Category Archive for: Fiscal Policy [Return to Main]

Saturday, August 31, 2013

'Obama's Economic Team Think They Are Doing a Good Job'

Dean Baker (my comments are at the end):

Scary Thought on Labor Day Weekend: Obama's Economic Team Think They Are Doing a Good Job: Ezra Klein gives us some terrifying news in a Bloomberg column today. President Obama's economic team think they are doing a great job, hence the desire to bring back former teammate Larry Summers as Fed chair. This is terrifying because the economy this Labor Day is described by a set of statistics that can only be described as horrible.
We are almost 9 million jobs below the trend level of employment. The number of people involuntarily working part-time is still up by almost 4 million from its pre-recession level. Wages have been stagnant for a decade and show no signs of increasing any time soon. And, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the economy is still operating more than $1 trillion (6 percent) below its potential. Oh, and by the way, the financial sector is more concentrated than ever, with top honchos drawing the same sort of paychecks they did before the crisis.
I could go on but what's the point? This is an economy that under other circumstances we would all say is awful. ...
The best that can be said is that the crew has been ineffectual in the face of Republican opposition in building any sort of political support for a stronger economic agenda. But ineffectual is not a much better recommendation than incompetent.
And it's hard to blame items like the "pivot to deficit reduction" on the Republicans. If the Obama team has an aggressive plan for turning the economy around that is being stifled by the nasty Republicans they have not done a very good job of even making it known, must less rallying support.
I suppose if they think everything in the economy is just great that would explain why they want Larry Summers back. That's pretty bad news on Labor Day. ...

Paul Krugman, following up on  post from Brad DeLong, makes a point along the same lines:

Bankers, Workers, Obama and Summers: Brad DeLong has an excellent piece distinguishing between two views of central banking. There’s the “banking camp,” which sees the central bank’s job as being to secure the stability of the financial system – full stop. OK, maybe also price stability. And then there’s the “macroeconomics camp,” which sees the central bank’s job as being to achieve full employment; banking stability and even price stability are basically means towards that end.
Brad complains that the Fed has ended up being much more in the banking camp than many macroeconomists would have wanted. See, for example, the harsh criticisms leveled at the Bank of Japan by one Ben Bernanke in 2000, criticisms that apply almost perfectly to the Bernanke Fed of today.
But I think Brad casts his net too narrowly: it’s not just central bankers who fall into these two camps. And one important consequence of this division is an utterly different read on recent history.
Ask yourself: How well did we respond to the crisis of 2008?
If you’re in the banking camp, here’s what you see [graph]... The financial system was in great danger – but catastrophe was averted. We’re heroes!
On the other hand, if you’re in the macroeconomics camp, here’s what you see [graph]... A catastrophic collapse in employment, with only a modest recovery even after all these years. ... We blew it!
Which brings us to what looks more and more like Obama’s decision to choose Larry Summers as Fed chair, passing over Janet Yellen.
As of right now, Summers is clearly not in the banking camp; the stuff he has been writing about fiscal policy makes it clear that he very much believes that the job of economic recovery is not done. On that basis, you would expect him to prod the Fed into doing much more than it is. On the other hand, given Bernanke’s pre-Fed record you would have expected the same thing — maybe even more so... Once at the Fed, however, Bernanke appears to have been assimilated by the Borg, moving much closer to the banking camp.
Would the same thing happen to Summers? I worry. And one of the strong (though probably futile at this point) arguments for Yellen is that she spent years at the Fed without being assimilated, never losing sight of the crucial importance of employment.
While Summers isn’t in the banking camp, however, Obama is. ...
Obviously I’m in the macroeconomics camp, not the banking camp, so this is all depressing, in several senses. It means, among other things, that even if Summers is the right choice — which we’ll never really know — it’s a choice that Obama is making for all the wrong reasons.

I don't like the framing of banking camp versus macroeconomic camp. Even the banking camp thinks it is doing what it can to stabilize the broader economy. I don't think their concern is simply to help bankers, I give them more credit than that. It's just that some members of the Fed do not believe the Fed has much influence over the economy beyond stabilizing the financial system. Once that is done, the Fed's powers are very limited (when at the zero bound) and -- in the eyes of some members of the Fed -- the risks of further aggressive action, e.g. QE, outweigh the potential benefits. So I think both camps have the same goal, stabilizing the macroeconomy, the difference is in the view of how much the Fed can do without risking bubbles, inflation, etc.

I believe the Fed should do more, that it could help some, but I am also doubtful about how much more the Fed can accomplish in helping with the unemployment problem. What we need is sane fiscal policy, that's what could really help the unemployed, but instead we are focused on the Fed chair, dividing economists into camps, etc. We need fiscal policymakers to be in the macroeconomics camp rather than the political/ideological camp that is driving things like austerity, potential government shutdowns over manufactured crises, worries about the debt used to push for smaller government, and so on that are harming the recovery.

DeLong and Summers were trying to help along these lines with their Brookings piece showing the benefits of government spending in deep recessions, but that effort has subsided and for the most part there hasn't been much push from economists on the fiscal policy front. Yes. it's politically unlikely that a fiscal policy package could get through Congress, but that doesn't mean we should give up our role in educating the public about just how terrible the performance of fiscal policy has been. And if we speak out, perhaps it could even matter at the margin, an extra infrastructure project here and there perhaps. Every additional job matters tremendously to families who are still struggling to get back on their feet.

I just can't understand why so many people are letting fiscal policymakers off the hook. It's not for lack of time or space -- a considerable amount is written daily about the Fed. We ought to be skewering both politicians and economists who are standing in the way of fiscal policy measures, infrastructure in particular, that could strengthen the economy and put people back to work -- both theory and the empirical evidence are clear on this point -- but instead it's mostly silence.

Update: Paul Krugman just put up a post about fiscal policy: The Arithmetic of Fantasy Fiscal Policy.

Friday, August 30, 2013

How Stimulatory Are Large-Scale Asset Purchases?

Here's the conclusion to a FRBSF Economic Letter from Vasco Cúrdia and Andrea Ferrero on the question of How Stimulatory Are Large-Scale Asset Purchases?:

... Asset purchase programs like QE2 appear to have, at best, moderate effects on economic growth and inflation. Research suggests that the key reason these effects are limited is that bond market segmentation is small. Moreover, the magnitude of LSAP effects depends greatly on expectations for interest rate policy, but those effects are weaker and more uncertain than conventional interest rate policy. This suggests that communication about the beginning of federal funds rate increases will have stronger effects than guidance about the end of asset purchases.

The Fed could sure use some help from fiscal policy (instead, we appear to be headed for yet another manufactured crisis over the debt). As Paul Krugman notes today, the fiscal policy measures that we did take were relatively meager, and for too short-lived:

Too Little, Gone Too Soon: One of the things you always heard, back when we were actually talking about stimulus rather than fighting a rearguard action against destructive austerity, was the claim that stimulus spending would inevitably end up becoming a permanent fixture of the economy. This was always said with an air of worldly wisdom — of course that’s how these things work! — even though history said very much the opposite.

But anyway, the invaluable FRED now has a series on exactly that subject, and here’s what it looks like ... calculated as a percentage of the CBO estimate of potential GDP:
Stimulus as percent of potential GDP
Stimulus as percent of potential GDP
So next time someone goes on about how we had this huge stimulus that failed, you can tell him that the “huge” stimulus — in response to the worst financial crisis in three generations — peaked at a whopping 1.6 percent of GDP, and was effectively gone in a bit over two years.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

'Macro Workers and Macro Wars'

This expands on one of the points I tried to make here:

Macro workers and macro wars, by Simon Wren-Lewis: ... Nearly fifteen years ago I began working with DSGE models looking at monetary and fiscal interactions. [1] Doing this work taught me a lot about how fiscal policy worked in New Keynesian models. I understood more clearly why monetary policy was the stabilisation tool of choice in those models, but also why fiscal policy - appropriately designed - was also quite effective in that role if monetary policy was absent (individual countries in the Eurozone) or impaired (the ZLB). Why New Keynesian models? Because if you were interested in business cycle stabilisation, that is the framework that most involved in that area (academics and policymakers) were using. So when we hit the ZLB, the reaction of policymakers in using fiscal stimulus seemed logical, entirely appropriate and fully in line with current theory.
I also found that in these models the basics of Barro’s tax smoothing hypothesis continues to apply, so if you needed to reduce debt, you should do so as gradually as possible. This also seemed like as robust a result as one can get in macro.
The acid test for macro came in 2010. Policymakers, for a variety of reasons, went into reverse with fiscal policy. Austerity replaced stimulus around the world. If academic macroeconomists had been true to their discipline, they would have been united in saying that our standard models tell us this will reduce output and raise unemployment. They would have said that if markets allow, the time to reduce debt is when the ZLB comes to an end, and then it should be done gradually. Many did say that, but many did not. This division at least encouraged policymakers to continue with austerity.
So macroeconomists as a collective failed this test, repeating errors made in the 1930s. But unlike the 1930s, it did not have ignorance as an excuse. 
This is a crucial point that many on both sides tend to ignore. In 2010, the standard business cycle model was the New Keynesian model, and the implications of that model for the efficacy of appropriately designed fiscal policy are clear. So to blame the failure of 2010 on the current dominant macro model is just wrong. You may not like that model, but it cannot be blamed for the widespread adoption of austerity, or the ambivalent attitude of many macroeconomists towards that policy change.
So in my view macroeconomists, not the dominant macroeconomic model, failed. ...

There's quite a bit more in the post.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Great Lesson from the Great Recession

This is live at the Fiscal Times:

The Great Lesson from the Great Recession

Kind of a pessimistic conclusion.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

'Missing the point at the IMF'

Simon Wren-Lewis is frustrated with the IMF (for good reason):

Missing the point at the IMF, by Simon Wren-Lewis: The IMF have just published a working paper entitled: ‘Assessing the Impact and Phasing of Multi-year Fiscal Adjustment: A General Framework’. Or to put it more simply: should austerity be front loaded or delayed? A really important topic and one where the views of the IMF are of some importance.

I guess if you call anything a ‘General Framework’ you are taking a risk. But honestly, if you also write this

“our framework does not explicitly model the monetary policy response, which could have an important impact on output”

then you have no business using the word ‘Framework’, let alone ‘General’. [1]

We need to go through the logic one more time. When monetary policy is not constrained (we are not at the Zero Lower Bound), monetary policy can (and to a first approximation should) completely offset the impact of any fiscal consolidation. The multiplier in that case will be approximately zero. [2] However if we are at the ZLB, then within the current monetary policy framework (essentially inflation targeting), and unless you are really optimistic about unconventional policy, the ability of monetary policy to stimulate aggregate demand is severely compromised. As a result, any fiscal multiplier will be substantially greater than zero.

Now consider two periods. In the first, we are at the ZLB. In the following period, we are not. Consider two fiscal consolidation programs. In the first, everything is front loaded into the first period. In the second, nothing happens in the first period, and all fiscal consolidation takes place in the second. Design the two programs so that we end up with the same debt to GDP ratio by the end of the second period, so they are neutral in this respect.

What is the overall impact on output of the two programs? Frontloading hits output in the ZLB period, with possible hysteresis effects in the second. Delaying consolidation until the second period has no impact on output whatsoever, because any impact on output is offset by monetary policy. Simple. So the choice is a no-brainer - you delay fiscal adjustment until the ZLB period has ended.

