Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Short Stuff

I ventured to the mall last night to see “The Big Short”.  How could I not?  A commitment to watch every film on finance and political economy themes is not very committing.

I’ll get two things out of the way at the outset.  First, the uptempo, jokey, quick-cutting style was effective enough.  I’ll say more about what I think it contributes to the message of the film in a moment, but for now, consider me entertained.  In particular, the Brechtian asides were great and left me wondering why this technique isn’t used more often.  It was a pleasure to watch Dick Thaler explaining synthetic CDO’s.

Second, I don’t worry very much about the factual precision of the film.  It’s not a documentary.  It’s main impact is in firming up some memes or stereotypes and dampening or precluding others.  We’re in the world of pop culture, not podcast lectures.  This means I don’t worry about whether it’s really true that only a handful of traders knew there was a housing bubble in 2005 (it isn’t), nor even how important the threat of financial collapse was in the instigation of the Great Recession or the subsequent Great Nonrecovery.

Here is what matters, in my opinion.

1. Pre-2008 culture was thick with glorifications of money-making as an end-in-itself.  From fund managers to rappers, simply being hosed with cash was presented as glamorous, the ultimate high.  This ethos was called into question by the crash, and one of the more interesting cultural battles has been over the emotional pull of extreme wealth.  The Big Short is ambivalent, more than it probably intended to be.  There are on-screen depictions of early 2000s types, transfixed by the opportunity for a big score; this is exemplified in particular by the two Colorado garage band hedge fund neophytes, in roles that can only be described as inverted Capra.  But there are also morose, disillusioned traders and ex-traders for whom big money has lost its magnetism.  If you had only the script to go on you might call it a draw or even a win by decision for the post-materialists.  But here’s where the style comes in: two hours of jumpy, jokey high adrenalin depictions of high stakes gambling on Wall St. tips the balance back toward hyper-acquisitiveness.  The movie feels like a classic caper flick, with the heroes being the ones who make the final score, no matter what the script says.

2. How to interpret the Big Shorters?  The film presents two narratives of their strategy.  One is the revenge of the nerds: Wall Street and the mortgage industry were in the grips of idiots, and the smart, quantitatively literate skeptics ate their lunch.  Brains triumphed over dull mediocrity.  The other is moral: the financial system had descended into a cesspool of fraud and short-sighted greed, and the shorters were like a sheriff’s posse, out to take down the bad guys.  Interestingly, the film even tells you there’s no need to choose; at a critical moment one of the players says that fraud and stupidity are reflections of one another, and when one of the key shorters (Steve Carell) gives a speech at the end expressing his disillusionment his critique of fraud is that it is doomed to fail.  My response is that this is a fudge: one of the big stories of the post-2008 world is that fraud hasn't been punished, and the really big winners from the entire process, from the takeoff of financial market liberalization in the 70s to the present, still run the world.  The profits of the shorters, measured in tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, are chump change by comparison.  The ethical critique simply can’t be folded into a narrative about the triumph of the smart guys.  In a way, the film supports this in its concluding (and witty) postscript on how the financial sector avoided any real reckoning, but this comes after two hours of watching what you think at the time is the impending destruction of the ultra-rich.

3. And what’s the larger image of Wall Street that emerges from this film?  Every critique implies an alternative, a counterfactual in which the critique doesn’t apply.  A useful way of assessing the scope and accuracy of a critique is to identify this counterfactual.  What sort of financial system would be immune to the barbs of The Big Short?  You may recall that this was a nagging question in Michael Lewis’ book, which alternated between deep cynicism and a bedrock assumption that most financial market activity was or could be socially productive.  The film adds a visual dimension to the issue.  For instance, when our reverse-Capras wander through a Lehman Brothers trading room after it’s been abandoned, the viewer can’t help but wonder what’s been subtracted from the world by this event.  And the film, true to the book, doesn’t offer any answers.  The deeper questions about the allocation of capital and the relationship between finance and “real” economic activity don’t surface, not even visually.  It’s not clear how Wall Street would be different if it were reformed on the terms implicit in this story.  It would be more honest, yes, but smaller?  Would it recruit and reward its minions on different principles?  And how would such unavoidable concentrations of wealth be redirected to socially productive purposes?  To repeat, I don’t expect a narrative film to answer questions like this, but they illuminate the immense whitespace in a script that encourages an ostensibly skeptical perspective on finance.

For those of us who live from one economics-themed film to the next, the inevitable comparison is to “Margin Call”.  In a way, that’s unfair.  Margin Call was an exceptional movie that could never hope to win the mass audience of The Big Short.  It had a much slower pace, sustaining the illusion that events were taking place in real time.  Its characters were deeper and more contradictory, with less reliance on pop culture stereotypes.  (It also had one very substantial female role for Demi Moore, where The Big Short could give even the magnificent Melissa Leo only an example, not a real human being, to play.)  That said, it also asked bigger questions.  Stanley Tucci’s “I used to build bridges in Pennsylvania” speech problematized the entire enterprise of modern finance, while Jeremy Irons’ final historical sum up superbly crystallized a political economy perspective.  Above all, fraud, which was the central topic in Margin Call, was presented not (only) as an emanation of character but an outcome of the incentive structure of the industry.

So I’m happy I went, and I had a good time.  When the movie ended a guy down the row from me shouted, “Feel the Bern!”

The Green World

The Duckabush River on Christmas Day.

See (many of) you in SF shortly.  (And Barkley, bounce back in full, please.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Hersh On CIA Vs DIA Over Syria Policy

Seymour Hersh has surfaced after some time with a serious article in the London Review of Books entitled "Military to Military" about debates within the US ruling establishment over policy towards Syria, with the title referring to levels of assitance from the US military to the Syrian military. He recounts in great detail recent history of US policy debates over how to deal with events in Syria.  It turns out that there has been one of the worst splits within the ruling leadership over what to do, with in particular the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey (out in 2014), and the Directorof  the Defense Intelligence Intelligence Agency (DIA)  from 2002-2014, Michael Flynn, and the Obama administration along with the CIA.

Basically Obama and the CIA were following in a weaker form the neocon/GOP/Hillary position that the US should try to bring down Bashar El-Assad and support the "moderates" in Syria to bring him down, while Dempsey and Flynn at the DIA disagreed with this, and, accordign to Hersh, basically said the US should support Assad and cooperate with Russia in Syria to crush all the Wahhabist/Salafist opposition, whether al-Qaeda affiliated or Daesh/IS/ISIS/ISIL. In the end, being 2014, Dempsey and Flynn lost and were removed, although more recently the US military has been secretly to some degree aiding the Syrian military against Daesh, hence the title of the article, "Military to Military."

There is much of great interest in this article, including some things that are questionable or biased, but this is a discussion that little of the MSM has talked about except in more general terms.  And the notoriously stupid VSP elite is ignoring it completely, even if some of the more knowledgeable are in on it. But it is not for the public to be involved with.  In Hersh's account, his big focus is Obama vs the Pentagon, with the Pentagon right, and Obama awfully removing Dempster and Flynn, who are obviously (or maybe just maybe) right, with the US now gradually realizing they were right, even as the GOP (except maybe Rand Paul and at moments of all people, Trump), neocons, and Hillary, and VSPs in general, who still mealy mouth about how the US must find those wonderful "moderates."

All this is just fine, but I  want to focus on what even Hersh did not highlight, the serious story in this story. One sign of what is up is that Hersh never quotes anybody from the CIA or those in the admin who disagree with Flynn and Dempster, who are clearly the main sources of his article (although Hersh is very diligent and checks many sources, but there is nobody on the other side in this article). So, the real story here is that we have just had probably the biggest institutional fight within the US intelligence establishment in a lothng time, unsurprisingly unreported, with even the guy reporting it not quite getting it.  The non-DOD CIA has just beaten the DOD DIA in a very serious fight, even though probably the losers were right, which the winners may have figured out by now.

