June 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
Donald Trump (who seems to have completely fallen out of the news in the last month, or so) called Obama the Worst President Ever back in April. Of course, this was a also common troupe of the left against Bush the second. It is either a sign of our increasingly polarized political environment that each side is so quick to such unlikely charges (after all…there’s a whole bunch of Presidents between Andrew Jackson and Abe Lincoln that nobody even knows…they probably sucked pretty hard). I mean, how great was John Tyler? Millard Fillmore, anyone; Or, it’s a sign that we have a real dearth of political talent out there lately.
Or, it could just be that Bush was the worst president ever, until Obama was elected. Bush inherited a projected surplus in the budget, and turned it in to a multi-trillion dollar deficit. Of course, he also inherited a new regulatory environment, after the late-90s repeal of Glass-Steagall, which fundamentally changed the way banks had operated in this country since the time of the Great Depression, which allowed the creation and marketing of the financial instruments that eventually brought the big banks down. The housing market crumbled under his watch, but the run-up in prices can be traced back to very early in Bush’s tenure, so early that it’s doubtful that anything he could have done would have changed anything — the fact is that it had become too easy for people to buy homes they couldn’t afford, because Fannie-Mae (a quasi-government agency) was backing something like 90% of home purchases for socio-political, rather than economic, reasons. Bush got us involved in two very expensive wars — though the media and the Congress were more than a little complicit in the run-up to war, and only became watch-dogs when things started going badly. Besides, almost everyone agrees that Afghanistan was a righteous war, and some have even begun to argue that the budding Democracy in Iraq may have, at least in part, inspired the Arab Spring (or, you know, it could have all been Twitter).
In the end, There were more jobs when Bush left office than when he came in; he navigated the worst attack on military soil since Pearl Harbor the best way he could (and, we should note, there have been no further major attacks since 2001), he brought a quick end to the Recession that he inherited upon taking office, and he got one of this nations greatest tax cuts passed. He also spent like a drunken sailor, and couldn’t talk too good.
Obama inherited an economy that was deeply troubled (a job he asked for, and for which he ensured us he was qualified), and has presided over the worst job-creation results since Herbert Hoover. He’s made Bush’s spending binge look like frugality. He has broken promises to close Gitmo and to end the war in Afghanistan. He’s actively worked to bring oil and gas prices higher, as it’s his philosophical belief that only through higher prices will we curb our reliance on fossil fuels. Obama had one mandate when he came into office: To improve the economy. He’s failed. Utterly.
From 1982-1984, Ronald Reagan, who was facing a bigger unemployment rate, higher inflation, unbearable interest rates, weaker allies, and stronger enemies, oversaw the creation of 7.2 million jobs (and without the benefit of any watershed technology, as Clinton was the beneficiary of in the 90s), an actual expansion of workforce participation (had the workforce contracted, as it has under Obama’s watch, Reagan’s employment numbers would have looked even better), he brought America’s military back to a preeminent status, fought inflation and interest rates down, and was able to run in 1984 on the slogan, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Well, hell yes we were.
Dems argue that Obama has not had the time, or inherited too big of a fiasco, to have had much impact in a single term. The experience of Reagan’s first term should show the obvious falsehood of that tripe. Reagan knew, as Clinton did later, that massive government was not the answer to this nation’s economic ills.
So, is Obama the worst president of all time? Maybe not. The worst in memory? I suppose that depends on whether you remember Carter.
March 2, 2011 § Leave a comment
I just watched the “Freakonomics” movie, having read the book some time ago, and I was struck again by the most controversial assertion Steven Levitt makes: That the dramatic drop in crime of the 1990s was due to the legalization of abortion in the 1970s, which (in short) killed off a great swath of would-be 1990s criminals in utero. The statistical basis for Levitt’s argument has been attacked by others already. I’m actually far more disappointed in Levitt’s logical dissonance.
Levitt’s central economic philosophy is that human beings are motivated by incentives. In considering the possible reasons for the decreased crime rate, then, Levitt should would have been expected to look at incentives to would-be criminals. In this case, though, I believe that Levitt has ignored some important incentives to criminals, and how those changed in the late 1980s.
