Friday, September 24, 2021

Energy Prices in Europe Hit Records After Wind Stops Blowing

Heavy reliance on wind power, coupled with a shortage of natural gas, has led to a spike in energy prices

By Joe Wallace of The WSJ

In one of my classes this week we are reading the chapter about green energy in the book The Economics of Public Issues. It mentions that back up power (usually fossil fuel) is needed for when the wind does not blow. These backup power stations have to start and stop as the wind blows and that causes more pollution than if they ran constantly.

Excerpts from the WSJ article:

"Natural gas and electricity markets were already surging in Europe when a fresh catalyst emerged: The wind in the stormy North Sea stopped blowing.

The sudden slowdown in wind-driven electricity production off the coast of the U.K. in recent weeks whipsawed through regional energy markets. Gas and coal-fired electricity plants were called in to make up the shortfall from wind.

Natural-gas prices, already boosted by the pandemic recovery and a lack of fuel in storage caverns and tanks, hit all-time highs. Thermal coal, long shunned for its carbon emissions, has emerged from a long price slump as utilities are forced to turn on backup power sources.

The episode underscored the precarious state the region’s energy markets face heading into the long European winter. The electricity price shock was most acute in the U.K., which has leaned on wind farms to eradicate net carbon emissions by 2050. Prices for carbon credits, which electricity producers need to burn fossil fuels, are at records, too.'

"At their peak, U.K. electricity prices had more than doubled in September and were almost seven times as high as at the same point in 2020. Power markets also jumped in France, the Netherlands and Germany."

"In electricity markets, the cost of generation at the most expensive supplier determines prices for everyone. That means that when countries derive power from thermal plants with comparatively high running costs, it boosts prices for the whole market. Operating costs at fossil-fuel power plants are high right now after a relentless climb in prices for gas, coal and carbon permits."

"Electricity, gas, coal and carbon markets have a way of feeding on one another. High gas prices prompted utilities to burn more coal, so they had to buy more emissions allowances. Expensive carbon permits then prodded energy companies to turn back to gas, whose price rose again because the fuel is in short supply."

"Wind accounted for about a quarter of Great Britain’s power last year, according to the system operator National Grid. After the wind dropped this month, National Grid asked √Člectricit√© de France SA to restart its West Burton A coal power station in Nottinghamshire. That won’t be possible in the future: The government has said all coal plants must close by late 2024."

"To be sure, abundant wind power has at times led to periods of cheap electricity. This month, however, U.K. wind farms produced less than one gigawatt on certain days, according to Mr. Konstantinov. Full capacity stands at 24 gigawatts. Maintenance work on subsea cables restricted electricity imports from France."

"The price surge shows the need to have backup power supplies for moments when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, said Mark Dickinson, chief executive of Inspired PLC, which advises companies on energy costs and climate change.

Options include reserve thermal power plants, battery storage or cables for importing electricity from other markets."

Friday, September 17, 2021

Is There Economic And Political Meaning In "The Wizard of Oz?"

To get a handle on this, you can read Money and Politics in the Land of Oz By Quentin P. Taylor.  Below is an excerpt from the Taylor paper:

"Dorothy, the protagonist of the story, represents an individualized ideal of the American people. She is each of us at our best-kind but self-respecting, guileless but levelheaded, wholesome but plucky. She is akin to Everyman, or, in modern parlance, “the girl next door.” Dorothy lives in Kansas, where virtually everything-the treeless prairie, the sun-beaten grass, the paint-stripped house, even Aunt Em and Uncle Henry-is a dull, drab, lifeless gray. This grim depiction reflects the forlorn condition of Kansas in the late 1880s and early 1890s, when a combination of scorching droughts, severe winters, and an invasion of grasshoppers reduced the prairie to an uninhabitable wasteland. The result for farmers and all who depended on agriculture for their livelihood was devastating. Many ascribed their misfortune to the natural elements, called it quits, and moved on. Others blamed the hard times on bankers, the railroads, and various middlemen who seemed to profit at the farmers’ expense. Angry victims of the Kansas calamity also took aim at the politicians, who often appeared indifferent to their plight. Around these economic and political grievances, the Populist movement coalesced.

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Populism spread rapidly throughout the Midwest and into the South, but Kansas was always the site of its most popular and radical elements. In 1890, Populist candidates began winning seats in state legislatures and Congress, and two years later Populists in Kansas gained control of the lower house of the state assembly, elected a Populist governor, and sent a Populist to the U.S. Senate. The twister that carries Dorothy to Oz symbolizes the Populist cyclone that swept across Kansas in the early 1890s. Baum was not the first to use the metaphor. Mary E. Lease, a fire-breathing Populist orator, was often referred to as the “Kansas Cyclone,” and the free-silver movement was often likened to a political whirlwind that had taken the nation by storm. Although Dorothy does not stand for Lease, Baum did give her (in the stage version) the last name “Gale”-a further pun on the cyclone metaphor.

