V for Varoufakis

I have a long review up at Boston Review of three books by Yanis Varoufakis: The Global Minotaur, And the Weak Suffer What They Must?, and Adults in the Room. Here’s the start:

In the spring of 2015, a series of debt negotiations briefly claimed a share of the world’s attention that normally goes only to events where celebrities give each other prizes. Syriza, a scrappy left-wing party, had stormed into office in Greece on a promise to challenge the consortium of international creditors that had effectively ruled the country since its debt crisis broke out in 2010. For years, austerity, deregulation, the rolling back of labor rights and public services, the rule of money over society, had been facts of life. Now suddenly they were live political questions. It was riveting.

Syriza was represented in these negotiations by its finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. With his shaved head, leather jacket, and motorcycle, he was not just a visual contrast to the gray-suited Eurocrats across the table. His radical but rigorous proposals for a different kind of Europe—one based on meeting human needs rather than rigid financial criteria—offered a daily rebuke to the old refrain “there is no alternative.”

The drama was clear, but the stakes were a little obscure. Why did it matter if Greece stayed in the euro? Orthodox economic theory, after all, gives little role for money or finance. What matters are real wants and real resources, for which money is just a convenient yardstick. University of Chicago economist John Cochrane probably spoke for much of the profession when he asked why it made any more sense to talk about Greece leaving the euro than about Greece leaving the metric system.

But money does indeed matter—especially in economic relations between countries, as Varoufakis himself has convincingly shown. In his three books—The Global Minotaur (2011), And the Weak Suffer What They Must (2016), and Adults in the Room (2017)—Varoufakis offers a fascinating lens on the euro system and its masters. While the first two books chart the history of the international monetary system from World War II up to the debt crisis, his last and most recent book is a reflection on his five months as Greek finance minister. Taken together, they read as if Varoufakis is the protagonist in some postmodern fable, in which he is transformed from a critic of the play to one of the main characters in it. …

Read the rest there, and then comment here if you are so inclined.

Posts in Three Lines

Seeing as I’m not teaching this semester, maybe I’ll start blogging more regularly. If so, here are some of the posts I might write.

*

Taxes and investment. Discussions of tax cuts’ effects on investment need to distinguish between two possible channels: changes in the expected return on investment, and changes in internal funds available to the firm. Economists tends to focus on the first, but if external funds are not a good substitute for retained earnings then the second may be more important. Tax cuts will fail to stimulate investment in the first case if they raise the opportunity cost for investment as much as expected returns, and in the second case if shareholder demands mean that internal funds are no longer available to finance investment; or in either case if monopoly power, demand constraints, etc. mean that the expected return on investment curve slopes steeply down.

The probability approach in economics. Empirical economics focuses on estimating the parameters of a data-generating process supposed to underlie some observable phenomena; this is then used to make ceteris paribus (all else equal) predictions about what will happen if something changes. Critics object that these kinds of predictions are meaningless, that the goal should be unconditional forecasts instead (“economists failed to call the crisis”). Trygve Haavelmo’s writings on empirics from the 1940s suggest third possibile goal: unconditional predictions about the joint distribution of several variables within a particular domain.

Walking the labor-market tightrope. There’s a tension in how to think about the past couple years of low unemployment and somewhat faster wage growth. On the one hand, we’re still very far from reversing the declines in employment and wages after 2008, or from any other reasonable measure of full employment; but on the other hand, it’s important that there has been some progress — it means that despite fears of robots/China/etc., there is still a reliable link from aggregate demand to employment and wages. It’s also worth noting that the faster wage growth has come without any pickup in inflation, but has translated one for one into a higher wage share (and lower profit share).

The interest rate and the interest rate. Every couple months, Martin Wolf writes something to the effect that central banks can’t change the real interest rate. The idea seems to be that the monetary interest rate influenced by central banks must fundamentally correspond to the intertemporal rate of substitution in a Walrasian world without money, set by preferences and production possibilities. It’s worth thinking through all the reasons why this doesn’t work; I think they point to some deep fissures opened up by the incongruence of economic map with social territory.

Financialization. One critical response to my conversation about financialization with Seth Ackerman was that a focus on finance as a device for disciplining nonfinancial firms ignores the ways those firms themselves have become major players in financial markets. Several very smart comrades in heterodoxy have made this same argument, that nonfinancial firms are increasingly seeking to profit from ownership of financial assets rather than of means of production. I’m not convinced — I think that most or all of the apparent rise in financial assets on the balance sheets of nonfinancial firms is really goodwill from mergers, interests in unconsolidated subsidiaries, and similar accounting devices, rather than the sort of financial assets that you can purchase and collect an income from.

The European central bank is not the central bank of Europe. I finally finished my review of Yanis Varoufakis’ three books, months past the deadline (hopefully they’ll still take it). One important issue I couldn’t address in the review, is whether he is right to dismiss as politically inconsequential the question of who runs the Bank of Greece. Personally, I’m not convinced — I still think the national central banks are important strategic terrain that any future left government in the euro zone needs to get control of.

The boss’s brain is under the worker’s cap. Business Insider has been doing some great reporting on the chaos created by Whole Foods’ new inventory management system. One of the key points that comes out is the heroic effort and emotional energy that employees, including line managers, put in to keep the machinery running, no matter how hard top management tries to wreck it. I feel like much of corporate America is run by mad kings who sit around burning their tribute while insisting they deserve credit for everything the peasants do to produce it.

Evolution ≠ natural selection. My recent reading has included two books on evolutionary biology — Peter Godrey-Smith’s Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection, a high-level, philosophical restatement of the logic of natural selection; and Olivier Rieppel’s Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, a ground-level narrative of some particular debates within evolutionary biology. Reading these two books together really highlights the distinction between evolution (the concrete development of living creatures over time) and natural selection (a mechanism postulated to account for that development). One way of thinking about the evo-devo revolution is that it’s saying the former is not reducible to the latter — the capacity to produce large-scale, complex structures is not a generic implication of natural selection but a specific trait that itself has evolved.

2017 Books

I didn’t read very many books this past year. Can’t claim this guy as an excuse, he was only present the last month of it.

Here are some I did read; I might be forgetting one or two.

 

Przeworski – Capitalism and Social Democracy. I’m not sure what the author’s political trajectory has been; nothing encouraging, I’m guessing. But I got a lot out of this history of European social democracy as a concrete political phenomenon. He’s asking the right questions: how is it that wage-earners, “workers” in the broader or narrower sense, constitute a constituency for the purposes of electoral politics, and how in practice do avowed socialists govern a capitalist economy? One insight of the book was the importance of Keynesian demand management as an answer to the latter question. For the first generation of electorally successful socialists, there was a seemingly unbridgeable gap between managing an economy based on private ownership, in which maintaining business confidence was critical; and using the state as scaffolding for the construction of the cooperative commonwealth. Until “aggregate demand” became a way of talking about public spending, every step toward the latter tended to undermine the former, so that — it seemed — the gap had to be crossed in one big leap or not at all.

