Monday, November 30, 2015

It's Monday, So "Silent Samuelson" Wants To Cut Social Security Benefits (Yet Again)

How surprising.  It is Monday, and on the editorial pages of the Washington Post, constant critic of Social Security, Robert J. Samuelson is yet again calling for "some benefit cuts or tax increases, though unpopular...Gradual increases in eligibility ages, starting now, would similarly represent a common-sense adjustment to a graying society."  This is the sort of thing Dean Baker  usually roasts him over, but Beat the Press seems inaccessible today, so I guess I shall have to do the beating.

While this is just par for  the course for RJS, today's twist involves emphasizing how there ought to be generational  warfare going on, but for strange reasons it does not seem to be happening.  He quotes the ridiculous column by WaPo's new economics columnist/blogger, Jim Tankersley, whom several of us bashed pretty hard, but with RJS apparently unaware that his column has pretty much been torn to shreds by everybody who has commented on it and does not write for WaPo.  (My critique of it can be found here.) 

Another new twist is that while Samuelson has long claimed to be a boomer while bashing the boomers and calling for benefit cuts for them, he finally outs himself as having been born in 1945, the last year of the Silent Generation, just before the front end of the boomers.  This is actually kind of funny because in that special Outlook section of WaPo where Tankersley's silly piece appeared there was a discussion about how many Silents identify themselves as boomers.  Weird.

So part of the claim by Silent Samuelson and Gen-Xer Tankersley is that the boomers were "born into some of the strongest job growth in the history of the US."  Unfortunately for them, that is not as true as claimed.  The strongest job growth period was the Golden Age of 1945-1973, which only the front end of the boomers managed to get into a little bit of.  Since then job growth has been less dramatic, and median real wages have barely moved.  The people who really got the benefits of that Golden Age were the later stage Greatest Generation and most dramatically the Silent Generation, Samuelson's generation.  So when he brags in this column today about how he "saved adequately for retirement," well, whoop-de-doo!  He is a Silent, the real ripoff generation.  But he does not call for  them to pay anything.  It is those  spoiled rotten boomers who must pay, without him saying a word about how the Greenspan Commisson of 1983 already imposed the retirement age increases he calls for as well as a pretty hefty tax increase so that the boomers would "pay for their retirement."

What is really weird is that while he seems to think that introducing more gradual  increases in eligible retirement age will somehow make the current or even boomer elderly pay more, it is those future generations who will get hardest by such increases, the hapless Gen Xers as well  as the millennials.  Maybe the millennials have figured this out, although with half of them reportedly thinking that they will get nothing from Social Security, I remain highly doubtful about their level of economic  knowledge.  They have been bamboozled by the relentless propaganda emanating from the likes of Silent Samuelson.

I will give RJS credit for an insight he makes in the later part of his column.  While accurately noting that indeed many millennials are currently hurting with the recent bad economy and student debts and so on, he notes that they also seem to be optimistic about their future prospects.  He finally puts it together that one reason they might be so is indeed this awful wave of retirements of boomers that he mostly rants about as awful: those retirements will open up a lot of opportunities for not only more jobs but also promotions for the millennials.  Not all is lost for the millennials, and Silent Samuelson sort of admits it, even if  he wants to hit them with all these retirement age increases, which maybe they are not looking forward to having implemented.

Barkley Rosser

Sunday, November 29, 2015

On That Video Where Some Egyptians Allegedly Say Obama Is Insane And On Drugs And Should Be Removed From Office

An old and close, but very conservative and increasingly out of touch with reality friend of  mine posted a video some days ago on Facebook.  He indicated that he thought it was both funny and also insightful.  It seemed highly suspicious to me, so I googled it and found that the person who uploaded it onto you tube stated in the comments on it that it is a spoof. Here is a link that discusses why it is known it is a spoof as well as linking to the video itself and its comments. It has reportedly been widely distributed on the internet by many conservatives who think it is for real, and when I pointed out it is a spoof, my friend defriended me from Facebook.  I am frustrated.

So, for those who do not view it,  it purports to show a talk show in Egypt where a brief clip of Obama speaking last May to graduating military officers about how climate change is and will be a serious national security issue, something the Pentagon has claimed.  He did  not say it was the most serious such issue, and at least in the clip he said nothing about Daesh/ISIS/ISIL, although of course he has said a lot about it and not only has US drones attacking it but reportedly we have "boots on the ground" now against them in the form of some Special Ops.

So, the video then goes back to the supposed talk show where they are speaking in Arabic with English subtitles.  According to these subtitels, which are partly accurate translations but also wildly inaccurate in many places (my Arabic is good enough that I have parsed out what is what there) the host asks, "Is he insane?"  A guest suggests he is on drugs.  Another claims he just does what Michelle says and that his biceps are small.  Finally a supposed retired general pounds the table and denounces him over Libya policy (that part is for real, although his name is  never mentioned) and suggests that Americans should act to remove him from office.   Again, conservative commentators have found hilarious and very insightful, with this even holding among commenters to the video aware that it is a mistranslated spoof.  Bring these guys on more.  Obviously they would be big hits on Fox News.

So, I would like to simply comment further on why Egyptians would be especially upset about Libya, but that them being so  against the US is somewhat hypocritical (I also note that there is reason to believe that the supposed general  is not a general). Of course Libya is just to the west of Egypt with its eastern portion (Cyrenaica under Rome) often ruled by whomever was ruling Egypt at various times in the past.  So there is a strong cultural-historical connection.  It is understandable that they would take Libyan matters seriously, and indeed things in Libya have turned into a big mess.

