Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Housing Prices: Highs and Lows

The interaction of a bubble in real estate prices with the banking and financial sector drove the US economy into the Great Recession. For an overview of how the US housing market is faring a decade after dysfunctions in housing market finance helped bring on the Great Recession that started in 2007, a useful starting point is The State of the Nation's Housing 2017, by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

Here's the pattern of overall US housing prices: adjusted for inflation, home prices are about 30% above their level in 2000, but still below where they were at the peak of the housing bubble in 2006.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given that pattern, even ten years after the start of the financial crisis in 2007, there there are millions of Americans who are still "underwater" on their mortgages: that is, what they owe is more than what the home would sell for: "According to CoreLogic, the number of households underwater on their mortgages dropped from 4.3 million in 2015 to 3.2 million in 2016, reducing their share of all homeowners from 8.4 percent to 6.2 percent. ... Despite this progress, the share of homeowners with negative equity in some markets is still more than double the national rate. For example, 16.1 percent of homeowners in the Miami metro area were underwater on their mortgages in 2016, along with 15.5 percent in Las Vegas and 12.6 percent in Chicago. At the other extreme, only 0.6 percent of owners in the San Francisco metro area had negative equity."

Comparisons like these help to emphasize that price patterns have been VERY different across US housing markets. For example, here's one figure comparing the rise in home prices in the  ten highest-cost metro areas, compared to the lowest-cost areas and the US average. Clearly, the bubble in housing prices was much more extreme in these high-cost markets. It's also striking that housing prics in the high-cost markets were roughly double the national average in 2000, but more like triple the national average in 2016.
Here's another look at differences in housing prices across local markets using a heat map diagram. The orange areas are places where housing prices rose at least 40%, and sometimes much more, between 2000 and 2016. The blue areas show where housing prices are actually lower, and sometimes much lower, in 2016 than in 2000.

One of my takeaways here is that the affordability of housing is in some ways a regional and even a local issue. Whether housing is "unaffordable" is commonly measured by using a rule-of-thumb like the share of people in a given market who could afford the median-priced house if they spent no more than 30% of their income on housing. By this measure, a very high proportion of households at or below the poverty line will face a problem of unaffordable housing in pretty much every real estate market. But in the markets where housing prices are highest and have been rising most quickly, a substantial share of middle-class families can face housing affordability issues, too.

I have no problem with federal programs to help those at or near the poverty line afford  necessities of life like food, medical care, housing, and so on. But it's not clear that federal programs are appropriate to help those who are not poor, but face an affordability problem because they live in a region with a high cost of housing. It's not clear why those not clear why those who live in Pocatello or Dubuque or Detroit should pay taxes to subsidize the higher cost of living in south Florida or southern California.

In addition, one key reason why housing prices are so high in certain regions is that local rules can make it costly and time-consuming to build. In short, many of the areas with high housing prices have, to a substantial extent, brought those high costs on themselves by the ways in which they regulate and limit construction of new housing. Again, federal programs to help those with very low incomes is one thing, but when a local area or region has helped to create its own high housing costs, that same local areas or region should also have most of the responsibility for addressing the affordability consequences of those decisions.

The theme that housing construction has been relatively slow surfaces in the report in a number of places: "A variety of factors may be holding back a more robust supply response. Labor shortages are a key constraint, reflecting both the substantial drop in the construction workforce following the housing bust and the lower number of young workers entering the industry. In addition, regulatory and stricter financing requirements have limited the supply of land available for both single- and multifamily housing construction. In combination, these forces raise development costs and make it less feasible to build smaller homes for first-time buyers and rental units affordable to low- and moderate-income households."

For example, the blue line in this figure shows the "vacancy rate," which is quite low. The yellow bars show how many new houses have been constructed in the previous 10 years, which is also very low.

Similarly, the vacancy rate for rental apartments is also quite low, and rents are rising in most metro areas.

With low vacancy rates for housing and, at least in certain areas, very high prices, one would expect to see a resurgence of construction.  But in a number of local markets, efforts to build additional housing stock is held back substantially by the conditions demanded by existing home-owners and imposed in their name by local regulators.

