Monday, May 23, 2016

TIM provides a challenge for Google Translate

i just got an e-mail from TIM the cellphone subsidiary of the entirely privatized telecom Italia which is a for profit private sector publicly traded limited liability corporation and it's entirely coincidental that it often gets a new CEO when Italy gets a new Prime Minister. I added credit to my phone account on the web. I read the confirmation that the operation was a success, but when I tried to call, I heard a sweet Italian voice telling me my credit was exhausted. TIM sent an e-mail of confirmation which concluded
N.B. La ricarica sara' immediatamente resa disponibile come credito telefonico e comunque non oltre le 48 ore dal momento della richiesta.
Will Google attempt to translate that ? It gives
N.B. The charge will be 'made available immediately as phone credit and no later than 48 hours from the time of request.
Amazingly, that is exactly correct. I would have thought that a sophisticated but merely not human translator would be stumped by "immediately ... and no later than 48 hours from the time or request" Google is as amazing as TIM (slogan "be evil").

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

DeLong on Hayek, Smith, and Smith

Brad answers a question raised by Noah with thoughts on Friedrich and Adam.

I totally lost all self control in his comments section and waste even more pixels by cutting and pasting here.

Before reading this, I tried to tweet the same point you made. However, here I will be contrarian.

1) on the road to serfdom. Science progresses as people develop testable hypotheses, test them and reject them. Like "Leviathan", "The Road to Serfdom" presented a plausible (if pessimistic) hypothesis which turned out not to correspond to reality. I think the train wreck came later as Hayek refused to admit that his clear testable prediction was false. He was careful to make such a prediction (after talking with un-named friends including I'm sure Popper): A country is irreversibly on the road to Serfdom when it introduces capital controls (it's in the book). So the UK is bound to end up like the USSR and Nazi Germany (as was Italy when I arrived here).

Here my point (if any) is that the hypothesis in the Road to Serfdom was actually plausible when it was printed. Based on my first edition of the second volume of "The Open Society and It's Enemies" I am fairly sure that, when first printed, "The Road to Serfdom" included a note asserting that it was printed in accordance with his Majesty's regulations on the use of paper (making Hayek's observation that freedom of the press is not worth much if the state controls the supply of paper both valid and redundant).

In contrast, Hobbes didn't live long enough to see disproof of his claim. If he had lived until 1688, I'm sure he would have argued that the division of power between William&Mary and parliament would lead to the war of all against all. By 1697 or so, he would argue that the UK was enduring a silent war of all against all in which life is poorer, less sociable, more miserable and shorter than it could be under an absolute monarchy. Hobbes was saved from the sad fate of Hayek, because his life was rich, sociable, happy and short enough.

By the way, I never noticed that Hobbes and Hayek had the exact same rhetorical strategy: anything position other than exactly the one I like is on a slippery slope to hell.

I am now going to defend Smith. You note that he discussed things other than relative prices (home bias and the "individuals' non self-interested desires to feel marked out above and superior to others" in which, by the way, I think, "non self-interested" should be "self-interested" Hayek too did not confine his thought to relative prices and only relative prices. The fact that Smith noted other factors (which do in fact exist) doesn't mean he didn't understand the role of markets.

Here I am criticizing your reasoning. You can't prove that Smith didn't consider price signals by noting he considered something else. I agree with you about Hayek and emergent properties of markets, but it is very hard to prove your case, as it is always very hard to prove any idea is original (great men create their predecessors) . To prove it, you would have to show it isn't anywhere in "Wealth of Nations" or "The Theory of the Moral sentiments" or in *anything* written between 1776 and the 20th century.

Over at Twitter, Noah notes that the idea that markets have emergent properties has not influenced economic theory. He is right. The standard approach -- Nash equilibrium -- really is based on utter rejection of Hayek's insight (and I claim Smith's). Agents are assumed to think about everything and to effortlessly find the exact solutions to math problems which don't have closed form solutions. Hayek can be seen as arguing against Walras (and his mythical auctioneer) and (avant le lettre) Nash and his utter rejection of methodological individualism. Noah notes that Nash won (so far).

I suppose one might hope this victory isn't final (a theory based on Nash equilibrium and methodological individualism must be vulnerable based on it's obvious logical inconsistency just as a methodology based on Friedman's methodology and the Lucas critique has the (so far minor) inconvenience that each is exactly the statement that the other is false).

Obviously, I've totally lost control of myself, but assuming no one is reading and noting that pixels (unlike paper) are abundant, I will now add a half-assed effort to critique Hayek. I think he provided an example in which markets are useful. He concluded that markets are always good. This does not follow. You've already added "competitive", "without externalities" and "rational" but this still isn't true -- OLG models can give horrible market outcomes so can a Diamond search model. For your claim to be true "competitive" and "without externalities" must be redefined to mean "such that markets yield highly productive outcomes". The claim can be tautological or false, but the set of exceptions is so vast that the only meaningful true claim is "some examples in which market outcomes are OK in some ways have been found."

Also "highly productive" is a very weak and vague claim -- it isn't even the (uninteresting but false) claim that the assumptions you list imply Pareto efficiency (to get to Pareto efficiency you'd need to add "complete markets" and sell me one unit of the asset which pays one unit of numeraire good if the temperature in your office is between 75 and 75.000001 degress (typo not corrected because it is clearly Freudian, but I digrees)).

Frankly, I think the case for markets is found in the wreckage of the "The Road to Serfdom" train wreck (I agree the train went off the rails, I just think it was still on them in 1945). The case that market outcomes are OK consists of extremely strong assumptions implying extremely weak conclusion. The case that markets are the worst possible way to organize economies except for all the others which have ever been invented isn't so weak.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Jon Snow

I stopped watching "Game of Thrones" when it separated from the Game of Ice and Fire books (that is at the start of last season IIRC). I have been amazed by the persistent purported deadness of Jon Snow.

Spoiler alert. I'm just guessing, but Matt Yglesias has gone public so why can't I ?

I am confident that he will turn out not to be dead if Martin ever finishes the next volume (and in the outline which he has written down in case he doesn't live that long). The reason is that, like most hard core fans, I have long been very confident that he is the son of Rhaegar Targaryan and Lyanna Stark.

I have a further guess. "A Dance with Dragons" ends with the stabbing of Jon Snow. He loses conciousness (which is not the same as dying as I notice at least once a night). Just before, there was a fairly extensive scene featuring a giant prisoner (whom Snow was trying to help). It seems fairly clear to me that this giant would break his chains and save Snow. There is a reason to have him near at hand. Snow also has strangely good relations with Melisandre of Asshai who is perfectly capable of just about anything (including breaking chains which hold a giant). Also Ghost and Mance Rayder who, in the books, is not a ghost.

OK now Snow's actual parents. I think this has been clear since book 1 (the one actually entitled "Game of Thrones").

Here Eddard Stark repeatedly remembers his sister forcing him to promise something (some things actually as there is a single reference to plural "promises"). Her death is not explained (and childbirth is dangerous in Westeros).

As Yglesias notes, Rhaegar's alleged kidnapping of Lyanna Stark is totally out of character. He is presented as a very moral person very much admired by everyone who knew him.

One problem with Yglesias's post is he considers the possibility that Rhaegar and Lyanna might marry. Rhaegar was already married to a Martel at the time.

On the other hand I missed the capital S in "all I see is Snow". This might explain Melisandre's interactions with Jon Snow (among other things revealing that Rayder is still alive and trying to convince him to stop fighting his nature).

Finally Belarion the dread -- is among other things the nickname Rhaenys Targaryen gave to her black kitten. An old black cat which hates Lannister's (and has only one ear) has appeared more than once (chased by Arya Stark then much later scaring Tommen Lannister). I assume they are the same cat. I also assume that Arya Stark will see through the eyes of Belarion).

But who is the third head of the dragon ? The only candidate of whom I've read is Tyrion Lannister on the assumption that he is Aerys's bastard. I thought of Brandon Stark who is destined to fly (but that might be as a crow).

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Vegetable Debate

Had we but world enough, and time


our vegetable debate should grow

Vaster than empires, and more slow;

I am moving this here, because I do not wish to further pollute a crooked timber thread here

Here is Henry Farrell explaining Doug Henwood's critique of Matthew Yglesias on July 18 2011

This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action. I see Doug and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action, and that this in turn requires the correction of major power imbalances (e.g. between labor and capital).


I’m sure that critics can point to political blind spots among lefties (e.g. the difficulties in figuring out what is a necessary compromise, and what is a blatant sell-out), but these don’t seem to me to be potentially crippling, in the way that the absence of a neo-liberal theory of politics (who are the organized interest groups and collective actors who will push consistently for technocratic efficiency?) is.

The post vaguely reminded Brad of Marxism. Farrell recently mentioned that he happens to be a Weberian social democrat (in case you were wondering).

I had some silly pointless thoughts.

One is that I would bet that Brad heard "No combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions without theory" when reading Farrell (except for the fact that Brad is a speed reader who doesn't hear words in his head when he reads).

In any case, in this crooked timber thread, I personally objected to the word "theories" with an analogy so clumsy that it caused some mixture of intellectual distress and amusement (for one thing I should have objected to the second passage including "theory" not the first including "theories").

"I don’t like the word “theories”. I don’t think that anyone including left neo-liberals needs a theory of change in order to achieve change. Trees have no theory of photosynthesis, but they grow all the same. "

I want to explain what I meant to write (or perhaps I want to write what I should have written). Actually, re-reading it seems clear to me and not to admit the interpretations made by Farrell and William Berry.

"I do disagree with your suggestion that you don’t need a theory of politics as politics grows like a tree" -- Henry Farrell

I note that didn't suggest that politics grows like a tree. I will rephrase my analogy to make it clearer (or to correct it)

"Straw Farrell says that left neo-liberals are "crippled" because of "the absence of a neo-liberal theory of politics". I imagine Straw Farrell meeting a hungry lion and saying to himself 'hmmm that lion probably wants to eat me, good thing that it is crippled by the absence of a leonine theory of muscular contractions". I would have to warn straw Farrell that the lion does not have to think about actin, myosin or ATP in order to run faster than straw Farrell (who need not worry as he would be very unappetizing being made of straw).

I think what Farrell meant was that neo-liberals rely on an unstated implicit thoery of change which does not correspond to reality at all. I at least would say that the possible problem is one of accidental theory -- reliance on theory which is made more absolute and blind because the neo-liberals don't understand that they are assuming a theory of change. Straw left neo-liberals have the theory that their analysis is sound, so all will recognize that it is sound, so all will use it to make the world better, since all agree on what would be better. The problem isn't the absence of a theory of change, or even the absence of an explicit theory of change. It is a totally false theory of change (which is so silly that it can't survive if made explicit).

Totally aside from the lions and the trees, Farrell and I agree that the left neo-liberals we are discussing do have theories of change and those theories are not at all similar to straw neo-liberals' theory.

Now William Berry

I am struck by Robert Waldmann’s grotesque analogy.

A tree doesn’t just grow; its growth is governed by constraints that are narrower than those of any theory, and that is the set of epigenetic processes that are mediated by the complex interactions of gene expression and the influences of a very particular environment.

And there is no such thing as a political movement without doctrinal discipline (i.e., theory) of some kind.

Berry seems to have read my claim that trees are not theorists to imply that there is no valid theory of tree biology. Desperately trying to be semi civil, I just note that I think the problem is that my claim was too obvious to be noticed. Photosynthesis isn't crippled if trees don't think about photosynthesis. It was a claim about trees' mental life (which follows from the belief that they have no mental life at all) not about photosynthesis, tree growth, or the possibility that biological research might be useful.

Political movements aren't necessarily crippled if the political actors don't think about theories of change.

My claim is entirely consistent with the hypothesis that we all should think about theories of change and that political movements in which the actors spend considerable time thinking about theories of change are more effective than others. It takes a lot for an "absence" to "cripple"

Well that was pointless. If anyone is still reading, I'd like to stress that I don't think that developing and testing theories of change is a waste of time. I think that it is a worthwhile branch of social science which is very useful to political movements. I think my objection actually was to the word "crippled" which, I think, overstates the costs of brief casual consideration of mechanisms of political change by wonks. Also, importantly, the wonks who are being discussed think a lot about politics and have theories of change. In fact they like the phrase theory of change. Yglesias sure does so does Ezra Klein Brad uses the phrase less (I'd guess he goes more for Weberian or Marxist jargon), Krugman. This is not a group of people characterized by an absense of theories of change.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Comment on Henry Farrel commenting on Brad DeLong commenting on Henry Farrel commenting on Doug Henwood

Your post is admirably courteous in tone. I admire but am not able to emulate.

First I think I could make the polite debate between you and Brad even more polite. I didn't get the impression Brad claimed you are a Marxist. I think he suggested that Doug Henwood is a Marxist. Your quoted post explained an objection to left neo-liberals and said it had some merit. I think that perhaps you and Brad can agree that you see some merit in Marx's arguments (in any case he sure does).

However, I have some rude things to say about your writing as quoted by Brad. I don't like the word "theories". I don't think that anyone including left neo-liberals needs a theory of change in order to achieve change. Trees have no theory of photosynthesis, but they grow all the same. You can't really be surprised if an appeal to theory in the context of politics made Brad think of Marx. In any case, your interpretation of Henwood's argument appears to be that there is no convincing explanation of how the policies developed by Yglesias at all will actually improve the world, since they won't be implemented.

" This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action. I see Doug and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action"

OK now I create straw Doug Henwood who argues that Yglesias (and Brad, C and D Romer, Ezra Klein, Larry Summers, David Cutler, and Jon Gruber) are off in their ivory towers designing policies which will never be implemented because they haven't thought enough about class struggle. The problem with Straw Henwood is too obvious even for a comment on a blog. The neo-liberals I listed have achieved political change (even though I resisted the temptation to include the neoliberal wonks named Barack Obama and Bill Clinton on my list).

It seems to me that your current post is an excellent critique of your earlier post. You explain Summers's theory of change -- he says the key is to get ahead by getting along and influence powerful people. I hazard the guess that this wasn't his first approach (OK I hazard dozens of vivid memories). Technocrats have power (by the definition of the suffice 'crat). They exist. Politicians seek their advice. This is the way political change has occurred (lest I seem to celebratory I think the most influential interaction of an intellectual of sorts and a politician who achieved change occurred when Arthur Laffer sketched a curve on a napkin).

Yglesias clearly has a plan. He argues that good policies are good politics -- that voters re-elect incumbents if things are going well even if the voters opposed incumbents policies when they were implemented. So, he argues, listen to technocrats -- we will tell you how to win re-election -- oh and also serve the people which, of course, is the reason you got into politics in the first place. Look what happened to B Clinton when he listened to Robert Rubin and raised taxes on Robert Rubin et al.

Now I don't know if there is any theory of history such that this plan is anything other than a pipe dream. But I do know that it works. Klein at least, hob nobs with the President of the United States. That president has achieved a lot (even if much less than one might hope). I'd say actual change trumps theories of change.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Brad DeLong Marks His Beliefs about "The Return of Depression Economics" to Market

I am overwhelmed by admiration for Brad DeLong (happens a lot) who reposted his review of Krugman's "The Return of Depression Economics" from 1999 "Just in case I get a swelled-head and think I am right more often than I am ..."

update: Do read Brad's review/post. It is mostly brilliant (aside from the error which he stresses). In particular, Krugman and Delong both warn of the danger of allowing firms to borrow in foreign currency. Way back in 1999 it was widely agreed that East Asian countries had harmed themselves by borrowing in dollars. Later the Argentine crisis demonstrated this again with the worst recession after WWII and before Greece's recent crisis.

But it seems to have been forgotten. I read in the March 5-11 2016 economist "By the middle of last year, the stock of dollar loans to non-bank borrowers, including companies and government, had reached $3.3 trillion. Indeed until recently, dollar credit to borrowers outside America was growing more quickly than to borriwers within it. The fastest increase of all was in corproate bonds issued by emerging-market firms.

One can hope that, this time it's different and won't end in disaster. Well at least one can wish.

end update:

Way back in the last century, Brad thought he had a valid criticism of Paul Krugman's argument that Japan (and more generally countries in a liquidity trap) need higher expected inflation. I think the re-post is not just admirable as a self criticism session, but also shows us something about the power of Macroeconomic orthodoxy. Brad is just about as unorthodox as an economist can be without being banished from the profession, but even he was more influenced by Milton Friedman and Robert Lucas than he should have been. I reproduce the offending passage below.

The context is that Japan had slack aggregate demand at a safe nominal interest rate of 0 -- that is it was in the liquidity trap. Krugman argued that higher expected inflation would cause negative expected real interest rates and higher aggregate demand and solve the problem. Brad was unconvinced (way back then).

But at this point Krugman doesn't have all the answers. For while the fact of regular, moderate inflation would certainly boost aggregate demand for products made in Japan, the expectation of inflation would cause an adverse shift in aggregate supply: firms and workers would demand higher prices and wages in anticipation of the inflation they expected would occur, and this increase in costs would diminish how much real production and employment would be generated by any particular level of aggregate demand.

Would the benefits on the demand side from the fact of regular moderate inflation outweigh the costs on the supply side of a general expectation that Japan is about to resort to deliberate inflationary finance? Probably. I'm with Krugman on this one. But it is just a guess--it is not my field of expertise--I would want to spend a year examining the macroeconomic structure of the Japanese economy in detail before I would be willing to claim even that my guess was an informed guess.

And there is another problem. Suppose that investors do not see the fact of inflation--suppose that Japan does not adopt inflationary finance--but that a drumbeat of advocates claiming that inflation is necessary causes firms and workers to mark up prices and wages. Then we have the supply-side costs but not the demand-side benefits, and so we are worse off than before.

As Brad now notes, this argument makes no sense. I think it might be hard for people who learned about macro in the age of the liquidity trap to understand what he had in mind. I also think the passage might risk being convincing to people who haven't read enough Krugman or Keynes.

The key problems in the first paragraphs are "adverse" and "any particular level of aggregate demand". Brad assumed that an increase in wage and price demands is an adverse shift. The argument that it is depends on the assumption that he can consider a fixed level of *nominal* aggregate demand (and yet he didn't feel the need to put in the word "nominal"). The butchered sentence "would diminish how much real production and employment would be generated by any particular level of [real] aggregate demand." clearly makes no sense.

During the 80s, new Keynesian macro-economists got into the habit of considering a fixed level of nominal aggregate demand when focusing on aggregate supply. Because it wasn't the focus, they used the simplest existing model of aggregate demand the rigid quantity theory of money in which nominal aggregate demand is a constant times the money supply (which is assumed to be set by the monetary authority). This means that the aggregate demand curve (price level on the y axis and real gdp on the x axis) slopes down. This in turn means that an upward shift in the aggregate supply curve is an adverse shift.

More generally, the way in which a higher price level causes lower real aggregate demand is by reducing the real value of the money supply, but if the economy is in the liquidity trap the reduction in the real money supply has no effect on aggregate demand. In the case considered by Krugman, the aggregate demand curve is vertical. This means that he can discuss the effect of policy on real GDP without considering the aggregate supply curve.

The second paragraph just repeats the assumption that higher expected inflation causes "costs". There are no such costs (at least according to current and then existing theory) if the economy is in a liquidity trap.

The third paragraph shows confusion about the cause of the "demand side benefits". They are caused by higher expected inflation not by higher actual inflation. If there were higher expected inflation not followed by higher actual inflation, Japan would enjoy the benefits anyway. Those benefits would outweigh the non-existent costs.

Krugman actually did consider a model of aggregate supply, but it is so simple it is easy to miss. As usual (well as became usual as Krugman did this again and again) the model has two periods -- the present and the long run. In the present, it is assumed that wages and prices are fixed. In the long run it is assumed that there is full employment and constant inflation. Krugman's point is that all of the important differences between old Keynesian models and models with rational forward looking agents can be understood with just two periods and very simple math. The problem is that the math is so simple that it is easy to not notice it is there and to assume that he ignored the supply side.

I am going to be dumb (I am not playing dumb -- I just worked through each step) and consider different less elegant models of aggregate supply. The following will be extremely boring and pointless

1) fixed nominal wages, flexible prices and profit maximization (this is Keynes's implicit model of aggregate supply). In this case, the supply curve gives increasing real output as a function of the price level. An "adverse" shift of this curve would be a shift up. It would not affect real output in the liquidity trap since the aggregate demand curve is vertical. it would not impose any costs as the increased price level would reduce the real money supply from plenty of liquidity to still plenty of liquidity. This model of aggregate supply is no good (it doesn't fit the facts). It is easy to fear that Krugman implicitly assumed it was valid when in a rush (at least this is easy if one hasn't been reading Krugman every day for years -- he doesn't do things like that).

2) a fixed expectations unaugmented Phillips curve which gives inflation as an increasing function of output. An "adverse" shift of he Phillips curve would imply higher inflation. This would have no costs.

3) an expectations augmented Phillips curve in which expected inflation is equal to lagged inflation -- output becomes a function of the change in inflation. In a liquidity trap, there would be either accelerating inflation or accelerating deflation. For a fixed money supply accelerating inflation would reduce real balances until the economy would no longer be in a liquidity trap. The simple model would imply the possibility of accelerating deflation and ever decreasing output. This model is no good, because such a catastrophe has never occurred, Japan had constant mild deflation which did not accelerate, even during the great depression the periods of deflation ended.

4) An expectations autmented Phillips curve with rational expectations -- oh hell I'll just assume perfect foresight. Here both the aggregate demand and aggregate supply curves are vertical. If they are at different levels of output, there is no solution. The result is that a liquidity trap is impossible. This is basically a flexible price model. If there were aggregate demand greater than the fixed aggregate supply, the price level would jump up until the real value of money wasn't enough to satiate liquidity preference. Krugman assumed that, in the long run, people don't make systematic forecasting mistakes. So he assumed that the economy can't stay in the liquidity trap for the long run. Ah yes, his model had everything new classical in the long run (this is the point on which Krugman has marked his beliefs to market).

The argument that Krugman would not have reached his conclusions about the economics of economies in liquidity traps if he had considered the supply side only makes sense if it includes the intermediate step that, if one considers the supply side, one must conclude that economies can never be in liquidity traps. This is no good as Japan was in the liquidity trap as are all developed countries at present.

I think the only promising effort here was 3 -- a Phillips curve with autoregressive expectations. The problem is why hasn't accelerating deflation ever occurred ? Way back in 1999, Krugman clearly thought that the answer was just that we had been lucky so far. He warned of the risk of accelerating deflation. Now he thinks he was wrong. Like Krugman, I think the reason is that there is downward nominal rigidity -- that it is very hard to get people to accept a lower nominal wage or sell for a lower price. This depends on the change in the wage or price and *not* in that change minus expected inflation.

Clearly this rigidity isn't absolute (Japan has had deflation and there were episodes of deflation in the 30s). But it is possible to get write a model in which unemployment is above the non accelerating inflation rate, but nominal wages aren't cut. In this case expected inflation remains constant -- actual deflation doesn't occur so expected deflation doesn't occur. The math can work. See here

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Karl Marx didn't feel the Bern in 1875

The democratic socialist Bernie Sanders says that higher education should be provided without tuition. What did socialist Karl Marx think of that ?
"Universal compulsory school attendance. Free instruction." The former exists even in Germany, the second in Switzerland and in the United States in the case of elementary schools. If in some states of the latter country higher education institutions are also "free", that only means in fact defraying the cost of education of the upper classes from the general tax receipts. Incidentally, the same holds good for "free administration of justice" demanded under A, 5. The administration of criminal justice is to be had free everywhere; that of civil justice is concerned almost exclusively with conflicts over property and hence affects almost exclusively the possessing classes. Are they to carry on their litigation at the expense of the national coffers?
Yep he said that free higher education was a total scam. Karl Marx against Bernie Sanders. Also note that back in the day (1875) there were 0 tuition universities in the USA. With progress like this the USA will have a god-Pharoah by 2075. And how about that tort reform ? The GOP wouldn't dream of making plaintiffs pay judges for their time, but Karl Marx went there (OK he was there it was the way things were back then).

Thursday, March 10, 2016

On Delong at Huffington

This is my comment on Brad DeLong's article in the Huffington Post.

I think the Huffington post editor might have cut out a key paragraph. In the article as edited there is no description of an overhang until remedies are discussed

"What we need now is 1) debt relief to unwind the overhang and 2) much tighter financial regulation to prevent the growth of new fragilities. And if those prove inconsistent with full recovery, then we need massive government spending on infrastructure and other investments financed by money printing until full employment is reattained."

It isn't clear exactly which overhang you had in mind. I assume it is household debt as you wrote somewhere that you have been convinced by Mian and Sufi.

I don't know if this is due to the ruthless Huffingediting, but I have 3 problems with your proposals.

1) I strongly object to the word "then". As written it implies that fiscal stimulus should be used only after debt relief is tried and fails. Ignoring the political impossibility of fiscal stimulus (on the grounds that debt relief is also politically impossible) I'd argue for fiscal stimulus now. Even if debt relief works, it will take time. I am ignoring politics so I assume Congress acts tomorrow, but even then (tomorrow) it will be slow and messy. Unlike bankers, ordinary people don't promptly find out about available subsidies and grab them. Relief for the banks took time. Under the most optimistic forecast there should still be slack demand (at a Federal funds rate of zero) for over a year -- time for fiscal stimulus to help.

2) We need massive government investment. It doesn't have to be financed with money printing. I think it makes almost exactly difference if it is financed with money or T-bills -- money and T-bills are still essentially perfect substitutes. I think it makes very very little difference if it is financed with money or 7 year treasury notes. I note the lack of evidece for a correctly signed effect of QE-II. Finally, I think it makes almost no difference whether it is financed with debt or taxes on capital income or high labor incomes. I note that monetized deficits are taboo and deficit spending is unpopular while higher taxes on the rich are popular (supported even by a substatial minority of self declared Republicans).

3) I am not sure what the effect of debt overhang is supposed to be. You often print your NIPA graph of components of aggregate demand and note that the shortfall is in housing investment and public consumption and investment. The abnormally low public investment tends to suggest to anyone who doesn't think it was way to high in the past, that it should be increased even if the social cost were ordinary (that is aside from your macroeconomic consideration). For public investment, the relevant debt overhang is state and local government debt. Bond markets tell us that Federal debt is a political not an economic problem.

So I guess you think that housing investment is lower than it should be due to excessive household debt. Yes that is a value judgment (your proposals must be intended to change things from the way they are to the way they should be). Your value judgment is based on the assumption that US housing invesment was the way it should be back in 2000 before the bubble. I remain unconvinced that 2000 was before the bubble. I think demand for houses back in 2000 was based on irrational beliefs about house price appreciation which couldn't last forever -- that is I think there was a housing buble back then too. I think it started in the 1970s. What if Shiller is right and there isn't a long term trend in (house prices)/(consumer price index, people have incorrectly believed for decades that there is, and people now believe there isn't ? Then it is possible that curent levels of housing investment are the new normal and other sources of aggregate demand must be found. I think it is entirely possible that housing investment in the 80s and 90s was due to a bubble which couldn't last forever, but did last an extraodrinarily long time, because the people extrapolated a trend in a relative price which they didn't observe.

I'm not convinced there is anything abnormal in US aggregate demand except for low government consumption plus investment.

This is too long already, but I note that I agree with mwilbert and dilbert dogbert (in comments here ) that there seems to be a trend in prime age labor force participation which is not just due to low aggregate demand and discouragement. I the issue is that some people who are classified as prime age don't feel that they are in their prime (increasing numbers claim to be disabled). Now this is horrible for those of us who left prime age in the past year but it's in the data. Prime aged adults are aging and labor force participation has always declined some well before people had any business thinking about retiring (stop Robert you have to actually work in, like, a real job before you can retire). There is no need to look only at such a simple statistic as the prime age employment ratio. It is possible to regress labor force participation on year dummies and a flexible function of age and look at the coefficients on the year dummies. This has been done and it makes a difference.

Also I think Krugman (as usual) shares some of the credit for getting things right. He argued that this is not our father's recession and contrasted inflation fighting and bubble bursting recessions. Your (brilliant) look at every 4th year univariate analysis of GDP didn't take into account the fact that the Fed was slamming on the brakes then on the gas in your sample. A normal recovery included a dramatic decline in the Federal Funds rate. Stiglitz wasn't the only one who noted that wasn't going to happen in 2009.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

E-mail is the work of the Devil

Ross Douthat's Sunday Column

I blame Josh Barro who tweeted a link to this column. So I started to read it. Note to self -- don't Do that.

So I fisk.

"MAYBE Donald Trump is doing us a favor.

The United States has long been spared a truly authoritarian element in our politics. Since Southern apartheid was crushed and far-left terrorism died away , we’ve had very little organized political violence, and few homegrown movements that manifest the authoritarian temptation."

Far right terrorism with no explicit link to Southern apartheid has long (I think always) been stronger than far left terrorism. The "far-left terrorism" is a mixture of Ballance and determination to keep the affirmative action for Republicans advantage.

"Yes, our political institutions are creaking, and our presidency is increasingly imperial. But there are still basic norms that both parties and every major politician claim to honor and respect."

The presidency is much less imperial than it wsa 8 years ago, when the administration explicitly asserted that the president was above the law ("when acting as commander in Chief") when the president claimed the authority to have US citizens arrested in the US and held indefinitely without trial or access to counsel, & when the president claimed the authority to establish special tribunals by executive order without even the pretense that the order was executing a law. Here Douthat wrote something absurd and plainly false, because he has to write it to claim he is a Republican and has a right to be a token Republican on the NY Times opinion pages.

"What Trump is doing, then, is showing us something different, something that less fortunate countries know all too well: how authoritarianism works, how it seduces, and ultimately how it wins.

But — God willing — he’s doing it in a way that’s sufficiently chaotic, ridiculous and ultimately unpopular that he will pass from the scene without actually taking power, leaving us to absorb the lessons of his rise."

I note the logical inconsistency between saying Trump shows how authoritarianism wins and the hope that he is incompetent so his authoritarian effort will lose. It can only mean that the way authoritarianism wins is by being "chaotic, ridiculous and ... unpopular". I think this is the most charitable possible interpretation of Douthat's reasoning.

"That rise has four building blocks. First, his strongest supporters have entirely legitimate grievances. The core of that support is a white working class that the Democratic Party has half-abandoned and the Republican Party has poorly served — a cohort facing social breakdown and economic stagnation, and stuck with a liberal party offering condescension and open borders and a conservative party offering foreign quagmires and capital gains tax cuts. Trump’s support is broader than just these voters, but they’re the reason he’s a phenomenon, a force."

The Democratss offer closed borders with a very high rate of deportations (record level ?) and negative net migration from Mexico. Douhat must know this, but I think he considers noting inconvenient facts to be "condescension". Of course he can effortlessly make the case that Republican policies are bad for the working class (white and non-white) but he can only make a plainly utterly false assertion on a matter of fact and link to a necessarily subjective assessment of tone to make the case against the Democrats. He knows this and it doesn't matter. He is trying to participate in the debate within the GOP. False assertions on the increawsingly imperial presidency and open borders are part of the admission fee.

"Second, you have the opportunists — the politicians and media figures who have seen some advantage from elevating Trump. The first wave of these boosters, including Ted Cruz and various talk radio hosts, clearly imagined that Trump would flare and die, and by being in his corner early they could win his voters later, or gain his fans as listeners. But the next wave, upon us now, thinks that Trump is here to stay, and their hope is to join his inner circle (if they’re politicians), shape his policy proposals (if they’re idea peddlers), or be the voice of the Trump era (if they’re Sean Hannity).

There is no real ideological consistency to this group: Trump’s expanding circle of apologists includes Sarah Palin and Steve Forbes, Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie; he has anti-immigration populists and Wall Street supply-siders, True Conservatives and self-conscious moderates, evangelical preachers and avowed white nationalists. The only common threads are cynicism, ambition and a sense of Trump as a ticket to influence they couldn’t get any other way.

Then third, you have the institutionalists — less cynical, not at all enamored of Trump, but unwilling to do all that much to stop him. These are people who mostly just want Republican politics to go back to normal, who fear risk and breakage and schism too much to go all in against him.

The institutionalists include the party apparatchiks who imagine they can manage and constrain Trump if he gets the nomination. They include the donors who’ve been reluctant to fund the kind of scorched-earth assault that the Democrats surely have waiting. They include the rivals who denounce Trump as a con artist but promise to vote for him in the fall. They include Republicans who keep telling themselves stories about how Trump will appoint conservative justices or Trump is expanding the party to pretend that Trump versus Hillary would be a normal sort of vote. And they even include the occasional liberal convinced that Trump-the-dealmaker is someone the Democrats can eventually do business with.

" I actually agree with these 4 paragraphs.

"Then, finally, you have the inevitabilists — not Trump supporters, but Trump enablers, who encourage the institutionalists in their paralysis by acting and talking as if the support of 35 percent of the primary electorate means Trump Cannot Be Stopped."

Actually 43%. Also I read only that he will be unstoppable if nothing changes before the ides of March are passed. Douthat doesn't quote an inevitabilist. He can't, because although there are preople who are confident that Trump won't be stopped all know he could be (if the voters unanimously decide to stop him he will be stopped). Douthat set up a straw man who made an absurd claim.

Some inevitabilists are intoxicated with celebrity and star power. Cable news is riddled with such voices, who daily manifest Orwell’s dictum, “Power worship blurs political judgment,” so that, “Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.”

Does the NY Times have copy editors ? Douthat used quotation marks without quoting anyone in particular. He asserted that someone said those words in that order (and no others note no ellipses). The quoted words are a claim of fact, whihc should be checked. Douthat should be forced to retract his claim if he can't proves someone said each of those things. Also note how the (falsely alleged) claim that someone "seems invincible" is used to support the (unsupported) claim that someone thinks Trump is invincible. It seems that Douthat does not understand the difference between to be and to seem to be.

"Others, especially in the intelligentsia, have a kind of highbrow nihilism about our politics, a sense that American democracy’s decadence — or the Republican Party’s decadence, in particular — is so advanced that a cleansing Trumpian fire might be just the thing we need.

I have a little bit of the last vice, which is why I spent a long time being anti-anti-Trump: not rooting for him to win, but appreciating his truth-telling on certain issues, his capacity to upset the stagnant status quo.

Which is the way it so often works with authoritarians. They promise a purgation that many people at some level already desire, and only too late do you realize that the purge will extend too far, and burn away too much."

OK Ross Douthat has finally named one of the fools tempted by authoritarianism. He is named Ross Douthat. I can't contradict Douthat's claim that he is a fool who plays with fire. He would know.

"Fortunately Trump’s fire should still be contained, by the wider electorate if not by his hapless party. Fortunately he’s still more a comic-opera demagogue than a clear and present danger. Fortunately this is just history giving us a lesson in what could happen, how the republic could slide into a strongman’s hands.

" Fortunately."

A bit weak on "should" and "shall" isn't he. I suppose that given this column, Douthat has decided to vote for Clinton or Sanders rather than Trump. But he didn't write that did he ?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Christie on Trump

Endorsing Trump Chris Christie said

Christie argued that Trump has the executive experience necessary to be president. "This is only guy on the stage, other than Gov. Kasich, who made executive decisions, made executive decisions throughout his life," Christie said. "Who put together budget and makes sure money is spent efficiently and effectively in order to create profit, and would make sure the country moving forward would get on that kind of track. This guy knows how to do that better than anybody on that stage."
Now I always considered profit and bankruptcy diametric opposites as in profit>loss>bankruptcy, but, given New Jersey's current credit rating, I guess I understand the sense of sympathy. Trump & Christie the insolvency caucus (but why hasn't Jindahl joined ?)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Still Grinding Old Axes After All These Years

I have been arguing with Political Animals about Welfare Reform for years. It started when Ed Kilgore wrote

TANF costs and caseloads were intended to go down in no small part because the other safety net programs, along with the extremely important earned income tax credit (EITC) were intended to pick up the slack. And that’s why the GOP proposals are so devastating: they knock the very props from beneath the effort to “make work pay” that was more important than state generosity in TANF rules or funding in making welfare reform work as well as it has.

The problem is that the extremely important increase in the EITC was enacted in 1993 and had nothing to do with the 1996 welfare reform bill. There was no need to accept the time limits, block granting, elimination of food stamps for legal immigrants or elimination of food stamps for adults without children in order to obtain the EITC increase. the EITC increase was current policy when the welfare reform bills reached Bill Clinton's desk.

A former deputy assistant secretary of the treasury who shall remain nameless remarked "oh how embarrassing."

Ed Kilgore has corrected his error more recently writing

"the EITC that had already been greatly increased long before the third welfare bill hit his desk. "

(Clinton vetoed the first and second welfare reform bills to hit his desk).

But now Bryce Covert reports

"The Clinton campaign responded to Sanders’ attack on Wednesday, pointing out that welfare reform came as a package of measures and highlighted the inclusion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income families"

The claim by the (un-named) source is totally false nonsense. The 1996 welfare reform did not come as a package of measures including the 1993 increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit. They were not part of the same package at all. The 1993 bill was passed with zero Republican votes. The 1996 bill was written by a Congress with Republican majorities in the House and the Senate.

The claim that the two reforms were a package is totally 100% false. I guess some campaign staffer who was a child in 1993 might be honestly confused, but Hillary Clinton knows the claim is false and should correct her spokesperson.

Final note: I don't regret voting for Clinton (by e-mail) in the 2016 Massachusetts Democratic primary.

Welfare Reform Againnnnn

I often bore myself. I have been arguing with political animals about the 1996 welfare reform bill for years now.

It started with Ed Kilgore (now at New York Magazine)

Then original political animal Kevin Drum discussed it at and I threw a political cow

Now Nancy LeTourneau wrote "Let’s Talk About Welfare Reform"

She writes a lot of interesting and reasonable things (it is probably best to just click the link). She also copied Kevin Drum's graph *and* his crazy claim that a 50% increase is small. I will just steal the graph and link to Drum.

I commented

This will be my usual comment. I have written often on the topic in this comment box (because Ed Kilgore wrote something about welfare reform). The green curve Drum highlighted in the graph you posted suggests massive damage due to the 1996 bill -- the percentage of households with children living with less than $2 per capita per day has increased by 50% (=0.5 percentage points) since 1996. This is a huge increase indicating a huge number of additional people suffering third world poverty (when as is correct SNAP is included).

The curve looks roughly horizontal because the number was and is so much lower than the other numbers (say excluding food stamps/SNAP) that a huge proportional change looks tiny.

Similarly, if you had put the percentage of people murdered in a given year it would look perfectly flat (also in 2001). The graph shows that, correctly assessed, the welfare reform bill was no huge deal if and only if you consider 9/11 no biggie.

A 50% increase in poverty so severe we consider it horrible in the third world is not a minor change.

I object to somethign LeTourneau wrote "Understanding all of that, we can then talk about what an effective anti-poverty agenda would actually look like. Rather than assume that it means going back to the old AFDC model, it would include two things:" To assume that critics of the 1996 bill propose exactly repealing it and ask if that the perfect policy is to set up a straw man. You decide to ascribe one exact proposal to us (without citing anyone) and contrast it with open ended proposals. Also arguing agings "assuming" is always and invariably setting up a straw man. I don't think such rhetoric is effective and I think it lowers the level of debate.

Finally, on the comparison, I think (really guess based on near total ignorance) the recent evidence suggests that just giving cash is more efficient than giving advice via social workers. I'd consider "housing first" and the homeless and long term inter-generational effects of food stamps. The amount of money involved (say the amount to eliminate the 1.5% rate of extreme severe third world poverty) is tiny compared to the US budget.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


First I don't just think that Democrats should think about which presidential candidate has a better chance of winning -- I think Democrats should think only about which presidential candidate has a better chance of winning. Clinton and Sanders are very different. A Clinton administration and a Sanders administration will be very similar to each other and to Obama post 2010. In contrast a Trump, Cruz or Rubio administration would be a catastrophe.

All we need is a president with five fingers who can veto bills.

This reasoning caused me to vote (by e-mail) for Clinton, but I am not confident that I made the right choice. I can make the argument that Sanders is more electable. I can also argue that a Sanders nomination would be better for down ticket Democrats.

I wouldn't base it on general election polls which show Sanders performing slightly better than Clinton. I think these polls tell us nothing about what a GOP negative campaign would do to Sanders. But I sometimes think that the one key variable is youth turnout -- when young people vote Democrats win, when young people don't vote Republicans win. Young Democrats prefer Sanders. I am confident that a larger fraction of young Democrats will actually vote if Sanders is the nominee. Youth turnout is more important that campaign cash for Democratic candidates for the house, senate and state legislatures.

I am not convinced by this argument, I voted for Clinton. But it makes some sense.

Once Berned Twice Shy

A majority of young Democrats support Bernie Sanders. A majority of not so young Democrats support Hillary Clinton. The generation gap is not surprising at all. People tend to move right as they age. Older people note that we have learned to compromise and deal with reality. Younger people note that we have become cynical and lost the audacity of hope. But the question is why is the generation gap more marked now than it was in the 80s and 90s. I'm old enough to remember a *real* generation gap. I remember 1972 (I even remember 1968). One explanation of the Sanders phenomenon is that people under 30 don't remember the USSR and associate the word "socialism" with Sweden not Stalin. I think another explanation is that young people don't remember 1972. I'm a late boomer (1960) and have long been very irritated that the leaders of the Democratic party are older than me people who can't get over the mistake of supporting McGovern in the 1972 primaries. Now I know how they feel. I am sure that Sanders if vulnerable to a negative campaign accusing him of being a socialist (which would have the additional advantage of being true). I don't trust the early general election polls at all.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Beating a Dead Fish In a Barrel

I believe that if Osama bin Laden had been killed, Al Qaeda as an organization would not have grown to the point where it could have conducted 9/11," Rubio said. "And my argument was, no, the responsibility of 9/11 falls on the fact that Al Qaeda was allowed to grow and prosper and the decision was not made to take out the leader when the chance existed to do so."

Marco Rubio 2016

"I want you to kill Bin Laden"

Bill Clinton 1998 (quoted by Richard Clarke in "Against all Enemies"

About 75[24][3] Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired by the U.S. into the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan at four Afghan training camps:

Al Farouq training camp[25]

Muawai camp run by the Pakistani Harkat-ul-Mujahideen to train militants to fight Indian troops in Kashmir[26][27]

Zhawar Kili al-Badr, which was directed by bin Laden, and known to be a meeting place for leaders.[28][29]

The attack was made partly in an attempt to assassinate bin Laden and other leaders.[30] After the attack, the CIA heard that bin Laden had been at Zhawar Kili al-Badr but had left some hours before the missiles hit


Sunday, February 14, 2016

Donald Trump GOP nominee

I have tried to avoid making predictions since 2004 when I predicted that Kerry would be elected, but now, as a result of the overwhelming evidence reported below, I can't honestly claim to doubt that Donald Trump with be the 2016 GOP nominee

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Does Ed Kilgore Have to Repudiate Ed Kilgore

I can't resist grinding old axes. I assert that Ed Kilgore really really should formally and explicitly repudiate something he wrote and publicly apologize to Jason DeParle.

The absurd argument that this discussion has any current relevance (which I don't make) is based on this relatively recent post from last May "Does HRC Need to Repudiate Welfare Reform?"

Kilgore answers that she doesn't, and I absolutely agree. I would go further and argue that Clinton must not repudiate welfare reform, since that repudiation might cause the election of a Republican. I think she must refrain from all criticism of the 1996 welfare reform bill. One important reason (among many others) is that by avoiding the topic during the campaign she increases the chance that she will be able to undo some of the damage.

Kilgore is (explicitly) discussing politics not policy -- the optimal presidential campaign not the optimal welfare policy.

But he is not willing to just leave it at that. He argues that welfare reform would have worked better if it were not for George Bush here

"Of course the ability to get people intro entry level jobs and into some sort of upward mobility depended heavily on what happened to the EITC, Medicaid, SNAP and many other elements of “making work pay” during a less than supportive Bush administration!"

So what happened to EITC, Medicaid, and SNAP under Bush ? Well there was a large increase in the child tax credit, which is very similar to the EITC. Medicaid and SNAP were not changed. The claim that problems with welfare reform are Bush's fault is completely unsupported by any evidence, because there is no evidence to support it. It is a red herring.

Also Kilgore doesn't discuss the 1996 welfare reform bill and SNAP (then called food stamps). The program was ruthlessly slashed by the 1996 bill. The vast bulk of the forecast reduction in social welfare spending was due to cuts to food stamps and not to the transition from AFDC to TANF. In particular one provision of the bill was that food stamps were not supposed to be provided to adults without children. This means they were supposed to get nothing at all no matter how poor they were (obviously they get neither AFDC nor TANF).

Kilgore mentions SNAP when arguing that the welfare bill was not so bad, because he has forgotten the text of the bill. I note in passing that I lived in Italy, didn't surf the web and didn't subscribe to a US newspaper at the time. I learned everything I know about the 1996 bill by reading The New Republic in 1996.

However, he is making progress. In 2012 he wrote

the biggest problem with the “welfare reform has failed” narrative, and with treating the Ryan budget as a logical extension of welfare reform, is that it ignores one of the main purposes of the 1996 act was to make other elements of the safety net, some work-conditional and others simply much better targeted, more central, even as they were significantly strengthened. As Elaine Kamarck explained at Ten Miles Square back in September of 2011:

[T]he intent of welfare reform was to move as many Americans as possible off the welfare rolls, which, by supporting mothers only if they weren’t working and weren’t married, created lamentable behavioral incentives. The goal was to see them then move into either the work world or the arms of other government programs that offer more targeted forms of assistance. In both respects, the law has been a success. No doubt the safety net needs shoring up. But even in these tough economic times, it is providing much more of a cushion for the kinds of families that once relied on welfare than its critics seem to realize. In today’s WaPo, Ezra Klein takes a different tack in suggesting that welfare reform’s record is an accurate yardstick for how the Ryan budget might work out: since Ryan (and for that matter, in his own proposal, Mitt Romney) wants to turn Medicaid, food stamps and other safety-net programs into state-run block grants, it’s important to look at how states have cut TANF to see how they might handle these other programs.

Ezra’s right about that, but like Paul Ryan, he’s mixing apples and oranges: TANF costs and caseloads were intended to go down in no small part because the other safety net programs, along with the extremely important earned income tax credit (EITC) were intended to pick up the slack.

In 2015 he correctly wrote

is Clinton’s record on “poverty and the safety net” entirely reducible to the 1996 welfare law? Definitely not; you could make a pretty good case that Clinton’s whole strategy was to shift the emphasis from wildly unpopular, inadequate and state-controlled cash assistance to other, federally controlled income support mechanisms, including the EITC that had already been greatly increased long before the third welfare bill hit his desk.

So the 1993 EITC expansion has changed from being one of the "main purposes of the 1996 act" to something which happened long before.

In 2012 Kilgore was writing based on an incorrect recollection of the events. He accused Klein of mixing apples and oranges because he Kilgore and not Klein insisted on mixing apples and oranges and assuming that 1993=1996.

Kilgore should update his 2012 post to note his error. He should also try to revise the argument he made in 2012 to see if it can still stand without the support of the false claim of fact. I think it is very clear that it doesn't and that recognition of the undeniable facts of history makes it impossible for Kilgore to defend his 2012 conclusions. Note the absense of any argument that the 1996 reform was an improvent in the 2015 post which mostly argues that discussing it is bad politics (I agree) and that it is no big deal (I passionately disagree).

I also think that Kilgore owes Exra Klein and Jason DeParle apologies and that he should make those apologies both in person and publicly.

But mostly I think he really has to stop mixing discussion of politics and policy. He can discuss political strategy without discussing the effects of hypothetical policy reforms (especially those which are politically impossible). But he just can't resist. He also has trouble refraining from linking to Elaine Kamarck who has trouble sticking to policy analysis.

I think it has finally become very clear to Kilgore that the 1996 welfare reform bill was bad policy. He clearly stongly believes that it is a topic which Democrats should avoid (so does Bernie Sanders). But he can't resist attempting some argument that, back in 1996, the lefties who disagreed with him weren't entirely right. He can't make a counter argument (he didn't try in 2015) but he can't either force himself to concede (which is painful) or discuss political strategy only without trying to hint that we weren't right about policy back in 1996.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


I try to avoid making predictions. I have tried harder since November 2004 when I predicted that John Kerry would be elected. But on Monday, Fabrizio Mattesini pulled a prediction out of me -- I predicted that Marco Rubio would not be the Republican nominee. This was after the debate. This was after the debate. This was after the debate. This was after. But really, it was obvious, at least, that Rubio would do terribly in New Hampshire. The evidence, amounting to proof, is
via vox