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No, Matt Yglesias, Trump is *not* “probably gonna be re-elected”

No, Matt Yglesias, Trump is *not* “probably gonna be re-elected”

While I generally agree with the political and social observations of Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein, their takes that involve the economy frequently drive me crazy.
So it was this morning when I encountered these two tweets from Yglesias:
This is just incredibly shallow analysis and, well, wrong!
Presidential and midterm elections are completely different beasts. Midterms are decided by partisan turnout — people who strongly agree or disagree with the policies that have been enacted as the President’s agenda. Presidential elections are primarily (although certainly not exclusively) driven by the strength of the economy.

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A Kennedy-Reagan-Trump Fiscal Policy?

A Kennedy-Reagan-Trump Fiscal Policy?

Heather Long reports that the White House economists have no clue about the history of U.S. fiscal policy:

President Trump’s policies are driving an economic turnaround that puts him in the company of transformative presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, White House economists said Wednesday as they unveiled their first “Economic Report of the President.” The report presents a highly optimistic view of the economy’s current condition and future course, with growth predictions that exceed most nonpartisan economists’ expectations. Economists also caution the White House’s efforts to juice growth could cause the economy to overheat and then careen into a downturn.

Brad DeLong asks whether his latest on fiscal policy and long-term growth belongs in the next edition of Martha Olney’s and his macroeconomics textbook? While I say it should, permit me to quote the relevant passages after I inform these clueless White House economists about fiscal policy during the 1960’s and under Reagan as I noted over at Brad’s place:

We did get that 1964 tax cut right after Kennedy died and we did ramp up defense spending for Vietnam. In December 1965 Johnson’s CEA had the good sense to tell him that we had gone overboard with fiscal stimulus. Alas we got the 1966 Credit Crunch anyway followed by an acceleration of inflation when the FED backed off on its restraint. Reagan gave us a similar fiscal policy but the Volcker FED did not back off its tight monetary policy so we got the mother of all crowding out – high real interest rates for years and a massive currency appreciation. Glad to see that Trump’s CEA has compared this fiscal fiasco to the previous mistakes. Oh wait – Kevin Hassett thinks this is good fiscal policy. It seems the current CEA is as stupid as the President it advises!

OK – now that I’m done with my rant and little history lesson, let’s hear from Brad:

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Will Boilerplate Kill the Invisible Hand?

Will Automation Kill Our Jobs? by Walter E. Williams appeared in the Gaston GazetteCharleston Gazette-Mail, Daily Tribune, Frontpage Mag, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Townhall, Holmes County Times-AdvertiserNational Interest, Rocky Mount Telegram and CNS News (not to mention the Dogpatch Völkischer-Beobachter). It features the following cutting edge (& pasting) analysis:

People always want more of something that will create a job for someone. To suggest that there are a finite number of jobs commits an error known as the “lump of labor fallacy.” That fallacy suggests that when automation or technology eliminates a job, there’s nothing that people want that would create employment for the person displaced by the automation.

Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. His column is syndicated by the Creators Syndicate. Apparently there is still a HUGE market for cuts ‘n pastes of well-aged boilerplate. The Trump-bots on twitter eat this shit up.

Let’s see what Professor Williams thinks of Adam Smith’s lump of labor fallacy:

Dear Professor Williams,

I was interested to read the other day your account of the “lump of labor fallacy” in the Charleston Gazette-Mail. As you pointed out, the number of jobs is unlimited as long as there are people who want more of something that requires work to be done.

I had previously read a statement by a famous economist claiming that the number of workers who can be employed cannot exceed a certain proportion of the capital of the particular society the workers live in. I am wondering if you can clarify for me whether that economist has committed a lump of labor fallacy by suggesting that the number of jobs is limited by something other than the demand for goods or services, which — for all intents and purposes — is unlimited, as you have pointed out.

Furthermore, I am intrigued by the idea that people contribute to the public good without intending to when they are only pursuing what they perceive as their own self-interest within a free and competitive system of market exchange. Would such a contribution to the public good result even if their notion of their self-interest was “erroneous,” as in the lump of labor fallacy?

For example, if truck drivers were afraid that self-driving vehicles would put them out of work, they would presumably be acting in their self-interest if they made campaign contributions to candidates who promised to ban such vehicles on the grounds that they would create unemployment. Such contributions would be free speech, as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court. But wouldn’t such a ban, at least on those grounds, be based on a fallacious assumption?

