Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Deficits Do Matter, But Not the Way You Think

Dan here…a reminder about our federal deficit.

Deficits Do Matter, But Not the Way You Think
07.20.10    Roosevelt institute  L. Randall Wray

In recent months, a form of mass hysteria has swept the country as fear of “unsustainable” budget deficits replaced the earlier concern about the financial crisis, job loss, and collapsing home prices. What is most troubling is that this shift in focus comes even as the government’s stimulus package winds down and as its temporary hires for the census are let go. Worse, the economy is still — likely — years away from a full recovery. To be sure, at least some of the hysteria has been manufactured by Pete Peterson’s well-funded public relations campaign, fronted by President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform — a group that supposedly draws members from across the political spectrum, yet are all committed to the belief that the current fiscal stance puts the nation on a path to ruinous indebtedness. But even deficit doves like Paul Krugman, who favor more stimulus now, are fretting about “structural deficits” in the future. They insist that even if we do not need to balance the budget today, we will have to get the “fiscal house” in order when the economy recovers.

In fact, MMT-ers NEVER have said any such thing. Our claim is that a sovereign government cannot be forced into involuntary default. We have never claimed that sovereign currencies are free from inflation. We have never claimed that currencies on a floating exchange rate regime are free from exchange rate fluctuations. Indeed, we have always said that if government tries to increase its spending beyond full employment, this can be inflationary; we have also discussed ways in which government can cause inflation even before full employment. We have always advocated floating exchange rates — in which exchange rates will, well, “float”. While we have rejected any simple relation between budget deficits and exchange rate depreciation, we have admitted that currency depreciation is a possible outcome of using government policy to stimulate the economy.

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Price Gouging

by Peter Dorman  (originally published at Econospeak)

Price Gouging

Whenever there’s a natural disaster, a famine or some other such crisis, people zero in on price gouging.  Are grain merchants jacking up prices to take advantage of a food shortage?  What about airlines raising fares to cash in on desperate attempts to flee an impending hurricane, or stores that double or triple the price on bottled water?  And generators that suddenly only the rich can afford?

Most think this type of exploitation is unjust and even wicked, but Econ 101 says the opposite: it’s a rational, socially desirably market response to a change in supply and demand.  Higher prices for goods made scarce and valuable by a disaster encourage both more provision and greater care in use, exactly what you would want in such a situation.  For details, see the writeup in today’s New York Times.

According to the Times, the main flaw in the free market argument is that it allows the poor to be completely priced out.  This is an application of the argument, made by many social theorists, that distinguishes between essential goods, which should be rationed more or less equally among all, and inessentials, which can be left to the market.  There’s a lot to be said in its favor, and I won’t dispute it.

But the Times and most commentators miss a second point, which is about the same issue of social utility as the case for markets.  Societies depend on a general willingness to share, volunteer and reciprocate, especially in desperate times.  When a hurricane or earthquake strikes, or when war or some other spasm of human destructiveness occurs, we depend on friends and strangers to help locate survivors, pick up the rubble, share their homes and meals and generally pitch in.  There have been a number of stories, for instance, about ordinary people from other parts of the country who, hearing about Harvey’s devastation of Houston, made their way their to help out however they could.  Most of us won’t drop everything and head to Texas, but it’s safe to say that Houston won’t recover, or at least not so much or so quickly, unless hundreds of thousands in Texas and elsewhere lend a hand.

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Who owns the Wealth in Tax Havens?

WHO OWNS THE WEALTH IN TAX HAVENS?, an NBER working paper, points to following the money:

Drawing on newly published macroeconomic statistics, this paper estimates the amount of household wealth owned by each country in offshore tax havens. The equivalent of 10% of world GDP is held in tax havens globally, but this average masks a great deal of heterogeneity—from a few percent of GDP in Scandinavia, to about 15% in Continental Europe, and 60% in Gulf countries and some Latin American economies. We use these estimates to construct revised seriesof top wealth shares in ten countries, which account for close to half of world GDP. Because offshore wealth is very concentrated at the top, accounting for it increases the top 0.01% wealth share substantially in Europe, even in countries that do not use tax havens extensively. It has considerable effects in Russia, where the vast majority of wealth at the top is held offshore. These results highlight the importance of looking beyond tax and survey data to study wealth accumulation among the very rich in a globalized world.

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“If you tax investment income what will people do? Stuff their money in the mattress?”

“If you tax investment income what will people do? Stuff their money in the mattress?”

Steve Roth | October 15, 2012 9:25 pm

Richard Thaler asks exactly the right question. This from the latest IGM Forum poll of big-name economists, on the effects of taxing income from “capital.”

I’ve been over this multiple times before, but it’s nice to see the thinking validated by a real economist. If you’ve got money, there is no (practicable) alternative to “investing” it. (Those are irony quotes: referring to “buying financial assets,” as opposed to “buying/creating real [fixed] assets,” which is the technical meaning of “investing” in national-account-speak.)

Or actually — there is one alternative to “investing” your money: spending it.

Are the neoclassicals really going to argue that if we tax returns on financial assets at a higher rate — so “investors” have less after-tax income — they’re going to spend more? I don’t think I have to cite sources to prove that they consistently argue exactly the opposite.

But just for grins, let’s say they will spend more. That would be great! They’d increase the volume of private money circulation (P*T, or M*V, your choice) — boosting demand for real goods and services, stimulating production, and goosing GDP.

