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On The Relationship Between Wahhabism And Salafism

On The Relationship Between Wahhabism And Salafism

I apologize if this seems an esoteric topic, but it is one that seems to be a matter of seriously contentious dispute, as well as one that Iis relevant to various controversies and issues in the Middle East now. It is triggered by the biggest argument I have ever had with Juan Cole, whom I usually agree with, and indeed I agree with the vast majority of his recent  post advising Saudi Arabia on how they can make themselves look better to the rest of the world, which includes such obvious items as allowing women to drive (the last of 7).

My disagreement with him was over a line just dropped incidentally that he would later defend ardently, that the official Saudi theology/ideology of “Wahhabism” is “not Sunni.” I challenged this, pointing out that 1) the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) officially uses as its official Shari’a law code the Hanbali code, one of the four Sunni Shari’a codes, and 2) that KSA is currently claiming to lead a global Sunni movement against the global Shia movement, even if this may well boil down simply to a local power struggle between KSA and Iran. I think Juan agrees with those two points, and also that Wahhabism and Salafism are not identical, in contrast to claims by many ignorant commentators.

I now accept that Juan is right about certain matters I differed with him about. The founder of Wahhabism, Muhammed ibn Abdel-Wahhab, who formed an alliance in 1744 with the founder of the Saudi dynasty, Muhammed ibn Sa’ud, did not make as his primal demand that the very strict Hanbali code be adopted by the Saudi family as part of their alliance. He had his own idiosyncratic theology that mostly attacked local practices such as worship of saints and their shrines. And he denounced the existing Sunnis and all other Muslims who did not follow his version of Islam to the point that they could be killed, although it seems that his worst wrath was against Shia and Sufis. But his stance led and justified the view by many that his followers were not proper Sunnis, even though later they would adopt the proper, if extreme, Hanbali Shari’a code, although that would be following ibn Hanbal’s follower, ibn Tamiyyah more specifically when they did so by a century or so ago. It was also the case that from the beginning Abdel-Wahhab’s views were close to those of advocates of the Hanbali code, who included members of his family, including his influential grandfather.

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Douglas F. Dowd Is Dead

Douglas F. Dowd Is Dead

Douglas Fitzgerald Dowd has died at age 97 in Bologna, Italy.  A scholar of Thorstein Veblen and expounder of a radical view of US economic history that strongly influenced Howard Zinn and Daniel Ellsberg, among others, he was also a serious political activist.  After serving as a bomber pilot in the Pacific in World War II, he managed the 1948 presidential campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace from Berkeley, CA, his home town, he later was a major organizer of anti-Vietnam War sitins and campus teach-ins and was vice presidential candidate with Eldridge Cleaver in 1968 on the Peace and Freedom ticket.  His best known book was probably Blues for America (1997).  He taught at Cornell, Berkeley, San Jose State, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Modena in Italy, where he was lecturing until well into his 90s.  His New York Times obituary is here, which has many more details.

I have old and deep personal connections with Doug.  When I was a kid living in Ithaca, NY in the 1950s, his son, Jeff, was my best friend, and I got to know Doug from that perspective.  I came from a conservative family, but Doug spoke directly and openly about his views to me as if I was an adult. Hid kids, Jeff and Jenny, called their parents by theiri first names, Doug and Zirel, the only family where I saw such behavior.  Doug made me aware of many of his views about the nature of the US and its society. I would move away to Madison, Wisconsin in 1963 to enter high school, but I would remain in contact with Doug off and on until quite recently.  I regret that I did not visit him recently when I was in Florence for an extended period, with him living in Bologna, Italy, not far away, where he was living with his third wife, who owned a feminist book store.  He was always honest and direct and forthright in his views and expressions.

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It Is Monday, And WaPo Bashes Social Security Again

It Is Monday, And WaPo Bashes Social Security Again

What a surprise, the Washington Post is at it again, and it is the usual culprit, Robert J. Samuelson. Of course he has his attack buried under a title that appears to point more broadly, “The deficit is everybody’s fault,” although not if “everybody” includes people who die before they become eligible for Social Security and Medicare (and those parts of Medicaid that go to old people).  He even has further cover in that the new numbers come from the “left-leaning” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in a report issued on Sept. 6 written by Paul van der Water, and I grant that the numbers he shows do come from that report, which makes projections out to 2035, the year when the adjustment for baby boomers going onto elderly entitlement programs will have been largely completed.

