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

Trade-Offs and Revealed Preferences, Republican Leadership edition

Even more than Digby on CalPERS, the one piece everyone should read today is Charlie Stross on International Travel. Since this is an economics blog, let’s pull a key section:

Here’s the rub: security is a state of mind, not a procedure. Procedures can’t cope with attackers, because they’re inflexible. If you search passengers for guns, someone will carry a knife. If you search for knives, someone will sew themselves a set of underwear full of PETN. And so on. To deal with a threat — say, someone who wants to attack your air travel infrastructure — you must look for the attacker, not their tools, because they can change their tools at will to exploit weaknesses in your procedure for identifying tools.

JFK is wide open to terrorists intent on causing mass casualties….

Schiphol — Amsterdam airport — gets the security screening right, or at least less wrong than JFK and most other airports. Rather than having a hideous bottleneck between check-in and the departure area, security screening is carried out at each depature gate, with a separate metal detector and X-ray belt; no huge crowds form in unsecured areas. On US-bound flights, someone who clearly isn’t a minimum-wage drone checks ID documents and asks a couple of questions that seem to me to the aimed at flushing out anyone who is disturbed or tense — a crude form of profiling.[italics his; boldfacing mine]

South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint preferred to let the TSA remain leaderless for the past year in fear of unionization of the workers. As he explained to CNN:

Or, as quoted by Mark “neither Ernest nor earnest” Hemingway the Washington Examiner, in a piece oh-so-sensibly entitled Napolitano wants to unionize TSA employees despite safety concerns:

The administration is intent in on unionizing and submitting our airport security to union bosses [and] collective bargaining, and this is at a time, as Senator Lieberman says, we’ve got to use our imagination we’ve got to be constantly flexible. We have to out think the terrorists. When we formed the airport security system we realize we could not use collective bargaining and unionization because of that need to be flexible. Yet that appears to be the top priority of the administration.

But DeMint was much clearer on the Senate floor, and speaking to Fox:

It makes absolutely no sense to submit the security of our airports and the passengers here in this country to collective bargaining with unions.

Which, of course, is why police and fire departments are all non-union as well.

The people you attract to any job—by your deliberate practices, not “unintended consequence”—are those who cannot get a job that they know to be more stable, pays better, has better benefits, or provide a more friendly work atmosphere. By your policies and procedures, you reveal the type of worker you prefer. This is as true of the TSA as it is of Goldman Sachs.

In the case of the TSA, though, the combination produces the natural hire as the people who couldn’t get a job at Applebee’s, The Olive Garden, or Ruby Tuesday’s.

As Paul Kedrosky recently noted, it’s more “security theater” than security. So when DeMint compares the TSA to the FBI, he’s neglecting that the average staring salary at the FBI eight years ago was over $43,000—with an increase of at least $10,000 upon completion of training. This is $20,000-$30,000 a year more than the $12/hour my neighbor made when he started with the TSA. (He quit quickly, finding restaurant work more profitable.)

If you want security, you pay for people who know how to do security. If you want theater, you depend on Jim DeMint to ensure that the TSA remains leaderless, and then have no right to be surprised when a British novelist points out that your security isn’t secure. Even when he says:

Suppose I wanted to attack the US air travel infrastructure….I can kill lots of passengers! All I need to do is to buy a maximum-size carry on bag (US dimensions: 7″ x 13″ x 20″) and build the biggest, heaviest bomb into it that I can wheel behind me….

All I would have to do then is buy a ticket…and go queue. Then, when I get to the middle of the crowd, detonate the device. (For added horrors: have an accomplice with a similar device hang back, to detonate their bomb amidst the fleeing survivors.)

[S]ecurity checkpoints are a target, too, because they slow down travellers and cause crowds to form, and another term for “crowd” is “convenient target”. And because the attacker has not been separated from their weapon at the point when they reach such a target, it’s the logical weak point for causing maximum damage.