 

Rothermund – The Great Depression in Global Perspective. One of several books I read because I assigned it. (Teaching economic history is great for this purpose.) It does what it says on the tin: describes the depression of the 1930s as a global phenomenon, with as many pages devoted to Latin America or South Asia as to the United States or Western Europe.  It’s a short book and readable — worked fine for my undergrads — but a dense and systematic one. Rothermund is particularly attentive to the ways in which the 1930s collapse in agricultural  prices played out differently in countries specializing in different kinds of commodities – staples versus luxuries, small farm products versus plantations. He also has some interesting things to say about the way in which the impact of the Depression in the colonial world — most of humanity at the time — was shaped by the specific institutions of imperial rule, with for instance regimes based on land taxes, head taxes and excise taxes responding to global deflation in different ways.

 

Grandin – Fordlandia. Did you know that in the early 20th century, Henry Ford bought up a tract of the Amazon bigger than Delaware, built a substantial city there on American lines, and hoped to source all the rubber for his cars from it? This is the book about that. It’s a great piece of history, artfully crafted and readable, on an episode that I (certainly) and you (probably) had never encountered before. I have to say, though, that the whole is a bit less than the sum of the parts. Grandin himself has serious left politics but this book presents itself as almost explicitly anti-Marxist. It insists that we think about Ford’s rainforest outpost not in terms of any objective need for a reliable source of industrial inputs, but some deep-seated desire to recreate an idealized American small town out of virgin material.

I have to say, I’m not happy with this thesis. Economic imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as I understand it, generally involved control of the upstream parts of commodity chains – efforts by both states and firms to substitute direct control over input production for sourcing in open markets. And it involved efforts to gain more direct control over labor – to replace direct producers with control over their own labor time and recognized rights to the land and the its products, with forms of labor somewhere on the wage work-slavery continuum that could be more directly managed. Fordlandia fits both of these patterns perfectly. It’s true, of course, that the effort to create an American-style small town from scratch was not a typical imperial project, which normally would rely more on the coercive powers of local political authorities. (It’s also true that the project failed to generate any significant rubber for Ford’s factories.) But I think Grandin’s preferred story should be seen as overlaying the basic economic logic, rather than an alternative to it.

On the other hand, the book itself does not really support the thesis. It provides plenty of evidence that however sincerely Ford and his lieutenants may have believed in their vision of Normal Rockwell on the Amazon, Fordlandia was fundamentally about managing labor and assuring a stable supply rubber. Perhaps these two criticisms cancel out. In any case, it’s a fascinating story, and the book itself reads like a novel.

 

O’Malley – On Another Man’s Wound. I read this after watching The Wind that Shakes the Barley – a great movie on the Irish war of independence and civil war – and realizing I knew almost nothing about this history. When I was first becoming politically aware, in the 1980s, northern Ireland was still sometimes mentioned alongside South Africa, Palestine and Central America as a frontline in the war against Empire, but in general Irish politics has never been something that one needed to know much about. Anyway, someone online (in a Crooked Timber thread, I think, years ago) had suggested O’Malley as the thing to read on the Irish independence struggle. As it turns out, it’s a wonderful book – from a literary standpoint, the best thing I read this year.

Apart from an opening chapter on O’Malley’s childhood, the book is limited tothe period of fighting against the British from 1917 to 1921. (A sequel, which I’m reading now, covers the Irish civil war, in which O’Malley was a leader of the Republican or anti-Treaty side.) It’s a first-person story of a mid-level leader in the countryside (and, in some late chapters, of British prisons) so it’s better for the texture and day-to-day experience of the war than the big picture questions a historical account would focus on. There are also long lyrical passages on the Irish countryside, which O’Malley travelled through on bicycle while organizing IRA units in various towns and villages. They make a striking contrast with the descriptions of fighting and brutality.  One thing I especially liked about the book was how much attention it gives to the problems of building a political movement – recruiting leaders and activists, establishing reliable forms of collective decision-making; in the book O’Malley is as much an organizer as a soldier. I also appreciated the limited place of actual fighting in the book. There are a couple of brilliant set-piece battle scenes, but many more descriptions of attacks that had to be called off at the last minute, or encounters between Irish and British forces in which somehow no one ended up using their weapons. O’Malley’s last act in the war is typical: the matter-of-fact execution of two British officers who were captured by accident, without a shot fired. I have a feeling this is what most war is like.

 

Mark Wilson – Creative Destruction. Read my review here. My dad says: I liked your review, but I can’t say it made me want to read the book. Which, yeah.

 

Koistinen – Arsenal of World War II. If you’re interested in the subject matter of the Wilson book, this is the book you should read. From my point of view, it has two great virtues that Wilson’s book lacks. First, it talk about conflicts within the federal government – in particular the gradual displacement of New Deal officials by a coalition of military leaders and “dollar a year men” from industry – rather than treating the state as a unitary actor, as Wilson does. Second it gives a comprehensive account of how wartime planning actually worked – what kinds of claims on inputs were assigned, to who, by who, on what principles.

 

Harrison – Economics of World War II. Like the Koistinen, I read most of this in the course of reviewing the Mark Wilson book. Possibly this was overkill. It’s a useful comparative overview of economic management and performance in all the major belligerents.

 

Beckert – The Monied Metropolis. I read this because I was so impressed with Beckert’s magnificent Empire of Cotton. The subject here is how the American bourgeoisie constituted itself as a class, through the lens of New York. Posing this question is I think one of the distinctive strengths of Marxism: People have a variety of material interests that overlap in various criss-crossing ways: Which ones become politically salient depends on political, cultural, or more broadly ideological structures; and the existence of shared interests doesn’t by itself create the capacity to act on the collectively. In the concrete case explored by this book, it wasn’t obvious, in early 19th century New York, that ownership of capital as such defined a politically relevant category of people. Merchants and traders had little in common, socially, culturally or politically, with bankers, and even less with master manufacturers, even if they all showed up as property owners in the census. Beckert’s project is to show how by 1880 these different groups had come to constitute a coherent, self-conscious bourgeoisie. He looks at where they lived; what churches they went to; who they socialized with, who their children married; as well as the more directly political questions of what parties and politicians won their support, on what kind of basis. One striking bit, on that last point, is how much the New York elite embraced an explicitly anti-democratic program — restricting the franchise, limiting the powers of elected bodies — into the 1880s. It’s fascinating stuff, and all carefully organized around the central question.

