Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why Would the Death of the Euro be Such a Bad Thing?

This was a question, posed to me by a well-known beer writer when I met up with him recently in the UK (which is feeling pretty darn smug right now for not joining the Euro).  It is a good question (surprisingly, given its provenance), and I have been thinking a lot about the answer to this.

To be clear, we all understand that leaving the Euro by a small and heavily indebted country like Greece would be a disaster for them: they would adopt their own currency again, and heavily devalue.  Capital would flee astonishingly fast as folks got their Euro deposits and investments out as quickly as they could.  This would both incapacitate the government by essentially cutting off all credit and would lead to a complete collapse of the banking sector.  Bad times.

But why doesn't Germany, which is not at all happy about having to rescue the hopelessly mismanaged Greek economy, just cut and run?  They have a robust economy, could re-launch the Deutche Mark credibly and off they would sail into the sunset...

The first and obvious answer is that cutting and running might lead to Greece, Portugal, Spain and even Italy falling into crisis and Germany would not be immune to the sickness that would spread - they would be seriously hurt by this and the resulting recession would likely be pan-European.

But the less obvious answer is that if Germany exited, the Euro would immediately lose a lot of its value and German banks have a lot of Euro denominated assets that would suddenly be worth a whole lot less.  This would necessitate a bailout of German banks and a subsequent very tight credit environment as banks had to shore up their balance sheets.

In fact, UBS released a study which claims that that it would be much cheaper for Germany to bail out Greece than to exit the Euro. From the report:

Were a stronger country such as Germany to leave the Euro, the consequences would include corporate default, recapitalisation of the banking system and collapse of international trade. If Germany were to leave, we believe the cost to be around EUR6,000 to EUR8,000 for every German adult and child in the first year, and a range of EUR3,500 to EUR4,500 per person per year thereafter. That is the equivalent of 20% to 25% of GDP in the first year. In comparison, the cost of bailing out Greece, Ireland and Portugal entirely in the wake of the default of those countries would be a little over EUR1,000 per person, in a single hit.

The moral is that it is pretty easy to create a monetary union, but a whole lot harder to break it up.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Economist's Notebook: Lake O Streetcar and Accounting v. Opportunity Costs

An article in The Oregonian discusses the new and improved cost figures for the proposed Lake Oswego Streetcar extension. In it, there is a discussion about whether the cost of the land that was purchased years ago should be included. This is a classic lesson in accounting versus opportunity costs in economics:
The new figure also does not include land owned by the government that originally had been included with capital costs. That alone reduced the price tag now being promoted by $80.3 million.

"I don't think it's disingenuous at all," said Obletz, who argued that the land is "not a cost to the project."

It may be correct to say the land is not an accounting cost for the project going forward, but it is entirely incorrect to say it is not a cost of the project. The reason economics makes the distinction is that the opportunity cost includes the next best alternative usage for the land and thus deciding to use the land for this project makes it unavailable for other uses.

In other words, if the land can be sold say for $100 million than utilizing it for this project denies that $100 million for any other use.  So, if you are doing a cost-benefit analysis of a project you have to include this cost as well, it is just as important as any real accounting cost going forward.

I kinda hope the streetcar guts built, it'd be pretty cool, but let's be real about the cost.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Oh No Canada!

The Economist wonders whether Canada is headed for a US-style housing collapse noting that the degree to which houses are overvalued there is above what US house prices were at the peak of the bubble:

Based on the average of the two measures, home prices are overvalued by about 25% or more in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, New Zealand, Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden (see table). Indeed, in the first four of those countries housing looks more overvalued than it was in America at the peak of its bubble. Despite their collapse, Irish home prices are still slightly above “fair” value—partly because they were incredibly overvalued at their peak, and partly because incomes and rents have fallen sharply. In contrast, homes in America, Japan and Germany are all significantly undervalued. In the late 1990s the average house price in Germany was twice that in France; now it is 20% cheaper.

