Thursday, January 31, 2013

Frank Hahn: 1925 - 2013

Frank Hahn, an old Keynesian that had written a book with Solow, passed away this week. He also signed a famous letter (co-signed by 364 economists) against the austerity policies of Margaret Thatcher in 1981 (other Cambridge signatories were Cripps, Deane, Eatwell, Godley, Kahn, Kaldor, Meade, Moogridge, and Austin and Joan Robinson).

He is best known for his contributions to General Equilibrium (in particular his famous book with Kenneth Arrow), and by heterodox economists for his misguided reply to Sraffians in his "The Neo-Ricardians." After retiring from Cambridge he taught at the University of Siena in Italy.

PS: I know, it's kind of funny that Mr. Booth thinks that those that criticized austerity were wrong, particularly after the recent British experience.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Srinivas Raghavendra on Credit Rating Capitalism

Here is an interesting paper by Srinivas Raghavendra on how the current crisis has led to the consolidation of orthodoxy as the dominant paradigm, and the role of credit rating agencies.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Is income distribution holding up the recovery?

A friendly debate between Stiglitz and Krugman (and also further comments here) on the role of income distribution in the recovery has been getting some attention in the blogosphere. Note that I don’t think neither Krugman nor Stiglitz would deny that worsening income distribution was not relevant for the crisis, even if they were slower than some heterodox economists like Jamie Galbraith or Bob Pollin, to name two, in emphasizing the role of inequality. The question is whether inequality has been central for the slow recovery in the last few years.

Stiglitz’s main reason for suggesting that the recovery has been stifled by inequality is that “middle class is too weak to support the consumer spending that has historically driven our economic growth.” Krugman, for some reason, thinks that this argument is a long run one, and suggests that while: “it’s true that at any given point in time the rich have much higher savings rates than the poor. Since Milton Friedman, however, we’ve known that this fact is to an important degree a sort of statistical illusion. Consumer spending tends to reflect expected income over an extended period.” However, he thinks that “you can have full employment based on purchases of yachts, luxury cars, and the services of personal trainers and celebrity chefs.” In other words, worsening of income distribution might actually help the recovery.

I find Krugman’s proposition highly unlikely, even if it is possible.

Read the rest at Triple Crisis.

Ramanan and Zezza on Europe

Even though pundits at the World Economic Forum in Davos have proclaimed the end of the Global Crisis, the European crisis continues to unfold. Ramanan correctly notes that Draghi suggests that fiscal consolidation [that's Doublespeak for fiscal contraction] is essential for the recovery. Meanwhile Zezza shows that Italy increasingly looks like Greece and other countries that have committed to contractionary policies.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Is This the End for the Deficit Drones?

By James K. Galbraith

In wars, sometimes there comes a moment when the tide turns. The collapse of Ludendorff's offensive in 1918 presaged the Armistice; failure in the Ardennes meant the end for Germany in 1944.

Today we have two drone wars in a similar state. One is mainly in Pakistan. Built on a gee-whiz technology that can't do what it promised, this war has claimed too many victims for too little effect. It is a diplomatic disaster and its days are numbered, almost surely, for that reason.

The other drone war is in Washington. The drones are in groups with names like the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and Campaign to Fix the Debt.

Read the rest here.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Urbanization and the Great Divergence

The Great Divergence between Western Europe and Asia, in particular China, according to revisionist authors like Ken Pomeranz, André Gunder Frank and Roy Bin Wong, has been a recent phenomenon, from around the early nineteenth century (and some would argue it will be a short lived one too; I expressed my doubts here). The graph below (source: Persson, 2010) shows rates of urbanization in Western Europe and China for a very long period.

Note that, by the renaissance of the twelfth century, Italy, particularly Northern Italy, shows a significant increase in the rate of urbanization, eventually returning to the levels of the Roman Empire. Chinese rates of urbanization are flat, in comparison, in this period. Mind you, the Song Dynasty period was a period of rapid growth in China. By the sixteenth century the rates of urbanization in Western Europe take off, with nothing comparable in China, until recent times.

