Paul Krugman is a very smart and very annoying person. Over the past few years he's been hammering away at political and economic advocates for austerity policies with unmitigated glee and derision. He does so with a brio and condescension that some people can find off-putting -- but that doesn't mean that he's wrong.
After pummeling "austerians" for much of the essay, Krugman then endeavors to explain why so many policymakers and pundits still favor such policies:
The turn to austerity was very real, and quite large.
On the face of it, this was a very strange turn for policy to take. Standard textbook economics says that slashing government spending reduces overall demand, which leads in turn to reduced output and employment. This may be a desirable thing if the economy is overheating and inflation is rising; alternatively, the adverse effects of reduced government spending can be offset. Central banks (the Fed, the European Central Bank, or their counterparts elsewhere) can cut interest rates, inducing more private spending. However, neither of these conditions applied in early 2010, or for that matter apply now. The major advanced economies were and are deeply depressed, with no hint of inflationary pressure. Meanwhile, short-term interest rates, which are more or less under the central bank’s control, are near zero, leaving little room for monetary policy to offset reduced government spending. So Economics 101 would seem to say that all the austerity we’ve seen is very premature, that it should wait until the economy is stronger.
The question, then, is why economic leaders were so ready to throw the textbook out the window.…
Everyone loves a morality play. “For the wages of sin is death” is a much more satisfying message than “Shit happens.” We all want events to have meaning.
When applied to macroeconomics, this urge to find moral meaning creates in all of us a predisposition toward believing stories that attribute the pain of a slump to the excesses of the boom that precedes it—and, perhaps, also makes it natural to see the pain as necessary, part of an inevitable cleansing process. When Andrew Mellon told Herbert Hoover to let the Depression run its course, so as to “purge the rottenness” from the system, he was offering advice that, however bad it was as economics, resonated psychologically with many people (and still does).
By contrast, Keynesian economics rests fundamentally on the proposition that macroeconomics isn't a morality play—that depressions are essentially a technical malfunction.
Now this sounds a little far-fetched -- I mean, it's not as if pundits and policymakers can be that economically illiterate, right?
And then, as if Krugman planned it all along, along comes Michael Kinsley in the New Republic -- responding to a different Krugman essay that makes similar points -- with an essay titled "Paul Krugman's Misguided Moral Crusade Against Austerity." I think one of the points Kinsley is trying to make is that the policy divide between austerians and anti-austerians in Washington isn't as great as Krugman portrays. That's likely correct in Washington. During debates this year, even austerity "advocates" like John Boehner have made noises about not wanting to turn off the fiscal tap too soon, and even austerity "critics" like Barack Obama have talked about the need for fiscal rectitude. So yes, even austerity's critics sound austerity-curious at times.
Still, the guts of Kinsley's essay are … problematic. Some highlights:
It’s easier to describe what the anti-austerians believe than the austerians themselves. Anti-austerians believe that governments around the world need to stop worrying about their debts for a while and continue pouring money into the economy until the threat of recession or worse is well and truly over. Austerians want the opposite. But what is the opposite? Is President Barack Obama, for example, an austerian? To Republicans and conservatives, no: He pushed through a stimulus package of almost a trillion dollars early in his first term, and remains a symbol of “big spending.” To liberals and Democrats, yes: They feel we need a second and much larger stimulus and Obama has let us all down.…
Austerians believe, sincerely, that their path is the quicker one to prosperity in the longer run. This doesn’t mean that they have forgotten the lessons of Keynes and the Great Depression. It means that they remember the lessons of Paul Volcker and the Great Stagflation of the late 1970s. “Stimulus” is strong medicine—an addictive drug—and you don’t give the patient more than you absolutely have to.…
Krugman also is on to something when he talks about paying a price for past sins. I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be. And future sufferers are not necessarily different people than the past and present sinners. That’s too easy. Sure let’s raise taxes on the rich. But that’s not going to solve the problem. The problem is the great, deluded middle class—subsidized by government and coddled by politicians. In other words, they are you and me. If you make less than $250,000 a year, Obama has assured us, you are officially entitled to feel put-upon and resentful. And to be immune from further imposition.
Austerians don’t get off on other people’s suffering. They, for the most part, honestly believe that theirs is the quickest way through the suffering. They may be right or they may be wrong. When Krugman says he’s only worried about “premature” fiscal discipline, it becomes largely a question of emphasis anyway. But the austerians deserve credit: They at least are talking about the spinach, while the Krugmanites are only talking about dessert. [Emphasis added.]
OK, so, a few things:
1) No Republican or conservative, anywhere in the United States, will claim that Barack Obama is an austerian. I'm just gonna assume that this is a typo and move on. [Editor's note: The typo has been cleared up on the New Republic's website, and the block quote above has been corrected.]
2) Stagflation in the 1970s was caused primarily by an inward shift of the aggregate supply curve due to a surge in commodity prices, particularly energy. Some central banks responded with accommodating monetary policies that accelerated inflation even further. Fiscal policy was an innocent bystander to this whole shebang. So I honestly don't know what the hell Kinsley is talking about.
More importantly, the current macroeconomic climate is really, really different from the 1970s. Inflation was a Big Bad Problem during that decade. It is not a problem right now. If inflation were spiking, then a genuine debate could be had on macroeconomic policy options. But that's not the case.
3) In his final paragraphs, Kinsley has managed to epitomize the exact critique that Krugman has served up.
The irony of this whole thing is that the Congressional Budget Office's recent figures put the lie to Kinsey's hidden assumption that the federal budget deficit is getting bigger and bigger. Right now it's shrinking at the fastest rate in postwar economic history.
The CBO also warns that the deficit will start to balloon up again due to entitlement spending, which suggests that Kinsley has half a point about thinking through entitlement reform. The thing is, that's a structural problem, not a business cycle problem. Kinsley et al. are acting as if the current fiscal climate demands immediate budgetary actions. And it doesn't -- it really, really doesn't.
Look, I think Paul Krugman has a few policy blind spots. His method of argumentation alienates as many people as it attracts. But he's not wrong when he's talking about austerity. In his response, Michael Kinsley has managed to embody the conventional wisdom in Washington -- and in doing so, embody every policy caricature of Paul Krugman's worldview.
Am I missing anything?
Well, this sounds like very bad news for the global financial system:
A plan to rescue the tiny European country of Cyprus, assembled overnight in Brussels, has left financial regulators, German politicians, panicked Cypriot leaders and a disgruntled Kremlin with a bailout package that has outraged virtually all the parties.
In the end, a bailout deal that was supposed to calm a financial crisis in an economically insignificant Mediterranean nation spread it wider. Word of the plan unnerved markets across Europe, raised fears of bank instability in Spain and Italy and sent pensioners into the streets of the island’s capital, Nicosia, in protest.
As markets tumbled and the Cypriot Parliament fell into turmoil, salvos of blame were hurled back and forth across the Continent.
Officials scrambled to explain what went wrong and how best to control the damage of what Philip Whyte, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, called a “completely irrational decision” to make bank depositors liable for part of the bailout. The deal flopped so badly that finance ministers who came up with it shortly before dawn on Saturday were on the phone to each other Monday night talking about ways to revise it.
Now, on the one hand, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who will defend the Cypriot deal as it was announced on Saturday -- but it's pretty easy to find critics of the proposed deal across the political spectrum. So this seems like yet another data point confirming the truly mind-boggling stupidity of European governments and regulators. It's particularly galling that they did this during a time when global capital markets are still fragile from the 2008 financial crisis.
Oh, except, wait a minute, it turns out that those markets aren't as fragile as the perception suggests. If you burrow into the McKinsey Global Institute's latest report on global asset markets, it turns out that, excepting Europe, the rest of global finance has experienced a decent recovery from the 2008 crash. According to MGI:
With the pullback in cross-border lending, foreign direct investment from the world’s multinational companies and sovereign investors has increased to roughly 40 percent of global capital flows. This may bring greater stability, since foreign direct investment has proved to be the least volatile type of capital flow, despite a drop in 2012.
Of course, this was written before the Cypriot stupidity, so now markets are really roiled, right? Well... here's Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal's take early this a.m.:
Markets are down a bit in Europe although not dramatically so yet.
US futures were flat, and Asia was actually up nicely, with Japan gaining 2%.
That seems like a thoroughly appropriate reaction. And over at the New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin explains why that's the rational and appropriate reaction:
While the bailout of Cyprus is a fascinating case study and raises interesting theoretical questions about moral hazard for policy wonks and talking heads, here is the reality: It is largely irrelevant to the global economy. Cyprus is tiny; its economy is smaller than Vermont’s. And the bailout is worth a paltry $13 billion, the equivalent of pocket lint for those in the bailout game.
Even the larger issue about bailing out a country by taking money from depositors — which quickly created outrage around the world — seems overblown....
[I]n truth, the smart money knows that the bailout of Cyprus says very little about future actions.
“I would assume that anyone in Spain, Portugal or elsewhere who knows about the taxation of Cypriot depositors also would know that the Cypriot banking system is a very different animal than anywhere else in the euro zone,” Erik Nielsen, chief economist at UniCredit, wrote in a note to clients.
Mr. O’Neill of Goldman also acknowledged: “I am sure it will not set a precedent.”
Cyprus is unique. Besides being tiny, its banking system looks different from those in most other countries. Much of the big money deposited in its banks is from foreign investors, including Russians who have long been suspected of money laundering. Those investors had fair warning that Cypriot banks were troubled. The issue has been simmering for six months. But those investors left their money in the bank, in part because they were gambling that the banks would be bailed out at no cost to them. If the current plan is approved, depositors will have lost that bet.
Now this is a perfectly rational analysis. What's significant is that it seems like markets are making the same calculation. When financial markets are fragile, when there's a fear of financial contagion, they don't make the rational calculation -- they freak out. That hasn't happened with Cyprus.
I know I'm at the risk of pulling a Donald Luskin here, but what's happening in Cyprus right now primarily affects Cypriots, with a small concern about regional effects. It doesn't look like it's triggering the same kind of concerns of either the Lehman collapse or the Greek sovereign debt crisis. And anytime the abject stupidity of European financial statecraft can be confined to Europe, that's a very, very good thing indeed for the global financial system.
Am I missing anything?
One of the lasting effects of the 2008 financial crisis was the belief that the distribution of economic power had radically shifted. China rising, West fading, yadda, yadda, yadda. A minor key in this argument has been the notion that a new and important measure of economic power is the size of a country's official reserves. This has led to the occasional panicked article that "China is buying gold!!" or "Russia is hoarding gold!!" or "Germany is moving gold!!" as a first step towards pushing the dollar out as the world's reserve currency.
Which is just so much horses**t.
Here are three facts to remember whenever you read any story about a BRIC economy hoarding gold:
1) Buying gold would have been extremely savvy in 2008. Now it's just silly. The price of gold peaked at over $1900 in September 2011 -- and despite massive amounts of quantitative easing and numerous reports about central bank hoarding, it's fallen by $300 since and trending downward.
2) The BRIC economies did not have a lot of gold to begin with. As Bloomberg notes, "Russia’s total cache of about 958 tons is only the eighth largest [in the world]."
1. The United States (8,134 tons)
2. Germany (3,391 tons)
3. The International Monetary Fund (2,814 tons)
4. Italy (2,451 tons)
5. France (2,435 tons)
So, to sum up: To believe that gold holdings really matter in the global political economy, you have to be willing to assert that Italy is a great power in global finance. I, for one, am not going there.
Let's face it, Americans do not understand the current state of either macroeconomic policy or foreign policy terribly well. According to Bloomberg, only six percent of Americans know that the federal budget deficit is actually shrinking. According to Gallup, just a bare majority of Americans believe that the United States military remains "number one in the world militarily." In a world of these kind of epic media fails, where significant numbers of GOP legislators seem "more concerned about 2% inflation than 8% employment," it's important to to have recognized experts try to clear the air.
Nobel Prize-winning economist and unusually-pithy-writer-for-an-economist Robert Solow has an op-ed in today's New York Times to offer a primer on the implications of U.S. debt. Here, in brief, are the "six facts about the debt that many Americans may not be aware of," in Solow's words. Let me number them here:
1) Roughly half of outstanding debt owed to the public, now $11.7 trillion, is owned by foreigners. This part of the debt is a direct burden on ourselves and future generations....
2) The Treasury owes dollars, America’s own currency (unlike Greece or Italy, whose debt is denominated in euros)...
3) One way to effectively repudiate our debt is to encourage inflation...