Those interested in this topic might also want to check:

Monday, July 24, 2017

Facts about Carbon Emissions from Oil, Natural Gas, and Coal

The BP Statistical Review of World Energy is a useful annual volume that compiles tables and charts about about energy production and consumption. The latest version, released June 2017, includes a table at the end on recent and current carbon emissions from oil, natural gas, and coal. As a footnote under the table emphasizes, this does not include all greenhouse gases (for example, methane is not included), nor does it subtract carbon emissions which have been sequestered or offset in some way. Moreover, while other tables and figures in the book offer data on production of hydroelectric, nuclear, solar, wind, and other noncarbon energy alternatives. this table has a different focus.

Here's a whittled-down version of the tables: specifically, I took out the annual data on emissions for the years from 2007-2015. Thus, the first column is carbon emissions for 2006; the second column is carbon emissions for 2016; the next two columns show the annual growth rate of carbon emissions for 2016 and for the decade from 2005-2015; and the final column shows each country's or region's share of global carbon emissions in 2016.

What are some of the notable patterns here?

1) Anyone who follows this topic at all knows that China leads the world in carbon emissions. Still, it's striking to me that China accounts for 27.3% of world carbon emissions, compared to 16% for the US.

2) On a regional basis, it's striking  that the Asia Pacific region--led by China, India, and Japan, but also with substantial contributions from Indonesia, South Korea, and Australia--by itself accounts for nearly half of global carbon emissions. Moreover, carbon emissions from his region grew 3.6% annually from 2005-2015.

3) Again on a regional basis, carbon emissions from North America (that is, mainly the United States) are nearly the same as carbon emissions from the Europe/Eurasia region. For both regions, carbon emissions have been falling at about 1% per year since 2005.

4) Given the large size of carbon emissions for the massive US economy, and the ongoing decline in the last decade, total carbon emissions for the United States have dropped much more than for any other country in the world from 2005-2016. A number of other nations with smaller total emissions have seen a faster annual rate of decline than the United States. But two of the countries which rank among those with the most rapid declines in carbon emissions from 2005-2015--Ukraine and Greece--are surely more about overall macroeconomic struggles than about as smooth transition to noncarbon energy sources.

5) Total carbon emissions from the three regions of South and Central America, the Middle East, and Africa total 14.1% of the global total, and thus their combined total is less than either the United States or the European/Eurasian economies. However, if the carbon emissions for this group of three regions keeps growing at 3% per year, while the carbon emissions for the US economy keeps falling at 1% per year, their carbon emissions will outstrip the US in about 4-5 years.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Food for Thought on Jobs: Tidbits from Solow, Gershon, Mokyr

The US unemployment rate has been 5.0% or lower for nearly two years, since September 2015, and the most recent estimates for June 2017 show it at 4.4% in June. For most of my life, an unemployment rate at this level would have been cause for near-riotous celebration. But it's also a time where many workers have had little growth in wages, where labor force participation has fallen, where many jobs are replaceable contract work without any clear career path, where many jobs feel under threat from foreign competition and technology, where the control of employers over workers often feels as if it's on the rise, and where inequality has been on the rise. I've recently run across three comments on US labor markets which get at some of these concerns in various ways, which I'm passing along here. As always, there is more discussion at the links.