To get to the individuals, Dempster was up for standard rotation retirement, so his disappearance is not a big deal, although the removal of Flynn at the DIA was not so regular.  Anyway, Hersh makes a big deal about especially the removal of Flynn, who apparently made lots of noise and really made it into the big fight, arguing from quite a few years ago that the US failed to fight Daesh/ISIS because it wanted to bring down Assad.  According to him about two years ago there was a really serious showdown, which he and Dempsey and the DOD lost, over supporting or bringing down Assad, and Obama supported bringing down Assad, going along with the CIA/neocon/VSP, etc., me adding those last three.  The funny thing, given how central to all of this it all is, Hersh really says little about the CIA role in this, which is central to the whole business.

The big story here is that there has been a really serious fight within the US intelligence establishment, publicly approved budget according to Wiki about $68 billion for the officially recognized 16 agencies.  So now we get  down to it.  A quarter of a century ago the allocations were that the most secret of the DOD ops got the highest amounts, the NSA and the more secret NRO got about three times as much as the CIA. Now the CIA gets more than them or any other DOD entity.
 I s
The DIA was long the second sister of the CIA, the DOD's attempt to reproduce the CIA.  Now the really serious issue is that the CIA is not what it was and Flynn's DIA has been what the CIA used to be.  The expansion of the budget of the CIA, now well ahead of all the DOD intel agencies, even the still super secret secret National Reconaissance Organization (NRO),  is due to its having acquired a its own "Special Ops"army, not in the DOD, which the CIA is not in.  Prior to 9/11/01 CIA did analysis and their Ops did the usual movie stuff.  But now they have their own military not under the control of the Secretary of Defense., and they now have the largest budget of any of the 16 officially rcognized intel agencies by the US government.

So, CIA has been supporting and arming the "moderates" in Syrian who are at best now affiliated with al-Qaeda against Daesh/ISIS.  They have the money and they have the "boots on the ground,"wsuchich we suppoedly do not have and now that Lindsey Graham is out of the race no presidential candidate in the US claims to support.  Looks like to me that  if it is CIA it is not "boots on the ground," but if it is others, well, although I shall back off this by recognizing that some of the more secrte DOD ops are almost certainly part of these non-books on the ground books on the ground.

 The higher level buraurcratic battle here seems to be have been the Pentagon intel against the non-DOD intel, in short, the DIA against the CIA, and Hersh has revealed how bad this argument over policy and ultimately funds has been in recent years.  Hersh hints that in the face of Daesh/ISIS these differences have become less important at the higher levels of decision-making.

I add a few oddly related items.  such as that at earlier today it was reported that Iran turned over to Russia the vast majority of its enriched uranium, thereby fulfilling the most central portion from their side of the recently internationally agreed to deal.

This point now is at a much lower level. So, among the GOP candidates there has been this list of people who are supposedly "moderate, reasonable."  High on this list although now very  low in the polls and probably not worth this critical comment is Kasich, Governor of Ohio.  I grant that he has more than any of these GOP candidates real experience, and an old friend of mine has favored him for decades, but I have found in the last GOP debate a fatal flaw. Nobody has commented on it because he is nowhere, but in the last GOP debate he took the most extreme position about Iran of any of them, relevant to this post. He declared that the biggest thing was to go after Iran, more important than getting Daesh/ISIS. 

But today Iran turned over its highly enriched uranium to the Russians, making it clear that Obama's nuclear deal with Iran is  for real against so many commentaries on US media.

Barkley Rosser

PS:  I have been posting a lot recently because I shall be a week from now disappearing from cyberspace as well as not making the ASSA/AEA meetings in San Francisco coming up, which I was planning to attend not only for professional reasons but to see my grandchildren who live there. But I shall not be there, and I extend to all my friends who will be there my best regards and a happy new year. I shall not be there because I shall have open heart valve replacement surgery on January 5th, 2016.  So, I shall not be at the meetings, and extend my best regards to all who will attend who were expecting to see me there.  


Carl Snyder was an enthusiastic advocate of Pareto's law of income distribution, arguing that "the wealth, capital, and broad diffusion of comforts in the more highly developed civilizations like those of the United States and Europe, are the product of an extraordinarily small number of men." Any attempt to redistribute income away from the "true creators... the true saviours of our modern world" (such foolish notions being "one of the strongest drives within those vast lower levels of our neolithic population") inevitably leads to "the ruthless destruction of civilization by these barbarian hordes."

Snyder's ecstatic brand of pro-plutocratic faith and rhetoric endeared him to the folks at the Mises Institute, where one can download a copy of his Capitalism the Creator. But even a cursory glance at Snyder's book jacket-featured chart reveals that Snyder didn't solely attribute to capitalistic accumulation "the fruits of this fine flower which we call civilization." Sharing credit for the economic miracle is our old friend, "primary power."

Energy that is. From hydrocarbons (mostly). Fossil fuel.

Virtually the same chart is reproduced inside the book on page 75, titled "VIII. THE SOURCES OF OUR GREAT WEALTH AND INCOME. It shows the value of manufactures, total primary power, an index of trade and production and capital invested in manufacturing. In Chart XII, on page 113, "much the same thing is given in a different form" for the benefit of those many persons (obviously not "true creators") who find "the ordinary charts... difficult to follow." Chart XII once again "compares the amount of capital invested, the 'value added' in manufacture (over the cost of raw materials), and the number of horsepower used in primary power":
A glance suffices to reveal how close is the association, very strongly suggesting, perhaps even proving that increased product in manufacturing can only be attained through the increased use of machinery, of which the amount of horsepower employed is an excellent index. In turn, this increase in use of machinery and of primary power is possible only through the increase in the capital employed. No other conceivable way.
No "decoupling" of output from "horsepower." We'll come back to that.

Meanwhile, it was fascinating to discover that Snyder was as infatuated with Svante August Arrhenius's cosmical physics as he was with capitalism's immaculately-conceived incarnation of Vilfredo Pareto's law of income distribution. Arrhenius is best known today for his 1896 theory that climate may be affected by decreases or increases in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other, so-called greenhouse gases.

In addition to his glowing review in the New York Times of Arrhenius's  Das Werden der Welten, the headline of which is reproduced in the lead graphic of this post, Snyder wrote The World Machine -- The First Phase -- The Cosmic Mechanism, a book he described as the "first connected presentation in English" of Arrhenius's ideas:
These ideas formed, as it were, the capstone or the keystone of a view of the world-process which has been slowly growing through the centuries and that must eventually impose upon all who trouble their minds with such matters. 
Getting back to that matter of decoupling output from horsepower, at least, Snyder's "no conceivable way" may turn out to be pretty hard to dispute, after all. The graph below is from Rethinking Economic Growth Theory from a Biophysical Perspective, by Blair Fix. It plots five-year average growth rates for "useful work" and real GDP.

There doesn't appear to be any trend of decoupling here, as there is for the relationship between GDP growth and primary energy consumption. This would suggest that most of past energy savings have come from efficiency gains in the conversion of primary energy to useful work. Fix explains that "this embodied form of technological progress has inherent limits stipulated by the laws of thermodynamics." See also the following presentation by Blair Fix, "Economic Growth as a Power Process" October 27, 2015:

ABSTRACT: Is economic growth a miracle of the free market? According to mainstream theory, growth is best ensured through conditions of ‘perfect competition’. However, economic growth is tightly correlated with the concentration of power in the hands of large corporations. Why? The capital as power framework provides potential answers that turn mainstream theory on its head: growth seems to be intimately related to the formation of hierarchy. Blair Fix is a PhD student at the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University.
In a roundabout way, Fix's argument brings us back to to the Pareto power law of income distribution, by way of George Zipf (and Zipf mostly by way of Mario Giampietro!). Only this time, the implication is less beneficent than Snyder's notion of the "true creators... the true saviours of our modern world" (Chapter VII of Capitalism the Creator is titled "Capitalism the Beneficent").

