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

Math is Math: There Was No "Second Stimulus"

One of the best rules in mathematics is that, to determine the value of all the variables, you need only as many distinct equations as you have variables. (previous sentence edited for clarity.) So let’s combine a couple of recent articles (h/t Mark Thoma for the first, Digby for the second.)

Richard Florida finds three studies of State Government Spending Multipliers. The three studies find multipliers of 1.5, 1.7, and 2.12. Let’s be nice (in context) and use the lower one. StateMultiplier = 1.5

David Dayden notes that budget cuts in just two (large) states can be matched against the Fed’s “stimulus” monies. Let’s see how much, putting the best face possible on the data (i.e., taking the most optimistic projections). CADeficit (ignoring “reserve”): $26.4B (12.5 + 12 + 1.9). ILDeficit: $19B (13 + 6).

That gives us a CA-ILEconomyCost of (26.4 + 19)*1.5 = US$68.1B

The Federal Stimulus is $55-60B. Again, let’s be optimists and say $60B. The required multiplier is then:

FedMultiplier * FedStim = CA-ILEconomyCost

FedMultiplier * $60B = $68.1B

FedMultiplier = 1.135

That’s the minimum multiplier needed just to counter those two states. Add in Texas (whose shortfall appears to be on par with California’s, and is larger than Illinois)and you’re at 1.77.

Only 47 states to go.

The maximum multiplier needed just to solve the CA-IL gap is 1.71. Add in TX and you’re at 2.63 with 47 states to go.

The Right-Leaning Econ Bloggers (e.g., Tyler Cowen and Greg Mankiw; I apologize to the former for linking him to the latter) argued in 2008-2009 that Federal Stimulus has a multiplier of 1.3 or less.*

1.3 would put the economy at neutral if the multiplier is 1.7 (median estimate) and most but not all of the CA ambiguities break the wrong way.

And that’s just eliminating the effect of those two states. Add in TX and the multiplier goes to 2.64—rather close to Christina Romer’s 3.0 that was attacked continually by Mankiw et al.

Repeat after me: There was No “Second Stimulus.” If the economy is going to go into full recovery—i.e., can I have jobs with that?—it will have to be from Private Sector Investment, which has been (let’s be nice) on the sidelines so far,* and really doesn’t appear to be warming up to replace TARP.

*Strangely, this was not argued by them as an argument that the initial “stimulus” was too small for the even-then-obvious shortfalls in C and I; I can’t believe they thought MX was going to cover the difference, but that’s a side discussion, perhaps.

*We can quibble over whether that was and remains the correct decision. As has often been noted here, a lack of demand is not exactly an incentive to expand, unless you think that will be changing soon. A true recovery should have convinced firms that a change is gonna come.

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Can Either James Kwak or Mark Thoma Build This Model?

Update: Brad DeLong looks at the data and suggests that the problem may be that the current President is as innumerate as the previous one.

Mark Thoma quotes James Kwak:

So no, I don’t think Obama is abandoning his principles for political advantage; I think these are his principles. And while I’m upset at him, I’m upset at him for being wrong on the policy level, not for abandoning anything or selling out…I always thought Obama was a moderate who looked like a progressive.

I’m with Kwak on that; it’s one of the reasons I supported the relatively-more-progressive Hillary through the primaries.*

Where I’m less sanguine is the base from which Mark let him start:

Obama is certainly in a decent position politically, and I would bet on him to be reelected comfortably in 2012.

In 1996, Bill Clinton had the advantage of Bob Dole—the 1996 equivalent of Newt Gingrich—being his opponent. Dole had been a known quantity to voters for over a decade (“Do you want Grits and Fritz or a Ford Dole?”) who supported Clarence Thomas, talked about Hideo Nomo of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and fell off the front of a stage—and still garnered more than 40% of the vote, losing the popular vote by only slightly more votes than Ross Perot won. And that was after the advantage of a virtually-uncontested primary, which Mr. Obama may not enjoy.**

Kwak later backtracks a bit:

I think two years would be enough time for labor markets to recover if we could expect policy supporting employment along the way. But we are likely to get just the opposite, deficit cutting measures and other policies that work against employment and hence work against electoral success for the Democrats. Toss in a compromise on Social Security that angers the Democratic base, a possibility that cannot be dismissed as Obama follows up on what appears to be a successful move to the center, and the future does not look as bright. Obama may think he is playing the game well now, but the game is far from over.