You would think that with these very dramatic implications for the optimal path for fiscal consolidation, allowing for monetary policy would have to be part of any ‘general framework’. ...

This is by now such an obvious and basic point I can only wonder why it is not incorporated into the analysis. By ignoring this point, what has been done is just inapplicable to some major economies. I do not like being so critical and blunt, but this is no academic debating point. And I would hate to think that this reasoning has been ignored precisely because its implications about the timing of fiscal consolidation are so clear. ...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

'Why has the Fed Given up on America’s Unemployed?'

Adam Posen has a question:

Why has the Fed given up on America’s unemployed?: ... There is a rush in the US and Europe to prematurely declare stimulus policies ineffective at reducing unemployment. Much of the persistent joblessness is deemed structural and the costs of addressing long-term unemployment too daunting. Labor regulations and skills mismatches clearly play some role in keeping the jobless out of work, but their impact is exaggerated to excuse inaction. ...
So there is no reason to hold back on trying to drive US unemployment down through monetary and fiscal policy. An elastic supply of labour will keep wage growth low, which will suppress inflationary pressure. ... At present, there is no danger of a 1970s-style wage-price spiral. ...
The costs of pushing a bit too far are small and reversible. But the costs of letting unemployment persist are vast. ... There is no good reason for the Fed to give up on the labor market – and thus no good argument for allowing the de facto tightening of monetary conditions to stand.

I'd also ask why Congress has turned its back on the unemployed, but I think we know the answer to that.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Manski: Removing Deadweight Loss from Economic Discourse on Income Taxation and Public Spending

Another quick one:

Removing deadweight loss from economic discourse on income taxation and public spending, by Charles F Manski, Vox EU: Economists usually think of taxation as inefficient. This column argues that the anti-tax rhetoric evident in much lay discussion of public policy draws considerable support from the prevalent negative language of professional economic discourse. Optimal income taxation doesn’t have to employ the pejorative concepts of inefficiency, deadweight loss and distortion; and this column argues that it is high time for economists to discard them and make analysis of taxation and public spending distortion-free.

Column here.

Friday, August 02, 2013

'Recent Jobs & Growth Numbers: Good or Bad?'

Jeff Frankel on the jobs report:

Recent Jobs & Growth Numbers: Good or Bad?: This morning’s US employment report for July shows the 33rd consecutive month of positive job gains, by my count. Earlier in the week, the Commerce Department report showed that the 2nd quarter was the 16th consecutive quarter of positive GDP growth. Of course, the growth in employment and income has not been anywhere near as strong as we would like, nor as strong as it could be if we had a more intelligent fiscal policy in Washington. But it is much better than what most other industrialized countries have been experiencing. Many European countries haven’t even recovered from the Great Recession, with incomes currently still below their peaks of six years ago.
 ...
GDP growth has fallen well below 2% in the last three quarters. But I think we know the reason for that: dysfunctional fiscal policy. Washington has been the obstacle to a normal robust recovery, through a combination of such factors as spending cuts in 2011 and 2012, the expiration of the payroll tax holiday in January 2013, the sequester in March, and now needless business uncertainty arising from new time-bombs in the next two months, induced once again by partisan deadlock over passing a budget and raising the debt ceiling. Given all that, it is surprising that private consumption and investment have held up as well as they have.
The right policy bargain, of course, is fiscal stimulus in the short term, not fiscal contraction, combined with steps today to address the entitlements problem in the long-term. That would get us back to solid growth. Our current pattern of pro-cyclical fiscal policy is exactly backwards.
I want to echo and reinforce what he says about fiscal policy, particularly the need for short-term stimulus. [He also compares this recovery to the recovery when Bush was president -- guess which is stronger?]

Thursday, August 01, 2013

State Governments are NOT Roadblocks to Federal Stimulus

In case you missed this from Owen Zidar:

Are State Governments Roadblocks to Federal Stimulus? Evidence from Highway Grants in the 2009 Recovery Act, by Owen Zidar: From Sylvain Leduc and Dan Wilson:

We examine how state governments adjusted spending in response to the large temporary increase in federal grants under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). We concentrate our analysis on ARRA highway grants, which were especially likely to crowd out states’ own highway funding given the lack of matching requirements and according to past research on federal highway grants. ... We find that states increased highway spending in 2010 nearly dollar-for-dollar with their apportioned grants, implying little if any crowd-out. Moreover, we find that over the entire 2009- 2011 period, ARRA highway grants crowded in highway spending, resulting in roughly two dollars in spending for each dollar in grants. We show that our results are not unique to the ARRA period, but rather are consistent with a strong effect from grants dating back at least to the early 1980s. This latter result contrasts with earlier research (Knight 2002) and we document the sources of the difference.

This is in contradiction to what John Taylor claims:

Despite its large size, the 2009 U.S. stimulus package failed to increase government infrastructure spending or other government purchases as its promoters had claimed it would. The large federal stimulus grants sent to state and local governments for infrastructure spending were mainly used to reduce borrowing and thus did not result in an increase in purchases. ...

Though Taylor does think infrastructure spending worked as a stimulus mechanism in China (as he explains).

Anyway, full steam ahead with infrastructure spending both as a way to promote recovery and to build a better future (as though Republicans would actually agree to something this sensible).

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why Should Government Grow at the Same Rate as GDP?

I have a question. Why should government spending as a percentage of GDP stay constant as GDP grows? It seems that, as we grow wealthier as a society, we would want relatively more of the kinds of goods government provides, e.g. social insurance.

Friday, July 26, 2013

'US Infrastructure UnderInvestment vs Other Developed Nations'

This is via Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture:

McKinsey: US Infrastructure UnderInvestment vs Other Developed Nations, by Barry Ritholtz:: The United States must raise infrastructure spending by 1 percentage point of GDP to meet future needs
Bigpic
Click to enlarge Source: McKinsey

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Middle-Out Economics

Has the administration finally realized that we ought to do something about stagnating wages, the millions of unemployed, etc.? Is this a serious effort, or is it, as in the past, mostly just for show (I'll believe it when I see some of it actually happening)?:

President Obama Needs to Ground “Middle-Out” Economics in Broad-Based Wage Growth, by Larry Mishel, EPI: Tomorrow at Knox College, President Obama will kick off a series of speeches outlining his vision for rebuilding the U.S. economy. He is expected to talk about how the economy works best when it grows from the “middle-out,” not from the top down.
Growing from the middle out is indeed the right approach to economic growth. I hope that President Obama will get to the heart of the matter, which is that, adjusted for inflation, wages and benefits for the vast majority of workers have not grown in ten years. This is true even for college graduates, including those in business occupations or in STEM fields, whose wages have been stagnant since 2002. Low and middle-wage workers, meanwhile, have not seen much wage growth since 1979. Corporate profits, on the other hand, are at historic highs. Income growth in the United States has been captured by those in the top one percent, driven by high profitability and by the tremendous wage growth among executives and in the finance sector.
The real challenge is how to generate broad-based real wage growth, which was only present during the last three decades for a few short years at the end of the 1990s.
To generate wage growth, we will need to rapidly lower unemployment, which can only be accomplished by large scale public investments and the reestablishment of state and local public services that were cut in the Great Recession and its aftermath. The priority has to be jobs now, rather than any deficit reduction... Overall, it means paying attention to job quality and wage growth as a key priority in and of itself, and as a mechanism for economic growth and economic security for the vast majority. ...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

'When is the Time for Austerity?'

In case you missed this:

When is the time for austerity? - Alan Taylor

Kevin O'Rourke at the Irish Economy Blog has a succinct explanation of the findings:

The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity, by Kevin O’Rourke: Alan Taylor has a piece on Vox today that is a nice contribution to the debate on the output effects of austerity. That debate has largely been about the endogeneity of fiscal policy: the more you take this into account, the more contractionary austerity becomes. He and Oscar Jorda show that if you give less weight to episodes where the austerity/no austerity policy choice was more predictable (i.e. more endogenous) and more weight to episodes where the policy choice was less predictable (i.e. more exogenous) then you find that austerity was extremely contractionary in slumps. This does not mean that fiscal consolidation is never necessary, but that the time for consolidation is when times are good, not when times are bad. It would be nice if Austerians could display a similar recognition that context matters.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

'Fed Chief Calls Congress Biggest Obstacle to Growth'

I missed the Congressional hearing today, but glad to hear that Ben Bernanke delivered this message:

Fed Chief Calls Congress Biggest Obstacle to Growth, by Binyamin Appelbaum, NY Times: The Federal Reserve’s chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, said Wednesday that Congress is the largest obstacle to faster economic growth, and he warned that upcoming decisions about fiscal policy could once again undermine the nation’s recovery.
“The economic recovery has continued at a moderate pace in recent quarters despite the strong headwinds created by federal fiscal policy,” Mr. Bernanke said in the opening line of his prepared remarks to a Congressional committee.
Moreover, he said, Congress could make things worse later this year.
“The risks remain that tight federal fiscal policy will restrain economic growth over the next few quarters by more than we currently expect, or that the debate concerning other fiscal policy issues, such as the status of the debt ceiling, will evolve in a way that could hamper the recovery,” he said. ...

Barry Ritholtz is right, we need to spend more right now, not less:

...[We have a] once in a lifetime opportunity to finance [infrastructure] at historically low interest rates...:

“Thanks to the Federal Reserve’s zero interest rates and quantitative easing policies, borrowing costs are near generational lows. The costs of funding the repair and renovation of America’s decaying infrastructure are as cheap as they have been since World War II.

But the era of cheap credit may be nearing its end. And thanks to a dysfunctional Washington, D.C., we are on the verge of missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The thinking here is that all of these things will eventually occur — bridges are falling like dominoes — so we might as well do it when the costs are cheaper rather than expensive.

... We do not want to miss the historic opportunity to finance projects at unusually inexpensive rates. Indeed, dysfunction in D.C. has already impacted state and municipal financing vehicles like the Build America Bonds. Sequestration has eliminated most of their special tax credits, and their usage as a financing vehicle has slowed significantly. It is not surprising that the public works projects that these were funding have fallen off dramatically.”

We are fools if we let this opportunity slip by . . .

