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March 10, 2010

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Why Do Federal Reserve Board Seats Remain Unfilled?

Posted: 10 Mar 2010 02:16 AM PST

At MoneyWatch:

Why Do Federal Reserve Board Seats Remain Unfilled?, by Mark Thoma

The administration has not taken full advantage of the opportunity to shape monetary policy during the crisis.

"Rawls on Marx; December 1973"

Posted: 10 Mar 2010 02:14 AM PST

Daniel Little shares his notes:

Rawls on Marx; December 1973, by Daniel Little: John Rawls taught a course on the history of political philosophy throughout much of his career at Harvard University. The course contained his description and analysis of the most important figures in modern political philosophy, including Mill, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Marx. The course evolved over time; the final version from 1994 is edited in Samuel Freeman's Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy. I served as graduate assistant in Rawls's lectures on this subject in fall 1973, and recently reread my notes of the course. Here are my notes of a particularly important lecture towards the end of the course: Rawls's treatment of Marx's ideas about economic justice. This lecture demonstrates Rawls's understanding of the fundamentals of Marx's economic theories and the labor theory of value. (I am inclined to think that Joseph Schumpeter's History of Economic Analysis (1954) was an important source for Rawls on the history of economic thought, including Marx's economics, though I can't at this moment confirm this.) This lecture is particularly significant in that it is roughly simultaneous with the emergence of "analytical Marxism" announced by the publication of an important article by Allen Wood, "The Marxian Critique of Justice" in Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1972 (link).

MARX'S ATTITUDE TOWARDS THE THEORY OF JUSTICE

John Rawls, History of Political Philosophy, Phil 171, fall 1973
Notes from lecture, December 11, 1973
[notes taken by Daniel Little; intended to capture Rawls's formulations of the main points presented in the lecture]

[Quoting Rawls:]

Capital seems to be a description of an unjust society. The owners of the means of production live in relative abundance and idleness at the expense of the ever-growing class of wretched laborers. But Marx doesn't make any attempt to present an argument that capitalism is unjust, nor any concept of justice which would back up such an argument. Moreover, we have vitriolic criticisms of utopian socialists who did condemn capitalism on the grounds of justice. Marx asserts on the contrary, that capitalism is perfectly fair, perfectly just. Why so?

(a) It is not enough to say Marx is averse to preaching or moralizing. He is so averse; but judgments of justice can be reasoned and hence not properly described as "preaching".

(b) It is not enough to say that he didn't want the critique of capitalism to rest on some social ideal. He does reject the utopian socialists' program; but that would not prevent him from stating his own opinion. And he doesn't do that either. He reproaches the utopians for not realizing that some major social change must precede an adjustment along moral lines.

Here is my conjecture as to why Marx didn't judge capitalism unjust. He thinks of justice as a political and juridical conception which is associated with a particular conception of the state and society; so it belongs to the prehistory of mankind. Given his picture of human society, these political and juridical institutions belong to the superstructure, and reflect the workings of the mode of production. For each mode of production there is a conception of justice appropriate to it, at least in prehistory. A further qualification: It is worthwhile to distinguish between the high time of a form and its low period -- where the form is a progressive force and where it stands in contradiction to the mode of production.

Here is a brief discussion of justice in Capital III:
To speak here of natural justice, as Gilbart does, is nonsense. The justice of the transactions between agents of production rests on the fact that these arise as natural consequences out of the production relationships. The juristic forms in which these economic transactions appear as wilful acts of the parties concerned, as expressions of their common will and as contracts that may be enforced by law against some individual party, cannot, being mere forms, determine this content. They merely express it. This content is just whenever it corresponds, is appropriate to the mode of production. It is unjust whenever it contradics that mode. Slavery on the basis of capitalist production is unjust; likewise fraud in the quality of commodities. (Capital III, 339-40)
Here Marx conceives of justice in terms of adequacy to the mode of production. (1) The justice of legal forms cannot be discovered on the basis of those forms alone. Rather it depends upon their adequacy to the mode of production. The juridical institution is formal; to give it content we must look to the way of life and its requirements. A consequence: There is no universal theory of justice which allows us to evaluate generally the social institutions of any society. There is no general principle like "slavery is always unjust." There are thus no general rules of natural rights, no universal justice. (2) This adjustment of justice to the mode of production doesn't mean there are no injustices. Slavery is unjust under capitalism; wage labor is just under capitalism, provided that the worker is paid the value of his labor power.

