Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Part-time Worker Crisis Recedes as Economy Recovers

 Not long ago, America seemed to be facing a crisis of part-time work. CNN Money wrote of a "huge part-time work problem" and a "new normal - a permanently high number of part-timers." Others pointed the finger at Obamacare, which they saw as encouraging employers to cut hours in order to avoid providing healthcare coverage. Fortunately, recent data show that the "crisis" has receded as the economy has recovered. What remains is a more modest picture of structural change that does point to a gradual, long-term shift toward more part-time employment. . . . 

Follow this link to read the complete post on

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

New Data Show Growing Role Of Occupational Licensing in U.S. Labor Market

Not long ago, America seemed to be facing a crisis of part-time work. CNN Money wrote of a "huge part-time work problem" and a "new normal - a permanently high number of part-timers." Others pointed the finger at Obamacare, which they saw as encouraging employers to cut hours in order to avoid providing healthcare coverage.

Fortunately, recent data on voluntary and involuntary part-time employment show that the "crisis" has receded as the economy has recovered. What remains is a more modest picture of structural change that does point to a gradual, long-term shift toward more part-time employment.  . . .

Follow this link to read the full post and view the chart at 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Who Benefits from the Mortgage Interest Deduction?

The mortgage income deduction is America's favorite middle-class tax preference
right? The trouble is, the middle class doesn't really get all that much out of it.

The chart is based on data from a 2016 study by Chenxi Lu and Eric Toder of the Tax Policy Center. Following a definition used in a recent study by the Pew  Research Center, it defines "middle class" as households earning from 67 percent to 200 percent of the median household income, or approximately $40,000 to $125,000 per year. Just under half of all US households fall in that income bracket, but they receive less than a fifth of the tax benefits of the mortgage interest deduction. Higher-income households receive a far larger share.

Several factors reduce the value of the mortgage interest deduction to middle-class households. First, only 21 percent of them claim the deduction at all, either because they do not own a home, because they do not have a mortgage, or because their tax bill is lower if they use the standard deduction instead of itemizing. Second, their income tax rates are lower than those of higher-income households. Third, their homes are worth less, on average.

Putting all of this together, the average middle-class household receives just $191 annually in benefits from the mortgage deduction. In contrast, as the next chart shows, higher-income households, on average, receive benefits of thousands of dollars per year, because more of them claim the deduction, their tax brackets are higher, and their homes are more valuable.

What kind of reforms could potentially correct the inequities of the deduction, both within and between income classes, without raising the overall tax burden on middle-class households or increasing the federal deficit?

Lu and Toder examine two reforms. One would lower the cap on the value of property qualifying for the deduction from $1,000,000 to $500,000. The other would replace the current tax deduction with a flat 15 percent tax credit, which would help all households equally regardless of their tax bracket. They conclude that either of these reforms, or both in combination, would be an improvement over the current system.

An alternative, which I have discussed in detail in a previous post, would be to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction entirely, together with several other federal benefits and tax preferences, and replace them all with a universal basic income. Properly structured, a UBI of that kind would protect the overall after-tax incomes of middle-class families while reducing inequities within and between income classes.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Chart of the Day: Modern Misery Index Falls to Pre-Recession Lows

Back in the 1960s, when inflation was soaring while unemployment remained stubbornly high, Arthur Okun invented the "misery index"the sum of inflation plus unemployment. As inflation came under control after the early 1980s, we stopped hearing much about the misery index.

In truth, the misery index is not a bad concept as a rough indicator of the health of the economy. It needs one update, however. In Okun's day, it never occurred to anyone that inflation could be too low. Now, as the experience of Japan, the Eurozone, and to some extent, even the US shows us, deflation can be as much of a threat as inflation.

The Fed recognizes the danger of deflation by setting its inflation target of +2 percent, not at zero. Why not use this target to modernize the misery index? I suggest a "modern misery index" that is equal to the unemployment rate plus the absolute value of the difference between the current inflation rate and the Fed's 2 percent target.

Suppose unemployment is 5 percent. By Okun's old formula, inflation of  3.5 percent would give you a misery index of 8.5, but inflation of 0.5 would give you an index of just 3.5. By modern reasoning, an inflation rate that is a point and a half below the 2 percent target is just as much a source of alarm as one that is a point an a half above, so my modern misery index gives you 5  + 1.5 = 6.5 in both cases.

