Are We in A Recession?

The truth is, we don’t know. But let’s be clear: whether we are or not doesn’t depend on the 2nd quarter GDP report. Though two consecutive quarters of declining GDP is often cited as the definition of a recession, it’s not the definition economists use. And with good reason.

Instead, the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee uses this definition: “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and that lasts more than a few months.” And they explain why GDP is not their preferred measure, which includes several reasons but this one seems most germane to our current moment: “[the] definition includes the phrase, ‘a significant decline in economic activity.’ Thus real GDP could decline by relatively small amounts in two consecutive quarters without warranting the determination that a peak had occurred.”

If not GDP, what do they look at? I’ll get into more detail later, but in short, they look at monthly measures of income, consumption, employment, sales, and production (a direct measure of production, which GDP is not — it’s a proxy).

However, the American public seems convinced that we are in a recession. The most recent poll I can find on this is from mid-June, which is useful because (as we’ll see below) we have most of the relevant measures of the economy for June 2022 already. In that poll, 56% of Americans say we are in a recession. And while there is some partisan bent to the responses, even 45% of Democrats seem to think we are in a recession. For those that say we are in a recession, 2/3 cite inflation as the primary indicator that we are in a recession.

Already here we can see the difference between the general public and NBER: the rate of inflation is not one of the measures that NBER considers when defining a recession. So, what are the measures they use?

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GDP Growth and Excess Mortality in the G7

Two weeks ago my post looked at GDP growth during the pandemic. But of course, economic growth isn’t the only important outcome to look at in the pandemic. Health outcomes are important too, and indeed I have posted about those in the past alongside GDP data.

Today, my chart looks at the G7 countries (representing roughly half of global wealth and GDP), showing both their economic performance (as measured by real GDP growth) and health performance (as measured by excess mortality through February 2022).

The US has clearly had the best economic performance. But the US also had the highest level of excess deaths per capita (not all of this is from COVID — US drug overdoses are also way up — but even using official COVID deaths, the US still tops this group).

Japan had the best health performance, in fact amazingly no cumulative excess deaths through February 2022 (this has risen very slightly since then, but I stopped in February so all countries had complete data). However, Japan also had slightly negative economic growth.

Which country ends up looking the best? Canada! Very low levels of excess deaths, and at least some positive economic growth. Not as much growth as the US, but Canada is the second best performer in the G7.

To give some context of just how low the level of deaths have been in Canada, first recognize that the US had 1.1 million excess deaths in the pandemic through February 2022. If instead our excess deaths had been roughly equal to Canada on a per capita basis, we would have only had 180,000 excess deaths in the US, saving over 900,000 lives.

Some of Canada’s COVID policy have been overly restrictive, such as the vaccine mandates that sparked protests in February 2022. But by then, Canada had already largely achieved it’s COVID victory over the US and most other G7 nations. Compare excess mortality in Canada with the US: the only big wave in Canada that came close to the US was the Spring 2020 wave. After that, Canada was always much lower.

On Vacation, Does the Law of Demand Apply?

I’m on vacation this week. But no, I’m not just saying this to get out of posting this week, or to brag. Americans really have started going back to the normal routine of vacations after a long break during the pandemic.

You might think that the high price of gasoline will slow down summer travel. Not so, according to estimates from AAA. While the total number of estimated travelers for Independence Day weekend is still slightly below Summer 2019 (by about 1 million travelers), travel by car is predicted to be just above 2019 levels (by about 0.5 million travelers), with 42 million Americans traveling by car. Air travel has been a mess lately and quite expensive (even compared to pre-pandemic levels), and is predicated to be about 0.5 million below 2019. Bus/train/cruise travel is still the big loser, well above the past two summers, but still 1 million travelers below 2019. (These are all estimates, of course, but AAA is in the business of knowing this data well.)

What gives? Basic economic theory would tell us that if the price of something increases, people should buy less of it. And traveling by car is much more expensive than in Summer 2019. We should also think about substitutes, and airline travel is certainly a substitute for car travel. But if we look at what has happened to both airfares and gasoline prices since July 2019, we can see that gasoline prices have increased much more (about 60% vs. 25% for airfares).

So, do we just throw up our hands and say: “it’s just too complicated, lots of factors at play”?

