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

The Usual Deficit Blather from the New York Times

The Usual Deficit Blather from the New York Times

The Times today ran a truly execrable article warning us that, once the virus has passed, we will suffer dire consequences from the runup of government debt.  As most readers know, this argument is theoretically illiterate, derived from the false comparison between household and government debt.  We’ve been through this many times before, and I have nothing to add.

I do want to focus on one sentence, however, to illustrate how intellectual blinders can lead to absurd conclusions.

To quote the author, Carl Hulse, “In other words, the bill will come due, as it always does.”

Does it?  Check out total Federal debt measured as a percent of GDP:

As you can see, it skyrocketed during the 1940s, when the US went to war against Germany, Italy and Japan.  By the time the war was over it was at an all-time high.  Yes, we had to borrow to produce all the war materiel and send millions of troops around the world; no one doubts that.  But after V-E and V-J, how were public finances affected?

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World Chess Championship Ends

World Chess Championship Ends

The two best chess players in the world faced off this month, undeterred by lockdowns, travel bans or any other restrictions.  They never had to see each other either.

It helped that they were both computer programs.  The former champ, Stockfish, is the strongest of the traditional type of program, designed by humans and invested with all the fine points of judgment the best human players can translate into code.  Because of its tremendous calculating abilities, it is rated far higher than the top flesh and blood competitors: 3600 to 2800+ for Magnus Carlsen and his closest challengers.  (The numbers are measured on the Elo scale, named for physicist and chess enthusiast Arpad Elo, who developed it over 50 years ago.  Players’ scores rise and fall based on how they do against other rated players.  I had the pleasure, long ago, of sipping homemade cordial at Arpad’s modest home in Milwaukee.)

But the new top performer is lc0, Leela Chess Zero, a pure implementation of machine learning.  No one told it how to calculate or evaluate; it played millions of games with itself and learned through experience how to make the best moves.  As a result, it has odd blindspots (poor appreciation for fortresses, for instance) but also finds strategies no human would ever consider.  It has a rating a little higher than Stockfish’s, and the gap will be wider still after the latest match.

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CNN’s Slavish Service to Trump

CNN’s Slavish Service to Trump

I had to do a double-take when I saw this news item.  First came the headline, “Pence won’t let public health officials appear on CNN unless Trump’s disinfo briefings run in full”.  I thought, this is horrible: the administration is holding Fauci and Birx hostage to force CNN to cover not only them but also Trump in his daily blatherings.  But no, it was exactly the other way around.  Pence was keeping them from being interviewed on CNN unless the network also covered their regular briefings.  What CNN has been doing instead is broadcasting the Trump portion and then cutting away when people who actually have something to say step forward.

Bad enough that Trump has a high profile daily outlet for his ravings; it’s incredible the media would treat this as news and CDC updates as disposable filler.  I guess they think they are doing the guy a favor by giving him free media so he doesn’t have to buy as much.

This has been a peeve of mine for some time; see here and here.  We expect Fox to offer itself as a mouthpiece for Trump, but why should the self-designated “enlightened” wing of journalism be just as craven?  Yes, the owners care more about ratings than the political consequences of their coverage, but why do working journalists go along without a peep?  What would it take to get through to them?

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Lessons from the Pandemic

Lessons from the Pandemic

First, all who produce things we need or want are “essential workers”.  Health care practitioners are essential, but so are the people who stock pharmacies and grocery and hardware stores or staff customer service phone lines.  Truck drivers are essential.  Farmworkers who pick the crops we plan on eating are too.  Nothing demonstrates whose work matters in this world better than a pandemic that threatens to pull them off the job.

Second, because they are essential, whatever these workers need is what we all need.  If they need a bus to get to work, we all need that bus.  If they need childcare, we all need it.  Obviously, if they need healthcare or time to stay home and get over an illness or tend to their kids, that’s our need too.  And if they need a paycheck that provides secure housing, covers their expenses and gives them a chance to recharge their batteries periodically, we all need them to have it.

