Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Irene and the Broken Window “Fallacy”

Doug Matacons argues that Paul Krugman is wrong with what Doug calls the “broken window fallacy”:

What this argument ignores, and what people like Krguman and this Politico reporter refuse to recognize is the simple fact that destruction does not create wealth. The money that will be spent to rebuild, repair, and recover from Irene will doubtless line the pockets of the various contractors that will be hired to perform said work, but to argue that it “creates wealth” is simply a fallacy. By some estimations, the losses from Hurricane Katrina will total in the tens of billions of dollars. That’s wealth that doesn’t exist anymore, it’s gone. The money that will be will be used to pay for the recovery already exists and, rather than being invested in other projects, it will go toward repairing the damage caused by natural disaster. A home damaged by Hurricane Irene will be no more valuable after it is repaired than it was the day before the storm hit, for example. And this analysis doesn’t even take into account the losses from lower consumer spending that businesses will feel as a result of the storm, all of which will reverberate out into the economy as a whole.

Doug then applies to Frédéric Bastiat for this line of new classical thinking:

It is not seen that, since our citizen has spent six francs for one thing, he will not be able to spend them for another. It is not seen that if he had not had a windowpane to replace, he would have replaced, for example, his worn-out shoes or added another book to his library. In brief, he would have put his six francs to some use or other for which he will not now have them.

Yes – economists like Krugman and Keynes must be “bad economists” for looking out at the real world and recognizing that we are far from full employment. I would like to give a lot of credit to Irwin Kellner for this:

The bad news is pretty obvious: Countless houses and cars were smashed by fallen trees; there was lots of water damage from the storm itself, as well as from the water that spilled over from nearby rivers and lakes — and even from the ocean. Widespread power outages left millions in the dark, spoiling food and depriving people of air conditioning. Many businesses had to shut their doors for as long as a week. For retail outfits, this is lost revenue that is unlikely to be made up. The damages have yet to be totaled up, but estimates of $7 billion or so seem to be common ...For their part, restaurants either forced to close their doors or bereft of their usual complement of customers will not be able to make up these lost receipts. The same goes for other retailers like gasoline stations and department stores. Theaters will be unable to make up for the last-minute walk-ins at canceled performances. Cities like New York, which shut down their mass-transit systems and waived tolls on bridges and tunnels, will be unable to recoup these losses as well. Although occurring more than halfway through the third quarter, the effects of this storm could be enough to reduce growth in the gross domestic product by anywhere from a half to a full percentage point.

In other words, Irwin starts with all those negative impacts from Irene that we can see. But Irwin goes onto to note the boost to aggregate demand expected to come in the last quarter of this year. Is Irwin being a bad economist for not seeing the crowding-out effects that Bastiat talked about? Of course not! Shall we repeat? We are far from full employment!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Long Depression And the Great Recession

A substantial debate over the nature of the the deflation in the US during the 1873-1896 period has erupted on marginal revolution, . Much of the debate centers on reevaluations of the path of real US output during the so-called "Long Depression" of 1873-79, with newer sources arguing that declline in real output only lasted from 1873-1875, thus arguing that it was not as bad as many thought, and while indebted farmers were hurt by deflation, particularly by the 1890s, this was a golden age of the American economy and a model for laissez-faire policy, with the deflation itself generally a good thing outside of agriculture (whose falling prices helped the rest of the economy).

I am less interested in the matter of deflation and more in the comparison with the current Great Recession period. Indeed, in their book, This Time is Different: 800 Years of Financial Folly, Reinhardt and Rogoff distinguish crises/recessions that do not involve the entire financial sector from those that do, arguing that the latter involve much longer and slower recoveries. For the US economy they list three such episodes, the 1870s, the 1930s, and today, with the current situation perhaps most resembling the events of the 1870s. In looking at the debate on marginal revolution, I am struck even more by the similarities, given this newer data.

