Free download: If wages fell during a recession

You can download my full paper “If Wages Fell During a Recession” with Dan Houser from the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (only free until September 24, 2022).

There is a simulated recession in our experiment. We ask what happens if employers cut wages in response. Although nominal wage cuts are rare in the outside world, some of our lab subjects cut the wages of their “employee”. Employees retaliated against nominal wage cuts by shirking, such that the employers probably would have been better off keeping wages rigid.

We also tried the same thing with an inflation shock that allowed the employer to institute a real wage cut without a nominal wage cut. The reaction to that real wage cut was muted compared to the retaliation against the obvious nominal wage cut.

Inflation was implemented after 3 rounds of the same wage to create a reference point.

I blogged about the experiment previously, so I won’t go into more detail here.

The Great Recession happened when I was an undergraduate. As I started my career in research, the issue of employment and recessions seemed like THE problem to work on. The economy of 2022 is so different from the years that inspired this experiment! Below I’ll highlight current events and work from others on this topic.

Inflation used to be something Americans could almost ignore, and now it’s at the highest level I have seen in my lifetime. Suddenly, people are so mad about inflation that politicians named their bill the Inflation Reduction Act just to make it popular.  

The EWED crew has made lots of good posts on inflation. Although job openings and (nominal) wage increases are noticeable right now, Jeremy explored whether inflation has wiped out apparent wage growth.

More recently, the WSJ reports that real wages are down because inflation is so high. “Wage gains haven’t kept pace with inflation. Private-sector wages and salaries declined 3.1% in the second quarter from a year earlier, when accounting for inflation.”

Firms in 2022 did not just sit back and let real wages get eroded exactly proportional to inflation. But it is also not the case that Americans got a raise of 9% to exactly offset inflation. According to our experiment, there would be outrage if workers were experiencing a nominal wage cut in proportion to the real wage cut they are getting right now.

The high inflation combined with a hot job market makes this current economy hard to compare to anything in our recent history. Brian at Price Theory explained that inflation pressure is coming from both supply and demand factors.

Joey has a nice graph on inflation composition.

Did anyone see this coming? Watch Jim Doti of Chapman University predict high inflation based on the money supply in his forecast back in July 2021.

Lastly, our experiment on wage cuts has been cited in these papers:

Intentions rather than money illusion – Why nominal changes induce real effects

Economic stability promotes gift-exchange in the workplace

Wage bargaining in a matching market: Experimental evidence

Can reference points explain wage rigidity? Experimental evidence

Shocking gift exchange

CFTC Orders PredictIt Shut Down- Can Political Betting Survive?

Political betting has long been in a legal grey area. It seems that the Commodities Futures Trading Commission wants to make everything black and white, but at least for now it has simply made everything murkier.

PredictIt is the largest political betting site in the US; if you want to know who is likely to win an upcoming election, its the best place to find a quick answer. Prediction markets have two great virtues- they are usually right about what’s going to happen, and if they aren’t you can bet, making money and improving their accuracy at the same time.

PredictIt has operated since 2014 under a “no-action letter” from the CFTC. Effectively, the regulators told them “we’re not saying what you’re doing is definitely legal, but we know about it and have no plans to shut you down as long as you stick to the limits described in this letter”. But last week the CFTC withdrew their letter and ordered PredictIt to shut down by February 2023.

My first question was, why? Why shut them down now after 8 years when all their operations seem to be working as usual? The CFTC said only that “DMO has determined that Victoria University has not operated its market in compliance with the terms of the letter and as a result has withdrawn it”, but did not specify which of the terms PredictIt violated, leaving us to speculate. Did the scale simply get too big? Did they advertise too heavily? Did Victoria University, the official operator, let too much be handled by a for-profit subcontractor? Did some of their markets stray too far from the “binary option contracts concerning political election outcomes and economic indicators” they were authorized for?

PredictIt hasn’t been much clearer about what happened, simply putting a notice on their site. Their CEO did an interview on the Star Spangled Gamblers podcast where he said there was no one thing that triggered the CFTC but did mention “scope” as a concern- which I interpret to mean that they offered some types of markets the CFTC didn’t like, perhaps markets like “how many times will Donald Trump tweet this month”.