Very foolish. To add a few recent comments of my own:

...what I don't get is why conservatives have gotten away with opposing infrastructure spending to lift the economy. Infrastructure spending is inherently a supply-side policy, both sides acknowledge that, or should, and some of us believe it also short-run demand effects that are also helpful. But whether or not infrastructure spending impacts aggregate demand, it seems pretty clear given the state of our infrastructure that the benefits of this spending just in terms of the long-run effects more than cover the costs. And the argument that the private sector does it better doesn't hold since most of this spending is on public goods the private sector will not provide in sufficient quantities if it provides them at all. Finally, we can afford to borrow today to fund investment projects that have long-run benefits that exceed the costs.
But yet, here we are with an unemployment crisis, a huge output gap, and big infrastructure needs, record low interest rates, while Congress sits on its hands because conservatives will not agree to fund infrastructure, let alone government consumption spending.
I find it very frustrating.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Paul Krugman: Defining Prosperity Down

Bad policy is standing in the way of the return to full employment:

Paul Krugman: Defining Prosperity Down, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Friday’s employment report wasn’t bad. But given how depressed our economy remains, we really should be adding more than 300,000 jobs a month, not fewer than 200,000. ... Full recovery still looks a very long way off. And I’m beginning to worry that it may never happen. ...
What, exactly, will bring us back to full employment?
We certainly can’t count on fiscal policy. The austerity gang may have experienced a stunning defeat in the intellectual debate, but stimulus is still a dirty word...
Aggressive monetary action by the Federal Reserve, something like what the Bank of Japan is now trying, might do the trick. But far from becoming more aggressive, the Fed is talking about “tapering” its efforts. This talk has already done real damage...
Still, even if we don’t and won’t have a job-creation policy, can’t we count on the natural recuperative powers of the private sector? Maybe not.
It’s true that after a protracted slump, the private sector usually does find reasons to start spending again. ... But that healing process won’t go very far if policy makers stomp on it, in particular by raising interest rates. ...
And... Long-term interest rates ... shot up after Friday’s job report...
Why...? Part of the reason is that the Fed is constantly under pressure from monetary hawks... These hawks spent years warning that soaring inflation was just around the corner. They were wrong, of course, but ... it remains dangerously influential. ...
In short, there’s a real risk that bad policy will choke off our already inadequate recovery.
But won’t voters eventually demand more? Well, that’s where I get especially pessimistic.
You might think that a persistently poor economy ... would eventually spark public outrage. But the political science evidence ... is unambiguous: what matters is the rate of change, not the level.
Put it this way: If unemployment rises from 6 to 7 percent during an election year, the incumbent will probably lose. But if it stays flat at 8 percent..., he or she will probably be returned to power. And this means that there’s remarkably little political pressure to end our continuing, if low-grade, depression.
Someday, I suppose, something will turn up that finally gets us back to full employment. But I can’t help recalling that the last time we were in this kind of situation, the thing that eventually turned up was World War II.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Government Consumption versus Government Investment

When the economy needs short-term demand stimulus, as it does now, that stimulus can come from spending on infrastructure, i.e. government investment, or it could be from expenditures on something with little long-run benefit such as large fireworks shows held throughout the nation - big extravagant events that spend millions and millions of dollars in the most depressed economic areas (government consumption). In the short-run the goal is to kick start the economy, and a fireworks show is just as good at that task as infrastructure spending if the spending is approximately the same.

Where they differ is in the long-run. The firework show leaves only memories - and sometimes that's enough to justify an expenditure - but let's assume that for the most part the shows were nothing more than an excuse to spend money to get the local economies moving (not that there's anything wrong with that; also, perhaps a series of shows would be better so that the impulse is spread out over time and sustains the economy through the downturn, but the idea is the same). However, infrastructure spending does have long-run benefits and can help the economy grow faster.

Thus, it seems like infrastructure spending is the obvious choice, since it has both short-run and long-run benefits. But there is a further consideration, how fast each type of spending can be put into place. If a "fireworks show" can be put into place very fast, while it takes far longer to get infrastructure spending going, then policy should be a combination of spending that hits the economy right away (government consumption) and spending that hits a bit later, has long-lasting effects, and promotes future growth (government investment).

Then there's the politics. Conservatives often oppose government consumption (e.g. by arguing the multiplier is zero even in depressed economies, by arguing that tax cuts that allow the private sector to spend are more efficient than government spending, or arguing that our debt is too high to spend any more). But what I don't get is why conservatives have gotten away with opposing infrastructure spending to lift the economy. Infrastructure spending is inherently a supply-side policy, both sides acknowledge that, or should, and some of us believe it also short-run demand effects that are also helpful. But whether or not infrastructure spending impacts aggregate demand, it seems pretty clear given the state of our infrastructure that the benefits of this spending just in terms of the long-run effects more than cover the costs. And the argument that the private sector does it better doesn't hold since most of this spending is on public goods the private sector will not provide in sufficient quantities if it provides them at all. Finally, we can afford to borrow today to fund investment projects that have long-run benefits that exceed the costs.

But yet, here we are with an unemployment crisis, a huge output gap, and big infrastructure needs, while Congress sits on its hands because conservatives will not agree to fund infrastructure, let alone government consumption spending.

I find it very frustrating.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

'Austerity Won’t Work if the Roof Is Leaking'

Robert Frank:

Austerity Won’t Work if the Roof Is Leaking, by robert Frank, Commentary, NY Times: I Recently spent a week in Berlin, where the entire city seemed under construction. In every direction, cranes and other heavy equipment dominated the landscape. Although many projects are in the private sector, innumerable others — including bridge and highway repairs, new subway stations and other infrastructure work — are financed by taxpayers.
But wait. Hasn’t Germany been one of the most outspoken advocates of fiscal austerity after the financial crisis? Yes... But they also understand the distinction between consumption and investment. By borrowing, they’ve made investments whose future benefits will far outweigh repayment costs. There’s nothing foolhardy about that. ...
The Germans didn’t become bogged down in debate over stimulus policy, and they didn’t explicitly portray their infrastructure push as stimulus. But that didn’t hamper their strategy’s remarkable effectiveness at putting people to work. ...
Now austerity backers urge — preposterously — that infrastructure repairs be postponed until government budgets are in balance. But would they also tell an indebted family to postpone fixing a leaky roof until it paid off all its debts? Not only would the repair grow more costly with the delay, but the water damage would mount in the interim. ... The logic is the same for infrastructure.
Austerity advocates, who have been wrong at virtually every turn, are unlikely to change their minds about stimulus policy. But... Our best available option, by far, is to rebuild our tattered infrastructure at fire-sale prices. If the austerity crowd disagrees, it should explain why in plain English.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

'Annoying Anti-Fiscal Stimulus Arguments'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

Annoying Anti-Fiscal Stimulus Arguments Nos. 3 and 4: For numbers 1 and 2, see this post.
Number 3. We must reduce the size of the state.
This argument is often there but unstated, because to say it explicitly involves a deception. ... But as those making the case for austerity get more desperate, I have seen this argument a few times recently.
It involves a deception, because reducing the size of the state has nothing in principle to do with austerity and stimulus. I personally have no strong views about what the size of the state should be: some things are clearly done better by the private sector, while others are done better by the state, and how this eventually pans out for the aggregate I have no idea. But this has almost nothing to do with the need to increase demand when interest rates are at the zero lower bound. ...

The idea that ... temporary [stimulus] is bound to become permanent does not stand up.
4. We must think of the children
This is annoying not because it is wrong in principle. Instead it is wrong because it either ignores who suffers the costs of austerity, or because it is not genuine. The argument that is right in principle is that, by increasing debt, we are ceteris paribus redistributing money from future generations to the current generation. There may be a complete offset if that increase in debt avoids hysteresis effects (or enables investment with beneficial supply side effects). Yet even leaving that aside, there are often very good reasons to redistribute income. When a country suffers a natural disaster, both governments and individuals freely give money to help those involved. We can think about the recession as a similar disaster.
If that does not convince you, ask who is bearing the brunt of this recession. All around the world, youth unemployment has risen by more than unemployment in general. If you asked those who cannot find a job after leaving school or college whether they would be willing to pay higher future taxes in order to get a job today, what do you think their answer would be?

Why do I suspect that this argument is sometimes not genuine? Because some of those who make this case also argue against measures to tackle climate change. Now even if you are sceptical about the science, the potential costs of you being wrong and 98% of scientists being right are so great that if you really cared about future generations you would support measures to reduce carbon emissions. ...

Glad to see point 3 (point 4 too). I've been trying to explain that there is no necessary connection between stabilization policy and the size of government for some time now. This is from 2007, but I first made this point in 2005:

... Want a smaller government? Use tax cuts to stimulate the economy in recessions, and use reductions in government spending to slow the economy when it threatens to overheat and be inflationary. Want a larger government? Do the opposite, increase government spending whenever the economy is lagging, and increase taxes to slow the economy when it begins to overheat.
The point is that stabilization policy - changes in taxes or changes in government spending - does not necessarily change the size of government in any particular direction, that is a policy choice. Traditionally stabilization policy maintains a constant budget balance in the long-run and whether to use tax changes or spending changes is a matter of effectiveness, not a matter of ideology about the size of government. ...

Saturday, June 29, 2013

'The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills'

I am hosting a Firedoglake Book Salon later today:

Introductory post and discussion (at 2:00 PST/5:00 EST today)

The book is The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

IMF Urges Repeal of 'Ill-Designed' Spending Cuts

In case you missed this, the IMF estimates that economic growth would be nearly double what it is now without the "excessively rapid and ill-designed" government spending cuts:

IMF Urges Washington to Repeal ‘Ill-Designed’ Spending Cuts, Reuters: The International Monetary Fund urged the United States on Friday to repeal sweeping government spending cuts and recommended that the Federal Reserve continue a bond-buying program through at least the end of the year.
In its annual check of the health of the U.S. economy, the IMF forecast economic growth would be a sluggish 1.9 percent this year. The IMF estimates growth would be as much as 1.75 percentage points higher if not for a rush to cut the government's budget deficit. ...
"The deficit reduction in 2013 has been excessively rapid and ill-designed," the IMF said. "These cuts should be replaced with a back-loaded mix of entitlement savings and new revenues."
The IMF warned cuts to education, science and infrastructure spending could reduce potential growth. ...
The Fund recommended that the U.S. Federal Reserve keep up its massive asset purchases at least through the end of the year to support the U.S. recovery, but should also prepare for a pull-back in the future. ...

The recovery of output and employment didn't have to be so slow. I'm not saying that reversing these policies (or replacing them with more aggressive fiscal policy measures) would have brought miracles, it was going to be a difficult recovery no matter what polices we pursued. But we certainly could have done better than we did, particularly on the fiscal policy front.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Blinder: Fiscal Fixes for the Jobless Recovery

Alan Blinder says "the fiscal cupboard is not bare":

Fiscal Fixes for the Jobless Recovery, by Alan Blinder, Commentary, WSJ: Do you sense an air of complacency developing about jobs in Washington and in the media? ... The Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project ... estimates ... the "jobs gap" ... is 9.9 million jobs. ... So any complacency is misguided. Rather, policy makers should be running around like their hair is on fire. ...
The Federal Reserve has worked overtime to spur job creation, and there is not much more it can do. Fiscal policy, however, has been worse than AWOL—it has been actively destroying jobs. ... So Congress could make a good start on faster job creation simply by ending what it's doing—destroying government jobs. First, do no harm. But there's more.
Virtually since the Great Recession began, many economists have suggested offering businesses a tax credit for creating new jobs. ... You might imagine that Republicans would embrace an idea like that. After all, it's a business tax cut... But you would be wrong. Maybe it's because President Obama likes the idea. Maybe he should start saying he hates it.
Another sort of business tax cut may hold more political promise. ... Suppose Congress enacted a partial tax holiday that allowed companies to repatriate profits held abroad at some bargain-basement tax rate like 10%. The catch: The maximum amount each company could bring home at that low tax rate would equal the increase in its wage payments as measured by Social Security records....
My general point is that the fiscal cupboard is not bare. There are things we could be doing to boost employment right now. That we are not doing anything constitutes malign neglect of the nation's worst economic problem

Friday, May 31, 2013

'The Beginning of the End for Eurozone Austerity?'