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Three to Read for the Solvency Crisis

Simon Johnson on the possible consequences of Goldman Going Greek.

Economics of Contempt explains why economist John Cochrane should not be allowed to talk about finance. (Bonus coverage: EofC’s previous piece on John Taylor)

Alea’s jck on how all the talk about risk management became mainstreamed.

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From "You’ll Work for Us" to Only Short-Listed: Underappreciating Harvard

While several good people—including several of my wife’s relatives and one of our bloggers—graduated from Pravda-on-the-Chuck, I am saddened to note that their faculty’s efforts in creating the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) has been muted.

Such, at least, can be fairly concluded by the nominees and final ballot for The Dynamite Prize in Economics, being held at the blog of the Real-World Economics Review.

Consider that N. Gregory (“Greg”) Mankiw was not even nominated. The man who shepherded and shilled for the 2003 tax evisceration* in specific, and author of the textbook that corrupts more Econ 101 people than any other was not even nominated.

Then Michael Jensen—whose theories (purely by coincidence, to be sure) are used to justify shifting corporate profits on a massive basis from the company that makes them to the CEO who “runs” it—did not make the final ballot.

Even more than the damage done to their endowment—at least the guy who did that is on the final ballot, though for his general U.S. work, not his Endowment-during-his-divorce work—not being cited as responsible for the GFC, and therefore not being seen as Masters of the Universe, is saddening.

The remaining nominees are Very Worthy, to be certain (excepting Paul Samuelson, with whom people much have confused Robert). Vote early and often.

*It is remotely possible to make the argument that the 2001 cut was based on semi-legitimate (though silly) projections of surpluses There is no such excuse for the 2003 abomination.

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Are TBTF Banks Out of Danger? The Market Doesn’t Think So

Down here it’s just winners and losers
And don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line

This will be a long post. Even with all the pictures above the fold.

It started with a finger exercise during my daughter’s swim team practice:

Just in case you thought I was picking on The Big C in my previous post, let us look at the other major financial institutions (Too Big to Fail, or TBTF, Banks) over the same time period.

The Remaining Investment Banks:

While Goldman Sachs—as with most of the other so-called Winners—shows a significant upturn and major gains since the beginning of 2009, Morgan Stanley’s appreciation has been rather less apparent. However, both have returned only to approximately the price they held during the interregnum (after Bear Stearns fell but while Lehman Brothers ignored the warning and decided not to right the ship).

The Mortgage Lending Leaders:

Both firms show an increase in stock performance beginning in Q1 of 2009. Wells Fargo had a precipitous dive after LEH filed bankruptcy, but recovered in a similar amount of time. JPMorganChase, having acquired Bear for either a song or too much money, remains below the level it reached during the interregnum, but solidly in the middle of its range since 2006.

The Consumers-as-Profit-Center (“Retail”) Banks:

As is apparent, Capital One’s stock decline was not precipitated by the proximate solvency crisis itself, but rather by the decline in earnings and profits, and deflation in wages, that was in full swing by early 2006. While Bank of America does not have that preamble, it sees a similar decline in its stock price from the middle of 2007. By the time the recession is officially declared, the trend has started. And while Bear’s fire sale to JPM causes a decline in bank stocks, it is not until LEH that BAC mirrors its competitors above. More like MS than GS, BAC’s recovery to less than one-half of its pre-recession trading price suggests that the market is less confident than management that the firm’s major issues are behind it.

But one thing abides. The market isn’t happy.

Even as we might divide this squad into Winners (GS, JPM, WFC), Losers (C, MS), and Also-Rans (COF, BAC), six of those seven (exception: JPM) appear to be viewed by the market as no stronger than they were during the interregnum, the time when everyone was waiting to see if the other shoe would drop.

