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

SRN-LogoMark-Green-FORWEB

San Antonio 2018 Economic Forecast

I had the pleasure and honor of being on a panel at an event this past Friday hosted by Texas CEO Magazine in partnership with the Bill Greehey School of Business at St. Mary’s University in which I presented my economic forecast for the San Antonio economy in 2018.

The presentation can be found here.

Employment growth in San Antonio remains healthy but has been slowing a bit over the past twelve months, which follows a similar pattern to the other major metropolitan economies across the state through August. Given the length of the economic expansion, growth rates have regressed toward the long-term average. The unemployment rate in San Antonio is still quite low at 4.1% in August, but it has started to tick up over the past year.

Again, a similar pattern is occurring across the other major metropolitan areas, too. We are at the point in this phase of expansion where the economy is at or very near full employment, so growth is going to be driven by population growth and/or growth in productivity, so it is difficult to see that growth will be much greater than average, if it is at all in 2018. For next year, I believe we continue to see growth in San Antonio with employment increasing in the range 2.25-2.50%, which is around the historical average growth rate of 2.43%. I project that the unemployment rate in 2018 will probably be in the range of 4.00-4.25% in San Antonio in 2018.

You will also see in the slides that I think we need to consider the possibility of the U.S. economy going into recession in the next two to three years. This is simply due to the fact that the current expansion is already 100 months old, which makes it the third longest in history. If growth continues over the next two to three years, it will become the longest expansion in history.

If we learned anything in the last recession, it is that growth does not go on forever. The expansion is long in the tooth. As already mentioned, growth in the foreseeable future is going to come from population growth and/or higher levels of productivity. Given the trends in demographics with the aging baby boomer generation and limitations being put on immigration, it is difficult to see where the population growth is going to come from in the next few years. Boosts in productivity are, in part, going to be driven by technological change, and while that is exceedingly difficult to forecast, it is hard to envision from where the boost in productivity will come in the near future. With this in mind, it seems that the odds are pretty high that the economy will run out of steam within the next two to three years.

Of course, all of this is contingent on various risks, and the biggest risk I see at this point is political risk. The national and global political situation has injected a massive amount of uncertainty into the business and economic environment. This, in and of itself, can be a deterrent to economic growth, but it certainly makes economic forecasts more difficult.

Steve

SRN-LogoMark-Gold-HIRES

Creative Industry Registers $4.0 Billion Impact on San Antonio Economy in 2016

I recently finished the update to the economic impact of the creative industry in San Antonio and was honored to present it at the creative industry luncheon this past Wednesday.

The presentation can be found here.

In 2016, employment in the industry totaled 20,363 with incomes reaching over $914 million. Output was over $3.3 billion with a bit over $1 billion of that being exported from the region. Once multiplier effects are taken into consideration, the total impacts on employment amounted to 24,885 full-time equivalent positions earning incomes of $1.1 billion and registering a total economic impact of about $4.0 billion.

Steve

SRN-LogoMark-Green-FORWEB

Books on Economics That Are Worth a Read

I have always enjoyed reading, but about four years ago, I decided to set a goal of reading a book every two weeks. While I have kept to the pursuit of the goal, I have yet to meet it if one measures it on an annual basis. I have come close, but I have not yet completed 26 books in a given year. I do not read very quickly (unlike one of my daughters who devours books voraciously – her Dad shares with just a slight tinge of envy), so when I decide to read a rather thick tome, it takes me longer than two weeks.

Furthermore, most of what I read are books about economics or somehow related to economics, so they are not always the quickest reads. That may sound odd, since I am an economist, but honestly, it is really what I enjoy reading. I can’t help it; I am a nerd. To achieve some balance, I do read fiction, and even cookbooks, and thoroughly enjoy reading them.

Through this process, I have come across books that I have thought were excellent and others that maybe did not quite reach that level (does not mean they were not worth the read, though), so I thought it would be fun to put together a list of the books on economics that I have read over the years that I have found to be excellent.

So what is “excellent’? For this list, it does not mean they were the best-written books in the sense that they achieved high art with the English language. It also does not mean that I necessarily agreed with everything that was discussed in the book.