The other big question here is about PredictIt’s competitors. In 2021 it seemed like we were entering a golden age of real-money prediction markets, with crypto-based PolyMarket and economics-focused Kalshi joining PredictIt. I looked forward to seeing this competition play out in the marketplace, but it now seems like we’re headed toward a Kalshi-only monopoly where they win not by offering the product users like best, but by having the best relationship with regulators. Polymarket had offered markets without even a no-action letter, based on the crypto ethos of “better to ask forgiveness than permission”; this January the CFTC hit them with a $1.5 million fine and ordered them to stop serving US customers.

If the CFTC doesn’t reverse their decision to shut down PredictIt, then February 2023 will see a Kalshi monopoly. This has led to speculation that Kalshi is behind the attack on PredictIt; their cofounder issued this not-quite-a-denial. But it certainly looks bad for the CFTC that they are effectively giving a monopoly to the company that hires the most ex-CFTC members.

For now you can still bet on PredictIt or Kalshi (or even Polymarket if you’re outside the US). If you’d like to petition the CFTC about PredictIt you can do so here. It might actually work; while the CFTC’s recent actions certainly look cronyistic, they’ve been reasonable compared to other regulators. They’re giving PredictIt no fines and several months to wind down, and even Polymarket gets to keep serving non-US customers from US soil. I’d likely make different decisions if I were at CFTC but the ideal solution here is a change in the law itself, as we’ve seen recently in sports betting. Prediction markets are impressive generators and aggregators of information, and politics and policy are at least as valuable an application as sports. To go meta, suppose we want to know- will PredictIt survive past February? There’s a prediction market for that, and its currently saying they’ve got a 20% chance.

The “Textbook Definition” of a Recession

Three weeks I wrote a blog post about how economists define a recession. I pretty quickly brushed aside the “two consecutive quarters of declining GDP,” since this is not the definition that NBER uses. But since that post (and thanks to a similar blog post from the White House the day after mine), there has been an ongoing debate among economists on social media about how we define recessions. And some economists and others in the media have insisted that the “two quarters” rule is a useful rule of thumb that is often used in textbooks.

It is absolutely true that you can find this “two quarters” rule mentioned in some economics textbooks. Occasionally, it is even part of the definition of a recession. But to try and move this debate forward, I collected as many examples as I could find from recent introductory economics textbooks. I tried to stick with the most recent editions to see what current thinking on the topic is among textbook authors, though I will also say a little bit about a few older editions after showing the results of my search.

Undoubtedly, I have missed a few principles textbooks (there are a lot of them!) so if you have a recent edition that I didn’t include, please share it and I’ll update the post accordingly. I also tried to stick with textbooks published in the last decade, though I made an exception for Samuelson and Nordhaus (2010) since Samuelson is so important to the history of principles textbooks (and his definition has changed, which I’ll discuss below).

But here’s my data on the 17 recent principles textbooks that I’ve found so far (send me more if you have them!). Thanks to Ninos Malek for gathering many of these textbooks and to my Twitter followers for some pointers too.

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Aging Populations = Inevitable Slow GDP Growth?

Last month Eric Basmajian published “Why Demographics Matter More Than Anything (For The Long Term)” on the financial site Seeking Alpha. He predicts that that the developed world plus China face a future of low economic growth (regardless of policy machinations) due simply to demographics. His key points:

Demographics are the most important factor for long-term analysis.

The young and old age cohorts negatively impact economic growth.

The prime-age population (25-64) drives the bulk of economic activity.

The world’s major economies are suffering from lower population growth and an older population.

Over the long run, the world’s major economies will have worse economic growth, which will negatively impact pro-cyclical asset prices (like stocks).

