Monday, December 19, 2016

Electoral College

Source: Real Clear Politics
The electoral college is back in the news, with Democrats suddenly discovering it's a terrible idea.

I wrote at length in defense of the college in a previous post. I wrote just before the 2012 election so I can credibly claim that my view is not a sudden discovery motivated by partisan feeling.

I don't want to repeat the whole post, though I'm still proud of it and hope I can send some traffic there.

Short version: The electoral college forces candidates to attract geographically dispersed support. Moving a swing state from 45% to 55% is much more important than moving a solid blue or solid red state from 75% to 85%.

This is vital. Our country is already polarized, and that polarization is reflected in geography.  See the map. A set of rules that encourages further polarization would be a disaster. American democracy failed miserably once. 700,000 people died and government of the people, by the people, and for the people nearly did perish from the earth. Things like this don't happen again only when people think they can, and vice versa.

In a pure popular vote contest, after candidates and parties adapt their positions and coalitions of support, we are likely to see whole swaths of the country with 70, 80, 90% or more majorities of one or the other party -- and even greater demonization of the other side. Fill in the gaps what happens next.

The deep point: When you set up rules for anything, there is a tension between measurement and incentives. Once people show up at the polls on election day, there is a strong case that "each vote should count the same." But if you do that, the incentives, and hence the outcomes will be much worse.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

National Fellows at Hoover

How would you like to work at Hoover for a year, focusing on research with no teaching or other responsibilities, and soaking up the intellectual climate of Hoover and Stanford? If you are an economist roughly 3-10 years post PhD, doing research with some policy relevance that would benefit from a year here, this could be for you.

More information and application form here.


Monday, December 12, 2016

New Paper

A draft of a new paper is up on my webpage, "Michelson-Morley, Occam and Fisher: The Radical Implications of Stable Inflation at Near-Zero Interest Rates." This combines some talks I had given with the first title, and a much improved version of "does raising interest rates raise or lower inflation?"

Abstract:
The long period of quiet inflation at near-zero interest rates, with large quantitative easing, suggests that core monetary doctrines are wrong. It suggests that inflation can be stable and determinate under a nominal interest rate peg, and that arbitrary amounts of interest-paying reserves are not inflationary. Of the known alternatives, only the new-Keynesian model merged with the fiscal theory of the price level is consistent with this simple interpretation of the facts.
I explore two implications of this conclusion. First, what happens if central banks raise interest rates? Inflation stability suggests that higher nominal interest rates will result in higher long-run inflation. But can higher interest rates temporarily reduce inflation? Yes, but only by a novel mechanism that depends crucially on fiscal policy. Second, what are the implications for the stance of monetary policy and the urgency to “normalize?” Inflation stability implies that low-interest rate monetary policy is, perhaps unintentionally, benign, producing a stable Friedman-optimal quantity of money, that a large interest-paying balance sheet can be maintained indefinitely. However, with long run stability it might not be wise for central bankers to exploit a temporary negative inflation effect.
The fiscal anchoring required by this interpretation of the data responds to discount rates, however, and may not be as strong as it appears.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Trump Taxes Two

Source: Wall Street Journal
"President-elect Donald Trump owns a helicopter in Scotland.
To be more precise, he has a revocable trust that owns 99% of a Delaware limited liability company that owns 99% of another Delaware LLC that owns a Scottish limited company that owns another Scottish company that owns the 26-year-old Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, emblazoned with a red “TRUMP” on the side of its fuselage."
So write Jean Eaglesham, Mark Maremont, and Lisa Schwartz in the Wall Street Journal

"WTF?" wonders the incredulous reader. Why does Mr. Trump structure his finances with such mind-boggling complexity, to say nothing of astronomic legal costs? The article is pretty thin on explaining the logic of all this.

You can see the Journal writers struggling for a narrative. Is this about Mr. Trump's "conflict of interest" issues? Is this something nefarious about Mr. Trump, efforts to hide something? (You can be sure earnest investigative reporters at the Times will be beating both drums for the next four years. And just as sure that nobody will pay much attention unless they can tempt Mr. Trump into saying something stupid about it all.)

Let me suggest a productive narrative. Mrs. Clinton's email saga laid bare for all of us to see the financial arrangements of prominent public figures -- "charitable foundations" to funnel money around, all "legal." In my view, rightly felt disgust at that look into our political system had a lot to do with the election. Mr. Trump's financial arrangements lay bare for all of us to see the financial arrangements of the super-wealthy in this country, also massively complex, perfectly "legal," and smelling equally of last week's fish. The right response is equal disgust at the obscene tax code and crony capitalist system that produces this mess.  Mitt Romney's taxes were 550 pages long, and he only had investments, not operating companies! Fellow peasants, get out your pitchforks!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Growth full oped

Source: Wall Street Journal

On November 7 I wrote "Don't believe the economic pessimists," an oped about growth in the Wall Street Journal. Now that 30 days have passed, I can post the whole thing here. pdf here (my webpage).

Don't Believe the Economic Pessimists

No matter who wins Tuesday’s presidential election, now ought to be the time that policy makers in Washington come together to tackle America’s greatest economic problem: sclerotic growth. The recession ended more than seven years ago. Unemployment has returned to normal levels. Yet gross domestic product is rising at half its postwar average rate. Achieving better growth is possible, but it will require deep structural reforms.

The policy worthies have said for eight years: stimulus today, structural reform tomorrow. Now it’s tomorrow, but novel excuses for stimulus keep coming. “Secular stagnation” or “hysteresis” account for slow growth. Prosperity demands more borrowing and spending—even on bridges to nowhere—or deliberate inflation or negative interest rates. Others advocate surrender. More growth is impossible. Accept and manage mediocrity.

But for those willing to recognize the simple lessons of history, slow growth is not hard to diagnose or to cure. The U.S. economy suffers from complex, arbitrary and politicized regulation. The ridiculous tax system and badly structured social programs discourage work and investment. Even internet giants are now running to Washington for regulatory favors.

If you think robust growth is impossible, consider a serious growth-oriented policy program—one that could even satisfy many of the left’s desires.

The next crisis?

Where will the next crisis come from?  Every crisis starts with a pile of debt that can't be paid back, and shady accounting to hide that debt. When one big one goes under, everybody starts to question the shady deals they've invested in, the extend-and-pretend game ends, heretofore simple rolling over of short term debt suddenly ends, and the run starts. Governments bail out. Really big crises happen when governments run out of bailout power or will and you have a sovereign debt crisis or inflation. Governments bail out by borrowing, but if people won't lend the government money to bail out, either default or inflation must follow.  Reinhart and Rogoff describe a frequent "quiet period" between financial crisis and sovereign crisis. So far we have just had quiet.

So, where around the world is there a lot of debt that might not be paid back and really shady accounting? Well, duh, China, right?

So if I have to dream up a nightmare scenario it goes something like this: A pile of debt in China is found wanting. China's government takes desperate steps -- huge bailouts, sell its pile of treasuries, force people to buy worthless assets, print up lots of money, but prop up its value by stopping people from taking currency abroad, and so forth.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Balance sheet balance

The Fed has a huge "balance sheet" -- It owns about $3 trillion of government bonds and mortgage backed securities, which it finances by issuing about $1 trillion of cash and $2 trillion of reserves -- interest-bearing accounts that banks have at the Fed. Is this a problem? Should the Fed trim the balance sheet going forward?

On Tuesday Dec 6, I participated on a panel at Hoover's Washington offices to discuss the book "Central Bank Governance And Oversight Reform" with very distinguished colleagues, Michael Bordo, Charles Plosser, John Taylor, and Kevin Warsh. We're not afraid to disagree with each other on panels -- there's no "Hoover view" one has to hew to, so I learned a lot and I think we came to some agreement on this issue in particular.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Carrier Commentary

When Paul Krugman, Larry Summers,  Sarah Palin, and the Wall Street Journal all agree on something -- that presidential deal-making and strong-arming over plant location is a terrible idea -- it's worth paying attention to.

