Yes, Inflation/Deflation is Hard to Measure

One of the hardest concepts for Principles students, politicians and pundits, oh heck, just about everyone to fully grasp is inflation.  A big part of the reason is because inflation is an abstract concept that is not directly measurable.  We can conceive of it, but we can’t measure it.  I’m no physicist (and open to correction) but it strikes me that it’s a bit on par with “momentum” or “latent energy” in physics.   We don’t have direct-measuring energy-o-meters.  We measure the effects and infer the energy.  Inflation is similar.  We can conceive of a generalized, across-the-economy, sustained trend pushing all/most prices upward such that the unit of money is losing real value in general terms.  Inflation is the sustained push behind all prices. We can’t measure that directly. But we can measure the effect it has: rising prices. The problem comes in that not all prices will be rising at the same time or by the same amount.  Further, during any time period, at least part of the change in price for any good is it’s change in real price relative to all other goods (supply and demand as taught in micro).

We try to deal with this measurement issue by creating a price index – an index that tracks the changes in shopping list of goods over time.  But any price index is a just a subset of all the prices.  Even the Billion Price Project index at MIT admittedly misses most services and lots of consumer goods that aren’t available online.  Price indices are very imperfect beasts.  They have many faults, not the least of them being that they often tend to be volatile in nature.  Since we’re looking for an estimate of inflation which means sustained increases, we need to massage the data further by creating some kind of “core inflation” measure or “trimmed means” type price index.  I’ll explain those some other time.

What prompted today’s post is an article in Bloomberg and a post by Krugman about it.  Together they illustrate one of the reasons so many people want to believe we have greater inflation than we really do.  Companies like to disguise price changes.  They don’t want to be known that prices could be cut in response to demand. Example: auto company offers $2000 rebate on $20,000 car but won’t cut price by 10%, or a firm offers a “value meal”, or they offer a freebie bundled product.  Similarly they often disguise price increases by reducing sizes or portions or by changing the financing.  From Krugman:

Good article in Bloomberg:

Procter & Gamble Co.’s failure to raise the price of Cascade dishwashing soap shows why investors are buying Treasuries at the lowest yields in history, giving the Federal Reserve more scope to boost the economy.

The world’s largest consumer-products company rolled back prices after an 8 percent increase lost the firm 7 percentage points of market share. Kimberly-Clark Corp. (KMB) started offering coupons on Huggies after resistance to the diapers’ cost. Darden Restaurants Inc. (DRI) raised prices at less than the inflation rate as patrons order more of Olive Garden’s discounted stuffed rigatoni than it anticipated.

This is basic economics; prices tend to fall, or at least slow their rise, when there is vast excess capacity and weak demand.

As both the article and Krugman’s excerpt show, we’re closer to deflation than most people realize.  They don’t see the failed attempts to raise prices.  They don’t see the shifts in portions or increase in coupons that reduce effective prices.  What they do see and remember is the $.50 increase in a loaf of bread or the $.70 increase in a gallon of gas.  But even with the gas, they selectively remember the $.70 price increase in summer, but forget the $.75 price drop in autumn.  Inflation and deflation are tricky things to measure.


David McWilliams Explains Why Austerity Is Doomed In Europe

A very interesting video by an Irish economist explaining how the current reduce government spending (“austerity”) approach to the Eurozone debt and currency crisis is doomed to fail. It is doomed because cutting government spending in a recession only makes the recession worse, which in turn, reduces tax collections which then makes the government deficits worse not better.  But not only is the austerity approach all wrong to solving the debt crisis, it carries very significant risk of social upheaval.  (hat tip to Philip Pilkington and New Economic Perspectives).

Now I’ll offer one pre-emptive comment.  Critics of the arguments McWilliams makes often claim that either government spending isn’t really effective, that somehow only private investment spending will stimulate an economy.  Or, the critics claim that any resources the government puts into use through spending actually detract from the economy by denying those resources to some supposedly better, privately chosen use. Both of these criticism fail.  We are clearly discussing a situation in which there are excess, unused economic resources in the economy.  In plain language:  there’s high unemployment and people are out of work.  The criticisms are all based on an idea called “crowding out”.  For crowding out to occur, the economy must be at full employment – the opposite of being in a recession.


I’m trying out a new look.  I’ve updated the theme as long-time viewers can tell.  The new theme has a few advantages over the old one.  First, it’s a “responsive” theme.  That means that it should automagically adjust to the width of whatever browser you’re using.  If you view it on a smart phone, it should push the side-bar stuff down to the bottom so the main text is more readable. And, as long as I can resist the urge to create a menu of tabs across the top, it should retain the fluid-width aspect of the old one.

Another reason for changing is that (the host for the blog) is really pushing it.  The old theme isn’t being updated.  We’ll just have to see if I get the spacing on the graphs right.

The new them also makes it easy for me to add short “Aside” posts.  I’m going to try to adding some of these usually as links to articles I find interesting but don’t have time to write a full commentary.