Rosenthal and Wong (2011, p. 111) argue that "war was responsible for Europe’s urban manufacturing," while Chinese manufacturing remained eminently rural. And there are good reasons associated with the Military Revolution Theory to suggest Western European hegemonic rise was associated to guns and sails, as famously put by Carlo Cipolla.

From my perspective what is great about the graph is the suggestion that Western European growth, and eventually the Industrial Revolution, can be associated to the growth in demand. Note that urbanization goes hand in hand with the expansion and transformation of the patterns of consumption. In cities, that have to be built and all sorts of infrastructure and services must be provided, people have access to new consumption goods, and the significant expansion of demand is what forces supply to adjust. In that sense, urbanization, more than population growth, is a good measure of consumption expansion. And urbanization is certainly one way in which Western Europe was already diverging from Asia as far back as the twelfth century.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Okun's Law at 50

The IMF has written a good paper on Okun's Law (here), suggesting (from the abstract) that: "Okun’s Law is a strong and stable relationship in most countries, one that did not change substantially during the Great Recession [and] accounts of breakdowns in the Law ... are flawed." nothing new really; I have said so a few months ago (here). Bill Mitchell has good post (here), which suggests correctly that the problem with the recoveries is not Okun's Law, but excessive fiscal austerity. I would add one more thing, not only Okun's Law works well in developed countries (advanced economies according to the IMF paper), but also in developing countries. Figure below is a crude representation of the Law for Argentina.
Note that the coefficient is more or less the same as in the US or other advanced economies. An increase in GDP growth of 1.87% reduces unemployment in 1%. Close to the 2 to 1 ratio. A more sophisticated and better estimatimated version that takes into account trend issues associated with Kaldor-Verdoorn, by Fabián Amico, Alejandro Fiorito and Guillermo Hang is available here (but in Spanish).

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Manufacturing matters

It does for sure. But the graph below just shows the varying share of manufacturing since the mid-18th century (source is Robert Allen, 2011). And I don't intend to say much on whay it matters per se, but note that global economic dominance goes hand in hand with manufacturing.
Note that the West, narrowly defined as England the rest of Western Europe, what was to become the US and Russia (called for the whole period USSR) had a share of less than 20% in 1750, it had expanded to more than 80% on the eve of WW-I. If you add Australia, Canada and Latin America (which are all in Rest of the World, but are what Maddison would call Western offshoots), the numbers are even larger. Most of the changes were associated to the squeeze of China. And most of the recent changes are associated with expansion of China and East Asia (which includes Japan). We have not gone full circle, by the way.

In other words, the process of development (or indutrialization in the center) went hand in hand with the process of underdevelopment (deindustrialization) in the periphery, and old lesson from a little book by Osvaldo Sunkel which is still worth reading.

Monday, January 21, 2013

ROKE: Why we are launching a new journal

By Thomas I. Palley, Louis-Phillipe Rochon and Matías Vernengo

It is widely recognized that economic crises can trigger enormous change, with regard to both economic theory and the politics of governance. Today, the global economy is struggling with the fall-out from the financial crash of 2008 and the Great Recession of 2007–2009. The economic crisis that these events have generated, combined with the failure of the mainstream economics profession, has again put the question of change on the table. Reasonable people do not expect economists to predict the daily movements of the stock market, but they do expect them to anticipate and explain major imminent economic developments. On that score, the profession failed catastrophically, revealing fundamental theoretical inadequacies.

This intellectual failure has prompted us to launch the Review of Keynesian Economics (ROKE), the first issue of which is fully available here. At a time of journal proliferation, some may wonder about the need for another journal. We would respond there is a proliferation of journals, but that proliferation is essentially within one intellectual paradigm. As such, it obscures the fact that the range of theoretical inquiry is actually very narrow. A journal devoted to Keynesian economics is therefore needed, both to correct this narrowness and because events have once again confirmed the profound relevance of Keynesian theory. As noted by Robert Solow, a member of the board of ROKE, our project is “counter-cultural, and god knows the current culture needs to be countered.”

