May 25, 2017

Dangerous railway practices of the past

Filed under: History, Railways, USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 04:00

On Facebook, the New England, Berkshire & Western (“an HO scale layout created by the Rensselaer Model Railroad Society, which is a student club on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY”), posted a link to this fascinating — eventually banned for obvious safety reasons — method of moving railway cars on parallel track to the locomotive:

Raymond Breyer shared this video link on the pre-Depression page, about poling. […]

I always assumed they would move slowly and the trainman would have to hold the pole the entire time. Guess I was quite wrong! – JN

May 23, 2017

QotD: The dangers of career “dualization”

Filed under: Business, Economics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

This concept [of dualization] applies much more broadly than just drugs and colleges. I sometimes compare my own career path, medicine, to that of my friends in computer programming. Medicine is very clearly dual – of the millions of pre-med students, some become doctors and at that moment have an almost-guaranteed good career, others can’t make it to that MD and have no relevant whatsoever in the industry. Computer science is very clearly non-dual; if you’re a crappy programmer, you’ll get a crappy job at a crappy company; if you’re a slightly better programmer, you’ll get a slightly better job at a slightly better company; if you’re a great programmer, you’ll get a great job at a great company (ideally). There’s no single bottleneck in computer programming where if you pass you’re set for life but if you fail you might as well find some other career path.

My first instinct is to think of non-dualized fields as healthy and dualized fields as messed up, for a couple of reasons.

First, in the dualized fields, you’re putting in a lot more risk. Sometimes this risk is handled well. For example, in medicine, most pre-med students don’t make it to doctor, but the bottleneck is early – acceptance to medical school. That means they fail fast and can start making alternate career plans. All they’ve lost is whatever time they put into taking pre-med classes in college. In Britain and Ireland, the system’s even better – you apply to med school right out of high school, so if you don’t get in you’ve got your whole college career to pivot to a focus on English or Engineering or whatever. But other fields handle this risk less well. For example, as I understand Law, you go to law school, and if all goes well a big firm offers to hire you around the time you graduate. If no big firm offers to hire you, your options are more limited. Problem is, you’ve sunk three years of your life and a lot of debt into learning that you’re not wanted. So the cost of dualization is littering the streets with the corpses of people who invested a lot of their resources into trying for the higher tier but never made it.

Second, dualized fields offer an inherent opportunity for oppression. We all know the stories of the adjunct professors shuttling between two or three colleges and barely making it on food stamps despite being very intelligent people who ought to be making it into high-paying industries. Likewise, medical residents can be worked 80 hour weeks, and I’ve heard that beginning lawyers have it little better. Because your entire career is concentrated on the hope of making it into the higher-tier, and the idea of not making it into the higher tier is too horrible to contemplate, and your superiors control whether you will make it into the higher tier or not, you will do whatever the heck your superiors say. A computer programmer who was asked to work 80 hour weeks could just say “thanks but no thanks” and find another company with saner policies.

(except in startups, but those bear a lot of the hallmarks of a dualized field with binary outcomes, including the promise of massive wealth for success)

Third, dualized fields are a lot more likely to become politicized. The limited high-tier positions are seen as spoils to be distributed, in contrast to the non-dual fields where good jobs are seen as opportunities to attract the most useful and skilled people.

Scott Alexander, “Non-Dual Awareness”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-07-28.

May 18, 2017

You Can’t Trust Employment Statistics

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 17 May 2017

There is no truly good way to measure unemployment, which makes it pretty easy for successive administrations to claim that unemployment is consistently improving. But when we do our level best to include all of the unemployed in the numbers, what we learn is that unemployment levels now are higher than they were at the beginning of the Great Recession. That’s the bad news. The good news is that things actually have been getting better over time. In this week’s episode, James and Antony take a look at the actual unemployment numbers to get to the bottom of what they really mean.

Get the facts here:

May 16, 2017

How service companies might respond to a mandated increase in the minimum wage

Filed under: Business, Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At Coyote Blog, Warren Meyer discusses how real world service companies that employ a lot of minimum wage workers are likely to respond when the minimum wage is raised:

When I discuss this with folks, they will say that the increase could still come out of profitability — a 5% margin could be reduced to 3% say. When I get comments like this, it makes me realize that people don’t understand the basic economics of a service firm, so a concrete example should help. Imagine a service business that relies mainly on minimum wage employees in which wages and other labor related costs (payroll taxes, workers compensation, etc) constitute about 50% of the company’s revenues. Imagine another 45% of company revenues going towards covering fixed costs, leaving 5% of revenues as profit. This is a very typical cost breakdown, and in fact is close to that of my own business. The 5% profit margin is likely the minimum required to support capital spending and to keep the owners of the company interested in retaining their investment in this business.

