Forecasting that Job Growth Would Continue

The number of new jobs is being heralded (example in picture) as disappointing relative to the expectation that we would march steadily back to pre-Covid employment levels. (Ben Casselman is a good Twitter source for the data.)

One of the reasons for a slow recovery is that the Delta variant of Covid hit hard at the end of the summer and people are not getting vaccinated, so the health threat of going out to work and consume did not decline as much as we had expected. Covid was hard on family caregivers, often women. The disruptions to childcare from Covid still are not over. We are seeing a reversal of the massive influx of women into the formal workforce that started in the previous century.

Some people are saying that workers no longer want “dead end jobs,” and there has been a permanent shift in the labor supply, although it is hard to disentangle that from the effect of temporary Covid subsidies.

I am reminded of two very different sources who claimed, before 2019, that what we had in the early 21st century was not sustainable.

First, there were agitators for a $15/hr minimum wage. They marched in the streets while leading Democrats voiced approval. They were pointing out that families in America who depend on $8/hr jobs do not feel like they have a part of the American Dream.

Someone who, I am certain, would be against a federally mandated $15/hr minimum wage was also pointing this out. Tyler Cowen published Average is Over in 2013, when unemployment was still high following the Great Recession. Chapter 1 of Average is Over is called “Work and Wages”. Tyler was concerned that market forces were creating a world where some people have the best jobs that humanity has ever conceived of, by virtue of their compatibility with intelligent machines, while the rest of the workforce is left with jobs that are not so great. At the time, I don’t think people realized how many jobs could be done from the comfort of home or from a hip coffee shop. Covid exposed that. The “not so great” jobs feel especially crappy when you know that people in your city get paid 6 figures to sit at a laptop.

Tyler might have been surprised when unemployment dropped so low in 2019, right after he had written The Complacent Class, which warns us that America isn’t working well for a large group of people.

We are not great at predicting the future.* Some of Tyler’s predictions have come true already, but even he did not try to put a date on things. The point is that maybe the latest job numbers are not as surprising for the reason that the forecasts were more wrong than we thought. Covid has moved us far out of equilibrium, so it is still hard to tell where we are going to land.

Personally, I thought prices at the grocery store, one of the few places you could go in early 2020, would shoot up faster. It seemed to me like we would need to start paying cashiers more as hazard pay.

*In one of my experiments, I asked subjects in the role of employers to predict what their employees would do. They failed to predict how strongly employees would respond to wage cuts. We are not great at predicting.

Vernon Smith on Behavioral in 2008

Like last week, this post is adjacent to the internet chattering over whether behavioral economics is “dead”.

Vernon Smith wrote a book Rationality in Economics that came out in 2008. I’m going to pull some quotes from that book that I think are relevant. This is not an attempt to summarize the main point of the book.

I began developing and applying experimental economics methods to the study of behavior and market performance in the 1950s and 1960s…

Preface, pg xiii

Repetitive or real-time action in incomplete information environments is an operating skill different from modeling based on the “given” information postulated to drive the economic environment that one seeks to understand in the sense of equilibrium, optimality, and welfare. This decision skill is based on a deep human capacity to acquire tacit knowledge that defies all but fragmentary articulation in natural or written language.

Preface, pg xv

I think that improved understanding of various forms of ecological rationality will be born of a far better appreciation that most of human knowledge of “how,” as opposed to knowledge of “that,” depends heavily on autonomic functions of the brain. Human sociality leads to much unconscious learning in which the rules and norms of our socioeconomic skills are learned with little specific instructions… Humans are not “thinking machines” in the sense that we always rely on self-aware cognitive processes…

Introduction, pg 5, emphasis his

Research in economic psychology[footnote 6] has prominently reported examples where “fairness” and other considerations are said to contradict the rationality assumptions… Footnote 6: I will use the term “economic psychology” generally to refer to cognitive psychology as it has been applied to economics questions, and to a third subfield of experimental methods in economics and recently product-differentiated as “behavioral economics”… Behavioral economists have made a cottage industry of showing that SSSM assumptions seem to apply almost nowhere… their research program has been a candidly deliberate search “Identifying the ways in which behavior differs from the standard model…”

Introduction, pg 22, italics mine

Vernon Smith doesn’t always like the direction of the behavioral economics literature as a whole, however he agrees in the book that humans don’t always behave rationally. Chapter 6 has the very un-fuzzy title FCC Spectrum Auctions and Combinatorial Designs. Here’s an example of the way Vernon uses the word behavioral, which I offer like I did last week as an example of how “behavioral” is never going away.