But let us not part on a sour note! Here is Carl Snyder's idyllic vision of the future Technology has in store for us all:
We shall not need old age pensions or security laws, because the advance in Technology will not be confined to machinery and to processes; we shall have an equal advance in the technique (very simple and, as we now know, easily attained) of economic and monetary stability, so that we shall have no more business depressions, nor crazy speculation, nor wide unemployment and decline in the production of wealth. And these will be eradicated, not by childish and futile attempts at government fiat, but by the unbelievably simple methods of credit control. That is, we shall learn to understand and run the economic mechanism as smoothly as we do now that of a powerful electro-generating plant, or a Leviathan of the sea; and economics and economists, perhaps, will rise to larger knowledge and a new dignity and sphere of usefulness.
Unbelievably simple? Simply unbelievable.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Who Are The Secular Theists/Creationists?

On today's  Washington Post editorial page, George Will propounds on "Creationists of the Secular Kind," (whom he also calls "Secular Theists") whom he sees as far worse for society and the economy than the "religious creationists."  He is inspired in his discussion by earlier arguments by libertarian/Austrian economist Don Boudreaux, who runs the blog, Cafe Hayek, citing him specifically and largely drawing on arguments made by Boudreaux in several places, with I think Boudreaux coining both of these terms and making the main argument here.  There are two parts to this argument, both of them in Boudreaux's original post (along with some related blogposts by others) as well as in Will's column.

The main argument is garden variety libertarianism: government regulations and efforts to direct the economy will end up strangling economic growth, most specifically slowing useful technological change that emerges from competition in a Darwinian evolutionary manner (Schumpeter argued this, but he does not get cited by any of these people, bad Austrian that he was), with a more general argument for the spontaneous emergence of market order, drawing heavily on arguments made by Hayek in many places, who in turn credited Adam Smith for this idea.  Both Boudreaux and Will criticize "progressives" (Boudreaux) and "presidential campaigns" (Will) for believing in the "fatal conceit" (from the title of Hayek's last book) that government or planners or "the state" can somehow improve on the spontaneously emergent market system.  While this is just old hat laissez-faire libertarianism, it has this spice of emergent order, which Hayek identified with complexity, that supposedly makes it more impressive and undeniable, although this has been around since at least the late 1940s when Hayek first made such arguments.

Of course it can be argued that with respect to the basic argument about technological change, it may be that government actions can help stimulate it, although certainly they can also restrain or block it.  Among actions that may stimulate it are funding for research, properly structured patent systems (arguably not what we have now), and subsidies to support new technologies, although these can certainly sometimes end up being inefficient pork barrel boondoggles.

Nevertheless, this is an area where I think that Will's initial slam on the supposed "secular creationists" as being worse than the religious ones may be seriously wrong.  After all, we have many of these people not only overtly blocking such specific scientific research projects as stem cell research, but also trying to block research on climate change, the effects of gun violence, and many other things, not to mention trying to control our educational system to  insert teaching of indeed "special creation," which is just their efforts to impose their narrow theological beliefs on everybody.  They are far more dangerous to technological change than are most current "secular theists,"although I grant there are some leftists who oppose certain kinds of research, such as on GMOs, not to mention the more recent general movement on many campuses to restrict academic freedom of speech.

While I disagree with them on this, it is the second argument where I think both Boudreaux and Will simply lose it completely.  This part of the argument says that not only are these awful secular theists trying to strangle economic growth with their awful regulations, they also do not accept the idea of the spontaneous emergence of market orders, that they believe that market orders must be created by somebody, which is what their real error or crime of "secular creationism" is.

As Boudreaux puts it:
"Order must, for  secular theists, be the result of a [sic] some higher that designs, intends, imposes, and guides willfully the order that we see about us."

Will's formulation is this:
"Like religious creationists gazing upon biological complexity, secular theists assume that social complexity requires an intentional design imposed from on high by wise designers, a.k.a. them."

Now this is a much stronger argument, with Boudreaux rushing to meet possible objections at the end of the linked post above to dispute any idea that anything like the US Constitutional Convention was such an ordering-from-on-high body, that most of the legal  structure of the US predated it, and so on and so forth.  Curiously, when I looked at the comment thread to his post, I did not see anybody really trying to argue with him on this point.

OK, this is where I am ready to take both of them down hard.  Who are these people they claim believe this argument?  They never name any names, neither one of them nor any of their pals posting on this either.  Boudreaux refers to "progressives," but he names nobody.  Certainly there have been leaders  who at certain moments did things that altered how the economy works (and, of course, command socialist central planners do take control of economies and guide them, but they are the ultimate enemy criticized by Hayek in the socialist planning controversy).  It is not just the US constitutional convention, but such things as Napoleon imposing his legal code (which was drawn heavily on earlier codes) or FDR doing his New Deal, or even something like the Bretton Woods conference that established organizations to oversee the international economy.

But, taking into account that indeed there have been such moments or leaders who have strongly influenced and changed how the market economy works, I am frankly unaware of anybody who denies that in general market economies spontaneously develop through competitive evolutionary processes, even if these are bounded or to some extent guided by organizations or institutions that themselves evolve, if occasionally with a helping hand from governments. But I am at a loss to think of anybody other than full-bore conspiracy theorists who believe anything like the statements I have quoted above by Boudreaux and Will to the effect that all social order has to have been consciously imposed by somebody or other, and this included Karl Marx most especially, who strongly argued that the capitalist economy evolves through competitive natural selection, Marx being one of the very first to openly praise Darwin when he published his Origin of the Species after it was published in 1859.

So, to be very blunt, both Boudreaux and Will are just completely wrong and full of it on this point.  They are fantasizing.  They can argue from a long tradition of libertarian pro-laissez faire schools that free markets may do better than ones heavily interfered with by governments, but trying to add onto this the ridiculous claim that those who think governments might be able to help economies by proper interventions also believe that there is no such thing as a spontaneously evolved and emerged order and that everything we see must have been planned by somebody, well, this is itself a fatal conceit of the worst and silliest kind.

I shall close this by pointing out that Boudreaux himself completely undermines his own case in this original post, linked to above. Among the supposed idiocies of all these secular theists and creationists is that somehow they do not recognize the virtues and successes of the "somewhat deregulated" economies of [South] Korea, Taiwan, and, yes, China.  Oh my.  But the joke is that none of these is remotely his model of libertarian laissez-faire.  He would have had more credibility if he had cited that old libertarian fave, Hong Kong, but no, we have this bizarre trio.  I do not know how ignorant he is on this, but all of these economies have been marked by lots of government intervention and direction by the state.  Taiwan may be the most free market, but it still has much government intervention.  South Korea had vigorous indicative planning during its highest rate of growth phase during the 60s-80s, and China still has such planning, having just announced its 13th Five Year Plan.  Yes, they still have those, indeed are bragging that they have now beaten the old Soviet Union, which only managed to have 12 of them.  Among at least semi-large economies, only Iran still has such Five Year Plans for an overall economy. Even North Korea no longer has them.

As for Will, well, he cribs from Boudreaux and others about various forms of evolutionary emergence such as languages and boat technology, and so on, none of it original.  But, again, just as with Boudreaux, amazingly enough for all the vitriol and scorn being leveled at all these deluded and dangerous secular theists/creationists, he never names anybody, leaving those "presidential campaigns" at just that, just as Boudreaux is satisfied to snipe at nameless "progressives."  Obviously Will is trying to take a broad and long view and perspective for the end of the year with this, but in the end he just falls pompously on his face as he so often does.  He is such a joke, he barely even merits being in that class of absurd observers so many of us ridicule as being the Very Serious People, who heavily populate the editorial page of the Washington Post.

