Thursday, July 20, 2017

Another Personal Observation On Privatized Highways

Last month I posted a personal observation on Trump's plan to privatize infrastructure, noting especially how in the long run privately owned turnpikes in Virginia ended up in government ownership.  In the comments on that post there was discussion of the Indiana Toll Road, privatized a few years ago.  I have just ridden on it (yesterday), and I shall recount as an anecdote datum my less than pleasant experience, bad enough to make me want to avoid it entirely in the future.

I was driving west on it from Ohio.  I stopped in one of the new service areas to get some pizza.  Fancy roof, but only two eating places, Lagrange in the east.  OK, but nothing great.  I would say road condition about same as Ohio's, but tolls higher, although not as high as in Illinois or Pennsylvania.  Anyway, I saw that I had enough gas to make it to the LaPorte service area in the western part of the state, so did not refill there or at the Elkhart one.  Nowhere did I see any signs or information about any problems with any of the upcoming service areas.

So, two miles before the LaPorte service area on the sign for it was draped a cloth saying the area was closed.  Indeed, when got there, it was torn up, presumably to build a new one like what I saw before, not that big of an improvement.  It was OK for trucks to park there, but no gas.I had 10 miles of gas left in my car. Got off at the next exit to go into  LaPorte to get gas.  There was a machine to take the payment, no attendants,, two machines actually.  One would not take my card. Managed to back out and go into the other one, which took my card, but would not take my credit card.  I did have  cash which it took, but there I am fiddling around while my gas is running low.  Had to go around a closed road to get to LaPorte.  Fortunately I got to a gas station with one mile of gas left in my tank.

On returning following the detours, could not reenter the Indiana Toll Road and had to go further to get onto I 94, but given my experience with it, I was not all that unhappy not to be on it.  Maybe this is just an odd case, but I have to say I was not impressed with how these private owners of the toll road are managing it, not at all an obvious improvement.

Of course, Trump has completely stalled out on doing anything about his infrastructure plan, with even his air traffic controller privatization plan sitting there doing nothing, although, of course, his proposed budget does cut actual ongoing infrastructure projects that will shut some of them down, mostly for non-auto transportation systems in urban areas like Pittsburgh.  When I continue to see commenators talking about how his infrastructure plan might stimulate the economy, I am not sure whether I should laugh or cry.

Barkley Rosser

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Could The US Default Due To A Complexity Catastrophe?

Definitely.

Front  page story in today's Washington Post by Damien Paletta reports that "Treasury chief hurtles toward fiasco," the fiasco being a failure to raise the US debt ceiling in time to avoid a default.  Trump has declared that Sec Mnuchin is responsible for this matter, which he should be, but somehow has not made a sufficiently definitive statement to keep his former Freedom Caucus big cheese OMB director, Mulvaney, from opining that Mnuchin is an out of it New York finance guy (Goldman Sachs even) who is not well connected in Washington, and he, Mulvaney, thinks that the dumb games he played as a Congressman threatening to default are appropriate for  somebody in charge of all this.  The deadline is approaching, although it might be somewhere between early September and mid-October, but at some point if the debt ceiling is not raised, the US will seriously default, something we have not seen, and I doubt that any deal Mulvaney might propose would get through this dysfunctional Congress.  And the article reports that while Mnuchin wants a "clean raise" before  the Congress really shuts down in August, well, according to WaPo, he does not have the "stature in Washington to press through a vote on a measure" supported by all previous Treasury Secretaries.  Indeed, the article is right that he may not be able to do so, and the US may well seriously default on its debt for the first time, something the gang that Mulvaney has belonged to has declared is no big deal. We may be about to find out if that is correct or not.

In thinking about this I have come to realize that part of the problem is that this is a very complicated issue, one that few people understand, and that this lack of understanding is self-propagating: that few understand it means that there are few who can teach those who do not understand it what it is about. The upshot is that an incredibly miniscule proportion of the US population has any remote idea what all this  is about, so are not  putting any pressure on these loud mouthed Congresspeople to behave resonably. If in fact there is a default and it leads to a global financial crisis that puts the world economy back into a serious recession, well, who could have known that, and who will be to blame?

So let me get personal on how severe the lack of knowledge about this is, which is exacerbated by the fact that few media talk about it at all, or if they do so, it is with massive  ignorance.  So, over the Fourth of July weekend I was with extended family. A niece is a prominent journalist in Washington. Her brother, a nephew, was the top performer in high school on a statewide math test in California.  He is  now a wealthy high level computer game programmer in Silicon Valley.  They asked me if there was a threat of recession, as some other family members were claiming, and I said the most serious near term threat for  such would be a default by the US  failing to raise its debt ceiling, leading to a global financial  crisis.  It became clear that both of these very smart and well-informed people knew nearly nothing about this  issue. If they do not, well, probably less than 1% of the US population does, which makes it all the more likely that full-of-themselves ignorami in the House  Freedom Caucus will be all too happy to put Secy Mnuchin in his place when he comes calling for a "clean debt ceiling increase."