I think Tyler Cowen did the best job of describing what's wrong with the deal, interviewed on NPR. (Transcript, Highlights and audio link).

(This is an impressive radio interview. I long to be able to express something that quickly clearly and coherently on radio. Tyler must have really prepared hard for it.)
INSKEEP: Don Evans says this is a way for the president-elect to send a strong message to workers and to corporations about what his priorities are. What's wrong with that?

TYLER COWEN: We're supposed to live under a republic of the rule of law. Not the rule of man. This deal is completely non-transparent. And the notion that every major American company has to negotiate person-to-person with the president over Twitter is going to make all business decisions politicized.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Better Choice

Roll up your shirtsleeves, financial economists. As reported by Elizabeth Dexheimer at Bloomberg, Rep. Jeb Hensarling is “interested in working on a 2.0 version,”  of his financial choice act, the blueprint for reforming Dodd-Frank. “Advice and counsel is welcome."

The core of the choice act is simple. Large banks must fund themselves with more capital and less debt. It strives for a very simple measure of capital adequacy in place of complex Basel rules, by using a simple leverage ratio. And it has a clever carrot in place of the stick. Banks with enough capital are exempt from a swath of Dodd-Frank regulation.

Market based alternatives to a leverage ratio

The most important question, I think, is how, and whether, to improve on the leverage ratio with simple, transparent  measure of capital adequacy. Keep in mind, the purpose is not to determine a minimum capital level at which a bank is resolved, closed down, bailed out, etc. The purpose is a minimal capital ratio at which a bank is so systemically safe that it can be exempt from a lot of regulation.

The "right" answer remains, in my view, the pure one: 100% equity plus long term debt to fund risky investments, and short term liabilities entirely backed by treasuries or reserves (various essays here). But, though I still think it's eminently practical, it's not on the current agenda, and our task is to come up with something better than a leverage ratio for the time being.

Here are my thoughts. This post is an invitation to critique and improve.

Market values. First, we should use the market value of equity and other assets, not the book value. Risk weights are complicated and open to games, and no asset-by-asset system captures correlations between assets. Value at risk does, but people trust the correlations in those models even less than they trust risk weights. Accounting values pretend assets are worth more than they really are, except when accounting values force marks to market that are illiquid or "temporarily impaired."

Market values solve these problems neatly. If the assets are unfairly marked to market, equity analysts know that and assign a higher value to the equity. If assets are negatively correlated so the sum is worth more than the parts, equity analysts now that and assign a higher value to the equity.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Central Bank Governance Meeting

I'll be part of "Central Bank Governance and Oversight Reform: A Panel Discussion" at the Hoover Institution Washington DC offices, Tuesday Dec 6, 2016 10:00-12:00. The panelists will be  Michael Bordo, John Cochrane, Charles Plosser, John Taylor, and Kevin Warsh.

The occasion will be in honor of the book (cover at left), though knowing this panel I doubt we will keep to the subject and instead enjoy a thorough debate on central bank and monetary policy issues. The format will be very short presentations, followed by lively Q&A and discussion.

If you're interested in attending, follow this link to rsvp.


Update
Discussion now available online, embed below, link here

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Exceptionalism

For Thanksgiving, I offer a rumination.

Last month, the Hoover Institution's fall retreat was organized around the theme of American Exceptionalism. See here for podcasts of talks from the stars -- really good. I talked about the nexus between economics, rule of law, regulation, and exceptionalism.

This was before the election, but two themes strike me as especially important still.

First: America needs rule of law, regular order, a partisan truce, even more than it needs my particular free-market policy preferences.

If Republicans overturn Obamacare in their first 100 days, with no Democratic votes; if President Trump picks up his phone and pen, undoes 8 years of Obama in the first day, and starts writing his own; and sends the agencies after his critics and enemies, we are headed for disaster.  Future president Elizabeth Warren, or President Malia Obama with Vice President Chelsea Clinton, will just do the same. There is an anectdotal story of early 20th century Chicago mayors, who alternated between German and Irish. Each one's first act in office would be to overturn the ban on whiskey (beer), and impose a ban on beer (whiskey). (Too good a story to check the facts!) Let's not do that.

Second, we must not become a country where you can't afford to lose an election. The criminalization of politics has already gone too far. If you can't afford to lose an election -- if losing or supporting the losing party or speaking out on policy issues that lose gains you the tender attentions of the FBI, the IRS, the DOJ, the NLRB, and the EPA, if you lose your job and your business -- then people in power will fight to the end not to lose that power. Though I'm no fan of the Clinton foundation shenanigans, the noises coming out of the Trump transition not to push that issue are hopeful. Losing an election, a 95% reduction in speaking fees, and the public attention that investigative journalists can bring are enough. Putin can't retire and stay out of jail -- or alive.

A last thought for Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims were all illegal immigrants -- violating their charter from the English King, and the natives' longstanding ban on white settlement. Thank the Wampanoag's tolerant attitude for your turkey.


Economics, Rule of Law, and American Exceptionalism
(Talk given at Hoover retreat October 2016) 

To be a conservative — or, in my case an empirical, pax-americana, rule-of-law, constitutionalist conservative libertarian — is pretty much by definition to believe that America is “exceptional” — and that she is perpetually in danger of losing that precious characteristic. Exceptionalism is not natural or inborn, but must be understood, cherished, maintained, and renewed each generation — and her garden is always perilously unattended.

Friday, November 18, 2016

How to raise house prices and inequality

From Chris Kirkham in today's Wall Street Journal, department of you can't make this stuff up:
Nearly two-thirds of Los Angeles voters last week approved a citywide affordable-housing requirement.... 
The rule requires that up to 25% of units in rental properties and up to 40% in for-sale projects meet affordability guidelines. Alternatively, developers can pay a fee to the city.
New York City and Seattle passed similar requirements earlier this year. 
The Los Angeles initiative goes a step further, however. It also sets wage standards for the projects. 
Developers must pay construction wages on par with those required for public-works projects, hire 30% of the workforce from within city limits, set aside 10% of jobs for certain disadvantaged workers living within 5 miles of the project and ensure 60% of workers have experience on par with graduates of a union apprenticeship program. 
The mandates could double the hourly wage for some construction trades compared with state median wages. The pay for a carpenter, for example, could rise to $55.77 an hour from $26.16, according to an economic analysis sponsored by opponents of the initiative.
I wonder what that will do to the cost of housing? Notice also that by restricting who can do construction jobs and forcing up wages, there will be lots of new unemployment among lower-skilled or new entrants to construction, often a first step up the ladder for less educated people.
... some developers will be less affected by the change. Those who build primarily affordable housing, using government subsidies, already must pay higher wages. Developers of large high-rise projects, meantime, often use union work crews.
The measure was backed in part by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, a union group,
A union group delighted to eliminate low-wage competition. Let them eat tacos?
“There’s a huge shortage of housing in L.A., and a huge shortage of low-income housing,” he [Shawn Evenhaim, chief executive of Los Angeles developer California Home Builders] said. “They took that problem and made it worse.”
Left out of the article, and a big question I have if anyone knows the answer: who gets "affordable" or "below market rate" housing. Rather obviously more people want subsidized housing than can get it. So who wins the lottery?

"Affordable" housing is parceled out by income limits. So what happens if you get a better job? Are you kicked out of your house? That sounds like a great recipe for perpetuating income inequality. What happens if you get a job offer somewhere far away? Can you trade one "affordable" house for another? I bet not. One more nail in the coffin of advancement.

More deeply, if these things work the way I suspect, there is a long waiting list and a lottery. Once in, you're in so long as you don't get more income. Thus, they entrench and benefit people who have been in one place a long time. And the people really hurt by "affordable" housing -- which restricts supply and raises costs of all other housing -- are newcomers, especially low-income newcomers who would like to come for better jobs. And new businesses who would like to hire ambitious low-income newcomers and give them better incomes.