While in fact the report shows a slightly lower budget deficit as percent of GDP in 2035 than now (3.0% to 3.1%), that does involve a tax increase of 2.7% of GDP, along with cuts in spending on numerous categories of the budget.  These are in place to offset increases on four items: Social Security at the top of the list with an increase of 1.3% of GDP (from 4.9% to 6.2%), followed by Medicare with an increase of 1.2% (from 3.2% to 4.4%), interest on the national debt of 1.1% (from 1.3% to 2.4%), followed by “other health” (mostly Medicaid) of 0.5% (from 2.3% to 2.8%).  With maybe 60% of the latter not being due to more old people, and interest payments also not due to them, that leaves those aging baby boomers responsible for about 2.7%, just equal to the amount of the tax increase assumed to have the budget deficit decline by 0.1% of GDP, and although it is implied otherwise, some of that tax increase presumably would be paid by those elderly.

OK, I agree that old people will increase as a percentage of the population.  The number that appears in the CBPP report shows them rising as a percentage of the population from 15% today to about 20% in 2035, an increase of a third, or 33 and 1/3%.  But the increase in Social Security spending is only a 26% increase, not as much as the increase in the share of old people in the population. The underlying report notes that indeed cuts in Social Security spending already passed will be responsible for this gap, but Samuelson somehow does not note this, and calls for more cuts.  It is the one item he specifically mentions.

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Yet Another Republican President Stabs A South Korean President In The Back

Yet Another Republican President Stabs A South Korean President In The Back

[Able to get on here from my home laptop]

Donald Trump has long had a record of doing things one finds not just unbelievable, but seriously outrageous.  However, we may now have seen him do so in a situation involving a really dangerous foreign policy situation, the threat of a war on the Korean peninsula, a war that could involve nuclear weapons and could involve not just thousands, but possibly millions of people dying. The DMZ that separates North and South Korea is the most heavily armed place on the face of this planet, by a long shot, with most of those armaments piled up on the northern side.  It may be of a lower qualitative technological level than what faces it from the southern side, but it is simply enormous in quantity, and quite capable of inflicting massive damage on metropolitan Seoul, only 30 miles south of the DMZ, whose population in the greater metro area approaches 20 million people, a very large number of sitting ducks.

As it is, the DPRK, or North Korea, has been provocatively testing ever more capable missiles and bombs.  A missile that flew over Japan, more or less freaking them out, supposedly has the ability to hit even the east coast of the US.  Kim Jong-un made noises about firing missiles at Guam and Trump made a lot of loud noises.  That Kim backed down led Trump to brag that he knew how to handle Kim.  Meanwhile, new President Moon Jae-in of the ROK, South Korea, supported engaging in peace negotiations, even though Kim Jong-un has so far made no positive responses to that.  Then over the weekend Kim put the cherry on the top by testing a 100 kiloton device that has been advertised as a fusion H-bomb, a qualitative jump to a much more dangerous type of weapon.  Trump’s response was to tweet that Moon was pursuing “appeasement” in contrast to his tough way of handling things, which he claims works, despite all this glaring evidence to the contrary.  Kim seems not deterred or suppressed in the least.

But the really outrageous move here is on top of this Trump has declared that he is planning to terminate the free trade agreement with South Korea, not even renogiate it, just cancel it.  Really?  The South Koreans do not support this and like the agreement.  Trump claims that the bilateral trade deficit of the US has increased, which was the immediate outcome of the agreement, but over the last year that has turned around with the deficit declining and has now returned to about what it was when the agreement was signed and continues to move in that direction.  But not to put too fine a point on it, Trump is lying about this as well as stabbing Moon in the back just as he denounces Moon for advocating what Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, and pretty much every other leader in the world advocates, and even Trump has said he supports on certain days, ready to talk face to face to Kim under the right conditions. But if Moon says it, well, time to cancel that trade agreement, especially since it was another of those things that Obama did.  So, it must go.  The South Koreans are mystified and simply do not even know how to respond to this outrage.  What can they say?  They need the US alliance, even if the man in the White House is a lunatic, which is what they say he is.