I do have some criticisms. First, Beckert obviously has awesome files of archival material at his disposal, and understandably, he wants to use it. But in practice this means that he never gives one example when four will do. There’s a section in chapter five on how the post-Civil War New York rich, embracing a new aristocratic identity in place of their old stern republicanism, began to marry their sons and daughters to European nobility. Fine – but I swear he devotes two full pages to listing one of these marriages after another. More substantively, I’m concerned that the before-and-after frame of the book telescopes together longer processes, especially in the post-Civil War decades. Reading the book, you could get the impression that wealthy New Yorkers in 1880 mostly owned stocks and bonds rather than businesses directly; but this wouldn’t be the case for another two decades. Finally, there’s the scope or focus of the book, which is very much the American bourgeoisie in New York, as opposed to the New York bourgeoisie. It’s striking that in Beckert’s typology of capital – finance, trade, and manufacturing – real estate doesn’t appear; and real estate owners hardly make an appearance. Especially in the later section, the interests at play are almost entirely national, in which wealthy New Yorkers have the same stake as wealth-owners anywhere else in the country. There is a great deal on the political interests of capital vis-vis New York city and state government, but almost nothing on the local development and land-use issues that are the overwhelming concern of wealth-owners with respect to local government today. I suppose it’s possible that in the 19th century land was relatively abundant even in New York and real estate didn’t constitute an important category of wealth or material interests; I think it’s much more likely this just wasn’t where Beckert’s interests lay.

Still, it’s a great book. It’s not Empire of Cotton, but what else is?

 

Varoufakis – The Weak Suffer What They Must? I read this in order to write a review essay on Varoufakis three recent books, of which this is the second. The review is now very late but will show up eventually.

 

Goodwyn – The Populist Moment. Another one I read for teaching. (I’d read part of it in college.)  The book is a classic and deservedly so. It is sort of the flipside of Moneyed Metropolis: It asks how a section of small farmers and laborers came to constitute themselves as a class in the late 19th century – a much more fragile and transitory development but in some ways parallel to the one Beckert describes. The central thread of the book is the growth and decline of the People’s, or Populist, party in the Plains and South. It’s worth noting in passing that this is the only historical movement that explicitly used that label – yet with its detailed and explicit program, absence of charismatic leadership, and embrace of black participation, it fits very little of what gets called populism today.

The interest of the book is, first, simply that this movement existed, with institutions, mass membership, and its detailed program for nationalization of key industries, regulation of prices, and redistribution of land, developed from the bottom up. There’s a tendency in looking back at American history to see these sorts of mass movements as either absent, or else as inchoate, reactionary explosions. Second, there’s Goodwyn’s main argument, about the conditions that made this movement possible. For him, the key thing was the concrete experience of exercising political power, the first-hand practice in collective decision-making that came from running cooperative stores, crop marketing arrangements and so on. It was this experience of democratic decisonmaking in meeting immediate needs that laid the foundation for a broader democratic politics. Where electoral programs came first, Goodwyn argues, they were soon taken over by professional politicians or demogogues.

 

Kelley – Hammer and Hoe. Another book about political organization by small farmers and agricultural workers, set a generation after Goodwyn’s story — in this case, the surprising success of the Communist Party among African Americans in Alabama during the 1930s. Like Goodwyn, it’s a useful complement to Beckert — the one serious weakness of Empire of Cotton, in my view, is the almost complete absence of political activity among the direct producers of cotton, except in the form of James Scott-style passive resistance. As these books make clear, there was also organized, radical mass politics in the countryside, even if its successes were limited and temporary. I don’t know anything about Kelley’s other work, but Hammer and Hoe is a magnificent piece of scholarship, about a story that should be better known. A central fact in American history is white supremacy. One group of people, one of the few, who have recognized this, and fought it even at moments when it seemed like an unchangeable fact of nature, were American communists. It’s important not to forget that.

 

O’Brien – Going after Cacciato. Perhaps I’ve forgotten something, but as far as I can tell, this is the only novel I read in the past year. I wouldn’t recommend it over The Things They Carried, but there is something profound and compelling about its overarching metaphor of the war as a permanent fact, with fantasies of escape from it always eroding around the edges as reality seeps back in.

 

Previous editions:

2016 books

2015 books

2013 books

2012 books I

2012 books II

2010 books I

2010 books II

What It’s About

Shortly after Syriza’s victory in January 2015, Yanis Varoufakis is traveling around Europe for his first official meetings with various and economics ministers. Here’s an interesting conversation with one of them:

Pier Carlo Padoan, Italy’s finance minister and formerly the OECD’s chief economist, is in many ways a typical European social democrat: sympathetic to the Left but not prepared to rock the boat… Our discussion was friendly and efficient. I explained my proposals, and he signalled that he understood what I was getting at, expressing not an iota of criticism but no support. To his credit, he explained why: when he had been appointed finance minister a few months earlier, Wolfgang Schäuble had made a point of having a go at him at every available opportunity…

I enquired how he had managed to curb Schäuble’s hostility. Pier Carlo said that he had asked Schäuble to tell him the one thing he could do to win his confidence. That turned out to be “labour market reform” – code for weakening workers’ rights, allowing companies to fire them more easily with little or no compensation and to hire people on lower pay with fewer protections. Once Pier Carlo had passed appropriate legislation through Italy’s parliament, at significant political cost to the Renzi government, the German finance minister went easy on him. “Why don’t you try something similar?” he suggested.

“I’ll think about it,” is Varoufakis’ diplomatic reply.

A couple days later, he has a meeting with the German finance minister himself, perhaps the most important single figure in the Euroepan establishment. Schauble brushes off Varoufakis’ suggestions for strengthening the Greek tax authorities, insisting instead on

his theory that the “overgenerous” European social model was no longer sustainable and had to be ditched. Comparing the costs to Europe of maintaining welfare states with the situation in places like India and China, where no social safety net exists at all, he argued that Europe was losing competitiveness and would stagnate unless social benefits were curtailed en masse. It was as if he was telling me that a start had to be made somewhere and that that somewhere might as well be Greece.

I’m supposed to be writing a review of Adults in the Room.That right there is the story, I think. Debates over fiscal arrangements were a pretext, the real agenda has always been restoring the rule of market over society, over labor in particular. And Greece was just a convenient place to start, or to make an example of. Despite the constant framing of Eruope’s divisions in national terms, I think it’s clear that for German conservatives like Schauble, the real target has always been their own working class.

Review of Mark Wilson’s Destructive Creation

The new issue of Dissent has a review by me of Mark Wilson’s Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II. (At the Dissent site the review is still paywalled.)

World War II is a weirdly neglected topic in US economic history. Lots written about the Depression, of course, and then we seem to skip straight to the postwar period. But there’s a lot to learn from the wartime experience, including some important lessons for today’s debates around potential output and the responsiveness of labor force participation and productivity to demand conditions. Wilson’s book is not helpful on those particular questions, but it has a lot of interesting material on its own topic of how relations between private business and government shifted during the war. Anyway, you can read the review here.

 

 

Readings: A Couple New Papers on Fiscal Policy

From the NBER working paper series — essential reading if you want to follow what the mainstream of the profession is up to — here are a couple interesting recent papers on fiscal policy. They offer some genuinely valuable insights, while also demonstrating the limits of orthodoxy.

Geographic Cross-Sectional Fiscal Spending Multipliers: What Have We Learned?
Gabriel Chodorow-Reich
NBER Working Paper No. 23577

Gabriel Chodorow-Reich has a useful new entry in the burgeoning literature on the empirics of fiscal multipliers — a review of the now-substantial work on state-level multipliers. Most of these papers are based on spending under the 2009 stimulus (the ARRA) — since many components of its spending were set by formulas not responsive to local economic conditions, cross-state variation can reasonably be considered exogenous. (Another reason the ARRA features so heavily in these papers is, of course, that the revival of mainstream interest in fiscal multipliers is mostly a post-crisis phenomenon.) Other studies estimate local multipliers based on  other public spending with plausibly exogenous regional variation, such as that involved in a military buildup or response to a natural disaster.

