Archive for the ‘Economic Policy’ Category

Incorrect Economic Historian Is Incorrect

Thomas Masterson | November 20, 2012

Amity Shlaes, whose main claim to fame is an allegedly new history of the Great Depression, thinks we may be in trouble as a result of the election. Looking beyond her alarmingly alliterative title (“2013 Looks to be a Lot Like 1937 in Four Fearsome Ways!”  Oooh! Scary!) she has some valid points. Of course she is talking about the stock market not the real economy, which produces the jobs and the economic benefits most people rely on for a living. And, unfortunately, she doesn’t realize where she is right.

But first, what are the four fearsome factors that will drive us to doom? First, a federal spending spree before the election. Shlaes uses “the old 19% rule” as a benchmark to argue that because federal government spending in 2012 “when the crisis was long past” was 24.3% of GDP, clearly the Obama administration was spending up a storm. To argue that the crisis is long past, one must be willing to ignore the employment crisis that still hasn’t left us, but let’s give her this one. Whether this is a problem given current economic conditions is another story. If it’s the debt implications you’re worried about, it is worth noting that revenues as a percentage of GDP are also quite low historically speaking, just over 15% for the last few years (see CBO’s historical budget data).

Shlaes’ second fear factor is a bath of cold water afterwards. Roosevelt restored budget balance in 1937 and since that very topic (and who David Petraeus was or was not sleeping with) is all people are talking about in Washington these days it seems likely we’ll get spending cuts and tax increases in the next budget. The “depression within the Depression” was the result of exactly this fiscal restraint. This is where Shlaes is quite right, though she doesn’t actually come out and say this: whether the President and Congress jump off the fiscal cliff together, which would reduce spending across the board, or avoid it by cutting spending on everything but defense instead, we are in for poor economic performance indeed.

Shlaes’ third scary thing is the fearsome attack on the status quo. In 1937, this meant raising the top marginal rate from 56% (where it had been raised by Hoover in 1932 from 25%) to 62% (this actually passed in 1936) and the undistributed profits tax. This, and Roosevelt’s attempts to pack the Supreme Court meant that (stock) markets “shivered.” Note that this year, Obama is talking about raising the top rate to, um, 39.6%, which is where it was before the Bush tax cuts. Remember how much markets were “shivering” in the 1990s? Me neither.

continue reading…


Do the Personal Characteristics of the Prime Minister Affect Economic Growth?

Lekha Chakraborty | September 17, 2012

by Lekha Chakraborty

India has recently turned to a debate over the effect of the Prime Minister’s personal characteristics on the country’s growth and development outcomes. Do political leaders’ personal characteristics affect economic growth? It is an elusive empirical question.

One of the most robust findings of a recent treatment of this topic is that leaders do matter for economic growth and, in particular, more educated leaders generate higher growth. The paper, titled “Do Educated Leaders Matter?,” appeared in The Economic Journal in 2011, by Timothy Besley of the London School of Economics and co-authored by Jose G. Montalvo and Marta Reynal-Querol. They examined this issue in a new context of how the educational attainment of a political leader affects a country’s economic growth during the leader’s tenure in office. The study also finds a strong negative effect on growth of a random exit of the Prime Minister from his office.  “[I]ntelligence is central to the Platonic view of leadership,” they write, “so the idea that more educated citizens could be better leaders would come as no surprise.” This finding naturally leads us to the question of who should be appointed as Prime Minister. In India, we currently find a well-educated technocrat in that position.

With the recent controversial article by Simon Denyer, the New Delhi bureau chief of the Washington Post, the focus on the potential personal impact of the Prime Minister on reform policies or economic growth has reached its peak.   continue reading…


Eccles on How to End the Crisis

Thorvald Grung Moe | September 14, 2012

Marriner Eccles was Chairman of the Federal Reserve under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This note consists of excerpts from an address he gave to the US Senate Committee on Finance in 1933, before he was called to Washington for public service by FDR. The original address contained in the Congressional Records has been reduced from over thirty pages (including questions and answers) to only three pages here that contain his essential message. Some parts have been slightly modified to fit the current time and crisis. Additions or alteration to the text has been marked by square brackets. All original figures used by Eccles in the address have been inflated by a factor of 16.4, according to the official US CPI index.

In the mad confusion and fear brought about by our present disordered economies, we need bold and courageous leadership more than at any other time in our history. The orthodox capitalistic system of uncontrolled individualism, with its free competition, will no longer serve our purpose. We can only survive and function under a modified capitalistic system controlled and regulated from the top by government.

The proposals I offer are all intended to bring about, by Government action, an increase of purchasing power on the part of all the people, resulting in an immediate and increasing volume in all lines of business with consequent diminution of unemployment and distress and gradual restoration of our national income. When this is accomplished, and not before, can the Government hope to balance its budget and our people regain their standard of living. continue reading…


Where Will US Growth Come From If Austerity Reigns?

