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

Seattle University Symposium on Inequality, Nick Hanauer

The following video was posted in Ed’s Post by Marko.  I thought it deserved a wider audience.

The symposium included a discussion regarding raising the minimum wage to $15.  Mr. Hanauer, being an honest to goodness real billionaire talked about what that would mean for his situation.  I like the way he put it.  He earns 1000 times the median wage and yet he still only needs 1 pillow when he sleeps at night, not 1000.

You might also know of him from his TED talk that was originally  refused for posting.  He has been talking for a while about the wrongness and dangers of income inequality.

Now, if only he would team up with one or 2 more billionaires and start fighting against the Koch et al’s money in the political arena.  Then we just might see some balance.

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More Right Wing Lies – Now As In The Roaring 20′s

Amity Shlaes, the disinformation bunny, is still going.  In the latest issue of Imprimus, a publication of Hillsdale College, is a transcript adapted from a recent talk she gave there during a conference on the Income Tax, sponsored by Hillsdale’s own Center for Constructive Alternatives and the Ludwig von Mises Lecture Series.  Right away, you know this is going to be good.  The Title of her contribution is Calvin Coolidge and the Moral Case for Economy.  Of course, by economy, she means austerity.

There is so much wrong here it’s both impressive and depressing.  Rather than give her the full FJM treatment, which would take more time and energy than she deserves, I’ll just hit on a couple of the lowlights.  Here is her opening paragraph.

With the Federal debt spiraling out of control, many Americans sense an urgent need to find a political leader who is able to say “no” to spending.

Here we go. Her first sentence is an exercise in made-up right-wing talking point mythology.  I’ve already exploded the ‘Obama is a profligate spender” myth, here, here, and here. Further, we have just lived through three years when federal spending was close to flat line, as Graph 1 shows.  

 Graph 1 – Flat Federal Spending Under Obama 

There is only one comparable period in post WW II history, 1953-56, during Eisenhower’s first term, as shown in Graph 2.   Still, over Ike’s full term, spending grew by about 30%.

 Graph 2  Not So Flat Spending Growth Under Eisenhower (’53-’60)

To suggest that federal dept is now  “spiraling out of control” due to excessive spending is not merely disingenuous.  It is a sign that either Shlaes has no earthly idea what she’s talking about, which in an alleged journalist, is unforgivable, or it’s a bare-faced lie, which is unforgivable for anybody.  And if many Americans are feeling the urgent need to curtail government spending, it’s because they have been lied to so repeatedly and often that they have no idea what the truth is.  As Krugman recently put it: “And I have to say, it’s extremely telling that conservative Republicans don’t seem able to make their case without resorting, right from the beginning, to obviously dumb fallacies.”  The truth is that if we have a debt problem, it is due to a shortfall in revenues.

Yet they fear that finding such a leader is impossible.

Its not clear who made Shlaes the spokesperson for this sorry, disenfranchised segment of the population, nor that this is indeed what they fear.  Perhaps we should introduce Shlaes and the rest of these Real Americans to the real President B. Hoover Obama.

Conservatives long for another Ronald Reagan.

This is probably correct, though as Shlaes goes on to demonstrate, conservatives in this way – and, alas, right-wingers almost always – are rather badly disconnected from reality.

He was of course a tax cutter, reducing the top marginal rate from 70 to 28 percent.  But his tax cuts – which vindicated supply side economics by vastly increasing federal revenue – were bought partly through a bargain with Democrats who were eager to spend that revenue.

Wrong again.  The reality is that Revenue growth under Reagan was the worst of any 20th century President, post Eisenhower, except for the unfortunate Bush, Sr. under who’s recession plagued regime Reagan’s buzzards came home to roost. And was it really the Democrats who spent that anemic revenue stream, or did it go to Reagan’s Star Wars fantasy?

Reagan was no budget cutter.  In fact, the federal budget grew over a third during his administration.

Here, she finally gets something right, if by “federal budget” she means Total Outlays, and by “over a third” she means over 80%  [as measured from 1980 to 1988.]

Things get really egregious further on in the section titled “The Purpose of Tax Cuts.”  She informs us that President Coolidge and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon campaigned to lower top rates from the 50′s to the 20′s.

Mellon and Coolidge did not win all they sought.  The top rate of the final law was in the forties.  But even this reduction yielded results – more money flowing into the treasury – suggesting that “scientific taxation” worked.  By 1926, Coolidge was able to sign legislation that brought the top marginal rate down to 25%, and do so retroactively.

I was surprised to learn that Coolidge and Mellon had anticipated the Laffer curve by 6 decades.  Let’s have a look at how more money flowed into the treasury. In 1922 and ’23, with a top marginal rate of 56%, tax revenues were $2.23 and 1.69 billion respectively. [Per FRED, 1923 was a recession year]  In 1924, with a top rate of 46%, total revenues were $1.79 billion.  This is what Shleas calls “more money flowing into the treasury.”  Here’s a bigger picture look.  In 1920, when the top marginal rate was 73%, receipts were slightly over $4 billion.  In 1925, when the top marginal rate was 25%, receipts were $1.7 billion, less than half of the 1920 value, and by 1929 had only increased to 2.23 billion.  Graph 3 shows revenues per year [Coolidge's term highlighted in red,] and belies Shlaes’ assertion.

