This is from Edmund Phelps. It was kind of hard to highlight the main points in brief extracts, so you may want to take a look at the full article:
What Is Wrong with the West’s Economies?: What is wrong with the economies of the West—and with economics? ...
Many of us in Western Europe and America feel that our economies are far from just...
With little or no effective policy initiative giving a lift to the less advantaged, the jarring market forces of the past four decades—mainly the slowdowns in productivity that have spread over the West and, of course, globalization, which has moved much low-wage manufacturing to Asia—have proceeded, unopposed, to drag down both employment and wage rates at the low end. The setback has cost the less advantaged not only a loss of income but also a loss of what economists call inclusion—access to jobs offering work and pay that provide self-respect. And inclusion was already lacking to begin with. ...
How might Western nations gain—or regain—widespread prospering and flourishing? Taking concrete actions will not help much without fresh thinking: people must first grasp that standard economics is not a guide to flourishing—it is a tool only for efficiency. Widespread flourishing in a nation requires an economy energized by its own homegrown innovation from the grassroots on up. For such innovation a nation must possess the dynamism to imagine and create the new—economic freedoms are not sufficient. And dynamism needs to be nourished with strong human values.
Of the concrete steps that would help to widen flourishing, a reform of education stands out. The problem here is not a perceived mismatch between skills taught and skills in demand. ... The problem is that young people are not taught to see the economy as a place where participants may imagine new things, where entrepreneurs may want to build them and investors may venture to back some of them. It is essential to educate young people to this image of the economy.
It will also be essential that high schools and colleges expose students to the human values expressed in the masterpieces of Western literature, so that young people will want to seek economies offering imaginative and creative careers. Education systems must put students in touch with the humanities in order to fuel the human desire to conceive the new and perchance to achieve innovations. This reorientation of general education will have to be supported by a similar reorientation of economic education.
We will all have to turn from the classical fixation on wealth accumulation and efficiency to a modern economics that places imagination and creativity at the center of economic life.
I'm skeptical that this is the answer to our inequality/job satisfaction problems.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 24, 2015 at 10:38 AM in Economics, Income Distribution, Productivity |
For the fans of Robert Shiller:
The Housing Market Still Isn’t Rational: Home prices have been climbing. They have risen 27 percent nationally since 2012, even more in places like San Francisco. But why worry? If you accept the efficient markets theory — and believe that real estate is an efficient market — then these prices are based on “new information,” even if you don’t know what that information is.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that the efficient markets theory is at best a half-truth, as a voluminous literature on market anomalies shows. What’s more, even that half-truth is grounded mainly in the stock market, which attracts professional investors who sometimes do make the market behave efficiently.
The housing market is another matter. It is far less rational than even the often irrational stock market...[explains why]...
The bottom line is that there is no reason to assume that the real estate market is even close to efficient. You may want to buy a house if you love it and can afford it. But remember that you cannot safely rely on “comparable sales” to judge that the price is fair. The market isn’t efficient enough for that.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 24, 2015 at 10:03 AM in Economics, Housing, Market Failure |
The MIT school of economics:
The M.I.T. Gang, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Goodbye, Chicago boys. Hello, M.I.T. gang.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the term “Chicago boys” was originally used to refer to Latin American economists, trained at the University of Chicago, who took radical free-market ideology back to their home countries. The influence of these economists was part of a broader phenomenon: The 1970s and 1980s were an era of ascendancy for laissez-faire economic ideas and the Chicago school...
But that was a long time ago. Now a different school is in the ascendant, and deservedly so.
It’s actually surprising how little media attention has been given to the dominance of M.I.T.-trained economists in policy positions and policy discourse. But it’s quite remarkable. Ben Bernanke has an M.I.T. Ph.D.; so do Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, and Olivier Blanchard, the enormously influential chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. Mr. Blanchard is retiring, but his replacement, Maurice Obstfeld, is another M.I.T. guy — and another student of Stanley Fischer, who taught at M.I.T. for many years and is now the Fed’s vice chairman. ...
M.I.T.-trained economists, especially Ph.D.s from the 1970s, play an outsized role ... in policy discussion across the Western world. And yes, I’m part of the same gang.
So what distinguishes M.I.T. economics, and why does it matter? ...
At M.I.T..., Keynes never went away. To be sure, stagflation showed that there were limits to what policy can do. But students continued to learn about the imperfections of markets and the role that monetary and fiscal policy can play in boosting a depressed economy. ...
This open-minded, pragmatic approach was overwhelmingly vindicated after crisis struck in 2008. Chicago-school types warned incessantly that responding to the crisis by printing money and running deficits would lead to 70s-type stagflation, with soaring inflation and interest rates. But M.I.T. types predicted, correctly, that inflation and interest rates would stay low in a depressed economy, and that attempts to slash deficits too soon would deepen the slump. ...
Meanwhile, in the United States, Republicans have responded to the utter failure of free-market orthodoxy and the remarkably successful predictions of much-hated Keynesians by digging in even deeper, determined to learn nothing from experience.
In other words, being right isn’t necessarily enough to change the world. But it’s still better to be right than to be wrong, and M.I.T.-style economics, with its pragmatic openness to evidence, has been very right indeed.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 24, 2015 at 09:09 AM in Economics, Macroeconomics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 24, 2015 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Conservative states like socialism?:
Socialism, American-Style, by Gar Alperovitz and Thomas M. Hanna, Commentary, NY Times: The great 20th-century conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter thought the left had overlooked a major selling point in pressing the case for public — i.e., government — control over productive capital. “One of the most significant titles to superiority,” he suggested, was that public ownership produced profits, which means not having to depend on taxes to raise money.
The bulk of the left never took up Schumpeter’s argument. But in an oddly fitting twist, these days the mantra of public control in exchange for lower taxes has been embraced by a surprising quarter of the American political leadership: conservatives.
The most well-known case is Alaska. The Alaska Permanent Fund ... combines not one, but two socialist principles: public ownership and the provision of a basic income for all residents. The fund collects and invests proceeds from the extraction of oil and minerals in the state. Dividends are paid out annually to all state residents. ...
The authors go on to cite many more examples, e.g. the Texas Permanent School Fund and the Texas Permanent University Fund, The Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund, which "is almost a direct expression of Schumpeter’s doctrine: Socialized ownership has helped to eliminate income taxes in the state," the Tennessee Valley Authority, electricity generation in Nebraska, where "Partly as a result, Nebraskans pay one of the lowest rates for electricity in the nation." They conclude with:
The list goes on. More than 450 communities have also built partial or full public Internet systems, some after significant political battles. Roughly one-fifth of all hospitals are also currently publicly owned. Many cities own hotels, including Dallas...
Moreover, contrary to conventional opinion, studies of the comparative efficiency of modern public enterprise show rough equivalency to private firms in many cases. ...
With skepticism about capitalism growing among minorities and young voters, will we see more such endeavors in the future? Pendulums have a way of swinging, sometimes very sharply, when big economic tsunamis hit. It is possible that in the next big crisis, both sides might see the wisdom and practical benefits of public ownership, and embrace Joseph Schumpeter’s point even more boldly than they do today.
I think this would benefit from separating natural monopolies -- where it is not surprising in the least that costs/prices are lower with public ownership (or strict regulation of prices if privately owned) -- from the other examples. When *significant* market failures justify it, I fully support public ownership. But in most cases I'd prefer private sector ownership with regulatory oversight.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Thursday, July 23, 2015 at 10:58 AM in Economics, Market Failure |
...The Bible of academic research on how colleges affect students is a book titled, plainly enough, “How College Affects Students.” It’s an 848-page synthesis of many thousands of independent research studies over the decades. ...
The sections devoted to how colleges differ from one another are notable for how little they find. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini carefully document, studies have found that some colleges are indeed better than others in certain ways. Students tend to learn more in colleges where they have closer relationships with faculty and peers, for example, and earn a little more after graduating from more selective institutions.
But these findings are overwhelmed in both size and degree by the many instances in which researchers trying to detect differences between colleges found nothing.
“The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write. “...in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.” ...
People can learn a lot in college, and many do. But which college matters much less than everyone assumes. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini explain, the real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors, who teach with a great deal of autonomy under the principles of academic freedom. ... The problem for students is that it is all but impossible to know ahead of time which part of the disunified university is which. ...
The whole apparatus of selective college admissions is designed to deliberately confuse things that exist with things that don’t. Many of the most prestigious colleges are an order of magnitude wealthier and more selective than the typical university. These are the primary factors driving their annual rankings at or near the top of the U.S. News list of “best” colleges. The implication is that the differences in the quality of education they provide are of a similar size. There is no evidence to suggest that this is remotely true. ...