This view seems to suggest a sort of relativism; but this would be a faulty conclusion. We have a theory matching theories of justice with modes of production, and we might at some time find a function systematically linking them.

Let's now try out this suggestion on the conception of surplus value. The utopians argued that workers ought to be paid the value of their contribution to the firm. Since they are not, capitalism is unjust. Marx rejects this view. It makes the appropriation of surplus value appear accidental -- as if the capitalists could act differently. Marx required a theory of value which made the appropriation of surplus value a necessary part of the capitalist system. On the theory of value every commodity is exchanged for a strict equivalent.

Marx distinguishes between the product of labor and labor power. The worker is given the value of his labor power, not his product. It is on this ground that he is fairly treated. Thus he is undercutting the Ricardian socialist position by rejecting and replacing the principle of contribution. It is the system itself which brings about surplus value, not the behavior of individuals who violate moral principles. Surplus value is an intrinsic part of the working of the social institutions of capitalism.

Consider the description of the production of surplus value in Capital.
Every condition of the problem is satisfied, while the laws that regulate the exchange of commodities, have been in no way violated. Equivalent has been exchanged for equivalent. For the capitalist as buyer paid for each commodity, for the cotton, the spindle and the labour-power, its full value. He then did what is done by every purchaser of commodities; he consumed their use-value. ... This metamorphosis, this conversion of money into capital, takes place both within the sphere of circulation and also outside it; within the circulation because it is conditioned by the purchase of the labour-power in the market; outside the circulation, because what is done within it is only a stepping-stone to the production of surplus value. (Capital I, p. 194)
The fact that surplus value arises is a piece of good fortune for the buyer, but no injustice to the seller.

Marx thus rejects the Ricardian principle of contribution. He finds it a bourgeois notion, basing property rights on one's labor.

Summing up. (1) Marx views the notion of justice as a virtue of legal forms and institutions, and thus perhaps it is a notion which belongs to prehistory. The state depends upon the mode of production. (2) Marx doesn't deny that the various conceptions of justice have formal features in common -- exchange of equivalents for equivalents -- but the notion of what is equivalent is determined in different ways. Marx would be prepared to admit that capitalism in its high period is just. One reason he rejects the utopian's argument is that it is misleading. It rests on a misapprehension of where the essential problem lies: not in the superstructure, but in the mode of production. He felt that the key enterprise is to give a scientific theory of the mode of production.

A second point: justice is a distributive notion. The appeal to justice suggests that we can separate the mode of distribution from the mode of production. This is for Marx incorrect. Appeals to justice are thus supposed to be superficial. Moreover, appeal to justice suggests that important social change can be achieved by legislation.

[Other relevant materials from the course:]

From the syllabus:

(a) Marx's criticism of the liberal state; (b) His attitude towards theories of justice; (c) The theory of alienation and exploitation; (d) The conception of rational human society

Final exam questions on Marx:

4. Present and discuss Marx's theory of alienation (as developed in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts)
5. Present and discuss Marx's theory of historical materialism (as developed in the German Ideology)
6. Present and discuss Marx's analysis of historical change in the Communist Manifesto.
7. Outline Marx's analysis of the basic characteristics of capitalism: the social relations which define it and the nature of the form of economic production.

