Category Archives: economics

Beyond oil lies … more oil + price volatility

One of many best selling books by Kenneth Deffeyes

One of many best-selling books by Kenneth Deffeyes

While I was at Princeton, one of the most popular courses was geology 101 taught by Dr. Kenneth S. Deffeyes. It was a sort of “Rocks for Jocks,” but had an unusual bite since Dr. Deffeyes focussed particularly on the geology of oil. Deffeyes had an impressive understanding of oil and oil production, and one outcome of this impressive understanding was his certainty that US oil production had peaked in 1970, and that world oil was about to run out too. The prediction that US oil production had peaked was not original to him. It was called Hubbert’s peak after King Hubbert who correctly predicted (rationalized?) the date, but published it only in 1971. What Deffeyes added to Hubbard’s analysis was a simplified mathematical justification and a new prediction: that world oil production would peak in the 1980s, or 2000, and then run out fast. By 2005, the peak date was fixed to November 24, of the same year: Thanksgiving day 2005 ± 3 weeks.

As with any prediction of global doom, I was skeptical, but generally trusted the experts, and virtually every experts was on board to predict gloom in the near future. A British group, The Institute for Peak Oil picked 2007 for the oil to run out, and the several movies expanded the theme, e.g. Mad Max. I was convinced enough to direct my PhD research to nuclear fusion engineering. Fusion being presented as the essential salvation for our civilization to survive beyond 2050 years or so. I’m happy to report that the dire prediction of his mathematics did not come to pass, at least not yet. To quote Yogi Berra, “In theory, theory is just like reality.” Still I think it’s worthwhile to review the mathematical thinking for what went wrong, and see if some value might be retained from the rubble.

proof of peak oilDeffeyes’s Maltheisan proof went like this: take a year-by year history of the rate of production, P and divide this by the amount of oil known to be recoverable in that year, Q. Plot this P/Q data against Q, and you find the data follows a reasonably straight line: P/Q = b-mQ. This occurs between 1962 and 1983, or between 1983 and 2005. Fro whichever straight line you pick, m and b are positive. Once you find values for m and b that you trust, you can rearrange the equation to read,

P = -mQ2+ bQ

You the calculate the peak of production from this as the point where dP/dQ = 0. With a little calculus you’ll see this occurs at Q = b/2m, or at P/Q = b/2. This is the half-way point on the P/Q vs Q line. If you extrapolate the line to zero production, P=0, you predict a total possible oil production, QT = b/m. According to this model this is always double the total Q discovered by the peak. In 1983, QT was calculated to be 1 trillion barrels. By May of 2005, again predicted to be a peak year, QT had grown to two trillion barrels.

I suppose Deffayes might have suspected there was a mistake somewhere in the calculation from the way that QT had doubled, but he did not. See him lecture here in May 2005; he predicts war, famine, and pestilence, with no real chance of salvation. It’s a depressing conclusion, confidently presented by someone enamored of his own theories. In retrospect, I’d say he did not realize that he was over-enamored of his own theory, and blind to the possibility that the P/Q vs Q line might curve upward, have a positive second derivative.

Aside from his theory of peak oil, Deffayes also had a theory of oil price, one that was not all that popular. It’s not presented in the YouTube video, nor in his popular books, but it’s one that I still find valuable, and plausibly true. Deffeyes claimed the wildly varying prices of the time were the result of an inherent quay imbalance between a varying supply and an inelastic demand. If this was the cause, we’d expect the price jumps of oil up and down will match the way the wait-line at a barber shop gets longer and shorter. Assume supply varies because discoveries came in random packets, while demand rises steadily, and it all makes sense. After each new discovery, price is seen to fall. It then rises slowly till the next discovery. Price is seen as a symptom of supply unpredictability rather than a useful corrective to supply needs. This view is the opposite of Adam Smith, but I think he’s not wrong, at least in the short term with a necessary commodity like oil.

Academics accepted the peak oil prediction, I suspect, in part because it supported a Marxian remedy. If oil was running out and the market was broken, then our only recourse was government management of energy production and use. By the late 70s, Jimmy Carter told us to turn our thermostats to 65. This went with price controls, gas rationing, and a 55 mph speed limit, and a strong message of population management – birth control. We were running out of energy, we were told because we had too many people and they (we) were using too much. America’s grown days were behind us, and only the best and the brightest could be trusted to manage our decline into the abyss. I half believed these scary predictions, in part because everyone did, and in part because they made my research at Princeton particularly important. The Science fiction of the day told tales of bold energy leaders, and I was ready to step up and lead, or so I thought.

By 2009 Dr. Deffayes was being regarded as chicken little as world oil production continued to expand.

By 2009 Dr. Deffayes was being regarded as chicken little as world oil production continued to expand.

I’m happy to report that none of the dire predictions of the 70’s to 90s came to pass. Some of my colleagues became world leaders, the rest because stock brokers with their own private planes and SUVs. As of my writing in 2018, world oil production has been rising, and even King Hubbert’s original prediction of US production has been overturned. Deffayes’s reputation suffered for a few years, then politicians moved on to other dire dangers that require world-class management. Among the major dangers of today, school shootings, Ebola, and Al Gore’s claim that the ice caps will melt by 2014, flooding New York. Sooner or later, one of these predictions will come true, but the lesson I take is that it’s hard to predict change accurately.

