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Krugman and DeLong on avoiding secular stagnation

April 1, 2014 3 comments

from Dean Baker

Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman are having some back and forth on the problem of secular stagnation and what it would have taken to avoid a prolonged period of high unemployment. I thought I would weigh in quickly since I have a better track record on this stuff than either of them.

The basic story going into the crash was that we had an economy that was being driven by the housing bubble. This was both directly through residential construction and indirectly through the consumption that followed from $8 trillion of bubble generated housing equity. Residential construction expanded to a record high of more than 6 percent of GDP at a time when demographics would have implied its share would be shrinking. This led to enormous overbuilding, which is why construction hit record lows following the crash. (There was a smaller bubble in non-residential real estate that also burst in the crash.)

Consumption also predictably plummeted. This is known as the housing wealth effect. (I learned about this in grad school, didn’t anyone else?) Anyhow, when people saw their homes soar in value many spent in part based on this wealth. This might have meant doing cash out refinancing, a story that obsessed Alan Greenspan during the bubble years. It might mean a home equity loan, or it might just mean not putting money into a retirement account because your house is saving for you.

Read more…

Categories: The Economy

Europe doesn’t need America’s fracked natural gas

March 27, 2014 3 comments

from Dean Baker

In the wake of the Russian takeover of Crimea, there havebeen a number of calls for weaning Europe from dependence on Russian natural gas. Some have suggested that Europe would abandon environmental restrictions on drilling for oil and gas to increase domestic production. To help, the U.S. would continue to massively increase production of oil and gas as well as its capacity to liquefy natural gas and transport it to Europe.

The weaners seem to have the impression that this is yet another case in which the United States has to come to the rescue of those weak Europeans. After all, while we were drilling everywhere, the Europeans were fiddling around with wind and solar energy, all the while making themselves vulnerable to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s machinations.

Reality-based fans of arithmetic see matters differently. The reality is that Europe, especially Germany, has done a huge amount over the last two decades to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels, including natural gas, from Russia. The reduction in fossil fuel use swamps the impact of the drill-everywhere strategy in the United States.

If Europe had not been aggressively pushing to reduce its energy use, there is no way that gas from Russia could be replaced by domestically fracked gas or imports from elsewhere. In addition, Europe’s efforts to reduce fuel consumption have the advantage of slowing global warming.

Read more…

Was the Irish recovery driven by drugs?

March 25, 2014 2 comments

from Dean Baker

Apparently it was in large part, according to this WSJ article. The piece tells readers that Ireland’s economy shrank by 2.3 percent from the third to the fourth quarter, meaning that it dropped at a 9.2 percent annual rate, to use the normal terminology of people in the United States when talking about growth data. However the article later tells us that the story is not as bad as it first appears, since much of this decline is due to a major drug going off patent, which has reduced the income flows recorded in Ireland.

Due to its low corporate tax rate, many multinational companies book income in Ireland even though it was actually generated elsewhere. These phantom income flows have little to do with the state of the Irish economy. To avoid this problem it is more useful to look at gross national income. If we look at the OECD data on Irish national income we find that the number for 2012 (the most recent year available) was still 8.6 percent below the 2008 level. In fact, it was 2.3 percent below the 2005 level. Obviously Ireland is yet another one of those great success stories from the economic whizzes at the European Commission.

Categories: The Economy

Would you delay buying a $30 shirt for months to save 8 cents? Me neither

March 11, 2014 1 comment

from Dean Baker

The collapse of the housing bubble and the subsequent devastation to the economy caught almost the entire economics profession by surprise. Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, along with other people in top policy positions, were left dumbfounded. They didn’t think a prolonged downturn was possible. They were wrong in a really big way.
The current group of central bank chairs and other top policymakers would like us to believe that they’ve learned their lesson and now everything is under control. They want us to think they actually have a clue about how the economy operates. There is good reason to believe otherwise. The European Central Bank (ECB) recognizes that inflation has been running below its 2% inflation target and is likely to stay below that target for several years to come. But the ECB has reassured the public that’s prepared to act, making sure that the eurozone doesn’t see deflation. That the bank cares about the inflation rate crossing zero and turning negative is a sign that it has no clue about how the economy works.