I will provide a brief review of the theoretical issues and some… experimental findings that bear most directly on the conceptual and behavioral foundation of the FCC design problem.

Chapter 6, pg 116

Unfortunately, the popular press… has often interpreted the contributions of Kahneman as proving that people are “irrational,” in the popular sense of stupid… In the Nobel interview, Kahneman seems clearly to be uncomfortable with this popular interpretation and is trying to correct it.

Chapter 7, pg 150

Chapter 7 is about loss aversion and fairness and any other “behavioral” phenomenon of interest. I recommend anyone who is following the current conversation to read all of Chapter 7 for yourself. Vernon sees the best in all whenever possible, despite being annoyed that certain academics have used a tool he developed to make points that he believes are wrong. He forges a way forward for everyone in this book.

Experiments help us understand how human beings who are prone to error can arrive at good outcomes when they are working within good/effective institutions.

Reading The Family Firm

Emily Oster’s newest book on parenting dropped to my Kindle this week. I recommend it to parents if your oldest child is between 2 and 8 years old.*

Her first book in this genre (she invented this genre) was Expecting Better. In that book, pregnant women could get clear answers. Oster could put a precise estimate on the risk of, for example, eating sushi while pregnant. Then it was fairly easy to decide, for yourself, if you would eat sushi.

Right now, I have decisions like this: My 6-year-old says sushi is “yucky”. If I force him to eat it, will he get into a better college? Should I send him to bed without any food if he won’t eat the sushi I made for family dinner?

These are the questions that us, the original Expecting Better crew, now have. The answers are usually vague. That might bother you, if you’d like exact instructions for parenting. Still, I found this book helpful for thinking about parenting. Oster is not going to give you an absolute yes or no on video games for kids. She will summarize all of the relevant studies. Then you have help to set your own boundaries for your own kids based on your Big Picture family goals.

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Knowledge for 1990 Children

We picked up a yard sale book: People and Places: A Random House Tell Me About Book.* When I saw that the U.S.S.R. was a huge swath across the northern hemisphere (drawn as a Mercator projection), I checked the publication date. It was published in New York in 1991 by Random House.**

This content would have been considered uncontroversial knowledge for children. It was written by Boomers for Millennials, one year before The End of History came out.***

The first fact discussed is that the earth had about 5 billion people and they saw no end to population growth. The book states that the world could be up to 15 billion people within 60 years (which would be 2050). Today, it is predicted that world population will peak soon and then decline. Fertility rates in most rich countries are currently below replacement and birth rates are falling everywhere. I guess the authors didn’t see that coming.

On the next page is a matter-of-fact explanation that A.D. stands for Anno Domini. If there was a new edition printed today, they would likely follow the academic trend of using BCE/CE, to avoid referencing religion.

Much of the book is about culture, with illustrations. In today’s terminology, this might be considered an attempt at color-blindness. All of the major world religions are presented next to each other with a neutral/positive spin on each. Racial and gender representation is carefully balanced, like the stock images I grew up with in American public school.

Considering how many students were forced to learn remotely this year, I liked the section on the Australian School of the Air. Remote farm children talked to a teacher by radio and sent written work by mail.

At the end is the answer to, “How will we live in the future?” Jeff Bezos might be happy to know that they predict space travel will be more common and people will live in space colonies. The stated reason for space colonization was the predicted unrelenting population growth. There wasn’t a hint of pessimism about, for example, global warming.

Their diagram of a futuristic house has a “Main computer” prominently featured. They predicted that computerized machines would do more work for humans, which has already happened in the past 30 years. The idea of mobile computers and internet services was probably not considered. They imagined house-bound clunky robots that could follow simple instructions.

*Currently still available on Amazon

** Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. I suppose the publishers couldn’t be bothered to stop the presses.

*** In 1991, Gen X may have been too old to be the target audience of a children’s’ book.

Sympathy and Predicting Behavior

Part One of The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith is called “Of the Propriety of Action”.  Smith argues that we naturally share the emotions and to a certain extent the physical sensations that we witness in others. “Sympathy” is a term Smith used for the feeling of moral sentiments.

In Section One, Chapter Five, Smith writes

In all such cases, that there may be some correspondence of sentiments between the spectator and the person principally concerned, the spectator must, first of all, endeavour … to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer. He must adopt the whole case of his companion with all its minutest incidents; and strive to render as perfect as possible, that imaginary change of situation upon which his sympathy is founded.

