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

Monday, November 19, 2018

"People" or "Places"?

When I was in grad school--at West Virginia University--one of the major local and regional development issues had to with what was then called the "people or places" approach.  The "people"-based approach emphasized helping people acquire skills and then, id necessary, helping them move to a place in which those skills would pay off.  The "place"-based approach involved providing support for local infrastructure, for attracting new businesses, and supporting local businesses.

In the context of where I was, one aspect of that was that coal mining was a (rapidly) declining source of employment and of local income.  So a "place" approach had to confront the decline of a large, declining, but high-wage (then--the United Mine Workers managed to keep wages and benefits high) industry.  And so the research group at the Regional Research Institute (I was not a part of that, and at the time really wanted to be) developed a plan for the development of a "high-tech" corridor, running along the general route of where I-79 is today (from Morgantown to Charleston), which would also feature a high-speed rail link.  The cost was in the billions, and federal money was not forthcoming.

And the "people" approach took the form of the higher-skilled people, with more education, were leaving, which only made things worse for WVA.

Later, when I was working for the city of Indianapolis, largely in identifying training opportunities for low-income, low-skilled people, we were taking basically a "people" tack.  But we also (wrongly, in my estimation) focused on jobs which appeared to be in relatively high demand (and therefore tried to push people into jobs that may have failed to maximize their chances in life.

Economic history told me that migration was one of the major causes of the dynamism of the US economy, from its earliest days through at least the 1920s.  The Great Depression, in addition to its other consequences, generated a large number of "place"-based economic development programs.

This whole issue has not gone away as this ( piece of work indicates.  It's a very difficult issue, to say the least.  In Indiana, population has increased by about 70% since 1950 (to 2017).  15 of Indiana's (92) counties have experienced population decline over that period.  Another 18 counties have grown at about 1/3 the rate of the state as a whole.  So something like 1/3 of the state's counties have grown little, if at all.  Those counties accounted for 27% of Indiana's population in 1950, but only 16% in 2017.

The most rapidly growing counties have largely clustered around major cities, or have major universities (IU, Purdue).  What policies *should* the state of Indiana pursue?  "People"- based, or "place"-based?  Through the high school years, education is largely controlled locally.  "Should" Benton or Vermillion (both of which have seen population declines greater than 20% since 1950) devote a lot of resources to improving K-12 education, if all that means is that their "best and brightest" will find it even easier to move away?  Lake County's population has grown by about 1/3 since 1950, while its major cities (Gary, Hammond, East Chicago) have suffered extraordinary population declines (from a combines 276,000 in 1950, to 181,000 in 2017--it's even worse if we look at 1960 to 2017:  down from 348,000 to 181,000--almost a 50% decline.  From 1960 to 2017, EC has declined by 50%, Gary by 60%, and Hammond by (only) a third.

"People" or "places"?  Or do we try to do both?  And if we focus on "people," how do we return to high rates of migration to places that are booming?  How do we keep the lives of those who can't move, or have local roots that are too strong to sever, from cratering?  I wish I knew.  And if I were 30 again, I know what my life's work would be...

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Some questions for Supreme Court nominees

The most recent process of nominating and confirming a new Justice to t he Supreme Court somehow got me to start thinking about federal appeals court judges and Supreme Court justices... What I began to wonder about was what, on average, the legal background of these folks looks like.  Do they have substantial experience as a practicing lawyer?  How often have they represented a client in court, either as a plaintiff's attorney or as a defense attorney?  What experience do they have in criminal matters, again, on both sides of the issues?  Have they drafted any complex legal documents (these would, in general, but not always--generation-skipping trusts come to mind--deal with corporate legal issues, I think)? For appeals court judges and SC justices...How many cases have they argued in front of an appeals court or the SC?  How were their arguments received?  (And although this is less important, how well did they do in terms of outcomes?) Specifically for SC nominees...What does their appeals court record (if any look like?  How well reasoned were their published decisions?  If the cases they were involved in at the appellate level were appealed to the SC, how well were their decisions treated by the SC? Again, I think this is a set of questions that any consideration of any SC nominee might expect. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

A Letter to 2 Senatora and 1 Member of Congress

To Joe Donnelly and Todd Young (Senators) and to Susan Brooks (Member of Congress)
I have just read President Trump’s response, at his meeting with President Putin, when asked whether he believes his own intelligence agencies or Mr. Putin, as to whether Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.  And, as well, this comes in the wake of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments of 12 current Russian intelligence agents, for a variety of offenses committed during that election.

Mr. Trump responded: 

"President Putin says it's not Russia. I don't see any reason why it would be."

