Category Archive for: Politics [Return to Main]

Friday, April 24, 2015

Paul Krugman: Zombies of 2016

Some bad ideas just won't die:

Zombies of 2016, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Last week,...Chris Christie ... gave a speech in which he tried to position himself as a tough-minded fiscal realist. In fact, however, his supposedly tough-minded policy idea was a classic zombie — an idea that should have died long ago in the face of evidence that undermines its basic premise, but somehow just keeps shambling along.
...Mr. Christie ... thought he was being smart and brave by proposing that we raise the age of eligibility for both Social Security and Medicare to 69. Doesn’t this make sense now that Americans are living longer?
No, it doesn’t..., almost all the rise in life expectancy has taken place among the affluent. The bottom half of workers,... who rely on Social Security most, have seen their life expectancy at age 65 rise only a bit more than a year since the 1970s. Furthermore,... many ... still have to perform manual labor.
And while raising the retirement age would impose a great deal of hardship, it would save remarkably little money. ...
And there are plenty of other zombies out there. Consider, for example, the zombification of the debate over health reform. ...
Finally, one of the interesting political developments ... has been the triumphant return of voodoo economics, the “supply-side” claim that tax cuts for the rich stimulate the economy so much that they pay for themselves.
In the real world, this doctrine has an unblemished record of failure..
In the world of Republican politics, however, voodoo’s grip has never been stronger. Would-be presidential candidates must audition in front of prominent supply-siders to prove their fealty to failed doctrine. ... Supply-side economics, it’s now clear, is the ultimate zombie: no amount of evidence or logic can kill it.
So why has the Republican Party experienced a zombie apocalypse? One reason, surely, is the fact that most Republican politicians represent states or districts that will never, ever vote for a Democrat, so the only thing they fear is a challenge from the far right. Another is the need to tell Big Money what it wants to hear: a candidate saying anything realistic about Obamacare or tax cuts won’t survive the Sheldon Adelson/Koch brothers primary.
Whatever the reasons, the result is clear. Pundits will try to pretend that we’re having a serious policy debate, but, as far as issues go, 2016 is already set up to be the election of the living dead.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

'Mediamacro Myth: 2010 Britain Faced a Financial Crisis'

Simon Wren-Lewis is attempting to debunk a series of "mediamacro myths". This is the first in the series:

Mediamacro myth 1: 2010 Britain faced a financial crisis: The idea that the Coalition rescued Britain from a crisis is routinely put forward as fact by both the Conservatives and Nick Clegg. Every time the media let such statements pass (as they invariably do), the language seems to get more florid: Clegg’s latest is that the coalition was born in the “midst of an economic firestorm”. [1]
The facts say this is pure nonsense. The economy had begun to recover from the recession, and this recovery might have continued if it had not been hit on the head by domestic and Eurozone austerity. As Larry Elliott makes clear (see also here), there was no sign of any market panic, either in the markets for Sterling or government debt. ...
So where is the half-truth that gives the ‘firestorm’ myth some credence? It is of course the Eurozone crisis, and the idea that the UK could suffer a similar fate to the Eurozone periphery. But academic macroeconomists understand that the situation of a country with its own central bank, like the UK, is quite different from a country without, because the central bank can (and in the UK will) act as a lender of last resort, so the government will never ‘run out of money’. That simple fact is sufficient to prevent any crisis happening for an economy like the UK. ...
Why is it so important to keep up the pretence that in 2010 the UK economy was ‘on the brink’ of a financial crisis? Because only then can the pain of the subsequent few years be excused. The truth is that the failure to recover until 2013 was not the inevitable cost of rescuing the economy from crisis, but an avoidable choice by the Coalition government. The delayed recovery, and the damage that did to living standards, was at least in part a direct consequence of attempts to reduce the deficit far too early, and there was no impending crisis that forced the government's hand. [3]

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

An Economic Agenda for Hillary Clinton

I have a new column:

An Economic Agenda for Hillary Clinton: As Hillary Clinton campaigns for the nomination for president, what should be on her economic agenda? Setting aside the political reality that Republicans will attempt to block most anything she tries to do, here is a list of objectives:...

Monday, April 13, 2015

Paul Krugman: It Takes a Party

In the upcoming presidential elections, political parties matter more than the particular candidates:

It Takes a Party, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: So Hillary Clinton is officially running, to nobody’s surprise. And you know what’s coming: endless attempts to psychoanalyze the candidate,... endless thumb-sucking about her “positioning” on this or that issue.
Please pay no attention..., there has never been a time ... when the alleged personal traits of candidates mattered less. As we head into 2016, each party is quite unified on major policy issues — and these unified positions are very far from each other. ...
For example, any Democrat would, if elected, seek to maintain the basic U.S. social insurance programs — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid..., while also preserving and extending the Affordable Care Act. Any Republican would seek to destroy Obamacare, make deep cuts in Medicaid, and probably try to convert Medicare into a voucher system.
Any Democrat would retain the tax hikes on high-income Americans..., and possibly seek more. Any Republican would try to cut taxes on the wealthy ... while slashing programs that aid low-income families.
Any Democrat would try to preserve the 2010 financial reform... Any Republican would seek to roll it back...
And any Democrat would try to move forward on climate policy, through executive action if necessary, while any Republican ... would block efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
How did the parties get this far apart? Political scientists suggest that it has a lot to do with income inequality. As the wealthy grow richer..., their policy preferences have moved to the right — and they have pulled the Republican Party ever further in their direction. Meanwhile, the influence of big money on Democrats has at least eroded a bit, now that Wall Street, furious over regulations and modest tax hikes, has deserted the party en masse. The result is a level of political polarization not seen since the Civil War. ...
As you can probably tell, I’m dreading the next 18 months, which will be full of sound bites and fury, signifying nothing. O.K., I guess we might learn a few things — Where will Ms. Clinton come out on ... the Trans-Pacific Partnership? ... — but the differences between the parties are so clear and dramatic that it’s hard to see how anyone who has been paying attention could be undecided even now, or be induced to change his or her mind between now and the election.
One thing is for sure: American voters will be getting a real choice. May the best party win.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Paul Krugman: Economics and Elections

Why don't voters penalize politicians for poor economic decisions?:

Economics and Elections, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Britain’s economic performance since the financial crisis struck has been startlingly bad. ... Yet as Britain prepares to go to the polls, the leaders of the coalition government that has ruled the country since 2010 are posing as the guardians of prosperity, the people who really know how to run the economy. And they are, by and large, getting away with it. ... Voters have fairly short memories, and they judge economic policy ... by recent growth. Over five years, the coalition’s record looks terrible. But over the past couple of quarters it looks pretty good, and that’s what matters politically. ...
This is ... a distressing result, because it says that there is little or no political reward for good policy. ... In fact, the evidence suggests that the politically smart thing might well be to impose a pointless depression on your country for much of your time in office, solely to leave room for a roaring recovery just before voters go to the polls.
Actually, that’s a pretty good description of what the current British government has done, although it’s not clear that it was deliberate.
The point, then, is that elections — which are supposed to hold politicians accountable — don’t seem to fulfill that function very well when it comes to economic policy. But can anything be done about this weakness?
One possible answer ... might be to remove economic policy making from the political sphere and turn it over to nonpartisan elite commissions. This presumes, however, that elites know what they are doing... After all, American elites spent years in the thrall of Bowles-Simpsonism, a completely misplaced obsession over budget deficits. European elites, with their commitment to punitive austerity, have been even worse.
A better, more democratic answer would be to seek a better-informed electorate. ... So reporting on economic issues could and should be vastly better. But political scientists would surely scoff at the idea that this would make much difference...
What, then, should those of us who study economic policy and care about real-world outcomes do? The answer, surely, is that we should do our jobs: Try to get it right, and explain our answers as clearly as we can. Realistically, the political impact will usually be marginal at best. Bad things will happen to good ideas, and vice versa. So be it. Elections determine who has the power, not who has the truth.

'Time US Leadership Woke Up To the New Economic Era'

Larry Summers:

Time US leadership woke up to new economic era: This past month may be remembered as the moment the United States lost its role as the underwriter of the global economic system. ... This failure of strategy and tactics was a long time coming, and it should lead to a comprehensive review of the US approach to global economics. ...
Largely because of resistance from the right, the US stands alone in the world in failing to approve the International Monetary Fund governance reforms that Washington itself pushed for in 2009. ...
Meanwhile, pressures from the left have led to pervasive restrictions on infrastructure projects financed through existing development banks, which consequently have receded as funders, even as many developing countries now see infrastructure finance as their principle external funding need.
With US commitments unhonoured and US-backed policies blocking the kinds of finance other countries want to provide or receive through the existing institutions, the way was clear for China to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. There is room for argument about the tactical approach that should have been taken once the initiative was put forward. But the larger question now is one of strategy. ...
What is crucial is that the events of the past month will be seen by future historians not as the end of an era, but as a salutary wake up call.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Paul Krugman: Imaginary Health Care Horrors

Why doesn't the public know how successful Obamacare has been?:

Imaginary Health Care Horrors, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ...Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, recently ... declared the cost of Obamacare “unconscionable.” If you do “simple multiplication,” he insisted, you find that the coverage expansion is costing $5 million per recipient. But ... the actual cost per newly insured American is about $4,000.
Now, everyone makes mistakes. But this wasn’t a forgivable error..., one indisputable fact is that it’s costing taxpayers much less than expected — about 20 percent less...
But that is, of course, how it’s been all along with Obamacare. Before the law went into effect, opponents predicted disaster on all levels. What has happened instead is that the law is working pretty well. So how have the prophets of disaster responded? By pretending that the bad things they said would happen have, in fact, happened. ...
Remember, Obamacare was also supposed to be a huge job-killer. ... Well, Obamacare went into effect fully at the beginning of 2014 — and private-sector job growth actually accelerated, to a pace we haven’t seen since the Clinton years. ...
Finally, there’s the never-ending hunt for ... for ordinary, hard-working Americans who have suffered hardship thanks to health reform. ... Remarkably, however, they haven’t been able to find those stories. ...
In reality, the only people hurt by health reform are Americans with very high incomes, who have seen their taxes go up, and a relatively small number of people who have seen their premiums rise because they’re young and healthy...
In short, when it comes to the facts, the attack ... has come up empty-handed. But the public doesn’t know that. ...
And the favorable experiences of the roughly 16 million Americans who have gained insurance ... have had little effect on public perceptions. Partly that’s because the Affordable Care Act, by design, has had almost no effect on those who already had good health insurance..., they have seen no change in their status.
At a deeper level, however, what we’re looking at here is the impact of post-truth politics. We live in an era in which politicians and the supposed experts who serve them never feel obliged to acknowledge uncomfortable facts, in which no argument is ever dropped, no matter how overwhelming the evidence that it’s wrong.
And the result is that imaginary disasters can overshadow real successes. Obamacare isn’t perfect, but it has dramatically improved the lives of millions. Someone should tell the voters.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Paul Krugman: Mornings in Blue America

Conservatives have GNDS (good news derangement syndrome):

Mornings in Blue America, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ...remember how Obamacare was supposed to be a gigantic job killer? Well, in the first year of the Affordable Care Act..., the U.S. economy .,, added 3.3 million jobs — the biggest gain since the 1990s. ...
But recent job growth ... has big political implications — implications so disturbing to many on the right that they are in frantic denial, claiming that the recovery is somehow bogus. Why can’t they handle the good news? The answer actually comes on three levels: Obama Derangement Syndrome, or O.D.S.; Reaganolatry; and the confidence con.
Not much need be said about O.D.S. It is, by now, a fixed idea on the right that this president is both evil and incompetent, that everything touched by the atheist Islamic Marxist Kenyan Democrat — mostly that last item — must go terribly wrong. When good news arrives about the budget, or the economy, or Obamacare ... it must be denied.
At a deeper level, modern conservative ideology utterly depends on the proposition that conservatives, and only they, possess the secret key to prosperity. As a result, you often have politicians on the right making claims like this one, from Senator Rand Paul: “When is the last time in our country we created millions of jobs? It was under Ronald Reagan.”
Actually, if creating “millions of jobs” means adding two million or more jobs in a given year, we’ve done that ... eight times under Bill Clinton, twice under George W. Bush, and three times, so far, under Barack Obama. ...
Which brings us to the last point: the confidence con.
One enduring puzzle of political economy is why business interests so often oppose policies to fight unemployment. After all, boosting the economy with expansionary monetary and fiscal policy is good for profits...
As a number of observers have pointed out, however, for big businesses to admit that government policies can create jobs would be to devalue one of their favorite political arguments — the claim that to achieve prosperity politicians must preserve business confidence, among other things, by refraining from any criticism of what businesspeople do. ...
So, as I said at the beginning, the fact that we’re now seeing mornings in blue America — solid job growth both at the national level and in states that have defied the right’s tax-cutting, deregulatory orthodoxy — is a big problem for conservatives. Although they would never admit it, events have proved their most cherished beliefs wrong.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

'Fiscal policy Procyclicality and Output Forecast Errors: Bad Luck or Bad Decisions?'