 Graph 3 Income Tax Revenues, 1915-1930

Graph 4 shows a scatter plot of this same data, with revenues as a function of top marginal rate, Coolidge years are again highlighted in red.

Graph 4 Top Marginal Rate and Tax Revenues, 1915-1930

A best fit straight line is included.  There’s lots of scatter, for a variety of reasons, but the upward trend – the exact opposite of Shleas’ assertion, is obvious.

So here’s the reality.  A decade of tax cutting and deregulation led us into the Great Depression, the worst economic collapse of the 20th century. [You might note that the following decades of high tax rates and robust regulation were free of these horrible events.]  And what happened most recently?  A decade of tax cuts and deregulation – the end game of three decades of this supply-side approach – led to the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression.  Significantly, the major deregulations of big finance, including the repeal of Glass-Steagall came at the end of Clinton’s term, less than a decade prior to the financial melt down.  Last Friday on his radio show, Thom Hartmann pointed out that prior to the regulations put in place in the 30′s, the U.S. had never gone for more than 15 years without a major financial collapse.  So this result should have been expected.

The extraordinary thing isn’t that right wingers lie.  The simple reality is that they can’t make their case without lying, because it has no merit.  The extraordinary thing is that their lies are so easily rooted out and refuted, in the era of free and easily accessible information, but so few people will take the required few minutes to go ahead and do it. Sadly, whenever the truth comes up against a cascade of lies, the liars have a significant tactical advantage

Shlaes’ presentation is just one more manifestation of the right wing ploy of denying reality.   Sadly, it works, because you really can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time.

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Deja Vu All Over Again, or On the Whole…

The President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia:

We have been putting out credit in a period of depression, when it is not wanted and could not be used, and will have to withdraw credit when it is wanted and can be used.

But this is not Charles I. Plosser, no matter how similar the sound. It’s from September of 1930,* presumably George W. Norris (PDF; see page 4).**

Indeed, reviewing the Calmoris and Wheelock article from which I pulled that quote, we find the same mistakes being made: excess reserves confused with circulating money and therefore treated as harbingers of inflation, squealing for austerity,*** sterilization of shifts in reserves in a desperate attempt to avoid non-visible inflation.

As Owen Wilson’s Gil says in Midnight in Paris, we have antibiotics; the people in Fin de siècle Paris didn’t. It’s just one of our other “sciences” that appears not to have advanced.

*Michael D. Bordo;Claudia Goldin;Eugene N. White. The Defining Moment: The Great Depression and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century (National Bureau of Economic Research Project Report) (p. 36). Kindle Edition.

**Not to be confused with George W. Norris, the Nebraska Senator discussed in Profiles in Courage

***The Norris quote above begins:

We believe that the correction must come about through reduced production, reduced inventories, the gradual reduction of consumer credit, the liquidation of security loans, and the accumulation of savings through the exercise of thrift. These are slow and simple remedies, but just as there is no “royal road to knowledge,” we believe there is no short cut or panacea for the rectification of existing conditions.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, not to mention EC President Herman von Rompuy, would be proud.

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How Keynesian Policy Led Economic Growth In the New Deal Era: Three Simple Graphs

by Mike Kimel

In this post, I will show that during the New Deal era, changes in the real economic growth rate can be explained almost entirely by the earlier changes in federal government’s non-defense spending. There are going to be a lot of words at first – but if you’re the impatient type, feel free to jump ahead to the graphs. There are three of them.

The story I’m going to tell is a very Keynesian story. In broad strokes, when the Great Depression began in 1929, aggregate demand dropped a lot. People stopped buying things leading companies to reduce production and stop hiring, which in turn reduced how much people could buy and so on and so forth in a vicious cycle. Keynes’ approach, and one that FDR bought into, was that somebody had to step in and start buying stuff, and if nobody else would do it, the government would.

So an increase in this federal government spending would lead to an increase in economic growth. Even a relatively small boost in government spending, in theory, could have a big consequences through the multiplier effect – the government hires some construction companies to build a road, those companies in turn purchase material from third parties and hire people, and in the end, if the government spent X, that could lead to an effect on the economy exceeding X.

This increased spending by the Federal government typically came in the form of roads and dams, the CCC and the WPA and the Tennessee Valley Authority, in the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) tables it falls under the category of nondefense federal spending.

Now, in a time and place like the US in the early 1930s, it could take a while for such nondefense spending by the federal government to work its way through the economy. Commerce moved more slowly back in the day. It was more difficult to spend money at the time than it is now, particularly if you were employed on building a road or a dam out in the boondocks. You might be able to spend some of your earnings at a company store, but presumably the bulk of what you made wouldn’t get spent until you get somewhere close to civilization again.

So let’s make a simple assumption – let’s say that according to this Keynesian theory we’re looking at, growth in any given year a function of nondefense spending in that year and the year before. Let’s keep it very simple and say the effect of nondefense spending in the current year is exactly twice the effect of nondefense spending in the previous year. Thus, restated,

(1) change in economic growth, t =
f[(2/3)*change in nondefense spending t,
(1/3)*change in nondefense spending t-1]

For the change in economic growth, we can simply use Growth Rate of Real GDP at time t less Growth Rate of Real GDP at time t-1. The growth rate of real GDP is provided by the BEA in an easy to use spreadsheet here.

