Using Data to Foster International Trade, Foreign Direct Investment, and Collaborations Among Metropolitan Areas

The City of San Antonio has been engaged in a six-year process to identify opportunities in foreign markets for international trade, foreign direct investment, and institutional collaborations. The effort was lead by The Brookings Institution, and with the support of JPMorgan Chase, the final portion of the process, called the Global Cities Initiative, was recently completed. In this stage of the process, each of the nine cities involved in the process selected an industry or two on which to focus their efforts in determining these global opportunities. In the case of San Antonio, our specific focus was on the cybersecurity industry. The culmination of the work was the release of the report by The Brookings Institution, Six Steps for Metro Areas to Prioritize Global Markets.

The six steps include:

  1. Organize for action
  2. Select a priority specialization
  3. Set the goal
  4. Measure global market opportunity within the specialization
  5. Factor in market accessibility
  6. Combine and synthesize data

As they are listed, these steps are rather generic and do not say much. I was fortunate and honored to be a part of the San Antonio team working on the project, so I can say with first-hand knowledge, it is quite a thorough process that has educated and enriched the knowledge of the communities involved about the opportunities in cities around the world for particular industries. I am sure it can do the same for other cities that want to engage in the process. If you want to get into the detail, I highly recommend you read through the report authored by Max Bouchet, Marek Gootman, and Joseph Parilla of The Brookings Institution. It can be found here.

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Forecast of the San Antonio Economy as Presented to the GFOAT

I gave a speech today to the San Antonio chapter of the Government Finance Officers Association of Texas on the San Antonio economy. I will pull out specific charts and talk about them in detail over the next couple of weeks, but here is the entire speech for now. In short, the economy looks strong and should continue to be strong for the next year or so, but I think the probability of another recession starting within the next couple of years is pretty high.

Steve

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“Inextricable Connections” Are Important for Economic Development

As an economist whose research focuses on regional economies, I have often wondered about the economic and social impacts of the movement to online retail and social engagement in general through online means and away from interactions among physical persons. As one whose graduate degrees are in political economy, I am aware of the close connections between politics, a well-functioning government, and the functioning of the economy. Like many U.S. citizens, I am also increasingly concerned about the acrimony of our political environment in the U.S., especially, but also around the world.

I am reading Brene Brown’s, Braving the Wilderness, and among the many great insights in the book, she makes the point that we have a human need for “inextricable connection.”

All of these examples of collective joy and pain are sacred experiences. They are so deeply human that they cut through our differences and tap into our hardwired nature. These experiences tell us what is true and possible about the human spirit. We need these moments with strangers as reminders that despite how much we might dislike someone on Facebook or even in person, we are still inextricably connected. And it doesn’t have to be a big moment with thousands of strangers. We can be reminded of our inextricable connection after talking with a seatmate on a two-hour flight.

The problem is that we don’t show up for enough of these experiences. We clearly need them. But it’s vulnerable to lean in to that kind of shared joy and pain. We armor up. We shove our hands into our pockets during the concert or we roll our eyes at the dance or put our headphones on rather than get to know someone on the train (Brown, 2017, pp. 128-129).

The disrupting or tearing apart of these connections not only has social ramifications, but it also has economic effects that are not good. One of the key lessons I took away from the book is that it is easy to hate and spread nonsense when you can hide behind email and social media. One of her chapter titles summarizes it perfectly: “People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In” (p. 63).

Reading the book highlighted one of the concerns I have been thinking about with respect to the effects of moving our everyday economic transactions and engagement with others both socially and economically to the online world. I took from Dr. Brown’s discussion that as this social disruption continues, the lack of personal engagement will decline as brick and mortar stores go out of business. Even though the interactions we have as we shop at one of these stores might be brief, it seems to me that they are very important per the points Dr. Brown makes as previously highlighted. As we lose these physical in-person interactions, it seems to me that it only exacerbates our vitriolic political climate, which is not good for our economic future.

Additionally, we may also lose the benefits and efficiencies that come from clusters of people (be they large or small numbers) engaging with one another in person. These are called agglomerations economies in economics. One of the biggest benefits that comes from these interactions are the transmission of ideas that lead to innovations that facilitate business growth, new business creation, and ultimately, economic development. Some argue that these can occur just as well in an online environment, and to some extent they do. What gets missed is the richness of the discussions that occur when in the physical presence of others that do not occur in an online environment. Sometimes (often times?), this just happens serendipitously as we wander the streets or engage in our daily activities – including our consumer activities at physical stores.

As usual, Dr. Brown states the importance of the physical interactions much more eloquently than I do.

