DRI-131 for week of 8-16-15: Hillary on CEO Short-Termism: Three Views

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Is the Purpose of Government to Eliminate All Sources of Discontent?

If we took every action taken by government at face value, we would be forced to conclude that its central purpose is to eliminate all sources of discontent. And that is exactly the goal set for it by a long-forgotten Labor Party parliamentarian in early 20th-century Great Britain. Is that really what motivates politicians and bureaucrats? Should it be?

Actions taken by state-government regulators in New York raise these questions. Earlier this month, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that retailer Abercrombie and Fitch was the most prominent of 13 companies to end a work practice known as “on-call scheduling.” The Attorney General (hereinafter, AG) cited pressure by his office as the motivating force behind the change. The practice requires workers to be “on-call” for work in the sense that they must be prepared to show up or stay home on very short notice of as little as one hour. As noted in The Wall Street Journal (“Abercrombie Agrees to End On-Call Scheduling,” 8/7/2015, by Lauren Weber), “workers whose shifts are canceled don’t receive pay, even if they had blocked out that time and made child-care  or other arrangements.”

Abercrombie’s general counsel, Robert Bostrom, described the company’s capitulation by stating that workers will henceforth receive their schedules one week in advance and can choose to receive word about additional shifts that become available on short notice. The new policy, intended to “create as stable and predictable a work environment as possible” for Abercrombie’s employees, will become effective in September in New York and eventually be phased in nationwide.

Why did the Attorney General of New York state choose to intervene in the work-scheduling policies of a baker’s dozen retailers? “Unpredictable work schedules take a toll on all employees, especially those in low wage sectors,” commented Schneiderman, adding that other companies should follow Abercrombie’s “important step.” In April, the AG had claimed that Abercrombie’s policy “potentially” broke a New York law. That law states that staffers who report for scheduled work must receive at least four hours’ pay at minimum wage even if sent home. (Several other states have similar laws.) As the Journal points out, the law was passed before the advent of text messaging and e-mail made it easy to reach most people on short notice. Despite its change of policy, Abercrombie admitted no violation of law.

To an economist, the regulatory action taken by the New York Attorney General’s office and the explanations accompanying it seem utterly inexplicable – unless we are willing to believe that the inherent purpose of government is to eliminate all sources of human discontent.

Why Oppose – That Is, Regulate – On-Call Scheduling?

AG Schneiderman has chosen to regulate on-call scheduling by issuing an unfavorable opinion of this particular work practice, then pressuring firms behind the scenes to drop it. The question is: Why?

According to the Journal, “a number of current and former Abercrombie store associates nationwide left complaints about the scheduling policy on the employer-review site “Glassdoor….” (Parenthetically, we should note that the ghastly use of “a number of” could denote anything from one to infinity and is the kind of elementary error that freshman journalism students are taught to avoid.) Let us stipulate that some workers find the practice of on-call scheduling objectionable. So what? Is the purpose of government to act as a sort of all-purpose complaint department? Or is there something unique, perhaps, about the situation of retail employees – or human labor in general – that requires complaints to be addressed by government rather than directed to management?

As a matter of fact, why don’t workers who find the practice of on-call scheduling objectionable adopt the great American solution open to all workers in a free society; namely, quit and find a different job with working conditions more to their liking?

The Great Fried-Chicken Dilemma

To clarify this problem, consider a much easier problem posed in a much more familiar context.

Consider the problem of consumers confronted with a product they don’t like. Suppose a diner visits a fried chicken restaurant and finds the main course unpalatable. Should the diner complain to management? Well, many restaurants encourage this; it may or may not produce a refund for the diner. Conceivably, it might even result in alteration of the restaurant’s recipe or staff. But chances are that the diner will simply shrug and go somewhere else. After all, there are untold numbers of competing fried-chicken restaurants.

Should we demand that the Federal Trade Commission monitor consumer websites for customer complaints and “crack down” on restaurants that sell “inferior” fried chicken? No, there are huge flaws with this approach to the problem of maintaining restaurant quality. One drawback is that consumer tastes in fried chicken differ; one man’s inferior chicken is another man’s delight. Requiring government to enforce a quality standard in fried chicken will inevitably result in the production of “government quality” fried chicken; that is, one kind of fried chicken that diners of all tastes will have to eat or else. In this case, “or else” means they will have to prepare their own fried chicken. Since they previously had that alternative but rejected it in favor of dining out, this clearly makes them worse off than they would be if they could find a fried chicken to their taste. Of course, we could pretend to solve this problem by having government set up a different quality standard for each different flavor of fried chicken – one for extra crispy, one for spicy, and so on. But this would only create a host of new problems. And it assumes that government is just as responsive to consumer desires as producers are in free markets, whereas our experience tells us that government is quite insensitive to the desires of constituents and tends to impose a “one-size-fits-all” standard on the public whenever it can.

Another obvious drawback is the vast number of fried-chicken restaurants and diners, which would force government to employ huge numbers of people and spend ungodly amounts of time checking out complaints. (Lack of resources also argues against having government set up multiple quality standards for fried chicken, since it would hardly have sufficient time and manpower to enforce one standard, let alone multiple ones.)

Still another drawback would be the inducement sellers would have to file complaints against their competitors. Not only would this tie up government resources in investigating bogus complaints, it would also imperil the workings of competitive markets. If sellers could use government as a tool in falsely branding their competitors’ products as inferior, this would vitiate the very purpose that regulation is intended to serve.

Just think about all the problems we don’t have because we don’t force government to regulate fried-chicken quality in free markets. We don’t have to worry about how many different flavors of fried chicken to allow – are regular, extra-crispy, spicy, and Cajun-style enough, too many or insufficient to satisfy us? Should the number vary in different cities? Counties? States? Regions? Should it change over time, and if so how often? We don’t worry about any of these things. In fact, we take the answers to these questions completely for granted without ever realizing that they might be a problem in the first place. The market takes care of the answers without any of us ever giving the matter a moment’s thought.