What it does mean is that these books extended my knowledge in new and interesting ways, presented complex ideas in novel ways, and/or just made me aware of an issue or made me think more deeply about an issue. I should also add that they reflect my own interests. After all, who reads books about topics in which they have no interest?

They tend to be heavily weighted toward urban economics, macroeconomics, complexity economics, cultural economics, economic history, and heterodox economics, although other issues are covered. While I think you will learn a good bit about economics from the books on these lists, it is not a list of the great books in the history of economic thought (maybe that will be a post for the future). It is also not comprehensive in any way of the best books on economics, as I still have a lot left to read, fortunately.

I also tried to stay away from textbooks, although a couple made it on the list. Also, keep in mind that this is my opinion, obviously, and you may not agree. I would like to hear what you think.

So, here is the list, not in rank order, with a comment or two inserted.

  1. This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff (A dense read chocked full of data, but gives you a very good sense of the factors leading to financial crises and the hugely detrimental effects they can have on the economy from a long historical perspective.)
  2. Complexity and the Economy by W. Brian Arthur (If you have any interest in complexity economics, this is a great introduction to the subject. In fact, you should read anything by W. Brian Arthur.)
  3. The Death of Economics by Paul Ormerod (These two books by Ormerod are great reads on complexity economics.)
  4. Butterfly Economics by Paul Ormerod
  5. The Nature of Economies by Jane Jacobs (Jane Jacobs was not trained as an economist, but in my opinion, her writings on economics were some of the most important in helping us understand the functioning of the macroeconomy and urban economies.)
  6. Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs
  7. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
  8. Mis-Measuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Armatya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi (Probably not the most exciting read on this list, but you will have a great understanding of the shortcomings of one of our main economic indicators – GDP – so I think it is a very important book.)
  9. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser (Some interesting arguments about the value of cities that may be a bit counter-intuitive.)
  10. The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon (Arguably the most eye-opening book on the list. It is a long book, but a great read with many fascinating historical anecdotes.)
  11. After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead by Alan S. Blinder (There are many good books on the most recent financial crisis and the Great Recession, but this is the best that I have read. Blinder is also quite entertaining.)
  12. Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science by Clair Brown (This is one of those books that really stretched my thinking on economics. Fascinating stuff.)
  13. Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality by James Kwak (If you want to understand the perils of misunderstanding and/or inappropriately applying economic theory, you should read this book.)
  14. Globalizing Capital: A History of the International Monetary System by Barry Eichengreen (Great read on the historical development of the international financial system, but you had better bring at least some knowledge of finance and the the financial markets.)
  15. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Power by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (This book, along with the next three in the list, provide a great overview from different perspectives of global economic development throughout large spans of history.)
  16. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
  17. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some so Poor by David S. Landes
  18. A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World by Gregory Clark
  19. Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World by Jeff Madrick (See the comment on Economism.)
  20. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein (An interesting book on the relationship of economics to one of the most important issues of our time.)
  21. Creative Communities: Art Works in Economic Development by Michael Rushton (One of my main interests is in understanding the intersection between arts and economic development, so I found this book very interesting.)
  22. A Textbook of Cultural Economics by Ruth Towse (If you want to get a more in-depth understanding of the economics of arts and culture, this is a good book. As the title tells, it is a textbook, but Towse does a good job of explaining the economics, although some helpful details on the economic theories are missing, in my opinion.)
  23. Economics and Culture by David Throsby (Throsby is one of the leading scholars in the field of cultural economics, so if you have an interest in this, I highly recommend this book and the following one, as well.)
  24. The Economics of Cultural Policy by David Throsby
  25. Theories of International Economics by Peter M. Lichtenstein (To be honest, this is the book I am currently reading, so I have not finished reading it, but Lichtenstein does such a wonderful job of explaining international economic theory that I had to put it on the list. He also discusses international economics from the perspective of many heterodox theories, which I think it very important.)