So the effects are not just to raise house prices -- they are to increase inequality, reduce opportunity, especially for low skill and low income people, and reduce the economic vitality of the region.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Yglesias discovers rule of law

Matt Yglesias (HT Marginal Revolution) writes well of the danger facing America in the era of the regulatory state.
Those who support the regime will receive favorable treatment from regulators, and those who oppose it will not. Because businesses do business with each other, the network becomes self-reinforcing. Regime-friendly banks receive a light regulatory touch while their rivals are crushed. In exchange, they offer friendly lending terms to regime-friendly businesses while choking capital to rivals. Such a system, once in place, is extremely difficult to dislodge precisely because, unlike a fascist or communist regime, it is glued together by no ideology beyond basic human greed, insecurity, and love of family.
He's talking about the Trump administration.  Matt, where have you been these last 8 years? Well, better late then ever, but wow those partisan glasses make the mirror hard to see. (I might add that this is exactly how fascist and communist regimes work in reality. Ideology is easy to find.)

Update for Fire Man (I try not to endlessly push my previous work.) The Rule of Law in the Regulatory State

Update 2. A little less snarky. Still, the danger is real. Will Republicans, now in power, say thank you very much, pick up the phone and pen, and do unto D like D did unto R? Or will they be the ones to undo tit-for-tat, shove-it-down-their-throats policy, and reestablish executive restraint at least by custom if not by statute? That will take losing or delaying some policy fights, and foregoing the delicious irony of revenge. President elect Trump did threaten to use the IRS against political enemies. Let us hope that like much else was campaign rhetoric. Will the repeal and replace Obamacare happen strictly along party lines in 100 days -- and then be overturned itself by President Warren or Chelsea Clinton? Or will they take the time and effort to get a significant Democratic buy in? Time will tell.

I did not mean to say that the worry is unfounded, only that it goes back a ways in US politics,  and the  fight would now be oh so easier if people like Yglesias had kept true to principle while their policy priorities were being shoved down people's throats, and their political antagonists were the victims of the politicized regulatory state.

Good commentary from Glenn Greenwald on the Inspector-Renault quality of this outrage.

Monday, November 14, 2016

No 100 days. Please

Dear President-Elect Trump:

The media and punditocracy are full of speculation about your "100 day" program. It sounds like you and your team might actually be preparing for one. Don't do it. Please.

I know, every new president wants to repeat Franklin Roosevelt’s hundred days: a flurry of new legislation, executive orders and agencies, dramatically changing the country (for better or worse) and cementing his (or her, someday) place in history.

It's not the time, and you're not that president. You can only achieve a similar place in history with the opposite course.

It’s not 1932. We’re not in a national political and economic emergency. Our country does not need a massive dose of new laws, new regulations, new policies, and new agencies. It has lots of laws, regulations, and agencies that aren’t working.  

The task for our time is to fix the dysfunction, soothe the polarization, get the sensible compromises passed, and clean up the administration of government. Tax reform.  Regulatory reform. Entitlement reform. Immigration reform. Criminal-justice reform.  Fix health insurance. Fix Dodd-Frank. There are straightforward, bipartisan workable if not perfect answers to most of these long-standing messes that have been torpedoed by absolutists on one side or another.  Read the Paul Ryan "better way" plan, detailed and prepackaged. If you really think you can do better, work from that basis. You don't have to write a word of new proposals yourself. The more something is someone else's idea, the easier it is to get it passed.

Find a deal. Get it done. Quietly, behind the scenes. Let your opponents in both parties have a face-saving way to help you. Don't try to shove things down people's throats, either legislators or voters. That’s what great politicians do.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Don't Believe the Economic Pessimists

Source: Wall Street Journal
No matter who wins Tuesday’s presidential election, now ought to be the time that policy makers in Washington come together to tackle America’s greatest economic problem: sclerotic growth. The recession ended more than seven years ago. Unemployment has returned to normal levels. Yet gross domestic product is rising at half its postwar average rate. Achieving better growth is possible, but it will require deep structural reforms.

The policy worthies have said for eight years: stimulus today, structural reform tomorrow. Now it’s tomorrow, but novel excuses for stimulus keep coming...

Keep reading here, the Wall Street Journal Oped. I'll post the whole thing in 30 days as usual.

Somehow the WSJ thinks anyone is interested in growth and serious policy on the eve of the election. Or maybe they were just tired of Trump vs. Clinton and needed to fill space.  At any rate, it might give you a little reprieve from the election coverage.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Yellen Questions

Fed chair Janet Yellen gave a remarkable speech at a Fed conference in Boston. I have long wanted to ask her, "what are the questions most on your mind that you would like academics to answer?" That's pretty much the speech.

Some commenters characterized this speech as searching for reasons to keep interest rates low forever. One can see the logic of this charge. However, the arguments are thoughtful and honest. If she's right, she's right.

The last, and I think most important and revealing point, first:

1. Inflation
"My fourth question goes to the heart of monetary policy: What determines inflation?"
"Inflation is characterized by an underlying trend that has been essentially constant since the mid-1990s; .... Theory and evidence suggest that this trend is strongly influenced by inflation expectations that, in turn, depend on monetary policy....The anchoring of inflation expectations...does not, however, prevent actual inflation from fluctuating from year to year in response to the temporary influence of movements in energy prices and other disturbances. In addition, inflation will tend to run above or below its underlying trend to the extent that resource utilization--which may serve as an indicator of firms' marginal costs--is persistently high or low."
I think this paragraph nicely and clearly summarizes the current Fed view of inflation. Inflation comes from expectations of inflation. Those expectations are "anchored" somehow, so small bursts of or disinflation will melt away. On top of that the Phillips cure -- the correlation between inflation and unemployment or output -- is causal, from output to inflation, and pushes inflation up or down, but again only temporarily.

What a remarkable view this is. There is no nominal anchor. Compare it, say, to Milton Friedman's MV=PY, the fiscal theory's view that inflation depends on the balance of government debt to taxes that soak up the debt, the gold standard, or John Taylor's rule. In the Yellen-Fed view, "expectations" are the only nominal anchor.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Behavioral new-Keynesian Model

Here are comments on Xavier Gabaix' "A Behavioral new-Keynesian model." Xavier presented at the October 21 NBER Economic Fluctuations and growth meeting, and I was the discussant. Slides here

Short summary: It's a really important paper. I think it's too important to be true.

Gabaix' irrationality fixes the pathologies of the standard model by making a stable model unstable, and hence locally determinate. Gabaix' irrationality parameter M in [0,1] can thus substitute for the usual Taylor principle that interest rates move more than one for one with inflation.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Levinson on growth

I disagree rather profoundly with crucial parts of Marc Levison's essay "Why the Economy Doesn't Roar Anymore" in the Saturday Wall Street Journal.

Yes, growth is slow. Yes, the ultimate source of growth is productivity. But no, sclerotic productivity is not "just being ordinary." No, our economy is not generating as much productivity growth as is possible, so just get used to it. No, productivity does not fall randomly from the sky no matter what politicians do.

Mark starts well, with a nice and vivid review of the post WWII growth "miracles."

He stumbles a bit at the 1973 Yom Kippur war and oil embargo
"Politicians everywhere responded by putting energy high on their agendas. In the U.S., the crusade for “energy independence” led to energy efficiency standards, the creation of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, large government investments in solar power and nuclear fusion, and price deregulation. [JC: ?? The 1970s had price controls, not deregulation!] But it wasn’t the price of gasoline that brought the long run of global prosperity to an end. It just diverted attention from a more fundamental problem: Productivity growth had slowed sharply."
"The consequences of the productivity bust were severe.."
More good descriptions of eurosclerosis follow. But you see him veer off course, as  he sees little connection between the litany of ham-handed responses to the oil shock and the decline in productivity.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Five Books to Change Liberals' Minds

"Five Books to Change Liberals' Minds" is the title of a remarkable post by Cass Sunstein.
It can be easy and tempting, especially during a presidential campaign, to listen only to opinions that mirror and fortify one's own. That’s not ideal, because it eliminates learning and makes it impossible for people to understand what they dismiss as “the other side.”

