Sunday, May 1, 2016

On the blogs

Millionaires Would Gain Trillions Under Trump and Cruz Tax Plans -- Isaac Shapiro at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows the effects of GOP candidates' tax policies. Hillary would have pro-business economic policies (yes I prefer Bernie), but nothing like this

What is to be done? -- Robert Paul Wolff on the Trump vs. Clinton choice. Yes, Hillary, if you had any doubts

Why Is Productivity So Weak? Three Theories -- Neil Irwin at NYTimes/Upshot gives 3 scenarios really, and they're all supply side stories. Oh well

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Chomsky on public education

Defunding a program is the best way to promote privatization. He discusses here public education, but you can go down the line. The idea of voucherizing Medicare is basically a way of defunding it, worsening its quality and eventually move to private health (you get it if you pay for it). And on education note that while Chomsky is right that it worked well and is being defunded and privatized (think charter schools), it is also true that the system was always unequal and favored the middle class, since the value of housing determined the quality of the public schools.

Short excerpt from Requiem for the American Dream, which I highly recommend.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Ilene Grabel on capital controls

New paper on the resurgence of capital controls. From the Abstract:
The startling resuscitation of capital controls during the global crisis has substantially widened policy space in the global north and south. The paper highlights five factors that contribute to the evolving rebranding of capital controls. These include: (1) the rise of increasingly autonomous developing states, largely as a consequence of their successful response to the Asian crisis; (2) the increasing confidence and assertiveness of their policymakers in part as a consequence of their relative success in responding to the global crisis at a time when many advanced economies have and still are stumbling; (3) a pragmatic adjustment by the IMF to an altered global economy in which the geography of its influence has been severely restricted; (4) the intensification of the need for capital controls during the crisis not just by countries facing fragility or implosion, but also by those that fared “too well”; and (5) the evolution in the ideas of academic economists and IMF staff. The paper explores tensions around the rebranding of capital controls. These are exemplified by efforts to develop a hierarchy in which controls on inflows that are a last resort and are targeted, temporary, and non-discriminatory are more acceptable than those that are blunt, enduring, discriminatory, and that target outflows. In addition, tensions have increasingly focused on whether controls should be used by capital-source rather than just capital-recipient countries.
Read full paper here.

Slow recovery continues

In the first quarter the economy slowed down grinding nearly to a halt. Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) slowed to a 0.5% annual growth rate in the first three months of 2016, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). By the way, federal government spending has been a drag on growth. And here in lies the problem. Don't expect any stimulus this year, and very unlikely that this would change significantly any time soon. The problem isn't secular stagnation, it is rather short-term inaction.

Bankers and economic theory

From the BBC Yes, Prime Minister comic series. True, most bankers never quite learned Keynes, and then had to learn the stuff from some other Milton.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Fabio Petri on non-substitution theorems

Sometimes there is simple and right

New paper by Professor Petri, which is always worth reading, titled "Nonsubstitution Theorem, Leontief Model, Netputs: Some Clarifications." From the abstract:
The nonsubstitution theorem concerns long-period technical choice and relative prices, and was so understood in its first (1951) formulations, but the modern advanced micro textbooks that present it do not make this clear, rendering the theorem impossible to understand for students. These modern presentations derive from a reinterpretation of the Leontief model as a ‘timeless’ economy in Walrasian equilibrium, capable of positive production in spite of zero initial endowments of all inputs except labour: an unacceptable interpretation, made possible by a use of netputs, to describe the economy’s production possibilities, that is illegitimate in this case even from a strictly neoclassical perspective. The notion of a ‘timeless’ economy disappears from the textbook presentations of the Leontief model and of the nonsubstitution theorem, but the result is that the nature of the model and of the prices to which the theorem refers is not clarified, inevitably leaving students utterly confused. This note remembers the true nonsubstitution theorem, points out that it had been correctly enunciated by Samuelson (1961), and suggests that the current inability to present it in a correct way is due to the absence of the notion of long-period prices from the theoretical horizon of contemporary neoclassical value theory. The paper opens with clarifications on the meaning of the Leontief model which prepare the ground for the discussion of the problem with netputs.
 Read full paper here.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Some brief thoughts on technical change

Engelbart's mouse

I have discussed some of these issues before (here, for example, or here). But it is the last week of my intermediate macro class, and I often end up with some discussion of growth. Mostly the Solow model, and some alternative demand-led growth model. I do only the simple models, Joan Robinson's banana model and Thirlwall's balance of payments constraint, to contrast with neoclassical supply constrained stories of growth.

But in the middle of that discussion, supply constraint versus demand led growth, a conversation about the nature of technological change is always inevitable. No, I'm not going to talk about Kaldor-Verdoorn now. There are two interesting aspects of technology that are often misrepresented in mainstream models.

