Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

How increasing local oligopolization has distorted the housing market

How increasing local oligopolization has distorted the housing market

Earlier this week new home sales for March were reported, soaring to a new expansion high bar one month (November 2017). Something else that a few other writers picked up on: the median *prices* for new homes fell to a level not seen in the past two years, off -11.8% from their peak, also in November 2017:

With mortgage rates also down at approximately where they were in January 2018, the carrying cost of a new house has declined by over 10% overall, enticing lots of new potential buyers into the market.

All well and good. But my reaction went a little beyond that: “Holy crap! Builders can slash their prices by almost. 12% and still make a profit?!?” 


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Prisoners of Overwork: A Dilemma

Prisoners of Overwork: A Dilemma

The New York Times has an illuminating article today summarizing recent research on the gender effects of mandatory overwork in professional jobs.  Lawyers, people in finance and other client-centered occupations are increasingly required to be available round-the-clock, with 50-60 or more hours of work per week the norm.  Among other costs, the impact on wage inequality between men and women is severe.  Since women are largely saddled with primary responsibility for child care, even when couples ostensibly embrace equality on a theoretical level, the workaholic jobs are allocated to men.  This shows up in dramatic differences between typical male and female career paths.  The article doesn’t discuss comparable issues in working class employment, but availability for last-minute changes in work schedules and similar demands are likely to impact men and women differentially as well.

What the article doesn’t point out is that the situation it describes is a classic prisoners dilemma.*  Consider law firms.  They compete for clients, and clients prefer attorneys who are available on call, always prepared and willing to adjust to whatever schedule the client throws at them.  Assume that most lawyers want sane, predictable work hours if they are offered without a severe penalty in pay.  If law firms care about the well-being of their employees but also about profits, we have all the ingredients to construct a standard PD payoff matrix:

There is a penalty to unilateral cooperation, cutting work hours back to a work-life balance level.  If your firm does it and the others don’t, you lose clients to them.

There is a benefit to unilateral defection.  If everyone else is cutting hours but you don’t, you scoop up the lion’s share of the clients.

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Free Speech, Safety and the Triumph of Neoliberalism

Free Speech, Safety and the Triumph of Neoliberalism

I’m reading another article about debates over free speech on campus, this time at Williams College, an elite school in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts.  A faculty petition asks to formalize and tighten the college’s policy on free speech by adopting the Chicago Principles, which state that “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”  Over three hundred students, however, have signed a counterpetition arguing that speech which harms minorities should not be allowed.  These disputes are interesting to me, partly because my own school, Evergreen State College, went through a conflict along these lines.

Consider for a moment the idea that speech activities can be evaluated by the emotional effects they engender.  One person’s speech makes me feel good: fine.  Another’s makes me feel terrible and should be disallowed.  What this amounts to is assessing political acts according to the utility or disutility experienced by those affected by them.  The “do no harm” criterion is a bit problematic, however, since people can also be subjected to disutility by restrictions on their speech as well as by hearing the speech of others.  If one person feels unsafe because of being silenced, but if they talk, another will feel unsafe because of the speech content, a purely rights-based framework becomes inconsistent.

I can see two ways out.  One is to put forward a hierarchy of rights-bearing, a ranking that resolves rights disputes between any two such individuals.  This seems to be implicit in the way disputes like this actually play out, but if you subscribe to the principle of intersectionality (or more subversively, the principle that individuals are not reducible to their “identities”) the ranking is indeterminate.

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Projection is an Art, not a Science, especially for the SSA

The scary headlines of the past few days have been well-discussed below by Dale Coberly and Barkley Rosser.

Data, however, is only as good as its assumptions, and the overall trend is well worth a glance. (Note: I took the 2013-2017 data from BC professor (and director of their Center for Retirement Research) Alicia H. Munnell’s Table 1 here.

Year of Trustees Report: 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
First year outgo exceeded income excluding interest 2010 2010 2010 2010 2010 2010 2010
First year outgo projected to exceed income including interest 2021 2020 2020 2020 2021 2018 2020
Year trust fund assets are projected to be exhausted 2033 2033 2034 2034 2034 2034 2035


Note that last year’s projection that 2018 would have a funding shortfall turned out to be so incorrect that this year’s report didn’t even pretend there would be excessive demand until next year.* Also note that, despite a relatively anemic recovery in the labor force, the projection “we’re out of funds” date keeps getting extended, though not so much as it did pre-Tepid Depression years.

More coming up. As usual, the report is only so good as its data assumptions and there are some interesting assumptions made.

