At Dissent: A Cautious Case for Economic Nationalism

I have an article in the new issue of Dissent, arguing that “As long as democratic politics operates through nation-states, any left program will require some degree of delinking from the global economy.”

My piece is part of a special section on “Capitalism Today.” There will be an accompanying event at the New School on May 22, with Jamie Galbraith, Julia Ott, Mark Levinson and me.

I’ve made similar arguments to this article’s in a number of posts on this blog:

Capital Mobility as Trojan Horse
Only the Debt Is National
How to Think about the Balance of Payments
What Is Foreign Investment For?
Lessons from the Greek Crisis
Prices and the European Crisis, Continued

One thing that’s probably not as clear as it should be in the Dissent piece, is that the case for delinking is much stronger for most other countries than for the United States. For most countries, free trade and, even more, free capital mobility, drastically reduce the choices available to national governments. (This “disciplining” of the state by foreign investment is sometimes acknowledged as its real function.) For the US, I don’t think this is true – I don’t think the threat of capital flight meaningfully constrains policy here. And in particular I don’t think it makes sense to see a more positive trade balance as necessary or even particularly desirable to boost demand, for reasons laid out here and here.

 

Links and Thoughts for March 15, 2017

Do you guys know The Death Ship? B. Traven’s first novel, the only one not set in Mexico? It begins with an American sailor who goes ashore in the Netherlands, gets distracted as you do, his ship leaves. The Dutch don’t want him, they send him across the border to Germany. The Germans don’t want him, send him to Belgium, the Belgians send him to France. The French send him back to the Netherlands, where he ends up on the eponymous ship. It’s a good book. I was just thinking of it the other day, for some reason.

 

Against the sonderweg. Here is a fascinating article on the pre-history of Swedish social democracy. Contrary to claims of Swedish “sonderweg”, or special path, toward egalitarianism, Erik Bengtsson convincingly shows that until the 1930s, Sweden was not especially egalitarian relative to other West European countries or the US. Both economically and politically, it was at the unequal end of the European continuum, and considerably less equal than the US. “In 1900, it was one of the countries in Western Europe with the most restricted suffrage, and wealth was more unequally distributed than in the United States. …The more likely explanation of Swedish twentieth-century equality, rather than any deep roots, is the extraordinary degree of popular organization in the labour movement and other popular movements” in the 210th century. Income and wealth distribution were similar to France or Britain, while the franchise was more restricted than in any other major West European country. Up through World War One, Swedish politic was dominated by the same kind of “iron and rye” alliance of feudal landowners with big industrialists as Bismarkian Germany. “The exceptional equality of Swedish economy and society c. 1920-1990 did not arrive as the logical conclusion of a long historical continuity”; rather, it was the result of an exceptionally effective mass mobilization against what was previously an unusually inegalitarian state.

More speculatively, Bengtsson suggests that it was precisely the exceptionally strong and persistent domination by a small elite that created the conditions for Swedish social democracy: “the late democratization of Sweden” may have “fostered a liberal-socialist democratizing alliance … [between] petit bourgeois liberals and working-class socialists … unlike Germany, where the greater inclusion of lower-middle class men meant that middle class liberals and haute bourgeois market liberals could unite around a program of economic liberalism.”  It’s a neat inversion of Werner Sombart’s famous argument that “the free gift of the ballot” prior to the appearance of an organized working class was the reason no powerful socialist party ever developed in the United States. Bengttson’s convincing claim that Swedish egalitarianism was not the result of a deep-rooted history but of a deliberate political project to transform a previously inegalitarian society, has obvious relevance for today.

 

High productivity in France. While we are debunking myths about social democracy, here is Thomas Piketty on French productivity. “If we calculate the average labour productivity by dividing the GDP … by the total number of hours worked … we then find that France is at practically the same level as the United States and Germany, … more than 25% higher than the United Kingdom or Italy.” And here’s a 2014 post from Merijn Knibbe making the same point.

 

Against Hamilton. In The Baffler, Matt Stoller argues that Hamilton is overrated. Richard Kreitner makes a similar case in The Nation, with an interestingly off-center focus on Paterson, New Jersey. Christian Parenti (my soon-to-be colleague at John Jay College) made the case for Hamilton not long ago in the Jacobin; he’s writing an introduction to a new edition of Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures. This is not a new debate. Twenty years ago, as the books editor of In These Times, I published a piece by Dan Lazare making a similar pro-Hamilton case; it was one of the things that Jimmy Weinstein fired me for.

My sense of these arguments is that one side says that Hamilton was a predecessor of today’s Koch brothers-neocon right, an anti-democratic militarist who believed the country should be governed by and for the top 1 percent; his opponent Jefferson must therefore have been a democrat and anti-imperialist. The other side says that Jefferson was a predecessor of today’s Tea Party right, an all-in racist and defender of slavery who opposed cities, industry and progress; his opponent Hamilton must therefore have been an abolitionist, an open-minded cosmopolitan and a liberal. I am far from an expert on early American politics. But in both cases, I think, the first half of the argument is right, but the second half is much more doubtful. There are political heroes in circa-1800 America, but to find them we are going to have look beyond the universe of people represented on dollar bills.

 

Against malinvestment. Brad Delong has, I think, the decisive criticism of malinvestment theories of the Great Recession and subsequent slow recovery. In terms of the volume of investment based on what turned out to be false expectations, and the subsequent loss of asset value, the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s was much bigger than the housing bubble. So why were the macroeconomic consequences so much milder?

 

Selective memory in Germany. Another valuable piece of political pre-history, this one of German anti-Keynesianism by Jörg Bibow. Among a number of valuable points, he describes how German economic debate has been shaped by a strangely selective history of the 20th century, from which depression and mass unemployment – the actual context for the rise of Nazism — have been erased. Failures of economic policy can only be imagined as runaway inflation.

 

The once and future bull market in bonds. Here is an interesting conversation between Srinivas Thiruvadanthai of the Levy Center and Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal of Bloomberg, on the future of the bond market. Thiruvadanthai’s forecast: interest rates can fall quite a bit more in the coming decades. He makes several interesting and, to me, convincing points. First, that in an environment of large balance sheets, we can’t analyze the effects of things like interest rate changes just in terms of the real sector. The main effect of higher rates today wouldn’t be to discourage borrowing, but to raise the burden of existing debt. He also makes the converse argument, which I’m less sure about — that after another round or two of fiscal expansion and unconventional monetary policy, public sector debt could make up a large share of private balance sheets, with proportionately less private debt. Under those conditions, an increase in interest rates would be much less contractionary, or even expansionary, creating the possibility for much larger rate hikes if central banks continue to use conventional policy to stabilize demand.

More generally, he points out that, historically, the peacetime inflation of the 1970s is a unique event over the hundreds of years in which bond markets have existed, so it’s a little problematic to build a whole body of macroeconomic theory around that one episode, as we’ve done. And, he says, capitalism doesn’t normally face binding supply constraints — the vast majority of firms, the vast majority of the time, would be happy to sell more at their current prices. And he expresses some — much-needed, IMO — skepticism about whether central banks can in general hit an inflation target, reliably or at all.

 

Positive money? Here is a vigorous critique of 100 percent reserve backed, or positive, money. (An idea which is a staple of monetary reformers going back at least to David Hume, and perhaps most famous as the Chicago Plan.)  I don’t have a settled view on this idea. I do think it’s interesting that the reforms the positive money people are calling for, are intended to produce essentially the tight link between public liabilities and private assets which MMT people claim already exists. And which Thiruvadanthai thinks we might inadvertently move toward in the future.

 

Captial flows: still unstable. Here’s a useful piece in VoxEU on the volatility of capital flows. Barry Eichengrreen and his coauthors confirm the conventional wisdom among heterodox critics of the Washington Consensus: free movement of finance is the enemy of macroeconomic stability. FDI flows — which are linked to the coordination of real productive activity across borders — are reasonably stable; but portfolio flows remain as prone to sudden stops and reversals as they’ve always been.

 

Killing conscience. Over at Evonomics, Lynn Stout makes the important point that any kind of productive activity depends on trust, norms, and the disinterested desire to do one’s job well – what Michelet called “the professional conscience.” These are undermined by the creation of formal incentives, especially monetary incentives. Incentives obstruct, discourage, even punish, the spontaneous “prosocial” behavior that actually makes organizations work, while encouraging the incentivized people to game the system in perverse ways. under socialism, to speak of someone’s interests will be considered an insult; to give someone incentives will be considered an act of violence.

It’s a good piece; the one thing I would add is that one reason incentives are used so widely despite their drawbacks is that they are are about control, as well as (or rather than) efficiency. Workers’ consciences are very powerful tools at eliciting effort; but the boss who depends on them is implicitly acknowledging a moral claim by those workers, and faces the prospect that conscience may at some point require something other than following orders.

 

The deficit is not the problem. Jared Bernstein makes the same argument about trade that I made in my Roosevelt Institute piece a few months ago. The macroeconomic-policy question posed by US trade deficits should not be, how do we move our trade towards balance? It should be: how do we ensure that the financial inflows that are the counterpart of the deficit, are invested productively?

