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Sunday, May 19, 2019
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  • MUNCIE - The national economy grew at an annual rate of 3.2% in the first quarter. I had forecasted a 2.9% growth rate, but worried the obvious slowing of the US economy would weigh heavily on growth. What might be happening and what it means for the future are worth thinking a bit more deeply about. I begin by explaining why economic growth is so important. If you came of age during that long period from the end of World War II through the Great Recession, you’d experienced average economic growth of a bit above 3.4%, and population growth of 1.1%. A bit of arithmetic yields the fact that, at these growth rates, the standard of living of the average American would double every 30 years. Since the Great Recession, growth has averaged 1.7% and population growth has slowed to 7.2%. At these rates, the standard of living of the typical American will double every 68 years. These data understate the change that occurred over this time. Lifespan in the United States increased by 20%, so folks born today should expect to live more than a dozen years longer than someone born in 1950. However, the rate of growth in life expectancy has crashed since the Great Recession, and even declined for some groups. 
  • MUNCIE - The United States Census Bureau released their annual estimates of population change last week. The data told a familiar tale for Indiana. Indiana very clearly struggles with population growth, and what growth we do experience is concentrated in just a few places. However, the data is not without bright spots. Indiana enjoyed population growth of 31,796 in 2018, of which 40% was net migration. That growth rate is about 0.48%, which is lower than the national growth rate of 0.62% last year, itself a post-war low. In terms of raw population growth, 2018 was beneath Indiana’s post-war and 21st Century averages. For Indiana, the post-recessionary period has been one of dramatic slowing of population growth. Among declining counties, population loss is accelerating. Within the state, only 15 counties grew faster than the nation as a whole. Six of those were in the Indianapolis metropolitan area, and accounted for 49% of the state’s growth. Of our fast-growing counties, all but one were in metropolitan areas. At the other end, a full 32 counties lost population in 2018. The remaining 45 counties grew, but at a rate slower than the nation as a whole. These are in relative population decline. 
  • MUNCIE – Over spring break, I read a Bryan Caplan’s very popular book, The Case Against Higher Education. Many readers of this column might suppose I’d like this book. I tend to support smaller government, and am a frequent critic of higher education. Recall that I’m the professor who thinks tenure is mostly counterproductive to good research and teaching. While I’d strongly recommend this excellent book, the central policy prescriptions are mistaken. Worse still, they are unwisely becoming a faddish part of the education debate. Let me explain. Caplan argues that the value of a college degree is split between actual learning and signaling to employers that you are conscientious and intelligent. He makes a very compelling case, concluding that 80 percent of the wage benefit of a college education is signaling, and 20% actual learning. While several reviewers have tried to poke holes in his analysis, I will not. Because even if he is right, his policy prescription of eliminating public support of higher education is deeply mistaken. Here’s why.  If the learning that results a college degree is only worth one-fifth of its total value, it is still by far the best public investments most state or local governments make. 
  • MUNCIE – A recent survey of economists posed two questions about the recently popular Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The results were clear. Three out of four economists strongly disagreed with its central premises, and one out of four merely disagreed. Precisely zero survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the fundamental predictions of the theory. This was wholly unsurprising, as MMT is nonsense, but it caused me to think about the way economists discuss ideas that are politically popular yet have been proven false. The most obvious example of that, other than MMT, is modern supply-side economics. Indulge me in some musing on how these two ideas continue to have legs after being rejected by careful research using abundant data. MMT concludes that government debt does not matter and, as long as government can print money, it need not collect taxes. This would be a political panacea, of course. We could finance the building of the interstate highway system, World War II and the modern welfare state simply by printing money. It is absurd. 