As I started digging into this question [i.e., Is social media a toll to achieve collective joy and pain or more for the spreading of hate, unfounded statements, and picture of cute animals?] with research participants, there was very little ambiguity It became clear that face-to-face connection is imperative in our true belonging practice. Not only did face-to-face contact emerge as essential from the participant data in my research, but studies across the world confirm those findings. Social media are helpful in cultivating connection only to the extent that they’re used to create real community where there is structure, purpose, and meaning, and some face-to-face contact.

One of the most well-respected researchers in this area is Susan Pinker. In her book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier, Pinker writes, “In a short evolutionary time, we have changed from group-living primates skilled at reading each other’s every gesture and intention to a solitary species, each one of us preoccupied with our own screen.” Based on studies across diverse fields, Pinker concludes that there is no substitute for in-person interactions. They are proven to bolster our immune system, send positive hormones surging through our bloodstream and brain, and help us live longer. Pinker adds, “I call this building your village, and building it as a matter of life or death.”

…Social media are great for developing community, but for true belonging, real connection and real empathy require meeting real people in a real space in real time (Brown, 2017, pp. 140-141).

To be clear, I am not against shopping online or the internet or social media. I do my share of shopping online and certainly use the internet and social media, but I do think there are negative consequences for the economy that we need to keep in mind. One of these negative consequences is that it reduces our physical interactions with others, which reduces our understanding and tolerance of others. This leads to an inability to have reasonable and productive public debates and a dysfunctional democracy. Whether you love or dislike the government, a poorly functioning government has serious negative consequences for economic development. This lack of face-to-face interaction may also stifle the benefits of agglomerations economies, which could also slow economic development. In other words, the demise of online retail seems to be more than just structural changes happening in the economy. The reduction in face-to-face interactions leads to destructive social problems and slower development of the economy.

Just something to keep in mind as many of us consider where to shop at the end of the holiday season and spend all of those gift cards afterwards. Now, out the door I go to finish my last minute holiday shopping.

May you enjoy the season with those you love.

Steve

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References

Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York: Random House.

 

 

 

 

The Imperative of Understanding the Role of Institutions, Culture, and History in Economics

I recently read an article by Dr. Avner Greif of Stanford University titled, “Cultural Beliefs and the Organization of Society: A Historical and Theoretical Reflection on Collectivist and individualist Societies.” While it is a somewhat dated article being published in 1994 (see citation below), Dr. Greif’s conclusion struck me as being very important and still applicable to understanding economic development and economics in general today. I think his concluding remarks are also important to take into consideration when one is attempting to apply economics in the making of public policy or just trying to understand a certain issue or event.

Here are the highlights I took from Dr. Greif’s conclusion.

…This paper points to factors that make trajectories of societal organization – and hence economic growth – path dependent. Given the technologically determined rules of the game, institutions – the nontechnological constraints on human interactions – are composed of two interrelated elements: cultural beliefs (how individuals expect others to act in various contingencies) and organizations (the endogenous human constructs that alter the rules of the game…). Thus the capacity of societal organizations to change is a function of its history, since institutions are combined of organizations and cultural beliefs, cultural beliefs are uncoordinated expectations, organizations reinforce the cultural beliefs that led to their adoption, and past organizations and cultural beliefs influence historically subsequent games, organizations, and equilibria.

Understanding the sources of institutional path dependence indicates the factors that forestall successful intersociety adoption of institutions for which there are many historical and contemporary examples…The view of institutions developed in this paper indicates why it is misleading to expect that a beneficial organization of one society will yield the same results in another. The effect of organizations is a function of their impact on the rules of the game and the cultural beliefs of the society within which this game is embedded. Analyzing economic and political institutions and the impact of organizational modifications requires the examination of the historical development and implications of the related cultural beliefs.

Past, present, and future economic growth is not a mere function of endowment, technology, and preferences. It is a complex process in which the organization of society plays a significant role. The organization of society itself, however, reflects historical, cultural, social, political, and economic processes. Comparative historical analysis is likely to enhance our comprehension of the evolution of diverse societal organization, since this process is historical in nature. Furthermore, such an analysis provides the historical perspective and diversity required to examine institutional evolution and the interrelations between culture, the organization of society, and economic growth (Greif 1994, 943-944).

What this means to me is that if we are truly going to understand economics, the process of economic development, and the functioning of economies, we have to also understand the related historical, political, social, cultural, and institutional elements. We can’t only rely on mainstream economic theory. The culture and institutions that are embedded within an economic system are vitally important to fully understanding how that economy functions at a macro level, as well as gaining a full understanding of the economic behavior at the micro level.