Here's Robert Solow, as part of an "In Conversation" feature with Heather Boushey at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth blog (July 20, 2017):
"I’d like to find some way of enlarging and improving the way workers, wage earners, are represented in their firms. Unions used to do that, but even with the best will in the world, you could not restore the trade union movement. If it’s true, what we all think, that the nature of workers changed, that people who work for many employers in different industries, and different occupations, really have changed, then neither the craft union nor the industrial union is the right policy vehicle.
"But of course, the online workers that everybody talks about are the prize case in this. They never have contacts with their employers, who change from day to day, and they have no contact with the other people who work for that employer. ... There’s no shop floor, but for the online worker, it’s clear who the boss is. The boss is the one who pays, as usual.
"So what’s the correct, valid form of representation they could have? How could we do something about their voice and about the web of rules in which they operate? Or something about retirement for people who don’t have a single employer for any length of time? What is the right form of representation? I don’t really think it’s having someone on the board of a corporation. It might matter, but it can’t be the whole thing. I think that you need some kind of substitute. Maybe you need a substitute for the shop floor. How can you be part of a group that you never see, never communicate with or anything like that?
"It’s that part of the inequality issue that I think doesn’t attract enough thought, and I don’t know how to go about encouraging that. Who would be good at it? Or what happens in other countries? ... I do think the economics of this is important because the object here is not merely to make people feel good but to make them feel effective and be effective in pursuing their own interests. So that, to me, is part of the inequality issue. It’s not so much a quantitative inequality, it’s a fact that the relationship between the boss and the bossed is getting more and more biased toward the boss, and that makes people feel unhappy."
Here's Ilana Gershon in a 20-minute podcast interview on "The Biggest Mistakes Job Seekers Make Today" (July 10, 2017) at the Knowledge@Wharton website. Gershon has a book out (which I have not yet read) called Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find and Don’t Find Work Today. Gershon says:
"People are becoming extremely canny about doing research on the companies that they are interested in being hired into, and they’re thinking more carefully about what kinds of jobs that they would like to have. This is the thing that I’ve been really impressed by: People are getting more and more clever about figuring out whether the workplace that they are perhaps about to join is really a workplace that they want to be a part of. ...
"The other thing that people seem to be doing — and it took me a while to realize why and how this was taking up a lot of people’s time — was focusing on weak ties or weak links in order to be able to get jobs. Weak ties and weak links used to be the ways that people were getting jobs. It used to be very effective in the 1970s, but nowadays, technology has changed so much that the pain point in getting a job has really shifted from trying to find out that the job exists in the first place to figuring out how to have hiring managers or recruiters notice you amid a pile of resumes. It’s more a question of getting noticed rather than finding out that the job exists. Weak ties aren’t so helpful for that. It turns out that workplace ties — having someone who knew you from a previous job and can talk about what you are like as a worker — was very helpful for people. ...
"In San Francisco, where I was doing most of my research, people expected a job tenure of two or three years; in the Midwest, people were expecting more like five to eight years. So when people in the Bay Area were looking at a job applicant from the Midwest they would say, “But wait a minute, you stayed too long. You were too static.” This was really a problem. Then I talked to people who were interviewing for jobs in Chicago, and they found it really frustrating because they kept being told, “But you’re a job-hopper, you don’t commit.” And they would say, “But this is the right length of time in my region.” ...
"[T]here isn’t that much pressure on companies right now to do as well as they can by their job applicants — to give them information about when the job is no longer available; to give them enough information about what the job will actually be like. There are a lot of complaints among job seekers about how badly they are being treated in the hiring process. ... As advanced as we are technologically, you will see jobs actively posted that were filled a month, two months, three months before, and they’re still out there showing up as potential jobs for people."
Finally, the Knowledge@Wharton website has also posted a 54-minute podcast in which Jeremy Schwartz moderates a discussion between Robert J. Gordon and Joel Mokyr on the subject  "Can the U.S. Economy Recapture Its Past Growth?" (July 20, 2017).  It's interesting throughout. Mokyr announces at one point: "I’ve been an economic historian all of my life, but I’m going to say something that cuts off the branch on which I’ve sitting: I think the past is not a terribly good guide to the future." Here's are some thoughts from Mokyr on how technology will affect future jobs:
"There’s two kinds of techno-pessimists. There are ones ... who basically say, the best is behind us, and from now it’s going to be slow going. And then there’s the other techno-pessimists who say, this is going to accelerate and it’s going to destroy us. It’s going to destroy people, it’s going to destroy jobs, it’s going to make us all the slaves of these supercomputers. They can’t both be right. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle.
The problem you are underlining has been around for basically 200 years. In 1821, [economist David] Ricardo wrote a famous letter to [economist John Ramsay] McCulloch in which he basically said, the way labor-saving technology … has been going, very soon nobody will be working. Well, that was 200 years ago and people are still working. I think the nature of work will change, and machines will replace more arduous, routine, boring work. Now, we may reach a situation where the only people who will work are the people who want to work. ...
I think what you will see if the participation rate declines is an increase in volunteer work, which is already a very large sector of the economy. People who do work because they feel good about it, and they want to do it, and it gives them a chance of participating in society, to meet people, and all the other benefits of work. That I think you will see. And then of course the big issue becomes how do we actually pay people some kind of citizen’s wage, and that’s an issue about distribution that everybody is sort of scratching their head over, and I don’t have an immediate answer to that. ...
I just want to say that economic growth will be slowed down because of people dropping out of the labor force, people retiring, and so on. That takes advantage of the fact that we actually don’t count leisure as part of our national income accounts. And so if you’re not working because you don’t want to work — the national income goes down, that is bad. But of course it isn’t bad because we all understand that leisure itself is a desirable thing. ...
Now the other thing of course is that it’s not so obvious that these people aren’t going to work. I refer both of you to a survey essay that was published last week in The Economist, in which they basically point out that we may be looking at a large proportion of the population, particularly people in the 65 to 74 age bracket, who are basically fit to work, want to work, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t work — but only if we can change the institutions of society that have been systematically discriminating against them.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Cycles of Cities

