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

How Low Can You Go?

This is not a prediction. Only an observation. From 1952 to 1996, U.S. nominal net worth of households and non-profits tracked nominal GDP pretty closely. Net worth remained pretty close to 15 times GDP. That consistent relationship ended after 1997. In the third quarter of 2007, net worth was nearly 20 times GDP but by the second quarter of 2009 it had reverted to just 17 times GDP. One might argue that it was roughly 15 times what trend GDP would have been at that time.

In the second quarter of 2019, net worth was 21 times GDP  or about 28% above the historical norm from 1952 to 1996. To revert to that historical norm would entail a loss of asset valuation of around $32 trillion.

 

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A “Wild and Dangerous” Scheme, Part Two: What’s “fixed” got to do with it? Do with it?

“…we have seen a calculation… which shows that the fixed charges, for machinery and the general management of a mill, are as nearly as possible equal to the cost of wages in the process.”

In my earlier post on the “Wild and Dangerous Scheme” I teased the “egregious accounting error” committed by the author of the 1844 article in the Economist. In plain terms the error was double counting — the author deducts 16.5% from wages to compensate for a decrease in output and then attributes a second loss of 16.5% to the decrease in output resulting from it’s effect on “fixed charges.”

That double-counting error seems self-evident to me but there is also a semantic smoke screen at play that obscures it for some readers. The term “fixed charges” seems to refer to an immutable absolute quantity of costs and — implicitly perhaps? — an unalterable production process. It doesn’t. It refers to accounting entries, as the term “charges” indicates.

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A “Wild and Dangerous” Scheme!

“…a scheme at once wild and dangerous.”
“…a trick, too, of the clumsiest description…”

I was hunting for the exact location of “Prince’s Tavern” in Manchester in 1833 when I stumbled upon an Economist article from March 30, 1844 addressing the “practical consequences” of  reducing the length of the factory working day from 12 hours to 10. I am always fascinating by the profound and enduring hostility of a faction of employers — amplified by their mouthpieces in academia and the press — to the reduction of working time. I’m amazed how often their bile and zeal leads them to compound the error of biased, unfounded assumptions with boneheaded accounting mistakes. There is nothing so edifying as the sharp-eyed calculation of a businessman who has naught but the most important boon (far beyond any amount of benevolent sympathy or charity!) to the moral and physical independence of the operative at heart!

I’m going to leave this snippet here and invite commentators to identify the egregious accounting error the author commits. Later, I will demonstrate another instance of the exact same error, performed some 27 years later by an employer. These people weren’t merely wrong, they were systematically and consistently mathematically illiterate and intellectually bereft. Frederic Harrison was on the mark when he called the purported “economic science” of his day “this magazine of untruth.

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Standing on the shoulders of cranks

Standing on the shoulders of cranks

I use the term “crank” affectionately. The figure below is a valiant effort by Arthur O. Dahlberg to depict the “socio-economic process” as a network of troughs, pipes and valves. Even this elaborate contraption is confined to “the movement of the major social variables.”
Dahlberg believed that his chart technique communicated his analysis more effectively than words could. What the chart communicates to me, besides Dahlberg’s intense commitment is “it’s complicated” and “everything is connected to everything else.” That’s not nothing.

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“What is the Most Useful Idea in Economics?”

NPR’s Planet Money went to the 2020 American Economic Association conference in San Diego where they asked economists, “what is the most useful idea in economics?” David Autor appears near the end of the episode (minute 16:00) to talk about the lump-of-labor fallacy. Almost exactly 87 years earlier, on January 18, 1933, Arthur Dahlberg appeared before a Senate subcommittee to give testimony on the thirty-hour work week bill. The lump-of-labor fallacy would be a useful idea indeed if it would show economists how little they have learned and how much they have forgotten in the intervening 87 years.

In his Planet Money interview, Autor rehearses the standard refrain about there not being a “finite” amount of work to be done so we are not in danger of running out of jobs. Then he introduces the caveat that although we will not run out of jobs, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to worry about — some people will end up in worse jobs than they previously had or would have had. Autor’s remedy for this is to develop policy that will improve people’s skills so they qualify for better jobs or raise the productivity in personal service jobs so they pay more.

Eighty-seven years earlier, Dahlberg also disagreed with the idea that machines create technological unemployment. He also saw that the new jobs created by technological change would be different than the old ones. But Dahlberg carried his analysis several steps further than Autor. In Dahlberg’s view many of the new jobs would differ from those they replaced in that the demand for their products or services would not be spontaneous but would need to be artificially induced by, for example, advertising.