"Macroeconomic Policy: The Elephant in the Room"

Posted: 09 Mar 2010 11:07 PM PST

Alejandro Nadal says "Progressive movements need to seize the initiative in defining new avenues for macroeconomic policy":

Macroeconomic Policy: The Elephant in the Room, by Alejandro Nadal, Triple Crisis: International conferences on poverty and the environment come and go. There's always a big pachyderm in the meeting room. It's got the words "macroeconomic policy" written on its forehead. Nobody wants to talk about it.
Consider the following. The Millennium Development Goals were debated in many conferences, but nobody spoke about the macroeconomic policy framework needed to achieve them. As if reducing hunger and extreme poverty, generating employment and providing health services and education had nothing to do with fiscal policy, monetary policy and financial deregulation. Aside from some pious words about financing and overseas development assistance, the implicit message was to carry on with the same macroeconomic policies. That could only have been based on faith in the trickle-down potential of neo-liberal globalization.
At UNFCCC-COP events, everyone recognized there are serious issues in terms of financial resources for mitigation and adaptation. Vulnerability and poverty go hand in hand, it is said. But, again, nobody wanted to discuss the relationship between neo-liberal macroeconomic policies and poverty, as if they had no connection. Even the Stern report kept safely away from the thorny issues of macroeconomic policies in developing countries. ...
The 2008 crisis led the UN Environment Program (UNEP) to launch its Green Economy Initiative and the Global Green New Deal (GGND). Their objective is to revive the global economy, "boost employment and accelerate the fight against climate change, environmental degradation and poverty." According to the GGND, the triple crises demand the same kind of initiative as shown by Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s, but "at the global scale and embracing a wider vision." The punch line is that "re-booting the world economic system" is simply not enough to get us on the road to sustainability.
One would think that macroeconomic policy would be a relevant issue in this context, especially after the reference to FDR's "New Deal." Well, the authors appear to think differently: the Global Green New Deal is unconcerned with macroeconomic policies.
What? Monetary and fiscal policies, financial regulation, exchange and interest rates, capital flows, and incomes' policies, they have nothing to do with environmental and social sustainability?
Let's assume we keep a monetary policy obsessed with price stabilization, a fiscal policy focused on generating a primary surplus for "responsible debt management", an open capital account and financial deregulation. On top of this, let's say we also maintain downward trends for real wages. Clearly, more efficient automobiles and intelligent buildings will not, by themselves, give us at the end of the day a "green global economy."
Why is macroeconomic policy ignored in so many important conferences? Is it because macroeconomics focuses on the short term and is unconcerned with long term developmental and sustainability issues? This is a real problem, but I think there might be a deeper reason.
Perhaps another explanation is the state in which macroeconomic theory finds itself today. For one thing, many people find it difficult to get around in this messy land where everything is, as Blanchard and Fischer once remarked, in a state of flux. What with getting to know who are the New Keynesians and how they differ from the Keynesians, the Neo-Keynesians and the Post-Keynesians, it can get a bit confusing. ...
Maybe there is an additional explanation for why the elephant in the room is met with silence. Discussing macroeconomic policies raises awareness about the inner workings of the neo-liberal model and its political economy. Suddenly, the relation between cuts in social expenditures and a primary surplus becomes crystal clear. The rapport between controlling inflation and holding back aggregate demand (all too frequently through repressing real wages) turns out to be self-evident. Pretty soon people are talking about how macroeconomic policy is subordinated to the priorities of financial capital. This morphs the discussion into a political debate, something the establishment dislikes.
Progressive movements need to seize the initiative in defining new avenues for macroeconomic policy. They have done this in debates on agricultural policies, as well as with social and environmental policies. But we still have a long way to go to replace that elephant with a friendly creature.

links for 2010-03-09

Posted: 09 Mar 2010 11:01 PM PST

"TSA Makes Amtrak Safer. Really."

Posted: 09 Mar 2010 03:22 PM PST

Jeff Miron, the libertarians' libertarian, is not very impressed with TSA:

TSA Makes Amtrak Safer. Really., by Jeffrey Miron: Yesterday I took the train from Boston to New Brunswick for my talk at Rutgers on drug legalization.
So I learned that TSA now requires all bags on trains to have an identification tag.  Otherwise, security will confiscate them if left unattended.
This makes perfect sense.  Terrorists could never figure out that if they wanted to leave a "suitcase bomb" on a train, they should include a tag so that security will ignore it.