4) Treasury bonds owned by Americans are different from debt owed to foreigners. Debt owed to American households, businesses and banks is not a direct burden on the future....
5) The real burden of domestically owned Treasury debt is that it soaks up savings that might go into useful private investment.
6) But in bad times like now, Treasury bonds are not squeezing finance for investment out of the market. On the contrary, debt-financed government spending adds to the demand for privately produced goods and services, and the bonds provide a home for the excess savings. When employment returns to normal, we can return to debt reduction.
Some foreign pollicy experts think that Solow is being too sunny. Take Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass:
With respect, I think Solow is actually being too pesssimistic, and Haass is being way too pessimistic.
The problem is that, contra Solow, I suspect Americans are keenly aware of his points 1-5. The United States owes a lot of money to China, but I'd wager that any poll of U.S. citizens would reveal that the public thinks we owe even more to China than we actually do. Similarly, much of the policy rhetoric coming from Washington focuses on fears of incipient inflation that have yet to pan out.
It's Solow's last point that is the one Americans need to hear more: in an era of slack demand, bulging coporate cash coffers, and recovering personal savings rates, it's actually pretty stupid to have U.S. government spending and employment contract so quickly. I fear, however, that excessive concern about Solow's first, third, fourth and fifth points will swamp out the rest of his op-ed.
As for Haass, I'm not exactly sure what "rising rates" he's talking about, as just about any chart you can throw up shows historically low borrowing rates for the United States government. Indeed, the U.S. Treasury is exploiting this fact by locking in U.S. long-term debt at these rates. As for foreign governments pressuring the United States, the fear of foreign financial statecraft has been somewhat hyped by the foreign policy community. And by "somewhat hyped," I mean "wildly, massively overblown."
The bias in foreign policy circles and DC punditry is to bemoan staggering levels of U.S. debt. This bias does percolate down into the perceptions of ordinary Americans, which leads to wild misperceptions about the actual state of the U.S. economy and U.S. economic power. I'd like to see a lot more op-eds by Solow et al. that puncture these myths more effectively.
Am I missing anything?
A little more than a year ago I blogged that global policymakers had reached a "focal point" moment on the merits of austerity as a macroeconomic policy during a global recession. Namely, central bank authorities had concluded that the policy doesn't really work well at all. If true, this was a big deal. One could argue that from the May 2010 Toronto G-20 summit to the end of 2011 was a period where the austerity policies were widely touted and occasionally implemented. If this was the wrong policy, and there was a shift, that's kind of a big deal.
So where are we now on this?
On the public commentary side, I'd say we're approaching near-consensus on the failures of austerity for large economies. The passing of time has allowed for a comparative look at the data, and the results are not pretty for austertity enthusiasts. Martin Wolf sums up the indictment rather neatly, riffing off of a paper by Paul De Grauve and Yuemei Li:
[T]he chief determinant of the reduction in spreads over German Bunds since the second quarter of 2012, when OMT [the ECB pledge to open up its monetary taps] was announced, was the initial spread. In brief, "the decline in the spreads was strongest in the countries where the fear factor had been the strongest."
What role did the fundamentals play? After all, nobody doubts that some countries, notably Greece, had and have a dreadful fiscal position. One such fundamental is the change in the ratio of debt to gross domestic product. The paper makes three important observations. First, the ratio of debt to GDP increased in all countries even after the ECB announcement. Second, the change in this ratio turned out to be a poor predictor of declines in spreads. Finally, the spreads determined the austerity borne by countries.
On the policy output side, there's been a demonstrable but partial shift. In the past year, the European Central Bank, Federal Reserve, and Bank of Japan have rejected austerity policies in favor of greater levels of quantitative easing. Furthermore, contrary to the outright hostility developing countries directed at quantitative easing in the fall of 2010, the reaction to the past half-year of quantitative easing has been far more muted. When the latest G-20 communique said:
Monetary policy should be directed toward domestic price stability and continuing to support economic recovery according to the respective mandates. We commit to monitor and minimize the negative spillovers on other countries of policies implemented for domestic purposes.
That was code for "hey, G-7 central banks, you gotta do what you gotta do. We get that." Which is demonstrably different from yelling "currency wars", a meme that seems not to have caught fire this time around.
Top central bank authorities have also been willing to speak truth to power -- in this case, GOP members of Congress. John Cassidy recounts Ben Bernanke's testimony from yesterday:
Departing from his statutory duty of reporting to the Senate Banking Committee on the Fed’s monetary policy, Bernanke devoted much of his testimony to fiscal policy, warning his congressional class that letting the sequester go ahead would endanger the economic recovery and do little or nothing to reduce the country’s debt burden.
"Given the still-moderate underlying pace of economic growth, this additional near-term burden on the recovery is significant," Bernanke told his students, who included a number of right-wing Republican diehards, such as Senator Bob Corker, of Tennessee, and Patrick Toomey, of Pennsylvania. "Moreover, besides having adverse effects on jobs and incomes, a slower recovery would lead to less actual deficit reduction in the short run."
Translated from Fed-speak, that meant that congressional Republicans have got things upside down. Bernanke has warned before about the dangers of excessive short-term spending cuts. But this was his most blunt assertion yet that Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, et al. should change course. "To address both the near- and longer-term issues, the Congress and the Administration should consider replacing the sharp, frontloaded spending cuts required by the sequestration with policies that reduce the federal deficit more gradually in the near term but more substantially in the longer run," Bernanke said. "Such an approach could lessen the near-term fiscal headwinds facing the recovery while more effectively addressing the longer-term imbalances in the federal budget."
So does this mean some additional policy shifts? Alas, probably not. The consensus against austerity seems pretty strong on the monetary policy side of the equation. On the fiscal policy dimension, however, austerity remains the de facto policy for a lot of economies. This includes the United States, which is conventionally depicted as not having embraced austerity. The New York Times' Binyamin Appelbaum outlines the current fiscal austerity in his story today:
The federal government, the nation’s largest consumer and investor, is cutting back at a pace exceeded in the last half-century only by the military demobilizations after the Vietnam War and the cold war.
And the turn toward austerity is set to accelerate on Friday if the mandatory federal spending cuts known as sequestration start to take effect as scheduled. Those cuts would join an earlier round of deficit reduction measures passed in 2011 and the wind-down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that already have reduced the federal government’s contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product by almost 7 percent in the last two years.
The cuts may be felt more deeply because state and local governments — which expanded rapidly during earlier rounds of federal reductions in the 1970s and the 1990s, offsetting much of the impact — have also been cutting back.
Federal, state and local governments now employ 500,000 fewer workers than they did on the eve of the recession in 2007, the longest and deepest decline in total government employment since the aftermath of World War II.
Total government spending continues to increase, but those broader figures include benefit programs like Social Security. Government purchases and investments expand the nation’s economy, just as private sector transactions do, while benefit programs move money from one group of people to another without directly expanding economic activity.
The reason for this split does not require rocket science. Monetary policy is a tool of politrically insulated central bankers. Fiscal policy is a tool for elected politicians. The public might dislike specific budget cuts, but damn if they don't love austerity in theory.
So, in retrospect, I think early 2012 was a focal point -- but only for central bankers and commentators. As Cassidy notes, there remain elected politicians who are super-keen on austerity:
Corker, a former builder who is a long-time critic of Bernanke’s expansionary policies, called him "the biggest dove since World War Two." Toomey, a former head of the conservative lobbying group Club for Growth, questioned whether the sequester would have any real impact on the economy. Bernanke shrugged off the criticisms, calmly and methodically laying out the realities of the situation.
For the past few days I've been getting emails asking whether I'm gonna comment on one of the most offensive and brutally effective campaign ads I have ever seen:
It's brutal because... well, let's face it, that Romney tic was always the most cringe-worthy aspect of the campaign. Anything negative that Romney did, contrasted with that song, would be powerful.
It's ridiculously offensive, however, because it baldly asserts that doing business with Mexico, China or Switzerland is un-American. Other idiocies like the Olympic-uniform controversy feed into the public perception that having the other countries make stuff is an abomination of the first degree.
So, does it matter for policy? Well.... no.
Mario Cuomo once said "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose." Now, Mario Cuomo was clearly the world's worst poetry connoisseur. Still, to update his observation for our current needs, we can say, "You campaign as a mercantilist; you govern as a free-trader." The reason that Romney has seemed so discombobulated by the Bain attacks is that he's been China-bashing since Day One ofhis campaign, so it's tough to then
flip-flop pivot to a free trade stance. As for Obama, Matthew Yglesias noted the following last week:
[A]ll indications are that Barack Obama also doesn't think Bain was doing anything wrong. As president he's made no moves to make it illegal for companies to shift production work abroad and has publicly associated himself with a wide range of American firms—from GE to Apple and beyond—who've done just that to varying extents. And we all remember what happened to Obama's promise to renegotiate NAFTA after taking office, right?
Or, David Brooks today:
Over the years of his presidency, Obama has not been a critic of globalization. There’s no real evidence that, when he’s off the campaign trail, he has any problem with outsourcing and offshoring. He has lavishly praised people like Steve Jobs who were prominent practitioners. He has hired people like Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, whose company embodies the upsides of globalization. His economic advisers have generally touted the benefits of globalization even as they worked to help those who are hurt by its downsides.
But, politically, this aggressive tactic has worked.
Brooks' colleague Nate Silver might quibble a bit with the "politically working" point, but that's a small quibble. Americans loooooooove mercantilism, so this kind of rhetoric makes tactical sense during a campaign. As stomach-churning as I find this kind of ad, I must reluctantly agree with Yglesias and Brooks that it doesn't matter all that much for governing. Even this Washington Post story that talks about Obama's "rethinking" of free trade doesn't really deliver the goods on significant policy shifts. And it appears that even the Chinese government recognize campaign bluster for what it is.
So -- to repeat a theme -- I don't think the mercantilist campaign rhetoric will amount to much.
Still, as someone who thinks offshore outsourcing is an unobjectionable practice, this is going to be a nauseating campaign.
If one myth has been slain by the financial crisis and the response to it, it's the idea that central banks ought to be independent and unaccountable politically.
The idea of central bank independence was that it would guarantee good monetary policy. During the Great Moderation it certainly seemed that way. But now it's no longer the case...
[The] point is that the choice between inflation and unemployment is a political, not a technical choice. What's "better"? To screw debtors or creditors? To make millions unemployed or to "debase the currency"? Those are very important questions. More important, they're questions that cannot be solved by economics. They can be informed by them, but at the end of the day what you prefer is going to come down to your own moral value system. In other words, it's a political choice. And the way we make political choices in modern countries is through the democratic process, not through unelected, unaccountable technocrats....
The bottom line is that the argument of supercompetence of central bankers is dead and once that's gone you need to revert those powers back to the political process (emphasis in original).
Now, this is a pretty powerful argument. One would be hard-pressed to say that Jean-Claude Trichet or Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke have covered themselves in glory during the past five years or so. Why not return central banking to the politicians?
Well.... before I answer, I want to object to Gobry's framing of the issue in two ways. First, he sets up a too-simple dichotomy between "independence" and "political control." The devil is in the details here. Political scientists have done a lot of research into how legislatures exert influence over supposedly "independent" institutions like courts and regulatory agencies, and this logic applies to central banks as well. Or, to put it another way, I suspect that Ben Bernanke would be pumping more money into the economy were it not for a fear of Congressional blowback. Furthermore, "political control" is unclear here -- which politicians have control? Would central bankers be directly elected? Appointed by the legislature? Appointed by the executive subject to recall? And so forth.
Second, the notion that central banking decisions are strictly political seems as wrong as characterizing them as strictly technical. It is overly cynical to believe that either technocrats or politicians gin up any old theory to justify the policy ends they seek. As with Supreme Court disputes, there are genuine disagreements in economics on the theory side. At this very moment, different central bankers disagree over the best way to reduce unemployment in part because of different economic theories. Expertise is kinda important in these moments.
OK, these contestations aside, I still have a basic problem with Gobry's argument. For Gobry's process to work better, voters have to punish politicians for poor monetary policy and reward them for wise and prudent monetary policies. I see little evidence that voters would have the necessary knowledge and attention span to do this. Instead, they would likely vote on other considerations, or vote based on short-term considerations such as the unemployment rate and GDP growth without considering whether short-term pump-priming is occurring or long-term sustainable growth. Furthermore, politicians would rig the game just a bit. Political scientists have extensively discussed the existence of "political business cycles" due to fiscal policy. I have every confidence that political control over monetary policy would simply extend the phenomenon to that policy lever as well.
