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

Everything Old is New Again, Part 1934-1937

I have (vainly, I suspect, in both senses of the phrase), tried to start a meme on Twitter, #ifTimGeithnerrantheEmergencyRoom. “The defibrillator would only charge to 30 to prevent scarring; anything more and you’re on your own” probably isn’t winning friends or influencing people, but it does make me feel better.

It also makes me look back at the histories written of the time.  A detailed analysis of Keynes’s discussion of Goldman Sachs’s antics in the late 1920s, which echo their trading in middle 2000s, is left to someone else. (Suffice it to say, one never quite listens to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” the same way again after reading about Blue Ridge and Shenandoah.)

It’s the macro monetary moves that abide, and the lessons of history. Years ago, people failed to notice that money whose multiplier is 1 is not inflationary—most especially when you have one of the so-called “balance sheet recessions” where assets are being carried at a value significantly higher than can be realized even in Edward C. Prescott’s or Thomas M. Hoenig’s most lurid fantasies.  To wit:

Over time, Fed officials became increasingly concerned about substantial increases in bank reserves, especially excess reserves. During 1934 and 1935, gold inflows of some $3 billion contributed to a doubling of member bank total reserves (from $2.76 billion in January 1934 to $5.72 billion in December 1935) and more than a tripling of excess reserves (from $866 million to $2.98 billion; Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System 1943, 371). The buildup of excess reserves alarmed Fed officials, who feared that these “idle” balances might permit a wave of speculation and inflation.

Using its traditional tools the Fed would have reduced reserves (or slowed their rate of growth) by selling securities and raising the discount rate. But this was not feasible in the mid-1930s. A discount rate increase would have had no effect on reserves since discount-window borrowing already was trivial, even at a discount rate of just 1.5 percent. Similarly, by mid-1935, member bank excess reserves alone equaled the Fed’s total security holdings, leaving the Fed unable to slow significantly the growth of total reserves through open market sales….

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And the result, Basel III-like, of ignoring that the accounting Fantasies of Solvency were dwarfing the lending realities:

Alarmed at the sharp increase in excess reserves that had taken place since 1933, and viewing it as potentially inflationary, the Board of Governors increased required reserve ratios in August 1936, and again in March and May 1937. In total, the reserve requirements on time deposits were increased from 3 percent to 6 percent. Requirements on demand deposits were increased from 7, 10, and 13 percent to 14, 20, and 26 percent for country, reserve city, and central reserve city banks, respectively. The increases, according to the Annual Report of the Board of Governors for 1936, were intended to eliminate those excess reserves the board deemed ‘‘superfluous for prospective needs of commerce, industry, and agriculture, and, if permitted to become the basis of a multiple expansion of bank credit, might have resulted in an injurious credit expansion” (14).

If “those who forget the past may be condemned to repeat it,” are those who remember it and still fail to do anything are just condemned to be economists?

All quotes from Charles W. Calmoris and David C. Wheelock, “Was the Great Depression a Watershed for American Monetary Policy,” 1996-1998, as published in Bordo, Goldin, and White eds., The Defining Moment, NBER Press, 1998

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Ross Douthat and the cocoon

Robert Waldmann

Douthat is worried about the Republican information cocoon. He thinks that conservatives should not rely so much on Fox News and should be open to media which they consider unfriendly (such as his employer the New York Times). He argues that Republicans achieved more back before Fox
In the age Before Fox News, on the other hand (B.F.N., to historians), the American Right managed to lower taxes, slow government’s growth to a crawl , whip inflation, and deregulate important swathes of the American economy, among other Reagan-era accomplishments.

After the jump, I click Douthat’s link and consult an obscure source called the Wikipedia.

Douthat shows how people who live in cocoons make fools of themselves. First click *his* link. You will find that the graph does not show a slowdown in the growth of government spending under Reagan. I assumed that he had defined government as not including the military and so had a misleading graph which supported his claim, but, in fact, he just showed a graph which shows slow growth of spending after the end of the cold war and during the Clinton Presidency including the 6 years of Republican control of congress. I think he is counting the Reagan years as starting at the trough of the Volker recession and he definitely doesn’t count Bush Sr as a pre-Fox Republican. He’s really definitely measuring trough to peak and timing presidencies by looking at recessions. And this is the conservative warning about living in a cacoon.

Oddly, I mean to post about another gross historical error in that brief quotation. It is the claim that under Reagan “important swathes of the American economy” were deregulated. I don’t know what Douthat has in mind. I certainly don’t recall any such important deregulation under Reagan (well there was deregulation of S&Ls and you know how that turned out). I think he is thinking of Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. I’m sure that all Republicans agree that Reagan deregulated the airlines and that Carter didn’t deregulate anything, but they are wrong. Note there was an even huger Democratic majority in the Senate in 1978 than there is now. Or maybe it was the deregulation of interstate trucking via the motor carrier act of 1980 . Or maybe it was the phased deregulation of oil prices which began on April 5 1979 . Sure seems like the deregulating conservative hero Ronald Reagan had a Southern accent and grew peanuts.

But Reagan must have deregulated. Everyone knows Reagan deregulated. What exactly ? I have used “refuted by 5 minutes of googling” as my standard for rejection of reality for years now. This time, I stuck to Wikipedia. Recall this is from a post arguing that Republicans ought to be reality based.

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While You’re Busy Making Other Plans

Two Views of The Late Great Johnny Ace:

69 Years after his birth, my eldest daughter’s favorite band is The Beatles (slightly ahead of the JoBros). The main reason, apparently, is this film. (I’m trying to show her the originals on which it is based, but the best of the set is temporarily unavailable).

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Once is History, Twice is Parody and Ignorance

Gary Farber (so far only via Facebook) (UPDATE: Now here) finds a reprint from the 8 March 1933 issue of The Nation:

At the risk of gilding the tinsel, let the record be set down finally as The Nation takes leave this week of the “only party fit to rule.” American memories are short. Four years from now the public will be asked to restore the Republicans and prosperity.

Let it therefore be recalled, now and henceforth, that four years ago not a cloud even as large as a man’s hand had appeared in the heavens. That it was, from the financial standpoint, a clear blue sky may have had a certain prophetic symbolism which was overlooked at the time. Herbert Hoover was about to assume the Presidency….

In his acceptance address the previous August Mr. Hoover had declared:

We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us. We have not yet reached the goal, but, given a chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, and we shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation. There is no guaranty against poverty equal to a job for every man. That is the primary purpose of the economic policies we advocate.

Unfortunately, as Paul Wolfowitz observed, policies should always be evaluated by their results, not their purposes.

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Taxation’s Rhetoric: Today and yesterday’s economic crap

by: Divorced one like Bush

In a posting regarding which presidents would be considered socialist I found the following curious:
1921 – 4% 73% Census
1922 – 4% 56% Census
1923 – 3% 56% Census
1924 – 1.5% 46% Census
1925-1928 – 1.5% 25% Census
1929 – 0.375% 24% Census
1930-1931 – 1.125% 25% Census

1982-1986 12 brackets 12% 50% IRS
1987 5 brackets 11% 38.5% IRS
1988-1990 3 brackets 15% 33% IRS
1991-1992 3 brackets 15% 31% IRS

2001 5 brackets 15% 39.1% IRS
2002 6 brackets 10% 38.6% IRS
2003-2008 6 brackets 10% 35% IRS

Notice anything about these 3 groups of income tax rates? No, I’m not suggesting that the lower rates are the smoking gun of today’s economic crap. Don’t want to run afoul of those scoldings of association is not causation critiques. But, do you not find it just a bit curious that approximately 8 years prior to an economic troubling time we get talked into reducing that tax rates? Three periods in history, all preceding an economy of crap. Varying degrees of crap, but crap just the same. We even had a housing bubble for 2 of them!

None of these tax changes can happen without convincing. A dialog has to have happened to convince the people that it is a good idea. And, I bet that the rhetoric of tax reduction is only part of a package regarding the overall idea of what is best to “grow the economy”. I bet, that tax reduction presentations have never been presented as a stand alone, single issue, unrelated to accomplishing a larger money shift. Being that we are relating today to the Big One, while at the same time hearing muttering that we are in “new territory”, my Angry Bear side asked: What else is similarly presented in the 20’s as part of a sales job of an over all ideology that preceded today’s and yesterday’s crap?

Installment Sell

Manufacturers realized they could expand their profits if they could grow their markets and so installment selling was introduced. The increased production volumes reduced the unit cost of items making them more affordable, and easy terms made for easy sales.

There is a reprint of an article specifically looking at the pros and cons of credit purchasing. Rather fascinating reading.

PAYING FOR THINGS ON “EASY” TERMS has become such a conspicuous element in American life, and so large a factor in our prosperity, that the economists have been doing a great deal of worrying about it. Source: The Literary Digest for March 5, 1927

Sub-prime anyone? Oh, did you notice that it was a concerted effort to sell the consumer that installment purchasing was good? I wonder if blaming the consumer for spending what they did not have was part of the discussion when the economy turned to crap then?

THE CHRISTMAS CHEER IN WALL STREET 1926

Christmas distribution of bonuses in Wall Street, when finally added up, is expected to prove the most generous ever made except during some of the flush World War years.

No accurate account of sums paid out can be made, according to the New York Times, because many firms do not announce their benefactions, but last year’s total was estimated at $50,000,000, and it is expected that the Wall Street firms paying bonuses are being no less generous this year. In fact, some firms which have never paid bonuses will start the custom this Christmas. Probably the largest distribution, we read, is being made by banks, which have been exceptionally prosperous.

Converting that $50 million we get various amounts: $586 million via CPI, $494 million via GDP deflator, and (drum roll please), $1.999 million via unskilled wage factor.

There was one perspective that was not accurate in their prophecies for America:

America has played square in China, and will have an inside track in China against the commerce of other nations.
China buys one billion dollars worth of outside goods every year. But that’s only, a drop in the bucket compared with what this customer may buy some day. “When the per capita foreign trade of China,” runs one government report, “is equal to that of Australia, the total will be sixty-five billion dollars a year which China will pay to the outside world for her imports.
“You can’t help seeing American business grow in China,” a business man from China told me. “Why, it has multiplied itself by four within the past dozen years. It’s eight times bigger than it, was thirty years ago.

The inaccuracy? The quotes are from a perspective of the American selling to China, not from China. And you thought Nixon opened up China.

Getting back specifically to the tax reductions, this web site offers a lot: The Tax History Museum
From reading the site, it appears a progressive tax system was put in place for the WW I war effort. They even put in a munitions tax to “appease” opponents of American involvement in the war; levied on manufacturers of military equipment, it was designed to prevent war profiteering”. There was an “excess profits” tax put in place which appears to be what the later progressive income tax became. Arguments for it were as today: equality. Against it:

It attracted bitter opposition from business groups, who considered the tax a threat to managerial prerogatives. They were certainly justified in their suspicion, since both Wilson and his allies in Congress considered the levy a legitimate means of business regulation.

Well slap me silly! A tax used to curb the excess of business. I hear some of you saying: Excessive CEO compensation regulation please?

After the war, the argument was that such high rates were “unsustainable”. It was the party of today’s tax cuts who yesterday cut the taxes:

Republican lawmakers joined with a series of GOP presidents to engineer tax cuts in 1921, 1924, 1926, and 1928. Andrew Mellon — who moved into his Treasury office in 1921 and stayed their until 1932 — was the principal architect of these reforms.

Certainly some Democratic elected joined in (early Blue Dogs, DLC’s of their time?).

In 1980 we got schooled in the Stockman trickle down theory of economic growth which included lower taxes will raise collections and bolsters economic growth. It was all about cutting taxes by his confession though. So, as I look to find evidence of selling tax cuts as a part of an ideology sell job regarding how an economy should run, such being clues that in the near future we will have economic crap, the following regarding Mr. Mellon’s position just confirms how ignorant we have been in our recent times (post 1981) to have followed those who suggest tax cuts as part of their economic program:

“Any man of energy and initiative in this country can get what he wants out of life,” he wrote. “But when initiative is crippled by legislation or by a tax system which denies him the right to receive a reasonable share of his earnings, then he will no longer exert himself and the country will be deprived of the energy on which its continued greatness depends.”

Worse yet, Mellon argued, high rates didn’t even raise money. By encouraging both legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion, they eroded the tax base and reduced overall revenue. Lower rates, he said, would actually raise money by spurring economic growth and reducing the incentive for tax avoidance. “It seems difficult for some to understand,” he complained, “that high rates of taxation do not necessarily mean large revenue to the government, and that more revenue may actually be obtained by lower rates.”

Can we have been any more stupid, shown our ignorance more than to have taken as a new idea, language regarding taxation’s need to be reduced and it’s effect on filling the government coffers that is as old as almost the day progressive taxation came into existence? Unfortunately, our stupidity has been worse than accepting Mr. Mellon’s similar arguments to those used by Reagan et al suggests. That is because, back in Mr. Mellon’s day he at least understood what Mr. Buffet of today understands but congress and by extension US do not:

Of particular note, he suggested taxing “earned” income from wages and salaries more lightly that “unearned” income from investments. As he argued:

The fairness of taxing more lightly income from wages, salaries or from investments is beyond question. In the first case, the income is uncertain and limited in duration; sickness or death destroys it and old age diminishes it; in the other, the source of income continues; the income may be disposed of during a man’s life and it descends to his heirs.

Surely we can afford to make a distinction between the people whose only capital is their metal and physical energy and the people whose income is derived from investments. Such a distinction would mean much to millions of American workers and would be an added inspiration to the man who must provide a competence during his few productive years to care for himself and his family when his earnings capacity is at an end.

Again I ask: HOW MANY TIMES DO WE HAVE TO DO THIS? HOW MANY FREAKIN’ TIMES DO WE HAVE TO LEARN THE LESSON?

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