Not sure this captures all the benefits of going to, say, Harvard in terms of social connections that can be valuable later on.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Thursday, July 23, 2015 at 10:30 AM in Economics |
Does rising wealth buy greater happiness?: How much does an increase in wealth increase happiness? If you win the lottery, receive a large unexpected inheritance or some other good fortune comes your way, will it permanently make you happier? ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Thursday, July 23, 2015 at 09:12 AM in Economics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Thursday, July 23, 2015 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
New research on living standards during the Industrial Revolution is described at Vox EU:
Biased samples yield biased results: What historical heights can teach us about past living standards, by Howard Bodenhorn, Timothy W. Guinnane, and Thomas Mroz: Were living standards during early industrialization as terrible as we imagine? Robert Fogel, the Nobel prize-winning economic historian, taught us a great deal about studying long-term living standards through looking into people’s height. This column argues that one of Fogel’s early claims turns out to have, at best, a weak foundation. ...
And the conclusion:
So what do we know about living standards during early industrialization? ... The measured decline of mean height during industrialization reflects in large part the nature of the data sources, not necessarily changes in the heights of the underlying populations.
As economies grew, tight labor markets discouraged military enlistments by the most productive workers, with those enlisting (and being measured) increasingly over-representing the less advantaged members of society. The Industrial Revolution posed challenges for those facing the transformations it wrought, but it did not make people shorter.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, July 22, 2015 at 12:16 PM in Economics |
You Can’t Reform Your Way to Rapid Growth: ...in response to the small back-and-forth that Noah Smith (also here) and John Cochrane had regarding Jeb! Bush’s suggestion/idea/hope to push the growth of GDP up to 4% per year. Cochrane asked “why not?”, and offered several proposals for structural reforms (e.g. reforming occupational licensing) that could contribute to growth. Smith was skeptical...
Oddly enough, the discussion of Jeb!’s 4% target is also a good entry point to talking about Greece, and the possibility that the various structural reforms insisted on by the Germans will manage to materially change their situation. But we’ll get to that.
First, what are the possibilities of generating 4% GDP growth in the U.S.? I’m presuming that we’re talking about whether we can boost per capita growth up to 4% per year for some relatively short time frame, because history suggests that sustained 4% growth in GDP is incredibly unlikely. From Jeb!’s perspective, I’m guessing either 4 or 8 years is the right window to look at, but let’s say we’re trying to achieve this for just 5 years. ...[discusses and illustrates the conclusions of a standard growth model]...
You can just scrape 4% growth if you continue to assume that structural reforms to the U.S. economy can add $3 trillion to potential GDP and that the convergence parameter is ... more than twice as big as any reliable empirical estimate. Or you could ... assume that structural reforms were capable of pushing potential GDP to $26 trillion, a 53% increase over potential GDP today. Both are huge stretches, and almost certainly wrong.
It is this same logic that is at play in Greece, by the way. ...
Massive structural reforms are not capable of generating immediate short-run jumps in growth rates in the U.S., Greece, or any other relatively developed economy. They play out over long periods of time, and the empirics we have suggest that by long periods we mean decades and decades of slightly above average growth. ...
Structural reforms don’t generate massive short-term changes in growth rates because they are fiddling with marginal decisions, making people marginally more likely to invest, or change jobs, or get an education, or start a company. By permanently changing those marginal decisions, structural reforms act like glaciers, slowly carving the economy into a new shape over long periods of time. ...
If you want to radically boost GDP growth now, then someone has to spend money now. Take infrastructure spending..., the beauty of infrastructure spending is that is doesn’t just push us closer to potential, it almost certainly raises potential GDP as well, and keeps the growth rate above average for longer. ...
The difference with infrastructure spending is that it does not nibble around the edges or play with marginal decisions. It dumps a bunch of new spending into the economy. And that is the only way to juice the growth rate appreciably in the short run. Structural reforms will raise GDP, and in the long run may raise GDP by far more than immediate infrastructure spending. But that increase in GDP will take decades, and the change in growth will be barely noticeable. You want demonstrably faster growth right now? Then be prepared to spend lots of money right now.
In the Greek situation, the implication is that without some kind of boost to spending now, they are unlikely to ever grow fast enough to ever get out of this hole they are in. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, July 22, 2015 at 09:39 AM in Economics, Fiscal Policy, Productivity |
My response to this argument that economists don't get the politics of the euro was simply "I think we get the underlying political motivations. But whether the euro was politically motivated for the most part, or not, economics matters for the sustainability of a political union." Paul Krugman has more to say:
Annoying Euro Apologetics, by Paul Krugman: Are there good arguments against the proposition that the creation of the euro was an epic mistake? Maybe. But the arguments I’ve been hearing lately are really bad. And they’re also deeply annoying.
One argument I keep seeing is that economist critics like myself don’t understand that the euro was a political and strategic project, not merely a matter of economic costs and benefits. Yes, I’m a dumb uncouth economist, completely unaware of the role of politics and international strategy in policy decisions, who never heard of the European project and its origins in the effort to put Europe’s legacy of war behind it, not to mention strengthen democracy in the Cold War.
Well, actually I do know all about that. The point, however, is that while the European project has at every stage combined economic objectives with broader political goals – it’s about peace and democracy through integration and prosperity – the project can’t be expected to work unless the economic measures are a good idea in and of themselves, or at least a non-catastrophic idea. What happened in the march to the euro was that European elites, in love with the symbolism of a single currency, closed their minds to warnings that currency union – unlike the removal of trade barriers – was at best ambiguous in its economic logic, and arguably, even ex ante, a very bad idea indeed.
An alternative argument, which we’re hearing from depressed European economies like Finland, is that the short-term costs of inflexibility are outweighed by the supposedly huge gains from greater integration. But where’s the evidence for these huge gains? ...
As I said, maybe there are good arguments against the proposition that the euro was a mistake. But pointing out that politics matters, and economies grow, doesn’t cut it; these aren’t the factoids you’re looking for.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, July 22, 2015 at 09:14 AM in Economics, International Finance, Politics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, July 22, 2015 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Today is the 5th anniversary of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. When the bill was being debated, I was torn on which strategy is best, to strike while the iron is hot -- to implement financial reform legislation as soon as possible -- or to take a patient approach that allows careful consideration and study of proposed regulatory changes:
Kashyap and Mishkin ... may be right that now is not the time to change regulations because it could create additional destabilizing uncertainty in financial markets, and that waiting will give us time to see how the crisis plays out and to consider the regulatory moves carefully. But as we wait, passions will fade, defenses will mount, the media will respond to the those opposed to regulation by making it a he said, she said issue that fogs things up and confuses the public as well as politicians. By the time it is all over there's every chance that legislation will pass that is nothing but a facade with no real teeth that can change the behaviors that go us into this mess.
More and more, I think doing what you can while passions are inflamed, and then defending the legislation as much as possible when the inevitable attack from the industry comes is the best strategy. For example, in the WSJ two days ago, there was an opinion piece with the title "After Five Years, Dodd-Frank Is a Failure," and the sub-header "The law has crushed small banks, restricted access to credit, and planted the seeds of financial instability."
There is a problem with small banks. Here's an email I received earlier this year (last March, in response to an article of mine at CBS MoneyWatch on the decline in the number of small banks and how that could harm smaller buinesses):
I am a regular reader of your columns, and lean more to the left than virtually any banker I know, but I have to tell you that you are on to something with the decline in the number of small banks, and regulations. As the Chairman of a small bank in [state omitted], the shear amount of regulations that have come out since the banking crisis started are incredible. I know of banks in the area which have simply had to hire a full time staff person to help with compliance. Our bank has had to hire the CPA firm [omitted] to have them come in once a quarter to help us keep up with the compliance. Obviously, this crimps our profits, as does the ZLB which we have had to deal with for six years now, through no fault, at all, of our own.
Don't get me wrong, I understand why all these regulations have been put in place, but unfortunately for us, most of these have little to do with our small bank. They seem to be designed to keep the behemoths out of trouble, and we got dragged along. There needs to be a different set of rules for banks under a certain size. Banks like ours, who keep all our loans in house, and aren't a threat to the economy as a whole, have never been ones to "screw" our customers, or write "bogus" loans, and sell them. Our loan losses since 2008 have been minimal to say the least, because we try very hard to make loans that are going to be repaid. Our total losses over the last six or seven years are not any worse than, and probably, better than they were before the banking crisis arrived.