If you think that Barack Obama has been a terrific president (as I do) and that Hillary Clinton would be an excellent successor (as I also do), then you might want to consider the following books, to help you to understand why so many of your fellow citizens disagree with you:

“Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditions Have Failed,” by James Scott.....
and  closes
Having read these books, you might continue to believe that progressives are more often right than wrong, and that in general, the U.S. would be better off in the hands of Democrats than Republicans. But you’ll have a much better understanding of the counterarguments -- and on an issue or two, and maybe more, you’ll probably end up joining those on what you once saw as “the other side.”
Most public intellectual commentary these days takes a tone of parochial demonization -- the hilarious "how Paul Krugman made Donald Trump possible" is good to ponder. When such people even consider views the other side, it's  bulveristic speculation -- did bad childhoods make them evil, or are they bought? The next sentence usually bemoans polarization. This piece by Sunstein is a breath of fresh air.

Those who listen buy themselves an ear.  I usually find I disagree with Sunstein about most things (though his attempt to rein in regulation from inside the Administration is both praiseworthy and instructive in its failure). But knowing that his opinions come from such consideration, they carry more weight. It's more effective than upping low Krugmanian insult to high Bergeracian disdain.

I'm sure many of my blog readers could suggest additional books for Mr. Sunstein -- Friedman, Sowell, Murray, and so on. That's not the point. When grandma sends you books about how to clean your room, you never read them. If you want to send suggestions, send good liberal and progressive books that lovers of freedom should read.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Volume and Information

This is a little essay on the puzzle of volume, disguised as comments on a paper by Fernando Alvarez and Andy Atkeson, presented at the Becker-Friedman Institute Conference in Honor of Robert E. Lucas Jr. (The rest of the conference is really interesting too, but I likely will not have time to blog a summary.) 

Like many others, I have been very influenced by Bob, and I owe him a lot personally as well. Bob pretty much handed me the basic idea for a "Random walk in GNP" on a silver platter. Bob's review of a report to the OECD, which he might rather forget, inspired the Grumpy Economist many years later. Bob is a straight-arrow icon for how academics should conduct themselves. 

On Volume:  (also pdf here

Volume and Information. Comments on “Random Risk Aversion and Liquidity: a Model of Asset Pricing and Trade Volumes” by Fernando Alvarez and Andy Atkeson 

John H. Cochrane
October 7 2016 

This is a great economics paper in the Bob Lucas tradition: Preferences, technology, equilibrium, predictions, facts, welfare calculations, full stop.

However, it’s not yet a great finance paper. It’s missing the motivation, vision, methodological speculation, calls for future research — in short, all the BS — that Bob tells you to leave out. I’ll follow my comparative advantage, then, to help to fill this yawning gap.

Volume is The Great Unsolved Problem of Financial Economics. In our canonical models — such as Bob’s classic consumption-based model — trading volume is essentially zero.

The reason is beautifully set out in Nancy Stokey and Paul Milgrom’s no-trade theorem, which I call the Groucho Marx theorem: don’t belong to any club that will have you as a member. If someone offers to sell you something, he knows something you don’t.

More deeply, all trading — any deviation of portfolios from the value-weighted market index — is zero sum. Informed traders do not make money from us passive investors, they make money from other traders.

It is not a puzzle that informed traders trade and make money. The deep puzzle is why the uninformed trade, when they could do better by indexing.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A first step to progressive consumption taxes

What's an easy way to get going on progressive income taxes? Simply remove all limits on contributions to and withdrawals from IRAs. (I thank my Hoover colleague Michael Bernstam for this clever idea, and the Hoover coffee room for bumping us into each other.)

Background: Once people see that a consumption tax, in place of income tax, corporate tax, estate tax, etc. is much simpler and more economically efficient, the natural question is "what about progressivity?" The answer is that there are lots of ways to make a consumption tax progressive.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Trump Taxes

As I see it, important points about the Trump tax affair are not yet reflected in media coverage. 1) This affair reflects the intrinsic difficulties of an income tax. A consumption tax can be more progressive -- Mr. Trump would have likely have paid a lot more. 2) Raising personal income tax rates and especially capital gains and estate tax rates will do little to raise tax payments from the likes of Mr. Trump. No taxable income = no tax at any rate. It will likely have the opposite effect, making more lawyer, accountant, and lobbyist time worthwhile.

The main issue, really, is not what taxes Mr. Trump did or did not pay after the big loss. The big issue is what taxes he did or did not pay beforehand.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

EconTalk

I did an EconTalk Podcast with Russ Roberts. The general subject is economic growth, the reasons it seems to be slipping away from us and policies (or non-policies) that might help.

As in other recent projects (growth essaytestimony) I'm trying to synthesize, and also to find policies and ways to talk about them that avoid the stale left-right debate, where people just shout base-pleasing spin ever louder. "You're a tax and spend socialist" "You just want tax cuts for your rich buddies" is getting about as far as "You always leave your socks on the floor" "Well, you spend the whole day on the phone to your mother."

We did this as an interview before a live audience, at a Chicago Booth alumni event held at Hoover, so it's a bit lighter than the usual EconTalk. This kind of thought helps the synthesis process a lot for me.  Russ' pointed questions make me think, as did the audience in follow up Q&A (not recorded). Plus, it was fun.

I always leave any interview full of regrets about things I could have said better or differently. The top of the regret pile here was leaving a short joke in response to Russ' question about what the government should spend more on. Russ was kindly teeing up the section of the growth essay "there is good spending" and perhaps "spend more to spend less" ideas in several other recent writings. It would have been a good idea to go there and spend a lot more time on the question.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Furman on zoning

On this day (Clinton vs. Trump debate) of likely partisan political bloviation, I am delighted to highlight a very nice editorial by Jason Furman, President Obama's CEA chair, on the effects of housing restrictions. A longer speech here. The editorial is in the San Francisco Chronicle, ground zero for housing restriction induced astronomical prices. Furman:
 When certain government policies — like minimum lot sizes, off-street parking requirements, height limits, prohibitions on multifamily housing, or unnecessarily lengthy permitting processes — restrict the supply of housing, fewer units are available and the price rises. On the other hand, more efficient policies can promote availability and affordability of housing, regional economic development, transportation options and socioeconomic diversity...
...barriers to housing development can allow a small number of individuals to enjoy the benefits of living in a community while excluding many others, limiting diversity and economic mobility. 
This upward pressure on house prices may also undermine the market forces that typically determine patterns of housing construction, leading to mismatches between household needs and available housing. 
What's even more praiseworthy is what Furman does not say: "Affordable" housing constructed by taxpayers, or by forcing developers to provide it; rent controls; housing subsidies; bans on the construction of market-rate housing (yes, SF does that); bans on new businesses (yes, Palo Alto does that), and the rest of the standard bay-area responses to our housing problems.  The first few may allow a few lucky low-income people to stay where they are, as long as they remain low-income, but does not allow new people to come chase opportunities. Subsidies that raise demand without raising supply just raise prices more. As in child care or medicine.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Negative rates and inflation

Have negative interest rates boosted inflation? Here is a nice graph (source macro-man blog, HT FT alphaville)

Source: Macro-man blog
Not really. Explanations? Choose the chicken or the egg:

1) But for negative rates, inflation would have been even lower

2) We're living in a Fisher effect world. Lower rates lower inflation. (Which is arguably a good, if unintended, thing)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Immigration, trade, and child care

Both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton want to lower the cost and, presumably, increase the amount of child care. A quick economics quiz: What is the policy change that would have the greatest such effect?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Testimony 2

On the way back from Washington, I passed the time reformatting my little essay for the Budget committee to html for blog readers. See below. (Short oral remarks here in the last blog post, and pdf version of this post here.)

I learned a few things while in DC.

The Paul Ryan "A better way" plan is serious, detailed, and you will be hearing a lot about it. I read most of it in preparation for my trip, and it's impressive. Expect reviews here soon. I learned that Republicans seem to be uniting behind it and ready to make a major push to publicize it. It is, by design, a document that Senatorial and Congressional candidates will use to define a positive agenda for their campaigns, as well as describing a comprehensive legislative and policy agenda.