This is at least far more accurate than the declaration that Obama won when his opening g4 was followed by the Republican’s e5. And Thoma follows up with his expectation of Obama’s next move being f3:

That would put an end to any stimulus due to the tax compromise. Stimulating the economy was never the intent of the GOP when they agreed to the tax compromise, it was all about the estate tax and tax cuts for the wealthy. They will do what they can to decrease government spending over the next two years, starting in January, and if they are successful it will reverse any benefit the economy might have received from the compromise.

Given that we all agree on the likely next two years, it would be nice to see an economic model from either Mark or James Kwak that justifies the expectation that Obama is in a position “to be reelected comfortably in 2012.”

At the very least, I want to offer to bet with Mr. Kwak, at even odds, with proceeds to go to the charity of the winner’s choice. Here’s my choice.

*The other being that she would know from the start that she was hated, and be ready for bear at the outset. (As an aside: sorry, Scott, but hiring Mark Penn, while a mistake, is not a revelation of policy preferences. Or, if you want to argue it is, tell us what replacing Howard Dean and the 50-State Strategy with Tim Kaine and Suborning Democrats such as Sibelius and Napolitano into the Administration is.)

**I say this not only because I would like to see him challenged—his doing a Specter in 2011 is about the only hope for my grandchildren—but also because it makes sense to prepare the field for 2016 and beyond. It would be dumber of the Democrats not to have someone challenge him in the primary, leaving only HRC and Joe Biden as probably 2016 candidates, than it would be to unite behind him in the hope that Republicans nominate someone who is unelectable a la Dole in 1996.

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He Gave at the Office

What Treasury under Geither does, according to the Washington Post:

“I think we are known as the front line,” said [Michael] Pedroni, 38, a former International Monetary Fund economist and Federal Reserve Bank of New York employee who has spent time at a Wall Street research firm. “Our analysis is meant to be very candid, very quick, very unvarnished.”

Fortunately, he left the FRB NY before Geithner did, so it’s not a question of nepotism, just the finance perspective.

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Fire Tim Geithner. Then Be a One-Term President.

I doubt even the Internet’s self-appointed Chief Geithner Apologist will be foolish enough to stand by him after this piece of shite:

Some people just don’t like movies with happy endings. How else to explain this week’s report by the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP)? Rather than focusing on the growing evidence we’ve seen in recent months that TARP will be far less costly than anyone expected, SIGTARP instead sought to generate a false controversy over AIG to try and grab a few, cheap headlines.

There are no “facts” in that paragraph, and there is no excuse for this coming from Treasury. Ignore that Treasury is deliberately including selling off its expected future value as part of its “break-even” calculation. Ignore that Treasury’s practice has been to count “TARP” (the first effort) as the only Government Subsidy to those institutions that have “paid back” their loans by ramping up debt and refusing to be “financial intermediaries” [Link updated] which was the half-assed justification for giving them that money in the first place. Ignore the billions of dollars of asset guarantees from the Fed that are still the only reason people pretend The Big C is solvent.

What we have is the Department of the Treasury impugning the purpose and the office of the Special Inspector General for TARP, that is the office charged with

the responsibility, among other things, to conduct, supervise and coordinate audits and investigations of the purchase, management and sale of assets under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (“TARP”). SIGTARP’s goal is to promote economic stability by assiduously protecting the interests of those who fund the TARP programs – i.e., the American taxpayers. This is achieved by facilitating transparency in TARP programs, providing effective oversight in coordination with other relevant oversight bodies, and through robust criminal and civil enforcement against those, whether inside or outside of Government, who waste, steal or abuse TARP funds. [emphasis mine]

If Tim Geithner wants to whine that someone doesn’t believe his lies, he’s welcome to do so—as a private citizen, reaping the fruits of his last few years fellating Goldman Sachs by accepting the Senior Management position that surely awaits him.

And he should do so sooner, not later.