Why is this so hard?  Well, one thing is that few  Americans know, and neither my very well-informed and super smart relatives did, that the US is the only nation in the world to have such a stupid thing as a debt ceiling.  The vast majority of professional economists think it should be eliminated.  Congress effectively decides on this when it passes a budget, and this is just an extra nonsensical conundrum.  It is  a historical arttfact from a century ago, when right after  the 1913 passage of the amendment allowing the personal income tax, the US went into WW I, which was not supported by many in the Congress, the Congress imposed this idiotic debt ceiling to retain control over the budget  during wartime. When the war ended, it was not repealed, and we have been stuck with it since, with the vast majority of  both the Congress and the public thinking it is something sacred and important and stuck in marble, when in fact it was an unfortunate mistake that should have been repealed a century ago.

Regarding what will happen if we default, I  do not know, as that could follow many paths. But a serious catastrophe cannot be ruled out, and if  it  comes to pass it may be at least partly due to how complicated this whole thing has become, with neither the public nor most of  the Congress at all aware of what is involved here.  So, we could indeed end up with a complexity catastrophe, and if we do, let us hope that it is not too severe.

Barkley Rosser

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"Those Of You Who Are Old Enough Will Really Get This"

I am adding yet more  to my most recent two posts where I am complaining about this essentially side remark that Larry Summers made in his commemoration of his late uncle, Kenneth Arrow, in which he reports that at the party celebrating Arrow's Nobel Prize in 1972, Summers's other uncle, the late Paul Samuelson was supposedly "discussing how stupid  Joan Robinson was."  As it is,  I should have added to my quote from his talk in the last post what immediately followed that snide and inappropriate remark.  It is the title of this post: "Those of you who are old enough will really get this."  This was then followed by "And they were discussing the turnpike theorem and the maximum principle and the Hamiltonian and whatever."  After that, Summers then moved on to how they continued to  discuss these matters until all the guests were gone and their wives were waiting there impatiently for them to wrap it up, with Larry himself, then a sophomore at MIT, also waiting so somebody could take him back to his dorm.

I think this additional remark  is also worthy of note for  being inappropriate.  It essentially reinforces the idea that it was perfectly reasonable  for Samuelson to have discussed "how stupid  Joan Robinson was." After all, sufficiently senior insiders would "really get this," the strong implication being that of course Samuelson was right about Robinson, and these wise insiders would agree.

Except, of  course, any truly knowledgeable insiders there, and there may well have been some as some of those involved in the Cambridge capital controversy, particular Eytan Sheshinski, who was specifically mentioned in another part of Summers's talk  and who has long been based in Israel, would know  that Summers was being very misleading, that whatever Robinson's level of intelligence,she and her allies in Cambridge, UK had won the debate, the controversy, with Samuelson having admitted that they had and subsequently changing his line about the appropriateness of using the concept of aggregate capital, even if  the rest of those at MIT, especially Robert Solow,  simply ignored this and continued on their merry way using the concept, even though Solow himself showed it be very weak in explaining anything about economic growth.  In any case, few grad schools even teach about this controversy anymore  while continuing to  shove aggregate neoclassical production functions down the throats of unwitting grad students, hence Summers himself recognizing that one needs to be "old enough" to know to what he was referring to when he in effect inaccurately made it look like Samuelson had legitimate grounds for his snarky remark.

In discussing these two earlier posts in comments over on Economists View, RGC linked to the Wikipedia entry on all this. A curious tidbit near the end of that Wikipedia entry on the Cambridege capital controversy is that it quotes one of  the participants, Edwin Burmeister, in 2000 stating that he and Leland Yeager in a 1978 Reply had admitted that assuming smooth substitutability of factors did not  eliminate the possibility of capital-reversing. However, the 1978 cite does not appear in the References.  As it was, it was in Econoimic Inquiry and was a reply to my "Continuity and Capital Reversal: Comment," which had appeared in the Jan.1978 issue of Econoimic Inquiry, which was on a 1976 paper by Yeager (which had won a prize) in Economic Inquiry on capital theory.  Yeager had made the false claim that such smooth substitutability would eliminate those annoying capital theoretic paradoxes in a properly formulated Austrian model.  I showed that he was wrong, and he and Burmesiter admitted it in their Reply to me (they were both at UVa at the time while that was my first year at JMU).

Yeager's 1976 paper in Economic Inquiry was "Toward Understanding some Paradoxes in Capital Theory."

J. Barkley Rosser, Jr., "Continuity and capital-reversal: comment," Economic Inquiry, 1978, 16(1), 143-146.

He and Burmeister's Reply (Yeager first coauthor) was "Continuity and Capital  Reversal: Reply," Economic Inquiry, 16, 147-149.

Barkley Rosser

More On Larry Summers Distorting Intellectual History

I would have included what follows in the previous post, but was afraid of putting too much into one post.  So, a bit more.

Here is the precise quote from Summers's talk about the conversation between Ken Arrow and Paul Samuelson on the evening of the celebration in 1972 in Cambridge, MA.

