Saturday, March 31, 2018

Goodbye Lula, Hello Failed State

"We are building the Anti-Lula."
"So are we."

In October 2002, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won Brazil’s presidential election and famously argued that hope had defeated fear. In fact, to preempt the fears of local and international finance elites, which threatened capital flight if the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate won, Lula had already signed the infamous “Letter to the Brazilian People” in which he pledged to follow relatively orthodox economic policies. Predictions about his government, and the global economy in general, were not particularly optimistic; fear was greater than hope in many quarters.

Sixteen years later, Lula—the leading candidate in Brazil’s October 2018 presidential election—has been convicted on corruption charges and could be jailed as soon as April 4, officially disqualifying him from the race. If so, we are likely to hear that the initial reasons for fearing Lula were wellfounded. Certainly the mainstream media will portray his imprisonment in that fashion, and Lula’s army of detractors is more than eager to wage attacks on him. In recent months, his campaign has been met with protests, and on March 26, two bullets struck his campaign caravan in southern Brazil. If Lula’s imprisonment plays out as is likely, Brazil will institutionalize a vast system of patronage and abuses the bureaucratic machine for personal gain via illegal payments and bribes, controlled by a right-wing cartel.

Read rest here.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The uses and abuses of economics

Alan Blinder wrote a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal that economic theory has been often abused by politicians. He refers to what he calls the Lamppost Theory of Economic Policy, the notion that: "Politicians use economics the way a drunk uses a lamppost—for support, not illumination." His concerns are fairly conventional. He says:
By 2020, higher spend­ing and tax cuts will push the fed­eral bud­get deficit above 6% of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct—higher than it ever was in the Rea­gan years. Even deficit doves like me think that’s far too high ab­sent a re­ces­sion. Pres­i­dent Trump may be tak­ing the U.S. into a mul­ti-­front trade war, against the ad­vice of al­most all econ­o­mists. And Amer­i­ca’s po­lit­i­cal lead­ers refuse to en­act a car­bon tax, the rem­edy for cli­mate change that al­most every econ­omist fa­vors.
If you read the piece, you would think that economists agree on everything, and that the reasons for the consensus is that the subject is highly technical, and in a sense scientific. So fiscal deficits that are relatively large are bad (unless there is a recession), free trade is always good, and a tax can fix a problem with an externality, like climate change.

The reason for politicians misguided behavior is not difficult to understand either, in Blinder's view. It is essentially a problem of time horizons, politicians must by the nature of their trade be impatient. In his words: "Political time horizons are notoriously short, perhaps extending only to the next election—or the next tweet. In contrast, economists’ time horizons can be agonizingly long—far too long for politics."

I have problems with many of those issues, even if I'm also not a fan of Trumponomics. Note that larger fiscal deficits, including a 6% one, even without a recession, might be acceptable, depending on how the government spends and taxes. If the government is borrowing in domestic currency, with low interest rates, taxing the wealthy, and spending to provide a wide safety net for the relatively poor I would be perfectly fine with that. And there would be no risk of debt sustainability issues or default. Note that, the higher spending would probably translate eventually into higher growth and, as revenue increased, lower deficits. As Blinder well knows, deficits are endogenously determined. The point is that my favoring of higher deficits, in some circumstances, is related to the question of who are the winners and the losers of alternative fiscal policies.

My biggest trouble is, probably, with the free trade assumption (and I discussed that recently here). I don't want to repeat the argument, but there should be significant disagreement within the profession on the benefits of free versus managed trade, since the evidence for free trade is incredibly weak. Free trade is simply a particular kind of trade management that favors some groups at the expense of others.

I also would favor a Green New Deal, a significant increase in the spending on green technologies, since I'm skeptical of substitution effects in general and, hence, of a carbon tax (I'm not against it, just skeptical that it would solve our problems). It seems to me that the biggest issue with global warming is that the distribution of its effects (and note that the benefits of the process of industrialization that caused the climate change in the first place were unevenly distributed) will be very unequal. In particular, developing nations would end up paying a higher price.

All of these issues, with fiscal, trade and environmental policies, seem to suggest that the main problem with the political use of economics is not the illegitimate use of economic arguments for political aims associated to the electoral cycle, that is, the short-termism of politicians. The problem is the very legitimate grievances that arise from the social effects of those policies. Trump is not giving tax cuts just to win elections, although that may play a role (yet, most people are for higher taxes on the wealthy), but also, and more importantly, to increase the rents of the wealthy.