We, as a board of the bank, have talked on numerous occasions in the last few years on what to do about this problem, and have brought it up with the federal regulators at our last two exams, but have really gotten no where as far as coming up with any ideas on what to do to try and alleviate these burdens on small banks. Any suggestions, or publicity regarding the issue, would be greatly appreciated.
The point I'm trying to make is this. There are two choices when trying to fix a financial system after a crisis. The first is to move fast while the politics are supportive, and put as many of the needed rules and regulations in place as possible. Then, over time, *carefully* adjust the rules to overcome unforeseen problems (while resisting attempts to rollback needed legislation, a delicate balance). The second is to proceed slowly and deliberately and "consider the regulatory moves carefully" before implementing legislation. But by the time this deliberate procedure has been completed, it may very well be that the politics have changed and nothing will be done at all. So I'd rather move fast, if imperfectly, and then fix problems later instead of waiting in an attempt to put near perfect legislation in place and risk doing very little, or nothing at all.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 21, 2015 at 10:50 AM in Economics, Financial System, Regulation |
One of those "economists don't understand" thingies:
This is what economists don’t understand about the euro crisis – or the U.S. dollar, by Kathleen McNamara, Monkey Cage: Prominent American economists are weighing in on the Greek debt crisis, with more than a hint of schadenfreude. The title of a New York Times op-ed by Gregory Mankiw says it all in one smarmy sentence. “They told you so: Economists were Right To Doubt the Euro.” Economists are condescendingly scolding the Europeans for venturing into a single currency without the proper underlying economic conditions. Paul Krugman has relentlessly excoriated the leaders of Europe for being what he calls “self-indulgent politicians” who have “spent a quarter-century trying to run Europe on the basis of fantasy economics.” The conventional wisdom seems to be that the problems of the euro zone are, as economist Martin Feldstein once put it, “the inevitable consequence of imposing a single currency on a very heterogeneous group of countries.”
What this commentary gets wrong, however, is that single currencies are never the product of debates about optimal economic solutions. Instead, currencies like the U.S. dollar itself are the result of political battles, where motivated actors try to centralize power. This has most often occurred “through iron and blood,” as Otto van Bismarck, the unifier of Germany put it, as a result of catastrophic wars. Smaller geographic units were brought together to build the modern nation state, with a unified fiscal system, a common national language that was often imposed by force, a unified legal system, and, a single currency. Put differently (with apologies to sociologist Charles Tilly), war makes the state, and the state makes the currency. ...
European leaders weren’t stupid or self indulgent when they decided to move ahead with the euro, without fiscal union or strong Europe-level democracy. They just cared more about politics and international security than economics. They wanted to build a Europe that had transcended the divisions of the Cold War, and bind together Germany, which was reunited and much more powerful, with the rest of Europe. When they did think about economics, they hoped that a strong euro, anchored in an independent European Central Bank located in Frankfurt and built on a commitment to protecting the stability of the currency, would help resolve the problems of currency depreciation, spiraling inflation and economic instability that came with the weak currencies of the “Club Med” countries to the south of Europe.
European leaders, the IMF and the European Commission have done a terrible job at handling the Greek debt crisis. However, criticizing the euro because it doesn’t meet the ideal economic conditions for a single currency is missing the point. ...
I think we get the underlying political motivations. But whether the euro was politically motivated for the most part, or not, economics matters for the sustainability of a political union.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 21, 2015 at 09:58 AM in Economics, International Finance, Politics |
Farmers Markets and Food-Borne Illness: ... After working on it for almost two years, I am happy to finally be able to circulate my new paper titled “Farmers Markets and Food-Borne Illness,” coauthored with my colleague Rob King and my student Jenny Nguyen, in which we ask whether farmers markets are associated with food-borne illness in a systematic way. ...
In sum, what we find is:
- A positive relationship between the number of farmers markets and the number of reported outbreaks of food-borne illness in the average state-year./li>
- A positive relationship between the number of farmers markets and the number of reported cases of food-borne illness in the average state-year.
- A positive relationship between the number of farmers markets and the number of reported outbreaks of Campylobacter jejuni in the average state-year.
- A positive relationship between the number of farmers markets and the number of reported cases of Campylobacter jejuni in the average state-year.
- Six dogs that didn’t bark, i.e., no systematic relationship between the number of farmers markets and the number of outbreaks or cases of norovirus, Salmonella enterica, Clostridium perfringens, E. coli, Staphylococcus (i.e., staph), or scombroid food poisoning.
- When controlling for the number of farmers markets, there is a negative relationship between the number of farmers markets that accept SNAP and food-borne illness in the average state-year.
- AA doubling of the number of farmers markets in the average state-year would be associated with a relatively modest economic cost of about $900,000 in terms of additional cases of food-borne illness.
Of course, correlation is not causation, which is why we spend a great deal of time in the paper discussing the potential threats to causal identification in this context, investigating them, and trying to triangulate our findings with a number of different specifications and estimators. At the end of the day, we are pretty confident in the robustness of our core finding, viz. that there is a positive association between the number of farmers markets and the number of reported outbreaks and cases of food-borne illness. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 21, 2015 at 09:46 AM in Academic Papers, Economics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 21, 2015 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:
AIIB: The first international financial institution of the 21st century: ...What happens when official international financial institutions (IFIs) fail to respond to a changing environment? The same thing that happens to firms that stop innovating. New, more competitive institutions (firms) arise that compel them to change or – like dinosaurs – become extinct.
We may be witnessing this process of creative destruction right now. Last month, a group of 57 founding nations led by China signed the articles of agreement to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) with an initial subscribed capital of $100 billion. While most of the G20 nations, including the big European states, Australia, and South Korea, are among the founding members, the United States, Japan, and Canada are noticeably not.
No one disputes the need for more official infrastructure funding... What we find the most interesting is that the AIIB founders didn’t ask member countries to approve an expansion of either the World Bank or the ADB. Instead, they opted for a new organization altogether.
Why? The problem is institutional legitimacy arising from issues of power and governance. ...
The most glaring problem with the 20th century IFI’s – the BIS, IMF, World Bank and the regional development banks – is representation. ... Perhaps most important are the veto rights. ...
Is the AIIB likely to do better? There are reasons to be hopeful. ...
Of course, the proof will be in the pudding. When the AIIB begins operations, observers will be watching closely whether these ideals are realized. ...
As economists, we like competition. If the AIIB meets the high standards its leaders espouse, it will heighten the pressure on the existing IFIs’ political masters to change with the times. In addition, in light of numerous potential areas of conflict between China and the United States (think cyberspace and the South China Sea for starters), wouldn’t we all benefit from having these two leading economies and governments instead focus their competitive energies on improving global infrastructure finance?
From this perspective, we see a powerful argument for the United States to do two things. First, the U.S. Congress should belatedly approve the IMF’s 2010 Quota and Governance Reforms to signal its support for continued global economic and financial cooperation in coming decades. And second, after failing to stop the AIIB, and refusing to participate as a founding member, the United States should join the institution as soon as it can, participating actively in holding it to the highest 21st century standards.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 20, 2015 at 10:39 AM in Economics, International Finance, Politics |
Why did Europe ignore the "euroskeptics"?:
Europe’s Impossible Dream, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ... To someone who didn’t know much economics, or chose to ignore awkward questions, establishing a unified European currency sounded like a great idea. It would make doing business across national borders easier, while serving as a powerful symbol of unity. Who could have foreseen the huge problems the euro would eventually cause?
Actually, lots of people. ... The only big mistake of the euroskeptics was underestimating just how much damage the single currency would do.
The point is that it wasn’t at all hard to see, right from the beginning, that currency union without political union was a very dubious project. So why did Europe go ahead with it?
Mainly, I’d say, because the idea of the euro sounded ... forward-looking, European-minded, exactly the kind of thing that appeals to the kind of people who give speeches at Davos. Such people didn’t want nerdy economists telling them that their glamorous vision was a bad idea...
And the euro came. For a decade after its introduction a huge financial bubble masked its underlying problems. But now ... all of the skeptics’ fears have been vindicated.
Furthermore, the story doesn’t end there. When the predicted and predictable strains on the euro began, Europe’s policy response was to impose draconian austerity on debtor nations — and to deny the simple logic and historical evidence indicating that such policies would inflict terrible economic damage while failing to achieve the promised debt reduction.
It’s astonishing even now how blithely top European officials dismissed warnings that slashing government spending and raising taxes would cause deep recessions...
What should Europe do now? There are no good answers — but the reason there are no good answers is because the euro has turned into a Roach Motel, a trap that’s hard to escape. If Greece still had its own currency, the case for devaluing that currency, improving Greek competitiveness and ending deflation, would be overwhelming.
