Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Using workplace incentives to reduce carbon footprint

In a fascinating new NBER research paper by economists at Chicago and LSE, pilots at Virgin Atlantic Airways were offered recognition and incentives if they successfully took steps to reduce fuel consumption.  Separate targets were developed for pre-flight (how much fuel to load), during flight (course corrections), and runway decisions.  Over the eight month study, the researchers found a robust response to the incentive programs, saving Virgin over $500k.

Usually when the topic of carbon abatement comes up, the response from economists and policy makers alike is to impose caps, require new equipment or charge a tax.  This paper shows that there is another avenue that should be considered: adjust management decisions!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Why are waiters so anxious to grab your plates?

Have you noticed how quickly your plate disappears once you have finished?  Regardless of whether others in your party have finished or not!  This sends an awkward social signal, according to this recent WP blog entry:
When a server clears a plate before everyone is finished, he or she leaves the table with a mess of subtle but important signals. Those who are still eating are made to feel as though they are holding others up; those who are not are made to feel as though they have rushed the meal. What was originally a group dining experience becomes a group exercise in guilt.
So what is going on here?  Are restaurants running lean inventories of plates and tableware?  Do customers get really upset if their empty plate isn't removed instantly?

George Mason economist and Marginal Revolution blogger Tyler Cowen thinks that economic forces are at work.  Land prices in urban areas are going up and that means higher rents.  As a result, restaurants feel more pressure to turn tables so that they can get more customers per day.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Incentives matter: the case of Medicaid

A critical challenge in designing income maintenance programs is the tradeoff between benefit generosity and the incentive to work.  In a recent WP column, Catherine Rampell compares work incentives in the states where Medicaid has expanded under Obamacare to the states (including North Carolina) which have kept the pre-Obamacare system.  In the 19 states that have rejected the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, if a working parent earns more than 61% of the poverty line ($12,300 for a family of three), then that household loses ALL of their Medicaid benefits.

Rampell suggests that a sliding scale be used instead, so that as the parent starts earning more than $12.3k, the family loses a fraction of their Medicaid benefits as opposed to the whole amount.  The current practice in effect penalizes work effort that generates more that $12.3k, locking millions of households into poverty.

Now there is a catch -- a sliding scale means that more families become eligible for Medicaid.  Benefits might not be entirely phased out until the parent earns $25k or more.  But as more parents work more hours, extra revenue gets generated because (1) their families rely less on Medicaid and other income maintenance programs and (2) they pay more income and payroll taxes.

I expect this to be a big issue in the NC gubernatorial contest this year.  Gov. McCrory famously turned down federal funds that would have provided significant increases in health care for poor North Carolina families.  They have a big incentive to remember that on Nov. 8.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Words that needed to be said

Today in Bret Stephens "Global View" WSJ column:
Meanwhile, let’s state clearly what shouldn’t need saying but does: Americans are blessed to have Mexico as our neighbor and Hispanics as our citizens. On this point, disagreement is indecency.
Stephens notes that the murder rate in Mexico is about the same as Philadelphia (and less than Miami), no one from Mexico has attacked the US since Pancho Villa, Mexico is the 2nd largest purchaser of US products, and more Mexicans are headed south of the border than in the opposite direction.  

Monday, June 6, 2016

The myth of the unemployed college grad

Great online NYT piece on unemployment of college grads.  Last week's jobs report put the US unemployment rate at 4.7 percent.  The NYT article leads off with a quiz that had been part of a Google survey:  The unemployment rate for high-school grads between the ages of 25 and 34 is 7.4 percent; guess the unemployment rate for college grads in the same age range!

Here are the answers they received: the average Google respondent thought the unemployment rate for college grads was 9.2%, whereas the average NYT website respondent thought it was 6.5%.  

These answers are way wrong: the actual unemployment rate for 25-34 year old college grads is 2.4 percent.  Keep in mind that this represents all college grads -- all majors, all types of schools (even the for-profits).  

So what is going on here?  One obvious lesson is that the mainstream news media have been running so many stories about unemployed college grads (usually with heavy loan obligations as well) that anecdotes have become accepted as data.  Maybe the unemployment rate for journalism majors is a lot higher than for other majors?  Maybe journalism schools don't teach their majors how to find labor statistics, so they keep writing these misleading stories.  

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Rethinking the full-time versus part-time equation

Today 27m Americans are working part-time and 6.430m of them would prefer to have full-time jobs.  The latter number is only slightly smaller than the number of unemployed persons (7.436m).

An employer thinking about whether to hire full-time or part-time help has to consider the following factors:

  1. Differences in compensation cost per hour: full-time workers must receive health insurance and usually receive other employee benefits as well, whereas part-time workers typically just receive hourly wages.  Also, hourly wages in part-time jobs tend to be lower than in full-time jobs.  Advantage: part-time.
  2. Costs of hiring and training workers: It takes twice as much effort and time to find and develop two part-time workers as it does for one full-time worker.  Also, turnover is much higher for part-time workers, so that means even larger hiring and training costs.  Advantage: full-time.  
A recent WSJ article shows that some companies are rethinking this tradeoff and hiring more full-time workers.  The Sheetz convenience store chain found that 83% of its part-time help left within a year, much lower than the 25% of its full-time hourly help.  Sheetz also finds its full-time workers are more committed to customer service.  Buffalo Wings & Rings finds that full-timers ring up more sales and have lower rates of absenteeism.  

There is a simple economics lesson here:  you cannot just focus on cost comparisons; you also need to think about productivity.  As the unemployment rate keeps getting lower and more individuals drop out of the labor force, expect to see more companies calling up Sheetz's CEO.  

