Monday, October 20, 2014

Pension Funds and Private Equity

There is a fascinating piece by Gretchen Morgenson in today’s New York Times about the large investments public pensions have made in private equity funds.  The focus is on the secrecy of these deals, but the question also comes up as to whether these investments are proper given the fiduciary role that pension fund managers are supposed to play.

One thought that occurs to me is this: pension funds by their nature should position themselves overall toward relatively lower risk portfolios.  Yet pension funds pay a management fee to private equity firms, and then the first 20% or so of investment profits go to private equity as well.  For these fixed costs pension investors receive rights to the residual returns, which may be positive or, as in the case that leads the article, negative.  Present and future pensioners are paying for the opportunity to play a lottery.

It should really be the other way around.  General partners like private equity funds should pay pension funds an initial percent on investment for access to capital along with returns up to some specified level.  The private equity folks, being more risk-loving (in theory) would then grab what’s left.  In this way the risk would be allocated according to levels of fiduciary responsibility.  Why should wealthy speculators load the risk onto working class retirees?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"From him exact usury whom it would not be a crime to kill."

The truth about usury lies somewhere beyond St. Ambrose's condemnation and Jeremy Bentham's cavalier apologetics. In a very brief but valuable essay, Francis Bacon counselled,
It is good to set before us the incommodities and commodities of usury, that the good may be either weighed out or culled out; and warily to provide, that while we make forth to that which is better, we meet not with that which is worse. 
Strictly speaking, compound interest is usury. Discounting is compound interest, ergo discounting is usury.  Bentham, who upheld usury in a series of letters addressed to Adam Smith, also was a pioneering proponent of cost-benefit analysis for public investments. Considering that usury has both incommodities and commodities, a proper cost-benefit analysis would need to evaluate the costs as well as the benefits that arise from the discounting of future value.

The typical way of handling traditional objections to usury is to cite scripture and the interpretations of it offered by religious authorities. This was the method followed by Benjamin Nelson in The Idea of Usury, whose analysis was taken up by Lewis Hyde in The Gift and by David Graeber in Debt: the first 5000 years. But the biblical injunctions are laconic and subsequent interpretations may partake more of rationalization than impetus. Bentham was right when he observed,
It is one thing, to find reasons why it is fit a law should have been made: it is another to find the reasons why it was made: in other words, it is one thing to justify a law: it is another thing to account for its existence. 
Bentham's defence of usury, though, was as verbose and meandering as the infamous passage from Deuteronomy about brethren and strangers was terse. His account of the grounds for the prejudice against usury was frivolous and dismissive. "To trace an error to its fountain head," Bentham cited Lord Coke, "is to refute it." What Bentham meant by "trace" was "assert." According to him, the prohibition of usury was motivated by the perverse asceticism of early Christians, foolish abstractions of Aristotle and ill-tempered envy toward the wealthy by the profligate debtors.

More concisely and substantively, Francis Bacon presented, in one paragraph, a catalogue of seven disadvantages arising from usury. A second paragraph elaborated on three advantages. Bacon's fourth criticism of usury is of particular interest:
…it bringeth the treasure of a realm or state into a few hands; for the usurer being at certainties, and others at uncertainties, at the end of the game most of the money will be in the box; and ever a state flourisheth when wealth is more equally spread…
In favour of usury, Bacon's second point is his most compelling:
…were it not for this easy borrowing upon interest, men's necessities would draw upon them a most sudden undoing, in that they would be forced to sell their means (be it lands or goods), far under foot; and so, whereas usury doth but gnaw upon them, bad markets would swallow them quite up.
In modern parlance, Bacon's most compelling arguments, both for and against usury, refer to what Marshall called the "external economies" -- or positive and negative externalities -- of the loan transactions. For better or worse then, compound interest is a vehicle for the shifting of costs and benefits. It is well to remember, in this connection, Joan Martinez-Alier's observation that "one can see externalities not as market failures but as cost-shifting successes."

One doesn't need to assume that cost shifting is necessarily a bad thing. Insurance, including social insurance, is a form of cost shifting. But when the project being evaluated in a cost-benefit analysis has the overt purpose of internalizing the cost of externalities -- such as in the analysis of abatement of greenhouse gas -- it is disingenuous to overlook the role of compound interest in enabling the social cost shifting in the first place and of perpetuating it over the period being analyzed. In other words, part of the value allegedly being "added" by capital in the analysis is not in fact being produced but is merely being appropriated by capital through social cost shifting.

(See also "Why Is the Discount Rate So Important?" page 9 in "More than Meets the Eye: The Social Cost of Carbon in U.S. Climate Policy, in Plain English.")