The point here is incredibly simple Read more…

Categories: The Economy

In the real world the trade deficit is more important than the budget deficit

March 11, 2014 4 comments

from Dean Baker

Washington politicians like to hyperventilate about the budget deficit. However changes in the budget deficit are overwhelmingly a response to economic conditions rather than the result of deliberate policy. In other words, politicians didn’t have much to do with the changes. Furthermore, since the budget is responding to economic changes, it is not giving us new information about the economy.

On the other hand the trade deficit is a direct measure of the amount of demand that is going overseas rather than being spent here. This represents income generated in the United States that is not creating demand in the United States. By definition, this lost demand must be made up by other borrowing, either by the public sector (i.e. budget deficits) or the private sector. Currently the trade deficit is running at an annual rate of around $480 billion (@ 3.0 percent of GDP), which means that the sum of net borrowing in the public and private sector must be equal to $480 billion. Read more…

Categories: The Economy

New York Times columnist is upset that some folks don’t like the government redistributing income upward

March 4, 2014 2 comments

from Dean Baker

New York Times columnist Arthur Brooks tells us that people who are unhappy about the enormous upward redistribution of the last three decades are guilty of the sin of envy. Let’s try an alternative hypothesis, large segments of the public are angry because the wealthy are rigging the rules so that an ever larger share of the pie gets redistributed to their pockets.

There are a large number of well-documented ways in which they have engineered this heist. For example, they have too big to fail insurance that transfers tens of billions of dollars each year into the pockets of the CEOs and shareholders of the country’s largest banks. They also managed to secure near tax-free status for the financial industry, which puts tens of billions more into the pockets of the big actors there. And they have constructed a tax code chock-full of shelters that allow pension fund managers like Mitt Romney to get incredibly rich by buying up new companies and teaching them the game.  Read more…

Categories: Uncategorized

The attack of the robots: economists’ silly fantasies

February 11, 2014 3 comments

from Dean Baker

Economists are not very good at economics. We know this because we had a huge housing bubble that collapsed, which almost none of them saw. The pre-crash projections from the Congressional Budget Office imply that this downturn has already cost us more than $7.6 trillion, or $25,000 per person. This could have been prevented if we had economists in policy positions who understood how the economy worked.

But even if economists aren’t very good at dealing with the economy, they still can provide value to society. In particular they can be a great source of entertainment. That’s how we should view the story that robots will take all of our jobs and leave most of the population unemployed.

This story has become a popular theme lately among Washington policy types. There are important people from across the political spectrum running around town wringing their hands over the prospect that the economy may not provide jobs for large segments of the labor force.

The first aspect of this story that should impress people is that many of the same people have been wringing their hands about the exact opposite problem, most likely without even knowing it. Read more…

The checkered past of Ben Bernanke

February 6, 2014 3 comments

from Dean Baker

The retrospectives of Ben Bernanke on his leaving the Fed seem to be coming in overly positive. While there is much that is positive about his tenure as Fed chair, many of these accounts have a rather selective view of history.

The part that is clearly wrong is treating Bernanke as a bookish academic who got plucked down in the middle of a financial crisis that was not his making. While Bernanke had a distinguished academic career, he had been in the middle of the action in Washington since 2002. That was when he was selected to be a governor of the Fed. He served as a governor at Greenspan’s side until he went to serve as head of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers in June of 2005. After a brief stint as the chief economist in the Bush administration he returned to take over as chair of the Fed in January of 2006.

It was during the period that Bernanke was at the Fed and his tenure in the Bush administration that the housing bubble grew to such dangerous levels. Read more…

Categories: financial crisis

Larry Summers joins the reality-based economics community

January 16, 2014 8 comments

from Dean Baker

In a remarkable departure from earlier versions of Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary, Harvard president and top Obama economics adviser has recently been sounding the alarm about “secular stagnation” — a prolonged period of time in which the economy operates below its potential level of output. This discovery may provoke choruses of “duh” from the tens of millions of workers who for years have had the opportunity to live with secular stagnation in the form of unemployment, underemployment or stagnant wages.