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The Latest GDP Data: First Quarter 2022 in the OECD

Today two data releases for Gross Domestic Product were released. The first release was for the United States, giving us the third and “final” release for first quarter 2022 data. It was down 1.6% from the prior quarter (though we knew this two months ago — not much has changed since the “advance” estimate). That’s not good (but see this great Joseph Politano newsletter for some more detail).

The second release was the annual 2021 GDP data for the European Union. The release showed strong growth in 2021 (+5.4%), but that’s relative to the bad year of 2020. So compared to the pre-pandemic level of 2019, the EU was still about 0.8% below this more accurate baseline. Comparatively, the US was already 2% above 2019 with the annual 2021 release (everything in these two paragraphs is adjusted for inflation). Of course, within the EU, there is a lot of variation, but overall the US looks comparatively well.

Let’s break down that variation in the EU and include the first quarter of 2022 data to make the best comparison with the US. To bring in some more relevant comparison countries, I’ll use data from the OECD for a complete comparison. Note: I’ve excluded Ireland, because their GDP is weird. I’ve also excluded Turkey, because even though all the data here is adjusted for inflation, Turkey is in a highly inflationary environment, making the data a little difficult to interpret.

Here is the chart, which shows the change in real GDP from the 4th quarter of 2019 up through the 1st quarter of 2022 (I use the volume index, which is similar to adjusting for price inflation). I have highlighted in orange the largest economies in the OECD (anything with about $2 trillion of GDP or larger, with Spain and Canada at about that level).

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US Households Have a Lot More Income Than 1967, and It’s Probably Not Just Because of the Rise of Dual-Income Households

We are going through some tough economic times right now: high rates of inflation (generally exceeding wage growth) with the strong possibility of a recession in the near future. In times like this, I think it is useful to also consider the historical perspective. The US economy has gone through challenging times in the past, but the long-run track record is impressive.

Here is one way to show the data. It comes from the Census Bureau, and shows the total money income of households in the US. The data is, of course, adjusted for inflation, and not just with the regular CPI-U: they use the superior CPI-U-RS, which attempts to maintain a consistent methodology for how prices are measured (BLS is constantly improving the CPI, but that sometimes makes historical comparisons challenging). I present the data both as a percent of the total number of households, and the absolute numbers.

I’ve shaded the chart to suggest that over $100,000 of annual income is high income, and under $35,000 is low income, with everything else considered “middle class.” By these definitions, the number of high-income households in the US increased dramatically from 6.6 million (10.9% of the total) in 1967 to 43.7 million (33.6% of the total) in 2020. The number of low-income households also rose, unfortunately, from 21.4 million in 1967 to 34 million in 2020, but the portion of the total fell (from 35.2% to 26.2%) since it increased slower than the overall growth of the number of households. Today, there are more high-income households (43.7 million) than low-income households (34 million) in the US.

But even if you don’t like those definitions, I’ve provided as much detail in the chart as Census makes available publicly. For example, let’s say you think $200,000 is what makes you high income. There were fewer than 1 million of these households in 1967 (1.3% of the total). Today, there are over 13 million of them (10.3% of the total). However we slice the data, there are a lot more high-income households in the US than in the past. (Remember remember, this is all adjusted for inflation.)

Many people found this data interesting when I posted it to Twitter, including the world’s richest person. But among the many objections raised is that this is driven by the rise of female employment and dual-income households. And indeed, that is a factor. But how much of a factor?

Let’s dig into the data.

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How Zoning Affects Your Home, Your City, and Your Life (a book review)

As you drive, walk, or bike around your city, what do you think about as you see the various buildings and other structures? Perhaps you think about the lives of the people in them, or the architecture of the buildings themselves, or the products and services that the businesses offer for sale. For me, lately I’ve been thinking about one thing as I make my way around town: zoning. It’s not something I had thought about before very much, but after reading Nolan Gray’s new book Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, I’ve been thinking about zoning a lot more.

(Disclosure: I know the author of the book, but I paid for my own copy and got it in advance through the luck of the Amazon-pre-order draw.)

The book does a wonderful job of explaining what zoning is (and importantly, also what it is not), where zoning comes from historically (it’s a development of the early 20th century), and how zoning affects our cities. I really like the way that the book encourages the reader to be a part of the story of zoning. In Chapter 2, Gray encourages you to put down the book and locate your city’s zoning map to learn more about how zoning impacts your life.