Autor acknowledges something similar when he mentions that a hundred years ago 70 percent of consumer spending was on necessities compared to only around 40 percent now. But Dahlberg raised the issue that wages are determined by bargaining and the shift away from spontaneously-demanded goods and services undermines labor’s relative bargaining power, resulting in a smaller labor share of income. Recipients of capital income may spend their larger share either on personal consumption or investment but eventually they will want to “cash in” on that investment. Spending on new investment will decline faster than spending on consumption rises. Dahlberg thus invoked the business cycle as the “slow-moving effect” of the introduction of labor-saving technology.

Here is a link to the transcript of the Planet Money interview with David Autor. Below is the transcript of Arthur Dahlberg’s testimony to the Senate subcommittee on the thirty-hour work week:

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2020 Hindsight: Why the world is not zero-sum

According to a report, Global Waves of Debt, pre-published by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development:

Waves of debt accumulation have been a recurrent feature of the global economy over the past fifty years. In emerging and developing countries, there have been four major debt waves since 1970. The first three waves ended in financial crises—the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, the Asia financial crisis of the late 1990s, and the global financial crisis of 2007-2009.

A fourth wave of debt began in 2010 and debt has reached $55 trillion in 2018, making it the largest, broadest and fastest growing of the four. While debt financing can help meet urgent development needs such as basic infrastructure, much of the current debt wave is taking riskier forms. Low-income countries are increasingly borrowing from creditors outside the traditional Paris Club lenders, notably from China. Some of these lenders impose non-disclosure clauses and collateral requirements that obscure the scale and nature of debt loads. There are concerns that governments are not as effective as they need to be in investing the loans in physical and human capital. In fact, in many developing countries, public investment has been falling even as debt burdens rise.

We hear from time to time that “the world is not zero sum.” Rarely is that dictum explained in other than mystical terms (e.g. “supply creates its own demand,” “human wants are insatiable,” etc.). The explanation, however, is simple: debt. Without debt there would be no “economic growth.”
Debt finances growth; growth services debt. And they all lived happily ever after. But some debt takes “riskier forms.” Hyman Minsky wrote about the first of those four debt waves in “The Bubble in the Price of Baseball Cards.” In that paper Minsky addressed the price of baseball cards, the Latin American debt crisis, the Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese real estate and equity booms of the ’80s, and “[o]ne of the puzzles of the 1980s… the rapid rise in the financial wealth of Donald Trump.”
What the rise in Trump’s wealth had in common with the Latin American debt crisis was that they both were predicated on a precarious differential between real interest rates and increases in asset values that could change very suddenly with an increase in the former or a decrease in the latter.
One of Minsky’s best shots was a drive-by — relating the regional increase in real estate prices to “rapid increase in incomes in banking and financial services — sort of a derived demand from the financial success of Drexel Burnham.” That Drexel Burnham “success” was, of course, transitory and involved fraud. The inference was that Trump’s financial success, too, was ultimately — at least indirectly — fraudulent.
John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “bezzle” for the amount by which total wealth is inflated by embezzlement in the period before the embezzlement is discovered:

At any given time there exists an inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in—or more precisely not in—the country’s business and banks. This inventory – it should perhaps be called the bezzle – amounts at any moment to many millions of dollars. It also varies in size with the business cycle.

Any large quantity of debt includes an inventory of embezzlement. A certain amount of it will never be paid back. Some was never intended to be repaid. As the debt increases relative to income, the proportion of prospective embezzlement also increases.

Happy New Year!

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What quid did the president quo and when did he quo it?

What quid did the president quo and when did he quo it?

Aside from the headline news about a July 26 phone call, I learned four big things from the impeachment inquiry hearing this morning. First, the specific corruption surrounding Burisma Holidings had to do with self dealing by company founder Mykola Vladislavovich Zlochevsky — issuing oil and gas licences to his own company when he was Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources. In other words, Zlochevsky did exactly what Donald J. Trump attempted to do with his Doral Golf Club and the G7 summit.

The second thing I learned is that President Trump was nursing a grudge against Ukraine because some Ukrainian politicians said some nasty things about him after he made a comment about letting Russia have Crimea. That’s why he felt Ukraine “owed” him. The third thing is that the Ukraine shit made fanfall just about exactly the time that Trump was extemporizing about Hurricane Dorian hitting Alabama. Who knew Trump could multi-task?