Cities evolve. Sometimes they boom, with strong growth in center-city areas. Sometimes the center city seems to hollow out, but economic activity in the metro area as a whole, including suburbs, remains fairly robust. Sometimes older neighborhoods with low property values experience as wave of new investment in residential housing, often called "gentrification." Sometimes both a downtown area and its surrounding metro area decline. In addition, these patterns seem to affect a number of cities at the same time. Santiago Pinto and Tim Sablik discuss one aspect of these cycles in "Understanding Urban Decline," an essay that appears in the 2016 Annual Report of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

As a dramatic opening, here's a picture of a house in Detroit's Brush Park neighborhood as it appears in 1881, and then when a photo was taken from the same perspective in 2011. The house in the middle is the one from the earlier picture. The houses on either side are long gone. Detroit is obviously an extreme example, given that its economic base was so closely tied to the auto industry. But it's far from the only example of an urban area that suffered a severe downturn.

The underlying economic theory of cities points out that they offer advantages of agglomeration: that is, it's a lot easier to carry out certain activities of production, hiring, marketing, entertainment, provision of infrastructure, and transportation, when people are bunched more closely together. Thus, urban areas are engines of economic growth. There are also negative aspects of agglomeration, in that traffic congestion, crime, noise, and other negatives are also easier to carry out when people are bunched together. So cities are in a constant struggle to build on the advantages of agglomeration while mitigating the disadvantages.

The preferences of people interact with the economics of cities, and in particular, how people trade off different aspects of location. For example, people will place different values on their location relative  to  their job and the length of their commute, the cost of a place to live,high quality local-schools, a quiet and low-crime neighborhood, a bustling urban neighborhood, mass transit, shopping, parks and libraries, culture/entertainment/sports, and neighbors with certain types of income levels or ethnic mixes. As is true in so many life decisions, you can't always get all of what you want. As people with different income levels and jobs and preferences make these choices, urban patterns will emerge.