Now, it would seem to make sense that nondefense spending could simply be adjusted for inflation as well. But it isn’t that simple. Our little Keynesian story assumes a multiplier, but we’re not going to estimate that multiplier or this is going to get too complicated very quickly, particularly given the large swing from deflation to inflation that occurred in the period. What we can say is that from the point of view of companies that have gotten a federal contract, or the point of view of people hired to work on that contract who saved what they didn’t spend in their workboots, or storekeepers serving those people, they would have spent more of their discretionary income if they felt richer and would have spent less if they felt poorer.

And an extra 100 million in nondefense spending (i.e., contracts coming down the pike) will seem like more money if its a larger percentage of the most recently observed GDP than if its a smaller percentage of the most recently observed GDP. Put another way, context for nondefense spending in a period of rapid swings in deflation and inflation can be provided by comparing it to last year’s GDP.

So let’s rewrite equation (1) as follows:

(2) Growth in Real GDP t – Growth in Real GDP t-1
f[(2/3)*change in {nondefense spending t / GDP t-1},
(1/3)*change in {nondefense spending t-1 / GDP t-2}]

Put another way… this simple story assumes that changes in the Growth Rate in Real GDP (i.e., the degree to which the growth rate accelerated or decelerated) can be explained by the rate at which nondefense spending as a perceived share of the economy accelerated or decelerated. Thus, when the government increased nondefense spending (as a percent of how big the people viewed the economy) quickly, that translated a rapid increase in real GDP growth rates. Conversely, when the government slowed down or shrunk nondefense spending, real GDP growth rates slowed down or even went negative.

Note that GDP and nondefense spending figures are “midyear” figures. Note also that at the time, the fiscal year ran from July to June… so the amount of nondefense spending that showed up in any given calendar year would have been almost completely determined through the budget process a year earlier.

As an example… nondefense spending figures for 1935 were made up of nondefense spending through the first half of the year, which in turn were determined by the budget which had been drawn up in the first half of 1934. In other words, equation (2) explains changes in real GDP growth rates based on spending determined one and two years earlier. If there is any causality, it isn’t that growth rates in real GDP are moving the budget.

Since there stories are cheap, the question of relevance is this: how well does equation (2) fit the data? Well, I’ll start with a couple graphs. And then I’ll ramp things up a notch (below the fold).

Figure 1 below shows the right hand side of equation (2) on the left axis, and the left hand side of equation (2) on the right axis. (Sorry for reversing axes, but since the right hand side of the equation (2) leads it made sense to put it on the primary axis.)

Notice that the changes in nondefense spending growth and the changes in the rate of real GDP growth correlate very strongly, despite the fact that the former is essentially determined a year and two years in advance of the latter.

Here’s the same information with a scatterplot:

So far, it would seem that either the government’s changes to nondefense spending growth were a big determinant of real economic growth, or there’s one heck of a coincidence, particularly since I didn’t exactly “fit” the nondefense function.

But as I noted earlier in this post, after the first two graphs, I would step things up a notch. That means I’m going to show that the fit is even tighter than it looks based on the two graphs above. And I’m going to do so with a comment and a third graph.

Here’s the comment: 1933 figures do not provide information about how the New Deal programs worked. After all, the figures are midyear – so the real GDP growth would be growth from midyear 1932 to midyear 1933. But FDR didn’t become President until March of 1933.

So… here’s Figure 2 redrawn, to include only data from 1934 to 1938.

While I’m a firm believer in the importance of monetary policy, for a number of reasons I don’t believe it made much of a difference in the New Deal era. As Figure 3 shows, changes in nondefense spending – hiring people to build roads, dams, and the like, explain subsequent changes in real GDP growth rates exceptionally well from 1934 to 1938. This simple model explains more than 90% of the change in real GDP growth rates over that period.

Of course, after 1938, the relationship breaks down… but by then the economy was on the mend (despite the big downturn in 1938). More importantly (I believe – haven’t checked this yet!), defense spending began to become increasingly important. People who might have been employed building roads in 1935 might have found employment refurbishing ships going to the Great Britain in 1939.

As always, if you want my spreadsheet, drop me a line. I’m at my first name (mike) period my last name (kimel – note only one “m”) at

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The Gold Index, April 1933 – February 1934, Courtesy of Scott Sumner

By Mike Kimel

The Gold Index, April 1933 – February 1934, Courtesy of Scott Sumner

I’ve been having a bit of a back and forth with Scott Sumner of The Money Illusion over the degree to which monetary policy, in particular the devaluation of the dollar, affected the economy in 1933. (My most recent post on the issue is here.)

In private correspondence, Sumner provided me with the draft for three chapters of a manuscript he is working on. I can safely say that whether or not I agree with his findings, Sumner has done his homework – the draft is meticulously researched and abounds with details corroborating his findings. Of particular interest to me was a Table 8.2, which shows weekly figures for a number of series from April 15, 1933 to the first week of February, 1934. Sumner has graciously agreed to let me post that table. I don’t want to freeride on his efforts to much, so I’m only reproducing the first few columns.

Figure 1

I believe the most interesting thing in the table is – what has been the cause of some discussion between the two of us – is the Gold Index. From the footnote to the table in the manuscript:

The gold index is the Annualist Index of Commodity Prices measured in gold terms.

Sumner collected that data manually from old trade journals. I haven’t been able to find that data online. What the data shows, to quote Sumner, is that “an ounce of gold could buy more internationally traded goods in 1934 than 1933. That’s what the 815 to 650 is showing—falling prices in gold terms.”