However, the move to bring in outside powers to intervene against Qaddafi in 2011 was instigated by an Egyptian, Abu Moussa.  This was right after Mubarak had fallen in the face of massive demonstrations in Egypt.  Moussa was both leader of the Arab League and wanting to run for President of Egypt.  He got nowhere with the latter, but he did get somewhere with getting
the rest of the world to intervene in Libya.  He got the Arab League to  support such an intervention, with that move going to the UN Security Council and convincing Russia and China to abstain on the anti-Qaddafi measure.  Putin has since complained that those who intervened, UK and France most vigorously with US "leading from behind" on the effort.went beyond the UN mandate.  But in any case, Qaddafi was overthrown, not to be replaced by any stable or central power, with Libya an ongoing mess that has remained fragmented since, especially between its historically separate eastern and western parts, something I have posted on here previously.

So, that went badly, but Egyptians blaming the US for this seems to me to be a bit much, pretty hypocritical.  It happens to be a fact that the US and Obama are now very unpopular in Egypt.  I looked at a poll from a few months ago, and the only nations where the US and Obama were viewed less favorably (although a few not polled such as North Korea) were in order: Russia, Palestinian Territories, Belarus, Lebanon, Iran, and Pakistan, with me suspecting there is now a more favorable view in Iran since the culmination of the nuclear deal.  I can appreciate that many Egyptians are frustrated that the US supported an election process that did not give them Moussa or El-Baradei, but the Muslim Brotherhood, who proceeded to behave badly, leading to them being overthrown by an new military dictatorship with a democratic veneer, basically a new improved version of the Mubarak regime, with the US supporting it, if somewhat reluctantly.

Yes, this is all pretty depressing, but I must say that ultimately the Egyptians are responsible for what has gone down in their own nation.  And even if those Egyptian commentators, whoever they actually are, are as angry about Obama as they are depicted as being, the fact is that Obama is still more popular there than was George W. Bush at the same time in his presidency, something all these US conservatives so enamored of this bizarre video seem to conveniently forget.

Addenda, 5:10 PM:

1)  The people on that video come across almost like The Three Stooges, which highlights the comedic aspect that even fans of Obama are supposed to appreciate, although it does not add to the credibility of the remarks of  those so carrying on like a bunch of clowns.

2)  Another reason Egyptians may be especially upset about the situation in Libya is that indeed Daesh has a foothold in a port city not too far from the Egyptian border in Surt, as reported as the top story today in the NY Times.

3)  Arguably once the rest of the world got in, the big problem was a failure to  follow through with aiding establishing a central unified government, although that was always going to be a problem, something not recognized by all too many involved, including Abu Moussa.  As it was once his proposal got going, it was then Sec. of State Hillary Clinton who was the main person leading the charge for the US to get in over the reluctance of Obama.  This was probably her biggest mistake in all this, even though most Republicans think the irrelevant sideshow of the unfortunate incident in Benghazi is the big deal.

4)  Needless to say, Republican views at the time of the intervention were just completely incoherent, as symbolized at one point by Senator Lindsey Graham, who within the space of a single sentence simultaneously argued for the US to do nothing and also to go in full force with the proverbial "boots on the ground."

Further Addendum, 7:10 PM:

     One of the pieces of evidence given that supposedly shows that the video is a spoof is that the supposed retired Brigadier General Mahmoud  Mansour cannot be found if one googles his name, except in connection with this video.  There are some other Egyptians named Mansour who show up, but this guy does not.  However, it occurs to me that he might be for real, but simply obscure.  After all, Brigadier is the lowest rank of General, one star, with Majors being two star, Lieutenants being three star (even though Majors are above Lieutenants), and with four and five star not having any other rank assigned to them.  Furthermore, Egypt has a large military that has run the country for decades, so there may well be a lot of these Brigadier Generals, with many of them amounting to nothing.  So, if he is for real, his claim to fame will be from jumping up and down, pounding on a table and calling for the overthrow of the POTUS.

Barkley Rosser

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Tax Policy and the Magic Investment Channel

OK, someone has to do it.  There was a dreadful column on tax policy in today’s New York Times, and none of the usual suspects (Dean, where are you?) has jumped on it yet, so I guess it’s up to me.

The column tells us that shifting from an income to a consumption tax is something that “many economists in both parties applaud”.  We learn that “Democratic economists, like their Republican counterparts, say taxing consumption encourages savings, investment and greater economic growth.”  The only trick is to avoid making a national sales tax too regressive, so we’ll have to work on that.

Now tell me: exactly how is a consumption tax supposed to increase investment?  Like, by what channel?  Is there a dearth of savings that prevents business from being able to finance new projects?  We have a savings glut.  Will a flood of savings lower interest rates?  Current rates on business borrowing are just about all risk premium at this point.  And what’s the evidence that savings rates are so responsive to taxes anyway?  Yes, I know that countries with VAT’s tend to save more, but there’s massive endogeneity there.  Look at it this way: I live in Washington State, which finances itself with an 8% sales tax, while our next door neighbor, Oregon, has an income tax.  Is there any evidence that savings are so much greater here than there?

So exactly what is the channel that’s supposed to lead from taxing consumption to greater business investment?

Incidentally, if you happen to be of a Keynesian persuasion, you believe savings are more a consequence of investment than a cause of it, and you would also expect that, at times of macroeconomic slack, consumption crowds in investment through rate of return effects.  Just saying.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Offing "The Agenda" Before the Agenda Offs Us

Dean Baker writes:
The time has long since passed when we should be arguing about whether global warming is happening or whether the consequences will be serious. The question is what we are prepared to do about it.
And the answer is… “set targets”?

