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March 23, 2015

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Latest Posts from Economist's View

'When Reasonable Policy Discussions Become Unreasonable Personal Attacks'

Posted: 23 Mar 2015 12:15 AM PDT

I don't think Robert Stavins is happy about a story challenging his credibility and reputation:

When Reasonable Policy Discussions Become Unreasonable Personal Attacks: Recently I was reminded of the controversy that erupted late in 2014 about remarks made by the distinguished health economist, Jonathan Gruber... Professor Gruber, one of the country's leading experts on health policy, had played an important role in the construction of the Obama administration's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, subsequently derided by its political opponents as "Obamacare."
A brief but intense political controversy and media feeding-frenzy erupted when videos surfaced in which Professor Gruber – largely in a series of academic seminars and conferences – explained how the Act was crafted and marketed in ways that would make it easier to develop political support. For example, he noted that insurance companies were taxed instead of patients, fundamentally the same thing economically, but vastly more palatable politically. He went on to note that this was possible because of "the lack of economic understanding of the American voter." His key point was that the program's "lack of transparency is a huge political advantage." Is that a controversial or even unique observation?
A Truism of Political Economy
Any economist who has worked on the development or analysis of public policy – in areas ranging from health care policy to environmental policy to financial regulation – recognizes the truth of the key insight Gruber was communicating to his audiences. It is inevitably in the interests of the advocates of a policy to make the policy's benefits transparent and to make its costs vague, even unobservable; just as it is in the interests of the opponents of a policy to make that policy's benefits obscure and its costs as clear as the light of day.
The specific construction of hundreds of public policies are explained by this truism. ...
So, the central lesson Professor Gruber was offering is hardly controversial... He doesn't need me to defend him, but he was unfairly demonized, simply because people disagreed with him politically regarding the merits of the public policy he had helped develop and support.
Unfortunately, I was reminded of this recently when I found myself subject to attempted demonization, because someone did not agree with a policy I supported. What happened to me is trivial compared with what Professor Gruber has gone through, but it prompts me to write about it today. ...
A young and – I'm sure – well-intentioned climate activist and journalist, writing in the Huffington Post, implied that my assessment in the New York Times of the Washington political debates regarding Keystone XL and my support for Harvard's divestment policy, are because "Stavins has done consulting work for Chevron, Exelon, Duke Energy and the Western States Petroleum Association."
The author of the Huffington Post piece selected those three companies and one trade association from a list of 92 "Outside Activities" that I voluntarily provide as a means of public disclosure. The author chose not to note that the vast majority of my outside engagements are with universities, think tanks, environmental advocacy NGOs, foundations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, other federal agencies and departments, international organizations, and environment ministries around the world (not to mention a set of Major League Baseball teams, but that's another story altogether). ...
It is nothing less than absurd – and, frankly, quite insulting – for someone to suggest that my views on divestment and my New York Times quote on the politics of Keystone XL are somehow due to my having worked with an oil company, a trade association, and two electric utilities. This was an unfortunate move to question my credibility and damage my reputation in a misguided attempt to demonize me, rather than engage in reasonable discussion and debate. Unfortunately, most of those who have read the activist/journalist's original commentary and have possibly repeated his claims to others will not see the response you have just read.
This is surely nothing compared with what Professor Gruber has gone through, but it has certainly increased my empathy for him, as well as my admiration.

Links for 03-23-15

Posted: 23 Mar 2015 12:06 AM PDT

'Student Loan Debt Is the Enemy of Meritocracy'

Posted: 22 Mar 2015 10:12 AM PDT

Thomas Piketty on a theme I've been hammering lately, student debt is too damn high!:  

Student Loan Debt Is the Enemy of Meritocracy in the US: ...the amount of household debt and even more recently of student debt in the U.S. is something that is really troublesome and it reflects the very large rise in tuition in the U.S. a very large inequality in access to education. I think if we really want to promote more equal opportunity and redistribute chances in access to education we should do something about student debt. And it's not possible to have such a large group of the population entering the labor force with such a big debt behind them. This exemplifies a particular problem with inequality in the United States, which is very high inequality and access to higher education. So in other countries in the developed world you don't have such massive student debt because you have more public support to higher education. I think the plan that was proposed earlier this year in 2015 by President Obama to increase public funding to public universities and community college is exactly justified.
This is really the key for higher growth in the future and also for a more equitable growth..., you have the official discourse about meritocracy, equal opportunity and mobility, and then you have the reality. And the gap between the two can be quite troublesome.  So this is like you have a problem like this and there's a lot of hypocrisy about meritocracy in every country, not only in the U.S., but there is evidence suggesting that this has become particularly extreme in the United States. ... So this is a situation that is very troublesome and should rank very highly in the policy agenda in the future in the U.S.

'Controlling the Past'

Posted: 22 Mar 2015 10:12 AM PDT

Simon Wren-Lewis:

Controlling the past: In his novel 1984 George Orwell wrote: "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." We are not quite in this Orwellian world yet, which means attempts to rewrite history can at least be contested. A few days ago the UK Prime Minister in Brussels said this:
"When I first came here as prime minister five years ago, Britain and Greece were virtually in the same boat, we had similar sized budget deficits. The reason we are in a different position is we took long-term difficult decisions and we had all of the hard work and effort of the British people. I am determined we do not go backwards."
In other words if only those lazy Greeks had taken the difficult decisions that the UK took, they too could be like the UK today.
This is such as travesty of the truth, as well as a huge insult to the Greek people, that it is difficult to know where to begin. ...
The real travesty ... is in the implication that somehow Greece failed to take the 'difficult decisions' that the UK took. 'Difficult decisions' is code for austerity. A good measure of austerity is the underlying primary balance. According to the OECD, the UK underlying primary balance was -7% in 2009, and it fell to -3.5% in 2014: a fiscal contraction worth 3.5% of GDP. In Greece it was -12.1% in 2009, and was turned into a surplus of 7.6% by 2014: a fiscal contraction worth 19.7% of GDP! So Greece had far more austerity, which is of course why Greek GDP has fallen by 25% over the same period. A far more accurate statement would be that the UK started taking the same 'difficult decisions' as Greece took, albeit in a much milder form, but realized the folly of this and stopped. Greece did not get that choice. And I have not even mentioned the small matter of being in or out of a currency union. ...

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