The Fault Is Not in Our Stuff But in Ourselves

Bruce Sacerdote‘s NBER Working Paper, “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages” provides a nice update on the measurement of CPI Bias.  The punchline should be obvious, but it’s great to hear such an eminent economist say it: “Meaningful growth in consumption for below median income families has occurred even in a prolonged period of increasing income inequality, increasing consumption inequality and a decreasing share of national income accruing to labor.”

Highlights:

Table 3 shows estimates of annualized growth rates in wages by decade. The first column shows growth in real wages using CPI deflation. This column show real wages fell by 0.8 percent per year during the ten years January 1975-January 1985 and fell by 0.6 percent per year during the ten years ended in 1995.10 In the subsequent two decades wage growth is positive 0.8 percent per year and 0.7 percent per year respectively.

The next three columns calculate growth in real wages using a) PCE adjustment, b) an assumption of 20% upward bias in CPI growth, and c) Hamilton/ Costa adjustment to CPI. The picture looks progressively more optimistic as we move from left to right. PCE adjustment still has negative wage growth in the first two decades (75-85 and 85-95) but the decreases in real wages are smaller. Hamilton/ Costa bias adjustment implies annual real wage growth of 1.4% during 1975-1985, .2 percent per year during 1985-1995, 1.4 percent during 1995-2005 and .8 percent in the most recent decade.

The table in question:

More:

Consumption for below median income families has seen steady progress since 1960. My preferred point estimates are based on CEX measures of consumption where the price index has been de-biased following Hamilton and Costa. These estimates suggest that consumption is up 1.7 percent per year or 164 percent over the whole time period. These estimates of growth strike me as consistent with the significant increases in quality and quantity of goods enjoyed by Americans over the last half century. And my conclusions are consistent with the findings of Broda and Weinstein (2008). Estimates of slow and steady growth seem more plausible than media headlines which suggest that median American households face declining living standards.

The bias adjusted estimates also provide a more positive outlook on real wage growth in the last 40 years than standard media headlines. PCE adjusted wages appear to have grown at .5% per year during 1975-2015 while the de-biased CPI adjusted wages grew at 1% per year over the same time period.

Key caveat:

Importantly these estimates do not tell us anything about why wages grew more slowly than GDP or why inequality increased. CPI bias does not explain decreases in labor’s share of income (Krueger 1999) or the associated rise in inequality (Pikkety and Saez 2003). Adjusting the price index downward leads to higher estimated real wage growth and higher estimated real GDP growth.

The big unanswered question:

What I do not address here is why Americans feel worse off if consumption is actually rising. There are at least four important explanations that may be at work. First, I am only examining consumption within very large sections of the income distribution and there may be specific groups (for example less than high school educated men) for whom consumption is actually falling. Second, it’s possible that the quality of some services such as public education or health care could be falling for some groups. Third, the rise in income inequality coupled with increased information flow about other people’s consumption may be making Americans feel worse off in a relative sense even if their material goods consumption is rising. Fourth, changes in family structure (e.g. the rise of single parent households), increases in the prison population, or increases in substance addiction could make people worse off even in the face of rising material wealth. A deep future research agenda would be to understand how America has lost its sense of optimism about living standards and whether the problem is one of consumption, relative consumption (relative to other people) or something entirely different.

My favorite candidate for “something entirely different”: false consciousness.  Most people embrace a dogmatic pessimistic ideology, and believing is seeing.  Hedonic adaptation amplifies the problem.  After all, it’s easier to deny that your standard of living is great than to admit that you’re unhappy despite your affluence.  The fault is not in our stuff but in ourselves.

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Instead of a US Peace Plan for the Middle East, How about a US Peace Plan for the US?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo describes the Trump administration’s plan for peace between Israel and Palestinian Arabs as “unexecutable.” President Trump says Pompeo “may be right.”

Good! As addiction counselors say, the first step is admitting you have a problem.  With addiction, the way out is not “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” It’s admitting that the thing you’re addicted to will never solve your problems and giving up that thing.

The United States suffers from a long-term addiction, since at least the end of World War 2, to trying to run the world.

That addiction has cost American taxpayers trillions of dollars.

It’s cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions of citizens of other countries.

It’s empowered evil regimes to suppress human rights both at home and abroad.

And it has never, ever “worked” in the sense of bringing about lasting peace, any more than booze saves marriages or methamphetamine repairs mental anguish.

In fact, just like booze or methamphetamine, the US addiction to world “leadership” wrecks the lives of everyone around the addict too. Which means that if the US gets its act together, everyone else, not just Americans, will be better off.

Here’s a four-step peace plan that addresses the roots of the problem instead of just unsuccessfully trying to treat the symptoms:

First, the US should shut down its military bases on foreign soil and withdraw its troops from the foreign countries they’re currently operating in.

Second, the US should end economic sanctions on, and extend full diplomatic recognition and trade privileges to, all the countries it’s currently bullying.

Third, the US should end all foreign aid, especially military aid.

Fourth and finally, the US should dramatically decrease its so-called “defense” budget to levels consistent with actual defense.

