The drop in the labor force participation rate

I noticed something interesting in this chart from that I posted a few days ago. (This is not specific to Spokane.)

Look at the vertical ovals I have added to the chart. For all post 1970 recessions, the labor force participation rate kept increasing. But look at what happened right around 2001- the labor force participation rate fell and has continued falling. This is a major and significant change in direction.

With fewer people participating in the work force, are we less productive as a nation? Has automation replaced so many workers that we can achieve the same productivity with fewer workers?  Wouldn’t we be even more productive, as a nation, if we could put these displaced workers back into productive activity?

CalculatedRisk suggests the drop is due to demographic changes. The leading edge of the “baby boom” has already begun retiring. has 1,900 job openings – in Seattle

Consider Amazon’s online jobs board: It lists about 1,900 openings in Seattle, at least twice as many as a year ago. More than 900 call for techies.

via Business & Technology | on a hiring spree | Seattle Times Newspaper.

Unintended harm of government economic programs

The government pays farmers not to grow crops. What could go wrong?

When farmers take a conservation payment rather than plant a crop, they don’t buy fuel and fertilizer, they don’t buy machinery and seed, and they don’t hire help for the harvest. In short, Partch said, the payments stifle the local economies by suppressing high-production agriculture in an area that boasts some of the best wheat-growing conditions in the world.

via Census: Dwindling small towns determined to fight extinction – – March 6, 2011.

The landowner does well, and as noted in the story, many landowner farmers no longer live on the farm but live in cities. This provides a low risk income stream to the land owner but harms the local businesses that depend on the economic activity generated by actual farming.

The program has had quite an impact on the outlying counties around Spokane, with likely indirect impacts on Spokane County businesses that service the needs of agriculture.


I am interested in how this favors real estate interests but hurts small businesses and wage earners in these communities. As I alluded in another post, I wonder if our focus on real estate property development, particularly with regards to the $3.7 Billion in public and private investment in downtown Spokane over the past decade, has distorted our local economy and might explain, in part, some of the difficulties in creating an innovation-based economy? I am still thinking about this topic and seeking more data. For example, buyers of upscale homes in the Kendall Yards property development do not have to pay property taxes for 12 years. That means the costs of their services are paid for by others in Spokane. Big benefits go to a small number of property owners, and related infrastructure improvements increase the values for downtown property owners with little benefit to everyone else.

Well intentioned government programs some times have unintended side effects that may explain why things are not the way we expect them to be. In this case, a bias in favor of downtown property development means less is available to provide government improvements elsewhere and in other programs (e.g. not real estate focused). Downtown is quite nice today – perhaps attention needs to be given to other areas and functions.

Again, I am only thinking about this topic – this process may or may not lead to useful insights.

Spokane commercial real estate vacancies

Updated as of Mar 6, 2011.  Source:

As always, each firm’s estimate of vacancies is calculated in their own way and estimates vary between real estate firms