Michael Stephens | April 27, 2012

That’s one of the questions the Levy Institute’s latest Strategic Analysis asks as it examines the Congressional Budget Office’s projections for growth and employment in the context of tighter and tighter government budgets.  At the federal level alone we’re facing a well-publicized “fiscal cliff” in 2013, featuring large scheduled spending cuts and the expiration of a number of tax cuts.

As Dimitri Papadimitriou, Gennaro Zezza, and Greg Hannsgen note, the CBO “expects real GDP to grow by 2.2 percent in 2012 and by only 1 percent in 2013, and to accelerate once most of the fiscal adjustment has taken place, with growth reaching 3.6 percent in 2014 and 4.9 percent in 2015.  The unemployment rate is expected to rise to 9.1 percent with the slowdown in economic activity, and to fall rapidly from 2014 onward, once the economy recovers.”  This is all expected to take place in the presence of shrinking government deficits (based on the CBO’s “current law” projections for the federal budget).

Using the CBO’s numbers, the Institute’s macro team ran a simulation to find out what would have to happen in the rest of the economy to make this combination of budget austerity and even tepid-to-moderate growth possible.  The answer:  dramatic increases in private sector borrowing.  Here’s their graph showing, through 2016, the rise in private sector debt that would be necessary to attain the CBO’s economic growth projections in the context of austerity:


Since we cannot expect strong demand for US exports, given the state of the world economy, household and nonfinancial business debt would have to rise, relative to GDP, to levels that would return us to a situation “not so different from the one we had before the 2007-09 recession.”  If you recall, that didn’t end well.


Godley’s Seven Unsustainable Processes

Michael Stephens | April 26, 2012

Over at his Concerted Action blog, Ramanan has a post featuring some of Wynne Godley’s Levy Institute publications with special attention paid to Godley’s prescient “Seven Unsustainable Processes,” which appeared in 1999 as part of the Levy Institute’s continuing Strategic Analysis series.  Ramanan (whose blog derives its name from Godley’s last Strategic Analysis [2008]) quotes this passage from “Seven Unsustainable Processes” in which Godley, in the context of the budget surpluses of the ’90s, contrasted his approach to macro modeling (and its policy upshots) with what he regarded as the “consensus view” at the time:

The difference between the consensus view and that put forward here could not exist without a profound difference in the view of how the economy works. So far as the author can observe, the underlying theoretical perspective of the optimists, whether they realize it or not, sees all agents, including the government, as participants in a gigantic market process in which commodities, labor, and financial assets are supplied and demanded. If this market works properly, prices (e.g., for labor and commodities) get established that clear all markets, including the labor market, so that there can be no long-term unemployment and no depression. The only way in which unemployment can be reduced permanently, according to this view, is by making markets work better, say, by removing “rigidities” or improving flows of information. The government is a market participant like any other, its main distinguishing feature being that it can print money. Because the government cannot alter the market-clearing price of labor, there is no way in which fiscal or monetary policy can change aggregate employment and output, except temporarily (by creating false expectations) and perversely (because any interference will cause inflation).

No parody is intended. No other story would make sense of the assumption now commonly made that the balance between tax receipts and public spending has no permanent effect on the evolution of the aggregate demand. And nothing else would make sense of the debate now in full swing about how to “spend” the federal surplus as though this were a nest egg that can be preserved, spent, or squandered without any need to consider the macroeconomic consequences.


Galbraith: How $12 Minimum Wage Could Boost Economy

Michael Stephens | April 5, 2012


Why Minsky Matters (Part One)

L. Randall Wray | March 27, 2012

My friend Steve Keen recently presented a “primer” on Hyman Minsky; you can read it here.

In his piece, Steve criticized the methodology used by Paul Krugman and argued that Krugman could learn a lot from Minsky. In particular, Krugman’s equilibrium approach and primitive dynamics were contrasted to Minsky’s rich analysis. Finally, Krugman’s model of debt deflation dynamics left out banks—while banks always played an important role in Minsky’s approach. Krugman responded here.

I found two things of interest in this exchange.

First, Krugman argued: “So, first of all, my basic reaction to discussions about What Minsky Really Meant — and, similarly, to discussions about What Keynes Really Meant — is, I Don’t Care.” This is not the first time Krugman has mentioned Minsky—see, for example, here, which previewed a talk he was to give titled “The night they reread Minsky.”

Amazingly, Minsky only appears in the title of the talk. It is pretty clear that Krugman has not cared enough to try to find out what Minsky wrote, much less “what Minsky really meant.” Minsky always argued that he stood “on the shoulders of giants”—and he took the time to find out what they had said. So while Minsky probably would have agreed with Krugman that arguing about what the “master” really meant was less interesting, he did believe it was worthwhile to try to understand the writings of those whose shoulders you stand on.