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Biggest Nonlinearity in the Short Run Cost of Mitigating Climate Change

David Roberts, bless ‘im, has another fine post in which he sums up a pair of recent journal articles that cast doubt on estimates of the cost of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations.  The two main points he emphasizes are both quite sensible.  First, long-term economic prognostication is a fool’s errand.  He highlights a telling quote from one study by Rosen and Guenther:
[G]iven all the uncertainties and variability in the economic results of the IAMs [integrated assessment models] … the claimed high degree of accuracy in GDP loss projections is highly implausible. After all, economists cannot usually forecast the GDP of a single country for one year into the future with such a high accuracy, never mind for the entire world for 50 years, or more.
Precisely.  Or as Keynes put it,
The sense in which I am using the term [uncertainty] is that in which the prospect of a European war is uncertain, or the price of copper and the rate of interest twenty years hence, or the obsolescence of a new invention, or the position of private wealth owners in the social system in 1970.  About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable  probability whatever. (The General Theory, 1937)
The second point is that economies are complex interdependent systems whose interconnections can’t possibly be modeled by analysts who know only the world as it is now, not the world as it will become.  One disturbing factor, of course, will be climate change itself, which will likely have deep, and mostly impossible to foresee, effects on many aspects of the economy.  Similarly, different technological and institutional configurations of the future economy of the planet can’t be captured by models that consider them separately, or only in light of their market connections.

Now I’d like to add two further observations to the mix.  The first is that the long run economic costs of climate change mitigation, the ones that will show up over the course of 50 or 100 years, are really irrelevant.  The case for taking action doesn’t depend on them, and future people will have to figure out how to cope with them when the time comes.  It’s the short term costs, the ones that will make themselves known during the first years of serious policy implementation, that matter.  They matter for policy, because if we can anticipate them we can take actions to minimize their impact.  Crucially, they matter for political economy, since the opposition to action on climate change is ultimately about short run costs: who bears them and how big they are expected to be.

The second observation is that the biggest nonlinearity is hiding right under our nose: the potential for writing off a portion of the capital stock.  All existing models assume that capital goods are employed until they fully depreciate, with reduced productivity of the stock related smoothly to more rapid depreciation: if a change in relative prices means a unit of capital is a bit less productive, its lifespan will be a bit shorter.

This assumption rules out a fundamental nonlinearity: each unit of capital has a tipping point, a critical balance of revenues and operating costs that separates utilizing it from abandoning it.  Consider a simple example: an airplane.  A large passenger airplane is a significant piece of capital investment.  Its profitability depends on the cost of providing air travel and the willingness of travelers to pay for it.  If the cost of fossil fuel rises due to a carbon tax or cap, airline companies have to raise prices and cope with the resulting loss of demand.  This can mean somewhat fewer flights and more empty seats.  But there is a level of price increases at which the plane is simply taken out of service: it’s no longer profitable to operate it.  Indeed, an entire company may liquidate, going from a substantial capitalization to scrap.  There is almost certainly some fuel price that triggers this discontinuity, although we don’t necessarily know what it is in advance.  The same point likely holds for many investments in transportation, shipping, real estate and fuel-intensive manufacturing.

If this view is correct, economists should put research into the short run effects of fossil fuel prices on the capital stock into high gear.  The cumulative effect of such writeoffs will be macroeconomic disruption, which we can offset through policy if we can see it coming.  Above all, identifying the investments most at risk from climate policy will tell us more about the political barriers we face than a thousand surveys about public attitudes toward science.

For more on cost, see this post from The Road from Carbonville.

A Tipping Point for Sexual Harassment

I have nothing to add to this important piece about sexual harassment and the dependence of restaurant servers on tips.  Read it yourself.  The practice of holding servers hostage to the emotional fluxes and fantasies of customers is barbaric.  Visitors from Europe, at least the ones I know, are appalled.  Surely one of the reasons for working for a living is to not have to depend on alms.

Voting in Texas

The Texas voting law just upheld by the US Supreme Court requires voters to show a picture ID at the polls and specifies what kinds qualify.  A gun permit is OK, a college ID isn’t.

Amity Shlaes and Cliff Asness Are Not Economists

Now that I have the obvious – can Brad DeLong explain why he wastes his precious time with these two? OK – we have this nonsense to deal with:
Even if what the Fed is doing is not inflationary, the arbitrary fashion in which our central bank responds to markets betrays a lack of concern about inflation. And that behavior by monetary authorities is enough to make markets expect inflation in future.
These two sentences convinced more than ever that no one should ever take Amity Shlaes seriously, but why we are at it, here is what I wrote over at Mark Thoma’s blog:
I'm not sure why anyone wastes time with her or this Cliff Asness person. Neither know anything about economics. My proof? The utter stupidity of their writing as noted in this quote. Hey Amity - we are far below full employment. With nominal interest rates at rock bottom and with the fiscal austerity that your idiot Republican masters have imposed on us - what is left? Oh yea - higher expected inflation might lower real interest rates in spite of the zero interest rate bound. And you think this is a bad thing? Stupid!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Nightmare in the Eurozone: Is OMT Going to Be Put to the Test?