So, both had two years of outright decline: 1873-75 and 2007-09. Both involved major financial crashes of international scale, with the downturns international also. The 1870s one started in Germany with a major selloff of silver after the Franco-Prussian War that then spread to the rest of the world, hitting the US most dramatically in a crash on May 9, 1873 arising from financing problems in the US railroad industry, particularly the failure of the Cooke Company after the failure of its bond issue for building the Northern Pacific, the second transcontinental railway. This was particularly important in that the railroad industry was the largest employer in the US economy outside of agriculture, and its leading sector.

The data is most dramatically seen in railroad consturction itself. In fact, the post-Civil War boom in such construction had peaked in 1871, but the decline in production accelerated, going from 6,000 miles worth in 1872 to just over 4000 miles worth in 1873, then plunging to barely over 2000 miles worth in 1872, and dropping further to under 2000 miles in 1875, the bottom.

Now here is where the similarity to the present day becomes clearest, despite the carrying on by some in the marginal revolution discussion to the effect that after 1875 everything was just fine. It wasn't, and it is no accident that the period to 1879 is viewed as depressed. Yes, railroad construction began to recover, just as output did in the US starting in late 2009. But it did so only fitfully and basically remained flat and low during the 1876-78 period, fluctuating around 3000 miles of construction, much as we have seen a very weak recovery since the bottom in 2009. Only in 1879 did construction surge again up to 5000 miles, followed then by the biggest surge of all as the 1880s would prove to be by far the leading decade of rail construction, only to be followed by a nearly total collapse in the 1890s, the decade that gave us the populist movement.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Why Would Eric Cantor Insist on Paygo for Irene Disaster Relief?

Eric Cantor stated his position:

"Yes there's a federal role, yes we're going to find the money -- we're just going to need to make sure that there are savings elsewhere to continue to do so," Cantor told Fox News on Monday.

Cantor has suggested before that we don’t have the money for additional government spending. And I guess if one were foolish enough to believe we were near full employment, one might worry about the crowding-out of private spending. Cantor, however, undermines both claims with his August 29 memo that claims its agenda is to create new jobs with part of his policy message being tax cuts. On policy grounds – Cantor has no principled reasons for this application of paygo.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Thomas Hoenig and the Ever-Expanding Universe of Excuses for High Interest Rates

It’s now a week old—an internet lifetime—but we shouldn’t let this pass without comment.  In an interview with Gretchen Morgenson, departing Fed district president Thomas Hoenig offers this bizarre justification for his votes against near-zero interest rates since the 2007 collapse:
We as a nation have consumed more than we produced now for well over a decade. Having very low rates for an extended period of time encourages us to continue focusing on consumption, but to correct our imbalances, we have to focus on production.
Global imbalances made me do it!  Think for a moment, however, and the argument makes no sense at all.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Understanding Debt

The “embeddedness” argument of the economic sociologists and anthropologists applies supremely to debt.  If you have any doubt, read this captivating interview with David Graeber (via Naked Capitalism).  Here’s a nice quote, pulled from near the end, after a long discussion of monetary and credit practices in different times and places:
What’s been happening since Nixon went off the gold standard in 1971 has just been another turn of the wheel – though of course it never happens the same way twice. However, in one sense, I think we’ve been going about things backwards. In the past, periods dominated by virtual credit money have also been periods where there have been social protections for debtors. Once you recognize that money is just a social construct, a credit, an IOU, then first of all what is to stop people from generating it endlessly? And how do you prevent the poor from falling into debt traps and becoming effectively enslaved to the rich? That’s why you had Mesopotamian clean slates, Biblical Jubilees, Medieval laws against usury in both Christianity and Islam and so on and so forth.
Since antiquity the worst-case scenario that everyone felt would lead to total social breakdown was a major debt crisis; ordinary people would become so indebted to the top one or two percent of the population that they would start selling family members into slavery, or eventually, even themselves.
Well, what happened this time around? Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster.
The name that is missing from this interview (I don’t know about the book) is J. M. Keynes.  Keynes had clearly confronted the moral aura surrounding debt, and his approach to monetary policy above all tried to strike a pragmatic balance between the interests of creditors and debtors.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Economic Policy For A Post-Qaddafi Libya

Yesterday Juan Cole at posted "How to Avoid Bush's Iraq Mistakes in Libya," listing ten matters and noting that "arqana," or "Iraqization," is now an Arabic word, and is not used favorably by anybody anywhere, even if some neocons continue to attempt to turn the Bush-Iraq mess into something admirable. Of the ten points Cole makes (all of which I agree with to varying degrees), five have to do with economic policy.