How do these local multipliers translate into the national multiplier we are usually more interested in? There are two main differences, pointing in opposite directions. On the one hand, states are more open than the US as a whole (or than other large countries, though perhaps not more than small European countries). This means more spillover of demand across borders, meaning a smaller multiplier. On the other hand, since states don’t conduct their own monetary policy (and since the US banking system is no longer partitioned by state) the usual channels of crowding out don’t operate at the state level. This implies a bigger multiplier. It’s hard to say which of these effects is bigger in general, but when interest rates are constrained, by the zero lower bound for example, crowding out doesn’t happen by that channel at the national level either. So at the zero lower bound, Chodorow-Reich argues, the national multiplier should be unambiguously greater than the average state multiplier.

Based on the various studies he discusses (including a couple of his own), he estimates a state-level multiplier of 1.8.  He subtracts an arbitrary tenth of a point to allow for financial crowding out even at the ZLB, giving a value of 1.7 as a lower bound for the national multiplier. This is toward the high end of existing estimates. For whatever reason, Chodorow-Reich makes no effort to even guess at the impact of the greater openness of state-level economies. But if we suppose that the typical import share at the state level is double the national import share, then a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that a state-level multiplier of 1.7 implies a national multiplier somewhere above 2.0. [1]

It’s a helpful paper, offering some more empirical support for the new view of fiscal policy that seems to be gradually displacing the balanced-budget orthodoxy of the past generation. But it must be said that it is one of those papers that presents some very interesting empirical results and is evidently attempting to deal with a concrete, policy-relevant question about economic reality — but that seems to devote a disproportionate amount of energy to making its results intelligible within mainstream theory. We’ll really have made progress when this kind of work can be published without a lot of apologies for the use of “non-Ricardian agents.”

The Dire Effects of the Lack of Monetary and Fiscal Coordination
Francesco Bianchi, Leonardo Melosi
NBER Working Paper No. 23605

The subordination of real-world insight to theoretical toy-train sets is much worse in this paper. But there is a genuine insight in it — that when you have a fiscal authority targeting the debt-GDP ratio and a monetary authority targeting inflation (or equivalently, unemployment or the output gap), then when they are independent their actions can create destabilizing feedback loops. In the simple case, suppose the monetary authority responds to higher inflation by raising interest rates. This raises debt service costs, forcing the fiscal authority to reduce spending or raise taxes to meet its debt target. The contractionary effect of this fiscal shift will have to be offset by the central bank lowering rates. This process may converge toward the unique combination of fiscal balance and interest rate at which both inflation and debt ratio are at their desired levels. But as Arjun Jayadev and I have shown, it can also diverge, with the interactions the actions of each authority provoking more and more violent responses from the other.

I’m glad to see some mainstream people recognizing this problem. As the authors note, the basic point was made by Michael Woodford. (Unsurprisingly, they don’t cite this recent paper by Peter Skott and Soon Ryoo, which carefully works through the possible dynamics between the two policy rules. [2]) The implications, as the NBER authors correctly state, are, first, that fiscal policy and monetary policy have to be seen as jointly affecting both the output gap and the public debt; and that if preventing a rising debt ratio is an important goal of policy, holding down interest rates and/or allowing a higher inflation rate are useful tools for achieving it. Unfortunately, the paper doesn’t really develop these ideas — the meat of it is a mathematical exercise showing how these results can occur in the world of a representative agent maximizing its utility over infinite time, if you set up the frictions just right.

 

[1] For the simplest case, suppose the multiplier is equal to (1-m)[1/(1-mpc)], where m is the marginal propensity to import and mpc is the marginal propensity to consume. Then if the state level import propensity is 0.4 and the state level multiplier is 1.7, that implies an mpc of 0.65. Combine that with a national import propensity of 0.2 and you get a national multiplier of 2.3.

[2] The paper was published in Metroeconomica in 2016, but I’m linking to the unpaywalled 2015 working paper version.

 

What Recovery: Reading Notes

My Roosevelt Institute paper on potential output came out last week. (Summary here.) The paper has gotten some more press since Neil Irwin’s Times piece, including Ryan Cooper in The Week and Felix Salmon in Slate. My favorite headline is from Boing Boing: American Wages Are So Low, the Robots Don’t Want Your Jobs.

In the paper I tried to give a fairly comprehensive overview of the evidence and arguments that the US economy is not in any meaningful sense at potential output or full employment. But of course it was just one small piece of a larger conversation. Here are a few things I’ve found interesting recently on the same set of issues. .

Perhaps the most important new academic contribution to this debate is this paper by Olivier Coibion, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, and Mauricio Ulate, on estimates of potential output, which came out too late for me to mention in the Roosevelt report. Their paper rigorously demonstrates that, despite their production-function veneer, the construction of potential output estimates ensures that any persistent change in growth rates will appear as a change in potential. It follows that there is “little value added in estimates of potential GDP relative to simple measures of statistical trends.” (Matthew Klein puts it more bluntly in an Alphaville post discussing the paper: “‘Potential’ output forecasts are actually worthless.”) The paper proposes an alternative measure of potential output, which they suggest can distinguish between transitory demand shocks and permanent shifts in the economy’s productive capacity. This alternative measure gives a very similar estimate for the output gap as simply looking at the pre-2008 forecasts or extrapolating from the pre-2008 trend.  “Our estimates imply that U.S. output remains almost 10 percentage points below potential output, leaving ample room for policymakers to close the gap through demand-side policies if they so chose to.” Personally, I ‘m a little less convinced by their positive conclusions than by their negative ones. But this paper should definitely put to the rest the idea (as in last year’s notorious CEA-chair letter) that it is obviously wrong — absurd and unserious — that a sufficient stimulus could deliver several years of 4 percent real growth, until GDP returned to its pre-recession trend. It may or may not be true, but it isn’t crazy.

Many of the arguments in my paper were also made in this valuable EPI report by Josh Bivens, reviving the old idea of a “high pressure economy”. Like me, Bivens argues that slow productivity growth is largely  attributable to low investment, which in turn is due to weak demand and slow wage growth, which blunts the incentive for business to invest in labor-saving technology. One important point that Bivens makes that I didn’t, is that much past variation in productivity growth has been transitory; forecasts of future productivity growth based on the past couple of years have consistently performed worse than forecasts based on longer previous periods. So historical evidence gives us no reason see the most recent productivity slowdown as permanent. My one quibble is that he only discusses faster productivity growth and higher inflation as possible outcomes of a demand-driven acceleration in wages. This ignores the third possible effect, redistribution from from profits to wages — in fact a rise in the labor share is impossible without a period of “overfull” employment.