I find this response all but impossible to believe.  Mr. Trump is explicitly disavowing the conclusions drawn both from extensive investigations by U.S. intelligence agencies and by a Special Counsel who has documented that Russian interference in great detail.  He prefers to accept a denial of that interference by the man who almost certainly either ordered or approved it, a man whose interests are served by discrediting both U.S. intelligence agencies and the U.S. criminal justice system.

I do not pretend to know, or to understand how or why Mr. Trump refuses to recognize the conclusions noted above. I do not pretend to know why he prefers to accept the word—which is almost certainly a lie—of a man who is responsible for these actions.

But by disavowing the efforts and conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies and of a Special Counsel in the U.S. Department of Justice, his words and actions advance the interests of Russia, not the interests of the United States.  I strongly encourage you to speak out, publicly, against Mr. Trump’s words and actions, and to consider carefully whether what he has done either is directly, or reflects indirectly, the commission of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” against the United States.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Why I Tend To Use Year-to-Year Changes, Instead of Month-to-Month Changes

The following chart shows the (black line) annual percentage changes (January-to-January; February-February; etc.--shown in black) and the month-to-month (January to February, February-to-March; expressed as an annual percentage change--shown in yellow).  Month-to-month changes are much more volatile, and thus tend not to be representative of what's happening.  In this chart, I've used the percentage changes in payroll employment (which is a monthly series), seasonally adjusted.  I think looking at the year-to-year changes is a more accurate way of depicting how employment has been changing, and is a much clearer representation of those changes.

Of course, if your point is to point out how volatile month-to-month changes are, that's different.  Usually, my concern is to capture more clearly whatever underlying patterns exist.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

A World Without Public Support for Education Is Not a World for Me

In a new book (The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money), Bryan Caplan (an economist at George Mason University and a self-described libertarian) argues that education should serve one of two goals [1]:

(1) Providing students with “useful job skills or

(2) Providing students with a satisfying educational experience.

And his policy recommendation is to eliminate publicly-funded education (at least at and above the level of secondary education) and to allow families or individuals identify the types of education that they want and are willing to pay for.  He argues—and it’s not a new argument—that what education (above the elementary level, which he does not really discuss in the interview) consists of “signaling”—letting potential employers (or, by extension, spouses) know that you are the sort of person who can successfully complete an educational program and are, therefore someone worth hiring (or marrying). [2]  For that matter, he states that "Kindergarten through 8th grade tends to serve as a daycare center for kids while their parents are at work.

His entire position seems bizarre to me, but, given what I did for a living, that might be expected.  (Given what he does for a living, I wonder what he thinks he’d be doing for a living if  his policy recommendations were accepted.)

Let’s begin with maximum Kaplan—an end to public education.  Those schools that continue to exist will need to raise revenue for teachers and facilities by charging tuition sufficient to cover the costs.  Now at some level what those costs are is difficult to define.  But let’s suppose that it would be roughly equivalent to current spending on elementary, secondary, and higher education (per student).  Right now, that’s about $11,800 nationwide for elementary and secondary education, and $27,000 for higher education. [3]  So consider, if you will, the consequences of eliminating public support for education. 

The first consequence is that children in families with income less than the U.S. median family income [4]—about $60,000—will become those least likely to receive any formal education.  And children in families with incomes less and $30,000—about 35% of all children—will be especially disadvantaged.  What this means for basic literacy and arithmetic skills is difficult to contemplate, but most people learned those things in actual schools.  Caplan might find that unproblematic, but I think it would be catastrophic, not just for those children, but also for the U.S. economy.

Second, consider the consequences for current adult workers who have young children.  Given that he considers elementary education to be, essentially, “child care,” eliminating elementary education means either private provision of child care, or large numbers of adults leaving the labor force to care for children, or large numbers of unattended younger children.  (Anyone see a fourth choice?)  And, while this is not inevitable, it seems likely that much of the burden of this would fall on women.

Third, consider the consequence for preparation for work.  Many occupations do require some—often a lot—of formal education.  This starts with people entering professions like medicine or law; engineers; accounting; business management; almost any of the “professions.”  Beyond that, the ability to use (and to learn how to use) advanced technologies in increasingly important an an increasingly wide range of jobs.  Even the ability to read and perform calculations would be implicated.  And making the choice of a career, or among alternative jobs, probably requires a period of exploration and, yes, learning.  And this is more easily accomplished in a formal setting in which a student has the opportunity to explore one’s options…which we might call a “school.”

