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March 29, 2010

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Paul Krugman: Punks and Plutocrats

Posted: 29 Mar 2010 12:09 AM PDT

Will Republicans dare to oppose financial reform?:

Punks and Plutocrats, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Health reform is the law of the land. Next up: financial reform. But will it happen? The White House is optimistic, because it believes that Republicans won't want to be cast as allies of Wall Street. I'm not so sure. The key question is how many senators believe that they can get away with claiming that war is peace, slavery is freedom, and regulating big banks is doing those big banks a favor. ...
We have already ... stepped in to rescue troubled financial companies, so as to avoid a complete collapse. And you should bear in mind that the biggest bailouts took place under a conservative Republican administration, which claimed to believe deeply in free markets. There's every reason to believe that this will be the rule from now on: when push comes to shove, no matter who is in power, the financial sector will be bailed out. ...
The only question now is whether the financial industry will pay a price for this privilege, whether Wall Street will be obliged to behave responsibly in return for government backing. And who could be against that?
Well, how about John Boehner, the House minority leader? Recently Mr. Boehner gave a talk to bankers in which he encouraged them to balk efforts by Congress to impose stricter regulation. "Don't let those little punk staffers take advantage of you, and stand up for yourselves," he urged — where by "taking advantage" he meant imposing some conditions on the industry in return for government backing.
Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, promptly had "Little Punk Staffer" buttons made up and distributed to Congressional aides.
But Mr. Boehner isn't the problem: Mr. Frank has already shepherded fairly strong financial reform through the House. Instead, the question is what will happen in the Senate.
In the Senate, the legislation on the table was crafted by Senator Chris Dodd... It's significantly weaker than the Frank bill, and needs to be made stronger.... But no bill will become law if Senate Republicans stand in the way of reform.
But won't opponents of reform fear being cast as allies of the bad guys (which they are)? Maybe not. Back in January, Frank Luntz, the G.O.P. strategist, circulated a memo on how to oppose financial reform. His key idea was that Republicans should claim that up is down — that reform legislation is a "big bank bailout bill," rather than a set of restrictions on the banks.
Sure enough, a few days ago Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama ... claimed that an essential part of reform — tougher oversight of large, systemically important financial companies — is actually a bailout, because "The market will view these firms as being 'too big to fail' and implicitly backed by the government." Um, senator, the market already views those firms as having implicit government backing...: in any future crisis those firms will be rescued, whichever party is in power.
The only question is whether we're going to regulate bankers so that they don't abuse the privilege of government backing. And it's that regulation — not future bailouts — that reform opponents are trying to block.
So it's the punks versus the plutocrats — those who want to rein in runaway banks, and bankers who want the freedom to put the economy at risk, freedom enhanced by the knowledge that taxpayers will bail them out in a crisis. Whatever they say, the fact is that people like Mr. Shelby are on the side of the plutocrats; the American people should be on the side of the punks, who are trying to protect their interests.

links for 2010-03-28

Posted: 28 Mar 2010 11:05 PM PDT

Is Cap-and-Trade Really Dead?

Posted: 28 Mar 2010 02:07 PM PDT

I've been wondering about the validity of the claim that cap-and-trade is dead. Here's Robert Stavins on this issue:

Who Killed Cap-and-Trade?, by Robert Stavins: In a recent article in the New York Times, John Broder asks "Why did cap-and-trade die?" and responds that "it was done in by the weak economy, the Wall Street meltdown, determined industry opposition and its own complexity."  Mr. Broder's analysis is concise and insightful, and I recommend it to readers.  But I think there's one factor that is more important than all those mentioned above in causing cap-and-trade to have changed from politically correct to politically anathema in just nine months.  Before turning to that, however, I would like to question the premise of my own essay.
Is Cap-and-Trade Really Dead?
Although cap-and-trade has fallen dramatically in political favor in Washington as the U.S. answer to climate change, this approach to reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is by no means "dead."
The evolving Kerry-Graham-Lieberman legislation has a cap-and-trade system at its heart for the electricity-generation sector, with other sectors to be phased in later (and it employs another market-based approach, a series of fuel taxes for the transportation sector linked to the market price for allowances).  Of course, due to the evolving political climate, the three Senators will probably not call their system "cap-and-trade," but will give it some other creative label.
The competitor proposal from Senators Cantwell and Collins — the CLEAR Act — has been labeled by those Senators as a "cap-and-dividend" approach, but it is nothing more nor less than a cap-and-trade system with a particular allocation mechanism (100% auction) and a particular use of revenues (75% directly rebated to households) — and, it should be mentioned, some unfortunate and unnecessary restrictions on allowance trading.
And we should not forget that cap-and-trade continues to emerge as the preferred policy instrument to address climate change emissions throughout the industrialized world — in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan (as I wrote about in a recent post).
But back to the main story — the dramatic change in the political reception given in Washington to this cost-effective approach to environmental protection.
A Rapid Descent From Politically Correct to Politically Anathema
Among factors causing this change were:  the economic recession; the financial crisis (linked, in part, with real and perceived abuses in financial markets) which thereby caused great suspicion about markets in general and in particular about trading in intangible assets such as emission allowances; and the complex nature of the Waxman-Markey legislation (which is mainly not about cap-and-trade, but various regulatory approaches).
But the most important factor — by far — which led to the change from politically correct to politically anathema was the simple fact that cap-and-trade was the approach that was receiving the most serious consideration, indeed the approach that had been passed by one of the houses of Congress.  This brought not only great scrutiny of the approach, but — more important — it meant that all of the hostility to action on climate change, mainly but not exclusively from Republicans and coal-state Democrats, was targeted at the policy du jour — cap-and-trade.
The same fate would have befallen any front-running climate policy.
Does anyone really believe that if a carbon tax had been the major policy being considered in the House and Senate that it would have received a more favorable rating from climate-action skeptics on the right?  If there's any doubt about that, take note that Republicans in the Congress were unified and successful in demonizing cap-and-trade as "cap-and-tax."
Likewise, if a multi-faceted regulatory approach (that would have been vastly more costly for what would be achieved) had been the policy under consideration, would it have garnered greater political support?  Of course not.  If there is doubt about that, just observe the solid Republican Congressional hostility (and some announced Democratic opposition) to the CO2 regulatory pathway that EPA has announced under its endangerment finding in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts vs. EPA.
(There's a minor caveat, namely, that environmental policy approaches that hide their costs frequently are politically favored over policies that make their costs visible, even if the former policy is actually more costly.  A prime example is the broad political support for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, relative to the more effective and less costly option of gasoline taxes.  Of course, cap-and-trade can be said to obscure its costs relative to a carbon tax, but that hardly made much difference once opponents succeeded in labeling it "cap-and-tax.")
In general, any climate policy approach — if it was meaningful in its objectives and had any chance of being enacted — would have become the prime target of political skepticism and scorn.  This has been the fate of cap-and-trade over the past nine months.
Why is Political Support for Climate Policy Action So Low in the United States?
If much of the political hostility directed at cap-and-trade proposals in Washington has largely been due to hostility towards climate policy in general, this raises a further question, namely, why has there been so little political support in Washington for climate policy in general.  Several reasons can be identified.
For one thing, U.S. public support on this issue has decreased significantly, as has been validated by a number of reliable polls, including from the Gallup Organization.  Indeed, in January of this year, a Pew Research Center poll found that "dealing with global warming" was ranked 21st among 21 possible priorities for the President and Congress.  This drop in public support is itself at least partly due to the state of the national economy, as public enthusiasm about environmental action has — for many decades — been found to be inversely correlated with various measures of national economic well-being.
Although the lagging economy (and consequent unemployment) is likely the major factor explaining the fall in public support for climate policy action, other contributing factors have been the so-called Climategate episode of leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia and the damaged credibility of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) due to several errors in recent reports.
Furthermore, the nature of the climate change problem itself helps to explain the relative apathy among the U.S. public.  Nearly all of our major environmental laws have been passed in the wake of highly-publicized environmental events or "disasters," ranging from Love Canal to the Cuyahoga River.
But the day after Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969, no article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer commented that "the cause was uncertain, because rivers periodically catch on fire from natural causes."  On the contrary, it was immediately apparent that the cause was waste dumped into the river by adjacent industries.  A direct consequence of the "disaster" was, of course, the Clean Water Act of 1972.
But climate change is distinctly different.  Unlike the environmental threats addressed successfully in past legislation, climate change is essentially unobservable.  You and I observe the weather, not the climate.  Until there is an obvious and sudden event — such as a loss of part of the Antarctic ice sheet leading to a disastrous sea-level rise — it's unlikely that public opinion in the United States will provide the bottom-up demand for action that has inspired previous Congressional action on the environment over the past forty years.
Finally, it should be acknowledged that the fiercely partisan political climate in Washington has completed the gradual erosion of the bi-partisan coalitions that had enacted key environmental laws over four decades.  Add to this the commitment by the opposition party to deny the President any (more) political victories in this year of mid-term Congressional elections, and the possibility of progressive climate policy action appears unlikely in the short term.
An Open-Ended Question
There are probably other factors that help explain the fall in public and political support for climate policy action, as well as the changed politics of cap-and-trade.  I suspect that readers will tell me about these.

