Andrew Weaver is Searching for the Skills Gap

Andrew Weaver is doing interesting work on “the skills gap.” One of his key methods is to create new data by interviewing firms. As someone who has looked hard for good data on the skills gap, I can say that we need more work like his.

Weaver’s 2017 paper with Paul Osterman is about data for U.S. manufacturing firms. These findings may or may not generalize perfectly outside of manufacturing, but I think this was a great place to start. There is plenty of talk about the decline of U.S. manufacturing and at least some of the talk was about a lack of skilled Americans to meet the great demand for high-tech doings. For this survey, they only ask about “core workers” who are doing the specialized roles of making widgets.  

Here are two important empirical questions:  a.) do American manufacturing firms want high-skill workers? b.) do they have trouble finding them? The authors answer, “not as much as you might think from policy discussions.”

There are lots of details in the paper that I don’t have time to cover. In table 2, they go over the determinants of a firm facing long-term vacancies. What is common among the (minority of) firms that report having long-term vacancies? Advanced computer proficiency is not associated with difficulty of filling jobs. The implication is that most manufacturing companies around 2017 were able to find workers who had the computer-related skills needed to do the core production tasks. What seemed to be a limiting factor was not computer skills but advanced reading skills. Half of the establishments surveyed said that they require workers with extended reading skills. That could mean, for example, reading a 10-page technical article in a trade journal.

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Will GameStop be as profitable as “Roaring Kitty” predicted in 2019?

He’s been found and he’s talking to the press. He’s known as “Roaring Kitty” on Youtube, and his Reddit username is… something else. The WSJ even talked to his mom which tells you just how much public attention was directed at the event this week that he might be the prime mover of.

The man who convinced a Reddit “army” to drive up the price of Gamestop ($GME) says that he originally simply saw it as a value investment. He believed people would keep shopping there, even though some short sellers on Wall Street bet money on the store going the way of Borders (the way of all flesh).

One of the strange turns of this story is that now people are buying the stock as a means of self-expression. Some of them claim they don’t care if they lose the money they put in. A friend of mine described the scene thusly on his social media account:

#SaveAMC #gamestop Amid the global turmoil, some big banks made billions ‘shorting’ floundering businesses, profiting off of the struggles of failing businesses. Recently those targets were brick and mortar retailers like GameStop and AMC. But the banks got too greedy and shorted too far, so individual investors rallied to invest in these businesses to simultaneously save their favorites and stick it to the banks. Power to the people.

He describes GameStop as a “failing business” and simultaneously declares it a favorite of consumers.

The $GME episode might have been as fun as playing a video game. Will anyone think it’s exciting to shop at GameStop 2 years from now?

If the short sellers were right, then who is helped by prolonging the agony? If the short sellers were wrong, then they will pay anyway.

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Sex Ratios and the Marriage Market: WW1

Last week I wrote about the “marriage market“. In many ways, the marriage market is like a labor market: there are search costs, match quality, competition for mates, and so on. When one side of the market becomes more abundant, that side become less picky — their minimum willingness to accept goes down.

Today we examine war as a shock that makes women more abundant than men. The marriage market predicts this shock will mean a smaller fraction of women will marry but those that do receive a smaller share of the benefits from marriage. Also, a larger fraction of men will marry and receive a larger share of the benefits from marriage.

Ran Abramitzky, Adeline Delavande, and Luis Vasconcelos investigate marriage in pre-and-post World War 1 (WW1) France where an estimated 16.5 percent of the French male population died or were missing in WW1. You can see from the map below that some “departments” suffered greater losses than others. Across France, the sex ratio was nearly even before the war and after the war, “If we focus on singles, widows, and divorces who were 30 years old or younger but of marriageable age, there were approximately 2 men for every 3 women.”

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The GameStop Short Squeeze: Swarm of Small Investors Stings Wall Street Hedge Funds

If you think the price of a stock is going to go up, you can buy shares and wait for the price to go up, then sell the shares to someone else. This is called being “long” a stock. If it turns out that the stock price goes down and stays down, the most money you can lose is the amount you put in, since the stock price cannot go below zero.

But what if you think the stock price is going to go down instead of up? You may believe the price has run up irrationally high, or your analysis uncovers poor earnings prospects. A favorite tactic of Wall Street pros, including hedge funds, in this case is to “short” a stock.

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Vegetarian Culpability

Do you remember that dentist who went to Africa and shot Cecil the lion? I had a vegan friend who said that she would boycott him – had he been her dentist.

I can’t tell you how many questions I had. Why boycott him? In a competitive market, it would have no long-run impact on his economic profits. Was it important that his murder of Cecil was part of his consumption/leisure behavior rather than part of his provision of dental services? Does trading with people who have different preferences make one morally culpable for their consequently afforded activities?