I shall note that this is not the first time a Republican president has stabbed a peace-seeking South Korean president in the back. I have blogged on this previously, but back in March 2001, President Bush killed the peace efforts of then ROK President Kim Dae-Jung.  He came to dinner, thinking that the peace process under way from the previous administration and supported by Secretary of State, Colin Powell, would continue.  He was to have a dinner at the White House. But Cheney and Rumsfeld got to Bush and convinced him that a hard line against the DPRK would bring about regime change, a much better outcome, ha ha!  We can see how that turned out.  Kim Dae-Jung went home humiliated.

Most of the discussion of this now goes on about how the North Koreans cheated on nuclear agreements by enriching uranium.  However, those commentators somehow fail to note that the agreements were only about plutonium, not uranium. But “history” has the North Koreans violating agreements, with everybody forgetting how Bush undercut the agreements (and the US never fulfilled parts of it in terms of supplying DPRK with various items).  Trump’s back stab is worse, but this is not the first time.

Oh, Moon has responded to Trump’s outrageous tweet.  He has pointed out that Korea suffered a “fratricidal war,” which he does not want to see again.  He intends to “pursue denuclearization” on the peninsula “by peaceful means” in agreement “with our allies.”  Sounds reasonable to me, but at the moment reason does not seem to be in charge of what is going on here.  Let us hope for Moon’s view to prevail, somehow or other.

Barkley Rosser

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Why Are We Not Keeping Track Of The Dead From Hurricane Harvey?

Why Are We Not Keeping Track Of The Dead From Hurricane Harvey?

It is not surprising that as Hurricane Harvey has finally moved off the Atlantic coast and is over, and the flood waters recede in the various places that it caused damage, it is unsurprising that reporting has moved onto the inside pages of papers and even seems on the verge of disappearing.  But somehow a piece of information that I would think is important, and that I have seen reported more substantially in past disasters, is the number who died as a result of the hurricane.  If one googles “dead from Hurricane Harvey,” one gets as the top hits reports from many days ago in which one learns that the number who died is in single digits.

As it is, by digging hard I have found that the number is much higher, but seems unclear, but is only barely being mentioned deep in stories on the event.  After digging hard, I found scattered reports within the last 12 hours.  The number dead are reported to be either 38, 40, 43, 45, 46, or 50.  Those searching through badly flooded buildings, now free from the water, are gradually discovering those who could not escape and drowned.  But somehow these numbers seem to be of little interest.  I remember previous disasters where a few died, and that number would be the big headline, and people would keep track.  But somehow, for reasons I do not understand, the number dead from this event somehow seems to be of little interest to the media, and perhaps even the public. Is this really true, and if so, why?

Somehow I doubt that it is because over 1,200 people have died this season in South Asia from floods as that piece of information has received even less media attention.

Barkley Rosser

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Let Trump Continue To Fail To Appoint People

Let Trump Continue To Fail To Appoint People

There has been much moaning and wailing and gnashing of teeth by many commentators and politicians over the failure of President Donald Trump to appoint people to fill numerous now vacant positions within the executive branch of government, with the State Department often being put forward as one of many agencies with many empty chairs in official positions.  However, the other night I heard Lawrence O’Donnell make an interesting point: those empty chairs are being filled in the meantime by long-in-place civil servants who actually know what they are doing and are not Trump-loving hacks and fools.  In departments where he has made appointments, such as the EPA, his appointees have wreaked havoc and done mostly awful things.

So, let us hope that he gets bogged down in tweeting and blocking possible candidates for these positions because they are insufficiently kowtowing to him.  That way we might have at least some parts of some government agencies run by non-crazy knowledgeable individuals. We can only hope.

Barkley Rosser

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Is David Ignatius Falling For Saudi Propaganda?

Is David Ignatius Falling For Saudi Propaganda?

