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Whatever Happened To Iran?

Whatever Happened To Iran?

Who? What? Where?

Long a headliner in the news, Iran has disappeared from the headlines, and even the inside pages. It has largely disappeared from the news, after being the big headline for a long time. This is probably good for Iran, despite its many problems.

I have made a big effort to find out its current economic status. The little data out there seems to suggest that not much is happening. GDP had been falling in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement, which Iran had and continues to adhere to, with the official support of the official signatories, even as private companies in many of them against their governments, have pulled back from dealing with Iran under US pressure. But that is old news.

The US withdrawal from the JCPOA was provocative, and pushed many companies such as France’s Total to withdraw from dealing with Iran, along with many others. This satisfied a campaign promise of Trump’s, even as he has been lying on a 15 per day rate recently according to recent reports.

About the time of the US’s withdrawal over a half year ago, there were many reports of having a collapsing economy. There were many reports of demonstrations against the government in hardline Islamist regions over the troubled economy. Somehow these reports seem to have stopped, although I would not rule out that some may still be happening. But the world is not hearing of them, and I do not think this is due to some increased level of Iranian suppression.

No, I think Iran has halted its economic decline, not that things are great. This post is partly triggered by talking to a good friend recently returned from Iran who reports that while things are expensive, most goods are available and the economy seems to be more or less stable.

Despite this supposed intense push by the US to harm the Iranian economy, parts of that certainly in place, without publicity US policy has recently gone the other way, not so vigorously harming the Iranian economy. For starters we have that the US gave “temporary” exemptions from the renewed US sanctions against nations importing Iranian oil for 8 major such importers. The upshot is not all that much of a reduction of such exports from Iran, an obviously crucial factor.

Then we have more recent subtle pro-Iranian decisions, most importantly Trump’s announcement of US removing troops from Syria. This helps Iran, even if the removal is slowed down as seems likely. We also have SecState Pompeo pressuring the Saudis to end their boycott against Qatar, which has retained both political and economic relations with Iran, not to mention having just whupped Saudi Arabia in soccer 2-0.

So, we, or at least I, do not know what precisely is going on inside Iran, long a highly repressive regime, despite its facade ofs pseudo-democracy. They have been continuing to adhere to the JCPOA nuclear deal, even as recent reports have them possibly setting up increased uranium enrichment facilities and activities. While there have been many demos against the government over the troubled economy, it seems that these have slowed down, or at least reporting of them has.

The US does not determine all that happens in Iran, but it seems that currently the US has an inconsistent verging on incoherent policy regarding Iran. But for Iran, this turn from full hostility, combined with a possible upturn in world oil prices, may explain an unreported stabilization in Iran.

Barkley Rosser

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Getting Ever More Surreal

Getting Ever More Surreal

I am referring to a comment Sean Hannity made on his show earlier this evening in his monologue. The reports tht  President Trump was under  investigation by FBI Counterintelligence as being a possible “Russian asset” supposedly taking orders from Vladimir Putin has pushed uber Trump defender Hannity to ever more surreal forms of defense, in this case one especially bizarre given the cloase association in Trump’s early career between him and Roy Cohn, the lead attorney for the late anti-communist scourging Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

This new more surreal position has Hannity after declaring that “the walls are closing in” on former FBI Director James Comey over his supposed role in this investigation, although apparently it was the circumstances around Trump’s firing of Comey that initially triggered this reported conterintelligence investigation, Hannity then compared Comey to the late anti-communist scourge, J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director for 48 years.  In particular he pinpointed Hoover’s investigation of the late Henry Wallace in 1948 for his reputed ties to the Soviet Union, highlighting that Wallace had served as vice  president during FDR’s third term (and was pushed out of that position to be be replace by Harry Truman in FDR’s fourth term by conservative Democrats worried about his perceived to be friendly attitude to the Soviet Union).  In 1948, when Hoover was making his investigation and allegations, the Cold War was starting, and Wallace was the candidate for president of the Progressive Party, running heavily on a platform of opposing the Cold War (and certainly the anti-communist positions of McCarthy).  The sight of Hannity of all people praising and defending Wallace against the supposedly evil Hoover was quite a spectacle.