Barkley Rosser


1)  Cuba also  has 5 Year Plans, with a new one adopted just this year, with these having strong command elements, even as the Cuban economy moves more in the direction of marketization.  While North Korea probably still has the most intense command planning, it also has increasing markets, unofficial, especially in agriculture.  Its 5 Year Plans basically broke down during the famine of 20 years ago.  Planning continues but is much more year to year, semi-ad-hoc.  Iran's planning is strictly of the indicative sort.  Turkmenistan continues to have command planning along with a heavily state-owned economy, although it does not seem to have 5 Year Plans.  Ironically while China's central planning is mostly indicative, there do remain command portions in it, making even more of a mockery of Boudreaux'as abysmally nonsensical argument.

Regarding whether there have ever been any serious economists (or social theorists or even just general public intellectuals and commentators)  who really go along with this caricature that Boudreaux and Will put forth about people who believe that all observed social order (or complexity) must somehow be the result of design or higher orders from somebody, well, perhaps the most likely candidates for their accusations might be some of the Old Institutionalists, perhaps John R. Commons and his empahsis on the legal foundations of capitalism.  However, for all his emphasis on the importance of consciously established institutions, especially legal ones, Commons also recognized evolutionary forces to some extent.  Indeed, my wife and I are working on a paper that discusses this very point now, with Old Institutionalist figues as Veblen clearly very strong on evolutionary economics, even if Commons did not go along as much.

Further Addendum, 12/28/15, 4:10 PM

Ah ha!  I have come up with more candidates for this dread category of secular theists/creationists, which might fit the political agenda of Boudreaux and Will along with broader one as well.  Among economists there is the chartalist school of thought in monetary theory that has its current manifestation in the Post Keynesian Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) approach.  In at least one area the MMT view holds that what we see is due to state action and state action pretty much alone, namely the money supply, although that is ultimately endogenous.  In any case, the /chartalist/MMT view is that only governments create money, with particularly what gets paid as taxes counting as "money."  When confronted with spontaneously emerged media of exchange in "primitive" societies such as cowrie shells or even older debt arrangements as discussed by anthropologist David Graeber, these are not "money" by definition because they are not used to pay taxes to a state that established them as such.  Really the most important aspect of money is as a unit of account, and again that unit that defines what one can pay in taxes.

So, this gives a candidate with a strong connection to a progressive presidential candidate, Boudreaux having singled out progressives as prominent among these "secular theists" (although some of the old progressives were Social Christians), and Will whomped down on "presidential camgaigns." So, who is the most progressive of presidential candidates?  None other than good old democratic socialist Bernie Sanders.  And guess who is top economic adviser is? Ah ha!  None other than Stephanie Kelton, a leading advocate of the MMT approach.  We have found them!

Well, I have two observations on this.  While certainly Stephanie sees this very strong role of the state in creating money, I do not think she or any of her main allies such as Randy Wray think that all things in the economy are determined by state action or some other higher order (I could be mistaken, and if either of them or any of their other allies wishes to disagree with me on this, I shall accept it). But I think that while they see strong state influences on market economies, certainly on the monetary side, they do not see every form of order in markets as due to this.  I think that at least they accept that there are competitive evolutionary processes going on in market capitalist economies that drive technological and institutional change over time through market forces with the role of the state in more of a bounding and institutional framework role.  I also think this applies to Sanders, who, after all, when being called out on his socialism in the first Dem debate cited Denmark and went on to praise its policies encouraging small businesses, which are not generally directly run or controlled in market economies, which Denmark is.  So, I really do not think either of them fits the strong claim made about people who think all social order or complexity is determined from above.

Which brings me to my second point that I think involves the heart of how both Boudreaux and Will have made such fools of themselves over this.  I think that they simply do not realize that they are talking about two separate things: advocating a strong and guiding state role in the economy versus saying that even in the most laissez-faire economy there is some higher controlling driving force.  This is  really seen by their dragging in Hayek so insistently, whose critique of "the fatal conceit" of thinking that societies can be "socially engineered" through central planning  they basically cite.  Now neither Kelton nor Sanders even favors central planning, although they certainly do support more government intervention in the economy than most economists or politicians in the US. But such advocacy has nothing whatsoever to do with this second bit about how supposedly all order we see is planned or guided from above.  This is their fundamental error and confusion, thinking these are the same when they are not.  They want to hang this idiotic idea on those who think that government actions might improve the economy, but it remains the case that I cannot think of a single economist of any ideology or period who believes this ridiculous proposition that is the real heart of this silly so-called "secular theism" or "secular creationism."

Saturday, December 26, 2015

How Did The World Scientific Community Come To Believe That Global Warming Is Happening?

This is not such an obvious matter, as in fact this consensus came about, to be specific that there will be global warming in the long run, before it was clearly happening, indeed, while the data from the previous three to four decades or so was that average global temperatures were falling.  This was the situation in the early 1970s, when this all went down.  And let me be clear that what most people hear is incorrect: it is not the case that there was always this consensus and that it was just a Newsweek cover and a few oddballs who were forecasting a possible ice age, or at least more modestly, that the future trend of average global temperature would be heading down as it had been for several decades rather than up.  At a certain point in time it was a tossup in the scientific literature, but then the warming side won.

The year of the tossup was 1971.  In that year,articles appearing in the top journals at that time publishing climatology (Science, Nature, PNAS, Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, Geophysical Research Letters, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society) were split evenly, with about a quarter predicting global warming, another quarter predicting global cooling, and the rest saying that it was unknown which way it would go.  How could this have been and why were so many people pushing the cooling hypothesis (aside from the fact that average global temperatures had in fact been gradually declining for several decades)?

The issue was rising emissions of aerosols, aka "particulates" and their frequently related SO2, which tend to cool things off.  As of 1971 most climatologists were highly aware that emissions of both the warming CO2 and the cooling aerosols/particulates/SO2 were going on.  The major wave of clean air acts among high income nations that would limit emissions of aerosols and SO2 had not yet been passed, nor would it be known that while there would be limits on those, there would not be any limits any time soon on CO2 emissions.  But that was not really the issue that decided the thing in the end.

As it was, views changed rapidly, and 1975 was the last year that there was an article in a top climatology journal still predicting global cooling (this was not too long after  the much hyped Newsweek cover story), and 1978 was the last year that one saw an article in those journals that said it was up in the air.  Since then, the scientific consensus at the top of the climatology profession has  been that CO2 (and other GHGs) will dominate and we shall tend to have global warming (which allows for cooling in some specific locations, and of course there might be exogenous offsets such as volcanoes or changes in solar radiation).  What happened during those years, with the turning around of the global temperature trend only starting around 1975 and still not clearly in place by 1978?

There are two things that were realized soon after 1971 (by 1972 the balance of views was already beginning to tilt).  The most important is that aerosols/particulates/SO2 do not stay in the atmosphere all that long.  They fall out in rain, often as acid rain, long a major pollution issue/concern, one of the reasons laws and regulations were passed to limit their emissions.  This also  meant that their effects were largely regional at most, not global.  OTOH, CO2 takes a very long time to get removed from the atmosphere. So even if in 1971 increases in emissions of both aerosols and CO2 were roughly equal, this meant that the increase in ambient levels at the global level would be much more sustained for CO2 than for aerosols/particulates/SO2.  The warming effect would win and dominate in the long run.

