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What are discouraged workers? April 9, 2016

Posted by tomflesher in Uncategorized.
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What’s the difference between these two workers?

Vic loses his job. He looks for work for a while, but eventually realizes there are no jobs available for him. He decides to stop looking.


Todd loses his job. He looks for work for a while, and even when no jobs seem to be available, he keeps looking. He still can’t find a job.

Unemployment rate with and without discouraged workers. Note the spread, which ballooned during the recession.

Unemployment rate with and without discouraged workers. Note the spread, which ballooned during the recession.

The answer is clearly that the only difference between Vic and Todd is that Todd continued looking when Vic didn’t. Is that a distinction without a meaningful difference? Not according to economists, who would classify Todd as unemployed because he’s actively seeking full-time work and Vic as a discouraged worker.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines a discouraged worker as someone who looked for work in the last year, but who stopped looking because they think there is no work or that they aren’t qualified for the work available. These workers may consider themselves unemployed, but they don’t qualify for the BLS’ definition of unemployment, which requires the worker to be actively seeking work. Thus, there are a lot of workers who wish they were employed, but can’t find work – but they don’t count as unemployed, because they stopped looking for jobs.

When the economy improves, many discouraged workers move out of that category and into the category of “unemployed” by beginning to look for work. This leads to a paradox: when the economy starts to improve, there are fewer discouraged workers, because they become unemployed instead – so the unemployment rate goes up! For that reason, economists generally take a short uptick in the unemployment rate which follows a long-term downward trend as a good sign for the economy, since it means workers are more optimistic about the economy.

Graph is courtesy of FRED.

The Good and Bad of Goods and Bads January 25, 2015

Posted by tomflesher in Micro, Teaching, Uncategorized.
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When students first hear the word “goods” pertaining to economic goods, they sometimes find it a little funny. When they hear some sorts of goods called “bads,” they usually find it ridiculous. Let’s talk a little about what those words mean and how they pertain to preferences.

Goods are called that because, well, they’re good. Typically, a person who doesn’t have a good would, if given the choice, want it. Examples of goods might be cars, TVs, iPads, or colored chalk. Since people want this good if they don’t have it, they’d be willing to pay for it. Consequently, goods have positive prices.

That doesn’t mean that everyone wants as much of any good as they could possibly have. When purchasing, people consider the price of a good – that is, how much money they would have to spend to obtain that good. However, that’s not because money has any particular value. It’s because money can be exchanged for goods and services, but you can only spend money once, meaning that buying one good means giving up the chance to buy a different one.

Bads are called that because they’re not good. A bad is something you might be willing to pay someone to get rid of for you, like a ton of pollution, a load of trash, a punch in the face, or Taylor Swift. Because you would pay not to have the bad, bads can be modeled as goods with negative prices.

Typically, a demand curve slopes downward because of the negative relationship between price and quantity. This is true for goods – as price increases, people face an increasing opportunity cost to consume one more of a good. If goods are being given away for free, people will consume a lot of them, but as the price rises the tradeoff increases as well. Bads, on the other hand, act a bit different. If free disposal of trash is an option, most people will not keep much trash at all in their apartments. However, as the cost of trash disposal (the “negative price”) rises, people will hold on to trash longer and longer to avoid paying the cost. Consider how often you’d take your trash to the curb if you had to pay $50 for every trip! You might also look to substitutes for disposal, like reusing glass bottles or newspaper in different ways, to lower the overall amount of trash you had to pay to dispose of.

As the cost to eliminate bads increases, people will suffer through a higher quantity, so as the price of disposal increases, the quantity accepted will also increase.

SPOILERS: The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors’ Problem November 24, 2013

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Major, major spoilers here. If you haven’t yet seen the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special, please avoid this post.

Really, seriously, please.

During the 50th Anniversary Special episode of Doctor Who, there was an interesting scene where a group of characters and their malevolent clones were negotiating a treaty that would determine, in part, whether the Zygons (an empire of malevolent aliens) would take over the Earth. This presents some quite interesting problems that were solved by some quite interesting guys – the Tenth and Eleventh incarnations of the Doctor.

Obviously each side had opposite incentives. The Zygons needed a planet to live on, and the human population did as well. Take for granted that the populations can’t coexist and you can see that this is what’s known in economics as a zero-sum game. Since they would not agree to share the planet, one side would have to come out the winner in the negotiations, with the other losing. Similarly, since each Zygon cloned a human negotiator, it inherited at least some of its human’s memories, meaning that we can assume symmetric information. In cases like this, it’s usually up to the agent with the higher valuation of the asset being negotiated to make some sort of concession to the agent with the lower valuation in exchange for agreeing to give up any claims – in other words, pay them to go away. In other cases, the agents will agree to let an arbitrator make the decision for them, under the assumption that the arbitrator won’t be clouded by personal decisions and will make the “best” choice, for some value of “best” to be determined.

The Doctors (played by David Tennant and Matt Smith) opted for an entirely different (and clever) solution, albeit one that wouldn’t work in the real world: they wiped the humans’ and Zygons’ memories so that each would forget which side they were on, allowing for efficient resolution of the Three Incarnations Togetherproblem. The theory, which is similar to Richard Rorty’s Veil of Ignorance, is that people who don’t know whether their side stands to benefit will reach an equitable solution, if not one that they might have argued for in the first place. As such, it’s an example of hidden information. The same thinking generates the idea in law and economics of efficient breach. This might result in the solution that’s efficient in the economic sense, but it probably won’t lead to anyone being the best off they could be.

Shockingly, Economists Price Things Intelligently May 27, 2013

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I was excited to see that there’s a new edition of Recursive Macroeconomic Theory by Lars Ljungqvist and the Nobel Prize winning Tom Sargent. I was even more excited to see prices starting to fall into place with respect to the Kindle edition.

Textbooks are a special product because demand for them has historically been inelastic: if you need the book, you need it. You won’t have any choice as far as whether to buy it. That’s led price-sensitive consumers to buy used textbooks, but there’s a limited supply. (Of course, even more price-sensitive consumers download the books illegally.) There’s also a pretty big market in old editions, even though there are usually slight differences between editions.

Recursive macro is a pretty standard subject, and although the third edition of Ljungqvist and Sargent includes new material, it probably won’t appreciably change the experience for a first-year grad student taking grad macro. There’s some benefit to the new edition, sure, but many students will be faced with the following choice: Pay $82.44 (as of today) for a new third edition, or pay $49.99 for a second edition. That’s a significant savings. However, second-edition sales aren’t beneficial to the publisher, so how can they create an incentive for price-sensitive buyers to give money to the publishers rather than to the secondary market?

Well, a Kindle version of the third edition is $51.29. Even price-sensitive students would probably find $1.30 a fair price to pay for an up-to-date edition, assuming they already had a Kindle-equipped device like an iPad. As used copies of the third edition accumulate, the prices of those will probably collect around the $50 mark as well, and if they don’t, I’d expect the price of the Kindle version to float along with that. Make it easy on price-sensitive consumers to give you money instead of giving it to the secondary market, and some of them will.