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

Mellon-ization, Austerianism, and Grexit

“Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate…

It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less competent people.”
-Andrew W. Mellon

This quote of the advice that Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon allegedly gave to President Herbert Hoover is famous, though mostly in the form that omits the second part. But it is exactly there that the ethos of Austerianism shines through. Which I would summarize as “high living is not for the undeserving” where “undeserving” is defined basically as anyone not in Andrew Mellon’s economic class. A class in which Mellon was an elite among the elites, take this from his Wiki entry Andrew Mellon.

Areas where Mellon’s backing created giant enterprises included aluminum, industrial abrasives (“carborundum”), and coke. Mellon financed Charles Martin Hall, whose refinery grew into the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa). He became the partner of Edward Goodrich Acheson in manufacturing silicon carbide, a revolutionary abrasive, in the Carborundum Company. He created an entire industry through his help to Heinrich Koppers, inventor of coke ovens which transformed industrial waste into usable products such as coal-gas, coal-tar, and sulfur. He also became an early investor in the New York Shipbuilding Corporation.[2]

Mellon was one of the wealthiest people in the United States, the third-highest income-tax payer in the mid-1920s, behind John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford.[1] While he served as Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department his wealth peaked at around $300–$400 million in 1929–1930.

Mellon was a member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club (whose earthen dam failed in May, 1889, causing the Johnstown Flood), and he belonged to the Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh. Along with his closest friends Henry Clay Frick and Philander Knox (also South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club members), Mellon served as a director of the Pittsburgh National Bank of Commerce.[3]

Which gets to my point. Clearly Mellon’s (apocryphal) advice was not to suggest that HE be liquidated, that HIS way of life would have the ‘rottenness’ purged, that HE would have to work a harder more moral life. No instead the liquidation was destined for those who never should have been in the market in the first place, the “less competent people”, thus allowing all the real assets underlying the investment bubbles to be picked up cheaply by “the enterprising people”. For example the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and the Duquesne (town) Club.

My assertion is that this same underlying ethos of the “undeserving” (mostly but not just the poor) against the hard-working “deserving” (including but not exclusive to industrial and financial magnates) operated long before Mellon and long after him and fuels Austerianism today. Creditors are hardworking and deserving of their returns, debtors are not. And this includes not just individuals but whole countries. Like Greece. So in a pinch the right answer is to “liquidate farmers, liquidate stocks” while leaving those with deep capital to pick up the pieces.

A final note before turning this over. Under this ethos the phrase ‘shared sacrifice’ has a specialized meaning. Because the proposed sacrifices are very often in the form of pension ‘reform’ (i.e. cuts) and an increase in tax on consumption, which is to say a direct attack on the ‘high living’ of the ‘undeserving’. What you don’t see in general, and certainly not in the case of Greece, is any acceptance by creditors that ‘sacrifice’ require any significant tax on capital or haircut on financial investment. Business investment maybe, that is the ‘liquidate stocks … liquidate real estate’ piece of Mellon’s prescription, and driving small business to ruin is just an unavoidable part of ‘sacrifice’. But at no point was Mellon, or today the IMF or the ECB suggesting that any real burden should fall on hard working deserving bankers.

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Iceland: Bankers convicted, unemployment down

Remember Iceland? During the high-flying early 2000s, its three main banks went berserk, paying high interest rates to international investors that accumulated deposits equal to more than 100% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and making loans equal to 980% of GDP. When the collapse came, Iceland took a route not taken by Ireland, Spain, and other EU countries: Rather than bail out the banks, the government simply let them go bankrupt. The value of the krona fell by about half, the country was embroiled in disputes with the Netherlands and the United Kingdom over paying off Dutch and British depositors, and it had to take an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan just to stay afloat.

When we last checked in, there were indictments and criminal investigations of the officers of all three banks, and Icelandic banks were forced to forgive all mortgage debt in excess of 110% of a home’s value. Iceland’s 2012 unemployment rate was 6.0% compared to Ireland’s 14.7%. But that was two years ago; what’s happening now?

