Monday, December 31, 2007

More Health Care Outrages

As if the health care situation were not bad enough, Business Week has an very good report showing how medical providers are signing unwitting patients up to transfer their bills onto credit cards that charge unconscionable rates. How much further can this crap go?

36: "... hospitals and clinics are bringing in more sophisticated help. They are transferring patient accounts wholesale to finance experts, banks, credit-card companies, and even private equity firms. Many of these third parties use credit scores and risk-analysis software to price the debt and impose interest rates as high as 27% on past-due bills."

36: "A host of nimble firms like CompleteCare in North Little Rock, Ark., began exploring this terrain years ago. Bigger players have jumped in more recently, although the market remains fragmented and reliable market share information isn't available. U.S. Bank, a U.S. Bancorp unit, finances about $2 million in patient debt per month through a medical-benefit firm, charging most customers annual interest of 13.5%, and as much as 24% on late bills. General Electric's powerful financial arm markets its CareCredit card to dentists, plastic surgeons, and some hospitals, with loan volume expected to hit $5 billion this year, up 40% from 2006. Citigroup and Capital One now offer similar cards. "Everybody is saying [medical finance] is the next horizon -- whether it is lines of credit or credit cards," says June St. John, a senior vice-president at Wachovia, which is exploring the business. Whetting all these appetites is the $250 billion consumers pay in medical expenses out of their pockets, an amount that doesn't include insurance premiums. That's an estimate for 2005 from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. The figure could hit $420 billion by 2015."

36: "Many patients say they don't realize their debts are being shifted to such interest-charging middlemen as GE Money Bank, the unit that issues the CareCredit card."

39: "CompleteCare, the small Arkansas firm ... says it works with 40 hospitals and more than 400 physician practices across the country. Addressing potential health-industry clients, the company boasts on its Web site that it "pioneered the concept that patients become consumers the minute they walk out of your facility"."

39: Patients can sign an admission-consent forms that include a small-print section authorizing the hospital to turn over her account.

Grow, Brian and Robert Berner. 2007. "Fresh Pain for the Uninsured." Business Week (3 December): pp. 34-41.

Leon Walras and the Nobel Peace Prize

Kissinger's nauseating Nobel Peace Prize award might deflate some of the interest in beyond Leon Walras's nomination. Walras wrote his own nomination and had some colleagues submit it.

The basis of his nomination was his work in mathematical economics. Although he wrote almost about free trade, his claim was that his work had produced a scientific basis for free trade and free trade would be certain to establish a regime world peace. Unfortunately, the nomination went to the great advocate of peace, Theodore Roosevelt.

See Sandmo, Agnar. 2007. "Retrospectives: Léon Walras and the Nobel Peace Prize." Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Fall): pp. 217-28.

Holiday Reading

I am currently reading Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. It is making me crazy. I love Taylor - his Sources of the Self was hugely important to my intellectual odyssey (I understand this is not any kind of recommendation!). The theism that was not explicit in Sources is in full force in this new book. What I first learned from Taylor is the what I'll call the autonomy of the normative and the inadequacy, as a a consequence, of naturalistic explanation in the social sciences. Norms have "authority" and part of the explanation of a person's action in accordance with a norm is, I think, the correctness of the norm - just as the explanation of a person's holding a belief is often the truth of that belief - often, not always. I think we can't make sense of science itself without a notion of objective norms (Cf, inter alia, Jean Hampton's The Authority of Reason). But anyway, does a commitment to the autonomy of the normative commit me to theism, as Taylor's later work more and more seems to imply?! Because then I have a major dilemma on my hands, given my long-standing atheism.

Oh well, Happy New Year, everyone!

Economists for Edwards

Sometime today in Iowa the Edwards campaign will release its official list of Economists for Edwards. The leader of the group is James K.Galbraith, and I announce here that I am among the 30 on the list that he has assembled.

I think he is the most consistently progressive among the leading Dem candidates. I also think he is the most electable, with polls suggesting he is the only one of the top three who is solidly ahead of all four of the top GOP contenders in the electoral college. I am concerned that at one point he went after Hillary briefly over social security, but it is not in his platform, and she has promised to appoint a commission. Obama seems more clearly down on social security and also has a health plan that will not cover all Americans. On this important issue, Edwards seems to have the best plan. I also note that while Edwards voted for the Iraq war resolution (he was on the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, giving him more foreign policy experience than many know he has), he has been strongly against it and a war in Iran since, and probably gave the best followup on the Bhutto assassination of any candidate, actually calling Musharraf up on the phone. I disagree with him on the idea of renegotiating NAFTA, but then all the Dem candidates want to do that. I conclude by noting that it is rate that one gets to support someone who is both the most progressive and the most electable, a winning combo, I say.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Away with Sarbanes Oxley?

Whatever happened to the rabid calls for eliminating Sarbanes Oxley? Does anybody even Enron, Tyco, Worldcom, etc? After calls for strong regulation to prevent such things from happening again, Congress gave us the weak Sarbanes Oxley. Not long after, the business press was squealing about the excessive requirements of Sarbanes Oxley.

Now that the subprime mortgage scam is imploding, Sarbanes Oxley has fallen from notice.

Any thoughts?

Running on empty....

Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!

Los Angeles TIMES

New cars that are fully loaded -- with debt Americans are rolling over loans, often ending up owing more for the vehicle than it's worth.

By Ken Bensinger / Staff Writer

December 30, 2007

When Jennifer and Bobby Post traded in their 2001 Chevy Suburban last year for a shiny new Ford F-350 turbo diesel with an extended cab, it seemed like a great deal. Even though they still owed $9,500 on their SUV after the trade-in value, they didn't have to put a penny down.

The dealership, near the Posts' home in Victorville [California], made it easy; it just added the old debt to the price of the new truck and gave the couple a seven-year, $44,276 loan.

The Posts were a little worried about taking on such a long obligation, but they couldn't pass up a monthly payment under $700. Now they're having regrets.

"I didn't realize how much debt was in it," said Jennifer Post, who has since moved with her family to Iowa. Now, she'd like to get rid of the truck but can't, because there's so much debt that she'd literally have to pay someone to take it off her hands.

"We have no options," she said.

Americans haven't just been taking out risky mortgages for homes in the last few years; they've also been signing larger automobile loans for significantly longer terms than they used to.

As a result, people are slipping into a perpetual cycle of automobile debt that experts think could lead to a new credit crunch extending from dealerships to driveways and all the way to Wall Street.

Aren't you glad that they've tightened consumer bankruptcy laws, making this "perpetual cycle" more like good old-fashioned debt peonage?

Gone are the days of the three-year car loan. The length of the average automobile loan hit five years, four months in October, up more than six months from 2002, according to the Federal Reserve. And nearly 45% of loans written today are for longer than six years. Even some staid lenders owned by the carmakers, such as Toyota Financial Services and Ford Credit, are offering seven-year financing. And a few credit unions, particularly in the West, are tinkering with the eight-year note.

Credit unions, alas, are acting more and more like commercial banks. They used to be more responsible to their members.

At the same time, the amount of money drivers owe on their cars is soaring. In October, the average amount financed hit $30,738, up $3,500 in just a year and nearly 40% in the last decade, according to the Fed. More troubling, today's average car owner owes $4,221 more than the vehicle is worth at the time it's sold -- up from $3,529 in 2002, according to industry analyst Edmunds.

it's an understatement to say that that's much too much!

... It's not just individual consumers who are at financial risk. Nationwide, an estimated $575 billion in new and used auto loans are written every year by auto manufacturers, banks, credit unions and other lenders. About 30% of the loans that are originated by banks, and 100% of those issued by automaker financiers, are, like mortgages, repackaged and sold as securities, according to the Consumer Bankers Assn.

Aha! more securitization, in which spreading the risk around so that people can't perceive it anymore is treated as if it were abolishing risk.

Analysts warn that just as investors didn't comprehend the risk inherent in some of the more exotic home mortgages in recent years, they aren't considering how risky these car loans are. If longer loan terms allow debt on the loans to grow too large, many drivers may simply default, leading to expensive repossessions.

And even those who keep paying their bills may reach a point, like Gerhardt, where they simply can't afford another car. That could send vehicle sales down the drain, a nightmare scenario for an industry that has already taken a hit this year from slower consumer spending and higher gas prices.

It could also lead to serious losses among financial institutions that have invested in car debt. Among securitized auto loans, two-thirds have terms longer than 60 months, a fact that Standard & Poor's, which rates auto debt for sale on the secondary market, calls a "credit concern."

This month, S&P reviewed its ratings on $113.5 billion in auto loan securities it rated in the last two years out of concerns over growing losses. It didn't make any downgrades but predicted that "rising losses will continue into 2008 across all segments of the auto loan market."

S&P has found that delinquencies of more than 60 days on car loans issued this year to borrowers with the best credit are up 20% compared to those issued last year, while delinquencies on loans issued this year to subprime borrowers increased by 16%. Delinquency rates on car loans are still far lower than on mortgages, but there is growing concern in the financial services industry. Indeed, Tom Webb, chief economist of used-auto analyst Manheim Consulting, said he expects the tally for 2007 repossessions to be up by 10%.

Sounds like it's time to crank up that old Emilio Estevez movie, REPO MAN.

Mark Pregmon, executive vice president for consumer lending at SunTrust Bank, is among the concerned. "Any time you extend the maturity of the loan, you take on more risk. The question is whether there's enough assessment of that extra risk," he said. "Obviously, it's a problem. It's a house of cards."

