Safety Net or Trap?

June 13, 2021

by Steve Stofka

It has been 200 years since the cloth mills in Massachusetts instituted the “Lowell system,” employing young women and taking half of their pay for company provided room and board (Taylor, 2021, p. 234). 100 years ago, the states ratified the 16th Amendment, permitting the federal government to tax all income, including worker’s wages and salaries. 70 years ago, the government instituted payroll withholding. Today 145 million American workers receive salaries or wages, of which 30% is withheld by employers and sent to the federal government (Bird, 2021). Have we all effectively become government employees leased out to employers?

“Shan gao, huangdi yuan” is an ancient Chinese saying that reflected the attitude of many Chinese toward a central authority: “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” Until the enactment of the 16th Amendment in 1913, most Americans felt the same. In Article 1, Section 8, the framers of the Constitution built a corral around the power of the federal government. The ink was barely dry on the document when Federalists like Hamilton argued for an interpretation of the Constitutional language that would give the federal government more power. In the next two decades, the Supreme Court headed by John Marshall, an appointee of Federalist President John Adams, did just that (Taylor, p. 54). During his 35-year tenure as Chief Justice, the decisions of the Marshall court effectively restated the Constitution.

Still, the federal government’s reach was limited enough that it took an amendment to that Constitution to permit the federal government to tax U.S. citizens directly. Richard Byrd, a delegate from Virginia and an opponent of the 16th Amendment, warned that “A hand from Washington will be stretched out and placed upon every man’s business; the eye of the Federal inspector will be in every man’s counting house . .” (Tax Analysts, 2021). He warned that the new amendment would feed the growth of a Washington bureaucracy remote from the interests of ordinary people. Many of those living today have great-great grandparents who voted for that amendment. Why did they consent?

When the 16th amendment to the constitution was ratified more than a century ago, the IRS enacted a system of withholding. Employers complained and the withholding provision was repealed a few years later in 1917 (Higgs, 2007). Most people who did owe taxes paid only 1% in quarterly installments the year after they incurred the tax burden. During WW2, the federal government wanted more revenue to support the massive wartime spending, and instituted withholding for income taxes.

The federal government employs almost 9 million workers (Hill, 2020), about 6% of the total workforce, but its effective reach is so enormous that employers today only borrow workers from the federal government. Each employer must abide by so many employment regulations that even a small business has to dedicate at least one person to administering regulations. The hiring of an employee initiates an implicit contract not between the employer and employee, but between the employer and the federal government. The employer faces stiff penalties for violating any provisions of that implicit contract. How has the tentacled reach of the federal government affected employees?

Like the young women at the Lowell mills, workers are not allowed to touch their pay until taxes, insurance and fees have been withdrawn. Some taxes are silent, withdrawn by lowering gross pay. After state and local taxes and the employee portion of health insurance is deducted, a worker today may be left with only half their pay. Unlike the women at the Lowell mills, the federal government does not provide room and board for most workers. As Richard Byrd warned a century ago, a federal government is only remotely concerned about those needs. Instead, it takes from the worker in the now and gives back to the worker in the future after forty years or more of work – a pension and medical care after retirement.

In addition to future needs, a worker’s taxes feed a bureaucracy that safeguards the security, wealth and needs of the upper 20%, and selected regional interests. Like the Chinese emperor, the $1 trillion spent on current military needs and past military promises seems far away from the daily security needs of most Americans. That spending  supports local economies in some regions and may be the key economic base in some rural communities who strongly support military spending to maintain a global empire. After all, their local economic security depends on such spending.

Larger than Amazon’s football sized warehouses is the largest warehouse in the nation run by the federal government. It is bounded not by walls but by a web zealously tended by lawyers and regulators, and inescapable for most employees and employers. The restrictions and harsh working conditions of the Lowell mills strike us today as paternalistic exploitation. The parents of the young women welcomed the discipline and extra money that their daughters earned. The hard work instilled moral character in the women before they returned home to marry a local lad.

Many of us today welcome the paternal oversight of the federal government as a safety net. The children of our children 200 years from now will certainly regard this age differently. Will they see the complex net of laws that bind employees and employers as a safety net or a trap?

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Photo by Fikri Rasyid on Unsplash

Bird, B. (2021, May 26). How much does the average American pay in taxes? Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://www.thebalance.com/what-the-average-american-pays-in-taxes-4768594.