Finally, I have been wondering who actually said that there is “a fixed amount of work to be done” or that “there is only a certain quantity of work to be done.” I have seen numerous rebuttals to such a view but no positive statements of it from representatives of organized labor. I would be grateful if you could identify sources who actually commit the lump of labor fallacy in plain words.

Sincerely,

Tom Walker

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Paying for Health Care Over Time

Paying for Health Care Over Time

Simon Wren Lewis illustrates the long-run government budget constraint with this tale:

There are many reasons why, outside of a recession, deficits that, if sustained, would steadily increase the debt to GDP ratio may be bad for the economy, but let me give the most obvious here. For a given level of government spending, interest on debt has to come out of taxes. The higher the debt, the higher the taxes. That is a problem because high taxes discourage people from working, and it is also unfair from an intergenerational point of view. This last point is obvious if you think about it. The current generation could abolish taxes and pay for all spending, including any interest on debt, by borrowing more. That cannot go on forever, so at some point taxes have to rise again. A whole generation has avoided paying taxes, but at the cost of future generations paying even more. As a result, unless there is a very good reason like a recession, a responsible government will not plan to sustain a deficit over time that raises the debt to GDP ratio. The problem though is that it is very tempting for a government not to be responsible. The current US government, which is essentially a plutocracy, wants above all else to cut taxes for the very wealthy, and if they do it without at the same time raising taxes on other people but instead by running a deficit they think they can get away with it. Democrats have every reason to say that is irresponsible, although of course the main thing they should focus on is that the last people who need a tax cut are the very rich.

In my discussion of a paper by Jeffrey Miron, I exemplified what he is saying here with the Reagan tax cuts for the rich and defense spending build-up, which may be a description to what Trump is doing now. As Simon admitted after this comment, borrowing to fund infrastructure investment is different:

But surely spending from borrowing and at least some taxation wouldn’t necessarily have the same effect. An equilibrium could at least be sought at higher levels of borrowing and higher levels of economic activity. Particularly with spending on education of course (where in any case the intergenerational fairness argument is weaker).

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Shorting China

Shorting China

I just saw “The China Hustle” as part of the Portland International Film Festival.  It’s a very (very) slick documentary about the listing of fraudulent Chinese companies on US exchanges during the post-financial crisis era.  The companies were mostly real, but their financial data were fictitious, although given the stamp of approval by the SEC, investment banks, specialty law firms and the big four accounting firms.  The movie might be called “The Medium Size Short” because it centers on several market players that have righteously fought this upwards-of-$50 billion fraud by shorting it.

I think it does a great job of explaining the financial mechanisms at work (especially the short itself), and it holds your attention with lots of jump-cutting, extreme facial closeups, brightly lit à la Errol Morris, and the other techniques of zingy video journalism.  It would make a great classroom enhancer in courses on finance or political economy, provided you’ve got a 90-minute block of time to spare.

I have two qualms with the content.  First, it makes the case that the victims of this crime are the millions of small investors and pension-savers, people like you and me.  And it’s true that many pension funds and ordinary folks were ripped off.  But the real indictment is this: the financial sector has doubled its share of the economy, and its ballooning profits are a major contributor to the rise in inequality.  What are we paying for?  As this film clearly shows, we are definitely not buying better information or a more productive allocation of capital, at least not in the sectors of the market it shines its light on.  On the contrary.  We are being fleeced by sharp operators whose only reason for existence is that they can stash away their cut of the loot before anyone learns enough to stop them.  That’s a pretty big lesson, in my book.

Also, the film ends by suggesting that the entire market capitalization of the major Chinese firms—they point to Alibaba in particular—may be fraudulent, and that we’re on the verge of another 2008-style market meltdown.  I’m not a specialist in Chinese equities, so I won’t take a position on this.  Nevertheless, it’s clear that there is a lot of genuine economic growth going on in China, and some of it must be serving to support asset values.  It is unlikely that the entire capitalization of Chinese firms will prove to be as flimsy as that of the smaller pseudo-firms exposed in the film.  Of course, between full current market value and zero there’s a lot of potential space for unpleasant surprises.

