Wolfram Alpha, Unemployment, and the Future of Data

I’ve received a number of helpful responses to my post about the strengths and weaknesses of Google’s efforts to transform data on the web. Reader DD, for example, reminded me that I ought to run the same test on Wolfram Alpha, which I briefly mentioned in my post on Google’s antitrust troubles.

Wolfram Alpha is devoting enormous resources to the problem of data and computation on the web. As described in a fascinating article in Technology Review, Wolfram’s vision is to curate all the world’s data. Not just find and link to it, but have a human think about how best to report it and how to connect it to relevant calculation and visualization techniques. In short:

[Wolfram] Alpha was meant to compute answers rather than list web pages. It would consist of three elements, honed by hand …: a constantly expanding collection of data sets, an elaborate calculator, and a natural-language interface for queries.

That is certainly a grand vision. Let’s see how it does if I run the same test “unemployment rate United States” I used for Google:

Continue reading “Wolfram Alpha, Unemployment, and the Future of Data”

Google, Unemployment, and the Future of Data

Google may eventually solve the problem of finding data on the web. Too bad its first effort reports the wrong numbers for unemployment.

Since leaving public service, I have occasionally pondered whether to start a company / organization to transform the way that data are made available on the web. The data are out there, but they remain a nuisance to find, a nuisance to manipulate, and a nuisance to display. I cringe every time I have to download CSV files, import to Excel, manipulate the data (in a good sense), make a chart, and fix the dumb formatting choices that Excel makes. All those steps should be much, much easier.

There are good solutions to many of these problems if you have a research assistant or are ready to spend $20,000 on an annual subscription. With ongoing technology advances, however, there ought to be a much cheaper (perhaps even free) way of doing this on the net.  With some good programming, some servers, and careful design (both graphic and human factors), it should be possible to dis-intermediate research assistants and democratize the ability to access and analyze data. At least, that’s my vision.

Many organizations have attacked various pieces of this problem, and a few have even made some headway (FRED deserves special mention in economics). But when you think about it, this is really a problem that Google ought to solve. It has the servers, software expertise, and business model to make this work at large scale. And with its launch of a search service for public data it has already signaled its interest in this problem.

As a major data consumer, I wish Google every success in this effort. However, I’d also like to use their initial effort, now almost three months old, as a case study in what not to do.

Google’s first offering of economics data is the unemployment rate for the United States (also available for the individual states and various localities). Search for “unemployment rate united states” and Google will give you the following graph:

Google UE

Your first reaction should be that this is great. With absolutely no muss and no fuss, you have an excellent (albeit sobering) chart of the unemployment rate since 1990. I would add myriad extensions to this – e.g., make it easier to look at shorter time periods, allow users to look at the change in the unemployment rate, rather than the level, etc. – but the basic concept is outstanding.

Unfortunately, there is one major problem:  That’s the wrong unemployment rate.

Click over to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, open a newspaper (remember them?), or stay right here on my blog – all of them will tell you that the unemployment rate in June was 9.5% not 9.7%.

Continue reading “Google, Unemployment, and the Future of Data”

We Already Did a Second Stimulus

Much ink, both physical and electronic, has recently been spilled on the question of whether the United States should undertake a second stimulus.

To which there is only one possible answer: we already did a second stimulus.

The first stimulus — the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 — was signed by President Bush in February 2008. That Act gave families $115 billion in tax rebates and allowed companies to depreciate business investment more rapidly. Overall, the Act reduced taxes and increased spending by $168 billion in 2008 and 2009 (the long-term budget hit from the Act is smaller — about $124 billion over ten years — because the corporate tax reductions deferred tax payments rather than eliminating them.)

Those were the days before the collapse of Lehman (heck, it was even before the collapse of Bear Stearns) when policymakers were rightly worried about a weak economy, but $168 billion seemed like a lot of money.

The second stimulus — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 –was signed by President Obama in February 2009. That Act increases spending on a host of programs, including infrastructure, state assistance, and extended unemployment insurance. It also created the Making Work Pay tax credit, among other tax reductions. The Act is usually described as a $787 billion stimulus, with ten-year spending increases of $575 billion and tax reductions of $212 billion. The reality is a bit more complex, however. On the one hand, the Act provides somewhat more stimulus than the headline figure; for example, there are about $810 billion in spending increases and tax reductions during the first seven years. On the other hand, the stimulus takes time to phase in; during fiscal 2009, for example, the estimated stimulus is about $185 billion.