Here’s a graph of the series:

Figure 2

Addendum by Ken: Here’s the Gold Index data listed above with the Vertical Axis rescaled:

Figure 3

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Scaling to New Depths* with Scott Sumner

by Mike Kimel

Scaling to New Depths* with Scott Sumner

I’ve been having a bit of back and forth with Scott Sumner. Here is his latest post, helpfully entitled: “A suggestion for Mike Kimel.”

His key suggestion:

“Please take a close look at the data from the Great Depression, before doing more posts claiming I don’t know the facts.”

He then goes on to point out he’s been studying the 1933 period for 20 years. From there he goes on to explain my first mistake:

He insists that FDR’s dollar depreciation program began in October 1933, even though all economic historians agree in began in mid-April 1933, when the exchange rate for the dollar began declining (against gold and against other currencies.) He insists prices began rising before FDR took office off, which is not true. He presents a graph that he claims shows prices rising before FDR took office, but his graph shows inflation rates, not the price level. In fact, the graph actually supports my argument that inflation didn’t turn positive until after FDR took office. There’s a difference between the rate of inflation and the price level.

OK. Let’s redo the graph showing not inflation but rather the price level. And I’ll keep it very simple… I will limit it to two points. Well, three, though the third is not exactly on the curve so to speak. As before, I’m still using PPI because its the publicly available source most closely related to the prices Sumner seems to be discussing, and I’ll use the graphics tool at the Federal Reserve Economic Database (FRED)

Figure 1.

The graph shows the PPI for February and March of 1933. FDR took office in March 1933.

As I noted in my previous post,

You can see the decline in prices halt and start reversing even before he took office.

Now, I don’t remember arguing that inflation didn’t turn positive before then. To me, its a big deal that PPI hit rock bottom and reversed itself. Getting out of free-fall was in itself a big deal. Here’s a graph for 1929 to 1934 to give you an idea:

Figure 2.

Note that February 1933 happened to be the low point for PPI during its entire history, and the PPI had been calculated since 1913.

But there’s another important point in the quote I provided above, namely this:

He insists that FDR’s dollar depreciation program began in October 1933, even though all economic historians agree in began in mid-April 1933, when the exchange rate for the dollar began declining (against gold and against other currencies.)

This isn’t quite right. As I’ll make clear, I don’t think the dollar actually depreciated against gold until January 1934. Sumner was so insistent on this depreciation occurring before then that I spent a bit of time on google and found a story by Jesse Jones, head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, about how FDR had him and soon to be Treasury Secretary Morgenthau help him (FDR) revalue the price of gold.

Now, I am not an economic historian, and I’m not sure I know any these days, so for all I know, Sumner is correct about what all economic historians agree happened. I am, instead a data guy. I like data. Scratch that. I love data. I go through data in my spare time. Most of the stuff I do at this blog, for instance, has absolutely nothing to do with my day job. Nothing. But its an opportunity to play with data. My wife usually scratches her head wondering why I do this kind of thing, but everyone needs a hobby and I don’t watch tv.

One thing I’ve learned with data is that its generally important to go back as close to the original source of data as possible. Another is to know something about your sources. Go through the data. Read footnotes.

So in that spirit, I decided to try see what I can learn by looking for data from the era or thereabouts, ideally coming directly from the folks who collect it. I have not succeeded in finding a series that shows what Sumner claims. In fact, data from around that era, particularly on gold prices, isn’t easy to come by. But I have found a few examples.

For instance, Table Number 230 of the 1936 Statistical Abstract of the United States shows the supply of gold in the United States on June 30 of each year (going back annually to 1887, and with selected years before then). The data seems to originate with the Treasury and the Fed, though I haven’t been able to locate the contemporaneous originals.

Footnote 1 reads in part:

By a proclamation of the President dated Jan. 31, 1934 the weight of the gold dollar was reduced from 25.8 to 15 5/21 grains of gold, 0.9 fine. The value of gold is therefore based on $35 per fine ounce beginning June 1934; theretofore it is based on $20.67 per fine ounce.

In other words a couple months after Sumner and other economic historians believe the dollar had started losing value against gold, the Fed and/or the Treasury were reporting to the Census (which publishes the Statistical Abstract) that the price of gold was still exactly the same as it had been.)

Now, its possible the Census or the Fed or the Treasury made a mistake and it went uncorrected by the time of the 1936 Statistical Abstract. So one source is not enough, especially when Sumner and “all economic historians” agree it is wrong.

Which leads to a Fed document called Banking and Monetary Statistics 1914 – 1941. This is from the section on gold (bottom paragraph, left hand column, page 522)

All figures are in dollars, calculated at the rate of $20.67 per fine ounce of gold through January 1934 and $35 per fine ounce thereafter (except that the figures for the year 1934 in Table 159 are based upon the $35 gold price). The change in rate results from the fact that on January 31, 1934, the dollar was devalued by 40.94 per cent in terms of gold in accordance with a proclamation issued by the President.

If you’re curious, $35 – $20.67 = $14.33. $14.33 happens to be 40.94% of $35.

The document is chock full of tables that show, including other things, the monthly value of US gold holdings. Where dollar figures are involved, those tables also carry a helpful note indicating the price as $20.67 an ounce through January 1934, and $35 an ounce thereafter. Note that the Fed valued monthly holdings at $20.67 an ounce in April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December of 1933 when, all along, according to Scott Sumner who spent 20 years studying the era and “all economic historians,” insist the price of gold had been rising at the time.