Here's what Pinto and Sablik have to say about the patterns that have emerged in US metropolitan areas (footnotes omitted):
"In most U.S. cities, wealthier households tend to live farther away from the city center, though there are a few notable exceptions (such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.). One explanation for this is that wealthier households prefer to occupy more land and therefore are willing to live in the suburbs despite higher commuting costs because the price of housing per square foot is lower. On the other hand, when a household’s income becomes sufficiently large, it may choose to move back to the city center to reduce time spent commuting. This type of trade-off could explain, for instance, why both very poor and very wealthy households are found living in some downtowns. Cities such as Boston, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Philadelphia are examples of this type of spatial pattern. Additionally, public transportation can help explain why poorer households live in the city center. Although the cost of housing per unit of land is higher in the city, public transportation allows poor households that don’t have access to cars to economize on transportation costs.
"Transportation may further explain the trend of households moving from city centers to the suburbs, often called suburbanization. Several studies suggest that the development of the highway system contributes to “urban sprawl.” One study estimated that just one highway passing through a central city reduces its population by 18 percent. Cities that experience such a decline in commuting costs do still tend to attract population, but that inflow typically causes the city to expand geographically more than it increases the number of people living in the city center.
"Certain amenities, such as schools, also may explain neighborhood sorting by income or race. For instance, as wealthier households move to the suburbs, the quality of schools and other public services provided there will tend to rise. As this process unfolds, lower-income households are left behind in the city center with limited access to high-quality local public services. This has been observed in the suburbanization that has taken place in many large U.S. cities starting around the mid-twentieth century. ... 
"Cities undergo long cycles of development and decay. When a city is new, buildings near the CBD [central business district]  are the most desirable and tend to be occupied by a mix of firms and wealthier households. But as those buildings age and deteriorate, those households may move to newer developments surrounding the city, leaving behind lower-income households. This process can repeat multiple times, pushing the city border outward as higher-income households retreat to the newest ring of development. Eventually, deteriorated buildings in the city center are redeveloped, once again attracting higher-income households back to the city and starting the cycle anew. This has taken place, for instance, in cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia. This process, however, has raised some controversies since transforming a neighborhood from low- to high-income may displace the low-income households who live there, a process called gentrification. ...
"Because buildings are durable goods, it can take a long time for a city to move through its lifecycle. When a city’s population is growing, it is profitable to construct new housing because demand and prices for housing are rising, and the city expands rapidly. But when the population declines, existing housing stock doesn’t simply disappear. It can take decades before it is profitable to refurbish or replace a building. The surplus of housing depresses  house prices below the cost of construction, and the city stops growing. Moreover, falling rents may draw lower-skilled and lower-income households into the city, intensifying urban  sorting by income."
The underlying message here, as I hear it, is that areas of cities or cities as a whole can become locked into negative patterns. Say that the positive economic effects of agglomeration are not operating well, and so that part of the city has a lot of low-priced real estate which offers housing for a disproportionate number of low-income people. We know that this dynamic can remain in place for decades. Can anything be done about it?  Pinto and Sablik write:
"If policymakers decide that some intervention is warranted, there are a number of different approaches they could consider. One option is to focus on helping households by giving them the tools to improve their situation. This could involve removing barriers that prevent households from relocating to thriving parts of the city, providing housing vouchers to help them move, or improving transportation networks to reduce commuting costs. An alternative approach is to focus on revitalizing the city itself. This includes revitalizing residential or commercial buildings that have declined or offering incentives to employers to locate in the city and hire local people. Economists have labeled these different approaches people-based and place-based policies, respectively."
However, as Pinto and Sablik discuss, the evidence on the effectiveness of either people-based or place-based approaches is fairly weak. For example, people-based policies include idea like  "moving-to-opportunity" programs that subsidize people in depressed urban areas to relocate to other parts or the urban area. Such programs seem to help young children, but the effects on other age groups are minimal or even negative. Improving the quality of local education is a worthwhile goal, but hard to accomplish. place-based approaches like "enterprise zones" or "urban renewal projects" sometimes show an effect in the specific area that is targeted for the policy, but even when the effects seem positive for that area, a common finding is that economic activity was just relocated. from other nearby areas.

Every city has areas where incomes are lower and social problems are higher, and the geographic location of those areas often seems to remain the same for decades at a time. This experience suggests rather strongly that we don't have any magic-bullet policy tools that will target these areas with strong local economic activity and addressing issues like crime. I worry that some cities have a tendency to focus to much on a magic-bullet solution--the single big project or law that will address problems in part of a city. Instead, cities might be better off if they would focus on providing a decent level of public services to all areas of a city: safe public areas and parks, cleaning up garbage, street repair, well-functioning schools, enforcing the housing code,  libraries and post offices, and the like. Moreover, a city can play a big role by whether it encourages or discourages people and firms who want to upgrade the base of real estate in a certain area of a city, whether it's for business or residential uses.

Finally, readers interested in the evolution of urban areas might also want to look back at "Economics of Gentrification" (December 6, 2016).

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Global Value Chains and Productivity

Production processes have become more likely to cross international borders, thus creating what are called "global value chains" or "global supply chains." Chiara Criscuolo and Jonathan Timmis discuss "The Relationship Between Global Value Chains and Productivity" in the Spring 2017 issue of International Productivity Monitor  (vol. 32, pp. 61-83). I'll start here with a few facts, and then lay out the linkages they discuss. They write: 
"Economies can participate in GVCs [global value chains] by using imported inputs in their exports (the so-called backward linkages in GVC) or by supplying intermediates to third country exports (forward linkages). The overall participation in GVCs which is the total of backward and forward participation differs substantially across countries. Overall participation measure (measured as the sum of backward and forward linkages) reflects the importance of GVCs for an economy, with GVCs accounting for between one-third and two-thirds of gross exports (of goods and services) for OECD economies in 2011 ..."