 

We simply do not know. Nick Rowe has always been one of my favorite economics bloggers – a model for making rigorous arguments in a clear, accessible way. I don’t read him as consistently as I used to, or comment there any more — vita breve and all that — but he still is writing good stuff. Here he makes the common-sensical point  that someone considering investment in long-lived capital goods does not face symmetric risks. “A recession means that capital services are wasted at the margin, because the extra output cannot be sold. But booms are not good, because a bigger queue of customers does nothing for profitability if you cannot produce more to meet the extra demand.” So uncertainty about future economic outcomes — or, what is not quite the same thing, greater expected variance — will depress the level of desired investment. I don’t know if Nick was thinking of Keynes — consciously or unconsciously when he wrote the post, but it’s very much in a Keynesian spirit. I’m thinking especially of the 1937 article “The General Theory of Employment,” where Keynes observes that to carry out investment according to the normal dictates of economic rationality, we must “assume that the present is a much more serviceable guide to the future than a candid examination of past experience would show it to have been hitherto.”

 

The health policy tightrope. The Republican plan health care plan, the CBO says, would increase the number of uninsured Americans by 24 million. I don’t know any reason to question this number. By some estimates, this will result in 40,000 additional deaths a year. By the same estimate, the Democratic status quo leaves 28 million people uninsured, implying a similar body count. Paul Ryan’s idea that health care should be a commodity to be bought in the market is cruel and absurd but the Democrats’ idea that heath insurance should be a commodity bought in the market is not obviously less so. Personally, I’m struggling to find the right balance between these two sets of facts. I suppose the first should get more weight right now, but I can’t let go of the second. Adam Gaffney does an admirable job managing this tightrope act in his assessment of the Obama health care legacy  in Jacobin. (But I think he’s absolutely right, strategically, to focus on the Republicans for the Guardian’s different readership .)

 

On other blogs, other wonders.

I’m looking forward to reading Ann Pettifor’s new book on money. In the meantime, here’s an interview with her in Vogue.

Towards the Garfield left.

The end of austerity is perfectly feasible in Spain.

“Underfunded” doesn’t mean what it sounds like. Based on the excellent Sgouros piece I linked to earlier.

Uber is doomed.

The decline of blue-collar jobs. I admit I was surprised to see what a large share of employment manufacturing accounted for a generation ago.

Perry Anderson: Why the system will win. Very worth reading, like everything Anderson writes. But  too sympathetic to anti-immigrant politics.

The ECB should give money directly to European citizens.

Manchester by the Sea is a good movie. But Margaret is a great movie.

Saving and Borrowing: A Response to Klein

Matthew Klein has a characteristically thoughtful post disagreeing with my new paper on income distribution and debt. I think his post has some valid arguments, but also, from my point of view, some misunderstandings. In any case, this is the conversation we should be having.

I want to respond on the specific points Klein raises. But first, in this post, I want to clarify some background conceptual issues. In particular, I want to explain why I think it’s unhelpful to think about the issues of debt and demand in terms of saving.

Klein talks a great deal about saving in his post. Like most people writing on these issues, he treats the concepts of rising debt-income ratios, higher borrowing and lower saving as if they were interchangeable. In common parlance, the question “why have households borrowed more?” is equivalent to “why have households saved less?” And either way, the spending that raises debt and reduces saving, is also understood to contribute to aggregate demand.

This conception is laid out in Figure 1 below. These are accounting rather than causal relationships. A minus sign in the link means the relationship is negative.

 

We start with households’ decision to consume more or less out of their income. Implicitly, all household outlays are for consumption, or at least, this is the only flow of household spending that varies significantly. An additional dollar of household consumption spending means an additional dollar of demand for goods and services; it also means a dollar less of savings. A dollar less of savings equals a dollar more of borrowing. More borrowing obviously means higher debt, or — equivalently in this view — a higher debt-GDP ratio.

There’s nothing particularly orthodox or heterodox about this way of looking at things. You can hear the claim that a rise in the household debt-income ratio contributes more or less one for one to aggregate demand as easily from Paul Krugman as from Steve Keen. Similarly, the idea that a decline in savings rates is equivalent to an increase in borrowing is used by Marxists as well as by mainstream economists, not to mention eclectic business journalists like Klein. Of course no one actually says “we assume that household assets are fixed or nonexistent.” But implicitly that’s what you’re doing when you treat the question of what has happened to household borrowing as if it were the equivalent of what has happened to household saving.

There is nothing wrong, in principle, with thinking in terms of the logic of Figure 1, or constructing models on that basis. Social science is impossible without abstraction. It’s often useful, even necessary, to think through the implications of a small subset of the relationships between economic variables, while ignoring the rest. But when we turn to  the concrete historical changes in macroeconomic quantities like household debt and aggregate demand in the US, the ceteris paribus condition is no longer available. We can’t reason in terms of the hypothetical case where all else was equal. We have to take into account all the factors that actually did contribute to those changes.

This is one of the main points of the debt-inequality paper, and of my work with Arjun Jayadev on household debt. In reality, much of the historical variation in debt-income ratios and related variables cannot be explained in terms of the factors in Figure 1. You need something more like Figure 2.

Figure 2 shows a broader set of factors that we need to include in a historical account of household sector balances. I should emphasize, again, that this is not about cause and effect. The links shown in the diagram are accounting relationships. You cannot explain the outcomes at the bottom without the factors shown here. [1] I realize it looks like a lot of detail. But this is not complexity for complexity’s sake. All the links shown in Figure 2 are quantitatively important.

The dark black links are the same as in the previous diagram. It is still true that higher household consumption spending reduces saving and raises aggregate demand, and contributes to lower saving and higher borrowing, which in turn contributes to lower net wealth and an increase in the debt ratio. Note, though, that I’ve separated saving from balance sheet improvement. The economic saving used in the national accounts is quite different from the financial saving that results in changes in the household balance sheet.

In addition to the factors the debt-demand story of Figure 1 focuses on, we also have to consider: various actual and imputed payment flows that the national accounts attribute to the household sector, but which do not involve any money payments to or fro households (blue); the asset side of household balance sheets (gray); factors other than current spending that contribute to changes in debt-income ratios (red); and change in value of existing assets (cyan).

The blue factors are discussed in Section 5 of the debt-distribution paper. There is a much fuller discussion in a superb paper by Barry Cynamon and Steve Fazzari, which should be read by anyone who uses macroeconomic data on household income and consumption. Saving, remember, is defined as the difference between income and consumption. But as Cynamon and Fazzari point out, on the order of a quarter of both household income and consumption spending in the national accounts is accounted for by items that involve no actual money income or payments for households, and thus cannot affect household balance sheets.

These transactions include, first, payments by third parties for services used by households, mainly employer-paid premiums for health insurance and payments to healthcare providers by Medicaid and Medicare. These payments are counted as both income and consumption spending for households, exactly as if Medicare were a cash transfer program that recipients then chose to use to purchase healthcare. If we are interested in changes in household balance sheets, we must exclude these payments, since they do not involve any actual outlays by households; but they still do contribute to aggregate demand. Second, there are imputed purchases where no money really changes hands at all.  The most important of these are owners’ equivalent rent that homeowners are imputed to pay to themselves, and the imputed financial services that households are supposed to purchase (paid for with imputed interest income) when they hold bank deposits and similar assets paying less than the market interest rate. Like the third party payments, these imputed interest payments are counted as both income and expenditure for households. Owners’ equivalent rent is also added to household income, but net of mortgage interest, property taxes and maintenance costs. Finally, the national accounts treat the assets of pension and similar trust funds as if they were directly owned by households. This means that employer contributions and asset income for these funds are counted as household income (and therefore add to measured saving) while benefit payments are not.

These items make up a substantial part of household payments as recorded in the national accounts – Medicare, Medicaid and employer-paid health premiums together account for 14 percent of official household consumption; owners’ equivalent rent accounts for another 10 percent; and imputed financial services for 4 percent; while consolidating pension funds with households adds about 2 percent to household income (down from 5 percent in the 1980s). More importantly, the relative size of these components has changed substantially in the past generation, enough to substantially change the picture of household consumption and income.

Incidentally, Klein says I exclude all healthcare spending in my adjusted consumption series. This is a misunderstanding on his part. I exclude only third-party health care spending — healthcare spending by employers and the federal government. I’m not surprised he missed this point, given how counterintuitive it is that Medicare is counted as household consumption spending in the first place.

This is all shown in Figure 3 below (an improved version of the paper’s Figure 1):

The two dotted lines remove public and employer payments for healthcare, respectively, from household consumption. As you can see, the bulk of the reported increase in household consumption as a share of GDP is accounted for by healthcare spending by units other than households. The gray line then removes owners’ equivalent rent. The final, heavy black line removes imputed financial services, pension income net of benefits payments, and a few other, much smaller imputed items. What we are left with is monetary expenditure for consumption by households. The trend here is essentially flat since 1980; it is simply not the case that household consumption spending has increased as a share of GDP.

So Figure 3 is showing the contributions of the blue factors in Figure 2. Note that while these do not involve any monetary outlay by households and thus cannot affect household balance sheets or debt, they do all contribute to measured household saving.

The gray factors involve household assets. No one denies, in principle, that balance sheets have both an asset side and a liability side; but it’s striking how much this is ignored in practice, with net and gross measures used interchangeably. In the first place, we have to take into account residential investment. Purchase of new housing is considered investment, and does not reduce measured saving; but it does of course involve monetary outlay and affects household balance sheets just as consumption spending does. [2] We also have take into account net acquisition of financial assets. An increase in spending relative to income moves household balance sheets toward deficit; this may be accommodated by increased borrowing, but it can just as well be accommodated by lower net purchases of financial assets. In some cases, higher desired accumulation of financial asset can also be an autonomous factor requiring balance sheet adjustment. (This is probably more important for other sectors, especially state and local governments, than for households.) The fact that adjustment can take place on the asset as well as the liability side is another reason there is no necessary connection between saving and debt growth.

