Chart of the Week: Electric Takeover in Transportation

From the IMF blog, a great chart showing the rate at which motor vehicles took over from horses early in the 20th century. Putting current motor-vehicle and electric-car use on the same graph makes a pretty good visual case that we might be as little as 15 years from the cross-over point where half the vehicles on the road are electric.

Greater affordability of electric vehicles will likely steer us away from our current sources of energy for transportation, and toward more environmentally friendly technology. And that can happen sooner than you think.

Source: Chart of the Week: Electric Takeover in Transportation | IMF Blog

The Federal Reserve and the “gig” economy

The “gig” economy: all the sorts of work arrangements where you’re not a permanent employee and can’t expect that work one day implies that you’ll have work the next day—freelancing, contracting, temp work, casual labor, and most recently, software-mediated contract work like Uber driver.

These sorts of work have been growing as a fraction of all work. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the last ten years contingent workers have gone from being 10% of the workforce to being 16%. In fact,

all of the net growth in aggregate employment in the decade leading up to 2015 can be accounted for by contingent work arrangements, which means there has been no net employment growth in traditional work arrangements.

Source: FRB: Brainard, The “Gig” Economy: Implications of the Growth of Contingent Work

This matters to everyone with an interest in the U.S. economy, but it matters particularly to the Federal Reserve, which is charged by Congress to:

promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.

Source: The Federal Reserve’s Dual Mandate

So this raises the question: Does strong growth in the number of freelancers, on-call temps, and Uber drivers mean that we’re getting closer to maximum employment? Or, that we’re getting further away?

Second passports for expensive

This sort of thing was a fantasy of mine, back in the 1980s. I could see things getting worse in the US, and the idea that a foreign passport and foreign residency could provide an escape if things got too bad was pretty appealing.

Nowadays not so much. It’s not that things have gotten better in the US; it’s that things have gotten worse other places at least as quickly. More to the point, things getting worse in the US seems to make things worse other places, so the conditions that make the idea appealing are the same conditions that make it pointless.

One book that substantially influenced my thinking in this area is Emergency: This book will save your life by Neil Strauss. I recommend it highly. In entertaining and informative prose, he documents his transformation from just the sort of kook I was in the 1980s into somebody with a much more practical perspective.

Still, an EU passport might have its upsides. Anybody got a spare quarter million euros and an interest in learning Greek? (If money is no object, a half million euros will let you buy in to Ireland, and I expect learning Gaelic is optional.)

Graphic from Citizenship for Sale on the International Monetary Fund’s IMFDirect blog.


The other reason to raise chickens

Backyard Eggs
Backyard Eggs

So, the Champaign City Council legalized backyard chickens a while back. You have to file a form, pay a one-time fee, and get a notarized permission slip from your landlord (if you’re a renter), but it all looks quite doable. As I’d mentioned when I wrote about the issue before, this would have been a determining factor in my willingness to buy a house in Champaign, and now it isn’t. The fee isn’t cheap ($50), but figured into the cost of buying a house, it’s insignificant.

But thinking about the fee got me to thinking about why one raises chickens in the first place.

Probably most of the people in Champaign who want to raise backyard chickens are yuppy locavore types looking to reduce their food-miles to minimize their carbon footprint and know that they’re eating organic and cruelty-free. More power to them. But there’s another category of people who might raise backyard chickens: poor people.

Someone who’s poor—someone whose budget barely stretches to cover their other expenses, someone who’s on food stamps, someone who uses a food pantry—is another person who might find raising backyard chickens very attractive. Eggs don’t cost much, but someone who raised chickens might be able to save a few dollars a week and get some high-quality protein and have a surplus that they could share or trade. But a $50 entry fee just about blocks this reason to raise chickens.

I guess I’m not really surprised. Local politicians in Champaign have a lot of incentive to help upper-middle class people eat local and organic—those people vote. They probably don’t feel the same pressure to help poor people get a little high-quality food as cheaply as possible, because poor people don’t vote as much—and when they do vote, the legality of backyard chickens probably isn’t a top issue.

It does bug me just a little that Champaign (which thinks of itself as conservative place) has created this whole big-government scheme with forms and approvals and fees and regulations on chicken coops, while Urbana (which thinks of itself as a liberal place) doesn’t have any of that stuff, just a general rule against letting your animals become a nuisance. But that’s just me, asking for consistency from politicians.