A virus does not respect the boundary of skin, the line we draw between ourselves and others.  It tells us that “we” is not just an idea or an attitude, but real economic and physical interconnection.  It’s true that we are not all in the same boat, that the burden of this pandemic falls unequally according to how much money we have, what neighborhood we live in and how much respect we get from those with power over us.  But those inequalities were always in front of us if we were willing to look.  It’s the interconnectedness that is suddenly starkly visible.

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The Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal

The Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal

The Covid-19 pandemic won’t last forever, and at some point we will have to return to figuring out how to respond to the climate crisis.  (What a depressing opening line.  No, I have no desire to live in a world of permanent crisis.)  Is the answer a Green New Deal?  Challenge has just published my analysis of this; you can find the link here.

Abstract: The Green New Deal, an attractive agenda of increased investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, is not remotely sufficient to stabilize global warming at a non-catastrophic level. Such a policy needs to be accompanied by direct measures to curtail the use of fossil fuels, although this may complicate the intended messaging.

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Richard Epstein: Peak Dishonesty

Richard Epstein: Peak Dishonesty, Econospeak

Epstein is the doyen of libertarian legal theorists. Larry Tisch Professor of law at NYU and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, he has vast influence throughout the conservative world, including the White House.

His latest jag is calling for an early end to isolation policies to contain the coronavirus. In a nutshell, his argument is that the virus responsible for this pandemic exhibits a range of toxicities, and that evolutionary forces will naturally and fairly quickly shift this distribution toward milder strains. He claims that happened earlier with HIV, which is now (in his view) no longer much of a threat. He thinks epidemiologists are essentially charlatans, promulgating an approach to modeling viral transmission and severity that ignores his superior understanding.

He was interviewed by Isaac Chotiner of the New Yorker (hat tip: David Dayen), who gave him a hard time about his self-certainty that he is right and all the health professionals are wrong. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript as published by the New Yorker:

Epstein: ….I do think that the tendency to weaken is there, and I’m willing to bet a great deal of money on it, in the sense that I think that this is right. And I think that the standard models that are put forward by the epidemiologists that have no built-in behavioral response to it—

Chotiner: And you’re not an epidemiologist, correct?

Epstein: No, I’m trained in all of these things. I’ve done a lot of work in these particular areas. And one of the things that is most annoying about this debate is you see all sorts of people putting up expertise on these subjects, but they won’t let anybody question their particular judgment. One of the things you get as a lawyer is a skill of cross-examination. I spent an enormous amount of time over my career teaching medical people about some of this stuff, and their great strengths are procedures and diagnoses in the cases. Their great weakness is understanding general-equilibrium theory.

That last sentence brought back memories.

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The Mankiw CV Plan

The Mankiw CV Plan

Greg Mankiw has posted a suggestion for delivering money to people that targets the benefit to those who need it the most.  The idea is clever:

1. Pay people the benefit B.  (This could be spread over many weeks or months.)  Everyone gets the same B.

2. Next year at tax time, compute the ratio r Y(2020)/Y(2019), the ratio of each filer’s 2020 income, net of B, to their 2019 income and capped at 1.  Impose a surcharge of rB on tax liability.  This way people would pay back a proportion of B based on how much they needed it.  If their 2020 income was greater than or equal to 2019, r = 1 and they would repay B in its entirety.  If their 2020 income was zero, r = 0 and there is no surcharge.  (And no tax at all for that matter.)  Partial income losses would lie in between.

Clever and well-intended, but there are problems.

First, what’s income?  Does it include capital gains and losses?  If so, everyone who has a substantial chunk of financial assets will be able to claim zero income in 2020.  What about business losses?  Clearly, if income is defined expansively, as it should be for tax purposes, those who derive income from capital will come out ahead of those who rely on labor.

