Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Sequester's Impact on Recession and Recovery

The New Republic asked a range of economists whether the sequester will throw us back into recession. Here are some answers:
With $85 billion in budget cuts set to take effect Friday, when the sequester kicks in, there's been plenty of debate about whether the economy will spiral back into a recession. In search of some clarity, The New Republic asked economists from across the political spectrum a simple question, "Will the sequester start another recession?"...

It could. And either way, it's dumb policy.
"My reaction is possibly, but improbably. That said, it's pushing policy in exactly the wrong direction. At a time when the economy still needs a stimulus to promote recovery rather than restrictive policies to prevent overheating. I think job one economically today is to restore full employment, that is today's problem. Tomorrow's problem will be to deal with long term budget imbalances, but trying to curb long term budget imbalances now carries the high probability of delaying economic recovery and the possibility of turning recovery into decline and, were that to happen, it would be a major misfortune for the nation." — Henry Aaron, senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution

Probably not. But we'll notice a difference.
"In my view it will have a noticeable hit on the growth rate of between 0.5 and 0.9 percentage points. That won't put us in a recession but it will definitely slow improvements to unemployment and the job market." — Austan Goolsbee, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers

It's certainly not good for the economy.
"It's not helpful. However, trading the sequester for long-term Social Security and Medicaid/Medicare benefit cuts would be worse. Short-term cuts are fairly easy to reverse if it's done quickly." — James Galbraith, economist, University of Texas at Austin

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Racial Wealth Gap

Neil Shah @ Wall Street Journal:
White families build wealth faster than black households, a phenomenon economists call the “racial wealth gap.” What explains this growing divide?

The biggest drivers, new research shows, are home ownership and income levels. Tracking 1,700 working-age households from 1984 to 2009, researchers at Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy found that, among households whose wealth grew over the period, the number of years owning a home accounted for nearly 30% of the difference in the relative growth in wealth between white and black families.

Family income accounted for another 20% of the widening gulf in wealth. Other factors include college education, inheritances and unemployment. All told, these five factors accounted for 65% of the increasing wealth gap, researchers said.

The findings are the latest evidence that barriers in workplaces, schools and communities — rather than personal attributes and cultural factors — may be making it harder for blacks to accumulate wealth than whites over time. Wealth, the sum of assets like homes, cars, stocks and bank and retirement accounts, minus debt, is a key gauge of economic well being — and can be passed on to future generations.

Bernanke: Conservative Voice of Reason to Crazy Fellow Republicans

John Cassidy at The New Yorker:
With about eighty-five billion dollars of across the board spending cuts due to take affect in a few days, Fed chairman and former Princeton prof Ben Bernanke was up on Capitol Hill this morning giving his fellow Republicans a much-needed lesson in austerity economics. Departing from his statutory duty of reporting to the Senate Banking Committee on the Fed’s monetary policy, Bernanke devoted much of his testimony to fiscal policy, warning his congressional class that letting the sequester go ahead would endanger the economic recovery and do little or nothing to reduce the country’s debt burden.

“Given the still-moderate underlying pace of economic growth, this additional near-term burden on the recovery is significant,” Bernanke told his students, who included a number of right-wing Republican diehards, such as Senator Bob Corker, of Tennessee, and Patrick Toomey, of Pennsylvania. “Moreover, besides having adverse effects on jobs and incomes, a slower recovery would lead to less actual deficit reduction in the short run.”

Translated from Fed-speak, that meant that congressional Republicans have got things upside down. Bernanke has warned before about the dangers of excessive short-term spending cuts. But this was his most blunt assertion yet that Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, et al. should change course. “To address both the near- and longer-term issues, the Congress and the Administration should consider replacing the sharp, frontloaded spending cuts required by the sequestration with policies that reduce the federal deficit more gradually in the near term but more substantially in the longer run,” Bernanke said. “Such an approach could lessen the near-term fiscal headwinds facing the recovery while more effectively addressing the longer-term imbalances in the federal budget.”

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ideology over Empiricism among "conservatives", aka "The Crazy"

Steve Benen @ Maddow Blog on the GOP's reality issue:
For the Republican Party establishment, the only meaningful lesson to be learned from 2012 is rhetorical. Sure, polls show Americans rejecting the GOP line on every major issue, but, the argument goes, that's only because the party has failed to come up with persuasive sales pitches. Republicans believe they have a rhetorical problem, not a policy problem.