I agree that until "there is an obvious and sudden event — such as a loss of part of the Antarctic ice sheet leading to a disastrous sea-level rise,", it's unlikely that we'll get much change (though I have said it will be the extinction of a cute animal that can be tied to global warming that will trigger action). Though it's not something I can hope for even if it moves the process along, I see this as the most important missing ingredient.

"Human Capital: Literal Truth, Fairy Tale or Myth?"

Posted: 28 Mar 2010 01:11 PM PDT

Nick Rowe says "This is from my Carleton colleague Frances Woolley":

Human capital: literal truth, fairy tale or myth?, by Frances Woolley:

Part I: Education

Every undergraduate student in labor economics gets told the story of human capital. Education and experience make people more productive. The skills so acquired are called "human capital." This explains why some people earn more than others, and why some countries are richer than others.

Is human capital theory the literal truth? There is an element of truth in it. The typing skills learnt from Mr. Darby in grade 9 make me more productive than my hunt-and-pecking colleagues. Educating girls reduces fertility rates (pdf), promotes female autonomy, and has a host of other productivity-enhancing benefits. But there are many things that human capital cannot explain.

For example, if what is taught at universities actually makes people more productive, then simply taking university courses should be enough increase earnings. In fact, to get much of a payoff from university education, you have to finish your degree (the "sheepskin effect" ). One reason education pays is that completing a degree "signals" your ability, determination, competence and general stick-with-it-ness.
Perhaps we should think of human capital as a fairy tale, a reassuring bedside story. But the power of fairy tales is that they reflect certain elemental truths about the human condition. People who teach economics may find it deeply comforting to think that their pay is justified by their high levels of human capital.

But human capital is more than a comforting story – it is a myth that shapes our understanding of the world and thus public policy. Ontario's government is urging universities to increase retention rates, so everyone who starts university completes a degree. If the human capital theory is true, then this is sound policy: more students completing university means more human capital means a more productive economy. If, however, the value of university education is as a signal of ability, then one of the most important things that universities do is fail students. Unless some students fail, the ability to complete a university degree confers no special distinction on the graduate.

Whether or not human capital theory is true determines the best response to the demographic challenges much discussed this blog. If education makes people more productive, then more education can increase the productivity of our economy – possibly enough so that fewer workers are able to support the large number of pensioners. If, however, education is basically about sorting workers – if people are getting more and more degrees in hope of eventually capturing that one elusive stable professional job with benefits – then the best way of responding to the demographic crisis is to scale back post-secondary education. Doing so would effectively increase the size of the working age population substantially, easing demographic problems. ... [Part II: The experience part of the human capital equation]...

My case is unusual since I have a job in a university, but there is no doubt at all that education enhanced my productivity (i.e. that education was more than a signal to potential employers). If California had set tuition at just over $100 per semester at its state universities (colleges then), I'd most likely be selling tractor parts somewhere and hating it. That's what my grandfather did, that's what my dad did, and although my brother isn't in parts directly, he sells John Deere engines so he is involved in the tractor business as well (both my grandfather and my dad managed to work their way up to sales and, in my dad's case, part ownership and general manager toward the end of his career -- my brother and my dad have severe dyslexia, and they overcame much more than I did in achieving the success they realized).