Point 5 is that the Libyans should avoid "privatizing everything." In Iraq we brought in a bunch of young idealistic pro-free-marketers who attempted this, only to have many of these previously state-owned factories/enterprises, simply go out of business, thereby exacerbating the major economic problems facing Iraq. They should have learned from the transition from the Soviet model in the former Soviet bloc. Countries that attempted sudden privatizations, such as Russia, ended up with badly managed companies being bled dry by corrupt owners. More successful cases, such as Poland, engaged in gradual and carefully managed privatizations. Libya should follow that example, not the idiocy in Iraq (or Russia).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hallig Hooge

I’m just back from a trip to the North Frisian Islands.  Tens of thousands flock there for vacations each summer, inundating the long, car-choked island of Sylt and the much nicer but still busy Amrum.  My strongest impression, however, was the lonely landscape of Hallig Hooge, the small island just NW of Pellworm.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Governor Christie Calls Cap and Trade Gimmicky

The governor of New Jersey is receiving criticism from rightwing nuts for admitting the obvious - that climate change is real and that human activity plays a role. I’m sorry but that is not the real story. The policy decision was for his state to do nothing:

Gov. Chris Christie Thursday declared the nation’s first regional cap-and-trade program designed to reduce air pollution a failure and promised to pull New Jersey out of it by the end of the year. While acknowledging humans contribute to climate change, Christie called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative a "gimmicky" partnership and said it does nothing to reduce the gases that fuel the problem.

Christie joined other opponents of cap and trade by complaining how it would raise the cost of doing business as if this were a “job killer” – the new buzz word for rightwingers when they oppose something. But isn’t that the whole point of cap and trade – to induce private agents to shift their activities away from those that add to greenhouse emissions via the price system.

Christie’s decision to withdraw from this regional cap-and-trade program is bad policy but this is the kind of policy decision conservatives are turning to in order to gain political favor with rightwing nuts. But I guess this was not enough for some people.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Imminent Fall From Power of Muammar al-Qaddafi

See for details of the uprising in Libya's capital, Tripoli, emanating from the working class districts in the eastern part of the city. With rebel forces having now captured most of the key towns around Tripoli and moving in, and with many of his top officials defecting, it looks like the end is near for the Qaddafi regime, one of the longest ruling in the world at over 40 years.

Shortly after the uprising began I was one of the first to forecast (here) the serious possibility of a partition and stalemate between the rebel East and the loyalist West. This was based on the long historical, ethnic, religious differences between the old Roman province of Cyrenaica in the East and Tripolitania in the West, and for many months it looked as if that would be the case, with the border at Brega in the center of the main oil region. But things have finally gone the rebels' way after a long time and external support by NATO (or some of it).

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Smacking Down Self-Plagiarism - The Bruno Frey Affair Becomes Official

The latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (JEP) has just gone up online and includes the replication of a letter exchange between its editor, David Autor of MIT, and Bruno Frey, regarding accusations that a paper published by Frey and two coauthors (Benno Torgler and David Savage) self-plagiarized three other papers by them appearing earlier in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (JEBO), which I was editing when that paper was submitted and accepted and published (and was the first version submitted to any journal), and Rationality and Society (R&S). None of these highly similar papers cited any of the other ones. In his letter, addressed to the editors of the other journals as well as to Orley Ashenfelter, President of the AEA and John Siegfried, longtime AEA Secretary-Treasurer, Autor accuses Frey of having engaged in conduct "ethically dubious and disrespectful to the American Economics Association [publisher of the JEP], the JEP and the JEP's readers." Frey, speaking on behalf of one coauthor, his former student Benno Torgler (Savage is currently Torgler's student, and they both pleaded for Savage not to be punished), stated "we deeply apologize" and "This is deplorable." (referring to their conduct). This can all be found at

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Great Moments in Punditry: Calling Dean Baker