Upon consideration, we realize that the mere fact that somebody doesn’t like fried chicken at a restaurant doesn’t necessarily mean that a market failure calling for government regulation has occurred. It might simply mean that the consumer has tasted fried chicken prepared in one of the various ways that don’t suit him; he needs to visit a restaurant better suited to his tastes. Of course, this could be styled a failure of information, but it is certainly not clear that government regulation could have prevented it or could solve it for other consumers. Markets, not governments, are collators and transmitters of information.

If we tried hard enough, we might envision a role for government in such a situation. Maybe the consumer didn’t like the chicken because it was tainted by salmonella. But we have government regulation of health standards in restaurants and preparation standards in chicken plants – and salmonella cases still happen. In reality, markets solve the problem of food poisoning in restaurants by turning restaurants that serve tainted food into commercial pariahs – a disincentive that exceeds any penalty government offers.

The Great Fried-Chicken Dilemma offers vast insight into the problems of labor markets in general and the regulation of on-call scheduling in particular.

The Potential Efficiency Benefits of On-Call Scheduling

Neither Wall Street Journal article nor Attorney General Schneiderman – nor, for that matter, Abercrombie itself – said anything to suggest that the practice of on-call scheduling might actually be beneficial for retail sellers, for consumers and for workers themselves. That omission is startling. There was a reason why Abercrombie and 12 other retail businesses employed this business practice.

Every consumer has patronized a retail seller and knows that these businesses are sometimes bustling with business and sometimes nearly empty. At some point, every consumer has experienced the frustration of seeking a sales clerk in vain. Businesses strive to keep exactly the right number of staff on the floor – not too many, not too few. Depending on the particular good(s) sold, human labor may be the most expensive cost incurred by the business, so it behooves managers to manipulate their “inventory” of sales staff to best advantage.

Just as businesses want to manage their inventory of sales staff optimally, so they also want to keep just the right amount inventory of goods on their shelves. For centuries, this was one of the biggest headaches facing the average business. Economists even identified the phenomenon called an “inventory recession,” caused by too many businesses simultaneously overestimating the need for future inventories and producing far more goods than were needed – only to find shelves and warehouses full to overflowing when consumer demand did not keep pace with expectations. Recent technological innovations in transportation, logistics and computers have allowed business to employ an inventory scheduling practice called “just in time” inventory management. This allowed businesses to postpone restocking until the last minute, letting them gauge demand much more accurately and avoiding the necessity for accurate long-distance forecasting of inventory needs.

If we view a retail business’s roster of employees as its staffing “inventory,” it is clear that on-call scheduling is a kind of “just-in-time” program for staffing. It allows retail managers to postpone determination of their final staffing schedule until the point when they can gauge the demand for retail staffing much more accurately. This allows them to avoid paying superfluous clerks when the store is virtually empty while having extra clerks on hand when demand is unexpectedly strong. It is crystal clear that on-call scheduling is potentially very beneficial for a retail business.

Moreover, it should be equally clear that on-call scheduling benefits consumers, too. This is a case where the interests of consumers and those of the business are directly aligned. Consumers want to have extra clerks on hand at busy times but don’t benefit much, if at all, from the presence of superfluous clerks in slack times. In the long run, competition between retail businesses will insure that the benefits of lower costs are passed along to consumers in the form of lower prices, so the efficiency gains from on-call scheduling really go to consumers, even though we associate the concept of business efficiency with productive advantage and gains to business owners.

What obviously failed to occur to AG Schneiderman, the Wall Street Journal and (from outward appearances) even Abercrombie and its spokesman is that on-call scheduling is also a potential source of benefits to retail employees. Just as consumers in our fried-chicken example derive benefits from product differentiation, so also may workers derive benefits from different terms of employment and work environments. Retail sales work is generally viewed as a form of low-skilled labor. Economists treat low-skilled labor as homogeneous; that is, as indistinguishable. But on-call scheduling allows workers the chance either to accept employment or, alternatively, earn a higher wage by competing on the basis of willingness to work – or forego work – on short notice. Since the decision to work for a particular employer is voluntary, nobody is forced to take this offer – just as no consumer is forced to eat fried chicken they don’t like. There are countless retail sellers, so workers who don’t relish the practice of on-call scheduling can work for a business that doesn’t follow the practice – just as consumers who don’t like one variety of fried chicken can patronize one of the many other competing brands extant.

So Why Regulate On-Call Scheduling?

On-call scheduling offers potential benefits to retail businesses, consumers and even to retail workers – just as different types of products offer potential benefits to consumers. Nobody is forced to endure on-call scheduling if they don’t like it, since the large number of retail businesses competing for workers gives workers a wide choice of employment – just as consumers have wide choices of different products and aren’t forced to put up with a particular brand. If it would be incredibly wasteful and a huge mistake to regulate brand variety and quality of consumer goods – and it would – wouldn’t it be just as big a mistake to regulate the practice of on-call scheduling for analogous reasons?

The answer is yes. There is no earthly reason for government at any level – municipal, state or federal – to regulate the practice of on-call scheduling. Only bad can come of it. The implication of AG Schneiderman’s actions is that government has a duty to prevent human beings within its jurisdiction from experiencing even momentary discontent. The AG must consider workers to be either too stupid to act in their own interest or too helpless to do so even if they had the wit to perceive it. Left unspecified, however, is how or where the AG acquired the superior wisdom and knowledge to substitute his judgment for those of the workers whose interests he claims to represent.

