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August 12, 2011

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Latest Posts from Economist's View


Paul Krugman: The Hijacked Crisis

Posted: 12 Aug 2011 12:24 AM PDT

Why are policymakers so worried about reducing the debt instead of reducing unemployment?:

The Hijacked Crisis, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ...For more than a year and a half ... we've had a public conversation that has been dominated by budget concerns, while almost ignoring unemployment. The supposedly urgent need to reduce deficits has so dominated the discourse that on Monday, in the midst of a market panic, Mr. Obama devoted most of his remarks to the deficit rather than to the clear and present danger of renewed recession.
What made this so bizarre was the fact that markets were ... saying — almost shouting — was, "We're not worried about the deficit! We're worried about the weak economy!" ...
So how did Washington discourse come to be dominated by the wrong issue? Hard-line Republicans have, of course, played a role... — they have found harping on deficits a useful way to attack government programs.
But our discourse wouldn't have gone so far off-track if other influential people hadn't been eager to ... hijack the crisis on behalf of their pre-existing agendas.
Check out the opinion page of any major newspaper, or listen to any news-discussion program, and you're likely to encounter some self-proclaimed centrist declaring that there are no short-run fixes for our economic difficulties, that the responsible thing is to focus on long-run solutions and, in particular, on "entitlement reform" — that is, cuts in Social Security and Medicare. And... you should be aware that people like that are a major reason we're in so much trouble.
For the fact is that right now the economy desperately needs a short-run fix. When you're bleeding profusely from an open wound, you want a doctor who binds that wound up, not a doctor who lectures you on the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle as you get older. ...
What would a real response to our problems involve? First of all, it would involve more, not less, government spending for the time being — with mass unemployment and incredibly low borrowing costs, we should be rebuilding our schools, our roads, our water systems and more. It would involve aggressive moves to reduce household debt via mortgage forgiveness and refinancing. And it would involve an all-out effort by the Federal Reserve to get the economy moving, with the deliberate goal of generating higher inflation to help alleviate debt problems.
The usual suspects will, of course, denounce such ideas as irresponsible. But you know what's really irresponsible? Hijacking the debate over a crisis to push for the same things you were advocating before the crisis, and letting the economy continue to bleed.

links for 2011-08-11

Posted: 11 Aug 2011 10:04 PM PDT

Stavins: Why Polarized Politics Paralyze Public Policy

Posted: 11 Aug 2011 07:20 PM PDT

Robert Stavins has put a lot of effort toward finding environmental policies that both Democrats and Republicans can endorse (e.g. the title of his previous post was ""). And for the most part, at least from my impression, he has remained optimistic about making progress even if it does come in frustratingly slow fits and starts.

But he seems to be giving up hope:

The Credit Downgrade and the Congress: Why Polarized Politics Paralyze Public Policy, by Robert Stavins: There's room for debate about whether U.S. government deficits justify Standard & Poor's downgrading last week of long-term U.S. debt, but the more important factor cited in S&P's report is that "the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened…"  ...

Although these S&P judgments were intended to refer exclusively to fiscal policy, they really apply to a much broader set of issues, ranging from economic to health to environmental policies. The key reality is this: there is a widening gulf between the two political parties that is paralyzing sensible policy action.

Political Polarization
This increasing polarization between the political parties has shown up in a number of studies by political scientists... This ... disappearance of moderates ... has been taking place for three decades. The rise of the Tea Party ... is only the most recent vehicle that has continued a 30-year trend.

Why has this collapse of the middle taken place; why has party polarization increased so dramatically in the Congress over the past 30 years? In my view, three structural factors stand out.

Three Structural Factors First, there has been the increasing importance of the primary system, a consequence of the "democratization" of the nomination process that took flight in the 1970s. A small share of the electorate vote in primaries, namely those with the strongest political preferences – the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats. This self-selection greatly favors candidates from the extremes.

Second, decades of redistricting – a state prerogative guaranteed by the Constitution – has produced more and more districts that are dominated by either Republican or Democratic voters. ... Because of this, polarization has preceded at a much more rapid pace in the House than in the Senate.

Third, the increasing cost of electoral campaigns greatly favors incumbents (with the ratio of average incumbent-to-challenger financing now exceeding 10-to-1). This tends to make districts relatively safe for the party that controls the seat, thereby increasing the importance of primaries. ...

To a lesser degree, polarization has also taken place through the adaptation of sitting members of Congress as they behave more ideologically once in office. Such political conversions are due to the same pressures noted above: in order to discourage or survive primary challenges... A recent case in point is Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who evolved from being a moderate ... to being a solid conservative ... in response to a primary challenge from a Tea Party candidate.