Higgs, R. (2007). Wartime Origins of Modern Income-Tax Withholding. The Freeman, (November). Retrieved from https://admin.fee.org/files/doclib/1107higgs.pdf. Also, see IRS history Timeline (2021) and LOC (2012).

Hill, F. (2020, November 05). Public service and the federal government. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/public-service-and-the-federal-government/

IRS. (2021). IRS history Timeline. Retrieved June 10, 2021, from https://www.irs.gov/irs-history-timeline

Library of Congress (LOC). (2012). History of the US income tax. Retrieved June 10, 2021, from https://www.loc.gov/rr/business/hottopic/irs_history.html

Tax Analysts. (2021a). The Income Tax Arrives. Retrieved from http://www.taxhistory.org/www/website.nsf/Web/THM1901?OpenDocument. For PDFs of original tax forms that your great-great-grandparents might have filed, see

 U.S. 1040 Tax Forms, 1913 to 2006. Retrieved from http://www.taxhistory.org/www/website.nsf/Web/1040TaxForms?OpenDocument

Taylor, A. (2021). American republics: A continental history of the United States, 1783-1850. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

When Data Disappoints

May 9, 2021

by Steve Stofka

The April labor report released this week was far below expectations. Economists expected an addition of one million jobs; the reported job increase was 266,000. Some analysts and politicians attributed the lower-than-expected job gains to generous unemployment benefits that dissuade job applicants from seeking employment. For centuries, the upper class have believed that the working class is inherently lazy, that people only work out of necessity. It is an implicit assumption of mainstream economics which is founded on the disutility of labor.

When asked to comment on the influence of “plussed up” unemployment benefits at a press conference on Friday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen raised a data point that contradicted that concern. States with the most generous unemployment benefits have the highest job-finding rates (White House, 2021). We would expect the opposite.

Ms. Yellen cited other factors with far greater importance. Topmost was the lack of childcare. 4.2 million women dropped out of the workforce in April 2020. Two million still have not returned. The two childcare facilities near my home in Denver are still closed.

A second factor was a mismatch of skills. Many entertainment venues are still closed. These typically employ younger workers under 25 with a modest skill set. They man ticket booths and concession stands at movie theaters. They take orders at restaurants cook food and bus tables. They stock and sort food items on our grocery shelves. Many have childcare needs, which are not being met. For these younger workers and their families, a modest wage that barely covers childcare expenses is not an attractive option.

The crunch in the construction industry has been an ongoing development for more than a decade. I spoke to a dental assistant this week, a man in his 20s. During the financial crisis, many parents with blue collar skills lost their jobs. Parents with some college education or a degree didn’t. Many kids compared their circumstances with others at school and were attracted to white collar jobs as being more permanent, even if they didn’t pay as much. This younger generation, dubbed Gen Z, experienced the disruptions to their homelife brought on by the financial crisis. Now they are experiencing another severe crisis as adults. Will they spend most of their lives seeking stability?

Economists and policymakers argue: are employers not offering a high enough wage? Are the unemployed unwilling to lower their wage expectations? The economic euphemism is “sticky prices” – that prices are slow to change to evolving circumstances. A more accurate term would be sticky contracts. Both employers and job applicants have existing arrangements – leases, childcare needs, school district preferences, mortgages, rents – at prices that are resistant to change.

The heartening aspect of this debate is that we are discussing these issues. The prior administration would call a disappointing labor report “fake news.” They would have cast doubt on the intentions of government officials who compiled the data as a conspiracy against the former President. A smart 8-year-old could tell a more convincing lie. After four years, it’s refreshing to have an adult public conversation.

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Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

White House. (2021, May 08). Press briefing by press SECRETARY Jen Psaki and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, May 7, 2021. Retrieved May 09, 2021, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2021/05/07/press-briefing-by-press-secretary-jen-psaki-and-secretary-of-the-treasury-janet-yellen-may-7-2021/

Inflation Not

April 4, 2021

by Steve Stofka

I will keep this short on Easter weekend. The March Labor report that came out two days ago surprised to the upside, but I am not convinced that this will be a robust recovery this year. The relief act passed a month ago may give the kick needed. Despite the inflation warnings of some, the employment trends don’t signal inflationary pressures this year.

The unemployment rate declined from 6.8% at the end of last year to 6.2% at the end of March. However, the rate is still 1.7% above the 4.5% long-term natural rate of unemployment, an estimate of what the unemployment rate could be if available labor and other resources were employed. A year ago, the unemployment rate stood at 3.8%.