The other day I posted a link to an article at Spiegel titled "Austerity About-Face: German Government to Gamble on Stimulus." Here's Gavyn Davies on whether this is really "The beginning of the end for Eurozone austerity?":

Fiscal austerity, a concept which German Chancellor Merkel says meant nothing to her before the crisis, may have passed its heyday in the eurozone.  ...
this may not be the end of eurozone austerity, or even the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.

Substance here.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Keynesophobia?

Paul Krugman responds to Brad DeLong's comments on a recent article by Ken Rogoff (Update: DeLong follow-up). Here's another response from Francesco Saraceno:

Living in Terror of Dead Economists, by Francesco Saraceno: Kenneth Rogoff has a piece ... that is revealing of today’s intellectual climate. What does he say? ... In a sentence, intra eurozone imbalances are the source of the current crisis. Could not agree more…

Unfortunately, Rogoff does not stop here, but feels the irrepressible urge to add that

Temporary Keynesian demand measures may help to sustain short-run internal growth, but they will not solve France’s long-run competitiveness problems [...] To my mind, using Germany’s balance sheet to help its neighbors directly is far more likely to work than is the presumed “trickle-down” effect of a German-led fiscal expansion. This, unfortunately, is what has been lost in the debate about Europe of late: However loud and aggressive the anti-austerity movement becomes, there still will be no simple Keynesian cure for the single currency’s debt and growth woes.

The question then arises. Who ever thought that a more expansionary stance in the eurozone would solve the French structural problems? And at the opposite, why would recognizing that France has structural problems make it less urgent to reverse the pro-cyclical fiscal stance of an eurozone that is desperately lacking domestic demand? Let me try to sort out things here. This is the way I see it:

  1. European woes have deep sources. Institutional developments have led to a suboptimal currency area that endogenously created imbalances; as of today only extreme solutions seem to offer a durable solution: Either we cross the ford towards a fully fledged federal entity, with a federal budget (the United States of Europe, just to be adamant); or we go back where we were a few years ago: a common market, in which each country retains its own monetary and fiscal sovereignty (we could call it the British View).
  2. The eurozone structural problems made it fragile, and the crisis exposed them.
  3. Disastrous management, and widespread adherence to the Berlin View have imposed harsh austerity to the periphery and to the core alike, worsening the textbook Keynesian demand slump.
  4. There is little hope that the aggregate fiscal stance in the eurozone turn positive (thus fighting the recession), if  core countries do not make a u-turn in their fiscal policies

...I infer that Rogoff would broadly agree with me on items 1-2. But I do not see why this would lead to deem appropriate the fiscal stance Europe is following today. Claiming that we need to sustain aggregate demand, here and now, in no way impacts on the diagnosis of the structural problems of the EU (even if I suspect that I would not have the same solutions as Rogoff for these problems). If anything, given that the fiscal expansion would mostly happen in the core, it would help, not hamper the necessary rebalancing between core and periphery.

The question remains of why we keep observing eminent economists that bash Keynesian policies even when this is inconsistent with (or irrelevant to) their general argument . Barring bad faith, I can’t find any other explanation than an ancestral aversion to Keynes and to its policy prescriptions (a couple of years ago Paul Krugman coined the term of Keynesophobia): whatever argument you are making , just find a way to slip into it a couple of paragraphs claiming that Keynesian policies would not work. This will keep you safe from hell. ...

Friday, May 24, 2013

Paul Krugman: Japan the Model

If Abenomics works, it could help to overcome the "economic defeatism" that has overtaken policymakers in the US and other countries:

Japan the Model, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: A generation ago, Japan was widely admired — and feared — as an economic paragon. ... Then Japan fell into a seemingly endless slump, and most of the world lost interest. The main exceptions were a relative handful of economists... If one big, wealthy, politically stable country could stumble so badly, they wondered, couldn’t much the same thing happen to other such countries?
Sure enough, it both could and did. These days we are, in economic terms, all Japanese...
In a sense, the really remarkable thing about “Abenomics” — the sharp turn toward monetary and fiscal stimulus adopted by the government of Prime Minster Shinzo Abe — is that nobody else in the advanced world is trying anything similar. In fact, the Western world seems overtaken by economic defeatism. ...
It would be easy for Japanese officials to make the same excuses for inaction that we hear all around the North Atlantic: they are hamstrung by a rapidly aging population; the economy is weighed down by structural problems...; debt is too high (far higher, as a share of the economy, than that of Greece). And in the past, Japanese officials have, indeed, been very fond of making such excuses. ...
So, how is Abenomics working? The safe answer is that it’s too soon to tell. But the early signs are good..., with surprisingly rapid Japanese economic growth in the first quarter of this year... You never want to make too much of one quarter’s numbers, but that’s the kind of thing we want to see.
Meanwhile, Japanese stocks have soared, while the yen has fallen..., very good news for Japan because it makes the country’s export industries more competitive. ...
To be sure, Thursday’s sell-off in Japanese stocks put a small dent in that optimistic assessment. But stocks are still way up from last year...
So the overall verdict on Japan’s effort to turn its economy around is so far, so good. And let’s hope that this verdict both stands and strengthens over time. For if Abenomics works, it will serve a dual purpose, giving Japan itself a much-needed boost and the rest of us an even more-needed antidote to policy lethargy.
As I said at the beginning, at this point the Western world has seemingly succumbed to a severe case of economic defeatism; we’re not even trying to solve our problems. That needs to change — and maybe, just maybe, Japan can be the instrument of that change.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

'Stop Celebrating Our Falling Deficits'

Ezra Klein is correct:

Stop celebrating our falling deficits: It’s time to stop celebrating last week’s Congressional Budget Office report. Our deficits aren’t dropping because we’re doing something right. They’re dropping because we’re doing everything wrong. ...
The CBO is saying that the federal government will be pulling demand out of the economy in 2013, 2014 and 2015. It will then start adding demand back in again — meaning we’ll be increasing the deficit — from 2016 through 2023, and presumably beyond.
That is literally the opposite of what we should want. Textbook economics says the government should add demand when the economy is weak and pull back when the economy is strong. The economy — and particularly the labor market — will remain weaker than we’d like in 2013, 2014 and 2015. That’s when the government should be helping, or at least making sure not to hurt too fast. It should be much stronger from 2016 to 2023. That’s when the government should be backing off. ...

Ben Bernanke also made this point -- yet again -- in his testimony today.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Alesina's 'Fair Sare of Abuse'

Jeff Frankel says:

 ... Alberto Alesina has not been receiving his “fair share of abuse.”  His influential papers with Roberto Perotti  (19951997) and Silvia Ardagna (19982010found that cutting government spending is not contractionary and that it may even be expansionary ...

More here.

Vintage Krugman: Stating the Obvious

Don't say you weren't warned. This is Paul Krugman, just a few days under 10 years ago:

Stating the Obvious, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times, May 27, 2003: "The lunatics are now in charge of the asylum." So wrote the normally staid Financial Times, traditionally the voice of solid British business opinion, when surveying last week's tax bill. Indeed, the legislation is doubly absurd: the gimmicks used to make an $800-billion-plus tax cut carry an official price tag of only $320 billion are a joke, yet the cost without the gimmicks is so large that the nation can't possibly afford it while keeping its other promises.
But then maybe that's the point. The Financial Times suggests that "more extreme Republicans" actually want a fiscal train wreck: "Proposing to slash federal spending, particularly on social programs, is a tricky electoral proposition, but a fiscal crisis offers the tantalizing prospect of forcing such cuts through the back door."
Good for The Financial Times. It seems that stating the obvious has now, finally, become respectable.
It's no secret that right-wing ideologues want to abolish programs Americans take for granted. But not long ago, to suggest that the Bush administration's policies might actually be driven by those ideologues — that the administration was deliberately setting the country up for a fiscal crisis in which popular social programs could be sharply cut — was to be accused of spouting conspiracy theories.
Yet by pushing through another huge tax cut in the face of record deficits, the administration clearly demonstrates either that it is completely feckless, or that it actually wants a fiscal crisis. (Or maybe both.)
Here's one way to look at the situation: Although you wouldn't know it from the rhetoric, federal taxes are already historically low as a share of G.D.P. Once the new round of cuts takes effect, federal taxes will be lower than their average during the Eisenhower administration. How, then, can the government pay for Medicare and Medicaid — which didn't exist in the 1950's — and Social Security, which will become far more expensive as the population ages? (Defense spending has fallen compared with the economy, but not that much, and it's on the rise again.)
The answer is that it can't. The government can borrow to make up the difference as long as investors remain in denial, unable to believe that the world's only superpower is turning into a banana republic. But at some point bond markets will balk — they won't lend money to a government, even that of the United States, if that government's debt is growing faster than its revenues and there is no plausible story about how the budget will eventually come under control.
At that point, either taxes will go up again, or programs that have become fundamental to the American way of life will be gutted. We can be sure that the right will do whatever it takes to preserve the Bush tax cuts — right now the administration is even skimping on homeland security to save a few dollars here and there. But balancing the books without tax increases will require deep cuts where the money is: that is, in Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.
The pain of these benefit cuts will fall on the middle class and the poor, while the tax cuts overwhelmingly favor the rich. For example, the tax cut passed last week will raise the after-tax income of most people by less than 1 percent — not nearly enough to compensate them for the loss of benefits. But people with incomes over $1 million per year will, on average, see their after-tax income rise 4.4 percent.
The Financial Times suggests this is deliberate (and I agree): "For them," it says of those extreme Republicans, "undermining the multilateral international order is not enough; long-held views on income distribution also require radical revision."
How can this be happening? Most people, even most liberals, are complacent. They don't realize how dire the fiscal outlook really is, and they don't read what the ideologues write. They imagine that the Bush administration, like the Reagan administration, will modify our system only at the edges, that it won't destroy the social safety net built up over the past 70 years.
But the people now running America aren't conservatives: they're radicals who want to do away with the social and economic system we have, and the fiscal crisis they are concocting may give them the excuse they need. The Financial Times, it seems, now understands what's going on, but when will the public wake up?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

'How Are American Workers Dealing with the Payroll Tax Hike?'

Basit Zafar, Max Livingston, and Wilbert van der Klaauw examine the impact of the payroll tax cut in 2011 and 2012, and its subsequent reversal:

My Two (Per)cents: How Are American Workers Dealing with the Payroll Tax Hike?, by Basit Zafar, Max Livingston, and Wilbert van der Klaauw, Liberty Street Economics, NY Fed: The payroll tax cut, which was in place during all of 2011 and 2012, reduced Social Security and Medicare taxes withheld from workers’ paychecks by 2 percent. This tax cut affected nearly 155 million workers in the United States, and put an additional $1,000 a year in the pocket of an average household earning $50,000. As part of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, Congress allowed the 2011-12 payroll tax cut to expire at the end of 2012, and the higher income that workers had grown accustomed to was gone. In this post, we explore the implications of the payroll tax increase for U.S. workers.
The impact of such a tax hike depends on two factors. One, how did U.S. workers use the extra funds in their paychecks over the last two years? And two, how do workers plan to respond to shrinking paychecks? With regard to the first factor, in a recent working paper and an earlier blog post, we present survey evidence showing that the tax cut significantly boosted consumer spending, with workers reporting that they spent an average of 36 percent of the additional funds from the tax cut. This spending rate is at the higher end of the estimates of how much people have spent out of other tax cuts over the last decade, and is arguably a consequence of how the tax cut was designed—with disaggregated additions to workers’ paychecks instead of a one-time lump-sum transfer. We also found that workers used nearly 40 percent of the tax cut funds to pay down debt.
To understand how the tax increase is affecting U.S. consumers, we conducted an online survey in February 2013. We surveyed 370 individuals through the RAND Corporation’s American Life Panel, 305 of whom were working at the time and had also worked at least part of 2012. ...