Minneapolis Fed president Neel Kashkari wrote a long post last fall on “diagnosing and treating the slow recovery.” Perhaps the most interesting thing here is that he poses the question at all. There’s a widespread view that once you correct for demographics, the exceptional performance of the late 1990s, etc., there’s nothing particularly slow about this recovery — no problem to diagnose or treat.

Another more recent post by Kashkari focuses on the dangers of forcing the Fed to mechanically follow a Taylor rule for setting interest rates. By his estimate, this would have led to an additional 2.5 million unemployed people this year. It’s a good illustration of the dangers of taking the headline measures of economic performance too literally. I also like its frank acknowledgement that the Fed — like all real world forecasters — rejects rational expectations in the models it uses for policymaking.

Kashkari’s predecessor Narayan Kocherlakota — who seems to agree more with the arguments in my paper — has a couple short but useful posts on his personal blog. The first, from a year ago, is probably the best short summary of the economic debate here that I’ve seen. Perhaps the key analytic point is that following a period of depressed investment, the economy may reach full employment given the existing capital stock while it is still well short of potential. So a period of rapid wage growth would not necessarily mean that the limits of expansionary policy have ben reached, even if those wage gains were fully passed through to higher prices. His emphasis:

Because fiscal policy has been too tight, we have too little public capital. … At the same time, physical investment has been too low… Conditional on these state variables, we might well be close to full employment.  … But, even though we’re close to full employment, there’s a lot of room for super-normal growth. Both capital and TFP are well below their [long run level].  The full-employment growth rate is going to be well above its long-run level for several years.  We can’t conclude the economy is overheating just because it is growing quickly.

His second post focuses on the straightforward but often overlooked point that policy should take into account not just our best estimates but our uncertainty about them, and the relative risks of erring on each side. And if there is even a modest chance that more expansionary policy could permanently raise productivity, then the risks are much greater on the over-contractionary side. [1] In particular, if we are talking about fiscal stimulus, it’s not clear that there are any costs at all. “Crowding out” is normally understood to involve a rise in interest rates and a shift from private investment to public spending. In the current setting, there’s a strong case that higher interest rates  at full employment would be a good thing (at least as long as we still rely on as the main tool of countercyclical policy). And it’s not obvious, to say the least, that the marginal dollar of private investment is more socially useful than many plausible forms of public spending. [2] Kashkari has a post making a similar argument in defense of his minority vote not to raise rates at the most recent FOMC meeting. (Incidentally, FOMC members blogging about their decisions is a trend to be encouraged.)

In a post from March which I missed at the time, Ryan Avent tries to square the circle of job-destroying automation and slow productivity growth. One half of the argument seems clearly right to me: Abundant labor and low wages discourage investment in productivity-raising technologies. As Avent notes, early British and even more American industrialization owe a lot to scarce labor and high wages. The second half of the argument is that labor is abundant today precisely because so much has been displaced by technology. His claim is that “robots taking the jobs” is consistent with low measured productivity growth if the people whose jobs are taken end up in a part of the economy with a much lower output per worker. I’m not sure if this works; this seems like the rare case in economics where an eloquent story would benefit from being re-presented with math.

Along somewhat similar lines, Simon Wren-Lewis points out that unemployment may fall because workers “price themselves into jobs” by accepting lower-wage (and presumably lower-productivity) jobs. But this doesn’t mean that the aggregate demand problem has been solved — instead, we’ve simply replaced open unemployment with what Joan Robinson called “disguised unemployment,” as some of people’s capacity for work continues to go to waste even while they are formally employed. “But there is a danger that central bankers would look at unemployment, … and conclude that we no longer have inadequate aggregate demand…. If demand deficiency is still a problem, this would be a huge and very costly mistake.”

Karl Smith at the Niskanen Center links this debate to the older one over the neutrality of money. Central bank interventions — and aggregate demand in general — are understood to be changes in the flow of money spending in the economy. But a lon-standing tradition in economic theory says that money should be neutral in the long run. As we are look at longer periods, changes in output and employment should depend more and more on real resources and technological capacities, and less and less on spending decisions — in the limit not at all. If you want to know why GDP fell in one quarter but rose in the next (this is something I always tell my undergraduates) you need to ask who chose to reduce their spending in the first period and who chose to increase it in the first. But if you want to know why we are materially richer than our grandparents, it would be silly to say it’s because we choose to spend more money. This is the reason why I’m a bit impatient with people who respond to the fact that, relative to the pre-2008 trend, output today has not recovered from the bottom of the recession, by saying “the trend doesn’t matter, deviations in output are always persistent.” This might be true but it’s a radical claim. It means you either take the real business cycle view that there’s no such thing as aggregate demand, even recessions are due to declines in the economy’s productive potential; or you must accept that in some substantial sense we really are richer than our grandparents because we spend more money. You can’t assert that GDP is not trend-stationary to argue against an output gap today unless you’re ready to accept these larger implications.

The invaluable Tom Walker has a fascinating post going back to even older debates, among 19th century anti-union and pro-union pamphleters, about whether there was a fixed quantity of labor to be performed and whether, in that case, machines were replacing human workers. The back and forth (more forth than back: there seem to be a lot more anti-labor voices in the archives) is fun to read, but what’s the payoff for todays’ debates?

The contemporary relevance of this excursion into the archives is that economic policy and economic thought walks on two legs. Conservative economists hypocritically but strategically embrace both the crowding out arguments for austerity and the projected lump-of-labor fallacy claims against pensions and shorter working time. They are for a “fixed amount” assumption when it suits their objectives and against it when it doesn’t. There is ideological method to their methodological madness. That consistency resolves itself into the “self-evidence” that nothing can be done.

That’s exactly right. When we ask why labor’s share has fallen so much over the past generation, we’re told it’s because of supply and demand — an increased supply of labor from China and elsewhere, and a decreased demand thanks to technology. But if it someone says that it might be a good idea then to limit the supply of labor (by lowering the retirement age, let’s say) and to discourage capital-intensive production, the response is “are you crazy? that will only make everyone poorer, including workers.” Somehow distribution is endogenous when it’s a question of shifts in favor of capital, but becomes exogenously fixed when it’s a question of reversing them.

A number of heterdox writers have identified the claim that productivity growth depends on demand as Verdoorn’s law (or the Kaldor-Verdoorn Law). For example, the Post Keynesian blogger Ramanan mentions it here and here. I admit I’m a bit dissatisfied with this “law”. It’s regularly asserted by heterodox people but you’ll scour our literature in vain looking for either a systematic account of how it is supposed to operate or quantitative evidence of how and how much (or whether) it does.

Adam Ozimek argues that the recent rise in employment should be seen as an argument for continued expansionary policy, not a shift away from it. After all, a few years ago many policymakers believed such a rise was impossible, since the decline in employment was supposed to be almost entirely structural.

Finally, Reihan Salam wants to enlist me for the socialist flank of a genuinely populist Trumpism. This is the flipside of criticism I’ve sometimes gotten for making this argument — doesn’t it just provide intellectual ammunition for the Bannon wing of the administration and its calls for vast infrastructure spending,  which is also supposed to boost demand and generate much faster growth? Personally I think you need to make the arguments for what you think is true regardless of their political valence. But I might worry about this more if I believed there was even a slight chance that Trump might try to deliver for his working-class supporters.