Net accumulation of financial assets affects household borrowing, but not saving or aggregate demand. Residential investment also does not reduce measured saving, but it does increase aggregate demand as well as borrowing. The red line in Figure 3 adds residential investment by households to adjusted consumption spending. Now we can see that household spending on goods and services did indeed increase during the housing bubble period – conventional wisdom is right on that point. But this was a  spike of limited duration, not the secular increase that the standard consumption figures suggest.

Again, this is not just an issue in principle; historical variation in net acquisition of assets by the household sector is comparable to variation in borrowing. The decline in observed savings rates in the 1980s, in particular, was much more reflected in slower acquisition of assets than faster growth of debt. And the sharp fall in saving immediately prior to the great recession in part reflects the decline in residential investment, which peaked in 2005 and fell rapidly thereafter.

The cyan item is capital gains, the other factor, along with net accumulation, in growth of assets and net wealth. For the debt-demand story this is not important. But in other contexts it is. As I pointed out in my Crooked Timber post on Piketty, the growth in capital relative to GDP in the US is entirely explained by capital gains on existing assets, not by the accumulation dynamics described by his formula “r > g”.

Finally, the red items in Figure 2 are factors other than current spending and income that affect the debt-income ratio. Arjun Jayadev and I call this set of factors “Fisher dynamics,” after Irving Fisher’s discussion of them in his famous paper on the Great Depression. Interest payments reduce measured saving and shift balance sheets toward deficit, just like consumption; but they don’t contribute to aggregate demand. Defaults or charge-offs reduce the outstanding stock of debt, without affecting demand or measured savings. Like capital gains, they are a change in a stock without any corresponding flow. [3] Finally, the debt-income ratio has a denominator as well as a numerator; it can be raised just as well by slower nominal income growth as by higher borrowing.

These factors are the subject of two papers you can find here and here. The bottom line is that a large part of historical changes in debt ratios — including the entire long-term increase since 1980 — are the result of the items shown in red here.

So what’s the point of all this?

First, borrowing is not the opposite of saving. Not even roughly. Matthew Klein, like most people, immediately translates rising debt into declining saving. The first half of his post is all about that. But saving and debt are very different things. True, increased consumption spending does reduce saving and increase debt, all else equal. But saving also depends on third party spending and imputed spending and income that has no effect on household balance sheets. While debt growth depends, in addition to saving, on residential investment, net acquisition of financial assets, and the rate of chargeoffs; if we are talking about the debt-income ratio, as we usually are, then it also depends on nominal income growth. And these differences matter, historically. If you are interested in debt and household expenditure, you have to look at debt and expenditure. Not saving.

Second, when we do look at expenditure by households, there is no long-term increase in consumption. Consumption spending is flat since 1980. Housing investment – which does involve outlays by households and may require debt financing – does increase in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before falling back. Yes, this investment was associated with a big rise in borrowing, and yes, this borrowing did come significantly lower in the income distribution that borrowing in most periods. (Though still almost all in the upper half.) There was a debt-financed housing bubble. But we need to be careful to distinguish this episode from the longer-term rise in household debt, which has different roots.

 

[1] Think of it this way: If I ask why the return on an investment was 20 percent, there is no end to causal factors you can bring in, from favorable macroeconomic conditions to a sound business plan to your investing savvy or inside knowledge. But in accounting terms, the return is always explained by the income and the capital gains over the period. If you know both those components, you know the return; if you don’t, you don’t. The relationships in the figure are the second kind of explanation.

[2] Improvement of existing housing is also counted as investment, as are brokers’ commissions and other ownership transfer costs. This kind of spending will absorb some part of the flow of mortgage financing to the household sector — including the cash-out refinancing of the bubble period — but I haven’t seen an estimate of how much.

[3] There’s a strand of heterodox macro called “stock-flow consistent modeling.” Insofar as this simply means macroeconomics that takes aggregate accounting relationships seriously, I’m very much in favor of it. Social accounting matrices (SAMs) are an important and underused tool. But it’s important not to take the name too literally — economic reality is not stock-flow consistent!

 

Two Papers in Progress

There are two new papers on the articles page on this site. Both are work in progress – they haven’t been submitted anywhere yet.

 

[I’ve taken the debt-distribution paper down. It’s being revised.]

The Evolution of State-Local Balance Sheets in the US, 1953-2013

Slides

The first paper, which I presented in January in Chicago, is a critical assessment of the idea of a close link between income distribution and household debt. The idea is that rising debt is the result of rising inequality as lower-income households borrowed to maintain rising consumption standards in the face of stagnant incomes; this debt-financed consumption was critical to supporting aggregate demand in the period before 2008. This story is often associated with Ragnuram Rajan and Mian and Sufi but is also widely embraced on the left; it’s become almost conventional wisdom among Post Keynesian and Marxist economists. In my paper, I suggest some reasons for skepticism. First, there is not necessarily a close link between rising aggregate debt ratios and higher borrowing, and even less with higher consumption. Debt ratios depend on nominal income growth and interest payments as well as new borrowing, and debt mainly finances asset ownership, not current consumption. Second, aggregate consumption spending has not, contrary to common perceptions, risen as a share of GDP; it’s essentially flat since 1980. The apparent rise in the consumption share is entirely due to the combination of higher imputed noncash expenditure, such as owners’ equivalent rent; and third party health care spending (mostly Medicare). Both of these expenditure flows are  treated as household consumption in the national accounts. But neither involves cash outlays by households, so they cannot affect household balance sheets. Third, household debt is concentrated near the top of the income distribution, not the bottom. Debt-income ratios peak between the 85th and 90th percentiles, with very low ratios in the lower half of the distribution. Most household debt is owed by the top 20 percent by income. Finally, most studies of consumption inequality find that it has risen hand-in-hand with income inequality; it appears that stagnant incomes for most households have simply meant stagnant living standards. To the extent demand has been sustained by “excess” consumption, it was more likely by the top 5 percent.

The paper as written is too polemical. I need to make the tone more neutral, tentative, exploratory. But I think the points here are important and have not been sufficiently grappled with by almost anyone claiming a strong link between debt and distribution.

The second paper is on state and local debt – I’ve blogged a bit about it here in the past few months. The paper uses budget and balance sheet data from the census of governments to make two main points. First, rising state and local government debt does not imply state and local government budget deficits. higher debt does not imply higher deficits: Debt ratios can also rise either because nominal income growth slows, or because governments are accumulating assets more rapidly. For the state and local sector as a whole, both these latter factors explain more of the rise in debt ratios than does the fiscal balance. (For variation in debt ratios across state governments, nominal income growth is not important, but asset accumulation is.) Second, despite balanced budget requirements, state and local governments do show substantial variation in fiscal balances, with the sector as a whole showing deficits and surpluses up to almost one percent of GDP. But unlike the federal government, the state and local governments accommodate fiscal imbalances entirely by varying the pace of asset accumulation. Credit-market borrowing does not seem to play any role — either in the aggregate or in individual states — in bridging gaps between current expenditure and revenue.

I will try to blog some more about both these papers in the coming days. Needless to say, comments are very welcome.

How State Budgets Adjust

Here is a figure from the paper I’m presenting at the Eastern Economics Association meetings next weekend, on state and local government balance sheets:

State Government Finances 1999-2013. Source: Census of Governments, author’s analysis

This figure is just for aggregate state governments. It shows total borrowing (red), net acquisition of financial assets (blue), and the overall fiscal balance (black, with surplus as positive). It also shows the year over year change in the ratio of state debt to GDP (the gray dotted line). A number of interesting points come out here:

  • Despite statutory balanced-budget requirements, state budgets do show significant cyclical movement, from aggregate deficits of around 0.5 percent of GDP in recent recessions to surpluses as high as 0.5 percent of GDP in the expansions of the 1980s and 1990s (not shown here). Individual state governments show larger movements.
  • Shifts in state government fiscal balances are accommodated almost entirely on the asset side of the balance sheet. When state government revenue exceeds current expenditure, they buy financial assets; when revenue falls or expenditure rises, they sell financial assets (or buy less). State governments borrow in order to finance specific capital projects; unlike the federal government, they do not use credit-market borrowing to close gaps between current expenditure and revenue. (As I show in the paper, this is still true when we look at state governments cross-sectionally rather than aggregate data.) Between 2005 and 2009, state budgets moved from an aggregate surplus of around 0.3 percent of GDP to an aggregate deficit of around 0.5 percent. But borrowing over this period was completely flat – the entire shortfall was made up by reduced acquisition of financial assets.
  • The ratio of state government debt to GDP rose over the Great Recession period, by a total of about 2 points. While this is small compared with the increase in federal debt over the same period, it is certainly not trivial. Among other things, rising state debt ratios have been used as arguments for austerity and attacks on pubic-sector unions in a number of states. But as we see here, the entire rise in state debt-GDP ratios over this period is explained by slower growth. The ratio rose because of a smaller denominator, not a bigger numerator.
  • State debt ratios rose around the same time that state budgets moved into deficit. But there is no direct relationship between these two developments. Deficits were financed entirely through a reduction in assets. Simultaneously, the drastic slowdown in growth mean that even though state governments significantly reduced their borrowing, in dollar terms, during the recession, the ratio of debt to income rose. It is true, of course, that both the deficits and the growth slowdown were the result of the recession. But the increase in state debt ratios would have been exactly the same if state budgets had not moved to deficit at all.
  • Since 2010 there has been a simultaneous fall in state government borrowing and acquisition of assets. When these two variables vary together (as they also do across governments in some periods) it suggests that there is some autonomous balance sheet adjustment going on that can’t be reduced to the net financial position changing to accommodate real flows. (The fact that offsetting financial positions cannot in general be netted out is one of the main planks of Bezemer’s accounting view of economics.)