The labor force shrank by .2% this past quarter, about the same as the last quarter of 2017 and the 3rd quarter of 2015. Considering there is a pandemic, that shouldn’t be worrisome, but it is unusual for the labor force to shrink in the first quarter of the year. The last time was in 2011, a time when it seemed there might be another global recession. It’s not a sign of a robust recovery.

Total Employment is still 4.5% below last March, but Construction employment is only 1.2% down from last March. Even though Construction is only 5% of employment, it’s direction signals positive secondary movements in the economy.

There is a formula economists use to estimate the output gap in the economy. When it is positive, that signals some degree of inflationary pressures. When negative, as it has been for most of the past decade, that signals low inflation. We won’t get the first estimate of first quarter GDP for a few more weeks, but the employment data this past quarter estimates a small positive gap and little inflation.

Happy Easter, folks, and stay safe!

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Photo by Sebastian Staines on Unsplash

Treasured Myths

March 14, 2021

by Steve Stofka

Some liberal economists promote government welfare policies that would enable one earner to support a household. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders are champions of the idea that America was once a nation of one earner households. Does the data support their claims? No. But careful presentation of the data perpetuates a myth that forms the bedrock of a class of liberalism called welfare liberalism.

In the 20 years following World War 2, most of the world’s manufacturing capacity was in the U.S. Workers had greater bargaining power and union membership grew. The number of workers per household dipped slightly, then returned to more customary levels. Was there ever a prevalence of one-earner households? No. It is a myth.

In 1966, hours worked per week in manufacturing industries peaked at 41.6, (AWHMAN see endnote). Many dads worked overtime to support their working-class families. There was more overtime available because the U.S. was the manufacturing capital of the world. When the youngest children started school, mom often took a part-time job to bring in extra income. Only a small percent of families could live on a 40-hour per week paycheck.

In the late 1960s manufacturing jobs were 28% of all full-time jobs (MANEMP); today it is 10%. Rarely discussed is the decline in office and administrative workers from 18% in the early 1980s to 11% today (OFFICE). Some of these were entry jobs that helped young workers develop skills. A woman might leave an administrative job to raise young children, then return to a similar job when the children reached school age. The decline began in the early 1990s as computers became more affordable and computer programs could do routine bookkeeping tasks. That percentage decline represents 10.5 million workers at pre-pandemic employment levels, more than the current number of unemployed workers.

Technological improvements change the mix of skills needed in the job market. Almost 2 million full-time workers are employed in the software industry (Software). Many more data entry workers could be employed if governments updated their archaic system architectures. The pandemic revealed how antiquated many state employment systems are. Because they did not have integrated claim verification built into their systems, many were able to file false claims using data gained from data breaches of private companies in years past. State systems could not handle the extra load of unemployment claims.

Our founding documents are based in part on the 17th century writings of John Locke. In his Second Treatise of Government, he wrote that power arises from duty; the power that parents have over children arises from their duty to take care of their children (58:1). Some people may extend that power and duty relationship to the government and a nation’s citizens. Two groups may argue over taxes, regulations, and benefits when the underlying argument is whether governments have some duty to take care of their citizens because it has some power over them.

This pandemic has shown the extent of government power. When states and cities shut down private businesses for public health reasons, this aroused a centuries old debate about the extent of government power. In Plato’s time 2500 years ago, Athenian citizens first rejected government authority and refused military service. That independent spirit contributed to their defeat against Sparta where all citizens were expected to serve two years military service. 2000 years ago, Roman citizens scrawled graffiti on their bridges and refused to join military campaigns to establish yet another colony. In any century, a state enacts laws and exercises powers that are repugnant to some of its citizens. What is the extent of that power and those laws?

We cherish our myths, but they confuse our debates. The one-earner household is a mid-century favorite for some. For others it is that America’s founding was the first time in history that people established their freedom in relation to their government. Each generation thinks that it is at a special point in history, just like children do. We reject the notion that there is a circularity to our history. Through the centuries we revisit these debates about duty, power, rights and responsibilities. We tell ourselves that generations in the past never dealt with these issues, that it’s all different now. Yes, the historical context is different each century, but the central issues change little because the human spirit is an enduring bedrock that forms our institutions.

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Notes:

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

AWHMAN, Federal Reserve (FRED) Series: Average weekly manufacturing hours surpassed the 1966 peak under the Obama and Trump administrations.

MANEMP / LNS12500000: Manufacturing jobs divided by total employees who usually work full-time. These numbers come from different monthly surveys.