As it  is, I am sympathetic to the view that Wallace was unfairly treated and smeared.  Also, the Progressive Party and Wallace supported many, well, progressive policies that were and remain reasonable, such as national health insurance.  All of that adds to the irony of Hannity now defending him as he has no use for such policies.  The exact nature of Wallace’s relations with Soviet leaders and of the connection between the Progressive Party and CPUSA remain controversial to this day, but but ceetainly Wallace opposed the incipient Cold War and publicly supported Soviet positions in 1948.  I do not know if it was possible to avoid the Cold War or not, and it is impossible to know what would have happened if Wallace had won, especially given that he came nowhere near dong so.  As it was, Hoover was correct that Wallace was very friendly with various Soviet leaders and agreed with their views, for better or worse.

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Slavery in the US

Slavery in the US

An issue so far not openly addressed in this “Partial Shutdown” situation is that those who have been deemed to be “essential,” are now working without pay, even though we all believe that they will eventually receive their overdue backpay. I really do not know the law that says that these people must work without being paid within a reasonable time period of their work, but my basic view of this is that people being forced to work without being paid in a clearly established time period are slaves. And this is the status of those US federal workers now being forced to work without pay. They are slaves.

A ludicrous effort by Trump to minimize the damage of his idiotic partial shutdown has been his sporadic efforts to deal with consequences of his worthless shutdown. So, we have rich cronies of his who have found themselves inconvenienced for hunting in US natural preserves. Trump has ordered that the federal employees who oversee this particular matter must show up for work to make sure that this handful of wealthy Trump cronies can hunt in US natural preserves, without pay. These federal employees must be slaves to these spoiled brat pals of Trump.

We must recognize what is going on here, although nobody prior to me now has called it for what it is, this is slavery. Trump has been ordering all sorts of fed employees to show up and perform their duties without pay as an accumulating pile of interests get to him complaining about not getting their government services.

Of course, slavery leads to shirking, unless Massa wields a whip, which I think is not seriously there, so we have already seen lines at LaGuardia airport as TSA employees call in “sick.” Everyday this condition of slavery persists, the calling in sick of the slaves will increase.

We adopted an amendment 154 years ago that abolished slavery in the United States of America. It is about time this amendment was enforced.

Barkley Rosser

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How Shocking Was Shock Therapy?

How Shocking Was Shock Therapy?

In 2007 Naomi Klein got quite a bit of attention and mostly favorable comment for her book, Shock Doctrine. It promulgated that global elites used periods of crisis around the world to force damaging neoliberal policies derived from the Chicago School and Washington Consensus upon unhappy populations that suffered greatly as a result. This was “shock therapy” that was more like destructive electroshock than any sort of therapy. There is a lot of truth to this argument, and it highlighted underlying ideological arguments and outcomes.

The argument largely seems to hold for the original poster boy example in Chile with the Pinochet coup against the socialist Allende regime. A military coup replaced a democratically government. While Chile was experiencing a serious inflation, it was not in a full-blown economic collapse. The coup was supported by US leaders Nixon and Kissinger, who saw themselves preventing the emergence of pro-Soviet regime resembling Castro’s Cuba. Thousands were killed, and a sweeping set of laissez-faire policies were imposed with the active participation of “Chicago Boys” associated with Milton Friedman. In fact, aside from bringing down inflation these reforms did not initially improve economic performance, even as foreign capital flowed in, especially into the copper industry, although the core of that industry remained nationalized. After several years the Chicago Boys were sent away and more moderate policies, including a reimposition of controls on foreign capital flows, the economy did grow quite rapidly. But this left a deeply unequal income distribution in place, which would largely remain the case even after Pinochet was removed from power and parliamentary democracy returned.

This scenario was argued to happen in many other nations, especially those in the former Soviet bloc as the Soviet Union disintegrated and its successor states and the former members of the Soviet bloc in the CMEA and Warsaw Pact also moved to some sort of market capitalism imposed from outside with policies funded by the IMF and following the Washington Consensus. Although he has since expressed regret for this role in this, a key player linking what was done in several Latin American nations and what went down after 1989 in Eastern and Central Europe was Jeffrey Sachs. Klein’s discussion especially of what went down in Russia also looks pretty sound by and large, without dragging through the details, although in these cases the political shift was from dictatorships run by Communist parties dominated out of Moscow to at least somewhat more democratic governments, although not in all of the former Soviet republics such as in Central Asia and with many of these later backsliding towards more authoritarian governments later. In Russia and in many others large numbers of people were thrown into poverty from which they have not recovered. Klein has also extended this argument to other nations, including South Africa after the end of apartheid.

