Saturday, February 25, 2012

Heterodox Central Bankers III

Raúl Prebisch (1901-1986)

Raúl Prebisch on the adoption of foreign exchange controls by the Argentinean central bank in 1943:
“This capital [short-term capital] went to further inflate the categories of goods or assets that were already inflated, and did not translate, except in very rare occasions, in a real increase in the production of the country… the measures adopted by the government permit to make an exception, to allow the inflow of these capitals if it is shown that these are oriented towards the increase in real production…” (Obras, 1919-1949 Vol. IV, p. 183; General Manager, Central Bank of Argentina, 1935-1943).
In other words, short-term speculative flows should be constrained, but long-term flows for productive activities are fine.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Cesaratto on 'Monetary Mercantilism'

Sergio Cesaratto on what one might term national views on the European crisis, in particular on orthodox German views. Very instructive. He says:
It obviously makes little sense to blame Germany or any other country for the European crisis. Each dominant class joined the European Monetary Union (EMU) in its own interest or pretending to do so for its respective country. If the collective design of the EMU has failed, the responsibility is not of one single country: each national elite has made its own calculations and they should all have known that Europe was not an optimal currency area. We cannot know, of course, what would have happened to Europe or to single members of the Eurozone (EZ) without the EMU. Less excusable is, especially for major countries, not to appreciate and change national policies that are particularly inconsistent with the EMU. Unfortunately this is far from happening.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A farewell to growth?


It has been common for certain progressive groups to suggest that better income distribution and no growth, or even degrowth more recently, would be better than the capitalist driven consumerist growth process [for a critical review of this literature go here]. Several different strands of thought are involved in this view, and it would probably be worthwhile to disentangle them all.

First, there is an obvious Malthusian flavor to this view, going back to the dire predictions by the Club of Rome in the early 1970s, as a result of limited availability of non-renewable resources. Peak oil has been predicted a few times since. And yes it may very well happen in the near future, but somehow I doubt it. Remember that we moved away from coal and steam engines to oil and combustion ones, not because coal disappeared or became truly scarce, but simple because technological change made it less important as a source of energy (and yes we still burn a lot of coal).

In that sense, our problem is less that we have reached the limits of the existence of renewable resources, but more that the consequences, which are associated to Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, will be and already are dire. It is very likely that climate change caused by GHG emissions will lead to increasing costs in terms of food shortages, for example. But the question there is less that we cannot grow [the Malthusian thing, food does not grow as fast as population; the quintessential anti-Malthusian was Ester Boserup, an early feminist economist, that showed that agricultural productivity was determined by population dynamics; in other words, higher population growth led to increasing agricultural productivity], but who bears the costs of growth.

We leave in a world in which many developing countries import food, in part as a result of very high productivity in agriculture in developed countries, and in part as a result of subsidies and trade policies imposed by developed countries. The costs of global warming will fall overwhelmingly over poor and food-insecure countries in dry and tropical regions, that largely depend on rain fed farming, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

That means that a more equitable system to redistribute the costs of climate change, and alternative trade and agricultural policies are needed, which provide food security around the globe. Further, to reduce the effects of climate change a huge increase in spending on R&D is necessary.A Green New Deal or environmental equivalent of the space race, and lots of regulation would do a great deal to promote new and cleaner technologies (see for example the 2006 documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car,” on what a California regulation did for the electric car).

Finally, note that there is no evidence of sustained technological progress (call it division of labor, or productivity, and you see that the wealth of nations might depend on it) with zero growth or negative growth. Productivity is not only pro-cyclical, but also structurally connected to growth. No growth in demand means limited incentives to productivity increases. So only with economic growth there is a hope of getting cleaner technologies. Degrowth also might lead to all sorts of environmental degradation, since it is far from clear that a society with spiraling down output would manage resources efficiently.