Just when you thought US oil had beed depleted for good, production began rising. It's now higher than the 1970 peak.

Just when you thought US oil was depleted, production began rising. We now produce more than in 1970.

Much of the new oil production you’ll see on the chart above comes from tar-sands, oil the Deffeyes  considered unrecoverable, even while it was being recovered. We also  discovered new ways to extract leftover oil, and got better at using nuclear electricity and natural gas. In the long run, I expect nuclear electricity and hydrogen will replace oil. Trees have a value, as does solar. As for nuclear fusion, it has not turned out practical. See my analysis of why.

Robert Buxbaum, March 15, 2018. Happy Ides of March, a most republican holiday.

Bitcoin risks, uses, and bubble

Bitcoin prices over the last 3 years

Bitcoin prices over the last 3 years

As I write this, the price of a single bitcoin stands are approximately $11,100 yesterday, up some 2000% in the last 6 months suggesting it is a financial bubble. Or maybe it’s not: just a very risky investment suited for inclusion in a regularly balanced portfolio. These are two competing views of bitcoin, and there are two ways to distinguish between them. One is on the basis of technical analysis — does this fast rise look like a bubble (Yes!), and the other is to accept that bitcoin has a fundamental value, one I’ll calculate that below. In either case, the price rise is so fast that it is very difficult to conclude that the rise is not majorly driven by speculation: the belief that someone else will pay more later. The history of many bubbles suggests that all bubbles burst sooner or later, and that everyone holding the item loses when it does. The only winners are the last few who get out just before the burst. The speculator thinks that’s going to be him, while the investor uses rebalancing to get some of benefit and fun, without having to know exactly when to get out.

That bitcoin is a bubble may be seen by comparing the price three years ago. At that point it was $380 and dropping. A year later, it was $360 and rising. One can compare the price rise of the past 2-3 years with that for some famous bubbles and see that bitcoin has risen 30 times approximately, an increase that is on a path to beat them all except, perhaps, the tulip bubble of 1622.

A comparison between Bitcoin prices, and those of tulips, 1929 stocks, and other speculative bubbles; multiple of original price vs year from peak.

A comparison between Bitcoin prices, and those of tulips, 1929 stocks, and other speculative bubbles; multiple of original price vs year from peak.

That its price looks like a bubble is not to deny that bitcoin has a fundamental value. Bitcoin is nearly un-counterfeit-able, and its ownership is nearly untraceable. These are interesting properties that make bitcoin valuable mostly for illegal activity. To calculate the fundamental value of a bitcoin, it is only necessary to know the total value of bitcoin business transactions and the “speed of money.” As a first guess, lets say that all the transactions are illegal and add up to the equivalent of the GDP of Michigan, $400 billion/year. The value of a single bitcoin would be this number divided by the number of bitcoin in circulation, 12,000,000, and by the “speed of money,” the number of business transactions per year per coin. I’ll take this to be 3 per year. It turns out there are 5 bitcoin transactions total per year per coin, but 2/5 of that, I’ll assume, are investment transactions. Based on this, a single bitcoin should be worth about $11,100, exactly its current valuation. The speed number, 3, includes those bitcoins that are held as investments and never traded, and those actively being used in smuggling, drug-deals, etc.

If you assume that the bitcoin trade will grow to $600 billion year in a year or so, the price rise of a single coin will surpass that of Dutch tulip bulbs on fundamentals alone. If you assume it will reach $1,600 billion/year, the GDP of Texas in the semi-near future, before the Feds jump in, the value of a coin could grow to $44,000 or more. There are several problems for bitcoin owners who are betting on this. One is that the Feds are unlikely to tolerate so large an unregulated, illegal economy. Another is that bitcoin are not likely to go legal. It is very hard (near impossible) to connect a bitcoin to its owner. This is great for someone trying to deal in drugs or trying hide profits from the IRS (or his spouse), but a legal merchant will want the protection of courts of law. For this, he or she needs to demonstrate ownership of the item being traded, and that is not available with bitcoin. The lack of good legitimate business suggests to me that the FBI will likely sweep in sooner or later.

Yet another problem is the existence of other cryptocurrencies: Litecoin (LTC), Ethereum (ETH), and Zcash (ZEC) as examples. The existence of these coins increase the divisor I used when calculating bitcoin value above. And even with bitcoins, the total number is not capped at 12,000,000. There are another 12,000,000 coins to be found — or mined, as it were, and these are likely to move faster (assume an average velocity of 4). By my calculations, with 24,000,000 bitcoin and a total use of $1,600 billion/year, the fundamental value of each coin is only $16,000. This is not much higher than its current price. Let the buyer beware.

For an amusing, though not helpful read into the price: here are Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Charlie Munger, and Noam Chomsky discussing Bitcoin.

Robert Buxbaum, December 3, 2017.