But even if Summers’ discovery is not news to most people, it is a huge development nonetheless. Summers is one of the world’s most prominent economists. In the mainstream of the profession it has long been a matter of virtual absolute faith that the economy will tend to sustain full employment levels of output. Any departures from full employment will be quickly corrected by the self-adjusting market, ideally with a helping push from a reduction in interest rates by central banks.

This view seems less credible in the wake of the recession that began more than six years ago. By the estimates of the Congressional Budget Office the economy is still operating at a level of output that is more than six percent below potential GDP, corresponding to a loss in output on the order of $1 trillion a year. The economy is still down more than 8 million jobs from its trend growth path.  And the jobs report released on Friday certainly doesn’t raise hopes we will be closing this gap any time soon.  Read more…

Sharp drop in US unemployment due to people leaving the labor force

January 10, 2014 1 comment

from Dean Baker

The headline unemployment rate fell sharply to 6.7 percent in December. However, this is not good news. The drop was almost entirely due to people leaving the labor force as the number of people reported employed in December only rose by 143,000, just enough to keep the employment-to-population ratio constant.

Blacks disproportionately left the labor market, with the labor force participation rate for African Americans dropping by 0.3 percentage points to 60.2 percent, the lowest rate since December of 1977. The rate for African American men fell 0.7 percentage points to 65.6 percent, the lowest on record.

The data on the establishment side was not any brighter with the survey reporting an increase of just 74,000 jobs. Some of this weakness was due to unusually slow growth in health care and restaurant employment. This is likely an anomaly that will be reversed in future months. However, there was also a decline in the index of average weekly hours. This suggests that the economy may be weaker than some of the more recent optimistic accounts indicated.

Categories: The Economy

Economists and astronomers: Why are the former lost in space?

January 4, 2014 11 comments

from Dean Baker

It is remarkable that the public has been convinced that the earth revolves around the sun. This is remarkable because we can all look up in the sky and see the sun revolving around the earth.

Most of us are willing to believe the direct opposite of what we can see with our own eyes because we accept the analysis of the solar system developed by astronomers through many centuries of careful observation. The overwhelming majority of people will never go through the measurements and reproduce the calculations. Rather, our belief that the earth revolves around the sun depends on our confidence in the competence and integrity of astronomers. If they all tell us that the earth in fact orbits the sun, we are prepared to accept this view.

Unfortunately the economics profession cannot claim to have a similar stature. This is both good and bad. It is good because it doesn’t deserve that stature. Economists too often work as hired guns for those with money and power. It is bad because the public needs expertise in economics, just as it needs expertise in medicine and other areas.

Theories for sale  Read more…

Inequality: government is a perp, not a bystander

December 28, 2013 4 comments

from Dean Baker

In his speech on inequality earlier this month President Obama proclaimed that the government could not be a bystander in the effort to reduce inequality, which he described as the defining moral issue of our time. This left millions convinced that Obama would do nothing to lessen inequality. The problem is that President Obama wants the public to believe that inequality is something that just happened. It turns out that the forces of technology, globalization, and whatever else simply made some people very rich and left others working for low wages or out of work altogether. The president and other like-minded people feel a moral compulsion to reverse the resulting inequality. This story is 180 degrees at odds with the reality. Inequality did not just happen, it was deliberately engineered through a whole range of policies intended to redistribute income upward.  Read more…

Is there a stock bubble? Joining the NYT debate

December 9, 2013 4 comments

from Dean Baker

Since the NYT decided to devote a Room for Debate on the question of whether the stock market is currently in a bubble, I thought I should join the party as one of the stock bubble warners from the 1990s. To my mind the story for the overall stock market is a fairly simple one. Look at the ratio of stock prices to trend earnings.

