived fairness of kidney donation systems, and the real struggle that still exists trying to get people to accept slightly less-regulated systems (let alone actually compensating donors’ families).

–  David Henderson: Occupational Licensing is a Bad Idea. Still. Really.