Now, imagine that the required minimum wage rises from $10 to $15 (exactly the increase we are in the middle of in California). This will, all things equal, increase our example company’s total wage bill by 50%. With the higher minimum wage, the company will be paying not 50% but 75% of its revenues to wages. Fixed costs will still be 45% of revenues, so now profits have shifted from 5% of revenues to a loss of 20% of revenues. This is why I tell folks the math of absorbing the wage increase in profits is often not even close. Even if the company were to choose to become a non-profit charity outfit and work for no profit, barely a fifth of this minimum wage increase in this case could be absorbed. Something else has to give — it is simply math.

The absolute best case scenario for the business is that it can raise its prices 25% without any loss in volume. With this price increase, it will return to the same, minimum acceptable profit it was making before the regulation changed (profit in this case in absolute dollars — the actual profit margin will be lowered to 4%). But note that this is a huge price increase. It is likely that some customers will stop buying, or buy less, at the new higher prices. If we assume the company loses 1% of unit volume for every 2% price increase, we find that the company now will have to raise prices 36% to stay even both of the minimum wage increase and lost volume. Under this scenario, the company would lose 18% of its unit sales and is assumed to reduce employee hours by the same amount. In the short term, just for the company to survive, this minimum wage increase leads to a substantial price increase and a layoff of nearly 20% of the workers. Of course, in real life there are other choices. For example, rather than raise prices this much, companies may execute stealth price increases by laying off workers and reducing service levels for the same price (e.g. cleaning the bathroom less frequently in a restaurant). In the long-term, a 50% increase in wage rates will suddenly make a lot of labor-saving capital investments more viable, and companies will likely substitute capital for labor, reducing employment even further but keeping prices more stable for consumers.

As you can see, in our example we don’t need to know anything about bargaining power and the fairness of wages. Simple math tells us that the typical low-margin service business that employs low-skill workers is going to have to respond with a combination of price increases and job reductions.

May 14, 2017

QotD: Big business, crony capitalism and regulatory capture

Now, Pope Francis has the beginnings of a point about large “private corporations” (note the oxymoron), which in their wealth may grow (though only temporarily) to a size rivalling the smaller national governments. And I would add, they become nearly as centralized and monopolistic (through “regulatory capture”), and faceless and bureaucratic as the agencies of State. Whenupon, unlike the self-perpetuating agencies of the State, they begin to disintegrate from their own lack of enterprise.

It is not enough, as the libertarians suppose, to leave them to their fate, in the knowledge that if they are inefficient they’ll be gone tomorrow. For new large corporations rise to take their place, and at every moment the great majority of people are reduced to wage-slaves of one large corporation or another. Indeed, part of the power of large corporations comes from their scale as employers. A democratic government which tries to stand up to them will quickly relent, and switch to subsidies instead, when they threaten to create mass unemployment.

The question must be asked: What makes vast, morally obtuse, centralized corporations possible? And the answer should be easy to see. It is vast, morally obtuse, centralized governments, which command regulatory regimes that are consistent over huge areas. That has actually become our model for global “free trade”: making regulations and taxation consistent not only across nations, but across continents. This creates an order which large corporations, and only large corporations, are well-equipped to exploit.

Imagine instead they were to face different regulatory regimes, parish by parish. They could still operate, but would have to adapt each franchise to local conditions, as defined by the sovereign local authority. This immediately flips the onus, and gives the local merchant or producer the advantage over his multinational competitor, in being on the spot. It reduces that competitor’s economy of scale, while also imposing upon him a new model of corporate governance, as network, that must of necessity become decentralized and responsive (just as creatures in nature) to every single environmental niche.

The re-focusing on what is local, and what is doable locally, would have tremendous ramifications on “the environment” at large — overwhelmingly positive, given some time. Yet it would also have the happy effect of disempowering the ecological whack cases.

David Warren, “Five thousand max”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-06-19.

