Comments on economics, mystery fiction, drama, and art.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Part 3

I keep thinking about what state legal regulations might "substantially burden" my life as a business owner (keeping in mind, as I try to remind people, it is illegal, under federal law, to discriminate against potential customers on the basis of age, sex, national origin, or religion).  And I read stupid stuff, like a comment about how an Islamic (or, presumably, Jewish) business owner could get in trouble for not serving ham, that's not what the law are perfectly at liberty not to sell ham sandwiches (or to sell ONLY ham sandwiches)...but should you be at liberty, in operating your catering business, to sell sandwiches to mixed-sex wedding receptions and not to same-sex wedding receptions?


Here's an *existing* state regulation that arguably does burden a business owner's exercise of religion. In Indiana, sale of alcoholic beverages is prohibited on Sunday. Suppose I am an orthodox Jewish owner of a liquor store (or a chain of liquor stores), and my religion pretty much says I must be closed on the Sabbath--Saturday. Other liquor stores get to be open 6 days a week; I can only be open 5 days a week, if I "exercise" my religion. Sounds like a substantial burden to me. (One can do the same thing for almost any business owned by orthodox Jews, or Seventh Day Adventists, and so on. The liquor store example is telling, because it requires store closings on the Sabbath of a *particular set of religions.*)

Feel free to propose other plausible examples that do not include discrimination against a *class of customers* in comments. I will delete any comment that proposes discrimination against a class of customers.

More screwing the pooch


I continue to be amazed by the willingness of legislators to put the burden of figuring out where they will be able to shop. or find professional services, on the people we are allowing business owners to discriminate against. Talk about placing "substantial burdens" on people...Maybe the laws should require business owners who plan to discriminate to put BIG signs on their storefronts, websites, etc., saying "We refuse service to ..." That'll make it easier for the rest of us to say "We refuse to patronize businesses that discriminate."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Indiana screws the pooch

Begin rant.

Well, the Indiana State Legislature has passed, and our governor has signed into law, an abomination titled formally the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (you can read it here, if you are so minded:…).

The two key sections appear to be Section 8 and Section 9 (what precedes those is mostly definitional). They read as follows:

Sec. 8. (a) Except as provided in subsection (b), a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability. (b) A governmental entity may substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

 Sec. 9. A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a violation of this chapter may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding. If the relevant governmental entity is not a party to the proceeding, the governmental entity has an unconditional right to intervene in order to respond to the person's invocation of this chapter.

 There is no definition in the law of "substantially burdened," although that may be a term of common meaning to lawyers. There is no attempt to identify what constitutes a substantial burden. These is no indication of what constitutes proof of a substantial burden. I think it's possible to make a coherent argument either (a) that almost any government regulation could "substantially burden" someone because of their religious beliefs or (b) that no regulation could possibly create a substantial burden.

This will also put the courts directly in the business of determining whether someone's professed religious beliefs are sincerely held or not--and isn't that a can of worms? The relief provided by the law is against a government entity that has burdened someone's exercise of religion. 
Incidentally, don't think YOU, as a job applicant, employee, or former employee, have any rights here. If a protected entity (i.e., a private organization r business) behaves in a way that burdens YOUR exercise of your rights, you are SOL (Section 11).

(By the way, this is the definition of "exercise of religion:"
"As used in this chapter, "exercise of religion" includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief." Of course, it subsequently says that a "person" as meant by the act, includes (a an individual; (b) an organization, a religious society, a church, a body of communicants, or a group organized primarily and operated for religious purposes; and (c) a business "that exercises practices that are compelled or limited by a system of religious belief held by an individual or the individuals who control and substantial ownership of the entity." So I'm not clear whether your belief does or does not have to be a part of a system of religious belief.)

Lawyers should love this.

Of course, I think it's unconstitutional on its face. Whether one references the Indiana State Constitution or the U.S. Constitution..

And, of course, my (and your) tax dollars will be spent defending this travesty as the whole thing wends its way through the judicial system. (But, then, that's one of Indiana's largest budget items these days--defending insane laws and actions of state officials--specifically, the state attorney general--on federal court.)

End rant.

Thinking about mortgage lending with Timothy Taylor

Timothy Taylor does a fine job of thinking about mortgage lending, and how changes in the mortgage market have affected our economy.  I would disagree (slightly) on one point, and make one additional comment.

First, the additional comment.  Taylor comments on the difference between a mortgage lending rule mortgage payments that are 30% of the borrower's income, and 25%.  Back in the dim past (1976), when I first bought a house, the rule of thumb was that the amount of the mortgage should not exceed twice one's annual income.  Not quite the same thing.

Taylor's conclusions are these:

Let me offer a speculation: Say that the rules for taking our a mortgage had been tighter over time. Imagine the standard was that banks would decide what you can afford based on 25% of your income, not 30%, or that mortgages were typically available for 15 or 20 years, not 30. My guess is that bank lending for mortgages would be smaller. The size of homes might well have increased, but not as quickly. Less of US capital investment would be allocated to housing, which would make it possible for more to be allocated to investments that can raise the long-term standard of living. The US economy would be less vulnerable to recession. People who were less stretched in making their mortgage payments would be less likely to face default or foreclosure. And my guess is that many of us would have adapted perfectly well to living in smaller homes, because the smaller size would be usual and typical and what we expect. The money we weren't spending on housing would easily be spent on other forms of consumption.
My disagreement comes from his conclusion that less home ownership would likely mean that "Less of US capital investment would be allocated to housing, which would make it possible for more to be allocated to investments that can raise the long-term standard of living."   Two points.  (1) Owner-occupied or not, there needs to be "enough" housing; in a world with less owner-occupied housing, this would suggest more rental housing.  And it's not clear that the additional rental housing would be multi-family.  So the shift from investment in housing to investment in other forms of capital might not be al that significant.  (2) I think it's incorrect (or at least speculative) to say that investment in housing does not contribute (as much as other forms of capital accumulation) to increasing the standard of living over time.  More housing is a good that people value.  The real question is to determine the value of more (larger, etc.) housing relative to other forms of new capital.