Second, how will repayment work?  For low to moderate income people who keep their jobs, tax liability for 2020 may be immense—a large proportion of their annual income.  Yes, if such people save all their B they can just apply it to next year’s payment, but how likely is that?  In practical terms, if the country is facing a wave of enforcement actions and bankruptcies a year from now, the repayment mechanism is likely to be abandoned.

Third, what are the incentives?  Mankiw predictably worries about labor supply, but I think the bigger problem is the immense incentive to work off the books.  Instead of saving only your fractional tax rate when you transact in cash, now you will add the savings on your surcharge.  No one who can escape official scrutiny will report any payments or receipts.  If your goal was to drive as much of the economy underground as quickly as possible, you would have succeeded.

I appreciate Mankiw’s attempt to tie provision of government support to the level of need.  One of the virtues of universal, untargeted social insurance, however, is that it requires a smaller enforcement apparatus and doesn’t turn people who play by the rules into suckers.

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Congress and the Fed Could Ensure Universal Protection During the Pandemic

Congress and the Fed Could Ensure Universal Protection During the Pandemic

No matter how well or poorly the federal government addresses the overall economic crisis, millions of vulnerable people will be left unprotected.  Homeless people, incarcerated people, immigrants, people in fringe, off-the-books employment like day labor—unless steps are taken that specifically target them, they are staring into the abyss.

This is fundamentally a local problem.  States, counties and cities know where the needs are.  They have existing ties through social service agencies and their connections to nonprofits.  This is where the expertise lies, but their budgets, lean in good times, are in free-fall right now.

The solution is straightforward.  Congress should authorize the Federal Reserve to purchase specially designated state and municipal bonds floated for the specific purpose of serving the health, housing, food and other essential needs of vulnerable populations.  There should be no limit to the amount that can be borrowed.  And the Fed should purchase these bonds with the intention  of retiring them.  Effectively, the Fed would be using its money-creating power to finance social protection at the local level.

This facility can be created immediately, with auditing to follow when practicable.  There should be no delay in meeting the urgent human needs that will otherwise go unaddressed by more conventional policies.

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AFL-CIO has a Plan

AFL-CIO has a Plan

From the AFL-CIO website:

PRIORITIES OF THE LABOR MOVEMENT TO ADDRESS THE CORONAVIRUS:

PROTECT FRONT-LINE WORKERS
  • Streamline approaches for allocating and distributing personal protective equipment to working people in greatest need.
  • Issue a workplace safety standard to protect front-line workers and other at-risk workers from infectious diseases.
  • Provide workplace controls, protocols, training and personal protective equipment.
  • Provide clear, protective federal guidance for different groups of workers with different needs.
  • Increase funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Mine Safety and Health Administration for additional inspectors and health specialists, and for developing and implementing an infectious disease standard.
MITIGATE THE BROADER PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS

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For a Universal Debt and Rental Moratorium

For a Universal Debt and Rental Moratorium

Incomes are collapsing throughout the economy, and both businesses and individuals face a crisis in meeting fixed payments they can’t control.  The most direct step we can take is to temporarily suspend these payment obligations.

Suppose the government were to announce that, starting immediately, all stipulated debt and real estate rental payments were to be suspended for all borrowers and renters.  This moratorium could have an ending date of, say, two months in the future, with the option of extending it if circumstances require.  No interest would accrue to any of these obligations; in effect, we would be stopping the clock on them for a period of time.

Of course, if nothing else were done this would shut down the credit and rental systems completely for the duration of the moratorium, so a stipulation would have to be added that it applies only to debt or rental obligations established at the time of the announcement.  We’d all have to keep two sets of books, one for pre-announcement loans and rentals, the other for post.

International obligations are somewhat more complicated, but the economic heft of the US is great enough that these conditions could probably be imposed unilaterally on foreign counterparties, especially if the logic of this step persuaded other countries to adopt a similar course of action.

A debt moratorium would dampen some channels of financial instability and provide greater security for most participants in the economy.  By itself, however, it would not address the gaping hole in the real economy caused by shutting down whole sectors of goods and services production.  That requires other forms of stimulus.

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