This one doesn’t look too terrifying. Obviously the market is hitting record highs measured in nominal dollars, but if we expect the price to earnings ratio to remain more or less constant over time, then we should expect the nominal value to regularly hit new highs as the economy grows. In this context, an S&P at 1800 doesn’t seem especially scary. The S&P had previously peaked at 1525 back in 2007, six years ago.

Since 2007 the price level is up by roughly 9 percent. If we assume potential growth of 2.3 percent, then the economy’s potential GDP would be 14.6 percent higher today. Read more…

Categories: Bubbles

Taking asset bubbles seriously

December 3, 2013 3 comments

from Dean Baker

Last month at an International Monetary Fund conference, former Obama economic advisor Lawrence Summers harshly criticized outgoing Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke for comments he made this summer. Bernanke had raised the possibility of tapering the Fed’s purchase of treasury bonds, which would cause interest rates to rise. With the economy facing a prolonged slump, Summers argued, Bernanke should not even have talked about raising interest rates.

While Summers is correct that the economy remains far below its capacity, and therefore policy should be focused on boosting employment for the foreseeable future, there was actually a real problem that may have sparked Bernanke’s taper talk. The housing market was again approaching the price levels seen during the housing bubble, whose collapse six years ago precipitated the downturn and the financial crisis.

At the end of the second quarter of this year, the inflation-adjusted value of the Case-Shiller national home price index was more than 20 percent above its pre-bubble level. It was only 8 percent below its 2002 level, the point at which economists first began warning of a housing bubble.

More important than the current level of prices was the rate of change. House prices nationwide were up 10.1 percent from their level a year ago. In several markets prices were rising considerably more rapidly, with rates of price increase of more than 30 percent. Even if house prices were not yet out of line with fundamentals by the time of Bernanke’s taper talk, they soon would be in the markets showing rapid double digit price increases. Read more…

Technology didn’t kill middle class jobs, public policy did

November 30, 2013 16 comments

from Dean Baker

A widely held view in elite circles is that the rapid rise in inequality in the United States over the last three decades is an unfortunate side-effect of technological progress. In this story, technology has had the effect of eliminating tens of millions of middle wage jobs for factor workers, bookkeepers, and similar occupations.

These were jobs where people with limited education used to be able to raise a family with a middle class standard of living. However computers, and now robots and other technological innovations are rapidly reducing the need for such work. As a result, the remaining jobs in these sectors are likely to pay less and many people who would have otherwise worked at middle wage jobs must instead crowd into the lower paying sector of the labor market.

This story is comforting to elites because it means that inequality is something that happened, not something they did. They won out because they had the skills and intelligence to succeed in a dynamic economy, whereas the huge mass of workers that are falling behind did not. In this story the best we can do for the left behinds is empathy and education. We can increase their opportunities to upgrade their skills in the hope that more of them may be able to join the winners.

That’s a nice story, but the evidence doesn’t support it.  Read more…

Categories: income inequality

Alan Greenspan owes America an apology

October 30, 2013 3 comments

from Dean Baker

Alan Greenspan will go down in history as the person most responsible for the enormous economic damage caused by the housing bubble and the subsequent collapse of the market. The United States is still down almost 9m jobs from its trend path. We are losing close to $1tn a year in potential output, with cumulative losses to date approaching $5tn.

These numbers correspond to millions of dreams ruined. Families who struggled to save enough to buy a home lost it when house prices plunged or they lost their jobs. Many older workers lose their job with little hope of ever finding another one, even though they are ill-prepared for retirement; young people getting out of school are facing the worst job market since the Great Depression, while buried in student loan debt.

The horror story could have easily been prevented had there been intelligent life at the Federal Reserve Board in the years when the housing bubble was growing to ever more dangerous proportions (2002-2006). But the Fed did nothing to curb the bubble. Arguably, it even acted to foster its growth with Greenspan cheering the development of exotic mortgages and completely ignoring its regulatory responsibilities.