I’ve stumbled on a few other sources as well but they don’t look any different. I’m just not seeing the series that shows the dollar price of gold rising during the months from April 1933 to January 1934.

So what is going on? I’m going to split the baby here and suggest that both Scott Sumner and “all economic historians” are right that there was a devaluation, and the Fed and the Treasury and the Statistical Abstract of the United States were (and are) right that there wasn’t. But the way in which they are right is very definitely not a good thing for Scott Sumner and “all economic historians.”

See, as I said above, I’m not an economic historian, but I did spend my formative years in South American in the 1970s and 1980s. As anyone who spent roughly the same years in the region as I did could tell you, or as any Zimbabwean can do today, during times of turmoil (which can last decades) the official exchange rate can come to bear no relationship with the actual price at which a currency trades against something that is considered more stable and more desirable to hold. Heck, you don’t have to track down someone from Arrgentina or Zimbabwe – ask any European who ever visited the Soviet Block and traded in some Western currency at the airport or the border about how unrealistic official exchange rates could be. In many an economic basket case, the likelihood that a transaction takes place at anything resembling the official exchange rate is similar to the probability that someone walks into a Chevrolet dealership and pays the MSRP, in cash.

And like the MSRP, the official exchange rate has a purpose. Yes, there’s always someone clueless or coerced enough to pay that price. But for the most part, its a fiction that either serves as a baseline for something or papers over something the government wants to really do, usually printing money. Its a handy excuse to get from point A to point B, and if the excuse doesn’t fly, another one will do.

My guess, and I’ll repeat that I’m not an economic historian, is that when FDR and Jones and Morgenthau were picking prices out of the air, it was in that vein. The country was in turmoil when FDR took office, and there were fears that if things got worse there would be an armed insurrection. It wasn’t a time for half measures. My guess is the mood in the White House at the time was best summarized by a quote decades later from the immortal John Candy, “There’s a time to think, and a time to act. And this, gentlemen, is no time to think.”

So what did the fiction of changing the price gold accomplish if nobody else believe that the price had actually changed? I suspect it meant, in practice, that the Reconstruction Finance Corporation could pay more than $20.67 an ounce for gold. And why would the RFC (which, I note, could borrow outside the budget) want to pay more than $20.67 an ounce for gold if that was the price everyone was accepting?

Think of the RFC the way you think of the Fed trying to bail out banks in recent years – loaning money at below market rates to banks who then used the money to buy Treasuries which paid higher rates. In effect, paying more than $20.67 an ounce was a way to funnel riskless profits to banks. (Of course, the RFC often replaced management, but things have gotten permissive as well as more sophisticated in recent decades.)

Which brings us back to Sumner and “all economic historians” being right, at least technically. Yes, the currency was being devalued throughout much of 1933, but no, it wasn’t. Not really. There were a series of fictional devaluations that served a specific purpose, but which nobody else made believe was real (and its possible which almost nobody else was aware were happening – don’t ask me, I’m not an economic historian). Pretending otherwise, and using that fictional data to do an analysis is the equivalent of trying to understand the East German economy in 1974 using the exchange rates a traveler would have received at Checkpoint Charlie during that year.

* The title comes from a book put out by Mad Magazine in the 1970s or 1980s. Sorry I can’t be more specific – it has been a while

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Scott Sumner Digs Deeper

by Mike Kimel

Scott Sumner Digs Deeper

Scott Sumner criticizes my most recent post in which I indicate that Keynesian theory explains growth rates during the New Deal era better than theories proposed by monetarists.

He starts by criticizing this, which I wrote in my earlier post.

Aggregate demand was very slack when FDR took office.

FDR showed up in Washington with a plan to start spending a lot of money and thus boost aggregate demand.

The immediate effect was to convince factories they’d be running down their inventories. That boosted producer prices. It had a much smaller effect on consumer prices because everyone knew the gubmint was going to buy a heck of a lot more producer goods than consumer goods. (The government did buy some consumer goods for the various programs, plus there was a spillover effect, but as the graph clearly shows, the action was on the producer side.)

After a bit of time, the public realized FDR wasn’t planning just a one-off, but rather a sustained program of purchases of industrial items. That led them to start using some of their idle capacity, which meant not just selling the fixed amount that was in inventory. The rate of price increases thus dropped.

GDP increased the fastest rate in the United States peacetime history since data has been kept. There was a big hiccup, of course, in 1937 when the government cut back on spending for a while.

Sumner’s most important point:

Prices didn’t start rising when FDR came to Washington with spending plans; they started rising when he began depreciating the dollar. Furthermore, the weekly rise in the WPI index was highly correlated with weekly increases in the dollar price of gold (i.e. currency depreciation.) And those changes (in gold prices) were caused by explicit statements and actions by FDR. Not by fiscal stimulus, which would be expected to appreciate the dollar.

OK. Using the cool graphical tool from FRED, the Federal Reserve Economic Database, I generated this graph of the series that from what I can tell seems to be Sumner’s favorite price index when discussing the period:

Figure 1.

Now, take a gander at the graph. And bear in mind, FDR was inaugurated in March 1933. But everyone knew what he was going to do, spending-wise, once he showed up. You can see the decline in prices halt and start reversing even before he took office.

