Economist as a plumber with a body camera (EPBC)

Economists could do more to show their work and to maintain their results.

Economists aren’t particularly transparent in their day-to-day activities, but what they do is very important. Because economics offers little possibility for laboratory-style experiments or hard-science precision, there is a perverse opportunity for conclusions to be reached before data are collected. This is dangerous and would be less likely if economists 1) reported what they do more frequently and more clearly, and 2) shifted some of their responsibilities toward maintenance of existing policy or past results.

Esther Duflo described the potential for a shift in the role economists play in society. Rather than being biased architects designing massive social policies, economists can be the people who are responsible for maintaining social systems and keeping them running smoothly from month-to-month, without any gaps or leaks. Economists can be more like plumbers.

The worst possible way to implement this shift in responsibility would be to hire a separate group of economists to fiddle with policy or day-trade things like the stock of unemployed. Instead, a practical way to do this is for existing (and particularly newly-minted) economists to “wear body cameras”, reporting more of their day-to-day work on personal or work websites or blogs, or on twitter, or GitHub.

Since poverty is deadly and bad policy causes people suffering and death, economists, and others involved in crafting public policy, yield a lethal weapon. If they were in-effect “recorded”, the way these well-paid individuals practice their trade would likely change–both in what results are presented and also in what tasks are undertaken. And if it turns out that economists are already completely honest and unbiased, then “body cameras” would massively boost the field’s credibility.

There are now many free, open-source, and well-documented tools, like python and R, for working with public economic data and contributing to analysis. Plus, there is enough space on the cloud to share other iterations that aren’t presented in a final set of regression coefficients, for example. It would also be helpful for more economists to share the code that produces their results, so that others can extend or modify it. Increasingly, technology is making it possible for economists to show more of their work.

Economists as plumbers with body cameras, in practice, also means following up very frequently on past work and on how existing systems are performing for all people (not just the aggregated/synthetic statistical “person”). For example, the economists who justify liberalization of US trade policy could be the ones responsible for resolving the local effects from the related factory closures. Economists pushing cuts to social services in response to debt levels could report monthly on what their policy does to both the debt level and the poverty rate. In essence, economists could do more checking-up on what they’ve done in the past and, if necessary, clean up after themselves.

The EPBC therefore has two goals: 1) encouraging the showing of how results were obtained, and 2) more frequently revisiting past results. To contribute to achieving this, I’m publishing a series of jupyter notebooks that show my recent attempts at working with public economic data using python. For future projects and blog posts, I’ll link to the new notebooks, and use the tag EPBC (for economists as plumber with body camera). I’m not sure if this will work out, or be sustainable, but its an interesting idea and worth a try.

Here are the first three EPBC notebooks (python 3.6):

Is Amazon killing Walmart?

US exports by trading partner

Efficiently reading fixed-width files like the CPS public use microdata

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tech sector index nearing all-time highs

An important measure of the strength of the tech sector has been climbing rapidly over the past two years and surpassed its turn of the millennium level in June. This doesn’t mean there is another tech bubble, but investors should take heed. 

From 1995 to 2000, millions of US households purchased personal computers and used them to connect to the internet for the first time. It was apparent at the time that new technologies, often from government origins, were bringing massive changes. Private investment poured into the tech sector, including to many companies that had never generated a profit and even some without revenue. Money coming into the sector began to overflow and pour back out in the form of lavish executive spending and absurd demonstrations of wealth. When the speculative “dot-com” bubble burst, people lost jobs and retirement savings.

The tech pulse index, produced by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, tracks what is going on in the tech sector by looking at relevant changes in investment, employment, industrial production, and consumer spending. The index nearly tripled from 1995 to its peak in October 2000, growing at an average annualized rate of 18.7 percent. By the bubble’s trough in 2003, the measure had fallen to nearly half of its peak. From the 2003 trough until the recent uptick in 2016 the index increased at an average annualized rate of 2.9 percent.

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The tech pulse has been on a tear since 2016. From May 2016 to the latest data, covering July 2018, the index has increased at an average annualized rate of 11.4 percent. In June, the index passed its January 2000 level, and it is currently about 13 percent below the all-time high achieved at the peak of the bubble.

There are many similarities between the current tech boom and the dot-com bubble, such as: absurd demonstrations of wealth, the failure to convert money coming in into new productive assets, a backdrop of rising interests rates, and highly-valued companies not generating profit. In some cases, valuations are so high that it seems people are betting not necessarily on tech companies ability to create game-changing technology, which is already priced in, but on their ability to either force competitors to fail or to absorb competitors until market share allows for monopoly prices and monopsony wages. In some cases, the competitor is a public good, such as local and regional public transportation in the case of Uber and Telsa, respectively. Once our public asset is taken over or goes broke and stops operating, the private alternative can raise its prices and allow its quality to deteriorate.

In the case of Amazon, which currently generates a profit mostly through its web services division, investors seem to be betting that eventually the company will have enough power to raise prices without consumers being able (or willing) to shop elsewhere. It’s also worth noting that Amazon got where it is by not paying sales tax. Apple and Alphabet (Google), which already generate massive amounts of profit, still benefit excessively from not paying taxes.

While I don’t know whether the current tech boom is a bubble, and I lean towards thinking it is not, it’s always good to be cautious and to pay attention to growth rates, like those captured in the very clever tech pulse index (here’s info on the methodology). In general, investors should be wary about buying into companies that are already expensive and where the remaining upside requires the alignment of several events in the unknowable future.