Free Markets vs. Regulation

We have shown that various ways of producing goods and services (such as utilizing on-call scheduling to staff retailing establishments) and various types of goods (such as different varieties and flavors of fried chicken) offer potential benefits to consumers. How is that potential actuated; that is, how do we cross the bridge from “potential” to “actual?”

Apparently, there are two ways. We can give the processes and products a trial in the free market and see how they work, keeping the ones that succeed and discarding the ones that fail. The failures will lose money for sellers because consumers will reject them, either because they do not like them or because they are too expensive. That makes it easy for producers to discard them. Alternatively, regulators can accept or reject them on an a priori basis. In order for this method to succeed, regulators must know as much about technology and costs as the producers of the affected goods and services do. Regulators also must know as much about consumers’ tastes and preferences as the consumers themselves do – as well as knowing what is “good” for consumers to consume in a physiological and moral sense. In other words, regulators must be well-nigh omniscient. (Where input markets are directly affected, as in this case, we can treat workers as the “consumers” of the relevant process.)

Put in this way, the choice is as clear as two-way glass. Free markets work vastly better and are less expensive than regulation. Given this, why do governments leap to regulate at every opportunity?

Why Governments Almost Always Choose Regulation

The New York State Attorney General chose to regulate on-call scheduling for a reason. Based on our analysis, we might suppose him to be perverse – deliberately choosing a result that makes everybody worse off than before. But that is not so. Economics tells us that somebody has to be better off, and the first place to look for the beneficiary or beneficiaries would be the AG himself and his sponsors and constituents.

The AG is a bureaucrat, a denizen of state government. He benefits when his domain grows larger and his power over it increases. When the number of firms he regulates increases, the AG’s power increases and his budget increases or, more properly, his basis for demanding a budget and staffing increase strengthens. When the AG’s office regulates the processes employed by retail firms, preventing them from using innovative means to compete with other firms, state government is cartelizing what would otherwise be a competitive market. The result of this will be less output and higher prices in the retail-sales sector. This creates a constituency of business owners and managers who are beholden to the AG and state-government politicians. (In the broad sense, this is what happened for over four decades when the old Civil Aeronautics Board cartelized interstate airline travel in the United States between the 1930s and 1978.)

Notice that the list of beneficiaries from regulation of on-call scheduling is small compared to the roster of potential beneficiaries from unregulated on-call scheduling. Regulation benefits government bureaucrats, workers and politicians directed involved with the affected industry, along with business owners who gain from market cartelization. It harms everybody else, most notably the consumers of the good involved and (in this case) almost certainly the workers affected as well. The gains of business owners are probably temporary, but the gains accruing to government will last as long as government regulation continues.

The best way to visualize the actions of government vis a vis markets is by thinking of government as entrepreneurship in reverse. Politicians and bureaucrats are always alert for opportunities to expand their domain. But whereas the invisible hand of competition and voluntary exchange insures that free-market entrepreneurship creates broad, mutual benefits, the coercive, visible hand of government subtracts net value from almost all of its interchanges with markets.

Is the Purpose of Government to Eliminate All Sources of Discontent?

Now we understand the heretofore inexplicable contention that the purpose of government is to eliminate all sources of discontent. How could anybody be so naïve as to think that government has the ability to remedy all unhappiness? Doesn’t the speaker realize that his statement is a recipe for fiscal insolvency? Writing a blank check to government is a fruitless quest for a non-existent nirvana.

Alas, the author of those words didn’t particularly care whether government actually succeeded in eliminating any discontent or not. He was not striving for universal bliss. Rather he sought an unlimited warrant for government intrusion in order to benefit his own special interest. The more power government has, the larger it grows. The larger it grows, the more its servants prosper. And the more the servants of government prosper, the more the rest of us suffer.

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DRI-315 for week of 4-20-14: Is GDP NDG in the Digital Age?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Is GDP NDG in the Digital Age?

For years, we have heard the story of stagnant American wages, of the supposed stasis in which the real incomes of the middle and lower class are locked while the rich get richer. Various sophisticated refutations of this hypothesis have appeared. Households have been getting smaller, so the fact that “household income” is falling reflects mainly the fact that fewer people are earning the income that comprise it. “Wages” do not include the (largely untaxed) benefits that have made up a steadily larger share of workers’ real incomes ever since World War II.

But there is something else going on, something more visceral than statistics that leads us

to reject this declinism. It is the evidence of our own senses, our eyes and ears. As we go about our daily lives, each of us and the people around us do not exhibit the symptoms of a people getting materially worse off as we go.

For over thirty years, we have been forsaking the old broadcast trinity of network television stations, at first in favor of cable television and recently for a broadening array of alternative media. For over twenty years, our work and home lives have been dominated by desktop computers that have revolutionized our working and personal lives. For over ten years, an amazing profusion of digital products have taken over the way we live. Cell phones, smart phones, tablets, pads and other space-age electronic wonders have shot us out of a consumer cannon into a new world.

Can it really, truly be that we are worse off than we were before all this happened? As the late John Wayne would say if he were here to witness this phenomenon: “Not hardly.”

The pace of this technological revolution has not only been too fast for most of us to stay abreast of it. It has left many of our 20th century institutions blinking in the dust and gasping for breath. Mainstream economic theory and national income accounting, in particular, are trying to gauge the impact of a 21st-century revolution using the logic and measurement tools they developed in the first half of the 20th century.

The Case Study of Music

Music was one of the great consumer success stories of the 20th century. Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph paved the way for the recording of everything from live artistic performances to studio recordings of musicians and singers to the use of recorded sound tracks for motion pictures. The recordings themselves were contained on physical media that ranged from metal discs to vinyl to plastic. At first, these “records” were sold to consumers and played on the phonographs. Sales were in the hundreds of millions. Artists included some of the century’s most visible and talented individuals. The monetary value of these sales grew into billions of dollars.