Second, at the end of his most recent blog it is pretty clear that Krugman leaves banks out of his model because he doesn’t understand “what banks do.” He starts by saying ”If I decide to cut back on my spending and stash the funds in a bank, which lends them out to someone else…” Well, if he had actually read Minsky, he would understand that this is the description of a loan shark, not a bank.

So what I want to do today is to quickly summarize Minsky’s main areas of research. Then next week I will post more on Minsky’s view of “money and banking.” For those who want to read ahead, you can see the more “wonkish” piece at the Levy Institute, where I summarize Minsky’s later (mostly unknown) work on banks.

So, who was this Minsky guy and what was he all about? continue reading…


Papadimitriou on Cross Talk

Michael Stephens | February 23, 2012

Everyone from Amity Shlaes to Mitt Romney and the European Commission has been telling us lately that slashing government spending under current economic conditions will depress growth.  On “Cross Talk” Dimitri Papadimitriou debates the merits (or lack thereof) of austerity and explains why the United States of Europe needs to become more like the United States of America:

At the end of the last exchange, when Fragkiskos Filippaios asks, with respect to the idea of a common fiscal policy for Europe, “who’s going to be responsible for that?” you can hear Papadimitriou’s reply:  the European Parliament.  For more on his views about how to complete the incomplete Union in Europe, see Papadimitriou’s latest policy brief, “Fiddling in Euroland.”


Fiddling in Euroland

Michael Stephens | February 21, 2012

The Financial Times got its hands on a confidential “debt sustainability analysis” that was circulated among eurozone finance ministers.  The gist of the analysis is that the austerity measures being imposed on the Greek population will depress growth so brutally that the government will almost certainly not meet its debt reduction targets:

…even under the most optimistic scenario, the austerity measures being imposed on Athens risk a recession so deep that Greece will not be able to climb out of the debt hole over the course of a new three-year, €170bn bail-out.

It warned that two of the new bail-out’s main principles might be self-defeating. Forcing austerity on Greece could cause debt levels to rise by severely weakening the economy while its €200bn debt restructuring could prevent Greece from ever returning to the financial markets by scaring off future private investors.

In other words, the latest rescue plan for Greece could be classified (if one were feeling deeply generous) under the category of “buying time.”  But buying time for what exactly?

In this policy brief, Dimitri Papadimitriou and Randall Wray tell us that the eurozone must ultimately move in one of two directions:  either toward a coordinated breakup or toward the development of some real fiscal and monetary policy capacities, which means having the European Central Bank step up as a buyer of last resort for member-state debt and increasing the fiscal space of the European Parliament so that it is able to stimulate growth.  The Union, in other words, must be severed or completed. continue reading…


Definitely Not a Keynesian Suggestion

Michael Stephens | February 16, 2012

The people at Bloomberg appear to have made a curious error on their website yesterday.  They have attributed an op-ed to Amity Shlaes that was almost certainly not written by her.  You see, Amity Shlaes is a well-known skeptic of Keynes and all things Keynesian, having written the bible for those who like to claim that the New Deal made the Great Depression worse.  (For a nice takedown of such claims, as well as Shlaes’ contributions in particular, see this Levy Institute policy brief.)

The Bloomberg op-ed in question contends that the Obama administration’s intention to withdraw militarily from Afghanistan and other places will devastate those countries’ economies.  This is because, according to the op-ed, establishing US military bases in foreign countries boosts economic growth there.

The real Amity Shlaes would have carefully instructed us that such public interventions not only cannot increase economic growth (even in the context of a downturn) but will actually decrease it (the New Deal, you see, is what made the regular ol’ Depression “Great”).

Now if this was written by Amity Shlaes, it is a peculiar way of announcing her conversion.  But let’s not quibble over ceremony.  If it is indeed Shlaes, let’s follow her lead.  In order to boost the growth rate in a time of economic malaise here at home, we should invite the US military to occupy the United States; we could even pay them a bonus to do it (Shlaes’ calculations suggest this might still be worth our while).

But if the military is too busy increasing other countries’ growth rates, I have another idea.  We could initiate an emergency recruitment drive for the US Army and station the new troops here in the United States, carrying out nation building in particularly distressed economic regions (there are, I believe, a few million people without jobs who would welcome the opportunity).  Of course we might need to build some new infrastructure bases to facilitate these operations here in the US, and may have to hire some additional support staff.

And if the threat of being shipped overseas and put in harm’s way is a barrier to recruitment, we could always create a new, strictly domestic branch of the military that recruits civilians to engage in nation building through repairing schools and providing social services.  We could call it, I don’t know, the Civilian Conservation Nation Building Corps, or something like that.  But none of that Keynesian nonsense please.