  • MUNCIE – Job quality, especially with respect to wages and benefits, will be a central part of the next national election. With job creation strong but wage growth lagging, we should expect tough questions about a variety of labor market policies. This will be especially true in the few states that have experienced mostly low-wage job growth in recent years. With Indiana growing low wage jobs at a disproportionate rate, we should think through what “good” jobs might look like in a modern economy, and what role government could take in promoting them.  I’m a free market economist, so I think the best definition of a good job is one that a firm will offer and an employee will take. But, there are two sides to that definition. Labor markets match workers and employers, who both have a say in job quality. Workers need to obtain more education and skills when they cannot find the jobs they desire. Likewise, businesses need to offer better pay or benefits when they cannot find the workers they want. Workers and businesses are equal parties in labor markets, and government should treat them as equals. 
  • MUNCIE  — I spent much of last week at the policy meeting of the National Association of Business Economics in Washington, D.C. The theme of the conference was the dual considerations of promoting global economic growth and domestic economic security. So, it should come as little surprise that discussions of short-run economic projections, trade wars, tax cuts and the underlying factors that cause economic growth dominated the agenda. I’m not a business economist, but I was heartened by how much focus on the longer-term growth seemed to worry most of the crowd. American business seems to suffer perennial critiques of its focus on short-run profits, but the talk last week among business economists was almost wholly about the absence of solid long-run economic growth. I could not visit all the talks, but found two elements very intriguing, and worth sharing in this column.
  • MUNCIE — Indiana’s General Assembly is working through some details on the final education budget, and there are issues that merit discussion. Be warned, this column is likely to leave most folks a bit flustered. Facts are unfriendly to badly informed opinions. I begin by noting that the State of Indiana does not pay teachers. The State of Indiana funds K-12 education, and school boards pay teachers. It is critical to be clear about this, and not submit to the temptation of silly retail politics. This is important because school boards make decisions that affect teacher pay. For example, almost four out of every 10 school corporations in Indiana are so small that overhead costs eat a disproportionate amount of state funding. In these places, consolidating corporations would free up money to keep local schools open and pay teachers better.  Most other teacher pay decisions are likewise part of a school board’s job. Statewide, the data are clear; there is no teacher shortage. However, in many school corporations, finding and keeping the teachers those schools need is very difficult. Folks, if your school corporation is too small to attract the teachers you need, the problem isn’t in Indianapolis, it is at your school board.
  • MUNCIE – As 2019 begins anew, economists suggest a softening national economy.  Industrial production is in decline and retail sales dropped in December. Consumers even shifted their purchases to Walmart, signaling lowered expectations about the economy.  Much of Europe is sliding into recession and China may already be in a slump.  The sole unambiguous piece of good news is found in the unemployment rate, but that is a lagging economic indicator.  The spate of worrisome news could signal the beginning of a recession, but I think it is more likely a return to trend. But, the problem is that the trend has been very unkind to the Hoosier economy.  A return to trend is not good news for Indiana.  Let me explain. U.S. economic growth in the post-recessionary period averaged 2.25%, while Indiana lagged a full 0.2% behind the nation as a whole. This may seem like a minor difference, but this difference over a decade amounts to a significant and alarming relative decline in the Indiana economy.  Small growth rate differentials matter, and with the average Hoosier now earning less than 87% of the typical American, we should be very worried about stagnating long-term economic growth.
  • MUNCIE – A year ago, my Center colleagues and I met with staff from Accelerating Indiana’s Municipalities to consider several different issues facing Indiana over the coming years. Among the leading issues they asked us to study was housing. That is the genesis of a housing study published by Ball State last week. The results will be surprising to many Hoosiers. Our study examined more than 20 years of home prices, construction costs, and other factors that influence new home construction across all Indiana counties. The chief finding of the study is that the traditional economic factors of supply and demand explain nearly all new home construction in Indiana’s counties. In short, in a world where markets often do not work well, housing is a place where markets set home prices and quantities very effectively.  The problem is that many folks don’t like those market outcomes. This will be especially hard for many groups who have been arguing that there is a shortage of housing in many corners of the state. That view is mistaken and it doesn’t take sophisticated economic models to debunk the notion of a housing shortage in Indiana. After all, the U.S. Census reports more than 300,000 vacant homes across our state. There are enough vacant single-family homes to house almost one-third of all Hoosiers. 