Most people who had this incredible infamy attached to their name would have the decency to find a large rock to hide behind; but not Alan Greenspan. He apparently believes that he has not punished us enough. Greenspan has a new book which he is now hawking on radio and television shows everywhere. Read more…

Categories: Uncategorized

US Unemployment edges down as people continue to leave the workforce

October 23, 2013 Leave a comment

from Dean Baker

The unemployment rate edged down to 7.2 percent in September, the lowest level since November of 2008. The Labor Department’s establishment survey showed a gain of 148,000 jobs. With modest upward revisions to the prior two months’ data, this brings the average rate of job growth over the last three months to 143,000. This compares with an average rate of job growth of 186,000 a month over the last year.

In spite of the September drop in unemployment, the employment-to-population rate (EPOP) remained unchanged at 58.6 percent. This continues the pattern that we have seen throughout the recovery as the unemployment rate falls mainly because workers leave the labor market. The unemployment rate is now down by 2.8 percentage points from its 10.0 percent peak in October of 2009. However, the EPOP is up just 0.4 percentage points from its low point in June of 2011. Over the last year the EPOP actually edged down by 0.1 percentage point, while the unemployment rate dropped by 0.6 percentage points. This drop in labor force participation is now occurring at an equal pace among men and women, with the participation of both dropping 0.5 percentage points in the last year. Read more…

Categories: The Economy, unemployment

Smart people, stupid people, and budget politics

October 11, 2013 4 comments

from Dean Baker

Doing policy work in Washington, I tend to be around people who are highly educated and think of themselves as very intelligent. Many of them think of ordinary Americans as being stupid and ill-informed. After all, they understand little about politics and the government; in their view this reflects a lack of intelligence.

It would be great if everyone were smarter (especially the people doing policy work), but the problem of an ill-informed population has at least as much to do with the failures of the highly educated people as the failures of the masses. Nowhere is this more obviously the case than with the federal budget.

Public opinion surveys consistently show the public is terribly confused about the budget. They hugely overestimate relatively small areas of spending, failing to recognize that popular programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid account for the largest portion of the budget, along with military spending.

For example, a 2011 CNN poll found that the typical person thought foreign aid accounted for 10 percent of the budget. The actual number is less than 1 percent.  They thought public broadcasting accounted for 5 percent of the budget. The actual number is 0.012 percent. There were several other items where the typical person overestimated spending levels by a factor of 100 or more. Read more…

Shutting down the government over health care

October 5, 2013 1 comment

from Dean Baker

Much of the media, and certainly the Democrats, have been unfair to the Republicans in Congress in characterizing their decision to shut down the government as “outrageous,” “crazy,” or even “terrorism.” It is undoubtedly an extraordinary measure, but sometimes extraordinary measures are warranted.

Suppose we were back in 1968 when the United States had more than 500,000 soldiers in Vietnam and was bombing the country on a daily basis, killing thousands of people every week. How many people would view it as outrageous if Congress had voted to shut down the government until President Johnson agreed to end the war? In fact, most people might view the inconveniences associated with a shutdown, and the real pain endured by government workers, to be justified if it could bring an end to the killings in Vietnam.

The difference between shutting down the government to end an unjust war, or to advance any of the other great causes of recent decades, and what the Republicans are doing now is that the Republicans don’t have a great cause. They are trying to keep people from getting health care. This is the disaster the Republicans hope to prevent by shutting down the government. Read more…

Debt default: The only way to get to full employment?

September 30, 2013 3 comments

from Dean Baker

All the usual suspects are giving us all the usual warnings about the disaster that would ensue if the government defaults on its debt. Much of what they say is undoubtedly true; it would create a huge amount of fear and uncertainty in financial markets.

Look for stock and bond prices to tumble and interest rates to soar. The viability of many banks and other financial institutions may be called into question if even government debt cannot be viewed as entirely safe and highly liquid asset. This is not the sort of thing that an economy still struggling to recover from the recession needs right now.

But there is one part of the horror story that should be discarded. We have been repeatedly warned that the dollar could lose its status as the world’s reserve currency in the event of default. While this is a dubious claim (will countries rush to the euro?), it would actually be good news if it were true.

The story is quite simple. Read more…

Categories: The Economy
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