And, by the way, Barry: you should request and then accept his resignation. Because only the thought of Joe Biden (Sen-MBNA/BofA) as President keeps me from pointing out that such releases are your responsibility, sent out as part of whitehouse.gov. Enjoy your next two years, and the Palin/Huckabee Presidency you will have wrought.

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Obama Administration Foolishness, Part 1

When the question is asked whether the Obama Administration are fools or liars—and a certain Chicago mayoral candidate is often nominated as both—you can be certain discussion of “the public option” will come up.

It doesn’t come up directly in today’s FT (page 4 of the print edition; no link; I get the paper edition, and there’s no relationship between the two*), but it certainly abides in the plan put forth by Paul Ryan (R-Innumeracy) to de-reform health care reform:

Congressman Paul Ryan…says he believes an arcane budgetary procedure known as reconciliation could be a vital tool for his party to scale back funding for some of the administration’s policies. Under congressional rules, bills passed under reconciliation—which must be related to budgetary issues—need only 51 votes to pass in the Senate.

It’s that self-same “arcane budgetary procedure ” that provided an opportunity to pass an initial health care reform bill with “the public option.” Strangely—feel free to Google for evidence—the Republican opposition to using reconciliation was varied and loud.  Now, it’s about to be their touchstone for dealing with health care budgeting.

Glenn Greenwald and D-Day have made the case that the Obama Administration were liars, not fools, when they declared they couldn’t pass the public option during the reconciliation process.  On the off chance we still believe they were only fools, it will be interesting—or, for some of us, horrifying—to see their reaction to an open declaration that the reconciliation process is fair game when used to reach Republican goals.

*If anyone in comments provides the link, I’ll add it.

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A Conversation with George Soros

With thanks to Felix Salmon for arranging the invitation.

There’s an episode of House where he has to get rid of one of the people for his new team.  By the end of the episode, the sharpest person in the group has said everything that we would have expected to hear from House—and is therefore summarily dismissed, since hearing one’s own opinions being spoken by someone else is less useful than being challenged.

I had a similar feeling with George Soros’s conversation last Wednesday morning with Chrystia Freeland, sponsored by Reuters and held in the NASDAQ building that, er, graces Times Square. So what follows isn’t everything Soros said so much as what he said that either (1) you wouldn’t already know from reading this blog or Paul Krugman or (2) added details or touched on an interesting issue.

UPDATE: Krugman finds another similarity between himself and Mr. Soros.

The Recent Crisis and Its Causes

Soros declares that there was twenty-five to thirty (25-30) years of a “Super Bubble,” which has now burst.  It seems from the discussion that Soros believes the SuperBubble was worldwide.  Recovery is being hindered by some policies—Germany’s talk about austerity was especially mentioned—by Soros sees strong hope in the Trade Shift that has accompanied the crisis. He noted that the “global economy is a lot better than the US economy,” and that he expects to see it continue growing even if the U.S. (or Europe, due to the German leadership, or even both) fall into a :double-dip.” (In this he is arguably more of an optimist than many.)

China I

Key to this shift has been the growth of bilateral relationships.  He noted obliquely that these developed in part because many governments—most especially the Chinese, who have been “the great beneficiary of globalization”—do not want to change their capital controls, but sees them as facilitating the new paradigm. He expects that the next move will be that Hong Kong (with the HKD remaining independent of the RMB) will become as London did in the 1960s and 1970s, the intermediary of choice for the growing market (now China, then Europe).

There is a strong need to increase Chinese domestic demand, which he rightly expects is being partially facilitated by the recent wage increases. While there is a need to shift from the previous US-Chinese symbiotic relationship (essentially, bonds for exports), Mr. Soros is “not sure there will be” further advancement in that relationship without greater domestic Chinese consumption. He declared that the Chinese economy has become “the motor” of the world economy, but also noted that it is a smaller motor, so the world economy is not moving so fast.

Currencies

In that context, he was asked by a gentleman from Fidelity Capital if it is time to move from the USD to a “basket” as the World Reserve Currency. (As regular readers know, this is an issue near and dear to my heart.) Stating the obvious, Soros noted that having “a more neutral currency” (which may not be an exact quote) would be helpful in correcting the imbalances, which are largely due to the dollar being the International Reserve Currency. He agreed that a basket Reserve Currency would improve the market. (I—and I suspect David Beckworth—might agree that it would provide for easier remedies, but I’m not convinced it would provide for a better market, since arbitrage opportunities and issues of asymmetric information would be more likely to skew outcomes.)