That's why I would be very skeptical of Blinder's suggestion favoring a technocratic government, which would reduce the role of politics in economic policy making. In his words:
I have one final suggestion, though its scope is limited: Suppose we took some—certainly not most—economic decisions out of the hands of politicians, and put them in the hands of nonpolitical technocrats instead.
This is the sort of neoliberal argument used by the Chicago Boys in Latin America to suggest that there was no alternative. Market friendly policies were the only game in town, because they were a technical issue, not open to political dissent, instead of a strategy of a political minority to impose very unpopular policies that favored the wealthy. Trump should be defeated, and his policies rolled back, and for that Dems should field a left of center candidate with reasonable ideas favoring the majority (i.e. the working class), rather than propose undemocratic (technocratic) solutions.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Is the US hypocritical to Criticize Russian Election Meddling?

By Thomas Palley

Thomas Carothers has recently written an article in Foreign Affairs, the prestigious elite journal published by the US based Council on Foreign Relations. The article asks is the US hypocritical for criticizing Russian election medlling?

Given the place of publication, the unsurprising conclusion is it is not. The problem is the US is a champion meddler. Consequently, the argument crumbles every time Mr. Carothers reaches for substance.

At the end of the day, the defense reduces to the claim that we (the US) are good and they are evil, so that our meddling is a net good and theirs bad: “the trends of US and Russian behavior are divergent, not convergent – with Russia on the negative side of the divide.”

That is a moral superiority defense which is doubly flawed. First, the US can still be a hypocrite. Second, framing great power international relations in terms of moral superiority quickly promotes crusader thinking, which is a grave menace to all.

Read rest here.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

On the blogs

U.S.-China Relations in the Age of Trump-- An old post by James Fallows, from December 2016, but that I think makes sense to re-read now, after the trade wars with China have been really ignited. Btw, I also recommend Fallows last book, which was on China;

Managing Debt Vulnerabilities in Low-Income and Developing Countries-- Tao Zhang at IMF blog on debt vulnerability in developing countries. I wouldn't read too much on their preoccupations, and not even sure they know what the dangers are

Rethinking macroeconomics-- Martin Sandbu on the series of papers published by the Oxford Review of Economic Policy. Not very fond of the exercise which follows Blanchard's don't throw the water with the baby approach (meaning keep the natural rate hypothesis)

Friday, March 23, 2018

When Things Don't Fall Apart by Ilene Grabel

Ilene Grabel's new book, When Things Don't Fall Apart: Global Financial Governance and Developmental Finance in an Age of Productive Incoherence, is out. From Dani Rodrik’s Foreword:
“It happens only rarely and is all the more pleasurable because of it. You pick up a manuscript that fundamentally changes the way you look at certain things. This is one such book. Ilene Grabel has produced a daring and delightful reinterpretation of developments in global finance since the Asian financial crisis of 1997–1998.”
From the jack description:
In When Things Don’t Fall Apart, Ilene Grabel challenges the dominant view that the global financial crisis had little effect on global financial governance and developmental finance. Grabel’s chief positive claim is that the global crisis induced disconnected and ad hoc discontinuities in global financial governance and developmental finance that are now having profound effects on emerging market and developing economies. Most observers have failed to appreciate this phenomenon owing to a heroic narrative of social change that discounts all but grand, systemic ruptures in institutions and policy. The chief normative claim is that the resulting incoherence in global financial governance is productive rather than debilitating. In the age of productive incoherence a more complex, dense, fragmented, and pluripolar form of global financial governance is expanding possibilities for policy and institutional experimentation, policy space for economic and human development, financial stability and resilience, and financial inclusion. Grabel draws on key theoretical commitments of Albert Hirschman to cement the case for the productivity of incoherence. Inspired by Hirschman, Grabel demonstrates that meaningful change often emerges from disconnected, erratic, experimental, and inconsistent adjustments in institutions and policies as actors pragmatically manage in an evolving world. Grabel substantiates her claims with empirically-rich case studies that explore the effects of recent crises on established and new networks of financial governance (such as the G-20); transformations within the IMF; institutional innovations in liquidity support and project finance from the national to the transregional levels; and the “rebranding” of capital controls. Grabel concludes with careful examination of the opportunities and risks associated with the evolutionary transformations underway.
The book has been endorsed by Antonio Ocampo, Jayati Ghosh, Ha-Joon Chang, and Mark Blyth. It's a must if you're interested in the changes in the post-Bretton Woods financial architecture after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

