Gifts for a Time of Inflation and Supply Bottlenecks

I’ve never been great at gifts, and don’t have much in the way of specific ideas now. But I’ve been thinking about what the macroeconomic environment means for gift-giving.

First, as you’ve probably heard by now from us or elsewhere, if you want to get any physical gift I’d order it now, since shipping is a mess and prices are only going up. I’d especially recommend this for complex electronics that could become hard to find- its part of why I got my wife an iPad for her birthday this summer. Foreign food and drink that can be stockpiled is always a good idea, but perhaps especially now; think wine, Scotch, or Beirao liqueur (a Portuguese drink that was my favorite discovery this year). Wine and liquor make good stores of value in an time of inflation.

Alternatively, you could avoid the scarcity of physical goods by turning to the digital realm. If your economistic heart yearns to give cash, consider giving some your favorite stock or cryptocurrency instead- its both more personalized and less subject to inflation. Or if you think you can judge the recipient’s taste well enough, subscribe them to one of your favorite Substacks or podcasts. My recommendations:

Unsupervised Learning, Razib Khan– Genomics and History

The Diff, Byrne Hobart– Finance and Strategy

Astral Codex Ten, Scott Alexander– Rationality, Psychiatry, Everything

The Readers Karamazov– Funny podcast on literature and philosophy (now seems entirely free though)

Or if you really have money to burn, go for the Bloomberg subscription. I always run out of free reads on the Tyler Cowen articles and so can’t read Matt Levine, even though he has the magic ability to teach you finance while making you laugh. But the subscription is expensive and Mike Bloomberg doesn’t need the money, while the Substacks are relatively cheap and enable talented writers to spend a lot more time writing instead of needing to focus on a real job.

You Need a Better Battery

As we did last year, Joy has asked us to recommend some gifts for our readers. My recommendation is simple: a battery.

But not just any battery. I’m not talking about adding to your cardboard box full of AAs, AAAs, and weird watch batteries.

Instead, what you and everyone on your gift list needs is a portable battery for charging your many devices. There are plenty of good options out there, but anything under 30 bucks with at least 20,000mAh (the standard measure for battery life) is what you want. Here’s a good one on Amazon right now which should be $25 after a coupon and gives you 36,800mAh of charging power.

How much battery life is that? An iPhone has around 3,000mAh of power. You can charge an iPhone over 10 times with this thing! That may sound like overkill, but if you are charging multiple devices on a long trip, this battery is worth its weight in gold (it weighs about 13.4 ounces, which would be about $24,000 worth of gold — maybe I’m exaggerating a little).

For better or worse, our devices are how we communicate, navigate, and entertain ourselves on a daily basis. Especially on long trips. You don’t want your phone to die when you land at a strange, new airport. You also don’t want your friend’s phone to die: more than once, I have been the “battery hero” by loaning my portable battery to a friend at a conference.

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Some Gear I Like: Keychain Light, Helicopter Spinner Toy, and Folding Bicycle

Here are three things that I would recommend as gifts, depending on circumstances. The first is a really small, really bright keychain light, the second is a very inexpensive (40 cents apiece) flying spinner, and the third is a bike that folds up.

Photon Keychain Flashlight

I like the tiny lights from PhotonLight.com. They are so small that they do not burden your keychain, but they are powerful and physically tough. Most models are waterproof, and let you change batteries if they wear out. Nowadays everyone has a cell phone with a built-in light, but there are times when I am not actually carrying my phone (I know that may be hard for some readers to conceive of) and I need a flashlight function. If I pull out my keys to use in a dark situation, it is helpful to be able to just feel this little guy on my keychain and squeeze it, rather than pulling out my phone and manipulating that to get a light. I encourage other family members to use these little lights as a safety item.

The base model is the MicroLight I ($7.95):

This one you just squeeze to make it light up. That is perfect it you only need the light for a few seconds at a time. The MicroLight II ($11.95) adds a tiny slider on/off switch, so you can turn it on for minutes at a time, like a regular flashlight.

The Photon light model I carry is the Freedom light ($15.95). It has a number of modes you can access by squeezing for a couple of extra seconds. I put it in flashing light mode to get car drivers’ attention when I need to cross a busy road in our neighborhood. Photon sells a larger, rechargeable, very bright keychain light for $24.95.

Inexpensive Helicopter-Type Spinner Toy

Here is a fun kid toy which is really cheap per capita:

On Amazon it goes by the name of POPLAY Twisty Pull String Flying Saucers/Helicopters, 40 PCS.  Each set consists of a twisty stick, a helicopter spinner, and a little shover piece. You hold the stick in one hand, drop the collar-like shover piece down over it, then thread the spinner down the stick. To launch, hold the shover piece and lift quickly. It the spinner will reliably fly up 10-15 feet and then settle down. Kids can try to catch it on the way down.