The fact that politicians still control the fiscal lever is what leads me to think that central banking should still be independent. A diversification of political controls over the economy seems like the best minimax strategy over the long run. Thinking back to how U.S. politicians would have handled the last 20 years of central banking, I suspect that they simply would have exacerbated the boom-bust dot-com and housing bubbles. It's not clear at all that the added democratic gain outweighs the loss in policy competence.
That said, Gobry makes a powerful argument, and I'd like to hear from readers. Has independent central banking jumped the shark? What do you think?
While I was on the road last week, I see that Greek elections managed to accomplish two things:
1) A requirement for yet more Greek elections; and
Sooo ... what happens then? The Financial Times has a useful article that asks the appropriate big questions while providing some useful information. Particularly interesting is the emerging belief that the eurozone now has erected the necessary firewalls to prevent contagion from Greece to the rest of the southern Med and Ireland:
[W]ith a new, permanent €500bn rescue fund backed by the strength of an international treaty with multiple tools to buy sovereign bonds on the open market and inject capital into eurozone banks, some officials believe the contagion could be contained -- much as it was after Athens finally defaulted on private bondholders last month.
"Two years ago a Greek exit would have been catastrophic on the scale of Lehman Brothers,” says a senior EU official involved in discussions about Greece’s future. “Even a year ago, it would have been extremely risky in terms of contagion and chain reaction in the banking system. Two years on, we’re better prepared."
The new eurozone firewall -- now backed with additional resources for the IMF -- is not the only reason some officials are becoming increasingly sanguine about losing Greece. Spain and Italy, they say, have taken huge steps to put their economic houses in order, enabling them to bounce back quickly if credit markets suddenly dry up and their banks wobble.
Still, uncertainty over how Europe’s banks would be affected has continued to be the primary concern.
Paul Krugman is somewhat more pessimistic. Sketching out the possible endgame, he posits that Spanish and Italian banks would experience massive capital flight, triggering the key decision faced by Germany:
4a. Germany has a choice. Accept huge indirect public claims on Italy and Spain, plus a drastic revision of strategy -- basically, to give Spain in particular any hope you need both guarantees on its debt to hold borrowing costs down and a higher eurozone inflation target to make relative price adjustment possible; or:
4b. End of the euro.
And we’re talking about months, not years, for this to play out.
Krugman has been predicting Greece's exit from the euro for some time now, but in this case I do think he's correct about the choice posed by Germany -- as yet more signals accrue about Merkel's declining political strength.
Now, actually, I suspect that Greece stays in the eurozone for longer than anyone suspects. That said, based on my two empirical observations during the past two years -- namely, eurogoggles and the Merkel Algorithm. Here is how I would game out the "Grexit" scenario:
1. Greece's departure is announced at the same time as an EU summit announces a boost to its new rescue fund and modest pro-growth German policies. Markets initially react to this news favorably.
2. Within 48 hours, negative news about the Spanish and Italian economies, combined with a second wave of stories revealing that the rescue fund isn't as big as anyone thought it was, rattles financial markets and triggers the behavior described by Krugman.
3. The ECB does nothing, calling on
MerkelEuropean political leaders to take "decisive action."
4. After a week or two of agnonizing non-action, Germany announces half-measures that end the immediate panic gut set up Spain for more stagnation and a new crisis in 2013.
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger is currently knee-deep in a pedagogical project on the foundations of economic prosperity. You can imagine my delight, then, that Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have a new book coming out on that very topic: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. There's an excerpt in the Montreal Review -- let's see how it opens, shall we?
To understand what these institutions are and what they do, take another society divided by a border. South and North Korea. The people of South Korea have living standards similar to those of Portugal and Spain. To the north, in the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea, living standards are akin to those of a sub-Saharan African country, about one tenth of average living standards in South Korea. The health of North Koreans is in an even worse state; the average North Korean can expect to live ten years less than their cousins to the south of the 38th parallel.
These striking differences are not ancient. In fact they did not exist prior to the end of the Second World War. But after 1945 the different governments in the north and the south adopted very different ways of organizing their economies....
It should be no surprise that the economic fortunes of South and North Korea diverged sharply. Kim Il-Sung's command economy soon proved to be a disaster. Detailed statistics are not available from North Korea, which is a secretive state to say the least. Nonetheless, available evidence confirms what we know from the all too often recurring famines: not only did industrial production fail to take off but North Korea in fact experienced a collapse in agricultural productivity. Lack of private property meant that few had incentives to invest or exert effort to increase or even maintain productivity. The stifling repressive regime was inimical to innovation and adoption of new technologies. But Kim Il-Sung, his son and successor, the "dear leader" Kim Jong-Il, and their cronies had no intention to reform the system, or to introduce private property, markets, private contracts, and economic and political freedoms. North Korea continues to stagnate economically, and there is no sign that anything will be different under the new "dear leader" Kim Jong-un.
Meanwhile in the south economic institutions encouraged investment and trade. South Korean politicians invested in education, achieving high rates of literacy and schooling. South Korean companies were quick to take advantage of the relatively educated population, the policies encouraging investment and industrialization, the export markets, and the transfer of technology. South Korea became one of East Asia's `Miracle Economies,' one of the most rapidly growing nations in the world. By the late 1990s, in just about half a century, South Korean growth and North Korean stagnation led to a tenfold gap between the two halves of this once-united country---imagine what a difference a couple centuries could make. The economic disaster of North Korea, which not only prevented growth but led to the starvation of millions, when placed against the South Korean economic success, is striking: neither culture nor geography nor ignorance can explain the divergent paths of North and South Korea....
The contrast of South and North Korea illustrates a general principle: inclusive economic institutions foster economic activity, productivity growth and economic prosperity, while extractive economic institutions generally fail to do so. Property rights are central, since only those who have secure property rights will be willing to invest and increase productivity. A farmer, for example, who expects his output to be stolen, expropriated or entirely taxed away would have little incentive to work, let alone any incentive to undertake investments and innovations. But extractive economic institutions do exactly that and fail to uphold property rights of workers, farmers, traders and businessmen.
It will not shock you, my dear readers, to learn that I agree with Acemoglu and Robinson. Indeed, as Ezra Klein showed with the following chart, the divergent paths of North and South Korea represents ironclad evidence about the power of instituions to determine prosperity:
Well, that's pretty damn persuasive, isn't it? It seems pretty friggin' obvious which institutions work and which ones don't!
Actually, to be more accurate, it seems pretty friggin' obvious now. Here's another chart that extends that graph back another two decades:
Things look sightly different in this chart. That massive divergence is still there, but what's stunning is that for the 25 years before that, the DPRK and ROK looked exactly the same in terms of per capital income. Indeed, as Nicholas Eberstadt notes:
Around the time of Mao Zedong's death (1976), North Korea was more educated, more productive and (by the measure of international trade per capita) much more open than China. Around that same time, in fact, per capita output in North Korea and South Korea may have been quite similar. Today, North Korea has the awful distinction of being the only literate and urbanized society in human history to suffer mass famine in peacetime.
My point here is not to defend Kim Il Sung or suggest that the DPRK's economic institutions are underrated. Rather, my point is that as data analysts, we're all prisoners of time. Had Acemoglu and Robinson written Why Nations Fail in the mid-1970s, it would have either made a different argument or it would have had a much tougher case to make about the merits of inclusive vs. extractive institutions (during the 1970s, commodity extracting states were looking pretty good).
Keep these charts in mind whenever anyone confidently asserts the obvious superiority of a particular model of political economy. Because, I assure you, there was a point in time when such superiority was far from obvious. And there might be another such point in the future.
Rick Santorum made some headlines over the weekend about calling President Obama a "snob" because POTUS ostensibly wants all Americans to get a four-year college degree. Here's the clip:
Now, most commentators are focusing on the "snob" comment or the broader thrust of Santorum's jeremiad against higher education or whether this will play in Michigan. I want to focus on the idiocy contained in the first part of Santorum's comment. This is important, because ostensibly one of Santorum's policy strengths is that he knows and likes manufacturing.
In the opening parts of the clip, Santorum says as follows:
I know what it means to have those manufacturing jobs at that entry level to get you in there, and it gives you the opportunity to accumulate more skills over time and rise, so you can provide a better standard of living for your family. And those opportunities are for working men and women -- not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands.
What's disturbing about this bit is that Santorum's ideas about manufacturing employment are so outdated. For an example, take a good, long look at Adam Davisdon's excellent essay in The Atlantic about how American manufacturing looks today. He zeroes in on two workers -- Maddie and Luke. Maddie is exactly the kind of worker Santorum wants to talk about -- a low-level worker with aspirations to move up. But read this part:
The last time I visited the factory, Maddie was training a new worker. Teaching her to operate the machine took just under two minutes. Maddie then spent about 25 minutes showing her the various instructions Standard engineers have prepared to make certain that the machine operator doesn’t need to use her own judgment. “Always check your sheets,” Maddie says.
By the end of the day, the trainee will be as proficient at the laser welder as Maddie. This is why all assembly workers have roughly the same pay grade—known as Level 1—and are seen by management as largely interchangeable and fairly easy to replace. A Level 1 worker makes about $13 an hour, which is a little more than the average wage in this part of the country. The next category, Level 2, is defined by Standard as a worker who knows the machines well enough to set up the equipment and adjust it when things go wrong. The skilled machinists like Luke are Level 2s, and make about 50 percent more than Maddie does.
For Maddie to achieve her dreams—to own her own home, to take her family on vacation to the coast, to have enough saved up so her children can go to college—she’d need to become one of the advanced Level 2s. A decade ago, a smart, hard-working Level 1 might have persuaded management to provide on-the-job training in Level-2 skills. But these days, the gap between a Level 1 and a 2 is so wide that it doesn’t make financial sense for Standard to spend years training someone who might not be able to pick up the skills or might take that training to a competing factory.
It feels cruel to point out all the Level-2 concepts Maddie doesn’t know, although Maddie is quite open about these shortcomings. She doesn’t know the computer-programming language that runs the machines she operates; in fact, she was surprised to learn they are run by a specialized computer language. She doesn’t know trigonometry or calculus, and she’s never studied the properties of cutting tools or metals. She doesn’t know how to maintain a tolerance of 0.25 microns, or what tolerance means in this context, or what a micron is (emphasis added).
It should be noted that Luke didn't get a four-year college degree either -- he went to community college. But that's actually consistent with what Obama has been saying on this issue. I'm not sure it's consistent with Santorum's worldview. Indeed, his notion that career advancement in manufacturing is possible simply through the sweat and skill of a person's brow is badly, badly antiquated. Which is something he would know if he, um... studied the issue a bit more.
UPDATE: I see Santorum's run of not-understanding-a-lot-of-economics continues.
In my experience, pundits tend to be risk-averse in calling out a very rich person on their economic or financial analyses. There's a couple of intuitive logics at work here:
1) Most pundits don't know much about economics, and so are leery of entering those waters;
2) The really rich person likely became really rich because they demonstrated a shrewd understanding of the markets -- therefore, who is the low-six-figure-or-less-earning pundit to challenge such high-yielding wisdom;
3) Most pundits refuse to admit that they don't understand something that reads like gobbledgook, because they're afraid this makes them look like an idiot.
Well, your humble blogger has never been afraid of looking like an idiot... which brings me to PIMCO's Bill Gross. I'll occasionally read his monthly newsletter when a link to it pops up in my Twitter feed. Every time, I'm amazed at the florid, rambling, not-really-related-to-his-main-point way he opens these little essays. Sometimes I find the analysis afterwards useful, sometimes I find it eerily similar to what someone says after spending too much time with Tom Friedman. I gather he's had better years as an analyst than he did in 2011, but everyone has down years and bad predictions.
Here's the thing, though -- I can't understand a word of his latest Financial Times column: Here's how it opens:
Isaac Newton may have conceptualised the effects of gravity when that mythical apple fell on his head, but could he have imagined Neil Armstrong’s hop-skip-and-jumping on the moon, or the trapping of light inside a black hole? Probably not. Likewise, the deceased economic maestro of the 21st century – Hyman Minsky – probably couldn’t have conceived how his monetary theories could be altered by zero-based money.
Things get a little clearer towards the end of the op-ed... but not much. His February 2012 newsletter appears to be an expanded version of this op-ed (plus the usual wacky opening), so let's go there to see what he's trying to say:
[W]hen rational or irrational fear persuades an investor to be more concerned about the return of her money than on her money then liquidity can be trapped in a mattress, a bank account or a five basis point Treasury bill. But that commonsensical observation is well known to Fed policymakers, economic historians and certainly citizens on Main Street.