I immediately did so and had no trouble finding zoning maps for the city I live in, Conway, Arkansas. Conveniently, my city provides both a simple PDF map and an interactive map, which provides a lot more detail. The interactive map even has embedded links with historical information on different pieces of property. For example, I found the ordinance for when my college, the University of Central Arkansas (previously Arkansas State Teachers College), was annexed by the City in 1958. Pretty cool!

Looking over the map, it’s pretty clear that most of the city that I live in is covered by R-1 and R-2 zoning. But what exactly do these designations mean? You can probably guess that “R” designates residential, but what does it proscribe about land use?

For that, you must dig into the zoning ordinances. And as Gray cautions in the book (somewhat tongue-in-cheek), you might not want to get in too deep with your zoning ordinances, since they can run hundreds or thousands of pages. But I was brave enough to do so, and located my zoning code online (the PDF runs a modest 253 pages).

What did I learn about the zoning that covers my city?

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Violence, Guns, and Policy in the United States

The United States is a uniquely violent country among high-income democracies. And by the best available data on homicides, the US has always been more violent. Homicides are useful to look at because we generally have the best data on these (murders are the most likely crime to be reported) and it’s the most serious of all violent crimes.

Just how much more violent is the US than other high-income democracies? As measured by the homicide rate, about 6-7 times as violent. We can see this first by comparing the US to several European countries (and a few groupings of similar countries).

Let me make a few things clear about this chart. First, this is data for homicides, which are typically defined as interpersonal violence. Thus, it excludes deaths on the battlefield, genocides, acts of terrorism (generally speaking), and other deaths of this nature. That’s how it is defined. If we plotted a chart of battlefield deaths, it would look quite different, but there’s not much good reason to combine these different forms of violent death.

On the specifics of the chart, prior to 1990 these data are averages from multiple observations over multi-year timespans (generally 25 or 50 years). The data on European countries comes from a paper by Eisner on long-term crime trends (Table 1). The countries chosen are from this paper, as are the years chosen. Remember that historical data is always imperfect, but these are some of the best estimates available. For the US, I used Figure 5 from this paper by Tcherni-Buzzeo, and did my best to make the timeframes comparable to the Eisner data. The data are not perfect, but I think they are about as close as we can get to long-run comparisons. For the data from 1990 forward, I use the IHME Global Burden of Disease study, and the death rates from interpersonal violence (to match Eisner, I average across grouped countries).

When we average across all the European countries in the first chart and compare the US to Europe, we can see that the US has always been more violent, though the 20th century onwards does seem to show even more violence in the US relative to Europe. (These charts are slightly different from some that I posted on Twitter recently, especially the pre-1990 data as I tried to more carefully use the same periods for the averages — still only take this a rough guide).

And what is the main form by which this violence is carried out? In the US, it is undeniably clear: firearms. Between 1999 and 2020, there were almost 400,000 homicides in the US (using CDC data). Over 275,000 of these, or about 70%, were carried out with firearms. The next largest category is murder with a knife or other sharp object, with about 10% of murders. And homicides have become even more gun-focused in recent years: about 80% of murders in 2020-21 were committed with guns.

So, there’s the data. But the important social scientific question is: Can we do anything about it? Are there any public policies, either about guns or other things, that will reduce gun violence? Could restrictions on gun use actually increase homicides, since no doubt guns are also used defensively?

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If I Had 2 Million Dollars

In July of 1992, the Barenaked Ladies released their debut studio album Gordon, which included one of their most popular songs: “If I Had $1000000.” Considering all the inflation we’ve had recently, you know that $1 million doesn’t buy as much as it did in 1992, but how much less? As measured by the Consumer Price Index in the US, prices have roughly doubled since 1992, meaning you would need about $2 million to buy the same amount of stuff as in 1992.

(Note: the Barenaked Ladies are Canadian, and prices in Canada haven’t quite doubled since 1992, but this song was included on early demo tapes in 1988 and 1989 released in Canada, and prices have roughly doubled there since then.)

So the value of a dollar that you held since 1992 has lost roughly half of its purchasing power. That’s bad. But how bad is it? What’s the normal US experience for how long it takes for prices to double?

It turns out that even with the recent huge run-up in inflation, we just lived through the lowest period of inflation for anyone alive today.

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Can Homer Simpson Afford to Send Bart to Springfield University?