Having said all that it must also be recognized that in some parts of the book Klein overstated her argument even to the point of including outright false information:

The case that really sticks out in this regard is Poland, arguably especially important as it was the place where the term “shock therapy” was first used. As it turns out, many observers have an inaccurate perception of what happened there, with Klein’s account not helping. It is understandable that many might be misled given that it was the Polish finance minister during the worst of the crisis and shock in 1990-91 when economic output fell sharply and unemployment rose, Leszek Balcerowicz, who coined the term and said that it was being applied in Poland. But this turns out to be an exaggeration, with much of what he wanted with the support of Jeffrey Sachs and the IMF at the time not happening due to an election in 1993 that threw out the shockers and mitigated the policies substantially. The upshot ultimately was that Poland ended up performing better than any other of the former socialist transition economies of the former Soviet bloc, becoming in fact one of the best economic performers in the entire continent of Europe, the only nation there not to go into recession in 2009 and now further ahead than any of the others economically. While inequality and unemployment are somewhat higher than in 1989, they are not dramatically so while many other economic variables are strongly better. The unemployment rate in August 2018 was 3.4%, higher than the less than 1% of 1989 but lower than in the US or most other European nations. The Gini coefficient is now somewhere in the .32 to .34 range, higher than ..25-.28 of 1989, higher than in Sweden or the Czech Republic but about the same as in Germany and much lower than in Russia, the US, or China.

The vast majority of the population is unequivocally better off economically now than in 1989. Comparing 2013 to 1989 as a ratio, real per capita GDP in Poland was 2.98, higher than any Soviet bloc transition economy aside from Turkmenistan (whose data is unreliable), with Russia at 1.44, the Czech Republic at 1.68, Hungary at 2.17, and Moldova at 0.82, now Europe’s poorest economy falling below Albania at 2.55. Poland suffered an inflation rate of 6905 in 1989 but this is was brought down fairly rapidly and is now barely above zero. It had the least level of graft of any of these economies as of 2013, There has been major environmental cleanup, especially in its southwestern corner, formerly part of the “dirty triangle,” one of the most polluted locations ever on this planet. The ratio of measured happiness between 2013 and 1989 is 1.44, higher than in any of the other transition nations.

A particularly controversial issue is that of the poverty rate in Poland, for which there are competing measures. Depending on the measure, the poverty rate in the 1980s was probably in the 5-10% range. In 2012, 6.7% of the population was below a living wage level, while alternative measures had it at around 11% or even as high as 16%. The poverty rate certainly rose sharply as did income inequality in the crisis years of 1990-91, but then fell and rose again before falling afterwards. A low point after the transition was 2003, the year before Poland entered the EU and began receiving substantial agricultural subsidies that helped the poor largely rural southeastern region long marked by small unproductive farms (Poland had mostly private farm ownership throughout the communist period), with by one measure the poverty rate possibly getting as high as 24%.. This is a point where Naomi Klein’s analysis basically went completely off the rails. Her story on Poland basically stops with 2003, which can be understood given her book came out in 2007. But she claims a poverty rate in 2003 of 59% (pp. 241-242), and declares strongly that the economic quality of life in Poland had completely collapsed. This is simply false, a wild exaggeration,

So, how did Poland end up doing so well, actually one of the best performing economies in Europe over the last quarter century? Crucial is that in fact it did not follow through on important parts of its supposed shock therapy, although most people (including Naomi Klein) do not seem to know this. Very important was that it did not undo its generous social safety net, especially its generous pension system. This was a central issue in the 1993 election, with both Blacerowicz and Sachs unhappy about this outcome. I remember well the 1994 ASSA convention at which Sachs gave a major speech in which he basically whined about this election outcome and essentially accused the Polish people of being a bunch of spoiled brats for wanting to hang onto their supposedly overly generous pension system. I note that he has since changed his tune and now recognizes the stabilizing and human nature of maintaining a decent social safety net in these economies.