You took that cliché right out of my mouth!

In the 1970s and '80s, car loans hovered between 36 and 48 months, and drivers typically kept their cars longer than the life of the loan. A number of factors changed that.

One key was interest rates, which fell from a high of 17.8% in the early 1980s to lower than 5% today, according to the Federal Reserve. Another was affordability. According to an index tracked by Comerica Bank, cars have steadily gotten more affordable -- as compared to median family income -- since the late 1990s.

With cheap money at hand for more-affordable cars, the temptation to keep buying became huge. Today, according to Pregmon, financed cars are typically turned over in 24 to 36 months.

At the same time they were extending loan maturities, lenders, competing with one another, began offering more money and requiring smaller down payments.

Today, most lenders offer financing on 100% or even 125% of the sticker price, and some offer the most credit-worthy buyers loans for twice the value of the vehicle they're purchasing. Last year, the average amount financed for new cars reached 99%, according to the Consumer Bankers Assn., up from 95% in 2005.

Lenders are beginning to brace themselves; many have said they intend to tighten standards and require larger down payments.

Despite warnings from S&P, the Consumer Bankers Assn., Lehman Bros. and others, there is little sign that the automobile industry is willing -- or, with consumers demanding low payments, even able -- to reduce the lengths of the loans they issue.

"For banks, it's a matter of meeting consumer demand: no money down and extend the term," said SunTrust's Pregmon. "But as a lender, you've got a moral obligation as well. Are we putting the clients in loans they can't afford?"

Here's another reason to have the government standardize loan agreements and then have the financial sector compete over interest rates.

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times

Jim Devine / "Segui il tuo corso, e lascia dir le genti." (Go your own way and let people talk.) -- Karl, paraphrasing Dante.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Airport Security Scam

This is exactly right. We are sheep to accept it. The economic cost in terms of direct resources squandered and lost time is massive. The policy doesn’t stop terrorism, it expresses our condition of being terrorized.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Andrew Carnegie

I have just finished an interesting new book: Nasaw, David. 2007. Andrew Carnegie (New York: Penguin), which caused me a bit of embarrassment.

In Railroading Economics, I emphasized Andrew Carnegie's role in paying careful attention to the production process of steel in contrast to they banker-like perspective of the Morgan crew, which took over Carnegie Steel. This Nasaw's story is not entirely different, but the emphasis certainly is. Nasaw totally explains that Carnegie ignored any concern with the minutia of the production process, but merely demanded reductions in cost.

The most important cost for Carnegie was labor. He plowed back about 75% of the company's earnings into reinvestment, often in labor saving technologies. But even more important was the crushing of labor, especially the Homestead strike, which allowed him to increase the working day to 12 hours. This victory probably also greased the skids for the acceptance of new technology.

The book is a magnificent production. Nasaw had access to material that nobody else did.

Nasaw shows how important influence was in accumulating for Carnegie fortune. Carnegie reminds me of Balzac, who wrote:

"At the bottom of every great fortune... , there's always some crime -- a crime overlooked because it's been carried out respectably."

In the case of Carnegie, no great crime seems to have been responsible. Instead, Carnegie left a trail of innumerable crimes. Homestead was the most notable, but it had a number of less bloody precedents in his own company. In his earlier career as a bond salesman, Carnegie engaged in an almost habitual dishonesty along with continual shady dealings, such as kickbacks.

Carnegie was a master of accumulating political influence in the US and in Britain.

The most fascinating part of the book was Carnegie's philosophy. An early age, he anticipated the basic idea of Herbert Spencer, who later became his idol. He decided he would accumulate great wealth, then rather than hoarding it, he would distribute it for noble causes.

Smashing the workers at Homestead was a moral act for him. The workers would not know what to do with any extra money they earned. He wrote:

"... there are higher uses for surplus wealth than adding petty sums to the earnings of the masses. Trifling sums given to each every week or month -- and the sums would be trifling indeed -- would be frittered away, nine times out of 10, in things which pertain to the body and not to the spirit; upon richer food and drink, better clothing, more extravagant living, which are beneficial neither too rich or poor."

Libraries, museums, and concert halls would contribute more to human welfare -- especially for people working 12 hours a day.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

RIP --- Benazir Bhutto

Her two periods of serving as Prime Minister of Pakistan were deeply marred by corruption, and in many ways she was a far from progressive figure. However, her assassination today is a terrible tragedy that bodes horrifying possible outcomes in Pakistan and throughout much of the world, given as I think she may have been the only serious alternative to an eventual fanatical takeover there, a country that actually does have nuclear weapons, in contrast with the fantasies of the Bush administration about Iraq and Iran. She was also personally a courageous and intelligent person. This is a deeply tragic event, and I, for one, shall mourn her loss.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

An Earful on the Science and Policy of Risk

The New York Times reports that Europe is gradually approaching the point of decision on whether to allow genetically modified corn. Because of WTO rules on such things, the EU is required to base its policy on “science” if it want to keep out mutant corn from the US. This reflects a deep, deep misunderstanding of what science can contribute to policy.

Let’s start with the basics. There are two sorts of error we can make in this uncertain world, Type I (the risk of believing something to be the case when it is not) and Type II (the risk of not believing something to be the case when it is). Science is, among other things, a human enterprise organized around the systematic minimization of Type I error. Experimental protocols are about this, and so are the conventions we follow in determining statistical significance. This obsession comes at the cost of permitting greater Type II error, but that’s OK. Science operates on the basis of a vast division of labor, where each scientist’s work depends on the reliability of the methods and results carried over from what others have done. One false conclusion, if not noticed in time, could invalidate the efforts of an entire research community. This is why a serious Type I error is a potential career ender, whereas an avoidable Type II glitch simply diminishes a researcher’s list of accomplishments.

This single-minded insistence on avoiding Type I error is the reason why science is the one truly progressive human activity. Today’s science is better than yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s will be better than today. You can’t say this about poetry or politics.

(It is also, in the end, why economics is not a “real” science: it is no big deal for an economist to claim something to be true and to later discover that it isn’t.)

Policy, on the other hand, has to take Type II error as seriously as Type I. Take the Bt corn case before the EU, for example. It is a problem if regulators falsely think Bt corn is dangerous and ban it, but it is also a problem if they falsely think it is not dangerous and allow it to be used. A reasonable first cut is the standard cost-benefit approach: value each sort of error in terms of its cost function. Thus the cost of banning Bt corn is the probability of Type I error (falsely believing it to be harmful) times the economic cost of not taking advantage of this technology, whereas the cost of not banning it is the probability of Type II error times the cost of the damage it would do in that case. You go for the lowest cost option.

(There is an even better approach, as I argued here, based on the fullest possible utilization of information.)

The difference should be obvious. Science is radically asymmetric in the way it treats uncertainty: avoiding a false positive is everything. Policy is more balanced: failure to see is potentially as harmful as seeing what isn’t there. If you happen to be the sort of person, as I am, who thinks environmental risks are particularly important to avoid, you might tilt the policy calculus on issues like Bt corn toward less Type II error, even at the expense of more Type I.

Science has one job to do. Policy has another. They follow different rules.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Taxes & the Bible

In my revised standard approach, my comments are in bold, while the original is in italics.

The New York TIMES / December 25, 2007

Professor Cites Bible in Faulting Tax Policies

At a time when some voters are asking how the religious views of candidates will shape their policies, a professor's discovery of how little tax the biggest landowners in her state paid to finance the government has prompted some other legal scholars to scour religious texts to explore the moral basis of tax and spending policies.

The professor, Susan Pace Hamill, is an expert at tax avoidance for small businesses and teaches at the University of Alabama Law School. She also holds a degree in divinity from a conservative evangelical seminary, where her master's thesis explored how Alabama's tax-and-spend policies comport with the Bible.

Professor Hamill says that since Judeo-Christian ethics "is the moral compass chosen by most Americans" it is vital that these policies be compared with the texts on which they are based. Another professor says she is the first to address this head on, inspiring work by others.

Her findings, embraced by some believers and denounced by others, has also stirred research everywhere from Arizona State to New York University into the connection between religious teachings and government fiscal practices.

Her latest effort is a book, "As Certain as Death" (Carolina Academic Press, 2007), that seeks to document how the 50 states, in contravention of her view of biblical injunctions, do more to burden the poor and relieve the rich than vice versa.

In lectures and papers, Professor Hamill has expanded on her theme, drawing objections from some critics who say that the religious obligation to care for the poor is a matter of personal morality, not public policy.

Professor Hamill asserted that 18 states seriously violate biblical principles in the way they tax and spend. She calls Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas "the sinful six" because they require the poor to pay a much larger share of their income than the rich while doing little to help the poor improve their lot.

Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, & Texas are usually thought of as links in the "Bible Belt." You'd think that they'd be more obedient to Biblical Principles, all else equal. Nevada, on the other hand, is the official Sin State. Isn't it strange that it finds itself in the same league as the rest. (I don't know what's happening with S. Dakota. Whatever happened to prairie populism?

The worst violator, in her view, is her own state of Alabama, which taxes its poor more than twice as heavily as its rich, while holding a tight rein on education spending.

The poorest fifth of Alabama families, with incomes under $13,000, pay state and local taxes that take almost 11 cents out of each dollar. The richest 1 percent, who make $229,000 or more, pay less than 4 cents out of each dollar they earn, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, an advocacy group whose numbers are generally considered
trustworthy even by many of its opponents.