 

[1] Kocherlakota talks about total factor productivity. I prefer to focus on labor productivity because it is based on directly observable quantities, whereas TFP depends on estimates not only of the capital stock but of various unobservable parameters. The logic of the argument is the same either way.

[2] I made similar arguments here.

 

EDIT: My comments on the heterodox literature on the Kaldor-Verdoorn Law were too harsh. I do feel this set of ideas is underdeveloped, but there is more there than my original post implied. I will try to do a proper post on this work at some point.

Links for May 5, 2017

Some economics content, for this rainy Friday afternoon:

 

Turbulence. Over at INET, Arjun Jayadev has posted the next in our series of “rebel masters” interviews with dissenting economists. This one is with Anwar Shaikh, who is, I’m sure, familiar to readers of this blog. Shaikh’s work resists summary, but the

broad thesis revolves around the idea that there is an alternative tradition-embedded in the classical approach of Smith, Ricardo and Marx which insists on understanding the world on its own terms rather than from an idealized economy from which the real world deviates. This approach focuses on what is termed “real competition” wherein competition between firms, each seeking to get the highest price they can, leads to a “turbulent gravitation” of prices around values. As such, there is never an equilibrium, but a dancing around some key deeper parameters.

As with all these interviews, there’s also some discussion of his own political and intellectual development, as well as of the content of his work.

I haven’t made a serious effort to read Shaikh’s big new book Capitalism. Given its heft, I suspect it will function more as a reference work, with people going to specific sections rather than reading it from front to back. (I know one person who is using it as an undergraduate textbook, which seems ambitious.) But if you want an admiring but not uncritical overview of the book as a whole, this review in New Left Review by John Grahl could be a good place to start. It’s written for people interested in the broad political economy tradition; it’s focused on the broad sweep of the argument, not on Shaikh’s position within current debates in heterodox economics.

 

The rich are different from you and me. [1] At Washington Center for Economic Growth, Nick Bunker calls attention to some new research on income inequality over the past 15 years. The key finding is that since the end of the 1990s, the rise in income inequality is almost all due to income from S-corporations (pass-through companies, partnerships, etc.) at the very top of the distribution. As a result, rising inequality shows up in tax data, but not in Social Security data, which captures only labor income. What do we take from this? First, the point I’ve made periodically on this blog: Incomes at the top are mainly capital income, not labor income. But there’s also a methodological point — the importance of constantly walking back and forth between your theoretical construct, the concrete social reality it hopes to explain, and the data (collected by somebody, according to some particular procedures) that stands between them.

 

What are foreign investors for? At FT Alphaville, Matthew Klein has a very interesting post on capital controls. As he notes, during the first decade of the euro, Spain was the recipient of one of “the greatest capital flows of all time,” with owners of financial assets all over Europe rushing to trade them for claims on Spanish banks. This created immense pressure on Spanish banks to increase lending, which in the event financed a runup in real estate prices and an immense quantity of never-to-be-occupied houses and hotels. (It’s worth noting in passing that this real estate bubble developed without any of the securitization that so mesmerized observers of the American bubble.) Surely, Klein says,

if you accept the arguments for regulating cross-border financial movements in any situation, you have to do the same for Spain. The country raised bank capital requirements and ran large fiscal surpluses, but none of that was enough. Plus, it didn’t have the luxury of a floating currency. Both the boom and bust would clearly have been smaller if foreigners had been prevented from buying so many Spanish financial assets, or even just persuaded to buy fewer bonds and more stocks and direct equity.

This seems right. But we could go a step farther. What’s the point of capital mobility?  If you don’t in fact want bank balance sheets expanding and shrinking based on the choices of foreign investors, what benefit are those investors providing to your economy? They provide foreign exchange (allowing you to run current account deficit), they provide financing (allowing credit to expand more), they substitute their judgement of future for domestic actors’. These are exactly the problems in the Spanish case. What is the benefit, even in principle, that Spain got from allowing these inflows?

 

There’s always a first time. Also from Matthew Klein, here is a paper from the Peterson Institute looking at historical fiscal balances and making the rather obvious point that there is little historical precedent for the surpluses the Greek government is expected in order to  pay its conquerors creditors. It is not quite true that no country has ever sustained a primary surplus of 3.5 percent for a decade a more, as Greece is expected to do; but such episodes are exceedingly rare.

My one criticism of Klein’s piece is that it is a little too uncritical of the idea that “market rates” are just a fact about the world. The Peterson paper also seems to regard interest rates as set by markets in response to more or less objective macroeconomic variables. Klein notes in passing that the interest rate Greece pays on its borrowing will depend on official choices like whether Greek debt is included in the ECB’s bond-buying programs. But I think it’s broader than this — I think the interest rate on Greek bonds is entirely a policy choice of the ECB. Suppose the ECB announced that they were fixing the interest rate on Greek bonds at 1 percent, and that they’d buy them as long as the yield was above this. Then private lenders would be happy to hold them at 1 percent and the ECB would not have to make any substantial purchases. This is how open market operations work – when a central bank announces a policy rate, they can move market rates while buying or selling only trivial amounts. If the ECB wished to, it could put Greece on a stable debt path and open up space for a less sociocidal budget, without the need for any commitment of public funds. But of course it doesn’t wish to.

 

Capital with Chinese characteristics. This new paper on wealth and inequality in China from Piketty, Zucman and Li Yang is an event; it’s a safe bet it’s going to be widely cited in the coming years. The biggest contribution is the construction of long-run series on aggregate wealth and the distribution of wealth and  income for China. Much of the paper is devoted, appropriately, to explaining how these series were produced. But they also draw several broad conclusions about the evolution of the Chinese economy over the apst generation.

First, while the publicly-owned share of national wealth has declined, it is still very high relative to other industrialized countries:

China has ceased to be communist, but is not entirely capitalist; it should rather be viewed as a “mixed economy” with a strong public ownership component. … the share of public property in China today is somewhat larger than – though not incomparable to – what it was in the West during the “mixed economy” regime of the post-World War 2 decades (30% in China today vs. 15-25% in the West in the 1950s-1970s). … Private wealth was relatively small in 1978 (about 100% of national income), and now represents over 450% of national income. Public wealth [has been] roughly stable around 250% of national income.

It’s worth noting that the largest component of this increase in private wealth is housing, which largely passed from public to private hands, The public sector, by Piketty and coauthors’ measures, continues to own about half of China’s non-housing wealth, including the majority of corporate equity, and this fraction seems to have increased somewhat over the past decade.