Why Warren Buffett pays 0% social security tax

Social Security is billed along with Medicare (health care for the poor) as an anti-flat tax called FICA where middle class workers pay 7.65 -15.3%, and rich people pay essentially 0%. The reason that Warren Buffet and other rich people pay 0%, on a percentage basis, far less than their secretaries, is that there is a FICA cap of $127,200 currently, and he earns far more than $127,200. Buffett’s secretaries pays 7.65%, or which 6% approximately is social-security payment, and the rest Medicare. Buffett’s company then matches the 7.65% — a situation that applies to virtually every employee in the US.

A self employed person though, a gardener say, pays both the employee and employer portion or 15.3%. The same $127,200 cap applies, but since few gardeners make more than this amount, they are likely to pay 15.3% on all earnings, with no deductions. FICA really socks the poor and middle class, and barely touches a rich man like Buffett. This is the tax-inequality that most needs addressing, in my opinion, and one I have not heard discussed.

A short history of FICA

A visual history of FICA rates (right), and of the salary cap (left). Medicare contributions were added in 1966.

As I write this, there is a debate about tax reform that mostly involves income tax, but not at all FICA. Income tax could be improved, in my opinion, and should be. We could remove some exemptions that are being abused, and we should lower the general rates, especially for foreign-earnings, but the current income tax isn’t that bad, in my opinion. Buffett likes to brag about the high rate he pays, but it’s not a bad rate compared to the rest of the world. And Buffett benefits from a lot of things we don’t. His income is taxed at a lower rate than a worker’s would be since most of it is unearned. And, like most rich folks, he has exemptions and deductions that do not apply to most. He can deduct cars, private airplanes, and interest; most folks don’t deduct these things since they don’t spend enough to exceed the “standard deduction”. I’m happy to say these issues are being addressed in the current tax re-write.

The current, House version of the GOP tax proposal includes a raise in the standard deduction and a cap on interest and other deductions. There is a general decrease in the tax rate for earnings, and a decrease for earnings made abroad and repatriated. I’d like to see tariffs, too but they do not appear in the versions I’ve seen. And I’ve very much like to see a decrease in the FICA rate coupled with a removal of the salary cap. Pick a rate, 4% say, where we collect the same amount, but spread the burden uniformly. Why should 7.65%-15.3% or the workmanship wages got to the window, the orphan, and healthcare of the poor, while 0% of Buffett’s go for this?

Some other tax ideas: I’d like to see shorter criminal sentences, especially for drugs, and I’d like to see healthcare addressed to reduce the administrative burden.

Robert E. Buxbaum, November 17, 2017. In the news today, the senate version puts back the tax exemption on private jets. The opposite of progress, they say, is congress.

The energy cost of airplanes, trains, and buses

I’ve come to conclude that airplane travel makes a lot more sense than high-speed trains. Consider the marginal energy cost of a 90kg (200 lb) person getting on a 737-800, the most commonly flown commercial jet in US service. For this plane, the ratio of lift/drag at cruise speed is 19, suggesting an average value of 15 or so for a 1 hr trip when you include take-off and landing. The energy cost of his trip is related to the cost of jet fuel, about $3.20/gallon, or about $1/kg. The heat energy content of jet fuel is 44 MJ/kg. Assuming an average engine efficiency of 21%, we calculate a motive-energy cost of 1.1 x 10-7 $/J. The amount of energy per mile is just force times distance. Force is the person’s weight in (in Newtons) divided by 15, the lift/drag ratio. The energy use per mile (1609 m) is 90*9.8*1609/15 = 94,600 J. Multiplying by the $-per-Joule we find the marginal cost is 1¢ per mile: virtually nothing compared to driving.

The Wright brothers testing their gliders in 1901 (left) and 1902 (right). The angle of the tether reflects the dramatic improvement in the lift-to-drag ratio.

The Wright brothers testing their gliders in 1901 (left) and 1902 (right). The angle of the tether reflects a dramatic improvement in lift-to-drag ratio; the marginal cost per mile is inversely proportional to the lift-to-drag ratio.

The marginal cost of 1¢/passenger mile explains why airplanes offer crazy-low, fares to fill seats. But this is just the marginal cost. The average energy cost is higher since it includes the weight of the plane. On a reasonably full 737 flight, the passengers and luggage  weigh about 1/4 as much as the plane and its fuel. Effectively, each passenger weighs 800 lbs, suggesting a 4¢/mile energy cost, or $20 of energy per passenger for the 500 mile flight from Detroit to NY. Though the fuel rate of burn is high, about 5000 lbs/hr, the mpg is high because of the high speed and the high number of passengers. The 737 gets somewhat more than 80 passenger miles per gallon, far less than the typical person driving — and the 747 does better yet.

The average passengers must pay more than $20 for a flight to cover wages, capital, interest, profit, taxes, and landing fees. Still, one can see how discount airlines could make money if they have a good deal with a hub airport, one that allows them low landing fees and allows them to buy fuel at near cost.

Compare this to any proposed super-fast or Mag-lev train. Over any significant distance, the plane will be cheaper, faster, and as energy-efficient. Current US passenger trains, when fairly full, boast a fuel economy of 200 passenger miles per gallon, but they are rarely full. Currently, they take some 15 hours to go Detroit to NY, in part because they go slow, and in part because they go via longer routes, visiting Toronto and Montreal in this case, with many stops along the way. With this long route, even if the train got 150 passenger mpg, the 750 mile trip would use 5 gallons per passenger, compared to 6.25 for the flight above. This is a savings of $5, at a cost of 20 hours of a passenger’s life. Even train speeds were doubled, the trip would still take 10 hours including stops, and the energy cost would be higher. As for price, beyond the costs of wages, capital, interest, profit, taxes, and depot fees, trains have to add the cost of new track and track upkeep. Wages too will be higher because the trip takes longer. While I’d be happy to see better train signaling to allow passenger trains to go 100 mph on current, freight-compatible lines, I can’t see the benefit of government-funded super-track for 150+ mph trains that will still take 10 hours and will still be half-full.

Something else removing my enthusiasm for super trains is the appearance of new short take-off and landing jets. Some years ago, I noted that Detroit’s Coleman Young airport no longer has commercial traffic because its runway was too short, 1051m. I’m happy to report that Bombardier’s new CS100s should make small airports like this usable. A CS100 will hold 120 passengers, requires only 1463m of runway, and is quiet enough for city use. The economics are such that it’s hard to imagine mag-lev beating this for the proposed US high-speed train routes: Dallas to Houston; LA to San José to San Francisco; or Chicago-Detroit-Toledo-Cleveland-Pittsburgh. So far US has kept out these planes because Boeing claims unfair competition, but I trust that this is just a delay. For shorter trips, I note that modern busses are as fast and energy efficient as trains, and far cheaper because they share the road costs with cars and trucks.

If the US does want to spend money, I’d suggest improving inner-city airports, and to improve roads for higher speed car and bus traffic. If you want low pollution and high efficiency, how about hydrogen hybrid buses?

Robert Buxbaum, October 30, 2017. I taught engineering for 10 years at Michigan State, and my company, REB Research, makes hydrogen generators and hydrogen purifiers.

Detroit 1967 to 2017: unemployment comes down, murder rate doesn’t.

Almost 50 years ago today, July 23, 1967 white policemen raided an unlicensed, “blind pig” bar in a black neighborhood, the 12th street of Detroit, and the city responded with four days of rioting, 43 killings (33 black, 10 white), 2509 stores looted, and over 1000 fires. In 2017, at last the city is beginning to show signs of recovery. By 2015 the city’s unemployment had gone down from about 20% to 12%, and  in the first six months 2017, the firs six months of the Trump presidency, 2017 it’s gone down again to 7 1/2%. It’s not that 7 1/2% unemployment is good, but it’s better. Per-hour salaries are hardly up, but I take that as better than having a high average salary at very low employment. As a point of reference, the unemployment rate in Detroit in 1967, before the riots was 3.4%. Within weeks, 150,000 jobs were lost, and anyone who could leave the city, did.

Detroit Unemployment rates are way down, but the city still looks like a mess.

Detroit Unemployment rates are way down, but the city still looks like a mess.

Another issue for Detroit is its uncommonly high murder rate. In the mid-80s, Detroit had the highest murder rate in the US, about 55 murders per 100,000 population per year (0.055%/year). As of February 1, 2017, the murder rate was virtually unchanged: 50 per 100,000 or 0.05%/year, but two cities have higher rates yet. At present rates, you have a 3.5% of dying by homicide if you live in Detroit for 70 years — even higher if you’re male. The rate in the rest of the US is about 1/10th this, 0.005%/year, or 5 per 100,000, with a dramatic difference between rural and urban populations.

Murder rate in 50 cities with Detroit highlighted. From The Economist, February 2017.

Murder rate in 50 cities with Detroit highlighted, from The Economist.

One of the causes of the high murder rate in Detroit, and in the US generally, I suspect, is our stiff, minimum-penalties for crime. As sir Thomas Moose pointed out, when crime is punished severely, there is a tendency to murder. If you’re going to spend the next 20 years behind bars, you might as well try any means you can to escape. Another thought — the one favored by social liberals — is that it’s the presence of guns in the US encourages murder. It may, but it also seems to prevent crime by allowing the victim to defend himself or herself. And the effect on murder is not so clear, if you consider suicide as a form of murder. In countries like Canada with few guns, people kill themselves by hanging or by throwing themselves off high buildings. My hope is that Detroit’s murder rate will drop in 2017 to match its improved economic condition, but have no clear reason to think it will.

Robert Buxbaum, July 20, 2017. Here are some suggestions I’ve made over the years.

If the wall with Mexico were covered in solar cells

As a good estimate, it will take about 130,000 acres of solar cells to deliver the power of a typical nuclear facility, 26 TWhr/year. Since Donald Trump has proposed covering his wall with Mexico with solar cells, I came to wonder how much power these cells would produce, and how much this wall might cost. Here goes.

Lets assume that Trump’s building a double wall on a strip of land one chain (66 feet) wide, with a 2 lane road between. Many US roads are designed in chain widths, and a typical, 2 lane road is 1/2 chain wide, 33 feet, including its shoulders. I imagine that each wall is slanted 50° as is typical with solar cells, and that each is 15 to 18 feet high for a good mix of power and security. Since there are 10 square chains to an acre, and 80 chains to a mile we find that it would take 16,250 miles of this to produce 26 TWhr/year. The proposed wall is only about 1/10 this long, 1,600 miles or so, so the output will be only about 1/10 as much, 2.6 TWhr/year, or 600 MW per average daylight hour. That’s not insignificant power — similar to a good-size coal plant. If we aim for an attractive wall, we might come to use Elon Musk’s silica-coated solar cells. These cost $5/Watt or $3 Billion total. Other cells are cheaper, but don’t look as nice or seem as durable. Obama’s, Ivanpah solar farm, a project with durability problems, covers half this area, is rated at 370 MW, and cost $2.2 Billion. It’s thus rated to produce slightly over half the power of the wall, at a somewhat higher price, $5.95/Watt.

Elon Musk with his silica solar panels.

Elon Musk with his, silica-coated, solar wall panels. They don’t look half bad and should be durable.

It’s possible that the space devoted to the wall will be wider than 66 feet, or that the length will be less than 1600 miles, or that we will use different cells that cost more or less, but the above provides a good estimate of design, price, and electric output. I see nothing here to object to, politically or scientifically. And, if we sell Mexico the electricity at 11¢/kWhr, we’ll be repaid $286 M/year, and after 12 years or so, Republicans will be able to say that Mexico paid for the wall. And the wall is likely to look better than the Ivanpah site, or a 20-year-old wind farm.

As a few more design thoughts, I imagine an 8 foot, chain-link fence on the Mexican side of the wall, and imagine that many of the lower solar shingles will be replaced by glass so drivers will be able to see the scenery. I’ve posited that secure borders make a country. Without them, you’re a tribal hoard. I’ve also argued that there is a pollution advantage to controlling imports, and an economic advantage as well, at least for some. For comparison, recent measurement of the Great Wall of China shows it to be 13,170 miles long, 8 times the length of Trump’s wall with China.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, June 14, 2017.

Solving the savings dilemma (how to have savings)

A few days ago, I wrote a post about the lack of savings in America, the social causes for it, and the damage it causes. I had some governmental suggestions, but suspect I didn’t emphasize that the main responsibility is personal: if you want savings, you’ve got to save.

Every rich person spends less than he earns. If you aspire to be rich, spend less on clothes than you can afford.

Every rich person spends less than he earns. If you aspire to be rich, spend less on clothes than you can afford.

If you want to have savings, it is up to you to spend less than you earn. If you don’t, you’ll never be rich, you’ll never have savings or net-economic worth, and you’ll always be strung-out over emergencies. Income and gifts won’t help if spending rises to match. At all incomes, the people who get richer are those who tailor spending to be less than earnings.

There is another personal honesty issue here, and a marriage issue too. If you spend more than you earn, someone will be cheated, and that person (your wife, husband, neighbor, friend) is likely to get mad. Earn $100 and spend $99.99, you can be honest and well liked. if you earn $1000 and spend $1000.01 and you will cheat someone you love sooner or later. Be an honest fellow and spend less. Clothes is a good place to start: say no to the fancy dress and the fancy wedding, and to fancy clothes in general. If you smoke, vaping can be a life and money saver. And try to avoid pot-smoking, at $400/oz that’s got to be a killer. And here are some water savers.

A good way to know if you are doing things right :Start a bank account, and check the balance and resolve to see it $10 higher at the end of the week than before. And that’s my two cents.

Robert Buxbaum, April 26, 2017.

Black folks have no savings (poor whites too)

The wealth of the mean American household has dropped significantly since 2007, a result of the general de-industrialization of America. It’s not that America has gotten poorer, but in the last 8 years we’ve increased the economic divide, enriching the richest few percent while leaving behind the working and bourgeoise classes. We are beginning to come back, but a particularly nasty legacy remains, especially among black families. Some 47% of black families have no liquid savings  — a far greater fraction than in 2007. The lack of savings also appears in white families (19%), and Hispanics (41%), but it’s most desperate among blacks.

College graduation rates have increased among black students, and along with the increase there has been an increase in salaries, but savings have declined. As of 2015, 22.5% of black students and 15.5% of Hispanic students had completed four years of college. This compares to 36.2% of white students, an inequality, but not a horrible one. By 2013, the average salary of a black college grad was somewhat over $1000/week, somewhat less than the average for whites, but enviable compared to the world as whole. The problem is that black workers manage to save very little compared to other ethnic groups, and compared to previous savings rates as shown by the graphic below. By 2013, the net worth of the median black family (savings, plus paid-off part of home and car) was a mere $11,000 (Pew Research Data, below), down from $19,200 six years earlier, and much lower than the net worth of white families (also down since 2007). Liquid savings among blacks are much lower — near zero — and this is just the mean. Half of all black families are doing worse.

Net worth disparity 2007 - 2011. Black folks are doing poorly and it's getting worse.

Net worth disparity 2007 – 2011. Black folks are doing poorly and it’s getting worse.

The combination of low savings and low net worth puts black folks at a distinct disadvantage to their condition six years earlier. Without savings, it is near-impossible to weather the loss of a job, or even to fix a car or pay a ticket, Surviving through a disease is basically a one-way ticket to the welfare office. Six years ago, when people saved more and prices were lower, problems like these were major annoyances. Now, a job loss or a major repair is a family disaster.

The growth of check-cashing services in black neighborhoods is a symptom, I suspect, of the lack of liquidity. A person without savings will not have a checking account. As such, he or she will not have a credit card or check cashing privileges.  The only way to cash a check will be via a for-fee service, and these tend to come at a steep cost (2-5%). People with savings accounts can cash checks essentially for free, and can usually borrow money by way of a credit card. People without savings can’t get approved. Black people and poor whites tend to use debit cards instead. They look and work like credit cards, but they incur fees upon use, and do not provide instant loans. When black folks and poor whites need quick cash, their options are the loan-shark or the pawn shop: high-cost options that take a giant toll on the family.

As mentioned above, black individuals and families have lower incomes than whites at all education levels. While racism, no-doubt plays a role, as best I can tell, the largest single cause seems to be family stability. Employed, college-educated blacks earn, on average, 95% as much as employed, college-educated whites — not great, but not bad. The real problem with black income is that black unemployment rates are higher, black education rates are lower, and single-parent families are significantly more common among blacks than among whites and Orientals. Roughly 40% of black families are single-mother, or mother+grandparent households compared to “only” 26% in the population generally. In both populations, the number of single parent households have increased dramatically in the last few years, a result I suspect of the government’s desire to help. The government gives more aid to a split-up couple than to one that stays together, but the aid brings with it long-term damage to net worth. A family with one parent will naturally have a lower-income and savings rate than a family with two. The lack of stability and savings that comes from having a single parent family, I suspect, has contributed to crime, births out-of-wedlock, and the tendency of blacks to drop out of college.

Black families don't benefit as much from college --in part a result of the choice of courses.

Black families don’t benefit much from college –in part a result of course choices, in part the result of borrowing. (Forbes, 2015).

One finds that do-gooders in the white communities want to eliminate check cashing businesses and pawn shops in a misguided desire to help the low-income neighborhoods, but the success of these companies tell me that they are needed. Though check services and pawn brokers take a nasty bite, urban life would be much worse without them, I suspect.

Another so-called solution of the do-gooders, is to tax savings and transfer the wealth to the poor. This form of wealth redistribution has been a cornerstone of the Democratic party for the last century. The idea of the tax is that it will transfer “idle wealth” from rich savers to poor folks who will spend it immediately. The problem is that great swathes of the nation don’t save at all currently; net worth is down all across the US — among white and black families both. Taxing savings will almost-certainly reduce the savings rate even further. Besides, savings are the stuff of self-determination and dreams — far more than spending, it is savings that allows a person to start a new business. One does not provide for the dreams of one group by taking them from another — particularly another group chosen to be immediate spenders. That is a route to community disaster, is seen by looking at Detroit.

As it is, many poor, inner city children do not see a path out via education. Detroit school attendance hovers around 50%, and business startups are lacking. As best inner city people can tell, the only ways out are sports, music, prostitution, crime, and the church. With higher savings rates and higher family stability, folks could start businesses, and/or take advantage of job opportunities that come along. People seem to think that wealth redistribution should help, but it just seems to reduce savings and family stability. Every effort to increase wealth redistribution only seems to make things worse in Detroit.  It sometimes seems that the only businesses in Detroit are check cashing, pawn brokers, churches, hair-salons, fast food, and medical marijuana — businesses that require little investment, but provide little community return too. Detroit has lost its manufacturing center, and now has more medical marijuana providers than groceries — a sad state of affairs.

The Check cashing services of south-eastern MI are concentrated in poor black and white neighborhoods.

The Check cashing services of south-eastern MI are concentrated in poor black and white neighborhoods.

In 2016, both presidential candidates touted major infrastructure projects, highways and the like, to help the inner city poor. In principle this can help, but I have my doubts. One basis of doubt: inner city youth do not have the training to build roads and bridges — they have barely the training to work at McDonald’s. For another thing, if the project itself isn’t needed, it becomes another form of income redistribution. There tends to be a lack of pride in doing it well, and the benefits are basically nothing. A major war could provide jobs, of course, but most sane people prefer peace. Trump has made the case for tariffs (closing off free trade) as a way to rebuild the industrial center of cities like Detroit. It’s an approach that I think has merit. He’s also suggested closing the border to low-wage, Mexican workers, and recently signed a bill that raised the minimum wage for foreign workers. This is expected to raise the price of California lettuce and NY hotel stays, but is likely to increase employment among low-skill Americans — blacks and poor whites. Small steps, I think, to solving a serious national problem.

Robert E. Buxbaum, April 21, 2017. I ran for water commissioner 2016 (Republican). I lost. I also have some infrastructure suggestions, including daylighting some rivers and adding weirs to improve water quality and stop flooding. If you like my ideas (or don’t) please provide comments.

The argument for free trade is half sound

In 1900, the average tariff on imported goods was 27.4% and there was no income tax. Import tariffs provided all the money to run the US government and there was no minimum wage law. The high tariffs kept wage rates from falling to match those in the 3rd world. Currently, the average tariff is near-zero: 1.3%. There is a sizable income tax and a government income deficit; minimum wage laws are used to prop up salaries. Most economists claim we are doing things right now, and that the protective tariffs of the past were a mistake. Donald Trump claimed otherwise in his 2016 campaign. Academic economists are appalled, and generally claim he’s a fool, or worse. The argument they use to support low tariffs was made originally by Adam Smith (1776): “It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy…. If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry.” As a family benefits from low cost products, a country must too. Why pay more?  How stupid would you have to be to think otherwise?

A cartoon from Puck 1911. Do you cut tariffs, and if so how much. High tariffs provide high wages and expensive prices for the consumer. Low tariffs lead to cheap products and low wages. Uncle Sam is confused.

A cartoon from Puck, 1911. Should tariffs be cut, and if so, how much. High tariffs provide high prices and high wages. Low tariffs lead to low prices for the consumer, but low wages. Uncle Sam is confused.

Of course, a country is not a family, and it is clear that some people will benefit more from cheap products, others less, and some folks will even suffer. Consumers and importers benefit, while employees generally do not. They are displaced from work, or find they must compete with employees in very low wage countries, and often with child labor or slave labor. The cartoon at right shows the conundrum. Uncle Sam holds a knife labeled “Tariff Revision” trying to decide where to cut. Any cut that helps consumers hurts producers just as much. Despite the cartoon, it seems to me there is likely a non-zero tariff rate that does not slow trade too much, but still provides revenue and protects American jobs.

A job-protecting tariff was part of the Republican platform from Lincoln’s time, well into the 20th century, and part of the Whig platform before that. Democrats, especially in the south, preferred low tariffs, certainly no more than needed to provide money for government operation. That led to a diminution of US tariffs, beginning in the mid- 1800s, first for US trade with developed countries, and eventually with third world as well. By the 1930s, we got almost no government income from tariffs, and almost all from an ever-larger income tax. After WWII low tariff reductions became a way to promote world stability too: our way of helping the poor abroad get on their feet again. In the 2016 campaign, candidate Donald Trump challenged this motivation and the whole low-tariff approach as anti- American (amor anti America-first). He threatened to put a 35% tariff on cars imported from Mexico as a way to keep jobs here, and likely to pay for the wall he claimed he would build as president. Blue-collar workers loved this threat, whether they believed it or not, and they voted Republican to an extent not seen in decades. Educated, white collar folks were uniformly appalled at Trump’s America-first insensitivity, and perhaps (likely) by the thought that they might have to pay more for imported goods. As president, Trump re-adjusted his threat to 20%, an interesting choice, and (I suspect) a good one.

The effect of a 20% tariff can be seen better, I think, by considering a barter-economy between two countries, one developed, one not: Mexico and the US, say with an without a 20% tax. Assume these two countries trade only in suits and food. In the poor country, the average worker can make either 4 suits per month or 200 lbs of food. In the developed country, workers produce either 10 suits or 1000 lbs of food. Because it’s a barter economy with a difference in production, we expect that, in the poor country, a suit costs 50 lbs of food; in the rich country, 100 lbs of food. There is room here to profit by trade.

The current state of tariffs world-wide. Quite a few countries have tariffs much higher than ours. Among those, Mexico.

Tariffs world-wide. While we put no tax on most imported products, while much of the world taxes our products rather heavily.

With no tariff, totally free trade, an importer will find he can make a profit bringing 100 lbs of US food to Mexico to trade for 2 suits. He can return two suits to the US having gotten his two suits at the price of one, less the cost of transport, lawyers, and middlemen (relatively low). Some US suit-makers will suffer, but the importer benefits immediately, and eventually US consumers and Mexican suit workers will benefit too. Eventually, US suit prices will go down, and Mexican wages up, We will have cheaper suits and will shift production to produce what we make best —  food.

In time, we can expect that an American suit maker will move his entire production to Mexico bringing better equipment and better management. Under his hand, lets assume his Mexican workers make 6 suits per month. The boss can now pay them better, perhaps 100 lbs of food and two suits per month. He still makes a nice profit, more than before: he ships two suits to the US to buy the 200 lbs of food, and retains now two suits as profit. Hillary Clinton believed this process was irreversible. “Those jobs are gone and they’re not coming back,” her campaign told CNN. She claimed she’d retrain the jobless “for the jobs of the future” and redistribute the wealth of the rich, a standard plank of the democratic platform since 1896. But for several reasons industrial voters didn’t trust her. Redistribution of wealth rarely works because, for example, the manufacturer can keep his profits off-shore, as many do.