46: "And so defenders of faith in the Bush boom abounded, typically in and around the Bush administration. Early in 2005 in the Washington Times, James Miller III, who had served as Ronald Reagan's budget director, lauded "the efficient U.S. arrangements for housing finance" as "the envy of every other country." The trillions going into home loans reflected the accumulated wisdom of a competitive financial system: "Gone are the days of mortgage credit crunches and exorbitant mortgage rates spreads. American homeowners . . . are assured of a steady, liquid, and generally affordable supply of mortgage credit. And investors, both domestic and foreign, are provided a flow of debt- and mortgage-related securities that are highly liquid, transparent, and secure." Miller, James III. 2005. "Should Homeowners Worry?" Washington Times (7 January): p. A 17.

46: "Also in 2005, Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute disparaged " the economic pessimists, who try to persuade us terrible things are about to happen. A perennial favorite is the 'housing bubble' about to burst, with a supposedly devastating impact on household wealth. ... In short, we are asked to worry about something that has never happened for reasons still to be coherently explained. 'Housing bubble' worrywarts have long been hopelessly confused. It would have been financially foolhardy to listen to them in 2002. It still is." Reynolds, Alan. 2005. "No Housing Bubble Trouble." Washington Times (8 January).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The crisis of the global economy. Was it a planned disintegration?

“The biggest propaganda story this decade is the fiction of the Japanese and now Chinese workers are thrifty folks who want to desperately save money and they want this so badly, they will happily toil away in order to hand over this loot to the American consumer who will then spend it for them! And everyone lives happily after living off the blood and sweat of those foolish Asian workers who don't know how to have fun, hahaha."
So penned Elaine Meinel Supkis in her 2007 article exploring the reasons for the existence of the global money glut. [1]

Russian writers Vasily Koltashov, Boris Kagarlitsky, Yuri Romanenko and Igor Gerasimov provide a wider (and clearer) context for the imbalance between the world's monetary base and its real economy. "The world economic crisis ... is systemic in nature" they wrote and comes about through the "contradictions of the neoliberal model of capitalism" - an economic model, they say, that is based on the "exploitation of cheap labor power in the Third world", the systematic lowering of real wages whilst stimulating consumption in the rich nations.
"...The scope for intensifying this exploitation has been almost exhausted."[2]
Not surprisingly, given the way that consumption was expanded by whatever means available, including through the ballooning of debt and the stepped up, extremely modern, efficient (and mostly institutional) environmental pillage.

John Bellamy Foster provides his own elaboration of the contradictions in today's global capitalist economy:
"Three critical contradictions make up the contemporary world crisis emanating from capitalist development: (1) the current Great Financial Crisis and stagnation/depression; (2) the growing threat of planetary ecological collapse; and (3) the emergence of global imperial instability associated with shifting world hegemony and the struggle for resources. Such structural weaknesses of the system, as Joseph Schumpeter might have said, are the product of capitalism’s past successes, but they raise catastrophic problems and failures in the present nonetheless."[3]

It certainly feels to me like we're all now (metaphorically) standing at the pinnacle of a 'contradiction mountain' built up over the last two hundred years; with a cliff edge descent into some oddly familiar future existence.

The historical evolution to present day seems to have gone something like this:

What lies behind the debt ceiling 'crisis'?

Below I have posted some brief comments made recently by Diane Warth (our Econospeak administrator) on the recent US debt ceiling 'crisis'. "
I don’t believe the recent debt ceiling “crisis” was anything but a media circus designed to usher in the “necessary” dismantling of Social Security – Obama is a Wall St. puppet and the outcome was his intent. It’s a distraction.

The real story, in my opinion, is the bubble of arrogance the players insist on floating – encouraging the public to invest blindly in the virility of the US econ engine which prevents them seeing the fiat can they keep kicking down the road has hit a dead end. The financial elite do realise it and are hedging their bets on it. When the can hit the wall the elite created derivatives. Stiglitz challenged any economist to define derivatives. Not only did Wall St. create a catastrophically obscene amount of its own fake money, the Fed printed money to bail them out when the bubble burst. The scenario will repeat – what will stop it. The Indian economist Jayati Ghosh sees it happening in commodities.