Second, there is peculiar view of the relation between income distribution, consumption patterns and economic growth. The notion is that no growth is necessary, since better living conditions can be obtained simply by redistributing income. The presumption seems to be that income distribution will have no effect on patterns of consumption and on economic growth. It is true that the effects of income distribution on growth are ambiguous, but the presumption that they have no effect is very strong.

I have my own views on what is more or less likely under the particular circumstances we are in. It seems reasonable, that if the redistribution towards the less privileged that the no-growth/degrowth crowd want took place that a consumption boom would follow. Particularly in developed countries were wages have been repressed for a while and which the last few years of the recession have made worse. And that would lead to growth, which is the opposite of what they want. But as much as I would favor that sort of redistributive policy, alas it is not in the cards.

Further, although it is true that consumerism is in many respects created by corporations and several elements in the consumption patterns in modern advanced societies are wasteful, one might also be careful about the false moralism of the New Puritans, as James Livingstone refers to those that preach that all thrift is good and all consumption bad. Consumption is associated to growth, and to better living conditions for the poorest among us. After all it has been the consumer society created by the Industrial Revolution that allowed us to obtain several of the benefits that we now take for granted in civilized societies, with longer life expectancy and better quality of life.

Finally, there is a naïve neoclassicism that is also part of the problem with the no-growth/degrowth crowd. It seems that for some, economics is synonymous with a certain view in which supply and demand determine everything, and, hence, the rejection of the consequences of those neoliberal policies must pass through the rejection of growth too.

Of course growth might not be associated to the market forces as suggested in neoclassical theory (and markets might actually work in very different ways than the mainstream thinks they do). Growth might often be the result of limiting the power of markets, and driving economic forces towards alternative goals. And, while it is certainly true that not all growth is good for the environment, an alternative (and Keynesian) perspective of what is behind growth and development processes might open the door for more environmentally friendly economic dynamics. A simple example would be to use the proceeds of say nationalized and heavily regulated oil extraction for investment in research and development of new technologies.

PS: Obviously all of the views discussed above are not held necessarily by any particularly person that believes that no-growth or degrowth is necessary. And I left a few additional views out, e.g. a view that capitalism is doomed and we are on the verge of a new (perhaps better) system (by the way, I don't agree with that one too; capitalism is doing fine, even if workers are not). But all of these propositions are part of the arguments used by different people to suggest that the benefits of economic growth are overrated.

Monday, February 20, 2012

MMT and its discontents


The Washington Post had a substantial profile on what is now termed Modern Monetary Theory (starts with Jamie Galbraith, and then goes on to the Kansas version of post Keynesian economics). A few reactions in the blogosphere. Two worth noticing are by Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein that provide qualified support.

Dean suggests that beyond fiscal deficits stimulus should also come from monetary policy (lower interest rate), and a more depreciated dollar. My guess is that, at least the Kansas MMTers would be fine with both, but suggest that lower rates of interest are not much in play now. But from what I understand a depreciated dollar has been seen as part of a solution by most progressive economists. Randy Wray, for example, is certainly less concerned with the size of a trade deficit than Dean, since the US is the issuer of the key currency [I have less confidence on flexible exchange rates as a way of solving balance of payments constraints in developing countries, but I'll leave that for another post].

My concern with Dean's notion of a more devalued dollar, which is generally fine and will not lead to the demise of the dollar in the near future, is that for the workers with low wages that depend on cheap imports at Walmart it implies higher prices and lower real wages. A boost to increase real wages would be necessary [see Jamie on that here]. So better income distribution should be the most important channel to boost consumption on a sustainable way.

Jared Bernstein fundamentally adds that taxes on the wealthy should be increased. Which he argues from a political standpoint, and I think it is quite reasonable, since that is one way (besides hiking minimum wages, and repealing right to work and other anti-labor legislation) to improve income distribution.

On a more personal level, my problem with the WaPo piece, and the general discussion of MMT, is that for the most part it sees MMT as just a policy program (the Kansas one is, for example, an Employer of Last Resort of some type, which is fine with me, by the way), and does not separate the theoretical discussions from the policy stuff.