Anyway, I’m interested in any comments on either the theme or other ideas to make the blog more readable or useful (short of recommendations that I replace the author!).


Government and the Slow Jobs “Recovery”

Government finally starts to get out of the way of recovery. In an earlier post today on the good news of the January 2012 employment report, I observed that one of the major factors resulting in an improved (but not good enough) jobs report was that government employment numbers stopped dragging down the total.  I wanted to briefly expand on that idea here.

First, let’s make no mistake the “recovery” from this last recession has been very, very weak.  Private sector growth has been anemic at best. In employment, the recovery has largely been missing in action.  Today, 31 months after the supposed end of the recession, we have only recovered 1/3 of the jobs we lost during the 19 months of recession. As I’ve mentioned before, we are well on our way to a lost decade or more before we regain full employment.  A huge part of the weak recovery has been slow and at times negative growth in private sector employment.

But a bigger problem has been government.  Government has a three-fold impact on employment during a recovery.  Government spending by itself will create employment in the private sector.  For example, if the government chooses to react to a recession and high cyclical unemployment by increasing it’s spending it can create new private sector employment. This would be a classical stimulus program.  The government could embark on highway, bridge, or school construction.  The spending with construction contractors causes those contractors to hire employees. That’s direct private sector employment through government spending.  As long as there are significant unemployed resources (workers), such government spending will increase employment.  Arguments about crowding out do not apply when large unemployed resources exist.

The increased government spending then has a second effect, a “multiplier” effect.  The multiplier effect reflects the idea that workers who got jobs in the initial round of spending themselves spend their incomes and create more demand for more goods. This increased demand for goods results in even more employment.  In other words, the construction workers hired to build the new bridges or schools spend their paychecks.  The firms selling those workers goods then have to hire in order to produce the goods/services the construction workers want.  The exact size of the multiplier effect is uncertain and subject to dispute depending on the econometric methods used to measure it.  However, it’s clear that as long there were substantial unemployed resources to begin with, there is a positive multiplier effect on private employment from increased government spending.

But what I want to draw attention to today is direct employment effect of government.  One of the greatest reasons why we have had a very slow employment recovery is because government in the U.S. has been aggressively cutting jobs for the last 2-3 years. Conservative critics of government have been partially right. Government has been part of the problem – but not in the way they think.  Let’s look at total government employment in recent years:

The data series can be a bit tough to read because government employment has a very seasonal pattern to it.  That’s shows up by the regular up-and-down pattern each year.  Let’s focus on the trend, smoothing out the ups-and-downs. There’s four patterns. Government employment was essentially flat in 2002 and 2003.  Then a period of employment growth in government began running form 2004 through early 2008.  During the recession itself government employment was essentially flat.  Since 2009, though, government employment has been declining.  Cutting government employment is contractionary.  It directly reduces retail demand for goods and services by reducing the incomes of what were formerly government workers.

The pattern is a little clearer if we look at the data in a slightly different way.  The following graph, courtesy of Menzie Chinn at, shows the a smoothed trend.  It does this by plotting the 12-month change in government employment (000′s of jobs) by month.

While private employment continues to grow, government employment continues to fall; the decline is most pronounced at the state and local level (Wisconsin is a good example of the contractionary impact of such measures [1] [2]). However, civilian Federal government employment is also declining.

Figure 3: Twelve month change in government local employment (blue), in state employment (red), and government employment ex.-temporary Census workers (geen), 000’s, seasonally adjusted. NBER defined recession dates shaded gray. Source: BLS via FRED, NBER and 

One thing I particularly like about this graph is that it shows the relative contribution of federal, state, and local governments. What this graph shows is that before the recession (the grey zone), government was net hiring approximately 250,000 additional jobs per year. Of that, most was at the local level and some at the state. Very little was federal hiring.

Since the end of the recession in June 2009, government has been firing more workers than it hires.  It has been reducing employment.  The federal government, contrary to popular belief, began shrinking (in employment terms).  State governments were largely able to hold the line on employment until early 2011.  Then state governments began reducing employment in rapidly increasing numbers.  But the big impact again came from local governments.  For the last 30 months, they have been laying off large numbers of workers. The reductions have slowed in 2011, but they are still cutting workers at nearly the same rate that they added them in 2007 – hundreds of thousands of lost jobs each year.

There is a temptation among politicians and commenters to think of government employees as representing largely just some bureaucrats mindlessly pushing paper in large bland office buildings.  That is not true.  At the federal level, most federal government employees are either soldiers or part of some security forces (TSA, FBI, ICE, etc).  At the local level, the vast majority of local government employees are police, fire and emergency workers, and teachers. Reductions in local government employment directly translate into fewer services and less education for children.

Why are state and local governments cutting employment?  Simple.  It’s reduced taxes combined with balanced budget requirements.  State and local governments, unlike a sovereign national government, must balance their budgets.  They are budget constrained.  The recession and weak recovery have hit income and sales taxes hard.  Even more significant is that the collapse of home prices a few years ago has translated into lower property tax collections.  Either way, state and local governments have been pinched.  The response has been to reduce government employment – fire police, firefighters, and teachers.