There are certainly other reasons the stock price might be down: insider selling at the firms is at record or near-record levels, and sooner or later people will figure out that when insiders are selling at 82:1 levels is not the best time to buy. Their loans are down (post on that coming soon) while, as Linda notes at ataxingmatter:

A recent study suggests that big banks in the TBTF category now enjoy a significant cost-of-funds spread compared to other banks. That is, they can borrow money more cheaply, leading to greater ability to make profits, than can other banks, because of the implicit guarantee that the federal government will step in and save them because they are TBTF and pose a systemic risk. That advantage may amount to as much as 48% of the TBTF banks’ profits this year (or as ‘little’ as 9%, on very conservative assumptions). The government, by the way, gets nothing for this implicit guarantee–unlike a commercial guarantor, it is not being paid a regular premium for the service.

So maybe investors believe that this advantage will go away. (Or, as noted above, maybe investors have figured out that the Big Banks aren’t taking advantage of this opporunity, expecting that it will never go away.)

The one certainty is that, with all of their advantages (the refusal of the Administration to support cramdowns for non-investment properties, leading to perverted accounting that makes banks solvent and mortgageholders underwater at the same time on the same property; the continuing payment of interest on Reserves in a deflationary environment, which has created a perverse incentive for the TBTF Banks not to lend; charging their smaller competitors for the TBTF Banks’s failures by raising their FDIC contribution and collecting three years of it upfront after not having saved for a rainy day; having Administration economic policy run by Larry Summers, whose last foray into the financial markets was too embarassing even for him to explain (h/t Felix); Ben Bernanke having decided that doing only half his job should be enough (h/t Brad DeLong); and the general delusion that the banks are necessary to and helping with a recovery. And that’s off the top of my head.

As The Epicurean Dealmaker observed last week vin a post eeryone should read:

Chancellor [of the Exchequer Alistair] Darling could not have been clearer:

“I’m giving them a choice. They can use their profits to build up their capital base, but if they insist on paying substantial rewards, I’m determined to claw money back for the taxpayer,” he said.

[H]e plans to do this by making banks choose between their employees and their shareholders…

Economists have made this point repeatedly: the first priority of people who run a business should be their responsibility to their shareholders. (See Steve Randy Waldman’s post yesterday for a clear explanation. And then see the post he pulled from comments after that, which saves me the trouble of hoisting from another person’s comments again for the real ramifications of TARP and the bailout. Why do Megan McArdle and the Administration hate the troops?)

Paying large bonuses while the banks themselves remain near insolvency is bad for the shareholders. Goldman Effing Sachs realizes that, even if they didn’t quite go far enough.

Why do I believe the state of the TBTF Banks ranges from near insolvency (C, MS) to on the edge of insolvency? The market tells me so.

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Health Care Reform–Even More of a Gift

UPDATE: Greg Sargent (via Glenn Greenwald’s Twitter feed) notes that I am hardly alone in my concluding pargraph.

The last even semi-useful part of health care “reform” (and that was of dubious value) is dead:

The idea of letting people ages 55 to 64 buy into Medicare, announced just last week, had threatened to explode the Democrats’ hopes of getting a bill through the Senate when Sen. Joseph Lieberman came out against it.

Yes, that’s the same Joe Lieberman who told a Hartford newspaper that it was good idea three months ago.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D., Ind.) said Democrats agreed that the dispute over Medicare shouldn’t hold up legislation that would extend coverage to tens of millions of Americans.

How can you tell when Son-of-a-Birch is lying? (His father is rolling over in his grave, probably at Warp Seven.)

There is now no reason not to vote Republican in all future elections—if you bother to vote at all, that is.

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Seasonal Posting: NYTFail, Part 2

First, David Leonhardt argued that this recession was good for workers.

Now, Floyd Norris apparently has decided to mix and match data. (I wonder if the fact many NYT employees who are looking at their 45-day severance offers is having an effect on its economic coverage.)