Why do developing countries pursue destabilizing, procyclical fiscal policy? This is from Guillermo Vuletin and Leopoldo Avellan at Brookings:

Fiscal policy procyclicality and output forecast errors: Bad luck or bad decisions?: It is well-known that government spending has historically been procyclical in the developing world (Tornell and Lane, 1999; Kaminsky, Reinhart, and Vegh, 2004; Frankel, Vegh, and Vuletin, 2013).[1] Thus, government spending in these regions typically increases during periods of expansion and decreases during periods of recession. Unfortunately, this procyclical fiscal behavior reinforces output fluctuations, exacerbating booms and aggravating busts. Traditional explanations for this undesirable behavior have mostly revolved around the explicit or implicit notion that fiscal procyclicality is the deliberate result of political economy distortions and weak institutions (e.g., policymakers' short-sightedness and political pressure to spend when resources are available in good times, leaving few resources to spend in bad times).
Since the global financial crisis and, more recently, the sudden severe drop in commodity prices, important and frequent revisions in output growth forecasts around the world have become a new norm. This trend, in turn, has triggered heated debates in both policy and academic circles and the media about how governments should handle these frequent reassessments.
As a consequence of this debate, two strands of the fiscal procyclicality literature related to output forecast errors have been increasingly gaining support. While different in origin and nature, both strands put the emphasis (or even blame) on output forecast errors in determining fiscal procyclicality. These strands include:
1. Over-optimism in output forecasts (Frankel, 2011a; Frankel, 2011b; Frankel and Schreger, 2013). ...
2. Real-time data and misinformation literature (Forni and Momigliano, 2004; Golinelli and Momigliano, 2006 and 2008; Bernoth, Hughes Hallett, and Lewis, 2008; Cimadomo, 2012; Croushore and van Norden, 2013). ...
A recent paper by Avellan and Vuletin (2015) takes issue with these views and shows that, in fact, traditional political economy arguments and weak institutions help explain how governments handle unanticipated output fluctuations. ...

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The 'Audit' the Fed Crowd

Audit the Fed?:

The "Audit" the Fed Crowd, by David Andolfatto: Alex Pollock says that It's High Time to "Audit" the Federal Reserve. ...just the other day, Senator Rand Paul, a leader in "Audit-the-Fed" movement (a significant step down from his father's "End-the-Fed" movement) was making statements like this one:

“[An] audit of the Fed will finally allow the American people to know exactly how their money is being spent by Washington.”

Of course, the Fed does not control how money is being spent by Washington. The Fed prints money to buy government securities. It sometimes extends loans against high-grade collateral. Everything you want to know about these purchases and loans is publicly available. ...

Let's be honest here. There is nothing new to discover in further auditing. This movement is motivated by what they perceive to be bad monetary policy. It doesn't even make sense to say we want to "audit" the Fed's policy because the policy is already transparent (which is what permits critics to label it "bad").

There is, of course, nothing wrong with critiquing Fed policy. Indeed, there are many economists working inside the Fed that critique various aspects of Fed policy all the time. And, as we all know, members of the FOMC can hold very different opinions ("hawks" and "doves"). Thoughtful critiques of policy should be welcomed. Policymakers and researchers at the Fed do welcome them.

Moreover, I'm all for full accountability. The Fed should be accountable to the American people--it is, after all, a creation of the American people through their representatives in Congress. But as I have said, the issue here is not about accountability. It is about a group of individuals who want to see their preferred monetary policy adopted. That's fair enough. I just ask that they be honest about their motives. It has nothing to do with audits or accountability.

Monday, March 23, 2015

'Congressional Budget Plans Get Two-Thirds of Cuts From Programs for People With Low or Moderate Incomes'

The true goal of Republican's "deficit fetishism":

Congressional Budget Plans Get Two-Thirds of Cuts From Programs for People With Low or Moderate Incomes, by Richard Kogan and Isaac Shapiro, CBPP: The budgets adopted on March 19 by the House Budget Committee and the Senate Budget Committee each cut more than $3 trillion over ten years (2016-2025) from programs that serve people of limited means. These deep reductions amount to 69 percent of the cuts to non-defense spending in both the House and Senate plans.
Each budget plan derives more than two-thirds of its non-defense budget cuts from programs for people with low or modest incomes even though these programs constitute less than one-quarter of federal program costs. Moreover, spending on these programs is already scheduled to decline as a share of the economy between now and 2025.[1]
The bipartisan deficit reduction plan that Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles (co-chairs of the National Commission on Federal Policy) issued in 2010 adhered to the basic principle that deficit reduction should not increase poverty or widen inequality. The new Congressional plans chart a radically different course, imposing their most severe cuts on people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. ...

'When Reasonable Policy Discussions Become Unreasonable Personal Attacks'

I don't think Robert Stavins is happy about a story challenging his credibility and reputation:

When Reasonable Policy Discussions Become Unreasonable Personal Attacks: Recently I was reminded of the controversy that erupted late in 2014 about remarks made by the distinguished health economist, Jonathan Gruber... Professor Gruber, one of the country’s leading experts on health policy, had played an important role in the construction of the Obama administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, subsequently derided by its political opponents as “Obamacare.”
A brief but intense political controversy and media feeding-frenzy erupted when videos surfaced in which Professor Gruber – largely in a series of academic seminars and conferences – explained how the Act was crafted and marketed in ways that would make it easier to develop political support. For example, he noted that insurance companies were taxed instead of patients, fundamentally the same thing economically, but vastly more palatable politically. He went on to note that this was possible because of “the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.” His key point was that the program’s “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage.” Is that a controversial or even unique observation?
A Truism of Political Economy
Any economist who has worked on the development or analysis of public policy – in areas ranging from health care policy to environmental policy to financial regulation – recognizes the truth of the key insight Gruber was communicating to his audiences. It is inevitably in the interests of the advocates of a policy to make the policy’s benefits transparent and to make its costs vague, even unobservable; just as it is in the interests of the opponents of a policy to make that policy’s benefits obscure and its costs as clear as the light of day.
The specific construction of hundreds of public policies are explained by this truism. ...
So, the central lesson Professor Gruber was offering is hardly controversial... He doesn’t need me to defend him, but he was unfairly demonized, simply because people disagreed with him politically regarding the merits of the public policy he had helped develop and support.
Unfortunately, I was reminded of this recently when I found myself subject to attempted demonization, because someone did not agree with a policy I supported. What happened to me is trivial compared with what Professor Gruber has gone through, but it prompts me to write about it today. ...
A young and – I’m sure – well-intentioned climate activist and journalist, writing in the Huffington Post, implied that my assessment in the New York Times of the Washington political debates regarding Keystone XL and my support for Harvard’s divestment policy, are because “Stavins has done consulting work for Chevron, Exelon, Duke Energy and the Western States Petroleum Association.”
The author of the Huffington Post piece selected those three companies and one trade association from a list of 92 “Outside Activities” that I voluntarily provide as a means of public disclosure. The author chose not to note that the vast majority of my outside engagements are with universities, think tanks, environmental advocacy NGOs, foundations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, other federal agencies and departments, international organizations, and environment ministries around the world (not to mention a set of Major League Baseball teams, but that’s another story altogether). ...
It is nothing less than absurd – and, frankly, quite insulting – for someone to suggest that my views on divestment and my New York Times quote on the politics of Keystone XL are somehow due to my having worked with an oil company, a trade association, and two electric utilities. This was an unfortunate move to question my credibility and damage my reputation in a misguided attempt to demonize me, rather than engage in reasonable discussion and debate. Unfortunately, most of those who have read the activist/journalist’s original commentary and have possibly repeated his claims to others will not see the response you have just read.
This is surely nothing compared with what Professor Gruber has gone through, but it has certainly increased my empathy for him, as well as my admiration.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

'Controlling the Past'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

Controlling the past: In his novel 1984 George Orwell wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” We are not quite in this Orwellian world yet, which means attempts to rewrite history can at least be contested. A few days ago the UK Prime Minister in Brussels said this:
“When I first came here as prime minister five years ago, Britain and Greece were virtually in the same boat, we had similar sized budget deficits. The reason we are in a different position is we took long-term difficult decisions and we had all of the hard work and effort of the British people. I am determined we do not go backwards.”
In other words if only those lazy Greeks had taken the difficult decisions that the UK took, they too could be like the UK today.
This is such as travesty of the truth, as well as a huge insult to the Greek people, that it is difficult to know where to begin. ...
The real travesty ... is in the implication that somehow Greece failed to take the ‘difficult decisions’ that the UK took. ‘Difficult decisions’ is code for austerity. A good measure of austerity is the underlying primary balance. According to the OECD, the UK underlying primary balance was -7% in 2009, and it fell to -3.5% in 2014: a fiscal contraction worth 3.5% of GDP. In Greece it was -12.1% in 2009, and was turned into a surplus of 7.6% by 2014: a fiscal contraction worth 19.7% of GDP! So Greece had far more austerity, which is of course why Greek GDP has fallen by 25% over the same period. A far more accurate statement would be that the UK started taking the same ‘difficult decisions’ as Greece took, albeit in a much milder form, but realized the folly of this and stopped. Greece did not get that choice. And I have not even mentioned the small matter of being in or out of a currency union. ...

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The New Brand of Authoritarianism

From Vox EU:

The new authoritarianism, by Sergei Guriev, Daniel Treisman, Vox EU: The changing dictatorships Dictatorships are not what they used to be. The totalitarian tyrants of the past – such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot – employed terror, indoctrination, and isolation to monopolize power. Although less ideological, many 20th-century military regimes also relied on mass violence to intimidate dissidents. Pinochet’s agents, for instance, are thought to have tortured and killed tens of thousands of Chileans (Roht-Arriaza 2005).

However, in recent decades new types of authoritarianism have emerged that seem better adapted to a world of open borders, global media, and knowledge-based economies. From the Peru of Alberto Fujimori to the Hungary of Viktor Orban, illiberal regimes have managed to consolidate power without fencing off their countries or resorting to mass murder. Some bloody military regimes and totalitarian states remain – such as Syria and North Korea – but the balance has shifted.

The new autocracies often simulate democracy, holding elections that the incumbents almost always win, bribing and censoring the private press rather than abolishing it, and replacing comprehensive political ideologies with an amorphous resentment of the West (Gandhi 2008, Levitsky and Way 2010). Their leaders often enjoy genuine popularity – at least after eliminating any plausible rivals. State propaganda aims not to ‘engineer human souls’ but to boost the dictator’s ratings. Political opponents are harassed and defamed, charged with fabricated crimes, and encouraged to emigrate, rather than being murdered en masse.

Dictatorships and information

In a recent paper, we argue that the distinctive feature of such new dictatorships is a preoccupation with information (Guriev and Treisman 2015). Although they do use violence at times, they maintain power less by terrorizing victims than by manipulating beliefs. Of course, surveillance and propaganda were important to the old-style dictatorships, too. But violence came first. “Words are fine things, but muskets are even better,” Mussolini quipped. Compare that to the confession of Fujimori’s security chief, Vladimir Montesinos: “The addiction to information is like an addiction to drugs”. Killing members of the elite struck Montesinos as foolish: “Remember why Pinochet had his problems. We will not be so clumsy” (McMillan and Zoido 2004).

We study the logic of a dictatorship in which the leader survives by manipulating information. Our key assumption is that citizens care about effective government and economic prosperity; first and foremost, they want to select a competent rather than incompetent ruler. However, the general public does not know the competence of the ruler; only the dictator himself and members of an ‘informed elite’ observe this directly. Ordinary citizens make what inferences they can, based on their living standards – which depend in part on the leader’s competence – and on messages sent by the state and independent media. The latter carry reports on the leader’s quality sent by the informed elite. If a sufficient number of citizens come to believe their ruler is incompetent, they revolt and overthrow him.

The challenge for an incompetent dictator is, then, to fool the public into thinking he is competent. He chooses from among a repertoire of tools – propaganda, repression of protests, co-optation of the elite, and censorship of their messages. All such tools cost money, which must come from taxing the citizens, depressing their living standards, and indirectly lowering their estimate of the dictator’s competence. Hence the trade-off.

Certain findings emerge from the logic of this game.

  • First, we show how modern autocracies can survive while employing relatively little violence against the public.

Repression is not necessary if mass beliefs can be manipulated sufficiently. Dictators win a confidence game rather than an armed combat. Indeed, since in our model repression is only used if equilibria based on non-violent methods no longer exist, violence can signal to opposition forces that the regime is vulnerable.

  • Second, since members of the informed elite must coordinate among themselves on whether to sell out to the regime, two alternative equilibria often exist under identical circumstances – one based on a co-opted elite, the other based on a censored private media.

Since both bribing the elite and censoring the media are ways of preventing the sending of embarrassing messages, they serve as substitutes. Propaganda, by contrast, complements all the other tools.

Propaganda and a leader’s competency

Why does anyone believe such propaganda? Given the dictator’s obvious incentive to lie, this is a perennial puzzle of authoritarian regimes. We offer an answer. We think of propaganda as consisting of claims by the ruler that he is competent. Of course, genuinely competent rulers also make such claims. However, backing them up with convincing evidence is costlier for the incompetent dictators – who have to manufacture such evidence – than for their competent counterparts, who can simply reveal their true characteristics. Since faking the evidence is costly, incompetent dictators sometimes choose to spend their resources on other things. It follows that the public, observing credible claims that the ruler is competent, rationally increases its estimate that he really is.

Moreover, if incompetent dictators survive, they may over time acquire a reputation for competence, as a result of Bayesian updating by the citizens. Such reputations can withstand temporary economic downturns if these are not too large. This helps to explain why some clearly inept authoritarian leaders nevertheless hold on to power – and even popularity – for extended periods (cf. Hugo Chavez). While a major economic crisis results in their overthrow, more gradual deteriorations may fail to tarnish their reputations significantly.

A final implication is that regimes that focus on censorship and propaganda may boost relative spending on these as the economy crashes. As Turkey’s growth rate fell from 7.8% in 2010 to 0.8% in 2012, the number of journalists in jail increased from four to 49. Declines in press freedom were also witnessed after the Global Crisis in countries such as Hungary and Russia. Conversely, although this may be changing now, in both Singapore and China during the recent decades of rapid growth, the regime’s information control strategy shifted from one of more overt intimidation to one that often used economic incentives and legal penalties to encourage self-censorship (Esarey 2005, Rodan 1998).  