"Almost everybody left and Paul and Kenneth were discussing turnpike theorems.  Kenneth was discussing aspects of Pontryagin's maximum principle.  Paul was discussing how stupid  Joan Robinson was."

So somehow Larry Summers thought that it was appropriate at this ultimate commemoration of Ken Arrow at the Tel Aviv Institute for Advanced Studies to pull out of what was reported to be a very long discussion that had their wives getting quite impatient, and which Larry himself noted was, well, the two Nobel prize winners in the room going on and on as I am sure they did about all sorts of matters, many of them highly mathematical, that Larry decided to quote as the one contribution by his other uncle, Paul Samuelson, this snide remark about Joan Robinson, which looks pretty ridiculous and hypocritical in light of his humiliating admission only six years earlier that this "stupid" Joan Robinson had been right and he had been wrong.

Let me add some not so well known further weird details about all this.  The first is that after Paul Samuelson walked down Mass Ave from Harvard to MIT after the anti-Semites at Harvard refused to hire him there, in the first year that he was in charge of admitting potential grad students at MIT he rejected his future quasi-brother-in-law* for admission to the grad program, yes, rejecting Kenneth J. Arrow, right up there in stupid decisions along with approving of that incorrect paper on the surrogate production function by various of his grad students in the QJE that led him to  confess about the "foundations of sand" upon which economics is supposedly based.  (Among those accepted in that class instead of Arrow was Lawrence Klein, a future Nobel Prize winner and Samuelson's first PhD student.)

Yeah, pretty embarrassing. As it was in the end, Samuelson was more worried about Arrow-Debreu(-McKenzie) general equilibrium theory, which he did not do, than he was about Robinson and the Cambridge capital theory controversies, and so he hired Duncan Foley, who got his PhD from Herbert Scarf at Yale, to come to MIT and help him teach grad micro  theory there. Duncan did  that, later going to Stanford and falling into heterodox Marxist sin and not getting tenure there. But Samuelson got his  new orthodoxy, which was taught to  people like Krugman and Akerlof and Varian, and  others, establishing neoclassical orthodoxy, although it still lacked game theory.

Regarding Arrow and the Cambridge capital theory debates, to the best of my knowledge, he never said a word about them.  He coauthored a famous book on general equilibrium with Frank Hahn in 1971, with Hahn playing a defender of neoclassical theory, although granting much to the Robinson crowd.  That Samuelson's defense was to retreat to heterogeneous capital being the true way to go is ultimately profoundly ironic, given that he rejected his future quasi-brother-in-law for entrance to MIT's grad program, the general equilibrium guy whose model was ultimately totally decentralized..

In any case, Summer's tossed-off quote from Samuelson looks really shameless, aside from being historically seriously intellectually misleading. Why did he do  this?  I do not know, but it is shameful.

*The parents of Lawrence H. Summers both worked at the Philadelphia Fed, with his father also at U. Penn, and the inventor of the concept of PPP international measurements. His mother,Anita, was the sister of Kenneth J. Arrow, and his father the brother of Paul A. Samuelson.  His father, Robert changed the name from Sanuelson to Summers in an effort to avoid anti-Semitism when he arrived in the US .  Robert kept it, but Paul decided to retrieve the original name, which is why Larry is Summers rather than Samuelson.

Barkley Rosser

Larry Summers Reports That In 1972 Paul Samuelson Complained About "How Stupid Joan Robinson Was."

Ohmigod, he really did this. At the Institute for Advanced Study in Tel Aviv, during a major conference honoring his profoundly wise and honorable uncle, the late Kenneth Arrow, Larry did this. The vast majority of his talk is an outstanding discussion of Ken Arrow as an economist and a person, full of interesting details, all leading to the conclusion that his uncle was both one of the most brilliant economists who ever lived as well as a deeply wise,  personable, morally incorruptible, and all but impeccable as well as just a plain nice guy.

I did not know Ken nearly as well as him, of course, but  all that I ever saw of him, as well as everything I have heard of him personally through my sources, completely supports this.  To the extent he had noticeable faults they were those of an absent-minded professor who is also  a genius.  He paid no attention to obvious simple things.  He was out of touch with various mundane realities, sometimes embarrassingly so.  I shall add a detail not  in Larry's account that I have from a primary source.  In his old age he would sometimes wander the halls of the Stanford econ dept with his fly unzipped. Nobody ever suggested or remotely thought that there was any ill intent in that.  It was like Joe Stiglitz before he became a big star, tying his shoelaces together, something a distracted and brilliant person far beyond anybody around him would do out of absent-mindedness, although Arrow was far beyond Stigitz intellectually and historically, not even close.

