Saturday, October 16, 2021

Build back sausage

Inspired by Casey Mulligan's blog post, I went to read some of the "Build Back Better" bill. (Is it just me, or doesn't "Build Back Better" sound a lot like "Make America Great Again?") Heavens, not the whole thing -- that's way beyond me. I just read the first half of the child care tax credit, starting on p. 241. I was also inspired by PBS, which, coincidentally, I'm sure,  announced last week a Child Care Crisis. Well, what is the federal government going to do about this "crisis?" Following media coverage, I thought this was mostly a line on your income taxes. I was wrong. 

p. 251

 (d) ESTABLISHMENT OF BIRTH THROUGH FIVE CHILD CARE AND EARLY LEARNING ENTITLEMENT PROGRAM.—

 (1) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary is authorized to administer a child care and early learning entitlement program under which families, ... shall be provided an opportunity to obtain high-quality child care services...

(2) ASSISTANCE FOR EVERY ELIGIBLE CHILD.—Beginning on October 1, 2024, every family who applies for assistance under this section...shall be offered child care assistance...

A new entitlement.  Forever.  How much is this going to cost, I wonder? Oh, good, p. 249 

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Sowell Nobel?

There is less than a week to go before the Economics Nobel Prize. 

Dear Nobel Committee: How can you not give the prize to Tom Sowell this year? 

Tom's work evidently merits a Nobel purely as a contribution to economics, covering many issues. But we can't ignore what year it is, and what's going on in the world. Indeed, in the Physics and Chemistry prizes this year, as well as Nordhaus' climate-economics Nobel, the Prize committees show they care about research that applies to hot-button problems. Race is a screaming issue of our time. How can you not give the prize to the living economist who has written the most penetrating economic analysis of race? 

Oh, yes, he's free-market, and thus characterized as conservative. His deeply fact-based research is  uncomfortable to The Narrative. For example, groups that white people cannot tell apart have profoundly different outcomes in the US. Nigerian immigrants are among the highest achieving ethnic groups in the US. West Indians do well. Asians of different waves of immigration and different countries -- Chinese, Laotians, Vietnamese -- show profound differences. Tom has thousands of such facts, impeccably documented. 

But you're the Nobel Committee. You care about Science, not about cheers from the Davos crowd. You care about issues that are important, as you should, but you do not care about embracing one or the other political narrative's answers to those questions. You care about the reputation of your Prize, for courageously recognizing great research, even if its surprising conclusions upset established orders. And, to your credit, you have given the prize to economists of widely different political enthusiasms through the years.  

You're not, say, the American Economics Association, whose  statement from the American Economic Association Executive Committee, still up on its website, and referenced in mandatory DEI training, reads 

We encourage all economists to seek out existing scholarship on race, stratification economics, and related topics. To get us started, our AEASP and CSMGEP colleagues and students are compiling a reading list on racism and the experience of Black Americans. Members of the AEA Executive Committee have pledged to continue to educate themselves in part by reading works from the list and to seek to integrate work by diverse authors in course syllabi, and we ask all economists to make the same pledge.

The officially-endorsed reading list, though updated, to this day brazenly omits Sowell. Or Walter Williams. Or Glenn Loury. Or Roland Fryer. (Committee, if you're looking for others to share the prize, here are some suggestions!) If  you must, as you sometimes do, you may shrink from controversy by pairing the prize, Hayek and Myrdal; Fama and Shiller. But give Tom the prize. 

Yes, Tom's work is empirical, neither full of equations of theory or econometrics. (Though Knowledge and Decisions is an excellent pice of theory.)  Tom writes books. Well, maybe it's time to celebrate persuasive fact-based books as well as the more standard approaches, as you also have done in the past. 

While Tom is hardy, he is 91. None of us last forever. Nor does your opportunity to recognize one of the most important economists of our time. This is the year. 

********

Update: If you don't know Tom, and don't want to face an overwhelming volume of primary sources, his Wikipedia page is not bad. Twitter commenters complain that he appears on Fox News. Well, Paul Krugman appears in the New York Times. Within a respectable range, really, we need to start keeping political commentary separate from scientific contribution, like other hobbies. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

What's in the reconciliation bill? A conversation with Casey Mulligan.

 A podcast discussion with Casey Mulligan. What's in the reconciliation bill? How will it work? 



Link to the podcast page, with lots of other formats. 

Yesterday Casey tweeted that he had read the entire 2,400 page bill. Casey does this sort of thing, as explained in his book "Your'e hired." I have been trying to figure out what's in it for a while. The media coverage is basically absent. (See this great Marginal Revolution post and Bloomberg column (gated, sadly) by Tyler Cowen.) I tried downloading the actual bill too, but promptly fell asleep. (Casey has some good hints on how to read it.) 