The US is waging 7 wars and whilst its main exports are war-toys a manufacturer’s primary customer should not be itself, no? The “wars” are not going well. War is insanely expensive – robotics, PTSD, the medical costs alone would be injurious to the healthiest of economies let alone an unimaginably impaired one that has no real change in the works. The govt. can’t privatise the military quickly enough. Then there are the long-term health costs of new age weaponry, as well, not only does Japan have to deal with rebuilding infrastructure, but medical fallout for years to come – as would any country that experiences such a disaster, double the trouble here in the US where the nuclear industry is entirely subsidised by the public.

Trade policy remains moored in oppressive tactics – China now seems no more or less menacing a partner - the US emperor is naked but no one in Murdoch world notices. The kooky US left believes marching in DC will affect change? It’s pathetic. The crisis for capitalism will happen when China’s working class revolts. If that doesn’t happen, China will become what the US is today, as the US simultaneously bottoms out. I prefer the death blow to capitalism inflicted by a worker revolution but history is not a promising indicator.
" Hmmm...national 'trade policy'? Or is it the regulatory cartelisation of the global economy by state capitalist policies of the wealthy nations?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

It’s the Political Economy, Stupid!

Sometimes living in the world of ideas makes it harder to understand the real one. If you happen to be an economist, and the time is now, that is true in spades. Take Paul Krugman, for instance. After bemoaning the terrible policy choices of the last two years, he writes, “I’m still trying to make sense of this global intellectual failure.” It’s as if the core problem is that political leaders didn’t learn their macroeconomics well enough.

But Keynes was wrong about the power of “academic scribblers”. Idea-smiths provide language, narratives and tools for those in control, but the broad contours of policy depend on who the controllers happen to be. We are not living through an epoch of intellectual failure, but one in which there is no available mechanism to oust a political-economic elite whose interests have become incompatible with ours.

This is not some sudden development, much less a coup d’etat as is sometimes claimed. No, the accretion of power by the rentiers has been systematic, structural and the outcome of a decades-long process. It is deeply rooted in modern capitalist economies due to the transformation of corporations into tradable, recombinant portfolios of assets, increasing concentration of and returns to ownership, and the failure of regulation to keep pace with technology and transnational scale. Those who sit at the pinnacle of wealth for the most part no longer think about production, nor do they worry very much about who the ultimate consumers will be; they take financial positions and demand policies that will see to it that these positions are profitable.

The rapid and robust global restoration of profits post-2008 was not an accident. Public funds were used to bail out exposed creditors and shore up asset values, while the crisis was used to suppress wages and postpone meaningful regulatory reform. Indeed, I can predict with some confidence that many of the profits, particularly in the financial sector, that have been reported in official filings and blessed by the accounting firms will later be found to be illusory—but not before those who have claims on the revenues have cashed in to their own personal advantage. The institutions will be decimated, but those who owned, lent to or bet on them will be rich. This is not a failure, at least not for them.

You could make a case that, collectively, the interests of the financially endowed ultimately require a rescue of the real, nonfinancial global economy. Surely, when we take our painful plunge into the second dip of the Great Recession, their wealth will be at risk. But the ability to see it at a system level presupposes either a system-level organization of the class or the existence of individual interests that are transparently systemic. Neither appears to be the case today. From what we (you and me) can see from our vantage point, the ruling demands are to make sure my bonds are serviced, my counterparties pony up, the markets I invest in stay liquid, and expenditures for public welfare (i.e. the losers and chiselers) are slashed.

The first principle of political economy is that the scope of democracy depends on the range of views and interests (typically tightly linked) of the owning and controlling class. Genuine public debate and decision-making extends only to those issues on which the elites are divided. In what country today is there a significant division among political-economic elites over core economic questions? How would our situation be different if Obama, Cameron, Merkel, Sarkozy et al. had been on the losing side of their elections?

So, the current mess is not the result of a failure by intellectuals—although clearer, less ideologically-driven thinking by economists would certainly be a good thing and might make a small dent at the margin. As long as there are even a few economists who proclaim the virtues of austerity and deregulation, however, their views will dominate. They haven’t won a battle of ideas; they are simply the ones who have been handed the microphone.