So, half a cheer for Champaign legalizing backyard chickens, even if they came up with a way to do it that only helps yuppy locavores and not poor folks.

How is 2% inflation different from 3% or 4%?

In his dedication to educating the public about the zero bound, Paul Krugman has asked several times (most recently today):

. . . what calculation leads to the notion that a target of “close to but less than 2%” is appropriate, as opposed to, say, 3 or 4 percent.

I think I know the answer: An inflation rate of 2% is small enough that price changes due to inflation are unnoticeable in the noise of other price changes, even over periods of a few years.

Among the costs of inflation are those that come from uncertainty about not only future prices, but also about current prices.

When inflation is under 2%, the price of a cookie at the local bakery might remain unchanged for years at a time. I can stop by the bakery with exact change, and be reasonably confident that I’ll be able to buy one. The costs of flour, sugar, and chocolate will vary over time—but some will rise and others will fall, and the bakery will be able to hold the line on the price of a cookie. This is a convenience for me. It’s also good for the bakery, because people who are confident that they have enough cash in their pocket to buy a cookie are more likely to stop and get one. If they had to make a stop at the ATM first to get cash—or worse, be sent away to visit an ATM mid-transaction—they might not.

At some point—and I assert that the point turns out to be slightly above a 2% inflation rate—stores find that it’s necessary to raise prices at least annually, just to keep up with inflation.

Even if the inflation rate is known and not a surprise, there’s still the threshold effect of one day the price is $x and the next day it’s $x+3%.

When the inflation rate is below 2%, prices can remain stable for years at a time—long enough for people to learn what they are. And that knowledge can make their day run more smoothly. They can be sure they have appropriate cash on hand. They don’t need to check prices ahead of each transaction.

When the inflation rate is above 3%, stores might need to raise prices twice a year, to avoid falling behind. When the prices of a hundred things are all being raised more often than annually, it becomes impossible to learn what prices are, and impossible for that knowledge to make the day run more smoothly. All of a sudden, you have to pay attention to price changes, because they’re happening all the time. In advance of every transaction, you need to allow for the fact that maybe today is the day that prices went up several percent.

Some prices change all the time anyway, especially where the item being sold is a single commodity, such as milk or gasoline. For exactly this reason, prices of those items are often prominently displayed—to reduce the transaction effort of the consumer who wants to know what the price is going to be.

I think that’s why 2% inflation is different from 3–4% inflation: Because price changes due to inflation begin to stand out from changes in relative prices, adding another whole layer of informational costs on every purchaser, on every purchase.

Champaign considers allowing backyard chickens

more-st-croix-chickensThe News Gazette had an article yesterday saying that the Champaign City Council has agreed to “schedule a study session” on the topic of legalizing backyard chickens.

Tom Bruno, who was the guy who offered me some encouragement when I inquired earlier seems ready to support the idea. Other members of the council sounded more ambivalent. The comments on the News Gazette article are decidedly mixed as well. (The people who object not because they think the chickens would actually cause any sort of problem, but because they’re afraid that it would make the area seem too “redneck” surprise me.)

So, it’s by no means a sure thing. Time to get organized.

Reducing poverty

I’m big on reducing poverty, both locally and globally. (I do worry that more rich people will use more resources, suggesting that reducing poverty isn’t an unalloyed good thing. On yet another hand, only rich people can afford things like sequestering carbon or preserving habitat. It’s complicated.)

Since I’m interested in reducing poverty, I was interested in Lant Pritchett’s recent talk Everything you think you know about poverty is wrong.

Pritchett and I see pretty much eye-to-eye on how to have a rich country, I think.

These well-off countries have a productive economy, a government that is responsive to the citizens, a capable bureaucracy, and the rule of law.

This has interesting implications for global development, because these are all things where it’s very difficult to improve someone else’s situation. If a country has government by-and-for the elites, or a corrupt bureaucracy, it’s going to be poor—and there’s very little outsiders can do to help. One of Pritchett’s points is that things that seem like they might help, such as improving education, seem to do more harm than good—perhaps because well-educated corrupt bureaucrats are worse than ignorant ones.

His solution is for rich countries to create or expand guest worker programs, which I think is a poor idea.

It’s not that I don’t think it would work. A poor worker who came to a rich country and worked a couple of years could both support relatives back in the poor country and save up enough money to return home and start a business. That would relieve poverty both immediately and going forward. It would also produce another person with first-hand experience of the advantages of a less-corrupt society (as opposed to merely seeing the advantages of getting in on the corruption).