I would note the particular scientist who was probably most responsible for this change of opinion among scientists, the late Stephen H. Schneider, who died in 2010, and who would be one of the prime movers of the UN IPCC process.  In 1971 he was probably the most prominent leader of the "it can go either way" camp, as highlighted by his very influential article with S.L. Rasool in Science, 133: 138-141, "Atmospheric carbon dioxide and aerosols: Effects of large increases on global climate."  His change of view to the pro-warming side, which nailed in the broader shift and had been heralded in some earlier papers by him was his 1976 paper with R.M. Chervin in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences, 33: 405-412, "On determining the statistical significance of climate experiments with general circulation models."

Now it is true that this consensus by the scientific community did not get much if any public attention for a long time, probably at least partly because of the overblown media coverage of the "threat of ice ages" that had been going on in some places in the early to  mid-70s. Once burned (or frozen), twice shy.  So it took James Hansen testifying before a Senate committee in the hot summer of 1988 to  bring public attention to this, which with the hot weather gave credence to the already well established scientific literature, and he got the public credit rather than Schneider as the media piled on.  Now to be fair, Hansen had been publishing in the ares in the 70s, but it was Schneider who was really the main figure who led the majority of climatologists to understand why global warming was probably going to dominate over global cooling, not James Hansen.  I am not going to go on further about him here other than to remind people that his recent role related to the Paris accords has not been the most has nuseful.

Barkley Rosser  

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"Did the Great Recession Lead to the Great Vacation?" -- Yes.

Hey, don't laugh.

George Zipf (1941) "National Unity and Disunity; the nation as a bio-social organism":
Let us view the American depression of 1929 with the concept of leisure time in mind. 
b) October, 1929; the discovery of the 'raw material' of leisure time. 
With the end of 1929, the American total economy reached a point of great achievement, namely, a point when the national economy could produce its accustomed needs without using anywhere near all its available energies. Expressed differently, in 1929 the United States discovered a new 'raw material': leisure time, which in a way is just as much a 'raw material' as coal, oil, steel or anything else, because for many types of human activity, leisure time is an essential prerequisite. Of course one may be inclined to say that 1929 introduced a period of surplus production; that is true. Nevertheless in the solution of any problem much depends upon the angle of approach, and in this study we prefer to speak of the introduction of a surplus of leisure time. 
However, as we have remarked in the course of our study, any change in kind or amount of goods or of processes within a social-economy will necessitate a restriation within that social-economy itself. This was true of the discovery of steam, oil, and the like, and it will also be true of the 'discovery' of leisure time. 
Yet what are some of the implications of an increase of leisure time as far as production is concerned? Obviously, as long as a social-economy produces goods in sufficient amount to meet the minimal needs necessary for the survival of its members, then a social-economy could conceivably continue indefinitely. The only draw-back to this happy state of affairs is the phrase 'the minimal needs necessary for the survival of its members.' We do not know what those hypothetical minimal needs are, nor do we know a happy way of indefinitely forcing great masses of the population to be contented with a supply equal merely to the barest needs of survival, as long as more goods are possible. However, let us return to the consideration of leisure time as a raw material, or if one prefers, as a consumable good. 
As soon as we turn to the implications of an increase of leisure time from the viewpoint of distribution, then matters become clearer. Leisure time, like any other consumable good, is something worth organizing for; and the distribution of amounts of leisure time to the members of a population is as much subject to the laws of income-distribution as anything else. People like to eat, to sleep, to play,—and people like to 'loaf.' In short, everyone wants leisure time. To live by doing nothing is the height of economy. But how about the distribution of leisure time? Naturally, a large-scale unemployment is in and for itself a certain distribution of leisure time. But is it the most economical distribution of the nation's entire stock of leisure time within the total reservoir of a nation's complete production of consumable goods?"
Say what? Leisure time as raw material?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Is America's Freedom Unhinged From Reality or Truth?

Economic historian, Dr. Rupert Ederer issued an urgent warning to America and other nations who had adopted the neo-liberal ethic.  In October 2012 in his article "America and Catholic Social Teaching: An Urgent Warning".  He wrote:
"Capitalist plutocracies should be forewarned. They may well be facing some kind of parallel to the heinous outburst known as the French Revolution. That followed prolonged abuse of political power by long-standing hereditary monarchies and their associated aristocracies. The current murmur of revolution stems from the abuse of economic power by a class of capitalistic plutocrats nurtured in recent centuries by a cult of freedom which has come to be known as liberalism. Basically that is about freedom unhinged from reality — or truth."  [This is] "Indicated in the Catholic Church’s social teachings from the start....the failure of the economic liberals, and now neoliberals, to observe “in the area of economic and social activity” the important link between the “truth about man.” That shortcoming gave birth to Marxian socialism, and now to the current and fatal capitalistic economic pandemonium."
Ederer invokes the stated concerns and even outright opposition of a long series of leading Catholic world figures over the way the neoliberal ideological movement first took hold and then became firmly entrenched.:

the present Pope Benedict XVI [encyclical, 'Caritas in Veritate']
Pope John Paul II in January 1999 and his 'Laborem Exercens', 'Sollicitudo Rei Socialis' and 'Centesimus Annus
Pope Paul VI [May 1971 'Populorum Progressio']
Pope John XXIII [1961 encyclical 'Mater et Magistra']
Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen ['Communism and the Conscience of the West' (1948)]
Pope Pius XII [Address to Italian Workers, June 1941]
Pope Pius XI in 1931 [encyclical Quadragesimo Anno]
Father Heinrich Pesch, Jesuit Master Economist [Lehrbuch der Nationalökonomie (1923)]

In the forward to the 5th volume Pesch wrote:
"People, not excluding learned economists, tend to lapse all too easily into extremes. The recklessness in socialistic free labor union policy did evoke and continues to evoke reaction, so that today one feels entitled to talk about a kind of ‘neo-Manchesterism.’ Mises is regarded as the main exponent of this trend, and because of his incisive and original criticism of socialism he has also gained acceptance and respect among authors who, unlike him, have stepped forward and supported the legal protection of women and children, and social insurance of workers. Mises is on the wrong track when he attributes the terrible conditions in English factory regions where Manchesterism prevailed, not to that phenomenon, but to other circumstances. The historical development of industry among the various nations, and also a proper understanding of human nature, pass judgment on individualistic freedom."
Also mentioned are earlier Catholic popes who laid the foundation for the Church's social teachings on the economic order and the institution's opposition to economic liberalism:
Leo XIII [his encyclical 'Rerum Novarum' and his important encyclical On Human Liberty (Libertas Praestantissimum) which came out in 1888.]

Ederer concludes his article by pointing out that the present Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical 'Cartitas in Veritate' "addressed precisely the quintessential link between charity and truth.  

"Serious study of Caritas in Veritate" says Ederer "not to mention widespread implementation of that principle, has scarcely begun."

