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May 27, 2010

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Latest Posts from Economist's View

Why I Changed My Mind about Tax Cuts

Posted: 27 May 2010 01:08 AM PDT

New post at MoneyWatch:

Why I Changed My Mind about Tax Cuts, Maximum Utility

Tax cuts can be particularly helpful in "balance sheet recessions".

"Deficit Hawk Hypocrisy"

Posted: 27 May 2010 12:42 AM PDT

Marshall Auerback takes on the deficit hawks:

Deficit Hawk Hypocrisy, by Marshall Auerback: Harold Meyerson is spot on: "Of all the gaps between elite and mass opinion in America today, perhaps the greatest is this: The elites don't really believe we're still in recession. Or maybe, they just don't care." What is even more galling is that, having been the greatest beneficiaries of the government's largesse over the past 2 years, these very same people now decry the government's "irresponsible" and "unsustainable" fiscal policy.

The collective amnesia and moral turpitude of these elites is truly mind-boggling.

Why do we have a deficit of about 10% of GDP right now when it was less than 2% about 3 years ago? The reasons are: the Obama stimulus, the TARP, and the slower economy (which arose in response to a major financial crisis, not because the government began an irrational and irresponsible spending binge). A slower economy leads to lower revenues ... and higher spending on the social safety net.

Conveniently lost in all of this furor about the deficit are the beneficiaries of this recent government largesse. It's certainly not the unemployed or the vast majority of people who do not work in the financial services industry.

And let's stop with the now prevailing meme (regurgitated most recently in John Heilemann's New Yorker Magazine piece, "Obama is from Mars, Wall Street is from Venus") that the costs of the financial bailout are minimal thanks to the "successful" measures taken to "save" our financial system (as if it is worth saving in its current incarnation). With the conspicuous exception of Simon Johnson, virtually all analysts fail to factor in the fact that our public debt to GDP ratio has moved from 40% of GDP to 90% in the space of 2 years, directly as a consequence of the crisis of 2008.

Naturally, the deficit terrorists are now out in force about this fact, conveniently forgetting the underlying cause of this increase. So are the journalists who cover it, Meyerson being a conspicuous exception. In a market economy, where most of us have to work to make a material living, the threats posed by the likes of Pete Peterson and the deficit hawk brigade represent a true impingement on our right to work. As my friend Bill Mitchell notes, "the neo-liberals deliberately undermine the right to work of millions and force them into a state of welfare dependence and then start hacking into the welfare system to deny them the pittance that the system delivers." ...

What will happen to the deficit as and when the economy finally improves? The Obama stimulus and TARP go away in a few years regardless. Tax revenues increase and safety net spending falls. We're back to "normal" with deficits around 2-4% depending on the state of the economy, which is where we've been for the past 30 years aside from 1998-2001. Even CBO agrees, though what happens to the Bush tax cuts will have an effect of about + or - 2% of GDP (depending on whether they are extended or ended, respectively).

In fact, full employment is also the best "financial stability" reform we could implement, because with jobs growth comes higher income growth and a corresponding ability to service debt. That means less write-offs for banks and a correspondingly smaller need to provide government bailouts.

Fiscal austerity, by contrast, won't cut it. Our elites seem think that you can cut "wasteful government spending" (that is, reduce private demand further) and cut wages and hence private incomes and not expect major multiplier effects to make things significantly worse. Of course, that "wasteful", "unsustainable" spending never seems to apply to the Department of Defense, where we always seem to be able to appropriate a few billion, whenever necessary. "Affordability" principles never extend to the Pentagon, it appears.

Our policy-making elites also seem to have bought the IMF line that the fiscal multipliers are relatively low and that the automatic stabilizers (working to increase deficits as GDP falls) will not drown out the discretionary cuts in net spending arising from the austerity packages. The overwhelming evidence is that this viewpoint is wrong and implementation of policies based on it cause generational damages in lost output, lost incomes, bankruptcy and lost employment (especially denying new entrants from the schooling system a robust start to their working life).

The real issue is that those who are better off don't want to have government intervention in economic affairs unless it benefits them. With typical ingratitude, Wall Street is now threatening to cut campaign donations for Obama and the Democrats because of their proposals to impose more regulation on the financial sector. However, when the government intervenes with bailouts, Wall Street stands first in the queue, cap in hand. No one wants to bear the actual discipline of markets if that means losses. Those at the high end of income distribution aren't against every kind of government intervention, but are frequently against certain types of government intervention that might make the workers stronger, or create competition for private businesses (in the case of a public option in health care reform, for example).

Full employment is the real value that should guide economic policy, not the bogus emphasis on financial ratios that just play into the hands of the financial sector. Somehow, I doubt that this is the underlying principle guiding our "counsel of wise men" who are deliberating the future of Social Security and Medicare behind closed doors as the rest of us debate this issue in the open.

Maximum Utility: What Economic Policies Should Government Pursue During the Recovery?

Posted: 27 May 2010 12:24 AM PDT

[I am going to start reposting entries from my Maximum Utility blog a few days after they are posted at MoneyWatch. This one is a bit older than that, and it was first noted here.]