After a presentation of the survey results, and a discussion of what they mean, the authors conclude:

Overall, our analysis suggests that the payroll tax cut during 2011-12 led to a substantial increase in consumer spending and facilitated the consumer deleveraging process. Based on consumers’ responses to our recent survey, expiration of the tax cuts is likely to lead to a substantial reduction in spending as well as contribute to a slowdown or possibly a reversal in the paydown of consumer debt. These effects are also likely to be heterogeneous, with groups that are more credit and liquidity constrained more likely to be adversely affected. Such nuances may be lost in the aggregate macroeconomic statistics, but they’re important for policymakers to consider as they debate fiscal policy.

In response to arguments that tax cuts wouldn't help because they would be mostly saved, I have argued that there are two ways that tax cuts can help (see Why I Changed My Mind about Tax Cuts). One is to increase spending, and the other is to help households restore household balance sheets that were demolished in the downturn (i.e. the cure for a "balance sheet recession"). The sooner this "deleveraging process" is complete, the sooner the return to normal levels of consumption and the faster the exit from the recession (rebuilding household balance sheets takes a long time and this is one of the reasons the recovery from this type of recession is so slow, tax cuts that are used to reduce debt can help this prcess along). It looks like both effects are present for payroll tax changes (and work in the wrong way with a payroll tax increase).

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cyclical and Structural Shocks Require Different Policy Reactions

Steven Pearlstein argues that The case for austerity isn’t dead yet, and that:

austerity by itself won’t solve the problem of high employment and low growth in developed economies. But neither will fiscal stimulus by itself. Neither will work unless incorporated into a program of serious and credible structural reform.

But this is incorrect, and it confuses long-run growth policy with short-run stabilization. Monetary and fiscal policy can be used to stabilize fluctuations in the economy even without reforms that could raise long-run growth (the short-run stabilization policies may help with long-run growth, e.g. by improving labor market conditions and preventing people from permanently leaving the labor force, so the policies are not fully independent, but it's important to keep them conceptually separate). As Antonio Fatás points out in a post that anticipates and counters this argument (this was written before Pearlstein's piece), the idea that monetary and fiscal policy cannot work to stabilize the economy without structural reform is wrong (especially in countries like the US):

Time travel in Euroland: Unfortunately, this is not news by now, but the president of the Euro group, Jeroen Dijsselbloem in an interview with CNBC yesterday dismissed the role that fiscal policy and monetary policy can have to address the economic crisis (emphasis is mine):

"Monetary policy can really not help us out of the crisis. It can take away the pressure, it can accommodate new growth, but what we really need in all countries is structural reforms in the first place. I'd just like to stress the point that in the policy mix of fiscal policy, monetary policy and structural reforms — I'd like the order to be exactly the other way around. Structural reforms in the first place, fiscal policy and viable targets in the mid-term for all regions in second place — and monetary policy can only accommodate domestic economic problems in the short-term."

It is not exactly clear what to make out of his statement but it seems that long-term solutions should come first before we implement those that will help us in the short term. It is surprising that even today there is such a great confusion about long-term versus cyclical problems.

This confusion comes from a basic belief that some hold that there is nothing inherently different in the dynamics of an economy when one looks at the short run and the long run. This is part of a never-ending academic debate but when it comes to policy makers and politicians it seems to be more a matter of beliefs.

What it is not always understood is that we are dealing with two separate problems and therefore we need two different set of tools or solutions to deal with them.

It is possible that irresponsible behavior, excessive spending and accumulation of debt (private or public) are the cause of the Great Recession. And if this is true, it will require future adjustments to spending plans, deleveraging, and fiscal discipline to avoid a repetition of this event in the future.

But once the crisis started we are dealing with a second problem: a recession that moves us away from full employment. This is a cyclical phenomenon that is well described in macroeconomic textbooks and to deal with it we use monetary and fiscal policy. The fact that potentially debt and excessive spending were the cause of this cyclical event does not mean that we need to deal with these imbalances now to get out of the crisis. We are dealing with two separate phenomena that are only related because one possibly led to the second one, but the dynamics associated with each of them are very different and the recipe to get out of them can be, in some cases, the opposite.

This is what we write in all macroeconomics textbooks: what works in the short run might not work in the long run. As an example, we emphasize the importance of saving in the long run to drive investment and growth. But when we talk about the short run we emphasize the importance of spending to understand fluctuations in economic activity. Excessive spending hurts growth in the long run but it is spending and demand what drives growth in the short run.

There will be a day when we will have to debate about whether the cyclical phenomenon has already been addressed because we are back to full employment and therefore all our focus should be on the long term, but it is very hard to argue that this is where Europe is today. My point is not to deny that there are many deep structural issues to be addressed among Euro countries, but to recognize that we are dealing with two set of dynamics that require different solutions and until we invent time traveling the short term still comes before the long term.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

'Economists See Deficit Emphasis as Impeding Recovery'

Another travel day quickie:

Economists See Deficit Emphasis as Impeding Recovery, by Jackie Calmes and Jonathan Weisman: The nation’s unemployment rate would probably be nearly a point lower, roughly 6.5 percent, and economic growth almost two points higher this year if Washington had not cut spending and raised taxes as it has since 2011, according to private-sector and government
After two years in which President Obama and Republicans in Congress have fought to a draw over their clashing approaches to job creation and budget deficits, the consensus about the result is clear: Immediate deficit reduction is a drag on full economic recovery.
Hardly a day goes by when either government analysts or the macroeconomists and financial forecasters who advise investors and businesses do not report on the latest signs of economic growth — in housing, consumer spending, business investment. And then they add that things would be better but for the fiscal policy out of Washington. Tax increases and especially spending cuts, these critics say, take money from an economy that still needs some stimulus now, and is getting it only through the expansionary monetary policy of the Federal Reserve. ...
In all this time, the president has fought unsuccessfully to combine deficit reduction, including spending cuts and tax increases, with spending increases and targeted tax cuts for job-creation initiatives in areas like infrastructure, manufacturing, research and education. That is a formula closer to what the economists propose. But Republicans have insisted on spending cuts alone and smaller government as the key to economic growth. ...

And they keep insisting this is true despite the evidence to the contrary because it supports their ideological goals, and there is little political price for taking this position.

Monday, May 06, 2013

'This is Self-Evidently Absurd'

Jon Chait:

Why Left and Right Economics Can’t Just Agree, by Jonathan Chait: Adam Davidson writes a joint profile of Democratic economist Lawrence Summers and Republican economist Glenn Hubbard for The New York Times Magazine. ...
Hubbard tells Davidson he came to his interest in economics by reading Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. That book warned that centrally planned economies would lead to tyranny. In fact, western governments abandoned central planning after World War II, but conservatives, including Hayek himself, simply transposed the generalized fear of government from central planning onto other forms of government intervention. According to Davidson, Hubbard’s current fear centers around rising federal debt...
But this is self-evidently absurd, given Hubbard’s role in crafting Bush administration policies that transformed a budget that ran a surplus of 2.4 percent of GDP at its peak to one that ran a deficit of 1.2 percent of GDP at its peak. Debt is simply the current way Hubbard expresses his philosophical preference for smaller government. He argues that low taxes are vital for fast economic growth, but twenty years of recent experiences strongly suggest otherwise. ...
It also absurd because the call for lower taxes is inconsistent with the call to reduce the debt (but reducing spending and then "starving the beast" through reduced taxes both work toward the goal of a smaller government). Too few people realize that calls to reduce the debt are really about a "philosophical preference for smaller government" rather than the fear of debt itself. Similarly for lower taxes and claims about economic growth.

Fed Watch: When Deficits Become a Problem

Tim Duy:

When Deficits Become a Problem, by Tim Duy: L. Randall Wray (ht FTAlphaville) thinks that Paul Krugman has made the leap to MMT by acknowledging the ability of the central bank to control interest rates. Wray sees that Krugman was faced with an intellectual roadblock to MMT:

The sticking point has been “crowding out”—the idea that once we get beyond the liquidity trap and return to a more “normal” ISLM world, government deficits will push up interest rates. And that will then reduce private investment, which tends to lower economic growth. Higher interest rates plus lower growth means the government’s deficit and debt ratios grow beyond “sustainable” levels.

Wray argues that ultimately the central bank does not need to fear the bond vigilantes because the Treasury need not issue long-term debt and can instead issue only short term debt. The Fed is assumed to have complete control over rates on short term debt:

But as I explained last week, the short term rate is completely within the control of the Fed....Long term rates depend on the state of liquidity preference plus expectations of future Fed policy. But in any case, the Vigilantes cannot force Treasury to issue long term debt. It can stick to the short end of the maturity structure and then pay whatever rate the Fed targets.

Actually, I would go one step further than Wray and argue that the Fed's expectations tools coupled with large-scale asset purchases allows them to influence the entire yield curve. Wray then explains that this means the danger is not the vigilantes, but the Federal Reserve:

The real danger is not that the Vigilantes go all vigilant on Uncle Sam, but rather that the Fed decides to do a Volcker (raise the overnight rate to 20%). Congress can stop that by legislating that the Fed cannot act like a Vigilante. Or, alternatively, Treasury can stay on the short end. Both of these are policy choices, completely outside the influence of Vigilantes.

Wray takes Krugman's post today as evidence that Krugman believes that crowding out is not a issue either in a liquidity trap or at potential output. The Krugman quote:

the short-term interest rate is set by the Bank of England. And the long-term rate, to a first approximation, is a weighted average of expected future short-term rates. Unless markets believe that Britain is going to default — which it isn’t, and they won’t — this is more or less an arbitrage condition that ties down the long run rate no matter what happens to confidence.

Wray's interpretation:

All he has to do is to carry that analysis beyond the current downturn. This can go on forever, of course. Keep short term interest rates low, or keep Treasury out of long maturities.

Wray seems to believe that this means Krugman has departed from his earlier story:

I could go on, but you get the point: once we’re no longer in a liquidity trap, running large deficits without access to bond markets is a recipe for very high inflation, perhaps even hyperinflation. And no amount of talk about actual financial flows, about who buys what from whom, can make that point disappear: if you’re going to finance deficits by creating monetary base, someone has to be persuaded to hold the additional base.

But I don't see anything inconsistent between the Krugman of the past and that of today. The crowding out argument is a simply a bit more nuanced than in Wray's description. Wray seems to want to overlook the inflation part of Krugman's position. Specifically that in a more "normal" ISLM world, which I would interpret as near potential output, then additional government spending would tend to increase interest rates and crowd out private spending or - and this is an important or - that the Federal Reserve could accommodate the increased government spending and hold interest rates low, but that the end result would be higher inflation.

In other words, I doubt that Krugman fears the bond vigilantes even at potential output, but that he would expect the Federal Reserve to allow interest rates to increase to prevent inflation. Presumably this crowds out private investment, and shifts the mix of demand toward the government sector.