The other area where Poland did not follow through on its shock policies involved privatization, which was supposed to be rapid and complete. It was not and has never been completed. Indeed, today Poland has the highest rate of state-owned production in its economy at around 30% of GDP of any OECD economy, another little-known fact. Privatization was resisted, especially because of fear of German companies taking over Polish firms, and what privatization that happened tended to be gradual, with a large part of the private sector consisting of brand-new firms owned by Poles, arguably the most dynamic part of the economy. In this areas, Poland actually resembles China substantially, a comparison made by a number of careful observers. The current populist government of the Law and Justice Party has if anything tightened restrictions on foreign ownership of banks and land, if not having engaged in any outright renationalization as we have seen in Russia and Hungary.

Given that much of the shock therapy program did not happen or did not do so shockingly, where was there shock therapy. This did indeed happen with respect to macro policy, driven by the problem of getting the incipient hyperinflation that had developed by 1989 in largely market socialist Poland under control. This did involve sharp pain with falling output and rising unemployment and poverty in 1990-91, but Poland was the first of the Soviet bloc transition economies to turn around, with most still having declining output in 1994 and quite a few until well after that. The pain in Poland was sharp, but it was short, and the longer run state has outperformed the others and put Poland far above where it was in 1989.

The politics of all this has been quite complicated and involved some important and curious twists and turns. From 1989 on there has been a broad “left-right” split with probably the most important constant in this being attitudes towards the Roman Catholic Church in famously devout Poland, with being pro-Church being on the right, with people coming out of the old Communist Party veing on the left. But the positions on economic policy regarding these groups have changed over time. in the 1989-93 period, the supporters of the shock therapy were on the right, although including the workers of the Solidarity movement. However, by now the rightist Law and Justice Party that is in power and attacks its rivals for being leftover communists and also strongly opposed Russia (in contrast to the populist rightist regime of Orban in Hungary who is friends with Putin), has in it populism become more the defender of both the social safety net and supporting the state-owned enterprises compared to the supposedly crypto-communist left, now out of power.

Needless to say, there is much discussion about how it is that Poland has been by so many measures so economically successful, yet since 2015 has come to be ruled by a reactionary populist party that has been restricting media and judicial independence, although it may be that it is going to hold back on some of this compared to Russia, Hungary, and Turkey. I think two things are important. One is that although Poland avoided going into recession in 2009 (largely due to staying out of the euro and also being strongly linked into the supply chains of neighboring Germany), its growth rate has slowed in more recent years while remaining positive, something happening throughout all of Eastern Europe, which has stopped catching up to Western Europe. And the second is that the frame of reference has changed. Whereas Poland has done well compared to its formerly socialist neighbors, the population now compares themselves to those in Western Europe, especially neighboring Germany, whom they are clearly well behind. Many young Poles have left for the West, with a cliché in the Brexit debates in UK being about the supposed problem of “the Polish plumber” coming in to take away British jobs. The Poles may be much happier than they were 30 years ago, but the bloom is off the rose as the transition has been long over. Where they will end up is unclear.

A final irony is that for all his advocacy in 1989-93 (and later as Director of the Polish central bank) for the hardline version of shock therapy many think happened in Poland, Balcerowicz himself at one point advocated something pretty much like what came to pass, a gradual privatization and maintaining most of the social safety net while advocating shock monetary policies to bring inflation under control. This was before the transition started and the Communist Party was still in control. Indeed, I met him in this period and heard him advocate pretty much this approach, which he also advocated in print. It was 1988 and I was teaching summer school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when he showed up in town as part of a general wandering around the US talking to people and giving talks. We had some beers on the famous Union Terrace there by beautiful Lake Mendota. I confess thinking him a naive dreamer with all his plans for Poland that at the time seemed so unlikely and utopian. But that was one of those lessons for me: one should never discount a wandering prophet without position. He can end up running the show and making at least some of his dreams become reality.

Barkley Rosser

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Can We Minimize Econogenic Outcomes?

Can We Minimize Econogenic Outcomes?

