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Archive for January, 2012

Yes, according to a new report by the Congressional Budget Office. As always in such comparisons, however, there are some caveats.

CBO summarizes its main results in this handy chart:

Report author Justin Faulk summarizes the findings as follows:

Differences in total compensation—the sum of wages and benefits—between federal and private-sector employees also varied according to workers’ education level.

Federal civilian employees with no more than a high school education averaged 36 percent higher total compensation than similar private-sector employees.

Federal workers whose education culminated in a bachelor’s degree averaged 15 percent higher total compensation than their private-sector counterparts.

Federal employees with a professional degree or doctorate received 18 percent lower total compensation than their private-sector counterparts, on average.

Overall, the federal government paid 16 percent more in total compensation than it would have if average compensation had been comparable with that in the private sector, after accounting for certain observable characteristics of workers.

Of course, a lot is riding on the phrase “certain observable characteristics.” CBO did an extremely careful job of measuring total compensation and of controlling for observable factors such as education, age, and occupation. But many other factors are impossible to measure. CBO’s summary mentions effort and motivation. There are also issues such as job security and developing valuable skills and knowledge.

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Last week, I noted that former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun enrolled 160,000 students in an online computer science class. That inspired him to set up a new company, Udacity, to pursue online education. A new article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek adds some additional color to the story.

Barrett Sheridan and Brendan Greeley answer a question many folks asked about the students: how many actually finished? Answer: 23,000 finished all the assignments.

Second, they note that professor Thrun is also at the forefront of another potentially transformative technology: self-driving cars:

Last fall, Stanford took the idea further and conducted two CS courses entirely online. These included not just instructional videos but also opportunities to ask questions of the professors, get homework graded, and take midterms—all for free and available to the public.

Sebastian Thrun, a computer science professor and a Google fellow overseeing the search company’s project to build driverless cars, co-taught one of the courses, on artificial intelligence. It wasn’t meant for everyone; students were expected to get up to speed with topics like probability theory and linear algebra. Thrun’s co-teacher, Peter Norvig, estimated that 1,000 people would sign up. “I’m known as a crazy optimist, so I said 10,000 students,” says Thrun. “We had 160,000 sign up, and then we got frightened and closed enrollment. It would have been 250,000 if we had kept it open.” Many dropped out, but 23,000 students finished all 11 weeks’ worth of assignments. Stanford is continuing the project with an expanded list of classes this year. Thrun, however, has given up his tenured position to focus on his work at Google and to build Udacity, a startup that, like Codecademy, will offer free computer science courses on the Web.

I wish Thrun success in both endeavors. Perhaps one day soon, commuters will settle in for an hour of online learning while their car drives them to work.

P.S. In case you missed it, Tom Vanderbilt has a fun article on self-driving cars in the latest Wired.

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My latest column at the Christian Science Monitor takes a crack at this perennial question. Short version: You ought to add about $4.6 trillion to whatever debt figure you are using. Why? Because the United States has about $7.3 trillion in non-debt liabilities (mostly pension and health benefits), offset by about 2.7 trillion in assets. These numbers aren’t perfect–for example, they dramatically understate the value of the gold the U.S. owns and put no value on the government’s ability to tax–but they illustrate that what the U.S. owes is more than its Treasury debt.

America is deep in debt. But how deep?

That question seems simple, yet analysts and pundits give answers that differ by trillions of dollars. Sometimes tens of trillions. That confusion arises because there are various ways to tote up America’s debts.

Many observers often focus on the publicly held debt – the bonds that the Treasury has sold into financial markets. By that measure, the federal government owed a bit more than $10 trillion at the end of last fiscal year.

That figure is important because it measures how much the federal government has had to rely on outside investors. For that reason, it does not include the special Treasury bonds in the Social Security Trust Fund and similar accounts owned by the federal government itself. From an accounting perspective, those bonds net to zero – a part of the government owes money to another part. But they are important to Social Security legally and politically. Some analysts use a measure that includes the trust funds, bringing the federal debt to more than $14 trillion.

That’s not the only measurement disagreement. Social Security and Medicare reflect a major commitment to seniors in the years ahead, but the government hasn’t identified enough dedicated financing to pay for them. Some analysts believe these unfunded amounts should be viewed as debts as well. Their size depends on technical factors like the future growth rate of health spending and how far you look into the future. Depending on their choices, analysts can get huge measures of indebtedness: $50 trillion or more.