So we disadvantage (still further) children in lower income families.  We reimpose disadvantages on adults (again, probably mostly women) who drop out of the labor force to care for children.  We disadvantage (over time) everyone who needs the opportunity to explore alternative cognitive and intellectual interests as a preliminary to determining what they want to do to make a living.  We disadvantage (over time) everyone who needs skills (either general or specific) in order to get and keep a job.

Caplan’s agenda seems to me to be about as destructive of the US economy and of the quality of the lives of millions of Americans as anything I can think of.  The argument that education is largely about signaling has been around for a long time, but it remains a hypothesis being adopted—and pushed—by people whose ideology is of a society composed of people who are unconnected to each other, who have no obligations to others, in which helping create opportunities for others is irrelevant, and for whom inequalities of opportunity can be shrugged off.

I personally see no support for Caplan’s beliefs about education; even if I did, I would fear for the consequences of his policy proposals.

[1] To be clear, I have not read the book.  This is based on an interview he gave to Sean Illing at Vox (

[2] He does not explicitly address the issue of marriage, but it seems implicit in the rest of his argument.

[3] I’m skeptical of the higher education number.  According to this source, that spending is considerably higher than spending on comparable levels of education in OECD countries.


Friday, March 02, 2018

"Got a boss? You need a union." (Steve Earle)

Below is a chart showing coal mining fatalities in the US per 1000 coal miners. In 1930, the United Mine Workers finally gained representation rights for most miners in the US, In 1970, the Mine Safety Act was signed into law. It got through Congress because of a full-court press by the UMWA and their allies in the labor movement--not because the Nixon administration cared particularly. (During WW2, mine safety rules sort of got ignored...)


The 1968 spike was the Farmington mine explosion (; the mine was 12 miles away from Fairmont, WV, but the blast was visible there. 78 miners were trapped in the mine and died. There were 233 other mine fatalities that year...roughly the same as in 1967 and 1969.

From 1900 to 2017, 104,866 miners have been killed in coal mines in the US. Worldwide the death toll is many times than much. As a comparison, about 110,000 coal miners died in the UK from 1900 to 2010. It appears that more than 1,000 mining fatalities per year are still occurring in China...

Monday, February 26, 2018

On the Virtues of "Bourgeois" (White Cutural Vlues of the 1950s

I’m reading an extremely lengthy blog post that’s responding to an op-ed that asserts that bourgeois white culture is superior to other cultures.  The author of the blog post lists a set of features of bourgeois white culture found in the op-ed being responded to.  I’ve translated it into a set of bullet points:

1.  Rejection of non-marital childbearing
2.  Rejection of divorce for those who have had children
3.  Education
4.  Hard work
5.  Rejection of “idleness.
6.  Going “the extra mile” for your employer or client
7.  Being patriotic
8.  Being “neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable”
9.  Not using “coarse language” in public
10.  Showing respect for “authority”

11.  Rejection of “substance abuse and crime.”

[The op-ed’s author contends that this list of cultural “habits” represents the dominant (white) culture in the U.S. in the 1950s.]

How much there is in this list that I disagree with is hard to say.  (Or I thought it was when I started typing; the answer turns out to be, almost all of it.)  Leaving aside the question of whether this is a fair representation of the dominant (white) culture in the U.S. in the 1950s, I would say I find (1) and (2) difficult to respond to as (a) I avoided having children and (b) therefore did not have to face the question of divorce having had children.  With respect to (2), I have known a fairly large number of people with children, some of whom wound up divorcing and some who did not.  I frankly cannot see any particular difference in the behavior or success of the two groups.

Given what I did for a living (40-ish years in higher education), I clearly value education (3).  Support for and the opportunity to pursue and to achieve the education one wants seem to me to be cornerstones for an acceptable society.  Whether that is more true for a bourgeois culture…well, I rather doubt it.  Education has been, and ism esteemed by many such a wide range of cultures that making it a unique part of bourgeois culture seems, well, presumptive.

Hard work (which I think really means “working productively and diligently at one’s chosen work” and rejection of “idleness” (undefined) are hardly virtues recognized only by bourgeois (and white) cultures.  What might be a vice, though, is a single-minded preoccupation with them.  In fact, “idleness” may, in some ways, be a virtue, in that it provides us with time to unwind, to explore aspects of our lives that do not fall readily under the rubric of working hard.  After all, it was not some decadent, declining culture that originated the proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy;”[1] it was the nice bourgeois (white) English culture of the 17th century.  It was a recognition that “without time off from work, a person becomes both bored and boring.”

