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The Government Deficit and the Fed

April 13, 2017 1 comment

The Federal Reserve recently announced an increase in the interest rate which it sets. This has implications for the government deficit which may not be well understood by the average person so I thought that it might make sense to discuss the connection between the Federal Reserve and the government deficit. What this discussion reveals is that the Fed has been helping to finance the government deficit in the U.S.

The Consolidated Government Budget Constraint

There is a relationship between the government and the Fed known as the Consolidated Government Budget Constraint that is written below.

Spending + Interest Payments + Net Transfer Payments =

Tax Receipts + Change in the Stock of Debt + Change in the Monetary Base

The items on the left side of the equal sign are the uses of the government’s funds. Spending refers to the fact that the government buys goods and services, it makes interest payments to the holders of government debt, and it makes transfer payments to individuals in the economy. The right side of the equation is the list of sources for the government’s spending. It receives tax payments, it issues or retires bonds, and the last item reflects bond purchases or sales by the Federal Reserve. It is these last two items that reflect the connection between the Fed and the government deficit. Read more…

Preference Revelation

February 27, 2017 2 comments

The late Paul A. Samuelson was the first Nobel laureate in economics and is widely regarded to be the most outstanding American economist to date. He wrote many papers that had a profound influence on the thinking of economists but he wrote one paper that, to me, is a great tool for all of us, not just economists. The paper is entitled “Consumption Theory in Terms of Revealed Preference” and, in a nutshell, here is what it says. If you want to know what another person is up to, watch what they do because you can, from their actions, infer their motives or preferences. Below is an example of how useful it can be to observe people’s actions when matched against what they say. Read more…

Categories: Education, Uncategorized

Equal Pay and Occupational Choice

September 28, 2016 Leave a comment

It is election season and the bombast is relentless about the so-called problems that politicians need to fix. Equal pay is one such issue. Hillary Clinton contends that, if she is elected President of the United States, she will work to ensure that women are paid equally to men. But the “evidence” that is often offered to support the existence of this problem is simply the incomes of men and women which I have argued in a previous blog post is worthless (that post is here). The reason is that income data must be adjusted for hours worked, occupations, and possibly other reasons to make the comparisons sensible. These adjustments are typically not made and so one wonders if there is really any problem to be solved.

Here I thought I would provide an example of occupational differences which I suspect is at the heart of measured pay differences. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov) provides data on incomes by occupation. To illustrate the point that occupations matter in equal pay discussions, consider two occupations: chemical engineers and elementary and middle school teachers. BLS reports a mean (average) income for chemical engineers of $103,960 and teachers in elementary and middle schools is $58,060. Now consider the following table.

Teachers Engineers
Man $58,060 Man $103,960
Woman $58,060 Man $103,960
Woman $58,060 Woman $103,960
 Total Incomes
Men $265,980
Women $220,080

In the table, there are three people in each occupation. In engineering, there are two men and one woman and, in teaching, there are two women and one man. Note that within each occupation, each person makes exactly the same income so there is no evidence here about discrimination by employers. But men, in the aggregate, make 21 percent more than women ($265,980 is about 21 percent larger than $220,080). So while there is no discrimination by employers, there is a 21 percent aggregate income gap due to occupational differences between men and women.

The point of this example is that if one is to argue for gender bias, the evidence must involve the choices made by men and women, not just the wages paid by firms employing them. I doubt seriously that this would ever happen. What is more likely to happen is that another layer of bureaucratic oversight will be imposed, involving data that must be provided by the private sector to government searching for discrimination. That raises the supply price of the goods and services we buy, thus raising their prices.

I am willing to believe that discrimination exists in our society but I am not willing to believe it on the basis of worthless analysis.

Dismal Economic Growth Continues

The political primaries seem to reflect the dissatisfaction that many voters feel about the state of the U.S. Some of this discontent is likely to be related to the condition of the economy. As I have stated in earlier posts (read them here and here), economic growth is low by long-run U.S. standards and should be the top economic issue considered by the voters in making their voting decisions in the next presidential election.

The last recession ended in June 2009 (go to the web site for the National Bureau of Economic Research for business cycle dates).  Below is a table listing annual growth rates for real output (GDP) since the last recession ended.

Quarter Growth Rate
2009:3 1.3
2009:4 3.9
2010:1 1.7
2010:2 3.9
2010:3 2.7
2010:4 2.5
2011:1 -1.5
2011:2 2.9
2011:3 0.8
2011:4 4.6
2012:1 2.7
2012:2 1.9
2012:3 0.5
2012:4 0.1
2013:1 1.9
2013:2 1.1
2013:3 3.0
2013:4 3.8
2014:1 -0.9
2014:2 4.6
2014:3 4.3
2014:4 2.1
2015:1 0.6
2015:2 3.9
2015:3 2.0
2015:4 1.4
2016:1 0.5

The data in the table is drawn directly from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the federal agency responsible for producing the National Income and Product Accounts.