OFFICE: Office and administrative worker series divided by total employment, LNU02032207 / PAYEMS Series.

Software: Developers, applications and systems software LEU0254477200A series

Thumbs Up?

August 30, 2020

by Steve Stofka

I tuned into the Republican National Convention (RNC) for a short time and learned that everything is ok. 175,000 people dead from COVID – ok. Millions of people out of work – ok. Older folks losing their retirement savings and a lifetime of sweat equity as their businesses close – ok. Seniors unable to get their medications and prescriptions on time – ok. People lined up at food banks – ok. People sitting on their furniture after being evicted – OK.

Black men being shot down for non-compliance to police orders – ok. Peaceful and violent protests in cities around the country  – ok. Food left rotting in the fields – ok. Growers can’t get H-2B visas to hire foreign workers and Americans don’t want the jobs – ok. More suicides, especially by former military – ok. More domestic abuse – ok. More drug abuse – ok.

The White House – our house – used for political grandstanding- that’s ok. This week American soldiers in an MRAP in Syria sideswiped and injured by Russian soldiers – that’s ok. The president is pulling troops out. Deficits of many trillions of dollars – ok.

As long as the stock market is up, it’s all ok.

In Shakespearean tragedies a powerful man – always a man – is brought down by one fatal flaw of character. Circumstance exposes the flaw. Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, King Lear. English students are asked to identify the fatal flaw and explain their choice. Students are asked to privately imagine themselves in a position of power. What would be their fatal flaw?

Can a great nation have a fatal flaw? James Madison and Alexander Hamilton worried that democracy would lead to mob rule and bring down our country. Thomas Jefferson worried that regional interests would create a ruling aristocracy and a nation ruled by monarchy. I watched a few minutes of the White House pomp on Thursday night. Our president embodies both fears of our founders. 

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Notes:

Photo by Max Muselmann on Unsplash

A Normal Week

February 2, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Tuesday was the first day of President Trump’s impeachment trial. Mr. Trump borrowed former President Clinton’s impeachment playbook and got busy. He flew to Davos, Switzerland to give a speech at the World Economic Forum.

The speech was constructed of many truth stretchers. Instead of boasting about the economy’s strong employment, Mr. Trump had to say that the numbers are the best. They are not. Doesn’t matter. While Mr. Trump’s political opponents are spending time and energy disputing his boasts and lies, he is on to the next speech, the next carefully arranged event.

Facts are musical notes in a score designed to showcase his greatness. Mr. Trump is the bandleader. In politics, performance is key and he is a good performer. He is the boss of facts. Disagreeable facts are out of tune and “fake.” Sit down fake news media. Stop playing.

President Trump cites a statistic that there are more women than men in the workforce for the first time in history. They are not. That happened in 2009 under former President Obama’s watch. This is not a good statistic. It means that men in traditional male jobs are losing their jobs. In 2009, it was the massive unemployment in construction after the housing crisis. Until a year ago, job openings in manufacturing had climbed steadily (BLS, n.d.). In 2019, Mr. Trump’s trade war with China led to thousands of factory job losses and a sharp decline in job openings.

Those who do follow economic numbers know these are truth stretchers or truth wreckers as soon as the words leave Mr. Trump’s lips. That’s a small percentage of the general population. In an age of ready access to information, there is too much information. We struggle to separate the wheat – reliable information from a reputable source – from the chaff – those who shade or hide the truth to push a point of view.

To a casual ear, Mr. Trump sounds like he knows what he is talking about when he says 150 billion of this and 200 million of that. He pulls numbers out of the air just as a magician pulls a quarter from behind a child’s ear. When questioned by reporters, members of his own party answer that they can’t speak to what Mr. Trump says or tweets. They are afraid of retribution. He is the Teflon President. No accountability and no shame. 

A president must perform. A good performer tells enough of the truth to tell a convincing story. Lying is a part of any president’s job. They must lie to foreign leaders as they play the international game of political poker. Presidents lie to hide uncomfortable truths from the American people. They lie to protect themselves, members of their cabinet and party. Until a presidential candidate takes the oath of office, they may not realize the full extent of the lies they must tell. It’s one of the stresses that make the job so difficult.

There is important and unimportant stuff to lie about. Mr. Trump lies about silly stuff that matter only to him. Who cares whether some people think he has small hands? He does. Whether he had a smaller inauguration crowd than Mr. Obama? Mr. Trump cares. Whether he understands the dictator of N. Korea better than everyone else? He does. He insists that he is a better president than George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Braggadocio?