I am back from the annual ASSA/AEA meetings in Atlanta.  I learned a new term that on checking I find has been around for about five years. It is “econogenic,” coined by George DeMartino, who spoke on this in a session on “Ethics and Economics” held by the Association for Social Economics. It means “harm done by economists,” and it is inspired by “iatrogenic,” referring to harm done by physicians.  His talk focused on this and claims that the medical profession  is 50 years ahead of the economics profession on dealing with harm they do.  For physicians he praised the patients’ rights movement that took off in the 1960s and has gained substantial legal support, with patients now having say on how they are treated by physicians rather than living in a world where the physician was always right.

DeMartino noted policies supported by many economists that can be defended on the grounds that they supposedly lead to gains that outweigh losses with Hicks compensation potentially able to make things right and pay off those who might be hurt.  Lots of economists have supported such policy changes when convinced that such calculations are correct.  The problem is that most of the time, indeed, the vast majority of the time, those compensating payments are not made.  And to make things worse, while those gains may exceed those losses, they often are widely spread across many people, while the costs are intensely concentrated very painfully on a smaller group of people.

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On Some Predictions

On Some Predictions

I am not somebody who makes endo/beginning of year predictions, and I am not about to stsrt now.  But I have just read a guest post by Jeffrey Frankel on Econbrowser where he brags about making six accurate predictions for 2018 while not reporting on some others he made that did not work out so well.  I happened to largely agree with them when I saw him making them, with some questions on two, while myself quitely making some that failed to come true.  I shall comment.

Frankel’s six predictions were: 1) market volatility would increase (presumably across many markets), one I expected and that clearly has come true; 2) the stock market would fall, which I had mixed feelings on, thinking that indeed the bull market of 2017 was over but given my expectation of high volartilty unsure how it would end and indeed the markets did hit new all time highs a few months ago, only to plunge more recently to end the year lower. 3) that Trump would switch from criticizing the Fed for not raising interest rates fast enough to for it raising them too fast, with my only caveat there being that I think he was already in 2017 makking noises about wanting the Fed not to raise interest rates too fast; 4) that minerals prices would fall, with my view on this being basically the same as my view on the stock markets, expecting greater volatility without being sure of where they would be at this point and with them indeed not too long ago being well above starting year levels if now lower; 5) tax cuts wouls raise deficits, for sure, and 6) those deficits would raise both the dollar and the current account deficit, darned tooting.

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Goodbye To Goodlatte And The GOP Going From Lincoln To Trump

(Dan here…Paul Ryan’s farewell speech, Jeff Session’s targeting ‘consent decrees’, and what else?)

Goodbye To Goodlatte And The GOP Going From Lincoln To Trump

Outgoing Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte is my Congressman.  I even know him, having had civil almost friendly relations.  He has been in office for 26 years.  But his career exemplifies the degeneration of the Republican Party from a Lincoln-derived progressive force in US politics to the racist and reactionary disaster that it has become with Donald Trump as president. The quick story on this is that he was once an aide to a predecessor, M. Caldwell Butler, a “Mountain Valley Republican” who voted to impeach Richard Nixon as a member of the House Judiciary Committee back in 1974, the committee that Goodlatte has come to chair.  In contrast to his former boss, Goodlatte, who entered office as a supposed “moderate,” if not a full-blown Lincoln-derived Mountain Valley Republican, he has suppressed investigations of Trump and done much worse.

While he has supported a long list of corporate special interests, probably the ultimate sign of how low he and his party have fallen is his final act as Judiciary Committee Chair, reported in today’s Washington Post.  He single handedly blocked a bill that was unanimously passed by the Senate to protect Native American women from violent attacks.  His reason for this was totally obscure and ridiculous, a trivial concern that the bill favored certain agencies over others in making complaints about such violence.  The bill was originated by outgoing Dem Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of ND, but apparently it will be reintroduced by Lisa Murkowski of AK next year, and hopefully it will pass.   Indeed, I really do not know why Goodlatte is going out on this.  What makes this all the more appalling is that our Congressional district contains the largest Native Indian tribe in Virginia, the Monocans, who have had a long history of being ignored and discriminated against.