Nothing fundamental has changed in the Eurozone.  The region is sputtering, alternating between sluggish growth and outright recession.  Inflation is below target and trending ever downward.  Imbalances between surplus and deficit countries remain unsustainable.  European banks are still stumbling along with unknown equity buffers, and it falls on the fiscally strapped governments of the periphery to backstop their own institutions.  Austerity fails to deliver on debt reduction, since moribund economies can’t generate enough tax revenue, and the denominator in the debt/GDP ratio refuses to grow.  So it has been, and so it is.

The only barrier standing between the current mess and a return to the sovereign debt crises of a couple of years ago is Draghi’s pledge to do whatever it takes to keep the bond vigilantes at bay.  What has always been unknown is the extent to which this promise (Outright Monetary Transactions) is a false front.  If there were new runs on the weakest sovereigns, would the ECB go on a buying binge to keep prices up?  Germany has been explicit in its opposition to OMT, which it regards as illegal and, in its version of macroeconomic moralism, sinful.  Still, financial markets were reluctant to take on the ECB for fear that Draghi would do what he said, and that bets against the sovereigns would not pay.

Nevertheless, the longer the bleeding continues in the EZ, the more likely it is that OMT will be tested.  Greece, with SYRIZA spooking the moneyed class, is already seeing a runup in its interest rates, and contagion is not out of the question.  The problem of the hour, however, is that the credibility of OMT hinges on Germany backing down in the confrontation over austerity.

Here’s why.  Throughout the zone, governments are challenging the 3% cap on fiscal deficits.  In the face of a potentially devastating triple dip recession, they have no choice.  Moreover, the steady rise in the popularity of Euroskeptic parties aligns the politics with the economics.  Bond issues will expand, and as they do, markets will wonder whether the rising debt still has Draghi’s backing, particularly since it will be in explicit defiance of Germany’s demands—and Germany, in theory, has the power to prevent Draghi from carrying out OMT.

Put this way, it all seems rather obvious: the cost of permitting a renewed run on the debt of weaker sovereigns is so great that surely Germany would have to back down, implicitly if not overtly.  So one would think, and I hope this happens.  But sometimes political commitments can take on a life of their own.  Germany has clearly drawn a line in the sand, and the domestic credibility of Merkel—and her coalition partner, the SPD, as well—would collapse if she were seen to do an about-face.  Up to this point, domestic German politics has entirely dominated external relations in German policy-making.

Given enough time and further economic deterioration in Germany itself (which will persuade business interests to demand a change in direction), I expect Germany to accede.  The problem is one of timing.  Here is the scary scenario:

1. Talks between Germany and the expansionistas break down.  France and its Mediterranean allies begin expanding their fiscal deficits, while Germany publicly rebukes them and indicates that it will not permit the ECB to support “irresponsible” deficits with bond purchases. There is a temporary surge in support for Merkel within Germany, as she shows herself to be principled and tough.

2. Investors, sensing new weakness on the part of the ECB, start shorting sovereign debt, first in Greece, then perhaps again in Spain and, crucially, Italy.

3. The moment of truth for OMT, delayed for two years, now arrives.  Either Draghi follows through or he doesn’t.  To back up his pledge he needs Germany to go along.  But Merkel has drawn a line in the sand, one which has overwhelming popularity at home, and if she allows Draghi to go forward she faces a political catastrophe.  Moreover, neither the CDU nor the SPD wants to be the party that breaks ranks and allows the other to play the role of the steadfast defender of economic virtue.  Germany says “no” and......

You can take it from there.

If you think such a disaster ought to be kept at as great a distance as possible, what you should hope for is that Germany backs down now, before a crisis materializes, and that serious attention is given to the underlying structural and institutional factors that make Eurozone finances so precarious in the first place.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Utility and Happiness

Utility is a hypothetical measure of well-being used by economists (and others) to construct models of individual choice.  It is whatever motivates people to make the choices they make.  It cannot be seen or measured directly, only inferred from those choices under the assumption that there is a single “something” behind them.

In recent years the concept of utility, along with the claim that individuals act to maximize it, has come under attack.  Other aspects of well-being, like self-reported happiness or satisfaction, certain types of brain activity, and indicators of physical and emotional health are directly measurable, and it’s been found that people often, and systematically, make choices that fail to optimize these substantive benefits.  In fact, there has been a lively and complex debate, kicked off by the Easterlin Paradox, over whether and under what conditions increases in real income correspond to increases in directly measurable well-being.