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A Critical Review of Jeffrey Miron’s Call to Slash Entitlements

A Critical Review of Jeffrey Miron’s Call to Slash Entitlements

I accused John Cochrane of incoherent babbling on the Federal deficit issue noting his update where he flip flopped:

He went from fiscal policy being sober to we are in dire straights just like that! Oh my the sky is falling. We have to take away those Social Security benefits that my generation have been paying into for 35 years. We cannot afford Federal health care spending. After all those tax cuts for the rich can never be reversed. Yes John Cochrane is part of the Starve the Beast crowd even if granny starves from these supposedly required reductions in transfer payments.

But let’s note why Cochrane flip flopped in his update:

Jeff Miron wrote to chide me gently for apparently implying the opposite, which is certainly not my intent. One graph from his excellent “US Fiscal Imbalance Over Time”.

Having read this Cato paper, it is time for my critical review that I promised. The review will start with the technical finance which in one way is a lot better than Cochrane’s rants but still troubling in certain ways. I will next turn to the policy if not political issues where this paper is even worse than Cochrane’s update. Beware – we will have to cover a fair amount of numbers but I hope to keep this within the context of my present value model:

Let g = the ratio of Federal expenditures excluding interest payments to GDP and t = the ratio of Federal taxes to GDP. If we assume a steady state model, the present value of future primary surplus is simply V = (t- g)/(r – n), where r = the real interest rate and n = the long-term growth rate. As long as V is at least as great as the debt/GDP ratio, we are not on the bankruptcy path that economists were talking about when Reagan initiated his 1981 fiscal fiasco. Tax rates were massively cut and defense spending spiked and had this fiscal stance continued forever, then the debt/GDP ratio would have exploded. Of course it didn’t as there were future tax increases and the peace dividend.

Miron is using the same basic model, which he expresses as:

Fiscal Imbalance = Present Value of Future Expenditure – Present Value of Future Revenue + Outstanding Debt

What I like about this equation is its focus on future spending and revenue not historical decisions which can be summarized as the current level of debt in terms of our model. Cochrane’s rant was a bit weak in this regard. May I suggest Cochrane rent the 1989 movie and check out this scene as the Joker gets basic finance! While I may quibble with Miron with respect to his forecasts, my big problem the use of nominal figures to draw his graph – which is far from “excellent”. Note his measure doubled in nominal terms since 2000 but so has nominal GDP (higher prices, more people, and higher income per person). Which is why this title and introduction is misleading:

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Polar Ice Is Lost at Sea

Via Naked Capitalism and published orinially at Grist  Polar Ice Is Lost at Sea:

Our planet reached another miserable milestone earlier this week: Sea ice fell to its lowest level since human civilization began more than 12,000 years ago.

That worrying development is just the latest sign that rising temperatures are inflicting lasting changes on the coldest corners of the globe. The new record low comes as the planet’s climate system shifts further from the relatively stable period that helped give rise to cities, commerce, and the way we live now.

So far, the new year has been remarkably warm on both poles. The past 30 days have averaged more than 21 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal in Svalbard, Norway — the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world. Last month, a tanker ship completed the first wintertime crossing of the Arctic Ocean without the assistance of an icebreaker. Down south in the Antarctic, sea ice is all but gone for the third straight year as summer winds to a close.

The loss of Earth’s polar sea ice has long been considered one of the most important tipping points as the planet warms. That’s because as the bright white ice melts, it exposes less-reflective ocean water, which more easily absorbs heat. And that, sorry to say, kicks off a new cycle of further warming.

According to research published last fall, that cycle appears to be the primary driver of ice melt in the Arctic, effectively marking the beginning of the end of permanent ice cover there. The wide-ranging consequences of this transition, such as more extreme weather and ecosystem shifts, are already being felt far beyond the Arctic.

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Competition Is for Losers

The Wall St. Journal quoted Peter Thiel’s business plans. It is mostly behind a paywall.

Competition is for Losers

If you want to create and canpture lasting value, look to build a monopoly, writes Peter Thiel

What valuable company is nobody building? This question is harder than it looks, because your company could create a lot of value without becoming very valuable itself. Creating value isn’t enough—you also need to capture some of the value you create.

New Republic points us to the politics of Democrats of monopoly:

What drives monopolization is not business know-how or technological innovation, but public policy—a political environment that permits or even enables an investor like Jeff Bezos to engage in a massive accumulation of economic power. Not that long ago in America, no company as large and destructive as Amazon would have been allowed to exist. Preventing and breaking up such corporate behemoths, in fact, was at the very center of the Democratic Party’s agenda. “Private monopolies are indefensible and intolerable,” the party’s platform declared in 1900. “They are the most efficient means yet devised for appropriating the fruits of industry to the benefit of the few at the expense of the many.”

In the late 1970s, however, the Democrats began to abandon the idea that big is bad. Over the past four decades, the party has stood by as giant supermarket chains replaced local grocery stores and Too Big to Fail banks replaced local lenders. As monopolies broke up unions and drove down wages, Democrats increasingly came to rely on campaign contributions from the very corporations that were consolidating their control over the American economy. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, declined to bring a single major monopolization suit against U.S. companies. Even The Washington Post, that exemplar of political opposition to Donald Trump, is now owned by Jeff Bezos. Dissent, brought to you by monopolists.

But with Republicans in control of all three branches of government, and with the big business ethos espoused by Hillary Clinton in tatters, Democrats may finally be returning to their anti-monopoly roots. Leaders within the party are once again looking to the aggressive antitrust movement launched during the Progressive era and extended through the New Deal, which propelled America into three of its greatest decades of rising prosperity and economic equality. The question now is: Can Democrats find a way to rechannel the popular outrage unleashed by Trump, and to repurpose the party’s traditional opposition to monopoly in the age of Amazon?

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Fiscal Stability or Dire Straights: John Cochrane’s Latest Rant

Fiscal Stability or Dire Straights: John Cochrane’s Latest Rant

At times John Cochrane babbles on incoherently on what should be a straight forward issue. This post is one example:

Once you net out interest costs, it is interesting how sober US fiscal policy actually has been over the years. In economic good times, we run primary surpluses. The impression that the US is always running deficits is primarily because of interest costs. Even the notorious “Reagan deficits” were primarily payments, occasioned by the huge spike in interest rates, on outstanding debt. On a tax minus expenditure basis, not much unusual was going on especially considering it was the bottom of the (then) worst recession since WWII. Only in the extreme of 1976, 1982, and 2002, in with steep recessions and in the later case war did we touch any primary deficits, and then pretty swiftly returned to surpluses.

I too advocate looking at the primary surplus. Cochrane is a finance professor so let’s make this simple. Let g = the ratio of Federal expenditures excluding interest payments to GDP and t = the ratio of Federal taxes to GDP. If we assume a steady state model, the present value of future primary surplus is simply V = (t- g)/(r – n), where r = the real interest rate and n = the long-term growth rate. As long as V is at least as great as the debt/GDP ratio, we are not on the bankruptcy path that economists were talking about when Reagan initiated his 1981 fiscal fiasco. Tax rates were massively cut and defense spending spiked and had this fiscal stance continued forever, then the debt/GDP ratio would have exploded. Of course it didn’t as there were future tax increases and the peace dividend. Cochrane takes us through the Great Recession:

Until 2008. The last 10 years really have been an anomaly in US fiscal policy. One may say that the huge recession demanded huge fiscal stimulus, or one may think $10 trillion in debt was wasted. In either case, what we just went through was huge. And in the last data point, 2017, we are sliding again into territory only seen in severe recessions. That too is unusual.

The Great Recession did demand huge fiscal stimulus – we got a tempered version of what was really needed. The last decade has taken the debt/GDP ratio to 100% but we have returned to near full employment so I do not get his 2 last sentences quoted. In 2017, g was 19.5% and t was 18.5% so maybe we should be more concerned especially since we have had another tax cut for the rich as well as a call for a larger defense budget. But then comes his update!

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Why I’m worried about the decline in real wages

Why I’m worried about the decline in real wages

This is a follow-up to my post yesterday concerning the decline in real average and aggregate wages. Why should the data from just one month cause me to warn that “This is Bad?”
To show you, let’s decompose the data into CPI and nominal aggregate wages, shown in the below two graphs, the first of which covers the inflationary era of the 1960s and 1970s, and the second covers the disinflationary era since:
In the year prior to at least 5 (arguably 6) of the last 7 recessions, BOTH nominal aggregate wage growth was decelerating (1980 and arguably 1969 being the exceptions) and consumer inflation was increasing (1980 and arguably 2007 being the exceptions). The 1981 recession was caused by the Fed very aggressively raising rates, and in the other two instances the pattern held, but with much less of a lead.

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