Furthermore, since history (along with culture) plays a key role in determining the path dependence of the economy’s institutions, it is imperative to understand the historical context of an economy in order to be able to appropriately apply economic theory to the development and implementation of effective policy. Institutions, culture, and history matter, but yet, we ignore them, for the most part, in mainstream economics…much to the detriment of society.

Reference

Greif, A. (1994). Cultural beliefs and the organization of society: A historical and theoretical reflection on collectivist and individualist societies. Journal of Political Economy, 102, 5, 912-950.

 

Steve

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Interesting Changes in Industry Concentration in San Antonio

One common indicator used to get a sense of the structure of a local economy is the location quotient. Specifically, it measures the concentration of an industry in a local economy, such as a metropolitan area economy or a state economy, relative to the concentration of the same industry in some base area, typically the national economy. The most often used data to calculate the location quotient is employment, but income or wages is also used. The location quotient for industry i in region r is calculated using the following formula:

LQir = (Employmentir/Total Employmentir)/(EmploymentUS/Total EmploymentUS)

I did these calculations for the San Antonio metropolitan area economy using this formula. I calculated the location quotients for the NAICS 2-digit level industries. The names of these industries and the location quotients as of January 1990 and April 2017 are shown in the following table. April 2017 was used because it was the most current data available at the time I made the calculations.

Four industries in San Antonio have seen increases in their concentration levels since January 1990 (highlighted in yellow). The construction, mining, and logging industry saw the largest increase in relative concentration followed by financial activities, professional and business services, and manufacturing.

The largest declines in the location quotients were in the government sector followed by other services. The hospitality and education and health industries also saw smaller declines in their relative concentrations, and while the trade, transportation, and utilities and the information industries both saw declines so small one should probably just treat these as being inconsequential.

It is also interesting to note that a location quotient greater than 1.00 indicates that the concentration of the industry in the region is greater than the concentration at the level of the national economy.

As of April 2017, the industries with such location quotients were construction, mining, and logging; information; financial activities; education and health; hospitality; and government. The highest location quotient as of April 2017 was the financial activities industry; it had the second highest location quotient in January 1990. The industry with the highest location quotient in January 1990 was government.

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These changes highlight two interesting characteristics of the San Antonio economy.

First, it is an economy with a broad base of industries with relatively high concentration levels. Second, the relative base of employment has shifted away from government. This is not to say that government activities and funding are not still a vital component of the San Antonio economy because they are. The military has a big impact on the local economy, and it is worth noting that the military does not have to report employment levels, so I do not believe they are captured in these calculations.

Additionally, government funding of healthcare is very important to the San Antonio economy due to the size of the healthcare industry in the region. That said, the government sector still has a location quotient of 1.08. This fact combined with the diversity of the industry base in San Antonio is why the economy also tends to be somewhat stable relative to regional economies with more focused industry bases.

Steve

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Accounting for the Ocean Economy

The oceans are an important part of any economy, even those economies that are landlocked. The obvious importance comes from the food and entertainment options the oceans provide, but the oceans also provide invaluable environmental and ecosystem services that certainly have profound economic effects. Maintaining healthy oceans that are sustainable for future generations is vital for continued economic success, but accurately accounting for the ocean or “blue” economy is vital to accomplishing this. The immediacy of achieving this accurate measurement of the ocean economy, including the environmental and ecosystem services the oceans provide, must also be recognized as the effects of climate change are upon us. If we don’t create these measures as accurately and completely as possible, I don’t see how we can fully understand the economic importance of the oceans and move forward with policies and initiatives that will improve their health and sustainability.

This is why I think the special edition recently published by the Journal of Ocean and Coastal Economics is so important. The journal is published by the Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California. This special edition, titled Oceans and National Income Accounts: An International Perspective, is a publication of the papers presented at a meeting hosted by the Center for the Blue Economy in October 2015 “to explore ways in which the economic values of oceans and marine resources can be incorporated into national income accounts.”¹

If you are reading this blog, you obviously have an interest in economics, and I highly recommend you read this special edition because if you truly want to understand how the economy functions, you have to understand how it is measured, or not measured. This is especially true for the oceans and the important contributions they make to all economies. As you get into the articles, you will get a deeper understanding of these contributions and the complexities involved in measuring them. It may not seem like the most interesting reading, but given your interest in economics, I think you will find it more engaging than you might think after you start reading the article. The Center for the Blue Economy is a leader in conducting research on the blue economy, disseminating that information through this journal, conferences, and other means, educating future researchers, and raising awareness about the importance of the blue economy, so I also encourage you to follow their other activities. Their website is a treasure trove of information.

Enjoy.