This range of figures – $10 trillion, $14 trillion, $50 trillion – sows confusion about how indebted the United States is. Yet none of them captures all of America’s debts. The government has a host of other obligations that often get overlooked.

These other liabilities appear in the government’s little-known financial statements. Those statements use concepts familiar to anyone who has worked with a corporate balance sheet listing assets and liabilities. The government’s liabilities include more than $7 trillion in obligations that don’t appear in standard budget measures.

That’s real money, even in Washington.

The largest are commitments to federal employees, retirees, and veterans, including pensions and postretirement health benefits. Those commitments, which get surprisingly little attention, now stand at almost $6 trillion.

Another $1 trillion in liabilities includes obligations for environmental cleanup, government insurance payouts, and ongoing commitments to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Add in publicly held debt, and the government owes more than $17 trillion, before accounting for future commitments to Social Security or Medicare.

Of course, the government has assets: buildings, aircraft carriers, and a sizable portfolio of financial assets. Federal accountants tally those as worth a bit less than $3 trillion. The government’s net liabilities round out to nearly $15 trillion, 50 percent larger than the public debt alone and comparable to the value of all goods and services produced by the US economy each year.

The US is thus in debt to the tune of roughly 100 percent of gross domestic product. That’s daunting, but it need not be fatal. As the economy recovers, our obligations – both past and future – should be manageable if policymakers overcome our greatest liability: a political system that addresses short-term crises rather than long-term challenges.

Full disclosure: In an earlier life, I served on the board that establishes accounting standards for the federal government. Yes, I am that much of a budget wonk. 

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That’s what former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun aims to do.

Sound impossible? Well, he’s already taught a class of 160,000 students. As Felix Salmon recounts:

Thrun told the story of his Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class, which ran from October to December last year. It started as a way of putting his Stanford course online — he was going to teach the whole thing, for free, to anybody in the world who wanted it. With quizzes and grades and a final certificate, in parallel with the in-person course he was giving his Stanford undergrad students. He sent out one email to announce the class, and from that one email there was ultimately an enrollment of 160,000 students. Thrun scrambled to put together a website which could scale and support that enrollment, and succeeded spectacularly well.

Just a couple of datapoints from Thrun’s talk: there were more students in his course from Lithuania alone than there are students at Stanford altogether. There were students in Afghanistan, exfiltrating war zones to grab an hour of connectivity to finish the homework assignments. There were single mothers keeping the faith and staying with the course even as their families were being hit by tragedy. And when it finished, thousands of students around the world were educated and inspired. Some 248 of them, in total, got a perfect score: they never got a single question wrong, over the entire course of the class. All 248 took the course online; not one was enrolled at Stanford.

And I loved as well his story of the physical class at Stanford, which dwindled from 200 students to 30 students because the online course was more intimate and better at teaching than the real-world course on which it was based.

 Inspired by that experience, Thrun has now founded Udacity, a private online university. As Nick DeSantis of the Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

One of Udacity’s first offerings will be a seven-week course called “Building a Search Engine.” It will be taught by David Evans, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Virginia and a Udacity partner. Mr. Thrun said it is designed to teach students with no prior programming experience how to build a search engine like Google. He hopes 500,000 students will enroll.

Teaching the course at Stanford, Mr. Thrun said, showed him the potential of digital education, which turned out to be a drug that he could not ignore.

“I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill,” he said. “And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”

That Wonderland will be a serious challenge to traditional chalk-and-talk universities — and a wonderful opportunity to democratize knowledge around the globe.

(ht: Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution)

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The top tax rate on long-term capital gains is currently 15%. That’s why Mitt Romney is spending so much time talking about his tax returns.

That revelation has set off a familiar debate about whether that low rate is appropriate. Often overlooked in these discussions, however, is the fact that the days of the 15% tax rate are numbered. As of this posting, it has only 342 left.

On January 1, 2013, capital gains taxes are scheduled to go up sharply:

First, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are scheduled to expire. If that happens, the regular top rate on capital gains will rise to 20%. In addition, an obscure provision of the tax code, the limitation on itemized deductions, will return in full force. That provision, known as Pease, increases effective tax rates on high-income taxpayers by reducing the value of their itemized deductions. On net, it will add another 1.2 percentage points to the effective capital gains tax rate for high-income taxpayers.

And that’s not all. The health reform legislation enacted in 2010 imposed a new tax on the net investment income of high-income taxpayers, including capital gains. That adds another 3.8 percentage points to the tax rate.

