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Is Government Employment Shrinking

The WSJ Real Time Economics blog, hereafter to be known as the WSJ-RTE blog, attempts to make a case for a shrinking federal government workforce. Their graph of federal employees would seem to validate that claim.

Now, that’s not the only governmental unit which employs people. The states and local municipalities also chip in and there the picture is a bit different.

Does anyone think that block grants from Washington might have something to do with this? Perhaps Washington learned a lesson about out-sourcing from industry. But the article does try and put a happy face on the growth in the states and local governments by noting that as a share of the total workforce government employment at all levels is declining.

This, of course, is a fine example of the old axiom that no tree grows to the sky.

The article concludes by attempting to explain the contradiction of an historically high level of government spending as a share of the economy with a  declining level of employment as a function of increasing transfer payments. The author then concedes that there might be another factor at work.

Another reason government spending as a share of GDP remains high, even though the workforce has shrunk, is that government contractors — who may work primarily or entirely on projects for the federal government — are not counted as federal employees.

Which leaves us with the question, “How many government contractors are there?” I googled around a bit without finding a satisfactory answer, though what I did come across indicated that this might indeed be a big number. I suppose the best takeaway is to conclude that government employment data comes from government and they don’t have a vested interest in inflating the size of their workforces; we don’t have any handle on the size of their outsourcing; and it’s best to trust our instincts about the size of the leviathin absent all the data.

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Ebola Mindlessness

This has to go down as one of those “what were they thinking moments”

The “purpose” of the memo states: “Come to an agreed State Department position on the extent to which non-U.S. citizens will be admitted to the United States for treatment of Ebola Virus Disease.”

The document goes on to discuss – and advocate for — devising such a plan. The memo recommends that “State and DHS devise a system for expeditious parole of Ebola-infected non-citizens into the United States as long as they are otherwise eligible for medical evacuation from the Ebola affected countries and for entry into the United States.”

Do read the entire story as well as the link to the memo if you have time. In fairness, State was attempting to provide assistance to local citizens of the Ebola affected regions who are US government contractors. Still, as a matter of simple politics, particularly a week before an election and in a nation clearly nervous about the disease and its spread, this has to rank as one of the more inept moves ever.

It would be easy to suggest that this is just another example of an administration which cannot get out of its own way, but that would be shooting fish in a barrell. I think it’s a perfect example of a government which is so bloated and so in search of anything to justify much of its unnecessary apparatus that it runs amok in this manner. There is little to fear in this silly exercise, but that doesn’t mean the next time these people won’t do real harm.

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Ignore The Monthly New Home Sales Reports

Per the Commerce Department:

Sales of new single-family houses in September 2014 were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 467,000, according to estimates released jointly today by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This is 0.2 percent (±15.7%)* above the revised August rate of 466,000 and is 17.0 percent (±20.6%)* above the September 2013 estimate of 399,000.

So the September numbers were kind of blah, but the good news is that despite downward revisions August was a very good month as sales were up 15.3% from July which was also revised down. Still with me? If so let me make a suggestion, ignore these numbers, they’re bad guesstimates. Here’s the WSJ Real Time Economics blog on the subject”:

The Commerce Department’s monthly estimates tend to be volatile, often are revised significantly and typically come with enormous margins of error. Sales rose 0.2% in Septemberfrom the prior month, the latest report said. But that figure came with a margin of error of 15.7 percentage points.

So it could be up 15.9%, or down 15.5% — your guess is as good as ours.

August was a good month for new-home sales. They rose a robust 15.3% from July. But the initial estimate of sales (reported a month ago) at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 504,000 was revised down this month to 466,000.

The month still saw a solid gain, because July and June numbers were revised down. But the 15.3% gain came with a margin of error of 16.3 percentage points. So sales could have been up a tremendous 31.6% — or down 1%. Take your pick.

No need to belabour the point, so let’s take a look at the bigger picture which isn’t pretty. To find a year in which new home sales were lower than the current run rate, excluding the 2008 recession years, you have to go back to 1982! Oh, and as the WSJ points out in 1982 interest rates were at 15%, unemployment was over 10% and the US population was 232 million versus 315 million now. Take a look at this graph from the St. Louis Fed for a better feel as to just how woeful the business of building new homes has become.

