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April 12, 2009

Economist's View - 5 new articles

Woodward and Hall: The Fed Needs to Make a Policy Statement

Susan Woodward and Robet Hall on concerns about inflation:

More and more one hears the concern that the Fed has embarked on an expansionary policy that will result in high inflation once the economy returns to normal. John Taylor, a leading expert in this area, put the argument as follows...

[T]he question John Taylor posed–how can the Fed control inflation in coming years when it is committed to have a large volume of reserves outstanding to finance its purchases of illiquid assets?–has a simple and effective answer...

The (good, but wonkish) answer is here.


Interview

I was on KLCC's Sunday at Noon earlier today (there is also a taped interview of Tim Duy about halfway through). The interview is archived here.


"The Case for Waste"

Is the government too worried about preventing waste in the spending associated with the stimulus package, so worried that it is causing harmful delays in putting the spending in place?:

The Case for Waste , by Alec MacGillis, Commentary, Washington Post: As the $787 billion stimulus package starts to flow, the message from on high is clear: No one dare waste a dime of it. "This plan cannot and will not be an excuse for waste and abuse," President Obama declared last month... Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has warned ... that "we must ensure that haste does not make waste" and that even minimal amounts of misspent money would be simply "unacceptable." And California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has appointed an inspector general to oversee "every single dollar" of the $50 billion flowing into his state.

Missing amid all these high-minded calls to protect taxpayer dollars is an awkward question: When the whole point of a major government spending program is to stimulate the faltering economy as quickly as possible, what exactly counts as "wasted" money? After all, if some stimulus cash is misspent -- say an errant official or contractor buys himself a Cadillac or a Harley Davidson, only to suffer the full force of law -- might not such fraud boost the economy more than if the cash languished in a law-abiding state account? All that monitoring, however well-intentioned, may undercut recovery by compelling officials to spend more slowly to avoid hearings, prosecution, or embarrassment in the media. ...

Underlying this contradiction is a broader tension... Obama sold the package as a "down payment" on his goals for energy, education and health care and has expressed the hope that it will also renew confidence in government. From that perspective, it's crucial that the money have the desired policy impact and be spent in an above-board manner. Members of Congress calling for close oversight cite notorious examples of waste in Iraq war contracts and the Hurricane Katrina recovery.

But the stimulus package's main stated goal was to jumpstart the economy by getting billions of dollars into circulation fast, and that requires a different mindset. ... It was John Maynard Keynes who famously said that paying unemployed men simply to dig up bottles filled with cash and buried in abandoned coal mines would be "better than nothing" as economic stimulus.

Instead of catching a break because of the time pressures, the stimulus is receiving far greater scrutiny than regular government spending. ... Rob Nabors,... the White House's point man for the stimulus,... said that the increased oversight is justified because the legislation's policy aims are as much a part of it as the stimulus.

"Yes, from an economic perspective, the money is spent when the money is spent, but we are planning for this money to leave a lasting legacy," he said. "We expect to show not just X numbers of jobs created but X number of homes weatherized. We're looking to improve our parks system, modernize our infrastructure. Any dollar distracted from those purposes really is a wasted dollar." He added: "...and if that means we have to take an extra day to make sure the reporting is in line and we're doing things right, we tend to push the agencies to . . . slow down a little." ...

For all the political benefit of promising to protect taxpayer dollars, the rhetoric around accountability may also unintentionally raise the stakes when the eventual spending scandals do surface. ... "There may be a naive impression that, given the amount of transparency and accountability called for by this Act, little or no fraud or waste will occur... Some level of waste or fraud is, regrettably, inevitable."

It is politically harder to argue for spending that does not produce a tangible asset you can point to, a bridge or something like that (it can even be named after the stimulus package to maximize the political benefit). But even so, I think they have over-emphasized long-term investments that are really about the supply-side of the economy, and under-emphasized policies that can boost demand in the short-run quickly and effectively, but do not have the kinds of long-run impacts that provide "a lasting legacy."


Predicting Turning Points is Hard

This sounds familiar:

Confusing Patterns With Coincidences, by Susan Hough, Commentary, NY Times: In the aftermath of the earthquake at L'Aquila, Italy, on Monday that killed nearly 300 people, splashy headlines suggested that these victims didn't have to die.

An Italian researcher, Giampaolo Giuliani, began to sound alarm bells a month earlier, warning that an earthquake would strike near L'Aquila on March 29. ... Mr. Giuliani was denounced for inciting panic..., and he was forced to take his warning off the Web after March 29 came and went without significant activity.

Should Italian officials have listened? Should the public have heeded the warnings? With 20-20 hindsight the answer certainly appears to be yes. The real answer is no.

Scientists have been chasing earthquake prediction — the holy grail of earthquake science — for decades. ... Yet we have little to no real progress to show for our efforts. ... We're pretty good at forecasting the long-term rates of earthquakes in different areas. But prediction per se, which involves specifying usefully narrow windows in time, location and magnitude, has eluded us.

The key question is, can we find precursors that tell us that a large earthquake is imminent? Various phenomena have been investigated: radon levels, changes in earthquake wave speeds, the warping of the earth's crust, even the behavior of cockroaches and other animals.

The game goes like this: you look back at past recordings of X, where X is radon or whatever, and find that X had shown anomalies before large earthquakes. But the problem is that X is typically ... data that includes a lot of fluctuations, often for varied and not entirely understood reasons — so finding correlations looking backward is about as meaningful as finding animals in the clouds. ...

The public heard about Mr. Giuliani's prediction because it appears to have been borne out... But there are scores of other predictions that the public never hears about. And that is a good thing because scientists have yet to be able to accurately predict coming earthquakes. ...

Progress is slow in developing prediction methods, since, after all, they can be tested only by waiting for earthquakes to happen, and the earthquakes we care most about, like the deadly 6.3 magnitude quake in Italy, fortunately don't happen every day. ...

The public would like scientists to predict earthquakes. We can't do that. We might never be able to do that. What people and government can do is work to make sure our houses, schools and hospitals don't fall down when the next big one strikes, and that we're all prepared for the difficult aftermaths. We can look around our homes and our workplace and think about what would happen to them if the terra firma suddenly ceased being firm. We can stop worrying about predicting the unpredictable, and start doing more to prepare for the inevitable.


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