After all this, however, the emotions of the spectator will still be very apt to fall short of the violence of what is felt by the sufferer. Mankind, though naturally sympathetic, never conceive, for what has befallen another… That imaginary change of situation, upon which their sympathy is founded, is but momentary. The thought of their own safety… continually intrudes itself upon them…  

The modern word “empathy” is the capacity to step into the shoes of another person and feel their pain or joy from within the other person’s frame of reference.

Adam Smith suggests that if we hear a neighbor just experienced the death of a loved one, then we can briefly experience some sadness on their account. The more we put ourselves in their shoes, the more sadness we can experience on their behalf.

We usually think of it as a nice thing to have empathy for others. It can also be instrumental to be able to think through the perspective of another person, in order to predict what they will do next. In practical dealings, it is an economic advantage to make accurate predictions about future behavior.

If I work backward through my 2020 paper “My Reference Point, Not Yours”, then I can start by saying that people can sometimes predict what others will do.

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Reading Sarah Ruden’s The Gospels

Sarah Ruden is an scholar of ancient literature who has translated classic works such as The Aeneid. Her new book is an English translation of the 4 first books of the Bible’s New Testament, the Gospels.

If you buy a standard Bible, there is usually only a 2-page preface to a 500+ page book. Ruden’s introduction and glossary takes up closer to 50 of the first pages. I would pay just to read the introduction. Ruden describes what it was like, as a professional translator of classics, to approach the Gospels. A reader who is already familiar with the Bible will learn as much from this introduction as from the translation itself. It’s rare to hear the Gospels discussed simply as books instead of as weapons wielded by all sides of the culture wars. I found it interesting to learn about how the Gospels, stylistically, compare to other ancient texts.

Ruben’s enthusiasm for listening to the voices of ancient writers is contagious. She makes it all sound so interesting that anyone, regardless of their previous stance on god (the lowercase g is her idea of what the ancients would write), will want to keep reading. Speaking as someone who has already read the New Testament, I have never been more excited to read the Gospels as I was after finishing Ruden’s introduction. Ruden promises to deliver to modern readers the voices of the ancient writers, with as much accuracy as possible.

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Bad Jobs Exist

I’m James Bailey, an economist at Providence College who studies how government policies affect health care and the labor market. Thanks to Joy for the chance to join the blog for a few months!

For my first post, I have to share the brand new book I wrote a chapter of, “Regulation and Economic Opportunity: Blueprints for Reform“. Normally academic volumes like this are sold for hundreds of dollars, so only a few people with access to academic libraries end up reading them. But the publisher of this volume, the Center for Growth and Opportunity, released it as a free Ebook– so I hope you’ll check it out. It covers everything from housing and health care to energy and education to beer and cigarettes.

I wrote chapter 5, on how various regulations affect wages and employment. Here’s an excerpt:

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Joy’s Cartoon is in a French Textbook

This is my day in the sun. A decade ago, I started ecoNomNomNomics.com. Back then, I knew that my dream job was “economics professor”, but I was years away and also thousands of miles away from where I am now. I have barely updated the site since 2011, but every now and then new people find it. My hope has always been that it would be both helpful and happy.

A French publisher reached out to me and asked for permission to use one of my cartoons in their workbooks that will reach actual French students. I was delighted to say yes.

Allons-y! With their permission, I reproduce the page that has my picture:

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Business Analytics Textbook with R

There have been moments in my career as a data analytics instructor that I have considered writing my own textbook, just so I could have one that works. When I started in 2017, Samford University was one of the first schools to seriously reshape the undergraduate business school curriculum in response to the increase in demand for analytics skills. The pickings for appropriate textbooks were slim. Students in my class have already taken “business statistics”, which is a class I had to take as an undergraduate as well. I was trying to smash together business case studies, analytics that was more advanced than basic stats but also not beyond the undergrads, all while using a software program for applications.

I am pleased with what I see in my review copy of the new book by Saltz & Stanton Data Science for Business with R

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Chesterton on Patriotism

America is in the news, and not for reasons I’d like. Here is G.K. Chesterton on “patriotism.” I will always remember this quote from reading his book Orthodoxy (emphasis mine):

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico; in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico; for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico; to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles… If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

G.K. Chesterton

The Pimlico reference is to some unsavory district of London at the time.

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