Washington Post columnist and occasional novelist and diplomat, David Ignatius, is one of the best informed and wisest of commentators on Middle East affairs.  Thus it is with concern that in yesterday’s Washington Post in a column titled, “A new chance for Middle East peace?” he seems to have fallen for third rate propaganda largely being pushed by the Saudi government, although also backed by the UAE ambassador (closely allied to Saudi Arabia in their anti-Iran and anti-Qatar escapades), as well as “the White House.”  I can appreciate that in recent years hopes for any kind of Israeli-Palestinian peace deal have simply been absent, so maybe he is indulging in some sort of optimistic thinking with the idea that pushing any sort of plan is better than having none.  But I fear that not only is he being a pollyanna here, but joining a herd of suckers for drivel coming out of the Saudi PR machine, which wishes to puff up new Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammed bin Salman (MBS) as a wonderfully progressive and open-minded reformer.  Yuck.

Indeed, what is probably the most dramatic point here is that indeed MBS has apparently been going around saying that “resolution of the Palestinian problem and peace with Israel are ‘crucial for the future of the Middle East.'”  This is indeed louder than what has been heard from Saudi leaders previously, although the late King Abdullah did put forward a peace plan that involved the Israelis moving back to the 1967 borders, a plan that went nowhere.  So, peace noises out of the Saudis are not exactly completely unprecedented.

The more detailed part of the column where Ignatius shows his usual ability to ferret out information not previously reported by others is that the specific plan being pushed involves using a UAE-based Gazan Palestinian named Mohammed Dahlan to get Hamas to moderate its demands on Israel in response for a bunch of economic aid, including a power plant to be built across the border from Gaza in Egypt.  No evidence that the current Hamas leaders in Gaza will go along with this is provided and, and it is admitted that Dalhan has long been at odds with Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO leader who is in charge of the West Bank.

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Why Is The Fed Raising Interest Rates As Fast As It Is?

Why Is The Fed Raising Interest Rates As Fast As It Is?

I have a theory that at least some people at the Fed are supporting interest rate increases not because they are worried about incipient inflation that must be nipped in the bud in advance under a regime of inflation targeting, but because they are looking over the horizon and worrying about a possible recession in the not-too-distant future, and they want to be able to have interest rates high enough that they can then engage in lowering them as a stimulative policy tool under the circumstances.  If they are too low, then extraordinary measures will need to be used, and some of those measures may not be available in the future.

This theory is based on nothing solid at all, nothing.  I think that those who may be thinking this (and my likely candidate(s) would be people at the very top) are constrained in speaking openly due both to the current institutional arrangement of consensus decisionmaking within an established inflation targeting system with a 2% inflation target, not to mention pressure not to talk about possible future dangers.  The current line is that the economy is doing well, and certainly it is on the standard measures of unemployment and inflation, even if the former could be better and wages could be rising more rapidly.  Indeed, it is this good performance that is supposedly underlying the moves to raise interest rates and possibly “normalize” the balance sheet (which I doubt there will be too much action on).  But my theory is that for some of them it is a matter of trying to “normalize” on interest rates as well while the possibility of normalizing is possible, while the economy is doing fairly well and one can raise them without obviously slowing things down noticeably, so that indeed there will be the ability to lower them again in the future when necessary.

He did not put this theory forward, but it was reading the recent column by Larry Summers that appeared in the Washington Post on Monday was been linked to by Mark Thoma today (unable to make that link, sorry) and also can be gotten to at larrysummers.com/2017/08/14/why-the-federal-reserves-job-will-get-harder.  He is focused on the upcoming ending of the term of his rival as Chair of the Fed, Janet Yellen, and is worried about who Trump will pick and what will happen.  While stating that he would have “preferred a slower pace of interest rate adjustment,” he bottom lines that “Overall it has done well in recent years” (even though he did not get picked to be Chair).

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The Buchanan-MacLean Controversy

The Buchanan-MacLean Controversy

The book, Democracy in Chains (with an even more lurid subtitle) by Nancy MacLean, a respected (until now) historian at Duke University makes a strong argument that the late James M. Buchanan of UVa, VaTech, and George Mason was the crucial link between the ancient states right racism of John C. Calhoun and the current Trump administration. From Calhoun, incredibly inaccurately labeled a “libertarian,” through the Agrarian Populist literary movement that was popular at Vanderbilt where Jim wanted to go but did not (he went to Middle Tennessee State, a poor boy claiming to be a “socialist,”), Buchanan becomes supposedly an effective supporter of racial segregation in Virginia in the 1950s, and then becomes the inspiration for all of later Austrian libertarianism, having attended the opening meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947 (where they chose to be called “neoliberals”), and then after founding the Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy at the University of Virginia, and then running to  VA Tech in the early 70s, and then to George Mason in the early 80s, well, then he had a connection with the Koch Brothers, although this fell apart in the late  90s, but nevertheless he is the main link proving that Trump is a racist enemy of democracy.