What is it about the German economy that makes it so robust? Well, puzzle not, here comes the Wall Street Journal to tell us that Germany and France are not immune to debt problems either:

Friday, November 25, 2011

Soccernomics: Soccer on Television

Photo Credit: Reuters

An interesting little tidbit from last weekend: a tape-delayed broadcast of the Liverpool-Chelsea English Premier League match on the Fox network drew almost double the viewership of the MLS Cup final.

This illustrates both the good and the bad of American soccer. The proliferation of European sooccer available on American TV over the last decade has completely changed the landscape. Americans are increasingly tuning in to see top flight soccer from the world's best leagues. At least in my neighborhood in Portland I see more grade school aged kids sporting European club and country jerseys than MLB, NBA, and NFL combined.

All of this seems like an incredibly positive thing for the sport in the US. Kids no longer think of it as a kids only sport that is a good pastime until you can play the real sports. And they get to see the world's best players, learning the moves and strategies that will help them progress the game in the states. It also raises the legitimacy of the sport in the eyes of the adults - it is not just a great game to play but a great spectator sport as well.

But there is a significant negative as well: such broadcasts expose the significant gulf between the level of play in the top European leagues and the state of play in the MLS. The MLS has made huge progress in terms of the experience in the stadiums - starting next season all but three teams will be playing in soccer specific stadiums (if we count the special shrinking magic of BC Place in Vancouver). Average attendance this year has grown significantly: up seven percent from the year before - helped by Portland and Vancouver.

For all of the in-stadium progress, the fact remains that MLS still struggles to attract TV audiences: the MLS Cup final drew a underwhelming 0.8 share. And now that top flight European soccer is easily available on US TV there is serious competition for eyeballs. Who would choose to watch a Dallas v. Philadelphia match when Barcelona is playing, or Kansas City v. Chivas USA when the Arsenal is playing Manchester United. The fact is that the product on the screen coming from Europe is far superior. So while the energy, excitement and fun at a Timbers game is second to none, the TV product is pretty lame (and don't get me started again about turf - it is even worse on TV than live).

And this is the economic conundrum: the real money in professional sports is from television. To the extent that European league broadcasts cannibalize the MLS TV market, the development of the MLS will be stunted by the lack of revenues to spend on quality players.

The hope is in those little kids with the Man United jerseys. As they progress and get better so will the US. There is no reason there can't be 20 or even 200 Landon Donovans in the US, and as we develop more players the play in the MLS will improve with them.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Trade and Oregon

From the Office of the US Trade Representative:

Exports Support Jobs for Oregon Workers
Export-supported jobs linked to manufacturing account for an estimated 5.2 percent of Oregon's total private-sector employment. Nearly one-quarter (23.5 percent) of all manufacturing workers in Oregon depend on exports for their jobs (2009 data latest available).
Exports Sustain Thousands of Oregon Businesses
A total of 4,918 companies exported goods from Oregon locations in 2008. Of those, 4,384 companies, or 89 percent, were small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), with fewer than 500 employees.
SMEs generated close to one-third (32 percent) of Oregon's total exports of merchandise in 2008.
Foreign Investment Creates Jobs in Oregon
In 2008, foreign-controlled companies employed 46,900 Oregon workers. Major sources of foreign investment in Oregon in 2008 included Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Canada.
Foreign investment in Oregon was responsible for 3.2 percent of the state's total private-industry employment in 2008.
Oregon Depends on World Markets
Oregon's export shipments of merchandise in 2010 totaled $17.7 billion.
The state's largest market was China. Oregon posted merchandise exports of $4.0 billion to China in 2010, 23 percent of the state’s total merchandise exports. China was followed by Malaysia ($2.7 billion), Canada ($2.4 billion), Japan ($1.4 billion), and Korea ($937 million).
The state's largest merchandise export category is computers and electronic products, which accounted for $7.8 billion of Oregon's total merchandise exports in 2010. Other top merchandise exports are agricultural products ($2.3 billion), machinery manufactures ($1.5 billion), chemicals manufactures ($1.4 billion), and transportation equipment ($827 million).
Oregon's Metropolitan Exports
In 2009, the metropolitan area of Salem exported $325 million in merchandise. Other major metropolitan areas in Oregon that exported in 2009 included Eugene-Springfield ($314 million) and Corvallis ($241 million). A major metropolitan area exporter that included some counties of Oregon was Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton (including some counties in Washington as well) which exported $15.5 billion in merchandise in 2009.