What perhaps is not so often recognized is that liquidity can be trapped by the “price” of credit, in addition to its “risk.” Capitalism depends on risk-taking in several forms. Developers, homeowners, entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes epitomize the riskiness of business building via equity and credit risk extension. But modern capitalism is dependent as well on maturity extension in credit markets. No venture, aside from one financed with 100% owners’ capital, could survive on credit or loans that matured or were callable overnight. Buildings, utilities and homes require 20- and 30-year loan commitments to smooth and justify their returns. Because this is so, lenders require a yield premium, expressed as a positively sloped yield curve, to make the extended loan. A flat yield curve, in contrast, is a disincentive for lenders to lend unless there is sufficient downside room for yields to fall and provide bond market capital gains. This nominal or even real interest rate “margin” is why prior cyclical periods of curve flatness or even inversion have been successfully followed by economic expansions. Intermediate and long rates – even though flat and equal to a short-term policy rate – have had room to fall, and credit therefore has not been trapped by “price.”
Even if nodding in agreement, an observer might immediately comment that today’s yield curve is anything but flat and that might be true. Most short to intermediate Treasury yields, however, are dangerously close to the zero-bound which imply little if any room to fall: no margin, no air underneath those bond yields and therefore limited, if any, price appreciation. What incentive does a bank have to buy two-year Treasuries at 20 basis points when they can park overnight reserves with the Fed at 25? What incentives do investment managers or even individual investors have to take price risk with a five-, 10- or 30-year Treasury when there are multiples of downside price risk compared to appreciation? At 75 basis points, a five-year Treasury can only rationally appreciate by two more points, but theoretically can go down by an unlimited amount. Duration risk and flatness at the zero-bound, to make the simple point, can freeze and trap liquidity by convincing investors to hold cash as opposed to extend credit (emplases in original).
And... sorry, I still don't get it. I get why zero interest rates are bad for bondholders like PIMCO. I get that flat yield curves + high amounts of economic uncertainty = cash hoarding. What I don't get is that:
A) Gross himself acknowledges that the yield curve ain't flat;
B) Low interest rates allow for private-sector deleveraging, which is a prelude to stimulating market demand;
C) Low interest rates prevent today's government binge from being even more expensive than it would be in normal times (by keeping financing costs down);
D) If uncertainty is decreasing -- and that appears to be the case with the U.S. economy -- then low interest rates should spur greater entrepreneurial investments.
So, at the risk of threatening my status in the International Brotherhood of Serious Global Political Econmy Bloggers That Talk Seriously About Economics, I hereby ask my commenters to explain Bill Gross' concerns to me. Because I don't get it -- and I'm beginning to wonder if I'm not the only one.
The term "inflection point" has become one of those overused bits of meaningless jargon in political discourse. I'm rather more fond of the notion of a "focal point" -- that is to say, an event or cluster of events in which everyone that cares about a particular problem focuses on the same set of stylized facts -- after which, they conclude that, gee, maybe the status quo set of policies ain't working so well and there should be a new status quo.
The fall of 2008 was one such focal point, during which there was remarkable consensus that a Keynesian boost in public spending was the only way to avert another Great Depression. At the fiirst G-20 leaders summit in Washington, there was consensus on expansionary fiscal policy. Oh, sure, there were grumblings about "crass Keynesianism," but even Germany reluctantly went along.
The Greek sovereign debt crisis was another such focal point. Greek profligacy seemed to be a synecdoche for excessive government borrowing and lax fiscal discipline. With the global economy seemingly still in the doldrums, a lot of Europrean governments climbed on the "expansionary austerity" bandwagon. By the Toronto G-20 summit in June 2010, the consensus had switched from Keynesian stimulus to fiscal rectitude. Oh, sure there were mutterings about "short-term austerity makes no macroeconomic sense whatsoever in a slack economy" but even Barack Obama started talking about slashing government spending.
Are we at another focal point? Consider the following:
1) According to the New York Times' Stephen Castle, European leaders now seem to recognize that austerity on its own ain't working:
Bowing to mounting evidence that austerity alone cannot solve the debt crisis, European leaders are expected to conclude this week that what the debt-laden, sclerotic countries of the Continent need are a dose of economic growth.
A draft of the European Union summit meeting communiqué calls for ‘‘growth-friendly consolidation and job-friendly growth,’’ an indication that European leaders have come to realize that austerity measures, like those being put in countries like Greece and Italy, risk stoking a recession and plunging fragile economies into a downward spiral.
2) The data is starting to come in on governments that have embraced austerity whole-heartedly, and it's pretty grim. Cue Paul Krugman on Great Britain:
Last week the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, a British think tank, released a startling chart comparing the current slump with past recessions and recoveries. It turns out that by one important measure — changes in real G.D.P. since the recession began — Britain is doing worse this time than it did during the Great Depression. Four years into the Depression, British G.D.P. had regained its previous peak; four years after the Great Recession began, Britain is nowhere close to regaining its lost ground.
Nor is Britain unique. Italy is also doing worse than it did in the 1930s — and with Spain clearly headed for a double-dip recession, that makes three of Europe’s big five economies members of the worse-than club. Yes, there are some caveats and complications. But this nonetheless represents a stunning failure of policy.
And it’s a failure, in particular, of the austerity doctrine that has dominated elite policy discussion both in Europe and, to a large extent, in the United States for the past two years.
3) Even commentators who would be tempermentally sympathetic with austerity are starting to
bash Germany question whether it's a solution. Consider Walter Russell Mead:
It takes some truly talented screw ups to come up with a worse plan for Greece than the one the Greeks have developed for themselves, but the Germans have risen to occasion in fine form....
Deep reform is needed if Greece is to stay in the euro, and so far the Greek political establishment — firmly backed by public opinion — is digging in its heels. Much whining, much talk, many promises and precious little action seems to be the favored Greek approach to the crisis. On the other hand, the austerity policies the Germans favor are hopelessly biased in favor of German banking interests and are aimed more at the preservation of the reputations of German politicians than at helping Greece.
The German political establishment seems willing to destroy Europe to avoid telling German voters the truth about how stupid it has been.
[UPDATE: For exhibit B of this trend, see this Niall Ferguson interview with Henry Blodget. My favorite part of the interview is this quotation: "I think the reason that I was off on that was that I hadn't actually thought hard enough about my own work.... My considered and changed view is that the U.S. can carry a higher debt to GDP ratio than I think I had in mind 2 or 3 years ago."]
4) U.S. 4th quarter data reveals that, consistent with GOP criticisms, the government has been the real drag on the U.S. economy. Not quite consistent with GOP criticisms: the reason why the government is dragging down the U.S. economy. Cue Mark Thoma:
[P]remature austerity -- cutting spending before the economy is ready for it -- is taking a toll on the recovery. The fall in government spending reduced fourth-quarter growth by 0.93 percent; if government spending had remained constant, GDP growth would have been 3.7 percent, rather than 2.8 percent.
This is the opposite of what the government should be doing to support the recovery. We need a temporary increase in government spending to increase demand and employment through, for example, building infrastructure. That would help to get us out of the deep hole we are in. Instead, the government seems to be trying to make it harder to escape.
We do need to address our long-run budget problems once the economy is healthy enough to withstand the tax increases and program cuts that will be required. But the idea of "expansionary" austerity has failed. Austerity in the short-term simply makes it harder for the economy to recover and delays the day when you can finally address budget issues without harming the economy. The lesson is that government needs to support the recovery, not oppose it through a false promise that contraction of one sector in the economy will be expansionary.
5) Central banks are acting more gung-ho on expansionary monetary policy. The unspoken quid pro quo in Europe seems to the that the ECB will expand its balance sheet and turn on the monetary taps in return for some kind of fiscal compact. The U.S. Federal Reserve announced a zero-interest rate policy for the next three years. Even China is showing (halting) signs that its reverted back to monetary easing.
Given that the United States has been the country to move the slowest on austerity, and given that the United States is doing the best job among the OECD economies (an admittedly low bar) of restoring confidence among investors and paying down non-governmental debt, have we reached another focal point?
One could argue that Krugman and Thoma are just biased in favor of Keynesianism, that Greece and the other Club Med countries haven't really embraced austerity, that the Euromess is dragging down British economic growth, and that the long-term numbers on developed country debt are really very scary. There are some large grains of truth in many of those statements.
It doesn't necessarily matter, however. Greece was not a genuine harbinger of the fiscal problems of large markets -- but it was a useful hook for austerity advocates to spread their gospel. What matters now is not whether these perceptions about the failure of austerity are 100% accurate, but whether they are accurate enough to become the new conventional wisdom.
What do you think?
Let's face it, there's a general anxiety about the future of America. There's Tom Friedman's column today, which my doctors have now forbade me from critiquing in order to keep my blood pressure down. Books suggesting the United States is kowtowing to China are forthcoming. The Economist recently observed on the highlights of a sobering survey of Harvard Business School graduates, which contained the following:
Fully 71% of the businesspeople polled expected America’s competitiveness to decline over the next three years. (National competitiveness is a slippery concept: countries do not compete in the same way that firms do. But the businessfolk in question answered some clearer questions, too.) Some 45% said that American firms will find it harder to compete in the global economy. A startling 64% said that American firms will find it harder to pay high wages and benefits.
Intriguingly, the Harvard alumni were gloomy about where America is headed, rather than how it is now. Some 57% felt that today the business environment in America is somewhat or much better than the global average; only 15% said it was worse. But when asked to compare its prospects with those of other industrialised economies, only 9% felt that America was pulling ahead; some 21% said it was falling behind. A striking 66% expected America to lose ground to Brazil, India and China; only 8% thought it would pull away from them.
This would seem to jibe with popular laments about why Apple can't make its products domestically. There are a lot of reasons, but a significant one is the lack of necessary skills for higher-end manufacturing. This is in no small part because American students shy away from the training necessary to do these kind of jobs even if they originally think they want to be engineers. Why? Because American college students don't like doing homework.
So, America is doomed, right?
To be honest, this sounds like a lot of pious baloney. As Michael Beckley points out in a new article in International Security, "The United States is not in decline; in fact, it is now wealthier, more innovative, and more militarily powerful compared to China than it was in 1991." The whole article is worth a read, and a good cautionary tale on the dangers of overestimating the ease of national catch-up:
The widespread misperception that China is catching up to the United States stems from a number of analytical flaws, the most common of which is the tendency to draw conclusions about the U.S.-China power balance from data that compare China only to its former self. For example, many studies note that the growth rates of China’s per capita income, value added in hightechnology industries, and military spending exceed those of the United States and then conclude that China is catching up. This focus on growth rates, however, obscures China’s decline relative to the United States in all of these categories. China’s growth rates are high because its starting point was low. China is rising, but it is not catching up.
What about the future? One could point to the last few months of modestly encouraging economic data, but that's ephemeral. Rather, there are three macrotrends that are worth observing now before (I suspect) they come up in the State of the Union:
1) The United States is successfully deleveraging. As the McKinsey Global Institute notes, the United States is actually doing a relatively good job of slimming down total debt -- i.e., consumer, investor and public debt combined. Sure, public debt has exploded, but as MGI points out, that really is the proper way of doing things after a financial bubble:
The deleveraging processes in Sweden and Finland in the 1990s offer relevant lessons today. Both endured credit bubbles and collapses, followed by recession, debt reduction, and eventually a return to robust economic growth. Their experiences and other historical examples show two distinct phases of deleveraging. In the first phase, lasting several years, households, corporations, and financial institutions reduce debt significantly. While this happens, economic growth is negative or minimal and government debt rises. In the second phase of deleveraging, GDP growth rebounds and then government debt is gradually reduced over many years....
As of January 2012, the United States is most closely following the Nordic path towards deleveraging. Debt in the financial sector has fallen back to levels last seen in 2000, before the credit bubble, and the ratio of corporate debt relative to GDP has also fallen. US households have made more progress in debt reduction than other countries, and may have roughly two more years before returning to sustainable levels of debt.
Indeed, the deleveraging is impressive enough for even Paul Krugman to start sounding optimistic:
the economy is depressed, in large part, because of the housing bust, which immediately suggests the possibility of a virtuous circle: an improving economy leads to a surge in home purchases, which leads to more construction, which strengthens the economy further, and so on. And if you squint hard at recent data, it looks as if something like that may be starting: home sales are up, unemployment claims are down, and builders’ confidence is rising.
Furthermore, the chances for a virtuous circle have been rising, because we’ve made significant progress on the debt front.