Cold turkey withdrawal may be out of the question, but the US can and should wean itself off the damaging drug of foreign interventionism.

Let the Arabs and Israelis settle their own hash. Quit taking sides between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Stop pretending North Korea is or ever has been a threat to the United States. Step back and let Venezuelans, Syrians, and Libyans decide who’s going to run Venezuela, Syria, and Libya.

It won’t be easy, but it’s not complicated either. The US can continue drinking itself to death on the poison of foreign meddling, or not. Not is better.

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Gabor Mate: The Consequences of Stressed Parenting (1h19m)

This episode features a talk by Canadian physician and addiction expert Gabor Mate from 2012. He talks about the link between stressed parenting and the preponderance of childhood disorders like ADHD, autism and oppositional defiant disorder. Purchase books by Gabor Mate on Amazon here.

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Big Business: Recasting the Anti-Hero

Tyler Cowen’s previous book, Stubborn Attachments, is right in general, but wrong on particulars.  His latest book, in contrast, is largely right on both.  The world needed a new book to be pro-market and pro-business at the same time, and Tyler’s Big Business delivers the package.  I’m almost tempted to quote Keynes:

In my opinion it is a grand book … Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement.

Highlights include:

1. A popularization of Bloom and van Reenen’s work on the power of management:

We must take a moment to appreciate the particular character of American business. By global standards, its overall performance is remarkably impressive. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom and a group of co-authors studied and compared management practices in some of the major economies, including the United States. Their survey assessed how well a workplace uses incentives, the quality of performance measures and reviews, whether top management aims at long-term goals, whether top creators are well rewarded, and whether the firm attracts and retains quality employees, among other relevant metrics…

So at the end of all of these measurements of management quality, which country comes out on top? The United States is a clear first…

Management really matters. Let’s say we take two American plants producing comparable wares, but one of those plants is in the 90th percentile in terms of productivity, while the other is in the 10th percentile. The former plant will have a productivity level four times higher than the latter plant, due to superior management practices. It has been estimated that Chinese firms could increase their productivity by 30–50 percent and Indian firms could do so by 40–60 percent merely by improving their management practices up to an American level of quality.

2. Business practices and promotes good manners and civility.  Despite modern political hysteria…

the world of American business has never been more productive, more tolerant, and more cooperative. It is not just a source of GDP and prosperity; it is a ray of normalcy and predictability in its steady focus on producing what can be profitably sold to customers. Successful businesses grow dynamically, but they also try to create oases of stability and tolerance in which they can perfect their production methods and which help to attract and retain talent…

American big business in particular has led the way toward making America more socially inclusive. McDonald’s, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, and many of the major tech companies, among many others, were defining health and other legal benefits for same-sex partners before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage… This push for tolerance shouldn’t come as any surprise. Big business has lots of customers and relies on the value of brand names. It doesn’t want any group of those customers to feel put out or discriminated against or to have cause for complaint…

3. Some deliberate (?) understatement on fraud:

Most of all, business is criticized for being fraudulent and ripping us off. While there is plenty of fraud in business, the commercial sector isn’t any more fraudulent than individuals in other capacities, and it may even be somewhat less fraudulent.

I’d say there’s no “may even be somewhat less fraudulent” about it!  Who wouldn’t trust Amazon or Uber or Airbnb over a random American who promised to provide the same product?

4. Business thinks long-term, usually:

It can be very difficult to distinguish between short-termism and an inability to see into the future. The failed Netflix competitors were mainly not venal rip-off artists; rather, most of them genuinely did not see that providing massive amounts of streaming content would prove to be a winning strategy. If half of the time businesses think too short-term and the other half of the

time too long-term, there will be thousands of valid examples and anecdotes about excessive short-term thinking and planning, and they aren’t necessarily related to CEO dishonesty.

And:

Of course, markets also think long-term when it comes to successes, and that long-term mentality is encouraged through CEO pay structures. Consider Amazon, which has a stratospherically high share price, even though the quarterly earnings reports usually fail to show a sizable profit. Whether you think that valuation has been justified or not, it is a clear example of how markets can consider the broader, longer-term picture. Circa 2018, Jeff Bezos ended up as the richest man in the world, and he achieved that status by sticking with some long-run goals.

5. Employment may not be fun, but it’s meaningful and prevents misery:

Another way to think about the non-pay-related benefits of having a job is to consider the well-known and indeed sky-high personal costs of unemployment. Not having a job when you want to be working damages happiness and health well beyond what the lost income alone would account for. For instance, the unemployed are more likely to have mental health problems, are more likely to commit suicide, and are significantly less happy. Sometimes there is a causality problem behind any inference—for instance, do people kill themselves because they are unemployed, or are they unemployed because possible suicidal tendencies make them less well suited to do well in a job interview? Still, as best we can tell, unemployment makes a lot of individual lives much, much worse. In the well-known study by economists Andrew E. Clark and Andrew J. Oswald, involuntary unemployment is worse for individual happiness than is marital divorce or separation.