  • MUNCIE – Monopoly is again becoming interesting, and I don’t mean the board game. Over the past few years, both academic and policy researchers have found growing evidence of market concentration or lack of competition in many business sectors. For a variety of reasons, this will likely emerge as a campaign issue in the next national election, so it is helpful to understand what economists mean when they talk about competition. Economists favor competitive markets over monopoly-like markets because competition yields much better outcomes to both consumers and producers. However, this remains a hard concept for many to grasp. It’s likely that everyone understands that competition yields lower prices, higher levels of production and, over the long run, more innovation. It also yields more efficient use of inputs such as land, talent and capital. Competitive firms also adjust more quickly to consumer demand, supplying everything from water or gasoline in a natural disaster to high-end consumer goods in the place and time people want to buy them. 
  • MUNCIE – The past few weeks have contained more reports of newspaper downsizing at metro daily papers in Indiana. This news involved some of our state’s largest daily print publications, but it is a familiar story affecting papers large and small in the age of the Internet. Last week Muncie saw the first sentencing in a broad federal investigation of local government corruption. If reports are to be believed, this investigation has already touched nearly every arm of local government, the city’s largest institutions and has peeked into nearly every local public project. The local paper reported all of this to taxpayers, serving its primary goal as a watchdog of the public sector.  With local newspapers threatened, it is useful to evaluate the connection between newspapers and the corrupting influence of power in local government. One of the better studies of this is by Dr. Pengjie Gao of Notre Dame and two colleagues from Chicago. In this very carefully crafted study, Dr. Gao finds that the closure of a local newspaper leads to higher costs of local government borrowing. He attributes this to loss of monitoring of local government leading to higher inefficiencies in several areas. 
  • MUNCIE – Manufacturing employment has enjoyed a long recovery since the darkest days of the Great Recession. As of late last year, we have a full 108,000 more factory jobs than in summer 2009, which marked the trough of the business cycle. This recovery eased some of the deep impacts of automation and trade that cost the United States and Indiana about one third of all factory jobs. Here in Indiana, from January 2000 through the start of the Great Recession, factory employment dropped some 126,600 workers. From the December 2007 through the end of the Great Recession in July 2009, factories shed a further 119,700 jobs. This employment loss was a full 36.8% of all factory jobs in Indiana. There is an interesting debate among economists about just what caused those factory job losses. The consensus appears that the majority of job losses in factories were due to productivity gains. However, much of the observed increase in productivity likely came from businesses responding to significant threat from foreign competition. It’s not clear how those job losses should be accounted for, but there are a few facts that bear on the discussion.  First, growth in transportation and logistics jobs has more than offset the losses in manufacturing, and so has growth in other sectors. International trade doesn’t cause a net loss of jobs, but changes the skills and location of jobs. Second, trade deficits and deals are not correlated with large factory job losses. The last two lengthy periods of factory job growth occurred in the years after NAFTA and following the Great Recession. These were two periods of growing trade deficits. However, the big factory job losses of the early 2000s occurred at a time of both rapid growth in our trade deficit and very rapid growth of factory productivity. 
  • MUNCIE  – The Brookings Institution recently published a study for the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership outlining labor market challenges in the region. It is a good study that I admire because it restates many of the points I have been making over the past years regarding failures of economic development and workforce training policies in Indiana.  Most of the media coverage of the study has focused on mistakes in business attraction policies. In particular, the finding that a quarter of the jobs attracted to Central Indiana are essentially dead-end jobs. They are right, of course, but anyone who understands job attraction efforts should be surprised that only one quarter of the jobs we subsidize are, in effect, dead-end jobs. The important part of the Brookings study was its broad and scathing assessment of Indiana’s workforce development policies. Space limits prevent me from doing their criticism full justice, but I will try to cover the major points. The first complaint about Indiana’s workforce development policies is an implicit criticism of the state’s research of workforce issues. The Brookings research team performed an analysis of the skills workers need to see wage growth. That is a study that our workforce development officials could and should have done years ago. That modest piece of analysis should be sufficient to cause a major redeployment of dollars surrounding the ways Indiana educates and trains workers. 