The fact that Greece no longer has a currency, that it would have to create one from scratch, vastly raises the stakes. My guess is that euro exit will still prove necessary. And in any case it will be essential to write down much of Greece’s debt.
But we’re not having a clear discussion of these options, because European discourse is still dominated by ideas the continent’s elite would like to be true, but aren’t. And Europe is paying a terrible price for this monstrous self-indulgence.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 20, 2015 at 09:44 AM in Economics, International Finance, Politics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 20, 2015 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
This is by David Warsh:
The Rivals, Economic Principals: When Keynes died, in April 1946, The Times of London gave him the best farewell since Nelson after Trafalgar: “To find an economist of comparable influence one would have to go back to Adam Smith.” A few years later, Alvin Hansen, of Harvard University, Keynes’ leading disciple in the United States, wrote , “It may be a little too early to claim that, along with Darwin’s Origin of Species and Marx’s Capital, The General Theory is one of the most significant book which have appeared in the last hundred years. … But… it continues to gain in importance.”
In fact, the influence of Keynes’ book, as opposed to the vision of “macroeconomics” at the heart of it, and the penumbra of fame surrounding it, already had begun its downward arc. Civilians continued to read the book, more for its often sparkling prose than for the clarity of its argument. Among economists, intermediaries and translators had emerged in various communities to explain the insights the great man had sought to convey. Speaking of the group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Robert Solow put it this way, many years later: “We learned not as much from it – it was…almost unreadable – as from a number of explanatory articles that appeared on all our graduate school reading lists.”
Instead it was another book that ushered in an era of economics very different from the age before. Foundations of Economic Analysis, by Paul A. Samuelson, important parts of it written as much as ten years before, appeared in 1947. “Mathematics is a Language,” proclaimed its frontispiece; equations dominated nearly every page. “It might be still too early to tell how the discoveries of the 1930s would pan out,” Samuelson wrote delicately in the introduction, but their value could be ascertained only by expressing them in mathematical models whose properties could be thoroughly explored and tested. “The laborious literary working-over of essentially simple mathematical concepts such as is characteristic of much of modern economic theory is not only unrewarding from the standpoint of advancing the science, but involves as well mental gymnastics of a particularly depraved type.”
Foundations had won a prize as a dissertation, so Harvard University was required to publish it as a book. In Samuelson’s telling, the department chairman had to be forced to agree to printing a thousand copies, dragged his feet, and then permitted its laboriously hand-set plates to be melted down for other uses after 887 copies were run off. Thus Foundations couldn’t be revised in subsequent printings, until a humbled Harvard University Press republished an “enlarged edition” with a new introduction and a mathematical appendix in 1983. When Samuelson biographer Roger Backhouse went through the various archival records, he concluded that the delay could be explained by production difficulties and recycling of the lead type by postwar exigencies at Press.
It didn’t matter. With the profession, Samuelson soon would win the day.
The “new” economics that he represented – the earliest developments had commenced in the years after World War I – conquered the profession, high and low. The next year Samuelson published an introductory textbook, Economics, to inculcate the young. Macroeconomic theory was to be put to work to damp the business cycle and, especially, avoid the tragedy of another Great Depression. The new approach swiftly attracted a community away from alternative modes of inquiry, in the expectation that it would yield new solutions to the pressing problem of depression-prevention. Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics eventually would be swept completely off the table. Foundations was a paradigm in the Kuhnian sense.
At the very zenith of Samuelson’s success, another sort of book appeared, in 1962, A Monetary History of the United States, 1869-1960, by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. At first glance, the two books had nothing to do with one another. A Monetary History harkened back to approaches that had been displaced by Samuelsonian methods – “hypotheses” instead of theorems; charts instead of models, narrative, not econometric analytics. The volume did little to change the language that Samuelson had established. Indeed, economists at the University of Chicago, Friedman’s stronghold, were on the verge of adapting a new, still- higher mathematical style to the general equilibrium approach that Samuelson had pioneered.
Yet one interpretation of the relationship between the price system and the Daedalean wings that A Monetary History contained was sufficiently striking as to reopen a question thought to have been settled. A chapter of their book, “The Great Contraction,” contained an interpretation of the origins of the Great Depression that gradually came to overshadow the rest. As J. Daniel Hammond has written,
The “Great Contraction” marked a watershed in thinking about the greatest economic calamity in modern times. Until Friedman and Schwartz provoked the interest of economists by rehabilitating monetary history and theory, neither economic theorists nor economic historians devoted as much attention to the Depression as historians.
So you could say that some part of the basic agenda of the next fifty years was ordained by the rivalry that began in the hour that Samuelson and Friedman became aware of each other, perhaps in the autumn of 1932, when both turned up the recently-completed Social Science Research Building of the University of Chicago, at the bottom of the Great Depression. Excellent historians, with access to extensive archives, have been working on both men’s lives and work: Hammond, of Wake Forest University, has largely completed his project on Friedman; Backhouse, of the University of Birmingham, is finishing a volume on Samuelson’s early years. Neither author has yet come across a frank recollection by either man of those first few meetings. Let’s hope one or more second-hand accounts turn up in the papers of the many men and women who knew them then. When I asked Friedman about their relationship in 2005, he deferred to his wife, who, somewhat uncomfortably, mentioned a differential in privilege. I lacked the temerity to ask Samuelson directly the last couple of times we talked; he clearly didn’t enjoy discussing it.
Biography is no substitute for history, much less for theory and history of thought, and journalism is, at best, only a provisional substitute for biography. But one way of understanding what happened in economics in the twentieth century is to view it as an argument between Samuelson and Friedman that lasted nearly eighty years, until one aspect of it, at least, was resolved by the financial crisis of 2008. The departments of economics they founded in Cambridge and Chicago, headquarters in the long wars between the Keynesians and the monetarists, came to be the Athens and Sparta of their day. ...[continue reading]...
[There is much, much more in the full post.]
Posted by Mark Thoma on Sunday, July 19, 2015 at 10:49 AM in Economics, Macroeconomics, Methodology |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Sunday, July 19, 2015 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
... In an earlier era, Greece could have devalued the drachma, making its exports more competitive on world markets. Easy monetary policy would have offset some of the pain from tight fiscal policy. Mr. Friedman and Mr. Feldstein were right: The euro has turned into an economic liability that has exacerbated political tensions. For this, the European elites who pushed for the currency union bear some responsibility.
As creditor nations and international institutions sort through the wreckage, it is worth bearing in mind the lessons from Mr. Keynes. A nation can only withstand so much economic pain before the political fallout becomes ugly. And that fallout can extend beyond the border of the problem nation.
Yes, the Greeks have every reason to be contrite. But it might also be wise for the rest of the world to show some mercy.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Saturday, July 18, 2015 at 09:58 AM in Economics, International Finance, Politics |
Apes respond to framing:
...The susceptibility to positive framing is what scientists call an irrational bias, and it is very powerful. To better understand why our psyche responds so deeply, Christopher Krupenye, a Duke University graduate student in evolutionary anthropology, and his colleagues Alexandra Rosati of Yale University and Brian Hare of Duke gathered 40 of our closest living relatives—23 chimpanzees and 17 bonobos—and offered them options for choosing food: either one or two fruits versus a constant number of peanuts. Sometimes the apes were shown one piece of fruit each time they made the selection, but half the time they were given two: positive framing. In other trials, the apes were initially presented two pieces of fruit, but half the time they got only one: negative framing. Regardless of the framing, the apes ended up with an identical quantity of fruit. Yet they were more likely to choose fruit when they were offered the single fruit with its frequent “bonus” than the double fruit with its frequent “loss.”
Because these framing effects are shared with our nonhuman relatives, Krupenye says, the results suggest that these biases are hardwired into our biology and may have conferred some evolutionary benefit as apes foraged for food. Yet a hardwired tendency does not have to be a sentence. Although susceptibility to framing is in our blood, being aware of the bias can help us avoid making poor decisions. ... Chances are, you can use your brain to outwit your biology.
The sexes are not equally swayed by spin..., in the Duke study ... male apes were more affected than females by how their choices were framed. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Saturday, July 18, 2015 at 09:53 AM in Economics |
Fabio Ghironi in Vox EU:
Variable geometry bites back: Schäuble’s motives, by Fabio Ghironi: Success of the German-inspired solution for the latest Greek crisis is far from assured. If it fails, the Eurozone may be changed forever. This column argues that the failure would lead to an outcome that has been favoured for decades by Germany’s Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. Perhaps the package the Eurozone agreed is just a backdoor way of getting to the ‘variable geometry’ and monetary unification for the core that the Maastricht criteria had failed to achieve.