Since recordings were consumer goods rather than capital goods, sales of records were recorded in the national income and product accounts. Or rather, the value added in the final, or retail, transaction was included. The value-added style of accounting was developed with the inauguration of the accounts in the late 1930s and early 40s in order to do three things: (1) show activity at various stages of production, but (2) highlight the new production of consumption goods each year to reflect the fact that the end-in-view behind all economic activity is consumption (3) by including only the additional value created at each stage to avoid double-counting.

As the 20th century came to a close, however, record albums were replaced by small audio discs that could be played on more compact devices. And these were soon supplanted by computers – that is, the playing medium became a computer and the music itself was housed within a computer file rather than a substantial physical object. As technology advanced, in other words, the media grew smaller and less substantial. But the message itself was unaffected; indeed, it was even improved.

How do we know that the value people derive from music has not been adversely affected by this transition to digitization? In The Second Machine Age, authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee consider the question at length. In terms of physical units, sales of music have fallen off the table. Just in the years 2004-2008, they fell from roughly 800 million units to less than 400 million units – a decline of over 50% in four years! And the total revenue from sales of music fell 40% from $12.3 billion to $7.4 billion over the same period. By the standards we usually apply to business, this sounds like an industry in freefall.

In this case, though, those standards are misleading. During that same time span, the total unit-volume of music purchased still grew when purchases of digitized music where factored in. And acquisitions of music free of charge by various means swelled the total much, much larger. One of the things economists are best at is analyzing non-traditional markets, which is why Joel Waldfogel of the University of Minnesota was able to infer that the quality of music available to consumers has actually increased in the digital era. Today, anybody with a smartphone can access some 20 million songs via services like Spotify and Rhapsody. For those of us who recall the days of LPs and phonograph needles, the transition to today has been dizzying.

But the economics of the digital age have driven prices through the floor. As Brynjolfsson and McAfee observe, it is the same process that has driven the newspaper business to the wall and its readers online; the same one that has driven classified-advertising from newspapers to Craigslist; the same one that impels us to share photos on Facebook rather than buying prints for friends and family. “Analog dollars,” they conclude, “are becoming digital pennies.”

This creates an unprecedented marketplace anomaly. Measured by the value it creates for human beings, which is how economists want to measure it, the music industry is booming. But measured in dollars’ worth of marketplace transactions, which is how economists are currently able to measure it, the music industry is declining rapidly.

GDP RIP?

If the music industry were a singularity, we might treat it as a mere curiosity. It is not, of course; the gap between price/quantity product and value created yawns wide across the spectrum of industry. “By now, the number of pages and digital text and images on the Web is estimated to exceed one trillion…children with smartphones today have access to more information in real time via the mobile web than the President of the United States had twenty years ago. [!] Wikipedia alone claims to have over fifty times as much information as Encyclopedia Britannica, the premier compilation of knowledge for most of the twentieth century.”

“…Bits are created at virtually zero cost and transmitted almost instantaneously worldwide. What’s more, a copy of a digital good is exactly identical to the original… Because they have zero price, these services are virtually invisible in the official statistics. They add value to the economy, but not dollars to GDP… When a business traveler calls home to talk to her children via Skype, that may add zero to GDP, but it’s hardly worthless. Even the wealthiest robber baron would have been unable to buy this service [in the 19th century]. How do we measure the benefits of free goods or services that were unavailable at any price in previous eras?”

This understates the case. As Brynjolfsson and McAfee acknowledge, most of the new digital services substitute for existing services whose sales contribute to GDP. Thus, the digital bonanza actually lowers measured GDP at the same time that our well-being rises. In economic jargon, the effect on GDP’s function as index of national welfare is perverse.

This leads many people, including these authors, to the conclusion that GDP is no longer an adequate measure of national output. If this is true, it makes our monthly, quarterly and annual preoccupations with the growth rate of GDP seem pretty silly. The government agency whose task is the compilation of economic statistics is the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Its definition of the economy’s “information sector” aggregates sales of software, publishing, movies, audio recordings, broadcasting, telecommunications, and data processing and information services. These sales account for about 4% of measured GDP today. Yet we are commonly understood to be chest-deep in a new “economy of information” that is replacing the economy of tangible goods and services. Either this perception or that 4% metric is wrong; the latter seems vastly more probable.

What’s more, the irrelevance of GDP increases by the nanosecond.

New Products

Of course, not all digital products and services are substitutes for existing counterparts. Some of them are genuinely new. If these are similarly hard to incorporate in GDP, the distortion may be only half as great as that described above. But the digital revolution has displayed a propensity for creating things that were unknown heretofore but that soon became necessary accoutrements of daily life.

Longtime macroeconomist and textbook author Robert Gordon estimated the value of new goods and services added but missed by GDP at about 0.4% of GDP. That may not sound like much, but since the long-term average annual rate of productivity growth is around 2%, it would mean that we are overlooking 20% of annual productivity.

GDP and Investment: The Bad News Gets Worse

GDP is failing because it neglects to measure the tremendous increases in consumption and well-being conferred by the digital age. But GDP also measures investment, or purports to. Are its failings on the consumption side mitigated by its performance with investment?

No, they are magnified. The production of digital goods and services is heavily dependent on intangible assets rather than the familiar plant and equipment that are the focus of traditional investment. Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify four categories of these intangibles: intellectual property, organizational capital, user-generated content and human capital. It comes as no surprise to find that the measurement of these assets largely eludes GDP as well.

Intellectual property encompasses any creation of the human mind to which legal ownership can be attached. Patents and copyrights form the backbone of this category. A great deal of spending on research and development (R&D) constitutes investment in intellectual property.