Long-Term Implications If the increasing polarization of the Congress is due to these factors, then it is difficult to be very optimistic about the prognosis in the near term for American politics. This is because it is unlikely that any of these factors will soon reverse course.

The two parties are not about to abandon the primary system to return to smoke‑filled back rooms. Likewise, no state legislature is willing to abandon its power to redistrict. And public financing of campaigns and other measures that would reduce the advantages of incumbency remain generally unpopular (among incumbents, who would – after all – need to vote for such reforms).

Other Factors? True enough, in addition to these long-term structural factors that have driven political polarization, shorter-term economic and social fluctuations have also had pronounced effects. In particular, significant economic downturns – whether the Great Depression of the 1930s or the Great Recession of the past several years – increase political polarization. ...

The Future So, it's reasonable to anticipate – or at least to hope – that better economic times will reduce the pace of ongoing political polarization. However, in the face of the three long-term structural factors I've identified above – the increasing importance of primaries, continuing redistricting, and the increasing costs of electoral campaigns – it is difficult to be optimistic about the long-term prognosis for American politics. ...

It’s the Political Economy, Stupid!

Posted: 11 Aug 2011 09:00 AM PDT

I drove 847 miles yesterday and am a bit behind (I did the links using WiFi in a McDonald's parking lot). While I catch up, let me toss something out for discussion:

It's the Political Economy, Stupid!, by Peter Dorman: Sometimes living in the world of ideas makes it harder to understand the real one. If you happen to be an economist, and the time is now, that is true in spades. Take Paul Krugman, for instance. After bemoaning the terrible policy choices of the last two years, he writes, "I'm still trying to make sense of this global intellectual failure." It's as if the core problem is that political leaders didn't learn their macroeconomics well enough.
But Keynes was wrong about the power of "academic scribblers". Idea-smiths provide language, narratives and tools for those in control, but the broad contours of policy depend on who the controllers happen to be. We are not living through an epoch of intellectual failure, but one in which there is no available mechanism to oust a political-economic elite whose interests have become incompatible with ours.
This is not some sudden development, much less a coup d'etat as is sometimes claimed. No, the accretion of power by the rentiers has been systematic, structural and the outcome of a decades-long process. It is deeply rooted in modern capitalist economies due to the transformation of corporations into tradable, recombinant portfolios of assets, increasing concentration of and returns to ownership, and the failure of regulation to keep pace with technology and transnational scale. Those who sit at the pinnacle of wealth for the most part no longer think about production, nor do they worry very much about who the ultimate consumers will be; they take financial positions and demand policies that will see to it that these positions are profitable.
The rapid and robust global restoration of profits post-2008 was not an accident. Public funds were used to bail out exposed creditors and shore up asset values, while the crisis was used to suppress wages and postpone meaningful regulatory reform. Indeed, I can predict with some confidence that many of the profits, particularly in the financial sector, that have been reported in official filings and blessed by the accounting firms will later be found to be illusory—but not before those who have claims on the revenues have cashed in to their own personal advantage. The institutions will be decimated, but those who owned, lent to or bet on them will be rich. This is not a failure, at least not for them.
You could make a case that, collectively, the interests of the financially endowed ultimately require a rescue of the real, nonfinancial global economy. Surely, when we take our painful plunge into the second dip of the Great Recession, their wealth will be at risk. But the ability to see it at a system level presupposes either a system-level organization of the class or the existence of individual interests that are transparently systemic. Neither appears to be the case today. From what we (you and me) can see from our vantage point, the ruling demands are to make sure my bonds are serviced, my counterparties pony up, the markets I invest in stay liquid, and expenditures for public welfare (i.e. the losers and chiselers) are slashed.
The first principle of political economy is that the scope of democracy depends on the range of views and interests (typically tightly linked) of the owning and controlling class. Genuine public debate and decision-making extends only to those issues on which the elites are divided. In what country today is there a significant division among political-economic elites over core economic questions? How would our situation be different if Obama, Cameron, Merkel, Sarkozy et al. had been on the losing side of their elections?
So, the current mess is not the result of a failure by intellectuals—although clearer, less ideologically-driven thinking by economists would certainly be a good thing and might make a small dent at the margin. As long as there are even a few economists who proclaim the virtues of austerity and deregulation, however, their views will dominate. They haven't won a battle of ideas; they are simply the ones who have been handed the microphone.
The real problem is political, and it is profound. Unless we can unseat the class that sees the world only through its portfolios, they may well take us all the way down. Unfortunately, no one seems to have a clue how such a revolution can be engineered in a modern, complex, transnational economy.

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