The kind of information-based dictatorship we identify is more compatible with a modernized setting than with the rural underpinnings of totalitarianism in Asia or the traditional societies in which monarchs retain legitimacy. Yet, modernization ultimately undermines the informational equilibria on which such dictators rely. As education and information spread to broader segments of the population, it becomes harder to control how this informed elite communicates with the masses. This may be a key mechanism explaining the long-noted tendency for richer countries to open up politically.

References

Esarey, A (2005), “Cornering the market: state strategies for controlling China's commercial media”, Asian Perspective 29(4): 37-83.

Gandhi, J (2008), Political Institutions under Dictatorship, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Guriev, S and D Treisman (2015), “How Modern Dictators Survive: Cooptation, Censorship, Propaganda, and Repression”, CEPR Discussion Paper, DP10454.

Levitsky, S, and L A Way (2010), Competitive authoritarianism: hybrid regimes after the cold war, New York: Cambridge University Press.

McMillan, J, and P Zoido (2004), “How to subvert democracy: Montesinos in Peru”, Journal of Economic Perspectives 18(4): 69-92.

Rodan, G (1998), “The Internet and political control in Singapore”, Political Science Quarterly 113(1): 63-89.

Roht-Arriaza, N (2005), The Pinochet Effect: Transnational Justice in the Age of Human Rights, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Paul Krugman: Trillion Dollar Fraudsters

Why do Republicans use "magic asterisks" in their budget proposals?:

Trillion Dollar Fraudsters, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: By now it’s a Republican Party tradition: Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits, but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar “magic asterisk” — a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from.
But the just-released budgets from the House and Senate majorities break new ground. Each contains not one but two trillion-dollar magic asterisks: one on spending, one on revenue. And that’s actually an understatement. If either budget were to become law, it would leave the federal government several trillion dollars deeper in debt than claimed, and that’s just in the first decade. ...
The modern G.O.P.’s raw fiscal dishonesty is something new in American politics... And the question we should ask is why.
One answer you sometimes hear is that what Republicans really believe is that tax cuts for the rich would generate a huge boom and a surge in revenue, but they’re afraid that the public won’t find such claims credible. So magic asterisks are really stand-ins for their belief in the magic of supply-side economics, a belief that remains intact even though proponents in that doctrine have been wrong about everything for decades.
But I’m partial to a more cynical explanation. Think about what these budgets would do if you ignore the mysterious trillions in unspecified spending cuts and revenue enhancements. What you’re left with is huge transfers of income from the poor and the working class, who would see severe benefit cuts, to the rich, who would see big tax cuts. And the simplest way to understand these budgets is surely to suppose that they are intended to do what they would, in fact, actually do: make the rich richer and ordinary families poorer.
But this is, of course, not a policy direction the public would support... So the budgets must be sold as courageous efforts to eliminate deficits and pay down debt — which means that they must include trillions in imaginary, unexplained savings.
Does this mean that all those politicians declaiming about the evils of budget deficits and their determination to end the scourge of debt were never sincere? Yes, it does.
Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence. But please try. We’re looking at an enormous, destructive con job, and you should be very, very angry.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

'Tax Cuts Still Don’t Pay for Themselves'

I get tired of saying that tax cuts don't pay for themselves, so I'll turn it over to Josh Barro:

Tax Cuts Still Don’t Pay for Themselves: Last week, I wrote about the new tax plan from Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Mike Lee... It calls for big tax credits for middle-income families with children, corporate tax cuts and complete elimination of the capital gains tax — and as a result would cost trillions of dollars in revenue over a decade.
Or would it? The Tax Foundation released a report last week arguing the Rubio-Lee plan would generate so much business investment that, within a decade, federal tax receipts would be higher than if taxes hadn’t been cut at all. ...
I discussed the Tax Foundation report with 10 public finance economists ranging across the ideological spectrum, all of whom said its estimates of the economic effects of tax cuts were too aggressive. “This would not pass muster as an undergraduate’s model at a top university,” said Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University professor whom the Tax Foundation specifically encouraged me to call. ...
[T]he House adopted a rule in January that requires “dynamic scoring” of tax bills... In principle, dynamic scoring is fine. Tax policy really does affect the economy... But as the Tax Foundation report shows, dynamic scoring can be misused: You can get essentially any answer you want ... by changing the assumptions...
The crucial thing to watch, in the guts of future C.B.O. reports that rely on dynamic scoring, will be whether the new dynamic assumptions are more reasonable than zero — or whether, like the Tax Foundation assumptions, they take us farther away from accuracy, and make unsupportable promises of tax cuts paying for themselves.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Monetary and Fiscal Policy in a Post-Inflation World

Alice Rivlin:

Thoughts about monetary and fiscal policy in a post-inflation world, Brookings: ... Why are we still so focused on fighting inflation? Why are so many people in this room devoting so much time and attention to guessing when the Federal Reserve will start raising short-term interest rates and get back to its “normal” job of protecting us from inflation? Is inflation an important threat to our economic well-being? Is when to raise interest rates the most urgent question facing the Fed at the moment? Or are we suffering from cultural lag?
Collecting linguistic evidence of cultural lags is a minor hobby of mine. I smile when I catch myself referring to the refrigerator as the “ice box,” because that was what my mother called it... I am amused when young people tell me their phones are “ringing off the hook.” Have they ever used a phone with a receiver on a hook? When bureaucrats say they are eager to break out of their silos, I wonder if they if they have ever lived on a farm or anywhere close to a silo. So when politicians and financial journalists ask me earnestly, as they do, whether the Federal Reserve isn’t risking devastating “run-away” inflation by buying all those bonds, I suspect cultural lag. What Inflation? We should be so lucky! Central banks have amply proved that they know how to stop inflation—Paul Volcker showed that. They have been much less successful in getting little inflation going.
A lecture in honor of Paul Volcker is the perfect occasion for raising the fundamental question: are the major advanced economies (US, Europe, Japan) facing a new normal for which current tools of monetary, fiscal, and regulatory policy need to be restructured? ...
Over-coming cultural lag in order to prosper in a post-inflation world will take significant shifts in the mind-set of economists, economic policy-makers, politicians and the public. I see four major challenges to current thinking:
  • We have to recognize that the main job of central banks is avoiding financial crisis.
  • We will have to get used to central banks operating at quite low interest rates much of the time and managing big balance sheets without apologies.
  • We have to rehabilitate budget policy to make it useable again and move to a sustainable debt track at the same time
  • We have to find constitutional ways of reducing the power of big money in politics and economic policy—or change the Constitution.

I will get back to these four challenges, but first a very quick tour through the macro-policy landscape of the last five or six decades. ...

And, later in the essay (it is relatively long, and I don't agree with every single point that is made, e.g. when she defends ‘Simpson-Bowlesism’ and discusses the need to rein in entitlement spending, and when she argues against selling the idea "that unspecified government spending would add to aggregate demand and accelerate the recovery without adverse consequences to the long-run debt... Unspecified spending and near-term debt increase are what the public and elected officials fear, and they are skeptical of fee lunches. Instead, we have to make the case for very specific public investments that can be shown to have positive impacts on productivity growth and future prosperity" -- deficit spending in a recession has a role to play in stimulating the economy in the short-run, we shouldn't focus only on the long-run growth potential of policy -- but I do agree with the the general thrust of her comments):

... Political polarization has led to angry confrontations over the budget for the last several years complete with threats to shut down the government or default on the national debt and bizarre budget decision processes, such as the Super Committee, the fiscal cliff, and sequestration. These shenanigans are unworthy of a mature democracy and horrendously destructive of confidence in rational economic governance. The result has been worse than gridlock. It has been insanely counterproductive budget policy at a time when the federal budget could have been contributing both to faster recovery and to longer run productivity growth.
I believe the Great Recession would have been longer and deeper without the stimulus package of 2009.[8] If the stimulus had been larger and lasted longer, recovery would have been more robust and the Fed might not have found it necessary to do so much quantitative easing. Indeed, it is pretty crazy economics for a country trying to climb out of a deep recession to put the burden of accelerating a recovery on the monetary authorities—a job they have never been great at—in the face of sharply declining federal deficits that made the task of stimulating recovery with monetary tools a lot more challenging. But that is what we did.
I also believe that the United States has been dangerously under-investing in public infrastructure, scientific research, and the skills of our future labor force. Doing everything we can to nudge productivity growth back up again is essential to future prosperity. With the private investment awaiting more demand and confidence, the public sector should be moving strongly into the breach with well-structured investment in everything from roads to technical training to basic research. Instead, our bizarre budget process has been squeezed the very budget accounts that contain most opportunity for public investment. Discretionary spending is at record lows in relation to the size of the economy and headed lower while the highway trust fund is running dry. How crazy is that?
Making budget policy useful again will take major shifts in political thinking, and here I think economists can help if they use arguments the public and politicians can relate to. First, I would recommend not pushing the argument that unspecified government spending would add to aggregate demand and accelerate the recovery without adverse consequences to the long-run debt. Ball, Summers and DeLong may well be right that hysteresis is so serious a consequence of recession that spending now would juice recovery enough to bring down long run debt.[9] But they are never going to sell that argument. Unspecified spending and near-term debt increase are what the public and elected officials fear, and they are skeptical of fee lunches.
Instead, we have to make the case for very specific public investments that can be shown to have positive impacts on productivity growth and future prosperity. This should not be an argument for larger government, but for shifting from less to more effective government spending and from consumption-oriented spending (including spending in the tax code) to growth oriented spending over time. And, oh yes, that means making the tax code more progressive, more pro-growth, and raising additional revenue, as well as restructuring entitlement programs. There is plenty is such an agenda for both liberals and conservatives to like—if only they could be persuaded to talk about it. ...

The Government is Why the US has More Inequality than Sweden

Dylan Mathews:

The government is the only reason the US has more inequality than Sweden, by Dylan Matthews: ...the income distribution in the US still stands out as particularly uneven. ...
The US actually isn't especially unequal if you look at income before taxes or government transfers like Social Security and food stamps..., a whole number of wealthy countries — Israel, the UK, Greece, Poland, Germany, Finland, and Ireland — have more pre-tax/transfer inequality than we do... Spain, Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden all have exactly the same level as the US does.
The entire difference comes after taxes and transfer spending. ...Germany and Ireland both have significantly more pre-tax/transfer inequality than the US, but significantly less post-tax/transfer inequality... Meanwhile, the Netherlands and Sweden, which have famously egalitarian economies with generous welfare states, have the exact same level of pre-tax/transfer inequality as the US. It's not that their societies just naturally produce more equitable distributions. Their governments simply do more redistribution. ...
Note that the pre-tax/transfer number doesn't take out the effects of government policy entirely; there's a lot the government can do to alter the pre-tax/transfer distribution, including promoting or hampering labor unions or increasing the minimum wage. A number of countries, including Japan, Korea, and Switzerland, boast significantly lower pre-tax/transfer inequality than the US. ...

'The Truth About Entitlements'

Projections of budget problems in the future are about health care costs, and there is improvement on that front:

The Truth About Entitlements, by Paul Krugman: As part of another project, I was looking at CBO historical budget data, and realized that you can summarize a lot about all those much-denounced “entitlements” with this figure:

Credit: Congressional Budget Office

Here, income security is mainly EITC, food stamps, and unemployment benefits, plus a few other means-tested aid programs. Health is all major programs — Medicare, Medicaid/CHIP, and at the very end the exchange subsidies.
What this chart tells you right away:
1. The “nation of takers” stuff is deeply misleading. Until the economic crisis, income security had no trend at all. ...
2. When people claimed that spending was exploding under Obama, the only thing actually happening was a surge in income-support programs at a time of genuine distress. People smirked knowingly and declared that everyone knew that the bump in spending would become permanent; it didn’t.
3. If there is a long-run spending problem, it’s overwhelmingly about health care. And we have lately been making remarkable progress on that front.

More on the same topic from the CBPP:

Low-Income Programs Not Driving Nation’s Long-Term Fiscal Problem, by Robert Greenstein, Isaac Shapiro, and Richard Kogan: Low-income programs are not driving the nation’s long-term fiscal problems, contrary to the impression that a narrow look at federal spending during the Great Recession and the years that immediately followed might leave. Lawmakers should bear this in mind as they consider proposals that may emerge in coming weeks for deep cuts in this part of the budget.

Figure 1

Low-income program spending grew significantly between 2007 and 2010 in response to the severe economic downturn, helping to mitigate its worst effects. Since peaking in 2010 and 2011, federal spending on low-income programs other than health care has fallen considerably and will continue to fall as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP) as the economy more fully recovers. By 2018, it will — based on Congressional Budget Office estimates — drop below its average over the past 40 years, (from 1975 to 2014) and continue declining as a share of GDP after that. [1]  (See Figure 1.)
As a result, these programs do not contribute to the nation’s long-term fiscal problems. ...

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

'TPP at the NABE'

Paul Krugman:

TPP at the NABE: I was in DC yesterday, giving a talk to the National Association of Business Economists. The subject was the Trans-Pacific Partnership; slides for my talk are here.
Not to keep you in suspense, I’m thumbs down. I don’t think the proposal is likely to be the terrible, worker-destroying pact some progressives assert, but it doesn’t look like a good thing either for the world or for the United States, and you have to wonder why the Obama administration, in particular, would consider devoting any political capital to getting this through.
Actually, I was glad to see Larry Summers weigh in on the same subject in yesterday’s FT. Reading that piece, you may wonder what just happened – did Larry come out for the deal or against it? The answer, I think (slide 1), is that he basically supported an idealized TPP that could have been, but came out against the TPP that actually seems to be on the table. And that means that he and I are in a similar place.
So, about the deal. ...

