Monday, September 11, 2017

Is net neutrality getting neutered by new technologies?

American Enterprise Institute blogger Mark Jamison has some insights I have not seen elsewhere regarding how new technologies are likely to make existing regulations on net neutrality meaningless.  Examples of how technology is making a difference:
1) 5G networks will be based on network slicing, which means the network will be customized to different types of traffic.
2) Netflix is investing in proprietary networks and is becoming less dependent on public ones.  Other large gobblers of bandwidth are doing the same.
3) Mobile apps are being used more.  Apps are not open but they are targeted to user needs.

A larger lesson -- in markets where technology is changing quickly, regulations have difficulty keeping up.  If they are enforced too strictly, they can actually interfere with progress.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Storm economics

Harvey has finally made his exit from Houston and the Gulf Coast.  In his wake, a number of economic questions come up.  There always is the issue of price gouging after a natural disaster.  Although the practice raises ethical challenges, it also is a natural consequence of a price system that beats the heck out of what Venezuela uses to allocate resources.

Tyler Cowan has a Bloomberg column on economic issues related to storms that is worth a quick read.  A few key takeaways:

  • Storms hurt economic growth because they force us to allocate resources away from other goods and toward rebuilding.  They also fracture lives and incomes.  
  • Economic research shows that we are resilient; most who lose their jobs and homes do recover.  
  • The standard economic approach to federal flood insurance is problematic.  Under the current system, we subsidize risky housing investments near oceans and in flood plains.  Bailouts to those without insurance reduce the odds that people will insure in the future.  
Even if you really believe that consumers are always rational and well informed, no one could have possibly seen 50 inches of rain in a few days as a possibility.  So what do you do with those who lack flood insurance?  Getting the federal government out of the flood insurance business is a question worthy of serious debate.  But for now Ted Cruz is going to be very supportive of a federal bailout.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Supply-side ideas for health care access

This is the 1st week of classes at NC State.  My online MBA class Essential Economics for Managers is studying supply and demand.  A good place to practice this subject is health care.  Most people pay for health services indirectly through employer- or government-provided health insurance.  Health care spending is much greater in the US relative to other countries with a comparable living standard and many blame these payment mechanisms.

Many efforts to bring health spending down focus on the demand side, either through changing the availability of insurance or through managing insurance-backed spending through eligibility rules, co-pays and deductibles.  As Mitch McConnell learned recently, kicking people off of health insurance plans is not a good way to win votes.

Todd Buchholz who worked under President Bush #41 argues in a recent WP op-ed that supply solutions to health care costs are not getting sufficient attention.  He makes four suggestions:
1) Build more medical schools to increase the supply of doctors (increasing enrollment at existing schools would yield the same result)
2) Allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to open and manage walk-in clinics (some states allow this but most do not)
3) Recognize drug approvals from other advanced countries so that new drugs can enter the market more quickly and cheaply
4) Legal reforms to reduce unnecessary tests and procedures

Some of these issues are more complex than Buchholz allows.  Also he misses other supply-side reforms such as encouraging more immigrant doctors to practice here.  The overarching idea, however, is that by increasing competition and lowering unit costs, health care spending could start going down.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Marijuana access lets Dutch students grades go to pot

Economic research often extends beyond prices and output.  One recent study looks at what happens in a Dutch university town when a law is passed proscribing marijuana access to students who are not residents of the Netherlands.  As reported in WP, the academic performance of the non-Dutch students improved; their odds of passing a course increased by at least 5 percent.  The performance increase was greatest among students who were performing at a lower level.

Marijuana legalization is based on a wide range of value judgments, of which academic performance is but one dimension.  A key implication of this study is that there is likely to be some adverse impact on learning if marijuana becomes more accessible.  Of course, pot advocates might naturally ask if this experiment were repeated except this time telling the Belgian and French students that they cannot buy Heineken!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Are we facing "Robocalypse Now?"

For ages there have been concerns about workers being displaced by machines.  remember Ned Ludd?  John Henry?  With the growth of machine learning and artificial intelligence, those concerns have become heightened recently.

Basic economics says that the introduction of a new advanced technology will have two effects on the labor market: (1) there will be some displacement of workers whose skills are no longer in demand (e.g., blacksmiths and the automobile, bookkeepers and the computer) and (2) the extra wealth created by more efficient production methods will lead to increased demand for a wide range of products.

MIT economist David Autor has taken a look at the historical evidence on productivity enhancements and displacement.  Exploring 19 countries over 35+ years, he finds that the displacement definitely happens and is sizable within the affected industries.  However, employment actually ends up growing overall.

The downside is that some skilled workers are displaced and lack attractive options.  This means we face a challenge creating new opportunities for the unskilled and medium-skilled workers who are most likely to be affected.  The full report can be found here.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Go play your video game

Young men are becoming less and less likely to be in the labor force or in school.  How are they spending their time, compared to comparable young men a generation ago?  Apparently no small number of them are spending their extra time playing video games.