"Infrastructure" is bigger in the conversation than I thought. But since there is no case that potholes caused the halving of America's trend growth rate, do not be surprised if infrastructure fails to double the trend growth rate. It's also a bit sad that the most common growth idea in Washington is, acording to my commenters, about 2,500 years old -- employment on public works.

Washington conversation remains in thrall to the latest numbers. There was lots of buzz at my hearing about a recent census report that median family income was up 5%. Chicagoans used to get excited about the 40 degree February thaw.

The quality can be very very good. Congressman Price, the chair of my session, covered just about every topic in my testimony, and possibly better. Congressional staff are really good, and they are paying attention to the latest. If you write policy-related economics, take heart, they really are listening.

The questions at my hearing pushed me to clarify just how will debt problems affect the average American. What I had not said in the prepared remarks needs to be said. If we don't get an explosion of growth, the US will not be able to make good on its promises to social security, health care, government pensions, credit guarantees, taxpayers, and bondholders. Something's got to give. And the growing size of entitlements means they must give. Even a default on the debt, raising taxes to the long-run Laffer limit, will not pay for current pension and health promises. Those will be cut. The question is how. If we wait to a fiscal crisis, they will be cut unexpectedly and by large amounts, leaving people who counted on them in dire straits. Greece is a good example. If we make sensible sustainable promises now, they will be cut less, and people will have decades to adjust.


Ok, on to html testimony:

Growing Risks to the Budget and the Economy.
Testimony of John H. Cochrane before the House Committee on Budget.
September 14 2016


Chairman Price, Ranking Member Van Hollen, and members of the committee: It is an honor to speak to you today.

I am John H. Cochrane. I am a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University1. I speak to you today on my own behalf on not that of any institution with which I am affiliated.

Sclerotic growth is our country's most fundamental economic problem.2 From 1950 to 2000, our economy grew at 3.6% per year.3 Since 2000, it has grown at barely half that rate, 1.8% per year. Even starting at the bottom of the recession in 2009, usually a period of super-fast catch-up growth, it has grown at just over 2% per year. Growth per person fell from 2.3% to 0.9%, and since the recession has been 1.3%.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Testimony

I was invited to testify at a hearing of the House budget committee on Sept 14. It's nothing novel or revolutionary, but a chance to put my thoughts together on how to get growth going again, and policy approaches that get past the usual partisan squabbling. Here are my oral remarks. (pdf version here.) The written testimony, with lots of explanation and footnotes, is here. (pdf) (Getting footnotes in html is a pain.)

Chairman Price, Ranking Member Van Hollen, and members of the committee: It is an honor to speak to you today.

Sclerotic growth is our country’s most fundamental economic problem. If we could get back to the three and half percent postwar average, we would, in the next 30 years, triple rather than double the size of the economy—and tax revenues, which would do wonders for our debt problem.

Why has growth halved? The most plausible answer is simple and sensible: Our legal and regulatory system is slowly strangling the golden goose of growth.

How do we fix it? Our national political and economic debate just makes the same points again, louder, and going nowhere. Instead, let us look together for novel and effective policies that can appeal to all sides.

Regulation:

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Glaeser and Summers on Infrastructure

Ed Glaeser has a superb essay on infrastructure at City Journal, titled "If you Build It.." I have a few excerpts, but do go and enjoy the whole thing. Larry Summers also has a new blog post on infrastructure, with some fascinating bits if you read carefully. I wrote about some of these issues in the WSJ and recent post, but not with Ed's clarity and erudition, nor Larry's imprimatur.

Glaeser starts with a clear summary paragraph:

Monday, September 5, 2016

Rosenberg in New York Times

Naomi Rosenberg's Op-Ed in the Sunday New York Times is the best piece of writing I have had the painful pleasure to read in a long time. The title is How to Tell a Mother her Child Is Dead. Warning: this is not an easy piece to read.

Read it. Read the whole thing. Read it again. There is no excerpt I can offer.

Why is it so good? She does not clear her throat. She does not introduce the subject -- the title did that. She dives right in: "First you get your coat."  She uses short, declarative, active sentences. The absence of contractions is powerful.

She does not beat us over the head with the obvious, or fill it with policy-blather. She reminds us of the daily tragedy in many cities, like my hometown of Chicago, that we must no longer ignore.

She reminds us of the deep humanity of doctors who pick up the pieces. The emergency room doctor who took care my mother could have been Dr. Rosenberg, and I will forever be thankful for her consideration. "You use the mother’s name and you use her child’s name."  Yes. Too often in our many doctor visits raising four children, someone addressed us as "Mom" and "Dad." We're not dumb. We know that means you can't bother to look down at the sheet in front of you to read and pretend to know who we are.

She reminds us to treat people in awful circumstances with the same humanity and respect as she treats her patients, not as numbers, abstractions, easy categories or talking points for longstanding policy arguments.

Had she said any of that, it would have been much weaker. She didn't need to say it. In all likelihood, neither do I.

Let us remember Dr. Rosenberg and her colleagues this labor day, as they will be at that painful work while we barbecue.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Settlement skulduggery

Andy Koenig had a WSJ oped on a subject getting far too little attention. When the government goes after big companies such as banks, and obtains huge out of court settlements, just where does the money go?
...In conjunction with the Justice Department, the RMBS Working Group ["a coalition of federal and state regulators and prosecutors"] has reached multibillion-dollar settlements with essentially every major bank in America.

...in April ... the Justice Department announced a $5.1 billion settlement with Goldman Sachs. In February Morgan Stanley agreed to a $3.2 billion settlement. Previous targets were Citigroup ($7 billion), J.P. Morgan Chase ($13 billion), and Bank of America,... $16.65 billion...
The money does not go to any individual who demonstrably lost money as a result of the banks' actions. Instead,
... a substantial portion is allocated to private, nonprofit organizations drawn from a federally approved list. Some groups on the list—Catholic Charities, for instance—are relatively nonpolitical. Others—La Raza, the National Urban League, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition and more—are anything but.

...Many of these groups engage in voter registration, community organizing and lobbying on liberal policy priorities at every level of government. They also provide grants to other liberal groups not eligible for payouts under the settlements...

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Asset Pricing Mooc, Resurrected

The online class "Asset Pricing" is resurrected, at least half-way.

The videos, readings, slides/whiteboards and notes are all now here on my webpage.  If you just want the lecture videos, they are all on Youtube, Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

These materials are also hosted in a somewhat prettier manner on the University of Chicago's Canvas platform. You may or may not have  access to that. It may become open to the public at some point.

I'm working on the quizzes, problems, and exams, and also on finding a new host so you can have problems graded and get a certificate. For now, however, I hope these materials are useful as self-study, and as assignments for in-person classes. I found that sending students to watch the videos and then having a more discussion oriented class worked well.

What happened? Coursera moved to a new platform. The new platform is not backward-compatible, did not support several features I used from the old platform, and some of the new platform features don't work as advertised either. Neither the excellent team at U of C, nor Coursera's staff, could move the class to the new platform. And Coursera would not keep the old platform open. So, months of work are consigned to the dustbin of software "upgrades," at least for now.

Obviously, if you are thinking of doing an online course, I do not recommend that you work with Coursera. And make sure to write strong language about keeping your course working in the contract.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Micro vs. Macro

The cause of sclerotic growth is the major economic policy question of our time. The three big explanations are 1) We ran out of ideas (Gordon); 2) Deficient "demand," remediable by more fiscal stimulus (Summers, say) 3); Death by a thousand cuts of cronyist regulation and legal economic interference.

On the latter, we mostly have stories and some estimates for individual markets, not easy-to-use  government-provided statistics. But there are lots of stories.