  • MUNCIE – The research center in which I work released our 2019 economic forecast this week. Like all economic forecasts, this one is likely wrong, but is hopefully useful. To talk about the forecast, it is best to re-examine 2018. In many ways, this has been a good year for our economy. Employment growth nationally has been strong, and median wages for the world rose roughly one full percentage point above inflation. More people returned to work, with labor force increases strong throughout most of the year. It was, in short, a mostly good year, but the end of year news is far less salutary. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which I supported, proved a disappointment. Among its goals was the repatriation of between 2.0 trillion and 2.5 trillion dollars in assets held abroad. Only about 10% of that actually returned as investment. Another goal was to cause businesses to invest domestically. Business investment actually slowed deeply by year’s end. As it appears today, most of the economic effect of the TCJA was to promote domestic consumption.
  • MUNCIE – Over the summer, Indiana’s economy showed clear signs of weakening. This same story played out across the manufacturing and farming intensive states of the Midwest. To be sure, it is still easy to paint a rosy picture of our economy. Jobs are plentiful, pay has finally begun to rise and tax coffers are full. We are less than a year away from tying the longest recovery in U.S. history, which began in early summer of 2009. Still, the warning signs are clear. Nationally, manufacturing employment growth has slowed since April, and here in Indiana, it dipped into negative territory for two consecutive months. The index of leading economic indicators declined modestly since spring, and auto sales dropped sharply across spring and summer. The manufacturing portions of the Fed’s Midwest economic index have been negative for four months. It’s risky to draw conclusions from a single six-month period, but growing evidence suggests manufacturing growth stalled over the summer. There’s more. This is a stunningly beautiful season in the Midwest, when combines harvesting beans fill the fields on warm October days. Driving by these fields, I often wonder what majesty and dignity a modern Winslow Homer might portray in this setting. However, even in these idyllic scenes, all is not good. 
  • MUNCIE – Amazon announced last week that it would be raising its entry wage to $15 an hour and would lobby for a higher minimum wage at federal, state and municipal governments. Other companies have announced this in recent months, including Walmart, who bumped their starting wages to $10 an hour. These are interesting developments that merit a bit of discussion. I’ll begin with a cynical view. Amazon is about to choose a headquarters location, and in the process will likely extract well over one billion dollars in incentives from some American city. For this, the company and its chosen city will receive significant criticism, and much of it will be well-founded. So, Amazon is likely trying to insulate itself from some of that criticism with some well-timed do-gooderism. To be honest, I’d rather see businesses be a bit more proudly self-sufficient in this regard. 
  • MUNCIE – Gov. Holcomb recently announced a new program allocating $100 million to promote broadband access in rural places. This is a bold and thoughtful policy experiment that will yield significant benefits. Nevertheless, it is important to understand what the problem with broadband really is, and what this policy can, and cannot address and where the benefits actually accrue.  There can be little doubt that many Hoosiers, maybe 100,000 or so, lack any landline wireless and maybe one million lack the sort of reliable service that most urban dwellers expect and pay for. The reason for this is straightforward. Wireline telecommunications access to a home is what economists call a natural monopoly. In this case, nearly all the costs come in the form of laying the wire or fiber optics to a home, not in the actual service provision. 