But just outside the establishment, there's a fair amount of discussion among Republican pundits, strategists, and thinkers about their party's systemic challenges and what the GOP should do about them. It's led to some thoughtful critiques from the likes of Ramesh Ponnuru, Kathleen Parker, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner about how to "save" the Republican Party.

But it was this item from Bloomberg's Josh Barro, a self-identified "reluctant" Republican, that really got me thinking.
I don't want a Republican Party that's just like the Democratic Party, even though some people on both the right and the left see that as the upshot of Republican critiques like mine.
Political parties should differ on normative questions. They ought to strive for agreement on positive questions -- questions such as, what policies cause gross domestic product and median incomes to rise, how unemployment insurance affects the unemployment rate, or how global temperatures are changing. Currently, Republicans make a lot more errors on these kinds of questions than Democrats.
Correcting errors on positive questions should cause conservatives to revisit some of their top policies....  Conservatives say tight money and lower top tax rates would enrich middle-class families. But that's wrong, and if they figured that out, they might stop supporting tight money and lower top tax rates.
And that, right there, that very last sentence, helps shine a light on what I believe plagues the Republican Party more than anything else: they've abandoned empiricism, leading to a governing philosophy that puts ideological goals over pragmatic ones.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

St, Reagan's grand fail

In the context of a response to column by conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnouru, Paul Krugman @ NYTs makes a compelling case
Reaganomics was not a success!

Look at median family income. The basic story of postwar America is one of big gains in the first generation, near-stagnation in the second and after, with fluctuation due to the business cycle. And Reagan did not break that pattern:
If you want a better assessment, you can look at growth between business cycle peaks. (Peaks are much more similar than troughs; all happy economies are alike, each unhappy economy is unhappy in its own way.) Here’s what you get (treating the 1979-82 double dip as a single recession):

These periods don’t match up neatly with presidential terms. Still, if Reaganomics had been such a spectacular success, you would have expected the results by 1990 to have been families doing better than in the horrible 1970s; actually, not. The only clear things we see here are that the Clinton era was pretty good, while the Bush era was lousy even before the crisis.

The Walmart World

George Packer @ The New Yorker  takes a look at the fragility of the Walmart consumer economy after decades of increasing income inequality and years of Great Recession:
If you were to write a social history of America through the story of business, what would be the most significant companies in the years since the Second World War? I’d divide the period into two: from 1945 to the mid-seventies, I might name General Motors and Woolworth’s. They set the standard for corporate success and behavior during a period that could be called the Roosevelt Republic, when a social contract underwrote American life. It included an expanding middle class, a strong safety net, high marginal tax rates, a white male establishment that grudgingly made way for other groups, a bipartisan approach to legislation in Washington, and a business culture that was cautious, loyal, hierarchical, and unimaginative.

In the decades since the mid-seventies—you could call it the Reagan Republic, but I prefer the “Unwinding”—the social contract has frayed to the point of disintegration. The middle class has shrunk; tax rates (especially on upper brackets) have plunged; inequality has exploded; the safety net (especially for the poor) has weakened; the old power structure has given way to a more diverse and broad-based upper class based on education; bipartisanship—well, you know; and business culture has become entrepreneurial, fast, risk-taking, and harsh. The trade-off: more freedom, less security.
Two companies have defined the years of the Unwinding: one is Apple, the other, Walmart. Steve Jobs’s genius for design and marketing helped create the consumer taste of that educated upper class—the spare, sleek, Bauhaus-inspired devices; the turtlenecks and jeans; the self-congratulatory language of revolution and inspiration; the Einstein fetish—with the Apple Store a kind of secular temple for devotees in prosperous cities and suburbs, mostly along the two coasts.

Jobs’s stylistic and philosophical opposite was Sam Walton. He came out of the heartland, where he saw the potential for a strategy of low cost and high volume in overlooked backwaters like Siloam Springs, Arkansas, and Coffeyville, Kansas. Walmart’s period of explosive growth coincided with decades of wage stagnation and deindustrialization. By applying relentless downward pressure on prices and wages, the company came to dominte both consumer spending and employment in small towns and rural areas across the middle of the country. The hollowing out of the heartland was good for Walmart’s bottom line: its slogan might have been an amoral maxim attributed to Lenin—“The worse, the better.”