GDP growth in Latin America

Writing a paper on Latin America. Nothing particularly relevant to report. I was just checking the date. Many sources to get the data. I suggest both the World Bank Development Indicators and the Conference Board Total Economic Database. At any rate, below GDP growth from the Golden Age (after the Korean War and up to Debt crisis) to the Neoliberal Era (starting in the 1990s).
Clearly growth has been more volatile and at lower rates. So much for the notion that Neoliberalism works.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Classical Political Economics and the History of Central Banks

As promised not long ago, here a short paper on the history of central banks presented at ASSA meeting in Philadelphia. The paper is short, given the submission policy. It discusses the growing literature on the origins of central banks, and essentially disagrees with Charles Goodhart, who is the authority on the topic.

The conventional argument is that central banks only become effectively central banks in the late 19th century when a concern with financial stability was developed and the function of Lender of Last Resort (LOLR) was more formally established. The notion is that up to that point central banks were essentially concerned with profit making, as private institutions, and that only when a concern with financial stability as a public good was developed is that they can be seen truly as public institutions (even if they remained private).

Implicit in this view is also the notion that central banks would have a tendency to overissue paper money, in times of booms, which would help their profitability, and that constraining that ability, but at the same time allowing them to act as LOLR was central for financial stability. The first part of the argument, the notion that inflation is caused by the overissue of paper money, derives from the Bullionist controversies and the Bank Charter Act of 1844.

The point of the paper is that early public banks (essentially Italian and Dutch banks that preceded the the Swedish and English central banks) were central banks because they did have a public concern considerably before than their LOLR function was developed. They were fiscal agents of the state concerned with providing a stable unit of account and a secondary market for public debt allowing the expansion of the State.

The paper tries, in that sense, to connect the discussion of the origins of central banks with the extensive literature on the Fiscal-Military State and its relevance for the process of capitalist development.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

On the blogs

Trying to resurrect my brief look at blogs during weekends. So here are three post/entries/op-ped pieces worth reading (look at this space for three or four of these every Sunday):

Will bourgeoisie ever rule the Chinese state?-- Branko Milanovic on Arrighi's question. Funny thing is this weekend I was re-reading Adam Smith in Beijing, since I'm giving one of the keynote speeches at the Political Economy of World Systems (PEWS) meeting in April at Fairfield University (the other being Immanuel Wallerstein. Btw, looking at my notes on the side of the book, I seemed to complain back then (bought the book in 2009 in NY) the absence of a discussion of the Fiscal-Military State in Arrighi.

Trump's steel tariffs are mere political theater-- James Galbraith's piece on The Guardian. More or less like mine suggests that the effects will be small (he doesn't suggest that free trade is good, as others on the left) and that the reasons are essentially political (the special election in PA). I was thinking more long term, but along the same lines here.

The PowerPoint Philosophe-- David Bell debunking Steven Pinker’s new book on Enlightenment Now, his latest Panglossian pamphlet about how we do live in the best of all possibles worlds.

Basil Moore (1933-2018)

Basil Moore

I first met Basil in 2000 or 2001, which was quite late, since I've read his work as an undergraduate back in the late 1980s. I was Assistant Director of the Center for Economic Policy Analysis (CEPA, now the Schwartz Center) at the New  School, and we invited him for a talk, which was about his forthcoming (at that time) book Shaking the Invisible Hand: Complexity, Endogenous Money and Exogenous Interest Rates  which was published considerably later (my review here).

Basil came down from Wesleyan, were he was for most of his career before retiring to South Africa, and we had an interesting debate on the relevance of the Keynesian (not the monetary one, on that we agreed) multiplier, which he considered a mistake, and on dollarization, which, at least at the time, he favored. The biggest surprise in my conversations with him that day and after that was what seemed to be a lack of understanding of how much the mainstream had incorporated the notion of endogenous money, in Wicksellian fashion. And I should note that the mainstream has not acknowledged the relevance of Post Keynesians, like Basil, in pushing them into the endogenous money camp.