See also Brad DeLong and Tyler Cowen.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

'Rep. Paul Ryan is Getting the Economics Wrong on Cap and Trade and a Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax'

Paul Ryan says "I do not like cap and trade because I think the costs far outweigh the benefits." John Whitehead (who provides the Ryan quotes) responds:

Rep. Paul Ryan is getting the economics wrong on cap and trade and a revenue neutral carbon tax: Way wrong...
The costs of cap and trade do not outweigh the benefits. It might be the case that the costs of a climate policy, any climate policy, outweigh the benefits. But cap and trade is a policy instrument, not something for which you conduct a benefit-cost analysis. The economics says that if the government decided to undertake climate policy, cap and trade would be one of the most cost-effective ways of doing it.

Ryan also says (when asked about a revenue-neutral carbon tax), "I don’t like that either. I think these tax-and-spend ideas are the wrong way to go. They hurt economic growth. They’re very regressive. They hurt people who rely on disposable income solely — the poor. And they make our manufacturing industry much less competitive. So why don’t we get faster economic growth, more upward mobility, help increase people’s take-home pay, and finance research to innovate ourselves to come up with better technology. This is Madison, Wisconsin. We’re good at researching stuff. So why don’t we just research."

John Whitehead once again:

And that brings us to the revenue-neutral carbon tax (another cost-effective way of undertaking climate policy). The idea behind this is to tax a bad thing (pollution, carbon) and reduce taxes on a good thing (work effort). Revenue neutral means that the additional tax revenue from the carbon tax would be completely offset by the reduction in tax revenue from lower income taxes. The income tax reduction could be designed such that any regressivity of a carbon tax could be avoided. 
Tax and spend policies are usually thought of as an increase in taxes (carbon and income) where the additional revenue is used to pay for a government policy. But, a revenue neutral carbon tax would not raise any additional revenue. I really don't see how a revenue neutral carbon tax could be classified as a tax and spend idea. ...
The only conclusion that I can reach is that Rep. Ryan doesn't understand climate economics very well.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

'The Unfulfilled Promise of Tax Credits as Economic Policy'

Nick Bunker at the WCEG:

The unfulfilled promise of tax credits as economic policy: The relative paucity of the modern welfare state in the United States is a well-known fact among researchers. Compared to rich countries in Europe, the United States spends far less on social insurance programs and other social programs such as education. But these large disparities decrease once the private-sector side of the U.S. welfare state is included in the analysis. Yale University professor Jacob Hacker calls this the “divided welfare state,” where in many instances the U.S. tax code is now the main vehicle for social policy in retirement, college savings, and housing.
How well has this “submerged state” worked? At least in these three areas, the effectiveness of the tax code, via deductions and credits, is questionable. Consider the state of the private-sector retirement system in the United States. .... Or consider the submerged state approach to high college tuitions. ... The mortgage-interest tax deduction is another example of policy being run through the tax code. ...
To be sure, the creation of this network of tax credits and tax expenditures wasn’t without reason. Political realities necessitated the use of the tax code to achieve these ends. And these programs have done real good. But as the evidence shows, they are far from optimal.
The record of using the tax code to do tasks traditionally associated with the welfare state is clearly mixed. At best, it works like a Rube Goldberg machine that attacks a problem by hoping that a chain reaction will do the job. At worse, the machine doesn’t work for the broad majority of the population. The relevant question is now how to re-engineer it for future, more efficient use.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

'A Slippery New Rule for Gauging Fiscal Policy'

Greg Mankiw:

A Slippery New Rule for Gauging Fiscal Policy: the case for dynamic over static scoring is strong in theory. Yet three problems make the task difficult in practice.
First, any attempt to estimate the impact of a policy change on G.D.P. requires an economic model. Because reasonable people can disagree about what model, and what parameters of that model, are best, the results from dynamic scoring will always be controversial. ...
Second, accurate dynamic scoring requires more information than congressional proposals typically provide. ...
Third, dynamic scoring matters most over long time horizons. Some policy changes, such as those aimed at encouraging capital investments, take many decades to have their full impact on economic growth. Yet congressional budgeting usually looks only five or 10 years ahead. ...
So there are good reasons for the economists hired by Congress to pursue dynamic scoring. But there are also good reasons to be wary of the endeavor. ...

Another worry is the politicization of the CBO. See here and here. Also see here and here on the application of dynamic scoring to things such as Head Start and infrastructure spending.

John Whitehead comments:

Mankiw on dynamic scoring: ...Mankiw:

First, any attempt to estimate the impact of a policy change on G.D.P. requires an economic model. Because reasonable people can disagree about what model, and what parameters of that model, are best, the results from dynamic scoring will always be controversial. Just as many Republicans are skeptical about the models of climatologists when debating global warming, many Democrats are skeptical about the models of economists when debating tax policy.

My read of the article was going just fine until the climate model analogy. Two assumptions are made:

  1. All economists agree on "the models of economists" 
  2. Reasonable people can disagree about climatology models

In terms of #1, there is significant disagreement amongst economists about macroeconomic models (i.e., have you read Krugman lately?). In terms of #2, science is different than social science. Climatology involves forecasts so it is different than tests of the law of gravity, but still, ninety-x percent of climate scientists agree. That is a bit higher than the number of economists who agree on anything macro

My stance is that we should accept that the earth is likely warming and people contribute to it (even the U.S. Senate, including those Republicans that Mankiw mentions [did he miss that vote?], overwhelming thinks so). That moves us to the debate on whether we should do anything it or learn to adapt. I think that reasonable people can disagree on that second question. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Paul Krugman: Knowledge Isn’t Power

A skills gap is not the problem, it's economic power:

Knowledge Isn’t Power, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ... Just to be clear: I’m in favor of better education. Education is a friend of mine. And it should be available and affordable for all. But ... people insisting that educational failings are at the root of still-weak job creation, stagnating wages and rising inequality. This sounds serious and thoughtful. But it’s actually a view very much at odds with the evidence, not to mention a way to hide from the real, unavoidably partisan debate.
The education-centric story of our problems runs like this: We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change. This “skills gap” is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills... So what we need is more and better education. ...
It’s repeated so widely that many people probably assume it’s unquestionably true. But it isn’t..., there’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment...
Finally, while the education/inequality story may once have seemed plausible, it hasn’t tracked reality for a long time..., the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.
So what is really going on? Corporate profits have soared as a share of national income, but there is no sign of a rise in the rate of return on investment..., it’s what you would expect if rising profits reflect monopoly power rather than returns to capital... — all the big gains are going to a tiny group of individuals holding strategic positions in corporate suites or astride the crossroads of finance. Rising inequality isn’t about who has the knowledge; it’s about who has the power.
Now, there’s a lot we could do to redress this inequality of power. We could levy higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest the proceeds in programs that help working families. We could raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize. It’s not hard to imagine a truly serious effort to make America less unequal.
But given the determination of one major party to move policy in exactly the opposite direction, advocating such an effort makes you sound partisan. Hence the desire to see the whole thing as an education problem instead. But we should recognize that popular evasion for what it is: a deeply unserious fantasy.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

'Helicopter Money and the Government of Central Bank Nightmares'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

Helicopter money and the government of central bank nightmares: If Quantitative Easing (QE), why not helicopter money? We know helicopter money is much more effective at stimulating demand. Helicopter money is a form of what economists call money financed fiscal stimulus (MFFS). In their current formulation independent central banks (ICB) rule out MFFS, because the institution that can do the stimulus (the government) is not allowed to cooperate on this with the institution that creates money (the ICB). In a world where governments - through ignorance or design - obsess about deficits when they should not, it turns out that MFFS or helicopter money is all we have left to prevent large negative demand shocks leading to deep and prolonged recessions. So why is it taboo? 
One reason why it is taboo among central banks is that they want an asset that they can later sell when the economy recovers. QE gives them that asset, but helicopter money does not. The nightmare (as ever with ICBs) is not the current position of deficient demand, but a potential future of excess inflation that they are unable to control. .... Helicopter money ... puts money into the system at the ZLB, in a much more effective way than QE, but it cannot be put into reverse by central banks alone. The central bank cannot demand we pay helicopter money back. [4] 
If the government cooperates, this is no problem. The government just ‘recapitalises’ the central bank, by either raising taxes or selling more of its own debt. Economists call this ‘fiscal backing’ for the central bank. In either case, the government is taking money out of the system on the central bank’s behalf. So the nightmare that makes helicopter money taboo is that the government refuses to do this. [1] ...

After explaining, he concludes

So this nightmare that makes helicopter money taboo is as unrealistic as most nightmares. The really strange thing is that ICBs have already had to confront this nightmare. It is more than possible that when central banks sell back their QE assets, they will make a loss, and so will be faced with exactly the same problem as with helicopter money. [3] A central banker knows better than not to worry about something because it might not happen. So the nightmare has already been faced down. It therefore seems doubly strange that the taboo about helicopter money remains. ...

'Greece Did OK'

How did Greece do? Paul Krugman says:

Greece Did OK: Now that the dust has settled a bit, we can look calmly at the deal — if it really is a deal that survives through tomorrow, which some people doubt. And it’s increasingly clear that Greece came out in significantly better shape, at least for now.
The main action, always, involves the Greek primary surplus — how much more will they need to raise in revenue than they can spend on things other than interest? The question these past few days would be whether the Greeks would be forced into agreeing to aim for very high primary surpluses under the threat of being pushed into immediate crisis. And they weren’t. ...
Right now, Greece has avoided a credit cutoff, and worse yet an ECB move to pull the plug on its banks, and it has done so while getting the 2015 primary surplus target effectively waived.
The next step will come four months from now, when Greece makes its serious pitch for lower surpluses in future years. We don’t know how that will go. But nothing that just happened weakens the Greek position in that future round. ...
So Greece has won relaxed conditions for this year, and breathing room in the run-up to the bigger fight ahead. Could be worse.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Paul Krugman: Cranking Up for 2016

Creating an alternate reality:

Cranking Up for 2016, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Scott Walker ... did what, these days, any ambitious Republican must, and pledged allegiance to charlatans and cranks. ...
Mr. Walker, in what was clearly a rite of passage into serious candidacy, spoke at a dinner at Manhattan’s “21” Club hosted by the three most prominent supply-siders: Art Laffer...; Larry Kudlow...; and Stephen Moore... Politico pointed out that Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, attended a similar event last month. Clearly, to be a Republican contender you have to court the powerful charlatan caucus.
So a doctrine that even Republican economists consider dangerous nonsense has become party orthodoxy. And what makes this political triumph especially remarkable is that it comes just as the doctrine’s high priests have been setting new standards for utter, epic predictive failure.
I’m not talking about the fact that supply-siders didn’t see the crisis coming,... the people Mr. Walker was courting have spent years warning about the wrong things. “Get ready for inflation and higher interest rates” was the title of a June 2009 op-ed ... by Mr. Laffer; what followed were the lowest inflation in two generations and the lowest interest rates in history. Mr. Kudlow and Mr. Moore both predicted 1970s-style stagflation. ...
Something else worth noting: as befits his position at Heritage, Mr. Moore likes to publish articles filled with lots of numbers. But his numbers are consistently wrong... And somehow these errors always run in the direction he wants.
So what does it say about the current state of the G.O.P. that discussion of economic policy is now monopolized by people who have been wrong about everything, have learned nothing from the experience, and can’t even get their numbers straight?
The ... modern American right seems to have abandoned the idea that there is an objective reality out there... What are you going to believe, right-wing doctrine or your own lying eyes? These days, the doctrine wins.
Look at another issue, health reform. ... Then there’s foreign policy. ... And don’t get me started on climate change.
Along with this denial of reality comes an absence of personal accountability. If anything, alleged experts seem to get points by showing that they’re willing to keep saying the same things no matter how embarrassingly wrong they’ve been in the past.
But let’s go back to those economic charlatans and cranks: Clearly, failure has only made them stronger, and now they are political kingmakers. Be very, very afraid.

Monday, February 16, 2015

'The Congressional Reserve Board: A Really Bad Idea'

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

The Congressional Reserve Board: A Really Bad Idea: “We are – I’ll be blunt – audited out the wazoo. Every Federal Reserve Bank has a private auditor. We have our auditor of the system. We have our own inspector general. We are audited. What he’s talking about is politicizing monetary policy.” Richard Fisher, President, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Dallas Morning News, February 9, 2015.
What would you think if you were to open your morning newspaper to find the following headline?
“Congress Closes Down Fed, Takes Over Monetary Policy”
If you’re like us, you’d panic. In short order, you’d think that long-term inflation expectations would rise, pushing bond yields higher. You’d anticipate an increase in the volatility of growth, employment and inflation. That more volatile environment would drive up the risk premium required on new investments, hindering long-term economic growth. Finally, you'd be very worried about how these Congressional policymakers would manage the next financial crisis.
This is not a pretty picture. Why would anyone want it to become a reality? Well, these are surely not the intended goals, but they are the likely outcomes should lawmakers ever replace the Federal Reserve Board with what we would call a Congressional Reserve Board.
While the Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2015 – aka, the “Audit the Fed” Act – doesn’t shut down the Federal Reserve, it would go a long way to putting Congress directly in charge of monetary policy and to weakening the Fed’s effectiveness as a lender of last resort.
To explain our concerns, we will start by describing why it has become almost universally accepted practice to make the institution setting monetary (and regulatory) policy independent of political interference. That is, why most advanced and emerging market economies have opted to make their central banks “independent.” We will also explain why the “Transparency Act” is really about controlling monetary policy, not about making the Fed accountable (the short answer: it already is). And, finally, we will explain the bill’s impact on the Fed’s lender of last resort powers. ...