But do read his piece.  It's extraordinarily interesting.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

College costs, student debt, and other things

This is very preliminary, and is only one chart.  What this chart shows is the number of hours someone would have to have worked at the minimum wage to earn (before taxes or any spending) enough to pay tuition & fees (the black line) or tuition & fees plus room & board (the red line) at the average U.S. public university, from 1965 to 2007.  Note that both lines are essentially flat until the early 1980s...then, the deluge.

(Click to enlarge)

I'm still working on this and expect to have something substantive to say in a bit.

A related point, especially relevant for private universities.  As an example, the school I attended had a listed tuition of $1,500 per year in 1965/66 (my first year), and it's now $42,500--or about quadrupled after adjusting for (CPI) inflation.  But the list price is not the real price.  In 2013/14, the school received, not $42,500 per student in tuition, but about $19,000 (according to the institution's audited financials).  My guess is that in 1965/66, the actual tuition revenues were not $1,500 per student, but maybe $1,000.  So the actual increase in (inflation-adjusted) per-student tuition revenue is not a quadrupling of revenue, but perhaps more like 2.5 times as much...tuition revenue has increased a lot faster than prices in general, but not, perhaps, as much as the "sticker price" makes it appear.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Is the decline in employer support for training worrying?

Timothy Taylor pointed out, at The Conversable Economist, that employer support for employee training has declined, consistently, between 1996 (when 19% of employers reported that they paid for some training, and 13% said they provided formal OJT) and 2008 (11% and 8%).  I linked to that on a listserv (on teaching economics), labeling it the depressing fact of the day.  One of the other people there (Michael Nuwer) raised a valid point: 

According to human capital theory such a decline in on-the-job training makes perfect sense when the rate of job turnover increases. Many of us tell our students to expect numerous employers throughout their careers, which means these employers are less willing to invest in firm specific skill. But this tells us nothing about what might be happening to the
acquisition of general skills. Feeling depressed might be premature.
Quite right.  But are quit rates increasing?  I looked.  The Department of Labor has a data series (JOLTS--Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey) available online, going back to 2001 (so not a very long time series). As it happens, the percentage of (employed) people who quit their jobs in any month tends to rise during recoveries and booms, and fall during recessions (no surprise there).  So quit rates fell from early 2001 to the end of 2002, and then rose until late 2006--well before the most recent recession began--and peaked at a level well below the January 2001 level (2.6% in 2006, 2.9% in January 2001).

And the quit rate fell, steadily, bottoming out at 1.4% in September 2009.  By December 2014 (the most recent data), the quit rate, at 2.2% was still well below its pre-Great Recession peak.

We can also look at total separations (quits plus layoffs plus other separations-retirements, deaths, for example).  There are obviously more of these that there are of quits, but the pattern is similar--falling from January 2001 (a 4.9% total separation rate) to March 2002 (4.0%), and remaining flat until April 2009 (during that period, quits fell and layoffs increased).  From April 2009, the total separation rate fell to 3.3% in January 2012.  It has since increased to 3.9%--still below its level during the Great Recession.

My take-away from this is that it's not obvious that increased labor mobility is driving the decline in employer support for employee training.  And that the decline in employer support for employee training is, as Taylor suggests, in fact something to be concerned about.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Legalization and the market for marijuana

I don't want to make too much of this, but apparently the price of marijuana has plummeted in the state of Washington since (in a limited way) production and sale of pot was legalized--down from around $2,000 per pound, or $125 an ounce (wholesale) to around $800 per pound ($50 per ounce).  (Depending on a number of factors, one can apparently get between 30 and 100 cigarettes from an ounce of pot.)

Almost everyone expected,  both the demand and the supply of marijuana increased (i.e., both the demand curve for and the supply curve or marijuana shifted to the right) upon legalization.  For buyers, the risk-adjusted price of use fell, while for sellers, the risk-adjusted price rose.  So, in nominal terms, the price to buyers fell and the price to sellers rose.

What I'm not sure everyone expected is that the supply effect would be so much greater.  But even that was largely predictable.  Legalization occurred in a restricted geographical area.  To buy pot legally, you have to buy there--you, as a buyer, have to travel.  Technically, the only legal marihuana is supposed t be grown in Washington, but how do we enforce that?  It's fairly easy (and inexpensive) to transport pot from Oregon or California to Washington, and, in effect, to turn illegal pot into legal pot...with legal pot selling for a higher risk-adjusted price.

(For more, see this.)
For a long-run analysis of pot pricing, this.)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A brief note on Bitcoin

There's a new organization (Coin Center) which has as its reason for existence promotion of bitcoin, or similar technologies.  As the founder and director of the center, Jerry Brito puts it: 

“We’re advocates.  We’re not advocating on behalf of any particular company or industry. We think simply that this technology offers a lot of benefits to consumers and to the wider economy and the world generally.”
Brito says the mission of the center has three elements (quoting from the article, not verbatim fromBrito):   "...educate lawmakers and regulators about what Bitcoin is and is not; perform policy research; and act as a booster for Bitcoin...."

Note the association of policy research and boosting a specific product.  What does that suggest to you about the objectivity of the policy research that will be performed?


Wednesday, January 07, 2015


There's absolutely no point to this...just a picture of Euro coins left over from a vacation.