Last summer I was traveling and had to drive over Hoover damn. But before you can drive over it, you have to clear a checkpoint where a couple of guys get up out of their lawn chairs and shine a flashlight in your car and ask you a few questions (this happened to be late at night):

Crossing Hoover Dam: A Guide for Motorists: Since Sept. 11, 2001, vehicle traffic across Hoover Dam has been restricted. Motorists must now pass through inspection checkpoints...
The checkpoints are staffed by Bureau of Reclamation Police Officers and contractor security personnel, who are authorized to inspect any vehicle at any time, before it is allowed to pass through the checkpoint and cross the dam.
The vehicle passenger area, trunk/cargo area, engine compartment, undercarriage, and the cargo holds of buses may be searched, as well as any closed or locked containers. If contraband and/or prohibited items are found, additional police officers will be summoned. Motorists who refuse a search will not be allowed through the checkpoint or across the dam.
The determination about the types of vehicles to allow across the dam was based on specific criteria, including an assessment of the threat posed by specific vehicles, as well as the ease and the thoroughness with which certain types of vehicles can be inspected

It doesn't do much as far as preventing attacks, at least not so far as I could tell, since defeating a flashlight search is trivial. So why do it? It seems like a lot of these checkpoints, searches, etc. do little to actually prevent things from happening, and instead are intended to give people the sense that the government is looking out for them. Personally, it doesn't make me feel and safer, but it does irritate me greatly. I hate having authority figures decide whether I pass whatever test they are applying -- I have no doubt they could make my life hard if they chose to do so even though "I have nothing to hide." I felt like my liberty was quite compromised by this search. And for what? Very little as far as I could tell.

(I hate to agricultural checkpoint driving into California for the same reason. I go through it quite a bit and one time I didn't answer the question the way the inspector wanted. He said the usual "do you have any fruits or vegetables," and I said no, not unless you count the package of ketchup I have left over from lunch (I was thinking of Reagan wanting to count ketchup as a vegetable when assessing school lunches, but I doubt the inspector picked up on that). That prompted him to threaten me. I did say it with a bit of a smart-ass tone, I'll admit that, but it wasn't much and I couldn't believe that it lead to his threatening me with what he could do. Apparently you have to answer correctly -- use the words they are looking for -- and respectfully. He got the answer to his question, no I didn't have any fruit or vegetables, and he should have simply waved me through. Why do we have internal check points for travel in the U.S.?)

Monetary Policy and Unemployment: Should the Fed have Done More?

Posted: 09 Mar 2010 12:19 PM PST

Should the Fed have done more to combat the unemployment problem? In examining the costs and benefits of further easing, I have made almost all of the arguments against further easing by the Fed made below, i.e. that further easing by the Fed may not have much additional effect on long-term real interest rates, that even if rates could be brought down, consumers and businesses would be unlikely to respond by increasing investment and the consumption of durables -- firms already have considerable idle capacity, so why build more, and consumers are pessimistic about their futures, so why buy on credit -- and that there is an inflation risk from further easing.

One additional argument against more aggressive action by the Fed is that there is considerable uncertainty about the effects of further easing because they do not yet have "a robust suite of formal models to reliably calibrate interventions of this sort." But as with climate change, uncertainty does not necessarily translate into inaction. If the uncertainty includes much worse outcomes for employment than expected, and if the costs we attach to that outcome are very large, then uncertainty may prompt more aggressive rather than less aggressive intervention.

Yet another argument concerns the degree to which current productivity changes are permanent of temporary and how that translates into the degree of slack in labor markets. However, on this point I agree that "the sheer magnitude of unemployment today is so large that there is little doubt in my mind that there is considerable slack in the economy." Thus, however this debate comes out, it does not much change the degree and urgency of the unemployment problem.

In the end it comes down to the relative weights placed on the cost of inflation and the cost of unemployment, and I don't think policymakers are placing enough weight on the unemployment term (particularly given the uncertainty about the speed of recovery).

I have been somewhat hesitant to push this point strongly because I think the bigger blame ought to go to fiscal policy authorities, i.e. Congress. Blaming the Fed for the unemployment problem gives Congress a scapegoat that allows them to avoid their own failings. But something needs to be done, and both monetary and fiscal policymakers could do more.