As long as adopting shorter work weeks and years to achieve full employment is off the agenda, doing something meaningful about climate change is also off the agenda. Shorter hours is not a panacea for full employment or slowing man-made climate change. But excluding shorter hours from the policy mix is the opposite of a panacea — guaranteed toxic.

It is no mistake that shorter hours are off the agenda. It is not happenstance or serendipity. The best way to describe the thinking behind the exclusion is a kind of rentiers’ marxism-in-reverse. Marx’s model of capitalism predicts an “increasing organic composition” of capital. In the absence of capital devaluing crises, such an increase makes labor increasingly scarce relative to capital.

Shorter hours would make labor even scarcer relative to capital. Price of labor goes up, returns to capital go down. Can’t let that happen. This is America, where “free enterprise” rules and the rich buy the public policy regime — and whatever economic policy rationale justifies it — that suits them.

So achieving full employment and mitigating climate change are off the respectable economists’ agenda. The question is what are we prepared to do about that?

Off the Agenda? Off the Agenda!

Dean Baker:
"We could try to get to full employment with shorter work weeks and years, through measures such as work sharing, paid family leave, and paid vacations, but this route is also largely off the agenda."
 Off the agenda! (as in "off the pig!")

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sandwichman's Lump-of-Labor Odyssey, Part II

Back in July, I posted Sandwichman's Lump-of-Labor Odyssey with the intention of posting a second installment. The next day, I left for a week in California and part two fell by the wayside. Larry Summers's recent comments on the so-called Luddite fallacy have caused me to resurrect my earlier plan.

This is not the first time Summers has sung this refrain. Back in February, he told the same story to a Brookings policy forum on "The Future of Work in the Machine Age." The earlier renunciation of the fallacy claim concluded with this prudent qualification:
And I would want to leave you with that concern as there whether you think it's due to technology or whether you think it's due to globalization, or whether you think it's due to the maldistribution of political power, something very serious is happening in our society.
That is to say, regardless of what caused it, the lower demand for workers is a reality that must be faced. In his post on Summers's latest recantation, Peterson Institute president Adam S. Posen observed that the implications are scary "[u]nless we can somehow transform that sustained lower demand for workers into the widespread leisure of the sort imagined by Keynes and some science fiction writers, with the income redistribution to support it,"

Ironically, it was precisely the obstinate hostility toward transforming lower demand for workers into leisure that propelled the bogus fallacy claim in the first place. Understanding this inversion of motive and rationale is crucial. It was not because they thought there would always be plenty of jobs to reabsorb displaced workers that employers' organizations and newspaper editorialists opposed shorter hours; it is because they opposed shorter hours that they insisted there would always be plenty of jobs.

In other words, macroeeconomic thinking is not, in the words of Action from West Side Story, "depraved on account I'm deprived." It has been deprived -- of the insight of its own theoretical tradition -- because it is depraved! 

Sneering at the so-called Luddite fallacy under the conviction that productivity would inevitably create more jobs than it destroyed used to be known as the "economic law" that "supply creates its own demand" -- a faith that was once said, by John Kenneth Galbraith, to have "sank without trace" in the wake of John Maynard Keynes's refutation of it.
Until Keynes, Say's Law had ruled in economics for more than a century. And the rule was no casual thing; to a remarkable degree acceptance of Say was the test by which reputable economists were distinguished from the crackpots. Until late in the '30s no candidate for a Ph.D. at a major American university who spoke seriously of a shortage of purchasing power as a cause of depression could be passed. He was a man who saw only the surface of things, was unworthy of the company of scholars. Say's Law stands as the most distinguished example of the stability of economic ideas, including when they are wrong. 
The old nostrum didn't "sink without trace" at all. It simply slipped into a disguise. In that disguise, it performed EXACTLY the same function as had previously been performed by the vulgar version of Say's Law -- separating the "crackpots" and "stupid people" who worried about technological unemployment from the "smart people" who duly memorized and recited the mantra,
"Well the technology will remove the jobs. If there’s more productivity than people are going to have more money and if people have more money, they’re going to spend it and then everybody’s going to be employed."
Was that even "macroeconomic thinking"? Of course not. It is precisely the same old, same old classical political economy orthodoxy in an even more archaic, anti-mercantilist bottle.

Although he generously credits the teachings of Bob Solow, Summers must know that it was his own Uncle Paul Samuelson, who promulgated the lump-of-labor fallacy ruse year after year in his universally prescribed introductory textbook. As I mentioned in part one of the Odyssey, when I wrote to Samuelson in the late 1990s, asking about the source of the fallacy claim his reply was gracious but uninformative. He informed me that the fallacy "was widespread during the Great Depression 1929-1935 and is still encountered in today's France."

"A standard move in the rhetoric of reaction"

My inquiry to Samuelson followed up a listserv discussion I had earlier in 1999 with Summers acolyte Brad DeLong, in which he referred to the wages-fund doctrine of classical political economy as "a standard move in the rhetoric of reaction." DeLong correctly associated the lump-of-labor fallacy with the wages-fund doctrine. What DeLong didn't grasp at the time was that fallacy claim reinstated the old doctrine by purporting to refute a mirror image of itself. Here is the transcript of that exchange, which I previously posted to EconoSpeak in August of 2014.