6. Even much-maligned low-skilled jobs have unsung psychological benefits:

In contemporary American society, poorer individuals are more likely to have problems with divorce, spousal abuse, drug addiction in the family, children dropping out of school, and a variety of other fairly common social problems. These problems plague rich and poor alike, but they are more frequent in poorer families and, furthermore, very often wreak greater devastation on poorer families, which have fewer resources to cope with them. The workplace, however, is a partial equalizer here. At least in this sample, the poorer individuals found relatively greater solace in the workplace than did the richer individuals.

7. Employers’ alleged mistreatment of individual workers is often for the greater good of their whole team:

Along these lines, I hear so many criticisms that companies do not give workers enough personal or intellectual freedom. For instance, many critics have noted that companies have the right to fire workers for their Facebook or other social media postings. Surely that sounds like an unjustified infringement on freedom of speech. But on closer inspection, the stance of the companies is often quite defensible. Unfortunately, a lot of workers put racist, sexist, or otherwise discomforting comments and photos on their Facebook pages, on Twitter, or elsewhere. When employers fire them, very often it is to protect the freedom of the other workers—namely, the ability of those other workers to enjoy the workplace environment free of harassment and threats. It’s not always or even usually a question of the employer versus the workers, or the old story of a struggle between worker and boss struggle. Rather, the boss is trying, sometimes in vain, to adjudicate conflicting notions of workplace freedom among the workers. In other words, the firings are in part an employer attempt to take the overall preferences of the workers into account.

8. Big business is often the cure for monopoly rather than the disease:

[Y]ou can think of Amazon and Walmart as two big reasons a lot of collusive and price-fixing schemes don’t work anymore or don’t have a major impact on consumers. Amazon and Walmart are the two biggest retailers in America, and both compete by keeping prices low—permanently, it seems. Their goal is to become dominant platforms for a wide variety of goods and to use low prices to boost their reputation and their focal status as the place to go shopping. By now both companies are old news, and it is increasingly difficult to argue that their strategies are eventual market domination and then someday super-high monopoly prices. Instead, their strategies seem to be perpetually low prices, followed by taking in insanely large amounts of business and using data collection to outcompete their rivals on the basis of cost and quality service.

My main criticism: Tyler is so pro-business that he often forgets (at least rhetorically) to be pro-market.  He spends minimal time calling for moderate deregulation – and even less calling for radical deregulation.  So while he effectively calls attention to everything business does for us, he barely shows readers how much business could do for us if government got out of the way.  Above all, Tyler mentions the following only in passing – or not at all:

1. The evils of housing regulation.  Business is ready, willing, and able to build mega-cities worth of affordable housing in the most desirable places in the country – the moment land-use regulations permit.

2. The evils of immigration restriction.  Perhaps to broaden his audience, Tyler fails to mention the eagerness of business to provide international workers with the opportunity to use their talents for the enrichment of mankind.  If I were him, I would have highlighted (a) how much business has done to increase immigration, and (b) how much business has engaged in righteous civil disobedience by hiring workers despite our unjust immigration laws.

3. The evils of labor market regulation.  Tyler barely mentions the many awful side effects of much-loved labor market regulations.  This was a mighty missed opportunity to lambast the horrors of European labor market regulationBig Business was also a great opportunity to explain why discrimination is usually bad for profitability, making anti-discrimination regulations superfluous at best.  Indeed, Tyler could have used the ubiquitous employment of illegal immigrants to illustrate these truths.

Fortunately, it’s not too late for Tyler to correct his unfortunate omissions on his blog.  Big business has been miscast as an anti-hero, but populist regulation is a Thanos-level supervillain.

P.S. Exercise for the reader: Name a better book cover than Tyler’s!

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Johann Hari: The Disastrous War on Drugs (3h0m)

This episode features an interview of journalist Johann Hari from 2019 by Joe Rogan, host of the Joe Rogan Experience. They discuss the effects of the War on Drugs, the roots of drug addiction, and his new book, Chasing the Scream. Purchase books by Johann Hari on Amazon here.

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Confessions of a Blogging Opium Eater

Nobody asked but …

With a nod to Thomas De Quincey, I have had to deal with the consequences of an addiction once again.  As a life long University of Kentucky basketball fan, I now must look forward to a long, cold summer.  I will have fleeting moments, perhaps in the NBA playoffs, perhaps when they contest the Rugby World Cup to see who can deny the New Zealand All Blacks.

But this all got me thinking about the nature of undying love, freedom, individuality, and consequences, from the POV of a voluntaryist.  Nobody got me into this mess, but myself.  I know the risks, however, so I suppose I suffer gladly (acknowledging that I would celebrate even more gladly, as I have done countless times in the past).  Looking at my nearly 76 earthly years with the Wildcats and the All Blacks, it has been worth it.

The point, however, is that addictions are one of the consequences of voluntarily seeking joy.  If you do it in the true spirit of the non-aggression principle (initiate no violence), the golden rule (do to others as you hope they will do to you), studying war no more, and hearty acceptance of ALL the responsibilities conferred with your goals of liberty, you can have joy, even among the heartaches.

— Kilgore Forelle

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