I will paste in some of his supporting charts. First, the labor force is more or less proportional to the 25-64 age cohort (U.S. data shown) :

…and GDP growth trends with labor force growth:

Also, on the consumption side, that is highest with the 25-54 age group:

And so,

Younger people are a drag on economic growth and older people are a drag on economic growth… The prime-age population is the segment that drives economic activity, so if the share of population that is 25-54 is shrinking, which it is, then you’re going to have more people that are a negative force than a positive force:

Once the working-age population growth flips negative, an economy is doomed…. Working age population growth in Japan flipped negative in the 1990s, and they moved to negative interest rates, QE, and they have never been able to stop. The economy is too weak.

After 2009, the working-age population in Europe flipped negative, and they moved to negative rates and QE, and they haven’t been able to stop. Even now, as the US is raising rates, Europe is struggling to catch up and has already abandoned most of its tightening plans.

In 2015, China’s working-age population flipped negative, and they’ve had problems ever since. They devalued their currency in 2015 and tried one more time to inflate a property bubble, but it didn’t work, and now they’re having to manage the deflation of an asset bubble that the population cannot support.

The US is in better shape than everyone else, but we’re not looking at robust growth levels in this prime-age population.

In conclusion, “ The real growth rate in most developed nations is collapsing because of those two factors, worsening demographics, and increased debt burdens.    In the US, as a result of the demographic trends I just outlined plus a rising debt burden, real GDP per capita can barely sustain 1% increases over the long run compared to 2.5% in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.”

That is pretty much where Basmajian leaves it. No actionable advice (besides subscribing to his financial newsletter). What isn’t addressed is whether productivity (production per worker) can somehow be accelerated. Also, one of his charts (which I did not copy here) showed a big trend down in 25-64 age fraction in the US population in the 1950’s-1960’s (as hangover from the Depression?), and yet these were decades of strong GDP growth. So these demographic trends are not the whole story, but his analysis is sobering.

Boutique Science

Science keeps getting bigger- more researchers, more funding, and of course more publications. Scientific progress is much harder to measure, but there are good arguments that it’s roughly flat over time. This implies that productivity per researcher is plummeting.

Source

There’s been a lively debate about what drives this falling productivity- is it that the easy discoveries got made first, leaving only harder ones for today’s scientists? Or is something else tanking scientific productivity, like the bureaucratic way we organize scientific research today?

A recent paper, “Slowed canonical progress in large fields of science“, suggests that the growth in the number of researchers and publications could itself be part of the problem. Comparing scientific fields over time, they find that:

When the number of papers published per year in a scientific field grows large, citations flow disproportionately to already well-cited papers; the list of most-cited papers ossifies; new papers are unlikely to ever become highly cited, and when they do, it is not through a gradual, cumulative process of attention gathering; and newly published papers become unlikely to disrupt existing work. These findings suggest that the progress of large scientific fields may be slowed, trapped in existing canon.

What is driving this? They argue:

First, when many papers are published within a short period of time, scholars are forced to resort to heuristics to make continued sense of the field. Rather than encountering and considering intriguing new ideas each on their own merits, cognitively overloaded reviewers and readers process new work only in relationship to existing exemplars. A novel idea that does not fit within extant schemas will be less likely to be published, read, or cited. Faced with this dynamic, authors are pushed to frame their work firmly in relationship to well-known papers, which serve as “intellectual badges” identifying how the new work is to be understood, and discouraged from working on too-novel ideas that cannot be easily related to existing canon. The probabilities of a breakthrough novel idea being produced, published, and widely read all decline, and indeed, the publication of each new paper adds disproportionately to the citations for the already most-cited papers.

Second, if the arrival rate of new ideas is too fast, competition among new ideas may prevent any of the new ideas from becoming known and accepted field wide.

Supposing they are correct, it’s not totally clear what to do. At the biggest level we could fund fewer researchers in large fields, or push more fields to be like economics, where the quality of each researcher’s publications is valued much more than the quantity. But what can an individual researcher do differently? One idea is “boutique science” or “hipster science”, trying to find the smallest or newest field you could reasonably attach yourself to.

Another idea is that the role of generalists and synthesizers is becoming more valuable, as Tyler Cowen often says and David Esptein applies to science in his book Range. When papers are coming out faster than anyone can read, we need more people to sift through them and explain which few are actually important and which are forgettable or wrong. There are lots of ways to do this- review articles, meta-analysis, replication at scale, and of course blogs. But the junk pile is going to keep growing, so we’ll need new and better ways of finding the hidden gems.

Recession or not, the biggest GDP political football is 3 months away

US GDP fell for the second straight quarter according to statistics released this week by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. This means that by one common definition we’re now in a recession, which has ignited a debate about whether “two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth” is the best definition (as opposed to ‘when the NBER says there’s one’, like I generally teach and Jeremy argued for here, or something else).

Naturally this debate has political overtones, since the party in power would be blamed for a recession, so we’ve seen the White House CEA argue that we’re not in a recession, many on the other side argue that we are, and plentiful hypocrisy from people who should know better.

But in political terms, the fight over the binary “are we in a recession” call won’t be the big economic factor in November’s elections- that will be inflation and GDP, especially 3rd quarter GDP. One of the oldest and best predictors of US elections is the Fair Model, which uses inflation and the number of recent “strong growth quarters”. Fair’s update following the recent Q2 GDP announcement states:

the predicted vote share for the Democrats is 46.70, which compares to 48.99 in October. The smaller predicted vote share for the Democrats is due to two fewer strong growth quarters and slightly higher inflation

By Election Day we’ll have 3 more months of economic data making it clear whether inflation is getting under control and whether economic activity is picking back up or continuing to decline. Monthly data releases on inflation and unemployment will be closely watched, but the most discussed release will likely be third quarter GDP. It will summarize 3 months instead of just one, it will be of huge relevance to the debate over how severe the recession is or whether we’re even in one, and it will likely be released less than two weeks before election day. The NBER almost certainly won’t weigh in by then; they tend to take over a year to date recessions, not adjudicate debates in real time.

So when BEA does release their Q3 GDP estimate in late October, what will it say? Markets currently estimate at least a 75% chance it will be positive (they had estimated a 36% chance of positive Q2 GDP just before the latest announcement). That sounds high to me, the yield curve is still inverted and I bet investment will continue to drag, but forecasting exact GDP numbers is hard. Its a much easier bet that whatever the number turns out to be will loom large in political debates just before the elections. Perhaps we’ll get the Q3 GDP growth number that would make for the most chaotic debate: 0.0%.

Is the Bottom Quartile Already in Recession?

I heard on a radio interview that spending by the bottom quartile is way down in 2022, while it is holding up merrily for the upper two quartiles. My mind jumped to the thesis:

“Hmm, the bottom quartile probably (proportionately) felt the benefit of the three COVID stimulus packages more, plus they would have benefited more, proportionately, from the enhanced 2020-2021 unemployment benefits, which (I gathered from anecdotal observations) often paid them more for staying home than they used to receive for working. But…by 2022, all that extra money may be running out.”

I spent some time poking around the internet, trying to find some pre-made figures or tables to support or disprove this thesis. What I found tended to support it, but this is not rigorous data-mining. So, for what it is worth, here are some  charts.

First, about the spending in 2022. This chart indicates that discretionary service spending by the bottom 40% income cohort is indeed down sharply in  2022, and now sits a little lower than a  year ago, while the upper 20% cohort is spending actually more than a year ago.  Spending by the middle 40% trended up in 2H 2021, then back down in 1H 2022, to end about even over the past 12 months:

Discretionary service consumption by income cohort. (I don’t what the units are for the y-axis, but presumably they show the trends). Source: Earnest Research, as of June 30, 2022, as reproduced by Blackrock.

And what about 2020-2021? The next two charts indicate (a) that consumer spending was HIGHER in 2021 that it was pre-COVID for the bottom income quartile, even though (b) their employment in 2021 remained some 20% LOWER than pre-COVID. Looks to me like a lot of spending of stimmie checks was going on in 2021, but (see above) that money has run out in 2022.

Some reader here may have access to a more consistent data set, so I am happy to see this thesis tested further.

Consumer Spending by Income Quartile (Showing higher spending by bottom quartile following stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment payments in 2020-2021)  Source: The Economic Impacts of COVID-19: Evidence from a New Public Database Built Using Private Sector Data, Stepner et al. (2022).