One of the standard “economist jokes” is about the one who died because he forgot to “seasonally adjust” his pool. In that tradition, Norris declares:

The adjustments are for seasonality. For some reason, October is the month with the largest seasonal adjustment down in jobs. So the increase in the unemployment rate does not reflect people actually losing jobs. It reflects the belief that seasonal factors should have added more jobs than they did.

All this may be very reasonable, and there is no way I can think of to test whether the seasonal adjustments are reliable. [emphases mine]

Gosh, I wonder why October would have a larger seasonal adjustment, and whether there is any BLS data to support that adjustment?

Apparently, employers traditionally hire a lot of people in October for “the Holiday Season.” And while it’s possible that they will be doing all that hiring in November this year, it hasn’t been the way to bet during this millennium.

Norris continues:

But I suspect seasonal factors are less important this year, when the economy may be changing directions, than they normally are.

It was with such optimism that Napoleon went to Russia, people bought VA Linux at $100 a share, and the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld axis decided to run a two-front war in Afghanistan and Iraq. With statements similar to Norris’s:

In reality, the government report says unemployment rates remained steady at 9.5 percent. And the number of jobs actually rose, by 80,000. And the number of jobs for college-educated Americans rose more than in any month in the last six years.

Well, the number of jobs rose (as one would expect, given the Holiday Sales push) but Table B-1 is closer to 40,000 than 80,000:

Where we do see an 80,000 job increase is in the private sector, which is more than 500,000 workers lower than it was in August. If you want to play a non-seasonally adjusted, private-sector only game with the data, you should at least be honest about it.

More vitriol and data below the break.

The details of that 80,000 look even worse: declines in all Goods-producing areas (except about 200 new jobs in primary metals, 300 in “miscellaneous manufacturing,” and 1,100 in motor vehicles and parts; cash for clunkers, anyone?) which are balanced by the Service sector, most notably the 63,500 new Retail jobs. Can you say “seasonal employment”? Floyd Norris apparently cannot.

The rest of the Non-Seasonally Adjusted figures are even less encouraging. Table A-8 of the report shows more than 100,000 people added to “not on temporary layoff”:

while Table A-9 is depressing: a larger number of unemployed at all durations, with the median duration of unemployment increased by more than one month (in a month):

And while the BLS has not updated their Job Openings data for October, the graphic through September isn’t exactly pointing to a decline in that median (or a robust recovery):

Is there a recovery in process? Maybe, though I’m not convinced, since most of the positive data seems, as Paul Krugman noted, “unrepresentative.”

But things are not so good as Floyd Norris wants to pretend, even (or especially) using the data he chooses to highlight.

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One of These Things is Not Like the Others

I try to like the NYTimes Economics Reporting. I really do. Heck, any place that publishes Uwe Reinhardt can’t be all bad.

But David Leonhardt, as he does often enough that I hesitate to read his work, again goes beyond the pale today, and clearly does so deliberately. The offending paragraph:

Twenty-two months after the start of the mid-1970s recession, real weekly pay was down 7 percent. For the early 1980s recession, the decline was 4 percent. Today, thanks to moderate pay growth and scant inflation, pay is 1 percent higher than when the Great Recession began in December 2007.

Let’s (1) remember that wages are sticky and (2) look at this declaration.

Both of the previous recessions are cited as being about 16 months. The current one probably ran 18 for economists’s purposes, and is in its 23rd month for the rest of us. But let’s give him a pass on that.

Note, however, the careful phrasing at the end of the paragraph: “thanks to moderate pay growth and scant inflation.” What does that mean? Well, let’s look at the Annual inflation Rate (CPI) for the actual recessions under discussion:

Gosh; quite a difference! I wonder if Leonhardt is aware of it.

A finger exercise below the fold.