Crime is generally about a risk vs. reward equation carried out in the mind of the potential criminal. Few of us would risk prison time to steal a dollar, but with equal access to a potential million dollars to steal, the risk of prison time may be less persuasive. Levitt admits that about a third of the decrease in crime rates was due harsher law enforcement and higher incarceration rates; however, Levitt accepts the official line that prison terms kept criminals off the street and that lead contributed to a lower crime rate. What he doesn’t discuss is the change in the risk/reward calculation represented by that harsher enforcement and increased incarceration rate.
Further, Levitt’s analysis also seems to ignore that crime is also a physical threat to criminals, and so fewer people should choose to become criminals as crime becomes more dangerous because, again, the risk/reward calculation has changed.
In Levitt’s case, looking at incentives is a way of avoiding falsely equating correlation with causation. But, when it came to the correlation between legalized abortion and decreased crime, the desire to make the controversial political point was too much for even the usually more logically consistent Steven Levitt.
February 27, 2011 § Leave a comment
As a conservative, I’m naturally inclined toward applying market solutions to all manner of public-sector problems and, as such, the idea of using merit pay to give incentive to the best public school teachers appeals to me on its face. Upon further thought, though, I wonder what proponents mean when they say they want to pay teachers based on performance instead of on seniority and the level of the teacher’s own education.
There are is more than one goal we can try to achieve by using merit pay, and we should be sure we know which of those goals is being pursued by the current proponents of changing the way teachers are compensated. For instance, merit pay for teachers shouldn’t be assumed to equate to a reduction in expenditures for education. In fact, if we’re really ready to pay teachers for performance, then we should be prepared to see expenditures go up. The reason that sales professionals are so easily paid for performance is that sales people can be convinced that their earning potential is unlimited based on how hard they work. Great sales people can make hundreds-of-thousands of dollars per year, even millions. Are we going to pay the best third-grade teachers in the nation six figures?
I don’t think that creating an elite class of millionaire teachers is the goal of all of this merit-pay talk. The goal, I suspect, is to shift around some lesser amount of money than is currently spent on teacher’s salaries to provide an incentive to some teachers with money taken from others. My guess is that merit pay for teachers looks something like this:
- Non-merit based pay for third year teachers with a Master’s degree is $60k. All third year teachers with a Master’s make $60k.
- A state shifts to merit based pay, so now these third-year, well educated, teachers are paid $50k per year with a potential of getting a 20% annual performance bonus based on the performance of their students on standardized tests.
- Teachers who’s students score above the mean get the bonus, while the others do not (half will get the bonus, half won’t — since half will be above and half below the mean).
- Since half of the teachers will now make 20% less, and 50% will earn the previous standard ($60k), the teachers who’s students perform best on standardized tests will earn a “bonus” which was paid for by a pay-cut to those who’s students didn’t perform above the mean.
Of course, states that are talking merit-pay are also looking to reduce the cost of benefits to teachers. So, the “best” teachers may get a 20% raise, but perhaps they’ll also lose something close to that in benefits. They’re overall pay can still fall 5%-10%, or more, while those teachers who don’t qualify for the 20% bonus will become two-time losers, earning perhaps a third less, overall, than under the old system.
The “worst” teachers will leave the system, but better ones will not come in to fill the need. Regardless of the overall quality of the teacher pool, half will always create performance bellow the mean, and half above it. Why would better teachers come into the system knowing that they have a 50% chance of making well less in salary and benefits than current under-performing teachers earn.
Note that all of the above is speculation by me based on the twin goals that get kicked around when we talk about merit-pay for teachers: To compensate the best teachers at a level commensurate with their performance as compared to other teachers, and to balance state budgets. The later goal dictates that any merit-based pay system look something like I’ve described. If the only goal was to increase performance through merit-pay, then we’d expect to see overall benefit and wage packages to grow rather than to shrink, and to become a greater burden on state budgets rather than less of one.
The only other way to accomplish all of the various goals (increasing teacher pay, decreasing overall impact of that pay on state budgets, while increasing overall student performance) would be to decrease the number of teachers by a greater percentage than we cut spending on education, which would leave a relatively larger chunk of money to be spread among the remaining (and presumably better) teachers. However, many states limit the number of students per teacher by law, precisely because studies consistently show that student performance suffers as the student-to-teacher ratio increases.