Does this mean that additional debt lowers growth in a Rogoff/Reinhart sense? No, but it does mean that the Fed will not allow output to exceed potential due to inflation concerns. The claim that crowding out leads to lower potential growth in the long-run is generally a supply-side type story in which an excessive level of government spending reduces the rate of resource (labor/technology/capital) growth.

In short, I doubt that Krugman's acknowledgement of the Federal Reserve's control over interest rates implies that he now believes that government deficits do not matter or that he will make such an intellectual leap. Krugman appears to have always believed that the Fed can control interest rates, thus leaving the bond vigilantes impotent. And there is nothing in his blog today to suggest that he no longer believes that at some point (hopefully) inflation - and by extension, interest rates - will once again be a concern. Believe it or not, it is not logically inconsistent to believe that concerns about rising interest rates are not valid today, but might be valid at some point in the future.

Update: I see Ed Harrison is writing on Krugman and the bond vigilantes as well, and sees the difference in not the so much the outcome

Of course running enormous deficits when the economy is operating at full capacity causes inflation to go haywire. Of course it does.

But in the rhetorical approach:

The difference is he straw-manned the deficit as an exogenous policy variable in 2011 when it simply isn’t one. 

Harrison (correctly) views the deficit as largely endogenous. When the economy improves, then the deficit will dissapear (or at least be greatly reduced). So arguing about the deficit's impact on interest rates is pointless:

This could only happen if our politicians went mad and added yet more fiscal stimulus to the economy even after it was overheating.

The key point is inflation:

Wait until inflation starts to creep up. Then the bond vigilantes can get going. But this is a long way off.

Paul Krugman: The Chutzpah Caucus

When will we ever learn?:

The Chutzpah Caucus, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: At this point the economic case for austerity ... has collapsed. ... Yet calls for a reversal of the destructive turn toward austerity are still having a hard time getting through. Partly that reflects ... widespread, deep-seated cynicism about the ability of democratic governments, once engaged in stimulus, to change course in the future.
So now seems like a good time to point out that this cynicism, which sounds realistic and worldly-wise, is actually sheer fantasy. Ending stimulus has never been a problem — in fact, the historical record shows that it almost always ends too soon. ...
Still, even if you don’t believe that stimulus is forever, Keynesian economics says not just that you should run deficits in bad times, but that you should pay down debt in good times. And it’s silly to imagine that this will happen, right?
Wrong. The key measure you want to look at is the ratio of debt to G.D.P... And if you look at United States history since World War II, you find that of the 10 presidents who preceded Barack Obama, seven left office with a debt ratio lower than when they came in. Who were the three exceptions? Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes. So debt increases that didn’t arise either from war or from extraordinary financial crisis are entirely associated with hard-line conservative governments.
And there’s a reason for that association: U.S. conservatives have long followed a strategy of “starving the beast,” slashing taxes so as to deprive the government of the revenue it needs to pay for popular programs.
The funny thing is that right now these same hard-line conservatives declare that we must not run deficits in times of economic crisis. Why? Because, they say, politicians won’t do the right thing and pay down the debt in good times. And who are these irresponsible politicians they’re talking about? Why, themselves.
To me, it sounds like a fiscal version of the classic definition of chutzpah — namely, killing your parents, then demanding sympathy because you’re an orphan. Here we have conservatives telling us that we must tighten our belts despite mass unemployment, because otherwise future conservatives will keep running deficits once times improve.
Put this way, of course, it sounds silly. But it isn’t; it’s tragic. The disastrous turn toward austerity has destroyed millions of jobs and ruined many lives. And it’s time for a U-turn.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Risk of Debt?

Brad DeLong on when government debt is problematic, and when it's not -- a short excerpt from a much longer discussion:

Risks of Debt?: Extended Version, by Brad DeLong: ... The principal mistake Reinhart and Rogoff committed in their analysis and paper--indeed, the only significant mistake in the paper itself--was their use of the word "threshold".

It and the graph led very many astray. It led the usually-unreliable Washington Post editorial board to condemn the "new school of thought about the deficit…. 'Don’t worry, be happy. We’ve made a lot of progress', says an array of liberal pundits… [including] Martin Wolf of the Financial Times…" on the grounds that "their analysis assumes steady economic growth and no war. If that’s even slightly off, debt-to-GDP could… stick dangerously near the 90 percent mark that economists regard as a threat to sustainable economic growth." (Admittedly, experience since the start of the millennium gives abundant evidence that the Washington Post needs no empirical backup from anybody in order to lie and mislead in whatever way the wind blows.)

It misled European Commissioner Olli Rehn to claim that "when [government] debt reaches 80-90% of GDP, it starts to crowd out activity in the private sector and other parts of the economy." Both of these--and a host of others--think that if debt-to-annual-GDP is less than 90% (or, in Rehn's case, 80%, and I have no idea where the 80% comes from) an economy is safe, and that only if it is above 90% is the economy's growth in danger.

And in their enthusiasm when they entered congressional briefing mode it led Reinhart and Rogoff themselves astray. ...

Matthew O'Brien relays Tim Fernholz of Quartz's flagging of the following passage from Senator Tom Coburn:

Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia and always a gentleman, stood up to ask [Reinhart and Rogoff] his question: "Do we need to act this year? Is it better to act quickly?"

"Absolutely," Rogoff said. "Not acting moves the risk closer," he explained, because every year of not acting adds another year of debt accumulation. "You have very few levers at this point," he warned us.

Reinhart echoed Conrad's point and explained that countries rarely pass the 90 percent debt-to-GDP tipping point precisely because it is dangerous to let that much debt accumulate. She said, "If it is not risky to hit the 90 percent threshold, we would expect a higher incidence."

And O'Brien quotes Reinhart and Rogoff writing in Bloomberg View:

Our empirical research on the history of financial crises and the relationship between growth and public liabilities supports the view that current debt trajectories are a risk to long-term growth and stability, with many advanced economies already reaching or exceeding the important marker of 90 percent of GDP…. The biggest risk is that debt will accumulate until the overhang weighs on growth…

Yet the threshold at 90% is not there. In no sense is there empirical evidence that a 90% ratio of debt-to-annual-GDP is in any sense an "important marker", a red line. That it appears to be in Reinhart and Rogoff's paper is an artifact of Reinhart and Rogoff's non-parametric method: throw the data into four bins, with 90% the bottom of the top bin. There is, instead, a gradual and smooth decline in growth rates as debt-to-annual-GDP increases. 80% looks only trivially different than 100%. ...

Paul Krugman: The Story of Our Time

Why it's "a very bad time for spending cuts":

The Story of Our Time, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Those of us who have spent years arguing against premature fiscal austerity have just had a good two weeks. Academic studies that supposedly justified austerity have lost credibility; hard-liners in the European Commission and elsewhere have softened their rhetoric. The tone of the conversation has definitely changed.
My sense, however, is that many people still don’t understand ... the nature of our economic woes, and why this remains a very bad time for spending cuts.
Let’s start with ... what happened after the financial crisis of 2008. Many people suddenly cut spending, either because they chose to or because their creditors forced them to; meanwhile, not many people were able or willing to spend more. The result was a plunge in incomes that also caused a plunge in employment ... that persists to this day. ...
So what could we do to reduce unemployment? The answer is, this is a time for above-normal government spending, to sustain the economy until the private sector is willing to spend again. The crucial point is that under current conditions,... government spending doesn’t divert resources away from private uses; it puts unemployed resources to work. Government borrowing doesn’t crowd out private investment; it mobilizes funds that would otherwise go unused. ...
Now, just to be clear,... let’s try to reduce deficits and bring down government indebtedness once normal conditions return... But right now we’re still dealing with the aftermath of a once-in-three-generations financial crisis. This is no time for austerity. ...
Is the story really that simple, and would it really be that easy to end the scourge of unemployment? Yes — but powerful people don’t want to believe it. Some of them have a visceral sense that suffering is good, that we must pay a price for past sins (even if the sinners then and the sufferers now are very different groups of people). Some of them see the crisis as an opportunity to dismantle the social safety net. And just about everyone in the policy elite takes cues from a wealthy minority that isn’t actually feeling much pain.
What has happened now, however, is that the drive for austerity has lost its intellectual fig leaf, and stands exposed as the expression of prejudice, opportunism and class interest it always was. And maybe, just maybe, that sudden exposure will give us a chance to start doing something about the depression we’re in.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

'Public and Private Sector Payroll Jobs: Bush and Obama'

One more before hitting the road once again:

Public and Private Sector Payroll Jobs: Bush and Obama by Bill McBride: ...several readers have asked if I could update the graphs comparing public and private sector job losses (or added) for President George W. Bush's two terms (following the stock market bust), and for President Obama tenure in office so far (following the housing bust and financial crisis). 
Important: There are many differences between the two periods. ...

The first graph shows the change in private sector payroll jobs from when Mr. Bush took office (January 2001) compared to Mr. Obama's tenure (from January 2009). ...

Private Sector Payrolls 
Click on graph for larger image.

The employment recovery during Mr. Bush's first term was very sluggish, and private employment was down 946,000 jobs at the end of his first term.   At the end of Mr. Bush's second term, private employment was collapsing, and there were net 665,000 jobs lost during Mr. Bush's two terms.  

The recovery has been sluggish under Mr. Obama's presidency too, and there were only 1,933,000 more private sector jobs at the end of Mr. Obama's first term.  A couple of months into Mr. Obama's second term, there are now 2,282,000 more private sector jobs than when he took office.

Public Sector Payrolls 

A big difference between Mr. Bush's tenure in office and Mr. Obama's presidency has been public sector employment. The public sector grew during Mr. Bush's term (up 1,748,000 jobs), but the public sector has declined since Obama took office (down 718,000 jobs). These job losses have mostly been at the state and local level, but they are still a significant drag on overall employment. ...

'Monetarism Falls Short'

I've was making this argument long before the crisis hit, I was among the first to say that monetary policy would not be enough to solve our problems, aggressive fiscal policy would also be needed, and nothing that's happened during the recession has changed my mind. I eventually tired of the debate and assumed everyone was tired of hearing me say we needed more fiscal stimulus -- arguing with monetarists won't change any minds anyway and policymakers weren't about to do more fiscal stimulus - - so I moved on to other things (mostly talking about the need for job creation through more aggressive policy of any type):

Monetarism Falls Short: ... Sorry, guys, but as a practical matter the Fed – while it should be doing more – can’t make up for contractionary fiscal policy in the face of a depressed economy.