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Zadroga Act v. the Medical Device Excise Tax

This story highlights why Speaker Ryan has to be seen as repugnant. Let me start with a shout out to someone I admire:
There had been widespread support for a stand-alone measure to help the 9/11 responders, but congressional leaders were never quite able to push it across the finish line. While lawmakers from the New York area were strong advocates for the bill, it also had the forceful backing of Jon Stewart, the former host of “The Daily Show,” who made repeated trips to the Capitol to push for it.
John Stewart was right to push hard for passage of this Zadroga Act. But Speaker Ryan held support for our heroes until he could engineer tax breaks for his rich buddies:
But the House Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, has voiced angry opposition to the huge package of tax breaks, saying it would unfairly benefit big business.
Pelosi of course would vote for the Zadroga Act as a standalone bill. Let’s focus on one of those tax breaks:
It also appeared that manufacturers of medical devices were on the threshold of a victory in their campaign to roll back an excise tax on many of their products. Under the tentative agreement, the device tax, which took effect in 2013, would be suspended through 2017, congressional aides said. Republicans said the device tax discouraged the development and sales of innovative, lifesaving medical technology. Some Democrats from states with thriving medical technology companies agreed.
The notion that this modest estate tax would discourage innovation set Dean Baker off:
The economics of the medical device industry are similar to the economics of the prescription drug industry. Companies have large research costs, but then are able to sell devices for a markup of several hundred or several thousand percent above their marginal cost. By giving more people access to health care, the ACA was increasing the demand for medical devices and therefore increasing the number of devices that could be sold at high markups, creating a windfall for the industry. The purpose of the tax was to take back some of this windfall.
That should read a very small portion of the windfall. Permit me to expand on what Dean said by a simple illustration of how this excise tax works. Let’s assume that a medical device giant like Medtronic or J&J has $10 billion in U.S. sales per year. The 2.3% tax does not apply to the $10 billion but to a constructive price defined as the arm’s length price between the production division and the wholesale distribution division. Let’s also assume that production costs are $2500 billion and distribution costs are $3000 billion, which would mean profits are a staggering $4500 billion. Now where this constructive price lands depends on what portion of these profits should accrue to the distributor versus the manufacturer. The Big Four is basically lying for their clients by arguing that the constructive price should be only 30 percent of the price paid by customers as if all of the intangible assets are attributable to marketing rather than patents, product intangibles, and process intangibles. If they get away with this, the effective tax rate would be only 0.7 percent of sales. A company that receives a 45 percent profit margin is going to be discouraged an effective tax rate of only 0.7 percent? And the notion that the owner of valuable patents, product designs, and process intangibles are entitled to a contract manufacturing return? Who are these people kidding?

Central Points On the Tax Versus Cap And Trade Issue In The Paris Climate Agreement

I have already made several posts on this, but I want to focus on two  points regarding this and apologize that some of this will be repetition.   One is theory and one is on the views of economists.

The theory point derives from Martin Weitzman's 1974 paper in the Review of Economic Studies on Prices and Quantities.  I mentioned  this argument in my Pigou Club post, but again, in a world where we lack certainty about impacts of trying to clean up,  whether one focuses on fixing prices or fixing quantities depends on the potential threat from getting it wrong.  So, if one is more worried about overly high costs of cleanup from being wrong, then one wants to avoid that by fixing prices, which in the environmental policy debate means taxes or some similar mechanism.  If one is more worried about getting the benefits of cleaning up wrong, that is having a disaster because one did not keep the quantities controlled properly, then one should use a quantity limit approach.  Personally I think the latter is by far the biggest problem for the global warming problem, so a quantity approach is the better way to go, making it cost effective by adding cap and trade or tradable emissions permits to it.  I note that a hybrid policy is possible, allowing one or the other to  be dominant, but allowing a kick-in if things get too extreme on either side so as to allow the other policy to then also be used.

This would seem to be a strong argument, and I note that Weitzman has largely stayed out of being publicly involved in the debate over taxes versus cap and trade at Paris, although he is in the same department as Robert Stavins, who has supported cap and trade pretty clearly.   However, as many have  noted there are some very prominent economists in the Pigou Club, with Arrow, Schelling, and Stiglitz the most prominent, and with Mankiw also  very promient.  More than one observer has said, "how  can you disagree with these guys?"  Well, for starters, I do not think any of them have said that one should not or  never use cap and trade as climatologist James Hansen seems to have said after the Paris agreement tilted for cap and trade as I predicted it would based on past diplomatic and political history, although Paris certainly allows nations to use carbon taxes to achieve their national goals if they so  choose.  The  only favoritism is for international coordination, where the agreement suggests that trading permits is a useful  way to do that, which it certainly is.

As it is, I see this as partly a debate between very famous economists whose principal areas of research are not in the economics of global warming, although this topic has become Schelling's main concern in recent years, and I think that both he and Arrow also know a lot about the climate science involved, against some economists whose main field has been environmental economics, and thus are not as well known publicly as these Nobel Prize winners.  Stavins is one of those, and so is Weitzman (although he has publicly remained neutral). I shall name another, Tom Tietenberg of Colby College and J.H. Dales, whose current location I do not know.  Dales was the actually the first to propose tradable emissions permits, aka cap and trade back in the 1960s, getting the idea from the Coase Theorem, which was developed very much as a critique of Pigou's approach to taxing negative externalities. I may not be right on this, but I suspect that part of why Arrow and Schelling and Stiglitz have favored Pigouvian taxes is that it was the earliest approach formulated and the only one in all the textbooks for  years, dating back to the 1920s.

It was Tom Tietenberg in the 1970s who led the actual first implementation of cap and trade, the Wisconsin plan to limit BOD emissions into the Fox River, which I was peripherally involved with.  But Tom was the main person, and he is also the author  of the most  widely used environmental economics textbook.  He went from Wisconsin to be one of the main people advising EPA and the US government more generally on implementing the successful system for trading permits for lead in gasoline and SO2 emissions, much praised by Schmalensee and Stavins in their forthcoming JEP article.  But nobody outside of  environmental econ knows who Tom Tietenberg is, and, of course, the cap and trade system arose initially out of an effort to make cost effective the quantity limits laws that the US had put in place in the early 1970s against the advice of all the economists supporting Pigouvian taxes, many  of them signatories on this petition that went to Paris.

My final observation on this is that this reminds me a bit of what happened after the fall of the Soviet Union.  There were a bunch of comparative economists around, not well known outside of their field, who knew very well how difficult the transition processes would be and cautioned about overly ambitious plans brought in from the outside in a "one size fits all" manner.  But all the pizzazz of the fall brought all sorts of very well known economists who had not  studied comparative economics into the ball game, getting ahold of the policy apparatus and developing and enforcing the destructive Washington Consensus, which led to many disasters in Eastern Europe against the advice of many of the more established but less well known comparative  economists.  This reminds me of that a bit, the advocates of carbon taxes pushing a textbook ideal  against a policy actually developed by environmental economists that has much more going for  it, especially at the global level.

Barkley Rosser

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Only Thing You'll Ever Need to Know About NRO

Wait... I can do better than that. Tilt!

Notice the difference? Look real close at the alignment of the chart frame and the outer frame in the second chart. With an almost imperceptible 1/2 degree rotation of the chart, the temperature record can be made to appear essentially flat. How could the editors at NRO have overlooked this opportunity? Too much intellectual integrity? I doubt it.

As a university teacher I get this all the time. There is a word for it: SOPHOMORIC -- "conceited and overconfident of knowledge but poorly informed and immature." 

The NRO chart is based on fact. It merely misrepresents that fact. This is S.O.P. for the climate change denial cult. They are big on isolated facts wrenched out of context and presented in a misleading way. Senator Ted Cruz is a master of the technique. He is so good at it that he would never have to lie. Except that he is so good at it that he cannot tell the difference!

Senator Cruz and NRO are not the problem. They are symptoms of the problem. The problem is that misrepresentation is the currency of contemporary American life. Advertising, politics, entertainment, business, education, administration, economics. Cruz and NRO simply inflate that currency to outlandish proportions. They get away with it because "everybody does it!"


Monday, December 14, 2015

A Blast from the Past: Unions as Combinations in Restraint of Trade

A move is under way in Seattle to extend collective bargaining to drivers for Uber and Lyft.  The idea is to pass a city ordinance that would do for the city’s gig workers what the National Labor Relations Act does is supposed to do for “normal” employees.

Uber, under the guidance of David Plouffe, Obama’s former campaign manager, is fighting back.  Today’s New York Times has a story that sets out their legal case and suggests one argument might have traction, “that collective bargaining by independent contractors would amount to illegal price-fixing under anti-trust law.”