Second, income distribution has become much more unequal in China over the past generation, but seems to still be more equal than in the United States:

In the late 1970s China’s inequality… [was] close to the levels observed in the most egalitarian Nordic countries — while it is now approaching U.S. levels. It should be noted, however, that … inequality levels in China are still significantly lower than in the United States…. The bottom 50% earns about 15% of total income in China (19% in rural China, 23% in urban China), vs. 12% in the U.S. and 22% in France. For the time being, China’s development model appears to be more egalitarian than that of the United States, and less than Europe’s. Chinese inequality levels seem to have stabilized in recent years (the biggest increase in inequality took place between the mid-1980s and the mid-2000s)

The third story — much less prominent in the article, and of less important, but of particular interest to me — is what explains the observed rise in the ratio of wealth to national income. Piketty et al. suggest that 50-70 percent of the rise can be explained, in accounting terms, by the observed rates of saving and investment and their estimate of depreciation, while the remaining 30-50 percent is due to valuation changes. But in a footnote they add that this includes a large negative valuation change for China’s net foreign wealth, presumably attributable to the appreciation of the renminbi relative to the dollar. So a larger share of the rise in domestic wealth relative to income must be accounted for by valuation changes. (The data to put an exact number on this should be available in their online appendices, which are comprehensive as always, but I haven’t done it yet.)

This means that a story that conflates wealth with physical capital, and sees its growth basically in terms of net investment, will not do a good job explaining the actual growth of Chinese capital. (The same goes for the growth in capital relative to income in the advanced countries.) The paper explains the valuation increase in terms of a runup in the value of private housing plus

changes in the legal system reinforcing private property rights for asset owners (e.g., lifting of rent control, changes in the relative power of landlords and tenants, changes in the relative power of shareholder and workers).

This seems plausible to me. But I wish Piketty and his coauthors — and even more, his admirers — would take this side of the story more seriously. If we want to talk about the “capital” we actually see in public and private accounts, a theory that sees it growing through net investment is not even roughly correct. We really do have to think of capital as a social relation, not a physical substance.

 

On other blogs, other wonders.

Here’s a video of me chatting with James Parrott about robots.

Who’d have thought that Breitbart is the place to find federal government employment practices held up as an ideal?

At PERI, Anders Fremstad and Mark Paul have a nice paper on the distributional impact of different forms of carbon taxes.

Also at PERI, another whack at the Reinhart-Rogoff piñata.

I’ll be speaking at this Dissent thing on May 22.

 

 

[1] This phrase has an interesting backstory. The received version has it that it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line, to which Ernest Hemingway replied: “Yes. They have more money.” But in fact, Hemingway was the one who said the rich were different, at a lunch with Maxwell Perkins and the critic Mary Colum, and it was Colum who delivered the putdown. (The story is in that biography of Perkins.) In “Hills like White Elephants,” Hemingway, for reasons that are easy to imagine, put the “rich are different” line in the mouth of his frenemy Fitzgerald, and there it’s stayed.

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.

Links for October 6

More methodenstreit. I finally read the Romer piece on the trouble with macro. Some good stuff in there. I’m glad to see someone of his stature making the  point that the Solow residual is simply the part of output growth that is not explained by a production function. It has no business being dressed up as “total factor productivity” and treated as a real thing in the world. Probably the most interesting part of the piece was the discussion of identification, though I’m not sure how much it supports his larger argument about macro.  The impossibility of extracting causal relationships from statistical data would seem to strengthen the argument for sticking with strong theoretical priors. And I found it a bit odd that his modus ponens for reality-based macro was accepting that the Fed brought down output and (eventually) inflation in the early 1980s by reducing the money supply — the mechanisms and efficacy of conventional monetary policy are not exactly settled questions. (Funnily enough, Krugman’s companion piece makes just the opposite accusation of orthodoxy — that they assumed an increase in the money supply would raise inflation.) Unlike Brian Romanchuk, I think Romer has some real insights into the methodology of economics. There’s also of course some broadsides against the policy  views of various rightwing economists. I’m sympathetic to both parts but not sure they don’t add up to less than their sum.

David Glasner’s interesting comment on Romer makes in passing a point that’s bugged me for years — that you can’t talk about transitions from one intertemporal equilibrium to another, there’s only the one. Or equivalently, you can’t have a model with rational expectations and then talk about what happens if there’s a “shock.” To say there is a shock in one period, is just to say that expectations in the previous period were wrong. Glasner:

the Lucas Critique applies even to micro-founded models, those models being strictly valid only in equilibrium settings and being unable to predict the adjustment of economies in the transition between equilibrium states. All models are subject to the Lucas Critique.

Here’s another take on the state of macro, from the estimable Marc Lavoie. I have to admit, I don’t care for way it’s framed around “the crisis”. It’s not like DSGE models were any more useful before 2008.

Steve Keen has his own view of where macro should go. I almost gave up on reading this piece, given Forbes’ decision to ban on adblockers (Ghostery reports 48 different trackers in their “ad-light” site) and to split the article up over six pages. But I persevered and … I’m afraid I don’t see any value in what Keen proposes. Perhaps I’ll leave it at that. Roger Farmer doesn’t see the value either.

In my opinion, the way forward, certainly for people like me — or, dear reader, like you — who have zero influence on the direction of the economics profession, is to forget about finding the right model for “the economy” in the abstract, and focus more on quantitative description of concrete historical developments. I expressed this opinion in a bunch of tweets, storified here.

 

The Gosplan of capitalism. Schumpeter described banks as capitalism’s equivalent of the Soviet planning agency — a bank loan can be thought of as an order allocating part of society’s collective resources to a particular project.  This applies even more to the central banks that set the overall terms of bank lending, but this conscious direction of the economy has been hidden behind layers of ideological obfuscation about the natural rate, policy rules and so on. As DeLong says, central banks are central planners that dare not speak their name. This silence is getting harder to maintain, though. Every day there seems to be a new news story about central banks intervening in some new credit market or administering some new price. Via Ben Bernanke, here is the Bank of Japan announcing it will start targeting the yield of 10-year Japanese government bonds, instead of limiting itself to the very short end where central banks have traditionally operated. (Although as he notes, they “muddle the message somewhat” by also announcing quantities of bonds to be purchased.)  Bernanke adds:

there is a U.S. precedent for the BOJ’s new strategy: The Federal Reserve targeted long-term yields during and immediately after World War II, in an effort to hold down the costs of war finance.

And in the FT, here is the Bank of England announcing it will begin buying corporate bonds, an unambiguous step toward direct allocation of credit:

The bank will conduct three “reverse auctions” this week, each aimed at buying the bonds from particular sectors. Tuesday’s auction focuses on utilities and industries. Individual companies include automaker Rolls-Royce, oil major Royal Dutch Shell and utilities such as Thames Water.

 

Inflation or socialism. That interventions taken in the heat of a crisis to stabilize financial markets can end up being steps toward “a more or less comprehensive socialization of investment,” may be more visible to libertarians, who are inclined to see central banks as a kind of socialism already. At any rate, Scott Sumner has been making some provocative posts lately about a choice between “inflation or socialism”. Personally I don’t have much use for NGDP targeting — Sumner’s idée fixe — or the analysis that underlies it, but I do think he is onto something important here. To translate the argument into Keynes’ terms, the problem is that the minimum return acceptable to wealth owners may be, under current conditions, too high to justify the level of investment consistent with the minimum level of growth and employment acceptable to the rest of society. Bridging this gap requires the state to increasingly take responsibility for investment, either directly or via credit policy. That’s the socialism horn of the dilemma. Or you can get inflation, which, in effect, forces wealthholders to accept a lower return; or put it more positively, as Sumner does, makes it more attractive to hold wealth in forms that finance productive investment.  The only hitch is that the wealthy — or at least their political representatives — seem to hate inflation even more than they hate socialism.