*Data updated June 2011, by the Office of Trade and Industry Information, International Trade Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce.

Now, keep in mind this is from a source that is charged with promoting trade, but most of the facts are straightforward. Now you know.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Growth Doesn't Buy Happiness

Changes in life satisfaction, education and growth performance in the 2000s
Annual changes, in percent

Source: Perspectives on Global Development 2012

This was sent to me by the OECD and illustrates the struggles emerging economies are having translating economic growth to advances in human capital and life satisfaction.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Food Stamps: Oregon Leads the Nation in Food Assistance

From The New York Times' Economix blog:

In Oregon, 17.8 percent of families received food stamps, officially known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, the highest rate in the nation. Oregon was followed by Tennessee (17 percent) and Michigan (16.9 percent).

Monday, November 14, 2011

Picture of the Day: Which States are Most Exposed to Europe

Don't make too much of this, the US is so integrated that all states will suffer if Europe goes into recession, but there would likely be some differential effects based on how much trade states do with Europe.  So how much do states trade with Europe?

Data from the Commerce Department and Wells Fargo, and the graph is from the Wall Street Journal.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Mileage Tax or a Gas Tax?

Our fair Governor has proposed a mileage tax on top of a gas tax hike to address the lacuna in transportation funding.  This raises the question of which is better and what do they accomplish.

If you are proposing Pigovian taxes, then both make sense but address very different things.  Driving a car imposes external costs through the impact on the environment, through the wear and tear on the roads and through the time cost of congestion.

A mileage tax addresses the wear and tear issue.  People who drive will be assessed a tax that is equivalent to the cost of the road wear they are responsible for.  This has the benefit of being fair and providing a direct source of funds to maintain the roads and is a disincentive to drive once the external cost is made internal through the tax (and also taking into account the cars weight, etc. - of course how will they deal with studded tires and chains?).  The implementation is costly however, having a GPS in each car has got to be expensive as well as the cost of reading them and imposing a tax.  Perhaps we could just do a mileage charge - not as accurate but simple.

The mileage tax does not address the congestion issue, but with the GPS it could, one assumes.  If you drive on certain congested roads at certain rush-hour times, you could be charged more. This would provide the same Pigovian incentives to avoid driving during rush-hour or in congested areas.   The GPS could also determine how much tax should go to municipalities, counties, and the state depending on which roads you drove on.  But doing these things would seem to be an enormous computing challenge and one that would be enormously expensive.  It is an interesting idea, however.

The gas tax is Pigovian in addressing the environmental impact of the amount of carbon emitted which is exactly related to the gas used.  If the primary goal is to address this than this is the appropriate tax.  

It is clear that each tax is also a poor way to address the other issue, to wit: a gas tax is not a good way to address wear and tear because a Prius could do a lot of wear and tear with little gas and a Mustang could do little wear and tear with a lot of gas; and a mileage tax doesn't work, for the very same reason, as a way to address environmental impact.

Both taxes could be implemented, but since the gas tax is good for the environmental impact side and, though imperfectly, does address the wear and tear side as well, and is basically zero extra administrative cost, it seems like the clear winner.  However, if the GPS system could be done very cheaply and has the added congestion and differential tax components, it might be worth pursuing.  Perhaps it is politics but I don't see what's wrong with a healthy increase in the gas tax - besides the GPS monitors will just serve as a constant reminder of the government's taxation which will fuel the anti-tax sentiment latent in almost everyone.

Note: One thing I failed to mention is that the milage tax is imperfect in that non-Oregon registered cars that drive in Oregon (for example, Vancouver commuters) would get off scott-free.  At least a simple gas tax would catch some of them and would work both ways (Oregon drivers in Washington would pay for Washington's roads only when they buy gas in Washington).