China II

Soros is very sympathetic to the Chinese people themselves.  He notes that they work hard but that their labor is harnessed to an undervalued currency to the benefit of the State. He described the Chinese mercantile system as being “State Capitalism,” which he calls a “very powerful” model, while also noting that it is not so good as the previous “International Capitalism.” Since he noted that “International Capitalism”; is synonymous with “the Washington Consensus,” this leaves him having damned China with very faint praise.  (Though, in fairness, he is even more negative about Russia, which he described to Jim Holt as an example of unsuccessful State Capitalism, whose success or failure is primarily driven by the price of oil. He also sees a real possibility of China developing into an Open Society—another point on which he is rather an optimist.)

Where he is not positive about China is its Real Estate market, which is skewed in part due to the political structure. The Chinese version of mercantilism allows government officials to own three (3) properties, which has been a very good way for those workers to get rich through selling and “trading up.”  The primary solution to this bubble, he believes, would be initiating a property tax, which would produce a carrying cost on properties and therefore mitigate the speculative aspects of the bubble. (Soros essentially notes that, as with the United States, labor is overtaxed and capital undertaxed in China.  Since China has excess productive labor, the benefits flow to the state.  Implicitly, the U.S.’s excess produced the differential model discussed above, which worked well for both parties for some fifteen (15) years.)

But all is not  bread and roses in Soros’s view of China.  An Indian journalist sitting next to me asked the obvious question: Has being a democratic country “hamstrung” India as compared to China? Soros came back to his key theme of the need for growth in Chinese domestic demand, noting that the Indian economy is more stable precisely because there is now domestic growth—growth that will be facilitated in China only as that State evolves both politically and economically. He noted that the Chinese people, to date, have been willing to accept limits on their individual freedom for its benefit in growth, but he does not see other countries being willing to accept such limits on their own freedom to support China’s growth.  If I ever had any doubt that Soros is a more devoted Popperian than I, it was eliminated in that moment.

Other Powers, and Some That Might Be

Soros spoke positively of Turkey (Dani Rodrik may have a counterpoint), negatively of Germany (from a policy perspective; when asked by a reporter from Crain’s what we will look back on and see as stupid, he replied that “fiscal rectitude, from a timing point of view, is wrong.”), and generally positively of the Euro, declaring in response to a question about Ireland and Greece that “If anybody would leave [the Eurozone] it would be Germany.”

His key point about the Euro is one that is often found in the literature of financial crises, including the previous Great Depression: there is a European Central Bank, but there is not a central Treasury. But this appears to be de facto being remedied by the Solvency Crisis, with “back-up funds” being developed and used.  Soros noted a key distinction that is often missed in discussions: there was not a crisis of the EUR, but rather a European banking crisis, which was exacerbated by policy disagreements between France and Germany. (Germany won, though his view of whether this victory will be relatively Pyrrhic is left as an exercise.)

Again, he looks to the Chinese as an indicator, who started putting their money—you know, that 4 Trillion RMB stimulus and the revenues that have followed it—into the EUR as soon as it reached around 1.20.  The Chinese bought the EUR, the Chinese bought Spanish bonds, the Chinese stabilized the market.  The Chinese did something no one else can do for them—bought another currency on the open market.

And this is the key to understanding Soros’s attitude toward Japan. You think this is easy, realism? The Japanese are correct to worry about their currency, Soros notes, because, while the RMB is the strongest currency in the world, you cannot own it because of capital controls that the Chinese government maintains because they do not want to have both rising wages and an appreciating currency in their export-based economy. Accordingly, per Soros, any appreciation of the RMB “has to be done in an orderly manner.” In the meantime, the Japanese did the only thing they could.

U.S. Politics

Mr. Soros was by no means a fan of the Obama Administration. Echoing Glenn Greenwald, he notes that the Obama Administration should have corrected the excesses, the abuse of power, of the Bush Administration. Despite this (and what follows), Soros believes Obama “may well be elected to a second term.”