Paul Krugman notes the how this reduction in state and local government revenue has translated into reduced spending, which in turn has translated into lower employment.  Despite the federal government embarking on a stimulus spending program in early 2009, a program which is over and done with now, it was not large enough to offset the reduction in state and local spending.

if you look at what’s being cut, it’s heavily focused on investment:

That is, we’re sacrificing the future as well as the present. Oh, and the cuts that aren’t falling on investment in physical capital are largely falling on human capital, that is, education.

It’s hard to overstate just how wrong all this is. We have a situation in which resources are sitting idle looking for uses — massive unemployment of workers, especially construction workers, capital so bereft of good investment opportunities that it’s available to the federal government at negative real interest rates. Never mind multipliers and all that (although they exist too); this is a time when government investment should be pushed very hard. Instead, it’s being slashed.

What an utter disaster.

On this point, I have to agree with Paul.  Unless we reverse course and do it strongly, we are flirting with a long-term disaster.  We are under-investing in our future.

A Journey of 100 Months Starts With the First Month

Finally we are getting some good news. At least most people will consider it good news. Republican Presidential candidates hoping to run against Obama on “weak economy platform” might not happy with the news.

Today the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released the January 2012 employment data.   The unemployment rate has declined again. It is now down to 8.3%.  The number of net new jobs was pleasantly above the consensus expectations.  Calculated Risk quotes the BLS for us:

From the BLS:

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 243,000 in January, and the unemployment rate decreased to 8.3 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Job growth was widespread in the private sector, with large employment gains in professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, and manufacturing. Government employment changed little over the month. … Private-sector employment grew by 257,000 …

The change in total nonfarm payroll employment for November was revised from +100,000 to +157,000, and the change for December was revised from +200,000 to +203,000..

So what accounts for the increase?  As the BLS states, large gains were widespread – services, hospitality/leisure, and manufacturing. But overall positive effect compared to what was expected and to what we’ve grown accustomed is strongly due to two factors we didn’t see.  We didn’t see reductions in government employment dragging down the total numbers. I’ll have another post on that later today.  The other effect is that the weather was nice – the exact opposite of last January (2011) when the weather adversely affected the numbers.

Nonetheless, a solid increase is a solid increase and something to feel good about.  But in keeping with my skeptical self, it’s also very important to not declare victory yet. We’re not out of the woods by a long shot.  I can think of four reasons right away.

First, we’ve been here before.  As Calculated Risk explains,

Job growth started picking up early last year, but then the economy was hit by a series of shocks (oil price increase, tsunami in Japan, debt ceiling debate) – and now it appears job growth is picking up again.

Payroll jobs added per monthClick on graph for larger image.

This is the third or fourth time in this “recovery” that it appeared employment would finally be accelerating into the kind of “V-shaped” recovery we really need.  Each time before, something (often politics) interfered.

A second reason for caution involves both the employment-population ratio and the labor-force-participation rate.  Both rates are at lows we haven’t seen for 30 some years.  Both ratios indicate that large numbers of people have left the labor force and simply aren’t looking for work.  If they change their minds and start to look for work, then the unemployment rate could easily begin rising again as the denominator of the unemployment rate rises faster than employment (the numerator).

A third reason is that there are still too many unknowns on the horizon and most of them carry downside risk.  The UK and the Eurozone continue their self-inflicted austerity march into recession and flirtation with banking and default crises. House prices have continued to decline, threatening the ability of households to sustain increases in consumer spending. And there’s always the completely unknown.  Twelve months ago nobody would have considered the risk to economic growth from an earthquake that created a nuclear disaster.

The fourth reason to be cautious is the mismatch between the positive increase in employment we’ve just seen and the size of the employment gap we are facing.  This is the graph we need to keep in mind.  Again from Calculated Risk:

Percent Job Losses During Recessions

… third graph shows the job losses from the start of the employment recession, in percentage terms. The dotted line is ex-Census hiring.

This shows the depth of the recent employment recession – much worst than any other post-war recession – and the relatively slow recovery due to the lingering effects of the housing bust and financial crisis.

We are far, far from leaving this employment depression behind.  Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy and Research cautioned today that, while it appears that we are on stronger path, it is still too weak.  January’s numbers seem strong only because we have grown accustomed to such abysmal recovery for the last 2-3 years.  Even at the pace January showed, it will still be 2020 before we regain full employment.  That’s 8 years away – 100 months.  Government and central banks easily lose focus on growth in a period that long.  Congress and the President, while returning to jobs now in this election season, have already shown that they couldn’t sustain a focus on job growth last year as they turned to imaginary concerns over government debt instead.

We have a long way to go.  We should be running but we’re only walking. Nonetheless, at least we’re walking forward now instead of backwards they way we were in mid-2011.