This account has brought forth a massive counterattack from many current libertarians, much of it looking to me to be justified, involving many  serious factual errors.  I am not going to list them but note these sources for discussions of such matters: Munger, Horwitz, which includes other sources.  I shall try to deal with matters not covered by them, noting that I largely agree with their critiques.  The hard bottom line is that this may be a left version of  rightist climate change denial: those reading this book need to be aware of how deeply flawed and erroneous it is, although it makes some valid points.

So what is valid?  There is a very hard point that was not a main point in the book and has largely not been discussed, with most of the attention being on the deeply flawed account of Buchanan and G. Warren Nutter’s role in the matter of 1950s Virginia school desegregation (more on that  later). The hard point is Buchanan’s role in Chile.  MacLean is right that while there has been much been more publicity about the roles of Hayek and Friedman in Pinochet’s regime in Chile, Buchanan’s role there, nailed in by a crucial visit in 1980, may have been far more influential in forming the eventual  constitution, although this happened well after the original coup by Pinochet in 1973.  He played a key role in developing their constitution, which MacLean claims has anti-democratic elements that have in place defenses for the rights of capitalists that can only be overcome by two rounds of legislative votes. Yes, does put  a pro-capitalist tilt in there, but two  rounds of the legislature to overturn it?  In fact it was accepted by a referendum and has been amended numerous times since and reestablished a parliamentary democracy. Does not exactly look like Stalin or Hitler or Mao or  Kim Il Sung or something deserving the label “democracy in chains.”.  But it is not  pretty, given all the blood Pinochet spilled, and just like Hayek and Friedman, Buchanan has this  matter on his late conscience, and it is notable that he never published anything on this, and aside from a meeting in Palo Alto right after he did it, he never publicly bragged about it or acknowledged it, although apparently he did so at that  meeting.  But maybe he realized that it was the stain on his career that it is, and he was  in the end embarrassed about it and wished to cover it up.

The second matter is the most controversial, and indeed is the centerpiece of MacLean’s book.  This is the matter of his role with Nutter in 1959 in the school desegregation issue in Virginia, the one point regarding which an actual professional economist has come out for MacLean, namely Brad DeLong.  This is a much murkier matter, and after looking at it I see it as unclear with MacLean leaving out crucial  details, quite aside from ignoring crucial exculpatory evidence, even as she has some case.  This has to do with a report Buchanan and Nutter wrote to a specially appointed commission to deal with the school desegregation issue in 1959, in the context of Prince Edward County going for massive resistance against the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education SCOTUS ruling that led to the racial integration of public schools.  I think Buchanan should have signed the petition of VA academics supporting that ruling, but he did  not.  His proposal with Nutter suggested allowing vouchers for private schools along with  public schools, and MacLean and DeLong claim that this supported the effort to close down public schools in Prince  Edward County.  MacLean is right that at the time this did  effectively support that movement, although the Buchanan-Nutter proposal did not call for ending public education, and Buchanan has been in many places on record supporting the existence of public education, if with private school competition in the form of vouchers.

This  is  the central part of the book’s argument, and it is the most heatedly debated, and I do not  have the bottom line on it, although it looks to me that MacLean has overstated her argument. A crucial issue has to do with race, obviously.  MacLean herself accepts that there is zero  evidence that Buchanan was himself a racist and that all of  this was just part  of his  supposedly libertarian/Koch/Trump view of the world. As it is, I think that whatever was really going on in 1959, the bottom line on Buchanan’s views is given on p. 56 of her book where she grants that he supported “voluntary” and “local” desegregation based on local conditions, which she then effectively dismisses with a remark that he did not know what was going on in Arkansas and elsewhere, a comment that looks to me to be seriously stupid, to be very blunt.  Bottom line here is that Buchanan and Nutter may have effectively played a role in supporting the pro-segregationists in Virginia in 1959, but that was not their  position.