So today I notice a new post on Vox by Glaeser, Gottlieb and Ziv that defends utility against the claims of self-reported life satisfaction.  The big name here, for those who don’t know, is Ed Glaeser, perhaps the most prominent urban economist working today.  They say, we’ve found new evidence that people’s choices don’t maximize their happiness: they could move to a different location and become happier but they don’t.  Hence there’s a conflict between utility, the invisible whatever that causes people to choose what they choose, and measurable happiness.  And this shows that policies geared toward increasing happiness are misguided, because utility is what should be maximized.

Tell me if I’m missing something here, but what I see is this: (1) We have a theory that people’s choices maximize something called utility. (2) But we have evidence that measurable well-being is not maximized by these choices. (3) Therefore we conclude that measurable well-being is a bad proxy for “true” well-being.

Of course, any single measurable dimension of well-being is likely to be incomplete.  We really do need, as Stiglitz et al. said, a dashboard of indicators.  But surely the shortcomings of any one measure can only be assessed against other measures.  And my having chosen A over B is not in itself a substantive measure of how well off I am basking in my subsequent A-ness.  The question, after all, is whether the economic choices people make maximize their well-being.  To test this we go out and gather various independent measures of well-being.  When we find out they diverge in significant ways from revealed preferences, it is weird to use this as a demonstration that the evidence can’t really show what it seems to show, since our hypothesis about utility maximization has to be right.  And for “weird” you can also substitute “ideological”.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

David Cameron leads Britain into the 19th century

Cameron ridicules France's 'nonsense' 35 hour working week, Daily Mail: "Mr Cameron launched his attack on the French employment model while responding to questions from pensioners and older workers at Age UK's London head office.":
The idea - economists would call it the lump of labour fallacy - the idea that there is just a fixed number of jobs and all you have got to do is try and divide them up between young people, old people, males, females - I think it's nonsense.
...
Very dangerous to ever point a finger at another European country but I sometimes think the French, with their obsession with the 35-hour working week, they are falling into the danger of a lump of labour fallacy, where ‘if only everyone just worked 35 hours there would be more work to go round.
Also at Guardian Politics live blog.

"Why economists dislike a lump of labor," Tom Walker, Review of Social Economy, 2007, vol. 65, issue 3, pages 279-291

Abstract: The lump-of-labor fallacy has been called one of the “best known fallacies in economics.” It is widely cited in disparagement of policies for reducing the standard hours of work, yet the authenticity of the fallacy claim is questionable, and explanations of it are inconsistent and contradictory. This article discusses recent occurrences of the fallacy claim and investigates anomalies in the claim and its history. S.J. Chapman's coherent and formerly highly regarded theory of the hours of labor is reviewed, and it is shown how that theory could lend credence to the job-creating potentiality of shorter working time policies. It concludes that substituting a dubious fallacy claim for an authentic economic theory may have obstructed fruitful dialogue about working time and the appropriate policies for regulating it.

Good silliness vs. bad silliness

Paul Krugman, October 14, 2014: Jean Tirole's New Industrial Economics "made it safe to be strategically silly, to the great benefit of economics."

Paul Krugman, October 7, 2014: "the rigorous-sounding but actually silly notion that you can’t produce more without using more energy."

Weitzman's Burden: do we dare to question economic growth?

Do we dare to question economic growth? asks Warwick Smith in a Comment is Free op-ed at the Guardian:
We live on a finite planet. 
That’s it. How, you might wonder, can such a simple statement of obvious fact undermine the tenets of modern society?
According to Paul Krugman, though, "there’s a lot of room to reduce emissions without killing economic growth. If you think you've found a deep argument showing that this isn't possible, all you've done is get confused by your own word games."

O.K., let's play some serious "word games," then, and try not to get confused.

Actually, these are word games about pictures. One of them is Wittgenstein's discussion of the duck-rabbit picture. The other is Keynes's discussion of the newspaper beauty contest in which contestants are asked to guess which pictures the most contestants think are prettiest.

But let's start with another quote from Paul Krugman, "So what I end up with is basically Martin Weitzman’s argument: it’s the nonnegligible probability of utter disaster..." What the probability of utter disaster does in Weitzman's argument is render the standard cost-benefit analysis, based on a market-based discount rate, inoperative. What's a discount rate? It's an interest rate, or more specifically, according to Investopedia,
The discount rate also refers to the interest rate used in discounted cash flow analysis to determine the present value of future cash flows. The discount rate in discounted cash flow analysis takes into account not just the time value of money, but also the risk or uncertainty of future cash flows; the greater the uncertainty of future cash flows, the higher the discount rate.
So a discount rate is an interest rate. What is an interest rate? In the retrospective, "From Usury to Interest," Joseph Persky explained,
Our modern word 'interest' derives from the Medieval Latin interesse. The Oxford English Dictionary explains that interesse originally meant a penalty for the default on or late payment of an otherwise legitimate, nonusurious loan. As more sophisticated commercial and financial practices spread through Europe, fictitious late payments became an accepted if disingenuous way of circumventing usury laws. Over time, 'interest' became the generic term for all legitimate and accepted payments on loans.
A discount rate is an interest rate is a (formerly) usurious charge on a loan. Now, if I were to say next that "economic growth is another aspect of compound interest" or that "usury is what propels growth and what makes it imperative" an economist would insist that I am some kind of a crank. I won't say that.