Chicago Booth economist Eric Hurst has just released his study of time allocation of jobless young men.  Men aged 21 to 30 are working 203 fewer hours than 15 years ago; men aged 31 to 55 are working 163 fewer hours.  Older men used their extra free time on TV, sleeping, eating and personal care; younger men used theirs on recreational computer time, mainly video games.  On average young men game 3.4 hours weekly.  Hidden underneath that average is a wide dispersion, with many clocking zero hours but some spending 20 or more.

There is a bit of a chicken-egg problem in interpreting the results.  One possibility is that the games are so enthralling that they become an alternative world with amenities superior to everyday existence.  In this case a job may never be seen as an attractive option.  Alternatively joblessness leads to free time and in today's age video games have transplanted other forms of idleness such as watching television or hanging out at the mall.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that some companies are using video games as part of their hiring process?


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Seattle hits some bumps on the path to a $15 minimum wage

Two years ago I blogged about the $15 minimum wage.  At that time the mainstream view among economists was that federal and state minimum wage laws had a modest, negative impact on employment.  The wave of $15 minimums passed recently by numerous cities is uncharted territory because (1) the increases are so large and at such variance from federal and state minimums and (2) many businesses -- especially those in service industries -- can easily relocate to avoid paying the higher wage.

We now are getting the first wave of economic research looking at the impact of the $15 minimum.  At the beginning of this year, companies with more than 500 employees in Seattle had to pay a minimum wage of $15 an hour.  The minimum is now $11 for most other employers and will increase to $15 for all by 2021.  So what has been the impact on firms and workers?

A new study of the Seattle labor market has found that incomes of low wage workers have fallen since the minimum was hiked.  This has happened because employers cut back on work schedules.   Wages increased by 3% but hours fell by 9%, resulting in an overall drop in income of over $100m per year for low-wage workers.  Overall employment did not change, but employers substituted more highly skilled workers for low-wage workers which made the latter group worse off.

The Seattle study will continue and researchers will be looking at other cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco that have hit the $15 mark.  The sure winner from these minimum wage changes -- data-hungry labor economists.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Do students learn anything in college?

Recent WSJ headline: "Exclusive Test Data: Many Colleges Fail to Improve Critical-Thinking Skills."  Higher education is already being criticized for being overly expensive, stifling free speech with political correctness, and having all too many graduates without jobs.  Now we have a new claim: that many students do not really learn much as they accumulate credit hours.

The study cited by WSJ compares scores on a critical thinking test taken by freshmen and seniors at a wide range of schools.  At some prestigious schools (e.g., UT-Austin), the scores of seniors are about the same as those of freshmen.  The schools with the largest "improvement" in scores include Plymouth State and Western Carolina.  

On the surface this would imply that higher education is not delivering on its promise to develop higher level critical thinking skills.  Here is another interpretation: schools like UT-Austin admit students with very strong skills in this dimension to begin with, so the change in scores is negligible three years later.  Also, the composition of the test-taking class changes considerably in some schools.  Almost half of the freshmen at Plymouth State and Western Carolina never graduate, so most of the score increase at those schools could be explained by weeding out the weakest students.

Finally, critical thinking skills are important but they are not the sole measure of academic accomplishment.  Compare the scores of freshmen and seniors on subjects such as biochemistry, electrical engineering, and finance to get a better overall picture.






Saturday, June 17, 2017

A sweet NAFTA deal for sugar producers

The US and Mexico just concluded a deal on sugar trade.  A bit of background is in order.  The US is globally competitive for many agricultural products; sugar is not one of them.  Under NAFTA the US started importing significant amounts of Mexican sugar.  US sugar refiners protested and, to make a long story short, the result is a new set of NAFTA terms on sugar.  Net result: import restrictions and higher prices.  A win for US producers but a loss for US sugar consumers, US producers of products that use sugar and Mexican sugar producers.  A classic win-lose-lose-lose deal.  Perhaps a preview of what will happen when the gang that brought us "The Art of the Deal" gets their hands on the rest of NAFTA?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Ticket pricing on Broadway

Want to see a big hit such as "Hamilton" or "Hello Dolly" with Bette Midler on Broadway? Be prepared to pay $750 at the box office and well over $1000 in the secondary market.  These prices generate headlines and claims that Broadway is unaffordable for the average NYC visitor.

This NYT piece sheds a light on the economics behind live theatre pricing.  As it turns out, there are many theaters on the Great White Way and bargains can be had.  The average ticket price is just over $100 and, on most nights, you can stand in line at TKTS and score a (not great) seat for under $40.

What has changed in recent years is the adoption of dynamic pricing.  The same tools that airlines pioneered have come to the arts and entertainment world.   Ticket prices ratchet up for the most popular shows to ration demand.   By doing so there also is a clear match between the public's willingness to pay and the reward structure for those producing the shows:
From an economics perspective, “this is simply a rationing problem” ... If you keep prices low, people will buy tickets and resell them on the secondary market. Someone is going to pay a market-clearing price, no matter how high. The only question is who should get the money: the investors and performers and creators, or a speculator who managed to snap up the tickets the moment the box office opened?”
The Times article provides some helpful hints for those seeking the best deals: look for weekday shows and visit at an off-peak time such as January or September.