The real problem is political, and it is profound. Unless we can unseat the class that sees the world only through its portfolios, they may well take us all the way down. Unfortunately, no one seems to have a clue how such a revolution can be engineered in a modern, complex, transnational economy.

A Calamitous Response to Calamity

I grew up 18 miles from Youngstown, Ohio, the nearest thing to a "big city." The town was the epicenter of the Rust Belt because of his heavy dependence on steel. As the economy disintegrated, arson became the major industry because housing values had declined so much. Recently, the town was in the news because it pioneered in the deliberate shrinkage of a city.

Now, the Wall Street Journal reports that a new steel mill is under construction, which might seem to be a reason for celebration. Unfortunately, the purpose of the mill is to produce million tons of seamless steel tubes used in "fracking," which has become a major source of income in the area, but a serious threat to the water supply.

Ansberry, Clare. 2011. "A Steel Plant Rises in Ohio." Wall Street Journal (2 August): p. B 1.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Friday, August 5, 2011

Unions vs. the Good Guys at Delta Airlines

The FAA was shut down because of a partisan dispute. The basic issue was supposed to be the Republican demand that the agency save $16 million by ceasing to subsidize 13 airports with relatively little demand. Yes, the airports were in Democratic strongholds.

NPR's Brian Naylor reported that the airports were a bargaining chip. The real issue was the threat that union power posed for Delta. The National Mediation Board rejected a practice that counted required a union to win more than half the eligible votes rather than half of the votes cast.

Delta, the only non-union airline, got the Republican bill to include language overturning the National Mediation Board decision. Since the House leadership refused to budge, the FAA shut down, leaving the government unable to collect $30 million per day in taxes. Patriotically, most of the airlines continued to collect the tax in the form of higher fares. However, these "job creators" kept the money so that they could help the economy. Besides, the government could make up the lost taxes with still more tax cuts.

This brings us back to Delta, which graciously agreed to refund the "taxes" that it collected. Hopefully, we will reward Delta for this good behavior by supporting the House repeal of the union election rule.

The Tea Party Destroys The "Full Faith And Credit" Of The United States

No, in the end they did not actually block a debt ceiling increase, so we avoided a formal default, and the ratings agencies may even yet let us off the hook for an official downgrade. But that does not matter. Since our one-only-in-the-world debt ceiling was unified in 1939, it has had 89 "clean" increases up until this year, despite some noise and huffing on some, and even a delay in 1979 great enough to cost taxpayers something like $10 billion due to a one month technical delay in paying $120 million in interest.

But now we are in a new world. The master of this increase, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has made it clear that this is the "new normal." There will be no clean increases in the future, and the tea party has made it clear that Grover Norquist is our dictator; there will be no tax increases to help in meeting the demands to reduce deficits, even though these efforts look to push us back into another recession, 1937-style, all over again. Chinese and other foreign commentators have gotten the message, just as did Moody's, that there is a very severe risk to the full faith and credit of the United States due to potential political gridlock in the Congress, with the worst of this driven by maniacs who refuse to increase taxes and some of whom even think that a default would actually improve the credit rating of the US. The only thing that could have been worse out of this mess would have been if in fact they had failed to raise the damned debt ceiling.

As it is, the New York Times has a lead editorial this morning calling for the abolition of the debt ceiling, a position I have been pushing here since April 19.

The Choices of 2008, the Consequences for Today (Caution: Very Dark)

It’s always a good idea to try to see the present as a moment in history, in relation to the main forces at work.  By now it can no longer be denied that the US and European, and therefore world, economies are in serious trouble.  We are awash in analyses that examine at close distance the various aspects of our predicament: beleaguered US consumers, sovereign European borrowers who can’t keep treading water as their interest rates rise, and misguided politicians and policy chieftains on both continents who provide half measures at best on top of perversely procyclical fiscal and monetary blunders.  All this is true.

But let’s go back to the critical moment in the fall of 2008 when global markets froze and, in the midst of crisis, decisions had to be made about fundamental economic strategy.