My debates with him showed how much Post Keynesians could disagree both on theoretical and policy issues, and dispelled any notion that this was a group with monolithic or closed views on economic issues. In fact, it suggests that Posties should be seen more as a collection of schools, that depart from some aspects of marginalism/neoclassical economics.

Basil's contributions were essentially associated to the notion of endogenous money, more in line with the Kaldorian tradition, in which central banks accommodate to money demand, than to the Minskian notion of financial innovation. He was, together with Paul Davidson, Alfred Eichner, Hyman Minsky and Sidney Weintraub a key founding member of the American Post Keynesian School, perhaps less recognized than the others, and being the most focused on a particular topic. I'm sure that many obituaries will discuss his contributions in depth. At any rate, a loss for the profession, and for those of us that enjoyed his pluralistic openness to alternative views.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Andrea Ginzburg and Anthony Brewer

These were two great economists, that I never met, and that sadly have passed away. I would recommend this paper by Andrea Ginzburg, with Annamaria Simonazzi, on foreign debt cycles, and this paper by Anthony Brewer on the effects of capital mobility on the Ricardian comparative advantage model. Their contributions are certainly much more relevant than these two papers, but I think this provide a good example.

The left and the return of protectionism

So if you believe a simplified version of conservative views on the economy, Trumponomics is pretty contradictory (and yes they are contradictory, even if one may doubts about why). Tax cuts should lead to growth, via supply side economics, and the recently proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum do exactly the opposite. Protectionism (not a very good name, I prefer managed trade, as I discussed here before) has made a come back, but while many heterodox economists have suggested that 'free trade' is not always beneficial to all, and those concerned with the fate of manufacturing and the working class in the United States have decried Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) over the years, it seems that the association of these ideas with Trumponomics has made them less keen on the recent tariff proposal.

A typical example is the recent op-ed by Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker in WAPO, and I cite them exactly for my respect for their economic views in general, and their commitment to progressive causes. In their view: "The bigger dangers to our economy are twofold. One, that our trading partners will retaliate by taxing our exports to them, thus hurting a broad swath of our exporting industries, and two, by leading an emboldened, reckless Trump administration to enact more bad trade policy." Essentially, they agree that tariffs would have a negative effect on employment, but perhaps not as big as some Cassandras have suggested, and that this 'bad protectionist' policies would continue. A similar argument can be found in Brad DeLong's op-ed, another progressive economist, in which he argues that the tariff is a tax hike for consumers. Brad, I should note, has recently published a very good book in which he praises the Hamiltonian system, that is,  the use of managed trade to promote industrial development (I discussed it here).*

It's worth remembering that while on other issues Trumponomics is essentially Reaganomics (low taxes for the wealthy and increased military spending), on trade his views are a break with more recent Republican positions (and hence the push back in his own party against the tariffs) and closer to what many Dems, particularly those connected with trade unions, often defended. He has not signed TPP, has really started renegotiating NAFTA (something Obama promised to do as a candidate, but did not deliver as president) and now has imposed some tariffs (like, btw, Bush, so I'm not suggesting this is unprecedented; just that he has been more consistent on this topic).

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a big fan of Trumponomics, or even in particular of these tariffs. And this will not work probably, but the reasons are not the ones adduced by progressives. Their basic argument is that retaliation by other countries will make them innocuous. In all fairness, the US is already more 'protectionism' (manages trade) than most people understand. The ability to use trade treaties and organizations for defending the country's own advantage is considerably tilted in favor of advanced economies and their corporations that can use loopholes to creatively avoid rules and continue to subsidize their industries (and agricultural sector). The US use of the defense department, again used by Trump, is typical. Poor countries some times lack the basic technical capabilities (lawyers and economists) to face the trade teams of advanced economies. The complexity of the WTO dispute settlement process, the geopolitical role of the US and the importance of US markets for many developing countries render it a very ineffective tool for the interests of less developed economies.

