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.

The high cost of day care and demographics

When I moved half-way across the country to take a new job, I had no local support system for my 2-year-old. Putting him in a full-time day care was the plan. I wanted a day care center with a good reputation that is located near work and home. My story, like so many others, includes phone calls and long wait lists. At first, it was hard to understand how I could be willing to pay for a service and it could just not exist.

Opening a large daycare center is risky. Who wants to take that risk? I joked that I’d quit my professor gig and start a daycare in response to the huge demand. Of course, I did not. Fortunately, I don’t live in one of the American counties that lost population over the past ten years.

The WSJ on demographics describes this situation in a shrinking county:

In Lincoln County, Kan., pop. 2,986, about 40 miles west of Salina, Kan., economic development director Kelly Gourley set out to build the county’s first day-care center not run out of someone’s home. A child-care shortage was making it difficult to work and raise children, she saw. The town’s handful of in-home daycares were the only options, and they tended to come and go.

Ms. Gourley estimated it could cost as much as a half-million dollars to build the facility, and she didn’t think it could weather fluctuations in demand. “In a rural community, you lose one kid and you might be in the red all the sudden,” she said. She shelved the plan and instead is working to increase the supply of in-home caretakers.

Allison Johnson, a 32-year-old nursing home speech pathologist, grew up in Lincoln County and hoped one day to have three children. She no longer thinks that is feasible after she had to wait a year to get an in-home daycare spot when her first child was born. Now she and her husband, who owns a residential-construction business, are trying to figure out how they would juggle having a second child.

Her father, a farmer, watches her son, now 2, when her in-home daycare provider isn’t available. But he and her brother are in their busy season, and “they’re not going to be able to do anything but throw him in the tractor.”

There are attractive economies of scale for day-care centers. This economic fact is part of the reason that young people are leaving rural areas, which in turn makes it harder for rural areas to support services for young families.

There has always been a huge amount of value created at home within families that is not fully captured by GDP. As more childcare is moving to the formal market, we are starting to see just how valuable those services are that used to be provided in the family.

Whatever your views on the matter, it’s not surprising that politicians are talking about subsidized day care.

Allowing for flexibility through policy moves like vouchers and de-regulating in-home daycares is important. Some communities can’t support a day-care center facility, like the one in this article. I think the if you build it they will come philosophy, if applied too widely, would be hugely expensive and not efficient. On the other hand, there could be situations in which more day care would be provided if the local government would take on some of the risk currently faced by entrepreneurs.

Covid, Cars, China, Crypto, Corruption

We generally do long “effort posts” on specific topics here, but today I’m mixing things up with 5 quick updates.

  1. Covid My daughter got sent home with a cough Tuesday, which meant I cancelled classes Wednesday to hang out with her until we get a Covid-negative PCR. Last Thursday my son’s public school was closed for Yom Kippur, and I got so focused on hanging out with him I forgot to post here.
  2. Cars My wife bought a new used car last week. We’ve covered here how car prices have jumped up while inventories fell this summer, and the latest numbers show that used car prices are now falling slightly from very high levels while new car prices continue to rise. While actually buying a car, the low inventories stood out even more than the high prices. Several times we saw a promising car online, only to call or visit the dealer and find out it had sold the day before. The new Nissan Leaf sounds like an excellent value at its sticker price, but none were available in Rhode Island, and no blue ones anywhere in New England.
  3. China Scott covered the collapsing Chinese real estate market on Tuesday. I’ll just pass along the takes I’ve seen from Western economists and China-watchers Michael Pettis and Christopher Balding, which is that this is a big deal that will slow Chinese growth for years but is unlikely to precipitate a 2007-style financial crisis. I find Balding’s argument that financial contagion will be limited to be convincing partly because of his actual arguments about quasi-bailouts, and partly because he almost always argues that “things in China are worse than you think”, so if he says “Evergrande isn’t Lehman Brothers” I listen.
  4. Crypto Tuesday I met the co-founder of a new crypto-based prediction market, Melange, which sounds promising. The prediction market space is growing rapidly with PolyMarket and Kalshi joining the older PredictIt.
  5. Corruption Last week the World Bank announced it is discontinuing the Doing Business report/ranking due to apparent corruption; top Bank officials in the middle of raising money from countries including China pushed to raise the rankings of those countries beyond what the data justified. I hope another organization steps up do continue the good parts of the Doing Business report in a more trustworthy way.

The War of Ideas Isn’t Over

I have spent some of the last week educating myself about Afghanistan. You might ask where I was back when the US had a strategic advantage. I now regret the time spent at the paint store squinting at 200 different shades of white. Here’s an idea: America gets only 20 paint colors until we achieve our foreign policy objectives. 40? All I know is that we are past the optimal number of shades of white, considering what just happened.

A lot of the “takes” in the past week have been on the subject of blame. Despite the fact that American lives are still at risk in Afghanistan, this has not been a unifying event, like 9/11 was.

Are we picking our battles in such a way that helps vulnerable people? Any energy spent fighting your enemy B is a resource you cannot use to fight enemy C. Incidentally, that is one of the points that President Biden made in his speech on August 16th. There is an opportunity cost to mean tweets.

I reached out to a veteran friend of mine for insight last week. This is part of what he told me:

Biggest mistake is looking at Afghanistan as a single cohesive entity. It isn’t. There is no national identity. The Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Kazaks of the north … Karzai was a Pashtun and always ensured the main leadership roles were Pashtun.

He said that there are sub-units of Afghan people opposed to the Taliban who are upset by the advance we all witnessed to Kabul. Divided people lose, and then they don’t have the capacity to help others.