The name of Dorothy’s canine companion, Toto, is also a pun, a play on teetotaler. Prohibitionists were among the Populists’ most faithful allies, and the Populist hope William Jennings Bryan was himself a “dry.” As Dorothy embarks on the Yellow Brick Road, Toto trots “soberly” behind her, just as the Prohibitionists soberly followed the Populists.

When Dorothy’s twister-tossed house comes to rest in Oz, it lands squarely on the wicked Witch of the East, killing her instantly. The startled girl emerges from the abode to find herself in a strange land of remarkable beauty, whose inhabitants, the diminutive Munchkins, rejoice at the death of the Witch. The Witch represents eastern financial-industrial interests and their gold-standard political allies, the main targets of Populist venom. Midwestern farmers often blamed their woes on the nefarious practices of Wall Street bankers and the captains of industry, whom they believed were engaged in a conspiracy to “enslave” the “little people,” just as the Witch of the East had enslaved the Munchkins. Populists viewed establishment politicians, including presidents, as helpless pawns or willing accomplices. Had not President Cleveland bowed to eastern bankers by repealing the Silver Purchase Act in 1893, thus further restricting much-needed credit? Had not McKinley (prompted by the wealthy industrialist Mark Hanna) made the gold standard the centerpiece of his campaign against Bryan and free silver?"
Now an excerpt from a book by Irivin B. Tucker:
"Gold is always a fascinating story: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900 and this children's tale has been interpreted as an allegory for political and economic events of the 1890s. For example, the Yellow Brick Road represents the gold standard, Oz in the title is an abbreviation for ounce, Dorothy is the naive public, Emerald City symbolizes Washington, D.C., the Tin Woodman represents the industrial worker, the Scarecrow is the farmer, and the Cyclone is a metaphor for a political revolution. In the end, Dorothy discovers magical powers in her silver shoes (changed to ruby in the 1939 film) to find her way home and not the fallacy of the Yellow Brick Road. Although the author of the story, L. Frank Baum, never stated it was his intention, it can be argued that the issue of the story concerns the election of 1896. Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan (the Cowardly Lion) supported fixing the value of the dollar to both gold and silver (bimetallism), but Republican William McKinley (the Wicked Witch) advocated using only the gold standard. Since McKinley won, the United States remained on the Yellow Brick Road."
But not everyone agrees with this. Economist Bradley Hansen wrote an article titled The Fable of the Allegory: The Wizard of Oz in Economics in the Journal of Economic Education in 2002. Here is his conclusion:
"Rockoff noted that the empirical evidence that Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as an allegory was slim, but he compared an allegorical interpretation to a model and suggested that “economists should not have any difficulty accepting, at least provisionally, an elegant but controversial model” (Rockoff 1990, 757). He was right—we did not have any difficulty accepting it. Despite Rockoff’s warning, we appear to have accepted the story wholeheartedly rather than provisionally, simply because of its elegance. It is as difficult to prove that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was not a monetary allegory as it is to prove that it was. In the end, we will never know for certain what Baum was thinking when he wrote the book. I suggest that the vast majority of the evidence weighs heavily against the allegorical interpretation. It should be remembered that no record exists that Baum ever acknowledged any political meanings in the story and that no one even suggested such an interpretation until the 1960s. There certainly does not seem to be sufficient evidence to overwhelm Baum’s explicit statement in the introduction of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that his sole purpose was to entertain children and not to impress upon them some moral. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a great story. Telling students that the Populist movement was like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz does seem to catch their attention. It may be a useful pedagogical tool to illuminate the debate on bimetallism, but we should stop telling our students that it was written for that purpose."
I found a review of the book in the NY Times from 1900 and it does not mention anything about OZ having political or economic meaning. The book was also made into a musical a few years later and none of the reviews of the musical mention any political or economic meaning.

Friday, September 10, 2021

U.S. Population Growth, an Economic Driver, Grinds to a Halt

 

Covid-19 pandemic compounds years of birth-rate decline, puts America’s demographic health at risk

By Janet Adamy and Anthony DeBarros of the WSJ. Excerpts:

"America’s weak population growth, already held back by a decadelong fertility slump, is dropping closer to zero because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In half of all states last year, more people died than were born, up from five states in 2019. Early estimates show the total U.S. population grew 0.35% for the year ended July 1, 2020, the lowest ever documented, and growth is expected to remain near flat this year."