Endogenous money, chartalism, and functional finance, are relevant because they fit the theoretical framework of a coherent heterodox alternative to the mainstream based on Keynes' Principle of Effective Demand [for a full alternative you need also long term pricing; in Kansas your man for that would be Fred Lee]. For my views on that go here. I think, hence, that a coherent alternative to the mainstream, beyond Keynesian economics, requires a good dose of the old and forgotten methods of classical political economy.

PS: My point about theoretical versus policy matters is driven by the fact that on certain policy issues, like the need for further fiscal stimulus, New Keynesians like Krugman and DeLong would be fundamentally in agreement with MMTers.

Put down your Sargent textbook and step away from the econometrics!

The confusion among mainstream economist is amazing. Mark Thoma in his recent post on our under-performing economy highlights this fact. While going through various models illustrating the GDP gap he makes this statement:

“One way to think of these models is that variation in the red line arises from supply shocks, and variation around the red line -- shown by the blue line -- represents demand shocks. Thus, under this interpretation, the first two models assume that all variation in the economy is due to demand shocks. This is clearly incorrect -- certainly supply shocks matter too -- and therefore these models may not give a very good measure of the gap.”

What is simple amazing about this post and statement is that it is wrong on so many levels. The red line (GDP trend) Thoma is referring to is his trend generated from a regression run on the blue line (actual GDP). If the blue line represents demand, the red line is an average of that demand over the whole data set, not supply! Yes! it is a lack of demand in the economy. What supply shock is Thoma so concerned with capturing in his models? Supply is fine; there are 12.8 million people currently unemployed (officially). This is from a guy who is supposed to be “Keynesian”.

His last model attempts a RBC trick of allowing the trend to be stochastic. So the blue line is still the variations in the actual demand in the economy, and the red line is just a more elaborate average of that demand and still not supply. It’s great to see that the mainstream of the profession has such a firm understanding of theory and basic statistics!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Amity Shlaes is a Keynesian after all!


Amity Shlaes has argued that the New Deal made things worse in the United States, prolonging the Great Depression in her popular book The Forgotten Men (for a devastating critique go here or here). Now she tells us that it was not so. True to her conservative convictions she argues that nation building abroad is a good thing. The explanation of why nation building is actually a good thing is where she gets confused and argues on the basis of Keynesian logic.

She says that countries that were occupied by American troops grew faster, and even uses the multiplier effect to show the consequences of troop withdrawals. She is aware that this is a bit dangerous, and suggests that "the usual explanation for the growth would be the multiplier effect. ... but multiplier effects don’t last, just as stimuli don’t last at home." Hence, even though the multiplier works, it does not work forever.

So her point is that if the multiplier has only limited effects then it is not a Keynesian argument! The notion that the multiplier effect is based on public choice (Mancur Olson) and not on her bête noire John Maynard Keynes –  whose ideas she describes as "sheer fallacies" (2008, p. 272) –  is farfetched.

The multiplier, developed by Keynes student and disciple Richard Kahn, says exactly that spending generates income, and leads to higher levels of output and employment. And of course it does not imply that the effects are unlimited, but only that they are positive (she used to argue that they were negative reducing growth, as in the New Deal).

Even if you say, like she does, that the multiplier only works in the short run or more precisely for a limited period of time, and then you need confidence or trust to maintain growth, it is still the initial spending that kick started the growth process. And yes she even gets that confidence is the result of the initial spending, and not vice versa. At the end of the day, she basically thinks Military Keynesianism works abroad. Perhaps the United States should invade the United States, and start nation building at home.

Too many things wrong (Sargent and Field edition)


And not enough time to blog about all of them. Two that seem to be really important and worth noticing in recent debates around the blogosphere among the chattering classes are the idea  (subscription required) that State Defaults after the Jacksonian economic crisis were good to establish US credibility, and the notion that Total Factor Productivity (TFP) was essential for the US recovering from the Great Depression.