There was a time when the Taliban were few in numbers and hanging on the fringes. One advantage they had is that they went with the “legalize it, tax it” drug policy. Farmers under their jurisdiction can grow opium poppy and pay the Taliban a fee. In the American sphere of influence, we were fighting against the laws of supply and demand. The American public is not the only destination market for illicit opioids, but it’s a big one. It’s pretty self-defeating to ask our security forces to fight against drugs when most Americans can’t be bothered about them.

Consider the movie Little Miss Sunshine, a beloved American comedy. Consider the grandpa. He’s not a perfect man. He has his little vices, like dropping F-bombs in front of his young granddaughter. And, he snorts heroin. It’s easy to imagine what a great rapport he has with his dealer. No one would report his behavior to the police.* The drug habit is not portrayed as a virtuous thing, but overall he’s a sympathetic figure.

There is a lot of muddled thinking in our society when it comes to drugs. The bill comes due.

Humans are very creative. The good news is that we could have more discussions about drugs and experiment with new policies. It’s not inevitable that laws regarding drugs will be the same next year, but there is a lot of inertia that needs to be overcome. A society where celebrities joke openly about doing illegal drugs is not going to also be a society that can effectively “reshape the world in its image”, to quote Tyler.  

Tyler’s point is that this unfavorable outcome was not inevitable. From responses I read, many people offering opinions on Tyler’s article did not read past the headline. Nuance can’t be conveyed in a headline or a tweet. Tweet culture is a handicap right now, at a time when good complete ideas are badly needed. What happened in Afghanistan was complex. A tweet might be long enough to say what you would like to see happen, but it’s not long enough to help anyone.

The same Americans who tweet that they want refugees to live somewhere safe won’t go to a city council meeting and argue in favor of building high-density housing in their neighborhood. The same Americans who have tweeted that they hope the Taliban will build an “inclusive” society…

If you take the view that the failure in Afghanistan was inevitable, then Matt Y ’s explainer is ungated and helpful. There is also a lone voice saying that 20 years of “jail” had value.

If indeed this is a major crisis, then we are showing a lack of awareness when it comes to media. Some Americans alive today might not know about the role of media in fighting Nazis. Here is a fun read about that. In addition to WWII-era Brits, the Taliban are also strategic with media.

Considering that this is partly a war of ideas, I don’t know if taking Kabul so fast will look strategic in hindsight. There is much still to be determined. Had the Taliban consolidated power more incrementally, they would have been able to control the images that got out.

Here’s one image I won’t forget:

On the assumption that 20 times more people saw the image than liked it, this picture has been seen by well over 2 million people. Imagine how those girls’ lives have changed. “they are now with the Marines.” The entire world is breathlessly watching the airlift, and any abuses by the Taliban are headline news.

The media you choose to consume shapes the world around you. Every click is a vote for the kind of world you want. The war of ideas continues.

James Bailey here on information consumption (not on Afghanistan)

*It’s nothing glamorous or entertaining, but this is one approach to opioid use. As more parents lose children to fentanyl overdoses, more civic action is happening which generates publicity. Deaths from opioids increased rapidly after 2010. Little Miss Sunshine came out in 2006, so perhaps if it were made today they wouldn’t have taken such a cavalier approach to heroin.

Self interest and self care

“Self care” is all the rage. It’s heralded as a novel and progressive notion.

The stance one takes on Simone Biles is largely colored by one’s theory of self care.

So, as Biles occupies the headlines for days, why isn’t more credit going to Adam Smith and his intellectual descendants? “Self interest” was condemned, yet here we are in 2021 with “self care”!

James had a similar post yesterday! He went back in history much further than Adam Smith.

The Question of When to Act

The collapsed condo building in Florida has been in the headlines for days. Two recent reports come from USA Today and the WSJ.

This is a tragedy that will be associated with many deaths. A steady decay in the concrete structure appears to the be the cause, although there is no professional consensus on the reason for the sudden collapse (see WSJ).

In 2018, an engineering firm recommended repairs in a report. Every 40 years, a building like that needs to be re-certified, and the tower happened to be 40 years old when it collapsed. The recommended repairs had not started.

According to USA Today, a letter circulated in April 2021 (two months before the collapse) warned condo residents that expensive repairs were necessary. Meetings were being held. The condo board was gathering information from engineers and lawyers.

A line from the letter is chilling (see USA Today):

We have discussed, debated, and argued for years now, and will continue to do so for years to come as different items come into play.

Continue reading

When will housing prices fall?

US housing prices shot up during the pandemic. People spending all day at home wanted bigger houses, and the Fed fueled their demand with low interest rates. But home owners didn’t want to sell- the total number of homes on the market is less than half what it was a year ago. This combination of rising demand & falling supply has sent prices way up & cut the time homes spend on the market.

Contrary to popular belief, its actually rare for economists to make market forecasts and most of us aren’t especially well-equipped to do so- but I’m going to try anyway! I think home prices will almost certainly stop growing so quickly, and may actually fall, within two years.

Why? The end of the pandemic, the rise of new construction, and the end of low interest rates.

Continue reading

Blood Clots for You and Me

On April 13, 2021, CDC and FDA recommended a pause in the use of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine. When I first heard that the FDA was pausing the J&J vaccine because of less than 10 blood clots out of millions of patients, I thought I’d really get to the bottom of blood clots and blog about it. Other people (some of them are the kind of doctor that helps people) have already done a pretty good job in the past few days.

First, it is a tragedy that the vaccine is not being give to every male over 50 who wants it. Doing so would free up many thousands of other types of vaccines for young women.

Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading