Explaining Southern California's economy

Inequality in America: The 'Great Divergence' explained

Sometimes, it's just so simple. What is the Occupy Movement protesting? That income and wealth gains have gone disproportionately to the top 1 percent. And how did this come about? Well, according to this recent paper from the San Francisco Fed, you can blame the "Great Divergence," which took place after the Great Convergence of the war years. And what caused the divergence? A failure of education:

Economists Lawrence Katz and Claudia Goldin argue that the educational system has failed to produce an adequate supply of skilled labor to keep up with the pace of technological change over the past 30 years. In contrast, remember that the Great Compression that took place in the early 1940s was essentially a reversal of this situation, where skilled labor was plentiful at a time when unskilled labor was in demand, flattening wages across the labor market. Today, employers are competing to hire highly skilled workers from a limited pool, creating a wage premium for those with better training and education; the result is the widening income gap across education groups. In addition, consider the impact of educational attainment on employability; in September 2011, the unemployment rate for those without a high school degree was 13 percent, but for those with a bachelor’s degree, the unemployment rate was 4.2 percent.

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Saving the economy: Infrastructure spending isn't enough

Occupy LA

Eric Richardson / Blogdowntown

Participants in Occupy Los Angeles rally on the steps of City Hall after marching from Pershing Square on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011.

At Business Insider, Henry Blodget offers a plan to save the economy. In the process, he says that he's choosing sides in a religious-econo war, between the big-spending Keynesians on one side and the no-spending Austrian School economists on the other (this is a super-shorthand version of the major economics debate of the past 100 years). His solution? Massive infrastructure spending:

  • The government should construct and pass a long-term budget plan that
    • Minimizes short-term pain, while
    • Getting the long-term deficit under control
  • This budget plan should be designed to benefit all Americans, not just special-interest groups or different classes or industries
  • This budget plan can theoretically include an increase in short-term spending designed to minimize the country's pain, as long as it also includes a decrease in long-term spending (again, right now, the world is willing to lend us as much money as we want)
  • One form of government spending that unequivocally benefits all Americans is infrastructure spending (when the projects are finished, America has the infrastructure)
  • Infrastructure spending would help America address another reality that has emerged in the past three decades—the reality that the infrastructure of many countries in Europe, Asia, and other regions has vaulted past that in the US and made the US look like a second-world country
  • Infrastructure spending would boost employment in one sector of the economy hammered by the recession—construction
  • Infrastructure spending would involve fewer of the conflicts and misaligned incentives that infuriate many Americans about "entitlement programs," extended unemployment benefits, welfare, food stamps, and other government expenditures that seem to encourage sloth and laziness and "socialism"
  • The 10-year government budget designed to get us out of our current predicament, therefore, should probably include a massive, multi-year infrastructure spending program.

This makes a lot of sense and sticks to the Great Depression playbook, when Harold Ickes oversaw the Public Works Administration and built much of the heavy-duty infrastructure that we assoiciate with that period and the recovery from the crisis. But just as it wasn't enough on its own in the 1930s, it won't be enough in the 2010s. 

For that, the other half of the Great Depression playbook needs to be used. This is the Works Progress Administration, overseen by Harry Hopkins. Its focus was simple and short-term: jobs, jobs, jobs.

Infrastructure spending is the perfect way to find detente between the Keynesian spenders and the Austrian no-spenders because it represents investment rather that, bluntly stated, waste. If you're going to spend, spend long-term and build what the country needs to be competitive in the future. Who can argue with that? In fact, there's aready bipartisan enthusiasm for infrastructure spending. 

But what do you do about, for example, 12 percent unemployment in California — right now? If you follow the Hopkins rules, you throw money at the problem, spending now and asking questions later. At best, you restore dignity and save citizens from the threat of long-term unemployment; at worst, you pump money into some pointless endeavors that won't yield much of anything in 30 years, but will at least attack the problem of idle human capital.

Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots have shown us that there's a lot of rage and frustration in the land. Rebuilding the nation's infrastructure is a great, partial solution. But if we're going to stave off the potential social fracture that now looms, we need to get the unemployed to work, and we need to do it a lot faster than the time we'll need to approve bridges, tunnels, and roads.

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Infrastructure Beat: As borrowing costs fall, investment opportunities rise

The President called for increased infrastructure spending in his speech last night, pointing to the many construction workers who are currently unemployed and, among other things, the need for upgraded schools. It's unclear how much of his $447-billion jobs bill would go toward this objective. But the argument for investing in infrastructure and investing now is strong. Here's the Washington Post's Ezra Klein:

Because of the recession, construction materials are cheap. So, too, is the labor. And your borrowing costs? They've never been lower. That means a dollar of investment today will go much further than it would have five years ago -- or is likely to go five years from now. So what do you do?

Invest! I should reveal that Ezra made this recommendation almost a year ago, when the yield on the 10-year Treasury note was a 2.7 percent — quite a bit higher than today, when the yield fell to a record 1.89 percent before edging up to 1.93 percent.

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Does the Solyndra bankruptcy mean that green energy isn't the solution to our problems?

That sucking sound you just heard was a half billion in federal loan guarantees and $1 billion in investment capital going down the tubes. Solyndra, a California solar startup, just declared bankruptcy, adding 1,100 workers to the state's already swollen unemployment rolls. 

At Forbes, Todd Woody summarizes the key business issue:

Can U.S. companies developing advanced solar technology compete against low-cost Chinese manufacturers who benefit from state support and a government policy to create markets at home and abroad for their products?

Probably not. In fact, Solyndra's bankruptcy proves that you can have an innovative product (thin solar panels), major venture funding, and government support — and still not make a go of it. Of course, solar isn't everything. Gov. Brown has put forward a renewable-energy plan that's supposedly capable of creating 500,000 jobs, and that plan encompasses a range of non-fossil-fuel sources. 

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