Read the rest here.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Jamie Galbraith on the debt limit crisis

Or I should say on why the debt-limit is a manufactured crisis. Also, great to see how much journalists do not understand the basics of macroeconomics. They really push back on the 'need' to cut entitlements.

Phillips curve? What curve?

The Phillips curve is one of those 'regularities' that is more likely to exist in an economist mind than in reality. Figure below (from Ritschl and Straumann, 2010*) shows the 'trade-off' between inflation and unemployment in Europe in the 1920s and 1930.
They say quite candidly:
"the seemingly obvious connection between deflation and unemployment is less than easy to find in the data. ... Yet while there was ample variation in both unemployment and inflation during the interwar period, no systematic pattern seems to emerge in the data, even if the 1920s and the 1930s are looked at separately. The picture emerging from Figure [above] is rather that the natural rate of unemployment moved quite independently of inflation, irrespective of whether or not a country was on gold" (italics added).
Seemingly obvious, but inexistent in the data. In doubt economists choose the obvious and avoid reality. The other possibility that they do not seem to consider is that there is no natural rate at all, and no systematic relation between inflation and unemployment. Consider the data for the United States below (CPI change and unemployment data from Fred).

Note that there is also no clear correlation, unless you start assuming that it is unstable, and the curve is jumping, or that a supposed natural rate is jumping around too. Occam's Razor would suggest that if you have a theory that does not postulate any systematic relation between prices and quantities** it should be simpler and, hence, preferable.

* Ritschl, Albrecht and Straumann, Tobias (2010), "Business cycles and economic policy, 1914-1945." In Broadberry, Stephen and O'Rourke, Kevin H. , (eds.) Cambridge economic history of modern Europe. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK , pp. 156-180.

** Note that classical-Keynesian theory implies that prices are determined by the technical conditions of production and exogenously determined distribution while unemployment derives from effective demand. Also, unemployment might have an indirect effect on inflation, through the effects of unemployment on the bargaining power of workers and, thus, on income distribution.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Urbanization and deindustrialization

A while ago I had posted about the deindustrialization process in the US (see here). I now checked the rates of urbanization in a few cities which were associated to the industrialization process in the US, like Detroit and Pittsburgh (Census data).
The graph compares those cities with two more conventional metropolis, New York (right axis) and San Francisco, and also to San José, where which is close to the so-called Silicon Valley is located, since 1960. Detroit grew spectacularly fast in the first 40 years of the 20th century, and so did, to a lesser extent Pittsburgh. Motor City and Steel City represented the rise of metal-mechanical industry, and they grew faster than other cities in the country.

By the 1960s Detroit population had picked, and Pittsburgh was already in decline. Note that the late 1960s is when the process of deindustrialization associated to a slower growth in industry (so industrial jobs are increasing) than in services started to take place. In the 1970s the population of New York and San Francisco also decreased, and it seemed that deindustrialization and suburbanization meant that cities were a thing of the past (the Death and Life of Jane Jacobs you can call it), destined for the dustbin of history.

But note that in the 1980s population growth picked up in New York and San Francisco while it continued to collapse in the Rust Belt. San José also was growing very fast. This suggests that in the period in which the absolute number of manufacturing jobs are decreasing, not all cities are faring badly, if you are in the business of information technology or finance you are fine. And yes, San José is bigger than San Francisco now.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The third crisis in economics

Jamie Galbraith's presidential address to the Association for Evolutionary Economics, entitled "The Third Crisis in Economics." The audio is now up on the UTIP site here.

What makes capitalism capitalism?

So I had a debate (the sort of debate you can have with 140 characters) in Twitter a few days ago with Unlearning Economics and Jonathan Finegold, among others (links are to blogs not to the twitt feeds). The main question was the definition of capitalism. It is a peculiar feature of modern economics that very few mainstream authors would actually discuss the issue directly, even if there has been a revival of some related issues associated to the relevance of institutions (vis-à-vis geography and culture) in the rise of the West. Robert Heilbronner used to say that the best kept secret in economics is that it was is about the study of capitalism.