I really have trouble with (6).  There should be, in any relationship, mutual obligations, and this, which adduces a responsibility of the employee to act in the interests of the employer, customer, or client, does not seem to recognize a reciprocal responsibility of the employer (at least) to treat employees with respect and dignity, to pay them fairly, to provide them with safe working conditions, to provide opportunities for advancement, and so forth.  In any development of a set of cultural norms, it seems to me that the reciprocal nature of social (and economic) obligations cannot be ignored.

“Being patriotic” ((7) seems to me also problematic.  Everyone knows, of course, this one, attributed to Stephen Decatur:

“Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”[2]

Often, or course, misquoted as “My country, right r wrong.”  The number of times people have raised exceptions to the evocation of a mindless patriotism (which I’m willing to concede that the author of this list did not intend) is, well, quite long.  Personally, I like Carl Schurz’s re-working of it as

“My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”[3]

As stated in the list of bourgeois cultural virtues, there seems to be no place for a patriotism that recognizes the failings and flaws of one’s society and works to correct them.  Particularly in the 1950s, treating an unthinking patriotism as a virtue would be to oppose the Civil Rights movement; in the 1960s, to demonize resistance to the war in Vietnam; in the 1970s, to treat as normal the actions of Richard Nixon; in the 1980s, to treat the Iran-Contra affair as a non-issue; in the 2000s, to accept unquestioningly the invasion of multiple countries in the name of objectives constructed from lies.

I’ll admit that I do not know what “being neighborly” means (8).  I try (and more frequently than I like, fail) to treat everyone as I would want to be treated.  That comes from a much older moral tradition than bourgeois (white) culture, as does being charitable.  In any case, these are not virtues unique to bourgeois (white) culture…far from it.

What to say about not using “coarse” language in public (9)?  If I were to try to enunciate a moral value here, it would be “don’t use language that you know is going to offend the people to whom you are speaking, unless your language is the only way to get your point across.”  Let’s get specific.  Is (was) calling someone a nigger using coarse language in public?  Was it in the 1950s?  I would say (a) it’s probably regarded as unacceptable now and (b) it was clearly not regarded as unacceptable in the 1950s.  How/why did that change?  Because people objected to the language.  That is, they were unpleasant (un-neighborly) to people who spoke like that.  Is (was) calling someone who was female and worked for you “my girl Friday” coarse language?  (Or simply infantilizing and demeaning?)  How did that change?  (Well, I don’t think we’re all the way through this process yet.)  To the extent that it did change, it’s because women (mostly, and a few men) objected—were not appropriately subservient to their bosses.

And (10), showing respect for authority.  Well, if we had all shown respect for authority, the Civil Rights revolution would never have occurred.  Thousands more would have died in Vietnam.  Millions of people who now have the right to vote (a right which is under attack, by the defenders of one sort of bourgeois culture) who once did not.  And had women respected authority in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, would women have the right to vote today?  If black Americans (and their white supporters) had respected authority in the 1950s and 1960s (and still today), would they have had the right to vote now?  I have always said, and it seems to me to be truer today than ever, the most important thing I learned (in college, as it happens) is “Question authority.”  An unquestioned authority destroys civil society.  It destroys the pursuit of knowledge.  It destroys personal growth.  Unquestioned authority comes as close to a definition of evil as I think I can get.

And rejection of “substance abuse” and “crime” (11).  Prohibition worked nicely, didn’t it?  And the extent of (quietly hidden, ignored, or denied) alcoholism in the 1950s is the ongoing stuff of history, literature, and television.  It’s OK for me to abuse a societally-approved substance (alcohol), but not one that the “authorities” refuse to approve (and, as I type, our Attorney General appears to have re-declared war on) (marijuana).  And crime…we are supposed to reject crime.  Meaning what, exactly?  Murder, rape, assault, theft?  What about creating unsafe working environments that kill people?  What about polluting the water and the air and destroying people’s lives?  Or do I accept your definition of what constitutes a crime?

So, it seems, I have managed to reject all eleven of these tenets of bourgeois (white) culture.  I have found them, frankly, to be tools for the suppression of women, or blacks, or Latinos, or environmentalists, of intellectuals (except for those approved by the patriarchy).  (One thing I certainly did not intend to do was to write nearly 1400 words about this…)

Yet I have lived and largely prospered within this bourgeois (white) culture.  It has given me—far more, in some ways than I have earned—a comfortable life that has allowed me to pursue my interests.  I don’t know quite what to say about that, except that I have tried, around the edges, to change it.  Perhaps without much success, and without taking many risks.  But I have at least recognized and acknowledged how privileged I have been

[1]All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, wikipedia,
[3] Ibid.