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The Last Adult In The Room Walks Out Over ISIS

The Last Adult In The Room Walks Out Over ISIS

Yesterday President Trump announced that he was removing all US troops from Syria over the next 30 days.  Today, “Mad Dog” Jim Mattis, the US Secretary of Defense and widely viewed as “the last adult in the room” among the Trump national security team, announced his resignation effective at the end of February.  This is not a coincidence, although his letter makes it clear that he had been thinking about this serously for some time.

In his letter the most fundamental issue seems to be his concern for proper relations with US allies, with Trump obviously treating nearly all of them badly.  So a  crucial sentence is the following.

“While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”

Later after noting that 29 democracies supported the US after the 9-11 attack as showing the importance of allies he writes:

“The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof.”

Now I have mixed feelings about various pieces of this.  Many of those upset by this sudden and unexpected decision by Trump are focused on Iran and Russia and Assad in Syria: that Assad will remain in power with both Russia and Iran influential there.  I agree Assad is a murderous dictatorial creep, but Russia (and before it the USSR) has had a naval base there in Tartus since 1971 that they are not remotely going to give up.  The Iranians are less important,so the worry about them is mostly silly huysteria.  And on Assad, those most likely to replace him were radical Sunnis allied with al-Qaeda, the group that attacked the US on 9-11.

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100 Percent Of US Senate Against MBS

100 Percent Of US Senate Against MBS

Wow. Sometime ago here, I called for Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Sa’ud, (MbS) to be rmoved from his position. How he is punished beyond that for his crimes, I do not care, especially as I think being prevented from becoming the King of Saudi Arabia will be for him the worst punishment.

So for once the US Senate agrrees with me, 100%, really. Hey, I have to cheer such an event that has never happened brfore and probably will not again. Yay! The US Senate has voted 100% to declare that MbS is guilty for ordering the murder of Kamal Khashoggi. They are right. He is guilty guilty guilty.

He needs to be removed, and the sooner the broader Saudi royal family figures this out and moves to replace him, the better, really, for the world as a whole, given the ongoing important role that nation plays in the world economy worldwide. It is clear thart he came to power thanks to Jared Kushner and the Trump admin, who supported his coup removal of his predecessor, Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al Sa’ud, who was deeply respected by US mil-intel apparati. MbS had become Defense Sec and was able to send his guys to MbN’s palace and imprison him until he gave up and let MbS replace him as Crown Prince. None of this would have happened without Trump and Jared Kushner approving of it, which they did.

 

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Shiller Hystericizes The US Housing Market

Shiller Hystericizes The US Housing Market

I have the deepest respect for Robert Shiller, who has been one of the most serious students of the dynamics of speculative bubbles there is, winning a well-deserved Nobel Prize for his work on this important topic.  One of the more significant parts of his work has been on housing bubbles in particular, with his Case-Shiller indices being the most widely watched housing price measures in the US. Furthermore, in the second edition of his excellent Irrational Exuberance he laid out the case that housing prices from 19997-98 onwards into the early 2000s were almost certainly a massive bubble that would crash hard with dire consequences.  He was right.

So it is with some trepidation that I question his arguments in a recent New York Times column and in other outlets to the effect that we are again experiencing a speculative bubble in US housing markets (and it should be kept in mind that these are local so varied and not all behaving similarly).  The centerpiece of his argument is that the average nominal house price in the US has now reaxhed and seems to be surpassing the peak level in 2006 before the crash that brought on the Great Recession.  Needless to say, this is serious stuff that desrves a close look.

Unfortunately these recent public statements by Shiller lack a crucial item that was crucial to the case he made in the second edition of his Irrational Exuberance that there was the biggest housing bubble in U/S history.  That would be take account of the best measure of the fundamental, housing rents, or to translate that, to consider the path of the price/rent ratio.  That he convinceed many people, including me, that housing prices in the early 2000s were a major bubble was that he showed that the average price/rent ratio had been rising in an unprecedented way, with it having been relatively stable theough most of the 20th century, including during the 1940s period that saw a major increase in housing prices.  But that increase paralleled a rent increase thar indicated that indeed there was a major shortage of housing.  The fundamental rent indicator triggered after a few years a supply repsonse that stabilized both rents and housing prices.

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