A Trip Down Reasoning Lane

Let’s take some things as given. 

  • My friend is vegan and didn’t want Cecil to be on the receiving end of homicide (leon-icide?). 
  • Big-game hunting was a consumption activity for, who I’ll call, the dentist.
  • Everyone has unique preferences – including moral tastes.
  • Voluntary trade makes both parties better off.
  • There are a variety of input combinations that a firm can adopt in order to create output.
  • Humans are responsible for their own behavior to varying degrees.

My understanding of my friend’s would-be boycott is that lion-hunting was a direct result of the dentist’s inappropriate preferences and economic empowerment. Therefore, boycotting the dentist would reduce the dentist’s budget, and consequently reduce his spending on improper activities. Knowing that the dentist would spend his income in this manner makes each transaction with him a contribution to satisfying his illicit preferences.

Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems

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Minimum Wage vs. EITC: Who Pays?

My co-blogger Mike Makowsky has a great post earlier this week about the minimum wage. Go read it before you read my post. When Mike said he was bothered by the notion that “the welfare state must be channeled through employment,” I very much nodded in agreement. It reminded me of a frustration I have with the entire debate about the minimum wage vs. the Earned Income Tax Credit as policy tools to help out the least well-off in society (yes, some argue they are complements, but let’s put that debate aside for the moment).

Here’s my frustration. In both the popular discussion and occasionally among academics/policy wonks, the difference between the minimum wage and the EITC is often framed this way: employers pay for the minimum wage, but the government pays for the EITC. I know there are important questions about the incidence of the minimum wage, but let’s assume that the proponents of higher minimum wages are correct, and the full cost comes out of business profits.

But the distinction between “employers” and “the government” is not a useful one. Where does the government get its revenue to pay for things like the EITC (or alternatively, food stamps)? They must come from society. There is some diversion of real resources from Group A to Group B. Group A is, in the case of the minimum wage, the owners of businesses — in other words, individuals with high incomes. Group B is the workers. But this is true in the case of both the minimum wage and the EITC!

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The Minimum Wage as Capitulation

It is an odd thing watching the pro-labor, pro-redistribution portions of our advocacy and activism classes capitulate to the notion that the welfare state must be channeled through employment. When did this framing become so dominant? One of you just yelled “the Welfare Reform Act of 1996!” through my office window, but I think that’s wrong. I think the game was lost when we decided the minimum wage was a core policy signifier. There’s something irresistible about it– if there is one thing median voters everywhere seem to agree on is that their wage should be higher and their rent lower. Everything else is policy nerd gobbly-gook.

To my mind, the minimum wage is a policy failure strictly on the terms of (my own) left-of-center preferences. It is a victory of both political framing and strategy for coalitions against economic redistribution and the social safety net. That most of the left doesn’t even see this as a defeat makes it all the more devastating. Those outside the workforce are quietly placed outside the discussion and, in turn, are of secondary concern. More subtly, and perhaps more importantly, though, it builds into the policy construct a bargain that must be repeated and updated as national and local price levels change. Those repeated bargaining events force supporters to expend resources in each new iteration while, at the same time, giving their antagonists votes they can dangle when trying to secure support for their own pet policies. You want a higher minimum wage? Well, I’ve got a military procurement bill coming up next month that is slated to build 4 more F-35s in my district...

I subscribe to the belief that the failures of the US healthcare system most frequently stem from its connection to employment. Instead of heavily (or, yes, even entirely) subsidizing its purchase by consumers, we instead opted to grant a tax break to insurance provision by employers and here we are. The Affordable Care Act tried to weaken this connection, but still we are here. If you believe that health care is a human right, then connecting it to employment is a grievous error. If you believe a “living wage” is a human right, then why would you advocate making the same mistake again? We don’t live off wages, we live off consumption. If you want to guarantee an adequate standard of consumption, why would you include my employer as a go-between?

Which is not to say there isn’t political value to be mined from the $15 minimum wage debate. It has certainly crested the threshold of credible threat. It could be used as a political cudgel to bargain for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), and then bundled with the carrot: repeal the minimum wage entirely from the US law books in return for a $1,000 a month UBI that every citizen receives once they are no longer claimed as a legal dependent. For all the theoretic struggles the market might have with distortionary effects of a price floor (unemployment, low-cost discrimination) and substitution effects of a more expensive labor force (robots), I have all the faith in the world it can handle broad income effects just fine, thank you very much.

When economists talk about the minimum wage in bars, amongst themselves, without cheering and jeering onlookers, it is almost inevitably turns into a story of technocratic calibration. If we accept there is non-zero monopsony power, but also eventual disemployment effects, given the observed numbers, the optimal minimum wage is X% of the Zth percentile of the wage distribution. When these conversations happen on twitter, onlookers and participants are frequently less interested in calibration or generous in spirit. I’ve been on Twitter long enough to know that animal spirits are real, particularly when blood and memes are in the air.