Put it all together, and the top tax rate on capital gains is scheduled to increase from 15% today to 25% on January 1. That’s a big jump. If taxpayers really believe this will happen, expect a torrent of asset selling in November and December as wealthy taxpayers take final advantage of the lower rate.

Of course, the tax cuts might get extended for all Americans, including high-income taxpayers. That’s what happened in 2010. In that case, the increase in the capital gains rate will be smaller. Because of the health reform tax, the top capital gains tax rate will increase from 15% to 18.8%. That’s still a notable increase, but would likely set off much less tax-oriented selling this year.

The only way that the top capital gains tax rate remains at 15% will be if the tax cuts are extended for high-income taxpayers and the new health reform tax gets repealed. That’s a key distinction in the election: President Barack Obama opposes those steps, while the GOP presidential candidates favor them (and some candidates would cut the capital gains tax rate even further).

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Over at Bloomberg, Julie Johnsson and Mark Chediak document how low natural gas prices are reshaping electricity markets. Wind, nuclear, and coal all look expensive compared to natural gas generation:

 With abundant new supplies of gas making it the cheapest option for new power generation, the largest U.S. wind-energy producer, NextEra Energy Inc. (NEE), has shelved plans for new U.S. wind projects next year and Exelon Corp. (EXC) called off plans to expand two nuclear plants. Michigan utility CMS Energy Corp. (CMS) canceled a $2 billion coal plant after deciding it wasn’t financially viable in a time of “low natural-gas prices linked to expanded shale-gas supplies,” according to a company statement.

Mirroring the gas market, wholesale electricity prices have dropped more than 50 percent on average since 2008, and about 10 percent during the fourth quarter of 2011, according to a Jan. 11 research report by Aneesh Prabhu, a New York-based credit analyst with Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC. Prices in the west hub of PJM Interconnection LLC, the largest wholesale market in the U.S., declined to about $39 per megawatt hour by December 2011 from $87 in the first quarter of 2008.

Power producers’ profits are deflated by cheap gas because electricity pricing historically has been linked to the gas market. As profit margins shrink from falling prices, more generators are expected to postpone or abandon coal, nuclear and wind projects, decisions that may slow the shift to cleaner forms of energy and shape the industry for decades to come, Mark Pruitt, a Chicago-based independent industry consultant, said in a telephone interview.

The hard question, of course, is whether low natural gas prices will persist, particularly if everyone decides to rush into gas-fired generation:

“The way to make $4 gas $8 gas is for everyone to go out and build combined-cycle natural-gas plants,” Michael Morris, non-executive chairman of American Electric Power (AEP) Inc., said at an industry conference in November. “We need to be cautious about how we go about this.”

The whole article is worth a read if you follow these issues. (ht: Jack B.)

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In 2010, I wrote a series of posts documenting how oil and natural prices had decoupled from each other (see here and here). For many years, oil prices (as measured in $ per barrel) were typically 6 to 12 times natural gas prices (as measured in $ per MMBtu). That ratio blew out to around 20 in 2009 and again in 2010, a severe break with historical trends.

At the time, that seemed like an enormous disparity between the two prices. In retrospect, we hadn’t seem anything yet. As of yesterday, the ratio stood at more than 33:

A barrel of oil has roughly 6 times the energy content of a MMBtu of natural gas. If the fuels were perfect substitutes, oil prices would thus tend to be about 6 times natural gas prices. In practice, however, the ease of using oil for making gasoline means that oil is more valuable. So oil has usually traded higher.

But the current ratio is unprecedented. Each Btu of oil is now worth about five times as much as each Btu of natural gas. Thanks to a torrent of new supply, natural gas prices are down at $3.00 per MMBtu even as oil (as measured by the WTI price) has risen back above the $100 per barrel mark.

Perhaps natural gas vehicles will be the wave of the future?

Note: Energy price aficionados will note that I’ve used the WTI price in these calculations. That used to be straightforward and unobjectionable. Now, however, we have to worry about another pricing discrepancy: WTI is very cheap relative to similar grades of oil on the world market (for background, see this post). For example, Brent crude closed Monday around $112 per barrel, well above the $101 WTI price. Brent prices are relevant to many U.S. oil consumers. There’s a good argument, therefore, that my chart understates how much the price ratio has moved. 

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Friday’s jobs data confirmed that labor markets are getting better, but slowly. Payrolls expanded by 200,000, the unemployment rate fell again to 8.5%, weekly hours ticked up from 34.3 to 34.4, and hourly earnings rose by 0.2%.