Yet R&D has long been recognized as almost impossible to accurately measure because only its cost is transparent, while the value (e.g., capital) it creates often escapes measurement.

Organizational capital is an even broader concept intended to capture the value inhering in brands, processes, techniques and conceptual structures owned by particular businesses. This category long predates the digital age but is idealized by companies like Apple, whose brand and unique corporate style complement its portfolio of intellectual property to create perhaps the world’s most productive company. Accountants have long sought to put a price tab on things like “good will” and “brand name.” We have observed that the transition to a computer-savvy work force has necessitated investment in procedures and processes far greater than the initial spending on the computer hardware and software – spending that doesn’t show up in the national income accounts as investment.

User-generated content is a true digital innovation. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Yelp and countless other websites are largely created by their users. The value of this approach is both undeniable and subjective, as anybody who has every previewed a restaurant on Yelp or planned a vacation with TripAdvisor can testify. The feedback generated these sites provides an object lesson in the generation of information – the kind of information that economists had to assume that people already knew because we didn’t know how markets could make it available to them. Now we do.

Human capital was a concept invented and popularized by economists Theodore Schultz and Gary Becker decades before the Internet existed. The talents, skills and training that we receive make us better productive “machines,” which inspired the analogy with physical capital.

How important are these intangible assets in the modern economy? Nobody knows with certainty, but – as always – economists have made educated guesses. Brynjolfsson and McAfee estimate the value of organizational assets as some $2 trillion. The preeminent theorist of investment, Dale Jorgenson, estimated that human capital is worth 5-10 times as much as the stock of all physical capital in the U.S. Investment in R&D has been estimated at roughly 3% of GDP in recent decades.

The degree of distortion in GDP numbers – specifically in measures of productivity, which compares growth in inputs and output – is harder to gauge in this case than in the consumption example. Some intangible assets, like R&D and human capital, are longtime thorns in the sides of statisticians; their measurement has always been bad and may be no worse now than before. In some cases, the distortions in investment may offset those in consumption, so that the measure of productivity may be accurate even though the numerator and denominator of the ratio are inaccurate. But the elements most closely associated with the digital revolution, such as user-generated content, impart a huge downward bias to measured productivity in the national income accounts.

A New, Improved GDP?

Economists and other commentators have done a good job of diagnosing the havoc wreaked on GDP by the digital revolution. Alas, they have rested on those laurels. In the “solutions and policy proposals” section of their work, they have fallen back on the tried and trite. GDP was a sibling of macroeconomics; the economic logic underlying the two is the same, with the operative word being “lying.” Macroeconomists are loathe to repudiate their birthright, so their reflex is to cast about for ways to mend the measurement holes in GDP rather than abandon it as a bad job. Hence the rosy glow cast by Brynjolfsson and McAfee over nebulous concoctions like the “Social Progress Index” and the “Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.” As for the touted “Gross National Index” of Bhutan, the less said about this laughable fantasy (treated in a previous EconBrief), the better.

The authors cite the comments of Joseph Stiglitz, whom they call “Joe” to profit by the implied familiarity with a Nobel laureate: “…Changes in society and the economy may have heightened the problems at the same time that advances in economics and statistical techniques may have provided opportunities to improve our metrics.” The “improvements” don’t seem to have included the ability to stop the scandalous misuse of the concept of “statistical significance” that has plagued the profession for many decades.

In fact, GDP has been known to be a failure almost since inception. Introductory economics textbooks routinely inculcate students in the shortcomings of GDP as a “welfare index” by listing a roster of flaws that predate the digital age, the Internet and computers. It has ignored the value of household services (predominantly provided by women), ignored the value created by secondary transactions of all kinds of used goods, undervalued services and thrown up its figurative hands when confronted by non-market transactions of all kinds. Its continued use has been a grim tribute to Lord Kelvin’s dubious dictum that “science is measurement,” the implication being that measuring badly must be better than not measuring at all.

What’s more, the blame cannot be laid at the feet of economic theory. It is certainly true that the digital age has brought with it a veritable flood of “free” goods – seemingly in contradiction with Milton Friedman’s famous aphorism that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Hearken back to Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s words that “bits are created at virtually zero cost.” A fundamental principle – perhaps the fundamental principle – of neoclassical microeconomics is that price should equal marginal cost, so that the value placed on an additional unit of something by consumers should equal its (opportunity) cost of production. When marginal cost equals zero, there is nothing inherently perverse about a price approaching zero. No, the laws of economics have not been suspended on the Internet.

Careful comparison of the age-old flaws of GDP and its current failure to cope with the challenges posed by digital innovation reveal a common denominator. Both evince a neglect of real factors for lack of a monetary nexus. The source of this insistence upon monetary provenance is the Keynesian economic theory to which the national income accounts owe their origin. Keynesian theory dropped the classical theory of interest in favor of a superficial monetary theory of liquidity preference. That is now proving bogus, as witness the failure of Federal Reserve interest-rate policies since the 1960s. Keynesian theory gives spending the pride of place among economic activity and relegates saving and assets to a subordinate role. Indeed, the so-called “paradox of thrift” declares saving bad and spending good. No wonder, then, that the national income accounts fail to account for assets and capital formation in a satisfactory manner.

Instead of tinkering around the margins with new statistical techniques and gimmicks when they have not even mastered basic statistical inference, economists should instead rip out the rotting growth root and branch. Reform of macroeconomics and reform of the national income accounts go hand in hand.

End the Reign of GDP

The digital age has merely exposed the inherent flaws of GDP and widened its internal contradictions to the breaking point. It is time to dump it. The next measure of national output must avoid making the same mistakes as did the founders of the national income accounts nearly 80 years ago.

The next EconBrief will outline one new proposal for reform of the national income accounts and explain both its improvements and shortcomings.