Krugman is right.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Paul Krugman: The 1 Percent’s Solution

Does evidence matter?:

The 1 Percent’s Solution, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Economic debates rarely end with a T.K.O. But the great policy debate of recent years between Keynesians, who advocate sustaining and, indeed, increasing government spending in a depression, and austerians, who demand immediate spending cuts, comes close... At this point, the austerian position has imploded; not only have its predictions about the real world failed completely, but the academic research invoked to support that position has turned out to be riddled with errors, omissions and dubious statistics.
Yet two big questions remain. First, how did austerity doctrine become so influential in the first place? Second, will policy change at all now that crucial austerian claims have become fodder for late-night comics?
On the first question:... the two main studies providing the alleged intellectual justification for austerity ... did not hold up under scrutiny. ... Meanwhile, real-world events ... quickly made nonsense of austerian predictions.
Yet austerity maintained and even strengthened its grip on elite opinion. Why?
Part of the answer surely lies in the widespread desire to see economics as a morality play... We lived beyond our means ... and now we’re paying the inevitable price. ... But... You can’t understand the influence of austerity doctrine without talking about class and inequality,... a point documented in a recent research paper... The ... average American is somewhat worried about budget deficits, which is no surprise given the constant barrage of deficit scare stories in the news media, but the wealthy, by a large majority, regard deficits as the most important problem we face. ... The wealthy favor cutting federal spending on health care and Social Security — that is, “entitlements” — while the public at large actually wants to see spending on those programs rise.
You get the idea: The austerity agenda looks a lot like a simple expression of upper-class preferences, wrapped in a facade of academic rigor. What the top 1 percent wants becomes what economic science says we must do. ...
And this makes one wonder how much difference the intellectual collapse of the austerian position will actually make. To the extent that we have policy of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent, won’t we just see new justifications for the same old policies?
I hope not; I’d like to believe that ideas and evidence matter... Otherwise, what am I doing with my life? But I guess we’ll see just how much cynicism is justified.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

'Unemployment Hits New Highs in Spain, France'

I've been having computer troubles all day. A quick one from Calculated Risk:

WSJ: "Unemployment Hits New Highs in Spain, France", by Bill McBride: This is no surprise ... from the WSJ: Unemployment Hits New Highs in Spain, France ... Maybe, just maybe, policymakers in Europe will get the message that the almost singular focus on deficit reduction has been a policy mistake.

'Evidence and Economic Policy'

Paul Krugman:
Evidence and Economic Policy: Henry Blodget says that the economic debate is over; the austerians have lost and whatshisname has won. And it’s definitely true that in sheer intellectual terms, this is looking like an epic rout. The main economic studies that supposedly justified the austerian position have imploded; inflation has stayed low; the bond vigilantes have failed to make an appearance; the actual economic effects of austerity have tracked almost exactly what Keynesians predicted.
But will any of this make a difference? The story of the past three years, after all, is not that Alesina and Ardagna used a bad measure of fiscal policy, or that Reinhart and Rogoff mishandled their data. It is that important people’s will to believe trumped the already ample evidence that austerity would be a terrible mistake; A-A and R-R were just riders on the wave.
The cynic in me therefore says that after a brief period of regrouping, the VSPs will be right back at it — they’ll find new studies to put on pedestals, new economists to tell them what they want to hear, and those who got it right will continue to be considered unsound and unserious.
But maybe I’m wrong; maybe truth will prevail. Here’s hoping

On "the VSPs will be right back at it," Robert Samuelson to the rescue:

Although the newly discovered errors in Reinhart and Rogoff’s 2010 paper (“Growth in a Time of Debt”) are embarrassing, they do not alter one of its main conclusions: High debt and low economic growth often go together.

Paul Krugman responds here, Dean Baker here. Krugman makes a key point:

And anyway, the important story isn’t about the sins of the economists; it’s about our warped economic discourse, in which important people seize on academic work that fits their preconceptions.

Dani Rodrik thinks we should police ourselves:

Experts, knowledge and advocacy: This is so absolutely brilliant and important:

“One thing that experts know, and that non-experts do not, is that they know less than non-experts think they do.”

It comes from Kaushik Basu, currently chief economist at the World Bank and one of the world’s most thoughtful expert-economists.

Economists would be so much more honest (with themselves and the world) if they acted accordingly – letting their audience know that their results and prescriptions come with a large margin of uncertainty. Public intellectuals would do so much less damage if they did likewise. And if experts are not aware of the limits of their knowledge – well, they do not deserve to be called experts or intellectuals.

The real point, though, is that the other side – journalists, politicians, the general public -- always has a tendency to attribute greater authority and precision to what the experts say than the experts should really feel comfortable with. That is what calls for compensating action on the part of the experts.

So if you are an expert hang this gem from Basu prominently on your wall. And next time you talk to a journalist, advise a politician, or take to the stage in a public event, repeat it to yourself beforehand a few times.

This is asking a lot. My experience is that researchers really, really believe their own results so a call to temper enthusiasm will not work. They don't think they are overselling. So the cautions will have to come from people other than the authors of the work. That could help, but Krugman's point is, I think, more relevant. People have an interest in selling certain pieces of research that promote their political goals. For example, Reinhart and Rogoff played very well with those who wanted a smaller government and they helped to sell these results. Even if Reinhart and Rogoff had been quite humble about their findings, the correlations they found still would have likely been seized upon by those with an interest in using them to make progress toward ideological goals. Not sure how to solve this problem, but asking whether somebody has an interest in promoting a particular piece of research is a place to start.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Our Lack of Skilled Policymakers

Dean Baker:

...the sequester is throwing around 600,000 people out of work according to the Congressional Budget Office. These are people who have the necessary skills to fill jobs in the economy but who will not be working because people in Washington lack the skills to design policies to keep the economy near full employment.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

'The Economy Will Not Manage Itself, At Least Not In A Good Way'

Brad DeLong on the role of government in a market economy:

Economic Policy: Saturday Twentieth Century Economic History Weblogging: Note well: the economy will not manage itself, at least not in a good way.

As John Maynard Keynes shrilly stated back in 1926:

Let us clear… the ground…. It is not true that individuals possess a prescriptive 'natural liberty' in their economic activities. There is no 'compact' conferring perpetual rights on those who Have or on those who Acquire. The world is not so governed from above that private and social interest always coincide. It is not so managed here below that in practice they coincide. It is not a correct deduction from the principles of economics that enlightened self-interest always operates in the public interest. Nor is it true that self-interest generally is enlightened… individuals… promot[ing] their own ends are too ignorant or too weak to attain even these. Experience does not show that… social unit[s] are always less clear-sighted than [individuals] act[ing] separately. We [must] therefore settle… on its merits… "determin[ing] what the State ought to take upon itself to direct by the public wisdom, and what it ought to leave, with as little interference as possible, to individual exertion".

The management of economies by governments in the twentieth century was at best inept. And, as we have seen since 2007, little if anything has been durably learned about how to regulate the un-self-regulating market in order to maintain prosperity, or ensure opportunity, or produce substantial equality.

Before the start of the nineteenth century, there were markets but there was not really a market economy—and the peculiar dysfunctions that we have seen the market economy generate through its macroeconomic functioning were, if not absent, at least rare and in the background of attention. Wars, famines, government defaults were threats to life and livelihood. The idea that Alice might be poor and hungry because Bob would not buy stuff from her because Bob was unemployed because Carl wanted to deleverage because Dana was no longer a good credit risk because Alice had stopped paying rent to Dana--that and similar macroeconomic processes are a post-1800 phenomenon.

The problems of economic policy in the modern age are, speaking very broadly, threefold: first, the problem of attempts to replace the market with central planning--which is, for reasons well-outlined by the brilliant Friedrich von Hayek, a subclass of the problem of twentieth-century totalitarian tyranny--second, the problem of managing what Karl Polanyi called "fictitious commodities"; and, third, the problem of managing aggregate demand. ...[much more]...

Friday, April 19, 2013

'Getting Back to Full Employment'

Jared Bernstein calls for "direct, public job creation":

Getting Back to Full Employment: Getting back to full employment—not debt, deficits, sequester, debt ceilings—is what we ought to be talking about... I’m happy to say, in fact, that in my travels outside this benighted town (DC), it’s the question I get asked most often (“why isn’t Washington doing anything about jobs!!??”). ....

So how do we get there from here?
Of course, the first thing is to get the macro policy right, and I go on about that enough about that ... already. Dean Baker emphasizes dollar policy here as well: the trade deficit is a drag on growth and factory jobs, so that too is a target in the quest for full employment.
But for this post, I’d like to focus on something else, motivated by the chart below, one I’ve posted before. It simply plots private sector job growth against productivity growth. Up until about 15 years ago, you could have nicely employed this picture against your Luddite friends who complain about productivity killing jobs.

empprod
Source: BLS

Until then, the two lines largely grew together. Yes, we were more productive, but growth resulted in higher demand that fed back into the economy’s job-creation function in ways that boosted job growth. The income and wage benefits of growing productivity certainly haven’t reached very far down the income scale since the late 1970s—that’s the inequality story. But even as inequality grew in the 1980s and 1990s, job creation largely kept pace with output per hour.

That hasn’t been the case since, and it is a matter of grave concern. The reasons go beyond my scope here, but a prime suspect observed at the crime scene is an acceleration of labor-saving capital investment, like robotics (see Brynjolfsson and McAfee for incisive work on this question).

Here, I want to introduce a different solution, one that isn’t better fiscal and monetary policy to maximize growth. It’s direct, public job creation. That is, if the private sector can’t be counted upon to generate the needed job opportunities to absorb our labor supply, then there is a role for government to correct this important market shortcoming. ...

What, specifically, am I talking about? Not so much a bunch of guys setting up camp in the woods and building stuff circa the 1930s, though that worked well at the time...

But those days have passed, I think, and contemporary direct job creation programs are not limited to public sector jobs. A more common model today is subsidized work, often in the private or NGO sectors. The TANF subsidized jobs program during the Recovery Act is a good recent example of an effective, though small, program that placed over 250,000 low-income workers in 2009-10. As Pavetti et al report, the program worked with private and government employers to create “new temporary jobs that would otherwise have not existed.” ...

There’s obviously a ton to be done, both in terms of infrastructure (upgrading and repairing public goods) and services, and while displacement must be prohibited and monitored (and punished, when it’s exposed), research suggests that a lot of what happens here is you pull forward a hire that might have happened later or nudge an employer at the margin of a hiring decision to go ahead and pull the trigger.

I’ll have a lot more to say about this in coming weeks and yes, I know it’s way outside the current political box. But this relatively new gap between employment and productivity will only exacerbate the old gap between income and productivity unless we begin to think and act outside that box on ways to achieve full employment. Direct job creation is part of the answer.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

'How Much Unemployment Was Caused by Reinhart and Rogoff's Arithmetic Mistake?'

The work of Reinhart and Rogoff was a major reason for the push for austerity at a time when expansionary policy was called for, i.e. their work supported the bad idea that austerity during a recession can actually be stimulative. It isn't as the events in Europe have shown conclusively.

To be fair, as I discussed here (in "Austerity Can Wait for Sunnier Days") after watching Reinhart give a talk on this topic at an INET conference, she didn't assert that contractionary policy was somehow expansionary (i.e. she did not claim the confidence fairy would more than offset the negative short-run effects of austerity). What she asserted is that pain now -- austerity -- can avoid even more pain down the road in the form of lower economic growth.

Here's the problem. She is right that austerity causes pain in the short-run. But according to a review of her work with Rogoff discussed below, the lower growth from debt levels above 90 percent that austerity is supposed to avoid turns out, it appears, to be largely the result of errors in the research. In fact, there is no substantial growth penalty from high debt levels, and hence not much gain from short-run austerity.

