• Need a Job? Just Call Bernie.

    Bernie Sanders is finally putting the socialist back in Democratic Socialist:

    Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will announce a plan for the federal government to guarantee a job paying $15 an hour and health-care benefits to every American worker “who wants or needs one,” embracing the kind of large-scale government works project that Democrats have shied away from in recent decades.

    Sanders’s jobs guarantee would fund hundreds of projects throughout the United States aimed at addressing priorities such as infrastructure, care giving, the environment, education and other goals. Under the job guarantee, every American would be entitled to a job under one of these projects or receive job training to be able to do so, according to an early draft of the proposal. A representative from Sanders’s office said they had not yet done a cost estimate for the plan or decided how it would be funded, saying they were still crafting the proposal.

    Let’s do a little back-of-the-envelope arithmetic here. There are about 113 million full-time wage earners in America right now and roughly a quarter of them make less than $15 per hour. Add in health care benefits and you’re up to a third of the labor force making less than they would under Bernie’s plan. That’s about 37 million people. Now toss in some part-time workers and some self-employed workers and we’re up to something on the order of 50 million.

    That’s 50 million people who would be better off with a government-guaranteed job than with the job they have now. In other words, it’s insane, and I really hope I don’t have to explain why.


    Since this is just a proposal, let’s also suppose that Bernie is proposing universal health care and a minimum wage of $15, which we know he supports. In that case, everyone with a job would be just as well off keeping it. However, there would still be millions who don’t have a job and want one, and more millions who might not like their jobs and would prefer a government job that’s a little cushier. How many is that? Maybe 5 million? 10 million? And probably more like 15-20 million during a recession.

    That’s still pretty damn close to insane. It’s about 3-10 percent of the labor force effectively nationalized forever by the federal government, which makes it roughly comparable to the emergency labor force employed for a few years by the WPA during the depths of the Depression. This is why even our lefty comrades in social democratic Europe don’t guarantee jobs for everyone. It would cost a fortune; it would massively disrupt the private labor market; it would almost certainly tank productivity; and it’s unlikely in the extreme that the millions of workers in this program could ever be made fully competent at their jobs.

    But in the era of Donald Trump, where everything is “so easy” when you’re holding a rally on the campaign trail, I suppose it will sell well. Everything pitched at a third-grade level seems to these days.

    Sigh. Go ahead and take your shots, Bernie Bros.

  • The Border Patrol Wants Us to Think Its Job Is More Dangerous Than Ever. It’s Not.

    Protecting our borders from illegal immigration is a tough job. According to the Border Patrol, assaults on officers jumped 454 to 786 last year, an increase of 332 assaults. Over at the Intercept, Debbie Nathan decided to check into this:

    Almost the entire increase — 271 purported assaults — was said to have occurred in one sector, the Rio Grande Valley…on a single day….Christiana Coleman, a CBP public affairs spokesperson…explained in an email that “an incident in the Rio Grande Valley Sector on February 14, 2017, involved seven U.S. Border Patrol Agents assaulted by six subjects utilizing three different types of projectiles (rocks, bottles, and tree branches), totaling 126 assaults.”

    That’s some fancy countin’, pardner! No one else counts assaults that way, but in 2015 the Border Patrol decided to pioneer this innovative new method. Unsurprisingly, the number of reported assaults skyrocketed:

    As you can see, using a consistent measure of assaults as reported by the FBI, nothing much has changed: the number of assaults has gone from 373 to 349 to 397 to … oh, probably around 400 or so in 2017. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. But regardless of what the Border Patrol wants everyone to think, the danger of assault simply hasn’t changed much. The only thing that’s changed is the rate of misleading statistics.

  • Postcards for Nerds Are Here!

    ZOMG! How is it that I’ve never thought of this?

    Or how about playing cards? Hear me out on this. Remember those decks of cards from the Iraq War with all the bad guys on them? It could be like that, except with charts. Collect ’em all!

  • Lunchtime Photo

    Let’s start out the week with something pretty. I have several photos of Half Dome to get through eventually, and they’re all gorgeous because Half Dome can hardly help but be anything else. This is Half Dome barely before sunset, with Ahwiyah Point to its left. It was taken from Mirror Lake.

    February 14, 2018 — Yosemite National Park, California
  • Here’s Why the Waffle House Shooting Wasn’t Worse

    Metro Nashville Police Department via ZUMA

    James Shaw Jr. is the “I’m not a hero” who heroically wrestled a gunman to the ground during Sunday’s Waffle House shooting. Here’s how it happened:

    During a sudden break in the firing, Mr. Shaw sprinted through the door as fast as he could, slamming into the gunman and knocking him to the ground. He grabbed the rifle and tossed it over the restaurant counter….Mr. Shaw said Sunday that he eventually learned that the pause in the gunman’s firing came when he was trying to reload the rifle. It was a brief enough break, Mr. Shaw said, for him to make a move.