But, Brad, while we're asking for examples, can you give me an example of any economist who has challenged the sources of Samuelson and Nordhaus's perennial lump-of-labor fallacy? If anthropologists were as accommodating as economists, Piltdown man would still be in our evolutionary family tree.
Samuelson and Nordhaus's "lump of labor" fallacy is the Classical doctrine that fiscal and monetary policy cannot affect the total amount of employment--that the number of hours worked is fixed, unchangeable, unresponsive to government policies. And that the best we can do (when confronted with a situation like Europe's 10% unemployment today, or America's 25% unemployment in the Great Depression) is to spread the (limited) amount of work around fairly. 
But what Samuelson and Nordhaus want to argue--I think correctly--is that we know very well how to get to a better outcome in which unemployment is low not because a lot of us are working part-time (when we would rather be working full-time), but because demand for labor is high...
Ah, now we're getting somewhere. Wouldn't that Classical doctrine be what is known as the wages-fund doctrine, Brad?
DeLong (ellipsis in original):
Yep. But it remains alive, a standard move in the rhetoric of reaction to use against demands that the government do something to make the economy behave better... 
You bet the wages-fund doctrine remains alive as a standard move in the rhetoric of reaction. One need only peel back the textbook onion one layer from Samuelson and Nordhaus to the Raymond Bye and William Hewett textbooks of the previous generation (1930s, 1940s, 1950s). There you find the same hoary lump-of-labor fallacy forthrightly likened to the "general overprodution fallacy". Here is Bye's explanation of why the lump-of-labor fallacy is a fallacy:
"Every laborer creates a product which is offered in exchange for the products of other laborers. The demand for labor thereby grows as fast as its supply; the one cannot be greater or less than the other, for they are the same thing." 
According to this explanation, then, any monetary or fiscal action of the government for the purpose of "creating jobs" is futile because all it can do is divert the means for employing labour from its natural course (determined by the identity of supply and demand), "at the expense of the other laborers who would have been employed, and at the expense of society, which has less wealth than might have been." 
I have another question, Brad, at what point in the history of political economy did the workers, trade unions, and social democratic politicians suddenly and inexplicably embrace the reactionary doctrine of the wages-fund? I'm puzzled because all I can ever find is attribution of this theory of the lump of labor to the workers, trade unions etc. On the other hand, I can find quite a bit of repudiation and denunciation of the wages-fund doctrine from socialists, trade unionists etc. Not the least from a certain K. Marx. 
DeLong (ellipsis in original):
that I do not know. Let me hunt around and see if I can find anything... 
I'd be much obliged. 
A year and a half later (August 2000), though, the question of the lump of labor arose again in Brad's admiration of some passages in Paul Krugman's book The Accidental Theorist.

DeLong (bracketed interpolations in original):
But my most favorite pieces of the book of all are three passages that go to the heart of Krugman's commitments--both moral and intellectual. The first is a biting denunciation of William Greider for being an "accidental" theorist: someone who does not think issues through, but who just looks at surfaces without peering into depths or thinking coherently and whose thought is thus shaped by implicit, unexamined theories of which he is not conscious:
" ...reducing the number of workers it takes to make [manufactures] reduces the number of jobs in the [manufactures] sector but creates an equal number in the [services] sector, and vice versa. Of course, you would never learn that from talking to [manufacturing] producers, no matter how many countries you visit; you might not even learn it from talking to [services] manufacturers. It is an insight that you can gain only... by engaging in [economic] thought experiments."
Ironically (and ironic is too mild a term for it), the position from which Krugman criticizes Greider is itself based on an implicit, unexamined theory of which he is not conscious. That accidental theory holds that increasing the volume of trade is the only and certain way to expand employment (and, by implication, raise wages).  
BUT WAIT! Krugman's own "accidental theory" has a name. And I'm sure he's heard of it. I know Brad has. It is the wages-fund theory of classical political economy [correction 2014: I should have said "Say's Law, which depends on the wages-fund doctrine"] -- sometimes referred to as the discredited wages-fund doctrine. So Krugman beats Greider over the head with a defunct doctrine and Brad applauds. 
This indeed reminds one of Keynes. To be exact, it reminds one of Brad's "most favorite" Keynes quotes:
 "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any  intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct  economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are  distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few  years back..."
Brad and I had a brief exchange about the wages-fund theory a while back and I quote his characterization of it: "Yep. But it remains alive, a standard move in the rhetoric of reaction to use against demands that the government do something to make the economy behave better..." Putting two and two together, then, one of Brad's most favorite pieces of Krugman is when he employs a standard move in the rhetoric of reaction. Hmmmm.  
But just to carp on this theme a few moments longer, I shudder to mention that Krugman's allegation against Greider (and it is only an allegation -- a speculation really about how his thought has been "shaped") is that he, Greider, is making a static assumption, ultimately based on what was once called (Wilson, 1871), a "Unionist reading of the wages-fund theory."
I asked Brad some time ago just when it was that workers, trade unions and social democratic politicians (not to mention populist  muckrakers) enthusiastically but implicitly embraced the reactionary doctrine of the wages-fund theory. He replied: "that I do not know. Let me hunt around and see if I can find anything. . ."  
Brad didn't get back to me on that.

Please allow me to introduce myself

Hi folks. This blog has been bereft of representation from one crucial constituency, the UnDead. Of course, undead economists are discussed here all the time, but never has one posted. I've shambled in to remedy that situation. For depressing job-related reasons I'm reduced to publishing under a pseudonym, since otherwise the undead at my place of work would get to gurgling and growling. You could chop off one of their arms and they wouldn't give it a second thought. But publish in a way that might annoy somebody, anybody, living, dead, or undead, oh no! Do I sound bitter? That would be a mistake. I can't be bitter. I'm dead! (In comments, please avoid the subject of my identity, in jest or otherwise. Don't make me take a bite out of your shoulder.)