In the next figure, the blue bars showing the growth of global value chains across countries, while the red triangles show the growth rate of exports. The growth of global value chains is consistently faster than growth of exports, although you have to look closely at the figure to see this, because the blue bars are measured on the left-hand axis and the red triangles with the smaller numbers on tgghe right-hand axis. 
The bulk of these global value chains are regional: in particular, there is an east Asian cluster of value chains, a European cluster, and a North American cluster. There's some evidence that the growth of these global value chains may have slowed in the last few years, although this is a subject of ongoing research. One possible reason is that "there may also be changes in the structure of global production networks, such as China's domestic upgrading and the reorganization of East. Asian value chains, or the shortening of value chains to mitigate supply chain risks and rising labour costs in emerging economies."

How might global value chains affect productivity? Here's a taste of the details on these arguments (with citations omitted here for readability):
"Trade in goods, services and intangible inputs is at the heart of global value chains. The bulk of trade is comprised not of final goods or services, but of trade in intermediate parts and components and intermediate services. Among OECD economies , trade in intermediate inputs accounted for 56 per cent of total goods trade and 73 per cent of services trade over the period 1995-2005. ... GVCs present a new means to access international markets: economies need no longer build complete supply chains at home; instead, they can leverage foreign inputs in their production. The available variety and quality of foreign inputs (capital, labour and intermediates) can positively impact firm productivity. ... A large literature finds that productivity gains in firms that directly import these inputs. In addition, foreign competition in the domestic input market may also lead to price reductions or quality improvements for domestic suppliers, benefiting users of domestic inputs too.  ...
"GVCs are a well-established vehicle for productivity spillovers to local firms. A substantial part of GVC integration is mediated through FDI [foreign direct investment], and such multinational enterprises are typically at the global frontier of productivity, innovation and technology. Exposure to the global frontier can provide an opportunity for local firms to increase productivity through learning about advanced technologies or superior organizational and managerial practices. A large literature has investigated FDI spillovers and arrives at a broad consensus in favour of positive productivity spillovers to industries that supply multinationals through backward linkages, with little evidence through other linkages ... 
"Knowledge acquisition is an important motive for FDI, which may increase the scope for knowledge diffusion. Firms may relocate some activities, including innovation activities, to obtain access to so-called strategic assets - skilled workers, technological expertise, or the presence of competitors and suppliers - and learn from their experience . Firms locate in leading edge countries close to the technology frontier, in order to benefit from the diffusion of advanced technologies. In addition, MNE [multinational enterprise] acquisition of foreign firms can lead to a relocation of innovative activities to where they are most efficiently undertaken and increase knowledge diffusion to affiliates within the group. ...

"To participate directly in GVCs requires scale. For the largest, most productive firms that are able to export, access to new customers in foreign foreign markets can not only lead to increased learning and innovation but also incentivize complementary investments and the restructuring of internal processes to meet the additional demand. ... Upscaling may yield productivity gains. The cost of many productivity-enhancing investments, including those concerning GVC participation listed above, is largely fixed. Such investments are only viable for sufficiently large firms that can spread the fixed costs over high sales volumes. Firm upscaling may therefore contribute to productive investments."
One of the preeminent economic problems of our time is slow economic growth. Given that global value chains have expanded rapidly and seem to contribute to growth, would disrupt these production chains should face a high degree of skepticism.

Those who would like some additional  background on global value chains and productivity might want to look back at some earlier posts on the subject:

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Pricing Answer to Traffic Congestion

Traffic congestion present several tricky problems of analysis. One is that the amount of traffic on the road at a peak travel time is not fixed. As Anthony Downs in his mini-classic 1992 book, Stuck in Traffic. at least some of the travelers who are confronted by congestion will shift their patterns in one of three ways: they will shift the timing of their trip earlier or later, shift the route of their trip (say, from highways to surface roads), and shift the mode of their trip (say, from a single car to mass transit or a carpool). Conversely, when attempts are made to reduce traffic congestion by building more lanes of highway, one result will be that a certain number of those who had previously shifted their timing or route or mode of travel will now shift back to becoming drivers of single-passenger cars, and the gain in reducing congestion will be frustratingly smaller than might have been predicted.