Friday, February 13, 2015

'States Consider Increasing Taxes on Poor, Cutting Them on Affluent'

Compassionate conservatism:

States Consider Increasing Taxes on Poor, Cutting Them on Affluent: A number of Republican-led states are considering tax changes that, in many cases, would have the effect of cutting taxes on the rich and raising them on the poor.
Conservatives are known for hating taxes but particularly hate income taxes, which they say have a greater dampening effect on growth. Of the 10 or so Republican governors who have proposed tax increases, virtually all have called for increases in consumption taxes, which hit the poor and middle class harder than the rich.
Favorite targets for the new taxes include gasoline, e-cigarettes, and goods and services in general (Governor Paul LePage of Maine would like to start taxing movie tickets and haircuts). At the same time, some of those governors — most notably Mr. LePage, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and John Kasich of Ohio — have proposed significant cuts to their state income tax. ...

Paul Krugman: Money Makes Crazy

Why are conservatives so crazy about money?:

Money Makes Crazy, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Monetary policy probably won’t be a major issue in the 2016 campaign, but it should be. It is, after all, extremely important, and the Republican base and many leading politicians have strong views about the Federal Reserve and its conduct. And the eventual presidential nominee will surely have to endorse the party line.
So it matters that the emerging G.O.P. consensus on money is crazy — full-on conspiracy-theory crazy. ...
So monetary crazy is pervasive in today’s G.O.P. But why? Class interests no doubt play a role — the wealthy tend to be lenders rather than borrowers, and they benefit at least in relative terms from deflationary policies. But I also suspect that conservatives have a deep psychological problem with modern monetary systems.
You see, in the conservative worldview, markets aren’t just a useful way to organize the economy; they’re a moral structure: People get paid what they deserve, and what goods cost is what they are truly worth to society. ...
Modern money — consisting of pieces of paper or their digital equivalent that are issued by the Fed, not created by the heroic efforts of entrepreneurs — is an affront to that worldview. Mr. Ryan is on record declaring that his views on monetary policy come from a speech given by one of Ayn Rand’s fictional characters. And what the speaker declares is that money is “the base of a moral existence. Destroyers seize gold and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper. ... Paper is a check drawn by legal looters.”
Once you understand that this is how many conservatives really think, it all falls into place. Of course they predict disaster from monetary expansion, no matter the circumstances. Of course they are undaunted in their views no matter how wrong their predictions have been in the past. Of course they are quick to accuse the Fed of vile motives. From their point of view, monetary policy isn’t really a technical issue, a question of what works; it’s a matter of theology: Printing money is evil.
So as I said, monetary policy should be an issue in 2016. Because there’s a pretty good chance that someone who either gets his monetary economics from Ayn Rand, or at any rate feels the need to defer to such views, will get to appoint the next head of the Federal Reserve.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

'The Austerity Con'

Simon Wren-Lewis in the London Review of Books:

The Austerity Con: ‘The government cannot go on living beyond its means.’ This seems common sense, so when someone puts forward the view that just now austerity is harmful, and should wait until times are better, it appears fanciful and too good to be true. Why would the government be putting us through all this if it didn’t have to?
By insisting on cuts in government spending and higher taxes that could easily have been postponed until the recovery from recession was assured, the government delayed the recovery by two years. And with the election drawing nearer, it allowed the pace of austerity to slow, while pretending that it hadn’t. Now George Osborne is promising, should the Tories win the election in May, to put the country through the same painful and unnecessary process all over again. Why? Why did the government take decisions that were bound to put the recovery at risk, when those decisions weren’t required even according to its own rules? How did a policy that makes so little sense to economists come to be seen by so many people as inevitable? ...

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Erskine Bowles is Back

Erskine Bowles writes a letter to the NY Times:

The Risks of Delaying Fiscal Reforms: To the Editor:
Paul Krugman’s Feb. 2 column, “The Long-Run Cop-Out,” claims that we don’t need to deal with our long-term fiscal challenges any time soon, and that those who argue otherwise are lazy and lacking in courage. His message is a disservice to the critically important debate about our nation’s economic future. ...
Mr. Krugman’s assertion that America followed a course of austerity while the economy was still in a deep slump due to the influence of “Bowles-Simpsonism” ignores the fact that one of the key principles set out in the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform report was that deficit reduction must not disrupt the fragile economic recovery.
Indeed, it is largely due to the failure of our elected leaders to reach agreement on long-term deficit reduction along the lines of our recommendations that we ended up with the mindless austerity of sequestration. In our report we recommended delaying significant budget cuts until the economy recovered, and implementing reforms gradually. ...

Does anyone remember Bowles or his associates objecting strenuously to the sequester, getting out in public forums and arguing it was a big mistake? Writing letters and op-eds to the NY Times, that sort of thing? I don't (and see Dean Baker below on this point - Update: from a Tweet by @BowlesSimpson, see here, but I don't see them calling for delay until the economy recovers, only for a different type of austerity, e.g. "simply waiving this sequester — or coming up with some agreement to spend partway between pre- and post-sequester levels — would represent a huge failure. It would send a message to creditors and citizens alike that Washington is not serious about the national debt and that even when lawmakers put in place mechanisms to force seriousness, they will simply vote later to evade them. Deal with the deficit President Barack Obama and Congress have a responsibility to put politics aside and work quickly to replace sequestration and put our fiscal house in order with targeted cuts and real reforms in both the entitlement programs and the tax code.").

As for the budget projections, I'm old enough to remember a time not so long ago when the main worry was what to do about the budget surplus that would begin accumulating (e.g. how could the Fed conduct monetary policy if the supply of T-Bills dried up?). We have no idea what the budget will look like 10 or 15 years from now (unless you have suddenly started to believe that economists have the ability to make accurate forecasts even a year ahead, let alone a decade or more). That's why Krugman said:

It’s true that many projections suggest that our major social insurance programs will face financial difficulties in the future (although the dramatic slowing of increases in health costs makes even that proposition uncertain). If so, at some point we may need to cut benefits. But why, exactly, is it crucial that we deal with the threat of future benefits cuts by locking in plans to cut future benefits?

Dean Baker also responds:

Erskine Bowles Is Back and Still Pushing Austerity: Erskine Bowles, the superhero of the fiscal austerity crowd, took time off from his duties on corporate boards to once again argue the need to "put our fiscal house in order." He apparently hasn't been following the numbers lately. If he had, he would have noticed that growth rate of Medicare and other government health care programs is now on a path that is lower than the proposals that he and Alan Simpson put forward in their report. (He refers to their report as a report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. This is not true. According to its bylaws a report would have needed the support of 14 of the 18 members of the commission. The Bowles-Simpson proposal only had support of 10 members of the commission.)
Bowles also inaccurately claims they proposed delaying deficit reduction until after the economy had recovered. In fact, the report proposed deficit reduction of $330 billion (2.0 percent of GDP) beginning in the fall of 2011. This was long before the economy had recovered or would have in any scenario without a large dose of fiscal stimulus.
Bowles also fails to give any reason whatsoever why the country would benefit from dealing with large projected deficits a decade into the future. These projections may themselves be far off the mark, as has frequently been the case in the past. It is also worth noting that the rise in the deficit depends on projections of sharply higher interest rates in the years after 2020. There is no obvious basis for assuming this would be the case.
In the event that large deficits do prove to be a problem in 2025 and beyond there is no obvious reason why we would think that the Congress and president would not be able to deal with them at the time. That is what experience would suggest. In the mean time, we have real problems like millions of people unable to find jobs and tens of millions who have not shared in the benefits of growth for the last fifteen years. Or, to put it in generational terms, we have tens of millions of children growing up in families whose parents don't earn enough to provide them with a comfortable upbringing.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Paul Krugman: Nobody Understands Debt

Austerity has been a disaster:

Nobody Understands Debt, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ...Last week, the McKinsey Global Institute issued a report titled “Debt and (Not Much) Deleveraging,” which found, basically, that no nation has reduced its ratio of total debt to G.D.P. ...
You might think our failure to reduce debt ratios shows that we aren’t trying hard enough — that families and governments haven’t been making a serious effort to tighten their belts, and that what the world needs is, yes, more austerity. But we have, in fact, had unprecedented austerity. ...
All this austerity has, however, only made things worse — and predictably so, because demands that everyone tighten their belts were based on a misunderstanding of the role debt plays in the economy. ...
Because debt is money we owe to ourselves, it does not directly make the economy poorer (and paying it off doesn’t make us richer). True, debt can pose a threat to financial stability — but the situation is not improved if efforts to reduce debt end up pushing the economy into deflation and depression.
Which brings us to current events, for there is a direct connection between the overall failure to deleverage and the emerging political crisis in Europe.
European leaders completely bought into the notion that the economic crisis was brought on by too much spending, by nations living beyond their means. The way forward, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany insisted, was a return to frugality. Europe, she declared, should emulate the famously thrifty Swabian housewife.
This was a prescription for slow-motion disaster. European debtors did, in fact, need to tighten their belts — but the austerity they were actually forced to impose was incredibly savage. ...
Suffering voters put up with this policy disaster for a remarkably long time, believing in the promises of the elite that they would soon see their sacrifices rewarded. But as the pain went on and on... Anyone surprised by the left’s victory in Greece, or the surge of anti-establishment forces in Spain, hasn’t been paying attention.
Nobody knows what happens next, although bookmakers are now giving better than even odds that Greece will exit the euro. Maybe the damage would stop there, but I don’t believe it — a Greek exit is all too likely to threaten the whole currency project. And if the euro does fail, here’s what should be written on its tombstone: “Died of a bad analogy.”

Monday, February 02, 2015

Paul Krugman: The Long-Run Cop-Out

Focusing on the long-run and avoiding the harder, more important short-run questions is "craven and irresponsible"

The Long-Run Cop-Out, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: On Monday, President Obama will call for a significant increase in spending, reversing the harsh cuts of the past few years. He won’t get all he’s asking for, but it’s a move in the right direction. And it also marks a welcome shift in the discourse. ... It’s often said that the problem with policy makers is that they’re too focused on the next election, that they look for short-term fixes while ignoring the long run. But the story of economic policy and discourse these past five years has been exactly the opposite.
Think about it: Faced with mass unemployment and the enormous waste it entails, for years the Beltway elite devoted almost all their energy not to promoting recovery, but to Bowles-Simpsonism — to devising “grand bargains” that would address the supposedly urgent problem of how we’ll pay for Social Security and Medicare a couple of decades from now.
And this bizarre long-termism isn’t just an American phenomenon. ...
Am I saying that the long run doesn’t matter? Of course not, although some forms of long-termism don’t make sense even on their own terms. Think about the notion that “entitlement reform” is an urgent priority..., why, exactly, is it crucial that we deal with the threat of future benefits cuts by locking in plans to cut future benefits?...
All too often, or so it seems to me, people who insist that questions of austerity and stimulus are unimportant are actually trying to avoid hard thinking about the nature of the economic disaster that has overtaken so much of the world.
And they’re also trying to avoid taking a stand that will expose them to attack. Discussions of short-run fiscal and monetary policy are politically charged. ... I understand why it’s tempting to dismiss the whole debate and declare that the really important issues involve the long run. But while people who say that kind of thing like to pose as brave and responsible, they’re actually ducking the hard stuff — which is to say, being craven and irresponsible. ...
So it’s important to understand who’s really irresponsible here. In today’s economic and political environment, long-termism is a cop-out, a dodge, a way to avoid sticking your neck out. And it’s refreshing to see signs that Mr. Obama is willing to break with the long-termers and focus on the here and now.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

'Bad Tayloring'

PK:

Bad Tayloring: Since they aren’t currently able to demand a return to the gold standard — and maybe a ban on paper money? — Republicans are pushing to mandate that the Fed follow the so-called Taylor rule, which relates short-term interest rates to unemployment (and/or the output gap) and inflation. John Taylor, not surprisingly, likes this idea. But it’s a really terrible idea, and not just for the reasons Tony Yates describes. ...
The world has turned out to be a much more dangerous place than Taylor-rule enthusiasts imagined, so why impose a rule devised, we know now, by economists who completely misjudged the risks?
Now Taylor himself has an excuse and rationale: he claims that the whole financial crisis thing was because the Fed departed slightly from his version of the rule in the pre-crisis 2000s. But as Yates points out, this assigns an importance to monetary policy that is wildly at odds with the kind of modeling used to justify the rule in the first place. It also, as Yates does not point out, has the distinct whiff of someone inventing ever-more bizarre stories to avoid admitting having been wrong about something. This is not the kind of argument on which to base rules that permanently constrain policy.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Paul Krugman: Europe’s Greek Test

Will Europe pass its latest test?:

Europe’s Greek Test, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ... Recent events in Greece pose a fundamental challenge for Europe: Can it get past the myths and the moralizing, and deal with reality in a way that respects the Continent’s core values? If not, the whole European project — the attempt to build peace and democracy through shared prosperity — will suffer a terrible, perhaps mortal blow. ...
...to oversimplify things a bit, you can think of European policy as involving a bailout, not of Greece, but of creditor-country banks, with the Greek government simply acting as the middleman — and with the Greek public, which has seen a catastrophic fall in living standards, required to make further sacrifices so that it, too, can contribute funds to that bailout.
One way to think about the demands of the newly elected Greek government is that it wants a reduction in the size of that contribution. ... But doesn’t Greece have an obligation to pay ... debts? That’s where the moralizing comes in.
It’s true that Greece (or more precisely the center-right government that ruled the nation from 2004-9) voluntarily borrowed vast sums. It’s also true, however, that banks in Germany and elsewhere voluntarily lent Greece all that money. We would ordinarily expect both sides of that misjudgment to pay a price. But the private lenders have been largely bailed out... Meanwhile, Greece is expected to keep on paying.
Now,... nobody believes that Greece can fully repay. So why not recognize that reality and reduce the payments to a level that doesn’t impose endless suffering? Is the goal to make Greece an example for other borrowers? If so, how is that consistent with the values of what is supposed to be an association of sovereign, democratic nations? ...
Objectively, resolving this situation shouldn’t be hard. ...Greece has actually made great progress in regaining competitiveness; wages and costs have fallen dramatically, so that, at this point, austerity is the main thing holding the economy back. So what’s needed is simple: Let Greece run smaller but still positive surpluses, which would relieve Greek suffering, and let the new government claim success, defusing the anti-democratic forces waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, the cost to creditor-nation taxpayers — who were never going to get the full value of the debt — would be minimal.
Doing the right thing would, however, require that other Europeans, Germans in particular, abandon self-serving myths and stop substituting moralizing for analysis.
Can they do it? We’ll soon see.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Taxing the Wealthy Won't Hurt Economic Growth

I have a new column:

Taxing the Wealthy Won't Hurt Economic Growth: I have no idea whether or not Mitt Romney will run for president, and if he does, if he will get the nomination. But many of the issues he ran on when he was a candidate in the last election are likely to reappear this time around no matter whom the candidates turn out to be.
One of the fiercely debated issues in the last presidential election was taxation of the wealthy, and Republican proposals similar to those Romney made when he ran against Obama –– lowering or eliminating the taxes on capital gains, interest, dividends, and inheritances –– will undoubtedly arise again. I expect Republicans will throw a few bones to the middle class in an attempt to get the support of this important constituency, but I also expect the thrust of the proposals to be the same old supply-side policies favoring the wealthy that we have seen in the past.
What I want to focus on, however, is the economic arguments that are made to support the ideological goal of low taxes. ...