What Economic Policies Should Government Pursue During the Recovery?, Maximum Utility: Now that the economy appears to be turning around, how should the government react? What types of policies are needed for the recovery period?

1. Things look better now. Almost all economic indicators are beginning to point upward, but we don't know yet if the recovery will be strong or weak, or if we might be headed for a double dip. For that reason, don't pull back on monetary and fiscal stimulus too soon. It will be tempting to listen to the deficit and inflation hawks as things start to improve, but it's important that the stimulus not be withdrawn before the economy can stand on its own.

2. If the recovery seems to be very slow or stagnating, don't be afraid to give the economy the additional help it needs. Output is starting to grow, but labor markets are lagging behind. It's not yet clear if the lag will be as large as in the previous two recessions, but it's certainly something to keep an eye on.

3. Similarly, there is a huge jobs backlog -- millions and millions of people have lost jobs during this recession -- and it will take a considerable amount of time to reemploy these workers even under strong labor market conditions. Workers will still need unemployment compensation, help with health care, and other social services until they can find work. They are not lazy or playing the system, it's just that the applicant to jobs ratio will remain high until the backlog is cleared, so don't cut them off too soon.

4. If the government does try to take an active rather than a passive role in the recovery, try to anticipate what the post-recession economy will look like and help with the adjustment. For example, there is lots of structural unemployment due to the scaling down of the housing and financial industries. Where will these workers go and what can the government do to help them get there? Will we need to rely upon exports to a greater degree than before the recession in order to maintain robust growth? If so, what can the government do to help this sector to develop? I don't mean the the government should try to manage the economy with a heavy handed industrial policy approach, but when it's clear that change is coming to a particular sector, then the government should do what it can to help (or at least get out of the way).

5. As the economy recovers, it will be easy to forget about the problems we had and what caused them. Don't let exuberance over the recovery get in the way of making the changes that need to be made to try to prevent this from happening again. All of the promises to do better that are made when things are really bad are easily forgotten once things improve.

6. When the time comes -- but not a moment before that -- policy must be reversed. The fiscal policy measures involving both government spending and tax cuts were sold as "targeted, timely, and temporary."  We could have done better at the targeted and timely part, but it's not too late to make it temporary. It will be difficult to cut the stimulus once it's clear that the economy has recovered, there will be an outcry about the jobs that will be lost, the decline in growth, etc., but it's important that we do it. First, there are theoretical reasons to believe that temporary fiscal policy has a much larger effect than permanent changes within modern, New Keynesian structures. Second, we may need fiscal policy again someday. If we don't keep out promises and reverse the spending and tax cuts, the next time fiscal policy is needed nobody will believe that will actually be temporary no matter what is promised, and that will make it much more difficult to pursue the policy that is needed.

Update: 7. State and local governments are still having trouble, and are likely to continue to struggle at least through the next fiscal year. If they don't get more help, this create a big drag on the recovery.

This is surely incomplete. What else should be on the list?

links for 2010-05-26

Posted: 26 May 2010 11:04 PM PDT

John Maynard Keynes: National Self-Sufficiency

Posted: 26 May 2010 02:25 PM PDT

Frank Barry at the Irish Economy Blog:

Keynes in Ireland, by Frank Barry, Irish Economy Blog: Keynes' famous lecture on economic experimentation, delivered at UCD in April 1933, has recently become available online.

If you can't access that copy -- I couldn't -- it turns out it was already online elsewhere. It's an interesting essay:

John Maynard Keynes, "National Self-Sufficiency," The Yale Review, Vol. 22, no. 4 (June 1933), pp. 755-769: I was brought up, like most Englishmen, to respect free trade not only as an economic doctrine which a rational and instructed person could not doubt, but almost as a part of the moral law. I regarded ordinary departures from it as being at the same time an imbecility and an outrage. I thought England's unshakable free trade convictions, maintained for nearly a hundred years, to be both the explanation before man and the justification before Heaven of her economic supremacy. As lately as 1923 I was writing that free trade was based on fundamental "truths" which, stated with their due qualifications, no one can dispute who is capable of understanding the meaning of the words."

Looking again to-day at the statements of these fundamental truths which I then gave, I do not find myself disputing them. Yet the orientation of my mind is changed; and I share this change of mind with many others. Partly, indeed my background of economic theory is modified; I should not charge Mr. Baldwin, as I did then, with being "a victim of the Protectionist fallacy in its crudest form" because he believed that, in the existing conditions, a tariff might do something to diminish British unemployment. But mainly I attribute my change of outlook to something else--to my hopes and fears and preoccupations, along with those of many or most, I believe, of this generation throughout the world, being different from what they were. It is a long business to shuffle out of the mental habits of the prewar nineteenth-century world. It is astonishing what a bundle of obsolete habiliments one's mind drags round even after the center of consciousness has been shifted. But to-day at last, one-third of the way through the twentieth century, we are most of us escaping from the nineteenth; and by the time we reach its mid point, it may be that our habits of mind and what we care about will be as different from nineteenth-century methods and values as each other century's has been from its predecessor's.