Additionally, I’m not sure what Sumner means when he refers to the period when he says FDR “began depreciating the dollar.” There was a gold standard in place going back a long time. That means the value of the dollar was its price in gold. The price of gold was $20.67 an ounce for decades before FDR took office. It was $20.67 an ounce until the Gold Reserve Act of January 30, 1934, when the price of gold was changed to $35 an ounce. (To be precise, the government devalued the dollar on January 31, the day after the Act passed.)

The peak in the curve came in February 1934, days or at most weeks (the index isn’t that precise) after the Gold Reserve Act. Put another way… price inflation using Sumner’s measure peaked when the currency was devalued. That is precisely 100% the opposite of what Sumner wrote.

But there are some extenuating circumstances for Sumner.

(The next paragraph summarizes this story, from the memoirs of Jesse Jones.)

It seems that on October 22, 1933, Jones, the head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and Henry Morgenthau, then Farm Credit Administrator but soon to be Treasury Secretary, were told by FDR to come by on October 23 to devaluing the dollar by changing its relationship with gold. The three men – FDR, Morgenthau, and Jones, then went about raising the price of gold by fiat between then and January 31, 1934, when prices came to rest at $35 an ounce, a price where they stayed through 1971.

I assume that’s what Sumner is talking about. So let me modify Figure 1 to only show the period from January to October 1933.

Figure 2.

Now, recall, Sumner’s evidence that the Keynesian view is wrong and the monetary view is right is: “Prices didn’t start rising when FDR came to Washington with spending plans; they started rising when he began depreciating the dollar.”

And yet… the graph shows very clearly that prices started to rise when FDR came to Washington with spending plans, not at the end of October when he began depreciating the dollar. As is very evident from the graph, by that time prices had already been increasing for quite a while. Wholesale prices, by October 1, were up 17% from the beginning of the year. If you started in October of 1933, it wasn’t until December of 1936 before prices increased another 17%.

The point is, Sumner is wrong. He is very wrong about when prices started to rise. He is also very wrong about why prices started to rise. And since “when” and “why” are assumptions in his model, his model is very wrong.

Now, for completeness I’m going to tackle the other thing Sumner mentioned in his post. Sumner’s critique of me includes this:

There are all sorts of the problems with the argument that the inflation of 1933-34 was caused by expectations of fiscal stimulus. First of all, it’s completely at variance with Keynesian theory, which Kimel seems to be trying to defend. Keynesian theory says demand stimulus doesn’t raise prices when there is “slack,” and there has never been more slack in all of American history than in 1933.

The problem for Sumner is that Keynesian theory is merely an extension of good old fashioned Adam Smith. Prices depend on supply and demand. You can have a good or service go up in price locally even as it goes down everywhere else.

As I noted in my earlier post, and he quoted:

The immediate effect was to convince factories they’d be running down their inventories… After a bit of time, the public realized FDR wasn’t planning just a one-off, but rather a sustained program of purchases of industrial items. That led them to start using some of their idle capacity, which meant not just selling the fixed amount that was in inventory. The rate of price increases thus dropped.

Which of course, is very consistent with the timing of events.

None of this is to pick on Sumner. There’s a whole cottage industry dedicated to advancing a story that government spending cannot have a positive effect on the economy during recessions or depressions. The problem for those trying to advance that story is that government spending does seem to correlate with positive effects during those periods. So alternate theories are proposed, and have been proposed for decades. And those theories often make a lot of sense… until you take a close look at the data.

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Sumner, Skidelsky, Keynes and Liquidity Traps

by Mike Kimel

I was searching for some information and I stumbled on a post Scott Sumner wrote last year about Robert Skidelsky’s biography of John Maynard Keynes. I haven’t read Skidelsky’s book, nor do I know Skidelsky, and its been awful long time since I read Keynes, but this seems an odd complaint:

I’m afraid that his analysis is both misleading and inaccurate. The US gradually depreciated the dollar between April 1933 and February 1934. During that period unemployment was nearly 25% and T-bill yields were close to zero. Keynes argued that monetary stimulus would not be effective under those circumstances, and Skidelsky seems to accept his interpretation (which was published in the NYT during December 1933.)

[Note that Keynes certainly did believe in the "pushing on a string" theory--I frequently get commenters insisting that Keynes didn't believe in liquidity traps.]

Unfortunately, Keynes and Skidelsky are wrong. The US Wholesale Price Index rose by more than 20% between March 1933 and March 1934. In the Keynesian model that’s not supposed to happen. The broader “Cost of Living” rose about 10%. Industrial production rose more than 45%.

Sumner goes on to impugn Skidelsky:

The “disappointing” results that Skidelsky mentions come from cherry-picking a few misleading data points.

All that seems very odd to me. If I were making an argument that conventional monetary policy doesn’t work in a liquidity trap, but that the traditional Keynesian prescription does, I’d start that argument with something very much like the sentences Sumner wrote right after stating “Unfortunately, Keynes and Skidelsky are wrong.”*

Using the graphing tool from FRED, the Federal Reserve Economic Database maintained by the St. Louis Fed, we can show the one year percentage change in both PPI (producer price index) and CPI (consumer price index) from January 1932 to December 1935.

Here’s what we see: after some massive deflation during the Great Depression, prices start to rise more or less when FDR took office. The annual percentage change in PPI peaked around 23% and change in February 1934, and the CPI peaked a few months later at about 5.6%.