As a matter of handling the banks through the crisis, Mr. Soros noted that the Administration should have injected Equity into the banks, but notes that he believes the Obama team found this politically unacceptable. The result is that the government effectively nationalized the banks’s liabilities and “allowed” them to “earn their way out of that hole,” through practices such as increasing consumer credit card rates.

(My memory of the events is somewhat different, since part of what the Fed received for its TARP funds were warrants on those banks—warrants that have subsequently been sold and counted as if the revenue against the original loans to make them appear more “profitable” in the eyes of several bloggers and financial journalists [including, for instance, Robert]. But certainly there was no AIG-like structure imposed, no U.S. equivalent of Northern Rock, no matter how much saner than would have been.) 

To no one’s great surprise, Mr. Soros does not believe that Mr. Obama is “anti-business.”

The biggest fault he found with the Administration’s approach to the crisis is that they depended on the “confidence multiplier” to make recession shallower and shorter than it otherwise would have been. The problem with a confidence multiplier is, of course, that when the results do not match the expectations, the “multiplier” becomes a disappointment, and therefore a drag on expectations going forward. Mr. Soros described this as what happened.

If this scenario is true, then the decision not to ask initially for a $1.2T stimulus, with a chance to end up with a better mix and higher absolute amount of actual stimulus funding, will go down as the tombstone for the Administration, not “just” a spanner in the possible continuation of the Administration’s economic team (h/t Mark Thoma on Twitter).  But, hey, the recession has been over for more than a year, so things are getting better, with the upcoming elections more resembling the signpost of 1982 than 1932.  At least in some timestream.

Gold

This one was pulled all over the place, so it should come as no surprise.  Gold is, per Mr. Soros, the only active “bull market” right now.  He is also not optimistic about the ending of that market. Gold is “the ultimate bubble”—may be going higher, but is certainly not safe and is not going to be forever.

Mr. Soros admits a similar attitude toward oil, but at least there the commodity has intrinsic value. As Vincent Fernando, CFA, notes, owning something other than gold at least gives you the possibility of “productive assets.”

Conclusion

I’ve left out a few things, including the roundelay that resulted when one journalist attempted to discuss Mr. Soros’s firm’s holdings in a company he said he didn’t the firm owns. But in general the feeling one gets when presented by Mr. Soros the person is that he is an optimist, perhaps incurably so. Things are rough, and they will probably continue to be rough for a while, but in the longer term, things are getting better for all.

I’m guessing he won’t be speaking at The March to Keep Fear Alive.  But Mr. Colbert—let alone his predecessor at the Washington Monument—would do well to book him as a guest.

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Infrastructure and Human Capital Interlude

Busy week, so just a couple of things of note.

  1. Via Dr. Black, my old neighborhood gets a chance to build a better future:
    “It’s a great partnership among a number of researchers from academia, the private sector and national laboratories. It’s a great collaboration for a solid project that will help the environment,” said Penn State spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz.

    Foley said the project “will spur real innovation and job growth for Philadelphia, the region and the nation. We have a world class team of universities, corporations, and economic development entities that made this proposal come to life. There is no better place to do this work than in the Philadelphia Navy Yard.”

    My mother would have agreed, but she stopped working there (coincidentally) around the time Tom was born. Indeed, the renovation of the Navy Yard has been an American Success Story (driven by a Norwegian shipbuilding firm and a clothing retailer), and we can almost pretend that the area has “recovered.”

  2. Similarly, the results of the Race to the Top came in a couple of days ago. You may have heard that our Superstar Governor was cruelly betrayed by Washington bureaucrats and/or the evil NEA.

    Well, until the actual video was released, after which point yet another Republican decided to prove that people collecting unemployment are Just Lazy (though he does claim not to have lied to Superstar Governor, leaving the question of where the story from the Governor should be sourced).

So the old area is gaining because of Federal government management, and the current area is suffering because of State government mismanagement. It’s almost enough to make me think that there’s a difference when people want to accomplish something.