The main reason I think it’s a poor idea is that enforcing a guest worker program eventually requires a police state. Somebody has to check all workers—it’s the only way to identify those who aren’t legally entitled to work. Somebody has to make sure those whose permission to work has expired get fired. Those whose permission to live here has expired, but who don’t go home, become an underclass with all the usual problems of an underclass—crime, violence, oppression, disease. I’ve written about this before (see Missing the point on immigration).

There is also the issue of how guest workers affect salaries, wages, and working conditions of citizen workers (short version: I think it makes them worse).

The ideal solution, of course, would be for every country to be rich enough and free enough that people from all over the world would want to move there. But that just brings us back to where we started.

New expectation on the debt ceiling

During the debt ceiling crisis back in 2011, I suggested that it would be no big deal if the government just “prioritized” spending so as to match revenues for however long it took Congress to get its act together and raise the debt ceiling. I got some push back on this by people who said I was crazy if I thought that much spending would suffice, but I never thought it would suffice—I was just sure that the result would be so onerous that Congress would knuckle under in no time. I figured that was what the Treasury secretly had in mind.

I’ve changed my mind.

It would have gone like this: The laws are contradictory—Congress sets the tax rates, Congress sets the spending levels, Congress sets the debt ceiling. The poor Treasury, simply doing the best it could in a no-win situation, would hold up pretty much all payments except interest on the debt, judges pay, soldiers pay, and social security. Once payments to major corporations in districts where recalcitrant Congressmen lived got held up, the stalemate would have ended pretty quickly.

I no longer think that’s what’s going to happen. Basically, I’ve come around the view that the Treasury meant what it said when it claimed that its hand were tied: It is legally required to spend the money the Congress has appropriated, whether the money is raised or not.

And I think there’s a solution.

Really, it’s the same solution as the “platinum coin” solution or the “issue scrip” solution, but those solutions are just gimmicks to put a pseudo-legalistic shine on what basically amounts to paying our bills by printing money.

I don’t think there’s any need for the gimmick. I think what the Treasury means to do once the headroom for keeping under the debt ceiling runs out is: Nothing. They’ll just go on writing checks exactly as they’ve been doing.

They’ll stop issuing new debt of course, so there’ll be no new money in their account at the Federal Reserve to pay the checks.

At which point, I’m reasonably sure, the Federal Reserve will just pay the checks anyway—which the Fed can easily do by just crediting the depositing bank’s account. (In other words, printing the money.)

Basically, the Fed would let the Treasury run an unlimited overdraft.

This works on several levels.

First of all, it doesn’t require any reprogramming or rejiggering of the Treasury’s numerous systems for making all the many payments they make every day. (No entity makes more payments than the US Treasury.) That’s good, because any attempt to do so would be problematic at best, and probably catastrophic in the short term.

Second, the people who are being most recalcitrant about raising the debt ceiling are the ones who would be most outraged. (I can just see them frothing at the mouth. Oh noes! Inflation!!1!)

Third, under the current circumstances, it would probably be good for the economy. I’ve pretty much come around to Paul Krugman’s analysis that at the zero bound there is no inflation risk to printing money. Even better, if it did produce some inflation, that might get us up off the zero bound. (I for one would be very pleased to be able to earn a return on my capital.)

A generation ago the Fed would have hated this—bankers used to hate overdrafts in the deepest depths of their bowels. But overdrafts have been so profitable for banks these past 20 years or so, I expect we have a whole generation of bankers who have gotten over it.

As to whether it’s really legal or not, that’s something for the courts to decide. The debt ceiling applies to debt “subject to the limit.” The Fed and the Treasury will just say that, while an overdraft is debt, it’s not debt “subject to the limit.” The debt ceiling will be resolved long before any court case plays out.

The Treasury never admitted to having any contingency plans last time. Their take on it was that not raising the debt ceiling was unthinkable, therefore they would not think about it. But this is the only thing I can think of that could actually play out without chaos. If they weren’t planning on doing this (or something much like it), they’d have done something by now (such as having a dry run of their scheme for prioritizing payments).

Last time, I figured we’d get an 11th hour deal. This time, I think it’s pretty likely that the debt ceiling won’t get raised, and I think the Treasury will actually end up doing this—so I thought I’d share my thinking in case people find it useful.