What I would expect to see, if bolstering student performance is the goal, would be for overall pay to teachers to grow. So, if the current third-year, Master’s degree, teacher makes $60, that would become the base, with a potential for bonuses above that level (so, the best of that level of teacher might make $72k per year, while the worst still earns $60k). Benefits would have to either remain static, or merit-pay would have to increase by enough to offset any decrease in longer-term benefits. All of this would have to be done without a decrease in teachers, so there would obviously be no benefit from to the states, in the form of overall budget savings, earned by a shift to pay-for-performance.
The point is: We cannot talk about merit-pay and budget reduction at the same time. These are mutually exclusive goals. If we’re talking about cutting the impact of teachers on state budgets, then we’re talking about paying teachers less. If we’re talking about paying teachers more, then we have to look elsewhere if we want to cut state budget deficits. To talk about increasing pay for the best teachers with the simultaneous goal of reducing the overall impact of that pay on state budgets is like saying that you want to reduce your overall light bill by adding more, brighter, light bulbs.
February 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
Salon is running a series meant to reveal the “real” Ronald Reagan, in honor of Reagan’s 100th birthday. I’m sure I’ll be writing some responses to the series, but in the mean time, it’s probably worth reading if only to see the extent to which liberals still hate Reagan, which is rivaled only by the extent to which Republicans still idolize him.
February 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
And now, for something completely different. I have used recruiters in the past, I have got jobs using recruiters, and yet I still think recruiters are vampires (or leaches, or any other parasite). With so many people unemployed right now, I thought I’d write about something I think about every time I go to look for a job: What is the value of a recruiter?
In a perfect world, the recruiter has some sort of exclusive deal with hiring companies, spends his or her days sifting through resumes to find the best candidates, saving the hiring manager all of that work, and gets the right candidate the inside track on some sweet new job.
In real life, the recruiter has a deal with a company which is non-exclusive (you don’t have to go through the recruiter to get the job), the recruiter shot-guns candidates to interviews regardless of fit or qualification, and if one of the recruiters prospects pans out, the recruiter gets 10% of the recruits starting salary for their trouble.
Why did I work with recruiters in the past, if I hate them so? Easy: I didn’t realize how badly screwed I was getting until after the deed was done. In the end, the recruiter got a month and a half of my pay (paid as a service fee by the company that hired me) for doing nothing more than telling me to go to the interview. The recruiter didn’t negotiate on my behalf, didn’t know much about the company I was interviewing with (they all say the companies they work on the behalf of are great — but ask some specifics, the recruiter will definitely B. S. you).
Perhaps my wording is strong. I wasn’t screwed in the normal sense; working with the recruiter didn’t cost me any money, I got a good job, things worked out pretty much okay. The part that gets me is that the recruiter got so much money for so little work. That’s money the company could have paid me. The recruiter was an unnecessary middle-man, doing what middle-men do: nothing. But, like all middle-men, recruiters claim to bring some level of efficiency to the hiring process (after all who wants to be bothered reading the resumes of people they may hire?).
Would I suggest that you avoid recruiters? No, I wouldn’t suggest that. In fact, recruiters are sort of hard to avoid, since a good percentage of any job postings for higher-level positions are handled through head-hunters. What I do suggest is that you ask the recruiter for a cut. If they are getting a fee of 10% of your salary, then ask for 5% for working with them. The recruiter still gets something for, basically, nothing, and you get to use the recruiter’s contacts to further your career.
The instant reaction to my suggestion is probably that the recruiter would just choose to work with someone else who isn’t making demands on their commission. Maybe, but not if you’re the most likely candidate to be hired. It’s not difficult, after all, to back-door the recruiter by using their listings and then doing a bit of research to find out who the hiring manager is for yourself. If you are the best candidate, and you let the recruiter know that you’ll work aroudn them if you have to, then you’d be surprised at what they will accept.
Economics tells us that the recruiter will be better off as well. It’s all about incentives: The job seeker has an added incentive to negotiate a better salary if that means instant gratification in the form of a kick-back from the recruiter. Not only will they be getting a better salary, but they’ll get a larger check from the recruiter as well. The recruiter makes more, the job seeker makes more, and the company is only out whatever it was willing to spend in the first place (assuming the company won’t pay more than it intends to).