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More than an election message

George Lakoff offers his take on some of the mistakes Democrats are making currently in their overall message to the nation compared to the Republicans, with the backdrop and rulings from Rush Limbaugh on proper behavior for the Republican political leadership:

Why conservative lies_spread_and what progressives can do to fight them

Fit matters. The brain is a “best-fit” system. The better a new frame “fits” existing frames, the more effective it will be; that is, the more people will think, and make decisions, using that frame

For important domains of thought, like morality, religion, and politics, it is commonplace for people to have two inconsistent frame systems that inhibit each other… When you can shift back and forth on an issue, you are bi-conceptual on that issue. That is, you can frame the issue in two ways, using inconsistent higher-level frame systems.

The more the language of frame is repeated, the stronger the frame gets, along with the system the frame is in. And the weaker the frames of the contradictory system gets. The stronger high-level frames are, the more effective frames that fit them will be. And the less effective frames that contradict them will be.

Frames are conceptual; they are the elements of thought. Most thought is unconscious. Words activate frames. We are rarely conscious of the frames that are activated by the words we hear. Yet those frames are there in our brain circuitry, and more we hear the words, the stronger the frames get, even though we aren’t aware of it.

Framing is the establishment of permanent (or long-term) high-level frames and systems of frames with the brains of voters…

An important part of framing is the establishment of prototypes: social stereotypes, prototypes (typical case, ideals, nightmares, salient exemplars). Stereotypes are used in automatic reasoning and decision-making.

This messaging system has existed and has been extended and strengthened over many years. Democrats have a few of these elements, but they are relatively ineffective, since they tend to view messaging as short-term and issue-based, rather than long-term and morally based. Democrats tend not to understand how framing works, and often confuse framing (which is deep, long-term, systematic, morality-based, and conceptual) with messaging (which is shallow, short-term, ad hoc, policy-based, and linguistic).


Democrats have a few of these elements, but they are relatively ineffective, since they tend to view messaging as short-term and issue-based, rather than long-term and morally based. Democrats tend not to understand how framing works, and often confuse framing (which is deep, long-term, systematic, morality-based, and conceptual) with messaging (which is shallow, short-term, ad hoc, policy-based, and linguistic).

The “evidence” comes from polls and focus groups that test the normal “mainstream” language and logic, versus language and logic that is not “mainstream.” This is, naturally, conservative language and logic, because the conservative messaging system has systematically made it that way patiently over years. The pollsters therefore report that the “mainstream” of Americans prefer the conservative language and logic, and the policies that go with them. The pollsters then suggest moving to right to go to where the public is. They then construct and test messages that move enough to right to satisfy the “mainstream.” They also construct “good arguments.” If the “good arguments” activate the conservative worldview, the conservative position will just get stronger in the brains of the voters.


To work long-term, progressive messaging must be sincere and direct, must reflect progressive moral values, and must be repeated. Progressive framing is about saying what you believe, telling the truth, and activating the progressive worldview already present in the minds of those who are partly conservative and partly progressive.

Framing is, of course, about policy, more than about messaging. What you say should go hand-in-hand with what you think and do.

And, of course, the best messaging requires an excellent communications system, or it won’t be heard. Progressives have the money to build such a system. The question is whether they understand the desperate need for such a system, and whether they have the will to build it.

Of course the comments on the post settled nothing. The post is long on intellectual type of thought and short on examples. But it is instructive to note that the energy behind a belief is not something that ebbs and flows simply by vote counts, it is something enduring demanding resources and effort on a daily basis by bearing witness in big and small ways.

And the confusion between ‘frame’ and ‘message’ is constantly displayed in comments when it comes to political messaging…especially in a forced two party system.

To illustrate, allowing the labels ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ to define the abortion issue was a major mistake from my point of view. ‘Anti-choice’ keeps the label to the issue and does not allow ‘pro-life’ groups kudos for things not included in their agenda.

Lakoff uses the immigration debate as an illustration, but I wish he would develop better stories. The use of the term ‘illegals’ is a pejorative, but even Mitt Romney trusted illegals to come into his house in MA to take advantage of their work ethic. Americans often invite illegals into their homes and even leave them to walk around unattended, and ask them to care for their children, or cook their meals. There are some bad apples, but crime is down despite this invasion.

More to come.

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