I'm not going to get too much into the topic here, but it is worth a brief summary. As discussed before (here) in the blog, the surplus approach suggests that economics is the study of the material reproduction of societies. The existence of a surplus allows for specialization and progress, and the ways in which the surplus is produced and distributed is central for the understanding of reproduction. Broadly speaking, what Marx referred to as a mode of production is comprised of two elements, the material conditions of production or the forces of production, which include the means of production that incorporate a certain technology, and the social relations of production, which include the organization of production and the customs, laws and rules that guarantee the property of the means of production.

For Marx the manifestation of the capitalistic character of the manufacturing process is that the workers do not own the means of production and must sell their labor power. The reason being that an essential condition for capitalists to be able to buy labor power is that workers do not own means of production and are forced to sell in the market their labor force (see Capital, Volume I, Part II, chapter 6). The essence of the capitalist system is that workers sell their labor force, and are in this particular way exploited. That's the specific way in which capitalists obtain a surplus beyond what is necessary for social reproduction.

On the notion of the mode of production Marx perceptively tells us (Vol. I, Book I, Part I, ch. 1) that:
"The mode of production in which the product takes the form of a commodity, or is produced directly for exchange, is the most general and most embryonic form of bourgeois production. It therefore makes its appearance at an early date in history, though not in the same predominating and characteristic manner as now-a-days. 
Even Adam Smith and Ricardo, the best representatives of the school, ... treat this mode of production as one eternally fixed by Nature for every state of society ..."
That's exactly what Max Weber (and many modern authors too, by the way) does. He often refers to capitalism when discussing the middle ages in Western Europe, or ancient China, or the Roman Empire (see for example his General Economic History). This naturalization of capitalism is also typical of mainstream authors, that tend to confuse the existence of markets, or the profit motive, with capitalism.

Production for exchange in the market existed for sure before modern times, and so did exploitation. But the difference with previous modes of production is not simply the more developed material conditions of production associated with the factory system and machinery. It is the specific social arrangement that allows capitalists to control the means of production and extract a surplus from workers that must sell labor power in the market, and are liable of being exploited (more or less according to their bargaining power) that sets capitalism apart. So it is the way in which labor is exploited, one in which workers sell labor power in the market, that makes capitalism capitalism, so to speak [this has interesting implications in the Dobb and Sweezy debates on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, for example, that I'll leave for another post].

Note that while this definition of capitalism is clearly Marxist it builds up on the surplus approach, and is one of (not the only one either) the main contributions of Marx to the surplus tradition (he was critical of the bourgeois elements of classical economics, but built on the analytical structure of the school). In fact, Turgot and Smith both describe the evolution of societies in terms of stages related to the mode of production. It is the economic character of production that governs other aspects of social relations. The four stages were hunting, pasturage, agriculture and commerce. Bill McColloch suggests (see here) quite convincingly that Marx builds on the work of Steaurt.

Also, note that the notion that the profit motive is the differentia specifica of capitalism is tied to the typical methodological individualistic stance of the mainstream. It is hard to say, however, that individuals (merchants, for example) in previous modes of production (say in the ancient mode of production, which was based on slavery) had no desire for profits. If they did, however, what's different about capitalism? That's also why all the alternative theories of history (to the surplus approach) tend to fetichize the role of the entrepreneur (see Landes's last book for the epitome of that approach, which was also displayed in the History Channel's The Men Who Built America). It's the return of Carlyle's hero-worship and the Great Men theory of history.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A free lunch

The inaugural issue of the Review of Keynesian Economics (ROKE) is available in full here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Death and taxes

Well really about taxes (which are apparently less certain than death, Ben Franklin notwithstanding). The Atlantic has a nice post, with a link to a KPMG report on taxes around the globe. Figure below shows the effective tax rates (income and payroll taxes) for an income of US$ 100,000 (similar for the 300,000 level).