No irony is voiced in the article, but it should be noted that this was exactly the legal basis for the repression of unions in the nineteenth century–when a legal basis was even sought.  Each worker is supposed to be an independent market competitor, right?  So if they get together and demand a higher price for their labor, it’s a combination in restraint of trade.  Because of this legal history it was necessary to get national legislation to carve out an exemption from anti-trust for labor.

So now here we are again.  National labor law is broken; it doesn’t work for the workers it ostensibly covers, much less for the new proletariat in the gig economy.  And in an age when a few behemoths dominate most markets and mergers between the companies with the highest market shares are routinely approved, labor may once again face the wrath of the state under the banner of anti-trust.

The technology may be new but the political economy is old and familiar.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Paris Talks Good: James Hansen Is An Idiot

Robert Stavins has expressed great pleasure with the outcome of the Paris talks.  Yes, it does not guarantee more clearly the $100 billion per year fund to help poorer countries with their mitigation efforts, but clear goals and transparent mechanisms for moving to achieve them have been agreed upon by nearly 200 nations, with those responsible for 96% of world emissions providing more concrete plans for what they plan to  do.

The loudest naysayer is climate scientist James Hansen.  He declares this to have been all talk and "no action" as reported by The Guardian.  Why?  Because it did not include a carbon tax.  I have  already argued that this was not remotely on the table and is not even necessarily the best plan.  In fact, as I forecast would be the case if there was agreement here, it has encouraged international trading in carbon permits.  This already exists in the European system and China is implementing one in 2017.  There are many arguments for this, which I have already laid out here before.

The agreement looks about as good as could be hoped for.  Non-economist Hansen declaring the carbon tax to be the only acceptable action is just making a big fool of himself.  He should stick to climate scence.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, December 11, 2015

Doctor Krugman and Mister Trump

Mark Thoma cites a Paul Krugman column on Empowering the Ugliness in which the latter concludes that ."..this ugliness has been empowered by the very establishments that now act so horrified..." Professor Krugman was referring to a contemporary ugliness that is -- to use a discrete circumlocution -- not unprecedented in American political culture, as the above pamphlet cover from the American Federation of Labor illustrates.

Of course, A.F. of L. President Samuel Gompers's advocacy of Chinese Exclusion -- like Donald Trump's proposal for Muslim  (and Mexican) Exclusion -- was "not inspired by a scintilla of prejudice of any kind, but with the best interests of our country uppermost in our mind..." Not a scintilla!

Sam Gompers also said, "So long as there is one man who seeks employment and cannot find it, the hours of work are too long." I mention this because both anxiety about immigration and advocacy of shorter working time as a remedy for unemployment have been ridiculed by economists -- including Krugman -- as products of a mistaken "lump-of-labor" belief in a fixed amount of work.

Thanks in part to decades of condescension by economists (including Paul Krugman), the shorter working time remedy is now conveniently "off the agenda." According to Krugman, he doesn’t "get too worked up about this kind of misunderstanding anymore; it doesn’t have political power behind it, the way right-wing fallacies do."

But what about unemployment? "Yes," Krugman conceded in his 1997 hot dogs and buns rebuttal to William Greider, "technological change has led to a shift in the industrial structure of employment. But there has been no net job loss; and there is no reason to expect such a loss in the future." Which could be paraphrased as yes, immigration has led to a shift in the ethnic composition of employment. But there has been no net job loss; and there is no reason to expect such a loss in the future." Here is why we shouldn't have to get worked up about unemployment anymore:
But wait--what entitles me to assume that consumer demand will rise enough to absorb all the additional production? One good answer is: Why not? If production were to double, and all that production were to be sold, then total income would double too; so why wouldn't consumption double? That is, why should there be a shortfall in consumption merely because the economy produces more?
Here again, however, there is a deeper answer. It is possible for economies to suffer from an overall inadequacy of demand -- recessions do happen. However, such slumps are essentially monetary -- they come about because people try in the aggregate to hold more cash than there actually is in circulation. (That insight is the essence of Keynesian economics.) And they can usually be cured by issuing more money -- full stop, end of story. An overall excess of production capacity (compared to what?) has nothing at all to do with it.
Full stop. End of story.

Except that's not the end of the story. That insight which Krugman called "the essence of Keynesian economics"? There was more than one application of the principle, according to the man himself:
The full employment policy by means of investment is only one particular application of an intellectual theorem. You can produce the result just as well by consuming more or working less. Personally I regard the investment policy as first aid. In U.S. it almost certainly will not do the trick. Less work is the ultimate solution.
In other words, "So long as there is one man who seeks employment and cannot find it, the hours of work are too long." So, what'll be -- meat or rice?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Why Is The Pigou Club So Out Of Synch With The Paris Climate Negotiaters?

Organized officially in 2006 by Greg Mankiw, the Pigou Club has never had more dominance among economists in terms of opinion.  A petition supporting a carbon tax was sent for the opening of the current Paris climate negotiations with 32 names on it, including three econ Nobelists: Kenneth Arrow, Thomas Schelling, and Joseph Stiglitz, all of whom I greatly respect. An even longer list of prominent economists (although without Arrow or Schelling) along with their individual arguments, as well as some climatologists such as James Hansen, is here. About the only prominent environmental economist not on the list is Harvard's Robert Stavins, who is attending the conference and supports a cap-and-trade proposal as do I. Why are we so alone among economists and even many activists, but why is it that cap-and-trade is far more likely to come out of Paris, if any specific proposal does?

The Pigou Club argues that a carbon tax is simpler and more efficient.  At times some of its members even claim that support from professional economists is "near unanimous."  Maybe, but it is not unanimous, and economists are likely to get left standing at the altar all alone when it comes down to it.  As it is, there are many nations that have some sort of carbon or energy tax, although none of these seem to apply to  all  fuels and none are coordinated in any way with any other nations.  Most focus largely on gasoline (and we have gas taxes in the US, but not focusing on carbon content) or  new cars.  It turns out that getting a coordinated carbon tax across national boundaries may be difficult to impossible, even without the apparently absolute opposition of the political elite in Washington (or at least its Republican component) to any new taxes of any sort (even revenue neutral ones), although the GOP at this time seems to be allergic to any climate proposals at all (I mean, their really smart leaders have figured out that all this global warming stuff is just a hoax, right?), and the Senate blocked Obama-supported Waxman-Markley in 2010, an attempted and much flawed cap-and-trade bill that managed to pass the still-Dem-dominated House (although some of the arguments given against it by GOPsters were that it would be "just  like a tax increase").  The supporters of a revenue neutral carbon tax also criticize the in-place from Kyoto European CO2 Trading System (ETS) as having experienced volatile prices, having been subject to "gaming" and theft, and a lot of sectors escaping from it, although a tax can also involve fraud and sectors getting out of it thanks to political pressure.

Tim Taylor here reviews arguments from a forthcoming Journal of Perpectives article by Richard Schmalensee and Robert Stavins discussing past efforts at cap and trade (originally known as "tradable emissons permits").  The largest and most successful such program was for SO2 trading done in the US after the Clean Air Act amendment of 1990, with even most proponents of carbon taxes recognizing that this one worked out pretty well.  But the argument is that we were lucky with that one, and that it is a much smaller deal than a global carbon trading system.  Schmalensee and Stavins also report on an earlier successful use of it for reducing lead in gasoline between refineries as well as some successful use of it for NOX emissions.  They recognize that the ETS has had problems, but some of those seem to have been due to a lack of information at the beginning of the system along with too many industries being exempt.  However, they note that China will be implementing a cap and trade system in 2017, and given that the Europeans adopted their system as part of the Kyoto Protocol under pressure from the US, these parties are really not at all interested in following a bunch of mostly US-based economists in replacing their ETS with a carbon tax, even though quite a few European countries have limited carbon taxes in place already.