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Econ 101: Dynamic Comparative Advantage

This past weekend, the Oregonian reported on something that has been fueling the rumor mill in Corvallis for a few months: HP is most likely scaling down its Corvallis operations.  A few weeks ago they also reported on the shuttering of the Hynix plant in Eugene.  What gives in the Willamette valley?

Well, as a friend who works for HP in Corvallis explained to me, HPs printer business is not growing and in modern business you have to grow revenues.  So without growth in sales, you need to cut costs and a big cost savings is to employ engineers in Asia rather than in the US.

When I teach comparative advantage, the relative productivity advantage that leads to gains from trade, I try to stress that though in the classical Ricardian example there exist static differences in productivity, such productivity differences evolve through time.  Countries like India and China for a long time had a major comparative advantage relative to the US in light manufacturing and other labor intensive activities that came from an abundance of unskilled labor and a relative paucity of skilled labor.  But over the last ten to twenty years, this has begun to change quite dramatically.  India and China have begun to produce more and more skilled engineers, to use but one example.  Thus the relative productivity advantage that the US used to enjoy in engineering is disappearing fast.

Why has the US lost this advantage?  One need only look at the sorry state of the US higher education system to figure this out.  Federal funding for basic research is almost non-existant, states support for public higher education is drying up and the K-12 system is sending (and not sending) kids to college without proper preparation.  From my vantage point it is not hard to feel pretty pessimistic about the future.  Our best hope is to try and hold on to all of the incredibly talented foreigners that come to get advanced degrees (for the time being at least) in the US.  But with stricter immigration policies and ever improving opportunities at home, many foreign students are choosing to return, leaving the US talent-poor and loosing more and more industry.  

So back to Oregon.  What can a state do to combat these job losses?  Produce skilled individuals who have the ability to be high productivity participants in the 21st century.  This takes time and resources for the entire educational system.  Failure to do so will leave us in the unfortunate position of having a comparative advantage in low value-added activities.   

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Econ 101: Myth-Busting Self-Service Gas

MYTH 1: Eliminating Gas Station Attendants Will Just Lead to More Profits for the Owners and No Lower Prices for Consumers.

In the comments section of the previous post on the self-service gas poll, Kari Chisholm, an enormously intelligent guy for whom I have lots of respect, gets one terribly wrong. He argues that if gas station attendants were to disappear, gas station owners would just pocket the excess profits. I am sorry Kari but this is just bad economics - and wrong.

Excess profits, or 'rents' in the economics parlance, come from market conditions. Usually rents come from some sort of market concentration (monopoly or oligopoly) that can either be 'natural' (high fixed costs prohibit potential competitors from entering), or 'created' (regulation, patents, strategic entry deterrence, etc.). Now it may be true that gas stations do capture some rents because of special regulations covering the storage of potentially toxic fuel, among other things, but I doubt it is much. You see, it doesn't take very may gas stations to make a competitive market. The reason for this is that gas is, for the most part, a completely generic product and price information is posted very visibly, so consumers are extremely price sensitive and thus to attract them you have to compete fiercely on price. [For you economics students, this is a pretty good example of Bertrand price competition, in which only a few firms will drive the price to marginal cost] Most studies have found the market for retail gas to highly competitive.

Regardless of how competitive they are, however, the real key to why Kari's suggestion is in the fact that the market conditions do not change if you eliminate attendants, so any rents that exist after the elimination of attendants would be there before as well. The only thing that will change is the marginal cost of providing gas to consumers, and this cost savings will be passed on to consumers by force of competition. [And, by the way, when John Corzine proposed the change for New Jersey, the only other state that forbids self-service, it was the gas station industry group itself that was most instrumental in killing it - which should tell you that they did not expect to make higher profits with the switch]

MYTH 2: National Average Gas Prices are a Good Counter-Factual.

No. Local gas prices are determined by, among other things, state taxes, state regulations and especially, distance to pipelines and refineries. Just saying that Oregon's gas prices are consistent with other states prices where self-service gas is allowed tells us nothing. (But, by the way, Oregon is 4th highest in the continental US for regular gas prices according to the latest data from AAA) The true counter-factual is what would happen to prices at your local gas station if the labor costs were reduced - it doesn't take an economist to figure it out. But seeing as I am an economist, here is the basic econ 101 graph of supply and demand in retail gas with two supply curves, one that includes the extra cost of attendants and the other that does not. Note that when you include attendant cost, price goes up.