Note that at the top, besides Western European countries (with greece in 2nd place),  there are some developing countries like India and Brazil. All three big Latin American countries, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, are way above the United States. KPMG says that "effective rates are derived by taking total taxes over gross income prior to any deductions." The US is in the middle of the pack.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Trillion Dollar Coin and Popular Monetarism


The trillions dollar coin solution for the debt ceiling limit has generated some funny news. The Republican National Congressional Committee twitted the picture above, suggesting that the coin would have to have its weight in platinum to be worth a trillion, and would be so huge as to sink the Titanic. Even Jon Stewart, who is in political matters incredibly perceptive (forget funny), bought into the monetarist madness. He thinks: "We don’t need some trillion-dollar coin gimmick. We need a way to get the world to take the U.S. dollar seriously again."

I'll spare you the obvious explanations of why all of these common sense views are incorrect (for that go here or here), but it is important to note (as I did before) that there is a persistence in popular culture of monetarist interpretations of history. The funny thing is that at least the so-called progressives that are against minting the coin are clearly okay with the debt ceiling being raised, and hence the expansion of public debt, which could in part be monetized. Which means that somehow printing paper is okay, but minting coins is a sin. Go figure.

And yes mint the coin already!

In Lew of Geithner and more

Yep the chances for a fiscal expansion, already a difficult proposition with a GOP dominated House and a reluctant and fiscal conservative Obama, are now even more unlikely with the eminent nomination of Jack Lew as the new Treasury Secretary in lieu of Geithner, even though some tend to think he is too liberal (see here). Yet ass noted by Mike Norman: "Lew is an avowed deficit hawk and has been very vocal about reducing the government's deficit and supporting the president's push for a "Grand Bargain." This means that Lew will almost certainly be pushing for more austerity."

Meanwhile Olivier Blanchard at the IMF has admitted that the IMF was wrong on austerity. In a recent paper he says:
We find that, in advanced economies, stronger planned fiscal consolidation has been associated with lower growth than expected, with the relation being particularly strong, both statistically and economically, early in the crisis. A natural interpretation is that fiscal multipliers were substantially higher than implicitly assumed by forecasters.
This is a case in which I could say "I've told you so." By the way, by fiscal consolidation, Blanchard means austerity.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Lies, damned lies and The Economist

The World in 2013 by The Economist has been out for a while. Got it at the airport this weekend and read a few pieces. Really bad. Nothing new. One piece caught my attention though. On the fiscal cliff and the elections this terrible article says:
"Mr Obama will maintain that his victory, along with continued Democratic control of the Senate, constitute a mandate for his version of deficit reduction. But in fact the elections produced mixed results: Mr Obama narrowly won the popular vote and the Republicans retained their majority in the House of Representatives."
First, facts; yes the GOP won the House, but Democratic House candidates won more of the popular vote than their Republican counterparts. Redistricting or Gerrymandering is what explains this failure of democracy. Dems probably need more than 55% of the popular vote to win the majority in the House.

Note also that with a much thinner victory in 2004, Bush actually claimed he had a mandate, and proceeded to try to privatize Social Security, which was eventually a failure (because even the GOP base doesn't want that). Bush won with a margin of 2.4% of the votes (the second one; the first one was 5 to 4), while Obama won re-election with a 3.8% advantage. Obama had 51% of the vote while Clinton in 1996 had only 49.2% (Perot took votes from the GOP, and the margin of votes over Dole and Perot was just 0.1%; yes 0.1 not 1%!). And some people suggest that if not for the Lewinsky affair Clinton would have privatized Social Security.

So if anything this election produced a clear result, not mixed, for Obama and in favor of maintaining social spending and the Keynesian policies stimulating the recovery, with higher taxation on the rich at the top of the agenda. The deficit, as several polls have shown, was not an issue. The only bad thing about the fiscal cliff deal was the increase in payroll taxes. But The Economist has a different view.

