23 December 2016

California vs. West Virginia: A Question About Which Direction the Country is Heading

Even some of my California friends had posted things like, "If you subtract California from the national vote, Trump won the popular vote." My counter to this is, "If you subtract the former confederacy from the national vote, Clinton won by 6.5 million votes."

Apparently there are folks threatening to boycott California because the state is out of sync with Trump nation. Such sentiments inspired this tweet:

Trump won by his biggest margin in West Virginia, by 42.2%. Clinton won by her biggest margin in California, by 30.4%. Let's compare those states and consider what it means to dismiss California as a place that is out of touch with the rest of the country.

California ranks third for median household income.

West Virginia ranks 49th.

California is the most populous state in the union. In 1950 it had 10.7 million and now it has about 40 million, nearly 4X as many. The simple fact that California has grown so rapidly is testament to its ability to create jobs.

West Virginia had 2 million people in 1950. Today it has 1.8 million, a drop of 10%. West Virginia has not been able to create jobs or even a net gain in population.

If you believe that people just are who people are, you might think that it makes sense that West Virginia would register a protest vote against the status quo. It's had trouble in this new economy and of course those poor people will vote for change. But if you believe that people are who their institutions are - if you believe that we're defined by our culture, schools, media, government, policies, and prevailing norms - then it is a terrible thing to follow the lead of a place like West Virginia. Why? Because the policies and norms it has chosen has made its people less able to thrive in the modern economy. History shows us that it's not how hard people work or who they are genetically that determines how prosperous they are. It is, instead, the systems they work with and within. Incomes were 6 to 8X higher in 2000 than they were in 1900 in spite of the average workweek dropping from 60 hours to 40. Incomes weren't higher because people were "better." They were higher because people learned, worked in, and were able to use better systems. If you believe that people can't change, than West Virginia was right to vote for different policies and leaders than California; if you believe that people can change and there is no intrinsic reason that West Virginia can't be as prosperous as California than it's a terrible thing that the nation is now going to follow after policies West Virginia voters think sound great rather than the ones that Californian voters think would be great. West Virginia's thinking doesn't make its people as prosperous as California's.

Here are just a few fundamental issues that Californians would find alarming in Trump's policies that apparently comfort West Virginians: immigration, free trade, and free religion.

California has the largest share of foreign-
born people, West Virginia the lowest. 
Trump wants to limit immigration, both legal and illegal. California is a land of immigrants. About 40% of Silicon Valley startups have at least one foreign founder. On a personal note, I was working with a startup on Google's campus this year and one of the departments (robotic sensors) had five people from five countries: the US, Iran, Italy, Poland, and South Korea. It's a global economy and California doesn't just sell to customers from all over the world, it hires and partners with people from all over the world.

Trump has chastised Apple for manufacturing its iPhone in China. He doesn't really like free trade and has threatened to levy a 35% tariff against Mexico and a 45% tariff against China. This could easily start a trade war. (Does anyone believe that other countries will merely pay huge tariffs and allow the US to continue to sell into their markets without levying an offsetting tariff? How naive do you have to be to believe that?) But it also misses the point. 75% of iPhones are sold outside of the US. Apple is headquartered in the US but it is an international company with an international product, customers, suppliers and partners. This is true of most of the products coming out of Silicon Valley, from Intel's chips to Uber's app.

Finally, Trump wants to limit the immigration of Muslims. This is a special kind of exclusion that is not only anti-constitutional (read the first amendment to be reminded that Congress shall pass no law regarding religion) but shows a complete confusion about where creativity comes from. Trump knows which religion is right and which is not. Really creative people don't even know which process is best or which theory will hold up for a century or will be dis-proven tomorrow. Freedom of thought - freedom to question or challenge established "truths" is fundamental to creativity. It's no accident that the free speech movement began in Berkeley just as the computer revolution was beginning. Freedom of religion is elementary compared to the freedom of thought needed to create new scientific theories, new social paradigms, new technologies, new businesses and new business models.