So let me deal with the odd matters where on such an august occasion Larry made such an ass of himself.  One is a matter of debate, and he put it out there: he and Arrow disagreed with how the post-Soviet transition should be handled.  He recognizes that Ken disagreed with his policy as Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton in the mid-to-late 90s about how to deal with the former USSR.  He approved AID funds for Andrei Shleifer and a few others to "assist" in the transition process there, which ended up with Harvard University paying out over $22 million to end a suit by the US Treasury Dept against Shleifer for his conduct there. Summers's attempt to cover for Shleifer, involving him lying in an open meeting to the senior members of the Harvard faculty was the bottom line on why Larry was fired from being Harvard's president.  Unsurprisingly, his wise uncle Arrow knew better, but, of course, Larry did not remotely tell the story of what went down there, implying that Ken was somehow unwisely out of touch with US policy as determined by him.  (Dave Warsh has written decisively on this matter.) Ooooooooooooooog.

Which brings us to this astounding and utterly despicable bit about Joan Robinson and his other uncle, the late Paul A. Samuelson.  So the bottom line outcome of the Cambridge capital theory debates as they came to a head in 1966 in the QJE was that Samuelson's effort to  paper over the critique about aggregate neoclassical production functions coming from Joan Robinson and Piero Sraffa was wrong.  He admitted it in his "Summing Up"paper in the fall 1966 issue of the QJE when such figures as Garegnani and Pasinetti showed that the attempt to dismiss the general presence of capital theoretic anomalies, more precisely, the general presence of non-monotonicity  in the steady-state relations between the rate of profit and level of long term per capita consumption implied that "the foundations of economic theory are based on quicksand."

The bottom line is that he admitted he was wrong in his claims about the "surrogate production function," and that Joan Robinson and Piero Sraffa were right.  In many later publications he maintained this position.  Indeed, when I first met him personally in the early 70s and confronted him with all the details of the Cambridge Controversies in the Theory of Capital, he admitted that Cambridge, UK was right.  He completely disarmed me at that point, of course.  Yes, Joan Robinson and Piero Sraffa were right.  Capital is only meaningfully discussed as being heterogeneous, ironically a position that Hayek came to before he abandoned the topic.  What could I say?

Oh, but now we have his nephew in the venue of honoring his other uncle, the deeply impeccable Kenneth Arrow, reporting this snide wisecrack from Paul Samuelson.  I have no doubt that Paul Samuelson made the remark, frustrated undoubtedly as he was with this most serious intellectual defeat of his entire (and very long) career.  The occasion was a party celebrating Arrow's receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1972 at a point in time that the only other US  Nobel recipient was Paul Samuelson. They were discussing all kinds of mathematical issues long after all the guests were gone and their  wives were bored, and here we have Samuelson making inappropriate and nasty remarks about the woman who intellectually humiliated him. But somehow Larry Summers decided in his remarks on Ken Arrow at this very serious and offical commemoration to ever so quietly slip this utterly unjustified jibe at Joan Robinson in.  Really, this is shameful.

Barkley Rosser

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Comparing Companies to Nations

Asher Schechter raises a good point in How Market Power Leads to Corporate Political Influence but this comparison is troublesome:
In 2016, the advocacy group Global Justice Now published a report showing that 69 of the world’s largest 100 economic entities are now corporations, not governments. With annual revenues of $485.9 billion, Walmart topped all but nine countries.
GDP is a value-added concept – revenue is not. So what is the right metric? Walmart may have had this much revenue but its pretax income was only $20.5 billion and its operating income was $22.8 billion. Profits understate value-added and since Walmart has over $100 billion in operating expenses (think all those workers surviving on $9 an hour), Walmart’s gross profit is likely the right metric to compare to the GDP of nations and this figure in 2016 was $124.6 billion. So yea – it is a mega corporation but its value-added does not put it in the top 10 of governments.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Was Thomas Jefferson A Monstrous Rapist?

It is quite likely that I shall be on the receiving end of some strong opprobrium for this post, but, well, here it goes anyway.

So, Shaun King in the New York Daily News in an article being spread around the internet has accused Thomas Jefferson of being a "rapist" (in the article headline) and "monstrous" in the body of the article for his relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, who bore him six children, with her and them not ever being freed by the in-debt Jefferson.  Much of the article is accurate, including that last point, as well as that he owned more than 600 slaves (sorry, having trouble linking to article itself).  The main point is that because he legally owned her she had no ability to consent or not consent, so therefore any sex between them was rape, indeed, monstrous rape, with in fact it appearing that this all started when she was about 14, so adding in by current standards statutory rape, although that point was not made in the article. 

I would contend that the correct point in the article is that slavery was itself a monstrous system, and that anybody trying to defend it because some slavemasters were not as cruel as some others is unjustified.  It cannot be justified.  It was monstrous.  And, indeed, the nature of it profoundly morally polluted all interpersonal relations that occurred within it, including sexual ones.