I've always considered this site the property of its contributors, so if any take umbrage at my arrival, I'll be happy to stagger out. No hard feelings, there can't be after all, because . . . see above.

As Barkley could tell you, while living I was a great economist. Alas, death has sapped my prodigious mathematical faculties. Sadly, eating brains doesn't help, though it does hit the spot. That stuff would be over your heads anyway. I'm mostly verbal now, in a post-mortem kind of way. (Not post-modern. That would be worse than dead.)

I expect to write more about politics, since economics is looking pretty dead these days too. Utility theory got killed by behavioral economics, or maybe Barkley's brainwaves monitors. Monetarism and real business cycles, long dead. New Keynesian macro, deeply infirm, its representative consumer aimlessly roaming the countryside, trying to optimize current and future consumption when he has no idea what the hell the future will bring. Lumps of labor being posited everywhere.

Ditto the current crop of presidential candidates, though I would make an exception for Bernie Sanders, who actually could pass for dead but is really the only live option among the contenders.

With that I will sign off, since we undead take some getting used to, and I'm getting hungry.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

"Some Big Changes in Macroeconomic Thinking from Lawrence Summers"

This post's title refers to Adam Posen's blog post about the keynote address by Larry Summers: "Is It (just) Hysteresis? Disentangling the Cyclical from the Structural," Conference: Making Sense of the Productivity Slowdown, Peterson Institute for International Economics, Washington, DC, November 16, 2015:
...basically what we were taught were that there were these smart people who were exemplified by Bob Solow and there were the stupid people who were exemplified by a bunch of sociologists. 
And the stupid people said that technology was going to remove the jobs and the smart people said, “Well the technology will remove the jobs. If there’s more productivity than people are going to have more money and if people have more money, they’re going to spend it and then everybody’s going to be employed. And so, it’s like the Luddite fallacy to think that technological progress reduces jobs and this is stupid. And that’s basically what I believed and you know, that’s basically what I went through life believing because that’s what I’ve been taught and it seemed to me to make sense. 
And then at some point, it sort of occurred to me that suppose the stupid people were right, what would it look like? Well what it would it look like would be there’ll be some large categories of labor who would see their relative wage go way down.
O.K. fine, but Sandwichman would just love it if Larry Summers would send a little credit his way for documenting FIFTEEN YEARS AGO the vacuity of the stupid people fallacy claim.

"The 'Lump-of-Labor' Case Against Work-Sharing: Populist Fallacy or Marginalist Throwback?" Tom Walker in "Working Time: International trends,'theory and policy perspectives, Lonnie Golden and Deborah Figart (eds), Routledge, 2000.

"Why economists dislike a lump of labor," Tom Walker, Review of Social Economy Volume 65, Issue 3, 2007, pp. 279-291.

What Has Not Been Said About The Late Herbert Scarf

Economic theorist Herbert Scarf recently died.  There have been a number of blog posts about him and his work.  A good one is by Tim Taylor here.  He notes innovative work Scarf did  on inventory theory and the theory of  indivisibilities.  Other commentators have pointed out his work on the relationship between general equilibrium and the core.  I have no  complaint with any of this, although many may not  know of it or care about it as it was some time ago and has largely gotten built into the grad theory textbooks, especially the stuff on GE and core.   All of this makes him look like a sort of minor panjandrum of very orthodox theory, orthodox now almost to the point of boring.  However, I personally think that he has been under-appreciated and under-recognized.

In this regard let me mention just two items.  One is his reasonably well known demonstration of how easy it is for a general equilibrium to be unstable.  That has gotten into a lot of the textbooks, but it seems to get overlooked a lot, even though we have seen some pretty dramatic examples of major instability in the real economy, most notably involving speculative bubbles and their crashes, with one of these bringing about a global economic crisis worse than anything since the Great Depression.  People like Kenneth Arrow and others definitely recognized the importance of Scarf's work, and indeed it is indeed in the textbooks that the conditions for stability of GEs are very strong and unlikely to be met, even as many macroeconomists blithely assume not only that GE holds, but that it is unique and stable, thinking that this somehow shows how rigorous and theoretically astute they are.  Herb Scarf knew better.

The other is much more obscure, and arguably less important.  It came out of his concern for  the issues surrounding actually calculating general equilbria, which many microeconomists do all the time with CGE models, whose usefulness I am not going to totally deny, although Scarf's  work raises warning flags.  In particular he was more than any of the other general equilibrium theorists aware of the deep mathematical issues involved in actually precisely computing equilibria, issues related to constructivist critiques of classical mathematics over such things as assuming the Axiom of Choice and the Law of the Excluded Middle, issues raised in recent years by K. Vela Vellupillai, although with most economists ignoring him.  Maybe they are right to do so, but I happen to know from talking with both of them at the same time a few years ago that Herb Scarf took these issues seriously, and Velupillai has credited him with being the only serious general equilibrium theorist to appear to be aware of them and to have discussed them, which he did  in his famous book on computing general equilibria.

Anyway, a sad loss of fine man and an under-appreciated brilliantly innovative scholar.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, November 20, 2015

Read Carefully Before Signing: The Eurozone Crisis Narrative

A group of economists is circulating a document called Rebooting the Eurozone: Step 1 – Agreeing a Crisis Narrative.  (Their on is off.)  It was written by a high profile team including such luminaries as Richard Baldwin, Olivier Blanchard, Paul de Grauwe and Daniel Gros and asks readers to send in their own endorsements if they are economists.  A bunch of heavy-hitters have their names appended at the bottom.