Here is one day's Wall Street Journal reading while waiting for a plane last Saturday:

1) Holman Jenkins,
... unbridled rent seeking.  That’s the term economists use for exercising government power to create private gains for political purposes. 
Channelling Jefferson,
Mr. Obama’s bank policy dramatically consolidated the banking industry, which the government routinely sues for billions of dollars, with the proceeds partly distributed to Democratic activist groups. 
His consumer-finance agency manufactured fake evidence of racism against wholesale auto lenders in order to facilitate a billion-dollar shakedown.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The new voodoo

Scott Sumner sums up contemporary stimulus proposals well
...Old hydraulic Keynesianism from the 1960s was already a pretty implausible model. But what's happened since 2009 involves not just one, but at least five new types of voodoo: 
1. The claim that artificial attempts to force wages higher will boost employment, by boosting AD.

2. The claim that extended unemployment benefits---paying people not to work---will lead to more employment, by boosting AD.

3. The claim that more government spending can actually reduce the budget deficit, by boosting AD and growth. Note that in the simple Keynesian model, even with no crowding out, monetary offset, etc., this is impossible.

4. More aggregate demand will lead to higher productivity. In the old Keynesian model, more AD boosted growth by increasing employment, not productivity.

5. Fiscal stimulus can boost AD when not at the zero bound, because . . . ?

In all five cases there is almost no theoretical or empirical support for the new voodoo claims, and lots of evidence against. There were 5 attempts to push wages higher in the 1930s, and all 5 failed to spur recovery. Job creation sped up when the extended UI benefits ended at the beginning of 2014, contrary to the prediction of Keynesians. The austerity of 2013 failed to slow growth, contrary to the predictions of Keynesians. Britain had perhaps the biggest budget deficits of any major economy during the Great Recession, job growth has been robust, and yet productivity is now actually lower than in the 4th quarter of 2007.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Interview, talk, and slides

I did an interview with Cloud Yip at Econreporter, Part I and Part II, on various things macro, money, and fiscal theory of the price level. It's part of an interesting series on macroeconomics. Being a transcript of an interview, it's not as clean as a written essay, but not as incoherent as I usually am when talking.

On the same topics, I will be giving a talk at the European Financial Association, on Friday, titled  "Michelson-Morley, Occam and Fisher: The radical implications of stable inflation at the zero bound," slides here. (Yes, it's an evolution of earlier talks, and hopefully it will be a paper in the fall.)

And, also on the same topic, you might find useful a set of slides for a 1.5 hour MBA class covering all of monetary economics from Friedman to Sargent-Wallace to Taylor to Woodford to FTPL.  That too should get written down at some point.

The talk incorporates something I just figured out last week, namely how Sims' "stepping on a rake" model produces a temporary decline in inflation after an interest rate rise. Details here. The key is simple fiscal theory of the price level, long-term debt, and a Treasury that stubbornly keeps real surpluses in place even when the Fed devalues long-term debt via inflation.

Here is really simple example.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Clinton Plan

The WSJ asked me to review the Hillary Clinton economic plan, motivated by her August 11 speech introducing it.  The Op-Ed is here.

I read a good deal of the "plan" on hillaryclinton.com. What I discovered is that there is so much plan that there really isn't any plan at all.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Zoning common sense

Kate Kershaw Downing has posted a worthy letter of resignation from the Palo Alto Housing commission, that seems to be going viral.

Palo Alto is absurdly expensive. People who want to come here for jobs can't afford to live anywhere nearby.  What to do about it?
 I have repeatedly made recommendations to the Council to expand the housing supply in Palo Alto so that together with our neighboring cities who are already adding housing, we can start to make a dent in the jobs-housing imbalance that causes housing prices throughout the Bay Area to spiral out of control. Small steps like allowing 2 floors of housing instead of 1 in mixed use developments, enforcing minimum density requirements so that developers build apartments instead of penthouses, legalizing duplexes, easing restrictions on granny units, leveraging the residential parking permit program to experiment with housing for people who don’t want or need two cars, and allowing single-use areas like the Stanford shopping center to add housing on top of shops (or offices), would go a long way in adding desperately needed housing units while maintaining the character of our neighborhoods and preserving historic structures throughout.

Regional price data

Some big news, to me at least: The Bureau of Economic Analysis is now producing "regional price parities" data that allow you to compare the cost of living in one place in the US to another. The BEA news release release is here; coverage from the tax foundation here (HT the always interesting Marginal Revolution). In the past, you could see regional inflation -- changes over time -- but you couldn't compare the level of prices in different places.

The states differ widely. It is in fact as if we live in different countries with different currencies. Hawaii (116.8) vs. Mississippi (86.7) is bigger than paying in dollars vs Euros (118) Yen (times 100, 1.01) and almost as big as pounds (1.30)




Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Summers on growth and stimulus

Larry Summers has an important, and 95% excellent, Financial Times column. Larry is especially worth listening to. I can't imagine that if not a main Hilary Clinton adviser he will surely be an eminence grise on its economic policies. He's saying loud and clear what they are, so far, not: Focus on growth.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A world without cash

Max Raskin and David Yermack have a nice WSJ OpEd last week, "Preparing for a world without cash." The oped summarizes their related paper.
What would a government-backed digital currency look like? A country’s central bank would need to become a deposit-taking institution and hold accounts on behalf of citizens and businesses. All of their debits would be tracked on the central bank’s blockchain, a digital ledger resistant to tampering. The central bank would pay interest electronically by adjusting the balances of depositor accounts.
I'm a big fan of the idea of abundant interest-bearing electronic money, and that the Fed or Treasury should provide abundant amounts of it. (Some links below.) Two big reasons: First, we then get to live Milton Friedman's optimal quantity of money. If money pays interest, you can hold as much as you'd like. It's like running a car with all the oil it needs. Second, it is a key to financial stability. If all "money" is backed by the Treasury or Fed, financial crises and runs end. As Max and David say,
Depositors would no longer have to rely on commercial banks to hold their checking accounts, and the government could get out of the risky deposit-insurance business. Commercial banks that wished to keep making loans would raise long-term capital in the debt and equity markets, ending the mismatch between demand deposits and long-term loans that can cause liquidity problems.
However, there are different ways to accomplish this larger goal. Do we all need to have accounts directly at the Fed, and is a blockchain the best way for the Fed to handle transfers?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Look in the Mirror

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have written a splendid article, "A Skeptical View of the National Science Foundation’s Role in Economic Research" in the summer Journal of Economic Perspectives. Many of their points apply to research support in general.

The article starts with classic Chicago-style microeconomics: What are the opportunity costs -- money may be helpful here, but what else could you do with it? What are the unexpected offsetting forces -- if the government subsidizes more, who subsidizes less? What is the whole picture -- how much public and private subsidy is there to economics research without the NSF? Too many good economists just say "economic research is a public good, the government should subsidize it."

They go on to ask deeper questions, "Are NSF Grants the Best Method of Government Support for Economic Science?" The NSF largely supports mainstream research by established economists at high-prestige universities. Are there better "public goods," undersupported by other means, for it to support?

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Federalization of Labor

We are getting a good hint that a centerpiece of economic policy in the Hillary Clinton administration will be an increase in Federal control over labor markets.

The news here is that serious economists are advocating these policies, not just to transfer income from one to another, reduce inequality, help specific groups, or enhance some sense of social justice, at the expense of dynamism and growth, but that more Federal control of the labor market will increase wages, productivity and economic growth for everyone!

Alan Blinder's cogent Aug 2 Wall Street Journal opinion piece gives a good sense of the language and logic,
... Hillary Clinton has presented an extensive list of policies that would raise wages, starting with a higher minimum wage. ...

Mrs. Clinton also advocates widespread profit-sharing as a way to put more money into workers’ pockets. She would promote that goal both by using the presidential bully pulpit and by providing tax incentives for businesses that share profits. Since the scholarly evidence suggests that profit-sharing raises productivity, such tax breaks will partly pay for themselves.

Increased vocational training and apprenticeships for the non-college-bound are also major Clinton policies....The U.S. can increase its productivity and reduce inequality by ensuring that the right people get vocational training and apprenticeships.