DRI-267 for week of 10-27-13: ObamaCare and the Point of No Return

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

ObamaCare and the Point of No Return

The rollout of ObamaCare – long-awaited by its friends, long-dreaded by its foes – took place last week. In this case, the term “rollout” is apropos, since the program is not exactly up on its feet. Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 marked the debut of HealthCare.gov, the ObamaCare website, where prospective customers of the program’s health-insurance exchanges go to apply for coverage. By comparison, Facebook’s IPO was a rip-roaring success.

A diary of highlights seems like the best way to do justice to this fiasco. We are indebted to the Heritage Foundation for the chronology and many of the specific details that follow.

Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013: This is ribbon-cutting day for the website, through which ObamaCare’s state health-insurance exchangesexpect to do most of their business. One of the most fundamental reforms sought by free-market economists is the geographic market integration of health care in the U.S. Historically, each state has its own state laws and regulatory apparatus governing insurance. This hamstrings competition. It requires companies to deal with 50 different bureaucracies in order to compete nationally and limits consumers solely to companies offering policies in their state. But ObamaCare is dedicated to the proposition that health care of, by and for government shall not perish from the earth, so it not only perpetuates but complicates this setup by interposing the artificial creation of a health-care exchange for each state, operating under a federal aegis.

Only 36 of those state exchanges open for business on time today, however. Last-minute rehearsals have warned of impending chaos, and frantic responses have produced lateness. Sure enough, as the day wears on 47 states eventually report applicant complaints of “frequent error messages.” Despite massive volume on the ObamaCare site, there is almost no evidence of actual completed applications.

Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013: The Los Angeles Times revises yesterday’s report of 5 million “hits” on HealthCare.gov from applicants in California downward just a wee bit, to 645,000. But there is still no definitive word on actual completed applications, leading some observers to wonder whether there are any.

Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013: The scarcity of actual purchasers of health insurance on the ObamaCare exchanges leads a Washington Post reporter to compare them in print to unicorns.  More serious, though, are the growing reports of thousands of policy cancellations suffered by Americans across the nation. The culprit is ObamaCare itself; victims’ current coverage doesn’t meet new ObamaCare guidelines on matters such as openness to pre-existing conditions. Ordinarily, a significant pre-existing health condition would preclude coverage or rate a high premium. In other words, writing policies that ignore pre-existing conditions is not insurance in the true, classical sense; insurance substitutes cost for risk and the former must be an increasing function of the latter in order for the process to make any sense. ObamaCare is not really about insurance, despite its protestations to the contrary.

Friday, Oct. 25, 2013: CNBC estimates that only 1% of website applicants can proceed fully to completion and obtain a policy online because the system cannot generate sufficient valid information to process the others. A few states – notably Kentucky – have reported thousands of successful policies issued, but the vast bulk of these now appear to be Medicaid enrollees rather than health-insurance policyholders. Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announces that its website will be offline for repairs and upgrading.

Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013: In an interview with Fox News, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew refuses to cite a figure for completed applications on the HealthCare.gov website. Among those few that have successfully braved the process, premiums seem dramatically higher than those previously paid. One example was a current policyholder whose monthly premium of $228 ballooned to $1,208 on the new ObamaCare health-care exchange policy.

Monday, Oct.28, 2013: Dissatisfaction with the process of website enrollment is now so general that application via filling out paper forms has become the method of choice. It is highly ironic that well into the 21st century, a political administration touting its technological progressivity has fallen back on the tools of the 19th century to advance its signature legislative achievement.

Official Reaction

This diary of the reception to ObamaCare conveys the impression of a public that is more than sullen in its initial reaction to the program – it is downright mutinous. It was hardly surprising, then, that President Obama chose to respond to public complaints by holding a press conference in the White House Rose Garden a few days after rollout.

Mr. Obama’s attitude can best be described as “What’s the problem?” His tone combined the unique Obama blend of hauteur and familiarity. The Affordable Care Act, he insisted, was “not just a website.” If people were having trouble accessing the website or completing the application process or making contact with an insurance company to discuss an actual plan – why, then, they could just call the government on the phone and “talk to somebody directly and they can walk you through the application process.” (How many of the President’s listeners hearkened back at this point to their previous soul-satisfying experiences on the phone with, let’s say, the IRS?) This would take about 25 minutes for an individual, Mr. Obama assured his viewers, and about 45 minutes for a family. He gave out a 1-800 number for his viewers to call. Reviews of the President’s performance noted his striking resemblance to infomercial pitchmen.

Sean Hannity was so inspired by the President’s call to action that he resolved to heed it. He called the toll-free number on-air during his AM-radio show. He spoke with a call-center employee who admitted that “we’re having a lot of glitches in the system.” She read the script that she had been given to use in dealing with disgruntled callers. Hannity thanked her and complimented her on her courtesy and honesty. She was fired the next day. Hannity declared he would compensate her for one year’s lost salary and vowed to set up a fund for callers who wanted to contribute in her behalf.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was next up on the firing line. Cabinet officials were touring eight cities and selected regional sites to promote the program and at Sebelius’s first stop at a community center in Austin, TX, she held a press conference to respond to public outrage with the glitches in the program.

On October 26, 2013, the Fox News website sported the headline: “Sebelius Suggests Republicans to Blame for ObamaCare Website Woes.” Had the Republican Party chosen the IT contractor responsible for setting up HealthCare.gov‘s website?

No. “Sebelius suggest[ed] that Republican efforts to delay and defund the law contributed to HealthCare.gov‘s glitch-ridden debut.” Really. How? Sebelius “conceded that there wasn’t enough testing done on the website, but added that her department had little flexibility to postpone the launch against the backdrop of Washington’s unforgiving politics. ‘In an ideal world, there would have been a lot more testing, but we did not have the luxury of that. And the law said the go-time was Oct. 1. And frankly, a political atmosphere where the majority party, at least in the House, was determined to stop this any way they possibly could…was not an ideal atmosphere.”