Arguments over the minimum wage nearly always include references to an empirical literature that sometimes finds negative effects on employment while other times finds little to no disemployment at all, quickly followed by the theoretical point that there has to be some minimum wage above which employment would decline (or, at least, shift out of the legal sector). Part of what lets this debate persist are the modest sizes of past minimum wage increases. The one glaring exception I know of is when the Fair Labor Act of 1938 imposed a minimum wage that was roughly four times as large as standard worker wages in Puerto Rico, resulting in 65% unemployment . An exemption for Puerto Rico did not arrive for over two years and it is fair to say large portions of the economy were decimated. Future hikes had similarly negative, but far less cataclysmic, effects on Puerto Rican employment.

When the Fair Labor Act smashed into Puerto Rico with all the technocratic precision of a drunken mammoth, ~65% of the workforce ceased to be employed. But… do we really believe that 65% of people stopped working for a living? Of course not. Rather, the island labor market went gray. Under a hypothetically crushing minimum wage, employers will pay people in cash, off the books. They will hire family members, take them out of retirement or out of school. Yes, they’ll hire robots too, but I’m not really worried about 2nd order employment shifts favoring upper-middle class engineers. What I’m worried about is when whole classes of people enter the gray market (or markets even less legal), they no longer operate under the layering of legal and regulatory protections we often take for granted, especially ostensibly pro-market types who think that labor and safety standards are emergent phenomena. This sounds suboptimal to me, and probably to most labor advocates, but you know who it might sound great to? Libertarians who want the government entirely out of the workplace.

The minimum wage has become a left wing shibboleth, but that doesn’t make it good left wing policy. If anything, its one of the great right-wing gambits of the last 100 years. A policy that undermines its own ambitions at semi-regular intervals and inoculates the political marketplace against superior policies that would help far more people but, yes, would demand a larger tax bill. What more could Republican’s have asked for than a policy that holds the welfare state tax bill at bay and while handing ammunition to the Democratic coalition members purging their own ranks?

Going back to the gym?

Who doesn’t want to be stronger? You can get on the floor and do 5 pushups right now. Did you do it? Probably not. (If you did, great work.) For most people, nothing is stopping you from getting strong, except yourself.

I just keep sitting around. Going to a gym and meeting with an instructor in person used to be a way around this problem. This takes our human foibles and makes them work to our advantage. The sunk cost fallacy can work for us.

If you bought a stock and it’s a loser, you should sell! Too many people keep holding and go down with the ship.

However, knowing themselves, many people also go to the gym and sign up for a class. Not wanting to walk away from their investment, they actually do the classes.

The WSJ reports that many gyms are closing after Covid-19 forced the customers out. The article describes the machines people have brought into their homes to replace gyms. The Peloton is a signature of the year 2020. The new trend brings a live human trainer into the process of exercising alone at home.

The new machines can collect data on the user. This data is transmitted to instructors and maybe even friends. Now, from the comfort of your own home, you can “sign up for a class” again.

Had Covid struck in 1980, people might have bought fitness machines for their basements and they might even have bought a VHS to pop in and exercise with. But they would have been missing the link to a human who knows where they are supposed to be, which apparently provides more motivation.

The market has loved Peloton and smart money seems to think it will continue to do well, even with a vaccine already rolling out.

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The Sound of Silence

I became aware of SlateStarCodex during the online kerfuffle over the popular blogger, Scott, getting his real name and professional identity exposed by the NYT. He’s written a new post about the whole event. He is a victim of sorts, but he doesn’t ask for more sympathy than he deserves. His story is an interesting case study concerning free speech and the internet.

See here the consequences of becoming a known figure in 2020. Quotes from Scott:

The New York Times thought so. Some people kept me abreast of their private discussions (in Soviet America, newspaper’s discussions get leaked to you!) and their reporters had spirited internal debates about whether I really needed anonymity. Sure, I’d gotten some death threats, but everyone gets death threats on the Internet, and I’d provided no proof mine were credible. Sure, I might get SWATted, but realistically that’s a really scary fifteen seconds before the cops apologize and go away. Sure, my job was at risk, but I was a well-off person and could probably get another.

So, you know, death or abuse and unemployment is all. Scott recognizes that some people have it worse. He used his situation to discuss the whole issue of anonymity. Why do people want anonymity to discuss their ideas? Scott brings us some data:

And: a recent poll found that 62% of people feel afraid to express their political beliefs. This isn’t just conservatives – it’s also moderates (64%), liberals (52%) and even many strong liberals (42%). … And the kicker is that these numbers are up almost ten percentage points from the last poll three years ago

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