In December 2013, four top officials of the country’s formerly largest bank, Kaupthing, were sentenced to jail terms ranging from five and a half years for its chief executive to three years for one of the majority owners. While their cases are currently under appeal, they were indicted this July for further fraud charges. Various bank and government officials have had final convictions as determined by the Supreme Court of Iceland; Wikipedia has a handy rundown on where numerous cases stand, all based on Icelandic-language sources so I cannot read them myself.

Homeowners are still in difficulty in Iceland, however. This is because mortgages in Iceland are usually indexed to the inflation rate; that is, the amount of principal is increased by the rate of inflation. Iceland’s inflation rate was 5.2% in 2012 and 3.9% in 2013, while Ireland’s inflation was 1.7% in 2012 and a near-deflation 0.5% in 2013. That is a pretty hefty load for Icelandic homeowners. The current conservative government has instituted a new round of mortgage relief, but there are a lot of devils in the details. Almost half of the “relief” comes in the form of people being allowed to use their retirement savings  (which are tax-advantaged like U.S. individual retirement accounts) to pay down their debt. Yeah, it’s great to pay your mortgage with pre-tax dollars, but it’s still your own money you’re paying, which will no longer be available for retirement. The IMF has raised doubts about the plan’s overall effect on government finances, too.

As I mentioned in my last post, unemployment in Iceland stood at 4.4% in July, versus 11.5% in Ireland (navigate to Labour Force Statistics, then Short-term Statistics, Short-term Labour Market Statistics, then Harmonised Unemployment Rates). And, as I also mentioned in the post, Ireland’s unemployment rate has been artificially lowered due to net emigration from the country.

While Iceland suffered a great deal from the crisis and is by no means out of the woods, it looks like the country made the right call by not bailing out the banks. The economy is growing and unemployment is down to less than half of its peak crisis level. As Paul Krugman has emphasized, having your own currency to devalue helps as well, although it substantially raised inflation and mortgage balances. Iceland was dealt a bad hand by its bankers, but it’s making at least some of them pay for that, which is more than we can say in the United States.

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Ireland, Krugman, Kenneth Thomas

Paul Krugman points to Angry Bear Kenneth Thomas in this piece in the New York Times on the use of Ireland as somehow a success story of what are failed policies regarding employment:

Ireland Is The Success Story Of The Future, And Always Will Be

Via Mark Thoma, Kenneth Thomas analyzes the latest attempt to claim that Ireland is a success story — is this the third or the fourth time around? — and concludes that the modest fall in unemployment is all about emigration. Actually, we can reach the same conclusion by going straight to employment data:

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Medicaid Austin Frakt, Aaron Carroll and Kevin Drum are Good for the USA

by Robert Waldmann

An important study of the effect of Medicaid on health was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  The study was based on a genuine experiment where some people were given Medicaid and other people weren’t based on a lottery.  Unfortunately, the results were communicated with a NEJM  press release and not just the published article.  The results as received by the press is that Medicaid did not cause significant effect on recipients’ health (except for significantly lower depression) which was interpreted as the study providing evidence that Medicaid does not improve health.

This means that somehow someone rejected the alternative.

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More Right Wing Lies – Now As In The Roaring 20’s

Amity Shlaes, the disinformation bunny, is still going.  In the latest issue of Imprimus, a publication of Hillsdale College, is a transcript adapted from a recent talk she gave there during a conference on the Income Tax, sponsored by Hillsdale’s own Center for Constructive Alternatives and the Ludwig von Mises Lecture Series.  Right away, you know this is going to be good.  The Title of her contribution is Calvin Coolidge and the Moral Case for Economy.  Of course, by economy, she means austerity.

There is so much wrong here it’s both impressive and depressing.  Rather than give her the full FJM treatment, which would take more time and energy than she deserves, I’ll just hit on a couple of the lowlights.  Here is her opening paragraph.

With the Federal debt spiraling out of control, many Americans sense an urgent need to find a political leader who is able to say “no” to spending.

Here we go. Her first sentence is an exercise in made-up right-wing talking point mythology.  I’ve already exploded the ‘Obama is a profligate spender” myth, here, here, and here. Further, we have just lived through three years when federal spending was close to flat line, as Graph 1 shows.  

 Graph 1 – Flat Federal Spending Under Obama 

There is only one comparable period in post WW II history, 1953-56, during Eisenhower’s first term, as shown in Graph 2.   Still, over Ike’s full term, spending grew by about 30%.