First, in the Solow model technology is akin to a public good, meaning is non-excludable and non-rivalrous. So technology is relatively easy to acquire, difficult to preclude others from obtaining it, and the access to it by one group does not limit its availability to others. That, by the way, is the reason patents and copyright are supposedly needed, to preclude technology to spread too easily and to provide the incentive for innovators.

However, technology seems to be considerably more difficult to acquire than what the canonical neoclassical model presumes. I always tell students that technology acquisition resembles building IKEA chairs. You have the blueprint, but even then it is hard to interpret it, and the first one is always a bit wobbly, while the process of building new chairs implies that by the time you are done with the last (perhaps the third or fourth one) the process is completely mastered.

The second element of technology that is often misrepresented, and this also true of some neo-Schumpeterians, is the role of the entrepreneur, the innovator. There is overpraise of their role in the process of technological change. The flash of genius which allows the innovator to transform the whole world is glorified. In reality, technological change is a slow process, in which several flashes are necessary to eventually produce any significant change.

For example, I asked my students what made Bill Gates the wealthiest man on the planet. Only one, by the way, said Windows, the operating system that followed DOS, and that was in every PC, after his contract with IBM (yes that contract, and the fact that he could pile his other software with the operating system, is the real source of the wealth). The operating systems were bought from another company, and essentially copied from Apple. And yes, Steve Jobs got most of his ideas from a visit to Xerox Parc. So the names of the several people that were central for the development of the graphical interface with multiple windows on a screen are hardly household names.

Walter Isaacson's The Innovators, which does overall a good job of showing that technological progress is a team sport, even if he does also idealize the role of innovators (yeah, it's in the title) tells the story of one of the them, Douglas Engelbart. About him he says (and yes there is a bit of hero worship in this):
"Over the next six years, culminating in 1968, Engelbart went on to devise a full-fledged augmentation system that he called 'oNLine System,' or NLS. In addition to the mouse, it included many other advances that led to the personal computer revolution: on-screen graphics, multiple windows on a screen, digital publishing, blog-like journals, wiki-like collaborations, document sharing, email, instant messaging, hypertext linking, Skype-like videoconferencing, and the formatting of documents. One of his technocharged protégés, Alan Kay, who would later advance each of these ideas at Xerox PARC, said of Engelbart, 'I don’t know what Silicon Valley will do when it runs out of Doug’s ideas.'"
Most of the time the several innovators needed to produce significant change are forgotten, and do not reap the financial benefits of their own innovations. In particular, because many times is difficult to sort out who had the original idea, where one innovation finishes and when the other starts. Technology more often than not develops as a result of a series of small steps, rather than by big leaps. Histories of technology should emphasize the role of institutions, like Bell Labs, and in particular for modern capitalist societies the role of the state.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

On the blogs

Why not full employment? -- Chris Dillow on the abandonment of full employment as a policy goal. Personally, I'm not sure workers don't demand full employment now. I think they do, as they did back in the 1960s. But the conditions that allowed that to be an acceptable policy to the elites have changed significantly

Robert Lucas – Keynesian? -- ProGrowthLiberal at EconoSpeak. Yeah, sure it all depends on definitions, but it's a stretch

Enough central bank jazz hands… Why Labour should democratise the Bank of England -- Paul Mason's talk that has been all over the blogosphere. A quote if I may: "Under the Conservatives, monetary easing has been used simpy to offset the hit to the economy caused by fiscal tightening. Labour should, in future, use monetary policy to create fiscal space." Literately from Marriner Eccles book (see here)

Friday, April 22, 2016

70 years ago

Keynes (1883-1946)
NYTimes Obituary here

Tom Palley on Inequality and Growth

New paper published by PERI. From the abstract:
This paper examines the relationship between inequality and growth in the neo-Kaleckian and Cambridge growth models. The paper explores the channels whereby functional and personal income distribution impact growth. The growth – inequality relationship can be negative or positive, depending on the economy’s characteristics. Contrary to widespread claims, inequality per se does not impact growth through macroeconomic channels. Instead, both growth and inequality are impacted by changes in the underlying forms and pattern of income payments. However, inequality is critical at the microeconomic level as it explains differences in household propensities to consume which are at the foundation of neo-Kaleckian and Cambridge growth theory.
Read full paper here.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Some thoughts on the impeachment and the right wing turn in Brazil

Riding the coup bike without the military

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been impeached. The vice-president, Michel Temer, will assume the presidency temporarily while she is judged by the Senate. While the final outcome is still uncertain, it is very unlikely that she will return to office. This closes the long cycle of the left in Brazil, which started with the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the presidency in 2002, and that led to the election and re-election of the candidates of the Workers’ Party (PT in the Portuguese acronym) since then. The roots of the current crisis are deep, and are not simply associated to corruption or to discontent with economic the poor performance of the country.