*Part of this, as Henry Aaron noted Tuesday, is that the Disability portion of SSDI has declined precipitously from projections.

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Reposted from Jan. 2018: Social Security and conversation

(Dan here…Social Security is an issue that seems to generate a lot of firm beliefs and passion, as witness recent threads.  It is rare that people refer to actuary material.  On the other sides of the issue are people like Andrew Biggs, who is knowledgeable and smart in his arguments.  I am posting this as a reminder to readers that contributors do usually go the extra mile…in this case even recently, and since 2008 with Dale, Bruce Webb, and Arne Larson.   Below is a copy of a response to Dale from the Deputy Chief Actuary 2017)


Dear Mr. Coberly,

Representative DeFazio’s office forwarded your letter of August 5, 2017 to our office and asked that we respond to you. Your understanding of the financing of the Social Security Trust Funds is on target, including the implications for borrowing and debt. We appreciate your careful attention to the Trustees Report and the projections we develop for it in order to show policymakers the magnitude of any shortfall they will have to address.

We have looked at your thoughtful and detailed proposal for increasing the scheduled payroll tax rates for Social Security. As I’m sure you are aware, we have scored numerous comprehensive solvency proposals and other individual options for making changes to Social Security. These analyses are available on our website at and

Your proposal would increase the payroll tax rate gradually, by 0.2 percentage point per year beginning in 2018 (a 0.1-percent increase for employees and employers, each). Based on the tables you provided, it appears you would propose an “automatic adjustment” to the rate in the future, allowing the tax rate increases to stop and then resume, applying a 0.2 percentage point increase whenever the 10th year subsequent would otherwise have a trust fund ratio (TFR) less than 100 percent of annual cost. The intent appears to be that TFR would not fall below 100 percent. If we are understanding your proposal correctly, this type of adjustment would very likely maintain trust fund solvency for the foreseeable future, based on the Trustees’ intermediate assumptions.

Also, based on our rough estimates, a 0.2 percentage point increase in the payroll tax rate each year from 2018 to 2035, reaching an ultimate rate of 16.0 percent in 2035 and later, would eliminate the actuarial deficit and keep the TFR above 100 for each year thereafter. An increase to 15.8 percent in 2034 would fall just short of both goals. Note that these rough estimates do not include any additional “automatic adjustments” such as the one you propose.

We hope this information is helpful. Please let us know if you have further questions. We are also copying Rina Wulfing from Rep. DeFazio’s office on this email.

Karen P. Glenn
Deputy Chief Actuary
Office of the Chief Actuary
Social Security Administration

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Media Continues VSP Story On Social Security

Media Continues VSP Story On Social Security

Here we go again.  We have arrived at the time for the release of the annual Social Security Administration (SSA) report.  It got the usual headlines across the media, that the SSA will “run out of money” in 2034. Most of the stories played it all scary, although noting that after the system will still pay 3/4 of what it was.  But, of course, Congress can act now to fix the system the stories say, leaving it vague what that would amount to.  Two points on this.

The first is that basically this is a repeat of the deadlines reported last year, 2034 still the year estimated for the trust fund comes to an end, the moment when the baby boomers arguably stop paying for their own retirement, as was put in place back in 1983, the year of the last major change in the system.  So, no new news on those fronts, although most of the media did not note this.  This was supposed to be dramatic new revelation.

The second is that there actually is a piece of new news, and it happens to be good.  It is that the Disability System seems to have become financially stabilized.  This was probably the part of the system that had been recently in the worst financial shape, but now it is doing much better.  However, this good news was downplayed, to the extent it was reported at all. This would have distracted from the bad news stories, which the VSPs like to push so as to suggest cuts in benefits so those tax cuts for the rich can be preserved.

Barkley Rosser

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by Dale Coberly


Ho Hum.  The 2019 Social Security Trustees Report was released yesterday.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget published its usual half truths (also known as “lies”):. “We are all going to die!”

The Reporters and Columnists Who Cover Them ™ reported the half truths as the whole story:  “We are all going to die!”

The “Progressives”  demanded the “rich pay their fair share”  and “expand Social Security” to pay for everything

Angry Bear ignored the whole thing.


The whole truth would have pointed out that while there is a funding problem projected for sixteen years in the future,  it’s a small problem and the Trust  Fund is NOT the problem.

If the future arrives as expected, Social Security will not be collecting enough “taxes” to pay the “promised”  benefits at that time. (The payroll tax is not really a tax.  It’s an insurance contribution… a way for workers to save for their own retirement.  They get the money back with interest when they need it most.)