The average growth rate in this table is 2.1 percent. Over the century ending at the beginning of the last recession, real output grew at 3 percent per year. The difference between 2.1 and 3 percent is enormous over long periods of time. Thus there will be enormous losses of real income in store for U.S. residents if the dismal growth rate in the table continues.

Unfortunately, I have not heard a great deal in the press about this unfolding disaster (because a disaster is exactly what it is). But no economic issue is even close in importance to the question of how we can reverse this decline in economic growth.

The Unfunded Liabilities of the Social Security System

March 24, 2016 Leave a comment

The Trustees of the Social Security System issue a report each year on the overall state of the system.  The 2015 report is available publicly (https://www.ssa.gov/oact/tr/2015/trTOC.html). Consider the following statement in the Overview section of this recently-released report.

The open group unfunded obligation for OASDI over the 75-year period is $10.7 trillion in present value….

In the above statement, OASDI stands for Old Age and Survivors Disability Insurance, the formal name for the Social Security program. The statement seems shocking because it suggests an enormous payment of benefits owed to individuals for which there is no funding source. This staggeringly large number is what is often reported in the media. But my guess is that most readers have no way of knowing how this number arises. With a bit of arithmetic, it is possible to show how it is obtained. Read more…

Random Thoughts After a Long Hiatus

September 21, 2015 2 comments

It has been quite a while since I last posted on this blog. I finally decided to catch up by posting a series of remarks on a number of issues that are of interest to economists and (hopefully) others.

Disparate Impact Analysis

I teach in a university economics department. If you were to attend one of our faculty meetings, you would observe that nobody in the room is a seven-foot Chinese basketball player. Does that mean the faculty in my department discriminated against the seven-foot Chinese basketball players in the world who wanted to be on our staff and attend this meeting? If you were to use a nonsensical theory known as disparate impact analysis, then if seven-foot Chinese basketball players were a politically-protected group, the answer is yes and my university could be charged with discrimination in federal court.

To say the least, disparate impact analysis ignores the scientific method which most of us learned in primary school. The fact that a person has the disease known as AIDS does not imply how the person got that disease. The reason is that medical science has determined that the disease can be contracted in more than one way. Similarly, if one group of individuals makes less money than another group, there are many reasons why this may be so.  One of those reasons could be discrimination but how do we know this to be true? Put differently, there are causal relationships in an economy and there are many random events that can make a group of individuals have the demographic characteristics that they have. Read more…

Why Italy Declines

May 12, 2014 1 comment

Media headlines no longer contain articles about debt crises in EU countries. But there is the possibility that these troubled countries (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain) may experience debt crises again because they have deep-seated structural problems that are the ultimate causes of their stagnation. A recent article about Italy provides some insights into Italy’s economic circumstances.

Consider the following facts from this article.

  • Since 2008, GDP has declined by 9 percent.
  • The ratio of government debt to GDP is 133 percent.
  • Ninety eight percent of the firms in Italy have 15 or fewer employees.
  • Bureaucratic red tape is severe.
  • The legal system processes court cases very slowly.
  • Tax avoidance is widespread.

Each of these facts provides insights into the Italian economy’s structural problems.

The decline in GDP, and the debt-income ratio, reveal that Italy’s problems stretch back over many years. The government has yet to implement any serious structural reforms that may reverse the decline. Structural change is extremely difficult to impose because there are entrenched interests who benefit from the status quo.

The fact that firms are usually so small is striking. Economists usually argue that there are scale economies associated with size so that, as firms grow, they can provide products more efficiently (and cheaply). The small size of firms provides part of the explanation for the inability of the economy to grow but the article points out that there are cultural aspects associated with the population making Italians reluctant to expand the size of their firms. In addition, the larger is the firm, the more likely it is that government regulations affect the management of the firm, providing an incentive for firms to avoid expansion.

The government has imposed barriers to entry that are so severe that regulations prevent firms from moving into Italy. The article provides an anecdote that it took over 4o years for a firm to get building permits! Further, the legal system is slow to determine property rights and settle disputes so a firm has difficulty managing itself properly.

Finally, tax avoidance by individuals and firms (for example, doing work off the books in the underground economy) means that those who do pay their taxes wind up paying more than they should, further reducing the rewards to their labor supply. Thus the tax burden is arbitrarily distributed across households and firms. Tax avoidance is a response to hight marginal tax rates and/or a lack of respect for the government’s activities.

The overall picture is one of an economy hobbled by many structural impediments put in place because they benefit entrenched interests. For example, workers who can’t lose a job will fight hard to keep their benefits, punishing any politician who removes their pet program. Politicians respond to incentives. The real question is whether there are enough people in Italy who will make it politically profitable for politicians to implement the structural reforms that will allow Italy to grow again and create wealth for its citizens.

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized
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