Protests started as far back as June 2013. The spark for those protests came from the cost of public transportation in São Paulo and other major cities, and the groups initially connected to the organization of the movement were clearly associated to left of center positions. On the other hand, as the protests gathered momentum the range of demands increased, to include spending with the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics and against corruption in general, with an increasing number of right wing groups linked to the popular demonstrations. In other words, there was a broad range of demands, and the groups associated with the popular protests had a mixed political character, from left of center movements to right wing libertarian groups, some of which were funded by the Koch brothers.

Many saw the 2013 protests as the beginning of the end of PT’s dominance in Brazilian politics. And it was true that some elements on the left were part of the protests, and that, in a range of issues from the economic to the social, PT had failed to live up to the expectations. It is important to note there were many reasons to be disappointed with PT’s achievements, since the party had accepted conservative economic policies early on in the 2002 “Letter to the Brazilian People,” in particular putting fiscal discipline and inflation at the center of the economic agenda. And Brazil’s economic performance was below the average for Latin America for most of the 2000s, with growth of about 3.5% per year between 2003 and 2014, which would be considered mediocre by the standards of the other BRICs that were lionized in the media as the next big thing in the world economy.

Further, the problems were not just in the economic front. Brazil was much slower, and considerably less effective than other left of center governed countries in the region in dealing with the human rights record of the military dictatorships. Something that also was to some extent expected by left of center groups. To make things worse, the security policies maintained a pattern of abuse of human rights, discrimination and racism, which have a long history in Brazil. The ‘pacification’ policies is in many cases were just part of a pattern of criminalization of poverty and state sanctioned killings of slum (‘favela’) dwellers. Not surprisingly the 2013 protests had a strong component of left wing participants.

On the other hand, in spite of the poor economic performance and the limitations of the human rights policy record, the expansion of formal employment, the doubling of the minimum wage, the expansion of the social programs, among them the Bolsa Família, the implementation of affirmative action policies and the expansion of public education, have led to a significant reduction of inequality over the last ten years, even if it is hyperbolic to suggest, as many social analysts have done and the mainstream media repeated ad nauseam, that a new middle class has emerged as a result. On the strength of the social record of her policies, Dilma won a narrow reelection in 2014, with the promise to expand social spending, to promote economic growth and to stand against banks' greediness, reducing interest rates. After the reelection, however, the government did a 180-degree turn, appointed a Finance Minister, Joaquim Levy, who came from one of the largest banks in the country, and adopted austerity policies, fiscal adjustment and higher interest rates to control inflation. Growth, not surprisingly, collapsed with a decline of GDP of about 3.8% in 2015.

Protests intensified in the streets, while the corruption charges, in particular those associated with the scheme of bribes and payments at the State oil giant Petrobras, within the so-called Car Wash (‘Lava Jato’ in Portuguese) Operation, taking center of stage. A few things should be noted in this context. Corruption is not limited to the government or the parties in its coalition, and in fact it is clear from the investigation that corruption at the state oil company goes back many years, certainly all the way to the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB in Portuguese), a right of center party, in spite of its name. Interestingly enough, while Aécio Neves, the PSDB candidate that lost the last election in 2014, has been named in the corruption scandal, president Rousseff seems to be completely untainted by accusations of corruption. More importantly, the central issues related to corruption are the structural ones. That is the elements that make corruption a necessary feature to manage the country, like the need to buy votes in congress to pass legislation, something that has made the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB in Portuguese) an essential element for governability. In fact, PMDB is at the center of all corruption scandals and the beneficiaries of the impeachment, including the Vice-President, are members of that party.

Clearly, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff is not about corruption, and the actual process hinges on the delay in the payments to public banks (the so-called 'pedaladas'), which in the view of some imply the government is borrowing from public banks, which is against the Law of Fiscal Responsibility, but not on the corruption scandal per se. Note that this fiscal accounting devices were a common practice, even in previous governments, were never questioned, and can hardly be considered a crime that requires the impeachment of the president. Further, although her government is highly unpopular, since even left of center groups have been protesting, and more so since she embraced the austerity policies after reelection, it is not true that the impeachment is popular. Public manifestations against the impeachment have been as large, if not larger, than pro-impeachment protests, and the country remains essentially evenly divided, as it was during the 2014 election. In that sense, the impeachment is certainly not about the preservation of democratic institutions.