For the most part it is a reasonable account.  The two main factors they identify are the imbalances that accumulated within the EZ before 2008 and took the form of excessive private debt and the absence of institutional features that would otherwise permit adjustment within a currency zone.  (Fiscal federalism and flexibility are not on their list, probably to obtain consensus across a political spectrum from center-right to center-left.)  They call attention to the partitioning of banking along national lines, which fed the “doom loop” of bailouts, macro deterioration, nonperforming loans, deterioration of sovereign debt in bank portfolios and greater vulnerability of the financial system to runs, leading to further bailouts etc.

I thought about signing on.  Then I stopped, reread the letter and saw a bullet point smuggled in at the end of their list of crisis-inducing features:

Interesting....  All the other bullet points have short explanations to convince the reader that the observation is correct and important, but not this one.  Perhaps the authors thought that a reference to the evils of “rigid factor and product markets” would be uncontroversial and obvious.  Or perhaps they can’t actually supply a justification based on agreed-upon research.  Or both.

There are two reasons why this little sentence bears attention.  The first is that it is probably wrong.  There has been a large volume of research on the relationship between price (especially wage) flexibility and macroeconomic performance, and the best you can say is that it is inconclusive.  In Europe at least, countries with the most “managed” labor and product markets tend to outperform the paragons of liberalism.  Of course, it depends on the time period.  During the 90s, when it was struggling to absorb the former GDR, Germany looked like a macroeconomic weakling, and economists were quick to jump on it for its elaborate “Rhineland Model” of worker participation, industry associations and public banks.  Now Germany is on top, and economists—well, they will talk about almost anything but the effects of the social market model.  Now it’s southern Europe that has sclerotic regulation that prevents it from being competitive.

But the second reason gets to heart of what’s wrong with this letter: it misses not only a key piece of the economics, but just about all of the politics.  It seems to assume that the reason the political elite of the eurozone imposed self-defeating austerity and failed to take low-cost, utterly feasible actions to defuse the crisis, like quickly extending lender of last resort protection to governments and their financial systems, was lack of economic information or understanding.  A great cloud of confusion has supposedly settled on the European capitals, and it is up to the good people of the Consensus Narrative to let the sun shine in.

I’d argue, however, that EZ policy has been consistent and even rational, if you adopt a different view of what the policy actually is.  Suppose the overriding goal of the elites is to use the leverage of Europe, and especially its common currency, to undo the post-WWII social compromises that are unbudgeable at the country level.  Reduce union power, cut back the welfare state, privatize public enterprises, get rid of the levers that permit public intervention in how companies are managed and run.  In that case, it would be dereliction of duty to permit countries to escape crisis without taking these desired measures, now packaged as “reforms”.  The “rigidity” bullet point summarizes this perspective, vitiating the whole point of the exercise.  The response to the narrative will be something like, “Yes, you have reasonable arguments, but as you acknowledge yourself, failure to reform is at the heart of the problem.  This is why we can’t simply support uncompetitive countries  without insisting on a corresponding package of reforms.”

No, I don’t think I’ll sign.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Appropriate Term Is "Violent Jihadists"

Since the last Democratic presidential candidates' debate last on Saturday, I have been thinking about what is the proper term for those who carried out the attack in Paris.  Of course there is the specific group with which they are affiliated, which is best labeled "Da'esh," which is the Arabic name for them (from an acronym).  "Islamic State" and its relatives "ISIS" and "ISIL," which are competing acronyms granting them this "statehood," that they do not deserve are inappropriate.

But the more difficult question is the one that was posed at the beginning of the debate to the candidates: do you join the Republicans in calling the broader movement "radical Islam"?  While they sort of muddled things by saying that one should not "oppose all Muslims," that is not of course what the term "radical Islam" means, although it is not unreasonable to see that many completely peaceful Muslims might be offended by its use.  More precisely, however, the issue is violence.  So, there may well be Muslims who follow "radical" interpretations of Islam.  But such interpretations do not necessarily mean that these people support violently attacking innocent people as the those killing people in Paris were doing (as well as those killing people in Beirut a few days earlier).  While there may be some "radical economists" who support violent actions, most do not.  The word "radical" does not necessarily imply violence, even when attached to the word "Islam."

So what about "jihadi," the term used by Hillary Clinton in responding to the question?  Well, the problem here is that there is more than one meaning to the word "jihad" as it is used in the Qur'an. So, yes, those engaging in war for Islam get this label, but the more frequent use of the term has been to mean an internal spiritual struggle, a struggle that has nothing whatsoever to do with violence.  So, using the term "jihadi" also has problems. 

This extends arguably also to the slightly better term that Martin O'Malley used, "radical jihadi," which suffers from both of the problems noted above.  Neither term unequivocally implies the aggressive violence directed at innocent persons that is what is the real problem here.  Again, a radical jihadi could be someone who is engaged in an internal spiritual struggle, but one that is very profound and wrenching, a radical struggle that goes to their roots, but one that involves no violence.