Well, I would say that we do not know whether or not she consented or not. Those pointing out that she could not refuse are, of course, correct.  But that does not mean that she did not consent.  There is a parallel, although less so, with ongoing situations where male bosses impose themselves on female subordinates, where the surbordinate may really not be able to give up the job because of economic reasons, needing to support a family, no alternative jobs available. OK, this is not as bad as slavery, but it is also very similar.  Yes, that is now illegal, but we call in sexual harassment, not monstrous rape, with rape still involving a clear unwillingness of the person supposedly being raped.  In the case of Sally Hemings, we simply do not know,

Let me note a possible alternative view on what happened between them, although this may not be true, and Jefferson's failure to free her does not speak at all well of him.  None of this is mentioned in Shaun King's article.  So, when Jefferson (TJ) took Sally Hemings (SH) with him to Paris when she was 14 and he became ambassador, he was 44.  This is noted in the article, hence, of course the further statutory rape aspect.  But what King left out is that at the time TJ was a widower and alone.  Furthermore, the really important detail, SH was the half sister of his dead wife, with both of them sharing the same father.  Now today we consider all of this not only to be monstrous, but an abomination, really horrendous.  But at the time, it was not at all uncommon, quite widespread in fact.

So it is not at all impossible that TJ himself fell in love with this slave who so reminded him of his dead wife, and she may well have been sympathetic and understanding and not at all in a mood to resist or reject him, in fact, the feeling may have been mutual, although we shall probably never know.  Now at this point somebody might say, "well, why did he not do the right thing and free her and marry her?!"  There is a very simple and obvious reason.  It would have been against the law.  Miscegnation was outlawed in Virginia in the 1690s and that law would remain on the books until a half century ago when the SCOTUS famously overturned it in Loving versus Virginia, the ruling that basically ended all anti-miscegenation laws throughout the US.  Maybe he was just a monstrous rapist, but it is also quite possible that they were both oppressed by this law and system where they could not do what they really wanted. 

So, he had to cover it up, although one can certainly ding him on his hypocrisy in certain writings that are not favorable to African-Americans.  But then we know that for him, he was deeply hypocritical, the slaveowner who wrote all those stirring words in the Declaration of Independence that would later by used by civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. to advance their cause.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, July 7, 2017

Here is a Little Economics Lesson

Here’s a little economics lesson: supply and demand. You put the supply out there, and demand will follow. -- Rick Perry, U.S. Secretary of Energy
While the media is having fun at the expense of Secretary Perry's asinine "economics lesson" it is worth pointing out that the very same publications that ridicule Perry perpetually peddle the exact same theory under the guise of "debunking" the imaginary lump-of-labor fallacy. Here is The Economist from yesterday telling its readers that the demand for goods and services is infinite:
By the 1990s governments and employers realised they were making pension promises they would not be able to keep. The idea that there is only a finite number of jobs to go round—the "lump of labour"—was more widely exposed as a fallacy. It became fashionable to argue that "we must work till we drop."
Just for the record, the number of jobs to go round is indeed finite. The demand for goods and services is limited by the funds and credit available to consumers to purchase them and the time available to consume them. Those funds and credit are, in principle, limited even though those limits are, in practice, quite malleable and difficult to pinpoint. Expansion of credit beyond those limits invariably leads to collapse when debt loses its "credibility" -- which is to say the reasonable expectation that the debtor can continue to service the debt.

Perry may be a total fool but he is only parroting what he has been taught by... "economists."

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Did Kevin Hassett Ever Hear About the Solow Growth Model?

Why did Brad DeLong dig up some 2007 nonsense by Kevin DOW 36000 Hassett?
When Kenneth Arrow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1972, one of the contributions the awards committee cited was his miraculous “impossibility” theorem. Decades from now, Arrow’s theorem, originally drawn in his doctoral dissertation, will be viewed as the 20th-century idea that best anticipated the 21st century. While mathematical in origin, the impossibil¬ity theorem is simple to describe in words: A government is really just a mechanism that makes collective decisions for a large number of cit¬izens who have different preferences. I might want to spend our tax dollars on dog parks; you might prefer more police. The government’s job is to work it out.
I guess by now you may be wondering where this is going. It seems Hassett is making a case for dictatorship based on stimulating economic growth:
An organization called Freedom House rates the level of political freedom of the world’s nations on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 the most free. For example, according to the 2006 sur¬vey, countries like the United States and Italy are rated 1, while Singapore is rated 4.5, China and Saudi Arabia 6.5, and North Korea 7 ... nfree China had a growth rate of 9.5 percent from 2001 to 2005.
By contrast, the U.S. growth rate averaged only 2.5%. So much for the Bush boom! Then again – U.S. per capita income was considerably higher than that of Chinese per capita income so would not one expect higher Chinese growth – assuming one bothered to have learned the Solow growth model?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Dean Baker v. Paul Krugman on Trump’s Tariffs