Monday, January 26, 2015

Paul Krugman: Ending Greece’s Nightmare

"The problem with Syriza’s plans may be that they’re not radical enough":

Ending Greece’s Nightmare, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Alexis Tsipras, leader of the left-wing Syriza coalition, is about to become prime minister of Greece. He will be the first European leader elected on an explicit promise to challenge the austerity policies that have prevailed since 2010. And there will, of course, be many people warning him to abandon that promise, to behave “responsibly.”
So how has that responsibility thing worked out so far?
To understand the political earthquake in Greece, it helps to look at Greece’s May 2010 “standby arrangement” with the International Monetary Fund, under which the so-called troika — the I.M.F., the European Central Bank and the European Commission — extended loans to the country in return for a combination of austerity and reform. It’s a remarkable document, in the worst way. The troika, while pretending to be hardheaded and realistic, was peddling an economic fantasy. And the Greek people have been paying the price for those elite delusions.
You see, the economic projections that accompanied the standby arrangement assumed that Greece could impose harsh austerity with little effect on growth and employment. ... What actually transpired was an economic and human nightmare. Far from ending in 2011, the Greek recession gathered momentum. ...
What went wrong? I fairly often encounter assertions to the effect that Greece didn’t carry through on its promises, that it failed to deliver the promised spending cuts. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Greece imposed savage cuts in public services, wages of government workers and social benefits. ...
Yet Greek debt troubles are if anything worse than before the program started. ...
So now that Mr. Tsipras has won, and won big, European officials would be well advised to skip the lectures calling on him to act responsibly...
If anything, the problem with Syriza’s plans may be that they’re not radical enough. Debt relief and an easing of austerity would reduce the economic pain, but it’s doubtful whether they are sufficient to produce a strong recovery. On the other hand, it’s not clear what more any Greek government can do unless it’s prepared to abandon the euro, and the Greek public isn’t ready for that.
Still, in calling for a major change, Mr. Tsipras is being far more realistic than officials who want the beatings to continue until morale improves. The rest of Europe should give him a chance to end his country’s nightmare.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Who are the Radicals in Europe?

Gloomy European Economist, Francesco Saraceno:

Who are the Radicals in Europe?: As I write the Greek people are voting.  I was puzzled in the past weeks by the fear (more in the media than in markets, actually) of a “radical” left win. Puzzled, because the radical and ideological policy makers do not seem to live in Greece, today. On January 20 I wrote a piece for the Greek website Macropolis, where I claimed that we should not expect an Armageddon if Syriza wins, but rather some welcome fresh air.  I reproduce the piece here: ...

To give you the flavor of his remarks:

... On closer inspection, it seems far more radical the position of those who, despite having grossly underestimated the negative effects of austerity, ask for more of the same; of those who insist on advocating supply-side reforms to cope with a chronic lack of demand; and of those who boast having achieved a balanced budget one year ahead of forecasts, when Europe would benefit from a recovery of domestic demand in Germany.
What will happen then, if “radical” Syriza will win the election? Actually not much. ...

[In case you missed them, see also an interview with Jamie Galbraith, The Prospects and Consequences of a Possible Syriza Government and Let Us Hope for a Syriza Victory by Simon Wren-Lewis.]

Friday, January 23, 2015

'The Prospects and Consequences of a Possible Syriza Government'

Jamie Galbraith in interviewed by Roger Strassburg on the upcoming Greek election and the prospects and consequences of a possible Syriza government:

Roger Strassburg:  Can you tell us a little about what Syriza has for plans if it were to get elected, what the platform is.  You are an advisor of Tsipris currently?
James Galbraith:  I'll start out by qualifying my role.  I consider that I'm a friend of the movement for a change of government in Greece, and specifically a friend of Alexis Tsipras.  I've been a colleague for the last couple of years of Yanis Varoufakis, who is now running for parliament in Athens at the moment on the Syriza ticket.  He was preselected by Syriza for what is the largest multi-seat constituency.  The night before the vote in Parliament, where the third round of the presidential selection precipitated this election, I sent a personal note of encouragement to Alexis Tsipras, which they released to the Greek press.   So my position is known in Greece.
What is the platform of the Syriza movement?  Let me just summarize it without going into the details of the various measures that they propose to take. I think the fundamental point is that the Greek nation has been subjected to conditions for the continuing provision of financing, including the restructuring of the debt in 2012.  These were the Memorandums, which are manifestly unsuccessful as an economic recovery program.  That point is now abundantly clear to the Greek electorate, which is why the party that has rejected those conditions is in the leading position.  So the basic provision of the Syriza platform is that those conditions will no longer be agreed to as a position of the Greek government.
Roger Strassburg:  Which means?
James Galbraith:  Let me carry on for a little bit on how best to think of those provisions.
The superficial presentation one reads in the press is:  financial assistance, but in order to qualify for it you have to make certain reforms, and the point of the reforms is to put your economy back into a position of being competitive and on the path of growth.  And that's been going on for six years, and the results are what we see:  Instead of a growing economy you have an economy and a society stressed to the point of breaking, with massive unemployment and the emigration of substantial parts of the professional class especially, and the weakening of the core social institutions, education, health care, urban services and everything else to the point where they are actually a barrier to investment and economic success.  And you have the impoverishment of large sections of the population, especially the elderly population.  It's at every level a failure.  Then one has to ask, was there a bona fide program for economic recovery in the first place?  And I think it's clear that even if those who argued for this program believed it might produce recovery and growth, these objectives were very secondary or even tertiary considerations in their minds.  It is clear that the policies that were specified as a condition were at bottom not recuperative, but punitive in character.  Punitive in character against the whole Greek nation, and on an improper principle of collective responsibility for the admitted mismanagement of the affairs of the Greek state by previous governments and by the Greek political class.
Roger Strassburg:  Schäuble has said as much.
James Galbraith:  Yes.  If you read Timothy Geithner's memoir, it's clear that he was very struck by this attitude, which reflected a moralizing indifference to the future of Europe. 
Roger Strassburg:  That's the attitude of most of the German government and the press.
James Galbraith:  That fact was not concealed by them.  I'm obviously not one of most the unqualified admirers of Secretary Geithner, but on this point, clearly he had recorded an accurate perception and an admirable reaction to that way of conceiving things.
Roger Strassburg:  He was rebuffed by the Europeans.
James Galbraith:  Yes, sure he was.  So we have it on the record in an irrefutable way that it was a punitive rather than a recuperative strategy.  I don't think anybody can really argue otherwise.  A punitive strategy that was in place partly because of the interests of creditors in getting assets at fire-sale prices.  That's basically a debt collector's attitude.  And partly because of the internal politics of the German state at that time, in which a moralizing narrative was politically more useful than a more generous one would have been.
Roger Strassburg:  I don't think that's really changed.
James Galbraith:  Perhaps not, but it is one of the considerations that went into the implementation of the policy in the first place.
Roger Strassburg:  Of course now they can't change that because they've essentially given the public...
James Galbraith:  Let's get to the question of whether things can change a little bit down the road.  I think one negotiates with people you disagree with.  You don't negotiate with people you agree with.  We'll just establish this as the starting point for the conversation.  In that case, having recognized this, that we're no longer playing the games that the incumbent government at the moment has been playing, of pretending that the policies that you're signing on to are growth and recovery and reform policies when you know that they are simply the conditions for the financial policy of “extend and pretend” that has been underway for quite a long time.
That said, what is the leverage that would be applied to the Greek government if it chooses to recognize this reality and take a different path?  In fact the leverage available is not zero, but it's limited to some measures that would be fairly extreme in ordinary conditions.  On the one hand, there are certain parts of the debt that should ordinarily be rolled over.  Since the debt is now almost all – all the significant parts of it are in the hands of public authorities, the question of whether they would roll it over is a policy question for them.  In some sense they have the ability, if they were to choose, to place the Greeks in technical default, but one has to ask what happens under those circumstances, and the answer is, I would think, not very much. If I owe you a note, and my ability to pay it depends upon your willingness to roll it over, then if you, say, you don't roll it over, and I don't pay you, well, you still hold the note and it's still accruing interest and it's still an asset.  It's not an economic issue between us, except that you don't have the cash.  But the European Central Bank and other European authorities are not in need of cash.  It's not like a private debt.  So that's a bit of an artificial question.
And the other point of leverage is the Emergency Liquidity Authority, which backstops the Greek banking system.  To cut the ELA would be to pull the plug on the Greek banking system and effectively to force a crisis in the affairs of the Eurozone.  If the attitude of the creditors is “my way or the highway”, that you can have an election, but you may not change your policies, well then the burden of historical responsibility will be on them.  We shall see.  However my basic view is that Germany, having been one of the central countries at the origin of the European Union and at the origin of the Eurozone, will wisely not take the step of blowing up the European Union and the Eurozone over an argument about the conditionalities attached to past financial bargains.
Roger Strassburg:  That depends on how they estimate the risk that that will happen.  I'm not sure how they're estimating it.
James Galbraith:  That is, of course, the question, but when you go into a poker game, you don't go in showing your cards.  Obviously the German government would like the potentially incoming Greek government to fold its hand.  I think they can reasonably expect that the incoming Greek government, unlike the previous Greek governments, won't do that.  A major difference is that previous Greek governments had large internal factions fundamentally aligned with the policies of the Memorandum and the Troika.  This was certainly true of the Papandreou government.  George Papandreou was surrounded by neoliberal fellow travelers.  And that won't be true of the incoming government, assuming Syriza wins the election.  So the European partners can reasonably expect that the poker game will have to be played for a while.  We'll see if it can come to some kind of a reasonable agreement.  You have two sovereign countries with a difference of view, and one of them has a very strong case in equity for taking a different route after six years of good-faith effort to make the other route work when it was manifestly not a workable route.
Roger Strassburg:  I know Yanis Varoufakis made it very clear about that when we talked to him a little over a year ago.  He said that he would simply not pay as long as the conditions weren't right.
James Galbraith:  If you look at the Greek government debt in accrual accounting terms, if you look at it under the terms of IPSAS, the restructuring in 2012 was already very fundamental.  This is a debt which exists on very long terms at low interest rates, but the most important thing is that it's in the hands of public creditors.  The stuff that's in the hands of private creditors can be paid without difficulty, so there isn't a risk of a generalized private credit market debacle.  The stuff in public hands is an accounting matter, which has to do with the rules of the Eurozone that you can't actually write down the debt because that would make it too easy to escape from the conditionalities. 
In any event the conditionalities are going to be essentially a dead letter once the new government gets its policies in place.  Let's just take one example I'm a little familiar with.  If you go out to the Greek islands, they each have their own electric power generation station, which is in the nature of islands. They're all monopolies.  Do you allow those monopolies to be sold off to foreign investors in order to satisfy your debts, in which case you're putting the residents of each of these little islands at the mercy of a tiny little electric power monopoly?  That's from a public policy standpoint not a very good idea.  It has nothing to do with economic growth.  It has to with the capacity of what's equivalent to a local landlord to charge an unlimited amount of rent.  It's like the city of Chicago selling its parking meters to a private company.  It meant that there are no more street fairs in Chicago because you have to pay the company for its lost parking meter revenue.  That's not an economic growth strategy.
Roger Strassburg:  That's a typical arrangement, though, that's been happening in Germany, as well – Public-Private Partnerships.
James Galbraith:  Yes, but that has material consequences, which have nothing to do with economic growth, but a good deal to do with the viability of community life.
And we're talking also about questions about regulations governing the labor market.  There might be some negotiating room there.  For instance, there's a provision in Greek law, dating from the time of Andreas Papandreou, which limited the fraction of your labor force that you can lay off at any given time.  That provision is hard to maintain when a large fraction of your businesses are going bankrupt.  So there's some negotiating room about labor market rules.  As you go through these things, you say, okay, is there any merit to the substance of the provision, and if not, what's a better provision?
Parts of the Syriza program are to relieve some of the pressure on the most vulnerable parts of the Greek population, people who don't have access to electric power, people who need food in schools. In Greece today there are significant portions of the population which are in serious distress.  Dealing with that is a part of the program.  It would be nice for Greece to have some more fiscal room to implement changes, but there are significant changes even if there is no effective or very little effective new fiscal room.  Greece has already reduced its trade deficit, it's actually running a primary surplus.
Roger Strassburg:  The trade deficits have been reduced because of reduced imports, right?
James Galbraith:  Yes, it's primarily due to reduced imports, the point being that at the current level of activity, there's not an immediate need for new fiscal resources in order to just simply carry on.  And so a leverage over a change of policy in that respect is not going to be decisive.
So that's the basic scene-setting.  Then you have the question of what is it that the European Union could do if it were truly motivated by good will to help not only a partner state in particular, but perhaps more generally, to move from a policy of debt collection and punishment to a policy of stabilization and expansion.  That would also, I think, be on the agenda.
Well then we get into the terrain of the Modest Proposal.  The Modest Proposal is a proposal for the whole Eurozone, but it would certainly have some applicability to the Greek case.  The nature of the proposal has evolved a bit since publication of the last version of the Modest Proposal, thanks to Sr. Draghi and his moves toward Quantitative Easing.  A sensible way forward, in which there's been some interest in other governments of Europe, would be to launch a larger investment program through the European Investment Bank and for the ECB to guarantee the price of EIB bonds.  Taking account of the fact that the rhetoric of Europe has moved very much in favor of an investment program, and certainly at the rhetorical level Juncker's 315 billion euro program establishes that this is a legitimate need, an important need. But of course Juncker's proposal is not an effective policy.
Roger Strassburg:  Is this another matching funds problem?
James Galbraith:  It's a leverage problem.  In the case of the Juncker program there's only a small amount of public money, and the idea is that this is going to incentivize a large amount of private investment.  It's not really very plausible, but let's take the fact that he's acknowledged the need for a program and also has acknowledged at least a fraction of the scale that's actually required.  So we've put some large-looking numbers on the table. These are steps in the right direction.  Now we can haggle over what it takes to make it work.  It's a bit like George Bernard Shaw and Lady Astor.  You know that story, right?
Roger Strassburg:  No, I don't.
James Galbraith:  It's one of the old stories.  Shaw turned to Lady Astor at a dinner party and said, “Madame, would you sleep with me for a million pounds?”, and she said, “I'd consider it”.  Then he said, “How about ten pounds?”, and she said, “What do you think I am?”  Then he said, “Well we've established that, now we're just haggling over the price.”  Having established that we need the investment program, we can now talk about how to achieve it.
The other item that would be extremely useful for the European Union to act on quickly would be to get some measures for income stabilization and humanitarian assistance for vulnerable populations.
Roger Strassburg:  Transfer programs.
James Galbraith:  I wouldn't call them transfer programs.  I'd call them social insurance programs.  Transfer implies that somebody rich is paying for somebody poor.  But when you're taking a resource which is presently out of use and bringing it back into use, that's not what you're doing.  You're actually stabilizing the social and economic situation in the recipient country at no real cost to the larger European economy.
Roger Strassburg:  You're reinstating the insurance programs.
James Galbraith:  Yes, exactly.  And doing it on a sustainable basis.  Unemployment insurance has been discussed as a potential Europe-wide initiative, but you could also have nutrition assistance.  I've over the years proposed a few other things, but those two would be immediately practical, and the discussion of how to fund them is in the Modest Proposal.
So I think what one can expect, and I'm not speaking for Syriza in any sense by saying this, and I do want that to be clear, but I think one can expect a constructive negotiating position to be developed by a new Greek government.  And a constructive and reasonable one, one that is based on principles that have been applied at every level in the construction of Europe.
The European Union and German Unification were both brought into being on principles of social solidarity and common progress;  the Federal Republic in the first place, German unification and the European Union, all constructed on a language of principles of inclusion and solidarity and mutual support.
Roger Strassburg:  The Unification was all Germans.
James Galbraith:  That was all Germans, yes.  But it's okay, it's a principle that has been articulated in Germany, that is understood in the German political community, and that is, I think, the principle on which progress for Europe, or for that matter, the stability of Europe depends.
Roger Strassburg:  That would require a lot of convincing.  The Reunification was one thing...
James Galbraith:  We're not asking for a referendum, a plebiscite in the German population.  This is a question to be decided between governments.  We don't need to convince people on the principles of this, one simply needs to have an agreement about an acceptable way to proceed.
Roger Strassburg:  It's really not that simple in Germany – or anyplace else, for that matter.
James Galbraith:  Nobody claims simplicity.  Speaking now, as I have been all along, for myself here, I've always as a general rule felt that one negotiates with people you disagree with, not with people you agree with, and you negotiate in good faith.  It's an obligation on both sides that you negotiate in good faith, otherwise there's no point in having the negotiation.  And I would always choose as a negotiation partner a political authority that has real authority.  Certainly the leader of Germany is a person in that position, I would say the most successful and dominant political personality in modern Europe.  When you're negotiating, you negotiate with the top person.  That makes you more likely to have a favorable result than if you negotiate with someone who is in a very weak internal position, and not able to make changes in policy.
Roger Strassburg:  One of those things that's been kicked around for a while, is there going to be such a thing as a United States of Europe, and that's not going to happen.
James Galbraith:  It's certainly not part of the Syriza program.  The Syriza program is a pro-European program.  It is, and I think Europe and Europeans, people are committed to the European project, can consider it a great stroke of luck that there has arisen in Greece, and consequently, partly consequently and subsequently, in Spain, as well as in the present government of Italy, a pro-European set of parties, whose objective is change, constructive change, to make the European project viable.  That's in many ways the last line that will be there.  If those movements are not successful, then you have the Five Star movement in Italy, and you have, I suppose, the Golden Dawn in Greece.  So good luck to you if you go from where we are now to that.  And I'm not saying that the Five Star and the Golden Dawn are equivalent, they're not, but they're anti-European.
Roger Strassburg:  A little like AfD in Germany.
James Galbraith:  I wouldn't even say that.  I think that all three are really quite different, but you're going to move toward politics which is much nastier, much more vicious and anti-European in character rather than constructive and pro-European in character.
Roger Strassburg:  You have those trends in the UK, as well.
James Galbraith:  Of course.  So with that in mind, you have here a chance, at least in principle, to create a window of, let's say, constructive hope in the European case.
Roger Strassburg:  Do you think Syriza has a chance of winning?  I'm asking for your prophetic powers here...
James Galbraith:  It's not necessary to hope in order to persevere.  It's the motto of William of Orange, I learned some years ago from my friend Bill Black.  I maintain that, let's pursue a line as long as there is some prospect of success.
Roger Strassburg:  This is the best chance that they've had in, well, ever.
James Galbraith:  Yes.  As a small “d” democrat I find the situation in Greece quite inspiring because you have here something really very rare in any country in recent years, which is an election in which the public is making a choice that matters.  The outcome is not a question of some manipulation among existing political classes, or even the evolution of a previously existing party system, which was the case in Italy.  They have a clear-cut choice, and they're making it.  This is what democracy should be about.  Often it is some very blurry version of that at best.
Roger Strassburg:  It appears at the moment that Syriza won't be able to govern without a coalition.
James Galbraith:  Yes, I'd agree with that.  If you just look at the math of the polls, my guess is that they'd need somewhere up to twenty seats.
Roger Strassburg:  Given the bonus of fifty.
James Galbraith:  Yes.  They'd get a base of eighty, then a bonus of fifty, and then they need up to twenty more, depending on what the actual margin of victory is.  And then what actually happens depends on what happens to the representation of the smaller entities in the Greek system, given the three percent threshold to get into the parliament, so you don't know which of the various other players will be represented and at what numbers.  That's all in flux, so we'll see.
Roger Strassburg:  It remains interesting.
James Galbraith:  Oh, it will remain interesting, but you need to have, say, the acquiescence of twenty members, and if you don't get them, then there's another election.  And the typical pattern of a second election is to reaffirm the first, and the electorate can either go forward or backwards.  It's generally likely in the second case that you'd get a coalescence of people who say, enough of this nonsense, and move into the Syriza camp.
Roger Strassburg:  People will vote for the one more likely to win.
James Galbraith:  Yes, exactly.  Also, when you have an election, and you have this outcome of where the party which was just a few years ago at very low levels has moved up into the high twenties, and in terms of popular support is the largest single political entity in the country, then the perception of the party and its leader changes.  It was just a few years ago, nobody would talk to Alexis Tsipras.  He was considered kind of a dangerous figure who should be kept isolated.  Then he became the leader of the Greek official opposition, which made him at least a presence on the local scene.  And then with the European parliamentary elections he became the largest party, which created a kind of presumptive possibility that he would, that Syriza would win the election.  And then there was the question of whether there would be an election, and then it became clear that the government could not muster 180 votes to elect a presidential candidate, and there we are.  This is a cumulative, ongoing process.
Roger Strassburg:  They now appear to be viable.
James Galbraith:  They are, as a political force in Greece, viable.
Roger Strassburg:  How is the press treating him.  Are they treating him fairly?
James Galbraith:  These are tests.  I don't begrudge the forces of the status quo their stratagems.  I think that there are such things as pariahs in politics.  It's not unreasonable to draw distinctions between the mainstream and the fringe, and make it difficult to cross that barrier to become a mainstream political force. Which means, when you have a movement that achieves that, that is something to be taken seriously.  It's not a freak phenomenon, it's not something which is achieved easily.  It's a process of years.  And that's what we've observed in Greece, something which was at one point a minor player of dissidence in a country dominated by New Democracy and PASOK, two very long-established political parties with high dynastic traditions going back to the end of the civil war, and especially to the end of the junta in 1974.  And that political order has crumbled, first PASOK, and now you see the relative decline of New Democracy.  So something new has emerged.
Roger Strassburg:  Isn't PASOK now so low that they may not even make it into the parliament?
James Galbraith:  What has happened in PASOK is that George Papandreou has left to form his own formation, and we shall now see what happens there.  I'm not actually close enough to be able to judge, but it might be one or the other, Venizelos vs. Papandreou.  Or the other two possibilities are that it might be both or it might be neither.  We'll see.
Roger Strassburg:  Tsipras appears to be somewhat charismatic.
James Galbraith:  I've seen him up close on a couple of occasions at important moments where the eyes of the country were clearly on him. I've spoken to him on a number of occasions, he was in Austin at a conference a few years ago, and I have a sense of him as a thoughtful presence in private, and a rather impressive one in public.

Paul Krugman: Much Too Responsible

Europe’s self-indulgent "archons of austerity" and "doyens of deflation":

Much Too Responsible, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: The United States and Europe have a lot in common. Both are multicultural and democratic; both are immensely wealthy; both possess currencies with global reach. Both, unfortunately, experienced giant housing and credit bubbles between 2000 and 2007, and suffered painful slumps when the bubbles burst.
Since then, however, policy on the two sides of the Atlantic has diverged. In one great economy, officials have shown a stern commitment to fiscal and monetary virtue, making strenuous efforts to balance budgets while remaining vigilant against inflation. In the other, not so much.
And the difference in attitudes is the main reason the two economies are now on such different paths. ... No, it’s not morning in America... Recovery could and should have come much faster, and family incomes remain well below their pre-crisis level. Although you’d never know it from the public discussion, there’s overwhelming agreement among economists that the Obama stimulus of 2009-10 helped limit the damage..., but it was too small and faded away far too fast. ...
Europe, on the other hand ... did almost everything wrong. On the fiscal side, Europe never did much stimulus, and quickly turned to austerity ... despite high unemployment. On the monetary side, officials fought the imaginary menace of inflation, and took years to acknowledge that the real threat is deflation. ...
Monetary policy got much better after Mario Draghi became president of the European Central Bank in late 2011. ... But it’s not at all clear that he has the tools to fight off the broader deflationary forces set in motion by years of wrongheaded policy. ...
The terrible thing is that Europe’s economy was wrecked in the name of responsibility. ... In a depressed economy..., a balanced-budget fetish and a hard-money obsession are deeply irresponsible. Not only do they hurt the economy in the short run, they can — and in Europe, have — inflict long-run harm, damaging the economy’s potential and driving it into a deflationary trap that’s very hard to escape.
Nor was this an innocent mistake. The thing that strikes me about Europe’s archons of austerity, its doyens of deflation, is their self-indulgence. They felt comfortable, emotionally and politically, demanding sacrifice (from other people) at a time when the world needed more spending. They were all too eager to ignore the evidence that they were wrong.
And Europe will be paying the price for their self-indulgence for years, perhaps decades, to come.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Obama and I, Me, My, You, We, Our

Mark Liberman at Language Log tries to set the record straight -- yet again:

Presidential pronouns: This time it's Ron Fournier: Ron Fournier, "Is Obama More Interested in Progress or Politics?", National Journal, 1/20/2015:

Count how many times Obama uses the words "I," "me," and "my." Compare that number to how often he says, "You," "we," "our." If the first number is greater than the second, Obama has failed.

This leads naturally to a different question: "Is Ron Fournier More Interested in Analysis or in Bullshit?"...

If Ron Fournier had spent a minute or two looking into the facts of the matter, he might have discovered... ALL presidents since WWII have used substantially more first-person-plural pronouns than first-person-singular pronouns in the SOTU messages; Adding second-person pronouns makes the disproportion even larger; Obama is pretty much in the middle of the pack on all the relevant measures. ...

Mr. Fournier is reprising a sub-theme of the Great Obama Pronoun Fantasy, variants of which seem to draw pundits like flies to rotting meat. ...