Elsewhere, Sumner attributes that to:

We all know what happened next (well not exactly, but I’ll explain that in another post), so let’s jump ahead to 1933. FDR takes office in March, promising to boost wholesale prices back up to pre-Depression levels. He uses several tools, but the most effective was loosely based on Irving Fisher’s “compensated dollar plan.” Fisher’s plan was to raise the price of gold one percent each time the price level fell one percent. An obscure agricultural economist named George Warren was a big fan of Fisher’s idea, and sold it to FDR with all sorts of fancy charts.

And it worked.

Initially it worked better than any other macroeconomic policy in American history. But at first the policy’s success was mostly accidental, just a matter of talking the dollar down, not enacting Fisher’s specific plan. Nevertheless, prices immediately began rising sharply. Industrial production rose 57% between March and July, regaining over half the ground lost in the previous 3 1/2 years. Then in late July FDR decided to cartelize the economy and sharply raised wages (the NIRA) and industrial output immediately began falling. By late October FDR was desperate for another dose of inflation, and asked Warren to come up with a plan. They decided to have the US government buy gold at a price that would be continually increased in order to reflate the price level.

Sumner even helpfully tells us:

It was a very confusing plan, as they never bought enough gold to equate the government buying price with the free market price in London.

I agree that what Sumner describes is confusing. And yes, the times were desperate, and FDR was flailing around throwing all sorts of things against a wall to see what would work, but when I look at the graph above, and take into account the extremely rapid economic growth that took place during the New Deal era, I see a much simpler story.

  1. Aggregate demand was very slack when FDR took office.

  2. FDR showed up in Washington with a plan to start spending a lot of money and thus boost aggregate demand.
  3. The immediate effect was to convince factories they’d be running down their inventories. That boosted producer prices. It had a much smaller effect on consumer prices because everyone knew the gubmint was going to buy a heck of a lot more producer goods than consumer goods. (The government did buy some consumer goods for the various programs, plus there was a spillover effect, but as the graph clearly shows, the action was on the producer side.)
  4. After a bit of time, the public realized FDR wasn’t planning just a one-off, but rather a sustained program of purchases of industrial items. That led them to start using some of their idle capacity, which meant not just selling the fixed amount that was in inventory. The rate of price increases thus dropped.
  5. GDP increased at the fastest rate in the United States peacetime history since data has been kept. There was a big hiccup, of course, in 1937 when the government cut back on spending for a while.

By contrast, here’s Sumner explaining his theory:

There is a great deal of evidence that I won’t get into here that suggests the suspension of the gold standard in March 1933, and gradual devaluation between April and February 1934, almost certainly explain most of the increase in goods prices, stock prices, and industrial production during that period. But why? Not because it boosted our trade balance, which actually worsened as the rapid recovery pulled in imports.

Both Gauti and I believe that only the rational expectations hypothesis can explain these events. He focuses on how the regime change led to higher inflation expectations, and thus reduced real interest rates. I prefer to think in terms of specific policy signals sent as rising gold prices changed the future expected gold price, and hence the future expected money supply. I don’t see any non-Ratex explanation that can account for the extraordinary rise in prices and output during March-July 1933. Nominal interest rates didn’t change much, and open market purchases in 1932 (under the constraint of the gold standard) had accomplished little or nothing.

So…. his story requires the devaluation of the currency to worsen the trade balance, and rational expectations to cause a one time explosion in industrial prices and a rather smaller recovery in consumer prices. Rational expectations, however, that came an abrupt halt, at roughly the same amount of time one would predict companies might decide that demand will be sustained enough to start producing more rather than just selling off inventory sitting in warehouses. And his story doesn’t explain why growth was so much faster during the New Deal era than any other period of peacetime since the US began keeping data, nor why there was the big hiccup in 1937.

Sumner is essentially trying to tell a story about an unusual set of events, but his story seems to assume that most extraordinary events of the era (and what sets that era apart) kind of just happened to occur for no particular reason so he misses the big picture and ends up focusing on details. With all due respect to Sumner, I prefer to think the US economy is not Forrest Gump.

*I can imagine a “monetary” prescription that I think would help tremendously in a liquidity trap, but it doesn’t look at all like what was done in the 1930s, or what was done since 2007, or from what I can tell, what Sumner suggests. That can be a post for another time.

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Graph That Explains Everything About Amity Shlaes

by Mike Kimel

Thanks to Linda Beale, I headed over here:

The George W. Bush Institute announced today that Amity Shlaes has been named director of the 4% Growth Project, a key part of the Institute’s focus on economic growth. Miss Shlaes will open the project’s office in New York. The aim of the project is to illuminate ideas and reforms that can yield faster, higher quality growth in the United States, and to underscore the importance of growth in America’s future. Part of that work involves finding ways to make growth and economics generally accessible to more Americans, especially younger Americans. The program will conduct and sponsor research on all aspects of economic growth, host conferences, as well as partner with other institutions in such endeavors.

The following graph, I think, illustrates you need to know about Amity Shlaes:

OK. I lied. The graph is actually missing something. See, we only have official data going back to 1929. And the Great Depression began very, very early in Hoover’s term. And Hoover had been a cabinet secretary under Coolidge, and ran for office under a platform which essentially called for continuing Coolidge’s policies. And Shlaes’ forthcoming book is in praise of Calvin Coolidge. It should be noted that the economy was in recession during over 38% of the months in which Coolidge took office, which makes much of the Coolidge era a dry run (so to speak) for the monster that would come in 1929.