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Private unemployment insurance

People buy all types of insurance -- health, auto, home -- as a mechanism to manage risk.  One of the biggest risks is losing one's job, an event likely to lead to months of zero earnings followed by a new job that pays much less than the one you had.  

Each state has an unemployment insurance system funded by payroll taxes.  The benefits are modest, usually about 25-33% of wages.  Their duration varies by state and with economic conditions; the unemployed typically can get benefits for a year or more during recessions whereas the cap can be three to six months in peak economic conditions.  Relying on state unemployment benefits when jobless is comparable to relying on Social Security when retired -- you better have other sources of income or have some savings you can draw down.

NYT reports that the private sector has come up with a new alternative -- an insurance product called IncomeAssure.  Employees pay a monthly premium and receive insurance that covers the gap between state unemployment insurance and 50% of their before-tax earnings.  As you might expect, the top benefit is capped at $125k.  Also there is a six month lag between the time you pay the premium and the time you are eligible to collect benefits.

To be successful, IncomeAssure will have to make wise decisions on pricing.  Premiums vary by location and occupation to reflect differential risks of being laid off; construction workers pay more for the same benefit than public school teachers.   IncomeAssure also will have to worry about having enough funds to pay promised benefits when the next recession hits.  And their customers should worry about this too!

Historically I have used unemployment insurance as an example of a product that the private market was unlikely to provide.  Maybe IncomeAssure will prove me wrong.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Should tuition be lowered to $1k/year at five UNC system schools?

NC State Senate Bill 873 proposes lowering tuition to $1k/year at five UNC system schools: Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, UNC-Pembroke, Western Carolina, and Winston-Salem State.      As reported in Friday's N&O, the UNC Faculty Assembly has criticized the proposal because it does not specify how the campuses will make up for the lost tuition revenue and because the plan would undermine the mission of four historically minority campuses.  Tuition ranges between $2800 and $3900 at these campuses.  In contrast, tuition is $6407 per year at NC State; mandatory fees move the annual cost up to $8880.

The bill's sponsor Sen. Tom Apodaca (a WCU graduate) argues that this would make college education more affordable.  However, if affordability is the main concern, this bill is the wrong way to go.  Students from all income levels would be applying to these campuses, many of whom could afford to pay much more.  Also, the bill does nothing to make tuition at the other UNC campuses more affordable.

The legislature's sudden concern with rising tuition coincides with an election year.  The Faculty Assembly report points out that legislatures over the last seven years have cut state funding per degree by $6865 while (not coincidentally) tuition per degree has increased by $6537.  Cause and effect?

Don't hold your breath expecting to see the old funding return.  Yet if the legislature is truly concerned about UNC system tuition being affordable, it should focus on increasing financial aid for low income students at all campuses.  To be innovative, the legislature could consider tying cash grants for tuition now to income-based repayments to the state later.  To be even more innovative, the repayment schedule could be lower for those who choose to live in NC (and who would be paying NC taxes).

Saturday, May 21, 2016

New overtime regs go into effect

A year ago I posted about proposed new federal regulations on overtime.  This week a revised version  went into effect.  Under the old regs, salaried workers earning over $23,660 had to be paid overtime each week they worked more than 40 hours.  Now the salary threshold has kicked up to $47,476, making 4.2m employees newly eligible.

The net effect will be to increase the cost of labor which will lead to reduced labor hours worked.  Hours worked per person will definitely fall, but employment may or may not change much.  Some employers will add more workers to avoid having to pay overtime, whereas others will substitute capital for workers.

The basic economics of the new overtime rules are very much like those of the minimum wage.  Some workers will come out ahead (those getting overtime that did not used to get it), whereas other workers are worse off because their hours get cut or their job vanishes.  Employers and their customers are worse off because costs have risen; after all, someone has to pay the higher overtime wages.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Is the TSA a lose-lose proposition?

The Transportation Security Administration has been in the headlines lately as wait times in Chicago O'Hare, Charlotte, and other airports have hit three hours and passengers have missed flights.  Although some passengers will enroll in PreCheck (I just did and it is pretty easy to do) and be able to get through faster, many are starting to ask whether the TSA can pass a basic cost-benefit analysis.

The TSA spends about $5.5b per year on airport security and employs 47k security officers.  According to NYT, TSA claims that tighter budgets have forced personnel cutbacks, whereas TSA critics have responded that the agency has failed to plan and failed to prioritize.

Although the cost side is pretty clear in terms of budget and passenger wait time, the benefits are much harder to measure.   I have yet to hear of a TSA screen confiscating materials that were to be  used in a terrorist attack.  Think of the movie that could have been made, with Melissa McCarthy as the heroic screener catching Murray Abraham with a ticking bomb!

Does fear of apprehension by the TSA deter would-be terrorists?  The evidence on this front is not encouraging, as reported in today's WP:
Agency watchdogs have documented that undercover security operatives managed to smuggle 67 illegal weapons or simulated bombs past TSA security on 70 tries last year, that TSA officials were unable to properly vet 73 aviation employees who had links to terrorism, thereby allowing them access to secure areas, and the senior managers have a long history of bullying whistleblowers who identify potential problems.  
Another potential benefit is peace-of-mind for passengers.  It could be that even if TSA is totally useless for preventing terrorist acts, passengers may value the service and be reluctant to fly in its absence.  The agency is partially funded by passenger fees.  In the future it would be worthwhile to (1) conduct research to measure the value of peace-of-mind and (2) figure out a way for air passengers to pay the entire cost.