2) Manufacturing is on the mend. Another positive trend, contra the Harvard Business School and the GOP presidential candidates, is in manufacturing. Some analysts have already predicted a revival in that sector, and now the data appears to be backing up that prediction. The Financial Times' Ed Crooks notes:
Plenty of economists and business leaders believe that US manufacturing is entering an upturn that is not just a bounce-back after the recession, but a sign of a longer-term structural improvement. Manufacturing employment has grown faster in the US since the recession than in any other leading developed economy, according to official figures. Productivity growth, subdued wages, the steady decline in the dollar since 2002 and rapid pay inflation in emerging economies have combined to make the US a more attractive location.
“Over the past decade, the US has had some huge gains in productivity, and we have seen unit labour costs actually falling,” says Chad Moutray, chief economist at the National Association of Manufacturers. “A lot of our members tell us that it sometimes is cheaper to produce in the US, especially because labour costs are lower.”
Now, whether this boom in manufacturing will lead to a corresponding boom in manufacturing employment is much more debatable. Still, as The Atlantic's Adam Davidson concludes: "the still-unfolding story of manufacturing’s transformation is, in many respects, that of our economic age. It’s a story with much good news for the nation as a whole. But it’s also one that is decidedly less inclusive than the story of the 20th century."
Growth in shale oil and gas supplies will make the US virtually self-sufficient in energy by 2030, according to a BP report published on Wednesday.
In a development with enormous geopolitical implications, the country's dependence on oil imports from potentially volatile countries in the Middle East and elsewhere would disappear, BP said, although Britain and western Europe would still need Gulf supplies.
BP's latest energy outlook forecasts a growth in unconventional energy sources, "including US shale oil and gas, Canadian oil sands and Brazilian deepwater, plus a gradual decline in demand, that would see [North America] become almost totally energy self-sufficient" in two decades.
BP's chief executive, Bob Dudley, said: "Our report challenges some long-held beliefs. Significant changes in US supply-and-demand prospects, for example, highlight the likelihood that import dependence in what is today's largest energy importer will decline substantially."
The report said the volume of oil imports in the US would fall below 1990s levels, largely due to rising domestic shale oil production and ethanol replacing crude. The US would also become a net exporter of natural gas.
Note that this will take a while, and doesn't mean that the U.S. will be energy independent. Still, it's quite a trend. Or, rather, trends.
Since the Second World War, the pattern in the global political economy has been for the United States to adjust to systemic shocks better than any potential challenger country. A lot of very smart people have predicted that this time was different -- the United States wouldn't be able to do it again. These trends suggest that maybe, just maybe, that might be wrong.
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger is near the capital of
Waterworld Pennsylvania at the moment and all conferenced out. Regular blogging will resume after some sleep.
In the meanwhile, however, please check out FP's latest Deep Dive on the future of currencies. I have a contribution on the dollar's future as the world's reserve currency. It's depressing to note that the thing I like best about it is it's title -- which, of course, someone else at FP created.
I was pretty dismissive of Standard & Poor's debt downgrade last month. Re-reading that post, I stand by my political analysis of events going forward. Furthermore, the recovery of U.S. equity markets, the sharp reduction of yields on U.S. debt, and the failure of the other ratings agencies to follow suit are further data points suggesting that the S&P decision was flawed.
There's reality and perceptions of reality, however. On that latter front, after a recent expedition to Washington, I've concluded that regardless of whether S&P was right, they've won the argument in terms of perception. The summer debt debacle is, in many ways, the political equivalent of Hurricane Katrina. Perceptions of the Bush administration never recovered from that event, even though one could plausibly argue that the policy outputs of Bush's second term were better than the first term. Neverthelesss, Katrina was an inflection point that has caused a number of actors to reassess their perceptions about the political and policy competency of the White House and Congress.
Something similar seems to have happened with the debt deal. Politico's Ben White relays the dramatic effect on consumer confidence:
The Conference Board this week reported the biggest monthly decline in consumer confidence since the height of the financial crisis in 2008, its consumer confidence index falling from a reading of 59.2 to 44.5, the lowest in two years....
“The debt ceiling negotiation is an extremely significant event that is profoundly and sharply reshaping views of the economy and the federal government,” Republican pollster Bill McInturff wrote in a presentation of survey work he has done recently that suggests the debt ceiling debate has led to a significant shift in public opinion.
The partisan struggle over raising the debt went on for weeks before Obama finally announced on the night of Aug. 1 that a deal had been reached that resolves the issue for now. But while Washington has moved on to its next drama — the deliberations of the so-called supercommittee agreed to in the deal — its psychological impact has resonated widely.
McInturff said the result has been “a scary erosion in confidence” in both the economy and the government “at a time when this steep drop in confidence can be least afforded. … The perception of how Washington handled the debt ceiling negotiation led to an immediate collapse of confidence in government and all the major players, including President Obama and Republicans in Congress.”
A recent Washington Post poll found that 33 percent of Americans have confidence in Obama to make good decisions on the economy and just 18 percent have confidence in Congressional Republicans to do so.
These are especially dangerous readings when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has essentially said it is up to politicians to help boost the economy now that the Fed has fired nearly all its monetary policy bullets.
Speaking of Bernanke, he had this to say at Jackson Hole last week:
[P]erhaps most challenging, the country would be well served by a better process for making fiscal decisions. The negotiations that took place over the summer disrupted financial markets and probably the economy as well, and similar events in the future could, over time, seriously jeopardize the willingness of investors around the world to hold U.S. financial assets or to make direct investments in job-creating U.S. businesses. Although details would have to be negotiated, fiscal policymakers could consider developing a more effective process that sets clear and transparent budget goals, together with budget mechanisms to establish the credibility of those goals.
Ten days before Bernanke's speech, FP's Josh Rogin reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had acknowledged the global ramifications of the debt fracas, telling a forum at National Defense University:
I happened to be in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, and I said confidently that we were going to resolve this; we were not going to default; we would make some kind of political compromise.
But I have to tell you, it does cast a pall over our ability to project the kind of security interests that are in America’s interest. This is not about the Defense Department or the State Department or USAID. This is about the United States of America. And we need to have a responsible conversation about how we are going to prepare ourselves for the future
Clinton's statements were confirmed by officials I talked to while down in DC.
So, can this perception be changed? Here, I'm bearish in the short-term. These kind of perceptions can be self-fulfilling. Economic growth is a remarkable political palliative, but growth looks anemic for a good long while. The Obama administration can try to change the narrative, but that's almost as difficult as Inception -- for the same reasons:
As Reinhart and Rogoff have observed, the economic aftereffects of debt crises are long-lasting. From here on out, the political effects of such crises will be on full display.
As someone who studies global political economy, this is fascinating. As a U.S. citizen, this is utterly depressing.
Chinese overlords alien visitors robot masters zombie hegemons post-apocalyptic historians:
Greetings. My goal in this message is to explain to you why the most powerful country in the world committed financial seppuku in the summer of 2011 AD*.
To set the stage: by now you know that the U.S. Congress was obligated to increase the debt ceiling in order for the United States government to continue to function normally. President Obama, Democrats in Congress, and most of the Republican leadership recognized the gravity of the situation. The GOP leadership, however, wanted to use the debt cekiling vote as leverage to get President Obama to commit to significant deficit reduction. After much haggling over "grand bargains," there was a recognition that no such deal could be passed. As a backup, leaders from both parties reluctantly advocated a bill that hiked the ceiling and put off questions about long-term deficit reduction to the future.
The problem was, a political faction emerged that some called "debt kamikazes." These were politicians and interest group leaders -- all Republicans -- who genuinely believed that nothing of consequence would happen if the debt ceiling wasn't raised. There were a few others who did believe it and were nevertheless copacetic with that outcome -- I'll get to that group later.
Sounds absurd to your futuristic ears, you say? Consider my evidence. The Daily Beast's John Avlon detailed the position of the 2012 GOP presidential candidates:
There were also interest group coalitions called "Tea Party" organizations that pressured their members of Congress not to raise the debt ceiling. As CNN's Shannon Travis chonicled, these organizations believed that the effects of more government spending were far more disastrous than defaulting on the debt:
Similarly, Red State blogger Erick Erickson wrote an open letter to the House GOP that boiled down to "do not believe the doom and gloom."
Now, future historians, you might argue that neither Tea Party activists nor presidential candidates (Bachmann excepted) were in Congress and therefore did not matter. However, what's important to understand is that these views were prevalent inside the House GOP caucus as well. The Washington Post's David A. Fahrenthold provided a detailed description of the members of the House of Representatives who thought a default wouldn't be such a big deal. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) offered the most extreme example of House GOP thinking:
Lest you think the view that a default was not such a big deal was limited to backbenchers, Outside the Beltway's Steven Taylor found House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan telling CNBC that a "technical default" of a few days wouldn't be a big deal:
Now, at this point, I'm sure you, future post-apocalyptic historians, must be scratching your
third eye heads, thinking the following:
Why, why did these human beings maintain these beliefs in the face of massive evidence to the contrary? Why did these people continue to insist that default wasn't that big a deal when Federal Reserve Chairman Benjamin Bernanke (a Republican first appointed by Republican president George W. Bush) insisted that there would be a "huge financial calamity" if the debt ceiling wasn't raised? Why did their belief persist when Moody's, Standard & Poor's, and Fitch Ratings all explicitly and repeatedly warned of serious and expensive debt downgrades if the ceiling wasn't raised? Why did they stick to their guns despite news reports detailing the link between the rating of federal government debt and the debt of states and municipalities? Why did they stand firm despite the consensus of the Republican Governors Association and the Democrat Governors Association that a failure to raise the debnt cailing would be "catastrophic"? Why did they refuse to yield despite bipartisan analysis explaining the very, very bad consequences of no agreement, and nonpartisan analysis explaining the horrific foreign policy consequences of American default? Why did they not understand that even a technical default would cost hundreds of billions of dollars**, thereby making their stated goal of debt reduction even harder?
Most mysteriously, why did these people throw their steering wheel out the window despite witnessing the effect of the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse, which revealed the complex interconectedness of financial markets? Treasuries were far more integral to global capital markets than Lehman, but the debt kamikazes refused to recognize the possibility that a technical debt default would have unanticipated, complex, and disastrous consequences. Why?
I would like to be able to offer you a definitive answer, I really would, but I can't. The implications listed in the previous paraqgraph seemed pretty friggin' obvious to a lot contemporaneous observers at the time. As near as I can determine, there are four partial explanations for why the debt kamikazes persisted in their belief that nothing serious would happen: One explanation, which I've detailed here, is that the debt kamikazes refused to budge because refusing to budge had yielded great political rewards in the past.
Another explanation is that the debt kamikazes convinced themselves that no possible alternative was worse than the federal government accumulating more debt. They looked at countries like Greece and Portugal and decided that the U.S. was only one more Obama administration away from such strictures.
A third explanation was the general erosion of trust in economic experts during this period. To be fair to the debt kamikazes, many of the prominent policymakers who warned about calamities if the debt ceiling wasn't raised had pooh-poohed the effects of the housing bubble in 2005, or the collapse of that bubble in 2007.
The final explanation goes back to those people who acknowledged that a default might be a big deal, but were nevertheless OK with the outcome. These debt kamikazes had undergone a fundamental identity change. That is to say, despite all their protestations to the contrary, they were no longer loyal Americans. They were loyal to Republicans first and Republicans only. Erick Erickson made this logic pretty clear in his open letter to Congress:
As Outside the Beltway's Doug Mataconis explained in response:
That's the best set of answers I can give you. I'm sure, future post-aopocalytpic historians, that you have devised new and sophisticated methodologies to unearth the mysteries of the past. I hope you can solve this historical puzzle -- because me and my contemporaries are thoroughly flummoxed.
I wish you the best of luck, and once again, apologies for the whole collapse-of-Western-civilization-thing that happened in 2011. Our bad.
*To translate into your time scale, 15 B.B. (Before Lord Beiber, Praised Be His Hairness)
** 100 billion U.S. dollars = 15 BieberBucks
For the past two years, staunch monetarists and economic conservatives have warned about the evils of massive deficit spending and quantitative easing. They have argued that such policy measures are inevitably inflationary and will debase the currency and raise nominal interest rates. By and large, supporters of Keynesian policies have responded by loudly pointing to the data on core U.S. inflation and the dollar's performance as falsifying the conservative argument. And, by and large, they have a point. If inflationary concerns really were prominent, the dollar should have depreciated in value an awful lot, and nominal interest rates should have soared. Neither of these things have happened. Point for Keynesians.