For $15.99 you get 40 of these sets, which is 40 cents apiece (!!). So you can hand them out as party favors or whatever.

High Quality, Low-Priced Folding Columba Bicycles

I wanted to get a on-road/off-road bike that would not take up too much room in our townhouse, and that could fit in my Civic trunk. (I ditched my ancient previous bike when we moved a year ago, partly because it would have taken up too much room in our moving pod).

After a lot of roaming the web, I found a vendor that offers direct from-China-to-you savings. (Nearly all bikes are made in China, so there is no getting around that).  2KSilver supplies a wide line of “Columba” brand folding bikes. The Columba name is probably a knockoff of the highly-regarded  “Columbia” brand, but in fact the Columba bikes seem to be solid, middle-grade machines with Shimano derailleurs.   

I eyed their line-up of 20-inch wheel folding bikes, like this one ($250 plus shipping):

It weighs only 27 pounds (  kg) and folds down to 31″x14″x25″. People sometimes take a bike like this on the train for commuting; they can ride to the train station, then ride from the station in town to their office. The 20” Columba bikes look fine for that application, but with the small wheels and the 7-speed gearing only on the back wheel, the internet opinion is that this sort of bike would get tiresome riding long distances or off-road. It might make a good mid-sized children’s bike.

I ended up getting an alloy-framed bike with 26” tires and 18 speeds, for $310 plus shipping:

I have been really happy with it. The tires and gearing are perfect for my casual on/off road use (moderate-length road trips or dirt/gravel trails; not 100-mile marathons or extreme mountain biking). It has shock absorbers in the front fork and below the seat. The frame folds in half, and the seat post and handlebar assembly pop out quickly to make a package that will fit in a cloth bag. But it is a good machine at a good price even if you don’t care about compact storage.

One touch I appreciated about the web site is that (unlike some sites) they were realistic about the comfort level for tall riders. I bought the recommended longer seat post, so my legs are not crunched. They used to offer an extended handlebar stem so you are not so hunched over while riding. That seems to be out of stock, so I bought some “Bar Ends” that attach to the ends of the handlebars and stick up a couple of inches. For a younger teen or for shorter men or most women, these accessories would probably not be needed.

The seat that came with this bike was a perfectly fine, standard narrow seat. However, I find it painful to have my weight on those little “sit” bones like you are supposed to. So I ended up getting a big fat padded Bikeroo bike seat, and then putting a gel seat pad on top of that, for luxurious sitting comfort.

Bottom line: If you are in the market for a general-purpose bike for you or a family member, I’d recommend looking at the bikes available on the 2KSilver site.

La Dolce Vita Economica

I thought about writing about soccer (again). I thought about writing about time management and personal production functions. I considered writing about Lebron James or how I manage multiple research projects. I thought about writing about a classic, and entirely addictive to the point of career ruination, video game. They all seem a little redundant at the moment, though, because they are all the same basic story.

One soccer manager is over-exhausting their resources because of a confluence of bad contractual incentives while another team is witnessing a renaissance in a player they essentially forced to take 7 weeks off. While so many NBA careers of the 80s evaporated in a cloud of cocaine and clubbing, Lebron James’ entire life is built around managing the only two resources whose limits are salient to his life: his body and relationship with his family. Playing baseball growing up I watched pitchers blow out their arms before they finished puberty in service to Little League glory, while modern professional pitchers are (finally) on strictly managed pitch counts to maximize their expected output.

There are two manners in which I armchair quarterback the rest of the world. One is the things in which I have just enough knowledge to be frustrated by others decisions, but no so much as to actually know what I am talking about. These frustrations are ephemeral, they flatter myself to the point of mild embarrassment upon reflection, and, if I am being honest with myself, are fun.

The other manner is resource management. These are the times when armchair quarterbacking is less fun and more exasperating because they are the moments when outsiders, with inferior levels of narrowly-applicable expertise, are often actually right. Which is not to say the knowledge that resources are being poorly managed is uniquely held by outsiders. Insiders are more often than not quite aware of the suboptimal deployment and conservation of resources, but are unable to overcome the status quo institutions, incentives, or inertia of decision-making power loci. It’s obvious to lots of people that athletes, CEOs, doctors, and congressional representatives are over-extended. What’s not obvious is how to get out of these equilibria.

When I see most attempts at self-improvement, I am generally skeptical of anything that doesn’t start with the identification of a key resource that is salient to outcomes and the options available to better manage it. Maybe its calories and how to budget them. Maybe its time and how to better partition and conserve it. It could always be money, but in general I find that money is so immediately identifiable as a finite resource and entirely fungible that people who ostensibly are managing it poorly are, in actuality, failing at managing a different resource (time, emotional energy, vices, etc) that is intertwined with financial resources.