It may be useful, therefore, to attempt some sort of a stocktaking, of an analysis, of a diagnosis to discover in what this change of mind essentially consists, and finally to inquire whether, in the confusion of mind which still envelops this new-found enthusiasm of change, we may not be running an unnecessary risk of pouring out with the slops and the swill some pearls of characteristic nineteenth century wisdom.

What did the nineteenth-century free traders, who were among the most idealistic and disinterested of men, believe that they were accomplishing? ...[continue reading]...

"The Economics of Immigration Are Not What You Think"

Posted: 26 May 2010 11:52 AM PDT

With immigration issues coming to the forefront once again, it's a good time to review the evidence on its effects:

The Economics of Immigration Are Not What You Think, by Robert J. Shapiro, NDN [CC]: Waves of new immigrants often spark economic anxiety and cultural discomfort, as well as occasional violence and wide-net crackdowns, on the Arizona model. Even here, a nation comprised almost entirely of immigrants and their descendents, we've seen these reactions not only in recent times but also a century ago, when waves of poor immigrants from Europe arrived here. With a hundred years' distance, however, we can now see that those early waves of immigration were generally associated not with economic dislocation and national decline, but with extraordinary economic boom times and America's emergence as the world's leading economy. And for much the same reasons as a century ago, recent evidence indicates that the economic effects of the current waves of immigration are also largely positive. 
The New Policy Institute (NPI) asked me to review all of the available data and economic studies of recent U.S. immigration. With my colleague Jiwon Vellucci, we found, to start, that more than one-third of recent immigrants come from Europe and Asia, while less than 57 percent have come from Mexico and other Latin American nations. The popular portrait of recent immigrants is off-point in other respects as well. While more immigrants than native-born Americans lack high school diplomas, equivalent shares of both groups have college or post-college degrees. That finding should make it unsurprising that 28 percent of U.S. immigrants work as managers or professionals, including 38 percent of those who have become naturalized citizens or the same share as native-born Americans. 
Many Americans would probably acknowledge that their concerns about immigration lie principally with those who are undocumented. No one likes being reminded that the world's most powerful nation hasn't figured out how to effectively police its own borders. But the data also show that these undocumented people, who account for 30 percent of all recent immigrants, embody some traditional values much more than native-born Americans. For example, while undocumented male immigrants are generally low-skilled, they also have the country's highest labor participation rate: Among working-age men, 94 percent of undocumented immigrants work or actively are seeking work, compared to 83 percent of the native born. One critical reason is that undocumented immigrants are more likely to support traditional families with children: 47 percent of undocumented immigrants today are part of couples with children, compared to just 21 percent of native-born Americans.
The evidence regarding the impact of immigration on wages also turns up some surprising results. First, there's simply no evidence that the recent waves of immigration have slowed the wage progress of average, native-born American workers. Overall, in fact, the studies show that immigration has increased the average wage of Americans modestly in the short-run, and by more over the long-term as capital investment rises to take account of the larger number of workers. Behind those results, however, lie winners and losers – although in both cases, the effects are modest. Among workers, the winners are generally higher-skilled Americans: For example, when a factory or hotel hires more low-skilled workers, demand also increases for the higher-skilled people who manage those workers or carry out other professional tasks for an enterprise that's grown larger. 
The losers are generally the lower-skilled workers who have to compete for jobs with recent immigrants. But studies also show that immigration reform might well take care of most of those effects. Following the 1986 immigration reforms, for example, previously-undocumented immigrants experienced big pay boosts – as much as 15 or 20 percent –  and immigrants who already had legal status saw hefty wage gains, too. But the reforms also led to higher wages for lower-skilled native-born Americans. One reason is that undocumented people who gain legal status can move more freely to places with greater demand for their skills, reducing their competition with native-born people with similar skills. More important, their new legal status confers certain protections such as minimum wage and overtime rules. Today, about one-fourth of low-skilled workers in large American cities are paid less than the minimum wage, including 16 percent of native-born workers, 26 percent of legal immigrants, and 38 percent of undocumented workers. Ending the ability of unscrupulous employers to recruit people to work for less than the minimum wage would not only raise the incomes of those currently paid less than the minimum wage. It also would ease downward pressures on the wages of other lower-skilled Americans, which comes from the below-minimum wage workers. This process is something we have refered to as "closing the 'trap-door' under the minimum wage."
Looking again at immigrants generally, recent research also shows a strong entrepreneurial streak, with immigrants being 30 percent more likely than native-born Americans to start their own businesses. Nor are immigrants the fiscal drain that's commonly supposed, at least not in the long term. In California and a few other states, immigrants today do entail a net, fiscal burden, principally reflecting the costs of public education for their children. But studies that use dynamic models to take account of the lifetime earnings of immigrants – most of whom arrive here post-school age and without elderly parents to claim Social Security and Medicare – show substantial net fiscal gains at the federal, state, and local levels.
Political disputes are rarely settled by facts. Nevertheless, it's reassuring to see that the humane and progressive approach to immigration is also a policy likely to produce good economic results for almost everyone.

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