I started working at the parts counter in tractor stores during high school, and I continued all through college to support myself. I hated that job, and it was all the motivation I needed to go to class every day and do my best (which did not rule out doing my share of partying -- I will be in surplus the rest of my life just from those four years...). I had a math professor who loaded his classes up in the morning, and was at the golf course by 1:00 every day (where his son was the pro). I had another who spent a lot of time hunting, fishing, and generally doing whatever he wanted with his free time. I looked at both of them, thought about the stupid tractor parts counter job I was doing and how bored I was with it -- how much I hated going there every day -- and thought "I can do that job." I can play golf every day, enjoy the outdoors, take summers off, etc. (When I showed up to work in the morning, I would write down the number 480 on a piece of paper -- that was how many minutes I had left until I could go home -- and then I'd write down and check off each minute one by one during the day. It was agonizing and counting every minute made it worse. If 15 minutes passed by without my checking off any numbers, a whole 15 minutes without thinking about getting out of there, I considered it a success. Occasionally, a whole hour might go by before I wrote down how long until the day was over, but that was rare. I remember thinking that all I wanted was a job where I wouldn't count the minutes from the time I got there until it was time to go home.) Somehow, though, during graduate school I became convinced that I was supposed to do research, not just play all day when I wasn't teaching, so I skipped the teaching jobs and took a position that required research. But I wouldn't be here without cheap tuition, the math guy who played golf every day -- I took every class I could from him and every other math class they offered that fit my schedule (when I found a good teacher I'd take every class he or she taught no matter what type of math it was), and all the economics I took from the professor who'd rather be hunting or fishing. And I certainly wouldn't be here without all the technical skills I learned (the computer science classes were very valuable). As I said, I have no doubt that my productivity was enhanced by going to college.

But I want to take on the basic premise that the purpose of an education is to enhance productivity, to prepare students for the workforce. That's part of it, certainly, though that is much more the case in professional schools that are attached to universities than in the universities themselves. I didn't just get technical skills from college -- math, computer science, etc. -- I got a liberal arts education (or, at least as much of one as you can get at a state institution charging $100 tuition). I learned things about the world and about ideas that I would not have learned elsewhere, things that helped me to think about and evaluate the world around me from new, different, and valuable perspectives. Even if I'd ended up back at the tractor store, and that was certainly a possibility since I got into graduate school by luck -- I only applied two places, Berkeley and Stanford, and got rejected at both places. (I didn't know how hard it was to get there from Cal State Chico and thought my grades/GRE/math training/letters would be enough, I was pretty naive at that time. I can still remember reading the letters on my front porch and feeling crushed.) A professor I was working for at the time helping with medical consulting (pricing of pharmaceuticals for Medicare) got me into Washington State with support after deadlines had passed. If that had not happened, and it was a bit of luck that it did, I wouldn't have gone to graduate school.

However, even if I'd ended up selling tractor parts, what I learned at Chico is something nobody could have ever taken away from me. We often forget about the education part of education and focus on the vocational training aspect, but to me the broad-based liberal arts education is one of the more valuable parts of the education I received. I tended to focus on economics, mathematics, and computer science. I only took courses outside those areas when I was forced to, and I am so glad they made me to take other courses. I loved geology even though I thought I'd hate it, psychology was surprisingly good -- I read the entire text after the course was over, I read most of the books for my undergraduate courses cover to cover at some point -- cultural geography was a surprise (lots of economics). Now that I think about it there were only one or two courses I didn't like and that was mostly because of the instructors.

I didn't always appreciate it at the time, but the general education part of the degree was of great value. That's one of the main reasons I wish I could have afforded to go to a better school than Chico. I doubt the technical training would have been any better, I made a conscious effort to cover all those bases and a motivated student could get what was needed without too much trouble, but the liberal arts part of the education would have likely been much better (and the opportunities for graduate study would have been considerably enhanced -- there are places you can't get to from Chico). I still have lots of holes in history, philosophy, the arts, religious studies, and so on that were left unfilled growing up in a small farming community with parents who never graduated from college. There were so many things I didn't even know I didn't know (though there are also insights that come with such an upbringing that cannot be learned in college or anywhere else, I think I understand things other people sometimes don't, so I don't mean to put down growing up in a small, farming community, not at all). However, even though Chico probably wasn't the best place in the world for a liberal arts educations, for me it was a great leap forward.