Employment Changes by Wage Quartile ( Showing employment for the bottom quartile in most of 2021 was some 20% lower that pre-COVID)  Source: The Economic Impacts of COVID-19: Evidence from a New Public Database Built Using Private Sector Data, Stepner et al. (2022)   

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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Perks in Severance

I have written three blogs on the TV show Severance this summer. My newest post is up at the Online Library of Liberty.

I discuss how job perks are portrayed in the show. The bosses in the show are creepy and we come to find out that they are totally evil. Given the way everything feels in the show, you could come to the conclusion that perks are generally manipulative and false. Someone implied that in an op-ed published by the NYT.

My argument is that free adults can use “perks” to motivate themselves and each other to do the right thing.

We are all just trying to get that dopamine, in the short term. Should people only feel happy when they are doing drugs or playing video games? Should bosses not be allowed to create a fun moment at work?

Trivial gifts and prizes must be cheap, so that their cost does not start to outweigh the benefits of incentivizing things we should be doing anyway. Finding ways to make a responsible life exciting is in fact the key to maintaining our liberty. Most people do not want to be martyrs. They want life to be fun.

The following tweet shows the character Dylan and his performance prize.

Behavioral scientists have documented lots of quirks in human behavior. We aren’t solely motivated by our (real wage) salaries to produce effort. The good news is that we are capable of self-reflection. We can make these quirks work for us. Lots of successful people will promise themselves a small reward at the end of the week if they accomplish something hard.

Perks aren’t all bad at work, but, on the other hand, Severance could make you more alert to genuine manipulation that is out there.

Watching Severance prompts good questions. Who are you? (That’s the opening line of the show.) What are you doing with your life? Whose purposes are you serving?

I liked the show because it has great characters, funny moments, and it gets you thinking. If you watch the show, don’t take it too seriously. Ben Stiller is a co-director. The man (the genius) brought us Zoolander (2001).

One give-away that this ain’t the new 1984 is a plot hole concerning how the main character Mark decided to sever himself and join the evil corporation. According to the show, his wife died and he was so sad that he quit his job as a history professor after three weeks of feeling sad. I know a lot of academics. History professors have worked too hard and too long to quit their jobs after three weeks of feeling sad. Take everything with a grain of salt from these writers. Mark’s general lack of executive control is at odds with the backstory that he once obtained a job as a history professor.

Severance is described as science fiction but it clearly takes place in the United States of America. For one thing, a “senator” has a role. For another thing, the work schedule is pretty American. This is a funny video on how Europeans view the American work schedule:

I have no idea how far down the rabbit hole the writers will feel like they have to do in Season 2. Will there be a role for a POTUS?

The second blog was posted to EWED: my thoughts about relating Severance to Artificial Intelligence.

A question this raises is whether we can develop AGI that will be content to never self-actualize.

And, back in May, OLL ran my first blog about Severance and drudgery.

The first line in the show is, “Who are you?” Themes about identity and purpose are explored alongside the thrilling hijinks of the prisoner innies. Outie Mark has nothing except his personal life to think about, which in his case is tragic. Innie Mark has nothing but work. Neither man is happy or complete.

A Gauche Gift

We’ve written about gifts before.

  1. We’ve written posts recommending Christmas gifts (here and here and here and here).
  2. I wrote that gifts might be good for the macroeconomy.
  3. Joy Wrote about birthday presents at school parties.
  4. James wrote about considering supply chain status when ordering a gift.

Michael Maynard and I wrote about giving a good gift. A good gift is one in which the giver has an information advantage. Gifting an object or a service can provide a consumption bundle to the recipient that they didn’t know was even possible or that they didn’t know that they would prefer. They would have chosen the items themselves, if only they had known about them. Giving a gift card can be similar if the recipient did not know about the vendor previously. Cash is a good gift when the giver does not have an information advantage over the recipient.

In our previous post, we showed diagrammatically that ‘better off’ was indicated by the higher utility. But this spurs an important question:

Can good gifts cost the giver zero dollars?

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