Right now, however, markets are providing a pretty powerful data point for Tea Party supporters who argue that hitting the debt ceiling is not the end of the world. Last week Moody's issued the following warning:
Moody's Investors Service said today that if there is no progress on increasing the statutory debt limit in coming weeks, it expects to place the US government's rating under review for possible downgrade, due to the very small but rising risk of a short-lived default. If the debt limit is raised and default avoided, the Aaa rating will be maintained. However, the rating outlook will depend on the outcome of negotiations on deficit reduction. A credible agreement on substantial deficit reduction would support a continued stable outlook; lack of such an agreement could prompt Moody's to change its outlook to negative on the Aaa rating.
Although Moody's fully expected political wrangling prior to an increase in the statutory debt limit, the degree of entrenchment into conflicting positions has exceeded expectations. The heightened polarization over the debt limit has increased the odds of a short-lived default. If this situation remains unchanged in coming weeks, Moody's will place the rating under review.
Make fun of the ratings agencies all you like, but this was front-page news last week. One would think that markets would be pricing in the possibility of institutional investors diversifying away from dollar-denominated debt, a collapse in the dollar, skyrocketing interest rates, a drastic reduction in nominal GDP, dogs and cats living together, and so forth. Or, as Tim Geithner put it, "catastrophic economic and market consequences."
And yet.... last week, the yield on 10 year Treasuries fell below three percent. Maybe markets are underestimating the likelihood that a debt ceiling deal won't happen, maybe they are underestimating the damage caused by hitting the debt ceiling, or maybe they think the Chinese will continue to buy dollar-denominated debt no matter what happens on the debt ceiling (though read this). Or... maybe the Tea Party activists have a point.
So, my question to readers, investors, and experts on the global political economy -- why aren't markets freaking out more about the rising probability of hitting the debt ceiling?
In my last post I mentioned how China was encountering resistance to its rising power. Now, via Kindred Winecoff, I see a whole mess of reportage about China's mounting internal difficulties. In no particular order:
1) Nouriel Roubini has focused his Dr. Doom-O-Vision on the Middle Kingdom, and doesn't like what he sees:
China’s economy is overheating now, but, over time, its current overinvestment will prove deflationary both domestically and globally. Once increasing fixed investment becomes impossible – most likely after 2013 – China is poised for a sharp slowdown. Instead of focusing on securing a soft landing today, Chinese policymakers should be worrying about the brick wall that economic growth may hit in the second half of the quinquennium....
[N]o country can be productive enough to reinvest 50% of GDP in new capital stock without eventually facing immense overcapacity and a staggering non-performing loan problem. China is rife with overinvestment in physical capital, infrastructure, and property. To a visitor, this is evident in sleek but empty airports and bullet trains (which will reduce the need for the 45 planned airports), highways to nowhere, thousands of colossal new central and provincial government buildings, ghost towns, and brand-new aluminum smelters kept closed to prevent global prices from plunging.
Commercial and high-end residential investment has been excessive, automobile capacity has outstripped even the recent surge in sales, and overcapacity in steel, cement, and other manufacturing sectors is increasing further. In the short run, the investment boom will fuel inflation, owing to the highly resource-intensive character of growth. But overcapacity will lead inevitably to serious deflationary pressures, starting with the manufacturing and real-estate sectors.
Eventually, most likely after 2013, China will suffer a hard landing. All historical episodes of excessive investment – including East Asia in the 1990’s – have ended with a financial crisis and/or a long period of slow growth. To avoid this fate, China needs to save less, reduce fixed investment, cut net exports as a share of GDP, and boost the share of consumption.
The trouble is that the reasons the Chinese save so much and consume so little are structural. It will take two decades of reforms to change the incentive to overinvest.
Now, Roubini is enough of a persistent doomsayer that it would be easy to discount this argument -- if it wasn't for the fact that this jibes with the opinion of other China economy-watchers. This coming-bust prophesizing comes on top of arguments made by Barry Eichengreen, Donghyun Park and Kwanho Shin that as China hits middle-income status, it will hit a "middle income trap" of slower growth. (One interesting question is whether, as China encounters rampant inflation, its eventual decision to let the RMB appreciate will help ease some of these pressures).
2) Meanwhile, China's political leadership appears to be engaged in a full-fledged freakout over the Arab revolutions and any whisper of a similar phenomenon happening in China. Rising food prices are leading to price controls and an anxious government monitoring if/when more expensive staple goods lead to political unrest. That said, Chinese authorities seem to be on top of the whole crushing dissent thing:
According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an NGO, by April 4th some 30 people had been detained and faced criminal charges relating to the so-called “jasmine revolution”—an inchoate internet campaign to emulate in China recent upheavals in the Middle East and north Africa. Human Rights Watch, another NGO, reports that a further 100-200 people have suffered repressive measures, from police summonses to house arrest. This has been accompanied by tighter censorship of the internet, the ousting of some liberal newspaper editors, and new curbs on foreign reporters in China, some of whom have been roughed up....
Even more worrying, however, is the increasing resort to informal detentions, punishments and disappearances. These are outside the law, offering the victim no protection at all. The government now dismisses the idea that one function of the law is to defend people against the arbitrary exercise of state power. On March 3rd a Chinese foreign-ministry spokeswoman told foreign journalists: “Don’t use the law as a shield.” Some people, she said, want to make trouble in China and “for people with these kinds of motives, I think no law can protect them.”
3) As for China's assessment of its external security situation, the State Council released its 2010 White Paper on defense last month. As this East Asia Forum summary suggests, there's a slight change in tone from the 2008 white paper:
The introductory assessment of the ‘security situation’ section notes that the ‘international balance of power is changing,’ that ‘international strategic competition centring on international order, comprehensive national strength and geopolitics has intensified,’ and that ‘international military competition remains fierce.’ Despite this sense of turbulence, and as was the case in 2008, the 2010 paper assesses that ‘the Asia Pacific security situation is generally stable.’ But the additional observation in the 2008 paper, namely, ‘that China’s security situation has improved steadily’ does not appear in 2010. One possible reason is that the 2010 paper reports that ‘suspicion about China, interference and countering moves against China from the outside are on the increase.’
In light of all these developments, yesterday's Economist editorial should come as no surprise:
The view from Beijing, thus, is different to the view from abroad. Whereas the outside world regards China’s rulers as all-powerful, the rulers themselves detect threats at every turn. The roots of this repression lie not in the leaders’ overweening confidence but in their nervousness. Their response to threats is to threaten others.
Now, as someone who's pointed out these problems on occasion on this blog, you might think I'm pleased as punch about these developments. Nope. First, from an economic standpoint, a recessionary China eliminates a vital engine of global economic growth. Second, as I wrote back in January:
Exaggerating Chinese power has consequences. Inside the Beltway, attitudes about American hegemony have shifted from complacency to panic. Fearful politicians representing scared voters have an incentive to scapegoat or lash out against a rising power -- to the detriment of all. Hysteria about Chinese power also provokes confusion and anger in China as Beijing is being asked to accept a burden it is not yet prepared to shoulder. China, after all, ranks 89th in the 2010 U.N. Human Development Index, just behind Turkmenistan and the Dominican Republic (the United States is fourth). Treating Beijing as more powerful than it is feeds Chinese bravado and insecurity at the same time. That is almost as dangerous a political cocktail as fear and panic.
Developing.... in very disturbing ways.
With the government not shutting down and all, Washington can now look forward to the next moment of Gotterdammerung, which is when the debt ceiling has to be raised. By risking minor things like the full faith and credit of the United States, that kind of shutdown really would have serious foreign policy implications.
That said, there is another possibility on the horizon -- a grand bargain on long-term fiscal rectitude. The good news is that there really is a bargaining core among the major players on entitlement reform, budget cuts, and tax reform. The bad news is that one could say the same thing about an Israeli/Palestinian peace deal, and look how that's playing out. The follow-up good news is that I think there are political reasons to be more optimistic about the U.S. situation.
Seasoned DC-watchers might immediately laugh at the prospect of the kind of bipartisan brand bargain on fiscal policy that hasn't been seen since the days of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings and the 1986 tax reform bill. That said, I think a bargain can be struck for the simple reason that there is at least a general consensus that the long-term fiscal picture for the United States is really daunting and in dire need of proactive policy measures. This jibes with U.S. public opinion on the question. The biggest question is what mix of spending cuts need to be taken -- though I think the fiscal picture is sufficiently dire such that there's gonna have to be serious steps taken in all possible spending spheres (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, discretionary domestic spending, Defense spending). The combination of the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission, Paul Ryan's proposed budget, and Obama's scheduled Wednesday address means there will be multiple proffers on the table, so at least there are concrete measures to talk about.
Furthermore, the tax code has gotten so complicated that there's actual room for a tax deal that would simultaneously raise revenues but be palatable to Republicans. For all the debate over raising or lowering tax rates, the key problem is that tax revenues as a percentage of GDP are at postwar historic lows. If distortionary loopholes were eliminated, it would be possible to keep marginal tax rates where they are, or even lower them, while still raising revenues.
Finally, the economic argument against fiscal tightening is that the economy is still in recession, except that's not really true. The economy has been growing at a steady clip for a yeat now. The real concern is the job picture, but if last month's numbers are suggestive of a more robust turnaround, then this would be exactly the moment to rein in spending and signal to financial markets that fiscal probity is coming.
So I think a grand bargain is possible. Now, the natural rejoinder to this is that the partisan split in Washington is too great for bipartisanship to work, the Tea Party will be unyielding, yadda, yadda, yadda. This is a possibility. It's certainly true that the last time something on this scale was attempted, in 1993, it was a straight partisan vote. If the Obama administration and GOP members of Congress see this as a zero-sum game that ends with the 2012 election, then no bargain will be struck.
There are two political reasons why I'm more optimistic this time around -- although these reasons normally don't count for much in political science. First, the personalities of the key players suggest that they want to make a deal. Barack Obama was the happiest I'd seen him in a long time when he announced on Friday night that a budget deal had been struck. John Boehner, and his staff, set a nice precedent of being able to bargain with the Democrats while holding his caucus together, and earned some praise from Democrats for his dealmaking. The personal inclinations of the pcvotal actors are biased towards cutting a deal. [But what about the Tea Party?!--ed. See this Dave Weigel post.]
Second, I think it's beginning to occur to GOP legislatures that their crop of 2012 presidential camdidates really and truly stinks:
A presidential primary favorite is emerging among the ranks of congressional Republicans: none of the above.
The dissatisfaction with the likely GOP field — long whispered among party activists, operatives and elected officials — is growing more audible in the House and Senate.
Interviews on both sides of the Capitol have revealed widespread concern about the lackluster quality of the current crop of candidates and little consensus on who Republican senators and House members would like to see in the race.
It's early, and the fundamentals suggest that the eventual GOP nominee might make it a close race, but still -- whoever gets the nomination is gonna have to run against a sitting president who's still surprisingly popular given the state of the economy.
If GOP legislative leaders calculate that they can't win back the White House in 2012, their preference flips over to cutting a deal with the Obama administration. Bipartisan deals help incumbents and hurt challengers, which means that in cutting a deal, the House Republicans would help Obama while helping themselves. That's not their first option, but in a political climate when Donald Trump can poll second in New Hampshire by embracing the birthers, it's not the worst calculaion either.
I look forward to commenters telling me how wrong I am about this. But let me close this post by pointing out something that I think is obvious but might pass by some foreign policy pundits
who get scared by economics that tend to focus more on matters of hard security. From a foreign policy perspective, whether or not a Grand Bargain can be struck is of far more importance than whether or not there's such a thing as an Obama Doctrine. Over the long term, America's hard power and soft power resides in its economic vitality. A close reading of Obama's rhetoric suggsts that he gets this point. It will be very interesting to see if he decides to invest his political capital in cutting a deal.
Fifteen years ago Samuel Huntington coined the term "Davos Man" to describe the kind of globalized elite that jetted off from global conference to global conference. His point was that Davos man was an exceedingly rare bird, and that nationalism, religion, language and culture were still the most potent forces binding groups together in the world.
It's in this context that I read Chrystia Freeland's new cover story in The Atlantic. It's well worth the read, but like Kevin Drum, I'm not sure that the phenomenon Freeland is identifying is all that new.
Furthermore, I'm not entirely convinced they're as powerful as Freeland or Drum or Felix Salmon suggests. As Freeland pointed out, they fought a lot of the Obama administration's first-half policies tooth and nail -- and they actually lost a fair amount of the time. Indeed, nary a year ago some pundits were declaring the death of Davos man.