What about major problems with MacLean’s arguments?  I shall note three, starting with one noted by others and effectively granted by MacLean herself.  This is the claim she makes in the final chapter that Tyler Cowen supports suppressing democracy.  This is based on a quote she supplies that was definitely taken out of context, a context where it was clear that the content of the isolated quote was contradicted by what immediately followed it.  Even those who have supported MacLean’s book on Facebook such as Gary Mongiovi have agreed that MacLean was simply out to lunch on this matter, although while she has recognized that the quote is problematic, she has not fully retracted her argument related to it.  This is almost certainly tied to Cowen being director of the largely Koch-funded Mercatus Center at George Mason, with this being sort of the final piece de resistance of her book and argument, supposedly from racist anti-democratic John C. Calhoun to supposedly anti-democratic and implicitly racist Koch-funded libertarians at George Mason and Donald Trump.

A second problem reflects that MacLean is not an economist and seems to seriously misunderstand public choice theory, with her views on rent seeking being a strong example.  In discussing rent seeking, a concept originated by Buchanan’s important coauthor, the  late Gordon Tullock, and labeled by the centrist liberal development economist, Anne Krueger, she consistently identifies the supposed rent seekers as politicians seeking voting support from activist liberal groups such a unions and civil rights groups, especially the latter, whom the the supposedly anti-democratic tendencies of Buchanan are directed against.   But in fact in public choice theory the rent seekers are priviate interest groups that use government to create artificial monopolies, which generate the rents these groups are seeking.  It is really a quasi-Marxist view that sees capitalists using the government to enhance their  corrupt  profits.  It is ironic that I have seen public choice economists show up at URPE social gatherings at meetings to discuss how they have this in common with the radical left URPE folks, opposition to corrupt use of the government by rent seeking private interests.  I am not sure the URPE  people were all that open when I saw this, but there is no doubt that MacLean simply is completely wrong here and totally misrepresents public choice theory on this point, although the strongly pro-free market stance of both Buchanan and Tullock can easily mislead people on this.

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The Financial Crisis Tenth Anniversary

(Dan here…posted a day later)
The Financial Crisis Tenth Anniversary

Yesterday, August 9, is being widely proclaimed as the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the financial crisis that fully crashed in September, 2008, with the recession that began at the end of 2007 plunging more profoundly and widely after that.  The specific event on August 9, 2007 was the limiting of withdrawals from US mortgage backed hedge funds by the BNP Paribas bank in Paris.  In a post yesterday, one of the leading analysts and prophets of the crisis, Dean Baker, noted that BBC erroneously claimed that housing prices in the US began falling after that date, when in deed Dean accurately notes that it was the decline in housing prices starting somewhat earlier that led to this action by BNP Paribas ten years ago.

As one of those who analyzed what was going on better than most and with better timing, I link to my post of July 11, 2008, which analyzed what had been happening and forecast a full-out  crash coming soon, which indeed occurred a bit over two months later.  The title of that post is “Falling from the Period of Financial Distress into the Panic and Crash.”  I note that the unpublished paper I cited in that post by me with Mauro Gallegati and Antonio Palestrini, “The Period of Financial Distress in Speculative Markets: Interacting Heterogeneous Agents and Financial Constraints,” was finally published in Macroeconomic Dynamics in Feb. 2011, vol. 15, pp. 60-79.  A few comments now.

1)  Regarding the matter of the housing market bubble, everybody, including Dean Baker, always cites the numbers provided by the Case-Shiller index of housing prices in the 10 and 20 largest municipalities.  This is indeed an excellent source, but it is not the only one, and it is arguably biased because of its focus on large metropolitan areas.  A much broader index is that estimated by the Federal Housing Finance Agency.  Whereas the Case-Shiller index peaked around June, 2006, the FHA one peaked in January, 2007, over a half year later.  The FHA index is arguably more representative of the broader market, although it is probably true that the worst of the speculative markets and crashes were in larger metro areas, with declines in some of those already at down 10 to 12 percent by August, 2007, as Dean accurately notes in his post.  But even now I rarely see anybody citing the FHA index, with the occasional exception of Calculated Risk.

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