While a very high tariff would stop all trade, but lets see what would happen with Trump’s 20% tariff. With a 20% tariff, when the first two suits come to the US, we extract 0.4 suits in tax revenue, but nothing on export. The importer still makes a profit, but it’s now 0.6 suits, the equivalent of 60 lbs of food. He can sell his suits for less than the American, but not quite as much less. If the manufacturer moves to Mexico he makes more money than by trade alone, but not quite as much. Tax is still collected on every suit brought to America — now 20% of the 3 suits per Mexican worker that the Boss must export. The American worker’s wages are depressed but he/she isn’t forced to compete with the Mexican dollar-for-dollar (suit for suit). In barter terms, he isn’t required to make 6 suits for every 100 lbs of

Repeating the above for different tax rates, we find that, in the above fictional economy a 50% tariff in the maximum to allow any trade (or the minimum rate to stop trade completely): the first two suits might enter; but they’d be taxed at one suit, just enough to pay for the 100 lbs of food. There would be no profit for the importer, and he/she would stop importing. At 50% tariff, we would get no new goods, and we’d collect no new revenue – a bad situation. Lincoln’s “protective tariffs” of 1861 may have contributed to Southern succession and the start of the civil war. While there is a benefit to trade, it seems to me that some modest tariff (10%, 20%) is better for us — a conclusion that Trump seems to have intuited, and that many other countries seem to have come to, too (see map-chart above). As for the academic economists, I note that they also predicted that stock market crash should Trump be elected; it’s gone nearly straight up since November 8, 2016. For experts on money, I find that most economists are not rich.

Robert E. Buxbaum, March 27, 2017. I learned such economics as I have from my one course in economics, plus comic books like the classic “Once upon a dime” produced by the New York Federal Reserve. Among the lessons learned: that money is a distraction, just a more convenient way to carry around a suit, 100 lbs of food, or a month of work. If you want to understand economics, I think it helps to work things out in terms of barter. As

The game is rigged and you can always win.

A few months ago, I wrote a rather depressing essay based on Nobel Laureate, Kenneth Arrow’s work, and the paradox of de Condorcet. It is mathematically shown that you can not make a fair election, even if you wanted to, and no one in power wants to. The game is rigged.

To make up for that insight, I’d like to show from the work of John Forbes Nash (A Beautiful Mind) that you, personally, can win, basically all the time, if you can get someone, anyone to coöperate by trade. Let’s begin with an example in Nash’s first major paper, “The Bargaining Problem,” the one Nash is working on in the movie— read the whole paper here.  Consider two people, each with a few durable good items. Person A has a bat, a ball, a book, a whip, and a box. Person B has a pen, a toy, a knife, and a hat. Since each item is worth a different amount (has a different utility) to the owner and to the other person, there are almost always sets of trades that benefit both. In our world, where there are many people and everyone has many durable items, it is inconceivable that there are not many trades a person can make to benefit him/her while benefiting the trade partner.

Figure 3, from Nash’s, “The bargaining problem.” U1 and U2 are the utilities of the items to the two people, and O is the current state. You can improve by barter so long as your current state is not on the boundary. The parallel lines are places one could reach if money trades as well.

Good trades are even more likely when money is involved or non-durables. A person may trade his or her time for money, that is work, and any half-normal person will have enough skill to be of some value to someone. If one trades some money for durables, particularly tools, one can become rich (slowly). If one trades this work for items to make them happy (food, entertainment) they can become happier. There are just two key skills: knowing what something is worth to you, and being willing to trade. It’s not that easy for most folks to figure out what their old sofa means to them, but it’s gotten easier with garage sales and eBay.

Let us now move to the problem of elections, e.g. in this year 2016. There are few people who find the person of their dreams running for president this year. The system has fundamental flaws, and has delivered two thoroughly disliked individuals. But you can vote for a generally positive result by splitting your ticket. American society generally elects a mix of Democrats and Republicans. This mix either delivers the outcome we want, or we vote out some of the bums. Americans are generally happy with the result.

A Stamp act stamp. The British used these to tax every transaction, making it impossible for the ordinary person to benefit by small trade.

A Stamp act stamp,. Used to tax every transaction, the British made it impossible for ordinary people to benefit by small trades.

The mix does not have to involve different people, it can involve different periods of time. One can elect a Democrat president this year, and an Republican four years later. Or take the problem of time management for college students. If a student had to make a one time choice, they’d discover that you can’t have good grades, good friends, and sleep. Instead, most college students figure out you can have everything if you do one or two of these now, and switch when you get bored. And this may be the most important thing they learn.

This is my solution to Israel’s classic identity dilemma. David Ben-Gurion famously noted that Israel had the following three choices: they could be a nation of Jews living in the land of Israel, but not democratic. They could be a democratic nation in the land of Israel, but not Jewish; or they could be Jewish and democratic, but not (for the most part) in Israel. This sounds horrible until you realize that Israel can elect politicians to deliver different pairs of the options, and can have different cities that cater to thee options too. Because Jerusalem does not have to look like Tel Aviv, Israel can achieve a balance that’s better than any pure solution.

Robert E. Buxbaum, July 17-22, 2016. Balance is all, and pure solutions are a doom. I’m running for water commissioner.