That said, there are three trends that are worth further consideration. First, as Freeland observes, the rich are now work much harder than they did a century ago. Second, more and more of the rich are coming from outside the OECD economies.
Third, the rich have attracted a lot of intellectual capital into their web. Indeed, the call for an economist code of ethics is based in no small part on the ways in which successful economists score moneymaking gigs as they move up the career ladder.
Again, I'm not sure if Freeland is right. I am sure that it's an interesting argument however. So, in the interest of further research your humble middle-class blogger is headed off tonight to investigate the beliefs and activities of the super-rich from much closer than normal.
This is a roundabout way of saying that blogging will be intermittent this week because I'm off to Dubai for a few days for a conference involving a lot of Really Rich People.
How rich? Well, let's put it this way -- I've already received an e-mail from my hotel in Dubai explaining that, "a Lifestyle Manager will be at your entire disposal" for my stay.
I'll post my thoughts on the entire surreal experience when I can.
In the meantime, talk amongst yourselves about the "global plutocracy." Is it a big deal? Is it an overblown phenomenon during an economic downturn? Did they all have superior Chinese mothers?
The unholy trinity in open economy macroeconomics is pretty simple. It's impossible for a country to do the following three things at the same time:
1) Maintain a fixed exchange rate
2) Maintain an open capital market
3) Run an independent monetary policy
One of the issues with macroeconomic policy coordination right now is that different countries have chosen different options to sacrifice. China, for example, has never opened its capital account. The United States, in pursuing quantitative easing, has basically chucked fixed exchange rates under the bus, no matter how many times Tim Geithner utters the "strong dollar" mantra
in his sleep to reporters.
These policies are generating a fair amount of blowback from the rest of the world, forcing President Barack Obama to defend the Fed's actions. And it appears that the developing countries are mostly following China's path towards regulating their capital account to prevent exchange rate appreciation and the inward rush of hot money.
How does this end? I think it's gonna end with a lot more capital controls for a few reasons:
1) It's the political path of least resistance;
2) Capital controls are seen as strengthening the state;
3) The high-growth areas of the world don't need a lot of capital inflows to fuel their continued growth.
What intrigues me is how the financial sector responds to a situation in which their freedom of action in emerging markets becomes more and more constrained. It's possible that they could pressure the Fed to change its position in the future. It's also possible, however, that big firms could see these controls as a useful barrier to entry for new firms.
My money is on the former response, however.
This week Japan has provoked the ire of the United States and Europe by unilaterally intervening in currency markets to depreciate the yen against other major currencies. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has responded to these criticisms by
telling the US and EU to go suck a lemon stating that further "resolute actions" would be taken on this front.
This comes on the heels of mounting U.S. frustration with China's "go-slow" policy on letting the yuan appreciate against the dollar. [What do you mean by "go slow"?--ed. Let's put it this way: the tortoise thinks that China is being pokey on this question.]
So, is this the beginning of beggar-thy-neighbor? Will other countries start intervening in foreign exchange markets to gain a competitive advantage for their export sectors?
The New York Times' Hiroko Tabuchi thinks not, because Japan can't unilaterally devalue its currency like in the old days:
It is unlikely, though, that intervention by Japan alone will sway currency markets in the long term. The global volume of foreign exchange trading has grown rapidly in recent years, which prevents intervention by a single government from countering bigger market trends.
Other countries are unlikely to help Japan’s cause, because they need to keep their own currencies weaker to bolster exports. A weak currency makes a country’s exports more competitive and increases the value of overseas earnings.
Much of the yen’s weakening came from investors selling the currency on expectations that the Japanese government would be more active in keeping the yen in check. Japan did not disclose how much it had spent in currency transactions, but dealers put the initial amount at 300 billion to 500 billion yen ($3.5 billion to $5.8 billion).
But as Switzerland found this year, a single government’s efforts to weaken its currency can prove futile. Switzerland abandoned that effort, after its central bank had lost more than 14 billion Swiss francs ($14 billion) in foreign currency holdings in the first half of the year, after a fall in the euro’s value ate into the bank’s reserves.
The Swiss franc is also seen by investors as a relative haven and has also strengthened amid global financial unrest. This month, the franc hit a record high against the euro.
Hmmm.... maybe. Japan's economy is much larger than Switzerland, so I'm not sure the comparison holds up. The real problem, however, appears to be that countries perceived of as "safe havens" wind up with overvalued currencies.
This little parable also makes me wonder whether we might see beggar-thy-neighbor policies in a different guise this time around. This is going to sound a little crazy, but here goes: rather than explicit exchange rate intervention, what if countries decided to play fast and loose with Basle III and other measures to strengthen financial integrity?
This really does sound crazy -- it suggests that governments would be willing to tolerate a higher risk of domestic banking collapse in order to avoide being a "safe haven" status for capital. That said, think of how much Europe benefited from the depreciation of the euro due to the Greek crisis. Basle III, by taking so long for banks to meet standards allow those countries with more insolvent financial institutions **cough** Germany **cough** to take their own sweet time in having them meet new capital adequacy standards. This would allow Germany to have the euro stay relatively cheap without abandoning its anti-inflationary zeal.
Now, in all likelihood, not even the Germans would purposefully do this. This is crazy talk. What I'm suggesting, however, is that there is more than one way for a country to have its currency depreciate, and these policies are substitutable. Looking only at explicit exchange rate intervention might be just a bit too narrow. And if more countries find more ways of keeping their currency undervalued, well then, the days of beggar-thy-neighbor would have arrived.
One of the paradoxes I tried to highlight in my recent review of finance books was that it was paradoxical to claim simultaneously that capital markets were becoming more efficient even as the financial sector hoovered up an ever greater share of profits and skilled human capital. So I'm pretty sympathetic to the argument that market incentives in the United States are too heavily skewed towards a career of high finance.
Skewed incentives, however, are not the same thing as skewed values. Unfortunately, the New York Times stable of columnists is blurring the distinction. For Exhibit A, let's look at this segment of Tom Friedman's column from the weekend:
We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.
Ask yourself: What made our Greatest Generation great? First, the problems they faced were huge, merciless and inescapable: the Depression, Nazism and Soviet Communism. Second, the Greatest Generation’s leaders were never afraid to ask Americans to sacrifice. Third, that generation was ready to sacrifice, and pull together, for the good of the country. And fourth, because they were ready to do hard things, they earned global leadership the only way you can, by saying: “Follow me.”
Contrast that with the Baby Boomer Generation. Our big problems are unfolding incrementally — the decline in U.S. education, competitiveness and infrastructure, as well as oil addiction and climate change. Our generation’s leaders never dare utter the word “sacrifice.” All solutions must be painless. Which drug would you like? A stimulus from Democrats or a tax cut from Republicans? A national energy policy? Too hard. For a decade we sent our best minds not to make computer chips in Silicon Valley but to make poker chips on Wall Street, while telling ourselves we could have the American dream — a home — without saving and investing, for nothing down and nothing to pay for two years. Our leadership message to the world (except for our brave soldiers): “After you.”
For Exhibit B, here's David Brooks from Friday:
After decades of affluence, the U.S. has drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.
The shift is evident at all levels of society. First, the elites. America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.
It would be embarrassing or at least countercultural for an Ivy League grad to go to Akron and work for a small manufacturing company. By contrast, in 2007, 58 percent of male Harvard graduates and 43 percent of female graduates went into finance and consulting....
[T]he value shifts are real. Up and down society, people are moving away from commercial, productive activities and toward pleasant, enlightened but less productive ones.
OK, I'm calling a Vizzini foul on the word "values" here.
A broad spectrum of American saved less over the past decade because they were responding rationally to massive asset appreciation. High-skilled Americans went into finance because it paid remarkably well. Americans didn't do these things because they suddenly got lazy. Indeed, the opposite was true, if U.S. labor productivity figures are any guide. And while much calumny has been heaped upon Wall Street in the past few years, is anyone actually accusing bankers of either not working hard enough or not putting in enough hours?
Americans haven't suddenly gotten contemptuous of either saving or manufacturing. They were responding to the price signals that the market communicated to them.
This is great news, by the way. Changing values is really, really hard. Shifting material incentives is not exactly easy, but it's much more doable than fomenting a values shift.
I suspect that
ranting writing only about incentives and not about values makes better copy. That said, I'd prefer it if the most influential op-ed columnists in the land correctly diagnosed what ails the American political economy rather than saying "distemper" or "an imbalance of humors."
At APSA today I attended a panel on what political scientists can offer to political journalists. Mark Schmitt, Marc Ambinder, Matt Yglesias, Mark Blumenthal, and Ezra Klein all offered interesting advice. Two messages that came through loud and clear:
1) Be willing to advertise one's research wares; and
Mr. Gorbachev, tear down these paywalls Make the research accessible to people without a JSTOR account.
So, in that spirit, let me announce that I have an article in the latest issue of International Relations of the Asia-Pacific entitled "Will Currency Follow The Flag?" It's on the future of the U.S. dollar as the world's reserve currency. The abstract:
The 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath have triggered uncertainty about the future of the dollar as the world's reserve currency. China and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region have voiced support for a new global monetary regime. There are both economic and geopolitical motivations at the root of these challenges. Going forward, what will the future hold for the international monetary system? Crudely put, will currency follow the flag?
This article addresses this question by considering the economic opportunity and geopolitical willingness of actors in the Pacific Rim to shift away from the current international monetary system – with a special emphasis on China as the most powerful actor in the region. While the dollar has shifted from being a top currency to a negotiated one, neither the opportunity nor the willingness to shift away from the dollar is particularly strong. The current window of opportunity for actors in the region to coordinate a shift in the monetary system is small and constrained. The geopolitical willingness to subordinate monetary politics to security concerns is muted.
The entire article is free for anyone to download and read. So read the whole thing, political journalists!!
I have a review essay of four books about Big Finance in the latest issue of The National Interest entitled "First Bank of the Living Dead." The books reviewed were: Sebastian Mallaby's More Money Than God, Robert Reich's Aftershock, Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm's Crisis Economics, and John Quiggin's Zombie Economics. Despite my obvious affinity for zombies, I tried to avoid any favortism towards Quiggin's
awesome brilliant spot-on unorthodox metaphor.
The opening paragraph:
Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein attempted to justify his professional existence, proclaiming, “We’re very important. We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. . . . We have a social purpose.” This all sounds good enough, except that finance went from being responsible for 2.5 percent of GDP in 1947 to 7.7 percent in 2005. And at the peak of the housing bubble, the financial sector comprised 40 percent of all the earnings in the Standard & Poor’s 500. The incomes of the country’s top-twenty-five hedge-fund managers exceeded the total income of all the CEOs in that index. And by 2007, just about half of all Harvard graduates headed into finance jobs. If capital markets merely serve as conduits from savers to entrepreneurs, then why does such a large slice get siphoned off to compensate people like Lloyd Blankfein? To put it more broadly, what is the role of finance in a good and just society?
And the thesis paragraph:
Some of these books address some of the big questions some of the time. Most of the authors, however, focus on the retrospective at the expense of the prospective. With the partial exception of Roubini and Mihm’s Crisis Economics, these authors seem more concerned with looking back at the halcyon days of the postwar era than looking forward to the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, none of these books recognizes two important facts of life. First, at present, no economic model perfectly captures the interrelationship between the financial sector and the global economy. Second, no matter what regulatory arrangements are put in place, the next global financial order will last no longer than a generation—because whatever ideas replace the current ones will also prove fallible over time.
I fear that last paragraph reads a bit harsher than the rest of the essay. I learned something from all four books, and enjoyed engaging with all of them.
That said, here are three pieces of good news to suggest that the global economic recovery is a bit more resilient than the headlines might suggest:
The Conference Board, based in New York, said Tuesday that its Consumer Confidence Index rose to 63.3 points, up from a revised 57.7 reading in April. Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected 59.
The increase was bolstered by consumers’ outlook over the next six months, one component of the index, which soared to 85.3 from 77.4, the highest seen since it reached 89.2 in August 2007, before the economy entered in a recession.
The other component of the index, which measures how shoppers feel now about the economy, rose to 30.2 from 28.2.
The index — which measures how consumers feel about business conditions, the job market and the next six months — has been recovering fitfully since hitting an all-time low of 25.3 in February 2009.
The first quarter of 2010 saw a substantial decrease in industry demands for temporary new import barriers under potentially WTO-legal "trade remedy" policies - antidumping, safeguards, and countervailing duty (anti-subsidy) policies. The first quarter 2010 resulted in a 20% decrease in newly initiated investigations in which domestic industries request the imposition of such new import restrictions compared to the number during the same time period in 2009. This follows the fourth quarter 2009 which also resulted in a 20% decrease relative to the same time period in 2008....