I know that everyone has his pet theory about what’s wrong – demographic shifts, income inequality, student loans, tight credit and on and on. All valid and logical arguments, yet the 80′s, and for that matter other periods after recessions, also involved headwinds which didn’t deter strong rebounds. This time it’s different and the reason(s) aren’t that obvious. Based on the duration of past upticks in construction, it looks as if time is running quite short to get back to historical norms.

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Surprise! Mortgage Standards Being Lowered

As you no doubt know, various government agencies have moved the ball pretty far down the field with respect to loosening down-payment requirements for loans from Fannie and Freddie. The return of the 3% down mortgage seems to be pretty much assured. Arnold Kling offered this with respect to a Calculated Risk post on the availability of mortgage credit.

Is mortgage credit too tight?–Calculated Risk.

Not by the standards currently set by politicians. If you tell banks you have zero tolerance policy for making type I errors (making loans that eventually default), you have to expect many type II errors (passing up good loans). Of course, 10 years ago, the political pressure was the opposite.

The standards to which he refers are the multibillion dollar fines levied for past mortgage origination sins. Banks naturally took these actions as a not so subtle clue to tighten loan standards. We could differ on the reasons the fines were imposed but the political class has at least given lip service to the idea that a return to the old regime was unacceptable. In essence they profess to have learned their lesson well – until now.

Consider these two graphs. The first one shows the relationship between credit availability, or perhaps more appropriately relative looseness of standards, to mortgage delinquencies. You can overstate the correlation in this data, demographics, interest rates and consumer psychology likely played a big part in this disaster, but the easy availability of credit was certainly a contributing factor. . I do wish I could find an HCI which went back further as a comparison to today’s lending standards, but this is all I have or could find.

The second graph traces the performance of median home prices since 1970. Notethat the dips have been just that, blips, not catastrophic crashes save for what began to transpire in 2006. The point being that real estate cycles, particularly as they relate to single family homes are typically very long.

Graph of historical house prices


So to Kling’s observation that the politicians have pushed banks towards tight standards in an effort to avoid type I errors, I doubt that they know the difference between type I and type II errors. The fines and posturing were merely grabs for money and a means of directing blame towards the financiers (not to say that they weren’t culpable) and away from the policy errors which contributed to the debacle. Politicians and the real estate industry, including the financial sector, are well aware of the second graph. They know full wellthattoday’s laxity is unlikely to come home to roost for a long, long time, while the rewards politically and financially come with little risk, at least for the current participants. Certainly, this is just the first step back down the same tired old road and another disaster will ensue, but the risk of error right now is passingly small, the rewards large and the eventual disaster a problem for someone else.

The U.S. is addicted to the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. It’s a financial product which is non-hedgeable and thus exists solely via the use of the government’s balance sheet. Absent abandonment of it, the extension of mortgage credit and the terms which accompany those loans is going to be subject to political whims and those whims will inevitably be slanted towards easy credit.

1.Sorry this ran over into the marging. Going to have to work with my tech guy on how to avoid this. If you want to give me free advice feel free to do so.
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The Plus Size iPhone And Apple Watch Made For Each Other?

Matt Yglesias explains the genius behind Apple’s new plus size phone and its watch:

Of course that still leaves you with the question of how to do quick one-handed tasks on the go. The ideal thing, really, would be to pair the large phone with some kind of device that’s truly optimized for quick glances. Something that’s even easier to access than an item carried in your pocket. Something strapped to your wrist maybe. In other words, while last month’s Apple super-fan sported a laptop, an iPad, and iPhone the company’s dream customer of the future will have a laptop, an enormous phone, and an Apple Watch. And the fact that the Apple Watch looks so much classier and better than the Android smartwatches on the market is going to give Apple a whole new boost of competitive advantage, even as the playing field in phones levels.

I suppose that there exist not a small number of Applesters who will deck themselves out in the manner Yglesias describes. Still it seems a stretch to suppose that this represents the market for several reasons.