    If Travis Reinking had purchased a high-capacity magazine for his AR-15, more people would have died. If he’d been limited to a smaller magazine, fewer people would have died. That’s simple enough, isn’t it?

  • Kim Jong Un Will Never Give Up His Nukes

    Yonhap News/Newscom via ZUMA

    Here’s my simpleminded take on North Korea:

    1. Kim Jong Un wanted nuclear weapons for several reasons, but the main one was to make sure North Korea didn’t end up like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
    2. Now that he’s got them, he feels like he can start to make deals without worrying about being on the business end of American regime change.
    3. This means that he might well be willing to enter into substantive talks. But he will never give up his nukes.
    4. Also: he will never give up his nukes.
    5. And: he will never give up his nukes.

    Did I mention that he will never give up his nukes? I did? Well, he won’t.

    That’s my guess, anyway. The question is whether (1) the US and South Korea accept that and move forward or (2) continue their sanctions war until (2a) they finally get tired of it or (2b) North Korea becomes a wasteland of famine and revolt. At the moment, my money is on 2a.

  • Working on the Railroad Is Pretty Lucrative in North Platte, Nebraska

    Ed Lallo/ZUMAPRESS

    Check this out. Railroads are having a hard time finding workers thanks to a tight labor market, so they’re trying out a bold new strategy:

    Railroad workers are being offered signing bonuses of up to $25,000 to join BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Corp. as the freight railroads struggle to fill jobs in a historically tight labor market.

    ….Freight volumes are rising on strong economic growth and industrial expansion, and a shortage of available truck capacity is pushing more shipments onto rails. At the same time, the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.1% in the U.S., and as low as 2.8% in some markets where railroads are hiring.

    In response, the companies are dangling incentives that analysts and union leaders say are the highest they can recall. Union Pacific is offering $10,000 to $20,000 “hiring incentives” to train crews in cities like Denver, Kansas City, Mo., and North Platte, Neb., where its largest rail yard is located. Those jobs average $40,000 in pay over the first year and $60,000 the next, according to job listings.

    I wonder how that’s working out? In any case, if you like hard manual labor and don’t mind living in North Platte, that’s the place to be.

  • The Gig Economy Is Still Not a Big Deal

    In the LA Times today, Kathy Kristof writes:

    Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson recently predicted that by 2020, half of Americans will be self-employed. While this estimate includes freelancers, small business owners and independent contractors, one big reason for the explosive growth in non-employer work is the gig economy. Driving for Uber or Lyft, delivering groceries for Instacart and finding handyman jobs through TaskRabbit may be among the best-known gigs, but there are now hundreds, possibly thousands, of such platforms used by millions of American workers on a part- or full-time basis.

    Kristof’s main point is that workers in the gig economy are poorly protected by old-school labor laws. I think she’s right about that, but her piece got me curious about the size of the gig economy. I haven’t checked it out lately, so here it is:

    This isn’t a perfect measure, but it’s pretty good. If the gig economy is truly exploding, we’d expect to see, at the very least, an increase in the number of part-time workers. We haven’t. It’s been flat at about 27.5 million for the past nine years, and it’s declined as a percentage of all workers. It’s currently at the same level as 1997 and 2004. The gig economy may be growing, but it can’t be growing very much if the overall figures for part-time workers look like this.

  • Country Music Is Not Trump Country

    If Shania Twain doesn't want to spend the rest of her career singing at Canadian "football" games, she'd better get her views on President Trump straight.Daniel Lea/CSM via ZUMA

    Back in 2003, when the Dixie Chicks said “we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas,” they were practically tossed out from the country music business on their ears. Shania Twain discovered yesterday that times have changed:

    “I would have voted for [Trump] because, even though he was offensive, he seemed honest,” the 52-year-old singer said. “Do you want straight or polite? Not that you shouldn’t be able to have both. If I were voting, I just don’t want bull—. I would have voted for a feeling that it was transparent. And politics has a reputation of not being that, right?”

    Her quote went viral on social media, and hours later, “Shania Twain” was trending worldwide on Twitter. Given that lots of people were not pleased by her comments, the hashtag #ShaniaTwainCancelled had hundreds of tweets.

    Twain, the highest-selling solo female artist in country music history, apologized Sunday night after the backlash intensified. She called her answer to the Guardian “awkward” and said that she wished she had given it more context. Twain also emphasized that she does not endorse Trump.