May 11, 2017

Words & Numbers: The Minimum Wage Conspiracy

Filed under: Business, Economics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 10 May 2017

This week, James & Antony tackle minimum wage laws and present some hard facts that might surprise a lot of people.

See the YouTube description for a long list of links related to this discussion.

May 9, 2017

QotD: Wage floors and rent ceilings

Filed under: Economics, Government, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

[Progressives] tend to favor policies such as New York City’s rent controls, and the new $15 minimum wage being gradually phased in in some western cities. I like to think of these policies as engines of meanness. They are constructed in such a way that they almost guarantee that Americans will become less polite to each other.

In New York City, landlords with rent controlled units know that the rent is being artificially held far below market, and thus that they would have no trouble finding new tenants if the existing tenant is unhappy. So then have no incentive to upgrade the quality of the apartment, or to quickly fix problems. They do have an incentive to discriminate against minorities that, on average, are more likely to become unemployed, and hence unable to pay the rent. Or young people, who might damage the unit with wild parties.

Wage floors present the same sort of problem as rent ceilings, except that now it’s the demanders who become meaner, not the supplier. Firms that demand labor in Los Angeles in the year 2020 will be able to treat their employees very poorly, and still find lots of people willing to work for $15/hour.

Scott Sumner, “How bad government policies make us meaner”, Library of Economics and Liberty, 2015-08-25.

April 28, 2017

QotD: Tenure

Filed under: Quotations, Randomness, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

What about tenure? We can imagine an alternate universe where academia is populated with various PhDs on equal footing. Since there would be a glut, their salaries would be very low to start, but low salaries would mean easy employment, and colleges would find a lot of room for them to do one-on-one tutoring, or low-level research, or something like that. Eventually some of them would become a bit more prestigious in their fields and could demand higher salaries from hiring institutions, and a few superstars like Nobel Prize winners and the like could demand millions. At no point would there ever be anything called a “tenure track”. It seems like the main difference between this universe and our own is that tradition plus the reasonable desire of professors to be free from political interference has created this dichotomous variable called “tenure” and caused it to replace the continuous variable of salary as the prize for success. In favor of that theory, top professors seem weirdly underpaid compared to eg top athletes or top artists, even though I would expect having one of the world’s top scientists or historians to be a big draw for a school. According to the List Of Highest Paid Professors, only five professors in the US make more than a million dollars a year, and all of those are professors of lucrative medical subspecialties or of finance, who presumably are being paid that much to compensate them for teaching instead of participating in the high-paying professions they are otherwise qualified for.

Scott Alexander, “Non-Dual Awareness”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-07-28.

February 23, 2017

QotD: Government failure is baked-in

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One can build a very good predictive model of government agency behavior if one assumes the main purpose of the agency is to maximize its budget and staff count. Yes, many in the organization are there because they support the agency’s public mission (e.g. protecting the environment at the EPA), but I can tell you from long experience that preservation of their staff and budget will almost always come ahead of their public mission if push comes to shove.

The way, then, to punish an agency is to take away some staff and budget. Nothing else will get their attention. Unfortunately, in most scandals where an agency proves itself to be incompetent or corrupt or both (e.g. IRS, the VA, more recently with OPM and their data breaches) the tendency is to believe the “fix” involves sending the agency more resources. Certainly the agency and its supporters will scream “lack of resources” as an excuse for any problem.

And that is how nearly every failing government agency is rewarded for their failure, rather than punished. Which is why our agencies fail so much.

Warren Meyer, “Congress Almost Always Rewards Failed Government Agencies. Here is Why”, Coyote Blog, 2015-06-17.

January 25, 2017

Protectionism can save jobs … at the cost of even more jobs than it “saves”

Filed under: Business, Economics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Mark Perry provides some context to the claim that protectionist policies can save American jobs:

According to Team Trump’s website, we’re told that “blue-collar towns and cities have watched their factories close and good-paying jobs move overseas, while Americans face a mounting trade deficit and a devastated manufacturing base. By fighting for fair but tough trade deals, we can bring jobs back to America’s shores, increase wages, and support U.S. manufacturing.”

Actually, it’s been capital investments in labor-saving technologies like robotics and increasing worker productivity that have led to the large majority of US factory job losses, not trade or outsourcing, as I documented recently here. And there’s been no devastation of America’s manufacturing base; to the contrary, real US manufacturing output has reached all-time high levels in recent quarters.