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¹Colgan, Charles S. (2016) “Introduction to Special Edition: The Oceans and National Income Accounts: An International Perspective,” Journal of Ocean and Coastal Economics: Vol. 2, Article 1.

San Antonio Economic Forecast Update

I recently presented an update to my 2016 forecast for the San Antonio economy.

Please find the full presentation slides here.

In short, the growth in the San Antonio economy has slowed this year as anticipated. As shown in the following two graphs, through July, employment had grown 2.15% compared to July of 2015 and unemployment was at 2.8% (seasonally adjusted). My forecast for San Antonio this year was for employment growth between 2.25-2.75% and an unemployment rate in the range of 3.5-3.7%. While the July figures are slightly outside these ranges, I am leaving my forecast as is with the recognition that employment growth may end the year a bit lower than 2.25% and unemployment may come in at a rate slightly above 3.7%.

Unemployment rate as of July 2016Employment growth through July 2016

Please feel free to contact me with any questions regarding the report.

Steve

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Blind Pursuit of the Free Market Does not Lead to Prosperity

While I think the perfectly competitive model as it is presented in economics has some uses in helping us understand economic behavior, I believe the way it is presented in economics classes has lead to a vast misunderstanding of the workings of the economy. The presentation typically gives the impression that government intervention in the economy is only bad, except for instances where market failures exist. The problem, in my opinion, is that very little attention is given to the assumptions necessary to make the model work. Sure, these are most often covered quickly at the beginning of the presentation of the model, but the rest of the course or discussion of this model is spent showing who this leads to equilibrium in the markets and how government intervention pulls the market away from this equilibrium and leads to a loss of welfare. However, if one stops and thinks about it, the assumptions of the model (e.g., economic agents act rationally, perfect information, perfectly mobile resources) mean that the free market really never exists. By its very inherent nature, market failure is always present, and because of this and the fact that markets and the economy are huge complex systems, not the isolated static mechanisms of the perfectly competitive model, they are rarely, if ever, in equilibrium.

I want to stress again that there are still some valuable lessons that can be taken from the perfectly competitive model. It is an elegant model that lead to some intoxicating conclusions, but because of this and the lack of emphasis of the assumptions underlying the model, it has lead to a lot of misguided economic policy. This is especially the case with respect to macroeconomic policy, which has been misguided by the absurd dynamic stochastic general equilibrium model. This has lead to the belief by many that all regulations and government intervention are bad and that if we would only get rid of almost all regulations, cut taxes, and minimize the size of government, markets would be able to operate freely leading to more prosperity and a better society.

To be clear, I am not arguing that government is the answer to everything, nor am I arguing that we should raise taxes to exorbitant levels. But, this blind pursuit of the free market based on the misapplication of economic theory or just bad economic theory does not lead to prosperity either. There has to be a balance between the two. Even Adam Smith (one of the greatest, if not the greatest, political economists, to have ever lived), whose Wealth of Nations is the standard bearer for all those in blind pursuit of the free market, recognized the need for balance, as he thoroughly discussed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

This has lead to the belief that the ideas of cutting taxes (mostly for those in the upper income strata and the wealthy) and shrinking the government will lead to prosperity and improved social outcomes. Two articles recently published in the New York Times provide even more evidence that this is not the case. One of the articles was written by two political science professors, Jacob S. Hacker of Yale University and Paul Pierson at the University of California, Berkeley. The article, “The Path to Prosperity Is Blue,” is a brief summary of their book, American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America ProsperI think the following quote from the article summarizes their argument.

Mr. Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan are united by the conviction that cutting taxes – especially on corporations and the wealthy – is what drives growth.

A look at the states, however, suggests that they’re wrong. Red states dominated by Republicans embrace cut and extract. Blue states dominated by Democrats do much more to maintain their investments in education, infrastructure, urban quality of life and human services – investments typically financed through more progressive state and local taxes. And despite what you have heard, blue states are generally doing better.

Work by Jon Bakija, Lane Kenworthy, Peter Lindert, and Jeff Madrick in their book, How Big Should Our Government Be?provides some evidence against the argument that small government facilitates economic growth. They show evidence that there is a direct relationship between the growth of government and economic growth. Over the past fifty years, those countries where governments have grown the largest over the  past fifty years have also experienced some of the fastest economic growth (see the chart here).

While governments are certainly not perfect, and as I have already mentioned, government is not the answer to every issue or problem, but it seems clear to me that government has an important role to play in the proper functioning of an economy and society. Blind pursuit of the neoclassical notion of the free market with the wildly unrealistic assumptions at its foundation can be very appealing, but it leads to bad economic policy in many cases.

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