Also: When your recruiter asks you for referrals, ask him how much each referral is worth. The recruiter is going to call your friends, family, and business associates in hopes of making money off of their next job-move, so why shouldn’t you get a cut of that as well? The information you’re disclosing is valuable (if it wasn’t, the recruiter wouldn’t want it), giving it away for free is like handing out dollar bills to anyone who asks. Even a trivial fee, $100 per lead, makes it worth your time to help the recruiter out. Remember, the recruiter stands to make thousands if your referral gets the job.
This method of dealing with recruiters goes to the heart of how I think people must look at themselves if they wish to remain, or become, economically viable (to steal a phrase from the film “Falling Down”): We have to look at ourselves as businesses. When we partner with someone, anyone, we must make that partnership as profitable for us as is possible. Where profit can’t be achieved, then cost must be minimized. It’s not hard, it’s just a matter of thinking through the ways in which people are making money off of you, and find a way to make money with them instead of for them.
February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment
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February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment
I wrote earlier in the week about my views of protectionism, and my perception that only through protectionism can the West (and the U. S. in particular) secure it’s economic leadership role in the world. But, mine of course is not the only view, and I thought it would be useful to see what the free traders had to say on the subject.
The ISIL published a defense of free trade, written by Vincent Miller and James Elwood, so let’s see what they have to say:
- Protectionism costs jobs: Miller and Elwood say that trade barriers (quotas and tariffs) increase the cost of doing business (presumably to the protectionist country, though they don’t specify). This leads to a ratio of 8 jobs lost for ever one created by protectionist policies.
- Protectionism leads to higher prices: As a nation taxes imports, prices of those imports rise.
- Protectionism increases the tax burden on consumers: more trade regulations means more regulators to enforce them, more regulators means ore taxes.
- Foreign Debt: The west is owed hundreds of billions by the East, and if the West cuts off it’s markets to the East, then the East cannot earn the currency to repay their debts.
ISIL’s publication on the subject is as descriptive of the free trade philosophy as any. The problem that with these general statements is that they are illogical and/or unsupported:
- First problem,8 jobs lost for every one created. ISIL says this statistic comes from the U. S. Department of Labor, yet the authors don’t provide a link or actual citation to the source. A quick Google search shows that statistic is often cited, but the source never is. The same exact quote appears in a piece at copperwiki as well, and while it has a footnote, the footnote only says that the statistic comes form the Department of Labor. Beacon to the World cites the same statistic, and gives Miller and Elwood as its source. The Heritage Foundation also lays claim to the statistic, but also chooses not to provide an actual citation for it. When someone cites a study but doesn’t tell you where to find it, the information they’re providing should be taken with a giant spoon full of salt.
- Problem two, protectionism leads to higher prices: free trade has not kept prices stable. Wages in America have been flat since 1972. Even with the explosion of foreign goods into the U. S., prices have risen by about 4% per year, or more than 120% in the last 35 years. The question is: who got the benefit of those higher prices? Instead of American blue collar workers sharing in the benefit of increased corporate profits, the jobs were shifted to cheaper countries, and the profits were reaped by a few huge investors.
- Three, protectionism leads to higher taxes: they offer no support for this argument other than their word. Of course government employees could simply be shifted to areas of greater need at no increased cost (there is no way the government is operating at 100% efficiency and cannot afford to move people around a bit).
- Foreign debt: this argument could be otherwise stated as, “if you want to collect the money you owe me, you’d better give me more money”. This sort of circular logic doesn’t even deserve a response.
In my opinion, trade is just a game. Like all other games, the participants must agree to a set of ground rules. A football team would not agree to play a game in which the opposition could run any plays it wanted to, but it could only run a power toss right. Free trade, as we experience it today, is no different. Developing countries are protecting their markets, ensuring a cheap source of labor to industry, and dumping cheap goods on the U. S. at a rate that sustains inflation. The playing field is not level, and so there is no Free trade. The only question is whether the drive for higher profits by a few wealthy and powerful Westerners will be allowed to dictate the rules, rather than the drive for a secure and wealthy Western middle class.
What do you think? Can the U. S. and Europe compete with cheap Asian goods? What will happen when the Chinese middle class rivals the population of all of the West, and our markets are no longer needed, and our jobs are already gone? Is free trade good for the people, or good for CEOs?