The Greek crisis risks shattering the Eurozone as we know it. Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has been leading a coalition of hawks who appear determined to make Grexit an unavoidable outcome. If not immediately then at least once it becomes clear (or clearer) that it is impossible for Greece to satisfy the conditions it is being asked to meet.
As one ponders Mr. Schäuble’s possible motives for insisting on such demanding (many would say infeasible) targets, it is instructive to recall his political and intellectual history in the run-up to the euro.
How Schäuble viewed the Eurozone
Mr. Schäuble was Minister of the Interior of the Federal Republic of Germany between 1989 and 1991. In this capacity, he played a central role in the negotiations that led to German reunification. The same period saw the negotiations leading up to the Maastricht Treaty, which established the foundation for the Eurozone.
A widely held view at the time was that Germany agreeing to give up the deutschmark and to participate in a European monetary union was the quid pro quo for British and French acquiescence to German reunification – an event of monumental implications, given Europe’s history.
Germans were understandably reluctant to give up a very successful currency for the uncertainty of monetary union with less rigorous partners. Thus, at their insistence, the Maastricht Treaty included convergence criteria that would have to be fulfilled for euro membership. In effect, those conditions were intended to keep unreliable Southern European countries out of the monetary union.
In those years, Mr. Schäuble – heir apparent to Chancellor Helmut Kohl at the time – championed a ‘variable geometry’ approach to the Eurozone. A key implication of this ‘variable geometry’ was that that monetary unification should be restricted to a set of ‘core’ countries that shared Germany’s preference for austerity.
Mr. Schäuble originally made his argument explicit in a blueprint for the Eurozone co-authored with Karl Lamers and released by Germany’s Christian Democratic Union in the late summer of 1994 (Lamers and Schäuble 2014). Responding to critics less than two weeks later, Mr. Schäuble stated that “We cannot set the pace of European integration according to the slowest ship in the convoy.” Speed was clearly defined relative to the German benchmark, as enshrined in the Maastricht convergence criteria. Chancellor Kohl described the Schäuble-Lamers document as a ‘discussion paper,’ but he did not explicitly distance himself from it, and he defended the plan of a ‘core’ Europe.
Schäuble after German and France flouted the Maastricht criteria
In August of 2014, Mr. Schäuble and Mr. Lamers reiterated their plea for ‘variable geometry’ in a Financial Times article 20 years after their original paper (Lamers and Schäuble 2014). They conclude: “In order to make progress […], we should keep using the approach that proved its mettle back in 1994: to establish cores of co-operation within the EU that enable smaller, willing groups of member states to forge ahead.” Importantly, the article acknowledges the crucial role of Germany (and France) in scuttling the credibility of the Stability Pact’s fiscal policy rules in 2003.
Mr. Schäuble’s commitment to European integration is unquestioned, and no better description can be found than the remarks by IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde when Mr. Schäuble was awarded the Charlemagne Prize in 2012 (Lagarde 2012). But Mr Schäuble’s history shows that his commitment to ‘variable geometry’ is just as strong -- to the point that his most recent statements on support for Grexit within the German government are creating a rift with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
As it turned out, the Maastricht criteria that were meant to implement Mr Schäuble’s vision failed to keep Southern European countries out of the euro, and through steps that we all became more or less familiar with, we have gotten to the start of the crisis in 2010, and the current situation.
The cost of Schäuble’s strategy
If Greece exits the euro it will become evident to everyone that irreversibility of euro membership is an illusion as long as the countries involved retain their essential sovereignty.
- Markets will likely test the resolve of countries’ governments to stay in the euro, and costly trade-offs will provide additional fuel for populism and nationalism.
While government commitment and ECB firepower may prevent a domino effect, the balance of market and political forces may well result in other Mediterranean countries leaving the euro.
At that point, Germany would be left in a Eurozone that would consist of Mr Schäuble’s early 1990s ‘core,’ plus partners to the East and Baltic countries who have been renewing their historical economic ties with Germany since joining the EU.
All this raises the following question: Is Mr Schäuble’s position simply intended to find a backdoor way to return to the ‘variable geometry’ and monetary unification for the ‘core’ that the Maastricht criteria had failed to achieve?
History will be the judge, but if this was the way to revive ‘variable geometry,’ it was better to leave it resting. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Saturday, July 18, 2015 at 09:47 AM in Economics, Politics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Saturday, July 18, 2015 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Mary Amiti and Tyler Bodine-Smith in the NY Fed's Liberty Street Economics blog:
The Effect of the Strong Dollar on U.S. Growth: The recent strengthening of the U.S. dollar has raised concerns about its impact on U.S. GDP growth. The U.S. dollar has appreciated around 12 percent since mid-2014, rising against almost all of our trading partners, with the largest gains against Japan, Mexico, Canada, and the euro area. There was far less movement against newly industrial Asian economies and hardly any change against China. In this blog, we ask how the strength of the dollar affects U.S. GDP growth. Although the dollar can impact the U.S. growth through a number of different channels, we focus on the direct impact through the U.S. trade balance. Our analysis shows that a 10 percent appreciation in one quarter shaves 0.5 percentage point off GDP growth over one year and an additional 0.2 percentage point in the following year if the strength of the dollar persists. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 17, 2015 at 01:41 PM in Economics, International Finance |
We can do more to encourage firms to raise wages:
Liberals and Wages, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Hillary Clinton gave her first big economic speech on Monday, and progressives were by and large gratified. For Mrs. Clinton’s core message was that the federal government can and should use its influence to push for higher wages. ...
Mrs. Clinton’s speech reflected major changes, deeply grounded in evidence, in our understanding of what determines wages. And a key implication of that new understanding is that public policy can do a lot to help workers without bringing down the wrath of the invisible hand.
Many economists used to think of the labor market as being pretty much like the market for anything else, with the prices of different kinds of labor — that is, wage rates — fully determined by supply and demand. So if wages for many workers have stagnated or declined, it must be because demand for their services is falling.
In particular, the conventional wisdom attributed rising inequality to technological change, which was raising the demand for highly educated workers while devaluing blue-collar work. And there was nothing much policy could do to change the trend... But the case for “skill-biased technological change” as the main driver of wage stagnation has largely fallen apart. ...
Meanwhile, our understanding of wage determination has been transformed by an intellectual revolution...
The ... market for labor isn’t like the market for, say, wheat, because workers are people. And because they’re people, there are important benefits, even to the employer, from paying them more: better morale, lower turnover, increased productivity. These benefits largely offset the direct effect of higher labor costs, so that raising the minimum wage needn’t cost jobs after all.
The direct takeaway from this intellectual revolution is, of course, that we should raise minimum wages. But there are broader implications, too: Once you take what we’ve learned from minimum-wage studies seriously, you realize that they’re not relevant just to the lowest-paid workers.
For employers always face a trade-off between low-wage and higher-wage strategies — between, say, the traditional Walmart model of paying as little as possible and accepting high turnover and low morale, and the Costco model of higher pay and benefits leading to a more stable work force. And there’s every reason to believe that public policy can, in a variety of ways — including making it easier for workers to organize — encourage more firms to choose the good-wage strategy.
So there was a lot more behind Hillary’s speech than I suspect most commentators realized. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 17, 2015 at 01:08 AM in Economics, Income Distribution, Technology, Unemployment |
The Case For September, by Tim Duy: The Wall Street Journal reports that most economists still expect the Fed to raise rates in September:
Financial market participants tend to be less confident, with odds of a September hike running around 35%. Still, the consideration of any rate hike may seem odd given the lackluster nature of the US economy. Notably, inflation wallows below trend and anemic wage growth suggests significant remaining labor market slack. The Fed, however, looks at the progress towards its goals, which on the unemployment side has been substantial, as well as the perceived need to act ahead of actual inflation.
In short, the Fed believes the risks to the economy are shifting toward overheating, even if the economy is not yet overheating. And, as Greg Ip at the Wall Street Journal identifies, this has important consequences for monetary policy:
Risk management suggests they ought to start in September, because then they retain the option of tightening once or twice before the end of the year. But if they wait until December, they forgo that option. (This assumes they do not move at their meeting in October, which is not followed by a press conference.)
This is probably the best argument for a September rate hike. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen made it fairly clear in her Congressional appearances this week that she would prefer to move earlier but more gradually than later and more rapidly. And even if you think she only anticipates a single rate hike this year, that outcome is not precluded by a hike in September. Yellen has also said we should not expect a clearly identified path similar to the last tightening cycle. They can hike in September and pass on December.