It takes the listener a minute or so to catch breath in the face of such effrontery. The Obama Administration had three years in which to prepare for launch of the program. True, there were numerous changes to the law and to administrative procedures, but these were all made by the administration itself for policy reasons. The Democrat Party, not the Republican Party, is the majority party. The Republican Party – no, make that the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party – proposed a debt-limit settlement in which the individual mandate for insurance-policy ownership would be delayed. It was rejected by the Obama Administration. Ms. Sebelius is blaming the Republican Party for the fact that Democrats were rushed when the Republicans in fact offered the Democrats a delay that the Democrats refused.

Were Ms. Sebelius a high-level executive in charge of rolling out a new product, her performance to date would result in her dismissal. But when queried about the possibility of stepping down, she responded “The majority of people calling for me to resign, I would say, are people I don’t work for and who did not want this program to work in the first place.” Parsing this statement yields some very uncomfortable conclusions. Ms. Sebelius’s employer is not President Obama or his administration; it is the American people. Anybody calling for her resignation is also an American. But clearly she does not see it that way. Obviously, the people calling for her resignation are Republicans. And she does not see herself as working for Republicans. The question is: Who is she working for?

Two possibilities stand out. Possibility number one is that she is working for the Democrat Party. In other words, she sees the executive branch as a spoils system belonging to the political party in power. Her allegiance is owed to the source of her employment; namely, her party. Possibility number two is that she sees her allegiance as owed to President Obama, her nominal boss. This might be referred to as the corporatist (as opposed to corporate) view of government, in which government plays the role of corporation and there are no shareholders.

Neither one of these possible conceptions is compatible with republican democracy, in which ultimate authority resides with the voters. In this case, the voters are expressing vocal dissatisfaction and Ms. Sebelius is telling them to take a hike. In a free-market corporation, Ms. Sebelius would be the one unfolding her walking papers and map.

Whose Back is Against the Wall?

It is tempting to conclude that ObamaCare is the Waterloo that the right wing has been predicting and planning for President Obama ever since Election Day, 2008. And this does have a certain superficial plausibility. ObamaCare is this Administration’s signature policy achievement – indeed, practically its only one. There is no doubt that the Administration looks bad, even by the relaxed standards of performance it set during the last five years.

Unfortunately, this view of President Obama with his back against the wall, despairing and fearful, contemplating resignation or impeachment, simply won’t survive close scrutiny. It is shattered by a sober review of Barack Obama’s past utterances on the subject of health care.

As a dedicated man of the Left, Barack Obama’s progressive vision of health care in America follows one guiding star: the single-payer system. That single payer is the federal government. Barack Obama and the progressive Left are irrevocably wedded to the concept of government ownership and control of health care, a la Great Britain’s National Health Care system. In speeches and interviews going back to the beginning of his career, Obama has pledged allegiance to this flag and to the collective for which it stands, one organic unity under government, indivisible, with totalitarianism and social justice for all.

The fact that ObamaCare is now collapsing around our ears may be temporarily uncomfortable for the Obama Administration, but it is in no way incompatible with this overarching goal. Just the opposite, in fact. In order to get from where we are now to a health-care system completely owned and operated by the federal government, our private system of doctors, hospitals and insurance companies must be either subjugated, occupied or destroyed, respectively. That process has now started in earnest.

Oh, the Administration would rather that private medicine went gentle into that good night. It would have preferred killing private health insurance via euthanasia rather than brutal murder, for example. But the end is what matters, not the means.

Certainly the Administration would have preferred to maintain its hypnotic grip on the loyalty of the mainstream news media. Instead, the members of the broadcast corps are reacting to ObamaCare’s meltdown as they did upon first learning that they were not the product of immaculate conception. But this is merely a temporary dislocation, not a permanent loss. What will the news media do when the uproar dies down – change party affiliation?

For anybody still unconvinced about the long-run direction events will take, the Wednesday, October 30, 2013 lead editorial in The Wall Street Journal is the clincher.

“Americans are Losing Their Coverage by Political Design”

“For all of the Affordable Care Act’s technical problems,” the editors observe, “at least one part is working on schedule. The law is systematically dismantling the private insurance market, as its architects intended from the start.”

It took a little foresight to see this back when the law was up for passage. The original legislation included a passage insisting that it should not “be construed to require than an individual terminate coverage that existed as of March 23, 2010.” This “Preservation of Right to Maintain Existing Coverage” was the fig leaf shielding President Obama’s now-infamous declaration that “if you like your existing policy, you can keep it.” Yeah, right.

Beginning in June, 2010, HHS started generating new regulations that chipped away at this “promise.” Every change in policy, no matter how minor, became an excuse for terminating existing coverage at renewal time. This explains the fact that some 2 million Americans have received cancellation notices from their current insurers. Of course, the Obama Administration has adopted the unified stance that these cancellations are the “fault” of the insurance companies – which is a little like blaming your broken back on your neighbor because he jumped out of the way when you fell off your roof instead of standing under you to cushion your fall. Stray callers to AM radio can be heard maintaining that at least half of these cancellations will be reinstated with new policies at lower cost in the ObamaCare exchanges. If only those hot-headed Tea Partiers would stop dumping boxes of tea and behaving like pirates! Alas, a Rube Goldberg imitation of a market cannot replace the genuine article – with apologies to Mr. Goldberg, whose roundabout contraptions actually worked.

