“Implausible Numbers”: A new paper, plus charts

I’ve been busy putting together a new paper titled “Implausible Numbers: How our current measures of economic competitiveness are misleading us and why we need new ones” It’s accompanied by a Competitiveness chartbook. The two should be read together.

These are draft work-in-progress, so I’d be very interested in getting comments.

R&D in the Budget: Half Full or Half Empty?

The President’s budget calls for flat spending on R&D, adjusted for inflation.


Is this good news or bad news? Depends on what your expectations are.  The general reaction was favorable.

Science News wrote:

President Obama sent the research community a valentine of sorts in his proposed 2012 federal budget. Sent to Congress on February 14, the budget was a pledge to fight for increased investment in research and education even as the president committed to a belt-tightening for most segments of federal spending.

Mark Muro and Kenan Fikri at the New Republic wrote:

In sum, whether slightly surreal or not, given the uncertainty of the present environment, it is important and appropriate that the White House has put down a strong marker for investment and growth through innovation even though the 2012 budget dialogue will be focused on cost cutting.

Personally, I’ve got a wait-and-see attitude. I worry that the White House is still in a pro-regulatory mood that will encumber innovation.

The Health-Education Decade

 We might as well put the 2000s to bed completely.  From 2000 to 2010, health sector jobs grew by 3.3 million; Education sector jobs rose by 1.8 million; The rest of economy lost  -7.1 million jobs.

Here’s some more detail if you want it.

Is the Defense Industrial Base Disappearing?

Richard McCormack of manufacturingnews.com writes:

The shift of U.S. manufacturing to foreign nations has become an important issue to the U.S. intelligence community. The Director for National Intelligence is undertaking a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the state of American manufacturing. Growing concern over loss of domestic capability and dependence on foreign nations for key high-tech materials, components and systems has led the DNI office to start such an effort.

I’m glad to hear that, but I certainly hope that the DNI realizes that the manufacturing statistics are pretty much out to lunch.

The New Centrism

I don’t do much politics on this blog, but I feel like I have to say something about the demise of the Democratic Leadership Council, which helped bring Bill Clinton to the Presidency in the early 1990s. A lot of writers have interpreted the end of the DLC as the end of centrism, and a sign that Washington has become completely polarized.

My take is different. To me, we’re moving into a new era of centrist ideas, based around the importance of innovation and investment, creative thinking about regulation and jobs, and a greater appreciation of a global economy built around cross-border collaboration rather than “you-me” economic nationalism.

Rather than the center disappearing, I think we’re going to start seeing both left and right start drawing on ‘new centrist’ ideas. Let me just give a few of them:

*The importance of innovation for driving economic and job growth. When businesses try and innovate, we should reward rather than punish them, especially given the innovation shortfall of the past decade.

*The need to  think about investment in broad terms, including human capital and knowledge capital. Our conventional economic statistics, which measure only physical investment, are giving us a misleading view of the economy.

*The need to understand the true nature of the long-term fiscal and entitlement problem: The long-term rise in medical spending is a total reflection of falling or flat productivity in the healthcare sector. If we can fix that–through a combination of techological advances and institutional change–we can in effect grow our way out of the entitlement problem.

*The importance of rising real wages for young educated workers as a sign of the health of the economy. Real wages for young college grads have been falling since 2000–we cannot operate a modern economy this way, because our young people can no longer afford to pay for the education they need.

*The need to find some way to lessen the burden of regulation without losing touch with our social values. We need a systematic process for examining the thousands of regulations and carefully adjusting or removing the ones that slow down growth, while protecting public health, safety, and the environment.

*The need to think about the global economy in terms of supply chains which cross national borders. The U.S. needs to make sure that we are part of global supply chains and that we are getting our fair share of the benefits.  And we need new measures of competitiveness that take account of the new world.

I’m working on these ideas in affiliation with the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), where I am Senior Fellow.  Will Marshall, who helped found the DLC so many years ago, is head of PPI, which is vibrant and growing. Please keep an eye on the PPI website here as we aim towards the future.

The Mistaken Assumption Behind Q&A Sites

The NYT has an article this morning about the rise in Q&A sites, like Quora and Stack Exchange. But in my view, there’s a mistaken assumption behind them: That the answers to most or all of your questions exists out there somewhere on the Net or in the brains of experts,  if only you could ask the right person.

My view is the exact opposite: I believe that the set of known answers is very small compared to the set of possible important questions.  Most of what we really need to know requires sustained systematic study. In other words, finding out important new answers is expensive.

I worry that Q&A sites help teach people that answers are cheap (or free).  And then we won’t be willing to spend the money to get the answers to the important new questions.

I could be wrong. But I know  I can formulate many many important economics-related questions for which there is no good answer because no one has done the  right research, because collecting the data is too expensive.  I assume that any subject matter expert can do the same in their own field.

When Did the Innovation Shortfall Start?

I’m responding to the posts by Arnold Kling and Bryan Kaplan critiquing  Tyler’s The Great Stagnation. Let me just throw out some thoughts, from the perspective of someone who thinks that The Great Stagnation is a terrific book.

1. I agree wholeheartedly with Tyler that the current crisis is a supply-side rather than a demand-side problem. That explains why the economy has responded relatively weakly to demand-side intervention.

2. From my perspective,  the innovation slowdown started in 1998 or 2000, rather than 1973–sorry, Tyler.  The slowdown was mainly concentrated in the biosciences, reflected in statistics like a slowdown in new drug approvals, slow or no gains in death rates for many age groups (see my post here),  and low or negative productivity in healthcare (see David Cutler on this and my post here).  This is a chart I ran in January 2010 (the 2007 death rate has been revised up a bit since then)–it shows a steady decline in the death rate for Americans aged 45-54 until the late 1990s.

The innovation slowdown was also reflected in the slow job growth in innovative industries, and the sharp decline in real wages for young college graduates (see my post here). (Young college grads, because they have no investment in legacy sectors, inevitably flock to the dynamic and innovative industries in the economy. If their real wages are falling, it’s because the innovative industries are few and far between).

3. The apparent productivity gains over the past ten years have been a statistical fluke caused in large part by the inability of our statistical system to cope with globalization, including: The lack of any direct price comparisons between imported and comparable domestic goods and services; systematic biases in the import price statistics (see Houseman et al  here, for example); and no tracking of knowledge capital flows. I’ve got several posts coming on this soon.

4. I agree with Tyler that regulation of innovation is a big problem.  That’s why I’ve suggested a new process, a Regulatory Improvement Commission,  for reforming selected regulations.

5. I’m of the view that we may be close to another wave of innovation, centered in the biosciences, that will drive growth and job creation over the medium run.  If we want growth and rising living standards, we need to avoid adding on well-meaning regulations that drive up the cost of innovation.