So, I propose that the proper term is "violent jihadi."  This implies someone who is engaging in violent action for the purpose of religious war who also happens to be Muslim.  I  doubt these politicians will  pick up on this, but this term is accurate and I would also hope inoffensive.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, November 13, 2015

Cruz Mugs Trump, Hugs Lump

According to the Wall Street Urinal:
Immigration was also a flashpoint, with Ted Cruz slip-streaming Mr. Trump as an ardent restrictionist. He even embraced the lump of labor fallacy that the supply of jobs is so fixed that immigrants “drive down the wages for millions of hardworking men and women.” 
Not so. In a 2013 analysis, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill that passed the Senate that year would have raised average wages by 0.5% by 2033. CBO also found that among the poorest workers, new immigrants tend to lower the wages of other immigrants, not native-born workers. That’s because they work in industries like hospitality and agriculture that are dominated by newcomers. Mr. Cruz is positioning himself to pick up nativist voters who now support Mr. Trump if the businessman fades.
Translation: immigrants working in hospitality and agriculture are not hardworking men and women. Gee, that's news to me. Is that why they call the WSJ a "news"paper?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Strange Cult of Henry George

Having devoted EconoSpeak space to an argument by Thomas Shearman, a follower of Henry George, it is only fair and balanced to present the contrary view. I stumbled across the following comment on a libertarian(?) website. The possibility occurred to me that it may be satire (see paragraph 3):
We definitely need to strengthen our platform. It needs to be much more hard hitting and radical. 
This is especially true with regard to property rights. We must demand an end to all taxes on property. These are the worst of all taxes. They hurt the economy, causing increased: homelessness, pollution, poverty, resource misallocation, and misdirected infrastructure development. 
There is no such thing as “monopoly rents” or any of the other fascist socialist nonsense from the wacko marxists of the Henry George cult. 
The Libertarian Platform must call for the complete protection of Private Property rights: 
The Libertarian Party calls for the repeal all taxes on property by all levels of government. The property tax is the worst of all taxes. Free people who own their own land, farms, businesse property, apartments, condominiums, houses, homes or any other property must be left free by government to exercise sole dominion over their property. They must be allowed to live tax free and to use their property as they see fit. 
Property taxes deny individuals the right to become free, independent and self sufficient. Without property taxes, millions of Americans would be able to live without any income or participation in the cash economy. They are forced by the property tax to have an income and are forced into the hands of the government. 
The property tax consititues a "taking" of a portion of a person's property each year, without compensation. It should therefore be declared unconstitutional under the Constitution’s "takings clause" that requires compensation for the taking of property by the government. 
The Property Tax is absolutely the most evil of all taxes. It causes the greatest harm to the rights of the individual. It is the essential first component in the government’s tyrrany [sic] of taxation. 
No person can every [sic] be free so long as property taxes are allowed to exist.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Evil Effect of Robot, Rent and Taxation

Again with the damned robots. When it comes to robots, etymology matters. Czech playwright Karel Čapek's brother suggested the name to him, based on a word for forced labour. For example:
The system of rent by robot or forced labour -- that is, so many days' labour without any specification of the quantity of work to be performed -- is a direct premium on idleness. A landlord wishes a field of corn to be cut; his steward sends out, by means of his Haiduks, information to the peasants to meet at such a field at such an hour with their sickles.
Note that this robot in question isn't just any old forced labor but a payment of rent by obligatory labor. It is the price the peasants must pay for access to the parcel of land from which they get their subsistence.

The question of "robot" is thus inseparable from the question of rent. In the case of the electro-mechanical devices that have nowadays acquired the name, robot, the rents in question are the royalties due on the patents -- the intellectual property -- embodied by the machine.

