Stimulus Recipients “Have Strong Incentives to Inflate Their Reported Numbers”

(p. A19) After reporting GDP, the government released new numbers claiming that the stimulus programs have “created or saved” over a million jobs. These data were collected from responses by government agencies that received federal funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Agencies were required to report “an estimate of the number of jobs created and the number of jobs retained by the project or activity.” This report is required of all recipients (generally private contractors) of agency funds.

Unfortunately, these data are not reliable indicators of job creation nor of the even vaguer notion of job retention. There are two major problems. The first and most obvious is reporting bias. Recipients have strong incentives to inflate their reported numbers. In a race for federal dollars, contractors may assume that the programs that show the most job creation may be favored by the government when it allocates additional stimulus funds.
No dishonesty on the part of recipients is implied or required. But when a hire conceivably can be classified as resulting from the stimulus money, recipients have every incentive to classify the hire as such. Classification as stimulus-induced is even more likely if a respondent must only say that, except for the money, an employee would have been fired. In this case, no hiring need occur at all.
. . .
Net labor market figures do exist. Administrations have always been held to the time-tested and well-understood monthly job numbers put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports the unemployment rate and the net job gain or loss for the economy as a whole. It is important to use reliable, accurate and well-understood numbers to determine the true causes of recovery. The unemployment rate, now at 9.8%, has continued to rise, and job losses have remained at high levels throughout the stimulus period. Few will be comforted by the good-news-only claim that the stimulus “created or saved” over one million jobs.

For the full commentary, see:
EDWARD P. LAZEAR. “Stimulus and the Jobless Recovery; Jobs ‘created or saved’ is meaningless. What matters is net job gain or loss, and that means the unemployment rate.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., NOVEMBER 2, 2009): A19.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article was dated Nov. 1st.)

“Market Wu” Annoys Maoists and Corrupt Bureaucrats

WuJinnglian2009-10-24.jpg “Wu Jinglian helped to create China’s market economy, and now he is defending it against conservative hardliners in the Communist Party.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1) AT 79, Wu Jinglian is considered China’s most famous economist.

In the 1980s and ’90s, he was an adviser to China’s leaders, including Deng Xiaoping. He helped push through some of this country’s earliest market reforms, paving the way for China’s spectacular rise and earning him the nickname “Market Wu.”
Last year, China’s state-controlled media slapped him with a new moniker: spy.
Mr. Wu has not been interrogated, charged or imprisoned. But the fact that a state newspaper, The People’s Daily, among others, was allowed to publish Internet rumors alleging that he had been detained on suspicions of being a spy for the United States hints that he is annoying some very important people in the government.
He denied the allegations, and soon after they were published, China’s cabinet denied that an investigation was under way.
But in a country that often jails critics, Mr. Wu seems to be testing the limits of what Beijing deems permissible. While many economists argue that China’s growth model is flawed, rarely does a prominent Chinese figure, in the government or out, speak with such candor about flaws he sees in China’s leadership.
Mr. Wu — who still holds a research post at an institute affiliated with the State Council, China’s cabinet — has white hair and an amiable face, and he appears frail. But his assessments are often harsh. In books, speeches, interviews and television appearances, he warns that conservative hardliners in the Communist Party have gained influence in the government and are trying to dismantle the market reforms he helped formulate.
He complains that business tycoons and corrupt officials have hijacked the economy and manipulated it for their own ends, a system he calls crony capitalism. He has even called on Beijing to establish a British-style democracy, arguing that political reform is inevitable.
Provocative statements have made him a kind of dissident economist here, and revealed the sharp debates behind the scenes, at the highest levels of the Communist Party, about the direction of China’s half-market, half-socialist economy.
In many ways, it is a continuation of the debate that has been raging for three decades: What role should the government play in China’s hybrid economy?
Mr. Wu says the spy rumors were “dirty tricks” employed by his critics to discredit him.
“I have two enemies,” he said in a recent interview. “The crony capitalists and the Maoists. They will use any means to attack me.”
. . .
(p. 7) In interviews, Mr. Wu says he feels compelled to speak out because conservatives and “old-style Maoists” have been gaining influence in the government since 2004. These groups, he said, are pressing for a return to central planning and placing blame for corruption and social inequality on the very market reforms he championed.
At the same time, Mr. Wu says, corrupt bureaucrats are pushing for the state to take a larger economic role so they can cash in on their positions through payoffs and bribes, as well as by steering business to allies.
“I’m not optimistic about the future,” Mr. Wu said. “The Maoists want to go back to central planning and the cronies want to get richer.”