Social Security WILL be able to pay benefits that are about 80% of promised.  That will be more in real value than benefits are today.

Those benefits COULD be redistributed so they continued to provide enough help to the poorest retirees (and widows and orphans) at the expense of the richest.

But it would be better to just raise the payroll “tax” about 2% for each the worker and his employer and continue to pay the benefits as promised.

No one would miss the 2% out of his paycheck,  and he would get the money back in the form of a more comfortable retirement, which he will need and want MUCH more than whatever he would have spent that 2% on today.  The 2% is not lost to some government black hole:  the workers get their money back plus “interest” when they retire.

It would be still better to raise the “tax” gradually… about one tenth of one percent per year.
(This is about a dollar per week per year.) This would not only not be missed, it would not even be noticed.  And it would create a full Trust Fund which would provide enough interest to lower the needed “tax” by about one percent.  It would also avoid the government having to pay back the money it has borrowed FROM Social Security.  That money would become just a paper debt acting as a reserve to smooth over periods of recession.

The importance of this approach is that it would preserve Social Security as worker paid insurance for workers…  something Roosevelt insisted upon so that SS would not become “the dole” just another welfare program subject to the political manipulations of the rich and influential (“we have the will but not the wallet”).

Under Social Security as designed the rich do pay their fair share.  They pay exactly what the insurance is worth to them,  and their “excess” payments are what provide the money to supplement the benefits received by the poor. (“Excess” in the sense that if you don’t have a fire, your insurance payments were “excess.”)

The Trustees Report this year was actually “better” than it was last year if you take the date of the “death of the Trust Fund” seriously, which you shouldn’t. 

Sadly,  this is not a ho hum moment.  The opportunity to pay for the needed raise in the “tax” gradually will begin to expire next year.

And while it would still be possible to pay, say, an extra one percent now and the other one percent later,  or even to pay the whole two percent in about 15 years,  it would be much better to go for the gradual increase and avoid all the hysteria that will come when “Social Security is Broke!” ™

but you won’t.

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YoY Industrial production and structural changes to the US economy since 1980

YoY Industrial production and structural changes to the US economy since 1980

No big economic releases today, so let me follow up further with a few long-term comments on industrial production.

This series goes back 100 years to the beginning of 1919. Since that time it has turned negative YoY 25 times:

Of those 25 times, 17 have been during recessions, sometimes having started shortly beforehand. On only 8 occasions have negative YoY readings not been associated with recessions. That’s better than a 2:1 rate of correct readings vs. false positives, with no false negatives.

But it gets better. If you take out the 4 times industrial production has been negative YoY for only one month — July 1954, July 1967, July 1989, and January 2014 — that’s 17 correct calls and only 4 false positives, a ratio of better than 4:1.

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Industrial production continues to decelerate

Industrial production continues to decelerate

Industrial production is the King of Coincident Indicators. In dating the onset and end of recessions, in practice the NBER relies upon industrial production more than any other measure.

March 2019 production continued a string of recent disappointments, with overall production declining -0.1%, and manufacturing production unchanged. For the first quarter of 2019 in total, overall production declined -0.3%, and manufacturing declined -0.8%. Here’s the graphic look at the past nine years:

Note that the recent flatness is on par with, e.g., 2012, which was nowhere near to recession.

But on the other hand, after a surge last summer, leading some to conclude that we were in a “boom,” both total and manufacturing production have decelerated sharply on a YoY basis. Both levels YoY were last seen in late 2017:


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Is Stephen Moore a Gold Bug?

Is Stephen Moore a Gold Bug?

A lot of the criticisms of putting the twin village idiots known as Herman Cain and Stephen Moore on the FED assert that they are gold bugs. Kate Riga watched CNN when Erin Burnett interviewed Stephen Moore on this allegation:

Stephen Moore tries to flip-flop on the gold standard — but Erin Burnett is prepared and armed with a montage of his past statements

Watch and enjoy! Now Moore did say he would prefer targeting an index of commodity prices, which led me to FRED and its Global Price Index of All Commodities. Moore has not be all that specific how his commodity price target would work but let’s speculate his index would be a lot like this one. Suppose the FED targeted commodity prices to be where they were in 2005 since this index is based where it would equal 100 in 2005. Just imagine how a Moore monetary policy would have worked say during the booming 1990’s. Commodity prices were low so his policy prescription would have been massively expansionary during a booming economy. For much of the period from 2007 to 2014, we would have had a contractionary monetary policy even as U.S. aggregate demand was often incredibly weak. In other words, his commodity price based monetary policy would be about as destabilizing as was monetary policy under the gold standard.

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