 

The corporate superorganism.  One more for the “finance-as-socialism” files. Here’s an interesting working paper from Jose Azar on the rise of cross-ownership of US corporations, thanks in part to index funds and other passive investment vehicles.

The probability that two randomly selected firms in the same industry from the S&P 1500 have a common shareholder with at least 5% stakes in both firms increased from less than 20% in 1999Q4 to around 90% in 2014Q4 (Figure 1).1 Thus, while there has been some degree of overlap for many decades, and overlap started increasing around 2000, the ubiquity of common ownership of large blocks of stock is a relatively recent phenomenon. The increase in common ownership coincided with the period of fastest growth in corporate profits and the fastest decline in the labor share since the end of World War II…

A common element of theories of the firm boundaries is that … either firms are separately owned, or they combine. In stock market economies, however, the forces of portfolio diversification lead to … blurring firm boundaries… In the limit, when all shareholders hold market portfolios, the ownership of the firms becomes exactly identical. From the point of view of the shareholders, these firms should act “in unison” to maximize the same objective function… In this situation the firms have in some sense become branches of a larger corporate superorganism.

The same assumptions that generate the “efficiency” of market outcomes imply that public ownership could be just as efficient — or more so in the case of monopolies.

The present paper provides a precise efficiency rationale for … consumer and employee representation at firms… Consumer and employee representation can reduce the markdown of wages relative to the marginal product of labor and therefore bring the economy closer to a competitive outcome. Moreover, this provides an efficiency rationale for wealth inequality reduction –reducing inequality makes control, ownership, consumption, and labor supply more aligned… In the limit, when agents are homogeneous and all firms are commonly owned, … stakeholder representation leads to a Pareto efficient outcome … even though there is no competition in the economy.

As Azar notes, cross-ownership of firms was a major concern for progressives in the early 20th century, expressed through things like the Pujo committee. But cross-ownership also has been a central theme of Marxists like Hilferding and Lenin. Azar’s “corporate superorganism” is basically Hilferding’s finance capital, with index funds playing the role of big banks. The logic runs the same way today as 100 years ago. If production is already organized as a collective enterprise run by professional managers in the interest of the capitalist class as a whole, why can’t it just as easily be managed in a broader social interest?

 

Global pivot? Gavyn Davies suggests that there has been a global turn toward more expansionary fiscal policy, with the average rich country fiscal balances shifting about 1.5 points toward deficit between 2013 and 2016. As he says,

This seems an obvious path at a time when governments can finance public investment programmes at less than zero real rates of interest. Even those who believe that government programmes tend to be inefficient and wasteful would have a hard time arguing that the real returns on public transport, housing, health and education are actually negative.

I don’t know about that last bit, though — they don’t seem to find it that hard.

 

Taylor rule toy. The Atlanta Fed has a cool new gadget that lets you calculate the interest rate under various versions of the Taylor Rule. It will definitely be useful in the classroom. Besides the obvious pedagogical value, it also dramatizes a larger point — that macroeconomic variables like “inflation” aren’t objects simply existing in the world, but depend on all kinds of non-obvious choices about measurement and definition.

 

The new royalists. DeLong summarizes the current debates about monetary policy:

1. Do we accept economic performance that all of our predecessors would have characterized as grossly subpar—having assigned the Federal Reserve and other independent central banks a mission and then kept from them the policy tools they need to successfully accomplish it?

2. Do we return the task of managing the business cycle to the political branches of government—so that they don’t just occasionally joggle the elbows of the technocratic professionals but actually take on a co-leading or a leading role?

3. Or do we extend the Federal Reserve’s toolkit in a structured way to give it the tools it needs?

This is a useful framework, as is the discussion that precedes it. But what jumped out to me is how he reflexively rejects option two. When it comes to the core questions of economic policy — growth, employment, the competing claims of labor and capital — the democratically accountable, branches of government must play no role. This is all the more striking given his frank assessment of the performance of the technocrats who have been running the show for the past 30 years: “they—or, rather, we, for I am certainly one of the mainstream economists in the roughly consensus—were very, tragically, dismally and grossly wrong.”

I think the idea that monetary policy is a matter of neutral, technical expertise was always a dodge, a cover for class interests. The cover has gotten threadbare in the past decade, as the range and visibility of central bank interventions has grown. But it’s striking how many people still seem to believe in a kind of constitutional monarchy when it comes to central banks. They can see people who call for epistocracy — rule by knowers — rather than democracy as slightly sinister clowns (which they are). And they can simultaneously see central bank independence as essential to good government, without feeling any cognitive dissonance.

 

Did extending unemployment insurance reduce employment? Arin Dube, Ethan Kaplan, Chris Boone and Lucas Goodman have a new paper on “Unemployment Insurance Generosity and Aggregate Employment.” From the abstract:

We estimate the impact of unemployment insurance (UI) extensions on aggregate employment during the Great Recession. Using a border discontinuity design, we compare employment dynamics in border counties of states with longer maximum UI benefit duration to contiguous counties in states with shorter durations between 2007 and 2014. … We find no statistically significant impact of increasing unemployment insurance generosity on aggregate employment. … Our point estimates vary in sign, but are uniformly small in magnitude and most are estimated with sufficient precision to rule out substantial impacts of the policy…. We can reject negative impacts on the employment-to-population ratio … in excess of 0.5 percentage points from the policy expansion.

Media advisory with synopsis is here.

 

On other blogs, other wonders

Larry Summers: Low laborforce participation is mainly about weak demand, not demographics or other supply-side factors.

Nancy Folbre on Greg Mankiw’s claims that the one percent deserves whatever it gets.

At Crooked Timber, John Quiggin makes some familiar — but correct and important! — points about privatization of public services.

In the Baffler, Sam Kriss has some fun with the new atheists. I hadn’t encountered Kierkegaard’s parable of the madman who tells everyone who will listen “the world is round!” but it fits perfectly.

A valuable article in the Washington Post on cobalt mining in Africa. Tracing out commodity chains is something we really need more of.

Buzzfeed on Blue Apron. The reality of the robot future is often, as here, just that production has been reorganized to make workers less visible.

At Vox, Rachelle Sampson has a piece on corporate short-termism. Supports my sense that this is an area where there may be space to move left in a Clinton administration.

Sven Beckert has edited a new collection of essays on the relationship between slavery and the development of American capitalism. Should be worth looking at — his Empire of Cotton is magnificent.

At Dissent, here’s an interesting review of Jefferson Cowie’s and Robert Gordon’s very different but complementary books on the decline of American growth.