  • MUNCIE – Monday’s announcement of a revision of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was met with real skepticism. That’s a wholly appropriate response, as is the inevitable political fallout over the growing trade war. Let me explain. There has long been some skepticism over NAFTA in Canada, Mexico and the United States. This skepticism has never come from a majority of Americans, who even today support free trade by a margin of four to one. Rather, the worries have come from manufacturing unions who feared the competitive pressure of businesses in more southerly countries. Canada was worried about job losses to the U.S., and the U.S. to Mexico. That isn’t what happened.  As it turned out, American factory jobs boomed for more than half a decade after NAFTA. They also grew in Canada and Mexico. This is precisely what economists said would happen, and wholly contrary to the fluff from NAFTA’s opponents. These facts ought to be powerful tools to mitigate unease about NAFTA. Evidently, not everyone cares about facts. 
  • MUNCIE – The United States is close to 40 years into the “War on Drugs.” What began as a campaign of good intentions has become among the most costly policy failures of the last 150 years. We seem unwilling or unable to grapple with the immense consequences, or indeed even fully appreciate the depth, of the problem. Before I explain the issue and discuss some reasonable alternatives, I wish to make clear my personal feelings about illegal drug use. I am about as anti-drug as a Baby Boomer can possible be, and personally view much addiction and even casual use as at least partially a moral failing. Coming of age in the 1970s, even casual marijuana use could disqualify someone from military service, so I steered clear of drugs. Later, as a young officer in an army hospital, I witnessed the seductiveness of intravenous opioids, and saw plenty of soldiers ruin their lives with drug convictions.  Finally, I came to see the havoc American demand for drugs played on the economies and societies in the Middle East and South America. Illegal drug use is a scourge, and it imposes great harm on the most vulnerable citizens of the world, here and abroad. I am not an apologist for illicit drug use, but see that we need another approach. 
  • MUNCIE – One of the joyful indulgences of my profession comes in chatting with people about the economics of their jobs. The very best folks to chat with are those who deal with prices and wages. Men and women in the trades are maybe the most informed about the immediate vagaries of the economy. Local bankers, insurance agents and small business owners are usually just as good. My interest in these business folks is nothing special in economics. Alfred Marshall, the British economist who might rightfully be called the father of the profession, encouraged economists to walk about ports and markets to learn about the profession. So, I try to never skip an invitation to visit a factory or warehouse. Mostly, these conversations confirm what economists know, and that much is useful. The real value is in revealing things that I didn’t know before. Let me share two of these in the context of the growing trade war. I’ve a friend who is a roofer and small business owner. The business is challenging and involves dealing with the price of roofing a home or business, as well as hiring workers and buying materials like aluminum for roofing and gutters. Few people buy a new roof on a whim, so one would suppose that a price increase wouldn’t cost too much business. However, with the increase in aluminum and steel that accompanied the trade wars, he must charge between 15 and 25% more for much of his materials. 
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  • Pence urges Taylor grads to take a 'service attitude'
    "Wherever life takes you... take a service attitude. Consider others as more important than yourselves. Go show the world every day, that we can love God and love our neighbor at the same time." - Vice President Mike Pence in his commencement address at Taylor University on Saturday. Pence received a standing ovation even after about 40 students and faculty members walked out in protest. The university's faculty voted 61-49 to approve a motion of dissent against the commencement speaker, according to The Echo student newspaper.
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  • Indiana newspaper closings continue

    Indiana's atrophied newspaper saga continues. Today we learn of the closing of the Hendricks County Flyer, which covered Brownsburg, Avon, Plainfield and surrounding areas. Publisher Beverly Joyce told readers that only 6% of recipients voluntarily paid for the paper. “Unfortunately, the business model of free content to a large print audience was not sustainable,” the paper quoted Joyce saying. “We tried every way we could to keep the operation viable.”

    This sad news comes as close to 1,800 newspapers across the U.S. have closed since 2004. Other newspapers closing in Indiana include NUVO Newsweekly in Indianapolis and Green Banner Publishing of Pekin, which had newspapers in Scott, Washington and Floyd counties. The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel is now a one-person operation.

    This is a crisis for Hoosier citizens. Where will they be getting their local news? - Brian A. Howey, publisher


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