For the full story, see:
DAVID BARBOZA. “China’s Mr. Wu Keeps Talking.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., September 26, 2009): 1 & 7.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

WuChinaTimeline2009-10-24.jpgSource of timeline graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

The Real Disney and the Disney of Academic Critiques

(p. 324) Disney seems no more real in the growing body of academic critiques of the man and the company that bears his name. Many of these critiques are vaguely if not specifically Marxist in their methodology, and they display the usual Marxist tendency to bulldoze the complexities of human behavior in the pursuit of an all–embracing interpretation of Disney’s life and work. What fatally cripples most academic writing about Walt Disney is simple failure to examine its supposed subject. Disney scholarship, like many other kinds of scholarship in today’s academy, feeds on itself. The common tendency is for scholars to rush past the facts of Disney’s life and career, frequently getting a lot of them wrong, in order to write about what really interests them, which is what other scholars have already written. It is this incestuous quality, even more than such commonly cited sins as a reliance on jargon, that makes so much academic writing, on Disney as on other subjects, claustrophobically difficult to read.

Disney has attracted other writers whose unsupportable claims and speculations sometimes win approval of scholars all too eager to believe the worst of the man. The persistent accusations of anti-Semitism are only the mildest examples of an array whose cumulative effect is to portray a Disney who was, among other vile things, racist, misogynist, imperialist, sexually warped. a spy for J. Edgar Hoover, desperate to conceal his illegitimate Spanish birth, (p. 325) and so terrified of death that he had his body cryogenically frozen. Pathologies are undoubtedly at work here, none of them Disney’s.

Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. 1 ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007.

Wind Power is Volatile and Unreliable, Especially When Power Demand is Highest

BPA_real_time_wind_ForJuly2009.png Graph of total electric power load and total wind power generation from the Bonneville Power Authority (BPA) for a week in late July 2009. Source of graph:

(p. A14) For more than a century, producing power has been a matter of flipping a switch. Need more electricity? Fire up some fuel. Need less? Dial the flame back down.

Things won’t be that easy in a world that gets much of its energy from renewable sources, which come and go at nature’s whim. Wind tends to blow hardest at night — a problem, since people use electricity mostly during the day. Sunshine can lose its intensity in seconds if eclipsed by a cloud — inconvenient for people who like their air conditioners to run steadily on summer days.
. . .
Most of the electricity in Bonneville’s service area comes from hydroelectric power. To compensate for the volatility of wind, Bonneville tweaks the amount of water it lets through the dams. But that doesn’t work for the most extreme shifts in wind. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing hard, Bonneville releases extra water over the tops of dams without using it to generate electricity. Otherwise, electrical wires might get overloaded. And when the wind is so strong that Bonneville can’t ditch enough water, the utility orders wind turbines shut off.
“Everything changes with wind,” says Bart McManus, a wind expert at Bonneville.
Sudden doldrums can be as troublesome as sudden gusts. That was the problem on Feb. 26, 2008, in Texas, which produces more wind power than any other state.
At 3 p.m. that afternoon, Texas’s wind farms, concentrated in the western part of the state, were throwing off about 2,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve about one million households. Then a cold front blew in. By 6:30 p.m. — when electricity demand typically peaks — wind production in Texas had cratered to about 360 megawatts.
Exacerbating matters, Texans began turning up their heat — much of which, in rural parts of the state, comes from electricity. So, just as wind power unexpectedly plummeted, demand for power spiked.

For the full commentary, see:
JEFFREY BALL. “Unbridled Energy: Predicting Volatile Wind, Sun
Utilities Ramp Up Focus on Forecasting When Renewable Fuel Is at a Peak to Avoid Squandering Power That Still Can’t Be Stored.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., OCTOBER 5, 2009): A14.

(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the last sentence of the quoted passage, appeared in the print edition, but was inexplicably deleted from the online version.)

For an updated “Near-Real-Time” graph of BPA load and wind generation, see:

Malaria “Weakly Related to Temperature”; “Strongly Related to Poverty”

(p. A17) In the West, campaigners for carbon regulations point out that global warming will increase the number of malaria victims. This is often used as an argument for drastic, immediate carbon cuts.

Warmer, wetter weather will improve conditions for the malaria parasite. Most estimates suggest that global warming will put 3% more of the Earth’s population at risk of catching malaria by 2100. If we invest in the most efficient, global carbon cuts–designed to keep temperature rises under two degrees Celsius–we would spend a massive $40 trillion a year by 2100. In the best case scenario, we would reduce the at-risk population by only 3%.
In comparison, research commissioned by the Copenhagen Consensus Center shows that spending $3 billion annually on mosquito nets, environmentally safe indoor DDT sprays, and subsidies for effective new combination therapies could halve the number of those infected with malaria within one decade. For the money it takes to save one life with carbon cuts, smarter policies could save 78,000 lives. . . .
Malaria is only weakly related to temperature; it is strongly related to poverty. It has risen in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 20 years not because of global warming, but because of failing medical response.

For the full commentary, see:

BJORN LOMBORG. “Climate Change and Malaria in Africa; Limiting carbon emissions won’t do much to stop disease in Zambia.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., NOVEMBER 2, 2009): A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article was dated Nov. 1st.)