  • The universe of users who are going to shell out two to three thousand dollars for Yglesias’ configuration is not large.
  • The market for smart watches is nebulous at best. Yes, Apple’s watch is stylish but it suffers from the same usability issues as the Androids and just like them has to be recharged at least daily. It will be interesting to see in a year or so how many smart watches of any sort are collecting dust in drawers.
  • The pure tablet market is not a growth market. Sales have leveled off and there isn’t any app on the horizon which would drive an uptick in sales. It would appear that consumers are content to split their usage between regular sized phones and laptops rather than throwing a tablet into the mix.
  • The introduction of the tablet laptop hybrid adds a new dimension. While admittedly not perfect they’ve come a long way and it seems reasonable to assume the hybrids will evolve to a more satisfying product. If consumers do move to this product then the regular sized phone would appear to be the default option. Actually, it’s a bit puzzling that Apple hasn’t jumped into this space though it would canabilize their tablet and plus size iPhone  6.

By all accounts the new Apple products are doing exceptionally well, notwithstanding the bending and operating system issues. The company is still a world class designer, manufacturer and retailer of exceptional products. They just have a lot more competition and it is unlikely, at least as I see it, that they have somehow created a new ecosystem for the application of smart devices.


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How Long Do You Want To Live

How long do you expect to live? How hard are you going to work to extend your life span? Have you even thought about the subject? Well Ezekiel Emanuel has and he offers his conclusions in this Atlantic article.


That’s how long I want to live: 75 years.

…But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

There is much more to the article than the simplistic philosophy of the preceding paragraph. Emanuel, a noted physician, offers arguments that Americans while living longer are doing so as sicker individuals.

It is true that compared with their counterparts 50 years ago, seniors today are less disabled and more mobile. But over recent decades, increases in longevity seem to have been accompanied by increases in disability—not decreases. For instance, using data from the National Health Interview Survey, Eileen Crimmins, a researcher at the University of Southern California, and a colleague assessed physical functioning in adults, analyzing whether people could walk a quarter of a mile; climb 10 stairs; stand or sit for two hours; and stand up, bend, or kneel without using special equipment. The results show that as people age, there is a progressive erosion of physical functioning. More important, Crimmins found that between 1998 and 2006, the loss of functional mobility in the elderly increased. In 1998, about 28 percent of American men 80 and older had a functional limitation; by 2006, that figure was nearly 42 percent. And for women the result was even worse: more than half of women 80 and older had a functional limitation. Crimmins’s conclusion: There was an “increase in the life expectancy with disease and a decrease in the years without disease. The same is true for functioning loss, an increase in expected years unable to function.”

I recommend the entire article. It’s definitely thought provoking, and, yes morbid and depressing as well.

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The NFL’s Real Problem

The eventual demise of the NFL isn’t going to come as the result of players abusing women, getting busted for drug possession, endangering children or any other desultory offense; it’s going to come as the result of this:

The National Football League, which for years disputed evidence that its players had a high rate of severe brain damage, has stated in federal court documents that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that the conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population.

Just how big is the difference between NFL players and the general population. Well the NYT article paints a pretty gruesome picture.

 Their calculations showed that players younger than 50 had an 0.8 percent chance of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia, compared with less than 0.1 percent for the general population. For players ages 50 to 54, the rate was 1.4 percent, compared with less than 0.1 percent for the general population. The gap between the players and the general population grows wider with increasing age.

Keep in mind that we’re at the front end of research into the effect of concussions and other types of sports brain injuries on participants. Next to nothing is known about the cumulative effect of brain trauma beginning with early participation in sports in which it may occur. In fact, that NFL players experience such profound effects hasn’t ben shown to occur as a result solely of their participation at the professional level. It just happens to be the most convenient deep pocket to (justifiably?) reach into, and the most proximate activity with which to link cause and effect. Unknown, at this point in time, is if individuals who participate in football and other high contact sports but who do not go on to play in the pros might not be subject as well to similar increased risks.

I enjoy  watching football very much, though I tend to prefer the college game. Given the evidence, I don’t see how it survives in any form which resembles its current popularity. Concern about brain damage, whether warranted or not, among parents and potential participants, combined with a very fat liability tail aren’t conditions favorable to long-term success.

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