I won't say it because what we're dealing with here are not economic growth and interest rates but accounts of economic growth and interest. These accounts are like pictures and here is where Wittgenstein can be of help. Paul Krugman, and EconoSpeak's own Peter Dorman, are fond of reminding us that critics of growth "mistakenly" identify GDP with "stuff." They point out that it is value, not stuff, that gets added up in the national income accounts. This is a bit like saying the duck-rabbit picture is a picture of a rabbit, not of a duck.


GDP certainly is not stuff. It is an account of something. And it is most definitely an account of something that many -- possibly most -- people perceive of as stuff. The question then arises whether the "value" that economists attribute to GDP would continue to carry the same weight if the people who formerly perceived of GDP as accounting for stuff stopped having that perception. This is another way to pose the question, "what is liquidity?"

What is liquidity? Clearly Keynes thought that liquidity-preference resulted from uncertainty and that changes in liquidity-preference are implicated in slumps to the extent that the rate of interest required to induce people to not hoard liquid assets exceeds the expected rate of return on productive investments. In other words, while GDP is indeed not stuff, whether it is perceived to be an account of stuff may well have a bearing on private investment decisions.

Furthermore, whether an individual investor does or does not believe that GDP is an account of stuff doesn't matter as much as what that investor believes is the average perception of investors. Keynes illustrated this condition with his beauty contest story.

In conclusion, Weitzman presented a compelling case for the inappropriateness of using market interest rates as a discount rate for cost-benefit analysis of policies for abatement of GHG emissions. There are no grounds for assuming that capital markets would react benignly to such policies, however prudent and appropriate they may be.

Is there "a lot of room to reduce emissions without killing economic growth?" as Paul Krugman asserts or "do we dare to question economic growth?" as Warwick Smith wants to know.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Chile and Beer

Sorry about the header, but there’s been renewed interest in the pioneering work of Stafford Beer in Allende’s Chile, first as a result of Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries (2011) and now the article by Evgeny Morozov in the current New Yorker.  Beer was a management specialist who applied cybernetic principles to business organization.  He was brought to Chile to design a cybernetic planning system for the entire economy, Cybersyn, which died stillborn when Allende was overthrown in a coup in 1973.  Undoubtedly, this is one of the great might-have-beens in the twentieth century: what could Beer have built if he had been given enough time and resources?

I have more than a passing interest in this topic.  I regularly teach a course called Alternatives to Capitalism, and I used the Medina book in the most recent iteration.  This fall I am working on a paper (as a co-author) that brings together Beer’s “viable model” of the firm with economic analysis, with a focus on the determinants of worker autonomy.  I’ve been imbibing Beer regularly for some time.

There is a lot to say about the new round of Beer enthusiasm.  I don’t want to get into a pissing contest (where are these puns coming from?), but I believe Morozov is quite wrong to identify Beer with the Soviet cyberneticians depicted, for example, in Francis Spufford’s marvelous Red Plenty.  The Soviet reformers wanted to use computers to calculate efficient planning prices; there were no prices in Beer’s model.  There was no bottom-up reversal of authority in the Soviet vision, not even in theory, whereas that was intended to be the distinctive aspect of Cybersyn, the feature that would make it “really” socialist.  While computers played a role in both approaches, it’s a mistake to put too much weight on them, big and heavy as they were back then.  Beer, after all, had made his reputation with minimum knowledge or use of computers; his cybernetics was organizational and conceptual.

But I don’t think that the actual potential of Cybersyn matched Beer’s vision for it, and its shortcomings even during the limited period in which it was in partial operation bear this out.  Beer’s critics were right, in fact: this really was a project whose result could only be to intensify centralized control over decisions at lower levels—the computer as Big Brother.  Production systems were taken as given at the enterprise level, and the only questions were those asked in operations research: how much should we dial up this process or dial down that one?  People were simply instruments in this framework; they had no ability to change the questions that were being asked.

From an economic point of view, I’m afraid Beer did not rise to the Hayek challenge.  Cybersyn processed information about the throughput of materials and products far more efficiently than the Hayek of 1937 could have imagined, but it left unexamined the problem of how information is ultimately generated.  An internet of things can tell you what materials are going where, but it can’t identify promising innovations in production systems or tell you which innovations should be replicated and which discarded.  Worse, it has no way to assess the quality of what’s being produced, since it is primarily consumers who need to be able to decide this.  Hayek is surely right that what we would now call parallel processing is needed to implement trial-and-error methods in real time, and there need to be incentives for improved production methods and higher quality.  Hayek, non-Walrasian that he was, would probably say, and I would agree with him, that Beer’s model works well within firms but not between them, since coordination is not the primary problem that economies, rather than firms, need to solve.  (The deep problem is coordinate to do what and in what way?)