MYTH 3: Full-Service is a Good Way to Boost Employment and Reduce Driving, both Noble Goals.

If you buy my argument about gas prices, you may say, but wait, don't we want higher gas prices to discourage people to drive and and thus limit the carbon that is released into the atmosphere? To which I would answer, if that is true then you can increase the tax on gas and achieve the same thing, but the difference is government captures the revenue and can then spend it on things like: lower state college tuition for the types of people that would work as a gas station attendant, investments in public transportation, etc.

Also, full-service gas, as mentioned in previous posts has ambiguous effects on overall employment. There will likely be fewer gas stations with full service and high gas prices affect other industries by raising their costs which will also raise supply curves and lower output and employment. It is quite likely that this will actually lower overall state employment, not raise it, which is why we don't mandate employment in general.

But, by the way, none of this really matters, you can keep everything they way it currently is and still give me the right to pump my own gas (while the attendant watches). Surely you can't argue against that? What I would propose, however, is that each gas station must be able to provide the service upon request, but otherwise people would be allowed to pump their own.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Local Currency

A story in The Oregonian last Sunday discussed the efforts of a group of people to bring local currency to Portland. The idea is pretty straightforward: with local-only currency (i.e. accepted nowhere else) it can never leave the community, so through the use of such currency you ensure that money you spend remains in the community. This, in turn, helps the local community through increased investment, fostering local connections, enhancing local businesses, etc. The system works on an advanced form of barter where a group of individuals and businesses agree to accept the local currency for goods and services provided. However, you can only use the currency within that group - so only if the group has a good or service you need will an exchange be made.

I want to like the idea, I really do, in fact I lived in Ithaca, New York for five years while in graduate school where perhaps the most successful example of local currency exists: Ithaca Hours. But the economist in me just won't let me get excited about the idea. I certainly don't think there is anything wrong with having a local currency, but I think that claims about the benefits are just not very credible - I don't think it really makes a difference.

The first idea, that this keeps money circulating locally seems to me to be countered by the much lower velocity in the circulation of this money. Even though dollars may quickly leave the Portland market, chances are they will have changed hands locally many times first (on average). The problem with local currency is that it does not solve the barter problem very well unless there are a huge number of participants. If the velocity is quite low, then it may even cause a drag on the economy - slowing down the rate of transactions.

I also don't think that local is the way to think about economic vitality. Most Portland artisans, I imagine, are very happy to fill orders from across the US and the world and would be much worse off if they tried to satisfy only local demand. On the other hand if I take a dollar I earn from my job and spend it at the Corvallis farmers market, I hope that that dollar is spent by the farmer in a way that yields the most benefit to him or her. Maybe it is buying seeds from a wholesaler in another county, or perhaps in a new piece of equipment from Japan, or a cool iPod for the kid that cannot be bought with local currency. I am not clear on how a purchase with the local currency (and apparently there is one in Corvallis but I had never heard of it prior to its mention in the article) helps the local economy if it prevents these purchases by the local farmer.

Finally, the hypothetical extreme is a completely closed off economy. What would I expect from such a place? Lower variety, less efficiency (including higher energy usage) and poorer quality. So why should we want such a world, even in part? I like the idea of lots of goods a services both flowing out of Portland and flowing in - I don't see it as a leakage but as a virtuous cycle of exchange.

As a coda: two of my classmates in graduate school actually wrote and published an economics paper which argued that local currencies could serve as a signal of demand for local goods and thus spur investment in local productive activities. With all due respect to my esteemed colleagues, I think in reality local currencies are so minor a part of the economy (even in a hugely successful system in a tiny upstate NY town), that though theoretically correct, the real effect is negligible.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Introduction to the Mind of an Economist

When I think about public policy as an economist, my first instinct is (of course) that a market-based solution is usually the first-best alternative. Unfortunately, this is where many poorly-trained economists (or worse, well-trained economists who should know better) stop. I next think about the potential for market failures: un-realized goals or inefficiencies due to aspects of the market that don't match the textbook version. Market failures always exist - the job of a good economist is to identify them and figure out, one, how important they are, and two if the additional inefficiencies that will arise from government intervention are outweighed by the potential gains from such an intervention.