Paul Krugman thinks the Fed's logic is completely backwards. From his Bloomberg interview this week:
If the Fed waits too long to raise rates, then we get a little bit of inflation. If the Fed raises rates too soon, we risk getting caught in another lost decade. So the risks are hugely asymmetric. I really find it quite mysterious that the Fed is eager to raise rates given that, they're going to be wrong one way or the other, we just don't know which way. But the costs of being wrong in one direction are so much higher than the costs of being the other.
The Fed, I think, believes the risks are asymmetric in the other direction - that inflation expectations are very fragile to the upside, and hence waiting too long risks a costly rise in actual inflation.
If I had to bet who would be proven right, I would put my money with Krugman. Inflation and inflation expectations have proven substantially less fragile in the past twenty years than the Fed likes to admit. Consider first that inflation has tended to hover mostly below two percent since 1995:
Core inflation averaged 1.70% since 1995, headline inflation 1.86%, both comfortably below target. Note the particular rarity of periods where core inflation rises more than 25bp above target. What used to be one of the Fed's favorite indicators, the 5-year, 5-year forward breakeven rate, isn't pointing toward high inflation in the medium term:
Although the Fed frets about unemployment, even at low levels of unemployment, inflation is more often than not below target:
And neither faster wage growth nor low unemployment triggers higher inflation expectations. Inflation expectations are remarkably stable, with relatively few deviations from 3% which tend to be traced back to gasoline prices:
The Fed would argue that their credibility explains stable inflation expectations. By acting ahead of inflation, the Fed ensures there is no above-target inflation, and that connection between policy and outcomes gives rise to that credibility. I would argue that two decades of generally below target inflation suggests an overly excessive pursuit of credibility at the cost of economic underperformance. We don't reach the target inflation consistently, but we do get recessions and slow job market recoveries.
Also, it seems that Yellen abandoned her enchantment with optimal control models. A recent version from the IMF indicates it would be still preferable to delay rate hikes in favor of a more aggressive normalization path later:
Under the optimal control approach, the Fed would accept the cost of temporarily higher inflation (still within a 25b range of target) in return for a faster return to potential output. Yellen now appears will to tolerate a return to the inflation target from below, rather than above, in order to avoid the possibility of a sharper rise in rates later.
Why the change of heart? Why the gradualist approach? It is reasonable to believe its about financial market instability. Back to Greg Ip:
... the effects of six years of zero rates on leverage and risk-taking are increasingly evident. As Ms. Yellen’s Monetary Policy Report noted, “Credit markets have been reflecting some signs of reach-for-yield behavior, as issuance of speculative grade bonds continues to be strong, yields are low, and credit spreads are somewhat narrow by historical standards.”
Fair enough, maybe it isn't about inflation, but financial markets. But that is kind of disconcerting as well - the gradualist approach didn't work so well last time around. Seems like if you were really worried about financial markets, you would want to follow the optimal control approach and move quickly when inflation warranted a policy shift. The error of the last cycle may not have been in waiting too long to hike, but hiking too slowly when the time came.
Bottom Line: Ultimately, as the crisis fades further into the rearview mirror, the Fed see the policy risks shifting. Many, including Yellen, will shift back toward the central banker's natural inclination to fight inflation, despite the lack of inflation for the past two decades. And that natural inclination keeps the September option alive. Given the Fed's penchant for tight policy on average, the risk is that while they don't trip the economy into recession in the near term, they instead lock the economy into a sub-par equilibrium.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 17, 2015 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Fed Watch, Monetary Policy |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Friday, July 17, 2015 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Jared Bernstein comments on Janet Yellen's assertion that the Fed is powerless to do anything about the fact that "black unemployment has averaged almost twice that of overall unemployment":
The Fed and African-American Unemployment: ...black unemployment tends to be twice that of the overall rate, and more than twice the white rate. Moreover, this level difference translates into change differences such that a one percentage point decline in overall unemployment often leads to a two point decline for blacks. See here for more details, e.g., “black unemployment has averaged almost twice that of overall unemployment since the monthly data begin in 1972 (average: 1.9, with standard deviation of 0.15, so not a ton of variation around that mean).”
In that sense, the Fed has the potential to make a huge structural difference in the economic lives of blacks and other minorities by heavily weighting the full employment part of the their mandate relative to the inflation part, especially since there’s still considerable slack in the job market, with lower-wage, minority workers facing the brunt of it, and—importantly—little evidence of inflationary pressure (if anything, the Fed has missed their inflation target on the low side for a few years running now). ...
Chair Yellen well knows this 2:1 problem, and I take her comments to mean that there’s not much the Fed can do to change it... However, economist Bill Spriggs, who knows a lot about this, argues ... that ... at full employment, employers cannot afford to discriminate against minorities the same way they can in slack markets.
And what Bill will tell you is that this phenomenon has the potential to reduce that 2:1 ratio, which would be a tremendously beneficial structural advance.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Thursday, July 16, 2015 at 09:23 AM in Economics, Unemployment |
Gary Gutting interviews Daniel Hausman (both are professors of philosophy):
What Economics Can (and Can’t) Do: ...G.G.: Can we regard the findings of economics as purely scientific conclusions? Or do they also involve value judgments?
D.H.: Many economists would maintain that their role in policy is, like engineers, merely to specify how to achieve the objectives at which politicians aim. Sometimes this is an apt description of the contribution they make, but most economists also take for granted that public policies should enhance people’s well-being. So economists assess policies mainly in terms of their welfare consequences. Since economists regard people’s preferences as motivating their choices as well as indicating what is good for them, they evaluate policies almost exclusively by examining how well they satisfy people’s preferences.
Most economists would concede that other values, such as freedom, rights and justice should also influence public policies, but they regard their policy expertise as largely limited to the assessment of the welfare consequences of legislation and regulations.
G.G.: What help, then, are economists in debates about public policy?
D.H.: They tell us which are the right questions to ask if we seek to satisfy preferences. Knowing what to ask is enlightening even when it is hard to find the answers. Although helpful in these ways, economic knowledge is no cure for bias and shortsightedness. Knowledge does not benefit us if we make bad use of it.
G.G.: Can you cite some positive contributions of economists to public policy?
D.H.: Economists have chalked up some huge successes. ...
There's a lot more in the full post, including questions such as:
G.G.: I’ve found convincing Paul Krugman’s arguments that austerity hasn’t worked to solve Greece’s economic problems and that the best path is to forgive some of their debt and to put more emphasis on stimulating their economy. Since there is no consensus among top-level economists about Krugman’s views, should I withhold judgment on his recommendations? ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Thursday, July 16, 2015 at 12:33 AM in Economics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Thursday, July 16, 2015 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
John Robertson and Ellyn Terry at the Atlanta Fed's macroblog:
Have Changing Job and Worker Characteristics Restrained Wage Growth?: In the wake of the Great Recession, nominal wage growth has been subdued. But it is unclear how much of this relatively low wage growth reflects protracted weakness in the labor market versus other factors, such as changes in the composition of the workforce and jobs over time. Wage growth tends to vary across personal and job characteristics, so it stands to reason that changes in the composition of the workforce, alongside demographic and work characteristics, could be an important explanation of overall movements in wage growth.
In this post, we explore the impact of the changing mixture of worker characteristics (by age and education) and types of jobs (by industry and occupation) on the Atlanta's Fed Wage Growth Tracker. We find that composition effects do not account for the low median wage growth experienced in recent years. Holding worker and job characteristics fixed at their 1997 shares raises the median wage growth in 2014 by only about 0.2 percentage point. Our results are consistent with the analysis in a previous macroblog post, which found that changing industry-employment shares could not explain much of the sluggish growth in the average hourly earnings data from the payroll survey. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at 10:49 AM in Economics, Income Distribution |
An Unsustainable Position: Everyone is talking about the IMF’s new update to its debt sustainability analysis, which says that Greece’s attempt to surrender is doomed to failure without massive debt relief. That’s surely the right conclusion.
However, it’s hard to accept the document’s claim that this is a new development...
The point, surely, is that the plan for Greece was never feasible. No matter how willing a nation is to suffer, no matter how willing to run primary surpluses on a scale that is very rare in history, trying to pay off high debt through austerity without any kind of monetary offset is basically a recipe for debt deflation and failure. This is, in fact, what the IMF’s own research has said. ...
So it’s good to see the IMF being realistic here, but the institution remains unwilling to face up fully to past errors — which matters, because these past errors are prologue to the doom that faces any attempt to stay the course.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at 10:11 AM in Economics, International Finance, Politics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
I have a new column:
Who Should Pay for Recessions?: Over the last several hundred years, financial panics have repeatedly caused severe economic turmoil. For example, there were financial panics every 10 to 20 years in the late 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s, many of which resulted in severe recessions.