California has given birth to blue jeans, the Hollywood that generates TV shows and blockbuster movies, and a music industry that gave us acts like the Grateful Dead and the Eagles. It's been the source of so many cultural and business trends.  The most defining "industry" in California is Silicon Valley, a place that gave us Apple, Facebook, Intel, HP, Twitter, the internet, and venture capitalism. The most defining business in West Virginia is coal mining.

To this day we revere the ancient Greeks yet their golden age was only a century or two. Socrates died in 399 BC and Aristotle died in 322 BC. It was during the century or so around their lives that so much of what we know of their inventions - from philosophy to math to theater and democracy - emerged. It was an incredible time that the Greeks experienced only for awhile even though the world has felt its impact for the thousands of years since.

If this move towards West Virginia and away from California proves defining of the country's future, the US will go the way of other great and defining communities in history. We will have had our time and so much of what has come out of the US in the last century in particular is likely to continue to define the world in the way that the Athens of 4th century BC continues to define the world to this day. Civilization continues to carry forward the great inventions like money and democracy, even if it fumbles and drops them from time to time. It builds on what came before. Evolution - biological and social - doesn't throw away so much as build on. In that sense, the US of the 20th century will likely be with civilization for millennia to come. What isn't certain, though, is whether it will - like modern Greece - become just another also-ran as some other community becomes the innovators who we all follow with some odd mix of envy, reluctance, and excited mimicry.

For now, swing voters in the US have decided to follow the lead of a state that hasn't invented a new industry since coal mining in the 1740s rather than a state that is even now incubating industries as different as self-driving cars and genetic engineering. It's chosen to try going back to an earlier time when jobs were being created for coal miners rather than for entrepreneurs. If Trump is successful at creating such jobs it means that we'll be going in the direction of the 1700s rather than the late 2100s. That should be a sobering thought.

20 December 2016

Two Religious Divides that Can Ruin Christmas

Even an event as lovely as Christmas becomes a forum for dissent and proselytizing. It's not enough to simply let people enjoy the holidays, someone else has to foist their agenda on us. Here are two big ideological struggles that simply don't receive enough attention because they're so divisive.

Evangelicals: Let's put Christ back in Christmas.
Catholics: Let's put Mass back in Christmas.

Buddhists: Let's be open to the present.
Children: Let's just open the presents.

We're Uncertain Just How Much Economic Uncertainty Trump Has Added

"There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns," Rumsfeld famously said. With the incoming Trump administration we might now say, "There are certain uncertainties and uncertain uncertainties."

The stock market has rallied since Trump's election. Presumably, the reasons for this include expectations of tax cuts, stimulus spending, and deregulation. All of these add to uncertainty, though.

If Trump gets a stimulus package in the form of infrastructure spending, it will boost GDP more than if the stimulus comes in the form of tax cuts. (The tax cuts will overwhelmingly go to the rich. A guy making $500,000 a year is less likely to change his spending in response to a tax cut that puts $1,000 more in his pocket than will a guy who makes only $5,000 a year.) 

Will the stimulus - the assumed rise in deficit spending - boost the economy by 1% or by something negligible? It's uncertain because we don't really know what form the stimulus will come in.

Further complicating this, Trump has appointed Mick Mulvaney to head his Office of Management and Budget (OMB). He'll be responsible for crafting the budgets proposed to Congress. Mulvaney is a fiscal hawk who has voted against raising the debt ceiling and seems committed enough to a balanced budget that he'd shut down government for this. By contrast, Trump has promised tax cuts and boosts to defense spending and infrastructure, which will drive a big increase in the deficit.

Paul Ryan and Mick Mulvaney's desire for balanced budgets will be at odds with Donald Trump's "deficit be damned" policies. Will Trump's proposed budget deficit shrink or even become a budget surplus? It's uncertain.