But here we are, about to embark on a huge set of new federal programs, really larger than anything since the Johnson Administration, and there is essentially no description of what they are, no debate on how they will work, and especially (my hobby horse) what incentives and disincentives they provide. Many of the previous welfare-state programs were disastrous for the supposed beneficiaries. How are we going to avoid that again? At most we talk about top line numbers. I'm a debt hawk, but if we could heal the planet, end all inequity, bring full social racial and gender justice, wipe out poverty, give every American a life of dignity, prosperity, and opportunity for a mere $3.5 trillion, I'm in. Double it. The real question is whether any of this will happen. 

Well, Casey read the bill and knows what's in it! Tune in to find out.. 

PS, I hope to get the podcast going more regularly this fall,

Update: 

A summary and review from David Henderson. 

Casey writes a detailed blog post on BBB disincentives. 

"Non-profit" housing at NYT

Every now and then the old New York Times resurfaces, with detailed reporting, actual facts, whether or not they support The Narrative. Such is the case with an article I recommend, Housing Boss Earns $1 Million to Run Shelters Despite a Troubled Past, by Amy Julia Harris

Since 2017, ... the city has awarded more than $352 million to a nonprofit run by Mr. [Jack A.] Brown to operate shelters. The money is meant to help homeless people regain their footing in life, but it has benefited Mr. Brown, too.

The nonprofit has channeled contracts worth at least $32 million into for-profit companies tied to Mr. Brown, allowing him to earn more than $1 million a year, The New York Times found. Millions more have gone to real estate companies in which he has an ownership interest. 

...In addition to serving as the chief executive of the nonprofit he founded, CORE Services Group, Mr. Brown started a security guard company that polices his shelters, a maintenance company that makes repairs in them and a catering company that feeds the residents, records showed. Mr. Brown heads each of them, collecting total compensation that tops $1 million. He is the highest-paid shelter operator in New York, according to a review of available records.

Mr. Brown, 53, has profited in other ways: Along with partners, he owns two companies that have rented buildings to CORE, and his mother, sister, aunt and niece have all worked at the nonprofit, in addition to his brother, who has collected a six-figure salary.

At the same time, residents at one of the largest shelters in Mr. Brown’s operation, Beach House in Queens, said they lived with vermin infestations, creeping mold and violent fights in the hallways.

The last part of the article goes on about Mr. Brown. I have to say I admire the man's cleverness. He starts and closes companies with alacrity, always one step ahead. 

I am reminded of the famous railroad robber barons, like the one whose name adorns my university, who ran railroads that received massive federal subsidies, but also ran construction companies hired by the railroads to do the work. That's where they made their money, and economic historians still haven't untangled the web. 

But Mr. Brown is not a lone individual, he's just the human face of the story. As the article makes clear, this is the systematic pattern in the business: 

An investigation by The Times, based on hundreds of pages of legal filings, business records and tax documents, as well as interviews with homeless people, city officials and shelter employees, found that under the cloak of charity, executives at nonprofits have collected large salaries, spent their budgets on companies that they or their families controlled and installed relatives in high-paying jobs.

One landlord started a nonprofit that handed out millions of dollars to real estate and maintenance companies that he and his family owned. A Bronx shelter operator was charged earlier this year with laundering kickbacks through a consulting company run by his family. A former board member of another homelessness organization is under criminal investigation after the city said the group paid millions of dollars to a web of for-profit entities he secretly oversaw.

Now, perhaps the gloss of blaming problems in well-meaning programs on malfeasant individuals got this past the the Times' editors. But ponder just how much this story undermines the Standard Progressive Narrative. Most of all, it is these days fashionable to view "for profit" companies as evil, and "non-profits" as morally and ethically superior. 

For example,  

When Mayor Bill de Blasio came into office, he criticized a small group of landlords for charging the city exorbitant rates to house people in squalid rooms while doing little to curb homelessness. In 2017, the mayor pledged to open dozens of new shelters that would be managed by nonprofit groups. Their mission, he said, would be altruistic rather than driven by financial gain.

You only have to read a little between the lines that the whole system of city grants to "non-profits" is completely and inherently corrupt.  Non-profit means a) tax exemption b) no pesky shareholders to ask questions and unseat bad management. Alas, the desire for gain remains in the human spirit. The war on for-profit universities has a similar tone.  

...This year, the city has directed $2.6 billion to nonprofits to operate homeless shelters, and officials already know they have a problem with some of them.

...About 77,000 homeless people live in New York City, 

$2.6b/77k = $34,000. (The right number should be the number in this housing, which the article does not give.) Well, that's better than San Francisco, where we add a zero.  



Monday, October 4, 2021

Portfolio podcast

I did a Rational Reminder podcast and video, focusing on portfolio theory, but also a tour through asset pricing. My hosts Benjamin Felix and Cameron Passmore were unusually well prepared and asked great questions! Video below, or go here for video, podcast, and transcript for people (like me) who read more than listen.