Paul Krugman goes after Trump on his trade war agenda, which alas prompts Dean Baker to go holier (more progressive) than thou on Krugman. While there are passages where Dean is making sense, some of this is bait and switch in my view.
This prospect has many folks, including Paul Krugman, terrified. I don’t share his fear.
Not only is Paul not terrified, Dean later notes that high tariffs on Chinese goods such bad policy that he might be terrified. Can we stop we these cheap shots? Here is the basic underlying premise of Dean’s substantive comments:
I should also say that tariffs are not my preferred way of dealing with the country’s trade deficit, which I do consider a problem. Anyone who thinks secular stagnation (i.e. not enough demand in the economy) is a problem should believe the trade deficit is a problem. If the trade deficit were 1.0 percent of GDP rather than 3.0 percent of GDP we would have been approaching full employment many years ago.
In other words, Dean is assuming we are not close to full employment so we can go all Keynesian here. Look, I agree we are not at full employment so I will go all Keynesian too. If Dean is suggesting Paul does not share this view when we are below full employment, he is not being honest with his audience. And yes I know some think we are at full employment right now. Can we simply say these folks are wrong? Dean continues:
But the normal mechanism for reducing a trade deficit is an adjustment in currency values. This means that the currency of the country (the United States) with the deficit falls and the country with surplus (much of the rest of the world) rises. When the dollar falls in value relative to other currencies, U.S. made goods and services become more competitive internationally. That will lead to more U.S. exports, and fewer imports, bringing trade closer to balance.
Not disagreement here or from Paul I would presume. But now Dean goes a bit off the rails:
This adjustment in currency values has not taken place primarily because foreign governments have bought up massive amounts of dollars. This is partly as a reserve currency to protect themselves against financial crises.
Does Dean really think we are in a world of pegged exchange rates? Maybe China was doing currency manipulation a decade ago but they are not now. The main reason that the dollar is too strong is that the ECB is adopting easier monetary policies than we are. Dean notes that Trump has finally abandoned this currency manipulation nonsense and is going for trade wars. Of course the folly of both trade wars or currency manipulation was exposed by Joan Robinson in 1937 when at least some countries were under a pegged exchange rate regime. But I challenge Dean to think about tariffs under floating exchange rates. If we adopt Trumps tariffs, the dollar would further appreciate hurting export sectors even if it helps the favored import sectors. Dean to his credit wants to talk about the distributional aspects of all of this but he needs to address what Paul wrote:
the tariffs now being proposed would boost capital-intensive industries that employ relatively few workers per dollar of sales; these tariffs would, if anything, further tilt the distribution of income against labor.
I’m sure Dean has heard of the Stopler-Samuelson theorem which in this application would imply higher profits and lower wages. So explain to me – how is Dean being more progressive than Paul on this issue?

It Is Monday, And Robert Samuelson At The Washington Post Is Bashing Social Security Yet Again

Yet again.

I grant that he did not do  it at length or present a lot of clearly incorrect nonsense.  But bash Social Security he did, using an old ruse to do so, combining it with Medicare to invoke a long term deficit danger due to the two of them together, when in fact it is well known that it is the Medicare part of that projection of future spending that leads to all the scary looking deficit numbers, not the Social Security part.

Most of the column by Robert J. Samuelson today,"Everybody's mad at somebody," is a lament about political polarization in the US today, and the obnoxious effect this has policy making.  Fred Hiatt has a similar column, "Trump's wasted opportunity," although I would say that for once Hiatt avoided saying anything too silly, noting possible political compromises on a carbon tax, immigration policy, and tax reform, that might have been possible if Trump had been willing to be a nonpartisan leader, but that look unlikely to happen given his descent into cheap partisanship, as well as his general ignorance and incompetence.  Most of Samualson's column deals with past history of compromises made and how we got to not doing that anymore. However, his misguided statement on Social Security appears in a single paragraph, which I shall quote in its entirety now, regarding supposed compromises or issues that need compromising that are not likely to be.

"To take two familiar examples: The Republican promise to repeal and replace Obamacare while also  reducing premiums and expanding coverage was never possible.  It was make-believe. Similarly, the Democratic refusal to deal with the escalating costs of Medicare and Social Security is crushing other worthy government programs - a strange position for a pro-government party."


So here is RJS back to  playing the role of WaPo Very Serious Person, or whatever, calling for  a compromise between the supposedly equally unwise positions of  the two parties.  But, the hard fact is that his analysis of the impossibility of the GOP position is completely accurate.  He falls down when he gets to the Dem side.  Again, there is a rising trend of medical care costs, which affects Medicaid as well as Medicare. If he had replaced Social Security with Medicaid, he would have been much more accurate, and clearly we need some sort of program to get rising medical care costs under control

But throwing in Social Security there instead of Medicaid (which the GOP is trying to cut without cost controls, just throw people off) as part of their Obamacare repeal and replace, muddies the waters, although it fits in with the longstanding campaign by the WaPo ed board to slash Social Security. And it does have RJS back on his regular Monday spot playing that old game, even if  he did not make too much of a silly fuss about it this time.  But some of us have our eyes on him, and will call him out when he pulls this nonsense, when we catch him. And he was at it again here.

BTW, Happy Fourth of July, you all.