Monday, February 18, 2013

Joe Scarborough is an idiot

 Jon Chait @ New York magazine makes the case:

The deficit scold cause has suffered significant intellectual erosion over the last year or so. In the short run, the interest rate spike they keep insisting will happen keeps not happening. In the long run, the health-care-cost inflation that is at the root of the long-term fiscal predicament is growing markedly less dire. The case for prudent fiscal adjustment remains strong, but the case for  bug-eyed, table-pounding terror is growing increasingly ridiculous.
But bug-eyed, table-pounding terror is the stock-in-trade of the fiscal scold movement. And so they are striking back by labeling anybody with a calmer view of the deficit as a “debt denier.” Joe Scarborough, who may have launched the new catchphrase on Twitter, has a new op-ed in Politico brandishing the epithet. Meanwhile, the anti-deficit lobby “Fix the Debt” — for whom Scarborough has served as one of many media spokespersons — has taken up Scarborough’s favorite label with a new campaign,, which, alongside its latest attempt to generate a viral dance video, amounts to a concerted counteroffensive against Paul Krugman and others who have ever so slightly mitigated the tone of apocalyptic hysteria surrounding the fiscal debate. They even have their own debt deniers hashtag. They are trying very hard to make “debt deniers” happen.

Let’s examine their case on the merits, not merely as an attempt to create a viral meme.
Analyzing the argument in a Joe Scarborough–authored op-ed is inherently challenging. (The written word in general is just a terrible medium for Scarborough, hiding his winning personality while exposing his inaptitude for analysis.) It mainly consists of using variations of “debt denier” repeatedly to describe his opponents. To his credit, Scarborough finally cites one actual economist who shares his view, a welcome departure from his usual method of answering charges that he is in the grips of an incestuous groupthink driven by non-economist elites by citing the agreement of his non-economist elite friends.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dr. Krugman v. GOP Starlet Rubio

The Professor @ New York Times:

"Marco Rubio Has Learned Nothing"

Because his party has learned nothing.

OK, back up: this morning the papers and the web are full of nuance-sniffing, as people try to find omens in the SOTU and the GOP response. I don’t think I can add anything useful to all that. But there was one important point in Marco Rubio’s remarks that I don’t think has been highlighted. It’s true, as Andy Rosenthal says, that Rubio mainly reminded us that Republicans don’t like government or taxes; surprise! But he also reminded us that Republicans don’t like reality.

Here’s the passage:
This idea – that our problems were caused by a government that was too small – it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.
OK, leave on one side the caricature of Obama, with the usual mirror-image fallacy (we want smaller government, therefore liberals just want bigger government, never mind what it does); there we go with the “Barney Frank did it” story. Deregulation, the explosive growth of virtually unregulated shadow banking, lax lending standards by loan originators who sold their loans off as soon as they were made, had nothing to do with it — it was all the Community Reinvestment Act, Fannie, and Freddie.

Look, this is one of the most thoroughly researched topics out there, and every piece of the government-did-it thesis has been refuted; see Mike Konczal for a summary. No, the CRA wasn’t responsible for the epidemic of bad lending; no, Fannie and Freddie didn’t cause the housing bubble; no, the “high-risk” loans of the GSEs weren’t remotely as risky as subprime.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"The case for helicopter money"

Martin Wolf @ Financial Times:
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” This comment of Mark Twain applies with great force to policy on money and banking. Some are sure that the troubled western economies suffer from a surfeit of money. Meanwhile, orthodox policy makers believe that the right way to revive economies is by forcing private spending back up. Almost everybody agrees that monetary financing of governments is lethal. These beliefs are all false.
As Claudio Borio of the Bank for International Settlements puts it in a recent paper, “The financial cycle and macroeconomics: what have we learnt?”, “deposits are not endowments that precede loan formation; it is loans that create deposits”. Thus, when banks cease to lend, deposits stagnate. In the UK, the lending counterpart of M4 was 17 per cent lower at the end of 2012 than in March 2009. (See charts.)
divisia money, money supply and lending data

When arguing that monetary policy is already too loose, critics point to exceptionally low interest rates and the expansion of central bank balance sheets. Yet Milton Friedman himself, doyen of postwar monetary economists, argued that the quantity of money alone matters.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"CBO's Scary Debt Chart Not Looking Very Scary These Days"

Kevin Drum @ Mother Jones:
The CBO's latest budget projections are out today. Here's the scary debt chart:

Hmmm. Not so scary after all. The CBO's projections are, of course, sensitive to both their economic forecasts and their reliance on current law. However, their economic forecast seems fairly conservative, and current law is a lot more reliable now than it was before we decided what to do about the Bush tax cuts. So CBO's projections are probably fairly reasonable.