When I see successful firms, teams, and individuals, what I most often find myself admiring is not (just) a worldly talent, but a facility with managing resources that others haven’t yet adopted or mimicked. An appreciation for sleep, a protection of time blocked for creativity, an adeptness trading low opportunity competitive minutes for higher opportunity cost moments on the biggest stages. Or even just the ability to recognize that this is the moment to savor a 600 calorie dessert with a loved one because the emotional sustenance will make it easier to walk away from three vending machine Hostess pies during the high-stress moments in the week to come.

Once you learn to manage your donut-based caloric intake, the spreadsheet of your life will be revealed before you, an endless cascade of resources to be managed and optimized. A life with the right donuts at the right time. The dolce vita economica.

Reading Slavery and American Economic Development

Slavery is a bad and we should rid ourselves of it. One of the arguments made by abolitionists before the Civil War in the United States is that slaves make poor workers and therefore it’s not that costly to get rid of slavery. Of course, it doesn’t matter if slaves worked hard or not. Slavery was a moral abomination, regardless. However, it does make it easier to argue that we should direct government resources to fight enslavers when we can make a case that slavery makes the entire country poorer.

On the one hand, there were many non-slave workers and farmers in North America, demonstrating that products including cotton could be produced by free labor. On the other hand, slavery as an institution expanded into the South and the West, presumably because of the economic advantage it gave to slave-owners.

In Slavery and American Economic Development, economist Gavin Wright states that whether or not slaves were as productive as free/wage labor is hard to measure and also is not hugely important. Slavery might have provided wealth to slave owners in the South, but that is only because of the institutional setting that was created explicitly to maintain the slave society.

The American South had some of the best land in the world for growing cotton and cotton became a lucrative export crop thanks to British demand before the Civil War. Before the Civil War, there were some extremely profitable plantations on which slaves worked. It is true that some enslavers became rich and that drives up what appears to be the GDP per capita in the South at the time.

Wright explains that a slave owner living closer to the East Coast was better able to go on an entrepreneurial venture into Alabama to clear a large plantation for cotton farming than a typical free family farmer. The slave owner could obtain large loans and had a future guarantee of workers (thanks to the local laws and police state). So, something like a modern corporation employing free labor could also have accomplished the venture. But, at the time, it was an opportunity that was easier for enslavers to take advantage of. Free farmers also expanded West into the United States, but they tended to move more slowly and focus on subsistence (e.g. wheat for consumption). That is, partly, what Wright means when he speaks of slavery as a “system of property” as opposed to just a “system of production”. That helps explain why slavery was on the rise in the American South.

Wright also examines slavery as a political regime. In a place with many slaves, resources had to be allocated to policing and preventing revolts. It might have been individually rational for a landowner to offer freedom to slaves as a form of compensation for work, but this was disallowed by that broader political environment. So, everyone was somewhat trapped. Most importantly, the slaves were abused and trapped. But the free residents of the South had to live in a stagnant society. Governments did not invest in schooling, even for white children.

Municipalities in the North were booming and attracting free migrants with public investments. These investments set the North on a path to overtake the South economically and demonstrate which system is superior for creating wealth. Wright blames property owners in the South for continuing to fail to vote for good institutions that foster economic growth after the Civil War.

The (Employment) Depressing Child Tax Credit

For those who didn’t know, as part of the American Rescue Plan, there were some changes made to the Child Tax Credit (CTC) for the tax year 2021.

  • First, the credit was expanded from $2k to $3,600 per child for children under 6 years of age (to $3k otherwise). It’s also fully refundable.
  • Second, half of the credit is being disbursed to tax-filers early: over the latter 6 months of 2021.

What does this mean?

For context, I have 3 children all under that age of 6. My total 2021 CTC is $10,800. Half of that is being distributed as monthly checks from July through December. For me, that’s a check for $900 per month that I had not anticipated. While it is true that I will see less of a remaining credit when I file my taxes by April of 2022, I strongly suspect that most similar households are somewhat short-sighted about these funds.

Depending on the number of children in a household, the monthly check from the IRS can be quite significant. From the parent point of view, there has been a lump-sum transfer. There is no endogenous response to obtain more children – there’s no time for that. The transfer also occurs regardless of any activities, economic or otherwise. In essence, tax-filers with children have experienced a positive income shock.

The big question is: What is the effect on employment?  

In one sense, the effect is ambiguous and depends on preferences: People can now afford more leisure and more consumption. How they engage in more of each is a matter of preference. But, given that both are goods, both will increase by some amount.