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Notes:

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). (n.d.). Job Openings: Manufacturing JTS3000JOL. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/JTS3000JOL

Photo by Mark Fletcher-Brown on Unsplash

Portfolio Performance & Presidents

October 6, 2019

by Steve Stofka

The employment report released Friday was a Goldilocks gain of 136,000 jobs for the month of September. Why Goldilocks? Not as weak as some feared following news this week that manufacturing was getting hit hard in the trade war with China (Note #1). Not so strong that it ruled out the possibility of another rate cut from the Fed this year. Just weak enough to speculate on another rate cut by year’s end. After several days of big losses, the market rallied on Friday.

Although manufacturing has been contracting, a report on the rest of the economy was more encouraging, although a bit lackluster (Note #2). Service businesses are continuing to hire but the pace has slowed. New export orders have accelerated but new orders in total slowed significantly from August. Something to like, something not to like.

Billions of dollars around the world are traded as soon as the employment report is released each month. During Mr. Obama’s tenure private citizen Donald Trump accused Obama of fudging the employment numbers. Larry Kudlow, now Mr. Trump’s economic advisor, took him to task for that. Mr. Kudlow worked in the Reagan administration and knew well how sacrosanct the employment numbers were. The BLS is an independent agency working in the Department of Labor and its 2400 employees try to collect and publish the most accurate data it can accomplish. The agency’s Commissioner is the only political appointee in the BLS and once confirmed by the Senate, serves four years, the same as the head of the Federal Reserve (Note #3). According to Mr. Kudlow, the White House gets the number the night before only to prepare a press release when the report is released.

Mr. Trump’s reckless behavior helped him take out 16 other Republican presidential candidates in the 2016 election. He acts quickly and aggressively. That lack of caution has led to several bankruptcies, and because of that, no bank in the world will loan him money (Note #4). What if, on an impulse, Mr. Trump tweeted out the employment number shortly before its official release time? Some traders pay a lot of money so that the news will hit their trading desk a split second faster than a conventional news release. It’s that important. An early leak of the employment numbers would cost a lot of influential people big money around the world and would prompt a national if not a global crisis. Forget about the phone calls to foreign leaders to discredit Joe Biden. That would be an act of treason for sure – against the global financial community. Can’t happen? Won’t happen?

Mr. Trump knows no rules. His father protected him when his rash behavior got him into trouble as a child. The elder Trump sheltered Donald from his own mistakes in the real estate industry and his foolish foray into the Atlantic City gambling business. Now that Mr. Trump’s father is no longer there, he depends on others to protect him. He has enlisted a long line of people in that effort. They have come in the revolving door to the White House and left. The list is longer than I imagined (Note #5). John Bolton, the third National Security Advisor under Mr. Trump’s tenure, was the last high-profile team member to leave.

Mr. Trump has said that Americans would get tired of winning so much while he was President. To use a baseball analogy, when he takes the mound, the team doesn’t win very often. People who lose a lot either give up or blame everyone and everything else for their losses. They need to have an ideal environment or get lucky to win. Mr. Trump berates the independent Fed because he wants them to protect him. He needs every crutch he can get. He couldn’t succeed in a war or in the financial crisis because he is not disciplined or organized.

What does this mean for the average investor? Take a cautious approach and keep a balanced portfolio. Betting that Mr. Trump will pitch a good game is a poor bet.

Or is it? At an event on Friday, he claimed that the stock market has gone up 50% since he was elected. Not quite but it is up 42% since the day after he was elected (Note #6). It’s been about 35 months. That’s pretty good. A 60-40 stock-bond portfolio has gone up 30% in that time. Under Obama’s tenure the market only went up 27%. A balanced portfolio went up almost 40% and he had to deal with the worst recession since the Great Depression. The budget battles with Republicans put a big dampener on investor enthusiasm during Obama’s first term.

35 months after the Supreme Court awarded the presidency to George Bush, the market was down 25% but a balanced portfolio was up 21%. Even Mr. Clinton could not best Mr. Trump, although he comes close. 35 months after the 1992 election the market was up 38%. A balanced portfolio was up 40%. The winner? A balanced portfolio.

What might an investor expect? At today’s low interest rates and inflation, a break-even return might be 5% a year, for a total gain of 22% in four years. Will Mr. Trump’s first four years be one of his few wins? Check back in a year. It’s bound to be a tumultuous year.