And if we’re lucky, they’ll use it for investment spending instead of consumption spending. They get to write off those real investment expenditures against their taxes, after all. Not true with consumption expenditures, much less purchases of financial assets.

In which case — this seems kind of obvious when you think about it — taxing “investment” income will increase investment (while reducing the federal deficit). What’s not to like?

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It’s a hoax says Limbaugh

Think Progress reports:

Limbaugh did not recant his earlier statements about Irma, and he did not encourage his listeners in the area to evacuate. In fact, Limbaugh seemed to even double down on his earlier views.

“The views expressed by the host of this program [are] documented to be almost always right 99.8 percent of the time,” Limbaugh said right before announcing he would be leaving South Florida for parts unknown. “There is a reason for that because we engage in a relentless and unstoppable pursuit of the truth and we find and proclaim it and that happens to drive people crazy.”

On his show Tuesday, Limbaugh said he was reading the paths of the hurricane and was certain it would curve into the Atlantic, and even if it did so, Limbaugh said “official” meteorologists and the media would have accomplished their goal.

“If it ends up not hitting where you are, hits somewhere else, you might temporarily breathe a sigh of relief, but you’re still gonna think, ‘Man, there might be something to this climate change,” Limbaugh said. “Do not doubt me, with everything being politicized, of course it is an objective of some, not everybody, of course, but some of the people involved here.”

Even Big Water was in on the conspiracy, Limbaugh concluded, as people were stocking up on cases of bottled water for the storm that wouldn’t come when they could just use the water coming out of their taps.

Limbaugh’s hurricane denialism came just a week after Vice President Mike Pence joined Limbaugh on the show to discuss Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, but, at any rate, Limbaugh seems to have stopped believing his own conspiracy.

As CNN security analyst Juliette Kayyem noted, Limbaugh has a large audience—his show reaches 15 million people per week—and many of his listeners believe his theories. While Limbaugh evacuates, others may stay behind in part because he wrote off the storm as a conspiracy.

Limbaugh did not respond to requests for comment about where he will be going.

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Why Economists Don’t Know How to Think about Wealth (or Profits)

by Steve Roth (originally published at Evonomics 2016)

Why Economists Don’t Know How to Think about Wealth (or Profits)

Until 2006, they quite literally weren’t playing with a full (accounting) deck. Most still aren’t.

By Steve Roth

In the next evolution of economics taking shape around us and among us, perhaps no school has been so transformational over recent decades as a loose, worldwide group best described as “accounting-based” economists. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), with its central tenet of “stock-flow consistency” (or stock-flow coherence) is at the center and forefront of this group.

These accounting-based economists more than any others managed to accurately predict our recent Global Great Whatever. And Wynne Godley, rather the pater familias of MMT, predicted the current Euro crisis in amazingly precise and accurate detail — in 1992, before the project was even launched. These economists’ nerdy and businesslike, green-eyeshade and steel-tipped-pen approach gives them unique and accurate insights into the state of the economy, and its likely futures.

Given these decades of focus on national accounts, it’s amazing that almost no economists are aware of a pretty remarkable fact:

Before 2006, the U. S. didn’t even have complete, stock-flow-consistent national accounts. That was the year that the BEA and the Fed released the Integrated Macroeconomic Accounts (IMAs; also presented as the “S” tables at the end of the Fed’s quarterly Z.1 report). They provided annual tables extending back to 1960, based on the latest international System of National Accounts (SNAs). Think: Generally Accepted Accounting Practices (GAAP), but for countries. We didn’t get quarterly tables in these accounts until 2012, only four years ago. And even today, we don’t have quarterly tables for subsectors of the financial sector.

In June 2013, the Z.1 report was renamed, from the Flow of Funds Accounts of the United States to the Financial Accounts of the United States, and the IMAs’ comprehensive data has been steadily more fully incorporated throughout the report — notably in the up-front Page i table, “Growth of Domestic Nonfinancial Debt,” which is now “Household Net Worth and Growth of Domestic Nonfinancial Debt.” See also Table B.1, “Net National Wealth,” which was added in the September 2015 release.

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Trump and International Finance

by Joseph Joyce

Trump and International Finance

International trade and immigration were flashpoints of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and in his first year he has shown that he intends to fulfill his promises to slow down the movements of goods and people. Last month negotiations over NAFTA began with Canada and Mexico, with the U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer announcing that current bilateral deficits “can’t continue.” The President threatened to shut down the government if Congress does not approve the funding for a wall with Mexico—a threat that seems to have been retracted in view of the need to approve funding for relief funds to Texas. But another aspect of globalization—international financial flows—seems to have escaped the President’s wrath. The reason for this divergence tells us much about the reasons for the President’s opposition to economic globalization.

President Trump has complained about exchange rates, particularly those of China and Germany, insisting that their governments lower the value of their currencies to increase exports to the U.S. But the U.S. Treasury did not label either country a currency manipulator in its latest report, although they made the “watch list.” (How Germany manipulates the euro has yet to be demonstrated.) Similarly, Trump received considerable press coverage during his campaign when he attacked U.S. firms that allegedly transferred U.S. jobs abroad. Recently his indignation seems to have trailed off, and has been replaced by the assertion that lower corporate tax rates will serve as an incentive for U.S. firms to repatriate funds held abroad that they will spend on domestic investments—a claim with little evidence to back it up. The President has rarely voiced any concern about the impact of financial globalization.

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