Here then, is what the modern misery index looks like over the past half-century:

By this standard, the Great Recession still looks pretty miserable, although not quite as bad as the 1970s, when unemployment was even higher and inflation was out of control. Like several other indicators  (see here and here, for example), the modern misery index shows that the US economy has essentially completed its recovery to the best values of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

How Does the Obama Jobs Record Really Score Against Other Presidents? Let's Be Fair.

As Barack Obama prepares to leave office, there has been a lot of talk about his record of job creation. The raw numbers look pretty  good: Payroll jobs increased by some 11 million from the quarter before Obama’s inauguration to his last full quarter in office. That is the third best among the 12 presidents since World War II, surpassed only by 16 million jobs added under Reagan and 23 million under Clinton.

Not bad. Let’s give credit where credit is due. To be fair, though, the story is more nuanced than told by the headline numbers alone.

Lets start with three points that put the record of the outgoing administration in perspective:

  • Obama was in office for eight years. That made it easy for him to beat the seven presidents who served less than two full terms. It would make more sense to compare Obama’s record only with that of six other eight-year presidencies, counting the shared presidencies of Kennedy/Johnson and Nixon/Ford along with those of Eisenhower, Reagan, Carter, and GW Bush.
  • The population is bigger now. To allow for population growth, we should count the percentage increase in jobs, not the number of new jobs.
  • We should take the state of the economy into account. Other things being equal, a presidency that starts in a slump and ends in a boom is going to find it a lot easier to create jobs than one that starts at full employment or in an unsustainable boom.

Here is my comparison, then. Let’s chart the percentage gain in jobs over eight-year presidencies against the unemployment rate in the quarter before inauguration. That puts the onus of an early-term recession on the preceding president, but assigns credit or blame for the end state of the economy to the president who has been in office for two terms. Here is how that looks:

Monday, January 9, 2017

Chart of the Day: Quits and Layoffs Show Labor Market's Return to Health

The unemployment rate, which stood at 4.7 percent in December 2016, is the most commonly cited indicator of the health of the labor market. The Fed considers an unemployment rate of 4.6 to 4.8 percent to be equivalent to full employment (or, to use the term favored by economists, the non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemloyment.) By that measure, the economy is in good shape.

Some economists, however, consider quits to be an even better measure of labor market health. Quits measure the number of workers each month who voluntarily leave their jobs. Quits fall during a recession because, when new jobs are scarce, few people want to give up a job they have. They rise during times of prosperity, because people are willing to leave their jobs when they think there is a good chance of finding another one.

As the following chart shows, as of October 2016 (the most recent available data), the number of quits had returned to the peak reached before the Great Recession began. Meanwhile, the number of layoffs and discharges had fallen below the prerecession low.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Chart of the Day: How Badly have Real Wages Stagnated?

It is well known that wages in the United States have stagnated in recent decades, but how badly? We know that nominal wages, expressed in current dollars at the time they are paid, have risen dramatically. In 1965, production and nonsupervisory workers averaged just $2.60 an hour. Now they average nearly $22 an hour. But what really matters is real wages, that is, nominal wages adjusted to show the effect of inflation. Are real wages actually lower now than in the past? Have they increased, but just not very rapidly? As this chart shows, it depends on exactly how you do the inflation adjustment.

Both lines in the chart show the real hourly wages of production and nonsupervisory employees stated in constant 2016 dollars. The red line is adjusted using the consumer price index (CPI) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The government uses the CPI to adjust Social Security benefits and the value of the Treasury's inflation adjusted securities (TIPS). The blue line is adjusted using the personal consumption expenditure (PCE) index from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The Federal Reserve uses the PCE index as the principal indicator of inflation when setting monetary policy.

The difference is dramatic. According to the CPI, real wages have increased just 8 percent in half a century. According to the PCE index, they have increased 40 percent. Even that is not very impressive over such a long period, but 40 percent is a lot better than 8 percent.

If you measure from 1972 instead of 1965, real wages have actually fallen by 4 percent, as measured by the CPI. Even by the PCE, they have increased by just 19 percent.

Which is right? Frustratingly, we can't really say that either measure is right or wrong. The two indexes simply make different choices when it comes to the thorny technical issues that bedevil the measurement of inflationhow to adjust for changes in the basket of goods that consumers purchase, how to adjust for quality, and how to adjust for the substitution of cheaper goods for more expensive ones when relative prices change.

For more on the problems of measuring inflation, see these earlier posts:

What Does the Consumer Price Index Measure? Inflation or the Cost of Living? What's the Difference?   (Also available in a classroom-ready slideshow version). 

Deconstructing Shadowstats: Why is it So Loved by its Followers but Scorned by Economists?