In Alabama's defense, shouldn't we also look at the benefits that the poor receive?

Professor Hamill said what first drew her to the issue of fiscal policy and biblical principles was learning that Alabama timber companies, which own more than two-thirds of the land in the state, pay an annual property tax of only about 75 cents an acre.

"The Bible commands that the law promote justice because human beings are not good enough to promote justice individually on their own," she said. "To assume that voluntary charity will raise enough revenues to meet this standard is to deny the sin of greed."

Richard Teather, who teaches tax at Bournemouth University in Britain and has written on the moral dimensions of tax evasion, said that governments have publicly raised the issue of morals and taxes.

"The tax authorities say you have a moral duty to pay your taxes, but you cannot look at that in isolation," Mr. Teather said. "Over here in Britain we have a lot of tax breaks for the very wealthy, which are not generally available to most people, and quite high level taxes for the middle and upper-middle classes, so this doesn't look like a moral system."

Professor Hamill, by her reading of the New Testament, concludes that at least a mildly progressive tax system is required so that the rich make some sacrifice for the poor. She cites the statement by Jesus that "unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required, and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more."

Some of her critics, however, say that the tithes described in the Old Testament show that a flat tax, in which everyone pays the same share of their income to government, should be seen as the biblical standard.

doesn't it also say something about what to do about widows, i.e., stone them?

Gary Palmer, president of the Alabama Policy Institute, agreed that taxes on the poor were much too high in the state, but said that the solution was not to raise taxes on the wealthy, but to lower them on the poor. He characterized Alabama's sales taxes on food and medicine as immoral.

Some of Professor Hamill's critics, in letters and e-mail to her and others, argue that she just wants to soak the rich, wrapping what they called her socialistic views in biblical cloth.

hey, wasn't JC a "socialist" of some sort?

Until Professor Hamill focused on fiscal policies in light of Judeo-Christian moral principles, most scholarly work on religion and taxes was largely devoted to the issue of tax evasion. That was prompted, in part, by a 1992 updating of the Catholic catechism that listed tax evasion as a sin and by enforcement actions aimed at pacifists who refused to pay war taxes.

Professor Hamill said her research found that just one state, Minnesota, came within reach of the principles she identified, because its tax system is only slightly regressive and it spends heavily on helping the poor, especially through public education.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
Jim Devine / "Segui il tuo corso, e lascia dir le genti." (Go your own way and let people talk.) -- Karl, paraphrasing Dante.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Could the Spread of Tropical Diseases Make Global Warming Have More Urgency?

Upton Sinclair's Jungle was intended to draw attention to the dirty and repressive conditions in the meat packing industry.

Reflecting on the storm over The Jungle, Upton Sinclair wrote that he was primarily moved by the condition of the workers, not the meat: "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

Upton Sinclair. 1952. American Outpost: A Book of Reminiscences (NY): p. 175.

Similarly, chikungunya, a relative of dengue fever normally found in the Indian Ocean region, has migrated to Italy.

Rosenthal, Elisabeth. 2007. "As Earth Warms Up, Tropical Virus Moves to Italy." New York Times (23 December).

Maybe this is the only way people will become serious.

Mankiw's Monetary Faith

My comments appear below, with Mankiw's original column in italics. -- JD

The New York TIMES / December 23, 2007

Economic View: How to Avoid Recession? Let the Fed Work


(N. Gregory Mankiw is a professor of economics at Harvard. He was an adviser to President Bush and is advising Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, in the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.)

The economy is teetering on the edge. Many economists, as well as online betting sites, put the risk of recession next year at about 50 percent. Once we get the final numbers, we might even learn that a recession has already begun.

The question on the minds of many in Congress and in the White House is this: What they should be doing now to keep the economy on track? The right answer: absolutely nothing.

This advice isn't easy for politicians to follow. Because economic downturns mean fewer jobs and falling incomes, they are painful for many families. Voters can confuse inaction with nonchalance and send incumbents packing. But just as patients should avoid doctors who recommend radical surgery for every ailment, voters should be wary of politicians eager to treat every economic ill. Sometimes, bed rest and wait-and-see are the best we can do.

This slam at politicians seems unfair in general, coming as it does from a member of an even lower ilk, an orthodox economic pundit. It ignores the political push in Congress -- mostly coming from Mankiw's GOP -- to do absolutely nothing about recessions, unless it involves tax cuts for the rich or cosmetic "cures" (such as that of 2001-02).

More importantly, it ignores the all-important role of gridlock in DC: many, many different politicos can veto any kind of fiscal action. This includes the President. Indeed, these days the two DP-dominated houses of Congress and the President seem pretty good at blocking each others' initiatives.

Orthocons like Mankiw like to portray the government as chomping at the bit, ready to jump in to mess with the economy. Au contraire. Among other things, the politicians would rather that the Fed get the blame for any economic mess.

Congress made its most important contribution to taming the business cycle back in 1913, when it created the Federal Reserve System. Today, the Fed remains the first line of defense against recession.

Even if the Fed can pull the rabbit out of the economic hat, it should be mentioned that it did not become the "first line of defense" until the end of the fixed exchange-rate system in the early 1970s, which shifted the balance of power from fiscal to monetary policy. Before that, the Fed's job was mostly to keep the US$ at par, as part of a fixed exchange-rate system.

The Fed's control over the money supply is a powerful lever to move overall demand for goods and services. When its trading desk buys bonds and expands the money supply, it lowers interest rates and encourages the private sector to borrow and spend more. The influence of interest rates on the economy is particularly strong in housing, where buyers are rate-sensitive. Because housing woes are the source of the current slowdown, the Fed's tool kit is well suited for the task at hand.

Mankiw presents the "Economics One" (or is it Econ Zero?) version of monetary policy, but the Fed has admitted that it in effect lacks control over the money supply. It does have control over the availability of bank reserves and thus the fed funds (overnight bank-loan) interest rate, a very short-term rate. But in the short run (which is what's important if we're talking an on-coming recession), the fed funds rate is only vaguely connected with the (long-term) mortgage interest rate that Mankiw refers to. If the Fed encourages repeated cuts of the fed funds rate, as Greenspan did, that would likely have an effect of depressing mortgage rates. But the Fed seems loath to repeat Greenspan's policy, because it would encourage inflation and/or a disastrous decline of the US$.

Also, will the banks be willing to lend, especially in the housing market? Due to the "sub-prime" crisis, banks have a lot of "non-performing" (i.e., bad) assets. Do they really want to send good money after bad? Getting beyond such subjective matters, falling asset values hurts the banks' capital (equity). Not only does this upset the banks' stock-holders, but prudent banks would keep their capital from falling too far or too quickly. And the aftermath of a credit crunch seems like a good time to be prudent, if you're a banker.

Finally, with mortgage (and other) debt high compared to potential home-buyers' incomes and assets, they are likely loath to borrow more just to take advantage of lower interest rates. With house prices falling, also, many prospective home-buyers will likely wait for a better deal later on.

If there are problems on both the supply and demand sides, Mankiw's monetary mechanism seems meager at most.

The recession-fighting effects of monetary expansion, however, are not limited to the housing market. When lower interest rates make fixed-income investments [i.e., bonds] less attractive, investors turn to the equity [stock] market and bid up stock prices. Higher stock prices, in turn, make consumers wealthier and more eager to spend. They also make it easier for corporations to expand their businesses with equity financing.

If speculators begin to expect a replay of Greenspan's repeated rate cuts of the early 2000, they would expect bond (fixed-income investment) prices to rise. Those interested in capital gains -- and that means most or all of them -- would thus want to buy bonds (all else constant). In addition, in times of trouble (such as the period after a credit crunch), government bonds are really attractive, since they are quite safe. So again they would be bought up. These forces undermines Mankiw's purported mechanism, because the speculators' money would not be going into equities.

But some speculators and financial investors may turn to the equity market, buying stock shares and driving up their prices. This would make wealthy consumers wealthier and more eager to spend. (Somehow Mankiw ignores the skewed nature of stock ownership. I don't know why!)

The problem is that this is poor compensation for the fall in the prices of homes. It's true that this hasn't hit the rich folks much, if at all. But it's mass consumption that's the rock-bottom (secure) base of economic expansion. It's the mass of consumers -- not the rich elite -- that props up the economy.

It's the mass of consumers who are excessively burdened by consumer and mortgage debt. (It would be a mistake to forget consumer debt (credit cards, etc.) since it's far from the majority of the population that's been doing mortgage borrowing lately.) It's their stagnant consumption spending that will likely drag down the US economy for years to come, even if there is no recession.

In addition, Mankiw should invoke the phrase often used by better economists, "all else equal." The equity market is extremely flaky, subject to speculative booms and busts and impacted by extraneous events. Even if the Fed cuts interest rates more, that does not mean that stocks will automatically go up. For example, Mankiw must ask "what's happening to corporate profits?" if the recession hurts profits -- as usual -- it would depress equity prices (all else equal).

As leftist business observer Doug Henwood regularly observes, Mankiw's story is based on an illusion: corporations do not issue new stock very often as a way of financing expansion. Instead, the main story of late has been that of corporations buying up their own stock. Business expansion, if any occurs in the near future, would be paid for more through retained earnings (profits not distributed to stockholders) and borrowing (bond issuance).