 

Again, I hope you find this list interesting and maybe even useful, and if you decide to read any of the books, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. Lastly, if you really want to understand how the economy functions, I strongly encourage you to read about some of the heterodox or alternative economic theories (which is why I included some books on this list that do just that), and I also highly recommend that you read books on topics of interest from the perspective of anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology and all of the other social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences.

Happy reading!

Steve

SRN-LogoMark-Gold-HIRES

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.

Slide1

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

SRN-LogoMark-Green-FORWEB

Broad-Based Growth Continues in San Antonio

With the exception of the information sector, growth continues across all other sectors of the San Antonio economy through June of this year. The growth is lead by large increases in the construction, mining, and natural resources sector (just indicated as construction/mining in the chart) and the education and health sector. I suspect most of the employment gains in the former sector has probably come from the construction industry, but with the recovery of oil prices and activity beginning to pick-up in the Eagle Ford Shale area, the mining and natural resources industries have likely contributed their parts as well.

Growth in the education and health sector is probably driven by the continued strong expansion in the healthcare industry in San Antonio. Professional and business services (indicated as prof. services in the chart) has also shown some nice increases in employment growth this year.

The question is whether or not these sectors will continue to show strong growth.

As long as the economy keeps humming along, the construction industry is probably going to continue to grow, but there are indications that the economy is reaching capacity (as noted in my previous post) and housing prices are starting to move beyond the level of affordability for many folks.

Regarding the mining and natural resources industry growth, this is going to be driven, in part, by what oil prices do. I do not think anybody really knows where oil prices are headed over the next few years, but I think the experts feel like there will be some increase.

It seems to be a safe bet that the healthcare industry will continue to grow. However, many of the healthcare organizations in San Antonio receive a large portion of their revenues from federal government sources, so the wild card is what ultimately happens with healthcare policy and the federal budget. That may be more difficult to predict than oil prices.

Employment Growth by Industry San Antonio June 2017

NOTE: TTU is the trade, transportation, and utilities sector.

 

Feel free to contact me with any questions.

Steve

SRN-LogoMark-Gold-HIRES

 

 

Cost-Benefit Analysis of Excel Beyond the Bell San Antonio Partner Agencies

I had the honor to speak yesterday at the Excel Beyond the Bell San Antonio Annual Summit on the results of a study I did with Eddie Molina on the net benefits or return on investment that this network of out-of-school time agencies contribute to the local community. In short, for every dollar invested in these programs, the valuable services they provide to the youth of San Antonio returns $3.66 in benefits to the community.

These agencies serve 55,000 youth, which is a staggering number in and of itself, and they make a profound impact on many of these kids’ lives. Additionally, while this study did not look directly at their potential impact on economic development, these programs are vital to the future development of San Antonio’s economy, since they are playing such a big role in developing the future workforce and enhancing the quality of life of the community.

The slides I used for my speech can be found here, and the full report can be found here.

Steve

SRN-LogoMark-Gold-HIRES

Economic Scholars Program

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Economic Scholars Program at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas a couple of weeks ago. It was such a wonderful conference that I felt compelled to post something on the blog about it.

The really cool thing about the conference is that it is run entirely by undergraduate students. This means that the students review the papers for acceptance into the conference, present their research in the sessions, serve as discussants of the papers, and chair each of the sessions. Of course, there are faculty in attendance, but we were there as much for moral support as anything (and also because of the small detail that our universities and colleges required a faculty member to attend with their respective students). The faculty would ask some questions, but probably 95% or more of the questions came from students. And the questions they asked were outstanding, as were the responses to their questions.

Since coming back to St. Mary’s University where I teach, I have told my students that this was the best academic conference I have attended. I have certainly been to professional conferences where the quality of some of the papers was not nearly as high, the discussants were not nearly as prepared, and it was not run as well as this one was.

I should also mention that there was also a poster session that was very highly attended. They served food during the session, so when I walked into the room, I expected to see most of the students hovering around the food because what college students doesn’t want to indulge in good food (and the food at the Fed is always exceptional). However, I saw just the opposite. The students surely ate well, but they were all engaged around the various posters talking about the research that was being presented. They were very, very engaged.  As a professor, it was awesome to observe.