The pattern is similar in the previous recession. Although there was some increase in borrowing as state governments moved into deficit in 2002-2003, the large majority of the financing was on the asset side.

The larger significance of all this, and the data underlying it, is discussed more in the paper.  I will post that here next week. In the meantime, the two big takeaways are, first, that a lot of historical variation in debt ratios are driven by the effect of different nominal growth rates on the existing debt stock rather than by new borrowing; and that state governments don’t finance budget imbalances on the liability side of their balance sheets, but on the asset side.

(Earlier posts based on the same work here and here.)

Links and Thoughts for Feb. 17

Minimum wages are good for poor people. Here is an important paper from Arin Dube on the impact of minimum wage increases on family income. Using a variety of approaches, he asks what the record of minimum wage changes tells us about how the effects of the minimum at different points in the income distribution. The core finding is that, in his preferred specification, the elasticity of income at the 10th percentile with respect to the minimum wage is around 0.4 – that is, a one percent increase in the minimum wage will raise income for poor families by close to half a percent. This is, to my mind, a really big number – it suggests that pay at most low-wage jobs is tightly linked to the minimum wage, and that criticism of minimum wages as being badly targeted at low income households is off the mark. Tho to be fair, he also finds that minimum wage increases don’t do much for the very bottom of the distribution, where there is not much wage income to begin with. But beyond whatever this ammo this gives for minimum wage supporters, this is a great example of how you should approach this kind of question as a social scientist. The paper gets out of the box of qualitative debates about job loss that have dominated this debate and makes a positive, quantitative claim about what minimum wages actually do.

This is the effect of a doubling of the state minimum wage on family income, per Dube.

 

Why prefund? I’m still trying to finish this interminable paper on state and local government balance sheets. But one of the big things I’ve learned is that the biggest constraint these governments face is not the terms on which they can borrow, but the extent to which they are required to prefund future expenses. The idea that pensions should be fully funded has a solid basis for private employers but it’s not at all clear that the same arguments apply for governments. It’s good to see that some professionals in state and local finance have come to the same conclusion. Here is a new paper from the Haas Institute on exactly this question. It makes a strong case that the requirement to fully fund public employee pensions is costly and unnecessary, and is an important factor in local government budget crises.

 

Privilege: still exorbitant. Here’s a nice analysis of the international role of the dollar. This is the same argument I tried to make in my Roosevelt Institute piece on trade policy last summer. The Economist says it better:

Unlike other aspects of American hegemony, the dollar has grown more important as the world has globalised, not less. … As economies opened their capital markets in the 1980s and 1990s, global capital flows surged. Yet most governments sought exchange-rate stability amid the sloshing tides of money. They managed their exchange rates using massive piles of foreign-exchange reserves … Global reserves have grown from under $1trn in the 1980s to more than $10trn today.

Dollar-denominated assets account for much of those reserves. Governments worry more about big swings in the dollar than in other currencies; trade is often conducted in dollar terms; and firms and governments owe roughly $10trn in dollar-denominated debt. … the dollar is, on some measures, more central to the global system now than it was immediately after the second world war. …

America wields enormous financial power as a result. It can wreak havoc by withholding supplies of dollars in a crisis. When the Federal Reserve tweaks monetary policy, the effects ripple across the global economy. Hélène Rey of the London Business School argues that, despite their reserve holdings, many economies have lost full control over their domestic monetary policy, because of the effect of Fed policy on global appetite for risk.

… During the heyday of Bretton Woods, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a French finance minister (later president), complained about the “exorbitant privilege” enjoyed by the issuer of the world’s reserve currency. America’s return on its foreign assets is markedly higher than the return foreign investors earn on their American assets…  That flow of investment income allows America to run persistent current-account deficits—to buy more than it produces year after year, decade after decade.

Exactly right. You can have free capital mobility, or you can have a balanced trade for the US. But you can’t have both, as long as the world depends on dollar reserves.

 

Greece: still a catastrophe. Over at Alphaville, Matthew Klein makes a strong case that Greece’s experience in the euro has been uniquely catastrophic – no modern balance of payments crisis elsewhere has led to anything like as large and as sustained a fall in output and employment. Martin Sandbu objects, arguing that the Greek catastrophe is the result of austerity, not of the single currency per se. Which is true, but also, it seems to me, misses the point. The problem with the euro — as Klein more or less says — isn’t mainly that it precludes devaluation, but that it surrenders authority over the basic tools of macroeconomic policy to a foreign authority — an authority, as it turns out, that has been happy to see Greece burn pour encourager les autres.

 

The myth of capital strike. I was more on Team Streeck than Team Tooze in their great LRB showdown. But this followup post by Tooze is very smart. Mostly he’s just trying to bring some much-needed order to a complicated set of debates about the role of private finance, credit markets, central banks and the state. But he also scores, I think, a stronger point against Streeck than in the LRB review: Streeck exaggerates the threat of capital strike in modern “managed-money” economies. As Tooze says:

Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland even Italy and France all experienced bond market attacks. But this is because they were left by the ECB in a situation which was as though they had borrowed their entire sovereign debt in a foreign currency with no central bank support. … That peculiarity is the result of deliberate political construction. To generalize and reify it into a general theory of capitalist democracy in crisis is highly misleading.

I think Tooze is right: behind the apparent power of the bondholders there’s always either a hostile central bank, or else other, stronger countries.

 

Things are speeding up here at the end. From Credit Suisse, here is an interesting discussion of longevity of firms in the S&P 500.

There is a general sense that the rate of change is accelerating and that corporate longevity is shrinking. This assertion appears frequently in the business press. Our research shows a more nuanced picture. Indeed, a common measure of corporate longevity, turnover of the companies in the S&P 500, shows that longevity has lengthened in recent years.

 

A hell of a way to run a railroad. For New Yorkers who are bored of the things they are mad about and want something new to be mad about: The Port Authority capital plan approved this week includes $1.5 billion for Cuomo’s pointless LaGuardia AirTrain. Of course it would be too much to ask that we extend the existing transit system, we have to create a special new system for airport travelers only. But Cuomo’s plan is useless even for them.

 

Strikes: still declining. Various people have been sharing a graph of strikes “involving 1000 or more workers” on Facebook. I expressed some doubts about this – it’s obviously true that the US has seen a drastic decline in strikes and in worker militance in general, but how well is this captured by a series that only includes the largest strikes? Andrew Bossie replies, showing that for the earlier period where we have more comprehensive strike data, it matches the 1000+ series pretty well. Fair enough.

 

Welfare is not only for whites. Here is a useful corrective from Matt Bruenig to claims that the welfare state disproportionately serves white Americans.  I assume the idea behind these arguments is to disarm claim that welfare is just for “them.” But the politics could cut other way – it’s equally easy to see “welfare goes to whites” as a move to advance the idea that racial justice and economic justice are unrelated, even conflicting, goals. Anyway, whatever it rhetorical uses, we still need a clear and honest assessment of how things work. Which Matt as usual provides.

 

TPP is dead … or is it? My collaborator Arjun Jayadev has a nice piece in The Hindu (circulation 1.4 million, not far off the New York Times) on the legacy of the late, unlamented Trans-Pacific Partnership. It can be hard to rememebr, amid the shrieks and shudders and foul smells coming from the Oval Office, how destructive and, in its own way, insane, was the pre-Trump liberal consensus for free trade and endless war.

 

Just give people nice things is a sound basis for policy. When we decided peoples’ houses shouldn’t burn down, we didn’t provide savings accounts for private fire insurance, we hired firefighters and built fire stations. If the broad left takes power again, enough with too-clever-by-half social engineering. Help people and take credit.”

What Exactly Does Mexico Export to the US?

One of the many ways conventional economic theory hinders our discussions of trade is it gets us thinking about goods “produced” in one country and “consumed” in another. Mexicans grow tomatoes, drill oil, sew shirts, and assemble cars; Americans eat, burn, wear and drive them.

Most trade in the real world does not look like this. What you have, rather, are commodity chains, where different parts of the production process take place in different countries. In most cross-border transactions, the buyers are not consumers, or even distributors, but producers who use the imported goods as inputs. And in many cases, the relevant transactions are not arm’s-length market exchanges, but transfers within a single corporate structure. Even the final purchasers may not be consumers: In general, investment goods and exports have higher imported content than consumption goods do.

Case in point: US-Mexico trade. What with the latest eruption from DC, I was curious what US imports from Mexico actually look like. [1] Here’s what the Census says:

$ millions % of total
Consumer goods 84,572 26.6
   food 22,432 7.0
   autos 23,434 7.4
   clothing 5,257 1.7
   others 33,448 10.5
Industrial inputs 89,583 28.1
   oil 13,689 4.3
   other raw materials 7,568 2.4
   auto parts 53,175 16.7
   other intermediate goods 15,152 4.8
Investment goods 113,312 35.6
   computers 41,778 13.1
   vehicles 31,943 10.0
   other machinery/equipment 39,590 12.4
Services and other 30,872 9.7
Total 318,338 100

As you can see, consumer goods account for only about a quarter of US imports from Mexico. Given that a large fraction of the service imports are tourism, the total share of consumption in US imports from Mexico will be a bit higher, between 30 and 35 percent. [2] (But presumably tourism would not be affected by a tariff.) The remainder is divided about evenly between industrial inputs (raw materials plus intermediate goods like cloth, steel, auto parts, etc.) and investment goods. Machinery and equipment, including computers, account for an impressive 25 percent of Mexican exports to the US. Petroleum products, despite the widespread perception of Mexico as an oil exporter, account for less than 5 percent.