Of course, there is still a long, long way to go. Unemployment and underemployment both remain very high, but they’ve been moving in the right direction. After peaking at 10% in October 2009, the unemployment rate has declined by 1.5 percentage points. The U-6 measure of underemployment, meanwhile, peaked at 17.2% and now stands at 15.2%:

(The U-6 measures includes the officially unemployed, marginally attached workers, and those who are working part-time but want full-time work.)

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Auto companies have made great strides in improving engine efficiency in recent decades. But those improvements haven’t done much to improve the fuel economy of America’s passenger car fleet. Instead, consumers have “spent” most of those efficiency improvements on bigger, faster cars.

MIT economist Christopher Knittel has carefully quantified these tradeoffs in a recent paper in the American Economic Review (pdf; earlier ungated version here). As noted by Peter Dizikes of MIT’s News Office: 

[B]etween 1980 and 2006, the average gas mileage of vehicles sold in the United States increased by slightly more than 15 percent — a relatively modest improvement. But during that time, Knittel has found, the average curb weight of those vehicles increased 26 percent, while their horsepower rose 107 percent. All factors being equal, fuel economy actually increased by 60 percent between 1980 and 2006, as Knittel shows in a new research paper, “Automobiles on Steroids,” just published in the American Economic Review.

Thus if Americans today were driving cars of the same size and power that were typical in 1980, the country’s fleet of autos would have jumped from an average of about 23 miles per gallon (mpg) to roughly 37 mpg, well above the current average of around 27 mpg. Instead, Knittel says, “Most of that technological progress has gone into [compensating for] weight and horsepower.”

This is a fine example of a very common phenomenon: consumers often “spend” technological improvements in ways that partially offset the direct effect of the improvement. If you make engines more efficient, consumers purchase heavier cars. If you increase fuel economy, consumers drive more. If you give hikers cell phones, they go to riskier places. If you make low-fat cookies, people eat more. And on and on. People really do respond to incentives.

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Over at National Affairs, Tevi Troy reviews the evolution–and, he believes, devaluation–of America’s think tanks. He leads off by noting how many think tanks have shifted toward political combat and rapid response and away from non-partisan research:

One of the most peculiar, and least understood, features of the Washington policy process is the extraordinary dependence of policymakers on the work of think tanks. Most Americans — even most of those who follow politics closely — would probably struggle to name a think tank or to explain precisely what a think tank does [DM: This is true; even close friends and family often wonder what I do.]. Yet over the past half-century, think tanks have come to play a central role in policy development — and even in the surrounding political combat.

Over that period, however, the balance between those two functions — policy development and political combat — has been steadily shifting. And with that shift, the work of Washington think tanks has undergone a transformation. Today, while most think tanks continue to serve as homes for some academic-style scholarship regarding public policy, many have also come to play more active (if informal) roles in politics. Some serve as governments-in-waiting for the party out of power, providing professional perches for former officials who hope to be back in office when their party next takes control of the White House or Congress. Some serve as training grounds for young activists. Some serve as unofficial public-relations and rapid-response teams for one of the political parties — providing instant critiques of the opposition’s ideas and public arguments in defense of favored policies.

Some new think tanks have even been created as direct responses to particular, narrow political exigencies. As each party has drawn lessons from various electoral failures over recent decades, their conclusions have frequently pointed to the need for new think tanks (often modeled on counterparts on the opposite side of the political aisle).

He summarizes this trend as “lose an election, gain a think tank”. Looking ahead, he then notes:

As they become more political, however, think tanks — especially the newer and more advocacy-oriented institutions founded in the past decade or so — risk becoming both more conventional and less valuable. At a moment when we have too much noise in politics and too few constructive ideas, these institutions may simply become part of the intellectual echo chamber of our politics, rather than providing alternative sources of policy analysis and intellectual innovation. Given these concerns, it is worth reflecting on the evolution of the Washington think tank and its consequences for the nation.

Needless to say, I hope–and intend–that there remains a place for policy research separate from the political noise.

In addition to recounting the origins and activities of many prominent think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Center for American Progress, and the Heritage Foundation, Tevi offers some interesting facts about the industry, including the rising number of think tanks (1,800 today versus 45 after the Second World War) and the declining share of Ph.D.s on think tank staffs (13% of scholars in think tanks founded since 1980 vs. 53% in those founded before 1960).

The entire essay is well worth your time if you are interested in the evolving role of think tanks in policy discussions.

P.S. Tevi’s article make no mention of my research center, the Tax Policy Center, or my employer, the Urban Institute.

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