This is the last part of a speech given today from Charlie Evans, President of the Chicago Fed, along with a graph from the speech showing the severity of the long-term unemployment problem:

Labor Markets and Monetary Policy, by Charles Evans, President, Chicago Fed: ...Productivity and resource slack The other side of an economy experiencing growing output but low labor utilization is high productivity growth. Indeed, productivity has been quite strong of late, particularly over the past three quarters. This is often the case in the early stages of a recovery, as firms first meet higher demand for their products and services without expanding their work force.
A key question today is the degree to which the recent productivity surge reflects a temporary cyclical development or a more enduring increase in the level or trend rate of productivity. If the gains are predominantly driven by intense cost cutting, then they may be unsustainable once demand revives more persistently. In this case, we would expect hiring to pick up quickly as the economic expansion takes hold. However, if the level or trend in productivity has risen due to technological or other improvements, then higher average productivity gains will continue.  In this case, the implications for hiring are not clear. Higher levels of productivity will show through in both higher potential and actual output for the economy, and so need not necessarily come at the cost of lower labor input.
The relative importance of these factors also has consequences for our assessment of the degree to which resource slack exists in the economy. Since a higher level or trend of productivity implies a higher path for potential output, a given level of actual GDP would also be associated with a greater degree of economic slack. That is, the good news on productivity, if sustained, suggests that as of today we have a larger output gap to fill In contrast, some are skeptical that the economy really is operating far below sustainable levels. They argue that much of the drop in output during the recession was the result of a permanent reduction in the economy's productive capacity, perhaps because certain financial market practices that had for a time enabled additional investments have now been discredited. According to this view, the strong productivity growth of recent quarters only goes a fraction of the way toward offsetting this decline in the level of potential output.
Of course, the unemployment rate gives us another way to infer the degree of slack in the economy. My earlier discussion of the sharp rise in unemployment duration and decline in labor force attachment may lead one to think that slack is even greater than what is implied by the unemployment rate itself.
However, it is possible that longer durations and lower labor force attachment could reflect broader structural changes in the economy, such as a mismatch between the skills of the unemployed and those demanded by employers. There may also be other impediments that currently prevent workers from shifting to the industries or locations where jobs are available. Under these scenarios, labor market slack might actually be lower than what one might infer from the unemployment rate alone.
I have just given you 2 minutes of classic two-handed economist speak. In the final analysis, however, the sheer magnitude of unemployment today is so large that there is little doubt in my mind that there is considerable slack in the economy. Incorporating alternative views about productivity and labor market behavior do not alter this general conclusion. The debate really boils down to whether the amount of slack in the economy is large or is extremely large.
Should the Fed have done more?
Given this large degree of slack, there is a legitimate question of whether monetary policy could, and more fundamentally should, have done more to combat the deterioration in labor markets. As we all know, a lot was done. As the crisis arose, we first used our traditional tools, substantially cutting the federal funds rate and lending to banks through our discount window. As we neared a zero funds rate, we turned to nontraditional tools to clear up the choke points, providing liquidity directly to nonbank financial institutions and supporting a number of short-term credit markets. Finally, we reduced long-term interest rates further by purchasing additional medium- and long-term Treasury bonds, mortgage-backed securities, and the debt of government-sponsored enterprises.
These nontraditional actions helped us avoid what easily could have been an even more severe economic contraction. But the unemployment rate still hit 10 percent this fall.
Had we done more, the most plausible action would have been to expand our Large Scale Asset Purchases (LSAP) program. Precisely quantifying the effect this would have had is difficult. A good place to start, though, is to look at the recent empirical evidence.[3] When significant new asset purchases were announced, our big, fluid financial markets built that information immediately into asset prices. For example, right after the March 2009 Treasury purchase announcement, ten-year Treasury yields fell about 50 basis points. Comparable declines occurred in Option Adjusted Spreads (OAS) on the announcement of agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) purchases in November 2008. It might be reasonable to infer that say, doubling the size of the LSAPs might have doubled this impact on rates.
However, I would attach more than the usual amount of uncertainty to such an inference. Part of my hesitation reflects our lack of understanding about the interactions between nontraditional monetary policy, interest rates, and economic activity. While research efforts at the Federal Reserve and elsewhere to assess the effects of nonstandard monetary policy have been ramped up considerably, to date we do not have a robust suite of formal models to reliably calibrate interventions of this sort.
Moreover, there are reasons to expect that the impact of recent nontraditional policy actions might not have scaled up so simply. We initially responded to the financial crisis with our highest-value tool—a reduction in the funds rate—and then moved to our best alternative policies as interest rates approached zero. Finally, we turned to the LSAPs, which were designed to further lower long-term interest rates and thus stimulate demand for interest-sensitive spending, such as business fixed investment, housing, and durables goods expenditures. But the influence of lower rates on private sector decision-making may have reached the point of second-order importance relative to the countervailing forces of the housing overhang, business and household caution, and considerably tighter lending standards.
Moreover, although it is impossible to quantify, a portion of the impact of our nontraditional actions may have come simply from boosting confidence. In those very dark times, I believe households, businesses, and financial markets were reassured that policymakers were acting in a decisive manner. Further asset purchases would not have had an additional effect of this kind.
In addition, on a practical level, the portfolio of future purchases likely would have looked different and therefore their overall effectiveness might have deviated from our recent experience. The Fed's typical monthly purchases of new issuance MBS were so large that it left very little floating supply for private investors. This could have forced a larger LSAP program to concentrate more heavily in Treasuries or existing MBS. Though the empirical evidence is limited, these assets likely are less close substitutes than new MBS for many of the instruments used to finance spending on new capital goods, housing, and consumer durables. Consequently, the effect of their purchase on economic activity may be less.
Finally, we must also keep in mind that more monetary stimulus also has costs. These could be considerable at higher LSAP levels. Many are already worried about the inflation implications of the Fed's expanded balance sheet and the associated large increase in the monetary base. Currently, most of the increase in the monetary base is sitting idly in bank reserves—and because banks are not lending those reserves, they are not generating spending pressure. But leaving the current highly accommodative monetary policy in place for too long would eventually fuel inflationary pressures. Likewise, if the monetary base was expanded much beyond where we are today, the risk that such pressures would build as the economy recovers would be significantly increased. Furthermore, policymakers already face the task of unwinding a sizable balance sheet at the appropriate time and pace. Substantially increasing the size of asset purchases could have further complicated the exit process down the road.