Barkley Rosser

Friday, June 30, 2017

Sandwichman in the FT

Financial Times: "The minimum wage wars are heating up: A new study fails to prove its claim that Seattle wage floor hurts workers" by Martin Sandbu, at Free Lunch on FT Alphaville
First, the numerical result struggles to pass an intuitive “smell test”. As the Angry Bear blog [cross posted at EconoSpeak!] points out, employment in Seattle was booming throughout the period: average wages increased by 18 per cent (!) in the time covered by the study; as did the number of hours worked at all wage rates. It is important to note that the researchers have data on jobs, not on individual workers — so even if there are fewer low-paid jobs than before, it does not follow that workers have lost as many jobs rather than moved into better ones.
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Fifth, there is a simple arithmetical issue with the methodology. If "low-paid" is defined as below a fixed threshold wage ($19/hour in this study), higher average wage growth in one group relative to an initially similar control group will necessarily take more people out of the low-wage bracket. Such wage bracket creep means that the higher wage growth will "cause" a "loss" of low-wage work through mechanical arithmetics even if nothing causal is happening (indeed even if everyone stays in the same job).

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Muhammed Bin Nayef Bin Abdulaziz Al Sa'ud Confined To His Palace

In Jidda, according to the New York Times today.  So the story about the now deposed 57-year old former Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and former Minister of the Interior, Muhammed bin Nayef (MbN), putting out a video supporting his own removal appears to be phony propaganda.  The Saudis instead have been broadcasting a video of the new Crown Prince, 31-year old Muhammed bin Salman (MbS) kissing the hand of (MbN).  Presumably he did that back in the day when MbN was the Crown Prince and MbS was his supposed loyal deputy. We have no video of MbN kissing the hand of MbS.

As it is, the story also reports that when MbS's elevation was announced, MbN returned to his palace to find his guards replaced by ones loyal to his successor.  He and his daughters have since been confined to the palace and also forbidden to leave the country, although the latter would seem to be impossible if they cannot leave the palace. 

MbN has been replaced as Minister of the Interior by his nephew, Muhammed bin Saud bin Nayef, whose father is governor of the Eastern Province.  Reportedly US intelligence officials are "outraged" at this, having worked long and well with MbN, who was reportedly the key figure behind squashing al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia,  He is viewed by these people as very competent, and his successor has apparently no experience at all in the area.  Wonderful.  But these people are constrained from speaking openly because of the clear support by President Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, of the elevation of MbS, as well as his aggressive warmongering in Yemen, against Qatar, and also against Iran.

Of course, we have also seen the spectacle of SecState Rex Tillerson repeatedly making it clear that he at least does not support the diplomatic and economic moves against Qatar.  SecDef Mattis has laid lower on the matter, but has also made it clear that the US intends to maintain its major CENTCOM air base in Qatar and is engaging in actions such as selling Qatar fresh fighter jets that go completely against the Saudi-led move that has been pushed by the warmongering and irresponsible new Crown Prince, Muhammed bin Salman, so stupidly supported by our lunatic president.

In any case, the confinement of Muhammed bin Nayef to his palace suggests that not only does he not accept his double demotion, but that King Salman and his pushy but apparently incompetent son are afraid that all this may not go over all that well with other senior members of the royal  family, so MbN must be kept out of public attention, although confining him like this might back fire, just as the failed efforts to militarily escalate in Yemen, not to mention to isolate Qatar, appear to be doing.

Oh, King Salman has also now appointed another son, 28-year old Khalid bin Salman, to be ambassador to the US.  Let us hope he is not as gonzo off-the-wall as his brother.

Oh, and on the matter of the late Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi, mother of the current king, I have been unable to find when she really died. The source for the Wikipedia entry and pretty much everything else out there readily accessible claim that she died in 1969 is a 2005 article in the Daily Telegraph, with no identified author, on the death of her most powerful son, the late King Fahd.  Deep in the article his mother was mentioned, along with the claim she died in 1969. But I know from primary sources that she was alive much later and running the country through her sons, whom she demanded regular meetings with and complete obeisance to her wishes.   I checked the authoritative book from 1981 by Robert Lacey, The Kingdom. He reports on how Abdulaziz went for her as a child and first married her when she was 13.  She had a son for him, Sa'ad, who died early, after when Abdlulaziz divorced her, so she married his brother, Muhammed.  But Abdulazis was in love with her, reportedly beautiful as well as strong-willed, and he later made Muhammed divorce her, although she produced sons for him, and he remarried her, keeping her as a wife until his death. It was during this second marriage that she produced the Sudairi Seven, one of whom, Salman, is now king.  Lacey does not report on her having died in his 1981 book.

Barkley Rosser

Arithmetic is Hard: Wage-Bracket Creep

There has been a lot of very good critique of the methodology of the University of Washington's study of the minimum wage increase in Seattle. However, I want to repeat and emphasize a very simple point that jumps out.
A static low-wage cutoff point, whether it be $19 or $100, automatically reduces the size of the treatment group (Seattle) if wages in the treatment group are increasing faster than the wage of the control group.
This is not erudite statistical methodology. This is simple arithmetic. If the wages in the treatment group increase at a higher percentage rate than the wages in the control group, more workers are lifted above the $19 threshold in the treatment group than in the control group.  This is true if the treatment group and the control group are otherwise absolutely identical. This is what I call wage-bracket creep. The extremely simplified example below shows how this looks, the yellow cells represent workers whose jobs and hours would be "lost" (to the study) as they pass the $19 threshold:


See how much worse off the treatment group is than the control group? The yellow cell occupants haven't lost their jobs, they have simply been excluded from their respective groups because their wage now exceeds the static cutoff amount.