Very briefly I’ll discuss why these two propositions are just wrong. Sargent argues that by guaranteeing State debts the Hamiltonian system created moral hazard, and that the States defaults of the 1840s, which resulted from this arrangement, were instrumental in creating a credible fiscal commitment to sound finance. In his words: “in refusing to bail out the states in the early 1840s … the federal government reset its reputation vis-à-vis the states, telling them in effect not to expect it to underwrite their profligacy.” The lesson for Europe is let the periphery default, and, by the way, that would lead them to fiscal consolidation by even more austerity (yep he never heard of multipliers). At any rate, this account of the United States experience is pure fiction.

First of all the collapse had nothing to do with profligacy, and all to do with prices of cotton falling, and States defaulting on foreign debt, not domestic debt. In Europe the countries do print the money in which their debt is denominated, the problem is that the ECB is not willing to do it. The crisis is self-made, and if the ECB monetized a bit of debt there would be no danger of inflation, since the economies are really (really) far from full employment.

Further, the US national government at that point had no public debt (Jackson paid it down and caused a financial crash; he also required payments of public lands in specie, that is the crisis was worsened by austerity and sound money), and no national bank or monetary authority. Hence, it could not bail the States out. Only after the Civil War, with greenbacks, a more centralized management of debt and money were created in the US. So there is no possibility that the reputation of something that did not exist until the 1860s was built in the 1840s.

Sargent's anal fixation with austerity in order to pay debts, even those in domestic currency, and his lack of understanding of basic events in the history of the United States are appalling. And this guy got a Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (yep, it’s not a real Nobel!).

Field is an interesting case. The mistake in his book is not of his making, in all fairness, but the result of the profession's lack of understanding of basic economic principles. His point, well explained by Mark Thoma, is that part of the recovery in the 1930s was caused by rapid growth in productivity (TFP). Nothing against the argument, which might be (and probably is) true, to some extent. Note also that productivity is not only pro-cyclical but also structural and demand-led, which means that some of the increase in productivity was actually caused by the recovery. But the problem is that TFP is not a measure of productivity.

Note that TFP is based on the notion that there is a production function in which output (Y) is a function of labor (N) and capital (K), and forget for a second the problems of using the notion of a quantity of capital. In addition, we know that income (Y) is equal to the payments to labor (N) and capital (K). So we have a theoretical construct and an identity:

Y=f(N, K) and Y=wN+rK

Obviously if you derive Y with respect to time, you must obtain from either equation that the growth of Y over time is a function of growth in labor and capital, and either some additional part, which depends on the technology f(…) in the theoretical construct, and the weighted average of the growth of wages (w) and profits (r) in the identity. And yes the second is an identity and by definition (constructed in the national accounts) true. So TFP is a residual that says something about income distribution. Let’s please use labor productivity, when discussing productivity. For more on that see, for example, Felipe and McCombie (2001; subscription required).

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Reviewing the reviewers of the crisis

From Triplecrisis:
Gary Gorton and Andrew Metrick have just produced a survey on the vast literature on what happened during the last financial crisis (and to a lesser extent why it did) titled “Getting Up To Speed on the Financial Crisis,” to be published by the Journal of Economic Literature. They used only 16 documents, between papers from ‘top journals,’ reports and speeches and congressional testimonies. It must be noted that the objective of the review is to provide “a one-weekend-reader’s guide” to the crisis.