'The 2003 Dividend Tax Cut Did Nothing to Help the Real Economy'

Mike Konczal:

The 2003 Dividend Tax Cut Did Nothing to Help the Real Economy: President Obama is going big on capital taxation in the State of the Union tonight, including a proposal to raise dividend taxes on the rich to 28 percent. ...Bush’s radical cuts to capital taxes are part of his legacy... And it’s a part that the latest evidence tells us did a lot to help the rich without helping the overall economy at all.
In the response to Obama’s proposal, you are going to hear a lot about how lower dividend rates increase investment and help the real economy. Indeed, lowering capital tax rates has been a consistent goal of conservatives. As a result, one of the biggest capital taxation changes in history happened in 2003, when George W. Bush reduced the dividend tax rate from 38.6 percent to 15 percent... So did the tax cut make a difference?
This is where UC Berkeley economist Danny Yagan’s fantastic new paper, “Capital Tax Reform and the Real Economy: The Effects of the 2003 Dividend Tax Cut,” (pdf, slides) comes in. ...
Here’s what he finds: ... There’s no difference in either investment or adjusted net investment. There’s also no difference when it comes to employee compensation. The firms that got a massive capital tax cut did not make any different choices about things that boost the real economy. This is true across a crazy-robust number of controls, measures, and coding of outliers. ...
President Obama will likely focus his pitch for the dividend tax increase on the future, when, in his argument, globalization and technology will cause compensation to stagnate while investor payouts skyrocket and the economy becomes more focused on the top 1 percent. But it’s worth noting that while capital taxes are a solution to that problem, that the radical slashing conservatives have brought to them are also partly responsible for our current malaise.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Paul Krugman: Hating Good Government

Why do conservatives hate government?:

Hating Good Government, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: It’s now official: 2014 was the warmest year on record. You might expect this to be a politically important milestone. ... So will the deniers now concede that climate change is real?
Of course not. Evidence doesn’t matter for the “debate” over climate policy... And this situation is by no means unique. Indeed,... it’s hard to think of a major policy dispute where facts actually do matter; it’s unshakable dogma, across the board. And the real question is why.
Before I get into that, let me remind you of some other news that won’t matter.
First, consider the Kansas experiment. Back in 2012 Sam Brownback, the state’s right-wing governor, went all in on supply-side economics: He drastically cut taxes, assuring everyone that the resulting boom would make up for the initial loss in revenues. Unfortunately..., his experiment has been a resounding failure. ... So will we see conservatives scaling back their claims about the magical efficacy of tax cuts...? Of course not. ...
Meanwhile, the news on health reform keeps ... being more favorable than even the supporters expected. ...
All this is utterly at odds with dire predictions that reform would lead to declining coverage and soaring costs. So will we see any of the people claiming that Obamacare is doomed ... revising their position? You know the answer.
And the list goes on..., a big chunk of America’s body politic holds views that are completely at odds with, and completely unmovable by, actual experience. ...
The question, as I said at the beginning, is why. Why the dogmatism? Why the rage...,why this hatred of government in the public interest? Well, the political scientist Corey Robin argues that most self-proclaimed conservatives are actually reactionaries. That is, they’re defenders of traditional hierarchy — the kind of hierarchy that is threatened by any expansion of government, even (or perhaps especially) when that expansion makes the lives of ordinary citizens better and more secure. I’m partial to that story, partly because it helps explain why climate science and health economics inspire so much rage.
Whether this is the right explanation or not, the fact is that we’re living in a political era in which facts don’t matter. This doesn’t mean that those of us who care about evidence should stop seeking it out. But we should be realistic in our expectations, and not expect even the most decisive evidence to make much difference.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

'Republican Assault on Dodd-Frank Act Intensifies'

Is anyone surprised?:

Republican assault on Dodd-Frank act intensifies, by Barney Jopson, FT: Republicans are intensifying an assault on the Dodd-Frank financial reform act in the second week of a new Congress...
Under attack in the House on Wednesday was part of the so-called Volcker rule, a provision of the reforms that limits bank risk taking.
Lawmakers voted 271-154 to delay from 2017 to 2019 a ban on banks holding securitised debt that has been packaged into collateralised loan obligations, with 29 Democrats supporting the postponement along with Republicans. ...

Because the Masters of the Universe need years and years to adjust to this change (Dodd-Frank was passed nearly *five* years ago). Or maybe they are simply hoping to delay and delay until they can get repeal? The president has said he will veto this if it also gets through the Senate, but they will likely try to attach it to other legislation to make a veto much harder.

I don't think the repeal of Glass-Steagall caused the financial crisis. But that doesn't mean the Volcker rule has no value, only costs. Repeal of Glass-Steagall sets up a vulnerability that could cause a crisis in the future, so it's worth fixing via the Volcker rule.

'Supply-Side Enablers'

pgl:

...Norman Ture indeed was the original supply-sider who basically told Chairman Mills to ignore the CEA’s recommendations for fiscal restraint in 1966. We now know the unfortunate history of politics not heeding the advice of sensible economists. And yes – the supply-siders once again pushed for fiscal stimulus in 1981. How did that work out? I bring this up today in light of the fact that Mitt Romney is once again running for President. The last time he did so, he advocated large tax cuts without any serious consideration of how to pay for them. I’m sure Romney will have plenty of supply-side enablers once again.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

'Selective Voodoo'

Paul Krugman:

Selective Voodoo: House Republicans have passed a measure demanding that the Congressional Budget Office use “dynamic scoring” in its revenue projections — taking into account the supposed positive growth effects of tax cuts. It remains to be seen how much damage this rule will actually cause. The reality is that there is no evidence for the large effects that are central to right-wing ideology, so the question is whether CBO will be forced to accept supply-side fantasies.
Meanwhile, one thing is fairly certain: CBO won’t be applying dynamic scoring to the positive effects of government spending, even though there’s a lot of evidence for such effects.
A good piece in yesterday’s Upshot reports on a recent study of the effects of Medicaid for children; it shows that children who received the aid were not just healthier but more productive as adults, and as a result paid more taxes. So Medicaid for kids may largely if not completely pay for itself. It’s a good guess that the Affordable Care Act, by expanding Medicaid and in general by ensuring that more families have adequate health care, will similarly generate significant extra growth and revenue in the long run. Do you think the GOP will be interested in revising down estimates of the cost of Obamacare to reflect these effects? ...

Monday, January 12, 2015

Paul Krugman: For the Love of Carbon

What's the real reason Republicans are pushing for the Keystone XL pipeline?:

For the Love of Carbon, Commentary, NY Times: It should come as no surprise that the very first move of the new Republican Senate is an attempt to push President Obama into approving the Keystone XL pipeline... After all,... the oil and gas industry — which gave 87 percent of its 2014 campaign contributions to the G.O.P. — expects to be rewarded for its support.
But why is this environmentally troubling project an urgent priority in a time of plunging world oil prices? Well, the party line, from people like Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, is that it’s all about jobs. ...
Let’s back up for a minute and discuss economic principles. For more than seven years ... the United States economy has suffered from inadequate demand. ... In such an environment, anything that increases spending creates jobs. ...
From the beginning, however, Republican leaders have held ... that we should slash public spending... And they’ve gotten their way... The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that this kind of fiscal austerity in a depressed economy is destructive...
Needless to say, the guilty parties here will never admit that they were wrong. But if you look at their behavior closely, you see clear signs that they don’t really believe in their own doctrine.
Consider, for example, the case of military spending. When it comes to possible cuts in defense contracts, politicians ... suddenly begin talking about all the jobs that will be destroyed. ... This is the phenomenon former Representative Barney Frank dubbed “weaponized Keynesianism.”
And the argument being made for Keystone XL is very similar; call it “carbonized Keynesianism.” ... But government spending on roads, bridges and schools would do the same thing. ... If Mr. McConnell and company really believe that we need more spending to create jobs, why not support a push to upgrade America’s crumbling infrastructure?
So what should be done about Keystone XL? If you believe that it would be environmentally damaging — which I do — then you should be against it, and you should ignore the claims about job creation. The numbers being thrown around are tiny compared with the country’s overall work force. And in any case, the jobs argument for the pipeline is basically a sick joke coming from people who have done all they can to destroy American jobs — and are now employing the very arguments they used to ridicule government job programs to justify a big giveaway to their friends in the fossil fuel industry.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Policy Uncertainty

This is silly (it's from a discussion of the costs of policy uncertainty from the Becker Friedman Institute):

If the Affordable Care Act has taught us anything, it’s this: A party in power can push through a major policy initiative in the teeth of strong political opposition, but it probably shouldn’t. A better strategy is to secure some support across the political aisle, even at the cost of compromise. Persistent attacks on the Affordable Care Act continue to generate uncertainty about its political durability and raise doubts about what the healthcare delivery landscape will look like in the U.S. for many years to come.

That simply wasn't a choice. Securing support across the political aisle was not an option. No amount of compromise would have mattered. Would the millions who now have health insurance, those who now have the option to change jobs without losing insurance, people with pre-existing conditions, etc., etc. be better off if the law had not passed? Because that was the choice Democrats faced, a highly imperfect bill that would do quite a bit of good even with its imperfections, or no bill at all. Bipartisan support for policy is surely a worthy goal, and sometimes a bit of compromise can bring it about. But other times there is no choice except to ram through legislation that one side believes has the potential to do considerable good.

Interesting that the authors didn't pick tax cuts for the wealthy as their example of policy uncertainty. The future prospects for this policy were just as uncertain under Obama, the policy had a high degree of opposition from the other side of the political aisle, and the tax cuts did far less good than the ACA beyond reducing the tax payments for a group of wealthy individuals who didn't need the help. And unlike the ACA and its documented success (if you look past Fox News), the promised trickle down and economic growth miracle never materialized. If we are looking for a case where the harm from policy uncertainty exceeds the benefits of the policy, this is a much better candidate than the ACA.

I do like some of their other recommendations though, e.g. to use automatic stabilizers:

Automatic stabilizers—unemployment insurance spending that goes up when employment falls, for example—offer some advantages over discretionary measures. The fiscal equivalent of an “advance directive,” they kick-in quickly in real time as economic fundamentals change. They don’t need to wait for a legislative act. And while every distribution of federal dollars involves some political infighting, a policy response developed in advance of actual need is more likely to be evaluated primarily on its economic rather than political merits. Finally, those bearing the brunt of the shock—wage earners and  businesses—aren’t left wondering when or if some help is on the way.

And:

Take some of the politicking out of policymaking. A Congress that indiscriminately exercises its right to debate, amend, and delay can produce excessive tug-of-war policymaking that comes with the cost of heightened uncertainty. Asking Congress to skip the dickering and bind itself to a simple up or down vote, as it already does with military base closures and fast-track trade authority, could minimize the drama—and cost—of indecision.

Though taking the politicking out of policymaking is probably wishful thinking, and it's hard to imagine Republicans going along with any expansion of automatic stabilizers (their proposals are likely to run in the other direction, reducing support for programs such as food stamps).

So long as we have political parties with differing ideological views, there will always be policy uncertainty. One side will always want to undo what the other puts into place. They will rarely agree, and a call for bipartisan support before anything can be done is a call to do nothing. I don't think that's the best approach.

But so long as we are engaged in wishful thinking, let me add to the list. What I'd add is more honesty in evaluating programs after they are put into place. More attention and responsiveness to the empirical evidence. If tax cuts don't trickle down or create growth, if austerity actually makes things worse, if fiscal policy multipliers are non-zero in deep recessions when we are stuck at the zero bound, if the ACA is working to provide health services to millions of people who dearly needed such help, etc., etc., then accept the evidence and adjust policy accordingly. I suppose it's too much to expect politicians to do this, but can we at least get economists to treat these issues honestly (and maybe the media would do better as a consequence)? I'd settle for that.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Paul Krugman: Voodoo Time Machine

Ideological rigidity causes blindness to the facts:

Voodoo Time Machine, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Many of us in the econ biz were wondering how the new leaders of Congress would respond to the sharp increase in American economic growth that ... began last spring. After years of insisting that President Obama is responsible for a weak economy, they couldn’t say the truth — that short-run economic performance has very little to do with who holds the White House. So what would they say?
Well, I didn’t see that one coming: They’re claiming credit. Never mind the fact that all of the good data refer to a period before the midterm elections. Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, says ... that growth reflected “the expectation of a new Republican Congress.”
The response of the Democratic National Committee — “Hahahahahahaha” — seems appropriate. I mean, talk about voodoo economics: Mr. McConnell is claiming not just that he can create prosperity without, you know, actually passing any legislation, but that he can reach back in time and create prosperity before even taking power. ...Mr. McConnell’s self-aggrandizement is ... scary ... because it’s a symptom of his party’s epistemic closure. Republicans know many things that aren’t so, and no amount of contrary evidence will get them to change their minds. ... Congress is now controlled by men who never acknowledge error, let alone learn from their mistakes.
In some cases, they may not even know that they were wrong. After all, conservative news media are not exactly known for their balanced coverage; if your picture of ... health reform is ... based on Fox News, you probably have a sense that it has been a vast disaster, even though the reality is one of success...
The main point, however, is that we’re looking at a political subculture in which ideological tenets are simply not to be questioned... Supply-side economics is valid no matter what actually happens to the economy, guaranteed health insurance must be a failure even if it’s working, and anyone who points out the troubling facts is ipso facto an enemy.
And we’re not talking about marginal figures. You sometimes hear claims that the old-fashioned Republican establishment is making a comeback, that Tea Party extremists are on the run and we can get back to bipartisan cooperation. But that is a fantasy. We can’t have meaningful cooperation when we can’t agree on reality, when even establishment figures in the Republican Party essentially believe that facts have a liberal bias.