And do corporations really want to "expand their businesses"? Maybe, but a recession discourages expansion. Perhaps Mankiw has heard of the "accelerator effect." It refers to the way that even slow growth of the demand for products can cause a fall in business fixed investment. A recession isn't needed to have this effect. The problem is that fixed investment causes increased ability to produce (potential supply). If fixed investment stays constant in the face of stagnant demand growth, that means that potential supply grows faster than demand. Smart business-types would refrain from further fixed investment, no matter how easy it is to raise funds by borrowing or by issuing new shares.

This effect discourages any kind of business expansion, no matter how financed. In fact, it can cause a recession.

Slow or negative growth also hurts cash flow and profits, all else equal, which undermine retained earnings and self-financing of expansion. With falling or flat rates of utilization of productive capacity, business rates of profit would be hurt, undermining expected profits and the incentive to expand, all else equal.

By making United States bonds less attractive to world investors, lower interest rates from a monetary expansion also weaken the dollar in currency markets. A depreciation of the currency is not in itself to be feared. Treasury secretaries often repeat the mantra of favoring a strong dollar, but these pronouncements are based more on public relations than hard-headed analysis.


A weak currency is a problem if it results from investors losing confidence in a country's economy and currency. The most damaging cases are the episodes of sudden capital flight, as occurred in Mexico in 1994 and several Asian countries in 1997. This outcome is unlikely for the fundamentally sound American economy, but fear of it is one reason that Treasury secretaries maintain public fealty to a strong dollar.

A serious recession would undermine the image of the "fundamentally sound American economy" -- and in finance, it's image that counts. In fact, the image might be sapped by the continuation of US government fiscal deficits and/or by fears of inflation.

But if a weakened currency comes about because the central bank is trying to stimulate a lackluster economy, the story is very different. In that case, depreciation is not a malady but just what the doctor ordered. A weaker currency makes domestic goods more competitive in world markets, promoting exports and bolstering the economy. The dollar's falling value is one reason exports of goods and services have grown more than 10 percent in the past year.

The Fed can go too far, because even a strong currency can be subject to a speculative bust (or boom). This problem is most likely to hit when interest rates are lowered again and again.

Nonetheless, the boost to exports is the most effective result of expansionary monetary policy (interest rate cuts). The problem is that it simply shifts the recessionary problem to the rest of the world, or at least the rest of the world that does not fix its currency to the US$ the way China does. This is an important reason why the fraternity of Central Bankers does not want US rates falling too much. This desire discourages the Fed fully responding to the recession.

The Fed constantly monitors all these developments to ensure that the economy has the stimulus it needs, but not too much. William McChesney Martin, the Fed chairman in the 1950s and 1960s, famously joked that the Fed's job is "to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going."

As the economy flirts with recession, we need to remember that this aphorism has a flip side. The Fed also has the job of spiking the punch with grain alcohol when the party starts to flag, and that is exactly what it has been doing.

Gee, the economy is like a drunken party? what an analogy!

The Fed has cut its target for the benchmark federal fund rates to 4.25 percent from 5.25 percent last summer. It is a good bet that we will see further cuts over the next few months. And if the chance of a recession turns into a real recession, you can count on it.

What if the financiers' fear of inflation influences the Fed?

Admittedly, monetary policy can sometimes use an assist from fiscal policy. If an economic downturn is deep, if a recovery is anemic or if the Fed is running out of ammunition, Congress can help raise aggregate demand for goods and services. In 2003, the Fed had cut its target interest rate all the way to 1 percent, the economy was still suffering from the lingering effects of recession, and there were increasing worries about deflation. A tax cut was a good complement to monetary expansion to get the economy going again, even though it increased the budget deficit.

Note: the Fed could "run out of ammunition" if the fed funds rate got down very low, like it did when Greenspan drove it down to 1 percent.

The government can't raise spending instead of cutting taxes? In fact, increased spending is a major reason (along with export expansion) why a recession may not happen. It's old-style military Keynesianism: war and militarism breeds short-term prosperity.

Today's situation is different. The Fed has plenty of room to cut rates further, if it deems such cuts necessary. [Right.] At the moment, recession is only a possibility, and inflation is a bigger worry than deflation. In this environment, there is no need for a short-run fiscal stimulus. Congress is better off focusing on longer-term problems, like the looming entitlement crunch [??] or fundamental tax reform. (But don't hold your breath.)

Does the "entitlement crunch" refer to the rich folks' expectation that they deserve regular tax cuts?

IN creating the Fed, Congress wisely made it a technocratic institution free of many of the political pressures that accompany other policy decisions in Washington. Subsequent experience in the United States and abroad confirms that more independent central banks lead to better economic outcomes. That's why, in recent years, many nations have passed reforms to insulate central banks from [democratic] politics.

This "independence" is a sham. Mankiw's statement should be re-stated as saying that the Fed is an "institution largely free of democratic accountability," i.e., free of the need to respond to democratically-elected politicians or to voters.

That's because the Fed is subject to tremendous political pressure from banks and Wall Street sorts. The presidents of the privately-owned Reserve Banks are represented on the Federal Open Market Committee, while the President of the New York Fed is always on that committee. The New York Fed has strong connections with Wall Street. The FOMC's leadership worries a lot about displeasing -- and thus hurting -- financial markets. In many ways, the Fed is nothing but a bankers' cartel that's allied with Wall Street.

BTW, if the banks have a lot of nonperforming loans, they may have to rely on their holdings of government paper (T Bills, etc.) as a reliable source of income. Expansionary monetary policy aimed at fighting a recession would hurt that income. As a result, the banks may oppose rate cuts. Back in the early 1930s, they succeeded in this program, making the economic collapse worse.

By "better economic outcomes," Mankiw means lower inflation. What he's saying is that financier-dominated central banks are pretty good at fighting the financiers' enemy, i.e., inflation. That does not refer to avoiding recessions, though the Fed will try to solve the problem if a recession hurts banks and Wall Street.

The Fed's independence [sic] was created by statute and could just as easily be taken away. The Fed is now coming under heat for not having prevented the subprime crisis, for not fully anticipating it once it was inevitable, and for not responding more vigorously now that it has occurred. Daniel Gross, a financial journalist writing for Slate, has gone so far as to liken the Fed and its chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, to FEMA and its erstwhile head Michael Brown.

The truth is that the current Fed governors, together with their crack staff of Ph.D. economists and market analysts, are as close to an economic dream team as we are ever likely to see. They will make their share of mistakes, but it is too easy to find flaws when judging with the benefit of hindsight. The best Congress can do now is to let the Bernanke bunch do its job.

The staff of Ph.D economists and market analysts are on crack? I learn new stuff every day!

Seriously, Mankiw's conclusion is that we should stop worrying and learn to love Big Brother Ben, even though his institution has messed up severely in the past and tends to reflect the short-term urges of banks and financiers?

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Jim Devine / "Segui il tuo corso, e lascia dir le genti." (Go your own way and let people talk.) -- Karl, paraphrasing Dante.

More Housing Woes Ahead? Part 2

In a recent Ohio case. the judge dismissed a number of foreclosure requests because the plaintiffs could not show that they were the legal owners of the properties. This ruling seemed like it was a minor technicality is going to the complicated nature of the securitized mortgages. BusinessWeek published a short article, saying that the ruling was more serious. Although the creditors can rectify the situation, to do so will not be an expensive. Perhaps more interestingly, the article suggests that the failure to do the proper paperwork may open up some parties is to legal liabilities.

Orey, Michael. 2007. "Foreclosures: Not So Fast." Business Week (10 December).

"The notion that large numbers of homes across the country might one day have to be seized as security for mortgage loans seemed preposterous during the go-go days of the recent housing-market boom. As Wall Street collected millions of mortgages into giant securitization pools, one of the key legal procedures for transferring ownership of the loans appears to have been often ignored. At a minimum this lapse could impose extra costs on the mortgage industry when it can ill afford it. At the maximum it could open mortgage investors to an obscure legal attack by homeowners that in some cases could block foreclosure."

"The problem stems from a shortcut that many players in the fast-moving securitization business have used in recent years. Normally, when a loan is sold, a simple document is prepared showing that the debt and any collateral attached to it has been transferred to the purchaser. That piece of paper is called an assignment. But in buying up thousands of mortgages at a time, Wall Street commonly skips this step, which requires separate paperwork for each loan. Instead, the industry customarily relies on a lengthy contract, known as a pooling-and-servicing agreement (PSA) to spell out arrangements for all of the loans in a pool. But, as some recent court rulings indicate, a PSA may not be good enough when it comes time to foreclose."

In the wake of the Boyko ruling, which came as a surprise to Wall Street, mortgage-industry representatives said it would be easy for players such as Deutsche Bank to fix the technical problems and resume foreclosing on homes. That may be true, but these added steps will introduce costly delays and additional fees to the foreclosure process. Lawyers will have to draft assignment documents, paralegals will have to get them signed and recorded, and filing fees will have to be paid. "These deals operate on very, very thin margins," notes Joseph R. Mason, a finance professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Even an extra dollar a loan, he says, is "a huge cost"."

"There also could be a more troubling consequence for investors, says Kathleen C. Engel, a professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Players in the secondary market for mortgages rely on an obscure but critical legal theory--known as the "holder in due course" doctrine -- to insulate themselves from problems with the underlying loans. "Under the doctrine, a homeowner who believes that a lender deceived him about the terms of a loan can't press such claims against the purchaser of a mortgage, such as a mortgage-backed securities trust. The holder-in-due-course doctrine protects pension funds and the like from having to worry about any misbehavior by home lenders--and thereby greases the wheels for the whole mortgage-securities market. But it's a different story if, as appears to be common practice, the trust waits to complete paperwork transferring a loan until after it goes into default. In that case, the holder-in-due-course protection evaporates, and anybody who tries to foreclose could face defenses from the borrower that he or she was lied to when seeking a loan."