Socioeconomically speaking the poorer and the afro-descendants tend to be against impeachment, and that was reflected in the votes in Congress, to a great extent because these groups were the main beneficiaries of PT’s social policies, and real wage increases. On the other hand, the middle class and the business groups, as represented by Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (FIESP in Portuguese), have been decidedly in favor. There is a clear class, and that in Brazil means race too, component to the impeachment process. So there are good reasons to believe that the impeachment represents a modern type of coup, based on the utilization of media for the mobilization of public opinion, and for bringing down a government, that, even if moderately, has reduced inequality in one of the most unequal countries in the world. The impeachment is about social class and inequality, and the possibility of a left of center project.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Moody's upgrades Argentina credit rating status

Mainly because of their "expectation that Argentina will settle holdout creditor claims which will result in a lifting of court injunctions and clear the way for Argentina to access international capital markets." Fair enough, access to capital markets would lift the balance of payments constraint, even if the agreement is a complete surrender to the Vultures demands. But the most interesting argument for the improvement in the credit rating is that it results from "economic policy improvements since the Macri administration took office last December." So what happened since December (btw, mostly what I said it would).
The figure above from The Economist shows that inflation went up, and the economy was thrown into a recession. Fiscal deficits will likely increase, in spite of spending cuts, and reduction in public employment, since with the recession revenue will fall (Moody's expects the deficit to be about 5% GDP).

And yes fiscal deficits in domestic currency are mostly irrelevant for the discussion of ability to pay foreign obligations in dollars (the only reason to care is if the deficits are caused by more spending, and lead to current account deficits, which do increase the needs for foreign currency, which is not the case in Argentina now). Actually, I also think that the economy will eventually improve (that was the plan all along), just in time for the next presidential election.

The problem of course is that growth will accelerate very likely with an increase in current account deficits, as much as it happened during the Menem years in the 1990s. A more depreciated currency will do very little to solve that problem, which will likely be possible because the government will push ahead with international borrowing. Foreign debt driven growth essentially. But we know what tends to happen with this kind of policy.

There is a long history of external debt cycles in the country. This kind of frivolous economic policies, that push short term political gains (Macri's reelection like Menem in the past) at the expense of sustainable policies (it's the current account, not the fiscal idiot!) is what should be termed populism. Current account populism that is.

PS: Moody's does not even say anything about Macri's name appearing in the Panama papers.

What's the matter with Kansas?

In 2010 Tea Party favorite Sam Brownback was elected governor and he had Republican majorities in both houses of its legislature. The GOP program was put in place. What happened, you ask?
The result of the GOP tax cuts is significantly lower employment growth than in the national economy. By the way, lower income tax and higher sales taxes, a very regressive tax policy, has led to a persistent overestimation of revenue, and tax shortfalls that led to spending cuts, which in part explains the employment problems (see here). And that is essentially the same program that the 3 national candidates are defending this year. Supply-side economics has been debunked several times, but it surprisingly survives. Zombienomics.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

New York Times on the Brazilian coup... I mean impeachment

So for the correct view (yes, it was a coup) see Laura Carvalho here. As she says:
The impeachment process of President Dilma Rousseff started as a retaliation by the speaker of Brazil’s lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, indicted for taking as much as $40 million in a kickback scheme at the state-owned oil company Petrobras. Cunha, whose name is also tied to the Panama Papers, initiated the impeachment process shortly after a public announcement by government allies that they would not stop investigations in the Congressional ethics committee that could lead to his removal.
And, as I noted before the actual farce in Congress last Sunday, Dilma is accused of something trivial, delays in payments to public banks, which is certainly not an impeachable crime. The opposite view here, for what is worth.* Hard to agree with the criminalization of fiscal policy. With that criteria several heads of state should be impeached, including in the US (see IMF on this, which suggests that there are several ways to improving fiscal accounts through accounting devices).

It's also important to note that Obama and his State Department have been silent about this coup in a crucial country in the region.** Mark Weisbrot speculated about Obama's role in all of this. He said:
The massive spying on Brazil — and especially state-controlled oil company Petrobras — that Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald revealed in 2013 also points in this direction [Washington's support to undermine Workers' Party government]. It could be a coincidence that all this information about Petrobras was gathered by the U.S. government just prior to the scandals at the company; or perhaps Washington shared some information with its allies in the Brazilian opposition. And there is no doubt that the biggest players in this coup attempt — people like former presidential candidates José Serra and Aécio Neves — are U.S. government allies.
What's next? That's the important question. In terms of the economic policy expect more fiscal adjustment, including cuts in social programs (Delfim Neto, which had supported the Workers' Party for most of their governments, today refers to recipients of the Bolsa Familia program as parasites; sign of things to come).

* I'll try to have something longer on this later, but in my view the deep causes of the impeachment are ultimately related to class warfare. The improvement in the minimum wage, and the share of wages in income, ultimately caused the reaction from the elites and a good chunk of the middle class.

** Glenn Greenwald on this here.