In previous blog posts, I’ve used the Simpsons as an example of a typical family to use for historical comparisons. In a post on mortgage payments, I found that it’s slightly easier to make a mortgage payment on Homer’s salary than in the early 1990s. In a post on taxes, I showed that the Simpsons now pay a much lower average tax rate than they did in the 1990s (guess all those tax cuts didn’t just go to the rich!).

Now, the Simpsons and economics are back at the front of the discourse about standards of living. The 33rd season finale of the show is all about whether the middle class can get by economically these days. And Planet Money’s “The Indicator” podcast (great program!) has a podcast about the show, which is a follow-up to a similar podcast last year called “Are The Simpsons Still Middle Class?” (apparently part of the influence for the recent Simpsons episode).

In that podcast from last year, they say “Tuition has more than doubled. Health care costs have more than doubled. I believe housing costs have more than doubled.” And they follow-up, for good measure with “Even after adjusting for inflation, college tuition has more than doubled since ‘The Simpsons’ started.”

Since we’ve already looked at housing costs for Homer, let’s look at the potential college costs for Bart. I’m going to assume Lisa will be fine, probably getting a free-ride (and a hot plate!) to one of the Seven Sisters or maybe even Harvard. But if Bart wants to go to college, the Simpsons will probably be paying out of pocket.

An important factor to consider when looking at college prices is not just the “sticker price,” or the published price, but to also look at what is known as the “net price.” The net price takes into account the average amount of aid that a student receives. This is important to consider at any time, but especially for data in more recent years since discounting has become a major part of the college pricing landscape. For example, at private colleges the average discount is now over 50%, with some colleges essentially giving some discount to 100% of students (in other words, at some colleges no one actually pays the sticker price). Discounting at public colleges isn’t quite as out-of-control as private colleges, but it’s still a major part of college pricing.

And no doubt Bart Simpson would be going to a traditional public, four-year college. Probably Springfield University, just like his old man (though Homer attended as an adult), located right in their town of Springfield. So what has happened to tuition prices since the early 1990s.

One of the best publications on college prices is the College Board’s annual report “Trends in College Pricing.” The report is broken down by type of college, it shows what factors (tuition, housing, etc.) make up the typical cost of college, and even shows differences across US states. Importantly, they include that “net tuition and fees” number, and they’ve been doing so since their 2003 report. That 2003 report even calculated the net figures back to the 1992-93 school year, perfect for an example of the early Simpsons (“Homer Goes to College” aired in 1993).

In the 1992-93 academic year, the average net tuition and fees, plus room and board for public four-year colleges in the US was $4,620 (from Figure 7, adjusted back to nominal dollars). In the 2020-21 academic year, the same figure was $15,050 (from Figure CP-9). Adjusted for inflation, that’s roughly a doubling (slightly less, but in the ballpark) since the early 1990s, just as Planet Money stated.

But let’s compare the cost of college to Homer’s income. In 1992, the median male with a high school education, working full-time earned $26,699, meaning that the cost of college would be 17.3% of his income that year. In 2020, the median male with a high school education, working full-time earned $49,661, meaning that the cost of college would be 30.3% of his income.

By this measure, college clearly has become much more expensive when compared to a Homer Simpson-type salary, and 30% of your income is a very hard pill to swallow (though the 17% in 1992 wasn’t a picnic either). But here’s one other factor to consider. The College Board data also allows us to look only at net tuition and fees, rather than also including the cost of room and board. Remember, Springfield University is located in Springfield, and Bart has a perfectly fine room at the house on Evergreen Terrace. While living on campus is certainly a big part of the college experience, and no one would probably love that experience more than Bart Simpson, many students today do choose to live with their parents while attending college (or at least live off-campus, where housing is often cheaper).

If we just look at net tuition and fees (not room and board), in 1992-93 the average cost at public four-year colleges was about $1,065 (in nominal dollars). That’s about 4% of Homer’s annual income. Much more reasonable! In 2020-21, that same figure was $2,880 (once again, in nominal dollars), or just under 6% of annual income. That’s certainly more than 4%, but not exactly the kind of expense that would break the budget if planned for.

I want to repeat that number again: $2,880. That was the average cost of tuition and fees at an in-state, four-year, public college in the US in 2020-21, after accounting for grants and aid. I suspect this number is much, much lower than most would guess.