ObamaCare creates 10 types of legally defined medical benefits. They include general categories like hospitalization and prescription drugs. No policy that fails to meet the exact standards defined within the law can survive the ObamaCare review. It is widely estimated that about 80% of all individual plans, which cover 7% of the U.S. population under age 65, will fall victim to the ObamaCare scythe.

The law is replete with Orwellian rhetoric of progressive liberalism. HHS defines its purpose as the “offer [of] a small number of meaningful choices.” Uh…what about allowing individuals to gauge the tradeoff between price and quality of care that best suits their own preferences, incomes and particular medical circumstances? No, that would have “allowed extremely wide variation across plans in the benefits offered “and thus “would not have assured consumers that they would have coverage for basic benefits.” This is doublespeak for “we are restricting your range of choice for your own good, dummy.”

Liberals typically respond with a mixture of outrage and indignation when exposed as totalitarians. It is certainly true that they are not eradicating freedom of choice merely for the pure fun of it. They must create a fictitious product called “insurance” to serve a comparatively small population of people who cannot be served by true insurance – people with pre-existing conditions that make them uninsurable or ratable at very high premiums or coverage exclusions. The exorbitant costs of serving this market through government require that the tail wag the dog – that the large number of young, healthy people pay ridiculously high premiums for a product they don’t want or need in order to balance the books on this absurd enterprise. (Formerly, governments simply borrowed the money to pay for such pay-as-you-go boondoggles, but the financial price tag on this modus operandi is now threatening to bring down European welfare states around the ears of their citizens – so this expedient is no longer viable.) In order to justify enrolling everybody and his brother-in-law in coverage, government has to standardize coverage by including just about every conceivable benefit and excluding practically nothing. After all, we’re forcing people to sign up so we can’t very well turn around and deny them coverage for something the way a real, live insurance company would, can we?

It is well known that the bulk of all medical costs arise from treating the elderly. In a rational system, this would be no problem because people would save for their own old age and generate the real resources necessary to fund it. But the wrong turn in our system began in World War II, when the tax-free status of employer-provided health benefits encouraged the substitution of job-related health insurance for the wage increases that were proscribed by wartime government wage and price controls. The gradual dominance of third-party payment for health care meant that demand went through the roof, dragging health-care prices upward with it.

Now Generation X finds itself stuck with the mother of all tabs by the President whom it elected. The Gen X’ers are paying Social Security taxes to support their feckless parents and grandparents, who sat still for a Ponzi scheme and now want their children to make good. To add injury to injury, the kids are also stuck with gigantic prices for involuntary “insurance” they don’t want and can’t afford to support their elders, the uninsurables – and the incredibly costly government machinery to administer it all.

It’s just as the old-time leftist revolutionaries used to say: you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Across the nation, we have heard the sound of eggs cracking for the last week.

The Point of No Return

The “point of no return” is a familiar principle in international aviation. It is the point beyond which is it closer to the final destination than to the point of origination, or the point beyond which it makes no sense to turn back. This is particularly applicable to trans-oceanic travel, where engine trouble or some other unexpected problem might make the fastest possible landing necessary.

In our case, the Obama Administration has kept this concept firmly in mind. By embroiling as many Americans as deeply as possible in the tentacles of government, President Obama intends to create a state of affairs in which – no matter how bad the current operation of ObamaCare may be – it will seem preferable to most Americans to go forward to a completely government-run system rather than “turn back the clock” to a free-market system.

A free-market system works because competition works. On the supply side of the market, eliminating state regulation of insurance would enable companies to expand across state borders and compete with each other. But this involves relying upon companies to serve consumers. And companies are the entities that just got through issuing all those cancellation notices. For millions of Americans today, the only disciplinary mechanism affecting companies is something called “government regulation” that forces them to do “the right thing” by bludgeoning them into submission. That is what regulatory agencies are doing right now – beating up on Wall Street firms and banks for causing the financial crisis of 2008 and ensuing Great Recession. The fact that this never seems to prevent the next crisis doesn’t seem to penetrate the public consciousness, for the only antidote for the failure of government regulation is more and stronger government regulation.

On the demand side of a free market, consumers scrutinize the products and services available at alternative prices and choose the ones they prefer the most. But consumers are not used to buying their own health care and vaguely feel that the idea is both dishonest and unfair. “Health care should be a right, not a privilege,” is the rallying cry of the left wing – as if proclaiming this state of affairs is tantamount to executing it. No such thing as a guaranteed right to goods and services can exist, since giving one person a political right to goods is the same thing as denying the right to others. In the financial sense, somebody must pay for the goods provided. In the real sense, virtually all goods are produced using resources that have alternative uses, so producing more of some goods always means producing fewer other goods.

This is not what the “health-care-should-be-a-right-not-a-privilege” proclaimers are talking about. Their idea is that we will give everybody more of this one thing – health care – and have everything else remain the same as it is now. That is a fantasy. But this fantasy is the prevailing mental state throughout much of the nation. One widely quoted comment by a bitterly disappointed victim of policy cancellation is revealing: “I was all for ObamaCare until I found out I was going to have to pay for it.” On right-wing talk radio, this remark is considered proof of public disillusion with President Obama. But note: The victim did not say: “I was all for ObamaCare until I found out what I was going to have to pay for it.” The distinction is vital. Today, a free lunch is considered only fitting and proper in health care. And the only free lunch to be had is the pseudo-free lunch offered by a government-run, single-payer system.

As it stands now, few if any Americans can recall what it was like to pay for their own health care. Few have experienced a true free market in medicine and health care. Thus, they will be taking the word of economists on faith that it would be preferable to a government-run system like the one in Great Britain. It is a tribute to the power of ideas that a commentator like Rush Limbaugh can make repeated references to individuals paying for their own care without generating a commercially fatal outpouring of outrage from his audience.

Grim as this depiction may seem, it accurately describes the dilemma we face.