It is from such a lens that I am often either bemused or delighted by public policy in Oregon (and sometimes both). One of the most visible policies that I find bemusing is the ban on self-service gas in the state. First let us dispense with a number of obvious canards about self-service gas: it is not 'dangerous,' it does not lead to increased environmental damage from sloppy customers pouring gas all over the place, it does not reduce automobile insurance in Oregon, it is not less-efficient. So why do we have this policy? Let me try offer some reasonable arguments for and against. For: the elderly and disabled self-service gas can difficult; it creates jobs for a segment of the population that often has trouble finding employment. Against: it is slow and inefficient; it raises the price of gas; employees (who are often teenagers) are exposed to potentially harmful vapors. Are there any others I have not thought about?

Each of these arguments has an element of truth, so how important are they? Well, I think that they are all fairly unimportant save for the first argument about the elderly and disabled - I'll come back to that in a minute. I have seen a figure of about 7,600 persons who are employed as gas pumpers in Oregon. My guess is that this includes a large-portion who are part-time and for whom the income from their job is not what they live on (i.e. teenagers living at home) , so I think that the real impact on the well-being of Oregonians is minimal - these are simply lousy jobs. Besides if this is good public policy, why don't we mandate employment for many other business (no self-service car washes!, no self-service Laundromats!, etc.)? We don't do this because it dissuades investment in new business. As for the arguments on the other side, I believe it is slower and that gas prices are slightly higher. I don't think either is that important. Perhaps this helps achieve another policy goal of reducing slightly the miles driven, but there are much cleaner ways to do that (to wit, a gas tax). I do not know if there is credible evidence to suggest that teenagers are being harmed by fumes, until there is I shall assume the libertarian stance. So in the end, I think this policy fails the pointless test. I cannot see any good reason for government involvement and, therefore as an economist that believes in limiting government intervention in areas in which it is unnecessary, I think this policy stinks.

Now let me return to the one cogent point I put off. I do think that the elderly and disabled argument has merit, because if you have been to our neighbor states recently, I defy you to find anything other than self-service gas. So I can imagine a case for mandating at least the option of having gas pumped for you. However, again, since this does not seem to be an issue in the other 48 states the do not prohibit self-service gas, I would not be in favor of this amended policy solution until I were convinced that it was necessary.

Other policies I hope to comment on soon: bottle bill, payday loans, sales tax.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Note to Self...

...just changing the dates on old posts to dates in the future does not cause them to repost at a later date, just moves the up to the top of the blog.

Ah well, I really don't have time to deal with this so please pretend that you can see the posts until the date listed while I fire the entire editorial staff.

Programming Note: OEB on Hiatus - Bring out the Greatest Hits!

A combination of midterm busy-ness, conference travel and overall 'things-are-starting-to-pile-up-so-high-I-think-my-desk-is-going-to-crumble' will keep blogging light to nonexistent over the next two weeks.  I will get a chance to see UK austerity up close as I travel to a conference in London and then have a little Beeronomics fun making my way up to Edinburgh for a talk.  Actually, I am hoping it is more than just fun but research for a future book as I will be tagging along with a pro beer writer and getting to be in on some conversations about the UK beer industry.  I'll pop in here or on Beeronomics if there is anything particularly interesting to make note of.

But don't despair! I am going to repost some oldies but goodies to entertain and enthrall you in my absence.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Higher Education: So Suddenly You Don't Believe in Markets?

I came across this piece in Investor's Business Daily by Alex Tabarrok (of Marginal Revolution fame) in which he argues that there are too many arts and humanities graduates and too few science, technology, engineering and math graduates (STEM). [See also this blog post]

Here is a taste:

If students aren't studying science, technology, engineering and math, what are they studying? In 2009 the U.S. graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual and performing arts graduates in 1985.