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Notes:

  1. Institute for Supply Management (ISM). (2019, October 3). September 2019 Manufacturing ISM Report on Business. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.instituteforsupplymanagement.org/ISMReport/MfgROB.cfm
  2. Institute for Supply Management (ISM). (2019, October 3). September 2019 Non-Manufacturing ISM Report on Business. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.instituteforsupplymanagement.org/ISMReport/NonMfgROB.cfm?navItemNumber=28857&SSO=1
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). About the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/bls/infohome.htm
  4. Business Insider. (2019, August 28). The world is talking about Trump’s relationship with Deutsche Bank. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/trump-tax-returns-deutsche-bank-relationship-drawing-intense-scrutiny-2019-8-1028482268#why-it-matters2
  5. Wikipedia. (n.d.). List of Trump administration dismissals and resignations. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Trump_administration_dismissals_and_resignations
  6. Prices are SPY, the leading ETF that tracks the SP500. Clinton: 42 to 58 (approximately) – up 38%. Bush: 138 to 103 – down 25%. Obama: 91 to 116 – up 27%. Trump: 208 to 295 – up 42%. Balanced portfolio returns from Portfolio Visualizer calculated using a mix of 60% U.S. stock market, and 40% of an evenly balanced mix of intermediate term government and corporate bonds. Dividends were reinvested and the portfolio re-balanced annually.

Job Threats

September 8, 2019

by Steve Stofka

The greater threat to your job – automation or other workers? For thousands of years people have stored their human capital in writing. In some cultures, only a privileged few were allowed access to these “secrets.” The invention of the printing press in the 15th century caused massive unemployment among monks and scribes who copied treasured books by hand.

No, that didn’t happen. Demand for books, particularly the Bible, added many jobs. A symbiosis of knowledge exploded through Europe and parts of Asia. In the network of knowledge, the sciences flourished. The mathematics of chance and the development of calculus spawned the birth of modern physics in Newton’s Principia Mathematica. In the following centuries came the understanding of air and other gases, the physics of fire, electromagnetism and the very structure of stuff. All this human capital was written down in words and equations written in a single language called mathematics.

Books could hold and display the knowledge but couldn’t make the calculations. All that changed when the computer was invented in the mid-20th century. Dancing on pathways etched on silicon circuit boards, electrons simulated the calculations that the human brain had learned.

After defeat by IBM’s Deep Blue chess computer in 1996 (he won the first game), Garry Kasparov realized that computers could become human partners. Crude mechanical computers had automated some tasks during the the 19th and 20th centuries. Now they were ready for some of the tasks of knowledge workers like lawyers (Note #1). Some clerical tasks in the practice of law have been automated but there is still much that relies on judgment gained through experience and “je ne sais quoi” – the subtle weighing of multiple factors that are difficult to write algorithms for.

Thirty years ago, a grocery clerk had to be good at arithmetic – able to multiply four apples times 89 cents per apple and punch in the total on older cash registers. Clerks who could do those calculations quickly and accurately were paid good money.

An accounting clerk in a finance office had to know what calculations to do to get a loan payoff, or to calculate how much credit to extend to a customer. Today a clerk with much less knowledge and training can tab from box to box on a screen and enters the data that the program asks for. Natural language processing is rapidly making even that obsolete. A clerk will simply be able to ask a program a question and it will compute the answer or ask for more information if needed. We used to have to give Google the formula to compute the volume of a sphere. No longer. Ask “what is the volume of a sphere with a radius of 2?” Each year more human capital is being transformed into technology capital.

Some are concerned about the number of jobs that will be lost to automation. The development of the Cotton Gin in the early years of the nineteenth century reduced the number of workers needed to harvest an acre of cotton. Did plantation owners tell their slaves “I don’t need your services any longer?” No. They devoted more acres to the growing of cotton and the demand for slave labor increased.

A few years earlier before the cotton gin, the invention of the Loom greatly improved the efficiency of garment workers. Manufacturers reduced prices of some finished goods, the demand for silk and cotton soared, and employment in the industry grew.

The invention of primitive computers in the middle of the 20th century should have put arithmeticians out of business. Instead the demand increased for people who could do the more difficult or time-consuming computations. Careful but relatively unskilled people could punch in data on a punch card and the computer would tabulate the results. In the 1960s, the demand for business data dramatically increased.

Those in technical professions like lawyers and doctors lobby to protect their jobs not from automation but from other people who could do portions of their job.  In some states, a dental technician cannot fill a cavity. In some states, routine tasks can be performed by a paralegal with less training. They also command lower salaries. In other states, those tasks have to be carried out by a lawyer or with the active supervision of a lawyer.