Of course, I wondered if the study authors could be making such a simple arithmetic mistake. So I reached out to one of the authors, who generously replied but appeared to confirm that they relied on a static threshold. I say appeared because some of the replies were, shall we say, "ambiguous" but did not disclaim use of a static threshold when I sought explicit confirmation or denial.

Counseling Politics

Bear with me.  I’m going to try out an idea that may be completely off-base, or maybe not.  I would very much like to hear what you think of it.

When I was young, long ago, organizations sometimes employed a few counselors or advocates, people whose job was to help clients or other members of the public navigate the bureaucratic tangle of rules, forms, preconditions and other procedures that often stood between them and and the benefits they sought to obtain.  A hospital, for instance, might employ a patient advocate who could advise how to access care that, in principle, ought to be available to all.  When I was an undergraduate there was a small advising office at my university that helped students figure out how to complete their requirements and get the services and support they needed.

I have the impression that, in the last few decades, this job category has rapidly expanded, not only in the number of its practitioners but also the scope of their assignment.  This trend has attracted a lot of attention in higher education, where counseling has expanded at the expense of teaching, at least in its increasing command of limited budgets.  Other social service organizations have turned to counselors, advocates, advisors and similar sorts in increasing numbers.

And counseling has taken on a new ideology, a particular way of defining the set of problems it addresses and the forms solutions should take.  The old, narrow understanding was that people often lacked knowledge of available resources and the procedures for accessing them.  The solution was conveying the relevant information or maybe even changing the rules.  Many counselors still practice this art.  But there is also a new view that the core problem is disempowerment, a psychological condition that prevents people from solving their own problems.  The solution is (of course) empowerment via facilitation whose purpose is to invoke a sense of agency on the part of clients, so people can make decisions they feel comfortable with.

The old view of counseling located the problems of this world in institutions—their complexities and irrationalities.  The new view identifies the core problem as a need for a different type of consciousness.

Now take a further step: suppose this ideology centered on the transformation of consciousness has spread its influence widely through our culture.  One marker might be the distinctive language that “counselorship” employs.  I haven’t investigated the matter quantitatively, but my impression is that the phrase “advocate for” has steadily displaced “advocate” in a wide range of uses in recent decades.  Once upon a time, one advocated policies and occasionally, if one were in the counseling trade, one advocated for a client or group that needed support.  Roughly speaking, if you were for the means to achieve a goal, like a law or policy initiative, you advocated it, and on those rare occasions when you were speaking on behalf of particular human beings (who are ends in themselves) you advocated for them.  But now most English speakers are advocates for exclusively: they advocate for lower or higher taxes, fuel efficiency standards, whatever.  Counseling language has taken over.

Perhaps the counseling perspective has begun to transform politics as well.  If so, we would see a tendency to redefine problems away from the discussion of particular laws or procedures and toward new mindsets/paradigms/discourses/consciousnesses that, by empowering the oppressed or aggrieved, constitute in themselves the objectives of political action.  According to such a perspective, the problem of climate change, to take one example, is not explained by quantitative accounts of the carbon cycle and fossil fuel releases, but as stemming from a failure of consciousness.  People have been disempowered by false conceptions of the true costs and benefits of consumption, their relationship to nature, etc., and “solving” the problem must take the form of transforming consciousness along these dimensions.

What I’m trying to understand is this: I could agree that altering consciousness would be important if it were part of a thought-out political strategy.  Imagine the argument went something like, “if we change the consciousness of x% of the population, they will vote for politicians who will enact laws that restrict carbon extraction, and so on”—then yes, consciousness change is important.  (I don’t think this is how political change happens, but that’s a topic for another day.)  But I sense a widespread commitment to a type of politics in which consciousness change is the whole story; it’s not an element in a larger process—it is the process.

It could be that the perspective centered on transformation of consciousness is actually driving the spread of counseling-ism, rather than taking hold as a result of it.  I might be confusing cause and effect.  Or maybe it’s just coincidental.  I need help in understanding this.

What I do think I am observing, though, is a systematic shift, especially in large parts of the left, toward a view that social problems and solutions can be understood almost entirely as deficiencies of consciousness (“colonized” by oppressive mindsets) to be overcome by transformations of consciousness that empower the marginalized and dispossessed.

I don’t know what empirical evidence would look like on this topic.  I am proceeding from a small set of case studies, including one I have been living through intimately at my place of work.  At this point, if an explanation seems to work for a particular case, that’s a point in its favor.  Useful responses to this very speculative blog post would take the form of cases that either exhibit or contradict its argument.