That’s my simple model. I hereby make multiple predictions:

  1. Parents with children will have consumed more in the 3rd and 4th quarters of 2021.  
  2. Parents with children will have lower employment growth for those quarters.
  3. The effects will be stronger for parents with children under 6 years of age.
  4. The employment rebound in the 1st quarter of 2022 will be stronger for these groups (and stronger than forecasted overall).
  5. Finally, while I’m feeling silly enough to make predictions publicly, I predict slower growth in consumer durable expenditures in 2022 Q1.

I looked at the BLS for data to corroborate my predictions. Excitingly, the Current Population Survey (CPS) does slice the data by sex, age, and age of own children (conveniently by younger than 6 and 6-17 years of age). This is where I post the great visual to demonstrate the veracity of my claims, right?

WOMP WOMP.

The relevant data is currently only available annually as recent as 2020

The Credibility Revolution: A Nobel for Taking (some of) the CON out of Econometrics

Yesterday Jeremy pointed out that while the 2021 economics Nobelists have reached various conclusions in their study of labor economics, the prize was really awarded to the methods they developed and used.

I find the best explanation of the value of these methods to be this 2010 article by Angrist and Pischke in the Journal of Economic Perspectives: The Credibility Revolution in Empirical Economics: How Better Research Design Is Taking the Con out of Econometrics

Like Jeremy, they think that empirical economic research (that is, research using econometrics) was most quite bad up to the 1980’s; as Ed Leamer put it in his paper “Let’s take the CON out of Econometrics”:

This is a sad and decidedly unscientific state of affairs we find ourselves in. Hardly anyone takes data analyses seriously. Or perhaps more accurately, hardly anyone takes anyone else’s data analyses seriously.

Angrist and Pischke argue that the field is in much better shape today:

empirical researchers in economics have increasingly looked to the ideal of a randomized experiment to justify causal inference. In applied micro fields such as development, education, environmental economics, health, labor, and public finance, researchers seek real experiments where feasible, and useful natural experiments if real experiments seem (at least for a time) infeasible. In either case, a hallmark of contemporary applied microeconometrics is a conceptual framework that highlights specific sources of variation. These studies can be said to be design based in that they give the research design underlying any sort of study the attention it would command in a real experiment.

The econometric methods that feature most prominently in quasi-experimental studies are instrumental variables, regression discontinuity methods, and differences-in-differences-style policy analysis

Our field still has big problems: the replication crisis looms, and the credibility revolution’s focus on the experimental ideal leads economists to avoid important questions that can’t be answered by natural experiments. But I do think that the average empirical economics paper today is much more credible than one from 1980, and that the 3 Nobelists are part of the reason why, so cheers to them.

A Nobel for What?

The Nobel Prize in Economics was announced this week. As usual, Alex Tabarrok has a great description of the contributions of the winners. But I have seen a number of commentators, mostly on “the right,” question this award, especially for David Card. Mostly they have focused on the highlighting of Card’s paper (with the late Alan Krueger) on minimum wages, saying that this paper has been heavily criticized and debunked, or as evidence that “economics has degenerated into socialist propaganda.”

Yikes! If true, these are serious charges against a profession in decline.

But hang on. What’s really going on with the award for David Card? Again, Tabarrok sums it up nicely: “what really made the paper great was the clarity of the methods that Card and Krueger used to study the problem.” What was this clarity?

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Growing/Shrinking Jobs of Next Decade: Good Times Ahead for Nurse Practitioners, Wind Turbine Technicians, and Animal Trainers

The good folks at Visual Capitalist have put together a big juicy infographic depicting employment trends over the next decade, based on projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The vertical axis is % decadal growth for each category, the horizontal axis is 2020 median annual wage for that category, and the size of the bubble indicates the absolute numbers of change. The color of each bubble is keyed to “Occupational Group”, i.e.,  “Health related”, “Computer and mathematical”, etc.

Below I snipped part of the infographic which shows occupations which will be growing. The horizontal positioning (median annual wage) runs from $20,000 on the left to $120,000 on the far right; nurse practitioners fall in the $105,000-120,000 range. The fastest growing, percentagewise, are wind turbine service technicians (68%), followed by nurse practitioners and solar installers tied at about 52%. The biggest absolute numbers of job growth are in “Home health and personal care aides”, to tend aging baby boomers.

From the color coding, we can see at a glance that job growth is mainly in the Health Related and Computer and Mathematical categories, with a smattering of “Other”, including Animal Trainers (for dog obedience schools ??) and Crematory Operators, as those baby boomers age all the way out.

Some of the losing professions are shown below. Most of these are in the “Office and Admin Support” (purple) category and Production workers (including nuclear power reactor operators). Some “Other” categories will get hit hard, such as parking officers and door-to-door salesmen.

Most of these shrinking jobs are lower paid, while many of the growing jobs are better paid. Bottom line: advise your kids to consider careers like data security/analysis, or a health care specialty, including management.