Some areas of the country are based on a monoculture, an industry that dominates the local economy. The leaders in those industries exert a lot of political influence. A fundamental shift happens when one monoculture competes with another. Many coal workers may be convinced that former President Obama killed the coal industry with burdensome regulations. In 1979, the rock group The Buggles sang “Video Killed the Radio Star;” a similar shift has happened to the coal industry. The surge in lower cost natural gas supplies killed the coal industry. North Dakota against West Virginia and Wyoming. The coal industry’s leaders had less political influence and could not push back against the regulators.

In the 1990s, checkers at Albertson’s went on strike to protest the adoption of scanning technology and UPC codes that were first developed in the 1970s. They were concerned that the store chain would begin hiring lower-paid workers who simply had to pass a grocery item over a scanning screen.

Technological change displaces one type of worker with another type. Millions of workers are doing jobs today that didn’t exist 50 years ago because of technological change. I was at a get-together a few months ago and spoke with a woman who was a social media manager. That’s a job. As the growth of social media has exploded around the world, thousands of new jobs have been created. In the past two decades, programmers have automated some coding. Programmers who could not adapt did lose their jobs but many more jobs were created for those with different or more complicated skills.

What can’t be automated -so far – is people taking care of people. The fact that these are some of the lowest paid professions speaks to the values of our society. Companies pay paltry wages to the people who take care of our parents and grandparents. Those jobs cannot be automated to any great degree. It’s possible that some company will develop a robot that can help an older person into a bathtub or shower, but the process requires many delicate decisions, patience and empathy.

In monoculture economies around the country, some worry that unauthorized immigrants will take lower paying jobs from Americans. Immigrants are more willing to move for a job than Americans. In a county dominated by oil, gas, coal, mining, agricultural or car manufacturing industries, there isn’t much variety in employment and native residents of those towns and cities have something to worry about.

For the whole country, there will not be enough people to fill many lower paying jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs for home health and personal care aides will grow by 36% – rising to almost five million workers. Difficult to keep up with a growth rate far above the 7% average growth of all occupations. Employment for in-facility nursing assistants and orderlies are expected to grow by 9%. Even taking care of our pets will be more difficult – job opportunities for vet assistants are expected to grow by 19%.

If only Congress could set up an immigration program to help our hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities and home aide programs fill these positions. If only. The H-2B visa program is for temporary jobs only and there are far too few permits issued each year (Note #3). Most of the demand for health care services comes from urban and suburban areas, whose votes have less influence in a rural state where the legislature heeds the wishes of the extractive and “ag” industries. We are not fighting the machines. We are fighting each other.

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 Notes:

  1. Kasparov recounts that match with Deep Blue in the TED talk (transcript)
  2. BLS estimates of employment growth for health care aides
  3. 1H-2B visa program

Interest Rate Ceiling

June 23, 2019

by Steve Stofka

After the Federal Reserve meeting this week, traders are betting on a cut in interest rates in July and the market hit all-time highs. Is a cut in interest rates warranted at this time? Such an action is usually taken in response to weak employment numbers, a decline in retail sales or sluggish GDP growth. Let’s review just how good the economy is.

Unemployment is at 50-year lows. The percent of people unemployed more than fifteen weeks is near the lows of the late 1990s. At almost 18 million vehicles, auto sales are near all-time highs. Real retail sales continue to grow more than 1% annually. In the first quarter of this year, real GDP growth was over 3%. Ongoing tariffs may cause real GDP to decline one percent but a growth rate above 2% is above average for this recovery after the financial crisis.

Corporate profits have been strong. In fact, that may account for the volatility of the past two decades. The chart below is after tax corporate profits (CP) as a percent of GDP. The multi-decade norm is in the range of 5-8% but the past twenty years have been above that trend except for the plunge in profits and GDP during the GFC.

Companies have paid part of those extra profits as dividends to shareholders who tend to be cautious pension funds or older, wealthier and more cautious individuals.  Some profits have been used to buy back shares and boost the return to existing shareholders.

Despite the above average profits, investors still have a strong thirst for lower yielding government debt. Why? The Federal Reserve has kept interest rates below a market equilibrium, which is currently about 3.8%, far above the current 2.4% federal funds rate (Note #1). As with any price ceiling, the below-market price creates a shortage. In this case, the shortage is in the capital investors want to supply to governments to meet the demand for capital. Consequently, investors have been searching for alternative substitutes or near-substitutes. That distortion is being reflected in stock market prices.