The second, and by no means less important, lie spread by The Economist is that: 
"a long-term fix to America’s big deficits, [requires changes to the] rickety tax code and ballooning spending on 'entitlements', meaning the federal government’s health-care and pension schemes."
If you believe this Social Security is spending should be ballooning.  Hardly the case. See the graph below, with the mains spending categories as a share of GDP (data here).
Note that the only that is really increasing throughout the whole period is health spending (blue line). Welfare spending has gone up during the crisis, and interest spending down, and they should reverse in a few years when the recovery is complete (welfare spending is already way down from its peak). Social Security spending too increased a bit, but not much (and is actually in surplus now) since the crisis, and the reason is that people that can't find jobs and can retire tend to do it. Defense spending has expanded considerably after the two wars, and is the only kind of spending that was not caused by the recession.

On health spending note, however, that the countries that spend less, and have as good health outcomes as the US or even better, are those with a public health option. At any rate, note that this notion that the US has an entitlement problem is bogus, as much as Obama's narrow victory and need for a compromise. If anything he fell short of his promises and should had delivered a long term solution for health spending, i.e. the public option.


New Issue of ROKE out soon

A new issue of ROKE will soon be available (see contents here). A teaser here. It's the paper by co-editor Tom Palley. From the abstract:
"This paper compares Cambridge and neo-Kaleckian growth theory. Both are members of the post-Keynesian approach to growth and distribution, but the Cambridge model is a hybrid of Keynesian and classical features whereas the neo-Kaleckian model is Keynesian. The Cambridge approach assumes full capacity utilization, while the neo-Kaleckian approach assumes variable capacity utilization. The two theories rely on fundamentally dif- ferent theories of income distribution. The Cambridge model has a class structure of saving that generates Pasinetti’s (1962) theorem regarding irrelevance of worker saving for steady-state growth and distribution. That class structure can be included in the neo- Kaleckian model, generating a variant of the Pasinetti result whereby steady-state capacity utilization is independent of worker saving. Fiscal policy has similar growth effects in the two models, albeit via very different mechanisms. Both models suffer from lack of attention to the labor market."
The rest of the issue has papers by Dutt, Fazzari, Michl, Setterfield, Stockhammer, and Ryoo. More papers will be available as samples at Elgar's site soon. Enjoy!

PS: See the FB site here.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Wage share in the US (1959-2011)

Figure above shows the compensation of employees as a share of personal income.
As you can see the negative trend starts in the late 1970s early 1980s, with the Volcker hike in interest rates and the Reagan revolution, meaning reductions in marginal taxes for the wealthy.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A brief perspective on the cliff deal

So it seems that a deal on the fiscal cliff has been reached, and was approved by a large margin, 89 to 8, in the Senate. The deal basically raises income taxes to pre-Bush tax cuts levels on families making more than $450,000 a year and individuals making $400,000, and raises the estate tax on the biggest inheritances too. Estates of more than $5 million would be taxed at 40%, up from the current 35%. It also does not include any cuts in Social Security or Medicare (the main tactics used for cuts were changing the price index for Social Security adjustments and increasing the age limit for Medicare).

More importantly no spending cuts really, which means the long term unemployed will continue to receive a check every week, and we will not add another drag on a very mild recovery. If no concessions are made on the debt limit in the next two months, a double dip recession this year might be averted. So progressives should be really happy.

The NYTimes editorial is unhappy because "this deal is a weak brew that remains far too generous to the rich and fails to bring in enough revenue to deal with the nation’s deep need for public investments." In all fairness, that's silly. It is true that Dems could have gotten more revenue from tax increases on the wealthy, but the US has no long term deficit problem other than rising costs of health, and no problem to finance public investment at all. To deal with the first a public option is the solution, and the limits to public investment are purely political.

The agreement actually makes the US political system look less dysfunctional than the European, which continues to be tangled in their austerity policies. All in all, a pretty decent start for 2013.

PS: Not sure why Krugman thinks that the agreement has left "a bad taste in progressive's mouths." Seems that he is afraid that the insufficient increase in taxes will let welfare programs vulnerable to the starve the beast argument. Again I think that risk is purely political, and a bit more revenue from the wealthy would have done little to eliminate it.