However, none of this gets at why carbon taxes are simply not being seriously considered in Paris.  Maybe no agreement on a mechanism to meet the likely 2 degrees Celsius maximum increase target that is being bandied about much (with more endangered nations arguing for tightening that to just a 1.5 degree increase) will happen. But if one is, it will almost certainly be some version of cap-and-trade with subsidies for poor countries rather than a carbon tax (or its popular-with-activists variation, fee and dividend). The real reason is quite simple. If one is aiming for a specific targeted limit on temperature increase, then given current science that implies a specific quantitative emissions limit.  It is well known that a tax only stabilizes/guarantees the price.  It does not stabilize the quantity emitted.  To do that, one must impose a specific quantity limit, and it is also completely well known that a properly set-up cap-and-trade system will be the most cost effective way to achieve such a limit.  This is why cap-and-trade is on the table in Paris, but the carbon tax is not.

I must admit that I may be partly biased in favor of cap-and-trade having been peripherally involved in setting up the very first government-established such system ever in the world back in the mid-to-late 1970s in the state of  Wisconsin for  BOD emissions on the Fox River that flows into Green Bay, with that river having many BOD-intensive pulp and paper mills along it (Fort Howard Paper, Kimberly-Clark, etc.) who traded with municipal sewage treatment plants.  That plan is still in place and operative, last time I checked, if pretty low key these days (some of those mills have since closed, but not because they had arbitrary quantity emssions limits placed on them in the 70s)..

I also am aware that Copenhagen was a nearly total flop, aside from some agreements about improving information gathering (something very important as the problems with setting up the ETS show), this problem still a big deal in China where we have just learned that they have been burning 17% more coal than previously reported..  It will be hard enough to get any kind of serious agreement out of Paris.  This  is all the more reason to go for  something that is not only the most suited to achieving what is needed, a specific quantity emissions limit, but also the most acceptable to the diplomats and politicians in most of the nations that are engaging in these very difficult negotations.  Really, I am a bit amazed and even shocked that all these prominent and intelligent economists have not figured this one out.

Barkley Rosser

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Something’s Rotten in the State of Reporting About Denmark

A report on budget cuts to alternative energy programs in Denmark in today’s New York Times provides a depressing example of siloed journalism.  The piece is abuzz with righteous green indignation at the decision of Denmark’s new right wing government to defund programs that support innovation in renewable energy, particularly as it coincides with COP21 in Paris.  I share its anger.

But there’s another side to the story.  The new energy minister, quoted in support of the cuts, gives the motivation as budget balancing.  And the article seems to endorse him, saying in the second paragraph that the new ruling coalition is “determined to tighten spending and balance the budget in a program to grow the economy.”

Is growing the economy a good idea?  Sure:

(Source: OECD)

This is Denmark’s real GDP growth, quarter on quarter, since the beginning of 2011: sluggish at best and possibly returning to negative territory.

But this is an argument for increasing spending, not cutting it.  There is no reputable economic theory that justifies reducing government spending as a means to accelerate economic growth.  If the government of Denmark makes this claim it should be reported as a sign of either its ignorance or duplicity.

Suppose for comparison the esteemed minister had said, “We are cutting public support for renewable energy because climate change is a hoax perpetrated by a devious cult of scientists who hate capitalism and want to get bigger grants.”  (Politicians in other countries have been known to claim this.)  Would the Times have told us that the newly elected government is “determined to oppose the hoax of climate scientists” and leave it at that?  Well, there’s no difference.  BS is BS, whether it’s climate denialism or economic nonsense.

Incidentally, Denmark has vast fiscal space to maintain and even increase its borrowing to finance green investments.  (The country maintains its own currency.)  10-year bonds are currently paying about .9%, which is just half a percent in real terms.  Markets are eager to fund Danish debt at rock-bottom rates, so even projects with a marginally positive rate of return easily clear the hurdle.

Question: if the article had been about economics, and a government spokeman had invoked absurdities about the climate, would the Times have been as passive?  Why is economic literacy optional for journalists?

UPDATE: Dean Baker is on the case too.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

You Can Buy A Gun, But You Cannot Fly

Thus spake the US Senate.  OTOH, if you are a convicted felon you can fly but might not be able to buy a gun, unless you go to one of those loophole gun shows.

I see some editorials and columns and comments about this outrageous Senate vote.  Its defenders argue that the no fly list is not fully reliable.  Some people not really suspected of terrorism are on it and would be deprived of their right to buy a gun.  I know the NY Times just had a front page editorial  about stopping the gun epidemic, but somehow this Senate vote strikes me as being so far beyond the pale of anything remotely defensible or even sane (Obama called it "insane," and I agree), that I would expect more noise than there has been.  But somehow there has not been quite the level of outrage I would think is appropriate.

I guess this is just a sign of how many completely ridiculous and unacceptable things have been happening.  When one comes along that is completely bonkers, so many of us do not even notice any more or even care all that much.

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Congressional Aid to Multinationals Avoiding Taxes

The OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) initiative is an effort by the G20 to curb the abuse of transfer pricing by multinationals. Senator Hatch is not a fan:
Throughout this process we have heard concerns from large sectors of the business community that the BEPS project could be used to further undermine our nation’s competitiveness and to unfairly subject U.S. companies to greater tax liabilities abroad. Companies have also been concerned about various reporting requirements that could impose significant compliance costs on American businesses and force them to share highly sensitive proprietary information with foreign governments. I expect that we’ll hear about these concerns from the business community and others during today’s hearing.
Indeed we heard from some lawyer representing The Software Coalition who was there to mansplain to us how BEPS is evil. I learned two startling things. First – Bermuda must be part of the US tax base. Secondly, if Google is expected to pay taxes in the UK, it will take all those 53,600 jobs which are mainly in California and move them to Bermuda:
in particular how the changes to the international tax rules as developed under BEPS will significantly reduce the U.S. tax base and create disincentives for U.S. multinational corporations (MNCs) to create R&D jobs in the United States
Yes – I find his testimony absurd at so many levels. Let’s take Google as an example. When they say foreign subsidiaries – think Bermuda. Over the past three year, Google’s income has average $15.876 billion per year but its income taxes have only average $2.933 billion for an effective tax rate of only 18.5%. How did that happen? Well – 55% of its income is sourced to these foreign subsidiaries and the average tax rate on this income is only 6.5%. Nice deal! Google’s tax model is not only easy to explain but is also a very common one for those in the Software Coalition. While all of the R&D is done in the U.S. and 45% of its sales are in the U.S. – U.S. source income is only 45% of worldwide income. Very little of the foreign sourced income ends up in places like the UK even 11% of Google’s sales are to UK customers. Only problem is that income ends up on Ireland’s books with the UK getting a very modest amount of the profits. Now you might be wondering how Google got to the foreign taxes to be only 6.5% of foreign sourced income since Ireland’s tax rate is 12.5%. But think Double Irish Dutch Sandwich and you’ll get how the profits ended up in Bermuda as well as perhaps a good lunch! But what about that repatriation tax you ask. Google’s most recent 10-K proudly notes:
“We have not provided U.S. income taxes and foreign withholding taxes on the undistributed earnings of foreign subsidiaries”.
In other words, they are not paying that repatriation tax. Besides the Republicans want to eliminate. Let’s be honest – Congress has hamstringed the IRS efforts to enforce transfer pricing. The BEPS initiative arose out of this failure. And now the Republicans in Congress are objecting to even these efforts. And if Europe has the temerity of expecting its fair share of taxes, U.S. multinationals will leave California and relocate in Bermuda? Who is this lawyer kidding?