To combat this instability, new rules and regulations were imposed on the financial sector after the Great Recession, and for approximately 50 years this seemed to be very successful. The bank panics that had caused so much trouble appeared to be over. But in recent years there has been a return of financial instability in the relatively unregulated shadow banking system, and a “Great Recession” associated with a financial meltdown.
The conclusion seems obvious. No matter what we do in terms of regulating the financial sector, the risk of a financial collapse and subsequent recession is always present. Given this, a question to ask is who should pay the costs of the inevitable meltdown? That is, when the financial sector gets into trouble, as it surely will at some point in the future, who should shoulder the burden? ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at 02:52 PM in Economics, Financial System, Fiscal Times, Politics |
More Mediocrity, by Tim Duy: Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen will be playing a game of mixed messages with Congress tomorrow as she explains why she believes a rate hike approaches in spite of lackluster data. Today's data didn't help. The June retail sales report was a disappointment, slipping from May levels with generally soft internals in addition to downward revisions to previous months. Consequently, core spending growth is decelerating on a year-over-year basis to 2013 rates:
Maintaining the 2014 growth bump has been something of a challenge, to be sure.The report triggered downgrades to the second quarter growth forecast as it offset upward revisions attributable to last week's new estimates of federal spending and inventories:
More mediocre growth - stuck in that 2.5 percent range which is a touch higher than the Fed's longer-run central tendency of 2.0-2.3 percent. And therein lies the key to understanding the Fed's repeated calls that 2015 is the year for the first rate hike. I think they are concluding 2014 was sufficient to largely close the output gap, as evidenced by falling unemployment and other measures of labor underutilization. San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams even believes that optimally, US growth needs to DECELERATE in 2016:
Looking towards next year, what we really want to see is an economy that’s growing at a steady pace of around 2 percent. If jobs and growth kept the same pace as last year, we would seriously overshoot our mark. I want to see continued improvement, but it’s not surprising, and it’s actually desirable, that the pace is slowing.
With the output gap closing, Fed policymakers believe they need to begin reducing financial accommodation. They are not sufficiently sure of that hypothesis to begin hiking at anything more than a modest pace, but are sufficiently sure to comfortably declare that the first rate hike is upon us. Hence, Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren can say things to Reuters like:
"If we do continue to get improvement in labor markets, if we do become reasonably confident that we're moving back to 2-percent inflation, it may be appropriate as early as September," he said of raising rates from near zero. "I don't think we have seen that evidence yet but we still have a couple months of data to see whether it's more strongly confirmed."
Rosengren has long advocated for more monetary accommodation than most of his colleagues at the central bank, which has kept interest rates at rock bottom to boost the recovery. With wages showing early signs of a pick-up and U.S. unemployment down to 5.3 percent, he set a high bar for delaying a hike.
Only if labor markets unexpectedly weaken, if core inflation starts to drop off, or if the wage gains dissipated, "those would be the things that would make me want to pause and wait and see whether there is further evidence," he said.
And Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen says:
My own outlook for the economy and inflation is broadly consistent with the central tendency of the projections submitted by FOMC participants at the time of our June meeting. Based on my outlook, I expect that it will be appropriate at some point later this year to take the first step to raise the federal funds rate and thus begin normalizing monetary policy.
Whereas Cleveland Federal Reserve President is somewhat more aggressive in an interview with the Financial Times:
Loretta Mester, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, said the case for “emergency” levels of interest rates was now gone given that the economy was “fundamentally sound”, as she signalled that she would support two increases in short-term rates this year.
To be sure, it is all data dependent. More solid wage growth would do the trick, I think, to draw the Fed to September. Without that wage growth acceleration, I suspect the more dovish side of the FOMC will pull the Fed toward December. No reason to rush given the lackluster numbers we are seeing. But one senses greater impatience on the more hawkish side of the FOMC. They will argue like Mester that the general consistency of underlying growth, steady improvement in labor utilization, and proximity to mandates signals it is time to leave behind the policies of the financial crisis.
Bottom Line: The basic theme is that the economy is that, in the Fed's eyes, the economy is sufficiently stable to justify a rate hike, but lacks any reason to rush that hike or the pace of subsequent hikes. That message I expect to hear tomorrow. In her appearance before the House Financial Services Committee, Yellen will reiterate the basic points of Friday's speech, maintaining faith that 2015 will be the year for the first rate hike since 2006. Heavy caveats, however, about data dependence. She may get asked directly about September. If so, she will not rule out September. She will instead say maybe September, maybe later. But more interesting might be the questioning surrounding the Fed's perceived intransigence; Congress is looking for more of that transparency the Fed is always bragging about.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at 02:47 PM in Economics, Fed Watch, Monetary Policy |
One of the ideas floating around in the aftermath of the sack of Athens has been that of, in effect, deposing Syriza from outside and installing a “technocratic” government. It wouldn’t be the first time in this dismal saga, and I won’t be surprised if it happens, for a few months anyway.
But let me note, as I have before, that what Europe calls technocrats aren’t people who know how the world works; they’re people who subscribe to the approved fantasies, and never change their minds no matter how badly wrong things go. Despite the overwhelming evidence that austerity has exactly the dire effects basic textbook macro says it will, they cling to belief in the confidence fairy. Despite a striking lack of evidence that “structural reform” delivers much of a growth boost, especially in an economy suffering from a huge output gap, they continue to present structural reform — mainly in the form of disempowering workers — as a sovereign remedy for all ills. Despite a clear record of past failure, they continue to push for asset sales as a supposed answer to debt overhang.
In short, what Europe usually means by a “technocrat” is a Very Serious Person, someone distinguished by his faith in received orthodoxy no matter the evidence. ...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at 09:01 AM in Economics |
Brad DeLong (the full post is much, much longer):
Needed: More Government, More Government Debt, Less Worry: **Introduction**
Olivier Blanchard, when he parachuted me into this panel, asked me to “be provocative”.
So let me provoke:...
It makes sense to distinguish the medium from the short term only if the North Atlantic economies will relatively soon enter a régime in which the economy is not at the zero lower bound on safe nominal interest rates. The medium term is at a horizon at which monetary policy can adequately handle all of the demand-stabilization role. ...
As I see it, there are three major medium-run questions that then remain...:
* What is the proper size of the 21st-century public sector?
* What is the proper level of the 21st-century public debt for growth and prosperity?
* What are the systemic risks caused by government debt, and what adjustment to the proper level of 21st-century public debt is advisable because of systemic risk considerations?
To me at least, the answer to the first question–what is the proper size of the 21st-century public sector?–appears very clear.
The optimal size of the 21st-century public sector will be significantly larger than the optimal size of the 20th-century public sector. Changes in technology and social organization are moving us away from a “Smithian” economy, one in which the presumption is that the free market or the Pigovian-adjusted market does well, to one that requires more economic activity to be regulated by differently-tuned social and economic arrangements (see DeLong and Froomkin (2000)). One such is the government. Thus there should be more public sector and less private sector in the 21st-century than there was in the 20th.
Similarly, the answer to the second question appears clear, to me at least.
The proper level of the 21st century public debt should be significantly higher than typical debt levels we have seen in the 20th century ... *unless interest rates in the 21st century reverse the pattern we have seen in the 20th century, and mount to levels greater than economic growth rates*.
This consideration is strengthened by observing that the North Atlantic economies have now moved into a régime in which the opposite has taken place. Real interest rates on government debt are not higher but even lower relative to growth rates than they have been in the past century. Financial market participants now appear to expect this now ultra-low interest-rate régime to continue indefinitely (see Summers (2014)).
The answer to the third question–what are the systemic risks caused by government debt?–is much more murky. ...
The question ... is:... How much more likely does higher debt make it that interest rates will spike in the absence of fundamental reasons? How much would they spike? What would government policy be in response to such a spike? And what would be the effect on the economy?
The answer thus hinges on:
* the risk of a large sudden upward shift in the willingness to hold government debt, even absent substantial fundamental news.
* the ability of governments to deal with such a risk that threatens to push economies far enough up the Laffer curve to turn a sustainable into an unsustainable debt.
I believe the risk in such a panicked flight from an otherwise sustainable debt is small. I hold, along with Rinehart and Rogoff (2013), that the government’s legal tools to finance its debt via financial repression are very powerful, Thus I think this consideration has little weight. I believe that little adjustment to one’s view of the proper level of 21st-century public debt of *reserve currency-issuing sovereigns with exorbitant privilege* is called for because of systemic risk considerations.