More Housing Woes Ahead? Part 1

The Wall Street Journal reports on the spread of homes with negative equity. As of a year ago, estimates were that 7% of mortgages that originated in 2004 through 2006 the amount owed was more than their homes were worth, but housing prices have fallen nearly 5% since then and are predicted to fall further. [In the comment below, Molnar pointed out that my original commentary was in error. Thanks for keeping me honest].

Hagerty, James R. 2007. "Price Indexes Will Map Out Spread of 'Negative Equity." Wall Street Journal (22 December): p. A 2.

"Last March, First American CoreLogic, a housing- and mortgage-data supplier in Santa Ana, Calif., calculated that nearly 7% of 32 million U.S. households studied as of December 2006 owed more than their homes were worth, based on computer estimates of the property values. The homes studied had mortgages originated in 2004 through 2006, around the peak in the housing market. Since the end of 2006, U.S. home prices on average have fallen nearly 5%, said Mark Fleming, chief economist at the firm. That suggests that about 11% of the homes studied now would have negative equity. An additional 5% or so probably have equity of less than 5%. That doesn't leave much cushion at a time when prices are still falling and most economists don't expect the market to hit bottom for at least another year."

"Economists at Merrill Lynch say home prices are likely to fall 10% in 2008 after slipping 5% this year. Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's, a research firm in West Chester, Pa., recently forecast that on average U.S. house prices will decline about 13% by the second quarter of 2009 from a peak in the second quarter of 2006. Declines will be much larger in Florida, California, Arizona and Nevada, as well as in the metropolitan areas of Washington, D.C., and Detroit, he said."

Friday, December 21, 2007

The WTO, Gambling, and Intellectual Property

The United States Puritanical values collided with its neoliberal ideology in passing a law that prevented online gambling. Several companies -- Microsoft, Google, Yahoo -- just paid fined for posting ads for Internet gambling. Antigua and Barbuda protested since the US allows other forms of domestic gambling. They demanded huge compensation for their loss of business. The WTO judgment offers a much smaller amount, but it gives the country the right to violate intellectual property up to $21 million.

Kanter, James and Gary Rivlin. 2007. "In Trade Ruling, Antigua Wins a Right to Piracy." New York Times (22 December).

"Antigua and Barbuda won compensation from the United States on Friday in a long-running trade dispute about gambling, but the amount was far lower than the tiny Caribbean nation had been seeking. A World Trade Organization (WTO) arbitration panel granted Antigua's request to levy trade sanctions on U.S. intellectual property, for instance by lifting copyright on films and music to sell it themselves, prompting concern from Washington."

"The WTO panel said Antigua was entitled to compensation of $21 million a year from the United States for being shut out of the U.S. online gambling market. The ruling is only partial consolation for the former British colony, which built up an Internet gambling industry to replace declining tourism revenues, only to find itself shut out of the world's biggest gambling market."

"The award falls far short of what Antigua had demanded -- $3.44 billion in "cross-retaliation," allowing it to seek damages outside the original services sector. Washington had argued Antigua was entitled to only $500,000 in compensation."

Words That Could Go Down In History

"But I won't be unsupervised! I'll be with the basketball team!!"

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Million Refugees from Iraq Since Surge Started

Juan Cole reports through a link to McClatchy that a million refugees have fled Iraq since the surge began, with 500,000 leaving during the July to October period of greatest troop runup, a fifth of these having experienced torture or other violence. This rather offsets the happy talk stories about people dribbling back recently, most of them because they have run out of money and the Syrians want them to leave.
Link is

While we are at it, after a meeting this past weekend in Baghdad, the Kurdish leaders are threatening to leave the Maliki government. Remains ongoing differences over oil laws and contracts, aggravated by invasion from Turkey of Kurdistan, apparently supported by the US. While still denouncing the Kurdish oil contracts as illegal, the Iraqi oil minister is now negotiating contracts with big majors like BP and Shell under the old Saddam-era oil law (see

David Wessel and Mark Thoma on The Summers Call for Fiscal Stimulus

Update: At the end of my post, I noted Sudeep Reddy’s argument that state and local fiscal policy will bail us out of this recession. If this claim struck you as odd, Menzie Chinn also found this to be odd as well.


My EconoSpeak colleague Brenda Rosser seems to more pessimistic than even Lawrence Summers as she argues that a $75 billion fiscal stimulus may not be enough. David Wessel also seems to think a fall in aggregate demand is likely:

That the economy needs help isn't at issue. The issue is whether to mix fiscal stimulus with monetary policy - whether the government should do something more than offer a little help to some struggling homeowners.

The policy mix to boost aggregate demand is indeed the hot topic of the day.

David starts with the usual reasons why we rely on a fast, nimble, and perhaps independent Central Bank and its monetary policy tools rather a sluggish and political Congress and its fiscal policy tools for aggregate demand management. David then makes a few arguments why monetary policy alone may not do the trick. One of these arguments strikes me as very odd:

The Fed can't cut rates because it fears a dollar crash. At the Fed, the gradual decline in the dollar is viewed as a tonic for the economy; it'll help boost exports, though it does exacerbate the central bank's inflation anxiety. But cutting rates too much too fast could trigger a market-rattling, confidence-shaking plunge in the dollar.

To David’s credit, he picks up on the fact that easy money will tend to raise net exports. But given our massive current account deficit, isn’t dollar devaluation on its own not only desirable but necessary?

Mark Thoma seems to have a preference for using changes in government spending over tax policy if we need to turn to fiscal policy for stabilization purposes:

If we are going to use tax cuts as a fiscal policy tool to stabilize the economy, we have to be willing to move the tax rate in both directions, up as well as down. We are quite willing, currently, to move the tax rate down but when people like Martin Feldstein call for a temporary tax cut to stimulate the economy, if such a policy were to be enacted does anyone doubt the difficulty of raising taxes again later even with automatic expiration provisions?

Then there is the view that all will be AOK:

Predicting the economy's path is especially difficult at turning points, and the economy is sending mixed signals. But here are some reasons why the economy might avoid the ditch

Sudeep Reedy offers up five reasons why a recession may be averted. One comes from a usual White House silliness that job growth is still terrific, while another comes from the dubious claim that the slump in residential investment is over. A third – and more plausible - argument is that net export demand will pick up some of the slack. The last two come from the belief that easier monetary policy and increases in government spending are already in the works. Real government purchases for 2007QIII, however, were only 2.7% higher than they were for 2006QIII so Reedy’s claim focused on the increase in state and local spending. Why not also focus on the even larger percentage increase in defense spending while one is at this game? Reedy failed to note the important fact that real nondefense Federal purchases haven declined over the past year. It would seem the new found GOP fiscal discipline campaign is working against using fiscal policy as a stabilization tool.

CGE: Is There a Defense?

I’ve been asked to review an article using computable general equilibrium (CGE) methodology. I’m likely to decline, but before I do I want to ask the vast universe that follows this blog: is there any defense against the argument that CGE and its offspring (DSGE) are simply bad economics?

There are two arguments actually:

1. CGE is an attempt to implement empirically a model that has been blown away theoretically. For 30 years we have known in precise terms why representative agent GE models are hogwash. We also know that the conditions for unique solutions are impossibly restrictive. Finally, while we have models that can translate modern, post-utility understanding of economic behavior into functional form, to do this throughout an economy, in every nook and sector, would be a gargantuan, and probably pointless, project. To put it bluntly, CGE modelers take as their starting point refuted theory.

2. CGE is false empiricism. It claims to generate results based on real-world data, but testing is nil, and I mean nil. Is there any literature out there I have missed in which past models are examined retrospectively against actual economic outcomes? If not, where is the falsifiability?

I will wait to send my rejection email. Maybe one of you can convince me that it is worth a few hours of my time to promote “better” CGE work.

Further Thoughts on Populism, With Application to Criticisms of Edwards’ Fancy Digs

Inspired by Barkley, I have more to say about populism. In a nutshell, the word has multiple connotations, and political opinion-molders manipulate the ambiguities for their own purposes. Let’s disentangle and shed some light.

I think the Wikipedia entry is right in identifying “the people” in populist thought as counterposed to an elite that insults and oppresses them. But what do populists propose as the remedy?

Long ago, in an article for a journal with no web presence and therefore no linkability, I wrote that there are three ways that political movements can claim to be democratic. (1) They can claim that their leading members are “of the people”, that they can be trusted to represent the majority because, by birth and life circumstances, they are part of it. I called this agent-based publicness. (2) They can claim that their programs would benefit the interests of the majority. This is akin to the utilitarianism of mainstream economics, particularly if metrics, such as median income, are used to take distribution into account. I called this interest-based publicness. (3) They can promote programs or institutions that expand the direct role of the majority in deliberation and decision-making in the public sphere: transparency, participation, etc. I called this process-based publicness.

In my view, all three have a role to play, and all of them have blind spots that need to be recognized and offset. What interests me right now is not the question of what mix would be best in general or in the US in 2008, but how these different approaches are confused in our current political discourse.

First, all three can be expressions of populism if they are presented as solutions to the dispossession of the people by the elites.

And what do they look like today?