I’m compressing a much more detailed argument and should probably stop here.  None of this, incidentally, has to do with the paper I’m writing, since that one is about the theory of the firm.  I should also add that Beer’s ideas are valuable and can be incorporated into a better model of economic planning, just not the way he went about it.  The guy was brilliant but he didn’t know much economics.

UPDATE: Here are two more thoughts about Cybersyn.

A. For Beeristas, it should be disturbing that his Chilean model lacked a System II, in this case meaning there was no provision for horizontal communication between firms.  All information flowed up and down, passing through the center.  In fact, it was all System III—with no apparent Systems IV or V.  System III is the element of command-based hierarchy.

B. Mechanical application of the viable systems model to whole economies is a dubious enterprise.  The clearest evidence for this is the large role that markets play at present.  Markets do not exemplify any of Beer’s systems beyond System I (direct activity of the units); they operate on a different basis.  This doesn’t mean that markets are perfect or that planning is impossible, only that before you start postulating how economies need to be organized you ought to take a close look at how markets do this.  Specifically, as I tried to explain above, markets accomplish several functions that are necessary to a modern economy but are not addressed by Cybersyn.  Does this imply a division of labor?  What division?

To put it in Beerian terms, Cybersyn is not an economic brain.  What it approximates is the autonomic nervous system, in the sense that János Kornai and Béla Martos described it in Autonomous Control of the Economic System.  It’s fine for a paramecium but rather limited for a human.

Hiatt Hysterical Over Losing His Schtick

Poor Fred Hiatt.  For years, this Editor of the Editorial page of the Washington Post has made his named appearances on the editorial page (he daily bloviates the main ed lead anonymously) only to call for cutting Social Security, and occasionally Medicare as well.  This has been his schtick for many years.  Now it is over, but he fails to recognize it.

OK, for some time I have been ridiculing him over this obsession of his, which he has imposed on many other regular writers on WaPo's ed page, including R.J. Samuelson, Ruth Marcus, and even more recently, Catherine Rampell.  I almost wrote on this when he went nuts over this on Monday, but Dean Baker  whonked on him pretty solidly immediately, pointing out how stupid and ridiculous he looked, declaring that while today's US debt/GDP ratio is 74%, with near zero interest rates, ten years from now the CBO says it will be 78%, which Hiatt hysterically declared to be "dangerous."  The 104% forecast for 2039 he declared to be "unsustainable," which Dean correctly pointed out was totally ridiculous.  So, I did not post anything.
   
Needless to say, the ridicule has mounted, some of it more general, some of it more specific.  So, Paul Krugman has pointed out the problem of "secret deficit lovers," people who have made a living whining about deficit dangers, but now that the latest reports say the deficit is going down are unhappy, because their longstanding calls to cut benefits for old people are not likely to be taken seriously in the near future. PK named no names, but Fred Hiatt is near the top of the list, if not absolutely at the top.  More personally, John Podesta, whom he cited in his Monday WaPo piece, perhaps the single most stupid and embarassing column he has ever written, has dumped all over him in on Twitter with an accompanying column in yesterday's WaPo, as linked to by Mark  Thoma.

So, let me add my two bits to this that none of the above have yet said.  First of all, it is amazing that when confronted with good news from the CBO that medical care costs are falling, leading to declining future deficit projections, Hiatt does not applaud, indeed, does not anywhere in his column even note that this is a change in the future projections.  He does note the new data, without noting how it reduces the hysteria of his past columns, but he continues to whine that while in the past Obama appointed the Bowles-Simpson commission that called for cuts in senior entitlements, along with tax increases that GOP members of that commission would not accept (see Paul Ryan), which somehow for years Hiatt has accepted as something irresolutely unbridgeable (he briefly noted that tax increases were one way out of senior entitlement problems, but did not remotely recommend them, despite longstanding polls showing support for exactly this solution to any such problem seriously arising in the future), he simply cannot bring himself to admit that the problem he has been carrying on about for so many years so hysterically simply is not what he claimed it was.  He, and many of his close pals, have simply been wrong wrong wrong.

So, here we have poor Hiatt, resolutely ignoring good news.  Not a whisper in his column that in fact the CBO is now forecasting not only continuing deficit reductions in the near future (with most of the US public still mistakenly believing that they are higher, with no help from WaPo on informing them otherwise).  CBO carefully does not project forward further reductions in med care costs, and Hiatt does not even remotely raise the possibility of such, much less the idea that maybe the way to avoid having a debt/GDP ratio over 100 a quarter of a century from now might be to focus on continuing the effort of Obama to bring down med care costs in the US to OECD levels.  Dean Baker has long pointed out that if our med care costs were at OECD levels, we would not have this long term deficit problem at all.  And there are many obvious ways to move in that direction, from reducing the power of pharma patents to loosening immigration rules for physicians, along with many others.