"What concerns demographers is that in the past, when a weak economy drove down births, it was often a temporary phenomenon that reversed once the economy bounced back."

"Yet after births peaked in 2007, they never rebounded from the nearly two-year recession that followed, even though Americans enjoyed a subsequent decade of economic growth.

With the birthrate already drifting down, the nudge from the pandemic could result in what amounts to a scar on population growth, researchers say, which could be deeper than those left by historic periods of economic turmoil, such as the Great Depression and the stagnation and inflation of the 1970s, because it is underpinned by a shift toward lower fertility."

"This year, the U.S. will record at least 300,000 fewer births because the uncertain economy and the pandemic dissuaded women from having babies, according to projections by economists Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip Levine. Provisional government data already show births in the first three months of 2021 declined compared with 2020."

"Extended financial insecurity among young adults and women’s rising educational attainment are among factors overlapping with the pandemic year’s health and financial shocks"

"The declining rate of Covid deaths will also help ease the problem, but the U.S. still faces other pressures on mortality. A sharp rise in drug-overdose deaths and an increase in fatalities from homicides and some chronic diseases last year helped drive down U.S. life expectancy by 1.5 years, the largest drop since at least World War II."

"Every type of U.S. county, from the most urban to the most rural, on average saw a decrease in the number of births per death in the second half of the 2010s compared with the first half"

"Historically, nearly half of the country’s economic growth has been driven by the expansion of the working-age population, including immigrants, said Neil Howe, an economist, demographer and managing director at Hedgeye Risk Management, an investor-oriented research company. Recent federal-budget projections suggest the potential labor-force growth rate will hover just above zero for years to come, down from a range of 2.5% starting in the mid-1970s to 0.5% from 2008 through last year.

The shifts will make the U.S. more reliant on immigration to grow the workforce, economists say, although that faces its own pressures. Mexico’s fertility rate has steadily declined, while China and India—two other top suppliers of immigrants to the U.S.—face talent shortages of their own, along with China’s own flattening population growth."

"Among the industries most affected are retail and hospitality, because they rely on younger workers who turn over quickly, said Rob Sentz, who until last month was chief innovation officer at the labor-market data firm Emsi. Sectors such as healthcare, engineering and information technology will struggle to replace senior management as millions of baby boomers retire.

Over time, a lower fertility rate will lead to a higher ratio of retired beneficiaries to taxpaying workers, which is expected to raise the cost of Social Security and Medicare.

The Biden administration hopes to support family growth through its proposed $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, which includes paid parental leave, subsidized child-care and free preschool. Such policy approaches have had a mixed record of lifting fertility rates in other countries, researchers say."

Related posts:

A number of women who put off having babies after the 2007-09 recession are forgoing them altogether; more educated women and student debt also contribute to decline in birth rates (2018)

Births in U.S. Drop to Levels Not Seen Since 1979 (2021)

Friday, September 03, 2021

The percentage of 25-54 year-olds employed rose in July

One weakness of the unemployment rate is that if people drop out of the labor force they cannot be counted as an unemployed person and the unemployment rate goes down. They are no longer actively seeking work and it might be because they are discouraged workers. The lower unemployment rate can be misleading in this case. People dropping out of the labor force might indicate a weak labor market.

We could look at the employment to population ratio instead, since that includes those not in the labor force. But that includes everyone over 16 and that means that senior citizens are in the group but many of them have retired. The more that retire, the lower this ratio would be and that might be misleading. It would not necessarily mean the labor market is weak.

But we have this ratio for people age 25-54 (which also eliminates many college age people who might not be looking for work).

The percentage of 25-54 year olds employed was 78.0% in Aug. It was 77.8% in July. It was 80.5% in Jan. 2020 and 69.6% in April 2020.  Click here to see the BLS data. The unemployment rate was 5.2% in July. Click here to go to that data. The % of those 16 and older employed went from 58.38% up to 58.54%.

Here is a good graph from the St. Louis Fed. It shows that there are 126,125,000 people in the 25-54 year old group. So since we are 2.5 percentage points below the 80.5% of Jan. 2020 (the high point since the previous recession), that is still 3,153,125 fewer jobs (Hat tip: Vance Ginn of the Texas Public Policy Foundation). 

Also, we are up 8.4 percentage points since April 2020 (78.0 - 69.6). That is 77% of what we lost from Jan. 2020 to April 2020 (10.9 percentage points or 80.5 - 69.6). Then 8.4/10.9 = 77%. So we have gotten about 3/4ths of the jobs back. Good, but a significant amount of ground has still has to be made up.  

Here is the timeline graph of the percentage of 25-54 year olds employed since 2011.

 

Now since 1948