Agent-based populism: A candidate has a personal style, including a method of speaking, that shows he or she is “like us”. This could mean anything from avoiding complicated academic language to making references to pop music, to going to NASCAR races (OK, not in 2008 any more) or on hunting trips. It can also mean being multi-racial if “the people” are seen as multi-racial. It depends, obviously, on who “we” are. Mike Huckabee’s populism is, as far as I can tell, almost entirely of this sort. South of where I normally sit (in an office in the US), one of the chief populist claims for Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales is that they really understand the poor, nonwhite majority because this is their heritage too.

Interest-based populism: Every reader of this blog knows that America has reached new depths of economic inequality under Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush. An interest-based populist in this context should be someone like Edwards who campaigns on this reality and proposes policies on the grounds that they would reverse it. (Whether those policies are adequate to the job is another matter.) It is possible, however, for someone to argue that the true interests of the people are not economic but cultural, the preservation of their prejudices, taboos, etc. This opens the door to populists like George Wallace or, today, Lou Dobbs—to take an example from the media.

Process-based populism: I make a big deal of this possibility because I believe it has much more to offer than it is given credit for, but I have to admit that it is barely visible on the current political landscape. A candidate could take up this mantle by championing democratic social movements, unions and greater direct public participation in government. Civil liberties largely fall within this framework as well, as they provide the foundation for popular activism against the state. There is much discussion of how to expand the capacity and role of civil society elsewhere—in Latin America and the EU especially—but hardly any in the US. Kucinich gives us a small taste of this, when we can find him, and Obama (very) obliquely hints at it.

So this brings us to the use of “populism” as a pejorative, and specifically as it pertains to Edwards. Those who say he is a false populist because he enjoys an upscale lifestyle are relying on populism #1: he is not truly of the people. But he could live in bourgeois luxury of the most extreme sort and still deliver on populism #2. Think FDR.

A second critique of populism goes directly at #2, I believe. It is argued that the immediate interests of the downtrodden are in conflict with sound economic policy. The poor want handouts, but this would bludgeon the budget, wipe out incentives for investment, etc. By appealing too openly to the multitudes, someone like Edwards is seen as being at risk of becoming beholden to their short-sighted demands. Here the underlying presumption is that the poor have little understanding of their long-term interests and are prone to being bought off. Indeed, there is a cynical form of populism, much practiced in Latin America, in which a few highly publicized giveaways are used to win support, while fundamental policies continue to favor the rich.

My judgment, for now, is that Edwards is not guilty of this second sin.

What we mostly lack, I think, is the third dimension, empowerment. Is it accidental that it is historically linked to socialism?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Payoff From Being Too Big to Fail?

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting piece suggesting that banks pay a premium for takeovers that bring their size up $100 billion. Maybe if the writeoffs get a bit bigger, Too Big To Fail status may pay off.

Two Federal Reserve economists, "Elijah Brewer III and Julapa Jagtiani, combed through 13 years of banking merger data to establish whether banks were willing to pay extra premiums to attain TBTF [Too Big To Fail] status, which they concluded was around $100 billion in assets."

"... the researchers found that premiums shot up when a bank did a deal that vaulted it over the $100 billion asset threshold. Overall, the nine banks that did such deals paid an additional $14 billion to $16.5 billion to get to that gold-plated TBTF status."

""It's more than Too Big To Fail. It includes all the benefits of being so big and powerful. These may not just be benefits from being bailed out, but being able to talk to the White House and Congress," Ms. Jagtiani said in an interview. "There is a lot of subsidy provided to really large banks," she added, noting that the study was the opinion of the authors and not the Federal Reserve. "It seems like we may be encouraging misallocation of resources." She did caution that "at the Federal Reserve, we don't have a list of Too Big To Fail banks"."

Cimilluca, Dana. 2007. "Can Banks Grow Too Big To Fail? Research Finds Lenders Would Pay More to Cross $100 Billion Threshold." (12 December): p. C 2.

Who is a "Populist"?

In recent election cycles the term "populist" has been applied to such varied figures as John Edwards, Mike Huckabee, Patrick Buchanan, and Ross Perot, arguably sharing a sort of economic nationalism for the poor. Originating in anti-aristocratic agrarian movements in Europe, especially the Russian Narodniki of the late 1800s, the movement in the US attempted to encompass the urban working class as well, as symbolized by the rural Scarecrow marching along with the urban Tin Woodman on the Yellow Brick Road to defeat the Wicked Witch of the East, with populist heroine Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion stand-in for fundamentalist and anti-imperialist populist William Jennings Bryan, he of the "Cross of Gold" speech, in Baum's populist fantasy novel. The movement would be partly absorbed by the later Progressive and New Deal movements.

The movement has always had a deep divide, with race the central issue. So, on the one hand we have the progressive wing, symbolized by the remnant Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota and the presidential candidacy in 1948 of FDR's former Ag Secretary, Henry Wallace for the Progressive Party. On the other, in the Deep South, we got "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman in South Carolina, whose follower, Strom Thurmond, would run as the "Dixiecrat" in the 1948 presidential campaign. Today, this divide most clearly shows up in the struggle over immigration.

Summers: Increase Aggregate Demand Now

When Angrybear introduced me as a ProGrowthLiberal, he speculated that I tended to agree with Lawrence Summers on macroeconomic policy. So one might wonder if I agree with his latest:

Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, once a fiscal hawk among Clinton Democrats, said the government should consider a $50 billion to $75 billion tax-cut and spending package to stave off a deep recession. Mr. Summers, now a Harvard University professor and investment-fund manager, also urged the Federal Reserve to take more aggressive action to ensure that its rate cuts actually reduce consumers' interest charges and stimulate spending.

I’ve been calling for a more expansionary monetary policy for while, but I have also been calling for long-term fiscal restraint. So do I agree with Larry’s recent call for fiscal stimulus?

When it finally became evident to most economists that we were in the midst of a business investment led recession back in 2001, this Rubinesque Bear suggested that we have a redux of the 1993 Clinton fiscal philosophy – a little short-term fiscal stimulus with a commitment that we would gradually move to long-term fiscal restraint. The hope was that a mix of short-term interest rates – which the Greenspan FED gave us in spades – combined with an acceleration of public and private consumption but the promise of higher national savings in the out years might help reverse the investment and general aggregate demand slump. What we got from the Bush White House was very little in short-term fiscal stimulus and a virtual guarantee that we would have long-term fiscal irresponsibility. It has always been my view that this upside fiscal policy was one reason why long-term interest rates took much longer to decline and why the business investment slump lasted so long. Sure, residential investment rose back then – but that only partially offset the dismal performance of business investment - as well as the export slump.

Today, business investment is stronger but residential investment has plummeted. If Dr. Summers is dusting off the 1993 Clinton fiscal philosophy, which was also what Robert Rubin had convinced a few moderate Republican and Democratic Senators to advocate back in late 2001, then I agree with him 100 percent. And maybe this time – the President might also work towards passing the recommended policy package rather than undermining at every turn like he did six years ago.

Hat tip to Mark Thoma.

Green Gas Emissions, Risks and Uncertainty: When Kenneth Arrow Speaks – Just Listen

Kenneth Arrow explains the general issue thusly:

Two factors differentiate global climate change from other environmental problems. First, whereas most environmental insults – for example, water pollution, acid rain, or sulfur dioxide emissions – are mitigated promptly or in fairly short order when the source is cleaned up, emissions of CO2 and other trace gases remain in the atmosphere for centuries. So reducing emissions today is very valuable to humanity in the distant future. Second, the externality is truly global in scale, because greenhouse gases travel around the world in a few days. As a result, the nation-state and its subsidiaries, the typical loci for internalizing externalities, are limited in their remedial capacity. (However, since the United States contributes about 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions, its own policy could make a large difference.)

While Arrow notes that the critics of the Stern Report cite the role of uncertainty as their rational for taking no action, he fires back with his own analysis of the roles of uncertainty and risk.

There is greater disagreement about how much to discount the future simply because it is the future, even if future generations are no better off than us. Whereas the Stern Review follows a tradition among British economists and many philosophers against discounting for pure futurity, most economists take pure time preference as obvious. However, the case for intervention to keep CO2 levels within bounds (say, aiming to stabilize them at about 550 ppm) is sufficiently strong to be insensitive to this dispute. Consider some numbers from the Stern Review concerning the future benefits of preventing greenhouse gas concentrations from exceeding 550 ppm, as well as the costs of accomplishing this. The benefits are the avoided damages, including both market damages and non-market damages that account for health and ecological impacts. Following a “business as usual” policy, by 2200, the losses in GNP have an expected value of 13.8%, but with a degree of uncertainty that makes the expected loss equivalent to a certain loss of about 20%. Since the base rate of economic growth (before calculating the climate change effect) was taken to be 1.3% per year, a loss of 20% in the year 2200 amounts to reducing the annual growth rate to 1.2%. In other words, the benefit of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions can be represented as the increase in the annual growth rate from today to 2200 from 1.2% to 1.3%. As for the cost of stabilization, estimates in the Stern Review range from 3.4% of GNP to -3.9% (since saving energy reduces energy costs, the latter estimate is not as startling as it appears). Let’s assume that costs to prevent additional accumulation of CO2 (and equivalents) come to 1% of GNP every year forever, and, in accordance with a fair amount of empirical evidence, that the component of the discount rate attributable to the declining marginal utility of consumption is equal to twice the rate of growth of consumption. A straightforward calculation shows that mitigation is better than business as usual – that is, the present value of the benefits exceeds the present value of the costs – for any social rate of time preference less than 8.5%. No estimate of the pure rate of time preference, even by those who believe in relatively strong discounting of the future, has ever approached 8.5%.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

History Note: Chico Plane Hijacked to Arkansas

My home, Chico, California, is not often seen as the center of the world, but we do have some distinctions. For example, the first airline hijacking on US soil occurred here. It may also be the only time that anyone ever hijacked a plane to Arkansas.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Blood for Oil in Iraq Achieved! Now We Can Come Home!