So, I feel sorry for Fred.  Beating up on seniors who have paid in their taxes for what they are getting has been the one an only topic that has  inspired him to write columns under his own name for many years.  The new projections of lower deficits, good news to most of us, simply do not register with him.  Actually, they probably do.  But Krugman is right.  As much as anybody, he is the longstanding VSP in DC who has been whining for years about cutting Social Security and Medicare, whose excuse for this argument has simply disappeared, but he and his pals simply are not willing to face the new facts.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Saudi Problem With Daesh (aka ISIS/ISIL/IS)

Crossroads Arabia reports on an article in Saudi newspaper al-Monitor by commentator, Bader al-Rashed.  He is upset that apparently Daesh (aka ISIS/ISIL/IS) is distributing books in its territory of control by Muhammed ibn Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabist movement that is the ruling ideology of the Saudi royal family since the 1740s.  This would suggest that indeed Daesh is strongly Wahhabist in its fundamental orientation.

Al-Rashed in turn argues that no, they are not.  Daesh are really Kharijites, a Muslim group from the early days of Islam that was neither Sunni nor Shi'i, and was strict in its views and was based mostly in what is now southern Iraq.  They were famous for their intense takfirism, a practice of excommunicating people they viewed as not being proper Muslims.  That would indeed seem to be something that Daesh likes to do. This is tied with the notion of apostasy, which is outlawed in 21 Muslim countries and punishable by death.  I note that some interpreters of the Qur'an read the relevant passages as allowing for amputation or expulsion as alternatives, and certainly the last of these would be far more humane. 

There are no self-declared Kharijites anywhere in the world now, and Daesh does not identify itself as such.  The closest group, although more moderate than the old Kharijites, would be Ibadis, a group descended from a close relative of the Kharijites.  They are dominant in Oman today and are neither Sunni nor Shi'i, actually seeming more moderate than most nations ruled by either of those.

In any case, it must be recognized that Daesh is drawing strongly on fundamental theology of the Saudis.  The latter must oppose them because their declaraion of caliphate says they should rule Mecca, Medina, and al Quds, (Jerusalem).  The king of Saudi Arabia;s proudest title is Protector of the Holy Cities, Mecca and Medina, with a successful Haj just completed.  They do not claim to be caliphs, but do not wish to give up their rule of those cities, or that title.

Barkley Rosser

A throw of the D.I.C.E. will never abolish chance

In Building a Green Economy, NYT Magazine, April 7, 2010, Paul Krugman wrote,
As Harvard’s Martin Weitzman has argued in several influential papers, if there is a significant chance of utter catastrophe, that chance — rather than what is most likely to happen — should dominate cost-benefit calculations. And utter catastrophe does look like a realistic possibility, even if it is not the most likely outcome. 
Weitzman argues — and I agree — that this risk of catastrophe, rather than the details of cost-benefit calculations, makes the most powerful case for strong climate policy. Current projections of global warming in the absence of action are just too close to the kinds of numbers associated with doomsday scenarios. It would be irresponsible — it’s tempting to say criminally irresponsible — not to step back from what could all too easily turn out to be the edge of a cliff.
... 
So what I end up with is basically Martin Weitzman’s argument: it’s the nonnegligible probability of utter disaster that should dominate our policy analysis. And that argues for aggressive moves to curb emissions, soon.
So far, so good. But Krugman's conclusion produced this pretzel of cognitive dissonance:
...there has to be a real chance that political support for action on climate change will revive. 
If it does, the economic analysis will be ready [no, it isn't]. We know how to limit greenhouse-gas emissions [no, we don't]. We have a good sense of the costs [nope] — and they’re manageable [how could we know?]. All we need now is the political will.
Krugman apparently assumed that the cost estimates developed, for example, in Nordhaus's "dynamic integrated climate-economy" (DICE) analyses are independent of when the greenhouse gas abatement actions are taken. But the rationale for delaying abatement is that the discount rate assumed in the model makes it cheaper to wait to do the abatement. Weitzman's critique doesn't present cost estimates. Contra Krugman, there is not even a consensus about what needs to be done or how to do it, let alone "a good sense of the costs" of doing... it? Whatever "it" is.

The bottom line (literally) is that a key consideration of the structure and assumptions of the conventional models was facilitating economic growth and relying on that economic growth to finance the costs of abatement. The DICE were loaded for growth! To put it somewhat crudely, delaying abatement was supposed to make a large part of the cost "pay for itself" through the dividends earned on the money saved by not doing it now. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. Nor can you finance a current expenditure from revenues you would have earned if you hadn't made the expenditure.