 Graph 2  Not So Flat Spending Growth Under Eisenhower (’53-’60)

To suggest that federal dept is now  “spiraling out of control” due to excessive spending is not merely disingenuous.  It is a sign that either Shlaes has no earthly idea what she’s talking about, which in an alleged journalist, is unforgivable, or it’s a bare-faced lie, which is unforgivable for anybody.  And if many Americans are feeling the urgent need to curtail government spending, it’s because they have been lied to so repeatedly and often that they have no idea what the truth is.  As Krugman recently put it: “And I have to say, it’s extremely telling that conservative Republicans don’t seem able to make their case without resorting, right from the beginning, to obviously dumb fallacies.”  The truth is that if we have a debt problem, it is due to a shortfall in revenues.

Yet they fear that finding such a leader is impossible.

Its not clear who made Shlaes the spokesperson for this sorry, disenfranchised segment of the population, nor that this is indeed what they fear.  Perhaps we should introduce Shlaes and the rest of these Real Americans to the real President B. Hoover Obama.

Conservatives long for another Ronald Reagan.

This is probably correct, though as Shlaes goes on to demonstrate, conservatives in this way – and, alas, right-wingers almost always – are rather badly disconnected from reality.

He was of course a tax cutter, reducing the top marginal rate from 70 to 28 percent.  But his tax cuts – which vindicated supply side economics by vastly increasing federal revenue – were bought partly through a bargain with Democrats who were eager to spend that revenue.

Wrong again.  The reality is that Revenue growth under Reagan was the worst of any 20th century President, post Eisenhower, except for the unfortunate Bush, Sr. under who’s recession plagued regime Reagan’s buzzards came home to roost. And was it really the Democrats who spent that anemic revenue stream, or did it go to Reagan’s Star Wars fantasy?

Reagan was no budget cutter.  In fact, the federal budget grew over a third during his administration.

Here, she finally gets something right, if by “federal budget” she means Total Outlays, and by “over a third” she means over 80%  [as measured from 1980 to 1988.]

Things get really egregious further on in the section titled “The Purpose of Tax Cuts.”  She informs us that President Coolidge and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon campaigned to lower top rates from the 50’s to the 20’s.

Mellon and Coolidge did not win all they sought.  The top rate of the final law was in the forties.  But even this reduction yielded results – more money flowing into the treasury – suggesting that “scientific taxation” worked.  By 1926, Coolidge was able to sign legislation that brought the top marginal rate down to 25%, and do so retroactively.

I was surprised to learn that Coolidge and Mellon had anticipated the Laffer curve by 6 decades.  Let’s have a look at how more money flowed into the treasury. In 1922 and ’23, with a top marginal rate of 56%, tax revenues were $2.23 and 1.69 billion respectively. [Per FRED, 1923 was a recession year]  In 1924, with a top rate of 46%, total revenues were $1.79 billion.  This is what Shleas calls “more money flowing into the treasury.”  Here’s a bigger picture look.  In 1920, when the top marginal rate was 73%, receipts were slightly over $4 billion.  In 1925, when the top marginal rate was 25%, receipts were $1.7 billion, less than half of the 1920 value, and by 1929 had only increased to 2.23 billion.  Graph 3 shows revenues per year [Coolidge’s term highlighted in red,] and belies Shlaes’ assertion.

 Graph 3 Income Tax Revenues, 1915-1930

Graph 4 shows a scatter plot of this same data, with revenues as a function of top marginal rate, Coolidge years are again highlighted in red.

Graph 4 Top Marginal Rate and Tax Revenues, 1915-1930

A best fit straight line is included.  There’s lots of scatter, for a variety of reasons, but the upward trend – the exact opposite of Shleas’ assertion, is obvious.

So here’s the reality.  A decade of tax cutting and deregulation led us into the Great Depression, the worst economic collapse of the 20th century. [You might note that the following decades of high tax rates and robust regulation were free of these horrible events.]  And what happened most recently?  A decade of tax cuts and deregulation – the end game of three decades of this supply-side approach – led to the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression.  Significantly, the major deregulations of big finance, including the repeal of Glass-Steagall came at the end of Clinton’s term, less than a decade prior to the financial melt down.  Last Friday on his radio show, Thom Hartmann pointed out that prior to the regulations put in place in the 30’s, the U.S. had never gone for more than 15 years without a major financial collapse.  So this result should have been expected.