OK, so why does this matter?

Well, it’s enough, to begin with, that most of us have a distorted idea of what “trade” involves. It’s always dangerous to talk about something at a high level of abstraction without a clear sense of the concrete reality involved — even if, in a given case, the abstract description works fine.

But in this case I don’t think it works fine. I think our model of one country and producing and the other consuming, misleads us in some important ways about the likely impact of something like Trump’s tariff.

First of all, the fact that trade is normally part of a longer commodity chain helps explain why trade flows are often insensitive to changes in relative prices. Notice, for instance, the $50 billion auto parts imported from Mexico — about one-seventh of total Mexican exports to the US. Some of these parts may be generic but most presumably represent investment by the parent company in a specialized supply chain. There’s little or no short-run possibility of substituting components from elsewhere in response to changes in relative prices. In any case, insofar as the importer and exporter are part of the same corporate structure, the relevant price is an administered one that presumably has more to do with internal accounting practices than with exchange rates, tariffs or other macro phenomena. This kind of trade is the excluded category in orthodox trade theory — it doesn’t responds rapidly to changes in prices, but neither does it reflect any fundamental differences in natural resources or other “endowments” between countries.

The second reason the composition of trade matters is when we look at the distributional impact. If Mexican exports were just corn tortillas, as some people seem to imagine, it would be relatively easy to answer “who pays” for a tariff. You just estimate the price elasticities of supply and demand and do the math. (OK, maybe not that easy.) But with a high proportion of intermediate and investment goods it’s much trickier. Especially since there are profits collected at a number of points along the commodity chain, so an increase in the price of Mexican imports at the border is not necessarily passed on to ultimate consumers. Some fraction will presumably come out of the various rents along the way. Even the broad claim that it must ultimately be Americans who pay doesn’t hold, since a large fraction of imports are inputs for export industries.

The third reason follows directly. Insofar as the final users of imports are exporters, tariffs and other relative-price changes will have less of an effect on the trade balance. In the old days of import-substitution industrialization people took this problem seriously — they recognized that the effective rate of protection  for a given industry might be quite different from the statutory rate, depending on how dependent the industry was on imported inputs. In this case, if a large fraction of Mexican imports are destined for US export industries — and they are — then a tariff on Mexican goods will improve US competitiveness less than the textbook analysis would predict.

Finally,  the disproportionately large share of intermediate and investment goods in international  trade should factor into how we think about trade in general. The more I study this stuff, the more I get the sense of international trade and finance as a world unto itself — sitting on top of, dependent on, the rest of the economy, but irrelevant to most of the routine activity of extracting human labor to meet human needs. Imports are purchased to make exports, which will be purchased to make more exports to somewhere else.

An exaggeration? Yes, but maybe not an extreme one. Somewhere in Civilization and Capitalism, Fernand Braudel describes the early modern world as an archipelago of towns scattered around the margins of an interior world — whether in France or India — that remained focused on immediate, local needs. The boundary regions were more connected to each other than to their own hinterlands perhaps only a few miles away. Mutatis mutandis (and there’s a lot of mutatis!) I think something like this applies today. Traders and producers for trade are mostly much more integrated with each other than with the rest of us. Your t-shirt is a valid counterexample, but not necessarily a representative one.

In summary: Most US imports from Mexico are intermediate and investment goods, not consumer goods. A tariff on Mexican goods is more likely to raise costs for US businesses — including for US exporters — than to lead people to substitute American-made goods for Mexican ones.

 

[1] This is my own categorization of the more detailed breakdown given by the census. I’ve included computers with investment goods because most computer expenditure in the US is by businesses, not households. Yes, some computers are purchased by households, but on the other hand some autos are purchased by businesses, so it probably balances out.

[2] Under the conventions of the national accounts, when someone from country A visits country B as a tourist, their spending there counts as a service export from country B to A.

 

 

UPDATE: I feel obliged to point out that I anticipated the latest iteration of “Mexico will pay for the wall’ towards the end of this post from last summer.

UPDATE 2: As Peter K. points out in comments, my line about trade within corporate supply chains not responding to relative costs doesn’t really make sense as written. As he reasonably asks, in that case why would they relocate production to lower-cost areas in the first place? What I should have said is that intra-corporate trade (1) isn’t responsive to *short-run* changes in relative prices and (2) is responsive to long-run changes, but on the supply side, not the demand side. I.e. if there were a large persistent rise in prices in Mexico relative to the US, that might well eventually reduce Mexican exports, but the main way this would happen would be firms disinvesting in production capacity there. Not expenditure switching by consumers in response to higher prices.

What Does Crowding Out Even Mean?

Paul Krugman is taking some guff for this column where he argues that the US economy is now at potential, or full employment, so any shift in the federal budget toward deficit will just crowd out private demand.

Whether higher federal spending (or lower taxes) could, in present conditions, lead to higher output is obviously a factual question, on which people may read the evidence in different ways. As it happens, I don’t agree that current output is close to the limits of current productive capacity. But that’s not what I want to write about right now. Instead I want to ask: What concretely would crowding out even mean right now?

Below, I run through six possible meanings of crowding out, and then ask if any of them gives us a reason, even in principle, to worry about over-expansionary policy today. (Another possibility, suggested by Jared Bernstein, is that while we don’t need to worry about supply constraints for the economy as a whole, tax cuts could crowd out useful spending due to some unspecified financial constraint on the federal government. I don’t address that here.) Needless to say, doubts about the economic case for crowding-out are in no way an argument for the specific deficit-boosting policies favored by the new administration.

The most straightforward crowding-out story starts from a fixed supply of private savings. These savings can either be lent to the government, or to business. The more the former takes, the less is left for the latter. But as Keynes pointed out long ago, this simple loanable-funds story assumes what it sets out to prove. The total quantity of saving is fixed only if total income is fixed. If higher government spending can in fact raise total income, it will raise total saving as well. We can only tell a story about government and business competing for a given pool of saving if we have already decided for some other reason that GDP can’t change.

The more sophisticated version, embodied in the textbook ISLM model, postulates a fixed supply of money, rather than saving. [1] In Hicks’ formulation, money is used both for transactions and as the maximally liquid store of wealth. The higher is output, the more money is needed for transactions, and the less is available to be held as wealth. By the familiar logic of supply and demand, this means that wealthholders must be paid more to part with their remaining stock of money. The price wealthholders receive to give up their money is interest; so as GDP rises, so does the interest rate.

Unlike the loanable funds story with fixed saving, this second story does give a logically coherent account of crowding out. In a world of commodity money, if such ever was, it might even be literally true. But in a world of bank-created credit money, it’s at best a metaphor. Is it a useful metaphor? That would require two things. First, that the interest rate (whichever one we are interested in) is set by the financial system. And second, that the process by which this happens causes rates to systematically rise with demand. The first premise is immediately rejected by the textbooks, which tell us that “the central bank sets the interest rate.” But we needn’t take this at face value. There are many interest rates, not just one, and the spreads between them vary quite a bit; logically it is possible that strong demand could lead to wider spreads, as banks stretch must their liquidity further to make more loans. But in reality, the opposite seems more likely. Government debt is a source of liquidity for private banks, not a use of it; lending more to the government makes it easier, not harder, for them to also lend more to private borrowers. Also, a booming economy is one in which business borrowers are more profitable; marginal borrowers look safer and are likely to get better terms. And rising inflation, obviously, reduces the real value of outstanding debt; however annoying this is to bankers, rationally it makes them more willing to lend more to their now less-indebted clients. Wicksell, the semi-acknowledged father of modern central banking theory, built his big book around the premise that in a credit-money system, inflation would give private banks no reason to raise interest rates.

And in fact this is what we see. Interest rate spreads are narrow in booms; they widen in crises and remain wide in downturns.

So crowding out mark two, the ISLM version, requires us to accept both that central banks cannot control the economically relevant interest rates, and that private banks systematically raise interest rates when times are good. Again, in a strict gold standard world there might something to this — banks have to raise rates, their gold reserves are running low — but if we ever lived in that world it was 150 or 200 years ago or more.

A more natural interpretation of the claim that the economy is at potential, is that any further increase in demand would just  lead to inflation. This is the version of crowding out in better textbooks, and also the version used by MMT folks. On a certain level, it’s obviously correct. Suppose the amount of money-spending in an economy increases. Then either the quantity of goods and services increases, or their prices do. There is no third option: The total percent increase in money spending, must equal the sum of the percent increase in “real” output and the percent increase in average prices. But how does the balance between higher output and higher prices play out in real life? One possibility is that potential output is a hard line: each dollar of spending up to there increases real output one for one, and leaves prices unchanged; each dollar of spending above there increases prices one for one and leaves output unchanged. Alternatively, we might imagine a smooth curve where as spending increases, a higher fraction of each marginal dollar translates into higher prices rather than higher output. [2] This is certainly more realistic, but it invites the question of which point exactly on this curve we call “potential”. And it awakens the great bane of postwar macro – an inflation-output tradeoff, where the respective costs and benefits must be assessed politically.

Crowding out mark three, the inflation version, is definitely right in some sense — you can’t produce more concrete use values without limit simply by increasing the quantity of money borrowed by the government (or some other entity). But we have to ask first, positively, when we will see this inflation, and second, normatively, how we value lower inflation vs higher output and income.