But my belief here is fragile. And my comprehension of the issues is inadequate.
Let me expand on these three answers...
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at 09:00 AM in Economics, Fiscal Policy |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
...I don’t suppose that any other left wing party that may come to power in the future seeking to challenge the current European economic policy mix will be as feckless as Syriza. The lesson that they will draw from this debacle is: negotiating with Germany is a waste of time; be willing to act unilaterally, be willing to default unilaterally, have a plan for achieving primary surplus if you haven’t already achieved it, have a hard default and euro exit (now possible, thanks to the Germans) option in your back pocket, and be willing to use it at the first sign of hassle from the ECB. A deal could have been done today that would have strengthened the Eurozone, but instead it has just become a lot more fragile.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 13, 2015 at 11:09 AM in Economics, International Finance, Politics |
Teresa Tritch of the NY Times editorial board:
Janet Yellen’s Unusual Optimism: ...To my ears, most of Ms. Yellen’s speech expertly laid out why the economy is not ready for interest rate increases anytime soon. Then, toward the end, she said that based on her views, she expected to begin raising rates “at some point later this year.” ...
Granted, it takes time for the effects of an interest-rate move to be felt in the economy. So if the Fed thinks the economy is going to start overheating, say, next year, it would choose to raise rates before that. But I didn’t hear any good reason in the speech to believe that a full-steam-ahead economy lies ahead. ...
And yet, Ms. Yellen’s take is that a gradual process of steady improvement is underway that, if continued, could justify the start of rate hikes this year.
That is guarded optimism. But six years into an economic recovery that has been consistently disappointing, I find it hard to share even guarded optimism. ...
Ms. Yellen stressed, as she always does, that actual economic developments in coming months would determine when to begin raising rates. The question is whether more of the same fitful, inconclusive growth will count as reason to act or reason to wait.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 13, 2015 at 10:32 AM in Economics, Monetary Policy |
The economy is no longer providing "good jobs to ordinary workers". Jeb Bush thinks that means workers are lazy:
The Laziness Dogma, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Americans work longer hours than their counterparts in just about every other wealthy country... Not surprisingly, work-life balance is a big problem for many people.
But Jeb Bush — who is still attempting to justify his ludicrous claim that he can double our rate of economic growth — says that Americans “need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families.”
Mr. Bush’s aides have tried to spin away his remark... It’s obvious from the context, however, that ... he was talking about ... the “nation of takers” dogma... — the insistence that a large number of Americans, white as well as black, are choosing not to work, because they can live lives of leisure thanks to government programs. ...
Where does Jeb Bush fit into this story? Well before his “longer hours” gaffe, he had professed himself a great admirer of the work of Charles Murray, a conservative social analyst most famous for his 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” which claimed that blacks are genetically inferior to whites. What Mr. Bush seems to admire most, however, is a more recent book, “Coming Apart,” which notes that over the past few decades working-class white families have been changing in much the same way that African-American families changed in the 1950s and 1960s, with declining rates of marriage and labor force participation.
Some of us look at these changes and see them as consequences of an economy that no longer offers good jobs to ordinary workers. This happened to African-Americans first, as blue-collar jobs disappeared from inner cities, but has now become a much wider phenomenon thanks to soaring income inequality. Mr. Murray, however, sees the changes as the consequence of a mysterious decline in traditional values, enabled by government programs which mean that men no longer “need to work to survive.” And Mr. Bush presumably shares that view. ...
There’s now an effective consensus among Democrats ... that workers need more help... Republicans, however, believe that American workers just aren’t trying hard enough..., and that the way to change that is to strip away the safety net while cutting taxes on wealthy “job creators.”
And while Jeb Bush may sometimes sound like a moderate, he’s very much in line with the party consensus. If he makes it to the White House, the laziness dogma will rule public policy.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 13, 2015 at 09:34 AM in Economics, Politics, Social Insurance, Unemployment |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, July 13, 2015 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Disaster In Europe: ...all the wise heads saying that Grexit is impossible, that it would lead to a complete implosion, don’t know what they are talking about. When I say that, I don’t mean that they’re necessarily wrong — I believe they are, but anyone who is confident about anything here is deluding himself. What I mean instead is that nobody has any experience with what we’re looking at. It’s striking that the conventional wisdom here completely misreads the closest parallel, Argentina 2002. The usual narrative is completely wrong: de-dollarization did *not* cause economic collapse, but rather followed it, and recovery began quite soon.
There are only terrible alternatives at this point, thanks to the fecklessness of the Greek government and, far more important, the utterly irresponsible campaign of financial intimidation waged by Germany and its allies. And I guess I have to say it: unless Merkel miraculously finds a way to offer a much less destructive plan than anything we’re hearing, Grexit, terrifying as it is, would be better.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Sunday, July 12, 2015 at 10:06 AM in Economics, Politics |
Lawrence Summers most recent column ends with:
Complacency and incrementalism are traps to avoid: ... In all spheres, the temptation to incremental policymaking is enormous. Incrementalism is less politically jarring; it preserves flexibility for the future in an uncertain world; it usually requires less admission of past error; and it gives the appearance of prudence. Yet the American experience in Vietnam should be cautionary to those inclined to yield to the temptation of incrementalism. At every step, policymakers did enough to avoid disaster but not enough to offer a prospect of success — until the moment when helicopters left the Saigon embassy and US policy ended in failure. ...
Incremental steps that provide some but not large sums of assistance, that postpone but do not reduce scheduled debt payments, and that defer decisions about the future to the future run the constant risk that they will not bring convincing arithmetic into view and will be insufficient to restore market confidence.
There are dozens of examples in financial history when an exchange-rate peg was maintained too long, or debt was restructured too late, or forbearance was carried out for too long. I can think of none where strong action came too soon. Clear-eyed, bold action is what the world requires if the financial drama is to subside. Let us hope against much of the experience of recent years that it will be forthcoming.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Sunday, July 12, 2015 at 09:04 AM in Economics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Sunday, July 12, 2015 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |
Jeb and the Nation of Takers: Maybe we were unfair to Mitt Romney; Jeb “people should work longer hours” Bush is making him look like a model of empathy for the less fortunate. ...
But I think it’s also important to understand where this is coming from. Partly it’s Bush trying to defend his foolish 4 percent growth claim; but it’s also, I’m almost certain, coming out of the “nation of takers” dogma that completely dominates America’s right wing.
At my adventure in Las Vegas, one of the questions posed by the moderator was, if I remember it correctly, “What would you do about America’s growing underclass living off welfare?” When I said that the premise was wrong, that this isn’t actually happening, there was general incredulity — this is part of what the right knows is happening. ...
As I asked a few months ago, where are these welfare programs people are supposedly living off? TANF is tiny;... overall spending on “income security” has shown no trend at all as a share of GDP, with all the supposed growth in means-tested programs coming from Medicaid...
But isn’t there an epidemic of people declaring themselves disabled? Actually, no..., if you look at age-adjusted disability rates, they have been flat or even declining...
But none of this will, of course, make any dent in the right-wing narrative: they just know that the rising number of bums on welfare is a problem, even though there basically isn’t any welfare and there are no more bums than there ever were.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Saturday, July 11, 2015 at 09:56 AM in Economics, Politics, Social Insurance |
Gloomy European Economist Francesco Saraceno:
Are we Sure that Tsipras Caved In?: Germany did not speak yet, and until then nothing is certain. But it looks like the new Tsipras proposal may turn into an agreement between Greece and its creditors. ..
At first sight, this does not look good for Tsipras..., in fact the new package is even more “austerian” than the Juncker plan, as it contains deficit reduction for 12 billions instead of 8.
This said, if Tsipras manages to link the package to the obtention of a new loan (plus unblocking of structural funds) for a duration of three years, he will have obtained what he has been asking so far in vain, and what had been refused to Papandreou in 2011: Time and money. ...
In this light the referendum was very important. By asking the Greek people the mandate to negotiate while remaining in the euro, he succeeded in throwing the ball in the creditors camp. Those speaking of betrayal of the people’s will probably did not pay attention to the Greek debate in the week of July 5th. This is why Syriza keeps climbing in the polls, by the way.
Tsipras had to pay the price of a stricter austerity than he would have wished for. But he gains breathing space, which is orders of magnitude more valuable. No surprise that Germany is hesitant. If a deal is not reached, as of now, it will be clear to all who will have kicked Greece out.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Saturday, July 11, 2015 at 09:34 AM in Economics, International Finance, Politics |
Posted by Mark Thoma on Saturday, July 11, 2015 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Links |