Given my background, and the near certainty that it was only the cheap tuition that saved me from a life I would have hated, I am very sad about what is happening to educational access in California and elsewhere. When I think of all the people stuck in their version of the job at the parts counter, people that could be doing so much more if the path were open to them, it makes me both sad for them and very, very appreciative that the state made it possible for me to find a way out.

I know there are many of you who don't see education the way I do -- as a ticket to someplace better and the only real chance I had -- but I believe education is the key to a better future and I will not give up trying to increase access to as many people as possible. I don't care at all if if dilutes the signal to employers, they'll just have to figure out some other way to cull the herd. The value of an education to an individual goes far beyond training for a job, and I see no reason to deny those benefits to anyone who has done the work required to prepare themselves for college level work.

Health Care Reform and Labor Mobility

Posted: 28 Mar 2010 10:35 AM PDT

I was surprised that arguments about the impact of health care reform on labor mobility got so little attention during the debate over the legislation. It's an important benefit to include in the evaluation of health care reform (I made this argument several times, and there were many others who made this point as well, but it never seemed to resonate):

Economy will get a boost from health care overhaul, by Mitchell Schnurman, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram: American companies can hire and fire workers with relative ease... Workers are free to move around, too, but for too many, health insurance has become a ball and chain. If they have a family or a pre-existing condition, it can be too risky to leave a big employer and join a small company, where coverage could be dropped at any time.
Health reform ... will change that... By guaranteeing access to affordable insurance, individuals will eventually gain as much flexibility as their employers, and that could usher in a new era of risk taking and innovation.
More people will be able to take a flier on a startup or join a small business. Entrepreneurs will find it easier to recruit talent, especially older workers. ...
One study reported that 1.6 million workers are "locked" into their jobs because they can't give up the benefits. Worries about health insurance reduce job mobility by as much as 50 percent, studies show, squashing opportunity and hurting efficiency.
Eliminate that friction, and guess who wins? Individuals and small businesses, which have ceded much of the labor market advantage to large employers that can afford to run the benefits gantlet.
"This is a big win for small businesses because they can be judged on the quality of their companies, not their health insurance," says John Arensmeyer, CEO of Small Business Majority, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Health reform is also likely to lower prices, or at least the pace of increases, for small companies. On average, small companies pay 18 percent more for the same coverage because they have less leverage with insurers. ...
By 2014, state and regional insurance exchanges will be in place, competing for millions of customers from small companies and the individual market. No one will be denied coverage, and rates are set within a narrower band. Over the next decade, changes from reform, including the exchanges, could save small businesses up to $855 billion, according to a study by Jonathan Gruber at MIT. ...
Large employers used to be known for stable work environments and generous pensions, and workers joked about the "golden handcuffs" that bound them. That's rare today except in government work. But health insurance remains a point of differentiation because big companies have the resources to manage it aggressively. ...
It's tough to compete for skilled workers when there's little prospect of getting insurance. Health reform levels the playing field. ...

One of the things that Republicans say they care about the most -- economic growth through the innovation that comes from small businesses -- will be helped substantially by the health care reform legislation Republicans did everything they could do to stop. That says something about what they really care about, and it does not appear to be small businesses or the uninsured.

When we talk about the net cost of health care reform, it's important to consider all of the costs and benefits. It's difficult to put a dollar value on mobility, but having observed people stuck in jobs they hate -- really hate -- just to keep health insurance, I'd guess it's worth a lot. And those benefits come on top of the $855 billion that small businesses stand to gain from this legislation, and come in addition to all the other benefits that come with health care reform.

When you hear about the net cost of health care reform in terms of what it will do to the deficit and the accumulated government debt, those are just the costs and revenues that the government must bear, it does not net out all the implicit and explicit benefits to the private sector that come from the legislation  (implicit and explicit costs to the private sector should also be added in, but I'd argue that the benefits to the private sector very clearly exceed the costs). When the benefits accruing to individuals and small businesses are included, the gains from reform are evident.

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