The first quarter 2010 also exhibited a substantial decline in the imposition of the new trade barriers that can come at the conclusion of the investigations that were initiated earlier. When compared to the same period in 2009, the first quarter of 2010 resulted in a 51.1% decrease in the number of new import-restricting measures imposed. It is also a substantial reduction from the number of new import restrictions imposed in the previous quarter - i.e., the fourth quarter of 2009.
3) There's no indication that panic over European sovereign debt is causing a credit crunch across financial markets. Indeed, according to the Financial Times' Chris Giles, most economists are pretty upbeat about the direction of the real economy:
[T]hrough this tense period, most economists have remained confident in the world economic recovery. Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy are simply not big enough to derail the global economy.
Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs says the policy crisis in the eurozone is unlikely to be a source of global financial market contagion. “Nearly 70 per cent of the eurozone economy is made up of three countries – France, Germany and Italy – and unless the sovereign debt crisis derails their economies, it is tough to see how the eurozone could weaken sufficiently,” he says.
Julian Callow of Barclays Capital agrees: “The real economy still has substantial momentum and pent-up demand at the global level, provided that the current derisking in the financial markets does not become extended and feed back into a fall in business and consumer confidence.”
So far that has not happened to any great extent, a result that is more encouraging than in the aftermath of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. And forecasts for the global economy, although uneven, are still rising....
[A] rapid yet fragile global recovery is a big improvement on the sense of doom that surrounded the outlook a year ago. The European sovereign debt crisis cannot be dismissed as an irrelevance to the recovery but it appears so far to be a nasty financial aftershock rather than a new economic earthquake.
True, a Second Korean War or, say, a zombie outbreak could dash these nascent hopes for a strong recovery. That said, I'll take these positive trends over the factors that are supposed to cause me fret and worry.
Is it just me, or is this less-than-exquisite timing for this particular roll-out?
Europe’s first Christian equity index was launched on Monday in response to increasing demand by investors for so-called ethical stocks in the wake of the financial crisis.
The Stoxx Europe Christian Index comprises 533 European companies that only derive revenues from sources approved “according to the values and principles of the Christian religion”.
BP, HSBC, Nestlé, Vodafone, Royal Dutch Shell and GlaxoSmithKline are among the companies in the index. Only groups that do not make money from pornography, weapons, tobacco, birth control and gambling are allowed to be listed.
A committee, which Stoxx says includes representatives of the Vatican, screens shares, which are drawn from the Stoxx Europe 600 Index (emphasis added).
Umm...... to state the obvious, I'm not sure this is the right moment for the Catholic Church to present itself as the arbiter of all things ethical. But hey, I'm a nonbeliever.
That said, I do wonder if there's an index fund that could be created that would be the inverse of this fund -- one that did nothing but profit from the seven deadly sins.
already doomed to eternal damnation in hell with a mischevious streak are encouraged to suggest the appropriate companies to put into that fund in the comments.
VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images
So I see Paul Krugman has thrown his lot in with the neoconservatives who disdain multilateral institutions and prefer bellicose unilateralism when they confront a frustrating international situation.
His op-ed today is about China's currency manipulation. ... again. After explaining that China has less leverage than is commonly understood on the foreign economic policy front (gee, where have I heard that before), he closes with the following:
In 1971 the United States dealt with a similar but much less severe problem of foreign undervaluation by imposing a temporary 10 percent surcharge on imports, which was removed a few months later after Germany, Japan and other nations raised the dollar value of their currencies. At this point, it’s hard to see China changing its policies unless faced with the threat of similar action — except that this time the surcharge would have to be much larger, say 25 percent.
Whoa there, big fella!! That's a nice but very selective reading of international economic history you have there.
It's certainly true that the dollar was overvalued back in 1971. What Krugman forgets to mention -- and see if this sounds familiar -- is that the Johnson and Nixon administrations contributed to this problem via a guns-and-butter fiscal policy. They pursued the Vietnam War, approved massive increases in social spending, and refused to raise taxes to pay for it. This macroeconomic policy created inflationary expectations and a "dollar glut." Foreign exchange markets to expect the dollar to depreciate over time. Other countries intervened to maintain the dollar's value -- not because they wanted to, but because they were complying with the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. Nixon only went off the dollar after the British Treasury came to the U.S. and wanted to convert all their dollar holdings into gold.
In other words, the United States was the rogue economic actor in 1971 -- not Japan or Germany.
So, how about acting multilaterally first before engaging in unilateral action that alienates America's friends and allies alike?
To be fair to Krugman, many of the multilateral processes appear to be stymied, as Keith Bradsher explains in this NYT front-pager:
Beijing has worked to suppress a series of I.M.F. reports since 2007 documenting how the country has substantially undervalued its currency, the renminbi, said three people with detailed knowledge of China’s actions....
Last September, Presidennt Obama, President Hu Jintao of China and other leaders of the Group of 20 industrialized and developing countries agreed in Pittsburgh that all the G-20 countries would begin sharing their economic plans by November. The goal was to coordinate their exits from stimulus programs and prevent the world from lurching from recession straight into inflation.
The G-20 leaders agreed that the I.M.F. would act as intermediary.
But two people familiar with China’s response said that the Chinese government missed the November deadline and then submitted a vague document containing mostly historical data. These people said that China feared giving ammunition to critics of its currency policies at the monetary fund and beyond. Both people asked for anonymity because of China’s attitudes about its economic policies.
That last part oabout the G-20 process is particularly disturbing, given that this was supposed to be the venue through which macroeconomic imbalances were supposed to be addressed. So maybe Krugman is right and unilateral is the way to go?
I don't think so. The big difference between the end of the Bretton Woods era and the current Bretton Woods II situation is the distribution of interests. In 1971, everyone was opposed to a continuation of U.S. policies. This time around, there appears to be a growing consensus that China is the rogue economic actor.
If Krugman gets to repeat himself, then so do I:
[T]he United States is not the country that's hurt the most by this tactic. It's the rest of the world -- particularly Europe and the Pacific Rim -- that are getting royally screwed by China's policy. These countries are seeing their currencies appreciating against both the dollar and the renminbi, which means their products are less competitive in the U.S. market compared to domestic production and Chinese exports.
So why should the U.S. act unilaterally? Why not activate an international regime that does not include China but does include a lot of other actors hurt by China's currency policy?
Am I missing anything?
MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday President Obama delivered a speech fleshing out his National Export Initiative -- the doubling of U.S. exports in the next five years. Longtime and short-time readers of this blog are already aware of my deep skepticism of this idea.
Others at FP, however, observe that it has happened in the past (1981 most recently), so perhaps "Obama's plan to double the number by 2015 does not seem so far-fetched."
So, let's clarify: the possibility of U.S. exports doubling in the next five years is pretty small, but within the realm of the doable. Obama's National Export Initiative will have no appreciable effect on export flows.
The fundamental drivers for U.S. exports are the rate of economic growth of the rest of the world and the exchange rate value of the dollar. If the dollar depreciates in value and the rest of the world experiences high rates of economic growth, then exports will take off. Everything else would generously be described as window dressing.
Let's consider the content of the key parts of Obama's speech to see what I'm saying:
I know the issue of exports and imports, the issue of trade and globalization, have long evoked the passions of a lot of people in this country. I know there are differences of opinion between Democrats and Republicans, between business and labor, about the right approach. But I also know we are at a moment where it is absolutely necessary for us to get beyond those old debates.
Those who would once support every free trade agreement now see that other countries have to play fair and the agreements have to be enforced. Otherwise we're putting America at a profound disadvantage. Those who once would once oppose any trade agreement now understand that there are new markets and new sectors out there that we need to break into if we want our workers to get ahead.
Second of all, could someone, anyone, point to a politician that once opposed trade deals and are now in favor of them? Anyone?
So, what are the components of the National Export Initiative, beyond a couple of interagency committees that will accomplish nothing?
First, we will substantially increase access to trade financing for businesses that want to export their goods but just need a boost –- especially small businesses and medium-sized businesses.
Let's be generous and say that this would make a huge difference (it won't) and that it would really increase exports from this sector. Given that roughly 70% of U.S. exports come from large corporations, this still wouldn't accomplish all that much. Next!!
[T]he United States of America will go to bat for our businesses and our workers....
Going forward, I will be a strong and steady advocate for our workers and our companies abroad.
And this effort will extend throughout my administration. Secretary Locke is issuing guidance to all senior government officials who have foreign counterparts on how they can best promote our exports. Secretary Clinton is mobilizing a commercial diplomacy strategy, directing every one of our embassies to create a senior visitors business liaison who will manage our export advocacy efforts locally, and when our ambassadors return stateside, we’ll ask them to travel the United States to discuss export opportunities in their countries of assignment.
SCENE: A small factory somewhere in Malaysia.
The PLANT MANAGER and his FOREMAN are looking at the assembly line:
FOREMAN: You know, we could really make a better widget if only we had a better-quality thingmabob.
PLANT MANAGER: Well, we could import it from Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan....
[Sound of trumpets grows louder. PRESIDENT OBAMA enters the factor on a Segway.]
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Have you thought of buying American? [Obama exits]
[PLANT MANAGER and FOREMAN smack hands on heads]
PLANT MANAGER: Why, of course!! I can't believe we didn't think of importing from the largest economy in thw world!
FOREMAN: I know, it's like, we never even thought of America as a producer of anything!
PLANT MANAGER: Thanks, President Obama!!
Third, we’ll unleash a battery of comprehensive and coordinated efforts to promote new markets and new opportunities for American exporters.
Yawn. See response to point one.
The fourth focuses on making sure American companies have free and fair access to those markets. And that begins by enforcing trade agreements we already have on the books.
As I've said before, this is akin to saying that the budget deficit can be fixed through better tax collection measures by the IRS. It won't accomplish much of anhything.
Of course, new trade agreements might actually expand export opportunities, but the language in the speech on that front contains nothing new.
We’ll also work within the G20 to continue global recovery and growth. Last year, when the G20 met to coordinate the international response to our global economic crisis, we agreed that in order for that growth to continue, we needed to rebalance our economies. For too long, America served as the consumer engine for the entire world. But we’re rebalancing. We are now saving more. And that means that everybody has got to rebalance. Countries with external deficits need to save and export more. Countries with external surpluses need to boost consumption and domestic demand. And as I’ve said before, China moving to a more market-oriented exchange rate will make an essential contribution to that global rebalancing effort.
If there were any concrete policy directives on this front, I would straighten up and put away the snark. Global rebalamcing would have an appreciable impact on exports. Unfortunately, there's nothing in the speech on this topic beyond this paragraph.
[W]e’re going to streamline the process certain companies need to go through to get their products to market -– products with encryption capabilities like cell phone and network storage devices....
[W]e’re going to eliminate unnecessary obstacles for exporting products to companies with dual-national and third-country-national employees.
My reaction to this idea is the same as my reaction to the rest of the list -- these aren't awful policy ideas so much as completely superfluous. None of them wuill have an appreciable effect on exports.
The primary purpose of the National Export Initiative is to function as a political excuse. The White House now has something to point to when critics accuse them of lethargy and/or protectionism on the trade front. That is all.
Did I miss anything?
Your humble blogger has a very long day-job to-do list the first half of this week. Still I can't resist not linking to this John Sides post from The Monkey Cage about why there's been a decline in in trust in government.
There was a secular decline in trust in government that levelled off after the Vietnam War started winding down. Since then? It's the economy, stupid:
What drives the trend in political trust? By and large, it is the economy. People trust government when times are good. They don’t trust it when times are bad. For the presidential election years from 1964-2008, I merged the trust measure with the change in per capita disposable income, courtesy of Douglas Hibbs. Here is the relationship between trust and the economy:
The relationship is striking. The economy explains about 75% of the variance in trust. If you delete 1964, which looks like a potential outlier, the economy still explains 73% of the variance.
Of course the economy is not the only important factor. But it gets far less attention than it deserves when the hand-wringing begins.
I suspect it gets less attention because its a structural factor that is largely beyond the control of politicians. It's also boring. It's like a diet guru simply saing "eat less and exercise more" when asked what the trendy explanation is for how to lose weight.
I wonder how generalizable the relationship is between trust and the economy. For example, would a booming economy make Americans more likely to trust business, the academy, and other institutions? Would it make Americans more likely to accept the evidence for global warming?
What do you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.