Just for fun, let’s look at the wage changes over those periods. Now, unlike Leonhardt, I’m not going to use real wages. Let’s see if we can figure out what the nominal change in wages is for each of those periods.*

1973-1975 Average Inflation Rate: 10.75. Real wage loss: 7% Wage increase in period: 3.75% (including the residual effects of wage and price controls)

1980-1982: Average Inflation Rate: 7.5% Real wage loss: 4% Wage increase in period: 3.5%

2007-present: Average Inflation Rate: 1.8% Real wage gain: 1% Wage increase in period: 2.8%

I don’t know about anyone else, but I wouldn’t be celebrating the wage “gains” of the current era. (And let’s not even talk about actual wages received, since Barry Ritholz has that territory well-covered and then some).

*If you want to make the case that I should be using real wages, as Leonhardt does, please demonstrate (a) that all wages are renegotiated during a period of inflation, (b) that all parties are able to estimate inflation—even when at relatively unprecedented levels—accurately, and (c) that such negotiations were legally and commercially allowed during the period.

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More on Dubner and Levitt II

It has long been a standard claim of economics—iirc, Robert Lucas was the first to say it aloud, though it may have been Gary Becker*—that a man who marries his housekeeper lowers GDP.

Apparently, Dubner and Levitt have taken this claim—along with their Rick James title**—to heart. Echidne has the details. A short sample:

There is one labour market women have always dominated: prostitution. Its business model is built upon a simple premise. Since time immemorial and all over the world, men have wanted more sex than they could get for free. So what inevitably emerges is a supply of women who, for the right price, are willing to satisfy this demand. But what is the right price?…

It turns out that the typical street prostitute in Chicago works 13 hours a week, performing 10 sex acts during that period, and earns an hourly wage of approximately $27. So her weekly take-home pay is roughly $350. This includes an average of $20 that a prostitute steals from her customers and drugs accepted in lieu of cash.

If I didn’t know that Levitt has done some research on prostitution, I would think he left this section solely to Dubner. As it is, the skewed perspective (supply-side only) wouldn’t even pass muster in a basic neoclassical labor market model, and that the authors are trying to sell this as “economics” is, to extend a recent note from Brad DeLong that “Levitt and Dubner today appear to no longer be thinking like economists”, going to do Levitt much more harm than good.

Perhaps the difference between prostitutes and economists is that only the former have to worry about their reputation.

*Google indicates that the source is Pigou (1932). Does this explain the popularity of the Pigou Club?

**At this point, I’m betting they chose the title because of Abigail Breslin.

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What Dubner and Levitt couldn’t do in four years…

Brad DeLong does in less than a weekend. He is as enchanted as Robert was*:

My personal favorite is a giant parasol 18,000 miles in diameter at L1 to absorb and then reradiate a chunk of sunlight in other bands.

but notes the reality as well:

But I have never been able to find anyone here at Berkeley who (a) knows what they are talking about, and (b) agrees with Levitt and Dubner that we know that Al Gore efficiency-and-conservation solutions are much less cost-effective than Mt. Pinatubo geoengineering solutions in dealing with global warming.

And summarizes accurately:

[Dubner and Levitt] then failed to do their intellectual due diligence about what they were told [at Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures].

Followed by twenty (20) edits for the first half of the chapter.

First, the climate scientists called b*llsh*t. Now, the economists are coming out—and the song remains the same.

It’s becoming more and more obvious why the first book described John Lott as “an economist” and Paul Krugman as a “Bush critic and NYT columnist.”

*Didn’t everyone already read a simpler version of idea in Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise. And wasn’t that enough of a cautionary tale on how complicated the reality is likely to be?

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Coming Soon from Major Economists Near You

Ken Houghton is talkin’ about his generation.

Pete Davis, Mark Thoma (who at least has the decency to phrase it in the form of a question), N. Gregory Mankiw, and Brad DeLong explain why there should not be any penalties against providers of West Virginia water (h/t Bitch).

Because fungible is fungible, even if it isn’t.

At least Garth Brazelton at Reviving Economics gets it right, leaving hope that when we’re all dead, the next generation will know how to teach economics so that they’re not looked at as if they’re insane.

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