The fourth thing I learned is the big one. There was not one quid pro quo but two. One involved Zelensky, the other Putin. That’s the significance of the timing of the Trump-Zelensky phone call — the day after Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony was a dud. Humiliating Zelensky by forcing him to make a public announcement of a politically-motivated investigation of Biden-Burisma-2016 would hand to Putin his reward — a weakened negotiating partner — for the favor of having helped put Trump in the White House. The art of the deal, indeed.

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“Are Robots Stealing Your Job?” is the Wrong Question

Andrew Yang says, “Yes, Robots Are Stealing Your Job” in an op-ed at the New York Times. Paul Krugman thinks they’re not and advises, “Democrats, Avoid the Robot Rabbit Hole.” This is, of course, a classic case of asking the wrong question.

The real question is: will robots burn down your house and kill your grandchildren? Let’s imagine that all those self-driving trucks and the computers needed to guide them will run on electricity generated by wind turbines and solar panels. Will the robots in the truck factories and the robots in the computer factories also run on wind and sunshine? How about the robots in the wind turbine factories and the solar panel factories and so one ad infinitum? I know an old lady who swallowed a fly…

Let’s assume that it is feasible to phase out all current fossil fuel consumption by 2050 and replace it with renewable, zero-carbon energy. Does that mean it is equally feasible to provide the additional energy needed to run all those job-stealing robots? Or to put the question in proper context, would it be feasible to do it without an uncorruptable, omniscient global central planning authority?

The hitch in all this robot speculation is a little paradox known as Jevons paradox conjoined at the hip, so to speak, with it’s counterpart, “Say’s Law.” The former paradox says that greater fuel efficiency leads to more fuel consumption, the latter paradox tells us that labor-saving machines create more jobs than they destroy. Here are two inseparable positive feedback loops that together generate an incongruous outcome. “Yes the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.” Or lots of jobs, jobs, jobs. Or a monthly $1,000 payment to every adult “so that we can build a trickle-up economy,” Choose your poison.

There is, they say, “a certain quantity of work to be done.” Who says that? Good question. In the beginning, it was the political economists — even proto political economists — who said it. But around 1870 economists realized that the maxim conflicted with other things they had in mind so instead of professing it they began to condemn it and to attribute the idea to others — to Luddites, Malthusians or Lump-of-Laborers. The idea that a people could always do more work was just too great a temptation. In principle, the amount of work that could be done is infinite! The robots will not replace us! The robots will not replace us!

What this job-stealing robot debate is really all about is an economics version of theodicy. “Why does evil exist if God, the creator, is omnipotent, omniscient and good?” This theological question is echoed in the puzzle about poverty in the midst of plenty and in Mandeville’s “Fable of the Bees,” where private vices promote public virtues. If it seems like robots are stealing your job, have faith, all is for some ultimate purpose in this best of all possible worlds, as Candide’s tutor Dr. Pangloss would assure him.

Taking the Panglossian philosophy into account, it becomes clear that both Andrew Yang and Paul Krugman are on the same page. They are just reading different paragraphs. Although they disagree on what the solution is, they agree that there is a solution and it doesn’t really require a fundamental change in the way we think about limits to the “certain quantity of work to be done.”

 

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The Hurricane/Picture of Dorian Gray: A Perfect Moral Storm in Three Texts

The Hurricane/Picture of Dorian Gray: A Perfect Moral Storm in Three Texts

Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital:

The temporal aspect is particularly striking,’ writes philosopher Stephen Gardiner, who has done perhaps more than anyone to foreground it, in A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change: it catches us in a bind. Given that global warming is ‘seriously backloaded’ (every moment experiencing a higher temperature posted from the past) and ‘substantially deferred’ (the cumulative effects of current emissions arriving in the future), a warped ethical structure arises. The person who harms others by burning fossil fuels cannot even potentially encounter his victims, because they do not yet exist. Living in the here and now, he reaps all the benefits from the combustion but few of the injuries, which will be suffered by people who are not around and cannot voice their opposition. Each generation, reasons Gardiner, thus faces a perverse incentive to ‘pass the buck’ to the next, which also profits from its own fossil fuel combustion while dodging the pain from it, and so on, in a vicious cycle of infliction of harm.

James P. Kossin, “A global slowdown of tropical-cyclone translation speed”:

As the Earth’s atmosphere warms, the atmospheric circulation changes. These changes vary by region and time of year, but there is evidence that anthropogenic warming causes a general weakening of summertime tropical circulation.

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