Great news! As of this past week or so, for the first time oil production in Iraq has exceeded what it was under Saddam Hussein before the US invaded, a whopping 2.3 million
barrels per day!! For a country with the world's second largest oil reserves, this is a great achievement!!! Clearly, our goal there has been achieved, so now our troops can come home!!!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Radio Interview Today

I was interviewed today on KPFK Los Angles on Ian Masters' Background Briefing for the last 20 minutes of his show. I did not get to discuss the Confiscation of American Prosperity very much because the publisher neglected to send him a copy.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Transfer Pricing Enforcement in China- the IRS Should Be Paying Attention!

On my long list of statements from tax officials that strike me as incredibly short sighted comes this:

The China's State Administration of Taxation, emboldened by the Internal Revenue Service's result in the GlaxoSmithKline case, is directing its auditors in appropriate marketing intangibles cases to apply the residual profit split method to recompute royalty income.

The IRS was indeed very successful in arguing that some of the profits that British based Glaxo made on US sales of Zantac were attributable to the marketing efforts of Glaxo’s US subsidiary. But mind you that the tax planners for US based pharmaceutical companies with foreign marketing subsidiaries took notice of the IRS theory to successfully argue that some of the profits from US created drugs belonged offshore under arm’s length pricing. So if the Chinese are about to argue that distribution subsidiaries deserve a large share of the profits – wouldn’t this hold for US entities distributing products manufactured in China. Last year – the US exported only $55 billion of goods and services to China, while China sold almost $288 billion in goods in services to the US. Unless there existed no intangible profits from Chinese exports to the US and there were substantial intangible profits when US manufacturers sold goods to the Chinese, something tells me that China's State Administration of Taxation could come up with the short end of this stick.

It would seem that the Indian tax authorities successfully made a similar argument in a tax dispute with Rolls Royce. If this argument is turned on US based companies selling into India, let’s keep in mind that the India exports twice as much to the US as we export to them. With the US as a net importer of goods, any argument that the local distributor deserves a large slice of the profits is something the IRS should look forward to making in a bilateral way!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

how does Mankiw's right differ from liberals and the left?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007 [by Greg "I worked for Dubya" Mankiw]

How do the right and left differ?

The conclusion of today's ec 10 lecture:

In today's lecture, I have discussed a number of reasons that right-leaning and left-leaning economists differ in their policy views, even though they share an intellectual framework for analysis. Here is a summary. [I replaced his asterisks with "GM," while my comments are labelled "JD."]

JD: first of all, I should note that Mankiw is only talking about one dimension of the political spectrum. I'd define left vs. right in terms of class, with the left siding with the poor and working classes and the right siding with Mankiw's employers. This left vs. right mostly coincides with democracy vs. dictatorship. There's also a centralized vs. decentralized spectrum, which is what Mankiw mostly describes. Finally, there's the tradition vs. modernism spectrum.

GM: The right sees large deadweight losses associated with taxation and, therefore, is worried about the growth of government as a share in the economy. The left sees smaller elasticities of supply and demand and, therefore, is less worried about the distortionary effect of taxes.

JD: Mankiw implicitly assumes that taxes "distort" markets, i.e., that the markets were "perfect" ahead of time. He assumes, for example, that no deadweight loss arises from the business sector. But even in the simplest neoclassical theory, it can do so: monopolies and monopsonies impose deadweight losses.

GM: The right sees externalities as an occasional market failure that calls for government intervention, but sees this as relatively rare exception to the general rule that markets lead to efficient allocations. The left sees externalities as more pervasive.

JD: This might be right, i.e. that the difference is empirically-based. But it should be mentioned that the right also likes to use methodological fiat to rule out the role of an important class of externalities, the pecuniary ones. They'd like to ignore such events as towns being destroyed economically when the major employer shuts down its operations, along with the Keynesian multiplier effect and the like.

GM: The right sees competition as a pervasive feature of the economy and market power as typically limited both in magnitude and duration. The left sees large corporations with substantial degrees of monopoly power that need to be checked by active antitrust policy.

JD: This defines the "left" as antitrust liberals. It ignores those of us who want to replace the capitalist monopoly on political power (unless we make a big noise) with real democracy, both in politics and in the economy.

GM: The right sees people as largely rational, doing the best the can given the constraints they face. The left sees people making systematic errors and believe that it is the government role’s to protect people from their own mistakes.

JD: The right's notion of "rationality" is close to tautological: rationality involves people doing what they want to do. Individual preferences are taken for granted and unexplained. A heroin addict is "rational" according to the right-wing economists. Further, "rationality" is totally an individual thing that can be expressed only in markets. This forgets the role of social values, which typically cannot be expressed through markets (no matter how rational they are) but can be expressed via democracy.

GM: The right sees government as a terribly inefficient mechanism for allocating resources, subject to special-interest politics at best and rampant corruption at worst. The left sees government as the main institution that can counterbalance the effects of the all-too-powerful marketplace.

JD: Again, this "left" is the liberals. It ignores the left which wants to end the artificial distinction between the state (government) and the "market" and to subordinate both of these to democracy.

GM: There is one last issue that divides the right and the left -- perhaps the most important one. That concerns the issue of income distribution. Is the market-based distribution of income fair or unfair, and if unfair, what should the government do about it? That is such a big topic that I will devote the entire next lecture to it.

JD: Is it a "market-based distribution of income"? Not according to the standard economics which Mankiw professes to profess. Standard neoclassical economics starts with the distribution of _assets_. Then the market results reflect that distribution (along with differences in preferences).

At this point, we should bring in non-standard economics: those with the most assets benefit most from the market. This allows them to accumulate more assets, so that they benefit even more from the market.

This kind of snowballing inequality of asset-ownership (and power) can be seen happening during the last 27 or so years of US economic history. This is now being admitted by mainstream economists. See the interview with Frank Levy in the current issue of CHALLENGE.

Jim Devine / "The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking." -- John Kenneth Galbraith

Now that's a free ride!

It's that time of year again, time to make the, grade final exams. I had a question on the Principles exam asking whether a tunafish entrepreneur - Charley "The Tuna" Sharkspear by name - who knew that consumers value safe dolphins more than the added cost of fishing in a dolphin-safe fashion could make money providing the dolphin-safe tuna. The idea I wanted them to get was that the safety of the dolphins, if accomplished, is a public good. From one student I learn that:

"People will continue to buy a cheaper tuna and still 'free-ride' on the dolphins that Charley is saving."

That sounds like fun. Back to work!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

CNN Caught Mimicking Faux News with Iran Nuclear Weapons "Speculative Documentary"

CNN was to air today a "speculative documentary" entitled "We Were Warned - Iran Goes Nuclear" with actors playing real officials and hyperventilating on the now discredited non-data about Iran's nonexistent nuclear weapons program. The program has been postponed for now, given the recent NIE report. This shows how CNN has been under pressure to imitate the war hysteria of Faux News. An old friend of mine, who is quite progressive, was involved in helping make this, and had been bamboozled by briefings from unnamed national security officials. Details on this story are available from Bill Gallagher at, and if this is not right, you can find it by linking through today's posting by Juan Cole.

Credit Crunch and Sudden Stop: Can We Avoid a Perfect Financial Storm?

Credit markets are all a-jitter again. No one knows how many assets will be nonperforming, which ones they will be, how much total value is at stake. We also know that there has a been a sudden stop, a complete cessation of net long-term private capital inflows to the US; nearly all of the financing burden of the US current account deficit has to be shouldered by central banks and sovereign wealth funds. These two events are related.

It is US debt, mortgage items but perhaps not only, whose quality is in doubt. This is why there is little appetite for such goodies among private investors. But if enough liquidity is pumped in to dissuade investors from wholesale dumping, and if the CB’s continue to do what it takes to keep the dollar afloat, we may continue to muddle through.

The risk is that the two dangers will interact. The Fed and its partners can support asset values by buying into these markets, as they have indicated they will. But if for any reason this effort falls short, it is possible that default risk and currency risk could spiral upward in tandem. Fear of default could push private capital flows into the red; this would ramp up the pressure on the dollar, increasing currency risk, and so on. It is not beyond the realm of the possible that this nasty synergy could erupt within the time frame of a few hours or even minutes. It would be sudden and unexpected: one morning you could go online to scan the headlines and find out we were already in the thick of it.

I’m not saying that a crisis is inevitable, but I’m not saying it can’t happen either.

All We Are Saying is Give Peace a Chance

My view on Iraq was: (a) we never should have started this stupid war, and (b) once we did, we should have declared victory and come home a long time ago. For those who get their “news” from Faux News, it would seem the Iraq war is no more. And now David Brooks says we’ve gotten past this idiotic episode as well:

But the more comprehensive difference between a wartime election and a postwar election is that there is a shift in values. In wartime, leadership traits like courage, steadfastness and ruthlessness are prized. Voters are willing to vote for candidates they distrust so long as they seem tough and effective (Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani). In a postwar election things are different. When Wall Street Journal/NBC pollsters asked voters what qualities they were looking for in the next leader, their top three choices were: the ability to work well with leaders of other countries; having strong moral and family values; bringing unity to the country. Those are cooperative qualities, not combative ones. They require good listening skills, openness and the ability to compromise.