The question we face today is whether to enact a third stimulus, not a second one. I will have more to say on this in the future. For now, I think the Obama administration has it exactly right, indicating that it’s premature to enact a third stimulus, but their economic team is closely monitoring the situation.

A Grim Jobs Report

The headlines in today’s job report were gloomy:

  • Nonfarm payrolls fell by 467,000 in June, more than expected and more than in May.
  • The unemployment rate increased to 9.5%.

That gloominess is confirmed if you look deeper into the numbers. Most striking is the continued decline in the number of hours logged by private sector workers. The average workweek fell to 33.0 hours in June, the lowest since BLS began tracking the data in 1964.

The economy is thus losing jobs and, for the jobs that remain, is losing hours worked. That double whammy is bad news for the economy.

The following chart shows year-over-year changes in BLS’s index of total private sector hours worked (by production and nonsupervisory workers, who make up the bulk of the workforce). This index is useful because it captures both the number of jobs and the number of hours worked:

AWHI - June - 2009

As you can see, the recent decline in private hours worked is sharper than any in the past forty years. Over the past twelve months, total private hours have declined by 7%.

A closely related issue is the rise in part-time employment for economic reasons. Continue reading “A Grim Jobs Report”

Competitiveness & Health Reform

This morning, the Wall Street Journal editorial page questioned the oft-alleged link between health care costs and the competitiveness of American business. Echoing Council of Economic Advisers Chair Christina Romer, it referred to that argument as “schlock.” At the same time, everyone interested in health policy is still absorbing the trillion-dollar price tag that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) put on the Kennedy health bill.

I’d like to point out that these two issues – any link between health care and competitiveness and the estimated cost of health reform – are closely related. The way that CBO estimated the budget impacts of the Kennedy bill implies that health care has little effect on competitiveness. If you take the contrary view, that health care is a big deal for American competitiveness, then you should also believe that CBO has underestimated the difficulty of paying for health reform.

Continue reading “Competitiveness & Health Reform”

DIY on the Rise

It’s no surprise that Americans have been cutting back in the face of job losses, pay reductions, and shrunken retirement accounts. One result has been a sharp increase in the saving rate, which has averaged more than 4.5% this year after flirting with 0% in recent years.

A second result is a rebound in doing-it-yourself.  Home-cooking has replaced some restaurant visits, for example, and more Americans are picking up a hammer rather than calling a handyman.

This morning’s Washington Post provides another example of such rising home production — a boom in vegetable gardening:

Seed producers and merchants across the United States are reporting the same phenomenon of crazy demand and even some shortages, especially of staples like beans, potatoes and lettuces. Sales of seed packets picked up last year and have grown significantly again this season, which runs from January to June.

Industry observers attribute the boost in sales to a concern for food safety following outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisonings and a desire by consumers to be a part of the local food movement. Michelle Obama’s new vegetable garden at the White House may also be inspiring people, they said.

But the primary reasons, they speculate, are the recession, income loss and the need for people to lower their grocery bills by growing their own. (my emphasis)

Anecdotes like this have a number of larger implications:

Continue reading “DIY on the Rise”

Cloudy Jobs Data

Markets greeted this morning’s jobs reports with enthusiasm, as the headline measure of job losses in May — 345,000 — came in significantly lower than expected.  Under normal circumstances, losing more than 300,000 jobs would be bad news.  Of course, these aren’t normal circumstances.

The unemployment rate in May was much less welcome, rising to 9.4% from 8.9% in April.  Part of the increase was due to the labor force expanding — a positive sign — but most was due to an increased number of people being unemployed.

These figures all refer to the headline measure of unemployment (U-3, in the lingo), which focuses on workers who have lost a job and are looking for a new one.  The government also publishes several broader measures of unemployment that account for other ways in which workers may be less employed than they desire.  The broadest of these, known as U-6, adds two groups to the regular measure: those who are marginally attached to the labor force (people who are willing to work and have worked in the past, but aren’t actively looking; this includes discouraged workers) and those who are working part-time even though they want to work full-time.

As shown in the following chart, the U-6 paints a grimmer picture of the U.S. labor market:

Unemployment

Continue reading “Cloudy Jobs Data”