The excerpts and abstracts below are not from people Krugman would ridicule as "degrowthers." There seems to be a dawning awareness that the assumptions of the conventional integrated assessment models need to be, at the very least, radically revised, which is essentially the point those silly anti-capitalist degrowthers on the left (going back to that silly anti-capitalist leftist Nicolaus Georgescu-Roegen)  have been making all along.

"Climate Change Policy: What Do the Models Tell Us?" Robert S. Pindyck
Very little. A plethora of integrated assessment models (IAMs) have been constructed and used to estimate the social cost of carbon (SCC) and evaluate alternative abatement policies. These models have crucial flaws that make them close to useless as tools for policy analysis: certain inputs (e.g., the discount rate) are arbitrary, but have huge effects on the SCC estimates the models produce; the models’ descriptions of the impact of climate change are completely ad hoc, with no theoretical or empirical foundation; and the models can tell us nothing about the most important driver of the SCC, the possibility of a catastrophic climate outcome. IAM-based analyses of climate policy create a perception of knowledge and precision, but that perception is illusory and misleading.
"Climate Policy: Science, Economics, and Extremes," Anthony C. Fisher and Phu V. Le
Economic models help illustrate the links between the climate and the economy, and they are an important component of the multidisciplinary analysis that is needed to address climate change. However, there are major problems with the estimates of potential damages in the IAMs... First, damage functions and estimates appear to have little connection to the empirical findings from econometric studies of sectoral impacts, particularly on agriculture, as we discuss later. More generally, economy-wide damage functions are simply not known, especially at the global level. Thus, as Pindyck (2013b) argues, there is little empirical, or for that matter theoretical, foundation for the specification of functional forms and parameters in the models. This suggests that their quantitative results and policy prescriptions are somewhat arbitrary. 
We agree with Stern (2013) that there are gross underestimations of damages in economic impact models and IAMs, and we discuss some additional issues that are not adequately addressed in the models including the importance of nonlinearities, environmental impacts, extreme events, and capital losses.
"Endogenous growth, convexity of damages and climate risk: how Nordhaus' framework supports deep cuts in carbon emissions." Simon Dietz and Nicholas Stern
'To slow or not to slow' (Nordhaus, 1991) was the first economic appraisal of greenhouse gas emissions abatement and founded a large literature on a topic of great, worldwide importance. In this paper we offer our assessment of the original article and trace its legacy, in particular Nordhaus' later series of 'DICE' models. From this work many have drawn the conclusion that an efficient global emissions abatement policy comprises modest and modestly increasing controls. On the contrary, we use DICE itself to provide an initial illustration that, if the analysis is extended to take more strongly into account three essential elements of the climate problem -- the endogeneity of growth, the convexity of damages, and climate risk -- optimal policy comprises strong controls. To focus on these features and facilitate comparison with Nordhaus' work, all of the analysis is conducted with a high pure-time discount rate, notwithstanding its problematic ethical foundations. [We have argued elsewhere that careful scrutiny of the ethical issues around pure-time discounting points to lower values than are commonly assumed (usually with little serious discussion).]
"Climate Risks and Carbon Prices: Revising the Social Cost of Carbon," Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth A. Stanton
Once the social cost of carbon is high enough to justify maximum feasible abatement in cost-benefit terms, then cost-benefit analysis becomes functionally equivalent to a precautionary approach to carbon emissions. All that remains for economic analysis of climate policy is to determine the cost-minimizing strategy for eliminating emissions as quickly as possible. This occurs because the marginal damages from emissions have become so large; the uncertainties explored in our analysis, regarding damages and climate sensitivity, imply that the marginal damage curve could turn nearly vertical at some point, representing a catastrophic or discontinuous change.  
The factors driving this result are uncertainties, not known facts. We cannot know in advance how large climate damages, or climate sensitivity, will turn out to be. The argument is analogous to the case for buying insurance: it is the prudent choice, not because we are sure that catastrophe will occur, but because we cannot be sufficiently sure that it will not occur. By the time we know what climate sensitivity and high-temperature damages turn out to be, it will be much too late to do anything about it. The analysis here demonstrates that plausible values for key uncertainties imply catastrophically large values of the social cost of carbon.

Our results offer a new way to make sense of the puzzling finding by Martin Weitzman: his “dismal theorem” establishes that under certain assumptions, the marginal benefit of emission reduction could literally be infinite (Weitzman 2009). The social cost of carbon, which measures the marginal benefit of emission reduction, is not an observable price in any actual market. Rather, it is a shadow price, deduced from an analysis of climate dynamics and economic impacts. Its only meaning is as a guide to welfare calculations; we can obtain a more accurate understanding of the welfare consequences of policy choices by incorporating that shadow price for emissions.