And then there is what may be the surest way to raise wages over the long run: providing pre-K education for all American children....
Labor market intervention is getting wrapped up in "stimulus," as reported in an excellent Bloomberg column by Brendan Greeley here,
 "It’s really simple," she said at a rally in June in Ohio. "Higher wages leads to more demand, which leads to more jobs, which leads to higher wages." ...

When Clinton uses the word "demand" on the stump, she’s blowing a dog whistle. (Economists have them, too.) Increase demand, she’s saying, and you get growth.... 
Bob Gordon signs on reluctantly,  
"I think it’s a very marginal way of promoting economic growth," says Robert Gordon, economist at Northwestern University who specializes in the subject. Like Summers, he prefers a massive investment in infrastructure. But he does agree that a shift in business income away from profits and toward salaries would create growth. Workers are more likely to buy things from their paychecks than businesses are to invest out of their profits.
Alan Krueger ["former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and an informal adviser to the Clinton campaign," and candidate for vice-president of the American Economic Association] agrees wholeheartedly:
... "I think the time could be right for a more virtuous growth model," he said, "which is driven by stronger wage growth...more consumption, more demand, creating more jobs." 
Novel rationalizations for decades-old policies are always suspect. And the usual passive or verb-less sentences hiding the heavy hand of Federal government always invites skepticism.

But let's take it seriously. How much sense do these analyses make?

Without rehashing the whole minimum-wage fight, it is worth asking, if the Federal Government forces businesses to raise some people's wages, but others become unemployed as a result, whether that really count as raising wages overall?

The words "presidential bully pulipit" has poor overtones in the current age. The bully pulpit means the DOJ, EEOC, IRS, NLRB, EPA and who knows even the fish and wildlife service may come calling if you don't do what the president wants. Schoolyard bully, not Teddy Roosevelt's jolly-good pulpit.

"The scholarly evidence indicates that profit-sharing raises productivity.." That's a new twist on the abominable "studies show" argument by reference to vague authority.  But even "scholarly evidence" has to make some sense.

It does make sense that firms which study the question and choose profit-sharing plans can thereby raise productivity, either by giving their employees better incentives or by attracting different and more productive employees. They would not do it otherwise.

But this classic subject-free sentence is about Federal Regulations to force profit-sharing that "puts money into workers' pockets" on all firms. It does not follow that such a mandate will have the same effect. This is the classic, "rich guys drive BMWs, so if we force BMW to give cars away we'll all get rich."

To belabor the obvious, that some firms choose it because they see it will work does not mean that the Federal Government forcing it on all firms will work.  That profit sharing which increases workers' incentives can work does not mean that reducing profits and paying lump sums to workers will work. That profit sharing accompanied by greater selection of productive workers works does not mean that forced profit sharing will work for everyone -- someone employs the less productive, I hope.

If it's about incentives, then there should be a widespread Federal initiative to promote piece-work, commissions rather than salaries, independent contractors rather than employees... Hmm, we're headed the other way.

As economists, we are supposed to start with a problem. What is the market failure that stops companies form putting in productivity enhancing profit sharing programs? Or are they just too dumb and need the benevolent hand of the "bully pulpit" to educate them?

"Increased vocational training and apprenticeships for the non-college-bound," are more Orwellian subject-less sentences. Who is going to do this increasing and how? What is the market failure? Do we need to have triple digit numbers of Federal Job-training programs?

"Providing pre-k education" is another subject-free sentence. I presume he does not mean reducing regulations and union requirements so more pre-k schools can start up! That might actually be effective. But perhaps it is technically correct: a large Federal subsidy for pre-k education, funneled through the public school systems and teacher's unions will raise someone's wages. The "scholarly evidence" is not that it will be the kids.

The idea that forcing companies to pay out greater wages is the key to "stimulus," and that demand-side "stimulus" is the key to long-run growth is...er... even more novel economics.

In classic Keynesian stimulus, there is something about the government borrowing money and spending it, or giving it to consumers to spend, that causes people to forget that the borrowed money must be paid back someday. Not here -- this is directly the claim that taking from Peter and giving to Paul is the key to prosperity. And not just temporary stimulus, but long run growth.

One of many fallacies at work here is the notion that companies face a choice between "paper" investment and "real" investment; that by piling up cash reserves they are somehow diverting resources that could be "real demand" into "paper investments." But every paper asset is a paper liability, so this possible truth about an individual company makes no sense for an economy as a whole.

And let's follow the logic.  If this works for stimulus and growth, force companies to give away cash to consumers. Consumers are, well, people who like to consume. Force them to give cash away to thieves. They consume quickly.  If this is a bad idea.. well then maybe the whole "stimulus" thin is a bit of bunk as well.

Gordon at least has the decency to belittle the idea. And on "a shift in business income [another subjectless sentence -- this shift is forced by the Federal Government!] away from profits and toward salaries would create growth"  because "Workers are more likely to buy things from their paychecks than businesses are to invest out of their profits," one can hope that a statement which violates basic accounting is a misquotation.

 Krueger has less defense: "a more virtuous growth model,...which is driven by stronger wage growth...more consumption, more demand, creating more jobs" is a direct quote. It may be "virtuous" to feel this way, but the classic criticism of Democratic economic policy is doing things that make you feel good but don't work.

Well maybe, maybe not. Economics is a work in progress. But it is certainly brand-new, made-up-on-the spot economics, designed to buttress policies decided on for other reasons.

A last grumpy comment. The WSJ titled Blinder's oped, "Only one candidate can make wages grow again."  Actually I agree with the sentence   Like most media they forgot there are more than two candidates!


Thursday, July 28, 2016

Macro-Finance

A new essay "Macro-Finance," based on a talk I gave at the University of Melbourne this Spring. I survey many current frameworks including habits, long run risks, idiosyncratic risks, heterogenous preferences, rare disasters, probability mistakes, and debt or institutional finance. I show how all these approaches produce quite similar results and mechanisms: the market's ability to bear risk varies over time, with business cycles. I speculate with some simple models that time-varying risk premiums can produce a theory of risk-averse recessions, produced by varying risk aversion and precautionary saving, rather than Keynesian flow constraints or new-Keynesian intertemporal substitution.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

How to step on a rake

How to step on a rake is a little note on how to solve Chris Sims' stepping on a rake paper.

This is mostly of interest if you want to know how to solve continuous time new-Keneysian (sticky price) models. Chris' model is very interesting, combining fiscal theory, an interest rate rule, habits, long term debt, and it produces a temporary decline in inflation after a rise in nominal interest rates.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Blueprint for America

"Blueprint for America" is a collection of essays, organized, edited and inspired by George P. Shultz. You can get an overview and chapter by chapter pdfs here. The hardcover will be available from Amazon or Hoover Press October 1.

Some of the inspiration for this project came from the remarkable 1980 memo (here) to President-elect Ronald Reagan from his Coordinating Committee on Economic Policy.

Like that memo, this is a book about governance, not politics.  It's not partisan -- copies are being sent to both campaigns. It's not about choosing or spinning policies to attract voters or win elections.

The book is about long-term policies and policy frameworks -- how policy is made, return to rule of law, is as important as what the policy is --  that can fix America's problems. It focuses on what we think are the important issues as well as policies to address those issues -- it does not address every passion of the latest two-week news cycle.

The book comprises the answers we would give to an incoming Administration of any party, or incoming Congress, if they asked us for a policy package that is best for the long-term welfare of the country.