The story is the same in psychology, which graduates about 95,000 students a year, more than double the number of 25 years ago and far in excess of the number of available jobs.


There is nothing wrong with the arts, psychology and journalism, but graduates in these fields have lower wages and are less likely to find work in their fields than graduates in science and math.

As a result, more than half of all humanities graduates end up in jobs that don't require college degrees. Baggage porters and bellhops don't need college degrees, but in 2008 17.4% of them had at least a bachelor's degree and 45% had some college education. Mail carriers don't need a college education, but in 2008 14% had at least a bachelor's degree and 61% had some college education.

Not surprisingly, these graduates don't get much of a financial "bonus" from college. A college graduate in the humanities who finds a job requiring a college degree had median annual earnings in 2009 of $21,000. For those who ended up in jobs not requiring a college degree, the median was just $14,000.

So the obvious question here - especially since the author is a conservative economist pre-disposed to believe in the efficiency of markets - is: what is the market failure here?  The incentives to go into STEM are clear, the disincentives to go into these other fields are also clear and yet student freely choose them.  Clearly, there is more to a college degree than just how it pays off in the labor market in terms of salary.  The fact that many people choose them suggests that there are sizeable non-pecuniary benefits to these degrees.  If you believe in markets, then, you should see these stats as equilibrium and evidence of the efficient distribution of degrees across the population. And if a letter carrier's life is enriched by a college degree, then it is not the economist's place to judge - preferences are personal.

But Tabarrok next makes a different and more compelling argument: if the social returns to education are much higher in STEM than in other fields, why don't we subsidize them more?

Moreover, arts, psychology and journalism graduates are less likely to create the kinds of innovations that drive economic growth.

Economic growth is not a magic totem to which all else must bow, but it is one of the main reasons we subsidize higher education.

The potential wage gains for college graduates go to the graduates — that's reason enough for students to pursue a college education. We add subsidies to the mix, however, because we believe education has positive spillover benefits that flow to society. One of the biggest of these benefits is the increase in innovation that highly educated workers bring to the economy.

As a result, an argument can be made for subsidizing students in fields with potentially large spillovers, such as microbiology, chemical engineering, nuclear physics and computer science. There is little justification for subsidizing majors in the visual arts, psychology and journalism.
I am not sure there is good evidence to support the conclusion that the social returns to education are that much higher in STEM than in other fields.  Obviously the private returns are higher, one needs only to look at the salaries quoted in the article, but the social returns are another matter.  One could make quite a strong argument (and I do) that fields like journalism provide a social return per dollar that is much higher than STEM through the watchdog role they play that limits corruption and other social inefficiencies.  Similar arguments for psychologists, artists, librarians and the like are easy to make: in fact it is quite easy to imagine that society reaps huge benefits from those that are willing to accept relative low wages to take these roles.

Finally, I don't think it is at all correct to say we subsidize these fields equally.  There are huge government investments in STEM through research support that don't exist to remotely the same degree in arts, humanities and social sciences.  This support filters down to fund graduate and even some undergraduate students as well as create capacity for more undergraduates.  It takes a lot more infrastructure to train a STEM student (well, perhaps not math) as well, so the costs are higher but tuitions are the same in general no matter your field - which is the same as an extra subsidy.

Which is all to say that I buy none of it.  Students should know the facts about the job market post-college (and my experience is that they do), and then make the individual choice about major that makes them the most satisfied given that knowledge.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Picture of the Day: GDP Density

This graph, from a paper by Gallup, Sachs and Mellinger, is taken from an Econbrowser blog post by James Hamilton.  Go there and read it.  Interesting stuff.  I will add, however, that it does read a bit like the rediscovery of the wheel: economic geographers and development economists have been studying all this stuff (the role of geography versus institutions, resources and the like) for decades.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Population, Poverty and Inequality

Impossibly busy today with sick kid and meetings, etc.  So for your edification I recommend Felix Salmon's piece on population growth.  Here is a teaser graph:

For more fun here is his cutesy video: