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Posts Tagged ‘Stimulus’

The Case Against Everything

February 13, 2012 Leave a comment

There is no more important question when evaluating our personal beliefs, public policy, or science than, “What evidence would cause me to change my opinion?” If you can’t answer that question you are being, by definition, unreasonable.

Will Wilkinson on the Democracy in America blog at The Economist plays the game with some hot-button political issues in response to Charles Murray’s argument that says,

Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded on premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.

That’s as clear-cut of an admission of irrationality as I’ve seen.

I largely agree with Wilkinson so I won’t cover the topics above, but I think it’d be entertaining to go through some others:

Read more…

Categories: Reason Tags: , ,

Uncertain Examples

September 6, 2011 Leave a comment

In my Quixotic quest to find evidence for “policy uncertainty” holding back our recovery, the closest thing I’ve heard to a reasonable and measurable indicator is low “US fixed capital investment.” Alan Greenspan has been trumpeting this metric for at least over a year now. He also uses this example to question the wisdom of the stimulus package. But looking at fixed investment, it’s not apparent that it’s being held back by any change in regulation or fear of future taxes as Greenspan argues.

It’s obvious that investment levels aren’t back to pre-recession heights, yet the trend is clearly recovering from the depths of the recession. In contrast, we have this chart from Jared Bernstein that shows that the stimulus package certainly wasn’t inconsistent with economic growth.

Notice that as fiscal and monetary stimulus begin to run down close to the present we see weaker growth. This correlation isn’t proof, but I’m still waiting on a believable counter-explanation for this data.

Broken Window Fallacy Fallacy

March 16, 2011 Leave a comment

So lately I’ve been hearing Bastiat’s broken window fallacy repeated in order to retort some liberals’ thoughts that the Japanese crisis may help the economy. It was also a common argument – for some reason – against the stimulus.

Veronique de Rugy:

In the Daily Caller, Ryan Young explains why [the Keynesian argument] makes no sense. Sure, Japanese workers will have no choice but to rebuild, and people will have to spend their savings to rebuild their houses or replace possessions destroyed in the quake. That spending will be captured in GDP measurements and it will look like Japan’s economy is boosted. However, Ryan notes:

. . . if the tsunami had never happened, people would still have all the buildings and cars that they had in the first place. They would be able to spend their money on other, additional goods that they want.

And those new construction jobs the tsunami will create? Every last one of those workers could be making something else instead. They could be producing computers, televisions, almost anything.

As not to let the great Bastiat be used so crassly, allow me to point out that, yes, fixing a broken window or a destroyed city won’t make more wealth than we originally started with. It will only get us back to where we previously were. Now let me just clear this up to the anti-stimulus crowd: Bastiat wasn’t arguing to stop fixing broken windows. We had a recession – the economy shrunk. Japan is going through a catastrophic disaster. It helps the economy to fix things.

So when de Rugy says the GDP measurements make it “look like” a boosted economy, what she fails to notice is that it looks like GDP is growing because it is growing. Ryan Young stumbles on the whole reason why we need stimulus when he writes, “those workers could be making something else.” The problem during a recession and our currently weak economy is precisely that lots of idle workers are not making anything. De Rugy smugly wonders why stimulus advocates don’t “recommend that we send our military to destroy New York, and some bridges and roads along the way” in order to improve the economy. Well, Veronique, doing that would commit the broken window fallacy. Thinking that we shouldn’t pay jobless construction workers to fix our naturally crumbling infrastructure is the broken window fallacy fallacy.

Categories: Stimulus, Veronique de Rugy Tags:

Breaking Commitments

December 30, 2010 1 comment

I’m about as big a fan of markets you will find from someone on the center-left (a very imprecise designation). I prefer the government allow free interaction between people as much as possible unless the negative externalities outweigh the positive consequences of the exchange. But certain recessions seem to call out for intervention.

So I have a serious question for all readers that favor government inaction during strong recessions and high unemployment. Let’s abstract away from our current economic predicament. Paul Krugman in an interview with Rachel Maddow discussed our current unemployment mess, but regardless of if you think his analysis of the current economy is accurate try to grapple with this chain of logic:

We don’t have jobs because businesses aren’t hiring. Businesses aren’t hiring because they don’t have sales. Businesses don’t have sales because people don’t have money. People don’t have money because they don’t have jobs.

He believes in these situations the government needs to step in to break that cycle by boosting aggregate demand and putting people to work. For those who don’t favor fiscal or monetary stimulus, what is supposed to break that cycle? Falling prices don’t seem to do it. First deflationary cycles can happen and those are very dangerous. Also “sticky wages” won’t allow businesses to cut nominal wages enough for the market to easily self adjust. Economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller in Animal Spirits discuss the topic.

Yale’s Truman Bewley gives qualitative evidence on money wage stickiness. He conducted an intensive interview study of New Englanders involved in the wage setting process. He asked why money wages had not declined in the New England recession of 1991-92. With the high unemployment of the time, any worker who might quit in response to a wage cut could have been replaced easily and rapidly. But Bewley found that employers were loath to reduce wages during the recession. In the employers’ opinion workers would view such wage cuts as unfair. They would reduce their commitment to their jobs. Furthermore, when the economy revived they would still be angry and thus more likely to quit. Bewley found a few firms that made such cuts, but only after considerable agonizing and also after continued losses. In those rare instances workers accepted wage cuts as fair. They were a last resort, necessary to save their jobs.

It might be an irrational feature of human nature that causes that but it exists and can’t be wished away to fit an ideological commitment to free markets. I suppose one could argue that after the economy completely crashes with prolonged periods of high unemployment which causes huge amounts of human suffering, economic loss, and lost opportunity the economy might eventually self-correct. That might be a necessary evil if it prevented all future recessions, but it obviously wouldn’t.

What is supposed to break that cycle? Are you conceding that a devastating depression is necessary for the market to realign? If so, why is your commitment to markets stronger than it is to people?

Where’s the Rise of Big Government We’ve Been Hearing About? ctd

October 15, 2010 2 comments

Again, where and when did the switch to socialism happen? I can’t seem to find it in the data… Hmmm…. Also, where was the massive increase in spending for stimulus?

Total Government Spending (all levels of government):

DESCRIPTION

The only way you see a massive increase in government is if you only look at short term federal government spending AND ignore the fact that GDP collapsed because of the recession. Yes, taxes coming in are much less because of cuts and because of the recession – that’s what’s really causing the short term deficit.

We’re not going bankrupt because we’re spending too much on infrastructure or any such nonsense. It appears we’re still short about $2 Trillion for infrastructure (well, according to some reports anyway).  Entitlements need to be reformed, the tax base increased, and we need to find a way to increase economic growth. Maybe the Fed actually intends to try something new now.

(graph via Krugman)

No More Uncertainty: It’s Demand

September 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Catherine Rampell, of the Economix blog at the New York Times, shows what “the biggest single problem facing America’s small businesses” is right now.

Much of the debate about how to spur growth and encourage hiring has focused on making the tax picture temporarily more business-friendly. But as you can see, the portion of small businesses citing taxes as their superlative problem has remained about the same — mostly in the 17-22 percent range, say — for about a decade. (my emphasis)

It’s clear that “poor sales” is what has changed (look from Sep ’07 on) and why employers aren’t hiring right now. That’s not to say that taxes aren’t a concern – of course they are a concern – but if you’re trying to argue that small businesses aren’t hiring now because of the increased weight of Obama’s Marxist regulations (dark orange), new crushing tax increases, the recent Nazi-like health insurance scheme (light orange), or because evil unions are keeping wages artificially high (light blue) you might reexamine those views in light of the, you know, evidence. 

Note to policymakers: craft policies that best increase aggregate demand. 

Moreover this demonstrates the continued lack of evidence for the argument from uncertainty (i.e. policy uncertainty is causing businesses not to hire) (see: here, here). Yglesias also asks proponents of that argument to justify their argument from history.

I’d be fascinated to hear Otellini describe to me the past era in which firms knew exactly what their health care, energy, and tax costs were going to be. This was a time in which the future trajectory of oil prices was entirely predictable, and it was clear that congress would never again alter the tax code. A time when general macroeconomic conditions were not subject to any vagaries of fortune. A magical time.

The biggest uncertainty to businesses right now is whether their sales will grow. They don’t see consumers demanding more goods so if they think sales will stay low they won’t hire new workers to supply for that demand. Welcome to Econ 101.


[update 09/18]: I got in a little debate on this topic over at Rick MacDonald’s blog. I’ll crosspost it here but I encourage readers to check out the original post and following discussion at the source. Enjoy. I threw in a couple more links and a graph so readers have an easier time following what I’m referring to. 




Dan:  I’m sympathetic to the argument that we should make tax policy simple, clear, and as least burdensome as possible for the engines of economic growth – businesses. But I have to say I’m completely unpersuaded that the primary trouble for our businesses right now is taxes or policy uncertainty. There just doesn’t seem to be much of any evidence that demonstrates that either of these are unique or major problems to our current economic climate. It seems you’re a proponent of this view and I’ve tried to find some evidence to support those positions (especially the latter). I was wondering if you could respond to my questions regarding this theory. It seems to me that the real problem for small businesses is lack of aggregate demand manifesting in poor sales.


Rick: I’ve provided interviews with Donald Trump, Jim Rogers, T. J. Rodgers and Steve Wynn…if the direct statements of billionaires can’t convince you about the importance of unpredictability and their view that the uncertainty of markets, tax policy and government intervention are inhibitors; it would seem that you are content to remain unconvinced. The consensus as stated by these gentlemen is the consensus on Wall Street among the majority who are holding onto their capital reserves and only betting on the short term.


Dan:  It’s not that I’m content to remain unconvinced, it seems you’ve mistaken some anecdotes for data. In the link I provided survey evidence (close to 4,000 businesses were surveyed) from respected National Federation of Small Businesses, and policy uncertainty doesn’t show up – or at the least isn’t nearly as big a concern as other issues. Poor sales seems to be the overriding concern. Also, I linked to a graph of recent major legislation paired with the stock market and the passing of the bills never seems to greatly affect the stock market in a negative way. Even with healthcare where you’d suppose the most uncertainty resides, that industry has seen the most job growth out of the major sectors of our economy. Furthermore, it’s not clear that if uncertainty is a problem that it’s a major problem (I’m not saying that it’s not a problem AT ALL, even slightly) or that it’s uncertainty with policy rather than run of the mill economic uncertainty. Consider that quote from Matthew Yglesias I referenced, where he makes the point (I made it to you before myself in a previous exchange) that there is no time in history where there is complete economic certainty. Therefore, how can anyone say now that it is a special problem? 

So in light of all this (survey data from thousands of small businesses, stock market/legislation comparative analysis, the case of the healthcare industry, and the general historical perspective) what can you point to that demonstrates that uncertainty is a MAJOR problem? A few businessmen just saying so isn’t especially persuasive – if a few other extremely rich businessmen said the opposite would you find that convincing of my case? If all this doesn’t make you question your case, maybe it is you who “are content to remain unconvinced.” Notice I am just merely asking you to provide some evidence to support your position aside from a few anecdotal statements you have already quoted. I didn’t think it was absurd to ask you to justify your claims or respond to my counter-evidence.


Rick: It’s my view that you are content to remain unconvinced. The “anecdotes” come from 4 major investors and holders of wealth in the form of fixed capital.


As to statistics; many on the left claim that we are not suffering inflation. If you’ve been shopping on your own for a while, you will notice that prices (especially food prices) have been steadily rising even though interest rates remain low. Jobs are still disappearing at over 400,000 a week, wages are beginning to fall as well and credit is tighter than ever in spite of the government spending the wealth of 2-3 generations or more. As I’ve said before, I have too much to do to debate on line via a blog.


The Keynesians say this and the Austrians say that…I tend to agree with the Austrian economists and see hope that Keynesian economics will soon be tossed aside as a failed system and buried in a grave alongside communism. I know, the video is all ancedotal, but it’s also true.

Dan: Well if you’re not interested in convincing people who don’t already share your views that’s your choice I suppose. I know you’re not interested in debating this and that’s fine, I’ll just make a few points and I’ll end my side of the conversation if that’s your preference. First, it’s not just a “claim” on the left that we’re not suffering from inflation. We’re actually not suffering from inflation. I mean honestly, in the past 2 or 3 years has your money really lost all its value? When was the last time you took a wheelbarrow to the store to buy stuff? We’re not even suffering from moderate inflation. The BLS’s core inflation rate is slightly above zero right now
Your example of food prices is especially dubious because that’s not even included in the rate because prices for things like food and energy are very volatile. Even still it’s not like food or energy prices have jumped very much either.
The video you linked is interesting and I’m slightly familiar with Peter Schiff. Just realize that the idea that because 1 austrian economist predicted a few things correctly than the entirety of mainstream economics has been overturned is preposterous and borderline delusional. You realize Keynesian economists make correct predictions too, right? Has an austrian economist ever got anything wrong? If so, does that invalidate the entirety of the discipline for you? He seems to be getting the whole hyperinflation thing wrong – but I guess we’ll just have to see. Another thing, maybe I’m missing it, but nothing he said in the video seems to directly contradict much of anything in new Keynesian economics. I mean it’s not like mainstream economics doesn’t recognize the possibility of housing bubbles or think that selling toxic financial gimmicks are a good thing for the economy.
Also understand that I’m not saying Schiff’s perspective isn’t informative or impressive. I fully concede that mainstream economics may be able to learn from some of the insights of the Austrian school. But your hyperbole about Keynesian economics belonging in the dustbin of history is too much – as if 80 years or so of economic research has been entirely fruitless. Please.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you’d punt rather than grapple with any of my challenges. The Austrian School which you find so persuasive seemingly rejects the whole concept of empiricism and the scientific method. Peter Schiff didn’t bury Keynes, and his shovel hasn’t even broken ground on the Enlightenment.


Rick: Opinions vary, and it’s not that I’m not interested; as I stated earlier, I have little time for long pedantic discussions via comments.
As to the “scientific method” of Keynes, that is all well and good; however, Keynesians leave out the inate tendany of people in power abusing power and acting in ways that are irrational and anti-scientific. They leave behind common sense and ignore corruption and other human factors that one can’t chart except, perhaps, with a Ouija board.
President Obama claims the economy is improving, yet the evidence in housing, unemployment, and contraction of businesses and investment say otherwise. I would tend to call the administration’s opinions more delusional than appreciating what one experiences at the cash register during checkout more so than the comments by the President’s economic team, or his own mouth. Wasn’t it President G. H. W. Bush’s appearance in a store where he couldn’t come close to pricing items? That was the beginning of his reform, and Obama’s “willful suspension of disbelief (H.T. to Hillary Clinton) that will ultimate end his tenure in a vein similar to Jimmy Carter’s.
Of course Austrian economists make mistakes, but they have yet to put the entire global economy in jeopardy to the extent Keynesians have in our current fiasco. I’ll take my chances siding with people like Peter Shiff over others like Art Laffer and Krugman (Keynesians both by definition and admission, but on opposite sides of the Keynesian fence that segments his pragmatic followers according to how much “science” they choose to apply to their “methods”.
Thanks for commenting. Hopefully, you now have a clearer expectation as to what this blog is about and to the audience it tries to serve. Best wishes.

The Great Revision

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment
Every time I argued with Keynes, I felt that I took my life in my hands and I seldom emerged without feeling something of a fool. - Bertrand Russell 



In the past few days I’ve come across some common misunderstandings of what actually happened during the The Great Depression and what lessons it should provide us for monetary and fiscal policy today. One came from my uncle’s coworker and another from a fellow blogger. So readers here get a better sense of my thoughts on both with a risk of being slightly unfocused, I’ll just include some parts from my private email correspondences in with my response to “Rick.” 



Oh Rick, I’m almost sorry to have to chip away at the icon you’ve placed a top the pedestal. Maybe your love of one-dimensional Randian characters explains it, but Amity Schlaes and The Forgotten Man are hard for most of us to sympathize with. You ask your readers to “compare the two statements against easy to find historic facts and decide for yourself whose opinion is the most accurate.” Well, I did. I can understand the appeal of a novel like Atlas Shrugged, but I can’t get behind any of Schlaes’ fiction. 

First and most glaring is her pathological undercounting of jobs during the New Deal. She doesn’t count “work relief jobs” even though these jobs actually help living people and help generate more spending; the only reason I can see not counting them is because they make her argument even worse. Her whole thesis is basically torpedoed with one glance at a graph of the economic performance under the New Deal. 

So there’s your “easy to find historic facts.” No matter how many anecdotes she can cram into her revisionist history, they won’t blind us to the data. When Roosevelt came into office unemployment was over 20% and he cut it by more than half. Not really a glaring indictment. 

I’m also not sure she actually understands that critiquing the New Deal or FDR isn’t the same thing critiquing Keynesian economics or even Keynes himself. Knowledgable Keynesians don’t even make the argument that FDR ended the Great Depression, he helped in some ways and hurt the cause in others. The spending from the WWII and getting off the gold standard, which broke loose the contracting money supply, were far more instrumental. Drop Amity Schlaes and pick up some Milton Friedman at least

Here’s Bruce Bartlett, policy advisor to Ronald Reagan’s and a former treasury department economist.

I am not dogmatic on this issue. I am willing to look at evidence or analysis that recovery from the Great Depression would have been faster if spending had been cut to the level of revenues or even lower or whatever, but I have been unable to get any conservative critic of the New Deal to say that this is what they believe. They always change the subject to various other things Roosevelt did, much of which I agree was mistaken. I just want a simple answer from Amity Shlaes, Jim Powell, and Burt Folsom, all of whom have recent books critical of Roosevelt, to this question: Would recovery have been faster if spending had been cut and deficits had been smaller during the 1930s? If the answer is yes, please provide some logical and empirical evidence supporting this view. (my emphasis)

It also becomes clear trying to read her buckshot critique of Krugman that she doesn’t understand the dynamics of labor price. First of all, rampant deflation is the major cause of real wage rises and real interest rates. So monetary policy, not fiscal or labor policy is the culprit here. Also, when a depression is happening and interest rates are at the lower bound, lowering wages for all workers would be coupled with a lower real price level so demand for labor wouldn’t necessarily change that much.

Suppose that wages across the US economy had been, say, 20 percent lower than they actually were. You might be tempted to say that this would make hiring workers more attractive. But to a first approximation, prices would also have been 20 percent lower — so the real wage would not have been reduced. So how would lower wages lead to higher demand for labor?

What Keynes realized by applying the concept of “sticky prices/wages” (which Shlaes largely ignores) is that the government needs to intervene and push aggregate demand rightward while expanding the real money supply.


Don’t forget too that Keynes wasn’t a marxist, he wanted to save capitalism. Here he is on Hayek’s Road to Serfdom

I find myself moved, not for the first time, to remind contemporary economists that the classical teaching embodied some permanent truths of great significance, which we are liable today to overlook because we associate them with other doctrines which we cannot now accept without much qualification. There are in these matters deep undercurrents at work, natural forces, one can call them, or even the invisible hand, which are operating toward equilibrium. If it were not, we could not have got on even so well as we have for many decades past. 

The point here is that these extreme government interventions are only necessary during specific recessionary conditions. The government isn’t taking private capital out of the economy when it is jump starting idle factories and workers. The whole point is that the resources aren’t being used at all. If we don’t use them we’d get what happened in Japan, a lost decade. 
Let’s see why “simply printing” money can lead to prosperity during these types of economic conditions. When the government prints money it causes inflation, but since we’re well below inflation targets (we actually have a bigger potential problem with deflation right now) more inflation is a good thing. What more money in the economy will do right now is combine “together unemployed workers and idle factories. Remember a recession is a time when we have increasing unemployment and declining capacity utilization. We have factories without workers and workers without factories. Those are resources that could be used to produce things but are not being used.” 

The problem is that since there isn’t enough money in the economy right now consumers can’t spend enough of what’s available to push businesses into hiring more workers. Fortunately, the government can print more money and spend it directly to put those idle resources to use. Interest rates also happen to be at historically low levels so it won’t even cost us that much in future (less valuable) dollars to do so. 

Here’s another helpful way to look at it: “Long-term economic prosperity is determined by how much value a country is capable of creating. […] But in the short-term, gaps can arise between what could be produced and what’s actually being produced. If that gap is small or nonexistent, efforts to “stimulate” production will lead to inflation or mere shifting of resources around. But if the gap is large, then policy needs to induce people who are currently not doing anything to start producing goods and services again.” Stop caring about dollars and start caring about wealth. 


Another common criticism that keeps turning up is the “uncertainty” critique. It argues that businesses are uncertain what certain legislation and other government policies will result in so they won’t hire new workers, but will sit on their profits until they have a better idea of what is going to happen. Aside from not having much evidence (herehere) to support this claim, I’m also baffled that people somehow think the free market is more certain. The free-market does a lot of good things, but certainty isn’t really what defines it. Also, will sweeping reform that pulls the government out of huge portions of the economy really make things more certain? If you think it’d be better, than make that argument – just don’t tell me it’d make things less uncertain. 


Don’t trust Amity Schlaes and others that don’t seem to even understand the arguments for stimulus. Seek out actual economists on the left and the right for more useful arguments for and against stimulus; after reading “historian” Schlaes, it seems we should trust them more on history as well. 


Krugman’s column.
Schlaes’ response.
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