That said, changes in economic conditions could alter the cost–benefit calculus with regard to the LSAP. Hopefully the recovery will progress without any serious bumps in the road and the inflation outlook will remain benign. But, as we have repeatedly indicated in the FOMC statements, the Committee will continue to evaluate its purchases of securities in light of the evolving economic outlook and conditions in financial markets. ...

[Dual posted at MoneyWatch]

The Relative Performance of US and Canadian Economies During the Crisis

Posted: 09 Mar 2010 10:37 AM PST

Here's more on the comparison of of the performance of the US and Canadian economies during the crisis:

When 5.0% GDP growth is better news than 5.9% GDP growth, by Stephen Gordon:In 2009Q4, US GDP grew by 5.9% at annual rates; the number was 5.0% in Canada. But our news was much better. Here is a graph of the contributions to GDP growth by expenditure category:

Canvus

US GDP growth would have been only 2.0% without the contribution of the inventory terms (which was itself a deceleration in the rate at which stocks were being drawn down.) In Canada, the 2009Q4 GDP number would have been 5.8%.

And look at the contribution of government spending. In the US, the contribution was negative: the increase in federal spending was more than compensated by cutbacks at the state level.

It's easy to see why the Canadian numbers were greeted with more enthusiasm than were those in the US, even though the headline number was smaller. Growth was evenly distributed across all types of expenditures, and we can expect inventories to bounce back as well fairly soon.

The negative net contribution of government to output growth is disappointing. That's not how it's supposed to work in a recession.

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