Despite a strong economy and corporate profits, the SP500 has gained less than 5% from its peak high in February 2018 after the passage of the 2017 tax cuts. Including dividends, the SP500 has gained just 5.7% in 16 months. If we turn the clock back a few weeks to the end of May, the total return of the SP500 during the past fifteen months was a big, flat zero. Those gains of the past sixteen months have come in the past three weeks on the hope and the hint of rate cuts.

An intermediate bond ETF like Vanguard’s BIV has returned 5.2% in the same period. On a scale of increasing risk 1-5, with 1 being a safe investment, BIV is rated a 2. The SP500 is rated a 4. Investors buying the broad stock market have not been rewarded for the additional risk they are taking.  How long will this situation persist? For as long as the Fed keeps a price ceiling on interest rates.

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Notes: A popular model of equilibrium interest rates is the Taylor rule proposed in 1993 by John B. Taylor, a member of the Council of Economic Advisors under three presidents. The Atlanta Fed has a utility that calculates the current rate and allows the reader to change the parameters. Click on the graph icon, accept the default parameters and the utility graphs the equilibrium rate and the historical Fed funds rate.

Marching Forward

April 28, 2019

by Steve Stofka

When former President Obama took the oath of office, the economy was in the worst shape since the Great Depression 75 years earlier. Tax receipts plunged and benefit claims soared. Millions of homes and thousands of businesses fell into the black hole created by the Financial Crisis. In sixteen years of the Bush and Obama presidencies, the country added $16 trillion to the public federal debt, more than tripling the sum at the time Clinton left office in early 2001.

Although growth has remained slow since the financial crisis (see my blog last week), the economy has not gone into recession. Despite the fears of some, a recession in the next year does not look likely. The chart below charts the annual percent change in real GDP (green) against a ratio called the M1 money multiplier, the red line (Note #1). Notice that when the change in GDP dips below the money multiplier for two quarters we have been in recession.

The money multiplier seems to act like a growth boundary. While some economy watchers have warned of an impending recession, GDP growth has been above 2.5% for more than a year and is rising. In 2018, real disposable personal income grew nearly 3%. This is not the weak economic growth of 2011 or the winter of 2015/16 when concerns of recession were well founded.

The number of people voluntarily quitting their job is near the 1999 and 2006 highs. Employees are either transferring to other jobs or they feel confident that they can quickly get another job. An even more important sign is that this metric has shown no decline since the low point in August 2009.

In 2013, the Social Security disability fund was in crisis and predicted to run out of money within a decade. As the economy has improved, disability claims have plunged to all-time lows and the Social Security administration recently extended the life of the fund until 2052 (Note #2).

Approximately 1 in 6 (62 million) Americans receive Social Security benefits and that number is expected to grow to 78 million in a decade. However, the ratio of workers to the entire population is near all time highs. The number of Millennials (1982-1996) has surpassed the number of Boomers. This year the population of iGen, those born after 1996, will surpass the Millennial generation (Note #3). Just as a lot of seniors are leaving the work force, a lot of younger workers are entering. The ratio of worker to non-worker may reach 1 to 1. 45 years ago, one worker supported two non-workers.

As the presidential cycle gets into gear, we will hear claims that there are not enough workers to pay promised benefits. Those claims are based on the Civilian Employment Participation Rate, which is the ratio of workers to adults. While the number of seniors is growing, the number of children has been declining. To grasp the total public burden on each worker, we want to look at the ratio of workers to the total population. As I noted before, that is at an all time high and that is a positive.

Raising a child is expensive. The average cost of public education per child is almost $12K (Note #4).  Public costs for housing, food and medical care can push average per child public cost to over $20K annually.

Let’s compare to public costs for seniors. The average person on Social Security receives $15,600 in benefits (Note #5). In 2018, the Medicare program cost an average of $10,000 per retiree (Note #6). The public cost for seniors is not a great deal more than those for children.

As a society, we can do this.

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Notes:

  1. The M1 money multiplier is the ratio of cash and checking accounts to the amount of reserves held at the Federal Reserve.
  2. SSDI solvency now extended to 2052. Here’s a highlight presentation of the trustee’s report.
  3. Generation Z will surpass the numbers of Millennials in 2019. Report
  4. Public education costs per pupil
  5. Social Security costs
  6. Medicare program cost $583 billion. There are approximately 60 million on the program. CMS