It should not be a surprise that American corporations continue to thrive in international trade (it's the American working class that is in trouble). Manufacturing is doing well, with the support of what Fred Block has termed the hidden developmental state in the US. So the problem is not that tariffs could not work. In all fairness, tariffs together with significant expansion of domestic spending on infrastructure (and more steel demand), with a vigorous defense of trade unions, with higher minimum wages, with policies to improve income distribution, like progressive taxes on the wealthy, to strengthen the domestic market might actually be part of a Hamiltonian strategy of economic growth. Note also that the whole point of imposing tariffs is to depend less on exports and more on domestic markets, so that to some extent retaliation should matter less. A more closed (not closed, but more so, like Keynes suggested in his National Self-Sufficiency piece of 1933) international economic order, to role back of some of the excesses of the neoliberal, pro-corporate globalization process, used to be be, and should be, on the agenda of the left.

The problem, then is less the tariffs per se, and more the fact that the Trumpian agenda is empty, and has nothing for the working class. That was my biggest concern reading the progressive economists complaints about Trump's trade views. Their solutions are to stop protecting patents and professionals, that is more 'free trade,' and a more depreciated currency (I'll leave my skepticism about this one for another post, at any rate I discussed this before). While I'm more sympathetic to the skepticism on property rights, note that China, in part, thrives, exactly because they do explicitly infringe the rules on patents (the first Geely car was a knock off of a Mercedes, and they bought Volvo to have access to foreign technology; there are many examples; it's worth noticing that the US did that in the past too). That would not necessarily be good for American corporations. To weaken doctors, lawyers and other middle (and upper middle) class professionals is certainly not the way out of the hole for the American working class.

The political danger of these views, which I think still dominate the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, is considerable. I think, that even if his policies turn out not to be very helpful (for the reasons I outlined, meaning lower wages and protections for workers, lower taxes for the wealthy and corporations and so on) his true dislike of globalization and free trade policies would strengthen his position with working people in the Rust Belt, which were central for his victory (maybe you think it was Russia... oh, well). As I noticed before the election, this would make things so much hard for Dems in elections. I said back in September 2016 that: "Note that this doesn't mean he [Trump] is going to win the election. Demographic changes make it harder for Republicans to win now, since Dems get more of the electoral college to start with. And I hope he doesn't, btw. But there are good reasons to be afraid. This is going to be way closer than it should be." And so it was.

I'm afraid that his trade policies, and the Dems position that effectively are to his right (like Hillary, but not Bernie) would make it more likely (hopefully not enough) for a longer period of Trumponomics than it is acceptable. This suggests that a good chunk of Dems are stuck in the model that Mark Lilla has referred to as identity liberalism (see his book here), and have become vulnerable to right wing populism. It's getting increasingly difficult to have hope in the dark.

PS: For discussions of trade policy see this two previous entries which provide a simple discussion of the Ricardian and neoclassical models of trade and its limitations. I would also recommend the paper by Robert Wade linked here.

* There are many others that have written on this in the last couple of days. Paul Krugman could, arguably enter the list of progressives here, but he has been consistently more of a free trade guy. Krugman complain is more macro than the others. In his view, the Fed would hike rates, since we are close enough to full employment and any additional gains from the tariffs will be eroded, even without retaliation from other countries. In part, that would happen because higher interest rates would lead to inflows and an appreciation of the dollar (see here).

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Godley-Tobin Lecture by James K. Galbraith

Presenting the Lecture

Here is the audio file of Jamie Galbraith inaugural Godley-Tobin Lecture. Due to the weather he recorded the lecture before hand. The paper will appear in the Review of Keynesian Economics (ROKE) soon. Jamie presents a macro discussion of income distribution, which he correctly points out has been absent from most discussion of inequality in recent times.

Further, he connects his concern with the data (the UNIDO data that his team at UTIP has worked on for years now) to Wynne Godley's preoccupation with data consistency and accuracy. He also noted that James Tobin's preoccupation with the role of monetary variables, which Wynne certainly admired, is central to understand global inequality. We were very happy to have Jamie give the inaugural lecture, not just because we expected a great presentation, but more importantly because having interacted with both Godley, at the Levy, and with Tobin, at Yale and while he was in the staff at the US Congress, he was in a unique position to provide a thoughtful evaluation of their importance for what I referred (following Wynne) non-hyphenated Keynesianism to the understanding of economics.

Business Cycles in the Modern World System: Past, Present and Future

  In case anybody is in the area around New York, the Program of the PEWS conference below. Thursday, April 26, 2018 -- 4:30 - 5:20...