In the post-1980s orthodoxy, we as society are never supposed to face these questions. They are settled for us by the central bank. This is the fourth, and probably most politically salient, version of crowding out: higher government spending will cause the central bank to raise interest rates. This is the practical content of the textbook story, and in fact newer textbooks replace the LM curve — where the interest rate is in some sense endogenous — with a straight line at whatever interest rate is chosen by the central bank. In the more sophisticated textbooks, this becomes a central bank reaction function — the central bank’s actions change from being policy choices, to a fundamental law of the economic universe. The master parable for this story is the 1990s, when the Clinton administration came in with big plans for stimulus, only to be slapped down by Alan Greenspan, who warned that any increase in public spending would be offset by a contractionary shift by the federal reserve. But once Clinton made the walk to Canossa and embraced deficit reduction, Greenspan’s fed rewarded him with low rates, substituting private investment in equal measure for the foregone public spending. In the current contest, this means: Any increase in federal borrowing will be offset one for one by a fall in private investment —  because the Fed will raise rates enough to make it happen.

This story is crowding out mark four. It depends, first, on what the central bank reaction function actually is — how confident are we that monetary policy will respond in a direct, predictable way to changes in the federal budget balance or to shifts in demand? (The more attention we pay to how the monetary sausage gets made, the less confident we are likely to be.) And second, on whether the central bank really has the power to reliably offset shifts in fiscal policy. In the textbooks this is taken for granted but there are reasons for doubt. It’s also not clear why the actions of the central bank should be described as crowding out by fiscal policy. The central bank’s policy rule is not a law of nature. Unless there is some other reason to think expansionary policy can’t work, it’s not much of an argument to say the Fed won’t allow it. We end up with something like: “Why can’t we have deficit-financed nice things?” “Because the economy is at potential – any more public spending will just crowd out private spending.” “How will it be crowded out exactly?” “Interest rates will rise.” “Why will they rise?” “Because the federal reserve will tighten.” “Why will they tighten?” “Because the economy is at potential.”

Suppose we take the central bank out of the picture. Suppose we allow supply constraints to bind on their own, instead of being anticipated by the central planners at the Fed. What would happen as demand pushed up against the limits of productive capacity? One answer, again, is rising inflation. But we shouldn’t expect prices to all rise in lockstep. Supply constraints don’t mean that production growth halts at once; rather, bottlenecks develop in specific areas. So we should expect inflation to begin with rising prices for inputs in inelastic supply — land, oil, above all labor. Textbook models typically include a Phillips curve, with low unemployment leading to rising wages, which in turn are passed on to higher prices.

But why should they be passed on completely? It’s easy to imagine reasons why prices don’t respond fully or immediately to changes in wages. In which case, as I’ve discussed before, rising wages will result in an increase in the wage share. Some people will object that such effects can only be temporary. I’m not sure this makes sense — why shouldn’t labor, like anything else, be relatively more expensive in a world where it is relatively more scarce? But even if you think that over the long-term the wage share is entirely set on the supply side, the transition from one “fundamental” wage share to another still has to involve a period of wages  rising faster or slower than productivity growth — which in a Phillips curve world, means a period above or below full employment.

We don’t hear as much about the labor share as the fundamental supply constraint, compared with savings, inflation or interest rates. But it comes right out of the logic of standard models. To get to crowding out mark five, though, we have to take one more step. We have to also postulate that demand in the economy is profit-led — that a distributional shift from profits toward wages reduces desired investment by more than it increases desired consumption. Whether (or which) real economies display wage-led or profit-led demand is a subject of vigorous debate in heterodox macro. But there’s no need to adjudicate that now. Right now I’m just interested in what crowding out could possibly mean.

Demand can affect distribution only if wage increases are not fully passed on to prices. One reason this might happen is that in an open economy, businesses lack pricing power; if they try to pass on increased costs, they’ll lose market share to imports. Follow that logic to its endpoint and there are no supply constraints — any increase in spending that can’t be satisfied by domestic production is met by imports instead. For an ideal small, open economy potential output is no more relevant than the grocery store’s inventory is for an individual household when we go shopping. Instead, like the household, the small open economy faces a budget constraint or a financing constraint — how much it can buy depends on how much it can pay for.

Needless to say, we needn’t go to that extreme to imagine a binding external constraint. It’s quite reasonable to suppose that, thanks to dependence on imported inputs and/or demand for imported consumption goods, output can’t rise without higher imports. And a country may well run out of foreign exchange before it runs out of domestic savings, finance or productive capacity. This is the idea behind multiple gap models in development economics, or balance of payments constrained growth. It also seems like the direction orthodoxy is heading in the eurozone, where competitiveness is bidding to replace inflation as the overriding concern of macro policy.

Crowding out mark six says that any increase in demand from the government sector will absorb scarce foreign exchange that will no longer be available to private sector. How relevant it is depends on how inelastic import demand is, the extent to which the country as a whole faces a binding budget or credit constraint and, what concrete form that constraint faces — what actually happens if international creditors are stiffed, or worry they might be? But the general logic is that higher spending will lead to a higher trade deficit, which at some point can no longer be financed.

So now we have six forms of crowding out:

1. Government competes with business for fixed saving.

2. Government competes with business for scarce liquidity.

3. Increased spending would lead to higher inflation.

4. Increased spending would cause the central bank to raise interest rates.

5. Overfull employment would lead to overfast wage increases.

6. Increased spending would lead to a higher trade deficit.

The next question is: Is there any reason, even in principle, to worry about any of these outcomes in the US today? We can decisively set aside the first, which is logically incoherent, and confidently set aside the second, which doesn’t fit a credit-money economy in which government liabilities are the most liquid asset. But the other four certainly could, in principle, reflect real limits on expansionary policy. The question is: In the US in 2017, are higher inflation, higher interest rates, higher wages or a weaker balance of payments position problems we need to worry about? Are they even problems at all?

First, higher inflation. This is the most natural place to look for the costs of demand pushing up against capacity limits. In some situations you’d want to ask how much inflation, exactly, would come from erring on the side of overexpansion, and how costly that higher inflation would be against the benefits of lower unemployment. But we don’t have to ask that question right now, because inflation is by conventional measures, too low; so higher inflation isn’t a cost of expansionary policy, but an additional benefit. The problem is even worse for Krugman, who has been calling for years now for a higher inflation target, usually 4 percent. You can’t support higher inflation without supporting the concrete action needed to bring it about, namely, a period of aggregate spending in excess of potential. [2] Now you might say that changing the inflation target is the responsibility of the Fed, not the fiscal authorities. But even leaving aside the question of democratic accountability, it’s hard to take this response seriously when we’ve spent the last eight years watching the Fed miss its existing target; setting a new higher target isn’t going to make a difference unless something else happens to raise demand. I just don’t see how you can write “What do we want? Four percent! When do we want it? Now!” and then turn around and object to expansionary fiscal policy on the grounds that it might be inflationary.

OK, but what if the Fed does raise rates in response to any increase in the federal budget deficit, as many observers expect? Again, if you think that more expansionary policy is otherwise desirable, it would seem that your problem here is with the Fed. But set that aside, and assume our choice is between a baseline 2018-2020, and an alternative with the same GDP but with higher budget deficits and higher interest rates. (This is the worst case for crowding out.) Which do we prefer? In the old days, the low-deficit, low-interest world would have been the only respectable choice: Private investment is obviously preferable to whatever government deficits might finance. (And to be fair, in the actual 2018-2020, they will mostly be financing high-end tax cuts.) But as Brad DeLong points out, the calculation is different today. Higher interest rates are now a blessing, not a curse, because they create more running room for the Fed to respond to a downturn. [3] In the second scenario, there will be some help from conventional monetary policy in the next recession, for whatever it’s worth; in the first scenario there will be no help at all. And one thing we’ve surely learned since 2008 is the costs of cyclical downturns are much larger than previously believed. So here again, what is traditionally considered a costs of pushing past supply constraints turns out on closer examination to be a benefit.

Third, the danger of more expansionary policy is that it will lead to a rise in the wage share. You don’t hear this one as much. I’ve suggested elsewhere that something like this may often motivate actual central bank decisions to tighten. Presumably it’s not what someone like Krugman is thinking about. But regardless of what’s in people’s heads, there’s a serious problem here for the crowding-out position. Let’s say that we believe, as both common sense and the textbooks tells us, that the rate of wage growth depends on the level of unemployment. Suppose  we define full employment in the conventional way as the level of unemployment that leads to nominal wage growth just equal to productivity growth plus the central bank’s inflation target. Then by definition, any increase in the wage share requires a period of overfull employment — of unemployment below the full employment level. This holds even if you think the labor share in the long run is entirely technologically determined. A forteori it holds if you think that the wage share is in some sense political, the result of the balance of forces between labor and capital.

Again, I’m simply baffled how someone can believe at the same time that the rising share of capital in national income is a problem, and that there is no space for expansionary policy once full employment is reached. [4] Especially since the unemployment target is missed so often from the other side. If you have periods of excessively high unemployment but no periods of excessively low unemployment, you get a kind of ratchet effect where the labor share can only go down, never up. I think this sort of cognitive dissonance happens because economics training puts aggregate demand in one box and income distribution in another. But this sort of hermetic separation isn’t really sustainable. The wage share can only be higher in the long run if there is some short-run period in which it rises.