What is rent? An anarchist pamphlet from 1892 stated, boldly, "Rent is taxation; taxation, rent..." A Georgist book from a few years later by Thomas Shearman, Natural Taxation: An Inquiry Into the Practicability, Justice and Effects of a Scientific and Natural Method of Taxation, elaborated on that seemingly circular definition:
To state the case is to demonstrate the justice of the tax. For what is here proposed is simply this: To tax the proceeds of taxation, and nothing else. 
For ground rent is taxation, and nothing else. The power to collect ground rent is a delegated power of taxation. 
Can anything be more just than for the State to draw its revenue from the proceeds of such taxation and from nothing else? Privilege of collection implies duty of payment. The duty of providing for the whole support of government is indissolubly attached to the right of collecting ground rent. The landlord, as the only natural tax-gatherer, is also the only natural revenue-provider. Every man who buys the privilege of taxation assumes, by the very act, a proportionate share of the burden of government expenses. No lapse of time, no misconception of the situation, no unwise or excessive payment for the privilege can ever relieve him from this inherent obligation.
Curiously. though, those who have benefited most from the powers of taxation granted to them by government are most vociferous in their objection to their "private property" being taxed, as Shearman observes, a few pages later:
It will be said, of course, that this method of taxation is mere "confiscation"; and, to the minds of many, this will be a conclusive objection. It is to be regretted that the brilliant author of Progress and Poverty should have even once used this word; thus seeming to identify the cause of equal taxation with apparent robbery and to confound justice with injustice. Although such may not have been its original meaning, yet by long usage "confiscation" is understood to mean a punishment for crime or moral incapacity. We are not at liberty to confiscate, in this sense, either land or its rent.  
But no question of confiscation arises in the case. If all the land belongs to all the people, if past generations had no power to alienate it from the control of the present, if its rent is now wrongfully withheld from the people, their taking the whole of it would be merely a just resumption of their own, not confiscation. And this is all which Henry George ever meant; as page after page of his book clearly shows. It is not necessary, however, to discuss that question here. We are not inquiring into the wrongs of the past or even into the general rights of the people in the present. We are considering only the proper method of raising necessary revenue.  
Class legislation 
The only pretence for charging that this method is a measure of confiscation is founded upon the allegation that it is unjust to put the whole burden of taxation upon a single class. In the light of past history, during which the owners of land have used all their powers, with immense success, to get rid of all taxes upon themselves and to cast the whole burden upon the landless poor, their present remonstrances, sometimes pathetic, sometimes ferocious, against a reversal of their methods, are highly entertaining. Every tariff duty, every excise tax, every indirect tax bears witness to the persistent ingenuity with which the collectors of rent, the natural tax, have shifted the burdens of public taxation upon other shoulders. Not one dollar of our vast federal revenue is collected from rent. Nine tenths of it is collected from the comparatively poor. Great Britain has been hitherto governed by large landlords: America by small ones. Both alike have evaded the taxation of rent as much as possible. Both alike have never hesitated to ruin vast numbers of their fellow citizens, by sudden, arbitrary and disastrous changes in methods of taxation. Both alike have never dreamed of allowing the smallest compensation to the victims of their caprice. But, as only great landlords can make a profit out of such methods, British landlords have made themselves wealthy in this way; while the mass of American land-owners have plundered themselves for the benefit of a few.  
There is no precedent for the doctrine that taxation must be spread over the whole community, and still less for the novel claim that the State is bound to compensate taxpayers for the payment of taxes. When will any congress compensate Americans whose property was destroyed by changes in the tariff?  
Originally, all land was granted by the State upon the express or clearly implied condition that the grantee should provide for all the expenses of government. The land-owners gradually shifted the burden off their own shoulders, by new taxes on the non-voting population. But even they had not the audacity to make a perpetual covenant between themselves and the government which they controlled, for exemption from taxation. The plea of their successors is that, by long failure on the part of the people to demand their rights and the performance of the conditions upon which the land was granted, landlords have been led to believe that such a demand would never be made; that many of them have paid large prices for the privilege of charging rent, in the belief that rent would never be taxed; and that it is unjust for the State to change its policy in this respect, without giving to them as much with one hand as it takes from them with the other.  
The argument is just as valid in favor of kings and nobles; and it has been urged upon their behalf with equal sincerity. Down to 1788 French nobles were exempt from most taxes. Many men (like Beaumarchais) bought a title, partly for the sake of this exemption. The French Revolution swept away all these privileges, without a shred of compensation; and all the world now says that this was perfectly right. But to an army of tax-eaters in those days it seemed monstrously wrong. The parallel is complete.  
Compensation for vested rights
The concentration of all taxes upon ground rents, if enacted at the foundation of a state, would obviously be simple justice. Why is it not equally just at any later period? "Because," it is said, "there have been many changes of ownership: vested rights have sprung up: new men have bought the land from the original owners, paying a much larger price than they would have paid if it had been understood that rent would be taxed. Heavy taxation will destroy the market value of the land; and this would be robbery under the forms of law."  
What is this land value, which is so sacred that it must not be heavily taxed? Nothing in the world except the value of a power, conferred upon individuals, to tax other individuals for the privilege of standing upon the earth. It is the only kind of property which cost the original owner nothing, in either wealth or labor. Every other form of property was called into being by honest human skill and labor, and was therefore fully paid for. Property in ground rents was, in every instance, originally acquired either by undertaking to bear the cost of government, as in feudal times, or by gift or theft, just as we have seen it acquired in Oklahoma. No doubt, thousands sacrificed much, in the pursuit of Oklahoma land, by hanging on the borders of the territory for weeks, waiting for the day upon which the gift was to be made. But by doing so they no more gave value for the land, than beggars give value for what they get, by standing hat in hand all day long.  
It is true that this power to levy taxes upon other men has been sold, over and over again, at increasing prices, and is now generally held by men who paid something of value for it. But what of that? The State never pledged itself to exempt this privilege from taxation, or to limit the amount to which it will be taken for public purposes; and no legislature has any moral right to do so. The present owners of the taxing power have bought upon a speculation, and must take all the chances of speculation. Among those chances is the possibility that the State may call for no part of the tax collected under the name of rent, and, on the other hand, the possibility that it may call for nearly the whole of it. All other forms of property are bought on a similar speculation.  
Iron, steel, glass, crockery, tin plates, buttons, laces, whisky, apples, eggs, horses, cattle, mortgage bonds, bank stocks, railway shares, and hundreds of other things are bought and sold, with full knowledge that there may be sudden and vast changes in the rates of taxation upon them, made without notice, without the slightest scruple, and without even a thought of compensation to the many who suffer thereby. The tax on whisky was suddenly raised to 50 cents, then to $1, then to $2, then reduced to 50 cents, then raised again to 90, and all without the slightest compensation to anybody. The tariff taxes were suddenly increased 50 per cent, all around, in 1864, in one night, without notice and without a dream of compensation.  
Why, then, this amazing and unexampled tenderness for speculators in the privilege of taxing their fellow men? The answer is easy. Most of the losses arising from increase in other forms of taxation fall upon the masses of comparatively poor, because the burden of such taxes is shifted upon them. None of the loss arising from an increase of taxation upon ground rents would fall upon the poor; because that burden cannot be shifted upon anybody. It is the old, old story. The right of the rich to plunder the poor is a vested right, sacred, even in the eyes of the poor themselves, through long training in abject servility.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Ben Carson and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"

An excerpt from The New Yorker:
A huge, complicated machine, connected to the operating table, with many tubes and wires, began at this moment to go pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. “The new anesthetizer is giving away!”shouted an interne. “There is no one in the East who knows how to fix it!” “Quiet, man!” said Mitty, in a low, cool voice. He sprang to the machine, which was now going pocketa-pocketa-queep-pocketa-queep. He began fingering delicately a row of glistening dials: “Give me a fountain pen!” he snapped. Someone handed him a fountain pen. He pulled a faulty piston out of the machine and inserted the pen in its place. “That will hold for ten minutes,” he said. “Get on with the operation.”