Including the title, I counted five instances where Mr. Brooks used the word “postwar”. There is only one problem, which Greg Mitchell articulates:

Postwar? Peace? Try telling that to the soldiers in Iraq, and the families whose kids are still coming home minus a limb or part of their brain. Last I checked we were still spending billions of dollars a month Over There and I haven't heard about any bases, or the grand embassy, being dismantled. A new Gallup poll (see below) disputes the notion, anyway. Is the issue a little less "hot"? Surely. But to say it is over is an obscenity. With rose-colored glasses still in place, Brooks takes a world tour, finding more reason to relax about Iran, Pakistan (?), even the Palestinian question. My favorite line then follows: "The world still has its problems." Gosh, you think? Later he admits, "Something terrible could happen in the world" to change the hopeful mood. As if little terrible is happening now. This all started last week with Peter Beinart’s self-serving column in The Washington Post -- Brooks cites it today -- which flatly called the war a "non-story." He took as his main evidence that questions about the war were not being asked all that much at the Democratic and Republican debates. The fact that all of the Democrats are much in agreement against the war, and all of the leading Republicans in agreement in support of the venture, apparently did not occur to Beinart as an explanation. Of course, if any of the Democrats faced off against any of the Republicans right now, is there any doubt what would be the hottest issue? But Beinart – an original hawk on the war, like Brooks – had good reason to downplay the disaster he helped cause.

Hawks like Brooks and Beinart were over-hyping the treat of Saddam Hussein as they underestimated the potential costs of invading Iraq back in 2002 and early 2003. So why is Greg surprised that these pundits are at it again with their dismissing the fact that this failed and very destructive adventure continues? Brooks does have not the courage to do what Paul Harvey did in 1970 when Mr. Harvey told President Nixon that the Vietnam War was a mistake that should be ended immediately. As a kid, I had to endure the fact that my parents made me watch Mr. Harvey’s conservative rants on a daily basis. As an adult, I miss the old fashion conservatives. No, having to endure hacks like David Brooks is so much worse.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Where Does John Edwards Stand on Social Security?

Barkley accuses John Edwards of drinking the Kool Aid, while Phillip Elliot praises Mr. Edwards for “real leadership” thusly:

Democrat John Edwards yesterday criticized rival Hillary Rodham Clinton, saying candidates who seek the White House should take strong, clear stands on difficult issues like Social Security. Clinton has said she doesn't want to put forward a specific plan now to shore up Social Security, but would wait for recommendations from a bipartisan commission because any plan will need the support of Democrats and Republicans to be enacted. Asked about her stance at an AARP-Divided We Fail lunch on health and financial security, Edwards told seniors: "If you want to be President of the United States, you should lead. Leadership means taking clear, strong positions for the American people. ... I've said very clearly what I would do, not said I'm going to wait and figure this out later."

The last quip seems to confirm Barkley’s suggestion that Mr. Edwards has fallen for the GOP spin that the Social Security system is in imminent danger. We in more of an imminent danger of a mushroom cloud over Manhattan from an Iran nuke that a Social Security meltdown.

But I’m going to try to be fair to Mr. Edwards by asking what he means by this alleged very clear statement of what he would do. It would seem his policy position is basically status quo with the exception that he’d lift the payroll caps. That’s it! And Phillip Elliot calls this leadership? Fine – Senator Clinton hasn’t exactly stated where she’d change the status quo either. OK, the GOP debates are incredibly stupid on just about every issue- but if this is all we Democrats have got, maybe I should go back to watching my Atlanta Falcons pretend to pay football. Ho-hum!

But to be fair – I’m sort of a status quo bear when it comes to this issue. Next topic – please?

Is Kos Drinking Social Security Kool Aid?

Continuing an old tradition from Maxspeak, let me dump on Daily Kos. I just noticed a long post there about "leadership" among Dems and Dem candidates in particular. Much of it was anti-Hillary and mostly focused on her war views. On those, I join in criticizing her. However, this "lacking leadership" is the line being handed out previously by Obama and more recently very loudly by Edwards in attacking her on not proposing changes to social security. I confess that I am not sure what Kos's views on social security are, but at least rhetorically, he, or they, are adding to the rhetoric of those who have drunk the kool aid of "Social Security is in Crisis and we must do Something!"

Sunday, December 9, 2007

thoughts on the Prisoner's dilemma.

While trying to teach my students about the (non-repeated) "Prisoner's Dilemma" (PD) game, I had the following thoughts. I hope some of them are vaguely original -- or at least interesting.

The usual view of this "game" is that it turns Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand" (IH) on its head (or on its heel). In the Greatest Economics Story Ever Told, the IH says that in exchange, individual greed leads to the production of mutually-beneficial gains for all (or almost all) people, especially when organized by a competitive market. On the other hand, in the PD story, individual greed (possessive individualism) leads to mutual destruction of the prisoners. This occurs even though there exists a mutually-advantageous solution for them (collusion, cooperation, conspiracy, other "c" words).

There's another way of looking at the PD. The problem is that the police have set up a special social structure that pushes the prisoners to hurt each other. They aren't allowed to talk to each other. They have to make their decisions (rat[*] on each other or keep quiet) simultaneously (in effect). The cops create incentives that push each prisoner to rat. Thus, the prisoners both "defect" and suffer.

(For simplicity, I'm ignoring degrees between "ratting" and "staying mum." I'm also ignoring the honor among thieves, which can encourage tacit collusion, so that both refuse to "rat" on the other.)

This might be thought of in terms of "transactions costs" which make it extremely expensive for the prisoners to get together and strike a deal. But that would be misleading.

The problem is that exchange can also be like a PD game. Orthodox economists don't tell you that in the act of exchange, the two "players" are colluding to not rob each other. If we drop this usually-covert assumption, we see four possible choices. (Again, the choice is binary, ignoring intermediate choices between the extremes. Again, the two "traders" are assumed to embrace possessive individualism.)

1. Cain and Abel swap their goods with each other, with mutually-beneficial effects (collusion, IH result).

2. Cain slays Abel, stealing his goods. Cain gains in a big way (getting both sets of goods) while Abel obviously suffers.

3. Abel slays Cain, reversing the roles.

4. Both fire their weapons at each other, so both die (both defect, the usual PD result).

As in a PD game, the incentive is there for Cain to kill Abel. Naturally, Abel will fear this event and find that he has an incentive to preempt Cain's dirty deed (done dirt cheap). So Cain may react by shooting first. Mutual destruction ensues...

What's the solution to this mess? Orthodox economics (Orthonomics?) simply assume it away. More seriously, the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes advocated bringing a very Visible Hand, the Leviathan, the unified state which monopolizes the means of violence. This prevents mutual destruction. It sets up incentives for the two traders to cooperate.

Another English political philosopher, John Locke, naturally enough didn't trust the state. His solution was to advocate merging the propertied class (what we would call the capitalists) with the state. The former should dominate the latter, to the maximal possible extent, natch. In this scenario, Cain and Abel _are_ the state, colluding to prevent the odious option #4.

An incentive problem still exists, however. Suppose that we see trading between the two brothers. Cain could see the benefits of having both of the guys' goods rather than simply getting Abel's goods in exchange for his own. He might then cheat or rob or kill Abel. This unhinges the collusion (or turns the game into a one-person affair, which I'll ignore).

But Locke had a solution: he proposed that people accept each others' property rights as "natural." If they accept this fiat, then trading can occur and both can benefit. It's as if he were proposing that the "honor among thieves" that allows real-world prisoners to collude in real-world dilemmas should apply to all property owners. They should see themselves as a community, with common interests.

Though Hobbes and Locke were a little silly (seeing imaginary "social contracts" as providing insight into what's happening in the real world), they captured the two main elements of what allows the IH to work, at least some of the time. These are the coercion of the state and the generally-accepted legitimacy of property rights.

The latter element, I believe, needs a lot of shoring up. After all, if profits are to be made, why accept the ideology of "natural" property rights? But there are two reinforcing elements that Karl Marx might suggest. The property owners cling to the ideology of natural property rights because it unites them against those who lack significant property rights (capital). The ideology helps maintain ruling-class solidarity. Second, if the capitalists believe it, or at least generally act as if they did, then it's easier to teach to the underclasses.

This analysis says that the mutually-beneficial exchange of the IH story is just as artificial as is the mutual destruction of the PD case. Both are based in human-made institutions. For one, the IH, the structure is created allowing collusion, while for the other, the PD, it's set up to encourage defection.

Those in power decide which activities fit in which box. For example, for you hemp-heads out there, the capitalist state in the US has decided that pot sellers belong in the PD box, while alcohol purveyors belong in the IH box.

To choose a less heady example, the social structure puts purely private goods in the IH box, while purely public goods are in the PD box. (The "public goods problem" is a version of the PD game, with a large number of participants. The "rats" are called free-riders.) Of course, in the real world, almost no products are purely public or purely private.

BTW, if this story is revealing, that indicates (once again) that game theory can say something about the world, as long as we don't obsess with equilibrium situations (Nash or otherwise).

[*] This is unfair to rats. Recent research indicates that those cute and furry creatures are more cooperatively-minded than the stereotypes say.
Jim Devine