The biggest problem with their paper is not the limited number of documents reviewed, which seem to be fairly representative of conventional views on the financial crisis, but the limitations of what the mainstream of the profession knows about the crisis, and worse, what the profession clearly does not know it does not know, the unknown unknowns, so to speak. And that is why ignoring heterodox and progressive contributions has been very harmful for the profession.
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Failing grade for econ courses

From Remapping Debate:
"Until the 1980s, undergraduate students in economics were generally required to take a course in economic history or the history of economic thought, or both. Over the last twenty years, however, those requirements have been dropped from the curriculum in nearly all undergraduate programs, and even many graduate programs do not require them.
This ahistorical view of economics, according to David Ruccio of Notre Dame, deprives students of fundamental knowledge about the field they are studying and how it has developed. “The implication for students is that what exists now has always existed and will always exist,” he said. “It allows for the impression that there is only one perspective on economics and ignores the multiplicity of perspectives that have existed and exist today.”
Julie Nelson, chair of the economics department at the University of Massachusetts Boston, agreed. “Not having those courses removes the context from the theories and makes them seem like they’re divinely ordained,” she said. “There’s no sense that economics is created by people.”
According to Frederic Lee of the University of Missouri–Kansas City, “if you were actually teaching them about the economy, you might have to talk about the rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution,” he said. “You’d need to talk about American history and the plantation economy and the attack on workers in the 1880s and the Great Depression and the military–industrial complex and the Cold War. These are just some examples to illustrate that without the history we have no place to understand what we mean by capitalism, which is essentially what they’re studying.”
Of course there are a few oases in the profession.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Long-term versus short-term debt

In a previous post I have referred to the Fiscal-Military State, and Brewer's classic book on it. It is worth remembering, for those afraid about debt these days, that public debt in the UK during the Napoleonic Wars peaked at more than 250% of GDP.

One of the important ways in which the British were able to out-finance the other major European powers, fundamentally France, during the 18th century was the ability to borrow long at at low rates. The graph below shows the proportion of unfunded to funded debt (from Brewer's book). The UK rapidly moved from almost 100% of unfunded debt to less than 10%.

Funded debt, was debt for which specific taxes were set aside to service it, and it tended to be long-term, while unfunded debt was usually short-term debt. Debt service consumed a great amount of the budget, but that was simply the result of the incredibly large amount of debt, since interest rates remained relatively low. I guess the lesson is that long term debt in your own currency is okay.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Heterodox central bankers II


"At the present time we are still in the depths of a depression and, beyond creating an easy money situation, there is very little, if anything, that the Reserve organization can do toward bringing about recovery. One cannot push a string. I believe, however, that if a condition of great business activity were developing to a point of credit inflation, monetary action could be very effective in curbing undue expansion. That would be pulling a string."
Marriner S. Eccles
Chairman, Federal Reserve Board
March 4-20, 1935.

"The factor of unutilized capacity appears to furnish the decisive answer to the argument that if the budget had been balanced the resulting restoration of confidence would in itself have led to recovery. There is nothing in balancing the budget that would lead to an absorption of excess capacity and hence make it profitable for business to increase its disbursements for plant and equipment. On the contrary, balancing the budget, by curtailing the incomes of people receiving money from the Government and by reducing buying power through increased taxes, would heve been expected to decrease demand and hence increase excess capacity."
Marriner S. Eccles
Chairman, Federal Reserve Board
June 8, 1936

Heterodox central bankers

"Our national debt we will owe to ourselves. The cost of interest service and gradual repayment that is collected in taxes from one generation will be paid to the same generation. The debt will be held wholly within the United States and by our citizens. It will present none of the impossible problems that accompany an external debt. If we fail in the future to make democracy worth while, it will not be the size of the public debt that defeats us. It will be because we have not learned how to use these great resources - human and material - to provide full employment and a high standard of living for all our people."

Chester C. Davis
President, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
November 14, 1942

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Europe's suicide (com)pact

The draft of the fiscal compact, hailed as a masterpiece by Angela Merkel, was released yesterday (see here). Note article 3.1.a. which says that "the budgetary position of the general government shall be balanced or in surplus." This is more stringent than the old Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) that the fiscal compact supersedes. The consequences of fiscal austerity are already dramatic, and the notion that more of the same can actually have a positive effect is simple madness.