The chapters, to whet your appetite:

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Immigration sentiment

Above, a lovely graph from The Conversation. A common story says that opposition to immigration comes from people in high-immigrant communities, who suffer externalities from the presence of many immigrants. It is not true.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

NYT on zoning

Conor Dougherty in The New York Times has a good article on zoning laws,
a growing body of economic literature suggests that anti-growth sentiment... is a major factor in creating a stagnant and less equal American economy.
...Unlike past decades, when people of different socioeconomic backgrounds tended to move to similar areas, today, less-skilled workers often go where jobs are scarcer but housing is cheap, instead of heading to places with the most promising job opportunities  according to research by Daniel Shoag, a professor of public policy at Harvard, and Peter Ganong, also of Harvard.
One reason they’re not migrating to places with better job prospects is that rich cities like San Francisco and Seattle have gotten so expensive that working-class people cannot afford to move there. Even if they could, there would not be much point, since whatever they gained in pay would be swallowed up by rent. 
Stop and rejoice. This is, after all, the New York Times, not the Cato Review. One might expect high housing prices to get blamed on developers, greed, or something, and the solution to be government-constructed housing, "affordable" housing mandates, rent controls, low-income housing subsidies (which protect incumbent low-income people, not those who want to move in to get better jobs) and even more restrictions.

No. The Times, the Obama Administration, California Governor Gerry Brown, have figured out that zoning laws are to blame, and they're making social stratification and inequality worse.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Brexit or Fixit

Many commenters compare Brexit to the American revolution. I think the constitutional convention is a better analogy for the moment and challenge ahead. A first attempt at union resulted in an unworkable Federal structure. Europe needs a constitutional convention to fix its union.

The EU's first attempt was basically aristocratic/technocratic. Brussels tells the peasants what to do. The EU  needs a hardy dose of accountability, representation, checks and balances -- all the beautiful structures of the US Constitution. What little thought the EU put in to these matters is clearly wanting.

America did not wait for a state to leave. But, though even the Pope admits the EU structure wasn't working, the EU needed this wake up call. Bring the UK to the convention, and bring them back. Fixit. (#Fixit?)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Transport innovation

What is it?


I saw this in the parking lot of the hotel where I'm staying. Inspection: yes, it's the chassis of an early 1970s VW, with motor and transmission in place. The motor appears functional. It's connected to the gas cans. Yet, this is a trailer. Why? (Hint: it's parked next to a new Toyota CRV electric car.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Rajan on cash transfers and corruption

Raghu Rajan, who just announced he is stepping down as Governor of the Central Bank of India, gave a very interesting speech, that bears among other things on the question of social programs vs. cash transfers.

A big problem with government provided assistance in India is that the provision is corrupt:
Our [India's] provision of public goods is unfortunately biased against access by the poor. In a number of states, ration shops do not supply what is due, even if one has a ration card – and too many amongst the poor do not have a ration card or a BPL card; Teachers do not show up at schools to teach; The police do not register crimes, or encroachments, especially if committed by the rich and powerful; Public hospitals are not adequately staffed and ostensibly free medicines are not available at the dispensary; …I can go on, but you know the all-too-familiar picture.
Raghu has a thoughtful observation on what keeps this system going:

Friday, June 17, 2016

Syverson on the productivity slowdown

Chad Syverson has an interesting new paper on the sources of the productivity slowdown.

Background to wake you up: Long-term US growth is slowing down. This is a (the!) big important issue in economics (one previous post).  And productivity -- how much each person can produce per hour -- is the only source of long-term growth. We are not vastly better off than our grandparents because we negotiated better wages for hacking at coal with pickaxes.

Why is productivity slowing down? Perhaps we've run out of ideas (Gordon). Perhaps a savings glut and the  zero bound drive secular stagnation lack of demand (Summers). Perhaps the out of control regulatory leviathan is killing growth with a thousand cuts (Cochrane).

Or maybe productivity  isn't declining at all, we're just measuring new products badly (Varian; Silicon Valley). Google maps is free! If so, we are living with undiagnosed but healthy deflation, and real GDP growth is actually doing well.

Chad:
First, the productivity slowdown has occurred in dozens of countries, and its size is unrelated to measures of the countries’ consumption or production intensities of information and communication technologies ... Second, estimates... of the surplus created by internet-linked digital technologies fall far short of the $2.7 trillion or more of “missing output” resulting from the productivity growth slowdown...Third, if measurement problems were to account for even a modest share of this missing output, the properly measured output and productivity growth rates of industries that produce and service ICTs [internet] would have to have been multiples of their measured growth in the data. Fourth, while measured gross domestic income has been on average higher than measured gross domestic product since 2004—perhaps indicating workers are being paid to make products that are given away for free or at highly discounted prices—this trend actually began before the productivity slowdown and moreover reflects unusually high capital income rather than labor income (i.e., profits are unusually high). In combination, these complementary facets of evidence suggest that the reasonable prima facie case for the mismeasurement hypothesis faces real hurdles when confronted with the data.
An interesting read throughout. 

[Except for that last sentence, a near parody of academic caution!]  







Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Financial Choice

If you're interested in policy rather than politics, the package of legislative proposals coming out of Congress are a lot more interesting than the Presidential race at the moment. Speaker Paul Ryan is rolling out "A Better Way" package and Rep. Jeb Hensarling has just announced a "financial CHOICE act" to fundamentally reform Dodd-Frank. (Most quotes are from Jeb Hensarling's speech at the Economic Club of New York. See also  NYT coverage.)

These efforts will, I think, become much more important later on. The presidential race will decide whether this agenda can survive the instant veto that it faces now.  (This is a non-partisan comment. Hilary Clinton could likely assure a landslide by announcing she will work with Paul Ryan to craft and pass it.)

In any case, it defines a clear program that may be the focus of economic policy under a presidency of either party. And I think that's healthy as well.  We are still living in the shadows of Franklin Roosevelt's 100 days, and an increasingly imperial presidency. But the current need is not for a flurry of new legislation and executive orders to address a crisis. We need a steady clean-up of the legal and regulatory mess of the last few decades. For that project, it may be better for policy leadership to come from Congress, and by careful and patient drafting of actual legislation.

The legislation is still being drafted, which is why it would be lovely if more of the media and blogosphere were paying attention rather than to the latest antics of the presidential candidates. The congressional staff writing these things are paying attention and the proposals can be refined!

Today, a look at the Financial CHOICE act.

More capital, and the carrot of less regulation
...there is a growing consensus surrounding the idea of a tradeoff between heightened capital levels and a substantially lower regulatory burden....[We] will relieve financial institutions from regulations that create more burden than benefit in exchange for meeting higher, yet simple, capital requirements...Think of it as a market-based, equity financed Dodd-Frank off- ramp... the option remains with the bank.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Lottery Winners Don't Get Healthier

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution had a great post last week, Lottery Winners Don't get Healthier (also enjoy the url.)
Wealthier people are healthier and live longer. Why? One popular explanation is summarized in the documentary Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making us Sick?
The lives of a CEO, a lab supervisor, a janitor, and an unemployed mother illustrate how class shapes opportunities for good health. Those on the top have the most access to power, resources and opportunity – and thus the best health. Those on the bottom are faced with more stressors – unpaid bills, jobs that don’t pay enough, unsafe living conditions, exposure to environmental hazards, lack of control over work and schedule, worries over children – and the fewest resources available to help them cope. 
The net effect is a health-wealth gradient, in which every descending rung of the socioeconomic ladder corresponds to worse health.
If this were true, then increasing the wealth of a poor person would increase their health. That does not appear to be the case. In important new research David Cesarini, Erik Lindqvist, Robert Ostling and Bjorn Wallace look at the health of lottery winners in Sweden (75% of winnings within the range of approximately $20,000 to $800,000) and, importantly, on their children. Most effects on adults are reliably close to zero and in no case can wealth explain a large share of the wealth-health gradient:
In adults, we find no evidence that wealth impacts mortality or health care utilization.... Our estimates allow us to rule out effects on 10-year mortality one sixth as large as the crosssectional wealth-mortality gradient.
The authors also look at the health effects on the children of lottery winners. There is more uncertainty in the health estimates on children but most estimates cluster around zero and developmental effects on things like IQ can be rejected (“In all eight subsamples, we can rule out wealth effects on GPA smaller than 0.01 standard deviations”).
(My emphasis above)

Alex does not emphasize the most important point, I think, of this study.  The natural inference is, The same things that make you wealthy make you healthy. The correlation between health and wealth across the population reflect two outcomes of the same underlying causes.