The chart below does the same calculation for all the years I could find (1992-2020) using archived versions of the College Board’s report. I’ll admit the data isn’t perfect, as later reports sometimes have different numbers than earlier reports, but it’s probably the best we can do if we want a consistent time series. There does seem to be a break happening in the early 2000s, when college suddenly did get more expensive relative to a high school graduate’s income, though in the past 15 years it’s been pretty flat.

We should keep in mind that if Bart were to take out the maximum federal student loan amount of $9,000 as a dependent student in his first year at Springfield University, he is primarily borrowing money to pay for his housing and food, not his education.

In 1993, the premium for getting a college degree was about 54%, with the median male college grad earning about $41,400 and the equivalent high school grad earning about $26,800 (data from Table P-24). In 2021, that premium had risen to about 64%, with the median male college grad earning $81,300 compared with his high school counterpart earning about $49,700.

I’m ignoring all sorts of important questions here about what is causing the difference in pay. Is it signaling, human capital, something else, or some combination of all these? Yes. But regardless of your preferred explanation for the college wage premium, there’s pretty solid evidence of a sheepskin effect.

Putting It All Together

I’ve now explored taxes, housing, and college education prices using a family like the Simpsons. But what if we put it all together? How are high school graduates doing?

The best way to do this is probably the simple chart you’ve been thinking of all along: median income adjusted for inflation. Some things have gotten cheaper (housing, TVs), some more expensive (college, probably healthcare), but to get a sense of the total effect, we need to adjust for all prices. The chart below is that calculation, using Census data on median earnings for full-time, year-round workers, male high school graduates aged 25 and older. The data starts in 1991. You can get some earlier estimates from different data series, but if we want a consistent series 1991 is the best we can do.

And from the chart we see that real incomes of male high school graduates are… pretty flat. That’s not good, but let’s contextualize. First, claims that it’s harder for these workers to make ends meet aren’t true. It’s roughly no easier, but also no harder. Definitely wage stagnation, but also not “falling behind.”

And also, high school graduates are a shrinking part of the workforce in the United States. You probably already knew this. But it wasn’t until after the year 2000 that college grads became the largest category of workers in the US. In the early 1990s, high school graduates (folks like Homer) were by far the largest single category of workers. Now, it’s by far college graduates, and those with some college or a 2-year degree are roughly equal in size to high school graudates. So, while the income stagnation we see for high school grads is not good, it’s affecting a shrinking portion of workers in the US.

COVID Deaths, Excess Deaths, and the Non-Elderly (Revisited)

While we know that COVID primarily affects the elderly, the mortality and other effects on the non-elderly aren’t trivial. I have explored this in several past posts, such as this November 2021 post on Americans in their 30s and 40s. But now we have more complete (though not fully complete) mortality data for 2021, so it’s worth revisiting the question of COVID and the non-elderly again.

For this post, I will primarily focus on the 12-month period from November 2020 through October 2021. While data is available past October 2021 on mortality for most causes, data classified by “intent” (suicides, homicides, traffic accidents, and importantly drug overdoses) is only fully current in the CDC WONDER data through October 2021. This timeframe also conveniently encompasses both the Winter 2020/21 wave and the Delta wave of COVID (though not yet the Omicron wave, which was quite deadly).

First, let’s look at excess mortality using standard age groups. For this calculation, I use the period November 2018 through October 2019 as the baseline. The chart shows the increase in all-cause deaths in percentage terms. It is also adjusted for population growth, though for most age groups this was +/- 1% (the 65+ group was 3% larger than 2 years prior).

A few things jump out here. First notice the massive increase in mortality for the 35-44 age group (much more on this later). Almost 50% more deaths! To put that in raw numbers, deaths increased from about 82,000 to 122,000 for the 35-44 age group, and population growth was only about 1%. And while that is the largest increase, there were huge increases for every age group that includes adults.

Also notice that the 65+ age group certainly saw an increase, but it is the smallest increase among adults! Of course, in raw numbers the 65+ age group had the most excess deaths: about 450,000 of the 680,000 excess deaths during this time period. But since the elderly die at such high rates in every year, the increase was as large in percentage terms.

One related fact that doesn’t show up in the chart: while there were about 680,000 excess deaths during this time frame in the US in total, there were only about 480,000 deaths where COVID-19 was listed as the underlying cause of death. That means we have about 200,000 additional deaths in this 12-month time period to account for, or a 24% increase (population growth overall was only 0.4%).

That’s a lot of other, non-COVID deaths! What were those deaths? Let’s dig into the data.

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