What’s Trump’s solution to the loss of US manufacturing jobs? America’s “first authentic protectionist to win the White House since the 1920s” has outlined a series of protectionist trade measures including tariffs (30-40-50%), “tougher trade deals” (likely trade deals to protect US manufacturers from foreign competition), “Buy American” policies, and border adjustment taxes, among other strategies to “save American jobs.”

Here’s a relevant question to ask: How have protectionist trade policies in the past worked out for the US economy and how expensive is it to save American jobs with the protectionist trade policies Trump is proposing? We can find some answers to those questions in a Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis research article published in 1988 by three economists “Protectionist Trade Policies: A Survey of Theory, Evidence and Rationale,” which presented a summary of the empirical evidence on trade protectionism from the 1986 book published by the Institute for International Economics Trade Protection in the United States: 31 Case Studies. Even though the research and empirical results are from the 1980s, this article and book provide useful empirical evidence on the costs of protectionism to bring some much-needed sanity to the debate on trade policy to counterbalance the favorable treatment being given to protectionism these days.

Click to see full-size table.

January 16, 2017

Why do millennials earn some 20% less than boomers did at the same stage of life?

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Tim Worstall explains why we shouldn’t be up in arms about the reported shortfall in millennial earnings compared to their parents’ generation at the same stage:

Part of the explanation here is that the millennials are better educated. We could take that to be some dig at what the snowflakes are learning in college these days but that’s not quite what I mean. Rather, they’re measuring the incomes of millennials in their late 20s. The four year college completion or graduation rate has gone up by some 50% since the boomers were similarly measured. Thus, among the boomers at that age there would be more people with a decade of work experience under their belt and fewer people in just the first few years of a professional career.

And here’s one of the things we know about blue collar and professional wages. Yes, the lifetime income as a professional is likely higher (that college wage premium and all that) but blue collar wages actually start out better and then don’t rise so much. Thus if we measure a society at the late 20s age and a society which has moved to a more professional wage structure we might well find just this result. The professionals making less at that age, but not over lifetimes, than the blue collar ones.


We’ve also got a wealth effect being demonstrated here. The millennials have lower net wealth than the boomers. Part of that is just happenstance of course. We’ve just had the mother of all recessions and housing wealth was the hardest hit part of it. And thus, given that housing equity is the major component of household wealth until the pension is fully topped up late in life, that wealth is obviously going to take a hit in the aftermath. There is another effect too, student debt. This is net wealth we’re talking about so if more of the generation is going to college more of the generation will have that negative wealth in the form of student debt. And don’t forget, it’s entirely possible to have negative net wealth here. For we don’t count the degree as having a wealth value but we do count the loans to pay for it as negative wealth.

January 9, 2017

QotD: The wider effects of raising the minimum wage

Filed under: Business, Economics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

When the minimum wage goes up, owners do not en masse shut down their restaurants or lay off their staff. What is more likely to happen is that prices will rise, sales will fall off somewhat, and owner profits will be somewhat reduced. People who were looking at opening a fast food or retail or low-wage manufacturing concern will run the numbers and decide that the potential profits can’t justify the risk of some operations. Some folks who have been in the business for a while will conclude that with reduced profits, it’s no longer worth putting their hours into the business, so they’ll close the business and retire or do something else. Businesses that were not very profitable with the earlier minimum wage will slip into the red, and they will miss their franchise payments or loan installments and be forced out of business. Many owners who stay in business will look to invest in labor saving technology that can reduce their headcount, like touch-screen ordering or soda stations that let you fill your own drinks.

These sorts of decisions take a while to make. They still add up, in the end, to deadweight loss — that is, along with a net transfer of money from owners and customers to employees, there will also simply be fewer employees in some businesses. The workers who are dropped have effectively gone from $9 an hour to $0 an hour. This hardly benefits those employees. Or the employee’s landlord, grocer, etc.

There are secondary effects beyond the employment market too. Proponents of a higher wage are claiming that this will boost the local economy by putting more money into the pockets of workers. This is the same sort of argument you frequently hear for the construction of massive new sports complexes. But of course, the money has to come from someone else’s pocket — the customer and the employer. What were those people doing with it? If the answer is “buying stuff from Amazon,” then maybe diverting more money to wages is a net gain for the Los Angeles economy. But if the answer is mostly “buying stuff produced in LA” — for example, paying rent, or buying services performed by low-wage workers — then this is like trying to get rich by picking your own pocket.