It was such a great experience for the students, and if you are a college professor in economics or other social sciences, I would highly encourage you to consider taking your students to this conference.

The conference is co-hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and Austin College – my alma mater (he states with great pride). The hospitality provided by the Fed staff was amazing. I greatly appreciate all of the effort that the Fed staff and faculty at Austin College put forth to organize and host this conference.

On a personal note, the faculty member from Austin College who was responsible for their part of the organization effort, Danny Nuckols, was my mentor and main economics professor when I was at AC. It was his passion, keen insights, and encouragement, along with being one of the best professors I have ever had, that lead me to follow in his footsteps and become an economics professor.

As always, it was great to see him, but to add to that, I also got to meet two more of his former students who also went onto to become economics professors. One is at the University of Texas at Arlington and the other one is at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. It is common for great coaches to develop a coaching “tree” as their assistant coaches branch off to assume head coaching positions at other teams. I guess the same is true with great professors like Danny Nuckols.

Pic of Faculty 2

Danny Nuckols, (second from left) and three branches of his professor tree. 

Economic Growth by Presidential Administration

A couple of weeks ago I gave a speech in which I anticipated that the audience would like to have some discussion about the potential economic effects of the upcoming presidential election in the U.S.

To support the discussion, I worked with one of our economics students at St. Mary’s  University to create a chart showing the growth in gross domestic product for the U.S. by presidential administration.

growth-by-presidential-administration

As shown in the graph, GDP growth during Democratic administrations averaged 4.13% and during the Republican administrations, growth averaged 1.77% if you include the Great Depression and 2.72% if you do not include the Great Depression. Without going into more in-depth analysis, it is difficult to make too much of these numbers. I do not think it is correct to just attribute strong or weak growth only to the policies passed during any of these administrations. They can certainly have effects on the economy during their times in office, but the strength or weakness of the economy during most presidential administrations is often due to some extent to the policies implemented well before a president takes office.

For example, some of President Hoover’s policies certainly made the Great Depression worse, but I do not think one can attribute the entire Depression to him. President Roosevelt was the beneficiary of the growth after the Great Depression, the massive amount of spending during World War II, and the fact that he was in office for twelve years. President Obama took office as the economy was at or near the depths of the Great Recession, the cause of which I would attribute to policies implemented by Presidents Reagan, Clinton and Bush 43.

There are other studies that go into more depth on growth during the presidential administrations that I may write about in future blog posts. As previously mentioned, while it is difficult to say much about growth during specific presidential administrations based only on the data presented in this chart, there is one fact worth noting. I hear quite a bit that the economy slows or even goes into recession during Democratic administrations, but as shown in the graph, that is clearly not the case.

In fact, it is just the opposite.

 

SN logo no name

Growth Slowing in Texas and Its Major Metropolitan Economies

I recently gave a speech to the Rotary Club of Seguin titled, “Past, Present, and Future of the Central Texas Economy,” in which I discussed the current economic situation in Texas and across the major metropolitan economies in the state. Growth across the state and in these metropolitan economies has been slowing this year, as expected, but over the past few months, the rates of growth have dipped below long-term trends for San Antonio and below growth rates for the U.S. and even below 1% growth year-over-year in some of the other areas (See chart below). With employment growth of 2.55% in August, Dallas leads the way.

august-2016-employment-growth

There are several factors that play into this. Houston has seen its economy fall into recession since the decline in oil prices, and as the state’s largest metropolitan economy, this downturn ripples through other local economies. Another big factor is that labor markets in these economies are very tight, and there just might not be enough labor to fuel the continued growth we have seen over the past few years. I believe this is especially acute in Austin but could also be playing an important role in San Antonio and other areas.

Additionally, slowing growth around the globe and the continued strength of the dollar have certainly negatively impacted exports, and I can’t help but wonder if uncertainty around the U.S. presidential election has caused at least a bit of the slowdown. I still need to assess the prospects for 2017, but I want to see the results of the presidential election. Regardless of that result, though, it seems likely that some of these headwinds will continue into next year.

If you’d like to see the presentation, it can be downloaded here.

Steve

SN logo no name