You can decide for yourself, of course, whether you find this debt projection scary even though it's flat for the next decade. Maybe you think it needs to decline to give us more headroom for the future. Maybe you think it masks the problem of growing debt after 2023. Maybe you think we're likely to have another recession over the next decade, which will balloon the debt yet again.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The crisis behind the jobs report...

 Heidi Moore @ The Guardian:
Friday brought a relatively good employment report. The economy added fewer jobs than economists had hoped for, but they were of good quality: most of them came from private companies, rather than the government. Construction did extremely well, as new houses are being built. Further math showed that the economy actually added more jobs than we thought it had in November and December.

It is tempting to call this a recovery. A number of economic indicators show that the economy is at least moving forward, rather than back. Housing is doing well, for instance. GDP, except for a blip late last year thanks to lower defense spending related to the fiscal cliff, shows every sign that it will continue to grow.

As much as the numbers move forward, though, there is some sadness embedded in them: we still have an joblessness crisis. And as long as the actual numbers appear to get "better", then it will not be treated like a crisis, but more like an inconvenience. For the duration of the US unemployment crisis, we have had no answers. No one is really working on any solutions to it except "wait and hope, and hope and see."

Note this glum start to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' news release today:
"The number of unemployed persons, at 12.3 million, was little changed in January."
Further down, something even more glum:
"In January, the number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was about unchanged at 4.7m and accounted for 38.1% of the unemployed."
Those figures tell the truth more than any other numbers do. Let's leave the jobs report behind and look at the jobs picture.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

"The Great Gerrymander..."

Sam Wang @ NYTs:

HAVING the first modern democracy comes with bugs. Normally we would expect more seats in Congress to go to the political party that receives more votes, but the last election confounded expectations. Democrats received 1.4 million more votes for the House of Representatives, yet Republicans won control of the House by a 234 to 201 margin. This is only the second such reversal since World War II. 

Using statistical tools that are common in fields like my own, neuroscience, I have found strong evidence that this historic aberration arises from partisan disenfranchisement. Although gerrymandering is usually thought of as a bipartisan offense, the rather asymmetrical results may surprise you. 

Through artful drawing of district boundaries, it is possible to put large groups of voters on the losing side of every election. The Republican State Leadership Committee, a Washington-based political group dedicated to electing state officeholders, recently issued a progress report on Redmap, its multiyear plan to influence redistricting. The $30 million strategy consists of two steps for tilting the playing field: take over state legislatures before the decennial Census, then redraw state and Congressional districts to lock in partisan advantages. The plan was highly successful.

"Why the US government never, ever has to pay back all it's debt"

Mathew O'Brien @ The Atlantic counters the deficit hysteria:
How will our children, grandchildren, and sundry other friends and relatives too young to see an R-rated movie unaccompanied ever pay back the entire debt the government is piling up now? Easy. They won't. The U.S. government is never completely debt-free (except for that one time it sold land seized from Native Americans).

There's only one thing you need to know about the government. It's not a household. The government, unlike us, doesn't need to pay back its debts before it dies, because it doesn't die (barring secession or a sneak attack from across the world's longest unprotected border -- a most unworthwhile initiative). In other words, the government can just roll over its debts in perpetuity. That's the point Michael Kinsley misses when he says we "can't borrow forever," in an otherwise fine column trying to convince unemployment and deficit hawks that they actually agree on a "barbell" approach -- stimulus now, austerity later -- to fiscal policy. We can, and in fact have, borrowed forever. And that doesn't mean our debt burden will go up forever either. As you can see in the chart below, the government dramatically decreased its debt-to-GDP ratio in the three decades following World War II, despite mostly running deficits during the time. 

(Note: This chart shows gross debt, which includes debt the government owes to itself, such as the Social Security trust fund. Debt-to-GDP is on the left axis; deficit-or-surplus-to-GDP on the right).


Here's the budget math. Between 1946 and 1974, debt-to-GDP fell from 121 to 32 percent, even though the government only ran surpluses in eight of those years (and the surpluses were generally much smaller than the deficits). That's because nominal GDP -- just the cash size of the economy -- grew much faster than debt did. As Greg Ip of The Economist points out, fast nominal GDP growth, and the easy monetary policy that requires, is the only way governments have ever successfully reduced debt ratios in the past. Austerity alone will fail. (See Europe).

Okay, so maybe endless debt and deficits aren't a problem, but won't bond markets go Galt on us if we don't start to get our fiscal house in order? And even if the bond vigilantes turn out to be more like Godot, won't ever-increasing debt lead to ever-decreasing growth?