Finally, the external constraint. It is probably true that more expansionary fiscal policy will lead to bigger trade deficits. But this only counts as crowding out if those deficits are in some sense unsustainable. Is this the case for the US? There are a lot of complexities here but the key point is that almost all our foreign liabilities (and all of the government’s) are denominated in dollars, and almost all our imports are invoiced in dollars. Personally, I think the world is still more likely to encounter a scarcity of dollar liquidity than a surfeit, so the problem of an external constraint doesn’t even arise. But let’s say I’m wrong and we get the worst-case scenario where the world is no longer willing to hold more dollar liabilities. What happens? Well, the value of the dollar falls. At a stroke, US foreign liabilities decline relative to foreign assets (which are almost all denominated in their home currencies), improving the US net international investment position; and US exports get cheaper for the rest of the world, improving US competitiveness. The problem solves itself.

Imagine a corporation with no liabilities except its stock, and that also paid all its employers and supplies in its own stock and sold its goods for its own stock. How could this business go bankrupt? Any bad news would instantly mean its debts were reduced and its goods became cheaper relative to its competitors’. The US is in a similar position internationally. And if you think that over the medium term the US should be improving its trade balance then, again, this cost of over-expansionary policy looks like a benefit — by driving down the value of the dollar, “irresponsible” policy will set the stage for a more sustainable recovery. The funny thing is that in other contexts Krugman understands this perfectly.

So as far as I can tell, even if we accept that the US economy has reached potential output/full employment, none of the costs for crossing this line are really costs today. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m missing something. but it really is incumbent on anyone who argues there’s no space for further expansionary policy to explain what concretely would be the results of overshooting.

In short: When we ask how close the economy is to potential output, full employment or supply constraints, this is not just a factual question. We have to think carefully about what these terms mean, and whether they have the significance we’re used to in today’s conditions. This post has been more about Krugman than I intended, or than he deserves. A very large swathe of established opinion shares the view that the economy is close to potential in some sense, and that this is a serious objection to any policy that raises demand. What I’d like to ask anyone who thinks this is: Do you think higher inflation, a higher “natural” interest rate, a higher wage share or a weaker dollar would be bad things right now? And if not, what exactly is the supply constraint you are worried about?

 

[1] The LM in ISLM stands for liquidity-money. It’s supposed to be the combination of interest rates and output levels at which the demand for liquidity is satisfied by a given stock of money.

[2] OK, some people might say the Fed could bring about higher inflation just by announcing a different target. But they’re not who I’m arguing with here.

[3] Krugman himself says he’d “be a lot more comfortable … if interest rates were well clear of the ZLB.” How is that supposed to happen unless something else pushes demand above the full employment level at current rates?

[4] It would of course be defensible to say that the downward redistribution from lower unemployment would be outweighed by the upward redistribution from the package of tax cuts and featherbedding that delivered it. But that’s different from saying that a more expansionary stance is wrong in principle.

Rogoff on the Zero Lower Bound

I was at the ASSAs in Chicago this past weekend. [1] One of the most interesting panels I went to was this one, on Advances in Open Economy Macroeconomics. Among other big names, Ken Rogoff was there, as the discussant for a rather strange paper by Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas and Helene Rey.

The Gourinchas and Rey paper, like much of mainstream macro these days, made a big deal of how different everything is at the zero lower bound. Rogoff wasn’t having it. Here’s a rough transcript of what he said:

The obsession with the zero lower bound is encouraging all kinds of wacko ideas. People are saying that at the ZLB, productivity increases are bad (Eggertsson/Krugman/Summers), protectionism is good (Eichngreen), price flexibility is bad, and so on.

But there is an emerging literature that says economists are taking the zero lower bound too literally. In fact, getting negative rates is not that hard. So before you take seriously these, let’s say, very creative ideas, it would be simpler to think about getting rid of the zero bound.

There are lots of ways to do it. I talk about some in my book, but people already understood this back in the 1930s. There was Robert Eisler’s proposal to have banks accept cash deposits at a discount, for instance, which would have effectively created negative rates. If Keynes had read Eisler, he might have gone in a different direction. [2] It’s a very old idea — Kublai Khan did something similar. There will be pushback from the financial sector, of course, who think negative rates will be costly for them, but fundamentally it is not hard to do.

These rather striking comments crystallized something in my mind. What is the big deal about the ZLB? For mainstream macroeconomists, including Gourinchas and Rey in this paper, the reason the ZLB matters is that it prevents the central bank form setting an interest rate low enough to keep output at potential. [3] It’s precisely this that makes inapplicable the conventional analysis of a nonmonetary problem of allocating scarce resources between alternative ends, and requires thinking about other entry points. If the central bank can’t solve the problem of aggregate demand then you have to take it seriously, with all the wacko and/or creative stuff that follows.

In the dominant paradigm, this is a specific technical problem of getting interest rates below zero. Solve that, and we are back in the comfortable Walrasian world. But for those of us on the heterodox side, it is never the case that the central bank can reliably keep output at potential — maybe because market interest rates don’t respond to the policy rate, or because output doesn’t respond to interest rates, or because the central bank is pursuing other objectives, or because there is no well-defined level of “potential” to begin with. (Or, in reality, all four.) So what people like Gourinchas and Rey, or Paul Krugman, present as a special, temporary state of the economy, we see as the general case.

One way of looking at this is that the ZLB is a device to allow economists like Krugman and Gourinchas and Rey — who whatever their scholarly training, are aware of the concrete reality around them — to make Keynesian arguments without forfeiting their academic respectability. You can understand why someone like Rogoff sees that as cheating. We’ve spent decades teaching that the fundamental constraint on the economy is the real endowment of resources and technology; that saving boosts growth; that trade is always win-win; that money and finance matter only in the short run (and the short run is tolerably short). The practical problem of negative policy rates doesn’t let you forget all of that.

Which, if you turn it around, perhaps reflects well on the ZLB crowd. Maybe they want to forget all that? Maybe, you could say, they take the zero lower bound seriously because they don’t take it literally. That is, they treat it as a hard constraint precisely because they are aware that it is only a stand-in for a deeper reality.

 

[1] The big annual economics conference. It stands for Allied Social Sciences Association — the disciplinary imperialism is right there in the name.

[2] This was an odd thing for Rogoff to say, since of course while Keynes didn’t discuss Eisler as far as I know, he talks at length about the similar proposals for depreciating cash of Silvio Gesell and Major Douglas. Notoriously he says these “brave cranks and heretics” have more to offer than Marx.

[3] Gourinchas and Rey are reality-based enough to say “the policy rate,” not “the interest rate.”

 

EDIT: Added the seriously-but-not-literally phrasing as suggested by Steve Roth on Twitter.

2016 Books

Here’s what I read in 2016. There’s probably a couple books I’m forgetting.

 

Munif – Cities of Salt. Munif was a dissident Saudi writer who spent his later life in exile in Syria. I happened to pick up this book on a recent visit to hi son Yasser’s house (we went to grad school together) and couldn’t put it down. It’s set in the 1930s in an unnamed Arabian country, and tells the stories of ordinary people who are variously enriched, displaced, and wrecked by the establishment of the oil industry. It has a bit of the structure of something like One Hundred Years of Solitude, though without the magic. One unusual thing about it is its use of collective protagonists — various individuals drift in and out, but a great deal of the narration is from the point of view of “the villagers,” “the pipeline workers,” “the townspeople,” etc. Munif’s sympathies are obviously with those uprooted by the alliance of American business and indigenous royalty, and with their overt and covert resistance to it, but he’s also clear-eyed about the limits to their capacity for collective action and their lack of any usable political language for what is happening to them. It’s the first book in a series. Two others are available in English, beautifully translated by Peter Theroux; the remaining two sadly are not, apparently because Theroux has been occupied translating books by Naguib Mahfouz.

 

Mantel – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. These stories were mostly just ok. I picked them up because, like everybody, I loved the Thomas Cromwell novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. (The tv miniseries was also quite good.) But what she’s doing here doesn’t work as well. What she’s doing is mostly something very specific: writing realistic fiction with the conventions of the gothic. Almost all of them are written from the perspective of subordinates and outsiders, and almost all of them involve a building sense of unease and dislocation. Sometimes this mix of social realism and horror succeeds, as in the title story and in The School of English, about a servant who was raped by her employer under circumstances that never quite come into focus. But more often it doesn’t, like in the embarrassing misfire Harley Street, where the shocking revelation is that two of a woman’s coworkers are lesbians. Oh well. I hope she’s working on the third Cromwell book.

 

Beckert – Empire of Cotton: A Global History. This magnificent book is certainly the best nonfiction I read this year. Perhaps the best way to show the concrete reality of capitalism is by following the chain of a single commodity from start to end — Mardi Gras Made in China s a classic example. With cotton Beckert has picked the ur-commodity. It’s all here: from the rise of Europe and the origins of wage labor, through imperialism and emancipation, the changing organization and financing of trade, to the developmental state. He’s especially good on two points. First, that the organization of production always comes down to control of labor. Second, that incorporation into the global economy didn’t simply mean swapping one mix of commodities produced and consumed for another, but a thorough reorganization of society, not just once but continuously as people’s life choices and circumstances became increasingly dependent on developments in distant markets. And he has an almost miraculous ability to produce exactly the right quote, the perfectly telling anecdote, at every point in the story. I’d love to know how he organizes his files.

 

Davis – Late Victorian Holocausts. I assigned it for a class – one of the best ways of finally getting to something you should have read years ago. It’s an extraordinary book — as suggested by the title, a comprehensive guide to Europe’s war against humanity in the 19th century, but also a timely exploration of the political and social consequences of climate change — a sort of prequel to my friend Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos. Davis is a master of this kind of thing — he somehow combines the core historical narrative, the political-economic analysis, the key statistical information and the telling quotes in a completely organic way. (I happened to reread a bit of City of Quartz recently and it’s the same — holds up very well.) The Brazil, China and Africa chapters are powerful, but the stuff on India is just brutal. The name Richard Temple should have the same resonance as the name Josef Mengele.