Here's Dean Baker with a rundown on the new work (see also Mike Konczal who helped to shed light on this research):

How Much Unemployment Was Caused by Reinhart and Rogoff's Arithmetic Mistake?, by Dean Baker: That's the question millions will be asking when they see the new paper by my friends at the University of Massachusetts, Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin. Herndon, Ash, and Pollin (HAP) corrected the spreadsheets of Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff. They show the correct numbers tell a very different story about the relationship between debt and GDP growth than the one that Reinhart and Rogoff have been hawking.
Just to remind folks, Reinhart and Rogoff (R&R) are the authors of the widely acclaimed book on the history of financial crises, This Time is Different. They have also done several papers derived from this research, the main conclusion of which is that high ratios of debt to GDP lead to a long periods of slow growth. Their story line is that 90 percent is a cutoff line, with countries with debt-to-GDP ratios above this level seeing markedly slower growth than countries that have debt-to-GDP ratios below this level. The moral is to make sure the debt-to-GDP ratio does not get above 90 percent.
There are all sorts of good reasons for questioning this logic. First, there is good reason for believing causation goes the other way. Countries are likely to have high debt-to-GDP ratios because they are having serious economic problems.
Second, as Josh Bivens and John Irons have pointed out, the story of the bad growth in high debt years in the United States is driven by the demobilization after World War II. In other words, these were not bad economic times, the years of high debt in the United States had slow growth because millions of women opted to leave the paid labor force.
Third, the whole notion of public debt turns out to be ill-defined. ...
But HAP tells us that we need not concern ourselves with any arguments this complicated. The basic R&R story was simply the result of them getting their own numbers wrong.
After being unable to reproduce R&R's results with publicly available data, HAP were able to get the spreadsheets that R&R had used for their calculations. It turns out that the initial results were driven by simple computational and transcription errors. The most important of these errors was excluding four years of growth data from New Zealand in which it was above the 90 percent debt-to-GDP threshold..., correcting this one mistake alone adds 1.5 percentage points to the average growth rate for the high debt countries. This eliminates most of the falloff in growth that R&R find from high debt levels. (HAP find several other important errors in the R&R paper, however the missing New Zealand years are the biggest part of the story.)
This is a big deal because politicians around the world have used this finding from R&R to justify austerity measures that have slowed growth and raised unemployment. In the United States many politicians have pointed to R&R's work as justification for deficit reduction even though the economy is far below full employment by any reasonable measure. In Europe, R&R's work and its derivatives have been used to justify austerity policies that have pushed the unemployment rate over 10 percent for the euro zone as a whole and above 20 percent in Greece and Spain. In other words, this is a mistake that has had enormous consequences.
In fairness, there has been other research that makes similar claims, including more recent work by Reinhardt and Rogoff. But it was the initial R&R papers that created the framework for most of the subsequent policy debate. And HAP has shown that the key finding that debt slows growth was driven overwhelmingly by the exclusion of 4 years of data from New Zealand.
If facts mattered in economic policy debates, this should be the cause for a major reassessment of the deficit reduction policies being pursued in the United States and elsewhere. It should also cause reporters to be a bit slower to accept such sweeping claims at face value.
(Those interested in playing with the data itself can find it at the website for the Political Economic Research Institute.)

Update: Reinhart-Rogoff Response to Critique - WSJ.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Is the Real interest Rate Too High or Too low?

Brad DeLong, who is sitting next to me, responds to David Andolfatto/Stephen Williamson (see the post below this one):

I Believe Tyler Cowen Is Simply Wrong: Tyler Cowen:

Is this grandma’s liquidity trap?: I say no and David Andolfatto agrees: 'In grandma’s liquidity trap, the real interest rate is too high because of the zero lower bound. Steve [Williamson] argues that in our current liquidity trap, the real interest rate is too low, reflecting the huge world appetite for relatively safe assets like U.S. treasuries. If this latter view is correct, then “corrective” measures like expanding G or increasing the inflation target are not addressing the fundamental economic problem: low real interest rates as the byproduct of real economic/political/financial factors.' I remain surprised at how many policy discussions fail to draw this basic distinction."

The large demand for relatively safe assets like U.S. Treasury securities means that the interest rate consistent with full employment--the "natural" interest rate, in Wicksell's terms--is lower than normal, and the natural rate is in fact less than zero. Since the market interest rate is bounded below by the zero lower bound, the market rate is too high.

Once you distinguish--as Knut Wicksell does: this is cutting-edge economics as of 1890 after all--all of the following things are true:

  • The current natural interest rate is much lower than it is normally--the natural rate is too low--and that is a problem.
  • The current market interest rate is higher than the natural rate--the market rate is too high--and that is a problem.
  • Increasing G--printing more Treasury bonds, selling them, and buying goods and services--(a) increases the supply of safe assets, (b) lowers the proper value of safe assets via supply and demand, thus (c ) raises the "natural" rate of interest, and (d) could fix our problems if the policy raises the natural rate of interest so much that it is no longer lower than the market rate of interest.

In general, when the market rate of interest is higher than the natural rate of interest--when ex ante saving at full employment is greater than ex ante investment--you can fix the problem and restore full employment by (i) reducing the market rate of interest via expansionary monetary policy, (ii) raising the natural rate of interest via expansionary fiscal policy, (iii) raising the natural rate of interest via summoning the Confidence Fairy, or (iv) raising the natural rate of interest via summoning the Inflation Expectations Imp. At the ZLB, (i) is out of the question, so you must have resort to one or more of (ii), (iii), and (iv)...

This is not rocket science. This is basic Geldzins und Guterpreis...

'Monetary Policy in a Liquidity Trap'

David Andolfatto argues this is not "grandma's liquidity trap":

Krugman has an interesting article today, Monetary Policy in a Liquidity Trap. I (sort of) agree with much of it. But I believe that a few comments are in order...
In grandma's liquidity trap, the real interest rate is too high because of the zero lower bound. Steve [Willaimson] argues that in our current liquidity trap, the real interest rate is too low, reflecting the huge world appetite for relatively safe assets like U.S. treasuries. 

If this latter view is correct, then "corrective" measures like expanding G or increasing the inflation target are not addressing the fundamental economic problem: low real interest rates as the byproduct of real economic/political/financial factors. 

Given these "real" problems, Steve's view is that the Fed is largely irrelevant. But he does assign hope to the Treasury: increase the supply of its securities to meet the world demand for them. I've been making similar arguments for some time now; for example, here. ...

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

'Blind to the Obvious' in Europe

Bill McBride at Calculated Risk is puzzled (for good reason). Maybe puzzled is the wrong word. He sees what's going on, but others appear "blind to the obvious" (or they're serving some other purpose):

This is an actual quote today from the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble:

"Nobody in Europe sees this contradiction between fiscal policy consolidation and growth,” Schauble said. “We have a growth-friendly process of consolidation, and we have sustainable growth, however you want to word it.”

Obviously there is a contradiction between "fiscal policy consolidation and growth". And not everyone is blind to the obvious - some people in Europe see the obvious contradiction (just look at the data).

And a "growth friendly process"? "Sustainable growth"?  Nonsense. Maybe Schauble should look at the data (here is the eurostat data on GDP and unemployment.

Comment: Obviously Schauble is the worst kind of policymaker. He believes in "austerity über alles" and can't be swayed by the results. Very sad. ...

'Let the Punishment Fit the Crime of the Recession'

We are, as they say, live:

Let the Punishment Fit the Crime of the Recession, by Mark Thoma: As Paul Krugman observed recently,  “the urge to see depression as a necessary and somehow even desirable punishment for past sins, while inveighing against any attempt to mitigate suffering — is as strong as ever.”  Many of those who see our economic problems in these terms believe the sin we committed is too much debt fueled consumption and government spending. According to this view punishments such as austerity and high levels of unemployment provide a moral lesson that helps to prevent us from making the same mistakes again.
This is bad economics and it has the moral lesson all wrong. ...

Friday, April 05, 2013

Macroeconomic Policy and Economic Stability - Adair Turner Keynote at INET

Adair Turner calls for "overt monetary finance":

Sunday, March 31, 2013

'Reactions to Mankiw on the Long Run Budget Path'

Greg Mankiw says the goal for the budget should not be a stable debt-to-GDP ratio as the president has called for, instead the ratio should be falling. But there are a few important qualifiers to this statement that are easy to miss.

Even if you agree with Mankiw that the debt to GDP ratio should be falling rather than stable, he never answers falling to what? (Does it fall forever until it hits zero, then a surplus which gets larger and larger until spending is zero and taxes take everything? I doubt that's what he has in mind.) How fast it should fall? (Do we balance the budget this year or over 100 years?). Should the debt to GDP ratio vary over the business cycle (i.e. can we do countercyclical fiscal policy?). On the latter point, Owen Zidar:

Reactions to Mankiw on the Long Run Budget Path: I agree with most of Greg Mankiw NYTimes piece on long-term debt to GDP but can’t overlook a fairly glaring omission –  he seems to ignore the fact that we are currently experiencing a major economic catastrophe. ...
While I completely agree that we should save in good times (i.e. have a falling debt to GDP ratio), we are not in good times and it’s quite likely that trying to save too much in bad times will be counterproductive. A primary reason why we want to be creditworthy is to have the ability to borrow for times like this. I simply have a hard time understanding why preparing for the next crisis should supersede adequately dealing with the current one.

It's easy to miss, but Mankiw actually covers this when he says " In normal times, when we are lucky enough to enjoy peace and prosperity, the debt-to-G.D.P. ratio shouldn’t just be stable; it should be falling." Notice the key words "normal" and "prosperity". That's what Owen is saying too, we should a surplus in good (normal, prosperous) times. But we should also run deficits in bad times so that on balance the debt load is stable (or hits some target). Mankiw slips in the part about a surplus in good times, though the qualifiers are easy to miss, but fails to address what to do in a recession (these are not the normal, prosperous times he cites as a condition for a falling ratio). That's a big omission because many people are going to conclude he is pushing austerity, i.e. reducing the debt during a severe recession. If he's really saying that (and I don't think he is), he should make it clear. If he's not saying that, if he believes in countercyclical fiscal policy, he should say that as well. Leaving it vague, as he does, is not helpful at all.

PGL comments:

Mankiw’s Mistakes on the Long-Run Debt Issue: Greg Mankiw wants to lecture the President on fiscal sustainability. Alas, his op-ed is full of errors starting with:

Representative Paul D. Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has a plan to balance the federal budget in 10 years.

Should we just fall out of our chairs laughing at such an incredibly absurd statement? Ryan wants to cut tax rates but assume a level of tax revenues that is over $500 billion a year above what many analysts suggest. And I have a plan to replace Tim Duncan as the center for the Spurs even though I’m only 5 feet 6 inches. And then we get these canards:

With the exception of a few years starting in the late 1990s, when the Internet bubble fueled an economic boom, goosed tax revenue and made President Clinton look like a miracle worker, the federal government has run a budget deficit consistently for the last 40 years.

Internet bubble? Mankiw really seems to hate that the Clinton years, which started with the 1993 tax rates increases, had better economic performance that either the Reagan-Bush41 years or the Bush43 years. As far as the deficit being positive for all these other years, he should read what both Milton Friedman and Robert Barro were writing on the deficit back in 1979 and 1980 – that the debt in inflation adjusted terms was falling. Hey – I don’t mind a conservative economists lecturing the President on fiscal policy if he gets the facts right. This op-ed, however, fails to get a few key facts right.

Confused Americans want to know: Does Greg Mankiw believe in countercyclical fiscal policy in deep, prolonged recessions or not?