There is certainly a role for a range of technical fixes to traffic problems: more highways, mass transit, coordinating traffic lights, signs warning of congestion, and maybe someday autonomous vehicles platooning in coordinated groups. But ultimately, putting a price on travel during peak-level congested times needs to be part of the answer, too. Brian D. Taylor (no relation) offers a short essay on the subject in "Traffic Congestion Is Counter-Intuitive, and Fixable," ACCESS Magazine, Spring 2017. He writes:
"There are five major views on how to best manage traffic congestion. One view focuses on adding road capacity: wider streets, new traffic lanes, left- and right-turn lanes, more parking, and even new freeways — all of which cost a lot of money. A second view favors putting roads on “diets” and adding capacity elsewhere: improved bus service, more bike lanes, increased building densities to encourage walking, and new rail transit lines — the last of which also costs a lot of money. A third and more cost-conscious view focuses on better management of our existing transportation systems: coordinated signal timing for cars, signal pre-emption for buses, remote coordination of bus and train operations, and freeway service patrols all aim to make our transportation systems operate more effectively. A fourth view is that technology will save the day: traffic-sensitive navigation systems, increasing use of services like Lyft and Uber, and, eventually, fully autonomous vehicles that reduce the need for parking and use road capacity more efficiently. The fifth view is perhaps most favored by transportation experts, but is also generally reviled by the traveling public and the officials they elect: using prices to balance the supply of and demand for travel. ...
[W]hen traffic is crawling along at rush hour, fewer vehicles are getting through than at other times, not more. A typical freeway lane can handle up to 2,000 vehicles per lane per hour, but in really bad traffic that throughput can be cut in half; just when we need the most out of our road system, it performs at its worst. So heavy traffic is not only irritating, it’s also really inefficient. ...
"Road pricing is expanding around the globe. In the US, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Houston, Minneapolis, and a growing list of other cities have high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. The prices on these lanes vary based on congestion levels in the parallel “free” lanes in order to keep traffic flowing smoothly in the toll lanes. The Orange County 91 Express Lanes celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2016, and over 600,000 travelers in Los Angeles have accounts to use the I-110 and I-10 ExpressLanes. The revenues generated have helped to pay for improved public transit service in the ExpressLanes corridors. ...
"Outside the US, London, Milan, Singapore, Stockholm, and several other cities now charge drivers who enter their congested central areas. Chronic bumper-to-bumper traffic disappeared virtually overnight after the charges were introduced in each of these places. Buses now travel much faster and more reliably, the streets are more pleasant for walking and biking, and those who want to pay to drive can do so with few delays. In Stockholm, public support for the central area (or cordon) pricing increased after people saw how well it worked."
The economics of traffic congestion is clear-cut. Those stuck in traffic naturally prefer to think of congestion as caused by everyone else, but everyone in the jam is part of the problem.When you are in a traffic jam, those in front of you in line are imposing costs of time delay on you, and in turn, you are imposing costs of time delay on all of those behind you in line. Those costs are a form of pollution, a "negative externality" as economists call it.   If drivers were required by road pricing to pay these peak-load costs that they impose on others when the roads are congested, many of them would find a way to shift the time or route or mode of their commute, or to telecommute at certain times.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Apprenticeships for Early Childhood Education?

Here's the dilemma: On one side, it seems important that those who do early childhood education are well-qualified for the job. After all, one justification for such programs is to help children who would otherwise have already been lagging behind in kindergarten and first grade to be school-ready. A National Academy of Science report in 2015 recommended that all lead teachers working with children from birth through age 8 should have at least a four-year bachelor's degree. On the other side, these jobs don't have high pay, and aren't likely to have high pay in the future. Thus, the dilemma is that it doesn't make economic sense to require someone to go through a lengthy and potentially costly training program to qualify for a job that doesn't have especially high pay.