 

Bagchi – Perilous Passage: Mankind and the Global Ascendancy of Capital. This is I’d planned to assign parts of this in my economics history class but in the end I didn’t use it. It’s a global history with a particular focus on assessing historical changes in wellbeing, especially in the periphery of the Europe-centered world system. In some ways it seems like an attempt to put Sen’s ideas about capabilities and functionings into a historical framework. It’s not a bad book, but the stories I wanted to use it for are told more vividly elsewhere, like the Beckert and Davis books.

 

Coates – Between the World and Me. I don’t have anything really to add to what everyone else has said about this book. It deserves the praise it’s gotten. If you haven’t read it, you should.

 

Isherwood – A Single Man. A lovely little novel about a bereaved gay academic in early-1960s California. Although all the specifics are captured very well, in some ways all these are beside the point. The real subject is the way our unitary self dissolves, on closer examination, into various roles we play, personae we adopt, based on the circumstances we find ourselves in. I suppose the bereaved part of the package is the most important for this purpose, since it removes the central, stabilizing social context of the narrator’s life. I guess the pre-stonewall gay part is important too, since it deprives him of a standard set of social forms and rituals that would make sense of his new condition. But the core idea is conveyed as well by the scene of him observing himself driving on an LA freeway: “an impassive anonymous chauffeur-figure with little will or individuality of its own, the very embodiment of muscular co-ordination, lack of anxiety, tactful silence, driving its master to work.” One other thing I like about this book: It’s one of the only campus novels that somehow manages to tip into neither nasty satire nor sententious harrumph. He conveys both that teaching is an almost religious vocation, standing intercessor between your students and a world that’s much bigger and older and deeper than them; and that it’s just a job. The Tom Ford movie entirely misses the point.

 

Hicks The Crisis in Keynesian Economics and Critical Essays in Monetary Theory. I read through quite a few essays in these collections after reading some fascinating pieces by Axel Leijonhufvud on Hicks and his work.  I didn’t get as much out of them as I had hoped. Hicks famously described his later work as a struggle to escape from the neoclassical framework of his best-known work, Value and Capital, but I don’t know how well he succeeded. I think I prefer Leijonhufvud’s Hicks to Hicks’ Hicks.

 

Reardon – Handbook of Pluralist Economic Education. I wrote a review of this, which should be coming out in the Review of Keynesian Economics at some point.

 

Diski – In Gratitude. I’ve been reading Diski’s essays and reviews for a while in the London Review of Books (which is objectively better than the NYRB, by the way). This is her memoir of, first, being semi-adopted by the novelist Doris Lessing as a teenager, and, later, dying of cancer. It’s a lovely book. It’s a playful but rigorous self-inventory; like a lot of the best memoirs, it conveys the the sense of being a spontaneous confession while benefiting from careful construction.

 

Lewin – The Soviet Century. I picked this up at a Verso event. I’m not sorry I read it, but I wouldn’t really recommend it. (Any ideas what one book you should you read on the history of the Soviet Union?) It’s chronological but not comprehensive — he’s really only interested here in how the system worked politically — how decisions were made, carried out, and justified.  There’s some interesting material here on the day to day realities of the Soviet administration. But there’s not enough context on what concrete outcomes resulted all this reshuffling of departments and reassignment of personnel. (The iconic red army soldier on the cover is a bit of a tease – there’s almost nothing here on World War II itself, only its repercussions for bureaucratic politics.) Lewin is evidently a Trotskyist of some sort — we are constantly being reminded of how stalin betrayed the promise of the revolution and the genuine accomplishments of the 1920s. As far as perspectives on the Soviet Union go, this is a respectable one, but it seems like at this point we should be aiming for a dispassionate account of how the system worked and what it did and did not do, without reenacting the debates of 100 years ago.

 

Hood – 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York. I’d expected this classic history to be, you know, sandhogs battling the Manhattan schist. There is some of that, but much more about the political and financial aspects of the story which, to me, are even more interesting. It develops and complicates the vague — “private subways abetted real estate speculation but became unprofitable after WWI so the government took them over” story I’d vaguely had in my head before.

The book does support the idea that the economics of private subways only really make sense in conjunction when they’re built by large-scale real estate developers; no other private actor can internalize their positive externalities. But the private to public transition is more complicated. It is true that, thanks to inflation and the nickel fare, the private lines saw big losses in the 1920s and 1930s. But because of the long-term contracts signed before the war, under which the city owned the tracks on which the privately-owned trains ran, the losses were mostly borne by the public; the private companies were mostly profitable. So the private-public question was less economic, and more directly ideological, than I had realized. Early on, there was very strong resistance to the idea of government-operated subways — state legislation forbidding public operation was passed when proposals were first floated. Public subways were explicitly seen as a step toward socialism. But a bit later, in the Progressive era, there was a serious push for a government run subway as a sort of public option to compete with August Belmont’s monopoly, and the Public Service Commission briefly operated some short connecting lines. this early foray into public subways was abandoned, but only as a result of complex set of negotiations counterbalancing the goals of holding down fares through competition; extending the existing system in a rational way; and encouraging development of outlying areas. (The last goal also supported by the progressives in order to move workers out of dense immigrant neighborhoods in Manhattan.) As is often the case when you read history, what in retrospect looks like a logically unfolding inevitable development, on clsoer examination could easily have gone in other ways.

 

Saki – The Unrest Cure. Oscar Wilde’s wit without his weirdness (mostly) or his politics (at all). Kept me occupied for half a dozen subway rides.

 

Ferrante – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. These remarkable books deserve much more than I can write about them. Luckily, lots of other people have written about them! Purely as fiction, they are highly effective – they are the sort of novels you can’t stop reading, but that you constantly want to stop reading to make them last longer, and to think about what you’ve just read. As to the substance: Some people see the tragedy of the book that Lila, the central character, never leaves Naples — that her talent and energy and intelligence go to waste there, instead of developing into some useful and rewarding career as they would have elsewhere. I don’t agree. I don’t think we’re meant to imagine that anything important would have been better if she’d followed the narrator Elena to a middle-class, professional life in the North. I think we should take the narrator seriously in her reflections at the start of the third book. She says that she once saw the stasis, brutality and hopelessness of her childhood neighborhood as geographically specific. So she thought the solution was to

get away for good, settle in well-organized lands where everything really is possible. I had fled … Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong… the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth… And shrewdness means hiding from from oneself the true state of things.

I think if there’s a failure in the book, it’s the shrewd, practical Elana’s. I think Lila’s choice is the one we’re meant to admire — to keep trying to push through the immovable barriers of corrupt, violent Naples. To me, she comes across as almost Dostoyevskyan figure, a Myshkin unable to make the reasonable compromises we all make with an unreasonable world. In this reading, the radical political milieu of the middle books is more than just dramatic backdrop, though it certainly functions as that. The insurgent New Left of the 1970s, whatever its failures, was reacting to same basic problem as Lila — what do you do when you find the world you’ve been born unjust, nonsensical, and intolerable? Of course the usual answer is you do what you can to make things a bit better, incrementally — after all they are getting better — that way, with luck, lies a respected and remunerative career. This choice — which, again, almost all of us make — is represented in the books by the repulsive Nino. Whereas Lila (and the communist Pasquale, the books’ most purely admirable figure) represents the other choice, not to reconcile yourself. I feel like the books could have taken their epigraph from Mario Savio: “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”

 

Streeck – Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. I originally read this hoping to write a review of it. But I took too long and now Streeck has another one. Still planning to write the review, which will now have to be of the two books, so will save my thoughts til then.

 

Eicher – The New Cosmos. I like reading about science and I loved Carl Sagan as a kid, so this was an easy sell. I enjoyed reading it — if it’s the sort of thing you like, you’d probably enjoy it too — but I wouldn’t say it’s anything special. He does make a strong case that demoting Pluto from planethood was the wrong call.

 

Ascher The Works and The Heights. I got these two books mainly to read to my son, who like many five-year-olds is very interested in public works, infrastructure and engineering. (Brian Hayes’ magnificent Infrastructure, with its gorgeous photos, has been preferred dinnertime reading for a while.) But they aren’t kids’ books — I learned quite a lot from them — especially from The Works, which is about all the normally unregarded machinery and labor that makes New York City, well, work. Did you know about the Sandy Hook pilots, who still guide freighters into New York Harbour? Did you know that New York is one of the few major cities where storm runoff and sewage flow together, and that until the 1980s, the upper west side of Manhattan had no sewage treatment facilities and dumped its raw waste right into the Hudson? Did you know that New York still has an operational steam-tunnel system, which provides the heat for many of Manhattan’s iconic buildings as well as steam for dry cleaners, hospitals, etc.? Did you know that six inches of snow is the cutoff for all the city’s garbage trucks to be converted to snowplow service? I didn’t know any of that, and it’s good stuff to know.

 

Johnson – The Making of Donald Trump. At my parents’ house at Christmastime, my father was reading this. Laura picked it up and started saying, “Wait! did you ever hear this…?”, so I started reading it too. It’s a page turner. Now personally, I think it’s a mistake to personalize the political situation; I think we’re better off talking about what “the Republicans will do” than what “Trump will do.” And of course the fundamental terms of politics don’t change with elections. Still, I hadn’t realized just how vile this person is. Did you know that he cut off the medical coverage of his newborn grandnephew in neonatal intensive care, to force the parents to settle an inheritance dispute? Good times.