There’s no question that the wage increase will transfer money around within the economy — out of the pockets of commercial landlords, for example, and into the pockets of folks who own real estate in low-rent districts. But little evidence has so far been offered that any boost in local spending will cancel out the deadweight loss, much less exceed it.

Megan McArdle, “$15 Minimum Wage Will Hurt Workers”, Bloomberg View, 2015-05-20.

November 14, 2016

QotD: The relationship between unions and occupational licensing

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… this is also known as “licensure”. And the rate in the 50s, at that peak of union power, was around 5% of workers needed such a licence to go to work. And union membership was, at that peak, 35% and is now around 10% or a little above, and licensure has gone from 5% to 30%.

For my point to work we have to consider unionisation and licensure as being the same thing. And they’re obviously not exactly the same thing. But they are sorta, kinda, the same thing. For all the claims that the requirement for a licence is in order to protect consumers (a theory for which the technical economic term is “codswallop”) it’s really a way to protect the wages of the ingroup against competition. As, of course, is being in a union a method of protecting those economic interests of the ingroup.

Actually, licensure is most akin to the medieval and early modern guilds system, out of which the union movement itself grew. So it’s really not surprising at all that they share certain attributes. That aim and desire of protecting the incomes of members of the group against the economic interests of everyone else.

So, my argument is that we’ve not in fact had a fall in the power of organised labour over these recent decades. We’ve just seen a change in the form of it, from unionisation to licensure. The point being that this is absolutely and definitely true in part and may or may not be true entirely. I tend towards the entirely end of that spectrum and I’d be absolutely fascinated to see if there’s been any academic comparisons made of the strengths of the two systems in protecting workers’ wages and conditions. I’d even be willing to believe that licensure works better than unionisation, given that the first is a conspiracy against the consumer, something easier to carry off than the unions’ conspiracy against the employer.

Tim Worstall, “More Union Power Won’t Raise Wages Or Reduce Inequality”, Forbes, 2015-03-07.

July 13, 2016

Thirty years of corporate anti-harassment training has made no difference at all

Filed under: Business, Law, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Amy Alkon on the not-very-surprising discovery of a recent US government Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study that after three decades of corporate anti-harassment training, no discernable difference in workplace harassment can be detected:

Anti-Harassment Training Doesn’t Work

But let’s keep it up so we can feel like we’re doing something. (More on that below.)

By the way, as I’ve written before, referencing the work of evolutionarily-driven law professor Kingsley Browne, men give each other shit — in the workplace and as a way of competing with each other.

Sure, there’s a point at which this can become toxic, but if you can’t take a joke or a bit of teasing, maybe you need to strengthen up so you can make it in the work world, as opposed to demanding that the work world conform to nursery school niceness standards.

Then again, you can always stay home and just care for the kiddies while your spouse braves those, “Hey, nice pants, dude!” jokes.

By the way, men’s competitiveness comes out of evolved sex differences — how men are the warriors (and competitors) of the species and are comfortable in competition with each other and with hierarchies in a way women are not.

Sex differences research Joyce Benenson explains that women group in “dyads” — twos — and are covert competitors, engaging in sniping and casting out any women who seem to stand out as better than the rest. (Women seem to have evolved to show vulnerabilities rather than strengths to other women in order to show they are trustworthy — which may be why women tend to be apologizers and put themselves down.)

June 30, 2016

Do Unions Raise Wages?

Filed under: Business, Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 7 Apr 2015

Do unions raise wages for workers as a whole? If not, can unions raise the wages of some workers? The answer is, well, it depends. Unions have the ability to restrict the supply of labor to a job, which can increase wages for some workers. However, unions can also lower wages. For example, work stoppages and strikes supported by unions can slow down economic growth, lowering real wages. To illustrate this, we take a look at what happened to Great Britain’s economy during the 1970’s union strikes.

It’s important to note that unions are not just about wages — they can be helpful in protecting workers from arbitrary abuses and maintaining positive workplace relationships.

Finally, we ask — are there differences between professional associations and unions? How are they similar? Watch to learn more about how unions affect the economy.

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