The extraordinary thing isn’t that right wingers lie.  The simple reality is that they can’t make their case without lying, because it has no merit.  The extraordinary thing is that their lies are so easily rooted out and refuted, in the era of free and easily accessible information, but so few people will take the required few minutes to go ahead and do it. Sadly, whenever the truth comes up against a cascade of lies, the liars have a significant tactical advantage

Shlaes’ presentation is just one more manifestation of the right wing ploy of denying reality.   Sadly, it works, because you really can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time.

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Austerity and Budgets explained

In support of Beverly’s latest post and all her past postings wanting for Obama (or the Dem’s in general I would say) to explain the truth about how a government’s money really flows, I present this video from the Watson Institute. (via Didby at Hullaaloo.)  I happen to agree, it would be nice if our president would get it straight, but…

The Watson Institute presents Mark Blyth on Austerity from The Global Conversation on Vimeo.

 Of course, my pet peeve is that no one is talking about our nation’s equity.  I am confident that the American family would get that part of financing as it relates to borrowing and investing.  Heck, how long was it before Amazon broke even yet they kept right on borrowing and growing?*  Or lets put it closer to home.  How many Americans purchased a home that was valued at and borrowed against for the purchase that was equal to their annual income?  What was the old rule…3 times the median income was the average home price?

*incorporated 1994, 1st profit announced 2002

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Europeans, Republicans Dreaming Up New Ways to Destroy Global Economy

While we are busy paying attention to the 550th edition of Republican-caused fake crises (aka the sequester), a much more real crisis is brewing in the Eurozone. Richard Field at Trust Your Instincts flags a Reuters report that that Eurozone regulators are strongly considering a proposal to make not just investors in Cyprus banks pay for part of their bailout, but bank depositors as well.

Cyprus is a tax haven, and deposits in the banks there come to some 70 billion euros, more than 3 1/2 times the tiny country’s 18 billion euro gross domestic product. One proposal under consideration would be to hold all deposits over 100,000 euros in escrow — for up to 30 years! Another proposal, says Reuters, would “impose a retroactive tax on all deposits over 100,000 euros…” If either of these options looks like it is close to being approved, it is likely to cause a run on banks in Cyprus. As Field argues, if one of these plans is established, depositors will likely wonder if it could be applied to other debtor countries like Spain or Italy, causing even more turmoil. (Note: 100,000 euros is the maximum that can be covered by deposit insurance programs similar to the FDIC in the U.S.)

While European leaders seem to want to blunder into a new way of creating a euro crisis, the evidence continues that their preferred austerity policies are failing. The European Commission has announced that the eurozone will remain in recession throughout 2013, according to a separate report by Reuters. Previously, the Commission had predicted that the recession would end this year. As Paul Krugman shows, the countries that have had the severest austerity have had the largest contractions in their economy. Based on International Monetary Fund estimates of the policy change in a number of European countries, he plots this against the change in their real gross domestic product from 2008 to 2012:

Source: Paul Krugman (link above). Key: AUT-Austria; BEL-Belgium; DEU-Germany; ESP-Spain; FIN-Finland; GRC-Greece; IRL-Ireland; ITA-Italy; NLD-Netherlands; PRT-Portugal

So, for example, Greece has imposed austerity equal to about 15% of potential GDP, and seen its actual GDP shrink by about 18%.

Despite the clear failure of austerity policies in the eurozone and Great Britain (where 9 months of recession were followed by one quarter of growth but a renewed slump in the last quarter of 2012, and Moody’s just downgraded the country’s debt), Republicans are still trying to impose budget cuts on the country that we voted against in November. As I discussed then, the sequester’s discretionary budget cuts will be unambiguously bad for the middle class. Now, Republicans are trying to convert the defense cuts of the sequester into further slashing into middle class programs, while President Obama has offered to convert Social Security’s inflation adjustment to so-called “chained CPI,” which will slowly but relentlessly cut into benefits year after year through the magic of compounding. According to Dean Baker at the link above, the reduction would be about 0.3% per year, so benefits will be 3% lower after 10 years, 6% after 20 years, etc.

Considering how bad middle class retirement prospects are already looking, the President’s offer would be disastrous for millions if implemented. The right course of action is simple: cancel the sequester, forget about cutting Social Security (which is not part of the so-called debt problem anyway), and focus on jobs and growth. As Paul Krugman says, “End this Depression Now!”

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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How To Debate Paul Krugman

On Saturday Mish wrote a really awful article with those words in it’s title.

The article borrows these words and includes a quote from an even more awful article by Austrian school economist and author Detlev Schlichter.  Part of that quote is presented here.

What makes him [PK] so annoying is his unquestioning, reflexive and almost childlike enthusiasm for state intervention, even in the face of its obvious failure, and his apparent unwillingness to probe any deeper into the real causes of our present economic problems or to show any willingness to investigate the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of his particular medicine.

I want to make something perfectly clear before we go any further.  It is fine to disagree with Krugman, or me, or the Pope, or anyone else, as long as you bring facts, data, and some basic skill in rational discourse.  What is not fine is misrepresenting someone’s position and then holding the misrepresentation up to ridicule.  That is both vile and stupid.

Back to the quote: does that sound anything like the Paul Krugman who puts his ideas out there for the world to see on a daily basis?  What I see in Krugman is thoughtful analysis, and deep probing into both the causes of our problems and the consequences of economic policy decisions.  You don’t have to agree with his assesments, but you cannot validly deny that he is making them.

When the opportunities smack me in the face like this, I put on my Krugman Truth Squad hat. Schlichter offers us a standard issue stale Austrian anti-Krugman diatribe. You have to wonder if he has ever bothered to read anything that Krugman has written.  His wordy, repetitive, rambling, semi-coherent, desperate-sounding article – which I cannot recommend highly enough – is an impressive exercise in partial-truths, distortions, make believe, and straw man stuffing.  He then hints that we should go back to the gold standard and totally unfettered free markets.

Schlichter lists Krugman’s alleged assumptions, condensed here:

1)   Recessions, depressions and crises are the result of the unhampered market. 
2)   The Great Depression was caused by uncontrolled markets.
3)   Recessions, depressions and crises are practically the result of one problem: a lack of aggregate demand.  .  .  .   It is the role of government to get people spending again. This is done by printing money and causing inflation so that people spend.
 4)   The Great Depression was solved by the government spending lots of money and the central bank printing lots of money.

Let’s pause here for a moment and set aside the redundancy.  I’m not sure points 1 and 2 represent PK’s view with any degree of accuracy.  Certainly they are gross oversimplifications and neglect other factors.  But if they are true, then point 3 can’t be.  Let’s set that aside, as well.  Points 3 and 4 are reasonably close to the truth, though if you read the original, point 3 runs off the rails as it continues. 

From there it only gets worse.

5)   This explains ALL economic problems.

So, according to Schlechter, Keynes taught, Krugman believes – and would have us believe – that loose money policies and causing inflation are the right policy measures not only for recessions, but for boom times, and periods of inflation, hyper-inflation, stag-flation, or any other problem you can think of.  Even I know enough about Keynes to call that out as false.

The redundency continues to pile up.  I’ll extract one more point. [#’s 6,7, and 8 are repetitions of #4 with various degrees of elaboration and snark.]

7)   If after many rounds of money printing and deficit spending, there is still a recession, then only one conclusion is permissible: There was obviously not enough money printing and deficit spending. We need more of it.

I don’t claim to know everything, but I’m not aware of any situation in recent history that has played out like this, so it looks like a Schlichterian fantasy.  In the post WW II era, the combination of loose money and fiscal expansion has generally kept recessions rather short, leading to V-shaped recoveries, and putting the brakes on too quickly has occasionally led to a double dip.  England has recently experienced an austerity-induced double dip recession.  In the current U. S. doldrums, Krugman tells us fiscal frugality has led to a slow and limping recovery.  This is credible since spending is flat and GDP growth is anemic. [Graph 1]

Graph 1, Current Expenditures and GDP (log scale)

Has any modern major economy had a recession persist after “many rounds of money printing and deficit spending”?  Even in the Great Depression things turned around pretty quickly once New Deal policies were implemented.  But, as PK also tells us, recessions brought on by a financial crisis are different from the typical post WW II recession.

Schlichter doesn’t let up. Though this statement [emphasis added], “Krugman is the one who should be made to explain his policy recommendations and who has to answer the criticism that policies like the ones he is recommending got us into this mess in the first place and that his policy ideas have been implemented for years to no effect, at least no positive effect.” is hard to beat for sheer negation of reality [and for channeling Ron Paul],  the real capper is this: “Krugman is practicing Keynesianism as a religion.”

It is because of statements like this that I lose patience with people who use words like “disingenuous.” You can supply your own alternative vocabulary   Check Krugman’s Op-Eds and blog posts, where he repeatedly demonstrates reality with graphs and tables, shows how austerity is failing right now with real-world examples, and admits it when he gets something wrong.  When is the last time you saw a Krugman-hater do that?

Mish, to his eternal discredit, says of this nonsense: ” Moreover, it appears to be 100% accurate.”

But, Mish continues, the real way to debate Krugman is demonstrated by Economist Hans Hermann-Hoppe in this one minute video.

This is genuinely awesome.   That an economist can be so thoroughly wrong – wrong in general and wrong in every particular – about what Keynesianism is and does, leaves me speechless, and that’s saying something.

OK – almost speechless.  Any child can see that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it.  So let’s forget the trivially unimportant technical details and ask simple-minded, allegedly probing questions that in this case are totally unrelated not only to the policies Keynes and Krugman propose, but to anything else in the real world, and then point and stare when these questions cannot be answered – by anyone, while your minions nod approvingly.

But would it work?  Mish concludes this way:

Krugman would respond with incomprehensible gibberish “for wonks only” as well as typical Keynesian nonsense about how paying people to dig holes and other people to fill them up would start a chain reaction of growth.

A child would see the answer was preposterous, but not a trained economist, politician, or brainwashed academic. Paul Krugman, keynesian economists in general, politicians wanting a free lunch, and most academics are all incurable.

Nonetheless, Hans Hermann-Hoppe’s answer is indeed the correct one. By asking questions a child will understand, some non-brainwashed people will see Keynesian and Monetary stimulus for what they really are: economic stupidity.

In a follow up article [with a 5 point list that includes 2 naked assertion and 3 irrelevancies {seriously – Zimbabwe?!?}] Mish makes it clear that in his view monetary and fiscal stimulus are BOTH stupid.   So, at this point it looks as if he – with his straw man army and blatant intellectual nihilism –  and I have devolved into a schoolyard game of calling each other stupid.

But I’m quite sure Mish is not stupid, and I’m fairly certain I’m not either.  The real questions are these: who is paying attention to reality, whose policies make things better or worse in a given situation [absolutism, anyone?] and whose concepts have had some predictive power over the last several years.  [Here’s a hint: it’s not the Austerians.]

So, maybe a better way to phrase it is, “Who is practicing their economics as a religion?”

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Brian Williams Thinks Raising the Debt Ceiling Means Increasing BUDGET APPROPRIATIONS. O Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite, and Edward R. Murrow, Where Art Thou? — [UPDATED]

I watched NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams last night.  Big Mistake.

Big mistake.

Because now I’m really confused.  I was pretty darn sure until then that “raising the debt ceiling” meant allowing the Treasury Department to pay financial obligations already incurred, such as interest on bonds, Medicare payments, and contract obligations, and to allow continued payments for ongoing financial obligations such as Social Security payments, Veterans’ benefits, and salary payments to federal employees, some of whose jobs are sort of important.  (Think: air traffic controllers.)  I had thought that because I had followed the recurring-crisis news reports about it since 2011, when the first of the crises began.  And because Obama had actually explained it in his Jan. 14 press conference.

But now, well, I think I might have misunderstood, because after Williams reported that the Senate yesterday had approved the House bill to “suspend” the debt ceiling through May 19, he added, shaking his head in disapproval, something like: “This is Washington’s version of kicking the can down the road.  Our debt is now more than a trillion dollars.”

I suggest that next time Williams is onboard one of NBC’s corporate jets, he might read, say, Paul Krugman’s column in today’s New York Times.  It doesn’t explain the difference between the debt ceiling statute and budget-appropriations statutes, so Williams will continue to conflate the two until he digs deeper and reads earlier Krugman columns or other mainstream-media articles that did that.  But it does (yet again)–to borrow a phrase from Paul Ryan in his Meet the Press interview aired last Sunday–debate the efficacy of Keynesian economics, and whether anti-Keynesian “austerity” measures reduce or instead increase national debt in real terms and, more important (although Williams apparently doesn’t know this), decrease or instead increase debt relative to GDP.

But if he is going to wait until he’s up there in the air in that Learjet to read the Krugman column, I hope the trip occurs before May 20.  


UPDATE: Additional recommended reading for Brian Williams: Joe Scarborough, Paul Krugman and the economist-pundit divide on debt and deficits, Neil Irwin, Washington Post, yesterday.

Scarborough, though, at least knows what the debt ceiling law is, and that it isn’t the same as budget-appropriations legislation.  He does, after all, work for MSNBC, not, say, NBC News.

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Jonathon Portes on Macroeconomics and the deficit

Jonathon Portes on macroeconomics and the deficit:

As we all know, since then both the US and UK have had deficits running at historically extremely high levels, and long-term interest rates at historic lows: as Krugman has repeatedly pointed out, the (IS-LM) textbook has been spot on.  Empirically (and theoretically) well-founded? Definitely.  As Simon Wren-Lewis points out here. Recent developments have in many ways been a vindication of the basic Keynesian model that lies at the heart of any undergraduate macro course.

The policy implications are of course not unambiguous – the conclusion isn’t “borrow as much as possible” – but the implication that, when you have excess (desired) private saving, government borrowing won’t push up long-term interest rates is obviously important. So score one for macro 101. Of course, there were economists, not just people like Ferguson, arguing the contrary in public; but generally not on the basis of a different analytical framework, with the result that their analysis was confused at best. See for example my debate with David Smith here, where David begins by explaining that low interest rates reflect “market confidence”, and ends up by saying that they reflect the “fragility of the banking system.”

Of course, some countries – all, not coincidentally, members of the eurozone – that have high deficits have indeed seen interest rates soar. So a second, and equally policy-relevant, example is “what drives the possibility of a sovereign debt crisis?”.  Here the economic theory was set out very clearly by Paul De Grauwe, of the University of Leeuwen, for example here (and versions of this paper were circulating as far back as mid-2010):

This separation of decisions [in a monetary union] – debt issuance on the one hand and monetary control on the other – creates a critical vulnerability; a loss of market confidence can unleash a self-fulfilling spiral that drives the country into default.  Suppose that investors begin to fear a default by, say, Spain. They sell Spanish government bonds and this raises the interest rate. If this goes far enough, the Spanish government will experience a liquidity crisis, i.e. it cannot obtain funds to roll over its debt at reasonable interest rates…

It doesn’t work like this for countries capable of issuing debt in their own currency. To see this, re-run the Spanish example for the UK. If investors began to fear that the UK government might default on its debt, they would sell their UK government bonds and this would drive up the interest rate. After selling these bonds, these investors would have pounds that most probably they would want to get rid of by selling them in the foreign-exchange market. The price of the pound would drop until somebody else would be willing to buy these pounds. The effect of this mechanism is that the pounds would remain bottled up in the UK money market to be invested in UK assets.

The economic theory underlying this verbal explanation is clear and convincing. And so is the empirical evidence.  Not only have Japan, the US and the UK all failed to experience self-fulfilling liquidity crises resulting from their very large deficits, so has every other developed country that issues debt in its own currency. 

This contrasts, of course, with the eurozone experience; and it is precisely what theory predicts. It is quite rare that an economic theory – macroeconomic or microeconomic – is so clearly and comprehensively vindicated so quickly. Again, the policy implications are not that we (or the US) can or should expand our fiscal deficit without limit. But they are very clear that we should ignore the ratings agencies,  and that anybody who is still arguing that the current path of fiscal consolidation – and the economic damage it has done – was necessary to preserve “market confidence” has chosen to ignore the evidence. 

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