Mary Alice McCarthy tackles this question in "Rethinking Credential Requirements in Early Education: Equity-based Strategies for Professionalizinga Vulnerable Workforce," written for the New America think tank (June 2017). Her proposal is that an expansion of paid apprenticeships may be a more functional way of getting high-quality teachers in place for early childhood education. She describes the underlying dilemma this way:
Few people question degree requirements for teachers in elementary schools, including in kindergarten and first grade. Advocates for degree requirements for early educators ask why we would expect anything less for the teachers of our youngest children. If a bachelor’s degree is required to teach a five-year-old, why not a four-year-old? Or a three-year-old? Teachers are teachers, according to this view, and all of them need professional training before they are ready for the classroom. ...
However, the argument that teachers in early childhood centers are the same as teachers in elementary schools and should be held to similar qualification requirements is deeply problematic. Both might be groups of teachers, but they do not represent a single workforce. Just as high school teachers and college faculty both educate, they do so in such different settings and under such distinct expectations that we do not generally think of them as a single workforce. Teachers in early childhood centers operate in a vastly different segment of the labor market than their elementary school peers. The majority work in private settings marked by rules, funding sources, and employer relationships distinct from those of public school teachers. Most importantly, they generally earn significantly lower wages and enjoy far fewer benefits than their counterparts in elementary schools. These two groups of workers are not even represented by the same unions. ...

Degree requirements might change who qualifies for a job as a lead teacher for young children, but they can’t change the underlying realities of the labor market—and that is the real problem with degree requirements in early childhood education and other low-wage occupations. The way the early education market is structured, the costs of any degree requirement will be borne almost entirely by workers who will see little, if any, increase in wages.  And college isn’t getting any cheaper. An average associate degree at a two-year public college costs around $9,500 a year. A bachelor’s degree from a
four-year public institution costs about $18,600 a year. That is a steep entry price for a profession where hourly wages average less than $10 an hour.
McCarthy suggests a structured and organized two-year apprenticeship program instead, which would lead to outside evaluations and a certificate of completion, and points to a pilot study in Philadelphia for evidence of workability. She makes a very strong case.

Requiring a college degree for early childhood education workers is not likely to raise wages for those workers. 
"The working conditions of early educators, meanwhile, are also unlikely to be affected by a degree requirement. The system of funding in the early education field—not the perception of its teachers—is what drives its fragmentation and decentralization. A degree requirement will not make state and local school systems expand the size and scope of their early childhood education centers, where working conditions and pay tend to be better. Nor will it change how federal and state programs channel their funding for early education through a decentralized system of public and private early education centers. Unless those funding sources, particularly the public programs, move toward more school-based provision of early education, there is little reason to expect a degree requirement will spark a recalibration of the early education market."
A college degree is an inefficient way to learn the specific jobs skills needed for a job working with very young children.
"A bachelor’s degree is a very time-consuming credential to earn. It is also a remarkably inefficient way to equip early educators with the knowledge, skills, and competencies outlined in the National Academies report and identified by key stakeholders like the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) and NAEYC [the National Association for the Education of Young Children] ..."
Requiring a college degree for early childhood education would have the effect that those working in these positions are younger, whiter, and tend to come from families with higher income levels.
"In other words, we can expect that the workforce will become more stratified along race, income, and age. Early childhood educators holding degrees are more likely to be young and white, and educators without degrees more likely to be older and from communities of color. That is the case for our elementary teaching workforce, which is more than 80 percent white. A bachelor’s degree requirement has the potential to reduce the likelihood that children from low-income and racially diverse backgrounds will have teachers from their communities."
I agree with the broad direction of McCarthy's proposal, but the application of this insight extends well beyond workers in early childhood education. A substantial number of those who graduate from high school have no reason to view additional academic classwork with anticipation or enjoyment. Throughout their K-12 school careers, they have mostly been in the bottom half, or bottom quarter, of the academic distribution. If a job requires additional years of classroom study, it will appear to them as a heavy burden and a strong discouragement. For many of these students, a well-structured rigorous learning-on-the-job program will be a more attractive option. Our economy needs more alternative career pathways that don't require piling up academic degrees as a starting point.