Deregulation adds the most uncertainty of all. Before the Great Recession, banks were leveraged about 30 to 1. For every dollar they had in deposits, they had loaned out about $30. That gives you great returns but it makes you vulnerable to a credit crunch. Since Dodd Frank,that ratio has dropped to about 10 to 1, which makes for a much safer banking system. Now, the expectation is that a Trump administration will lower regulatory requirements and allow banks to raise that ratio again. Will the ratio go up to just, say, 12 or 15 to 1? That ratio might still be reasonably safe but raise profits nicely. Or will the ratio be allowed to rise all the way to 20 to 1 or even 30 to 1 again? That ratio will greatly raise profits .... and risk. Financial stocks could look really healthy even as the financial system gets sick. 

Will Trump deregulation give finance a little nudge or a dangerous shove? That's uncertain.

Add to this the uncertainty inherent in Trump's trade policies. Will he actually put 35% and 45% tariffs in place against Mexico and China? If he does, WTO will probably slap on retaliatory fines and this could set off a trade war. That path would cost us millions of jobs. If he only talks about trade wars but doesn't actually impose tariffs, it could "just" result in a slowdown in trade. It's uncertain.

And then there is the policy with undocumented workers. Will he actually deport 11 million people? If so, that will crush growth in aggregate demand here in the US and crash house prices. It's uncertain.

Economics is always uncertain but the Trump Administration has added more uncertainty to that than any that I can remember. And perhaps inherent in that uncertainty is an uncertainty about what Trump's victory will mean for the future identity of the Republican Party.

15 December 2016

Key Statistics From Obama's Final 2017 Economic Report

The president's economic advisers released their annual report - the 2017 Economic Report of the President - today, 15 December. You can find it here but you might not have time to read through all 599 pages of Barack Obama and Jason Furman's report, so here are some highlights.

Jobs, Unemployment, Wages

Economy has added 14.8 million jobs over 74 months, the longest streak on record.
  • Since June 2009, when Chrysler and General Motors (GM) emerged from bankruptcy, the automobile industry (manufacturing and retail) has added nearly 700,000 jobs, the industry’s strongest growth on record.
  • The unemployment rate has been cut by more than half to 4.6 percent as of November 2016, below its pre-recession average

    Wages for production workers grew faster since 2012 then they did from 1980 to 2007

  • In 2015, median household income rose at the fastest rate on record, with the typical family earning an additional $2,800.
  • Since the end of 2012 private production and nonsupervisory workers, who comprise about 80 percent of private-sector employment, have seen their real hourly earnings increase by 5.3 percent, more than the total cumulative real wage gains for these workers from 1980 to 2007
  • Real wage growth has been faster in the current business cycle than in any since the early 1970s.
  • Real median household income increased 5.2 percent in 2015, the fastest growth on record. 
  • Households at all income percentiles reported by the Census Bureau saw real gains in income, with the largest gains among households at the bottom of the income distribution.
  • The poverty rate fell by more than any year since 1968


     As of 2016, the uninsured rate stands at its lowest level ever.

  •      The uninsured rate among children has fallen by almost half since Obama took office
  •      20 million more adults have health insurance
  •      So do 3 million more children
The growth in healthcare costs has dropped since ACA

Since the ACA was signed into law in 2010, health care prices have risen at the slowest pace in 50 years.
  • The average costs for a family with employer-based coverage in 2016 were $4,400 below where they would have been had costs grown at their pace over the decade before the ACA became law

Wealth & Budgets

The 2016 deficit was 3.2 percent of GDP, about a third of the 9.8 percent of GDP deficit recorded in 2009 and equal to the average over the last 40 years
Per capita GDP growth higher in US than Japan or Euro Area

The economy is now 11.5% larger than at its pre-Recession peak

Real household net worth exceeds its pre-recession peak by 16 percent


     Since 2008, the United States has tripled the amount of energy harnessed from wind and has increased solar generation thirtyfold.

     Today, the United States is less reliant on foreign oil than it has been in nearly three decades.


     The America Invents Act (AIA) of 2011 led to a 20% reduction in patent wait times, supporting a 30% increase in patents granted