Calderón’s Decision Is Bigger than Reagan’s Firing of Air Traffic Controllers

ElectriciansProtestMexico2009-10-29.jpg“The Mexican Union of Electricians protests the government’s decision to liquidate the state-owned electricity company in Mexico City.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A19) Eight days ago, just after midnight on a Sunday morning, Mexican President Felipe Calderón instructed federal police to take over the operations of the state-owned electricity monopoly, Luz y Fuerza del Centro (LyFC), which serves Mexico City and parts of surrounding states. The company’s assets will stay in the hands of the government but will now be run by the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), a national state-owned utility and the major supplier of LyFC’s energy.

The net effect of the move is to dethrone 42,000 members of the Mexican Union of Electricians, which had won benefits over the decades to make Big Three auto workers in Detroit blush. When the liquidation is complete, it is expected that the company will employ about 8,000. To appreciate the magnitude of Mr. Calderón’s decision, think of Ronald Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers–only bigger. As one internationally renowned Mexican economist remarked on Sunday, it is “the most important act of government in 20 years.”

For the full commentary, see:
MARY ANASTASIA O’GRADY. “Mexico’s Calderón Takes on Big Labor; Its state-owned electricity company was bleeding the national treasury dry.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., October 19, 2009): A19.

Walt Disney: Motive Was “Fun” (Not “Money”)

(p. 291) Said Bob Gurr, a member of the WED staff: “One big thrust behind our design work for the World’s Fair was the fact that we were going to own all the equipment. In other words, somebody else would build the pavilion, on somebody else’s property, but the show equipment that went in there was Disney’s, and he had a ready-made location waiting for it. The fact that the Fair was going to run two years meant he could build more expensively, and Disney priced these projects in a way that the sponsors were paying for everything for a two-year use.”

Disney approached the fair with a certain skepticism, even so. “You don’t like to do those things unless you have fun doing ’em,” he said in 1961, when work on the exhibits was just getting under way “You don’t do ’em for money.” Robert Moses, the imperious road builder who was in command of the fair, “wanted us to develop the amusement area and we looked at it,” Disney said, ‘but it just wasn’t for us. I wouldn’t want to try to do anything in New York. I’m not close enough. . . . On top of that, I mean I don’t know whether I want to do any outside of Disneyland because you don’t want to spread yourself thin.”

Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. 1 ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007.
(Note: ellipsis in original.)

Despite Importance of Economic Historians, History Departments Hire Fewer Economic Historians


Source of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. C7) Over the last three decades the number of history faculty members at four-year institutions has more than doubled to 20,000-plus, said Robert B. Townsend, assistant director for research at the American Historical Association. Yet the growth has been predominantly in the newer specializations, spurring those in diplomatic, military, legal and economic history to complain they are being squeezed out.

In 1975, for example, three-quarters of college history departments employed at least one diplomatic historian; in 2005 fewer than half did. The number of departments with an economic historian fell to 31.7 percent from 54.7 percent. By contrast the biggest gains were in women’s history, which now has a representative in four out of five history departments.

For the full story, see:
PATRICIA COHEN. “Great Caesar’s Ghost! Are Traditional History Courses Vanishing?” The New York Times (Thurs., June 11, 2009): C1 & C7.
(Note: the online version is dated Weds., June 10.)

Angel Investors Face High Risk and Negative Returns

Some of the difficulties in angel investing are highlighted below. These difficulties support the view that self-financing is likely to remain a crucial mode of initial financing for many high-level entrepreneurs.

(p. B1) An angel investor is anyone who privately provides capital to a promising business, often a start-up, that isn’t run by a friend or family member. Scott Shane, an economist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, estimates that the U.S. has at least 140,000 active angels who collectively invest some $20 billion a year in new businesses.

. . .

Being an angel is hellishly risky. To be sure, one recent study found that 7% of the angel investments with final outcomes went up at least tenfold. And many fledgling angels are driven by the dream of finding the next Google while it still is in the cradle.
But roughly half of all new businesses fail within their first five years, according to the Small Business Administration. Not surprisingly then, researchers have estimated that at least half of all angel investments lose money and 48% of investments with final outcomes result in a 100% loss.
Worse, those returns were earned by “accredited” angels, individual investors with at least $200,000 in annual income and $1 million or more in net worth. The vast majority of the profits from angel investing appear to be earned by the top 10% of angels, who tend to be rich, well-connected veterans of high-growth industries. Unaccredited angels, with less capital to offer and weaker links to expert advice, are likely to see fewer deals with potential for high returns.
Furthermore, these private businesses are illiquid, so angels can’t dump their holdings at will, the way mortals do every day in the stock or bond market. Thus, being an angel takes enormous patience. “Your losers die faster than your winners win,” said Robert Wiltbank, a business professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore.
. . .

So why would anyone want to be an angel, and who should consider it? “You get to play God a little,” said Paul Kedrosky, an active angel investor and a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship. “You get the charge of helping to create something exciting, without having too many annoying partners.”

For the full commentary, see:
JASON ZWEIG. “THE INTELLIGENT INVESTOR; Can Angel Investors Earn Heavenly Returns?” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., OCTOBER 31, 2009): B1.
(Note: ellipses added.)