    The question is, what changed? Is country music now more mainstream and less conservative? Is Trump worse than Bush? Is peacetime different from wartime? Do we not like Canadians saying they like our presidents? Hmmm.

  • Semi-Raw Data: Urban Density and Productivity

    One of the strongest arguments in favor of increasing big-city density is that it raises economic productivity. The higher the density, the more productive everyone is.

    In a rough sense, this is something nobody argues with: big cities have been cauldrons of innovation and progress for millennia. And there’s certainly no question that workers in big cities earn more on average than workers elsewhere. But can this be quantified?

    It’s hard. The basic problem is one of causation: does higher density cause higher productivity, or is it just that high-productivity people tend to be attracted to big cities, where they can earn more money? A few years ago, a team of economists working for the New York Fed created an instrumental variables model that allowed them to separate out the causes of productivity in big cities so they could isolate how much of it was due to density. The raw data looks something like this for the 20 most productive cities in America:

    What this shows is essentially no correlation at all. The problem is that you’ve got too many kinds of cities. Wages in Casper are high because of a coal boom (the data is from 2001-05). Wages are high in Stamford because lots of rich New Yorkers like to live there. And wages are high in New York because it’s a big city. The authors offer this chart to explain things:

    What this says is that density is important for certain kinds of jobs but not others. In the arts and entertainment, for example, density leads to higher wages essentially because of competition: being in the middle of a big arts community makes everyone better and shoves out those who aren’t top notch. In real estate, density increases wages even more, but for some other reason entirely. It’s not clear what that reason is, but it’s not because a big real estate sector makes real estate folks any better at their jobs. Finally, there are the sectors where density just doesn’t play much of a role at all: retail, manufacturing, education, and so forth.

    In other words, it makes a big difference what kinds of jobs a city has. If it’s a financial hub or an arts center, density probably matters a lot. If its biggest employers are manufacturing or health care, becoming more dense won’t help much. In a nutshell, it all depends on skills and education (“human capital stock”). If it’s high, then density is important; if it’s low, density doesn’t matter:

    Metropolitan areas with a human capital stock that is one standard deviation below the mean realize no productivity gain…while doubling density in metropolitan areas with a human capital stock that is one standard deviation above the mean yields productivity benefits that are nearly two times larger than average (i.e., 3.6 percent compared to 1.9 percent)….On average, we find that a doubling of density increases metropolitan area productivity by 2 to 4 percent.

    Other research has suggested even higher returns to density. In his book The Gated City, Ryan Avent summarizes some of this research and ends with this:

    Density isn’t a magic elixir. Other things equal, a denser city will be more productive, but density alone isn’t enough to generate wealth….Within the American economy, New York is the country’s densest city but not its most productive.

    ….Density itself is subject to diminishing returns….At some point, the marginal worker adds less in benefits than he does in congestion costs. At some point, the marginal skyscraper floor costs more than the benefits its occupants deliver….It is enough to note that density is important and that our actions often constrain cities at levels less dense than markets would seem to prefer.

    But that’s not the end of things. There’s also research suggesting that it’s not actually density that’s important at all: the only thing that matters is the raw size of a metropolitan area, regardless of how dense it is. Researchers at the Santa Fe Institute produced this chart, which I have approximately reconstructed from the original log-log chart in their paper:

    It’s not immediately obvious, but the data obeys a power law, growing faster than a straight line. When population doubles, total wages in a city more than double. It looks like a small deviation, but it produces a big difference in per-capita income as you go from small cities to the very biggest. But what about density? In a follow-up paper, the same researchers reported that they found no effect at all:

    The shape of the city in space, including for example its residential density, matter much less than (and are mostly accounted for by) population size in predicting indicators of urban performance. Said more explicitly, whether a city looks more like New York or Boston or instead like Los Angeles or Atlanta has a vanishing effect in predicting its socio-economic performance.

    In the end we’re left with this:

    • Some researchers believe that higher density produces higher productivity. One of the most carefully done papers estimates an increase of 2-4 percent for a doubling of density, though there are others with higher estimates.
    • Some researchers believe that density has no effect at all. The only thing that matters is the raw size of the entire metropolitan area.
    • In either case, the effects are greater in areas with higher levels of skills and education.
    • At some point, density and population reach a level where there are no further gains to growth. We don’t know what that level is.

    This appears to be the current state of research. Density has either no effect or a small effect on productivity, and at some unknown point it probably starts to make things worse. I wish there were something more definite to report here, but it’s just a hard subject to measure.

    UPDATE: In the original chart for wages vs. population, I showed wages increasing exponentially with population. In fact, it’s a power law relationship. Both the chart and the text have been corrected.