Put another way… Shlaes is part of a movement to praise policies responsible for a lousy economy culminating in the Great Depression (i.e., those of Coolidge and Hoover). Shlaes is also part of a movement to praise the policies responsible for a lousy economy culminating in the start of the Great Recession and the mess we’re in today. (Yes, the Great Recession started in 2007, and no, Obama hasn’t made any substantial changes on taxes or regulation from the way GW Bush ran the country.) Conversely, Shlaes is a well-known critic of the policies that produced the fastest period of peace time economic growth this country has seen.

To me this feature of economics is kind of odd. For some reason, policies that have failed spectacularly over and over continue to have adherents. Policies that have worked spectacularly have critics. Debating the merits of a cavalry charge into the teeth of an armored column was barely excusable in August of 1939, but at least that debate was put to a rest by the German blitzkrieg. Its been generations since anyone argued that horsemen can go toe to toe with tanks.

Which leads me to a hypothetical. Say we lived in a parallel universe where Shlaes was a quisling, a real villain whose goal was to harm this country as much as she could by convincing the nation to commit economic suicide. How would the graph above and the two paragraphs that followed it look any different?

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Thinking about Performance

My aging Subaru had a problem a while back. Leak of transmission fluid; a seal or another failing, leading to steady dripping out. And with little need to open the hood, no gauge—or even an “idiot light”—on the dashboard, it dripped for quite a while. And then some.

The first repair—call it Quizzical Effort 1—refilled the fluid, but didn’t find the leak. So we started driving it again, but were a bit more alert for signs that it was doing things such as slipping out of gear or having trouble accelerating from a stop.

We took it to another, better shop for Quizzical Effort 2 (QE2). There they found the leak itself. We spent a bit more money, but the leak is gone and the transmission fluid stays where it belongs.

But it was without fluid for quite a while, and fluids go into other parts of the system, “priming the pump,” as it were, for better operation.

Can we say that my car has made a “recovery”?

The question keeps rearing its “ugly” head as the Jobless Recovery moves forward. Even the Optimists (Mark Thoma, Brad DeLong) are hesitating in the face of the evidence*; Thoma’s graphic at the link just previous notes that the current reovery is not just Jobless, it’s still Job-Reducing, while DeLong tries to dance a line between “this time is different, just like the last one” and “we’re going to turn this into Structural Unemployment Any Day Now” while still thinking of rainbows and kittens.

The strongest evidence that the Recovery has begun is the fiat that NBER declared the recovery to have begun. The second-strongest evidence is that there is noticeable growth in the economy** since the date chosen by NBER.

The following graph appears to support NBER’s declaration. But note the yellow area.

If you want to speak of Business Cycles—I don’t; I consider RBC Theory as its proponents describe it to be the silliness idea this side of phlogiston, but there are those who do, and it’s a convenient fiction for purposes here—then surely you should speak of a full Cycle.

The return to the level of Capacity Utilization at the end of the previous recession comes not as the recession ends, but four quarters later, a year into the “recovery.”***

And that’s just the Capital side of the equation. Labor is rather more complicated.

It is as if the machine is running again, but has not received a proper tune-up, or any other (“structural”) work that needs to return it to peak performance. As John Maudlin noted last May, employment rises with income, and income tax receipts were not rising with the “head-fake” recovery—”grass shoots—of that time.

My Subaru used to get around 17-18 mpg (city). Now it’s closer to 15-16. It would require an investment of capital and labor to get it completely repaired. Being liquidity-constrained, I’m not going to make that investment until a couple of other things are cleared up—including, but not limited to, the possibility of upgrading to a model built in this century.

Similarly, capital recovery is a slow process, and incremental labor tends to follow that in productive industries. The gap in capacity at the beginning of the “recovery” took 12-13 months to be filled. Given that it took 55 months for the Employment/Population Ratio to recover after the 2001 recession (or here), it seems not at all unreasonable to expect the current recovery to take 67 or 68 months.

Which would be around January or February of 2015, just after the midterm elections and therefore nearing the end of the first Palin Administration.

It would be rude of me to note that the first “non-recession” period of the Great Depression lasted only fifty (50) months. Or that there hasn’t been a period of growth so long without tax increases since the Vietnam War.

As with my Subaru, some major investment is needed. Whether there will be the liquidity for that to happen in time is left as an exercise.

*Both, in fairness, have declared the current “recovery” “fragile” (Thoma) or filled with “unforced errors,” but persist in calling it a recovery.

**Let us sidebar that much of that growth is in the FI part of FIRE. If you have assumed that the lion’s share of the profits generated by an economy should go to those who are supposed to intermediate, you have to deal with the structure you’ve got, not one that would produce better, or even optimal, growth.

***The monthly series (MCUMFN; not graphed) reaches and passes the start of the previous recovery in July of 2010. NBER official dates the end of the recession to June of 2009, where Capacity Utilization reached its nadir of 65.2. It is perfectly reasonable to say “a recovery” began then, but a “Business Cycle” that ends with nearly 7% of usable capital (a 9.6% decline in capital terms) sitting vestigial is a poor “Cycle” indeed.

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